Back to mobile

Blogs

Rep. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock)
Rep. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock)

Former state Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) earned a reputation as a pragmatic and thoughtful deal-maker and won acclaim for the pivotal role he played in Austin’s sausage factory, so his resignation to become chancellor of the Texas Tech University System caused consternation among some Legislature-watchers. The Texas Senate, having shorn itself of moderate Republicans, and presented with the possibility of Dan Patrick holding the gavel, will tilt away from pragmatism in 2015 whether had Duncan stayed or not. But in a chamber with only 31 members, every new ego counts.

So the race to replace Duncan as Senate District’s 28’s man will be one to watch. District 28, the largest in the state, is a monster, encompassing 50 counties (nearly a fifth of the state) and part of a 51st, where it bulges to include the northwest quadrant of Abilene. Rural in nature, it’s not necessarily fertile ground for the right-wingers who seem set to take other senate seats this cycle—they mostly come from the suburbs of major cities, like Katy or The Woodlands in Houston, or the fringes of the Metroplex.

Low-density West Texas, by contrast, has always been a touch removed from that particular kind of right-wing fervor. Duncan and state Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), whose district stretches from the top of the Panhandle more than 300 miles to Midland-Odessa, tend more toward pragmatism than some of their colleagues. This was largely David Dewhurst country in the recent Republican primary for lt. governor—only a few counties in the district went for Patrick in the first round. Patrick won Lubbock County, the district’s largest population center, by roughly 5 points, much less than his margin of victory in other Texas cities. But in Abilene’s Taylor County and Jones County, Patrick lost to Dewhurst by 10 points and 17 points respectively. And Patrick lost Tom Green County, the home of San Angelo, by almost 25 points.

Nevertheless, there is a tea partier of sorts in the race to replace Duncan—state Rep. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock)—and his well-resourced supporters might make him the most formidable challenger in the race to emerge so far. Perry was part of the freshman tea party class of 2010, and he’s benefited from tens of thousands of dollars in funding from Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility/Accountability First, groups connected to the right-wing money man Tim Dunn, the Midland oilman who’s been trying, with a great deal of success, to remake the state’s political landscape in his image. Perry’s also benefited from the patronage of figures like Jeff Sandefer, tied to the recent UT fight, whose well-heeled family has long been a prominent presence in Abilene.

Unlike other tea party legislators, who relished their position as bomb-throwers, Perry was hugged by the establishment early on and kept a slightly quieter profile. But he still clashed with many in his party on spending issues—he criticized the governor’s proclamations on the use of the rainy day fund, and popped his head over the ramparts last session to try to cap spending on water infrastructure, though that effort failed.

He’ll be a favorite in the race simply because of his access to campaign funds and status as a sitting state rep, but there are a few others in the running. There’s Jodey Arrington, a Texas Tech official and former Bush appointee—among other agencies, he served as COO for the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding, a post-Hurricane Katrina agency. Arrington’s new to electoral politics, but people with his technocratic background generally hue closer to the middle than people like Perry.

There’s also Greg Wortham, the mayor of Sweetwater, a town of some 11,000 just west of Abilene. Mayors, too, are generally more moderate than the tea party crowd (having to actually govern does that to you.) Wortham’s a major supporter of the area’s wind energy industry—he founded the West Texas Wind Energy Consortium, and has been an internationally-recognized face of alternative energy development in the state.

His visibility in the Abilene area might help him, especially since Perry and Arrington are both from Lubbock, another of the district’s population centers. (Two more Lubbock-based pols have expressed a desire to run, though they haven’t yet declared.) But Sweetwater is a small town, and he’ll face plenty of other challenges.

The race in District 28 seems unlikely to produce the kind of right-wing bomb thrower that will be showing up to work next session in better numbers than ever before—but it will still be a hugely consequential election for the state, especially since the victor will be replacing a longtime Senate mainstay.

Fracking equipment near homes in Denton.
Fracking near homes in Denton, TX.

Update 7:45am: Denton voters will decide the fate of fracking in their city come November after the City Council voted against the fracking ban this morning shortly before 3 a.m.

