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Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth).
Patrick Michels
Sen. Wendy Davis during her 2013 filibuster.

Many times, the rationale for passing a piece of legislation includes hard numbers: This many dollars will buy that many school lunches; expanding this program will prevent that many infections. Other times, the reasons offered are soft and subjective, more a feeling than a data point, like freedom, safety or health. House Bill 2, the anti-abortion omnibus bill passed by the Texas Legislature just over a year ago, fell into the latter category.

The bill, the object of Wendy Davis’ briefly successful filibuster, was meant to “improve and better protect women’s health,” Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told a press conference at the time. He also acknowledged that the bill’s four new restrictions on abortion access would cause the birth of many unintended children “so that families can adopt them and love them and be able to cherish them.” What better reasons for a bill than health, love and cherished babies?

Yet the impact of the law can be summarized with one very hard number: six. That’s how many abortion clinics are expected to survive the last of HB 2’s restrictions, which go into effect on Sept. 1. They require all facilities that perform abortions—even if they only distribute a pill to be taken at home—to have an on-site ambulatory surgical center with wide hallways and rooms of a certain size. Most abortion clinics can’t afford to move or make the structural renovations to meet these standards and will close by Sept. 1, if they haven’t already. In 2011, Texas had 44 clinics that performed abortions. Today it has around 20. Come September: six. 

The bill’s three other restrictions went into effect in November 2013. One was a ban on abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation, except to save the life of the mother or in the case of severe fetal anomalies. Such procedures were already rare—they make up less than 1 percent of abortions—but are often sought by especially vulnerable populations such as rape victims who’ve been in denial about their pregnancies. (The ban has no exception for rape.) Another requirement was that women make three separate clinic trips to receive a medical (pill-based) abortion—two for each dose of the medication and one for a follow-up visit. Combined with anti-abortion legislation passed in 2011, which added a mandatory ultrasound and 24-hour waiting period, getting a medical abortion now takes four office visits. Medical abortion was also limited to pregnancies of seven weeks or less. Finally, doctors performing abortions were required to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic, even though hospital transfers are extremely rare and hospitals have to admit and treat patients regardless of a doctor’s status. 

Whatever the reasoning given for anti-abortion legislation, it certainly has impact. A recent study found that the restrictions passed in 2011 have reduced abortions in Texas by 13 percent, including a dramatic drop in the use of medical abortions. As HB 2 takes full effect, to the benefit of women’s health and safety or not, legal abortion in Texas is likely to continue its decline. 

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Democratic state Sens. Kirk Watson, Wendy Davis, Leticia Van de Putte and Royce West at an abortion- rights rally at the Texas Capitol in July 2013.
Jay Janner/MCT/ZUMAPRESS.com
Democratic state Sens. Kirk Watson, Wendy Davis, Leticia Van de Putte and Royce West at an abortion rights rally at the Texas Capitol in July 2013.

When Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte joined other Democrats in the Texas Senate chamber to stage the filibuster that briefly derailed abortion restrictions last summer, it was a united effort, even if the two played different roles. Davis stood atop the operation, placing her body between the bill and the governor’s signature. Van de Putte stood to the side, in a critical and vocal supporting role.

A year and change later, they’re in the same formation: Davis on top, the ostensible CEO of Democrats’ 2014 push for statewide office, and Van de Putte below, further from the public eye, riling up the believers when she can. But while this division of labor served the two well in the filibuster, it’s not clear if it will work for the general election. There were visible fault lines at June’s Texas Democratic Party convention in Dallas that could threaten party unity. Davis and Van de Putte may want the same thing, but they have very different opponents, very different styles and very different organizations backing them.

Davis’ campaign is banking heavily on independent voters, the kind of people who helped her retain a slightly right-leaning senate district in Fort Worth. The campaign has leaned to the middle on guns, the border and abortion, and hammered Greg Abbott on issues that aren’t overtly ideological—disclosure of chemical stockpiles, equal pay, the idea that he’s an “Austin insider.” The Davis campaign may have lost some left-wing enthusiasm, but it hopes to convince voters who might otherwise be happy with the status quo that Abbott can’t be trusted, while relying on the former Obama staffers at Battleground Texas to help turn out the base.

Van de Putte’s approach is different. In part, that’s because she faces an opponent, Dan Patrick, who seems intent on alienating moderates. While he’s doing that, Van de Putte is more comfortable rousing the Democratic base. Her campaign’s efforts will be directed more toward driving turnout. That’s partly because her campaign will be working with a fraction of the resources that Davis has—it’s cheaper to motivate voters to the polls than to win over halfhearted Republicans.

Those strategies might ordinarily complement each other, except for the unusual way this year’s campaigns are structured. Davis’ operation, which ties together a campaign team of veterans from past statewide efforts with the field work of Battleground Texas, will need to continue to vacuum up millions of dollars to stay competitive with Abbott. And though Battleground plans to support the Democratic ticket generally, that money is mostly benefiting Davis—Battleground is looking for voters for her, specifically. Which means, realistically, that more money for Davis’ operations means less for Van de Putte, whose campaign reported just $1.16 millon on hand in the latest fundraising period.

That’s an unfortunate dynamic, because there’s a strong case to be made that Van de Putte has a more realistic path to victory than Davis does at this point in the campaign. Patrick is a better opponent to run against. Van de Putte has a better shot at driving up the Hispanic vote, Texas Democrats’ white whale. And though both Davis and Van de Putte have improved as campaigners since their launch, Van de Putte has improved immeasurably.

At the convention, she set the crowd on fire—her speech, not Davis’ keynote, was the highlight of the night. 

How each candidate performs this fall could mean quite a bit. If Davis significantly outperforms expectations, it will validate her campaign team and Battleground’s efforts. But if Van de Putte significantly outperforms Davis, it could be seen as a rebuke to those same groups. And if she comes closer to victory but still loses, there will be a lot of consternation that Van de Putte didn’t get the resources she needed. 

