Most mornings I join tens of thousands of fellow commuters who live south of Houston for our daily slog along I-45. There are few sources of frustration greater than this dense traffic corridor, but thanks to the absence of zoning laws, there are also few resources better for slow reading. Rather than seeing this slice of highway as a valley of death, why not consider it as a valley of texts? Flourishing along the banks of this great, concrete Nile are elegant copses of signs for the (upscale) malls and weedy patches of decaying signs for the (downscale) strip malls. Among the billboards touting Texas-tough trucks and Texas-sized tacos, you can savor sly logos: “God listens,” boasts our local Christian radio station, while the convenience chain Buc-ee’s reminds us of their clean restrooms with “Don’t worry, P happy.” At other signs we simply shudder. Gentlemen’s clubs? Anything but, we tell our kids.
Welcome to my world of signifiers, where franchises sacred and profane, megachurches and malls, invite exegesis. Several years ago, the evangelical Grace Community Church, with locations in San Diego and north Houston, opened a new storefront not too far from my own neighborhood. With its vast hexagonal buiilding already dwarfing its neighbors—including a Lexus dealership and a former strip club known as Vixxen—the 18,000-member congregation planned to further advertise its presence with a 200-foot cross. That plan was thwarted when the FAA noticed that the proposed cross conflicted with nearby Ellington Field’s flight path.
In lieu of a giant cross, Grace has had to make do with bright billboards emblazoned with blond families plugging their churchly community, cable station and conception of the world. Yet the setback has not stopped Steve and Becky Riggle, the church’s founders and senior pastors, from remaining fixtures on the local news.
Tune in to any of our talk and news stations during your daily commute and chances are you’ll have heard about the city’s proposed anti-discrimination ordinance. In particular, the ordinance is aimed at any business that refuses service on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Paint stores, pawnshops and pulperias—just a few of the plethora of businesses along I-45—could not deny you their services. Should they try, they would be subject to fines as high as $5,000.
As the vote approached, the ordinance mobilized not just the LBGT community and its supporters, but also a number of local megachurches. Second Baptist Church, whose membership of 64,000 beggars the adequacy of the “mega” prefix, and whose several locations lie close along Houston’s major traffic arteries, came out against the measure, with senior pastor Ed Young declaring that the rights of the LGBT community end where the prerogatives of Christian morality begin.
While the Riggles made the same argument, their efforts were both more colorful and more candid. The color came mostly from Steve Riggle during a public session at City Hall a few weeks ago. In an exchange with Councilmember Ellen Cohen, Riggle alluded to the now-legendary predicament of the Oregon baker whose Christian principles led him to refuse to take a cake order from a gay couple. Would it be any different, Riggle asked, if a Jewish baker refused an order for a cake decorated with a swastika? Cohen suggested that it would be different: Nazi pastry connoisseurs are not, like gays under the proposed ordinance, a protected class. When Cohen then asked if a Christian baker could deny service to a Jewish client because Judaism is an affront to his faith, Pastor Riggle realized he was about to slide down a slippery slope and declined to answer.
Becky Riggle barreled down that same slope, however, when she made a separate appearance before City Council. Councilwoman Cohen asked the same question she had posed to Steve: Should a Christian store owner, troubled by a customer’s Jewish faith, be able to deny her service? To general astonishment, Becky Riggle replied: “Yes, I am saying that. But that is not the issue that we’re talking about today.” With a poker face, Annise Parker, Houston’s unflappable gay mayor, then turned to the next speaker.
Of course, many Houstonians—Jewish, gay and otherwise—disagree with the pastor. And her claim that religious faith trumps civil rights and justifies discriminatory practices is precisely the issue. But as I drive by these vast fortresses of faith on my daily commute, I think I can begin to see the Riggles’ view.
Megachurches like Grace and Second Baptist rise along our traffic corridors for the same reason that fast-food restaurants do: where better to advertise one’s merchandise than in front of a massive audience streaming past day and night? And where better to trumpet a transcendent faith than these polluted arteries lined with strip clubs, loan sharks, tattoo parlors, 24-hour video stores and Thai massage spas? Given the apparent corruption of this particular landscape, it’s hardly surprising that these churches become worlds unto themselves. The comfort of these faith-bound cocoons makes their members all the more vulnerable to culture shock. From pre-K to high school, fitness centers to financial advisers, concerts to cafés, members of these churches need confront the world outside the bubble only when they step into their places of work. Like a bakery. Or when they need to find a public restroom. Like at Buc-ee’s.
