Thursday, March 5, 2009

Cowboys formally release Terrell Owens

The Dallas Cowboys officially released Terrell Owens on Thursday, ending a three-year run that produced as many big headlines as big plays.

Owens caught more touchdown passes than any NFL receiver over the last three years and was a big part of Tony Romo's emergence from an unknown backup quarterback to a starlet-dating Pro Bowler with a $67 million contract.

Yet the Cowboys never won a playoff game in those three years, and didn't even make the playoffs this past season. Dallas' late-season collapse — which bottomed out with a lackluster performance in a win-and-you're-in finale in Philadelphia — emphasized that a new attitude was needed, and dumping T.O. shows that Jerry Jones is addressing that.

Jones even said so himself in a statement: "In the aftermath of the season, we talked about change. Some of what is changing involves the process and some of it involves people. This is a decision that was made based upon consideration for an entire team. We will move on now with a new team — a new attitude — and into a new stadium. The evaluation process and the prospect for change will continue at every level of the organization."

It's quite a reversal for Jones, who indicated in recent weeks that Owens wasn't going anywhere and firmly saying that the idea of locker-room problems were "a figment of the result. You didn't hear about those things when we were winning."

Cancel the reservation: Let's go to bed!

Dating on a budget
Money can't buy you love, so it's ironic that when Cupid is at his most potent we rush around spending like we're oligarchs. If the first flush of a relationship isn't a good time to rein in your spending, I don't know when is. All those restaurant bills, cinema tickets, trinkets given… what's the point when all you want to do is get naked in a darkened room? Just as war threw people together, so the credit crunch should see singletons the country over making concerted efforts to locate a lover. There's surely no better way of saving your pennies and reducing your heating bills than succumbing to blind passion.
Annual budget: £1,200

Co-habiting in hard times
Once you've shacked up together, the best investment you can make is in your independence. Economising on things like gym membership, nights out with friends and football tickets is a grave mistake. Newly co-habiting couples spend a fortune on home comforts that they misguidedly believe will tie them together for the long term – but as we all know, a designer sofa and a deluxe mattress only guarantee a nasty separation. Better to make do with the threadbare settee you inherited from your auntie and your partner's shabby pan collection till you're sure the relationship is a goer.
Annual saving £800 (cost of new sofa)

Marriage on a shoestring
Once you've signed on the dotted line, trying to maintain financial independence is futile. Some of the greatest friction in a marriage is caused by money, and it's often because we try to cling to that last area of autonomy. What was once yours is now "ours". If you end up divorcing, your accrued belongings will in all likelihood be divided up by a stranger in a courtroom. Instead, throw your earnings into the pot along with your endurance skills, then revel in the mathematics of bills halved by the presence of a spouse. Divorce in a recession is an act of financial madness!
Annual saving £28,000 (average cost of divorce)

Michael Jackson's O2 shows to be his 'final curtain call'

Michael Jackson announces his plans for a summer residency at the O2 Arena Photograph: Tim Whitby/Getty

Michael Jackson took to the stage at London's 02 Arena earlier today to tell screaming fans that his forthcoming shows in the capital would be "the final curtain call".

As reported earlier this week, the 50-year-old singer was speaking at an event to confirm his first series of full concerts in over ten years. His 02 Arena residency will begin on July 8 2009 and will run for 10 nights.

In characteristic fashion, Jackson was over an hour and a half late in making his announcement. After a brief introduction from presenter Dermot O'Leary, Jackson appeared on stage in a black and silver sparkling jacket and with just a touch of swagger in his step. "I love you so much," he told the crowd, waving peace signs and smiling. "Thank you all". He then began chanting "This is it! This is it!" along with the crowd.

"I just want to say, these will be my final show performances in London. This will be it, when I say this is it I really mean this is it." After a pause, he told the crowd: "I'll be performing the songs my fans want to hear, this is it, I mean this is the final curtain call, ok?"

Jackson then said "I'll see you in July" before departing the stage. The 2,000-strong audience was made up of reporters, camera crews and a large contingent of fans.

The singer hasn't performed a full concert since he was cleared of child abuse charges in 2005. His return to the stage is said to have been prompted by financial woes, and an auction of his personal possessions is set to take place in April this year.

Tickets for the 10 date tour go on sale at 7am on Friday 13 March 2009. Presale information is available from and by texting MJ to 81707. Prices start at £50, £60 and £75.

California high court hears arguments on gay marriage

A year-long battle over whether California must recognise married gay and lesbian couples' unions - even if a majority of voters disapprove - comes to a head today, as the state's supreme court hears arguments on the validity of a voter-approved ban of same-sex marriage

Today's arguments centre on whether "proposition 8", an amendment passed in November, may excise from the constitution a right to wed previously recognised by the court. If the court declares proposition 8 valid, it will rule on how the law handles about 18,000 same-sex couples who married in the months before their marriage rights were revoked.

