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Kel Seliger
Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo)

The high-stakes battle over high-stakes testing returned to the Capitol today as the Senate Committee on Education heard testimony on Senate Bill 149, which would allow students to graduate high school without passing state tests.

Without action from the Legislature, as many as 28,000 students will not graduate this year because they haven’t passed state tests, said the bill’s author, Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo).

Seliger’s bill would allow students who fail State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exams to graduate if they pass all classes required for graduation, maintain a 2.0 GPA and meet other conditions outlined by an individual graduation committee.

According to Seliger’s proposal, the individual graduation committee—consisting of the student’s principal, teacher, school counselor and parent—would have to vote unanimously for a student to graduate.

Arguing in favor of the bill, committee chair Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) said there is a big disconnect between student achievement and test scores.

“It’s insanity when you see the level of achievement some of these kids are doing and they can’t pass the test,” Taylor said.

Testing is big business in Texas. The state currently pays the testing company Pearson almost half a billion dollars under a five-year contract to develop, distribute and score STAAR tests.

Aldine ISD superintendent Wanda Bamberg testified that she doesn’t trust Pearson.

“Every year we pay Pearson to have our [scored] papers returned to us … and we found a paper that was mis-scored,” Bamburg said. “We’re holding children accountable for graduation based on that type of scoring error.”

Seliger’s bill comes amid a broader movement to diminish the importance of high-stakes tests. During the 2013 legislative session almost 90 percent of Texas school boards signed an anti-testing resolution, and the Legislature reduced the number of tests required for graduation from 15 to five.

Texas started requiring that students pass standardized tests to graduate in the 1980s, and was one of the first states to do so. After the state implemented the tests, the graduation rate for Latinos and African Americans dropped significantly. In 1997 the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund sued the Texas Education Agency, arguing the test was racially discriminatory.

Courts ruled in favor of the agency, and the anti-testing movement didn’t reach critical mass until a few years ago when a coalition of advocacy groups started agitating. One much-publicized group, dubbed Moms Against Drunk Testing, testified at today’s hearing in favor of Seliger’s bill.

Clay Robison, spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, said his organization hopes the work of advocacy groups will prod the Legislature to take a closer look at who benefits from the state’s testing requirement.

“The current testing regime enriches companies and transfers accountability from a Legislature that has historically underfunded education,” Robison told the Observer.

Senate Bill 149 did receive some pushback, primarily from Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) and Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham).

Kolkhorst said she was concerned the bill would create a disincentive for students to pass tests and questioned why the state should spend so much money on exams if students can graduate high school without passing them.

“Maybe we should just throw those out [the tests] and save the money,” Kolkhorst said.

“That’s a whole ‘nother discussion,” Taylor responded.

Access to Planned Parenthood

Another legislative session, another attempt to strip Planned Parenthood of funding.

This time, the proposed Texas Senate budget jeopardizes a screening program that serves Texas women who are at greatest risk for developing breast and cervical cancer. Some senators want to resurrect a strategy that would put Planned Parenthood and other specialty health clinics at the bottom of a list to receive funding for breast and cervical cancer services.

Administered by the Texas Department of State Health Services, the program provides a plethora of services for uninsured, poor women, including Pap smears and mammograms, diagnostic services such as biopsies and ultrasounds, as well as expedited assistance for Medicaid coverage for cancer patients.

“We’ve already reduced access to women with the greatest need,” said Ana Rodriguez Defrates, Texas policy director with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. “We’re talking about reducing access for women who haven’t had a Pap smear in years. To do anything other than increase the number of providers when we know this to be true is a travesty.”

The Senate proposed budget includes a provision that would create a three-tiered system for program providers, putting Planned Parenthood last in line. Money would flow first to the top tier—public entities like state, county and community clinics. “Non-public” entities or clinics that offer cancer screenings as part of a broader “comprehensive primary and preventative care” package would be next in line. Finally, the third tier would consist of specialty providers, including Planned Parenthood.

The goal, as lead budget writer Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) and Health and Human Services Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) have acknowledged in recent weeks, is to keep state money away from health care providers that also perform abortions, even though no public dollars fund the procedure and Planned Parenthood clinics that offer such services are completely independent from its health centers. Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) said he’s concerned about the proposal and the consequences it will likely have on access.

“This so-called three-tiered approach has the very intended consequence of wiping out at least a provider that is integral in making sure that women that don’t otherwise have access to care,” he said. “There’s collateral damage to that as well; there are providers that aren’t the targeted provider that also get hurt.”

In 2014, with $2.4 million in state funding and $7.8 million in federal funding, 41 providers offered services at 196 clinics statewide, according to the Department of State Health Services. Of the 34,000 women served, about 10 percent received cancer screenings and diagnostic services at a Planned Parenthood clinic, said Sarah Wheat of Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas. She sees the tiered funding strategy as a political move.

“What we know from experience is that when the Texas Legislature sets up a political goal for women’s health funding, uninsured women lose access to these essential services,” she said.

