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Dems seek answers from Mattis on anti-trans military recommendations

Recommendations contradict previous findings from the Department of Defense

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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is among the Democrats seeking answers from Defense Secretary James Mattis over his anti-trans military recommendations. (Image courtesy of YouTube)

The top congressional Democrats on defense issues are seeking answers from Defense Secretary James Mattis on his recommendations to President Trump against allowing transgender people in the military, which seemed to be based on junk science and were used by the administration to reaffirm its ban on their service.

In a joint letter to Mattis dated April 11, the quartet of Democrats say they were “surprised and disappointed” by Mattis’ conclusions against transgender service, which the White House made public late last month in an announcement renewing Trump’s ban.

“In our view, these recommendations contradict previous findings from the Department of Defense and the professional medical community,” the letter says. “As the president has empowered you to implement appropriate policies governing service by transgender individuals, we feel it imperative that we explore the factual bases behind your recommendations.”

The letter is signed by Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee; Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee; Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). Both Speier and Gillibrand introduced bills in their respective chambers of Congress against Trump’s transgender military ban, but those measures also sought to codify Mattis’ review before it was completed.

“There are currently thousands of transgender individuals openly serving in the military with bravery and distinction,” the letter says. “There has been no indication that this has had an impact on overall readiness. All individuals who are willing and qualified should be able to volunteer to serve, regardless of their gender identity.”

The letter comes on the heels of objections to Mattis’ recommendations and Trump’s transgender ban from the American Medical Associations, which asserted the Pentagon “mischaracterized and rejected” medical research in its conclusions, as well as the American Psychological Association and two former U.S. surgeons general.

The conclusions Mattis reached are different from those during the Obama era under then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who declared transgender people should be able to serve in the U.S. military after his own year-long review. Trump would later reverse this action.

Observing Mattis made his recommendations after he convened a “panel of experts” on transgender military service, the lawmakers pose six questions to the Pentagon about this review process.

1. Who was on the Panel of Experts?
2. Who did the Panel consult with?
3. Did the Panel consult with the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association or American Medical Association or any other medical professionals with expertise in gender dysphoria?
4. In your view, what are the substantial risks associated with the accessions and retention of transgender persons? Can you please provide any examples that since June 30, 2016 these issues have arisen within the military and describe how the DOD or services handled these situations?
5. In your view, what are the specific issues that could undermine readiness, disrupt unit cohesion, and impose an unreasonable burden on the military? Can you please provide any examples that since June 30, 2016 these issues have arisen within the military and describe how the DOD or services handled these situations?
6. Were any government officials outside of DOD or the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) involved in the Report or your Memorandum to the president? If so, who were these officials and what was the basis for their involvement?

Additionally, the letter requests “the specific medical and scientific data that supported the conclusions contained in your memorandum.”

The administration has made conflicting statements on whether or not officials outside the Pentagon influenced the panel of experts. The White House told the Washington Blade the Pentagon made the conclusions “without regard to any external factors,” but Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said “it was a coordinated effort with the White House as well as the Department of Justice.”

Sources have told the Blade the military joint chiefs weren’t briefed before the Trump went public with the reaffirmation of his ban last month. A Pentagon spokesperson nonetheless said their representatives had input on the process leading to the Mattis recommendation.

Despite Mattis’ recommendations and Trump’s reaffirming of his transgender ban, the courts have banned the administration from enforcing it as a result of litigation from LGBT legal groups filed after Trump first announced via Twitter in July he’d ban transgender people from the military “in any capacity.”

A Pentagon spokesperson confirmed to the Washington Blade receipt of the letter from congressional Democrats, but had no immediate comment.

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Southern California

Triple A: Gas price increases slow down

The average price for self-serve regular gasoline in California is $5.45, which is four cents higher than a week ago

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Triple A Auto Club/Los Angeles Blade

LOS ANGELES – Southern California gas prices are still up for the week, but are not increasing as quickly as they were earlier this month, according to the Auto Club’s Weekend Gas Watch. The average price for self-serve regular gasoline in California is $5.45, which is four cents higher than a week ago. The average national price is $3.67, which is also four cents higher than a week ago.

The average price of self-serve regular gasoline in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area is $5.39 per gallon, which is three cents more than last week, 43 cents higher than last month, and 44 cents higher than last year. In San Diego, the average price is $5.38, which is four cents higher than last week, 44 cents higher than last month, and 44 cents higher than this time last year.

On the Central Coast, the average price is $5.35, which is four cents higher than last week, 41 cents higher than last month, and 43 cents higher than last year. In Riverside, the average per-gallon price is $5.32, which is five cents higher than last week, 49 cents higher than last month and 46 cents higher than a year ago. In Bakersfield, the $5.31 average price is seven cents more than last week, 48 cents more than last month, and 42 cents higher than a year ago today.

“According to Oil Price Information Service (OPIS), yesterday’s U.S. Energy Information Administration report showed that West Coast gasoline inventories are at their lowest level in two years,” said Auto Club Spokesperson Doug Shupe. “However, OPIS also reported that imported gasoline should be on its way to California in the next few weeks, which should help ease the upward pressure on pump prices.”

