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Next week, the Sunset Advisory Commission will meet to hear testimony regarding its scathing report on the Department of State Health Services (DSHS), one of the largest and most important state agencies. “Scathing” is a term that gets thrown around a lot but really ought to be reserved for dispatches like this one, released in May, which saves special condemnation for the department’s many failures in running the state’s public mental health system. “This experiment was well-intentioned,” the report says, referring to the department as a whole, but DSHS “has struggled to address longstanding concerns, despite clear and repeated direction.” Because of this, most of the Sunset staff recommendations don’t break new ground but “reflect a need for the agency to simply do its job better.”

While the report specifies nine areas for improvement, its authors note that this list is constrained by the resources of their review, not by any limit to the department’s problems. They even suggest that by the time the Sunset review concludes next fall, future reports may question “continuation of DSHS as a standalone agency.” The report goes beyond critical and gets existential.

Some of the recommendations are specific, like calls to combat fraud in the EMS industry, to better protect vital statistics information, and to reduce the department’s regulatory role. But some are just damning pronouncements: “DSHS Has Not Provided the Leadership Needed to Best Manage the State’s Public Health System;” and “DSHS’ Numerous Advisory Committees Lack Strategic Purpose, Limiting Their Effectiveness and Wasting Resources.”

Perhaps the broadest and most troubling part of the report is its wholesale indictment of the state public mental health system. That system has two parts: outpatient community-based treatment, and inpatient treatment through the state mental health hospitals. According to the report, both are broken.

The mental health hospital system, finds the Sunset Commission, is in a crisis that “Requires Action, Starting Now” because of understaffing, inadequate capacity, and aging, remote facilities that need more that $200 million in upgrades. These aren’t new problems, the report notes: “Numerous plans and studies attempting to correct pervasive state hospital system issues have yielded few results, and the success of future plans is questionable… The State essentially operates the same mental health hospital system as during the last Sunset Advisory Commission review 15 years ago, despite years of planning and discussion.”

At least one thing has changed in that period, but it hasn’t helped matters. In recent years, Texas judges have sent more and more psychiatric patients to the hospitals for “competency restoration”—that is, to receive psychiatric treatment until they’re mentally competent to stand trial—exacerbating bed shortages. The special challenge of these so-called “forensic commitments” is that if state hospitals are full, a person charged with a crime who needs inpatient treatment can be held in jail, untried and often untreated, until space opens up. Long waits have led to lawsuits. Under pressure from the courts, the Department of State Health Services has reduced the wait time for forensic patients from an average of 77 days to 17 days over the last few years, but at a price. More forensic beds means fewer civilian beds, and this year, forensic commitments exceeded civil ones for the first time. In other words, if you need treatment from a state mental health hospital, your odds of getting it are now better if you’ve committed a crime than if you haven’t.

The outpatient mental health system is hardly better. The department “has not seized obvious opportunities to integrate… mental health and substance abuse services,” the report found. Half a million Texans suffer from a severe mental illness, two million have a substance abuse problem, and there’s plenty of overlap between those populations. But screening, assessment and treatment systems for the two groups remain separate, which “allows people with complex, co-occurring mental health and substance abuse issues to more easily fall through the cracks.” The department’s funding structure for community mental health providers is “irrational,” “byzantine,” and “disconnected from performance,” and despite collecting hundreds of data points, the department knows little about what programs work and why. These systems need “a complete re-evaluation and overhaul.”

In short, the Department of State Health Services fails to plan strategically or address structural problems because it’s “constantly operating in crisis management mode,” says the Sunset staff report. Mercifully, the report’s authors blame this on the department’s overly ambitious mission rather than the department itself. “[F]ew, if any, state agencies have the breadth and scope of DSHS’ responsibilities,” they write. “…[I]n many ways DSHS was set up to be a ‘jack of all trades, and a master of none.’” But this may be cold comfort if a future report recommends, as this one suggests, that state legislators dismantle the Department of State Health Services altogether.

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The Texas GOP’s Sara Legvold Problem

She's a nearly bottomless fountain of paranoid racism. So why has she been allowed to play such a prominent role in the Texas GOP?
Sara Legvold, front left, gets ready to offer a motion at the Texas Republican Party's 2014 convention.
Christopher Hooks
Sara Legvold, front left, gets ready to offer a motion at the Texas Republican Party's 2014 convention.

Ever heard of Sara Legvold? She’s a diminutive, older Cuban-American woman from Roanoke, Texas. She loves animals and small dogs. She’s also friendly with fascists and white supremacists, supports apartheid and is a nearly bottomless fountain of paranoid racism. And for two years, she’s proudly served as an elected member of the Republican Party of Texas’ Executive Committee. She’s served as an elected part of the leadership team of the state GOP—even after they realized who she was, and what she believed.

In the wake of the theatrics at the state GOP convention in Fort Worth earlier this month, observers and moderates in the party are asking—what happened? Those who can see the future of the party clearly know that it must change to have a future, but conservative intransigence on immigration is getting stronger, not dissipating. The forces keeping the state GOP a racially and ethnically monolithic party are ascendent, not in decline. And with the rise of Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton, the Christian right has a stronger hold on the party than ever, squeezing out younger and centrist voters.

