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Dateline Houston

For a group that loves the Constitution, tea partiers are not super-good at following the rules.

Last night’s debate between Ted Cruz and David Dewhurst, eight days before the Republican run-off for U.S. Senate, was supposed to be, in the words of Catherine Engelbrecht, “a safe zone.”

The debate featured no rebuttals, making it less a debate than an awkward, cranky tag-team speech, and organizers tried to make sure their constituents behaved better than, say, Neil Munro in the Rose Garden.

“We’re not going to applaud or make any outburst of any kind,” urged Engelbrecht, head of King Street Patriots, during her welcome speech. “We’re just going to participate like good, quiet citizens.”

Quiet participation is hardly this group’s M.O. This was a standing-room-only crowd in the cinderblock bunker of the King Street Patriots. The KSP are known for founding “True the Vote,” an effort that purports to fight voter fraud by sending poll watchers to majority black and Latino precincts. The crowd of more than 350 had waited in a snaking line in the clammy Houston afternoon to get a wristband for this freedom rave. As I entered, a woman in front of me asked an usher, “Which side is Cruz?” as if attending a football game. This group had come for a fight.

They got one, sort of, despite Engelbrecht’s pleas.

The short version is this: Cruz graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School for crying out loud. The man can talk. Everything he said sounded as slick and confident as the voice over for a political ad. He rarely got cut off by the 90-second time limit. He hit his talking points and got in his digs at Dewhurst like he was checking off a list. When Dewhurst spoke, Cruz gazed up at him with those serene, sympathetic eyes and a little smirk that said, “Coffee’s for closers.”

Dewhurst doddered. If you could get past the fact that he paused every time he said “Medi…caid” or “Medi….care” as if trying to remember which was which, and got a little lost in the middle of sentences, and often didn’t answer the actual question, you could hear that Dewhurst had actually done the very things that his interrogators wanted to know if he would do—slash budgets, disempower Democrats, support the transvaginal probe industry, etc.

It was never an even playing field. The debate began late, and Dewhurst walked quietly from the back of the room to his podium. As a crewmember started affixing his microphone, the crowd noticed him and applauded politely. Thus they were primed for their man Ted, who strode up from behind and hadn’t even gotten to the stage before the crowd was on their feet, cheering and applauding.

In substance, their responses to the audience-and-social-media-generated questions, which all boiled down to asking who was more conservative, were nearly the same. What parts of Obamacare would you keep? Not a tittle. How would you make Texas more business-friendly? Deregulate. And so forth.

Cruz was first, and ultimately the only, to attack directly, bringing up that in the last debate, Dewhurst had made the unfortunately fact-based observation that America’s health care outcomes are not always the best in the world. Cruz reiterated that Dewhurst’s data came from “left-wing studies” (like the World Health Organization) and opined, “I don’t think it’s the role of government to be micromanaging the outcomes” of health care in the U.S.

The fidgety crowd made it almost half an hour before someone yelled, “Liar!” at Cruz, who was describing how Dewhurst had allegedly given a speech advocating “amnesty,” then had the speech removed from his website during the campaign. The moderator, the unfathomably lovely Melinda Spaulding, an anchor for Houston’s Fox affiliate, reminded the crowd to be cool.

Cruz managed to attack Dewhurst fiercely and directly for negative campaigning—at one point pivoting toward him at their awkwardly close side-by-side podiums and asking if he stands by his assaults on Cruz’s patriotism—while making the case that he, Cruz, had stayed issues-based. It was a neat trick.

When Dewhurst said that Cruz had been running not for Senate but against him, an audience member shouted, “It’s not true!” Spaulding again urged “no outbursts,” and then someone started to applaud in support, apparently not understanding what an outburst is.

Not content to leave the naughtiness to the audience, Cruz interrupted Dewhurst three times. The most damaging was in response to a question about gun control (specifically, do we need more? answer: nope) when Cruz listed his endorsements and Dewhurst said, “I’m endorsed by the NRA.”

Cruz, with creepy, lawyerly pleasure, turned and said, “The NRA has not endorsed you.”

“What?” said Dewhurst, startled.

“The NRA has not endorsed you.”

“I stand corrected,” Dewhurst said, on a dime. “You’re absolutely right. The people…” He trailed off. “The local people have…”

This is what the local people had come to see: Cruz, young and snotty, calling out the establishment. Cruz quoted the Bible and the Declaration of Independence. Cruz was Fifty Shades of Jefferson. Dewhurst just kept pointing to his record, unsure why this was not enough.

Dewhurst finally got in a good one during his closing statement. “If Texas were as bad as my opponent keeps saying in these ads,” Dewhurst said, “Texas would look like California. Texas is a good state. I’m proud of Texas.”

But it might have been too late. As the crowd filed out, the women behind me giggled with glee. “When that guy shouted ‘Liar!,’” one told her friend, “that was the best part.”

If you tell people that their basic rights are under attack, that their home is a castle, that liberty means never being told what to do, and that the best way to defend your liberties is with a gun, eventually they will believe you.

Add in some government paranoia and fear of technology, and you’ve got a Thursday in Harris County.

In Houston yesterday, Thelma Taorima pulled a gun on an electric company worker trying to install a smart meter at her house. Smart meters, which count kilowatts digitally, transmit data wirelessly and are supposed to improve efficiency, saving homeowners money. Advocates say they also improve privacy, since no one has to go into your yard to collect data.

