Tuesday, December 30, 2003

More reasons to be thankful it's late December

Dave Barry's year-ender is out. Monday, Dave participated in an online chat via The Washington Post. The transcript is here. Money question/answer:

Washington, D.C.: PC or Mac?

Dave Barry: I have both. That is the kind of cyberstud I am. I like them both for different reasons: The Mac beacause of the terrific design and ease of use, and the PC because I enjoy talking to the fun guys 'n' gals at Technical Support.

Rewriting the rules?

USA Today's fairly evenhanded cover story on blogs (primarily political ones) overlooks some of the bigger players but doesn't overstate the importance of the phenomenon, either.

It's blo-o-g, It's blo-o-o-g, it's big, it's heavy, it's wood ...

Much belated here, but this fine publication gets a "thumbs up" from Las Vegas Weekly columnist Richard Abowitz in a Nov. 26 review of blogs by local journalists. Abowitz didn't have much good to say about many of them, save those from Las Vegas City Life writer Mike Zigler and me. For some odd reason, the column is not available on the Weekly's Web site, so through the magic of typing, here's a bit of shameless self-promotion:

My favorite blog comes from Rick Henderson. Like Zigler, Henderson offers in his blog an opinionated, behind-the-scenes account of political events in Nevada. But Henderson's blog abandons the personal entirely [well, kinda ... ed.] in favor of a far more comprehensive take on every issue that has made the local papers. Where Zigler dedicates a few sentences to his impression of Dean [during his fall campaign stop in Las Vegas], Henderson analyzes everything about the candidate, the campaign, and the speech. Best of all, Henderson is never dull to read. ...

Sounds like a blurb to me.

So now I'll stop abandoning the personal entirely

Yes, we had a somewhat significant snow storm here overnight. Our part of town got the most -- there may be a couple of inches accumulated on the grass, trees, and shrubs, and some slush on the pavement. Since we're personally such Luddites, we don't have a digital camera, but I was out there around dawn, taking photos the old-fashioned way before the stuff melts. (The temperature is already above freezing and is expected to reach the low 50s today.) If we happen to receive e-mail with photos from friends and neighbors, I'll post something. Or I'll steal it from the RJ's Web site. Once the photo disc gets back from Costco, I'll post more.

It also snowed on our first visit to Las Vegas, Christmas 1997. I recall walking up the Strip from the Desert Inn toward the Sahara, where we were staying, and a few flakes fallling. Nothing accumulated, which is typical, but it was pretty neat. This is by far the most snow I've seen since we moved here nearly four years ago. I'll monitor the local reports to see if this ranks among the top storms in recent history.

Bad segue, worse metaphor

The snow may help to wash away 2003, which was not a good year in the Henderson/Brown household. The death of my father; the loss of our beloved 13-year-old kitty Snuffles; the auto accident which cost us a car, kept Lola from working for maybe six months, necessitated knee surgery for me (and forced me to use all my accumulated leave time from work) -- all this temporarily soured me on living in Vegas. Aside from the accident, none of these was a uniquely Vegas phenomenon. But 2003 blew. And we were here. Bring on '04. Fast.

Speaking of 2003 ...

I didn't post about the PBS "Year of the Blues" series Martin Scorsese put together when it aired. In part, that's because I taped it and watched most of it later. But also, I was silent because the whole damn thing was disappointing. The series' main fault was encapsulated in this Washington Times review (titled "PBS embalms a living tradition"). Money quote:

Underlying the myriad faults of the series is a fundamental misdiagnosis of the overall health of the genre: The blues of "The Blues," while enormously influential in its day, is today a beleaguered thing; it's in retreat, neglected, wearily resilient.
You would never know — because "The Blues" doesn't tell you — that there's a critically venerated and surprisingly successful band called the White Stripes that has made the blues avant-garde again. Or that a filthy-rich and mass-popular band like Aerosmith doesn't think it's a bad career move to make an all-blues album, which it plans to release next year. Or that there are young blues-guitar classicists like Joe Bonamassa, Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd doing pretty well for themselves on the touring circuit.

The entire series treated the blues like some museum piece, a precious, 'til now undiscovered Mozart symphony which must be treated with reverence and kid gloves, rather than raucous and dynamic, traditionally based, to be sure, but relevant and evolving ... and far from spent.

I was also stunned that so few active, contemporary blues artists (other than the venerated ones -- B.B. King, Ray Charles, Dr. John, Jay McShann, Pinetop Perkins; and the neo-traditionalists like Taj Mahal, Keb Mo, Corey Harris) even merited a mention in the show. (Don't get me wrong; I love these guys.) But as the Times review noted, there's a vibrant club-and-concert circuit of national touring acts and local artists alike. A lot of the musicians are Baby Boomers or younger. And they sure know how to entertain. But these folks were ignored by the series.

I wondered how working musicians viewed the series, when lo and behold, we received our quarterly e-mail from Honey Piazza, the Chicago-born pianist from the great, SoCal-based blues band Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers (their Web site's in the middle of a renovation, but it has offered great content in the past; stay tuned). Here's what this 30-year veteran of the blues circuit had to say:

I, personally, am glad to see "The Year of the Blues" come to an end!! Other than an incomplete documentary coming out on mainstream TV (where were all of the "meat-and-potato" performers who have been fighting out on the front line for years, us included?), all of the touring acts suffered with festivals canceling due to eliminated city/state funds, and club owners closing their doors due to poor turn-outs. We are all hoping for a turnaround in 2004.

OK, so 2003 wasn't a great year for niche performers, either.

From earlier dispatches, Honey noted that the post-9/11 world has been unkind to musicians who rely on air travel to hop from one gig to another ... particularly when they have lots of equipment in tow. That said, there are hundreds of talented, exciting, rockin' blues bands playing all over. Give 'em a little love.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

I'm a seer (unfortunately)

In this week's column, Review-Journal Editor Tom Mitchell recalls something I wrote prior to the opening of the legislative session about budget deficits and public employee compensation ... about how the former could be eliminated if the latter were brought under control ... and how that would happen the time pigs start flying. From today's column:

Sure enough, there was not a peep during the session about public employee salaries, which Henderson reported are on average one-third again higher than those in the private sector in Nevada, or the defined-benefit retirement package that allows public employees to retire decades earlier than private workers and with pensions exponentially higher than anyone on Social Security could ever dream of, with or without wild avarice. ...

It is as solid as a law of nature: When money comes from the tax larder, there is no shame, no limit, no end.

Those who have followed the news reports in the Review-Journal since Henderson's prophetic column have seen his words borne out over and over again.

In this instance, being dead wrong would have easily been the better outcome.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Lovely spam, wonderful spam

If you think the anti-spam bill George Bush signed will reduce the unsolicited e-mails in your in-box, just read this well-argued policy piece from the November Reason. Or this killer profile of Bill Waggoner, the "spam king," from Sunday's Review-Journal:

Waggoner is a single father, a guitar-playing metalhead and the boyfriend of a topless dancer. He's also a raconteur, a staunch political conservative and a conspiracy theorist with his own Internet radio show. A tangle of contradictions, he's a devotee of alternative medicine and all-natural products who smokes two packs a day. ...

But Waggoner isn't just any spam king. He might be the most hated in the world.

Just ask the subculture of anti-spam computer buffs from San Francisco to London who have battled him for five years in the war to stop the wildfirelike spread of spam. This army of tech geeks has a special antipathy for Waggoner because, unlike other spammers, he doesn't hide from his critics.

They say he brazenly defends an unethical and sometimes illegal practice as a legitimate business, confronting anti-spammers head-on in shouting phone calls, in expletive-laced exchanges online and, earlier this year, during a nationally televised government hearing.

"If there was any justice in the world, his nuts would be crushed in a vise," says Roosevelt, Calif., software engineer Ron Guilmette, the operator of the anti-spam Web site Monkeys.com.

You think Waggoner will be inconvenienced by any stinkin' law ... even slightly? Hats off to Mike Kalil for putting together a real page-turner.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Triumph of hope over experience

It's not so surprising that liberal editorialists, who are incapable of distinguishing between corruption and corruptibility, might shrug off, or even celebrate, the McCain-Feingold ruling. The same with politcians, who benefit from its limits on competitive races, and good-government types, who hate the process of campaigning anyway. (Maybe we should dispense with elective office entirely and simply appoint bureaucrats to rule our lives.)

What's more puzzling is the lack of outrage by responsible liberals such as Mickey Kaus, who (second item) is not "wildly upset" by the decision. Why? Because

It doesn't prevent rich (and non-rich) individuals from banding together to spend as much money as they want on "independent" last-minute issue" ads that criticize or praise candidates by name--something that I'd argue is their right. It only bans them if they incorporate.

Of course, a future Congress or court could do away with this "right," as well, and there's nothing in the majority's reasoning to prevent either. Indeed, some champions of the law, including Russ Feingold, think this law is merely the first step. They want to enact further campaign restrictions and replace the Federal Elections Commission with a new, three-member enforcement panel ... a group that would be easier to pack with outright enemies of free speech.

IMHO, Mickey and his allies still have too much faith in central planning (even if it's not of the economic variety) -- of the belief in the wisdom, fairness, and public-spirited nature of bureaucrats to remain impartial arbiters when in fact, regulations were the last thing that was needed to combat the "evils" of political campaigning.

The reason campaign finance is a "problem" is that the government is too busy doing things it shouldn't. Rather than being an impartial defender of people's rights, it's doling out favors to the well-connected or to the beneficiaries of the causes of the well-connected. If the government didn't hand out goodies in the first place -- whether material benefits or regulatory largess -- few people would be motivated enough to bother with lobbying office-holders or financially supporting their campaigns. That's why the whole CFR agenda is so poisonous to the American democratic system ... it makes it more difficult for those who are on the outside to protect themselves from the avarice of insiders.

