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Texas, Tothless

In Senate District 4, it was tea party vs. tea party but the slightly less cranky Brandon Creighton beat Steve Toth in a lopsided victory yesterday.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Re. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) and Alice Linahan
Patrick Michels
State Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst

There have been, roughly speaking, two groups of tea party legislators that took seats in the Texas House in the last few years. One group seemed more or less happy to be there, and one group seemed like it was a few incitements away from pulling a full Guy Fawkes on the Pink Dome. State Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands), who lost his bid for promotion to the state Senate last night, and is forfeiting his House seat in the process, was of the latter camp.

In the special election runoff in Senate District 4, Toth’s fellow state Rep. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) won the day, taking almost 70 percent of the vote to Toth’s 30 percent. It was an unusually lopsided victory, given recent dynamics in Senate elections across the state. But it didn’t hurt that Creighton outspent Toth by more than 3 to 1.

The Texas Senate has lost some of its most important dealmakers in the last year. The pragmatists and moderates have been ruthlessly culled, and next session will see a number of bomb-throwers join the chamber’s ranks. Senate District 4 was formerly represented by state Sen. Tommy Williams, who left to take a job with Texas A&M. He crafted the budget last session, and played an important role in keeping legislators on task on issues like transportation funding.  

Toth’s most famous bill might have been an attempt to nullify federal gun laws, but he still fits the mold of recent Republican Senate primary victors better than Creighton. It’s not that Creighton is a liberal GOPer. As the Houston Chronicle noted in its endorsement of Creighton, the difference between the two men isn’t so much one of ideology as of temperament:

To understand the difference between the two candidates seeking to replace state Sen. Tommy Williams in state Senate District 4, look at their reactions to the surge of Central American children crossing our border. For state Rep. Brandon Creighton of Conroe, it is a “full-blown humanitarian crisis.” For state Rep. Steve Toth of The Woodlands, it is a “full-blown invasion.”

Lately, Toth’s been hugging fringe immigration groups like Stop the Magnet, which wants to make life more dangerous and difficult for undocumented immigrants in order to get them to self-deport, or stay far away from Texas. That’s been a recipe for victory for candidates in other districts, like Bob Hall, who narrowly defeated longtime incumbent Sen. Bob Deuell.

But it didn’t work in SD 4. Even with the strong backing and support of groups like Empower Texans, Toth underperformed in the special election in May, nearly losing the second-place position to a Coast Guard vet with no experience in office. Then he severely underperformed in the runoff—despite the fact that Toth’s home base, The Woodlands, has quite a few more people than Creighton’s, Conroe.

Still, if Creighton’s victory over Toth is a small positive sign for the Senate next session, it’s probably not a sign of much more. For one thing, Creighton walloped Toth in the money department—Toth had a healthy amount of financial assistance from conservative groups like Empower Texans in the first part of the race, but that seemed to collapse by the end. In July, Toth took in just $13,000 to Creighton’s $213,000, and spent only $52,000 to Creighton’s $177,000.

And Creighton, as mentioned before, is a pretty conservative fellow. That fact might have denied Toth the room he needed to stage a proper challenge. But as a side effect, the Texas House is losing one more member of the 2010 and 2012 tea party waves.

Gilbert Stuart's 1796 Portrait of George Washington
Gilbert Stuart's unfinished 1796 Portrait of George Washington. Texas State Board of Education Member Ken Mercer says the College Board is trying to completely un-finish the job.

Light the lanterns and load the muskets—the liberals are coming for our history again.

To veterans of the State Board of Education’s Culture Wars of 2010, the Great CSCOPE Panic of 2013 or the Common Core Purity Tests of 2014—”You use Common Core, you go to jail,” goes the timeless refrain—it will come as little surprise to learn that a new front has opened in the battle for the minds of our children and the story of our nation. Those hapless school administrators have wheeled yet another Trojan horse through the gates.

Newcomers to this sort of thing, however, may be stumped by the growing backlash to the news that Advanced Placement U.S. History has been revised.

As part of a general overhaul of nearly three dozen AP tests—which cover a broad range of subjects and let high-scoring high school students earn college credit—the College Board has released details of the new AP U.S. History test to be given this spring. The new test will require more conceptual thinking from students, big-picture explanations of trends and connections over time, meant to more closely mimic the demands students would face in a college course. “To this end,” according to a College Board announcement, “the curriculum framework presents required course content conceptually, allowing teachers the freedom to present that content in a variety of ways.”

The transition has been years in the making. In October 2012, the College Board released a framework for the new test, a 98-page list of the concepts with which students should be familiar. In the past, it had only issued a five-page outline.

On July 8 of this year, State Board of Education member Ken Mercer, a San Antonio Republican, answered the new framework with a call to arms. He began:

On July 4th, we witnessed nationwide patriotism honoring our Founding Fathers and the sacrifices of our courageous men and women in uniform. This must have annoyed David Coleman, the chief architect of the controversial Common Core national standards, and many of his College Board (CB) colleagues.

