Families in the hall at the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center
In early September, the Observer was the first to report that the federal government was planning a massive 2,400-bed family detention center in South Texas to hold Central American families entering Texas through Mexico. Today, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that it expected to open the facility in the small town of Dilley in early November. Corrections Corporation of America—the largest private prison company in the world and the operator of the notorious T. Don Hutto family jail near Austin—is expected to run the facility.
ICE said the detention center “will help ensure more timely and effective removals that comply with our legal and international obligations, while deterring others from taking the dangerous journey and illegally crossing into the United States.”
The South Texas Family Residential Center is located on a 50-care site owned by a Red McCombs-affiliated company, which runs a “man camp” for oilfield workers there. ICE said it expects to open the detention center with room for 480 “residents” and to build enough new housing to detain 2,400 immigrants by June.
Locking up children and their parents has an ugly history in Texas. The Obama administration pulled families out of the CCA-run T. Don Hutto detention center in 2009 after mounting evidence of civil-rights abuses. Families and children, many of whom are fleeing violence and human rights abuses, simply shouldn’t be held in jail-like conditions, advocates have said. They suggest alternatives, including truly residential facilities run by charities or faith-based groups.
Immigrant rights groups reacted with outrage today at the ICE announcement.
“Given the shameful history of family detention at Hutto, it’s horrifying that ICE would turn back to Corrections Corporation of America to operate what would be by far the nation’s largest family detention center,” said Bob Libal, executive director of the prison reform group Grassroots Leadership. “While little kids and their families will suffer in remote private prisons, far away from legal or social services, these multi-billion dollar private prison companies stand to make enormous profits.”
Dilley City Administrator Noel Perez says he has few details about the detention center, which will be located within the city limits. City officials, he said, had one meeting with CCA but haven’t spoken with ICE.
“We’ve just provided some general information on utilities and infrastructure,” Perez said. “We know it’s a done deal between CCA and ICE.”
Perez said the community’s attitude toward the detention center is one of “ambivalence.” He says he hasn’t gotten one call for or against it.
How long will the detention center be open? Perez says he’s heard one to two years, perhaps five. After that, he said, “We either fill it up with immigrants or we will fill it up with oilfield workers.”
Sen. Dan Patrick delivers a passionate speech in favor of House Bill 2.
In her 1988 campaign classic, “Insider Baseball,” Joan Didion wrote that political campaigns had little to do with democracy, and were not about “affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs.” Instead, “the process” was a “mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals”—policy experts, reporters, pundits, pollsters, advisors—”to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life.”
In her essay, Didion coolly dissects the 1,001 bullshit ways Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush are manufactured as candidates, abetted by a media all too game to play along. But the meta-narrative she documents emerged from public performances—no one involved tried to hide what they were doing. (The title of the essay comes from an “eerily contrived moment” in which Dukakis tosses a baseball to his press secretary on an airport tarmac while reporters and camera crews diligently take notes for stories on Dukakis’ authenticity and “toughness.”)
This is simply how modern political campaigns—at least high-level ones—are conducted. Didion’s complaints now seem a tad antiquated, though still righteously spot-on.
But now comes a new twist: the art of the non-campaign. The candidate who doesn’t even bother to put on a show, doesn’t even pretend to reach the broad middle of the citizenry and instead appears behind closed doors to small groups of like-minded voters, if he or she appears in public at all.
That’s the kind of campaign that some Texas Republicans are now running, in particular Ken Paxton, who’s favored to become attorney general, and Dan Patrick, who’s the frontrunner for lieutenant governor. Their campaigns are marked by a general refusal to speak with reporters, engage with their opponents, hold press conferences, meet with newspaper editorial boards, publicly announce events in advance, or even run TV ads.
A talk-radio show host not known for his reticence, Patrick ran a boisterous campaign against his three rivals during the GOP lieutenant governor primary and later in a head-to-head runoff against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Now, he’s like the chupacabra: rumored but rarely seen in the flesh. The Houston Chronicle reported in a Sept. 12 story:
Then, as if a switch flipped, his campaign went into hunker-down mode.
It sent two news releases in the six weeks after the runoff. Patrick did not re-emerge until even later, in a July 16 public speech in front of an estimated 11,000 students, parents and teachers at the annual gathering of the Texas Future Farmers Association.
When he addressed the state’s broadcaster’s association Aug. 7, Patrick quickly left without taking questions from reporters —but only after shouting, “I’ve been the most media-friendly guy in the Legislature!” before vanishing.
Just this week, Patrick’s campaign declined an invitation to appear before the Houston Chronicle editorial board.
“At this time the senator does not plan to meet with editorial boards,” Patrick spokesman Alejandro Garcia said.
When Patrick did announce a press conference last week, reporters wondered what big reveal he had in store. As it turned out, Patrick called the media together to announce that he was the most business-friendly candidate. The whole thing lasted 15 minutes.
His opponent, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), who’s excited many Democrats with a peppy, wide-ranging effort, challenged Patrick to five debates but he agreed to only one. Patrick is campaigning—just not in a way accessible to most Texans.
“3 days – 6 cities – 3 planes & one rental car drive from Midland to Lubbock,” Patrick wrote in a Facebook post on Sept. 18. “I will not be out worked.”
Ted Delisi, a GOP consultant quoted in the Chronicle, acknowledged that it’s “not the typical campaigning” but then implausibly tried to coin the approach as not being “covert,” but rather “the new overt.”
