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Ken Paxton knows what it takes to get elected.
Ken Paxton knows what it takes to get elected.

You might think that in a one-party state like Texas, the cream would rise to the top. The most capable and promising politicians would flock to take positions in the party of power. The resulting diversity of opinions and expertise might incentivize excellence. Of course, in Texas as in other one-party systems, the opposite is the case. During the two decades that Texas Republicans have a complete lock on political offices, the quality of the party’s candidates has waned. Like a royal family in which only cousins marry, the GOP’s blood here is thinning. Take Ken Paxton, the Republican nominee for attorney general and possible future felon.

Paxton, a state senator who has served in the Legislature since 2002, made his political bones as a member of the Christian right. That faction had a particularly good year in the 2014 Republican primary, which is unusual for Texas. But the way Paxton really distinguishes himself is by his history of sleazy and unethical financial dealings as a lawyer in the Metroplex, which came to light through a Texas Tribune story in May. The state’s next top lawyer could very well be facing indictment and possible disbarment.

Paxton’s way of coping with that looming threat? Running away from—and occasionally manhandling—reporters who ask him about it and otherwise staying out of the public eye, even as he asks the public to entrust him with enormous power. And here’s the depressing thing: It hardly hurts his chances of being elected.

First, what did Paxton do? Outside of the Legislature, he made a living as a lawyer in McKinney. One day, a couple he represented named Teri and David Goettsche came looking for a way to manage their money. Paxton referred them to an investment advisory firm named Mowery Capital Management, run by Frederick “Fritz” Mowery, a friend of Paxton’s.

Mowery directed the Goettsches into a series of abysmally bad investments, some connected to a friend of Mowery’s with a disreputable past. Mowery had been on the verge of bankruptcy when Paxton recommended him, and his business partners were in similarly bad shape. When they went under, the Goettsches lost their shirts. After they lost their shirts, they were informed that Paxton had been receiving a 30 percent commission to refer his legal clients to Mowery. Whether legally or ethically, Paxton should have told the Goettsches about the commission, but he didn’t.

What Paxton did—abusing the trust of his clients to funnel money to a friend, then taking what was in effect an undisclosed kickback—was certainly improper and unethical, but it was also illegal. It’s not illegal to take a commission from an investment firm to refer clients, but you must register with the Texas State Securities Board when doing so. Paxton didn’t. He also didn’t disclose the work on the personal financial statements he was required to file as a legislator. In other words, he appeared to be hoping that no one ever found out about it.


And Paxton should have known about the laws he was breaking, because he voted for the bills that established them in the first place. In 2003, he voted for a bill that made what he did a crime—and in 2011, he helped up the punishment for the crime. He helped make what he did a felony. And there’s no doubt he did it, because this spring, in an effort to push the scandal behind him, he admitted in a sworn statement that he violated the Texas Securities Act.

Having acknowledged that he broke the law, Paxton left the door open for the left-leaning advocacy group Texans for Public Justice to file a complaint with the Travis County District Attorney earlier this month. TPJ might be a small group, but the complaint is far from insignificant: TPJ is responsible for the complaint that’s snagged Gov. Perry over charges of undue influence and may ultimately see him indicted, and their efforts also helped precipitate the downfall of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. TPJ’s complaint charges that Paxton “committed one or more criminal felony offenses.” It could take months for the DA’s office to process the complaint—but it’s also likely that Paxton’s opponents will file complaints with the state bar itself.

So Texas’ probable next attorney general faces the threat of indictment, and censure (or worse) from the State Bar of Texas, before his first day on the job. There are many questions still remaining—for one, given the nature of the crime, it may not be an isolated incident. Does Paxton have anything to say about that? Any reassuring words for the public? He has no words at all. He spent the last month of his primary runoff hiding from voters and the press. An appearance on a Christian radio show marked one of his only media appearances: His legal difficulties didn’t come up.

Knowing that his Democratic opponent, a lawyer named Sam Houston, is extremely unlikely to win, he’s adopted roughly the same strategy for the general election. When Nolan Hicks, a reporter with the San Antonio Express-News, tracked down Paxton after a speech to ask him about the incident, Paxton scurried away. His spokesman grabbed Hicks and pulled him back, ensuring that Paxton would face no scrutiny.

We’ve come to expect a certain level of grime from many of our state’s political leaders, but the attorney general’s office is one place where there really ought to be a certain degree of moral fiber—so it’s encouraging that Paxton is bringing the courage and honesty he learned in his legal career to his campaign. Virtually unopposed in his general election, Paxton has no incentive to speak forthrightly to Texans about his troubles. And so he won’t.

We’re a long way from Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and Gov. George W. Bush, just fifteen years ago. Putting people like Paxton in positions of power and authority will arguably hasten the Democratic revival, but what a hell of a ride it’s going to be in between now and then.

