“Homicide, Sweet Homicide.” – Eight Reasons to Check out the Best Series Ever Produced for Network Television

In_the_Box

Before HBO delivered the gritty, engrossing hopelessness of The Wire, the city of Baltimore starred in Homicide: Life on the Street (or Homicide, as it came to be known informally), one of the greatest drama series ever produced for U.S. television.

Based on the book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,” by Baltimore Sun police reporter David Simon, and co-produced by Baltimore native Barry Levinson, Homicide premiered on NBC in January of 1993 as a mid-season replacement series.  NBC renewed Homicide for a second half-season in January of 1994 and then for four complete seasons from the fall of 1994 through the spring of 1999.

If you have never seen Homicide: Life on the Street – or if you have seen it, but not recently – I strongly recommend that you find Homicide on DVD or on YouTube, select your most comfortable chair and footrest, and settle in to immerse yourself in Homicide’s gripping and thought-provoking universe.

Here are eight reasons to give the series a try.

1. Fascinating Characters

Almost unique among police dramas, Homicide is character-driven.  The show’s detectives necessarily collect evidence, interrogate suspects, and try to solve crimes, but as they do so the narratives and dialogue emphasize character development over police procedure.

Every character in Homicide, from the police department’s top brass to murder suspects, detectives, medical examiners, and city locals who serve as witnesses, is well-crafted and realistic.  Excellent casting, acting, and writing work together to offer the audience detailed insights into the various personalities.

In this scene, two detectives wax philosophical about their work and their lives while on a stakeout in a suburban home.

 

Homicide is essentially modern-day Greek tragedy.  Every character has believable flaws, and some have fatal flaws whose tragic consequences, artfully played out over many months, inevitably bring those characters down.

The series drives home the point that homicide detective work is hardly compatible with marriage.  Of the 19 main characters’ 13 marriages, 10 have ended in divorce. Two characters have been widowed. Only one main character enjoys a successful marriage, and even his wife leaves him for a few months during the series. There are also four affairs among main-cast characters, at least two of which continued off-screen.

2. Gripping Stories

Whereas police procedural dramas usually focus on one story per week, most episodes of Homicide involve at least two interwoven plot lines that subtly complement one another by offering either opposite outcomes or contrasting comedy and tragedy.  In some cases, plot lines coordinate with themes and events from the outside world, such as religious holidays or, for example, a real-life visit to Baltimore by the Pope.

Homicide broke with television precedent, and ran afoul of network bosses, by presenting some stories without happy endings.  Every season includes at least one story of an unsolvable crime or a criminal who gets away with murder.

Practicing “show-don’t-tell” instead of the more polemical style embraced by other police dramas, Homicide addresses a wide variety of topics, including AIDS, police corruption, unhealed wounds from the Civil War, Black Muslims, African revival movements, serial murderers, the legacy of the Vietnam War, dangerous dogs, alcoholism, gender politics, child physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence, and myriad of thorny questions related to race.  Real 1980s and 1990s crime stories pepper the series (in disguise), including the Jonbenet Ramsey case and the Gianni Versace murder.  Several episodes relate to the drug trade, but drugs are refreshingly not the show’s central theme (cf. The Wire).

Here, the mother of a murder victim becomes friendly with the mother of his young killer before either of them realizes the relationship of the other the tragedy that has engulfed her son.

 

3. Outstanding Scripts

One of the greatest film scripts of all time, James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter, succeeds in part by breaking scenes of wrenching emotional anguish with perfectly timed moments of hilarity.  Homicide adopts a similar model.  Artful scriptwriting advances character development, promotes verisimilitude, and provides moments of very welcome humor. Here are just a few examples (from IMDb and Wikiquote).

SB Bolander (Ned Beatty).

Det. Stan Bolander: Sometimes I wanna call my wife just to hear the sound of her voice. But I know that five minutes into that phone call, my blood pressure is going through the roof, the phone is sailing across the room and I’m wishing that she’s on a plane falling out of the sky. It’s over. I know it’s over. But I had to replace six telephones before I, I really got the hint.

PandB Pembleton (Andre Braugher) and Bayliss (Kyle Secor).

Det. Bayliss: Frank, I work with you, not for you.
Det. Pembleton: Excuse me?
Det. Bayliss: You never say please, you never say thank you.
Det. Pembleton: Please don’t be an idiot. Thank you.

CandM Cox (Michelle Forbes) and Munch (Richard Belzer).

Dr. Julianna Cox, CME: Don’t you even wonder why?
Det. John Munch: Why what?
Dr. Julianna Cox, CME: Why he lied.
Det. John Munch: I’m a homicide detective. The only time I wonder why is when they tell me the truth.

Det. John Munch: The only thing I have in common with Judaism is we both don’t like to work on Saturdays.

Det. Frank Pembleton: You know, sometimes you’re funny. Then there’s now.

Medical Examiner: Another drug dealer. Collect all thirteen in the series, win a set of dishes.
Det. Stan Bolander: Live stupid, die young.

Det. John Munch: From the tracks on his arms, large caliber wound, proximity to a heroin market… I’d say it was a heated dispute about the symbolism of red and blue in 18th-century French romantic poetry.