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Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Attorney General Greg Abbott

Yesterday, we got a look at the arguments Greg Abbott is deploying at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of upholding Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage. His legal brief follows a decision in February by a federal district court judge in San Antonio that banning same-sex couples from marriage is unconstitutional and “demean[s] their dignity for no legitimate reason.” As state marriage bans crumble in rapid succession around the nation and public support (even in Texas) for marriage equality grows, it’s fascinating to see what arguments the attorney general of the nation’s biggest, boldest red state airs in front of the most conservative appellate court in the country. How do you win a battle when your side is losing the war? The 42-page brief contains many well-worn conservative hobby-horses as well as some startling views of sex and marriage. We’ll go into the details below but for those of you with short attention spans, here are a few highlights:

  • Texas can ban same-sex marriage, Abbott argues, because the state has a legitimate interest in promoting procreation, a biological feature of the pairing of men and women. “Because same-sex relationships do not naturally produce children, recognizing same-sex marriage does not further these goals to the same extent that recognizing opposite-sex marriage does.”
  • Abbott argues that Texas should ban same-sex marriage so outcomes can be studied and compared to states where it’s legal. “[S]ame-sex marriage has not existed long enough to generate reliable data regarding its effects,” the brief states.
  • Gay people still have the freedom to marry… members of the opposite sex. “The plaintiffs are as free to marry an opposite sex spouse as anyone else in the State.”
  • Abbott explicitly rejects the notion that marriage is primarily about love and commitment. “The primary purpose of legal marriage in Texas is to generate positive externalities (and avoid negative externalities) for society by encouraging responsible behavior among naturally procreative couples, not to publicly recognize the love and commitment of two people.”
  • Abbott seems to suggest that legalizing same-sex marriage opens the doors to legitimization of other deviant behaviors. “If courts and litigants can create a constitutional right to same-sex marriage by defining it as part of a more general ‘right to marry,’ then any conduct that has been traditionally prohibited can become a constitutional right simply by redefining it at a higher level of abstraction.”
  • Abbott warns the Fifth Circuit away from judicial activism, positing that moderate federal jurists will have trouble being confirmed in the future if same-sex marriage bans are struck down by federal courts. “Indeed, jurists who envision a modest or restrained role for the judiciary in resolving our nation’s disputes—such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Learned Hand, or Henry Friendly—will likely become un-appointable.”

The crux of Abbott’s case is not all that different from what he put forward in the San Antonio district court. As the San Antonio Express-News put it in a headline yesterday: “Gay marriage ban instituted for kids’ sake.” But that’s not quite precise (which is fine; it’s a headline). If you read the brief closely, it actually has less to do with the well-being of children and child-rearing than it does with procreation. Well, not even procreation per se—more like, the statistical relationship between excluding gay couples from marriage and the increased likelihood of procreation within straight marriage.

The State’s recognition and encouragement of opposite-sex marriages increases the likelihood that naturally procreative couples will produce children, and that they will do so in the context of stable, lasting relationships. By encouraging the formation of opposite-sex marriages, the State seeks not only to encourage procreation but also to minimize the societal costs that can result from procreation outside of stable, lasting marriages. Because same-sex relationships do not naturally produce children, recognizing same-sex marriage does not further these goals to the same extent that recognizing opposite-sex marriage does. That is enough to supply a rational basis for Texas’s marriage laws.

Cleopatra de Leon, Nicole Dimetman, Vic Holmes and Mark Phariss
Patrick Michels
From left, plaintiffs Cleopatra De Leon, Nicole Dimetman, Vic Holmes and Mark Phariss outside San Antonio’s federal courthouse in February.

Put another way: Abbott wants to ban gay couples from getting married to encourage straight couples to have children. Abbott cannot argue that marriage is about child-rearing, or the welfare of children, because gay couples are perfectly willing and able to raise children. (Indeed, gay couples raising kids in Texas face all sorts of legal problems because of Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage; the Abbott brief says not a word about this real-world problem for children and their parents, including Cleopatra de Leon and Nicole Dimetman, the plaintiffs in the case.) So he’s stuck saying that the state’s interest in banning same-sex marriage has to do with procreation. But what about lesbian couples who get pregnant via donor insemination or in vitro fertilization? What about straight married couples who choose not to get pregnant, are infertile or get married late in life? In any case, isn’t marriage now (but not always in the past, of course) more about love than it is purely procreation? Those are some of the objections that District Judge Orlando Garcia raised when he found Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Before delving into a clinical utilitarian argument, the brief gets a little philosophical—generous, even—on these points.

What is marriage? What is its nature? What are its purposes? Why ought the State to recognize it? People genuinely disagree about the answers to these questions, and it is that disagreement—not a desire to discriminate against anyone or to undermine the institution of marriage—that underlies the same-sex marriage debate.

With that thumb-sucking out of the way, Abbott addresses the obvious defects with the “procreation-focused view of marriage” (his phrasing).

[T]he plaintiffs and the district court are wrong to assert that recognizing infertile or childless opposite-sex marriages fails to advance the State’s interest in encouraging stable environments for procreation. By recognizing and encouraging the lifelong commitment between a man and woman—even when they do not produce offspring—the State encourages others who will procreate to enter into the marriage relationship.

Abbott’s “procreation-focused view” is not new. In the middle part of the last decade, Abbott (unsuccessfully) defended Texas’ ban on sex toys. At the Fifth Circuit, he argued that one of the state’s interests in prohibiting dildos and vibrators was “discouraging prurient interests in autonomous sex and the pursuit of sexual gratification unrelated to procreation.” This sexual prudishness (one hears echoes of Pope Paul VI’s Humane Vitae) crops up in other ways in Abbott’s brief yesterday. Even for those with spouses who can’t conceive, Abbott argues, banning gay marriage will keep you from sleeping around and having kids out of wedlock that the rest of us have to pay for.

By encouraging faithfulness and monogamy between a fertile person and an infertile opposite-sex spouse, these marriages—even though infertile—serve to channel both spouses’ sexuality into a committed relationship rather than toward sexual behavior that, for the fertile spouse at least, may result in costs that are ultimately borne by society.

