Dateline Houston

PHOTO BY WILLIAM RUB
One of Houston's new B-cycle kiosks.

Observers have long speculated that Houston’s famous weight problem might be due in part to its car dependency. Now we have proof.

A study of Texas drivers published this week in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, shows that—surprise—a long commute can make you sick. Researchers examined more that 4200 adults in the Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin areas and found long commutes correlated with high blood pressure, increased waist size, decreased heart function and lower likelihood of getting enough exercise. A driver with a commute of 16 to 20 miles is 52 percent more likely to be obese.

The average Houston commute? Twenty-one miles.

Research also shows Houstonians are sick of it. A Kinder Institute survey released in late April reported that 56 percent of Harris County respondents called development of better mass transit “very important” to Houston’s future, and 51 percent preferred taxpayer money go to improved rail and bus systems rather than expanding existing highways.

All of this may make Houston’s latest green move more likely to succeed. Last Wednesday, Mayor Annise Parker kicked off B-cycle, a program that lets riders check out bicycles downtown for up to 90 minutes for free. Full-day rentals are $5 and riders can buy a year-long pass for $50. The program is starting with just 15 bikes at three locations, but the mayor hopes to have 200 bikes available by the end of the year.

Fifteen U.S. cities have bike-share programs, and New York is rolling one out in July. So what if their obesity rate is only 20 percent? We got bikes!

In Houston over the weekend, patriots gathered for the national summit of True the Vote, the tea-party-affiliated poll watching outfit that might be saving democracy or destroying it, depending on whom you ask.

Reality was much in question during the two-day conference, where speakers made a sophisticated argument about the fundamental subjectivity of the human experience. In other words, they argued that if enough people think something, it must be true.

Coverage of the conference in the Nation focused on TTV speakers’ obsession with a recent Rasmussen poll that showed 64 percent of Americans believe that voter fraud exists. (Of course, an April 2011 poll found that a quarter of Americans think Obama was born abroad, so that means he’s definitely native, right?) Three speakers cited the poll as if it were actually evidence of fraud.

“They were stuck in a reality that was unfamiliar to anyone who’s been paying attention to voter issues,” writes the Nation’s Brentin Mock. “Speakers—among them Heritage Foundation’s Hans Von Spakovsky, Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton and former title-challenged DOJ employee J. Christian Adams—spoke about the voter ID cause as if they were failing, as if sixteen states didn’t pass photo voter ID laws, most of them in just the past eighteen months. As if a federal court didn’t just validate a strict photo voter ID law in Arizona the week before the conference.”

True the Vote is a project of the King Street Patriots, a supposedly nonpartisan group founded in Houston in 2009 that recently got called out by a district judge for being an unregistered political action committee (PAC) that illegally aided Republicans during the 2010 elections. True the Vote trained and dispatched about 1000 volunteers to mostly minority neighborhoods to look for 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.”

Now True the Vote aspires to send a million volunteers to do the same at this year’s elections.

The progress or failure of voter ID efforts was but one of the conference’s conflicting realities.

A dispatch on Breitbart.com claims, “The event drew protests from paid union protesters and a few known Occupiers,” –which makes one wonder who’s keeping a list of known Occupiers— but adds, “the protesters were largely ignored and left after only an hour or two.”

But Mock reports, “The only people gathered outside the conference hotel were a bunch of African-American motorcycle clubs on their bikes, a few of whom told me they had no idea who True the Vote was or that they had a conference going on.”

Why is the presence of protesters even important? Because it’s so much more exciting be a group of freedom fighters, violently opposed, the underdogs holding back the hordes of evildoers, than to be 200 largely ignored tea partiers in the ballroom of a suburban Sheraton.

“We are talking about the demise of our democracy, and it is slow-motion suicide,” warned speaker Pat Caddell, a longtime Democratic strategist turned Fox News contributor.

But if this is true the way he meant it, the motion is very slow indeed. As the Houston Chronicle noted in March in the amusingly titled, “Facts elusive in Texas voter ID fight,” “Fewer than five complaints involving voter impersonations were filed with the Texas Attorney General’s Office from the 2008 and 2010 general elections, which drew more than 13 million voters.”

But that was enough to prompt Texas Attorney General Greg Abbot to pen, in an op-ed in USA Today that month, “In Texas, evidence of voter fraud abounds. In recent years, my office has secured more than 50 voter fraud convictions.”

But hey. Definitions of “abound” abound.

Another contested definition at the conference was “nonpartisan.”

The Chronicle’s Joe Holley reports cannily, “Several speakers were determinedly nonpartisan, or bipartisan, despite the rightward leanings of their audience. ‘We don’t take a position on President Obama’s election. We take a position on free and fair elections,’ said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a Washington-based government watchdog group.

