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The Contrarian

In an Austin courtroom on Thursday afternoon, six years after he was executed, Cameron Todd Willingham finally received the defense he deserved.

It was technically called a “court of inquiry,” a rarely used legal hearing in which the Willingham family and the Innocence Project asked Austin Judge Charles Baird to determine if Texas wrongly convicted Willingham of starting the 1991 fire that killed his three children.

But the three-hour hearing on Thursday felt very much like a re-trial. At Willingham’s actual trial in 1992, his two court-appointed defense attorneys called just one witness. They didn’t bother to put a forensic expert on the witness stand to counter the prosecution’s arson evidence. And they failed to undermine the testimony of  jail-house snitch Johnny Webb, a man with 13 convictions, who claimed Willingham confessed to starting the fire.

Yesterday, however, some supremely talented attorneys dressed in supremely expensive suits eviscerated the evidence against Willingham. They swiftly discredited Webb by displaying his own hand-written document recanting his testimony against Willingham and claiming prosecutors forced him to lie in court in exchange for a reduced sentence. Then the lawyers put on the witness stand two of the nation’s top fire scientists, who went point-by-point and debunked every piece of arson evidence in the case.

Anyone who might counter this testimony—the governor’s office, the state fire marshal’s office and the Navarro County DA’s office, which convicted Willingham originally—declined Baird’s invitation to take part in the hearing. So the Willingham side had the court to itself. After three hours of unchallenged evidence, former Texas Gov. Mark White, one of four attorneys who spoke, concluded the hearing. “Every shred of evidence points to his innocence,” he told the court. Then he took on the larger issue of the death penalty. “ It is time for a change in the way we carry out sentences that have no reversibility.”

Baird said he would study the case and make a ruling soon. But it’s not clear he’ll get that chance. As the hearing was ending, the state’s Third Court of Appeals issued an order halting the inquiry. (You can read more details about that here.) The Navarro County DA, appeared briefly before Baird and made an unsuccessful motion to recuse the judge. He then asked the appeals court to stop the hearing.

The appeals’ court action added one more bit of drama to a day that included White’s remarks about the death penalty and accusations that Texas executed an innocent man and that Gov. Rick Perry let it happen.

Those topics have dominated the news coverage of the Willingham case for years—and will likely continue to dominate it.

But, on this afternoon, the arson forensics finally came to the forefront.

As I’ve written before in this space, the forensic science is what matters most here. There are roughly 750 people in Texas prisons on arson convictions. Hundreds of them are likely innocent. (For more details on that math, read this story.)

Last year, I chronicled the cases of three men—Curtis Severns, Ed Graf and Alfredo Guardiola—who were likely wrongly convicted of arson. All three remain in prison at this very moment.

Reformers have long hoped the high-profile Willingham case would bring more attention to the issue of flawed arson evidence and perhaps lead to an official inquiry that would exonerate people like Severns, Graf and Guardiola, and many others.

Instead the Willingham case has become saturated and bogged down in the politics of the death penalty and the governor’s race. The details of the fire science are often glossed over. (Even the Forensic Science Commission, which is conducting its own separate inquiry of the Willingham case, hasn’t held a detailed discussion, at least in public, of the flawed arson evidence—though that may yet happen at the commission’s meeting in November.)

But on Thursday a courtroom full of spectators, reporters, cameramen and a judge sat rapt while John Lentini and Gerald Hurst, two nationally renowned fire experts, tore apart the forensic evidence against Willingham and so many others.

Under questioning from Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, Lentini testified for more than an hour. He delivered a detailed, occasionally sardonic power-point presentation that undermined every one of the 20 supposed indicators of arson that Manuel Vasquez—who handled the case for the fire marshal’s office in 1991 and has since passed away—used to convict Willingham.

Lentini began simply: Fires within enclosed structures behave differently than you think. A fire in your house will do wildly different things than a campfire or a wild fire. Sure, heat rises, but if the fire is inside a structure, the heat will become trapped by the ceiling, forming a layer of gas and smoke at the top of a room. That heat will eventually descend and warm the entire room until that room explodes in flames. This is a stage of fire known as “flashover.”

Lentini showed a portion of this video—in which a smoldering cigarette dropped in the cushions of a recliner engulfs the room in flames in about three minutes.

The key point is this: Flashover can make an accidental fire look very much like an arson—by leaving clues that investigators once thought were dead giveaways of an intentionally set blaze.

For instance: Fire investigators once thought that fire burned only upward. (“All fire goes up,” Vasquez told the Willingham jury back in 1992.) So if the floor was burned, then the fire must have started on the floor. And the burn patterns on the floor and under tables likely showed where an arsonist had poured an accelerant. These were called “pour patterns.”

