In a  Jan. 26, 2019 photo, Beth Hannan, center, wearing a blue name tag for Democrats, and Emily Helgeson, right, with a red name tag for Republicans, listen to a presenter at the Better Angels meeting at the Inver Glen Library in Inver Grove Heights, Minn. The group encourages conversations between liberals and conservatives. (Bob Shaw/Pioneer Press via AP)

In a Jan. 26, 2019 photo, Beth Hannan, center, wearing a blue name tag for Democrats, and Emily Helgeson, right, with a red name tag for Republicans, listen to a presenter at the Better Angels meeting at the Inver Glen Library in Inver Grove Heights, Minn. The group encourages conversations between liberals and conservatives. (Bob Shaw/Pioneer Press via AP)

Group encourages civility between Republicans, Democrats


Pioneer Press

Wednesday, March 6

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Sam Erb says if you listen to the critics, Republicans must seem like the worst self-hating psychos on the planet.

“We are racist, homophobic, sexist, deplorable, Islamophobic and any other kind of phobic there is,” they say, according to Erb, a dedicated Republican from Minneapolis.

But listening to their critics, according to Beth Varro, it must seemed like Democrats were the monsters of humanity.

“We are baby killers,” is how critics describe them, according to the Democrat as she made a list on a poster-board. “We think we are the elites, the intellectuals. We want open borders. We are anti-business.”

The self-flagellation face-off was set up by Better Angels, a group formed after the 2016 election to encourage civil conversations between Democrats and Republicans. It began in South Lebanon, Ohio, and now organizes workshops and conversations nationwide. The meetings have become more common around the Twin Cities as of late, the Pioneer Press reported.

The group allowed the Pioneer Press to attend a Jan. 26 session in an Inver Grove Heights library for a peek into the emotional discussions. Afterward, it didn’t seem like anyone was ready to change sides — yet there was a dramatic thawing between the two groups.

“This is encouraging,” said Paul Kirst, a New Brighton Democrat. “This is what we need to get back to good government.”

In most social gatherings, people hide their political leanings. But at the Better Angels meeting, they wore them on their chests — by picking a red or blue name-tag designating Republican or Democrat.

Moderator Kim Martinson said Democrats dominate the metro-area meetings, because the region usually leans blue.

“In Ohio, they have a hard time finding blues,” she said.

Red name-tagged Emily Helgeson of Eagan explained why Republicans shy away from public exposure.

“We reds run into so much anti-conservative behavior. There are only so many times you can be called a racist and sexist,” said Helgeson.

She was among six Republicans who joined seven Democrats as the Inver Grove Heights meeting began.

The group split in two, so members of each party could air prejudices they had experienced.

In the red group, the stereotypes tumbled out of every mouth.

They felt attacked and accused of being pro-gun “and pro-violence,” unconcerned about the environment or the plight of minorities.

The Democrats’ meeting was similar, with different stereotypes.

They felt attacked and accused of being soft on crime, wasteful of taxpayer money, and eager to demand government help for minorities.

Then, the next phase of the workshop: Discussing why each party was best for the nation.

Each group sat in a circle to talk as the other group listened — at times visibly struggling not to interrupt.

The reds went first.

They wanted to show that they were not enemies of various groups — only that they opposed government programs to give those groups special treatment.

“Just because we don’t want the welfare state doesn’t mean we hate the poor,” said Helgeson.

Lisa Sinna said liberals make the mistake of seeing people as members of groups rather than as individuals.

“That stifles their personal growth,” said Sinna.

Another Republican added: “If you have a problem, you fix it yourself. That’s how you grow as a person.”

Conservatives resent paying taxes for programs they see as futile.

“The government doesn’t know how to spend my money better than I do,” said Erb.

Then Democrats circled up to formulate their message to America.

Alexandra Atrubin, of Minneapolis, said a winning issue for Democrats was climate change.

“Without taking the long view on that, all of this is moot,” she said.

Several responded to what they had just heard from the Republicans. America’s past treatment of minorities, said Atrubin, should be considered along with individual expectations.

Most Democrats linked conservative positions to President Donald Trump, which is something the Republicans did not do. For example, Democrats tied the issue of border security to Trump’s proposed wall — which Democrats consistently opposed.