The proposition 8 sponsors are represented in the court battle by Kenneth Starr, the conservative special prosecutor who investigated former president Bill Clinton during the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky affairs.

Along with abortion, same-sex marriage is one of the hottest cultural issues in America, with conservatives who oppose claiming to defend "traditional marriage" and with supporters arguing that same-sex couples should not be denied the myriad legal, financial, social and psychological benefits afforded heterosexual couples who wed.

California is seen by both sides as a bellwether on the issue because it's a large state that frequently sets cultural and political trends soon followed by the rest of the US. Regardless of how the court rules, California same-sex couples will retain "civil union" rights that are identical to those of married couples.

Hundreds of protesters on both sides today gathered outside the courthouse in the state capital of Sacrameto, watching the proceedings on large-screen television sets.

In May, the California supreme court, finding no legally justifiable reason to withhold the right, ruled that the state constitution grants marriage rights to same-sex couples. The decision overturned a state statute approved by voters, leading to conservative arguments that that the court overrode popular will.

An estimated 18,000 couples wed in the months that followed, though opponents vowed to push for a constitutional amendment to overturn the court ruling. On election day, as America celebrated Barack Obama's victory, California gay marriage supporters mourned as the voters approved 52% to 48% a constitutional amendment that expressly removed the right.
The California supreme court will issue a decision within 90 days.

Chris Brown charged with 2 felonies

LOS ANGELES — Chris Brown has been charged with two felonies stemming from what a police detective describes as a brutal argument between the singer and his girlfriend, Rihanna.

Brown is expected to be arraigned Thursday afternoon on charges of assault likely to cause great bodily injury and making criminal threats. The 19-year-old R&B singer remains free on $50,000 bail.

The felony complaint handed down in court Thursday morning identifies Brown's alleged victim only as "Robyn F." Rihanna's real name is Robyn Rihanna Fenty.

If convicted, the possible sentence ranges anywhere from probation to four years and eight months in state prison, said district attorney's spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons.

According to a detective's affidavit, Brown and Rihanna got into a fight early Feb. 8 after the "Umbrella" singer checked her boyfriend's cell phone and found a text message from another woman.

Brown pulled his car over and tried to push Rihanna out, but she was still wearing her seatbelt, Los Angeles police Detective De Shon Andrews wrote. He said Brown pushed Rihanna's head against the window, punched her with his right hand, and then continued driving while hitting her, the affidavit states. He also bit his girlfriend on the ear, the affidavit states.

The affidavit was filed as part of a search warrant request for the phone records of Brown, Rihanna and her assistant.

Brown allegedly threatened to kill Rihanna after she pretended to leave a phone message with her assistant, telling her to have the police waiting at her house.

Andrews described Brown's blows as causing Rihanna's mouth to fill with blood. He also writes that Brown tried to choke Rihanna after she took the keys to his car away. Andrews wrote that Rihanna nearly lost consciousness but also tried to fight back while in the car, at one point trying to gouge at Brown's eyes.

Brown was arrested hours later and booked him on suspicion of making criminal threats. Police said at the time a woman identified Brown as her attacker during an early morning dispute in an upscale Los Angeles neighborhood.

A phone message left for Brown's attorney, Mark Geragos, was not immediately returned Thursday. Brown's publicist Tony Knight said any statement would likely come from Geragos after today's hearing.

Rihanna's spokesperson had no comment on the charges filed against Brown.

Brown issued a statement a week after the incident saying that he was "sorry and saddened" about the incident. Rihanna also later issued a statement, saying she wouldn't comment on the alleged beating at the request of authorities. She thanked fans for their support.

Brown's arrest has seriously damaged the "Run It!" singer's squeaky-clean image, and compelled sponsors to drop him or not renew his deals.

The alleged attack also came hours before the couple were scheduled to appear and perform at the Grammy Awards. Both were no-shows for event.

Will This Recession Become a Depression?

WASHINGTON -- A Depression doesn't have to be Great -- bread lines, rampant unemployment, a wipeout in the stock market. The economy can sink into a milder depression, the kind spelled with a lowercase "d."

And it may be happening now.

The trouble is, unlike recessions, which are easy to define, there are no firm rules for what makes a depression. Everyone at least seems to agree there hasn't been one since the epic hardship of the 1930s.

But with each new hard-times headline, most recently an alarming economic contraction of 6.2 percent in the fourth quarter, it seems more likely that the next depression is on its way.

"We're probably in a depression now. But it's not going to be acknowledged until years go by. Because you have to see it behind you," said Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland.

No one disputes that the current economic downturn qualifies as a recession. Recessions have two handy definitions, both in effect now -- two straight quarters of economic contraction, or when the National Bureau of Economic Research makes the call.

Declaring a depression is much trickier.