Ted Cruz at a wildly popular event in the convention's exhibition hall.
photo by Tim Faust

The Republican leadership in the House suffered an embarrassing setback Thursday after being unable to muster enough votes to pass a $659 million emergency supplemental spending bill for the influx of unaccompanied children from Central America. Now, Republican leaders say they’ll try again Friday to pass the spending bill.

Capitol Hill reporters described the scene at the Capitol as “embarrassing” and “chaotic” as Republican leaders pulled the bill down then met in the basement in a desperate attempt to muster votes before they adjourn for five weeks.

Republican leaders loaded the bill with plenty of red meat to appeal to the most extreme faction of their party. The measure guts a 2008 anti-trafficking law that protects vulnerable Central American children from being immediately deported. Leadership also offered a bill to stop the expansion of the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which defers deportation for young undocumented immigrants, also know as Dreamers. The sentiment of Republicans seems to be “deport ‘em all” but this wasn’t enough to appease the party’s most conservative House Republicans, who had a tea party in Sen. Ted Cruz’s office yesterday. Cruz wants to see DACA completely defunded.

Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called the congressional debacle a “sad day for America” during a press conference Thursday for reporters.

“Instead of choosing immigration reform the House has decided to pass bills that will deport vulnerable children—both those who have recently arrived and those who have lived among us for years. This is a defining moment in the national debate. The real issue here is ‘who we are as Americans?’ As leaders in human rights protections we often instruct other nations to receive refugees or protect human rights of people, yet we see child refugees on our own border and we respond in an inhumane way.”

 

Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth).
Patrick Michels
Sen. Wendy Davis during her 2013 filibuster.

Many times, the rationale for passing a piece of legislation includes hard numbers: This many dollars will buy that many school lunches; expanding this program will prevent that many infections. Other times, the reasons offered are soft and subjective, more a feeling than a data point, like freedom, safety or health. House Bill 2, the anti-abortion omnibus bill passed by the Texas Legislature just over a year ago, fell into the latter category.

The bill, the object of Wendy Davis’ briefly successful filibuster, was meant to “improve and better protect women’s health,” Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told a press conference at the time. He also acknowledged that the bill’s four new restrictions on abortion access would cause the birth of many unintended children “so that families can adopt them and love them and be able to cherish them.” What better reasons for a bill than health, love and cherished babies?

Yet the impact of the law can be summarized with one very hard number: six. That’s how many abortion clinics are expected to survive the last of HB 2’s restrictions, which go into effect on Sept. 1. They require all facilities that perform abortions—even if they only distribute a pill to be taken at home—to have an on-site ambulatory surgical center with wide hallways and rooms of a certain size. Most abortion clinics can’t afford to move or make the structural renovations to meet these standards and will close by Sept. 1, if they haven’t already. In 2011, Texas had 44 clinics that performed abortions. Today it has around 20. Come September: six. 

The bill’s three other restrictions went into effect in November 2013. One was a ban on abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation, except to save the life of the mother or in the case of severe fetal anomalies. Such procedures were already rare—they make up less than 1 percent of abortions—but are often sought by especially vulnerable populations such as rape victims who’ve been in denial about their pregnancies. (The ban has no exception for rape.) Another requirement was that women make three separate clinic trips to receive a medical (pill-based) abortion—two for each dose of the medication and one for a follow-up visit. Combined with anti-abortion legislation passed in 2011, which added a mandatory ultrasound and 24-hour waiting period, getting a medical abortion now takes four office visits. Medical abortion was also limited to pregnancies of seven weeks or less. Finally, doctors performing abortions were required to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic, even though hospital transfers are extremely rare and hospitals have to admit and treat patients regardless of a doctor’s status. 

Whatever the reasoning given for anti-abortion legislation, it certainly has impact. A recent study found that the restrictions passed in 2011 have reduced abortions in Texas by 13 percent, including a dramatic drop in the use of medical abortions. As HB 2 takes full effect, to the benefit of women’s health and safety or not, legal abortion in Texas is likely to continue its decline. 

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Democratic state Sens. Kirk Watson, Wendy Davis, Leticia Van de Putte and Royce West at an abortion- rights rally at the Texas Capitol in July 2013.
Jay Janner/MCT/ZUMAPRESS.com
Democratic state Sens. Kirk Watson, Wendy Davis, Leticia Van de Putte and Royce West at an abortion rights rally at the Texas Capitol in July 2013.

When Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte joined other Democrats in the Texas Senate chamber to stage the filibuster that briefly derailed abortion restrictions last summer, it was a united effort, even if the two played different roles. Davis stood atop the operation, placing her body between the bill and the governor’s signature. Van de Putte stood to the side, in a critical and vocal supporting role.

A year and change later, they’re in the same formation: Davis on top, the ostensible CEO of Democrats’ 2014 push for statewide office, and Van de Putte below, further from the public eye, riling up the believers when she can. But while this division of labor served the two well in the filibuster, it’s not clear if it will work for the general election. There were visible fault lines at June’s Texas Democratic Party convention in Dallas that could threaten party unity. Davis and Van de Putte may want the same thing, but they have very different opponents, very different styles and very different organizations backing them.