It’s a strategy Republican lawmakers have tried before. In 2011, on top of a two-thirds funding cut to the state’s family planning program aimed largely at defunding Planned Parenthood, lawmakers passed a budget that tiered funding for family planning providers. Planned Parenthood’s health centers and other specialty family planning clinics were bled even more by the tiered system. The fallout was catastrophic: More than 50 family planning clinics, largely non-Planned Parenthood clinics, closed and nearly 150,000 women lost services. While the Legislature did restore some of the funding in 2013, the programs are still only serving about 32 percent of the women in need. The state also lost federal money when it wrote Planned Parenthood out of the Medicaid Women’s Health Program, which provided birth control to poor, Medicaid-eligible women who weren’t pregnant. The state-funded program the Legislature has created since hasn’t quite kept up. Before losing the federal funding, the program served approximately 127,000 women, according to the Health and Human Services Commission. The state program now serves approximately 115,000.

Texas is likely to lose more providers if the Senate budget proposal goes through, advocates and providers fear. The regional impact and the number of other specialty, non-Planned Parenthood clinics that may fall into the third category are unclear.

Of the approximately 34,000 uninsured women served in the program, the majority are women of color. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the incidence rate of cervical cancer among Texas women is 17 percent higher than the national rate, and Hispanic women in Texas are more likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer than African-American or white women every year. Hispanic women along the Texas-Mexico border are 31 percent more likely to die from cervical cancer compared to their peers living in non-border counties, said Rodriguez Defrates.

In his State of the State speech this week, Gov. Greg Abbott called for an additional $50 million for women’s health services, including life-saving breast and cervical cancer screenings. The governor’s office told the Observer further details on the budget, including how the women’s health funding would be allocated, aren’t available yet.

Tyler James Williams (center) in "Dear White People."
Photo courtesy Roadside Attractions
Tyler James Williams (center) in Dear White People.

One hundred and fifty years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and 50 years after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, race is still the great specter haunting the American experiment. Abortion, gun rights, universal health care: Add them all together and they can’t begin to trouble the American soul the way race does. It’s a minefield not even the country’s first black president wants to walk through.

Which means that any movie daring enough to go there deserves applause. Take writer-director Justin Simien’s debut feature, Dear White People, a satire about crumbling race relations at an elite university, which started as a trailer on the Internet, earned its initial budget through crowdfunding, and went on to win a special jury prize at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Recognizing that even 25 years after the release of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Hollywood’s interest in black stories is still limited to plots that Simien describes as “an inner-city kid with a gun or a movie about slavery”—movies in which the protagonists are either sinners or saints—the Houston native set out to write a movie about black characters who contain contradictions. It’s hard to believe that’s still a revolutionary notion in the 21st century, but here we are.

Kyle Gallner and Tessa Thompson in "Dear White People."
Photo courtesy Roadside Attractions
Kyle Gallner and Tessa Thompson in “Dear White People.”

Dear White People, which was just released on DVD, is a compelling, if uneven, comedy/drama that gets caught somewhere between the two, but is brave enough to ask questions about race, identity and authenticity that no one else wants to ask. The movie doesn’t claim to have all the answers, and even acknowledges that at this point there may not even be answers. Even if nothing is solved by the end of Dear White People, it still feels like something important was said.

Simien’s film follows four African-American protagonists at fictional Winchester University, a predominantly white Ivy League school where it seems that every word and action is racially charged. Sam White is a radical filmmaker and host of a polarizing radio show called “Dear White People,” where she doles out scathing advice to Winchester’s white students, who have no idea where appreciation of black culture ends and appropriation begins. Sam is running for the presidency of her all-black dormitory against Troy Fairbanks, who, as the clean-cut son of the dean of students, is expected to follow a straight and narrow path to success, but who would secretly rather smoke pot and write articles for the campus humor magazine, Pastiche. Fairbanks is joined in his conflicted attraction to rebellion and Pastiche (which is run by a group of privileged white men whose only comedic gift seems to be mistaking racial insensitivity for wit) by Coco Conners, a young woman from an underprivileged neighborhood looking to redefine herself as a post-racial reality TV star. Fame, for her, is the most liberating kind of identity. Writing about all of them is Lionel Higgins, a loner who thinks he’s found his place as a reporter for the school newspaper, but instead becomes the center of a confrontation that threatens to tear apart the campus. Shunning the “saints and sinners” dichotomy, the four leads of Dear White People are a constantly shifting panoply of personalities, allegiances and identities. They are what a literary critic might call fully formed human beings.

Where Simien gives his black characters bottomless complexity, he’s turned their white counterparts into types: the sinister university president claiming American racism is a thing of the past; the tone-deaf students blithely unaware of the thousand and one micro-aggressions to which they subject their black classmates on a daily basis. Where Coco and Sam and Troy and Lionel are plagued by doubts and buoyed by revelations, changing as they go, Dear White People’s white people are static entities, capable of just one trait each. For nearly all of them, that trait is virulent racism, or at least glaring racial ignorance.

