Forrest for the Trees

Residents of Azle and surrounding areas protest wastewater injection wells at a Texas Railroad Commission hearing in Austin.
Forrest Wilder
Residents of Azle and surrounding areas protest wastewater injection wells at a Texas Railroad Commission hearing in Austin.

The North Texas citizens at the Texas Railroad Commission hearing this morning tried to make it as simple as possible: For as long as anyone could remember, there hadn’t been earthquakes in Azle and surrounding areas. Then the fracking boom took off and the wastewater injection wells went in. Soon the earthquakes started, more than 30 in just the past few months, rattling homes and nerves. A considerable amount of research, including work by SMU scientists, links wastewater injection wells to earthquakes.

“No disrespect, but this isn’t rocket science here,” said Linda Stokes, the mayor of Reno, a small town 20 miles northwest of downtown Fort Worth. “Common sense tells you the wells are playing a big role in this.”

And just in case the rocket science theme wasn’t emphasized enough, a bona fide rocket scientist, Gale Wood of Azle, took his turn at the mic.

“It really does not take a rocket scientist to conclude that in certain geologically sensitive areas, the pumping of fluids is the probable cause of earthquakes,” Wood said. “There has been enough data collected over the last few years to support this statement.”

People in the Azle area have grown increasingly angry at the Texas Railroad Commission, which has pledged to hire a seismologist to study the issue, but has refused to shut down the suspect injection wells. Almost 1,000 people attended a raucous Jan. 2 meeting in Azle, organized by Railroad Commissioner David Porter. Residents asked the commission for a 90-day moratorium on wastewater injections in the Azle area—a call reiterated today.

Mack Smith, 72, described being woken up in the middle of the night by a recent quake and grabbing onto his bed to keep from being knocked to the floor. “Just give us some peace,” Smith said. “Stop the injection wells for a period of time.”

One advantage of a moratorium, citizens argued, would be to see if the earthquakes stop or diminish.

But commissioners, including Republican Chairman Barry Smitherman, who is running for Texas attorney general, made it clear that they have no plans to do so. Smitherman mentioned several times today that two of the suspect injection wells closest to the quake epicenter in Azle have seen reductions in the amount of fluids injected even as earthquake activity continues.

“If it had ramped up and continued to ramp up, then that might’ve been the culprit,” Smitherman said. Smitherman seemed to be suggesting that the frequency of earthquakes is linked to the rate of fluid injection. However, as NPR-StateImpact Texas has reported, the more important factor may be the cumulative total of wastewater injected.

While touting the benefits of fracking—and standing behind a weirdly technical definition of fracking to avoid making a connection between the hydraulic fracturing process and the disposal of the wastewater that results—Smitherman would promise only to study the issue more.

“We are still investigating the connection, we want to find out what the connection is, if any,” he said. “Once we find out, then we can hope to take additional steps.”

Meanwhile, folks in Azle are trying to make the best of it. One man, who described himself as “Santa Claus trying to do Elvis,” played a version of “All Shook Up”:

I’m in Azle,
I’m all shook up
My hands are shaking
And my knees are weak
My roof’s falling in and I’m doing my best
It hurts so much
It scares me to death
I’m in Azle, I’m all shook up

Plenty of his neighbors sang along today.

Louie Gohmert
Louie Gohmert

Another week, another batch of WTF.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Godwin’s law: the proposition, generally speaking, that if an online argument runs on long enough, someone will inevitably make a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis.

In the spirit of Godwin, I propose Louie’s law: Given enough time—say, five minutes—Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-Deep, Deeper, Deepest East Texas) will inevitably say something head-scratchingly ignorant about gay folks. He just can’t help it.

This week, Uncle Louie recommends sex ed for jurists; the Lady rears her head again; and we meet the new Secretary of State’s husband.

Ladies first. Last week we introduced you to Lady (she’s knighted; I have a star named after me) Theresa Thombs, who’s running for the State Board of Education on a You-May-Have-Come-From-a-Monkey-But-I-Sure-Didn’t platform. The Lady is back this week, thanks to her ongoing obsession with Satan and some sweet illustration skillz. In a first for WTFF, we will not quote so much as show. Behold, the Lady’s latest campaign missive, via Facebook:

Lady Theresa Thombs takes on the devil. Again.
via Facebook
Lady Theresa Thombs takes on the devil. Again.

