COVID relief bill creates rift between mainstream Democrats and partys left flank

A brawl is brewing between liberal and moderate Democrats. One can find evidence of this fight in the battle to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour as part of the latest coronavirus relief bill. The left failed in that effort. And despite having control of the House, Senate and White House, exclusion of the wage hike reflected the political realities of what progressives can do with a 50/50 Senate and a House with 221 Democrats and 211 Republicans

This doesn’t bode well for progressive initiatives like gun restrictions, climate change legislation and immigration reform. A failure to translate those campaign promises into legislative achievements could drive progressives up the wall by the end of this Congress. 

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., meets with reporters before the House votes to pass a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. 

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., meets with reporters before the House votes to pass a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. 
(AP)

To wit: Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough serves as a procedural umpire. She ruled recently that the Democrats’ gambit to include a $15-an-hour minimum wage increase in the COVID relief bill violated special budget reconciliation rules. 

Lawmakers can stuff almost anything they want in a garden variety piece of legislation. But not in a measure treated under the unique budget reconciliation process. 

Democrats elected to use the special budgetary framework for the COVID measure to avoid a filibuster. Otherwise, they need 60 votes to rebuff a filibuster. With only 50 Democrats in the Senate and only a handful of “gettable” Republicans for this measure, attaining 60 votes was never going to happen. So, Democrats teed up the budget reconciliation option. 

Deploying the once-a-fiscal-year reconciliation process terminates the filibuster for this bill – and this bill only. 

But there was a tradeoff. 

Those budget rules restrict provisions from the bill that address policy or contribute to the deficit over an extended period. MacDonough ruled that the minimum wage proposal didn’t qualify for reconciliation. 

BIDEN’S $1.9T CORONAVIRUS RELIEF BILL IS ‘TROJAN HORSE,’ WILL USE AS ‘SLUSH FUND’ TO BUY VOTES: REP. NUNES

In many respects, this is not a surprise. Just days ago, President Biden doubted that the minimum wage increase would survive MacDonough’s vetting for this COVID bill. 

Liberal Democrats went ballistic. 

“I certainly do think that there should be either an override (of MacDonough’s ruling) or a replacement,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. “There are no more excuses.” 

“I think the parliamentarian was wrong on this call,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y

When asked if they should sack MacDonough, Ocasio-Cortez replied “all options should be on the table.” 

Progressive Caucus Co-chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., argued that Senate Democrats should go over the head of MacDonough. 

“This is an advisory opinion. We made a promise to raise the minimum wage. We now have to deliver on that promise to 27 million Americans who are not going to be convinced when we go back in two years and say ‘Sorry, the unelected parliamentarian told us we couldn’t raise the minimum wage,’” said Jayapal.  “So we’re going to have to make a choice here.” 

Jayapal said Senate budget reconciliation rules “were put in there, really, to preserve the power of White segregationists and the power of the minority.” 

Jayapal may be right about some of the reasons regarding “segregationists” and the Senate filibuster. But not when it comes to budget reconciliation. 

The reason is that the Budget Act of 1974 governs the budget reconciliation process in the Senate. That’s 1974, not 1874. 

Omar and Jayapal are right. There is a way to potentially contest MacDonough’s ruling. 

MacDonough was enforcing the “Byrd Rule” when she nixed the minimum wage proposal. It’s named after late Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.  

A senator could challenge MacDonough’s ruling – but the Senate would have to find itself in a very specific procedural posture – essentially a parliamentary cul-de-sac – where nothing else could be debated. Thus, senators could set up a vote to overturn MacDonough’s ruling by detonating the Byrd rule on a simple majority vote. 

This would not constitute a Senate “rules change.” But a “precedent” change. The Senate conducts much of its business via “precedent” and not by the 44 Standing Rules of the Senate. Such a tactic would be akin to the “nuclear option” used in 2013 and 2017 to curb filibusters on executive branch and Supreme Court nominees. 

Overriding the parliamentarian boils down to the math. 

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is one Democrat who opposes including the minimum wage increase in the COVID bill. Incidentally, Manchin is now in the seat held for decades by Byrd. Manchin has indicated he would also oppose nuking the Byrd Rule. 

‘SQUAD’ MEMBERS AOC, OMAR SUGGEST SENATE PARLIAMENTARIAN COULD BE REMOVED OVER MINIMUM WAGE DECISION

So if Democrats only have 50 votes to start with and Manchin opposes overriding the parliamentarian… 

The other option is for a senator to move to “waive the Budget Act” as it pertains to the minimum wage provision. This option permits the Senate to ignore the Budget Act – and potentially include the minimum wage increase. But, the Senate can only waive the Budget Act if 60 (!) senators vote to do so. 

That dog won’t hunt. 

In other words, if you are struggling to get 51 votes, you’ll never wrangle 60. 

Replacing the parliamentarian?  

Yes. It’s happened before. In 2001, Senate Republicans relieved then Parliamentarian Bob Dove of his position after some rulings they didn’t like. But there is a tiny universe of persons on the planet qualified to perform the parliamentarian’s duties.  

Democrats criticized former President Trump’s nomination of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the high court last fall. They asserted the former president only tapped Barrett because she would make rulings favorable to the Trump administration. Do Democrats really want to install a parliamentarian who will only rule in their direction? Or, would they rather have someone objectively calling balls and strikes? 

