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HPD Chief McClelland
HPD Chief Charles McClelland

The Houston Police Department has had a terrible year. For several months now, a parade of exposés has tromped forth from local media, documenting sundry bad acts and drawing fresh attention to HPD’s ineffective discipline system. In each case, HPD officials have claimed (predictably) that the misbehavior in question is rare and being punished appropriately and isn’t tolerated, etc. But a quick trip through the Observer’s HPD discipline files shows that’s not true.

Take the most recent scandal. Last week, HPD Chief Charles McClelland announced that prosecutors would dismiss more than 6,000 speeding tickets written by four officers under investigation for allegedly falsifying citations to earn overtime pay for testifying in court. That’s scandalous enough that Newser.com picked up the story, but it’s also nothing new for Houston. In 2012, four veteran HPD officers were found to have been pulling the same scheme for years, netting almost $1 million in overtime pay. Not one of those officers was fired.

Or look at the April report of two HPD lieutenants removed from duty for allegedly sexually harassing their female subordinates. “Swift action is taken every time on sexual harassment,” Ray Hunt, the president of the police officers’ union, told the Houston Chronicle.

But not really. In May 2008, officer Jaime Vera was suspended for 60 days (an extremely rare punishment) for what’s described in HPD documents as “a confrontation with his wife” that resulted in a police report. Vera also had to sign a “Last Chance Agreement,” stating he understood and accepted that if he committed even the most minor infraction, he’d be fired. Then, in August, Vera was suspended for 15 days for sexually harassing a fellow female officer, including leaving his beat while on duty to continue harassing her. Why wasn’t Vera fired as the agreement said he would be? Because he had committed sexual harassment prior to May—that is, before signing the agreement. Not exactly swift, nor just. Vera was eventually fired for trying to pay off mechanics to pass the inspection of his flawed car.

As for the two HPD lieutenants suspended for harassment, both of them (ages 50 and 55) were allowed to retire and keep their pensions of more than $85,000 a year.

Probably the most serious recent scandal is the case of Ryan Chandler, one of eight HPD detectives disciplined in April for failing to properly investigate more than two dozen homicides including the shooting death of an 11-month-old girl. HPD Internal Affairs, reported the Chronicle, “revealed investigators and supervisors shirking the most basic requirements of police work: failing to show up at crime scenes, misplacing key evidence, not attempting to interview witnesses or follow up on tips.”

This behavior will sound familiar to Observer readers who caught our investigation of the HPD discipline system last year. We showed that cops who abandoned crime scenes, ignored victims, lost evidence, lied to superiors, forged signatures, stalked their exes and sexually harassed coworkers kept their jobs.

In large part, this was (and is) because the HPD discipline process has a built-in escape hatch at the end: arbitration. Any suspension of three days or more—including indefinite suspension, aka getting fired—is automatically eligible for binding arbitration by an outside party. That means after a labyrinthine six-month internal affairs investigation, if the complaint against you is one of the mere 7 percent that result in a serious punishment, an outsider will review it over a couple of days and can change it.

And change they do. An Observer analysis found that in two-thirds of the cases, arbitrators reduce an officer’s punishment or overturn it completely. The police chief can fire a bad cop, but he can’t make sure he stays fired.

Chandler, the detective responsible for 16 of the neglected homicides and the only officer fired in the scandal, is trying to get his job back. An arbitrator heard his case earlier this month and has months to decide on a ruling. Meanwhile, convictions for serious crimes that Chandler helped investigate may be jeopardized because one of the many violations HPD determined that Chandler committed was lying.

At the arbitration hearing, Chief McClelland said that was the bottom line for why Chandler should not return to the force. But the arbitrator may not agree with him.

In 2008, Officer Cynthia Marino lied under oath about a controlled drug buy, got fired, and was reinstated by an arbitrator.

In 2010, Officer Carlos Lerma was fired for repeatedly lying about the presence of a second officer at controlled drug buys, including forging another officer’s signature. He was also reinstated with just a 15-day suspension, already served. Like all officers returned to the force by arbitrators, Lerma received back pay for the period he spent fired.

In 2000, Sr. Police Officer Joseph Brashier was suspended for four days for lying and misconduct but kept his job. In 2008, he was suspended for 90 days for, among other things, repeatedly stalking and harassing his estranged wife for months in violation of a restraining order. Still, he kept his job. (There were several other incidents over the years, but these are the highlights.) Finally in 2010 Brashier was fired over an apparent illegal towing scheme. But an arbitrator reinstated him with just a 10-day suspension.

Clearly, HPD is ripe for reform, and Chief McClelland has been more active and open than his predecessors about trying to combat police misconduct. For example, he recently announced plans to equip 3,500 officers with body cameras over the next three years. But while individual (or clusters of) bad actors can be chalked up to scale—HPD does have about 5,400 officers, after all—a system that tolerates and retains and even hires them back, sometimes with a nice cash bonus, cannot. HPD has a discipline problem. What will it take to admit it?

Speakers at a conservative green energy panel held at the Paramount Theater in Austin.
Carl Lindemann
Speakers at a conservative green energy panel held at the Paramount Theater in Austin.