“It was also Fitton, however, who delivered a warning: ‘I fear the Obama gang is setting themselves up to steal the election.’

“He also accused the president of wanting ‘to register the food stamp army to vote for him.’”

It may have been the day’s most reality-based statement—not regarding the president’s intentions, but True the Vote’s.

Poor people voting? Who wants that?

Meet Helena Brown. The zany rookie Houston City Council member from District A has made the news again, this time for the resignations of her two highest ranking staff members. It’s just the latest in the saga of the council’s most conservative and outspoken member, a 34-year-old former receptionist who lives with her parents and sticks to her guns.

The Houston Chronicle reported Monday that Brown’s chief of staff, Leticia Ablaza, and chief deputy director, Rasuali Bray, have resigned. Another staffer resigned in March.

Brown had previously garnered press for having the council’s only part-time staff, two of whom worked 22 hours a week and five of whom worked 39, classifying all as part-time employees, which denies them health insurance, pensions, or vacations.

A statement from her office at the time characterized this as fiscal conservatism, claiming, “The Council Member and all her staff were offered benefits but declined, choosing to opt for their own health care coverage in the private sector where it is more cost effective for employees, and let us not forget, for the City too!”

That enthusiastic budget hawkery has been Brown’s hallmark in the first few months of her two-year term. By February, she had already voted against spending on “the renovation of a women’s shelter, a street’s reconstruction, the purchase of a police boat, payment to caregivers for the chronically ill, a study on people at risk for HIV infection, gas cards and the cleaning of public pools,” noted the Chronicle.

District A is the Spring Branch area, a multi-ethnic blend of working-class and middle class homes, townhomes, and apartments. In its endorsement of the one-term incumbent, Brenda Stardig, the Chronicle observed that Spring Branch is poised for economic growth but struggles with traffic, drainage, and public safety problems. Houston blogger Charles Kuffner wondered presciently, after Brown won the 2011 election with eight percent turn-out, “It will be interesting to see how CM-Elect Helena Brown reconciles her professed political beliefs with the sort of things that constituents tend to expect to get done. Maybe there is such a thing as a Republican pothole.”

Or not.

For someone in city government, Brown seems to have a very limited, tea party-flavored idea of what the government should do. At a recent meeting, she voted against two energy-efficient building projects because she felt they were part of the U.N.’s Agenda 21, a non-binding resolution to combat city sprawl passed in 1992. Conspiracy theorists on the far right have trotted out Agenda 21 as a bogeyman equating green initiatives with foreign control.

“This is the United States of America. We don’t answer to anyone but the good old U. S. of A.,” Brown said during the April 11 meeting, teetering on self-parody. “By this vote, we’re giving $26 million to a non-American initiative and interests.” She also voted for another LEED-certified project because it came in under budget, but intoned, “Let the citizens of Houston hereby know that promoting expensive artwork and conforming to Agenda 21 has priority over their well-being.”

Such pronouncements are common, made for an audience but having little effect, since Brown’s is often the only “no” vote. At the same meeting where she invoked Agenda 21, Brown also voted against funding for a long-standing program that provides birth control and education to low-income women. Her remarks, taken verbatim from video of the meeting, are worth reading in full.

“This item, number 12, an authoritarian type item here. First of all, we do not have the money. We don’t have a printing press at City Hall. The city’s broke, the state is going broke, the federal government is going broke, and to continue throwing money, hard-earned constituent tax dollars on stuff such as this, um. How about showing our young people how to free themselves from the slavery of sexual promiscuity and empowering them through abstinence education? Perhaps for some that’s a shocking consideration, but, you know, our nation needs to return to our foundation of Biblical principles being taught in schools, versus the government trying to educate folks on how to plan a family when they can’t even define a family. Rather sterilize our young girls. My vote’s no on this.”

Brown is a “real conservative,” which is the kind of conservative that questions other conservatives’ conservatism. The Chronicle’s Chris Moran, who’s been on top of the Brown beat, reported in March, “Councilman Mike Sullivan, until January by far the Council’s most conservative member, was so outflanked from the right by a Council newcomer Wednesday that he found himself uttering into his microphone: ‘I am not a communist.’”

At issue was a proposed denial of an electric rate increase in Sullivan’s district. “I understand the folks in Kingwood are conservatives,” Brown said. “They do not believe in the regulation of rates of businesses. That’s communism.”

Sullivan snapped, “Truthfully, I don’t think you have a clue what Kingwood believes in.”

