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Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announces his run for governor in San Antonio, July 14, 2013.

Of all the ways politicians can abuse their power, none is as serious as messing with voting rights. Corruption is troubling and can become endemic if left unchecked. Lying, especially under oath, weakens the bonds of trust in a democracy. Cronyism violates basic rules of fairness and leads to inefficiency in core government services. But tampering with the franchise is an offense against democracy itself. That’s why Greg Abbott’s successful efforts to shut down a voter registration campaign in Harris County are so troubling. Although the saga started unfolding four years ago, it only came to light in August, when The Dallas Morning News reported details of the criminal investigation and raid. I recently spoke with Fred Lewis, the man who headed up the voter registration drive and who is now accusing Abbott of a serious abuse of power. The effect, he said, has been to “criminalize” voter registration in order to “rally up the base.”

To briefly recap: In the run-up to the 2010 election, the tea party poll-watching group King Street Patriots began complaining about a voter-fraud conspiracy in Houston, linking ACORN, the New Black Panther Party and a new voter registration drive by Houston Votes, an offshoot of Lewis’ community organizing group Texans Together. In more innocent times, registering people to vote was seen as a dull but laudatory civic activity. But King Street Patriots saw a conspiracy, a threat. And, more importantly, so did Leo Vasquez, the Republican elected official in Harris County who oversaw the voter rolls at the time.

At a very unusual press conference in August 2010, Vasquez announced—alongside representatives from the King Street Patriots—that Houston Votes was behind an “organized and systematic attack” on the integrity of the voter rolls. Vasquez complained that many of the voter applications submitted by Houston Votes were duplicates or for people who had already registered—an almost universal feature of paid registration drives that rarely results in voter fraud. In any case, it turned out that Vasquez’s claim of 5,000 bogus applications was fancifully high. Nonetheless, Vasquez referred the case to the Texas attorney general’s office for an investigation.

Three months later, armed law enforcement officers dispatched by the AG’s office raided the Houston Votes office in Houston, and, two weeks later, hit Fred Lewis’ office at the Baptist Christian Life Commission headquarters in Austin, seizing computers and records. The raids were overseen by a 27-year-old investigator who developed a novel legal theory that Houston Votes had possibly committed felony identity theft by storing information collected from individuals in the course of registering them to vote. In October 2011, the investigation fizzled when the Harris County DA rejected the AG’s case for lack of evidence. Two years later, the AG’s office destroyed Texans Together’s computers and records, using a statute that deals with contraband. Lewis said he was never even notified. Though no charges were ever filed, Houston Votes’ database of new voters, its financial records, including a donor list, and Lewis’ personal files were destroyed.

Lewis, a veteran campaign finance attorney in Texas who founded Texans Together in 2006, said he didn’t even know the AG’s investigation had ended until he was contacted this past August by The Dallas Morning News—two years after the case had collapsed.

Though the case stalled, the armed raid and criminal investigation had an impact: Houston Votes lost its paid organizers, saw its funding crippled and its voter-registration efforts dwindle. Houston Votes had been on track to register 70,000 new voters in 2010, Lewis says. Because of the raid, it registered only about 25,000. Instead of bringing disenfranchised people into the system, the group was lawyering up.

Lewis, who worked as a lawyer at the attorney general’s office from 1989 to 1995, said he has warned colleagues to not even think about trying paid voter registration in Harris County. “They’ve criminalized voter registration in my view,” Lewis said.

Abbott has defended the investigation but also said he “didn’t know about it at the time it was going on.” The attorney general also strongly insinuated—despite the dead-end investigation—that Houston Votes had engaged in “some wrongdoing that was akin to ACORN-type political operations.”

Lewis said the episode suggests that either people at the top of the AG’s office wanted to shut down a voter registration drive or that the people running the investigation were zealots operating without supervision. “The problem was nobody was a professional, nobody was supervised, nobody said, ‘This is ridiculous, this is overkill, this is abuse, this is a bad precedent, this is not what we want to do in a democracy.’”

Texas has the lowest voter turnout in the nation. Is it any wonder why?

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Democratic nominee for comptroller at a campaign event with Tejano legend Little Joe, October 24, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Democratic nominee for comptroller at a campaign event with Tejano legend Little Joe, October 24, 2014.

Update: Last week, the Observer sat down with Democrat Mike Collier to talk about his candidacy for state comptroller. Collier, a veteran accountant, is in a race with state Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy) for control of an office that plays a crucial role in the state’s budgeting process. The Observer asked both candidates to sit for a Q&A, but Hegar’s campaign didn’t reply to our request.

In the interview, Collier spoke about the poor performance of the state’s current comptroller, Susan Combs, and the importance of producing reliable revenue forecasts for the Legislature to use while creating budgets. “We’re a very large, very prosperous state,” Collier said. “But for some reason we can’t seem to find the money for roads, schools, and water.”