Coleman co-wrote the English standards for the Common Core initiative, before joining the College Board as president in 2012. For some veterans of the anti-Common Core fight, Coleman’s presence at the College Board is proof enough that AP courses have been “infiltrated” by the collectivist dogma of the nationwide school standards. That would be especially nefarious in Texas, which never adopted the Common Core—proof that no one is safe from the plot to nationalize America’s schools.

And just how much does the College Board hate America? Mercer counts the ways. “In the period of the American Revolution up to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, almost every Founding Father is omitted – no Jefferson, Adams, Madison, or Franklin,” he writes.

The lessons on World War II omit “The Greatest Generation,” Truman, Hitler, D-Day, Midway, the Battle of the Bulge, and every military commander including Dwight Eisenhower. Inexplicably, Nazi atrocities against Jews and other groups are “not required.” The CB concludes its treatment of WWII with this blunt statement: “The decision to drop the atomic bomb raised questions about American values.”

Of course, omitting names, dates and places is kind of the point. “Allowing teachers the freedom” to teach how they want, or how their states require them to teach, is what the new AP framework is about. Texas fought hard over who should or shouldn’t have a place in its social studies standards, and every other state has a list of its own. Avoiding a Hitler reference is hard enough on YouTube’s comment threads; nobody is seriously suggesting he should be left out of a lesson on World War II.

Mercer references “lessons on World War II,” but there are no lessons at all in this framework, just a list of big-picture ideas students should consider. Teachers are the ones who tell students, with the benefit of a course syllabus, textbook and their state’s history standards, which historical figures, dates and places are crucial to explaining the past. Mercer either completely misunderstands what’s happening here, or he’s stirring the fear-fire’s embers to remind us there’s a war on.

“For today’s patriots,” Mercer writes, “this is our Valley Forge and our D-Day – this is the Revolution of 2014!”

Ken Mercer
SBOE member Ken Mercer (R-San Antonio)

That was almost a month ago. Last night, Mercer joined a nationwide conference call to reissue his plea, joined by two of the sources he refers to in his letter: Larry Krieger, a retired history teacher and author of test prep books like the AP® U.S. Government & Politics Crash Course, and Jane Robbins of the Washington-based American Principles Project. The call was hosted by Concerned Women of America, a nationwide group in Georgia, and promoted to groups in Texas and all over the country, from Idaho to Florida. When I called in at the beginning of the conversation, an automated voice told me I was the 317th caller.

Krieger recalled his shock at seeing everyone the new framework left out—even “my own personal hero George Washington.” But worse than the omissions, Krieger said, were the personal slights against our Founding Fathers. Reading the framework, Krieger says:

I saw a consistently negative view of American history that highlights oppressors and exploiters. Now instead of striving to build a city on a hill, according to the framework, our nation’s founders are portrayed as bigots who, quote, “developed a belief in white superiority.” End quote. That was in turn derived from quote, “A strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority” and that of course led to, quote, “creation of a rigid racial hierarchy.”

[...]

Actually, the theme of oppression and conflict continues. Later on I turned to Manifest Destiny. Now, you were probably taught, I was taught and I also taught, that Manifest Destiny was the belief that America had the mission to spread democratic democracy and new technology across the continent. Well, sorry, on page 44 the framework says, quote, “the idea of Manifest Destiny was built on a belief of white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority.”

Mercer chimed in later: “If this is what our university professors believe to be good U.S. history, then this document is an indictment of our colleges and universities.” From Robbins, and questions from other callers, came a broad suggestion that parents ought to quit letting big outside groups dictate what their children are taught. This time around, the most rousing call to action came from Krieger:

The time has really come to push back. Rosa Parks said ‘no’ and she galvanized the civil rights movement. Ronald Reagan stood at the Berlin Wall and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Now I think it’s time for us to stand up, push back to the College Board and say no.

Krieger, like Mercer, wants the College Board to delay its implementation of the new test, so our young Americans won’t grow up looking too harshly on our complicated past. College Board vice president Trevor Packer has suggested Krieger’s motivations are more cynical: “As someone deeply invested in the test preparation industry, Krieger cannot be expected to welcome the way that AP courses and exams are being revised to emphasize inquiry and depth at the expense of memorization.”

During the state board’s meeting in mid-July, SBOE chair Barbara Cargill made time for complaints about the framework, and discussion about keeping it out of Texas schools—a measure that, it seems, would put Texas’ 46,000 AP test-takers at a distinct disadvantage. After hours of testimony from upset patriots—some dressed in period costumes—a College Board official named Debbie Pennington took the mic to answer questions.

She reiterated that there’s no Common Core in the AP history standards, and that the framework really is just a framework—not, say, a denial that the Holocaust happened—and Pennington fielded a question from Dallas Democrat Mavis Knight: What should we make of this scandal? Is Mercer’s “Revolution of 2014″ fact or fiction?