If anything, state Sen. Ken Paxton is even more covertly overt. Paxton is the overwhelming favorite to be the next attorney general—he faces an underfunded Democratic attorney with the somewhat helpful name Sam Houston. The highlight of Paxton’s resume so far is that he’s admitted to violating state securities law by accepting kickbacks from an investment firm without disclosing that relationship to regulators or his clients. And apparently he’s not eager to talk about it: Paxton has been almost completely AWOL.
I can find precisely one news account of a public appearance in the last month. On Sept. 8, he was the special guest of honor at a San Jacinto County Republican Party event, where he told the crowd that Obamacare would be “obliterated” if unspecified lawsuits were successful.His Facebook page touts a fundraiser with Ted Cruz next Monday in Allen.
Perhaps Paxton learned the value of ducking the press in late July when—after noting to a sheriffs group that “a one-party system takes out accountability, takes out competition”—San Antonio Express-News reporter Nolan Hicks approached him after the event and was “physically blocked by Paxton spokesman Anthony Holm.”
Meanwhile, Sam Houston has fruitlessly tried to engage his opponent. He’s repeatedly challenged Paxton to debate, but Paxton’s only response has come through his spokesman. “Our opponent is losing, badly, so it’s not surprising that he continues this desperate ploy for publicity when he’s down by 20+ points,” Anthony Holm told the Texas Tribune in an email.
So we have the prospect of a state senator who faces indictment and serious ethics charges waltzing into office as the next attorney general without having debated, campaigned or meaningfully engaged his general election opponent or the public on the issues of the day.
The approach, of course, makes perfect strategic sense. Democrats haven’t won a single statewide race in two decades, and Republicans enjoy sizable structural advantages even against well-funded and charismatic Democrats. Why risk saying or doing something stupid when you don’t need to? Why legitimize your opponent by pretending that he or she even exists? Better to keep your head down and coast to election.
The non-campaign approach is not entirely new. Rick Perry tried aspects of it in 2010, when he ran for re-election against former Houston Mayor Bill White. Much to the chagrin of the White campaign, Perry refused to participate in a single debate and snubbed newspaper editorial boards. He crushed Bill White 55-42. What lesson does a GOP candidate for statewide office draw from that? That silence is preferable to splashy public events. That talking to the mainstream press isn’t worth it when the voters who show up to the polls either get their information from preferred sources or consider snubbing the lamestream media as a mark of political bravery.
It also puts the press in a bind: How do you cover a non-campaign? Press conferences, block-walking, baby-kissing, stumping, Chamber of Commerce speeches: This is the stuff of which political journalism is made. The Houston Chronicle, for example, did a thorough story on Patrick’s stealthiness. But it was a one-day piece; it’s hard to keep writing about silence.
And if Paxton and Patrick prevail as expected, will more GOP candidates attempt the stealth campaign in the next general election? Probably so, until Democrats can prove more competitive. Are we entering an era when the state’s top officials won’t even have to engage with Texas’ general election voters? For Democrats, this seems the ultimate insult. They’re losing, and their opponents aren’t even trying anymore.
Public discourse, the foundation of democracy, isn’t doing too well in Texas these days. The state’s Republicans have such powerful voices that, for the most part, they don’t need to speak. Past a certain point in the election calendar, silence speaks for them. GOP statewide candidates and legislators alike hoard money, hide from the press, and try not to acknowledge the existence of their opponents. Democrats want to be heard desperately, but don’t get the chance very much. The two sides rarely talk to each other. The conversations we have about the state’s problems become stilted and atrophied.
This weekend’s Texas Tribune Festival, the fourth annual, is one of the rare events in Texas political life that pushes back against the trend a bit—it’s a valuable space that gives political actors room to be a bit more open than they otherwise might be. (Even if they don’t always take that chance.) GOPers don’t much like the Texas press in general, especially newspapers, but some will play along with the Tribune. It’s also a reminder of some of the continuing dysfunctions affecting the state’s political life.
Of the GOP nominees, Greg Abbott, who remains a somewhat mysterious figure away from his slickly-produced ads, declined to come, either to take part in a discussion with Wendy Davis or to be interviewed solo. A screening of his McAllen debate with Davis kicked off the festival: Texas voters didn’t seem particularly well-served by the debate’s format or substance, but at least they agreed to be in the same room as each other.
Land commissioner nominee George P. Bush was game, despite some awkwardness between his campaign and the Trib: His opening night keynote might have been his longest appearance in the spotlight yet, and he still managed to avoid saying much. Asked about immigration, Bush said he didn’t “have a magic wand on this issue. It’s terribly complicated” and would require a “multi-generational viewpoint.” (Accio guest worker program.)
Bush has said there’s still a debate on the causes of global warming. So an audience member challenged him: NASA says 97 percent of scientists in relevant fields agree on the causes. Bush’s answer was one for the ages: “I’ve personally met with folks that have visited with other NASA scientists,” he said, “and they contend that that ’97 percent’ is overstated.”
Attorney general nominee Ken Paxton didn’t come. Comptroller nominee Glenn Hegar took part in a discussion on the budget, but—presumably at Hegar’s urging—his opponent Mike Collier was placed on another panel, one that didn’t have to do with state finance. Lt. governor nominee Dan Patrick, to his credit, consented to be interviewed, but not alongside Leticia Van de Putte—she made sure she sat in the front row during his interview, before taking the stage to do hers.
