Postcards from the Great Divide: On training the camera on local politics.

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Good morning Austin:

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will get about 90 percent of the attention but they’ll have about ten percent of the impact on your life. Your state legislative candidates will have about 90 percent of the impact on your life,  but, let’s be blunt, less than ten percent of the attention.

That is Alex Hayes, a former director of the Mainstream Republicans, and a political consultant based in Tacoma, speaking in one of a series of nine short political documentaries – Postcards from the Great Divide – several of which  were screened last night at KLRU, and are part of an online film series focused on local politics in partnership with PBS Election 2016 and The Washington Post.

The series is the brainchild of filmmakers Paul Stekler, Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker, who have produced some of the finest political documentaries of the last several decades.

Paul is the chair of the Radio-Television-Film Department in the Moody College at The University of Texas. I am a big fan of his tremendous body of work as a political documentarian.

Here, from two years ago, is a First Reading Stekler Sampler, looking at his work.

I am hardly alone here.

From Chris Cillizza at the The Fix at the Washington Post:

You might not be reading The Fix right now if it weren’t for Paul Stekler.

Stekler, who makes and produces political documentaries, is one of the big reasons I got into political journalism. During the 1994 election, he made a series for PBS called “Vote for Me” — a series of looks inside the real world of candidates and campaigns.  It was — and is — stunning. (I have the DVDs and, yes, I still watch them. My favorite is the one about a dulcimer- playing Democrat named Maggie Lauterer who ran and lost against then Rep. Charles Taylor in North Carolina. You can watch that one here.)

So when Stekler and his cohorts Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker approached me a few months back about the possibility of running a series of nine “Postcards from the Great Divide” — mini-documentaries from across the country telling stories of our politics and  our culture — I immediately said yes.

Here is Stekler explaining the series in the American-Statesman.

In 2004, Texas author Bill Bishop in his book “The Big Sort” described the migration of Americans inspired by lifestyle choices. In envisioning a growing divide in the country, in advance of today’s political gridlock in Washington, he wrote that “we have built a country where everyone can choose the neighbors (and church and news shows) most compatible with his or her lifestyle and beliefs. And we are living with the consequences of this segregation by way of life: pockets of like-minded citizens that have become so ideologically inbred that we don’t know, can’t understand, and can barely conceive of ‘those people’ who live just a few miles away.”

The political consequences? Increasingly we would live in separate worlds of news and what was recognized as facts, so that bipartisan dialogue and compromise would become impossible.

A decade later, it’s hard not to wonder how our politics could get more dysfunctional. Congress is unable to even pass a budget. The Senate is unwilling to consider filling a Supreme Court vacancy. And voters will soon choose between the two most unpopular major party candidates for president in polling history — candidates whose only paths to victory could come against each other.

We are soon launching an online series of short films, “Postcards from the Great Divide,” that examines aspects of our political divide in nine states. Is anyone happy in Wisconsin, where excessive gerrymandering and heightened ideological division in the Legislature has produced bitter policy fights over everything? How are African-American voters staying engaged in the face of new state restrictions to voting in Florida, a crucial swing state? What were the consequences of outside interests putting more than $1 million into a local school board race outside of Denver?

A hint: It didn’t help produce consensus.

What follows are six of the nine documentaries and the background information on each from the filmmakers.

 

THE GIANT STILL SLEEPS

A film by MIGUEL ALVAREZ

Pundits seem convinced that a purple Texas is just around the corner due to its burgeoning Latino population, yet the state gets redder and redder. One factor is that Latino turnout remains low. Our study case is Pasadena, a city just outside the limits of Houston, where Oscar Del Toro is registering and motivating potential voters as he plans his own city council race.

The Backstory:

Texas is one of the reddest of red states, a place where Republicans have won every statewide office easily for two decades.  It’s big enough to have boosted five Texans and former Texans in the race for President this primary cycle (Cruz, Bush, Perry, Fiorina, and Paul).  It’s state legislature, with overwhelming GOP majorities, has passed some of the most conservative legislation – restricting abortion, cutting taxes, Voter ID, open carry – in the country.