Legvold’s mystifying acceptance by the state party is a case study in those trends. As many of the activists who determine the course of the party have grown more insular and paranoid, more motivated by fear and bigotry, the party’s leadership has done little to repudiate them. Legvold is wrapping up a two-year stint with the State Republican Executive Committee, an organization that, according to the committee’s bylaws, “act[s] as the governing body” of the party. Her name and photo are prominently displayed on the party’s website. And her status as a member of the Republican Party’s leadership lends her considerable influence.

At this year’s convention, she sat on the committee that helped write the party’s 2014 platform. For weeks, she had strategized with other conservatives looking to gut the so-called Texas Solution, and helped draft new platform language that did just that, beginning with the words: “In support of Dan Patrick…” In the list of committee members that endorsed the hardline language, her name was at the top. That language was ultimately defeated, but a measure similar to what Legvold’s team proposed was eventually adopted.

Her endorsement of an anti-gay rights rally was trumpeted on that rally’s flier—she was listed as a co-sponsor, her name sitting alongside the state’s most powerful Republicans. When a minor physical altercation broke out between a Texas Solution supporter named Norman Adams and a member of the Texas Nationalist Movement, Legvold was there, confronting Adams until the police arrived.

And after the Texas Solution had been killed, Legvold helped bring the convention to a close—pre-empting debate on the platform’s toxic anti-gay language. In the most prominent debates at the convention, Legvold’s side won.

Here are some things that Legvold believes. In just the last couple months, Legvold has characterized Muslims as “vermin,” “threats” and breeders and cheered the efforts of the British fascist party Britain First. She expressed her belief that Muslim fighters in Syria are selling the blood of exsanguinated Christian children for “$100,000 per bottle.” She calls New Jersey Governor Chris Christie a “fat POS” and a “Muslim Dhimmi,” calls for GOP House Speaker John Boehner to be jailed for collaborating with President Obama, and calls for Bowe Bergdahl to be executed.

She warns her friends about the specter of racial violence—she links to a World Net Daily article, headline: “House torched in black-on-white revenge attack,” and exhorts like-minded friends to pack heat and “make sure your aim is true and deadly.” She indulges in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, crediting Russian President Vladimir Putin with taking action against the Rothschild banking family.

She urges “real Americans” to stand up to “crimmigrants” who want to latch on to the “government teat.” On the question of gay people, she quotes from a blog approvingly: “Homosexuals have a lot in common with the little dogs people like Paris Hilton hold in purses: they’re generally vain, generally high maintenance, and their bark is always far louder and more obnoxious than their bite.” Homosexuality, she says, is a precursor to socialism.

The state party has long known exactly who Sara Legvold is, and what she believes. In December of last year, Legvold aimed her bile at the recently deceased Nelson Mandela, and people took notice. She called Mandela a “butcher/destroyer:”

You probably Don’t know much about this man except that he battled the Aparthied system in South Africa, a system where all blacks had Jobs, food to buy in their stores, and few had AIDS! Now that’s all Changed with 50+% unemployment, little food to buy and runaway Inflation further reducing buying power, and over 20% of the population has aids!

When some began looking more closely at her social media presence, they realized she posted racist links pretty frequently, including from Stormfront, the internet’s foremost repository of neo-Nazi and white nationalist organizing, and American Renaissance, which bills itself as a bastion of “race realism.”

The story blew up: Legvold, and the state GOP with her, was briefly shamed. She apologized that her scuffles had “distracted” people from the Republican Party’s goals.

“I am not a racist and view people as individuals on their own merit, but,” she said—isn’t there always a but—“when those individuals work in concert as a group to undermine my positions, I am not afraid to call them out as a warning to those who have sympathies with them. I will not shy away from speaking plainly at the risk of offending someone.”

She claimed she’d only visited Stormfront once: The link she posted was the “First & only time I have visited that site,” she wrote. Nonetheless, Stormfront posters took quite a shine to Legvold—and reported that she stayed in touch with them during her hour of tribulation. Here’s the words of a poster named Glacier, a “Friends of Stormfront Sustaining Member:”

I will not post our entire conversation… Because I haven’t got permission. She states that she is willing to pay any price to defend against what is happening to our country. Don’t mess with Texas.

Another commends the Texas GOP for not kicking her out: “The Republican party has gone up in my estimation,” writes whitehouse90310.

Were this any other state, Legvold would have been quietly persuaded to step down for the sake of the party. But this is Texas. She didn’t even get more cautious. A week after her “apology,” a friend posted a photoshopped picture of Michelle Obama on Legvold’s wall, in which the first lady is given a grotesquely distorted behind and back hair. A friend comments: “Looks like they trimmed some off Moochelle’s booty, too.” Legvold “likes” it.

Six months later, Legvold showed up at the Fort Worth Convention Center, where she helped draft the platform that will, hypothetically, guide the party until 2014. The party didn’t bat an eye at her presence—all had been forgotten. Indeed, Dan Patrick and Sid Miller include Legvold’s name in their list of endorsements.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about L’Affair Legvold is how unsurprising it is. Much of the media in Texas has never quite learned how to talk about something that most recognize but can’t find a way to express within the bounds of “objectivity”—there’s a core of the conservative movement in Texas that is absolutely bonkers. Legvold might be one extreme example, but there are plenty just a few shades away. The platform itself—nearly every part of it—is shot through with the fear of a changing country and changing generational attitudes about what it means to be an American. Heba Said, a editor for UT-Arlington’s student newspaper and a Muslim woman, attended the convention and gave one account of what that fear looks like up close.