Besides, as John Eastman points out,

The whole opinion is 298 pages, affirming in significant part a district court opinion of over 1600 pages, which upheld the 90-page statute, implemented by a 1000 pages of regulations. Somewhere along the way the Court has lost sight of the meaning of "no law," as in "Congress shall pass no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.

BTW, Ken Starr, who argued for the losing side before the court, gave some enlightening answers to questions yesterday in a Washington Post online chat. The transcript is here. And here is a link to a series of pieces from Reason in the early days of the McCain-Feingold debate, some written by me.

A futile and stupid gesture

The Review-Journal's take on the campaign-reform decision (with quotes from Animal House!). Just curious: Has anyone put together an editorial-page scorecard on the ruling? Sure, the mammoth, lefty, establishment papers that Congress exempted from the law (for now, as Justice Thomas noted) cooed about the decision, but I'm not seeing much institutional concern from any papers other than those identified with "the right" over it. Very sad, very shortsighted, and very cynical.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Plain-speaking cowboy

Love him or loathe him, when he was in Congress, Wyoming's Alan Simpson was always entertaining, almost a throwback to the days senators and representatives nearly (or actually) came to blows in the halls of Capitol Hill.

Well, the big guy's at it again, according to this Washington Post story (third item) about Simpson's activity with the Republican Unity Coalition, a "big tent" GOP group. When the "famously anti-gay" Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., formally protested Simpson's support of the gay marriage court ruling in Massachusetts, with a letter from pastor Fred W. Phelps urging the construction of a monument in Cheyenne featuring the biblical admonition against homosexuality, Simpson fired back with this response:

I just wanted to alert you to the fact that some dizzy shit is sending out mailings and e-mails from the Westboro Baptist Church -- and using your name! I'm certain that you would not want this to continue or some less-alert citizen might think that you, yourself had done it. We know that is surely not the case, because you are a God-fearing Christian person filled to the brim with forbearance, tolerance and love -- and this other goofy homophobe nut must be someone totally opposite.

Quite Sincerely, Al Simpson.

Man, do we need this guy back in the Senate.


Zevon gets five

Warren Zevon tallies five Grammy nominations, including Best Contemporary Folk (??) Album for The Wind. I'd be surprised if he doesn't capture at least one award, though, face it, folks, were Zevon still alive and well, he'd never have gotten a second thought from the nominating crowd.

On the other hand, we can only hope the Oscar nominations mirror those of the film-oriented Grammys. If so, we'll see The Folksmen, et al., performing the theme to "A Mighty Wind" come Feb. 29.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Meet Freddy

The newest member of the household. He's named for my dad Fred, and we adopted him from the Las Vegas Valley Humane Society on Nov. 15, when he was eight weeks old. He's 100% boy, rambunctuous but completely affectionate. He also has a keen sense of smell (which Willow totally lacks), so cooking the turkey and stuffing and dealing with the leftovers has been an adventure. He sleeps with us on the bed and is completely at home. He and Willow chase each other around the house ... when they aren't curled up together asleep. We think we'll keep him.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Why newspapers remain important

Sources tell the Review-Journal that Wendell Williams will be fired from the city of Las Vegas, perhaps as early as today. His former supervisor, Sharon Segerblom, will be allowed to keep her job, which is only appropriate. Segerblom couldn't really discipline Williams without the support of the city higher-ups who kept giving him raises and promotions (including former Mayor Jan Jones, who encouraged the city to get as many employees in the Legislature as possible), even as he was violating policies and breaking laws.

Had the Review-Journal (and a much lesser extent, the Sun -- or, more to the point, Jon Ralston) failed in their relentless pursuit of the facts in this case, Williams would have not only kept his job, but quite possibly continued up the city hierarchy, landing lifetime patronage posts for a lot more people than his "special friend," Topazia Jones.

This is the type of story that TV just can't nail. It requires weaving disparate strands of information into a coherent narrative (with appropriate visuals). It's not soundbite-friendly ... until all the evidence has been gathered, the story told, the argument made. It's why newspapers (even if they one day become completely virtual) remain important. It's a proud day for print journalism.

Thursday, November 27, 2003

Wha' happen?

Not a lot, actually, in Tuesday's City Council meeting on the Wendell Williams fiasco. City Manager Doug Selby kept his job, which means that that Williams' city position is probably safe now as well, since Selby devised Williams' "last chance" deal. (The deal clearly upset Mayor Oscar Goodman, but not enough for him to recommend that Selby get the ax.) Goodman did an OK job as the prosecuting attorney, if you will, interrogating Williams, the city auditor and other employees who reviewed Williams' time records. Goodman eventually conceded that, since the council lacked the authority to compel sworn testimony from people who don't work for the city, and several of the key players in this melodrama aren't on the city payroll, the council couldn't determine who was telling the truth.

Did Williams falsify time records in violation of city policy? Or were his time cards filled out for him by others, as he claimed Tuesday ... and was there no policy governing time worked by city employees who also sit in the Legislature? Did the city give Williams a raise and a promotion after he resurrected a city annexation bill in the 2003 Legislature, as he claims? Or did he have nothing to do with the bill and is using this story to blackmail current and former city workers into remaining silent regarding his many indiscretions -- including running up thousands of dollars of personal calls on a city cell phone, taking sick leave from his city job while he was running legislative committee meetings, not showing up for an $86,000 a year no-show job, etc.?

Goodman decided to turn the entire matter over to the local DA and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, where people who can compel testimony might be able to get to the bottom of this.

While Goodman recommended that the city require any future employees who serve in the Legislature to take unpaid leave and receive no benefits while the Legislature is in session, Councilwoman Lynette Boggs McDonald receives the Profile in Courage award for urging the city to obey the Nevada Constitution and bar city employees from legislative service altogether. (She wasn't channeling me, but it sure seemed that way.) In a passionate, meticulously argued presentation, Boggs McDonald explained the separation of powers problems that arise from dual service, and also noted the problem such employees cause for their superiors in City Hall. One minute these employees are on the city organization chart, just like every other public worker; the next, they're the boss, with the power to set budgets, establish regulations, and in effect boss everyone else around. (She brought up the home rule issue as well, noting that if the council wanted to shift Las Vegas' form of government from its current manager-council to a strong mayor system, it would need the approval of the Legislature first.)

Unfortunately, she was trying to convince a council whose collective IQ (except for Goodman, who's a very bright guy) may reach triple digits. The other members who spoke issued platitudes about how "this is America" and "everyone has the right to run for office." So while Lynette may have cheered a few lonely souls, her sensible (and legal) alternative has no chance of adoption.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

A big week for Las Vegas ... or not

Tuesday, the Las Vegas City Council will consider the fates of Wendell Williams, his former supervisor at the Department of Neighborhood Services Sharon Segerblom and potentially City Manager Doug Selby and Deputy Manager Betsy Fretwell. Mayor Oscar Goodman told my colleague Steve Sebelius (link forthcoming): "I want Tuesday to be the day Las Vegas acquits itself." Good luck, your honor.

Williams has become the Neutron Bomb of Nevada: He kills careers but leaves institutions standing. Barely. Friday, he claimed that, in exchange for getting a promotion from the city, he shepherded a bill through the 2001 Legislature which annexed territory into Las Vegas, increasing its tax base. No one else agrees with that accounting, because if it's true, this is tantamount to extortion, which could ensnare Goodman, former City Manager Virginia Valentine, and a host of other current and former city employees in the dragnet. The threat here from Williams is none too subtle: If I'm going down, I plan to cause as much collateral damage as possible.

Earlier, in a marathon closed-door session of the university system regents (a meeting that almost certainly violated the state's open meeting law ... not that the attorney general would actually enforce the law), Community College of Southern Nevada President Ron Remington was fired and college lobbyist John Cummings was demoted to an undetermined faculty position for their role in the hiring/supervision or lack of either for Topazia "Briget" Jones, Wendell's "special friend" who also served as a part-time lobbyist in the most recent legislative session. Briget kept her job with the college -- even though she lied on her resume, internal personnel records showed she was frequently insubordinate to superiors, and -- like her mentor, Wendell Williams -- no one can actually state what she did when she was on the clock at the college. Neither Remington nor Cummings was presented with the "evidence" that led to the demotions before each got the ax.

That said, university system Chancellor Jane Nichols was allowed to be present during the entire closed session -- to review any evidence of her complicity in the matter (she halted Jones's termination when Briget mouthed off to a superior) -- and will presumably face no disciplinary actions. This would be as juicy as Peyton Place if it weren't so pathetic.

So now Wendell Williams pulls the strings of the university regents and the system's chancellor. Maybe he'll make Briget the next president of the Community College. (Does she have a GED?) He also presumably supervises the day-to-day operations of city government in Las Vegas, since Selby has negotiated a "last chance" agreement with Williams which forgives the assemblyman of any previous indiscretions. In other words, he can't be fired. He's just about the Supreme Leader of Southern Nevada.

Goodman could fire Selby and insist that his replacement's first order of business is getting rid of Williams. But that's about all the mayor can immediately accomplish. This story suggests that Goodman will use the meeting to launch a discussion over modifying the city charter from a strong city manager system to a strong mayor system. But even if Goodman convinced the council to go along (a far-from-certain proposition), nothing official could happen unless the 2005 Legislature went along. And there's little doubt the council meeting will be a circus, as Williams rounds up every race-baiting charlatan and demogogue within a one-day's drive to claim this is all an attempt by Whitey to lynch a hard-working public servant.

BTW, a link to the RJ's reportage on all things Wendell is here.

