The Parallel Apartments
by Bill Cotter
500 pages; $25.00
The Parallel Apartments
by Bill Cotter
496 pages; $25

Trying to describe The Parallel Apartments is like trying to pat your head while rubbing your stomach while reciting the alphabet backwards. In his sophomore novel Bill Cotter deploys a broad and complicated cast of characters, all of whom are riddled with budding psychoses. There’s the aspiring serial killer, the infertile baby-crazed lunatic, the sex-bot madam, the matchmaking hermaphrodite, and, at the center of it all, the collage-obsessed chronic masturbator. These and more come together briefly as residents of the book’s eponymous Austin tenement. Based on their quirks, and the title’s reference to the location of their intersection, it would be easy to label the book black comedy.

That would be a gross oversimplification. Even the weirdest and wackiest members of Cotter’s menagerie play second and somewhat discordant fiddle to the book’s true focus: the estrangement of three generations of Austin women and their paths toward reconciliation.

Charlotte, Livia, and Justine Durant have issues, to put it mildly. Justine, unintentionally pregnant in New York City, finds her way back to her hometown to decide whether to keep her baby. She’s also searching for answers regarding her own origins after a homeless woman cryptically informs her that Livia, who always told Justine she was adopted, is actually her birth mother. Livia and her own mother, Charlotte, are no longer on speaking terms for undisclosed reasons.

There’s a lot going on here, but if a cohesive theme emerges, it’s motherhood. The Parallel Apartments is a bizarre catalog of women who have babies but don’t want them and women who want babies but don’t have them, and how these predicaments leave mothers and daughters and childless women emotionally (and often mentally) crippled. It would be far easier to label the book a farce if these depictions weren’t so heartbreaking, and readers may be left wondering whether Cotter is trying to say something about childbirth (and if so, what?), or if it’s just another of his many fictive obsessions.

The mixture of satire and seriousness is what makes The Parallel Apartments so confusing; Cotter continually convinces us that his characters are jokes, then pulls the punch-line out from under us, leaving readers flat on their backs, bewildered. This constant subversion of expectations is also what makes the book an intriguing, if emotionally disorienting, read.

Every now and then ambition impedes cohesion. Too often the saga of the Durant women is interrupted by supporting characters, rather than complemented by them. And after the 15th scene of Justine masturbating, eye-rolling is justified, if not outright demanded. The book is peppered with self-indulgent geographical nods to Austin, and these unnecessary references to Bass Concert Hall, Airport Boulevard, the U.T. Tower and other Austin icons make the writer seem worried that readers might forget where the book is set, or, worse, that its author is an authentic Austinite.

But even as Cotter labors to present Austin as weirder than it actually is, and even as his characters do abominable and ridiculous things to themselves and to one another, I found myself pitying, even rooting for, his band of bawdy misfits. For each of the plot’s points of despicable nonsense, there’s a counter-instance of unexpected kindness, all filtered through Cotter’s conflicted mix of mockery and compassion. The result is both horrific and heartwarming, no matter how difficult to describe.

5th Circuit Abortion Ruling: Road Trips Aren’t that Bad

Legal battle over Texas abortion restrictions likely headed to Supreme Court.
A woman holds up a plastic baby as pro-choice demonstrators chant in the Capitol rotunda.
Patrick Michels
A pro-life demonstrator holds up a plastic baby at the Texas Capitol in July.

In a move that surprised no one, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday upheld the constitutionality of Texas’ new restrictions on abortion clinics. In doing so, the conservative appellate court handed a victory to the anti-choice phalanx in Texas who trumpeted the decision as good news (Rick Perry), a victory (Texas Right To Life) and a vindication of the Legislature’s careful deliberations (Greg Abbott).

It was widely expected that the 5th Circuit would side with the state. In October, the court allowed the most controversial provisions of Texas’ new abortion law—which state Sen. Wendy Davis famously filibustered last summer—to take immediate effect, granting an emergency request from Abbott before the justices had even heard oral arguments. That was a clear signal that abortion-rights groups weren’t likely to win.

