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.
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.
Governor Rick Perry announces the deployment of the Texas National Guard to the border, alongside Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Attorney General Greg Abbott
When troopers with the Department of Public Safety first started deploying to the border in June, DPS made clear that they weren’t going to be taking any part in enforcing immigration laws. DPS—much like the forthcoming National Guard deployment—would be on the border solely to assist with law enforcement efforts, like cracking down on drug smugglers. Gov. Rick Perry and others agreed: The deployments were about crime, not the migrants themselves.
But now apprehensions are apparently declining on part of the Texas border, and Texas lawmakers are eager to take credit, even there’s no evidence that the drop in apprehensions has anything to do with Texas’ border surge. To the contrary, the most likely explanations have to do with factors far out of the hands of Texas government. State lawmakers are also changing their story; now the border operations are about immigration enforcement, not stopping drug runners and traffickers.
Gov. Rick Perry was one of the first to take credit for the drop in apprehensions. At his press conference on July 21 announcing the deployment of the National Guard, he credited DPS for staunching the flow. “Apprehensions have dropped 36 percent, from more than 6,600 per week, to 4,200 per week,” Perry said. “This is a clear indication that the increased patrol presence” of DPS and other law enforcement efforts is “having a deterrent effect.”
(I asked Perry’s office for the source of the figures, and the office referred me to DPS. I’ll update when I hear back.)
But last week, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst went much further. On Friday morning, Dewhurst joined Fox News host Bill Hemmer to talk about the border crisis—but anebullient Dewhurst had one thing in particular he wanted to say.
“As a result of our surge with our state police, Bill, over the last five weeks, we’ve been able to shut down and reduce illegal immigration” in a 60-mile stretch of the “Rio Grande Valley by some 50 percent,” he said. It was a great success, he said, even though the reduction had come at a cost of “$17 or $18 million a month” and the Texas-Mexico border is 1,254 miles long.
Put another way: There was a 50 percent drop in apprehensions, which is an imperfect proxy for illegal crossings, along 4.8 percent of the Texas-Mexico border at a cost of almost $20 million a month. It wasn’t clear what 60-mile stretch of the Valley Dewhurst was talking about. Nor was he asked by the host if apprehensions had gone up elsewhere along the border. If the coyotes are as wily as they’re represented by Texas politicians, then presumably they could lead their clients to a less-policed part of the border.
But most significantly, there’s no evidence that illegal crossings have slowed because of anything Texas is doing. Over the last few months, the U.S government has been involved in a major effort to dissuade Central Americans from making the journey while putting tremendous pressure on Mexico and Central American nations to crack down on migrants. The result of this “containment policy”:
Mexico has quietly stepped up the pace of deportation of migrants, some of them unaccompanied children. It announced plans to stop people from boarding freight trains north and will open five new border control stations along routes favored by migrants.
In particular, the Mexican authorities have cracked down on the use of La Bestia, the train that migrants use to travel from the country’s south to north. The trains run only periodically now, and when they do, armed authorities watch closely. That’s left a lot of Central American migrants stranded in southern Mexico, where, as the Dallas Morning News’ Alfredo Corchado chronicles in an exhaustive account, the situation is going from bad to worse:
At a nearby migrant shelter known as La 72, dozens of men are sprawled on a concrete floor covered with cardboard boxes, swatting mosquitoes. In a separate room, dozens of mothers cuddle their crying babies, quietly pleading for the mercy of sleep to fall on them before sunrise, or for the trains to roar again to continue their journey north.
“The real humanitarian crisis is here in Mexico,” says friar Guillermo Avendaño of La 72, a shelter named in honor of the 72 migrants massacred in 2010 near San Fernando, in Tamaulipas state, on their way to the U.S. “The trains aren’t running, which basically means lives have been interrupted.”
Meanwhile, in the last few months, the U.S. government has been conducting a major effort to convince Central Americans not to come. And the numbers of migrants leaving Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have been in sharp decline, according to a New York Times article from July 20:
“It has gone down about 30 percent, the number of children we see passing through here,” said Marvin Lopez, a manager of one of the most commonly used bus lines here. “Not nearly as many families.”
At a police substation on the road to the border with Guatemala, which is about a 45-minute ride from the bus station, officers said that they had been detaining 15 to 20 minors a day in recent months, but that in the past couple of weeks it had dropped to two or three.
Yet the apparent drop in apprehensions has been recast by Perry and Dewhurst as a great policy success of theirs. Their message on the deployments of DPS and the National Guard has been: The federal government is falling down on the job. We’ll act if they won’t—we’ll solve the problem, Texas-style.
But pressure from the U.S. government played a substantial role in reducing the flow of migrants—even if it created more problems elsewhere. You can bet that if the numbers of migrant crossings continue to drop, Perry and Dew will attribute it to the addition of the National Guard to the mix—and if they spike again, they’ll blame the feds.
Texas politicians have changed their stories about the border deployments too many times to count. The DPS deployment was originally supposed to be about targeting drugs and organized crime. But Perry and Dewhurst’s gleeful attempt to take credit for a drop in migration gave away the game. The costly deployments along the border are more about perception than reality.
These are dangerous times. Disorder afflicts all corners of the world. There’s contagion, and many different kinds of war. The Slavic menace rises in the East. This is a time for men—Texas men—to rise to the occasion.
1) To run for president, Gov. Rick Perry needs foreign policy credentials, and though his pilgrimages to California may count as such within Texas, they do not, unfortunately for him, matter much to the rest of the country. But Perry has a longstanding interest in a region of the world that has been in the news lately. So he summoned up his office’s communications staff and associated interns for a new mission. This was the best idea anyone had ever had. Rick Perry would give his take on the conflict in the Gaza Strip.
