Dan Patrick speaks at his primary election night party in Houston, with his wife, Jan Patrick, behind him. March 4, 2014.
There was almost nobody at state Sen. Dan Patrick’s election night party when the good word actually broke. The event, at one of those Houston mega-complexes of interconnected high-rise towers, lacked the warmth of what had been a campaign waged in small meeting rooms with earnest but die-hard activists. Press members lined the back of the room, a few drinking. A projection screen played an episode of “The Voice.” But the few supporters there knew the importance of the numbers that came down at the beginning of a long and strange primary election night: Early voting had split heavily in Patrick’s favor, and against the incumbent, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
It was a shock to some election watchers. Many had speculated that Dewhurst would perform well—but not enough to avoid a runoff—with Patrick in second. But their positions were switched, and they stayed that way for the rest of the night. From early vote returns to the end of the night, Patrick’s numbers barely dipped at all, from 43.2 percent to 41.5 percent. But it wasn’t a shock for the gathered faithful. Nor did it surprise the candidate.
“I’m never surprised by the will of God, or the will of the people,” said Patrick, descending from his hotel room, dodging trays of shrimp appetizers and cameramen for a quick chat with the press. His refrain throughout the night: “The glory goes to God.” In fairness, he wasn’t the only one to put his electoral performance on the forces of the almighty—Dewhurst, in a pretty mopey speech, blamed his wonky results on the unseasonably cold weather. Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak tweeted he’d need to write himself a $10 million check to be competitive in the runoff.
Patrick struck a more upbeat tone in his speech, quoting Ronald Reagan as he accepted the 1980 Republican presidential nomination. “‘Can we doubt that only a divine providence placed this land, this island here as a refuge for all people to breathe freedom?’ Well, if Reagan were here tonight with us,” he said, as a woman near me closed her eyes as if in prayer, “he would say, ‘God gave us Texas.’ That’s why people from all over the country are coming to Texas.”
How did he secure such an amazing turnout from his conservative base? They came out “because we told them we were a Christian first, a conservative second, and a Republican third,” he said. His performance was evidence of a great truth: “The values found in the Old and the New Testament, the Judeo-Christian ethic that this country was based upon, is what people still yearn for.”
Patrick might have had a messianic certainty about his big night, but observers had been skeptical. That’s partly because the past couple weeks had been bumpy for Patrick. Sure, polls were confirming what many had speculated: that Patrick and Dewhurst, who’s been creaking his way through debates and tea party meetings like an aging battleship, were headed to a runoff. But that seemed to encourage attacks on Patrick from the race’s other contenders, who hoped for a spot in the runoff. Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, who had tried for years to establish his credentials as a Christian conservative and a no-nonsense tough-on-the-border politician, had seen those issues swept from under him as Patrick tacked far, far right.
And Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, a libertarian-leaning Republican iconoclast, had become increasingly angry at what he saw as Patrick’s mealy-mouthed mendacity over immigration and other issues. Patterson helped produce evidence that Patrick—who had used consistently extreme language about Texas’ “illegal invasion” and the wave of violent crime (and “third-world diseases”) that migrants were bringing to the state—had hired undocumented immigrants himself to work at his chain of sports bars in the 1980s.
That led to, perhaps, as clear a distillation of Patrick’s heart and agenda as any this election cycle. When one of Patrick’s former undocumented workers remembered him as a kind, thoughtful employer, Patrick’s campaign fired off an unforgettable reply, as part of a rebuttal to Breitbart Texas: “The worker says I was personally very kind to him and goes on to allege other preposterous events that are not true and for which he offers no evidence.”
When Reagan first uttered the quote that Patrick used in his triumphant speech last night, it was part of an argument that America’s greatness came in part through its tolerance and acceptance of immigrants. In that speech, Reagan went on: “Jews and Christians enduring persecution behind the Iron Curtain; the boat people of Southeast Asia, Cuba, and of Haiti; the victims of drought and famine in Africa, the freedom fighters of Afghanistan.” The world’s troubled people could find opportunity in America’s great “refuge.” When Patrick quoted Reagan last night, he was standing near a giant projection screen emblazoned with the words “secure our border.”
Still, the message Patrick offers seems to resonate with his supporters. His rise in Texas politics has been stunning. As recently as 2006, when he won his first Senate election, Patrick was a vituperative and angry talk radio show host in Houston who didn’t seem likely to do well in the Texas Senate, with its emphasis on decorum and compromise. He was isolated and mocked that first session in the Senate. Now he’s on the cusp of leading it.
With Dan Patrick—a man who has promised to crack down on the border, opposes abortion in all circumstances and has tried several times to eliminate the Senate’s two-thirds rule that fosters bipartisanship—serving as lieutenant governor, all bets are off. In private, he’s a more thoughtful man than his public persona allows. But his penchant for bombast would have serious policy implications for the state.
Of course, he hasn’t won yet. He still faces a runoff with Dewhurst, and though Patrick finished first on primary night, victory isn’t assured—but Dewhurst, famously, lost his last runoff election even though he started from a much better position. In the 2012 U.S. Senate race, Dewhurst finished 10 points ahead of Ted Cruz in the primary and then got trounced in the runoff. Now, Patrick’s outdone Dewhurst by nearly 14 points. His voters seem more revved up about their candidate—whereas it’s questionable how many Texas conservatives can still get amped up about Dewhurst. Patterson and Staples won 30 percent of the vote between them, and Patrick only needs to pick off 8 percent to win, assuming Patrick’s and Dewhurst’s voting blocs remain the same. You have to like Patrick’s chances.
Last night, Jerry Patterson told reporters that he wasn’t sure if he would support Dewhurst, but that he “cannot campaign and vote for a liar.” A lot of moderate Republicans—not that there are many left in office after last night’s drubbing—are uncomfortable with Patrick. They think he goes too far. Patrick made sure to poke those people in the eyes last night, saying he wouldn’t back down or lower his profile. “I will be the greatest ally Greg Abbott has ever had on the campaign trail,” he said.
That might cheer some Democrats, who think that a Patrick victory would make the lieutenant governor race competitive for state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte—or even that his presence as a relentless ideologue in a statewide office will shift the terrain their way. But for those hoping for a Patrick victory, the best advice, after last night, is be careful what you wish for. A man who thinks he has God on his side is dangerous.
Amplify CEO and former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, ready to rock at SXSWedu.
Austin has been a staging ground this week for two movements advocating very different visions for the future of America’s public schools.
