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Hooks on Politics

Rick Perry at a press conference in Weslaco.
Office of the Governor
Rick Perry at a press conference in Weslaco.

They came to the forbidding landscape of the Rio Grande Valley from miles away, for reasons beyond their control. Their fates were written in the stars. Strangers to the region, faced with a new and imposing culture, they tried to make the best of it. Hungry, thirsty and lacking the means to make it to their intended destination after they were dumped by the border, they fell on the region’s inhabitants for Christian charity and goodwill. Yes, the National Guard are having a rough go of it in the Rio Grande Sector:

They came here to help protect the border but now the first wave of Texas National Guard troops deployed after Governor Rick Perry made the call are needing assistance to pay for food and gas.

“We were contacted that 50 troops that are in the Valley don’t have any money for food and gas and they need our assistance,” said Food Bank [Rio Grande Valley] Executive Director Terri Drefke.

The Texas Military Forces may have a king’s ransom of gunboats and choppers and night vision goggles and what have you, but none of that’s much good if, as the RGV’s Action 4 News reports, you “won’t get paid until September 5th and have been in the Valley since August 11th.”

These are the guys that were supposed to be so threatening that fearful drug cartels would be forced to conduct their business a hundred miles up the river. Or—well, nobody’s really been able to say what they’re doing, or why. At least they’re not shooting anybody.

Seriously, let’s hope the good folks of the Texas National Guard get through this with a minimum of discomfort and without any serious mishaps. But at the same time, keep this in mind the next time Gov. Perry starts bragging about flexing the state’s military might on Fox News Sunday.

Wendy Davis speaks to the press at an election rally, April 14, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Wendy Davis speaks to the press at an election rally, April 14, 2014.

There’s something weird about the Wendy Davis campaign’s recent ads. Have you seen them? If not, you probably will soon.

We’re at the stage of the campaign where candidates start to open their coffers. This is the most expensive race in Texas history, and at the top of the ticket, Davis has amassed a small fortune, which is absolutely dwarfed by the Abbott’s much larger fortune. These campaigns are set to run a formidable air war against each other come the fall, and it’s starting. But Abbott’s cash advantage—he had $35.6 million to Davis’ $11.1 million mid-summer—means he can run pretty much whatever he wants, when he wants. Abbott has ads running in movie theaters, for Christ’s sake.

Davis needs to be more selective. What the campaign can’t do in quantity, it needs to achieve with quality. So her first ads are an interesting reflection of the campaign’s priorities and direction as we close in on the election.

Her first ad, which dropped earlier this month, is called “A Texas Story.” That sounds promising, right? Davis has an incredible personal story: Remarkable individual achievement and perseverance, coming from a highly disadvantaged background. Her story, you could say, is the state’s story writ small. There’s so much most voters still don’t know about who she is. This could make a great ad.

Of course, “A Texas Story” wasn’t about Davis: It was about a “young mother” getting “brutally raped” while “her children slept in the very next room.” Those quotes are from the Davis campaign’s own copy. It’s one of the most disturbing campaign ads you’ll ever see: It makes the Willie Horton ad look like a documentary about a cupcake factory (albeit, a racist one.) It’s the only campaign ad I’ve ever seen that needs a trigger warning.

It’s an extremely slick and exploitative video. It feels like it was pulled from one of the more sordid true crime shows that populate basic cable. A carefully placed upturned tricycle, near the end, signals the lost innocence of the “brutally raped” woman’s children.

About 45 seconds into the ad, we get to the point: The rapist was a door-to-door salesman for a vacuum cleaner company, and the woman sued that company. When Abbott was a Texas Supreme Court Justice, he heard the case and opined that the company didn’t owe damages. He was in the minority.

There’s a lot of weird things about the ad, like the fact that Abbott doesn’t appear until the end. The worst thing might be that the Davis campaign, when asked the obvious question, didn’t seem to know whether they had told the “brutally raped” “young mother” that her story would be on TV, inviting a flood of scrutiny. Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson, who’s the closest thing we have to a referee on these sorts of things, told the Houston Chronicle that if the campaign hadn’t informed the woman, they were at “moral and political fault.”

But that’s not the weird thing I was thinking of at the top of this piece. The rape-y ad was from earlier this month—here’s a more recent one:

In it, Manuel Alvarado, a cancer survivor from Fort Worth, bemoans the failure of CPRIT and ties its failures to Greg Abbott. It’s a much more conventional political attack ad.

Here’s the thing: Where’s Wendy? Does this look to anyone like the kind of campaign people thought Davis was going to be running when she jumped in the race last year?

A caveat: I don’t know how to run campaigns. Bill White ran a bunch of positive ads in 2010 and lost. Maybe these are really, really smart ads. Maybe they’re effective on apathetic, low-information voters, and maybe they’ve tested alternatives and come to the conclusion that this is the best option.

But think about what Democrats were most excited about after Davis filibustered, and declared her candidacy. They were excited to have a Candidate. Bill White and Chris Bell were nice fellows who were OK candidates and probably would have been good governors, but they weren’t Candidates. Davis was a Candidate.