But will demographics change that?

Pundits in this minority majority state (56 percent other than non-Hispanic white) have been waiting for the Latino voter wave to finally appear for years and turn Texas, if not blue, then at least purple with contested general elections.  Latinos make up over forty percent of the population (not counting the undocumented), are posed to exceed white population by 2020 — but they make up under 20% of the statewide vote.  While new voting restrictions have an impact, extremely low Hispanic voter turnout has been a given for years.  Another question, when 40 percent of the Hispanic voters in ’14 voted Republican in the statewide races, is when the Latino wave comes, just how blue will it be? 

About the Film:

The answers to how soon change might come and what it’ll mean to the state’s politics may be found in the grassroots.  It’s here that neighborhood organizing and Latino candidates for local office can be found.  Our case study is Pasadena, a city just outside the limits of Houston, once famous as the site of Gilly’s, the fictional locale for URBAN COWBOY (even if the “cowboys” and their friends were played by extremely non-Texans John Travolta, Debra Winger, and Scott Glenn).  It’s 70% Latino, with Anglos still holding onto slim control of the city government after a redistricting plan that would have been rejected under the old Voting Rights Act.  That hasn’t deterred Oscar del Toro, a small businessman, immigrant from Mexico, and a man who won’t take no for an answer in registering and motiving potential voters as he plans his own city council race.

About the Filmmaker: 

A native of San Antonio, Texas, Miguel Alvarez is an Austin-based filmmaker. A former mechanical engineer, he decided to pursue a lifetime interest in visual storytelling. He has received awards from the Directors’ Guild of America, Panavision’s Emerging Filmmaker program, the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture, and the Texas Filmmakers Production Fund for his previous films, Tadpoles, Veterans, KID, and Mnemosyne Rising. He was a Screenwriting fellow for the 2013 Latino Screenwriting Project sponsored by Cinefestival and Sundance and is currently a lecturer in the Radio Television Film Department at the University of Texas at Austin.

Purple Reign A film by Laura Nix

In the fight to win control at the state level, Republicans have reached an historic high, capturing thirty-one legislatures in the past several years. Now the Republicans are looking for more, even in a supposedly left-leaning state like Washington. With divided knife-edge majorities in both chambers, we follow a GOP strategist as he works with socially moderate candidates, including a Latino Navy vet, to win swing districts and change the statehouse balance of power

The Backstory:

In the aftermath of the Republican off year election landslides in 2010 and 2014, where Democrats lost over a thousand state legislative seats across the nation, there are now Republican majorities in 68 of 98 state legislative bodies, with the GOP control in thirty-one states (including the nominally non-partisan Nebraska), the highest number in the party’s history.  Republicans have total control, with the legislature and the Governor, in 23 states, versus just 7 for Democrats.

This is part of a long term process.  Since the 2004 election, the Republican State Leadership Committee has raised over $140 million  to help accomplish this. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the RSLC’s counterpart, raised less than half that amount in the same period. While other groups also contributed significant amounts to these races, these numbers highlight the emphasis the GOP has put on state legislature elections in recent years.

About the Film:

From a national perspective, most people assume Washington state is all blue, with a long history of Democratic governors and senators.  The state hasn’t voted for a Republican candidate for president since 1984, with the Democratic advantage usually in double figures.  President Obama won the state by 15 points in 2012.

So it may be surprising that the Washington state legislature is actually purple, with the Senate controlled by the Republicans by a single vote, and the House controlled by a slim Democratic majority. And while the assumption is that Washington will remain blue in this year’s presidential election, the GOP is being given a fighter’s chance to win a few more seats and take total control of the legislature.

Meet Alex Hays. A former director of the Mainstream Republicans, Hays is a political consultant based in Tacoma, Washington who’s advising on 14 races in this year’s election. He’s proud to call himself pro-choice and pro-gay rights, and he’s one of many Republicans in Washington state who have discovered the road to the party’s success lies in running moderate Republican candidates in the suburbs of the Western cities.

