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An Open Letter to President-elect Obama

Nov. 6, 2008
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The next American president has an opportunity to make a real impact on the direction of our nation and the course of world events. What should he do now? Before Tuesday’s election results were announced, we asked our fellow Milwaukeeans: If you could sit with the next president for two minutes, what would you tell him about your area of expertise? Here’s what they had to say:

The Justice System Needs Support

My message would be really simple: Reprioritize a focus on the criminal justice system. That means across the board. We went from $1 billion of federal assistance for local law enforcement, justice assistance and court assistance to about $170 million this year. The quality of your justice is reflected in how you resource it.

To me, there are really effective programs that desperately need federal assistance and funding. A lot of those are programs that can achieve some tremendous justice-related results. Whether your interest is fiscal responsibility or it’s equality under the law and making sure that people are treated fairly in the system, tremendous progress has been made in areas such as identifying violent offenders—whether they’re gun offenders or sexual offenders—and removing them effectively through joint state and federal cooperation. The flip side is that tremendous progress has also been made for federal sponsorship and development of treatment courts. These are the people who traditionally come into our system with mental illness and drug addiction and have a host of other issues related to poverty and to constrained choices—they tend to make short-term decisions that land them in the criminal justice system. What we’ve been trying to do is to change those behaviors so they can find long-term solutions to problems. Ultimately you can have safer communities and fewer people in prison and greater accountability across the board. My intense desire is to see a reprioritization of resources into justice programs and law enforcement programs.

John Chisholm
Milwaukee County District Attorney

Urban Settings Are the Nation’s Heartbeat

I would like to make certain urban issues a higher priority for the next president. Urban settings are generally the heartbeat of a region and it’s important to put urban issues front and center. We need a commitment to mass-transportation investment and green technology for the purpose of job creation, especially regarding the Great Lakes, and how we can generate some economic incentives around the Great Lakes and Lake Michigan. We also need to ensure that community development block grant resources are protected, preserved and increased where appropriate. I think some of the broader issues that the candidates discussed would help urban citizens, especially health care and not being dependent on foreign oil. But I didn’t hear the candidates talk about urban issues directly or as much as I would have liked.

Willie Hines
Milwaukee Common Council

Priorities At Home and Abroad

I have three priorities for the next president:

First, devise a practical, bottom-up plan to defuse the tidal wave of mortgage foreclosures “scheduled” to hit numerous middle-income communities.

Second, impose sensible rules, accountability, full transparency—and speed— into dispensing the trillion-dollar bailout passed by Congress.

Lastly, address the Afghanistan/Pakistan situation: Apply “outside the military box” logic to an area that is cross-border tribal with all that implies about its culture and the counter-productivity to drone attacks that inevitably kill non-terrorists.

Interrupt the poppy-cultivation-funded alliance between the narco-mafia, the extremists and an increasingly corrupt government. (Recently visiting the area, I can assure you that current U.S.-NATO policies are failing.)

Jim Moody
Former Milwaukee Congressman

Expand the Dialogue on Inclusion and Equality

We are at a historic moment, as evidenced by the breaking of barriers of race and gender involved in this campaign. The dialogue that has occurred in the nation around “inclusion” is unprecedented. Just five years ago, few would have imagined or predicted this scenario at this time. It shows the dynamic quality of American society and the potential for change.

At the same time, there are still disparities in our society, many of which have been caused or exacerbated by the denial of equal opportunity for all—in education, employment, housing, health care and other areas. Unfortunately, the campaign also revealed that there are many issues that continue to divide us as a nation when it comes to equal opportunity and inclusion.

I would ask the next president to use this historic moment to expand the dialogue, to employ the tools of government to continue to promote equality through a legislative agenda, to utilize programs to assist people to overcome and remove barriers and to foster the idea of inclusion in terms of full participation in American society. Utilize instruments of government such as the Justice Department and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). When the occasion arises, appoint judges who embrace these values. Also, promote and champion principles of human rights in our own dealings with military prisoners and war tribunals and in the international arena in general.

