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The Contrarian

On Thursday morning in a Waco courtroom, a state judge may recommend a new trial for Ed Graf, who has served nearly 25 years of a life sentence for an arson he claims he didn’t commit.

Graf was convicted in 1988 for allegedly starting the fire that killed his two stepsons. The evidence of arson in the case is now widely seen by forensic experts as junk science. I reported on the Graf case in detail in 2009 as part of a series investigating flawed arson cases (read the Observer’s original story here). Three nationally known fire scientists have examined the evidence in the case and concluded the fire at Graf’s house was accidental.

On Jan. 11, fire scientist Doug Carpenter testified at a hearing reexamining the case. Carpenter eviscerated the physical evidence that convicted Graf and offered compelling testimony that the fire was accidental. (You can read the Observer’s full account of the hearing here.) Alex Bell, the McLennan County assistant district attorney assigned to cross-examine Carpenter, struggled to poke any holes in the testimony. In fact, prosecutors aren’t disputing that much of the original arson evidence in the case is problematic.

As one expert told me back in 1999, the arson evidence in the Graf case is as bad, if not worse, than the flawed evidence in the infamous Cameron Todd Willingham case.

Graf’s attorney, Walter Reaves, said he’s optimistic that Judge George Allen will recommend a new trial for Graf at Thursday morning’s hearing.  That recommendation would then go before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which would decide Graf’s fate.

At least a half dozen arson cases, including Graf’s, are being reexamined by the Innocence Project of Texas and Texas Fire Marshal’s office. They will give an update on their arson review project to the Texas Forensic Science Commission on Friday.

You can read the Observer’s four-part series on flawed arson convictions, including our examination of the Graf case, here.

And just like that, Texas is flush with cash again.

Comptroller Susan Combs unveiled her biannual revenue estimate for state government this morning. The revenue estimate isn’t just some abstract forecast; it determines how much money state lawmakers can spend in the two-year budget they will construct over the next five months.

Combs estimates that Texas will have more than $92,6 billion available in 2014 and 2015. Add to that $8.8 billion left in the bank from the last two-year budget. In all, lawmakers will have more than $101 billion to spend on the rest of 2013 and 2014-2015. Then there’s the Rainy Day Fund, which has grown to $11.7 billion. Texas is rolling in cash.

That’s good because the budget, as it stands now, is a mess. In the strictest sense, Texas’ 2012-2013 budget does “balance,” as the state constitution requires. But to make the numbers add up, lawmakers resorted to absurd gimmicks. In 2011, the Legislature faced a $27 billion shortfall—it was pretty dour day two years ago when Combs announced how little money Texas had. The 2011 shortfall was due mostly to the recession—though at least $10 billion of that was of lawmakers’ own doing (more on that in a moment). Gov. Rick Perry refused to let budget writers use the nearly Rainy Day Fund to offset cuts to education and health care. The result was a $5.36 billion cut to public schools—a reduction almost inconceivable, until it actually happened. Texas’ schools are funded so poorly, nearly every school district is suing the state to fix the situation.

On Medicaid, lawmakers couldn’t afford to pay for the program without crippling cuts. So instead of writing a 24-month Medicaid budget, they simply axed the final six months and went with an 18-month Medicaid budget. Presto! Problem solved. Until March 2013, that is, when the state is on the hook for those Medicaid payments. So unless the world ends before March, the 2013 Legislature will have to come up with $4.7 billion in Medicaid funds fewer than 60 days into the session to keep the program going.

That looked like a serious problem…until Combs’ announcement this morning. Improving sales tax receipts and the booming energy sector have resulted in the extra $8.8 billion in state coffers. That will easily cover the $4.7 billion in Medicaid IOUs. In 2011, the Lege gambled that the economy would improve enough to pay for the Medicaid IOUs, and that gamble has apparently paid off. Lawmakers will still need to act quickly to pass the mother of all supplemental spending bills in the first two months of the session, but at least the money is there.

When they write the budget for the next two years—2014 and 2015—lawmakers will again have to contend with a $10 billion structural deficit. That’s the result of the 2006 business tax that legislators knew at the time wouldn’t bring in enough money to cover the state’s obligations. This will be the fourth session in a row that budget writers start their work with the state $10 billion in the red.

Meanwhile, years of lean state budgets have increasingly burdened local governments, and they’re borrowing money at alarming rates. The comptroller recently reported that Texas leads the nation in debt carried by municipal governments. That’s not balancing the budget, that’s deficit spending by another name.

A growing economy has blessed Texas with ample resources for this legislative session. Now might be a good time to undo the deepest cuts from 2011, to finally close the structural deficit and to take some burden off local governments. Lawmakers will have the money—if they choose to spend it.

Koch Comes After the Observer

Koch Industries site calls our story 'dishonest' and 'distorted'.

Our recent cover story on refinery pollution in Corpus Christi apparently touched a nerve over at Koch Industries.

Kochworld” profiles the fenceline communities bordering the Koch and Citgo-owned refineries in Corpus. Melissa del Bosque and Jen Reel spent months interviewing sick residents living in the shadow of refineries spewing large amounts of known carcinogens such as benzene and 1,3-butadiene.