That might be Simien’s point: that for black Americans, white culture, in all its blindness, can seem monolithic to the point of indistinction. But making your “other” straw men designed only to prove a point is the best way to turn satire into farce. And Simien’s potential as a filmmaker and social critic is far too great to settle for that.

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 2.39.42 PM
Americans For Prosperity stands strong for new state Sen. José Menéndez

How did Republican mega-donors end up winning a race in which only Democrats were running?

This week’s sad installment in an ongoing saga—the Travails of Texas Democrats—involves a runoff in Senate District 26, which covers much of San Antonio, between two Democratic state reps, José Menéndez and Trey Martinez Fischer. Last night, Menéndez won Leticia Van de Putte’s former seat in the Senate after a bitter and partisan campaign in which much of his support against the liberal Martinez Fischer came from Republicans. It wasn’t exactly an upset, but it ran contrary to the expectations of some statewide observers. (Yours truly included.)

As political scientist Mark P. Jones outlines here, Menéndez was one of the most conservative Democrats in the House last session, and Martinez Fischer was one of the most liberal. Martinez Fischer, or TMF as he’s colloquially known, won almost 44 percent in a special election in early January. Menéndez took 25 percent.

From one angle, it looked like Menéndez had a path to victory. Two other Republican candidates in the five-way race together took almost 28 percent of the vote. If Menéndez could keep his voting base intact and add all of the Republican voters from the first round, he’d win.

But TMF was a formidable opponent. He was a rising star in the party—or at least, he’d appointed himself one. He’d become known in the House for his skill in using the lower chamber’s rules to kill bills. He’s vocal, tough and smart, and he has the ambition to match. He’s the chairman of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus. He’s won plaudits and attention from the media.

TMF poured money into the Texas Democratic Party convention last summer, where he had an unusually high profile for a lowly state representative. His party, featuring the Austin-based Spazmatics, was one of the convention’s headlining events. He gave away loteria cards emblazoned with the faces of Texas politicos, which became popular items—the Abbott card depicted the governor with devil horns. And his speech to the convention was full of the kind of fire that makes Democrats feel competitive again, even if his more pointed barbs—he joked that “GOP” stood for gringos y otros pendejos—drew stern disapproval from some more polite observers, and later became a big focus of anti-TMF attack ads.

In his race, he was supported by all kinds of Democratic heavies. He had the financial support of Houston mega-donor Steve Mostyn’s network, the strong backing of San Antonio bigwigs like the Castro family, and the endorsement of his hometown paper, the San Antonio Express-News.

Menéndez, meanwhile, was a fine rep, but quiet. He served in the House for 14 years. He was on the corporate-minded, conservative wing of his party. He won a committee chairmanship from House Speaker Joe Straus. Last session, he authored bills to raise criminal penalties for petty crimes like graffiti, even though his colleagues, even some Republicans, were generally trying to do the opposite.

Leticia Van de Putte, who held the seat before she resigned to run for mayor of San Antonio, was no great liberal herself, but she regularly ran unopposed. This was a pretty Democratic district, so TMF, with his profile and money and support, would clench it, right? Austin journalists of all stripes were salivating at the notion of Martinez Fischer butting heads with Dan Patrick in the once-comatose Senate.

As it turns out, gringos y otros pendejos vote, and the Democratic base does not. TMF lost the early vote by 20 points, and stayed down all night, ultimately winning just under 41 percent of the vote. A whopping 6 percent of voters made it to the polls. Remarkably, not only did Menéndez expand his vote share to include (presumably) Republican voters, but TMF lost ground, slipping from 44 percent to 41 percent of the vote. In short, it was a drubbing.

Menéndez will probably be a fine senator, and his campaign team did a great job here. But it’s still a missed opportunity for Democrats. The tea party relentlessly primaries GOP senators in safe districts until they get the guys they want; they’ve succeeded in changing the face of the Legislature. Democrats have sometimes been successful at this. In 2013, Democrat Sylvia Garcia, backed by the same people who backed TMF, beat Carol Alvarado, a more conservative candidate who was backed by the same people who backed Menéndez, including Texans for Lawsuit Reform.

It’s probably safe to say to say that Menéndez won’t be the kind of fighter in the Senate that Democratic die-hards were hoping for. Menendez’s biggest donors include William Greehey, the CEO of Valero Energy, the irascible billionaire Red McCombs, and beer distributor John L. Nau. All have donated oceans of money to Republican candidates at the state and federal level. He was even effectively endorsed by the Texas branch of the Koch-funded Americans For Prosperity.

Meanwhile, Democratic base voters can’t seem to get out to the polls in non-presidential years unless someone is standing behind them with a cattle prod. Maybe they’ll try that next.