I would ask him to resist any suggestions that this election somehow reflects the idea of “mission accomplished, we have arrived, or the fight is over.” It is not over. Rather, it is a major milestone and provides both the inspiration and opportunity to move closer to the goal.

James Hall
Attorney Specializing in Civil Rights

Everyone Should Serve Their Country

I would say to the next president, stop the war. Putting people in harm’s way has to be done for the right reasons. The president should only see war as a very limited extension of policy. It should never be the first option, and always the last.

We have to do right by those who have not only served in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also those who have served prior to that. We would never have had the capabilities to go into Iraq or Afghanistan if people had not served in the 1980s and ’90s and before.

Policy-makers tend to just talk about combat veterans versus all veterans, but they need to craft sort of a Bill of Rights for veterans that applies to everyone, no matter when you served, whether it was the Cold War, Vietnam or the first Gulf War or the situations we have today, and they need to apply that evenly across the board. Everyone is ready to serve and go where they’re needed. Whether you spent your time in Germany, Kuwait or Baghdad, that shouldn’t matter. And there hasn’t been enough talk about the effects of the war on women.

I believe that everyone should serve their country in some form, whether it’s something like a domestic Peace Corps or through the military. I think it’s wrong that we’ve placed such a burden on people who serve in the military.

That goes to the next step—if the next president is going into another country, I don’t think that should be paid for by my 2-year-old son. That trillion dollars spent on a war should be paid by us. They should enact a war tax or something like that. The war has a huge impact on the financial crash of Wall Street. It’s creating a huge deficit that’s not going to allow the next president to do another stimulus package or invest in infrastructure. It was always pay-as-you-go in the past. In World War II you had Hollywood actors asking us to buy war bonds. That sort of thing has to happen again. If we made the implications of war real to people, either through a tax or making them serve, they’d have a different outlook about it.

John Weishan
Milwaukee County Supervisor
U.S. Marine Corps 1991-1995

Choose To Prevent Gun Violence

The first thing is an acknowledgment that gun violence is preventable. We as a society have chosen not to prevent it. I would suggest that the next president look at what has been effective either in individual states or in other countries to help guide the future policies on gun violence prevention here. I think that these things, based on evidence, could include background checks on all gun sales, and better sharing of or access to information by law enforcement. I think that we could look at new technologies, such as microstamping, which appears to be very promising. Beyond any policy, I think we need a change in our mind-set. And I think it should begin with our leader. We have a problem in this country that is unique and we can address it, but we just haven’t so far.

Jeri Bonavia
Executive Director
Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort

Support Mass Transit and Fuel-Efficient Vehicles

The first priority for the next administration regarding transportation needs to be correcting the serious imbalance between huge federal funding and support for highway expansion and automobile use, compared to only modest support for public transportation. Just months ago, billions of dollars were shifted from the federal mass transit fund into the highway fund to cover our national highway spending binge. Greater federal support for transit infrastructure (longdistance rail, commuter rail, light rail, and bus), as well as for operating expenses, is needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to improve air quality in densely populated cities and to reduce the national insecurity that results from our overwhelming dependence on foreign oil. Ending the existing tilt in the playing field in favor of highways will encourage smart growth, urban infill development and redevelopment, and higher employment in our cities. It will also provide additional environmental benefits ranging from increased energy efficiency to preservation of agricultural land.

The impending government bailout of the American automobile industry—a dinosaur that has survived for the last decade or more by trying to sell every American a truck (SUV) in which to commute to and from work—provides an opportunity to try to reshape and refocus it for the future. The industry will only survive if it can produce technologically advanced, fuel-efficient vehicles that can compete with models from Europe and Asia. Requirements for continued improvement in fuel efficiency and air emission standards are necessary to spur constant innovation, rather than giving the industry a “pass” or exemption.