The ensuing editorial in Politico Magazine, entitled “Stand With Israel,” will do just fine for its intended purpose. There’s a hell of a lot of money and support for anyone in the Republican presidential primary who strikes the right tone on Israel—Perry tried to win that crowd in 2011, and he’ll do so again this time, especially with comparative squishes like Rand Paul and Chris Christie also in the running. But if you were to give this thing the benefit of the doubt and assume that it’s supposed to be more than just pablum, you would be disappointed. The very first paragraph contains two odd misconceptions:
For Israelis, at any given moment a missile might be detected, rocketing toward a residential neighborhood; a bomber might detonate him or herself in a crowded public place; and terrorists sent by Hamas might infiltrate their borders through secret tunnels to kidnap or kill their children.
Hamas certainly uses rockets—but periodic suicide bombings haven’t really been a fact of “any given moment” in Israeli life for years. Suicide bombings targeting civilian areas peaked in 2002, and the last fatal one was in 2008. The last sentence is a slightly oblique reference to the kidnapping and murder of three students in the West Bank: It precipitated the current conflict. But even Israeli intelligence now doubts Hamas was responsible for the murders.
In fairness, Perry balances his hawkish analysis with compassion for the long-suffering people of the Gaza Strip, pawns of a brutal and bloody game.
I’ve visited with families who were afraid to let their children play outside, and seen the fortified playgrounds where they can go. I’ve seen the rubble of structures brought down by missile strikes and looked in the eyes of people who live with the threat of violence day-in and day-out.
Kidding, he’s talking about Israelis. And he has stern words for anyone who thinks shelling United Nations-run schools packed with families fleeing violence is probably not O.K.:
Thousands of miles away, it might be convenient to criticize Israel for having the temerity to defend itself against these murderous terrorist attacks.
But we shouldn’t. Because the stakes are high:
The conflict between Hamas and Israel is merely one part of a much-larger conflict, one with far-ranging implications that can affect the lives of every person on the globe.
That’s because of… China?
Any equivocation or perceived weakness on our part will be noticed immediately not just in Tehran, but in Moscow and Beijing as well. It can only help usher in a new nuclear arms race, one that holds the potential of becoming infinitely more frightening than the one the free world endured decades ago. Hamas, Hezbollah and other terrorist groups have demonstrated time and again that they have no regard for human life – Israeli, Palestinian or American. The possibility of individuals like that gaining access to a nuclear weapon is something we simply cannot allow.
He condemns the United States for “moving closer to Turkey and Qatar than to our traditional allies,” in recent negotiations. That’s kind of a weird thing to say, seeing as Turkey is one of our oldest allies in the Middle East and a member of NATO, and Qatar is home to one of the most important American military facilities in the world.
If it seems like Perry has not been getting particularly good information on the conflict, that might be because he’s been pretty bad at picking friends. In the run up to his 2012 race, he was appearing at public events with full-on nut job Danny Danon, then a member of the Israeli Knesset and later a deputy defense minister. Danon was canned by the pretty right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a few weeks ago for being, essentially, an out-of-control lunatic. He once called African refugees in Israel a “national plague” and wants Israel to unilaterally annex Palestinian land.
So Perry’s getting bad foreign policy advice, and he hasn’t demonstrated any ability to make up his own mind. And he’s running for president soon. To paraphrase a governor I know, the possibility of an individual like that gaining access to a nuclear weapon is something we simply cannot allow.
2) But Perry’s not the only Texas Republican who’s getting ready to save the world: There’s also state Rep. Scott Turner, who’s been traveling across Texas as part of his quixotic Empower Texans-backed campaign to win popular support in his race for speaker of the Texas House, even though people’s votes don’t matter (the speaker is selected by other reps.) The whole thing has been pretty weird.
Anyway, he was in Fredericksburg recently to explain how he feels about road funding diversions or whatever, and he decided to go BIG. Here’s how he opened:
Tel Aviv, Hamas, Israel, Gaza, you know, Malaysia flights, jet flights being shot out of the air, you know, what in the world is going on? A lot of people live in a hopeless situation. Anxiety is running rampant. Fear. Discouragement.
O.K. man, we got these people suitably freaked out. Now pull them in:
But hopefully tonight in this brief time that we have together, it’s my prayer that I can encourage you. And let you know that we’re not in a hopeless situation. Because myself and a few others around Texas and around the country are standing up for you. And it’s not hard—I mean, it’s not easy. It’s a very hard battle to fight.
Is Turner for or against Malaysia flights? The world wonders. And what’s Turner got planned to alleviate anxiety in East Jerusalem? Who are these “few others?” Is Turner part of a gang of conflict-mediating superheroes? If so, why is he in Fredericksburg right now? Seems like a bad use of time, is all.
Cruz’s theatrics are taking place in an ever-tightening series of concentric circles. His targets have shrunk: He used to mess with President Obama, but now he’s mostly messing with Republican House Speaker John Boehner, which seems like a pretty weird move. And kinda mean, given Boehner’s propensity for crying. You do you, Ted.
The bill collapsed at the last minute. Cruz was given credit, as he’d been rallying representatives against the bill. Republicans were forced to ask President Obama to take executive action on the border crisis, even though they’re suing him for taking executive action elsewhere. A reporter asked Cruz if he was responsible for Boehner’s humiliating day:
“The suggestion by some that House members are unable to stand up and fight for their own conservative principles is offensive and belittling to House conservatives,” he added. “They know what they believe and it would be absurd for anyone to try to tell them what to think.”
That’s the sound of a grown man petting other grown men on the head. He’s the chess player to Perry’s checkers player, except his main goal seems to be to make his team lose all the time. Yep, 2016 is going to be a hell of a year.