On Tuesday night, the state Democratic Party—and Battleground Texas—found themselves celebrating the election of a senator whose campaign was funded by Republicans and cheered by the political machine of the Koch brothers. Blue Texas is coming any day now.

The infamous Socorro ISD taco dog, aka "lunch"

“Strangest State” is a recurring feature on local news you might have missed from around Texas. From profiles of small-town doctors to monstrous swamp creatures found by local kids, they’re stories that don’t fit… anywhere, really, but we want to be sure don’t go unnoticed. Got a local oddity or some small-town news to share? Tips are welcome at [email protected]


Marshall // There’s a glass ceiling behind the bars of the Harrison County Jail, where Sheriff Tom McCool refuses to allow women into the jail’s trustee work program. That’s according to the Marshall News Messenger, which reports that only men are allowed to work odd jobs around the jail, enjoying breaks from their cells and earning credit for good behavior. Eight women locked up in the Harrison County Jail have filed a federal discrimination complaint, but McCool insists he doesn’t have the staff to keep women from “intermingling” with men outside their cells. In any case, McCool explained, it’s mostly men’s work. “Of course, most of our females could not perform the function that some of the males perform,” McCool said, though he has considered one possible solution: “I’ve looked at, ‘Well, maybe we could make a car-washing crew out of the ladies.’”

Terlingua // Brewster County law enforcement officials had been on the lookout for missing 80-year-old Mary Broughton for most of 2014 when Broughton’s daughter, Judith, until recently of the National Psychic Network, helped solve the case. On a tip from Judith, authorities found Mary’s body buried in a bag beneath the kitchen floor of Judith’s home outside Terlingua. Sheriff Ronny Dodson told Midland’s NewsWest 9 his deputies had brought search dogs to the spot before, but the corpse’s scent had apparently been masked by that of dead dogs and cats scattered on top of the shallow grave. “The house is just a total ruin,” Dodson told the station. Judith Broughton had been cashing her late mother’s Social Security checks for months—a grisly situation all around, but not, in fact, all that surprising to local officials. That’s because Judith had just begun serving 10 years in prison for collecting more than $150,000 in Social Security benefits paid to her father since 1997, before his body was found “mummified” in a Kentucky storage locker in April.

Port Lavaca // Thirty-year-old James Dunnell aspired to exceptional customer service at the McDonald’s drive-thru window, but his signature farewell blessing—“Have a lovely day”—just wasn’t having the desired effect. So, as Dunnell explained to The Port Lavaca Wave in a December profile, when a friend returned from Disneyland with stories about being told to “Have a magical day,” Dunnell was inspired to crib the phrase that’s made him a local celebrity. The Wave explains: “Magic as an adjective is defined as something that is ‘wonderful or exciting.’ … The word ‘magic’ brings up images of fairy tales or a man wearing a cape who pulls a rabbit from a hat—the seemingly impossible made possible through some supernatural ability. Who of us could not use a little magic in their day?” The “magical” reputation has begun to precede Dunnell around town. “I go to Walmart and people recognize me as the ‘Have a magical day’ guy,” Dunnell told the paper. “There’s just something about magic.”

Socorro // The scourge of Socorro has been struck from the lunch menu, KVIA-TV reports: “The ‘taco dog’ is no more.” Despite somehow “meeting all the nutritional requirements” for school lunch, according to a Socorro ISD spokesman, the lonely weiner dressed in nothing but a hard taco shell proved so unpopular among elementary school students that the district was forced to cancel its misadventure in fusion cuisine after just one day. “Taco blasphemy,” the El Paso Times called it. If there is a bright side to this sorry episode, it may be found in a school nutrition working group inspired by the affair, which plans to remove sugar-delivery vehicles such as pan dulce, French toast sticks and Pop-Tarts from the menu, too.

El Cenizo // The people of El Cenizo discovered that the arsonists who burned down three abandoned homes were two of the town’s own volunteer firefighters, according to KGNS-TV. Eighteen-year-old Pablo Ernesto Figueroa Osorio told investigators that he and 27-year-old Jeremy Aaron Jones committed the arsons to protest the city’s lack of support for the department. El Cenizo Mayor Raul Reyes called the protest “childish.” The city’s fire chief resigned under pressure from the mayor.


Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick at the State of the State Address, February 17, 2015.

What kind of governor will Greg Abbott be? He ran a mostly policy-free campaign, save for an ad about how bad traffic is—though to be fair, his Democratic opponent was even worse on this front—and his inaugural speech was overwhelmed by both the pomp and circumstance of the occasion and the pomp and circumstance of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Abbott’s State of the State speech, delivered today before a joint session of the Legislature, was his first real chance to establish the tone of his tenure in office. He positioned himself, generally, as a somewhat cautious moderate. He outlined a few broadly acceptable policy priorities, such as expanding early education programs and ethics reform. Otherwise, he mostly followed the path set by the Legislature.