Dennis Grzezinski
Attorney Specializing in Environmental Law

Public Works Projects Will Help

We had a depression in this country and the unemployment rate was somewhere around 25%. We have in Milwaukee an unemployment rate among black men of over 50% and close to 40% in the inner city in general. Think about the response the country made to the 25% unemployment during the 1930s. We need somewhere near the massive program thrust that we did then. I don’t see it as a giveaway. I see it as giving people the opportunity to earn a living and pay taxes, which the government would get back.

We have dug such a deep hole we need to look at public works, the way in which Eisenhower put the U.S. interstate system together, the way that Roosevelt put people to work. We need public works that can rebuild our bridges, roads and infrastructure. It’s a leveling thing. If we left it up to local taxpayers to pay for these things, we’d have a very uneven performance. If the city of Milwaukee tried to do that, we’d chase people away. If the federal government were to do massive infrastructure improvements and leave to local communities the kind of customizing they want, that would be a good approach.

It’s not that I want to turn away from the high-end technical jobs. We need to do that, too. But that comes with us making a major investment in education. We need to make investments in not only making sure that we have as many college-educated workers as possible, but we also need to set a floor below the truly disadvantaged in this country.

But if you asked me for the one thing that would help tremendously, it would also be the hardest thing to do: Reform health care. Not health insurance, health care. That would have the biggest impact on the employment problems that people face. If people have health care, they can manage on a fast-food-job salary. People can survive the catastrophic episodes or illnesses that lead them into the largest group of people going into bankruptcy, those with a health incident. But I recognize that it would be the hardest battle the next president would have.

Donald Sykes
Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board Inc.

Help Businesses Create Green Jobs

I would like the next president to focus on two things: Bring home our troops and our billions being spent in Iraq so that we can pay for health care, education and infrastructure in the United States; and recognize that the critical infrastructure for today and tomorrow is alternative energy and energy efficiency. It can only be created by making a large and long-term commitment to energy independence, reducing our need for foreign oil and stopping the outflow of oil dollars to support and empower unfriendly regimes. This will allow U.S. industry to dependably plan and execute long-term research and development, including geothermal, address climate change and pollution, stimulate innovation and research and create many new levels of “green” jobs that we don’t even know of yet. The commitment must be of many different kinds: Direct subsidies, rebates, tax credits for investment, accelerated depreciation and even “green Grameen” loans for backyard tinkerers, inventors and mechanics so that all levels of American industry and citizens will be let loose to find the next breakthroughs for cheap, efficient, reliable, renewable, locally available fuels and technologies to run our homes and industries.

Julilly Kohler
Real Estate Developer
and Civic Leader

Respect Civil Liberties

First off, on day one, close Guantanamo, stop torture and abuse, and end the practice of extraordinary rendition. And I’d very much like the next president to break the unitary theory of the executive. It would be ideal if there were a greater respect for those documents that set us apart as the United States. But there is a whole list of things that I’d like the next president to get rid of, especially warrantless wiretapping, monitoring of activists, the Real ID Act and the death penalty; and no more funding of faith-based initiatives.

Regarding youth, so much of the oppression of young people seems to take root in a local basis. But it would be fantastic if the next president could elevate the respect and the encouragement and nurturing of young people as individuals. That’s something that’s been trod upon, especially during the past eight years.

Emilio De Torre
Youth and Program Director
ACLU of Wisconsin

Invest in Research and Development

Right now my focus is often diverted away from technology because of the state of the nation. And I want to get back to technology. I want to get back to business. But the following items are important to me. They’re so important that I wouldn’t talk about technology with the president.

I would tell the president that I expect him to solve the following problems in a timely manner: 1. Get the nation’s economy back to the point where business can proceed without hindrance. 2. Create a long-term energy plan. Give plenty of incentives to companies and individuals who are leading the way in research and development in this area. 3. Find a health care solution that most Americans can live with. Examine what other countries have done and copy the ones that have gotten it right. 4. Figure out Social Security—either fix it or replace it with something that works. 5. Allow us to trust the government again. Do not create any scandals until you leave office.