But Taormina sees Big Brother.

“Our constitution allows us not to have that kind of intrusion on our personal privacy,” Taormina told KHOU. “They’ll be able to tell if you are running your computer, air conditioner, whatever it is.”

Smart meter paranoia is now part of the tea party platform, mentioned along with health care as a dangerous “government mandate.” Forrest Wilder reported on a petition against them in March, and Railroad Commissioner candidate Greg Parker is now running largely on a promise to make smart meters optional.

But the Taormina story is different.

A few things are weird about it. One is that it happened at all, although with the popularity of vigilantism in Houston, I guess we should be grateful the story didn’t turn out worse. Two is that it’s being reported as a quirky, people-versus-The-Man story, rather than deeply disturbing proof that people have lost track of when it is and is not appropriate to pull a gun.

Third is that yesterday wasn’t the first time Taormina has done this.

In March, FuelFix.com reported on Nick and Thelma Taormina in a story about Houstonian smart meter resistance: “The Taorminas have thwarted the installation so far – once when Thelma Taormina pulled a pistol after she and a meter installer tussled in August over her refusal to let him switch out her old meter.”

“CenterPoint spokesman Floyd LeBlanc wouldn’t comment on the incident but said such resistance is rare and that employees and contractors are trained to disengage and call law enforcement if conversations about smart meters become heated.

The Taormina incident did not result in any legal action.”

But will it this time?

“We are deeply troubled by anyone who would pull a gun on another person performing their job,” a CenterPoint spokesperson said yesterday. “CenterPoint will be taking additional steps – including court actions – because what happened is dangerous, illegal and unwarranted.”

But Taormina isn’t worried. She sees herself as a patriot. The March story reported that she and her husband were collecting signatures to oppose the mandatory smart meters, and current reports say she’s starting a group for the cause called, with desperate originality, “We the People.”

But if the Internet is to be believed, the Taorminas already started “We the People” in February of 2010, full name “We the People Are The 9-12 Association Inc.” The 9-12 Project was an idea of Glenn Beck’s in 2009, which I won’t go into here, as it would require a chalkboard, but suffice it to say it’s all about the tea party and values and 9-11 and not smart meters.

The Taorminas have a photo of themselves with the Beckster on their Meetup page. He, and countless other voices over the last three years, have helped make people like the Taorminos afraid—of the government, of technology, of lots of things. But when the TV goes off and the guns come out, that fearful fantasy can become all too real.

By now, you know the basics. Mitt Romney spoke to the NAACP convention in Houston on Wednesday, and it didn’t go great. If you need proof that the standing ovation doesn’t mean what it used to, observe that Romney had one coming and going, while being booed thrice in between. Sure, it was a slow rise—starting in the front, creeping back, people looking at each other like, “We’re doing this?”—but almost everybody joined in eventually.

In contrast, Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke in the same spot and time on Thursday, got nine mid-speech standing ovations, and I only counted the ones that extended to the sides. He also got booed once—when he said he was wrapping up.

Everybody knew Romney was in for a rough ride, including Romney. He really smiled through that first boo, which was long, 17 seconds, and crowd-wide and disapproving rather than angry. Nancy Pelosi speculated that Romney wanted the boos. Considering that they were prompted by the promise to repeal “Obamacare,” the right’s derisive name for the Affordable Care Act, maybe there’s some truth to that. Certainly the optics of rejection by a black group couldn’t have hurt Romney with a certain crowd, perhaps the crowd for whom he made this recent albino ad—two-and-a-half minutes with no people of color.

But I’ll give Romney the benefit of the doubt. He seemed to be making an effort. He opened with a joke, saying he appreciated the chance to speak before Biden. “I just hope the Obama campaign won’t think you’re playing favorites.” Polite chuckles. After that, he used the president’s name only twice, excluding “Obamacare,” and both mentions were glancing, gentle.

“When President Obama called to congratulate me on becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, he said that he ‘looked forward to an important and healthy debate about America’s future,’” Romney said. “To date, I’m afraid that his campaign has taken a different course than that.” He said this with paternal regret, a voice I can imagine him using with an employee, saying, “I’m sorry, we’re going to have to let you go.”

He treaded softly, too, up to the issues facing African Americans today, blaming no one. “Many barriers remain,” he mused. “Old inequities persist. In some ways, the challenges are even more complicated than before.”

Then he rolled out the only statistics he would use for the entire speech—to illustrate how crappily African Americans have it. “The unemployment rate, the duration of unemployment, average income, and median family wealth are all worse for the black community,” he reminded them. “In June, while the overall unemployment rate remained stuck at 8.2 percent, the unemployment rate for African Americans actually went up, from 13.6 to 14.4 percent.”

This was, I’m sure, supposed to focus the campaign on the economy, but in this venue it almost sounded scolding. He urged dissatisfaction: “Americans of every background are asking when this economy will finally recover—and you, in particular, are entitled to an answer.” (As PBS noted, Romney stopped short of saying “you people,” a mistake Ross Perot made in 1992.)

But it wasn’t answer time yet. It was more bad news time. “Today, black children are 17 percent of students nationwide—but they are 42 percent of the students in our worst-performing schools.” One can imagine these same stats being used to make a different case than the one Romney was presumably, although not explicitly, making—that black students are underserved.

He added, “A study from the Brookings Institution has shown that for those who graduate from high school, get a full-time job, and wait until 21 before they marry and then have their first child, the probability of being poor is two percent. And if those factors are absent, the probability of being poor is 76 percent.”