In fact, for Grace and Second Baptist, public restrooms are very much the issue. In a video released by Grace Church, the Riggles insisted that Houston’s ordinance, which covers transgender individuals, will transform women’s restrooms into hunting grounds for cross-dressing male predators. Rather than P happy, the Riggles warn, P afraid.
I am not so anxious. As I drive along I-45, the countless texts tumbling past the window reflect a world that is, to be sure, often disconcerting. But it’s also a world whose dissonance represents exuberance and tolerance.
Now that the ordinance has passed, I tell myself: P hopeful. And P certain that while the odds are long of finding a clean toilet along I-45, they are even longer of finding a bearded stalker waiting in the ladies’ room.
Back in March, Gov. Rick Perry sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder declaring his intent to defy a federal law designed to reduce sexual assault in prison. It was a very Perry letter, slinging around terms like “ridiculous” and “unacceptable” and “costly regulatory mess.” But perhaps the most Perry part was his vow to “encourage my fellow governors to follow suit.”
Now, saying a law is wrong for Texas is one thing. Saying governors of other states—you know, just anywhere—should defy the Prison Rape Elimination Act suggests Perry believes the law is wrong in general principle, not specific application. Or else he’s just grandstanding. (A Google search for “Rick Perry” and “grandstanding” returns 173,000 results.) Either way, Perry appears to have had limited success. May 15 was the deadline for governors either to certify their state prisons were compliant or promise to become so, and the Associated Press reported last week that just four other states joined Perry in saying they planned not to try: Idaho, Indiana, Utah and Arizona.
“Perry is sort of out on his own on this one, which is fantastic news,” says Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, who works for an advocacy group that fights prison sexual assault, Just Detention International.
Lerner-Kinglake is one of many observers who can’t work out why Perry picked this particular battle in the first place. The problems with the law that Perry lists are relatively minor, though he describes them as insurmountable—and some don’t actually exist. Lerner-Kinglake says Perry’s letter contains “so many basic errors. It’s really kind of simple stuff that anyone who took a minute to look at the standards would know.”
For example, Perry writes that governors must certify their state’s compliance “under threat of criminal penalties,” but that’s not true. The only enforcement mechanism is that a state can lose 5 percent of its federal corrections grant money. Perry also says the act’s compliance dates are “impossible to meet,” but governors can—and at least 10 did—give assurance letters by the May 15 deadline promising that they were actively working toward compliance.
Perry also seems to think the new requirements apply to “local jails” and would be too expensive for small counties to implement, but they wouldn’t have to, since the act covers only facilities under Perry’s operational control.
The further you get into the letter’s nitty-gritty, the stranger Perry’s defiance seems. “The rules appear to have been created in a vacuum,” Perry complains. But a 2010 letter to the Justice Department from the executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said just the opposite. The director wrote, “The agency had relatively few issues” with implementing the act, “because most of the recommendations were similar to agency policy… [I]t is apparent the Department of Justice gave careful consideration to the comments submitted by many interested parties…”
Livingston’s letter did bring up one of Perry’s big beefs, though: the law’s prohibition on cross-gender viewing of inmates showering, changing, or using the toilets. Perry and Livingston suggested that banning cross-gender viewing could force Texas to violate laws banning gender discrimination, since 40 percent of correctional officers are female. Poppycock, says Lerner-Kinglake. The area in which women couldn’t be stationed, he says, “is so limited in scope, and he’s making it out to be a deal-breaker. It’s just a matter of basic dignity.”
A 2013 report from an outside agency (uncovered by the blog Grits for Breakfast) also said half-walls could be used to shield inmates’ genitals and suggested more discreet camera positioning at one of the prisons. “[I]t is not a mainstream practice to have cameras pointed directly into toilet and shower areas,” the report noted. But Perry claimed re-positioning cameras would “increase the likelihood of assaults taking place, defeating the intent of the law.”
Perhaps the most understandable of Perry’s objections is that while the Prison Rape Elimination Act requires the state to keep prisoners under 18 separate from adults, Texas considers 17-year-olds to be adults, so the two standards conflict. But none of the other nine states that incarcerate 17-year-olds as adults appear to have defied the law, and the separation requirement doesn’t kick in for three years. Just in March, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee held a hearing on raising Texas’ adult prosecution age from 17 to 18. Yet this issue and the alleged gender discrimination problem were the sticking points Perry reiterated in a May 16 letter that was much milder in tone.
