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Mr. and Mrs. Tony Tinderholt
tonytinderholt.com
Mr. and Mrs. Tony Tinderholt

Here’s a hypothetical on a lot of people’s minds during election season: Exactly how fringe, how whacked-out, how seemingly unbalanced does a Republican candidate in Texas have to be to risk losing a GOP-leaning district to a presentable, modest Democrat? A lot of Dems, aghast at how far right the state GOP has moved, go into their campaigns thinking they’re going to come out on the fortunate side of that divide. But they’re usually disappointed.

But after Nov. 4, there’s a small chance that we might be able to call that fulcrum the “Tinderholt point.” Up in Arlington’s House District 94, a conservative activist named Tony Tinderholt is helping us put the proposition to the test once again. The district is currently represented by Diane Patrick, a moderate-ish GOPer who earned the ire of conservative purity groups like Empower Texans before losing her primary to Tinderholt, a virtually unknown conservative activist.

His Democratic opponent in the general election is a fellow named Cole Ballweg, a friendly guy who exemplifies the kind of moderate Democrat who runs in Texas suburbs these days. He emphasizes his history as a small business owner, preaches moderation on guns, health care, abortion, and other issues, and wants to help make “smart investments” in Texas’ future.

House District 94 is pretty conservative—Diane Patrick was mostly unopposed through her four-term tenure, and in 2012 Barack Obama won only 38 percent of the district’s votes—so normally this would be pretty easy. The guy with the ‘R’ next to his name wins, and it barely matters what the Democrat says. Except: Tinderholt might be the weirdest GOP state House candidate this cycle. He’s one of the most off-the-rails politicians you’ll find in the country right now. He’s the closest Texas voters are going to get to achieving their long-held dream of electing a gun.

In September, a video of Tinderholt addressing a 9/12 group in the Metroplex emerged. It featured a lengthy, hallucinogenic screed from Tinderholt about this summer’s border crisis, in which Tinderholt, seeming to channel Travis Bickle, wandered in and out of lucidity as he prophesied that “people were going to die” on the border and that’s “the only thing that’s going to stop the invasion of our country.” He called for sending American troops into Mexico to stop border-crossers.

He told the crowd: “Our border will be secure when we arm it and stop the people from coming across.” The whole speech, including a disturbing section in which Tinderholt mentions the “disgusting” and “gross” things the “cute children” coming across the border are going to be forced to do, lasts some 20 minutes, and it never really gets any better.

It was the first of many pieces of Tinderholt-related weirdness to come down the pipeline. Recently, Ballweg’s campaign released more footage of the GOP candidate addressing members of Open Carry Tarrant County, the fringe gun group that has been terrifying random groups of people around Fort Worth and has been repudiated by both its ostensible parent group, Open Carry Texas, and the NRA.

Before an Open Carry Tarrant County demonstration, Tinderholt speaks to the group, promising that his election to the House will get them what they want and warning them about police interference. “I will author legislation that’s what you want, that’s what you want passed,” Tinderholt says. “If they act foolish, smile and come find Kory [Watkins, Tinderholt's friend and an Open Carry activist]. If I’m not here, he’ll call me.” In another video, an open carry protester tells another about the hopeful state rep: “This guy’s got our back 100 percent,” he says. “Tony Tinderholt has said, if the police ever harass you, call me immediately.”

After another demonstration, Tinderholt again urges protesters not to get too riled, because “Konni Burton, myself and a whole bunch of other people in the Senate and in the House plan on offering open carry legislation,” Tinderholt says, “that is gonna do away with restrictions like in hospitals and churches, all these places that are just like military bases,” presumably in that they currently ban personal firearms.

Tinderholt remains the probable victor, and he’s been personally backed by figures like Ted Cruz and Dan Patrick. But there’s been backlash against Tinderholt in the last couple of months. Ballweg has been endorsed by a number of Republicans, including two Arlington City Council members that Tinderholt has fought with in the past, and Dr. Ned Patrick, Diane Patrick’s husband. The Arlington police and firefighters associations have endorsed Ballweg, along with the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, which predominantly endorses Republicans. Ballweg’s campaign has publicized an internal poll that puts him two points behind Tinderholt.

In a strongly-worded editorial—headline: “Invading Mexico is Not a Good Plan”—the Fort Worth Star-Telegram endorsed Ballweg and urged Arlington voters to reject Tony Tinderholt’s views, for what it’s worth. Though it acknowledged that the Republican was favored to take the district, “just as it has for at least three decades,” the paper’s editorial board expressed a small glimmer of hope that he wouldn’t. “Maybe not this year—or at least, it shouldn’t.”

