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Minority Residents, Massachusetts City Head to Federal Court

In May, 13 Asian and Hispanic residents of Lowell, Massachusetts, filed a voting rights lawsuit against the city government, alleging the at-large electoral system, in which the winner takes all, dilutes the minority vote and discriminates against the candidates from community of color running for office.

The plaintiffs asked the federal court to rule that the city’s electoral system “violates Section 2 the Voting Rights Act” and for “the adoption of at least one district-based seat.”

The first hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for Tuesday before the U.S. District Court in Boston. Lowell’s City Council filed a motion to dismiss in its first response to the residents’ lawsuit on Sept. 15.

At the Tuesday hearing, the judge will decide whether to allow the suit to move forward. If it does, Lowell will be going to trial against some of its residents.

“We’re not surprised” by the city’s response, said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice.

Lowell prides itself as being a diverse city, but “it remains to be seen” whether the city wants to “reflect diversity in the hall of power,” Sellstrom said.

City officials said they could not discuss the lawsuit because the issue is still in executive session.

Voting Rights Act

The Voting Rights Act signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in August 1965 is considered one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation ever enacted in the United States.

The Lowell citizens’ lawsuit is based on the section of that law that specifically prohibits state and local governments from using voting systems that result in discrimination against racial or ethnic minorities.

This is important in Lowell because altogether the minority populations of the former mill town come close — 49.2 percent — to being the majority. Of the minority population, Asian-Americans form the largest minority group, about 21 percent, a cohort that includes more than 30,000 Cambodians.

Since 1999, only four Asian and Hispanic candidates have been elected to the Lowell City Council, which is currently all white. No non-white candidates have ever been elected to the school committee, Lowell’s version of a school board.

Changes possible

No matter how the judge decides, the City Council will be looking at the possibility of changing the city’s form of government, which includes the voting system. There have been two public discussion sessions on the issue since August.

“It is better for us and the citizen to have a district representation with a combination of at-large councilor, and it is better for the public to elect the mayor,” said James Leary, a city councilor and one of the three councilors leading the ad hoc subcommittee on the charter review that was formed in June.

In the next few months, after organizing several public sessions across the city, the committee is expected to make recommendations to the City Council on changing or keeping the current form of government.

After reviewing the committee’s recommendation, the City Council will make a decision on which direction to take. Before anything changes in Lowell, though, residents will be faced with a ballot measure in November 2018 using the current system.

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Trump Won States Most Affected by End to Health Care Subsidies

President Donald Trump’s decision to end a provision of the Affordable Care Act that was benefiting roughly 6 million Americans helps fulfill a campaign promise, but it also risks harming some of the very people who helped him win the presidency.

Nearly 70 percent of those benefiting from the so-called cost-sharing subsidies live in states Trump won last November, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. The number underscores the political risk for Trump and his party, which could end up owning the blame for increased costs and chaos in the insurance marketplace.

The subsidies are paid to insurers by the federal government to help lower consumers’ deductibles and co-pays. People who benefit will continue receiving the discounts because insurers are obligated by law to provide them. But to make up for the lost federal funding, health insurers will have to raise premiums substantially, potentially putting coverage out of reach for many consumers.

Some insurers may decide to bail out of markets altogether.

“I woke up, really, in horror,” said Alice Thompson, 62, an environmental consultant from the Milwaukee area who purchases insurance on Wisconsin’s federally run health insurance exchange.

Thompson, who spoke with reporters on a call organized by a health care advocacy group, said she expects to pay 30 percent to 50 percent more per year for her monthly premium, potentially more than her mortgage payment. Officials in Wisconsin, a state that went for a Republican presidential candidate for the first time in decades last fall, assumed the federal subsidy would end when they approved premium rate increases averaging 36 percent for the coming year.

An estimated 4 million people were benefiting from the cost-sharing payments in the 30 states Trump carried, according to an analysis of 2017 enrollment data from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Of the 10 states with the highest percentage of consumers benefiting from cost-sharing, all but one — Massachusetts — went for Trump.