By one definition, it's a downturn of three years or more with a 10 percent drop in economic output and unemployment above 10 percent. The current downturn doesn't qualify yet: 15 months old and 7.6 percent unemployment. But both unemployment and the 6.2 percent contraction for late last year could easily worsen.

Another definition says a depression is a sustained recession during which the populace has to dispose of tangible assets to pay for everyday living. For some families, that's happening now.

Morici says a depression is a recession that "does not self-correct" because of fundamental structural problems in the economy, such as broken banks or a huge trade deficit.

Or maybe a depression is whatever corporate America says it is. Tony James, president of private equity firm Blackstone, called this downturn a depression during an earnings conference call last week.

The Great Depression retains the heavyweight crown. Unemployment peaked at more than 25 percent. From 1929 to 1933, the economy shrank 27 percent. The stock market lost 90 percent of its value from boom to bust.

And while last year in the stock market was the worst since 1931, the Dow Jones industrials would have to fall about 5,000 more points to approach what happened in the Depression.

Few economists expect this downturn will be the sequel. But nobody knows for sure, and nobody can say when or whether the downturn may deepen from a recession to a depression.

In his prime-time address to Congress last week, President Barack Obama acknowledged "difficult and trying times" but sought to rally the nation with an upbeat vow that "we will rebuild -- we will recover."

The next day, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told the House Financial Services Committee that the "recession is serious, financial conditions remain difficult." He held out a best-case hope that it might end later this year, with "full recovery" in two to three years.

Despite the tempered optimism, the economic outlook remains grim. Consumer confidence has fallen off the table, stocks are at 12- year lows, layoffs come by the tens of thousands and credit remains tight.

The current downturn has many of the 1930s characteristics, including being primed by big stock market and real estate booms that turned to busts, said Allen Sinai, founder of Boston-area consulting firm Decision Economics.

Policymakers and economists note there are safeguards in place that weren't there in the 1930s: deposit insurance, unemployment insurance and an ability by the government to hurl trillions of dollars at the problem, even if it means printing money.

Before the 1930s, any serious economic downturn was called a depression. The term "recession" didn't come into common use until "depression" became burdened by memories of the 1930s, said Robert McElvaine, a history professor at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss.

"When the economy collapsed again in 1937, they didn't want to call that a new depression, and that's when recession was first used," he said. "People also use 'downward blip.' Alan Greenspan once called it a 'sideways waffle.' "

Most postwar U.S. recessions have come after the Fed has increased interest rates to cool down rapid economic growth and inflation. Later, the Fed lowers rates and helps restart the economy, with the housing and auto sectors -- both sensitive to interest rates -- leading the way.

This time is different: As Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn., said, "Our housing and auto sectors are leading us not out of recession, but into it."

What's more, the Fed no longer has the ability to kick-start recovery by lowering interest rates. The central bank has already effectively lowered the short-term rates it controls to zero.

And there are no guarantees the massive economic stimulus package and series of bank bailouts will stave off a nightmare recession, or worse.

"It is certainly plausible that the kinds of policy measures that have been good enough to tame the business cycle are no longer adequate in a fast-moving, highly leveraged, highly networked economy," said Anirvan Banerji of the Economic Cycle Research Institute.

Today's economic indicators don't project a depression. But Banerji is cautious. Economic data in 1929 didn't show that the stock market crash was about to lead to years of economic misery, either.

"It did not look like the kind of plunge that would be a depression until after the recession began," Banerji said. "The Great Depression didn't start out as a depression. It started out as a recession."

Today's recession is already longer than all but two of the downturns since World War II.

But for now, public officials are being extremely cautious about the D-word. Alfred Kahn, a top economic adviser to President Jimmy Carter, learned that lesson in 1978 when he warned that rampaging inflation might lead to a recession or even "deep depression."

When presidential aides asked him to use another term, Kahn promised he'd come up with something completely different.

"We're in danger," he said, "of having the worst banana in 45 years."

America's Prison Juggernaut Continues to Crush Black Males By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

For a brief moment in the late 1990s there was a glimmer of hope that America’s incarceration juggernaut would slow down. The Sentencing Project which compiles an annual report on crime and punishment in the nation found a slight percentage drop in the incarceration rate in state prisons. That was due to a mix of better economic times, a slight up tick in drug and counseling and rehabilitation programs, and better community outreach by police departments. The thaw in the hard-line take no prisoner approach to crime and punishment didn’t last. In 2007, according to a report from the Pew Center of the States, more persons were in American jails than ever. So many, that the United States now has the shameful distinction of being the world’s runaway jailhouse leader. It locks up one-quarter of the world’s prison population.