One potentially discouraging sign for Democrats is that no one really seems to be investing in the race right now. Ballweg only has about $12,000 in the bank as of late September—and Tinderholt only has $5,000. But who knows, maybe the “moderate Republicans” people talk so much about will finally make themselves manifest. Can you be this nutty and win? Let’s see.

John Specia
>a href="http://www.hhsc.state.tx.us/" target="_blank">www.hhsc.state.tx.us/
Family and Protective Services Commissioner John Specia.

Texas is pushing ahead with controversial reforms to the scandal-plagued foster care system despite a recent report that the overhaul is over budget.

A recent cost evaluation by state consultant reported that Texas hasn’t put enough funding toward the system and, as the Observer reported in May,  more funding will be necessary to keep the new system sustainable.

The Texas Legislature passed the foster care reform in 2011. It allowed the Department of Family and Protective Services, responsible for foster care regulation and administration, to shift some duties to private companies. These so-called lead companies would oversee privately contracted child-placing agencies responsible for recruiting and monitoring foster homes. Each lead company would oversee placing agencies in a certain part of the state. One main goal of the overhaul is to keep children closer to their homes.

But the Legislature had one caveat: the new system couldn’t cost any additional money, meaning lead companies must provide more services for the same amount of money that the state was spending on the old system. One company has already pulled out of its contract with the state, in part due to funding issues.

The Health and Human Services Commission, which oversees the department, contracted in July with the Boston-based Public Consulting Group to do a two-month study of “Foster Care Redesign,” as the overhaul is officially called. The report concluded that the system needs more money. “Additional resources are necessary to build an infrastructure to support and maintain a successful [lead company],” the recently-released report stated, adding that funds could come from alternative sources, like outside fundraising. The report recommended that Texas amend the 2011 reform legislation to require the new system to spend the same amount of money over the span of two years, instead of one year, to give the department more flexibility. The report also noted Texas is the only state attempting a foster care system overhaul without expecting to add funding.

The consulting group presented the study’s results at a Friday meeting of stakeholders who advise the state on how to implement, regulate and track the progress of the overhaul.

“We seem to have a very firm understanding that this isn’t a cost-neutral model. That to achieve what we want takes more money,” said Judge Scott McCown, director of the Children’s Rights Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin. “So I’m confused, when are we gonna tell people that this isn’t cost-neutral? When are we gonna fashion a plan for more money? … I just don’t know what we’re doing, it seems like a march of folly for me.”

Family and Protective Services Commissioner John Specia said later during the meeting that his staff is figuring out how best to ask the Legislature for more money during the upcoming 2015 session. At a recent legislative budget hearing, Specia included a one-time request for $1.6 million in funding for the overhaul. But that amount is just a placeholder, Specia said Friday. Nothing is final yet.

“I’m being pretty frank with the Legislature,” he said. “There are clearly issues related to funding. Cost neutrality, I think, is very difficult. Unfortunately we don’t have the hard numbers to say what does that mean,” Specia said. “I’ve got to be able to articulate what we get for the extra dollars they give us and we’re working on that.”

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Jail visitation

There’s nothing nice about jail. The food stinks. There’s nothing to do. People are in a bad mood. The best you can hope for is to get out quickly with minimal hassle. One of the few things you have to look forward to is a visit from a friend or a loved one—a brief face-to-face connection to remind you that the world is waiting on the other side of the glass. But some Texas jails are eliminating in-person visitation and requiring instead the use of a video visitation system sold by Dallas-based Securus Technologies. Critics say it’s an outrageous profiteering scheme that has no policy rationale and could actually deteriorate security at jails.

Securus markets its video system as a cost-saver for jails and a convenience for family members who live far from their incarcerated loved ones. But the structure of the deals suggests there are powerful financial incentives for jails to curb or eliminate face-to-face visitation. Securus charges callers as much as a dollar a minute to use its video services, and jails get a 20 to 25 percent cut. For big-city jails, that could mean millions in extra money.

“We believe Securus sees Texas county jails as a really ripe market for them,” said Kymberlie Quong Charles, an organizer with the prison reform group Grassroots Leadership. Securus, she pointed out, is a major provider of phone services for jails and prisons, but the FCC is cracking down on what it considers exorbitant rates. Video visitation could offer a source of revenue at a time of sagging profits for the industry.

In Dallas, activists and some local leaders, especially County Judge Clay Jenkins, helped kill a contract with Securus that included a provision stipulating that the jail had to eliminate all in-person visits. “It is very important that we do not profit on the backs of inmates in the jail,” Dallas County Commissioner Elba Garcia said in The Dallas Morning News.

The Bastrop County Jail is set to eliminate all face-to-face visitation in early November. Instead, visitors can use a free video terminal at the jail or pay $1 per minute to use the remote video system. The contract, reviewed by the Observer, cuts the county in for 20 percent of Securus’ revenues. It doesn’t require, like the Dallas contract, that in-person visitation be eliminated, but it stipulates that for the first two years the county only gets paid if it produces 534 paid visits per month.

