No one can beat John Engen

Mayor John Engen and a guy who loves him—photo by Engen For Mayor Facebook

One fun thing about Missoula politics is that there are no polls. For all we know, Mayor John Engen won’t win a fourth term in next month’s election. Anyone who wants to bet that he won’t should contact me via email. In 2013, the last time he ran for re-election, he faced three opponents and got about 65% of the vote. This time it’s just Lisa Triepke, who was the subject of two Missoulian stories last week about the two houses, motorhome and used car she bought while she was also getting food stamps. Later in the week, the state found that she had committed at least 23 campaign finance reporting violations.

The Missoulian endorsed her opponent. One thing they did not mention is that he used to work there. Mayor Engen has enjoyed friendly coverage from Missoula’s only daily newspaper. For example, when he secretly enrolled in a 28-day inpatient treatment program for alcoholism last year, the Missoulian reported that he would be gone indefinitely for undisclosed medical reasons and left the story at that. He came back clean a month later and told us all what happened, simultaneously announcing that he would run for a fourth term.

All this is to say that the mayor’s position is comfortable. Sometimes it feels too comfortable, like when his estimate of how much we would pay in legal fees to buy the water company was off by a factor of twenty. The Mountain Water saga was a testament to the mayor’s power—both its efficacy and its potential to run unchecked. If buying the water works had proven to be a boondoggle, a goose chase, a white-whale scenario, who in Missoula’s existing political landscape would have stopped it?

It’s worth thinking about as we all get ready to vote him into office again. I know I’m planning to vote Engen, because Lisa Triepke does not seem like she would do a better job. Still, might the man himself do a better job if he were vying for our affection with someone else? That’s the subject of this week’s column in the Missoula Independent which, I admit, is strictly for the hardcore. But I recommend you follow Missoula politics from afar. They’re worth it for entertainment value alone.

Why isn’t Trump comedy funnier?

Five of several dozen Twitter search results for “nambia covfefe” on 9/21/17

When President Trump praised the non-existent country of Nambia at the UN in September, Bill Maher joked that the capital of Nambia was Covfefe. So did a seemingly endless number of Twitter users, not just over time but on the very same day. There is something about Donald Trump that encourages everyone to come up with the same jokes. There is also something about him that makes us feel the pressing need for political comedy. When a self-aggrandizing billionaire with an unusual physical appearance becomes president, satire should shine. Yet political comedy in the first year of the Trump administration has been strangely lackluster. Why isn’t the most comical president in history generating better comedy?

The New York Times Magazine let me consider this problem in a profile of Anthony Atamanuik, who plays Trump on The President Show on Comedy Central. Gigantic, sun-blotting props to Willy for helping to develop a unified theory of Trump comedy, which starts like this:

A funny Trump impression presents two broad challenges. The first is that the president exists in a cloud of signifiers: his infomercial hand gestures, his practiced facial expressions, his broad accent and narrow diction and relentless catchphrases, to say nothing of his hair and skin. Any impression of him must include these signifiers, but they are so numerous and recognizable as to weigh it down, limiting the space for the impressionist to contribute his own insights. The adage “It’s funny because it’s true” is a phenomenological account. It describes a change in the audience: It’s funny because (I just realized) it’s true. We laugh when we are surprised to recognize something. The problem with Trump is that everything about him is recognizable immediately. There seem to be no subtle truths under the cacophony of overt signifiers, so that every joke about him becomes merely a reference.

That’s the Covfefe Problem: It’s hard to think of an original joke about Trump, but it’s easy to think of a recognizable reference. The other horn in this comedy dilemma is the Clapter Problem. What is clapter? You’re just going to have to read the profile and find out, or buy Mike Sacks’s book Poking a Dead Frog, which is where I first encountered the term. But while you’re waiting for the book to arrive, read the Times piece. Remember how Combat! blog was on hiatus for weeks and everyone stopped reading it? This was one of the four big projects that forced me to put the blog aside. Now all of them are done, and I am rich. We’ll be back tomorrow with more self-promotion.

Proponents of transgender bathroom bill never say “transgender”

Montana Family Foundation President and CEO Jeff Lazsloffy in January

The Montana Family Foundation is a research and education organization dedicated to supporting, protecting, and strengthening Montana families. It is definitely not a moneymaking scheme for Jeff Lazsloffy and his children. Its donors are not public, although in past years more than half the foundation’s income has come from Greg Gianforte. But his investment has been amply repaid in research and education, for example a bill before the state legislature that would have required Montanans to use locker rooms and restrooms that correspond to the genders on their birth certificates. Legislators rejected that, noting that a similar bill costs North Carolina billions of dollars earlier this year. So the Montana Family Foundation took its cause to the people, repackaging the Orewellian-named Locker Room Privacy Act as ballot initiative I-183.

Last week, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the description Attorney General Tim Fox had written for I-183 was not sufficient. In addition to its potentially inaccurate fiscal note, the court took exception to this paragraph:

I-183 requires government entities to designate a protected facility in a government building or public school for use only by members of one sex, and prohibits persons from using a protected facility other than the facility that is designated for that person’s sex.

You will note that the word “transgender” does not appear. Neither does an explanation of what the word “sex” means. A lot of people would say that a trans a woman is of the sex “woman,” but that’s not what I-183 says. I-183 specifies that a person’s sex shall be determined by their birth certificate.