 

The Lady’s all Thombs.

We leave the Lady to meet a real Gentleman. In December, Rick Perry helped swear in his new secretary of state, Nandita Berry. Usually the appointment of a new secretary of state—quick, name the previous Texas SOS—is a mundane affair. But Berry isn’t just a corporate attorney or the first Indian-American to serve in that office. She’s also married to B-list right-wing radio host Michael Berry, who specializes in both gay-bashing and gay-bar-attending and has patriotically called for mosques to be blown up. Anyway, he was asked by a Houston blogger if he’d need to tone it down now that his wife was in a position of authority.

He responded thusly:

 “She’s the Secretary of State, I’m the Czar of Talk Radio. Only angry libtard supposed feminists would ever blame her for what someone else says.”

It’s funny, we assume, because it’s “liberal” plus “retard.”

Finally, that brings us at long last to Uncle Louie. Asked what he thought about federal judges striking down bans on same-sex marriage, Louie’s mind immediately leapt to the mechanics of gay sex.

“They need some basic plumbing lessons.”

I feel bad for this small business-owner in San Diego.

heavymetaldoubletruck
Texas Observer
"Heavy Metal," Texas Observer, August 2012

Because of a little-noticed state law passed in 2011, one of the state’s most brazen polluters received a slap on the wrist for a string of serious environmental and safety blunders.

Gulf Chemical and Metallurgical—a company in Freeport that extracts metal from spent refinery catalysts and has a criminal record—was facing a $1.3 million penalty for its violations, including a 2011 incident in which a kind of chemical “magma” erupted from the plant’s roaster stacks and rained down on contractors and state inspectors, burning one person. But yesterday the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s three commissioners signed off on a deal imposing just a $300,000 fine.

“My hope is that this signals a turning point in the company’s operations and I guess I’m somewhat optimistic that we’re seeing some signs of that,” said TCEQ Chairman Bryan Shaw, a Perry appointee with a near-perfect record of siding with industry.

Freeport resident Melanie Oldham, the only citizen to testify before the TCEQ, pleaded with the commissioners to delay the decision.

“Ironically Gulf Chemical has taken toxic spent catalysts with heavy metals—arsenic, vanadium, chromium, cobalt, lead, nickel as well as benzene and sulfur—and they have recycled this dirty spent catalyst into the air, water and soil of the citizens of Freeport, Texas,” she said. The company, she said, has “a terrible compliance history for 30 years,” making the $300,000 penalty “inappropriate.”

The agency’s staff had recommended the large penalty, in part, because of the company’s criminal history. As detailed in this 2012 Observer cover story, Gulf Chemical polluted the air, water and soil of nearby neighborhoods for nearly four decades with heavy metals including arsenic and nickel, wantonly flouting state law even as regional investigators pleaded with Austin to take action. The facility was literally held together by duct tape, a fact noted in a criminal investigation that led the company to plead guilty to 11 felony charges for violating state environmental law.

The backstory here is that in 2011 the Texas Legislature passed a “sunset” bill reauthorizing the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Environmentalists had convinced lawmakers to give the agency a bigger stick to punish wrongdoers, increasing the maximum base penalty from $10,000 to $25,000 a day. But at the same time, with little notice or objection, the bill’s author Rep. Wayne Smith (R-Baytown) tacked on an amendment limiting TCEQ’s ability to consider a company’s environmental track record when calculating the fine. Previously, TCEQ could “enhance” a penalty by tripling, quadrupling—or, in the case of Gulf Chemical—increasing the base penalty by 753 percent. The Smith provision caps that enhancement at just 100 percent of the base penalty. Nothing in the law requires TCEQ to consider how much Gulf Chemical may have profited by violating environmental standards.

Wayne Smith (left) with speaker of the House Joe Straus
Wayne Smith via flickr.com
Wayne Smith (left) with speaker of the House Joe Straus

“It didn’t come out of thin air,” said Cyrus Reed of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. “We knew about it. We were opposed to it.” Still, environmentalists thought its impact would be small, given TCEQ’s lousy track record of punishing repeat violators in the past.

