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One of the hobbies I’ve revisited from an earlier time in my life is NBA fandom. I have never been a hardcore sports person, and certainly not as an athlete myself. But as a historian, the deep cultural histories of franchises, the interpersonal dynamics on the court, and the layers of strategy and skill make basketball a captivating hobby. And this is particularly so with the playoffs underway! Although this is a departure from the Countdown’s usual political and rock & roll historical commentary, I think it’s high time to start a new project: the top 100 nba players of all time!

Here are a few considerations guiding my ranking:

  1. Peak performance vs. longevity: there are no easy answers, but one needs to be carefully weigh brief periods of sublime performance (let’s say Bill Walton in the late 1970s or Bernard King in the mid-80s) against long, sustained, but sometimes less overtly brilliant production (let’s say someone like Robert Parish or Hal Greer).
  2. Contingency: Not all situations are created equal. Some players get fantastic teammates whose skill set complements their own. Others are saddled with incompetent coaches, selfish teammates, clueless GMs and owners, and other misfortunes. Did a player do the best they possibly could have in the situation given them?
  3. Stats and “Fruit Salad”: Things like MVPs, Finals MVPs, rings, All-Star appearances, All-NBA and Defense team appearances, season performance, and being a league leader in a statistical category will all matter here.
  4. The Things the Stats Don’t Tell You: Did the player make their teammates better and encourage a positive culture in their club? Did they innovate and alter the game in some way? Were they willing to do the little things that don’t end up in the stat sheet?
  5. Era: It’s really difficult to rank players from the early years of professional basketball. The game was slow, earthbound, provincial, and thuggish before the 24-second shot clock, and only gradually became airborne, uptempo, electric, and international. Frankly, most players from the 1950s and 1960s would get eaten alive in today’s league. To what extent should that count against them?
  6. Team Favoritism: one thing we have to remember is that sportswriters are generally big-city dudes, and the accolades they hand out and the subjects they deign to write about tend to focus on historically great teams and media meccas. Generally, this has meant favorable press for New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and perhaps more recently, the Bay Area. Something to keep in mind: players who toiled in unattractive cities for unsexy teams tend to get passed over, both in their heyday and by posterity. As a result, I have a lot of sympathy for denizens of Milwaukee, San Antonio, Detroit, Minneapolis, Cleveland, and other relatively provincial locales.

With these considerations established, let’s begin our countdown!

100. Yao Ming: There were exactly 99 players I felt comfortable putting on this list. I struggled with the final selection, considering about a half dozen individuals before landing on Yao. His career was short- only 8 seasons- and he was injured for some big pieces of it. (The human foot is just not designed to support 7’6″ of flesh and bone). But when he was healthy, Ming could devastate: he could rebound, block, and pass unexpectedly well. Always more of a finesse center than a powerhouse, he posed major problems for defenses: his low-post moves could usually outmaneuver opponents, and if you fouled him, you were facing one of the best free-throw shooting centers of all time. Moreover, Yao Ming is probably one of the dozen most important NBA players ever (along with MJ, Bird, Magic, Russell, Wilt, Mikan, Earl the Pearl, Iverson, Dr. J, Shaq, and Cousy.) His arrival underscored just how international the game had become, as Asian fans voted him into All-Star game after All-Star game.

99. Draymond Green: Maybe this is a bit premature, but Green has been the runner-up for two Defensive Player of the Year awards, and is the favorite to win for the 2016-17 season. He was the defensive anchor for the best regular season in NBA history, the 15-16 Warriors. That’s not inconsiderable; remove Draymond and Andrew Bogut, and the team is in danger of becoming another 1980s run-and-gun team destined for a first-round playoff exit, like the Doug Moe Nuggets or Run TMC. Green gave the team tenacity, and took pressure off of Curry and Thompson in the playmaking stakes. He joins Bird, Lebron, Webber, and Barry in the ranks of the best passing forward in league history. He is perhaps the best perimeter defender in the league today, and is willing to sacrifice his stats to win. While he is by far the team’s most volatile member, and his propensity for technical fouls may have cost the team the 2016 finals, Green’s best days are ahead of him, and I feel comfortable putting him in the top 100 of all time at this early juncture.

98. Maurice Cheeks: When we talk about the great NBA teams, the 1983 76ers are often left out of the conversation, and even then, much of the attention accrues to Moses Malone and Julius Erving. But Cheeks was the engine driving one of the most dominant NBA teams of the decade. His stats aren’t always eye-popping, but he could lock down the opposing team’s best guard with ease (to that effect, he made five All-Defense teams). Offensively, he shot well over 50% from the field doing mostly mid-range shots. Oh, and for a guy who isn’t remembered all that much today, he ranks #5 all-time in steals, and #13 all-time in assists. He was the floor general for one of the best teams in one of the league’s most memorable decades.

97. Tracy McGrady: I don’t especially like McGrady or his game, but with his recent induction announcement for the Basketball Hall of Fame, I kind of feel like I have to include him. His lack of playoff success and his reputation as a locker room problem are major negatives against him. Seriously- the man never won a playoff series until he came off the bench in San Antonio. To be sure, he never had much luck with teammates and never found a coach who could guide him, but at a certain point that lays with the player himself. Nevertheless, he won two scoring titles, led an okay-ish Rockets squad to 22 straight wins, and once scored 13 points in 35 seconds.

96. David Bing: And here’s another player who never had much playoff success and was chronically stuck on bad teams. Toiling away thanklessly in Detroit, Bing nevertheless carved out a workmanlike career, wracking up 7 All-Stars, winning a scoring title while Wilt was in his prime, and even sneaking onto a couple All-NBA First Teams while Jerry West and Oscar Robertson were active. He also won a Citizenship Award, one of those accolades nobody pays attention to, but I consider a mark of good character and team spirit. In fact, he later demonstrated his strong sense of civic activism by serving as mayor of Detroit.

95. Marques Johnson: Working-class Milwaukee doesn’t get very much love from the NBA beat writers. It’s a shame, because we are led to forget how solid the Milwaukee Bucks were for much of the 1980s. Coached by the great Don Nelson, he embarked on a characteristically crazy experiment: delegating the playmaking duties to a forward, Marques Johnson. Perhaps the first “point forward” in the game’s history, he influenced new strategies and was part of the trend toward bigger men with high basketball IQ. I’ll bet that you forgot he had 5 all-star appearances (putting him in the same league as Chris Mullin, Sam Jones, and Pete Maravich) and made it onto an All-NBA team thrice. Like Cheeks, there’s a great argument for Johnson as the best forgotten player of the 1980s.

