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How a Crisis Can Unite Us in Divisive Times -- Sunday Political Brunch October 28, 2018

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THE WHITE HOUSE - This was an amazing, yet humbling week. I returned to the White House press room for the first time in almost 20 years. I spent a good chunk of time there in my six years in the Washington, DC press corps. I have a lot of thoughts and reflections on where we are as a nation – some good; some bad – so let’s “brunch” on that this week.

“Terror Again” – I was in the White House Old Executive Office Building Wednesday when word came of the pipe bomb mailings to former President Obama, and former President Bill Clinton, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. There were initial reports that another pipe bomb package was intercepted at the White House, but an hour later that was proved to be untrue. We were not evacuated during the warning. Business as usual at the White House went on. Still, it was jarring and jittering to our nerves.

“The Opioid Scourge” – I flew to Washington, DC for the signing of the massive, multi-billion-dollar bill aimed at stemming the nation’s opioid epidemic. Sadly, where I work in West Virginia, we have the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation. It is devastating. One of the people I interviewed at the White House was Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). At one point I asked, “Senator I’d like you to answer my questions as a mom and a grandmother, not as a U.S. Senator. “It is heartbreaking,” she said, talking about watching people walk through the streets of our capitol city of Charleston in a drug induced stupor. “I’ve had to talked with parents who’ve lost their children, asking me why?” Capito, an avid runner, also said she encountered numerous discarded drug needles on the streets during her workouts.

“My Observations” – Senator Capito’s reflections echo mine. I live near what is known as the West Side of Charleston, and it breaks my heart. It’s like that Netflix show, “The Walking Dead.” Addicts, high as a kite on opioids or methamphetamines, walking the streets like zombies. I don’t say that to be judgmental. I say it as a clarion call that something must get done. Whatever we are doing now – collectively – is not working. Will the new law help? Let’s discuss.

“It’s Everywhere” – The first thing I want to say is that I work in ground-zero of the epidemic. As mentioned, West Virginia has the sad distinction of having the highest overdose death-rate in the nation. It’s been that way for years. But we’re not alone. Yes, it’s bad in our state and the surrounding Appalachian states, but it’s also a crisis in most New England states, where I worked before moving here. I remember a small-town Texas Mayor dying in a Providence flop-house when I worked in Rhode Island. New Hampshire has been extremely hard hit. My brother Mike is an emergency room doctor in central Wisconsin, and he sees the opioid crisis daily, too.

“The Bill” – So what’s in it? This is a fascinating piece of bipartisan legislation. It was approved in the U.S. Senate 99 to 1. It was approved in the U.S. House 396 to 14. Rarely in my career have I seen such bipartisan agreement, so that may be promising. The traditional argument on this issue is, do we provide the focus on law enforcement, prevention, and, or rehabilitative treatment? The answer is a mix of all three, and the new law attempts just that. We are likely to see more drug trafficking interdictions, more school and community prevention efforts, but, more than anything, more long-term drug treatment.

“What Works?” – This is an issue near and dear to my family. My paternal grandfather, my dad, one of my brothers, and my uncle were, or are, all physicians. I’ve worked in law enforcement and then news. We have an interesting family perspective. I discussed this – and my family history – with Dr. Ben Carson this week at the White House. Dr. Carson – a neurosurgeon - is the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Trump administration. He told me long-term treatment in the bill will replace less effective short-term treatment. "We have a lot of programs for people who are drug addicted that last for 30 days or 60 days. That's not adequate because the changes that occur in the brain normally take somewhere between 12 and 18 months," said Dr. Carson.

“Being There” – As mentioned, this is a nationwide problem not easily fixed, but given that the absolute worst spot is West Virginia, I wondered about the strategy. We’ve had at least seven presidential visits; two by the Vice President; one by the first lady, and, by my count, at least four cabinet leaders. It’s unprecedented. So, will there be more visits to West Virginia and the surrounding Appalachian States, by President Trump? "It's one of the places where we've seen a real impact, and we certainly want to be able to address this. This is obviously a country-wide problem. But certainly, we've seen it be heavily hit in West Virginia, and we want to make sure we're doing everything we can," Sarah Sanders, the White House Press Secretary, told me.

“Cops Still Matter” – As this bill was drafted, there were fierce debates. Should the focus be on, a) law enforcement; b) prevention and education; or, c) treatment and rehabilitation? The best answer I get from advocates - and by the vote - is “all of the above!” At the White House I spoke with Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH), who said, “One of the things we've got to do is stem the flow of these drugs coming into the country, especially Fentanyl. And we know that Fentanyl is a killer. Just a trace of it that, they are putting in cocaine and heroin and marijuana - it's killing people."

