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Forrest for the Trees

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announces his run for governor in San Antonio, July 14, 2013.

Of all the ways politicians can abuse their power, none is as serious as messing with voting rights. Corruption is troubling and can become endemic if left unchecked. Lying, especially under oath, weakens the bonds of trust in a democracy. Cronyism violates basic rules of fairness and leads to inefficiency in core government services. But tampering with the franchise is an offense against democracy itself. That’s why Greg Abbott’s successful efforts to shut down a voter registration campaign in Harris County are so troubling. Although the saga started unfolding four years ago, it only came to light in August, when The Dallas Morning News reported details of the criminal investigation and raid. I recently spoke with Fred Lewis, the man who headed up the voter registration drive and who is now accusing Abbott of a serious abuse of power. The effect, he said, has been to “criminalize” voter registration in order to “rally up the base.”

To briefly recap: In the run-up to the 2010 election, the tea party poll-watching group King Street Patriots began complaining about a voter-fraud conspiracy in Houston, linking ACORN, the New Black Panther Party and a new voter registration drive by Houston Votes, an offshoot of Lewis’ community organizing group Texans Together. In more innocent times, registering people to vote was seen as a dull but laudatory civic activity. But King Street Patriots saw a conspiracy, a threat. And, more importantly, so did Leo Vasquez, the Republican elected official in Harris County who oversaw the voter rolls at the time.

At a very unusual press conference in August 2010, Vasquez announced—alongside representatives from the King Street Patriots—that Houston Votes was behind an “organized and systematic attack” on the integrity of the voter rolls. Vasquez complained that many of the voter applications submitted by Houston Votes were duplicates or for people who had already registered—an almost universal feature of paid registration drives that rarely results in voter fraud. In any case, it turned out that Vasquez’s claim of 5,000 bogus applications was fancifully high. Nonetheless, Vasquez referred the case to the Texas attorney general’s office for an investigation.

Three months later, armed law enforcement officers dispatched by the AG’s office raided the Houston Votes office in Houston, and, two weeks later, hit Fred Lewis’ office at the Baptist Christian Life Commission headquarters in Austin, seizing computers and records. The raids were overseen by a 27-year-old investigator who developed a novel legal theory that Houston Votes had possibly committed felony identity theft by storing information collected from individuals in the course of registering them to vote. In October 2011, the investigation fizzled when the Harris County DA rejected the AG’s case for lack of evidence. Two years later, the AG’s office destroyed Texans Together’s computers and records, using a statute that deals with contraband. Lewis said he was never even notified. Though no charges were ever filed, Houston Votes’ database of new voters, its financial records, including a donor list, and Lewis’ personal files were destroyed.

Lewis, a veteran campaign finance attorney in Texas who founded Texans Together in 2006, said he didn’t even know the AG’s investigation had ended until he was contacted this past August by The Dallas Morning News—two years after the case had collapsed.

Though the case stalled, the armed raid and criminal investigation had an impact: Houston Votes lost its paid organizers, saw its funding crippled and its voter-registration efforts dwindle. Houston Votes had been on track to register 70,000 new voters in 2010, Lewis says. Because of the raid, it registered only about 25,000. Instead of bringing disenfranchised people into the system, the group was lawyering up.

Lewis, who worked as a lawyer at the attorney general’s office from 1989 to 1995, said he has warned colleagues to not even think about trying paid voter registration in Harris County. “They’ve criminalized voter registration in my view,” Lewis said.

Abbott has defended the investigation but also said he “didn’t know about it at the time it was going on.” The attorney general also strongly insinuated—despite the dead-end investigation—that Houston Votes had engaged in “some wrongdoing that was akin to ACORN-type political operations.”

Lewis said the episode suggests that either people at the top of the AG’s office wanted to shut down a voter registration drive or that the people running the investigation were zealots operating without supervision. “The problem was nobody was a professional, nobody was supervised, nobody said, ‘This is ridiculous, this is overkill, this is abuse, this is a bad precedent, this is not what we want to do in a democracy.’”

Texas has the lowest voter turnout in the nation. Is it any wonder why?

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Wendy Davis speaking
Patrick Michels
Wendy Davis speaks at her gubernatorial campaign announcement October 3 in Haltom City.

If Wendy Davis and the rest of the Democratic slate of statewide candidates have any chance of defying the polls, or even doing better than the disastrous (for Dems) year of 2010, they’ll probably need a large number of voters to turn out to the polls. We’ve written this story many, many times: The Achilles’ heel for Texas Democrats is that their voters don’t show up. Texas has some of the worst voter turnout numbers in the nation and that abounds perpetually to the Republicans’ advantage. This election cycle was supposed to start changing that. A year and a half ago, Battleground Texas—the hyped Obama-style grassroots machine—came here promising to launch a multi-year effort at rebuilding the Democratic apparatus largely by expanding the electorate and deepening engagement with neglected communities and constituencies, especially with Latinos.

Well, we’re more than a week into early voting. How are Davis and Battleground Texas doing? It’s probably still too early to reach any definitive conclusions but the tentative answer so far is that turnout does not look all that different from 2010, the last mid-term election and a horrible year for Texas Democrats, when Bill White lost by 13 points to Rick Perry and Republicans won so many seats that they secured a super-majority in the Texas House.

The total number of people voting early barely tops 2010. Despite a bump in registered voters and significant population growth, only about 16,000 more people have voted in the first nine days of early voting this year compared to the last mid-term in 2010.