94. Neil Johnston: As I said earlier, it’s always dicey to bring out the pre-shot clock guys. But this hardy Philadelphia Warrior- who lasted only eight seasons- made the most out of them. I mean, three scoring titles, six All-Star appearances, a championship–that’s nothing to sneeze at, even if a white, hook-shot-making 6’8″ center is very clearly a product of his time. As a point of trivia, he was also the first professional coach that both Wilt Chamberlain and Connie Hawkins had.

93. Jack Twyman: Twyman gets the nod because he was the best teammate in Big 4 history. When fellow Royals forward Maurice Stokes was stricken by a brain injury that left him virtually immobile, Twyman stepped up big time. With the rest of the team out of Cincinnati for the summer, Twyman and his wife personally took care of Stokes and managed his affairs until the end of his life. There’s a reason why the Teammate of the Year Award is named after him. But even if he hadn’t done this profoundly unselfish act, there would still be a case for Twyman. He was the first player in league history to average more than thirty points in one season, made six All-Star teams, and only missed 24 games in his entire career. Yet, either paired with Stokes or Oscar, Twyman and the Royals never seemed to enjoy very much playoff success.

92. Mark Price: Like those mid-80s Bucks teams, the early 90s Cavaliers were also a force to be reckoned with. If they didn’t have the singular bad luck of sharing not just a conference but a division with Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, it’s more than likely that this scrappy team would have made it into a Finals at some point. Mark Price had a spectacular shooting touch, although never the Cavs’ first scoring option. He was also as close to automatic from the line as humanly possible: he is one of only two players with a career FT% over .900. Injuries hurt his career, however, but he left the league with four All-Star appearances, and even an All-NBA First Team in 1993, one of the most competitive years in its history.

91. Kyrie Irving: Irving is becoming an engine of a burgeoning Cavs dynasty. Although he is unlucky to be playing in a golden age of point guards (hence the dearth of All-NBA appearances), he has found a niche on a Cavs team that is one conference finals away from three straight finals appearances. Irving can do just about anything- defend, pass, whatever- but it is his clutchness that seals the deal for me. His shot in the 2016 finals took victory out of the hands of the Warriors, denying a championship to the most successful regular season team of all time. Expect more 50+ point games, All-Star berths, and highlights from this man in the years to come.

Until my students hand in their final projects tomorrow, I’m in a little oasis with not much to do. I have a new book out. I can’t do much research on my next project until I’m back in the United States. So, as often happens in situations like this, I take to making lists and rankings. In this one, I tried to identify the 100 songs in a broad rock and roll idiom that have meant the most to me. This ranges from songs whose melodies have moved me, or whose message has inspired me, to songs that I simply found amusing when I was a teenager (hence the Weird Al songs.) And so, my list:

1. America- Don’t Cross the River
2. America- Sister Golden Hair
3. Annie Lennox- Walking on Broken Glass
4. Aretha Franklin- I Say A Little Prayer
5. Billy Joel- And So It Goes
6. Billy Joel- Summer, Highland Falls
7. Bob Marley & the Wailers- No Woman, No Cry
8. Bob Marley & the Wailers- Stir It Up
9. Bonnie Raitt- I Can’t Make You Love Me
10. Brandi Carlile- Dying Day
11. Brandi Carlile- The Eye
12. Bruce Springsteen- The Rising
13. Carole King- I Feel the Earth Move
14. Cat Stevens- Wild World
15. Chicago- Just You’N’Me
16. Chicago- Questions 67 & 68
17. Crosby & Nash- Lay Me Down
18. Crosby, Stills & Nash- Cathedral
19. Crosby, Stills & Nash- Southern Cross
20. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young- Carry On/Questions
21. Dan Fogelberg- In the Passage
22. Dire Straits- Romeo and Juliet
23. Edgar Winter Group- Alta Mira
24. Elton John- Ballad of a Well Known Gun
25. Elton John- I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues
26. Elton John- Latitude
27. Elton John- Tiny Dancer
28. Elvis Presley- Burnin’ Love
29. Enter the Haggis- Donald, Where’s Yer Troosers
30. Foster the People- Coming of Age
31. Freebo- Trouble
32. George Harrison- Any Road
33. George Harrison- My Sweet Lord
34. Gin Blossoms- Follow You Down
35. Gnarls Barkley- Crazy
36. Great Big Sea- Donkey Ridin’
37. Howard Jones- Everlasting Love
38. Indigo Girls- Closer to Fine
39. Indigo Girls- Galileo
40. Indigo Girls- Shame on You
41. Kate Bush- The Man with the Child in His Eyes
42. Janelle Monae- Q.U.E.E.N.
43. Jars of Clay- Fade to Grey
44. Jars of Clay- Worlds Apart
45. Jefferson Airplane- Embryonic Journey
46. Jethro Tull- Cross-Eyed Mary
47. Jimmy Buffett- Great Heart
48. Led Zeppelin- Stairway to Heaven
49. Linda Ronstadt- Willin’
50. Marillion- Beautiful
51. Martin Page- In the House of Stone and Light
52. Melissa Ethridge- Come to my Window
53. Nina Simone- Feelin’ Good
54. Paul McCartney- Another Day
55. Paul McCartney- Calico Skies
56. Paul McCartney- This One
57. Peter Gabriel- Solsbury Hill
58. Peter Gabriel- In Your Eyes
59. Peter, Paul & Mary- If I Had a Hammer
60. Peter, Paul & Mary- When the Ship Comes In
61. Pure Prairie League- Amie
62. Queen- ’39
63. Queen- I Want It All
64. Real McCoy- Another Night
65. Rick Derringer- Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo
66. Ringo Starr- It Don’t Come Easy
67. Rufus Wainwright- Hallelujah
68. Sam Cooke- A Change is Gonna Come
69. Sara Bareilles- Many the Miles
70. Simon & Garfunkel- Hazy Shade of Winter
71. Simon & Garfunkel- The Boxer
72. Take That- Back For Good
73. The Band- The Weight
74. The Beach Boys- God Only Knows
75. The Beach Boys- Sail On Sailor
76. The Beatles- Come Together
77. The Beatles- Eleanor Rigby
78. The Beatles- Here Comes the Sun
79. The Beatles- Penny Lane
80. The Beatles- We Can Work It Out
81. The Bellamy Brothers- Let Your Love Flow
82. The Eagles- Bitter Creek
83. The Four Seasons- Oh What A Night (December, 1963)
84. The Four Tops- Reach Out (I’ll Be There)
85. The Grass Roots- Temptation Eyes
86. The Jackson 5- I Want You Back
87. The Left Banke- Barterers and Their Wives
88. The Monkees- Daydream Believer
89. The Moody Blues- Nights in White Satin
90. The Pogues- Fairytale of New York
91. The Spinners- Rubber Band Man
92. The Tremeloes- Here Comes My Baby
93. The Wailin’ Jennys- Heaven When We’re Home
94. The Zombies- She’s Not There
95. Tom Lehrer- The Vatican Rag
96. Toto- Africa
97. Warren Zevon- Accidentally Like a Martyr
98. Ween- Bananas and Blow
99. Weird Al Yankovic- Amish Paradise
100. Weird Al Yankovic- Yoda