Paranoia and fear has always been a major constituent element of the state’s politics, of course, but spend time around conservative activists and it’s hard to escape the feeling that that segment is becoming even more unglued. And as a new generation of Republican nominees steps up, that cohort is playing an even greater role in driving the party. Republicans here, like they were nationally, were happy to ride the dragon of inchoate populism that constituted the rise of the tea party in 2009. Maybe they can rein in it, maybe they can’t. They haven’t really tried.

When Wendy Davis recently suggested that Republicans in Texas were intolerant of “people who don’t look like them or come from where they come from,” GOPers expressed extreme umbrage. Greg Abbott’s spokesman, Matt Hirsch, tweeted about Davis’ remarks for days. Consider the party’s tolerance of people like Legvold, and it’s hard to see why.

Beaumont ISD students outside the Travis County courthouse, where lawyers for BISD and the state fight over the district's future.
Patrick Michels
Beaumont ISD students (from left) Hope Flores, Alex Treviño, Escarly Candelaria and Roberto Castillo, outside the Travis County courthouse where lawyers for BISD and the state argued Tuesday over the district's future.

The slow-motion trainwreck called Beaumont ISD continued this week in Austin, as lawyers representing a faction of the school board fought to prevent the state from taking control of the troubled district. On Monday, they failed in a last-ditch appeal to the Texas Education Agency. Today, the district’s lawyers took on the state in a Travis County district court.

And as the lawyers kept the board members’ increasingly desperate-looking power struggle alive, a group of middle and high school students, seated in the courtroom, looked on with more immediate concerns on their minds: saving their teachers, and their schools’ fine arts programs, from the chopping block.

“Fraud, waste and abuse” has become something of a mantra for state and federal investigators looking into Beaumont ISD over the last few years, but the most recent trouble came with an email from Superintendent Timothy Chargois to his staff, announcing that the district had overspent its budget from last school year, and would have to cut about $25 million from next year’s budget. (The district will have to return $1.5 million to the state because it over-reported its attendance.) That news was followed shortly by a proposed list of 231 jobs to cut, including 162 teachers—among them, all four orchestra teachers in the district, three choir teachers, three art teachers, three drama teachers and plenty of others, including in math and science.

Hope Flores, who’ll be a junior at Ozen High School this fall, learned about the planned layoffs from her school’s drama teacher, Gina Martin, whose job is on the list.

“It really hit home for me because theater is a passion for me,” says Flores. Laying off Martin would effectively end the entire theater program at the school, Flores says, because she’s the only drama teacher they’ve got.

Flores says students were generally aware of the district’s troubles—the embezzlement trial in federal court, the FBI raids, the brutal audits and moves toward state takeover—but felt compelled to help once they saw their teachers’ livelihoods were at risk.

Meeting in a library, the students have combed the district’s finances for alternatives to staff layoffs. Options they’ve come up with so far include selling off some of the district’s property, or selling the naming rights to the district’s $47 million football stadium. The latter might be an especially popular move: at present the stadium, which opened in 2010, is named for Carrol Thomas, the longtime superintendent who stepped down in 2012 and is often blamed for landing the district in its present mire.

Other students have gradually rallied around Flores—”I guess you could kind of say I’ve been appointed leader,” she says—while other students have helped by running Twitter or Facebook accounts for their cause. One student has been helping the social media efforts and calling legislators while he’s away at summer camp.

The students have lined up not just from Ozen, but all around the district, even from rival high schools. Flores says their unity has surprised a lot of people, at a time when so many adults have made the district the center of pitched battles—between the state and the school board, between rival factions on the school board, or between the city’s white and black communities.

“They’ve really united the city, which has historically been really divided,” says Sarah Sanders, a 2010 Beaumont ISD graduate who’s chaperoned the students’ Austin trip. “The entire city is just flooding us with money to help these kids.” When Sanders posted a notice that the students were eating ramen noodles Monday night to keep their budget low, she says, she got a call from a woman who follows their cause on Facebook, promising to send money for their expenses.

Of course, the students’ cause also aligns them with one of the many competing factions around the district: teachers hoping to keep their jobs, who’d probably rather see administrators laid off instead.

Travis County District Judge Stephen Yelenosky hasn’t ruled yet on the BISD board members’ case. Back in Beaumont, the school board has delayed its vote on the proposed job cuts. Fred Shafer, the state-appointed conservator over Beaumont ISD, has urged the school board not to delay its voting on the cuts, but students like Flores are holding onto faith that a quick state takeover could save at least some of the teachers’ jobs.

Saving any of those jobs may still be a long shot, but in a school district plagued by adults’ greed, distrust and ambition, a few students going to such lengths to defend their teachers is an uplifting turn.

 

Correction at 10:20 p.m.: This post has been corrected to reflect that Beaumont ISD’s looming $25 million budget cut is due only in part to its over-estimated attendance last year.

Cristina
Cristina Henríquez

 

Cristina Henríquez will read from The Book of Unknown Americans on June 18 at BookPeople in Austin; June 19 at Brazos Bookstore in Houston; and June 20 at the Dallas Museum of Art.

