Political Intelligence

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A Dutton for Punishment

FAMILY LAW FIASCO Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) has a complicated relationship with his colleagues in the Texas House. Last session, Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) gave Dutton the chairmanship of the Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee. Dutton, although a Democrat, is a member of the Republican team. He earns his place with small favors such as a timely disappearance during the tightly contested voucher vote. But the chairmanship Craddick offered Dutton is a poisoned chalice. The committee is a purgatory. The speaker placed Rep. Toby Goodman (R-Arlington), with whom he has a long antagonism, as vice-chair. He also appointed six other Democrats, several of whom spend much of their time trying to thwart the speaker. In a session seemingly full of family-issue obsessions like gay marriage, none of these “substantive” bills made it to Dutton’s committee. Not that it would have mattered. The committee didn’t meet very much. For some reason, throughout the session it could never quite muster a quorum. It was almost as though the members were staying away intentionally to spite their chairman. (This rolling boycott was confirmed privately by some committee members and denied publicly.) Unlike other Craddick purgatories such as the Agriculture and Livestock Committee, Dutton’s committee handles substantive legal issues, which require a fair amount of legislating. The attorney general’s child support division had a laundry list of small corrections to the family code they needed passing this session. Their request formed the heart of House Bill 1449, which was scheduled to be heard in Dutton’s committee. Rep. Todd Smith (R-Euless) entered this tale of Dutton and HB 1449 in a roundabout but very personal way. Prior to the session, an acquaintance of Smith’s wife told him a story that he knew all too well. Her husband, a wealthy lawyer, had left her and their children. The husband’s child support payments were woefully low. In Texas, the maximum required by law in child support owed by a parent who makes $6,000 or more a month is 20 percent of $6,000 for a single child, 25 percent for two children, and 30 percent for three; or $1,200, $1,500, and $1,800 respectively. It doesn’t matter if the parent earns more than $6,000 a month, that’s the maximum. Despite inflation, that amount has stayed the same for 12 years. Efforts to raise it have faltered in the House where many of the members are wealthy men under child support orders. Smith’s own father, a lawyer, had left him and his sister in the care of their mother when he divorced his wife. His mom raised the two children alone in an apartment while working as a secretary. Smith offered a modest proposal to raise the income ceiling from $6,000 to $7,500. However, he couldn’t get Chairman Dutton to set a hearing for his bill. Dutton himself is under a child support order from 1999 that affects his four young children. But when the full House voted on HB 1449, Dutton agreed to accept Smith’s bill as an amendment. Smith even got the Senate sponsor of the AG’s cleanup bill, Sen. Chris Harris (R-Houston), to go along. Harris made minor changes to the bill on the Senate side. When it came back to the House, Dutton refused to accept Harris’ changes and the bill went to a conference committee comprised of five members from each chamber. What happened next is a matter of some contention. Two sources say that at the last minute, Dutton tried to fold two controversial bills of his that had failed earlier in the session into HB 1449. In the Senate, Harris refused to go along and the bill died. On the penultimate day of the session the Observer found Dutton standing off to the side of the House floor and asked what had happened with HB 1449. He claimed not to know why the legislation had died in the Senate. The Observer then asked whether his own child support order might explain why it has taken so long to raise the child support level. “What I have going on personally doesn’t have a motherfucking thing to do with nothing,” Dutton said. “If that’s what you are after, fuck you.” He then turned and walked into the members’ lounge.