Davis’ campaign is banking heavily on independent voters, the kind of people who helped her retain a slightly right-leaning senate district in Fort Worth. The campaign has leaned to the middle on guns, the border and abortion, and hammered Greg Abbott on issues that aren’t overtly ideological—disclosure of chemical stockpiles, equal pay, the idea that he’s an “Austin insider.” The Davis campaign may have lost some left-wing enthusiasm, but it hopes to convince voters who might otherwise be happy with the status quo that Abbott can’t be trusted, while relying on the former Obama staffers at Battleground Texas to help turn out the base.

Van de Putte’s approach is different. In part, that’s because she faces an opponent, Dan Patrick, who seems intent on alienating moderates. While he’s doing that, Van de Putte is more comfortable rousing the Democratic base. Her campaign’s efforts will be directed more toward driving turnout. That’s partly because her campaign will be working with a fraction of the resources that Davis has—it’s cheaper to motivate voters to the polls than to win over halfhearted Republicans.

Those strategies might ordinarily complement each other, except for the unusual way this year’s campaigns are structured. Davis’ operation, which ties together a campaign team of veterans from past statewide efforts with the field work of Battleground Texas, will need to continue to vacuum up millions of dollars to stay competitive with Abbott. And though Battleground plans to support the Democratic ticket generally, that money is mostly benefiting Davis—Battleground is looking for voters for her, specifically. Which means, realistically, that more money for Davis’ operations means less for Van de Putte, whose campaign reported just $1.16 millon on hand in the latest fundraising period.

That’s an unfortunate dynamic, because there’s a strong case to be made that Van de Putte has a more realistic path to victory than Davis does at this point in the campaign. Patrick is a better opponent to run against. Van de Putte has a better shot at driving up the Hispanic vote, Texas Democrats’ white whale. And though both Davis and Van de Putte have improved as campaigners since their launch, Van de Putte has improved immeasurably.

At the convention, she set the crowd on fire—her speech, not Davis’ keynote, was the highlight of the night. 

How each candidate performs this fall could mean quite a bit. If Davis significantly outperforms expectations, it will validate her campaign team and Battleground’s efforts. But if Van de Putte significantly outperforms Davis, it could be seen as a rebuke to those same groups. And if she comes closer to victory but still loses, there will be a lot of consternation that Van de Putte didn’t get the resources she needed. 

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Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Attorney General Greg Abbott

Yesterday, we got a look at the arguments Greg Abbott is deploying at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of upholding Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage. His legal brief follows a decision in February by a federal district court judge in San Antonio that banning same-sex couples from marriage is unconstitutional and “demean[s] their dignity for no legitimate reason.” As state marriage bans crumble in rapid succession around the nation and public support (even in Texas) for marriage equality grows, it’s fascinating to see what arguments the attorney general of the nation’s biggest, boldest red state airs in front of the most conservative appellate court in the country. How do you win a battle when your side is losing the war? The 42-page brief contains many well-worn conservative hobby-horses as well as some startling views of sex and marriage. We’ll go into the details below but for those of you with short attention spans, here are a few highlights:

  • Texas can ban same-sex marriage, Abbott argues, because the state has a legitimate interest in promoting procreation, a biological feature of the pairing of men and women. “Because same-sex relationships do not naturally produce children, recognizing same-sex marriage does not further these goals to the same extent that recognizing opposite-sex marriage does.”
  • Abbott argues that Texas should ban same-sex marriage so outcomes can be studied and compared to states where it’s legal. “[S]ame-sex marriage has not existed long enough to generate reliable data regarding its effects,” the brief states.
  • Gay people still have the freedom to marry… members of the opposite sex. “The plaintiffs are as free to marry an opposite sex spouse as anyone else in the State.”
  • Abbott explicitly rejects the notion that marriage is primarily about love and commitment. “The primary purpose of legal marriage in Texas is to generate positive externalities (and avoid negative externalities) for society by encouraging responsible behavior among naturally procreative couples, not to publicly recognize the love and commitment of two people.”
  • Abbott seems to suggest that legalizing same-sex marriage opens the doors to legitimization of other deviant behaviors. “If courts and litigants can create a constitutional right to same-sex marriage by defining it as part of a more general ‘right to marry,’ then any conduct that has been traditionally prohibited can become a constitutional right simply by redefining it at a higher level of abstraction.”
  • Abbott warns the Fifth Circuit away from judicial activism, positing that moderate federal jurists will have trouble being confirmed in the future if same-sex marriage bans are struck down by federal courts. “Indeed, jurists who envision a modest or restrained role for the judiciary in resolving our nation’s disputes—such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Learned Hand, or Henry Friendly—will likely become un-appointable.”