You might think that in a one-party state like Texas, the cream would rise to the top. The most capable and promising politicians would flock to take positions in the party of power. The resulting diversity of opinions and expertise might incentivize excellence. Of course, in Texas as in other one-party systems, the opposite is the case. During the two decades that Texas Republicans have a complete lock on political offices, the quality of the party’s candidates has waned. Like a royal family in which only cousins marry, the GOP’s blood here is thinning. Take Ken Paxton, the Republican nominee for attorney general and possible future felon.
Paxton, a state senator who has served in the Legislature since 2002, made his political bones as a member of the Christian right. That faction had a particularly good year in the 2014 Republican primary, which is unusual for Texas. But the way Paxton really distinguishes himself is by his history of sleazy and unethical financial dealings as a lawyer in the Metroplex, which came to light through a Texas Tribune story in May. The state’s next top lawyer could very well be facing indictment and possible disbarment.
Paxton’s way of coping with that looming threat? Running away from—and occasionally manhandling—reporters who ask him about it and otherwise staying out of the public eye, even as he asks the public to entrust him with enormous power. And here’s the depressing thing: It hardly hurts his chances of being elected.
First, what did Paxton do? Outside of the Legislature, he made a living as a lawyer in McKinney. One day, a couple he represented named Teri and David Goettsche came looking for a way to manage their money. Paxton referred them to an investment advisory firm named Mowery Capital Management, run by Frederick “Fritz” Mowery, a friend of Paxton’s.
Mowery directed the Goettsches into a series of abysmally bad investments, some connected to a friend of Mowery’s with a disreputable past. Mowery had been on the verge of bankruptcy when Paxton recommended him, and his business partners were in similarly bad shape. When they went under, the Goettsches lost their shirts. After they lost their shirts, they were informed that Paxton had been receiving a 30 percent commission to refer his legal clients to Mowery. Whether legally or ethically, Paxton should have told the Goettsches about the commission, but he didn’t.
What Paxton did—abusing the trust of his clients to funnel money to a friend, then taking what was in effect an undisclosed kickback—was certainly improper and unethical, but it was also illegal. It’s not illegal to take a commission from an investment firm to refer clients, but you must register with the Texas State Securities Board when doing so. Paxton didn’t. He also didn’t disclose the work on the personal financial statements he was required to file as a legislator. In other words, he appeared to be hoping that no one ever found out about it.
And Paxton should have known about the laws he was breaking, because he voted for the bills that established them in the first place. In 2003, he voted for a bill that made what he did a crime—and in 2011, he helped up the punishment for the crime. He helped make what he did a felony. And there’s no doubt he did it, because this spring, in an effort to push the scandal behind him, he admitted in a sworn statement that he violated the Texas Securities Act.
Having acknowledged that he broke the law, Paxton left the door open for the left-leaning advocacy group Texans for Public Justice to file a complaint with the Travis County District Attorney earlier this month. TPJ might be a small group, but the complaint is far from insignificant: TPJ is responsible for the complaint that’s snagged Gov. Perry over charges of undue influence and may ultimately see him indicted, and their efforts also helped precipitate the downfall of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. TPJ’s complaint charges that Paxton “committed one or more criminal felony offenses.” It could take months for the DA’s office to process the complaint—but it’s also likely that Paxton’s opponents will file complaints with the state bar itself.
So Texas’ probable next attorney general faces the threat of indictment, and censure (or worse) from the State Bar of Texas, before his first day on the job. There are many questions still remaining—for one, given the nature of the crime, it may not be an isolated incident. Does Paxton have anything to say about that? Any reassuring words for the public? He has no words at all. He spent the last month of his primary runoff hiding from voters and the press. An appearance on a Christian radio show marked one of his only media appearances: His legal difficulties didn’t come up.
Knowing that his Democratic opponent, a lawyer named Sam Houston, is extremely unlikely to win, he’s adopted roughly the same strategy for the general election. When Nolan Hicks, a reporter with the San Antonio Express-News, tracked down Paxton after a speech to ask him about the incident, Paxton scurried away. His spokesman grabbed Hicks and pulled him back, ensuring that Paxton would face no scrutiny.
We’ve come to expect a certain level of grime from many of our state’s political leaders, but the attorney general’s office is one place where there really ought to be a certain degree of moral fiber—so it’s encouraging that Paxton is bringing the courage and honesty he learned in his legal career to his campaign. Virtually unopposed in his general election, Paxton has no incentive to speak forthrightly to Texans about his troubles. And so he won’t.
We’re a long way from Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and Gov. George W. Bush, just fifteen years ago. Putting people like Paxton in positions of power and authority will arguably hasten the Democratic revival, but what a hell of a ride it’s going to be in between now and then.
Democratic state Sens. Kirk Watson, Wendy Davis, Leticia Van de Putte and Royce West at an abortion rights rally at the Texas Capitol in July 2013.
When Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte joined other Democrats in the Texas Senate chamber to stage the filibuster that briefly derailed abortion restrictions last summer, it was a united effort, even if the two played different roles. Davis stood atop the operation, placing her body between the bill and the governor’s signature. Van de Putte stood to the side, in a critical and vocal supporting role.
A year and change later, they’re in the same formation: Davis on top, the ostensible CEO of Democrats’ 2014 push for statewide office, and Van de Putte below, further from the public eye, riling up the believers when she can. But while this division of labor served the two well in the filibuster, it’s not clear if it will work for the general election. There were visible fault lines at June’s Texas Democratic Party convention in Dallas that could threaten party unity. Davis and Van de Putte may want the same thing, but they have very different opponents, very different styles and very different organizations backing them.
Davis’ campaign is banking heavily on independent voters, the kind of people who helped her retain a slightly right-leaning senate district in Fort Worth. The campaign has leaned to the middle on guns, the border and abortion, and hammered Greg Abbott on issues that aren’t overtly ideological—disclosure of chemical stockpiles, equal pay, the idea that he’s an “Austin insider.” The Davis campaign may have lost some left-wing enthusiasm, but it hopes to convince voters who might otherwise be happy with the status quo that Abbott can’t be trusted, while relying on the former Obama staffers at Battleground Texas to help turn out the base.