 

Tucker Eskew is no stranger to thankless tasks. Eskew was the Republican operative who, in 2008, had the honor of tutoring Sarah Palin on being a vice-presidential candidate. Now, he’s ready to take the heat from fellow Republicans for tackling climate change and championing green energy. Eskew and a crew of fellow conservative green activists brought their mission to Austin yesterday for a lightly attended event. Billed as “a fresh conservative take on energy policy,” the summit attracted about 60 people to the Paramount Theater downtown.

“Remember the saying ‘I was country before country was cool’?” Eskew said. “Some Republicans picked that up and said ‘I was conservative before conservative was cool.’ Maybe one day, we’ll look back on this event and realize we were clean energy conservatives before it was cool.”

The hopeful message is certainly a far cry from today’s “drill, baby, drill!” conservatism. But if the movement—if you can call it that yet—is simply out to swap oil and coal for gas and nuclear, it could be seen as another variation of business as usual. But the speakers seemed eager to break some conservative taboos.

Among the panelists: former Texas Republican state Sen. Kip Averitt, now head of the Texas Clean Energy Coalition; Debbie Dooley, founder of the Green Tea Coalition and national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots; former six-term Congressman Bob Inglis (R-South Carolina); and Eli Lehrer of conservative think tank R Street Institute.

“What we’re looking for are energy optimists and climate realists,” Inglis said. Though there’s no certainty in climate science, Inglis said, the risks of doing nothing are real. “And what are you going to do in the face of that risk? Proceed pell-mell, or…buy an insurance policy?”

Implacable climate skeptics need to face the political realities, he said. “If conservatives don’t step forward and say, ‘Have we got an idea for you! End all the subsidies [for oil, gas and nuclear], attach all the costs to all the fuels, and watch the free enterprise system sort this all out,’” then Democrats will go forward with their own solutions.

But Republicans face their own political risks for acting on climate change.

“We have a whole boatload of [Texas Republicans] that want to do the right thing, but they have to tip-toe around it. They get timid. They get scared because, quite frankly, they’re afraid of the tea party,” said Averitt, who served as the chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources for nearly a decade.

Meanwhile, the fossil fuel lobby maintains its grip in Texas. As a counterpoint to the clean energy confab, the right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation is hosting its own energy and climate policy summit in Houston this week featuring appearances by GOP ticket-toppers Rick Perry and Dan Patrick. The foundation, which is funded by fossil fuel interests, has been an extraordinarily harsh critic of renewable energy.

“Renewable energy is unreliable and parasitic,” wrote Kathleen Hartnett White, a former chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the head of the foundation’s energy-policy wing, in a 36-page paper she recently released making a “moral case” for fossil fuels. No one in the conservative climate realist camp appears to be on the agenda for the conference this week.

But Dooley says the mood is changing. Some tea partiers, she said, are ready to take a stand, even against Koch-funded front groups like Americans for Prosperity.

“Americans for Prosperity is not tea party,” Dooley said. To combat the Koch party line, conservatives need to change the way they talk about energy.

“Talk about free markets, national security,” she said. “There’s nothing more vulnerable to terrorist attack than our centralized [power] grid. Well, it’s harder to attack rooftop solar.”

Eskew argued that the current frenzy surrounding Uber—the ride-share service that’s operating illegally in a number of cities, including Austin—offers a compelling comparison for how free markets could reshape the energy sector. Eskew compared ride-share services to rooftop solar power. Both pose fundamental challenges to highly regulated, staid industries (taxis and utilities, respectively) but provide direct benefits to the consumer.

“Let’s look at [Uber] from the perspective of the driver, not the consumer. The driver makes a capital expense purchasing the car, then is able to sell back excess capacity into the transportation grid. Isn’t that like solar power?”

For the United States to effectively combat climate change, conservatives will have to make an extremely difficult about-face. Still, the event yesterday hinted at the possibility of such a radical transformation. Katherine Lorenz, president and treasurer of the Mitchell Foundation, a co-sponsor of the event, was on hand. That’s Mitchell as in George Mitchell, known as the “father of fracking.” According to Lorenz, who is Mitchell’s granddaughter, the current shale boom has temporarily eclipsed his true legacy.

“Despite being in the oil and gas industry and having so many of his peers and colleagues think he was nuts… he was also deeply committed to environmental issues,” she said. “That’s really emblematic of what’s going on with clean energy and the environment today. We need more people to stand up for what they believe, who understand that what the rest of their party, peers and colleagues are saying might not be the right way for the Earth.”

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Legislative Budget Board
A handy how-to guide to the state budget.

These months of committee hearings in the run-up to the next session of the Texas Legislature are like the dropping of a bomb. The hearings started, months ago, with the view from 30,000 feet, and the limitless possibilities of the unborn 84th in all its tea party splendor. As time goes by and we get closer to the end of the year, legislators will still have moments to consider the big, abstract questions of state government, but the features of the terrain below are starting to come into view. When January 13, 2015 hits—zero hour—time will compress, deadlines will appear and the legislators will be left with a bloody, sticky brawl.

The most important of these meetings are the get-togethers of the Senate Committee on Finance, which, guided by its new-ish chair state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), will face the unenviable task of cobbling together a budget. The committee has been meeting intermittently to get an idea of the contours of the state’s fiscal situation, with the help of the Legislative Budget Board. Today, the committee members heard from the LBB on the major items in the state budget—education, transportation, Medicaid, etc. The board’s packet, for those interested, can be found here.