Collier has proposed producing quarterly revenue forecasts, which would make it easier for the comptroller’s office and Legislature to adjust to changing economic conditions. More accurate revenue forecasting, he says, would provide the Legislature with more money to invest in the state without raising taxes.

He also spoke about the need to correct dysfunction in the state’s property tax system, where owners of commercial and industrial properties pay artificially low property taxes, shifting the state’s tax burden to homeowners.

“It’s patently unfair to homeowners and owners of small businesses,” Collier said. But attempts to fix the system have always met a quick death in the lege, where monied interests hold sway. If he’s elected, Collier says he’ll “be fiercely independent and call to people’s attention where these bills stand.” In the past, Hegar has helped kill tax reform bills.

Collier also said that the comptroller should act more assertively as a watchdog over public funds. “We have a pattern in Texas where the leaders at the very top can dole out this money and act like they’re above the law,” he said. “A big part of that problem lands at the feet of the comptroller.”

The comptroller’s office, he said, should be shorn of ownership of the Major Events Trust Fund and other marginal responsibilities so that the comptroller can maintain his or her narrow focus on sound financial policy.

Previous story: The comptroller’s debate last night was a pretty rare thing in the crazy tilt-a-whirl of this election cycle—it was substantive, contained serious but civil disagreements between two generally well-informed and earnest candidates, and illuminated real policy distinctions that are both important and little-discussed in the state’s public sphere. Compared to the rest of the debates and candidate forums we’ve seen over the last year, it might as well have been a unicorn convention.

In part, that’s because almost no one in the state is paying attention to the comptroller’s race. That’s unfortunate, because it is a hugely influential and important position. The comptroller provides the Legislature with an estimate of how much money the state can spend over each two-year cycle. If the comptroller bungles the estimate, legislators will either spend too much money or, as has happened under the tenure of incumbent Susan Combs, will make sweeping cuts to state government they didn’t have to make. (Combs is partially responsible for the gargantuan cuts in 2011 to the state’s public education system, which proved to be essentially unnecessary.)

And that lack of attention is unfortunate for Democrat Mike Collier, because it’s hard to see how many people could watch his debate with state Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy) and come away with the impression that Hegar deserves the state’s purse strings more than he. Collier, a former partner at the global accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, is an ideal technocrat: He’s passionate about good government and good accounting, and he lacks political ambition. Hegar was a so-so senator who doesn’t have much of a plan for the office.

The moderator of last night’s debate asked how Collier and Hegar would avoid the kind of foul-ups Combs has had. How would they come up with better revenue estimates? Collier said he’d provide quarterly revenue forecasts, which would help the office more nimbly adjust to economic conditions and give observers a better sense of whether he was doing a good job. He had decades of experience with revenue forecasts, he said.

Combs’ failure was so massive and so inexplicable, he said, that he “personally believes it’s a possibility” that she screwed up the revenue forecasts on purpose to squeeze state government. The office needed an apolitical hand on the till. “We need somebody in the office who knows what they’re doing,” he said, which in Texas is a virtually revolutionary statement. He’d be a “watchdog” that would use the office’s authority to beat back corruption in different crannies of state government.

How would Hegar make sure he wasn’t botching revenue forecasts? Well, he would travel around the state and talk to businessmen, to “get the pulse” of the state, in order to better understand Texas’ “economic vibe.” He’d use “21st century communication technologies,” including YouTube, to spread the word about the comptroller’s office. Well, OK.

Collier called for closing “loopholes” relating to the tax assessment of large industrial and commercial properties, which shifts the state’s tax burden to homeowners. Hegar said a broader fix was necessary, but couldn’t say much about what that fix would be.

Glenn Hegar
State Sen. Glenn Hegar

Collier brought up Hegar’s proposal to abolish property taxes, and replace them with sales taxes—an idea that few policy analysts take seriously but has nonetheless won favor with state GOPers, including lt. governor nominee Dan Patrick. Collier characterized Hegar’s proposal as “tripling sales taxes.” Hegar angrily denied wanting to do so, but then told his TV audience that “consumption taxes are the best method of collection,” seeming to indicate he’d be fine with a shift toward them.

Collier, like his Democratic ticket-mates Sam Houston, running for attorney general, and Leticia Van de Putte, nominee for lt. governor, have won every major newspaper endorsement in the state. Collier projects competence and practicality—Hegar projects ideology and ambition. In a more civically engaged state, Collier would at least have a shot at comptroller. But this is Texas, and the odds are stacked significantly against him.

Still, Collier has been putting in a performance he can be proud of as one of the punchiest members of the Democrats’ good-government ticket. “It’s almost comical that a career politician would lecture a 30-year businessman about job creation,” Collier said of Hegar in his closing statement. Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up one day next year and know the man keeping the state’s books knew what he was doing? “We’re all tired of politics and we’re all tired of politicians,” he added.

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Wendy Davis speaking
Patrick Michels
Wendy Davis speaks at her gubernatorial campaign announcement October 3 in Haltom City.