She had massive star power among the Democratic base, and she had a unbelievably impressive biography. She could draw big money from out-of-state liberals. She represented a seemingly center-right district and held it as a Democrat in two rough cycles. Suburban Republican women loved her. Through the strength of her personality and sheer force of will, she would make this a fight. Whatever it was, she had it.

So where is it?

A recent Rasmussen poll had Abbott’s favorability numbers dipping, so maybe the attack lines are working. But Davis’ favorability numbers have been a problem the whole campaign—one PPP poll from April had her unfavorability rating at 47 percent. (Abbott’s was 27 percent.) A lot of voters don’t seem to know much about her, and she has trouble with the ones that do.

There’s a little over two months left, which, in politics, is both an eon and not very much time at all. Can the Davis that Democrats were excited about last year break through the smooth machining of a consultant-driven, attack ad-heavy campaign?

As a coda, consider two other videos. Leticia Van de Putte’s campaign hasn’t had enough money to participate in the ad war yet, but it will at some point. But here’s a video her campaign put together to use as an intro at the Democratic convention in June. It’s a bit corny at points, but it’s humanizing and warm and funny, and it’s hard not to come away from it liking Van de Putte more. It’s the polar opposite of “A Texas Story.”

And here’s one of the zillions of web ads that Greg Abbott has produced—here’s, effectively, what “A Texas Story” stands in opposition to. Consider that Abbott, frankly speaking, is not a charismatic guy, or a particularly talented politician. Watch how effectively the ad masks that:

Look at that smiling, happy man. Look at the pretty boats and sky and fish, and how hard those guys are working. Listen to how he’ll fight for you. Don’t you want him to be your governor?

Rick Perry
Patrick Michels
Rick Perry speaks outside the Travis County Courthouse, Tuesday, August 19, 2014.

When most people get indicted on felony charges, it’s a bad time. Things start bad, and they stay bad. When Gov. Rick Perry got indicted on two felony counts, it kicked off a pretty great week for him. It started with a loud and premature verdict of innocence by the national media, continued through a trip to get ice cream, and ended in Washington, D.C. with a number of meetings with East Asian ambassadors. It was quite a show.

But unless Perry’s lawyers quickly quash the indictments, the rest of this process probably won’t go as smoothly. Perry needs to keep his core narrative about the indictments intact until the charges resolve themselves, and that’s going to be difficult to do as the case rumbles on. We’re likely to face a trickle—possibly a torrent—of new information, not only about Perry’s actions around the veto, but also his tenure as governor in general.

Separately, the story of the indictments is set to give new life to old stories about Perry’s improprieties, in much the same way Chris Christie’s bridge-related indiscretions gave rise to a narrative about his temper and vindictiveness toward political opponents. And Perry’s personality—best suited to offense—was well tailored to the first stage of this ordeal, but may trip him up going forward.

Here’s Perry’s story about the indictments, as outlined in a video released by his political action committee, PerryPAC: He saw a damaged public official, a woman who shouldn’t possibly hold office or any kind of responsibility, and took firm, narrowly targeted action to try to remove her. Now he’s facing political retribution from Democrats.

Parts of that narrative fall apart as soon as you look at them closely—particularly the notion that special prosecutor Michael McCrum, appointed to the case by a Republican judge in San Antonio, is an agent of Battleground Texas. But much of the rest of it could fall apart over the course of a trial, too.

Perry says his veto was about unseating Lehmberg, but it had significant consequences. As the Quorum Report’s Harvey Kronberg wrote on Thursday, Perry’s veto of the funding for the Public Integrity Unit “derailed more than 400 felony level tax and insurance fraud investigations allegedly committed against the State of Texas.”

In other words, Perry’s action didn’t just punish Lehmberg for her refusal to step down—it punished the state as a whole and Texas citizens generally. Think about that: Perry zeroed out the funding for more than 400 felony investigations because a local official wouldn’t step down when he wanted. Kronberg:

The Travis County Public Integrity Unit is the most under-appreciated law enforcement apparatus in the state. Fully 95% of what it does is pursue white collar crime in Texas and on behalf of the State of Texas – motor fuels tax fraud, insurance fraud and legal support for the smaller of Texas 254 counties that do not have the funding or expertise to pursue white collar crimes in their jurisdictions.

When Perry derailed the unit, the Travis County Commissioners Court stepped in and restored a portion of the funding—but the PIU had to slash staff and caseload. The state’s side in serious criminal cases that had nothing to do with Lehmberg’s troubles—or even, politics generally—suffered needlessly.

But the PIU investigates political corruption too. Kronberg dismisses the relevance of the investigation into the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas as a factor in Perry’s motivation for wanting a friend in control of the DA’s office, but points to other possibilities.