Present in the first letter but missing from the second was Perry’s claim that Texas already effectively prevented sexual assault in its prisons. Actually, Texas reports almost four times as many prisoner sexual assaults as the national average, according to a federally-funded study from the JFA Institute. Elizabeth Henneke, an attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, warned at a House hearing that noncompliance could leave the state open to litigation and pointed out that one ex-inmate, who says he was raped at the Travis County Jail, is already suing for $2 million, alleging officials “displayed deliberate indifference to his safety by failing to comply with PREA.”
“Of all the misinformation that Perry puts out there,” Lerner-Kinglake says, “about what the standards require and exaggerating how onerous it is, the most problematic thing is that he tries to paint Texas as having prisons that are increasingly safe for inmates. The data from the federal government does not paint that same picture, and neither does what we [Just Detention International] hear from the inmates themselves… We get tons of letters from inmates who have been sexually assaulted in prison, and a disturbing number of them come from Texas.”
On Tuesday night, a political unknown named Bob Hall upset three-term state Sen. Bob Deuell, a conservative Republican from Greenville, in a GOP runoff. It was one of the least-followed, but most triumphant, victories for the tea party grassroots. But who’s Bob Hall and what does he believe? In speeches and interviews he’s given in the past year—many of them available on YouTube—Hall espouses far-right views, traffics in dark conspiracy theories and expresses a variety of tea-party antipathies.
He doesn’t understand “why the [immigrants] who are coming here want to turn it into a country like where they came from.” He thinks Obama is using public schools for “communist indoctrination.” He thinks bike paths are part of a United Nations plot. He believes a “confederation of states” can nullify federal laws. He thinks Bob Deuell was controlled by Satan.
Thanks to an extremely low turnout, Hall beat Deuell on Tuesday by a scant 300 votes. There’s no Democrat in the race, so come January, Hall will likely represent North Texas in the Texas Senate.
It’s a quick rise to political prominence in a state Hall has lived in for only five years. In 2009, Hall moved from Florida to East Texas, just as the tea party was bursting onto the national scene. A veteran of the Air Force and licensed pilot who’d recently sold his business helping companies secure government contracts, Hall retired with his wife to a quiet community for pilots and aviation enthusiasts near Canton that features a runway and hangars. But then he became politically active, as he’s frequently told tea party groups around the state, when Barack Obama began plunging America into a dark socialist nightmare.
Hall, 71, quickly became an adept organizer and assumed leadership of the Canton Tea Party, one of many active tea party groups in that conservative part of the state. A fan of American and Texas flag shirts, Hall combined his bona fides as a businessman and military veteran with an ability to articulate the many passions of the far right: Agenda 21, CSCOPE, an obsession with debt, anti-immigrant sentiments and a hatred of RINOs and anyone not sufficiently conservative.
Despite railing against lobbyists and special interests on the campaign trail, Hall was largely funded by two PACs loaded with special-interest money. Seventy-five percent of his $314,000 haul came from Empower Texans PAC, which is run by right-wing enforcer Michael Quinn Sullivan and his benefactor Midland oilman Tim Dunn, and the North Texas Conservative Coalition, a PAC largely funded by Carl Westcott, a Dallas developer and entrepreneur.
(Hall did not respond to requests for an interview.)
In the Senate, Hall will join a growing caucus of tea party activists—Donna Campbell of New Braunfels, Don Huffines of Dallas, Van Taylor of Plano, Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills and possibly Konni Burton of Fort Worth, if she beats Democrat Libby Willis this fall—who are redefining what it means to be conservative and taking the state into uncharted political territory.
If there were ever any doubst about the strength of the tea party grassroots in Texas, Hall’s victory over Deuell should lay them to rest. It proved that it’s nigh impossible to be too conservative—or too embracing of the bugaboos of the far right. It proved that it’s not a deal-killer to be accused, as Hall was, of domestic violence or have racked up $165,000 in tax liens over 20 years of unpaid federal taxes. When Deuell made an issue of Hall’s past, Hall told a tea party radio program that “Satan must have a stranglehold on [Deuell].”
Deuell was by no rational calculus a “liberal” or even a “moderate.” As The Texas Tribune’s Ross Ramsey has noted, he was once—just a decade or so ago—considered a “crazy right-winger,” a doctor who opposed abortion even in cases of rape or incest. But, occasionally, he took positions that evidently didn’t square with the grassroots. For example, Deuell championed legislation legalizing clean-needle exchanges for drug addicts, a public health-driven proposal that’s been embraced by at least 30 states.
