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

A House subcommittee formed to investigate a raft of small earthquakes in North Texas that some scientists have linked to fracking met for the first time on Monday. The four-member House Energy Resources Subcommittee on Seismic Activity gathered to take invited testimony from two mayors from the earthquake-rattled North Texas, seismologists, the staff of the Railroad Commission, representatives of environmental group and the oil and gas industry itself.

At Monday’s hearing, legislators, especially the chair of the subcommittee, state Rep. Myra Crownover (R-Denton) communicated their intent to move slowly on the issue—and if possible, to coax the industry to take corrective measures itself without getting the Legislature involved.

That may come as cold comfort to the residents of earthquake-affected areas like the towns of Azle and Reno, just northwest of Fort Worth. Citizens there have seen—or felt—at least 27 small earthquakes since November 1, some as large as a magnitude 3.6. What’s more, the frequency of the quakes appears to be increasing.

Some—including the mayors of Azle and Reno, who appeared at Monday’s committee—had hoped that the Railroad Commission would put a temporary halt to the drilling and use of wastewater disposal wells in the area. The commission has so far declined to do so. Reno Mayor Linda Stokes urged the subcommittee to “give residents the benefit of the doubt. Shut these wells down, and find a safer way to do this.”

The committee seemed willing to help facilitate research on fracking quakes—researchers from Southern Methodist University talked about the need to deploy more seismic monitoring systems to speed research. At $25,000 each, that could be a costly effort. But when it comes to potential legislative action, the committee gave few encouraging signs.

“Texas has gotten it right more than we’ve gotten it wrong,” Crownover said. “Texas always leads the way.” Regarding oil and gas companies: “It’s not economically smart to put yourself in harm’s way and do something that’s more of a risk than is prudent.”

Milton Rister, the executive director of the Railroad Commission, seemed to acknowledge that Texas hasn’t really led the way on this: Several states have put into place more solid restrictions on wastewater disposal. But it was good, Rister said, that Texas hadn’t: “Other states may be moving faster than us, but their economies are not nearly as dependent on oil and gas,” he said. It was critical not to unnecessarily restrict drilling, Rister argued, because a lot of money is at stake. Texas just needed to “get it right.”

What getting it right means in this case is not clear. Crownover stressed that the Legislature—and the Railroad Commission by extension—wouldn’t take “kneejerk action,” and only act “on sound science that’s verified and re-verified.” Since it may take many years for the science on fracking quakes to be “verified and re-verified”—even though much scientific research on the question exists already—this could be a recipe for inaction.

Crownover repeatedly appealed to the good intentions and pride of the state’s extraction industries—perhaps hoping to signal that the industry could avoid greater scrutiny from state government by improving their operations voluntarily.

“Usually, government reacts very slowly. But business has a huge incentive to act smart,” she said. “I think industry is quite willing to spend millions of dollars to find a better way. I don’t think they get any great pleasure from pumping water underground.”

Steve Brown, the Democratic candidate for the open spot on the Railroad Commission, came to observe the hearing—and he joined the Azle and Reno mayors in calling for the commission to halt operations in earthquake-prone areas.

“I’ve seen the damage that’s been done to the properties and the homes in Azle,” he said. “Some of them now have sinkholes in their backyards. They don’t want their kids playing in their backyards. They have cracks in their walls, uneven foundations.”

If we don’t know what precisely is causing the earthquakes, Brown said, all the more reason we should stop drilling in the area and take stock. Continuing with the status quo while knowing that something we’re doing is causing earthquakes, he said, is needlessly reckless.

The Railroad Commission hired its first seismologist just a few months ago, so this is still new territory for a lot of people. But folks in North Texas are looking at Austin for assistance and direction. More than a thousand Azle residents showed up at a forum held by the Railroad Commission there on January 2.

Perhaps the members of the subcommittee, especially Crownover and state Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford), shouldn’t repeatedly joke that they’re still learning how to spell “seismologist.” It may not inspire a great degree of confidence.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Re. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) and Alice Linahan
Patrick Michels
Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) in happier times.

A special election in Senate District 4 on Saturday provided a quick fix for Texans with election fever worried about holding out until the May 27 primary runoffs. The seat was held until recently by state Sen. Tommy Williams, who abruptly stepped down in October to accept a healthy paycheck with the Texas A&M University System. No candidate won 50 percent, so the district’s election-fatigued residents face a runoff in August. But this weekend’s results were surprising in their own way.

SD 4 is an oddly-shaped creature that ranges from Port Arthur to just outside Galveston, before turning up toward The Woodlands north of Houston. The district has a strongly conservative bent, so it was unsurprising that only Republicans stood for the special election. Vying to replace Williams were four candidates, including state Rep. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), state Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands), and Gordy Bunch, a businessman and Coast Guard vet. The fourth, former state Sen. Michael Galloway, won less than 10 percent on election night.

Creighton won a little more than 45 percent, meaning that he’ll be heading to a runoff with second-place finisher Toth, who won a little under 24 percent. That’s not altogether surprising—Creighton buried his opponents by spending almost $547,000 in April, while Toth spent only $88,000 in the same period. And while he’s pretty far right himself, Creighton’s been willing to play the inside game as a state rep. He served as the chairman of the House GOP caucus, and he’s occasionally been described as an ally of House Speaker Joe Straus. He had access to funds, plenty of political allies and the support of House leadership.

But that’s exactly the kind of candidate that’s been in danger of losing primary races this year, mainly thanks to the influence of anti-Straus groups like Michael Quinn Sullivan’s Empower Texans. And that’s why it’s a little surprising that Creighton did so well—and doubly so that his main opponent, Toth, did so poorly. Less than two points separated Toth and Bunch, an enthusiastic and energetic candidate who had nonetheless never held state office. For part of the night, it even looked like Toth would place third and get knocked out altogether.

Toth, one of the hip-firing freshmen who rode into the House in 2012, seemed to relish his office primarily for his ability to say “no” at increasing decibel levels. He threw as many firecrackers as he could into the legislative mix, including a bill that would have nullified federal gun laws. He achieved very little. Which made him an ideal fit for Empower Texans, who credited “his record as a legislative fighter and the response of grassroots voters.”