Koch’s response? Attack the messenger.

The company—owned by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, famous for contributing hundreds of millions to conservative causes, including climate change denial—has posted a lengthy response to our story at kochfacts.com headlined “Confronting Dishonest and Distorted Advocacy Journalism by a Soros-Funded Publication.”

Strangely, though Koch’s response employs the words “dishonest,” “distorted,” “misleading” and “flawed,” I couldn’t find a single challenge to any of the reported facts in our story.

Instead, the Koch folks devote five paragraphs to attacking Melissa del Bosque’s reporting techniques and the Observer’s integrity. Reminds me of the old lawyer strategy: When you don’t have a case to make, attack the other side.

Koch officials’ main complaint is that Melissa misled them about the intent of her story. It’s an unfounded assertion. Melissa was pretty frank with Koch officials that she was working on a story about the impact of refinery pollution on the neighborhoods near their facility and asked for the company’s response to specific resident complaints. She also asked the company to detail its positive impacts on the community. We then quoted the Koch responses fairly and accurately at three different points in the story. But you can judge for yourself: Koch has posted large parts of Melissa’s email exchanges with company spokesperson Katie Stavinoha at kochfacts.com.

Koch officials seem most perturbed that we didn’t include information about health studies they sent us. According to the company spokesperson, “Numerous independent health studies have not indicated causation.”

Notice the careful wording there. They don’t claim that these studies have vindicated Koch’s refinery or shown that emissions have no impact on human health. Rather, it’s “have not indicated causation.”

And that’s true. The studies the company cites—a federal investigation and an ongoing TCEQ study—document the amount of carcinogens released into the community and also discuss health problems in the area, including alleged frequent birth defects, but make no statement on whether the pollution has caused these health problems. Causation, as we write in our story, is very difficult to establish, and there’s no definitive link between Koch Industry’s emissions and the health problems of its neighbors. However, other public health studies, including this one from Houston, have shown that people living near refineries are more likely to endure serious health problems, including elevated rates of leukemia—studies that bolster the anecdotal evidence offered by residents.

As for Koch’s other accusations, well, we do receive some funding from the Open Society Foundations of George Soros fame (though we don’t have any Open Society Fellows on staff, as Koch officials allege; no idea where they got that one). While we do lean left, the Observer certainly isn’t partisan or ideological, as any number of Texas Democrats burned by our reporting can tell you. And we don’t engage in “advocacy” journalism. Our story isn’t advocating for anything; we simply produced a thoroughly reported account—so thoroughly, in fact, that even Koch can’t seem to find factual errors in it—about the lives of people living near the refineries. But don’t take my word for it. Go read the story yourself, if you haven’t already.

Meanwhile, Koch has spread its attack to media sites like Poynter’s Media Wire, using Melissa’s headshot in web ads promoting its aggressive response to our reporting. This isn’t unusual. Koch has used similar tactics to go after other media outlets, including the New Yorker and Bloomberg, for reporting on the Koch brothers’ political activities. So we’re in good company.

 

Behind the Headlines: The Lubbock County Judge, Obama and the U.N.

The jail fiasco behind Tom Head's now-infamous remarks.

“He’s going to try to hand over the sovereignty of the United States to the U.N., and what is going to happen when that happens? I’m thinking the worst. Civil unrest, civil disobedience, civil war, maybe. And we’re not just talking a few riots here and demonstrations, we’re talking Lexington, Concord, take up arms and get rid of the guy.

“Now what’s going to happen if we do that, if the public decides to do that? He’s going to send in U.N. troops. I don’t want ‘em in Lubbock County. OK, so I’m going to stand in front of their armored personnel carrier and say ‘you’re not coming in here.’”

—Tom Head, Lubbock county judge, in an August 21 interview with Fox 34 on why the county needs extra public safety measures if Obama is reelected.

 

When I first heard the comments made by Tom Head, the suddenly infamous Lubbock County judge, on the local Fox affiliate, my first thought was of Woody Allen’s line in Annie Hall, after Duane, played by Christopher Walken, explains his fantasies of swerving his car into oncoming traffic.

“All right. Well, I have to go now, Duane, because I’m due back on the planet Earth.”

Just when Missouri had swiped the title for state with the wildest-sounding politician—thanks to Senate candidate Todd Akin and his “legitimate rape” comment—Texas seizes it right back. And we’ll probably hold the title for quite some time. This one looks like a keeper.

Tom Head’s venture into an alternate reality—in which an American president abdicates to the United Nations, citizens rise up in revolt and the United Nations invades anyplace, let alone West Texas—is the looniest damn thing I’ve ever heard a Texas elected official say. The competition is fierce, mind you, but I think Head’s comments barely beat out Debbie Riddle’s “anchor babies” interview. It certainly makes Rick Perry’s secession remark seem plausible by comparison.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vfZL2zACM-4

(By the way, the best part of that video of Head’s remarks is the interviewer who’s awkwardly stuck there nodding like a bobble-head doll and answering Head’s fantasies with “rights” and “uh-huhs” and even one “true.”)