The Council seemed partial to the ban supporters during the hearing, which lasted eight hours, but in the end no one seconded Councilman Kevin Roden’s motion to pass the ban. The members voted 5-2 for a motion to deny passing the ban, so the initiative will now be on the November ballot. Activists had predicted their City Council would not adopt the citizen-led initiative, but the news was still disappointing and folks took to Twitter to say that industry won once again in Texas. We’ll be watching this come November, so stay tuned.

Update 12:42am: Word is there are more than 100 speakers signed up at this point, and we’ve heard from about 80 of them so far. They’re mostly Denton residents who are in favor of changing the city’s drilling ordinance to outlaw fracking; industry representatives appear to be gone for the night.

The testimony is starting to get a little repetitive and Council members are asking less questions. One man with Frack Free Denton called out several Council members, who he says promised to vote for the fracking ban if it went to Council during their respective campaigns. Councilman Greg Johnson clarified that he had promised to support the ban if that’s what Denton residents voted for, but none of the others commented. Smitherman’s letter to Council suggesting Russia’s involvement in the petition has provided ample fodder for jokes throughout the night.

Update 10:04pm: The night began with a string of folks opposed to passing the fracking ban in Denton, and about one-third of the speakers who were registered at the beginning of the hearing have now spoken. We’ve heard from two elected officials and a slew of industry reps, as well as some Denton residents. The City Council has surprised ban supporters by grilling industry representatives on inflated numbers regarding the economic benefits of fracking in Denton, as well as dismissing claims of easy solutions.

The Council is frustrated by the lack of inspection of natural gas wells and insufficient enforcement of regulations that are supposed to ensure companies practice “safe” fracking. At one point, Council Member Jim Engelbrecht asked an industry representative to “do a little ass-kicking” to help regulate fracking and another council member suggested Engelbrecht needed some chocolate. (He later announced he had secured the chocolate.)

Various council members have at different times throughout the night acknowledged the city’s shortcomings in creating an adequate gas drilling ordinance and protecting residents. Denton Mayor Chris Watts—who has been far more sympathetic to ban supporters than Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings was in a similar City Council public hearing in Dallas in December—expressed the Council’s frustration that it had “come to this.”

 

Original: The Denton City Council will consider a proposed ban on fracking tonight, after a group of citizens gathered enough signatures to force a vote. The council will likely kick the decision to voters in November, but that isn’t deterring participation in the public hearing tonight. City officials expect record crowds and have hired additional police officers as security. If the citizen-led initiative eventually passes, Denton will be the first Texas city to impose an outright ban on fracking, though Dallas and Flower Mound have imposed strict setback requirements that have effectively ended fracking in their jurisdictions.

The decision is being closely watched because of its precedent-setting potential. If a city in drilling-friendly Texas—which accounts for one-third of the country’s total natural gas production—can ban fracking, then a city in any other state can do the same. That strikes fear into the hearts of oil and gas producers and heartens environmental activists. Denton sits atop the Barnett Shale and currently has 275 active gas wells within city limits (and an additional 212 wells in its extraterritorial jurisdiction).

In anticipation of tonight’s vote, Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman sent the Denton City Council a letter denouncing the ban. In the four-page letter, Smitherman suggests that Russia may be behind the effort, pointing to reports of Russia “secretly working with environmental groups in Europe.” In an editorial in the Denton Record-Chronicle, the president of the Texas Independent Producers & Royalty Owners Association blamed East and West Coast activists “seeking to slow responsible hydrocarbon development through fear” for the petition.

North Texas drilling-reform activist Sharon Wilson, who helped organize the petition drive, joked that she hasn’t received her check from Russia yet. She said the suggestions of outside influence are insulting to Texans.

“We’re being influenced by our direct experience of living next to fracking,” Wilson said. “The problem that is terrifying industry is that Texans know fracking better than anybody, so if we can’t live with it, nobody is going to be able to live with it.”

If Denton outlaws fracking, it’s possible that at least some of the 19 companies active in the city will sue. After Dallas passed a de facto ban on fracking in December, a company with gas drilling permits sued the city for more than $30 million. The case is ongoing, but opponents point to a protracted legal battle as one of many potentially negative consequences Denton could face if it adopts the ban.