But in the end, Toth nearly got denied a spot in the runoff by Bunch, a friendly Coast Guard vet. This primary season has seen the more “establishment” figure drubbed in most contested Senate races—from state Sen. Carona in Dallas, to the challengers facing state Sen. Donna Campbell in New Braunfels and tea party organizer Konni Burton in Fort Worth. This was a rare exception—even if Creighton’s not exactly a voice for reason himself. Toth could still win, of course—the recent events in the attorney general’s race show anything can happen in Texas’ long runoffs. Creighton, though, enters the summer a heavy favorite.

This is where we're at now.
This is where we're at now.

The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov once wrote that a gun introduced in the first act must be fired in the third, and apparently the same holds true for gun-toting land commissioners. Remember Jerry Patterson, the gun-carrying, libertarian-minded iconoclast who waged his own odd fight for the Republican lieutenant governor primary nod before placing a distant fourth? He warned after the election that he didn’t yet know if he was going to endorse anybody, but added that he couldn’t, in good conscience, support a “liar.” He meant Dan Patrick, with whom Patterson had sparred over issues of trust and truthfulness. Then, for a little over a month, silence from the House of Patterson.

But this morning, two weeks before the May 27th runoff election, Patterson returned. Bearing what the kids call a listicle, naturally. And an accusation so serious, and so loaded, that Dewhurst would have been unwise to make it himself. (It turns out Patterson probably shouldn’t have, either.)

Patterson’s top ten reasons not to vote for Patrick included some pretty standard digs. Patrick is a liar. Democrats want to run against Patrick. But No. 3—that Dan Patrick is a draft dodger—was new. What a bombshell.

Patterson gave the press a carefully-annotated list of reasons to question Patrick’s lack of service in the era of military conscription. He was born in 1950. He had a relatively low draft number. And a student deferment wouldn’t have prevented him from serving eventually. This was a weighty charge coming from Patterson, a proud Marine aviator who volunteered to serve in Vietnam.

Wow. This could change the race. What say you, Dan?

In 1972, after being drafted, Dan reported for a physical examination to Fort Holabird in Baltimore, Maryland. Dan was quickly determined medically ineligible to serve due to childhood injuries. Dan had broken his right leg twice due to a bone cyst and doctors thought it might cause him to lose the limb. He also had suffered a serious knee injury while playing high school sports. These injuries prevented him from being accepted into the service and he received a medical deferment.


Did Dewhurst’s team vet Patterson’s allegations before the press conference, or was he on his own? Either way, the inability of Patrick’s Republican enemies to shoot straight continues to be wholly remarkable.

Meanwhile, David Dewhurst is joining Ron Paul’s ReLOVEution. So there’s that.

David Dewhurst
Patrick Michels
David Dewhurst

If you’ve seen one of the approximately 300 debates in the state’s Republican primary for lieutenant governor so far, you’d be familiar with the major points of this morning’s debate between incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and his hungry challenger, state Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) on Dallas’ WFAA-TV. (Full video here.) There’s not all that much dividing them in terms of policy. The major lines of attack haven’t changed.

What has changed—and the reason you should watch the debate, if you enjoy political schadenfreude, or if you’re a Democrat eager to run against Dan Patrick—is the increasing willingness of the two men to publicly display the deep loathing and contempt they obviously feel for each other. As the San Antonio Express-News’ David Saleh Rauf suggested, you probably won’t find a better video of two grown men kicking each other in the shins for the rest of the 2014 election cycle. And it was Patrick, the streetfighter, who came out on top.

Patrick’s been kicking shins since he got in the race—with a colorful, surreal series of attack ads and websites, many hinging on misrepresentations of his opponents’ past statements. But it takes two to tango, and ever since Dewhurst joined the melee in mid-April, the race has been getting weirder. The debate was no exception. Dewhurst often seems uncomfortable doing the same kind of dirty work that’s been at the core of Patrick’s campaign strategy. Venom flows from Patrick like a fountain, but Dewhurst often comes with rehearsed attack lines. The early highlight: Dewhurst asking Patrick, after a series of question about trust, if he had “snake oil for the hair loss,” a sentence which didn’t make much more sense in context than it does here.

They called each other liars, they called each other soft. They blamed each other for legislative defeats large and small. So corrosive was the level of rhetoric and vitriol that moderator Ross Ramsey wrote afterwards that it was like “dragging a roast beef through a kennel.” But the oddest segment of the debate—and the one that played the worst for Dewhurst—was when Patrick turned his jackhammer-like focus to Dewhurst’s fabled dinner at Austin Land & Cattle on one of the nights, last summer, when the Senate was considering the abortion legislation that Wendy Davis ultimately filibustered. If Dewhurst loses later this month, that night will surely go down as Dew’s Last Supper.

Patrick had made that dinner a major focus of his attacks on Dewhurst earlier in the primary. It was evidence, he said, that Dewhurst was distracted. He hadn’t given the anti-abortion bills his full time and attention, and his lack of leadership led to Davis’ filibuster, and her rise to national stardom. He brought back that attack in a big way today. He hammered the Dew—to which his opponent could only reply, with mock concern, “Dan—are you OK? Are you OK?”

“You checked in, and then you turned the gavel over to [state Sen. Kevin] Eltife and left about a third of the time” during the session, Patrick said.

“Well you see,” Dewhurst sneered, “some of us had work to do. I had to try to get bills ready to pass.” The lieutenant governor’s responsibilities, Dewhurst said, often lie off the floor. Did that explain, Patrick wondered, why Dewhurst went to Austin Land & Cattle in the middle of the abortion debates?

“I left the floor for about a half an hour, I had some chicken, I went right back,” said Dewhurst.

Patrick, rapid-fire: “You told the media you didn’t eat anything. That’s what you told the media.” Besides, Patrick had checked the journals. Dewhurst had been gone for two hours.