Well, the 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony is now in the history books. Since I was in Singapore, rather than Brooklyn, I had to rely on a generous periscoper to see what was going on. Although I had to step out during Pearl Jam’s speeches to buy some quesadilla supplies for a party that afternoon, I was able to catch most of the ceremony.

Was it successful? Well, the Rock Hall wouldn’t be the Rock Hall if there weren’t at least a few screw-ups and indefensible choices, but at the very least, it was better than the near-shit-show we saw last year. Nobody publicly berated the Rock Hall a la Steve Miller; the closest we got was some fairly gentle statements of regret about non-inducted bandmates. (And there were a lot of them this year- from longtime members of Yes, to Nile Rodgers’ Chic bandmates, to a litany of Pearl Jam drummers.)  Nothing happened that was as puzzling as NWA not performing or as regrettable as Peter Cetera not showing up. We learned a fair bit about rock and roll, too- which for me is the #1 outcome of any ceremony.  Strong cases were made for the importance of folk music in giving rock and roll a social conscience. Snoop Dogg and Alicia Keys made a great case for 2pac’s musicianship and artistic vision. I hope at least some of the mostly-classic rock and grunge-oriented crowd in Brooklyn got something to think about. And I, in turn, gained renewed respect for ELO, which I had largely written off as something of a very listenable guilty pleasure.

If I had to pick out a few great performances, I’d say Lenny Kravitz and a full choir performing “When Doves Cry” was the best of the night. But seeing a reconstructed Yes pull off “Roundabout” and Pearl Jam’s tight “Better Man” were also contenders.

Some random observations from the show:

  • Dhani Harrison gave a warm, funny, and heartfelt speech for ELO. His enthusiasm and almost fanboy demeanor made him a good choice for inducting the night’s first act. We now have all five Wilburys in the Hall!
  • Really great segue from the Chuck Berry tribute to ELO. It made perfect sense, in hindsight, to start the show by paying respects to one of rock and roll’s most important founders.
  • In sharp contrast to earlier years, it seemed like the ceremony ran smoothly and people respected time limits in their speeches. Joan Baez was a bit long, but I’m willing to excuse it because 1) her speech was so damn good; 2) there was only one of her; and 3) she’s waited longer than the rest to get in the Hall. She was eligible, actually, for the Rock Hall’s first class, and should have been inducted twenty years earlier.
  • People know that I’m a big advocate of folk music and women in the Rock Hall. So my appreciation for the Joan Baez segment shouldn’t surprise my longtime readers. Both Jackson Browne and Baez herself made a strong case for how important folk music was in encouraging rock and roll to more directly engage with the big issues of the 1960s. And I was struck by how powerful it was to see a woman in her mid-70s, alone with a guitar, on the Rock Hall stage. And what a great choice it was to bring her tour-mates, Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Indigo Girls onstage with her. My wife, who watched the first hour of the show with me, ended up buying us tickets to see them all at Tanglewood this summer.
  • The order of the show was wisely considered, staggering the three 70s classic rock acts with the others: Chuck Berry tribute/ELO, Joan Baez, Yes, 2pac, Journey, Nile Rodgers, the Prince tribute, and finally Pearl Jam and the jam session.
  • They (mostly) reunited Yes! Rick Wakeman’s speech was rude and boorish, but I couldn’t stop laughing. When I’m in my 70s, I want to be an overweight guy with a beard, telling bad jokes, wearing a cape, and playing keyboards in a progressive rock band.
  • My God, Jon Anderson is a short little fellow.
  • The 2pac tribute was lovely, with Snoop Dogg giving a heartfelt speech, and Alicia Keys doing some great R&B renditions of some of his songs.
  • Well, they got all the guys from Journey on stage, they just couldn’t get them all to play together. Although Gregg Rollie and Aynsley Dunbar joined the band on “Lights,” they couldn’t cajole Steve Perry into joining the group for a performance. That’s a great shame; if they can’t make it work here, it probably means it will never happen. Perry did give a great speech though, and I did learn that Journey’s keyboardist survived a massive Catholic school fire when he was a boy.
  • Nile Rodgers’s speech was fairly short, but a bit self-promoting. I’m happy to give him a pass, though. He has every reason to be pissed about Chic not getting in as a group, and given how often Rock Hall voters rejected him, he’s entitled to make a case for his legacy. Still- shocking that he didn’t perform. With Pharrell Williams in the house, doing a quick version of “Get Lucky” seemed like a no-brainer.
  • Having David Letterman sub for Neil Young to induct Pearl Jam was probably a net positive. I actually don’t like Young as a speechmaker; his speech for Paul McCartney is the single worst Rock Hall induction that I can remember off the top of my head. Letterman’s was, by turns, funny and endearing, talking about Eddie Vedder giving his son a guitar, and poking fun at their feud with Ticketmaster.
  • The All White Guys finale- featuring Geddy Lee and members of Pearl Jam and Journey defeated the purpose of the entire evening.  I am judging this based on periscope coverage and couldn’t see the whole stage clearly- but Kravitz, Baez, Jeff Lynne, Pharrell, Niles, the Indigo Girls, Alicia Keys, and others should definitely have been on that stage.
  • If I were in charge, the finale would have been either Rodgers leading a song he produced- “We Are Family”- or else Baez bringing everybody on stage for “We Shall Overcome”- maybe a more poignant message in these troubling times than “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World.”