“I’m proud to report that as the sun arises on 2015, the state of Texas is strong, and together we’re about to make it stronger,” Abbott told the Legislature. (Combine Abbott’s flourish with Patrick’s inaugural declaration, and we have a motto for the 84th Legislature: The sun arises on a new day in Texas.)

As with any governor, Abbott’s emergency items—he laid out five today—probably tell us a lot about his priorities. Legislation pertaining to emergency items can be considered early and generally receive special consideration by the Lege. Rick Perry—remember him?—frequently used these emergency item declarations as a way to throw red meat to the base.

But four of Abbott’s items are relatively bread-and-butter issues—Abbott calls for expanding pre-K, boosting funding for university research programs, raising transportation funding and strengthening state ethics laws.

The fifth is border security, the closest Abbott gets to a red-meat issue. But his budget anticipates an end to the National Guard mission to the border as soon as the Department of Public Safety can reasonably replace them. Patrick wants funding for the National Guard deployment to be continued through the next biennium, and strongly implied the governor agreed with him. Abbott does not, apparently, but he did call for border security funding to be doubled for the next biennium, for a total of $735 million—putting himself closer to the Senate budget than the House budget.

On school choice, another of Patrick’s core issues, Abbott didn’t have much to say. He called for the state to work toward becoming “No. 1 in education”—a line he’s used repeatedly that has all the substance of a boat made from cotton candy—and said he’d like to give school districts the right to exempt themselves from certain parts of the state’s education code. But while he advocated for more “choice”—”real local control rests with parents,” he said—there was no mention of vouchers or much else Patrick would like to see passed.

That didn’t stop Patrick from giving his blessing. In a statement, Patrick said Abbott’s speech contained “everything I wanted to hear in the State of the State address,” and underlined Abbott’s call for “additional border security” and “school choice.” Patrick’s strategy for dealing with Abbott appears to be to hug him to death and hope compliance follows—we’ll see how well that works.

There was plenty else in the speech besides the emergency items. Many of Abbott’s proposals include additional spending, but he also called for $4.2 billion in tax cuts. The two just might be able to coexist this year, with a healthy budget surplus, but Abbott says he’d like to make the tax cuts permanent. He also called for a constitutional amendment to limit spending increases to population growth plus inflation, a measure long touted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation that’s never gained much traction. On some of these budget issues, he’s closer to the right wing of his party than the middle—so far, the House hasn’t seemed especially excited about sweeping tax cuts.

He’s pushing for more support of the state’s community college system, and wants more funding to support the state’s veterans. He told the Legislature that it was “time to put school finance litigation behind us”—the same litigation he was aggressively prosecuting as attorney general—but he didn’t say much about how the state should do that.

He didn’t have much to say about guns, one of the hot issues at the Capitol right now, except for a line that pledged he would “expand liberty in Texas by signing a law that makes Texas the 45th state to allow open carry” of handguns. That wasn’t enough for one of the Legislature’s biggest proponents of open carry, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), who told the Observer after the speech that open carry “should have been an emergency item,” and that he was skeptical of all the spending proposals in Abbott’s speech.

Greg Abbott
Kelsey Jukam
Greg Abbott at the State of the State Address.

We learned a bit more about the personal style of a governor who still, despite all of the theatrics last year, remains a bit cryptic. Twice, he deployed anecdotes about young girls to pull at legislators’ paternalistic heart strings: While talking about border security, he talked about meeting a “young Latina” in the Rio Grande Valley who “pleaded with me to keep my promise to secure the border.” She knew the children of cartel members, Abbott said, and they frightened her. And then there was Keisha Riley of Houston, whose young daughter wiped tears from her cheek as she asked Abbott for better schools.”

Abbott positioned himself today as a pragmatic and thoughtful problem-solver.

“Our fellow Texans face so many challenges: the need for better schools, more roads, border security, better healthcare, more jobs. They want more liberty and less government, and they deserve ethics reform,” Abbott said. “We can’t let their future be defined by these challenges.”

But the as-yet unwritten history of the 84th and 85th Legislatures, over which Abbott will preside, will be determined by factors and circumstances largely outside of his control. For a reminder of how that can manifest itself, look no further than Rick Perry’s first State of the State address, from January 2001.

Back then, with a handsome young face and an even more magnificent head of hair, Perry sounded almost like a Democrat. The state needed to make changes, Perry said: better schools, more roads, better health care, more jobs, better government. The poor residents of the border colonias, he said, needed better access to health care and the state needed to do more to eradicate infectious diseases among border communities. These challenges, Perry told the Legislature at the dawn of a bright new era, are “all worthy of our ever-vigilant effort.”

But for the next 14 years, the Legislature lurched from strained budget to strained budget. Perry found it more beneficial to move to the right, and an increasingly fractious Legislature started to look to the right too. The center couldn’t hold. Fourteen years after that speech, the problems Texas face are still more or less the same.

So although observers are going to point to Abbott staking out ground in the middle—and he is, on some issues—be careful of drawing too many conclusions about what that will ultimately mean. And enjoy the new day’s new dawn while it lasts.