On one side, better known and better outfitted, there are the tech and data evangelists who imagine a reinvented school experience with computer games, tablets and other innovative models, gathered for the fourth year of the SXSWedu conference.
On the other, teachers, parents and education researchers who have, over the last four years or so, built a community of advocates for less flashy solutions like better school funding and more freedom for teachers, and a resistance to privatization and “corporate” reformers. For a long time this group has been only informally organized around a handful of blogs and education historian Diane Ravitch.
This year Ravitch and a few top lieutenants organized their movement into the Network for Public Education, and the group held its first conference last weekend, on the UT-Austin campus.
UT researcher Julian Vasquez Heilig warmed up the crowd Saturday morning, by helping to articulate what the new group is about. “The powers that be have decided that poor kids … we want to do education for them on the cheap,” he said. Anthony Cody, one of the group’s co-founders, laid into “hedge fund managers who have recently discovered their passion for the poor.” He lamented “the cycle of corruption has invaded what should be sacred places for learning.”
The movement is most commonly described by its opposition to school choice reforms like charter school chains, online schools and private school vouchers. They’re often criticized for pooh-poohing reformers without offering better suggestions of their own.
“[Network for Public Education] has a very positive message,” Vasquez Heilig said. “I’m not ‘anti-reformer,’ I just disagree with your form of reform.” As Chicago Teachers Union leader Karen Lewis put it: ”What we have in common are the values that made this country great.”
Presentations were full of epic language and battle imagery—politically popular education reforms were often described as a “scam” or a “hoax” perpetrated by the “corporate elite”; the reform debate as “war.” None amped up the drama more than John Kuhn, (Tyrant’s Foe, Feb. 2013) superintendent of North Texas’ Perrin-Whitt CISD, who lambasted the “new generation of robber barons” meddling in public schools. “The whole setup is a scam and it benefits people in power suits, not the children of America.”
Beyond the rhetoric—there are articulate evangelists on both sides of this debate—were academics who were frustrated by the outsize power wielded by players like Eli Broad and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, even for policies without a solid research base. Teach for America’s five-week teacher preparation program was a popular target, along with new ways to rate teachers based on test scores (and then pay them accordingly).
Kevin Welner, a researcher at the University of Colorado-Boulder, whose National Education Policy Center regularly turns out work skewering reform research from think tanks and foundations, urged academics to “advocate for social justice, not simply for something that improves test scores.”
The next day, Monday, marked the beginning of SXSWedu, a bigger education conference in downtown Austin that has, over the last three years, established itself as a playground for just the sort of private-sector reformers who’d been pilloried at NPE’s gathering. Festival programmers softened that contrast a little this year, including more talks on things like equity and community building, and a presentation by… Diane Ravitch.
On Monday afternoon, Ravitch took the stage in one of the festival’s many rooms, before a crowd almost as big as the one she addressed the day before at NPE. She lambasted “$1,500 conferences where you can cash in on education,” and warned about fetishizing games, apps and online learning. “[They] will harm children, they will destroy the teaching profession,” she said. The targets of her remarks were probably ensconced in another ballroom for a workshop on startup funding, but it was a significant statement with the big orange SXSWedu banner behind her.
A few minutes after Ravitch left the stage, it was occupied by a conversation on “Analytics and Student Success.”
“I am a little nervous,” joked John Wilson, a former Obama administration education official, “being up on the stage right after Diane Ravitch. … Gosh, everything was a hoax, I guess.”
It’s a simplification to sort every player into one side of this debate or the other. If there is a war over public schools, there’s plenty of back-and-forth between the rival camps. Plenty of people at NPE attended SXSWedu (the place and timing of NPE’s first conference was no accident), and SXSWedu—which continues through Thursday—is much more than a product pitch meeting.
But Monday night offered a perfect distillation of the gleeful product boosterism Ravitch decried. SXSWedu’s kickoff party, with drinks, snacks and a performance by Ben Kweller, doubled as a product launch for Amplify, the education tech brand owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. The company made a big show of unveiling a tablet computer for students at last year’s SXSWedu, only to have school districts cancel multi-million-dollar contracts for the devices after they started melting.
This week, Amplify was back promising an even bigger announcement, which turned out to be a new tablet, an Intel processor, and a suite of educational software packaged together for $199 per student, per year. Joel Klein, the former New York City schools chief and Ravitch foil who now heads Amplify, looked the part of the ed-tech rock star, navigating the drum kit and guitar stands onstage in a sport coat and black jeans.
He recalled the “rave reviews” for last year’s Amplify tablet, and promised nothing short of a transformation in schools thanks to this new gadget. “We’re gonna change the way that teachers teach and kids learn,” he said. “I think we’re gonna change the world here.”
As political action committees go, Balance PAC is a strange animal. In 2012, the group, which is funded primarily by Democratic trial lawyers, supported minor Democratic judicial candidates and progressive groups.
But for this primary season, Balance PAC is pouring money into GOP primaries for Texas Supreme Court seats. The goal is to replace three incumbents—Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, Justice Jeff Brown and Justice Phil Johnson—with three other Republican challengers. Flush with trial lawyer cash, the PAC’s public face is “Texans 4 Justice,” which portrays itself as a conservative grassroots group. On its website Texans 4 Justice claims it works for people who stand for “common-sense conservatism” and “believe it’s time for true conservative change on the Texas Supreme Court.”
Balance PAC draws mostly from a base of traditional Democratic donors, including notable trial lawyers like John Eddie Williams and Lisa Blue Baron, who’ve each donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic causes over the years (full disclosure: Lisa Blue Baron was, until recently, an Observer board member). Houston personal injury law firm Arnold & Itkin LLP donated more than $100,000 this month.
The group’s social media accounts and website constitute a steady stream of appeals against the sitting Supreme Court justices: On Texans 4 Justice’s Facebook page, readers are urged to “elect 3 REAL conservative justices to the Texas Supreme Court: Robert Talton, Joe Pool Jr & Sharon McCally.” The group has set up attack sites and filmed surreal ads, particularly targeting Chief Justice Hecht.
So-called astroturf groups, which attempt to disguise their support and motivation, are commonplace in politics. Here’s the weird part: Balance PAC is reporting to the Texas Ethics Commission that the group donated some $64,000 of “in-kind” contributions to other, non-judicial Republican candidates—like hyper-conservative state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels). Seems strange for a Democratic-backed PAC that’s focused on judicial races to support a tea party state senator like Campbell.