Here’s the key thing: The Legislature is going to get a fairly substantial pot of new money next session. The economy is going swimmingly, tax revenues are up and there’s a small fortune in oil and gas revenue heading in the Capitol’s direction. That boon has left some wondering what they can get for it.

GOP lt. governor nominee Dan Patrick, who hopes to take control of the Senate in January, will want to have his own fun—his first year with the gavel will be a time for him to leave his mark. He’s talked about altering Texas’ tax system—he’d like to see sales taxes displace the state’s property tax structure. And he’d like to develop a voucher program to help kids in public schools go to private schools. If he wants to do either of those things, it would help greatly to have a surplus in his back pocket.

But look more closely at the emerging state budget, as the committee did today, and the fiscal picture is not quite as rosy. The major pieces of the budget pie—public education, health and human services, higher education, transportation—already aren’t in great health and are going to need quite a bit more money next session just to hold steady. To simply keep up with enrollment, the state’s public education system is going to need $2.2 billion more—and that’s without any funding increase. It seems unlikely in the short- to medium-term that Texas is going to get back to pre-2011 funding levels, when the Legislature cut $5.4 billion from public ed.

There’s trouble in the higher education and Medicaid budgets too. Higher ed spending still lags levels from prior to deep cuts in 2011. Today, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) asked what it would take to fully restore funding. The Legislative Budget Board representatives said they’d get back to her. On Medicaid, state Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), the new chairman of Senate Health and Human Services, worried that 720,000 “eligible but unenrolled” people could sign up for Medicaid, significantly increasing costs.

Nelson, Schwertner’s predecessor on Health and Human Services, talked a bit about the need to further squeeze the state’s Medicaid program for savings. (No one really considered the possibility of accepting federal money.) “It’s eating up—it’s squeezing out everything else,” Nelson said. “We can’t do anything about caseload. It is what it is.” So more cost containment measures were needed, the reduction of “fraud and waste.” It’s unclear how much money can be realistically recouped that way, especially after years of those efforts.

On the question of transportation, senators were told that the system needed $5 billion more just to keep things at the current level of congestion—$1 billion of that just for crumbling roads in the oil patch.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, chair of Senate Transportation, told the committee that the amount of money the Texas Department of Transportation was spending for “debt service is greater than what we’re adding in terms of new [transportation] capacity.” Nelson: “That’s crazy.”

Last session, the Legislature narrowly passed a proposal to divert half of the oil and gas tax revenue going into the so-called Rainy Day Fund to state transportation funding—about $1.2 billion a year. The constitutional amendment goes to the voters as Proposition 1 on the November ballot. Getting that legislation through the Lege was like pulling teeth, yet much more might be needed. State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston): “It’s amazing that with Prop 1, we’re only doing a third of what they expect us to do.”

Eighteen members of the 2015 class were present today: 15 sitting senators, plus probable future senators Van Taylor, Paul Bettencourt and Bob Hall. With the new senators in mind, perhaps, Whitmire took two extended interludes to tout the benefits of the two-thirds rule, which Dan Patrick has promised to nuke when he gets to office.

The two-thirds rule requires the consent of 21 senators to bring a bill to the floor—it’s long been leverage for Democrats, and Patrick wants a more pliable chamber. If the rule is retired, Dems have nothing—and the Senate will look a lot more like the contentious special sessions of last summer. But Whitmire tried to sell the room on the rule from a different angle.

“Rural members need a two-thirds rule to make sure we provide for services like farm-to-market roads,” he said. “If you want to make sure you have a state transportation system” that services all parts of the state “you better have a budget 21 senators can support.” If the rule was eliminated, he said, and the state faced a transportation hole of billions, you’d see urban senators from Houston and Dallas conspiring to cut funding for rural roads to keep their own highways paved.

Nelson chided him for going off-topic, but he returned to it later to say much the same thing. In the audience, Charles Perry, recently picked by voters in a special election to represent Lubbock in the Senate, seemed to nod his head along with Whitmire’s exhortation, while Van Taylor, who’ll soon represent suburban Plano, seemed to shake it. On the right flank of the panel of sitting senators, Sens. Eltife, Schwertner and Hancock chuckled at Whitmire. Were they laughing because of Whitmire’s charm and insistence, or because they knew it was futile? We’ll find out in January.

Immigrants marching for immigration reform in Austin.
Priscila Mosqueda
March for Immigration reform in Austin

Because of the government’s failure to reform immigration laws, faith leaders said Wednesday in a press call with media that they are building a new nationwide sanctuary movement and urging churches across the country to offer shelter to immigrants facing deportation.

The rebirth of the sanctuary movement began in Arizona in May when 36-year-old Daniel Neyoy Ruiz, who was born in Mexico, sought refuge in the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson. After nearly a month of living in the church, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials granted Neyoy Ruiz a one-year reprieve from deportation.

Currently, Rosa Robles Loreto, a mother of two young boys, is living at the Tucson church trying to fight her deportation to Mexico. Robles said she has lived in Tucson for the last 15 years. “My goal is to stay with my husband and children because they need me,” she said in the press call today. “My struggle goes further than from my immediate family, and it is a call and a national petition so that others can also have hope and establish their lives here, where we have already lived for so long.”