Patrick’s interview was a nice demonstration of his post-primary grandfather tack. He vigorously denies that he’s been “hiding” on the campaign trail. He praises his interviewer, Evan Smith, as well as both David Dewhurst and Van de Putte, who he’s scorched in other settings. He touts school vouchers as the best friend of the inner-city kid, and says he’ll fund public education in a “smart” way while simultaneously helping local jurisdictions cut property taxes. Rainbow Dan.
There were also a variety of panel discussions, some of which dug deep in policy issues. In some, panelists were so far apart that there wasn’t much room for discussion. In a panel on “dark money” featuring state Rep. Byron Cook, the new chairman of House State Affairs, panelists talked around each other, sometimes unable to even agree on current state of the law. The panel on gay marriage turned briefly contentious when the moderator asked anti-gay marriage warrior Jonathan Saenz about the fact that his ex-wife left him for another woman. (He gave a non-answer.)
Elsewhere, a panel that included former GOP presidential flame-out Jon Huntsman, former Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley—a nice enough lot, but not exactly the vanguard on the bleeding edge of American political life—convened to figure out how to beat back partisanship and give life to the political center. It’s a question that’s never made much sense nationally, but even less so in Texas.
Safely out of office, the three wanted to let people know they had finally figured out how things should work. Bradley had the grandest plan: He wanted to build a “third congressional party” that would “stand for three or four key things.” He wasn’t quite sure what those things should be yet, except one of them should be campaign finance. Somebody should recruit 50 candidates to run in 50 key districts across the country. Half would be ex-military officers, half would be women, etc. All this could be accomplished for the modest sum of $360 million. “Here is the problem with our democracy,” Bradley’s footmen would say. “It is the Congress.”
Hutchison’s complaints were more modest. The president had rejected the Simpson-Bowles plan, that totemic budget proposal embraced by the beltway punditocracy. “The president put it on the shelf,” Hutchison said, “and congressional leaders put it on the shelf.” When an audience member asked how you could realistically change Congress with incumbent re-election rates so high, Hutchison suggested replacing our current system with a United Kingdom-style parliamentary slate system, where candidates are not directly elected.
After that, another soon-to-be ex-politician was joining the Both Sides crusade: At a panel on women’s health issues, Bob Deuell, looking more unhappy to be at an event than anyone you’ve ever seen—presumably, he agreed to do this before getting crushed by an accused wife-beater in his primary runoff—told the crowd that he, personally, might have gone along with less stringent abortion regs last summer, but “no one was willing to compromise,” he said, putting the blame for the expansive restrictions on the pro-choice crowd. “The extremes on both sides” were responsible for what happened last summer. It’s a pretty weird rewriting of history. Democrats didn’t have any leverage during the special session. But he kept saying it, over and over, as he stared at his lap.
Molly White, a pro-life activist who’ll be representing House District 55 after November, spoke about her two abortions, and her contention that they were responsible for her descent into drug and alcohol addiction. She opened the panel by flashing a picture of a woman who “died on the abortion table.”
When moderator Emily Ramshaw told White that there was a very low complication rate from abortion, White batted it down. She knew that was wrong, from “my personal experience and from the testimony of hundreds and hundreds of women across the country.”
Austin Rep. Dawnna Dukes, in no mood to dance around, told White that “it’s a personality type that would turn to drugs and alcohol,” and White’s issues didn’t come from an abortion. White: “If you haven’t had an abortion, you can’t say that.”
“Well guess what,” Dukes said. “I have had an abortion.” The room erupted in cheers and applause. She didn’t have any subsequent psychological problems, she said.
The day after, Deuell unloaded on Dukes in the comments of an article about the incident. “Given her views and some comments she made yesterday and in the past,” Deuell wrote, “one might argue whether Dukes has suffered from her abortion.”
Dukes responded: “I sure will not miss you in the legislature. May God keep you, may God bless your sweet heart and I wish you all the best in your next endeavor.”
Some issues, it seems, can’t be talked out. In Texas, that might be most issues. The last event of the festival was also the most highly anticipated—an hour long sit-down between Gov. Rick Perry, he of the recent legal problems, and Smith. He followed a discussion by national journalists who seemed to pooh-pooh Perry’s 2016 chances. One said GOP donors were saying privately that they hoped Perry wouldn’t come calling for money.
In the interview, he seemed slightly muddled. He brought a small placard that showed the state’s job growth. He bizarrely claimed comedian Joan Rivers would be alive if she’d had surgery inside an ambulatory surgical center, except she had. He came out as a fan of both regulation and the press. Asked about the abortion bills last summer: “There are going to be rules and regulations put into place that you don’t agree with,” he said, adding that it was “important to respect those decisions.” (Nobody tell the EPA.)
More interesting, though, was what Perry wouldn’t talk about: his recent indictments. To be fair, there are some things Perry can’t say about his legal problems. But he’s also shot off his mouth about the indictments recently more times than you can count. He’s happy to talk about it on his terms. Here was a setting in which he would be gently challenged on some of his contentions. Smith started asking:
“That issue has been probably as reported on as much as anything that I’ve ever done in my public life,” he said. “And everything has been said about it that I’m going to say about it.”
Smith tried again. “I think everything that I am gonna say about the activities is pretty much done,” Perry said.
Again: “Everything has been said about that and I’ll refer you back to the press reports about it.”
One more time: “I will tell you that it’s already been addressed and I’m not going to be adding anything new to it because there’s nothing new to add to it.”
