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Dateline Houston

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.

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. 

The LaRouchian from Left Field

Democratic Nominee for Congress Compares Obama to Hitler. A LaRouche Democrat wins primary… again.

“Oh, no! Aliens, bio-duplication, nude conspiracies… Oh my God! Lyndon LaRouche was right!” —Homer Simpson

What do you get when you combine the most entertaining parts of the tea party, libertarianism, and the foil hat club?

A…. Democrat?

Yes. Specifically, a LaRouche Democrat. Lyndon LaRouche is an 89-year-old conspiracy theorist with a cult following that likens Obama to Hitler, advocates a world gold standard, and wants to colonize Mars. Oh, and self-identifies as Democratic.

Fringe, you say?

They became slightly less fringe last week when Spring Branch Democrats (and, likely, a few snickering Republicans) handed the Democratic primary for Texas’ Congressional District 22 to a LaRouche Democrat named Kesha Rogers, whose campaign signs declaim, “Impeach Obama Now!”

But unlike Lloyd Oliver and a few other characters having their 15 minutes this election cycle, Rogers’ win wasn’t a fluke. Running in the same district In 2010, she took more than half the vote in a three-way primary. Fortunately for all those Democrats who believe Obama isn’t Hitler-like, CD 22 is a Republican seat, and Rogers got trounced in the 2010 genera election. She won just south of 30 percent against Congressman Pete Olson. But in doing so, she was just emulating LaRouche himself, who ran unsuccessfully for president eight times between 1976 and 2004. (One of those times, whilst he was in prison for tax evasion.)

Rogers will encounter Olson again in November. The results will probably be similar.

Rogers is a 35-year-old Houston native whose non-political experience I can’t get a fix on, though neither can I locate a political job she’s actually acquired. In 2006, she ran unsuccessfully for chairman of the Texas Democratic Party and credits her deep knowledge of the district to that campaign. That appears to have been her first effort.

The biography on her website,, raises more questions than it answers. Rogers (presumably) writes, “After graduating college in 2001 with a BA in Political Science and Speech Communications from Texas State University, I realized that my generation and those younger had been given no future, and had been maliciously robbed of the knowledge of principles and methods necessary for building one.” (Which is a pretty stirring version of “What do I do with this degree?”) She continues, “In this context, I joined and became an active leader of the LaRouche Youth Movement over nine eventful years ago.”

The LaRouche Youth Movement probably wrote its own Wikipedia page, which describes its goals as to “promote the revival of classical humanist thought, organize politically to establish a new world economic system based on the power of human creativity to increase the power of the human individual in relation to the universe, and fight for a physical economy which can promote the general welfare of humanity, to develop and move toward better living conditions.”

That last bit, about the general welfare of humanity and better living conditions, is why some LaRouchians identify as Democrats. Rogers and others have said that, much like Republicans have strayed from their roots as the party of Lincoln, the Democrats have ceased to be the party of Roosevelt and Kennedy. But while many may agree, Rogers in particular seems to think the Democrats’ trouble started, and would end, with the Obama presidency. “Prior to Obama,” her website reads, “the Democratic Party has been the party that fought for the rights of the lower 80%, of organized labor, of scientific progress, and the welfare of the nation.”

So, Rogers’ repeat wins might be symptomatic of Democratic disappointment with Obama’s first term, with issues like his failure to close Guantanamo or his authorization of indefinite detention, right?

Again, no. As is so often the case in political theater, the real answer defies paraphrasing. From “Mr. Obama is a puppet of the bankrupt financial system, and has pushed policies made notorious by the Adolph Hitler regime, and since condemned by the entire world. His flagrant violations of the U.S. Constitution, national and international law, in addition to posing a clear and present danger of new violations, including thermonuclear war and the threat of violent suppression of peaceful domestic opposition, warrant his immediate removal from the office of the Presidency by impeachment.”

Not convinced? She adds, “The public record of Mr. Obama’s mental state shows that he is incapable of faithfully performing his duties as president,” and should be removed.

But Rogers is one of five LaRouche Democrats running for Congress around the country, and their persistence suggests that a solid mental state is not the most important prerequisite for running for office.

