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State Sen. Kevin Eltife answers questions from State Sen. Rodney Ellis, while Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick listens intently.
Christopher Hooks
State Sen. Kevin Eltife answers questions from State Sen. Rodney Ellis, while Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick listens intently.

When death came for the two-thirds rule, the 68-year-old dictate of the Texas Senate that requires 21 of the chamber’s 31 senators to agree to vote on a bill, it wasn’t exactly swift, but it was a gentler demise than some might have expected. For years, then-Sen. Dan Patrick had fulminated against the rule, which he saw as an unnecessary restraint on the power of Senate Republicans.

In 2007, on Patrick’s first day on the floor, he proposed changing to the rule to a simple majority—and he was voted down 30 to 1. But as the years have passed, Patrick’s critique of the rule has gained traction, and a number of the chamber’s new GOP senators were elected having pledged to junk it. Patrick’s election made it a virtual certainty that the rule would be killed.

But when senators voted on the rules they’ll use for the 84th legislative session today, as part of a package authored by state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler), it wasn’t Patrick’s simple majority that made it through—his original idea, and one he’d mentioned from time to time during his primary campaign—but a slightly reduced supermajority barrier. Instead of two-thirds, the Senate will now require three-fifths of the Senate, or 19 senators, to bring a bill to a vote.

There are 20 Republicans in the Senate, so the small change means quite a bit. Eltife’s floor speech in defense of the measure made a few simple points: Keeping a supermajority requirement would address some of the arguments made by backers of the two-thirds rule, namely that its disappearance would precipitate a split between urban and rural senators, who could find themselves competing for tight resources.

Winning 19 votes is a difficult thing, Eltife said, and wouldn’t be so different in practice from getting 21. He hoped that the change would bring more decorum to the Senate, not less. It wasn’t about partisanship, he said, but about good government.

The Democrats in the chamber, who will have less leverage than ever as a result of the rule change, had a hard time swallowing that. For nearly two hours, they took turns interrogating Eltife and attempting to poke holes in his reasoning. Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) argued that the rule changes as a whole would make it easier for Senate leadership to sneak through bills and rule changes later in the session. Many others argued from principle, saying that scrapping the two-thirds tradition would make the Senate a less bipartisan place, which was certainly the point.

Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) quoted from former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby’s memoirs, in which he called a 1979 attempt to circumvent the two-thirds rule the “biggest mistake I made as president of the Texas Senate.” Hobby added that “anything that doesn’t have the support of two-thirds of the Senate is seldom a good idea.” Ellis said he hoped those in the chamber today would have enough foresight to agree with Hobby by the time they wrote their books. “I think it’s a sad day for the Senate,” Ellis said, “and one we will look back on with regret.”

Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) was more pointed. The three-fifths standard, he reminded the room, was the same one used by the U.S. Senate, the world’s least effective deliberative body. “Members, I hate to say it,” he said, “but I think we’re going the way of Congress.”

“I have been an advocate of the two-thirds rule since the beginning of the tenure in my Senate,” Eltife said, but it was no longer tenable. He liked the idea of the supermajority requirement, he said, even though some Republican senators wanted to go to 50 percent, and he had worked to preserve it.

The two-thirds rule was broken anyways, he said. The most partisan bills the Legislature has passed in recent years found a way around the requirement. When bills are brought up during a special session, as 2013’s abortion restrictions were, only a simple majority is needed to get them through the sausage factory. And legislators have plenty of ways to ignore or avoid the two-thirds rule when they really want to during session—that’s the way they passed voter ID.

Senate freshmen like Don Huffines (front) and Bob Hall (back) stayed silent as the chamber's elders debated the rules change.
Christopher Hooks
Senate freshmen like Don Huffines (front) and Bob Hall (back) stayed silent as the chamber’s elders debated the rules change.

