We won’t have Farouk Shami to push around anymore. The father of hair-straightening was plowed under by his gubernatorial opponent, former Houston Mayor Bill White, on March 2. All that money spent, all that hustling around the state saying the most quotable and occasionally admirable things. Then—poof—it’s over.
The $11.7 million Shami spent on his campaign might not have harvested the hoped-for votes, but at least the self-described “richest hairdresser in the world” entertained and enlightened Texans for a few months.
During his debate with White, Farouk (as he preferred to be called) backed a moratorium on the death penalty and said: “We have killed many innocent people.” His opponent, who has a better sense of what it takes to get elected in Texas, did not go down that road.
The hair care tycoon had other progressive—well, let’s call them ideals. On border security, Shami said we should build more bridges between the U.S. and Mexico, tear down the border wall, and create jobs on both sides of the border. He called Mexico our “best neighbor” and declared, “A day without Mexicans is like a day without sunshine.”
The man in red (the color gave him power, he said) didn’t know much about the governor’s job, but he showed some pluck when he promised, “I will guarantee everybody a job.” In fact, he did what he does best and offered a money-back guarantee: If he didn’t create 100,000 jobs in his first two years in office, he would resign and pay the state $10 million.
Shami was uniquely unafraid of offending a fairly large demographic: white people. “You don’t find white people who are willing to work in factories,” he said. “And our history proves lots of time when … the white people come to work in a factory, they either want to be supervisors, or they want to be paid more than the average person.”
An attempt to stir dialogue about white privilege? No matter, it backfired. White people are lazy, Farouk implied, and brown and black people are just so good at being exploited. (Not to mention sunshiny.) Farouk had managed to offend most Texans with his comments.
How many candidates can say that?
Dept. of the Environment
When Texas environmentalists are in the same room with high-level government bureaucrats, it’s usually to plead and prod, not to lavish them with Mardi Gras beads. But for activists who’ve lived through 15 years of Bush and Perry, new regional EPA administrator Al Armendariz is one of them, a no-apologies environmentalist unafraid to take on polluters and their cronies in state government. No surprise, then, that on a mid-February night, several dozen of them feted their new ally at a Mexican restaurant on Austin’s party-hardy Sixth Street.
Longtime activist Tom “Smitty” Smith, who gave Armendariz a green hard hat, described Armendariz as a “dream candidate”: a scientist with no political baggage and a pioneering expert on Dallas-Fort Worth air quality. In spite of organizing and lobbying the EPA, he said, “No way we ever thought he would be appointed”.
Perhaps aware of his supporters’ expectations, Armendariz, a slender, bespectacled El Paso native, asked for patience.
“It took almost 20 years to dig us into this hole, and it’s gonna take us a little while—not 20 years—but it’s going to take us a little while to dig ourselves out,” he said. He promised that details of a reformed state air-permitting program—a top priority for many in Texas—would be revealed soon.
“The way the air programs have been run in the state of Texas for the last 15 years is gonna end, and it’s gonna end really soon,” Armendariz said to the loudest applause of the night.
Armendariz won’t always face such supportive audiences. After his speech, he related a story about a recent visit to El Paso. Armendariz grew up there in the shadow of the Asarco smelter, a source of lead and other hazardous contamination for more than 100 years until the EPA ordered the plant shuttered last year.
“I got accosted by a local group all ticked off about [Asarco],” Armendariz said. “Boy, they just wanted somebody in the federal government to yell at for a few hours, and that was me.”
Meanwhile, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality officials—Rick Perry appointees—have derided Armendariz as an “environmental activist,” a label he doesn’t disown.
“I am an environmentalist,” Armendariz told the Observer. “I’ve been an environmentalist for many years, and it’s something that I’m very proud of.”
Dept. of Déjà Vu
Abolish the State Board of Education?
Texas’ State Board of Education will gather on March 9 for a three-day meeting that’s likely to scare the bejesus out of anyone who favors rational governance.
This time around, the 15 elected board members will consider final changes to the social studies curriculum taught to Texas public school kids. Just as they did with the language arts and science curriculums the past two years, the board’s seven Christian conservatives will likely try to slip their own wing-nut beliefs into the curriculum. Most mainstream academics would find their ideas funny if they weren’t about to end up in millions of textbooks.
Christian conservative board members have previously argued that the social studies curriculum should portray America as a “Christian nation”; that students should learn American exceptionalism; and that students shouldn’t study Thurgood Marshall and Cesar Chavez as significant historical figures. Board member Don McLeroy is expected to re-introduce an amendment requiring students to learn that the civil rights movement created unrealistic expectations of equality.
Given that board meetings have devolved into one culture-war battle after another, in which dentists and insurance salesmen on the board waste hours debating the details of evolution, global warming, geology and world history—subjects about which they have little expertise—should the board even exist?
The duties of the board—developing curriculum, approving textbooks, and overseeing the multibillion dollar Texas school fund—could easily be handled by the Texas Education Agency.
“It could hardly be worse than what we have now,” says Dan Quinn, communications director for the left-leaning Texas Freedom Network. The network supported several bills last legislative session sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats removing power from the board, though none passed. Quinn points out that only 10 states, including Texas, select education boards through partisan elections. Most state education boards are appointed.
Some on the right think that’s a terrible idea. “Democracy is messy,” says Peggy Venable, state director for the conservative group Americans for Prosperity. “Usually those are folks who don’t get their way that are complaining about the process, and what they would look for is maybe appointed boards or boards that wouldn’t be as responsive to the public. We all have a stake in this. We may not always get everything we want, but we can’t chide the process. … I feel like this process has served Texas well.”
The Legislature may address the issue again next year. Until then, we’re stuck with the current state board. Brace yourself.
On the Scene
On a recent Saturday afternoon, more than 700 immigration advocates from across the state packed into a crowded Austin conference hall. They were organizing to pressure Congress to remember the millions of families waiting for immigration reform.
American flags hung from the walls of the Travis County Expo Center room. “Mr. Obama,” one woman wrote on a “Wall of Hope” in careful, cursive letters, “Your decision is our American Dream. Don’t separate more families. Don’t forget your promise.”
Politicians, law-enforcement representatives, reform advocates, and business leaders took their turns, speaking on topics from national security to economic recovery. Ali Noorani, director of the National Immigration Forum in Washington, D.C., exhorted the group to keep applying pressure on Congress. “The Democratic Party has become the party of ‘I can’t,’ and the Republican Party is the party of ‘I won’t,’” he said.
“Immigration is the litmus test for Latino voters,” Noorani said. “Voters are waiting for Obama to make good on his promise.”
Outside the conference center, activists from around the state got a rare chance to mingle. “This is an unprecedented gathering,” said Fernando Garcia, a conference organizer and executive director of the El Paso nonprofit Border Network for Human Rights. “In the past, Texas did not have a unified voice or much of a place in the national discussion about immigration reform.”
Conference-goers agreed on the big things to ask for when Congress takes up the debate over fixing the country’s broken immigration system: a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and more work visas for foreign workers.
“It’s going to be a powerful struggle,” Garcia said. “It’s going to bring up a lot of emotion and a lot of fear, most of it irrational, but reform is going to happen sooner or later.”
—Melissa del Bosque