Democrats included the $15 minimum wage increase in their $1.9 trillion COVID bill passed early Saturday morning. But Democrats must decide whether or not to support the next round of the bill after the Senate strips the minimum wage provision from the measure. 

Ocasio-Cortez said moderate Democrats should be “lucky that progressives aren’t asking for $24 (an hour) right now.” 

But that’s the problem. Procedural gymnastics with MacDonough revealed just how little power progressives truly have in Washington. This was always going to be the tension inside the party with Democrats controlling the White House, House and Senate.  

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Liberals hoped to raise the minimum wage. Approve climate change legislation. Impose gun control. Adopt immigration reform. Grant Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico statehood. Those may be great campaign promises. But parliamentary realities will get in the way of actually enacting such plans into law. 

It’s about the math. It’s about the math. It’s about the math. 

One wonders if Democrats overpromised to their base? Or, if liberals will grow disillusioned? It’s a danger for Democrats. 

I asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., if she thought there would be problems passing the bill when it came back from the Senate. 

“No,” replied the speaker. 

That’s the verdict on the coronavirus bill. But bigger problems could lurk for the party if they don’t enact major initiatives they promised their left flank. 

Saturday Night Live skewers Gavin Newsom in vaccine skit

Photo of Eric Ting

Feb. 28, 2021Updated: Feb. 28, 2021 9:01 a.m.

FILE - In this Feb. 21, 2021, file photo, California Gov. Gavin Newsom takes questions from the media during a visit to a mobile vaccination site at Ramona Gardens Recreation Center in Los Angeles.

FILE – In this Feb. 21, 2021, file photo, California Gov. Gavin Newsom takes questions from the media during a visit to a mobile vaccination site at Ramona Gardens Recreation Center in Los Angeles.

Damian Dovarganes/AP

Amid a burgeoning recall effort and ugly poll numbers, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has now become the butt of jokes on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”

The new sketch released Saturday, called “Vaccine Game Show,” features Dr. Anthony Fauci (played by Kate McKinnon) hosting a game show titled “So You Think You Can Get the Vaccine,” with prominent governors serving as the show’s judges.

Newsom is the first judge introduced and is welcomed with the brutal line, “He’s hated by every single person in California except those 10 people he had dinner with in Napa that one time.”

When asked how how things are going in California, Newsom (played by Alex Moffat) replies, “Teeth: white, bodies: tight, COVID: pretty bad.”


Later on, the sketch also pokes fun at the disparate guidelines for vaccine eligibility across various states as well as difficulty booking vaccine appointments online.

Also skewered on the sketch is fellow judge New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (played by Pete Davidson), who is mocked over recent sexual misconduct allegations and the state’s nursing home scandal. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (played by Aidy Bryant) also makes an appearance as a contestant fresh off his, er, animated CPAC speech.

You can watch the full skit in the video above.

Virginia Lawmakers Sign Off On Bill Legalizing Recreational Marijuana

Virginia lawmakers have approved legislation legalizing recreational use of marijuana and commercial sales starting in 2024.

Richard Vogel/AP


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Virginia lawmakers have approved legislation legalizing recreational use of marijuana and commercial sales starting in 2024.

Richard Vogel/AP

Lawmakers in Virginia have reached a deal to make the state the 16th in the nation and the first in the south to legalize recreational marijuana use. But the compromise bill is receiving blow back from some legalization advocates who say it falls short of racial justice aims.

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate passed the bill in a Saturday legislative session in a party line vote of 48 to 43 in the House and 20 to 19 in the Senate. The legislation would legalize the use of cannabis by people over the age of 21 starting in 2024, when retail markets would be established. The law would also allow possession of up to an ounce by anyone over 21 and establishes a state agency to oversee regulation of the cannabis market.

Specifics of the regulations were punted until next year, when they’ll be decided by the legislature.

The bill calls for 30% of marijuana tax revenue to go to a fund aimed at communities historically over-policed for marijuana-related crimes. Under the legislation, people under the age of 21 would face a $25 civil penalty and have to undergo treatment.

Marijuana legalization had been a priority for Democrats in the state, who have cited disparities in how people of color are penalized for possession and use. Lawmakers had already decriminalized possession of smaller amounts last year.

Gov. Ralph Northam — who announced his intentions to legalize marijuana use late last year — is expected to sign the measure into law.

“Virginia just took a major step towards legalizing marijuana in our commonwealth,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

But the compromise legislation has drawn criticism from some Democratic lawmakers and advocates, who have taken issue with key provisions of the bill, including how the specifics of new commercial and criminal justice regulations will be decided next year, when Democrats may no longer control both chambers of the state legislature, The Washington Post notes.

“By legalizing without all the guardrails in place, I feel the message can be misconstrued … that we have dropped the ball on the justice pieces,” said Del. Marcia Price (D-Newport News), according to the Post. “Even the thought of business before justice is hard to stomach.”

Another key point of contention had been the timeline for legalizing possession. Democrats in the Senate had pushed for legalizing possession of small amounts by the summer, the Associated Press reports. House Democrats argued that doing so without regulations in place could prop up black market sales.

The Times-Dispatch reports that differences between House and Senate proposals kept the bill in tense negotiations until Saturday, the last working day of the legislative session.

The provision to legalize small amounts ahead of 2024 did not end up in the final bill.

“If we have already made the decision that simple possession should be repealed, we could have done that today and ended the disproportionate fines on communities of color,” said Democratic Sen. Jennifer McClellan, according to the AP.

