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Dateline Houston
Helena Brown

Most weeks, Houston City Council member Helena Brown votes against a bunch of stuff at the council meeting, then releases a little video listing what she voted against, sometimes with brief explanations. They are usually boring. But the video Brown’s office sent out today is awesome.

The four-minute video takes place inside Mossy Nissan, a car dealership in Brown’s district. A cool, newsy graphic introduces “Student/Intern Reporter Claudia Miranda,” a petite woman standing before the hindquarters of a maroon SUV, the thumb of her non-microphone hand tucked nervously into her fist.

“Hi, I’m Claudia Miranda,” she says, “here with council member Helena Brown and David Hruska, General Manager of Mossy Nissan.”

She then hands the microphone to… Mr. Hruska.

“Hi, I’m David Hruska and we welcome you to Mossy Nissan,” he says, gently but eagerly, like a small-town pastor. He congratulates Brown on having recently been named one of Houston’s Fifty Most Influential Women just as what sounds like Christmas chimes begins playing in the background. But it’s actually the opening strains of the Phil Collins 1989 humanitarian smash hit, “Another Day in Paradise.”

Hruska invites you to participate in “one of the greatest family stories in town” and “be part of who we are” by buying a car from him.

The picture fades and then CM Brown appears for the first time, one minute and eight seconds into her own video, before a white coupe. She reports that of the 40 items on the City Council’s most recent agenda, she voted no to seven. “That’s 18 percent,” she says.

Then she fades out again… and reappears in front of the same car.

“First item’s number twelve, $7.1 million for so-called HIV-prevention activities,” she says cannily. “Number 14, $1.8 million for HIV surveillance activities—what are we doing as a city, uh, getting involved in surveilling medical situations or, uh, HIV, uh, type activities—what’s, what is all that about?”

And airline food—am I right?

Brown evaporates again and reappears in front of a different Nissan (weird that she didn’t point out the new fierce new front-end styling of the 2013 models) to highlight her votes for juvenile delinquency and against childcare. Then she screws her mouth to the side, disappears, and reappears inside a car on the dealership floor.

“Item number 17 is $3.5 million to assist 7,800 individuals who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. And, of course, this is always better handled by the private sector, and they do such a better job at addressing these homeless needs.”

Because the profit margin on housing the homeless is just incredible. It’s the fountain soda of social services.

But CM Brown doesn’t get really Churchillian until she explains how the city’s decision to maintain current energy rates will actually cost Houstonians more.

“What this ends up doing is passing on, uh, additional costs to the consumer, because, the, whatever costs the Centerpoint is incurring currently that cannot be covered, because the, the maintenance of current rates, uh, they’ll end up having to pay down the road, in addition to additional costs that they will have to incur in this dealing with this situation of, ah, debating, arguing, and defending, ah, their expenses having to be carried on in their, uh, updating their rates to the consumers.”

In other words (or, in words), the city should do what businesses want because the city’s just going to end up paying for the business’s legal bills after they win.

“So, in the long run,” CM Brown concludes, “I don’t think this is going to benefit the citizens. But it did pass, so the rates will be maintained until further notice.”

Ah, influence.

Get the full scoop on Helena Brown’s bizarre first year in office by reading the Observer’s December feature, “Helena Handbasket.”

An ad sponsored by Greg Abbot

As the national debate over gun control rages, Texas’s leaders have identified that against which we must all be most vigilant:

An excess of… whimsy.

Yesterday, New York state passed the nation’s most stringent gun-control law. The next blessed day, Texas’s Attorney General, Greg Abbott, had an online ad appearing on New York websites telling law-abiding, gun-totin’ Yankees to come enjoy the “lower taxes and greater opportunity” enjoyed by the Lone Star State.

“We’ll fight like hell to protect your rights,” it actually says, not as a joke. “You’ll also get to keep more of what you earn and use some of that extra money to buy more ammo.”

Eric Bearse, a spokesperson for Abbott, told the Daily Beast that they placed the ad because in Texas, the Constitution is held “sacred” and protects Americans from “whimsical and knee-jerk reactions by political leaders.”

In related news, several writers for late-night talk shows simultaneously punched the air with gratitude. (Not really, but probably.)

Conservatives and public employee unions rarely unite over an issue, but desperation makes strange bedfellows. At the end of 2012, a surprising coalition emerged to support closing some of Texas’ state prisons in the new year.