He has a point. Many Democrats stormed social media today with the hashtag #lockout—the rule change, many said, was patently unfair and would make Texas government dramatically less transparent. But this isn’t a tipping point—it’s more like the Legislature has taken a few more steps down the grand staircase of partisanship that it’s been descending for years. Democrats had very little leverage last session, and they have less now.

At any rate, you could see the two-thirds rule as a sort of artifact of one-party Texas—when the Senate was filled with Democrats, as it was in 1947 when the rule was introduced, the rule helped ensure that broad coalitions were being built and maintained within the party. Its late role as a safeguard for the minority party seems fairly accidental. When then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid saw the need to change the rules of the U.S. Senate to overcome gridlock over nominations, he did so, and Democrats cheered. Politics is about power, and sometimes talk about “principle” can obscure that.

It was Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) who might have put it best, with what we should call Whitmire’s Dialectic: “It’s probably not as bad as I’m making it out to be,” he said during his remarks, “but it’s probably not as good as you’re making it out to be.”

The two-thirds rule was junked by a vote of 20 to 10: One Republican, Craig Estes of Wichita Falls, abstained from voting, and one Democrat, the ever-independent Eddie Lucio of Brownsville, voted for it.

In a separate vote, senators cut the number of the chamber’s committees from 18 to 14. Getting the axe are Jurisprudence, Economic Development, Government Organization and Open Government committees. Three were chaired by Democrats last session, and one by Republican Bob Deuell, who was beaten in his primary.

It’s possible that years from now, we might look back, as Ellis suggested more than once, and see this as an historic moment in Texas government. Ellis predicted that moving to a simple majority vote system was inevitable. It seems clear that Patrick, when he writes his memoirs, will not be able to declare what Lt. Gov. Albert Clinton Horton did, on the last day of Texas’ 1st Legislature, May 13, 1846:

I can safely place my hand upon my heart and say that I have never taken advantage of my station, nor endeavored to pervert the Rules of the Senate, for the purpose of carrying into effect favorite views or projects.

Still, Patrick seemed at peace with himself. As he gaveled the Senate to a close on the first day he’d spent in control of it, he offered the chamber a brief benediction: “Go with god,” he said. “Go safely.”

WellsBrownothersiderebelyell

The National Book Critics Circle announced its 2014 awards finalists on Monday, and three Texas writers made the cut:

— Houston’s Lacy M. Johnson, in the Autobiography category, for her harrowing abuse memoir, The Other Side

— Austin’s S.C. Gwynne, in the Biography category, for Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson

— Dallas’ Ezra Greenspan, in the Biography category, for William Wells Brown: An African-American Life

The Observer reviewed both The Other Side and William Wells Brown last year

The full list of NBCC Award finalists is here.

The NBCC Awards dinner will be held, and winners announced, March 12, 2015, in New York City.

 

 

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings
Patrick Michels
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings was an early supporter of the home-rule drive for Dallas ISD, which came to an end Tuesday night.

Last night in Dallas, the commission that could have completely redesigned the city’s school system—handed control to the mayor, done away with elected trustees or rewritten teacher contracts—voted instead to call off its school reform experiment entirely.

It’s a quiet end to a dramatic reform drive that began almost a year ago, when a group called Support Our Public Schools announced its plans to make the state’s second-largest school system into its first “home-rule charter” district.

As Matt Haag at The Dallas Morning News wrote last night, the home-rule effort had already been slowly fizzling away for a while. Bob Weiss, the commission’s chairman, worried last night that, as Haag put it, “a home-rule district could undermine people’s democratic rights.”

Put that way, it almost sounds like a bad thing.

But to Houston billionaire John Arnold, the home-rule effort’s only financial backer to ever publicly come forward, that was kind of the point. As Arnold explained to the Morning News last year, “It’s very difficult to pass effective reforms with elected school boards. … What happens is you have window dressing of small reforms that collectively add up to very little effect.” To really focus on school improvement, he said, a school board needs to be free from “the ugly parts of politics.”