 

In a 2009 TED talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story,” Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie noted that “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” In Texas, at least, Mexican immigration has largely defined the Latino narrative, but Cristina Henríquez’s big-hearted second novel challenges this “single story” by exploring a wide range of Latino experiences.

Henríquez is specially qualified to weigh in on the particular dilemmas of migration, cultural identity and displacement. Born and raised in Delaware and now living in Chicago, she’s resided in Florida, Virginia, Indiana and Iowa. She spent summers in Panama, where her father was born, and lived in Texas long enough to be chosen as the state’s sole essayist for the 2008 anthology State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. Despite her stateside bona fides, the “Americans” of her novel’s title refers to both U.S. residents and individuals from the many countries of the Américas.

The Book of Unknown Americans opens with the Rivera family’s arrival to a modest Delaware apartment building after days of travel from their hometown in central Mexico. Desperate to help their beautiful teenaged daughter, Maribel, recover from a near-fatal head injury, Arturo and Alma Rivera have come to the U.S. so that Maribel can receive special education services not available in Mexico. Why Delaware, not Texas or California? A mushroom farm in nearby Pennsylvania is the one business that will sponsor Arturo’s work visa. (Like most of the immigrants featured in the novel, the Riveras have come to the U.S. legally.)

The Book of Unknown Americans By Cristina Henríquez Knopf $24.95; 294 pages
The Book of Unknown Americans
By Cristina Henríquez
Knopf
$24.95; 294 pages

Alma Rivera narrates roughly half of the novel, quietly assessing the precariousness of her family’s new life and communicating the particular flavor of her own homesickness, taking us back to the happy life the Riveras once enjoyed, before Maribel’s accident, in their hometown of Pátzcuaro. Language barriers make phone calls to Maribel’s school an ordeal, the taste of foods from home deepens Alma’s sadness, and the hard letters of English seem like miniature walls dividing words and worlds.

Among the neighbors who help the Riveras adjust to life in Delaware are the Toros, a Panamanian-American family who live across the hall. Fifteen-year-old Mayor Toro is the novel’s secondary narrator, offering an insider’s view of the dynamics between the building’s residents and spot-on depictions of what it’s like to be the clumsy younger brother of a soccer star in a family where being “Latino and male and not a cripple” means he is expected to excel at the game.

Upon the Riveras’ arrival in Delaware, Maribel puts her clothes on backwards, forgets simple conversations held moments earlier, and struggles to wash her own hair. With time, however, her condition begins to improve. The teachers at her special school help, but readers may be inclined to give Mayor Toro more of the credit. Unlike Maribel’s parents, Mayor does not compare her to a “before” version of herself. To him, Maribel is simply Maribel: beautiful, fascinating, and—astonishingly—interested in him. The scenes between Mayor and Maribel are among the loveliest in the novel, with Henríquez perfectly coupling the awkwardness of their exchanges with their urgent quest for mutual understanding, that most basic and elusive of human sustenance. Ultimately, Mayor’s misguided efforts to cultivate their romance open the way to unwitting tragedy for both families.

If The Book of Unknown Americans has a flaw, it is that Henríquez, in her effort to overturn the “single story” of U.S. Latinos, sometimes verges on didacticism. When a character comments, “It’s like how everyone thinks I like tacos. We don’t even eat tacos in Panamá,” another Panamanian chimes in: “That’s right. We eat chicken and rice.”

“If people want to tell me to go home,” another character says, “I just turn to them and smile politely and say, ‘I’m already there.’”

There is a studied diversity to the handful of interspersed monologues from other Latino residents in the apartment building; characters including a busybody, a dancer, a photographer, a line cook with an anger-management problem and a poetry-quoting Vietnam vet hail from Mexico, Panama, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Paraguay and Puerto Rico. Nevertheless, their passages become monochromatic and rarely strike notes not already sounded more clearly in the Rivera/Toro narrative. Though a number of tertiary characters have monologues, Maribel does not. Her exclusion from the “unknown” Americans who get to speak their piece is hard to accept, mostly because it would have been a pleasure to see what Henríquez could do with Maribel’s point of view.

Henríquez is at her best when she trusts her own narrative powers, as when she portrays a wife’s grief as she browses through her deceased husband’s belongings, sucking on the bristles of his toothbrush and plucking his used toothpicks from the trash. Then she finds his hat: “I put it over my face like a mask, feeling the sweatband, soft as felt, against my cheeks. I took a deep breath. And there he was. The smell of him. I closed my eyes and felt myself sway. There he was.”

Passages like this reward a bit of patience, and The Book of Unknown Americans is a welcome contribution to a broadening literary conversation about Latino experience—a contribution that features immigrants from all across the Américas, and all walks of life. As Henríquez shows, theirs is a story composed of many stories.

Scene from the floor of the 2014 Texas Republican convention in Fort Worth.
Christopher Hooks
OK wait, run that by me one more time.

This time last week, the Texas GOP convention was just heating up in Fort Worth, and before any of our elected thought leaders even opened their mouths, we found ample material in a draft of the party’s platform: ex-gay reparative therapy (good, apparently); a women’s [sic] right to choose to devote her life to her family and children” (oh, clever); the United Nations Agenda 21 (bad); and socialism (extra-double-bad times a million).