A number of advocates for legalization have also criticized the bill, saying it would lead to new categories of crime that would fall disproportionately on communities of color.

“Lawmakers paid lip service to the communities that have suffered decades of harm caused by the racist War on Drugs with legislation that falls short of equitable reform and delays justice, ” the ACLU of Virginia tweeted.

Earlier, the ACLU, which signed onto a letter demanding immediate legalization, said the bill “is worse than the status quo” and urged lawmakers to vote no. Other critics said the bill focuses too much on creating a commercial market and not decreasing racial disparities in punishments or arrests.

“Marijuana Justice is deeply disturbed that racial justice did not prevail as a priority today. Instead Virginia legislators only voted to create the infrastructure for profit, not equity in ‘legalization,'” said the advocacy group, Marijuana Justice in a statement.

Republican lawmakers, who opposed the bill, criticized the legislation as being rushed.

“It is almost beyond my belief that as a result of internal pressures we’re going to pass this piece of legislation that is not remotely ready for prime time ,” said Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, according to the Times-Dispatch.

Senate mulls changes to $1.9 trillion coronavirus bill | TheHill

The $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan is facing a potential woodchipper in the Senate as lawmakers consider making changes to the mammoth bill.

The House passed the legislation on Friday, sending it to the Senate where it could come up next week. Leadership wants to get the bill signed into law by mid-March, with the onus on moving it quickly through Congress.

But before Senate Democrats can pass the bill, they’ll need to go through an hours-long voting session known as a vote-a-rama, where any senator will be able to offer an amendment. Any changes will require the coronavirus relief package to go back to the House.

“There’s conversations about a little bit of a different approach to some of these provisions … [But] we don’t want to derail reconciliation,” said Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinPartisan headwinds threaten Capitol riot commission Murkowski undecided on Tanden as nomination in limbo Democrats ask FBI for plans to address domestic extremism following Capitol attack MORE (D-Ill.), referring to the budgetary process Democrats are using to advance the legislation. “We want to do something that’s politically feasible with House cooperation.”

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynPolitics, not racism or sexism, explain opposition to Biden Cabinet nominees Biden pledges support for Texas amid recovery from winter storm Partisan headwinds threaten Capitol riot commission MORE (R-Texas), asked what to expect from Republicans, added that “I think people are eager to have a chance to lay down markers and to make their point.”

With action in the Senate normally tightly controlled, vote-a-ramas represent one of the few chances senators get to force votes. A previous vote-a-rama earlier this month on the budget resolution — which teed up the COVID-19 relief bill — attracted more than 800 amendments, with debate starting in the afternoon and lasting until after 5 a.m. 

But most of the amendments during that debate were non-binding, making them little more than political messaging. The stakes are raised in the upcoming debate, as any successful amendments would change the bill and force it back to the lower chamber.

“I think you got a little bit of a preview, but the budget resolution isn’t law … and this will be so I think you can expect a robust amendment process,” said Cornyn.

An 11th-hour curveball is what the Senate ends up doing on the federal minimum wage after the parliamentarian ruled that language increasing it to $15 per hour doesn’t comply with arcane budget rules that determine what can be included in the relief bill.

The House left the $15 minimum wage language in place, even though it will be stripped out in the Senate. Democrats are scrambling to see if they can tuck language into the bill that would effectively push large corporations to implement a $15 per hour minimum wage.

The idea has been backed by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHouse Democrats pass sweeping .9T COVID-19 relief bill with minimum wage hike House set for tight vote on COVID-19 relief package On The Money: Democrats scramble to save minimum wage hike | Personal incomes rise, inflation stays low after stimulus burst MORE (D-Ore.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie SandersBernie SandersHouse Democrats pass sweeping .9T COVID-19 relief bill with minimum wage hike House set for tight vote on COVID-19 relief package On The Money: Democrats scramble to save minimum wage hike | Personal incomes rise, inflation stays low after stimulus burst MORE (I-Vt.), and a senior Democratic aide said Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerThe bizarre back story of the filibuster Hillicon Valley: Biden signs order on chips | Hearing on media misinformation | Facebook’s deal with Australia | CIA nominee on SolarWinds House Rules release new text of COVID-19 relief bill MORE (D-N.Y.) “is looking at” adding it to the coronavirus relief bill. 

Democratic Sens. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinProgressives fume over Senate setbacks Politics, not racism or sexism, explain opposition to Biden Cabinet nominees House Democrats pass sweeping .9T COVID-19 relief bill with minimum wage hike MORE (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), who opposed the $15 per hour minimum wage increase, haven’t yet weighed in.

Other bipartisan discussions about making additional changes to the package are ongoing.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCollins urges Biden to revisit order on US-Canada border limits Media circles wagons for conspiracy theorist Neera Tanden Why the ‘Never-Trumpers’ flopped MORE (R-Maine) said she was talking with Democrats about potential amendments, such as raising the income threshold for Americans to receive stimulus payments, with those making upwards of $200,000 receiving a partial check.

Durbin, asked about the comments, added “that’s one of the topics the bipartisan group of senators has raised from the start.”

During the budget vote-a-rama, a bipartisan group of senators filed an amendment to voice support for making sure “upper-income taxpayers are not eligible.” The amendment, which was non-binding, ended up being adopted in a 99-1 vote.

Under the coronavirus bill, individuals who make up to $75,000 and couples who make up to $150,000 would get a $1,400 check. After that the amount of the check is scaled down until it phases out completely for individuals earning $100,00 or married couples earning $200,000.