The Weekend Gas Watch monitors the average price of gasoline. As of 9 a.m. on April 18, averages are:

041824 final chart

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Politics

GOP AGs abused power demanding trans medical records

U.S. Senate Finance Committee says GOP attorneys general of Tennessee, Missouri, Indiana, & Texas used “abusive legal demands”

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U.S. Senate Finance Committee hearing room, located in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. (Photo Credit: U.S. Senate Finance Committee)

WASHINGTON — In a 10-page report released on Tuesday by staff for the Democratic majority of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, the Republican attorneys general of Tennessee, Missouri, Indiana, and Texas are accused of using “abusive legal demands” to collect the medical records of transgender patients in furtherance of the AGs’ “ideological and political goals.”

According to the document, which is titled “How State Attorneys General Target
Transgender Youth and Adults by Weaponizing the Medicaid Program and their Health Oversight Authority,” the AGs used specious or misleading legal pretexts to justify their issuance of civil investigative demands to healthcare providers.

For example, the office of Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti framed the request as part of a probe into the potential misuse of Medicaid funds, while the offices of Indiana AG Todd Rokita and Missouri AG Andrew Bailey cited suspected violations of consumer protection laws. The office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, which demanded records from “at least two hospitals located in Texas as well as at least two medical providers” in Washington and Georgia, did not disclose why the requests were issued.

The report found that information requested by the AGs’ offices included “invasive items such as unredacted physical and mental health records, photographs of children’s bodies, correspondence to hospitals’ general email addresses for LGBTQIA+ patients, and lists of people referred for transgender health care.”

In response, and in what the committee called “a grave violation of patient privacy and trust,” some providers turned over “near-complete, patient-identifiable” information while others used legal processes available to them such as privacy protections in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) to share fewer details with the AGs’ offices.

The report noted that Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville had “failed to object in any material manner to the Tennessee Attorney General’s sweeping request and then caused undue terror to young patients and their families by supplying the Tennessee Attorney General with some of the records requested and then, again, by erroneously notifying some patients of medical record disclosures that had not occurred.”

News concerning Vanderbilt’s receipt of and compliance with the demands from Skrmetti’s office was made public in June, sparking widespread concern and panic among many of the center’s trans patients and their families. Some, according to the report, experienced suicidal ideation and emotional distress including depression and anxiety.

A plaintiffs’ lawsuit was filed in July over VUMC’s failure to redact personally identifying information from the medical records. The following month, the center disclosed plans to comply with an investigation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights.

In a statement to NBC News, Michael Regier, the medical center’s general counsel and secretary, said the hospital disputes the findings published in the committee’s report and had submitted “a detailed letter outlining our concerns about its proposed findings before it was released.” 

“We made every effort to both protect our patients and follow the law,” Regier said, adding that “At no point did we violate privacy laws, and we strongly disagree with any suggestion that we did.”

However, the committee’s report notes that by contrast, providers in other states like the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis refused to turn over patient records, citing privacy concerns and HIPPA regulations. And after staff for Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the committee chair, had requested and reviewed copies of correspondence between VUMC and the Tennessee AG’s office, they concluded that the documentation “sheds light, for the first time, on the full extent of VUMC’s acute and repeated failures to protect its patients.”

For example, the report explains that after Skrmetti’s office issued the initial request to VUMC, it followed up with two additional civil investigative demands for “confidential information across 18 categories without any bounds on the number of patients or people implicated” ranging from “employment contracts for physicians to volunteer agreements for the
VUMC Trans Buddy Program to communications to and from a general email address.”

In response, the hospital shared “65,000 pages of documents, including the medical records of 82 transgender patients.” The information that was provided pursuant to receipt of Skrmetti’s office’s third civil investigative demand is unknown.

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Los Angeles County

UCLA survey says quality of life in L.A. County is way down

High cost of housing is the most important factor impacting the annual Quality of Life Index, particularly among renters

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(Photo: Los Angeles County/Mayra Beltran Vasquez)

LOS ANGELES – Affordable housing, groceries and consumer goods that have all spiraled upward in cost has lowered the quality of life for Los Angeles County residents this past year according to a survey conducted by UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs.

Interviews were conducted with 1,686 L.A. County residents between Feb. 22 and March 14, both in English and Spanish.

The Quality of Life Index, or QLI, is a project of the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs measures county residents’ satisfaction in nine categories. The overall rating fell two points from last year to 53 on a scale from 10 to 100, marking the second time in three years it came in below the survey’s 55 midpoint since the index launched in 2016. That means a majority of respondents are dissatisfied with the overall quality of their lives.

Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs

Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the study at UCLA said renters, who make up nearly half of survey respondents, are being disproportionately affected by the economic and inflationary pressures facing the region. More than half, or 59%, cited housing as the most important factor in their rating.

“Housing costs have gone up,” Yaroslavsky said. “And incomes have not gone up anywhere near commensurate with what’s happened to housing.”

Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs

While 61% of homeowners feel optimistic about their economic future in Los Angeles County, 51% of renters report being pessimistic. Only 23% of renters think they will be able to buy a home where they would want to live at some point in the future.

KTLA reported that according to data released by the National Association of Realtors earlier this year, parts of L.A. County rank 8th highest in the nation for highest housing prices. Just 23% of the renters that responded to the survey believed that they’d be able to buy a home in an area they find desirable in the future.

Homelessness problems are worsening

This year’s survey also produced striking results on the issue of homelessness.

“We discovered very little optimism about whether the current programs and efforts to eradicate homelessness will work,” Yaroslavsky said.

More than half, or 60%, of respondents said homelessness in their area has gotten worse over the past year, with only 10% saying it has gotten better. Just 20% are more hopeful than they were last year that the homelessness situation in Los Angeles County will improve.

Respondents were also asked whether they worried about becoming homeless themselves, with the highest levels of anxiety expressed by people living in households earning less than $60,000 annually at 44%, renters 37% and African Americans 33%.

“Despite the best efforts of state and local officials, the public is more negative and less hopeful about solving homelessness,” Yaroslavsky said.

In an email to the Blade Wednesday, Chair of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Lindsey Horvath said:

“Watching my neighbors struggle with affordability or be on the brink of homelessness is what calls me to be of service to our community. We need to urgently address our overlapping homelessness and affordable housing crises by expediting production of all forms of housing, expanding tenant protections, and ensuring fair wages to address rising income inequality.”

Dissatisfaction with the government

Noting the fact that this is an election year Yaroslavsky, a former member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors from December 1, 1994 – December 1, 2014, said: “It feeds an overall sense that things aren’t working well.”

He framed this year’s results in the context of nearly a decade’s worth of research showing positive results for neighborhood quality and racial/ethnic relations, but low marks in categories commonly associated with decisions by public officials.

“A main theme over the last nine years is that Angelenos love the neighborhoods where they live. We appreciate diversity and get along with others better than some people think. And the quality of life for most of us is pretty good,” he said. “But at some fundamental level, people think our governmental institutions are letting them down.”

The last year has seen a modest decline in most ratings for elected officials.

  • Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna is viewed favorably by 34% and unfavorably by 26%. Last year was 37% favorable and 21% unfavorable.
  • Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass is viewed favorably by 42% and unfavorably by 32%, a drop from 46% favorable and 23% unfavorable in last year’s QLI.
  • Respondents had a slightly favorable view of the city councils in their cities: 37% favorable and 32% unfavorable. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is viewed more negatively: 27% favorable and 35% unfavorable.

The Quality of Life Index in issues regarding the environment found that 25% of respondents said climate change had a major impact on their quality of life in the last year; 38% saw a minor impact.

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West Hollywood

Family demanding answers in beating of gay hair stylist in WeHo

The family questions why it taking so long for West Hollywood Sheriff’s station to retrieve video footage from local businesses

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54-year-old Albert Vasquez, a celebrity hairdresser, was found brutally beaten in West Hollywood’s Rainbow District. (Family photo)

By Paulo Murillo | LOS ANGELES – Friends, family, and supporters of 54-year-old Albert Vasquez, a celebrity hairdresser found brutally beaten in West Hollywood’s Rainbow District on April 5, 2024, continue to demand answers and call for justice as they try to piece together what happened on that fateful Friday night.

Vasquez was discovered unconscious on the ground with severe head trauma, a black eye, and scrapes and scratches to his arms and legs in a parking lot behind Heart WeHo at 8911 Santa Monica Blvd, in West Hollywood’s Rainbow District.

The family questions why it taking so long for West Hollywood Sheriff’s station to retrieve video footage from local businesses. They also don’t understand why the Sheriff’s Station suggested to media outlets that Albert could have possibly fallen and gotten injured without investigating or knowing any details about his injuries.

Questions have also arisen regarding Heart WeHo, the last nightclub where Albert was allegedly seen on the night of the attack, reportedly after leaving Gym Bar according to witnesses. In efforts to solve the mystery surrounding the attack, supporters have taken to social media to demand that Heart WeHo, partly owned by celebrity entrepreneur Lance Bass of the boyband NSYNC, deliver unedited footage to detectives at the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station.

The calls for video footage and threats to have a protest outside of Heart WeHo prompted Heart to issue a statement.

“Heart WeHo remains deeply committed to the safety and wellbeing of our community. We are aware of the incident that occurred on April 5th and have been actively collaborating with the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Department to assist in their investigation since the beginning. We have provided the authorities with unrestricted access to our security footage,” reads the statement by Heart WeHo. “We urge anyone with additional information pertaining to this incident to come forward and assist the West Hollywood Department in their efforts to ensure the safety and security of our neighborhood.”

The victim’s sister, Gloria Jimenez, tells WEHO TIMES that Heart WeHo turned over surveillance footage to the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station on Monday, ten days after the incident occurred.