In Austin, the Travis County Commissioners Court voted in October 2012 to add video visitation as an ancillary service—something prisoners’ rights advocates are fine with as long as the rates are reasonable and the service is reliable. But in May 2013, Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton quietly eliminated in-person visitation. Defense attorneys and inmates sued in April, claiming that the jail and Securus were unlawfully recording privileged conversations between inmates and attorneys and leaking them to prosecutors. On top of that, Quong Charles says the lack of human interaction is worsening conditions.

“What we found is that everything they said would happen in terms of improving conditions has actually gotten worse,” she said. “I think people are frustrated, they’re not getting to see anybody.”

A report released this morning by Grassroots Leadership and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition found that disciplinary infractions, assaults and contraband cases all increased within the year after the video-only policy was put in place. The report concedes that the trends may be an aberration or temporary but cites social science and long-standing prison policies holding that visitations improves jail security and lowers recidivism rates. One study of 16,420 offenders commissioned by the Minnesota Department of Corrections, for example, found that “prison visitation can significantly improve the transition offenders make from the institution to the community.” Even one visit lowered the risk that a person would re-offend by 13 percent.

“Video-only visitation policies ignore best practices that call for face-to-face visits to foster family relationships,” the report argues. “They advance arguments about security that are dubious, not rooted in research, and may be counter-productive.”

Grassroots Leadership and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition report found 10 counties in Texas that have already deployed video-only systems, with more considering the option.

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National Nurses United demonstration

After a second nurse from Texas Presbyterian Health Hospital in Dallas was diagnosed with Ebola on Wednesday, a national union said nurses are afraid and not receiving proper training or equipment to deal with the deadly virus.

Deborah Burger, a registered nurse and co-president of National Nurses United, said the Ebola diagnoses of the two nurses in Dallas were “truly heartbreaking, outrageous and totally preventable. We want to make sure it never happens again.”

Burger and at least 11,500 nurses across the nation, and as far away as Spain, participated in the press conference call Wednesday, and called for better training, equipment and resources to treat Ebola patients. In a letter sent to the White House on Wednesday, they asked President Obama to “invoke his executive authority” to order all U.S. hospitals to meet the highest “uniform, national standards and protocols” in order to “safely protect patients, all healthcare workers and the public.”

“We don’t have a national integrated health system,” Burger said during the press call. “We have a series of private corporate hospitals each responding in their own way. “

Several U.S. nurses said their hospitals were unprepared and that they had no protective equipment or training to deal with an Ebola patient, or any patient with a highly infectious disease.

El Paso nurse Yadira Cabrera said she and her coworkers received a 10-minute training, and nothing more. Cabrera did not name the hospital where she worked. “We need to get beyond business as usual,” she said. “Preparation is not a colored flyer or a number to call at [the Centers for Disease Control]. As RNs we need to be educated from triage to waste disposal.”

On Tuesday, nurses at Texas Presbyterian Health Hospital reached out to the union because they felt they were being blamed for the spread of the infectious disease. The nurses in that hospital were very angry, and they decided to contact us,” National Nurses United Executive Director RoseAnn DeMoro told CNN Tuesday. The nurses are worried conditions at the hospital “may lead to infection of other nurses and patients,” Burger said.

The nurses, who are remaining anonymous for fear of retaliation, related a number of troubling accusations to the union about how the hospital treated Thomas Eric Duncan, the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the United States. “Mr. Duncan was left in an area where other patients were present,” Burger said. “The nurses wore generic gowns with three pairs of gloves with no taping and surgical masks.”

The gowns exposed their legs from the knees down and their necks. When the nurses complained, they were told to use medical tape and “wrap it around their necks,” according to Burger. “The nurses had to interact with Mr. Duncan with whatever protective equipment was available. … There was no protocol,” she said. Duncan was extremely ill with projectile vomiting and diarrhea, which the nurses had to clean up. “There was no one to pick up the hazardous waste as it piled up to the ceiling,” she said.

The nurses also had to continue treating other patients in the hospital. Those patients were later kept in isolation for one day, then moved to another section with other patients.

The hospital and the Centers for Disease Control received more criticism Wednesday as news spread that the second nurse diagnosed with Ebola, Amber Vinson, had been on a flight from Cleveland to Dallas the day before she showed symptoms of the disease.

By speaking out, nurses are not “fear mongering,“ Burger said. What they are advocating for is “the highest standards to eradicate the disease.” The U.S. should be setting an example on how to contain and eradicate ebola, she said. ”If I was writing for the newspapers I would say, ‘We need help.’”