When Vasquez found several pour patterns at the scene, he theorized Willingham had poured kerosene in the kids’ bedroom, through the house and out the front door. Chemical testing found no traces of an accelerant inside the house. But Vasquez was undeterred. He believed so blindly in the burn pattern evidence, the absence of an accelerant didn’t matter. It must have been arson because that’s what the “pour patterns” showed.  

Lentini scoffed at that. We now know those burn patterns are simply the result of a fire going to flashover. Those burn patterns tell you nothing about how the fire started.  “I could tell a jury that this is a pour pattern,” Lentini said, while displaying a photo of the burned floor from the Willingham house, “and they’ll believe me, but that’s not true.”

Lentini similarly dismantled Vasquez’s other evidence:

Multiple points of origin. This is the “holy grail” of fire investigation, because accidental fires almost never start in more than one place. So, if you can show a fire started at multiple points, then you normally have arson. Vasquez tried this in the Willingham case. That was a serious error, Lentini said, even back in the dark ages of 1991. Multiple points of origin typically means several starting points, unconnected to each other in multiple rooms. If you have one starting point in the kitchen and another starting point in the bedroom upstairs—and there’s no fire trail connecting them—that’s probably arson. But in the Willingham case, the entire house was burned—all the damage was connected. “Multiple origins have to be isolated,” Lentini said. “In the Willingham fire, all the damage was contiguous.” There was no way a competent investigator, even in 1991, could find multiple, independent points of origin at the Willingham scene.

V-patterns. These are v-shaped burn marks that investigators once thought pointed to where a fire started. Because investigators like Vasquez believed wrongly that fire always burns up, a v-pattern near the floor must “point” to where an arsonist started a blaze on the floor. Vasquez testified that he found a v-pattern near the door, leading him to conclude that Willingham started a point of origin there. That conclusion was false. We now know that v-patterns in post-flashover fires occur when the fire sucks in air. V-patterns often are found near ventilation points like windows and doors. In the Willingham case, the v-pattern near the door simply shows where the fire breathed in air to sustain itself. It isn’t an indicator of arson.

Melted aluminum threshold. Vasquez found that the aluminum threshold on the front door to Willingham’s house had melted. It was once thought that melted metal (and warped bed springs and elaborate cracks in windows) was a sign of arson because it showed that a fire burned especially hot. Investigators once thought arson fires burned hotter than accidental fires—because accelerants burned hotter. Numerous experiments have shown that’s not true. Accidental fires and gasoline fires can reach the same temperature. Yet Vasquez testified that only a fire fed by an accelerant could get hot enough to melt the aluminum threshold. He theorized Willingham poured kerosene across the doorway so no one could escape. That is all patently false. The melting point of aluminum is 1,200 degrees, a temperature that any accidental fire could attain, Lentini said. The melted threshold—and the warped bed springs and the cracked windows—provide no clues to how the blaze started. The fact that they’re melted simply shows they’d been in a fire. Nothing more, nothing less.

I’ll stop there. Lentini had many other examples, but you no doubt get the picture. So, how did the Willingham fire start? Dr. Hurst—the Cambridge-educated chemist and Austin-based fire expert who took the stand last—theorized that faulty wiring in the childrens’ bedroom was a possible cause of an accidental fire. But he concedes it’s impossible at this point to know with any certainty how the fire started. But one thing is certai: None of the nine fire scientists who have studied the case since 2004 have found a single piece of credible evidence of arson.

“The bottom line is all the evidence is consistent with an accidental fire.,” Lentini said.

I found the scientific presentation fascinating. We’ll find out Friday if some of those details find their way into the media coverage.

When the hearing ended, though, reporters mobbed Gov. White and peppered him with questions about the death penalty and Perry’s handling of the case.

Meanwhile, Dr. Hurst and his wife sat by themselves a few feet away. Hurst has seen many faulty arson cases over the years, working pro bono with attorneys and journalists to free people wrongly accused or wrongly convicted (he examined the three cases I profiled last year). He’ll tell you that fire investigations are becoming more scientific and that the field is improving. But he still sees a lot of flawed cases. In fact, Hurst told me, while he was sitting in Baird’s courtroom Thursday waiting to testify, an assistant DA approached him and asked Hurst to examine an arson case. The bad cases will keep coming. There are many people who, unlike Willingham, can still be helped.

In that sense, this hearing wasn’t really about Cameron Todd Willingham. It was about the wider problem and the potentially hundreds of people still in prison whose names we don’t yet know.

“Unless lawmakers dig deep, Texas may pull back a lifeline that keeps about 15,000 people alive.”

That’s the lead of Bob Garrett’s story in Wednesday’s edition of The Dallas Morning News. It was the must-read story of the week that you may not have read. The piece didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved.