The term “perennial candidate” is never flattering. But this primary season, Texas Democrats picked at least three of them to continue toward election day: Grady Yarbrough, who made it to a run-off with former state lawmaker Paul Sadler for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate; Kesha Rogers of Fort Bend, who was soundly defeated by Pete Olson in Congressional District 22 last year and is now famous-ish for publicly calling for Obama’s impeachment; and Lloyd Oliver, who barely beat the actually-qualified Zack Fertitta in Tuesday night’s Democratic primary for Harris County District Attorney.

Fertitta was the favorite in that race. Like, a lot. Earlier this month, Neil Aquino, a liberal blogger for the Houston Chronicle, described it as an “easy race to call.” He wrote, “Lloyd Oliver has run for office a number of times before in Harris County as a Republican. He has also voted in Republican primaries. Zack Fertitta is the only credible candidate on the Democratic ballot for DA.”

Fertitta is well-liked and respected by Democrats and Republicans. He’s been an Assistant DA in Harris County since 2003. He was endorsed by the AFL-CIO, the Houston Black American Democrats, and the Houston Tejano Democrats. He was an Eagle Scout.

But he lost to Lloyd Oliver, a defense attorney who says he runs regularly because it’s “good for business.” Earlier this year, Oliver was named “Not Qualified” to be DA by a whopping 88 percent of respondents to the annual Houston Bar Association poll.

The Chronicle has a hilarious/depressing profile of Oliver here, with theories about why Oliver won, including his own (“dumb luck”) and that maybe voters mistakenly thought he was black. Highlight: when asked what’s next, Oliver said, “I’m hoping to get a phone call from some Democratic SuperPAC that will send me a lot of money. If so, I’m going to get me a John Edwards $300 haircut. That’s the first thing I’m going to do.”

Did I mention that he won?

But the bottom line is, Oliver will not (unless that luck stays super-dumb) pose much of a challenge to Mike Anderson, who trounced the incumbent Republican DA, Pat Lykos, 63 to 37 percent.

We profiled Lykos’s troubled term here, in which she was investigated by two grand juries but never indicted—investigations she says were politically motivated. Prosecutors and police say they oppose her for two controversial reforms: her “trace” policy, which says you can’t use drugs as evidence if there isn’t enough of them to be tested twice, and her DIVERT program, which put some convicted of DWI through treatment and probation. She and supporters say those policies freed resources and jail space for more dangerous criminals, and that she’s unpopular because she broke up a “frat house” atmosphere at HPD and a “good old boy” network among prosecutors.

But Lykos—and her reforms, for better or worse—are history. Mike Anderson, who spent 17 years as a prosecutor and 12 years as a district court judge, will replace her on the ballot and likely in the role of DA. Anderson has the support of prosecutors, the Houston Police Officers Union, and Johnny Holmes Jr., the longtime DA who preceded the disastrous Chuck Rosenthal, whom Lykos replaced. Holmes was the poster boy for hard-nosed Texas justice, sending thousands to prison and 200 to death row during his 21-year tenure. Anderson is nostalgic for those days.

“There are some things from the good, old days that are very, very important—honor, integrity, ethics,” Anderson told the Chronicle. “I mean all those things should just flow like a heart beat at that office.”

Oliver, who has served in Anderson’s court, is less misty-eyed about his by-the-book, law-and-order opponent for November. Anderson is a “tyrant,” Oliver said. “He’d make a good prison guard.”

Update (10:15)

Thus ends the short saga of reformer Pat Lykos, Harris County DA. The Houston Chronicle has called it for Mike Anderson. With 56 percent of precincts reporting, Anderson leads with 63 percent to Lykos’s 37.

Lykos may have been hurt by last week’s news about graduate of her controversial DIVERT program, which gives a treatment plan and probation to people convicted of DWIs. Erick Charles Erminger completed the DIVERT program in 2009, then was charged last week in his girlfriend’s murder. He was drunk when he allegedly strangled her. On Friday, Anderson remarked, “It’s a shame that (Erminger) didn’t get the treatment he needed.” Lykos blasted Anderson for politicizing the tragedy.


