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For Ayanna Pressley, the beauty of unexpected wins led to Congress and a historic office

By Kayla Epstein
For Ayanna Pressley, the beauty of unexpected wins led to Congress and a historic office
Freshman congresswoman Ayanna Pressley in her Capitol Hill office. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

From the outside, Room 1108 in the Longworth House Office Building is unremarkable. Inside, it's even less so. But to Ayanna Pressley - who is the first black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress - it is everything.

The office symbolizes a kind of spiritual lineage for her: Fifty years ago, the space was occupied by Shirley Chisholm, the nation's first black congresswoman.

"This is it! This. Is. It. OK? Come on, this is it! I love the vibe," boomed Pressley, as she strode in for the first time a few weeks before being sworn into office as part of the most diverse freshman class in congressional history. "I love the floor plan. I love the history."

For a space with such pedigree, Longworth 1108 is almost comically cramped. Open the front door too quickly, and you might thwack an aide.

Still, Pressley said she felt "an immediate soul tie to this space." Chisholm, who represented her New York district from 1969 to 1983, is a political icon for liberals and a kind of figurative godmother for Pressley.

But Pressley wasn't supposed to get Chisholm's office. She drew an inauspicious lot during the House room lottery (which took place on Chisholm's birthday, as Pressley proudly told the audience at the drawing).

She shrugged, her disappointment at the bad draw was evident, and later squatted in the office and feebly tried to keep other congressional freshmen from scooping up the space. "Lots of mice in here!" she and an aide joked at one point in an attempt to deter others who stopped in.

When another freshman, California's Katie Hill, inadvertently selected the room, Pressley had to settle for a fallback. But later, during an orientation session, Hill offered to swap offices with Pressley.

What had at first seemed out of reach was now hers. For Pressley, 44, the beauty of the unexpected win is now a familiar experience.

In 2009, she was the first African-American woman elected to the Boston City Council, beating most of a large field that at one point swelled to 15 candidates vying for four at-large seats. But just two years later, she was cast as a political underdog in her first re-election battle.

"The victory was an extraordinary feat for a first-term city councilor who had been expected by many to lose her seat," the Boston Globe wrote in 2011. When the results were tallied, she was the top vote-getter in all the at-large city council races that year.

"It was not a fluke," she said at the time, and the women of color who have since been elected to the city council credit her with paving the way.

In 2018, Pressley was once again the underdog when she challenged longtime Rep. Michael E. Capuano in the Democratic primary, an unusual move in Massachusetts politics.

Pressley had a reason for skipping her place in line, said Lydia Edwards, a Boston city councilor. "You cannot assume the same political machine that produced the same kind of politician - ethnically, in terms of gender - will suddenly produce you. You have to see that path, and form your own."

Pressley campaigned against Capuano - a popular liberal - by making the case that it was time for generational change and that the state's only majority-minority district should see itself reflected in its representative. Her slogan: "Change can't wait."

She trounced him.

After Pressley secured Chisholm's office, one of the first things her staff did was tape to the walls an illustration of Chisholm that had been colored in by Pressley's goddaughter. The sketch of Chisholm's portrait, curls high atop her head, her face frozen in a serious stare, wasn't far from a poster with a drawing of Pressley, who wears her hair in twists and can effect her own unflinching gaze.

The late congresswoman was elected in 1968 and represented Brooklyn, and when she ran for president, her slogan was "Unbought and Unbossed." Pressley set about building a career guided by Chisholm's example and other groundbreaking women, such as the late civil rights leader and congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas.

She got her start in politics after enrolling in Boston University 1992. After her mother fell ill and lost her job, Pressley dropped out to support her and found work with former repersentative Joseph P. Kennedy II, and later John Kerry, when he was a U.S. senator.

As an aide to Kerry, she advocated for constituents who didn't typically get - or even request - attention from Washington's most powerful.

"She came to work with her conscience helping her to guide her where we ought to go, what we ought to be doing," Kerry said. "An example would be Pine Street Inn, where homeless people and folks with serious challenges were finding shelter." The organization helps provide housing and emergency services in Boston, and in 2003, Kerry delivered an address to graduates of its job training program.

"She thought it was just as important to listen to them as it was to everyone else, and she was dead right," he said.

There are many political stars in the class of freshmen elected to Congress last year. Some are new to politics. Many will burn bright and fade. Pressley, who has worked in politics for more than 20 years, could be in Washington for the long haul.

She also arrives at a unique political inflection point along with the most diverse, and most female class in history. Decades ago, as Chisholm herself ran for president, she issued the challenge that "we cannot continue to take things as they are, when we see around us that government is not responsive to certain segments of the population."

Pressley said she wants see that vision made reality.

In December, she made headlines for her frank remarks at a fundraising meeting for the Democratic National Committee, warning them not to be complacent about their electoral gains and to "ask the tough questions about whether or not we provided" women and candidates of color with support "so we can break through more glass and concrete ceilings as rapidly as possible."

Already Pressley's become part of tightknit group of liberal House freshmen known on social media as "The Squad," including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. These liberal women have collectively pushed Democratic leadership to consider policies such as gun control, Medicare-for-all, and a "Green New Deal" focused on addressing climate change.

After Omar posted a photo with Pressley and other women on Instagram with the caption "They ain't ready," it went viral.

"For generations men have dominated every power, every narrative," Pressley said. "We're standing in our power and we're claiming our space and it's about damn time."

Their first challenge was a monumental one: They'd entered some of the most rarefied halls in government as that government remains partially shut down.

It gave Pressley - who tends to speak of her vision of government in sweeping, intersectional terms and rhetorical paragraphs - a very specific problem to attack. She wrote to congressional leadership to demand janitors and food service workers in the government's employ receive back pay.

Two days later, she took to the House floor and slammed Trump for the shutdown's impact on federal employees. "I see right through you and so do the American people," she said. "I rise today in solidarity with the thousands of workers with calloused hands and broken spirits working for no pay."