“It is far more interesting to look at the Public Integrity Unit investigation of Republican AG candidate Ken Paxton and Perry Regent appointment Wallace Hall,” Kronberg writes. “Had Lehmberg resigned, it is doubtful Perry’s appointed replacement would be very interested in either criminal referral.” There’s no shortage of possible motives for Perry’s intervention in the PIU, even if those motives don’t necessarily matter to the legal case against him.

If the trial gets going, there’s really no telling what’s going to get dredged up in the discovery process. What internal communications, what private conversations will we become privy to? This trial might be the most penetrating look at Perry’s workshop in the 14 years since he took office. There’s no politician that comes away from that level of scrutiny looking good.

If Perry still intends to run for president—it will be significantly more difficult to do while facing a marathon legal battle, since he needs to be up and running at full strength in just a couple of months—here’s another consideration. The question of ethics, which now dangles from his candidacy, invites follow-up questions about Perry’s past scruples.

There are the top-level ones—like the use of the Texas Enterprise Fund and CPRIT—and potential improprieties which have faded a bit in most people’s memories, like Perry’s history of inordinately profitable real estate deals conducted with dubious figures like Austin developer Gary Bradley. The criminal case, combined with a presidential campaign, gives national media—the only media Perry cares about—a reason to start looking into these stories again. They never got far last time he ran, but the framing will be different now.

Here’s another question: Does Perry have the right temperament to ride this out? His blustering offense works great in certain cases. But there will be other situations that call for subtlety and tact. Take his statement last Saturday, just after the indictments came down, when Perry predicted “that this farce of a prosecution will be revealed for what it is, and that those responsible will be held to account.” A Travis County judge subsequently warned that it could constitute a second-degree felony. What you’re seeing is a man who hasn’t been accountable to nearly anybody in a long, long time.

Temperament is one thing, ability is another. Before the indictments, the question about Perry was: Is he more prepared this time to face primary voters? In New Hampshire last Friday, we got some more data points on this question. In a room full of Granite State businessmen, Perry seemed oddly unfamiliar with the felonies he had just been charged with, telling the crowd he had been charged with bribery (he hadn’t.) “I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t really understand the details here,” he told the crowd, who were doubtless reassured.

That night, according to the Texas Tribune’s Jim Malewitz, he told a house party that the states were “lavatories of democracy.” Somewhere out there, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are dreaming of the Ames Straw Poll and smiling.

The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish, and the tyranny of evil men.
reddit
The path of the righteous governor is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish, and the tyranny of evil men.

Rick Perry is in trouble.

1) You know what I’m talking about. That thing on the border, with the OTM UACs? The thing that made everyone love him again, and made him look serious? The thing that some in his camp might have hoped would propel him to presidential frontrunner status? It’s been receding as an issue, before the state’s National Guard contingent is even fully deployed.

That’s a bit awkward, since Perry was scheduled to deliver a speech on border stuff at the Heritage Foundation, that great Beltway intellectual powerhouse, on Thursday. With fewer kids coming across the border, and the nation’s attention focused on a number of catastrophes elsewhere, how could the governor best grab headlines and slam President Obama? He’d need to go big: Way big.

Hey, there’s a hot new jihadi group in town that everyone is big on. Maybe Perry could sprinkle a reference to it in his speech in a slightly surreal way, as if he was giving them a guest lyric on his R&B record. “Stump Speech (ft. the Islamic State),” from 2014’s Never Gonna Be President tour.

Mr. Perry said there is “no clear evidence” that terrorists have entered the United States illegally across the southern border.

OK then that’s out. Maybe he could…

“I think there is the obvious, great concern that — because of the condition of the border from the standpoint of it not being secure and us not knowing who is penetrating across — that individuals from ISIS or other terrorist states could be [crossing the border.]”

The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence—if you think about it, it’s more like the opposite. If you have no proof of something, isn’t that kind of suspicious? It’s like someone has hidden the proof from you, on purpose. Think of all of the things that we could have proof of. Hmmm….

It’s a fun gloss on an old tale about our porous border: Terrorists could use it, or sometimes, in the telling of it, Chinese spies, etc. The 9/11 hijackers came legally, of course, and the main reason people are freaked out about ISIS is that many of the group’s foreign fighters already have American and European passports. Apart from all that there’s scant evidence for any of the attendant claims: Once upon a time, the conservative content aggregator Breitbart.com famously misidentified a ripped-up Adidas soccer jersey as a “Muslim prayer rug,” but that’s another story.

The ISIS talk—apart from giving the impression that Perry is cynically honing in on the horrible headlines of the present moment to get a few himself—is proof positive that a lot of Republican border talk is not offered in good faith. It’s about freaking people out, and keeping them freaked out. As a palate cleanser, take this video of Texas conservative ringleader Steve Hotze selling the generalized concept of fear like he’s hawking shake weights on the Home Shopping Network:

2) Of course, the (comparatively) stabilizing Texas border isn’t the only reason the good guv is in trouble: There are also the felony indictments.

Because we as a people take good government seriously in 2014, Perry’s booking this week was a solemn occasion. No one likes to see our elected leaders face jail time.