To be sure, the longer this nightmare lasts, the better the prospects are for the initiative barring public employees from the Legislature to pass.

Friday, November 21, 2003

Radio silence after all

Turns out I won't be on KNPR Monday, as the program was "overscheduled," from the voicemail message host Gwen Castaldi left at work for me early today. At the time, I was a bit suspicious. After all, the show's producer seemed somewhat frantic to make sure all four panelists were booked on Thursday afternoon.

Let's recap: The topic is the federal Hatch Act (which bans people who work for agencies that use federal funds from engaging in partisan politics) and local politicians who may be affected by it. The panelists were: Assembly Speaker and Henderson Deputy Police Chief Richard Perkins, who's been told by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel he's violating the Hatch Act and must either resign his job with the police or not file for re-election next year (he's now appealing that decision); Knight Allen, a local government watchdog who's a trenchant critic of profligate spending, abuse of public power and all things righteous about fiscal policy; the North Las Vegas city attorney who crafted a "Hatch Act compliance program" so that NLV firefighter John Oceguera could serve in the Legislature; and me.

After hearing I'd been bumped, I suspected Perkins or the NLV attorney had objected to my presence on the panel, since I'd written critically of Perkins and Oceguera. My colleagues said this was nonsense. Perkins offers an eloquent defense of his position, even if he's wrong. And besides, Knight Allen would be there.

Then I got a call from Knight this afternoon. He's been disinvited as well. For the same reason: "overbooking." So unless a defender of the Hatch Act who was unknown to me as of Thursday afternoon was added to the program, the panel consists of: a person who's in violation of the law yet believes the law doesn't apply to him; and a lawyer who expended taxpayer resources to help a fellow public employee evade the law. Now that's fair and balanced.

Perhaps I protest too much. And Castaldi said in the voicemail that she wants to do a show on public employees in the Legislature next month and book me (and Knight, as it turns out) on that program. (If she gets wind of the blog posting, I can kiss that booking goodbye.) But I'll believe her offer was serious when I'm actually on the air. And I'll be listening to the show this Monday to see who did make the cut.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Radio silence

Not really, folks. I'll be on KNPR, 88.9 FM, Monday the 24th from 9 -10 a.m. Pacific time discussing the federal Hatch Act, separation of powers and other line-blurring issues in Nevada's civil service with host Gwen Castaldi. The program is called KNPR's State of Nevada, and one of the other guests will be Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, who's the subject of a Hatch Act inquiry related to his regular job as a deputy police chief in Henderson. If you live outside Southern Nevada, streaming audio is available on KNPR's Web site here. Tune in.

It keeps growing, and growing ...

The House of Representatives votes 264-163 to expand the ability of the feds to snoop into your personal finances without judicial oversight ... all as a part of the war on terror. Las Vegas will become a key player in this matter (as it has been in an earlier financial privacy brouhaha), because, as the AP reports,

The bill's provisions affecting financial records will expand the number of businesses from which the FBI and other agencies could demand information without needing a subpoena. That power is now limited to traditional financial institutions, such as banks and credit unions. It broadens the definition of financial institutions to include businesses that deal with large amounts of cash, such as casinos and pawn shops (emphasis mine).

Sad to say, according to this Las Vegas Sun story, Nevada Rep. Jim "Gibbons was one of the negotiators on the final version of the bill, and his spokeswoman, Amy Spanbuaer, said this morning that Gibbons believes a private individual does not have an expectation of privacy with regard to a third party."

If there's any good news here, some senators, including Nevada's Harry Reid and John Ensign (whose father is a mucky-muck with Mandalay Resorts), are balking at the implications this has for patrons of casinos, who have every interest in maintaining at least the appearance of discretion. That said, AFAIK, John Ashcroft isn't any fan of legalized gaming, so he and his may give a rat's ass. By the time you read this, the full Senate may have sent this steamy pile to the White House for W.'s signature anyway.

BTW, John Berlau's cover story for Reason about financial secrecy laws is online here.

Monday, November 17, 2003

Separation issues

My most recent feature story on how the Nevada constitution clearly bans public employees from sitting in the Legislature (notwithstanding the fact that 14 of the 63 members served two masters this year) is here. Warning: It's long, and includes abstract principles and dead white guys.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

The Patriot Act and 'little platoons'

Yet another insidious feature of the USA Patriot Act, from today's Review-Journal: It forces banks to pry into the private financial dealings of people who serve in voluntary associations -- the "little platoons" celebrated by de Tocqueville (and later, Charles Murray) that make America a wonderfully compassionate, dynamic society; the law also requires the banks to share that information with John Ashcroft's Big Platoon aka the U.S. Justice Department.

This is the story of Las Vegas resident Rebecca Foster, who offered to serve on the board of her homeowners association and discovered that the bank controlling the association's accounts demanded the dates of birth, Social Security and driver's license numbers for anyone who had check-signing privileges. From the story:

The personal information was necessary, the bank said in the Aug. 27 letter, "to look for any derogatory banking information" and "to check them against the government's terrorist list."

A DOJ flack dodged the issue when queried by reporter Frank Currieri.

(Spokesman Mark) Corallo said banks and financial institutions already seek personal information from individual customers to ensure identity and to study their credit histories.

And the government, by law, does not need to establish probable cause when going after someone's financial records or banking history, he said.

But this is irrelevant, as Gary Peck, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, told me. The issue has nothing to do with grand juries and probable cause, but instead with illegitimately snooping into the financial affairs of every person who volunteers with the local Boy Scouts, Kiwanis Club, or church building committee. "This mandate shreds the fabric of American democracy," Peck said. He's right. And it's past time defenders of the Patriot Act on the right (including the folks at The Wall Street Journal edit page and National Review) fess up to this fact.

ADDENDUM: I should point out that Edmund Burke first ID'd "little platoons," long before de Tocqueville or Murray. (I knew that.)

Also, in an e-mail, Eugene Volokh points out that the bank may be the actual culprit here. By ordering members of the board to provide info which it then may make available to the feds, the bank is engaging in a shameless bit of CYA ... and now that a board member has complained, the bank blames the Patriot Act. As Eugene says, banks have been forced to cough up all sorts of private data to prosecutors (with or without court orders) for years. My former Investor's Business Daily colleague John Berlau provided a chilling overview of these earlier laws in the November Reason's cover story (not yet available online). Thanks, Eugene. Doesn't mean there aren't serious problems with the law that shouldn't be fixed (as in its abuse as a vehicle to gather information on the non-terrorist targets in the Las Vegas strip club corruption probe) ...

ADDENDUM, PART DEUX: In a follow-up e-mail, Eugene says the true outrage here is that, notwithstanding the complaints about the Patriot Act by my buddy Gary Peck and me, the DOJ is and has been forcing banks to turn over individuals' records without citing probable cause -- something the DOJ spokesman admits, too eagerly IMHO. As usual, Eugene is right. One salutary (if unintentional) consequence of the passage of the Patriot Act is the fact that it has attracted scrutiny that other, earlier, equally heinous anti-privacy legislation never elicited. Now what are the chances Congress will step in and fix (or -- horrors -- repeal) these wretched laws?

Saturday, November 08, 2003

Strike a blow for freedom; drink zin

... or cab, or viognier, or ....

Had a splendid time at the Reason anniversary banquet and education conference, which was, as Virginia Postrel said, like old home week. I always enjoy catching up with old friends and associates and making new ones. Congrats again for 35 wonderful years.

I'm not a big advocate of "social investing," but I do like to support businesses that offer quality products and are at least slightly sympathetic to my philosophical leanings. That's why I was cheered to examine the list of the banquet's sponsors and find Cline Cellars and Babcock Winery included. As a cheap wino, I've enjoyed Cline's value-priced zins for years (they make excellent higher-end wines, too). I'm less familiar with Babcock's line, but we're big fans of Santa Ynez pinots and syrahs, and the red table wine that evening from Babcock was excellent. Support these fine folks who are willing to part with some of their hard-earned cash to aid the cause of freedom.

Juice joint

For the past couple of decades, Las Vegas has tried to shake its longstanding image as a juice town, a city of on-the-take politicians and corrupt political institutions. This week, that cause was again set back. Three current and former members of the Clark County Commission were indicted by federal prosecutors for their alleged role in "Operation G-Sting," the corruption probe involving strip club owner Mike Galardi and his attempts to manipulate zoning policies to give his businesses a competitive advantage. Current commission chairman Mary Kincaid-Chauncey and former commissioners Lance Malone and Dario Herrera were indicted on multiple conspiracy and wire fraud charges and each faces maximum sentences that could reach more than three centuries. (An expert contacted by the Review-Journal estimates it's more likely they'll spend 10-15 years in the hoosegow.)

Galardi has cooperated with prosecutors, as has former commissioner Erin Kenny, who's agreed to repay some $70 grand in bribes and will probably spend some time in Club Fed as well. (If Kenny as a cooperating witness is going behind bars, then the ones who haven't folded should face some serious time.)

Transcripts of the wiretapped conversations between the principals are plenty damning -- with Kenny (that's the same Erin Kenny who was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor last year) saying "I'm on my knees begging" for cash; Kincaid soliciting $15 grand from Malone (who was then working as Galardi's bag man) to pay tuition for her grandson; and Herrera (that's the same Dario Herrera -- "fighting for Nevada's families -- who was the Democratic nominee for the 3rd Congressional District seat last year) having Galardi pay $400 for lap dances at a club within a few weeks of the birth of his son. Read the whole thing here. Additional comments from RJ columnists are here and here, and a collection of links to all the RJ's reporting is here.