Even though the bill didn’t go into effect until September 1, 2011, an administrative law judge agreed with Gulf Chemical’s lawyers that the Smith provision—and only the Smith provision—applied retroactively.

Yesterday, a TCEQ attorney said the agency did not agree with the judge’s ruling but decided to settle for the smaller fine. The settlement approved yesterday also includes requirements for the company to, among other things, clean up an illegal pond—discovered by investigators in 2006—filled with a hazardous byproduct of the Gulf Chemical plant.

A lawyer for the company, Joe Knight, noted that the company had paid a $2.75 million criminal fine, a $7.5 million fine as part of a civil settlement with the Texas attorney general and has spent roughly $40 million brining the plant’s environmental controls up to date. “Certainly this deal was no sweetheart deal,” he said.

Although the Gulf Chemical case is somewhat unusual, Reed said the compliance penalty cap would likely reduce fines for other companies.

Lady Theresa Thombs
via Facebook
Lady Theresa Thombs

Update: After filing WTF Friday, we found a stunner from Rep. Jonathan Stickland—a Bedford tea party Republican who struck this stunning pose for the New York Times last year. In an article about anti-abortion causes in the evangelical World magazine, Stickland said of the summer’s pro-choice rallies at the Capitol, “There were times when I thought, ‘there are probably demons in this room.’”

Not to be outdone, the author of House Bill 2—the anti-abortion bill that led to the closure of one-third of abortion facilities in Texas—had this to say about who was behind her legislation:

“I knew God would prevail,” Laubenberg said: “I was on the side of life and the other side was death. It wasn’t my bill. It was God’s bill.”

Original story: If, for the past few weeks, your world has seemed suspiciously free of wingnuts, weird tea partiers and slimy politicians, that’s only because WTF Friday has been on hiatus during the War on Christmas. We are back at WTF HQ now, ears to the ground, listening for the crazy shit our politicos say. They have not disappointed us. In this week’s edition we  explore soshulism and Chuck E. Cheese with a lady named Lady, perform literary exegesis with Barry Smitherman and check in on—who else?—Ted Cruz.

Yep, 2014 is gonna be a helluva year.

H.L. Mencken has written that “democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage.” Don’t tell that to State Board of Education candidate Lady Theresa Thombs, who really deserves an entire WTF Friday devoted just to her.

Before we get started, here is a suggested soundtrack for the post: Lady’s singing of a song titled “God Bless America… Again.”

At a candidate forum this week, the Lady—who explained in this podcast that she has been knighted by something called the Sovereign Order of the Knights of Justice—explained her position on evolution:

Thombs had said she wanted history lessons written by “experts, not people from some socialist higher education.”

She went on: “We know we didn’t come from monkeys!”

The Lady also “went medieval” (in the words of Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy) on her opponent, accusing him being unqualified for the job.

Then, calling him “inexperienced,” she said in an accusatory tone, “His real experience in management is — Chuck E. Cheese!”

On Twitter she went after that most influential of Texas voting blocs: Satanists.

Tweet from Lady Theresa Thombs
Tweet from Lady Theresa Thombs

(Note to opposition researchers: It appears the Sovereign Order of the Knights of Justice is friendly toward… THE UNITED NATIONS!!!!)

Meanwhile, Texas Railroad Chairman, author of If Jesus were an Investment Bankerand Texas Attorney General candidate Barry Smitherman joined anti-CSCOPE activists Alice Linahan and Rebecca Forest for an hour-longhard-hitting interview infomercial in Arlington. Smitherman spent a good bit of time cheerleading for the fossil fuel industries (a prerequisite for the Texas Railroad Commission, it seems) while underscoring his belief that seasonal weather covering a few percent of the planet’s surface area is all the proof you need that global warming is an elaborate hoax carried out by the planet’s scientists.

“Now they call it climate change because the earth is not warming. In fact up here in North Texas we know the earth is not warming. It was bitterly cold the last four or five days.”