Still, yesterday’s ruling is disappointment for abortion providers. They argue that the two provisions of the law they had hoped to overturn in this legal challenge have already caused considerable turmoil. In particular, the requirement that abortion providers have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals has led to the closure of at least 10 abortion clinics since last fall, providers say. Women seeking abortions in rural areas like the Rio Grande Valley, the Panhandle, and in vast swathes between El Paso and Interstate 35 must now travel greater distances.

But the appellate judges weren’t convinced that the need to travel further to access abortion was a big deal. At the oral argument in January, Chief Justice Edith Jones observed that the roads between the Rio Grande Valley and Corpus Christi were flat and uncongested. It seemed beyond Justice Jones’ imagination that a Texas road trip might not be an adventure—or more than a minor inconvenience—for a woman with a full-time job, child care responsibilities or visa restrictions that confine her to the lower reaches of the Rio Grande Valley.

The court’s ruling reprised this assumption by noting that the journey from the Valley to the nearest abortion clinic in Corpus Christi takes only three hours. Moreover, the judges added, these women are exempt from the mandatory 24-hour wait because they live in rural areas, so what’s unduly burdensome about that?

In another curtsy to the joys of the Texas road trip, the judges note in their ruling that women don’t lack access to abortion clinics, because major providers still exist in Austin, Dallas, Houston, El Paso, Corpus Christi and San Antonio. Yet the opinion overlooks the  reality for many women whom this ruling will affect. Before the law was implemented, low-income women were already making difficult economic decisions to pay for their abortions. They were pawning their belongings or skipping their rent to save money. The closure of abortion clinics in all but major urban areas makes accessing abortion even more difficult for poor women in rural areas.

The last legal hope for Texas abortion providers is the U.S. Supreme Court. So far, the plaintiffs in the case—the Center for Reproductive Rights, The Planned Parenthood Federation and The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas—haven’t confirmed that they will appeal. However, both sides expect the case to end up before the nation’s highest court. Indeed, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a dissenting opinion about whether the bill should be delayed while the Fifth Circuit deliberated and that at least four members of the high court would be willing to consider law’s constitutionality, regardless of what the appellate court ruled.

Meanwhile, another more dramatic provision of the law looms. By Sept. 1, all remaining abortion clinics in Texas must upgrade their facilities to meet the standards of ambulatory surgical care centers. Abortion providers note that the upgrades are so expensive that only six clinics in Texas may survive.

No doubt, the state of Texas will trumpet this outcome as a victory for women’s health and safety. Poor women without the means to traverse Texas’ winding highways may not agree.

Austin Energy's solar farm in Webberville
Solar Austin
Austin Energy's solar farm in Webberville

One of the most inexorable and (buzzword coming…) disruptive trends in the energy world has, for some time, been the precipitous decline in the cost of solar. Like other renewable energy technologies, solar power has obvious environmental and climate benefits but hasn’t necessarily been competitive, in strict market terms, with fossil fuels. That’s changing very rapidly—even in Texas.

Two recently announced solar projects in West Texas show how solar is becoming more than just a niche source of energy.

First, there’s Austin Energy’s brewing deal with SunEdison for a 150-megawatt solar project in West Texas. The size of the project is significant. It’s enough to power 14,000 homes and represents the second-largest solar project in Texas, following a 400 MW installation commissioned by CPS Energy, San Antonio’s city-owned utility. But the more salient fact is the price. Although the exact figure has not been released, it’s somewhere around 5 cents per kilowatt-hour—perhaps the cheapest price in the U.S. ever. A nickel per kilowatt-hour is impressively low.

For comparison’s sake, Austin Energy’s 30-megawatt solar farm just east of Austin in Webberville priced in at 16.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. That was just a few years ago. The typical residential customer in Austin currently pays about 10-11 cents per kilowatt-hour and it’s thought that the SunEdison project will slightly lower electricity rates for Austinites. Finally, and perhaps most important, the solar project is cheaper than building a new natural gas plant, when considering the costs of each over the life of the facilities.

Austin Energy received “a substantial number of bids” totaling 1 gigawatt all under 5.5 cents per kilowatt hour, said Michael Osborne, one of the gurus of the renewable energy industry in Texas and, until recently, a special assistant at Austin Energy.

“If you can aggressively price solar below [5 cents per kilowatt-hour] that is going to be a revolution,” Osborne said at a recent Solar Austin gathering. “Solar at that price is going to beat natural gas anytime.”