Will Hailer, the executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, was outside the courthouse when Perry was booked. In mournful tones, he told reporters: Kids across the state would soon return to school, where’d they’d carefully place apples on the desks of their teachers, and look up with doe-eyed innocence while their teachers explained to them that the governor, the state’s paterfamilias, had broken the public’s trust.

Perry, to his credit, felt the gravity of the situation. He said the charges were bunk, of course, but he’d work hard to regain our faith. A veteran statesman, he knows that the public’s trust in the institutions of government is as fragile as a paper lantern—and just as beautiful—and he’d make sure they remained intact.

Perry never struck me as a stress eater. This week has been full of surprises.

3) Perry caught two felony indictments, and missed out on others. It seemed incomplete. It was only a matter of time, really, that he caught the third:

The judge said that Perry might have made a veiled threat when he said: “I am confident we will ultimately prevail, that this farce of a prosecution will be revealed for what it is, and that those responsible will be held to account.”

[...]

The Texas Penal Code that outlaws obstruction and retaliation says that anyone who “intentionally or knowingly harms or threatens to harm” a grand juror faces a second degree felony, which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

(Editor’s note: This will be the Observer’s last “three things” joke. We apologize unreservedly to our readers and the public at large, and the author will be disciplined accordingly.)

4) There’s part of me that’s going to miss outgoing state Rep. Steve Toth, who combined all of Jonathan Stickland’s bomb-throwing qualities and nose for policy with the diplomatic skills of an old Eddie Haskell. I’m not just going to miss him for stuff like this:

The best thing has been watching him interact with other legislators. Take this delicate three-act ballet, in which Mr. Toth, who starts by incorrectly asserting that Rosemary Lehmberg indicted Perry, slams a number of his fellow Republicans.

Into the breach steps the conservative but thoughtful state Rep. David Simpson, who explained his vote at length. Instantly, immediately, the fire goes out of Toth’s eyes.

The camaraderie of the Texas House: There’s nothing like it.

5) College is a time for experimentation and exploration. I’m not going to tell anyone that they’re doing it wrong: We all had to find our own way.

But can we all get together and buy these guys a keg or a cheap plastic bong or something? I mean, come on.

Gun Silouhette
courtesy Lisa Roe/flickr creative commons

School districts across Texas have had a rough go of things in the last couple years, starting with the Legislature’s $5.4 billion cut to public education funding in 2011. A lot of the state’s schools went on a starvation diet. Chronic underfunding of public education seems to be the state’s new norm. Which has left a lot of schools in Texas scrambling to find ways to pay for the bare necessities themselves. Take tiny Childress and Shamrock ISDs, two districts in the Panhandle that shelled out quite a bit of money—on guns. Childress ISD spent $150,000.

The money’s for more than just guns, of course—it’s for guns, and a support system for the guns, reports the Amarillo Globe-News.  The nearby town of Shamrock, with a population of 2,000 and a school district enrollment of about 430, paved the way for regional innovation with the installation of gun safes in classrooms, which would let staff members access heat in a hurry. Childress, with a population of a little over 6,100 and a school district enrollment of about 1,100, knew they were on to something good.

Childress ISD’s board approved a similar measure last year that allows certain school employees to access firearms kept in safes, [Superintendent Rick] Teran said. The school district devoted $150,000 to the purchase of firearms, safes, practice ammunition, a panic system and training, he said.

“With all the issues in the nation now, with gunmen coming into our schools and attacking our children, we felt it was our next step for our community,” Teran said.

It’s one of a number of precautions the rural schools are taking.

Childress and Shamrock’s programs include several training seminars, including a three-day session that included a simulated active-shooter situation, Teran said.
Childress police also have participated in active-shooter training in the elementary school, he said.
Childress ISD has completed other safety efforts, including hiring a liaison officer and installing a panic system that gives teachers access to hidden buttons in classrooms to alert law enforcement of a security issue, Teran said. The school district is also adding $150,000 in surveillance cameras, he said.

Teran showed the Globe-News he possessed a keen understanding of public education’s purpose. “We’re not here to take a life,” he said. “We’re here to protect children. Whether we’re safer or not, that’s up to each individual. But I think we’re a little more prepared.”

(Calls to Childress ISD were not returned.)

Questions abound: How long would it take a determined student to find a way into one of those safes? What happens if an adult in the school snaps? How much training is enough to effectively respond to a threat? If they’re going to be armed, are they armed enough? Could they defeat an intruder with body armor and an assault rifle?

It would be easy to poke fun at Childress ISD’s plan. But it’s part of a broader trend, and it’s not completely irrational. School shootings have become part and parcel of American life. Any individual school is very unlikely to be affected by one, but the horror when one is is enough to push schools to take extraordinary precautions. Although little Childress is an unlikely target, no one can really say what the likely targets are.

The parents and administrators of Childress ISD are trying, as best as they can figure how, to safeguard and bolster their children’s future. This is an wholly imperfect way to do that, but the sad thing is that we as a society haven’t given better options to the district’s frightened parents.