But, still, how does allowing same-sex couples to marry discourage straight couples from getting married and procreating? Abbott argues that it’s enough for a same-sex marriage ban to pass constitutional muster “if one could rationally believe” that it “might be the case” that opposite-sex marriages are better for society than same-sex marriages. For gay couples who want to get married, Abbott hints at a solution: Find an opposite-sex partner.

All persons in Texas—regardless of sexual orientation—are subject to the same definition of marriage, and the plaintiffs are as free to marry an opposite-sex spouse as anyone else in the State.

I have no idea if Texas will prevail at the Fifth Circuit. The cause of marriage equality has done very well so far at the district court level and just yesterday a three-judge panel for the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia struck down that state’s ban. Ditto for the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Fifth Circuit is the most conservative in the nation, so Abbott has that going for him, and he pulled out all the conservative stops in his legal brief, signaling to the justices that they would be on the right side of tradition, history, judicial restraint, the democratic process and, yes, the kiddos. But you do get the sense from reading Abbott’s brief that the “anti” arguments have become enervated and do little more than paint a fast-fading bigotry with a thin coat of highfalutin legalese.

Noted sportsman and Florida Governor Rick Scott with Texas Governor Rick Perry after a fishing trip.
Florida Governor's Office
Noted sportsman and Florida Governor Rick Scott with Texas Governor Rick Perry after a fishing trip.

There’s so much money and patronage sloshing around Texas politics that it can be difficult to keep track. So it’s unsurprising that our great surplus spills over into other states. This time it’s Florida, where the sudden appearance of one of the all-time great Texas icons in an unseemly story of influence-peddling threatens to damage some of Florida’s top politicians in a critical election year, including the state’s increasingly grimy-looking governor, Rick Scott. Also at stake: billions of dollars and the health of one of America’s great natural assets.

For years, at least half a dozen high-ranking Florida Republicans have been accepting lavish trips to the King Ranch from the state’s sugar industry, and failing to report it properly to either their constituents or the state’s ethics authorities, according to an explosive Tampa Bay Times story that dropped last week. Florida’s currently in the middle of a highly contentious election cycle that’s had a lot to do with trust and corruption issues—so if the story develops, the King Ranch could play a starring role in the last couple months of the race.

The King Ranch is one of the largest ranches in the world, and it’s been a central pillar of Texan identity for a century and a half. But these days, the King Ranch is no mere cattle operation—it’s a globe-spanning corporate interest, deriving income from a diverse set of industries. King Ranch, Inc. owns 12,500 acres of sugar cane production as part of its holdings in South Florida. So in the arid brush country near Kingsville, the King Ranch has come to play host to a very different type of livestock—Florida Republicans.

For years, the Sunshine State has been trying to take better care of the Everglades, the sprawling tropical wetlands encompassing a good portion of Florida’s southern tip. The Everglades suffer from toxic runoff from the rest of the state, especially phosphorous pollution. The phosphorous comes primarily from the fertilizer used by industrial agricultural operations, especially the production of sugar cane.

The federal government heavily subsidizes the production of sugar cane, and coddles the industry through trade protections. But the state of Florida, too, subsidizes the industry. In the ’90s, the state passed a “polluter pays” measure which was intended to force groups poisoning the Everglades to pay for clean-up and control efforts—but the state’s Legislature capped the amount sugar-growers could pay at low levels, shifting the burden to other Floridians. Here’s something that conservatives and liberals can hate together: An industry is winning huge amounts of taxpayer money to grow crops in an environmentally destructive manner.

So how do they keep it going? One answer is that the industry lavishes attention on (and donates huge sums to) Florida Republicans to keep them fat and happy. That’s where the King Ranch comes in. The ranch owns land in Florida, so they have a vested interest in this—but its operations are dwarfed by those of the U.S. Sugar Corporation, the largest producer in Florida. U.S. Sugar owns almost 190,000 acres.

In 2011, U.S. Sugar leased 30,000 acres at the King Ranch and built a hunting lodge on the land. Last week, two reporters from the Tampa Bay Times figured out why.

A Times/Herald analysis shows that since late 2011, U.S. Sugar paid more than $95,000 to the Republican Party of Florida for at least 20 weekend trips — destinations unspecified on public documents — within days of more than a dozen Florida politicians registering for Texas hunting licenses.

This was a substantial investment—but no one reported the King Ranch trips to the relevant ethics authorities. U.S. Sugar reported in-kind donations to the party, but never said why or what it constituted. Almost no one wants to talk about it at all, in fact:

Florida GOP officials either said they don’t know about the King Ranch trips or they won’t talk about them. Sugar industry officials declined to comment. The King Ranch trips don’t show up on Scott’s or Putnam’s official schedules, or in any Republican Party of Florida fundraising documents.

Gov. Rick Scott came to Kingsville with a full complement of state police. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam came too. When asked about it, Putnam variously described the jaunt as a “hunting trip” and “campaign event,” then cut short an interview with the Times, after which his staff closed a door in a reporter’s face. So did a number of high-ranking state reps, including former House Speaker Dean Cannon. The reporters realized they could track who came to the ranch by identifying Florida pols with Texas hunting licenses—paid for by U.S. Sugar.

The trips themselves might not have been illegal—some who talked to the Times say the Republican Party of Florida might have found a loophole in the state’s ethics laws. But it’s unclear why each of the Republicans who accepted the hunting trips have been so mum about them if nothing was, in fact, illegal or improper. Even if the pols didn’t violate the letter of ethics law, they certainly violated its spirit. In 1991, a number of Florida legislators were indicted for accepting hunting trips from lobbyists and failing to report them.

Florida sugar growers appear to have prospered considerably from U.S. Sugar’s investment. A Florida legislator named Matt Caldwell wrote a bill in 2013 that extended the cap on the fee the industry had to pay for pollution alleviation to 2026. The bill quickly passed and was signed into law by Scott. In the Miami Herald, a former county commissioner from the area called the bill one of the “most deceptive and egregious action against taxpayers” he’d seen come out of the Florida Legislature. “Soon after,” the Times writes, “Caldwell registered for his first ever Texas hunting license.”