Many of the same group of senators also filed an amendment to the budget resolution that supported capping the federal unemployment payment at $300 per week. The House bill caps the payment at $400 per week.

Though six Democratic senators were co-sponsors of the amendment to the budget resolution, it’s unclear if there would be enough support to get a similar change into the coronavirus bill—a move that would spark fury from progressives in both chambers.

Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterDemocrats hesitant to raise taxes amid pandemic Jennifer Palmieri: ‘Ever since I was aware of politics, I wanted to be in politics’ Democrats in standoff over minimum wage MORE (D-Mont), one of the cosponsors to the budget amendment, said he is supportive of $400 per week, and had not yet looked at how the House bill dealt with the stimulus checks.

Asked about the potential for bipartisan support for lowering the cap of the per-week payment, Collins noted that “there was general consensus on that at one time.”

Schumer has been urging members of the Senate Democratic caucus to suggest any potential changes to the bill so that they could be incorporated into the legislation before it passes the House. Though Democrats initially didn’t propose changes to the budget resolution, they ended up supporting dozens.

“Please continue to provide feedback and ideas to my office and the Senate committees for the bill. We have already incorporated many of your suggestions, as well as a number of bipartisan proposals, into the bill and the Senate is on track to send a robust $1.9 trillion package to the president’s desk,” Schumer wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter. 

Republicans, meanwhile, are plotting their own potential changes, after scoring big wins in the budget vote-a-rama, and could support amendments to water down the legislation even though all 50 GOP senators are expected to vote against the final bill.

“Thinking strategically and tactically I guess you almost have to wonder ‘do you want to make it better,’ and I think you do,” said Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerOn The Money: Manhattan DA obtains Trump tax returns | Biden nominee previews post-Trump trade agenda | Biden faces first setback as Tanden teeters OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Senate confirms former Michigan governor Granholm as Energy secretary | GOP bill would codify Trump rule on financing for fossil fuels, guns | Kennedy apologizes for calling Haaland a ‘whack job’ GOP bill would codify Trump rule on financing for fossil fuels, guns MORE (R-N.D.) about supporting changes while opposing the overall bill. 

Sen. Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungGraham: Trump will ‘be helpful’ to all Senate GOP incumbents Biden signs supply chain order after ‘positive’ meeting with lawmakers Republican 2024 hopefuls draw early battle lines for post-Trump era MORE (R-Ind.) and Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonSunday shows preview: 2024 hopefuls gather at CPAC; House passes coronavirus relief; vaccine effort continues The Memo: CPAC fires starting gun on 2024 Democrats scramble to rescue minimum wage hike MORE (R-Ark.) got bipartisan support for an amendment during the budget vote-a-rama to support not giving stimulus checks to undocumented immigrants—though Democratic leadership contended that it would also have impacted family members inside the United States legally.

Young suggested that lawmakers were trying to address the issue in the House to avoid an amendment vote in the Senate, but that if it wasn’t worked out he would offer the same amendment to the coronavirus bill that previously got the support of eight Democrats.

“I presume it’s a political protection effort,” he said about efforts to address the issue in the House. “But if it furthers good public policy I’m all for it.” 

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N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo Faces Sexual Harassment Allegations From 2nd Former Aide

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during the daily media briefing on July 23, 2020 in New York City. A second former aide from his administration has come forward with allegations of sexual harassment from Cuomo.

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during the daily media briefing on July 23, 2020 in New York City. A second former aide from his administration has come forward with allegations of sexual harassment from Cuomo.

Jeenah Moon/Getty Images

A second former aide to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has come forward with allegations of sexual harassment that took place last spring as the state was facing a surge in cases and deaths in its fight against the coronavirus. Cuomo says he will now ask New York’s attorney general and the state’s chief judge to pick an independent investigator to review the accusations against him.

The allegations were first reported by The New York Times on Saturday — just four days after another former aide published similar allegations about the governor in a Medium post, including an unwanted kiss and touching.

The latest allegations were brought by Charlotte Bennett, 25, who worked as an executive assistant and health policy adviser for Cuomo until leaving his administration in November. The Times said it approached Bennett about her story following a tweet she wrote in support of Lindsey Boylan for sharing her account of what happened with Cuomo — an account the governor has called untrue.

According to the Times, Bennett said that Cuomo asked her a series of personal questions when she was alone with him in his office in June, including whether age made a difference in romantic relationships. Cuomo, 63, also told her that he was open to relationships with women in their 20s, according to the account reported by the Times. Bennett told the paper that while she initially saw the governor as more of a “father figure,” her feelings changed after the June meeting.

“I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared,” Bennett told the Times. She said she was left “wondering how I was going to get out of it and assumed it was the end of my job.”

Following the June conversation with Cuomo, Bennett said that she detailed the encounter to Jill DesRosiers, the governor’s chief of staff, and Judith Mogul, a special counsel to the governor. Bennett was transferred to a new job as a health policy adviser and no action was taken against Cuomo after Bennett ultimately decided not to pursue an investigation, according to the Times.

In a statement on Saturday, Cuomo denied the allegations. He called Bennett a “hardworking and valued member of our team during COVID,” adding that “she has every right to speak out.”

