Eugenio del Bosque
Unaccompanied children waiting in a Mexican social service office

A majority of the unaccompanied Mexican and Central American children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border should qualify for political asylum, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ office, which released a report Wednesday on the growing humanitarian crisis.

“There is an alarming number of children seeking asylum. The U.S. government estimates this year there could be as many as 60,000 children in federal custody,” said Leslie Velez, a lead author of the new UNHCR report “Children on the Run,” released by the agency’s Washington, D.C., office, which covers the United States and the Caribbean.

Velez, in a conference call with reporters, said the “surge” of children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without a parent or adult guardian began in 2011, and mirrors a sharp increase of adult U.S. asylum claims from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico that rose from 5,369 in 2009 to 36,174 in 2013. The growing humanitarian crisis is also affecting countries besides the United States. Neighboring Central American countries like Costa Rica and Nicaragua have seen a 432 percent increase in asylum claims, according to the report.

The number of U.S. immigration apprehensions of unaccompanied children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras has risen sharply from 4,059 in 2011 to 21,537 in 2013, and the majority of them cross the Texas-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley, the shortest route from Central America into the U.S. Local and state authorities and advocates have struggled to provide resources and beds for all of the children arriving in Texas. In 2012, children were briefly sent to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio to be housed in dormitories until additional shelters could be found.

The agency also interviewed unaccompanied minors from Mexico, and found that the number of Mexican children apprehended has also increased from 13,000 in 2011 to 18,754 in 2013. As I reported in the 2010 Observer story “Children of the Exodus,” Mexican children traveling alone are treated differently by U.S. immigration officials than Central American children. Instead of being screened and interviewed by U.S. Border Patrol agents, to see whether they qualify for asylum—as required by a congressional mandate—children are often returned to the nearest Mexican border city within 24 hours.

Velez said it was the U.N.’s task to document the reasons children are fleeing their homes in an unprecedented number. Velez said the agency interviewed 404 children from the four countries and found that pervasive violence and the inability of the state to provide security for its citizens were primary reasons for fleeing their countries. “At least 83 percent of the children had more than one reason for leaving,” she said.

The study’s authors said 72 percent of the children they interviewed from El Salvador qualified for “international protection,” (meaning possible asylum), the highest rate of any country. Children cited organized crime and gang violence as their primary reasons for fleeing El Salvador.

At least 48 percent of the Guatemalan children interviewed were indigenous, and they cited deprivation (poverty), violence at home and in society as their main reasons for leaving the country. At least 38 percent of Guatemalan children “raised international protection concerns,” according to the UNHRC.

Children from Honduras, like El Salvador, cited organized crime and pervasive violence in their country as primary reasons for leaving, and at least 57 percent of them raised international protection concerns, according to the report.

Findings from interviews with Mexican children were especially striking, according to the report. At least 64 percent of the children interviewed raised “international protection” concerns. And at least 38 percent of the children said they had been recruited by organized crime to be used in human trafficking “precisely because of their age and vulnerability,” according to the report. As I wrote in 2010 in “Children of the Exodus,” Mexican children are often used by organized crime for everything from drug smuggling to guiding immigrants through U.S. ranch lands, because if they are arrested they will be deported immediately back to Mexico. These children are powerless to defend themselves and often are intimidated and forced to participate in criminal activity.

In the report, the UNHCR asks that Central American countries, Mexico and the United States acknowledge that violence and insecurity are fueling the displacement of thousands of children and creating the humanitarian crisis. To help these displaced children, the agency recommends better asylum screening, and new or stronger laws to protect unaccompanied children.

US Representative Ralph Hall, right, with Governor Rick Perry
US Representative Ralph Hall, right, with Governor Rick Perry

While Senator John Cornyn and U.S. Representative Pete Sessions (R-Dallas) may have handily beat their primary challengers, one congressional incumbent wasn’t so lucky—U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Rockwall) was forced into a runoff with John Ratcliffe, a former U.S. attorney and former mayor of Heath, Texas. There are several signs Ratcliffe’s challenge is picking up momentum—the latest being the endorsement of state Representative Jodie Laubenberg (R-Parker).

The runoff is notable because of one characteristic the 90-year-old Hall shares with other members of the Texas congressional delegation—his advanced age. Hall is the oldest member of the U.S. House, and to call him a veteran of Texas politics would be an understatement. An aircraft carrier pilot in World War II and a Democrat for more than a half-century, Hall won a seat in the Texas Senate in 1962. In 1972, he ran in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor.