But the story gets stranger: Campbell and other Republicans who supposedly received the “in-kind” contributions say they knew nothing about the donations and say Balance PAC has never contacted them to indicate they would be supporting their candidates, or listing them on their financial disclosures. The campaigns say they never received a dime’s worth of services and would’ve rejected the donation if it had been offered. None of the candidates claims a donation from Balance PAC on their own filings.
“The Campbell campaign would never accept a contribution of any kind from Balance PAC,” said Allan Blakemore, who manages Campbell’s campaign. “Sen. Campbell does not support the political goals of Balance PAC, nor the people behind the organization.”
Why would Balance PAC’s Democratic donors be directing resources to Campbell, one of the most conservative senators in the Legislature—and candidates who are unopposed in their primary election? And why wouldn’t Balance PAC let these candidates know that they intended to support them?
Balance PAC’s most recent campaign finance disclosure report, covering activity in February, shows that the PAC spent $150,000 on “media consulting” services for candidates as disparate as Campbell, state Rep. Sarah Davis (R-Houston), attorney general candidate Dan Branch—and even some candidates unopposed in their primary, like state Rep. Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston).
That’s surprising given that Balance PAC’s overwhelming focus has been the three contested Texas Supreme Court races. “This is a broad coalition of Texans who believe the court has been taken over by multinational corporations,” Balance PAC spokesman Eric Axel told the Houston Chronicle‘s Patricia Kilday Hart.
One example: Balance PAC reports that in February, it received both a $12,500 contribution of media consulting services from Campbell, and, in the same time period, a $12,500 donation of media consulting services to Campbell.
“To be honest with you, I have no idea what’s going on. It doesn’t make any sense,” Blakemore said. “We’ve never talked to these guys. We didn’t engage with them, talk to them, participate in anything with them in any way.” Blakemore called the idea that Campbell received or gave any contributions to Balance PAC “an outright lie” and “just outrageous,” indicating Campbell would be filing charges with the Ethics Commission if the political action committee doesn’t quickly amend its report and apologize.
On Wednesday, the group amended its form to indicate Campbell didn’t donate resources to Balance PAC—but continues to list Campbell as a recipient of Balance PAC’s largess. Blakemore told me Monday afternoon that Campbell still intends to file a complaint with the Ethics Commission.
What did Balance PAC do for these candidates? The PAC reports spending $150,000 for consulting services through the Tallahassee, Florida–based Sachs Media Group. The PAC’s disclosure report divides that $150,000 into donated consulting services, assigning a dollar figure for each recipient. Of the total figure, $83,500 is spread among an array of Texas Republicans running for the Legislature and statewide office, and one Supreme Court justice, Jeff Boyd, who’s unopposed in his primary.
It’s not illegal for state campaigns to coordinate with political action committees—to pool media consulting expenditures, for example, as the filing seems to imply. But if an outside group plans to claim an in-kind donation of services to a candidate, without coordinating with the campaign, the candidate is customarily notified so that the candidate can duplicate the donation on his or her own financial disclosure. Not only were the candidates not notified, they dispute the Balance PAC contributions.
“That’s the big problem here,” Blakemore said. “They put their filing and ours into conflict.”
None of the candidates who supposedly received the $83,500 in in-kind donations reported one from Balance PAC—nor, for that matter, do any of the three judicial candidates who are the major focus of Balance PAC’s activities.
Annette Ratliff, who manages state Sen. John Carona’s campaign—which supposedly received $5,500 in in-kind donations from Balance PAC—said she wasn’t aware of the group either. “We have no knowledge of what they’re doing. If they’re doing something on behalf of us, they’re doing it without contacting us, without our knowledge and without our consent,” she said, adding that she had never seen a PAC do something quite like this.
Enrique Marquez, Dan Branch’s campaign manager, denied Branch’s campaign had ever worked with Balance PAC, and said they had received no notice Balance PAC would claim a donation. “We did not coordinate with Balance PAC. They didn’t alert the campaign, and we have no idea what that figure represents,” Marquez said, calling the filing “pretty wild.”
“I don’t know the motivation, and I wouldn’t venture a guess,” she said. “But you’re going to have a lot of campaigns asking for corrections.”
Texas’ election law places certain requirements on third-party donations to judicial candidates. Outside groups like Balance PAC are limited to spending $25,000 on statewide candidates in judicial elections. They can exceed that limit, but if they plan to do so, they have to notify the Texas Ethics Commission of that intent no less than 60 days before an election. Virtually all of Balance PAC’s activity has taken place past that point, in the last month of the election cycle.
Balance PAC spent $150,000 on last–minute media consulting, reporting that the $150,000 was intended for the benefit of 12 candidates. Balance PAC reported donating a little under $25,000 to four Supreme Court candidates—three contested elections, plus the unopposed Boyd. Then, the PAC reported that the remaining portion of the services was donated to other candidates, though it’s not clear what Balance PAC did on their behalf apart from naming them in an endorsement list and embedding their campaign ads on the PAC’s website.
Ben Sachs, the head of Sachs Media Group, said he couldn’t answer questions related to the financial filing—but did say that his consulting group had helped Balance PAC diversify its campaign spending to a “wider and more diverse slate” of GOP candidates around the state.
Balance PAC’s treasurer didn’t return a request for comment. The PAC’s spokesman, Eric Axel, told me that the group had diversified its donations out of a genuine desire to help “people who vote in the Republican Primary,” adding that the group would not be ”defined by the traditional left/right boundaries,” and that “when we see candidates we like, we will provide them with support based on them as candidates and their records [as] public servants.”
Jonathan Saenz of Texas Values outside a federal courthouse in San Antonio where the issue of same-sex marriage is being litigated, February 12, 2014.
Just nine years ago, in 2005, Governor Rick Perry told the press that gay people in Texas (gay veterans, at that) should consider moving to other states if they wanted better treatment from their government. He was speaking at a ceremonial signing of legislation that put a same-sex marriage ban on the ballot in November 2005.
How quickly times change—though slower in Texas than elsewhere. Last week, that constitutional amendment was deemed unconstitutional by a federal court in San Antonio, following a number of similar rulings in states as red as Utah and Oklahoma. The matter will be appealed and could be taken up eventually by the U.S. Supreme Court.
To say the gay rights movement in the United States is experiencing a period of success is an understatement—even if the blowback to that success poses risks. Yet here in Texas, where you might expect more conflict about what remains a momentous social issue, you haven’t seen much yet beyond grandstanding. That’s partially a result of the fact that the Texas Legislature won’t meet again for another nine months. Texas groups agitated about the ruling haven’t had any space to float policy proposals or legislation.