Kirst said Democrats should send a message of restoring civility in political language.

“Right now, if you believe differently from me, I hate you. That’s terrible,” said Kirst.

Democrats, he said, will combat a tendency to seek extremes.

“Politicians define issues in polarizing ways,” he said.

In the final phase of the workshop, the groups reunited in one big circle. Several of them — this was the payoff for the entire session — spoke with members of the opposite party.

Republican Sinna said she was surprised to hear that Democrats don’t want open borders — allowing anyone, for any reason, to enter the U.S. from Mexico.

“That is not what you want?” she asked the Democrats. “Well, that’s what I hear. That’s what people are campaigning on — open borders.”

“That blows my mind,” responded Democrat Atrubin. “That would be a horrible way to run a country. Just don’t put kids in cages. Give them water.”

Several Republicans nodded in agreement.

When it was over, Democrat Atrubin applauded the Better Angels format.

“This entire workshop is worth it,” she said.

Republican Erb hung around, chatting with Democrats.

“I am having a great time,” he said.

Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press,

An AP Member Exchange shared by the Pioneer Press.

R Kelly says ex-wife destroyed his name, others stole money


Associated Press

Thursday, March 7

CHICAGO (AP) — Embattled R&B star R. Kelly angrily blamed his ex-wife for “destroying” his name and claimed other people stole from his bank accounts in an interview that aired Thursday, a day after he was sent to jail for not paying child support.

Kelly, who is also facing felony charges that allege he sexually abused three girls and a woman in Chicago, shouted and cried as he spoke with Gayle King of “CBS This Morning.” He said his ex-wife was lying when she alleged he’d abused her, and his voice broke as he asked: “How can I pay child support if my ex-wife is destroying my name and I can’t work?”

The 52-year old singer was jailed Wednesday after he said he couldn’t afford to pay $161,000 in back child support. He said he had “zero” relationship with his three children but knew they love him. Kelly

The interview, recorded earlier this week, marked the first time Kelly has spoken publicly since his arrest last month in the sex abuse case. In segments that aired Wednesday, Kelly whispered, cried and ranted while pleading with viewers to believe he never had sex with anyone under age 17 and never held anyone against their will — likely hoping the raw interview would help sway public opinion.

The interview also marked the first time he addressed allegations in the Lifetime series “Surviving R. Kelly,” which aired in January. The documentary alleged he held women captive and ran a “sex cult.”

Experts said his appearance was also risky and could backfire if it gives prosecutors more information to use against him at trial. That’s why most defense attorneys urge clients to keep quiet.

“In my history as a prosecutor, I loved it when a defendant would say things or make comments about his or her defense,” said Illinois Appellate Judge Joseph Birkett, who said he did not watch the Kelly interview and was speaking only as a former prosecutor. “I would document every word they said … (and) I could give you example after example where their statements backfired.”

There have been cases in which people who spoke up pointed to evidence that ultimately helped win their freedom, but “historically it’s a bad idea,” Birkett said.

One recent example was “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett, who was charged with falsely reporting a racist, anti-gay attack in Chicago. In charging documents, prosecutors cited statements he made during an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” identifying two people in a photo of the surveillance video as his attackers. Two brothers pictured in the photo later told police that Smollett had paid them to stage the attack because he wanted a raise and to further his career.

In Kelly’s case, he and his attorney might have decided they had nothing to lose after the Lifetime series, said Fred Thiagarajah, a prominent Newport Beach, California, attorney and former prosecutor.

“A lot of the public already thinks he’s guilty, and there is a very negative image of him, so the only thing he might think he can do is try to change their minds,” Thiagarajah said. If the evidence against him is overwhelming, “this kind of interview might be kind of a Hail Mary” to influence a potential jury pool.

But the dangers of such an interview might outweigh any benefits if Kelly locked himself into a particular defense, Thiagarajah said, adding: “He may not know all the evidence against him.”

In the CBS interview, for example, he denied ever having sex with anyone under 17, even though he married the late singer Aaliyah when she was 15. A videotape given to prosecutors in his current case purports to show Kelly having sex with a girl who repeatedly says she’s 14.