The minute-plus speech, delivered in her signature, deliberate cadence, was (politely) censored by a House colleague for her direct attack on Trump. But no matter: It triggered dozens of headlines and hundreds of thousands of views on social media.

Last week, Pressley left Chisholm's old office - the first of several offices the late Congresswoman had on Capitol Hill - to march in the cold with furloughed federal workers. As they strode to the gates of the White House, she spoke with marchers, and reporters flocked to her, hoping for a sound bite. She couldn't provide the workers present with much more than that because of the impasse between her party's leadership and Trump.

"It is true that it's unlikely that anything that they're proposing right now is going to become law," Michele Swers, a politics professor at Georgetown University, said of Pressley and other progressive freshmen elected last year. "Realistically, what they can hope for now is to try and set the agenda in a way that's going to influence future policy. You kind of lay down markers of, if Democrats have control, this is what it would look like."

Pressley's approach may be futile, said Genevieve Wood, senior adviser and spokeswoman for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "You're going to see a lot of grandstanding on the left, trying to get their voices heard, trying to fulfill promises (they made) on campaign trail," she said.

Pressley did have promises on her mind on a recent Thursday afternoon.

Her desk displays a black-and-white photo of her late mother, the community organizer and social worker Sandra Pressley. A single mother, she sacrificed to send her daughter to a private school and had sparked Pressley's love of Chisholm in the first place. Pressley's journey to Congress, in many ways, had begun with her. Propped against the wall was a drawing of Pressley and slogan she often repeats: "The people closest to the pain should be the closest to the power."

She sat at the edge of her seat, behind a desk that was in front of a window that she likes to think Chisholm had looked out.

The furniture is too big for the space. There are too few electrical outlets. Temporary walls have been erected to carve out a small office for senior staff.

The office is by no means perfect, but it's still hers.

---

The Washington Post's Jayne Orenstein and Alice Li reported contributed to this report.

Tide of resentment swells against professor's work in Flint as some activists turn against him

By Perry Stein
Tide of resentment swells against professor's work in Flint as some activists turn against him
Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards in a water-testing lab at the university. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Jay Westcott

LeeAnne Walters' four children were breaking out in rashes in 2014. Her teenage son became so weak he could no longer carry his book bag or walk up the stairs. One of her toddler-aged twins continued to miss developmental milestones. And her own hair started falling out, and has yet to fully grow back. Walters suspected the water in her Flint, Michigan, home could be to blame.

In 2015, she tested it and discovered dangerous chemicals, including elevated lead levels. But when she sent her findings to government officials, they insisted publicly that the water was safe, even though they had already issued multiple water-boil advisories because of possible contamination with harmful bacteria. So, she turned to Marc Edwards, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech, who in 2004 had helped alert Washington, D.C.-area residents that their drinking water contained dangerously high levels of lead. He slept on Walters' couch in Flint so he could test the water in the middle of the night, when Edwards says water quality is at its worst. He and his team relied on an emergency grant, but, before the grant kicked in, he committed to spending nearly $150,000 of his discretionary research funds and personal money.

Walters was with Edwards that September as he announced to a group of reporters and residents in front of Flint City Hall that the lead levels in thousands of homes were perilous, exceeding safety standards set by the World Health Organization. The water problems traced back to 2014, when the government had switched the cash-strapped city's water source from treated water in Detroit to the cheaper Flint River. After months of denying there was a problem, state and federal officials said in October 2015 that they would restore Detroit as Flint's water source. "We wouldn't be where we are now in Flint without Marc," Walters told me.

Three years later, however, Edwards found himself staring at a letter addressed to the "Scientific and Engineering Communities" that was posted on a site called FlintComplaints.com. It read, in part, "Residents of Flint request you tell us where we can file a formal complaint against the behavior, since January 2016, of Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech. ... Many of these residents feel that Mr. Edwards' drama, changes in stance, and attacks on residents and researchers have ended up taking Flint residents' voice away and giving it to Mr. Edwards. This has allowed Mr. Edwards to make Flint's Water Crisis about himself and not the people."

The letter, which was posted in May, had, by January, more than 90 names printed at the bottom - mostly Flint residents, but also two Washington, D.C., activists who had worked with Edwards closely during the District of Columbia's lead crisis.

"It hurt," he says. "If the statements were true, I would have signed the letter myself." Clearly, a betrayal had occurred. The question was, who betrayed whom?

---

The issue of whether scientists should engage in activism has become more urgent in the Trump era. For decades, scientists have argued their work should be a nonpartisan affair. It's a norm so deeply rooted that even scientists who participated in the 2017 March for Science on Earth Day espoused that ideal, saying they were there only in response to the administration's attacks on science.

Edwards argues scientists may have to assume an activist role when they witness communities facing powerful institutions, such as the state of Michigan. "I would prefer to be able to sit in the office, advise my students and do my research, and that would be enough, but it's not," Edwards told me in one of several lengthy phone conversations. Still, as a scientist, he's not always comfortable having his work cast as activism. He prefers, he says, to call what he does "investigative science," a blend of "science, investigative reporting and direct collaboration with members of affected communities."

Note the emphasis on collaboration, a very unscientific process that is subject to all manner of variables, including human emotions. Up until Edwards' rift with Flint activists, his collaboration with nonscientists had been less fraught. He seemed to work more successfully with activists in Washington. He and Yanna Lambrinidou, an anthropologist who was instrumental in getting his Washington, D.C., work before congressional investigators, went on to develop and teach a course together at Virginia Tech about engineering ethics. (Lambrinidou would later sign the letter criticizing Edwards, along with another D.C. water activist, Paul Schwartz.) Edwards' work in the District also earned him a stream of professional accolades, including a 2007 MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. In January 2016, The Washington Post was still referring to him as "the heroic professor who helped uncover the Flint lead water crisis."