But I was curious about what anti-gay marriage activists might have in store. So I called Jonathan Saenz, the president of Texas Values, the group which says it stands “for biblical, Judeo-Christian values by ensuring Texas is a state in which religious liberty flourishes, families prosper, and every human life is valued.”
Saenz, who responded to activists trying to strip anti-sodomy provisions out of Texas law last week by arguing that gay people only want gay rights because they’re gay, flatly denies the “homosexuals” are making any progress at all, and says his movement and Christians in the state won’t give up without a fight. What’s more, he left the door open to pushing for a bill, like the one recently vetoed in Arizona, that makes it legal for businesses to discriminate against gay people if serving them conflicts with a “deeply held religious belief.”
“This is the beginning of an epic battle,” Saenz told me. “There’s a strong likelihood that the Fifth Circuit [Court of Appeals] is going to overturn this decision. If Texas’ gay marriage laws are not constitutional, there’s no guarantee that the court won’t open up marriage to polygamy and polyandry.”
There’s definitely a chance the traditionally conservative Fifth Circuit overturns the Texas decision, but gay rights lawyers in Texas and elsewhere know these cases will be appealed and are laying the groundwork for the Supreme Court to take up the issue. That’s the reason U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia stayed his own ruling, as has happened in many states. It puts the ruling on hold until a higher court can weigh in. But even in that, Saenz sees encouragement.
The fact that Garcia stayed his ruling, Saenz says, “shows some hesitation on his part. I think the homosexual advocates were ready to go on down to the clerk’s office” and get married, he says cheerily, “and he put a stop to that.”
Garcia happens to be the brother-in-law of state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), who is running for lieutenant governor. I asked Saenz if he perceived judicial bias.
“It wouldn’t surprise me,” he says. “What we have here is the homosexuals being used by the Democrats to gain more political power.” He added: “The homosexuals have more political power than ever before.”
But the most enlightening part of our conversation came when we talked about SB 1062, the recently-vetoed Arizona legislation that attracted national attention. Supporters said the bill protected religious liberty while critics, including a number of Republicans, said it amounted to legalizing anti-gay discrimination. “Religious liberty” has become an increasingly important issue for conservatives ever since a number of bakeries across the nation got in hot water for refusing to make cakes for gay wedding services.
A number of states have considered bills carving out an exemption in non-discrimination laws to allow businesses to deny service to LGBTQ people for religious reasons. Some proposed laws even go so far as to extend that right to venues like hotels and restaurants, and to government workers. Arizona has been the only state to pass such a law so far, but it backfired when, in a surprising reversal, arch-conservative governor Jan Brewer vetoed it after mounting pressure. Nevertheless, it stands to reason we’ll see an attempt to advance a similar measure in Texas in the 2015 session.
Saenz is firmly convinced of the need for such laws.
The veto of the Arizona bill, he says, provides incontrovertible proof that “homosexuals do want to force people of faith to be part of their gay marriage ceremonies. They want to use government power to force people of faith to be part of their homosexual lifestyle and ceremonies,” he said.
That’s something of a new tack for Saenz’s crowd. The rhetoric has always been there: Anti-gay marriage activists have long held out the prospect of a dark future in which Baptist ministers are frog-marched to Southern Decadence to preside over Village People-themed weddings. But new developments make that future seem, to some, like an immediate threat, to be confronted in the near future—and that’s been feeding blowback in red states.
“Arizona made it real clear to people of faith what homosexual advocates want,” Saenz says. “They seem to not be satisfied unless they can force people of faith to celebrate their lifestyle. I think you’re going to see a growing concern in Texas, as you are across the country.”
I ask him if Texas Values would support legislation for the 2015 session, or is working to lay the groundwork for it. “That’s all I’m going to say on that subject,” he says.
Texas Values has been active in mobilizing against the gay rights movement in Texas for some time. The group organized in opposition to San Antonio’s LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinance last year, unsuccessfully. In the 2013 legislative session, Texas Values also supported bills that would punish school districts across the state, like the Austin and Pflugerville ISDs, which extend partner benefits to gay couples.
For much of the country, it might feel like the argument over gay marriage is reaching a tipping point. But the fight over the issue could easily become prolonged in Texas. After all, 2014 is an election cycle when Attorney General Greg Abbott, who has argued in court that the state has a need to discourage “prurient interests in autonomous sex and the pursuit of sexual gratification unrelated to procreation” is running for governor while defending the state’s marriage laws.
The possibility of same-sex marriage ceremonies in Beaumont and Lubbock is edging closer as a crop of even-more conservative candidates are primed to win state offices. As the issue continues to get litigated, expect to see an organized fightback from Texas conservatives.
Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book about Life
By David Dow
Grand Central Publishing
288 pages; $25.00
There’s a certain amount of irony in appending the epigraph “I could write a book about what I don’t know” to one whose title foregrounds its intent to share the lessons gleaned over the course of a career, and one walks away from Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book about Life wondering if, in fact, there is anything David Dow has yet to learn. Perhaps the real question is: If there are things Dow still doesn’t know, what hope do the rest of us have?
Things I’ve Learned from Dying is an energetic three-part memoir delineated into sections titled “Beginnings,” “Middles,” and “Endings.” Dow, a professor of law at the University of Houston and of history at Rice University, as well as founder and director of the Texas Innocence Network, details his father-in-law’s death from a quickly metastasized melanoma, his family’s beloved Doberman’s death from acute liver failure, and one of his many clients’ final years on death row and eventual execution. True to its title, the book is peppered with sentences structured around the phrase, “One thing I’ve learned,” such as: “One thing I’ve learned is that there is a time to be silent and there’s a time to hold nothing back. What I might not have learned is which is when.”
Taking some liberties with its timeline and compressing legal cases that spanned the better parts of decades, Dow explains how to argue a death penalty case in Texas, along the way bringing to light some of the nuances of the appeals system—and some of the ways in which he longs for even more nuance. He outlines the four stages of a death penalty case: the trial and state court appeal come first, followed by the state court habeas proceeding; after that comes the federal habeas appeal; the final stage is what Dow describes as “all the last-minute freneticism when death penalty lawyers try to think of anything they can to save their client’s life.” In Things I’ve Learned from Dying, we enter death row inmate Eddie Waterman’s case at the third stage. Dow’s ruminations about representing Waterman before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals show him at his most entertaining and opinionated:
People who think bogus legal proceedings happen only in places like Iran or China apparently haven’t been to Texas.
It hasn’t always been this way. … But decent judges have been replaced by bureaucratic hacks who reach results that melt their political butter no matter how much violence they have to inflict on legal principles on the way to getting there.