The crux of Abbott’s case is not all that different from what he put forward in the San Antonio district court. As the San Antonio Express-News put it in a headline yesterday: “Gay marriage ban instituted for kids’ sake.” But that’s not quite precise (which is fine; it’s a headline). If you read the brief closely, it actually has less to do with the well-being of children and child-rearing than it does with procreation. Well, not even procreation per se—more like, the statistical relationship between excluding gay couples from marriage and the increased likelihood of procreation within straight marriage.

The State’s recognition and encouragement of opposite-sex marriages increases the likelihood that naturally procreative couples will produce children, and that they will do so in the context of stable, lasting relationships. By encouraging the formation of opposite-sex marriages, the State seeks not only to encourage procreation but also to minimize the societal costs that can result from procreation outside of stable, lasting marriages. Because same-sex relationships do not naturally produce children, recognizing same-sex marriage does not further these goals to the same extent that recognizing opposite-sex marriage does. That is enough to supply a rational basis for Texas’s marriage laws.

Cleopatra de Leon, Nicole Dimetman, Vic Holmes and Mark Phariss
Patrick Michels
From left, plaintiffs Cleopatra De Leon, Nicole Dimetman, Vic Holmes and Mark Phariss outside San Antonio’s federal courthouse in February.

Put another way: Abbott wants to ban gay couples from getting married to encourage straight couples to have children. Abbott cannot argue that marriage is about child-rearing, or the welfare of children, because gay couples are perfectly willing and able to raise children. (Indeed, gay couples raising kids in Texas face all sorts of legal problems because of Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage; the Abbott brief says not a word about this real-world problem for children and their parents, including Cleopatra de Leon and Nicole Dimetman, the plaintiffs in the case.) So he’s stuck saying that the state’s interest in banning same-sex marriage has to do with procreation. But what about lesbian couples who get pregnant via donor insemination or in vitro fertilization? What about straight married couples who choose not to get pregnant, are infertile or get married late in life? In any case, isn’t marriage now (but not always in the past, of course) more about love than it is purely procreation? Those are some of the objections that District Judge Orlando Garcia raised when he found Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Before delving into a clinical utilitarian argument, the brief gets a little philosophical—generous, even—on these points.

What is marriage? What is its nature? What are its purposes? Why ought the State to recognize it? People genuinely disagree about the answers to these questions, and it is that disagreement—not a desire to discriminate against anyone or to undermine the institution of marriage—that underlies the same-sex marriage debate.

With that thumb-sucking out of the way, Abbott addresses the obvious defects with the “procreation-focused view of marriage” (his phrasing).

[T]he plaintiffs and the district court are wrong to assert that recognizing infertile or childless opposite-sex marriages fails to advance the State’s interest in encouraging stable environments for procreation. By recognizing and encouraging the lifelong commitment between a man and woman—even when they do not produce offspring—the State encourages others who will procreate to enter into the marriage relationship.

Abbott’s “procreation-focused view” is not new. In the middle part of the last decade, Abbott (unsuccessfully) defended Texas’ ban on sex toys. At the Fifth Circuit, he argued that one of the state’s interests in prohibiting dildos and vibrators was “discouraging prurient interests in autonomous sex and the pursuit of sexual gratification unrelated to procreation.” This sexual prudishness (one hears echoes of Pope Paul VI’s Humane Vitae) crops up in other ways in Abbott’s brief yesterday. Even for those with spouses who can’t conceive, Abbott argues, banning gay marriage will keep you from sleeping around and having kids out of wedlock that the rest of us have to pay for.

By encouraging faithfulness and monogamy between a fertile person and an infertile opposite-sex spouse, these marriages—even though infertile—serve to channel both spouses’ sexuality into a committed relationship rather than toward sexual behavior that, for the fertile spouse at least, may result in costs that are ultimately borne by society.

But, still, how does allowing same-sex couples to marry discourage straight couples from getting married and procreating? Abbott argues that it’s enough for a same-sex marriage ban to pass constitutional muster “if one could rationally believe” that it “might be the case” that opposite-sex marriages are better for society than same-sex marriages. For gay couples who want to get married, Abbott hints at a solution: Find an opposite-sex partner.

All persons in Texas—regardless of sexual orientation—are subject to the same definition of marriage, and the plaintiffs are as free to marry an opposite-sex spouse as anyone else in the State.

I have no idea if Texas will prevail at the Fifth Circuit. The cause of marriage equality has done very well so far at the district court level and just yesterday a three-judge panel for the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia struck down that state’s ban. Ditto for the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Fifth Circuit is the most conservative in the nation, so Abbott has that going for him, and he pulled out all the conservative stops in his legal brief, signaling to the justices that they would be on the right side of tradition, history, judicial restraint, the democratic process and, yes, the kiddos. But you do get the sense from reading Abbott’s brief that the “anti” arguments have become enervated and do little more than paint a fast-fading bigotry with a thin coat of highfalutin legalese.