Hall mocked the idea. “Do they get sick using the needles? Yes they do,” he told a group of voters in Rains County in October. “But do they also get sick by using bad drugs. So is our next step to provide them state-provided drugs so they don’t get bad drugs. The next thing to do is to hand out handguns to bank robbers.”
A bill that Deuell co-sponsored pushing the Texas Department of Transportation to adopt a “complete streets policy” that would give greater emphasis to pedestrians and bicyclists was actually part of a sweeping United Nations plot.
It was “an Agenda 21 issue that would’ve required bicycle paths on all of our highways in Texas,” Hall said.
(No matter that the bill would have done no such thing.)
“Now, folks we built highways for automobiles. Automobiles paid for those highways, and if you’ve been around any communities where they’ve put in the bicycle paths traffic is a nightmare.”
But Hall really took Deuell to task for sponsoring a bill that tried to sort out some very tricky end-of-life issues by balancing the medical judgment of doctors against the rights of patients and their families. The bill actually extended the period of time families could dispute a medical decision to end medical treatment and it was supported by groups like the Texas Medical Association and some pro-life groups, including the Texas Alliance for Life. But Texas Right to Life, an influential and hardline anti-abortion organization that frequently attacks Republicans, protested it as an unconscionable breach of pro-life values. Hall went even further in his campaign.
“If it had passed… it would have codified—that is, made it law in Texas—medical death panels just like you’ll find in Obamacare,” he told a group in Emory. “That’s hard to imagine but it would have.”
It’s hard to find an issue on which Hall doesn’t stake out an extreme right-wing position. But he does have a tiny bit of nuance on secession: He’s against it… but is for the old idea—last advanced during school desegregation—of nullification.
“We have the power of nullification but we don’t use it,” he said at an October candidate forum in Emory. “Instead we go with lawsuits. I think with a confederation of states agreeing to work and doing the same thing we can achieve similar goals.”
On eliminating property taxes: “I think the more we move toward a total consumption tax the fairer it becomes. I think the issue of us renting our property from the government, which is all we’re doing as long as we pay property taxes.”
On immigration: “ think we need to be looking at how we can shut down the candy stores, the attractions that bring them here.”
On immigrants: “The reason America achieved so much in such a short time period was the American exceptionalism. It was not like the countries people came from. It was no Ireland, it was not England, it was not Germany, France, Italy any of these countries. It was America, and as such it offered opportunities they did not have. I don’t understand why the people who are coming here want to turn it into a country like where they came from.”
On Common Core: “It is every bit as bad as CSCOPE or worse. It is true communist indoctrination of our kids, no question about it.”
On Wendy Davis: “The one thing we can hope for is that the message of being the baby killer will resonate with enough people that they won’t buy into it. Those are strong words but that’s exactly what it is.”
On democracy: “I think we’re sliding into Gomorrah… If we do not change what we’re doing by changing the leaders when we go to the ballot box, our children and grandchildren may be having to change their leaders with the ammo box.”
The man who said all that will—thanks to the support of a little more than 3 percent of the voting age population—represent Senate District 2 in the state Senate. He won’t come up for re-election until 2018.
Dr. David Fuller earns $125,000 a year as superintendent of the new C.O.R.E. Academy charter school in Houston. His school has 74 students this year. Do the math: He makes $1,689 per student.
Fuller’s former business partner, Kevin Hicks, earns $248,000 as superintendent of Houston’s Accelerated Intermediate Academy. The charter school, which Fuller and Hicks founded together in 2001, now serves 250 students. $992 per student.
Ollie Hilliard, superintendent of Jamie’s House Charter School in Houston, earns $123,000 to run a school of 131 students—though she may not for much longer. Hers is one of six charters now slated for closure after years of poor performance. In 2001, the state closed another Hilliard project—a residential facility for foster children, also called Jamie’s House—due to health and safety risks. Today, Hilliard makes $939 per student.
Per student, they are the three best-paid charter school superintendents in the state. And though he won’t single them out by name, State Board of Education Vice Chairman Thomas Ratliff says some Texas charters pay their leaders far too much, with little public input to hold them accountable.
