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David Arriaga - Stephen F. Austin
Courtesy of Patrick Michels
David Arriaga checks on students in his Mexican-American studies class at Houston’s Stephen F. Austin High School in April.

 

When Houston author and activist Tony Diaz lit a cultural fire at the State Board of Education last year by demanding that Texas honor its majority Hispanic student body with a high school course in Mexican-American studies, the board did what it does best: It burned.

Board member David Bradley (R-Beaumont), perhaps as a sort of thought exercise, proposed adding a course in Irish-American studies to honor his heritage. Board member Pat Hardy (R-Weatherford) deemed the course wholly unnecessary. “We’re citizens of the United States, not citizens of Mexico,” she said.

Diaz asked, “Who will walk with us into this new America, and who will turn their backs on us?”

MerryLynn Gerstenschlager of the Texas Eagle Forum wondered aloud what sort of “new America” Diaz had in mind and why the Founding Fathers weren’t good enough for him.

The board reached a murky compromise, agreeing to request textbooks for a few ethnic studies subjects, including Mexican-American studies. It set 2017 as the date the programs should be in place. However, it took an otherwise hands-off approach by allowing any school that wants to teach Mexican-American studies to do so, but not placing the state in the position to tell them how.

Inside the hulking, historic Stephen F. Austin High School in Houston’s East End, David Arriaga met the board’s invitation this year with a new course in Mexican-American history. On a Wednesday in late April, 22 students sat in Arriaga’s class with copies of F. Arturo Rosales’ Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement open on their desks. Working in groups, they wrote on poster-sized sheets of paper about how the Chicano movement of the ’60s differed from state to state across the Southwest.

Arriaga, a cross-country coach and former assistant principal, isn’t exactly the sort of fist-raising revolutionary that conservatives feared would run a course like this. “I’m just not that militant,” he says. While students in California were staging walkouts 50 years ago, he was growing up in Seguin, picking cotton when he wasn’t in school. But he recognizes that, like his students, he is better off because of the people who agitated back then for fair wages and better schools. He wants his students to see themselves in that history. “I tell ’em, ‘For everything that happens, we have somebody to thank for it,’” Arriaga says. “It’s people their age or a little older participating in a cause.”

That message and work by Arriaga and others to give students a chance to see their home lives reflected in the classroom have proved to be powerful. Researchers in Arizona last year found a “surprisingly strong” relationship between participation in a Mexican-American studies course and a student’s likelihood to pass standardized tests and to graduate. It’s an idea that shouldn’t be as novel as it is: Give students a curriculum that fits the way they experience the world. Now teachers in other parts of Texas are developing curriculum guides and lessons to help schools offer courses in history, literature, music and art with a Mexican-American focus—stepping in to help, basically, where the state board demurred.

In Mission, social studies teacher Victoria Rojas just finished her first year teaching a dual-credit course with South Texas College professor Trinidad Gonzales. In San Antonio, Palo Alto College professor Juan Tejeda teaches a dual-credit course at KIPP College Preparatory High School. University of Texas researchers Angela Valenzuela and Emilio Zamora just completed the first semester of their Academia Cuauhtli, a Saturday school to teach students as early as fourth grade about social justice and cultural heritage.

“The idea is really to help children feel secure in their communities, that their own knowledge that they bring with them from their households [is] important to them in their own life,” Valenzuela told the Observer.

Her program is a partnership with Austin ISD, the City of Austin, Austin’s Mexican American Cultural Center and a community-based organization called Nuestro Grupo. Along with the classes and field trips for 33 students this year, Academia Cuauhtli is developing curriculum for use across all of Austin ISD.

These aren’t the first classes of their kind in Texas. In Pasadena, Agustin Loredo has taught a high school course in Mexican-American studies for eight years. What’s new is that so many teachers—including all of those mentioned here—are building lesson plans to help others spread the classes even faster. And the popularity of Arriaga’s class among Houston’s school leaders, says trustee Juliet Stipeche, prompted the district to apply to make Mexican-American studies a state-approved “innovative course,” a move that could finally force the state to throw its support behind the class.

After Stipeche raised the proposal at a school board meeting, Houston school trustees threw their unanimous support behind it. Earlier this month, Houston ISD got word from Texas Education Agency staff: The course was approved for any district in the state to pick up as an elective starting this fall.