The speech imbalance in Texas politics exists at this festival, too, but it still might be the best corrective we have—even if its audience is pretty small. Davis did immeasurably better during her keynote than she did at the McAllen debate on Friday—she was more natural, more compelling and more incisive. It was a better airing of her views than we’ve seen so far. Van de Putte outshone Patrick in her session—she’s a natural and effective communicator. But the festival’s over, so we’re back to the quiet.
A backpack left behind by a migrant in Brooks County
The Texas National Guard has deployed a team to Brooks County to conduct search and rescue operations for migrants lost in the brush.
Law enforcement has recovered more than 400 bodies since 2009 in the rural county 60 miles north of the Texas-Mexico border. Every year, thousands of migrants try to circumvent a Border Patrol checkpoint in Brooks County by walking through rugged, isolated ranchland. Many die during the journey from heat exposure and thirst.
The deployment is a separate operation from the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Operation Strong Safety and the National Guard soldiers deployed by Gov. Perry to the border, according to a DPS press release. Specially trained teams of 20 to 25 guardsmen will conduct search and rescue missions in the county when requested by the Brooks County Sheriff’s office. The National Guard didn’t say how long the deployment to Brooks County would last.
Eddie Canales, director of the South Texas Human Rights Center in Brooks County, said the guard deployment could save lives. “We welcome any assistance in search and rescue in Brooks County,” he says.“We’re very interested at the center in seeing how this works, and how they work with Border Patrol and the sheriff’s office.”
Canales believes the guard will mostly focus on 9-1-1 distress calls from the brush, which are received by the sheriff’s office. In the past, the Border Patrol has been criticized for taking two hours or longer to respond to distress calls, or in some cases not responding at all.
Another area where they need help is with missing persons reports, Canales says. The center received a dozen phone calls from relatives of missing migrants over the summer. But callers often have so little information about where their loved one went missing or fell ill in the county that it’s difficult—if not impossible—for law enforcement to locate them.
“I just received a call for someone who disappeared on the 18th of September,” he says. “But the only information we have about where he went missing is that it was near the checkpoint.”
Canales says families need help but he’s unsure what the National Guard search and rescue team can do in these cases with so little information. “What is the process to request a search and rescue deployment?” he asks. “I’m exploring all of the avenues right now, hoping they can help.”
On the first day of Banned Books Week 2014, The Dallas Morning News delivered the timely story of how Highland Park ISD—the wealthy enclave still grudgingly accessible by road from the rest of Dallas—has, more or less, banned seven books in response to a groundswell of parent outrage.
The Morning News‘ Melissa Repko reports that parents succeeded in getting the seven titles temporarily removed from classroom use, pending a review that could take months. Repko writes that the outrage surfaced a few weeks ago:
In Highland Park, more than 100 people packed a school board meeting this month. Parents and grandparents brought books flagged with sticky notes. They read excerpts of sex scenes, references to homosexuality, a description of a girl’s abduction and a passage that criticized capitalism. They sent hundreds of emails to district officials.
The school district doesn’t have video of the meeting, but it sounds as though it went a bit like this:
Like that school board in heaven Iowa, Highland Park school officials are urging calm, promising to give parents a chance to review the titles alongside teachers and students, and hopefully reach an understanding.
In a message sent Monday, Highland Park High School Principal Walter Kelly invited students and parents to join in the review. “Beyond the discussions of seven books out of hundreds of literary selections, I am more concerned about how we handle this as a school and community,” he wrote. “Central to the long-term discussion is how we make appropriate choices regarding instructional materials and books.”
Highland Park ISD spokeswoman Helen Williams says only one of the seven titles—Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain—was being taught this fall. Two others are slated for use in the spring, but she expects those books’ reviews will be completed by then.
“In terms of the effect immediately, it is not that onerous,” Williams says. “To give us time to conduct a thoughtful review, we are suspending use of those books.”
All of the books, she notes, are still available in the library—so this isn’t an outright ban—and parents always had the option to excuse their children from reading a given title. Still, this is the first time in more than a decade that parents have raised such widespread concern.
“It certainly a worthy topic and something I think is an age-old debate. What happened at the board meeting September 9 was standing-room only,” Williams says. September’s was the first board meeting of the new school year, and the first opportunity parents had to share their concerns after an email with controversial book passages began circulating in the spring.
The Morning Newsreports today that a new group of parents has formed to urge the district to put the books back in the classroom.
Highland Park’s banned-for-now list includes Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon—which Barack Obama has called his favorite book—and Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, both of which are on the College Board’s reading list for Advanced Placement English Literature. The Morning News has more details on the objectionable content in each of the seven banned titles.
It’s noteworthy that parents would declare war on so many books after more than a decade of peace—though, as Williams notes, worries about sex scenes or swearing in required reading are nothing new.
But there is also something especially rich about parents in Highland Park—where there are zero economically disadvantaged students, compared to 89 percent of the student population in neighboring Dallas ISD—objecting to their children being exposed to David K. Shipley’s 2004 work, The Working Poor: Invisible in America. “Some parents objected to the nonfiction book because it has a passage about a woman who was sexually abused as a child and later had an abortion,” Repko explains.
But then there’s the offending “passage that criticized capitalism,” which was read aloud at the board meeting. That’s not about coarse language, or even “adult themes” that could threaten the book’s G-rating. That’s about trying to control what ideas students are exposed to when they’re away from home—not so far, intellectually, from today’s conservative education movement, which has made statewide causes out of CSCOPE, the Common Core standards and the revised AP U.S. History course they say is too critical of the U.S. and its founders.
Every school district can choose which books to teach, which to put in the library, and which to avoid altogether. According to the ACLU of Texas’ 2013 banned books report, Texas schools have banned fewer books every year since 2007. The group says its 2014 report will be out later this week.