Voter turnout in Texas, 2006-2014
Stefan Haag
Voter turnout in Texas, 2006-2014

The conventional wisdom is that’s bad for Democrats, though the Davis campaign says there’s reason for “cautious optimism.”

“Of course higher turnout is generally better,” said Jeff Rotkoff, a Democratic operative who advises Steve and Amber Mostyn, the Houston couple who are among the biggest donors to Texas Democrats. “But counties don’t vote. People do. In Harris County we’re not focused on the overall percentage turnout, but rather on who is voting. And that while it looks like Republicans carried the first week of early voting in person, that we carried the weekend and Monday.”

Battleground Texas says its volunteers knocked on the doors of 300,000 people over the weekend alone. “We’re encouraged by the support we’ve seen to date, and we expect our voters to increasingly make their voices heard at the ballot box as they continue to hear from our 33,000 grassroots supporters on the phones and at the doors,” said Jenn Brown, executive director for Battleground.

In Texas’ 15 most populous counties, voter turnout (the percentage of registered voters making it to the polls) so far is actually down by almost 6 percent, compared to 2010. And that gap has been growing with every day. A number of big urban counties are posting anemic numbers: Dallas, Bexar, Travis and El Paso all have lower voter turnout than four years ago. Perhaps most ominously, 5,000 to 8,000 fewer voters are showing up to the polls every day in Harris County, the state’s biggest county and a natural target for progressives looking to establish an anchor for statewide candidates.

In 2010, 13.5 percent of registered voters had cast a vote at this point; this year, it’s about 12.7 percent. Democrats are quick to point out that the number of registered voters has increased, but even by raw vote totals Harris County, which is now 70 percent minority, is in a sad way. In 2010, a little under 295,000 people had voted in the first eight days of early voting; in 2014, it’s dropped 15 percent, to 252,000.

Democrats say just focusing on turnout is simplistic. “In Harris County we’re not focused on the overall percentage turnout, but rather on who is voting,” Rotkoff said.

Battleground Texas says its internal analysis shows that the electorate consists of more Democratic-leaning voters. Through Monday, African-Americans made up .8 percent more of the early vote electorate compared to 2010. Hispanics made up 2.2 percent more.

Meanwhile, there are major parts of the state where voter turnout is looking good: Tarrant (Fort Worth), Collin, Denton and Hidalgo (Rio Grande Valley) are all posting double-digit gains, which may have a lot to do with local dynamics. In Fort Worth, the only truly competitive state Senate seat—Wendy Davis’ district—is up for grabs. Denton voters are deciding whether to ban fracking. And Hidalgo County voters are considering a hospital district. Collin County, which has seen a 22 percent increase in the number of voters, is one of the most hardcore suburban GOP counties in the state. On the other hand, turnout is down in the heavily GOP suburban counties of Williamson and Montgomery.

“The data isn’t 100 percent clear, but it is clear that turnout seems to be lagging,” said Karl-Thomas Musselman, an Austin-based Democratic political consultant, “and I think it’s helping Rs more than Ds.”

There are three more days of early voting left, including today, as well as Election Day. Perhaps turnout could surge. Perhaps the GOTV efforts we’ve heard so much about are paying dividends that are hard to discern in the public data. But at this point, statewide Democrats will probably need a turnout miracle to keep the dream alive.

Photo illustration of a communist Texas barn.
Original photo by Stuart Seeger/Flickr
A Communist stronghold somewhere in Falls County.

I don’t know about you but I’m already terrified of the next crisis. I don’t know what it is, but it’s probably going to be really, really scary—like, scarier than the current crisis. Which is Ebola, right? Or is it ISIS coming across the border bearing Urdu dictionaries, prayer rugs/soccer jerseys and, let’s say, also Ebola? Or is it:

Or are we still terrified of those leprous illegals from Central America who came here to steal jobs/spread disease? I haven’t heard much about those kids (who aren’t really kids) lately so that probably means they’re up to no good and Obama is covering it up. The point is: Be scared. Be afraid. See you at the polls.

1) First of all: communists. We all know they’re out there… biding their time till they can get into the Texas House of Representatives and join forces with Speaker Joe Straus. Democrat, Republican, doesn’t matter. Communism is on the march, no more so than in House District 149, an ethnically diverse slice of suburban Houston currently represented by Democrat Hubert Vo, whose communist leanings include owning dilapidated apartment complexes with “leaky ceiling, rats and high energy bills.”

His opponent, Republican businessman Al Hoang, according to Vo supporters, might also be a communist. And communists do what communists do: Grab the nearest boxcutter.

The rough-and-tumble campaign for state representative in District 149 escalated as police arrested a campaign supporter for Republican candidate Al Hoang for allegedly threatening his opponent’s supporter with a boxcutter.

On Monday afternoon, a Hoang campaign volunteer, Peter Vo, reportedly brandished a boxcutter at an early voting location and cut through a banner that called Hoang a Communist. That’s quite the insult in this southwest Houston district, which is slightly under 20 percent Vietnamese. The campaigns have accused each other of not being sufficiently anti-Communist.