Besides her no votes, Brown has also become notorious for tags. Council members can put an item of city business on hold for a week for any reason simply by tagging it. By the end of February, Brown’s colleagues were so fed up with her frequent tags that they twice voted to override them, a rare parliamentary procedure characterized as a “nuclear option” by Council member Mike Laster.

Brown led the charge against the mayor’s controversial restrictions on feeding the homeless, often chatting with and extending time for the dozens of speakers who attended three City Council meetings to oppose the ordinance. In a press release following the proposal’s passage, Brown stumped for the downtrodden and warned of the dire consequences of their neglect. “This ordinance will discourage an already discouraged people who give and it will further disadvantage an already disadvantaged people who are homeless. Crime will increase as the homeless become hungry and desperate and resort to criminal activity to survive,” she said in the statement.

But at the following week’s meeting, she voted against accepting $1.1 million in federal grants to provide housing and supportive services for the homeless. During her remarks, she claimed that the taxpayers of Houston spend $500 million annually on services to the homeless.

Her office hasn’t responded to requests for comment.

Brown has 20 months left in her term.

Gov. Rick Perry was in Houston today to unveil his Texas Budget Compact, five fiscal tenets that he hopes will influence the coming primary season and carry over into next year’s legislative session.

Subtitled “Principles for a Stronger Texas,” they were:

- Practice truth in budgeting;

- Support a Constitutional limit of spending to the growth of population and inflation;

- Oppose any new taxes or tax increases, and make the small business tax exemption permanent;

- Preserve a strong Rainy Day Fund;

- Cut unnecessary and duplicative government programs and agencies.

Standing in front of a pristine blue semi truck inside a New World Van Lines warehouse in northwest Houston, Perry addressed the press and a crowd of about a hundred supporters, who burst into hearty applause repeatedly during his half-hour speech. Arriving fifteen minutes late, Perry looked confident and clear-eyed in a dark grey suit and cornflower blue tie, his hair graying at the temples.

His remarks, and those of state Sen. Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican, and two supporters who followed, formed a kind of conservative bingo: “True conservative,” check. “Job creators,” check. Derision of Washington, Obamacare and California, check.

Michael Quinn Sullivan of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility explained that being the most fiscally conservative state was no great accomplishment for Texas, “like being the least drunk person at the bar. California is sitting in the corner drooling on itself and muttering about ex-girlfriends.” He also said it was nice to be out of “the People’s Republic of Austin.” Texas, he said, is “the shining city on a hill” that Ronald Reagan talked about. Check twice.

Perry warned that some would want to use the increased tax revenue from Texas’ recovering economy to restore budget cuts. “Going on a spending spree here in Texas is the single worst thing we can do,” he said. “We have to treat each dollar as respectfully and carefully as we can.”

Perry suggested being less careful with Medicaid recipients.

“The cost of Medicaid is a ticking time bomb,” Perry said, adding that “this process will accelerate if the Supreme Court doesn’t find Obamacare unconstitutional.” Hauntingly, he called for Washington to allow Texas to “take care of our citizens as we see fit,” by distributing Medicaid funds to the state in block grants.

In a very brief press conference afterward, Perry answered two questions from a Fox affiliate. “We’re starting to hear another round of wailing and gnashing of teeth from school districts,” one question began. Did the Governor think they “will mind” the Texas Budget Compact?

Perry replied that things were tough all over, saying this was the “same as in 1985. We managed to make our ends meet.” He added, “The school boards will prioritize what’s important and they’ll fund that.”

Perry declined another reporter’s request to name any of the programs he considered “unnecessary and duplicative,” steering clear of a familiar minefield.

He said he wasn’t going to ask for anyone to actually sign a pledge to uphold his Budget Compact—but that other organizations might. But if Perry isn’t going to ask anyone to actually sign the pledge, one might wonder just what the whole thing was about.

Photo op for a weakened politician coming off a disastrous presidential run? Check.

Update: I was in error. As wise readers alerted me, the ordinance discussed in the original post below applies to all of Houston, not just the central business district. Also: stay tuned for news on the petition drive opposing the ordinance.

For over a month, angry Houstonians have pummeled City Council with questions about why the mayor is trying to severely restrict feeding the homeless. Of the many answers offered, the most honest came on Tuesday afternoon, during the Council’s third multi-hour session of public comment. Sandra McMasters, general manager of the downtown Spaghetti Warehouse, spoke in support of the ordinance, which would require anyone feeding more than five homeless people at a time to first obtain written permission from the property owner, including the city in the case of public areas. She said her restaurant had been negatively affected by its proximity to an overpass where charitable groups often feed the homeless, causing a semi-permanent encampment with attendant “aggressive panhandling,” for which she often called the cops, and potential customers having “to walk past the smell of urine and feces.”