According to a study commissioned by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce released Monday, Denton will lose more than $250 million in economic activity as well as more than 2,000 jobs and $5.1 million in tax revenue over the next 10 years if the city outlaws fracking. The report was conducted by Waco-based Perryman Group, a firm frequently hired by business interests to make their case.

The hearing is set to begin at 6:30 p.m. As of 5:30, at least 79 people had registered to speak. The city expects that upwards of 500 people will attend, so the vote will likely take place well past midnight. We’ll be following via livestream, so stay tuned for updates.

Follow @pmozkeda for updates tonight. 

Support the Texas Observer

radio-logo
This Land Press

Let’s face facts: Magazines can be difficult to read while you’re out and about. Flipping pages on a crowded bus? Forget it. Reading cover to cover on your bike commute? An impossibility. Luckily, there’s a way to get your Observer fix hands-free.

We’ve partnered with This Land Radio (a production of This Land Press) to bring you classic Observer stories repackaged in a pleasant audio format. The first to roll out is “Walmart, I Can’t Quit You” by Joe R. Lansdale and originally published in 2010.

When This Land Radio produces more audio Observer stories, we’ll link to them here. In the meantime, check out This Land Press on SoundCloud for more audio goodness.

Migrantchildren
Eugenio del Bosque

While fears of immigrant children carrying disease persist, public health experts on the front lines offer reasons for calm.

The Dallas Morning News reported over the weekend that “the likelihood of [these kids] spreading disease is low.” The story cited health officials who have documented just three cases of flu, three cases of tuberculosis, and 23 cases of chickenpox among the 57,000 children detained in Texas.

This report comes while Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins—acting on his idea that “in Texas, we don’t turn our back on children”—prepares his county to receive 2,000 unaccompanied migrant kids.

The physicians and state health officials interviewed by the Morning News emphasized the same message that the Observer reported last week: The Central American kids streaming across the border pose very little threat to the health of Texans. They do need medical care—mostly for the fatigue, dehydration and twisted ankles that have resulted from their journey.

As the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has repeatedly emphasized, each child receives a screening for infectious disease.

Texas Department of State Health Services spokesperson Carrie Williams told the Morning News that health risks in the detention facilities spring mostly from “the lack of hand-washing facilities.” The occasional cases of lice and scabies, which have excited the ire of a Border Patrol union, do not seem to impress the medical professionals much.

Astute readers will have noted that chickenpox (also known as varicella) is in fact a vaccine-preventable disease. In 1995, the U.S. became the first country to recommend universal vaccination against chickenpox, which is typically a mild disease. (I had it. You probably had it. Serious complications are rare enough that many American physicians questioned whether vaccinating against varicella was worth the trouble.)

Since the mid-’90s, only a handful of nations have adopted universal varicella vaccination. In developing countries that face more pressing health issues, it wouldn’t be cost-effective. Agencies like the World Health Organization and UNICEF don’t include rates of varicella vaccination in their worldwide reports, because it’s not a global health priority.

In tropical regions such as Central America, chickenpox tends to occur more in teenagers and adults, rather than exclusively in young kids. That’s another factor in these few cases at the border: Kids from a temperate region might’ve already had chickenpox; many kids from Central America are still “immunologically naive”—that is, they haven’t been exposed to the virus.

But please don’t flip out, Internet. Most Americans are immune to this pox, thanks to vaccination or prior infection. Here in Texas, 90 percent of kids are vaccinated against varicella by age 3, according to the Department of State Health Services.

Like lice and scabies, chickenpox spreads more quickly in crowded and unsanitary conditions. The refugee kids who get chickenpox are likely to be itchy and miserable—and quarantined—for a couple of weeks, until the virus subsides.

If we want to spare them that ordeal, adequate hand-washing facilities in the detention centers might be a good place to start. We could also offer the children prompt varicella vaccination, as a recently published article in the journal International Health recommends. We should also move kids quickly from detention centers into the safety of families.