Kelly’s attorney, Steve Greenberg, has said his client did not “knowingly” have sex with underage girls.

Thiagarajah said he might allow a client to do such an interview — but only if he were confident the client could keep his emotions in check and “stick to a script.”

“If you get someone who is ranting and raving, I would never let that kind of person ever do an interview,” he said.

On Wednesday’s broadcast, Kelly’s emotions swung wildly as he explained he was simply someone with a “big heart” who was betrayed by liars who hoped to cash in.

In a particularly dramatic moment, he angrily stood up and started pacing, his voice breaking as he yelled, “I didn’t do this stuff! This is not me!” He cried as he hit his hands together, saying, “I’m fighting for my (expletive) life.”

He insisted people were trying to ruin his 30-year career, but then said his fight was “not about music.”

“I’m trying to have a relationship with my kids and I can’t do it” because of the sex-abuse allegations, he shouted. “You all just don’t want to believe it.”

Hours later, Kelly went to the child-support hearing “expecting to leave. He didn’t come here to go to jail,” said his publicist, Darryll Johnson. Johnson said Kelly was prepared to pay as much as $60,000. He said Kelly did not have the whole amount because he has not been able to work.

A spokeswoman for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office said Kelly would not be released from jail until he pays the full child-support debt. His next hearing was scheduled for March 13.

Kelly spent a weekend in jail after his Feb. 22 arrest in Chicago before someone posted his $100,000 bail. His defense attorney said at the time that Kelly’s finances were “a mess.”

Following the Wednesday court hearing, the publicist said that the singer “feels good” about the TV interview.

Interviews with two women who live with Kelly — Joycelyn Savage and Azriel Clary — also are set to air. Savage’s parents insist she is being held against her will. Kelly suggested during the interview that her parents were in it for the money and blamed them for his relationship with their daughter, saying they brought her to watch him perform when she was a teenager.

A lawyer representing the couple bristled at the allegation, saying Timothy and Jonjelyn Savage never asked for or received money from Kelly. The couple said they have not spoken to their 23-year-old daughter for two years. They spoke later that day.

“At no point did this family sell their daughter to anyone or provide their daughter for anything for money,” attorney Gerald Griggs said Wednesday during a news conference.

Kelly acknowledged in the interview that he had done “lots of things wrong” when it comes to women, but he said he had apologized. The singer blamed social media for fueling the allegations against him. He also said that all of his accusers are lying.

The 52-year-old recording artist has been trailed for decades by allegations that he violated underage girls and women and held some as virtual slaves. Kelly has consistently denied any sexual misconduct and was acquitted of child pornography charges in 2008. Those charges centered on a graphic video that prosecutors said showed him having sex with a girl as young as 13.

He has pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of aggravated sexual abuse.

Rising from poverty on Chicago’s South Side, Kelly broke into the R&B scene in 1993 with his first solo album, “12 Play,” which produced such popular sex-themed songs as “Your Body’s Callin’” and “Bump N’ Grind.” He has written numerous hits for himself and other artists, including Celine Dion, Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga. One of his best-known hits is “I Believe I Can Fly.”

Associated Press writer Kate Brumback in Atlanta contributed to this story.

Check out the AP’s complete coverage of the investigations into R. Kelly.

Georgia’s Stacey Abrams looks for a winning strategy in loss


Associated Press

Thursday, March 7

ATLANTA (AP) — Stacey Abrams is a woman in demand.

Months removed from her surprisingly narrow defeat in the Georgia governor’s race, Abrams is being heavily recruited to run for Senate, weighing another campaign for governor and even hearing overtures from prominent activists who want her to run for president.

It’s a remarkable turn for a woman who, two years ago, was leading the vastly outnumbered House Democratic caucus at the Georgia Capitol. She now bounces from political gatherings in Las Vegas and Washington to debating societies in Oxford, England, not to mention an Atlanta union hall where she delivered this year’s Democratic response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union.

“People are hungry for the kind of leadership Stacey has been exhibiting throughout her campaign and after,” Leah Daughtry, a prominent Democrat who co-hosted a recent political conference for black women where Abrams got a rousing welcome. “Whatever she decided to do, she would have an army of people ready to step in and help.”

