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Political Intelligence

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COME AGAIN?

Almost lost amidst the three-ring coverage of Timothy McVeigh’s June 11 execution was a notable quote, buried deep in the front section of the June 12 New York Times. “We should never execute anybody who is mentally retarded,” President Bush told a group of European reporters at the White House. The Europeans must have been confused: wasn’t it the other Bush brother, Jeb, that opposed executing the mentally retarded? Yes, and wasn’t it George W., as governor of Texas, who publicly opposed a proposed ban on executing the mentally retarded? But while the Europeans may have been scratching their heads and perusing their English dictionaries for another, more nuanced, definition of “should never,” death penalty opponents back in Texas probably weren’t too fazed.

After all, there has always been a Reaganesqe strategic confusion to Bush’s stance on the issue. He told reporters on the presidential campaign trail, for example, that Texas did not execute mentally retarded convicts. At a time when the U.S. Supreme Court was reviewing Texas’ policy on the issue (in the John Paul Penry case), Bush seemingly could have used some review of his own. In fact, Texas has executed at least seven mentally retarded persons since 1976, when the death penatly was reinstated. Bush later corrected himself, and went on to defend his opposition to the ban during the campaign. Now, it seems, with the benefit of a little hindsight–and the prospect of an upcoming trip to Europe, where the death penalty is widely opposed and largely outlawed–he’s had a change of heart. Back in Texas, meanwhile, the legislature has passed a ban on the practice this time around. (We’re sure of it.) As we went to press, Governor Rick Perry was still equivocating over whether he would veto the ban or not.

MONEY, MONEY.

The results are in on the latest Texas election cycle, and money wins again. According to an analysis conducted by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, in conjunction with the Austin campaign finance watchdog, Texans for Public Justice, Texas legislative candidates raised $43.2 million in the 2000 election cycle, up 24 percent from the 1998 cycle. The biggest jump was in the legislative races, where members raised an average of 48 percent more than they did last time around. This was fueled in part by the race for Senate District 3 in East Texas, which drew national attention and funding because of its implications for control of the evenly divided Senate in a redistricting year. Republican Todd Staples won that race by collecting a record-breaking (for a Senate race) $3.45 million. Other big earners were Gov. Rick Perry, who pulled in over $4 million, and House Speaker Pete Laney, who collected $1.4 million. Money, along with incumbency, continued to be an excellent predictor of success, with 98 percent of winners out-fundraising their opponents. Incumbents won 94 percent of their races. For more information, visit the Institute’s web site at www.followthemoney.org.

ANNOUNCERAMA.

With the end of the legislative session comes a big sigh of relief, and in the next breath, campaign announcements by the dozen. Normally the announcement parade is a ritual without much drama to it, but this year it was rendered more interesting by the now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t entrance and exit of Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff–who declared he would run to keep the job he now holds, then changed his mind 10 days later. Ratliff, who was elected by his fellow state senators to the lieutenant governorship after former Lite Guv Rick Perry took over for George W. Bush, told reporters that he realized he couldn’t stomach the compromises required of a statewide candidate. (A word of advice: do not reflect for too long on the fact that our political system is much more likely to produce a Perry than a Ratliff. It will make you too sad.)

In particular, Ratliff said that he didn’t like the way his supporters were trying to influence the way he “phrased things.” But he left it all rather vague, letting his actions suggest more than his words. On the same day he announced he wouldn’t be running, he asked the attorney general to determine whether it was right and proper for a Lieutenant Governor who had not been elected by the people to sit on the Legislative Redistricting Board. What’s the connection? According to Texas Weekly, the big compromise asked of Ratliff by the Republicans who finance races was to do their hard-line bidding on the LRB. So Ratliff bowed out of the race and got a nice article written about him in The New York Times instead. (“Slumped in a stiff-backed chair inside his grand office behind the Texas Senate chamber the day after his announcement, Mr. Ratliff, 61, cracked open a Diet Coke and took a slurp.”)