Arizona, specifically Tucson, was the birthplace of the sanctuary movement in the 1980s when thousands of Central Americans fleeing civil wars sought asylum in the United States. Many of the refugees were detained in prisons then deported to their war-torn countries where the U.S. was involved in providing funding and weapons to governments and forces viewed as anti-communist. The founding of the movement is credited in part to Rev. John Fife, minister at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson. Fife spurred other religious leaders to defy federal immigration laws and offer sanctuary to refugees at churches, spurring a powerful resistance movement that spread to Texas and other states.

In the press call Wednesday, faith leaders said the violence many immigrants are facing back home is just as dire as it was more than 30 years ago. They said the current movement is rapidly growing, from two churches in Arizona to 24 congregations promising sanctuary and another 60 faith-based groups offering support.

Rev. Noel Andersen, grassroots coordinator with Church World Service, a faith-based humanitarian agency, said faith leaders are reaching out to Texas congregations to join the movement but none have accepted yet. “We don’t have anyone in Texas but that could change in the coming weeks,” he said.

Rev. Alison Harrington of Southside Presbyterian said the deportations are destroying families across the country. Each day, the U.S. government deports at least 1,000 people, according to government statistics. “In Arizona we have witnessed again and again the destruction of families through inhumane deportation practices. Responding to the commands of our faith to love our neighbors, congregations throughout the state are declaring sanctuary for undocumented individuals like Rosa Robles Loreto who have final orders of deportation.”

Congressman Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Tucson, blamed elected officials for failing to act on comprehensive immigration reform. “The system has to be fixed,” he said. “There’s been nothing but cowardice on the part of House leadership who won’t even allow a vote on the Senate bill that while flawed deserves a vote.” Grijalva also blamed President Obama for delaying his executive action on immigration until after the election. “It was the wrong move,” he said. “The sanctuary movement is a response to the lack of action. It is a response to the humanity of the issue. And I think it is going to be a cornerstone in pushing the decency of the American people to demand of its elected officials to do something.”

Faith leaders who took part in the announcement included: Rabbi Linda Holtzman of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, Rev. Julian DeShazier of University Church Chicago, Rev. Alison Harrington of Southside Presbyterian Church, Rev. Gradye Parsons, the highest elected official in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A as well as Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona’s 3rd District.

The group said that sanctuary is currently being provided to immigrants in Phoenix, Tucson, Chicago and Portland. Churches in the following cities are providing support: Boston, Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, New York, Oakland, Portland, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Seattle and Tucson.

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George P. Bush
Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons
George P. Bush

When Breitbart Texas, the Lone Star “vertical” of the right-wing news and commentary site Breitbart.com, launched in February, I was privileged to be one of its first targets. The site ran what I believe it was trying to pass as a smear piece about my abortion politics.

“Ms. Grimes doesn’t just want abortion,” wrote then-columnist and self-described “Breitbart protégé” Lee Stranahan, about my work for the site RH Reality Check. “She wants it freely available and she wants the state to pay for it.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Except when I say it, there tends to be quite a bit more cussing. Perhaps that’s why Breitbart printed the piece—plucked from my extremely public Twitter feed—with this pearl-clutching advisory: “LANGUAGE WARNING: ANDREA GRIMES UNCENSORED.”

Stranahan kindly warned me on Twitter that a storm would soon be brewing about me. He implored his readers to “please treat [me] civilly.” But I heard nary a peep from any of them. I didn’t even get any nice church ladies threatening to pray for me.

Whither the Breitbart Texas storm?

When Breitbart Texas launched last winter, Managing Editor Brandon Darby claimed the site was poised to “bring a voice to grassroots Texans,” and to “arm Texans … with the information they need to stand up against the institutional Left.”

Ten months later, I’m still wondering: Where’s the storm? As yet, the site hasn’t exposed the dark-blue underbelly of mainstream Texas journalism. Rather, Breitbart Texas has imported an inside-the-Beltway model of smear “journalism” that’s blatantly partisan, enthusiastically flakkish and of a type not commonly seen here in Texas. Breitbart Texas has positioned itself as a sympathetic ear and attendant mouthpiece for right-wing communications cronies tasked with grinding their bosses’ axes.

Case in point: This summer, The Texas Tribune quoted George P. Bush—currently running for Texas land commissioner—talking about coastal erosion in the same sentence as climate change, as if he believed the two might be related. It was a horrifying instance of a Texas Republican saying something that vaguely recognized the existence of climate change.

Within 72 hours, a Breitbart Texas writer fresh off a gig at the right-wing think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation stumbled upon an “exclusive” with the P. Bush campaign, running a convoluted attempt to reconstruct what P. Bush had really meant in his Tribune interview. That proved awkward given that the Trib had posted a transcript online.

But Breitbart’s Sarah Rumpf plunged ahead with her scoop anyway, writing,  “Bush’s comments and positions have been seriously misrepresented.” The headline? Rendered in CAPS LOCK, as are all Breitbart headlines: “REPORTER MISREPRESENTED GEORGE P. BUSH CLIMATE CHANGE INTERVIEW.”

Typically, a serious misrepresentation is the kind of thing that merits a conversation with the reporter and/or the editor. It’s something news outlets might consider addressing with a correction or a follow-up.