That willingness to blow up the current system, even at the expense of, say, democracy, is a hallmark of the philanthropy-driven school reform movement that is urging parents away from a system driven by elected school boards and influential teachers’ groups.

Dallas is an appropriate crucible for this sort of fight: plenty of poor urban schools with a track record of low graduation rates and poor performance on state tests, and a wealthy business class used to tackling problems with fistfuls of money. Not enough money to fund smaller classrooms or more bilingual programs for DISD’s 65,000 English-language learners, but enough to direct the conversation around reform. Arnold, for instance, would like to talk more about cost-cutting pension reform for public employees.

In Dallas’ ongoing school reform drama, which began in earnest when Superintendent Mike Miles was hired in 2012, the home-rule drive was just one particularly dramatic episode. Home rule could have had sweeping implications for the district, but it was never clear just what they would be—the commission never got around to writing the plan.

On Tuesday night, Weiss, the home-rule commission’s chairman, called the legal mechanism that allows for home-rule—a little-known piece of Texas’ original charter school law—”a very bad piece of legislation.” At the very least, it’s a complicated one.

In the next few months, lawmakers may try to rework the law to make it easier for districts to make the shift—Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick introduced such a proposal in 2013—within a broader movement of free-market school reform. If they do come up for discussion, you can bet Dallas’ near-miss with home rule will be Exhibit A.

Rodney Reed
AP Photo/Texas Department of Criminal Justice

While a joyful crowd celebrated the inauguration of Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, about 20 people gathered Tuesday near the Capitol in hopes of persuading the new governor to grant clemency to Rodney Reed, a black man sent to death row for the 1996 rape and murder of a white woman, Stacey Stites, near Bastrop.

Reed has maintained his innocence, and supporters have criticized the state for not taking a closer look at Stites’ fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, a Georgetown police officer who was later convicted of raping a woman while on duty.

At the protest yesterday, supporters chanted and held signs that read “Governor Abbott don’t kill an innocent man” and “Drop the Date! Test the DNA,” while cars driving by blew their horns in support.

Reed was convicted of killing Stites and sentenced to death in 1998. He is scheduled for execution on March 5. His family and supporters, including members of Stites’ family, are requesting that evidence in the case be tested for DNA. They’re also calling on Abbott to grant him clemency if the courts fail to order additional DNA testing.

“If they are so sure he is guilty, why not let them prove it and let us test the DNA?” said Cindy Beringer, an Austin volunteer with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. “Just to deny this extra testing and new technology to me seems illogical, but the town of Bastrop has really tried to cover up a lot.”

On Nov. 25, 2014, visiting Judge Doug Shaver denied Reed’s request to have various pieces of evidence related to the crime tested, including a leather belt used to strangle Stites. Supporters believe that Fennell’s DNA could be found, clearing Reed of wrongdoing. The sole physical evidence linking Reed to the murder was semen found inside Stites’ body. However, Reed has acknowledged having an affair with Stites. Shaver denied the request, stating that even if the evidence had been tested during Reed’s trial, the jury’s decision wouldn’t have changed.

The decision is on appeal at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, according to The Intercept.

Lily Hughes, the national director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, said Reed has been frustrated in his search for justice in the courts.

“Over the years we have been trying to get a hearing from everybody from the district attorney in Bastrop County to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana, all the way to the Supreme Court,” Hughes said.

Abbott has remained silent on the issue, and former Gov. Rick Perry has apparently never acknowledged the case.

Organizers say they will continue to fight for Reed even though his execution date is just six weeks away.

“We are trying to think of everything we can to save his life,” Beringer said.

2015 Inauguration Day Capitol
Kelsey Jukam

 

Inaugurations are an odd part of American civic life, and they vary wildly from state to state. In Oregon this year, the re-election campaign of Gov. John Kitzhaber was nice enough to distribute cookies to the public after his inaugural address. In Washington State, a “non-partisan, nonprofit committee of citizen volunteers” planned a few events, which could be attended by members of the public for a flat fee.