Update (9:38 p.m.)

It looks like Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos may not be back for more. She’s getting trounced in early voting with 35 percent to Mike Anderson’s 65 percent.

Meanwhile, Borris Miles, House District 146’s purportedly hard-partying Democratic incumbent, may hold on to his seat by more than eight votes this time. He leads Al Edwards with 57 percent in early voting, though that race could tighten as precincts report.

Over in Fort Bend, Rick Miller has confounded those who thought HD 26 would presage the ascendance of the minority Republican. The one white male in the four-way race has taken home 38 percent of the early vote, a substantial lead over Sonal Buchar (22 percent) and Jacquie Chaumette (27 percent) who were expected to end up in a run-off.

Also unexpectedly, Gene Wu has taken a dramatic lead in HD 137, picking up 45 percent of the early vote. He may even avoid a run-off with Smith and Madden, who have 25 and 20 percent respectively.


Posted earlier:

Tonight, the rest of the Observer staff and I will be live-blogging the primary as results come in. The four races I’ll have my eye on:

Harris County District Attorney: Pat Lykos vs. Mike Anderson—Will scandal and two grand jury investigations make besieged reformist Pat Lykos a one-term DA? Nostalgic long-time prosecutor and judge Mike Anderson hopes so. Background from Dateline: Houston here.

House District 146: Borris Miles vs. Al Edwards—Borris and Al, Democrats and demonstrably characters, are facing off for the fourth time in this primary. Last time, Miles won by only eight votes. This year, he outspent Edwards eightfold. Will it matter? Background from Dateline: Houston here.

House District 26: Charlie Howard’s retirement leaves a four-way Republican scramble for the rapidly evolving Fort Bend district. The two front-runners are both women of color: Sonal Bhuchar, former board president of Fort Bend ISD, is from India: Jacquie Chaumette, mayor pro-tem of Sugar Land, is from St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. They spent similarly and have similar cash on hand—unlike their opponents, who are considerably less flush. Rick Miller, former chairman of the Republican Party of Fort Bend, is down to his last five grand, and Diana Miller, real estate agent (no relation to Rick) brought in only $100 in contributions during the last reporting period. This race will likely end in a run-off between Bhuchar and Chaumette—and presage things to come. Susan-Smith Richardson has more here.

House District 137: The counterpart to HD 26 is this west Houston district, where four Democrats are vying replace retiring school finance guru Scott Hochberg. At this point, it’s a toss-up. Joseph Carlos Madden and Jamaal Smith are former Capitol staffers, Gene Wu is a Harris County prosecutor and Sarah Winkler is a Alief Independent School District board member, all with adequate funding and experience. The minority-opportunity district is likely to go Democratic in November.

Stay tuned!

Yesterday, an all-white jury found white Houston police officer Andrew Blomberg not guilty of stomping the head and neck of Chad Holley, a black, unarmed, 15-year-old burglary suspect, in 2010.

You can see surveillance video of Blomberg not stomping Holley here.

Last week, Dateline Houston reported on the Blomberg case, and how Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland told reporters that the behavior seen on the video warranted felony prosecution. Attorneys for the defense moved to hold Chief McClelland in contempt after his public comment, which the judge dismissed Friday.

But after a single day’s deliberation, the jury found Blomberg not guilty even of the one count of misdemeanor official oppression for which he was tried.

The video was shown several times in court. Blomberg is the first officer to reach Holley. It looks like Holley lies on the ground with his hands behind his head and Blomberg stomps his head and neck. Blomberg and his attorneys argued that Holley’s hand was actually beside his temple, and that Blomberg was trying to get his foot into the crook of Holley’s arm to move it.

Blomberg is the first of four officers who’ll be tried for their part in the alleged beating. Chief McClelland fired six officers soon after the incident.

After the verdict, local activist Quanell X told reporters, “What they did today is send a message to black people, to all of us, that our lives aren’t worth a damn in this city.”

Mayor Annise Parker, Houston’s State Senator Rodney Ellis, and U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee disagreed publicly with the verdict. Their responses emphasized, “Hey, he’s still fired you guys.”