Earlier this month, he laid out his concerns in a letter to fellow board members, noting that the 10 best-paid charter school leaders earned $79.74 per student, while the top 10 superintendents at traditional public schools earned $6.39 per student. Ratliff called on the Legislature or the commissioner of education to rein in the top salaries at charter schools:
“I find it ironic that charter schools were supposed to bring free market principals into the education marketplace but they are obviously paying way above free market rates for their superintendents. I would also like to point out that these entities are supposed to be non-profit organizations, but at these salary levels, some people are clearly doing quite well.”
A little more irony: Ratliff’s father, former state Sen. Bill Ratliff, wrote the law that first allowed charter schools in Texas in the mid-’90s.
“I’m not anti-charter,” the younger Ratliff tells the Observer this week. “There are some very good charters and I think there are some kids’ lives that have been saved because of some good charters. But I think the majority of charters are mediocre at best, and they graft off the good press and goodwill from a lot of the best ones.”
Ratliff says what he wants is an honest accounting of how much charter schools spend on their students, and a more open process for setting top administrators’ pay. Each charter school has a board that sets salaries, just like any traditional school district. But most charter board meetings aren’t well publicized or attended, so much of their business happens quietly. Ratliff suggests requiring that half the seats on a charter school board go to parents. “If I’m a parent of a kid in the charter school,” Ratliff says, “and I have a vote on whether to pay our superintendent $250,000 a year for 250 kids, I know how I’m gonna vote every time.”
Partly because charters’ operations can be so opaque, most debate about charter schools tends to treat them like a monolithic group. But the differences from one charter to the next run far deeper than between traditional school districts.
Three more examples:
- Tom Torkelson makes $299,000 a year running the well-respected and growing IDEA Public Schools network, with 15 schools serving 15,535 students. IDEA supplements its state funding with major foundation grants.
- Honors Academy superintendent John Dodd makes $250,000 a year heading a single school in Dallas with 759 students. The state is closing his school for poor performance.
- Westlake Academy Charter School—one of the best schools in the state—serves some of Texas’ poshest neighborhoods, doesn’t provide bus transportation from outside, and supplements its state funding with a $2,000 recommended annual donation from parents. But the school doesn’t pay its superintendent Tom Brymer at all, because he makes his salary as Westlake’s town manager.
As part of the big charter school reforms the Legislature passed last year, charters are now required to post their superintendents’ salaries on their websites. A quick look around shows that many still haven’t done that—but most report their salaries to the Texas Education Agency. An Observer analysis of that data, with some extra reporting to fill in a few gaps, shows that charter superintendents do tend to make more, per student, than their traditional district counterparts:
The Texas Charter Schools Association made a similar analysis of charter superintendent salaries, charting the total number of districts in each salary range. Comparing charters to ISDs that way, says the group’s executive director David Dunn, you’ll see “the distribution among salaries is very similar. … Rather than overreacting to specific cases, you really do need to look at the patterns that are established.”
Overall, charter schools get less money per student than ISDs because they don’t get money for school buildings (a group of charter schools has sued to change that). And, Dunn notes, the state holds charter schools to financial accountability measures that ISDs don’t have.
State Board of Education member Dana Bahorich replied to Ratliff’s note about salaries earlier this month with one of her own, noting that some traditional school districts pay far more than others per student, too. Comparing the median salaries in charter and traditional districts of under 5,000 students, she finds the two sectors aren’t so far off: “about $9,000 for charters and $103,000 for ISDs.”
“There are some variances and outliers in both sectors, but I just don’t see a problem necessitating government regulation over superintendents’ salaries,” she writes, in either charters or traditional schools.
Anyway, says Dunn, nobody’s salary ought to matter as much as whether the schools are helping students. “The key here is outcomes: Are we delivering outcomes for kids, and [do] parents have an opportunity to make choices so they can get he best educational program for their student?”
But Ratliff—who has since fired a second volley of criticism focused on charters’ overall money management—says if more people knew how some charter schools were spending public money, there’d be more of an outcry to fix the system. “I don’t think anybody realizes what kind of money folks are pulling in in these so-called nonprofits,” he says.
We don’t cover an awful lot of Young Adult literature here at the Observer, premature fogeys that (some of us) are, but when we do, we tend to turn to Houston writer/schoolteacher Jennifer Mathieu. Jennifer covered last fall’s Austin Teen Book Festival for us, and then reviewed Austin author P.J. Hoover’s novel Solstice for our 2013 Books Issue. (She also wrote about the aftermath of Hurricane Ike for the magazine back in 2009).
