Alaska, corruption, crime, influence, money, politics

Alaska, Re-factored

12.30 in the afternoon, North Pole, Alaska, Dec 2004
When Ted Stevens was found guilty of all seven charges of failing to report gifts last week, the conventional wisdom, at least in the Lower 48, was that the Republicans had lost another Senate seat.

I’m inclined to agree. But with reservations. Because if there’s any place that will surprise you politically (other than Minnesota, maybe), it would be Alaska.

Alaska politics seems to have a special knack for getting muddy, if not outright weird. Take the ongoing saga of Stevens’s trial, where the weirdness seems to have spread: a juror took a break from deliberations because her father died, except that he didn’t actually die, and she was not answering her phone because she had, in fact, left D.C. for a horse race in California. As the AP notes:

She apologized for lying, and then started a long rambling story about horses, which included references to horse breeding, the Breeders’ Cup, drugs, President Ford’s son Steven and her condo in Florida being bugged.

Fair enough, I suppose. This after Stevens himself gave some head-scratching testimony, such as calling a massage chair from a supporter that sat in his Washington residence for the last seven years a “loan.” (In a kind of contrapuntal twist, Stevens was questioned by a Justice Department prosecutor; fifty years ago, he was himself a U.S. attorney for the Justice Department.) As the Anchorage Daily News reported:

In fact, Stevens said, he planned to ship the chair back to Persons in Alaska with other furniture from Washington to use in [Stevens’s] Girdwood house, but there wasn’t any room in the “chalet” – the place was filled with Allen’s stuff, he said.

Where was his original furniture?

“Bill Allen stole our furniture and put his in our chalet,” Stevens said.

“Why didn’t you call the police?” Morris asked.

“It never crossed my mind to call the police at that time,” Stevens said. “I might now.”

I kind of wish Jay Hammond were around to paddle up in his canoe and tell us what he thought about all this.

Today, the state personnel board cleared Governor Palin of any wrongdoing in Troopergate, meaning both sides get a report stating what they want to hear, and neither will ever be satisfied. But whether Palin becomes vice president or not, Alaska will soon be pried from its cozy niche in the American political system. And that is why I’m writing about Stevens. 

Because Stevens’s era, and possibly Don Young’s, is over, or almost. (And it seems to me that Palin can’t go back to her governorship and expect to accomplish much meaningful, having burned so many bridges in this campaign.) That Alaskans would take a gamble and reinstall a convicted felon as senator in the hopes that he will continue to bring home the bacon would not be a shock. But the gamble comes in what the Senate does with Stevens if he gets another term. Alaska is a state normally ignored when it comes to national politics, which helped during earmark time. This year, it’s at the center of the storm with the problems that Stevens, Young, and Palin are having. It’s a make-or-break year for Alaska, in terms of the Washington influence it has quietly built up over decades. They’ve got to go all in.

The Times recently wrote:

Some state Republican Party leaders have countered this concern [over Stevens’s convictions] by urging people to vote for Mr. Stevens as a tactical move. They say re-electing him will allow for a special election to replace him should he later resign or be expelled. Otherwise, Republicans would be ceding the race to Mr. Begich [the Democrat].

A tactical move. Politicians like Young and Stevens seem to have stayed in power because of a go-along-to-get-along mentality. There is no great orator or charmer between those two. But with so much seniority, and with Republicans previously in the majority–or at least not marginalized–during their careers, these politicians were not so much inspirations as investments when it came time to cast a vote.

This was an argument I often heard for voting for the incumbents; they have influence built up (meaning: they can keep the federal funds flowing north). Alaska’s political power in Washington has long rested in its Congressional delegation; Palin is an outlier. But now? If Young and Stevens were to win, they’d be shunted to the sidelines in a Democratic Congress. Young has become an object of national ridicule and derision from all sides–this because of Palin and McCain and his Bridges to Nowhere. Stevens will be roundly considered a disgrace for his convictions. And if Palin should become VP, she shouldn’t expect any favors from the new Congress if she tries to send a few more federal dollars to Alaska. Attempting to do so would run counter to one of her ticket’s primary messages, anyway.

But all may not be lost. FiveThirtyEight lists Stevens’s seat as “safely Dem;” RealClearPolitics notes that Young’s House seat “leans Dem.” Maybe Alaskans will come to believe that “investing” votes in a Democrat or two could bring many rewards to the state as a Democratic White House or Congress or both shower the new guys, and thus Alaska, with influential committee spots and other goodies that will help in 2010 and 2014. Tactical moves all over the place from everybody.