“I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t with my customers,” she said. Some of them want to help the homeless and some of them, she said, “It’s an out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing.”

The crowd booed. The overwhelming majority of speakers had opposed the ordinance, and they hailed from the whole political spectrum. The Food Not Bombs kids had alternated with tea partiers and clergy. Homeschooling moms, immigrants’ rights activists and several of the formerly homeless decried the new rules as an enemy of freedom, goodness, and the American Way. So why didn’t the mayor drop the rules after the first few hours of public outcry?

Ms. McMasters told us why, though she may not have meant to: visibility. The homeless ordinance, which was originally presented with a host of other stipulations and justified as, among other things, protecting the homeless from food poisoning, was really about visibility. Offering food to groups of homeless people encourages grouping, and groups are harder to ignore than individuals, even when their clothes match the color of the pavement.

The proof is in the ordinance’s evolution. The original, brought by Mayor Annise Parker, was elaborate. It required those who would feed the homeless to register with the city, prepare the meal in a commercial kitchen, serve it within four hours of preparation, have a member of their group take a food safety class, and leave serving areas as clean as they were found. The registration, she said, was intended to promote coordination and prevent waste, “so that churches, for example, don’t show up on top of each other trying to feed the same group of 20 guys,” Parker said when the ordinance was first presented in early March. The food service standards were to make sure the homeless weren’t fed less safely than restaurant diners. The original ordinance, it’s worth noting, was supported by the largest local groups who feed the homeless, including Star of Hope and SEARCH Homeless Services. But smaller groups, churches, and many individuals questioned the reasoning, asking for data on the rash of food poisonings among the homeless that must have prompted mayoral action.

In response, Parker made all elements of the ordinance voluntary except the securing of written permission by the property owner, and lowered the fine from violations from up to $2000 to up to $500. When opponents pointed out that trespassing was already illegal, making the ordinance redundant, the mayor countered that she was providing a lesser penalty than a trespassing arrest. Still, the justification didn’t satisfy.

So it was almost a relief to see the ordinance amended and passed yesterday, stripped of pretense, making perfectly plain what and for whom it really was. The amended ordinance, which takes effect July 1st, still demands that those who would feed the homeless first get written permission from the property owner—but it only applies to the central business district.

The state is pushing back against a court order that would force it to move more than 150 inmates into psychiatric hospitals by June 1, reports the Austin-American Statesman.

Dateline Houston applauded the January decision that demanded the Department of State Health Services move forensic inmates—prisoners deemed incompetent to stand trial—into a state mental hospital within 21 days of a judge’s order.

It’s a problem that gets written about periodically, but was never a priority until state District Judge Orlinda Naranjo’s order.

Now, state officials have responded with a resounding, “We can’t.”

The problem is this: forensic inmates, who are often arrested for nonviolent offenses and have to be in pretty acute psychological distress to be deemed incompetent, must be made competent, usually through medication, before they can be tried. These prisoners are sick and not yet convicted of anything, but because of their sickness, they can’t move through the system like others can. Some facilities, like the Harris County Jail, have the resources to treat incompetent inmates in-house, but most don’t—which means sick prisoners are waiting untreated, often for several months, for a bed to open up at a state mental hospital so they can begin treatment. Many prisoners wait for a bed for longer than their sentences would have been had they been healthy enough to be sentenced right away.

Judge Naranjo’s order stemmed from a 2007 lawsuit brought by Disability Rights Texas, which advocates for the disabled, including people with mental illness. The lawsuit claimed that the delay in getting prisoners into hospitals violated their rights to due process, and Judge Naranjo agreed. “The relevant state interests do not outweigh the Incompetent Detainees’ liberty interest,” she wrote. In other words, a shortage of state beds isn’t a good enough reason to deprive someone of his liberty.

The Texas attorney general’s office has asked Judge Naranjo to review the decision and also appealed the ruling with the Texas Third Court of Appeals.

“The short timelines set forth in the court’s order makes it physically, fiscally, and logistically impossible for DSHS to comply and indicates a lack of appreciation for the magnitude of the task and the complications inherent in implementing the order,” the state writes in the motion for a new trial.

It estimates that compliance would cost between $39 million and $55.2 million.

Beth Mitchell of Disability Rights Texas tells the Statesman, “Money cannot be a reason to let people languish in jails.”

When Cindy Sheehan sprang into the public consciousness in 2005, it was as an everymom, a former youth minister now the grieving parent of a young soldier killed in Iraq. Sheehan set up camp outside President George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford on the first day of his five-week vacation, demanding an audience with Bush to ask for what her son had really died. The media dubbed her “Peace Mom,” she was embraced by the anti-war movement, and hundreds of other activists joined in her vigil. Members of Congress and celebrities visited her at “Camp Casey,” named after her dead son.