Now Mathieu has her own first YA book hitting shelves. It’s called The Truth About Alice, and Mathieu will debut it at 7 p.m. tomorrow night, Friday, May 30, at Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston.
She’ll also be on a panel of four YA authors at Austin’s BookPeople next month on Friday, June 27.
Go meet Alice, say hi to Jennifer, and tell her the Observer sent ya.
Remember the good old days, before this massively dispiriting election cycle had begun? It was a simpler time. We were as children then, in a land of milk and honey. But time makes fools of us all. We’ve seen each other through hard times—hard, weird times. We’ve grown up, and now is the time to put away childish things. Grave challenges await us.
1) Do you know about Ukraine? You’re one of remarkably few Americans who do. Ukraine—a country so young it qualifies as a Millennial—has always been short on national and social cohesion. It’s being squeezed by a new Russian Empire. Ukraine’s new government is fragile, financially broke, and threatened on both sides by pro-Russian militias and anti-Russian fascists.
They’re holding an election on Sunday, and we’re showing our support. We’re sending election observers—emissaries of the great potential of Democracy, with a capital “D.” A sign of goodwill—that we have this new government’s back. We’re sending our best and our brightest—beacons of the shared values of the liberal democracies of the west. We’re sending Steve Stockman.
— Rep. Steve Stockman (@SteveWorks4You) May 23, 2014
2) Stockman, perhaps the most incompetent congressman in living memory, is leaving his seat after a failed bid to defeat U.S. Sen. John Cornyn. So the voters of Congressional District 36, in southeast Texas, have a heavy responsibility: They have to select a new representative to voice the people’s will in Washington, D.C. Their district includes the Johnson Space Center—our foremost center for manned spaceflight and a critical economic engine—which gives the district’s congressman a unique responsibility to champion the cause of space exploration and federal support for scientific and engineering research, at a time when NASA is in direly in need of direction.
So it seems less than fitting that the two men in a runoff to replace Stockman, former Woodville Mayor Brian Babin and tea partier Ben Streusand, have been arguing primarily over who’s more supportive of homeschooling. (Both homeschooled their kids.) A claim that Babin supports subjecting homeschooled kids to standardized tests—entirely fabricated, he says—has kicked off a mighty frenzy in the last week of campaigning, with both candidates struggling to position themselves as the one who’s supportive of the right to keep your kids out of public schools.
Neither Babin nor Streusand mention the Johnson Space Center—or anything to do with space—on their websites.
3) The Texas Nationalist Movement also have an important responsibility—to educate and promote the next generation of Texas Nationalists. The TNM’s been getting even weirder lately. They’ve appointed a cultural director, pined for the days of noblesse oblige, and have taken to calling each other blueshirts. At times, they can verge on seeming like the beginnings of a far-right or fascist movement—albeit, one without many followers.
With this in mind, perhaps, they’re softening their image—with a youth baseball team.
A group of young baseball players in Bowie Texas are turning the heads of Texas Nationalists. Not only do they play with heart, but they also wear their heart on their sleeves.
Yep! That star is none other than the Texas Nationalist Movement patch.
Speaking of heart, TNM Member Joe Mayfield has sponsored this group in the name of the TNM.
You might see Joe at some events wearing his circa 1836 wardrobe working to recruit members to the TNM and spread the word about our mission and goals, but, come game time, this Texian will be seen at the ballpark cheering on our team.
Did your dad once embarrass you at little league games? Just be glad he wasn’t a secessionist who dressed up like William Barrett Travis.
4) Up in the Metroplex, Chart Westcott, currently in a runoff with Morgan Meyer in Texas House District 108, has been circulating unusual mailers in his increasingly aberrant campaign: tickets to “Morgan Meyer’s Amnesty,” a fun fiesta brought about by Meyer’s plan to “giv[e] every illegal immigrant a ticket to permanent residence,” accompanied by a literal ticket at the bottom: “FREE DE FACTO AMNESTY: Good for any illegal immigrant. Never Expires. No fine print. Bring your friends!”
That’s a great deal—most coupons you get in the mail are worth far less. But if Westcott’s sending out the tickets, isn’t he the one offering amnesty? Kind of makes you think.
5) Speaking of NASA—and of taking responsibility—scientists from the former are holding out the possibility that the collapsing Antarctic ice sheet could guarantee a sea level rise of at least 10 feet, and that’s whether or not we put any more carbon into the atmosphere. (Spoiler: we will put much, much more up there.) That seems pretty—what’s the word I’m looking for here—bad! That seems really bad.