JHB Brodie (Max Perlich).  KH Howard (Melissa Leo).

J.H. Brodie: Well, you’re a girl. A woman. A woman. A woman with wild red hair. I can’t stay with you.
Sgt. Kay Howard: What are you afraid of? I’m going to chain you to the bedpost and cover you with butter?
J.H. Brodie: Only thing is, I know that you won’t.

SC Crosetti (Jon Polito).

Det. Steve Crosetti: Either it’s murder, or this library has a very strict overdue policy.

Det. John Munch: Name one miracle that’s happened in your lifetime.
Det. Stan Bolander: How ’bout the fact that I haven’t killed you yet?

ML Lewis (Clark Johnson).

Det. Meldrick Lewis: Remember kids, don’t just say no to drugs, say “No, thank you.”

GandB Giardello (Yaphet Kotto) and Bayliss (Kyle Secor).

Lt. Giardello: Bayliss, where’s Pembleton?
Det. Bayliss: Uh, I don’t know, Gee.
Lt. Giardello: Don’t say, “I don’t know.” He’s your partner, you should know his every move, his every breath. Like a lover, he should never be far from your thoughts.
Det. Bayliss: That was poetic.
Giardello: I’m in no mood for sarcasm.

Det. Lewis: Nothin’s missing, so I guess we can rule out a robbery, huh?
Det. Pembleton: We don’t guess, Meldrick, we hypothesize. We infer. We extrapolate from the evidence. We do not guess.
Det. Lewis: Go easy on me, would you, Frank? It’s early in the morning, I haven’t had my first donut yet.

Detective: Doesn’t that stick in your craw?
Det. John Munch: I took the liberty of having my craw removed years ago so that I could sleep at night.

Det. Lewis: A member of the Baltimore City Police Department, Homicide unit, used the word ‘Wow’ on a crime scene?

Det. Munch: You know, Stanley, this woman, you gotta respect her. Why she goes out with you, I’ll never know. As far as I’m concerned, your good fortune hangs right there with the great mysteries of life, right alongside the whereabouts of the lost tribes of Israel and the true meaning to the lyrics of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

Det. Tim Bayliss: Homicide, sweet homicide.

4. Superb Acting

Homicide’s ensemble cast is excellent throughout the series’ run in spite of frequent personnel changes.  New characters blend seamlessly into the cast by virtue of great writing and acting and strong chemistry among the performers.

Most of actors in Homicide were relative unknowns when the series was produced.  Several, including Melissa LeoAndre Braugher, Clark Johnson, Kyle Secor, Reed Diamond, Callie Thorne, Jon Seda, Toni Lewis, Giancarlo Esposito, and Erik Todd Dellums, made their reputations on Homicide and subsequently enjoyed great success.  Stand-up comedian Richard Belzer has built his recent career out of playing his Homicide character, John Munch, in several other television series, including Law and Order: SVU.

Here we get to see the ensemble in action as the detectives explain their interrogation procedures for a squad room documentary.

 

Detectives Meldrick Lewis and Terri Stivers demonstrate those interrogation techniques in an interview with charming and utterly ruthless drug lord Luther Mahoney, the series’ most infamous criminal.

 

5. Camerawork and Editing

Camerawork

A visual trademark of Homicide is the use of a single, hand-held camera. This places the audience in the middle of the action and imparts a sense of (at times claustrophobic) immediacy.

In the later seasons, key plot moments are repeated percussively one or more times to enhance dramatic tension.

Here, the moving camera invites viewers into this confrontation between Det. Meldrick Lewis and Luther Mahoney in a neighborhood bar owned by three of the squad’s detectives.

 

6. Style

subway

Since Homicide was required to abide by mid-1990s network TV standards, the series builds its dramatic tension without the relentless barrage of strong language and the graphic sex and violence characteristic of more recent brilliant dramas such as Deadwood, Mad Men, The Wire, Homeland, and House of Cards.  The subtlety born from those restrictions renders Homicide both enthralling and easier than more recent series to watch.

7. Baltimore

HLOTS_HQ

The city of Baltimore is a vivid character in every episode of Homicide.  The show’s writers carefully weave into their stories idiosyncratic traits of Baltimore’s culture, such as crab feasts, duck pin bowling, Ft. McHenry, the city’s Canadian Football League team and later the NFL’s Ravens, Edgar Allen Poe, the Orioles baseball team, Chesapeake Bay fishermen, the city’s ethnic neighborhoods, hillbilly influence, and diner waitresses who call all of their customers, “Hon.”

The series’ casting of small parts is excellent.  The production uses local actors, ensuring that most of the bit players deliver their lines in the region’s distinctive and nearly inimitable accent.

8. Music

Every episode of Homicide is introduced musically by a minimalist percussive theme in a minor key, which occasionally reappears to mark the show’s dramatic moments but generally remains in the background.  Most of the series’ incidental tunes are vocals by contemporary artists, some of whom are relative unknowns. Throughout its run, Homicide makes effective use of musical montages to advance plot lines and to develop its characters.

This montage follows detectives from their quiet squadroom New Years Eve party to a variety of murder scenes and work sites.