“I love listening to this stuff,” Pennington replied. “This is what the First Amendment, this is what this body is all about.”

Houston mayor Annise Parker announcing the Equal Rights Ordinance in April.
Greater Houston Partnership / Richard Carson
Houston mayor Annise Parker announcing the Equal Rights Ordinance in April.

Sometimes members of the far right have to work pretty hard to maintain a posture of victimization, to connect distant dots suggesting that a Radical Homosexual Agenda or Lavender Menace is snaking its tastefully dressed tendrils through the halls of governance to undermine the will of Decent Christian People Trying to Protect Their Families ™.

Monday was not that day.

At a press conference Monday afternoon, Houston City Attorney David Feldman announced that a petition challenging a new Equal Rights Ordinance had failed. Opponents fell just over 2,000 signatures short of the 17,269 needed to put a repeal of the ordinance on the November ballot. Mayor Annise Parker said she expected the issue to end up in court and that the courts would agree with the  city’s assessment, but that she would delay implementation in the meantime.

But here’s the twist—the petitioners actually had plenty of valid individual signatures. What undid them was the disqualification of thousands of entire pages of signatures. More than half the 5,199 pages submitted were invalid because the collectors weren’t registered Houston voters, hadn’t personally signed the petition, hadn’t had the page properly notarized, or some combination—all requirements set forth in the city charter. Thus, it’s possible that outraged petitioners will challenge not only the city’s count of valid signatures but also the city charter rules themselves.

David Welch of the Houston Area Pastor Council, a leader of the petition effort, says he expects to prevail. “We were well aware we were dealing with an administration that’s willing to bend the rules,” Welch told the Houston Chronicle. “Courts typically uphold the rights of the voters. We feel very confident in how that will go. Frankly, there was no respect for the rights of the voters in this process.”

Naturally, Mayor Parker expects the same. “I’m confident that the courts will agree with the strict interpretation of the rules set out in the charter for the requirements and that the courts will protect the integrity of our petition process,” Parker said at the press conference.

Whatever the courts decide, the ordinance is essentially safe from repeal for the time being. State law sets the deadline for the November ballot just two weeks from now, meaning a court would have to be decide in the petitioners’ favor in that time. Meanwhile, Mayor Parker said she’d delay implementation but didn’t say for how long.

The petition’s failure might have been surprising—opponents said they turned in 50,000 signatures, after all—if not for the shadowy efforts of an anonymous party that posted the petitions online and invited visitors to scour them for problems. Noel Freeman, a public policy analyst and treasurer of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, says he didn’t post the materials but is spearheading an independent review of them using the website, HEROpetition.com. He predicted Monday’s outcome, telling the Chronicle almost 3,000 pages were invalid. Freeman explained to the magazine OutSmart, “The petitions are a mess. They are the worst petitions I’ve ever seen.”

That Freeman and his cohort saw the petitions at all could prompt more fear of a Queer Conspiracy. As Buzzfeed.com noted, the domain name was registered on July 3, the same day the petitions were turned in, through a service that masks the registrant’s identity. But while the registrant is masked, the name and address of all those who opposed the ordinance are exposed. Petitions are public record, but still—if one were already inclined to fear mistreatment or intimidation by a powerful political figure who is gay, which Mayor Parker is, the events around the petition drive would not inspire confidence.

Now, however, Houston’s journey toward an equal rights ordinance at last gets boring. The online petitions have been taken down. All the council meetings have been met, the rallies rallied, the droves of witnesses indignantly cut off before they were done. The council voted, made their speeches, and the waves of misinformation and bigotry washed around town for several weeks in response. If the petition drive had succeeded, ordinance opponents would have had momentum, keeping the hysteria stoked through November. But now the trudging legal system takes over and there’s not much for Houston’s anti-HEROs to do. Even if they prevail in court, a vote to repeal the ordinance wouldn’t happen until November 2015 unless the City Council decided to set a special election for it, which they aren’t likely to do. By then, even the intrigue and outrage prompted by this contentious petition process is likely to have faded.

Governor Rick Perry announces the deployment of the Texas National Guard to the border, alongside Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Attorney General Greg Abbott
Christopher Hooks
Governor Rick Perry announces the deployment of the Texas National Guard to the border, alongside Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Attorney General Greg Abbott

When troopers with the Department of Public Safety first started deploying to the border in June, DPS made clear that they weren’t going to be taking any part in enforcing immigration laws. DPS—much like the forthcoming National Guard deployment—would be on the border solely to assist with law enforcement efforts, like cracking down on drug smugglers. Gov. Rick Perry and others agreed: The deployments were about crime, not the migrants themselves.