Romney offered this as proof of why it’s important to focus on strengthening families. But what I heard was, ‘If you’d done everything right, you wouldn’t be poor.’

“Any policy that lifts up and honors the family is going to be good for the country, and that must be our goal,” he said. He wasn’t specific on how he’d do that, only that he will stop the gays. “As President, I will promote strong families—and I will defend traditional marriage.”

Which should be a relief to all the black children in underperforming schools. Somehow.

How will Romney fix the African American situation in America? Simple: approve the Keystone pipeline.

No, seriously.

Romney’s five-step plan to return jobs to the U.S. is:

1. Approve the Keystone pipeline

2. Open up new markets for American products

3. Reduce government spending

4. Develop skilled workers

5. Restore economic freedom. “Entrepreneurs are being crushed by high taxation, burdensome regulation, hostile regulators, excessive healthcare costs, and destructive labor policies,” Romney said.

“If I am president, job one for me will be creating better jobs,” he said. (Romney said “job” or “jobs” 16 times.) “I have no hidden agenda. If you want a president who will make things better in the African American community, you are looking at him.”

The chuckles, this time, were less polite.

Romney had lost the crowd by now. Some, he never had to start with; a few minutes after he started speaking, a white-haired woman in an orange dress walked down the aisle, making contact with many as she passed. “I just can’t do this,” she said. “Can’t do it.”

Romney referred only once to his record in Massachusetts, when his reforms narrowed the achievement gap between students of different races. He also leaned hard on charter schools and called teachers’ unions “special interests.”

“I can’t promise you that you and I will agree on every issue,” Romney said as he closed. “But I do promise that your hospitality to me today will be returned.” Considering the collective mood at that point, this sounded a bit ominous.

Then, in place of his own civil rights cred, Romney listed his father’s, and then pivoted to God, “whose justice is certain and whose mercy endures forever,” a debatably contradictory pair of divine attributes. Finally, oh hell yes, Romney busted out Dr. King in a way that suggested MLK was disappointed in Obama’s record. Quoting: “Unless [God’s] spirit pervades our lives, we find only what G. K. Chesterton called ‘cures that don’t cure, blessings that don’t bless, and solutions that don’t solve.’”

Presumably, Romney then took a long, scalding shower.

The man who, in his opening statements, had said he wanted to “represent all Americans, of every race, creed, or sexual orientation,” had a fundraiser in Montana that very night. There, Romney was done being respectful. He said the NAACP booed him for not offering “more free stuff.”

“If they want more stuff from the government,” Romney said, “tell them to go vote for the other guy—more free stuff. But don’t forget nothing is really free.”

Rush Limbaugh posited that Romney’s speech went “over these people’s heads.”

Those comments play well to some nasty racial stereotypes, but if you compare Romney’s speech with Biden’s, it just ain’t true.

Romney talked like he feared his speech would go over people’s heads, in vagaries and trite expressions. “Trade must be free and fair,” Romney said, “so I’ll clamp down on cheaters like China and make sure they finally play by the rules.”

I have no idea what that means.

Biden, in contrast, went to the record. He named legislation like he expected his audience to have been paying attention to Congressional goings on for the last four years and, considering that the NAACP is a venerable, aggressively middle-class, highly politically active organization, was probably an appropriate bet.

“Extending the payroll tax—only seven Republicans initially voted for it,” Biden said. “Lilly Ledbetter equal pay—three Republicans voted for it in the House. When we attempted to raise the debt limit to maintain the full faith and credit of the United States, not a single Republican met the responsibility of meeting that requirement, resulting in a negotiation that brought us to the brink of disaster, ultimately causing America’s credit rating to be lowered for the first time.”

Biden rolled in with a big smile, happy, at home. He had the benefit of a darkened house (Romney got house lights half-on) and a full-on gospel choir warm-up that can only be described as bitchin’. Romney got a long warble of organ music and piano, old, thoughtful hymns that might make a person reflect on who his friends are.

Pre-Biden, after the choir wrapped up, a local pastor gave the invocation.

“Father,” he said, organ playing gently beneath him, the audience having been asked to stand, “it’s been a good convention. We’ve been blessed to hear from Chairman Brock, we’ve been blessed to hear from President Jealous, we’ve been blessed to hear from Attorney General Holder… And we’ve heard also from Mitt Romney.”

This did not go over their heads.

Then Biden preached. He praised Obama for the auto industry bailout, for Osama bin Laden’s death, for the Affordable Care Act, and he talked numbers: “[Obama] cut $100 billion from the federal debt over the next 10 years, provided access to affordable health care to 30 million Americans—eight million black Americans who never have had insurance.”

Biden painted a dark vision of a Romney presidency—cuts to college scholarships, early childhood education and job training, tax breaks for oil companies and threats to women’s health and safety. “The Governor isn’t sure what his position on is on the Violence Against Women Act,” Biden said. People laughed. “He’s not sure whether or not the Lilly Ledbetter law that passed was good. But he’s certain on his position on Roe v. Wade—overturn it. Planned Parenthood—get rid of it…[policy] where working women lose access to quality child care, where social policy is basically a throwback to the ‘50s.”

Unhappy murmurs.

Biden called out HIV and infant mortality and pointed to funding for the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Health and research universities as crucial to solving these problems. He named the high points of the ACA and brought home the Romney plan’s tax reality. “[Romney] eliminates college tuition credit, the earned income tax credit, and the child tax credit are cut. The result? Two-point-two million African American working families will see a tax increase if he succeeds. That’s a fact.”