Van de Putte’s approach is different. In part, that’s because she faces an opponent, Dan Patrick, who seems intent on alienating moderates. While he’s doing that, Van de Putte is more comfortable rousing the Democratic base. Her campaign’s efforts will bedirected more toward driving turnout. That’s partly because her campaign will be working with a fraction of the resources that Davis has—it’s cheaper to motivate voters to the polls than to win over halfhearted Republicans.
Those strategies might ordinarily complement each other, except for the unusual way this year’s campaigns are structured. Davis’ operation, which ties together a campaign team of veterans from past statewide efforts with the field work of Battleground Texas, will need to continue to vacuum up millions of dollars to stay competitive with Abbott. And though Battleground plans to support the Democratic ticket generally, that money is mostly benefiting Davis—Battleground is looking for voters for her, specifically. Which means, realistically, that more money for Davis’ operations means less for Van de Putte, whose campaign reported just $1.16 millon on hand in the latest fundraising period.
That’s an unfortunate dynamic, because there’s a strong case to be made that Van de Putte has a more realistic path to victory than Davis does at this point in the campaign. Patrick is a better opponent to run against. Van de Putte has a better shot at driving up the Hispanic vote, Texas Democrats’ white whale. And though both Davis and Van de Putte have improved as campaigners since their launch, Van de Putte has improved immeasurably.
At the convention, she set the crowd on fire—her speech, not Davis’ keynote, was the highlight of the night.
How each candidate performs this fall could mean quite a bit. If Davis significantly outperforms expectations, it will validate her campaign team and Battleground’s efforts. But if Van de Putte significantly outperforms Davis, it could be seen as a rebuke to those same groups. And if she comes closer to victory but still loses, there will be a lot of consternation that Van de Putte didn’t get the resources she needed.
Noted sportsman and Florida Governor Rick Scott with Texas Governor Rick Perry after a fishing trip.
There’s so much money and patronage sloshing around Texas politics that it can be difficult to keep track. So it’s unsurprising that our great surplus spills over into other states. This time it’s Florida, where the sudden appearance of one of the all-time great Texas icons in an unseemly story of influence-peddling threatens to damage some of Florida’s top politicians in a critical election year, including the state’s increasingly grimy-looking governor, Rick Scott. Also at stake: billions of dollars and the health of one of America’s great natural assets.
For years, at least half a dozen high-ranking Florida Republicans have been accepting lavish trips to the King Ranch from the state’s sugar industry, and failing to report it properly to either their constituents or the state’s ethics authorities, according to an explosive Tampa Bay Times story that dropped last week. Florida’s currently in the middle of a highly contentious election cycle that’s had a lot to do with trust and corruption issues—so if the story develops, the King Ranch could play a starring role in the last couple months of the race.
The King Ranch is one of the largest ranches in the world, and it’s been a central pillar of Texan identity for a century and a half. But these days, the King Ranch is no merecattle operation—it’s a globe-spanning corporate interest, deriving income from a diverse set of industries. King Ranch, Inc. owns 12,500 acres of sugar cane production as part of its holdings in South Florida. So in the arid brush country near Kingsville, the King Ranch has come to play host to a very different type of livestock—Florida Republicans.
For years, the Sunshine State has been trying to take better care of the Everglades, the sprawling tropical wetlands encompassing a good portion of Florida’s southern tip. The Everglades suffer from toxic runoff from the rest of the state, especially phosphorous pollution. The phosphorous comes primarily from the fertilizer used by industrial agricultural operations, especially the production of sugar cane.
The federal government heavily subsidizes the production of sugar cane, and coddles the industry through trade protections. But the state of Florida, too, subsidizes the industry. In the ’90s, the state passed a “polluter pays” measure which was intended to force groups poisoning the Everglades to pay for clean-up and control efforts—but the state’s Legislature capped the amount sugar-growers could pay at low levels, shifting the burden to other Floridians. Here’s something that conservatives and liberals can hate together: An industry is winning huge amounts of taxpayer money to grow crops in an environmentally destructive manner.
So how do they keep it going? One answer is that the industry lavishes attention on (and donates huge sums to) Florida Republicans to keep them fat and happy. That’s where the King Ranch comes in. The ranch owns land in Florida, so they have a vested interest in this—but its operations are dwarfed by those of the U.S. Sugar Corporation, the largest producer in Florida. U.S. Sugar owns almost 190,000 acres.
In 2011, U.S. Sugar leased 30,000 acres at the King Ranch and built a hunting lodge on the land. Last week, two reporters from the Tampa Bay Timesfigured out why.
A Times/Herald analysis shows that since late 2011, U.S. Sugar paid more than $95,000 to the Republican Party of Florida for at least 20 weekend trips — destinations unspecified on public documents — within days of more than a dozen Florida politicians registering for Texas hunting licenses.
This was a substantial investment—but no one reported the King Ranch trips to the relevant ethics authorities. U.S. Sugar reported in-kind donations to the party, but never said why or what it constituted. Almost no one wants to talk about it at all, in fact:
Florida GOP officials either said they don’t know about the King Ranch trips or they won’t talk about them. Sugar industry officials declined to comment. The King Ranch trips don’t show up on Scott’s or Putnam’s official schedules, or in any Republican Party of Florida fundraising documents.
Gov. Rick Scott came to Kingsville with a full complement of state police. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam came too. When asked about it, Putnam variously described the jaunt as a “hunting trip” and “campaign event,” then cut short an interview with the Times, after which his staff closed a door in a reporter’s face. So did a number of high-ranking state reps, including former House Speaker Dean Cannon. The reporters realized they could track who came to the ranch by identifying Florida pols with Texas hunting licenses—paid for by U.S. Sugar.