When Dew was reduced to repeatedly offering that he had had chicken—(He had previously told reporters he hadn’t had steak, implying that he hadn’t eaten at all. Weird enough, but not as weird as ordering chicken at a steakhouse)—Patrick quickly pivoted to the filibuster. Wasn’t Dewhurst to blame for the fact that the Senate devolved into “total anarchy” that night?

Dewhurst could only offer that there weren’t enough state troopers in the room at the time. “So you’re blaming DPS?” pounced Patrick.

“No, it’s my fault,” Dewhurst replied, “that we didn’t have more DPS in the gallery.”

And that’s the way the debate ended, more or less—with Dewhurst voluntarily taking the blame for something he couldn’t have been expected to predict. Not great for Team Dew.

Did Dewhurst’s attacks scratch Patrick? Maybe, but probably not as much as he might have liked. Patrick, after years of talk radio, is fast as a whip on the debate stage. His defense and his offense are much the same. For some time, Patrick has consciously adopted the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. After his primary night victory, he quoted Reagan’s first inaugural at length (perhaps not realizing it was from Reagan’s paean to America’s tolerance for immigrants.) Now that he’s being attacked, he’s taken to quoting Reagan’s famous snipe at Carter from the 1980 presidential debates: “There you go again.”

Except when Reagan did, he did it with grandfatherly charm that masked his rhetorical condescension. Reagan used his Hollywood-hewn charisma to make even his most pointed attacks feel warm and down-home. When Patrick uses the line, he does it with the fast jabs of a bantamweight boxer, tense and strained. “There you go again. There you go again. There you go again,” he ejected when he sensed Dew’s weakness.

Who won this last debate before the May 27 runoff? Well, Dewhurst’s political director thinks Dewhurst won. He’s probably in the minority on this one.

If you still had any doubt about the state of this runoff election after the debate, Dewhurst’s campaign dispelled them for you. The campaign released what must be the most bizarre and freakish ad of any serious statewide candidate in recent Texas history, using surreal B-roll from Patrick’s radio career and banking on accusations that have already been debunked by the media:

It’s a nightmare-inducing ballad to the tune of “Let It Go,” from the Disney musical Frozen. As we head toward the runoff, and Dewhurst faces the prospect of writing himself another million-dollar check, you have to wonder if those close to Dewhurst aren’t counseling him to consider letting it go himself.

Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Attorney General Greg Abbott

Gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis is launching a new front in her campaign against Attorney General Greg Abbott this week, highlighting Abbott’s history with the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas, CPRIT, the taxpayer-funded cancer-research agency that imploded amid allegations that money earmarked for lifesaving medical research was slipped into major Republican donors’ pockets instead.

The attack first came from the left-wing group Progress Texas, followed by a Davis campaign rally Tuesday that echoed some of the same points. Progress Texas has been trying to tie CPRIT to Gov. Rick Perry and Abbott for two years—but the new push comes as the governor’s race is heating up, and as Perry faces allegations he tried to quash an investigation into CPRIT by the Travis County District Attorney’s office. The ad features cancer survivors talking about their anger over misspent research money.

On Tuesday, Davis appeared at the Austin Tex-Mex restaurant Juan in a Million to level some of the same criticisms. “Greg Abbott allowed our cancer institute to become a piggy bank and allowed his donors to siphon off millions of tax dollars from cancer patients and from taxpayers,” she told a crowd of supporters. “When Abbott served on the oversight board of our state’s cancer research institute, he wasn’t looking out for cancer patients. He was looking out for his political donors.”

CPRIT was a signature Perry initiative, and Abbott was appointed to the organization’s governing board, which was supposed to provide oversight. State Rep. Jim Keffer (R-Eastland), who helped write the legislation that created CPRIT, said Abbott was appointed to the board to provide “that extra set of eyes and knowledge.” Abbott didn’t attend a single CPRIT board meeting, and appointed a deputy to represent him on the board, who missed more than a third of the board meetings. In that time, millions of dollars flowed from the fund into companies ill-suited to perform cancer research—companies with close financial ties to major Republican donors.

For example: conservative Christian activist James Leininger—founder of the right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation, and a family friend of Abbott’s who’d given the candidate more than $275,000—had a financial stake in one company called Caliber Biotherapeutics.

In 2011, Caliber submitted a grant request to CPRIT, and a team of scientific reviewers awarded Caliber’s proposal a score of 4.5 (out of 9), according to the Dallas Morning News. Dr. William Kaelin, a reviewer who once worked with CPRIT’s review board, told the paper that score was effectively a warning:

“A four, five or six meant they really thought it had flaws, that certain things that were proposed were simply not right, they weren’t built on a solid foundation, that the logic was flawed, et cetera,” he said.

Yet Caliber won almost $13 million from the agency.

CPRIT started to unravel in 2012 under increased scrutiny. At one critical meeting in October of that year, the fund’s board members met to work out the agency’s future, amid calls for a sweeping overhaul and resignations from the fund’s officers. Abbott didn’t show, the Morning News again reported, although he had time to appear on Fox News to talk about the presidential elections.

For her part, Davis was one of a number of legislators in the 2013 session to advocate for overhauling CPRIT. Davis’ reforms, which would have removed Abbott and Comptroller Susan Combs from the governing board, stalled in committee, while a rival reform package authored by state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) passed.

Shortly after CPRIT unraveled in 2012, Abbott announced his intention to open a civil investigation into the agency, even though Abbott would be investigating his own donors. That was a year and a half ago—since then, a criminal investigation by the Travis County DA’s office resulted in a felony indictment for one senior CPRIT official.

As for Abbott’s investigation? It’s unclear where that stands—if it’s still ongoing, or if it was quietly dropped sometime in the last 19 months. The Observer asked the AG’s office for an update Monday afternoon—we’ll update when we hear back.

Q&A with U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro

Rep. Joaquin Castro talks to us in Washington this week about congressional dysfunction, immigration reform, Dan Patrick and his political future.
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro outside of his House office. May 1, 2013.
Christopher Hooks
U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro outside of his House office. May 1, 2013.