I’ll be the first to admit that the Texas medical system has its problems. But if the biggest “health threats” these kids from Central America bring are head lice, some twisted ankles and 23 cases of chickenpox, well, Texas can handle that.

Support the Texas Observer

Broadsword-Student-Advantage

Predatory student loan services are on notice this week after Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed lawsuits against two “scam operations that prey on student loan borrowers.” It’s the first lawsuit of its kind, and one of Madigan’s targets is Carrollton-based Broadsword Student Advantage.

Broadsword uses radio ads and other marketing tools to lure potential customers to its loan repayment services, capitalizing on a growing demand—the nation’s climbing student loan debt has tripled in a decade, and surpassed the $1 trillion mark two years ago. Broadsword is part of a new world of debt settlement firms, which promise to lower monthly payments in exchange for up-front fees, getting into the student loan business.

Some loan repayment services are already available for free through the U.S. Department of Education, but Broadsword claims that people are “turned off by its complexities and paperwork.” Instead, Broadsword and other loan repayment businesses charge high upfront charges and monthly fees to process loan repayments.

According to the lawsuit, Broadsword ads target specific professionals with claims that their loans can be forgiven:

“Attention teachers, nurses, social workers, government employees, police officers, and firefighters if you’re still paying on student loans get ready for a special announcement. Your entire student loan can be forgiven. You heard correctly. Broadsword Student Advantage has free information on how you could potentially have the remaining balance on your student loan debt forgiven.”

Madigan’s suit says that these ads, along with Broadsword’s domain www.getforgiven.org, are a violation of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act.

The domain appears to be a “source for consumers to obtain student loan debt forgiveness,” according to the lawsuit. In fact, student loan forgiveness is a federal program through the Department of Education with specific requirements. Broadsword doesn’t inform its consumers of these requirements, either, the suit claims.

In one instance described in the complaint, a public school teacher in Illinois called Broadsword after hearing a radio ad. She was pressured into giving her bank account number so the company could debit $499 for services (though the company’s ads claims it offers free information). After being told she qualified for loan forgiveness, the teacher found out several months (and $898.60 later) that her job as a teacher made her ineligible for loan forgiveness.

The lawsuit also alleges that Broadsword and its affiliates try to get power of attorney from their customers so the company can file documents, get information and even intercept communication from the loan servicer to the borrower.

When customers are charged for Broadsword’s services, they are billed by a separate financial planning firm called Affordable Life Plans. This company shares an address and phone number with Broadsword, and its About Us page includes the Bible verse “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

The lawsuit included complaints from people who hadn’t signed up with Affordable Life Plans, or gotten any financial advice beyond the loan service, yet were billed by Affordable Life Plans—possibly to minimize Broadsword’s risk. “Defendants are directing fees to Affordable Life Plans as a subterfuge in an attempt to escape liability for offering student loan debt relief services in violation of the Illinois Debt Settlement Act,” the lawsuit states.

Broadsword Student Advantage, LLC, was organized in August 2012 by its president, Kenneth L. Talbert, the man behind other financial firms like EFA Processing (a debt settlement company), DebtXS, Eckity Capital Markets, Safeguard Capital and CocoaLife of Texas, to name a few. Talbert’s interconnected business entities have been scrutinized before, and he’s been compared to Bernie Madoff by a former employee for his debt settlement business.

If the court finds Broadsword intended to defraud its customers, the firm could be charged a civil penalty up to $50,000 per violation. Broadsword didn’t return the Observer’s requests for comment.

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams
Patrick Michels
Michael L. Williams speaks at the Texas Charter Schools Association annual conference in Austin, Tex.

When the State Board of Education reconvenes in Austin this week, a few members will have some choice words for Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams, who surprised many by approving a charter school over the board’s veto—something board members weren’t aware he could do.

Last December, the SBOE voted 9-6 to veto a bid by the Arizona-based charter school chain Great Hearts Academies to open four campuses in North Texas. Dallas Democrat Mavis Knight had pointed out that the chain’s campuses in the Phoenix area have much whiter, more affluent student bodies than nearby public schools. State Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth) had also complained that Great Hearts hadn’t told school districts in North Texas of its plans, as Texas requires applicants to do.