The trips themselves might not have been illegal—some who talked to the Times say the Republican Party of Florida might have found a loophole in the state’s ethics laws. But it’s unclear why each of the Republicans who accepted the hunting trips have been so mum about them if nothing was, in fact, illegal or improper. Even if the pols didn’t violate the letter of ethics law, they certainly violated its spirit. In 1991, a number of Florida legislators were indicted for accepting hunting trips from lobbyists and failing to report them.
Florida sugar growers appear to have prospered considerably from U.S. Sugar’s investment. A Florida legislator named Matt Caldwell wrote a bill in 2013 that extended the cap on the fee the industry had to pay for pollution alleviation to 2026. The bill quickly passed and was signed into law by Scott. In the Miami Herald, a former county commissioner from the area called the bill one of the “most deceptive and egregious action against taxpayers” he’d seen come out of the Florida Legislature. “Soon after,” the Times writes, “Caldwell registered for his first ever Texas hunting license.”
The sugar industry has given Florida Republicans more than $2 million in the 2014 cycle alone, so the money it sent shipping Scott and friends to Texas may seem small fry. But it’s precisely this kind of corruption that most rankles voters. Since Scott won in 2010 on the tea party wave, he’s been getting increasingly unpopular and has been ducking from scandal to scandal—his race race against the also-unpopular Charlie Crist is one of the most high-profile in the country this year. Soon, the King may be able to tack on another milestone to its august history-a starring role in another state’s political attack ads.
Now that the brave men and women of the Texas Military Forces are on their way to the border (or will be in 30 to 45 days, time, weather and logistics permitting) we can start to address the core causes of the problem. Why are migrants coming here? Who are they? Don’t they know that this is a broken, bankrupt nation sweltering under the unrestrained tyranny of a Kenyan potentate?
1) On this, we find ourselves of two minds. One faction argues that the border crisis occurred because it was planned—the dark handiwork of Barack “Hussein” Obama and the machinations of some combination of the browner nations. There’s Mexico, for example, and… the other ones. It’s the Cloward-Piven strategy at work, you see, the culmination of years of cultural Marxism.
But this group is comprised of the fringiest of the fringe, the crankiest of the cranks—it would be unfair to tag mainstream conservatives with the belief that Obama has been personally orchestrating the arrival of child migrants. We’re talking about groups like … the Texas PublicPolicy Foundation? Huh.
2) Others have a novel theory, based in science. In this accounting, the United States is a giant magnet, and Central American teenagers, high in iron and other ferrous metals, are pulled here by freedom’s inexorable call. So dissuading them should, in theory, be simple: Stop the Magnet. Eliminate the things that make the United States an appealing and hospitable place to oppressed peoples. In Texas, that means making education more expensive and life more dangerous for undocumented migrants by eliminating in-state tuition and “sanctuary cities.” Stop the Magnet has a new champion: His name is state Rep. Steve Toth, and he’s running for a Texas Senate seat in The Woodlands.
Steve Toth has garnered the respect from the activists focused on the immigration issue. He has demonstrated by his deeds in investigating the locations and conditions of the sites where the Office of Refugee and Resettlement […] are bringing in poverty-stricken and in some cases, diseased or criminal alien minors.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Now stop the magnet, stop it now.
Send them back, and send no more
All these folk should go back, wow.
They’re sick and smell, and hell, they’re poor.
If he wins next week, Toth will become Stop the Magnet’s man in what’s sure to be a pretty anti-immigrant state senate. But is Stop the Magnet going far enough? Perhaps the only way to ensure migrants stop coming to Texas is to make the state uninhabitable for everyone. Our bounty of breathable air and drinkable water is a magnet: So is our transportation network and public school system. I have little doubt that the 84th Legislature will tackle these problems head-on.
3) So now we know why they’re coming: But who are they? Yes, they’re OTM UACs, but who are they inside? A raging debate is taking place on this question up and down the state. State Rep. David Simpson, a steadfast conservative who’s nonetheless a very earnest and heartfelt Christian, went down to the border and thought seriously on this question. He came back to Longview and spoke honestly to his constituents.
Yes, we should tighten the border, he said. But these are also kids, some of whom have experienced horrors that we cannot possibly imagine. And we should be kind, and open to them and their needs. Some have been grievously abused. Many feared for their lives, and many do still. Basically, he bet that he could talk to his constituents like adults that could hold two competing thoughts in their heads at once.
“I believe your constituents should come first when you talk about people who are impacted,” Terri Hill of Longview said during a town hall session that followed a slide show of Simpson’s recent tour of the southern border. “You are to represent us, and we have children. These (immigrants) are people that are coming in with leprosy, tuberculosis, polio.”
“I’ve got four kids and a fifth one on the way,” Ben Denson of Gilmer told Simpson from a forum microphone. “These (Central American) kids have scabies and influenza, viral pneumonia, leprosy. These kids are going to be part of the school system. They are bleeding Texas (Democrat) blue.”
Another fellow had a more direct diagnosis of the illness at hand:
“These people are not coming in with a good, Christian heart.”
WWJDTAAPEOMWAPHAAPIB? (What would Jesus do to alleviate a prolonged exodus of minors, who are probable heathens, along a porous international border?)
4) Are they Christians? Well, I suppose it depends on what kind of Christians. Many of them, worshippers of the Pope in Rome, are not the good kind of Christian. Mary and Dale Huls, two Houston-area tea party activists with the First Baptist Church of Seabrook, have been going down to the Rio Grande Valley lately to lend a hand. Their exploits are lovingly chronicled by Breitbart Texas’ Bob Price, author of such lovely stories as “ANIMALS FEAST ON BODY OF DEAD MIGRANT.”