But, as always in politics, there’s a story behind the story. In this case, the backstory may help explain what Head was up to—well, maybe not explain it, but at least provide some context. I’ll add the disclaimer that I have no idea why Head said what he did. I don’t know whether it was a political ploy or whether he actually believes it. I have no insight into what Tom Head actually thinks, and that’s probably a good thing.

But if you look at the backstory, it seems the reelection that should most concern Tom Head isn’t Obama’s, but his own.

Head’s remark was meant to justify a tax increase. Lubbock County commissioners are considering a hike in the property tax to pay for seven new positions and new equipment for the county sheriff’s department, and salary raises for the DA’s staff. It’s your basic tax-and-spend plan.

The extra officers are needed to ensure public safety in Lubbock—at least that’s how county commissioners have been trying to justify the tax hike at a time when every other Republican in America is trying to cut taxes. Head’s comments were just another variation of this, taken to another level.

The sheriff’s department has asked for funding increases in recent years. The reason it needs more money? Mismanagement by Head and other county officials. (For all you out-of-staters: In Texas, the “county judge” is actually an elected administrator, who along with the other county commissioners, oversees county government.)

In 2011, Lubbock County opened a massive, 1,500-bed $100 million county jail. The county didn’t need a jail nearly that big, but Head and other officials hoped to lease out jail space to the federal government or other outside entities that needed to stash prisoners somewhere.

This is a racket that many communities in Texas have tried with diminishing returns. (The criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast has excellent coverage of the issue here and here.) Lubbock County missed the boom in immigrant detention, and now the big expensive jail sits only 70-percent full, according to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.

Meanwhile the staffing costs of operating the massive jail are draining sheriff’s department resources, which has led to call response times going up and some cases going uninvestigated.

As the Avalanche-Journal reported last year, “The almost $100 million county jail dominated county budgets even before voters approved $82 million for its construction in 2002. Call times have languished and cases gone without investigation as spending on the roughly 1,500-inmate facility crowded out new deputies and other officers for the growing county.”

The county instituted property tax increases to help pay for the jail, but it’s still been a disaster that’s straining county resources.

All that eventually comes back to Tom Head, who’s been county judge since 1999.

So let’s recap. Under Head, we have multiple tax increases to compensate for a bloated government project that isn’t functioning as planned. That kind of record could earn Head a Republican primary opponent in a conservative place like Lubbock. He’s up for reelection in 2014.

I don’t know if Head plans to run for office again. But given that he’s pitching another tax increase to make up for the county jail boondoggle, you can begin to understand why he wanted to change the subject and make the tax-increase debate more about Obama’s U.N. invasion or whatever other unlikely catastrophe he could dream up that needed more county law enforcement.

Either way—whether he actually believes what he said or was trying to distract voters from a tax increase caused by the jail fiasco—Head will have a lot to answer for.

The False Narrative of Ted Cruz’s Win

Former solicitor general was simply the better candidate.

By the end, David Dewhurst seemed utterly confounded that he was losing so decisively to a political novice like Ted Cruz.

“You could argue that there’s not that much difference between the two of us, other than I’ve done all the things Mr. Cruz says he wants to do,” Dewhurst told reporters five days before the U.S. Senate runoff, when it was becoming clear that Cruz was the likely winner.

He made a similar comment last night during his concession speech. “This is not the way I envisioned this evening would start,” he told supporters, “especially in light of my conservative record and all the things we’ve accomplished.”

And all that is true. There isn’t much ideological difference between Dewhurst and Cruz. Not really. Cruz did run to Dewhurst’s right by spewing more outlandish statements than the sitting lieutenant governor was willing to, but if you go point-by-point on actual policy, the areas of disagreement are few.

I wrote last night that Cruz’s victory would probably be portrayed as a great tea party win, a victory against the Republican establishment—and sure enough, that’s how the national media is playing it today. But I don’t buy it. I don’t see any larger political trends behind Cruz’s win.

Abby Rapoport—our former colleague—has a terrific piece on the American Prospect site debunking the national media’s conventional wisdom. Cruz’s win, she writes, had more to do with internal Texas politics and rivalries than the false tea party vs. the establishment meme many pundits are peddling. (Ted Cruz, the Harvard-educated corporate attorney, may be many things, but anti-establishment he ain’t).

I would add an even more basic, fundamental reason for Cruz’s victory.

He was simply the better candidate.

I’ve been watching David Dewhurst since 2003 and often wondered to myself how a man this stiff, halting and uncharismatic had risen so high in Texas politics. Whether he’s giving a prepared speech or simply answering questions in a press gaggle, Dewhurst speaks with all the assurance of a 6th grader trying to master Hamlet. His words are usually bereft of passion, and when he tries to sound passionate, it seems forced. Even his unscripted remarks have the cobblestone cadence of a man reading from prepared text, and he punctuates his sentences with a tight smile that, rather than connecting with the audience, seeks approval from it.