Garrett’s story chronicles the money shortages in the state’s HIV Medication Program. Funded with federal and state money, the program gives anti-retroviral drugs to Texans afflicted with HIV and AIDS who otherwise couldn’t afford the expensive medications.

The drugs have proven remarkably effective. They have turned a terminal illness into a chronic one. In short, the program supplies about 15,000 people the medications that are keeping them alive.

But, as Garrett reports, the program is running out of money. And with a budget-cutting legislative session looming, the program may have to severely curtail services—if it survives at all.

Part of the problem is increased demand:

“Enrollment has surged to record levels because the recession stripped people of jobs and private health coverage, the state screens more people for HIV, and the drugs are highly successful at prolonging lives, said program manager Dwayne Haught of the Department of State Health Services.”

State Lawmakers will need to increase funding for the HIV drug program for it to continue current services. With the state facing a budget gap estimated at $18-$21 billion, a funding boost seems like a long-shot.

But then again, 15,000 lives are at stake.

Just to give you an idea of scale, here are some Texas towns with populations of about 15,000: Brenham, Belton, Forney Uvalde, Mount Pleasant, Sulphur Springs and Pampa.

While the program is costly—these drugs aren’t cheap—it actually saves taxpayers money in the long run: “the AIDS drugs, though expensive, forestall more costly inpatient hospital stays and crisis treatments for HIV patients, health care providers, advocates and some lawmakers said,” Garrett writes.

This program was on the chopping block back in 2003 too—the last time the state faced a budget crisis. It survived thanks to the dedicated work of several advocates, including Eduardo Sanchez, who then headed the Department of Health.

Seven years ago, state legislators found a way to fund this program even in a tight budget year. There are 15,000 people who hope lawmakers do it again.

Update (2:35 p.m.): Not much happened at today’s hearing. Judge Charlie Baird postponed the Willingham court of inquiry until he rules on a motion filed by the Navarro County DA asking Baird to recuse himself from the case. The proceedings will reconvene next Thursday, Oct. 14. 

Posted earlier: Six years after his death, Cameron Todd Willingham may go back on trial this afternoon in an Austin courtroom.

OK, it’s not a trial exactly. But it could have that feel. Lawyers for the Willingham family and the New York-based Innocence Project filed a motion in district court in Austin, asking Judge Charlie Baird to determine if the State of Texas wrongly executed Willingham for starting the 1991 house fire that killed his three children.

As you probably know, the arson evidence used to convict Willingham—and hundreds of other defendants—was outdated and flawed. (If you don’t know about this case, read this story and then this one.) Willingham was executed in 2004.

The proceedings today are known as a court of inquiry. But lawyers can put witnesses on the stand and offer evidence, so it potentially could become a Willingham “re-trial.” If Baird were to rule that Willingham was wrongly convicted, it would mark the first official conclusion that an American state had executed an innocent man. (You can read the Willingham family’s petition here.)

Yesterday the DA in Navarro County, where Willingham was convicted, asked Judge Baird to recuse himself because he ruled on one of Willingham’s appeals while a member of the Court of Criminal Appeals 15 years ago. The Statesman and Grits have more about that. Baird also presided over the hearing in the Tim Cole exoneration. What’s different this time is the lack of DNA evidence.

This hearing is about much more than Willingham. As I’ve written in this space many times, there are potentially hundreds of people wrongly convicted of arson in Texas prisons alone. Willingham’s case is now more about their fates than his.

I’ll be at the hearing this afternoon—if it happens—and will post updates in this space and on Twitter (@ContrarianDave).

Say this for our longest-serving governor: The man knows how to return a favor.

It’s become clear, a decade into Rick Perry’s tenure, that he takes good care of his friends, supporters and—perhaps most of all—campaign contributors. He appoints them to state boards and commissions, even helps create state agencies for them, and if there’s a chance to steer state money their way, Perry’s office will do so. It’s old-fashioned political patronage at its best.

We’ve seen fresh evidence recently of just how much money is changing hands. On Sunday, The Dallas Morning News published an excellent expose on the Emerging Technology Fund—a stash of money controlled largely by the governor’s office. The Legislature created it five years ago as an economic-development fund for Texas’ hi-tech industry. While the fund has undoubtedly created jobs in this state, it’s also been a boon to Perry’s campaign contributors.

The News reports that:

“Behind the scenes, some of the governor’s biggest political supporters have been making investments of their own – in Perry and in companies getting money from the tech fund.

“An investigation by The Dallas Morning News found that more than $16 million from the Emerging Technology Fund has been awarded to companies with investors or officers who are large campaign donors to Perry.”

That $16 million benefited eight businesspeople who had donated heavily to Perry’s campaign. It’s a detailed story, but a must-read for anyone who wants to know how things really work in this state.