Noted sportsman and Florida Governor Rick Scott with Texas Governor Rick Perry after a fishing trip.
Florida Governor's Office
Noted sportsman and Florida Governor Rick Scott with Texas Governor Rick Perry after a fishing trip.

There’s so much money and patronage sloshing around Texas politics that it can be difficult to keep track. So it’s unsurprising that our great surplus spills over into other states. This time it’s Florida, where the sudden appearance of one of the all-time great Texas icons in an unseemly story of influence-peddling threatens to damage some of Florida’s top politicians in a critical election year, including the state’s increasingly grimy-looking governor, Rick Scott. Also at stake: billions of dollars and the health of one of America’s great natural assets.

For years, at least half a dozen high-ranking Florida Republicans have been accepting lavish trips to the King Ranch from the state’s sugar industry, and failing to report it properly to either their constituents or the state’s ethics authorities, according to an explosive Tampa Bay Times story that dropped last week. Florida’s currently in the middle of a highly contentious election cycle that’s had a lot to do with trust and corruption issues—so if the story develops, the King Ranch could play a starring role in the last couple months of the race.

The King Ranch is one of the largest ranches in the world, and it’s been a central pillar of Texan identity for a century and a half. But these days, the King Ranch is no mere cattle operation—it’s a globe-spanning corporate interest, deriving income from a diverse set of industries. King Ranch, Inc. owns 12,500 acres of sugar cane production as part of its holdings in South Florida. So in the arid brush country near Kingsville, the King Ranch has come to play host to a very different type of livestock—Florida Republicans.

For years, the Sunshine State has been trying to take better care of the Everglades, the sprawling tropical wetlands encompassing a good portion of Florida’s southern tip. The Everglades suffer from toxic runoff from the rest of the state, especially phosphorous pollution. The phosphorous comes primarily from the fertilizer used by industrial agricultural operations, especially the production of sugar cane.

The federal government heavily subsidizes the production of sugar cane, and coddles the industry through trade protections. But the state of Florida, too, subsidizes the industry. In the ’90s, the state passed a “polluter pays” measure which was intended to force groups poisoning the Everglades to pay for clean-up and control efforts—but the state’s Legislature capped the amount sugar-growers could pay at low levels, shifting the burden to other Floridians. Here’s something that conservatives and liberals can hate together: An industry is winning huge amounts of taxpayer money to grow crops in an environmentally destructive manner.

So how do they keep it going? One answer is that the industry lavishes attention on (and donates huge sums to) Florida Republicans to keep them fat and happy. That’s where the King Ranch comes in. The ranch owns land in Florida, so they have a vested interest in this—but its operations are dwarfed by those of the U.S. Sugar Corporation, the largest producer in Florida. U.S. Sugar owns almost 190,000 acres.

In 2011, U.S. Sugar leased 30,000 acres at the King Ranch and built a hunting lodge on the land. Last week, two reporters from the Tampa Bay Times figured out why.

A Times/Herald analysis shows that since late 2011, U.S. Sugar paid more than $95,000 to the Republican Party of Florida for at least 20 weekend trips — destinations unspecified on public documents — within days of more than a dozen Florida politicians registering for Texas hunting licenses.

This was a substantial investment—but no one reported the King Ranch trips to the relevant ethics authorities. U.S. Sugar reported in-kind donations to the party, but never said why or what it constituted. Almost no one wants to talk about it at all, in fact:

Florida GOP officials either said they don’t know about the King Ranch trips or they won’t talk about them. Sugar industry officials declined to comment. The King Ranch trips don’t show up on Scott’s or Putnam’s official schedules, or in any Republican Party of Florida fundraising documents.

Gov. Rick Scott came to Kingsville with a full complement of state police. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam came too. When asked about it, Putnam variously described the jaunt as a “hunting trip” and “campaign event,” then cut short an interview with the Times, after which his staff closed a door in a reporter’s face. So did a number of high-ranking state reps, including former House Speaker Dean Cannon. The reporters realized they could track who came to the ranch by identifying Florida pols with Texas hunting licenses—paid for by U.S. Sugar.

The trips themselves might not have been illegal—some who talked to the Times say the Republican Party of Florida might have found a loophole in the state’s ethics laws. But it’s unclear why each of the Republicans who accepted the hunting trips have been so mum about them if nothing was, in fact, illegal or improper. Even if the pols didn’t violate the letter of ethics law, they certainly violated its spirit. In 1991, a number of Florida legislators were indicted for accepting hunting trips from lobbyists and failing to report them.

Florida sugar growers appear to have prospered considerably from U.S. Sugar’s investment. A Florida legislator named Matt Caldwell wrote a bill in 2013 that extended the cap on the fee the industry had to pay for pollution alleviation to 2026. The bill quickly passed and was signed into law by Scott. In the Miami Herald, a former county commissioner from the area called the bill one of the “most deceptive and egregious action against taxpayers” he’d seen come out of the Florida Legislature. “Soon after,” the Times writes, “Caldwell registered for his first ever Texas hunting license.”