Biden talked foreign policy and the START treaty, nuclear disarmament and America’s relationship with Russia. He was not throwing low pitches.

And finally he addressed civil rights themselves. “Did you think we’d be fighting these battles again?” he asked.

“I remember working with Republicans,” he said, “and, by the way, this ain’t your father’s Republican party.” People cheered. “Remember working with Republicans on Motor Voter? On voting by mail? Some of these were Republican ideas.”

“I know you know,” he said. “But I’m not sure everybody—the House of Representatives voted affirmatively to prevent the Justice Department from even investigating whether or not there was voter suppression.”

Biden closed by asking the audience to imagine a Romney Justice Department. The Attorney General, the head of the civil rights division, the Supreme Court.

The mood turned dark. Then he brought it back up. He brought in God.

“The best way to sum up the President’s view, my view, and, I think, your view, is we see America where, in the word of the scripture, ‘What you do unto the least of these my brethren, you do unto me.’”

The crowd went wild. Biden jogged off stage. The audience stayed as the lights came up and they kept standing and clapping until the song was over. The row of women behind me, delegates from Florida, sang the heart of the whole crowd.

“Signed, sealed, delivered, I’m yours!”

The sharks are circling Houston City Council member Helena Brown.

In her six months in office, the District A rep has gotten way more press than any other city official except the mayor because she is constantly saying awesome stuff. Pensions are expensive? Brown says stop paying them. Energy efficient buildings? Brown sees a U.N. conspiracy.

Helena Brown has heretofore been interesting—and, debatably, important—because she is the un-ironic embodiment of tea party rhetoric: anti-government, anti-tax, anti-compromise, all anti-, no pro-. Other politicians say they want to shrink the government until it’s small enough to drown in a bathtub. Brown would actually hold it down until the bubbles stopped. She’s also been fun to report on because she’s seemed relatively harmless. Her ubiquitous “no” votes usually stand alone. She used to delay lots of city business by “tagging” it, putting it off for a week, but her fellow council members got sick of that and started overriding her tags, a once-rare breach of etiquette that’s now necessary just to get stuff done.

So Brown has not only embodied anti-government governance in her voting, but in her general inefficacy. She’s not getting any projects approved for her district and she’s not making a difference in the city’s management. She’s just there, week after week, talking.

But a flurry of new press suggests she’s more than a lone ideologue.

First the Houston Chronicle reported, early last week, that Brown “subtracted hours from her staffers’ timecards in apparent violation of federal law,” according to records. “At least six times, Brown deleted enough hours from employees’ reported workweeks that it cost them overtime by bringing their weekly total under 40 hours,” writes Chris Moran. One of Brown’s earliest notable acts as a council member had been to hire an entirely part-time staff so that none would be paid benefits like health insurance or vacation, a move she characterized as fiscal conservatism. But messing with time cards would constitute tampering with a government document, which is a felony.

Then the Houston Press featured Brown on their cover this week, looking at her affiliation with William Park, a volunteer “senior adviser” and disgraced financier who “appears to dictate her office, and some say her life.” The story makes a powerful case that Park, a Bible-verse-spouting one-time Ponzi scheme middleman, is directing Brown’s votes and writing her weird and colorful diatribes. The story also details Brown’s attempt to force out a staff member because she (the staff member) became pregnant, prompting a staff exodus in April.

And just yesterday the Press blog Hair Balls reported that Brown “solicited money from local Korean businessmen late last month for a trip she took this week to Seoul—though she had already paid for it with public money.” Not just a little public money, either: expense reports show airfare costing the city $11,000.

Apparently, William Park also went to Asia with Brown. “Brown said she went to Korea to arrange direct flights between Houston and Seoul, but it’s unclear why the council member had to travel to Asia to accomplish this, or whether public funds exclusively paid for Brown’s ticket, or for Park’s as well,” writes Terrence McCoy, who also authored the Brown cover story.

Further, Brown solicited funds from Korean businessmen at a meeting in a government building, in violation of city policy. “During the meeting, one attendee questioned the legality of contributing money directly to Brown in such a setting. Park responded: ‘Councilwoman Brown has very powerful lawyers to help…’” [emphasis mine.]

It appears Brown may bend the law the same way she tries to lay it down: sporadically, ineffectively, and with help. So far, none of this shady business has resulted in charges, but with reporting like this from Chris Moran and Terrence McCoy and a year and a half left in Brown’s term, there’s no telling how—or when—this show’s going to end.

In 2007, shortly after Texas’s “Stand Your Ground” law passed, Joe Horn of Pasadena saw two men breaking into his neighbor’s empty house. He called 911 and asked the operator, “Do you want me to stop them?”

“Nope, don’t do that,” the dispatcher said. “No property worth shootin’ somebody over, okay?”

But Joe Horn, and Texas law, disagreed.

(For the rest of that story, see Patrick Michels’ piece here.)

Monday’s Houston Chronicle has a grimly fascinating look the circumstances surrounding “justifiable homicides” in Texas, which have risen from 32 in 2006 to 48 in 2010 according to FBI data. (Texas’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which removed the obligation to retreat before shooting, passed in 2007.)