If I had to rate the show in comparison to recent years, it was significantly better than the 2016 ceremony. And it was slightly better than the 2014 ceremony (some great Hervana performances tempered by KISS not playing, Ronstadt not being able to attend, and the E-Street Band clogging the running time). The 2015 ceremony, however, stands as the recent gold standard. A mini-Beatles reunion, a speech by Patti Smith that made me finally “get” Lou Reed, and two virtuoso blues performances via Jimmy Vaughan and the survivors of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. That year, the performances were great, the speeches were mostly in good taste, and one learned a great deal about the breadth and significance of rock and roll. This ceremony, even at its best moments, just didn’t come close to those heights. Maybe they need to hold this thing in Cleveland every year.

So now, we enter kind of a fallow and seemingly dormant season in the Rock Hall calendar. It won’t be until early fall that we start to hear some buzz about how next year’s ballot will shape up. There are lots of potential first-year nominees like Radiohead and Rage Against the Machine, and Letterman’s earnest support tips the scales further toward Warren Zevon. Between now and then, I hope to make my first ever visit to the Hall of Fame in Cleveland this summer and continue a project researching the Rock Hall- and why we argue about it. Stay tuned, as always, for my annual predictions for the Rock Hall nomination ballot and ceremony.

In the meantime, if I can set aside my Alex Voltaire persona for a moment, and talk as my true self, my book is out! University of Massachusetts Press has published My Brother’s Keeper: George McGovern and Progressive Christianity. If the 1970s, social justice, and the role of religion in public affairs are of interest to you, I hope you’ll check it out!

I first became interested in the United States Senate in the fourth week of January, 2005.

Perhaps you wonder why my memory of this is so precise. Part of the answer is autobiographical. My grandfather, who I was very close to, died mid-January, right before I was preparing to leave for London. I was looking forward to being a teaching assistant and resident assistant for our freshman honor’s program. While the week days were intense and filled with fun, as my colleague Heather May and I scoured suitable museums, cathedrals, and galleries for our students. But the weekends, I have to confess, were tough. We were expected to be on-hand at our guesthouse to help out the 25 students in our charge, and with wi-fi still in its infancy, it was easy to get bored or distracted when our services weren’t needed. Still missing my grandfather, and not having had enough time to process his death before flying across the ocean, I channeled my grief and my surplus of free time into memorizing things. It’s a bad- and rather peculiar- habit of mine, but it’s how my mind works.

At first, I memorized who every state voted for in every presidential election. This was surprisingly mundane (many states regularly voted for one party for decades on end). So I started memorizing who the senators were from each state. And from that day forward, I kept abreast of politics- not perfectly, and certainly not in a way that would make me an expert or policy wonk- but it was a hobby that became useful to my line of work as a historian of religion and politics.

Since then, I’ve seen the Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008, Tea Party Thermidors of 2010 and 2014. In those twelve years, a number of giants left the Senate- Ted Kennedy, Robert Byrd, Richard Lugar, Daniel Inouye, Joe Biden, Ted Stevens.  Some came and went in those years: Mark Udall, Mark Begich, Scott Brown, Kay Hagan, Kelly Ayotte, Mark Kirk. And plenty of new faces arrived. It’s very conceivable that twenty years from now, Mike Lee, Chris Murphy, Kirsten Gillibrand, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, and Martin Heinrich will still be plugging away.

Since so much time has passed, it made me wonder: what does it take to be a senator? In other words, what common experiences show up on their resumes? Is it necessary to go to an Ivy League school? To what extent does heritage matter? So, I spent one weekend running the numbers on the senators who served from January 2005 onwards. I kept this limited to people who had won an election of some kind– so I left out temporary appointments like Jeffrey Chisea, Roland Burris, Carte Goodwin, Paul Kirk, and others.

Ultimately, there were 179 senators who fell into this rubric. Some initial stats that I found interesting:

  • Only 31 were women.
  • Almost that number- 24- ran for president at some point in their careers. Don’t believe me? Here’s the list: Barack Obama, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Tom Harkin, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, John Kerry, Bernie Sanders, Robert Byrd, Ted Kennedy, Lincoln Chafee, Jim Webb, Ted Cruz, Lamar Alexander, Orrin Hatch, Arlen Specter, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, Liz Dole, Sam Brownback, Richard Lugar, and Joe Lieberman. Granted, many of these candidacies went nowhere and many dropped out before Iowa, but there seems to be some truth to the adage that every senator sees a president in the mirror.
  • 7 ended up being on a presidential ticket at some point in their careers: Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Tim Kaine, and Joe Lieberman. (That number is a little low because we have only had one Republican senator on a presidential ticket in the last five cycles.)
  • Maybe more troubling, only 14 identify their ethnicity as something other than white: Kamala Harris, Tim Scott, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Cory Booker, Barack Obama, Catherine Cortez Masto, Bob Menendez, Mazie Hirono, Daniel Inouye, Daniel Akaka, Mel Martinez, Tammy Duckworth, and Ken Salazar.
  • 10 of them have passed on since I started the project: Robert Byrd, Ted Kennedy, Frank Lautenberg, Ted Stevens, Arlen Spector, Craig Thomas, Daniel Inouye, Bob Bennett, George Voinovich, and Jim Jeffords.