He won a seat in Congress in 1980, then switched parties in 2004. After that, his grip on the seat was a little more tenuous. He’s one of the last of the old-school conservative Texas Democratic establishment to hang around, even if he’s no longer with his original party. Ever since his switch, he’s had increasing trouble with his electoral prospects—but he’s never had to survive a runoff until now.

Ralph Hall, left, and Ronald Reagan
Ralph Hall, left, and Ronald Reagan

Those who switch parties often have trouble winning over their new base. It’s not that Hall was ever a liberal—he was one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress for many years. But he’s seemed ill at ease with new tendencies and trends in the conservative base, which often demand rhetorical stances that require a nuanced understanding of the base to perform. A few weeks ago, he called for House Speaker John Boehner to resign. That’s something many conservatives may want, but Hall’s call seemed particularly unsubtle—impolitic.

But Hall’s trouble now is more due to his age than anything else—he’d told his constituents he’d step down after his next term, but apparently that wasn’t soon enough for some. Enter Ratcliffe, 48, a handsome former mayor and George W. Bush appointee. He’s got a photogenic family and a good resumé. Unable, thanks to societal conventions, to simply call Hall too grey to be an effective congressman, he’s tried to be indirect about it—but not too indirect. He kicked off his final pre-primary push by completing a 5k fun run, highlighting his vigor.

As is often the case with longtime incumbents, what Hall had going for him is momentum. No citizen born after 1962, who grew up and lived in Hall’s district, had ever cast a vote in an election where Hall stood a chance of losing. At a certain point, that kind of incumbency becomes fiefdom. But when a credible challenger asserts themselves, that support can fall away rather quickly.

Yesterday, state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg endorsed Ratcliffe. It would be surprising if she was acting without the knowledge that others would follow. In remarks to the Dallas Morning News, Laubenberg again used the coded language everyone’s been using to refer to Hall’s age. Ratcliffe, she said, was able to face “the new threat to our liberty,” and “will step up to defend liberty for this generation.”

Hall is quite a bit older than—well, than just about anybody in the House of Representatives. But he’s not the only Texas congressman on the grey side. Among the 2011-2013 congressional class, the average age of a Republican representative was 54.9. It was the oldest Congress in our nation’s history. But the average age of a member of the Texas GOP congressional delegation is 63. That might not sound that old, but consider members of the Texas congressional delegation: Sam Johnson (R-Plano) is 83; John Carter (R-Round Rock) is 72; and Kay Granger (R-Fort Worth) is a spritely 71.

Texas’ one-party nature has meant, for many incumbents, less competition and more secure paychecks. But there’s a lot of young conservative political prospects out there—and a restless conservative base—who want new leadership, and representation in tune with their particular concerns. Hall, 90, may be an outlier, but there are others who may find challengers like Ratcliffe gain unexpected traction in future election cycles.

Patrick Michels
Joe Straus

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the embattled corporate-funded group that pairs lawmakers with special interests to write legislation in secret, is coming to Texas, and Joe Straus is helping to throw a “welcome party.”

ALEC is holding its annual meeting in Dallas this year from July 30 to August 1. In a letter composed on ALEC letterhead obtained by the Observer, Straus—the speaker of the Texas House often celebrated for his relative moderation—and other Republican lawmakers ask potential donors to attend a meeting at the exclusive Austin Club on April 1 to help plan a “Welcome party to kick off the conference.” The letter is signed by Straus, state Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills), Rep. Jodie Laubenberg (R-Parker) and Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford), who is the first vice-chair of ALEC.

ALEC and the legislators present an array of “sponsorship” opportunities”—from the $5,000 Jim Bowie Level to the $50,000 William B. Travis Level—and make clear that donors will receive access in exchange. (Curiously, Sam Houston, who is by far a more important figure in the Texas Revolution than Travis, receives lower billing at the $25,000 level.)

“The reception provides an excellent networking opportunity for state legislators, industry leaders and policy experts,” the document states. At the $50,000 level, donors are promised, among other perks, “five invitations to VIP events, including the Leadership Reception and Dinner.”

The documents direct recipients to Doner Fundraising, an Austin-based firm that’s consulted for a variety of Republican candidates. The firm is apparently casting a wide net, sending the invitation to a variety of progressive groups, including the Center for Public Policy Priorities and the Texas League of Conservation Voters.

“They’re losing money, so I’m not surprised ALEC would come to Texas to try and hide from the national notoriety and bad press of recent years,” said Phillip Martin of Progress Texas, a Democratic-affiliated group that has dogged ALEC.