Dewhurst seemed aware of this failing. In his concession speech last night, he thanked his staff for “trying to make me a better speaker—tough job.” No kidding.

Dewhurst’s inability to connect with voters came off as insincerity. And that proved a defining flaw in the eyes of tea party voters constantly guarding against insincere politicians and so-called RINOs seeking their support.

Ted Cruz was charismatic. Ted Cruz sounded sincere. Ted Cruz was the better salesman. That’s not to say Cruz doesn’t believe what he says. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. It’s tough to judge a politician with no record. We do know how Dewhurst has acted, and he has a very conservative record: He’s slashed state spending, passed voter ID, passed the sonogram law, and passed a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

But that didn’t matter. How you present yourself and how you come across to voters often matters more in campaigns than the records or the details of policy. Image is paramount. So it was in this runoff.

Dewhurst won his previous elections by beating hapless Texas Democrats in a Republican state; his closest race a 5-point victory over John Sharp in 2002. But in this campaign, Dewhurst’s toughest yet, his political flaws were exposed.

He began the race last year with more money and more name recognition. But Dewhurst squandered those advantages, and when the money and name ID evened out—as in most races—the more disciplined, more charismatic, more (at least seemingly) genuine candidate won. Simple as that.

The Nine Lives of Ciro Rodriguez

Democrat tries another comeback in closely watched congressional race

It’s run-off day in Texas, and the Republican race for U.S. Senate between Ted Cruz and David Dewhurst is getting all the headlines in Texas. But there’s another federal race today that could have a greater impact on the balance of power in Washington.

Many state and national Democrats are closely watching the Democratic runoff in Congressional District 23 between the unsinkable Ciro Rodriguez and the party favorite, state Rep. Pete Gallego. The winner will take on vulnerable GOP incumbent Quico Canseco of San Antonio. Democrats would very much like to win back the district, which stretches from San Antonio into West Texas—a victory that could be essential if they want to recapture the U.S. House.

Much of the party establishment is apparently rooting for Gallego because the state rep from Alpine has raised more money, and many observers think he has a better chance of defeating Canseco in the fall.

But few politicians are as pesky and dogged as Rodriguez. Ciro has represented San Antonio in Congress for two separate stints, and twice lost his seat. He was first defeated in 2004 in a Democratic primary by Henry Cuellar. He lost again to Cuellar in a primary rematch. But he earned a reprieve later that year when federal courts redrew the congressional districts. Ciro filed against, and later defeated, Henry Bonilla in CD 23. That was remarkable comeback No. 1.

In 2010, Rodriguez was unseated yet again by Canseco in an upset win for the Republican. After that kind of loss—Ciro’s third defeat in six years—most politicians would have called it a career.

But Rodriguez doesn’t quit. He surprised some Democrats by finishing ahead of Gallego in the May 29 primary. Despite being outspent and not being the party’s preferred candidate, Rodriguez received 46 percent to Gallego’s 41 percent (another candidate finished a distant third).

Rodriguez benefits from a loyal, motivated base in San Antonio. He pummeled Gallego in Bexar County on primary night, winning 56 percent of the vote—double Gallego’s total. In fact, nearly a fifth of all Rodriguez’s votes came from Bexar County.

While he’s popular in West Texas, Gallego will have to perform better in San Antonio if he’s going to win the runoff tonight. Gaining the endorsement of popular San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro certainly helped, and Gallego had the money to build support in the San Antonio market. He had raised and spent more than $844,000, according to the latest federal filings on July11, nearly three times Rodriguez’s total (Gallego’s biggest donors were beer distributors and trial lawyers).

But Rodriguez has been outspent in previous races and still won. “He confounds some Democrats with how he’s able to do this without spending or raising a lot,” said Jessica Taylor, with the D.C.-based Rothenberg Political Report, told the Dallas Morning News. Ciro also picked up his own big-name endorsement on Tuesday when Bill Clinton announced his last-minute support.

This seat will likely be Texas’ most competitive congressional election this fall. Tonight we’ll find out if the Democratic challenger in November will be many Democrats’ preferred choice or if Rodriguez will continue another improbably comeback.

Editors at the Washington Post plan to tighten their ethics policies after an Observer exposé this week revealed a Post reporter had shared story drafts with sources prior to publication.

On Tuesday, we published a story by staff writer Forrest Wilder reporting that the Post’s Daniel de Vise had shared multiple drafts of a March 14 article about standardized testing at colleges with press officers at the University of Texas. “Everything here is negotiatble,” de Vise emailed UT officials. He later added in another email that he’s “never had a dissatisfied customer in this process. And that includes an article a few months ago about a school with one of the nation’s worst graduation rates.”

Journalists traditionally have been taught that double-checking facts and quotes with sources is good practice but sharing whole story drafts is a bad idea. The fear is that giving access to entire drafts will grant sources power to alter the content and tone of the story. Wilder uncovered evidence that de Vise changed the substance and tone of his story at UT officials’ request.

Our story sparked intense debate among national media critics and on journalism blogs over the ethics of draft sharing. (Read reactions from Politico, Poynter, Romenesko, the Post’s Erik Wemple and Gene Weingarten.) The Florida-based Poynter Institute devoted an online discussion to the issue.