The article notes that more than half of 2010’s justifiable homicides—27—took place in the Houston area, with nine in Dallas and eight in San Antonio. (Austin wasn’t mentioned). Most shootings occurred at night, during a home invasion, with a male shooter with a handgun, and between minorities.

Texas allows for deadly force to protect property and to stop “rape, arson, burglary, theft at night and criminal mischief at night.” (Note to kids: no more TP-ing houses.)

The piece was occasioned by the Trayvon Martin tragedy, of course, but also by Friday’s killing of an alleged beer thief at a Houston convenience store. A 19-year- old clerk shot and killed a 45-year-old man whom he said was leaving without paying for a case of beer. The man’s family told local news stations yesterday that the alleged thief, Troy Rector, had mental health problems and shouldn’t have died.

“He had flaws like all of us, but he did not deserve to be gunned down by some young person who thought they were a vigilante taking the law into their own hands,” Rector’s sister told KHOU.

Shooting deaths with a claim of self-defense are investigated by grand juries, but their proceedings are secret. The clerk has not been arrested.

The Chronicle looks at a few of the cases from 2010 in more detail—opening with the story of 24-year-old Benito Pantoja, who was shot in the back for stealing $20.29 from a tip jar at a taco truck—but they needn’t have gone back so far.

Last Monday, a Houston truck driver killed one of the two men he said was robbing the cab of his truck by beating the man to death with a metal bar. That same day, in the Pasadena area, neighbors at a mobile home park beat two alleged robbers with baseball bats so badly that they were both taken to the hospital by LifeFlight. On Thursday evening, a man shot both of the alleged burglars trying to break into his home, killing one.

The article does mention the recent grand jury decision not to indict a father in Shiner who allegedly found a man molesting his 5-year-old daughter and beat him to death.

Proponents of “Stand Your Ground” laws say that an armed populace is a safer populace, but an A&M study published in June says that’s not true. Economics professor Mark Hoekstra compared 2009-2010 FBI crime data from states with and without such laws and TM Daily Post quotes the results:

“We find no evidence of deterrence: burglary, robbery, and aggravated assault are unaffected by the laws. On the other hand, we find that murder and non-negligent manslaughter are increased 7 to 9 percent. This could represent either increased use of lethal force in self-defense situations, or the escalation of violence in otherwise non-lethal situations. Regardless, the results indicate that a primary consequence of strengthening self-defense law is increased homicide.”

While the Chronicle article doesn’t mention the study, it does acknowledge that a self-defense killing takes a toll on the shooter as well.

Said Rodrick Batiste, a Houstonian who shot a burglar in his home, “I try and tell people with the ‘You should have shot him again’ attitude, that is not really what you think. If you haven’t been there before, you don’t know what type of feelings overtake you. It changed me. There is nothing cool about taking somebody’s life.”

UPDATE: Raul Rodriguez is sentenced to 40 years in prison for murdering Kelly Danaher. 4:00 PM

 

 

A Harris County jury is deep in deliberations today over the sentencing of Raul Rodriguez, convicted of murdering Kelly Danaher, his unarmed neighbor, in a 2010 confrontation over loud music. Dateline Houston reported on Rodriguez earlier this month, comparing his guilty verdict with that of a Houston police officer who also thought wrongly that his life was in danger. Rodriguez videotaped the encounter, recording himself saying what he believed to be the magic words: “My life is in danger” and “I’m standing my ground here.”

During sentencing, the prosecution said Rodriguez should get life in prison and called his act premeditated, based on his taped statements and armed initiation of the conflict. The defense argued that Rodriguez made “the wrong call” because of Texas’s “Stand Your Ground” laws, and that he should get the minimum, five years in prison.

Quoth the Chronicle: “’And as we go forward into the future, other people will make the wrong call’ because of misunderstanding about laws that permit the use of force when someone feels threatened, said attorney Bill Stradley. ‘And they will find themselves, like Raul Rodriguez, charged with murder.’”

It’s an interesting twist; usually criticism of “Stand Your Ground” laws comes from advocates for victims, but in this case, the defense seemed to be suggesting Rodriguez was the victim of a bad, easily misinterpreted law.

Midday today, the jury asked for a fresh-air break. We’ll report when deliberations end.

 

Here are a few more updates on previous Dateline Houston stories:

—In May, DH brought you the saga of Chad Holley, who in 2010 was videotaped (allegedly) being stomped, kicked, and punched during his arrest for suspected burglary, for which he was later convicted. Holley was 15 at the time. In May, the first of the officers charged with official oppression for the violent arrest was found not guilty by an all-white jury (Holley is black), prompting cries of racism.

Well, Holley is in the news again: now 18, he was arrested mid-June for burglary. Again. Three other officers are still charged and waiting to be tried for Holley’s alleged beating, and attorneys for two of those officers have already said they’ll try to get Holley’s second arrest admitted as evidence. In the most cynical view, this might change the trial’s central question from, “Did the officer use unnecessary violence?” to “Did the kid deserve it?”

 

—In lighter news, everyone’s favorite Houston City Council member Helena Brown continues her quest to single-handedly bring fiscal responsibility to Houston—this time, by defaulting on its obligations. Of the several amendments to the 2013 city budget that Brown proposed, one was “Default on the City’s contribution to the Pension Plans…so that the issue will be moved before the Texas Supreme Court to bring to question the state constitutionality of obliging them to maintain an unsustainable pension plan.”

Brown also wants to “Default on all Tax Bonds,” adding by way of explanation only, “It is the fiduciary responsibility of investment banks and advisors to know their financial risk before taking them.” Suckers.