At a recent debate in the lieutenant governor. primary—approximately the 3,769th held—someone got bored of the usual questions and asked one about the climate. And so probable next Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick answered it.
When Galveston is underwater and scuba divers are taking fun offshore jaunts to explore the exciting, forbidden ruins of the Moody Gardens, let this be inscribed on an obelisk somewhere in The Woodlands:
— Morgan Smith (@MorganSmith) May 21, 2014
Remember Philip Eby? No? He’s one of the many candidates this cycle plucked out of obscurity by the constellation of organizations around Midland millionaire Tim Dunn and Michael Quinn Sullivan’s Texans For Fiscal Responsibility/Empower Texans to run in House Districts around the state. Dunn and Sullivan, in their continuing effort to push Texas rightward, want to elect more members of the Texas House who will act as their proxy to boot out current House Speaker Joe Straus. To that end, they’ll support just about anybody.
Eby is their man in House District 58, south of Fort Worth. He doesn’t have much a history of personal or political accomplishment. So perhaps it’s fitting that he’s approached his run for office with the zeal of a man about to lead a cavalry charge on behalf of the Khan:
The truth of the matter is that we’re in a war for conservative principles, and we’ve been losing that war. The question is: why are we losing? I’m tired of losing. I don’t know if y’all are tired of losing, but I’m tired of watching freedom lose every time and tyranny take control.
Sun Tzu said in his classic work, The Art of War, that if you know yourself, and you know your opponent, you will never lose. [...] The question is, who is our opponent? Most people today say that the Democrats are our opponent. And they’re right, they are. But in some ways they’re wrong, also. Our opponent is not a person, or a group. Our opponent is an idea. And that idea is the idea of Collectivism.
In Texas, we’ve been winning for years, as Republicans, yet we’re still losing the battle of conservative values so often. It’s because we have Republicans who are infected by the idea of collectivism.
That’s from a speech Eby gave to a conservative gathering in Bosque County in mid-March. He had just won 40 percent of his primary vote, and was settling into a runoff race against DeWayne Burns, who had won 30 percent. Burns, you might be surprised to learn if you’ve listened to Eby’s speech, is not exactly a Maoist: he’s a rancher who’s worked in a variety of state and local government positions and who happens to be conservative in a slightly different way than Eby is. Nevertheless, the rhetoric, already heated in March, has grown increasingly fire-and-brimstone-like as we head toward next Tuesday’s runoff.
Then, earlier this week, a prominent Eby supporter, Maggie Wright, allegedly slapped Burns’ campaign manager, Joy Davis. And then Eby’s campaign, remarkably, blamed Davis.
Davis and Wright, a local tea party organizer who backs Eby, were outside the polls talking to voters during the first week of early runoff voting, and Eby’s supporters were agitated. The two women found themselves talking to the same unfortunate voter. Davis started talking up the fact that Eby’s received much of his support from statewide groups like Empower Texans. Davis told the Cleburne Times-Review what happened next:
“Maggie said, ‘That’s not true,’ and slapped me on my arm twice,” Davis said. “I backed up, pointed my finger and said, ‘Don’t touch me.’ At that point, she made a face at me, like saying I’m being a baby, and swung a [campaign] sign in my direction and at that point Philip [Eby] had to step in and restrain her.”
The police came, and charged Wright with a Class C misdemeanor. Not exactly a heavy charge, but not nothing, either. For her part, Wright says she “lightly touched Davis on her forearm.”
Then, strangely, Eby doubled down. He released a statement blasting… Davis.
“A Burns campaign staffer initiated an angry confrontation with one of my supporters. There was no assault to speak of,” he said. “The supporter DeWayne Burns is attempting to exploit is a 68-year-old woman and guilty of nothing but working hard for the candidates she supports. I hope DeWayne and his Austin consultants can leave District 58 voters alone, and allow them to decide this race for themselves.”
Eby’s rhetoric can seem unhinged, but this has been an exceptionally negative campaign—on both sides. Burns has been attacked in all the usual ways less-than-far-right candidates in the state are traditionally attacked: an Empower Texans post from March notes his “ties” to “notorious Straus lieutenant [state Rep.] Charlie Geren.” State Rep. Jonathan Stickland came out to the polls on Eby’s behalf Wednesday—a show of post-slapping support .