And even if they’re Democrats, they’ll still push to open ANWR.


Stevens is reportedly airing a two-minute commercial explaining his vision for Alaska (or, I suppose, after 40 years, reiterating that vision), among other things, during the six o’clock news across the state. It’s not online yet, and I’m not sure through which of the internet tubes it will hurtle. I’m sure it will be on the YouTube. But it’s not there yet. In the meantime, here’s thirty-one-second commercial, “Sticking with Stevens.”

New Order fans will recognize the opening strains of “Ceremony” playing in the background. Not sure that Senator Stevens is a fan of the post-punk, New Wave genre. But I love it. New Order also has songs called “Temptation,” “Regret,” and “Times Change.”

China, corruption, crime, development, disaster, earth, environment, geography, international, life, lost, unfortunate

An Unquiet Earth

Hard times around the globe these days. Earthquake in China. Cyclone in Burma. Tornados in the U.S. An enormous volcano on the verge of collapse in Chile.

Over the past several months, I’ve been working on a story about a possible earthquake here in the Bay Area. One thing I’ve learned is starkly visible in Sichuan right now: When an earthquake strikes, it’s not the earth that kills you. It’s everything else around you.

In the short term, this typically means buildings.* In China, construction quality will be a part of the discussion about what happened. Corrupt developers, local officials, and cut corners should come as no surprise–I’ve seen alleged evidence of it firsthand. The Guardian covers that angle. As one angry parent told a reporter:

“These buildings outside have been here for 20 years and didn’t collapse – the school was only 10 years old. They took the money from investment, so they took the lives of hundreds of kids. They have money for prostitutes and second wives but they don’t have money for our children. This is not a natural disaster – this is done by humans.”

In China, some call it “tofu” building. Or, as Josh Chin notes:

“Toufu dregs”-style construction (豆腐渣工程) has long been a source of public anger in China, and a potent symbol of corruption at the local level. (Witness the fuming controversy over shoddy electric poles during this winter’s freak snow storms in the south.) And now it appears the widespread practice whereby officials and developers profit through architectural corner-cutting may have cost a few extra tens of thousands of lives.

An erupting volcano can kill–namely through a phenomenon known as a pyroclastic flow. Cyclone Nargis was accompanied by a storm surge–this is what caused much of the destruction in the Irrawaddy Delta. But that damage was magnified by the loss of mangrove forests, which provide some resistance to these forces. The mangroves have been cut away to make room for development. This time, the initial round of damage was increased not by what humans have built, but by what they’ve taken away. And in Burma, human intention contributes to the continued suffering.

Boulder in the city of Mianyang, Sichuan. Kyodo News.*Update: Robert Siegel reports that the village of Gui Xi, in a steep-sided valley, was heavily damaged by displaced boulders and large landslides. (The photo at left, by Kyodo News, is from the city of Mianyan, Sichuan.) The most vivid and gripping English-language reporting from Sichuan is coming from NPR. All Things Considered was originally planning to broadcast features from Chengdu next week. When the earthquake struck, they had many resources in place.

crime, dissipation, journalism, life, San Francisco, talent, unfortunate


In June, the Chronicle ran a good story about a woman who discovered—and pursued—the person who had stolen her identity. It is engaging to read and a lucky score for the Chronicle, a story like that, one that unfolds cinematically and neatly. There are advantages to being the only show in town, as far as full-fledged newspapers are concerned. Where else might we have heard this story, if not the Chronicle? The Examiner wouldn’t set aside the column space to do the story justice; local television wouldn’t have the minutes to spare; the blogs have to deal with the dumb rule that everything has to be short; and, frankly, there are no magazines in town that would have managed to fit the story into their pages–it’s not “big” enough to warrant a feature, but too long to cram into a short front-of-the-book piece (although, if following the trail of the identity thief meant you stopped at The City’s 10 Best Places to Eat/Shop/Fall in Love, things might be different).

Maybe there’s room for some other kind of publication that could produce stories like this.