Smitherman also explained why he pulled his daughter out of public school over To Kill a Mockingbird. (The Observer broke the story in September that Smitherman wrote a letter to his daughter’s teacher objecting to the labeling of hate groups, including neo-Nazi organizations, as hate groups.)

“When I read that book I take away from it hope for the South that we are coming to grips with a legacy of racial issues and yet the townspeople of that town actually recognized and wanted to do the right thing but they just couldn’t do it. And yet the way this teacher was teaching it she was using the book as an example that we have still have racism and discrimination in Texas and America. …It was exactly in contravention to what I take out of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is we are making progress. We have an African-American president, we have many African Americans in a position of leadership.”

The townspeople “wanted to do the right thing but they just couldn’t do it.” In the book, a black man, Tom Robinson, is falsely accused of raping a white woman and is convicted by a jury despite Atticus Finch establishing that the accusers are liars. While a lynch mob fails to murder Robinson, he is later killed trying to escape prison. But, hey, they tried. Also: wrongfully convicting young black men of rape is so far in the past, just ask Tim Cole.

Finally, we leave you with Ted Cruz, who spoke today at a conference convened by his old employer, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and called President Obama ”dangerous and terrifying,” in part, because his administration isn’t blocking legal dope smoking in Colorado and Washington State.

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Texas Governor Rick Perry keynotes the Texas Public Policy Foundation's event at the Hilton Hotel in Austin, TX on January 10th, 2013
Gov. Rick Perry speaking at a TPPF summit.

What do you call a group of ideologues that collects millions from corporations and billionaires and then—through the alchemy of fuzzy math and Ayn Randian levels of free-market wishful thinking—churns out studies and policy papers used by politicians to justify miserly policies? Kick kids off health insurance? Here’s a white paper for that. Create confusion about climate science? Research paper! Propose tax cuts as a means to help West, Texas, recover from the fertilizer plant disaster? You bet. Derail Medicaid expansion that could insure millions and save an estimated 9,000 lives a year in Texas? Done.

I’d hardly call this organization a “think tank.” But that’s how the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) has been billing itself for many years, even as evidence grows that it’s less a think tank than in the tank.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a conservative policy shop. After all, TPPF has a liberal counterpart, the Center for Public Policy Priorities, that frequently takes opposing stances on issues. The Center for Too Many P’s, as it’s sometimes jokingly called, certainly has an agenda—albeit one that strikes me as considerably more concerned with the well-being of working-class Texans and much less hardline in its policy prescriptions. If anything, CPPP is wonky and nuanced to a fault, perhaps reflecting its staff’s public-policy school pedigrees.

But TPPF is a different animal. The organization got its start in 1989, bankrolled by San Antonio mega-donor James Leininger, who sought intellectual support for his school-reform ideas, which included public school vouchers. TPPF floundered in relative obscurity for years, operating out of a warehouse in San Antonio with two employees. Relocating to Austin, nearer the political and lobby nerve center, helped boost the foundation. So did new leadership and friendly relationships with rising Republican stars like Rick Perry, Greg Abbott and Ted Cruz. But TPPF’s emergence as a place for mainstreaming fringe ideas couldn’t have happened without a funding formula. As the Observer reported last year, the group’s ever-growing budget—$5.5 million in 2011—is flush with donations from the likes of the Koch brothers, ExxonMobil, Altria (tobacco), Geo Group (private prisons) and dozens of other corporations, interest groups, right-wing foundations and wealthy businessmen with an agenda to promote.

Establishing a strict quid pro quo between the funding and the policy is difficult, of course, but TPPF’s policy papers and ideological positions often meld with the interests of its client-donors. That curious synchronicity suggests that this think tank may be less ideological than customer service-orienteda point underscored by reporting the Observer and The Guardian did in December. In an application to a large conservative foundation, TPPF bragged about its ability to provide an “intellectual foundation” for attacks on Medicaid. TPPF boasted of numerous meetings with Rick Perry’s staff and of convincing Sen. John Cornyn and a pair of Texas congressmen to “champion” legislation that would allow Texas to “block grant” (read: partially privatize) the state’s Medicaid program. Exaggeration is a feature of grant writing, and TPPF is no doubt inflating its influence a bit. But the documents still show TPPF’s reach and its main selling point: that it puts a veneer of respectability on otherwise fringe ideas. But any notion that TPPF operates with intellectual integrity is belied by the documents, too. In its grant request, TPPF seeks $40,000 from the funders to “prove” that its Medicaid proposal will work. Not to test it, or subject it to different assumptions, but rather to reach a predetermined conclusion. That’s the definition of reverse-engineering. And it is considered unethical in journalism, academia and intellectual pursuits.

