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Essential Politics: A divided GOP rallies around school reopenings. Will it slow Biden down? – Los Angeles Times



This is the Feb. 19, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

Closed school buildings have attracted a lot of Republican political hopes recently.

In California, Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego seeking a promotion to the governor’s office, posed in front of several school buildings as he launched his campaign, including a news conference in San Francisco this week at which he declared “it’s time for schools to be reopened, not renamed.”

Across the country, his counterpart Kirk Cox, the main establishment-backed Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, has made reopening schools his chief theme.

House Republican leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) jumped into the issue with a tweet after Democrats introduced immigration legislation backed by President Biden.

“Democrats have a plan to open America’s borders but not America’s schools,” he wrote.

That’s a very unified message for a party that’s been much divided of late. Republicans have found an issue on which they believe Biden and his fellow Democrats are vulnerable, and after weeks of being on the defensive, they’re seizing it.

There’s reason for skepticism about whether the theme will pay off to the degree the GOP hopes. But if large numbers of schools remain closed in September, it’s a good bet that Democrats will pay a price in races for governor in Virginia, New Jersey and California, assuming the effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom qualifies for the ballot.

GOP vs. teachers unions

As with most significant political issues, the fight over reopening schools has a substantive side and a political one.

On the merits, there’s little question that distance learning has hurt kids, especially ones from low-income families who already face big inequities in school. There’s also strong evidence, as Biden said in his CNN town hall on Tuesday, that schools, especially in early grades, are at low risk for COVID-19 transmission.

Those two facts provide a strong argument for getting students back in classrooms as quickly as possible. But low risk isn’t no risk. Weighing how much risk is acceptable — and to whom — is where the politics come in.

Many teachers worry about potential exposure, and teachers unions, reflecting those concerns, have resisted efforts in some cities and states to get students back into classrooms that the unions say aren’t yet safe.

In California, that’s one element in a standoff that has kept the vast majority of the state’s students out of classrooms. The issue appears to be coming to a head in the Legislature where lawmakers could vote as early as Monday on a $6.6-billion plan to start reopening campuses in April.

Critics, who include Republican elected officials, accuse the unions of dragging their feet and allowing exaggerated fears of contagion to outweigh the educational needs of children.

“It’s the teachers unions that want to keep the schools closed,” Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), who heads the House Republicans’ campaign operation, said in an interview on NBC. He accused Democrats of “standing with their special-interest donors instead of the students.”

Union officials adamantly deny that.

“No one wants to return to in-person education more than educators,” said Karen White, deputy executive director of the National Education Assn., the nation’s largest teachers union. But, she adds, if schools aren’t “enforcing basic mitigation” measures, including masking, distancing and improved ventilation, “those aren’t going to be safe schools.”

The best solution, she says, is for local districts to bring teachers in on the decision making about how to reopen and for states to give educators priority for vaccination. About half the states give them priority now, at least in part. Newsom has resisted doing so statewide, saying that with vaccines still scarce, guaranteeing a priority for teachers would push many elderly Californians too far back in line.

In both Washington and Sacramento, the fight has put Democratic chief executives in a tight spot, advocating for reopening schools, but not wanting to get crosswise with the unions, which have long been a major Democratic ally. Newsom, for example, will need help from teachers unions to hold on to his job if the recall qualifies, as most political observers think it will.

The issue “is a godsend for California Republicans,” said GOP strategist Rob Stutzman. Rather than being forced to talk about former President Trump, candidates like Faulconer “are able to talk about opening schools and the fundamental services that government is supposed to provide.”

In Washington, a poll this week by Morning Consult found Biden getting 60% approval nationwide for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, but on handling schools his approval dropped to 48%, with 32% disapproving.

The question is how lasting that political dynamic will be.

This isn’t the first time Republicans have waded into a fight with teachers unions hoping for a political payoff. In the 1990s and 2000s, the party invested heavily in promoting voucher programs that would have allowed parents to use tax money to pay for private schools. Then, as now, party strategists believed the issue would widen their appeal with voters and deal a blow to a big Democratic interest group.

The strategy never really worked. In California, advocates of vouchers lost two heavily financed ballot campaigns. Suburban voters turned out to mostly like their public schools as is, while urban parents, who had reason to be angry about conditions in their schools, didn’t trust Republicans.