Other ideas: “Outsource EMS,” “Take Parks and Recreation…and relinquish control over to county, citizens, or private sector,” or just the squirrels, whatever, and have the city “look into possibly requiring or only hiring first responders who live within the city limits so that they have ‘skin-in-the-game!’” Exclamation point, obviously, hers.

One more thing: “Decrease the water rate 20%.”

 

—Houston’s controversial restrictions on feeding the homeless go into effect at the end of this week, which DH reported on in April. Volunteers are scrambling to get enough petition signatures to trigger a charter amendment vote in November to repeal the ordinance. The Houston Press looks at the old-school efforts of the Kubosh brothers, who lately canvassed the city with 30,000 pamphlets about the petition, while the Chronicle has a grim assessment of the ordinance’s effects even before enforcement: only six organizations have registered with the city to give food, and, “So far, the city has approved only one feeding site, a city-owned vacant lot at the corner of Franklin and Chartres.”

This month, New York Times columnist Gail Collins published As Texas Goes… How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda. It’s an often funny, studiously researched traipse through Texas issues Observer readers will know well: abstinence education, textbook meddling, environmental deregulation and the like. As the subtitle suggests, Collins makes a case for how some of the more catastrophic national policy developments got their start in our backyard. Locals (ahem) might be torn between recognizing the harsh political realities Collins describes and resenting having them pointed out by a Yankee—but more in the full Observer review here.

Collins is speaking at the Progressive Forum in Houston on Tuesday night at the Wortham Center’s Cullen Theater, and last I checked, tickets are still available. I spoke to Collins by phone Thursday afternoon as she prepared for her swing through the Lone Star State.


Dateline Houston: First of all, who’s your audience?

Gail Collins: People who do not live in Texas, actually. It’s for the outside world. This is an outsider’s view of how Texas has influenced the rest of the country. And I’ve talked to many people, lovely people in Texas who say, “Well, I don’t disagree with your general conclusions, but you aren’t, you don’t have the nitty gritty, you don’t understand the texture and the subtleties of life in Texas.” I totally agree with that. Texas has ten billion great writers and I trust them to produce that story. My story is about what Texas is doing to the outside world.

DH: If you were asked to be interviewed on air by Fox News, would you do it?

GC: I don’t know. It would depend on who it was. Do you have an invitation?

DH: No… no, we don’t speak. But if I were an outsider and I read this book, I would think, Oh my gosh, all my craziest, zaniest, nastiest, kitschiest ideas I ever had about Texas are all true. Then I think about how I regard Fox News as the cartoon version of this certain kind of Republican—

GC: Well, I’m pained to be compared to Fox News, but I appreciate your thought.

DH: What I meant was, is that an audience you’d approach?

GC: My next stop is going to be in Texas, and that’s going to be a challenge enough. Although people in Texas do, I think, agree with me that, which other people outside of Texas do not in general appreciate, how important the state is. I think most people in Texas would agree with me that the state has been underestimated by the rest of the country. Also, when I go around in the North and the East and the West, I always try to point out to the audiences that the people of Texas are truly amazing, and wonderful, and that I doubt very much that, if, say, Newark was hit by a hurricane, that New Yorkers would [as Houston did after Katrina] as readily invite 200,000 refugees into their town—

DH: And then tell them to go home, but…

GC: They did tell them to go home, but at least there was that first impetus, which was not something I think you would have gotten from a lot of places that fancy themselves to be way more liberal than Texas is. I try to make it a point to bring that up every place I go. In fact, I was at an event in Washington yesterday and a guy got up and said, “Well, if the people in Texas are so nice, how come their politics is so weird?”

DH: I have always had that question myself.

GC: My answer is, it goes back to the theory that I have about empty places and crowded places. If you believe yourself to be living in an empty place, you tend to be hostile to the very notion of government because you don’t really see any good effect of it. You think you’re on your own, you’re in an empty place, you take care of yourself, all government does is tax you or get in the way. The interesting thing for me is that although that division between empty places, the philosophies, have been around since Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, in recent years it’s become more of a mental state than an actual physical state. I was in Washington, the state of Washington, last week and I ran into people who live in the forest but they have this vision of themselves as part of this very large, maybe planetary community of people with needs and responsibilities and that they’re very much intertwined in and they think of themselves as being crowded-place people, even though they can’t see any neighbor from where they live. And on the other hand, you have people who live in 400-unit condos in Boca Raton who are convinced they don’t need the government for anything whatsoever, even if they’re living off social security. So one of the reasons Texas is so powerful in this kind of empty-places philosophy is because people in Texas, I did find, generally think they live in an empty place, even when they live in a city, because there is so much empty space, because you have to drive so far to get anywhere. There’s a sense, that sort of sense of wide-open spaces even if you’re in a metropolitan area, which 80 percent of people in Texas are.

DH: The book is a pretty good rundown of Texas’s issues and the often pretty tragic results of our policies. Was it a challenge to maintain the kind of wry tone that you have in your columns over the length of a book, and a book that’s about things that are very sad and often very dark?

GC: It is. It was hard. The other books I’ve written have mostly been histories, and they were political commentary, and I, while I attempted to make them readable, I didn’t have that same feeling of a need to really hit a tone that would keep people going. As a writer, as a columnist, as a political writer, it’s always been my goal to use humor to get people through the reading of information that they might not actually make their way through if left to their own devices. I’m really happiest when people say, “I never would have gotten through a whole column on savings and loan deregulation or the education privatization or whatever.” If you maintain a certain level of humor, people can stay with you for a lot longer. That was my goal in this book. It would be hard otherwise to keep people who do not live in Texas going through an entire book about the politics of Texas without some encouragement.