“Why All of This Matters” – We are just over ten days until Election Day 2018. There is a lot of volatility in the electorate that could determine if Republicans or Democrats control one, or both, chambers of Congress. The national focus on the drug epidemic matters very much. Stay tuned!

Just click the comment button at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com to share your opinion.

© 2018 Mark Curtis Media, LLC

Mark Curtis Ed. D, is Chief Political Reporter for the five Nexstar TV stations serving West Virginia and the five surrounding states, plus the District of Columbia.

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Two Weeks to the Election Day Finish Line -- Sunday Political Brunch October 21, 2018

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. – As of Sunday, there are 16 days until Election Day. A lot can happen in two weeks, and nothing is certain at this point. We keep hearing Democrats claim a “blue wave” and Republicans predicting a “red wave.” Nothing is guaranteed. Much can change at the eleventh hour. Let’s “brunch” on that this week.

“My Advice” – I have probably mentioned from time to time here that in the years I wasn’t working as a journalist, I helped run two political campaigns. Here is some of my last-minute advice to any candidate. First, forget the polls and always run as if you are six points behind your opponent. Be the underdog; be the come from behind winner. Second, retail politics still matters. People are more likely to consider voting for you if you shake their hand, look them in the eye and say, “I’d be honored to have your vote!” When you are walking precincts and door-knocking in the final days and your feet are screaming in pain, my advice is to press on and walk and knock another hour. Push beyond the fatigue and pain. Grit and passion matters to voters.

“Divided Government Can Be Productive” – Last week in this column, I predicted Republicans would gain seats in the U.S. Senate, but that Democrats would barely take control of the U.S. House. Many people believe that guarantees gridlock, but I strongly disagree. One of the most productive eras in recent U.S. politics was in the 1995 – 1996 political cycle. Democrat Bill Clinton was President, but Republicans controlled both the House and Senate. Here are some of the things they accomplished together: a crime bill, welfare reform legislation, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and the first balanced federal budget in decades. Not bad!

“Midterm Low Voter Turnout” – Two things we know about midterm elections: the party in the White House usually loses seats in Congress, and voter turnout is traditionally much lower in non-presidential election years. Democrats will be challenged to turn out female voters angry at the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. The biggest Republican challenge will be to try to sell a list of Congressional accomplishments that critics call thin. The best GOP bragging point may be the tax cut’s impact on the economy, and relative peace overseas.

“Negative, Negative, Negative!” – Speaking of voter turnout, one thing that keeps it low is negative advertising. Here’s how it works. The campaigns and candidates bash each other for months with negative TV ads, basically suggesting the opponent is Satan’s child. Diehard voters in both parties will still turn out, but a lot of tepid voters will just toss up their arms in disgust saying, “Who cares? I’m staying home!” Study after study shows that negative ads suppress voter turnout.

“Turnout is Key” – As mentioned, midterms are not as attractive to voters. In 2016, 61 percent of eligible American voters cast ballots, as did a similar number in 2012. The all-time record was 2008, with 64 percent of registered adult American voters casting ballots. All three were presidential years. But in 2014 – the last midterm election – only 37 percent of Americans voted, the lowest number since World War II. Even 2010 was a low midterm year, with 42 percent of registered voters coming out.

“The Power of Incumbency” – You want to know why you always hear people clamor for term limits? Well it’s because incumbents on the ballot win 96 percent of the time. People may not like Congress as a whole, but they tend to like their individual guy or gal and keep sending them back. Why is this critical in 2016? Well, at least forty incumbent Republican House members chose not to seek reelection this year. By my math, 38 of those incumbents would have won and Republicans would easily hold control of the House. But forty retired, resigned or ran for other office and that’s why you have at least 30 of these races now ranked as “toss-ups” by Real Clear Politics, giving Democrats a shot at control.

“Why All of This Matters?” – By most accounts the margins are very, very close this year and control of the House and Senate hang in the balance. Turnout – especially of each party’s key constituencies – will be crucial and could be the deciding factor. Anyone can vent about President Trump or Rep. Nancy Pelosi, but unless you back that up with a ballot, it falls on deaf ears.

What are your thoughts in the waning days of Campaign 2018? Which way are you leaning? Just click the comment button at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.

Mark Curtis, Ed.D., is Chief Political Reporter for the five Nexstar Media TV stations serving West Virginia, the five neighboring states and the District of Columbia.

© 2018, Mark Curtis Media, LLC.

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