The day after our story appeared, Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli responded by emailing Poynter that the paper would be cracking down on draft sharing. On Thursday, the Post made it official. The senior editors sent a memo to staff that began, “Over the last several days, there have been reports raising compelling questions of journalistic ethics in the practices of allowing sources to set rules on the use of quotations and the sharing of story drafts,” according to Poynter.

The editors detailed changes to the Post Stylebook that include, “Some reporters share sections of stories with sources before publication, to ensure accuracy on technical points or to catch errors. A science writer, for instance, may read to a source a passage, or even much of a story, about a complex subject to make sure that it is accurate. But it is against our policy to share drafts of entire stories with outside sources prior to publication, except with the permission–which will be granted extremely rarely–of the Executive Editor or Managing Editor.”

Kudos to Post editors for reacting so quickly. And kudos to Forrest for a terrific piece of accountability journalism

Update (12:10 a.m.): The Democratic primary race for Congress between Beto O’Rourke and incumbent Silvestre Reyes is bragging late into the night (curse you, Mountain Time Zone). O’Rourke continues to lead—and there have been several unconfirmed reports that O’Rourke will pull it out tonight. But according to the Secretary of State site, O’Rourke, as of this writing, remains just a breath away from a runoff. With 74 percent of the precincts reporting, O’Rourke has 50.2 percent of the vote. Reyes trails with 44.4 percent. If Reyes loses tonight, you have to think the $200,000 in negative ads from Leo Linbeck’s Campaign for Primary Accountability had something to do with it. Reyes told me late last week that the Super PAC was the “Bane of my life.” And with that, good people, I’m calling it a night.

 

Update (11:40 p.m.): Looks like Ciro Rodriguez and Pete Gallego are headed for a runoff in the key Democratic congressional primary in San Antonio. Rodriguez, a former congressman who lost to Quico Canseco in 2010, has been ahead most of the night in CD 23. But in the last hour, he’s dropped below 50 percent and into runoff city. Rodriguez did well in his home base of San Antonio. But Gallego, a state rep from Alpine, made up ground as returns came in from West Texas. With 78 percent of the vote in, Rodriguez still led, but with just 48 percent. Gallego has 38 percent and John Bustamante had 12 percent. The winner of the likely runoff will face Canseco in the general election. That’s a big race nationally. Canseco pulled the upset in 2010 and is vulnerable. It would immensely help the Democrats’ efforts to retain control of the U.S. House if Rodriguez or Gallego can topple Canseco.

 

Update (11:28 p.m.): So Ted Cruz dragged Dewhurst into a runoff for the U.S. Senate seat, and feeling emboldened, broke out the serious smack talk. He splashed the word “Showdown” across the front of his website and challenged Dewhurst to five debates between now and the July 31 runoff. That’s a lot of bravado from a newbie who’s never won a single election. The conventional wisdom is that Dewhurst is in trouble in a runoff, and you have to think Cruz has a good shot. But, stiil, Dewhurst won 48 percent of the vote tonight. Cruz has a big deficit to make up. The big questions will be which candidate wins the support of the people who voted for Tom Leppert, who won 14 percent, and how different will the electorate look in a Texas runoff in July. 

 

Update (10:36 p.m.): Ralph Hall has been in Congress nearly as long as I’ve been alive. I was 3 years old when the now-89-year-old first went to D.C. from northeast Texas. He was a conservative Democrat back then. Now he’s a Republican. But little else has changed. He’s headed back to Congress for 17th term, easily winning his three-candidate GOP primary tonight. With 89 percent of the vote counted, Hall was crusing with nearly 60 percent. Hall easily survived attack ads from Leo Linbeck’s Super PAC that said he’d been in Congress too long.

 

Update (10:00 p.m.): In El Paso, Beto O’Rourke, a former city councilman, is leading Democratic incumbent Silvestre Reyes. The Secretary of State site shows O’Rourke leading 51 percent to 43 percent in early returns. O’Rourke is known for once endorsing legalization of Marijuana to reduce cartel violence. He also was a key supporter of El Paso’s push to provide health benefits to domestic partners of city workers, a major symbolic victory for gay rights. Reyes is famous for once confusing Shia and Sunni facitons in the middle east while being nominated to head the House Intelligence Committee (you just can’t make this stuff up). More recently, he was dogged by allegations of helping his family members land jobs with a federal contractor. A loss by Reyes would be another victory for Leo Linbeck’s anti-incumbent Super PAC, Campaign for Primary Accountability. Reyes would be the fourth congressional incumbent the group helped defeat nationwide. While O’Rourke is ahead—and at least one El Paso media outlet was calling the race for him preematurely—this one still seems too close to call.

 

Update (9:40 p.m.): Some predictable results on the Democratic side. Marc Veasey and Domingo Garcia are headed for a runoff from the 11-candidate field in the new Democratic congressional district in North Texas.