It seems the Emerging Technology Fund may be as politically tainted as another Perry economic-incentive program: the Texas Enterprise Fund.

In March, the Observer reported that Enterprise Fund outlays worth hundreds of millions went to companies and executives that supported Perry and the Republican Governor’s Association.

Last week, the nonprofit watchdog group Texans for Public Justice released a report showing that Perry has received an astounding $17 million in campaign contributions from people he’s appointed to state boards and commissions. (We’ve seen hints of this before—last year, a Perry fund-raiser reportedly admitted that anyone who wants a state appointment needs to give Perry campaign money, according to this Corpus Christi Caller-Times story.)

Then there was the Morning Newsother blockbuster investigative piece on Perry this summer—an expose on the governor’s shady land deal in Horseshoe Bay. The story “found evidence that Perry’s investment was enhanced by a series of professional courtesies and personal favors from friends, campaign donors and the head of a Texas family with a rich history of political power-brokering. Together they may have enriched Perry by almost $500,000, according to an independent real estate appraisal commissioned by The News.”

Any of these stories might have sunk other politicians. The fact that Perry has survived it all and remains a favorite to win reelection is truly impressive.

His ability to endure these mini-scandals may be partly because he hasn’t blatantly violated the law (though doing official favors and handing out public funds to campaign contributors is clearly unethical and potentially illegal).

Burka doesn’t seem to think this is that big a deal. And, of course, political patronage happens everywhere (Bill White took campaign money from his Houston city appointees).

But the breadth of Perry’s operation is quite something.

The man’s been governor—under one-party rule—going on 14 years. He’s now filled every appointed position, and his patronage has seemingly slithered into every corner of state government—from road building, to health and human services, to environmental regulation, to schools, and, of course, economic-development grants.

If Perry does win another term, we’ll likely see more of the same.

For nearly a year, John Bradley has lorded over the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

Since Gov. Rick Perry named him chair last September, Bradley has seized control of the commission and its most high-profile case: the probe into whether Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted—and executed in 2004—based on flawed arson evidence.

But on Friday, all hell broke loose.

When seven commissioners met at a hotel near Dallas’ Love Field, the ostensible goal was to finalize their report on the Willingham case. But from the start, the forensic scientists on the panel fought Bradley at every step. By the end, the tenor of the meeting had changed entirely. What was supposed to have been the end of the Willingham probe now seems just the beginning.

One reform advocate termed the days events “the revenge of the scientists.” Another advocate, Stephen Saloom of the Innocence Project, said the meeting “gives me great hope about where this investigation will lead.”

Indeed, commissioners today talked openly of digging into the systemic problem with arson cases. That’s a subject I’ve been writing about for two years, and it was remarkable to hear commissioners move beyond Willingham to look at the wider problem. Several commissioners even suggested a wide-ranging re-examination of arson cases in Texas from the past 20 years.

That was a stunning development given how the day started.

The meeting began with Bradley, the gruff Williamson County prosecutor, hauling the commission into an executive session for an hour and 15 minutes. Lord only knows what was said. But when the commission reemerged, Bradley had a clear agenda: Go over the draft report on the Willingham case that he’d mostly written himself (several commission members said they saw the report for the first time only when it was made public), finalize a conclusion that the fire investigators on the case weren’t professionally negligent; and wrap up the whole deal by this afternoon. Bradley even announced that he hoped to release a final report on the Willingham investigation by the end of the day.

The other commissioners were having none of it. They had serious problems with the draft report. Bradley’s position was straight-forward: The evidence against Willingham may seem flawed by today’s standards, but back in 1991, the fire investigators performed just fine.

But Dr. Sarah Kerrigan—a forensic expert at Sam Houston State University and one of Bradley’s frequent antagonists on the commission—noted that the investigation didn’t meet scientific standards even in 1991. Other commissioners soon joined in with their own objections to Bradley’s narrow conclusions.

Dr. Nizam Peerwani, the Fort Worth medical examiner, said the draft report had too little detail about the flawed arson evidence presented against Willingham. “We have to mention that [disproved forensic evidence] are not indicators of arson.”

Kerrigan suggested that the commission postpone its final report and invite a panel of fire experts to appear at another meeting to answer direct questions about what the standards were exactly in 1991, whether the investigators met that standard and just how flawed the evidence against Willingham was.

Bradley wasn’t pleased with that idea. He wanted to end the inquiry on Friday, not expand it. He pointed out that the commission had already sent written questions to some experts and hadn’t heard back from all of them.

But Garry Adams, from Texas A&M, said he too wanted to question the experts in person. Three other commissioners quickly agreed. The revolt against Bradley was spreading.

“We can waste another meeting getting those non-answers,” Bradley said. But he’d already lost, and the commission voted to schedule another meeting for Nov. 19th to hear from experts.