Joaquín Castro served in the Texas Legislature for 10 years. It wasn’t an easy time—he joined the Texas House at a low point for Texas Democrats, watched them rebuild slowly over the next six years and left just after another historic drubbing. But it was still a place with a relatively intimate, collegial feel. The office of your worst enemy was never more than a few steps away. Then, in 2012, he was elected to Congress.

On Wednesday, I met Rep. Castro in Washington, D.C., at Tortilla Coast, a Tex-Mex restaurant a block away from his perch in the Cannon House Office Building. Tortilla Coast has become a traditional meeting place on the Hill, but it’s most famous for its role in what become known, tongue-in-cheek, as the Tortilla Coast Rebellion. Sen. Ted Cruz held strategy sessions with House Republicans in the basement of the building during last year’s government shutdown, at a time when both were trying to find a way to buck the Republican leadership under House Speaker John Boehner, who was trying to find a face-saving way to end the shutdown.

Cruz—and Tortilla Coast with it—became a byword for Congress’ do-nothingism, and the gleeful obstructionism that seems to pervade all of our national debates recently. Castro’s name inevitably comes up when Democrats talk about finding someone to challenge Cruz in 2018.

The House was in session this week—unlike the two previous weeks—but even still, the body was winding down as it headed toward a long weekend before another abbreviated work week next week… and then another week-long recess. That fact stood in sharp contrast to the day’s protesters, who, despite drenching rain, stood in front of the Capitol to urge legislative action on immigration reform. More than 20 were arrested, including an 11-year-old boy.

At Tortilla Coast, Castro was solemn. Over the next half-hour, we talked about congressional dysfunction, the prospects for immigration reform, Paul Ryan’s budget, his political future and Dan Patrick’s relationship with the Republican Party. Remarks have been lightly edited.

Texas Observer: Did the Texas Legislature teach you anything about being effective in the minority?

Joaquín Castro: Being in the minority forced you to learn to be effective without the benefit of numbers on your side. It’s certainly been helpful with the situation now.

One of the most fundamental things you have to develop is your relationships. Your friendships with people, your ability to be fair and honest and your ability to earn people’s respect. To the extent that I was able to accomplish things in Texas, I think a lot of it was based on that.

TO: Is that possible to do that here in Congress? Are there any Republicans in the Texas congressional delegation you’re particularly close with?

JC: I’m on good terms with several of them—quite frankly, I haven’t spent a lot of time with several of them, also. The challenge in Washington is that it’s such a come-and-go culture for the Congress. You know, we spend more time on airplanes then we do on the House floor. The culture is very different here, the process is very different here than in Texas. In Texas, for example, we had assigned seating, so you were next to the same person all the time. You weren’t divided up by party. Here, there’s no assigned seating. People are nomadic.

Even the way they do debate here is very different. Everything is debated at once—all the bills and amendments for the day. People come in to vote, spend 20 or 25 minutes on the floor, and then they leave. It’s a different environment that makes it more difficult to spend time with people and develop relationships.

TO: If you could change that, do you really think we’d see a change in the way Congress works?

JC: I think you could make changes that would be conducive to bipartisanship and to productivity, yeah. I’ll give you a perfect example. Look at what happened in 2009 in the Texas Legislature. In 2009, there were 76 Republicans and 74 Democrats [in the House] and about 60-something Democrats teamed up with 11 Republicans and elected a moderate Republican speaker. Here, you vote by party—Republicans vote for Boehner, and we, of course, vote for Nancy Pelosi.

It’s crossed my mind that we could essentially do what we did in Texas that time. If you were able to get a group of moderate Republicans to vote with Democrats, you could elect a new speaker of the House. The challenge is, of course, the traditions and customs of this place are so partisan that, at the moment at least, that seems beyond the vision of many folks.

TO: There’s been some talk lately about a push to revive comprehensive immigration reform this summer. A Republican member of the Texas congressional delegation, Joe Barton, announced his intention to bring his bill to the floor. What do you think the chances are Congress is serious this time?

JC: I’m very hopeful. You know I spent a while going on all these Sunday news shows saying I thought it was going to happen in 2013. So, maybe my opinion is not a good one, but…

First of all, I want to thank Joe Barton for stepping forward and being the first of all the Texas Republicans to step forward and clearly state that he supports comprehensive immigration reform, and come forward with a plan. Nobody in Texas had done that. The senators certainly aren’t going to do it, and House Republicans had not come forward. So I think it’s a positive step.

In terms of the prospects for it—what makes it tough at this point, apart from the lack of will on the Republican side, is the way that Boehner has set up the calendar. We’re only in session 26 days after July 31. So that makes it difficult to do anything big—immigration reform, tax reform, any of those bills. But of course, we’re going to keep pushing.

TO: Does Barton’s recent talk represent a opening?

JC: If he presents something, and files something, then yes, it does. Let me say clearly, I’m not saying I agree with the plan that he’s come up with. But the fact that he’s put a foot forward is hopeful, because it’s more than anything else that’s happened.

TO: And if it doesn’t gain momentum by July 31st, it gets pushed to 2015?

JC: The prospects for this year go down dramatically after that point. I think 2016 is the backstop, because Republicans have been chasing the Hispanic vote so intently. But also, by waiting, they’ll have to deal with presidential politics—10 candidates standing up there at a Fox News debate talking about alligator moats and electrified fences.

TO: Your brother, Mayor Julian Castro, participated in a discussion about immigration reform at the recent Civil Rights Summit held by the LBJ Presidential Library. A UT student named Deborah Alemu disrupted the event, calling for Castro to tell President Obama to alter his deportation policies.

Afterwards, she said she blamed Republicans for deadlock on immigration reform—but said she was frustrated that Democrats weren’t more vocal on the issue, when deportations were taking a daily toll on the people around her. What do you say to people who feel the way she does?

JC: Well first of all, it’s good that they’re getting involved and speaking out. Many of the political movements over the years—almost all of them—have started with regular people who have been affected by something, not politicians. So it’s good to see their energy and their passion.