 

This poignant episode-ending montage shows three different men who are grieving for a murdered woman and depicts Det. John Munch’s reconciliation with his Jewish heritage.

 

Homicide: Life on the Street maintained superb quality all the way to the end of its seventh and final season.  A masterpiece of series drama, it stands up to multiple viewings and never ceases to be entertaining.

I strongly recommend that you check it out.

Quotes for Today

Det. Tim Bayliss: Fourteen years old… When I was fourteen, jeez, I was in the ninth grade, and I don’t remember much of what I was doing, but I know I was nowhere close to picking up a gun and shooting another kid.
Det. Frank Pembleton: How old should our shooter be?
Det. Tim Bayliss: Not fourteen.
Det. Frank Pembleton: So if he’s what, fifteen, sixteen years old, it makes any more sense?
Det. Tim Bayliss: No.
Det. Frank Pembleton: How old should he be then? What’s the cut off age? Seventeen? Eighteen?
Det. Tim Bayliss: I don’t know, but not fourteen.
Det. Frank Pembleton: When you find out, clue me in, awright? I’d like to know when any of this killing, at any age, from six to sixty, makes any sense. One time I want to hear about a murder that makes sense. Just one time. For any reason.

 

 

San Francisco Cataclysm, 17 October 1989: The Day Baseball Saved Lives

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Excitement was palpable in the San Francisco Bay Area in October of 1989.  For the first time, the region’s two Major League Baseball teams – the San Francisco Giants of the National League and the Oakland Athletics (or A’s) of the American League – were meeting in the World Series to decide Major League Baseball’s championship.

The first two games of the best-of-seven-game series, both played in Oakland on the eastern side of the Bay, had gone to the A’s.  For the third game, the event dubbed “The Bay Bridge Series” shifted to the Giants’ home stadium, Candlestick Park, across the Bay in San Francisco.  Game 3 was due to start at 5:35 p.m. local time on Tuesday, October 17th, 25 years ago today.

I was six weeks into my first year of physics graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, grabbing a quick pre-ballgame nap in my room in the International House, which faced west toward the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.  Suddenly I became aware that my pillow was shaking underneath my cheek.  In fact, the whole room was shaking.  From outside came a rushing sound, as groves of nearby eucalyptus trees shuddered in unison.  Figuring that this new experience was an earthquake (and not afraid, since this was my first quake), I stood up and braced myself in my doorway until the movement had stopped.

An earthquake feels like turbulence on an airplane.  This is unnerving, since the ground is not supposed to move.

Official reports later stated that the October 1989 quake had lasted for about 15 seconds.  When it was over, a dissonant chorus of clamoring car alarms filled the Berkeley air.  “That was a big one,” declared one of my neighbors, a several-year California resident, as we descended five floors (via the stairs!) to the dining room for supper.  The hundreds of International House residents who convened for the evening meal were buzzing with nervous energy.  Soup had sloshed out of tureens onto the floor, and the dining room’s gargantuan cast iron chandeliers swung gently on their 20-foot chains for nearly an hour after the quake.  The few earthquake veterans in the room understood that any temblor that lasted for as long as 15 seconds was a big deal, but none of us knew at first just how serious the damage was.

In fact, the earthquake had been powerful, registering a 7.1 on the Richter scale.  The epicenter was near Loma Prieta mountain, between Aptos and Santa Cruz, about 70 miles south of both San Francisco and Berkeley, on a stretch of the San Andreas fault which had been quiescent for many years.

Over in Candlestick Park, ABC TV announcers Tim McCarver, Al Michaels, and Jim Palmer had been engrossed in a scripted lead-up to the evening’s baseball broadcast.  In the middle of a game highlight, the stadium’s crowd started to roar, the TV picture broke up, and Michaels yelled, “We’re having an earth-,” before the TV signal disappeared.  ABC was able to resume live audio after a 16-second blackout.  A nervous Al Michaels was heard to quip, “Well folks, that’s the greatest open in the history of television, bar none!”

 

The ABC broadcasters later reported that each had grabbed what he believed to be an armrest but which was actually another broadcaster’s lower limb.  They gripped their “armrests” so tightly during their 15 seconds of terror that each of the men went home that evening with bruises.

Candlestick Park had been constructed on bedrock and had undergone recent seismic retrofitting.  No one in the baseball crowd was injured, and the stadium suffered minimal damage. Game 3 was summarily postponed.  For the rest of the evening, ABC used Al Michaels as a breaking news reporter and the Goodyear Blimp for overhead shots of the quake’s aftermath.

From Monterey in the south to Richmond in the north, fallout from the earthquake was both extensive and costly.  Damage was especially severe in “landfill” areas of San Francisco and Oakland (neighborhoods built upon sand and debris dumped into the Bay), where seismic waves caused liquefaction, and the muddy soil vibrated like gelatin.

PGM_1 The Pacific Garden Mall in Santa Cruz.

In Santa Cruz, three people were killed when several structures in the Pacific Garden Mall collapsed.

SF_Wall_Collapse Fallen bricks on Sixth Street in San Francisco.

