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Randy Best
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Randy Best

In late 2012—though it feels like just yesterday—I featured Dallas edu-preneur Randy Best, whose outfit Academic Partnerships is helping public universities take their degree programs online.

Best’s first foray into the business of public education was a well-timed tutoring firm just as George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law began funneling money to private tutors, and in 2007 he got into the online college business to help his alma mater, Lamar University, recover from a big enrollment drop after Hurricane Rita. Over the years as his business has grown, Best’s model hasn’t changed much: Best helps recruit students and provides a pre-fab online platform to deliver the classes; universities provide the course material and lend their good name to the cause. The public schools collect tuition from the students, and turn over around half of it to Best.

In 2011, Best held a coming-out party of sorts at the Four Seasons in Las Colinas, inviting top officers from public universities nationwide to a comfy summit on “The Future of Higher Education.” Best never appeared onstage, nor did he hard-sell the crowd on hiring Academic Partnerships, but big names like Jeb Bush and thought leaders like Harvard’s Clayton Christensen and Khan Academy founder Salman Khan described a digitized, globalized future of learning that fit neatly with Best’s ambitions. Best closed a few big contracts just after the conference, including one with the entire University of Texas System.

Now Best is back, hosting another invitation-only thinkfest next week at the Four Seasons, this one covering the “Globalization of Higher Education.”

And as impressive as Best’s last lineup was, he’s outdone himself this time. Jeb Bush is back on board, but so are Hillary Clinton and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Dunan—it’d make for some amazing photo ops, except the conference is apparently closed to the press (reporters can sign up for access to a video feed instead). Speaking of journalists, Thomas Friedman’s on the bill too, along with CNN’s Fareed Zakariah.

The “globalization” theme makes a lot of sense as a follow-up to Best’s last shindig.

Even before he started Academic Partnerships (first known as Higher Ed Holdings), Best was thinking globally—he’d bought a number of universities in Latin America and was working on building their online programs. In just the last few months now, Academic Partnerships has been busy contracting with private universities outside the U.S. Using the same model they apply to public schools in the U.S., they’ve partnered with two schools in Mexico, and one each in Peru, Colombia and the Philippines.

But Best ambitions for a “globalized” higher ed scene reach into America’s public universities too. When he and I spoke in 2012, he described a happy future in which students from all over the world had access to prestigious degrees from America’s state schools, without the mess and cost of getting a visa or moving to the U.S.

Foreign students, paying full out-of-state tuition, are a key income driver for America’s public universities while states cut back on public higher ed funding. And online degree programs are a pretty low-impact way for schools to grow their enrollment, especially in Best’s model, where Academic Partnerships does the logistical work and a spinoff firm—Instructional Connections—hires low-cost teaching assistants to answer students’ questions. Best-backed online degrees have been a key to UT-Arlington’s enrollment explosion over the last few years, driving big improvements on the physical campus too.

The drawbacks to all this are a little tougher to quantify, like the worry that faculty are forced to cede control when the courses they teach turn into pre-fab products with indefinite digital lives. Or the concern that a school trading on its good name might lose some prestige if it’s branded as an online degree mill.

“I don’t think online is the future–it’s simply a money scheme,” is how William Rowe, an Arkansas State University art professor, put it to Forbes in a long profile this month. But most of that story is glowing—there’s even a sweet sidebar about the Neanderthal and the Siberian cave bear in Best’s natural history collection. “The Stanfords, the Harvards, oh my gosh, those schools are remarkable,” Best tells Forbes. “But they’re irrelevant to the market.”

In honor of next week’s conference, I’ve updated our map of public universities that have contracted with Academic Partnerships for their online degree programs. Though it’s surely not a complete list, I’ve cobbled together details on deals with 33 public schools. (Without naming them, Forbes pegs the total at 40 in the U.S.) New additions to the map don’t include copies of the contracts (yet!), but I’ve linked instead to stories or press releases about those recent deals. Most of the new additions are in AP’s most common degree areas like business, education and nursing—though the University of Miami made a novel addition last month, with an online master’s in music.

Conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan
Courtesy Office of the Governor
Conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan

When lawyers representing conservative powerbroker Michael Quinn Sullivan were last dragged in front of the Texas Ethics Commission, they adopted an unusual strategy. Instead of negotiating with the commission and accepting what would probably amount to a slap on the wrist, Sullivan went to war. The whole Ethics Commission—both how it operated and what it was trying to do—wasn’t just unconstitutional, it was un-American, tantamount to the Nazi army, he argued. His lawyers, led by former state Rep. Joe Nixon, intended to put the whole of the Ethics Commission on trial, preferably in federal court. They had their first chance today, and U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks was having none of it.

The hearing today was a continuation of a long-running fight between Sullivan—who leads a set of closely-related groups under the banner of Empower Texans or Texans for Fiscal Responsibility and has used so-called dark money to gain outsized influence in the state Republican Party—and the Ethics Commission, which is considering several complaints against Sullivan filed by Republican state Rep. Jim Keffer and former Republican state Rep. Vicki Truitt. To evaluate those complaints, the commission hoped to subpoena information about Sullivan’s groups, a move Sullivan appears intent to fight at any cost.

Sparks, a veteran jurist with a legendarily low tolerance for bull—recently, the FBI rounded up members of the Zetas cartel who tried in vain to bribe him—denied Sullivan’s request for an injunction to halt his disciplinary proceedings after an occasionally contentious hearing. But Sparks also characterized key aspects of the case in a way that would seem to discourage Sullivan’s aspirations to upturn the whole commission.

Then, at the end of the hearing, Sparks sought to find a middle ground between Sullivan and the commission—then angrily revoked his proposal and left the chamber when Nixon objected. The case is still in limbo, and likely will be for some time—but today was not a result Sullivan might have wanted.

The hearing was characterized by the same everything-but-the-kitchen-sink legal tactics Nixon employed in front of the Ethics Commission. For example: recently, Sullivan’s been “reporting” for the “journalism” site Breitbart Texas, an event met by astonished, laughing incredulity by both the state’s media and political establishment. Why was Sullivan, who has an enormous power base of his own, trying to join the lowly ranks of the fourth estate?

One possible answer was provided today: Sullivan’s lawyers invoked constitutional protections for the press. If Sullivan’s groups were forced to turn over information about their political activities, it could compromise Sullivan’s “sources.”

“We’re just kind of wasting time,” said Sparks, sweeping aside most of the constitutional concerns Nixon raised, leaving them for a later date. The judge was interested in only one thing: the scope of the subpoenas. He wasn’t sure if they were unconstitutional, he said, but he hoped to narrow them by consent of both parties.

“I know of no courtroom in the land where subpoenas this sweeping would be approved,” said Sparks. “This is asking for the cattle in the pen by asking for everything in the pen—the dirt, the mosquitos, the ticks.”

He asked the commission’s lawyer, Gunnar Seaquist: “Why couldn’t a meeting have been made and reasonable minds worked out what was necessary” instead of asking for everything?

Seaquist’s answer: Sullivan’s team was not willing to negotiate. “The sticking point has been that they feel the whole process is unconstitutional.”

So Sparks turned to Nixon. “You haven’t got much help from your clients in limiting these subpoenas,” he said. Nixon returned to the idea that the subpoenas were, on their face, a violation of the rights of Sullivan’s organizations.

“Our 100,000 subscribers,” Nixon said, referring to Empower Texans’ supporters, would be “subject to threats, abuse, and intimidation. My client is the same size as the Austin American-Statesman.”

Sparks appeared unmoved. “Frankly, I find the Austin American-Statesman a very thin paper,” he said.

Still, Sparks hoped to work out a compromise between Sullivan and the commission. He wasn’t bound to, he said, but it would save everyone a lot of time and money. So he told the courtroom he would be declining to issue an injunction to halt the commission’s proceedings—Sullivan’s primary aim—but proposed that the two sides meet and produce a proposal for Sparks about narrowing the scope of the subpoena process. It wasn’t what Sullivan wanted, but it was something to take home.

But that wasn’t enough for Nixon, who rose again to condemn the process. Piqued, Sparks withdrew his olive branch. There would be no report. “I see how this is going,” he said. Instead, Sparks gave Sullivan seven days to prepare an argument regarding the unconstitutionality of the Ethics Commission’s requests. Then he left the courtroom.