Rick Perry Showcases Bush-on-Steroids Foreign Policy

In London, the Texas governor urges the West to have "moral clarity" on the Middle East but offers few suggestions.
Rick Perry
Patrick Michels
Rick Perry speaks outside the Travis County courthouse Thursday, August 19, 2014.

Gov. Rick Perry is running for president again, and presidential candidates need Issues on which to take Strong Stands. So Perry has decided to build his run for president around foreign policy, and particularly, around the growing, all-enveloping catastrophe in the world’s most complex and politically intractable region—the secondary effects of the Syrian Civil War, and the rise of the Islamic State.

Perry—he of the oops, remember—will wade waist-deep into a conflict so clockwork-complicated and massive in scope that people who have been studying the neighborhood their entire lives can’t even figure out what’s going on any given day. He will provide perfect, Windex-wiped clarity, and demonstrate his great capacity for strategic thinking. This sounded like a great idea to someone on Perry’s team.

So on Tuesday, the governor found himself in London, in front of a crowd at the Royal United Services Institute, a distinguished think tank that has served as a place for discussion of defense issues since the Queen’s strongest foe was the Prussian Army. RUSI advertised that Perry would “analyse the challenges the United States and Western allies face in confronting threats to the international community in the twenty-first century,” a pretty comprehensive subject for a 40-minute address. Of course, Perry didn’t meet that promise—his speech was devoid of policy proposals or much analysis—but he did tell us a lot about how he thinks about the world.

America should plunge itself headlong into the civil wars now happening in the Middle East. We should “defend the lives of innocent Muslim people” just like we did in “Iraq and Afghanistan.” Dissent within the county should be curbed, because it causes moral “confusion” which inhibits our ability to do battle with our foes.

Perry’s foreign policy as outlined in his address is the doctrine of bright colors and high contrast—like a methamphetamine-boosted mash-up of speeches from the George W. Bush era. Perry told the British policy analysts that the Western coalition had to “hold nothing back if it will better assure our security,” without saying what would better assure our security. As for the jihadis, Perry said, “in all our conduct toward this enemy, there can be no illusions and no compromise of all that we are defending.”

We’re fighting, Perry said, for “the rightness and truth of the values of the West.” It was those values that led the West to protect “innocent Muslim people. Whether in Iraq or in Afghanistan or Syria today, or back in the 1990s in Kosovo.” The West’s humanitarian actions in Afghanistan and Iraq were part of what made criticism of the West so distasteful, he said.

“There are always people ready to insist that our societies could stand some improvement too—that we have our own injustices to correct. Such a posture of moral equivalence is seen now and then on the left,” Perry said. It’s a posture that “pretends not to see the most basic of distinctions. The shortcomings of Western democracy, and the systemic savagery” of groups like ISIS “all get mixed up as one,” he continued, describing it as a sickening “attitude of cultural relativism.”

Doubts about the course of the United States, and about the wisdom of intervening abroad “reflect a kind of deep confusion, at a time when moral clarity is at a premium,” he said. Later: “Without confidence in the truth and goodness of our own values, the great moral inheritance of our own culture, how are we going to deal with the falsehood of theirs?”

It’s a really bizarre sentiment, and not one that seems to accurately characterize what’s happening in the country right now, where’s there’s no great love for ISIS but a great deal of honest disagreement about what to do about the group. Open societies have always liked to believe that they benefit from debate and diversity of opinion—that they have strength, while closed societies and totalitarian movements ultimately break. But according to Perry, only purity and unity of thought will allow us to confront the current threat.

When Perry turned to the issue of Muslim assimilation in Europe, the language got stronger. “Suddenly, there are these closed enclaves in great cities,” Perry said, “where you have to be a fellow fanatic, or at least a fellow Muslim, to enter.” He added: “Of course, we all know who’s especially unwelcome in these nasty little no-go zones—a Jew.”

Forceful action had to be taken, Perry said, soundingly momentarily like a member of the European far right. “To every extremist, it has to be made clear: We will not allow you to exploit our tolerance, so that you can import your intolerance,” he said. “You will live by exactly the same standards the rest of us by, and if that comes as jarring news: Welcome to civilization.”

Western values, Perry says, helps “instill a yearning and a hope to be better and to do better by others” and “see the worth and the goodness of everyone.” Few others in the world hope for a better world for their children or see the universal value of human life. “You don’t find all that in every tradition,” Perry said. “Its abundance in our Western tradition is to be cherished, tended, and protected.

Perry may think moral confusion is the supreme danger to the United States, but moral clarity can be considerably more deadly. We know that we don’t like ISIS. The Islamic State is not good. But how to oppose them? This was not a subject of Perry’s talk.