“I was hoping people would speak up or that somebody has video or something,” she said. “Everybody’s always videotaping, and we haven’t gotten anything at all. We’re really just relying on the police to expose that footage but there are all these rules and regulations where you cannot get it yourself. You have to wait for police to collect it and we were after the police to do something and they just got the footage yesterday [Monday].”

Regarding updates on Albert’s injuries, Ms. Jimenez says that doctors discovered a second skull fracture on the other side of his head. He also has bruised lungs, which went unnoticed throughout his stay at the hospital. These injuries are in addition to a black eye and scratches on his legs and arms, and it appears he was kicked in the neck.

However, despite his newly discovered injuries, Albert seems to be on the mend, she said. He was in a coma for one day when he was brought to the hospital, but is currently awake and seems to be aware of his surroundings. He starts therapy this week and is expected to be in the hospital for another week and a half. He has not spoken about what happened to him that Friday night, mainly because he’s heavily medicated and nurses feel it’s too soon to pressure him to relive the trauma.

Related

Jimenez’s story has garnered national and global attention. His attack was published in the Daily Mail, and there is a campaign of supporters asking for justice for Albert, who is widely known in the West Hollywood community.

Ms. Jimenez alleges that they have received several tips alleging Albert was last seen at Gym Bar when he was there with friends and then he headed to Heart WeHo, which is the last time they saw him. She said in addition to the footage at Heart WeHo, she is also going to seek footage from Gym Bar to determine what time he left and in which direction he headed.

There were also some witnesses stating that he was heavily intoxicated and that he had a confrontation with one of the securities at Heart WeHo, but that has not been confirmed. The surveillance video will answer that question.

Ms. Jimenez thanks the community for their support and for being relentless in holding investigators accountable and demanding they get answers. She’s also grateful for the public’s generosity to help cover medical expenses.

Anyone with information is asked to reach out to West Hollywood Detective Franklin at (310) 855-8850.

The family’s GoFundMe campaign: (Link)

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Paulo Murillo is Editor in Chief and Publisher of WEHO TIMES. He brings over 20 years of experience as a columnist, reporter, and photo journalist.

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The preceding article was previously published by WeHo Times and is republished with permission.

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Los Angeles County

Eric Schockman appointed to LA County LGBTQ+ Commission

Schockman served as high-level staffer in the State Assembly & was instrumental in passing AB 1 (1st LGBTQ+ civil rights bill in California)

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The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Hearing Room in the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration located in downtown Los Angeles. (Photo: Los Angeles County/Mayra Beltran Vasquez)

LOS ANGELES – Los Angeles County Assessor Jeff Prang appointed LGBTQ+ community leader and educator as well as noted author H. Eric Schockman, Ph.D., to the first-ever Los Angeles County LGBTQ+ Commission. 

Schockman currently is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Woodbury University, previously serving as Associate Dean and Associate Adjunct Professor at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. 

He was President and founder of the Global Hunger Foundation, dedicated to helping women in the developing world break the chains of poverty by funding projects designed to provide sustainable development and organic farming.  He served as CEO and President of a prestigious international anti-hunger organization for over a decade pumping some $60 million in grants into the field. 

“This was an easy choice for this ground-breaking commission,” Los Angeles County Assessor Prang said. “I’m just grateful that Eric agreed to serve on this important commission, especially in light of the serious and hateful policies against the LGBTQ+ community across the country. Eric has a long record of leadership and activism, advocating for LGBTQ+ equality and will add a strong voice of experience and accomplishment to this important commission.”

Schockman served as high-level staffer in the State Assembly and was instrumental in passing AB 1 (the first LGBTQ+ civil rights bill in California).  He has also written several books and edited many articles on leadership and politics in California, the nation and international affairs, and presented on scholarly panels on these same topics.

H. Eric Schockman, Ph.D.
(Photo Credit: Woodbury University)

Schockman holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and International Relations from the University of California.  

“I am pleased and honored to be asked to serve on this historic commission,” Schockman said. “Assessor Prang has shown his leadership in LGBTQ+ issues for years and I do not take this new assignment lightly. I am grateful to be selected.”

The Commission was created last June with a motion authored by Supervisors Hilda L. Solis and Janice Hahn. The 15-member Commission will provide recommendations on policies and budget priorities at a time when LGBTQ+ people face mounting challenges. 

According to the LA County Commission on Human Relations’ 2021 Hate Crime Report, 89% of the hate crimes towards gay men were of a violent nature and 93% of anti-transgender crimes were violent – a rate of violence higher than any other marginalized group recorded by the report. 

The Los Angeles County LGBTQ+ Commission will be seated and hold its first meeting in the coming months.  

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Arizona

Arizona Governor vetoes anti-trans, Ten Commandments bills

In a statement, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, accused Hobbs of “abandoning God” with her veto

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Governor Katie Hobbs speaking with reporters at a April 8, 2024 press conference. (Photo Credit: Office of the Governor of Arizona/Facebook)

By Caitlin Sievers | PHOENIX, Ariz. – A slew of Republican bills, including those that would have allowed discrimination against transgender people and would have given public school teachers a green light to post the Ten Commandments in their classrooms, were vetoed by Gov. Katie Hobbs on Tuesday. 