Osborne attributes cheap solar prices, in part, to the maturation of the market. “Solar is the new wind,” he says. Texas, of course, is a global leader in wind power but in the early years the Texas wind industry was buffeted by engineering problems, timid investors and questions about how to fit wind—with its fickle nature—into the grid. Similarly, solar developers now enjoy more sophisticated financing options, cheaper construction costs and just the general benefits of experience. “The same thing happened in the wind business: It’s a sign of the market maturing.”

The other first-of-its-kind project to be announced this year is FirstSolar’s Barilla Solar Project, a 22-MW array in Pecos County. To date, virtually all of the solar deals in Texas have been driven by the renewable energy goals of city-owned utilities. FirstSolar’s Barilla project is different; it’s a “merchant” plant that will have to compete in the open market. The developer will build the plant without a firm deal in place and then try to sell the power to an array of customers.

“The merchant plant is a really big deal,” said Stan Pipkin, CEO of Austin-based Lighthouse Solar. “It’s price-based and market-based.”

Osborne projects that 200 to 300 megawatts of merchant solar will be built in the next year or so.

Still, some in the renewable energy business think solar still has a ways to go to close the gap. In the utility world, the concept is “grid parity”—the almost-talismanic threshold at which a budding energy source can produce power equal to or cheaper than what’s coming off the grid.

Or, in layman’s terms, it’s when solar (or wind or geothermal, etc) officially kick coal, nuclear and natural gas’ ass.

Shalini Ramanathan, vice president for origination with RES Americas, points to wholesale prices in ERCOT, which hover around 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, a fair sight lower than the levelized cost (5 cents/kWh) for even the cheapest solar.

“My sense is that solar is getting closer than ever to grid parity but it’s not quite there yet,” she said.

But that gap is deceptively large. For one, notoriously volatile natural gas is the prime driver of wholesale electricity prices in ERCOT. If the fracking bonanza fizzles or natural gas exports overseas pushes the commodity price of natural gas higher, electricity prices will rise too. Renewables on the other hand provide price certainty decades into the future.

“Uncertainty in the ERCOT market could be part of the appeal of solar and wind,” Ramanathan said. “It’s so obvious that sometimes developers don’t pitch it this way: But once you build it, the fuel is free. It can provide a really good hedge against power prices from fossil sources increasing in the future.”

Wind power received a huge boost from Texas government when the Texas Legislature passed and Gov. George W. Bush (that hippie!) signed legislation establishing mandates for utilities to purchase green energy. No such concession has been made for solar in Texas, even though the resource offers the same environmental and economic benefits and is arguably the most obvious solution to the specter of brownouts on the ERCOT grid. The tea party’s anti-government grip has made public policy of this sort a non-starter. Still, if solar can assert itself in the market, the industry may have a sunny future in Texas.

For the second consecutive year, a Texas Observer reporter is a finalist for the most prestigious award in magazine journalism.

The American Society of Magazine Editors announced this morning that Observer staff writer Emily DePrang is a finalist for a 2014 National Magazine Award.

Emily DePrangEmily is nominated in the reporting category for her two-part series on police brutality in Houston. She’s a finalist along with reporters for The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Harper’s, Outside and The Atavist. The winner will be announced at a banquet in New York City on May 1.

The National Magazine Awards, or Ellies, are considered the Pulitzer Prizes of the magazine industry. This is the third Ellie nomination in the Observer’s 60-year history, and the second in two years. The Observer’s Melissa del Bosque was a 2013 finalist in the reporting category.

Emily’s stories—“Crimes Unpunished” and “The Horror Every Day”—published in the July and September issues of the Observer, were the result of eight months of reporting. The stories exposed that the Houston Police Department rarely disciplines officers for misconduct and abuse. Over a six-year period, officers who left crime scenes, falsified reports, mauled suspects and shot unarmed citizens were allowed to keep their jobs and are still patrolling the streets of the nation’s fourth-largest city. Emily found that between 2007 and 2012, Houston cops were involved in 550 shootings of people and animals. The department deemed every one of those 550 shootings justified, including the killing of a wheelchair-bound mentally ill double amputee who was armed with only a ballpoint pen.