By then, though, his relationship with residents in Flint had started to break down. Edwards and his team had continued testing the water, and their results showed that lead levels were falling in line with federal standards - matching what the government was finding. By August 2016, both he and Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who is also credited with raising the alarm about lead in Flint's water, were saying publicly that the situation in Flint was improving.

But that narrative contradicted the perspective of advocates and groups such as Water Defense, an environmental nonprofit started by actor Mark Ruffalo, which brought in its own expert to sample the water in Flint. The group announced in February 2016 that it had found "harmful chemicals . . . appearing at levels that often approach or exceed drinking water standards."

Edwards railed against Ruffalo for needlessly scaring residents. "A-List Actor but F-List Scientist: Mark Ruffalo Brings Fear and Misinformation to Flint" was the title of a May 16, 2016, post on Edwards's blog at flintwaterstudy.org. He criticized the findings and methods, and the lead investigator for Water Defense later admitted he overstated the dangers of the water. (Water Defense did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Edwards' tests continued to show that contaminant levels had dropped. In September 2017, his findings were in line with the state's, showing lead levels within federal regulations. That month, when asked whether Flint had reached "the end of the water crisis," Edwards replied: "If you define the end of the water crisis as having water quality parameters back in the range considered normal for other cities with old lead pipes, the answer is yes," albeit with some significant caveats. The state had been providing residents with bottled water for drinking, but Edwards maintained they could also drink out of the tap again if they used filters, and that unfiltered water was safe to bathe in.

To prove his point, he showered in his Virginia home for 20 minutes in water that he concentrated with lead and then took a 20-minute bath "to maximize possible skin absorption," according to an October 2017 paper he wrote about the experiment titled "Lead Sinkers in the Shower: Effects on Water Lead and Human Exposure." The point of the experiment, he says, was to show that bathing in lead-poisoned water was not a significant source of exposure. (He also included this somewhat self-defeating disclaimer: "Dr. Edwards has worked on lead in water issues for 30 years - we do not recommend that anyone try this at home.") Before and after bathing, he wrote, he took three sequential urine samples for testing. They showed no significant increase in the lead levels in his urine.

Some residents, however, heard something else in Edwards' conclusions. Abel Delgado, a Flint resident and activist who signed the letter criticizing the professor, says that he and others felt betrayed when Edwards seemed to imply the crisis was over. The professor appeared to be "giving in to the narrative of the state, and not the narrative that Flint was facing," he says. Residents were saying discolored and smelly water was still streaming from their faucets. Lead usually can't be seen, smelled or tasted in drinking water, experts say. But residents suspected other contaminants.

Lawrence Reynolds, a pediatrician in Flint and a member of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's Flint Water Advisory Task Force, says Edwards was "irresponsible" to tell residents that they no longer had to worry about the water. "Researchers can publish reports and say that the water is safe in 90 to 95 percent of households," Reynolds told me. " In the medical field, we have to deal with the 5 to 10 percent where there is risk."

In February 2018, the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership (a research team consisting of scientists from Wayne State University and other schools) determined that a fatal 2014 outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in Flint that received little attention at the time was also the result of the water supply change, and may have been more widespread than previously thought - a finding that the Michigan health department disputed. At least 87 people were infected and 12 died of pneumonia after being exposed to Legionella bacteria in the water. Edwards told me that the Legionnaires' findings were consistent with his own published research. But some observers say that he didn't let the research group have its moment. Instead, Edwards homed in on an alleged discrepancy in the résumé of lead investigator Shawn McElmurry, filing an ethics complaint that accused McElmurry of claiming that he worked in Flint longer than he actually did in order to obtain millions of dollars in grants. McElmurry denies the allegations. A spokesman for Michigan's Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs said the investigation is still pending.

To some Flint residents, Edwards' focus on lead started to seem myopic and his diatribes against critics self-serving. Benjamin Pauli, a Flint resident and assistant professor of social sciences at Kettering University, told me: "The whole framing of the crisis never really fit with what activists were seeing on the ground."

In March, Edwards was in a courtroom in Flushing, Michigan, testifying as a defense witness for Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon. Lyon is one of five state officials charged with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct for failing to warn the public about the extent of the Legionnaires outbreak. But Edwards said that Lyon wasn't to blame and that he was guilty only of trusting Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employees, not manslaughter. The case is still making its way through the courts.

Labor leader Claire McClinton says she and other Flint residents were "disappointed" that Edwards would stand up for Lyon. "I do not feel that the focus should be on Edwards," she told me, "but with that being said, he is a contributor to some of the things that the state has been doing to us."

A few months after that court appearance, the letter criticizing Edwards appeared. He later filed a defamation lawsuit against three of the activists who signed it: Lambrinidou, Schwartz and Melissa Mays, a mother of three in Flint. In his complaint, Edwards claimed that the trio organized a public smear campaign against him, questioning his scientific integrity and motives for working in Flint in social media posts and media interviews. He sought $3 million in damages, saying he has lost some of his grants, potentially preventing him from uncovering contaminated water in other places. Edwards chalks up the activists' criticisms to professional jealousy and, in Lambrinidou's case, romantic feelings that were not reciprocated.

"The Defendants harbor various financial, professional and social incentives to make negative and damaging statements regarding Edwards and his work," the lawsuit reads. Elsewhere it says: "Each of the defendants has made numerous statements expressing malice and resentment toward the credit and accolades Edwards has received." The lawsuit cited some of their public postings that Edwards claims have tarnished his reputation. One 2017 Facebook post by Schwartz read: "He [Edwards] has no knowledge of the social sciences, little connections to either of our communities, a disdain for people of color, low income folks, is a follower of Rush Limbaugh and Ayn Rand, who wrote the callow and disdainful libertarian bible, 'Atlas Shrugged.' " (Lambrinidou, Schwartz and Mays declined to comment for this story through their attorney, William Moran, who called the lawsuit baseless and predicted that it could be dismissed in the coming weeks.)