The Pew report found three more disturbing problems in America’s staggering jail numbers. One is that judges who would likely opt for community based corrections programs such as fines, restitution; home detention, probation, electronic monitoring, and drug diversion programs don’t because these options are scare. The programs are poorly funded and operated, or are non-existent. Another problem is that black males still make up more than half of America’s prison inmates. They are four times more likely than whites and twice as likely as Hispanics to be jailed. The disproportionate number of blacks jailed hasn’t budged in the past decade. The other problem is that a significant percent of them are locked up for non-violent petty crime and drug offenses.

Putting thousands of black men behind bars for mostly non-violent offenses has had staggering consequences. It has wreaked massive social and political havoc on families and communities. It has been the single biggest reason for the bloat in federal and state spending on prison construction, maintenance, and the escalation in the number of prosecutors needed to handle the continuing flood of criminal cases.

The stock reason for criminalizing a huge segment of a generation of young blacks is that they are crime-prone and lack family values. But reports and studies by the Justice Department, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, as well as universities and foundations confirm that broken homes and bad genes have little to do with crime rates. High joblessness, failing public schools, budget cutbacks in skills training and placement programs, the refusal of employers to hire those with criminal records, and the gaping racial disparity in the drug sentencing laws are the major reasons why far more blacks than whites are behind bars.

The scapegoat of blacks for America's crime and drug problem actually began in the 1980s. Much of the media quickly turned the drug problem into a black problem and played it up big in news stories and features. Many Americans scared stiff of the drug crisis readily gave their blessing to drug sweeps, random vehicle checks, marginally legal searches and seizures, evictions from housing projects and apartments. When it came to law enforcement practices in the ghettos and barrios, the denial of civil liberties protections, due process and privacy made a mockery of the criminal justice system to many blacks and Latinos.

State legislators haven’t helped things. Many are scared stiff that a too aggressive push for increased funding and expansion of drug diversion and probation programs will stir voter backlash. The big dread is that they will be tarred as soft on crime, and could be dumped from office.

That’s turned a horrid situation into a public policy nightmare. States now do one of two things to deal with an out control prison population. They enact or try to strengthen drug treatment and diversion programs or release prisoners. This has little to do with a new found enlightenment on punishment. Prisons are big, dangerous, and inefficient and most of all expensive. It costs twenty times more to lock up inmates than to support community based corrections programs.

States such as California have been slapped with federal court orders to provide better medical treatment to inmates, and to relive overcrowding. This costs money; money that many states don’t have. But any talk of the release of thousands of prisoners brings an instant voter outcry. The states, though, created the problem with their policy of jail first, rather than rehabilitation programs. It’s a problem that they can no longer dodge.

With increasing hard economic times, the prospects of even more young, and poor blacks being steamrolled by the prison juggernaut looms even greater. This increases the urgency for prison and state officials to cease squandering scarce resources on wasteful, racially-flawed criminal justice policies that target mostly, poor, and desperate non violent offenders. The answer is to rely on more sound cost effective and humane programs such as drug, job, skills and family support programs to bring to a screeching halt the incarceration juggernaut.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.

Black Activists Joining Minutemen Against Illegal Immigration By Digger

It seems the black community is starting to wake up to the truth about illegal immigration and it's impact on them. While illegal aliens have continued to drive down wages and hurt those in this country whose livelihood depends on manual labor, the activists in the black community have actually supported them -- if you can believe that.

Just recently it was discovered that at one single placement agency alone, over 70 construction workers -- who were predominantly black -- in the Katrina recovery region were replaced by illegal aliens. This is one agency. Multiply that by all the agencies in the region and you'll see what a travesty is being placed on the black community by illegal immigration. These are Americans who want to work, not people looking for a handout.

Now they are starting to speak out against the injustices illegal immigration places on those they claim to defend and support.


Several black activists plan to join members of the Minutemen Project to protest illegal immigration, which organizer Ted Hayes touted as the "biggest threat to blacks in America since slavery."


Hayes, a homeless activist, alleged that most homeless people in Los Angeles are black and illegal immigration compounds the problem since blacks refuse to accept the "slave wages" that many illegal immigrants accept.


"While all Americans are suffering from this invasion, we blacks are suffering the most," Hayes said. "We feel like the leaders promoting this issue are being insensitive. This country wasn't built on the backs of immigrants like (Villaraigosa) says. It was built on the back of West African slaves."

Immigrant activist Nativo Lopez believes Hayes is out of step with most black leaders and that both blacks and Hispanics face the same problems.

Nice of Nativo Lopez to try to confuse the issue by talking about Hispanics in general and not illegal aliens, which is what the activists are pissed about.

Study Shows Racism Still Bleeds America

Indifference is the worst enemy of desegregation

Image comment: One of a series of racist posters attacking Radical Republican exponents of black suffrage, issued during the 1866 Pennsylvania governmental race
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

In a study conducted by researchers from Yale University, the York University, and the University of British Columbia, behavior psychologists learned that people tended to accept more racist remarks than they themselves were willing to admit. For the test, 120 non-black participants were divided into groups, and made either to watch a Black man being coursed at, see the incident on tape, or hear about it from someone else.