But Tribune Editor Emily Ramshaw told me via email that they “haven’t heard from George P. Bush or his campaign staff about the story or the transcript, and generally [they] would immediately if someone took issue with the story.”

Generally, that is, if right-wing campaigns were playing by old Texas media rules, rather than crying foul to a more malleable partisan site. As the Observer’s Chris Hooks noted in September, Bush didn’t need to try to “undo” his statements with a Trib correction: “Breitbart will do it for him.”

I asked Breitbart Texas’ Darby whether Rumpf has an knack for reading the hivemind of the P. Bush operation, or if this was an engineered smear from the campaign. He didn’t reply.

In the absence of a definitive explanation, Breitbart Texas appears itself to be guilty of the right-wing version of the very crimes it accuses the “institutional Left’s” Obummer-worshiping media lapdogs of committing. And at the same time, the site proved itself not loyal to the unruly right-wing grassroots, but rather to the Bush family.

Breitbart Texas: a little thunder and lightning but no rain. Didn’t anyone tell ’em we’re in a drought?

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Families in the hall at the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center
Department of Homeland Security
Families in the hall at the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center

In early September, the Observer was the first to report that the federal government was planning a massive 2,400-bed family detention center in South Texas to hold Central American families entering Texas through Mexico. Today, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that it expected to open the facility in the small town of Dilley in early November. Corrections Corporation of America—the largest private prison company in the world and the operator of the notorious T. Don Hutto family jail near Austin—is expected to run the facility.

ICE said the detention center “will help ensure more timely and effective removals that comply with our legal and international obligations, while deterring others from taking the dangerous journey and illegally crossing into the United States.”

The South Texas Family Residential Center is located on a 50-care site owned by a Red McCombs-affiliated company, which runs a “man camp” for oilfield workers there. ICE said it expects to open the detention center with room for 480 “residents” and to build enough new housing to detain 2,400 immigrants by June.

Locking up children and their parents has an ugly history in Texas. The Obama administration pulled families out of the CCA-run T. Don Hutto detention center in 2009 after mounting evidence of civil-rights abuses. Families and children, many of whom are fleeing violence and human rights abuses, simply shouldn’t be held in jail-like conditions, advocates have said. They suggest alternatives, including truly residential facilities run by charities or faith-based groups.

Immigrant rights groups reacted with outrage today at the ICE announcement.

“Given the shameful history of family detention at Hutto, it’s horrifying that ICE would turn back to Corrections Corporation of America to operate what would be by far the nation’s largest family detention center,” said Bob Libal, executive director of the prison reform group Grassroots Leadership. “While little kids and their families will suffer in remote private prisons, far away from legal or social services, these multi-billion dollar private prison companies stand to make enormous profits.”

Dilley City Administrator Noel Perez says he has few details about the detention center, which will be located within the city limits. City officials, he said, had one meeting with CCA but haven’t spoken with ICE.

“We’ve just provided some general information on utilities and infrastructure,” Perez said. “We know it’s a done deal between CCA and ICE.”

Perez said the community’s attitude toward the detention center is one of “ambivalence.” He says he hasn’t gotten one call for or against it.

How long will the detention center be open? Perez says he’s heard one to two years, perhaps five. After that, he said, “We either fill it up with immigrants or we will fill it up with oilfield workers.”

Sen. Dan Patrick
Patrick Michels
Sen. Dan Patrick delivers a passionate speech in favor of House Bill 2.

In her 1988 campaign classic, “Insider Baseball,” Joan Didion wrote that political campaigns had little to do with democracy, and were not about “affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs.” Instead, “the process” was a “mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals”—policy experts, reporters, pundits, pollsters, advisors—”to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life.”

In her essay, Didion coolly dissects the 1,001 bullshit ways Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush are manufactured as candidates, abetted by a media all too game to play along. But the meta-narrative she documents emerged from public performances—no one involved tried to hide what they were doing. (The title of the essay comes from an “eerily contrived moment” in which Dukakis tosses a baseball to his press secretary on an airport tarmac while reporters and camera crews diligently take notes for stories on Dukakis’ authenticity and “toughness.”)

This is simply how modern political campaigns—at least high-level ones—are conducted. Didion’s complaints now seem a tad antiquated, though still righteously spot-on.

But now comes a new twist: the art of the non-campaign. The candidate who doesn’t even bother to put on a show, doesn’t even pretend to reach the broad middle of the citizenry and instead appears behind closed doors to small groups of like-minded voters, if he or she appears in public at all.

That’s the kind of campaign that some Texas Republicans are now running, in particular Ken Paxton, who’s favored to become attorney general, and Dan Patrick, who’s the frontrunner for lieutenant governor. Their campaigns are marked by a general refusal to speak with reporters, engage with their opponents, hold press conferences, meet with newspaper editorial boards, publicly announce events in advance, or even run TV ads.

Instead, the two men are running “stealth” campaigns—as the Houston Chronicle recently put it—speaking to tea party gatherings or events closed to the press.

A talk-radio show host not known for his reticence, Patrick ran a boisterous campaign against his three rivals during the GOP lieutenant governor primary and later in a head-to-head runoff against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Now, he’s like the chupacabra: rumored but rarely seen in the flesh. The Houston Chronicle reported in a Sept. 12 story:

Then, as if a switch flipped, his campaign went into hunker-down mode.