The sugar industry has given Florida Republicans more than $2 million in the 2014 cycle alone, so the money it sent shipping Scott and friends to Texas may seem small fry. But it’s precisely this kind of corruption that most rankles voters. Since Scott won in 2010 on the tea party wave, he’s been getting increasingly unpopular and has been ducking from scandal to scandal—his race race against the also-unpopular Charlie Crist is one of the most high-profile in the country this year. Soon, the King may be able to tack on another milestone to its august history-a starring role in another state’s political attack ads.

Wendy Davis speaking
Patrick Michels
Wendy Davis

In July, Wendy Davis went on a seven-city campaign tour to call attention to Greg Abbott’s “decision to keep explosive chemical locations secret from parents.” In case you weren’t following along, Abbott decided in May to block public access to information about hazardous chemicals stored at certain facilities, including fertilizer plants like the one that exploded in West last year. Quizzed by reporters later, Abbott said citizens need only “drive around” their neighborhoods and ask companies for the information. It was a hilarious and stupid thing to say. One imagines weary moms and dads packing the kids into the car after a long day: “Dinner will have to wait, kids. We’ve got a full tank of gas and a long list of light-industrial facilities to cruise.”

Reporters and political wags had a field day with it. Local TV crews visited industrial sites, cameras in tow, to show the absurdity. Rachel Maddow ran a 22-minute segment on the issue. The Observer sent letters to chemical facilities, asking for a list of chemicals reported on what are called Tier II forms—two of the four fertilizer plants we contacted refused. “Who the hell is Greg Abbott?” one owner asked us.

Davis decided to make it a major issue. Ahead of her tour, she announced a proposal to strengthen the Texas Community Right to Know Act, the primary law requiring businesses to disclose the location and quantity of certain dangerous chemicals.

There’s no doubt that Abbott screwed up. And you can’t fault Davis for seizing on the issue. How could she not? The media jumped all over the story because nothing pisses off the press like being denied access to information. But while Davis’ emphasis on a fairly obscure issue—We Want Our Tier II Reports!—generated headlines and won a few news cycles, it seems unlikely to excite the electorate, much less bring to an end two decades of losses for Texas Democrats.

It’s part of a larger pattern for Davis. Her campaign has been largely reactive, keying off Greg Abbott’s mistakes rather than articulating a vision for Texas. For long stretches, the Davis campaign has talked about little more than the latest outrage from Abbott’s supporters: In May, a Republican woman in Midland paid a California artist to design a grotesque poster depicting Davis as a pregnant “abortion Barbie.” The campaign sent out no fewer than five Buzzfeed-style fundraising emails about that. It’s the kind of minor outrage inducement that an Internet-saturated generation is addicted to, but it wears off fast.

On women’s health and abortion—the issues that launched Davis into the political stratosphere—she’s said little. At an event celebrating the one-year anniversary of her filibuster, Davis barely mentioned a woman’s right to choose. Worse, her campaign attempted to reinvent her filibuster as a fight against “Austin insiders.”

It is understandable that Davis hasn’t made abortion—or even women’s health—a cornerstone of her campaign. This is Texas, after all, and it’s wise for a Democrat to run on issues that are more unifying. But why not a seven-city tour on, say, Medicaid expansion? Expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act will not only save lives and put more than a million Texans on health insurance, it’s a terrific deal for the state. The feds will pay 90 percent of the cost. By rejecting the expansion, Rick Perry and Abbott are leaving $100 billion on the table, according to recent estimates. 

It’s good politics too—even if Republicans start hollering about “Obamacare.” (They will anyway.) Democratic governors in some red states, like Kentucky, have made Obamacare a winning issue. In Arkansas, Gov. Mike Beebe—one of the most popular governors in the nation—got a Republican-controlled Legislature to sign off on a Medicaid model that uses federal dollars to help people buy private insurance. That’s the same basic idea touted by some Republicans in the Texas Legislature. Polls, including one by Rick Perry’s own pollster, also show that a solid majority of Texans favors expanding Medicaid.

Davis, when asked recently by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, was unequivocal in her support (“I absolutely do”) for Medicaid expansion. And in mid-June, she unveiled her economic development plan, which included Medicaid expansion. But otherwise she’s rarely discussed health care so far. The word “Medicaid” doesn’t appear once on her campaign site. 

Democratic strategists I spoke with cautioned that it’s still early in the campaign; that the Davis grassroots effort feels and sounds different than the “messaging” in the media; and that her team has been frustrated by the media’s indifference to her policy ideas.

As Paul Burka of Texas Monthly has pointed out, if she made it a central issue she’d have the doctors on her side, the hospitals, and much of the business community, not to mention local governments and—most important—millions of Texans who would see the benefits of healthier families. 

Maybe I’m naive, but I like to think that this is the kind of alternative that Texans fed up with the tea party, and with “Austin insiders,” are craving. 