ALEC suffered an exodus of members and donors last year following revelations that the organization had promoted the Florida “stand your ground” law that figured prominently in the Trayvon Martin killing. The Guardian reported in December that ALEC had hemorrhaged more than 400 legislators and 60 corporate funders, plunging the organization into financial crisis. Among the legislators quitting the group was Straus lieutenant Rep. Jim Keffer, an Eastland Republican who just pulled through a tough primary challenge against a tea party opponent.

Straus is generally considered one of the few bulwarks in state government against tea party excesses. Why would he join forces with ALEC?

His spokesman, former journalist Jason Embry, wouldn’t comment, saying only that Straus is not a member of ALEC. Of course, it helps to have powerful and wealthy friends when the peasants are at the castle gate.

Raymond Crawford
Raymond Crawford

Last December the city of Dallas passed a ban on oil and gas drilling. If that seems like an uncharacteristic move for a city sitting tantalizingly above the oil-and-gas-rich Barnett Shale, it’s because grassroots activists drowned out the industry. The anti-drilling forces were led by Raymond Crawford, a soft-spoken native Texan who fought City Hall to keep gas rigs out of his neighbors’ backyards.

“It was just one of those things that spoke to me, and I can’t really explain that … without getting spiritual,” Crawford said. “Sometimes opportunities present themselves, and I decided to walk through that door.” The city ordinance, passed by the Dallas City Council with a two-thirds majority, requires a 1,500-foot set back between a residence and a drilling rig.

Crawford, 53, lives with his domestic partner in the southwest Dallas home his parents built. Crawford’s odyssey in fighting to keep big oil and gas at bay began with an email.

A friend sent him a note in 2010 warning him that the oil and gas industry, which uses hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to tap oil and natural gas deep in the earth with a mixture of high-pressure water and chemicals, was eyeing drilling permits within city limits.

At the time, Crawford put the email aside, ambivalent about its implications. He is far from a policy wonk: Crawford runs a successful needlepoint design business out of his home and makes his rounds at trunk shows. “I was raised conservative Christian, but we always watched the news and read the paper,” Crawford said. “Our family was kind of social, but we weren’t political by any means.”

Crawford started the grassroots campaign Dallas Area Residents for Responsible Drilling in 2011 after he watched an anti-fracking documentary and realized what could transpire if the issue went unaddressed by Dallas’ citizenry, which was at the time largely unaware that gas companies wanted to encroach on residential areas. “I said, ‘Oh my God, this is coming to my city, close to my neighborhood,’” Crawford said, when it “clicked” that fracking in Dallas could become a reality.

Every movement needs a leader, and locals rallied behind Crawford in droves when he organized town hall meetings to educate neighbors about the noise, fumes, decreased property value and other potential harms a fracking operation only a few hundred feet from a house could bring.

“I consider [Crawford] to be the father of the anti-fracking movement in Dallas,” Marc McCord, director of Frac Dallas, said. McCord’s group was one of many organizations that jumped on board with Crawford in slowing city officials from granting sweeping approval for drilling.

The anti-fracking movement took its case to City Council meetings. Up to 200 people attended meetings where drilling permits were discussed, even when the City Council scheduled hearings in the days before Christmas. A back-and-forth between activists and the council went on for two years before the council passed the ordinance.

“There is a price to pay for civic involvement. You don’t get paid, and you give a lot of time and effort. The reward is the win,” Crawford said.

The threat of wells near Dallas residents’ doorsteps is gone for now, but activists like Crawford remain vigilant. Anti-fracking organizers point to the ongoing effects of the shale boom in areas around Fort Worth, which have been experiencing earthquakes. Though several studies suggest fracking as the cause of the quakes, scientists have been cautious about labeling their findings as conclusive.

“If you take this at face value, the easy thing to do would be to walk away and forget about it,” Crawford said. “There’s a part of us knowing ‘never say never.’ We trust that there’s not going to be any applications in the near future within the confines of Dallas, but that doesn’t mean that someone won’t apply a loophole.”

Crawford has gone “underground” for now, returning full time to his needlework featuring kitschy characters and colorful flora and fauna, but he said he will always be ready to fight for his hometown again.

