The 2019 Grinches: Enablers edition
The Grinch’s little helpers include Trump’s enablers, K.J.’s apologists and PG&E for blaming its blackouts on the wind
No one likes to think of themselves as the bad guy.
Well, maybe Tony Montana, but what are you gonna do with a nickname like “Scarface”? Guy was just destined to die in a coke-fueled cartel shootout.
The point is we’re all predisposed to see ourselves in the most sympathetic light. The problem with this mindset—especially in 2019, where our tribal bubbles fortified their walls—is that it can lead to a condition we’re calling Reflective Douchebag Blindness.
As in, sometimes we’re not willing to admit that the person in the mirror isn’t so hot. If many of this year’s Grinches share a common theme, it’s a lack of self-reflection mixed with a surplus of self-justification. They aided, abetted and enabled bad behavior while working backward from the conclusion that their side was right.
And we need to try harder than ever to not take after them. It’s going to be tough.
We live in a point-based society where scoring savage burns on social media is rewarded with digital hamster pellets, where being loud and outraged are valued more than being nuanced and reflective, where it no longer feels safe to show humility or vulnerability. But that kind of hardness isn’t strength. And it won’t take us anywhere we want to go.
If we give ourselves permission to surrender our principles because “they” did it first, to fight dirty because that’s how “they” fight, to lie in service of a greater truth because “they” traffic in dishonesty, if we believe that the ends justify the meanness, then the only thing separating us from these oppressors is power.
And when victory finally comes, try looking yourself in the mirror then. (RFH)
The ugliest American
It’s been a breakout year for senior White House adviser Stephen Miller. After spending the first few years of the Trump presidency conniving to put little kids in cages, slender man emerged from his shadow realm and broke the internet with news he has a girlfriend! Oh to be a fly on the wall of Miller’s crypt before his prehensile tongue snaps out to release its Arby’s-scented neurotoxin!
But lest anyone wonders if Miller has a gentler side, the Southern Poverty Law Center unearthed a trove of Miller’s private emails to Breitbart editors revealing his enduring fascination with all things pro-whitey and anti-everyone else. If anyone is a walking advertisement against the asinine notion of “white supremacy,” it’s Miller. We all know President Donald Trump is a junk-food fiend. Now we know why: He contracted a sentient tapeworm named Stephen Miller. (RFH)
Mad cow puhleeze
During the impeachment hearings, a certain Central Valley congressman proved again that he’s a stooge for President Donald Trump. As the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes read statements to attack Democrats, create Republican talking points and echo discredited conspiracy theories.
In 2019, he also revealed himself to be an enemy of free speech.
He sued McClatchy for $150 million over a Fresno Bee story about his financial interest in a winery sued by an employee who alleged sexual harassment on a charity cruise. The congressman sued Esquire magazine for $75 million for reporting that his family moved its farm to Iowa. He filed a $435 million defamation suit against CNN for its report on an alleged meeting between Nunes and a former Ukranian prosecutor to dig up dirt on Joe Biden. Nunes even went to court to shut down a parody Twitter account, @DevinCow. With all these lawsuits, he may be defending his image. But is he actually representing his constituents? (F.R.)
Two sellouts named Sue
New laws to protect California renters from sky-high gouging and no-cause evictions didn’t go into effect until Nov. 1, allowing some Sacramento County landlords to jack up rents and throw people onto the streets right before the loophole closed. An emergency ordinance could have stopped the Scroogey conduct, but it needed a supermajority of county supervisors to pass. Cue the two Sues—Susan Peters and Sue Frost—who killed the ordinance right before the holidays and then sneaked out of board chambers while their constituents were reeling. When the vote went down, Frost revealed just how out of touch she was, telling struggling and stressed-out tenants, “You could be homeowners, too.” Sure they can, Sue, sure they can. (STA)
To curb homelessness, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg challenged each City Council member to pick a spot in their districts for a shelter. If you listened closely, you could hear the scuffing: That would be the sound of Angelique Ashby and Larry Carr dragging their feet. “I do not answer to the mayor,” Carr said at a local community meeting in August. “I answer to you and my job is to protect you and protect our kids.” While a new triage shelter in Meadowview was approved that same month (despite opposition from Carr), it doesn’t bode well that some local reps seem to have more excuses than solutions for our most vulnerable. A council member should represent everyone in their district, not just people who are afraid their neighborhood values will tank when a homeless shelter pops up in an empty lot. (R.M.)
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum
Remember when The Handmaid’s Tale seemed like a fictional dystopian nightmare instead of a clear and present danger? Since Trump’s election, emboldened radical conservatives have been working overtime to strip reproductive rights in a state-by-state showdown that will likely end up at the U.S. Supreme Court with a direct challenge of the landmark 1973 case, Roe v. Wade.