But now apprehensions are apparently declining on part of the Texas border, and Texas lawmakers are eager to take credit, even there’s no evidence that the drop in apprehensions has anything to do with Texas’ border surge. To the contrary, the most likely explanations have to do with factors far out of the hands of Texas government. State lawmakers are also changing their story; now the border operations are about immigration enforcement, not stopping drug runners and traffickers.

Gov. Rick Perry was one of the first to take credit for the drop in apprehensions. At his press conference on July 21 announcing the deployment of the National Guard, he credited DPS for staunching the flow. “Apprehensions have dropped 36 percent, from more than 6,600 per week, to 4,200 per week,” Perry said. “This is a clear indication that the increased patrol presence” of DPS and other law enforcement efforts is “having a deterrent effect.”

(I asked Perry’s office for the source of the figures, and the office referred me to DPS. I’ll update when I hear back.)

But last week, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst went much further. On Friday morning, Dewhurst joined Fox News host Bill Hemmer to talk about the border crisis—but an ebullient Dewhurst had one thing in particular he wanted to say.

“As a result of our surge with our state police, Bill, over the last five weeks, we’ve been able to shut down and reduce illegal immigration” in a 60-mile stretch of the “Rio Grande Valley by some 50 percent,” he said. It was a great success, he said, even though the reduction had come at a cost of “$17 or $18 million a month” and the Texas-Mexico border is 1,254 miles long.

Put another way: There was a 50 percent drop in apprehensions, which is an imperfect proxy for illegal crossings, along 4.8 percent of the Texas-Mexico border at a cost of almost $20 million a month. It wasn’t clear what 60-mile stretch of the Valley Dewhurst was talking about. Nor was he asked by the host if apprehensions had gone up elsewhere along the border. If the coyotes are as wily as they’re represented by Texas politicians, then presumably they could lead their clients to a less-policed part of the border.

But most significantly, there’s no evidence that illegal crossings have slowed because of anything Texas is doing. Over the last few months, the U.S government has been involved in a major effort to dissuade Central Americans from making the journey while putting tremendous pressure on Mexico and Central American nations to crack down on migrants. The result of this “containment policy”:

Mexico has quietly stepped up the pace of deportation of migrants, some of them unaccompanied children. It announced plans to stop people from boarding freight trains north and will open five new border control stations along routes favored by migrants.

In particular, the Mexican authorities have cracked down on the use of La Bestia, the train that migrants use to travel from the country’s south to north. The trains run only periodically now, and when they do, armed authorities watch closely. That’s left a lot of Central American migrants stranded in southern Mexico, where, as the Dallas Morning News’ Alfredo Corchado chronicles in an exhaustive account, the situation is going from bad to worse:

At a nearby migrant shelter known as La 72, dozens of men are sprawled on a concrete floor covered with cardboard boxes, swatting mosquitoes. In a separate room, dozens of mothers cuddle their crying babies, quietly pleading for the mercy of sleep to fall on them before sunrise, or for the trains to roar again to continue their journey north.

“The real humanitarian crisis is here in Mexico,” says friar Guillermo Avendaño of La 72, a shelter named in honor of the 72 migrants massacred in 2010 near San Fernando, in Tamaulipas state, on their way to the U.S. “The trains aren’t running, which basically means lives have been interrupted.”

It’s a grave situation that’s left Mexican immigrant rights activists like Father Alejandro Solalinde warning of social instability.

Meanwhile, in the last few months, the U.S. government has been conducting a major effort to convince Central Americans not to come. And the numbers of migrants leaving Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have been in sharp decline, according to a New York Times article from July 20:

“It has gone down about 30 percent, the number of children we see passing through here,” said Marvin Lopez, a manager of one of the most commonly used bus lines here. “Not nearly as many families.”

At a police substation on the road to the border with Guatemala, which is about a 45-minute ride from the bus station, officers said that they had been detaining 15 to 20 minors a day in recent months, but that in the past couple of weeks it had dropped to two or three.

Yet the apparent drop in apprehensions has been recast by Perry and Dewhurst as a great policy success of theirs. Their message on the deployments of DPS and the National Guard has been: The federal government is falling down on the job. We’ll act if they won’t—we’ll solve the problem, Texas-style.

But pressure from the U.S. government played a substantial role in reducing the flow of migrants—even if it created more problems elsewhere. You can bet that if the numbers of migrant crossings continue to drop, Perry and Dew will attribute it to the addition of the National Guard to the mix—and if they spike again, they’ll blame the feds.

Texas politicians have changed their stories about the border deployments too many times to count. The DPS deployment was originally supposed to be about targeting drugs and organized crime. But Perry and Dewhurst’s gleeful attempt to take credit for a drop in migration gave away the game. The costly deployments along the border are more about perception than reality.

Rick Perry with Chuck Norris
Patrick Michels
Noted men of peace Rick Perry and Chuck Norris

These are dangerous times. Disorder afflicts all corners of the world. There’s contagion, and many different kinds of war. The Slavic menace rises in the East. This is a time for men—Texas men—to rise to the occasion.