The union that represents prison guards, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), has long advocated better pay and conditions to help reduce turnover and ease guard shortages that in some places approach 50 percent. Texas’ prison population has dropped—state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, says the state is now sitting on 10,000 empty beds—and union leaders want to see prisoners consolidated, prisons fully staffed, and the savings from closed units put toward better training and compensation for guards. Fully staffed facilities are less stressful and less dangerous workplaces, besides being more secure. This could help decrease the 20 to 40 percent turnover rate among guards, which the union says wastes millions of dollars in training costs.

Guard shortages are a chronic problem that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice says is worsened by an oil and gas boom that offers wages the Texas prison system can’t top. Union leaders also point out that since the average facility offers a starting salary of $28,000 and no air conditioning, most jobs are more appealing than those in corrections.

Rural units, many built in the early 1990s in the hope of boosting small-town economies, are the hardest to keep staffed. The Connally unit in South Texas closed eight of its dorms last summer because of guard shortages, and two Panhandle penitentiaries relocated some prisoners to other units in December for the same reason, though a TDCJ spokesperson said the move is temporary.

Fiscal conservatives support unit closures because they’re appalled at the expense and recidivism rate of state jails. Originally intended to be a low-cost, rehabilitative alternative to prison for minor offenders, state jails cost almost as much as state prisons and have a far worse recidivism rate. A scathing report from the Texas Public Policy Foundation in November declared, “Unfortunately, state jails are universally failing in their objective,” and called them a “bad deal,” advocating diversion or probation for most jail felons.

Privately run facilities—which were supposed to save money—often exacerbate the expense by charging more per prisoner if the population drops below a certain threshold, preventing savings from policy changes like alternative sentencing.

In December, Sen. Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, suggested two private units for closure, both run by Corrections Corporation of America. One is Dawson State Jail in downtown Dallas, which an October audit cited for systemic failures in health services, and which has been blamed for horrible inmate deaths from illness and negligence. The other is the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility west of Fort Worth, which has struggled with contraband, rioting and violence.

“I think it would be pretty convincing to show we’re wasting dollars” on Dawson and Mineral Wells, Whitmire told the Texas Tribune.

Lance Lowry, president of AFSCME Local 3807, put it more strongly in a recent letter to criminal justice blogger Scott Henson.

Explaining his support for closing the Dawson and Mineral Wells facilities, Lowry wrote, “These prisons are extremely dangerous and are only being kept open to satisfy the greed of the private prison industry.”

The renewed debate over gun control has lately settled into two broad camps: those who think more guns in the right hands would reduce violence, and those who think fewer guns overall would reduce violence.

Texas politicians, predictably, have come out in favor of more guns, particularly in the hands of schoolteachers: Gov. Rick Perry, state Rep.-elect Jason Villalba of Dallas, Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, and suburban Houston’s own state Rep. Debbie Riddle all support arming teachers. This morning, NRA executive Wayne LaPierre held a press conference calling for armed guards in schools, neglecting to mention that Columbine High School had an armed guard and that Fort Hood had a great many armed personnel present. (And, as an apparent Christmas gift to the Internet, LaPierre blamed violence on hurricanes and video games like Mortal Kombat, which features ninjas and fireballs but no guns.)

But the more-guns argument is predicated on the belief that non-criminal citizens with guns can be relied upon to secure their weapons and use them safely. Otherwise, why would you introduce a gun for every 20 or 30 kids in a school, right?

Looking back on the Houston area’s year in firearms casts doubt on that assumption. A few illustrative selections from Dateline Houston’s files:

March 22: A man in Jacinto City killed himself accidentally when one of the shots he fired in the air hit him in the neck.

June 13: A 17-year-old boy in Alamo died when a bullet he fired at a butane tank ricocheted and hit his head.

June 17: A 24-year-old woman in south Houston was killed when her brother accidentally dropped the gun he was carrying.

July 31: A 12-year-old boy in Waller County accidentally shot and killed his 11-year-old brother with a 12-gauge shotgun after finding it and another shotgun in their parents’ closet. The parents thought the closet was locked.

November 13: A young man in southeast Houston died after he and a neighbor were comparing their guns and one gun accidentally discharged.

Dec 12: A 4-year-old boy in northeast Houston shot himself after climbing on top of his parents’ tall furniture chest and finding a gun kept there for home security. Both parents were home and thought the child was in bed.

Then there are the situations that might not have ended in death if guns hadn’t been present.

Yesterday, a 20-year-old man allegedly shot and killed a 30-year-old woman during a road-rage confrontation in far southwest Harris County.

And on Dec 11, a 17-year-old died after being shot by his neighbor during an argument over sneakers.