“We respect parents’ right to choose what books their children read and to work with teachers to find alternate titles when parents have concerns,” says ACLU of Texas Communications Director Tom Hargis. “But efforts by a single parent or small group to ban a title and keep all students from reading it infringes on the rights of other parents to make their own choices. No matter how well-intended, banning books is censorship and infringes on the rights of a free society.”
It also, in this case, made things a little awkward for the author Jeanette Walls, who is slated to keynote Highland Park’s literary festival next year, now that Highland Park parents have placed her memoir, The Glass Castle, on the chopping block. Walls explained to the Morning News why people should be allowed to read her book:
“Walls said she was heartbroken to learn that her book was on the list. Her memoir is about growing up in poverty with a father who spent his money on alcohol and a mother who became homeless.
“‘My book has ugly elements to it, but it’s about hope and resilience, and I don’t know why that wouldn’t be an important message,’ she said. ‘Sometimes you have to walk through the muck to get to the message.'”
Update Sept. 29: The Associated Press reported that Highland Park ISD has lifted the temporary ban on the seven titles mentioned below.
Tonight, Greg Abbott was interviewed by a team of reporters in McAllen. The interesting thing about this interview, which sets it apart from others, is that Wendy Davis was being interviewed at the same time. They even sat close to each other.
Campaigning in Texas is a very strange affair these days. Most Republican nominees, assured of victory, hide: There’s nothing else needed to win. So we can credit Greg Abbott for a willingness to take part in a debate, I suppose, except this wasn’t really a debate. It was more of a structured Q&A with lots of TV cameras. The two candidates didn’t really engage each other—the format didn’t allow them much space to do so. The moderators didn’t ask any follow-up questions and the candidates only asked each other one question apiece. It was, for the most part, a recitation of talking points. The whole thing went down on a Friday evening during high school football season—a great time if you want to minimize viewership.
All Abbott needed to do in this debate was keep words coming out of his mouth in relative order, and this was a charge that he took with the utmost seriousness. There were no “gaffes.” Yes, many of the things he said didn’t make too much sense—like when he seemed to credit the deployment of the state’s National Guard deployment for SpaceX’s decision, years in the making, to build a launch site in Brownsville.
A lot of things about Abbott’s performance seemed … off. There were the little things, like when he mixed up the name of one of the moderators, but anyone could do that. There was something odd about the way Abbott talked: the way he related the story about “visiting with a young Latina of about college age” who “begged and pleaded” with him to secure the border. It was odd, too, how frequently he referenced his Hispanic in-laws to answer questions about issues in the RGV: as if he was saying, Some of my best family members are Mexican-American…
In truth, if this were not Texas, Greg Abbott had a debate performance to feel mildly insecure about. But this is Texas: The bar is very, very low here. We’re a couple of weeks away from the general election, and we still don’t know very much about Greg Abbott. Who is he? What motivates him? What kind of governor would he be?
If Davis did better, she didn’t shine. It’s still remarkable how much Davis feels the need to tack right on many issues, like the border, or the death penalty. She touted several times that she wanted “boots on the ground” on the border, just maybe not Perry’s National Guard deployment. She again called for a special session on the border crisis. Davis said she was a staunch supporter of the death penalty.
She was more aggressive, turning to Abbott at one point and blasting him for for cozying up to Ted Nugent. She accused Abbott of wanting to standardize test four-year-olds and said that if parents wanted to change that they’d need to form a PAC, hire a lobbyist and make a political contribution to the Abbott campaign. One of her best lines came when she told Abbott that cutting $5 billion from public education wasn’t liberal or conservative but “just dumb.”
Davis highlighted her core issues: Her advocacy for pre-K programs, raising the minimum wage, equal pay laws. She hit Abbott—or as much as she could, given the format.
The spin from Abbott’s team post-debate is that Davis had a “meltdown” and “talked over the moderator.” In fact it was one of the few moments that a debate threatened to break out—before the moderator cut her off.
All in all, it’s hard to see how the debate moves the needle for either candidate. But it’s Davis who needs the upset. Abbott is content to play it safe and not make any unforced errors.
This week, the world watched as a proud people with funny accents, lots of oil and a long history of oppression at the hands of a distant, semi-foreign government flirted with secession.
I am talking, of course, about Texas. Sure, Scotland almost did the deed but what do those haggis-humpers know about freedom? The real story was happening here at home, where our Union is good but ya never know what’s gonna happen, ya know what I mean? Scotland was merely a warm-up, an inspiration for a referendum on Texas independence. As goes Scotland, so goes Texas, or so I’m told. Just ask Texas Nationalist Movement leader Daniel Miller (and, bizarrely, many journalists did). Pondered Miller in a post titled “Scotland is Paving the Way for Texas Independence”:
Have you wondered why the media on this side of the pond is relatively quiet in regards to Scotland’s upcoming referendum on independence? It is because those in power, sitting in lofty places, know that secession can be contagious. Look at what happened when the southern States of America began to break away. One by one, they followed.
Good ideas are contagious. Call it the bandwagon effect. Like teens buying One Direction schwag, one state decides to, say, defend the institution of slavery by plunging into a bloody conflagration and the rest can’t help but follow. Contagion.
But with independence (and the literal fulfillment of the Economic Development and Tourism Division of the Governor’s Office slogan “WHOLE OTHER COUNTRY”) comes great responsibility. National security. Border security. Public health.