Chantel L. Jones
Courtesy of Chantel L. Jones
Chantel L. Jones

Recently, I had a very pleasant retail experience. A nice woman picked up on the second ring, greeted me courteously and walked me through how to navigate the company’s online catalog. I could choose the solid oak “Constitutional chair” with a gold Texas state seal for $350. The leather swivel “judge’s chair” would run $550. Or I could buy jail pants, with elastic waistband and optional stenciling—“County Jail,” for example—for $75.

But this is no ordinary company. A division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Texas Correctional Industries uses prison labor to manufacture goods and provide services to government customers. TCI does over $70 million in sales each year. State officials argue that using prisoners as labor helps to cut state costs and provides them with invaluable work training. However, what good are those workforce skills when employers won’t hire former prisoners because of their incarceration record? Most TCI workers aren’t paid. Prisoners work for little to nothing while the correctional system is profiting off their labor. That sounds a lot like slavery to me.

With Juneteenth approaching, now’s a good time to consider the living legacy of slavery in our state. Juneteenth, or June 19th on the calendar, is a celebration commemorating the June 1865 announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas. A few months later, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery and indentured servitude “except as a punishment for crime.” That exception for crime was not a mistake. Texas and other states have exploited this loophole egregiously, incarcerating African-American men and women at scandalous rates, often profiting their labor. I believe Juneteenth cannot be celebrated fully. Freedom has yet to reach the staggering numbers of African-American men and women who are currently incarcerated and generating revenue for the state of Texas.

Right now there are festivities being planned across the state to acknowledge the freedom of African-American Texans. The truth is, I really want to join in on the fun, but we have a lot of work to do before we can truly earn the right to celebrate.

The incarceration rate in Texas per 100,000 people in 2010 was 2,855 for African Americans and only 768 for Anglos. While whites are are 45 percent of the Texas population, they only represent 33 percent of the prison population. Blacks make up 12 percent of the state, yet compose 32 percent of the prison population. The ACLU  reported that in 2010 Texas was the second in the nation for marijuana possession arrests. While black and white Texans use marijuana at roughly the same rates, African Americans were 2.3 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.

There are some bright spots in this sad picture. In February, Texas Sen. John Cornyn co-sponsored a modest prison reform bill in Congress aimed at reducing the number of people incarcerated in federal prisons. It would also bolster programs that help prevent inmates from returning to prison after they are released.

But there is so much more that must be done. Texas slaves didn’t learn of the Emancipation Proclamation for two-and-a-half years after it was issued, and 150 years later the legacy of slavery still endures in our criminal justice system. Please consider supporting organizations, such as the ACLU of Texas, that are working to abolish mass incarceration of African Americans who remain “slaves” to the system. Let’s give them the support they need to be successful. That would be a Juneteenth worth celebrating.

memorial Reynosa Mexico
Courtesy of Eugenio del Bosque
A memorial in Reynosa, Mexico, for migrants who died at the border.

On July 7, 2012, Juan Pablo Perez Santillan was fatally shot in Mexico by a U.S. Border Patrol agent standing on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande near Brownsville.

Que se muera el perro—let the dog die,” shouted one of the agents as Perez’s brother begged for help on the Mexican side of the riverbank, according to a lawsuit filed by the family. Perez and his brother were unarmed. Perez had been standing watch for a group of immigrants as they swam across the Rio Grande in an attempt to enter the U.S. without documents.

The Border Patrol agent shot at Perez at least five times, using a high-power scope, according to the lawsuit. One of the bullets pierced Perez’s chest and he later died at a hospital in Matamoros. The 30-year-old left behind eight children and a widow. The identity of the agent hasn’t been released to the public.

But a recently completed internal investigation by U.S. Customs and Border Protection of 67 shooting incidents by Border Patrol agents may offer some hope of justice for the family. The Perez case is one of just three that the Department of Justice has stepped in to investigate for possible criminal charges. Another fatal shooting at the Texas-Mexico border, which was filmed by a bystander, also was flagged for further investigation.

On September 3, 2012, Guillermo Arevalo Pedraza, a 37-year-old bricklayer was fatally shot by a U.S. Border Patrol agent on an airboat. Arevalo was barbecuing at a park on the Rio Grande near Nuevo Laredo with his wife and two young daughters when he was shot in the thigh and chest. Arevalo died in his 9-year-old daughter’s arms.

The decision by the Border Patrol not to pursue criminal charges against the agents involved in 64 of the cases has outraged civil rights advocates.