Greg Ryan
Internet Consultant

Restore Creativity and Thoughtfulness in the Classroom

I would ask the next president to move away from the obsession of this administration with testing, especially in reading and math. We need to restore ways to promote creativity and thoughtfulness in our classrooms.

The national plan for testing is demoralizing to teachers and to students. It leads to miseducation. We need to give teachers opportunities to be great. We need to give them incentives that don’t depend on how many of their students pass a baseline test, but how many of them can excel.

The equity funding issue is very real, and federal mandates without adequate funding are even worse. The next president needs to look at how we can even out the funding. It affects everyone—the states, local schools, and urban and rural schools alike. It’s not that we don’t have funds. It’s the way we fund our schools that is unequal, and the national plan is not helpful.

Jean Fleet
Riverside University High School

Redirect Resources to Peacemaking

Mr. President: We now spend more on the military than all the rest of the world combined. Let me assure you that, when the other nations of the world see this, or when they see our 700 military bases around the world, they don’t perceive us as “defending democracy.” They see us instead as a threat to world peace. International polls show this. Our invasion of Iraq, a nation that posed no threat to us, would seem to confirm their fears. Excluding our “emergency spending” on the war, we now budget more than $15,000 a second on the military. Do you think you could convince the Pentagon to get by on, say, $10,000 a second? Think what the people’s economy could do with that money. Not to mention redirecting the expertise of our intellectual resources to the benefits of peacemaking.

Father G. Simon Harak, S.J.
Marquette University Center for Peacemaking

Patients Deserve Quality Care

We need to reform our health care system now. People are dying because we have a health care system that is so broken. We definitely want to see a health care system that covers everyone, and is affordable and allows health care workers to provide quality care with safe staffing and an end to forced overtime. The patients deserve quality care.

We’re going to have, in a very short period of time—two years—we’re going to have an enormous shortage of health care workers, especially of registered nurses and home health care workers. With the aging population, this will in all likelihood lead to a real health care crisis. We don’t have policies that help to recruit, educate and retain health care workers so that we can be prepared as the baby boomer generation begins to, in very large numbers, need greater and greater health care services.

And health care workers, like many workers, are being denied the right to form unions because our labor laws are so useless. So as nurses attempt to form unions, they face unfair discrimination and harassment. It’s wrong. And we want our pensions to be protected, too.

Candice Owley, R.N.
Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals

End Workplace Raids and Community Immigration Sweeps

Dear Mr. President: In the first 100 days, we urge you to draw a line between your leadership and the immigration legacy of your predecessor. A legacy marked by failure, the criminalization of working people, raids in workplaces when workers attempted to unionize, violations of civil rights and human rights, and the incarceration of children. A legacy that has promoted a vigilante culture as local and state governments have attempted to usurp the role of the federal government, greater discrimination and hate crimes, giveaway programs to private for-profit defense and detention companies, and a shameful modern-day Berlin Wall on our border.

One of your first priorities must be to call an immediate end to raids on workplaces and community immigration sweeps that have torn families apart through detention and deportation and an end to the Department of Homeland Security proposal to change the rules on the Social Security No-Match letters that threaten all workers.

The goal of reform has eluded two previous Congresses; it must not be failed by a third. This will require your strong leadership. We urge you to push for a bill that not only offers a fair and affordable path to citizenship for 12 million undocumented workers, but which also protects and enhances the labor rights of all workers. Guest worker programs, with their appalling record of abuse, have no place in such a reform—and will only result in a two-tier labor system. We must enforce labor protections for all workers, including wage, hour and health and safety rights.

Christine Neumann-Ortiz
Voces de la Frontera

Help Those with Mental Illness Lead Productive Lives

This is what I would tell our new president about people with mental illness: First and foremost, people with mental illnesses are human beings who happen to have a medical condition that affects the processes of the brain. They are our mothers, fathers, grandparents, children and our neighbors. With appropriate access to health care, people with mental illness live productive and meaningful lives. As with all people of the United States, people with mental illness need to have access to full health care coverage, including high-quality mental health services. All health insurance plans in the United States need to be required to cover mental health at the same level as all other medical conditions.