But aside from the trivia, what kind of background does it take to get into the Senate? Here’s what I found out:

  • The best thing you can do is serve in the House first. 84- nearly half of all those listed- had done so. That makes a certain amount of sense; serving in the House increases your familiarity with issues of a national scope and is a good way to build a relationship of trust with your constituents.
  • Almost as many- 70- served in a state legislature at some earlier point in their careers.
  • Governors tend not to graduate to the Senate: only 18 had done so, and 5 were from states that have unusual rules affecting their governors (Virginia prohibits them from serving consecutive terms. So, George Allen, Mark Warner, and Tim Kaine all decided to run for the Senate, since there was nowhere else to go. New Hampshire requires governors to be elected every two years- a hassle that may have inspired Judd Gregg and Maggie Hassan to run for the Senate, where you are only up for election every six years.)
  • Mayors are even more rare in the Senate- there have only been 14 of them in the last 12 years. A few led major cities: Richard Lugar from Indianapolis, Cory Booker from Newark, George Voinovich from Cleveland. But there are some strikingly small cities as well: Burlington, VT (Bernie Sanders), Warwick, RI (Lincoln Chafee), and even Gillette, Wyoming (Mike Enzi).
  • About a third- 55 of the 179- have earned a degree from a very prestigious school. (For the purposes of this exercise, that means Ivy League, Stanford, or Georgetown).
  • And it doesn’t hurt to take relatives in politics. 29 of them are scions of some sort, with a parent, sibling, or spouse who held a major office of some kind.
  • 45 served in the military. Unsurprisingly, this was more common with the older senators: Frank Lautenberg, Daniel Inouye, Daniel Akaka, Ted Stevens all served in World War II. In the last two years, the Senate has acquired its first two female veterans: Joni Ernst and Tammy Baldwin.
  • Five had served in the cabinet before becoming a senator. Strangely, all of them are Republicans: Liz Dole (Transportation and Labor), Mel Martinez (HUD), Mike Johanns (Agriculture), Rob Portman (U.S. Trade Rep- a cabinet level position), and Lamar Alexander (Education.)
  • Even weirder, eight have medical degrees of some kind- and all of them are also Republicans! That includes Bill Frist (cardio surgeon), John Boozman (optometrist), Rand Paul (ophthalmologist), Wayne Allard and John Ensign (veterinarians), Bill Cassidy (primary care physician), John Barrasso (orthopedics), and Tom Coburn (obstetrician).

And, of course, lots of other paths to the Senate exist. You might hold another prominent state office: secretary of state, treasurer, attorney general, lieutenant governor, or auditor. We also have a former astronaut (Bill Nelson), a university president (Ben Sasse), an ambassador (Dan Coats), a first lady (Hillary Clinton), a comedy writer (Al Franken), and a professional baseball player (Jim Running.)

Of course, these are just the numbers- and this is far from a qualitative study. I’ve only looked at the Senate as a whole, with no concern- yet- for how effective or conscientious the senator at hand may be.

So, while you don’t need to have a famous father or a Harvard degree to make it to the Senate. But it never hurts either. However you get there, remember this quote from the great Hubert Humphrey: “the Senate is a place filled with goodwill and good intentions. And if the road to Hell is paved with them, then it’s a pretty good detour.”

In the last chapter, I suggested a presidential ticket that could decimate the Trump coalition, by offering a progressive vision, uniting Clinton and Sanders supporters, and project economic populism, public service, and self-sacrifice to peel away reluctant Trump voters. And that ticket was Elizabeth Warren and William McRaven.

elizabeth-warren.jpgwilliam mcraven

Of course, there is far more that goes in to an administration than who is on the presidential ticket. I explored this in greater depth in my series on ranking the presidents, but the best administrations sought out diverse points of view, hired competent and public service-minded individuals, and steered away from group-think. That is the kind of atmosphere I wanted to cultivate in selecting what a great cabinet might look like for this imaginary administration. I didn’t want any loudmouths, self-aggrandizers, and ideologues. I wanted problem solvers of proven excellence, individuals of deep learning and keen observation, and people who lived out an ethos of public service in their respective fields. So I picked out a cabinet from various walks of life- some worthy veterans of their respective departments, some businesspersons, the odd community activist, and a few public office-holders. I tried to avoid trend where people just list out a “fantasy cabinet” with a bunch of senators- like putting Bernie Sanders as Secretary of Treasury or Joe Biden as Secretary of State. Let’s instead consider the greater breadth and richness of American public life.

wendy sherman

Photo/Reba Saldanha Rapport Center distinguished lecturer and former Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs Wendy Sherman speaks at Boston College Law School Monday November 9, 2015.

Secretary of State: There is a tendency here to choose a sexy, high-profile pick for Secretary of State to generate buzz and make the cabinet more prestigious via some household name. A lot of names I bandied about would have fit that profile- Caroline Kennedy, Russ Feingold, and yes, Joe Biden. But I ultimately landed on Wendy Sherman. One of the elements of the Obama presidency that intrigued me most was his ability to turn longtime pariah countries into the path of slowly, watchfully, becoming integrated back into the community of nations. She turned the probable failure of Iran negotiations into a qualified success, and is a committed policy wonk with a resolve of steel.

richard cordraySecretary of Treasury: My pick for this spot goes to Richard Cordray of Ohio. As the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Cordray has a huge target on his back, and may very well be dismissed by President Trump by the time all is said and done. But so far in his tenure, Cordray has used the agency’s independence in suitably populist ways, going after predatory lenders and holding Wells Fargo accountable after it opened numerous fraudulent accounts, ultimately fining it $100 million.

Secretary of Defense: While Michele Flournoy is often seen as the presumptive nominee jack reedfor this spot in the next Democratic administration, I’m going to go against the grain. Looking at the number of think tank gurus and military figures in charge of what is ostensibly an agency that is supposed to be led by civilians, I am pulling for Jack Reed, the senator from Rhode Island. As I wrote in an earlier entry, I expect Reed to retire from the Senate in 2020, and once he does, he might reconsider his long reluctance to serve in a presidential cabinet. Given the disaster of think-tankers in the Bush years, and the problematic elements of having so many career military men in the Trump administration, I think it important to return leadership of the Pentagon to civilian- indeed, congressional- oversight. With Reed, you get a 20+ year veteran of the Senate, a former West Point cadet and West Point instructor, and someone who voted against the Iraq War. That’s a pretty amazing meeting of competence, experience, and good judgment.

brian sandovalAttorney General: There was the old Sesame Street jingle, “one of these things just doesn’t belong,” and the Department of Justice is the odd man out in the cabinet. Unlike the other departments, it needs to confront- and if necessary, defy- the president. One critique, common in the last twenty-five years regardless of who was in power, was of collusion between the attorney general’s office and the West Wing. I don’t think that’s an unfair concern. For that reason, I have an unconventional choice. Most incoming cabinets (Mr. Trump excepted) have at least one member of the opposition party- and here’s mine. I suggest Nevada governor Brian Sandoval. Sandoval is by far the best of the Republican governors- and possibly the best governor in any state regardless of party. Almost alone of the GOP governors, he resisted the bandwagon to reject incoming refugees from Syria, he wasn’t opposed to a modest tax increase, and he has experience as a judge and state attorney general that lends itself well to serving as the head of the Justice Department. You can trust this guy to strong, prescient, and fair-minded.