“We had higher expectations that when the new commissioner came in there would be more accountability and transparency,” said Vicki Gaubeca, director of the ACLU Regional Center for Border Rights. “It seems the biggest reason they’ve closed the cases is because the agents conducted themselves in the manner they were trained.”

The 67 shooting incidents that were reviewed included 19 fatal incidents from 2010 to 2012. The agency has released little information about the fatalities and none of the agents involved have been punished beyond reprimands.

The investigation came amid growing criticism and pressure to reform what many view as a rogue agency. In 2013, the CBP commissioned a closer look into the use of deadly force by agents. That report, by an independent Washington-based nonprofit called the Police Executive Research Forum, found that agents fired unnecessarily at people and vehicles and that Border Patrol officials failed to conduct thorough investigations of shooting incidents. The damning report remained classified until it was leaked to the Los Angeles Times in February 2014, creating an uproar.

A month later, in March, newly appointed U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner Gil Kerlikowske vowed to crack down on the use of excessive force by agents and provide better training. Kerilkowske quickly replaced the head of the agency’s internal affairs division with FBI agent Mark Morgan, who was charged with investigating the 67 shootings.

Advocates are questioning why agents involved in some high-profile cases were cleared of wrongdoing. For example, in 2010, Border Patrol Agent Jesus Mesa Jr. shot a 15-year-old boy, Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca, who was standing in Juarez. Hernandez was unarmed and had peeked out from behind a concrete pillar when he was shot in the face by Mesa.

“The U.S. government’s position is that because a bullet landed in Mexico it’s outside their jurisdiction, which is ridiculous,” said Gaubeca, of the ACLU. “They need to be reminded that the Constitution still applies at the border.”

The third case still under investigation stems from an October 2012 incident in Arizona. In October of that year, Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, who was 16, was walking home in Nogales, Mexico, when he was shot 10 times—eight bullets pierced his body as he lay on the ground—by a Border Patrol agent standing on the U.S. side of the border fence. The agent said people on the other side of the fence were throwing rocks.

In the three cases, criminal charges are still possible, but that’s little consolation for the families whose loved ones’ cases have been closed, said Gaubeca. “It’s clear the agency wants to put it all behind them and move forward,” she said. “But the families haven’t moved beyond the sadness, the tragedy of the loss of their loved ones. They still deserve justice.”

#NoFilter in McKinney

McKinney police party incident
Brandon Brooks captured the very moment when McKinney officer Eric Casebolt—who resigned with pay, pension and benefits following the incident— pinned 19-year-old Tatyana Rhodes to the ground.

There are many hallmarks of a bad bill, but the sirens really go off when legislation brings the far left and the far right together in opposition. That’s what happened earlier this year when Dallas Republican state Rep. Jason Villalba filed a bill that would have prevented citizens from filming police within a 25-foot “buffer zone.” Nobody liked that idea—not the right-wing privacy obsessives nor the left-wing police skeptics.

Had that law passed, we would have been far less likely to have documentation of incidents such as the one at a McKinney community pool in June, where a 15-year-old boy filmed a local cop throwing and pinning one of the boy’s classmates, a black teenage girl, to the ground after neighborhood adults—including a white man named Sean Toon—called the police on teens celebrating the end of the school year at a pool party. Toon—who caught a felony conviction as an 18-year-old for torturing animals and, two years later, was charged with assault with a deadly weapon—told reporters he called 911 because “out of control kids” were jumping the fence into the Craig Ranch pool.

Just a few years ago, we might have had to take Toon at his word. The teens who object to his story—including the party’s organizer, a young black woman who said a neighborhood white woman physically assaulted her and shouted racist slurs before cops arrived—might have struggled to have their voices heard.

But that was before smartphones and social media.

The 15-year-old, Brandon Brooks, kept his smartphone camera running as the McKinney cops arrived, producing more than seven minutes of video showing officers chasing and handcuffing non-white kids who’d been invited to the celebration. The officers breeze past Brooks, who is white and openly filming, their singular focus on wrangling the teens of color.

Brooks even captured the moment when McKinney officer Eric Casebolt—who resigned with pay, pension and benefits following the incident—pulled his gun and pointed it at confused, scared kids wearing swimsuits. It takes a willful misreading of the video to believe that the cops weren’t openly targeting students of color. Indeed, the cops allowed a white kid to film the entire incident, perhaps because they were too engrossed in the frothy business of handcuffing black teenagers to care.