There is a long and storied tradition of white conservatives from around Texas going to the Valley for the first time and losing their shit, so in a way it’s a small positive step that the Huls have complimentary things to say, even if they’re Baptists doing missionary work in a Catholic community that they don’t seem to quite understand. (They’re also part of a border militia, so, cool.)
In her work with the FBC mission, Huls observed the part of Falfurrias that doesn’t make the news. “There is a face of Falfurrias that is seldom seen,” she said. “It’s the face of a people who are committed Americans, complete with USA and Texas flags in their yards, who are being over-looked.”
Hispanic people living near the border who are committed Americans? Hold on, let me put my monocle back into place, which I dropped when my face went wide with shock. I hope more information, coming shortly, won’t make me spit out this water in my mouth in a comically exaggerated fashion.
“These folks have totally bought into the American dream,” Huls continued. “They name their kids Taylor, Gilbert, Joslyn and Kaitlyn rather than Juan, Manuel or Maria. They keep up their homes in the projects with a quiet dignity and encourage their children to attend our mission clubs.”
5) This weekend, as we drink heavily, let us take time to salve the wounds that arise from our own misconception of each other. Namaste, y’all.
.@AbbottCampaign Isn’t the real problem our species’ propensity for misunderstanding? Let us soften our souls with philosophic discourse.
Democratic nominee for agriculture commissioner Jim Hogan at the Cleburne Public Library, his de facto campaign headquarters.
Just down the road from the Johnson County Courthouse in Cleburne, Texas, past the theater where a local company is staging a version of “Steel Magnolias,” sits the Cleburne Public Library. In the back, a few rows down from the display with the Louis L’Amour short story collection, Jim Hogan, Democratic nominee for agriculture commissioner, shows off his seat of power. It’s late June, the day before the Democratic Party’s state convention kicks off in Dallas. Hogan could be there, celebrating his unlikely victory. But he doesn’t want to be anywhere near it. Instead, he’s giving a tour of his unofficial campaign headquarters.
From a line of pressed-wood desk cubbies with internet-equipped Dell computers, Hogan, a former dairy farmer with a small cattle operation, ran what must be the most unlikely primary campaign of any Texas Democrat in the modern era. Earlier this year, Hogan found himself in a three-way standoff in the Democratic primary race for agriculture commissioner. His opponents: the party establishment’s favorite candidate, Hugh Asa Fitzsimons III, and a pot-loving troubadour with populist appeal, Kinky Friedman. Hogan bested both. When the unlucky Friedman found himself in a runoff, Hogan smashed him by more than 7 points.
Yet Hogan raised and expended zero dollars in the course of the campaign, and spent the entire race at home, or on the computers at the library, where he monitored the results that appeared when he Googled his name, and researched the job. If you include the $3,750 filing fee he was required to pay to get on the ballot, he spent 1.2 cents a vote. In terms of money and time, he ran an election effort of record-setting efficiency.
While Wendy Davis’ resource-intensive war machine, virtually unopposed and with millions of dollars in hand, lost much of the Rio Grande Valley to an unknown opponent, Hogan cruised to victory with the steady hand of a zen master. On runoff night, reporters found him at a neighbors’ house, cooking “country boy stew,” which features hamburger meat, carrots, tomatoes and green beans.
Like a warrior-monk who has taken a vow of poverty, he not only let his own campaign lie fallow, he refused campaigning from others. When political consultants from Austin came to a summit with Hogan at Cleburne’s Blue Star Grill and offered their services pro bono, Hogan refused. When a neighbor offered to make a pro-Hogan sign and put it in his yard, he declined.
“Take that money and give it your grandkids,” he says he told the neighbors. “What is that sign gonna do? Nothing. People are gonna vote for me cause a sign said ‘Jim Hogan’? I don’t want people to be that shallow.”
Candidates running for statewide office are normally quite appreciative of shallow voters, so this is an unusual declaration. We’re more than halfway through an election season that, even if no more shallow than the last, will be the most expensive in the state’s history. Unimaginable sums of money are being raised and spent. Pricey out-of-state consultants and nomadic campaign hands with big paychecks abound. We’ve moved from a Republican primary for lt. governor, where one of the critical issues was David Dewhurst’s dinner at an Austin steakhouse, to a general election where earnest discussion of the state’s pressing issues is infrequent at best.
Elsewhere this cycle, races have been mostly fluff. The worst case might be the Republican primary race for agriculture commissioner. J. Allen Carnes, the mayor of Uvalde—serious, thoughtful and earnest—garnered endorsements from agricultural trade organizations, talked about the needs of farmer… and placed fifth in a five-way race. The winner, Sid Miller, counts Ted Nugent as his campaign treasurer and looks and acts like a French cartoonist’s caricature of a Texan. He ran on gun rights and his opposition to abortion, and when asked about agriculture issues, seemed ill-prepared. He opened his speech at the Republican convention with a slightly bawdy story about his wife on election night.
Hogan has been an object of fascination for political junkies and media types. He may have won purely by chance, but his inexplicable success offers some relief from the absurdity and occasional cruelty of Texas political life. A Tumblr set up by admirers records his exploits. A Texas Monthly piece highlighted Hogan’s runoff win as one of the few bright spots of a generally disheartening night. A column Hogan wrote for the op-ed website TribTalk may go down in the record books as the most memorable piece of political rhetoric from the 2014 election:
It has been reported that I am unknown and do not campaign. If you will pause for a moment and Google “Jim Hogan Texas Agriculture Commissioner,” I believe you will be amazed at the amount of information available about me. I think you will agree that those reports can be put to rest.