Emily’s reporting was picked up by CNN, the Houston Chronicle and The Huffington Post, among others.

Congratulations to Emily! This is one of the most prestigious honors in journalism and well-deserved recognition of her work.

And congratulations to our staff and everyone who helps this little magazine in Texas produce some of the best journalism in the country.

Alongside other test reform demonstrators outside the State Capitol, Chamness carries the only sign urging all-out boycott.
Patrick Michels
Anti-testing advocate Edy Chamness outside the Capitol in 2013.

The appointed days of STAAR testing are nearly upon Texas schoolchildren, and on Tuesday the Dallas Morning News marked the occasion with a look at the state of the opt-out movement in Texas.

These are the folks who keep their kids out of school on test days, in protest of the public school system’s insatiable desire for test prep and data. To the opt-outers, it’s a form of civil disobedience in a system they say has made it hard to get their voices heard any other way. By depriving schools of their kids’ test scores, they’re hitting The Man where it hurts.

I covered that movement in the Observer‘s February 2012 issue, profiling Austin’s Edy Chamness, a mother and a former teacher whose frustration with Texas’ test love turned her into an activist on the fringes of the school accountability debate.

In Tuesday’s story, the News calls Chamness “perhaps the best known opt-out parent in Texas,” and she offers one explanation as to why her cause hasn’t exactly taken off: “Parents don’t want to teach their kids how to question authority.”

But the News‘ Jeffrey Weiss rounds up a few more notable tales of opting out, like this one:

Maeve Siano of Celina is one of the few North Texans who has quietly been willing to refuse the tests for her children. Last year, the mental health therapist decided the tests and associated preparation and stress were more likely to damage her son than help him. Celina ISD officials weren’t happy, she said.

“Their reaction was begging and pleading and threatening us that he would be held back,” she said.

Finally, she said, school officials put her son at a desk, placed a test in front of him and had him write “refuse” on it.

The highest-profile new case is certainly that of Kyle and Jennifer Massey, who announced their plans to opt their fourth-grade daughter out of the tests at Waco ISD, in a letter they posted online. In the letter, they list their concerns about the state’s testing regime, saying, “We are not making this decision simply to ‘avoid’ a test, but rather to exercise our rights to ensure that Hillcrest PDS does not force [our son] to take part in school activities that are contrary to our moral and ethical beliefs.” (Read the full thing below.)

The letter made the rounds among education bloggers and activists. The education historian Diane Ravitch, a leader in the responsible-testing movement, reposted the letter with this note:

[The Masseys] want for their child what “the best and wisest parent ” wants for his own children: a full, rich, creative, liberating education, one that prepares him for life in a democracy, not endless drill and practice for tests that are prepared thousands of miles away, whose sole purpose is to rate their child, his teachers, his principal, and his school.

Update at 12:20 p.m.: Austin education activist Mike Corwin passes along a note Austin ISD posted Wednesday reminding parents that, despite what they’ve heard, “Parents may not have students opt out of testing. While AISD and others might be empathetic to some of their feelings, by law there is no “opt out” for students.” Irate parents may take solace, at least, that the possibility of empathy might exist!

I’d reached out yesterday to hear more from Edy Chamness, and only just heard back. She confirms her son, who’s next to her in the photo from our story last year, won’t be taking the 6th grade STAAR this year. Her daughter, she says, has opted out of public schools entirely—in favor of a private school where, she writes, “Everyday starts in a circle with a tap of the gong, lighting of a candle and a moment of silence. We love it.”

It underscores a larger point about the recent resistance to standardized testing here in Texas: lawmakers only really responded to criticism of the state’s testing regime after they started hearing from wealthier and suburban parents. The resistance—and even a lawsuit—from minority groups go back decades.


Abbott 2.0
Abbott 2.0

Greg Abbott’s campaign has more money than God and an ample talent pool—but he may want to check on his IT department.

For more than a week, senior members of Abbott’s campaign staff have been trying to get the word out about a new attack website they’ve paid for— Attack websites—repositories of opposition research that campaigns will build separately from their own pages—are common. They’re usually sleek, well-designed, and well-stocked with mud ready to be slung.