Hobbs, who has made it clear that she’ll use her veto power on any bills that don’t have bipartisan support — and especially ones that discriminate against the LGBTQ community — vetoed 13 bills, bringing her count for this year to 42.

Republicans responded with obvious outrage to Hobbs’ veto of their “Arizona Women’s Bill of Rights,” which would have eliminated any mention of gender in state law, replacing it with a strict and inflexible definition of biological sex. The bill would have called for the separation of sports teams, locker rooms, bathrooms and even domestic violence shelters and sexual assault crisis centers by biological sex, not gender identity, green-lighting discrimination against transgender Arizonans.

“As I have said time and again, I will not sign legislation that attacks Arizonans,” Hobbs wrote in a brief letter explaining why she vetoed Senate Bill 1628

The Arizona Senate Republicans’ response to the veto was filled with discriminatory language about trans people and accused them of merely pretending to be a gender different than they were assigned at birth. 

“With the radical Left attempting to force upon society the notion that science doesn’t matter, and biological males can be considered females if they ‘feel’ like they are, Katie Hobbs and Democrats at the Arizona State Legislature are showing their irresponsible disregard for the safety and well-being of women and girls in our state by killing the Arizona Women’s Bill of Rights,” Senate Republicans wrote in a statement. 

The Senate Republicans went on to accuse the Democrats who voted against the bill of endangering women. 

“Instead of helping these confused boys and men, Democrats are only fueling the dysfunction by pretending biological sex doesn’t matter,” Senate President Warren Petersen said in the statement. “Our daughters, granddaughters, nieces, and neighbors are growing up in a dangerous time where they are living with an increased risk of being victimized in public bathrooms, showers, and locker rooms because Democrats are now welcoming biological males into what used to be traditionally safe, single-sex spaces.”

But transgender advocates say, and at least one study has found, that there’s no evidence allowing transgender people to use the bathroom that aligns with their identity makes those spaces less safe for everyone else who uses them. 

In the statement, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, claimed that the bill would have stopped transgender girls from competing in girls sports, something she said gives them an unfair advantage. But Republicans already passed a law to do just that in 2022, when Republican Gov. Doug Ducey was still in office, though that law is not currently being enforced amidst a court challenge filed by two transgender athletes. 

Republicans also clapped back at Hobbs’ veto of Senate Bill 1151, which would have allowed teachers or administrators to teach or post the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms, a measure that some Republicans even questioned as possibly unconstitutional. 

In a statement, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, accused Hobbs of “abandoning God” with her veto. 

“As society increasingly strays away from God and the moral principles our nation was founded upon, Katie Hobbs is contributing to the cultural degradation within Arizona by vetoing legislation today that would have allowed public schools to include the Ten Commandments in classrooms,” Kern said in the statement. 

In her veto letter, Hobbs said she questioned the constitutionality of the bill, and also called it unnecessary. During discussion of the bill in March, several critics pointed out that posting the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms, tenets of Judeo-Christian religions, might make children whose families practice other religions feel uncomfortable. 

“Sadly, Katie Hobbs’ veto is a prime example of Democrats’ efforts to push state-sponsored atheism while robbing Arizona’s children of the opportunity to flourish with a healthy moral compass,” Kern said. 

Another Republican proposal on Hobbs’ veto list was Senate Bill 1097, which would have made school board candidates declare a party affiliation. School board races in Arizona are currently nonpartisan. 

“This bill will further the politicization and polarization of Arizona’s school district governing boards whose focus should remain on making the best decisions for students,” Hobbs wrote in her veto letter. “Partisan politics do not belong in Arizona’s schools.”

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Caitlin Sievers

Caitlin joined the Arizona Mirror in 2022 with almost 10 years of experience as a reporter and editor, holding local government leaders accountable from newsrooms across the West and Midwest. She’s won statewide awards in Nebraska, Indiana and Wisconsin for reporting, photography and commentary.

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The preceding piece was previously published by the Arizona Mirror and is republished with permission.

Amplifying the voices of Arizonans whose stories are unheard; shining a light on the relationships between people, power and policy; and holding public officials to account.

Arizona Mirror is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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Politics

Drug policy reform pushed at National Cannabis Policy Summit

“We’ve come a long way,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) told the audience on Wednesday. “And now we have a long way to go”

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U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), second from left (Washington Blade photo by Christopher Kane)

WASHINGTON – Speaking at the 2024 National Cannabis Policy Summit on Wednesday, congressional leaders pledged their support for proposals to remedy the harms of America’s War on Drugs while protecting cannabis users and cannabis businesses that are operating under a fast-evolving patchwork of local, state, and federal laws.

Overwhelmingly, the lawmakers who attended the conference at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in D.C. or delivered their remarks virtually were optimistic about the chances of passing legislative solutions in the near-term, perhaps even in this Congress.