2) Also scaring the tar out of us this week every week: What else? Muslims. Jeffrey Swindoll is a young man who attends Baylor University and covers sports for the Baylor Lariat. He doesn’t like “politically correct” because it isn’t “always right.” It’s not right, he writes, for everyone to go around “defending Islam” by pointing out that the vast majority of Muslims are not violent jihadists. Swindoll is taking the fight to political correctness with an arsenal of mixed metaphors:

There are a lot of problems with the national discussion about the terrorist group known as the Islamic State (also referred to as ISIS or ISIL), terrorism, and Islam as a whole. The majority of those problems come from non-Muslims that are bending over backwards to defend Islam without a leg to stand on.

Which sounds like one hell of a yoga move.

Unfortunately, Obama isn’t interested in addressing the reality of Islam. He’s more interested in making the American worldview a liberal pipe dream. Liberals are using one hand to throw Christianity out of the window while using the other hand to pull out the chair for Islam to sit at the head of the table. It doesn’t make sense, but that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Guess who’s coming to dinner? Islam, that’s who. Liberals, they’ve only got good manners when terrorists are guests. It doesn’t make sense.

Swindoll cites several verses from the Quran to prove, definitively, that Muslims are violent extremists and complains that followers of Islam have a “literal” interpretation of their holy book. Meanwhile, at Baylor, professors must be Christian (or Jewish!) and students are expected to share the “conviction that truth has its ultimate source in God and by a Baptist heritage…” But, hey, God picked a hell of a football team.

When the voice of tolerance and reason is Ken Starr, perhaps you’ve gone too far.

3) This week, we also quivered (in a non-sexual kind of way) at the thought of Gays in the Military, led by (shocker!) Louie Gohmert. The East Texas statesman was on the radio this week glitter-bombing us with his wisdom:

“I’ve had people say, ‘Hey, you know, there’s nothing wrong with gays in the military. Look at the Greeks,'” he said. “Well, you know, they did have people come along who they loved that was the same sex and would give them massages before they went into battle. But you know what, it’s a different kind of fighting, it’s a different kind of war and if you’re sitting around getting massages all day ready to go into a big, planned battle, then you’re not going to last very long.”

You’re not going to last very long when you’re getting a gay back massage. OK, Louie. Time to set the “Days Since Louie Has Said Something Hilarious” sign back to zero.

4) We were also frightened by juries of our peers this week. Here’s proof that there’s merit to the old tough-guy boast “I’d rather be carried by six than judged by 12”: The jury in the re-trial of Ed Graf, a Waco man who spent the last 25 years in prison based on faulty arson science, had a little trouble with the notion of “unanimous”:

5) Most apocalyptic of all though was the revelation of the true face of evil this week. Few people probably remember it, but one of the weirdest and distressingly stupidest moments of the lieutenant governor primary was the sudden emergence of cat GIFs and BuzzFeed-style political ads.

DewFeed

Well, now we have an extensive profile in Bloomberg about the man who introduced Dan Patrick to the Internet Culture. His name is Vincent Harris and he’s a 20-something Austin millennial religious fundamentalist who listens to Lana Del Rey in his BMW while doing 95 on the toll road, man, and is totally on a Paleo diet. #YOLO. He’s getting rich making Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell cool for the Yo set. He’s explaining BuzzFeed to Dan Patrick.

In August 2013, trying to build support for Texas State Senator Dan Patrick as Patrick aimed to knock off David Dewhurst, still the lieutenant governor, in the GOP primary, Harris conjured up the idea of a BuzzFeed spoof that used the Internet’s most popular animal diversions to castigate Dewhurst for not stopping State Senator Wendy Davis’ legendary filibuster against an anti-abortion measure. Patrick, who was initially nervous about whether such an approach would diminish him, was persuaded by Harris to take a gamble that ended up drawing copious press coverage and more than doubled his social media following.

“When he laid that out last August, I didn’t know what BuzzFeed was, I didn’t know what a gif was,” says Patrick, 64. “DewFeed was one of many things we did over the last 14 months. It wasn’t a game changer. It didn’t decide the election. Did it help? I think so. It’s hard to know.”

Dan Patrick, talk-radio show guy who once had a vasectomy performed on the air and was filmed shirtless while Houston Oilers cheerleaders painted him in blue, thought maybe it was maybe going too far. LOL. OMG. What’s next? Patrick’s plan to hike the sales tax explained with a Buzzfeed quiz? Patrick’s latest tete-a-tete with God over legislation disseminated via Snapchat?

And Harris isn’t done. He’s got a whole generation of bright minds working at his downtown office using their talents to turn complex geopolitical machinations and weighty electoral choices into trivial memes:

In one corner, a young woman ponders how to turn a remark over the weekend by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in support of Hamas and Hezbollah into a gif that will help drive traffic to an advocacy group’s Facebook page. Nearby, a co-worker puts the finishing touches on a classic Concentration-style game in which each matching pair of cards offers a way Alison Lundergan Grimes agrees with President Obama.

When fascism comes to America it will be wearing a smiley emoji.

Jail visitation

There’s nothing nice about jail. The food stinks. There’s nothing to do. People are in a bad mood. The best you can hope for is to get out quickly with minimal hassle. One of the few things you have to look forward to is a visit from a friend or a loved one—a brief face-to-face connection to remind you that the world is waiting on the other side of the glass. But some Texas jails are eliminating in-person visitation and requiring instead the use of a video visitation system sold by Dallas-based Securus Technologies. Critics say it’s an outrageous profiteering scheme that has no policy rationale and could actually deteriorate security at jails.