On Twitter, Sullivan was characteristically triumphant. There will be many more court hearings. But for Sullivan, it wasn’t a good first step.

Polk-County-Caravan-Elaine-769x448
Marissa Barnett
Activists and members of families separated by immigration detention leave a Father's Day gift outside the Polk County facility in June.

Immigrants in a for-profit detention center in Conroe are refusing to eat to protest conditions at the facility. The protests in Texas follow a similar hunger strike that began two weeks ago at a Tacoma, Washington, detention center. Both facilities are owned by scandal-plagued GEO Group, the second-largest private prison company in the world. The protests are part of a wave of hunger strikes that immigrants have started in detention centers across the nation to call attention to what they say is the unjust practice of locking up immigrants and separating families through deportation.

The families of the detainees on Wednesday gathered outside the all-male Joe Corley Detention Facility north of Houston to call on jail officials not to retaliate against the hunger strike leaders. Adelina Caceres said that her partner, David Vasquez, has been kept in solitary confinement at Corley as punishment for helping to start the strike. Vasquez has been in the detention center for nearly a year, she said.

As of Tuesday, 120 detainees were participating in the strike, according to Cristina Parker, an organizer with Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based group that opposes private prisons. The detention center is capable of holding 1,517.

Vasquez and Manuel Martinez began the strike Sunday at midnight, according to advocates. In individual letters released Monday, the two men demand an end to deportations as well as the controversial Secure Communities program, which uses local law enforcement to funnel immigrants into the federal government’s deportation system.

The men say many detainees have already paid fines and done time in county jails, only to be picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) upon release and put into immigrant detention centers.

This aggressive dragnet is partly driven by a mandate established by Congress in 2006, a quota requiring ICE to fill 34,000 prison beds every night. Advocates say the mandate leads to the detention of U.S. residents as well as undocumented immigrants who commit minor infractions. But it’s been a boon to private prison companies, essentially guaranteeing a steady stream of detainees.

Echoing those in Washington State, Texas detainees are decrying overcrowding and unjust treatment by guards, who they say are disrespectful and verbally abusive. They call for better food, affordable prices at the commissary and reasonable phone rates. Neither ICE nor the GEO Group responded to requests for comment.

A detention center in Elroy, Arizona, saw two different hunger strikes last summer, one by a group of activists called the “Dream 9,” who together attempted to cross the Mexican border and were placed in detention. They were eventually released while they pursue their asylum cases. In October, a group of DREAM Act students who named themselves the “Dream 30” and who together attempted to cross the border at Laredo, similarly began a hunger strike inside an El Paso detention center.

The most recent strike, in Tacoma, peaked at 750 participants. That number eventually dwindled to three, but those strikers continued into their 13th day on Wednesday. Yesterday, two of the three protesters sent messages of encouragement to the Texas strikers. In a recording in Spanish, Ramon Mendez Pascual says, “The only thing I want to say is don’t be afraid, we must keep going, so that we are heard and so that we can be free.”

Update: After publishing this story, GEO Group responded to an email for comment with the following: “Our company has had a long-standing public-private partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (and its predecessor agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service) that dates back to mid-1980s. GEO’s immigration facilities provide high quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments, and our company strongly refutes allegations to the contrary.” The company would not address the hunger strike.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott at a campaign event

Today, Peggy Fikac and a team of reporters at the San Antonio Express-News had the kind of story that’ll have state politics reporters walking around Austin aimlessly, asking themselves why they aren’t more enterprising. (Maybe it’s just me.) Amid a sprawling fight between Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott over equal pay laws—Davis authored one last session that earned wide bipartisan support, and until today Abbott wouldn’t say if he would veto it like Perry did—Fikac got salary data for employees of Abbott’s attorney general office, and identified instances of unequal pay between women and men.

Some of the features Fikac describes about the AG’s employee pool would be true of just about any large office in America. Though there are more female employees overall, there are more male employees at the top of the organization and a greater share of women at the bottom. That results in an average salary for men at the AG’s office of $60,200 a year, and $44,708 for women. Of course, that doesn’t account for differences in position, experience and time with the agency.