DH: Were there times when you were doing the research that, in your writing, you wanted to get overtly angry or upset or sad?

GC: It’s always been a goal of mine in writing—I told myself this when I started really writing in New York—that I didn’t want people to come away from what I wrote beating their head against the wall or wanting to throw themselves out the window. I wanted to give them a sort of sense of cheerfulness in spite of unpleasantness on occasion.

DH: Did you ever see anything out of Texas during your research, like the sonogram law, and go, “Oh my gosh, that’s great for my book!”

GC: Yeah, it’s very strange when you do what I do, you sort of try to balance that. You try not to say, “Oh great, something terrible has happened, therefore it’s going to really improve [my column].” I must admit, I do get a certain amount of glee when something just really funny and outrageous happens.

DH: Like Perry.

GC: Yeah. Rick Perry was just a blessing from God. It’s very hard to do a column off the news when the news is happening, and I tend to do them whenever there’s a debate on Wednesday night, which is my deadline night. It’s a challenge, because the deadline for the column is nine o’clock, and the debates tend to end at nine o’clock our time. I was doing one of the debates and I was sort of—it’s really not the easiest thing in the world—and that was the moment that Perry forgot his third agency that he wanted to close. And it was just like the heavens opened up and the angels sang.

DH: Did you know that he was going to implode?

GC: No, I didn’t. But I didn’t write the book because of him. I was writing the book before he announced. But I had thought he would be potentially, I mean on paper, he looked good, although I was suspicious of the fact that he hadn’t debated when he ran for governor last time. He did seem to have a history of avoiding debates whenever possible, so I guess I should have been more suspicious.

DH: Governor Goodhair.

GC: He’s got great hair.

DH: This book came out in the middle of an election year, and there’s the court cases about the voter ID ongoing and the delayed primaries—were you worried about there being big changes happening on the way to print?

GC: Yeah, whenever you’re writing a book like this, that’s always a challenge. There are a lot of things in the book I was a little less specific about than I would have been if I was absolutely sure what was going to happen in a court case or a primary election or whatever by the time the book was out. Things change all the time. You just have to do the best you can and move forward.

DH: Who are some of your favorite Texans?

GC: Do they have to be famous people?

DH: No.

GC: One of the reasons I got involved in this entire project is, the book that I did before this was a book about American women and what had happened to them in the last 50 years. I went looking for people all around, women, whose stories I could tell in the book. Somebody directed me to Sylvia Acevedo, who lives in Austin. She was trained as an engineer, she’s now a businesswoman, and she just has an amazing life story. It, in every single way, was fascinating. When I got to Texas to publicize the book, she took me around, to various projects—she was a person of many, many projects—that she was working on, that involved young parents and trying to bring young Hispanic parents into the school system to get them more comfortable helping their kids to learn. She took me around to meet various people who were working on family planning issues and other things. She’s very into demographics and told me a lot about the demographics of Texas, and was one of the people who really convinced me that Texas was the future of the country, because of the size of the state and the size of the birth rate. She really brought me around on this whole thing. I would have to say she was one of my favorite people, all told. When I think of Texas, I also think of people like Sylvia. It’s not all Rick Perry.

PHOTO PROVIDED BY HERNAN TRUJILLO
Hernan Trujillo

Hernan Trujillo doesn’t have a cell phone. He doesn’t have a car. Getting to and from his two jobs takes about two hours on Metro buses, if he doesn’t miss any connections and the traffic is light. From 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., Trujillo washes dishes at a restaurant. From 5 p.m. until 9:30 p.m., he cleans more than 200 elevator landings at Reliant Energy Plaza, a skyscraper in downtown Houston. He lives in a two-bedroom apartment with four other people and spends much of his money supporting his parents, both of whom are sick and uninsured. His mother needs a knee replacement, but can’t afford it, so Trujillo pays for her pain medication. He is 29.

“Even if you work two or three jobs, it’s never enough,” he says.

Trujillo is one of 3,200 janitors represented by Local 1, the Houston-area janitors’ union organized by the Service Employees International Union. You can see him here getting knocked down by a police horse during a protest last Thursday in front of the JP Morgan Chase building. Local 1 has protested daily since mid-May, when negotiations over their new contract broke down. The janitors work for seven companies that provide cleaning services to some of Houston’s largest companies, including Exxon and Chevron. Their contract expired at the end of May.

Houston’s janitors unionized in 2006, before which they made minimum wage. Unionized Houston janitors now earn $8.35 an hour. Few of them are allowed to work 40 hours a week, so the average local janitor makes less than $9,000 a year. (The federal poverty line for one person is $11,170.) They want a $1.65 raise over the next three years, which would bring their hourly pay to $10. Their employers have offered a 50-cent raise over five years. Paloma Martinez, of the SEIU, calls that “insulting.”

“The industry could do so much better,” she says. “Fifty cents isn’t going to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Martinez points out that in other cities, such as Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit, the real estate market is worse than Houston’s—vacancy rates are higher and rents are lower—but their janitors make between $10.25 and $15.45, according to 2012 first-quarter data. Those janitors are also regularly allowed 40-hour work weeks, dramatically increasing their annual pay.