It was the first test for a system the Legislature created last year, which put charter approvals in the hands of the education commissioner and left the SBOE with only the power to veto his picks. Great Hearts was the only school the board voted to block.

But as the Texas Tribune‘s Morgan Smith reported early this month, Williams found a way around the board’s veto anyway, by waiving a handful of rules and letting Great Hearts grow from one San Antonio campus—which hasn’t yet opened—to add new campuses in North Texas without SBOE approval. Knight complained she was blindsided by Williams’ decision. Thomas Ratliff, a Republican board member from Mount Pleasant, said Williams’ move “flies in the face of legislative intent.”

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram‘s editorial board was also critical of Williams’ method:

In granting Great Hearts a waiver, Williams may have been acting within the recently expanded bounds of his authority.

But that doesn’t instill confidence in the approval process, nor do any favors for the charter school movement.

The more general concern here is about whether charter schools are being held accountable for the public money they receive. Senate Bill 2 last year—the bill that reshaped the approval process—was meant to tighten accountability by making it easier to close lousy charter schools. But in approving Great Hearts’ expansion, Williams waived rules requiring schools to perform well before the state lets them expand. Board members who voted against Great Hearts last year wonder why the school is getting such special treatment.

Great Hearts was one of a handful of charter networks wooed to San Antonio from outside Texas in 2012, under an initiative called Choose to Succeed funded by local civic boosters. Great Hearts will open its first San Antonio campus this fall, and its website advertises nine potential campuses in North Texas, plus more in Austin and Houston to open as soon as 2017. Great Hearts advertises a “traditional liberal arts education” and high scores on college entrance exams and Arizona state tests. But those scores are significantly higher at Great Hearts’ suburban Phoenix campuses where students are more affluent and mostly white.

Knight tells the Observer there’s no way to know how well Great Hearts will perform with a more diverse group of students in Texas. And she’s worried that Texas is privileging slickly marketed, out-of-state charters over local, community-grown schools. “I just think we have opened the flood gates for out-of-state charters with this decision,” she says. “I don’t see an even opportunity for our locally grown charter schools, versus these out-of-state charters who seem to have all of their needs accommodated.” Though Knight can’t be sure what’s behind Williams’ decision, she has some ideas.

In early June—weeks before Williams reversed the board’s veto—Great Hearts hired Rick Perry’s former chief of staff Ray Sullivan to lobby for them in Texas. And late last year, according to the Tribune, board member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville) said he’d been surprised to to get a call from the governor’s office wondering how he planned to vote on Great Hearts. In its expansion bids, the chain seems capable of calling in quite a bit of political firepower. Texas is no exception.

In 2012, Republican leaders in Tennessee engaged in a nasty, drawn-out fight with Nashville’s school board. Although  state leaders insisted the school be approved, the local board rejected Great Hearts’ bid to expand into the city, sticking to that decision even after the state withheld $3.4 million in transportation and utilities funding. In Nashville, as in Texas, critics had worried Great Hearts would locate in wealthy neighborhoods far from the city’s worst-off schools.

And in Arizona, where the school began in 2004, Great Hearts expanded quickly under a board led by Jay Heiler, a well-connected operative in state politics and media who’s defended Senate Bill 1070—Arizona’s infamous immigration crackdown law—supported private school vouchers and agitated against proposals to boost public school funding. Heiler also did a stint on the board of the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix think tank similar to the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Goldwater advances conservative political causes at the state level and is backed by well-known corporations and the Koch brothers.

“I think that this situation leads to a very uncomfortable precedent,” says SBOE member Marisa Perez (D-San Antonio). “The voice of the communities, by way of state board members elected by the communities, is basically meaningless.” Perez says Williams and the Texas Education Agency need to be clearer about their rules—a point she plans to make at this week’s board’s meetings, which begin Tuesday.

Knight, too, hopes TEA can clarify just how the decision to override the board’s veto can be justified. She hopes TEA’s general counsel David Anderson can help answer how much power the board really has to block charters.