It was written by Mike Weiss. Three months earlier, Weiss wrote about a waitress and bartender who stopped a man from drugging his date. But Weiss doesn’t only write about regular people outwitting the criminal element. He’s one of the best features writers at the Chronicle, possibly the best. He certainly seemed to have free reign for a reporter. His beat covered a little of everything in the Bay Area: San Francisco General Hospital, Gavin Newsom, passion, unsolved crime, solved crime, ash scattering, casualty notification officers, intelligent design, and Duarte’s olallieberry pies, among other things.  In short, he wrote what we vaguely call human interest stories, what editors even more vaguely call enterprise reporting, but what anyone who wants to be a reporter and actually likes to write dreams of getting paid to do–the closest thing around to the old Joseph Mitchell kind of reporting, the closest to the full-steam-ahead Talk of the Town piece.

So should it have come as a surprise that he’s part of the Chronicle‘s Summertime 2007 housecleaning?  Maybe not, but it’s too bad for those who bother to read what’s left of the Chronicle.

Frances Dinkelspiel posted a list of what appears to be all the staff who are leaving the Chronicle this summer. Besides Weiss, some of the others who I’m disappointed to see go include Anna Badkhen (now at the Globe), David Lazarus (going to the LA Times), Keay Davidson, Edward Epstein, Glen Martin, and what looks to be a significant chunk of the photo staff.

Only Catherine Bigelow and David Lazarus really got to say goodbye to their readers, through their columns. Mike Weiss used to have a column, too. And for that, he wrote his own farewell, six years ago. But there was an earlier column, on the 10th anniversary of the 1989 earthquake. He was in Candlestick Park when it struck. He wrote that all in attendance cheered when it was over. It was about close calls and survival.

“We had an opportunity to show what we were made of,” he wrote, “and we did. San Francisco survived to bicker another day. You and I are alive. It doesn’t get any better.”

The whole list after the jump. Continue reading

crime, money, really?, San Francisco, unfortunate

The Car, Broken Into

The Chronicle‘s Matier and Ross reported this morning that California Attorney General Jerry Brown’s official car was broken into recently. It was parked in San Francisco’s Civic Center, “Right across from City Hall, in plain view of the mayor’s office,” he told the Chronicle.

Nearly everyone I know who owns a car in San Francisco has a story about a break-in. At an Easter dinner a few years ago, one of the guests was a customs officer who had been robbed several times. Once his car had been broken into, the hits kept coming. Anecdotally, that seems to be a common story: the same car is often targeted repeatedly. And shabbier cars may be more commonly robbed because they are an easier mark, compared to a more expensive and better protected Mercedes–at least, only the shabby cars have signs asking would-be robbers not to choose them and announcing that there is nothing of value inside. But the customs officer’s favorite detail was that the thieves took everything–bad CDs, even family photos–except for the books. In every instance, there was the same box of books and it was always passed over by the robbers.

A college classmate visiting from out of town was at that dinner. He was driving through California. Of course we discovered that his SUV had been broken into during our dinner. Whoever broke in took a sleeping pad, the kind you roll out while camping, but not the rather expensive-looking skis that were in the vehicle.  The customs officer noted that it would look too suspicious if a junkie were seen carrying skis around the city.

And so it was that a couple of weeks ago, the week before I left for China, somebody broke into Alisa’s car. It was parked on our street, just two doors down from our house. We would not have realized it so soon, but a neighbor knocked on our door and asked if the afflicted car was ours.

We cleaned up the car by about 1 a.m. and drove down to the SFPD’s Mission Station, where the desk officer was profoundly unmoved by the situation. He tried to dissuade us from making any report. But Alisa insisted on at least producing some record of the break-in.

After hearing so many stories of car break-ins, I wondered if there were any statistics available for San Francisco. But I didn’t bother to investigate as my China trip loomed.

But now Matier and Ross have done the investigating for me. They write:

According to police statistics, so far this year, thieves have broken into cars in San Francisco an average of 32 times a day.

“That’s unacceptable,” said mayoral spokesman Nathan Ballard, “but it does show a 28 percent drop from last year,” when cars were being busted into 43 times a day.

“That said, we are sorry about what happened to the attorney general,” Ballard said.

So 32 by 365 (assuming the average does not change for the rest of this year) predicts 11,680 break-ins for 2007 (compared to 15,695 last year).