Why is he doing this? Does he think he can win? Is he a playful imp, or Chauncey Gardiner? After meeting Hogan, it remains difficult to say. This much is certain: Hogan’s not a fool. He knows Miller will be the likely victor. But, he says, he wasn’t supposed to win the last two times. So who knows? He’s got a healthy belly laugh.
His main contention is: Why not me? Ask Hogan a question, and his tendency is to flip it back on you, like a teacher facing a slow-witted student. Over a burger in the Blue Star Grill, where Hogan conducts his meetings, I ask him: what has Todd Staples, the current agriculture commissioner, been doing wrong?
“I don’t know what Todd Staples has been doing,” he says, “other than buying $300,000 worth of cameras.” Staples, intent to run someday for higher office, spent much of his last term talking about border security. His office spent $345,000 on funding security cameras on the border. “Most of what he does has nothing to do with agriculture,” Hogan says.
What would Hogan do as agriculture commissioner? In point of fact, Hogan says, virtually no one, including many farmers, know who the agriculture commissioner is or what it does, because the office has never done a damn thing for a lot of people it’s supposed to help. He grabs a waitress at the Blue Star Grill and asks her if she knows the agriculture commissioner: She doesn’t. “It’s going to be you, though,” she says as she walks away.
“Grab people up in Dallas and ask them what the ag commissioner does, and they won’t know,” he says. “Nobody knows!”
Has Hogan had experiences with the Department of Agriculture that made him want to run? “I’ve never had anything to do with them,” he laughs. Few have. “If you can get somebody on the phone, you’re lucky.” The office, by rights, should be apolitical. “It should be providing services to farmers and ranchers,” he says. “But most people running for agriculture commissioner have no ties to it, and have probably never studied it.”
I ask Hogan what he’d do if he got the post—the latest of several times I’d tried to broach the question. Would there be some big policy initiative? New programs? He explains it to me, again, a bit slower, to help me understand. On the first day, “I’m going to walk in and do this very methodically,” he says. He’d talk to the department’s officers, and he’d get a good sense of the inefficiencies there. He’d travel around the state and talk to farmers and ranchers. He’d get out there in the field. And then he’d figure out how the department could help.
“I’m going to gather the facts and make logical decisions,” he said. “I don’t want to make a complication when you ought to have simplicity.” Basically, his campaign promise is to work hard and do a good job.
“People like J. Allen Carnes,” he says. “Those people at least have an inkling. But these people that have been in the Legislature all their life, they really don’t get it.” Count his opponent among those who don’t get it. “I know Sid Miller. If you want to drink beer and rope calves, Sid’s your man,” Hogan says. “But all you gotta do is study what he’s done.” That includes a whole lot of lobbying, and a whole lot of politicking.
Hogan’s Democratic opponent didn’t take the job too seriously, either. “Kinky didn’t say anything about agriculture.” Over the course of his political career, Kinky, supposedly the outsider, had showed a particularly cynical brand of politics. For one thing, his campaign staff tried to buy off Hogan with the promise of meeting Willie Nelson. Kinky “did every bad thing in the world but he said what he said in a funny way that made people laugh. I didn’t laugh at all,” he said. “I didn’t think it was funny because I didn’t think that was kosher.”
He’s not laughing because the Texas farmer and the rancher face real problems. “The price of land’s too high. Cities are moving out. There’s more people and less land to grow on it. Nobody wants GMOs or pesticides on their stuff. Well, here comes Mexico, bringing food over,” says Hogan. “We’re hitting the wall. Things are getting worse. The water situation—it’s going to rain sometime. But the next time we have a drought there’s gonna be a lot more people.”
And farmers and ranchers needed to bring younger people into the field. “Today, we’re overlooking daughters. It’s a woman’s world if you hadn’t noticed out there.” Hogan has two himself, which he raised as a single father after his wife passed away in 2000. “In other words, I’m in tune with the world. Top to bottom. And for simple reasons, I want to be agriculture commissioner. You couldn’t give me governor or anything else, it’s got too much baggage. It ain’t worth it. And I only want it for one term. And during that term, I’d hope to find somebody who’d do something similar to what I did.”
Hogan’s running as a Democrat, but only because he thought he had better odds of winning the nomination. If he wins, he’s going to hire Republicans alongside Democrats. He has no particular affection for either party, but he wishes the system worked better, and that people voted more. Texas’ unbalanced party system, he thinks, has screwed up the state. “I thought we had a two party system in America,” he says.
“Don’t vote Republican or Democrat, look at the person. I don’t even know what a party is, other than the people that run it,” he says. “If you’re a Republican and you got a bad person, and the Democrats have a good person, you’re going to vote the bad person just because he’s a Republican?”
On all matters, Hogan preaches moderation. “I like all people, that’s my philosophy,” he said. Around Cleburne, plenty of people have gotten heated about increasing numbers of immigrants—some won’t go to the H-E-B anymore because there’s too many unfamiliar faces. But Hogan is calm. Migrants “come here to work hard and send money home to their family.” He thinks open carry protesters are silly. “Just cause you can don’t mean you have to,” he says. “That’s the thing with politics everywhere. There’s extremes, and there’s people with logic.”
Hogan may claim the mantle of logic, but in Texas, logic is not enough. Barring the discovery of Miller in bed with, in the immortal words of Edwin Edwards, a dead girl or a live boy, his party affiliation will trump Hogan’s and Miller will spend a number of years doing whatever it is he wants to do in statewide office, before presumably trying to make the jump to another one.
In theory, Americans like people like Hogan—genuine outsiders, rough-hewn pragmatists, underdogs. There used to be more people like Hogan in public office. In practice, today’s strivers come from a very different mold.