If Wendy Davis and the rest of the Democratic slate of statewide candidates have any chance of defying the polls, or even doing better than the disastrous (for Dems) year of 2010, they’ll probably need a large number of voters to turn out to the polls. We’ve written this story many, many times: The Achilles’ heel for Texas Democrats is that their voters don’t show up. Texas has some of the worst voter turnout numbers in the nation and that abounds perpetually to the Republicans’ advantage. This election cycle was supposed to start changing that. A year and a half ago, Battleground Texas—the hyped Obama-style grassroots machine—came here promising to launch a multi-year effort at rebuilding the Democratic apparatus largely by expanding the electorate and deepening engagement with neglected communities and constituencies, especially with Latinos.

Well, we’re more than a week into early voting. How are Davis and Battleground Texas doing? It’s probably still too early to reach any definitive conclusions but the tentative answer so far is that turnout does not look all that different from 2010, the last mid-term election and a horrible year for Texas Democrats, when Bill White lost by 13 points to Rick Perry and Republicans won so many seats that they secured a super-majority in the Texas House.

The total number of people voting early barely tops 2010. Despite a bump in registered voters and significant population growth, only about 16,000 more people have voted in the first nine days of early voting this year compared to the last mid-term in 2010.

Voter turnout in Texas, 2006-2014
Stefan Haag
Voter turnout in Texas, 2006-2014

The conventional wisdom is that’s bad for Democrats, though the Davis campaign says there’s reason for “cautious optimism.”

“Of course higher turnout is generally better,” said Jeff Rotkoff, a Democratic operative who advises Steve and Amber Mostyn, the Houston couple who are among the biggest donors to Texas Democrats. “But counties don’t vote. People do. In Harris County we’re not focused on the overall percentage turnout, but rather on who is voting. And that while it looks like Republicans carried the first week of early voting in person, that we carried the weekend and Monday.”

Battleground Texas says its volunteers knocked on the doors of 300,000 people over the weekend alone. “We’re encouraged by the support we’ve seen to date, and we expect our voters to increasingly make their voices heard at the ballot box as they continue to hear from our 33,000 grassroots supporters on the phones and at the doors,” said Jenn Brown, executive director for Battleground.

In Texas’ 15 most populous counties, voter turnout (the percentage of registered voters making it to the polls) so far is actually down by almost 6 percent, compared to 2010. And that gap has been growing with every day. A number of big urban counties are posting anemic numbers: Dallas, Bexar, Travis and El Paso all have lower voter turnout than four years ago. Perhaps most ominously, 5,000 to 8,000 fewer voters are showing up to the polls every day in Harris County, the state’s biggest county and a natural target for progressives looking to establish an anchor for statewide candidates.

In 2010, 13.5 percent of registered voters had cast a vote at this point; this year, it’s about 12.7 percent. Democrats are quick to point out that the number of registered voters has increased, but even by raw vote totals Harris County, which is now 70 percent minority, is in a sad way. In 2010, a little under 295,000 people had voted in the first eight days of early voting; in 2014, it’s dropped 15 percent, to 252,000.

Democrats say just focusing on turnout is simplistic. “In Harris County we’re not focused on the overall percentage turnout, but rather on who is voting,” Rotkoff said.

Battleground Texas says its internal analysis shows that the electorate consists of more Democratic-leaning voters. Through Monday, African-Americans made up .8 percent more of the early vote electorate compared to 2010. Hispanics made up 2.2 percent more.

Meanwhile, there are major parts of the state where voter turnout is looking good: Tarrant (Fort Worth), Collin, Denton and Hidalgo (Rio Grande Valley) are all posting double-digit gains, which may have a lot to do with local dynamics. In Fort Worth, the only truly competitive state Senate seat—Wendy Davis’ district—is up for grabs. Denton voters are deciding whether to ban fracking. And Hidalgo County voters are considering a hospital district. Collin County, which has seen a 22 percent increase in the number of voters, is one of the most hardcore suburban GOP counties in the state. On the other hand, turnout is down in the heavily GOP suburban counties of Williamson and Montgomery.

“The data isn’t 100 percent clear, but it is clear that turnout seems to be lagging,” said Karl-Thomas Musselman, an Austin-based Democratic political consultant, “and I think it’s helping Rs more than Ds.”

There are three more days of early voting left, including today, as well as Election Day. Perhaps turnout could surge. Perhaps the GOTV efforts we’ve heard so much about are paying dividends that are hard to discern in the public data. But at this point, statewide Democrats will probably need a turnout miracle to keep the dream alive.

Wendy Davis speaks to students at the University of Texas at Austin, October 27, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Wendy Davis speaks to students at the University of Texas at Austin, October 27, 2014.

On the campus of the University of Texas at Austin today, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis urged a packed room of students to vote and to help her campaign turn out voters. The rally comes as spotty turnout numbers during the first week of early voting have called into question Democrats’ ability to turn out enough voters to make an impact on Election Day, only a week away.