It sent two news releases in the six weeks after the runoff. Patrick did not re-emerge until even later, in a July 16 public speech in front of an estimated 11,000 students, parents and teachers at the annual gathering of the Texas Future Farmers Association.

When he addressed the state’s broadcaster’s association Aug. 7, Patrick quickly left without taking questions from reporters —but only after shouting, “I’ve been the most media-friendly guy in the Legislature!” before vanishing.

Just this week, Patrick’s campaign declined an invitation to appear before the Houston Chronicle editorial board.

“At this time the senator does not plan to meet with editorial boards,” Patrick spokesman Alejandro Garcia said.

When Patrick did announce a press conference last week, reporters wondered what big reveal he had in store. As it turned out, Patrick called the media together to announce that he was the most business-friendly candidate. The whole thing lasted 15 minutes.

His opponent, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), who’s excited many Democrats with a peppy, wide-ranging effort, challenged Patrick to five debates but he agreed to only one. Patrick is campaigning—just not in a way accessible to most Texans.

“3 days – 6 cities – 3 planes & one rental car drive from Midland to Lubbock,” Patrick wrote in a Facebook post on Sept. 18. “I will not be out worked.”

Ted Delisi, a GOP consultant quoted in the Chronicle, acknowledged that it’s “not the typical campaigning” but then implausibly tried to coin the approach as not being “covert,” but rather “the new overt.”

If anything, state Sen. Ken Paxton is even more covertly overt. Paxton is the overwhelming favorite to be the next attorney general—he faces an underfunded Democratic attorney with the somewhat helpful name Sam Houston. The highlight of Paxton’s resume so far is that he’s admitted to violating state securities law by accepting kickbacks from an investment firm without disclosing that relationship to regulators or his clients. And apparently he’s not eager to talk about it: Paxton has been almost completely AWOL.

I can find precisely one news account of a public appearance in the last month. On Sept. 8, he was the special guest of honor at a San Jacinto County Republican Party event, where he told the crowd that Obamacare would be “obliterated” if unspecified lawsuits were successful.

His Facebook page touts a fundraiser with Ted Cruz next Monday in Allen.

Perhaps Paxton learned the value of ducking the press in late July when—after noting to a sheriffs group that “a one-party system takes out accountability, takes out competition”—San Antonio Express-News reporter Nolan Hicks approached him after the event and was “physically blocked by Paxton spokesman Anthony Holm.”

Meanwhile, Sam Houston has fruitlessly tried to engage his opponent. He’s repeatedly challenged Paxton to debate, but Paxton’s only response has come through his spokesman. “Our opponent is losing, badly, so it’s not surprising that he continues this desperate ploy for publicity when he’s down by 20+ points,” Anthony Holm told the Texas Tribune in an email.

So we have the prospect of a state senator who faces indictment and serious ethics charges waltzing into office as the next attorney general without having debated, campaigned or meaningfully engaged his general election opponent or the public on the issues of the day.

The approach, of course, makes perfect strategic sense. Democrats haven’t won a single statewide race in two decades, and Republicans enjoy sizable structural advantages even against well-funded and charismatic Democrats. Why risk saying or doing something stupid when you don’t need to? Why legitimize your opponent by pretending that he or she even exists? Better to keep your head down and coast to election.

The non-campaign approach is not entirely new. Rick Perry tried aspects of it in 2010, when he ran for re-election against former Houston Mayor Bill White. Much to the chagrin of the White campaign, Perry refused to participate in a single debate and snubbed newspaper editorial boards. He crushed Bill White 55-42. What lesson does a GOP candidate for statewide office draw from that? That silence is preferable to splashy public events. That talking to the mainstream press isn’t worth it when the voters who show up to the polls either get their information from preferred sources or consider snubbing the lamestream media as a mark of political bravery.

It also puts the press in a bind: How do you cover a non-campaign? Press conferences, block-walking, baby-kissing, stumping, Chamber of Commerce speeches: This is the stuff of which political journalism is made. The Houston Chronicle, for example, did a thorough story on Patrick’s stealthiness. But it was a one-day piece; it’s hard to keep writing about silence.

And if Paxton and Patrick prevail as expected, will more GOP candidates attempt the stealth campaign in the next general election? Probably so, until Democrats can prove more competitive. Are we entering an era when the state’s top officials won’t even have to engage with Texas’ general election voters? For Democrats, this seems the ultimate insult. They’re losing, and their opponents aren’t even trying anymore.

Rick Perry at the 2014 Texas Tribune Festival
YouTube
Rick Perry at the 2014 Texas Tribune Festival

Public discourse, the foundation of democracy, isn’t doing too well in Texas these days. The state’s Republicans have such powerful voices that, for the most part, they don’t need to speak. Past a certain point in the election calendar, silence speaks for them. GOP statewide candidates and legislators alike hoard money, hide from the press, and try not to acknowledge the existence of their opponents. Democrats want to be heard desperately, but don’t get the chance very much. The two sides rarely talk to each other. The conversations we have about the state’s problems become stilted and atrophied.