But somewhat unusually, Burns’ supporters have mounted a robust offensive by going after the proverbial men behind the curtain: Dunn and Sullivan. Here’s a site characterizing Eby’s out-of-district backers as “fringe libertarians and a West Texas billionaire” who want to “buy and control our Texas legislators.”
It’s almost a play out of Empower Texans’ handbook. We’ll see if it works next Tuesday. In the meantime, good people of District 58, keep your hands off each other. And to Philip Eby’s warrior spirit, let us all say: love. Love is all you need.
The residents of the Mexican State of Tamaulipas, Texas’ closest neighbor to the south, have been living under a near constant threat of violence since 2010. That was the year the paramilitary organization Los Zetas splintered from its former partner in crime the Gulf Cartel.
Since then, so many kingpins, plaza bosses and sicarios have been killed by the military or cartel rivals that it’s almost impossible to keep count. But one thing is certain. The death of kingpin “Tony Tormenta” or the arrest of “Z-40” hasn’t made Tamaulipas a more peaceful place. Instead the state of 3.3 million people is experiencing its worst wave of violence since those dark times in 2010 when 72 migrants were massacred in San Fernando and nearly the entire city of Ciudad Mier fled to Texas after living under siege for weeks. In 2010, journalists from Mexico City who came to report on the bloodshed in Tamaulipas were kidnapped and threatened with execution. Many local reporters were killed. After two reporters escaped with their lives and returned to Mexico City their editor in an open letter pronounced the death of press freedom in Tamaulipas.
After that the lights went dark. Most of Mexico’s national media stopped coming and few foreign reporters ever go to Tamaulipas. It’s a tough state to parachute into, because it’s been co-opted for so long by the Gulf Cartel and organized crime. Corruption has flourished for decades and festered. The local police have worked for the cartels for years. The only way any information gets out of Tamaulipas these days is through a dedicated network of citizen reporters sending out short dispatches on Twitter streams like #reynosafollow or through Facebook.
But the most troubling aspect of Tamaulipas’ descent into violence is how a state so rich in hydrocarbons and other natural resources could be so utterly abandoned by Mexico’s political class. That’s why many citizens were buoyed by the news that after weeks of gun battles, bodies in the streets and blockades, Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto announced he had a plan. Last Tuesday, Mexico’s Interior Secretary, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, and top military officials traveled to Reynosa to announce the government’s new strategy to quell the violence. The government will split the state into four parts: two regions controlled by the Army and the other two by the Navy. Each region will have its own federal prosecutor to investigate crimes. Local and state police, which have long been accused of corruption, will be disbanded and replaced by the federal police.
It might sound like progress until you look at what happened in the state of Chihuahua or Michoacan—largely run now by self-defense forces—where Mexico has tried similar military takeovers. Violence and human rights abuses have skyrocketed. In 2009, former President Felipe Calderon sent more than 8,000 soldiers and federal police officers to Juarez to help fight organized crime. But after their arrival, the murder rate spiked, and Juarez became the murder capital of the world. Human rights abuses were rampant and residents fled to other parts of Mexico or to the United States to seek asylum. In the Juarez Valley, which I wrote about in 2012 for the Observer, it was a scorched earth scenario. Many surviving residents blame the military and the federal police for extortion, extrajudicial killings or for standing by as cartel gunmen massacred families and burned down their homes. No law enforcement or military official has been investigated in any of these allegations.
Still, at least we knew about the extrajudicial killings, the human rights abuses and other atrocities because of the fearless Juarez journalists who not only didn’t give up despite the murders of their coworkers, they also helped hundreds of foreign journalists like me access the sources and information we needed to report these tragedies to the world. We can also thank the state’s brave activists and human rights defenders. Tamaulipas has few such journalists or activists. The grip of organized crime is so tight that few journalists or activists can take the risk and speak out.
What our neighbor really needs are strong civic institutions, freedom of the press and the rule of law. These are the most effective weapons against the deep-seated corruption that is fueling the violence and destroying the state. Sadly, President Peña Nieto’s plan to save Tamaulipas doesn’t include any of these key aspects of a healthy democracy. Instead, it’s the old heavy-handed method that so many leaders have tried before. “What Tamaulipas needs is not military occupation but sustainable peace,” says Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, chair of the government department at the University of Texas-Brownsville who has studied this complex border state for years. We should all pay more attention to our neighbor to the south because it points to Mexico’s future. And if we’ve learned anything from the past, we should be deeply concerned.