TOMMY, CAN YOU HEAR HER? Carmencita Abad has a question for Tom DeLay. Recently the 45-year-old Philippine-born union organizer and lecturer for the non-profit organization Global Exchange traveled to Houston “to ask Mr. Tom DeLay why someone as powerful as he can ignore and even perpetuate the system of sweatshops.” On May 31, the Greater Houston Partnership organized a little luncheon love-fest for the beleaguered U.S. House Majority leader at the Westin Galleria Hotel. Across the hall, another group of Houston partners—the Harris County AFL-CIO and Houston Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice—were honoring a sweatshop survivor, Carmencita Abad. Although they have never met, Abad and DeLay have a history that goes way back. From January 1993 to January 1999, Abad worked in Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands as a contract laborer for the Sako Corporation, which manufactured clothing for such name brands as GAP, Levi, and Old Navy. After reading an ad in a Philippine newspaper, Abad paid $2,500 up front to a local recruiter, flew to Saipan, and began working 14-hour days, seven days a week. She lived with 14 other women who shared one toilet and one shower in company-provided barracks with no air conditioning and no hot water. She earned $2.15 an hour (later raised to $3.05) to help support her family back in Manila. When she tried to organize a union, “thinking about having betterment in working conditions,” as she explained in a recent telephone interview, Sako fired her. As Observer readers will recall, (see “Stranger Than Paradise,” September 10, 2004), the congressman from Sugar Land once famously described the economics of manufacturing in the U.S. commonwealth as “a perfect Petri dish of capitalism … like my own Galapagos Island.” After a whirlwind junket to the Marianas during the 1997-1998 winter holidays, DeLay also declared that he could find “no evidence” of sweatshop conditions in Saipan and challenged critics to produce one person or one story to prove him wrong. Well, ask and ye shall receive. There she was, so many years later, and just across the hall. CONSUMERS GET HOUSED, AGAIN No one personifies the powerful homebuilding industry in Texas better than Bob Perry. The reclusive Houston housing magnate is the owner of Perry Homes, which constructs so many of the look-alike suburban dwellings sprouting up around the state. He’s also Texas’ most prolific contributor to political campaigns—to the tune of $6.9 million since 2001, almost exclusively to the GOP. So you have to wonder: Is Bob Perry’s corporate attorney the best person to help run the state agency regulating the homebuilding industry? The Texas Senate sure thinks so. Perry’s corporate attorney is John Krugh. In 2003, he helped write the legislation that created the Texas Residential Construction Commission (TRCC). Ideally, the supposedly pro-consumer agency would help settle disputes between builders and homeowners, and would license and regulate the home construction sector. That was pretty much a fantasy. The TRCC is run by and for the politically powerful building industry (see “The Agency That Bob Perry Built,” February 4, 2005). Krugh was appointed one of the agency’s nine commissioners by Gov. Rick Perry (no relation to Bob Perry, at least genetically). In May, all nine commissioners at the TRCC came up for Senate confirmation. Krugh’s nomination, in particular, drew fierce opposition from state Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock). This was how Duncan summed up the agency’s work when the TRCC commissioners came before the Senate Nominations Committee on May 16: “[TRCC] appear[s] to the public to be a regulatory body, when in fact, the people really being regulated are the consumers, not the builders,” Duncan said. This elicited a sharp response from Commissioner Paulo Flores, who insisted that he is, in fact, not in the “pocket of the building industry.” Duncan saved his harshest rhetoric for Krugh. The Lubbock Republican was upset that his wide-ranging TRCC reform bill—which would have made the commission slightly more consumer friendly—never even received a committee hearing this session. Duncan blamed the homebuilding industry and “members of the commission” (read: Krugh) for killing his bill. Krugh acknowledges that he didn’t like 30 percent of Duncan’s legislation, including a section forcing homebuilders to disclose when new homes haven’t been inspected. Duncan shot back at Krugh: “I’m asking you to take off your builder hat, if you can do that. When you’re sitting on this commission … you have to make decisions based on what’s in the best interest of the state of Texas, not just what’s in the best interest of the builders. Now, taking off your builder hat … do you not think it’s a good thing for a consumer to know that their house hasn’t been inspected?” Krugh conceded, “Once you put it that way, I agree with you, yes sir.” Duncan: “But you opposed that provision in the bill?” Krugh: “‘Opposed’ is awfully strong. I had objections to portions of it.” “Seems to be opposed, to me,” Duncan said. When the commissioners’ nominations went before the full Senate on May 26, Duncan, along with Democrats Royce West of Dallas and Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso, spoke forcefully against Krugh’s confirmation. The Senate did take the unusual step of separating Krugh from the other nominees for an individual confirmation vote. Duncan said before the final vote that the Senate needed to “send a message … the Texas Association of Builders is a good organization, but they don’t run the Texas Senate.” Uh, Senator, we beg to differ. The Senate confirmed Krugh by a vote of 24-7—four “no” votes short of blocking his nomination. Krugh’s term runs until 2009.