In Flint, Edwards used public records requests to unearth emails showing that officials in Michigan knew the city's water was contaminated long before they publicly admitted it. Lately, he has used that same strategy to get copies of emails he hopes will explain what caused the activists in Flint and in Washington, D.C., to turn on him. And he continues to use his blog to defend his reputation and update readers on his public spats with activists and other scientists.

I asked Edwards if he thought, looking back, that he had been a bit naive not to have anticipated the reaction to his findings that lead levels in Flint's water had fallen to safe levels. He says he had expected a backlash but not what he views as a concerted effort to destroy his professional reputation. He stands by his actions, which he perceives as truth telling. "It comes down to duty versus self-preservation," he says. "In a post-truth world, science has become just another weapon of tribal warfare, and rising above that takes courage."

LeeAnne Walters didn't sign the letter criticizing Edwards and still works with him. They have written a peer-reviewed journal article about water testing in Flint. "He has been honest with me. I have talked to other professors, and they try to dumb things down, and that's why I think we work so well together," she told me. They are collaborating on another project, which, she says, will focus "on how everyday citizens can better work with academics."

Despite Edwards' allegations that comments by Mays, Schwartz and Lambrinidou have cost him grants, he remains busy. In April, the Environmental Protection Agency gave Edwards and Virginia Tech a portion of a $2 million grant "to create a consumer-based framework to detect and control lead in drinking water."

Throughout 2018, he raised questions about the water system in Denmark, South Carolina, and the state eventually stopped adding a potentially harmful chemical. "I am motivated by shame," he says. "I cannot stand the thought that science could be abused to hurt innocent people as I witnessed it in Flint and other cases."

But in Denmark, his relationships with some residents may be souring. Meg Morgan Adams, an advocate with Edisto Riverkeeper, a nonprofit group that has collected water samples in Denmark, says that Edwards helped bring public attention to issues with their water supply but largely left before any problems were fixed. While Edwards still has support in the town, she says that some people felt he unnecessarily pitted residents against the government, making it harder to accomplish anything. (Edwards stands by his approach in South Carolina, and says that while he does not frequently go to Denmark, he corresponds with several residents via phone and email a few times a week. "We always try to cooperate until the system fails," he says.)

"They are frustrated because it's all well and good that their water quality is getting national attention, but it's not fixing the water infrastructure," says Adams, who lives outside Denmark. "A lot of people are sick of the drama."

The future of a bankrupt PG&E may be a breakup

By David R. Baker and Mark Chediak
The future of a bankrupt PG&E may be a breakup
A firefighter searches a burned-out building in Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 15, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by David Paul Morris.

PG&E Corp.'s looming bankruptcy could lead to an unprecedented spectacle -- a major American power company being taken over by the state or broken up for city governments to run.

More often, it works the other way. Local governments have a long history of selling off municipal utilities, switching them from the public sector to the private. Witness the ongoing efforts to privatize Puerto Rico's troubled power authority.

But with PG&E planning to file for bankruptcy this month -- the result of mounting wildfire liabilities that could reach $30 billion -- a government takeover has become a real possibility. In fact, the future of the power giant that has long reigned over a broad swath of California could very well involve a complete dismantling of its system and a takeover by multiple municipalities.

PG&E's own hometown of San Francisco has signaled interest in buying some of the company's assets. The city's utilities commission said Tuesday that Mayor London Breed asked it to study the possibility. The commission, which pipes water from the Sierra Nevada mountains to the city and runs its own hydroelectric dams, has had a testy relationship with PG&E. Seizing the company's local assets has, for years, been a lodestar goal of the city's political left.

"I think, as a city, this is an unparalleled opportunity to move to energy independence, to independence from Pacific Gas and Electric," Aaron Peskin, a member of the San Francisco board of supervisors, said at a hearing related to the matter Tuesday.

Many California counties and cities -- including San Francisco -- have recently started buying electricity on behalf of their residents, through a system known as community choice aggregation. Those programs still rely on PG&E and the state's other traditional utilities to deliver the electricity they purchase. Several are privately debating whether to bid for chunks of PG&E, said Mark Toney, director of a utility watchdog group. He declined to name the organizations, because they have not yet decided to make their interest public.

Toney and his group, the Utility Reform Network, have long been critical of PG&E. But the prospect of seeing the company dismembered troubles him, since it may create service disparities at a time of growing climate-related risks.

San Francisco may have the resources and will to take over part of PG&E's network, he said. Less-prosperous rural communities may not. And those communities, particularly in the wooded Sierra foothills, face a greater risk that power lines may spark wildfires. Maintaining the electric grid there would be more expensive than in the city.

"We need to be careful that we don't end up with a two-tier system of reasonably priced power for people living in the cities, and extremely expensive power for people living in rural communities," Toney said.

A takeover by the state or local governments is one of many possible outcomes for PG&E. When the company's Pacific Gas and Electric utility went through bankruptcy proceedings, from 2001 to 2004, it emerged intact, without major structural changes. Now, possibilities also include selling off its gas business as well as its San Francisco headquarters.

Steven Malnight, the utility's senior vice president for energy supply and policy, said in an interview Monday that PG&E at this point would not rule out any potential outcomes.

"It's pretty early in this process to speculate on what will emerge from the process," he said. "But we have been very clear that we're open to exploring all options."

The California Public Utilities Commission has opened a proceeding to look at the structure of PG&E, including carving the utility owner into smaller, regional subsidiaries or converting it into a government-owned company, while Gov. Gavin Newsom has said all options are on the table. Any effort to break up the company, or sell off pieces of it, would have to be hashed out in bankruptcy court and approved by the judge overseeing the proceedings.

Negotiations over which assets would be purchased and at what price could be fraught. The City of Boulder in Colorado, for example, has been in talks for years with incumbent utility Xcel Energy Inc. on an effort to municipalize the city's electric distribution system, with the issue still unresolved.