“In the absence of any detailed conversation with the commissioner about why [Williams] made his decision,” Knight says, “it appears to me that Great Hearts is very powerfully politically connected. I have said to them that they need to stand on their own skill sets as opposed to their political connections.”

The Trouble with TribTalk

Trib Talk logo

The tens of Texans who’ve been waiting with bated breath to read Republican Congressman Steve “If babies had guns, they wouldn’t be aborted” Stockman’s ever-developing thoughts on the virtual currency Bitcoin finally exhaled in May, when Stockman took to the pixeled pages of The Texas Tribune’s new op-ed offshoot, TribTalk, to chastise the federal government for its “costly, job-killing” approach to taxing the modern libertarian’s favorite legal-ish tender.

TribTalk bills itself as “an op-ed page for the 21st century” and purports to provide “pointed, provocative perspectives” on a wide range of issues affecting Texans.

The site has so far featured columns from Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, Republican lieutenant governor candidate Dan Patrick and sitting Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst alongside a host of lesser-known strategists, lobbyists and campaign veterans. Columnists aren’t compensated by the Tribune, though some must certainly be recruited in pursuit of a predictable pairing of counter-perspectives on almost every issue—whether those perspectives are warranted by good sense, good science, or even good conscience.

TribTalk also invites reader submissions and offers “paid placement,” $2,500-a-pop sponsored content marked on the site by a differentiated background color. Plain old ads start at $12,500.

This latest Tribune venture may be a 21st-century op-ed page, but it’s hardly an innovation. It perpetuates a top-down model of discourse that privileges the privileged and lends credibility to the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz, who’s already used TribTalk to decry the influence of “big donors” on energy policy.

In a post-Citizens United America, where the political conversation is increasingly dominated by voices best able to buy the highest-ranking ears, and struggling publications lean on hyped-up headlines and thinly veiled advertorials, TribTalk so far looks like a Huffington Post-wannabe more concerned with clicks than content.

Smart reporting from the Tribune’s hyper-focused beat journalists keeps our state’s storied dailies on their toes, but TribTalk merely engenders horse-race political writing. A verifiable crackpot like LaRouche Democrat Kesha Rogers can enjoy a byline alongside outgoing University of Texas Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis.

The obvious rejoinder is that hey, it’s just an op-ed page. The Tribune isn’t endorsing John Cornyn’s laughable support for a racist voter ID law that a federal court declared was expressly intended to disenfranchise minority voters, and TribTalk certainly does publish a bipartisan array of views. And yes, it clearly labels its “paid placement” content.

But the Tribune can’t have it both ways. Either politicos and institutional gatekeepers want to be published in TribTalk because it is valuable media real estate under the imprint of a rising name in Texas journalism, or it’s a free-for-all (er, free-for-some) blog with no editorial oversight and no meaningful connection between its brand and its bylines.

I suspect that the Tribune would like to see TribTalk as the former. Indeed, in its own “paid placement” guidelines, the Tribune reserves the right to “refuse publication of any content that undermines the integrity of its brand.”

TribTalk simultaneously asks too much and expects too little of a readership that appreciates the Tribune’s ostensible non-partisanship. TribTalk lets its deeply biased writers float untethered from political reality in what feels like a bizarre attempt to act as a somehow objective clearinghouse for unbridled partisan posturing. Republican campaign veteran Ray Sullivan is billed as a “political consultant.” Liberal gadfly Harold Cook is identified as a “public affairs consultant.” A couple of clicks will take readers into more detail—Cook is a Democratic commentator and Sullivan worked as a spokesman for Bush-Cheney and later Rick Perry—but there’s no reason not to be more initially forthcoming, particularly on a web platform without the printed page’s space limitations.

If TribTalk wants to be taken seriously, it might start by applying its “paid placement” guidelines to its unpaid content, vetting its submissions more thoughtfully, increasing transparency and soliciting opinions with real teeth, rather than simply curating a click-bait puppet show.

Unless, that is, TribTalk wants to be known as the kind of place readers turn to for Steve Stockman’s thoughts about Bitcoin.    