The sugar industry has given Florida Republicans more than $2 million in the 2014 cycle alone, so the money it sent shipping Scott and friends to Texas may seem small fry. But it’s precisely this kind of corruption that most rankles voters. Since Scott won in 2010 on the tea party wave, he’s been getting increasingly unpopular and has been ducking from scandal to scandal—his race race against the also-unpopular Charlie Crist is one of the most high-profile in the country this year. Soon, the King may be able to tack on another milestone to its august history-a starring role in another state’s political attack ads.

Wendy Davis speaking
Patrick Michels
Wendy Davis

In July, Wendy Davis went on a seven-city campaign tour to call attention to Greg Abbott’s “decision to keep explosive chemical locations secret from parents.” In case you weren’t following along, Abbott decided in May to block public access to information about hazardous chemicals stored at certain facilities, including fertilizer plants like the one that exploded in West last year. Quizzed by reporters later, Abbott said citizens need only “drive around” their neighborhoods and ask companies for the information. It was a hilarious and stupid thing to say. One imagines weary moms and dads packing the kids into the car after a long day: “Dinner will have to wait, kids. We’ve got a full tank of gas and a long list of light-industrial facilities to cruise.”

Reporters and political wags had a field day with it. Local TV crews visited industrial sites, cameras in tow, to show the absurdity. Rachel Maddow ran a 22-minute segment on the issue. The Observer sent letters to chemical facilities, asking for a list of chemicals reported on what are called Tier II forms—two of the four fertilizer plants we contacted refused. “Who the hell is Greg Abbott?” one owner asked us.

Davis decided to make it a major issue. Ahead of her tour, she announced a proposal to strengthen the Texas Community Right to Know Act, the primary law requiring businesses to disclose the location and quantity of certain dangerous chemicals.

There’s no doubt that Abbott screwed up. And you can’t fault Davis for seizing on the issue. How could she not? The media jumped all over the story because nothing pisses off the press like being denied access to information. But while Davis’ emphasis on a fairly obscure issue—We Want Our Tier II Reports!—generated headlines and won a few news cycles, it seems unlikely to excite the electorate, much less bring to an end two decades of losses for Texas Democrats.

It’s part of a larger pattern for Davis. Her campaign has been largely reactive, keying off Greg Abbott’s mistakes rather than articulating a vision for Texas. For long stretches, the Davis campaign has talked about little more than the latest outrage from Abbott’s supporters: In May, a Republican woman in Midland paid a California artist to design a grotesque poster depicting Davis as a pregnant “abortion Barbie.” The campaign sent out no fewer than five Buzzfeed-style fundraising emails about that. It’s the kind of minor outrage inducement that an Internet-saturated generation is addicted to, but it wears off fast.

On women’s health and abortion—the issues that launched Davis into the political stratosphere—she’s said little. At an event celebrating the one-year anniversary of her filibuster, Davis barely mentioned a woman’s right to choose. Worse, her campaign attempted to reinvent her filibuster as a fight against “Austin insiders.”

It is understandable that Davis hasn’t made abortion—or even women’s health—a cornerstone of her campaign. This is Texas, after all, and it’s wise for a Democrat to run on issues that are more unifying. But why not a seven-city tour on, say, Medicaid expansion? Expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act will not only save lives and put more than a million Texans on health insurance, it’s a terrific deal for the state. The feds will pay 90 percent of the cost. By rejecting the expansion, Rick Perry and Abbott are leaving $100 billion on the table, according to recent estimates. 

It’s good politics too—even if Republicans start hollering about “Obamacare.” (They will anyway.) Democratic governors in some red states, like Kentucky, have made Obamacare a winning issue. In Arkansas, Gov. Mike Beebe—one of the most popular governors in the nation—got a Republican-controlled Legislature to sign off on a Medicaid model that uses federal dollars to help people buy private insurance. That’s the same basic idea touted by some Republicans in the Texas Legislature. Polls, including one by Rick Perry’s own pollster, also show that a solid majority of Texans favors expanding Medicaid.

Davis, when asked recently by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, was unequivocal in her support (“I absolutely do”) for Medicaid expansion. And in mid-June, she unveiled her economic development plan, which included Medicaid expansion. But otherwise she’s rarely discussed health care so far. The word “Medicaid” doesn’t appear once on her campaign site. 

Democratic strategists I spoke with cautioned that it’s still early in the campaign; that the Davis grassroots effort feels and sounds different than the “messaging” in the media; and that her team has been frustrated by the media’s indifference to her policy ideas.

As Paul Burka of Texas Monthly has pointed out, if she made it a central issue she’d have the doctors on her side, the hospitals, and much of the business community, not to mention local governments and—most important—millions of Texans who would see the benefits of healthier families. 

Maybe I’m naive, but I like to think that this is the kind of alternative that Texans fed up with the tea party, and with “Austin insiders,” are craving. 

Forget about the policy merits for a moment. Davis needs to find a way to be a hero again. Right now, she’s a focus-grouped, poll-tested, highly mediated, stage-managed candidate running a somewhat moribund campaign. I’m aware that it’s almost cliche for a journalist to call for a candidate to “be herself” or “take off the gloves” but Davis is no ordinary candidate. To many, she’s Wendy, the inspiring and brave woman who put her body on the line and stood up to a bunch of bullies. Where did that Wendy go?

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Latino-Coalition-for-Educational-Equity
Patrick Michels
The Latino Coalition for Educational Equity's press conference outside the Texas Senate in February 2013. Patricia Lopez, who led research on the new education survey, is third from left.

In February 2013, while Texas lawmakers kicked around major changes to public eduction, a handful of Latino activists and educators banded together outside the Senate chamber to send a message that they were getting left out. After weeks of committee hearings dominated by business groups and mostly white parents and students, this super-group of advocates calling itself the Latino Coalition for Educational Equality united to say they’d had enough.