christy goldfussInterior: Christy Goldfuss isn’t the most well-known name on this list, but she’d be a fine choice to head one of the most important of all departments, concerned as it is with preserving our country’s natural resources and beautiful landscape.  In an age suspicious of Washington insiders, Goldfuss effuses a Leslie Knope-like love of public service, and she’s incredibly skilled at communicating in small events and in social media. She’s served as Obama’s Deputy Director of National Parks, and chaired the Council on Environmental Quality. There is a tendency to appoint a random western governor or congressman to this position; I seriously considered Brian Schweitzer or John Hickenlooper for this job. A native of Connecticut, Goldfuss- as far as I can tell- would be the first east-coaster in decades to hold this position, but I don’t think that’s in any sense a disqualification.

Agriculture: Similarly, there is a tendency to default to a congressman or governor from david beckmannthe prairie states for the D.A. Instead, I remembered the Eisenhower administration, and how he brought on talent from church-related organizations who could thrive in a government that shouldn’t play favorites among religions. Dulles, you might remember, was heavily involved in the National Council of Churches before becoming Secretary of State. In this vein, I’d love for Rev. David Beckmann to serve as Secretary of Agriculture. For the last 25 years, Beckmann has served as president of Bread for the World, raising awareness, producing scholarship, and coordinating interfaith efforts to combat global and domestic hunger. A Lutheran pastor who is also a trained economist, Beckmann understands the nuances of the Agriculture Department’s most fundamental charge: make sure hungry people get enough to eat. Part lobby, part charity, Beckmann has been at the forefront of successful efforts to get Congress to increase its spending on development assistance. In terms of getting food to people who need it, Beckmann is one of the sharpest, most effective thinkers and administrators one can imagine. We’ll need him after the massive cuts to domestic and international humanitarian programs under the Trump budget.

ursula burnsCommerce: Look, as a general rule, we’re not going to revive American manufacturing to its 1950s pinnacle. We need a head of the Commerce Department who understands that, and can serve as an effective liaison to the business world. I’d love for them to be partners rather than antagonists in an effort to create a more socially just America. I considered former Pennsylvania governor Mark Schweiker, civic leader and plastics magnate Noel Ginsburg, and real estate guy R. Donahue Peebles. But I ultimately landed on Xerox CEO Ursula Burns. She’s the embodiment of the American Dream, having worked her way up in Xerox from a lowly intern to become the first black woman to head a Fortune 500 company. She turned the company around from ruin, going from machine manufacturing to information and document processing. Burns is direct, tough, and realistic- a good fit for Commerce.

Jobs with Justice National Conference

Jobs with Justice National Conference, Day 2 at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. Aug. 6, 2011 © Rick Reinhard 2011

Labor: Ai-Jen Poo would be amazing in this job. For years, she has mobilized domestic workers and caregivers, most recently serving as leader of Domestic Workers United. (Many domestic workers are exempt from state and federal labor laws, allowing them to overworked, underpaid, and vulnerable to harassment.) She has been a consistent voice for humane immigration policies, workers’ rights, and just as importantly, making sure workers have the tools and resources they need to make a positive change. She knows, better than most, that part of the labor movement is the ability to make good on your own vocation.

fullsizeoutput_2cHealth and Human Services: Karen DeSalvo would be the only resident of the South in the cabinet. She served as the New Orleans Health Commissioner, where she took a strong grassroots approach to health services, taking less of a “reactionary” approach and more of a network of resources the community could draw on. Fit NOLA ended up being a wildly successful effort that drew links between the business world, community leaders, and the government. Her efforts got her an award as a Governing magazine public official of the year, and subsequent served as an Assistant Secretary in HHS during the closing years of the Obama administration. She has the executive experience and federal background to improve Obamacare- hopefully with a public option this time around.

aaron bartleyHousing and Urban Development: One element I wanted in this cabinet was a proper grassroots activist. They don’t always work out in government: ultimately, not everyone can make the transition from the streets to working within the system they hoped to change. But I’ve got a good feeling about my fellow Buffalonian Aaron Bartley. His PUSH organization (that’s People United for Sustainable Housing) has brought new life into the dilapidated West Side of the Nickel City. It’s influx of refugees and immigrants have contributed to PUSH’s job training, urban agriculture, and green-powered affordable housing.

r.t. rybakTransportation: I’m a big fan of the state of Minnesota- it’s proven that progressive leadership can produce results. For Transportation, I pick R.T. Rybak, the former mayor of St. Paul. Rybak unexpectedly became the face of coping with America’s crumbling infrastructure when I-35W bridge collapsed. His response- which included not just quick fixes but planning for the future, including light rail- was widely praised, and even earned him a nomination for the World Mayor Award. He even leads a public bicycle-sharing program.

shirley jacksonEnergy: This is another cabinet spot whose importance cannot be understated- it’s key to have strong, steady, knowledgeable leadership in an agency that is responsible for the nuclear weapons program and safe disposal of energy sources. Shirley Jackson would be 74 by the time she got the job, but there’s no reason to think she wouldn’t excel at it. Jackson served as chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, chaired the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under Bill Clinton, served as president of RPI (about an hour from where I grew up in upstate New York), and- oh yes- was the first black woman to get a Ph.D. from MIT.

joseph garciaEducation: To rehabilitate our public education system after the Betsy DeVos onslaught, we need someone with the heart of an educator, and the skills of a politician. Joseph Garcia is the man for that. He’s served as President of Colorado State-Pueblo, spent five years on the Colorado Commission for Higher Education, and was twice the Community College President of the Year. After all that, he served a short tenure as lieutenant governor of Colorado doing double duty as the Executive Director of Higher Education. He’s got the chops and the track record to oversee the federal government’s role in ensuring that everybody receives a quality education in America.