Securus markets its video system as a cost-saver for jails and a convenience for family members who live far from their incarcerated loved ones. But the structure of the deals suggests there are powerful financial incentives for jails to curb or eliminate face-to-face visitation. Securus charges callers as much as a dollar a minute to use its video services, and jails get a 20 to 25 percent cut. For big-city jails, that could mean millions in extra money.

“We believe Securus sees Texas county jails as a really ripe market for them,” said Kymberlie Quong Charles, an organizer with the prison reform group Grassroots Leadership. Securus, she pointed out, is a major provider of phone services for jails and prisons, but the FCC is cracking down on what it considers exorbitant rates. Video visitation could offer a source of revenue at a time of sagging profits for the industry.

In Dallas, activists and some local leaders, especially County Judge Clay Jenkins, helped kill a contract with Securus that included a provision stipulating that the jail had to eliminate all in-person visits. “It is very important that we do not profit on the backs of inmates in the jail,” Dallas County Commissioner Elba Garcia said in The Dallas Morning News.

The Bastrop County Jail is set to eliminate all face-to-face visitation in early November. Instead, visitors can use a free video terminal at the jail or pay $1 per minute to use the remote video system. The contract, reviewed by the Observer, cuts the county in for 20 percent of Securus’ revenues. It doesn’t require, like the Dallas contract, that in-person visitation be eliminated, but it stipulates that for the first two years the county only gets paid if it produces 534 paid visits per month.

In Austin, the Travis County Commissioners Court voted in October 2012 to add video visitation as an ancillary service—something prisoners’ rights advocates are fine with as long as the rates are reasonable and the service is reliable. But in May 2013, Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton quietly eliminated in-person visitation. Defense attorneys and inmates sued in April, claiming that the jail and Securus were unlawfully recording privileged conversations between inmates and attorneys and leaking them to prosecutors. On top of that, Quong Charles says the lack of human interaction is worsening conditions.

“What we found is that everything they said would happen in terms of improving conditions has actually gotten worse,” she said. “I think people are frustrated, they’re not getting to see anybody.”

A report released this morning by Grassroots Leadership and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition found that disciplinary infractions, assaults and contraband cases all increased within the year after the video-only policy was put in place. The report concedes that the trends may be an aberration or temporary but cites social science and long-standing prison policies holding that visitations improves jail security and lowers recidivism rates. One study of 16,420 offenders commissioned by the Minnesota Department of Corrections, for example, found that “prison visitation can significantly improve the transition offenders make from the institution to the community.” Even one visit lowered the risk that a person would re-offend by 13 percent.

“Video-only visitation policies ignore best practices that call for face-to-face visits to foster family relationships,” the report argues. “They advance arguments about security that are dubious, not rooted in research, and may be counter-productive.”

Grassroots Leadership and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition report found 10 counties in Texas that have already deployed video-only systems, with more considering the option.

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Families in the hall at the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center
Department of Homeland Security
Families in the hall at the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center

In early September, the Observer was the first to report that the federal government was planning a massive 2,400-bed family detention center in South Texas to hold Central American families entering Texas through Mexico. Today, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that it expected to open the facility in the small town of Dilley in early November. Corrections Corporation of America—the largest private prison company in the world and the operator of the notorious T. Don Hutto family jail near Austin—is expected to run the facility.

ICE said the detention center “will help ensure more timely and effective removals that comply with our legal and international obligations, while deterring others from taking the dangerous journey and illegally crossing into the United States.”

The South Texas Family Residential Center is located on a 50-care site owned by a Red McCombs-affiliated company, which runs a “man camp” for oilfield workers there. ICE said it expects to open the detention center with room for 480 “residents” and to build enough new housing to detain 2,400 immigrants by June.

Locking up children and their parents has an ugly history in Texas. The Obama administration pulled families out of the CCA-run T. Don Hutto detention center in 2009 after mounting evidence of civil-rights abuses. Families and children, many of whom are fleeing violence and human rights abuses, simply shouldn’t be held in jail-like conditions, advocates have said. They suggest alternatives, including truly residential facilities run by charities or faith-based groups.

Immigrant rights groups reacted with outrage today at the ICE announcement.

“Given the shameful history of family detention at Hutto, it’s horrifying that ICE would turn back to Corrections Corporation of America to operate what would be by far the nation’s largest family detention center,” said Bob Libal, executive director of the prison reform group Grassroots Leadership. “While little kids and their families will suffer in remote private prisons, far away from legal or social services, these multi-billion dollar private prison companies stand to make enormous profits.”

Dilley City Administrator Noel Perez says he has few details about the detention center, which will be located within the city limits. City officials, he said, had one meeting with CCA but haven’t spoken with ICE.

“We’ve just provided some general information on utilities and infrastructure,” Perez said. “We know it’s a done deal between CCA and ICE.”

Perez said the community’s attitude toward the detention center is one of “ambivalence.” He says he hasn’t gotten one call for or against it.

How long will the detention center be open? Perez says he’s heard one to two years, perhaps five. After that, he said, “We either fill it up with immigrants or we will fill it up with oilfield workers.”

Sen. Dan Patrick
Patrick Michels
Sen. Dan Patrick delivers a passionate speech in favor of House Bill 2.

In her 1988 campaign classic, “Insider Baseball,” Joan Didion wrote that political campaigns had little to do with democracy, and were not about “affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs.” Instead, “the process” was a “mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals”—policy experts, reporters, pundits, pollsters, advisors—”to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life.”