Participants included U.S. Sens. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), along with U.S. Reps. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who co-chairs the Congressional Cannabis Caucus and was honored at the event with the Supernova Women Cannabis Champion Lifetime Achievement Award.

Republicans included an aide for U.S. Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) who was featured in an afternoon panel discussion about the cannabis policy landscape on Capitol Hill.

Each of the members have long championed cannabis-related policy reforms, from Merkley’s SAFER Banking Act that would allow cannabis businesses to access financial services (thereby affording them the critically important protections provided by banks) to Lee’s work throughout her career to ameliorate the harms suffered by, particularly, Black and Brown communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of marijuana and the consequences of systemic racism in law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

America is now at an inflection point

The lawmakers agreed America is now at an inflection point. Democratic and Republican leaders are coming together to support major drug policy reforms around cannabis, they said. And now that 40 states and D.C. have legalized the drug for recreational or medical use, or both, the congress members stressed that the time is now for action at the federal level.

Last summer, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a formal request to re-categorize marijuana as a Schedule III substance under the rules and regulations of the Controlled Substances Act, which kicked off an ongoing review by the Biden-Harris administration. Since the law’s enactment in 1971, cannabis has been listed as a Schedule I substance and, therefore, has been subject to the most stringent restrictions on and criminal penalties for its cultivation, possession, sale, and distribution.

Merkley acknowledged that re-scheduling would remedy the Nixon administration’s “bizarre” decision to house marijuana under the same scheduling designation as far more harmful and addictive drugs like heroin — and noted that the move would also effectively legalize biomedical research involving cannabis. However, the senator said, while re-scheduling “may be a step in the right direction, it’s not de-scheduling” and therefore would not make real inroads toward redressing the harms wrought by decades of criminalization.  

Likewise, as she accepted her award, Lee specified that she and her colleagues are “working night and day on the legalization, not re-scheduling.” And her comments were echoed by Warren, who proclaimed in a prerecorded video address that “de-scheduling and legalizing cannabis is an issue of justice.”

Congressional Republicans have blocked legislation to legalize marijuana, the Massachusetts senator said, “and that is why the scheduling is so important,” as it might constitute a “tool that we can use to get this done without Republican obstruction.”

(Photo Credit: U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration)

Warren, Merkley, and Schumer were among the 12 Senate Democrats who issued a letter in January to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration requesting transparency into its re-scheduling process while also, more importantly, demanding that the agency fully de-schedule cannabis, which would mean the drug is no longer covered by the Controlled Substances Act.

However, in a possible signal of political headwinds against these efforts, their Republican colleagues led by U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) responded with a letter to DEA Administrator Anne Milgram “highlighting concerns over HHS’s recommendation to reschedule marijuana from a Schedule I to Schedule III-controlled substance.” The GOP signatories, all of whom serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also sought to “underscore the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) duty under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to ensure compliance with the United States’ treaty obligations under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.”

As Norton noted during her prepared remarks, elected Democrats are not necessarily always on the same page with respect to expanding access to economic opportunity facilitated by cannabis. For instance, though President Joe Biden had promised, during his State of the Union address this year, to direct his “Cabinet to review the federal classification of marijuana, and [expunge] thousands of convictions for mere possession,” Norton blamed Biden along with House Republicans for provisions in the federal budget this year that prohibit D.C. from using local tax dollars to legalize cannabis sales.

A non-voting delegate who represents the city’s 690,000 residents in the House, Norton called the president’s position “deeply disappointing,” particularly considering his record of supporting “D.C. statehood, which would allow D.C. to enact its own policies without congressional interference” and grant its residents voting representation in both chambers of Congress. She added that the majority of Washingtonians are Black and Brown while all are held responsible for “the obligations of citizenship including paying federal taxes.”

Norton said the city should also have the power to grant clemency for crimes committed in the District, including cannabis-related crimes — power that, currently, can only be exercised by the president.

Efforts to reform harmful cannabis regulations

Some Republican lawmakers have been at the forefront of efforts to reform harmful cannabis regulations. For instance, a participant in a mid-afternoon panel pointed to the CURE Act, a bill introduced by U.S. Reps. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) that would prohibit the federal government from denying security clearances based on applicants’ past or current use of cannabis.

While securing statehood for D.C. and de-scheduling cannabis via legislation or administrative action are perhaps, at least for now, a heavy lift, Merkley pointed to promising new developments concerning his SAFER Banking Act.

The Oregon senator first introduced the measure, then titled the SAFE Banking Act, in 2019, and he said the legislation’s evolution into its current iteration was difficult. “Regulators don’t want to be told what to do,” Merkley said, and negotiations with these officials involved “nitty-gritty arguments over every word.”

Pushback also came from one of Merkley’s Democratic colleagues. In September, Warnock, who is Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator, voted “no” on the 2023 version of the SAFER Banking Act, writing: “My fear is that if we pass this legislation, if we greenlight this new industry and the fees and the profits to be made off of it without helping those communities” most harmed by the War on Drugs “we will just make the comfortable more comfortable.”