Despite the fact that Barack Obama is about to be instated as the United States' first Black president, there are still people in the country who never managed to get past all the pseudo-historic “values” of an all-white bus, or party, or other such things. In short, while some white people point fingers at and accuse those who harassed an African-American, and furthermore refuse to work with them, others simply ignore such incidents, as if they never happened.

The subjects who witnessed the actual act of aggression proved to be extremely indifferent to what had just happened. Two actors were made to reenact the brawl, and then the researchers asked the participants what they felt about it. Most of them said that they didn't react because it was not in their interest to, while others stated they would have no problem working with the white aggressor in the future, if the opportunity came along.

On the other hand, people who saw the incident on tape, or were told about it by someone else, exhibited a far less inclination to engage in work relations with the aggressor. They qualified his behavior as indecent and wrong, and demanded that he be punished.

In reality, psychologists say, if people around a similar incident were to confront the aggressor, statistics show that a very small percentage of them will ever use foul remarks in public again. However, the study concludes that persons actually witnessing such an incident are rarely ready to pay the emotional toll that such a confrontation would imply, and prefer to stand idly by.

As long as racism continues to be such a widespread problem in America, even in the 21st century, when this country is the most powerful nation on Earth, how can the outside world be persuaded that democracy is the way to take, over dictatorship and other types of authoritarian regimes?

Michael Jordan Buys Miami Home with His New Lady

Looks like Michael Jordan is getting really comfortable with his new woman. Jordan and his Cuban gal pal Yvette Prieto went half on a house. According to Jose Lambiet of, Jordan and Prieto paid $281,000 for a 5,500-square foot, three bedroom crib in the Miami suburb of Highlands at Kendall, a gated community.

For those unaware, Prieto is a model who once dated Julio Iglesias, Jr. According to Lambiet, Prieto is also principal of three companies based in Miami: Aqua Management LLC, a small management company for gated communities; Mina's jewelry, her family's jewelry business; and Lakshmi Aromatherapy Spa in Coral Gables.

There's word that Jordan likes it and might actually put a ring on it.

Michael Jackson Seeks Comeback in London

LONDON (AP) -- Michael Jackson is making his first live appearance in years, but will it still be a thriller?

The King of Pop is due to meet the press at a London concert arena this week to announce the mother of all comebacks - a string of concerts that organizers hope will net the financially troubled star millions.

But after years of erratic behavior, health fears, child-abuse allegations and money woes, is the once-golden Jackson brand tarnished beyond repair?

"Because of what's happened to him and how he's lived his life over the last 20 years, he's made it very difficult for people to out themselves as Michael Jackson fans," British music writer and broadcaster John Aizlewood said Wednesday. "These concerts are a huge opportunity for rehabilitation."

Jackson, 50, flew into London by private jet Tuesday ahead of a "special announcement" Thursday afternoon at the city's O2 Arena. It is widely expected he will announce a string of up to 30 dates at the domed arena beside the River Thames, which holds up to 20,000 people. It has become a venue of choice for big-name acts and comeback performers. Britney Spears is due to play there for eight nights in June, Prince did a 21-day series of shows at the arena in 2007, and Led Zeppelin played a one-off reunion gig there the same year.

If organizers hope to see a return of the fan frenzy that once followed Jackson everywhere, they may be disappointed. Only a handful of people joined the packs of press photographers and camera crews Wednesday outside Jackson's London hotel - and several of those said they were seeking autographs to sell on eBay.

But even if Jacksonmania is a diminished force, his comeback would be a huge event.

One of the best-selling artists of all time, Jackson has sold more than 750 million albums and won 13 Grammy awards. "Thriller," released in 1982, is still the best-selling album of all time.

Jackson has not released a studio album or played a full concert since 2001. His last major tour was the HIStory World Tour in 1996-1997.

Since then, Jackson's ever-changing appearance and erratic behavior have often overshadowed his music.

He was arrested in 2003 on child-molestation charges and acquitted in 2005 after a trial in California. Since then he has traveled the world, spending time in Ireland, France and the Gulf state of Bahrain.

His last live performance in Britain was at the 2006 World Music Awards. He was scheduled to perform "We Are the World" but only managed a few lines before leaving the stage.

He has struggled to pay his debts after his financial empire crumbled following his arrest. Last year he was forced to give up the deed to Neverland, his 2,500-acre (1,000 hectare) ranch and miniature amusement park in California.

In November, Jackson reached an undisclosed settlement with a Bahraini prince who had brought a $7 million breach of contract suit against him.

In April, Jackson will auction more than 2,000 personal items from Neverland, including platinum and gold records, a customized Harley Davidson and a Rolls Royce limousine.