Yet for someone with so many options, there’s no obvious next step for Abrams.

She has entertained conversations in recent months with donors and other Democrats about running for president, according to aides. She has also been invited to Iowa next month to deliver a keynote address to the Polk County Democratic Party, an event that would put her in front of key activists in the nation’s leadoff caucus state.

Those encouraging Abrams to run for the White House argue that her stock may never be as high as it is right now and that, in a field that already spans a dozen candidates, the nomination could go to anyone.

“It could literally be anybody’s game,” said Symone Sanders, a veteran of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign and one of Democrats’ most visible black female strategists.

But there are downsides. It’s not clear that Abrams could sustain the kind of national fundraising base she managed in 2018 when she was trying to make history by becoming America’s first black female governor and flipping an emerging Deep South battleground state. The field already includes successful fundraisers such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and two black candidates: Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey.

That’s led some Abrams insiders to say she’s not looking at the presidential race as seriously as she is choosing between the Senate and another run for governor.

Those close to Abrams say one of her key considerations is how she can make the biggest impact on the issues she cares about most. She ran for governor promising to expand Medicaid insurance, prioritize spending on public education and continue to overhaul Georgia’s criminal justice system.

She’s added a full-throated discourse on voting rights since her gubernatorial campaign was marred by allegations that the victor, Republican Brian Kemp, used his previous post as secretary of state to make it harder for poor and middle-class Georgians to vote. Kemp vehemently denies wrongdoing.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is trying to coax Abrams into challenging Republican Sen. David Perdue in 2020 and has made voting rights a central pillar of his pitch.

“There’s no one who knows how to fight for voting rights better than Stacey Abrams,” Schumer, D-N.Y., said in an interview. “If she got to the Senate, she’d have a huge platform to do it, not just in Georgia, but nationally.”

But some Georgians close to Abrams say she knows the limits of being a lone senator — and potentially one in the minority. They also note that she’s well-aware of the risks that come with losing twice, particularly in back-to-back election cycles.

Her advocacy work since the election has focused most directly on Georgia, potentially positioning her for a 2022 rematch against Kemp. She morphed her campaign operation into a political action group, Fair Fight, focused on election law and ballot access. She’s testified in front of a congressional hearing on voting matters and is pushing for a paper ballot system in Georgia.

Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ longtime adviser and friend who ran her 2018 gubernatorial bid, said Abrams won’t “foreclose any option until she has to.”

But Groh-Wargo argued that an ability to advocate for voting rights will be crucial in Abrams’ decision process.

“The way that election played out has been a singular experience for her, so she’s still trying to process it all as she decides what’s best,” Groh-Wargo said, adding that she expects Abrams to declare her intentions on the Senate in early April. Any other decisions wouldn’t necessarily come at the time, she said.

In the meantime, her star power isn’t likely to dim.

She was in Great Britain this week speaking to The Oxford Union, a debating society that draws its members from the Oxford University Community. She heard “Run, Stacey, run!” chants last week at the Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit in Las Vegas.

She was a featured speaker at the Democratic National Committee’s winter meeting last month in Washington, where she focused as much on her successes — winning 85,000 more votes in Georgia in a nonpresidential election year than Hillary Clinton won in 2016 — as on the result. And, of course, she gave a nod to what her fellow partisans are wondering about.

“I’m going to run for something,” Abrams said, pausing with a grin. “I’m considering president of my homeowners association.”

Whack reported from Philadelphia. Associated Press writers Julie Pace in Washington and Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.

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Sanders’ 2016 backers in New Hampshire holding back for now


Associated Press

MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire has been good to Bernie Sanders, delivering him a 22-point victory in 2016 that was one of his biggest blowouts that year. But as he launches his second campaign for the presidency, there are early signs that he doesn’t have a lock on the nation’s first primary.

More than a half-dozen Democratic leaders, activists and lawmakers who endorsed the Vermont senator in 2016 said they were hesitant to do so again. Some said they were passing over the 77-year-old self-described democratic socialist in search of fresh energy while others said that, 11 months away from the primary, it’s simply too early to make a choice.