New graduation requirements were in the works, threatening a return to Texas’ old system of “tracking” Hispanic students into vocational programs instead of college prep. In budget talks, lawmakers were considering how much money to budget for schools. And even when they considered the fast-growing proportion of Hispanic students, few legislators consulted with the state’s wealth of Latino education experts. Hispanic students appeared in talking points mostly as test scores or arguments for more funding. But by the close of the session, the Latino coalition’s pleas did little to change the conversation.

So, just five months from another Lege session, Hispanic groups want to change that dynamic for good. During the 2015 session Hispanic students will make up a clear majority of Texas’ schoolchildren, and Latino advocates say it’s time their voices were heard.

To that end, the band got back together after the session ended to develop a unified agenda for 2015. Led by the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and the Senate Hispanic Caucus, a coalition of Latino groups met for a summit last October, split their effort into areas like health care, immigration and civic engagement, and gathered ideas from a broad selection of Latino advocates around the state. Organizers say the education study alone—with 70 groups and interviews with 120 bilingual teachers—is the most far-reaching survey of Latino and Latina groups in memory.

You can read the full report here—there’s a list of participating groups on page 7.

“The Latino community, we’re always talked about like we don’t vote, we don’t show up, and we constantly have to push back on dominant stereotypes,” says Patricia Lopez, the former University of Texas researcher who ran the education survey. “We have to be out there. These organizations are doing a lot of work that’s off the grid, not in the spotlight.”

The survey results include a mix of big needs, like improving access to college, and small-bore policy ideas—like new programs to unite schools with their neighborhoods—that the groups will start shopping around the Capitol soon. They’re counting on Hispanic caucuses in the House and Senate, led by Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) and Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso), to push these issues when the Lege returns.

School finance is, by far, the biggest priority the groups identified, and the report summary echoes a lot of what the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) has argued in its piece of the everlasting school finance lawsuit: that Texas’ school funding is based on what lawmakers want to spend, not what a quality education actually costs, and that cuts in school funding have meant scaling back bilingual education programs.

Interestingly, the teachers surveyed here are all bilingual teachers—either working in school districts or enrolled in teacher prep programs—and they were far more concerned with teacher quality, school accountability and access to books than school funding. Lopez says that’s a reflection of their more direct interaction with classrooms. “School finance obviously is intertwined in every issue,” she says. “You can’t advocate for more materials and more appropriate materials or resources without it being a school finance issue.”

Teachers and advocates also agreed, according to the report, that “increasing the number of well-prepared Latina/o teachers” should be a top priority—a finding that squares with research suggesting that Hispanic teachers tend to stay in high-needs schools longer, bringing stability to classrooms as well as a cultural relevancy that helps students relate to lessons.

It’s also worth noting what’s not listed among the top priorities: charter school chains, vouchers and full-time online schools, which the report dismisses as “privatization experiment efforts” that siphon money away from the schools most kids attend. In other words, if you ask Latino teachers and activists—and not Sen. Dan Patrick—there are plenty of “civil rights issues of our time” more pressing than school choice.

It’s not that teachers and advocates were opposed to charter schools or any particular group of reformers, Lopez says, just those “who come in who have no historical participation in a community, and see it as a potential market.”

WTF Friday: Who Are You?

borderfencebanner

Now that the brave men and women of the Texas Military Forces are on their way to the border (or will be in 30 to 45 days, time, weather and logistics permitting) we can start to address the core causes of the problem. Why are migrants coming here? Who are they? Don’t they know that this is a broken, bankrupt nation sweltering under the unrestrained tyranny of a Kenyan potentate?

1) On this, we find ourselves of two minds. One faction argues that the border crisis occurred because it was planned—the dark handiwork of Barack “Hussein” Obama and the machinations of some combination of the browner nations. There’s Mexico, for example, and… the other ones. It’s the Cloward-Piven strategy at work, you see, the culmination of years of cultural Marxism.

But this group is comprised of the fringiest of the fringe, the crankiest of the cranks—it would be unfair to tag mainstream conservatives with the belief that Obama has been personally orchestrating the arrival of child migrants. We’re talking about groups like … the Texas Public Policy Foundation? Huh.

2) Others have a novel theory, based in science. In this accounting, the United States is a giant magnet, and Central American teenagers, high in iron and other ferrous metals, are pulled here by freedom’s inexorable call. So dissuading them should, in theory, be simple: Stop the Magnet. Eliminate the things that make the United States an appealing and hospitable place to oppressed peoples. In Texas, that means making education more expensive and life more dangerous for undocumented migrants by eliminating in-state tuition and “sanctuary cities.” Stop the Magnet has a new champion: His name is state Rep. Steve Toth, and he’s running for a Texas Senate seat in The Woodlands.

Steve Toth has garnered the respect from the activists focused on the immigration issue. He has demonstrated by his deeds in investigating the locations and conditions of the sites where the Office of Refugee and Resettlement [...] are bringing in poverty-stricken and in some cases, diseased or criminal alien minors.

This is a very American sentiment, as memorialized in the often-forgotten second stanza to Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” inscribed for posterity at the foot of the unfortunately Gallic Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Now stop the magnet, stop it now.
Send them back, and send no more
All these folk should go back, wow.
They’re sick and smell, and hell, they’re poor.

If he wins next week, Toth will become Stop the Magnet’s man in what’s sure to be a pretty anti-immigrant state senate. But is Stop the Magnet going far enough? Perhaps the only way to ensure migrants stop coming to Texas is to make the state uninhabitable for everyone. Our bounty of breathable air and drinkable water is a magnet: So is our transportation network and public school system. I have little doubt that the 84th Legislature will tackle these problems head-on.

3) So now we know why they’re coming: But who are they? Yes, they’re OTM UACs, but who are they inside? A raging debate is taking place on this question up and down the state. State Rep. David Simpson, a steadfast conservative who’s nonetheless a very earnest and heartfelt Christian, went down to the border and thought seriously on this question. He came back to Longview and spoke honestly to his constituents.

Yes, we should tighten the border, he said. But these are also kids, some of whom have experienced horrors that we cannot possibly imagine. And we should be kind, and open to them and their needs. Some have been grievously abused. Many feared for their lives, and many do still. Basically, he bet that he could talk to his constituents like adults that could hold two competing thoughts in their heads at once.