"The people who see this as an easy fix aren't correct," said Severin Borenstein, faculty director of the Energy Institute at the University of California at Berkeley's Haas School of Business. "You need the expertise for, in the case of San Francisco, a pretty significant grid operation. You also need to go through the process of valuing the hardware and transferring it."

PG&E is such a big, complex company that the state government probably wouldn't want to run it whole, several analysts have concluded. The company serves about 16 million people scattered across a vast swath of Northern and Central California.

"In the short run, managing a single 70,000 square-mile service territory could prove incredibly challenging to the state," Helen Kou, an analyst with BloombergNEF, wrote in a research note. "This could represent a transition phase while it works on splitting up PG&E into smaller pieces."

Hugh Wynne, a utilities and renewable energy analyst for Sector & Sovereign Research, argues that a carve-up could add to PG&E's value -- if the company sheds the more expensive, fire-prone areas north of San Francisco Bay. He estimates that PG&E's possible $30 billion liability from the 2017 and 2018 fire seasons sprang from just 12 percent of the company's transmission and distribution network.

"The wildfire risk associated with that region is rendering the entirety of PG&E's transmission and distribution system impossible to finance," Wynne said.

- - -

Bloomberg's Romy Varghese contributed.

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

The dubious splendor of a thousand hamburgers

By alexandra petri
The dubious splendor of a thousand hamburgers

ALEXANDRA PETRI COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Petri clients only)

By ALEXANDRA PETRI

Behold the feast! The delicacies came from all corners, from the Golden Arches (rescued from the Hamburglar's clutches), from the Wendy's of red braids and squared-off corners, from the linoleum-floored apologetic Domino's, and from the Burger King of ominous advertisements and chicken fries they came. Clad in gleaming cardboard they came, heaped one upon the other -- and smelling of hot oil.

And they were glorious and resplendent with many sauces, the sauce that is in the container that is orange and the sauce in the container that is teal, all borne upon a silver platter, to be presented to the victors.

A hecatomb of hamburgers and "many, many french fries."

Here is your reward, you the sportsmen! If you conduct yourself in such a manner that you obtain a glorious victory, you will go unto the White House, where you will be presented with a feast fit for the president himself: some formerly warm hamburgers suppurating in their cardboard boxes on a table, some french fries under a heat lamp in little White House cups, and at least one Domino's pizza. Are you delighted by this? You ought to be! The president is!

Am I lovin' it? I am not sure.

Trump has this remarkable propensity for appearing in Cursed Images. Contemplate the above. This is certainly a cursed image. There is something about it; it is the sort of thing you should look at through a paper plate, or not at all.

The charm and mystery of McDonald's hamburgers is that they taste the same everywhere you go. You can eat one in the parking lot outside a shuttered Toys 'R' Us, or in the White House, and the taste is much the same. This is maybe also the curse of McDonald's hamburgers.

These hamburgers were not, in themselves, objectionable. And yet. Maybe it was the plating! Maybe it was the candelabra. (Yes, I think it was the candelabra. The candelabra was what made it risible. Put a candelabra next to it, and . . . Fine Dining!)

There is something in the ostentatious presentation of so much fast food, still in containers, as though the plating could solve the problem. They were liable to get cold, of course, and they might produce waste with so many boxes, of course, but it was not exactly that.

There is something in the thought that opulence is Three Hundred McDonald's Hamburgers -- or a thousand! Piled a mile high, the president said. The idea that infinite riches means . . . infinite McDonald's. There is a certain snobbery in this frustration. But there is something beyond that.

If there is no shame in fast food, then what is the embarrassment here? People love to associate shame with fast food. Why are you serving your children fast food, why have you not individually grown a chicken by hand with love and without pain and gently coaxed an egg each morning from beneath its warm feathers into your waiting palm, to whisper a poem into as you prepare it lovingly for your children before sending them off to school?

But, in this case, I think the shame is not in liking the fast food, but in naively presenting it as though it is the best you could hope to deserve, as though this is a Great Reward. Eat Like A President: try Filet-O-Fish!

This is the frustration of Trump. He is given access to the best of everything and he wants McDonald's. He is given access to the best information and he watches Fox News. It is not the thing itself, but the suspicion that he thinks this is as good as it gets, despite all suggestions to the contrary.

Is this really all he thinks is on top of the mountain? It would be one thing if he were doing this as a deliberate insult. But he seems so proud of the three hundred -- or is it one thousand? -- hamburgers.

It is the creeping dread that to the president, better is just the same, but more and bigger. The idea that all that was needed to transform junk into something remarkable was to put the Trump seal on it, to say that it was excellent, to put it on a silver charger under a painting of Abraham Lincoln and say it was a rare honor to eat it. The unnerving question is: Does he really believe this is true?

Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Can immigration save the U.S. from its birthrate crisis?

By megan mcardle
Can immigration save the U.S. from its birthrate crisis?

MEGAN MCARDLE COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For McArdle clients only)

By MEGAN MCARDLE

The primary asset of any society is its people. That's true in the lofty spiritual sense and in the crass financial one: Other people produce both the economic goods and the tax revenue that sustain the nation.

Like any other asset, this one needs to be replenished by continual reinvestment. A society that stops replacing itself is like a trust-fund kid dipping into the capital. The accounts empty at an accelerating pace, and a bill eventually comes due that cannot be paid.

Virtually the entire rich world is now in varying stages of that cycle. In 2000, only three rich-world countries -- the United States, New Zealand and Iceland -- averaged two or more children per woman. Today, only New Zealand is still replacing itself. The average for American women has dropped to 1.76 children, according to a new report from the National Vital Statistics System.

"Good!" a certain type of environmentalist might say. But other people may notice that the country's whole political economy assumes population growth. Whether retirements are funded through government or private accounts, the United States still needs enough productive workers to support retirees without impoverishing themselves; no matter how the health-care system is structured, it still must be funded and staffed by the able-bodied.

