Bernie Sanders Inspired This Progressive To Challenge A Democratic Incumbent

The Working Families Party is hoping the connection will help a House candidate defy the odds next Tuesday.

05/10/2016 04:38 pm ET

A progressive House candidate is tying himself as closely to Bernie Sanders as possible in the hopes that it will help him pull off a major upset against a relatively conservative Democratic incumbent in Oregon next Tuesday, foreshadowing a way in which the independent Vermont senator’s political revolution may continue after the presidential primary has concluded.

Dave McTeague served as a state representative in Oregon’s legislature before working as the executive director of the state’s chiropractic examiners board. He’s challenging Rep. Kurt Schrader, who is serving his fourth term as the representative for Oregon’s 5th district. Schrader is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition for conservative Democrats and has one of the most conservative voting records for a Democrat in the House. As a superdelegate, Schrader is backing Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at the party’s convention this summer.

McTeague has said he entered the race for Schrader’s seat because he was inspired by Sanders, who has engaged millions of supporters across the country. Schrader voted last summer to give President Barack Obama Trade Promotion Authority, otherwise known as fast-track approval, to negotiate international trade deals, and it’s one the main issues McTeague is now running on. Schrader called AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka a “bully” because of the labor organization’s threat that it would withhold campaign donations to Democrats over the fast-track legislation.

“These days a lot of voters, Democratic voters too, don’t feel represented by the Washington Establishment and want real change,” McTeague said in a statementannouncing his candidacy. “This is evident in the success of Sen. Sander’s insurgent presidential campaign, which I strongly support … I don’t have any illusions about this effort. Running against an entrenched incumbent is like taking on the Death Star in Star Wars especially one with access to a million or more dollars of PAC money.”

McTeague has some well-organized help behind him. The Working Families Party (WFP), a political group that campaigns for progressive candidates and policies, has sent two different Sanders-themed mailers to roughly 20,000 households in the district in support of McTeague. (The WFP, which has chapters in a dozen states,endorsed Sanders in December, which was its first national endorsement.)

A section of one of the mailers the Working Families Party is sending to voters in Oregon’s 5th District on McTeague’s behalf.

Another section of the WFP’s mailer.

“Progressive voters in Oregon are lucky to have a choice on the ballot who will bring the fight for Bernie’s political revolution to Congress,” said Dan Cantor, the WFP’s national director. “It takes courage to stand up against a well-funded and powerful incumbent, and Dave McTeague is someone who has always shown that kind of courage. From his time as a state legislator standing up to insurance companies and polluters to his opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership to his bold endorsement of Bernie Sanders, McTeague has distinguished himself as a true champion for our values.”

The WFP has also put up digital advertisements aimed at Sanders supporters and is hosting phone banks for the candidate.

While McTeague may have only the slightest chance of defeating Schrader — he got into the race only a week before the filing deadline and has raised only a fraction of what Schrader has raised — the contest between the two Democrats is an illustration of the sorts of races that may happen more frequently. Law professor Tim Canova’s race is another example; he has has garnered media attention in his bid to unseat Democratic National Committee Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz in Florida.

The Florida race has drawn attention in part because Wasserman Schultz is of the country’s highest-profile Democrats. But Sanders’ record-breaking fundraising and strong challenge to Clinton may embolden more progressives to run against incumbents in future election cycles, with the recognition that progressive Democrats need to focus more on down-ballot races. Unlike Republicans, Democrats rarely challenge sitting Democrats. A congressional primary candidate hasn’t defeated an incumbent in Oregon in 36 years.

The WFP hopes that Sanders’ likely primary win in Oregon against Clinton on May 17 will boost McTeague. But even if he loses, the group wants Democratic incumbents like Schrader to think twice about voting for bills like fast-track, which progressive groups and labor unions abhor.

Justices, Seeking Compromise, Return Contraception Case to Lower Courts

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, in an unsigned unanimous opinion, announced on Monday that it would not rule in a major case on access to contraception, instructing lower courts to explore whether a compromise was possible.

The ruling was the latest indication that the eight-member Supreme Court is exploring every avenue to avoid 4-to-4 deadlocks, even if the resulting action avoids deciding the question it had agreed to address.

The case, Zubik v. Burwell, No. 14-1418, was brought by religious groups that object to providing insurance coverage for contraception to their female workers.

Less than a week after the case was argued in March, the court issued an unusual unsigned order asking the parties to submit supplemental briefs on a possible compromise. In Monday’s ruling, the court said those briefs suggested that a compromise was possible, but that it should be forged in the lower courts.

“Given the gravity of the dispute and the substantial clarification and refinement in the positions of the parties, the parties on remand should be afforded an opportunity to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates petitioners’ religious exercise while at the same time ensuring that women covered by petitioners’ health plans receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage,’” the court said, quoting from a brief filed by the government.

The Supreme Court urged the lower courts to “allow the parties sufficient time to resolve any outstanding issues between them.”