Ain’t no thing, though. We’re already doing it.
First, we’ve got ourselves a secretary of D-Fence in Midland County Sheriff Gary Painter. When he’s not checking the Petroleum Club for jihadis, Painter is reading the morning intelligence briefing at Breitbart.com. Seems the sheriff has got a bead on a clear and present danger and it’s not mounting tensions between Midland-Lee and Odessa-Permian. Painter sees ISIS terrorist cells at the border. And they could be coming to the Permian Basin.
“I think it’d be naive to say that (ISIS is) not here…We have found Muslim clothing, they have found Quran books that are lying on the side of the trail, so we know that there are Muslims that have come across and are being smuggled into the United States.”
Maybe James O’Keefe dropped his costume? Well, in any case, there’s no proof that ISIS is here but there’s also no proof that they’re not. And ISIS is Muslim, Muslims use Quran books, and Quran books were found. Ergo: Code Red.
“If they show their ugly head in our area, we’ll send them to hell. And I think the United States needs to get busy. And they need to bomb them, they need to take them out.”
You heard the man: Bomb the ISIS stronghold. Bomb Texas.
(Also: the way Painter talks about “the United States” and “they,” you gotta kinda wonder: Has he already seceded?)
Independence, sovereignty, freedom—it means we’ve gotta police those borders ourselves. Greg Abbott’s got the Red River covered; who will take on the Rio Grande? There’s but one man for the job: Tony Tinderholt. Other men just talk; few are willing to admit that bloodshed (lots of it) is the answer.
“What’s going to happen on that border is going to be bad. And people are going to die. And it’s a sad, sad thing to say. But it’s the only thing that’s going to stop this infiltration of our country.”
Instant fact-check: People are dying. Pretty much every day. Authorities reported more than 700 deaths of immigrants crossing the border in the last two years. And those kids that are being deported back to Central America? Some of them are getting murdered. And still they come. And still they come.
But the invaders can rest a little easier this week. An old border battle-ax is moving on. A 21-gun salute for Todd Staples, Protector of America’s Food Supply. Staples is leaving his battle-station at the Texas Department of Agriculture—where he made combating the narco-terror threat to our rutabagas and sorghum a fixture of the office—to head up the Texas Oil and Gas Association.
What happens to our farmers and ranchers now that Staples has moved on to greener ($$$) pastures? They’ll be easier targets of the vegan menace. During his last weeks in office, Staples took on school nutritionists at Dripping Springs ISD, who dared implement a Meatless Monday. Hey if Pink Slime and USDA ‘Grade D But Edible’ chicken “fingers” are good enough for the kiddos on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, they ought to be good enough on the day after God’s day. Wrote Staples in a special op-ed for the Austin American-Statesman:
While we have plenty of room in the Lone Star State for vegetarians, we have no room for activists who seek to mandate their lifestyles on others.
Abiding by the first rule of op-ed writing—never waste an opportunity to invent a conspiracy by not mentioning another one—Staples ends his piece by playing one of the classics of the genre.
Need I remind Texas schools of another ugly fight over agenda-driven propaganda? Remember CSCOPE? Let’s get the propaganda out of Texas schools.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples at the 2012 Texas GOP Convention in Fort Worth.
Todd Staples, the state’s agriculture commissioner, is cashing his chips in. He’s leaving office now, instead of in January, so he can become president of that great advocate for our state’s agriculture industry, the Texas Oil and Gas Association. It’s hard to blame Staples: He’s gone as far as he can go up the political ladder—he placed third in the GOP lt. governor primary earlier this year—and this is a guarantee of a very comfortable life post-politics. (Though in a statement, Staples couched his decision in terms of his desire to “continue to fight for Texas to be the leader in our national and world economy.”)
But it’s worth reflecting on Staples’ legacy. He’s held the ag commish post for eight years, but his pursuit of promotion has been all-consuming. Now that he missed his chance, what does it all add up to?
For years, Staples’ overriding public concern has been border security, a non-traditional focus for agriculture commissioners. That was his springboard to higher office, he reckoned, and he went in big. Here’s the Observer’s Melissa del Bosque, from 2011:
Not long ago, Staples commissioned an $80,000 “strategic military assessment” of the Texas border. The Ag Commissioner released the 182-page tome, written by two retired generals, yesterday in a press conference at the Texas Capitol.
If you hadn’t heard, Staples is running for Lieutenant Governor in 2014. For the past year, the Ag Commissioner has been beating the war drums and burnishing his border security credentials. Last March, he unveiled a fancy, new taxpayer-funded Web site called “Protect Your Texas Border” which offers such highlights as night-vision surveillance chases of drug traffickers along the Rio Grande and a video interview with a Texas Ranger who proclaims: “We are in a war and I am not going to sugarcoat it by any means. We are in a war, and it is what it is.”
The website quickly became a PR embarrassment for Staples when its message board was flooded by people with helpful tips for fighting border violence:
User jcarrott suggests: “The most well known fighters of our Revolutionary war were not trained, they used hide and shot tactics that would work great today… If we — Americans — start shooting the bad guys, they will get the message!”
2$Bill offers methods like “watch groups, community patrols, land mines, tiger traps and roving packs of rabid [weasels].”
BTKKilla is more succinct, advising: “Killem all!!!! They are destroying or great country.”