1) To run for president, Gov. Rick Perry needs foreign policy credentials, and though his pilgrimages to California may count as such within Texas, they do not, unfortunately for him, matter much to the rest of the country. But Perry has a longstanding interest in a region of the world that has been in the news lately. So he summoned up his office’s communications staff and associated interns for a new mission. This was the best idea anyone had ever had. Rick Perry would give his take on the conflict in the Gaza Strip.

The ensuing editorial in Politico Magazine, entitled “Stand With Israel,” will do just fine for its intended purpose. There’s a hell of a lot of money and support for anyone in the Republican presidential primary who strikes the right tone on Israel—Perry tried to win that crowd in 2011, and he’ll do so again this time, especially with comparative squishes like Rand Paul and Chris Christie also in the running. But if you were to give this thing the benefit of the doubt and assume that it’s supposed to be more than just pablum, you would be disappointed. The very first paragraph contains two odd misconceptions:

For Israelis, at any given moment a missile might be detected, rocketing toward a residential neighborhood; a bomber might detonate him or herself in a crowded public place; and terrorists sent by Hamas might infiltrate their borders through secret tunnels to kidnap or kill their children.

Hamas certainly uses rockets—but periodic suicide bombings haven’t really been a fact of “any given moment” in Israeli life for years. Suicide bombings targeting civilian areas peaked in 2002, and the last fatal one was in 2008. The last sentence is a slightly oblique reference to the kidnapping and murder of three students in the West Bank: It precipitated the current conflict. But even Israeli intelligence now doubts Hamas was responsible for the murders.

In fairness, Perry balances his hawkish analysis with compassion for the long-suffering people of the Gaza Strip, pawns of a brutal and bloody game.

I’ve visited with families who were afraid to let their children play outside, and seen the fortified playgrounds where they can go. I’ve seen the rubble of structures brought down by missile strikes and looked in the eyes of people who live with the threat of violence day-in and day-out.

Kidding, he’s talking about Israelis. And he has stern words for anyone who thinks shelling United Nations-run schools packed with families fleeing violence is probably not O.K.:

Thousands of miles away, it might be convenient to criticize Israel for having the temerity to defend itself against these murderous terrorist attacks.

But we shouldn’t. Because the stakes are high:

The conflict between Hamas and Israel is merely one part of a much-larger conflict, one with far-ranging implications that can affect the lives of every person on the globe.

That’s because of… China?

Any equivocation or perceived weakness on our part will be noticed immediately not just in Tehran, but in Moscow and Beijing as well. It can only help usher in a new nuclear arms race, one that holds the potential of becoming infinitely more frightening than the one the free world endured decades ago. Hamas, Hezbollah and other terrorist groups have demonstrated time and again that they have no regard for human life – Israeli, Palestinian or American. The possibility of individuals like that gaining access to a nuclear weapon is something we simply cannot allow.

He condemns the United States for “moving closer to Turkey and Qatar than to our traditional allies,” in recent negotiations. That’s kind of a weird thing to say, seeing as Turkey is one of our oldest allies in the Middle East and a member of NATO, and Qatar is home to one of the most important American military facilities in the world.

If it seems like Perry has not been getting particularly good information on the conflict, that might be because he’s been pretty bad at picking friends. In the run up to his 2012 race, he was appearing at public events with full-on nut job Danny Danon, then a member of the Israeli Knesset and later a deputy defense minister. Danon was canned by the pretty right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a few weeks ago for being, essentially, an out-of-control lunatic. He once called African refugees in Israel a “national plague” and wants Israel to unilaterally annex Palestinian land.

So Perry’s getting bad foreign policy advice, and he hasn’t demonstrated any ability to make up his own mind. And he’s running for president soon. To paraphrase a governor I know, the possibility of an individual like that gaining access to a nuclear weapon is something we simply cannot allow.

2) But Perry’s not the only Texas Republican who’s getting ready to save the world: There’s also state Rep. Scott Turner, who’s been traveling across Texas as part of his quixotic Empower Texans-backed campaign to win popular support in his race for speaker of the Texas House, even though people’s votes don’t matter (the speaker is selected by other reps.) The whole thing has been pretty weird.

Anyway, he was in Fredericksburg recently to explain how he feels about road funding diversions or whatever, and he decided to go BIG. Here’s how he opened:

Tel Aviv, Hamas, Israel, Gaza, you know, Malaysia flights, jet flights being shot out of the air, you know, what in the world is going on? A lot of people live in a hopeless situation. Anxiety is running rampant. Fear. Discouragement.

O.K. man, we got these people suitably freaked out. Now pull them in:

But hopefully tonight in this brief time that we have together, it’s my prayer that I can encourage you. And let you know that we’re not in a hopeless situation. Because myself and a few others around Texas and around the country are standing up for you. And it’s not hard—I mean, it’s not easy. It’s a very hard battle to fight.