 

Update (9:17 p.m.): Lloyd Doggett continues to confound Republican attempts to toss him from office. The Austin congressman trounced Sylvia Romo tonight in the Democratic primary in his new redrawn district. With 20 percent of the precincts reporting, Doggett was cruising with more than 70 percent of the vote, a tremendous victory. The AP just called the race for him. The interim redistricting maphad placed Doggett in a majority-Latino district that ran to San Antonio, but it didn’t matter. Of the five Anglo Democrats that Tom DeLay tried to unseat back in 2004, Doggett is the lone survivor.

 

Update (7:36 p.m.): Well, scratch Eddie Bernice Johnson’s name off the list of congressional races to watch. The polls have been closed less than 40 minutes, but the Associated Press and Texas Tribune have called the race for Johnson, the 10-term (soon-to-be 11-term) Dallas incumbent. In early returns, she captured 70 percent of the vote, avoiding a runoff despite facing two challengers. Republican Joe Barton may not be far behind. The man they call “Smokey Joe” for his support of industry has 66 percent of the vote in early returns. More updates to follow.

 

Posted earlier: The makeup of Texas’ congressional delegation will be largely decided tonight.

Thanks to gerrymandering and Republican dominance, the general election in November won’t provide that much suspense. Whoever wins the four-candidate race for the GOP nomination will be heavily favored to win Texas’ open U.S. Senate seat in the fall. Most of the U.S. House races are safe seats for one party or the other (with one major exception, which I get to in a moment).

So tonight’s the night to determine, for the most part, who Texas sends to Washington.

I’ll be liveblogging the results of Texas’ Senate race and key U.S. House primaries. The big question in the Senate race tonight is whether Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the presumptive favorite, can avoid a runoff. It’s looked for months like Dewhurst would win the nomination outright. But recent polls show Ted Cruz, a tea party favorite and former solicitor general (read the Observer profile of Cruz here), gaining on Dewhurst. Former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert and ESPN football commentator Craig James are also running. If Dewhurst fails to capture 50 percent of the vote tonight and lands in a July runoff with Cruz, the lite gov may be in trouble. Cruz has boldly predicted that he’d win a runoff.

Many observer believe Texas will have only one competitive U.S. House race this fall—the San Antonio seat held by Republican Francisco “Quico” Canseco, who won this Democratic-leaning district in a 2010 upset. That makes tonight’s Democratic primary an important race to watch. Long-time Democratic state Rep. Pete Gallego of Alpine and former congressman Ciro Rodriguez, who lost to Canseco in 2010, are squaring off to see who will challenge Canseco in the fall.

I’ll also be closely watching incumbents Silvestre Reyes (D-El Paso) and Ralph Hall (R-Rockwall). Both are long-time congressmen—the 89-year-old Hall is the oldest man in Congress—who have credible challengers. And both are targets of the Leo Linbeck III-backed Super PAC called Committee for Primary Accountability. The group has embarked on a well-publicized and well-funded nationwide crusade against congressional incumbents. (Read our story on the Linbeck Super PAC, and the Hall and Reyes races here.)

Finally, there’s a smattering of other interesting congressional races across the state, including (but not limited to):

—Austin Congressman Lloyd Doggett’s attempt to fend off a challenge from Bexar County Tax Assessor Sylvia Romo;

—The 11-candidate race for the newly drawn Democratic seat in Dallas-Fort Worth, headlined by state Rep. Marc Veasey and former state Rep. Domingo Garcia.

—The plight of two long-time, yet controversial members of Congress from North Texas—Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson and Republican Joe Barton—who both face multiple challengers.

Check back for updates throughout the evening.

Texas Gaining National Rep for Executing Innocents

Revelations in Carlos DeLuna case feel eerily familiar.

I was talking to a couple from Philadelphia at a cocktail reception on the East Coast last week. When I said I worked as a journalist in Texas, the husband mentioned that he’d heard the state had executed an innocent man. He asked if I knew about the case.

“Well,” I said, “you’ll have to be more specific.”

Yes, it has come to this: Credible claims of innocence in multiple cases of men executed years ago. It’s becoming a disgrace for the state. What else can we say after the recent disturbing revelations in the case of Carlos DeLuna?

DeLuna was convicted of stabbing to death 24-year-old Wanda Lopez at a Corpus Christi convenience store in 1983. His conviction was based largely on the shaky testimony of a single eyewitness. Police had the eyewitness identify DeLuna at the crime scene while DeLuna was in custody—not ideal policing practice to say the least. No physical evidence linked him to the crime. Yet the state executed DeLuna in 1989. Now it appears they had the wrong man.

In 2003, Columbia University law professor James Liebman and a group of students began an eight-year reinvestigation of DeLuna’s case. Their results were recently published in a book-length Columbia Human Rights Law Review article.