Will Evans in a Deep Vellum promotional video.
Photo courtesy of Deep Vellum Publishing
Will Evans in a Deep Vellum promotional video.

Dallas, you had better get to know Will Evans. That is, if you can catch up with him, and if he’s calm enough to engage in conversation. He doesn’t move or speak at the speed to which you’re accustomed, but if he has his way—and one gets the sense that he usually does—he and his new nonprofit translation press, Deep Vellum, will put you on the literary map.

Evans and I met in Manhattan on a bitterly cold November night. He was there for a panel discussion at the Americas Society between Texas literary eminence Rolando Hinojosa-Smith and Mexican writer Carmen Boullosa, whose border novel, Texas: The Great Theft, translated from Spanish by Words Without Borders co-founder Samantha Schnee, is Deep Vellum’s first book. An intense travel schedule—Frankfurt, London, South Korea and points all around the U.S.—coupled with the nasty Yankee wind should have had Evans, 31, worn down. But if he was worn down, I’d hate to see him riled up. At rest, Evans’ chevron mustache is glorious; when he talks, that ’stache becomes a blur.

Chad Post, the notoriously speed-talking host of the international-literature podcast Three Percent, says, “My god, it’s insane; he’s way more hyper than I am. And I used to think I was pretty hyper.” He still is. I try and fail to imagine keeping pace with the two of them in the Rochester, New York, office of Post’s own translation press, Open Letter, where Evans spent the summer of 2012 learning the business as an apprentice. Post makes it sound simple: “We watched a lot of Euro Cup soccer and talked about publishing, and that led to the creation of Deep Vellum.”

Post is one of six Deep Vellum board members, three of whom are located in Dallas, where Evans moved in 2013 after his wife took a job in the city. Once he learned of the pending relocation, his plans to become a book publisher crystallized and he adopted a new mantra: “Going to Dallas, gotta start a press.”

Moving to Dallas to start a press—of any kind, much less a translation press—is about as common a goal as moving to Dallas for the ocean breeze. A Google search for Dallas publishers brings up a handful of vanity presses, a “boutique” or two, and a 2012 D Magazine piece covering “niche publishers”—a term Evans wouldn’t apply to Deep Vellum. “I hate when people say that,” he says. “I’m not a niche publisher. When we talk about translation as just this special thing, then it gets put in this ghetto.”

But translation in the United States is a special thing, if only in that it’s uncommon. Just 1 percent of all books published annually in the U.S. are translated fiction, and only 3 percent are translations of any genre. This so-called 3 percent problem is no nearer to being solved than it was in 2003, when The New York Times ran an article with the headline “America Yawns at Foreign Fiction,” in which Cliff Becker, former director of literature at the National Endowment for the Arts, said, “It is not an exaggeration to refer to this as a national crisis.” It’s “outright dangerous,” Becker continued, for citizens of “the most powerful country the world has known” to be so willfully ignorant of the literature, and by extension the culture, of other nations.

Many, including Evans, lay much of the blame at the feet of the corporate publishing industry, which focuses more on profit than on the promotion of cultural awareness. “This machine is just churning out garbage,” Evans says. “Ninety-five percent of those books the Big Five publish aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.”

To Evans, solving that crisis starts at the local level. “Dallas has a robust nonprofit community and arts community, but what it doesn’t have are any literary publishers,” he says. “It has a rich literary history, and it’s just a matter of tapping back into it. I don’t think people care if a book is translated or not. The question isn’t how can you get people reading translations, it’s how can you get people reading good books again?”

That’s a question that Ed Nawotka, a member of Deep Vellum’s board and editor of Publishing Perspectives, a trade publication focused on international literature, struggles with as well. “The American reading public isn’t closed off to translated literature,” he says. “It’s closed off to challenging literature.”

Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa Deep Vellum Publishing $15.95; 304 pages
Deep Vellum Publishing
Texas: The Great Theft
by Carmen Boullosa
Deep Vellum Publishing
$15.95; 304 pages

“Challenging” is an accurate way to describe Boullosa’s 15th novel, her fifth to be translated into English. Loosely fictionalizing the 1859-1861 “Cortina Wars” near Brownsville and Matamoros, Texas: The Great Theft bombards the reader with many dozens of characters, most of whom get little more than a passing mention. The voice is a hazy first-person plural, a “we” that includes the reader through a style reminiscent of a screenwriter relating her plotline: “It’s under these circumstances that our story takes place,” for instance. The narration is sometimes omniscient, sometimes not, and choosy about what it divulges. But we usually know where its loyalties lie, which is not often with the Texans, that “handful of palefaces, struggling to cope with a sun that assaulted their senses, [who] acted like they were the center of the world.”