Is Turner for or against Malaysia flights? The world wonders. And what’s Turner got planned to alleviate anxiety in East Jerusalem? Who are these “few others?” Is Turner part of a gang of conflict-mediating superheroes? If so, why is he in Fredericksburg right now? Seems like a bad use of time, is all.

3) In Washington this week, yet another Texan helped save the world. Ted Cruz, the guy who once saved the world from not being able to listen to him read Green Eggs & Ham on the Senate floor, and also saved women at Yale from not being able to look at him stroll up and down the corridors in a paisley bathrobe, saved the world this week from—a Republican-drafted border security bill. Wait, what?

Cruz’s theatrics are taking place in an ever-tightening series of concentric circles. His targets have shrunk: He used to mess with President Obama, but now he’s mostly messing with Republican House Speaker John Boehner, which seems like a pretty weird move. And kinda mean, given Boehner’s propensity for crying. You do you, Ted.

The bill collapsed at the last minute. Cruz was given credit, as he’d been rallying representatives against the bill. Republicans were forced to ask President Obama to take executive action on the border crisis, even though they’re suing him for taking executive action elsewhere. A reporter asked Cruz if he was responsible for Boehner’s humiliating day:

“The suggestion by some that House members are unable to stand up and fight for their own conservative principles is offensive and belittling to House conservatives,” he added. “They know what they believe and it would be absurd for anyone to try to tell them what to think.”

That’s the sound of a grown man petting other grown men on the head. He’s the chess player to Perry’s checkers player, except his main goal seems to be to make his team lose all the time. Yep, 2016 is going to be a hell of a year.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Attorney General Greg Abbott

Back in April, amid a growing legal battle over the responsibility of Texas hospitals to keep bad doctors from operating, Attorney General Greg Abbott took a bold stand. He sided with Baylor Health Care System in federal lawsuits filed by three plaintiffs who are former patients of the notorious Dallas spine surgeon Christopher Duntsch. The plaintiffs are arguing that Duntsch was a known drug addict and a dangerously incompetent surgeon, and Baylor should have never let him operate. (The shocking story of how Duntsch got away with maiming and killing his patients is detailed in this Observer story from last year.) Their lawsuits challenge a 2003 Texas law that grants hospitals near-total legal immunity for the mistakes of doctors they allow to operate.

How immune are hospitals? Under the current law, for Baylor to be liable for Duntsch’s mistakes, the plaintiffs have to prove that hospital administrators let him operate because they specifically intended to harm patients.

Soon after the three plaintiffs sued, Abbott’s office announced that it would be jumping in to defend the statute that shielded Baylor. In statements at the time, the attorney general’s office was clear: Abbott wasn’t defending Baylor or Duntsch. He was simply defending state law.

Earlier this week, Wayne Slater at the Dallas Morning News suggested that Abbott may have had other incentives to intervene. In June 2013 and January 2014 Abbott received two large donations to his gubernatorial campaign—$100,000 and $250,000 respectively—from one Drayton McLane, a Temple transportation exec and Republican who is also the chairman of the the board of trustees for Baylor Scott & White, the company that owns the Baylor hospital system.

The timing is a little suspicious. The $100,000 donation came the day after the Texas Medical Board suspended Duntsch’s license, ending an 18-month surgical career that had left two dead and many more paralyzed or in chronic pain. The $250,000 donation came the week after the second of the threelawsuits.

McLane has given Abbott money before, but it’s generally been much less; the most he had given in the past, according to the campaign filings the Morning News references, was $25,000.

This is not the first time that Abbott’s political donations have been linked to his official capacities as attorney general:

Abbott authorized scores of state bond issues in which he has received more than $200,000 from the political committees of law firms serving as bond counsel.

Earlier this year, Abbott ruled that the public cannot have access to state information about the location of potentially dangerous chemicals like those that caused the 2013 explosion in West that killed 15 people. The ruling came after Abbott received $75,000 from the Koch Industries political committee and executives, including the head of the company’s fertilizer division.

Abbott has collected more than $75,000 in the governor’s race from the Farmers Insurance political committee amid criticism that a proposed settlement in a long-running lawsuit against Farmers doesn’t adequately compensate homeowners for being overcharged.

So did Drayton McLane buy Abbott’s intervention in the Baylor case with $350,000 of his own money?

Abbott and McLane say there’s no connection between the donations and the intervention of the state in the Baylor case. McLane told the Dallas Morning News that he has no financial stake in Baylor Scott & White; that his chairman position is unpaid, and that he didn’t even know about the Duntsch case before giving Abbott money.

McLane further explains: “When you look at my cumulative donations over the years, I have supported other Texas candidates, whom I believe in, similarly to how I have chosen to support General Abbott.”

But it is a lot of cash. McLane gave Rick Perry less in his entire gubernatorial career than he gave Abbott just in the last year.