Among the most egregious, Alabama tried to ban most abortions. A judge blocked the bill in October, but that hasn’t stopped Republican lawmakers in other states from trying to force similar laws. In November, Ohio legislators introduced the most restrictive—and hands-down stupidest—bill yet. If passed as written, House Bill 413 would create a new felony: “abortion murder.” The law would make those “who purposely perform or have an abortion” guilty of a first- or second-degree violent felony and subject to life in prison. Now, for the stupid part: The bill would also require doctors to re-implant the fertilized egg back into a woman’s uterus if she suffers an ectopic pregnancy or else face criminal charges.
Uh, that’s not how pregnancy works.
Ohio’s bill likely won’t pass as written, but that’s not the point. Conservative lawmakers are so hell-bent on dismantling a woman’s bodily autonomy that it’s clear they’ll explore every possible option to put a red-hooded cloak in every closet. (R.L.)
Two pivotal cases on LGBTQ workplace rights were heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in October, including one where Aimee Stephens, a former funeral home employee, was fired after she announced she was transitioning. Attorney David Cole laid out a pretty simple opening argument: Firing someone for being transgender is discrimination.
Though Cole’s reasoning was solid, it didn’t take long for Chief Justice John Roberts to bring up the hot topic on everyone’s mind: bathrooms. Things took a turn when Justice Sonia Sotomayor raised her own concerns.
“Mr. Cole, let’s not avoid the difficult issue, OK?” she started. “You have a transgender person who rightly is identifying as a woman and wants to use the women’s [bathroom]. … But there are other women … who would feel intruded upon if someone who still had male characteristics walked into their bathroom. That’s why we have different bathrooms.”
In framing the discomfort of cisgender women as the most urgent question, Sotomayor led the court down a slippery slope of hypotheticals with no connection to Stephens’ actual case. Cole did his best to steer things back on track, but it’s troubling that the justices seemed more concerned with how upholding civil rights may or may not inconvenience cis-women who use closed-off stalls. (R.M.)
An American sexist story
Since rechristening himself “A. Justin Sterling” in 1979, the con artist formerly known as Arthur Kasarjian has built a multimillion-dollar business empire on shilling terrible advice and cringey gender stereotypes. Sterling does this through his word-of-mouth weekend seminars, where he teaches men how to be unaccountable, and women how to be obedient. And on the third day of his top-secret, nonrefundable retreats, he has the men and women regress to what he considers their elemental states—grunting apes and sobbing babies. It’d be laughable if it didn’t cause real harm.
Sterling runs what’s sometimes referred to as large group awareness training, a clunky term for messing with people’s heads through isolation, humiliation and deprivation. It’s a rung or two below a cult and completely unregulated. But behind this twice-divorced relationship guru’s facade is a bankrupt message: He tells men how strong they are while preying on their deepest insecurities. (RFH)
Blame it on the wind
PG&E CEO Bill Johnson is out to protect his company’s lavish executive bonuses and shareholder profits, even if that means repeatedly plunging millions of Californians—and one of the world’s largest economies—into darkness. But in ruining people’s Halloween, complicating their Thanksgiving and leaving their paychecks diminished just before Christmas, Johnson must have known he’d need one hell of an excuse to distract from his company’s neglect. Enter The Wind. As it turns out, this sinister force has been here the whole time. Every time this whistling ne’er-do-well blew into town, Johnson played town crier, declaring unprecedented darkness to combat this shifty drifter. We’ll agree with Johnson about one thing—there sure is a lot of hot air blowing around. (STA)
Tracks of our fears
You gotta hand it to Union Pacific, the company sure knows how to play hardball. When the city of Sacramento needed a railway crossing on Ramona Avenue by Power Inn Road in 2016, “North America’s premier railroad franchise” said sure, as long as it got to take away three other crossings. UP got talked down to one, and so it was that the fate of the C Street railroad crossing was determined. With the obfuscating headline, “Portion of C Street to close for bike and pedestrian safety improvements,” the city’s press release put a nice spin on the truth. It looks better to say you’re improving something instead of admitting that you got railroaded into closing a much-used crossing. (M.M.)
Super (sick) greens
In the Trump era, foodborne illnesses are now on the menu year-round. This year alone: E. coli outbreaks were linked to salad mix and romaine lettuce (again), as well as milling flour. Fresh-cut fruit mixes, veggie trays and tahini, among other seemingly healthy choices, were all recalled for salmonella contamination. According to Politifact, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2019 fiscal budget was cut by about 20%. That included slashing “$138 million from the program dedicated to chronic disease prevention and health promotion,” while cutting $60 million from programs studying emerging and zoonotic infectious diseases, which are linked to viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites. Perhaps we should all just grow our own food in 2020. (S.R.)