The same dynamic may apply in this case.

In the Morning Consult poll, a majority of voters, 55%-34%, said states should “wait to reopen schools until teachers have received the vaccine.” That sentiment was especially strong among Black and Latino voters and those living in cities. The poll also found that 54% of voters said they trusted local teachers unions to decide on school reopenings, the same share who said they trusted local school boards.

“Voters really trust educators,” White said.

Time, however, could erode that trust. A lot depends on how much longer campuses remain closed.

Having millions of children stuck at home has contributed heavily to the massive disruption the pandemic has caused. To date, most parents have put up with it as a painful necessity. As the nation moves into a second spring of closed classrooms, however, patience has begun to wear thin.

So far, Biden doesn’t entirely own those closures; he can point to them as part of what he inherited from his predecessor. White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain crystallized that point in a message Thursday on Twitter:

“Schools closed under President Trump, and they will reopen under President Biden,” he wrote.

On this issue, as on nearly everything else for Biden, success will depend on whether he can get COVID under control before the public’s attribution of blame shifts.

Generations in contrast

Rep. Joe Neguse, the Democrats’ youngest impeachment manager, has emerged as next-generation star, Eli Stokols wrote. The Colorado congressman, 36, won rave reviews for his presentations during Trump’s impeachment trial and has quickly become a symbol of the Democrats’ new, more diverse younger cohort of leaders.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, perhaps unfairly, has become a symbol of the unwillingness of the older generation to leave center stage.

As Mark Barabak wrote, the senator, 87, has persevered through personal and communal tragedies to compile a remarkable public career. But that perseverance may have caused her to hang on to office too long. She’s had to pass up the committee chairmanship to which her seniority in the Senate normally would have entitled her, and for the first time since she won her seat, a plurality of the state’s voters now have a negative view of her.

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Biden moves on immigration, clashes on student loans

Congressional Democrats this week unveiled a broad immigration reform bill that includes a path to citizenship for 11 million current undocumented residents. But, as Molly O’Toole wrote, the bill is just the first step in a long process.

White House officials described the bill as embodying Biden’s “vision” of what a reformed immigration system would look like — one that would significantly expand opportunities for legal immigration and devote considerable resources to combatting corruption and violence in Central America that Biden sees as the root cause of many illegal border crossings.

The key issue for Democrats will be whether any Senate Republicans will sign on to that vision. If not, Democrats will have to choose whether to try to push through a comprehensive bill on a party-line vote or go for passage of narrower bills that would deal with individual immigration issues, such as the status of so-called Dreamers.

More immediately, the administration this week ordered U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to focus arrests and removals on security threats. The new directive says that arrests and detentions of people who fall outside clearly defined categories of security or public safety risks will require approval of a supervisor. The new rules could face resistance from front-line ICE officers, but if they’re strictly enforced, they will result in a big decline in the number of immigrants detained.

Those immigration moves pleased many progressive Democrats. At the same time, though, Biden and progressives clashed over the minimum wage and student loans, Jennifer Haberkorn reported.

Biden continued to signal that he doesn’t expect the current $15-an-hour minimum wage proposal to survive as part of his COVID relief bill. And in his CNN town hall, he repeated his opposition to an across-the-board effort to forgive up to $50,000 in student loans.

As those issues unfolded, the administration is claiming progress in the vaccination drive, Chris Megerian wrote. The daily rate of shots has roughly doubled since Biden took office.

Megerian also looked at the administration’s efforts to reenter the global debate over access to COVID-19 vaccines for the world’s poorest countries.

The effort to combat the pandemic is also helping Biden make the case for his broader economic agenda, columnist Doyle McManus wrote.

Foreign policy moves in the Mideast

The administration has taken its first steps to reopen negotiations with Iran over reviving the nuclear deal that the Obama administration negotiated and Trump tried to scuttle. As Tracy Wilkinson wrote, Biden has agreed to a round of talks hosted by the European Union.

That move came shortly after Biden ended his four-week snub of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, making a phone call in which the two leaders discussed Iran, as well as other issues.