But this is Texas, where we do politics as God intended, and so the inaugural ceremony that ended the decade-and-a-half reign of James Richard Perry and began the bright new era of Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick was a $4.5 million corporate- and donor-powered blowout, complete with a flyover of F-16 fighter jets, cannon fire, and enough barbecue to feed a small army, and their horses and those horses’ horses.

It was a reminder that Texas disdains nothing more than modesty. It was also, of course, a chance to take the pulse of Abbott and Patrick as they take hold of power. Abbott spoke genially and tamely about the greatness and goodness of Texas, his family, and God, in no particular order; Patrick proved he can still stoke fires and poke eyes.

Patrick’s swearing-in came first, administered by his son, a Houston judge. It’s remarkable how little has changed since Patrick’s address to the state Republican Party convention this summer, the first time he declined a chance to swerve to the middle. He opened his speech by invoking Proverbs 21:31 to explain his election victory—“The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord.” Patrick, one presumes, is the horse.

“I worked hard,” Patrick told the crowd, “but the victory was His.” He was now, as he had been during his primary run, “a Christian first, a conservative second, and a Republican third.” He would strive to be “trustworthy, encouraging to others, and humble.”

Dan and Jan Patrick pose for admirers.
Kelsey Jukam
Dan and Jan Patrick pose for admirers.

With humility close to mind, he would strive to be the “best lieutenant governor in the history of Texas.” He urged the crowd again and again to repeat with him his speech’s refrain: “It’s a new day in Texas.” The last decade of all-Republican government had been fine, as those things go, but Patrick would take it to 11. “As conservatives we have done many great things over the last 12 years since taking the majority,” he said to applause, “but it’s time to take it to the next level.”

Remaining humble, Patrick invoked Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous speech. “I don’t think he could have dreamed that 52 years later that many of our inner city schools would still be failing our children,” he said. Dan, too, had a dream. “Some in Austin tell me school choice will never pass, but Dr. King is not the only one who can dream.” Patrick’s voucher and charter agenda would give every left-behind child a way to “break the bounds of poverty.”

Patrick laid out, with a strong measure of certainty, his legislative agenda—school choice, tax cuts, transportation funding, increased use of natural gas, more and more funding for border security. He excels at painting bright lines around himself and his opponents. Will that work well for him this year, now that campaigning is done? Patrick’s grandiose pronouncements—“We’re going to secure the border in this legislative session,” he told the crowd at one point, as if it had never yet been tried—shows what he feels he must deliver to his voters. But as time goes on, the scope of what he can actually get accomplished will narrow. Can he sell it back to his supporters?

Abbott, for his part, gave a much more traditional inauguration speech, in that it was essentially about nothing. Policy did come up, inasmuch as he vaguely asserted he would do something about traffic congestion, and water shortages, and standing up to the feds, but the specifics will wait for another day.

Here is a fine measure of the rhetorical difference between the two men: Patrick, as mentioned, defines himself simply. Christian, conservative, Republican. How does Abbott? He’s proud to claim the title of governor, he says, but the name of which he’s most proud is “Dad.” Aw.

Abbott spoke of his personal struggles—his ascent from his Houston hospital bed some decades ago was thanks to God’s grace, and the boundless possibilities of Texas. His message was carefully post-partisan. “Our children transcend politics in this state,” Abbott said. Except, of course, for the precious moments where he was able to hit at D.C. “Any government that uses the guise of fairness to rob us of our freedom will get a uniquely Texan response,” he said, in one of his largest applause lines. “Come and take it!”

He closed by asking the crowd to look at the pavement and grass under their feet. That was more than just soil. It was the trophy won by the fathers of the Texas Revolution and all those who had fought to give us liberty. Under the shadow of an enormous Confederate cavalryman’s memorial, attendees nodded.

It would not be the end of the festivities—there was barbecue, and a parade replete with Hummers and oil-themed floats, and tonight’s ball, headlined by the country band Lady Antebellum, who had to change their name, one imagines, from “Lady Prewar and her Things Were Better Back Then Band.” Long live liberty.