Within a day, Brooks’ video made international news as media outlets picked up the YouTube link and delved into the story. But it was the refusal by McKinney’s young people to allow reporters to recast the incident in the McKinney Police Department’s preferred frame—that race played no role in the behavior of the cops or the white neighbors—that allowed us to see more sides of the story.

A young black photojournalist named Elroy Johnson interviewed 19-year-old Tatyana Rhodes, one of the party’s organizers, right after the incident, producing a video that has accompanied most news reports. Rhodes, joined in the video by her mom, who was supervising the kids at the pool, describes her older white neighbors’ harassment of her friends and fellow partygoers before cops arrived. She says that one white woman slapped her in the face after telling Rhodes she needed to “go back to [her] Section 8 home.”

Rhodes lives in the McKinney neighborhood where her party took place. Without affordable smartphone technology and a growing sense that police and mainstream media are not capturing all sides of the story when they cover racist violence and especially racist police violence, we might never have heard her story. Or perhaps we’d have heard it only after an overworked local beat reporter with a healthy skepticism for cop-issued narratives tracked her down.

We’ve seen this relentless dedication to documentation before, from grassroots journalists and anti-racism and anti-violence activists who have continued filming, at risk to their personal safety, in Ferguson, in Staten Island, in Baltimore, in South Carolina.

Eyewitness accounts of incidents like this no doubt make police departments nervous. But communities of color live in fear of precisely the kind of relentless surveillance that cops—with help from lawmakers such as Jason Villalba—are unhappy to see turned on themselves.

Without Rhodes’ story, and without Brooks’ video, we might be obliged to take the “official” version as truth. But thanks to the bravery of black students in McKinney who didn’t defer to their racist neighbors, and thanks to the ability of their friends and neighbors to share their own accounts of what happened, we don’t have to.

Corrected: The original version of this story stated that a bill filed by Dallas Republican state Rep. Jason Villalba would have prevented citizens from filming police within a 100-foot buffer zone. In fact, the bill’s 100-foot buffer zone would have applied only to observers carrying handguns. A 25-foot buffer zone would have applied to all other citizens. The Observer regrets the error.

 

 

Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park

There may be no better tonic for the clanging nonsense of Texas politics than a week spent in the West Texas wilderness. Free of headlines, tweets, the 8 a.m.-to-2 a.m. air-conditioned bubble of the Capitol, one can get some perspective, or at least some distance.

In late April, I left the legislative session to retreat to a remote stretch of the Rio Grande for seven days blessedly void of Dan Patrick, Greg Abbott and whatever tea party yahoo happened to be making news that week. Watching a momma black bear and her two cubs scramble up a rocky slope colored with blooming ocotillo and prickly pear has a way of focusing the mind. It’s important to remember that the world is made up of more than gay-bashing politicos and gun-toting activists.

(On the other hand, that other world always intrudes. We saw a Border Patrol plane on at least two occasions, and the only other humans our group encountered were five men on the Mexican side who appeared to be preparing to cross the river in a very remote place.)

Our first stop after leaving the river was to get coffee and gas. I bought a copy of the San Angelo paper and my bliss disappeared: Gov. Greg Abbott had ordered the Texas State Guard to “monitor” Jade Helm 15, a multistate military exercise taking place on public and private land in the southwestern United States, including locations in Texas. The conspiracy-minded—fanned by the king of high-decibel libertarian ranting, Austin’s Alex Jones—have theorized that Jade Helm is an Obama plot to invade America using America’s own military forces. “Feds Preparing To Invade Texas, List State As ‘Hostile’” was the headline at Jones’ disturbingly popular Infowars site. Oh, and some Walmarts closed around the same time the military exercises were announced, so you see how it all fits together, right?

A late April community meeting in Bastrop was packed with 150 people, many of whom had come to accuse an army lieutenant colonel of various treasonous acts. This would all be dismissible as the usual fringe lunacy from the usual suspects—who seem not in the least perturbed by the actual militarization of the Texas-Mexico border—but thanks to Abbott’s letter, the fringe instantly became mainstream. Suddenly all anyone was talking about was Jade Helm. The San Angelo paper ran a 1,110-word story dissecting the beliefs of the suddenly empowered Jade Helm theorists.

“I may be paranoid, but just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean people are not out to get you,” a local tea party leader was quoted as saying. Abbott’s reaction, when confronted by reporters, was not much different. The governor said he should be “applauded” for putting the State Guard in the role of “gathering and disseminating information.” As if his strategy had been to bring clarity to the situation.