In San Francisco, five people were killed in the South of Market district when a brick façade collapsed onto a sidewalk.  (There are very few brick buildings in the Bay Area, because mortar behaves like a liquid during an earthquake.)

Highway_1_Slough_Wikipedia State Highway 1 near Watsonville. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

In Watsonville (80 miles south of San Francisco and about 10 miles from the quake’s epicenter), one lane of a State Highway 1 causeway collapsed into the slough below.  No one was injured.

St_Jos_Seminary_Tower_Collapse St. Joseph’s Seminary. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

One person was killed when a five-story tower collapsed at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Mountain View.  Several other buildings on the campus were damaged.  The seminary was forced to close in 1991.  One may speculate that the costs of repairs were prohibitive.

Marina_Dist_1 Damage in San Francisco’s Marina district.

Marina_Fire_Close-up_2 The Marina district fire. (Still from ABC News.)

In San Francisco’s Marina district (built on landfill composed in part of debris from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake), four people died, seven buildings collapsed, and a gas main broke, triggering a fire that consumed four structures.

Bay_Bridge_1089_2 The damaged Bay Bridge.

On the double-decker San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, one section of the upper deck broke free from its supports and collapsed onto the lower deck.  One person died in the confusing melee as officials evaculated stranded motorists from the bridge.

Cypress_1     Cypress_7

The worst loss of life occurred on the Cypress Viaduct (Interstate 880), a double-decker freeway built in a landfill neighborhood in West Oakland.  Along a 1.25-mile-long section, the freeway’s upper deck pancaked onto the lower deck, instantly killing motorists trapped underneath.  Forty-two people died at that hideous scene.

Roughly 1.4 million Bay Area residents lost power.  I remember well the view from my dormitory window of a San Francisco eerily and completely dark except for the blazing Marina district fire.

Marina_Fire_and_GG_Bridge_from_ABC_Blimp A still from ABC News showing the Marina District fire surrounded by darkened city blocks, with the lights of the Golden Gate bridge in the background.

Telephone circuits filled up rapidly in that era before cell phones.  I finally spoke to my family in the early evening.  Late that night, I served as a relay for family friends in Wisconsin and who were unable to contact their son in Berkeley.  I reached him and ascertained that he was OK and then called his frantic parents with the good news.

News about major damage to the campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz became distorted by overseas media into stories of severe damage at UC Berkeley.  For several days after the quake, European and Asian students in the International House were hearing from misinformed relatives who were understandably alarmed.

The Loma Prieta Earthquake caused 63 deaths and billions of dollars worth of damage to buildings and transportation structures, many of which were declared unsafe after the quake and subsequently demolished.

After the shock and horror of the quake’s immediate aftermath had dissipated, and after basic services had been restored, it became clear that the quake’s death toll could have been much higher if traffic on the catastrophically damaged transportation arteries had been heavier.  Initial estimates of the quake’s death toll, which were based upon typical Tuesday evening rush hour patterns, were higher than the actual death toll by a factor of five.

Because of the World Series game scheduled for the late afternoon, many commuters had either headed home early or stayed late at their places of work to watch the game with their colleagues.  Quite literally, the 1989 World Series saved lives.

Ten days after the earthquake, the Series resumed at Candlestick Park with Game 3.  The A’s won both Game 3 and Game 4, completing a sweep and earning the franchise’s ninth World Championship.

Quote for Today

“If he moved that fast, he’d never hit into a double play. I never saw anyone move that fast in my life.” – broadcaster Jack Buck (1924 -2002), describing ex-Major League catcher Johnny Bench’s flight for cover during the earthquake.

It’s the Size of the Fight in the Dog: Russell Wilson Proves the Experts Wrong

RW_Passing_while_Falling Russell Wilson throws a pass while falling to the ground during a 2013 game against the Arizona Cardinals.

Russell Wilson grew up in Richmond, Virginia, hearing from a bevy of self-appointed experts that he was too small to play football.  He spent the first five weeks of his college career splitting time with other quarterbacks before he was finally named the North Carolina State team’s starter.  At training camps to prepare for the 2012 NFL draft, coaches praised him to the heavens but always added a caveat – “The only issue with Russell Wilson is his height.

This oft-repeated bit of conventional wisdom sounded eminently reasonable, since Wilson is 5’11” at his tallest.

When the NFL Draft Day finally arrived in April 2012, the Seattle Seahawks picked Wilson in the third round and 75th overall, long after some of the year’s media darlings had been chosen by other teams.

RW_Nike_Ad Nike had clever fun with Wilson’s draft situation in a 2012 ad campaign.

The Seahawks planned to use Wilson as a back-up for a quarterback they had acquired at great expense during 2012 offseason, so Wilson set about using the spring training camp to prove his worth to the team.  By the time of the Seahawk’s first regular-season game in late August, Wilson had earned the starting spot by outperforming the team’s two other quarterbacks, both on the practice field and in exhibition games.

As the 2012 football season began, NFL analysts ranked Wilson behind the year’s flashier rookie quarterbacks, Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck (who, like Wilson, posed dual threats – as strong runners and good passers – to opposing teams).  No matter.  Wilson put his head down and went to work.