Warnock’s statement followed his pointed remarks expressing concerns with the legislation during a Senate Banking Committee hearing.

“Let me be very clear,” he said, “I am not opposed to easing or undoing federal restrictions around cannabis. And I would support all of the provisions and reforms in this legislation if paired with broader cannabis reforms that substantively address the issue of restorative justice. This bill does not do that.”

At this point, however, the latest version of the SAFER Banking Act has advanced out of committee and earned the support of Senate leaders including Schumer and much of the Republican conference.

“This is the moment,” he said. “Let’s not let this year pass without getting this bill — the safer banking bill — through the House, through the Senate, and on the president’s desk.”

In her remarks, Lee also discussed the importance of business and industry-wide reforms like those in Merkley’s bill.

“We have to make sure that the cannabis industry is viewed by everyone, especially our federal government, as a legitimate business,” Lee said. “Legitimate, which deserves every single aspect of financial services that any legitimate business deserves and has access to.”

Like Warnock, the congresswoman also highlighted how these financial and business considerations intersect with “equity issues,” as “those who have been most impacted by this horrible War on Drugs” must “become first in line for the businesses and for the jobs and for the economic opportunity the cannabis industry provides.”

Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act

Reflecting on her experience introducing the Marijuana Justice Act in 2019, which was Congress’s first racial justice cannabis reform bill, Lee remembered how “everyone was like, ‘why are you doing this? It’s politically not cool.’” Her legislation sought to end the federal criminalization of marijuana, expunge the criminal records of those convicted of cannabis-related crimes, and reinvest in communities that have suffered disproportionately from the War on Drugs.

The congresswoman said she explained to colleagues how the bill addressed “many, many layers” of often-intersecting problems linked to federal cannabis policy, telling them: “This is a criminal justice issue, a racial justice issue, an issue of equity, a medical issue, a veterans’ issue, and an issue of economic security.”

Two years later, with a 220-204 vote, the House successfully passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, a comprehensive bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and to the Senate by then-U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). The measure included Lee’s Marijuana Justice Act.

“This bill is the product of many, many years of advocacy for federal cannabis reform and equity,” she said in a statement celebrating the bill’s passage. “Make no mistake: This is a racial justice bill. It’s about the thousands of people of color who sit in jail for marijuana offenses while others profit. It’s about finally repairing the harms of the War on Drugs on communities and families across the country.”

“We’ve come a long way,” she told the audience on Wednesday. “And now we have a long way to go.”

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Virginia

Norfolk, Virginia transgender resource center vandalized

“This is a place you can come to get away from that, but to see that sprayed over the window. It’s kind of like you are walking into hell”

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Southeastern Transgender Resource Center (Photo Credit: Google Earth screen capture)

NORFOLK, Va. – The Norfolk Virginia Police Department is investigating the vandalism of a transgender resource center’s building.

Tarena Williams, founder of the Southeastern Transgender Resource Center, told WAVY that someone spraypainted anti-trans graffiti on the windows of her organization’s offices on Sunday or Monday morning. Williams told the Hampton Roads television station that seeing the messages was like “walking into hell.”

“I opened up STRC, even the Lamina House,” she told WAVY. “I opened up that to get away from those types of words. This is a place you can come to get away from that, but to see that sprayed over the window. It’s kind of like you are walking into hell. … To be honest, I was like in shock.”

Authorities are investigating the vandalism.

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Indiana

Drag queen announces bid for mayor’s job in Fort Wayne, Indiana

The late Mayor Tom Henry was diagnosed with late-stage stomach cancer & experienced an emergency hospitalization, he died shortly after

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Branden Blaettner being interviewed in Pride month 2023 by CBS News affiliate WANE 15 in Ft. Wayne, Ind. (Screenshot/WANE CBS 15 News)

FORT WAYNE, Ind. – In a Facebook post Tuesday, a local drag personality announced he was running for the office of mayor once held by the late Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry, who died last month just a few months into his fifth term.

Henry was recently diagnosed with late-stage stomach cancer and experienced an emergency that landed him in hospice care. He died shortly after.

ABC, NBC, and MyNetworkTV affiliate WPTA 21 reported that Fort Wayne resident Branden Blaettne, whose drag name is Della Licious, confirmed he filed paperwork to be one of the candidates seeking to finish out the fifth term of the late mayor.

Blaettner, who is a community organizer, told WPTA 21 he doesn’t want to “get Fort Wayne back on track,” but rather keep the momentum started by Henry going while giving a platform to the disenfranchised groups in the community. Blaettner said he doesn’t think his local fame as a drag queen will hold him back.

“It’s easy to have a platform when you wear platform heels,” Blaettner told WPTA 21. “The status quo has left a lot of people out in the cold – both figuratively and literally,” Blaettner added.

The Indiana Capital Chronicle reported that Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, who has led the Indiana House Democratic caucus since 2018, has added his name to a growing list of Fort Wayne politicos who want to be the city’s next mayor. A caucus of precinct committee persons will choose the new mayor.