The better ones are designed to “go viral,” with compelling content that your politically active aunts and uncles will feel compelled to forward to you. Supporters of John Cornyn made a great one in his campaign against Steve Stockman (though, alas, it now looks like it’s been taken down.) Lieutenant governor hopeful Dan Patrick has been lighting up the campaign with his attack sites, which are some of the best and strangest of the cycle so far.

It came to be Abbott’s turn. His communications director, Matt Hirsch, announced Abbott’s new site’s launch last week. Click on the link—and it’s an unfinished, grey, shapeless blob with virtually no information. That’s weird. A “Full site coming soon” tag is on the page’s top left. OK, so they jumped the gun. The site wasn’t finished, but they wanted to get it out there. That’s unusual, but Abbott was having a rough week, so it’s understandable.

Since Hirsh first tweeted about it, Abbott’s campaign and many of its senior staffers have been tweeting and making a lot of noise about the site. They really want people to see it. But it’s still unfinished. On Wednesday afternoon, the site was still mostly blank. “Full site coming soon,” the top left says. “Copyright 2013 Texans for Greg Abbott.” (The site was created in 2014, some two weeks ago.)

The look of the thing—monochromatic, heavy on text—may evoke the old-school Netscape internet, but the content isn’t great either (yet?). There’s an embedded Google Maps app with pins across the United States where Wendy Davis has held fundraisers, but it’s so small and cramped that you can’t tell what you’re looking at.

None of this would be too weird, except the Abbott campaign keeps pushing it. As I was writing this post, Abbott’s campaign tweeted it out again. Is this inside baseball? Kind of. Will it matter in November? No. But, man, it’s weird. It’s kind of a rookie move. Hell, even the site somebody made for hapless no-money Democratic Ag Commissioner hopeful Jim Hogan is in better shape.

Lucha-LibroThe next few weeks will bring a slew of writers to Austin and San Antonio, but don’t expect the usual staid readings. Instead, authors will do battle for the sale of honor, glory, and the competitive literary spirit.

This Wednesday, March 26, at Austin’s Whip In, How Best to Avoid Dying author Owen Egerton will face off against Manuel Gonzales, author of The Miniature Wife and director of Austin Bat Cave, in a duel of writerly wits, or, more formally, a Lucha Libro. Co-sponsored by the Texas Book Festival and the Whip In, the event will feature authors competing for the title of best short-story writer in a series of cutthroat challenges, including (but not limited to) reciting their books’ sexiest sentence and reading their most offensive passages.

Steph Opitz, literary director of the Texas Book Festival, will act as referee. The Lucha Libro is free and open to the public, whose votes will determine the victor. The event aims to celebrate the releases of Gonzales’ and Egerton’s recent work with an evening of beer, readings and good-natured competition.

Though one author will go home defeated, hard feelings can’t last long, since Egerton and Gonzales will reunite on April 3 for another authorial battle. This time Egerton will sit on panel of “celebrity judges” and Gonzales will be one of four contestants in an American Idol-esque Literary Death Match at Austin’s Alamo Draft House-Ritz. Egerton will be judging alongside Austin musician Bob Schneider and Texas Literary Hall of Famer Sarah Bird as Gonzales takes on Jennifer DuBois, author of Cartwheel, A Partial History of Lost Causes and teacher at Texas State’s MFA program; Neal Pollack, author of Downward-Facing Death, Jewball, and certified yoga instructor; and Elizabeth McCracken, author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination and holder of the James A. Michener Chair in Fiction at the University of Texas at Austin. Each author will read a 7-minute selection from their work and then submit to a ruthless critique from the judges, after which the winner will be chosen in a game show-style final round. You can buy tickets here.


Literary Death Match will then make its way to San Antonio on April 5, where Egerton will compete with Roxana Robinson, author of Sparta; Antonio Sacre, author of My Name is Cool: Stories from a Cuban-Irish-American Storyteller; and Malin Alegria, author of Border Town #4: No Second Chances—all under the inscrutable judgment of Texas Monthly editor in chief Jake Silverstein; Siempre Mujer Magazine editor in chief Maria Cristina Marrero; and chief of engagement for San Antonio nonprofit SA2020 Molly Cox. Produced by the San Antonio Book Festival, the event will be held at the end of the festival itself, which features free public readings from more than 70 national, regional and local authors. San Antonio Death Match tickets can be purchased here.