In her essay, Didion coolly dissects the 1,001 bullshit ways Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush are manufactured as candidates, abetted by a media all too game to play along. But the meta-narrative she documents emerged from public performances—no one involved tried to hide what they were doing. (The title of the essay comes from an “eerily contrived moment” in which Dukakis tosses a baseball to his press secretary on an airport tarmac while reporters and camera crews diligently take notes for stories on Dukakis’ authenticity and “toughness.”)

This is simply how modern political campaigns—at least high-level ones—are conducted. Didion’s complaints now seem a tad antiquated, though still righteously spot-on.

But now comes a new twist: the art of the non-campaign. The candidate who doesn’t even bother to put on a show, doesn’t even pretend to reach the broad middle of the citizenry and instead appears behind closed doors to small groups of like-minded voters, if he or she appears in public at all.

That’s the kind of campaign that some Texas Republicans are now running, in particular Ken Paxton, who’s favored to become attorney general, and Dan Patrick, who’s the frontrunner for lieutenant governor. Their campaigns are marked by a general refusal to speak with reporters, engage with their opponents, hold press conferences, meet with newspaper editorial boards, publicly announce events in advance, or even run TV ads.

Instead, the two men are running “stealth” campaigns—as the Houston Chronicle recently put it—speaking to tea party gatherings or events closed to the press.

A talk-radio show host not known for his reticence, Patrick ran a boisterous campaign against his three rivals during the GOP lieutenant governor primary and later in a head-to-head runoff against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Now, he’s like the chupacabra: rumored but rarely seen in the flesh. The Houston Chronicle reported in a Sept. 12 story:

Then, as if a switch flipped, his campaign went into hunker-down mode.

It sent two news releases in the six weeks after the runoff. Patrick did not re-emerge until even later, in a July 16 public speech in front of an estimated 11,000 students, parents and teachers at the annual gathering of the Texas Future Farmers Association.

When he addressed the state’s broadcaster’s association Aug. 7, Patrick quickly left without taking questions from reporters —but only after shouting, “I’ve been the most media-friendly guy in the Legislature!” before vanishing.

Just this week, Patrick’s campaign declined an invitation to appear before the Houston Chronicle editorial board.

“At this time the senator does not plan to meet with editorial boards,” Patrick spokesman Alejandro Garcia said.

When Patrick did announce a press conference last week, reporters wondered what big reveal he had in store. As it turned out, Patrick called the media together to announce that he was the most business-friendly candidate. The whole thing lasted 15 minutes.

His opponent, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), who’s excited many Democrats with a peppy, wide-ranging effort, challenged Patrick to five debates but he agreed to only one. Patrick is campaigning—just not in a way accessible to most Texans.

“3 days – 6 cities – 3 planes & one rental car drive from Midland to Lubbock,” Patrick wrote in a Facebook post on Sept. 18. “I will not be out worked.”

Ted Delisi, a GOP consultant quoted in the Chronicle, acknowledged that it’s “not the typical campaigning” but then implausibly tried to coin the approach as not being “covert,” but rather “the new overt.”

If anything, state Sen. Ken Paxton is even more covertly overt. Paxton is the overwhelming favorite to be the next attorney general—he faces an underfunded Democratic attorney with the somewhat helpful name Sam Houston. The highlight of Paxton’s resume so far is that he’s admitted to violating state securities law by accepting kickbacks from an investment firm without disclosing that relationship to regulators or his clients. And apparently he’s not eager to talk about it: Paxton has been almost completely AWOL.

I can find precisely one news account of a public appearance in the last month. On Sept. 8, he was the special guest of honor at a San Jacinto County Republican Party event, where he told the crowd that Obamacare would be “obliterated” if unspecified lawsuits were successful.

His Facebook page touts a fundraiser with Ted Cruz next Monday in Allen.

Perhaps Paxton learned the value of ducking the press in late July when—after noting to a sheriffs group that “a one-party system takes out accountability, takes out competition”—San Antonio Express-News reporter Nolan Hicks approached him after the event and was “physically blocked by Paxton spokesman Anthony Holm.”

Meanwhile, Sam Houston has fruitlessly tried to engage his opponent. He’s repeatedly challenged Paxton to debate, but Paxton’s only response has come through his spokesman. “Our opponent is losing, badly, so it’s not surprising that he continues this desperate ploy for publicity when he’s down by 20+ points,” Anthony Holm told the Texas Tribune in an email.

So we have the prospect of a state senator who faces indictment and serious ethics charges waltzing into office as the next attorney general without having debated, campaigned or meaningfully engaged his general election opponent or the public on the issues of the day.

The approach, of course, makes perfect strategic sense. Democrats haven’t won a single statewide race in two decades, and Republicans enjoy sizable structural advantages even against well-funded and charismatic Democrats. Why risk saying or doing something stupid when you don’t need to? Why legitimize your opponent by pretending that he or she even exists? Better to keep your head down and coast to election.

The non-campaign approach is not entirely new. Rick Perry tried aspects of it in 2010, when he ran for re-election against former Houston Mayor Bill White. Much to the chagrin of the White campaign, Perry refused to participate in a single debate and snubbed newspaper editorial boards. He crushed Bill White 55-42. What lesson does a GOP candidate for statewide office draw from that? That silence is preferable to splashy public events. That talking to the mainstream press isn’t worth it when the voters who show up to the polls either get their information from preferred sources or consider snubbing the lamestream media as a mark of political bravery.