But when Fikac narrows it to one group of employees—the 722 assistant attorneys general Abbott oversees—there’s a roughly $6,000 discrepancy in annual salary. ($79,464 for men, $73,649 for women.) Abbott’s office argues, again, that this is based on a difference in experience.

Abbott’s office said the men on average had more than 16 years of being licensed, while the women had nearly 14 years. The men had an average of nearly 104 months of service, while the women had more than 92 months, his office said.

And when the Express-News narrows down the employee pool even further, Fikac finds that rationale doesn’t always hold up.

Of seven different classifications of assistant attorneys general, the average salary for men is higher than the average salary for women in six of them, with the difference ranging from $647 to $4,452. In one category, the average salary for women is $3,512 higher than that for men. In three categories, the women on average either had more years of service or had been licensed longer, or both, despite being paid less, according to figures from the attorney general’s office.

The situation in Abbott’s office, of course, is part of a much wider problem. Cases like these don’t require active prejudice or intentional discrimination (though that sometimes happens too.) Elsewhere in the article, Abbott touts the number of women the agency has hired during his tenure, something he’s probably genuinely proud of.

Pay discrimination happens because of entrenched institutional and personal biases and assumptions—ones the people responsible for hiring and setting salaries may not even be aware of. It doesn’t mean someone said: “I’m going to pay women less.” It’s not because women aren’t “better negotiators,” as the executive director of the state GOP recently said, or because Texas hasn’t amped up “job creation” enough, as the director of the RedState Women PAC recently said (before she said a lot else.) So why not give women more tools and legal leverage to address pay discrimination, to balance out the fact that many institutions—often without malice—value their work less than their male counterparts? Let’s go live to Attorney General Abbott:

Texas Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott would not sign a measure to make it easier for women to bring pay discrimination lawsuits in state court if he were governor, a spokesman said Wednesday, hoping to get past an issue that has dogged the campaign for weeks.

So sayeth the man  today to the Associated Press, after a lengthy period of equivocating on the issue of whether he’d veto it. From a political standpoint, this seems like an incomprehensibly weird move. Will the Davis campaign stop hammering Abbott over this issue now that Abbott has swept away doubt from his position? The opposite! He’s given the Davis campaign—even more than they had before—a clear line to use against Abbott: “Abbott opposes making it easier for women to demand equal pay.” Pay equity is something women really care about. And he did it, apparently, just hours after a major newspaper raised substantial questions about pay equity at his own office.

Until recently, it seemed like the Davis campaign couldn’t stop scoring own goals. But Abbott’s campaign and his supporters—though they have a much, much greater margin of error—have been having a rough go of it since that Ted Nugent campaign event last month. What’s next?

DeathFernando A. Flores’ Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, Vol. 1 chronicles a Rio Grande Valley that’s never been known as a haven for the punk rock underground — unless you were part of it. Flores was, as was Observer contributor Dan Solomon, who reviews the new book here.

If you’d like to get a taste for yourself, Austin’s Farewell Books is hosting a book release party tonight, March 19, at 7 p.m.

Activists Want to Return Texas GOP Platform to Hard-line Stance on Immigrants

The 2012 GOP convention's great achievement is back on the chopping block.
immigration reform
Priscila Mosqueda

When the Texas Republican Party made a guest worker program part of its 2012 platform, it was hailed as an important step forward for the party. The GOP needed to adjust itself, people said, to appeal to a new generation of Texas voters, and reorient itself toward some kind of immigration reform package. The acknowledgement of the need for a guest worker program was a small move in that direction, but it was significant. So naturally, two years later, some Republicans want to strip it back out of the platform ahead of this year’s state convention in June.

As reported by the Quorum Report’s Scott Braddock Monday, the Texas Eagle Forum’s Cathie Adams has been floating language that would strip the guest worker plank out of the party’s platform. Cathie Adams, as Phyllis Schlafly’s top lieutenant in the state, may seem like a marginal figure to some—she’s spent much of the last several years attempting to persuade tea party groups that major figures in the national Republican party and U.S. government are secret Muslims—but she’s also a former chairwoman of the Texas Republican Party, and she holds a lot of sway with tea party groups around the state.