At the rally, Davis told students that her opponent, Greg Abbott, would “shortchange the future of the state.” Davis ran through her campaign’s core arguments—Abbott only cared about his “insider buddies,” and hadn’t used his office to protect the state’s citizens. She highlighted Abbott’s defense of school funding cuts, and told the crowd she would try to win an increase in the minimum wage, increased access to health care, and equal pay laws for women.

“I know very much who I am. I know very much where I come from. It is deeply embedded in me,” she told the crowd. “I am a fighter for people.”

With Davis’ campaign behind in most polls, Democrats have to turn out a large number of unlikely voters to make an impact this cycle. But turnout in the first week of early voting has been low. Davis and other Democrats are traveling the state, hoping to excite their core constituencies.

At Monday’s rally, Davis predicted that young voters would “lift us across the finish line.” She told the young crowd that her campaign “need[s] your help in this next eight days. I need you to make sure that no one stays home. I need you to talk to your friends about the fact that not voting is voting to keep the status quo.”

Afterward, Davis told members of the press that her campaign was in a “place of momentum,” and boasted of her campaign’s “32,000 volunteers.” She blasted recent polls, including one from the Texas Tribune that gave Abbott a 16 point lead, as “internet polls” that were “wildly inaccurate” and didn’t reflect the true state of the race. “The real poll is taking place right now,” she said. “The momentum is going to continue through this week of early voting.”

When a reporter pointed out that turnout has been flat so far—the state’s major population centers have seen fewer voters take advantage of the first week of early voting than in 2010—Davis said the campaign had evidence that “our voters are increasing. And they’re a greater percentage of the overall vote.”

When another reporter pressed her for the source of that belief, Davis said the campaign’s models and data operation showed a more Democratic-favorable electorate coming to the polls. “We’re very encouraged by what we’re seeing in those numbers,” she said. “More people who are inclined to vote for me are showing up and voting.”

She continued to hit Abbott hard on ethics, as she has for much of the campaign. On Abbott’s mishandling of materials relating to the Texas Enterprise Fund, she told a reporter that Abbott “has shown himself to be a dishonest person,” she said, adding that she would fight for “accountability” in office.

Photo illustration of a communist Texas barn.
Original photo by Stuart Seeger/Flickr
A Communist stronghold somewhere in Falls County.

I don’t know about you but I’m already terrified of the next crisis. I don’t know what it is, but it’s probably going to be really, really scary—like, scarier than the current crisis. Which is Ebola, right? Or is it ISIS coming across the border bearing Urdu dictionaries, prayer rugs/soccer jerseys and, let’s say, also Ebola? Or is it:

Or are we still terrified of those leprous illegals from Central America who came here to steal jobs/spread disease? I haven’t heard much about those kids (who aren’t really kids) lately so that probably means they’re up to no good and Obama is covering it up. The point is: Be scared. Be afraid. See you at the polls.

1) First of all: communists. We all know they’re out there… biding their time till they can get into the Texas House of Representatives and join forces with Speaker Joe Straus. Democrat, Republican, doesn’t matter. Communism is on the march, no more so than in House District 149, an ethnically diverse slice of suburban Houston currently represented by Democrat Hubert Vo, whose communist leanings include owning dilapidated apartment complexes with “leaky ceiling, rats and high energy bills.”

His opponent, Republican businessman Al Hoang, according to Vo supporters, might also be a communist. And communists do what communists do: Grab the nearest boxcutter.

The rough-and-tumble campaign for state representative in District 149 escalated as police arrested a campaign supporter for Republican candidate Al Hoang for allegedly threatening his opponent’s supporter with a boxcutter.

On Monday afternoon, a Hoang campaign volunteer, Peter Vo, reportedly brandished a boxcutter at an early voting location and cut through a banner that called Hoang a Communist. That’s quite the insult in this southwest Houston district, which is slightly under 20 percent Vietnamese. The campaigns have accused each other of not being sufficiently anti-Communist.

2) Also scaring the tar out of us this week every week: What else? Muslims. Jeffrey Swindoll is a young man who attends Baylor University and covers sports for the Baylor Lariat. He doesn’t like “politically correct” because it isn’t “always right.” It’s not right, he writes, for everyone to go around “defending Islam” by pointing out that the vast majority of Muslims are not violent jihadists. Swindoll is taking the fight to political correctness with an arsenal of mixed metaphors:

There are a lot of problems with the national discussion about the terrorist group known as the Islamic State (also referred to as ISIS or ISIL), terrorism, and Islam as a whole. The majority of those problems come from non-Muslims that are bending over backwards to defend Islam without a leg to stand on.

Which sounds like one hell of a yoga move.