RW_Nike_2 More from Nike’s 2012 campaign.

During his first season with the Seahawks (2012), Wilson achieved a passer rating of 100.0, ranking fourth overall among NFL quarterbacks and surpassing the previous rookie-season record of 98.1, set by Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.  He passed for 3,118 yards and 26 touchdowns, tying Peyton Manning’s record for touchdowns in a rookie season.  Also a threat with his feet, Wilson rushed for 489 yards and four touchdowns.  The Seahawks reached the playoffs and lost in the second (of four) rounds to the Atlanta Falcons.

This (spectacular, breathtaking, highly recommended) video review of Wilson’s 2012 highlights features both his powerful arm and his tremendous scrambling ability.

 

The Seahawks opened Wilson’s second season, in 2013, with the first 4-0 start in the history of the Seattle franchise.  After a loss in Week 5, the team won seven straight games.  Wilson passed for 26 touchdowns during the regular season and finished with a passer rating of 101.5.  He became the first quarterback in the Superbowl era to achieve passer ratings over 100 in each of his first two seasons.

The Seahawks’ 13-3 record in 2013 assured the team their conference’s top seed, a bye in the first week of the playoffs, and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.  A hard-fought win over the San Francisco 49ers at the NFC conference final propelled the Seahawks to the Superbowl in February of 2014 in frigid New Jersey, where they thumped Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos by a score of 43-8.

Wilson_with_Trophy Wilson with the Lombardi Trophy after the Superbowl in February.

2014 finds the Seahawks on a mission to return to the Superbowl in a highly competitive conference that includes Colin Kaepernick’s San Francisco 49ers and Aaron Rodgers’ Green Bay Packers (and several other strong teams).  With the Seahawks’ spectacular defensive squad weakened slightly by post-season personnel changes, this year’s team needs to rely more heavily than usual on the offense and specifically on Wilson.  So far Wilson has delivered.  This past Monday night, in a messy game at the Washington Redskins that saw three Seahawks’ touchdowns called back because of penalties, Wilson used his dual-threat abilities as a running quarterback to devastating effect.  He set a Monday Night Football record for quarterback rushing yards with 122 and became the first quarterback in Monday Night Football’s 45-year history to pass for more than 200 yards and rush for more than 100 yards in a single game.

This year, in Wilson’s third season, the player who grew up being told that he was too small to play football is one of the experts’ early candidates for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player (MVP).

In many ways, Wilson is a marketing expert’s dream.  He remains very close to his family, whom he credits for emphasizing education and helping him to establish a strong work ethic.  He keeps his public image clean and speaks candidly about his religious faith.  In his spare time over the summer, he runs eight Russell Wilson Passing Academy football camps, which offer scholarships for underprivileged youth, in six cities in the U.S. and Canada.  Every week during the football season, he visits critically ill children at Seattle Children’s hospital.

Companies that include Nike, American Family Insurance, Bose, Pepsi, Microsoft, Duracell, Braun, Larson Automotive Group, and Eat the Ball (a European bread company) have flocked to sign Wilson as a spokesman.  Alaska Airlines hired Wilson as its “Chief Football Officer,” in which role he occasionally meets incoming passengers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

RW_0710_Honorary_Captain The Chief Football Officer for Alaska Airlines.

In a direct response to the scourge of violence that has tarnished the NFL’s image this year, Wilson wrote a recent column about domestic violence for Derek Jeter’s blog, The Players’ Tribune.  Describing himself as a “recovering bully,” Wilson urged his fellow athletes to take responsibility for their behavior and introduced an anti-domestic violence campaign to be run through his Why Not You Foundation.

Wilson is my favorite type of professional athlete: one who stays humble and never stops working to fulfill his potential, regardless of obstacles and set-backs.  He lives by a slogan often repeated on his Twitter account: “No time for sleep.”

We who were fortunate enough to watch Russell Wilson play his final year of college football as a Wisconsin Badger knew at the time that he was a phenomenon.

RW_as_a_Badger

Too bad he’s too short to play quarterback.

Quote for Today

It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. – Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)

What’s All the Noise About? – A Guide to the 2014 U.S. Midterm Elections

NP

Civilization as we know it today would be in jeopardy if the Republicans win the Senate,” declared House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat, in a recent TV interview.

Although Leader Pelosi’s warning might be seen as overwrought hyperbole, the November 4th U.S. midterm elections will set the tone of U.S. policy and politics for years to come.

Today I would like to offer a quick guide to those elections – who is running, what is at stake, and the scheming and planning behind all of the noise.  If you are outside the U.S. observing the electoral sound and fury from a distance, or if you are a U.S. citizen hoping to cut through the 24/7 spin and punditry, buckle in for what I hope will be an entertaining and informative ride!

I will start by briefly describing the governmental bodies up for grabs on November 4th.  Next, I will summarize the history of the combatants (i.e., the two major political parties), their positions, and their relationships with the U.S. citizenry.  I’ll follow that by laying what is at stake on election night and perhaps finish with a few predictions.