David Dewhurst and Dan Branch Shouldn’t Concede

Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton are hoping their runoff opponents will fly a white flag—but it would be a bad thing for Texans.
David Dewhurst
Patrick Michels
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst

After last week’s primary, Texas now faces a grueling two-and-a-half months of runoff election campaigns. Every candidate who won less than 50 percent of the vote last Tuesday has to square off with the second-place finisher for a May 27 runoff. They’d prefer not to do this, of course. Runoffs take time and money that could be spent preparing for the general election (or measuring drapes for your new office at the Capitol.) So up and down the ballot, first-place finishers are trying to shame their opponents into giving up and conceding before the runoff campaign even starts.

One candidate, comptroller hopeful Harvey Hilderbran, has already withdrawn, but that was a special circumstance. His opponent, Glenn Hegar, won 49.99 percent of the vote, and the runoff appeared a formality. But Dan Patrick, who won 41.4 percent of the primary vote to David Dewhurst’s 28.3 percent, is also trying to sumo-slam his challenger into conceding. Allen Blakemore, Patrick’s campaign manager, told reporters recently that “the position for Mr. Dewhurst is rather hopeless.”

Ken Paxton, who won 44.4 percent of the vote to Dan Branch’s 33.4 percent, is also trying to muscle out his opponent. Yesterday, fourteen state representatives signed a letter asking Branch to drop out for “party unity.” The same thing is happening in downballot primary races like the one in Senate District 10, where tea partier Konni Burton, who won 43.2 percent of the vote, faces Mark Shelton, who won 35.1 percent.

Dewhurst, Branch and Shelton are all unlikely to win their runoffs. But it would be deeply unfortunate for Texas voters if they just conceded—and it would be unnecessarily fatalistic from the perspective of plain political calculus.

For years, blogger Matthew Yglesias had a simple rule for politicians who get caught up in scandals: don’t resign. If you’re a politician who gets caught with your hand in the proverbial cookie jar, persevere through the darkest news cycles—when even your own party just want you to disappear—and there’s a good chance you’ll end up no worse than even.

Take the twin cases of Louisiana Senator David Vitter and former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, said Yglesias. Spitzer resigned after his passion for galavanting with high-price escorts surfaced, and remains a laughingstock, with New York Post reporters stalking his girlfriend. Vitter, a major client of the so-called D.C. Madam, rode out the largest capital prostitution scandal in memory. As Washington whispered about his uncommon fetishes, he struck a pose of repentance. Three years later, he cruised to his reelection, and four years after that, he’s now the favorite to become governor of Louisiana.

The point: Politics may be the art of the possible, but it can also be about playing long odds. Those who hang tough are occasionally rewarded. The most important thing is to stay in the game and keep moving forward. That’s the strategy being practiced by both Rick Perry and Chris Christie right now. Let’s suggest a corollary to Yglesias’ rule: don’t concede, and don’t ever, ever give up. Just ask Ted Cruz.

That’s not to say that Dan Branch or David Dewhurst is Ted Cruz, of course. Frankly, like Blakemore, I don’t currently see a way for Dewhurst to win either. But two-and-a-half months is an eternity in politics. Who knows what will happen? Think, also, about the dynamic in the lieutenant governor’s race: Patrick has relentlessly attacked Dewhurst for months, but Patrick was somewhat protected—at least until the end—by the four-way race that preceded election day. Now Dewhurst has only Patrick to fight, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve kept some powder dry. Patrick has a long and somewhat unusual history outside politics. Let’s see what comes up. The same goes for Paxton and Branch—there’s no telling what will develop.

The other thing conceding would do is deprive Texans of a voice. Patrick won primary night with 41.4 percent—is that what passes for a mandate? I see nothing wrong with making sure that a majority of the state Republican Party wants Dan Patrick, who would be the most right-wing lt. governor the state has ever had, as their nominee—even if the answer is “yes” and the outcome is preordained.

On his recent call with reporters, Blakemore argued that the 30 percent of voters who voted for Staples and Patterson had already chosen not to vote for Dewhurst—making them likely Patrick supporters. But looked at another way, that 30 percent made the decision not to vote for Dewhurst’s front-running challenger, Patrick.

Here’s the other thing: We don’t know enough about this election year to know if Democrat Leticia Van de Putte’s campaign will be competitive in November. But, hypothetically, if it isn’t, the May runoff will be the last chance for Texans have a hand in picking the lt. governor. In the attorney general race, where Democrats have a spectacularly-named but improbable candidate named Sam Houston, the race between Ken Paxton and Dan Branch could be the last meaningful say Texans have, too—albeit, a very small number of them. Why deprive them of that?