Kentucky, for example

Kentucky embraced former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act under its last governor, a Democrat, and posted some of the largest gains in getting its residents insured. Its new governor, a Republican, favors the GOP stance to replace it with something else.

Roughly half of the estimated 71,000 Kentuckians buying health insurance on the federal exchange were benefiting from the cost-sharing subsidies Trump just ended. Despite the gains from Obama’s law, the state went for Trump last fall even as he vowed to repeal it.

Consumers such as Marsha Clark fear what will happen in the years ahead, as insurers raise premiums on everyone to make up for the end of the federal money that helped lower deductibles and co-pays.

“I’m stressed out about the insurance, stressed out about the overall economy, and I’m very stressed out about our president,” said Clark, a 61-year-old real estate broker who lives in a small town about an hour’s drive south of Louisville. She pays $1,108 a month for health insurance purchased on the exchange.

While she earns too much to benefit from the cost-sharing subsidy, she is worried that monthly premiums will rise so high in the future that it will make insurance unaffordable.

Most beneficiaries in Florida

Sherry Riggs has a similar fear. The Fort Pierce, Florida, barber benefits from the deductible and co-pay discounts, as do more than 1 million other Floridians, the highest number of cost-sharing beneficiaries of any state.

She had bypass surgery following a heart attack last year and pays $10 a visit to see her cardiologist and only a few dollars for the medications she takes twice a day.

Her monthly premium is heavily subsidized by the federal government, but she worries about the cost soaring in the future. Florida, another state that swung for Trump, has approved rate increases averaging 45 percent.

“Probably for some people it would be a death sentence,” she said. “I think it’s kind of a tragic decision on the president’s part. It scares me because I don’t think I’ll be able to afford it next year.”

Double-digit premium increases

Rates were rising in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s decision. Insurance regulators in Arkansas, another state that went for Trump, approved premium increases Friday ranging from 14 percent to nearly 25 percent for plans offered through the insurance marketplace. Had federal cost-sharing been retained, the premiums would have risen by no more than 10 percent.

In Mississippi, another state Trump won, an estimated 80 percent of consumers who buy coverage on the insurance exchange benefit from the deductible and co-pay discounts, the highest percentage of any state. Premiums there will increase by 47 percent next year, after regulators assumed Trump would end the cost-sharing payments.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners has estimated the loss of the subsidies would result in a 12 percent to 15 percent increase in premiums, while the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has put the figure at 20 percent. Experts say the political instability over Trump’s effort to undermine Obama’s health care law could prompt more insurers to leave markets, reducing competition and driving up prices.

Trump’s move concerned some Republicans, worried the party will be blamed for the effects on consumers and insurance markets.

“I think the president is ill-advised to take this course of action, because we, at the end of the day, will own this,” Republican Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania said Friday on CNN. “We, the Republican Party, will own this.”

Dent is not running for re-election.

GOP support

In announcing his decision, Trump argued the subsidies were payouts to insurance companies, and the government could not legally continue to make them. The subsidies have been the subject of an ongoing legal battle because the health care law failed to include a congressional appropriation, which is required before federal money can be spent.

The subsidies will cost about $7 billion this year.

Many Republicans praised Trump’s action, saying Obama’s law has led to a spike in insurance costs for those who have to buy policies on the individual market.

Among them is Republican Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, a state Trump won. An estimated 78,000 Arizonans were benefiting from the federal subsidies for deductibles and co-pays.

“While his actions do not take the place of real legislative repeal and revitalization of free-market health care, he is doing everything possible to save Americans from crippling health care costs and decreasing quality of care,” Biggs said.

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Federal Attorneys: Trump May Block Critics on Twitter

President Donald Trump can block his critics from following him on Twitter without violating the First Amendment despite a lawsuit’s claims that it violates the Constitution to do so, government lawyers say.