With a shrinking population, even seemingly unrelated areas, such as debt finance, will need rethinking. Debt implicitly assumes growing incomes, growing gross domestic product. But GDP growth is a direct function of the labor force's size. Without that growth, debts bite harder with every passing year.

Societies preparing for an aging population ought to be running surpluses to pay down debt and planning for much longer working lives. But almost no one seems ready to do that. Instead, three alternatives are generally proposed: raising birthrates through family subsidies; boosting innovation to offset workforce decline with higher productivity; and replenishing the population through immigration.

Unfortunately, there's little evidence that "family policy" has more than a marginal impact on total lifetime fertility. Sociologist Brad Wilcox, who oversees the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, notes that even "krybbe"-to-"grav" Nordic welfare states have failed to keep birthrates above replacement. And while technological innovation can certainly make the most of existing workers, it's unlikely to fully offset workforce decline. After a certain point, aging populations tend to innovate less, because older people are generally more risk-averse and less creative than younger ones.

That leaves immigration. Even the hardiest of immigration hard-liners might reconsider their position if the alternative were working to age 90. But the exigencies of an aging population are likely to force immigration advocates to do some rethinking, too. The idea that Social Security and Medicare can be saved by importing younger workers turns out to have some complications.

First-generation migrants typically cost the government somewhat more than they pay in taxes. That doesn't mean that migration is a bad deal for the United States, despite what restrictionists claim. By providing low-skill, labor-intensive services, migrants let native-born Americans spend more time on more productive work, boosting everyone's incomes.

But when native-born, higher-skill workers become scarcer, the equation changes. To put it another way: You can't save Social Security's finances by replacing an engineer who makes $100,000 a year with someone who had to drop out of school in eighth grade and is struggling to learn English. The way that system is structured, the math doesn't work. This limits our ability to close budget gaps through immigration.

An immigration solution to the United States' demographic challenge would probably mean a very different immigration policy, something like the points system used by countries such as Canada and Australia, which selects for migrants reasonably fluent in English and likely to be net tax contributors. Family reunification, which reinforces the United States' historical bias in favor of low-skill migration, might well have to be curtailed.

That change would be politically fraught, to say the least. And given that the United States, unlike Canada and Australia, has a long border with a significantly poorer country, it may not even be possible. Moreover, most of the countries that send migrants to the rest of the world themselves have declining birthrates. Scouring countries in demographic decline clean of their working-age populations to feed rich-world economies seems both unethical and impractical.

The good news is that demographic crises move at a glacial pace; we have years to weigh these unpalatable options. But, like glaciers, demographic crises are nearly impossible to stop once they really get going. So unless births bounce back soon, we'll probably have to choose.

Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Will the global credit boom go bust?

By robert j. samuelson
Will the global credit boom go bust?

ROBERT J. SAMUELSON COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Samuelson clients only)

By ROBERT J. SAMUELSON

WASHINGTON -- We are in the midst of a worldwide credit boom that may be without precedent. The debt explosion suggests that the global economy -- all the national economies combined -- is being driven heavily by massive government and private borrowing.

Is this debt buildup stable? Or is it the harbinger of a sharp economic slowdown or crash? No one really knows, but the numbers certainly give pause. While everyone is fixated on President Trump and his opponents, hardly anyone is paying attention.

The latest figures come from the Institute of International Finance (IIF), an industry research and advocacy group. It reports that in September, worldwide debt totaled $244 trillion, or almost a record 318 percent of world gross domestic product. That figure covers all government, household and non-financial business borrowing. (World GDP means total global output.)

Here's a detailed breakdown. Government debt has tripled from $20 trillion in 2000 to $65 trillion in 2018, rising as a share of GDP from 55 percent to 87 percent. Household debt has increased over the same years, from $17 trillion to $46 trillion (from 44 percent to 60 percent of GDP). Finally, non-financial corporate debt rose from $24 trillion to $73 trillion (71 percent of GDP to 92 percent).

"Debt has fueled a good deal of economic growth," says economist Sonja Gibbs of the IIF. Higher borrowing is widespread, though countries borrow differently. Government debt, for example, is highest among mature economies, such as the United States and France. By contrast, business borrowing has been more common in so-called "emerging-market" countries (China, India, Mexico).

There are no universal rules on how much debt is too much. A lot depends on investor psychology -- that is, confidence or fear. Behavior can be self-fulfilling. If banks and bond-holders believe debts will be repaid, then they will be, because borrowers will raise new loans to replace the old. Similarly, if lenders fear debts won't be repaid, they may withhold new loans.

For the moment, confidence seems to be holding. One reason may be low interest rates, which make it easier for borrowers to carry large debts.

Still, the debt buildup poses dangers. The first -- and maybe the most likely -- is that both borrowers and lenders become more cautious. Lenders fear defaults and delinquencies; corporate borrowers worry that they won't be able to "roll over" existing loans, while household borrowers fear losing their homes or cars.

If economic growth slows, then servicing outstanding debts becomes harder. "The risk is not [an economic] blowout but a slow slog -- slower growth," says Gibbs. "As debt service gets bigger, it takes away from what you can do with more borrowing. It diverts from more productive uses."

Another risk is that over-indebted businesses in emerging-market countries trigger some sort of financial crisis. Loan losses force some banks to close or stop lending. The circumstances are particular to individual countries or industries, but if too many local crises occur, the global economy could lose steam.

Finally, there's "rollover risk" -- the possibility that borrowers won't be able to renew existing loans. That prospect seems particularly strong among emerging-market borrowers. According to the data from the IIF, emerging-market borrowers face $2 trillion of maturing debt in 2019, with about a quarter of those loans made in dollars (most of the rest are in local currency). To avoid default, borrowers must somehow raise those dollars, either from a new loan or from other sources.

When it comes to global debt, we may be in unexplored territory. The only certainty, as the IIF's Dylan Riddle puts it, is that "there's been a breathtaking accumulation of debt in the last decade or so."