A statement from Chief McClelland released after the hearing said in part, “It is important to remember that the officer that was the subject of this trial is no longer a Houston police officer… He will never again be a Houston Police Officer.”

As Blomberg left the courthouse, a reporter asked him what he’d say to people who think the Holley beating was racially motivated.

Blomberg said, “They weren’t there that day.”

Local activist Deric Muhammad told the Observer that this was “par for the course in Harris County.”

“When you look at the dozens of officers who have been on trial not only for beating suspects but for in some cases killing suspects over the past five years or so, I can only remember one being convicted, and the one who was convicted only got probation,” Muhammad said.

He sighed. “I didn’t expect it to turn out any other way, to be honest with you. I don’t even have the energy to pretend otherwise. This is about what we usually get. You’re not surprised when dogs bark. You’re not surprised when cats meow. You’re not surprised when birds chirp. And you’re not surprised when white officers are exonerated for beating, oppressing, and/or murdering black suspects in Harris County.”

The Houston Police Department doesn’t have a stellar reputation for behavior toward suspects. Pop quiz: what public figure thinks violent officers in Houston should be punished more severely?

The chief of police.

HPD Chief Charles McClelland testified Tuesday in the trial of former officer Andrew Blomberg, one of six cops caught on video participating in the March 2010 beat-down of an unarmed black 15-year-old suspected of burglary. Blomberg is the first of four officers being tried for official oppression, a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail. Chief McClelland, recapping his testimony for media after the trial that day, said that’s not enough.

“I just think what they did was felony conduct,” he said. “In my opinion, do I want them charged with a higher penalty? Of course.”

A conviction for official oppression requires only that the prosecution prove “mistreatment” of the subject, whereas for a felony, prosecutors would need to demonstrate “serious bodily injury.”

The video certainly looks serious. View for yourself.

A less pixilated version appears here, within the context of its original airing by ABC 13 Eyewitness News on KTRK in February 2011.

The video comes from the surveillance camera of a nearby business. It captures Chad Holley, fleeing, being clipped by a police car, then falling to the ground and lying face-down with his hands behind his head. He is swarmed by officers who appear to stomp, punch and kick his head, legs and back.

Chief McClelland fired six officers in the wake of the beating, although three appealed and two were reinstated by arbitrators.

Arbitrators commonly override the chief’s disciplinary actions. According to KTRK, ‘”For about 15 years, about a third of the cases that actually went to arbitration were overturned in their entirety, about a third were upheld in their entirety and about a third were modified,’ HPD’s lawyer Craig Ferrell said.”

Chief McClelland’s frankness may get him in trouble. On Wednesday, Blomberg’s attorney asked state District Judge Ruben Guerrero to hold Chief McClelland in contempt of court for his Tuesday comments to the media. Judge Guerrero said he would decide the matter Friday.

The arrest was Holley’s first. He was convicted of burglary of a habitation despite no physical evidence linking him to the crime and sentenced to two years’ probation, which he completed in April without incident.

Chief McClelland also spoke out in February about the beating of unarmed black Houstonian Sebastian Prevot, who failed to stop before the white line at a stop sign and continued a few blocks to his home before pulling over. Dateline Houston brought you this story at the time. Prevot was assailed by more than a dozen officers and taken to the hospital for, among other injuries, a torn ear that required stitches. His wife, hearing his screams from the front lawn, said she ran out and started to record the beating with her video phone. But she says an officer assaulted her, took the memory card out of her phone, and arrested her as well.

Chief McClelland met with activists who rallied behind the couple and released a statement assuring the public that recording police activity is legal and reporting police misconduct is encouraged.

Deric Muhammad, one of the activists who met with Chief McClelland, said he felt the chief was sincere, but perhaps out of touch.

“We believe if the police chief spent less time behind his desk and more time on the ground, that he could disturb the culture of corruption that’s on the ground,” Muhammad told KTRK.

In April, a former HPD officer was convicted of taking a bribe to escort narcotic shipments through the Houston area. He was sentenced to more than 15 years in federal prison.

In January, a former HPD officer pled guilty to robbing undocumented immigrants that he stopped while on patrol. He was given two years’ probation and a $500 fine.

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!