“When she came to me and opened up about being a sexual assault survivor and how it shaped her and her ongoing efforts to create an organization that empowered her voice to help other survivors, I tried to be supportive and helpful,” said Cuomo. “Ms. Bennett’s initial impression was right: I was trying to be a mentor to her. I never made advances toward Ms. Bennett nor did I ever intend to act in any way that was inappropriate. The last thing I would ever have wanted was to make her feel any of the things that are being reported.”

Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, said the situation “cannot and should not be resolved in the press,” and called on state employees to comply with an outside review of the allegations.

“I will have no further comment until the review has concluded,” Cuomo said.

Beth Garvey, a special counsel and senior adviser to the governor, said in a statement that “Ms. Bennett’s concerns were treated with sensitivity and respect and in accordance with applicable law and policy.”

Garvey said Bennett “was thoroughly debriefed on the facts which did not include a claim of physical contact or inappropriate sexual conduct. She was consulted regarding the resolution, and expressed satisfaction and appreciation for the way in which it was handled.”

She said an outside review would be lead by former Federal Judge Barbara Jones.

On Sunday, however, the Cuomo administration was forced to backtrack on the plan to have Jones lead the review, following a backlash from both Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature who said the governor should not be allowed to determine who would investigate the allegations. Some called for an independent review by the state’s attorney general, Letitia James, while others said Cuomo should resign.

Carl Heastie, a Democrat and speaker of the New York State Assembly, called for James to make an appointment on who would lead the investigation, in the hopes that it would be “truly independent.” He was joined by a group of 25 state assemblywomen who released a statement calling for a more independent investigation and asking James to choose who would lead the review.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., also said that she would like to see James run an independent investigation into the aides’ claims.

Others demanded more. N.Y. State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, also a Democrat, called for Cuomo to resign.

Following the numerous calls for a more independent review of the allegations, Garvey released a statement Sunday saying that “the Governor’s Office wants a review of the sexual harassment claims made against the Governor to be done in a manner beyond reproach.”

Garvey said that though Jones was initially chosen to lead the review, the governor’s office “asked the Attorney General of New York State and the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals to jointly select an independent and qualified lawyer in private practice without political affiliation to conduct a thorough review of the matter and issue a public report.”

The sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo come as the governor is facing continued criticism on a second front concerning his office’s disclosure of death toll data for nursing homes in the state hit by COVID-19. An investigation by the New York attorney general’s office found that state officials may have undercounted nursing home deaths in the pandemic by as much as 50%.

Flight instructor, student pilot rescued by US Coast Guard after ditching plane off coast of Hawaii

A Coast Guard helicopter crew rescued the two men in an hour.

A flight instructor and a student pilot were rescued by a U.S. Coast Guard crew Saturday night after their plane experienced engine trouble, forcing them to ditch the aircraft in the ocean off the coast of Hawaii, officials said.

The two pilots were taken to a hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, according to Coast Guard officials. Their names were not immediately released.

Lt. j.g. Makenzy Karnehm, watchstander of the Coast Guard Joint Rescue Coordination Center, said a Coast Guard helicopter rescue crew from Air Station Barbers Point in Oahu managed to reach pilots about an hour after they ended up in the ocean about eight miles off the coast of Lanai, the sixth-largest Hawaiian island.

“As a watchstander, this is the type of outcome we want to see with every case,” Karnehm said in a statement, “Both the Coast Guard and our partners train together for incidents like this and once the call came in we were able to quickly mobilize a robust response and rescue the pilots.”

The Coast Guard and Maui Fire Department also dispatched boats to the area where the single-engine plane went down, officials said.

Coast Guard officials said they received a call at about 5:49 p.m. from the air-traffic control facility at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport that an aircraft was experiencing engine trouble and was likely going to ditch in the ocean.

On-duty Coast Guard watchstanders issued an urgent notice to mariners in the area to be on the lookout for survivors, officials said.

A Mokulele Airlines plane that had just taken off from the Lanai Airport headed to Honolulu spotted the two men in the water and radioed in their location as they continued to circle, officials told ABC affiliate station KITV in Honolulu.

Passengers aboard the Mokulele Airlines flight said their pilot quickly asked them to help scan the ocean for the stranded flyers as they circled the area.

“The pilot said, ‘There is an aircraft in distress. There is nobody else out there. We have to divert to find them,'” a passenger aboard the Mokulele Airlines flight told KITV. “We started a descending spiral over the ocean just looking for the aircraft. My wife and two passengers on the left side of the plane spotted the aircraft about to impact the water, then witnessed the aircraft impact the water.”

The airline passenger, who asked to remain anonymous, said the pilot asked him and his fellow passengers to look for two people in yellow life jackets because the pilot kept losing sight of them.

“We kept losing the plane. It submerged. It was just a white tail in a blue ocean with white caps and two small people with life jackets,” the passenger said.

Another crew from Kamaka Air also spotted the pilots in the water and continued to circle until Coast Guard crews arrived, the president of the airline told KITV.

George Hanzawa of George’s Aviation Services in Honolulu told KITV that the plane that crashed was a DA40 Diamond Star that was owned by his company. He said the flight instructor also worked for his company and took a student on a training run Saturday afternoon. He said they were expected to return by sunset.

Some parts of L.A. avoided the winter COVID-19 surge

The winter surge of COVID-19 brutalized much of Los Angeles County, sending case rates and deaths skyrocketing for weeks.

But in some neighborhoods, the pandemic’s wrath was barely felt.

In West Hollywood, Malibu and Playa del Rey, infection rates actually fell, or increased much less than elsewhere, according to a Times data analysis of more than 300 neighborhoods and cities across the county.