Some of what you see with the Dreamers is an incredible desperation and frustration, and they’re going to focus that frustration on anybody in politics. And that’s understandable. But it also doesn’t mean that [Democrats] haven’t spoken up. Many of us have been pushing very hard. I stood three feet from the president and asked him to review his deportation policies months ago.

TO: What do you think the president should do in regards to deportations?

JC: The homeland security director right now is reviewing it. He has said that he’s going to make short-term changes, and then try to make long-term changes. But the first thing is that Congress needs to pass legislation. Executive action is a stopgap measure. It’s kind of a bridge that the president can provide, and then if you don’t follow it up with legislation, you’ve left people on that bridge, basically. I’m anxious to see what the director of homeland security, Jeh Johnson, comes up with. I would suspect that they’re either going to expand [the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program] or otherwise curb deportations.

TO: Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan has recently been holding hearings about what he’s terming a GOP anti-poverty plan. At the same time, his budget plan, which recently passed the House, makes sweeping cuts to social programs. What do you make of the Ryan budget, and his influence in the House GOP caucus?

JC: The idea that it’s an anti-poverty budget is disingenuous. What makes America special among the nations of the world is that we’ve built up this infrastructure of opportunity, and that includes certain things—public schools and universities, a strong health care system, and an economy that’s built around well-paying jobs. The main difference I see between Republicans and Democrats today is that Republicans would either abandon or dismantle that infrastructure of opportunity, and Democrats are trying to build it up.

So, for example, with the Ryan budget, he cuts $145 billion from Pell grants, cuts work study and student loans, and makes students start accruing interest on their debts while they’re still in school. That’s making it tougher to get a college degree. When he disqualifies part-time students from Pell grants, that’s making it tougher for a working mom or dad to go back and finish off a degree. So you’re starting to really undermine the ways people can pull themselves up in America.

But it’s not just that, they’re cutting things like Small Business Administration loans—billions and billions of dollars administered through the SBA lending programs. You’re cutting off the ability of people who want to be small business owners and entrepreneurs to do that. In most areas that budget is pretty harmful not just to the economy but to the ability of America to maintain itself as the pre-eminent nation of opportunity in the world.

TO: Switching to Texas politics: How did you think your brother did in the recent debate against Dan Patrick? What do you make of the 2014 election cycle so far?

JC: I thought he did very well. I think he did well highlighting Dan Patrick’s extreme move to the right among Texas Republicans. I thought he was very engaging, and I think somebody needed to call Patrick out. I’m glad he stepped up and did that.

In terms of the parties, it’s great to see groups like Battleground Texas and the Texas Organizing Project start to do the hard work of actually organizing Texas voters to register to vote, and mobilizing people to go vote. You know, Texas had been neglected for a long time. You can’t expect campaigns to get disengaged voters to go vote—that’s just not what campaigns do. Campaigns get already-engaged people to vote for them. And so you needed these third party groups to come and help out. Hopefully that will bear fruit in 2014.

But also, if Democrats come back in Texas, it’s not because we’re just going to run these guys over. It’s because you have candidates like Dan Patrick, and others who are following in the mold of Ted Cruz, who are moving so far to the right that most Texans no longer can relate to that.

TO: One interesting thing about the debate is that Patrick clearly hopes to recast himself as the compassionate one, for trying to stop cross-border human trafficking. Do you think Patrick will be able to distance himself from his primary talk?

JC: He used the term “anchor baby.” That’s not compassionate.

No, he won’t be able to run away from this. We won’t let him. He can try to use softer language. He can try to use a gentler demeanor. But those words he used, and those radio programs that he was part of, are always going to be part of the record. He’s the Pete Wilson of Texas. He’s very divisive. He’s dangerous for the Republican Party too. And I think a lot of them realize that.

TO: Will Texas Democrats have the bench to run strong challengers to potential Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Sen. Ted Cruz and a number of other state officials in 2018?

JC: Yes. We’ll have a slate of candidates ready to go. There’s very talented, very passionate Democrats in Texas who are in the pipeline. Rafael Anchia in Dallas, for example, [state Rep.] Mike Villarreal, [state Rep.] Trey Martinez Fischer and others. And they have the horizon in their sights, too.

And I also think, as Democrats come back in Texas, people who are not in politics right now will take this on. Ted Cruz wasn’t an officeholder when he ran for Senate, you know.

TO: Would you include yourself in that pool of potential candidates?

JC: Sure! Yeah, certainly. Of course I’ll consider other races in the future.

People have wondered why me or my brother didn’t run in 2014. But I had just got to Congress. I realize that Tom Cotton in Arkansas is doing what people said I should have done. But that’s a very different situation. And besides, you can’t be on other people’s schedules. You have to be on your own.

TO: The New York Times recently wrote an article about you and your brother that charged some in Texas felt you guys suffered from an “overabundance of political caution.” Is that unfair?

JC: You know, that’s somebody’s take on it. I wouldn’t say that’s unfair, it’s just somebody’s perspective. People are going to have different opinions of you.

Listen, when I first got into politics, I ran against a Democratic incumbent in the primary, and then I was in a swing district in which the Republican was funded by Tom DeLay money that was being funneled illegally at the time. And then I jumped into a congressional race against Lloyd Doggett, another long-time Democratic incumbent. So I don’t think I’ve been especially cautious, waiting for that perfect moment for things to line up.

You should run when you really feel like there’s a calling for that office—when you feel you have something to contribute. And also, yeah, when you think you can win! Otherwise, you’re partially on a fool’s errand.

TO: The New York Times article also emphasized that you aren’t fluent in Spanish. Do you think people make too big a deal out of that?

JC: Well, my family’s been here for 92 years, since my grandmother came from Mexico. Just like people of other ethnicities—Germans, or Italians, Portuguese—there’s some loss of language over the years. You can be part of a community without being fluent in that language. But I think it’s kind of odd—you wouldn’t ask a third-generation German why they can’t speak German.