Unfortunately, Obama isn’t interested in addressing the reality of Islam. He’s more interested in making the American worldview a liberal pipe dream. Liberals are using one hand to throw Christianity out of the window while using the other hand to pull out the chair for Islam to sit at the head of the table. It doesn’t make sense, but that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Guess who’s coming to dinner? Islam, that’s who. Liberals, they’ve only got good manners when terrorists are guests. It doesn’t make sense.

Swindoll cites several verses from the Quran to prove, definitively, that Muslims are violent extremists and complains that followers of Islam have a “literal” interpretation of their holy book. Meanwhile, at Baylor, professors must be Christian (or Jewish!) and students are expected to share the “conviction that truth has its ultimate source in God and by a Baptist heritage…” But, hey, God picked a hell of a football team.

When the voice of tolerance and reason is Ken Starr, perhaps you’ve gone too far.

3) This week, we also quivered (in a non-sexual kind of way) at the thought of Gays in the Military, led by (shocker!) Louie Gohmert. The East Texas statesman was on the radio this week glitter-bombing us with his wisdom:

“I’ve had people say, ‘Hey, you know, there’s nothing wrong with gays in the military. Look at the Greeks,'” he said. “Well, you know, they did have people come along who they loved that was the same sex and would give them massages before they went into battle. But you know what, it’s a different kind of fighting, it’s a different kind of war and if you’re sitting around getting massages all day ready to go into a big, planned battle, then you’re not going to last very long.”

You’re not going to last very long when you’re getting a gay back massage. OK, Louie. Time to set the “Days Since Louie Has Said Something Hilarious” sign back to zero.

4) We were also frightened by juries of our peers this week. Here’s proof that there’s merit to the old tough-guy boast “I’d rather be carried by six than judged by 12”: The jury in the re-trial of Ed Graf, a Waco man who spent the last 25 years in prison based on faulty arson science, had a little trouble with the notion of “unanimous”:

5) Most apocalyptic of all though was the revelation of the true face of evil this week. Few people probably remember it, but one of the weirdest and distressingly stupidest moments of the lieutenant governor primary was the sudden emergence of cat GIFs and BuzzFeed-style political ads.

DewFeed

Well, now we have an extensive profile in Bloomberg about the man who introduced Dan Patrick to the Internet Culture. His name is Vincent Harris and he’s a 20-something Austin millennial religious fundamentalist who listens to Lana Del Rey in his BMW while doing 95 on the toll road, man, and is totally on a Paleo diet. #YOLO. He’s getting rich making Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell cool for the Yo set. He’s explaining BuzzFeed to Dan Patrick.

In August 2013, trying to build support for Texas State Senator Dan Patrick as Patrick aimed to knock off David Dewhurst, still the lieutenant governor, in the GOP primary, Harris conjured up the idea of a BuzzFeed spoof that used the Internet’s most popular animal diversions to castigate Dewhurst for not stopping State Senator Wendy Davis’ legendary filibuster against an anti-abortion measure. Patrick, who was initially nervous about whether such an approach would diminish him, was persuaded by Harris to take a gamble that ended up drawing copious press coverage and more than doubled his social media following.

“When he laid that out last August, I didn’t know what BuzzFeed was, I didn’t know what a gif was,” says Patrick, 64. “DewFeed was one of many things we did over the last 14 months. It wasn’t a game changer. It didn’t decide the election. Did it help? I think so. It’s hard to know.”

Dan Patrick, talk-radio show guy who once had a vasectomy performed on the air and was filmed shirtless while Houston Oilers cheerleaders painted him in blue, thought maybe it was maybe going too far. LOL. OMG. What’s next? Patrick’s plan to hike the sales tax explained with a Buzzfeed quiz? Patrick’s latest tete-a-tete with God over legislation disseminated via Snapchat?

And Harris isn’t done. He’s got a whole generation of bright minds working at his downtown office using their talents to turn complex geopolitical machinations and weighty electoral choices into trivial memes:

In one corner, a young woman ponders how to turn a remark over the weekend by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in support of Hamas and Hezbollah into a gif that will help drive traffic to an advocacy group’s Facebook page. Nearby, a co-worker puts the finishing touches on a classic Concentration-style game in which each matching pair of cards offers a way Alison Lundergan Grimes agrees with President Obama.

When fascism comes to America it will be wearing a smiley emoji.

Leticia Van de Putte addresses a crowd of students at the University of Texas-Pan American
Christopher Hooks
Leticia Van de Putte addresses a crowd of students at the University of Texas-Pan American, October 23, 2014.

At a campaign event in Edinburg on Thursday, Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor Leticia Van de Putte—with a little help from actress Eva Longoria—made a strong and pointed pitch to a cohort that will be an important factor in whether Democrats put up a strong showing on Nov. 4: young voters of the Rio Grande Valley.

For decades, predominantly Hispanic communities in South Texas have had some of the lowest voter participation rates in the country, and hopes for a Democratic revival in the state are premised partially on raising those rates. On the campus of the University of Texas–Pan American, Van de Putte, along with a number of other speakers, made a multi-pronged argument for the Democratic ticket.