The ensemble cast and smash-cut action make for a whirlwind reading experience. Little wonder that it appealed to someone with so much kinetic energy. “I said that the first book I needed to publish to tell people in Dallas what I’m seriously about would be a novel about Texas written from the Mexican perspective,” Evans says. “[Texas] is as fair a telling of border history as you’ll be able to get. To only think about Texas from the American perspective is to miss Texas, Texas being such an international state, not just for Mexican culture but for all cultures.”

Though not all cultures think of Texas as being, well, cultured. I asked Post if being headquartered in Texas will be a hindrance for Deep Vellum. “To some degree it is,” he says. “When [Evans] initially said he’s starting a press in Dallas, people were like, ‘What? That doesn’t make any sense, Texas is a crazy place, George W. Bush and cowboys; we can’t take you seriously.’”

But people began to take Evans seriously, Post says, after they saw how quickly he began acquiring the rights to foreign books. Deep Vellum has 10 novels slated for 2015 publication, including The Indian by Icelandic comic, former Reykjavik mayor and soon-to-be Texan Jón Gnarr, and The Art of Flight by Mexico’s revered Sergio Pitol. But will Evans find a readership here for books that don’t have the Texas relevance of Boullosa’s?

“Hopefully I can get more people reading my books in Dallas than would ever read them if I were based in New York,” he says. “I’m creating a new readership.”

At present, you don’t see many Dallasites walking around with translations of Icelandic novels. But Evans knows his market. “If I’ve learned one thing about Texas, it’s that Texans are proud of Texas,” he says. “It’s not just the cowboy chest-thumper mentality; it’s that we like to support things going on within the state. We like to drink Texas wine, drink Texas beer, eat Texas food, go on Texas road trips. There’s no other state that has a culture of literature named after itself like Texana. That’s a special thing.”

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State Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) isn’t exactly a communist. Taciturn and serious, he’s represented his East Texas district since 2007. As head of the Senate Committee on Transportation, he’s pursued modest policy proposals and generally eschewed five-year plans. An analysis by Mark P. Jones of Rice University pegged Nichols as the sixth most conservative senator of the 83rd legislative session, with only tea partiers like Dan Patrick and Donna Campbell to his right. So, naturally, some people think he’s a pinko.

In the last few weeks, an attack site surfaced targeting Nichols. The senator, it turns out, is “one of the more liberal Republicans in Texas,” a tyrant’s friend who “has overseen unprecedented growth in government” and “has opposed conservatives for many years.” He’s empowered government bureaucrats and zealously protected shady slush funds.

It looks like the kind of site that’s employed in campaigns, but the campaign season is over. Nichols was unopposed in his primary race, and effectively unopposed in the general election, where he won more than 90 percent of the vote. The domain name——was bought on January 21, more than a week after the start of the session.

There’s nothing on the site to identify its author, and the information that might normally be used to identify the domain name’s owner has been scrubbed, leaving the site effectively anonymous. Nichols’ office says they don’t know for sure who is responsible.

But it seems likely that the site comes from the Tim Dunn/Michael Quinn Sullivan messaging network. There’s the emphasis on higher education policy. But more tellingly, there’s the invocation of a 2013 Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Texas Goes Sacramento,” which Dunn’s groups love.

And they have a motive to attack Nichols—he co-authored Senate Bill 346 last session, a bill that would require disclosure of so-called “dark money” expenditures. The bill, which easily passed both chambers but was vetoed by Gov. Perry, was widely understood to be targeting Michael Quinn Sullivan’s groups in particular.

Still, why? What use is the site to anyone?

That’s harder to determine, and it seems like a pretty poor use of Dunn’s money. It’s probably best understood as a shot across Nichols’ bow, coming as it does at the start of a session in which Nichols, through his leadership of Senate Transportation, will have an outsized footprint on policy. But hardly anyone has seen it. It stayed off social media altogether until it was tweeted out by Dwayne Stovall, last year’s hapless primary challenger to John Cornyn, last weekend.

Movement conservatives had an amazing amount of success at launching primary challengers to Senate Republicans they deemed too moderate last cycle. For one, they knocked off incumbent Bob Deuell and replaced him with Bob Hall, a guy with a troubled past who’s been wandering around the Capitol the last few weeks talking about the United Nations, EMPs, and “the War of Northern Aggression.” But the campaign to subvert Nichols is another thing altogether—it’s actually kind of surreal. If he’s a liberal, who’s left?

“If the person or organization that created this website would like to identify themselves, we would be happy to sit down and discuss the issues and concerns they have,” Nichols told the Observer in a statement. “I stand by my record of representing East Texas values and do not hide from it. That’s unlike the people or organization who created this website, who can’t even put their name on it, because they know they are distorting the truth and trying to mislead my constituents.”

If creating anonymous attack sites to bully legislators who are your allies on most issues and hiding your identity while doing it sounds like a slightly seedy way to do politics, remember that Sullivan’s Empower Texans decided to use a song about a stalker and sexual predator to characterize their legislative agenda this cycle:

Families in the hall at the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center
Department of Homeland Security
Families in the hall at the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center

Ever since thousands of Central Americans sought asylum in Texas last summer, the White House has been trying to stop other families from doing the same. One of its most controversial tactics is to lock up asylum-seeking women and children in detention facilities and charge such high immigration bonds that they can’t get out. Eventually, the mothers become desperate, give up their asylum claims and agree to be deported.