UPDATED: Sons of Anarchy: Breitbart Texas in Turmoil

Breitbart Texas was widely hailed by GOP figures when it launched. A month later, things have gone downhill fast.
Breitbart Texas
Breitbart Texas' logo

UPDATE: Lee Stranahan, the Breitbart contributor who was fired last week, wrote in the comments section of this article to add perspective and dispute some aspects of the timeline of his firing. His comments (and his debate with an anonymous detractor) are here. Small changes have been made throughout the piece to clarify events and chronological order.

Stranahan writes that his quick correction to one aspect of the Backer piece, that a tea party group donated to a Democratic candidate, shows his commitment to good journalism and a “commitment to the truth above all else.”

“My work is respected by my readers for its depth and honesty,” he writes. “To have my reputation disparaged by the like of Darby has been surreal.”

Stranahan hasn’t been quiet elsewhere, either. In a video posted to his website, he’s been taking more shots at the Breitbart organization.

“If I’m not ever going to have a relationship with the management team that took over Breitbart died, what does that mean?” he asks. He’s going to use the moment as an opportunity to speak out about long-held grievances. In particular: “I want to talk about Dana Loesch.”

Loesch, a one-time star at Breitbart who now has a show with Glenn Beck’s The Blaze network, was marginalized by after Andrew Breitbart’s death and held under contract to prevent her from jumping ship. She ultimately had to sue to break her contract, saying the organization was holding her in “indentured servitude.”

Andrew would have never wanted that, says Stranahan. “Andrew hated Glenn Beck,” who was interested in poaching Loesch, Stranahan says, but had always said he would let Loesch move on if she wanted. “What happened to Dana after Andrew died was wrong,” says Stranahan. “They took away her editorship and then disappeared her.”

Stranahan makes the Breitbart organization sound almost cult-like, comparing it to an abusive parent. “I’m not going to speak for everybody else, but me and a lot of people I know have been under incredible pressure the last couple of years,” he says in the video. “I don’t say this with any anger, but it’s almost been like being in a house with an alcoholic father who periodically will beat you.”

For his part, Brandon Darby has been taking the conflict in stride.

ORIGINAL STORY: When the conservative news aggregator opened its new “Texas bureau,” Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst took the time to pen a letter welcoming the group—and did so with praise that would make the most hard-boiled editor blush.

In doing so, he was paying homage to the memory of Andrew Breitbart, the late firebrand conservative polemicist whose style of public engagement more often than not involved screaming. Breitbart passed away suddenly in 2012, becoming an iconic, martyred figure for conservatives. Though has been expanding in recent years, the organization has had trouble figuring out where it’s going without Breitbart to lead it.

But the launch of a new bureau was an occasion to celebrate. Rick Perry and Ted Cruz both offered short congratulatory statements to Breitbart Texas—but Dewhurst went in for the whole hog, proclaiming Breitbart’s expansion into Texas as evidence of the health of the whole conservative movement in the state.

Your dogged persistence in telling the truth is a credit to Andrew Breitbart’s philosophy and a fitting tribute to his memory. Despite the waves of progressive, liberal acrimony that flow through the comment sections of your articles, you stay the course with honesty, patriotism and conservatism as your lodestar.

Dewhurst, who called himself a “friend and supporter of your organization,” went on to praise “the courage the Breitbart team displays on a daily basis, digging for the facts and applying the time-tested techniques of investigative reporting” to a “media culture that is increasingly characterized by partisan sniping and liberal bias on an unprecedented scale.”

It’s been a little under a month—how is Breitbart Texas doing so far in bringing its investigative reporting background to clean out the partisan snake-pit of Texas media?

For the most part, Breitbart Texas’ output has been a mishmash of rote news aggregation, announcements that seem like transliterations of press releases in support of favored candidates, and an eclectic assortment of dispatches from the Breitbart contributor network, who receive $100 per post, according to the Daily Caller.

One such contributor, who goes by the twitter handle @OutOfTheBoxMom, wrote an article that consists of a list of participants and contributors to the South by Southwest Education conference. Another wrote an 88-word piece headlined “HOUSTON: SON SETS MOM’S APARTMENT ON FIRE FOR REFUSING TO BUY MARIJUANA.” It has more than a hundred comments. The source of the article—presumably a Houston Chronicle article from the same day—is not mentioned or linked to.

Then there’s the fact that Breitbart routinely runs articles written by Michael Q. Sullivan, like this lengthy jeremiad against House Speaker Joe Straus, without properly identifying Sullivan or his organizations.