There was the positive case: More civic engagement would help the Valley—the area needed good government to keep growing, and Van de Putte told the crowd of mostly students that she would convince the Legislature to spend more on education and infrastructure.

But Van de Putte also hit her opponent Dan Patrick directly. At a rally the night before in San Antonio, Van de Putte’s mother had been in attendance. “My mom always told me, ‘Leticia, if you can’t say anything nice about somebody, then don’t say anything at all,’” Van de Putte told the Edinburg crowd. “But my mom’s not here.”

Patrick, Van de Putte said, stood for the “past.” He had voted for and supported cuts to education funding, and his rhetoric on the border represented policy preferences that were a threat to the future and stability of South Texas. When Van de Putte told the crowd that one of Patrick’s first acts in office would be to end in-state tuition for undocumented migrants, there was a round of boos from the students. UTPA has a significant number of undocumented students.

Afterwards, Van de Putte spoke to local media and again criticized Patrick’s attitude toward the region. Patrick had ”only been here one or two times,” she said, to “take a picture of him in a gunboat. He understands that to get votes in his primary, he has to insult our families, our culture.”

Earlier this year, Democrats were excited about the prospect of running against Dan Patrick, whose extraordinarily strange and alienating rhetoric during his GOP primary run seemed to present the possibility of being too far-right even for Texas. So far, that hope hasn’t seemed to materialize—most recent polls have Patrick considerably ahead of Van de Putte, doing even better, relatively, than Greg Abbott in his race. But Democrats still hope Patrick excites Hispanic turnout and alienates some number of moderate Republicans.

There was another warning for the students on Thursday. Eva Longoria and Henry R. Muñoz III, co-founders of the Texas-focused Latino Victory, both told students at the rally that “’they’ don’t want you to vote.” Republicans like Patrick were counting on young and Hispanic voters to stay home. “They” might talk about inclusion, and in the importance of voter participation, but they didn’t really care. It served as an implicit criticism of Patrick as well as Abbott, who has been campaigning in the Rio Grande Valley in an effort to bolster the GOP’s Hispanic vote share.

Afterwards, Van de Putte and Longoria worked a ropeline together, and the campaign headed for Corpus Christi, where Abbott had been campaigning with Chuck Norris just the day before. If you needed yet another way to distinguish between the Democratic and Republican tickets this November, there you have it: It’s the Chuck Norris slate vs. the Eva Longoria slate.

A hydroponic garden growing medical marijuana.
A hydroponic garden growing medical marijuana.

If you’re going to host a conference at which entrepreneurs pitch marijuana-based products and services, you should definitely make sure your projection equipment is working. Otherwise, the young man describing his fast-acting, long-lasting, zero-calorie cannabis drink will lose legitimacy with every frustrated shake of the slide clicker. That would be true of any conference, but it’s especially pertinent at an event where everyone is acutely aware of the need not to seem stoned.

Fortunately, the Marijuana Investment Conference, held at the swank West Houston Westin Hotel in early October, had legitimacy to spare. About 20 presenters took 10 minutes each to describe their businesses to investors who’d paid $1,000 to attend. Ideas were divided into “touching the plant” and “not touching the plant,” with most business plans involving significant distance from the ganja itself. One young man (young men were abundant) introduced MassRoots, his “social network for the cannabis community” that already has 170,000 users, emphasizing its potential for harvesting profitable data. (It’s not paranoia if they’re really spying on you.) Another pitched an app that would let smokers order weed with the press of a button. Still others offered products meant for growers—greenhouse kits, lighting, fertilizer—or consulting services, promising to use insider knowledge of the industry to vet other investment opportunities as they arise. Obviously, these products are meant to be sold where marijuana is legal, but investors were urged to anticipate the eventual opening of market after market, state by state, at which point getting a financial foothold will be much harder.

The conference was originally scheduled for September but was postponed when its founder, Stuart Maudlin, a Houston entrepreneur who became interested in medical marijuana after being diagnosed with throat cancer, took a turn for the worse. Maudlin died before he could see his dream take place, and his protégé, Gold Darr Hood, a senior analyst at Codexx Capital, took over. Hood says Houston might seem like a strange fit for the conference, at least compared with liberal Austin, but it’s not. Investors here are used to the oil and biomedical industries, which are high-risk and take years to realize a return. But the legal marijuana industry is growing so fast, she says, “You can get a full return on capital in a year. … People are willing to accept a higher degree of risk on the regulatory front if they’re going to be able to have such expectations on capital and such very high returns.”

Houston is also home to the Baker Institute at Rice University, which has extensively researched marijuana policy, and to several pro-pot organizations including Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition. And in October, the Harris County District Attorney’s office started a new program of offering first-time nonviolent offenders caught with small amounts of weed a choice between community service and an eight-hour class, rather than jail. If the program is completed, the charge will be scrubbed.