The United States has recognized valid asylum claims under international conventions and treaties since World War II. But the government’s treatment of the families currently detained in Texas defies basic U.S. asylum law, says Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, a San Antonio nonprofit assisting women and children in detention facilities in Karnes City and Dilley in South Texas.

“This is about politics, not about the law,” Ryan says. “I’ve never seen them apply such high bonds. It’s not only unusual, it’s extraordinary.”

It’s also inconsistent, says Ryan: “Single men who were taken into detention are given bonds of $1,500 but the women are being given bonds as high as $5,000 up to $15,000.”

Faced with impossibly high bonds, most women have no choice but to remain locked up with their children for several months, waiting for their court date with the asylum judge. Faced with this grim scenario many accept deportation instead.

RAICES is trying to change that. In October, it started a fund to raise money from individuals and from religious and other groups to help women and children get out of detention on bond. So far, the organization has collected $82,000 and helped 21 families. Bond money goes to the U.S. Treasury, where it collects interest. If the family doesn’t report to immigration court, the money is forfeited, but otherwise, it returns to the person or group that donated it once the case resolves.

The important thing, Ryan says, is to give the families a chance to start their lives over without the fear of persecution or death that caused them to flee their countries. “These women and children are being treated as if they are a national security threat,” he says. “You have these private companies that are making a profit from keeping women and children in a box against their will until they can pay enough money to get out.”

The two detention facilities in South Texas are capable of holding up to 3,000 women and children. Ryan says RAICES has nearly depleted its bond funds and is trying to raise additional money to free more families. “You want to cry tears of joy every time a woman and her child is released,” he says. “What we are doing is just a drop in a bucket. There’s still so much more to be done.”

Judas thought he'd won. He was wrong. Jesus
Judas thought he'd won. He was wrong.

There’s a steep learning curve for a rookie reporter covering the Texas Legislature.

During my brief reportorial tenure, I’ve sat in the wrong committee meeting for an hour without realizing I was in the wrong room, conversed with a senator while thinking she was a reporter and lost my way numerous times in the Capitol.

Fortunately, my personal journalistic mishaps pale in comparison to other WTF moments that transpired under the pink dome this week.

1) Perhaps most notably, I learned that packing heat is an inalienable right bestowed by God (or at least one of his more bad-ass henchmen) who evidently speaks a heavenly dialect of Texan.

Yesterday, at a meeting of the Senate Committee on State Affairs, state Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) sought to establish himself as the shooting man’s Joel Osteen. During yesterday’s nine-hour committee meeting, where Birdwell’s campus carry bill was debated, Birdwell shot from the hip, telling Austin police chief Art Acevedo that he’d rather be “tried by 12 than carried by six,” inadvertently revealing himself to be a closeted fan of New York gangster rap from the ’90s.

But he went further. Ready access to guns were among those “rights that are granted by God that are ours to protect.”


Biblically piqued, the Observer’s skilled team of fact-checkers—self-aware 1999-model turquoise iMacs that we treat as unpaid interns, in contravention of moral, ethical and union codes, as well as the laws of nature—scoured the Good Book, or at least word-searched the thing, for gun talk. They have yet to find any, but they did find a great deal of corroborating evidence:

Returning to the 21st century, we turn our attention to the University of Texas, a hallowed place of learning.

On Monday, The Daily Texan reported that guests at a “Border Patrol” themed frat party partied sartorially by donning sombreros, ponchos and construction worker uniforms with Hispanic names written on them.

Did we mention that lawmakers are working feverishly to get guns into the hands of college students?

3) With fancy Yankee magazines such as the The New Yorker disparaging the Lone Star State at every opportunity, Texans can get a bit prickly about how we’re perceived.

Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), though, doesn’t seem to give a damn.

During a meeting of the Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs, Hall channeled his inner greycoat, telling the audience that he was particularly honored to sit on the committee in part because his ancestors fought in the “War of Northern Aggression.”

Hall is a new member and we’re just learning about his legislative priorities. So far, he’s mentioned the EMP threat, Agenda 21 and now defending the honor of those men who waged war against aggression.

(Incidentally, it was soldiers from Bob Hall’s alma mater, The Citadel in South Carolina, who fired the first shots of Abraham Lincoln’s folly.)

SNAKEWATCH 2015: California has earthquakes and fires, Hawaii has volcanos and tsunamis, Washington state has Killer BOB, Florida has the Florida Man, New York has Wall Street. Texas has something far worse.

There’s only one reason they would want to take down our radar systems: They’re coming in by air. Birdwell was right: I’d rather be tried by 12 than buried by snakes. Lock. Load. Goodnight and good luck.