“I believe your constituents should come first when you talk about people who are impacted,” Terri Hill of Longview said during a town hall session that followed a slide show of Simpson’s recent tour of the southern border. “You are to represent us, and we have children. These (immigrants) are people that are coming in with leprosy, tuberculosis, polio.”

[...]

“I’ve got four kids and a fifth one on the way,” Ben Denson of Gilmer told Simpson from a forum microphone. “These (Central American) kids have scabies and influenza, viral pneumonia, leprosy. These kids are going to be part of the school system. They are bleeding Texas (Democrat) blue.”

Another fellow had a more direct diagnosis of the illness at hand:

“These people are not coming in with a good, Christian heart.”

WWJDTAAPEOMWAPHAAPIB? (What would Jesus do to alleviate a prolonged exodus of minors, who are probable heathens, along a porous international border?)

4) Are they Christians? Well, I suppose it depends on what kind of Christians. Many of them, worshippers of the Pope in Rome, are not the good kind of Christian. Mary and Dale Huls, two Houston-area tea party activists with the First Baptist Church of Seabrook, have been going down to the Rio Grande Valley lately to lend a hand. Their exploits are lovingly chronicled by Breitbart Texas’ Bob Price, author of such lovely stories as “ANIMALS FEAST ON BODY OF DEAD MIGRANT.”

There is a long and storied tradition of white conservatives from around Texas going to the Valley for the first time and losing their shit, so in a way it’s a small positive step that the Huls have complimentary things to say, even if they’re Baptists doing missionary work in a Catholic community that they don’t seem to quite understand. (They’re also part of a border militia, so, cool.)

In her work with the FBC mission, Huls observed the part of Falfurrias that doesn’t make the news. “There is a face of Falfurrias that is seldom seen,” she said. “It’s the face of a people who are committed Americans, complete with USA and Texas flags in their yards, who are being over-looked.”

Hispanic people living near the border who are committed Americans? Hold on, let me put my monocle back into place, which I dropped when my face went wide with shock. I hope more information, coming shortly, won’t make me spit out this water in my mouth in a comically exaggerated fashion.

“These folks have totally bought into the American dream,” Huls continued. “They name their kids Taylor, Gilbert, Joslyn and Kaitlyn rather than Juan, Manuel or Maria. They keep up their homes in the projects with a quiet dignity and encourage their children to attend our mission clubs.”

Ew.

5) This weekend, as we drink heavily, let us take time to salve the wounds that arise from our own misconception of each other. Namaste, y’all.

Mayor Julián Castro
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Outgoing San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro convinced voters to pass a tax increase in 2012 to help fund full-day pre-K.

Rick Perry is fond of saying that the 50 states are “laboratories of innovation” where the real work of democracy occurs.

Quick—name one innovation the Texas Legislature has produced in the last, say, three sessions. Name one big idea of Rick Perry’s during his 14 years in office. And no, colossal failures like the Trans-Texas Corridor and HPV vaccinations for teen girls don’t count.

But Perry does have a point: The descent of the Congress into a depressing burlesque of corruption and gridlock has made state government more important than ever. But in Texas, state government is increasingly suffering from the same malaise we see in Washington, D.C.: small-mindedness, ideological extremism on the right and a toxic anti-government strain that ricochets between a steadfast unwillingness to use the public sector to solve problems and an active campaign to dismantle successful programs. The list of things the Texas Legislature ought to address, but doesn’t, could occupy many column inches. If anything, it’s going to get worse before it gets better (if it gets better), due to the tea party takeover of the Texas GOP.

Perry wants to wage a war of state vs. state and state vs. fed, but in Texas it is our cities—especially the big six of Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio—that are left to seriously grapple with citizens’ most urgent needs. While Texas cities are by and large run by Democrats, their leadership tends to be—by necessity and by tradition—progressive but pragmatic. Think Julian Castro of San Antonio or Annise Parker of Houston.

In city government, the corrupting influence of corporate dollars doesn’t have the same reach, and citizens are simply more engaged. You go to a city council hearing and it’s packed with ordinary folks; you go to a legislative hearing and often you can’t find a seat not taken by a lobbyist.

And city government is about more than potholes and trash service. Cities are increasingly taking on the tasks that state and federal government won’t. A few examples:

The Texas Legislature is so overrun by money from predatory payday lenders that it refuses to impose even the most cursory of regulations to deal with runaway interest rates and a vicious cycle of debt. So this arcane area of consumer finance has fallen to the cities to deal with. At least 18 Texas cities have passed payday loan ordinances over the past three years, including conservative strongholds such as Midland. Unlike at the Legislature, the lenders’ arguments about tampering with the free market were unpersuasive compared to the outcry of faith groups, community activists and borrowers.

Also, the Lege has taken a completely laissez-faire attitude toward fracking, ignoring the complaints of residents around the state that drilling in sensitive and populated areas may have downsides that need to be addressed. Cities have tried to step up. In Denton, city leaders and a bunch of pissed-off citizens are considering desperate measures—including a total ban—to deal with the glut of fracking activity in the area. The City Council, which is mixed on the ban, has nonetheless imposed a moratorium on new drilling until September.

In San Antonio, Mayor Julian Castro, who is stepping down to become President Obama’s Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary, convinced voters to pass a bona fide tax increase in 2012 to help fund full-day pre-K—a response, in part, to cuts the Legislature made to its pre-K funding.

And in Austin, city and county officials are dealing with the thorny issue of how to finance the infrastructure needs of a boomtown without pricing working people out of the city. Property values are soaring, but wages aren’t keeping up. The lack of a state income tax and the stinginess of state budget writers means local governments must rely overwhelmingly on property taxes to pay for services, infrastructure and public schools. It’s never been a particularly equitable system, but cities like Austin, which are transforming from regional hubs to major-city status, are groaning under the burden. State lawmakers have designed a system that allows commercial property owners to wriggle out of paying their fair share, pushing more and more of the load onto homeowners.

Texas’ other big cities face similar problems with the state’s dysfunctional tax system. This is one that local government can’t solve without help from the Legislature.