Peter Hoeffel
Executive Director
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Greater Milwaukee

Bring Equality to All Americans

Mr. President: High-priority issues are on your platter. None are more important or less expensively solved than bringing equality to all Americans.

Millions are leading a second-class existence because of ignorance, suspicion, fear and hatred. Prejudice and denial of equal rights are felt nationally. Laws of exclusion encourage discrimination, disrespect and violence.

During World War II, my beloved spouse Richard Taylor served on a tanker. After 50 years of love, we were married in his hospital room two months before he died. Richard voluntarily put himself into harm’s way, but he was not equal enough for a marriage recognized by the nation he served.

LGBT youth must hide their nature or suffer awful consequences. Discrimination throughout society forces LGBTs to lead secret lives.

All minorities, African Americans, Latinos and others, suffer dehumanizing discrimination and we must put an end to that. We need your leadership and actions to encourage us to listen to “the better angels of our nature” and achieve equality for all Americans.

Ray Vahey
Center Advocates

Urban Agriculture Will Build Communities

It is my deep hope that a Barack Obama victory would mean a governing coalition that realizes the profound possibilities of transforming our urban centers, especially if Michelle Obama were to step up and make “sun-based city farming” her No. 1 project as first lady. Were Michelle, Barack and family to visit Will Allen’s Growing Power in Milwaukee, they would realize that Obama’s model of “asset-based urban development” cries out for urban agriculture application: Garbage and urban waste streams become energy sources; vacant lots become community gardens and intensive family farms; unemployed young people and old people become food growers, processors, vendors and cooks; run-down old neighborhoods become green urban villages. I would also like to see Michelle work with Milwaukee veterans to make the Soldiers Home a major demonstration site for this project.

James Godsil
Apprentice Urban Farmer

Focus on Prevention

The health care system for urban populations needs to be addressed and we need to upfront money for prevention. That will save money in the long run. We spend so much money now, we have a sick care system, not a health care system. We need to move to a real health care system.

Patricia McManus, Ph.D.
President and CEO
Black Health Care Coalition

Make Food Policy a Priority

The needs of the poor should not be connected to agribusiness in a way that creates an unfair balance. The scale gets tipped because a lot of the policies favor wealthy Americans. We need food that is balanced and nutritious and accessible to poor people. We should use our buying power to create balance for the recipient, not the supplier. The wealthy will always be connected to agribusiness, but it shouldn’t be done in a way that is unfair.

Sherrie Tussler
Executive Director
Hunger Task Force

Wisconsin Can Contribute to Green Energy Solutions

We need the next president to set the nation on a course to a new energy future, no longer dependent on dirty, dangerous and foreign sources of energy. As we move down that path, I urge the next president to utilize all that Wisconsin has to offer: our manufacturing base, our hardworking farmers, our academic institutions. Wisconsin has the know-how and ability to set the nation’s energy future on course. Take advantage of the homegrown resources we have in Wisconsin and across the nation to lead the world in reducing global warming emissions while creating good, sustainable jobs.

Kerry Schumann
Executive Director
Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters

Live Up to American Ideals

We ask you to please make the United States the nation we all learned about in elementary school, the beacon of liberty and freedom for the rest of the world to emulate. We ask you, Mr. President, to lead our country to live up to the American ideals, the same ideals that have inspired generations at home and abroad.

At home, we ask you to build a society that is based on true fairness and opportunity so that everyone, no matter their background, who works hard and plays by the rules, can succeed. Abroad, we have recently tarnished our great reputation as we deviated from our founding ideals, and we ask you to rebuild our strength, not with guns and force but by showing the honorable and generous spirit of America through our deeds and our words.

The next president faces enormous challenges, but if he is an open and honest leader who acts on this nation’s guiding principles, looking out for the good of humankind and not the special interests of the wealthy few, he will not fail.

The Shepherd Express Editorial Board


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