The good news is, the feds have pursued this case aggressively, while local prosecutors could have been, shall we say, sidetracked. Malone is a former cop, after all. Voters did reject these young, onetime rising stars: Republican Malone when he ran for re-election in 2000, and Democrats Kenny and Herrera when they sought higher offices last year. Still, the stench of corruption hangs heavily over this, the fastest-growing cow town in America.

Speaking of small towns

State Sen. Ray Rawson has spent nearly two decades in the Legislature, and over time he's done quite well for himself at public expense. He draws the second-highest salary of any faculty member in the state university system, bringing in nearly $200,000 a year as a the head of dental clinics at the local community college. (I'm not making this up.) and head of the local dental college, which simply replicates a perfectly good school up north and would never exist without his patronage. And he voted for the largest tax increase in state history. He's the poster child for those who would insist that the state enforce the constitution's ban on public employees serving in the Legislature.

Rawson has drawn a challenger next year, Assemblyman Bob Beers, hero of the state's tax resistance movement. In this safely Republican district, on the issues that should matter most to Nevadans, Beers should win in a cakewalk. So in an act of sheer desperation, Rawson has played the Mormon card. Yes, for those of you who don't know it, Southern Nevada is home to the second-largest concentrations of LDSers outside Salt Lake City, with the local Mormon population approaching 100,000. And the tribe -- of whom Rawson is a member in good standing -- takes care of its own. Rawson has hired Steve Wark, a principal in the local Pat Robertson brigade back in the '80s, to aid his campaign. And this week, Wark had Rawson send a letter to voters in his district, calling Beers a godless communist.

Well, not exactly. But Rawson did cite his passionate activism against the godless homosexuals who would -- horrors -- insist on settling down in a stable, lifelong relationship with their lovers. Yes, Rawson was an vocal supporter of the popular state initiatives which banned same-sex marriage; and Beers, Rawson's flier alleged, was not. My buddy Steve Sebelius, always on the case, outed Rawson's cynicial little scheme in this column by calling Beers and discovering that the accountant, married 22 years with two children, supported the initiative as well. Indeed, he was platform chairman of the state Republican convention, and that platform included a plank supporting the initiative.

Wark brushes all this off by claiming that Republican voters will overlook Rawson's apostasy on taxes and public employment. Sebelius isn't so sure:

You can go with Beers, who Rawson claims is squishy on the gay-marriage question but who'll fight on the clear and present issue of taxes, or you can go with Rawson, who's definitely squishy on taxes, but who will support a constitutional amendment that's settled law.

There's also little doubt gaming will give Rawson unlimited amounts of money to stop Beers, but it may not matter. Beers is solid on taxes and can use the heavy-handed tactics of gaming to his advantage ("I'm just a simple accountant, hoping my constituents can keep more of their hard-earned dollars.") I'm betting (and hoping) Beers still wins in a blowout. Read the whole thing.

More juice

The back story here is the Mormon angle. (Beers is a Presbyterian, for what that's worth.) For decades, the LDS hierarchy has ensured that ambitious young members of the faith landed jobs in local government, particularly in public works, see here and here. And while perhaps the most competent and incorruptible person in local government, county commissioner Bruce Woodbury, is himself a Mormon, others of lower character have attempted to play the LDS card for their own advantage. Even Dario Herrera converted to Mormonism during his congressional campaign; see where it got him. Just another example of how a city with more than 1 million residents can seem stiflingly claustrophobic.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Happy 35th

I'll be in L.A. Wednesday to attend Reason magazine's 35th anniversary party. It's difficult for me to believe that I worked at Reason for more than one-fourth of its existence. It'll be a fine time.

Earlier that day, I'll be covering a Reason Public Policy Institute conference on education reform, organized by my friend Lisa Snell, who worked for me in Washington, D.C., as a summer intern a few years ago before getting hired full-time by Reason. Now she does a great job directing education studies for RPPI. Check out Lisa's blog.

No chance for abuse?

Debates have raged in blogdom and elsewhere over the USA Patriot Act -- whether it's a legitimate extension of federal power in the wake of the 9/11 attacks or an invitation to abuse our constitutional rights. Consider me clearly in the latter camp. Today's Review-Journal reported that the Las Vegas FBI used an obscure provision of the act to collect financial info on the targets of its political corruption probe. To be sure, some of the players here are bad guys. But nobody's claiming the Galardi strip club owners -- or the current and former elected officials under investigation -- are members of al-Qaida or any other terrorist group, for that matter. All of which makes the success of the broad coalition of lawmakers and activists set on rolling back some of the most egregious portions of the Patriot Act essential.

Thursday, October 30, 2003

The Dean implosion

Howard, Dean, M.D., made a fund-raising trip to Las Vegas Tuesday and, as usual, pandered to the locals. This time the erstwhile booster of the Yucca Mountain nuclear dump turned evasive, claiming he had "seen the light" on the issue -- meaning? Before deciding whether to ship the nation's nuke waste to Nevada, he'd make sure the site was safe. Which is indistinguishable from the "unconscionable position of the Bush administration on Yucca.

Or is it? As my buddy Steve Sebelius points out in his column (link TK), Dean has been tight with the nuke power industry for years, and actually pushed to greenlight a low-level nuke dump in Texas that was eventually rejected on -- wait for it -- scientfic grounds. (His backing of the project, which would have been located in the poor, Hispanic town of Sierra Blanca, led some anti-nuke activists to accuse Dean of environmental racism.) Whatever your view on Yucca, Tuesday's spectacle is yet another example of how the so-called straight-shooter is nothing more than a mealy-mouthed pol.

Which makes the fledgling "libertarians for Dean" movement of the past few weeks even more confusing. I hate to take issue with my former colleagues at Reason magazine, but why do anything other than show this guy the door? As attractive as the notion of a return to "divided government" might be, has the good doctor demonstrated even lip service to any aspect of libertarian/classical liberal philosophy -- or to any steadfast principles of any sort?

So there's guns. He probably wouldn't order the feds to conduct house-to-house raids to seize individuals' firearms (unlike, say, most of the Democrats in their fantasy worlds.) But is he more likely to respect the rights of firearms owners than Bush? Is his attorney general likely to uphold Ashcroft's view that the 2nd Amendment is a statement of individual rights ... and translate that into policy?

Affirmative action: Al Sharpton smacks Dean for a statement he made years ago that federal preferences should be based on financial circumstances rather than race. While defensible, this view is hardly libertarian, that is if libertarian is still synonymous with individual rights. But when Sharpton launched this attack, Dean immediately went into full retreat mode, defending racial set-asides and all sorts of race- and gender-based apartheid.

Welfare reform? Years ago, Gov. Dean suggested that Medicaid and some other federal entitlement programs might need to be reined in ever-so-slightly, lest they bankrupt state treasuries (not to mention individual taxpayers). When Dick Gephardt said that makes Dean sound like Newt Gingrich, again, Dean slinked away.

The war? Dean wouldn't immediately cut and run and bring the boys home. Among Dems, only Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich (last seen hanging in the same alternative universe as fellow Hair Club for Men member Jim Traficant) have advocated that, which would be a geniunely noninterventionist position (setting aside how disastrous that would be for the United States on countless levels). But it's not what Dean advocates.

So why "Libertarians for Dean"? In part (I hope), it's a temper tantrum by people who are feeling neglected, or perhaps betrayed. Bush spent a lot of time courting people in the free-market community on the campaign trail. They either left him alone, said nice things about him, or went to work for him. Bush takes office, and he spends like Lyndon Johnson ... or is it Richard Nixon? He talks free trade while imposing tariffs. Rather than closing the Education Department, he signs onto the biggest federal takeover of K-12 schools in history. He's ready to endorse a massive expansion of the Medicare entitlement. Most, if not all, of these moves were cynical ploys, designed to buy votes, and they have serious implications, near-term and for years to come.

And then there were the tax cuts, which have totally discombobulated sensible left-liberals like Matt Miller. (That's a good sign that, if made permanent, they really will "starve the government," making market-based entitlement reforms essential.) Would Dean one-up Bush here? Get real. It wouldn't surprise me if Bush still pushes for individual Social Security retirement accounts. Liddy Dole and Lindsey Graham, among others, demonstrated the political viability of that issue -- one that also has significant implications. What Would Howard Do?

Granted, there's the War on Terror, and the legitimate erosions of civil liberties that are likely. The Transportation Security Adminstration is a cruel joke. But again, how would Dean do things differently? Would he close the TSA, allow/encourage airline passengers to arm themselves, or instruct airlines that they are responsible (legally and financially) for the safety of their passengers? Please.

Name a single libertarian principle (other than gay civil unions) to which Dean demonstrates significantly more fidelity than Bush; I can cite a half-dozen in which the Bush administration and its policies are head-and-shoulders above the positions of the good doctor. As I've pointed out earlier, Bush offers plenty of causes for concern. But at the margins, a second Bush term enhances individual liberty; a first Dean term erodes it. I just don't understand.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

The Marlins win the pennant! The Marlins win the pennant!

Cagey, 72-year-old grandfather Jack McKeon and his kids defeat the storied Yankees ... in the Bronx. Best postgame moment: At his press conference, somebody asks Josh Beckett about his strategy in pitfching to Derek Jeter, and Becketts says, "I can't believe we're talking about this shit." Indeed. Terrific postseason. Congratulations.

Pleas, pleas, pleas

Strip club owner Michael Galardi, who's knee deep in indictments related to the political scandals in San Diego and Las Vegas, enters a guilty plea to FBI agents here in Sin City. Reports say that, in exchange for his cooperation, Galardi will pay a fine (or forfeit) $4 million and serve no more than five years in prison. And that's separate from the San Diego side of the scandal. If that's the sort of penalty the guy gets for cooperating, he must have some juicy details to share ... and the local targets of the investigation should be plenty worried.