Those communities’ relative good fortune can be explained by some obvious demographic factors, such as Malibu’s low housing density and West Hollywood’s large population of singles able to work from home.

But residents and city officials also point to other factors they believe helped keep the pandemic under control: sea breezes, easy access to open space for exercising, a strong culture of mask compliance and, crucially, limited contact with other people.

“I am keenly aware that I am in the minority of people,” said Shayna Moon, a project manager for a technology company who works from home in Playa del Rey, where case rates declined during the surge. “So few people have been protected in the way that people in my age and income bracket and education have been.”

The data analysis underscores the wrenching inequities unveiled by the pandemic in L.A. County and beyond.

Some areas — the Eastside, eastern San Fernando Valley, South L.A. and southeastern part of the county — have been devastated by the coronavirus. Many of these are low-income communities with a high number of residents who are essential workers, putting their lives at risk at supermarkets, manufacturing firms and other businesses. They are far more likely to live in overcrowded conditions, bringing the coronavirus home from work and spreading it among the household.

Hard-hit areas lack the assets — vast recreational open space and a population with the economic means to stay home, get goods delivered and work remotely — of affluent communities that fared better. It was not just living in sprawling single-family homes rather than denser apartments that made the difference, but additional economic and lifestyle factors.

When taken as a whole, these factors paint a tale of two surges — showing that the luxuries of location and privilege play an important role in one’s ability to avoid the coronavirus.

This story, which examined weekly case rates between Nov. 15 and Jan. 15, is about some of the places the holiday surge passed over.

Malibu

A crowd of visitors in masks on a pier

Masked visitors to the Malibu Pier, which features shops, fishing and restaurants open for outdoor dining.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

In the courtyard of a Malibu shopping plaza last week, Renee Henn, 27, sat on a bench in the sun as people milled around sipping coffee, chatting over lunch at physically distanced tables and popping into a Pilates studio.

Henn, who lives in a house near the beach with her father and his girlfriend, has been able to work remotely for a local tech company during the pandemic. She said lack of density, lifestyle factors and even the Malibu climate could help explain the area’s relatively tame COVID-19 numbers.

“We’re near the water, and the sea air heals,” she said. “Everybody is outside all the time.”

While L.A. County’s coronavirus case rate exploded by 450% during the surge, the case rate for the city of Malibu only doubled. That places it near the top of the list of communities least affected by the surge.

Pricey real estate may have helped to insulate Malibu. The median home value in the seaside community is $2 million, according to census data, and many of the essential workers at restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses in its compact commercial district live outside the area.

The city’s affluent residents were able to pivot to working remotely soon after the pandemic started, and most City Hall services and meetings immediately transitioned to online.

“A lot of people in Malibu were able to adjust to working from home,” said the city’s mayor, Mikke Pierson, “and I think it made a huge difference compared to all the people that had to head out on 9-to-5 jobs that required them to be out among other people.”

Pierson noted that Malibu does not have nursing homes or long-term care facilities (although there have been efforts to establish some), which have been hubs for outbreaks of the virus.

But as a tourist destination, Malibu poses some risks. With up to 15 million visitors a year, Malibu considers crowding on beaches and trails to be a “real concern” during the pandemic, said city spokesman Matt Myerhoff.

To encourage healthy behavior, the City Council in November passed an ordinance requiring the use of masks. It is enforced with a $50 fine that can be avoided if the person in violation complies immediately. The city also placed digital signage along highways encouraging the use of face coverings in public.

“The city has been using all of its communications channels to repeat and reinforce the [Los Angeles County] public health officials’ safety recommendations [and] health orders,” Myerhoff said.

Additionally, the area has plenty of open space. Julia Bagnoli, 36, lives in an “Airstream in the woods,” she said, in the hilly area of Topanga just east of Malibu. She has a number of jobs — including alcohol treatment counseling and teaching yoga at a children’s school — but her primary occupation is Vedic astrology, which she has been able to practice remotely throughout the pandemic.

Compared with her woodsy home, “the city is just more crowded,” she said while playing with her puppy Usha at a shopping plaza on Pacific Coast Highway. She noted that there are only about 10,000 people in Topanga and fewer than 14,000 in Malibu. “There’s like 14,000 people in a four-block radius in Hollywood. We’re just more spread out.”

West Hollywood

Trails of light from cars in an intersection in a long-exposure photo taken at night

Cars stream through the intersection of La Cienega Boulevard and Holloway Drive in West Hollywood.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

West Hollywood, in some ways, would seem a prime candidate as a superspreader locale. The city jams 36,000 people into less than 2 square miles.

But while other densely populated areas in the county, including parts of South L.A. and the San Gabriel Valley, saw coronavirus case rates skyrocket by more than 1,000% during the surge, West Hollywood saw its cases climb by only 46%.

The main difference: household size. West Hollywood is a place where many residents live alone, according to city data. And many of the area’s residents have been able to work from home throughout the pandemic.

Those options are off the table for many of the essential workers and people who depend on multigenerational housing in parts of L.A. that were hit hard by the surge.

Dex Thompson, a 33-year-old actor, said he is the sole occupant of his house near the busy intersection of Fairfax Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard and has been going on “Zoom auditions” since the start of the pandemic. Even the decision to audition has been deliberate, he said.