Both Literary Death Matches will be hosted by Adrian Todd Zuniga, founding editor of Opium Magazine and co-creator of the Literary Death Match Series, which he, Elizabeth Koch and Dennis DeClaudio premiered in 2006. Since then the event has traveled from Seattle to Beijing. Now it’s Texas’ turn.

The Future of the Equal Pay Fight

The Davis campaign is doubling down on equal pay. Is it enough?
At a meeting of the Capital Area Democratic Women, Davis supporters smell blood in the water over Equal Pay. March 20, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
At a meeting of the Capital Area Democratic Women, Davis supporters smell blood in the water over Equal Pay. March 20, 2014.

We’re entering the second week of real conflict between Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis over equal pay, and Davis’ camp is doubling down in a big way. Now’s the time in an issue’s media life cycle when observers turn contrarian, so let’s ask ourselves: How well will this issue suit Davis going forward?

A brief recap: Davis authored a bill last session that would have made it easier for women who’ve experienced pay discrimination to sue their employers in state courts. A version of the narrowly-tailored bill received bipartisan support and passed the Legislature with relatively little fanfare. In what seemed like a strange move, Gov. Perry vetoed the bill. For weeks, Davis tried to draw Abbott into a debate on the issue. He finally relented, making it clear that he, too, would have vetoed the bill, after a week of some fairly bizarre utterances from supporters. (And on the same day that the San Antonio Express-News raised substantive concerns about pay equity at Abbott’s own office.)

Abbott handled the issue badly, and he’ll be dogged by it for a while. Think about it this way: As a well-funded Republican running in a red state, Abbott has a substantial margin of support over Davis to play with here. Moreover, blocking a state Lilly Ledbetter Act is not a priority issue for movement conservatives. Hell, tea party idol Donna Campbell voted for Davis’ bill. If you’re Abbott’s campaign manager and thinking about this in a purely tactical light, saying “yes” to a hypothetical version of Davis’ bill gives your candidate a little bit of moderate cred, a little bit of goodwill with women, doesn’t hurt you with your base and deprives Davis of an important issue. The business community that opposes the bill might not like it, but it’s not at the top of their issue list. It shuts down the whole issue, likely for the duration of the campaign.

For whatever reason, Abbott didn’t do that. And the Democratic machine hitting Abbott on the issue early last week has kicked into overdrive, approximating a jackhammer. On Monday, Davis appeared at Scholz Beer Garden in Austin to talk about the event, and the Express-News‘ story. It was the most aggressive she’d been since she declared her run—a pretty remarkable reversal after months of playing defense on small-ball issues.

“I have a message for Greg Abbott today: Stop hiding behind your staff members. Stop hiding behind your surrogates. This Texas gal is calling you out,” she told the crowd. “Act like a Texan and answer this question for yourself: What on earth is going on at your Attorney General’s Office? Why do you think it’s okay to pay women in your office less than men when they do the same work?” (Abbott has stayed pretty far away from the media lately, and as long as he does, Davis will be able to criticize him for “hiding.”)

Democrats up and down the chain have got the message. Last Thursday, Grace Garcia, the executive director of Annie’s List, joined Austin state Rep. Donna Howard to speak at a meeting of the Capital Area Democratic Women. Underlining the sense of political opportunity, the event took place at a Joe’s Crab Shack, underneath an enormous hanging shark.

Afterwards, Howard told me she thought the Legislature should take a deeper look at pay equity in state agencies next year. “If we’re doing things that are discriminatory, that’s against the law. If we’re aware of something that’s discriminatory and could result in a lawsuit,” she said, “I would think that it would be our responsibility to put a stop to it in any fashion we can.”

The effect of the whole thing has been to give the Davis campaign—and the Democratic ticket generally—a burst of energy after what had seemed like a long and demoralizing slide. But can it sustain the momentum on this issue alone?

There’s a specter hanging around this year’s governor’s race—that of Clayton “Claytie” Williams. Williams, the good-old-boy oil magnate who ran against Ann Richards in the 1990 gubernatorial contest, started the campaign with a 20-point lead. He lost the election by 3 points. The reversal was thanks in large part to an unbelievably crass rape joke, which was in turn leveraged by the Richards campaign to make Williams look like an out-of-touch dinosaur. That, together with other critical errors, doomed him, even though he outspent Richards 2-to-1.