Later, Staples used agriculture department money to purchase video cameras for the border, to the tune of $345,000. When Ted Cruz helped shut down the government last year, Texas farmers suffered. So Staples used his bully pulpit:
The government shutdown in October postponed the release of that month’s USDA crop report, which traders, distributors and farmers use to make important business decisions. Cotton prices fell 4.4 percent in the first week of the shutdown—a dramatic change that some pegged to the missing crop report. That price drop hurt already-struggling Texas cotton farmers.
Todd Staples was worried about the shutdown, too. The day before it ended, his office released a statement and two letters he had sent to U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, urging them to restore funding—for the U.S. Border Patrol. “I commend Congress for the current stand against Obamacare,” he wrote to Sen. Cruz, on Department of Agriculture stationary. “In the fray regarding the current shutdown, there are many questions about what are the essential functions of the government. Border security is absolutely at the top of the list.” Then he plugged his website.
Staples wanted to take the second-highest post in the state on the back of this kind of thing. But Dan Patrick skillfully outflanked him on the border, and it all came to naught. Old politicians don’t die—they just flail away.
Staples’ border activism has consumed almost the entirety of his tenure as commissioner—well, there’s also his long-lived anti-gay marriage activism. So where does that leave us as a state? What can we say Staples accomplished?
Staples’ probable successor—barring a shock landslide for Jim Hogan—is Sid Miller, who’s essentially already told us he’s gunning for the next job, too. He’ll make Staples look like Abraham Lincoln.
Sameena Karmally, Democratic Nominee for House District 98.
If Democrats are going to turn Texas purple, they need to do a lot of work at the local level. Long-hidden voters need to be identified, and organizational abilities need to be strengthened. To do that, Democrats need good candidates to run in local elections. Even if they don’t win, they’ll do their bit to put calcium back in the Democratic Party’s old bones. They might run in red districts with little chance of victory, but they’ll pave the way for future contenders.
But standing for election is hell—it’s costly, and it exacts an enormous personal and professional toll. Most people won’t do it if they don’t have a decent chance of success—and there aren’t many places in Texas these days where a Democrat has that chance. So big pockets of the state don’t have any Democrats of significance running locally, which further alienates ordinary people from Democratic politics. It’s a tenacious feedback loop that’s going to be difficult to break.
Some Democrats, though, are doing their part. Take Sameena Karmally, who’s been waging a long-shot effort in heavily Republican House District 89, which covers an area north and east of Plano. In a different context, Karmally would make a star candidate. She’s a lawyer and mother of two who grew up in the Metroplex. She’s smart and thoughtful, and has a compelling personal story: She’s the daughter of Indian Muslim immigrants, and worked her tail off to get to UT School of Law. This is one of those races that seems to embody the clash of the old Texas and new Texas, particularly because she’s running against state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg (R-Parker).
If you know Laubenberg for one thing, it’s that she became the public face of the coalition backing last summer’s abortion restrictions. Laubenberg sponsored House Bill 2, the legislation that Wendy Davis filibustered. During debate on the bill, Laubenberg famously said that a rape exception for abortion restrictions was unnecessary because hospitals “have what’s called rape kits,” so “the woman can get cleaned out.”
That remark earned her international notoriety, but at home, Laubenberg cruises from re-election to re-election. She hasn’t had a primary opponent since 2002, and hasn’t had to run against a Democrat since 2006. She has perfect scores of 100 from Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and Michael Quinn Sullivan’s Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, wins awards from groups like the Young Conservatives of Texas, and is lauded by the NRA and pro-life groups. She’s the state chair of the influential American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which writes bills for conservative state legislators.
When Laubenberg first won her seat, it was a predominantly rural district. But the Metroplex has experienced explosive growth, and the nature of her district has changed. The last bout of redistricting cut off Laubenberg from the most rural areas, and now HD 89 is heavily suburban, with a growing immigrant population. Many of the district’s residents work for tech companies. The district is less Republican than it used to be, but on paper, it’s still looks prohibitive for Democrats. In 2004, every member of the Republican slate won more than 75 percent of the vote—in 2012, Mitt Romney won just under two-thirds.
The Texas Observer met Karmally in Plano to talk about her race.
Texas Observer: So why did you want to run?
Sameena Karmally: I wasn’t planning on running. You know, my children are very little. But I grew up here in Texas, and I watched what was going on last summer with that whole debate over women’s health and it seemed symptomatic to me of a state government that’s just sort of heading over a cliff.We’re at the point now where we need to get control over what’s going on. We have so many issues in this state where people not voting is really affecting families and the quality of life and the Texas that we’re going to have in the future.
That’s one of the hardest things to communicate with people as we go out there, is that your vote could save lives. There’s children dying in foster care. Your vote could educate thousands of children because they’re cutting millions, billions from the Texas school budget. And people don’t know.
I guess it reached this critical point where I felt like I couldn’t wait ten years.
TO: A lot of people would look at this district and say that your chances are pretty slim.
SK: I’ve been told. (laughs)
TO: So why put yourself through this?
SK: Well, there’s the numbers on paper—and, nobody who knows me would say that I’m an overly naive or overly optimistic person—there’s what it looks like on paper, and what it looks like when you live here. When you live here, you see a whole lot of people who are frustrated with their state government, who are willing to vote for a Democrat who’s willing to do something.
And one of the reasons the numbers look so bad out here is because we just haven’t had any candidates run in so long. I’m Jodie’s first opponent in eight years. So we’ve fallen into this cycle of, there’s no Democrats who live here, there’s no Democrats to vote for. We meet people saying, “I thought I was the only Democrat who lived here,” everywhere we go.