Adams told Quorum Report that it’s a mistake for the GOP to have anything other than a hard-line position going into the 2014 midterms and 2015 legislative session. Her proposed language unambiguously rejects any congressional moves to address immigration:

THEREFORE BE IT IS RESOLVED that we reject any and all calls for blanket or incremental amnesty and encourage the enforcement of existing state and federal laws regarding border security, national security, immigration and employment.

News of Adams proposal brought a strong rebuke from Hispanic Republican state Representative Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) who tweeted Monday night that the state GOP was facing an “existential” crisis.

This is primarily a fight, as it was in 2012, between business interests in the Republican Party and the more conservative faction personified by Adams. You might assume the former will win out—especially if the consequences are seen to be as dire as Villalba says—except that the adoption of the guest worker program last time around had seemed unlikely even then. It happened late on a Friday night at the convention. As a measure of how illegitimate some conservative activists see the change, several have told me they’re convinced that advocates of the guest worker program waited until many convention-goers were drunk or had left the hall before they made their move. In reality, the debate was well-attended and extremely heated.

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who became prominently identified with the platform change, told Bloomberg Businessweek he was less than certain about his side’s success as he rose to speak in favor of the change. “Well, here’s the end of a political career,” he remembers thinking. But the platform did change. Supporters hailed it as a “bold step toward leadership” on immigration.

But it’s debatable how much that small shift is evidence of a larger one in the GOP. For one thing, it’s never presented as a humanitarian issue—it’s a business issue. The important thing is ensuring a steady supply of labor, not the welfare and well-being of the countless documented and undocumented migrants in the state. “I’m no bleeding heart; I oppose birthright citizenship,” Patterson said later. “But we need the labor.”

When I talked to the affable Villalba in January about the attempt to build up Republican outreach to the Hispanics in the state, he was characteristically sunny about his party’s future. “What you’re seeing today is this mind-shift,” he says. “There are some in our party that are resistant of [change.] But I think they’re starting to come terms with it.”

Now, we’re heading toward a GOP convention that seems likely to nominate Dan Patrick, one of the most anti-immigrant statewide candidates in recent memory, as the party’s candidate for lieutenant governor—someone Villalba has indirectly but pointedly criticized. The next couple months, as activists began to consider the party platform in more detail, will provide an opportunity to test Villalba’s thesis.

John Carona
State Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas)

At the current rate, there may be a day in the not-so-distant future when every Austin lawmaker and staffer goes to work for the payday loan industry, leaving no one, at last, to pretend to care about usurious rates, the cycle of debt and criminalization of borrowers.

I exaggerate, of course, but only slightly. The list of legislators and their staff who have moved, sometimes overnight, from the Capitol to the industry is impressively long. As Texans for Public Justice found last year, 10 percent of the lobbyists employed by lending interests at the Legislature were former lawmakers. Among them was Rep. Vicki Truitt, the Southlake Republican who carried the “reform” bills in 2011 and chaired the House committee that oversees the industry. And it’s bipartisan, too: the former chief of staff to Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), Trent Townsend, is a lobbyist for Cash America, EZCorp and First Cash Financial.

Perhaps we need to retire the “revolving door” metaphor and just think of the industry, the lobby and the state government as different chambers in a giant shark tank, like a high-dollar Sea World for predators.

I raise the issue now because of a rather astonishing letter to the editor published this weekend in the Galveston Daily News. It’s penned by one Adam Burklund, the former general counsel for state Sen. John Carona. Remember Carona? He’s the (recently defeated) Dallas Republican who carried a payday loan reform bill in the last session so weak that it split consumer advocates and faith groups into two camps. He’s also the guy who accused his fellow Republican senators of being “shills” for payday loan lobbyists and then complained that he “just want[ed] to go home and feed [his] cat.” Anyway, Burklund used to work for him as general counsel before peeling off to go work for—clutch your pearls now—the main payday loan industry group, the Consumer Service Alliance of Texas—the good people who helped write said legislation carried by Burklund’s boss last year.

Burklund was reacting to an op-ed co-authored by three Democratic state legislators who made the rather anodyne observation, “During the last legislative session, industry lobbyists blocked the reform bill we tried to pass.”

Burklund seems sincerely outraged at that assertion, lashing out, in turn, at the three Democrats, Houston trial lawyer Steve Mostyn, Wendy Davis and what he calls “disingenuous special interest groups.”