Of course it’s different, because with those communities, you don’t continue to have waves and waves of folks that come over, but Spanish-speaking Hispanics are constantly refreshing their culture in the United States.

I think the The New York Times has written that a few times now. [laughs] That’s The New York Times perspective on Texas politics.

TO: If you could change one structural thing about the way Washington works, what would it be?

JC: Structurally? There’s different things. Basically, yeah, I would have people around each other more. But you’re not going to force people to hang out, so, structurally, how do you accomplish that?

We’re only in session 103 days this year. And it’s so busy when we’re here, it makes it hard. To some extent you have a group of passing strangers. And that’s not conducive to doing the business of the nation.

The background of the Texas Democratic Party's new anti-Dewhurst attack site.
The background of the Texas Democratic Party's new anti-Dewhurst attack site.

This year’s Republican primary for lt. governor has consistently been the state’s weirdest race, and none of the participants shows any signs of calming down as it heads towards its conclusion later this month. If anything, it’s getting weirder. Incumbent David Dewhurst and state Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) are clawing at each other with mounting fury while Texas Democrats are sniping from the side. The runoff is roughly four weeks away—here are three attack ads that show a misstepping Dewhurst, an energized Patrick and a Democratic Party that’s happy about it all.

1) Mountain Dew

Bizarre attack sites have primarily been the domain of Republican candidates this cycle, but this latest effort from the Democratic Party shows there’s talent on both sides of the aisle. Take, a copyright-infringement-flirting website that plays off everyone’s favorite neon-green swill.

mountain dewhurst screenshotIt’s a strange effort for a couple reasons. One, it’s a backdoor endorsement of Sen. Patrick by Texas Democrats, who clearly think he’ll be easier to beat in November. But if so, the site’s not exactly targeted at Republican primary voters, who will decide if Dew or Dan wins in the coming runoff. It charges that The Dew “only cares about money,” has “no regard for Texas women” and is “anti-immigrant,” which sounds like exactly the kind of candidate that would win a Republican primary.

But the site explicitly calls for viewers to vote for Patrick in the runoff: “Make sure we stop [Dewhurst] on May 27.” If Patrick wins the runoff, and wins in November, will Democrats come to regret this effectively in-kind donation to Patrick’s campaign? Is this a good use of resources? Or was it simply an act of trolling too good to pass up?

Dewhurst, for his part, calls the “website a badge of honor, as it reflects their fear of my strong conservative record of accomplishments in the Senate and my vision for the future of Texas.”

2) The Dewhurst Decade

Does Dewhurst have a conservative record? Ask Patrick. In 2012, as Dew’s campaign is now fond of reminding people, Patrick backed Dewhurst over Cruz in the GOP primary for U.S. Senate and lauded Dew as an “authentic conservative.” How times change.

After Dewhurst’s first attack ad launch against Patrick, Patrick responded in kind. Now, he’s doubling down, with an ad called “The Dewhurst Decade.” The sum of Dewhurst’s career in public service, Patrick argues, is “more taxpayer funded benefits for illegal immigrants.”

Screen Shot 2014-05-01 at 1.02.59 PMMeanwhile, he’s tacked on a hot new app to, his months-old attack site. DewFeed helped set the tone for this campaign, so it’s fitting that Patrick is returning to it in his hour of need. It’s a quiz—a visitor can guess whether a straw-man position on immigration is held by either David Dewhurst, Julian Castro, or both. (Spoiler: The answer is always both.) Win the quiz, and you’ll be lauded. “Good job! You know the truth about Dewhurst’s liberal ways.”

It’s a reminder that for all the harumphing indignation about Dewhurst’s new negative tack, it was Patrick that went negative first. He’s been jackhammering his opponents with light-on-context misrepresentations since last fall. And he’s going to keep right at it.

3) Stuntman Dan

When Dewhurst launched this tit-for-tat volley last month, he did it with a seemingly misguided ad that slammed Patrick for his decision not to repay debt he’d accumulated before a bankruptcy and ended with a weird insinuation that Patrick changed his name out of fear of his debtors. The second charge was easily disproven, and the first was a bizarre tack because Dewhurst has had debt troubles himself. Presently, Dew’s trying to negotiate down a sum he owes to pollster Mike Baselice.

Dewhurst spent $1 million on that ad, and he’s following it up with $600,000 for a second. Did he get the tone right this time?

This ad works in some of the previous claims, in a manner less likely to earn PolitiFact’s “Pants on Fire” rating. But the main attraction is the inclusion of pictures of Patrick wearing a coat, a tie, and no shirt, in what at first glance might seem to place Patrick at some kind of swingers party.

Dan, is that where you were?

The photo was taken at a Christmas fundraising party for our children with multiple disabilities and our deaf children at Be An Angel in December 2010. I was auctioning off the shirt off my back, literally, as part of the live auction. It sold for $1500 and it hangs proudly in the office of the couple who purchased it. They are long time supporters of mine and Be An Angel.


For David Dewhurst to use a photo from a charity event for disabled children, and pervert the use of that photo to attack me in his continued negative campaign is about as low as you can go.

Dewhurst continues to spend great big stacks of money on negative ads that seem oddly sloppy. Patrick’s brain trust, the strategist Allen Blakemore, presented the possibility Dewhurst would adopt a “Sherman’s march” strategy for the runoff, but so far this seems like the Charge of the Light Brigade—costly, poorly managed, ill-timed and full of missed opportunities.

Dewhurst’s people says it’s working, though! The polls are shifting, they say. Meanwhile, Patrick’s campaign is calling Mountain Dew “desperate and floundering.” And time’s running out.

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.

A couple of months ago, the Wendy Davis campaign was having a rough time. Then Ted Nugent appeared. Greg Abbott proudly circulated plans to hold a high-profile campaign event with the Nuge, the shock rocker with not-so-thoughtful views about women and non-white people and a guy who occasionally hints at his desire to assassinate the president. Abbott’s dalliance with Nugent blew up in his face, and the story went national, for good reason. It showed poor judgment on Abbott’s part, and it demonstrated the potential for myopic thinking among his campaign team, Texas political veterans who are used to winning elections one way—with red meat and brute force.