Fall classic

With chili cooking in the crock pot back at the house, I made my first visit to the Valley of Fire State Park about an hour north of Las Vegas. It's a neat place, with stunning sandstone formations, some of which are 150 million years old or older. I selected a picnic area, pulled out the Sunday Review-Journal, a flask of coffee, one of my old brier pipes (and a bowl of English tobacco), and soaked up the gorgeous desert atmosphere. Today was perfect for a visit; the temp was about 75 degrees, with only a few high clouds to break up the deep blue skies. (In the summer, it's not unusual for the mercury to approach 120 up there.) If you ever visit Vegas between October 1 and April 30 and have several free daylight hours, it's well worth the trip.

Friday, October 17, 2003

Booby Hatch

Another week, another scandal involving Nevada elected officials. This time, it seems to be rampant violations by state lawmakers of the federal Hatch Act. The New Deal-era law prohibits federal employees (and most state and local workers whose agencies receive federal funding) from participating in partisan politics. The act was originally designed to prevent low-level federal employees from being dragooned into campaign-related grunt work by political appointee bosses. More recently, it's become way to (potentially) de-politicize local bureaucracies.

The chief violator here is Nevada Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, who moonlights as a deputy chief at the Henderson Police Department. Or maybe it's the other way around. Anyway, in response to a complaint by local government vexer Knight Allen, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel ruled that Perkins can't be an assemblyman and a cop (Henderson gets several million bucks from D.C. each year) at the same time. Perkins plans to appeal, citing among other things the fact that the PD established a Hatch Act Compliance Program to ensure that Perkins' duties didn't violate the law. Wow. A law enforcement agency diverts taxpayer dollars and manpower to help one of its employees break, er, evade the law. To protect and to serve, my ass.

A hearing is set Monday to resolve the matter, and the city has hired the law firm of Akin Gump to state its case. Thursday, Perkins said he might pick up the tab for the appeal (no doubt in reponse to reporting by the Review-Journal here and here and these editorials here and here). And if this isn't bad enough, several other lawmakers appear to have Hatch Act troubles, too, including -- wait for it -- Wendell Williams.

To justify the claim that he was actually "working" at his city "job" during this year's Legislature and should have been paid, Williams filed documents stating that he spent two weeks helping the city establish a federally funded program to help ex-cons get jobs once they've paid their debt to society. A noble cause. But, oops -- any elected official who simultaneously served as a municipal employee procuring federal funds would clearly violate the Hatch Act; this is not even a close call. So, either Williams was falsifying his city timecards or he was breaking federal law. And why hasn't he been fired yet?

The other three state Assembly members -- all Democrats -- face Hatch Act queries as well. While all claim that they're exempt because they didn't "supervise" the disbursement of federal money, the language of the OSC ruling on Perkins is crystal-clear:

"It has long been established that an employee of a state or local agency is subject to the Hatch Act if, as a normal and foreseeable incident of his principal position or job, he performs duties in connection with an activity financed in whole or in part by federal funds. ... Hatch Act coverage is not dependent on the source of an employee's salary, nor is it dependent upon whether the employee actually administers the funds or has program or policy duties with respect to them."

Not much wiggle room there. Violators can be fined as much as two years' salary, but it's not clear to me who would pay that, the individuals or the agencies that hired them. Anyone know?

Baseball rant

As I decompress from the best and most infuriating postseason in my lifetime, a few thoughts:

Dusty Baker has the rare opportunity to become the next Bobby Cox: A fine manager who can get his team into the big dance and then never win the whole thing. At least Dusty's teams play with some passion.

Speaking of passion, how bout those Fighting Fish? Wednesday offered a true gut check for the four teams still in the playoffs. Boston had to start John "batting practice" Burkett because Tim Wakefield and Pedro Martinez said they were too tired to go. Meantime, in the NLCS, Jack McKeon's kids Brad Penny and Josh Beckett, both spent from recent starts, said, "Give me the ball." Penny pitched a shutout inning, and Beckett was lights-out for four innings. Reminds me of the way the postseason was played when I was a pup, when starters might go three games in a seven-game series, starters would pitch out of the pen the day after a start (say, the way Randy Johnson did when the D-Backs beat the Yankees) and everybody on the staff was expected to contribute if needed. You have all winter to rest.

Give McKeon all the credit in the world. He wanted to keep the bats of Miguel Cabrera, Mike Lowell and Jeff Conine in the lineup every day, so he stuck the 20-year-old Cabrera out in right field ... a position he had never played in his life. Cabrera responded by hitting three homers in the NLCS. Now that's the way to manage. I had completely forgotten that McKeon was aka "Trader Jack" years ago when he was the general manager of the San Diego Padres. In fact, he was the Padres' GM in 1984, the last year the Cubs made (and lost) the NLCS. Lesson for Chicago fans: If McKeon is on the opponents' payroll during the postseason, hang it up.

The Bosox's Grady Little (former manager of my beloved Durham Bulls) may be looking for work soon. When Giambi hit his second home run in the sixth inning, I was thinking, OK, Pedro has to come out. When he not only finished that inning but came out for the eighth, I said, OK, one baserunner and he's gone. When Little let Pedro stay out there until the game was lost, I wanted to pull an Elvis on the TV set. ARRGGHHH!

When did Joe Torre become a genius? Mind you, from all accounts he's a wonderful guy and a fine human being, but he has to be (ahem) the luckiest man on the face of the earth. He was an average manager at best with the Mets, the Braves and the Cardinals. He goes into the broadcast booth for a few years -- some of them with the Angels when I lived in SoCal, and he was damn good -- then gets the Yankees' job. Now he's ticketed for the Hall of Fame as a manager. (You could make a good case for him to make the HOF as a player; see Bill James' Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?)

Speaking of Bill James, here's this from his 1983 Baseball Abstract:

[T]his is one bandwagon [Joe Torre for manager of the year] that I'm definitely not jumping on. Torre managed the Atlanta Braves in 1982 very much the same way he managed the New York Mets for four years. He never did establish a starting rotation. He had a red-hot prospect in center field; the kid went into a slump and he gave up on him. He was indecisve, unreliable, continually trying to ride a hot hand. Maybe his style will fit the needs of the Atlanta organizatinon. [He was fired a year and a half after they won the National League West.] Casey Stengel never set up a starting rotation in hi life; he won the pennant in '57 with no pitcher who started more than 28 times. He never used a set lineup eithr; he was always shifting from one guy to the other. He lost big with this style in Brooklyn and Boston, but he posted the greatest record that any manager ever had with the Yankees. Maybe Torre's style just needed the right circumstances to be successful. I'll believe it when I see a little more of it.

This is one instance in which Steinbrenner's megabucks have indeed bought success. Torre can muck around with lineups and rosters (didn't McCarver say last night that the Yankees had used 20 different guys in relief?) because he has a $180 million payroll and has potential All-Stars atrophying on his bench who can step in when Joe gets impatient with the guys on the field.

The Yankees are also lucky in another, crucial way: They have Mo Rivera, the best, most dominant rubber-armed closer of all time. Torre can (and has) worked Mo like a Grand Canyon pack mule, and with few exceptions, he's responded every time. IMHO, any other closer who had been expected to work as long and as often as Rivera has since Torre got there in '96 would have broken down long ago, and the Yankees would have been an expensive, occasionally successful, but never dominant team. Oh, and Jeter's good, too.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Ahead of the curve?

Virginia Postrel (thanks for the plugs!) links to this Washington Times story, putting meat on the bones of the speculation (first offered here) that David Dreier might indeed challenge Barbara Boxer for the Senate next year.

Saturday, October 11, 2003

If you want to know what kind of person Wendell Williams really is ...

Check out the lede to this story in Friday's Las Vegas Sun:

Assemblyman Wendell Williams went on television to clear his name Thursday. When he pulled into the lot at Las Vegas ONE, he parked his silver BMW in a marked handicapped spot.

It didn't get much better after that ...

Read the whole thing here.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Re-call-ifornia

Mickey Kaus, Roger Simon, and Dan Weintraub, get it right: Democrats who dismiss this election as either an aberration or the consequences of a right-wing plot do so at their own peril. The recall was a complete repudiation of the politics of tax/spend/regulate/pander. Dems who don't acknowledge this, or who try to vent their anger via obstructionism or threats of further recalls may be marginalized. I wish I had Simon's optimism.

On MSNBC, Jill Stewart said she had heard that the network affiliates in California's major population centers actually planned to re-open their Sacramento bureaus. The fact that these stations ignored the capital in the first place is an outrage of the first order. But even though the Schwarzenegger administration might not exactly appreciate all that additional scrutiny, if the stations commit serious people and resources to reporting state politics, Californians will be the winners. Don't hold your breath, though.

Launching pad?

Arnold's selection of GOP Rep. David Dreier, the smart, affable congressman from the San Gabriel Valley, to head his transition team is good news to the extent that the Wilsonistas recede into the background. (The Reason Foundation, where I used to work, has published the Citizens' Budget -- a "road map" to reform which the new governor should peruse frequently.) Arnold and Dreier would do well to have some Democrats on the team and in the administration: former state Controller Kathleen Connell (who co-authored this Wall Street Journal op-ed with former GOP Treasurer Matt Fong) would be a great choice. Now that the campaign is over, the more the Wilsonistas are pushed to the back, the better.