Greg Abbott in the inaugural parade, the first since 2003.
Kelsey Jukam
Greg Abbott in the inaugural parade, the first since 2003.

There was a godly theme at the Capitol grounds today. Dr. Tony Evans, a Dallas preacher who bills himself as “the urban alternative,” urged his audience to remember that “government was created by God, for the benefit of the people it serves.” He hoped that the pink dome behind him would continue to be “His house,” belonging to the “ultimate King.” Abbott and Patrick’s speeches did their best to flesh out what this would mean in practice.

Joe Gaston will be carrying his cross around the capitol grounds for three days of prayer and fasting.
Kelsey Jukam
Joe Gaston will be carrying his cross around the Capitol grounds for three days of prayer and fasting.

This was not lost on Joe Gaston, who came to the Capitol with an enormous, wheeled cross. He told the Observer he’d be circling the Capitol for the next two days, bearing the cross and praying for the state’s leadership. He was happy, he said, that “God was not hid” in the men’s speeches: “To hear a politician get up and publicly make that kind of statement, you’ve got to be bold.”

But beneath the godly gild today was a surfeit of earthly riches. Today’s big bash cost a hell of a lot of money, a modern record. To put it in context, it’s roughly comparable to the total amount of money Leticia Van de Putte, the Democratic nominee for lite guv, raised for her race in 2014. Some came from corporate donors like Comcast and Chesapeake Energy, companies with important business before the Legislature. There’s no requirement that donations for the inauguration be made public.

Some came from individual donors. Abbott’s appointees to the inaugural committee, which planned today’s events, include plenty of traditional GOP donor types, like Javaid Anwar, a Midland oilman who recently got named to serve on Dan Patrick’s advisory committee on energy. There’s even a member of the Walton family. Patrick’s appointees include more grassroots types—but that apparently didn’t inhibit them from raising the money they needed. In that respect, the new regime is the same as the old regime.

Additional reporting by Kelsey Jukam

Rick Perry
Patrick Michels

Rick Perry has been an elected official of the state of Texas for fully half of this magazine’s 60-year history, and governor for nearly a quarter of it. He is among the 20 longest-serving governors in American history. By virtue of lucky draws (a booming resource economy; uninspiring challengers) and skill (a genuine talent for retail politics), he has occupied the most bully of Texas pulpits longer than any of his 46 predecessors in the job. It’s an opportunity few men have been given, and fewer women. It’s fair to ask what he’s done with it.

He tried, and failed, to implement the Trans-Texas Corridor—a $150 billion boondoggle so unpopular that his own party’s platform opposed the project.

He tried, and failed, to mandate a vaccine for teenage girls—an intrusion so unpopular the state Legislature overrode his executive order.

He projected regressive attitudes regarding gay rights, creationism and capital punishment, on which latter count he has overseen the execution of 278 Texas inmates since taking office on December 21, 2000.

Perry’s most lasting legacy is probably his denial of Medicaid expansion, by which he chose to exchange the health and even the lives of Texans for cheap partisan posturing.

What has Rick Perry done for Texas? He has postured. He has played to his base, shooting coyotes and laughing off dual indictments for abuse of power, but he has not led it.

And even on the way out the door, with his so-called Texas miracle teetering on the edge of crashing oil prices, he dismisses factuality, telling The Washington Post in December that “We don’t grapple with” income inequality in Texas. Actually, Texas ranks among the top five states in terms of income inequality. But note that Perry didn’t say Texas doesn’t have an inequality problem. Just that he has no interest in doing anything about it.   

If it weren’t for all that still-remarkable hair, the temptation would be strong to dismiss Perry’s long tenure as a large, empty hat.

As Greg Abbott assumes office today, Perry’s three-decade run as an employee of the state government will come to an end and he will, to judge by appearances, turn his full attention to his quest to become an employee of the federal government.