The Nugent incident was soon followed by a San Antonio Express-News investigation into pay practices in Abbott’s office. The narrative about the race shifted—the Davis team seemed like it had new energy. Hoping to establish a narrative about Abbott as an imperious, callous misogynist, the Davis campaign seized on subsequent new Abbott slip-ups and attempted to duplicate the political impact of Nugent’s brief foray into the governor’s race. But the tactic is beginning to wear a bit thin. And amid the noise, Davis might be missing an opportunity to talk about how she would govern the state differently than Abbott.

The Davis camp attacked Abbott for weeks because his citation of a Charles Murray book in an education policy paper. Murray’s ideology is extremely problematic, but for better or worse he’s widely cited and the passage in question, one of dozens mentioned, was pretty banal. There was the idea, promulgated by the campaign, that Abbott had called for mandated standardized tests for four-year-olds in the same policy paper, which wasn’t true. (The paper called for a method of evaluating the effectiveness of pre-K programs, but a test was one of three possible evaluation methods—and the drawbacks of testing were diligently noted.)

There was the Boats-and-Hoes blow-up, in which an employee of Allen Blakemore—a Republican strategist who had worked for Abbott a decade ago and is now associated with state Sen. Dan Patrick—created a joke political action committee with an offensive title that referenced a song from the frat-comedy Step Brothers. Recently, the campaign sent the press an item from the Burnt Orange Report asking why Abbott hadn’t denounced Nevada Rancher Cliven Bundy.

All of these items have some significance, but it’s weird to see a statewide campaign make them the major focus of its effort. Last week, Wonkette, a liberal blog that specializes in caustic, satirical polemics (strong language in the link) compared Davis unfavorably to Ann Richards and argued that Davis needed to show more spine.

We love Wendy Davis. You love Wendy Davis. We and you want to do very sexy things to Wendy Davis, even the straight chicks. Unfortunately, even saying that is the kind of thing the Wendy Davis for Governor campaign would send out an OUTRAGED PRESS RELEASE ABOUT. Most of you don’t get Wendy Davis for Governor’s press releases. We are here to tell you they are terrible.


This whining [and] what (we hope) is fake umbrage is beneath you. It’s not a good look. You’re sounding like the candidate of only delicate flower suburban housewives, and we are pretty sure they don’t think you’re speaking for them.

There must be few things political operatives hate more than pundits and journalists admonishing them to talk about The Issues. But Davis needs to do so at some point. Democrats have not held power in Texas in 20 years, and to be given a chance by voters they need to effectively reassure the state that they won’t torpedo the things people like about the status quo—primarily, economic growth—in the process of trying to fix the things they don’t. That includes a creaking education and health care system, a dysfunctional relationship with the border and millions of new, undocumented neighbors, and an inefficient tax structure that punishes the middle class. As Austin writer Andrea Grimes noted on Twitter, the words “immigration” and “health care” do not appear on Davis’ issues page.

None of this, of course, is to say that Abbott is taking the high road. His new focus is on an arcane legal dispute with the federal Bureau of Land Management, which he feels will appeal to his base after the Bundy debacle. His issues page is similarly uninformative. But what if Davis could find a way to position herself as the grown-up and still attack Abbott?

Consider the criminal charges that might be brought against Gov. Rick Perry. If that happens in the next six months, it would become one of the dominant stories of the election cycle. And it could precipitate a wider conversation about the effect of long-time one-party rule in Texas.

One of the potential roots of that whole sordid tale is Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg’s investigation into the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), a major Perry initiative, which was mismanaged to an almost comic degree. Taxpayer money, intended to be used for life-saving medical research, was effectively poured down the drain—or slipped in the pockets of individuals with political connections to Republicans. Democratic strategists have talked about it quite a bit since last year, but it never got the traction they might have hoped.

CPRIT had a governing board, which was supposed to provide oversight. One of the members was Attorney General Greg Abbott. State Rep. Jim Keffer (R-Eastland), who helped write the legislation that created CPRIT, said Abbott was appointed to the board to provide “that extra set of eyes and knowledge.” Abbott never bothered to show up, appointing a deputy to represent him on the board, who didn’t attend much either. Now one of CPRIT’s senior officials has been charged with a felony for his actions with the fund. That seems like an interesting thing to ask Abbott about.

The bold, bright future of the Texas Nationalist Movement
The bold, bright future of the Texas Nationalist Movement

BUNKERSVILLE, Nevada (WTF FRIDAY)—The Bundy Ranch debacle—Jesus, what a stuffshow, guys—falls outside the strict jurisdiction of the Observer staff who curate WTF Friday, but let’s take a minute to point and laugh at the Texas elected officials who decided to hitch their stars to ol’ Cliven Bundy, the beef-making welfare queen who briefly became a right-wing cause célèbre before wondering out loud if “the Negro” was “better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

That left Bundy’s former superfans running. Texas’ junior senator Ted Cruz said before the incident that Bundy’s plight was “resonating” with Americans because it was the “unfortunate and tragic culmination of the path that President Obama has set the federal government on,” but he quickly denounced Bundy’s remarks. So did gubernatorial hopeful Greg Abbott, who used the moment to pick his own fight with the BLM.

But one Texas politician took longer than the rest: Gov. Rick Perry. And that’s doubly weird, because he seems to be running for president, and the last time he did that he ran into a lot of unnecessary trouble over some N-word issues of his own.

Before, Perry had essentially blamed the BLM for having guns pointed at the Bundy family: “I have a problem with the federal government putting citizens in the position of having to feel like they have to use force to deal with their own government,” he said.

But when Bundy became toxic, he characterized him as a distraction on a CBS morning show.

“I don’t know what he said, but the fact is Clyde (sic) Bundy is a side issue here compared to what we’re looking at in the state of Texas,” Perry said. “He is an individual. Deal with his issues as you may.”