But what of the oratory we’ve come to expect from our leadership at great moments like these?

As the debate over the party platform turned, somewhat surprisingly, to net neutrality—which keeps Internet providers from choosing which sites’ content gets delivered faster or slower—Mineola state Rep. Bryan Hughes let fly a logic bomb of stunning density:

 

The convention was also electrified by the appearance of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, first in cardboard, and then in real life. As Politico reported, Paul went topical to win the crowd:

“Mr. President, you love to trade people,” the Kentucky Republican and likely 2016 contender said to laughs, a reference to the deal made for the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

“Why don’t we set up a trade? But this time, instead of five Taliban, how about five Democrats? I’m thinking John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, couldn’t we send them to Mexico?”

Later, Paul explained he was just funnin’:

“It was a joke. Except for Nancy Pelosi, I was serious about her.” When pressed, he added: “Well, I mean, it’s humor, and I hope there’s room for humor. I thought it was funny. It was meant to be humorous.”

Ah yes… humor.

evil laughing cat

 

The other half of Paul’s proposed trade with Mexico? U.S. Marine Andrew Tahmooressi, who has been jailed awaiting trial since April, when he drove into Tijuana carrying guns that are banned in Mexico.

And speaking of the threats down south…

Phoenix's ABC15 reports on the latest border threat.
Phoenix’s ABC15 reports on the latest border threat.

Reporting from McAllen, Phoenix’s ABC15 warned this week that undocumented immigrants are infecting South Texas with their contagious foreign ailments: scabies, fever, and apparently a raging case of the “immigration dumps.”

Meanwhile, now that the huge influx of Central American children into Texas is getting serious attention, the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers—a virulent super-strain of paranoia achieved by combining the Border Patrol and retirees—offered a peek at what’s really happening here. Or do you honestly believe these children made it to Texas without a little help?

This is not a humanitarian crisis. It is a predictable, orchestrated and contrived assault on the compassionate side of Americans by her political leaders that knowingly puts minor Illegal Alien children at risk for purely political purposes.

Certainly, we are not gullible enough to believe that thousands of unaccompanied minor Central American children came to America without the encouragement, aid and assistance of the United States Government.

Anyone that has taken two six to seven year old children to an amusement park can only imagine the problems associated with bringing thousands of unaccompanied children that age up through Mexico and into the United States.

I doubt even the Cartels would undertake that chore at any price.

 

President Obama
President Obama executes a textbook Cloward-Piven maneuver.

On Wednesday, Steve Stockman even lent that theory a touch of congressional gravitas, dishing for a WorldNetDaily exclusive headlined, “CONGRESSMEN: OBAMA USING ‘CLOWARD-PIVEN MANEUVER’”:

Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, agreed that Obama – who studied the chaos strategy at Columbia, according to a classmate – “is trying to do a Cloward-Piven thing with the border.”

“Cloward-Piven” is a reference to an obscure 1966 proposal to drown the U.S. welfare system in need, ushering in an era of nationalized care.

“Obama follows all the far-left, Leninist, socialist-type stuff,” Stockman told WND.

Meanwhile in Congress, Louie “Go-Go-Go-To-Hell-If-You-Don’t-Accept-Jesus” Gohmert shined at a Tuesday hearing on religious liberty—specifically, liberty for the Christian right.

Barry Lynn, of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, testified before the committee, Gohmert wondered if Lynn—a minister in the United Church of Christ—might be enjoying a little too much liberty in his religion:

Louie Gohmert: “Do you believe in sharing the good news that will keep people from going to Hell, consistent with Christian beliefs?” the Texas Republican wondered.

Barry Lynn: “I wouldn’t agree with your construction of what hell is like or how one gets there.”

[...]

LG: “So the christian belief as you see it is whatever you choose to believe about Christ?”

BL: “We could have a very interesting conversation sometime, probably not in a congressional hearing, about those scriptural passages.”

Gov. Rick Perry addresses the Republican state convention in Fort Worth. June 5, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Rick Perry speaking at the 2014 state Republican convention.

The New York Times dutifully took note of Toyota’s late-April announcement that it will move its corporate headquarters from Southern California to Plano over the next three years. The nation’s paper of record reported that as many as 4,000 employees may be relocated, and then added a celebratory couple of sentences:

“The move is a victory for Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and his campaign to woo businesses from California. Toyota considered several sites in the United States before deciding on the Dallas area, where taxes, real estate and other costs are considerably lower than California’s.”

The Times piece neglected to mention that the move by Toyota—a company posting $23 billion in 2013 profits—will be greased with $40 million from Rick Perry’s Texas Enterprise Fund (TEF).

The TEF is an under-scrutinized program that Texas’ mainstream media routinely ignores. Worse, the fund’s “successes” are often celebrated blindly.

Perry advertises the TEF as a carrot to lure jobs to Texas. But critics have long maintained that it’s more a Perry slush fund designed to help political patrons. The TEF has drawn the attention of Mother Jones, which did a takedown last year. And critics on the left and the right have called it one of the biggest examples of corporate welfare in America. For example: In 2012, Apple, Inc. got $21 million from the TEF (despite having more cash in its coffers than the United Kingdom has in its treasury) to help open a new Austin campus, and last year Chevron ($240 billion in 2012 revenue) picked up $12 million in TEF money for an office expansion in Houston (see “Oiling the Skids for Chevron in Houston,” July 29, 2013).