(c) 2019, The Washington Post Writers Group

Why would William Barr take this job? The answer should alarm Trump.

By dana milbank
Why would William Barr take this job? The answer should alarm Trump.

DANA MILBANK COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Milbank clients only)

By DANA MILBANK

WASHINGTON -- It was William P. Barr's confirmation hearing. But it was Robert S. Mueller III's affirmation hearing.

President Trump had nominated Barr to be his new attorney general to shield him from Mueller's hoax of a rigged witch hunt. But Barr spent much of his seven-hour confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday lavishing praise on his future boss' tormentor. And Republicans, for the most part, didn't defend Trump -- and occasionally joined in the Mueller veneration.

None of this guarantees that Mueller will be able to complete his work unhindered, or that Americans will ever know what work he did. Ominously, Barr, while promising "as much transparency as I can consistent with the law," suggested he might try to bury the special counsel's report by treating it as confidential and releasing only "certain information" himself.

Still, Mueller's de facto affirmation hearing should be of concern to Trump as the president tries to discredit whatever the special prosecutor comes up with in the coming weeks or months. Just about everybody but Trump regards Mueller as an upstanding man doing honest work. Even Trump's potential new attorney general.

Barr described declining an earlier request to join Trump's legal defense team, saying, "I didn't want to stick my head into that meat grinder." He recalled telling Trump at the time that "Bob is a straight shooter and should be dealt with as such."

Regarding his "good friend" of three decades, Barr vowed unequivocally: "On my watch, Bob will be allowed to finish his work." If ordered to fire Mueller without cause, he said, "I would not carry out that instruction."

And what if Trump's lawyers attempt to edit the Mueller report, as has been threatened? "That will not happen." Barr warned that the president's interference in cases involving himself and his associates could be unconstitutional or criminal.

Barr's appearance seemed to have a calming effect on the panel so recently shredded by the Brett M. Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation. It was as though the appearance of the 68-year-old Barr, confirmed by the same committee 27 years ago to serve the same role in President George H.W. Bush's administration, had transported the lawmakers to a kinder, gentler time. Instead of trading barbs, Democrats and Republicans took turns talking about the nominee's grandson. (The 8-year-old's "Dear Grandpa" note to the nominee mid-hearing was a hit.)

Maybe the bombshell reports over the weekend about Trump's Russia ties had cowed the Republicans. Whatever the cause, they were disinclined to defend Trump.

And the chairman, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., usually a Trump loyalist, seemed to be trolling the president.

"Do you believe Mr. Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt against anybody?" Graham asked, invoking the president's favorite phrase.

"I don't believe Mr. Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt," the nominee replied.

Asked whether then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions was right to recuse himself from the Russia investigation -- a source of Trump's fury -- Barr replied: "I think he probably did the right thing recusing himself."

"I agree," Graham added, before poking fun at Trump's lack of intellectual curiosity. "President Trump is a one-pager kind of guy," he said.

"I suspect he is," Barr concurred.

There was laughter in the hearing room at Trump's expense.

Trump, no doubt encouraged by Barr's earlier Mueller memo, hopes to be protected by his new attorney general. And it is possible Barr wasn't being honest in his professed respect for Mueller and for transparency.

But why would Barr come out of retirement, instead of spending "cherished time" with grandchildren, to take a job he already had -- only to become a villain for covering up Mueller's findings?

"You seem like a rational person," Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., told Barr. "Why do you want this job?"

Indeed, he's joining a president famous for chewing up once-respected figures and sending them packing in disgrace and humiliation. Trump reportedly referred to Sessions as "Mr. Magoo" and "mentally retarded" and demeaned him publicly.

Barr's answer to Durbin should have sent chills down the presidential spine as he munched on leftover Big Macs at the White House.

The rule of law, Barr said, "is the heartbeat of this country," and he vowed to "protect the independence and the reputation of the department." Trump's treatment of subordinates "might give me pause if I was 45 or 50 years old, but it doesn't give me pause right now," Barr continued. He added, "I will not be bullied into doing anything I think is wrong."

Barr spent decades building his reputation. Why would he throw it away now by becoming the guy who buried the Mueller report?

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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Video: President Trump's attorney general nominee William P. Barr faced questions about his independence, the special counsel investigation and more during his confirmation hearing on Jan. 15.(Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

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To get to the White House: Tell us a story, Mr. Castro

By ruben navarrette jr.
To get to the White House: Tell us a story, Mr. Castro

RUBEN NAVARRETTE COLUMN

(Advance for Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Navarrette clients only)

By RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.

SAN DIEGO -- Political consultants will say that running for president is about raising money, hiring staff, building organization, studying issues and lining up endorsements.

That's wrong.

Take it from a journalist: Running for president is about telling a story.

This is especially true at a time when Americans are standing in front of fire hydrants that spew information, and their attention spans are shorter than ever. You have to boil down everything you are, believe in and have ever done into a short and clear narrative that tells people who you are, what you stand for and why you want this crazy job.

Julian Castro has one heck of a good story to tell, and now the 44-year-old former San Antonio Mayor and U.S Secretary of Housing and Urban Development has a national soapbox from which to tell it.

Castro has announced that he is running for president in 2020. His first decision was brilliant -- choosing his twin brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, as his campaign chairman. Who better to shepherd you through this meat grinder than someone who has loved you since birth, knows you better than anyone and isn't afraid to tell you what you need to hear?

In what will be a crowded field of Democratic hopefuls vying for their party's nomination, Castro's first goal has to be to make it onto the short list.

And no -- as someone who has known the San Antonio native for 15 years, interviewed him dozens of times, and written thousands of words about him -- take it from me, he is not running for vice president or applying for another Cabinet post. He'll be perfectly content, and highly employable, in the private sector if this White House thing doesn't work out.

If it does work, and Castro finds himself on a national debate stage in March or April of next year, it will be because of one thing above all else: his story.