The word to describe Abbott’s stoking of this panic is “pathetic.” It has the feel of a governor trying too hard, of a leader being led by his worst impulses. But Jade Helm will quickly be forgotten. The larger problem with Abbott is that, so far, he seems to be a dud of a governor—Rick Perry without the charisma, George Bush without the impulse toward bipartisanship.

His gubernatorial campaign was fairly middle-of-the-road by modern Texas Republican standards, and many citizens and political observers had hopes he’d leave behind the craven politics of Perry and govern with substance, despite his stridently partisan record as attorney general. Many political types believe he will serve only one term—either because of whispered-about health problems related to his disability or because Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick will primary him from the right. Under this theory, Abbott can afford to stay above the fray, focused on his legacy and doing right by Texas. If that’s the case, there’s little evidence of it.

His State of the State address was the most soporific I’ve seen, and his agenda for the legislative session is not exactly inspired. His much-talked-about pre-K expansion, for example, turns out to be not even a half-measure; the proposed $130 million increase doesn’t even return Texas to pre-2011 funding levels. In the standoff—at least at press time—between the House and Senate over which massive tax cut to undertake, Abbott has been conspicuously absent. Is he shrewdly not showing his hand, or does he not have one? Abbott has been generally AWOL during the session, prompting the routine question: Where’s the governor? Occasionally he’s found on Twitter, retweeting half-literate border fearmongering from Breitbart, or hustling into a Capitol elevator.

Perhaps he will prove his critics wrong. But so far it seems that Abbott is out of the main current, rudderless, just floating aimlessly downstream.

Jessica Shortall
Courtesy of John Wright
Texas Competes Managing Director Jessica Shortall speaks during the pro-LGBT business coalition's launch in April. Newly launched Texas Wins is trying to capitalize on the momentum from sister organization Texas Competes and the Legislature to pass local nondiscrimination ordinances across the state.

When Republican lawmakers introduced more than 20 anti-LGBT proposals in the 84th Legislature, they may have unwittingly helped launch the next phase of the state’s gay-rights movement.

With all of the proposals defeated and the community galvanized, LGBT advocates are hoping to harness momentum from the session—and they’re looking beyond the U.S. Supreme Court’s imminent ruling on same-sex marriage. The newly launched Texas Wins campaign—a multiyear, multimillion-dollar effort—aims to increase the number of LGBT Texans protected by local nondiscrimination ordinances.

“We want to take the momentum for LGBT equality coming out of the session, build on it, and one way to do so is through these local ordinances, to where in a session down the road we look at a statewide bill,” Texas Wins spokesman Kevin Nix said. “We’ve really turned a page here in the state, and the playing field is sort of wide open now to make some real progress. … I think sometimes politicians can overplay their hands, and they probably did.”

Nix said one of the campaign’s biggest challenges will be educating people that anti-LGBT discrimination is perfectly legal in Texas outside cities that have banned it—Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston, Plano and San Antonio—which account for less than a third of the state’s population.

“So many people don’t even realize it’s legal to fire or evict gay and transgender people,” he said. “A lot of folks think it’s protected in law, and it’s not. That problem would persist no matter what the marriage decision is from the Supreme Court.”

Texas Wins commissioned a poll in April that showed nearly 63 percent of Texas voters support a law protecting LGBT people against employment discrimination. The campaign has also received endorsements from celebrities, including Mark Cuban and Willie Nelson. In July, Texas Wins will tour eight to 10 cities across the state, from Amarillo to McAllen, to begin laying groundwork for nondiscrimination ordinances.

“In some cities in Texas, yes, it’s going to be a tough start, but you have to start somewhere, and we’re going to open that conversation in these various places where this conversation hasn’t been had that often, if at all,” Nix said.

One of the keys to passing nondiscrimination ordinances will be convincing elected officials they provide a competitive advantage for cities economically. Texas Competes, a sister organization of Texas Wins, has gathered signatures from more than 200 employers, including 16 from the Fortune 500, in support of LGBT inclusion. Texas Wins is funded by a combination of individual and institutional donors—including the ACLU of Texas, Equality Texas, the Texas Freedom Network and the Human Rights Campaign—while Texas Competes is funded solely by Equality Texas.

Jessica Shortall, managing director of Texas Competes, said Texas was the first state in which the business community proactively spoke out en masse against anti-LGBT legislation before it reached the governor’s desk—protecting the state’s brand rather than having to repair it.