The next morning I called three places to get an estimate for repairing the broken window (front passenger side window). The first, A-1 Glass in the Bayview, estimated about $145, including installation. The second, Glass Pro, across from the Hall of Justice, said it would be $215, but I could get a discount to $178. The woman on the other end then asked me if I’d checked anywhere else. A-1 quoted me at $145, I said. We’ll do it for $140, she replied, immediately. This is exactly what the reviewers at Yelp said would happen at Glass Pro. I then called Karry’s Auto Body. He didn’t have the price on hand because he has to check with the supplier. He called me back after about three minutes and said it would be $146, including installation. He seemed trustworthy enough, without having to resort to fake discounts; plus his place was more convenient for me, so that’s where we went.

crime, journalism, television

Don’t Destroy Your TV: There’s Still PBS.

PBS broadcast two documentaries last night that demonstrated the value of good journalism, the importance of people as individuals, why television can be an effective tool for investing issues with a sense of immediacy and significance (without being sensationalistic)—and why PBS is important.

The first was an episode of Frontline, a consistently good documentary series produced in Boston and Berkeley/San Francisco (along with Frontline/World). The episode, entitled “Sex Slaves,” examined the trafficking of often unwitting, often very poor women from Ukraine and Moldova to Istanbul, detailing the methods that traffickers use to smuggle and enslave them. The filmmakers interviewed women who had managed to free themselves from this imprisonment, and followed an Odessa bartender as he posed as a trafficker in an attempt to free his wife from a violent Istanbul pimp—she had been sold into slavery for $1,000 by an acquaintance while in Istanbul to purchase merchandise for her mother’s shop. (Women are often put onto the path to slavery by someone they know, one of those dark rules of thumb like how murder victims tend to know their killers or car accidents usually occur near home). I recommend a viewing if you happen to catch a rerun; it isn’t available to watch online. However, Frontline currently has 52 other episodes available to watch online worth checking out.

The second documentary was “Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power.” It profiled Robert Williams, a civil rights activist and NAACP organizer from North Carolina who in 1959 began to encourage African Americans to consider using guns to protect themselves against racism since law enforcement and the judicial system would not: “I made a statement that if the law, if the United States Constitution cannot be enforced in this social jungle called Dixie, it is time that Negroes must defend themselves even if it is necessary to resort to violence.” Williams was disowned by the NAACP and Freedom Riders visited his town of Monroe, North Carolina, to demonstrate the power of passive (i.e., nonviolent resistance). Unfortunately, the Freedom Riders were attacked by the local Ku Klux Klan, local citizens, and local police, and had to retreat to the protection of Williams and his Black Guard. And then, as the Web site puts it, “Amid the chaos, Williams sheltered a white couple from an African American mob, only to be accused later of kidnapping them.” He and his family, pursued by the government and the Klan, gained asylum in Cuba, where he developed an uncomfortable relationship with Castro and broadcast “Radio Free Dixie;” then Communist China where he spent time with Mao and Chou En Lai. His philosophy helped inspire the Black Power Movement, but when Williams returned to America (charges dropped and a subject of great interest to the State Department for his insight into China) he focused almost exclusively on discussing China.

The thematic importance of each of these shows, besides their actual subjects, is the idea, always visible, that people matter. That one man, Williams, can make a difference, can jump into the debate on race and then as easily “retire” from it. Or that subjects still as abstract to so many as civil rights or the sex trade are made up of the experiences of millions of people. Sex trafficking and enslavement entails finding one woman or girl, kidnapping her, selling her, raping her (often infecting her with STDs), beating her, prostituting her, confining her, attacking her mental health. And then doing all that again and again to one woman after another (occasionally killing one to make an example of her) until there are a million or more around the world, including an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 women trafficked in the U.S. each year. And similar is probably happening in other forms of human trafficking and smuggling. Reminds one of Stalin’s assertion that “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

But why do these programs show PBS is important? Because by striving for a wide-ranging format, people might see programs like these that they might otherwise not see. There is still a place for the general interest media outlet, and PBS is one of the best, featuring “children’s, cultural, educational, history, nature, news, public affairs, science and skills programming,” according to its Web site. In an increasingly stratified media world, it’s hard to know where to look to find something new and worthwhile. And that’s the problem with the idea that everything—magazine, television channels, your entire online experience—should be completely, carefully tailored to your taste, that everything should be filtered down to only what you thought mattered to you. You lose that sense of surprise. You forget that browser’s satisfaction.

Granted, not everything on PBS is to my taste, and I find some content thoroughly numbing. But I’m willing to look past all that as a good partisan raised on PBS: from Sesame Street, the Electric Company, 3-2-1 Contact, and WonderWorks productions to Nature, Nova, the American Experience, and Frontline.