It also puts the press in a bind: How do you cover a non-campaign? Press conferences, block-walking, baby-kissing, stumping, Chamber of Commerce speeches: This is the stuff of which political journalism is made. The Houston Chronicle, for example, did a thorough story on Patrick’s stealthiness. But it was a one-day piece; it’s hard to keep writing about silence.

And if Paxton and Patrick prevail as expected, will more GOP candidates attempt the stealth campaign in the next general election? Probably so, until Democrats can prove more competitive. Are we entering an era when the state’s top officials won’t even have to engage with Texas’ general election voters? For Democrats, this seems the ultimate insult. They’re losing, and their opponents aren’t even trying anymore.

WTF Friday: Texas Secede!

texas secede

This week, the world watched as a proud people with funny accents, lots of oil and a long history of oppression at the hands of a distant, semi-foreign government flirted with secession.

I am talking, of course, about Texas. Sure, Scotland almost did the deed but what do those haggis-humpers know about freedom? The real story was happening here at home, where our Union is good but ya never know what’s gonna happen, ya know what I mean? Scotland was merely a warm-up, an inspiration for a referendum on Texas independence. As goes Scotland, so goes Texas, or so I’m told. Just ask Texas Nationalist Movement leader Daniel Miller (and, bizarrely, many journalists did). Pondered Miller in a post titled “Scotland is Paving the Way for Texas Independence”:

Have you wondered why the media on this side of the pond is relatively quiet in regards to Scotland’s upcoming referendum on independence? It is because those in power, sitting in lofty places, know that secession can be contagious. Look at what happened when the southern States of America began to break away. One by one, they followed.

Good ideas are contagious. Call it the bandwagon effect. Like teens buying One Direction schwag, one state decides to, say, defend the institution of slavery by plunging into a bloody conflagration and the rest can’t help but follow. Contagion.

But with independence (and the literal fulfillment of the Economic Development and Tourism Division of the Governor’s Office slogan “WHOLE OTHER COUNTRY”) comes great responsibility. National security. Border security. Public health.

Ain’t no thing, though. We’re already doing it.

First, we’ve got ourselves a secretary of D-Fence in Midland County Sheriff Gary Painter. When he’s not checking the Petroleum Club for jihadis, Painter is reading the morning intelligence briefing at Breitbart.com. Seems the sheriff has got a bead on a clear and present danger and it’s not mounting tensions between Midland-Lee and Odessa-Permian. Painter sees ISIS terrorist cells at the border. And they could be coming to the Permian Basin.

“I think it’d be naive to say that (ISIS is) not here…We have found Muslim clothing, they have found Quran books that are lying on the side of the trail, so we know that there are Muslims that have come across and are being smuggled into the United States.”

Maybe James O’Keefe dropped his costume? Well, in any case, there’s no proof that ISIS is here but there’s also no proof that they’re not. And ISIS is Muslim, Muslims use Quran books, and Quran books were found. Ergo: Code Red.

“If they show their ugly head in our area, we’ll send them to hell. And I think the United States needs to get busy. And they need to bomb them, they need to take them out.”

You heard the man: Bomb the ISIS stronghold. Bomb Texas.

(Also: the way Painter talks about “the United States” and “they,” you gotta kinda wonder: Has he already seceded?)

Independence, sovereignty, freedom—it means we’ve gotta police those borders ourselves. Greg Abbott’s got the Red River covered; who will take on the Rio Grande? There’s but one man for the job: Tony Tinderholt. Other men just talk; few are willing to admit that bloodshed (lots of it) is the answer.

“What’s going to happen on that border is going to be bad. And people are going to die. And it’s a sad, sad thing to say. But it’s the only thing that’s going to stop this infiltration of our country.”

Instant fact-check: People are dying. Pretty much every day. Authorities reported more than 700 deaths of immigrants crossing the border in the last two years. And those kids that are being deported back to Central America? Some of them are getting murdered. And still they come. And still they come.

But the invaders can rest a little easier this week. An old border battle-ax is moving on. A 21-gun salute for Todd Staples, Protector of America’s Food Supply. Staples is leaving his battle-station at the Texas Department of Agriculture—where he made combating the narco-terror threat to our rutabagas and sorghum a fixture of the office—to head up the Texas Oil and Gas Association.

What happens to our farmers and ranchers now that Staples has moved on to greener ($$$) pastures? They’ll be easier targets of the vegan menace. During his last weeks in office, Staples took on school nutritionists at Dripping Springs ISD, who dared implement a Meatless Monday. Hey if Pink Slime and USDA ‘Grade D But Edible’ chicken “fingers” are good enough for the kiddos on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, they ought to be good enough on the day after God’s day. Wrote Staples in a special op-ed for the Austin American-Statesman:

While we have plenty of room in the Lone Star State for vegetarians, we have no room for activists who seek to mandate their lifestyles on others.

Abiding by the first rule of op-ed writing—never waste an opportunity to invent a conspiracy by not mentioning another one—Staples ends his piece by playing one of the classics of the genre.

Need I remind Texas schools of another ugly fight over agenda-driven propaganda? Remember CSCOPE? Let’s get the propaganda out of Texas schools.

And off the Texas Department of Agriculture website too. Such things will never happen in an independent Texas. If only we can get the quisling squishes to get with the program.

 

carnearhouston

Screw the tea party. I’m going to start a P.E.A. (Penalized Enough Already) Party. Because in Texas we don’t have a tax problem—though the system is deeply inequitable—so much as a fine, fee, penalty and surcharge problem. Instead of tricorn hats, P.E.A. Partyers will don green eyeshades and scour the state’s books for the insidious ways in which lawmakers fund government through hidden fees, usually imposed on those who can least afford them.