The problem is that there’s little evidence the TEF money does what Perry says it’s supposed to. And since the money is appropriated by the Legislature out of the state’s general fund, it’s effectively taken out of the hands of desperately necessary and chronically underfunded programs throughout the state: children’s health insurance, environmental remediation, mental health services, anti-poverty programs, and on and on. But in the recent breathless media coverage about Toyota, precious few Texas reporters have explored Perry’s largesse, and whether the Toyota money—one of TEF’s biggest gifts ever—could be put to better use. 

Even fewer members of the Texas media are holding Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott to account about their respective plans for the TEF once Perry leaves office. The Texas Tribune did take a stab at it earlier this year, and in a more recent and incredibly prescient instance, The Beaumont Enterprise ran an editorial two days before the Toyota announcement asking whether Davis or Abbott would have offered the grant. The paper boldly said that Perry’s “pet” project needed “a strict accounting of all profits and losses.” 

But why aren’t Texas news outlets doing their own audits of every dollar Perry has handed to Oracle, Dow Chemical, Home Depot, Visa, Frito-Lay, Kohl’s Department Stores, Facebook, Petco, Lockheed Martin, T-Mobile, even the U.S. Bowling Congress?

Lauren McGaughy of the Houston Chronicle, the state’s biggest paper, did a story in which Toyota admitted that the car giant didn’t actually care about the $40 million, thank you very much. “That wasn’t one of the major reasons (in) deciding to go to Texas,” Toyota spokesperson Amanda Rice told the Chronicle.  

Texas Monthly, meanwhile, opined that TEF’s Toyota grant is “Expensive, to be sure, but hopefully the investment will put a muffler on critics.” And mirroring The New York Times, The Dallas Morning News wrote that “Toyota’s decision to build a new North American headquarters in Plano gives Gov. Rick Perry more bragging rights.” The TEF is mentioned in that piece’s ninth paragraph, but with no reference to its controversies. 

Echoing the others, Forbes posted a horserace piece concentrating almost exclusively on the “Texas vs. California” angle. Forbes trotted out one of the state’s stalwart quote machines on economic development, Southern Methodist University’s Bernard Weinstein, who told the magazine that Texas could offer Toyota “some excellent suburban school systems where, I assume, most of the kids [of Toyota staffers] will be attending.”

It was perhaps an unsubtle nod to the fact that the white-collar Toyota employees coming to Texas will be earning salaries in the six-figure range.

And maybe it was an unsubtle reminder as well that the Texas media needs to do more to report on whether it’s good public policy to throw money we can’t afford at companies that don’t need it.   

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Jeremy Schwab, author of the Texas GOP platform's reparative therapy plank
Jeremy Schwab

The man who authored a plank endorsing reparative therapy in the Texas GOP platform is Jeremy Schwab, the founder of an ex-gay ministry called Joel 2:25 International.

Schwab is also an actor who’s appeared in films including “My Father’s Daughter,” “True Romance” and “Zombie Campout,” according to IMDb. (His YouTube acting reel even includes a commercial for Mozilla Firefox that coincidentally features a homophobic shower scene.)

Schwab isn’t using his full name in media interviews about the reparative therapy plank — due to fear of retaliation, according to KRLD. But what about the safety of LGBTQ youth who are harmed by reparative therapy?

Schwab appears to maintain multiple Facebook pages, including one under Jeremy Joel, but on his personal page we find proof that he authored the resolution. On the day it passed, he posted this update thanking Texas Eagle Forum President Cathie Adams and others: Screen shot 2014-06-11 at 10.07.13 AM

In response to a comment seeking details, Schwab wrote this:

Screen shot 2014-06-11 at 10.08.01 AM

Schwab tells the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Bud Kennedy that the GOP platform amendment he initially proposed to Adams is being distorted by the media. In a post on his “My Journey” blog on Tuesday, he explains further. “There are many of us who experience Same-Sex Attraction, but do NOT want to embrace the modern ‘Gay’ label and have moral beliefs that mean Gay Relationships are NOT an option for us at all,” Schwab writes. Schwab goes on to argue that reparative therapy isn’t harmful and can be effective—despite the conclusions of the American Psychological Association.

In another post that includes the packet he sent to GOP delegates proposing the platform amendment, Schwab discusses how he became an activist against bans on reparative therapy for minors like those that have passed California and New Jersey.

“Reparative Therapy and this type of ministry work played a significant role in saving my life and I have been blessed to help many others over the past four years,” Schwab writes. “Recently though, this ministry work has been under attack across the country and in some states Republican legislators and Governors have been silent or complicit in passing these laws.” According to an interview posted on YouTube, Schwab lived an active gay life for about six years. He had two long-term relationships and attended a gay church but remained religiously conflicted and dissatisfied.

In 2009, he sought treatment from California psychologist Joseph Nicolosi, a founder and former president of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). Nicolisi referred Schwab to an ex-gay retreat called Journey Into Manhood, which he says reduced his same-sex attraction by 50 percent in one weekend.

In the 2012 YouTube interview, Schwab said his same-sex attraction had dropped to 10 percent and he looked forward to the possibility of marrying a woman. “I don’t believe that I was created gay,” Schwab said. “I believe it’s something that developed over time.” Watch the interview below.