He’s putting his strategy to the ultimate test this summer with his candidate Pablo Monroy, in a house race in the 31st district outside Tacoma. Monroy is a 28-year old brewery owning, fire-fighting Navy veteran who is also Latino.   We’ll follow Hays and Monroy as they canvass the district and hold “Pints for Pablo” in Monroy’s brewery, the Odd Otter.

 

MILLION-DOLLAR SCHOOL BOARD A film by LOUIS ALVAREZ, ANDREW KOLKER, and PAUL STEKLER

A humble school board race in suburban Denver becomes a proxy battle between national political groups like the Koch Brothers and the teachers’ union, as even down ballot races become nationalized. We follow both right and left leaning members of the community as they tumultuously battle to gain control of the Jefferson County school board and by extension, the state of Colorado.

The Backstory:

Since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, the flood of money in American political campaigns has been a constant topic of media attention, besides also being a staple of Bernie Sanders’ speeches and even part of Donald Trump’s worldview on corrupt politics.  That said, nothing is slowing down the increasing amount of money being donated and spent.  With the current trends, even dark untraceable money will go over the $1 billion dollar spent since 2010 this cycle.

And it’s not just national and federal elections.  Who’d have thought that a proposed local tax increase to provide a permanent funding source for the Columbus, Ohio zoo would attract outside money (in this case the Koch Brother’s funded Americans for Prosperity, whose efforts helped defeat the proposed tax). 

As substantial interest group money flows down into even local races, does it also bring the same stark ideological and partisan divisions that mark our national politics today into debates that were once totally separate from Washington?

About the Film:

Last year, national media began being attracted to a battle over a county school board in Jefferson County, Colorado, just west of Denver.  A newly elected conservative majority had overturned union contracts, put in a merit system for teacher pay, and funded charter schools.  The news flash point was the board considering a proposal to change the AP History curriculum to reflect a more positive view of that history.  The response was a week of student protests and eventually a successful campaign to put a recall election on the ballot.

What set this conflict apart was the location.  Jeffco, as the locals call it, wasn’t a conservative bastion, but a true swing county.  Almost equally divided between Republican and Democratic voters in a largely well off electorate who turned out in elections, the saying was “as goes Jeffco, goes the state.”

Outside observers saw the recall as a battle between conservative interest groups like the Colorado branch of Americans for Prosperity and the Denver based libertarian think tank Independence Institute and the state and national teacher’s Educational Associations.  In fact, Americans for Prosperity had spent $350,000 to protect a conservative school board majority in nearby Douglas County that has also voided their union contracts and put in a school voucher program.  Talk was that the recall campaign funding would top a million dollars in both reported and unreported money.

With money pouring in from the outside over the direction of educational policy, the results of this local school board recall election suddenly had national implications.A

About the Filmmakers: 

Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, and Paul Stekler have been responsible for some of the most respected political documentaries of the past twenty years, bringing an anthropological perspective to the way Americans practice politics. Their work is known for engaging stories and memorable characters, with large dollops of humor and provocative points of view. Vote for Me: Politics in America, a four-hour PBS series on electoral politics and American culture, won a Peabody and a duPont-Columbia Journalism Award. Most recently, Getting Back to Abnormal, their look at race and politics in post-Katrina New Orleans, was shown on PBS’ premier documentary series POV. Other credits include Stekler’s George Wallace: Settin’ The Woods on Fire and Alvarez and Kolker’s People Like Us: Social Class in America and The Anti-Americans.

Look for an appearance here from a very sunny Joe Basel, the man behind the surreptitious videotaping that roiled the last session of the Texas Legislature.

 

THE BIG SORT A film by HEATHER COURTNEY

There’s a political self-sorting process that is happening across America. Blue voters are choosing to live in “creative-class” urban oases, as red voters remain in rural areas. Minnesota native Aaron Spading, conservative church-goer turned far-left Powderhorn Park resident, guides us as we explore one of those blue-dots-in-a-sea-of-red. Meetings with family and old neighbors illustrate just how deep the political gulf between people can be, but the film ends on a hopeful note; where there is dialogue, there can still be community.