The U.S. Federal Government

In his 1863 Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln described the American Founders’ vision for the U.S. government as “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”  The U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1789, described a republican government based upon democratic principles and specified that the Federal government consist of three co-equal branches: the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial.

WH The White House in Washington, D.C.

The Executive Branch

The Executive branch is charged with executing Federal laws and policies and enacting Federal regulations.  Headed by the President and Vice President, the Executive branch consists of 15 Departments (such as Defense, Homeland Security, State, Treasury, and Justice) as well as numerous Agencies (the Environmental Protection Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, U.S. Agency for International Development, and others) and several staff organizations contained within the White House.  At the head of each Department is a Secretary.  The 15 Secretaries comprise the President’s Cabinet.

Cabinet Secretaries and Agency heads are nominated by the President and approved by the U.S. Senate. (More on that body below.)

Since 2014 is not a Presidential election year, no one in the Executive branch will appear on a ballot in November.  However, the budgets, personnel, and leadership of Executive agencies will be affected by the post-election status of the Legislative branch.

US_Cap The U.S. Capitol.

The Legislative Branch

The Legislative branch, or Congress as it is conventionally known, consists of two Houses: the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The House of Representatives

The House of Representatives (often called just “The House” by Washington pundits) consists of 435 members.  With the stipulation that each state have at least one Representative, the Representatives are allocated in proportion to states’ populations.  Seven states have only one Representative each.  The most populous U.S. state, California, has 53 Representatives.

Members of the House of Representatives, who must be at least 25 years old, face election every two years.  In endowing the House with a large membership and frequent elections, the Founders intended that the House be both more partisan and more responsive to constituents than the smaller and more static Senate.

The Senate

The U.S. Senate consists of 2 Senators from each of the 50 states.  Senators, who must be at least 30 years old, serve six-year terms which are staggered to ensure that roughly one-third of the Senate is up for re-election every two years.  The Senate’s longer terms of service, higher minimum age, and equal representation per state were intended to create a body both more mature and more reflective than the House.

Powers and Duties of the Legislative Branch

The primary duty of the Legislative branch is the creation of Federal laws. This is supposed to happen as follows:

1. One of the two houses drafts, debates, and passes a bill.
2. The bill moves to the other house, where it is debated, amended, and passed in a new version.
3. Either the original house passes the second house’s version of the bill unchanged, or a Conference Committee composed of members of both houses creates a compromise version of the bill, which is subsequently passed by both houses.
4. When a bill has passed both houses, it goes to the President, who can sign the bill into law or veto it and send it back to the Congress.
5. If the President vetoes a bill, it can still become law if both houses of Congress pass it with two-thirds majorities each.

Any bill that raises taxes must originate in the House of Representatives. (For this reason, the President’s 2010 health care reform law is Constitutionally problematic.  That bill originated in the Senate, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the law’s Individual Mandate is effectively a tax.)

In addition to lawmaking, the Congress is charged with responsibilities meant to serve as “checks and balances” on the other two branches of government:

  • Budgeting: Congress controls the purse strings of the Executive branch and the rest of the Federal government.
  • Oversight: Congressional committees are supposed to review the work of all of the Executive branch Departments and Agencies.
  • Declarations of War: Only Congress may declare war.

The Senate has several special responsibilities that it does not share with the House of Representatives:

  • Ratification of Treaties.
  • Approval of Cabinet Secretaries, Agency Heads, Ambassadors, and other Executive Branch appointees.
  • Approval or disapproval of the President’s nominees for the Federal judiciary.

SC The U.S. Supreme Court building.

The Judicial Branch

The purpose of the Judicial branch of the Federal government is to hear citizens’ cases involving Federal law and to examine the Constitutionality of actions taken by the other two branches.  Federal courts exist at three levels: the District level, which is the first to try most Federal cases; the Courts of Appeals, to which cases can be referred by the District courts; and the nine-member U.S. Supreme Court, which is the Federal court of last resort.

Federal jurists are appointed by the President.  If approved by the Senate, they serve for life.  Consequently, a President’s judicial choices – if they advance through a sympathetic Senate – can influence American law and policy for decades after the end of the President’s term.

NB The Nebraska state capitol building in Lincoln.

State Governments

The Founders intended for the Federal government to handle business that individual states cannot handle by themselves (foreign treaties, wars, management of a common currency, and regulation of interstate commerce) and for the states and municipalities to handle everything else (criminal law, civil law, property law, schools, etc.)

Like the Federal government, every state’s government includes separate and co-equal executive, legislative, and judicial branches.  Like the Federal legislature, most state legislatures consist of two chambers.  State executives are called “Governors.”

The Combatants

At both the state level and the Federal level, domination of the government translates into power over citizens and control of tax money.  The size and intrusiveness of government has exploded in the U.S. in the last fifty years.  Consequently, the struggle for power is hard-fought and ruthless between the two major parties, the Democrats and the Republicans.

Donkey The emblem of the Democratic Party.

A Brief History of the Democratic Party

The Democratic party emerged in the early 1830s as an alternative to the existing Whig and Tory parties.  Championing the importance of individual artisans and individual farmers, the party sought to diminish the residual European-style class structure in the then-50-year-old U.S.  The early Democrats favored agrarian expansion into the western North American territories and opposed government collusion with the banking system.  Sharing Thomas Jefferson’s view that government necessarily intrudes on personal freedom, the early Democrats sought to shrink government’s size.  They also argued that government-run schools “restricted parental freedom” and undermined religious education.