Abbott may have other reasons for so aggressively siding with Baylor and Duntsch. Tort reform, the conservative movement to make it much more difficult for people to win big judgments in civil courts, has been a centerpiece of Abbott’s political career. With the 2003 omnibus tort reform bill–as well as a number of favorable Texas Supreme Court decisions that limited hospital liability to an absurd degree—the movement won big.

And now, in the suits against Christopher Duntsch and Baylor, we have several particularly egregious, media-ready cases that are directly threatening one of the outposts of the tort reform bill: hospital immunity. If this part falls, there’s no telling what falls next—that is one lesson of the staggeringly quick collapse of the civil court system in the tort reform era. So, it is a little hard to believe that the prospect of tort reform fraying around the edges motivates Greg Abbott less than $350,000 in campaign money.

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The massive for-profit company Texas hired to further privatize its foster care system has pulled out, casting more doubt on the privatization effort that was supposed to improve the troubled system without costing the state any extra money.

Today, Providence Service Corp. of Texas informed the Department of Family and Protective Services in writing that it was terminating its $30 million-a-year contract with the state just 18 months into its five-year agreement. Providence was the first company contracted by the state under a set of changes dubbed “foster care redesign.” The only other company contracted for redesign, the Fort Worth-based nonprofit ACH Child and Family Services, began providing services at the beginning of July and remains in its contract.

Though Providence’s decision is being called “surprising,” the Observer reported in June in the feature “Fostering Neglect” that many child welfare advocates and even the CEO of Providence expressed skepticism that the plan was financially viable. Nine months into the agreement, Providence was already $2 million over budget.

Providence had been hired to provide services to foster kids in a 60-county rural swath of West and North Texas and to oversee all the private child-placing agencies in the area. Advocates, most of whom are already concerned that redesign could make a bad system worse, were further alarmed in July when two young foster children drowned after being placed with a family by the child-placing agency owned by Providence’s parent company.

At the time, the state didn’t seem likely to change its relationship with Providence, but in a statement today from the Department of Family and Protective Services, the attitude seemed to be “good riddance.” Although Providence is the one who pulled out, the release notes:

“Recently, DFPS notified Providence about several issues with the performance of their contract.

Some of those issues included:

• Missing performance targets on key goals such as placing siblings together and keeping children close to home.

• Failing to develop staff and network of providers needed to place children as quickly as required.

• Unable to develop a full array of services to better serve children.”

Judge John Specia, the department’s commissioner, told the Observer that Providence pulling out is “not going to impact the children. The children are going to stay where they are.” Over the next 30 days, the state will reabsorb the 1,100 children served by Providence.

As for whether the basic financial plan of redesign—providing more services and management without more money—was viable, Specia said, “We’re looking at that very carefully. We’re doing a study right now on the cost of doing redesign.” He expects results mid-September.

Providence’s withdrawal is “a set-back,” Specia says, but, “it doesn’t change the need to change the system. The issues are still there. To be honest, we’re going to have to really evaluate where we go and make sure it’s going to work next.”

That’s what child welfare advocates like Ashley Harris of Texans Care for Children have been asking for all along. In a statement today, Harris said, “It should now be clear to everyone that just barreling ahead with further privatization isn’t going to work. It hasn’t worked in other states, and it’s not working in Texas. We can do some things on the cheap, but protecting a child after the state takes custody of her is not one of them.”

Ken Paxton knows what it takes to get elected.
Ken Paxton knows what it takes to get elected.

You might think that in a one-party state like Texas, the cream would rise to the top. The most capable and promising politicians would flock to take positions in the party of power. The resulting diversity of opinions and expertise might incentivize excellence. Of course, in Texas as in other one-party systems, the opposite is the case. During the two decades that Texas Republicans have a complete lock on political offices, the quality of the party’s candidates has waned. Like a royal family in which only cousins marry, the GOP’s blood here is thinning. Take Ken Paxton, the Republican nominee for attorney general and possible future felon.

Paxton, a state senator who has served in the Legislature since 2002, made his political bones as a member of the Christian right. That faction had a particularly good year in the 2014 Republican primary, which is unusual for Texas. But the way Paxton really distinguishes himself is by his history of sleazy and unethical financial dealings as a lawyer in the Metroplex, which came to light through a Texas Tribune story in May. The state’s next top lawyer could very well be facing indictment and possible disbarment.

Paxton’s way of coping with that looming threat? Running away from—and occasionally manhandling—reporters who ask him about it and otherwise staying out of the public eye, even as he asks the public to entrust him with enormous power. And here’s the depressing thing: It hardly hurts his chances of being elected.

First, what did Paxton do? Outside of the Legislature, he made a living as a lawyer in McKinney. One day, a couple he represented named Teri and David Goettsche came looking for a way to manage their money. Paxton referred them to an investment advisory firm named Mowery Capital Management, run by Frederick “Fritz” Mowery, a friend of Paxton’s.