Trial attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington submitted papers late Friday to a New York federal judge, saying a lawsuit challenging Trump over the issue should be thrown out.

“The president uses the account for his speech, not as a forum for the private speech of others,” the lawyers wrote. “And his decision to block certain users allows him to choose the information he consumes and the individuals with whom he interacts — expressive choices that public officials retain the right to make, even when those choices are made on the basis of viewpoint.”

Not a state action

They say the president’s decision to stop some individuals from following him on his 8-year-old @realdonaldtrump account, which has more than 40 million followers, is not state action. Public officials, they add, sometimes announce a new policy initiative or make statements about public policy on the campaign trail or in meetings with leaders of a political party.

“The fact that an official chooses to make such an announcement in an unofficial setting does not retroactively convert into state action the decision about which members of the public to allow into the event,” the lawyers said.

The lawyers said his Twitter account “is not a right conferred by the presidency,” but rather is a private platform run by a private company.

In a warning that ruling against Trump might threaten the constitutional separation of powers, the lawyers wrote that “courts are prohibited from enjoining the discretionary conduct of the president.”

Institute responds

The lawsuit was filed in July by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and seven people rejected by Trump after criticizing the president.

Jameel Jaffer, the institute’s director, said Trump’s lawyers were wrong in their legal analysis and to accept their statement that the courts had no say over the issue could have “far-reaching and intolerable” implications.

“The president isn’t above the law,” Jaffer said in a statement.

Katie Fallow, a senior staff attorney with the institute, said the argument by government lawyers that Trump’s Twitter feed is a personal account “is not defensible given that the president routinely uses it for official purposes and both the president and his aides have publicly described the account as official.”

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Twitter CEO Vows to Police Sexual Harassment, Hate, Violence

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is promising the company will do a better job weeding out sexual harassment, hateful symbols and violent groups from its short messaging service.

The pledge issued in a series of tweets late Friday followed a boycott organized by women supporting actress Rose McGowan after she said Twitter temporarily suspended her account for posting about the alleged misconduct of film producer Harvey Weinstein. The movie mogul was fired last Sunday by the company he co-founded amid accusations that he sexually harassed or sexually assaulted women.

Dorsey acknowledged Twitter hasn’t been doing enough to ensure voices aren’t silenced on the service despite policy changes made since 2016. He said the new rules will be announced next week, with the changes taking effect soon after.

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Mystery Hacker Steals Australian Defense Data

A  mystery hacker who was given the alias of a TV soap opera character has stolen sensitive information about Australia’s multi-billion dollar warplane and navy projects.  Intelligence officials say the break was significant, although the Australian government insists that only low-level data was taken.  The identity of the cyber criminal is not known. 

The virtual break-in saw cyber thieves take illustrations of a major Australian naval project. About 30GB of data was stolen.  Details about new fighter planes, submarines and Australia’s largest warships were also compromised.  The breach began in July last year, but the Australian Signals Directorate, a domestic spy agency, was not alerted until November.  Intelligence officials say the hack, which targeted a private defence contractor in South Australia state, was – in their words – ‘extensive’ and ‘extreme.’

But the government is insisting there was no threat to national security.

Australia’s Defence Industry Minister, Christopher Pyne, says only low-level data was taken.

“I am pleased in a way that it reminds Australian business of the dangers that lurk out there,” said Pyne. “The information that has been stolen is commercial information.  It is not classified information, so it is not military information.  The government is doing its job.  Australian businesses need to be thorough in providing for their cyber security otherwise they will not get contracts with the government.”

It is thought the hacker had exploited a weakness in software being used by the government contractor in the city of Adelaide, which had not been updated for 12 months.

Australian cyber security officials humorously dubbed the mystery attacker “Alf”, after a character on the popular TV soap opera ‘Home and Away’.  They haven’t said if they suspect a foreign state was involved.

Earlier this year, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said cyber security was “the new frontier of warfare” and espionage, while announcing new measures to protect Australian governments and businesses from foreign interference.