TPPF is just one of scores of state-level think tanks that have cropped up in state capitals over the past decade. They receive only a tiny fraction of the media attention that marquee, Washington, D.C.-based organizations like the Heritage Foundation do. But in their way, the state groups are more influential. Very little happens in Congress these days anyway. The action on critical issues has shifted to statehouses where the TPPFs of the nation have outsized sway. But there’s nothing intellectual or thoughtful about what they do. It’s time to stop pretending otherwise.

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An oil field south of Odessa, TX.
An oil field south of Odessa

The amount of water used by frackers in South Texas is increasingly coming into focus—and it’s considerably more than official estimates. In June, the Observer analyzed two different data sources to estimate how much water fracking consumed in three drought-stricken counties in the Eagle Ford Shale. Looking at industry-reported data to the website FracFocus.org, we determined that in 2012, fracking-related water usage in just those three counties totaled almost 15,000 acre-feet, or roughly half what the Texas Railroad Commission has said the entire 24-county Eagle Ford Shale will use a decade from now when oil and gas production is expected to peak.

One expert we spoke to, extrapolating from our findings across the whole shale, said the current regional total could be 40,000 to 45,000 acre-feet annually. (A detailed study by University of Texas researchers, paid for by the oil and gas industry, estimated that water consumption would peak at 35,000 acre-feet.)

A limitation to our analysis, of course, was that we only looked at three counties. But now the San Antonio Express-News has taken a similar approach for the entire Eagle Ford Shale. The paper’s findings square almost precisely with ours. Bottom-line: Fracking is consuming a lot more water than previously believed:

A widely cited study from the University of Texas at Austin, funded by the oil and gas industry, had predicted that hydraulic fracturing in the Eagle Ford would use a maximum of around 35,000 acre-feet of water annually.

But the San Antonio Express-News looked at more than 23,000 Texas wells drilled from 2011 to 2013, including more than 6,100 in the Eagle Ford, and found that the oil field is already swallowing more water.

Operators reported using around 43,770 acre-feet last year in 3,522 Eagle Ford wells, the approximate annual usage for 153,000 San Antonio households.

“The oil and gas boom is requiring more water than we have,” said Hugh Fitzsimons, a Dimmit County rancher and a director of the Wintergarden Groundwater Conservation District. “Period.”

It’s important to remember that production in the Eagle Ford Shale only began soaring about three years ago. Like so much with fracking, regulators, scientists, the industry and citizens are learning on the fly. All sorts of assumptions and received wisdom must be chucked out as we learn more. So it is with our assumptions about water consumption.

The data is not perfect. It’s likely incomplete, and there’s a lag between the time when a well is fractured and when the data gets reported.

But it’s the best set of publicly available information about water use for hydraulic fracturing and gives some insight into the shale drilling boom.

The UT paper said the Eagle Ford is a particularly difficult field to predict, and its lead author, Jean-Philippe Nicot, a research scientist at UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology, said he now thinks the actual use in the Eagle Ford is around 40,000 acre-feet annually.

What now?

The immediate impact, I’d wager, of having a somewhat clearer handle on how much water fracking uses is… approximately nothing.

For the “wetter” parts of the Eagle Ford Shale, fracking can probably peacefully co-exist alongside ranching, farming and communities drawing on the aquifers. Conflict is more likely to come in drier, drought-stricken parts of the shale where agriculture is already being squeezed by a declining aquifer.

How, or if, the conflict is resolved will draw on Texas’ convoluted system of groundwater regulation, a system that has more holes in it than a karst aquifer. More likely, the call for oil and gas producers to step up water recycling or water-less fracking techniques will grow. That was the tack the Express-News editorial page took when riffing on their reporter’s story:

But at what cost to the future? We would encourage state leaders and the [Texas Railroad Commission] to pursue regulation to incentivize recycled water use for fracking.