This weekend’s Texas Tribune Festival, the fourth annual, is one of the rare events in Texas political life that pushes back against the trend a bit—it’s a valuable space that gives political actors room to be a bit more open than they otherwise might be. (Even if they don’t always take that chance.) GOPers don’t much like the Texas press in general, especially newspapers, but some will play along with the Tribune. It’s also a reminder of some of the continuing dysfunctions affecting the state’s political life.

Of the GOP nominees, Greg Abbott, who remains a somewhat mysterious figure away from his slickly-produced ads, declined to come, either to take part in a discussion with Wendy Davis or to be interviewed solo. A screening of his McAllen debate with Davis kicked off the festival: Texas voters didn’t seem particularly well-served by the debate’s format or substance, but at least they agreed to be in the same room as each other.

Land commissioner nominee George P. Bush was game, despite some awkwardness between his campaign and the Trib: His opening night keynote might have been his longest appearance in the spotlight yet, and he still managed to avoid saying much. Asked about immigration, Bush said he didn’t “have a magic wand on this issue. It’s terribly complicated” and would require a “multi-generational viewpoint.” (Accio guest worker program.)

Bush has said there’s still a debate on the causes of global warming. So an audience member challenged him: NASA says 97 percent of scientists in relevant fields agree on the causes. Bush’s answer was one for the ages: “I’ve personally met with folks that have visited with other NASA scientists,” he said, “and they contend that that ’97 percent’ is overstated.”

Attorney general nominee Ken Paxton didn’t come. Comptroller nominee Glenn Hegar took part in a discussion on the budget, but—presumably at Hegar’s urging—his opponent Mike Collier was placed on another panel, one that didn’t have to do with state finance. Lt. governor nominee Dan Patrick, to his credit, consented to be interviewed, but not alongside Leticia Van de Putte—she made sure she sat in the front row during his interview, before taking the stage to do hers.

Patrick’s interview was a nice demonstration of his post-primary grandfather tack. He vigorously denies that he’s been “hiding” on the campaign trail. He praises his interviewer, Evan Smith, as well as both David Dewhurst and Van de Putte, who he’s scorched in other settings. He touts school vouchers as the best friend of the inner-city kid, and says he’ll fund public education in a “smart” way while simultaneously helping local jurisdictions cut property taxes. Rainbow Dan.


There were also a variety of panel discussions, some of which dug deep in policy issues. In some, panelists were so far apart that there wasn’t much room for discussion. In a panel on “dark money” featuring state Rep. Byron Cook, the new chairman of House State Affairs, panelists talked around each other, sometimes unable to even agree on current state of the law. The panel on gay marriage turned briefly contentious when the moderator asked anti-gay marriage warrior Jonathan Saenz about the fact that his ex-wife left him for another woman. (He gave a non-answer.)

Elsewhere, a panel that included former GOP presidential flame-out Jon Huntsman, former Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley—a nice enough lot, but not exactly the vanguard on the bleeding edge of American political life—convened to figure out how to beat back partisanship and give life to the political center. It’s a question that’s never made much sense nationally, but even less so in Texas.

Safely out of office, the three wanted to let people know they had finally figured out how things should work. Bradley had the grandest plan: He wanted to build a “third congressional party” that would “stand for three or four key things.” He wasn’t quite sure what those things should be yet, except one of them should be campaign finance. Somebody should recruit 50 candidates to run in 50 key districts across the country. Half would be ex-military officers, half would be women, etc. All this could be accomplished for the modest sum of $360 million. “Here is the problem with our democracy,” Bradley’s footmen would say. “It is the Congress.”

Hutchison’s complaints were more modest. The president had rejected the Simpson-Bowles plan, that totemic budget proposal embraced by the beltway punditocracy. “The president put it on the shelf,” Hutchison said, “and congressional leaders put it on the shelf.” When an audience member asked how you could realistically change Congress with incumbent re-election rates so high, Hutchison suggested replacing our current system with a United Kingdom-style parliamentary slate system, where candidates are not directly elected.

After that, another soon-to-be ex-politician was joining the Both Sides crusade: At a panel on women’s health issues, Bob Deuell, looking more unhappy to be at an event than anyone you’ve ever seen—presumably, he agreed to do this before getting crushed by an accused wife-beater in his primary runoff—told the crowd that he, personally, might have gone along with less stringent abortion regs last summer, but “no one was willing to compromise,” he said, putting the blame for the expansive restrictions on the pro-choice crowd. “The extremes on both sides” were responsible for what happened last summer. It’s a pretty weird rewriting of history. Democrats didn’t have any leverage during the special session. But he kept saying it, over and over, as he stared at his lap.

Molly White, a pro-life activist who’ll be representing House District 55 after November, spoke about her two abortions, and her contention that they were responsible for her descent into drug and alcohol addiction. She opened the panel by flashing a picture of a woman who “died on the abortion table.”

When moderator Emily Ramshaw told White that there was a very low complication rate from abortion, White batted it down. She knew that was wrong, from “my personal experience and from the testimony of hundreds and hundreds of women across the country.”

Austin Rep. Dawnna Dukes, in no mood to dance around, told White that “it’s a personality type that would turn to drugs and alcohol,” and White’s issues didn’t come from an abortion. White: “If you haven’t had an abortion, you can’t say that.”