His health is rumored to be as precarious as his finances. He often looks gaunt in photographs, and rumors of his condition have ranged from lung disease to an infection acquired during nose surgery.

Bookmaker William Hill is already taking bets on whether Jackson will show up for his first gig. It is offering 5/1 odds that he won't, and spokesman Graham Sharpe anticipates brisk business.

"Once people start buying tickets they may well want to have a bet that he won't show up as a form of insurance," Sharpe said.

Aizlewood said he would bet on the ever-erratic Jackson pulling it off.

"This is Michael Jackson playing his greatest hits - some of the greatest hits in the history of music - live," Aizlewood said. "It is a great event. I think even Michael Jackson won't blow it."

Obama’s Rise As Black Representation Slows

The Congressional Black Caucus finally got their much-awaited meeting with Pres. Barack Obama on Thursday. He may be the first black president, but meeting with his fellow black members of Congress was not his first priority, given all the crises his administration faces on the economy, failing banks and Middle East flare-ups.

But there is another reason that has more to do with politics than priorities. It is a great irony that the election of Barack Obama as the first black president comes at a time when the number of black elected officials has been stagnant at best and, at worst, on a downhill slide. It is counterintuitive to the general perception among many, including the mainstream pundits who keep talking about a “post-racial” society.

Think again. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C., political think tank, in a study found that the rise in the number of black elected officials has slowed.

The bulk of black officeholders are still mainly concentrated in five states: Mississippi, Alabama, Illinois, Louisiana, and Georgia.

Overall, the percentage of black elected officials in relation to all elected officials has remained static in the last decade.

The slowdown is glaringly evident in Congress. The U.S. Senate has had only three, and a disputed fourth, black member since Reconstruction--Massachusetts Republican Ed Brooke and Carol
Moseley-Braun, and Obama’s much disputed interim replacement, Roland Burris. In the House, Congressional Black Caucus membership has had only a modest rise since 1996.

The stagnation in black political strength has hampered the Congressional Black Caucus in its past efforts to get Congress and the White House to support increased commerce, trade and aid to African and Caribbean nations -- as well as greater HIV/AIDS funding, strong backing for affirmative action programs, the passage of tougher anti-racial profiling and hate-crimes laws.
The stagnation in Congress has also meant that it took marches and protests by civil rights leaders to get any national attention on hate crimes, voting irregularities, police abuse, chronic black joblessness, and the gaping racial disparities in health and education. Before Obama’s run, the constraints on black elected officials and the treatment of black voters by top Democrats that was at times cavalier fueled rage and deepened cynicism among many blacks that Democrats care about them only when
they need their votes.

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in 1993 on minority redistricting is another potential peril for black politicians. The court tossed out districts that had been gerrymandered to preserve black population majorities. These so-called race-based districts were mostly in the South and were deliberately drawn to insure that black candidates would perpetually be elected to Congress.

An added dilemma for black voters is that any future increase in the number of black elected officials must come from what are currently majority white districts. Yet, with the exception of former Oklahoma
Rep. J.C. Watts and former Connecticut Rep. Gary Franks-- both Republicans and both conservatives who were elected from majority white districts -- it is still a hard sell for blacks to triumph in non-black majority districts.

The turgidity in black political gains can also be dumped squarely on several phenomena: black voter apathy, alienation, inner-city population drops, suburban integration and displacement by Latinos and Asians who have shown a far greater willingness than blacks to split their votes more evenly among both Republican and Democratic candidates.

To overcome these daunting obstacles, civil rights and black political groups must mount and sustain voter mobilization and education drives aimed at increasing the number of black voters, not just to elect a black president. On the GOP side, the jury is still way out on whether Michael Steele, the new Republican National Committee chair, can budge
the GOP toward fulfilling Bush’s empty pledge to make diversity a watchword in the party.

Black politicians must also expand their agenda to address the needs of Latino and Asian voters. Their support will be absolutely crucial if black politicians expect to hold or win office in the future in districts that were once majority black but are fast changing to majority Latino and Asian districts.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book
is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).

Jobless claims slip back to 639,000

The number of workers filing for state unemployment benefits fell by 31,000 to a seasonally adjusted 639,000 last week, while the smoothed average of continuing claims moved higher into record territory, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

First-time claims fell back from a 26-year high of 670,000 the previous week to 639,000, likely because of difficulties adjusting for the federal Presidents Day holiday. Read the full government report.
The smoothed average of new claims over the past four weeks rose to 641,750, the highest since October 1982. The smoothed average is considered a better gauge of labor market conditions than the volatile weekly number because it smoothes out one-time distortions caused by holidays, bad weather or strikes.
Meanwhile, the number of people receiving unemployment checks in the week ending Feb. 21 dropped for the first time in seven weeks by 14,000 to a seasonally adjusted 5.11 million from a record high the previous week. The smoothed four-week average increased 76,750 to 5.01 million, a record high. The data go back to 1967.
The data come from state unemployment offices' reports on actual filings, not a statistical sample.