In the section titled “Middles,” Dow recounts offering advice to a younger colleague who is distraught after the execution of his first client: “Work on developing a cold cold heart, pal,” he says, invoking Hank Williams. But while there is evidence here of professional numbness—occasional decisions based solely on detached experience and expertise—this is not the narrative of someone unaffected by a life spent with the dying. Throughout the memoir, using passages from a journal he kept during his father-in-law’s illness and recreating other scenes from memory, Dow meditates on the instant between life and death. “One thing I’ve learned,” he writes, “is that beginnings are unambiguous, but endings are not.”
His story’s overlap of human, canine, legal and familial loss ultimately leads Dow to acknowledge the difference between the individual and the universal: “The deepest knowledge, I’ve learned, can be awareness of the chasm separating you from someone else.” In convincing prose, Dow shows what such lessons cost.
Considering only the lieutenant governor’s race: Dan Patrick has been railing about the state’s “illegal invasion” and the constant threat of violence posed by migrant criminals; David Dewhurst wants a $60 million “permanent surge” of manpower, vehicles and high-tech hardware, even if the Texas Department of Public Safety will have to cut other programs to do it. Todd Staples has spent years as agriculture commissioner talking about border security, and now he’s toting around a “six point plan” to finally lock down the Rio Grande. (Though one of those six points is “secure our border,” so it may not be the most comprehensive plan.)
One long-time border sheriff wishes they’d all just pipe down about it.
Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson, who’s held his post for 14 years, is the chief law enforcement officer in Brewster County, the largest in the state—five times the size of Rhode Island, three times the size of Delaware and 500 square miles larger than Connecticut. It also has the largest stretch of the US-Mexico border of any Texas county. You might think, when it comes to the border, that he’d be ready for Dewhurst and Patrick to hurry on down and exact some Texas Justice. You’d be wrong.
“A lot of politicians are running on securing the border. One’s got a six point plan, one’s got a nine point plan. They’re throwing tons of money at this border. I wish they’d just shut up about it.” he told me. “Recently, we had an operation where they sent game wardens out here to look for drug traffickers—game wardens! I guess they figured the game was secure.”
Dodson’s family has been in Brewster County for five generations. In the early 1900’s, Pancho Villa’s rebels ran his grandfather off his ranch, and the family had to relocate to a protected basin in the Chisos Mountains. Compared to that, the border now looks tame—certainly not the way politicians in Austin are talking about it.
“I think they’re just throwing money at the border for nothing. I think people on the interior see all these shows about the border where there’s violence,” he says. That’s a problem for places like Brewster County, the home of Terlingua, Lajitas and Marathon, where tourism comprises a large part of the local economy.
“A lot of tourists will call up to my office and say, ‘Is it safe out there?’ We’ll ask where they’re coming from. They’ll say ‘Houston,’” he says. “We’ll say, hurry up and get out of there! It’s safer here than where you’re coming from.”
A lot of border lawmen, Dodson says, are happy to take money from Austin. “I’m guilty myself of taking quite a bit of that money,” he says. With it, his men are better paid, better resourced. “We have equipment now because of that money that we would never have otherwise.”
But the increased state focus on border security comes with a cost, Dodson says. It drains resources from other causes, and it makes people feel insecure. And besides, he’s not really sure whether it’ll do a damn bit of good.
“They were smuggling across the border when my grandmother was a girl, and they’re going to be smuggling when my granddaughter grows up,” he says. “I wish they’d stop talking about the border and focus on problems in the interior.”
A supporter of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kesha Rogers, before the Martin Luther King Day parade in Houston.
The frantic last week before Tuesday’s primary election has been a truly rich pageant of WTF in Texas politics.
Why, just this morning Barry Smitherman promised to fight border crime by cracking down on jaywalking in South Texas. As he explained to KUT (skip to 20:53):
“It will send a signal south of the border that if you come here and break the law, there will be consequences.”
All across the state, nasty intra-party fights got nastier, candidates for small-time office dialed up big-time promises to Fight Obama, and, speaking to the Dallas Morning News, Texas House candidate Sandra Crenshaw got way candid about why she’s running for a South Dallas seat:
“I want to go to the Legislature for eight years and get a pension so I can take care of myself in my old age.”
This week, the Morning News also dredged up an amazing story that’s pretty much WTF from start to finish, about a four-man North Texas Republican brain trust getting scammed by a man who claimed to have found Noah’s Ark (really) buried in Iran.
Attorney general candidate Ken Paxton, Railroad Commission hopeful Wayne Christian and state Reps. Phil King and Bill Zedler, fresh off their last great success managing to screw in a lightbulb together, moved on to high-dollar electricity trading, only to lose hundreds of thousands in what became a Ponzi scheme. Speaking to reporter Gromer Jeffers, Christian was circumspect about the whole thing:
“There were some of us that he hooked. Sometimes you get took, sometimes you don’t. You hate to say you were a sucker, but he took us for a sucker and made off with the money.”
The Morning News judiciously describes one way the scheme’s architect, Archer Bonnema, managed to get in with the conservative Christian lawmaker crowd:
He had been closely linked with the community for years, often distributing video accounts of a 2006 expedition to Iran, led by Dr. Bob Cornuke, that he participated in. Bonnema said they discovered Noah’s Ark, though experts have disputed the claim.
Speaking of electricity markets, here’s Democratic Senate candidate (with a massive lead in recent polls) Kesha Rogers, quoted by the Observer‘s Emily DePrang this week:
Another policy priority is planetary defense, which is “how we are going to defend the planet from asteroids which are very seriously threatening the planet.” The same technology push will help with the “development of a successful industrialization of the moon,” she says, “[for] the mining of raw materials and resources such as helium-3 on the moon, which is a productive resource for developing fusion. I am a very strong supporter and proponent of fusion development as a source of energy.”
Whether it’s her space mining policy, her insistence on impeaching President Obama, or positive associations with the recording artist Ke$ha, Rogers had a 12-point lead in the Texas Tribune and UT poll released this week. It’s been enough to scare the Texas Democratic Party into blasting an email with the hard-to-mistake subject line, “Don’t Vote for Kesha Rogers.” The email includes the phrase “Do not vote for Kesha Rogers” twice, and party chair Gilberto Hinojosa explains:
Rogers believes that the U.S. economy is secretly controlled by London financial institutions and she has advocated for colonizing Mars. That’s not what real Democrats stand for.