Since then, Sheehan has made a life as a full-time activist, speaking regularly at anti-war events and producing a radio show which she airs on her website, cindysheehanssoapbox.com. She’s published three books and self-published two more. She’s in Texas this week promoting the most recent of those, Revolution: A Love Story, about Venezuela.

Tuesday night, she’ll hold a town-hall style meeting and book discussion at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Pecore Hall in Houston at 7:00 p.m. She’ll continue to Austin for events at Book Woman and Brave New Books, then to a Camp Casey reunion.

We spoke on Sunday about her disillusionment with the Democratic Party and her discovery of socialism, her unsuccessful run against for Congress against Nancy Pelosi in 2008 and the unlikely friendships she’s made along the way.

On life as an activist

“My whole operation is a very grassroots, seat-of-the-pants kind of thing. I don’t have health insurance. There’s no way I would be able to afford it. I’ve cut back on everything enormously to be able to do this. I rent a room. I don’t have a car. I just have my clothes, and my computer is my most valuable possession, and I have a cell phone. That’s about it. I try just to live very simply so I can do this full time. So I do a lot of fundraising, I sell my books, people contribute to the cause and everything, and so that’s how I’m able to survive. Do I fear being homeless? No. I’m sure there’s probably about 10,000 people I could crash with if it was between sleeping in a bed and sleeping on the street. But it’s much harder to be an activist now than it was when Bush was president.”

On the military

“In our Constitution—which is something that I have a lot of problems with—it says that we can’t have a standing military. If there is a real threat to the United States, then it’s supposed to be, you know, the militias or a draft to draft people into the military to respond to these situations. I am for self-defense and defending your communities, if that’s necessary, but if you have a standing army or military, they have to be used. They give the war profiteers and the globalists their tools to spread imperialism. I am against the military we have now and I’m against the way that it’s used. I think that if there’s a situation and we do need to defend the United States, then it should be a universal draft: men, women, rich, poor, whatever. It should be 100 percent. No exemptions or anything.

“If there are wars, they have to be first declared by Congress, and then there’s like a hierarchy of people who go to war. The first people who go to war would be the people who profit from war or their children, if they’re within the age range. And the next people would be congresspeople or senators, and the president. And then the lower you are on the economic scale, the lower you are in draftability. That’s the Cindy Sheehan National Defense plan.”

On public office

“[In 2007] my two employees and I decided that we were going to concentrate more on humanitarian work and people who were harmed by the U.S., because it seemed like people here just weren’t getting it. Then, Nancy Pelosi—first she refused to hold George Bush accountable, but then he commuted Scooter Libby’s sentence and I was like, Okay, are you going to do something now, Pelosi? I was ready to just retire or whatever but then I had this ‘brilliant’ idea to run against Pelosi.

“I really learned so much in that campaign about how unrealistic it is… Even then, after all the trouble and hurt and everything I’d been through, I still thought that somebody who really cared and had this brilliant platform would have a chance. That somebody that really had this burning desire to make things better would have a chance, but no. We really don’t.

“I’ve tried to stay more local and do smaller bits of the puzzle. I really believe the answer to the world’s problems is localization. We can be just as active locally and make more [of] a difference, and have more satisfaction and more success, more celebrations. I talk about getting into your city government, your school boards and stuff like that as really it’s better than trying to run for Congress, or run for president or senator or whatever, because that’s where you have the most effect on the things that we really should care about as a community.”

On Obama and the Democrats

“It’s so frustrating to me. Barack Obama has done so many things that, if it was John McCain or George Bush doing the same thing, people would just be flipping out, totally upset about it. And they’re not. Most of them support it and rationalize it. I honestly think it shows an immense lack of integrity, vision, and purpose. We were against the wars when Bush was president but now we’re not so much against them. I think we get so wrapped up in this mythology—one of the myths in [Sheehan’s fourth book] Myth America is that there’s a difference between the Democrats and Republicans on the national level. We have so much invested in it that we lose the ability to be critical thinkers and stay focused on what’s important. If you like Obama, I don’t really care, but if you oppose war and you oppose other oppressions, then you have to be vocal and you have to protest. They’re so afraid that if they do that they’re going to get a Republican in office or something. They need to realize that it’s not the president of the United States who’s in charge of anything anyway.

“I think it’s really scary. Obama has been able to further the agenda, whatever that agenda is—you know, I’m not an Alex Jones, I don’t think it’s the Illuminati or whatever—but whatever the agenda is and whoever makes the agenda, it’s been able to go much farther during Obama than it was during Bush.