Look briefly at a very small part of the current situation in the Middle East. The United States has spun the roulette wheel and determined that our best current ally is the Kurds. But there is no such thing as “the Kurds.” There are Turkish Kurds, Syrian Kurds, Iraqi Kurds and Iranian Kurds, and each of those four groups can be dissected and divided several ways. Each have complicated relationships with each other, experience significant internal political disagreements, and exist in a difficult-to-outline set of concentric circles of alliances with neighboring states, armed factions, criminal groups, global oil companies and international powers.

Right now, there’s a serious risk that the civil war in Syria and Iraq could spill over into Turkey, where the government may be relaunching a decades-long military campaign against the Kurdish PKK. There, no “moral clarity” is possible.

The Obama administration has been coolly detached and utilitarian in its use of American military power, and reluctant—until recently—to engage in bloodthirsty hyperbole. Come 2016, will Americans be looking for a return to Bush’s certainty? Or will they want to stay far away from the big brawl?

Maybe Perry will sound better at this the more he does it. At RUSI, it sounded rough. He concluded by striking the pose of the unctuous Anglophile.

“You British always sound so darned smart and refined, no matter what you’re saying,” Perry said, concluding his speech. “And it’s not just because of your many cultural exports: from James Bond and Julie Andrews to Simon Cowell and One Direction.”

He continued: “We Americans feel this affinity, and we admire you as we do no other nation, because of who you are and what you stand for.”

Perry thinks he’s figured out what America stands for. If he’s right, it’s going to be a bloody decade.

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The Wheelchair Ad

It's not as bad as you've heard, but it may not have been smart.
Greg Abbott greets his family onstage Sunday
Patrick Michels
Attorney General Greg Abbott is greeted onstage by his wife Cecilia and his daughter Audrey after he announces he's running for governor in San Antonio.

 

By now, a tremendous amount has been written about the ad the Davis campaign released last Friday. But since the campaign is continuing to focus on issues raised by the ad this week, including at a press conference in Fort Worth this morning, it’s worth saying a bit about it. Here’s the ad, in case you missed it:

It’s the first five seconds of the ad that are getting all of the attention. The ad starts with a picture of an empty wheelchair. Abbott, of course, is disabled. The voiceover begins with an extraordinarily odd opening line: “A tree fell on Greg Abbott. He sued and got millions. Since then, he’s spent his career working against other victims.”

The rest of the ad is a recitation of points that Davis has hit Abbott with in the past, encapsulated by the idea that Abbott is an “Austin insider,” and Davis is “working for all Texans.” A number of headlines roll by on a black background under menacing music: One of them relates to the Kirby vacuum company rape case, the subject of Davis’ first ad. One of them relates to the case of Christopher Duntsch, an appallingly incompetent doctor who killed and injured patients and whose hospital was protected from liability by tort reform laws. The point: Greg Abbott got his, then helped keep that privilege from others. He’s a hypocrite.

When the ad was released, the internet erupted in outrage. What to make of it all?

It’s possible to think a lot of the criticism of the ad is silly and overheated while still finding the ad itself harmful to the Davis campaign. When the ad dropped late last Friday—never a good time for clear-headed analysis—a critical mass quickly formed on Twitter, as national pundits passed the ad back and both.

To pick one extreme example among liberal commentators, Ben Dreyfuss at Mother Jones shot pretty wide of the mark when he wrote that the ad was “basically calling Abbott a cripple,” and accused the Davis campaign of saying that “Greg Abbott is unfit to serve because he is handicapped.” I can’t find that in the ad. The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake called the spot “one of the nastiest campaign ads you will ever see.” It’s not even the nastiest ad in this race—for my money, that distinction still belongs to Davis’ first ad, a sleekly exploitative spot that used a grimly allusive true-crime reenactment to turn the story of a horrific rape into a political cudgel with which to bash Abbott.

But if some of the criticism was overblown, there’s a defense of the ad from Davis supporters that misses the mark. The ad is about Greg Abbott’s hypocrisy, and nothing else—they say that the press and others who highlight the treatment of Abbott’s accident in the ad are being willfully obtuse. But with a political ad, as with anything else a person creates and puts into the world, the perception of the thing is indistinguishable from the thing itself. You can’t say what a thing is and wall it off from the interpretation of others. Politics is about managing popular perceptions. And if a large number of people find something to be in poor taste, there’s probably something to that.

Would it have been possible to use Abbott’s accident to highlight his hypocrisy on tort reform in a better way? Probably. It might have been better to avoid altogether, but it seems possible that the Davis people could have approached the subject of Abbott’s accident more delicately. One problem with the ad, it seems to me, is that a viewer might take the message that there was something nefarious about Abbott’s original lawsuit. The sinister opening flashes the headline “Abbott could receive $10.7 million” on screen as the narrator stresses the word “millions,” as if he was describing the illicit use of a private jet.

