Free speech make way; here comes Obama-style regionalism

We have written about how “regionalism” and its handmaiden “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” (AFFH) are, in effect, an attempt by the left to dictate the way Americans will live. Now, we see that they also entail an attempt to tell elected officials what they must say. This has become apparent from efforts to muzzle Westchester Country Executive Rob Astorino.

Westchester County, New York is ground zero in the left’s push for its vision of regionalism. Under Democratic leadership, the County entered into a settlement with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The County agreed to build 750 “affordable housing units,” 650 of which would be in municipalities with less than 3 percent American-American population and less than 7 percent Hispanic population.

It also agreed to advertise its affordable housing units to people living outside the County. The non-residents were to be lured into the County to try to ensure that the new housing units would be filled by the desired number of members of the HUD-preferred racial and ethic groups.

Under Astorino, a Republican, the County is working to build the 750 units. However, Astorino has also been a strong critic of regionalism/AFFH. In fact, after viewing a 12 minute video of Astorino describing Westchester’s battles with HUD, Goffstown, New Hampshire decided to stop applying for HUD money, which is the hook the Obama administration uses to bend local governments to its will on housing matters.

In addition, as we noted here, Astorino seeks to bring Hillary Clinton, one of his constituents, into the discussion. He has asked the Democratic frontrunner whether she thinks her hometown, Chappaqua, is discriminatory and whether she agrees with the Obama administration’s efforts to force it to build a low-income housing development it doesn’t want.

Astorino even held a press conference outside of Clinton’s home to press her on the issue. The Countess of Chappaqua has remained silent on these questions.

Astorino thus poses a double-barrel threat to the left. First, he threatens to undermine AFFH by persuading localities not to submit to the program by taking federal money. Second, he embarrasses the candidate who will carry the left’s banner this Fall and who, as president, would work to implement the left’s vision of how we should live.

Astorino will no longer pose these threats if he can be silenced. This is what James Johnson, the “Federal Monitor” of the settlement agreement, is trying to do.

As Stanley Kurtz explains, the Federal Monitor’s attempt to silence Astorino comes in the form of a report filed on March 17 in federal court. The report claims that Astorino has spread false information about Westchester County’s housing settlement and about the efforts and intentions of HUD and the Federal Monitor himself.

As a remedy, the Federal Monitor seeks “the removal of press releases inconsistent with the declaration and findings” written by the Federal Monitor. He also calls for the hiring of “a public communications consultant that will craft a message and implement a strategy sufficiently robust to provide information broadly to the public that describes the benefits” of what HUD says it is trying to accomplish.

In effect, the Federal Monitor is asking a court to order Astorino to stop criticizing Obama’s HUD and start advertising HUD’s own views. I agree with Kurtz that “this is truly Orwellian stuff, a frightening demonstration of how the expansionist regulatory state ultimately chokes off political speech itself.”

As noted above, the basis for seeking these extraordinary measures is the claim that Astorino has made false claims about the settlement and about HUD’s intentions. The Federal Monitor asserts that, by making “false” claims, the Country is violating its obligation to act “in good faith” in implementing the settlement.

Astorino’s claims may be controversial, but they are not factually false. In essence, Astorino’s opinion is that HUD intends to use the settlement agreement to force Westchester to build many more than the 750 housing units it agreed to construct and/or to force changes in local zoning.

To be sure, the feds have never said that these are their intentions (but then, President Obama never said some people wouldn’t be able to keep their doctor under Obamacare — he said the opposite). However, the feds have said that Westchester is to analyze its housing needs using “regional data.”

Such an analysis could become the basis for insistence that Westchester build many more than 750 housing units be built, at a huge cost to the County, and at the expense of existing zoning. This, in any case, is what the County fears.

Whether Astorino is right or wrong in this prediction, the leader of a governmental unit must have the right to tell his constituents what he believes is in store for them.

It is also significant, I think, that the “Anti-Discrimination Center,” which is conducting its own monitoring of the settlement agreement believes that the agreement “goes well beyond the obligation to build a minimum of 750 units.” The Center views the 750 units as the barest beginning. As I understand it, Astorino strongly disagrees with this view of the agreement, but he reasonably fears this is where things may be headed.

The Federal Monitor relies on depositions of various county officials. He says:

The difference. . .between what county officials told the public and what county officials stated under oath in depositions with the monitor was, in many cases, stark. Once under oath, in many instances, county officials either abandoned the county executive’s public claims, contradicted each other, disclaimed any knowledge of facts related to those claims, or adopted facially unreasonable interpretations of documents.

If anything, this description highlights the problem with the Federal Monitor’s position. To the extent that various officials (some, as I understand it, Democratic holdovers) view key matters relating to the settlement differently, this shows there is more than one way of perceiving what is going on.

Astorino has a right to view the matter his way and to state his views publicly. It would be Orwellian (and, I suspect, unconstitutional) for a court to require a public official to adopt a particular side of a controversial political question.

Speaking of Orwellian, the Federal Monitor went so far as to attack Astorino’s “tone.” Kurtz says it’s as if you can silence someone’s speech because you don’t like his attitude. I say it’s as if the low regard for free speech that prevails on many college campuses has been imported into our politics.

A campaign as far-reaching and transformative (to use a favorite word of Obama) as regionalism/AFFH is bound to produce strong local opposition. It is likely to create an explosive political issue, much as the forced busing of school children did 45 years ago. It might even inject AFFH into the upcoming presidential election.

The left learned a lesson from the political fallout over busing. Unfortunately, the lesson it learned wasn’t that it should eschew social engineering (to internalize that lesson would be to give up leftism); rather it was that those who speak out against the engineering need to be silenced.

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