Mowery directed the Goettsches into a series of abysmally bad investments, some connected to a friend of Mowery’s with a disreputable past. Mowery had been on the verge of bankruptcy when Paxton recommended him, and his business partners were in similarly bad shape. When they went under, the Goettsches lost their shirts. After they lost their shirts, they were informed that Paxton had been receiving a 30 percent commission to refer his legal clients to Mowery. Whether legally or ethically, Paxton should have told the Goettsches about the commission, but he didn’t.

What Paxton did—abusing the trust of his clients to funnel money to a friend, then taking what was in effect an undisclosed kickback—was certainly improper and unethical, but it was also illegal. It’s not illegal to take a commission from an investment firm to refer clients, but you must register with the Texas State Securities Board when doing so. Paxton didn’t. He also didn’t disclose the work on the personal financial statements he was required to file as a legislator. In other words, he appeared to be hoping that no one ever found out about it.


And Paxton should have known about the laws he was breaking, because he voted for the bills that established them in the first place. In 2003, he voted for a bill that made what he did a crime—and in 2011, he helped up the punishment for the crime. He helped make what he did a felony. And there’s no doubt he did it, because this spring, in an effort to push the scandal behind him, he admitted in a sworn statement that he violated the Texas Securities Act.

Having acknowledged that he broke the law, Paxton left the door open for the left-leaning advocacy group Texans for Public Justice to file a complaint with the Travis County District Attorney earlier this month. TPJ might be a small group, but the complaint is far from insignificant: TPJ is responsible for the complaint that’s snagged Gov. Perry over charges of undue influence and may ultimately see him indicted, and their efforts also helped precipitate the downfall of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. TPJ’s complaint charges that Paxton “committed one or more criminal felony offenses.” It could take months for the DA’s office to process the complaint—but it’s also likely that Paxton’s opponents will file complaints with the state bar itself.

So Texas’ probable next attorney general faces the threat of indictment, and censure (or worse) from the State Bar of Texas, before his first day on the job. There are many questions still remaining—for one, given the nature of the crime, it may not be an isolated incident. Does Paxton have anything to say about that? Any reassuring words for the public? He has no words at all. He spent the last month of his primary runoff hiding from voters and the press. An appearance on a Christian radio show marked one of his only media appearances: His legal difficulties didn’t come up.

Knowing that his Democratic opponent, a lawyer named Sam Houston, is extremely unlikely to win, he’s adopted roughly the same strategy for the general election. When Nolan Hicks, a reporter with the San Antonio Express-News, tracked down Paxton after a speech to ask him about the incident, Paxton scurried away. His spokesman grabbed Hicks and pulled him back, ensuring that Paxton would face no scrutiny.

We’ve come to expect a certain level of grime from many of our state’s political leaders, but the attorney general’s office is one place where there really ought to be a certain degree of moral fiber—so it’s encouraging that Paxton is bringing the courage and honesty he learned in his legal career to his campaign. Virtually unopposed in his general election, Paxton has no incentive to speak forthrightly to Texans about his troubles. And so he won’t.

We’re a long way from Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and Gov. George W. Bush, just fifteen years ago. Putting people like Paxton in positions of power and authority will arguably hasten the Democratic revival, but what a hell of a ride it’s going to be in between now and then.

Ted Cruz at a wildly popular event in the convention's exhibition hall.
photo by Tim Faust

The Republican leadership in the House suffered an embarrassing setback Thursday after being unable to muster enough votes to pass a $659 million emergency supplemental spending bill for the influx of unaccompanied children from Central America. Now, Republican leaders say they’ll try again Friday to pass the spending bill.

Capitol Hill reporters described the scene at the Capitol as “embarrassing” and “chaotic” as Republican leaders pulled the bill down then met in the basement in a desperate attempt to muster votes before they adjourn for five weeks.

Republican leaders loaded the bill with plenty of red meat to appeal to the most extreme faction of their party. The measure guts a 2008 anti-trafficking law that protects vulnerable Central American children from being immediately deported. Leadership also offered a bill to stop the expansion of the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which defers deportation for young undocumented immigrants, also know as Dreamers. The sentiment of Republicans seems to be “deport ‘em all” but this wasn’t enough to appease the party’s most conservative House Republicans, who had a tea party in Sen. Ted Cruz’s office yesterday. Cruz wants to see DACA completely defunded.

Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called the congressional debacle a “sad day for America” during a press conference Thursday for reporters.

“Instead of choosing immigration reform the House has decided to pass bills that will deport vulnerable children—both those who have recently arrived and those who have lived among us for years. This is a defining moment in the national debate. The real issue here is ‘who we are as Americans?’ As leaders in human rights protections we often instruct other nations to receive refugees or protect human rights of people, yet we see child refugees on our own border and we respond in an inhumane way.”