Have you seen that ISIS ad that Dan Patrick started running last week? As ridiculous as it was, Patrick’s talk about ISIS only took up the ad’s first four seconds. They led with it because it was punchy and they knew it would get attention. Davis’ campaign did the same thing, and it worked, although it may not be the kind of attention they were hoping for.

Is it possible the ad’s high profile will help Davis? Well, it’s helped give her message a boost. The ad has been watched more than 375,000 times as of mid-day Monday—it’s the most-watched video her campaign has produced so far. But a lot of the viewers will be watching it because of the mass condemnation.

At the press conference this morning, Davis was introduced by two disabled-rights supporters and an advocate for the rights of sexual assault victims. The event was partially a defense of the ad, and partially an opportunity to re-emphasize talking points in front of what was presumably a larger audience than normal.

Southern Methodist University law student Lamar White, who is disabled, opened the press conference with a strong condemnation of Abbott’s career as it related to the defense of victims’ rights. “Why does he deserve justice and they do not?” he asked. “I’m grateful to the Wendy Davis campaign for reminding people” of Abbott’s actions.

Victims’ rights advocate Livinia Masters said much the same, emphasizing that Abbott “rightly sought justice for himself,” but “turned his back on others who sought the same justice.”

Another disability advocate, Laurie Oliver, had stronger words: “Shame on you, Greg Abbott. Your hypocrisy makes you unfit to be governor.”

When Davis took to the stage, she emphasized that Abbott had “rightly” sued following his accident, and that she was “glad” he won his case. “He deserved justice for the terrible tragedy he endured,” Davis said. “But then, he turned around and built his career working to deny the very same justice he received to his fellow Texans rightly seeking it for themselves.”

Again: “Greg Abbott has built a career kicking down the ladder behind him,” Davis said. “We need to call this what it is: hypocrisy.”

In the end, it’s hard not to come away from this episode reflecting on the demoralizing race we’ve had so far. Neither of these campaigns seem to be inspiring many people. Abbott’s ads have been relentlessly, painstakingly empty—even the ads ostensibly about policy say little of value about what kind of governor he’d be, a question for which we still have few answers.

And Davis’ ads have been relentlessly negative. I find it hard to believe that many Texans know very much about what kind of governor she’d be, even now. Maybe both are running the smartest plays available to them—but it’s not exactly a good sales pitch for civic engagement.

Dan! Dan! DAN! THEY'RE RIGHT BEHIND YOU!
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Dan! Dan! DAN! THEY'RE RIGHT BEHIND YOU!

We’re nearing the second half of October, which means one thing. Spooky specters and grave ghouls abound. Wizards and wraiths walk the land. Sinister “visitors” seeking power and riches appear, seemingly from nowhere, to darken the path of the normally blissfully unaware average Texan. Detritus from the paranormal forces, engaged in their never-ending battle, cloud storefront windows and residential lawns.

Suburban citizens, frightened half to death already by the proliferating clouds of contagion to our north, and the heathen zombie army to our south, steel themselves in their homes to face the army of doorbell-ringers arriving with the same terrifying query: “Are you planning to vote on November 4?”

1) Earlier this week, Dan Patrick, full-time biblical scholar and hobbyist candidate for lieutenant governor, posteth some wise words on Facebook. No, seriously, here they are:

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But a couple days later, the pot and salvia smoke had ventilated out of Patrick’s campaign headquarters, and cooler heads prevailed. That hippie bullshit had to go, man. So on Wednesday, we got a peek of Patrick’s first TV ad of the general election, featuring a very high concentration of fear-of-man, practically weapons-grade. Turns out everyone’s favorite new jihadi militia, the Islamic State—personally backed by Sheikha Leticia al-Vande al-Putte—has already made short work of Arkansas and is coming across the border to exterminate whatever small portion of the state’s residents survive the Ebolapocalypse. (In fairness, Van de Putte’s disturbing and problematic new ad probably made this line of attack inevitable.)

Patrick got made fun of for his ad, which is understandable. But later: Vindication. GOPer Duncan Hunter, California’s first action-doll congressperson, went on Fox News with gasp-worthy news. The border patrol had caught “at least 10” ISIS fighters. Even Greta Van Susteren seemed to have a hard time swallowing it, but it was good enough for some. They’re coming. The dream is real. Patrick posted the story on his Facebook page. It’s been shared more than 2,500 times, and has more than 500 comments. Here’s a sprinkling:

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Then, Hunter’s story fell apart. The Department of Homeland Security called it “categorically false.” Hunter’s spokesperson meekly offered that his office had “evidence from reliable sources” that “foreign nationals” who may “not technically be ISIS fighters” but were “suspected” of doing something naughty “had been captured.” OK. Patrick, ashamed to have accidentally sowed the seeds of panic and fear with bad information, holding himself to a continually high standard, took down the post imme—hahaha, no, sorry, I kid. I kid.