Officeholders are as different from us as an alien race. In national races, we’ve come to expect our campaigns, and our campaigners, to function with the mechanical precision and sleek design of a Swiss watch. A wrong word or a step out of place can doom a person’s political fortunes, and so actual fortunes are spent on ensuring that doesn’t happen. Candidates never have a chance to show their real selves, and they become alienated from us. And we become alienated from the political process.
In Texas, at the state and local level, the political process has become perverted in a very different way. A vanishingly small number of voters have a say in the way the state is run, thanks to the total dominance of the Republican Party and its primary elections. Statewide candidates like Miller face little accountability from voters once they get past their primary runoff. Party affiliation is the golden god of Texas politics, and the state is left with demagogues of all stripes running virtually unopposed. Apathy grows, and many voters tune out.
Hogan wants no part of any of that. “I realized that when I signed up to run, I became a product,” he says. “I don’t want to be anything that I’m not.”
Hogan won’t change all that, but he’s having fun trying. “There’s a lot of people around town laughing and having a ball about this, because they know who I am,” Hogan laughs. “A lot of my neighbors wanted clips for their scrapbooks. They never thought Jim Hogan, who mows his lawn with a push mower, would get here.”
Correction: The article formerly identified Jim Hogan as a dairy farmer. Hogan is a former dairy farmer who currently has a small cow-calf business.
As we enter the last couple of months before the November general election, Democrats here, as they have nationally, have been apprehensive about a cluster of laws and rule changes that they claim represents a modern-day form of voter suppression. On Wednesday, the Texas Democratic coalition launched what they’re calling a “voter protection program”—a joint effort of the Texas Democratic Party and Battleground Texas, which is closely aligned with the Wendy Davis campaign.
The groups will be getting support and advice from a relatively new Democratic National Committee effort called the Voter Expansion Project, supported by Bill and Hillary Clinton, which has been active in a number of states. On a conference call Wednesday morning, Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa explained that the voter protection program seeks to provide additional education and support to voters who may not yet be aware or well-acquainted with voter ID requirements, while training additional poll-watchers to ensure the November election holds to the letter of the law.
Davis, also on the call, touted the importance of the effort for the November election, and her own “strong record of fighting for voter protection” in the Texas Senate. “By contrast, Greg Abbott has fought the Voting Rights Act in court. He’s used his office to try to remove protections against voter discrimination and actively sought to weaken the voting power of some Texans,” Davis said. “He’s using our tax dollars fight against our own rights.”
Added Davis: “We want more Texans to participate in this election, not less.”
Over the years, Abbott’s office has aggressively prosecuted predominantly older, minority voters for small violations of election law, while ignoring potential violations from likely Republican voters. Abbott’s office sent state police officers to spy on older, minority voters to determine whether they were eligible to vote by mail. From a 2008 Observer story:
Fort Worth’s Gloria Meeks, 69, was a church-going community activist who proudly ran a phone bank and helped homebound elderly people like Parthenia McDonald, 79, vote by mail. McDonald, whose mailbox was two blocks away from her home (she recently died), called Meeks “an angel” for helping her, a friend of both women said.
The lawsuit describes various investigative tactics used by Abbott’s special unit, including an incident in which two state police officers were seen by Meeks “peeping at her through her bathroom window” while she was taking a bath on August 10, 2006. “She later learned that these two persons were investigators with the office of the defendant Attorney General Abbott,” the suit said.
But Abbott’s office never showed much interest in white voters:
A PowerPoint presentation used by Abbott’s office to train Texas officials was rife with racial stereotypes associating voter fraud with people of color-communities that in recent history have supported Democrats.
As an introduction to a section of the PowerPoint involving ‘Poll Place Violations,’ a slide depicts a photograph of African-American voters apparently standing in line to vote,” the lawsuit’s complaint said. “Notably, the 71-slide presentation contains no similar photographs of white or Anglo voters casting ballots.”
In recent years, state Republican parties in many parts of the country have favored laws that make it more difficult for poor, elderly and minority voters to exercise their franchise. These include voter ID laws, but encompass many different kinds of efforts. Before the 2012 presidential election, Republicans in Ohio, a critical battleground state, attempted to cut early voting periods, restrict absentee voting and reduce polling place availability in major cities, moves that disproportionately affected Democratic-leaning populations.
Democrats have been suitably freaked out about these developments. In Texas, where Democratic groups have been trying to turn hundreds of thousands of people who don’t normally vote into regular voters, it’s seen as especially important to counter restrictive voting laws.
Here, much of the discussion has been about voter ID laws. On the conference call, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio), a Democratic heavyweight and leader of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said the motivation for new voter ID laws was transparently political.
“Of 13 million votes cast across the state in the 2008 and 2010 elections, there were four investigations into improper voter impersonations and one conviction for a young man who voted on behalf of his brother,” Martinez Fischer said. “To go after one person, we threw 795,000 registered voters under the bus because they lacked the proper ID.”
The state offers free “Election Identification Certificates” to those who lack acceptable forms of voter ID, but Martinez Fischer notes that “one-third of Texas counties don’t have a DPS facility where people can go get a free election certificate.” And to get ID, you must obtain other forms of identification first—and because that can cost money, opponents of the ID law have argued it’s a form of the constitutionally prohibited poll tax.
Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks put the effort against voter suppression in the context of long-standing civil rights struggles. “For several decades, my mother served as a precinct election judge in Tarrant County. In the early years of her life, she was told to pay to vote. She wasn’t allowed to vote in the primary, and she was made to enter a test before she could enter a polling booth,” Brook said. “Through her election work, my mother saw firsthand the trajectory of history that always points towards progress.”
Brooks added: “She knew, and I know, that progress isn’t won permanently. It’s renewed every election. Every time we cast our votes, we strike another blow for progress. That’s why I raised my children to know that voting goes beyond a simple right. It’s a sacred duty. But today, too many politicians are trying to roll back the right to the vote.”