In the mid-19th century, the issue of slavery in the southern states split the party, with many northern Democrats shifting their allegiance to the newly-founded (and explicitly anti-slavery) Republican party.  Because Abraham Lincoln (the President who oversaw the Union’s war against the south in the 1860s) was a Republican, the Democrats owned the U.S. “Deep South” until 1964.

The Democratic party’s agenda has shifted numerous times in response to regional movements and internal squabbles.  The party was split by the issues of Prohibition (the Constitutional amendment that banned alcohol in the U.S. from 1920 to 1933), women’s suffrage, racial segregation, the existence of the Ku Klux Klan in the Democratic south, and unwillingness to reform the big-city “machines” that controlled patronage.

The 20th century moved the Democratic party in the direction of Progressive policies, i.e., the use of big government for the redress of social ills and the redistribution of wealth.  Programs implemented by Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson forever expanded the size and scope of the Federal government and created both a welfare state and a population of citizens dependent upon it.

The Democratic Party Today

For many decades, Catholics, city dwellers, and members of labor unions have supported the Democratic party.  African Americans have voted strongly Democratic since the late 1930s.  Today, the grassroots Democratic base includes doctrinaire Progressives and opponents of war, immigrants and ethnic minorities, social liberals, Hollywood, and most doctors, lawyers, and other professionals with many years of formal education.

I have heard anecdotally that purist Progressives are disappointed with Washington’s Democratic “Establishment” because of the Establishment’s hand-in-glove cronyism with big corporations and banks and because of the Establishment’s willingness to embrace war for political expediency.  Grassroots Democratic purists complain that there is no difference between Establishment Democrats and Establishment Republicans.

Interestingly, an identical complaint comes from the grassroots base of the Republican party.

Elephant The emblem of the Republican Party.

A Brief History of the Republican Party

The Republican party was founded in 1854 in Ripon, Wisconsin, by anti-slavery activists.  From its inception, the party was pro-business and pro-farmer.  It supported free markets, small government, and laissez faire economics.  The party was  moralistic, striving to eliminate sins such as slavery, alcoholism, and polygamy from 19th-century American culture.  The party’s moral activism appealed to many Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, and Low Church Protestants of the era and alienated Catholics, Episcopalians, and members of other High Church denominations.

Because of the party’s anti-slavery roots, and because the first Republican president was Abraham Lincoln (no friend to the federalist yearnings of the South), the Republican party had no meaningful presence in the Deep South until the fourth quarter of 20th century.  For the same reasons, African Americans identified strongly with the Republican party until the implementation of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” programs in the 1930s.

Issues that split the Republican party through the late 19th and early 20th centuries were in many cases the same issues that troubled the Democrats: Prohibition (Republican support for which caused an exodus of pro-beer German Lutherans), tariffs and protectionism, opposition to urban political patronage “machines,” the curtailing of the powers of business monopolies, and the size and role of government.  In the early 20th century, Republican Progressives joined Democrats in embracing the expansion of government for the redress of social ills.

Republicans were responsible for the first state or territory to grant women the right to vote (Wyoming Territory in 1869); the first Hispanic state governor (1875); the first female member of Congress (1916); the first Jewish woman elected to the House of Representatives (1924); the first Hispanic U.S. Senator (1928); and the first Native American to be elected to national office (Charles Curtis of Kansas, who served as Vice President to Herbert Hoover in 1928). In 1964, Republicans strongly supported the Civil Rights Act in the face of Democratic opposition.

Recent decades have seen a battle between the Republican “Establishment,” centered in Washington and in other eastern cities and aligned with the Republicans in power, and the “Conservatives,” who are more closely attuned to the party’s grassroots voter base, for control of the Republican party’s agenda.

The Establishment accepts or embraces big government and high taxes – as long as Republicans instead of Democrats are in power and dispensing favors to their friends. The Establishment also tends to be somewhat socially liberal, willing to ignore Constitutional limits on Federal power for the sake of expediency, and hawkish about war.  Prominent Establishment figures have included Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and unsuccessful Presidential candidates Bob Dole (1996), John McCain (2008), and Mitt Romney (2012).

The Conservative movement, spearheaded by Barry Goldwater in 1964 and represented most successfully by President Ronald Reagan, urges the party to hew more closely to the Constitution and advocates for free markets, lower taxes, limited government, fewer regulations, and a foreign policy based upon “peace through strength.”  Today, at the grassroots level the small-government message is embraced by the Tea Party and the Libertarian Republican movements.  Some prominent politicians who embrace small-government principles (and who are therefore despised by the Republican Establishment and by left-leaning news media) are Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Rand Paul, Representative Justin Amash, Representative Jason Chaffetz, and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

The Republican Party Today

The current geographic strongholds of the Republican party are the Deep South, home to many evangelical Christians and other social conservatives who joined the Republicans when Federal courts turned social policies from state issues into Federal issues in the 1970s and 1980s; the Plains states that run from North Dakota in the north to Texas in the south; the sparsely populated Mountain West states; and Alaska.