And finally, This Week in Xenophobia, state Rep. Debbie Riddle responds to her Lebanese-born challenger Tony Noun’s claim that Riddle told him to “go back to your country and run a campaign” after a Noun volunteer planted a campaign sign next to Riddle’s. Speaking to the Observer‘s Chris Hooks, Riddle wouldn’t deny making the remarks, but stressed that “there’s context missing”:
Make no such mistake about lieutenant governor hopeful Dan Patrick, though, who came under fire from a rival campaign for a letter (which Patrick denies writing) vouching for an undocumented immigrant who once worked for him. Responding to a story about the “former illegal alien” in Breitbart Texas:
“Sen. Patrick stated that the worker in question provided false documents and a social security number, that the allegation he was kind to the illegal alien are not true…”
That was, of course, not the last time this week Patrick had to defend himself against the appearance of a bleeding heart. Even fits of campaign posturing can use an editor:
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst reads a scripted speech welcoming the public to the gallery and asking them to follow Senate decorum.
In 2012, before last year’s general election, the Observer published a roundup of important state Senate races. The headline: “The Texas Senate Heads Toward the Right.” As the state heads toward this year’s Republican primaries, we could pretty much recycle that headline. And we pretty much have.
In four noteworthy primary elections this cycle—plus a special election in May—the conservative wing of the Republican Party stands a good chance of either retaining last election’s gains or making new ones. The Texas tea party’s strength in congressional elections may be receding, but at the state level, they have a number of chances in the next couple months to prove they are alive and well. And conversely, if they fail to show strength, it could be a sign that the party is starting to shift back slightly toward the middle.
In New Braunfels, tea party wunderkind Donna Campbell stands a good chance of retaining her seat. In Dallas, moderate, business-friendly incumbent John Carona is facing a tough challenge from a Ron Paul acolyte with tea party cred. Houston’s Dan Patrick seems set to be replaced by a man much like himself. The seat once held by outgoing senator Wendy Davis might be filled by a high-profile tea party leader. And in May, a special election will be held to replace outgoing senator Tommy Williams, with two hyper-conservative state Representatives vying for the seat.
Here’s a guide to five elections that will help you figure out the way the wind is blowing this Tuesday, and in the months afterward:
SD 25: DONNA CAMPBELL v. MIKE NOVAK v. ELISA CHAN
THE PLAYERS: When tea party champion Donna Campbell unseated independent-minded San Antonio Republican Jeff Wentworth in 2012, it was a huge upset. Campbell was poorly funded, inexperienced in politics and hailed from New Braunfels, an odd fit in a district dominated by San Antonio and northern Bexar County. Two years later, she’s no longer an outsider—and she’s struggling with a tough three-way primary fight with a relative moderate, San Antonio businessman Mike Novak, and former San Antonio City Councilwoman Elisa Chan, most famous for her homophobic remarks.
Campbell had a quixotic legislative session in which she strongly supported abortion restrictions (she called the point-of-order that ended Wendy Davis’ June filibuster) and managed to accomplish little else, something noted by some fellow Republicans in unusually frank language. ”There was a large learning curve [for Campbell] on a lot of the issues this session,” Republican state Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio told the Express-News in August. Larson added that he authored “a number” of bills important to San Antonio that Campbell declined to sponsor because she “didn’t understand it or support it.” She also voted for a bill that would ease the construction of toll roads in San Antonio, for which she’s received a large amount of flak from constituents.
Larson’s backing Mike Novak, a San Antonio businessman with connections to the city’s political establishment who might seem like a more natural fit for the district. In the ongoing conflict between the state Republican Party’s tea-party id and its money-making interests, Novak firmly represents the latter. Expect the victor’s supporters to cite the election of a mandate for their side.
On his website, Novak emphasizes job creation, transportation, and water: Campbell emphasizes the fight against Obamacare and touts her appearances with John Hagee, the ultra-right evangelist pastor who calls the Catholic Church the “great whore.” Campbell claims the support of Ted Cruz; Novak the endorsement of the Express-News.
There’s also Elisa Chan, a former San Antonio city councilwoman who seems unlikely to win a spot in a runoff but could act as a spoiler. Chan, who earned national infamy last year when a disgruntled aide released a secret recording of Chan calling homosexuality “disgusting” and “against nature” (and quite a bit else) in the run-up to a vote on the city’s non-discrimination ordinance. Running as a strong conservative, her presence could eat more of Campbell’s votes than Novak’s.
THE MONEY: Campbell, once an outsider, has been carpet-bombing her district with ads. In just three weeks in January, she spent more than $200,000, and, as of February 3, still had $168,575 on hand. Chan spent almost $150,000 during that period, with $76,286 on hand. Novak, who had been staying closer to his rivals in spending last year, spent only $50k, with a mere $8,000 remaining.
SD 16: JOHN CARONA V. DON HUFFINES
THE PLAYERS: In a chamber which has moved increasingly rightward, state Sen. John Carona retains a fairly unusual independent streak. Last session saw Carona trying to move payday lending regulation through the Legislature—the slow battering and defeat of which once led him to tell the Senate he “just want[ed] to go home and feed my cat”—in addition to important utility legislation.
As chairman of Senate Business and Commerce, he often found himself at the nexus between industry and efforts to reform industry. When he shaped and help pass a series of bills through the Legislature expanding the rights of microbreweries, some accused him of watering down the beer bills and being a shill for powerful beer distributors. But as with his payday lending reform package, Carona’s supporters argued he alone was willing to do the dirty work of hammering out a compromise between competing interests.
Not everyone agreed. Texas Monthly named him one of the session’s worst legislators, and a Texas Tribune investigation outlining some of Carona’s personal finances and apparent conflicts of interest between his business and legislative responsibilities made a splash. Meanwhile, he was named the most liberal Republican in the senate by Rice political scientist Mark Jones. All told, it was a bumpy year, and Carona’s seat seemed ripe for a strong, smart challenger.
Instead, he got Don Huffines.
Huffines, a multimillionaire businessman and tea partier, has the support of Glenn Beck, the endorsement of Rand Paul and Rick Santorum and the backing of Michael Quinn Sullivan’s Empower Texans. He’s also got plenty of money—most of it his. But when it comes to his campaign, Huffines has seemed unserious. Whether you like Carona or not, there’s a lot in his record a challenger could campaign on. So it’s been slightly surprising for observers that Huffines’ biggest issue on the trail so far has been the fact that Carona once co-sponsored a bill in the Legislature that would have named a portion of Interstate 20 in South Dallas the “Obama Freeway.”