That caution underscores one of the central challenges facing Sanders. His insurgent 2016 campaign took off in part because he was the sole alternative to the more establishment-oriented Hillary Clinton. But in a 2020 field that already spans a dozen candidates and includes several progressives, women and people of color, Sanders isn’t the only option for people yearning for political change.

“He’s right on many of the issues that I care about,” said Jackie Cilley, a former state senator who endorsed Sanders in 2016. “But I’m just looking at some new candidates.”

With his name recognition and residency in neighboring Vermont, Sanders goes into New Hampshire with an early advantage. But his rivals aren’t ceding the state to him.

On a recent New Hampshire swing, California Sen. Kamala Harris insisted she would compete for the state and took a not-so-subtle dig at Sanders by noting she’s not a democratic socialist. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, of neighboring Massachusetts, along with Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, have also visited New Hampshire.

Endorsements aren’t the only sign of a candidate’s strength. And Sanders and his team insist they won’t take New Hampshire for granted. His first swing through early-voting states this week as a 2020 presidential candidate includes several stops in New Hampshire.

The senator plans to spend “a lot of time” in the state, said Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ 2016 campaign manager who is now working as a senior adviser for the new campaign. He acknowledged it would be difficult for Sanders to notch as big of a victory in New Hampshire as he did in 2016.

“In a very big field, it will be impossible to get that kind of margin again,” Weaver said.

Several Democrats said the size of the field has made them think twice about backing Sanders too quickly.

“It’s massive,” liberal activist Dudley Dudley said of the 2020 roster. “Our cup runneth over or something, I don’t know. I’m struggling with it myself.”

Dudley said she’s still fond of Sanders but has also been impressed by other senators who have visited New Hampshire, including Sherrod Brown of Ohio.

“If I were to endorse (Sanders), it would be because I believe he is the most likely to be able to beat (President Donald) Trump,” she said. “And it may come out that way. I don’t know. But I want to weigh it. I want to look at all of the candidates.”

Steve Marchand, the former mayor of Portsmouth, endorsed Sanders in 2016 but described himself as “wide open” when it comes to 2020.

“I’m not going to support anybody for a good long time,” Marchand said. “I want to kick the tires on everybody.”

Another hurdle for Sanders is one of his own making. His leftward push against Clinton in 2016 proved so popular among Democrats that it’s now become vogue for the younger generation of 2020 candidates.

Looking at the crowded 2020 field, former state Sen. Burt Cohen said it seems like Sanders’ 2016 agenda is “pretty much everybody’s agenda,” including “Medicare-for-all” and criticizing income inequality.

After endorsing Sanders in 2016 and working as a delegate for him at the Democratic National Convention, Cohen hasn’t “fully decided yet” whether he’ll support Sanders, saying, “I may end up endorsing Bernie. I’m not sure.”

The approach is shared by fellow 2016 Sanders delegate Andru Volinsky, who now holds a seat on the state’s executive council.

“My initial inclination is towards Sen. Sanders,” Volinsky said. “But the door is not completely closed to others.”

Despite the caution from some Democrats, others have already embraced his 2020 run.

Sanders has kept the support and help of Kurt Ehrenberg, who was the New Hampshire state director for the unsuccessful effort to get Warren to run during the 2016 cycle. He then became the New Hampshire political director for Sanders during the presidential campaign.

Rep. Mark King, a Nashua Democrat, endorsed Sanders in 2016 and said he plans to do so again, in part because Sanders has the same values and the same approach as he did before.

“I didn’t just blindly follow the senator again,” said King, who was a 2016 delegate for Sanders.

In a Jan. 26, 2019 photo, Beth Hannan, center, wearing a blue name tag for Democrats, and Emily Helgeson, right, with a red name tag for Republicans, listen to a presenter at the Better Angels meeting at the Inver Glen Library in Inver Grove Heights, Minn. The group encourages conversations between liberals and conservatives. (Bob Shaw/Pioneer Press via AP) a Jan. 26, 2019 photo, Beth Hannan, center, wearing a blue name tag for Democrats, and Emily Helgeson, right, with a red name tag for Republicans, listen to a presenter at the Better Angels meeting at the Inver Glen Library in Inver Grove Heights, Minn. The group encourages conversations between liberals and conservatives. (Bob Shaw/Pioneer Press via AP)