Pete Sessions: Blimp King. House Speaker?

Texas' congressional delegation could soon control two of the top leadership positions in the House and Senate—and what a kingdom of leadership riches we have to offer.
U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Dallas)
House
U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Dallas)

Last night, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning primary loss to an Ayn Rand-loving college professor named Dave Brat sent the political world into full freak-out mode. A failure to win re-nomination by a sitting House Majority Leader is unprecedented in the history of Congress. And if you could describe his loss as a tea party victory—there’s some debate about what last night really means—Cantor’s is the biggest scalp the movement has ever claimed.

Last night will remain in the minds of “moderate” or “establishment” Republicans for a generation, even though, in truth, Cantor was an exemplar of neither. And his resignation from the House leadership team has ramifications for this Congress, where conventional wisdom now assesses the chances for immigration reform as even deader than they were previously.

But: onward and upward. Before the smarmy corpse of Cantor’s political career was even cold, the struggle to seize his leadership position was underway. For some in the House GOP—who must now feel that no amount of money or prestige or recognition from Beltway ThoughtLeaders can protect them from an increasingly agitated base—it might have the feel of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. But in fairness, the House Republican Caucus isn’t so much like the Titanic as the iceberg that hit the Titanic, inasmuch as the House GOP is an aimless, rudderless mass that sinks everything it touches.

The leadership struggle brings excitement for Texas Republicans. Two Texan congressman have slipped themselves into the race to become the second most powerful Republican in the House—Jeb Hensarling (R-Dallas) is widely considered to be vying for a leadership position, and Pete Sessions (R-Dallas), might have been the first to declare his intent to run for the job.

For some time, Sen. John Cornyn has held the number two spot among Senate Republicans. In the unlikely event Sen. Mitch McConnell fails to win re-election, Cornyn is the favorite to replace him. If Hensarling or Sessions become majority leader, they would become frontrunners to replace House Speaker John Boehner if (or really, when) Boehner steps down, or is kneecapped by his conservative members.

Hensarling appears to be virtually incapable of passing legislation, as Politico reported in March. Though he chairs a powerful House committee, he’s watched his bills sink into the swamp through his inability or unwillingness to compromise or count votes. So he’s a natural fit for House GOP leadership.

But if we’re going to put a Texan in line to become speaker of the House, someday, I vote for Sessions—not just because of his ties to felon ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and legendary conman Allen Stanford. Not just because he jokingly compared the House GOP to the Taliban. Not just because he got special loans from subprime lenders before the housing bubble collapsed. (Though a House panel later ruled that he didn’t financially benefit.)

Sessions deserves our support for this—a tale of Washington pork-barrel corruption so weird, so outlandish, that it feels like it could have come from a particularly whacked-out Simpsons episode. I give you: Blimpgate. From a 2010 Politico article:

Rep. Pete Sessions — the chief of the Republicans’ campaign arm in the House — says on his website that earmarks have become “a symbol of a broken Washington to the American people.”

Yet in 2008, Sessions himself steered a $1.6 million earmark for dirigible research to an Illinois company whose president acknowledges having no experience in government contracting, let alone in building blimps.

What the company did have: the help of Adrian Plesha, a former Sessions aide with a criminal record who has made more than $446,000 lobbying on its behalf.

When asked about the earmark, Sessions’ staff said the money would help create jobs in his district in Dallas.

But the company that received the earmarked funds, Jim G. Ferguson & Associates, is based in the suburbs of Chicago, with another office in San Antonio — nearly 300 miles from Dallas. And while Sessions used a Dallas address for the company when he submitted his earmark request to the House Appropriations Committee last year, one of the two men who control the company says that address is merely the home of one of his close friends.

Speaker Sessions—now that’s change we can believe in.

Dan Patrick, addressing an anti-gay rights rally, wants you to know that he is not backing down.
Christopher Hooks
Dan Patrick, addressing an anti-gay rights rally, wants you to know that he is not backing down.

The Republican Party’s convention in Fort Worth this weekend provided an uncommon opportunity to see many Republican lawmakers mix with the party’s rank and file, and each other. That’s a lot of egos in one room. The 2014 convention was a sort of changing of the guard—so it’s an opportunity, too, to take stock of the changing fortunes of the party’s future (and former) leaders.

Dan Patrick, nominee for lieutenant governor

Candidates often treat party conventions as a way to pivot from the red-meat rhetoric of the primary to the conciliatory language of the general election. Often, politicians use the convention to pledge that they’ll govern for all citizens, not just the people who made them the nominee of their party. Dan Patrick wants you to know—emphatically and insistently—that this is not his intention.

“You elected me, not the media and not the Democrats,” Patrick told the convention in a fiery Sunday morning speech. As lieutenant governor, he said, he would wake up every morning and think first of the people in that room—representatives of the some five percent of Texas voters who exercised their franchise in the Republican primary runoff. He would think of them first, and no one else. He’s their man. He is not yours.

In the speech, he talked about reaching out to Hispanic and African-American voters. It was a lie that they were natural Democrats. But his desire to broaden the GOP’s big tent was hard to square with the role he played in the convention’s platform fight over immigration. He had tried to water down the pro-guest worker “Texas Solution” to get the base to support it, but that gambit failed—and the hard-line plank that passed instead was taken from his own campaign website. While it was being debated on the floor, Patrick’s distinctive “Secure our Border” signs, in the shape of a white-picket fence, lined the arena’s railings. And when the whole thing was over, some delegates scoured the area for left-behind signs to take home as souvenirs.