When the commission returned from lunch, Bradley was chastened. He no longer was dictating the meeting, and was oddly quiet and deferential. When there was a lull in discussion, he would ask, “What do the commissioners want to do next?”

What came next was a discussion of the Fire Marshal’s office. Two commissioners said they were “shocked” that the Fire Marshal’s office, in a recent memo to commissioners, was standing staunchly behind its investigation from 1991.

Commissioners wondered how could the Fire Marshal’s office express such confidence in its work on the Willingham case when nearly all the evidence turned out to be bogus? And why didn’t the Fire Marshal’s office notify anyone before Willingham’s execution that the case might be flawed?

These were issues Bradley wanted no part of, but the tide was against him.

“Somebody needs to go back and look at all the other cases [the Fire Marshal’s office] investigated,” Peerwani said. He added that he’s requested a 20-year re-examination of convictions in his county and said other counties should do the same.

Adams agreed: “If there’s an error, it needs to be corrected, and we know there’s an error.”

Kerrigan went further, “There seems to be a great deal more concern that we have more of a systemic problem.”

The problem with arson cases is systemic. I chronicled some of those problems in a series of articles last year. We desperately need a wide-ranging investigation into older arson cases in this state to find the potentially hundreds of wrongful convictions.

On Friday, for the first time, it seemed the state of Texas might address that injustice.


I expect quite a scene tomorrow morning when the Texas Forensic Science Commission convenes at a hotel near Dallas’ Love Field.

The nine commissioners plan to, at long last, conclude their two-year investigation into the infamous Cameron Todd Willingham case. After several starts and stops, lots of political wrangling and bureaucratic maneuvering, allegations of a Rick Perry cover-up and one national scandal, we may actually see a final report tomorrow on the quality of the forensic arson evidence.

The commissioners will discuss what their report will say in open meeting (they haven’t always been so open with this inquiry). Willingham’s family will be there, and likely some anti-death penalty activists. So will Barry Scheck of the New York-based Innocence Project, which first requested the Willingham investigation back in 2006, and probably a throng of reporters.

(I’ll be at the meeting in Dallas tomorrow and will chronicle the goings-on throughout the day in this space and on Twitter @ContrarianDave. The Innocence Project will broadcast the meeting live at this site.)

It’s been more than six years since Willingham was executed for starting a 1991 house fire that killed his three children. The forensic evidence of arson has since been disproved. It’s likely the fire was accidental, and Willingham may have been innocent. (You can read the history of the case here and here.)

The commission’s report won’t be the final word on Willingham, but I’m very curious to see the final report.

If done right, it could be a landmark document.

Not because it will declare Willingham’s innocence or guilt. It won’t. That was never in the commission’s purview, and it’s almost impossible to say with any certainty whether Willingham was guilty or innocent. We’ll probably never know for sure.

Rather, the commission was charged with investigating the forensic arson evidence used to convict Willingham (and Ernest Ray Willis, whose case often gets overshadowed in all the hub-bub).

The commission has already declared—in a preliminary finding in late July— that forensic arson evidence against Willingham was “flawed.” They also concluded that the fire investigators in the case weren’t professionally negligent because they did the best they could at the time. (That’s open for debate, though, there’s no doubt the field of fire science was considerably less evolved in 1991.)

At this meeting, the commissioners will decide how much detail they’ll add into the final report about that flawed evidence. Will they leave it vague? Or will they go point-by-point and describe exactly which pieces of arson evidence were flawed—from the pour patterns on the floor, to the warped thresholds, to the crazed glass, to the melted bed springs. All of those supposedly indicated arson (because the fire had burned hot and fast from gasoline.)

We now know that’s not true. All that “evidence” can occur in an accidental fire. We also now know that accidental fires burn just as hot and just as fast as intentionally set fires. Nine national experts have concluded that the physical evidence against Willingham was bogus. (And yet, the Texas State Fire Marshal’s office is standing by its investigation in the case.)

A draft of the final report—circulated on Sept. 10—isn’t encouraging. It contains almost no detail about the flaws in Willingham’s case. The report concedes that crazed glass “no longer has any value in evaluating a fire.” But brushes off the rest of the discredited evidence thusly: “In other respects, the changes to those indicators are less dramatic.”

The report absolves the original fire investigators in the case for not knowing any better in 1991. But Willingham wasn’t executed until 2004. By then, many people, including the State Fire Marshal’s office, did known better—that the evidence against Willingham was wrong—yet no one spoke up.

Scheck and the Innocence Project contend the Fire Marshal’s office had a professional obligation to review its old cases and to rectify its mistakes.

The draft report doesn’t address any of that.

The commissioners will have a chance to add more detail to the final version tomorrow.