Netanyahu had allied himself closely to Trump, who eagerly backed hardline Israeli policies. Biden plans to steer the relationship back toward a more even-handed approach between Israel and the Palestinians Arabs, Wilkinson wrote.

Trump resurfaces, unchastened

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) put out a notable statement this week explaining his vote to convict Trump in his second Senate trial.

“There is one untruth that divides the nation today like none other: it is that the election was stolen,” Romney wrote.

“That lie brought our nation to a dark and dangerous place. Invented and disseminated by the President, it poisoned our politics and our public discourse.”

As Megerian wrote, Trump hasn’t stopped the lie. Indeed, in his first appearances back on conservative media since the Senate vote, he reveled in it.

“It was a stolen, fixed, rigged election,” he told Newsmax.

“The tabulation wasn’t exactly good,” he said to One America News Network.

And Trump’s conduct continues to divide the GOP.

California Republican convention delegates are seeking to censure Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford) for voting to impeach Trump, Seema Mehta wrote. For Valadao, whose district Biden carried in 2020, a censure vote might be a plus.

The Harris beat

Vice President Kamala Harris is returning home to Los Angeles for first time since the inauguration — a weekend trip to pack up belongings and take care of personal business, Noah Bierman reported.

Harris has the unfortunate distinction of being the most targeted American politician on the internet, according to new research that Bierman reported. Female political figures are more likely to be targets than men, people of color get more harassment than white politicians and Democrats receive more than Republicans. Harris hits the trifecta.

A great weekend read

The federal bureaucracy isn’t exactly known as a haven for good writing. But, as Evan Halper wrote, the government has a small but determined corps of word cops who aim to keep language clear and simple. Check it out.

Stay in touch

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Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration on our Politics page and on Twitter at @latimespolitics.

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How rape allegations have rocked Australian politics – BBC News




Just a fortnight ago, Australia was shocked by a former political adviser’s allegations that she had been raped in the nation’s Parliament House.

Brittany Higgins said she’d been attacked by a male colleague – also an adviser for the ruling Liberal Party – in a government minister’s office in 2019.

Her story has triggered a flood of other women to come forward with their own experiences of alleged sexual assault and harassment in Australian politics.

The most explosive of these – a 1988 rape allegation – now hangs over an unidentified cabinet minister. The minister denies rape, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday.

A rape accusation against an opposition MP has also been referred to police.

As the allegations pile up, Mr Morrison’s government in particular is facing a public clamour for answers. Here’s how events have unfolded so far.

Brittany Higgins speaks out

Ms Higgins said she was 24 and weeks into a new “dream job” when she was taken to parliament by a senior colleague after a night out in March 2019.

Heavily drunk, she had fallen asleep in the minister’s office before waking, she said, to find the man sexually assaulting her.

The man was sacked in the days following, not for the alleged assault but for breaching office security with the late-night visit.

Meanwhile Ms Higgins told her boss – then Defence Industry Minister Linda Reynolds – that she had been sexually assaulted. The meeting occurred in the same room where Ms Higgins alleged the attack took place.

Ms Reynolds has said she offered support to her aide to go to the police. Ms Higgins said she felt pressure that doing so would lead to her losing her job.

Brittany Higgins


Ms Higgins said she had since felt “silenced” by the Liberal Party, but decided to speak out after seeing a photo of Mr Morrison in January which showed him celebrating the activism of a sexual assault survivor.

“He’s standing next to a woman who has campaigned [for survivors’ rights]… and yet in my mind his government was complicit in silencing me. It was a betrayal. It was a lie,” she told

PM criticised for response

A day after Ms Higgins came forward, Mr Morrison apologised for the way her complaint had been treated by the government two years ago. He also promised inquiries into parliament’s work culture and support for political staff.

However, he sparked a public backlash when he appeared to suggest that he’d understood Ms Higgins’ experience better after his wife urged him to think of his two daughters.

“She said to me: ‘You have to think about this as a father. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?'” he told reporters.

Women in particular condemned Mr Morrison’s framing of the issue. Did he need to think of Ms Higgins as someone’s daughter, they asked, before he could empathise or take her account seriously?

Critics also used the comment to argue that Mr Morrison wasn’t tackling the issue seriously enough.