If the transition and the early days of the new administration are successful, this period could serve as the launching pad for Dreier to challenge Barbara Boxer next year. As Virginia Postrel has pointed out, it's nearly impossible for GOP House members to advance to a statewide, top-of-ticket race. California is too big and fragmented, the media markets too dispersed. The simplest pathway to a top spot for Republicans has been to be richer than God (Bill Simon, Michael Huffington), the mayor of a big city (Pete Wilson) or the winner of a lower-level statewide race (Dan Lungren). Dreier has been all over the airwaves throughout the recall campaign. He's telegenic and funny. The intense statewide interest in the recall may have boosted his recognition factor enough to make him a credible challenger to Boxer in '04. If Arnold succeeds, the Democrats should worry.

More Williams

The litany expands. It turns out that Wendell Williams filled out phony timecards that amounted to $6,700 in salary for the time he was in Carson City, and his bosses in Las Vegas want the money repaid. (Of course, Wendell being Wendell, he'll get to repay his embezzled funds on the installment plan, to the tune of $290 per paycheck.) To make matter more hairy for the city, his immediate boss Sharon Segerblom failed to tell the Review-Journal the payment plan had been arranged when she turned over his personnel records to the paper.

As always, it gets better. In an interview with the R-J's John L. Smith, Williams claims that he really was doing work for the city the entire time and that he agreed to take the $6,700 reduction to "squash" stories in the media. (He also claimed to have "no relationship" with Briget Jones -- see below.) Listen. This guy is a serial liar, an embezzler, and a potential extortionist (again, see how he mau-maued university employees on the Jones employment matter, below). He ought to be fired immediately, and then indicted.

Yet guess who's defending him? The Las Vegas Mercury, the alternative weekly owned by the same company that publishes the Review-Journal. The current issue's cover story (here's the link) plays kissy-face with the potential felon, claiming that he's merely the victim of a racist conspiracy by the corporate media, which can't abide the existence of an effective liberal lawmaker, particularly an African-American one. Bring on Art Bell and the black helicopters, folks. This is seriously demented stuff. Reputable alternative weeklies certainly have a different attitude than your mainstream media publications, and they don't mind throwing a few elbows. But the good ones at least do an honest job of reporting, don't entertain delusional conspiracy theories (unless they're used as a source of ridicule), relish hardball journalism, and rarely apologize for, let alone defend, corrupt public officials. (Interestingly enough, Las Vegas City Life, the alternative weekly where the Mercury's current editor once toiled, took a much more skeptical look at the Williams story.)

Saturday, September 27, 2003

Wendell's woes

Nevada's most embarrassing political year in recent memory just gets more seamy. No local indictments have been issued in the Operation G-Sting, the strip club scandal that has roiled the political establishment in San Diego -- three members of the city council have been indicted, and former Clark County Commissioner Lance Malone, now a strip club lobbyist, has dragged Las Vegas on stage, as it were. Not yet, anyway. But if Knappster is right, a host of prominent Vegsa business and political leaders may soon have reservations at Club Fed.

Then we have Wendell Williams. The nine-term assemblyman from North Las Vegas has constantly been at odds with the Review-Journal's editorial board on philosophical grounds; Williams is cut from the cloth of the Jesse Jackson/Al Sharpton civil rights establishment, promulgating racial preferences and other policies that expand the welfare state -- an agenda which rejects educational choice, genuine neighborhood-level decision-making, and true individual empowerment. Unlike Jackson and Sharpton, however, Williams has actual power. He's chairman of the Assembly's education committee, which controls funding of K-12 schools and the college system AND has the authority to micromanage the operations of school districts statewide. In addition, he's speaker pro tem of that body, so he can influence the legislative agenda.

In recent years, he has not only been an impediment to any reforms which would help his own constituents escape government dependency; he has begun to use his position as an elected official and a public employee (stay tuned) as a way to abuse power for his own personal gain.

Statements and documents establish that Williams:
• Drove with a suspended license during the past two years.
• Faced an arrest warrant for failing to appear in a Reno court in connection with a traffic citation.
• Failed to make this month's payment on a $15,000 fine he incurred for failing to submit required campaign contribution and expenditure reports during the 2000 election.
• Made an undetermined number of personal calls on the cellular phone issued by his employer, the city of Las Vegas. On Wednesday, the city put him on a payment plan to repay $1,844 for those calls.

And there's more. The married Williams personally intervened with college officials on several occasions to ensure a part-time job for his 28-year-old girlfriend, Topazia "Briget" Jones, who was then elevated to the position of lobbyist for the college system so that she could visit Williams at the Legislature at taxpayer expense. The details here:

• Jones made unauthorized trips to the recent legislative session in Carson City and was on the Assembly floor with Williams, wearing an embroidered jacket identifying her as a special assistant to Williams.
• Jones was picked up at the Reno airport by legislative police on those trips, then driven to Carson City.
• Williams and Jones tried to induce university system Chancellor Jane Nichols to lease West Las Vegas property for use by Nevada State College. In exchange for her work on the lease, Jones was expected to receive an administrative job with Nevada State College.

Williams and Jones both lied to college officials about her academic credentials and her previous salaries -- offenses which would, according to university policy, get anyone else fired.

And there's more. Williams continued to receive pay from his $86,000-a-year "job" with the Neighborhood Services Department of the City of Las Vegas while the Legislature was in session in Carson City, 400 miles from Sin City.

And there's even more. This week, Williams lost his job as chairman of the "interim" education commitee -- the lawmakers who formulate policy when the Legislature is not in session. But he has paid no other penalty for any of these transgressions, other than being allowed to make installment payments of $70 per paycheck for 15 months to cover $1,800 in personal cell phone usage (even though he ran up more than $5,000 in charges over the past year). City officials haven't asked him to return his salary. Nor do they expect him to take unpaid leave when he attends to future legislative business, as is typical of public-employee lawmakers who work for other agencies. (If there's any good news here, Mayor Oscar Goodman believes city employees should not also serve in the Legislature; if he's serious, I can't see why the council couldn't pass an ordinance prohibiting the practice prospectively.) Nope, Wendell's bulletproof because -- let's not mince words here -- he's black, and the Democrats in this state would let him get away with just about anything short of murder rather than express any sort of public disapproval. For now, anyway. (It's also shameful that, to this point, there have been no public expressions of outrage by other leaders in the local African-American community about Williams.)

You can't make this stuff up.

While Williams is appears to be a particularly gross offender, he may eventually face some consequences because he got caught and he left a paper trail. The sad news is, I hear anecdotally that, at a more petty level, this sort of abuse by lawmakers and other public officials goes on all the time -- from minor traffic offenses and other violations of the law being overlooked by the cops to sweetheart deals and off-the-books "gifts" being offered by campaign contributors, lobbyists, contractors and other vendors. It's Tammany Hall for the 21st century, baby, and it's rampant in this state. Want to move to Nevada?


Friday, September 26, 2003

Post-debate obesevations

If I'm George Bush, I'm breathing a lot easier today. The Democrats have failed to exorcise the spirit of FDR, let alone Fritz Mondale. Wealth is evil, "rich" people don't work, Social Security is sacrosanct (Gen Xers, bend over), and central planning is the answer to all our national ills.

Among the candidates, only John Kerry appeared to be sufficiently serious and thoughtful to pose any threat to a second Bush term. Edwards, Sharpton, and Moseley-Braun were nonentities, Kucinich was frightening, Graham was just silly, waving his "economic plan." Clark was presentable but boring, and offered nothing of substance; he had to be cornered before he would offer a simple yes-or-no answer to the question about letting individuals invest some of their payroll taxes in the capital markets (he's agin' it). Dean and Gephardt should have scared the bejeezus out of the investor class, and anyone whose livelihood depends on trade and open markets (including, Mr. Gephardt, the members of the United Auto Workers union, whose employers buy and sell components from dozens of countries ... for the time being).

Joe Lieberman was an enigma. While he said some of the right things about the importance of trade, whenever backed in the corner, he started pandering. When asked if some sort of new WPA would get the economy moving, he said that would be "a good start." When asked what unpopular decision he'd make on Day One in office, he said he'd jump-start the war on terror. (John Ashcroft, you're a piker.) The only rationale I can see for Lieberman to stay in the race is to capture the pissed-off Gore supporters who can't stomach Dean.

Kerry appeared to be the adult on stage. He articulated the only message that was not overtly hostile to free-market capitalism, the creation of wealth, the dynamism of open exchange. He refused to pit "workers" against "the wealthy." He could mount a credible challenge to a president who seems to be teetering. But he'll probably never get a chance, because Kerry's reasonable message just about guarantees he'll never be nominated by Democratic activists, who remain pathologically enamored of the Great Society, notwithstanding its failures.

Of course, the Bush administration has boxed Democrats into a corner. They can't pledge to reduce the deficit and offer new spending programs, because this White House has spent so recklessly, as John O'Sullivan said on CNBC, as to make drunken sailors appear to be models of sobriety. This may be brilliant politics on Bush's part, but when the tab comes due ...

More debate

Hats off to CNBC for devising a format that worked, despite the unwieldy number of participants. Keep that in mind the next time the League of Women Voters, or whoever, bars legitimate minor party candidates from a presidential debate because it would be unmanageable to have "so many people" (4 or 5?) on stage at once.

Thursday, September 25, 2003

Old journalism and "censoring" blogs

A little perspective on the controversy raging over the SacBee's concession that it is editing (or censoring, depending on your perspective) the blog it sponsors featuring great stuff from political columnist Dan Weintraub: The Bee has taken legitimate shots from Mickey Kaus, Glenn Reynolds, Hugh Hewitt and others, because (in part) of the paper's weak-kneed concessions to political correctness. The Bee's ombudsman has admitted that Weintraub's submissions were subject to review after receiving complaints from the Latino caucus of the state Legislature about this post:

If [the California Lt. Governor's] name had been Charles Bustmont rather than Cruz Bustamante, he would have finished his legislative career as an anonymous back-bencher. Thus there is reason to wonder how he would handle ethnic issues as governor.