Those steps toward legalization, tiny though they may seem, had Houston’s investors, well, buzzing.

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Ebola tweet
The satire Ebola tweet that landed Twitter user @colin_dime in hot water.

Is a silly Photoshop prank the equivalent of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater?

The Frisco Police Department seemed to think so when officers took a high school jokester into custody in early October.

The student’s crime? Trolling his fellow Friscoans for their gullibility, playing on their willingness to believe hyperbolic news reports generated by a 24-hour news cycle ravenous for speculation about Ebola’s recent arrival in nearby Dallas.

Punctuating an Oct. 1 tweet with just the right amount of bawling emoji, the student—whose name has not been released—posted a pretty good imitation of a Fox News screenshot broadcasting the sort of Ebola story that readers might fear to find splashed across the Dallas-Fort Worth affiliate’s website: “6 New Cases of Ebola Discovered Within Dallas Fort Worth Area, Specifically Frisco ISD.”

Even a cursory perusal of the student’s Twitter timeline would lead a thinking person to conclude that he was goofing, but that didn’t stop the image from spreading, and in what appears to have been a matter of hours the affluent exurb was all afroth.

Parents kept their kids home from school. The district issued a soothing email: “… there is currently no reason to believe that the situation [in Dallas] presents a health concern to Frisco ISD students or staff members.”

Police took the teenager into custody for making a “false alarm or report.” Law enforcement authorities tell me he was later transferred to the Collin County Juvenile Detention Center, and that as of mid-October the case was “still under investigation.”

Juvenile incarceration. Over a fake news story attributed to an “AP Medical Scriber.”

Give the kid credit—imitating the local Fox affiliate was a brilliant move. Average Joes and Janes will find the “source” just reputable enough to not immediately dismiss the “news” as a hoax, and “Obola”-fearing Fox loyalists will treat it as the word of God Hisownself.

In the tweet accompanying the photo, the student perfectly captured the fear and confusion that’s run beneath the surface of news reports since the Ebola diagnosis of a Liberian man in Dallas was announced Sept. 30.

“… [O]ut of everywhere in the USA [Ebola] is at my EXACT HIGH SCHOOL.” This followed an earlier panic-belying chastisement that “Y’all know its [sic] not an airborne disease? You’d have to share body fluids to get it.”

That nugget—that Ebola is actually pretty difficult to contract and spread—has been notably missing from a great deal of the mainstream coverage so far, despite the fact that it’s arguably the most important information for reporters to relay to a jumpy public clearly ready to believe, and overreact to, just about anything.

The Dallas Morning News showed how CareFlite crews disinfect their helicopters. Television news broadcast a seemingly perpetual reel of hazmat-suited cleaners filing in and out of the Dallas apartment where patient Thomas Eric Duncan—who succumbed to the disease Oct. 8—stayed before his hospital admission. A WFAA-TV phone interview with Duncan’s wife used a spooky silhouette as a stand-in for the interviewee.

But this Frisco kid is thrown in the clink for pulling off a pretty solid Photoshop job? Even as the perpetrators of far more insidious Ebola-related fictions remain free to engage in racist right-wing agitation over what they claim is a very real possibility of the disease infiltrating the Texas-Mexico border?

Two days after the Frisco teen was taken into custody, Fox News Latino printed the headline “Border Patrol on alert after 71 people from hard-hit Ebola countries illegally enter U.S. this year,” building on Rand Paul-fueled fears of a “whole ship full” of American soldiers returning from Africa teeming with the virus. A week after the Frisco Fox hoax, Breitbart Texas didn’t hesitate to imply that the National Institute of Health’s infectious disease czar, Dr. Anthony Fauci, was either stupid or a liar when he called the Ebola-infiltration claims of Paul and others “far-fetched.”

These are real lies being spread by people with far more influence than a suburban Texas high schooler. This is real fearmongering, and it’s given morbidly gleeful credibility by people who get paid by the byline.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should imprison journalists, hucksters or hypesters. Freedom of speech and all that. But no more should the police be jailing a kid who used a computer to create a mirror that reflects our terrified faces right back at us.

Apparently it’s only OK to scare the shit out of people if that’s your main line of business.

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Ed Graf in 1988.
Waco Tribune-Herald
Ed Graf at his 1988 trial.

Update: Ed Graf struck a plea deal on Tuesday afternoon, taking the verdict out of the jury’s hands while it was still deliberating. Graf pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and received a 60-year sentence.

It was stunning to hear Graf admit guilt. He did so to maintain his eligibility for parole. Under the plea deal, Graf will be credited for the 25 years he served in prison, including his time for good behavior.

That means Graf will likely be paroled from prison in just a few months under a mandatory release policy that was in place at the time of his offense. Graf feared a guilty verdict that might have denied him a chance for parole or a hung jury that would leave him in county jail for perhaps a year or more awaiting a new trial. Instead, he agreed to plead guilty knowing he would be paroled in a few months. I’ll have a full story on the bizarre conclusion to the Graf case posted soon.