Ms Higgins, pictured here with Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a party fundraiser


Mr Morrison and his ministers were also accused of skirting questions about who within the government knew what and when, and why they didn’t do more.

It has since emerged that several people in Parliament House – including at least three cabinet ministers – knew about the alleged crime.

Mr Morrison maintains he found out about the allegation at the same time as the rest of the nation.

But when he disputed a suggestion by Ms Higgins that one of his advisers had been “checking up” on her – doubting her recollection in that instance – she said: “The continued victim-blaming rhetoric by the prime minister is very distressing to me and countless other survivors.”

Other women come forward

Since Ms Higgins’ spoke out, four other women have come forward to local media to accuse the same man of sexual assault or harassment.

One woman said she’d been raped by the man in 2020 after drinks and dinner with him. “If this had been properly dealt with by the government in 2019 this would not have happened to me,” she told The Australian.

Another woman, an election volunteer, said she was also raped by the man after a night out in 2017.

A third woman said the man had stroked her thigh during a group dinner with colleagues in 2017. She made a report to police after seeing Ms Higgins speak out, the ABC reported.

Last Wednesday, a fourth woman told she had felt pressured by the man to have sex in 2014.

Then late last week, amid suggestions that some lawmakers had been reticent to report Ms Higgins’ allegations earlier, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) issued a statement to lawmakers. It reminded them to report any criminal allegations they had come across.

Cabinet minister accused of rape

On Friday, two opposition lawmakers – Labor Senator Penny Wong and Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young – referred a letter they had received to the AFP.

It alleged that a man who was now a cabinet minister had raped a 16-year-old girl in 1988.

The identity of the minister and the alleged victim have not been reported by Australian media. The woman took her own life last June, aged 49.

Earlier last year, the woman reported the allegation to New South Wales Police, but an investigation was suspended after she died.

Last week, friends of the woman wrote a letter to Mr Morrison and other lawmakers, urging him to establish an independent investigation.

Mr Morrison has declined to do so, insisting that the matter is one for police.

“The individual involved here has vigorously rejected these allegations,” he told reporters on Monday.

“And so, it’s a matter for the police,” he said, adding that “there was nothing immediate considered that was necessary for me to take any action on”.

Scott Morrison in parliament

Getty Images

But the letter argues that because the alleged victim is dead, police are unlikely to pursue their own investigation because such cases typically require testimony from a complainant.

“Failure to take parliamentary action because the New South Wales Police cannot take criminal action would feel like a wilful blindness,” the letter said.

On Sunday, a government lawmaker referred a rape allegation against a Labor MP to police. No further information about that allegation is yet known.

Public pressure

The allegations of the past fortnight have reignited wider questions about Australian political culture, including long-held debates about sexism and misogyny.

One of the women who alleges she was raped by the political adviser said she had come forward, in part, to “help shine a light on this awful culture”.

Last week, Mr Morrison said: “I think we’ve got a problem in the parliament and the workplace culture that we have to work on.”

But calls for more action from the government continue to grow.

Critics argue, for instance, that a cabinet minister accused of a serious crime should be stood aside pending an investigation – a suggestion the government has rejected.

Meanwhile, Ms Higgins says she has now filed a police complaint and is “determined to drive significant reform” in how parliament handles cases such as hers.

“I believe that getting to the bottom of what happened to me and how the system failed me is critical to creating a new framework,” she said.

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Armenia's political tensions rise amid rival rallies – CTV News



Political tensions in Armenia heightened Monday, with supporters of the embattled prime minister and the opposition each holding massive rallies at separate sites in the capital.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has faced opposition demands to resign since he signed a peace deal in November that ended six weeks of intense fighting with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The Russia-brokered agreement saw Azerbaijan reclaim control over large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas that had been held by Armenian forces for more than a quarter-century.

Opposition protests seeking Pashinyan’s ouster abated during the winter but intensified last week amid a rift between him and the country’s military leaders.

The spat was sparked by Pashinyan firing a deputy chief of the military’s General Staff who had laughed off the prime minister’s claim that only 10% of Russia-supplied Iskander missiles that Armenia used in the conflict exploded on impact.