What an opportunity for Texas. —The Editors

Leticia Van de Putte
Christopher Hooks
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte at a campaign rally on the campus of the University of Texas-Pan American.

To the victors go the spoils. To the defeated, San Antonio. So goes the career arc, it seems, of state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who recently lost her bid for lieutenant governor. Soon after the election, Van de Putte announced a dramatic change in course: She’d run for mayor of her home city, abandoning an essentially tenured position in the Senate. That decision set off a cascade of political changes in the Alamo City—and illuminates the dilemma of Democratic political talent in Texas.

Van de Putte’s pivot surprised many, and not just because she told the San Antonio Express-News last summer that she’d run for mayor under “absolutely no circumstances.” But it makes sense. If she stayed in the Senate, she’d likely suffer at the hands of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has pledged to take committee chairmanships away from Democrats. Democratic influence in the Legislature seems on the decline yet again.

But the state’s largest cities shade bluer and bluer every year, and there, the party is at its most vital. The mayor’s office offers a tantalizing measure of executive power, a high profile, and the opportunity to build a useful political base. Some of the most celebrated Texas Democrats are local leaders such as former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, Houston Mayor Annise Parker and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins.

Van de Putte will face San Antonio state Rep. Mike Villarreal, another party prospect fleeing the Lege. Villarreal, a bright and well-liked figure, suffered through a frustrating session in 2013. As the chairman of the seven-member House Committee on Investments and Financial Services, it fell to him to get payday lending regulations past the committee’s five Republicans—a Sisyphean task.

State Rep. Mike Villarreal
State Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio)

Villarreal and Van de Putte aren’t the only talented Democrats deciding the Lege isn’t the best use of their talents, but they’re unusual in that they’ve turned to fight each other. Though Van de Putte starts with significant advantages, Villarreal’s early entry in the race means he’s locked up significant donors and endorsements.

As the two take leave of an increasingly one-sided Legislature, though, there are still ambitious figures anxious to overtop the trenches. The special election to replace Van de Putte produced a runoff between state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, one of the punchiest Democrats in Texas, and state Rep. José Menéndez, a lower-key figure, with the former the favorite. Villarreal’s seat will be filled by a runoff as well.

If Fischer ascends to the Senate, Democrats will have a champion to spar with Patrick. But the long-term trend will hold: a more partisan Legislature, with fewer ways for Democrats to shine. Can Democrats turn the cities into a launchpad for their statewide aspirations? San Antonio’s Castro cast one vote: He left for a cabinet post in the Obama administration. But Van de Putte, if she wins, may be in a better position to test the proposition.

Introducing Myself

Joe Cutbirth

Well, Texas, I’m home.

There’s a story about Bob Bullock of Hillsboro who fought in the Korean War and came back to be one of the great public servants in state history. Tony Proffitt, Bullock’s legendary press secretary, once told me that when Bullock got home he literally got down, kissed the ground and promised he’d never leave Texas again.

I don’t know how apocryphal that is because Proffitt was known to spin a yarn, and I’m not on all fours yet—but almost. Texans appreciate manners so allow me to introduce myself. I’m Joe Cutbirth, the Observer’s new editor.

I left Austin 15 years ago after a good run in the capital press corps where some work I did around ethics helped close the career of a Democratic House Speaker. I also got some keen recognition for reporting on a Republican U.S. senator who had some ethical issues of her own but who survived a grand jury indictment.

After that I took time to reflect on things, which I highly recommend particularly if the scenery is nice. Teaching at Columbia University while working on a graduate degree in New York City is a great gig if you can get it. I got it, and I loved it, but it never was my terminal plan.

You see, the only job I ever wanted so bad I’d do anything legal to get it was to be a political reporter here in Austin. Before I went north I did that—first for a small bureau that the Lubbock and Amarillo papers shared in the late 80s and then for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram while Bill Clements and Ann Richards were governor.