 

Original post: Ed Graf’s fate now lies with a Waco jury.

Testimony in Graf’s controversial re-trial concluded on Friday, and attorneys presented their closing arguments this morning. The six men and six women of the jury will now decide if they believe that Graf murdered his 8- and 9-year-old stepsons by starting a 1986 fire in a shed behind his house; or if Graf was wrongly convicted and spent decades in prison for what was actually an accidental fire.

Graf was originally convicted in 1988 and spent 25 years in prison. His conviction was overturned last year after advancements in the field of fire science disproved the physical evidence that convicted him. Yet McLennan County prosecutors chose to re-try him. (You can read the Observer’s 2009 investigation of Graf’s case here, our piece about the flaws in the evidence here, and my dispatches from earlier in the trial here and here.) Graf’s is the first case to reach re-trial since Texas began reviewing flawed arson cases following the Cameron Todd Willingham controversy.

As I noted at the beginning of the trial, prosecutors faced a difficult mission, trying to convict Graf with largely circumstantial evidence. Prosecutors couldn’t use any of the discredited arson evidence from the original trial. In fact, most of the physical evidence—analyzed using modern techniques and a modern understanding of fire—points to an accidental fire.

Science may not have been on their side, but prosecutors put on quite a case. They dredged up much of the circumstantial evidence from the first trial, the most damaging of which was the $50,000 insurance policy Graf took out on the boys the month before the fire, and a comment Graf allegedly made to a co-worker that his marriage would be better without the boys. The defense countered that the insurance coverage was a universal policy that’s commonly used as a good investment for kids and that Graf’s remark was simply an innocent complaint about his home life.

But the most stunning testimony came from a jailhouse informant.

Fernando Herrera, an inmate at the McLennan County jail who said he got to know Graf over the past few months, was likely the most controversial of the more than 30 prosecution witnesses. Herrera testified, as Tommy Witherspoon, the Waco Tribune-Herald’s long-time courthouse correspondent reported, that Graf confessed the crime to him in detail. He testified that Graf admitted to burning the children alive for the insurance money. Graf admitted, according to Herrera, that he had been struggling financially. Graf’s supposed confession went into surprising detail, including how he used ropes to tie the boys up and how he requested one casket at the funeral. He also supposedly told Herrera in jail that he had locked the boys in the shed, then opened the door just before neighbors saw what he was doing.

(Whether the door was open or closed is a key point. The door only locked from the outside, and Graf was the only adult in the house. So if the door was closed and locked, that would point toward Graf’s guilt. But witness testimony is mixed—some firefighters swear the door was closed and neighbors  swear the door was open. The fire scientists say the door had to be open or the fire would have died out from lack of oxygen.)

Herrera’s supposed confession just happens to match much of the prosecution’s theory of the case. In Herrera’s version, Graf locked the boys in the shed, then opened the door just in time to supply the fire with needed oxygen.

Defense lawyers sought to discredit Herrera, pointing out that he has at least six known aliases and more than a dozen convictions. They also noted that Herrera had asked for preferential treatment in jail multiple times before contacting prosecutors about the Graf case. Still, Herrera claimed prosecutors weren’t giving him anything in exchange for his testimony.

Defense attorneys also noted how unbelievable it seems that Graf would spend 25 years in prison, then, after his conviction was overturned, confess to a random jail inmate just before his retrial. Moreover, jailhouse informants don’t have the best track record, as the Innocence Project reports.

The defense team built its case on the scientific evidence. Doug Carpenter, a nationally renowned fire expert, was the key witness. He testified that the high carbon monoxide levels in the boys’ bodies point to an accidental fire (gasoline/arson fires typically result in low carbon monoxide levels. More on that here.) The defense also offered evidence that the boys had played with matches on several occasions and theorized that the boys had started the accidental fire themselves.

In his closing argument, prosecutor Michael Jarrett told the jury to ignore the scientific testimony and to go with their “heart,” as Witherspoon reported on Twitter.

That’s the essence of the case: Will the jury go with their heads or their hearts, with the scientific evidence or with their suspicions?

In many ways, the prosecutors’ case felt very familiar. They vilified the defendant, emphasized circumstantial evidence and offered fantastic testimony from a jailhouse snitch. Quite a few Texans have been wrongly convicted with this formula.

The difference this time is that the defense had modern fire science on its side. The jury will decide if the scientific testimony is enough to outweigh the considerable circumstantial evidence and the informant.

In that sense, the Graf case feels very much like a contrast between the old method that Texas prosecutors have used to convict people for years and the new approach to criminal cases based on more reliable, scientific evidence.

For Graf, 62, the stakes are high. If he’s found not guilty, he’ll be free for the first time in 26 years. If he’s convicted of capital murder, he may well die in prison.