“There’s a little bit of narcissism here,” Thompson said of West Hollywood, as he snacked on sushi and beet juice outside Whole Foods. “Everyone feels a little important, like, ‘I’m about to be somebody, and you’re not, so am I going to risk my life for you or for this opportunity?’”

A neon sign in the shape of a highway shield on a median says Relax you're OK

A sign of encouragement shines on the Santa Monica Boulevard median in West Hollywood.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

That luxury — of housing, work and choices — has, in many ways, been a determining factor amid the pandemic.

Lisa Cera, a stylist, said she and her business partner have managed to keep their business afloat by working out of her apartment.

Like Thompson, she is the sole occupant of her home, which is around the corner from West Hollywood’s commercial corridor. She has three interns — two of whom work remotely — and is tested for the coronavirus any time she has to step onto a film set.

Although Cera has friends on the East Coast who have contracted COVID-19, she said she didn’t know anyone in West Hollywood who has had it.

Keeping fit may have helped her and others in her neighborhood to stay healthy during the pandemic, she said. She hikes in Runyon Canyon almost every day and is careful to pull her mask tighter when someone gets close to her on the popular trail.

Though ocean breezes and gourmet juices may seem like less-than-quantifiable factors, there is a case to be made for their correlation to health and avoidance of COVID-19.

Lifelong, systemic lack of access to primary healthcare and nutrition, as well as environmental factors like pollution, can contribute to a higher likelihood of illness and death from the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of those factors have long plagued the poorer, denser and more diverse parts of the county that were hit hardest during the surge.

West Hollywood’s network of social programs may have also made a difference. The city provided free grocery and meal delivery for vulnerable residents, expanded assistance for renters and small businesses and developed advanced technological outreach and communication efforts, according to city spokeswoman Lisa Belsanti.

Additionally, West Hollywood, like Malibu, passed an ordinance requiring the use of masks in public.

Some residents said the combination of factors worked.

“We’re a small city,” said Douglas, 49, a real estate developer who declined to give his last name. “West Hollywood is good at communicating policies and getting the information out.”

Playa del Rey

In Playa del Rey, an affluent beachfront neighborhood near Los Angeles International Airport, the pandemic has barely registered.

In fact, infection rates declined by 25% during the two-month period identified by The Times.

The area in the heart of Silicon Beach doesn’t have Malibu’s spaciousness, but it seemed to have demographic advantages. The coastal community is largely residential, with a mix of single-family homes and apartments, and it has fewer crowded households than most neighborhoods and cities in the county, according to a Times review of data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

It’s also among the most affluent — and has a high percentage of white-collar workers, meaning many presumably have the advantage of working from home.

Moon, the project manager and a Midwest transplant to the neighborhood, has been cautious about following public health guidelines, she said, expressing gratitude that her employer has allowed her to work from home since April.

Moon said she doesn’t step foot outside her apartment without a mask — and rarely ventures farther than neighborhood groceries and drugstores.

“I assume very little risk on a daily basis. I’ve basically been insulated from it because of the demographic that I’m in,” she said.

A man in a mask looks at his phone while walking on the sidewalk with a coffee in hand

Perry Chung walks through the popular commercial center of Playa del Rey with a coffee from Playa Provisions.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

But the public health precautions — such as stay-at-home orders and intermittent bans on indoor and outdoor dining — have taken their toll on the neighborhood.

At Playa Provisions, a well-known eatery just off the beach, business is down by 75%.

“We love being that go-to staple and dependable location for people to come,” said Brooke Williamson, the restaurant’s co-owner and co-chef. “Every moment of this has been so painful.”

She and her staff never relaxed their safety precautions, even as the neighborhood fared better than other parts of the county, she said.

“I tried not to think about the area not being dangerous. I always treated my restaurant and staff and family as if we were in the highest-risk areas to try to avoid being relaxed in any way.”

While Williamson talked, more than a dozen people walked by her restaurant. All wore masks.

Virginia becomes first Southern state to vote to legalize recreational marijuana use in 2024 in nod to racial justice

Virginia stood poised to become the first Southern state to legalize marijuana after lawmakers approved a bill aimed in part at ending disparate treatment faced by people of color in the criminal justice system.

The bill, sent to Gov. Ralph Northam, would permit possession and retail sales of pot effective in 2024. Northam has expressed support for legalization.

Last week New Jersey officially legalized recreational marijuana when Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law three bills putting into effect a ballot question overwhelmingly supported by voters last year. More than a dozen states and the District of Columbia allow recreational marijuana use. 

Last year Virginia lawmakers ordered a commission to study and make recommendations for how Virginia should legalize and regulate the growth, sale and possession of marijuana. The commission focused on policies to redress historic inequities and racial injustice caused by marijuana criminalization.

The study, released in November, showed that from 2010–2019, the average arrest rate of Black people for marijuana possession was 3.5 times higher than the arrest rate for white people. The commission also made specific recommendations for legalization with a focus on equity. 

“I would say that we’re on the path to an equitable law allowing responsible adults to use cannabis,” said Sen. Adam Ebbin, the chief sponsor of the Senate bill, after it was passed Saturday.

New Jersey legalizes recreational marijuana, dismissing ‘broken, indefensible’ laws

Sen. Jennifer McClellan expressed disappointment that her proposed amendment to legalize possession on July 1 failed to make the final bill. The amendment would have ended punishments for people with small amounts of marijuana, but House Democrats argued that legalization without a legal marketplace for marijuana could promote the growth of the black market.