The report comes a day before the Labor Department reports on February nonfarm payrolls. The numbers released Thursday have no bearing on the February report because they were collected after the monthly payrolls survey.
Economists surveyed by MarketWatch expect payrolls to fall by 650,000, the worst job loss in nearly 60 years. They expect the unemployment rate to rise to 8% from 7.6%. See full story.

In a separate report, the government said companies cut their workforce drastically in the fourth quarter, but not enough to match the deep decline in output. Productivity in the nonfarm business sector fell 0.4%, while productivity in the manufacturing sector dropped a record 4%. See full story.

Initial claims represent job destruction, while the level of continuing claims indicates how hard or easy it is for displaced workers to find new jobs. The jobless claims report shows businesses are laying off workers at a rapid pace, and finding a replacement job is ever harder for those who've lost work.
Compared with the same week a year ago, new jobless claims are up about 86%, while continuing claims are up 82%. Since the beginning of the year, new claims have risen 16% and continuing claims have risen 12%.

The insured unemployment rate - the proportion of covered workers who are receiving benefits - was steady at 3.8%, the highest in 25 years.
Typically, state unemployment benefits run out after 26 weeks for those who are eligible. A total of 1.4 million people were collecting benefits under a federal program that extends unemployment benefits.
Benefits are generally available for those who lose their full-time job through no fault of their own. Those who exhaust their unemployment benefits are still counted as unemployed if they are actively looking for work.

Where's the inclusion, Steele?

How many times have we heard this refrain: There’s a war going on for the heart and soul of the Republican Party? Here’s another one: The Republican Party should be an open tent. Or this one: Republicans need to make sure everyone is welcome and has a voice in his or her party.

In reading the political tea leaves, that’s what many thought we were witnessing in the race for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee. This, we believed, might tell us a lot about where the party was headed. In fact, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who ultimately won the post, was portrayed as the moderate in a field that included incumbent Mike Duncan, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson.

Yet, after his slim victory on the sixth ballot, Steele seems focused more on style than on substance, calling for a “hip-hop” approach. The president’s economic package was called “bling bling” by the new chairman. This is going to bring the Republicans back from two terrible elections in 2006 and 2008? As Ricky Ricardo used to say to his wife, “Lucy, you’ve got some explaining to do.”

But I digress. It’s not that we didn’t know Steele was ultimately a conservative. But he was also a founding member of the Republican Leadership Council, whose stated mission is promoting fiscal responsibility while allowing diverse views on social issues. His co-founders were former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and former Missouri Sen. John Danforth, two public figures who have broadened the dialogue from the Republican side of the aisle.

Even though he distanced himself from the council in his successful bid to lead the GOP, we still held out a little hope, particularly given the alternatives. He even told Fox News that he thought there was an opportunity to “build a bridge between moderates and conservatives” on the issues of abortion and gay rights.

But talk about cold water. First, Steele told the Christian Broadcast Network that, while he was personally opposed to a federal marriage amendment that would ban marriage equality, the party would advocate for its passage if the bill was filed again. How is that a departure from the Bush-Rove era of attacking gay Americans for political gain? How is that new leadership?

Then, this same new party chairman who greeted his election with the words, “Get ready, baby. It’s time to turn it on,” really went off the deep end. In the same week that Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, also a Republican, announced his support for civil unions, Steele completely shut that conversation off.

When asked by a conservative radio talk show host the simple question, “Do you favor civil unions?” Steele seemingly couldn’t wait to shoot back, “No, no, no. What would we do that for? What, are you crazy? No. Why would we backslide on a core, founding value of this country?”

I’ve been in and around politics long enough to recognize the knee-jerk tendency to veer sharply right after the defeat of what some saw as a moderate Republican presidential candidate. Perhaps, but did they forget about Sarah Palin?

The truth is, America is changing its view on marriage equality and on civil unions. Depending on the poll, somewhere between 50 percent and 55 percent of Americans believe in civil unions or relationship recognition protection for loving gay and lesbian couples. Support for same-sex marriage gains additional support every year. And in a recent Newsweek poll that asked whether people favored marriage, civil unions or no recognition at all, 63 percent favored either marriage or civil unions. As for the Federal Marriage Amendment, even before our economic crisis, a plurality of Americans viewed this as a waste of time.

This is a time for a new direction, not more of the same old, same old when it comes to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered America and the Republican Party. Most voters are dead tired of rhetoric that vilifies one group of Americans, or diminishes one family over another, or says to one teenager, “You’re OK” and to another, “You’re not.” And those lines are not drawn by a level of civic participation, scholastic aptitude or family values; they’re drawn by age-old prejudice that has no place in the uncertain world we all live in today.