“People told me things [at Camp Casey] that I didn’t believe or listen to, like, ‘Oh, you’re being used by the Democrats.’ ‘But the Democratic Party promised me that they would help end the wars!’ ‘But you don’t know the Democratic Party. They’re going to betray you.’ I wish I had listened to that. Because we worked really hard to get Democrats in power and then they did, and they were just being themselves. I had been warned that was what they were going to do, but I didn’t want to believe it.”

On socialism

“I always get offended when people call Obama a socialist. Like, why are you giving socialism a bad name? Socialism is a good thing!

“After the campaign, I wrote Myth America. I wouldn’t have identified myself as a socialist back then, but I reviewed my platform when I was running against Pelosi, and Myth America is sort of this organic Marxism where we belong to cooperatives and collectives to make things better, where the people have control over the system. I didn’t even really know then that a lot of my ideas were Marxist in nature because by that point I hadn’t read Marx. I did this real class critique and I thought that I had all these brilliant ideas that I was making up myself. So when I went on tour with that book, that’s when I started to realize that yeah, I was a socialist, and what I was proposing wasn’t that different from what they were doing already in countries like Venezuela and Cuba.”

On Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

“I was invited to Caracas to go to the World Social Forum and Chavez had a big rally and invited some people from the Social Forum to sit up on the dais with him. I was one of those people. But then when I was in one of the workshops they came and got me and I went to the presidential palace to meet with him. That’s the first time we really had one-on-one talk. But you know, the only thing I knew about him at the time was he was very vocally opposed to George Bush and the U.S. empire.

“This was 2006. After I got back, I got attacked for meeting with him. Not just by the right-wingers—they attack everything I do—but by so-called people on the left. I thought, wow this is really weird, I wonder what they have against him. So I started doing more research and I researched about the Bolivarian Revolution that he’s been leading, and about Venezuela, about him, about socialism. And just really became more and more and more an admirer of Chavez and what he’s doing in Venezuela. So as part of my radio show, I put through the proper channels to interview him. Six weeks later I found out that my request had been approved and I could go to Venezuela. So I got to spend more time with him on that visit, there was this big event that I was invited as a special guest, and I flew down to Uruguay with him on his presidential plane. He was attending an inauguration of the new president of Uruguay and I got to interview him in Uruguay.

“I think the relationship is one of mutual respect and admiration. He nicknamed me. He used to call George Bush ‘Señor Peligro,’ Mr. Danger. He used to call me, ‘Señora Esperanza,’ Mrs. Hope. He’s an amazing person, really. I‘ve met with all of the main politicians in the United States and get nothing but—here, Sheehan holds her hand out in front of her face]—they have this shield. But he’s not just brilliant thinker, not just courageous, but he’s a real warm human being.”

On what’s next for her

“I’m really seriously considering running for governor of California in 2014. The population of Venezuela and California are very similar. We could lead the way of sustainability and education, of health care, of making corporations pay their fair share, corporations and rich people. We have the potential, we have done it before. It could be a real leader again. Now we lead, we have the biggest deficit. Education is, I don’t even know what number it is in education, but I just heard and I was shocked and appalled that California was so low in education.

“I would like to move California back to the left. But just talking about right and left, what we’re talking about is humanity, human issues. The right to healthcare, the right to education, the right to, if you want to work, to get a livable wage, not a minimum wage, all these things, the right to be able to breathe clean air, drink clean water. They’re human rights. But in the U.S. we consider them privileges. But these countries in Latin America consider them human rights.

“Venezuela has this big movement for housing now, because they have a shortage of housing. So what they’re doing is something that would never happen in the U.S. They’re taking property owned by banks that hasn’t be used for, you know, so many years, appropriating it, and building housing on it. And they’re giving it to the people for either like no interest rate, no down payment, so it’s based on what you can afford.

“Here in the U.S., we have about 2-3 million homeless people and about 18 million vacant housing units. How is that? If every homeless person got their own house, which a lot of those are families and children, there’d still be 15 million vacant housing units in the U.S. It’s appalling! Hello! It’s really simple.

“Governor Cindy says that corporations will be taxed more and if they threaten to leave then that’s fine, we’ll just take their assets and their means of production and give it to the people of California because it really belongs to the people of California anyway, right? So, if people hear that and they say, ‘Hmmm,’ and they start thinking about things like that, then that’s a successful campaign.”

A family of protesters at the Back to Life Walk

plannedparenthood1Every Saturday morning at six, Sheila’s television comes on. She listens to it as she dresses, and then she drives to the Planned Parenthood building off I-45 in Houston, dons a neon-green vest that says “Planned Parenthood Volunteer,” and stands by the driveway, outside a tall black metal fence laced with dark vines, for hours. She doesn’t go home until the protesters do. Sheila is 69. She’s been doing this for 20 years.