Childress has lagged behind academically: In recent years, they’ve fallen behind state average test scores. The $300,000 the school district spent on guns, panic buttons, and security cameras is the going rate of ten new teachers, according to salary information obtained by the Texas Tribune—or could pay for five for two years, two new teachers for five years, etc.

Or it could pay an additional college counselor’s salary for five years, with enough money to keep the debate and math clubs waist deep in the finest pizza Childress has to offer.

But instead, the “arm the teachers” plan is spreading—the Globe-News reports that Bushland ISD, near Amarillo, may take up a similar measure. A number of other schools around Texas already allow some personnel to carry concealed weapons on school premises. Tiny Leverett’s Chapel ISD, in East Texas, made that legal last year, with the charmingly evocative condition that “only ammunition designed to have reduced ricochet hazard will be permitted.” But Childress’ decision to purchase guns directly makes its situation somewhat unusual.

So Childress kids, and kids elsewhere, will have to wait on the next session of the Legislature for those extra college counselors—though they shouldn’t hold their breath.

Rick Perry
Patrick Michels
Rick Perry speaks outside the Travis County courthouse Thursday, August 19, 2014.

Rick Perry’s one of the best politicians around when he can play to a friendly crowd, but lately we haven’t gotten to see much of that. He’s a lame duck, after all. He doesn’t speak much in public in Texas anymore; he’s spending a lot of time in Iowa and South Carolina. So it’s been easy to forget that this is a guy whose tenure as governor is entering its teenage years for good reason—in the right setting, he is excellent at rousing a crowd.

The “right setting” apparently includes the courthouse where he’s being indicted for twin felonies. The drama that started last Friday will go on, presumably, for a long time. But make no bones about it—Perry’s winning the first act. Today, Perry got booked at the Travis County Justice Complex. He got fingerprinted, and got his mugshot taken. And he embarked on one of the most audacious adventures in modern American politics—can Rick Perry use twin felony indictments as a springboard into the White House?

Maybe that’s a stretch, but things are going very well for him so far. Of course, there’s the small caveat that the indictment just came down.

But in a defiant speech, Perry told the crowd—a mixture of the Texas press corps, a variety of left and right political types, and a handful of supporters, some of whom were beckoned here by Sid Miller (and who could ask for a better character witness than Sid Miller?)—that he would do it all again.

Perry spoke before and after he entered the courthouse. He was “standing for the rule of law” when he pressured Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg to resign. The indictments were an “attack on our system of government,” and his legal team would “prevail.” He thanked the crew at the courthouse who booked him for their “great professionalism.” It was slightly less fiery than his press conference Saturday, when he seemed to threaten special prosecutor Michael McCrum with consequences for his grave overreach—but only slightly.

rickperrybooking3

There’s no Perry like Perry on attack. Could he come out of this better than he went in to it? Maybe. A few high-ranking Texas Democrats, who hope otherwise, were in attendance today. Will Hailer, the Democratic Party’s executive director, spoke to the media afterwards. Soon, Texas school kids would be heading back to class, Hailer said, and in civics classes across the state, they’d learn that their governor had been indicted.

Steve Munisteri, the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, was also in attendance. He was less mournful. “The governor’s favorability is going up, not down,” he said. “This is absolutely going to help him.”

Munisteri added: “If he can resolve these charges before the Iowa caucuses, I think he’s gonna be a folk hero.” Could he still be president? “I think Gov. Perry’s going to run for president and I think he’s going to be a very strong contender.”

Those are strong words. The future leader of the free world celebrated his good day, as we all would, with ice cream.

Troopers lead a woman out the Capitol's east doors Friday evening.
Patrick Michels
Troopers lead a woman out the Capitol's east doors during a contentious debate on House Bill 2.

House Bill 2, the sweeping anti-abortion bill shuttering clinics around the state, emerged last summer from a paroxysm of legislative and popular uproar—some of the most unusual events the Capitol had ever seen. But now that the bill’s snaking its way through the courts, spontaneity has given over to a grim legal march that’s likely to hold few surprises until it—or a measure like it—goes before the Supreme Court, too late to stop the cull of abortion providers in the state. Even if the bill’s supporters ultimately lose their legal defense of the measure, they’ve won.

On Wednesday, the two sides made closing arguments in the second of two legal efforts to reverse parts of HB 2. The first, which took place last year, challenged provisions in the bill that toughened restrictions around medication abortions, and required doctors to get admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. In that case, U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel sided partially with abortion providers, but his ruling was quickly overturned by the conservative Fifth Circuit.

This time, a legal team representing a group of abortion providers challenged different provisions of the law in the same court, arguing that the admitting privileges requirement and a separate stipulation that abortion facilities be built to the standards of a surgical center would eliminate access to abortion in wide swathes of the state. Clinics in the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso have been or will be shuttered, leaving Texans seeking abortion with the prospect of overnight trips to other parts of the state, or travel across state or national borders. The diminished access, the plaintiffs argued, would impose an unconstitutional “undue burden” on women seeking access to an abortion.