Trump’s Interior man
No matter how many editorial boards point out his brazen conflict of interests since he slid into his job in January, U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt continues to clear-cut a path through America’s natural resources. Since leaving Westlands Water District to work for President Trump, Bernhardt has advocated funneling massive amounts of fresh water out of California’s Delta through the federal water project, to benefit south state agribusiness at the cost of endangered fish species. Worse yet, Bernhardt has overseen a dramatic gutting of the federal Endangered Species Act, a landmark law now teetering toward irrelevance. (STA)
Good riddance to a grumpy walrus
John Bolton, Mike Pompeo and Trump’s hawkiest advisers sometimes looked like competent, reasonable men simply by virtue of not being the president, but let’s not forget they allowed America’s Kurdish allies to be abandoned and slaughtered, and fomented the unrest that led to a brutal government crackdown on Iranian citizens. Bolton may not want to be “part of whatever drug deal” Trump and his shadow advisers cooked up on Ukraine, but that doesn’t mean his hands are anywhere near clean—or that he’s made this country remotely safer. (RFH)
Czar from perfect
Figuring out the new world of legal cannabis was always going to be complicated. In Sacramento, it became far more difficult than it needed to be. And that, at least partly, lands at the feet of Joe Devlin, the city’s first cannabis czar, who was supposed to oversee and regulate recreational marijuana. Before he cashed in by quitting and joining a private start-up, significant problems sprouted on his watch.
As The Sacramento Bee first reported, a Ukranian-born businessman—who has been indicted in a campaign finance scheme along with two associates of Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal attorney—is a partner with Sacramento’s pot king, who has managed to secure eight dispensary permits, is investing in three pot cultivation facilities and owns a big chunk of the local industry.
Now, the FBI is investigating and City Hall is trying to clean up the mess that Devlin left behind. There’s an audit underway, and the City Council imposed a moratorium on any sales or transfers of ownership. There’s also a proposal to increase the number of dispensaries from 30 to 35, with the new ones reserved for people in the city’s equity program to help those victimized by the war on drugs. Though Devlin says he made that program a priority, it didn’t get very far. (F.R.)
Taxation without foundation
The California Department of Tax and Fee Administration announced in November that the cannabis industry will see an 80% increase in the mark-up rate that’s used to determine the excise tax in arms-length transactions next year. Hefty and confusing! What’s more confusing is the formula CDTFA uses as an example for businesses to follow. One chart lists the current market rate of flower per dry-weight ounce at $9.25. On Jan. 1, that amount would increase to $9.65.
However the CDTFA is crunching the numbers, it’s a real blow to licensed operators already struggling with the exorbitant taxes and fees that come with running a cannabusiness in California. And with fallout from the national vaping crisis, local jurisdictional bans and industry layoffs across the board, it’s a formula for disaster—one that will continue to fuel the thriving illicit market. Consumers who can’t afford the taxes at the register will continue to buy untested products from hush-hush marketplaces that come with risks of dangerous pesticides, molds and other harmful chemicals. (S.R.)
Well, this has become a disappointing tradition. For the third straight year, Sacramento County’s law enforcement establishment told the public it cracked down on human sex trafficking—but instead arrested mostly poor sex workers of color. This annual smokescreen is known as Operation: Hot Spots. Spearheaded by District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert and carried out by a half-dozen local agencies, the effort once again resulted in more arrests of women (17) for loitering and solicitation than men (13), according to booking logs reviewed by SN&R. Authorities did apprehend one man for allegedly pimping a minor, but that’s as close as this coalition got to meeting its mission statement. Sadly, Sacramento has shown it’s fine with padding its stats with mostly black and brown women as long as the federal grant money still spends. (RFH)
The ongoing gentrification of various Sacramento neighborhoods has sparked countless debates over the last decade. And for good reason: For every worthy new restaurant or shop, there’s also a pretty dumb idea that panders to the lowest common denominator. Case in point: Bad Ax Throwing Co., an international bar chain set to open next year in Midtown with, yes, an axe-throwing theme. Does Sacramento really need such a gimmicky joint? Probably worth asking the folks who frequent Costanza’s Sports Bar, the Seinfeld-themed joint that opened at 21st and L streets (in the old Distillery location, RIP) earlier this year.
What’s next, a cuddle lounge where the now-demolished Dimple/Tower records used to be? Or high-priced micro-studios to replace Blue Lamp and the for-sale Old Ironsides? We could only be so unlucky. (R.L.)