Support the Texas Observer

Andrea Grimes
Jen Reel
Andrea Grimes

When we began reinventing the then-biweekly newsprint Texas Observer in 2010 as a glossy-paged monthly magazine, a passel of new columnists was core to the redesign. The first on board was Bill Minutaglio.

Bill was a relative newcomer to the Observer’s pages, but by the time of his inaugural column, in the Jan. 22, 2010 issue, he was already an oddly youthful èminence grise in Texas journalism circles, having worked at dailies in Abilene, Houston, San Antonio and Dallas, not to mention staff and stringer stints at top-shelf national outlets too numerous to mention. Nobody knew the ins and outs of the business more intimately, few practiced it more conscientiously, and from his perch as a journalism professor at the University of Texas, few were better positioned to watch the trade’s future scrolling across the transom. The fruits of his experience and insight have graced Bill’s State of the Media column since 2010. 

Until now. Bill has decided to turn his attention to scripts, screenplays and other projects piled up in his perpetually overstuffed pipeline, and if we can’t say we’re surprised, we’re certainly sorry to see him go. We’ve frankly never understood how Bill found the time to teach, write books, serve as a go-to bullshit detector for the national press corps on all topics Texas, and write a monthly column for this magazine, all the while sending us a steady stream of well-trained interns and acting as an on-call reference desk whenever some Observer reporter or frazzled editor needed a pointer to a source or a refresher on how—and why—to do what we do. 

So it’s with great gratitude that we want to acknowledge Bill’s departure from the State of the Media desk after the better part of five years.

“It was an honor to launch this column,” Bill writes. “The media needs watching, and thank goodness the Observer will continue to watch it.”

Indeed we will. Even as we bid Bill a fond adios—(fond and partial, since we fully expect to continue benefitting from his reporting and writing in other contexts)—we say hello to Andrea Grimes, a young Austin writer who’s been making her name not in the state’s legacy daily newspapers but online. Andrea is a former editor of Eater Austin, a former staff writer at the Dallas Observer, an occasional stand-up comedian, a senior political reporter with  RHRealityCheck.org, and the whip-smart human behind the indispensable Twitter handle @andreagrimes. We’re excited to invite you to follow along as she guides the State of the Media column down its next new path.  

Stare into the Oops, and the Oops stares also into you.
Twitter — @kat_deville
Stare into the Oops, and the Oops stares also into you.

Our great state’s recent surge of OTM UACs—that’s Other Than Mexican Unaccompanied Alien Children, in the lovely, humanizing vernacular of our Border Patrol—has thrown our great state into disarray. We face a moral crisis, and the future of millions is at stake. Trapped by circumstances that cannot be controlled, thrown into the lion’s den of public attention, the subject of this crisis desperately tries to be recognized as human while navigating a system seemingly beyond his understanding. I’m talking, of course, about Rick Perry.

1) Rick Perry would like to be president. Did you know this? For much of the last week, he’s been determined to show how very serious he is about cracking down on the flood of refugee children, and by showing how very, very serious he is, so serious that he will very often be frowning in the relevant pictures, he will show how unserious people from Washington, D.C. are. In 2014, this is as good a way as any to win the Republican nomination for president.

As a way of showing how serious he is, Perry spent much of the last two weeks arguing with Obama about how and when he would meet with POTUS to have his picture taken, where he would be sure to look very serious and grave. After a lengthy bout of sparring over the photo op, during which Perry accused Obama many times of not taking the crisis seriously, at least, not seriously enough to do a photo op with Perry on his terms, Obama consented to meet briefly with Perry and a number of local elected officials, in what appears to be the fallout bunker of an airport-adjacent Radisson. During the meeting Perry frowned, and the rest is history.

Perhaps unhappy to have been taken un-seriously when he had hoped to be taken seriously, Perry donned Terminator sunglasses and body armor and went on a pleasure cruise with Sean Hannity along the Rio Grande. Surely he would be taken seriously here. This was, after all, a boat with machine guns, which are very cool, very serious and very masculine. Here was the solution to the crisis: These rad machine guns could make short work of the teen refugees.