That would create a lot of problems for transgender Montanans, which is exactly what I-183 is designed to do. Yet the Montana Family Foundation never, ever mentions the word “transgender” in its communications on this issue. Instead, it offers jaunty statements like this one regarding the defunct Locker Room Privacy Act: “This bill was just common sense! Women shouldn’t have to shower in front of men, and vice versa.”

“Common sense” is a thing politicians say when they don’t want you to think about what they just said. The Montana Family Foundation keeps talking about I-183 as though it were designed to address the problem of high school boys gaining entry to the girls’ locker room by simply declaring that they are female. As near as I can tell, that’s never happened. The real issue here is that Lazsloffy has made a career out of converting popular prejudices to politics, and prejudice isn’t as popular as it once was. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. Do it! Do it now, Linda!

Crimes are forgiven. Debt is forever

Fake news

My advice to you, sir or madam or whatever, is to never read the comments section of anything. It’s depressing. When we read the comments section, we imagine we are getting a cross-section of the general public, when in fact we are getting a cross-section of people who leave internet comments. This sampling error distorts our perception and convinces us that ordinary folks are even dumber than they actually are. I should know; I broke my own rule and have been reading comments on my Indy column all week, because such are the joys of satire. Here is the winner—this guy who believes Ben Jacobs wrote my column and is “a complete moron”:

“You just can’t fix stupid,” he says to the woman who tries to correct his spectacular misreading. This brings us to a rule even more ironclad than “don’t read the comments.” The people who call other people stupid are invariably really, really smart.

Anyway, this sort of thing amuses me, so I wrote another satirical column this week. It’s about Montana’s policy of revoking the driver’s licenses of people who have unpaid fines or court fees, and the class-action suit filed against it by the DC nonprofit Equal Justice Under Law. Their plaintiff is Michael DiFrancesco, who got a ticket for possessing alcohol when he was 14 and couldn’t pay his $185 fine, plus the fee for a mandatory substance abuse education course. As a result, he has never been eligible for a driver’s license. That would prevent him from getting a job—especially here in Montana, where everything is far apart and public transportation is poor—if he weren’t willing to drive without a license, which he has been. The ensuing citations have increased the amount he owes the state to just under $4,000.

If you read the comments on this article about his case in the Helena Independent Record, you will find the consensus view is that he shouldn’t have gotten a ticket in the first place. Among internet commenters, this passes as a penetrating insight. If you read their quote-unquote arguments, though, you will find few people arguing that the punishment for minor-in-possession-of-alcohol should be a $4,000 fine and suspension of driving privileges for ten years. Their position is not that minors who drink deserve whatever they get, but that minors who drink and don’t pay the fine deserve whatever they get.

What we are looking at here is a two-tier system of infractions. The punishment for MIP if you have $185 is a $185 fine. The punishment for MIP if you don’t have $185—or, in most cases, if your parents don’t have $185—is lifetime suspension of driving privileges, intermittent homelessness, and financial penalties that mount beyond 20 times the statutory fine. Compare what DiFrancesco has suffered as a result of drinking beer when he was 14 to what Greg Gianforte suffered for punching a reporter when he was 56. The difference in how these two people were punished comes down to how much money they had when they committed their crimes. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent, in which I cite Gianforte as a paragon of civic responsibility and argue that the poor are getting a sweet deal. Perhaps the commenters will finally agree with me.

What makes it okay to deport Audemio Orozco-Ramirez?

Supporters of Orozco-Ramirez march in downtown Billings.

In 2013, Audemio Orozco-Ramirez with the passenger in a traffic stop in Jefferson County, Montana. At that time, he had been living in the United States approximately 16 years. Orozco-Ramirez was born in Michoacan, Mexico. He has no criminal record, but the officer of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s department who stopped the car he was riding in suspected that he was in the country illegally, in part because he did not speak English. Orozco-Ramirez was arrested on a civil immigration violation and placed in a county jail sell with nine other men.

During a period of time that went missing from the jail’s otherwise continuous surveillance footage, a number of these men held down Orozco-Ramirez and raped him. In December, Jefferson County settled a federal lawsuit filed by Orozco-Ramirez for $125,000 without admitting that he was assaulted or it was liable. Since then, he has lived and worked outside Billings, checking in with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents on a monthly basis. During his last check-in, he was arrested and scheduled for deportation.

An appeals court judge has issued a stay against that decision pending a hearing. The feds frequently issue “U visas” to foreign nationals who are the victims of crimes and have aided authorities in their investigations, but in settling Orozco-Ramirez’s lawsuit, Jefferson County did not admit he was a victim of a crime. Legally, we can deport him. The question of whether we can do so ethically is more complicated.

Except for crossing the border illegally 20 years ago, Orozco-Ramirez has participated in the social contract. Our state and federal governments, on the other hand, have betrayed him multiple times. For example, there was the time we investigated him for civil violations as the passenger in a traffic stop. That doesn’t happen to Americans who enjoy constitutional rights. There was also the time we locked him in a cell full of rapists, also for a civil violation, and stopped watching what happened. Then there was the time we made a deal with him to forget about the rape thing and then picked him up for deportation while he was upholding his end of the bargain.

No American would agree that is the right way for a government to treat the people it governs. Yet because Orozco-Ramirez is not a citizen but merely a person who has lived here for the last 20 years, anything we do to him is fine. That’s a peculiar moral calculus, and you can read all about in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!