The General Staff then demanded Pashinyan’s resignation, and he responded by dismissing the General Staff chief, Col. Gen. Onik Gasparyan. The dismissal has yet to be approved by Armenia’s largely ceremonial president, Armen Sarkissian, who sent it back to Pashinyan, saying the move was unconstitutional.

Pashinyan quickly resubmitted the demand for the general’s ouster, and the prime minister’s allies warned that the president could be impeached if he fails to endorse the move.

Sarkissian’s office responded with a strongly worded statement condemning “inadmissible speculation” about his move and emphasizing that his decision was “unbiased and driven exclusively by national interests.”

Addressing a rally of thousands of his supporters, Pashinyan voiced hope the president would endorse the dismissal of the General Staff’s chief for meddling in politics.

He blamed the country’s former leader who lost power in the 2018 “velvet revolution” for influencing the military brass and trying to “set the army against the legitimately elected authorities and the people.”

The prime minister also suggested calling a constitutional referendum in October to ask voters about expanding presidential powers to avoid future crises, although he didn’t spell out specific changes.

After an hour-long speech, Pashinyan led his supporters on a march across Yerevan under the heavy escort of police and security officers.

Amid the escalating tensions earlier in the day, a group of protesters broke into a government building in central Yerevan to press for Pashinyan’s resignation, but they left shortly afterward without violence. Later, thousands of opposition supporters attended a demonstration demanding that the prime minister resign.

Pashinyan, a 45-year-old former journalist who came to power after leading large street protests in 2018 that ousted his predecessor, still enjoys broad support despite the country’s humiliating defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh and the opposition calls for his resignation.

The prime minister has defended the peace deal as a painful but necessary move to prevent Azerbaijan from overrunning the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region, which lies within Azerbaijan but was under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a separatist war there ended in 1994. The fighting with Azerbaijan that erupted in late September and lasted 44 days has left more than 6,000 people dead. Russia has deployed about 2,000 peacekeepers to monitor the Nov. 10 peace deal.

Armenia has relied on Moscow’s financial and military support and hosts a Russian military base — ties that will keep the two nations closely allied regardless of the outcome of the political infighting.

Last week, the Russian Defence Ministry rebuked the Armenian leader for criticism of the Iskander missile, a state-of-the-art weapon touted by the military for its accuracy. The Russian military said it was “bewildered” to hear Pashinyan’s claim because Armenia hadn’t used an Iskander missile in the conflict.

In a bid to repair the damage to Armenia’s ties with Moscow, Pashinyan rescinded his claim Monday, acknowledging that he made the statement after being misled.

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China says Taiwan pineapple ban not about politics as war of words escalates –



BEIJING (Reuters) – China on Monday denied accusations by Taiwan that a ban on pineapples from the island was about politics, saying it was purely a matter of biosecurity, in an escalating war of words that has added to existing tensions.

China announced the ban last week, citing “harmful creatures” it said could come with the fruit, threatening China’s own agriculture.

Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory, says there is nothing wrong with its pineapples and that Beijing is using the fruit as another way to coerce the island.

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said the decision was “totally rational and necessary” and that customs had a responsibility to prevent diseases carried by plants from entering the country.

“The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) authorities have deliberately misrepresented and maliciously interpreted technical issues, taking the opportunity to attack and discredit the mainland,” it said, referring to Taiwan’s ruling party.

The DPP has neither the will nor the ability to solve practical problems, and they can only evade their own responsibility by “slandering the mainland”, it added.

While Taiwan is best known internationally for exporting semiconductors, the sub-tropical island has a thriving fruit industry developed when it was a Japanese colony, and last year more than 90% of its exported pineapples went to China.

Politicians have rallied behind pineapple farmers, posting pictures of themselves in fields with farmers and tucking into the fruit on their social media pages, encouraging domestic consumers to pick up the slack.

The government has also been asking Taiwanese companies to make bulk purchases, and looking for alternative export markets.

President Tsai Ing-wen on Sunday visited a pineapple farm in southern Taiwan, where the bulk of the fruit is grown and where the DPP traditionally enjoys strong support.

China has ramped up pressure to get Taiwan to accept Chinese sovereignty, including regularly flying fighter jets and bombers near Taiwan or into its air defence identification zone.

(Reporting by Beijing newsroom; Writing and additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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