Unfortunately, in much of the reporting, Perry was upstaged by the boat.

“The Texas boats looked badass,” one law enforcement officer told The Blaze.

Despite his social media travails, Perry won the crisis. In fact, you could say that nothing has been better for his presidential hopes than the sudden arrival of tens of thousands of afraid, abused, and disoriented Central American teenagers. We know this because of the verdict rendered by BuzzFeed. Their writeup of the last few days was called “Republicans Are Super Excited Rick Perry Is Back,” and its subhed was: “The border crisis is giving the Texas governor the chance to look serious.”

The thousands of undocumented immigrants crossing into the United States in recent months, and Perry’s perch as the top executive in Texas, have given him the opportunity to be out in front on an issue he knows well: the border.

Several people close to Perry insist his response to the border crisis involves no political calculation at all, and that he would be doing the exact same things were he not seriously toying with a 2016 run.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Ok man!

2) In the race to replace Rick, it was the best of times and the worst of times. Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott stumbled into an actual issue to fight about for the first time in a while—whether or not the placement of dangerous chemical stockpiles should be on the public record. As an issue, it’s not, you know, health care or immigration or education, but after the ammonium nitrate explosion in West leveled half a town, that seems important.

As attorney general, Abbott acted to hide that information from the public, then issues a series of increasingly hilarious proclamations about why it wasn’t a big deal. Flustered, he finally came up with a reason:

Yes, terrorism. He’s the only one fighting it, while Davis stands aside, ladylike. Does Davis support terrorism? We can’t be sure. You may object that there has been a relative paucity of terrorist attacks in Texas lately, and a number of actual chemical disasters, but the absence of evidence, of course, is not evidence of absence. If the al-Dawlah al-Islāmīyah fī al-ʻIrāq wa-al-Shām start throwing around pipe bombs near the Houston Ship Channel, you’ll sorely regret your cynicism on this point.

Abbott ends his editorial in the San Antonio Express-News by urging Texans to do “all we can to protect the memories of the men and women who died in West.” A noble sentiment! Abbott, in his own unique way, is fulfilling that civic responsibility by making sure the victims of the next chemical disaster are less aware of the thing that will kill them. Thanks, Greg!

Of course, in the interest of fair reporting, I feel I must disclose that this is not the first time that Davis has been accused of palling around with terrorists.

3) Abbott wasn’t the only gubernatorial candidate campaigning gubernatorially this week: Davis also did that. Are you on the Davis campaign’s mailing list? You have never received email until you’ve received email from the Davis campaign. Like arrows from an infinite army of political communications majors, so numerous are they that they block out the sun, forcing reporters to write in the shade.

With so many of them, it’s understandable that a few of them fall short of hard-hitting indictments of the status quo. This week, the Davis campaign hit Abbott over the failure of Texas to win … the 2016 Republican National Convention, which had named Dallas as a finalist.

Fort Worth- Today, Davis campaign spokesman Zac Petkanas issued the following statement:

“A major role of the governor is to attract conventions, tourism and business to the state of Texas in order to create good paying jobs and boost the economy. Despite his begging, Greg Abbott was unable to deliver the Republican National Convention to Dallas. It’s unfortunate because this is one of Greg Abbott’s insider backroom deals Texas families could have really used.”

Set aside the fact that this is a weird thing to pin on Abbott, and the idea that the Davis campaign is sanctifying Perry’s approach to the governorship as Texas’ concierge, and the idea that Abbott is bad because he’s not enough of an insider.

It’s certainly true that a major convention would have boosted Dallas’ economy, but I find myself wondering about these “Texas families” who were pining away for the national GOP convention. Are they traveling political button-sellers? Do they enjoy terrible traffic? Is proximity to national politicians the unstable emotional foundation of their family units? I feel like they have deeper problems—problems that the convention alone can’t fix. Spare a moment in your thoughts for the Metroplex sons and daughters whose parents were hoping to keep it together long enough to see Marco Rubio do a meet-and-greet in Deep Ellum.

1 5 6 7 8 9 266