One could go on.

As our politicians lather up their arguments about how guns make us safer, Dateline Houston hopes they’ll remember how things work in real life, not just in the black-hat-white-hat world they imagine.

There’s always womb for Rick Perry.

On Tuesday, he alighted at The Source For Women, a crisis pregnancy center in Houston whose opening ribbon he cut in September, to announce his support for prospective legislation called Bean the “Preborn Pain Act,” aka a fetal pain bill. (The name comes from the belief, popular among opponents of abortion access, that 20-week-old fetuses can feel pain. A 2005 research review by the Journal of the American Medical Association says that isn’t true.) The bill would ban abortions after 20 weeks even for victims of rape or incest, although, magnanimously, would allow the procedure save a woman’s life.

But only about one half of one percent of abortions in Texas take place after 20 weeks. And according to NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, most of those few are medical emergencies, so the new rule wouldn’t apply to them.

That doesn’t mean the “fetal pain” bill won’t make abortions harder to get.

Part of the proposed bill, lightly touched on in Perry’s presentation, is a requirement that abortion clinics conform to “surgical operating” room standards. Because the bill itself is preborn, it’s hard to say what exactly that will mean, but Heather Busby, Executive Director of NARAL Pro-Choice TX, has a guess.

“Back in 2004,” Busby says, “the Legislature passed a bill that required any abortion after 16 weeks to be performed in an ambulatory surgical center (ASC). It sounds like what they’re referring to is making all clinics ASCs.”

An ASC has structural requirements like hallways wide enough for stretchers. “There was no medical reason for those requirements,” Busby said. “It was just a way to make clinics have to rebuild or remodel or move.“

In 2004, no Texas clinics met those standards. Now the only ASCs are in Austin, Houston, San Antonio and Dallas, and their costs of service are up to three times what they were before remodeling. “The effect is felt directly by the women,” Busby says.

If the “Preborn Pain Act” passes and all abortion clinics must be ASCs, “clinics are going to close and abortion costs will be higher.”

Sounds good to Perry. His goal, he told The Source for Women, “is to make abortion, at any stage, a thing of the past.”

Screen grab of Joshua Gravens' Texas Department of Public Safety record.
Screen grab of Joshua Gravens' Texas Department of Public Safety record.

The Texas Observer’s June cover story, “Life On the List,” looked at what happens when children are placed on Texas’ public sex offender registry. It centered on Josh Gravens, who at age 12 had sexual contact with his sister, was handed over to the Texas Youth Commission for more than three years, and has been listed in the public registry ever since.

Before agreeing to be interviewed for by the Observer, Gravens had never discussed his ordeal with anyone who didn’t strictly need to know. Gravens had never been an activist. He had struggled privately, moved from place to place, job to job. Each time he started to build a life, he’d be fired, threatened, or evicted after a couple of years when something called attention to his presence on the registry.

As of November 15, though, the 25-year-old married father of four is, for the first time since he was 13, not on the list.

Years ago, a clerk told Gravens that he couldn’t petition for removal because the judge who sentenced him had died. It turns out that wasn’t true. The Observer found the judge during reporting and let Gravens know how to contact him. After “Life On the List” came out, Gravens sent the judge a copy of the story, along with a request for a copy of his court records (he had been told they were sealed) so that he could petition for the removal of one erroneously listed charge.

Shocked and moved by the effect the registry had had on Josh’s life, the judge instead considered Gravens’ letter a petition to be listed privately and arranged a court date for him.

As Gravens wrote in a letter to me:

“On November 1, I appeared before the original judge in my juvenile case. I sat in the witness stand and made a case for how the public registry has time and again brought an end to my successes. It was a very informal setting. The judge did not wear his robes, the district attorney was present, and they both asked me questions about my advocacy, employment, and most of all family… As the hearing proceeded, both the judge and the DA had their [copy of state] statutes out to make sure of exactly how the law worked. The removal of juveniles from the public registry had been a law on the books for ten years, but the judge in this case (who’s served 20+ years) and the district attorney, neither had ever used this law. This speaks volumes to how rare it is that someone is removed from the registry. Officials are very good at placing people on the sex offender registry, but when it comes to removal, they have no idea how.”

Gravens’ records will still be available to law enforcement officers, but not to the public.

Gravens has also applied for a George Soros Justice Fellowship to educate policymakers about the effects of listing children on the public sex offender registry. This very afternoon, he learned he is a finalist for the fellowship. He’ll be flown to New York for an interview next month. “I’m so excited,” he said. “I’ve never been there.”