Yeakel seemed receptive to that argument—at times, he pushed the abortion providers’ attorney, Stephanie Toti, to go further. If it would be an undue burden for a poor woman seeking an abortion to travel 550 miles to abortion clinic, wouldn’t it also be an undue burden to travel 150 miles? Wouldn’t it be an undue burden even for a “wealthy woman in a Mercedes Benz who drives fast” if that woman had to take a day off work to get a medical procedure she could have received in her home town?

“I have a problem with believing that it’s reasonable to ask anyone to travel 150 miles to get medical care they could get closer to them,” Yeakel said. He pressed Toti: Was there any other medical procedure the state had limited access to so severely? Would it be acceptable to force someone to travel 150 miles to get treatment for a sprained ankle?

The state’s closing argument boiled down to a simple message to Yeakel: Your hands are tied. The Fifth Circuit ruling that overturned Yeakel’s decision, along with other Supreme Court rulings on abortion restrictions, left the judge with little discretion, argued Texas Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell.

Mitchell seemed relaxed and comfortable as he made his closing argument: He was bowling with the bumpers on. Ignore the Fifth Circuit’s recent ruling, Mitchell argued, and the court would “issue a decision that will be overturned.” Yeakel can rule how he wants, but we know where the Fifth Circuit, overseen by hyper-conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, stands. Only the Supreme Court itself could sort out these concerns, and that will be some time away.

So unless the Fifth Circuit surprises just about everyone, the raft of abortion clinic regulations will go into effect on September 1, a little more than two weeks from now. Toti told the court that “less than seven” abortion clinics are fully in compliance with all parts of the new law: Ultimately, seven may be operating, all in major cities in the San Antonio-Houston-Dallas/Fort Worth triangle. Yeakel told the court that his opinion would be issued as soon as possible—but his ruling, if he chose to issue an injunction against parts of the law, could be itself overturned with equal speed.

Even if the matter is taken up by the Supreme Court and parts of the law are ultimately ruled unconstitutional, the bill will have done what supporters, like Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, promised it would: Gut access to legal abortion in Texas. A network of clinics and providers had been built up over time, and action by the Supreme Court, when and if it ultimately comes, can’t restore that. The legal challenges will continue to provide drama, but for pro-choicers, it’s a lose-lose.

Jane Nelson Takes the Gavel

At Tuesday's meeting of the Senate Finance Committee, few policy details—but a preview of a potentially rocky road next session.
Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) at Wednesday's press conference discuss SB 7 and 8.
Beth Cortez-Neveal
Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound)

These days, we like our politicians to act and talk like us, and the Texas Senate is no exception. Long gone is the time that booze-soaked good ol’ boys hammered out legislation under the watchful eyes of Lt. Governor Bob Bullock. In recent years, the chamber’s relied to a large degree on independent dealmakers, figures like Tommy Williams and Robert Duncan, to take on the heavy legislative lifting. But that job has been getting tougher—Williams, the chair of the all-important Senate Finance Committee last session, had a hell of a time getting an important transportation funding package though the Lege, and he needed a special session to do it.

But Williams and Duncan will be gone next session, and the Senate appears to be otherwise lean on statespeople. There’s a decidedly populist mood in the air, which is a polite way of saying that there’s a few more cranks. New recruits like Don Huffines and Bob Hall, who beat dealmaker incumbents in the Republican primary, cast themselves not as small-r republicans but as champions for the voters—or rather, the minute number of people who voted in the GOP primary. And those are not people who are amenable to compromise.

Still, a budget must, by law, be drafted, and someone must take on the unenviable task of dragging it through the gauntlet. Enter state Sen. Jane Nelson, (R-Flower Mound), the new chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Outgoing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst appointed her, but she’ll likely keep the post if Patrick takes over. She’ll be one of the Legislature’s most powerful people next session, and Tuesday afternoon provided her the opportunity for a coming-out party of sorts—the first meeting of her committee. She began it with a quick selfie.

Nelson’s rise to power—like the rise of Patrick and others—is more than a little remarkable given her origins. A socially conservative member of the State Board of Education at the beginning of the ’90s, she won a Senate seat in 1993. Her biggest legislative brawl that year was a fight over retaining the state’s ban on sodomy. It had already been ruled unconstitutional in Texas courts, and state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) argued passionately for stripping it out of the state’s criminal code. Nelson fought it tooth and nail. She introduced an amendment to keep the ban on gay sex. “I’m not interested in having a politically correct penal code,” she said. She lost the fight over the amendment 16-12, but her side ultimately won that year. (The sodomy ban is still on the books in 2014.)

For the next decade, her name doesn’t pop up much in coverage of the Legislature. She supported a ban on human cloning, and wanted the state to divest from companies that produce violent or explicit music. But time served is king in the Senate, and she ultimately took on the mantle of senior stateswoman. As the long-serving chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, she’s been the Senate’s ringleader for health system overhauls, although she thinks the women’s healthcare system is doing just fine. Next session, her hands will be on everybody’s purse strings.