In those days, large news organizations had big staffs that lived and worked full-time in Austin. We had six in our bureau, including Kaye Northcott and Molly Ivins, who made their names as co-editors at the Observer.

Molly once wrote: “I believe ignorance is the root of all evil. And that no one knows the truth. I believe that the people is (sic) not dumb. Ignorant, bigoted and mean-minded maybe, but not stupid. I just think it helps, anything and everything, if the people know. Know what the hell is going on. What they do about it once they know is not my problem.”

Kaye and Molly were mentors as well as friends. So, it seems I’ve come full circle, and it feels just great.

I’m not here to be the next Molly Ivins or the next Billy Brammer or the next Joe Holley or any other great editor who’s sat in this chair. I’m the first Joe Cutbirth and you can bet I’ll make a few mistakes, but one of them won’t be shying away from the truth. Truth matters.

The idea that truth can be found at some magic midpoint between two extremes if a reporter just gives them the same number of words or minutes and feigns indifference has just about destroyed American journalism. It’s what Jay Rosen has dubbed “the view from nowhere,” and you won’t get that on my watch.

I also think journalism works best as a public medium, not a mass medium. Journalism veered off course when it stopped helping people talk to each other and started talking at them. I took this job because I believe there is a progressive conversation already underway in Texas. The Observer that I edit is going to help that conversation develop and connect the people who are having it.

Jim Carey, the great media scholar I studied under at Columbia, once asked if I knew what the First Amendment really was about. Like a lot of people I had assumed it was a list of six freedoms, and that James Madison couldn’t decide which one was most important so he just lumped them all together.

Carey told me it was bigger than that.

It’s actually about one thing, he said, and it is the thing Madison thought was the most important thing for our democracy: a public sphere. If this new country was going to work, Madison knew there had to be a blueprint that guaranteed everything would start with citizens talking to each other. He put it right there in the Bill of Rights and made it No. 1.

The First Amendment tells us we have the right to get together when we want (freedom to assemble). When we do, we can talk about what we need (freedom of speech). We can write down the conversation and pass it round for those who couldn’t make the meeting (freedom of the press). Then, when everyone has participated and is fully informed we can go to our leaders and tell them what we want them to do (petition the government for redress of grievances). And no one can be barred from participating because of religion, which was the burning issue of the day (the establishment and free exercise clauses).

So, there it is. The First Amendment guaranteeing a free press for a specific reason: so people can connect and have the conversations they want to have in a marketplace of ideas. That is what the Observer is going to do on my watch.

Our first obligation will be to the truth. Our loyalty will be to our readers. We will work every day to give you the information you need to talk to each other and decide what you want our leaders to do to make this a better state.

That’s my pledge, and I’m sticking to it.

police body cameras
© Bob Owen/San Antonio Express-News/ZUMAPRESS.com
San Antonio police officer Johnny Moreno wears a body camera on Dec. 10, 2014.

At a press conference in late November, Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland called universal body cameras on police inevitable. “I think that it’s a matter of time before every law enforcement agency in the United States has body cameras,” Chief McClelland said. The catalyst, he said, was the shooting death of an unarmed teen in Missouri by an officer who went uncharged. “It’s not ‘if’ anymore,” McClelland said. “It’s ‘when.’”

In Texas, that someday is well on its way. Fort Worth police began wearing body cameras three years ago and already have more than 600, the second-most cameras of any force in the nation. But they’ll soon be surpassed by Houston. Impressed with a successful 100-camera pilot program, Chief McClelland announced in August that he was seeking $8 million with which to equip 3,500 Houston officers with body cameras over the next three years. San Antonio has been conducting its own pilot program, and Dallas’ newly elected DA, Susan Hawk, has vowed to use civil forfeiture funds from her office to buy body cameras for Dallas police. In November, the Austin Police Department requested information from city purchasers on the specifics of outfitting their officers with body cameras.