Why are Democrats thinking about Clayton Williams? The implication is that the Davis campaign doesn’t just need to run a tight ship themselves—they need Abbott to slip. But Abbott hasn’t seemed like the kind of guy to do that, at least not in the grotesque way Williams did. Since early in the cycle, Democrats had talked about the possibility that hip-shooting state Sen. Dan Patrick, who doesn’t seem to have much respect for either immigrants or non-Christians, would win the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, and spent the next six months alienating moderate voters. He seems likely to win, which will cheer some Democrats.

In truth, the memory some have of Williams—he lost because of the rape joke—is a bit too simple. The rape joke played into a bigger narrative that Richards was able to construct about Williams: a glad-handing, reckless, good-old-boy wildcatter who didn’t belong in state office. Davis will need to build a narrative like that for Greg Abbott if she’s going to retain the traction she’s experiencing right now. But Abbott isn’t as soft a target as Claytie. In public he seems relatively thoughtful and likeable.

The equal pay fight is the second strike against Abbott, after February’s sordid Nugent affair. The Davis campaign is doing a pretty effective job right now in defining their opponent—but they’ll need more unforced errors from the Abbott camp to carry this through.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott

Last week, I think we can all agree, was pretty rough on Greg Abbott. After weeks of Wendy Davis pushing the fair pay issue, it finally went down like a vending machine: slow, then fast, then with treats for everyone. But Davis and the media weren’t the only ones giving Abbott a hard time. On Wednesday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals got into the act, issuing a response directed at Abbott that could also legally be considered a burn.

It went like this. In October, the court threw out a 2005 statute banning sexting between adults and minors because the language was too broad. It could criminalize constitutionally-protected speech, the court said, and besides, everything about such exchanges that could be illegal already was: harassment, obscenity, sharing pornography and soliciting sex. The 2005 law made sexually explicit online contact with minors for sexual gratification a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison, but the court overturned it 9-0.

Greg Abbott was displeased. He asked for a rehearing, citing a 2011 law that requires the court to notify the attorney general’s office and give it 45 days to respond whenever the constitutionality of a Texas law was challenged.

But instead of reconsidering its ruling on sexting, the court threw out the notification requirement on Wednesday. Not our job, they said. Tipping off Abbott’s office is “not only non-judicial but would operate solely for the apparent benefit of the attorney general,” reads a footnote to the unanimous opinion. “And to what extent the attorney general would benefit from receiving such notice is elusive, given that the attorney general has no authority to appear in criminal cases before this court.”


In a concurrence, the presiding judge, Sharon Keller, called the requirement a violation of the separation of powers. Moreover, “during the last fiscal year, this Court disposed of well over nine thousand matters,” many of which addressed constitutionality, Keller wrote. If the Attorney General wants to know about them, the list is “available on its website.”

WTF Friday: Busy Bees

Sun Tzu
Wikimedia Commons
Noted tea party activist Sun Tzu, depicted during a women's outreach campaign.

Oh, what a week of WTF.

Last week, the Observer’s senior WTFologist Patrick Michels devoted this space to a revealing, deep-dig look at the relationship between one Texas man and a beaver. This week, we start, instead, with women. You know women, right? They’re like men, but different.

1) Attorney General Greg Abbott got lured into a debate over equal pay, so our state’s fourth estate got to go around asking Republican women what they thought about it. In normal circumstances, this would have been as perfunctory an exercise as you could imagine: Republicans generate talking points. They speak those talking points into a camera or microphone. C’est fini.

Making this even easier, a friend pointed out recently, is that our generation’s foremost/most insufferable political scribe, Aaron Sorkin, wrote out a pretty good response to this question some 13 years ago, when he had Republican Woman character Ainsley Hayes of The West Wing, a long-running political tutorial for Millennials on NBC, argue against the Equal Rights Amendment. Women don’t need “special” rights and protections, redundant laws are bad, etc.

Instead, Texas Republican Party Executive Director Beth Cubriel put her Netflix subscription aside and took a different tack. Women are paid less in Texas because they’re too soft and timid—unlike Beth Cubriel.