Grassroots conservatives have become increasingly disillusioned with cronyist Republican Establishment figures who campaign on conservative principles and then bend their efforts in Washington toward admission to the best cocktail parties, favorable coverage in left-leaning newspapers, and preparation for second careers as highly-paid political consultants.  In 2014, the Establishment has been openly hostile toward the conservative base, aggressively running against conservatives in Republican primary races and going so far as to pay Democrats in Mississippi to vote for the Establishment candidate in a Republican primary.

The Establishment’s recent ugly behavior may hurt them in November.  All conventional political templates predict that 2014 should be a strong Republican year, but current polling suggests otherwise.  More on that below.

 

Combat_3

What Is At Stake on November 4th

In the States

Legislative seats in all 50 states are up for election on November 4, as are 36 governorships.  Twenty-two of the 29 states with Republican governors and 14 of the 21 states with Democratic governors are holding gubernatorial elections.  According to recent predictions, 12 gubernatorial seats are “safe” or “likely” for Republicans, 7 are safe or likely for Democrats, and 17 are toss-ups.

Why does this matter?

The party that controls the governorship can more easily mobilize campaign and get-out-the-vote machinery for the 2016 Presidential election.  The party in charge also determines the boundaries of the state’s Congressional districts when districts are re-drawn every ten years.

In the U.S. House of Representatives

All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for election in 2014.  The House races this year are relatively unimportant, though, because the current Republican House majority (233 seats to 199 for Democrats) is projected to be safe, and because very few House races are actually competitive.

The two major parties, working together, have used voting data to engineer the House district boundaries into often absurd shapes to make them “safe” for one party or the other.  This process is named Gerrymandering, after the 1812 Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who created a Congressional district in the shape of a salamander to benefit his party.

Here are examples of two current Gerrymandered districts.

GM_1 North Carolina District 12

GM_2 Illinois District 4

Because of Gerrymandering, pollsters consider only 80 of this year’s 435 House races – 18.4 percent – to be competitive.  Current projections suggest that no more than a dozen seats are likely to switch from one party to the other.

Why does this matter?

The party with the House majority sets the House’s legislative agenda and controls all of the committee leadership positions.  The Speaker of the House is third in the line of succession for the Presidency.

In the U.S. Senate

By far the most important contest in the 2014 election is the fight for control of the U.S. Senate.  Currently, in the 100-member Senate, Democrats hold a 53-45 lead over Republicans.  The remaining two Senators are Independents who caucus with the Democrats.  To regain the majority, Republicans need a net gain of six seats.  In the current political environment, this is just barely possible.

Thirty-six Senate seats are up for election in November 2014.  Twenty-one of those now held by Democrats, and 15 are held by Republicans.  Pollsters rate 14 of the 15 Republican seats are “safe” or “likely” for the Republicans. Fourteen of the 21 Democratic seats are “safe” or “likely” for the Democrats.

According to recent predictions, Republicans almost certain to pick up the current Democratic seats in the conservative states of Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia, likely to pick up Democratic seats in (again conservative) Alaska and Arkansas, and in with a chance in Louisiana, Iowa, and Colorado.  Unfortunately for the Republicans, an Establishment incumbent might lose in very conservative Kansas, because he queered the pitch with an ugly primary race.

Why does this matter?

Two words: judicial appointments.

Some judicial candidates believe that the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted strictly in accordance the intent of its authors.  Other candidates view the Constitution as an imperfect guideline that should be improved upon in accordance with contemporary jurists’ inclinations.

President Obama will have the chance to nominate several Federal judges, and possibly a Supreme Court Justice, during this final two years in office.  With a Democratic Senate to confirm his preferred nominees, he could ensure that his policies survive future court challenges and that, for decades to come, any new policies “legislated from the bench” would conform to his ideology.

How will it all turn out?

Midterm elections during the sixth year of an eight-year Presidency are traditionally very strong for the party out of power (i.e., in 2014, the Republicans).  The U.S. economy continues to be sluggish.  The President’s landmark piece of health care legislation is wildly unpopular.  Recent polls find the President’s approval rating at new lows in the wake of numerous failures, both foreign and domestic, and scandals.  2014 should be a landslide Republican year.

And yet polls show the race to control the Senate to be tight.  Why? Most likely, in my opinion, because the Republican base is disgusted with the Republican Establishment leadership.  In 2012, one reason that Barak Obama won re-election was that many conservatives stayed home rather than vote for the stiff and bland Establishment candidate Mitt Romney.

Will conservatives sit out the 2014 election too?

Three Quick Predictions

1. Republicans will add a few seats to their majority in the House of Representatives.
2. Republicans will squeak out a majority in the Senate, although we may need to wait for final confirmation until a Louisiana run-off in December.
3. By 9 a.m. on the morning of Wednesday, November 5, TV pundits will begin discussions in earnest about the 2016 Presidential race.

Quote for Today

Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia, to Benjamin Franklin, in 1787: “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”

Franklin: “A republic, if you can keep it.”