Other options include using effluent and brackish water.

These alternatives wouldn’t eliminate the use of freshwater, but given the drought, coupled with the boom in fracking, every drop counts.

Duck Dynasty and Texas pols
Patrick Michels
Duck Dynasty and Texas pols

Although this member of the WTF Department was blessedly far from American politics for a couple weeks, he could nonetheless feel the warmth of the all-consuming fire of the War on Christmas and the War on the War on Christmas burning from sea to shining sea like a trillion chestnuts roasting over a bonfire of Christmas trees.

Even better, we returned to find three lovely gifts waiting for us in our stocking this week: The very strange U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman is gonna try to beat Sen. John Cornyn by locking down the rodeo clown demographic; our lite guv defends something called “creationalism”; and George P. Bush steps away from the family name by showing some of that famous Bush humility.

First, we catch up with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who continues to listen to the voices in other people’s heads. In a televised debate last week in Waco, the four lite guv candidates were asked about teaching “creationism” in public schools. Dewhurst went first and set the tone for the others by announcing, “I happen to believe in creationalism [sic].”

The other three candidates followed suit by saying that they too believed creationism, which has been soundly rejected by the courts, mainstream educators and more than 150 years of science, should be taught in Texas schools. Unfortunately the moderator did not follow up to ask if Dewhurst believed man walked with dinosaur or merely followed in its footsteps.

Meanwhile, back at the rodeo, the “Nuttiest Freshman in Congress,” Rep. Steve Stockman, was reminding GOP primary voters of his long track record defending the persecuted and downtrodden.

“I stood up for Tuffy the Rodeo Clown when the radical Left took away his job for taking part in a skit that has mocked all presidents past and president,” Stockman said, referring to his invitation he extended earlier this year to a rodeo clown who was condemned for donning a mask of President Obama at a Missouri state fair.

“Now they’re out to get Phil [Robertson of ‘Duck Dynasty’],” Stockman continued. “And trust me, you are next. They will target you in your workplace if we don’t punch back.”

Finally, we end our tour on a note of humility, as befits this season of reflection and giving. In an article at Fox News Latino, George P. Bush makes the case that he’s not like those other Bushes (including his great-grandfather, grandfather, father, uncle, et al) and is in fact a “movement conservative” who aspires to be the next Newt Gingrich and just happens to share the family surname. ‘P’ is running a yawn-inducingly soporific campaign for Texas land commissioner, largely because his money has crowded everyone else out. What better way to cast off your family’s political dynasty and immense intergenerational wealth and privilege than by routinely employing the Royal We?

Bush insists that he’s up to the challenge, noting that he was an early supporter of tea party hero Sen. Ted Cruz, who after less than a year in the Senate has rocketed from relative political unknown to ruler of the Texas GOP.

“That’s something that we bring to the table that’s different,” Bush said. “We’re a mainstream conservative that appeals to all Republicans.”

Merry Christmas, everyone!

473px-Robert-D-Bullard
Wikimedia Commons
Robert D. Bullard

When Robert Bullard—sociologist, activist and leader of the environmental-justice movement—published his first book, Invisible Houston, in 1987, the city was in the dumps. The oil boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s had turned to bust, and the job losses, foreclosures and emptied malls had tarnished the “Golden Buckle of the Sunbelt,” as the city was known in the boomtown years. But this was Houston, Texas, dammit, a city where all that is solid melts into air and you can do anything with enough money. Soon, the boosters got to work. “Houston, Back on Top to Stay” was the slogan that the Houston Economic Development Council came up with. And, sure enough, Houston emerged from the recession faster than other Texas cities and got back to the business of making money.

But Bullard’s 1987 book wasn’t about Houston’s rollercoaster economy celebrated by the town’s elite. It was about those who gain the least during the booms, lose the most during the busts, and remain invisible throughout. At that time, Houston was still a biracial Southern city, divided between an Anglo majority and a large black minority. It had yet to lay claim to its current cosmopolitanism or its startling new status as the most diverse city in the nation. In Bullard’s telling, it was Houston’s black community—the largest in the South at the time—that suffered largely in silence.