Every time the industry pushes for a compromise, some of the special interest groups immediately characterize that compromise as an “industry proposal” — and oppose it, hoping to push the industry further.

Such devious behavior on the part of special interests does nothing to help consumers, nor does it advance the debate over a problem that is desperately in need of a solution. It only serves to widen the rift between consumer groups, the industry and anyone else seeking to score political points.

Who are these “devious,” all-powerful “special interest groups” capable of thwarting the good, reform-minded payday loan industry with its 82 lobbyists, $4 million in campaign contributions and allies in government? Burklund never quite spells it out but we can only guess that he’s referring to consumer advocacy groups like Texas Appleseed and faith groups like the Texas Baptist Life Commission. In fact, some of the religious groups were the most adamantly opposed to Carona’s compromise because they viewed it as not just a compromise, but fundamentally compromised, ceding far too much ground to the lenders. I guess having God on your side might make you a “special interest” but unless you’ve got the cash too, you’re in for an uphill fight at the Lege.

At least give credit to Carona for acknowledging how money had limited the options: “You have to get the most you can get with the political support that you have,” Carona said in March 2013. “This industry is in business and this industry has amassed enormous political support at the Capitol.”

At the Capitol, it’s not so much about what the lobby gets as what it prevents others from getting.

New Wendy Davis Attack Group Run By Political Cronies

Cari Christman, the director of a PAC trying to counter Dems' advantage with women, had a strange interview Sunday. Stranger still: who's running her group.
RedState Women's logo
RedState Women's logo

RedState Women PAC, a new Texas Republican women’s group, has had a rocky coming-out party this week. The group’s executive director, Cari Christman, talked to Jason Whitely of Dallas’ WFAA on Sunday and offered an odd critique of equal pay legislation, which has become a central issue in the gubernatorial race between Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott. Christman suggested—over and over and over and over again—that a state Lilly Ledbetter law was a bad idea because women are “too busy” to use the courts.

It was an odd moment, to say the least, but it also raises the question: Who the heck are RedState Women? So far, they appear to be a motley collection of politically-connected lobbyists, ex-lobbyists and staffers of legislators who haven’t exactly distinguished themselves on women’s issues.

This morning, the Dallas Morning News‘ Wayne Slater noted the connection between RedState Women, Mike Toomey and Dave Carney—the latter two being longtime GOP insiders. But the RedState Women’s staff and board feature an even more eclectic crew.

There’s Lara Laneri Keel, the president of the group’s board, who writes in her bio that she’s “regarded as one of the top female lobbyist (sic) in Austin.” One of her clients: the private prison industry. Keel is a partner at the Texas Lobby Group, whose most prominent member is Toomey, a former Perry chief of staff and one of the governor’s closest associates. Keel is the cousin of Terry Keel, a former state representative and House parliamentarian, and wife of John Keel, former head of the Legislative Budget Board and current state auditor. Both Terry and John Keel were close associates of former House Speaker Tom Craddick.

There’s Cristen Wohlgemuth, a former lobbyist who now serves as chief of staff to state Rep. Craig Goldman (R-Fort Worth), a tea party rep who voted against last session’s equal pay bill and co-sponsored the sweeping abortion restrictions that passed the Lege last summer. Wohlgemuth, the daughter of former state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, worked for famously fundamentalist former state Rep. Warren Chisum before Goldman. Both Chisum and Arlene Wohlgemuth were top Craddick lieutenants. Arlene Wohlgemuth is now executive director of the corporate-funded Texas Public Policy Foundation.

And there’s Mia McCord, a former fundraiser with the state GOP who’s the current chief of staff for state Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills).  As chairman of the Republican Policy Caucus in 2011, Hancock played an important role in decimating state funding for women’s health care programs.

Christman herself is the chief of staff to state Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) who was a key supporter of the effort to “defund Planned Parenthood” that ended up capsizing the whole system of women’s health care in the state.