“Our claim is not a hunt for someone to blame,” Scheck said in a statement, “but for identification of wrongs that must be remedied.”

That’s why the Willingham report matters so much: There are many other mistakes that still need fixing. Perhaps hundreds of people have been wrongly convicted of arson.

The same discredited pieces of evidence that sent Willingham (and Willis) to death row have been used to wrongly imprison hundreds of others.

Many of them are still in prison. People like Curtis Severns, Ed Graf and Alfredo Guardiola—whose cases the Observer investigated last year.

A report from a state commission that details which pieces of evidence are flawed and that pushes the Fire Marshal’s office to review its past cases could help those innocent people trying to overturn their arson convictions.

Prosecutors certainly have used crazed glass and pour patterns and melted bed springs in other cases. A detailed and strongly worded report from the commission denouncing those pieces of “evidence” could begin to reverse those injustices.

Tomorrow we’ll find out if the commissioners will go that far.

Have We Seen the End of Debates?

The 2010 Campaigns Set Dangerous Precedent

Don’t Texas politicians debate anymore?

By my count, here are the candidates running for office in November who have rejected opportunities to debate their opponents: Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, Greg Abbott (though he said he might debate, you know, maybe), Ken Mercer and Marsha Farney.

In order, that’s the state’s governor, lt. governor, attorney general and two candidates for the Texas State Board of Education. (If you know of others, send me an email or add a comment below.)

They all happen to be Republicans, but the more important commonality is that they’re all favored to win on Election Day. Dewhurst has a 20-point lead in the polls over Democratic opponent Linda Chavez-Thompson. Barbara Ann Radnofsky is running a tough, spirited campaign against Abbott, but few observers think she has a chance to win. Mercer represents an overwhelmingly Republican district on the State Board of Education. Farney’s seat is more up-for-grabs, but it’s still a GOP-leaning seat.

Only Perry has a competitive race on his hands (if you average out the polls, Perry is ahead of Bill White by 5-6 points.)

And none of them have agreed to share a stage with their opponents.

Of course, you probably know about Perry’s machinations around debating White. Dewhurst is keeping a low profile (and that’s putting it mildly; has anyone even seen him lately?). Meanwhile, Mercer and Farney took the advice of the state Republican Party and spurned debate invitations from the League of Women Voters.

The political play is clear enough: These candidates see little benefit in debating. There’s a chance you might say something unbelievably stupid—a gaffe that might endanger your election. Better to “play it safe” and just coast unnoticed to the election.

This political strategy has gone too far.

Back in the naive old days of 2006, a candidate following this strategy would agree to as few debates as possible, which usually meant one. For example, Perry debated his three opponents, which included Kinky Friedman, in the 2006 governor’s race (and what a circus that night was.)  Kay Bailey Hutchison debated Radnofsky in their one-sided race for the U.S. Senate that same year. Candidate debates have historically been common in races for state House, state Senate and State Board of Education.

There’s one simple reason for that: The public deserves to hear candidates debate the issues in an unscripted environment. If you want to represent people, you have to win them over. Moreover, if you can’t survive a single debate without eating your foot, you probably shouldn’t be holding elected office.

It used to be that candidates who refused to debate would be pummeled so badly in the press that they would suffer at the polls. But I fear those days might be over.

It seems quite possible that all five of these candidates will refuse to debate and still win. That’s a dangerous precedent.

In future elections, what will be the incentive for Republican candidates with a lead in the polls to debate?

Until Democrats become more competitive in Texas, we may have seen the end of candidate debates in statewide races.

If Democrats ever hope to win a statewide race in Texas—which they haven’t done in 16 years—they will have to expand the electorate. Republicans have shown they will consistently win in Texas if the two parties continue to fight over the same sliver of persuadable voters.

There are plenty of new voters to be had for Democrats, especially in Houston. About 60 percent of eligible voters in Harris County are non-Anglo. So it follows that increasing the number of registered voters, especially Latinos—and getting those voters to the polls—will benefit Democrats.

Meanwhile, Republicans would like to see the electorate remain as it is. Keeping people off the voting rolls benefits the GOP.

That’s the larger context behind the recent controversy over supposed “voter fraud” in Harris County. (It’s not really voter fraud, but more on that in a minute.)

When a nonprofit and nonpartisan group named Houston Votes began canvassing Harris County this summer, registering tens of thousands of potential voters, Republicans saw a Democratic threat.

So the Harris County Tax Assessor—a lame duck Republican named Leo Vasquez, whose reelection effort came up short in this year’s GOP primary—went on the attack.

On Aug. 24, Vasquez held one of the most bizarre press conferences you’ll ever see. He announced that the Harris County voter rolls were under an “organized attack” and raised the specter of ACORN-like voting fraud (which also wasn’t really voter fraud, but that’s another story).