However, Shortall said she fears a loss of momentum in coming months due to a collective sigh of relief after the session, combined with a likely win on same-sex marriage at the high court.

“There could be kind of a drop the mic, spike the football thing,” Shortall said. “As we see in movement after movement, when you get a really big win, sometimes the wind goes out of the sails.”

Shortall is also looking ahead to the 2017 session, when she expects more anti-LGBT, religious freedom legislation similar to a bill that passed in Indiana in March.

Cathie Adams, president of the anti-LGBT Texas Eagle Forum, said she doesn’t believe Texas Competes represents the views of the majority of Texas businesses. Adams fears local nondiscrimination ordinances will be used to put people out of business when they refuse to serve same-sex couples. And she said even though the LGBT community has achieved “tolerance,” it continues to “push the envelope.”

“It’s like an appetite that cannot, and will not, and refuses to be satiated,” Adams said. “Enough already, I would say. They’re just not content with just saying enough.”

Social conservative groups like the Eagle Forum, Texas Values and the Texas Pastor Council have bitterly—but unsuccessfully—fought passage of nondiscrimination ordinances in Houston, Plano and San Antonio in recent years.

“As the ordinances come up, I think the people have a right to speak out,” Adams said. “They will speak their own minds and they will speak their own hearts, and we will see how much success they have at these.”

Mirador de la Flor
Located just a few miles outside of Seaside Memorial Park where Selena is buried, the "Mirador de la Flor" is a life-size bronze statue in honor of the late Tejano singer.

If only Selena were here. I keep wondering what the world would look like, what Texas might feel like, if the superstar singer had lived beyond her 23 years. Who might she have grown up to become if a deranged fan had not shot and killed her 20 years ago?

When I imagine a present-day Selena, I see the star power packed in her smile, the feminine power in her hips, and I hear the love in her songs. But mostly, when I envision a 44-year-old Selena, I think of Selena the public servant. The Selena who carried a stay-in school message to Texas schoolchildren would be an emerging grande dame whose legendary stature would send desperately needed tremors through the state Capitol. I smile at the thought of Selena wielding her undeniable charm as she urges Texas Democrats not to forsake their constituency while reminding them that for decades Texans have asked their elected leaders to do one simple thing: Educate our children.

Selena, beloved by countless fans to this day, could explain to politicians what it means to be a public servant. She would tell them that true power and the stuff of legend draw from the public, and that greatness is achieved by serving people, not special interests.

Selena also knew success involved taking risks and the courage to stay true to values. If Selena were alive, I imagine her applauding another South Texas native daughter, state Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston), for casting the lone vote against the Senate version of the state budget that would do so little to fund public education. Texas ranks 46th in the country in per-student spending, according to the National Education Association. Actually, Garcia said on the Senate floor, the Senate budget would offer nothing more than “a little, teeny-tiny step” toward expanding pre-kindergarten, while sending millions of dollars in additional spending into the black hole of border security. Selena, who was raised in Corpus Christi, would best be able to explain how border security zealotry threatens a functioning democracy. The public money spent in the name of border security has transformed the South Texas that was the cradle of her stardom into a heavily policed region of drones, helicopters and every sort of law enforcement agent imaginable, at the cost of transparency. Would a politically minded Selena join in efforts by some Texas pols to wrest from the Texas Department of Public Safety hard evidence about what all of the state spending has actually accomplished? State Rep. Cesar Blanco (D-El Paso) and U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio) have sought to obtain information from federal and state officials about the effects of public spending on the state’s border surges.

You may think that my imaginary Selena is a bit far-fetched. But folks, it’s no less believable than the comment by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) to this magazine about her bill that would strip local communities of their power to regulate or ban the highly controversial practice of fracking. “I think that fracking is a safe mechanism, which they can use to be able to extract oil,” Thompson said.

It may take the superhero Selena to return from the dead to somehow convince politicians about the damage and risks to air and water of unregulated fracking. Evidently, countless reports and individual cases don’t seem to matter. The Center for Public Integrity produced a chilling portrait in a report last year, titled “Big Oil, Bad Air,” that described the state’s inability or unwillingness to monitor existing laws and regulate air pollution.