McClellan said she encouraged Northam to add it to the bill he signs to “address the disproportionate penalization” communities of color have faced. 

Hand holding a marijuana cigarette.

McClellan said the state has a “long way to go” to enact marijuana legalization in an equitable way that redresses the harms of prohibition on Black and brown communities. McClellan also backs an amendment to give formerly incarcerated individuals priority for commercial distribution licenses. 

“The bill we passed today moves the ball forward, but let’s be clear: This is not marijuana legalization,” McClellan said. “It sets up a framework to get us on a path to legalization in 2024.”

Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said the state has taken an important step toward legalization, adding that the governor wants to improve the legislation.

“There’s still a lot of work ahead, but this bill will help to reinvest in our communities and reduce inequities in our criminal justice system,” she said.

Opinion: NBA needs to permanently abolish marijuana testing

Under the legislation, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana will become legal the same day sales begin and regulations will go into effect to control the marijuana marketplace in Virginia. The legislation will require a second vote from the General Assembly next year, but only on the regulatory framework and criminal penalties for several offenses, including underage use and public consumption of marijuana.

A second vote will not be required on legalization.

Contributing: The Associated Press

The enduring popularity of artist Bob Ross

With his curious hair and his whisper of a voice, Bob Ross was perhaps an unlikely TV celebrity. But he became one of America’s most famous painters – not only for his creativity, but for his positivity.

“We don’t make mistakes; we have happy accidents,” he told his audience.

It was like watching a magician reveal the secret of his trade.

“Look at that. Isn’t that a nice little tree?”


Bob Ross – Royal Majesty by
Bob Ross on
YouTube

But at the height of his fame, at only 52, Bob Ross died of lymphoma. That was 26 years ago. And yet, the “happy little painter” is perhaps more relevant now than ever.

“We’ve been in a time when things have been so frantic, and people have been so stressed, and Bob Ross is the King of Chill,” said Jessica Jenkins.

But what many may not know is that when Ross came into our homes all those years ago, he did it from a home in Muncie, Indiana. 

“Nobody really thinks about where the show was made,” said correspondent Lee Cowan.

“So many people are surprised they walk in and they’re like, ‘This is not a TV studio, this is a living room!’ Yeah, it’s a living room!” laughed Jenkins, who is a curator of that living room – what is now the Bob Ross Experience at Muncie’s Minnestrisa museum.

This very spot is where for years “The Joy of Painting” was taped. His paint brushes, his palette and, of course, his easel are here.

“Every episode he would have a moment where he would beat the devil out of the brush – he would take it and be just thump thump thump thump thump,” said Jenkins. “People come in and they recognize that [spot where the brushes were beaten] and they know exactly what that is.”

happy-little-trees-620.jpg
Yes, the trees DO look happy.

Bob Ross


But why Muncie? Because this was the home of the local PBS station, WIPB. Traveling through the Midwest on a teaching tour, Ross approached the station with the idea of teaching in front of a camera.

Cowan said, “He was an unknown painter though at the time, I mean nobody knew who Bob Ross was.”

“They did not know who he was, but he had a lot of charm,” Jenkins said.

Jim Needham was WIPB’s general manager, and he knew Ross had something. “His mantra was, ‘I’ll never do anything harder than my audience is able, also, to do.'”

“It really wasn’t just about painting; the show was about a lot more than that,” Cowan said.

Needham said, “I think the show was about giving a person agency, and doing what they want to do or something they were afraid to do. And I’m not talking about painting. I’m talking about life.”

Ross practiced his TV paintings for days, making sure that he could complete them in front of the cameras in less than a half an hour.  Jenkins said, “He was very planned out and very methodical.”

“But it sure didn’t come off that way,” Cowan said. “It came off very spontaneous and calm. It wasn’t like he was racing through it!”

“That’s the thing about Bob: You know that on the inside he was on a speed clock getting through that painting, but on the outside he was just so relaxed, and made it look so easy.”

Part of the Bob Ross Experience is trying your hand at painting. For certified Bob Ross instructor Doug Hallgren, the discovery that anyone can do it is the real joy of painting.

“Sometimes we grab their hand and say, ‘It’s going to be okay, we’re going to do this together, just trust me on this,’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, it worked!'” Hallgren said.

bob-ross-experience-620-tall.jpg
Visitors at the Bob Ross Experience try their hands at creating a Ross painting. 

CBS News


It was a remarkable ego boost for everyone here. One young guest, Elia, said, “After sitting down and painting a painting, I really believe I could do anything!”

Ross’ simplicity, though, often brought criticism. The art world had mixed reviews of him, said Jenkins: “There were certainly a lot of people who categorized him at kitsch art. But if you look at the canvasses that Bob did on his own time for himself, they are complex.”

Like this elaborate seascape that hung in his own home:

bob-ross-seascape-620.jpg
Curator Jessica Jenkins points out a Bob Ross seascape. 

CBS News


Hallgren said, “The later he got on in years, those paintings just got sharper and sharper and sharper.”

Ross rarely made a dime off any of his paintings, and never expected any of his works to ever hang in a museum. But recently the Smithsonian acquired four Bob Ross paintings to add to its permanent collection. 

In that, at least, the man who just wanted to paint a happy little world has cemented his place in it as well.

Jenkins said, “The message of having self-confidence, of trying new things – that doesn’t get old. And because of that, I think that it just continues to resonate for generation after generation.”

     
For more info:

     
Story produced by Jon Carras. Editor: Carol Ross.