The evidence strongly suggests that not only did Texas execute an innocent man, but that prosecutors and police could have easily discovered that another man named Carlos was the likely perpetrator. Carlos Hernandez, who looked remarkably like Carlos DeLuna, had a record of stabbing people with a buck knife—the same weapon used to kill Wanda Lopez. It was widely rumored in the neighborhood that Hernandez had committed the murder. Corpus police officers even heard those rumors, yet didn’t act on them. DeLuna himself told his attorneys about Hernandez, yet his defense team and the prosecution claimed they couldn’t find such a person. At trial, prosecutors suggested that Carlos Hernandez didn’t exist. But he did. An investigator hired by Liebman tracked down Hernandez in a matter of hours. He had died in prison in 1999.

Texans have sadly grown accustomed to the horrifying tales of wrongful conviction after more than two dozen DNA exonerations in Dallas County and the high-profile cases of Anthony Graves and Michael Morton. But the DeLuna case is one of the most dispiriting yet. Though the details are different, what happened to DeLuna is eerily similar to the infamous Cameron Todd Willingham case and to the Claude Jones case. (If you’re not familiar with the Jones story, which the Observer broke in November 2010, then read this story. DNA tests debunked the key evidence against Jones, who was executed in 2000, though the tests didn’t conclusively establish his actual innocence.) Then there’s the case of Ruben Cantu, a former special ed student executed in 1993 for a crime he almost certainly didn’t commit.

In all these instances, prosecutors, judges and police officers could have easily unearthed major problems with the evidence: the existence of Carlos Hernandez in DeLuna’s case, the debunked arson evidence against Willingham, the DNA test that Jones requested before his execution but wasn’t granted, and the key witness who said police pressured him to implicate Cantu. As with Willingham, Jones and Cantu, officials in the DeLuna case seemingly didn’t care to learn the truth. And an apparently innocent man is dead because of it.

Now Texas is quickly gaining a national reputation as the state that executes innocent people.

The Austin American-Statesman published a wonderful profile of Ronnie Dugger on Sunday. If you haven’t read Brad Buchholz’s the story yet, I highly recommend it.

Ronnie, of course, is the Observer’s founding editor, the man who, back in 1954, started this publication and authored the creed we still follow today, “We will serve no group or party but will hew hard to the truth as we find it and the right as we see it. We are dedicated to the whole truth, to human values above all interests, to the rights of humankind as the foundation of democracy. We will take orders from none but our own conscience, and never will we overlook or misrepresent the truth to serve the interests of the powerful or cater to the ignoble in the human spirit.”

Buchholz writes that Ronnie, who recently returned to Austin after some years in Massachusetts, is the “godfather of progressive journalism in Texas.” That’s inarguable. 

Earlier this month, Ronnie, 81, was honored with a George Polk Career Award for his many years of outstanding journalism. The Polk Awards are among the most prestigious prizes in our field, and the lifetime achievement award is a tremendous recognition of Ronnie’s work.

He received the award at a gala dinner in New York on April 5. I’ve pasted below the speech Ronnie gave that night. True to form, his speech begins with a few words about the early days of the Observer, but then quickly moves on to a discussion about the looming dangers of nuclear weapons. If you know Ronnie, it’s not surprising that on the night he received a prestigious career achievement award, he talked not about himself but about an issue close to his heart. With Ronnie Dugger, what matters most isn’t personal fame or recognition, but making the world a better place.

 

I’m deeply honored to be present among this award’s inspiring special achievers this year.

Texas in 1954 had no big-city daily newspaper in which one could sense freedom of conscience.  A group of us decided to build The Texas Observer into an independent liberal weekly paper that would introduce freedom of conscience into the press of the state.

From the first I sought to practice journalism according to three basic standards, accuracy, fairness instead of “objectivity,” and moral seriousness.  We were a tiny group, running on a shoestring, and we lost money at once and for the next 44 years.  But we found and told a lot of stories that would have been lost, and somehow together we made a go of it.

Once I did a story establishing that the man who was chairman of the Texas state agency regulating the oil companies was also drilling wells for them for his profit.  I gave him his full say, of course.  There was not a ripple in the rest of the press.  A year or so later the Dallas Morning News of that day—it’s a much better newspaper now– reported the same story as if it was new.  In that and other ways doing the Observer was like playing a guitar, but with no sound coming out of it.

In due course our freedom attracted serious reporters and writers, Billy Lee Brammer, Bob Bray, Jim Hightower, Elroy Bode, Willie Morris, Robert Sherrill, Kaye Northcott, Geoff Rips, Molly Ivins—too many more to name.  Then there were supporters making up the deficits with money—lumber heiress Mrs. R.D. Randolph, insurance man Bernard Rapoport, oilman J.R. Parten, banker Walter Hall, and thousands more with $5 to a hundred.  And the people on the business side, two of whom, Sarah Payne and Cliff Olafson, gave their lives for it.

The unattended-to injustices overwhelmed us, as they still do the staff 57 years later.  One day in 1955, a subscriber in East Texas phoned me that he had read a two-inch story in his area daily that somebody had driven through a little country town for blacks only, shooting bullets.  I went out there and got the story.  Bullets slammed into a schoolbus and houses, landing around a woman who was kneeling at her bed saying her nightly prayers, plugging into a café, killing a boy of 16 and injuring two younger girls who had been dancing together.   The publicity led to a trial and to Southern justice for one of the two young white men who had done it, “guilty, five years suspended”; no trial at all for the other one.  But the story was told, and 50 years later is part of the memorialized history of East Texas.