Men are better negotiators. I would encourage women instead of pursuing the courts for action to become better negotiators.

Putting aside the fact that Cubriel is only talking to women in professional fields—Lilly Ledbetter, the inspiration for the federal equal pay act, worked in a tire factory, presumably a place where most workers have little ability to “negotiate” the size of their paychecks—and the fact that women are held to different standards than men when it comes to being assertive in the workplace, Cubriel’s response was, at least, cogent.

Then there’s Cari Christman, the Executive Director of the RedState Women PAC. Christman gained national fame for arguing that women were “too busy” to use the court system, but it’s worth quoting in full:

If you look at it, women are extremely busy. We lead busy lives whether we are working professionally, working from home. And times are extremely, extremely busy. It’s just a busy cycle for women and we’ve got a lot to juggle.

Happy Friday, ladies.

2. Michael Q. Sullivan, the conservative powerbroker in the middle of a years-long brawl with the Ethics Commission, likes to present himself as a happy warrior connecting the people—the ones that matter, anyway—with the Midland oil zillionaire who can finance their aspiration to dismantle much of state government. But it does seem like word is getting out. When a policial scientist at Southern Methodist University told the Austin American-Statesman that MQS was “vengeful” and “short-tempered,” it was eye-catching.

But that’s just the view of an outsider. Sullivan’s groups are staffed by a small and close-knit crew, and I bet they feel differently about their enterprise. Just look at this heartwarming Sullivan tweet, recounting a playful exchange between Empower Texans’ Executive Director Dustin Matocha and Development Director Nathan Ofe:

Hah hah! They have fun.

3. When state Sen. Bob Deuell (R-Greenville) was forced into a primary runoff to defend his seat, it was something of a surprise—few saw it coming. Who was this newcomer Bob Hall, this “strong conservative leader” who could shock a longtime incumbent like this? This bold new tea party warrior must have a future with the party—what’s his story, Dallas Morning News?


Hall and his former wife, Jane E. Hall, had been divorced four years when they took their allegations against each other in July 1994 into Florida courts. In seeking a protective order against Hall, she said in a document filed in Okaloosa County that she asked Hall to leave her house during a confrontation over alimony. She said he began screaming and threatened to quit paying.

“Asked to leave my house, he refused and became more violent, physically attacking me,” she said. “During our twenty-three years of marriage, he was prone to furious rages. I was physically, sexually and verbally abused for most of our marriage.”

In response, a judge prohibited Hall from “assaulting, battering or otherwise physically abusing the petitioner.”


Hall owned a Florida-based company, Professional Proposal Management Inc., that assisted businesses in obtaining federal contacts.

He racked up nearly $165,000 in federal tax liens on his Florida properties over a 20-year period because of unpaid federal taxes, according to court records in Santa Rosa County, Fla.

4. Let’s play a game: Militia leader, or probable state representative? Today’s contestant is lawnchair warrior Phillip Eby. Eby’s real, real mad, he told a conservative gathering in Bosque County this week. Tyranny washes over our state, sickening the body politic like one too many Lone Stars:

The truth of the matter is that we’re in a war for conservative principles, and we’ve been losing that war. The question is: why are we losing? I’m tired of losing. I don’t know if y’all are tired of losing, but I’m tired of watching freedom lose every time and tyranny take control.

Wait for it:

Sun Tzu said in his classic work, The Art of War, that if you know yourself, and you know your opponent, you will never lose. [...] The question is, who is our opponent?

Most people today say that the Democrats are our opponent. And they’re right, they are. But in some ways they’re wrong, also. Our opponent is not a person, or a group. Our opponent is an idea. And that idea is the idea of Collectivism.


In Texas, we’ve been winning for years, as Republicans, yet we’re still losing the battle of conservative values so often. It’s because we have Republicans who are infected by the idea of collectivism.

The difference between Eby and other white dweebs who’ve built an ethos around Sun Tzu is that he’s currently the favorite in a primary runoff to replace retiring state representative Rob Orr. He won 40 percent of his primary, and is floating toward the Capitol, where he’ll help preside over collectivist endeavors like the Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Education Agency. So make hay while the sun shines, fellow WTFers.

Eby’s coming.

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