Mike MichaudVeterans’ Affairs: In 2014, Congressman Michael Michaud averred re-election to Maine’s rural 2nd district to run for Vacationland’s governor. That didn’t work out, and after some speculation about his future, took a job as an Assistant Secretary of Labor in a role that facilitates the training and hiring of veterans. Maine- especially the 2nd district- has an unusually large number of military veterans, and Michaud is no stranger to representing their interests. He was one of the first to identify the VA incompetence under Eric Shinseki and demand reform. Michaud also sponsored an act in Congress that would have given tax credits to businesses that hire veterans. As someone conversant in the fields of veterans’ affairs, health care, and labor, he’d be a slam dunk at the VA. Oh, and if confirmed, he’d be the first openly gay cabinet secretary.

Julliette KayeemHomeland Security: I’d expect that Vice President McRaven would come in handy in security policy, but the actual cabinet spot should go to Juliette Kayyem.  Some might clutch pearls at the idea of Homeland Security being led by a Lebanese woman, but Kayyem has more than earned her spot at the table. See, she has effortlessly combined deep policy knowledge, government experience, and public relations genius- something residually missing from previous secretaries of this department. She has already worked as an Assistant Secretary in this department, served as the Homeland Security secretary of Massachusetts, and published a well-received memoir called Security Mom. She also coordinated the White House response to the Deepwater Horizon spill, giving her solid crisis management chops.

jody williamsPeace: Wait a minute, you say- there isn’t a Department of Peace! I say that we create one. And it isn’t some nebulous hippy-dippy idea. It’s been proposed by serious politicians for decades, ranging from Republicans like Alexander Wiley to crusty West Virginia populists like Matthew Neeley, to Hoosier Vance Hartke, to modern-day politicos like Minnesota governor Mark Dayton and former congressman Dennis Kucinich. It would coordinate, support, and recruit for active peacemaking, heading Peace Corps and Americorps, rehabilitating prisoners and drug users into society, and monitor democracy abroad. It might even oversee the McGovern Institute, kind of a West Point for peacemaking. And I want Nobel Prize winner Jody Williams to be its first leader. Williams is a hard-nosed realist who despises ineffectual marches, coordinates UN, governmental, and humanitarian activities like a pro, and has been instrumental in the long campaign to defuse, remove, and disincentivized landmines. Rather than giving the Pentagon everything they ask and more, we should be using our nation’s resources for programs like these.

So- what do you think? I like this cabinet a lot for a Warren-McRaven administration. It represents the best of public service in America- and can encourage a new generation to take part in civic activity like the Kennedy administration did over fifty years earlier. It provides a number of different perspectives- the business world, government, academia, grassroots activism, the military- to collaborate on solving deep problems. 50% are women, and six are persons of color- and every one is imminently qualified by character, temperament, and experience.  Let me know your thoughts about this in the comments below. If there’s enough interest I might fill this out with a subsequent post on other positions like EPA, Chief of Staff, CIA director, UN Ambassador, and so on.

So here we are! At long last, after reviewing possible candidates to run for governor, for senator, and for the House, it’s time to finally look at what a competent administration looks like. And what a pipe dream that feels like these days! Today, we are saddled with a Secretary of Education who seems intent on dismantling public schools, a Secretary of the Treasury beholden to Wall Street, an EPA administrator who wants to dissemble the EPA, a Secretary of Energy who forgot which departments he wanted to eliminate when running for the presidency four years earlier, an NSA guy who lied about his ties to Russia, and an Attorney General who did the same. The most competent person is the cabinet is Elaine Chao, a Bush-43 returnee married to Mitch McConnell.

Nonetheless, I dream. I dream of a presidency committed to a square deal for every American, one infused with compassion, intellect, and vision. I dream of an administration filled with competent people who are driven by a love of public service- with no frauds, demagogues, or loudmouths among them. In this post, I’ll cover my choice for the presidential ticket, and my reasoning for doing so- and look at my ideal cabinet in the next installment.

So- what did I want in my presidential ticket?

I thought long and hard about this. Although dozens of think pieces have been written about the Democrats’ lack of a strong bench, there are actually about a dozen solid contenders for the Democratic nomination in 2020 that most people are talking about. My state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, and junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, are among them. Northeasterners are also heavily represented in Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey. Kamala Harris is discussed as a new up-and-comer.  Return engagements for Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden- both of whom will be deep in their seventies- are bandied about. Some other names turn up- Julian Castro, Al Franken, Tim Kaine, and even some wishful choices like Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama.

There’s a lot of talent and a fair bit of presidential timber on this list, but also some significant problems. One is the major coastal focus of this group- that’s especially a problem when Democrats tanked in the Midwest and the South, and have become a nonentity in their former stronghold of Appalachia. Another is its lack of executive experience- the only one who has it is Cuomo, in my opinion the least electable guy on my list. I want a team that will not just heal the rift between Clinton-Sanders but take an axe to the “Trump coalition” in the same way that Obama took an axe to the “Bush coalition” in 2008.

I wanted a fair dose of progressivism, but a kind of progressivism that could win over swaths of middle America, one that could get $15-an-hour workers in Kansas to stop voting against their economic interests. I wanted regional diversity- and a team that would accentuate each other’s strengths. When I used to play Magic: the Gathering, one of the sharpest pieces of advice I got was to find multiple ways of defeating your opponent. This team will have multiple ways of dissecting, confronting, and ultimately offering an all-American alternative to, Donald Trump.

It’s Elizabeth Warren for president. And William McRaven for vice-president.

Here’s why I think this is the best ticket to win and the best ticket for a progressive, socially just vision for America’s future. Elizabeth Warren scarcely needs no introduction. She made a name for herself as an advocate for a Consumer Finance Protection Board, and gained a reputation for her skill in explaining complex economic and fiscal concepts in layman’s terms. Since then, she’s become the senator from Massachusetts and a progressive icon that has almost unanimous affection within the Democratic Party and among progressive-leaning independents. She’s written multiple books on making the economy work again for middle-class families, and has followed that up by becoming a strong presence in Congress leading calls- heretofore unheeded- to reinstall Glass-Stegall.