Last year, a foreign power, reported in sections of the Australian media to be China, installed malicious software on computers at Australia’s national weather bureau. 

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Kerry on Trump Nuclear Deal: ‘Reckless Abandonment of Facts’

John Kerry, the former U.S. Secretary of State, had harsh criticism for President Donald Trump’s decision not to certify that Iran is in compliance with the nuclear deal signed by six world powers in 2015.  

Kerry said the decision is a “reckless abandonment of facts in favor of ego and ideology.” Kerry, who negotiated the deal, added that Trump “weakens our hand, alienates us from our allies, empowers Iranian hardliners, makes it harder to resolve North Korea and risks moving us closer to military conflict.”

Iran’s president said Friday the nuclear deal it signed with six world powers in 2015 could not be revoked.   

In a nationally televised speech following Trump’s remarks, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged all signatories to the agreement to honor their commitments. He called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) “an outstanding achievement” in international diplomacy and said Iran would continue to comply with it.

 

“The Islamic Republic of Iran will not be the first to withdraw from the deal. But if its rights and interests in the deal are not respected, it will stop implementing all its commitments and will resume its peaceful nuclear program without any restrictions” Rouhani said.

 

The Iranian leader also hit back at Trump’s characterization of Iran as a “dictatorship” and “rogue regime,” calling the American president a “liar” and a “dictator.”

 

“Today the U.S. is more isolated than ever against the nuclear deal, isolated than any other time in its plots against [the] people of Iran,” Rouhani said.

He rejected Trump’s remarks listing Tehran’s support for international terrorism, calling the examples “baseless accusations” and adding that the “Iranian nation does not expect anything else from you.”

Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the U.S. House, said the president’s decision was “a grave mistake” that threatens U.S. security and credibility.  

She said Trump ignored “the overwhelming consensus of nuclear scientists, national security experts, generals and his own Cabinet, including, reportedly, his secretary of defense and secretary of state.”

EU reaction

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said the Iran agreement “has shown for the first time that it is possible to prevent war by negotiations and, above all, to prevent a country from arming itself with nuclear weapons.” Gabriel added, ” We need such examples, for example, to convince countries like North Korea , but perhaps also others, that it is possible to create security without obtaining nuclear weapons.”  

European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini said, “It is not in the hands of any president of any country in the world to terminate an agreement of this sort.  She said, ” The president of the United States has many powers (but) not this one.”

 

She noted the multilateral agreement was unanimously endorsed by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231.

 

The EU foreign policy chief noted the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has verified eight times that Iran is meeting all its nuclear-related commitments in line with the “comprehensive and strict” monitoring system.

 

IAEA Director Yukiya Amano released a statement, saying Iran is already subject to the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime and is implementing the deal’s requirements.

In a joint statement British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said they are concerned by the possible implications of Trump’s decision not to recertify the Iran nuclear deal.

 

“Preserving the JCPOA is in our shared national security interest. The nuclear deal was the culmination of 13 years of diplomacy and was a major step toward ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program was not diverted for military purposes,” the European leaders said in the statement.

Sees opportunity

Asked if he was confident he could get the Europeans to renegotiate the Iran deal, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Friday he thinks there is a real opportunity to address all the threats that are posed by Iran.

“I fully expect that our allies and friends in Europe and in the region are going to be very supportive in efforts undertaken to deal with Iran’s threats,” Tillerson told reporters.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow is committed to supporting the Iran nuclear deal.

Ahead of Trump’s remarks, the Kremlin warned that if the United States abandons the Iran nuclear deal, Tehran would be likely to quit it as well. Russia is a signatory to the JCPOA, along with the United States, Iran, Britain, Germany and France.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying also voiced support for the Iran nuclear deal Friday.

“China’s position on the Iranian nuclear issue has been consistent. The JCPOA has played a key role in upholding international nuclear non-proliferation regime and the peace and stability of the Middle East region,” she said. “We hope that all relevant parties will continue to uphold and implement the JCPOA.”