Vasquez said his office had found thousands of faulty voter registration forms submitted by Houston Votes, including duplicate registrations and non-citizens trying to register. In one case highlighted by Vasquez, one person had tried to register six times.

At times, the press conference looked like a political rally. The room was packed with cheering Tea Party activists—associated with a group called King Street Patriots, which was taking credit for finding the flawed registration forms. A spokesperson for the tax assessor said the group had found some errors.

(A bit of background: The tax assessor’s office—in addition to its tax duties—is also the county’s voter registrar and maintains Houston’s voter rolls. For a low-level county office, it’s attracted a lot of attention lately. Conservatives believe the office is the last line of defense against massive Democratic voter fraud in Harris County. The Democrats say the tax assessor is running a partisan campaign to scrub the voter rolls. On Sept. 2, the Texas Democratic Party filed suit against the tax assessor’s office based on these accusations—just six months after settling a similar lawsuit stemming from the 2008 election.)

Houston Votes quickly admitted that some of its registrations shouldn’t have been submitted. They were honest mistakes, not fraud, said Fred Lewis,who heads the Houston Votes, which often happen during a large-scale registration drive. He says the group has fired the canvassers who submitted invalid voter registrations.

“It’s not a pristine process and everyone knows that,” Lewis said. “Common mistakes by canvassers aren’t fraud.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to see how voter fraud could have resulted from these flawed registrations. The non-citizens checked the non-citizen box on each form, and the tax assessor office easily weeded them out. If these non-citizens were trying to commit voter fraud and vote illegally, why wouldn’t the they have simply checked the “citizen” box on the registration form? Why openly admit they’re non-citizens so the authorities could toss out their registrations? If this was organized fraud, it was one of the worst—and most obvious—frauds ever attempted.

The more likely scenario is that these several dozen non-citizens didn’t know they couldn’t vote and filled out a card, which the canvassers let slide, perhaps because they wanted to get paid, and Houston Votes didn’t catch the faulty cards amid the 25,000 registration cards it was processing at the time.

Even the person who tried to register six times with the same address and the same name—had that person been successful—still could vote only once. A person can show up with six registration cards, but if you’ve got the same name and the same address, you probably can vote just once.

If this person wanted to vote six times, why wouldn’t she submit different names or different addresses to help mask her identity?

I looked over the voter cards in the power point that Vasquez presented at his press conference. The woman who tried to register six times lists the same address on each card. What’s interesting is that the registration cards were filled out by five different canvassers, and all on the same day.

It’s pretty clear what happened. Houston Votes was canvassing a neighborhood and in a bit of disorganization, numerous canvassers hit the same houses, perhaps some were trying to pile up cards to increase their pay. The evidence here seems to support Lewis’ claim of honest mistakes.

(A note of clarification on how people were paid: Houston Votes says it pays canvassers by the hour. But the tax assessor’s office says canvassers told residents that the more cards they turned in, the higher their pay. At the very least, it seems some canvassers may have mistakenly believed they would be paid based on number of cards. But even so, that doesn’t seem to constitute organized fraud.)

Fred King, a spokesman for the tax assessor’s office, couldn’t produce any direct evidence of fraud, but said that Houston Votes high error rate was suspicious. “Fraud is in the eye of the beholder, until there’s a conviction,” he said.

The tax assessor has referred the matter to the Harris County DA’s office, King said.

If this wasn’t some “organized attack” on the voter rolls, as Vasquez stated, then what was going on?

Lewis said that Vasquez’s press conference was a politically motivated show, a “gigantic ambush,” designed to curtail the number of people registering to vote.

The driving force here appears to be Tea Party activists. The King Street Patriots—a well-funded group with a slick Web site—has started a spin-off outfit called True The Vote, which bills itself as a nonprofit, but clearly has some partisan intent.

Watch this 10-minute video posted at truethevote.org and you’ll see what I mean.

True the Vote bills itself as a collection of nonpartisan “citizen activists,” which is how some media reports have referred to them. But it isn’t hard to tell which side they’re on. The older unidentified gentlemen in this video, I believe, is David Horowitz. There’s also this quote on the screen a few minutes in: “Our elections are being manipulated by the radical left.”

And then there’s the unidentified white guy in the video who says, “If we lose Houston, we lose Texas. And if we lose Texas , we lose the country.” The use of the word “we” is rather interesting for a supposedly nonpartisan, nonprofit organization.

But, of course, the sentiment is dead on. That’s exactly what this fight over voter registration is about: The GOP wants to hold Harris County; Democrats are desperate to win it.

This isn’t about voter fraud. This appears to be an effort to keep people off the voter rolls. Which is fine. The Tea Party activists are perfectly within their rights to do that.

But there’s nothing nonpartisan about it.