According to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, the deadline for residents to file candidacy is at 10:30 a.m. April 17. A town hall with the candidates is scheduled for 6 p.m. April 18 at Franklin School Park. The caucus is set for 10:30 a.m. April 20 at the Lincoln Financial Event Center at Parkview Field.

At least six candidates so far have announced they will run in the caucus. They include Branden Blaettne, GiaQuinta, City Councilwoman Michelle Chambers, City Councilwoman Sharon Tucker, former city- and county-council candidate Palermo Galindo and 2023 Democratic primary mayoral candidate Jorge Fernandez.

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Michigan

Michigan Democrats spar over LGBTQ+ inclusive hate crime law

Michigan could soon become the latest state to pass an LGBTQ-inclusive hate crime law but lawmakers disagree on just what kind of law to pass

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Members of the Michigan House Democrats gather to celebrate Pride 2023 in the Capitol building. (Photo Credit: Michigan House Democrats)

By Rob Salerno | LANSING, Mich. – Michigan could soon become the latest state to pass an LGBTQ-inclusive hate crime law, but the state’s Democratic lawmakers disagree on just what kind of law they should pass.

Currently, Michigan’s Ethnic Intimidation Act only offers limited protections to victims of crime motivated by their “race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.” Bills proposed by Democratic lawmakers expand the list to include “actual or perceived race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, ethnicity, physical or mental disability, age, national origin, or association or affiliation with any such individuals.” 

Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney-General Dana Nessel have both advocated for a hate crime law, but house and senate Democrats have each passed different hate crimes packages, and Nessel has blasted both as being too weak.

Under the house proposal that passed last year (HB 4474), a first offence would be punishable with a $2000 fine, up to 2 years in prison, or both. Penalties double for a second offense, and if a gun or other dangerous weapons is involved, the maximum penalty is 6 years in prison and a fine of $7500. 

But that proposal stalled when it reached the senate, after far-right news outlets and Fox News reported misinformation that the bill only protected LGBTQ people and would make misgendering a trans person a crime. Bill sponsor Rep. Noah Arbit was also made the subject of a recall effort, which ultimately failed.

Arbit submitted a new version of the bill (HB 5288) that added sections clarifying that misgendering a person, “intentionally or unintentionally” is not a hate crime, although the latest version (HB 5400) of the bill omits this language.

That bill has since stalled in a house committee, in part because the Democrats lost their house majority last November, when two Democratic representatives resigned after being elected mayors. The Democrats regained their house majority last night by winning two special elections.

Meanwhile, the senate passed a different package of hate crime bills sponsored by Sen. Sylvia Santana (SB 600) in March that include much lighter sentences, as well as a clause ensuring that misgendering a person is not a hate crime. 

Under the senate bill, if the first offense is only a threat, it would be a misdemeanor punishable by 1 year in prison and up to $1,000 fine. A subsequent offense or first violent hate crime, including stalking, would be a felony that attracts double the punishment.

Multiple calls and emails from The Blade to both Rep. Arbit and Sen. Santana requesting comment on the bills for this story went unanswered.

The Attorney-General’s office sent a statement to The Blade supporting stronger hate crime legislation.

“As a career prosecutor, [Nessel] has seen firsthand how the state’s weak Ethnic Intimidation Act (not updated since the late 1980’s) does not allow for meaningful law enforcement and court intervention before threats become violent and deadly, nor does it consider significant bases for bias.  It is our hope that the legislature will pass robust, much-needed updates to this statute,” the statement says.

But Nessel, who has herself been the victim of racially motivated threats, has also blasted all of the bills presented by Democrats as not going far enough.

“Two years is nothing … Why not just give them a parking ticket?” Nessel told Bridge Michigan.

Nessel blames a bizarre alliance far-right and far-left forces that have doomed tougher laws.

“You have this confluence of forces on the far right … this insistence that the First Amendment protects this language, or that the Second Amendment protects the ability to possess firearms under almost any and all circumstances,” Nessel said. “But then you also have the far left that argues basically no one should go to jail or prison for any offense ever.”

The legislature did manage to pass an “institutional desecration” law last year that penalizes hate-motivated vandalism to churches, schools, museums, and community centers, and is LGBT-inclusive.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, reported hate crime incidents have been skyrocketing, with attacks motivated by sexual orientation surging by 70% from 2020 to 2022, the last year for which data is available. 

Twenty-two states, DC, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands have passed LGBTQ-inclusive hate crime laws. Another 11 states have hate crime laws that include protections for “sexual orientation” but not “gender identity.”

Michigan Democrats have advanced several key LGBTQ rights priorities since they took unified control of the legislature in 2023. A long-stalled comprehensive anti-discrimination law was passed last year, as did a conversion therapy ban. Last month the legislature updated family law to make surrogacy easier for all couples, including same-sex couples. 

A bill to ban the “gay panic” defense has passed the state house and is due for a senate committee hearing April 17.

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Rob Salerno is a writer and journalist based in Los Angeles, California, and Toronto, Canada.

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