Lawmakers are also getting into the act. One key concern of body cam critics is that law enforcement policies governing them—such as when the devices can be turned off, how the video is stored and who may access it—can vary wildly among departments. So state Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) and state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) have pre-filed identical bills that would codify certain body camera policies for any agency that uses state grant money to buy its cameras. Primarily, police would have to turn the camera on for traffic stops, arrests, searches, interrogations, pursuits or answers to calls for service. But there’s also plenty in the bills to pacify defenders of law enforcement autonomy. During “non-confrontational” encounters such as witness or victim interviews, the camera could be off. Video of any encounter subject to an investigation—such as in the case of deadly force—couldn’t be released to the public until the investigation is finished. Most interestingly, police officers would be entitled to view all video of an incident before making an official statement about it.

Popular momentum and standardization, however, have little bearing on the central question of body cameras: Do they help? A New York grand jury’s failure to charge an officer who choked an unarmed man to death on camera caused many to despair of video’s value. But the best information available—a multi-source study by the U.S. Justice Department—says yes. Multiple recent empirical studies found that body cameras did have a “civilizing effect,” lowering citizen complaints, police use of force and assaults on officers. If so, that inevitable someday can’t get here fast enough.

Rick Perry addresses a joint session of the Legislature near the end of his final term in office.
Christopher Hooks
Rick Perry addresses a joint session of the Legislature near the end of his final term in office.

A child born when Rick Perry became governor of Texas would now be in her freshman year of high school: The guv’s been with us for so long that it’s difficult to remember what life was like before his immaculately-coiffed visage appeared atop the state’s public life in that gleaming, pre-9/11 interregnum between the Clinton and W. Bush administrations. But now, he’s finally, finally, finally leaving.

Governor Goodhair, as the Observer’s Molly Ivins used to call him, said goodbye to the Texas Legislature today, where he’d gotten his start some 30 years ago. He’s been governor so long that we’ve seen several different iterations of Perry, as if he were a teenager exploring new trends—there was the handsome young fellow who was elevated to governor thanks in large part to Karl Rove and Bush-era machinations, but who nobody expected to last this long. He went through a more heavily Christian phase during the Bush years, and then joined the Tenthers. After his run for president, he bought glasses, and fashioned himself into the kind of man who wears glasses confidently.

This was an opportunity to wrap it all up into a cohesive whole—as well as all that had happened in the last decade and a half—and he made the attempt. The soaring eagle of Texas had flown through the canyon of adversity and found itself in the gentle forests of triumph. He quoted Lincoln, and recounted his biography and Texas’ job numbers.

“Texas doesn’t recognize artificial barriers of race, class, or creed. The most vivid dreams take flight from the most humble beginnings. And so it was for me,” he said. From Paint Creek, a mighty tree had grown, a tree named Perry. The Legislature, he said, was in the “business of making dreams possible. Every dream counts, every child matters, and in Texas, every child has a chance.”

His Texas had been tested, by the disintegration of a space shuttle—he meant Columbia, but called it Challenger—hurricanes, wildfires, Ebola and Central American teenagers. But Texans were a “people whose character has been refined by fire, whose souls are resilient, who respond to tragedy with grace and who look to the future with hope.”

There were a few digs at Barry O—“We do not accept the false choice the president offers between protecting the environment and declaring war on American industry”—a few brags on Texas’ cultural growth since 2000—more theater seats, performing arts centers, South by Southwest and Formula One.

He touted efforts that took place during his tenure on criminal sentencing reform, and he urged the next Legislature to “get beyond our differences and seek common ground,” which is the kind of thing a politician is expected to say when he’s about to leave office, even if he’s never cared about it much before. “Compromise is not a dirty word if it moves Texas forward.”

He praised Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick and Joe Straus, and said he knows the “future is in good hands.” His final admonition: “Be true to Texas, always, and she will be true to you. Good luck, Godspeed, God bless you, and through you, may God bless Texas.” He took his wife Anita by the hand and descended the stairs, to healthy applause.

Goodbye, governor. We’ll see you in Iowa.