Local 1 held three limited strikes on June 5, 6, and 7, protesting alleged unfair labor practices, intimidation, and threats. Eleven workers were replaced after a one-day strike in Greenspoint, which the union says is illegal. They plan to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

None of the negotiators for the seven cleaning companies returned calls for comment.

Houston’s janitors are not alone in their struggle for a living wage. The asterisk to Perry’s much-crowed-over job creation is that many of those jobs paid very little and offered no benefits. Almost 10 percent of Texas jobs pay minimum wage ($7.25) or less, which ties the state with Mississippi for the greatest proportion of low-paying jobs.

“Everybody’s talking about the American dream, when you work hard, you get ahead,” Trujillo says, “but for us, that’s not true. Many of my coworkers don’t dare to turn on the air conditioning because the electricity bill will be so high they cannot pay it. What are you going to do? Put food on the table or pay the electricity bill? And the people who drive, are they going to put gas in the car or buy shoes for their children?”

“We’re just asking for fairness. We’re not trying to get rich,” he says. “You cannot leave this job and go to another place because the next person that is going to come to this job is going to have to face the same problem. We’re going to keep marching, we’re going to go on strike if it is needed, but we are not going to stop.”

In the three-and-a-half months since Trayvon Martin was killed, Houston courts have heard two cases involving the shooting of unarmed civilians and decided them very differently.

Last night, a Harris County jury found Raul Rodriguez guilty of murder for shooting his neighbor in 2010 over a noisy party. Kelly Danaher, a 36-year-old elementary school teacher, was having a birthday party for his wife and young daughter. Angry about the noise, Rodriguez armed himself with a handgun and video camera and recorded himself telling a police dispatcher, “my life is in danger now,” “these people are going to try and kill me,” and “I’m standing my ground here.” Rodriguez fatally shot Danaher in the street after someone tried to grab his video camera.

Dateline Houston wishes this were a depressing postmodern play about the dangerous, aggrandizing fantasies engendered by constant self-documentation in the social media age—but it’s not. It’s a real news story about a retired firefighter with a concealed carry permit and the Stand Your Ground law that made him think that saying aloud that he believed his life was in danger would protect him from all consequences.

The problem is, Rodriguez wasn’t a cop.

In April, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against two Houston-area cops who shot an unarmed black man, Robbie Tolan, in his driveway in 2008.

Here’s what happened—and please note, these events are not disputed; the issue at stake in the lawsuit was whether these events violated Tolan’s constitutional rights.

Tolan and his cousin were driving home in the wee hours of December 31. Officer John C. Edwards (who is white) was on patrol in the Bellaire neighborhood and ran Cooper’s plates—you know, just because. The plates came back as stolen—because Edwards had entered the plate number wrong.

Edwards called for back-up and confronted Tolan and his cousin on the front lawn, ordering them to the ground. Tolan’s parents heard the commotion and came outside in their pajamas, trying to explain that Tolan lived there and the car was theirs. One of the officers pushed Tolan’s mother toward the garage door and Tolan started to get up, objecting. Sgt. Jeffrey Wayne Cotton, who had been on the scene for 32 seconds, shot Tolan. Per the Chronicle: “Cotton said he thought Tolan was reaching for a gun in his waistband.”

Cotton was charged with first-degree aggravated assault by a public servant and found not guilty at trial in 2010. Naturally. Then the Toban family sued. They lost.

“Sergeant Cotton misinterpreted Robbie Tolan’s intended actions,” the judge wrote, “but his firing on Robbie Tolan did not violate Robbie Tolan’s constitutional rights because Sergeant Cotton feared for his life and could reasonably have believed the shooting was necessary.”

The firing of Jasper’s first black police chief, only a year after his appointment, has brought race tensions to the fore again, and residents are scared.

In June of 1998, three white supremacists in Jasper, dragged James Byrd Jr. behind a pickup truck until his head came off.

Thirteen years later, the city council, which at the time had four black council members and one white, named Rodney Pearson Jasper’s first black police chief. While the town was 46 percent white and 44 percent black, the police force had always been vastly white. Grumbles at the time suggested the pick was racially motivated and that Pearson, who had been Jasper’s first black highway patrolman, was unqualified. Three white candidates sued the city for “reverse discrimination.” Others pointed to the fact that Pearson, when he was 21, had been convicted of a class C misdemeanor for writing a hot check worth less than $20, which he neglected to mention on his application. (This is what conservative outlets claim is Pearson’s main disqualification.)

But Pearson hung on to his post—until now. In the year since Pearson’s appointment, white residents in Jasper organized the city’s first-ever recall election, (in which voter fraud was alleged) ousting three of the four black councilmembers and replacing them with whites, so that now the council’s balance is 4/5 white.

Last night, Pearson was fired. The reason? Job performance, they say, specifically that he allegedly took four unauthorized vacation days. The council is meeting today to discuss the firing. Council members swear up and down that his race is not the reason for the dismissal.

A white Jasper resident, who asked not to be named, told Dateline Houston that the Black Panthers are on their way to the city and that she fears the KKK will also come and there may be violence. “Regardless of what groups come, this is a big deal,” she says. “The white people are saying, ‘This isn’t about race at all!’ But it so obviously is.”

“When it has anything to do with racism, people get really angry. And when people get angry, they get stupid.” She adds, “We’re just going to stay in our house for a few days.”

We’ll keep you posted.