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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Panetta's short career in military intelligence; Scott Kennedy and Darryl Darling team up on Gaza ceasefire petition and a new report kids California poor grades on caring for kids.

The Intel on Panetta

In the days since President-elect Obama nominated him to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, the chattering classes have not been able to shut up about the fact that Leon Panetta has no experience in intelligence. Could have fooled San Jose attorney Bill Gates, who sat at a desk across from Panetta for two years in the 1960s at Fort Ord. Gates and Panetta worked together in a military intelligence unit in 1965 and 1966, before Panetta launched a career in politics by joining the staff of U.S. Senate Minority Whip Thomas Kuchel.

Gates doesn't elaborate on what he and Panetta did at the windswept, now-decommissioned Army base, other than to say it was "top secret" and involved infantry troop numbers in Vietnam. "We were a training base--we had to put out X number of soldiers every cycle, so it was important that we knew what was going on," he says. "It had to do with keeping the commanding general posted regarding how the war was building up and, interpreting from that, how many more men and draftees they would need to put through training."

Gates speculates that Panetta joined the military intelligence unit not because of a fascination with all things spooky but because it spelled a briefer commission for the newly minted Santa Clara University Law School grad than a stint as a military lawyer would have.

As for whether the gig at Fort Ord was any kind of preparation for running a byzantine agency dogged by scandal and allegations of torture, Gates says nah. But he has utter faith in his old pal nevertheless, mostly because of his, well, intelligence.

"Leon Panetta was picked for that job because of the same reason lots of people were picked for their jobs by the president-elect, and that's that he's a very, very smart man," Gates says. "He's brilliant. He's a genius. He can run large agencies and he showed that by running the office of the president of the United States."

Peaceniks Take Aim at Gaza

At presstime it was 12 days since Israeli helicopters and fighter jets began firing missiles at Hamas targets in the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip. In those days, much as in the long history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the world has weighed in. Fingers have been pointed, most recently by the Bush administration, at the Palestinian militant group for starting the current round of fighting by firing rockets into Israeli cities in November and December. Critics have faulted Israel for responding to the attacks with disproportionate force that has left 550 Palestinians dead, 200 of them civilians--compared with only five deaths on the Israeli side as of Monday, according to the United Nations.

It's the blame that former Mayor Scott Kennedy and local Democratic Party chairman Darrell Darling were hoping to eliminate when they put together a letter to Rep. Sam Farr, signed by more than 200 Santa Cruz County residents, urging the congressman to abandon the blame game and concentrate strictly on supporting an immediate ceasefire.

"Congress repeatedly has taken a very imbalanced view [of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] particularly as the global community is recognizing that imbalance," says Darling. "Congress should not be focusing on blame or preconditions, or giving any excuse. Forget blame. Stop the fighting now. That's the only issue."

Kennedy and Darling said they waited until this week to send the letter because Congress was on its winter recess until Monday.

In step with the letter, Farr released a statement Tuesday calling for an immediate ceasefire. He also criticized the Bush administration's "policy of disengagement," citing the need for a balanced response sensitive to both parties.

"While no one disputes Israel's right to protect its people, escalating violence only feeds the death and despair of the region," reads the statement posted on Farr's website. "A ceasefire is in the best interest of the United States and both parties involved and must be the immediate goal of the global community."

Farr has attempted to steer a moderate course. In 2006 he condemned Palestinian attacks against Israel but also called for a resolution that engages both sides of the fight and places the responsibility of brokering peace largely on the shoulders of the United States.

For Kennedy, there's nothing to lose and everything to gain from Washington's call for a truce. "The only thing that can result from the current war is ceasefire. Israel is not going to eliminate the Palestinians in Gaza. The Palestinians are not going to eliminate Israel. The only difference in how long we wait is the number of people that will end up dead."

What About the Children, Indeed

Children Now, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group, has released its California Report '09, a "report card" on the state's ability to care for and educate its youngsters, and let's just say we didn't exactly earn a gold star. With D+'s in health care and safety issues, Children Now is hoping that the report will remind lawmakers to invest what little they can in our kids.

"One of the things we are trying to get across in this report is that even though times are difficult, we really need to focus on children and invest in children," says Jessica Mindnich, a senior policy associate for Children Now. "It makes sense for our future economic viability."

California's health care coverage grade plummeted from a C in the '08 report to a D+, due to failure to pass broad health-care reform for children in the 2008-09 budget and the addition of semiannual reporting for Medi-Cal eligibility, a move that, according Children Now president Ted Lempert, will directly lead to more children dropping from the rolls. "It was really frustrating that after years of progress, we really went backwards," he says. "If that's not changed it will lead to another quarter of a million kids losing coverage."

The report also found that one in five high school students dropped out in 2007, and fewer than half of 3- and 4-year-olds attend preschool. Emergency room visits for kids with asthma also saw a 12 percent shot upward, and got California another D+ grade linked to the failure to pass anti-air pollution bills.

Most of all, says Lempert, the governor and lawmakers need to see this report as a stern reminder when looking for places to cut resources. "Bottom line, for kids to have a great education and have good health care, that costs money," he says. "You can't be cutting billions of dollars for kids. Then we're really making a mockery of the notion of equal opportunity."

Children Now's most recent assessment on a county level showed Santa Cruz ranked second out of 58 counties for number of kids insured--an impressive 98 percent and ninth in number of tots enrolled in preschool, but a dismal 33rd in English literacy. "This data is so important, we use it every year to help set our own goals," says Susan True, executive director of First 5 Santa Cruz County. She says information from past years' reports have directly influenced money committed towards the Healthy Kids insurance program, early literacy programs and children's dental insurance.

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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