“They are basically invisible when it comes to power, the power to keep things that other people don’t want out of their neighborhoods, the power to get access to the economic infrastructure, the power to get access to the political infrastructure,” he told me.

Twenty-five years later, Houston is reveling in another boom, and poor residents are almost as invisible as ever.

In November, Bullard called together a group of activists, scholars and citizens—mostly African-Americans—at Texas Southern University for “Invisible Houston: Revisited.” After 25 years in California and Atlanta, Bullard returned to Houston two years ago to serve as dean of Texas Southern’s public-policy school. What Bullard sees now is a city that’s undergone dramatic transformation yet remains wedded to an old political structure. It’s a city (and state, really) that loves to tout its “miracle” economy that leaves too many of its citizens behind. It’s a city that barely bats an eye at giving $3 million in tax subsidies to Chevron for an office tower the company was going to build anyway, but balks at even crafting a housing policy for a struggling working class.

“We still have invisible Houston but now the population that’s invisible is much larger and is much more diverse,” Bullard said recently. “That diversity does not translate into the changing of the guards when it comes to the power. It’s like Oz. Who’s actually pulling the strings and running things? It’s not that 75 percent,” he said, referring to the percentage of Houston residents who are non-Anglo.

At the conference, Rice University demographer Stephen Klineberg said Houston has the most even distribution among the four great communities of major U.S. cities: 44 percent Hispanic, 23 percent black, 26 percent white, and 7 percent Asian and other. But don’t call it a melting pot. The city is deeply segregated geographically along race and class lines—a feature, not a bug, of its notoriously laissez-faire attitude. Sarmistha Majumdar, a professor at Texas Southern, said income-based segregation in Houston, based on her analysis of Census tracts, is the worst in the nation. Gentrification of old “inner-city” black neighborhoods is “turning the city inside out,” driving black and brown Houstonians to the “-lands” (Pearland, Sugarland, The Woodlands), where services are scant and public transit minimal.

Along the Ship Channel, the number of tons of carcinogenic pollution has dropped significantly over the decades, but the health impacts on nearby minority neighborhoods are even more disproportionate now than they were in the 1980s—another consequence of inequality.

Still, Bullard is upbeat about the prospects for change. “I am very hopeful,” he said. “When I left 25 years ago, there were not that many people doing the work I do and now there is a whole cadre, a whole army.”

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Houston Mayor Annise Parker
Houston Mayor Annise Parker

It wasn’t even close. Today, the Houston City Council voted 15-2 to join every other major Texas city except one (hello, Fort Worth) in regulating payday loan companies.

Last month, Houston Mayor Annise Parker dropped a compromise plan, saying she wanted “a united front” with other Texas cities.

The lopsided vote surprised some Council observers, who had at least expected a procedural move to delay the vote. Instead, seesawing councilmembers said they felt city action was necessary in light of the Texas Legislature’s failure to do much of anything to rein in the payday loan industry.

The Houston Chronicle captured the attitude:

“Something must be done; something should be done,” Councilman Andrew Burks said. “Our Legislature, they had the ball and dropped it. I don’t like this, but I have to vote for it because … this is the only thing on the table, and it does do something.”

One of the ‘nay’ votes came from Councilmember Helena Brown, aka “Helena Handbasket,” who rails against funding for things like AIDS prevention. The other ‘nay’ was Councilmember Justin James Rodriguez, who evidently was unpersuaded by a withering column this morning (“This payday loan column is for you, Councilman Rodriguez”) by the Chronicle‘s Lisa Falkenberg in which she checks out Rodriguez’s claim that his constituents are unconcerned about the issue by, you know, talking to his constituents.

She stood in the icy rain in her white sweater, telling me how she’d fallen deeper and deeper into the payday quicksand while trying to put food on the table for her out-of-work son and his family.