But that little flap aside, he’s doggedly working on the real issues:

Dan Patrick
October 4 · Edited
I had a lot of comments on what did fried sweet tea taste like, how is it made, & why did I try it.

1. I tried it because my grandson wanted me to try it. All grandparents
understand.
2. It tasted like a warm fried donut with a cool liquid inside that taste just like sweet tea.
3. I have no idea how to make it but one of our commenters, Brenda, supplied the answer. By the way it was actually very tasty.

Deep Fried Sweet Tea – The South’s #1 beverage has been deep fried! Home brewed sweet tea is blended into a custard filling. The custard is given a graham cracker crust, deep fried, & topped off with homemade sweet tea syrup. The crispy, golden graham cracker crust gives way to a warm & gooey center that’s packed with sweet tea flavor.

Dan Patrick 2014—Crispy, golden graham cracker crust; warm & gooey center; sweet tea flavor. (No Mexicans.)

2) Up in Senate District 10, GOP candidate and tea party organizer Konni Burton has a new ad out this week. It’s a little weird. Normally in these things, the goal is to make a candidate seem warm and friendly—no matter how cold, robotic, tired, angry, hungry and unwittingly alienated from his or her true self by late capitalism they might be. But Burton never speaks, even to say “I’m Konni Burton, and I approve this message.” No one shown in the ad speaks, unlike her opponent Libby Willis’ more lively ad, which features, at least, a character of sorts. Is Burton trapped in there?

The entire thing consists of B-roll, dental office music, and a slightly off-putting voiceover that issues proclamations, like “Active in her church,” and “Konni Burton will eliminate wasteful spending.” It’s like a video stock photo. It’s a tea party lullaby.

But in its unadulterated banality, it somehow gives the impression that something terrible—something grim and unknowable and vast—lurks just below the surface. I took a stab at pairing the video with a more fitting soundtrack.

Here’s Konni Burton looking at things:

yeah these are nice... haha
yeah these are nice… haha
finally copped those new prince albums... i mean, damn, girl
finally copped those new prince albums… i mean, damn, girl
spending.... it's bad, in my opinion
spending too much…. it’s bad, imho
i mean sure the trailer looks good. but every pt anderson movie since boogie nights has been a massive letdown. first you've got...
i mean sure the trailer looks good. but every pt anderson movie since boogie nights has been a massive letdown. first you’ve got…

Fortunately for Burton, she’s running on more than being an attentive listener. Old people vote a lot, and Burton wants them to vote for her, a lot. What’s something old people don’t like? Being murdered.

KB Mail piece 1

Are you a grandmother in the Fort Worth area? Do you remember how that family doctor you go to sometimes jokes about how much he’d love to buy your house? He’s coming for you. You’re in his goddamn sights and you probably won’t win in a footrace. Only Konni Burton can make sure you’re still drawing breath for Kaitlyn’s bat mitzvah.

It’s fear-mongering on a level that’s kind of awe-inspiring. It makes other GOP pols seem lazy. ISIS? Sharia law? Muslims in general? Black people? Ebola? Benghazi? The cartels? Screw all that noise—Konni Burton has identified the real threat. It’s doctors. You will never feel safe again.

Vote or die.

3) Ken Paxton is going to make Greg Abbott look like Clarence Darrow.

Screen Shot 2014-10-10 at 12.11.53 AM

Don’t worry, Texans. These frightening folk are gonna go back in the closet just after Halloween—but the sequel, which starts in January, is going to be a positively defrightful thing. By which I mean to say…

THE END?

Ed Graf in 1988.

Michael Jarrett has no easy task. The McLennan County assistant district attorney is trying to convince a Waco jury this week to convict Ed Graf of murdering his two stepsons. Graf stands accused of setting the fire in a shed behind his house that killed the 8- and 9-year-old boys in 1986. The tricky part is that Jarrett must prove Graf’s guilt without the benefit of physical evidence. In fact, the scientific evidence in the case, according to several leading national experts, points to an accidental fire.

Making Jarrett’s assignment even more difficult, he can’t disclose to the jury why Graf is just now standing trial for events that transpired 28 years ago. He can’t tell the jury that Graf was originally convicted in 1988, that he served 25 years of a life sentence in prison and that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the conviction last year, ruling that the forensic evidence of arson was faulty and unreliable. The judge has ruled that any knowledge of the previous proceedings could bias the jury. So Jarrett can’t reveal to the jury the very reason for this week’s bizarre re-trial.

As Jarrett rose from his creaky, swiveling wooden chair to give his opening statement on Tuesday morning, a packed courtroom waited to hear how exactly he planned to pull this off.