The bill died a quick death, but five years later, Huffines appears to think it’ll float his boat all the way to the Capitol. There are other oddities: Huffines sent out one of the strangest mailers of the whole cycle so far, with Carona as a Brando-esque mafia-don. The Dallas Morning News’ editorial board called it “comically bad.”
Still, it’s the toughest race Carona has faced in decades. If Huffines wins, it’ll be seen as proof that no right-wing challenger, if supplied with money and endorsements, is so light-weight that they can’t threaten a Republican who’s wandered too far from the flock. If Carona wins, expect to see the business interests and moderate Republicans that back him proclaim that the result is evidence the tea party can be beat. And a Huffines win would shake up the Legislature in a big way. Huffines could be one of the most conservative senators in the chamber. In his campaign he’s been a flashy, ideological competitor, the total opposite of Carona’s moderate establishment-ism and affection for the political inside-game. This one could significantly change the Senate’s internal dynamics like few other Republican primary races.
The Money: Huffines, a prodigious self-funder, has actually outdone the incumbent recently. He spent more than $1.4 million in February, reporting $174,000 left on Feb. 24. He’s loaned more than $1.6 million to himself over the course of the campaign, and family members have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars. Carona’s spent more than $1.2 million with only $54,000 left on February 24. He’s carrying $1.5 million dollars in loans.
SD 7: PAUL BETTENCOURT VS. JAMES WILSON
THE PLAYERS: Sen. Dan Patrick is a conservative radio talk-show host and businessman who loves picking fights with Democrats and railing against taxes. He’s 63, white, and hails from the Houston ‘burbs.
Paul Bettencourt is a conservative radio talk-show host and businessman who loves picking fights with Democrats and railing against taxes. He’s 55, white, and hails from the Houston ‘burbs.
So, who better to succeed Dan Patrick in Senate District 7 than his political doppelgänger?
Bettencourt is the heavy favorite in this deeply Republican enclave of northwest Houston, which stretches from I-10 north to Tomball and Spring and includes a disproportionate number of golf courses. Patrick, of course, is trying to take hold of the Senate gavel and move up to lieutenant governor. That leaves his senate seat open—and the Republican primary, featuring Bettencourt and Phil Gramm protege James Wilson, will almost certainly decide the winner.
Although Bettencourt lacks the smarmy braggadocio of Dan Patrick (“Think of Paul Bettencourt as a good-natured Dan Patrick” is how the Houston Chronicleput it), he’s earned his conservative warrior status. Bettencourt served 10 years as Harris County tax assessor-collector, where earned the nickname “The Taxman.” Harris County tax assessor is a politically-charged office in part because it oversees the voter rolls in vote-rich Houston. On his campaign website, Bettencourt brags that he was pushing for requiring a photo ID at the polls “before it was ‘cool’.” His aggressive purging of the voter rolls drew accusations—and lawsuits—from the Texas Democratic Party that he was illegally scrubbing Democratic-leaning voters. Then there was the matter of his very short third term: In 2008, he narrowly beat his Democratic opponent, but quit just a month later, before he was even sworn in, to start up a tax advising firm.
Bettencourt described himself to Quorum Report as a “public policy guy” who was called back to public service to deal with weighty issues like rejiggering school finance.
Also in the hunt is James Wilson, a Spring insurance agent who—in a not-so-subtle jab at Bettencourt—”promises to serve a full term” if elected. His other career highlight is serving as a regional director for former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm. Wilson ran against state Rep. Debbie Riddle in 2012, losing 81-19.
The Money: Bettencourt has the edge here, by far. He raised $142,000 between July and late January, with $61,000 still on hand. Wilson has raised just $7,675 in the same time period.
SD 10: WENDY DAVIS’ REPLACEMENT FREE-FOR-ALL
THE PLAYERS: Senate District 10 might be the only Senate seat to switch party hands this year, so it’s been the focus of a lot of attention. It was also the source of a lot of handwringing among Dems—Davis was able to pull off a narrow underdog win in this district in 2012, but Republicans gunned for SD 10 during redistricting, tilting the district further to the right. That made her 2014 re-election prospect an even more uphill battle for her. So she opted to run for governor instead.
If she loses her gubernatorial race and Democrats lose SD 10, some might wonder if her race was worth it. A Republican win in SD 10 would give the GOP 20 seats in the Texas Senate, one seat away from gaining a supermajority under the senate’s two-thirds rule, in which 21 votes are necessary to consider bills. It also puts them two seats over the margin of 60 percent control, which some Republican lieutenant governor candidates are talking about adopting as a threshold for taking up a bill instead of the two-thirds (66 percent) rule next session. Bottom-line: The stakes are high.
There are five GOP candidates in the primary, making a runoff a near certainty. But the Republican frontrunner in the district could be Konnie Burton, a tea party activist who was the first to announce her run. Burton’s been endorsed by Rafael Cruz (Ted’s dad), Michael Quinn Sullivan’s Empower Texans, and tea party elected officials like state Reps. Jonathan Bedford (R-Bedford); Matt Krause (R-Arlington); Bill Zedler (R-Arlington); and Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake). She’s received the backing of a large number of conservative activists, and seems likely to be in the runoff.
Former state Rep. Mark Shelton, the candidate who lost to Davis in the 2012 upset, is also running, and could end up in the primary with Burton. Shelton lost to Davis 51-49, and had been planning a rematch ever since. He cuts a slightly more establishment figure than Burton. There’s also chiropractor Jon Schweitzer, former Colleyville City Councilman Mark Skinner and Arlington School Board Trustee Tony Pompa.
On the Democratic side, some hoped Fort Worth city councilman Joel Burns would run, but he ruled himself out in October. (Now he’s resigning to go to Harvard.) Now, Dems have only two candidates vying for their nomination: energy executive Mike Martinez, and Libby Willis, who bills herself as a neighborhood association leader. All told, the district looks like a likely GOP pick-up. If the Democratic nominee proves to be an unusually adept candidate, and Burton wins the GOP primary and proves to be too-far right for the district, it might be more competitive—but Republicans would seem to have a comfortable margin. If voters replace Wendy Davis with a tea party organizer, it would, of course, dramatically change the Senate.
THE MONEY: On the Republican side, Burton and Shelton are competitive. Burton spent $85,724 in February, and has a little under $59,000 on hand at the end of February. Shelton spent $71,195 in the same period, with $129,482 on hand. In third is Pompa, who spent $61,600, with $29,000 on hand. Schweitzer reports only $3,900 spent, with $2,500 on hand, and Skinner has only $1,800 on hand, having spent $6,300.