Chairman Steele would do well to look closer at where America is headed on these issues of family, heart, and basic fairness and to lead his party forward. Hip-hop, after all, is about authenticity, if nothing else. This three steps forward, two steps back approach not only won’t win elections; it won’t win many new party members, either.

Joe Solmonese is president of the Human Rights Campaign.

GOP has chance to define the debate

The recent advertising attack launched by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees against Republicans who voted against the recently passed stimulus package is the first real advertising shot in a message war designed to label them an obstructionist party. It is part of an overall strategy created by the Democratic Party to keep the GOP locked into minority status through at least the next election cycle.

Republican leaders still have the opportunity to take immediate action and successfully define themselves for the American people or risk being quickly defined by the opposition.

At present, Democrats are dominating the media cycle with expensive solutions to our nation’s economic crisis. President Barack Obama has succeeded in harnessing our nation’s stories of lost jobs, declining wages and economic anxieties in order to propose and pass mammoth economic policies that are steering us toward socialism. The stimulus package, bailouts for the auto industry and the creation of a national health care fund are examples of Democrats using the crisis to their policy advantage.

The strategy is working. After the stimulus package passed Congress, a recent Gallup Poll showed the approval rating among congressional Democrats jumped from 37 percent to 47 percent. Meanwhile, the approval rating of congressional Republicans also jumped from 25 percent to 36 percent. Improved ratings are good for Republicans, but more must be done to surpass the other side.

When I was the press secretary for then-Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Congress was reacting in real time to address vital national and economic security issues surrounding the Sept. 11 crisis. In this environment, we successfully labeled Senate Democrats obstructionist because they voted against policies Republicans depicted as vital to the nation’s safety. Several Senate Democrats didn’t return after November 2002 because they voted against critical defense funding and creating the Homeland Security Department and the Patriot Act.

Now that America is in the economic equivalent of Sept. 11, the other side sees the opportunity to paint Republicans as out of touch. With Obama leading the charge, the White House and congressional Democrats highlight the national and state unemployment numbers each month to push their policies and hammer Republican opposition. The AFSCME ad campaign used clips of Republican leaders saying no to the stimulus package and tied them to Rush Limbaugh.

There must be an answer to these attacks before the cement hardens. Here they are:

Disconnect Americans’ economic fear from allowing Democrats to act. In order for Republicans to improve their approval ratings and stop the Democrats’ numbers from rising, they must immediately work to sever the connection Obama and the Democrats have made between the crisis and their policies. Many Republicans are trying to accomplish this by dominating the debate over the long-term impact of Democratic solutions. While they are right about the enormous burden that Democrats’ policies will have on future generations, this is a conceptual argument that Americans aren’t visualizing because of the economic crisis at hand.

Some Republicans are connecting Obama’s policies to the plummeting stock market. The effort will help this “disconnection strategy” unless the market rebounds and undercuts it.

Connect with people’s feelings of anxiety about economic hardship.

Workers aren’t sure they will find or keep their jobs. Many worry about paying the mortgage. Families are concerned about putting food on the table. A positive, consistent Republican message would be reassuring now and give hope for the future. A clear message will convey what our plan does for people right now. In 2002, Democrats tried to fight with a negative message over long-term ramifications of the Patriot Act, the Homeland Security Department and increased defense spending. All Senate Republicans had to do to destroy their arguments was ask a question: “What is your plan to keep Americans safe?” The question for 2009 is, “What is the Republican plan to create and save jobs while stabilizing the economy?”

Establish an immediate, party-wide “economic first aid package.” Americans want to feel secure again. The Republican Party must offer them the tools to get through these hard times. A short-term, legislative economic first aid plan would help turn the focus away from crisis-driven Democratic policies and toward hopeful solutions Americans would feel tomorrow. This “crisis solutions agenda” would be used between now and fall 2009, the timeline Obama and the Democrats are following to push through their policies. Success depends on getting a majority of Republicans to sign off and communicate a solutions agenda. Americans would then have a real choice as to which party has the best plan to move forward.

Let no attack go unanswered, and get on offense. Republicans must organize and respond to Democratic attacks by using a positive answer of a common plan. Party operatives must return to the structural fundamentals of blocking and tackling. While many House and Senate Republicans are doing well communicating all kinds of legislative ideas, they must return to coordinating daily to develop an effective offense and defense around a common theme. Having a positive agenda to message is a great foundation for successful communications.

The AFSCME ad is a blessing in disguise for Republicans trying to find their way in the new message landscape. The Democratic Party has telegraphed its intentions early enough for Republicans to do something about them. Connecting with Americans by offering instant, credible solutions is the first step toward demonstrating that the party “gets it” and gives Republicans opportunities for further momentum to regain the majority.

Ron Bonjean is a partner of Singer Bonjean Strategies, a full-service public affairs firm. He was formerly the chief of staff of the Senate Republican Conference and the top spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.