If you watched the hearing yesterday for clues about the Lege’s priorities next session, you wouldn’t have come away with much. Representatives from the comptroller’s office and the Legislative Budget Board came to give testimony about Texas’ fiscal circumstances. Dan Patrick, who could be running the Senate come January, frequently conferred with his deputy, state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), but otherwise mostly kept mum. More than half of next year’s Senate class was in attendance, including Huffines and Hall, who sat in the audience to watch.

Next session’s budget battles are unlikely to look like those of the last few sessions. For one thing, the state will have a lot of money to play with next year. The economy is humming relatively smoothly. Oil revenues are skyrocketing. Which leads to a big question: Will the Legislature invest the surplus into roads, schools and services, or will it use the money to lower taxes or alter the way the state finances itself?

Here’s another question: How well are next year’s senators, with more freshmen and more ideological firebrands, prepared to do the dirty work of hammering out a budget? Here’s a slide the Legislative Budget Board prepared for senators on the shape of the budget process—information that will no doubt come in handy for the Senate’s new outsider-politicians:

It all makes sense now.
Legislative Budget Board
It all makes sense now.

To supplement the slideshow, the budget board prepared a thick compendium of information on the state budgeting and finance. Nelson, in her down-home, charming manner, loved it. She recommended it heartily to her fellow legislators. She took it on vacation with her, and read the whole thing. And it’s great bedtime reading, she added, because it puts you right to sleep. The 2015 session will probably not be so soporific.

Blake Farenthold speaks at a town hall in Bastrop, Texas. August 6, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Blake Farenthold speaks at a town hall in Bastrop on Aug. 6, 2014.

August is the time for Congress to take a well-deserved vacation, which, in the unhappy world of congresspeople, means returning to their districts to be yelled at by constituents. Last year’s round of town halls were particularly bad in this regard. The House had been flirting with immigration reform, and the tea party was furious. At one town hall in Salado, Congressman John Carter, who’d been tasked by the House leadership with trying to draw up a bipartisan bill, was yelled into virtual submission by the Central Texas Tea Party.

You might expect, given recent events on the border, and the continuing malaise in Congress over immigration reform, that this year’s town halls would be just as heated. But on Wednesday night, at a town hall meeting in Bastrop held by Congressman Blake Farenthold (R-Corpus Christi), there wasn’t much fire. Still, the meeting proved to be a strong reminder of why Congress finds itself stuck in neutral on the subject, without much chance of improvement anytime soon.

There were plenty of off-the-wall constituents, like the woman who accused Central American kids of taking advantage of an anti-human trafficking law by falsely claiming they’d been abused. (Of course, the opposite is the case—there’s plenty of evidence the government isn’t properly shielding kids who’ve shown evidence of being trafficked.) One fellow, talking about the possibility of impeachment proceedings for Obama, employed language evocative of a lynching—letting the “noose” of scandals tighten around the president’s neck. One wanted to know why we weren’t building higher walls.

An older man in a Hawaiian shirt wanted to know about the IRS and Lois Lerner. Didn’t the administration’s recent scandals point toward high crimes and misdemeanors? It had gotten to the point where even he, a free man in Bastrop, was afraid of speaking out against Obama. He offered this in the middle of his town’s city hall, to a congressman who agreed with them, then added, of liberals: “You gotta remember, half the population has an IQ of less than a hundred.”

When Carter got in trouble last year, he did so because he tried to set his constituents straight on a lot of the issues they were most angered by. That might have been the noble thing to do, but it may not have been the best idea. Farenthold doesn’t bother to engage with a lot of the talking points constituents leave at his feet—he deftly sidesteps them and talks about something more comfortable. It’s a smart thing to do, even if it may leave some of the voters with the impression that he agrees with them when he hasn’t.

“We’ve got to not be angry Republicans,” he told the crowd. Afterward, Farenthold continued to strike a moderate tone to the two reporters present. Last year, “advocates of both sides in the immigration debate were really turning up the fire, and we came out of August last year further apart than we began.”

On the prospects of immigration reform: It’s “pretty obvious that’s not going to happen in the House.” He called for the Senate to take up the bill the House recently passed, which would undo DACA—Obama’s temporary relief for young undocumented people, aka Dreamers—as well as a host of other measures. Farenthold said that politics involved negotiation, and that Harry Reid was to blame for not taking up the House bill. But the House legislation, which would expose more people to deportations, is lights-years away from the president’s proposal. It’s virtually impossible to imagine a compromise between the two.

For years, immigration reform has had a chicken-and-egg problem. Some say that the border has to be secured before anything else happens. But comprehensive immigration reform, with a guest worker program and legal status for those here illegally, would ease conditions on the border. And besides, it’s not clear that the border can ever really be “secured” to anyone’s satisfaction.