For the Democrats, Martinez lags behind Willis. Willis spent over $88,000 in February, with $48,000 left—plus a post-report $15,000 infusion from the Association of Federal, State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Martinez spent a mere $5,685, with $35,866 in the bank.
SD 4: BRANDON CREIGHTON v. STEVE TOTH v. GORDY BUNCH (Special Election, May 10)
THE PLAYERS: When powerful state Sen. Tommy Williams resigned in October to take up a lucrative position at Texas A&M, he was capping off a conservative but somewhat idiosyncratic tenure in the Senate. He was one of the primary legislators responsible for the voter ID law that passed in 2011, but this session, as chair of the Senate Finance Committee, he was responsible for a lot of spending increases that accompanied 2013’s newly healthier state coffers. He helped push major spending packages on water and transportation infrastructure, something that infuriated the right wing of his party. In 2009, he was on Texas Monthly’s list of worst legislators; in 2013 he was named one of the best. Then he announced he was stepping down, forcing a special election scheduled in May. Whoever wins will replace him for the remainder of his 4-year term, which ends in 2016.
The two GOP candidates are state Reps. Steve Toth and Brandon Creighton, who both hail from the far right of their party. Toth has been a smart but fiercely conservative—sometimes obstinate—state rep, serving The Woodlands since 2012. His freshman term in the House was filled with conflict. On the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee he frequently sparred with those seeking reform. He carried a bill that would have nullified federal gun laws, one of the most absurd gun measures ever floated in the Texas Legislature. In August, he tweeted that President Obama was about to launch military strikes in Syria to “support his friends in Al-Qaeda.” He didn’t accomplish all that much, and his decision to run for Senate after just one term came as something of a surprise.
Creighton’s no centrist, either. Since 2006, he’s represented Conroe in the House. In 2011, he chaired the Select Committee on State Sovereignty, a red-meat machine that had little practical impact. He supported campus carry, and Toth’s nullification bill. But as chairman of the House GOP caucus, he may be more comfortable playing the inside game than Toth is: He attempted to employ a couple of clever maneuvers in support of the big water bill last session, whereas Toth has often acted as a bomb-thrower.
There’s also Gordy Bunch, a political outsider and Coast Guard veteran from The Woodlands. Creighton’s and Toth’s political ties and House experience make them the favorites for the seat, but anything’s possible in a special election. It’s possible that Bunch could force the already-strangely timed May 10 special into a runoff.
THE MONEY: The latest financial information comes from January 15, but it has Creighton blowing his opponents away in fundraising: He has more than $1 million on hand, having spent more than $205,000 in the last six months of the year. Toth spent $48,000 and had $123,000 on hand. Bunch, meanwhile, spent only $8,000 in the same time frame but retained over $274,000.
A house destroyed by the West fertilizer plant explosion in the northern part of town.
In the aftermath of the West fertilizer plant disaster, media outlets—The Dallas Morning News in particular—and some of our better public servants have done yeoman’s work exploring the failures that led to the tragedy. We now know that the oversight and regulation of ammonium nitrate fertilizer plants is complicated and lax at the same time. We know, as the Morning News put it, that “it could happen again” at one of Texas’ hundred or so fertilizer plants. And we know what needs fixing. (For example, it’s remarkably stupid that Texas bans small counties from adopting fire codes. Whatever happened to local control?)
Yet the state has done little to address the problems. The Texas Legislature met for almost four months following the West disaster and didn’t pass a single reform to address the holes in the system.
That’s not to say that some aren’t trying. God bless the state fire marshal, Chris Connealy, for at least doing what he can to prevent another West. Connealy’s team has aggressively inspected all 104 ammonium nitrate facilities in the state. He’s holding town hall meetings in the 68 counties with a fertilizer plant and plans to conduct follow-up inspections this spring. But a can-do attitude goes only so far. The inspections are voluntary, their scope is limited and Connealy has no enforcement authority. All he can do is plead and prod—something he readily acknowledges.
“I guess if they didn’t correct [a problem identified in the inspection] by the time we come back, then that tells us we need to encourage them more strongly,” Connealy says. “I can’t make them do it.”
Still, I was curious what Connealy was turning up in his inspections. Through the state open records process, I requested a handful of the most recent inspection reports. Within a couple of weeks, the fire marshal’s office sent me a set of heavily redacted documents. Missing was any information on how the fertilizer is stored, site security, descriptions of the buildings and any hazardous findings. The agency even blacked out the names of local fire departments and the precise locations of fertilizer plants, though that information could be gleaned from other unredacted details. With all the secrecy, the reports were worthless to me and to any citizens trying to figure out what might be happening in their backyards.
After an opinion from the Texas Attorney General’s office, I obtained more information from the reports. However, the AG had ordered the fire marshal to redact the names and addresses of the facilities. Only by looking at the two versions together was I able to get a full picture of what the inspectors found—and where.
I examined three reports, which is admittedly a small sample, but they still made apparent that some fertilizer plants are vulnerable in the same way West’s was. None of the three facilities—Standley Feed & Seed locations in Madisonville and Iola, and Anderson Fertilizer in Carthage—had sprinkler systems to suppress fires. Only one of them even had a portable fire extinguisher. Two of the facilities had electrical problems, including exposed and damaged wires. All three are housed in combustible wooden structures, just like in West, and a top concern for Connealy.
The Anderson facility, the inspection report notes, has dry vegetation around it, which could help a fire “rapidly spread into the building.”
Standley Feed in Iola is located 500 yards from two “public assembly buildings” and three-tenths of a mile from a school. The one in Madisonville is planted on the town square, across the street from the county courthouse. The report states that Standley no longer plans to carry ammonium nitrate, and Connealy says his inspectors will follow up to confirm.
But absent new laws and regulations, it’s not clear how Connealy or anyone else is going to minimize hazards. Bobby Anderson, the owner of Anderson Fertilizer, says he fixed the electrical problems identified by the state fire marshal but has no plans to replace his wooden storage bins, install fire suppression systems or make any other expensive and, in his mind, unnecessary changes. “Let me tell you, a fire extinguisher is not going to do any good when a nitrate bin blows up,” he said. “I’ve got children, wife, parents, grandbaby right there within 200 or 300 yards. We live there on the farm, and I wouldn’t do anything to hurt anybody.”
Anderson says he’s not going to let fears about West or new regulations push him out of a business he’s been in for 29 years. “Shit, I ain’t getting out,” he told me. “Until they quit making the same damn stuff I’m gonna keep using it because it’s the best source of nitrogen there is.”