Now, here I am, the old guy you see, but still a reporter trying to find stories.  I’ve been worried since the fifties about Hbombs, and I’ll wonder a little with you now if we’re doing enough, and on a long-enough timeline, on the story about the likelihood of an Hbomb holocaust that would decimate, or end, life on earth.  That possibility seems like an old story, the Cuban missile crisis–Gorbachev and Reagan solved that, didn’t they?—end of the cold war.  But no, it’s not over.  It’s worse.

The present form of the story, like that about North Korea, is the daily drumbeat that Israel well may now bomb Iran, that is, attack it, to get at its nuclear program, and the consequences for the next two or three years. Could we not be overlooking some profound truths and questions concerning this spasmodically worsening situation, the rising danger of an Hbomb holocaust?

Why are nuclear weapons called “weapons of mass destruction” when morally they are weapons of mass murder?

If we put aside the Soviet collapse, the disassembly of grotesquely surplus nukes, and cosmetics, is it not true that there has not yet been any effective nuclear disarmament?

Why is the deterrence doctrine against nuclear attack so numbly accepted?   Deterrence has to mean retaliation.  It posits retaliation with nuclear weapons.  Mass murder for mass murder.

Has deterrence “worked,” as is so commonly said, or did the skin of our teeth work, barely saving us three times from at least tens of millions dead?  An Hbomb explodes in millionths of a second with several times the heat of the core of the sun.  Tens of millions of degrees.  Heat, blast, radiation, no life.  Only one failure of deterrence can be, the experts say, a billion dead.

Unimaginable.

When in the 1960s I asked President Johnson in the White House about nuclear weapons, he flared into anger against me that I had done so and exclaimed, “I’m the one who has to mash the button.”  Richard Garwin, one of the three inventors of the Hbomb, told me in an interview in 1986 that what we’re doing with deterrence is buying time, that nuclear proliferation can’t be stopped, there will be a nuclear war, and a billion people will die.  Why are so many of us so confident this will not happen?  Are we lemmings?  Is this not the most important subject on the world, whether it will happen, or can we prevent it?  More nations keep getting the bomb.

There is still no international control of these weapons that can end life on earth.  Is Gorbachev not right in cautioning us very recently that we need enough effective international governance to keep events from becoming “dangerously unpredictable”?  Are they not already so?  As Robert Jay Lifton said to me this morning, unpredictability is all right, except on nuclear weapons.

Dr. Garwin’s prophecy is coming toward true.

How have nine nations become nine separate owners of the Hbombs that can be sent to mass murder the people of any large city, or a country?  Why are these weapons still, 67 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, none of our business, with possibly apocalyptic facts about them blocked off from us by nine separate systems of military secrecy?

For example, does Israel have five nuclear-armed submarines in the Mediterranean, as indicated in the recent well-sourced book How the End Begins?

Jonathan Schell reports in his book The Seventh Decade that 50 more nations know how to make the Hbombs.  They are secrets no more.  Why, then, are Hbombs still a national, not an international, question?

Why has the actual and prospective nuclear policy and practice of the U.S., Israel, and Britain segued away from the promised disarmament into attacking nations we don’t trust that we believe insist on getting the weapons that we keep on having?

What really is happening to and in our own nuclear arsenal of almost 5,000 Hbombs?  Last fall in Los Alamos a former director of nuclear bomb development at our lab there told me what we should be doing is making our nuclear weapons more usable.  Might that be what we’ve been doing?

President Obama calls for a nuclear-free world, but not likely in our lifetimes, he added.  Why not?  We say other nations mislead us about their nuclear plans.  Are we reporting and analyzing, with the emphasis needed, whether our own government is also guilty of hypocrisy on this?

Why does our country, after 67 years, still not have a “No further first use” policy about our nuclear weapons?

How long has it been since one of us asked the President that question?

And what is the political and ethical responsibility of the American citizen for our Hbombs?

What, if aimed, are American nuclear bombs aimed at?  If exploded on target, how many people will they kill?  If we use them either to attack or retaliate, what would that do to our standing in the history and conscience of humanity?

This subject can turn anyone into a melancholiac, but none of us knows if the Hbomb holocaust will come, and  where there’s uncertainty there’s hope.

Dr. Lifton speaks of “species consciousness,” that we are all one species, all in this together, and one senses that this consciousness is spreading, although slowly, around the world.

And of all the looming subjects of our time this is the most nonpartisan.  Killing all of them and all of us must not  be a political, an ideological, a religious, a nationalistic purpose.  Preventing Hbomb holocaust is the all-partisan story, partisan to all of us and everything else living.

I believe we journalists have a professional and ethical responsibility to penetrate this story more deeply than we have on behalf of our readers and watchers.  A story that hasn’t happened yet is hard to investigate.  Perhaps we should have a new discussion on this among us.  If the holocaust comes we are not likely to be around to report it.

May our thought, our work, and our words do what we can.

Thank you again.