And while people can debate forever whether MEChA and its more virulent cousins do or do not advocate ethnic separatism, it's indisputably true that the Legislature's Latino Caucus advocates policies that are destructive to their own people and to greater California, in the name of ethnic unity.

The Bee deserves a good roasting for its cowardice. But it's astounding that the paper had not forced Weintraub to vet his postings from the inception of the blog. I think much of the furor over the "editing" of Weintraub's posts has resulted from confusion over who's publishing the blog, and who's ultimately responsible in a legal sense for what appears in it. From my meager understanding of libel law, as a formal extension of the Bee, anything Weintraub writes on the blog -- though it's his own opinion -- potentially subjects the Bee to the same exposure for libel than would any column or news story that appears under his byline in the print edition of the paper. A statement of opinion is given a wide berth by the courts, but not absolute protection.

Just as every staff-written article or sanctioned op-ed that appears in a major newspaper is subject to "lawyering" (meaning editing) to reduce the likelihood the publication would face a libel suit, any piece that appears on a paper's Web site, or a blog owned and sanctioned by it, such as The California Insider, is also likely to undergo scrutiny to make sure nothing maliciously false appears there ... if the paper's owners are smart, of course.

Now, if Weintraub published a blog on his own time and on his own dime (say, like this one), he might be freer to speak his mind. But then he would face a different set of responsibilities. For instance, the Review-Journal has absolutely nothing to do with this blog. I'm free to say what I will. But because the blog is not the official voice of the paper, if a post related to something that's in the newspaper led someone to sue me for libel, the paper would not be obligated to offer me any legal assistance. There's a complete church/state separation in play here, to such an extent that not only must I post in my spare time, but I also cannot use the facilities of the Review-Journal to work on my blog or post from any of the paper's computers.

It's a bizarre confluence of the blogosphere, "old journalism," and the law ... and it will, I'm guessing, lead to an interesting and perhaps unpredictable evolution in the boundaries of legally permissible opinion.

BTW, if my reading of First Amendment law is way off base here, I'd appreciate feedback from those who know much more than me.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Court to Constitution: Drop dead (and we really mean it this time)

In a decision that would make the 9th Circuit proud, the Nevada Supreme Court refuses to reconsider its July 10 decision setting aside the state's supermajority requirement for tax increases. In an interminable 30+ page ruling that reads less like a reasoned legal argument than a bad undergraduate poli sci paper, the majority argued that a) tax increases were necessary to fund education and b) the 2/3 supermajority amendment was probably invalid because voters didn't understand that the mandate would make it difficult to operate the government effectively during tough times. (This, notwithstanding the fact that more than 70 percent of the voters supported the initiative in separate elections and both sides got plenty of air time and column inches to make their case.) The court did not, however, take the logical next step and strike down the supermajority requirement. As far as I can tell, logic played absolutely no part in these proceedings. (Read the decision here. Remove all sharp objects from the room first.) At least Justice Miriam Shearing had the judiciousness, as it were, to offer a brief, separate concurrence providing some legal justification for the decision and then saying that the court had no business defending itself against attacks from the media and other sources -- which is what the other five justices did, ad nauseam.

Justice Bill Maupin again was the lone dissenter. His two-page filing argued that the ruling should have been overturned because a) the phony "constitutional crisis" the majority invented miraculously vanished within days of the original decision when the Legislature passed a balanced budget with a tax increase by a two-thirds majority; and b) the decision remains on the books, setting a troubling precedent. (I have it on good authority that at least two of the state's top Democratic lawmakers think this steamy pile is a wonderful bit of jurisprudence. God help us all.) He also chastised his colleagues for their feeble attempt at mentalism, noting that the court has no business imagining what voters were and were not thinking when they went to the polls. And in a wonderful rhetorical bitch-slap, Maupin cited the Declaration of Independence, noting that the government is legitimate only when it is conducted with the consent of the governed, and that if voters decide to use a legitimate political process to make it harder for lawmakers to take more of our money, that's OK.

If Nevada's conservative and libertarian political activists had two brain cells between them, they'd abandon their idiotic (and ultimately futile) attempt to recall Kenny Guinn and focus their efforts on getting rid of at least one Supreme Court justice. I'd start with Chief Justice Deborah Agosti, who authored both opinions. That would be the only way to let the imperial judiciary know that they do not exercise absolute power. I won't hold my breath waiting for the political types to experience an epiphany.

The Las Vegas Expos? Don't be daft

My colleague Norm! Clarke, the Review-Journal's gossip columnist, broke the story (here -- check "Sightings" -- and here) that Major League Baseball has opened high-level negotiations with parties who hope to make Las Vegas a possible destination for the Montreal Expos. Mayor Oscar Goodman, casting about as always to find something, anything that might revitalize his bedraggled downtown, is all aflutter. But back to reality. As much as I would love to have a big league ballclub playing a half-hour or so from my home, I'm convinced this is a ploy by MLB, using Las Vegas as a bargaining chip to extort a higher franchise fee out of the eventual owners in Washington or Portland (or Montreal, for that matter).

In no particular order of significance, here are several reasons we won't get a major league franchise:

Gambling. Every time talks of bringing big league sports to Las Vegas are initiated, they go nowhere, because so long as Nevada sports book continue to accept wagers on teams in the sport in question, the leagues back away. The casinos offer a self-serving (though plausible) defense for refusing to close the books: So long as bets are being placed in public, above board, under the scrutiny of financial and government regulators, the chances of successfully running some sort of fixing scheme go down dramatically. Once wagering slinks underground, though, as the phrase goes, all bets are off. Even so, the leagues feel the need to act all high and mighty and resist placing their teams in cities that allow gambling.

Fan base. The Las Vegas metropolitan area has about 1.6 million residents. That would give it the smallest population of any major league city. (It's slightly smaller than Milwaukee and Kansas City, roughly 20 percent smaller than Cincinnati, and a whopping 45 percent smaller than Portland, which is also bidding for the team.)

What's more, there are no nearby "feeder" cities which could provide additional fans if the Vegas nine were to attempt to market itself as a "regional" team in the way the Braves, the Reds and the Cardinals have done so successfully over the years. When I lived in North Carolina, for several years my family made a point of scheduling a trip to Atlanta to see the Braves, even though it was a seven or eight hour drive. Thousands of other families who live closer than we did make a trip to Turner Field a somewhat regular weekend getaway.

Such a plan would be tougher to pull off in Vegas, because the closest real cities are Phoenix (240 miles away), L.A. (280) and San Diego (336) -- and those cities have their own teams. There ain't much else here to draw from.

Facilities. Cashman Field, where the Dodgers' Triple-A franchise (the 51s) plays, holds 9.000 fans. I suppose additional temporary seating could be installed until a permanent home were built, but that final resting place would be an extremely expensive proposition. Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, cost upwards of $400 million to construct, and I'm guessing we'd need a similar structure (with a retractable roof) here. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the daytime highs rarely drop below 100 degrees, and temperatures between 110 and 115 are common in July and August. The mercury will often not descend into the double digits until midnight or later, so an air-conditioned facility for the players and the fans would be a must.

Who would pay for that? The money could come from tourist taxes collected by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, but the LVCVA guards its booty zealously. Taxes on tourism would have to go up. And once the stadium is built, annual operating costs can run in the tens of millions of dollars, which for damn sure won't come out of the owners' pockets.

Competition for the entertainment dollar. Hey, it's Sin City. You think people will travel here to watch baseball? OK, initially, supply may create its own demand. Sheer novelty will attract tourists and locals alike. Tourists attending a convention or on a gambling trip might set aside a few hours and a few bucks to take in a ballgame. But long term, I can't imagine a substantial number of out-of-towners supporting the team, especially since most of the games would be played in the heat of the summer, when tourism drops off.

As for the locals? Well, they've supported NASCAR and Rebel basketball, but those are the only sporting events they've regularly attended, and they take up, what ... 20 days a year? The Expos would play 81 home games each season. That's a lot of Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

Ultimately, Las Vegas is being used by MLB. We won't get a team. But that's OK, because the cost to taxpayers -- locals and tourists alike -- of obtaining and maintaining a franchise and a stadium would be staggering. If Oscar wants to rejuvenate downtown, he should implode the ratty casinos there and encourage Steve Wynn, George Maloof or the Fertittas to clear away the wreckage and build an eye-popping megaresort on the site. That'll bring the folks back.

Monday, September 15, 2003

Dodging the raindrops

Back from nine days in North Carolina, eight of them on the coast, where we experienced perhaps 4 hours of sun ... until it was time to head for the airport yesterday, of course. But as my friend Roger Waldon said, there's no such thing as a crappy day on the beach. I saw the Carolina Tar Heels lose a 49-47 triple-overtime football game to Syracuse; played cards with my Chapel Hill poker buds (and my second college roommate); frolicked in the surf for 90 minutes; ate shrimp burgers and oyster burgers; and enjoyed the absence of Internet access and 24-hour cable news. More sunshine would have improved the trip. It was nice to return to the desert.

BTW, the link to my column on The Substance of Style, published while we were on the East Coast, is here.

While you were out

Warren Zevon, Johnny Cash and John Ritter died. John Edwards may have guaranteed an additional Senate seat for the GOP, though the jobless recovery has taken a psychological toll on my home state. The collapse of manufacturing jobs is being felt in more than the old-line industries such as textiles and furniture; it also appears to be hurting the high-tech industry there, which hasn't bounced back from the dot-com crash (and is no doubt hurting from the failure of the administration to further liberalize trade). If Richard Burr does not win that Senate seat, George Bush is in trouble, and you can blame that on Bush's economic, fiscal and trade policies, which have not restored economic growth to North Carolina and other states in the New South.