The Backstory:

In 2004, Bill Bishop coined the term ‘the big sort” (also the title of his book), describing the migration of Americans inspired by lifestyle choices.  “We have built a country,” Bishop wrote, “where everyone can choose the neighbors (and church and news shows) most compatible with his or her lifestyle and beliefs. And we are living with the consequences of this segregation by way of life: pockets of like-minded citizens that have become so ideologically inbred that we don’t know, can’t understand, and can barely conceive of ‘those people’ who live just a few miles away.”  The political consequences?  “Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes. Heterogeneous communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march toward the extremes.”  The more we self sort and divide ourselves, in where we live, who we talk to, where we worship, and so on, the less bipartisan dialogue and compromise is possible.

About the Film:

So what happens when your political views change and suddenly you feel out of place where you grew up? 

This is the story of Aaron Spading.  Aaron grew up in a fundamentalist, evangelical church family living in a small Minnesota town.  His experience at Bible college led him to break with the politics he grew up with and later to move to Minneapolis.  Now he’s married and lives in the racially diverse Powderhorn Park neighborhood, an enthusiastic volunteer for Bernie Sanders.  The political contrast between the May Day celebration in his new home and his family and old neighbors back in Chisago City couldn’t be greater – and his journey back and forth illustrates what people have in common and just how deep the political gulf is in communities less than an hour’s drive apart.

About the Filmmaker: 

Heather Courtney is a 2014 Guggenheim fellow.  She won an Emmy, an Independent Spirit Award, and a SXSW Jury Award for her film WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM. The film received positive reviews from the New York Times and the Washington Post, and was broadcast nationally on the PBS program POV in November 2011.  It made several Top 10 films of 2011 lists, including Salon’s Best Non-fiction, and was supported by many grants and fellowships including from ITVS, the Sundance Documentary Fund, the United States Artists Fellowship, and POV/American Documentary.  Heather was also a fellow at the Sundance Edit and Story Lab.  She has directed and produced several other documentary films including award-winners LETTERS FROM THE OTHER SIDE, and LOS TRABAJADORES, which were both broadcast nationally on PBS, and were supported by a Fulbright Fellowship and an International Documentary Association Award.

She is currently co-directing and producing (with Anayansi Prado) a Ford and Macarthur-funded feature documentary about undocumented immigrant students in Georgia. She currently splits her time on this project and freelance projects between Georgia, Austin and Washington, DC, and has been an adjunct professor at the University of Texas.  

 

Here is Bill Bishop talking about The Big Sort.

 

Post-Obama Drama A film by Cyndee Readdean and Deborah Hardt

In 2008 and 2012 African-Americans in Florida turned out in record numbers for Barack Obama even when voting hours and registration rules were tightened. What are the challenges among the black electorate that the Democratic candidate in 2016 will face in this must-win state? To find out, we visit a number of African-Americans in the city, from a black chamber of commerce meeting, to a picnic of friends, and ending at a lively black heritage celebration.

The Backstory:

One of the hallmarks of the Barack Obama’s two national victories was the enthusiasm of African-American voters to elect the first black President and then to back him for a second term.  In 2012, black turnout exceeded white turnout (66.2% to 64.1%) for the first time in a national American election.

In Florida, the Republican controlled legislature’s actions to cut early voting days and restrict voter registration drives didn’t prevent long lines of African-American voters in 2012, crucial to the Obama’s 50% to 49.1% victory in the state.  But will those same voters be as enthusiastic to vote in 2016?  Without a strong turnout of largely Democratic black votes, can Hillary Clinton take the swing state that’s backed the national winner since her husband’s win there in 1996.

A visit to Jacksonville’s African-American community, where black turnout was high in 2008 and 2012, may give us an answer. 

About the Film:

Jacksonville’s racial politics have been of interest beyond the Obama wins.  While three thousand Palm County ballots for Pat Buchanan got all the publicity in the disputed 2000 Florida election, nearly 27,000 “flawed” ballots were thrown out from largely black polling places in Duval County that same election.  Jacksonville elected its first African-American mayor in 2011, but he subsequently lost for re-election to the former state Republican Party chair in 2015.  Now, after eight years of the Obama administration, will blacks turn out in November?