But that all pales in comparison to the rift that’s recently developed in Breitbart Texas caused by the firing of Lee Stranahan, a Breitbart veteran who had quit the organization last fall, before rejoining Breitbart Texas as it launched last month. Stranahan, one of the $100-a-piece contributors, was working under “bureau chief” Brandon Darby, who made his name by running with anarchist and far-left groups and  passing information on them to the FBI. Stranahan’s beat: the “institutional left” and “corruption.”

Stranahan, according to the Daily Caller, was a comparative old-timer at Breitbart, who felt ill at ease with the direction the site has taken in recent years. He was among those who miss the leadership Andrew Breitbart provided for the organization and the movement in general. Stranahan quit the website last fall in part because of qualms about the site’s direction—but he signed up again with the launch of Breitbart Texas. He needed the money.

That all fell apart last week, when a simmering rift between Stranahan and Darby spiraled out of control. Stranahan alleges Darby killed a number of stories that reflected unfavorably on individuals Darby had ties with. One of them had to do with an attorney named Dan Backer, who Stranahan says was funneling money from tea party groups to “establishment” Republicans like Mitch McConnell. Darby wouldn’t publish it—along with another story about Steve Stockman’s campaign escapades. Then Darby fired Stranahan, who began tweeting details from the killed piece. That’s when Darby took the remarkable step of attacking his own reporter’s ethics, tweeting that Stranahan had once solicited money for a documentary he was making from Dan Backer.

“Person asks group for $. Group says no. Person then attacks the group without mentioning they tried to get $ before attacking,” wrote Darby in a since-deleted tweet.

The implication that Stranahan was attacking Backer out of pettiness for not agreeing to give him money months earlier was something Stranahan strongly rejected. When he contacted Breitbart’s national leaders over the incident, he was stonewalled. He threatened to sue Darby for defamation. Darby still hasn’t indicated why he killed the piece about Backer. For his part, Stranahan initially claimed he had never asked Backer for money—when evidence came forward that he did, he claimed he had no memory of it.

The whole thing might have faded away after that, except for the fact that someone began forwarding emails from the fight to the Daily Caller’s Betsy Rothstein, a Washington, D.C.-based gadfly who trades in media gossip. The exchanges display a remarkable level of dysfunction within the organization, and some embarrassing anecdotes. Stranahan accuses Darby of being a “coward” and “pigheaded” and even alleges that Darby once cooked up a plan, as part of a long-running inter-office rivalry, to accuse one senior conservative journalist of having a attraction to the late Andrew Breitbart’s under-age son:

“Also; please confirm that a bit over a year ago, you told me in no uncertain terms that you had a plan to file false police charges against Jeffery Scott Shapiro, with the knowingly false claim that he had a sexual interest in Sampson Breitbart.”

The whole thing is unbelievably sordid and embarrassing, for all parties. To make matters even worse, Stranahan, who took stories that got killed by Darby and published them on his own website, recently had to append a major correction to one of his stories when a big part of his case against Backer’s PAC—the fact that the group had donated money to a Democratic congressman from North Carolina—turned out to be a financial reporting error.

When Breitbart Texas launched, Dewhurst proclaimed: “Rarely has a publication been better suited to the culture, economy and political climate of a particular place.” That’s a hell of a thing to say about Texas. Let’s hope not.

Wendy Davis speaking
Patrick Michels
Sen. Wendy Davis

Wendy Davis is in a precarious position. The same issue that catapulted her to fame—women’s reproductive rights—and made her the most exciting Democratic candidate for governor in a generation also has the power to alienate moderate voters. How she handles this quandary could determine her success in a deeply conservative state that’s historically tough on women.

In 1990, when I was voting for the first time, Ann Richards became governor by narrowly defeating a man who felt comfortable making a rape joke in front of a reporter. Even then, Richards won only 49.5 percent of the vote to Clayton Williams’ 46.9 percent.

Still, with a woman as governor, I naively assumed that by the time I reached middle age, sexism would be all but gone from the Texas political landscape. Imagine that.

Sadly, not only are things just as difficult for female politicians today, they’re worse for the average Texas woman. Over the last few years, conservatives have forced Texas women into a corner with transvaginal probes and worse. They’ve reduced access to low-cost reproductive health care and forced those who can afford an abortion provider to undergo medically unnecessary sonograms, 24-hour wait periods and sanctimonious descriptions of the fetus. Prominent conservative commentators—’s Erick Erickson prime among them—gleefully refer to Davis as “Abortion Barbie.” It’s no wonder that a liberal backlash is happening and that it’s rallying around the issue of women’s health care.