Making the Nevada Supremes proud

That was my initial reaction to the news that a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit delayed the California recall. Much like their colleagues in Carson City, the 9th Circuit judges set aside a provision of the state constitution for trivial reasons, ruling that the terms of a consent decree overrules the clear language and intent of the constitution. Lots of other folks have weighed in here, including Mickey Kaus, Glenn Reynolds and Eugene Volokh, among others.

What makes this decision so perplexing is the blithe confidence its proponents have expressed that the initial shift from punchcard to touch-screen devices will reduce voting error. It's a ludicrous assumption. Despite the demurrals offered by the 9th, if the decision stands, the upshot of this ruling is that any election in which voters do not have access to the most recent, most expensive state-of-the-art voting technology will be easy prey for litigators. I find the ACLU's sense of triumph here mind-boggling.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

The Look and Feel of the Atlantic Ocean

Light blogging lately, as we prepare for a 10-day trip to the East Coast ... literally. We'll spend much of the time at the North Carolina beaches, where we probably won't have Internet access.

So I'll plug a column by me that will appear in Sunday's Review-Journal on the connections between Las Vegas and the theme of my friend Virginia Postrel's wonderful new book The Substance of Style. The Web link to the column will go up after we depart, so to find it, go to the Review-Journal's Web site Sunday, click on Opinion, and look for either my byline or the title of the piece ("Look and feel and Las Vegas"). And by all means, buy this book.

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Did socialism kill in France?

Virginia Postrel posts here and here on how France's socialism (must ... take ... vacation ... in ... August ... even ... if ... grandma ... broils) likely contributed to the heat-related death toll. Virginia also offers a wise disclaimer: "I was not referring to the French health care system, which I know little about, but to the general structure of society, economy, and government."

But it's possible the health care system was culpable for some of those deaths, as this op-ed by Grace-Marie Turner of the free-market Galen Institue points out. (We ran this in the Review-Journal but didn't own the Web rights.) Money quote:

Now we learn that the health care system is micromanaged by the government, even to the point of determining whether there can be air conditioning in hospitals.


Sophisticated ventilation systems are widely available and in use in the United States that can filter contaminants out of the air. The government may not want to spend the money to air condition its hospitals, but it should recognize that safe new technologies exist.


However, once a law like this gets on the books, a hospital board can't vote to install cooling systems, as they could in the United States. Instead in France, it literally takes an act of Parliament.

Yet single-payer health care remains all the rage on the American left.

Search-a-palooza 2003, World Tour

Attorney General John Ashcroft's nationwide whistlestop tour promoting the USA Patriot Act whizzed thru Las Vegas today. I'll link to the appropriate local stories when they're available. Here's my friend Jacob Sullum's take on the act, along with an interesting "defense" of the Patriot Act by Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute. Check out this little segue:

The key phrase here is "seek a court order." It is inconceivable that the court that oversees espionage and counterterrorism investigations will approve a records request made because the FBI doesn't "like the books" someone reads, or "because she wrote a letter to the editor that criticized government policy," as the ACLU claims.


The ACLU also argues that Section 215 violates the Fourth Amendment right to privacy. But like it or not, once you've disclosed information to someone else, the Constitution no longer protects it. This diffuse-it-and-lose-it rule applies to library borrowing and Web surfing as well, however much librarians may claim otherwise. By publicly borrowing library books, patrons forfeit any constitutional protections they may have had in their reading habits.

So the government would never keep tabs of what books you read (just tell that to folks in Denver), but don't worry your pointy little heads, because your library records are public information anyway. Gee, I feel more secure already.

By the way, Mr. Ashcroft fielded a few softball questions from TV folks, but didn't talk to the print press. Nor did he find the time to schedule an editorial board meeting with the state's largest newspaper (my employer). That's interesting, since we've had lengthy meetings with Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, Education Secretary Rod Paige, Interior Secretary Gale Norton (twice) and even Housing Secretary Mel Martinez. The Review-Journal enthusiastically endorsed George W. Bush in 2000 and even covered Mr. Ashcroft's back during his contentious confirmation. Somewhat regrettable quote:

His opponents obviously hope that they will cow the incoming attorney general, pushing him to abandon his common-sense conservative views on issues like gun ownership, racial quotas, online privacy and the abuse of anti-racketeering statutes.

My, how times have changed.

Addendum

As this Review-Journal news story point out, Ashcroft regularly and intentionally dodges the print press in favor of getting his mug on TV (and avoiding the tougher questioning he'd get from us ink-stained wretches):

Ashcroft's speech was closed to the public. His 90-minute visit included his 30-minute speech, 10 minutes with federal judges and a series of three-minute interviews with local television news stations.

Ashcroft declined to answer any questions from reporters with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, The Associated Press or the Las Vegas Sun. Ashcroft's spokesman, Blair Rethmeier, said newspapers wouldn't be allowed to question his boss because of a "tight schedule." However, he said Ashcroft commonly gives television reporters quick interviews and rejects newspaper interviews.

Ashcroft returned to Washington, D.C., via a government jet after leaving Las Vegas.

The attorney general most recently visited Las Vegas in May 2002 and gave a speech about law enforcement cooperation, followed by a news conference where he answered four questions.





Sunday, August 24, 2003

Hurry home early, hurry on home

VH-1's special on the making of Warren Zevon's final album "The Wind" airs tonight. Check your local listings.

Friday, August 22, 2003

Save the planet, off the people

The campaign against SUVs got particularly ugly today, as the Earth Liberation Front apparently orchestrated several incidents of vandalism and arson at four L.A. area auto dealers. The damages exceed $1 millon.

This week, ELF also took "credit" for torching a five-story residential complex in San Diego Aug. 1, causing some $50 million in damages and endangering the lives of three construction workers who were sleeping in the building. To give you an idea of the level of intellectual nuance we're dealing with here, consider this:

Near the scene of that blaze, firefighters found a 12-foot-long banner bearing the hand-lettered message: "IF YOU BUILD IT -- WE WILL BURN IT -- THE E.L.F.'s ARE MAD."

As my friend Virginia Postrel points out, no response to date from SUV-bashing California gubernatorial candidate Arianna Huffington. Also no response from the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Foundation, or any other more-mainstream environmental group. In a column she wrote for Forbes five years ago, Virginia argued that the longer "respectable" greens refuse to distance themselves from acts of terrorism and violence, the more difficulty they'll have making common cause with normal people.

A forthcoming editorial in the Review-Journal (link not yet available) will make the same point. The Sierra Club may prefer to use clipboard-wielding bureaucrats rather than bomb-toting anarchists to deny people their rights, but by failing to denounce terrorism, the Clubbers sure seem to be straying from the noble goal of enhancing stewardship and enabling the advocacy of something quite dangerous -- and indefensible, among civilized people, anyway. Imagine some crazed anti-abortion zealot systematically murdering doctors at abortion clinics. How long would the Catholic Church remain silent about the actions of a madman who could ultimately discredit the pro-life cause?

Hip-hop gets the blues

I saw a weird and wonderful performance last night by guitar whiz Rick "L.A. Holmes" Holmstrom at the best intimate venue in town, The Railhead lounge at Boulder Station casino. (Free blues shows from national touring acts, every Thursday from 8 to 11; if you're in town, you've gotta check it out.)

Holmstrom spent much of the past decade as lead guitarist for the hip and swinging SoCal quintet Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers before stepping out on his own last year with a statement-making CD, Hydraulic Groove (Tone-Cool Records). Holmstrom's previous work as a solo artist, as a Mighty Flyer, and on two wonderful collaborations a decade ago on Blacktop Records with harmonica ace Johnny Dyer, was firmly rooted in the Pee Wee Crayton/Tiny Grimes jump blues of the '50s. For the new CD, he hired producer Rob Schnapf (Beck, Foo Fighters, R.L. Burnside) who took that sound, threw in a lot of extra reverb, added sampling, tape loops, back masking, drum machines and riffy organ licks to come up with a feeling that's somewhere between Lightnin' Hopkins, Jimmy McGriff and James Brown. Holmstrom tours with a bass player, another former Flyer, drummer Steve Mugalian, some interesting electronics, and the fattest archtop guitar you'll ever see.

It's a completely modern take on traditional jump blues and swing.

I had a blast, and that may be the problem. I have weird tastes (just ask my wife, our families, and most of our friends). My musical interests are so eclectic that anyone outside the mainstream I like is almost certainly destined for commercial obscurity. As with the other oddball guitar whizzes I find irresistible -- Junior Brown, Little Charlie Baty, Junior Watson, Duke Robillard, the late Danny Gatton -- Holmstrom is trying to bridge so many different styles that he may have a hard time finding anything other than a cult audience. Junior Brown sticks close enough to country that he can get away with covering the occasional Jimi Hendrix song. Little Charlie sticks with jump blues, and his band the Nightcats (fronted by vocalist/harmonica player/first-class clown Rick Estrin) has been playing 250+ dates a year in clubs for a quarter century and is finally gaining a decent nationwide following. Robillard has figured out that he shouldn't mix too many genres on a single record, so he'll make a swing album, a traditional blues album and then a rock album. Watson (Holmstrom's mentor) earned a living sitting in with Canned Heat at county fairs for the better part of two decades before striking out on his own. Gatton didn't want to move from rural Maryland to Nashville or Austin or L.A. to be a session man, so he killed himself.

Anyway, check out the sample tracks available from Hydraulic Groove ("Pee Wee's Nightmare" and "These Roads" are wonderful), buy a CD or five, see L.A. Holmes when he plays in your town. Support off-the-wall traditional music.