Dan Patrick's particularly unsubtle booth in the convention exhibition hall.
Christopher Hooks
Dan Patrick’s particularly unsubtle booth in the convention exhibition hall.

It’s in the eye of the beholder, but it seemed possible, at times, to detect a harder edge to Patrick’s public persona than he displayed in the primary. That’s really saying something. Had the brutal last month of the runoff, and Patrick’s victory, changed his outlook? At the campaign’s booth in the convention’s trade show, Patrick’s free swag had been covered with stickers that directed readers to Proverbs 21:31. For those unfamiliar, the full passage was written on the huge white banner that draped Patrick’s booth: “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord.” Is Patrick the horse? Is the day of battle coming, or has it passed? Would he carry this martial outlook with him to the Senate?

After his speech, I asked Patrick’s campaign staff if he’d be making other public appearances. They didn’t know. One had seen him at the Omni earlier. “Dan has a mind of his own,” he said.

Greg Abbott, nominee for governor

Abbott kept a peculiarly low profile at the convention. His main address pivoted on a novel rhetorical framework: He laid out his plan to ready Texas for the state’s bicentennial in 2036. After 20 years of one-party rule in the state, the effort to present a vision for the future is admirable, I suppose. But the plan itself was unsurprisingly empty. For the Texans of 2036, Abbott will end road funding diversions and destroy CSCOPE—two demands of the conservative base that might have vanished from Texans’ radar by 2016, let alone 2036. He also plans to make Texas “number one in education,” a declaration which has all the substance of a New Year’s resolution-maker who declares their intent to become “number one in exercise.”

Scott Turner, announced candidate for Speaker of the House

State Rep. Scott Turner addresses delegates at a June 5 meet-and-greet.
Timothy Faust
State Rep. Scott Turner addresses delegates at a June 5 meet-and-greet.

Abbott aims to lead the state, and Patrick aims to lead the Senate. Who will lead the House? Many conservatives hate House Speaker Joe Straus, who’s set to be the most moderate Republican in a position of power in state government after November. They bungled an effort to run a competitor for speaker for the 2013 session, and the groups mobilizing against him are trying to back a serious candidate for speaker next go-round in the form of state Rep. Scott Turner (R-Frisco), a charismatic former football player. Turner had one of the biggest installations in the convention’s trade show, and Turner’s meet and greet attracted hundreds of delegates. Turner buttons and novelty items flooded the convention.

Elsewhere, anti-Straus groups papered the convention with flyers accusing Straus of corruption. In the party’s platform, there was a call to amend the constitution to make the speaker of the House a statewide elected position.

The 2016 presidential hopefuls

Ted Cruz at a wildly popular event in the convention's exhibition hall.
Timothy Faust
Ted Cruz at a wildly popular event in the convention’s exhibition hall.

Rick Perry helped kick off the convention, then left. (Then showed up at the X Games in Austin.) He might be the most important governor in Texas history, so it’s remarkable how much he feels like old news. He placed fourth in the convention’s 2016 straw poll, behind even conservative icon and non-politician Ben Carson.

Ted Cruz remains the gold standard of Texas tea-party politicians. Two years after his shock victory, his buttons were still the fastest-selling at the convention. After he addressed the convention, swarms of delegates skipped Rand Paul’s speech to take pictures with Cruz at the trade show. Cruz crushed his opponents in the straw poll, winning 43.4 percent of the vote.

While delegates lined up by the hundreds to take pictures of Cruz, a lonely cardboard cutout of Paul sat across the aisle.

George P. Bush, nominee for land commissioner

George P. Bush's high-tech installation at the exhibition hall.
Christopher Hooks
George P. Bush’s high-tech installation at the exhibition hall.

Bush continued his expensive campaign to win the hearts of conservatives. He’s raised vast amounts of money even though he ran against one no-name, no-money candidate in the primary, and is facing a candidate that’s barely better equipped in the general election. How to spend that money? Bush was the only candidate who became a sponsor of the convention—putting his name up alongside other leading lights of the conservative movement, like Verizon and Anheuser-Busch.

Bush paid for a huge space near the front of the convention’s trade show, which looked like the kind of pop-up installation tech companies build at South by Southwest. Though the space boasted comfy chairs and cell-phone charging stations, it seemed to be undervisited.

David Dewhurst, outgoing lt. governor

Like Perry’s, this was Dewhurst’s last convention in office. Given how divisive the primary was, it’s hard to blame him for skipping it entirely and jetting to France for the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

Dewhurst made the obligatory call for party unity in the two-minute video that was played at the convention, but he also found time for some sweet footage of American bombers, under a musical riff from Saving Private Ryan.

“As Democrat dollars flow into our state from beyond our borders,” Dewhurst asked, “will we respond with overwhelming force, as the Allies did?”

Given that, near the beginning of his political career, Dewhurst’s campaign team once inserted a photo of a Luftwaffe officer into an ad honoring American servicemen, it’s a bit rich that Dew’s saying goodbye to the party by comparing Democrats to the Nazi army. But there you go.

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