Forget about the policy merits for a moment. Davis needs to find a way to be a hero again. Right now, she’s a focus-grouped, poll-tested, highly mediated, stage-managed candidate running a somewhat moribund campaign. I’m aware that it’s almost cliche for a journalist to call for a candidate to “be herself” or “take off the gloves” but Davis is no ordinary candidate. To many, she’s Wendy, the inspiring and brave woman who put her body on the line and stood up to a bunch of bullies. Where did that Wendy go?

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Latino-Coalition-for-Educational-Equity
Patrick Michels
The Latino Coalition for Educational Equity's press conference outside the Texas Senate in February 2013. Patricia Lopez, who led research on the new education survey, is third from left.

In February 2013, while Texas lawmakers kicked around major changes to public eduction, a handful of Latino activists and educators banded together outside the Senate chamber to send a message that they were getting left out. After weeks of committee hearings dominated by business groups and mostly white parents and students, this super-group of advocates calling itself the Latino Coalition for Educational Equality united to say they’d had enough.

New graduation requirements were in the works, threatening a return to Texas’ old system of “tracking” Hispanic students into vocational programs instead of college prep. In budget talks, lawmakers were considering how much money to budget for schools. And even when they considered the fast-growing proportion of Hispanic students, few legislators consulted with the state’s wealth of Latino education experts. Hispanic students appeared in talking points mostly as test scores or arguments for more funding. But by the close of the session, the Latino coalition’s pleas did little to change the conversation.

So, just five months from another Lege session, Hispanic groups want to change that dynamic for good. During the 2015 session Hispanic students will make up a clear majority of Texas’ schoolchildren, and Latino advocates say it’s time their voices were heard.

To that end, the band got back together after the session ended to develop a unified agenda for 2015. Led by the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and the Senate Hispanic Caucus, a coalition of Latino groups met for a summit last October, split their effort into areas like health care, immigration and civic engagement, and gathered ideas from a broad selection of Latino advocates around the state. Organizers say the education study alone—with 70 groups and interviews with 120 bilingual teachers—is the most far-reaching survey of Latino and Latina groups in memory.

You can read the full report here—there’s a list of participating groups on page 7.

“The Latino community, we’re always talked about like we don’t vote, we don’t show up, and we constantly have to push back on dominant stereotypes,” says Patricia Lopez, the former University of Texas researcher who ran the education survey. “We have to be out there. These organizations are doing a lot of work that’s off the grid, not in the spotlight.”

The survey results include a mix of big needs, like improving access to college, and small-bore policy ideas—like new programs to unite schools with their neighborhoods—that the groups will start shopping around the Capitol soon. They’re counting on Hispanic caucuses in the House and Senate, led by Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) and Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso), to push these issues when the Lege returns.

School finance is, by far, the biggest priority the groups identified, and the report summary echoes a lot of what the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) has argued in its piece of the everlasting school finance lawsuit: that Texas’ school funding is based on what lawmakers want to spend, not what a quality education actually costs, and that cuts in school funding have meant scaling back bilingual education programs.

Interestingly, the teachers surveyed here are all bilingual teachers—either working in school districts or enrolled in teacher prep programs—and they were far more concerned with teacher quality, school accountability and access to books than school funding. Lopez says that’s a reflection of their more direct interaction with classrooms. “School finance obviously is intertwined in every issue,” she says. “You can’t advocate for more materials and more appropriate materials or resources without it being a school finance issue.”

Teachers and advocates also agreed, according to the report, that “increasing the number of well-prepared Latina/o teachers” should be a top priority—a finding that squares with research suggesting that Hispanic teachers tend to stay in high-needs schools longer, bringing stability to classrooms as well as a cultural relevancy that helps students relate to lessons.

It’s also worth noting what’s not listed among the top priorities: charter school chains, vouchers and full-time online schools, which the report dismisses as “privatization experiment efforts” that siphon money away from the schools most kids attend. In other words, if you ask Latino teachers and activists—and not Sen. Dan Patrick—there are plenty of “civil rights issues of our time” more pressing than school choice.

It’s not that teachers and advocates were opposed to charter schools or any particular group of reformers, Lopez says, just those “who come in who have no historical participation in a community, and see it as a potential market.”

WTF Friday: Who Are You?

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Now that the brave men and women of the Texas Military Forces are on their way to the border (or will be in 30 to 45 days, time, weather and logistics permitting) we can start to address the core causes of the problem. Why are migrants coming here? Who are they? Don’t they know that this is a broken, bankrupt nation sweltering under the unrestrained tyranny of a Kenyan potentate?

1) On this, we find ourselves of two minds. One faction argues that the border crisis occurred because it was planned—the dark handiwork of Barack “Hussein” Obama and the machinations of some combination of the browner nations. There’s Mexico, for example, and… the other ones. It’s the Cloward-Piven strategy at work, you see, the culmination of years of cultural Marxism.