He added, “This is a direct result of the article.”

Along with the joyful news, Gravens sent the screen shot you see above.

Now, he begins life off the list.

The Houston Chronicle reported today that the U.S. Justice Department is investigating six relatively recent cases of shootings or alleged use of force violations against unarmed citizens by the Houston Police Department.

HPD Chief Charles McClelland asked the Justice Department to investigate three of the cases, and federal prosecutors requested investigation of three others, citing widespread outrage and publicity.

Dateline Houston readers will, I’m sorry to say, be familiar with most of the cases (click the hyperlinks for our previous coverage):

1. Chad Holley, an unarmed teenage burglary suspect beaten by a nearly dozen police officers

2. Annika Lewis, the wife of a man being beaten by police in his yard after a minor traffic infraction. Annika, who is less than five feet tall, was allegedly tackled and punched after she filmed police beating her unarmed husband. She says they also took the memory card from her phone

3. Rufino Lara, who was shot unarmed after allegedly refusing to show his hands, though witnesses say he had his hands up

4. Brian Claunch, a double amputee who was shot unarmed after police thought his ballpoint pen was a weapon

5. Anthony Childress, who says he was stopped by police and beaten while riding his bike, losing six teeth and requiring 56 stitches

6. A minor in handcuffs, unnamed, who was punched by an officer, an assault caught on new cameras.

Dateline Houston has also reported on several other incidents.

In a statement, the ACLU of Texas Legal & Policy Director Rebecca Robertson said, “Good cops don’t fear accountability; they welcome it.”

Tonight, the Texas Observer’s own Melissa del Bosque will moderate a free public forum in Houston called “The True Cost of Environmental Justice.”

At issue is Texas’ longstanding pro-business approach to regulation—which is to say, not having it—and whether the jobs created by oil and chemical refineries are worth the local health and environmental costs.

While Houston has weathered the recession better than practically anyplace, a major reason is that Harris and its surrounding counties are home to more than 260 oil refineries, chemical plants, and other large industrial facilities, according to a recent count by the Houston Chronicle. Houstonians have a special interest in the balance between a strong economy and a safe, healthy home.

Ms. del Bosque and Observer multimedia editor Jen Reel know all about this. They produced our November cover story, “Kochworld,” which documented the pollution plaguing communities abutting Koch Industries-owned refineries in Corpus Christi. After spending months interviewing sick residents, Reel and del Bosque turned out a feature so good that the Koch bros put out their Benjamin-wrapped cigars long enough to fire off a rebuttal on their Myspace page corporate website

State Sen. Rodney Ellis will join del Bosque for tonight’s discussion, along with Matthew Tejada of Air Alliance Houston, Bryan Parras of T. E. J. A. S., and Dr. Jay Olaguer of the Houston Advanced Research Center. Jen Reel will provide a video introduction.

The place is Rice University, the McMurtry Auditorium in Duncan Hall. The time is 7 p.m. I’ll see you there.

A sign that says "vote" in many languages

On Fox yesterday, GOP strategist Karl Rove claimed that Obama won re-election by “suppressing the vote” His evidence? Obama captured a smaller percentage of votes than he did in 2008. Obama’s method? Making people dislike Mitt Romney.

“Suppressing the vote” just doesn’t mean what it used to.

Houston knows how to (allegedly) suppress a vote. Its suburbs spawned True the Vote, the poll-watching tea partiers who tend to target minority districts for their scrutiny. And this fall, Houstonians made up a huge proportion of Texas’s not-actually-dead voters who were slated to have their registrations cancelled, more of whom were in minority than Anglo districts.

But in the end, it was all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Public outcry paused the zombie voter purge, and the Houston Chronicle minced no words with Tuesday’s headline, “True the Vote’s impact said to be negligible.”

TTV founder Catherine Engelbrecht says they received hundreds of complaints and that it takes time to sort and submit them to election officials, so the group’s real results are yet to come. (Their 2010 efforts yielded only a few investigations and no criminal action.) So TTV may or may not have sniffed out fraud. But it doesn’t seem to have suppressed the vote either. Several civil rights groups under an umbrella organization, the Election Protection Coalition, say that while they got around 70,000 complaints of their own about election troubles, very few were about True the Vote.

There was, however, one showdown. A True the Vote-trained poll watcher says the NAACP took over and “basically ran” the Harris County Precinct 139 location. Allegedly, the nefarious NAACP handed out bottled water to voters in long lines and selected people (the NAACP says they were elderly and/or disabled) to go to the front of the line, “stirring up the crowd” to vote for Obama.