The justices stressed that they were deciding nothing.

“The court expresses no view on the merits of the cases,” the opinion said. “In particular, the court does not decide whether petitioners’ religious exercise has been substantially burdened, whether the government has a compelling interest, or whether the current regulations are the least restrictive means of serving that interest.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a concurrence, which was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, underscoring the limited nature of the court’s action and cautioning lower courts not to read anything into it.

“Today’s opinion does only what it says it does: ‘affords an opportunity’ for the parties and courts of appeals to reconsider the parties’ arguments in light of petitioners’ new articulation of their religious objection and the government’s clarification about what the existing regulations accomplish, how they might be amended, and what such an amendment would sacrifice,” she wrote. “As enlightened by the parties’ new submissions, the courts of appeals remain free to reach the same conclusion or a different one on each of the questions presented by these cases.”

The case was the court’s second encounter with the contraception requirement and the fourth time it has considered an aspect of President Obama’s health care law, the Affordable Care Act. It built on one from 2014, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, which said a regulation requiring family-owned corporations to pay for insurance coverage for contraception violated a federal law protecting religious liberty. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority, said there was a better alternative, one the government had offered to nonprofit groups with religious objections.

That alternative, or accommodation, was at issue in the new case. It allowed nonprofit groups like schools and hospitals that were affiliated with religious organizations not to pay for coverage and to avoid fines if they informed their insurers, plan administrators or the government that they sought an exemption.

Many religious groups around the nation challenged the accommodation, saying that objecting and providing the required information would make them complicit in conduct that violates their faith.

The groups added that they should be entitled to the outright exemption offered to houses of worship like churches, temples and mosques. Houses of worship are not subject to the coverage requirement at all and do not have to file any paperwork if they choose not to provide contraception coverage.

At arguments in March, several justices indicated that they thought the accommodation violated the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act because it allowed the government to “hijack” the insurance plans of the religious groups that are the petitioners in the case.

Days later, the court called for more briefs in an order that asked the parties to “address whether and how contraceptive coverage may be obtained by petitioners’ employees through petitioners’ insurance companies, but in a way that does not require any involvement of petitioners beyond their own decision to provide health insurance without contraceptive coverage to their employees.”

The order sketched out how this might work, asking the two sides to address whether it would be acceptable for the groups to do no more than to buy insurance plans for their workers that do not include contraception coverage.

On Monday, the court said the unusual tactic had worked and that both sides “now confirm that such an option is feasible.”

The religious groups, the court said, quoting their brief, “have clarified that their religious exercise is not infringed where they ‘need to do nothing more than contract for a plan that does not include coverage for some or all forms of contraception,’ even if their employees receive cost-free contraceptive coverage from the same insurance company.”

“The government,” the court continued, “has confirmed that the challenged procedures for employers with insured plans could be modified to operate in the manner posited in the court’s order while still ensuring that the affected women receive contraceptive coverage seamlessly, together with the rest of their health coverage.’”

Most federal appeals courts have ruled for the government in challenges to the accommodation.

Among the religious groups challenging the accommodation are an order of nuns based in Baltimore called the Little Sisters of the Poor, which operates nursing homes around the country. The nuns object to playing any role in providing any of the forms of contraception approved for women by the Food and Drug Administration.

Other challengers only object to covering intrauterine devices and so-called morning-after pills, saying they are akin to abortion. Many scientists disagree.

The religious groups sued under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which says that government requirements placing a substantial burden on religious practices are subject to an exceptionally demanding form of judicial scrutiny.

The two sides differed about whether the accommodation was such a burden. The religious groups said that adhering to their faith would subject them to crushing fines in the tens of millions of dollars.

“The government wants petitioners to do precisely what their sincere religious beliefs forbid — and it is threatening them with draconian penalties unless they do so,” Paul D. Clement, a lawyer for several religious groups, told the justices in a brief.

Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., in a brief for the Obama administration, said, “We do not question the sincerity or importance of petitioners’ religious beliefs.” But, he added, “a sincere objection to opting out of a legal requirement based on the knowledge that the government will then arrange for others to fulfill the requirement does not establish a substantial burden.”


A Republican Congresswoman Has Personal Stake in Transgender Debate

His shocked parents, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican, and Dexter Lehtinen, who served as the top federal prosecutor here, did not hesitate. They grabbed the phone and told him that they loved him and that family trumped all, and asked him to come home. But as with many parents of transgender children, they were also overwhelmed by fear: The future they saw for their then 21-year-old, whom they had named Amanda, would be pockmarked with discrimination and bullying, if not outright violence.

It was this visceral reaction to want to protect her child that drove Ms. Ros-Lehtinen to break from her party’s skepticism or hostility on gay and transgender issues — a stance evident now in North Carolina’sbattle over transgender bathroom visits — and become a conspicuous advocate in Congress and more recently in public service announcements. On Monday, Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, her husband and her son, now 30, will appear in the latest one for SAVE, a longtime South Florida gay rights group that hopes to engage the Latino community here.