Like Selena herself, my imaginary Selena draws from the best of her fans. In life and death, she personified the hard-working, principled, loyal people who adored her. Her message about the power of education to create new opportunities was not simply some cause that she embraced on a whim. She knew that education offers opportunities so that people don’t have to choose between polluting their air and water and feeding their family. I have to admit that I’m saddling my imaginary Selena with a job that is nothing less than saving our democracy and fighting for our future. But, like democracy itself, Selena’s legend is built on an inimitable and enduring spirit. It’s that unique spirit that offers life after death, which is why she is alive in our hearts. If we could somehow harness that spirit, we could get our elected officials to hear our voices and remember our priorities. Maybe we could begin by taking a Selena concert to Austin. That, they will have to listen to.

Texas Public Policy CEO Brooke Rollins
Texas Public Policy Foundation President and CEO, Brooke Rollins.

It was no accident that the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) chose April 21 as the day it opened its brand-new headquarters, President and CEO Brooke Rollins told a crowd at the building’s opening ceremony. It was the 179th anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto, an event, Rollins said, that imbued in every foundation employee “the simple willingness to keep fighting, no matter the cost, no matter the odds, no matter the sacrifice.”

One might ask: What cost? What odds? What sacrifice? For years, the foundation has been the brain trust of the Republican majority in Texas, a key part of the Rick Perry years and now, it seems, a key part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s reign. It has easy access to the halls of power and to an enormous amount of money. Its backers, largely businessmen, have seen a great return on the “investment”—Rollins’ word—of their donations, as the state continues to favor policies that favor them.

Now, TPPF has a costly new HQ, built from scratch, to permanently affix it among the lobbyists who take up much of the office space in the few blocks south of the Capitol. It is, TPPF promotional material declares, “liberty’s new address.”

In a slickly produced video to accompany the day’s festivities, Perry, in black tie, told the think-tankers that it was nice to have them so close to the Capitol. But “if the Texas Public Policy Foundation was in a tent on the outskirts of Travis County, it would still make a difference,” he said.

This is doubtless true, in the same way that a billionaire doesn’t stop being a billionaire when he goes camping. The foundation’s power doesn’t come from its domicile, but from the money and power that back it, and from the decades of work that have gone into building a machine to elect candidates amenable to that wealth and power. The building is just an accessory.

But what an accessory! Six floors and 42,000 square feet, a top-floor patio and quasi-classical adornments on the building’s exterior. Rollins’ invocation of the Texas revolution didn’t come from nowhere: The building’s cornerstone announces that the foundation was “founded in 1989 . . . with a spirit forged in 1836.” Henry Arthur McArdle’s 1901 oil painting of the Battle of San Jacinto hangs halfway up the lobby’s grand staircase. The text of William Barret Travis’ last letter from the Alamo is emblazoned on the back wall of the first-floor auditorium. Breakfast on opening day was named after Anson Jones, lunch for Sam Houston, and a panel with “entrepreneurs”—TPPF donors including Red McCombs and James Leininger—was named after Mirabeau Lamar, for some reason.

These labored parallels to revolutionary history aim to establish TPPF as a defender of the faith, the keeper of an ideological heritage that extends back to the state’s founding, even as the opening day’s speakers presented the think tank as an up-and-comer that in its young life has radically changed the state, and still has oh so much work to do. It’s not a contradiction, per se. There’s no more intoxicating drug in American civic life than the ability to deny your power and rewrite yourself as the underdog—as it is for the foundation’s donors, so is it for the foundation.

Lambda Legal senior counsel Ken Upton Jr., from left, addresses the media as his clients, Deborah Leliaert and Paula Woolworth, look on Friday morning outisde the federal courthouse in Austin.
Allison Rubenak
Lambda Legal senior counsel Ken Upton Jr., from left, addresses the media as his clients, Deborah Leliaert and Paula Woolworth, look on Friday morning outside the federal courthouse in Austin.

Sensing that state officials will be reluctant to comply with a potential U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, an LGBT civil rights group filed a federal lawsuit Thursday seeking to force Texas to provide equal benefits to the same-sex spouses of public employees.

Lambda Legal filed the suit on behalf of Deborah Leliaert and Paula Woolworth against the board and executive director of the Employee Retirement System of Texas, in U.S. district court in Austin.

Leliaert and Woolworth, who live in Denton County and have been together 14 years, were married in California in 2008. Leliaert serves as vice president for university relations and planning at the University of North Texas.