Someone better tell Karl Rove.

"Vote here" signDateline Houston is confused.

Texas Republicans are passionately concerned about so-called voter integrity. Ensuring this integrity has spurred legislation, court battles, and private citizens’ groups taking up only-probably-metaphorical arms against hordes of evildoers who might somehow steal elections from conservatives in a place that hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994.

So why wouldn’t the state welcome even more integrity-minded poll monitors?

“We just wouldn’t, okay?” Dateline Houston imagines Attorney General Greg Abbott snapping before returning his attention to a hand mirror onto which he’d pasted a picture of Anderson Cooper.

Until very recently, Republicans were the only ones mobilizing against alleged electoral shenanigans. In the interest of preventing a dubiously documented and apparently deeply ineffective rash of election fraud, Texas Republicans wrote and passed the voter ID law that only coincidentally disenfranchises traditionally Democratic groups, and which Attorney General Greg Abbott has failed to prove in court is not racist. The Republican-controlled Legislature also changed how counties identify voters who may have died, which led—again only coincidentally—to the potential deletion of many living voters who, statistically, were more likely to have been Democrats. A lawsuit is underway.

And then there’s True the Vote. TTV is a poll-watching project of the King Street Patriots, a supposedly nonpartisan Houston group spawned during the tea party orgy of 2009. In the 2010 elections, True the Vote trained and dispatched about 1000 volunteers to mostly minority neighborhoods to hunt voting irregularities and stare down would-be defrauders. As the Observer’s Patrick Michels reported, “[they] combined to send 800 complaints of improper voting to Harris County officials, who investigated a few but ended up taking no legal action. …While it generated little evidence of voter fraud, the King Street Patriots’ effort did result in complaints about voter intimidation and breached ethics, a lawsuit from the Texas Democratic Party, and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.”

To review: the party that hasn’t lost a statewide election in 18 years finds itself so besieged by election-stealing leftist lawbreakers that they have dedicated serious time and money at every level of their organization to curb it.

Of course, when anybody questions this—particularly if the sentence starts, “But, statistically…”—these patriots clutch their life-sized plush bald eagles and fall to the floor, shuddering with apoplexy, whispering, “freedom…”

The most recent freak-out was when a United Nations-affiliated group of election monitors announced it would send a total of 44 observers to the entire United States to watch for voter suppression, just as they have for years, at the invitation of the United States, and do all over the world.

In Texas, the fertilizer totally hit the ventilation system.

Attorney General Greg Abbott bewailed the UN invasion most concisely in a tweet: “UN poll watchers can’t interfere w/ Texas elections. I’ll bring criminal charges if needed. Official letter posted soon. #comeandtakeit”. On Wednesday, he explained to Reuters, “They act like they may not be subject to Texas law and our goal all along is to make clear to them that while they’re in Texas, they’re subject to Texas law, and we’re not giving them an exemption.”

In response, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) pinky-swore not to buy beer before noon on Sunday.

Then Abbott admitted that, actually, he was afraid the OSCE could do exactly what True the Vote, by many accounts, does. “Our concern is that this isn’t some benign observation but something intended to be far more prying and maybe even an attempt to suppress voter integrity,” he told Reuters.

Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings, a ranking member of the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, says True the Vote does just that. On October 18, Politico reported that Cummings had sent two letters to True the Vote asking for documents and citing reports that there “is mounting evidence that True the Vote’s aggressive poll monitoring tactics are being closely coordinated with the Republican Party” and has, in the words of one report, “a highly partisan and political agenda to deny African Americans and Latinos, specifically, the right to vote.”

With so much hand-wringing about poll-watching, one wonders what they’re all watching for. How do you spot fraudulent voters? What do they look like?

Well, in a very recent local case, the fraudster looks like a Republican precinct chairman who was running for a seat on the Fort Bend County Commissioner’s Court. Records show that Bruce Fleming voted both in person in Sugar Land and by mail in Pennsylvania—an actual swing state where a single fraudulent vote really could make an actual difference—in 2006, 2008, and 2010.

Catherine Englebrecht, founder and president of True the Vote, lives in Fleming’s Precinct 1. She and TTV were not responsible for uncovering Fleming’s alleged fraud.

For the November elections, True the Vote has long maintained it wants to send two million eyeballs to the polls. Considering that they seem to be many hundred thousands short of their goal, you’d think they’d want all the help they can get.


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