“Local control”—a long-standing Texas tradition—shouldn’t mean “you’re on your own.”  

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Mighty Jim Hogan and the Art of the Anti-Campaign

Jim Hogan won the Democratic nomination for agriculture commissioner having spent no time and no money in pursuit of it. Now, he's going for the big prize.
Democratic nominee for agriculture commissioner Jim Hogan at the Cleburne Public Library, his de facto campaign headquarters.
Christopher Hooks
Democratic nominee for agriculture commissioner Jim Hogan at the Cleburne Public Library, his de facto campaign headquarters.

Just down the road from the Johnson County Courthouse in Cleburne, Texas, past the theater where a local company is staging a version of “Steel Magnolias,” sits the Cleburne Public Library. In the back, a few rows down from the display with the Louis L’Amour short story collection, Jim Hogan, Democratic nominee for agriculture commissioner, shows off his seat of power. It’s late June, the day before the Democratic Party’s state convention kicks off in Dallas. Hogan could be there, celebrating his unlikely victory. But he doesn’t want to be anywhere near it. Instead, he’s giving a tour of his unofficial campaign headquarters.

From a line of pressed-wood desk cubbies with internet-equipped Dell computers, Hogan, a former dairy farmer with a small cattle operation, ran what must be the most unlikely primary campaign of any Texas Democrat in the modern era. Earlier this year, Hogan found himself in a three-way standoff in the Democratic primary race for agriculture commissioner. His opponents: the party establishment’s favorite candidate, Hugh Asa Fitzsimons III, and a pot-loving troubadour with populist appeal, Kinky Friedman. Hogan bested both. When the unlucky Friedman found himself in a runoff, Hogan smashed him by more than 7 points.

Yet Hogan raised and expended zero dollars in the course of the campaign, and spent the entire race at home, or on the computers at the library, where he monitored the results that appeared when he Googled his name, and researched the job. If you include the $3,750 filing fee he was required to pay to get on the ballot, he spent 1.2 cents a vote. In terms of money and time, he ran an election effort of record-setting efficiency.

While Wendy Davis’ resource-intensive war machine, virtually unopposed and with millions of dollars in hand, lost much of the Rio Grande Valley to an unknown opponent, Hogan cruised to victory with the steady hand of a zen master. On runoff night, reporters found him at a neighbors’ house, cooking “country boy stew,” which features hamburger meat, carrots, tomatoes and green beans.

Like a warrior-monk who has taken a vow of poverty, he not only let his own campaign lie fallow, he refused campaigning from others. When political consultants from Austin came to a summit with Hogan at Cleburne’s Blue Star Grill and offered their services pro bono, Hogan refused. When a neighbor offered to make a pro-Hogan sign and put it in his yard, he declined.

“Take that money and give it your grandkids,” he says he told the neighbors. “What is that sign gonna do? Nothing. People are gonna vote for me cause a sign said ‘Jim Hogan’? I don’t want people to be that shallow.”

Candidates running for statewide office are normally quite appreciative of shallow voters, so this is an unusual declaration. We’re more than halfway through an election season that, even if no more shallow than the last, will be the most expensive in the state’s history. Unimaginable sums of money are being raised and spent. Pricey out-of-state consultants and nomadic campaign hands with big paychecks abound. We’ve moved from a Republican primary for lt. governor, where one of the critical issues was David Dewhurst’s dinner at an Austin steakhouse, to a general election where earnest discussion of the state’s pressing issues is infrequent at best.

Sid Miller, Republican nominee for agriculture commissioner, at his party's state convention.
Timothy Faust
Sid Miller, Republican nominee for agriculture commissioner, at his party’s state convention.

Elsewhere this cycle, races have been mostly fluff. The worst case might be the Republican primary race for agriculture commissioner. J. Allen Carnes, the mayor of Uvalde—serious, thoughtful and earnest—garnered endorsements from agricultural trade organizations, talked about the needs of farmer… and placed fifth in a five-way race. The winner, Sid Miller, counts Ted Nugent as his campaign treasurer and looks and acts like a French cartoonist’s caricature of a Texan. He ran on gun rights and his opposition to abortion, and when asked about agriculture issues, seemed ill-prepared. He opened his speech at the Republican convention with a slightly bawdy story about his wife on election night.

Hogan has been an object of fascination for political junkies and media types. He may have won purely by chance, but his inexplicable success offers some relief from the absurdity and occasional cruelty of Texas political life. A Tumblr set up by admirers records his exploits. A Texas Monthly piece highlighted Hogan’s runoff win as one of the few bright spots of a generally disheartening night. A column Hogan wrote for the op-ed website TribTalk may go down in the record books as the most memorable piece of political rhetoric from the 2014 election:

It has been reported that I am unknown and do not campaign. If you will pause for a moment and Google “Jim Hogan Texas Agriculture Commissioner,” I believe you will be amazed at the amount of information available about me. I think you will agree that those reports can be put to rest.

Why is he doing this? Does he think he can win? Is he a playful imp, or Chauncey Gardiner? After meeting Hogan, it remains difficult to say. This much is certain: Hogan’s not a fool. He knows Miller will be the likely victor. But, he says, he wasn’t supposed to win the last two times. So who knows? He’s got a healthy belly laugh.

Jim Hogan by Buffalo Creek, which runs through Cleburne.
Christopher Hooks
Jim Hogan by Buffalo Creek, which runs through Cleburne.

His main contention is: Why not me? Ask Hogan a question, and his tendency is to flip it back on you, like a teacher facing a slow-witted student. Over a burger in the Blue Star Grill, where Hogan conducts his meetings, I ask him: what has Todd Staples, the current agriculture commissioner, been doing wrong?

“I don’t know what Todd Staples has been doing,” he says, “other than buying $300,000 worth of cameras.” Staples, intent to run someday for higher office, spent much of his last term talking about border security. His office spent $345,000 on funding security cameras on the border. “Most of what he does has nothing to do with agriculture,” Hogan says.