Davis’ 11-hour filibuster to block anti-abortion legislation in the Texas Senate in June was one of the defining feminist moments of the last decade.  It also shocked the near-comatose Lone Star Democrats into relevancy again. As with Ann Richards, Davis’ most passionate supporters are the women who are inspired by her feminist acts and the men who love those women. But that’s certainly not enough to win a statewide race in Texas.

So how does Davis continue to expand her base while staying true to the issues that galvanized liberals?  How does she do that in a state where the governor casually vetoed a fair-pay bill with broad bipartisan support? That bill, the state version of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, would have extended the time Texas women have to file a pay-discrimination suit.

Davis can’t turn her back on women and repro​ductive rights. But she can frame the issue differently. After the fair-pay bill died, the Houston Chronicle uncovered letters from retailers like Kroger and Macy’s urging Rick Perry to veto the bill. This casts the situation not only as a women’s issue, but as a case of big business vs. working people.

In contrast to Davis, who was the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, Greg Abbott has stayed quiet on the issue. When questioned at the Texas Tribune festival in September 2013 whether he supports equal pay for women, he said he would “fight any discrimination,” but declined to specify whether he would support a bill. In an interview with WFAA on Sunday, Abbott again refused to say whether he would sign a fair pay bill into law, instead insisting that as a father of a daughter he “fully expects that women to be paid the what men are paid.”

The Republicans’ record of selling out consumers to big business could cause them trouble if Davis plays it right. She’s already calling for the removal of Cash America Vice President Bill White from the Texas Finance Commission—a situation that puts a predatory lender in charge of protecting consumers.

Davis’ defining issue of reproductive rights can also be viewed through a fiscal lens. A woman forced to have a baby she can’t afford is stuck in economic hardship. She may have to forgo an education to support her child. She may be trapped in an abusive marriage to keep ties with a breadwinner. She may become a drain on the state because of subsidies required to feed and house her family. No one expects a man to surrender to poverty or economic dependence. Why should we expect a woman to?

Wendy Davis may always be associated with the abortion debate, and there will certainly be Texans who vote against her because of it. But she can attract moderate voters without alienating her liberal base if she casts the issue of women’s rights in economic terms. As we’ve learned the hard way, in Texas, money talks.

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Don Huffines.
Senator-elect Don Huffines (R-Dallas)

It’s a trope as old as democratic politics: the fresh-faced outsider wins an election against the old order, and eventually becomes just as bad as the one they replaced. I’ve never been aware of a case in which the whole dang process happens in under 24 hours, however.

The last time we checked in with the Quorum Report’s Scott Braddock’s ongoing ad-hoc series on the finances of tea party candidates, it was when Katrina Pierson, challenging Pete Sessions, was revealed to have been taking unemployment benefits in a period when she was engaged in full-time political activism. This time, we look to Senate District 16’s Don Huffines, who just won his GOP primary race against incumbent Sen. John Carona. Huffines beat the longtime establishment-minded incumbent by just about one percent, having railed for months about the death-grip Austin’s special interests had on his opponent. He wasn’t in it for the money, he said. But Huffines had loaned himself more than $1.5 million to wage what had become an exceptionally heated campaign.

That’s a lot of money to write off, even when you win. So Huffines, according to an email obtained by QR, wrote to a number of Austin lobbyists the day after his great victory against Carona.

Huffines’ campaign told the lobby in a not-so-subtle way that “It’s not too late” to give money to his campaign and they can still “come on board!” the late-train. Above those words appears the image of a train topped with the words “All Welcome!” One lobbyist who received the invitation said it was “just classless.”

Here’s the invitation in question. It’s unclear if the lobbyist quoted found the timing classless, or the quality of the train clip-art:

The solicitation Huffines sent to Austin lobbyists, released by the Quorum Report.
The solicitation Huffines sent to Austin lobbyists, released by the Quorum Report.

Huffines’ spokesman Matt Langston told Quorum Report that the lobby contact was no problem. His principles are intact: “Anyone that donates to our campaign has remarkable clarity on just what kind of senator Don will be.” I suspect they do, although not in the way Langston intends

All lobbying is a form of legalized bribery. The trick is to be subtle about it. Huffines might be new, but I’ve no doubt he’ll smarten up. He has a long career ahead of him.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry
Patrick Michels
Gov. Rick Perry

The debate over the “Texas miracle” just won’t die.