I ask Farenthold: Is demanding that border security come first a poison pill? “I think it’s exactly the opposite. What I pointed out in the town hall is that Americans feel betrayed because Reagan told them that we’d secure the border back when he did the first amnesty. He didn’t, and now we’re in the exact same boat we were in when the Reagan policy took effect.”

He adds: “Let’s get back to integrity with the American people and secure the border. And I guarantee you, the tempers will come down. This whole comprehensive immigration thing just drives me crazy.”

Farenthold says he supports guest worker programs, and wants Congress to break immigration reform into smaller bills. There are lots of things that both sides agree on. At the same time, he admitted, if Congress breaks reform up into small packages based on those areas of common consensus, “then there’s not the coalition to do something about the 11 million people not lawfully present in the United States.”

What does securing the border mean from a policy perspective? Is there a metric? Would, for example, more apprehensions along the border mean the border is getting more secure, or less secure? “The trick is coming up with a specific measurable result,” he says. Here, he seems to get closer to the truth. It’s mostly about perception.

“I’m talking in general terms about the American people believing the border is secure. I don’t know what it’s going to take to convince the American people the border is secure, but I certainly know a child and her grandmother being able to get across is not it.”

But if perception is at the root of the impasse, many Republicans aren’t helping. By taking trips on Rio Grande gunboats and emphasizing disease and crime risks, Republican politicians like Rick Perry are exacerbating the perception of insecurity.

People are coming here illegally because they can’t come here legally. They might be coming to work, or they might be coming to join family members already living here. A failure to tackle immigration reform increases the number of people forced to attempt an illegal crossing, and incentivizes human trafficking. Which, in turn, is proof to the American voters Farenthold is talking about that the border isn’t secure, and reinforces the unwillingness to tackle immigration reform. Status quo ante, ad infinitum.

Texas, Tothless

In Senate District 4, it was tea party vs. tea party but the slightly less cranky Brandon Creighton beat Steve Toth in a lopsided victory yesterday.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Re. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) and Alice Linahan
Patrick Michels
State Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst

There have been, roughly speaking, two groups of tea party legislators that took seats in the Texas House in the last few years. One group seemed more or less happy to be there, and one group seemed like it was a few incitements away from pulling a full Guy Fawkes on the Pink Dome. State Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands), who lost his bid for promotion to the state Senate last night, and is forfeiting his House seat in the process, was of the latter camp.

In the special election runoff in Senate District 4, Toth’s fellow state Rep. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) won the day, taking almost 70 percent of the vote to Toth’s 30 percent. It was an unusually lopsided victory, given recent dynamics in Senate elections across the state. But it didn’t hurt that Creighton outspent Toth by more than 3 to 1.

The Texas Senate has lost some of its most important dealmakers in the last year. The pragmatists and moderates have been ruthlessly culled, and next session will see a number of bomb-throwers join the chamber’s ranks. Senate District 4 was formerly represented by state Sen. Tommy Williams, who left to take a job with Texas A&M. He crafted the budget last session, and played an important role in keeping legislators on task on issues like transportation funding.  

Toth’s most famous bill might have been an attempt to nullify federal gun laws, but he still fits the mold of recent Republican Senate primary victors better than Creighton. It’s not that Creighton is a liberal GOPer. As the Houston Chronicle noted in its endorsement of Creighton, the difference between the two men isn’t so much one of ideology as of temperament:

To understand the difference between the two candidates seeking to replace state Sen. Tommy Williams in state Senate District 4, look at their reactions to the surge of Central American children crossing our border. For state Rep. Brandon Creighton of Conroe, it is a “full-blown humanitarian crisis.” For state Rep. Steve Toth of The Woodlands, it is a “full-blown invasion.”

Lately, Toth’s been hugging fringe immigration groups like Stop the Magnet, which wants to make life more dangerous and difficult for undocumented immigrants in order to get them to self-deport, or stay far away from Texas. That’s been a recipe for victory for candidates in other districts, like Bob Hall, who narrowly defeated longtime incumbent Sen. Bob Deuell.

But it didn’t work in SD 4. Even with the strong backing and support of groups like Empower Texans, Toth underperformed in the special election in May, nearly losing the second-place position to a Coast Guard vet with no experience in office. Then he severely underperformed in the runoff—despite the fact that Toth’s home base, The Woodlands, has quite a few more people than Creighton’s, Conroe.

Still, if Creighton’s victory over Toth is a small positive sign for the Senate next session, it’s probably not a sign of much more. For one thing, Creighton walloped Toth in the money department—Toth had a healthy amount of financial assistance from conservative groups like Empower Texans in the first part of the race, but that seemed to collapse by the end. In July, Toth took in just $13,000 to Creighton’s $213,000, and spent only $52,000 to Creighton’s $177,000.

And Creighton, as mentioned before, is a pretty conservative fellow. That fact might have denied Toth the room he needed to stage a proper challenge. But as a side effect, the Texas House is losing one more member of the 2010 and 2012 tea party waves.

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