There is no greater enemy of the Texas P.E.A. Party than the Driver Responsibility Program. Never heard of it? Few have, but millions of Texans have been hurt by this disastrous and cruelly petty program. Passed with almost no debate by the Legislature in the bad-budget year of 2003, the program was intended to make bad drivers pay for trauma care by levying steep civil surcharges on top of criminal penalties for DWIs, multiple traffic violations and (most problematic) driving with an invalid license or no insurance. The Driver Responsibility Program was supposed to improve public safety. Instead, it has saddled countless drivers with onerous fines, introduced a new form of double jeopardy to the legal system, stripped more than a million drivers of their drivers’ licenses and—in a classic example of perverse incentives—decreased DWI convictions.

Here’s how it works: For most traffic violations (e.g., running a red light) drivers accrue “points,” and if you rack up six points in any three-year period, you’re levied a fine of at least $100 each year for three years. If you get convicted for DWI, no insurance, driving without a license or driving with an invalid license, you’ll receive an automatic surcharge on your fine of $100 to $2,000 each year for three years, depending on the offense. Or even more if you’ve already accumulated six points. That’s on top of court fees, criminal penalties and the administrative charges levied by Municipal Services Bureau, a for-profit company that runs the surcharge program for the Department of Public Safety. Each surcharge is treated as a different “account” by Municipal Services Bureau, and many people report never having received notice of their surcharges. Missing a single payment can lead to suspension of your driver’s license. You may not even know your license has been rendered invalid until you get pulled over and slapped with a ticket (cost: $500, plus court costs, plus $750 in surcharges, plus an automatic one- or two-year suspension of your license). A second offense means you’re probably going to jail.

The failure of the Driver Responsibility Program can be measured in many ways, but here’s just one: Of the $3.4 billion in surcharges that have been assessed over the last decade, only $1.4 billion has been collected—an abysmal collection rate of 40 percent. Another telling stat: Nearly 1.3 million Texas drivers now have invalid driver’s licenses due to the program’s spiraling penalties, making a simple trip to the store, or to work, either a hassle or a risk.

Many folks just can’t pay. The surcharges are tantamount to a tax on poverty.

“We shouldn’t be taking driver’s licenses from somebody because they don’t have money,” Edna Staudt, a conservative Republican justice of the peace in notoriously tough-on-crime Williamson County, told a legislative committee in early August. “They’re not crooks; they’re not criminals; they’re not thieves; they’re not robbers or rapists; they’re just people that didn’t have money. ”

As lawmakers have heard in hearing after hearing, the program is deeply unpopular, and voices calling for its abolition are unusually diverse. Judges, prosecutors and jailers hate it. Hospitals, whose trauma centers are directly funded by the program, are happy to find other sources of revenue. Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving wouldn’t protest its repeal.

And yet the Legislature shows almost no appetite for serious reform. At a hearing in August, Rep. Joe Pickett, the El Paso Democrat who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said, “There is no intention on my part to do away with” the program. Instead, he circulated draft legislation that would modestly reduce the fees while trying to bolster “compliance.” Criminal-justice blogger Scott Henson rightly called Pickett’s weak bill “lipstick on a pig.” Why are lawmakers refusing to budge? Simple: They won’t find another way to fund trauma care. Pickett was blunt: “We’re the government. We’re living off of these monies … We’re not going to give up the money.”

This isn’t fiscal conservatism. And it sure as hell isn’t good governance. Time for a P.E.A. Party revolt.

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Families in the hall at the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center
Department of Homeland Security
Families in the hall at the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center

Federal officials are planning a new for-profit family detention lockup for immigrant children and their parents in South Texas. The 2,400-bed “South Texas Family Detention Center”—as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is referring to it—is slated for a 50-acre site just outside the town of Dilley, 70 miles southwest of San Antonio.

The detention center is part of the Obama administration’s response to the surge in children and families from Central America crossing the Texas-Mexico border. In a statement to the Observer, ICE spokeswoman Nina Pruneda said the facility was intended “to accommodate the influx of individuals arriving illegally on the Southwest border.”

The property is part of Sendero Ranch, a “workforce housing community,” better known in the oil patch as a “man camp” for oilfield workers. Sendero Ranch is owned by Koontz McCombs, a commercial real estate firm connected to San Antonio mogul Red McCombs. Loren Gulley, vice president for Koontz McCombs, said the company is still negotiating the deal but Corrections Corporation of America—the world’s largest for-private prison company—is expected to run the detention center, and Koontz McCombs would lease the existing “man camp” to ICE. A detailed site map provided to Frio County shows a large fenced campus, including both residential housing as well as a gym, chapel and “community pavilions.” The “man camp” has enough space to temporarily house 680 detainees while new structures are being built, ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said.

Frio County Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Flores said local officials had recently met with CCA and the landowner but no one from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The massive facility would double the existing federal capacity for immigrant families and is certain to anger immigrant advocates who say a for-profit lockup is inappropriate for families, especially young children. They point to the failed experiment with detaining immigrant families at T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center, a CCA-run facility about 45 minutes northeast of Austin. The Obama administration removed families from the former jail in 2009 after numerous allegations of human rights abuses, accounts of children suffering psychological trauma and a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the University of Texas Law School Immigration Clinic.