What would Hogan do as agriculture commissioner? In point of fact, Hogan says, virtually no one, including many farmers, know who the agriculture commissioner is or what it does, because the office has never done a damn thing for a lot of people it’s supposed to help. He grabs a waitress at the Blue Star Grill and asks her if she knows the agriculture commissioner: She doesn’t. “It’s going to be you, though,” she says as she walks away.

“Grab people up in Dallas and ask them what the ag commissioner does, and they won’t know,” he says. “Nobody knows!”

Has Hogan had experiences with the Department of Agriculture that made him want to run? “I’ve never had anything to do with them,” he laughs. Few have. “If you can get somebody on the phone, you’re lucky.” The office, by rights, should be apolitical. “It should be providing services to farmers and ranchers,” he says. “But most people running for agriculture commissioner have no ties to it, and have probably never studied it.”

I ask Hogan what he’d do if he got the post—the latest of several times I’d tried to broach the question. Would there be some big policy initiative? New programs? He explains it to me, again, a bit slower, to help me understand. On the first day, “I’m going to walk in and do this very methodically,” he says. He’d talk to the department’s officers, and he’d get a good sense of the inefficiencies there. He’d travel around the state and talk to farmers and ranchers. He’d get out there in the field. And then he’d figure out how the department could help.

“I’m going to gather the facts and make logical decisions,” he said. “I don’t want to make a complication when you ought to have simplicity.” Basically, his campaign promise is to work hard and do a good job.

“People like J. Allen Carnes,” he says. “Those people at least have an inkling. But these people that have been in the Legislature all their life, they really don’t get it.” Count his opponent among those who don’t get it. “I know Sid Miller. If you want to drink beer and rope calves, Sid’s your man,” Hogan says. “But all you gotta do is study what he’s done.” That includes a whole lot of lobbying, and a whole lot of politicking.

Hogan’s Democratic opponent didn’t take the job too seriously, either. “Kinky didn’t say anything about agriculture.” Over the course of his political career, Kinky, supposedly the outsider, had showed a particularly cynical brand of politics. For one thing, his campaign staff tried to buy off Hogan with the promise of meeting Willie Nelson. Kinky “did every bad thing in the world but he said what he said in a funny way that made people laugh. I didn’t laugh at all,” he said. “I didn’t think it was funny because I didn’t think that was kosher.”

He’s not laughing because the Texas farmer and the rancher face real problems. “The price of land’s too high. Cities are moving out. There’s more people and less land to grow on it. Nobody wants GMOs or pesticides on their stuff. Well, here comes Mexico, bringing food over,” says Hogan. “We’re hitting the wall. Things are getting worse. The water situation—it’s going to rain sometime. But the next time we have a drought there’s gonna be a lot more people.”

And farmers and ranchers needed to bring younger people into the field. “Today, we’re overlooking daughters. It’s a woman’s world if you hadn’t noticed out there.” Hogan has two himself, which he raised as a single father after his wife passed away in 2000. “In other words, I’m in tune with the world. Top to bottom. And for simple reasons, I want to be agriculture commissioner. You couldn’t give me governor or anything else, it’s got too much baggage. It ain’t worth it. And I only want it for one term. And during that term, I’d hope to find somebody who’d do something similar to what I did.”

Hogan’s running as a Democrat, but only because he thought he had better odds of winning the nomination. If he wins, he’s going to hire Republicans alongside Democrats. He has no particular affection for either party, but he wishes the system worked better, and that people voted more. Texas’ unbalanced party system, he thinks, has screwed up the state. “I thought we had a two party system in America,” he says.

“Don’t vote Republican or Democrat, look at the person. I don’t even know what a party is, other than the people that run it,” he says. “If you’re a Republican and you got a bad person, and the Democrats have a good person, you’re going to vote the bad person just because he’s a Republican?”

On all matters, Hogan preaches moderation. “I like all people, that’s my philosophy,” he said. Around Cleburne, plenty of people have gotten heated about increasing numbers of immigrants—some won’t go to the H-E-B anymore because there’s too many unfamiliar faces. But Hogan is calm. Migrants “come here to work hard and send money home to their family.” He thinks open carry protesters are silly. “Just cause you can don’t mean you have to,” he says. “That’s the thing with politics everywhere. There’s extremes, and there’s people with logic.”

Hogan may claim the mantle of logic, but in Texas, logic is not enough. Barring the discovery of Miller in bed with, in the immortal words of Edwin Edwards, a dead girl or a live boy, his party affiliation will trump Hogan’s and Miller will spend a number of years doing whatever it is he wants to do in statewide office, before presumably trying to make the jump to another one.

In theory, Americans like people like Hogan—genuine outsiders, rough-hewn pragmatists, underdogs. There used to be more people like Hogan in public office. In practice, today’s strivers come from a very different mold.

Officeholders are as different from us as an alien race. In national races, we’ve come to expect our campaigns, and our campaigners, to function with the mechanical precision and sleek design of a Swiss watch. A wrong word or a step out of place can doom a person’s political fortunes, and so actual fortunes are spent on ensuring that doesn’t happen. Candidates never have a chance to show their real selves, and they become alienated from us. And we become alienated from the political process.

In Texas, at the state and local level, the political process has become perverted in a very different way. A vanishingly small number of voters have a say in the way the state is run, thanks to the total dominance of the Republican Party and its primary elections. Statewide candidates like Miller face little accountability from voters once they get past their primary runoff. Party affiliation is the golden god of Texas politics, and the state is left with demagogues of all stripes running virtually unopposed. Apathy grows, and many voters tune out.

Hogan wants no part of any of that. “I realized that when I signed up to run, I became a product,” he says. “I don’t want to be anything that I’m not.”

Hogan won’t change all that, but he’s having fun trying. “There’s a lot of people around town laughing and having a ball about this, because they know who I am,” Hogan laughs. “A lot of my neighbors wanted clips for their scrapbooks. They never thought Jim Hogan, who mows his lawn with a push mower, would get here.”

Correction: The article formerly identified Jim Hogan as a dairy farmer. Hogan is a former dairy farmer who currently has a small cow-calf business.

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