Meanwhile, Democrats were playing Ring Around the Radisson in Austin, as potential candidates and potential candidate backers descended upon the State Democratic Executive Committee meeting. Laredo businessman Tony Sanchez, a probable candidate for Governor, and Lite Guv candidate John Sharp hosted a joint reception at the Radisson Hotel, while Marty “hey-I’m-a-gubernatorial-candidate-too” Akins, a former college football star, hosted a barbecue out at his ranch in Marble Falls, with shuttles departing from the Radisson for those who wished to be marooned there without a car. By announcing that bonafide longtime Texas Democrats Billy Horton, John Hatch, and Bob Mann would be assisting his campaign effort, Akins, who switched parties in 1999, seems to have dispelled the rumor (circulated by Austin Sanchezites) that he is a puppet candidate orchestrated by Team Perry to weaken Sanchez in the primary.

GOOD MORNING, BROWNWOOD.

The year is 2001. So some Brownwood residents were dismayed on June 6 to hear Mikey Wayne, one of the hosts of a conservative talk show on talk/news station KXYL, refer to “fags” in a discussion of gays and the Boy Scouts. Wayne apologized the next day, but meanwhile City Councilman Ed McMillian, a regular caller to the show, telephoned to say he had bet a friend a six-pack that other people would be upset by the remark, and encouraged Wayne to say it again so he could win another six-pack. According to Brownwood deli owner Steve Harris, who testified at the Capitol during the hearings on hate crimes legislation this spring, Brownwood has seen a number of violent crimes and incidences of harassment against gay people in recent years. In light of that history, “fag” just doesn’t fly, he says. “It’s like we’re living in a freaking dark hole.”

Cathy Marie Hail, station manager for KXYL, says that the controversy has been a learning experience for the 6-week-old station. “‘Fag’ was a very harsh terminology,” she says. “I felt it was harsh myself. I’m from Southern California, and in Southern California they refer to themselves as fags…. But Mikey Wayne used an improper term that is not appropriate for this area.”

THANKS BUT NO TANKS.

In response to Texas State Aquarium’s plans to build the first dolphin exhibit in the United States in more than a decade, 15 activists from across the state were taking part in a 6-day water fast as we went to press. The planned $11.5 million complex, scheduled to break ground in Corpus Christi in the fall, would put bottlenose dolphins in a 350,000-gallon outdoor pool for public viewing. It would be TSA’s largest expansion since 1990.

TSA officials insist that the activists have no reason to starve themselves. The dolphins will be “ambassadors for their species” that will educate the public, says Stephen Ordahl, the aquarium’s executive director. TSA will only use “non-releasable” dolphins that were either injured in the wild, or have suffered from a lifetime in marine-oriented theme parks.

“Of course these dolphins are non-releasable,” says Ernest Samudio of Action for Animals, Austin. “Captivity destroys the dolphins’ ability to survive in nature. TSA plans to breed these animals, which will just create more ‘non-releasable’ dolphins.” TSA officials say dolphins in captivity benefit from regular meals and veterinary care, and that they live as long as wild dolphins.

Richard O’Barry, former trainer of the dolphins used in the TV series “Flipper,” issued a statement in response to these claims. In the wild, dolphins swim up to 100 miles a day, but captivity results in stress-related illnesses for the dolphins, according to O’Barry. Some even commit suicide by ramming their heads in the sides of the tanks. Dolphins will not perform as part of the exhibit, but paying visitors will be allowed to hand-feed them from the edge of the outdoor tank. Only 100 yards away, a local business takes customers in the Corpus Christi Bay to watch dolphins hunt and swim freely.

The fast is part of a two-year campaign calling for a refuge and rehabilitation center instead of a tank. Last year, activists used two 20-foot tripods to block the road leading to the aquarium. Last month, nearly 100 demonstrators from around the state gathered to protest the dolphinarium. Local organizers have garnered the support of nearly 20 animal welfare groups around the country, including the Humane Society, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the International Marine Mammal Project. A similar coalition of groups convinced the Virginia Beach City Council to halt the construction of a dolphin exhibition tank earlier this year, and is working to halt plans to put four dolphins in a tank as the main attraction of a new tourist mall in Maui.