Where there’s a Goodwill, there’s got to be a better way
The experience of secondhand shopping is second-tier at Goodwill, yet the national chain is increasingly the only vintage option in town. Goodwill Industries of Sacramento Valley & Northern Nevada Inc. recently added locations on the graves of two charming Thrift Town spots—on Fair Oaks Boulevard and Stockton Boulevard. Add to that the company’s grossly overcompensated executives plus a questionable response to an employee’s death in 2016—and the discount math just doesn’t pencil out. Goodwill may soon be the only option for thrifting, but we hope not. (M.M.)
Inner circle jerks
A familiar thing happened after SN&R published its November cover story on former Mayor Kevin Johnson’s foray into a restaurant scene predominantly staffed by the young female demo he’s accused of sexually harassing over the past two decades: His loyalists returned to form, defending the former NBA star while slamming the young women who stood up to share strikingly similar stories. A hit piece, they cried. Unproven allegations, they complained. Shouldn’t K.J. be able to earn a living, they demanded. Doesn’t he deserve forgiveness? Being a devout Christian, Johnson probably knows that forgiveness only follows true atonement. As for the sycophants who insulate and profit off K.J., they have just as much—if not more—for which to atone. At some point, Sacramento needs to confront its weird obsession with fame culture, where even faded celebs rate more loyalty than our own children. We sincerely hope it happens before another girl stands up and tells us what we already know. (RFH)
Jesus, Mary and Kanye?
Google “Christian Genius Billionaire,” and one of the world’s wealthiest rappers and onetime protégé of Jay-Z quickly pops up: Kanye West. Though he’s not a billionaire quite yet like Jay, West is cashing in on that Yeezus money. With his latest album Jesus is King solely dedicated to gospel; his Easter Sunday performance at Coachella alongside Chance the Rapper, DMX and a gospel choir—not to mention his exclusive Sunday church-like services held in Southern California attended by celebrities—West’s collection plate overfloweth. There’s something to be said about false prophets making bank off of oversized (and overpriced) “Jesus is Lord” sweatshirts. Is this the new normal? Jesus Christ. (S.R.)
You know that feeling when you think you’ve finally escaped a monster that was chasing you? You slow down, catch your breath and start letting your guard down when all of a sudden E.T. jumps out from behind a snowman and starts screaming. That’s when you realize: There is no escape. In a new commercial, Xfinity imagines Elliott years after the events of E.T., with a wife, two kids, a nice home and, of course, an Xfinity digital cable subscription. It would be the perfect advertisement, if it weren’t for one fatal flaw—E.T. is in it. Watching the full, four-minute version brought me back to a troubled time, when the sweaty, spindly-fingered creature lurked behind every dark corner. Instead of buying cable, I think I’ll be cutting all my cords and boarding up my windows, just for safe measure. (R.M.)
Ride-sharing, but where’s the caring?
Worried about ride-share drivers and other independent contractors being exploited, California passed a law based on a state Supreme Court ruling that forbids many aspects of the gig economy. But when Assembly Bill 5 takes effect Jan. 1, it will rope in all sorts of industries—at least the ones that didn’t have high-priced lobbyists to secure exemptions. Those covered by AB 5 include freelancers, among them contributors to SN&R, who in most cases will be limited to 35 submissions a year.
What’s the response from Uber and Lyft, which are to blame for much of this mess? Instead of more fairly compensating their drivers, they’re partnering with DoorDash and ramping up to spend $90 million or more to exempt themselves in a November 2020 referendum. (F.R.)
We like the Bee. We support the Bee. We hope the Bee sticks around, despite demoralizing reports of impending bankruptcy. That said, it was baffling when the Bee’s editorial board went after a part-time housing advocate for refusing to withdraw a rent control ballot measure after the Sacramento City Council approved moderate—and very temporary—protections for local renters. Instead of defending the underdog against City Hall, the Bee decided to punch down while standing up against a public election. What’s that old saying, “speak power to truth”? Guess we heard it different. (RFH)
The last word
The last decade has been unkind to print journalism, but 2019 was particularly cruel to alternative weeklies. Earlier this year, the East Bay Express laid off most of its editorial staff after a former employee filed a lawsuit claiming that he was wrongfully denied overtime pay. Worse, publisher Stephen Buel—who stepped down last year after staff complained that he’d used racial epithets in the newsroom—returned to helm the paper. This, along with the paper’s decision to rely almost exclusively on freelancers, is a major blow for a diverse and complex community that demands thoughtful and comprehensive coverage.
At least they still have a paper, though. Further down the state, OC Weekly abruptly shuttered, which the Orange County paper’s staff announced via a Twitter post. Long known as a progressive voice in one of California’s more conservative enclaves, the OC Weekly’s closure will soon prove a major loss. (R.L.)