“I started coming here just before the Republican convention in 1992,” she said when we met at the clinic on Saturday. “I had been to a friend’s funeral, Eileen, and the woman giving her eulogy said, ‘For Eileen, let’s all pledge to do something outrageously liberal.’ So I decided getting up at 6 a.m. and defending the clinic was outrageous enough.”

Sheila doesn’t want her last name in print—“It’s the one little wall I put around myself,” she says. “There are all kinds of people here. Some are well-meaning. Some are mean-spirited. This is the only place you can legally yell at women.”

On a normal Saturday, about 20 protesters gather on the sidewalk here, outside the gate or across the street, sometimes with signs, sometimes with red tape over their mouths that says “LIFE” or “VIDA.” On this day, around 150 people have assembled to launch the Back to Life Walk. It’s a 21-day trek from what they’re calling America’s largest abortion clinic (see this Houston Chronicle blog entry on that claim) to the courthouse in Dallas, the “birthplace of Roe v. Wade.” Thirty-nine women, symbolizing 39 years of legal abortion, are making the trek, beginning today and scheduled to end on Good Friday.

I arrived in the middle of the prayer rally, which comprised several small groups scattered along the sidewalks on either side of the street beside the fenced parking lot. There were many children, large families, often in matching T-shirts, and the majority wore the red “LIFE” tape over their mouths. They stood together with heads down, in groups of five or six, kept off the clinic’s grass by volunteers like Sheila and off the street by half a dozen bored-looking police. A priest stood beside a statue of Mary on a folding table. A short nun in a gray habit wore sunglasses.

The Back to Life walk was organized by Laura Allred, a young Latina who said in the post-prayer news conference that she felt called by God to become an activist when she heard Planned Parenthood was building a facility in the neighborhood where she grew up. “Mostly who would be targeted would be young Latina women,” she said, which led her to select for the walk 39 women in their 20s, largely women of color.

The conference, which didn’t seem to draw any major local news outlets, was held across the street from the Planned Parenthood clinic, crowded deeply onto the sidewalk beside a chain-link fence around a warehouse parking lot. Logistics were not excellent. Once the speakers, walkers, and a young, twisted woman on a stretcher were assembled photogenically, the whole group had to part to let three pickup trucks escape the lot.

plannedparenthood2Speeches were brief and freighted with the language of social justice. “The God who ended slavery is the same God today,” intoned Pastor Lou Engle. “The God who raised up Martin Luther King and ended the Jim Crow laws will end abortion.” Switching referents, he added, “The women of America have had a trail of tears.”

The King reference was no coincidence—his niece Alveda King was on hand at the rally, to sing a hymn and read from the 13th chapter of Corinthians. “Love is patient, love is kind…” Rev. Arnold Culbreath called abortion the leading cause of death in the black community. Then two walkers told their personal stories. One said she would never have been born if her mother, a college freshman, hadn’t changed her mind the night before her scheduled abortion. The other was 16 years old and five months pregnant when she had her first abortion. “I was kicking and screaming in pain,” she said. “I didn’t get any sedation. The nurses were saying, ‘Be still, be quiet, you made this choice.’”

plannedparenthood3Protecting women from choice was the day’s painful, earnest theme. “There’s a war on women,” Pastor Engle said, wrapping up the news conference. “And the pro-abortion community would have you believe it’s a war to take away women’s rights to reproductive health. These 39 women have a different story. Abortion hurts women, not only physically but emotionally and spiritually.” He urged the crowd to pray for President Obama “to become a pro-life president. God can do it.”

Some protesters were less positive. “We pray for our president, but we’re opposed to his policies,” began 70-year-old Addison Thorn. “He’s a merchant of death. That’s his title, Merchant of Death.”

“Yeah, the president is even for those late-term abortions, with, like, body parts sticking out,” added Jonathan Davidson, 29.

As a car slowed to pull into the Planned Parenthood parking lot, Davidson jogged up to it, trying to hand the driver a pamphlet. A volunteer in a green vest shooed him off.

Looking proud, he trotted back to me. “It’s not a women’s rights issue,” Davidson said. “They try to make it about women’s health. As if any Christian here would be against cervical cancer screenings or whatever!” He laughed. “It’s not a political issue. It’s a life issue. A zygote is a human life. It’s so simple.” He opened the pamphlet. “See, there’s a heartbeat four days after a missed period.”

“I think it’s week six,” I said.