“Given the shameful history of family detention at Hutto, it’s beyond troubling that ICE would turn back to Corrections Corporation of America to operate what would be by far the nation’s largest family detention center,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit that opposes for-profit prisons. “While little kids and their families will suffer in this remote private prison, far away from legal or social services, this multi-billion-dollar private prison company stands to make enormous profits.”

Cox, the spokesman for ICE, wouldn’t confirm or deny CCA’s involvement, saying negotiations for the project were ongoing. “We’re in negotiations,” Cox said. “We haven’t signed a contract with anybody yet.” He said the number of beds and other details of the project could change.

Gulley, the Koontz McCombs vice president, said there was no time frame to close the deal but, he said, “if it does happen, it will happen fairly quickly.”

The Obama administration has pledged a ”truly civil” detention model for housing undocumented immigrants, though immigrant advocates have said progress has been halting at best. The influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America has sent private-prison company stocks soaring, while it has helped derail the administration’s commitment to reforming the Bush-era detention system.

Just in the past month, activists were in a fury because federal immigration officials refused to release from a Karnes County detention center a 7-year-old Salvadoran girl so she could get treatment for a life-threatening cancer. The girl and her mother had fled violence in El Salvador that the mother said prevented the girl from getting treatment. After mounting pressure, ICE finally relented and freed the girl and her mom. The Karnes facility was unveiled in 2012 as a model for a more humane approach to detention.

Over the summer, ICE converted a law enforcement training center in Artesia, New Mexico to a detention center housing immigrant families, many of whom are seeking asylum. Attorneys working at the remote facility told the Observer the conditions are poor and that the government is doing whatever it can to deport people as quickly as possible, returning some folks to the extreme violence and persecution they were fleeing

Libal said he was not impressed by the Obama administration’s promise to make the familiy facilites more like residential living center than jails.

“The stories that are coming out [of Karnes] would show that…detaining families has the exact same effect it had at Hutto, the exact same disastrous impact on families.”

County officials said they were generally supportive of the project, though County Commissioner Pepe Flores said he worried that the city’s water supply might be stretched. “We can furnish the water,” he said, “but later on it might put a dent on the economic development.”

“They come in here and tell us, ‘We want your input on this and that,’ but the bottom line is they’ll do it anyway.”

A portion of the San Jacinto River Waste Pits site, near the Interstate 10 bridge in Harris County, remains visible as the sandy area in the center left of this photograph.
Gulf Restoration Network/Lighthawk.org
A portion of the San Jacinto River Waste Pits site, near the Interstate 10 bridge in Harris County, remains visible as the sandy area in the center left of this photograph.

Not far from the San Jacinto Monument, the octagonal column that marks the site of the battle that brought the Texas Revolution to a close, near where Interstate 10 roars over the San Jacinto River, lies another shrine to Texas’ ambitions: 14 acres of partially submerged dioxin-laden waste leaching into the river and down to Galveston Bay. In a city littered with Superfund sites, the San Jacinto River Waste Pits, as they’re called, have become a signature environmental justice issue.

The EPA is overseeing a contentious debate over what to do with the site. And Harris County is suing the two companies that inherited the mess—International Paper and Waste Management—for $2 billion in penalties for damage it says was inflicted on area residents and the environment over four decades. Nearby communities, Galveston Bay guardians and Harris County authorities want the responsible parties to remove the waste, at an estimated cost of up to $636 million. But International Paper and Waste Management deny any liability and prefer the much cheaper option of capping the waste pits and leaving them in place.

The pits date to the 1960s, when Champion Paper contracted to have the waste from its nearby paper mill disposed of. The contractor, McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp., dumped hundreds of thousands of tons of waste contaminated with dioxins—a class of highly toxic chemicals—in open pits on the river’s west bank. By the late 1960s the site was abandoned and largely forgotten. Meanwhile, the river moved, the land sank, sea levels rose and storms and floods scoured the site. What was once a waste dump by the river became, at least partially, a waste dump in the river. Scientific research has linked dioxins from the pits to contaminated fish and crabs in Galveston Bay, potentially exposing residents—some of whom fish to put food on the table—to dangerous levels of the chemicals.

In 2005, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department finally discovered—or rediscovered—the impoundments while looking into a request to dredge the area for sand. The San Jacinto River Waste Pits were listed as a Superfund site, setting off a continuing struggle over how the site should be dealt with—and who should pay. Texans Together, a Houston-based grassroots group, has helped organize the communities of Channelview, Highlands and Baytown, and pressed the EPA to prioritize the health of the nearly 17,000 people living within five miles of the site. Fred Lewis, president of Texans Together, warns that simply capping the waste and monitoring it is akin to “leaving a loaded gun in the river to blow up sooner or later.” A study paid for by Texans Together and conducted by Texas A&M-Galveston professor Sam Brody concludes that the combination of rapidly rising sea levels, flooding, tropical storms and increased development in the area “make the low-lying San Jacinto Waste Pits extremely vulnerable to inundation and erosive events.”

Supporters of a full remediation scored a big victory in late July when EPA rejected a site study that the two companies had paid for after Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan uncovered evidence that the report’s authors were biased and trying to steer EPA toward options that would leave the waste in the river. EPA isn’t expected to make a decision until 2015.

“This is a battle between money and people,” Lewis said. “And it’s going to be a fight until the EPA decides.”

The Harris County lawsuit is set for trial at the end of September.

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