Jarrett’s solution was to fall back on good storytelling. He may not have much forensic evidence to present, but he has a wealth of circumstantial evidence that casts suspicion on Graf, and Jarrett will make use of every bit of it.

Jarrett began telling the story of a “family torn apart by greed.” The greed belonged to Ed Graf, he said, standing before the 12 jurors. He had married Clare in the mid-1980s and adopted her two sons, Joby and Jason. For Clare, a single mother working two jobs, Graf seemed a “knight in shining armor.” But she soon learned that Graf was a prickly accountant, a man who liked things done his way, a man who could be controlling of her and her sons.

Jarrett started in on motive—money. Graf had been caught embezzling $75,000 from the bank at which he worked, and in fall 1985, he had to pay the debt back. He needed money. So he took out $50,000 life insurance policies on the boys, in July 1986, a month before the fire. After their deaths, he sought to collect on the policy.

Jarrett then said that testimony would show that Graf had forced the boys, in the weeks before the fire, to move storage bins filled with their keepsakes into the shed. “This man,” Jarrett said motioning toward Graf, seated at the defense table, “required his victims to build their own death chamber.”

It was a stunning line, the emotional climax to Jarrett’s effective opening statement. Jarrett conceded to the jury that, “You’re not going to hear anyone say they saw Ed Graf strike a match,” his admission that the prosecution’s case lacks scientific evidence. But, he said, as with his daughter stealing cookies from the cookie jar, Ed Graf could cover up the proof but couldn’t hide all the crumbs. Of course, that same circumstantial evidence was raised at Graf’s 1988 trial.

Jarrett ended with the one new piece of evidence he had: The jury, he said, would hear testimony from jailhouse witnesses about how Graf talked about the boys recently. They will reveal that Graf told them “Those little bastards got exactly what they deserved.”

That would seem a devastating bit of testimony, if it’s true. Jailhouse witnesses are notoriously unreliable.

In their opening statement, Graf’s defense attorneys had no narrative to tell. They didn’t have to. They went straight for scientific fact.

“We’re going to bring you scientific fact,” said Michelle Tuegel, one of three attorneys arguing Graf’s defense. “We’re going to bring you 2014 science in this case, not 1986 science.”

She then briefly explained that the field of fire investigation had advanced considerably since 1986. And she described why fire scientists now believe the fire was likely accidental, perhaps started by the boys, how the high levels of carbon monoxide found in the bodies indicate that the fire was an accident.

The defense team also showed that the circumstantial evidence, while compelling, is circumstantial for a reason—because there are alternate explanations. The defense attorneys pointed out that Ed Graf didn’t need money in summer 1986. He’d paid back his entire $75,000 debt, and secured another well-paying job. They also explained that Graf purchased life insurance policies that are known as universal plans, which can accrue money and are considered good investments for kids. In fact, Graf’s father had purchased such a policy for him, and he’d used it to pay for tuition at Baylor University. They also described Graf as an active parent who took the boys to amusement parks and the beach, and attended their sporting events.

Tuegel told the jury the case was about three tragedies—the death of the boys, a grieving mother and a man wrongly accused of murder. “You’re the only ones who stand between Ed Graf and a fourth tragedy,” she said.

After opening statements, Jarrett and his co-counsel spent the rest of Tuesday presenting their case. They brought forward seven witnesses. Among the most effective was Kathy Green, Graf’s former co-worker at the bank. She testified he once told her that he and Clare would be better off if “the boys weren’t around.”

T.J. Clinch, now 37, was a close of friend of Joby and Jason. He tearfully recounted on the stand that he played nearly every day with the boys. He admitted they had once started a small fire in his backyard, but immediately put it out. They did it just once, he said. “They did not like to play with matches,” he testified of Joby and Jason. At the 1988 trial, witnesses testified to other incidents when Joby and Jason played with fire, and the defense will likely offer that evidence later this week. But Clinch wouldn’t indulge the theory that the boys started the fire. “They wouldn’t have been playing in that shed.”

Del Gerdes, Clare’s sister in law, then took the stand and testified that Graf showed no emotion after the fire. “Not one time did that man say, ‘What could I have done?’” she said. Under cross-examination from Tuegel, Gerdes became angry. When asked if people show grief differently and if Graf could have been mourning in his own way, Gerdes shouted back at the attorney that 99 percent of people would at least shed a tear. “That man,” she screamed while pointing at Graf, “didn’t do that. All he did was act like a brick wall.”

The day ended with more testimony from Graf’s former in-laws, who discussed at length his cheapness and curt demeanor. By the end of the day, the prosecution had proven that Graf was a miserly, and not particularly pleasant, individual. But does that mean he’s capable of murdering his two stepsons?

The prosecution continued to build its case on Wednesday morning. The trial is expected to last at least the rest of the week, and perhaps run into next week.

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