He smiled indulgently and pointed back at the pamphlet. “By the time a woman pees on a stick and sees two little lines,” he said, “the heart’s already beating. That’s not politics. It’s just science.”

By this time, the 39 women had stretched a little, drawn into a long line, some laughing and some grave, and begun their 250-mile walk to cheers. The crowd dispersed quickly after. The Mary statue was already gone.

Sheila was still there.

Houston, you are superlative.

If you’ve ever noticed you’d reached the Houston city limits because other drivers started cutting you off, it’s not your imagination. A report from Men’s Health this week names Houston the fourth most dangerous city in which to drive, based on statistics about car crashes, hit-and-runs, and seatbelt use. (The Houston Press had a tragic story Wednesday about a driver that killed a pedestrian, checked the damage to his car, and drove away.) Austin was the only other Texas city on the list, ranking tenth.

And if you’ve ever gawked at the $21,000 ostrich feather ball gowns at Neiman Marcus and wondered who actually wears them, Forbes has the answer. Last week, the magazine released a list of the wealthiest people in America, and of them, seven of the 100 richest live in Houston. Dallas has six in the top 100, Austin and Fort Worth two each and San Antonio one, but Houston boasts the most residents in the tippy top of the one percent.

Houston also got word last week that it’s the most ethnically diverse large metropolitan area in the country, according to a Rice University report that analyzed census data from 1990, 2000, and 2010. The percentage of Anglos in Houston dropped from 58 percent in 1990 to 40 percent in 2010. For contrast, New York City is 48.9 percent Anglo.

And of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that the March issue of Men’s Fitness again named Houston the country’s fattest city. The magazine says 34 percent of Houstonians are overweight, blaming the heat, humidity, and the average work commute of almost half an hour. It also mentions that Houston has the highest number of fast food restaurants in the country—1,034. El Paso and Dallas also make the fattest list, at 7th and 25th respectively. Only Austin (12th) and San Antonio (25th) make the 25 fittest cities list.

For better or worse, Houston is all about extremes.

Private prisons are supposed to save taxpayers money, but that’s not how it worked out in Liberty County.

When state District Judge Mark Morefield took the bench in Liberty County in January 2011, he was overwhelmed by the backlog of cases confronting him. “The docket was out of control,” he told the Cleveland Rotary Club at a luncheon this January, as reported by the Cleveland Advocate. Last April, Morefield joined three others—District Judge Chap B. Cain, County Judge Craig McNair, and County Court-at-Law Judge Tommy Chambers—to hatch a plan to deal with the docket and its expense to taxpayers. “We put pressure on both sides, Texas and the defense, to get their cases ready and get them disposed of,” Morefield told the Observer. “It’s worked. We’ve moved a lot of cases.”

In addition to addressing the docket backlog, Morefield and the other judges sought to reduce the number of people in the county jail. They instituted a personal recognizance (PR) bond program.

First-time offenders who cannot afford bond, and whose arrests did not involve assault, domestic violence, intoxication or a sex crime, are eligible for consideration. A PR bond is essentially a promise to appear in court, but Morefield says he and the other judges had been previously hesitant to assign PR bonds because there was no oversight of defendants once they were released.

Under the new program, each defendant is considered individually and the conditions of his or her release are tailored. If they don’t report, “we immediately issue a warrant for their arrest and put them back in jail,” Morefield said.

When the program started in June, the county jail housed 231 inmates, which cost the county $46.50 each per day to the private company that runs the jail. Since then, the number of inmates has dropped significantly, to 132 in December, though it has crept up slightly since.

But the for-profit company that manages the jail—Community Education Centers—has responded by increasing its rates. The price per inmate has gone up to almost $60 per day. Even with the increased rate, Morefield estimates the reduction in the jail population has saved the county at least $700,000, though it could have been more.

Meanwhile, the county has extended its contract with Community Education Centers. The county is trying to get other companies interested, but Morefield said, “with our PR bond program and success at reducing the inmate population, we kind of shot ourselves in the foot … In other words, if you reduce the population below a particular figure, the cost per inmate goes up.”

“It’s designed to ensure a certain level of profitability, and I understand that,” he continued. “But perhaps it’s time that Liberty County, through the Commissioners Court, takes a hard look at whether or not it would be feasible for the county to resume operating the jail itself.

“Maybe private enterprise can do it at a rate that government cannot compete with. But I just reject the concept that every time government undertakes a task, it’s got to cost 1.5 times what it costs private enterprise to do the same task.

I’m not making a blanket condemnation of privatization. Some counties, that’s the only way they can go. But there are counties out there that still run their own jail program. After 15 years [of privatization], let’s look and see, is this something we can do ourselves?”