After Woolworth retired, Leliaert sought to enroll her in spousal insurance benefits at UNT in 2014, but was denied by ERS, which told her that “spouse and participant cannot have the same gender.” The lawsuit alleges Texas’ same-sex marriage bans violate the guarantees of due process and equal protection under the U.S. Constitution. But Lambda Legal senior counsel Ken Upton Jr. indicated that with the high court expected to decide that issue later this month, the suit is designed to serve as an enforcement action.

“Many officials across the state, in various capacities, have signaled they will be in no hurry to comply with the [Supreme Court] decision,” Upton said, adding that some will undoubtedly look to Attorney General Ken Paxton for guidance. “A pending lawsuit against the board of trustees and the executive director of the ERS will give us the ability to get relief for all the public employees and their dependents immediately, instead of waiting for the AG.”

Upton said in addition to state employees, the lawsuit could bring equal benefits to public school teachers, since the Teacher Retirement System of Texas operates under the same laws.

“We asked, if we could bring one enforcement action that would have the greatest effect, what would it look like?” Upton said. “Texas is a large state. Denying employment benefits to public employees is the biggest bang for the buck we could think of in one lawsuit.”

Representatives from ERS and the attorney general’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Deborah Leliaert, right, and Paula Woolworth
Allison Rubenak
Deborah Leliaert, right, and Paula Woolworth

Upton was joined by his clients for a news conference Friday morning outside the federal courthouse in Austin.

“The HR office was very apologetic and my colleagues at UNT are very supportive of me, but their hands are tied,” Leliaert said. “It’s distressing that the state I work for treats me as a second-class citizen. It’s hurtful and unfair.”

Leliaert said although same-sex benefits have been an ongoing conversation, the recent legislative session is one factor that motivated the lawsuit.

“There was a lot of rhetoric about not complying with the Supreme Court decision and attempts to further ban gay marriage in this state, and we felt as a couple that it was important to file this case and try to get ERS to do what’s right, prior to the Supreme Court ruling,” she said.

As tears welled up in Leliaert’s eyes, Woolworth gently placed her hand on her wife’s back. Woolworth retired from a Fortune 500 company several years ago so she could devote her life to volunteer work.

“I’m proud of her, I’m very proud of her for being willing to be that lead person that is a change agent for what needs to happen for the case for equality in Texas, and I would absolutely agree that increased rhetoric we hear in Texas causes us angst,” Woolworth said. “We think that we’re a perfect couple, we’re a strong couple, and we’re a secure couple [and] that somebody needs to take this on, so it’s a case for equality.”

Read the full complaint below.

Allison Rubenak contributed to this report. 

Jonathan Stickland
Courtesy of Kelsey Jukam
Although Rep. Jonathan Stickland received an "F-," he did not make the Equality Texas' 10-worst list.

 

Two of the House’s most right-wing members took to Facebook to celebrate their poor grades for the 84th Legislature from the LGBT group Equality Texas.

“Proud to receive an ‘F-‘ from Equality Texas again! Sometimes failing is #‎winning‬,” Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) wrote after the group released its scorecard last week.

“I am very happy to represent the pro-family values in my District,” Rep. Molly White (R-Belton) wrote above a link to the scorecard on Thursday.

Equality Texas named White the worst member of the House on LGBT issues. Although Stickland received an “F-,” he did not make the group’s 10-worst list.

The group singled out White for filing a bill aimed at undermining a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, as well as an anti-LGBT religious freedom measure that would have made one that passed in Indiana “look like a Sunday School picnic.”

Equality Texas also accused White of refusing to meet with a gay constituent who was lobbying at the Capitol. White had previously refused to allow Muslims into her office unless they first denounced terrorist groups and pledged allegiance to America.

 

I am very happy to represent the pro-family values in my District: http://tinyurl.com/oom4gnd.

Posted by Molly White on Thursday, June 11, 2015

 

“It’s difficult to understand why someone seeks an office charged with representing the people if that person is unwilling to–you know–meet with the people–but Molly White must have some method to her indecipherable madness,” Equality Texas wrote.

“Unfortunately for the constituents of White’s District 55, not only was she too busy to meet with them, she was too busy filing blatantly unconstitutional bills to actually pass any legislation. White’s lack of attention to the actual business of the legislature and her preference for controversy over substantial legislation meant that her Bell County constituents were effectively robbed of any representation in the Texas House this session.”

Equality Texas named Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), the author of a failed religious freedom constitutional amendment, the worst senator on LGBT issues.

Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) was named the best senator on LGBT issues, and Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) was named the best member of the House.

View Equality Texas’ full rankings here.