Then there’s Tony Hernandez, the group’s treasurer, according to the only financial report. Hernandez is another lobbyist (he works with Keel at the Texas Lobby Group) and the only XY chromosome in the bunch. Hernandez has an even more eclectic past—before he came to Texas, he worked for Andrew Laming, the bro-tastic Australian politician, most famous for calling out Aborigines and Pacific Islanders for an addiction to “welfare on tap” and chugging beers while doing handstands for Australia Day this year. (“This is the way I chose to celebrate Australia Day,” Laming said, Australian-ly. “I chose to drink my beer upside down.”)

It’s a strange group—not the dream team you might have assembled for a Texas women’s advocacy group. But they’ve been earning a lot of headlines. RedState Women launched its website on Wednesday after giving Politico a sneak peek, and earned a cameo in a recent Wall Street Journal story about women voters. As a PAC, the group will presumably be raising and spending money on candidates. But the most important role RedState Women will play this election cycle, it seems, will be in messaging.

To that end, the splashy new website—complete with an odd red-and-black logo that calls to mind Fantine from Les Miserables joining an anarchist collective—features the start of a video series, “Why I am a Red State Woman,” whose goal is to explore the many flavors of conservative women in Texas. The first video features Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick, the daughter of 45-year incumbent and former House Speaker Tom Craddick, who offers a genial series of anecdotes about her family. As noted, several of the PAC’s members have direct or indirect ties to the old Craddick establishment.

The group hopes to emphasize the diversity of Texas Republicans. “RSW represents a variety of life experiences and reflects the Texas spirit of strength and independence,” Christman wrote at time of the PAC’s launch. But it’s unclear how much Red State Women’s staff and board reflect that “variety of life experiences.”

Who’s funding RedState Women PAC? Christman declined to provide any additional information to Politico, telling the publication that information wouldn’t be available before this summer’s round of financial reports, some four months away. Until they’re released, expect to see RedState Women’s contention that they represent a burgeoning swath of passionate women activists go mostly unchallenged, Christman’s slip-up aside.

James Magnuson

Texas Observer contributor Anis Shivani, who writes fiction, poetry and criticism from his home in Houston, reviews James Magnuson’s novel Famous Writers I Have Known in the March issue. The novel centers on a J.D. Salinger-like literary recluse named V.S. Mohle, a James Micheneresque Pulitzer-winning popular novelist/philanthropist named Rex Schoeninger, and an East Coast con man/imposter named Frank Abandonato.

Magnuson, who directs the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas in Austin, spoke with Shivani by email about campus novels, Internet self-promotion, writerly self-doubt, and the utility of MFA writing programs.

Texas Observer: I was fascinated by your description of Rex Schoeninger as a way of understanding the late James Michener. What kind of relationship did you have with Michener, and what did you learn from him?

James Magnuson: I would say that our relationship was mutually respectful. He was anything but a glad-hander. I quickly learned that the last thing you should do with Michener was ask him for something. He was a very shrewd man and knew when he was being worked.

TO: The founders of some of the country’s generously endowed writing programs and residencies would perhaps not recognize the degree to which their original function and rationale have altered. What do you think have been the biggest changes with Stegner, Yaddo, Fine Arts Work Center, and what would surprise the founders the most?

JM: I’m no expert on the history of writing programs, but I have seen how the Michener Center has changed. Twenty years ago we were the new kids on the creative writing block and a bit of an oddity, because we were interdisciplinary. We made lots of mistakes in the beginning, corrected them as best we were able to. Because of the success of a number of the students, we are certainly viewed in a very different way now. That can be unnerving. I’ve tried very hard to keep us from getting too fancy.

TO: In Famous Writers I Have Known, the writing-workshop students have a decent recognition of literary theory. That may be true on an individual level, but my understanding is that on a more systemic level, theory and creative writing function in isolation, even antagonism. Do you regret the passing of humanist criticism in favor of the technocratic language of theory?

JM: When someone showed me a Walter Benjamin article in the 1970s, it felt like a total revelation. A few years later, critical theory was spreading like kudzu. What had seemed so electrifying soon became doctrinaire and disspiriting, particularly to writers. You’re right about the antagonism. It does exist. I do still seek out eccentric and suggestive criticism written by writers like D.H. Lawrence and William Carlos Williams. Zadie Smith is superb writing about books. But I confess, sometimes I will read a book like [Michael Taussig’s] Shamanism, Colonialism, and The Wild Man.