“There was a lot of reasons, Lisa, for me going to these loan places,” she told me after inviting me to sit in the backseat of the Chevy Tahoe her daughter had loaned her to do errands. “It wasn’t because I wanted new tennis shoes, new scrubs, new perfumes. It was always a necessity. The sad part about it is they’re going to be nice enough to lend you the money but all they’re collecting is months and months of interest (and fees) so the principal’s just sitting there.”

Over the years, the woman – who pleaded with me not to use her name – says she’s had to take loans out with different lenders, sometimes to cover a payment at another place. She let me accompany her to her next stop down the road. I watched her make a $102 payment that didn’t touch the $493 principal.

Rodriguez, who is on his way out of office and is tied to a Cash America lobbyist, has been real cute about his post-council plans, laughingly telling Falkenberg that he’s “keeping all options open” when asked whether he plans to go into the payday loan business.

Robbie Cooper
Robbie Cooper

In early October, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst corralled a handful of conservative bloggers into Iron Works BBQ in downtown Austin. While they noshed on ribs and brisket, Dewhurst entertained questions and ideas from the group. Among the invited attendees was Robbie Cooper, who blogs at UrbanGrounds.com and describes himself on the site as an “opinionated sonofabitch” who’s “hardly ever politically correct.” That’s probably an understatement.

“It was nice to finally be able to sit down in a casual and intimate venue with Dewhurst,” Cooper later wrote on his blog, which featured a photo of the two smiling with their arms around each other. Over the years, Cooper has frequently been invited to hang out with, and offer advice to, some of Texas’ top elected officials, including Gov. Rick Perry, Dewhurst and Attorney General/gubernatorial frontrunner Greg Abbott. In 2010, Cooper wrote that “he’d had quite a few opportunities to meet and speak with Gov. Perry,” including a field trip to a shooting range where Perry let him inspect the governor’s Ruger .380.

“I’ve taken a measure of Rick Perry the man—and as a man he truly measures up,” Cooper wrote about the 2010 meeting. In January, Abbott sat down with Cooper for a one-on-one interview at the blogger confab RightOnline in Austin. Then, in September, one of Abbott and Perry’s top advisors—Dave Carney—caused a minor stir when he retweeted a Cooper article on “why Wendy Davis is too Stupid to be Governor.”

Cooper isn’t just a run-of-the-mill right-wing blogger, though. He has a long history of writing violent, racist screeds, labeling black people “animals” and the N-word and writing in stereotypical language when talking about black congressmen. “Ah, Lawd-y I’z may be stupid but I’z is also ig-nent, too,” is how he once captioned a photo of Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.

In another post, Cooper wrote of a YouTube video depicting an assault, “Nigger is not a word I use lightly or frequently. But make no doubt about it—the two pieces-of-shit animals attacking this woman are indeed worthless niggers.”

Of a Hispanic Texas Tribune reporter, Cooper wrote, “I’m insinuating that you’re [sic] Hispanic heritage might play a role in your biased reporting on matters of illegal immigration.”

Typically, Cooper’s views would be far outside the political mainstream and largely ignored. But as the Texas GOP has drifted more and more rightward, marquee politicians have increasingly embraced fringe activists and grassroots figures. Apparently Dewhurst, Abbott and Perry believe they have more to gain from courting Cooper than they have to lose from associating with a racist.

After Dewhurst’s BBQ summit, the Observer asked his office to comment on what Dewhurst thought of Cooper’s bigoted posts. We received no response, but a day after our first inquiry, Cooper wrote on UrbanGrounds that “a member of Dewhurst’s team alerted me” about our questions. Cooper denied that his posts were racist and went on to note that, “The best that I can tell is that these pantie-wetting Disingenuous White Liberals are upset that I use the word ‘animal’ when describing people who act…well, like animals.”

We finally caught up to Dewhurst at a tea party event in Burleson—the same event at which Dewhurst called for President Obama’s impeachment—and talked to him about Cooper.

“He seemed to indicate he was misquoted,” Dewhurst said. “I had about a three-second conversation with him. So I’m not aware of the things that he’s alleged to have said.” Later, Dewhurst asked to speak to us again. This time, he couldn’t recall having ever met Cooper. When showed some of Cooper’s more colorful writing, the lieutenant governor said, “I couldn’t comment on that.”

Pantie-wetting indeed.

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