By my estimation (and a search of the Nexis news database) the “Texas miracle” emerged as a term in 2010-2011 and really gained currency when Rick Perry ran for president. Not to be confused with that other, earlier “Texas miracle”—the largely-debunked Bush-era notion that standardized testing bumped up the scores of Texas schoolchildren—this Texas miracle has to do with the state’s economy, job growth, relatively low unemployment and growing population.

It’s a silly phrase, because even if you think there’s much to admire in the Texas economy, there’s nothing particularly miraculous about it. Unemployment, for example, is lower here than the national average but not by much. In December, Texas had 6 percent unemployment, tied for 17th best in the U.S. with West Virginia and Missouri; the national unemployment rate is 6.7 percent. And many of those jobs are attributable to the miracle of fossil fuels underlying a good portion of our state. The other thing is that the proponents of the “Texas miracle” attribute it not to divine intervention but a constellation of Republican policies.

We all know it by heart: Low taxes. Light regulation. Pro-business. It’s typically the second thing GOP candidates for office mention right after how much they hate Obama.

The chairman of the Dallas Fed, Richard Fisher, is a tireless Texas miracle zealot, giving speeches and providing data-driven studies to back up his belief that Texas holds economic lessons the rest of the country should heed.

There’s a whole boosterish book devoted to the topic by Erica Grieder of Texas Monthly. I reviewed—fairly critically—the book here.

Paul Krugman has been one of the big guns on the other side, firing some of the first shots at the national level in 2011, when he disparaged the Texas miracle as “a myth.”

The latest entrant into the debate: an article by Phillip Longman in Washington Monthly. Now, first things first: Why does some guy writing in Washington Monthly care about the ins and outs of the Texas economy? Because, as he points out, Texas has had some of the best job growth during the Obama years, even as the state has lurched further to the right.

“Progressives, and everyone earnestly interested in improving the nation’s economic performance, need to confront all this Texas bragging and find out what, if anything, it proves,” Longman writes.

There’s a lot of work done in the article. For one, Longman deflates some of the overheated Texas vs. California rhetoric by pointing out that California isn’t hemorrhaging all that many people to Texas. (Although the intense bitching about Californians in Austin would suggest otherwise.)

Using U.S. Census data, Longman argues that most of Texas’ population growth comes not from Americans “voting with their feet” and moving to Texas but from a high birth rate and immigration, much of it unauthorized.

He also argues that the oil boom is responsible for a greater share of the state’s GDP, and job growth, than is usually accounted for.

But perhaps the most interesting points are scored in attacking the very notion that Texas is low-tax and business-friendly. It’s a thrillingly subversive argument. As Longman writes:

[F]or most Americans, as well as for most businesses, moving to Texas would not mean paying less in taxes, and for many it would mean paying more.

Oh yes, I know what you’ve heard. And it’s true, as the state’s boosters like to brag, that Texas does not have an income tax. But Texas has sales and property taxes that make its overall burden of taxation on low-wage families much heavier than the national average, while the state also taxes the middle class at rates as high or higher than in California.

If you’re a rich Texan, you do indeed pay low taxes, but if you’re poor or middle class you’re, excuse the phrase, Taxed Enough Already. This suggests that we’re having the wrong conversation. It’s not about low taxes vs. high taxes but who bears the burden. But you’re not going to hear a Rick Perry or Dan Patrick or Ted Cruz go there. Politically, Texas economic boosterism sells for the GOP and no data point is going to change that.

Finally, Longman makes his most startling point, one that flies in the face of Rick Perry’s central case for the “Texas model.” Businesses in Texas pay high taxes… at least relative to the national average and wasteland states like Massachusetts (aka “Taxachusetts”) and Illinois.

But most Texas businesses, especially small ones, don’t get such treatment. Instead, they face total effective tax rates that are, by bottom-line measures, greater than those in even the People’s Republic of California. For example, according to a joint study by the accounting firm Ernst & Young and the Council on State Taxation, in fiscal year 2012 state and local business taxes in California came to 4.5 percent of private-sector gross state product. This compares with a 4.8 percent average for all fifty states—and a rate of 5.2 percent in Texas.

With the exception of New York, every major state in the country, including New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, has a lower total effective business tax rate than Texas.

The Ernst & Young/Council on State Taxation study cited by Longman is just one way of slicing the data, of course. And the study’s authors acknowledge that their method does not look at competitiveness. However, a 2011 study by the same groups did rank states for local and state tax competitiveness for new investment. Texas came in 20th, right between Pennsylvania and Indiana. We’re No. 20! We’re No. 20! We’re No. 20! … It just doesn’t have much of a ring to it.

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