Warren has the capacity, like no one else, to heal the rift between Hillary people and Bernie people. If you supported Hillary, you’ll probably like Warren’s deep policy knowledge, reputation for doing her homework, and conscientious social gospel Methodism. If you were a Bernie person in the primaries, Warren’s unequivocal denunciation of corrupt financial practices is probably right up your alley. Stephen Colbert described Warren as a “combo platter” of the best of each 2016 candidate, and I think that’s about right.  Warren is also able to take advantage of a tactic that I wish Hillary had pursued- that of being an ex-Republican. Yes, Elizabeth Warren was a Republican at an earlier stage of her life, before the party got wedded to an ideology where no tax cut was too deep, no military expenditure too high, and no social program was too sacred to get the axe. It will let her adopt some rhetorical tics that Reagan used effectively, “I didn’t leave the Republican Party, the Republican Party left me.”

But what about William McRaven? There is, I think, an unhealthy tendency to lionize or obsess over military figures entering politics. I remember well the clamoring for Wesley Clark in 2004, for Anthony Zinni to join Obama’s ticket in 2008, for David Petraeus to enter the fray in 2012. For various reasons, these figures didn’t pan out in electoral politics, but McRaven might be the real deal. If you aren’t familiar with him, he’s a retired admiral, former director of NATO Special Operations, and led Operation: Neptune Spear, which ended in the death of Osama bin Laden. His reputation in military circles is of someone who checks his ego at the door, who can work a room as well as any senator, and who earns rather than demands respect. As the University of Texas chancellor, he’s shown that he can make the transition from military to civilian life in an educator’s role (as Dwight Eisenhower did at Columbia, immediately before running for president.) Those of you who read this blog know I’m somewhat enamored of the guy– I’ve floated his name for Homeland Security and have suggested he run for senator from Texas in an earlier post. Whether or not he does that, and whether or not he wins, I think he’d be a strong candidate.

McRaven’s long career in national service contrasts sharply with Trump’s multiple deferments and consistent refusal to take responsibility for his actions. More than that, McRaven can appeal to those Americans who have found earlier cultures of liberalism to be toxic or unwelcoming. Consider his response to the UT Austin football team, some of whose members were considering kneeling during the national anthem. Rather than demand or order, McRaven persuaded- and his rhetoric was nationalist and progressive at the same time: “Those that believe the flag represents oppression should remember all the Americans who fought to eliminate bigotry, racism, sexism, imperialism, communism, and terrorism…The flag rode with the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th, 10th, 24th and 25th Calvary and Infantry Regiments. It was carried by the suffragists down the streets of New York City. It flew with the Tuskegee Airmen of WWII. It was planted in the fields where Cesar Chavez spoke. It marched with Martin Luther King Jr. It rocketed into space on the shoulder patches of women, gays, Hispanic, Asian and African American astronauts.”

Recently, McRaven has spoken out about the folly of allowing concealed handguns on the University of Texas campuses, and has derided Trump’s attacks on the press as un-American. And yet, he’s a proud firearm owner- but can articulate responsible ownership in a way that won’t scare off rural Americans. Progressives have to reach out to voters like that, and Elizabeth Warren can’t do that alone. I understand the hesitance of some longtime peacemakers in supporting a ticket with a military man- I share some of it. But if we need to have a military, it’s good to have it populated with people like McRaven.

So I believe that William McRaven can help the Democrats appeal to Middle America, military families, Rotary members, and other Republican-leaning demographics that are horrified by the incompetence, corruption, and craven character of Trumpworld. It’s not enough to simply be progressive, tout your support for all the correct issues, and use the appropriate hashtags. We need to make it easy for independents and disaffected Republicans of good sense to vote for the Democratic ticket. The true populism and the true patriotism of a Warren-McRaven ticket would present an alternative that is electable, visionary, and brings out what is best about the American political tradition. I also like how the Massachusetts and Texas origins echo Kennedy-Johnson from 1960, and how they both represent three different elements of public service, one in politics, one in the military, and both in academia. What do you think? Does this ticket have what it takes?

Next time? Let’s pick out a good cabinet for this ticket.

Before we dive in to what the presidential contest of 2020 might look like, and how a competent, progressive administration devoted to public service might shape up, I want to briefly include some errata to previous posts. I made a couple mistakes and overlooked a couple of great candidates. But even since I began posting, we can see frontrunners lining up for major races, even though those elections are fully nineteen months away. Some people I pegged as gubernatorial candidates are thinking about running for the Senate, and vice versa. I’ll retroactively fix the earlier posts, but here are some corrections that I wish to make:

  • Governor of Georgia, 2018: Sally Yates, the recently-fired acting attorney general, seems to be making a move for this position. I had originally had her pegged down as a potential senator, as she has worked at the federal level before, and put Jason Carter as the candidate for governor, since his grandfather once held that position. I’m switching the two.
  • Governor of Colorado, 2018: Same story. I had thought Denver mayor Michael Hancock would be a fine choice for governor, following in the footsteps of John Hickenlooper, who took a similar path from mayor to governor. As it turns out, my original Senate pick, Mike Johnston, seems to be running for governor. No worries- Hancock would make a great senator, Johnston would be a fine governor. Again, switching the candidates.
  • PA-15, 2018: As one reader, mr.peanut, put it- Ed Pawlowski is too tainted by corruption charges to be a viable candidate, and could hardly take on a relative moderate like Charlie Dent successfully. State representative Jennifer Mann would be a better selection.
  • NY-23, 2018: Colleen Wegman was maybe a bit too far-fetched. Svante Myrick would be a fine choice instead. He is mayor of Ithaca, and was a finalist for the World Mayor Award.
  • NY-22, 2018: I am going to give Kim Myers another chance at this Utica-based seat, having lost by only about 5% in an unusual set of circumstances.
  • NE-Gov: The more I thought about it, the more that Howard Warren Buffett- yes, the Sage of Omaha’s grandson- made sense.
  • U.S. Senator from Connecticut, 2018 and Governor of Connecticut, 2018- yeah, a switcher here as well. Let’s keep Chris Murphy in the Senate, and make Carolyn Miles the gubernatorial candidate. As a non-political, Miles should be insulated somewhat from Governor Malloy’s unpopularity.
  • Governor of Maryland (Feb. 27): with my initial candidate, Tom Perez, winning election as chair of the DNC, I will need to find a new candidate. I frankly don’t like any of the current contenders for this seat, so I’ll need to pick out one of my own: State Senator Bill Ferguson.