TO: What parts of writing can be taught? What can’t be taught? Are we under a mass illusion when it comes to the teaching of writing, or is something helpful being done with instruction? Do you think the age of great original writers is over?

JM: I think you can teach a young writer to spot and destroy the most egregious cliches, how to use point of view in a consistent way, how to develop a bit of an eye for the telling detail. You can get them excited about reading. You can teach them to prune dead language, even if you can’t really teach them how to make language come alive. But the storytelling instinct is either there or it isn’t. You have it or you don’t, and there’s not much a teacher can do.

TO: What do you think is the biggest con as far as the writing industry is concerned?

JM: A tough question. I think it’s probably instilling false hope. I wince at this, because I’m a natural encourager. But sustaining a writing career is so difficult. My greatest nightmare is telling someone he’s a genius, because I want him to feel better, and then he ends up wasting the next decade of his life.

TO: I like the degree of moral overlap in Famous Writers I Have Known between Frank as con man and the feelings of anxiety and self-doubt—if not feelings of outright fakery—most writers experience. Was the character of Frank the original germ of the story, or was there some other starting point?

JM: I appreciate your point. I spent eight years working on this novel and it was turned down by 30 publishers before it was finally taken. I absolutely felt like a fraud for a substantial part of that time.

As far as the germ of the novel goes, the book sprang from two very different notions. On the one hand I was intrigued by the idea of a low-life passing himself as a world-class writer. I’ve always taken pleasure in farce, in those Danish plays where the beggar wakes up in the king’s bed and everyone treats him as royalty.

But the other seed of the novel was planted as I watched so many people circling James Michener at the end of his life, angling for the remainder of his fortune. My wicked thought was, who could come along to ace them all out?

TO: Did you have any difficulty settling on the tone for the novel?

JM: Getting the tone just right was the hardest thing, and the most crucial. I had to take the utmost care not to impose my literary opinions on Frankie. In one sense I had to dumb him down (smart as he is). I went through and meticulously deleted all the words that I would use and he wouldn’t. I also had to keep from becoming too fair-minded and kind for as long as I could.

TO: We seem to be well past the era where a literary dispute could mean anything to the culture at large, as with the case of Mohle and Schoeninger’s spat on national television, which had dire consequences for both. Yet writers are eagerly enlisting in the latest phase of their own cultural emasculation—namely participation in social media, which really amounts to substituting a fake brand for any sense of individuality. What are your feelings toward the impact of technology on various aspects of writers’ self-understanding?

JM: I’m bewildered by all this. I’m one of the late adapters, one of those people who can never remember their password. It’s a little unnerving. On the one hand, I find some great literary things on the Internet I would never find any other way. But I wonder if it’s turning all of us nerdy literary types into something we’re not. A friend of mine says she feels like one of those clowns with the balloons out in front of Jiffy Lube, hopping up and down shouting, “Look at me! Look at me!”

TO: What are some of your favorite campus novels?

JM: I love the David Lodge novels, Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, Richard Russo’s Straight Man, and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys.

TO: It seems to me that Schoeninger—with his research orientation—does have a glimmer of truth in his possession, as far as the future of the global novel is concerned, even if his execution, and those of others like him, lacks much literary merit. Have you incorporated research in any of your novels? Do you think there can be a balance between the genuinely autobiographical (represented by Mohle) and the sociological approach (represented by Schoeninger)? Are there writers today who successfully integrate both elements, the autobiographical and the sociological?

JM: I used to do a lot of research for my novels. I loved to go out into the world with a small spiral notebook in my back pocket and just look at things. I learned about rat-baiting in nineteenth century New York, the layout of major league ballparks, the whereabouts of anti-war radicals in the mountains of New Mexico. But then a family and a job curtailed my roaming. I made adjustments.

I love novels with reach and ambition. It seems to me as if a lot of contemporary fiction is way too cautious, as if it’s been put through the rinse cycle one too many times. Peter Carey’s novels are wonderful in the way they blend history and the very idiosyncratically personal. What Salman Rushdie pulled off in Midnight’s Children was amazing. And don’t forget Doris Lessing and the way she shuttled back and forth between the autobiographical and the political in The Golden Notebook. Will there be another Tolstoy? I don’t know. I’d be happy with another Dos Passos.

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