We get them together for these events, and everyone is looking around shocked to find their friends and neighbors sitting with them at a Democratic event. They really thought that there was just no one like them in the area. And that’s very encouraging. That definitely pushes us to do more, versus just putting a name on a ballot, which has been the usual choice in the past.
I guess the answer is that I’m a sucker for hard work.
TO: Do you feel like you’re helping to open up the area for future Dems?
SK: Most certainly. Although—I think it’s a possibility to win in November. It’s just a matter of can we make enough phone calls and knock on enough doors. People are excited this year because of Wendy—we didn’t want to lose the chance to use that to do something locally while at the same time helping statewide candidates.
TO: How has this district changed since Laubenberg was first elected?
There’s many people who have moved here in the last two to four years—there’s just been an explosion of growth along the eastern side of Interstate 75. So that’s a huge opportunity. [Laubenberg] was redistricted, and the new lines were in effect two years ago, but of course there was no one running against her.This is the first time she’ll be running with these new lines, and the new lines cut away a lot of rural areas that were in her district and left her with these suburbs, which are very diverse and young, and where a lot of people have moved in from the east and west coasts.
So there’s the new people and the new lines, but there’s also the old people. We went block-walking last weekend and we went to a neighborhood where people had lived on that street for 20 years. They had a history of voting independently, D and Republican. They overwhelmingly were willing to vote for a new face, a new person, and they didn’t really care what party I belonged to.
TO: This area up here reminds me of the suburbs north of Austin—House District 50, formerly held by Mark Strama—which experienced rapid population growth and suburbanization and went from Republican-leaning to solidly Democratic in the space of about a decade.
SK: My in-laws are from there. Pflugerville is a good analogy: Think about what Pflugerville was like ten years ago. Solidly rural. You wouldn’t even meet people who really lived in Pflugerville.
It’s a similar situation here. Solidly rural areas have become completely built-up. The city I live in, Allen, which is almost to McKinney, became completely built-up. Huge change in the district. Someone ran against [Laubenberg] in 2006: Even in 2006 it was majority rural out here. There just weren’t a lot of people to reach. Now we have all these new voters.
It’s very similar to Pflugerville. This is called the Telecom Corridor, because of all the tech companies around here. Texas Instruments is right here in Richardson. So there’s a ton of tech jobs around here.
TO: Why did you want to run against Laubenberg, specifically?
SK: She was a big motivation, for sure. She’s exactly the kind of person I don’t want in charge of my tax dollars. I don’t want government intruding in my family’s lives. I don’t want religion in public schools.
It was the events of last summer that really tipped me over. I thought, the inmates have taken over the asylum. We have people that just don’t know what they’re doing. Her comment about rape kits…
TO: How has Laubenberg represented the district?
SK: She’s taking her orders from special interest groups. You look at her financials, and that’s who funds her. She’s doing the work of very large, monied interests. There’s not a lot of positive contributions that she’s made to our community.
We’re under stage three drought restrictions—she’s been on the [regional] study commission for the [Texas Water Development Board] for years and years and done nothing about it. We have such massive growth here—everyone agrees that our roads need investment. There’s no counter-argument to it. Even city councils are banging their heads against the wall, saying “we need state money to improve these roads our communities depend on.” And there’s no action from her at the state level to take on these pressing issues.
She voted to cut $5 billion from schools. Many people moved to Plano and suburbs like it for the schools. That’s why they live here. Then she votes to cut $5 billion from public education. Overnight, schools are more crowded. Teachers don’t know where they’re going to be shuffled. Every parent who had a kid in public school out here thought, “Well, this isn’t what I bargained for when I agreed to move out here and pay these property taxes.” That affects everybody, whether you have a child or not.
TO: You’re an Indian-American Muslim woman running in the district of one of the most conservative politicians in Texas. Has anyone tried to make your background an issue in the race?
SK: No, I haven’t attracted that much attention. (laughs) Also, my district is—the census would tell you that it’s about 10 percent Asian. I can tell you that it’s at least 10 percent Asian. So it would be very foolish to run a “she’s not one of us” kind of campaign, or to run on my ethnicity. And I don’t think people take very well to those kind of personal attacks.
TO: As you’ve been working the district and trying to meet these new voters, what are some things you’ve learned?
SK: One question that we’re been struggling with a little bit is—how many Democrats are there here? It’s hard to say. Even in a presidential race, Democrats may not turn out because they know how the state is going to go. And in the off-years, we haven’t always had the most compelling statewide ticket. So it’s hard to say how many potential Democrats there are. And having a good local candidate—and this year we have several good local candidates in the area—will help, I think.
Immigrant communities don’t always realize the potentiality of their vote—how important it is, all the decisions that are being made with their tax dollars. I think that’s true of many communities—many people that moved here from out of state, their vote might not have been as important when they were living in a blue state. Here, it’s a critical matter.
The turnout is so low here, we really have no place to go but up. There’s not as much potential for growth on the Republican side, because many of their voters are registered Republicans and already vote. We have whole neighborhoods, whole blocks, where we can go door to door. We walked just last weekend and I had nobody turn me away at the door—my husband had two. We’re talking almost a hundred doors.
We’re finding a lot of that. I’m from South Asia, my parents are from India. There have been some national studies that say South Asians—Indians, Pakistanis, Bengalis—they vote upwards of 80 percent Democratic. And they consistently vote, once you activate them. And there’s other ethnicities‚ Chinese, Vietnamese, that vote better than 50 percent Democratic and vote consistently once you activate them.
This is all work we have to do sooner or later. Why not do it ASAP?