“I worried about his safety and about his well-being,” Ms. Ros-Lehtinen said, noting that inflammatory debates like the one about school bathrooms serve to further alienate transgender youths and subject them to more bullying and animosity. “I didn’t want him to be depressed. You think of all the parade of horribles that could happen.”

There is ample evidence that many transgender people continue to be rejected by their families, employers and society, a situation that is beginning to change as the transgender movement becomes more visible and better organized. And while the congresswoman profoundly disagrees with President Obama on a number of issues, especially on his approach to Cuba, she agreed with his administration’s directive Friday telling school districts to allow students to use the school facilities that match the sex they identify with, even if that conflicts with their anatomical sex.

“Allowing students to use the bathroom of their authentic selves is a step forward in stopping the stigma around transgender individuals,” said Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, 63, the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress. “Unnecessary laws only make transgender youth feel unaccepted, and can lead to depression or even worse, suicide.”

Her husband, a lawyer who as a United States attorney here supervised the prosecution of the Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega and now teaches constitutional law at the University of Miami, said the administration had sent a strong message. But he questioned the method, worrying that the president’s unilateral approach might undercut the protections he is offering.

“It’s important that in this slow but necessary recognition of equality that we do it on a sound legal basis, because law and process carry great weight with the American people,” Mr. Lehtinen said. “It legitimizes what we are trying to do.”

As for the Republican Party, Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, who has served in the House for more than 25 years, said it would come along as more Americans shared stories of how discrimination can harm the lives of gay and transgender people.

“The Republican Party’s stance on the issue is lagging behind,” she added. “But folks are figuring out that there is no political harm in embracing these issues and, in fact, they see a lot of good can come out of it.”

For her family, the journey that began with Rodrigo’s letter in 2007 unfolded over five years. Rejecting their child, who had just graduated from Brown University, was unthinkable. Even so, getting entirely comfortable with the idea of a daughter who had become a son, a sister who had become a brother, was not altogether easy for the family and required adjustments, particularly outside the home.


Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, a transgender activist and Representative Ros-Lehtinen’s son, in New York. Credit Jake Naughton for The New York Times

“It was an evolving conversation for the next five years,” said Mr. Heng-Lehtinen, who will soon move back to Miami from Los Angeles, where he works as a fund-raiser for a gay, lesbian and transgender rights group. “Nobody expects their child to be transgender. It’s a big shift, and we often want to go back to our normal lives.”

Although he had come out as bisexual as Amanda in high school, he said he knew so little about transgender people that he did not see it in himself until he got to Brown. He trod slowly, first by wearing men’s clothing and asking friends to call him Rodrigo.

“I didn’t know how comfortable a person could feel until I had tried on men’s clothes,” said Mr. Heng-Lehtinen, who goes by Rigo, adding that he had long grown accustomed to feeling depressed or anxious. “A fog lifted.”

When the moment came to tell his family, he had no reason to think they would lash out, but he still imagined the worst. “I am about to lose everyone I love,” he told himself.

He also feared that he would hurt his mother’s political career, a possibility that did not worry Ms. Ros-Lehtinen.

A turning point came when he told his 86-year-old abuelo in 2010. “We were terrified to tell him,” Mr. Heng-Lehtinen said. Instead of becoming angry, his grandfather shrugged. At his age, he said, nothing was more important than the happiness of his grandchild.

“It was an incredibly simple and loving response,” Mr. Heng-Lehtinen added.

As time went on, he began taking testosterone, and now sports a beard. Last year, he married a man, adding Heng to his name.

His father, who was badly wounded in the face in Vietnam as an Army Ranger (and still bears the scar), said one way to generate empathy is to help people understand that sexual and gender orientation do not define a person’s character — but their work ethic, their honesty, their grit.

“I don’t mean it’s not important to the individual; it’s that it should not be important to us which choice they make,” Mr. Lehtinen said. “They are the same person. It’s sometimes difficult for me to understand why anybody would think that their fundamental character would change because of their sexual orientation.”

Their son, Mr. Lehtinen added, has never been happier. As for the family, the new normal is exactly that — normal.

This is exactly the message the Lehtinens hope to convey to Latinos as they sit around their kitchen table drinking coffee in the SAVE public service announcement, which will air on Spanish-language networks. Many Latinos are perceived as more traditional and more reluctant to embrace sexual diversity. Gay, lesbian and transgender issues were mostly taboo until recently, which meant that there was scarce media attention on the issue.

Polling by the local management consultant firm Bendixen & Amandi, which has surveyed people on these issues for years and was commissioned by SAVE, showed that the way to connect with Latinos was to present a parent talking about the importance of family. This was an easy fit for the Lehtinens, who embraced that message from the start and whose prominence here gave it extra weight.

“Every transgender person is a part of someone’s family and should be treated with compassion and protected from discrimination,” Ms. Ros-Lehtinen said in the video.