To find out, we visit with a number of African-Americans in the city.  From a black chamber of commence meeting to a picnic gathering of friends to a weekend black heritage celebration, the feelings are mixed.  Some wonder if its worth voting given the choices, while others enthusiastically register eligible voters, remembering the struggle to gain the vote in the first place.  The black vote in Jacksonville is predominantly Democratic, but Hillary Clinton’s chances to win Florida may ultimately hinge on just how many blacks go to the polls in November.

 

 

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO WISCONSIN NICE? A film by BRAD LICHTENSTEIN

Once the poster child for bipartisan practical politics, the Badger State has become an ideological battleground in recent years. What happened to the middle? Wandering around the state to find out are former state Senators Dale Schultz and Tim Cullen–one a Republican, one a Democrat. Visiting a gun show, an anti-Trump protest, and a conservative talk radio gathering, they look for insight into what to expect for the state’s political future. A film by Brad Lichtenstein, director of the Sundance virtual reality film Across the Line, Peabody nominated radio series Precious Lives, and Emmy nominated film As Goes Janesville. Original music by Trapper Schoepp.

The Backstory:

Whatever happened to the politics of Wisconsin nice?  During the administration of Governor Scott Walker, bitter partisan and ideological bloodletting has become the norm in Madison.  But the elements of the politics of division were already there.  Small town and rural resentment of the big cities, Milwaukee and Madison, where voters felt their problems with unemployment and poverty were being ignored, reinforced an existing suburban anger in places like Waukesha County, where the radio hosts like Charlie Sykes are conservative stars. 

Wisconsin remains an important battleground in 2016.  While the state hasn’t voted for a GOP presidential candidate since 1984, its electorate is split.  Off year statewide elections have produced conservatives like Governor Walker and Senator Ron Johnson, while presidential years produced Senate’s only openly gay member, Tammy Baldwin.

So how bad has it gotten and is there any common ground left in Wisconsin?

About the Film:

Wandering around the state to find out are former state Senators Dale Schultz and Tim Cullen, one a Republican, one a Democrat, once leaders of their legislative parties, and old friends.  Visiting a gun show, a Black Lives Matter anti-Trump protest, Charlie Sykes’ annual “Insight” gathering, and radio talk shows, they look for answers and an insight into what to expect in the state’s political future.

About the Filmmaker: 

Brad Lichtenstein is an award-winning filmmaker & president of 371 Productions.  He’s won two Duponts: one for the recent Al Jazeera America series Hard Earned (produced by Kartemquin Films) and another for his 2001 film Ghosts of Attica (produced with Lumiere Productions). His first virtual reality film, Across the Line, about accessing abortion amid hostile protests, premiered at Sundance in 2016. His 2012 movie As Goes Janesville (PBS/Independent Lens) was nominated for a News & Doc Emmy. Penelope, his film about a nursing home that performs the Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view, aired on PBS in 2015. 371’s Wisconsin’s Mining Standoff, premiered in June 2014 on Al Jazeera America’s Fault Lines and streams on Al Jazeera English. He’s the executive producer of  “Precious Lives”, a radio/podcast and print series about young people & gun violence. 371’s tech projects include BizVizz, a corporate accountability app available for iPhones. 371 is in development on American Reckoning, a feature doc about unsolved civil rights era murders. There are Jews Here, a feature doc about disappearing Jewish communities will premiere in July of 2016. When Claude Got Shot, a feature doc about race and gun violence in America, is in production. Brad’s also produced for Frontline and Bill Moyers. His work is supported by Bader Philanthropies, Blue Mountain Center, Creative Capital, the Fetzer Institute, The Forward Fund, ITVS, the Ford, HKH, MacArthur, Nathan Cummings, Retirement Research & Tides Foundations, as well as the  IDA and Mary L. Nohl Fellowship. Brad is the founder of docUWM, a documentary program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

 


MEANWHILE – As you already know, Rick Perry was not voted off the island Tuesday. He was very happy.

 

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