Perry’s spokespeople denounced Bundy’s remarks later, after “Rick Perry defends Cliven Bundy” became a thing. Perry may actually not have known what Bundy said, but the idea that he went on TV to talk about Bundy without pulling up Google News—or being told anything about it by his staff—is pretty weird. Oops.

Politicians may be dumping their remaining stock in Cliven Bundy, but here, militias are going about their business with renewed vigor. Our friends at the Texas Nationalist Movement are thinking about the future:

Where Are the Noble Men and Women? What does a noble man or woman look like?

Accompanied by a picture of a sword-swinging suit of armor, someone on the Texas Nationalist Movement’s blog recently contemplated the lack of moral fiber Texans exhibit when they remain mysteriously unwilling to join the Texas Nationalist Movement. The author recalls making a pitch to a prospective new “blue-shirt.” The prospect was mad at the federal government, sure. But he lacked passion. He wasn’t ready to pick up the sword.

This is, in the estimation of those within my community, a fine upstanding man. But yet, a man who sees the injustice and enslavement not only he suffers under, but also the injustice and enslavement he is leaving for his kids and grandkids to suffer under, and accepts it without a struggle save his hallowed “Anti-Establishment vote”.

Yet, I remember just a few short years ago, when I too gathered under the “mother hen” political movement to effect change in the federal government. I have not always acted noblely, of the highest character. And here I am, joined in lockstep with noble men and women in the Texas Nationalist Movement, working to awaken others to nobility of character.

Last week, the Texas Nationalist Movement’s appointment of a new “cultural director,” and the use of the term “blue-shirt”—most famously associated with fascist movements of the 1920s—made the group look oddly sinister. In just a week, they’ve become Renaissance Fair re-enactors.

The TNM may be sharpening their broadswords and delicately washing their lords-and-ladies kerchiefs, but up in North Texas, they settle their political disputes the new-fashioned way—tendentious Facebook screeds. Seriously, what’s in the water up there?

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Bud Kennedy flags this exchange between Arlington City Council member Charlie Parker and Tony Tinderholt, the tea party candidate for House District 94. Arlington’s city council recently passed two measures that infuriated open carry activists—one which added language to an already-existing ordinance that prohibits protesters from handing out literature to drivers at intersections, and one that prohibited guns from being carried into city council meetings. Tinderholt didn’t like that one bit, accusing Parker of capital-T Tyranny, and apparently a whole lot else besides:

You are only demonstrating the lack of cerebral cortex that is rampant in your constituents. Don’t make that mistake. The comment about my wife is only evidence of the lack of mental capacity within your gang. The spineless attempt to devalue a marriage of 39 years, of which I’m sure YOU can appreciate, is a desperate attempt of broken logic and despicable behavior. […] If you continue to saddle up with these vermin, your political future may be very short.

What did Tinderholt say about Parker’s wife? Do we really want to know, WTFers? Sometimes you gotta know how to quit when you’re ahead. Just ask Cliven Bundy.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry
Patrick Michels

Last night brought new developments in the investigation into Rick Perry’s meddling in the affairs of the Travis County district attorney’s office. County officials revealed that Perry’s office was trying to dislodge Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg even after his veto stripped her office of funding. That seemingly strengthens the case against the governor currently being considered by a grand jury.

We know that Perry last spring had threatened to (and later did) veto funding for the Travis County DA’s anti-corruption unit unless Lehmberg resigned following a DWI arrest. But now we know that wasn’t the end of it. (If you haven’t been following the investigation, read this explainer I posted last week.)

First, the Texas Tribune’s Terri Langford got confirmation from Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe that the governor’s office had reached out to certain Travis County officials to make explicit an offer that the governor would restore funding to the Travis County DA’s Public Integrity Unit, which he had previously vetoed, if Lehmberg resigned. That would’ve allowed Perry to appoint her replacement. Shortly after that story broke, the San Antonio Express-News’ Nolan Hicks got Gerald Daugherty, the lone Republican on the five-member Travis County Commissioners Court, to say the same.

We knew that Perry had tied Lehmberg’s resignation to the cut in funding before his veto, but now we know that he reportedly did so after the veto as well. The essence of the thing is the same—if the latter is illegal, it’s hard to see how the former could be legal—but the optics are worse. In effect, he offered to provide funds to a local government body if its leader quit, and his office made the unwise decision to make clear it was a quid pro quo.

In short, this thing—Perry-gate? Lehmberg-gate? Vodka-gate?—is growing legs. “This isn’t really news to us, but we’d never seen anyone go on record,” said Craig McDonald, the director of the left-leaning watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, who filed the complaints that resulted in the grand jury investigation.

The new revelations make it clear Perry “continued to meddle in local affairs after the veto,” McDonald said. “After the veto, he continued to offer things to make her step down.”

That’s important because Perry’s spokespeople have stated repeatedly that the governor did nothing wrong, that he was simply acting in accordance with his constitutionally granted veto power.

But if Perry’s office made the money-for-resignation offer again weeks after the veto,  that blows a major hole in the governor’s public defense so far.

“That certainly strengthens the case for bribery,” McDonald said.

The charges that the Austin grand jury are considering against Perry include bribery, which, under the Texas Penal Code, involves accepting or offering to provide any “benefit as consideration for the recipient’s decision […] or other exercise of discretion as a public servant, party official, or voter.”

It is “no defense to prosecution under this section that the benefit is not offered or conferred,” the code continues, until after “the public servant ceases to be a public servant.”

The Tribune reported that Perry’s second offer was communicated by intermediaries to Lehmberg, who “rejected the proposal outright because of concerns that such an offer may be illegal,” presumably because of fears she’d be violating this exact statute. (And presumably because she’d rather keep her job.)

In the report, we also see some of the outlines of the governor’s defense strategy forming. Perry’s spokesperson Lucy Nashed told the Tribune that “neither the governor nor any member of staff met with or spoke with Ms. Lehmberg.” Between the lines, the suggestion is the fact that Perry’s threat came through intermediaries insulates him from criminal charges.

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