“Today is Day 172 of liberal trial lawyer Bill White refusing to debate.” So reads the Rick Perry campaign press release that popped into my inbox late yesterday afternoon.  

It was also “Day 122 of Rick Perry refusing to debate,” according to the Bill White supporters over at Burnt Orange Report. And here I thought yesterday was just a Thursday. Silly me.

By my count, it was Day 43 of me being fed up with the idiotic rhetoric in the governor’s race.

Further down in the Perry release, we’re told that yesterday was also day 172 of Bill White “hiding his taxes.” You see, in the logic—and I’m using that word loosely—of the Perry campaign, White is refusing to debate because he won’t release his tax returns going back, I believe, to the year 1942. White has made public his returns since 2003, which wasn’t good enough disclosure for the Perry campaign, which says the governor won’t debate his opponent until White releases returns back to 1994.

Got all that? Me neither.

Perry, of course, is the one trying to sidestep a debate, and most major media outlets are calling called him out for it (Burka included).

But just as the press was beginning to criticize Perry’s refusal to debate, White’s supporters changed the story line by stooping to grade-school name calling. They ran an ad in newspapers across the state earlier this week that labeled Perry a “coward.” I mean, really, does anyone—even the most partisan Democrat—really believe Perry’s a coward?

The Perry people then over-reacted by wrapping their man in the flag and emphasizing his service in the Air Force. When you refuse to debate, you have to expect people will start showing up to events in chicken suits and shady third-party groups will start calling your candidate names.

With all this name calling and day-counting and sniping, some voters have probably tuned out. And who could blame them?

White’s campaign has at least put forth some substantive policy proposals, though they haven’t received nearly the media attention they deserve. His ethics reform plan is impressive (you can read the plan here) though its impact was muted by a Texas Tribune story documenting that White’s record violated his own ethics proposal.

On Thursday, White was campaigning on insurance reform. That’s a big issue in this state. Texas has the second highest (or highest, depending on the year) home insurance rates in the country—a direct result of our lax regulation of insurance companies. White has proposed cracking down on the industry a bit and not letting State Farm hike rates whenever it wants. (You can read more details here.)

Hopefully White keeps up the policy talk—and Perry follows suit.

It’s still only August. There’s still time for this race to center on substantive issues: the budget deficit, job creation, ethics, taxes, environmental regulation, insurance reform, and education.

So far, though, both sides have engaged in too many petty antics.

Perry’s Self-Defeating Secrecy

Avoiding tough questions won't fly in a national campaign

It’s common for incumbent politicians with a comfortable lead in the polls to avoid public questioning. The idea is to limit the number of debates, press conferences, and unscripted moments—and any opportunity for your opponent or the press to hit you with tough questions, and reduce the chances of an election-changing gaffe. It’s called running out the clock, and it’s a tried and true political tactic.

But Rick Perry might be taking it to new levels:

—He’s thus far refused to schedule a debate with his Democratic opponent Bill White, despite the challenger’s best efforts to goad him into it.

—The Perry campaign has also announced the governor will not meet with newspaper editorial boards during the campaign.

—And the capital press corps is getting precious few opportunities to ask questions of the governor. Most of Perry’s events these days are nowhere near Austin, where many of the state’s political reporters are based. That means anyone wanting to ask Perry an unscripted question has to travel with the campaign (and the campaign decides who gets to ride along) or trail Perry on their own, all private eye-like, as an Observer reporter did back in 2006.

The Houston Chronicle’s R.G. Ratcliffe recently scored a few minutes with the governor for a short Q and A. And Perry met briefly with reporters after his speech to the Texas Broadcasters Association last week.

But those are rare exceptions. Most capital reporters have a better chance of landing an interview with Thomas Pynchon than sitting down with this state’s highest public servant.

This approach may be good politics—if Perry’s lone goal is another term as Texas governor. But there are two potential problems with Perry walling himself off from public debate and questioning.

No. 1, it does the public a disservice. Voters, of course, deserve to hear from their elected officials about important issues facing the state—through televised debates, news conferences, and meetings with reporters and opinion makers.

The second problem is political. If Perry has ambitions for higher office, then this avoidance of the press is also doing him a disservice. If Perry campaigns for national office, he won’t likely get away with continually sidestepping reporters. The national media doesn’t react well to that.

Moreover, the candidates in the GOP presidential primary will likely face off in numerous debates, and Perry would be wise to practice his debating skills on a small stage by taking on Bill White. Responding to tough questions and hostile opponents under the hot lights isn’t easy. And if Perry lets those skills atrophy, he’s likely to be embarrassed in a future presidential debate.

No one can force Perry to debate White or make himself more available to the press. But constantly shielding himself from public scrutiny not only robs voters of unfiltered access to their governor, but also harms Perry’s prospects for national office.

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