But this group is comprised of the fringiest of the fringe, the crankiest of the cranks—it would be unfair to tag mainstream conservatives with the belief that Obama has been personally orchestrating the arrival of child migrants. We’re talking about groups like … the Texas Public Policy Foundation? Huh.

2) Others have a novel theory, based in science. In this accounting, the United States is a giant magnet, and Central American teenagers, high in iron and other ferrous metals, are pulled here by freedom’s inexorable call. So dissuading them should, in theory, be simple: Stop the Magnet. Eliminate the things that make the United States an appealing and hospitable place to oppressed peoples. In Texas, that means making education more expensive and life more dangerous for undocumented migrants by eliminating in-state tuition and “sanctuary cities.” Stop the Magnet has a new champion: His name is state Rep. Steve Toth, and he’s running for a Texas Senate seat in The Woodlands.

Steve Toth has garnered the respect from the activists focused on the immigration issue. He has demonstrated by his deeds in investigating the locations and conditions of the sites where the Office of Refugee and Resettlement [...] are bringing in poverty-stricken and in some cases, diseased or criminal alien minors.

This is a very American sentiment, as memorialized in the often-forgotten second stanza to Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” inscribed for posterity at the foot of the unfortunately Gallic Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Now stop the magnet, stop it now.
Send them back, and send no more
All these folk should go back, wow.
They’re sick and smell, and hell, they’re poor.

If he wins next week, Toth will become Stop the Magnet’s man in what’s sure to be a pretty anti-immigrant state senate. But is Stop the Magnet going far enough? Perhaps the only way to ensure migrants stop coming to Texas is to make the state uninhabitable for everyone. Our bounty of breathable air and drinkable water is a magnet: So is our transportation network and public school system. I have little doubt that the 84th Legislature will tackle these problems head-on.

3) So now we know why they’re coming: But who are they? Yes, they’re OTM UACs, but who are they inside? A raging debate is taking place on this question up and down the state. State Rep. David Simpson, a steadfast conservative who’s nonetheless a very earnest and heartfelt Christian, went down to the border and thought seriously on this question. He came back to Longview and spoke honestly to his constituents.

Yes, we should tighten the border, he said. But these are also kids, some of whom have experienced horrors that we cannot possibly imagine. And we should be kind, and open to them and their needs. Some have been grievously abused. Many feared for their lives, and many do still. Basically, he bet that he could talk to his constituents like adults that could hold two competing thoughts in their heads at once.

“I believe your constituents should come first when you talk about people who are impacted,” Terri Hill of Longview said during a town hall session that followed a slide show of Simpson’s recent tour of the southern border. “You are to represent us, and we have children. These (immigrants) are people that are coming in with leprosy, tuberculosis, polio.”

[...]

“I’ve got four kids and a fifth one on the way,” Ben Denson of Gilmer told Simpson from a forum microphone. “These (Central American) kids have scabies and influenza, viral pneumonia, leprosy. These kids are going to be part of the school system. They are bleeding Texas (Democrat) blue.”

Another fellow had a more direct diagnosis of the illness at hand:

“These people are not coming in with a good, Christian heart.”

WWJDTAAPEOMWAPHAAPIB? (What would Jesus do to alleviate a prolonged exodus of minors, who are probable heathens, along a porous international border?)

4) Are they Christians? Well, I suppose it depends on what kind of Christians. Many of them, worshippers of the Pope in Rome, are not the good kind of Christian. Mary and Dale Huls, two Houston-area tea party activists with the First Baptist Church of Seabrook, have been going down to the Rio Grande Valley lately to lend a hand. Their exploits are lovingly chronicled by Breitbart Texas’ Bob Price, author of such lovely stories as “ANIMALS FEAST ON BODY OF DEAD MIGRANT.”

There is a long and storied tradition of white conservatives from around Texas going to the Valley for the first time and losing their shit, so in a way it’s a small positive step that the Huls have complimentary things to say, even if they’re Baptists doing missionary work in a Catholic community that they don’t seem to quite understand. (They’re also part of a border militia, so, cool.)

In her work with the FBC mission, Huls observed the part of Falfurrias that doesn’t make the news. “There is a face of Falfurrias that is seldom seen,” she said. “It’s the face of a people who are committed Americans, complete with USA and Texas flags in their yards, who are being over-looked.”

Hispanic people living near the border who are committed Americans? Hold on, let me put my monocle back into place, which I dropped when my face went wide with shock. I hope more information, coming shortly, won’t make me spit out this water in my mouth in a comically exaggerated fashion.

“These folks have totally bought into the American dream,” Huls continued. “They name their kids Taylor, Gilbert, Joslyn and Kaitlyn rather than Juan, Manuel or Maria. They keep up their homes in the projects with a quiet dignity and encourage their children to attend our mission clubs.”

Ew.

5) This weekend, as we drink heavily, let us take time to salve the wounds that arise from our own misconception of each other. Namaste, y’all.

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