Praise for Trump’s tough stance on Iran came from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who released a video statement.

 

“I congratulate President Trump for his courageous decision today. He boldly confronted Iran’s terrorist regime,” Netanyahu said.  The Israeli leader has long been one of the deal’s fiercest opponents.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain also expressed their strong support for Trump’s shift in policy toward Iran.

The Saudi Press Agency said Riyadh praised Trump’s “vision” and commitment to work with U.S. allies in the region in order to face common challenges, particularly “Iran’s aggressive policies and actions.”

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan said he backs Trump’s decision, describing the Obama administration deal as “fatally flawed.”

Nobel winner

 

But the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, strongly criticized Trump’s decision.

 

The group’s executive director, Beatrice Fihn, said Trump’s “attempt to disrupt” the Iran deal, despite Tehran’s compliance, is a reminder of the “immense nuclear danger now facing the world” and the  “urgent need” to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.

 

“In a time with great global tension, with increasing threats of nuclear war, the U.S. president is igniting new conflict rather than working to reduce the risk of nuclear war,” Fihn said.

 

 

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Winemaker Vows to Rebuild After Losing Battle With Wildfire

Throughout Northern California, where wildfires have raged for almost a week, killing at least 36 people and destroying about 6,000 buildings, residents are taking stock of what they have and what they have lost.

Many are feeling lucky to have survived with their lives. The fire’s path of destruction lacked rhyme or reason, destroying an entire winery in one case but leaving patio furniture outside the tasting room untouched.

Pierre Birebent, who has been a winemaker at the Signorello Estate for the past 20 years, said he feels lucky.

WATCH: Winemakers Vow to Rebuild Destroyed Winery

When the fire came to his winery on the Silverado Trail, the main artery of Napa’s Wine Country, Birebent grabbed a hose and tried to fight the flames himself. One of the winery’s owners, who was in the residence above the winery, had fled after alerting the staff to the fire.

Birebent lost the battle to save the winery, the tasting room, an office and the residence. 

“It was like fighting a giant,” he said.

​Damage unknown

It’s too early to know the extent of the damage to Northern California’s wine industry. Fires still burn around the hillsides, and pickers hurry to get the grapes off the vine before they are damaged by smoke, a condition known as “smoke taint.”

At Signorello, employees reported for work Friday, their first chance to see the damage.

Ray Signorello, the winery proprietor, went into Napa to rent temporary office space. He planned to keep the business going and rebuild.

“We can continue somewhat business as usual,” Signorello said.

“Our house is gone,” said Jo Dayoan, allocation director at the winery. “Our soul is not. We are family.”

Much to be thankful for

For Birebent, there are many things to be thankful for, among them, the 30-year-old vineyards, which didn’t burn.

“This is very important because it takes five years to plant the vineyard to get the first crop,” Birebent said.

Also spared by the fire was a warehouse where Signorello stored its 2016 vintage, as well as the last of the 2017 cabernet sauvignon grapes, which had been harvested just days before the fire and sat fermenting in 14 tanks at the edge of the parking lot.

But whether the wine inside the tanks is drinkable remains to be seen. Workers cleared leaves and ash from the outside of the tanks.

The wine from each of the tanks will be tasted and tested at a laboratory. The tanks hold 80 percent of the winery’s 2017 reds, which Birebent said was worth millions.

“It was so hot, we don’t know if the wine is still good or no,” he said.

As they take stock of the damage, the winemaker and the staff here are thinking about rebuilding, even as others continue to face wildfire dangers. The winery workers say they are lucky even as they stand in its ruins.

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Trump Says Iran Non-Compliant with Nuke Deal

President Donald Trump has announced that he is decertifying Iran’s compliance with a multinational 2-year-old nuclear deal and slapping Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps with new counter-terrorism sanctions. VOA White House Bureau Chief Steve Herman reports, however, the president is stopping short of calling for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to be scrapped.

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