The most important part of my friend's story isn't family. It's geography.

We got a preview of that part of the story -- for the Netflix generation, consider it a "trailer" -- during Castro's official announcement on the West Side of San Antonio, where he and his brother grew up.

This is the place that sculpted and shaped Julian Castro. Before Stanford University and Harvard Law School, and getting elected mayor of the nation's seventh largest city and being vetted as a possible running mate for Hillary Clinton, and being chosen by Barack Obama to give the keynote speech at the 2012 Democratic convention and later join the Cabinet, and writing his memoir for a major publishing house -- before all the accomplishments and accolades, it was the West Side that formed how Castro sees the world and his place in it.

If you don't understand it -- or neighborhoods like it, all across America -- you'll never understand him.

It was here -- in this hardscrabble neighborhood, built by immigrants, where the only way out is your dreams and the hard work that makes them real -- that the twins were raised by a single mother with grit. Just as their mother had been raised by her mother, a Mexican immigrant who worked as a housekeeper, cook and babysitter.

Rosie Castro is the Rose Kennedy of San Antonio, except that she raised her prodigies on a budget.

I once asked Joaquin Castro why neither he nor his brother had swagger. He said it came from their humble upbringing on the West Side where, as teenagers, with no money for a family car, they rode the bus -- in fact, on the same bus route that the two rode the morning of Julian's special announcement.

At 23, Rosie Castro ran unsuccessfully for city council in 1971 as part of a slate of candidates calling itself the Committee for Barrio Betterment put forth by the Raza Unida Party. She would go on to a career in higher education at a local community college.

Oh, and it turned out, she was pretty good at raising children.

As Julian recalled in his speech, after she lost her election, Rosie told a reporter: "They'd be back."

"Well, Mom," the candidate said in front of a cheering crowd. "I think we're back."

You had better believe it -- and to the delight of those of us who love a great story.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com. His daily podcast, "Navarrette Nation," is available through every podcast app.

(c) 2019, The Washington Post Writers Group

What did they do with Lindsey Graham?

By kathleen parker
What did they do with Lindsey Graham?

KATHLEEN PARKER COLUMN

(Advance for Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Parker clients only)

By KATHLEEN PARKER

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- If loyalty only goes so far, Sen. Lindsey Graham's goes every which way -- depending on the day, week, month -- or proximity to Election Day.

One day, he may think Donald Trump is a "kook." That was Graham's description of Trump in 2016, shortly after he'd ended his own campaign for president. Or, he may think Trump is "presidential," as he said recently in appraising Trump's speech from the Oval Office on border security.

What did they do with Lindsey Graham, one might reasonably ask? If you posed this question to random people on Capitol Hill, you might hear them say, (BEG ITAL)Aw, that's just Lindsey. He's in cycle.(END ITAL)

If this sounds vaguely endocrinal, well, suit yourself. What it means, of course, is that Graham is up for re-election in 2020. When you're in one of the redder states in the union, you'd best cheer for the Man from MAGA or risk fading into local history.

It isn't unusual for politicians to tweak their language or style, to soften or toughen rhetoric as one's audience pleases. Still, there's something almost comical about Graham's toughening stances and head-snapping reversals. It's as though his body has been occupied by someone else, his inner Terminator liberated at last, -- in part, perhaps, because he's no longer the late Sen. John McCain's wingman. He's Maverick now.

Whatever else he intends, Graham has always known how to play the media and keep himself in the headlines. This may explain his and Trump's recent comity, which can be traced to a lunch in March 2017 when the two found common ground in, among other things, an affection for playing golf. They are also both showmen and may share some mutual respect. Both love to be center stage and both seem to have a similar knack for giving people what they want. The president and the apprentice.

Confession: I love Graham -- for all the right reasons. He's a mensch who'd give you the shirt off his back, whether you needed it or not. He's a good guy, brought up hard, who transcended tragedy (both parents died when he was in college, leaving him to care for his then-13-year-old sister). He's a true patriot, who served in the U.S. Air Force JAG corps and then the Air Force Reserve as he was rising from lawyer to congressman to the U.S. Senate.

He is also very funny, as debate viewers will recall from his 2015 performances. His best lines from those debates were spontaneous, quick-witted and true. We delighted in his unfiltered answers to questions, such as: "You know how to make America great again? Tell Donald Trump to go to hell." Or, if Trump were to win, the Islamic State "would be dancing in the streets; they just don't believe in dancing."

Funny then, but no more. Graham has become a lead gladiator for a southern border wall, even recently advising Trump to invoke national emergency powers to fund it. From "Little Jerk," McCain's affectionate nickname for Graham, to Maximus in a few short months. No longer is Trump a "kook." In 2017, Graham repeated the word but this time in taking issue with the press for "this endless attempt to label the guy as some kind of kook not fit to be president."

But then Monday happened. The president turned on Maximus, rejecting Graham's suggestion to temporarily reopen the government while the wall debate continues. The mind meld lost its connection. Do we sense a split after all Graham has done, not least his fiery attack on Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Brett Kavanaugh proceedings, which Graham called an "unethical sham"?

Instantly, Graham became a meme sensation on the right. On the left, you'd have thought he had called Kavanaugh's accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, "bat---- crazy," a term he previously had used to describe the GOP for its support of Trump.

As we enter 2019, the Grahamster is full of brio and bluster, ready to rush Texas with his own fence-post digger. His speechwriter must surely be busy preparing text for the senator's remarks upon the groundbreaking, perchance to include: "President Trump, build this wall!" In the meantime, as Judiciary Committee chair, Graham has vowed that the next Supreme Court justice will be a conservative, as though anyone doubted it.

One can hardly wait, but not for long. The night is young, the news breaks 24/7, and we've nearly two more years to wonder what Graham will say, growl, hiss, spit, growl, whisper or sing, hallelujah! May his cycle be unbroken.

Kathleen Parker's email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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