“Well guess what,” Dukes said. “I have had an abortion.” The room erupted in cheers and applause. She didn’t have any subsequent psychological problems, she said.

The day after, Deuell unloaded on Dukes in the comments of an article about the incident. “Given her views and some comments she made yesterday and in the past,” Deuell wrote, “one might argue whether Dukes has suffered from her abortion.”

Dukes responded: “I sure will not miss you in the legislature. May God keep you, may God bless your sweet heart and I wish you all the best in your next endeavor.”


Some issues, it seems, can’t be talked out. In Texas, that might be most issues. The last event of the festival was also the most highly anticipated—an hour long sit-down between Gov. Rick Perry, he of the recent legal problems, and Smith. He followed a discussion by national journalists who seemed to pooh-pooh Perry’s 2016 chances. One said GOP donors were saying privately that they hoped Perry wouldn’t come calling for money.

In the interview, he seemed slightly muddled. He brought a small placard that showed the state’s job growth. He bizarrely claimed comedian Joan Rivers would be alive if she’d had surgery inside an ambulatory surgical center, except she had. He came out as a fan of both regulation and the press. Asked about the abortion bills last summer: “There are going to be rules and regulations put into place that you don’t agree with,” he said, adding that it was “important to respect those decisions.” (Nobody tell the EPA.)

More interesting, though, was what Perry wouldn’t talk about: his recent indictments. To be fair, there are some things Perry can’t say about his legal problems. But he’s also shot off his mouth about the indictments recently more times than you can count. He’s happy to talk about it on his terms. Here was a setting in which he would be gently challenged on some of his contentions. Smith started asking:

“That issue has been probably as reported on as much as anything that I’ve ever done in my public life,” he said. “And everything has been said about it that I’m going to say about it.”

Smith tried again. “I think everything that I am gonna say about the activities is pretty much done,” Perry said.

Again: “Everything has been said about that and I’ll refer you back to the press reports about it.”

One more time: “I will tell you that it’s already been addressed and I’m not going to be adding anything new to it because there’s nothing new to add to it.”

The speech imbalance in Texas politics exists at this festival, too, but it still might be the best corrective we have—even if its audience is pretty small. Davis did immeasurably better during her keynote than she did at the McAllen debate on Friday—she was more natural, more compelling and more incisive. It was a better airing of her views than we’ve seen so far. Van de Putte outshone Patrick in her session—she’s a natural and effective communicator. But the festival’s over, so we’re back to the quiet.

A backpack found on the Cage Ranch in Brooks County.
Jen Reel
A backpack left behind by a migrant in Brooks County

The Texas National Guard has deployed a team to Brooks County to conduct search and rescue operations for migrants lost in the brush.

Law enforcement has recovered more than 400 bodies since 2009 in the rural county 60 miles north of the Texas-Mexico border. Every year, thousands of migrants try to circumvent a Border Patrol checkpoint in Brooks County by walking through rugged, isolated ranchland. Many die during the journey from heat exposure and thirst.

The deployment is a separate operation from the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Operation Strong Safety and the National Guard soldiers deployed by Gov. Perry to the border, according to a DPS press release. Specially trained teams of 20 to 25 guardsmen will conduct search and rescue missions in the county when requested by the Brooks County Sheriff’s office. The National Guard didn’t say how long the deployment to Brooks County would last.

Eddie Canales, director of the South Texas Human Rights Center in Brooks County, said the guard deployment could save lives. “We welcome any assistance in search and rescue in Brooks County,” he says.“We’re very interested at the center in seeing how this works, and how they work with Border Patrol and the sheriff’s office.”

Canales believes the guard will mostly focus on 9-1-1 distress calls from the brush, which are received by the sheriff’s office. In the past, the Border Patrol has been criticized for taking two hours or longer to respond to distress calls, or in some cases not responding at all.

Another area where they need help is with missing persons reports, Canales says. The center received a dozen phone calls from relatives of missing migrants over the summer. But callers often have so little information about where their loved one went missing or fell ill in the county that it’s difficult—if not impossible—for law enforcement to locate them.

“I just received a call for someone who disappeared on the 18th of September,” he says. “But the only information we have about where he went missing is that it was near the checkpoint.”

Canales says families need help but he’s unsure what the National Guard search and rescue team can do in these cases with so little information. “What is the process to request a search and rescue deployment?” he asks. “I’m exploring all of the avenues right now, hoping they can help.”

Chewbacca for banned books

On the first day of Banned Books Week 2014The Dallas Morning News delivered the timely story of how Highland Park ISD—the wealthy enclave still grudgingly accessible by road from the rest of Dallas—has, more or less, banned seven books in response to a groundswell of parent outrage.

The Morning News‘ Melissa Repko reports that parents succeeded in getting the seven titles temporarily removed from classroom use, pending a review that could take months. Repko writes that the outrage surfaced a few weeks ago:

In Highland Park, more than 100 people packed a school board meeting this month. Parents and grandparents brought books flagged with sticky notes. They read excerpts of sex scenes, references to homosexuality, a description of a girl’s abduction and a passage that criticized capitalism. They sent hundreds of emails to district officials.

The school district doesn’t have video of the meeting, but it sounds as though it went a bit like this:

Like that school board in heaven Iowa, Highland Park school officials are urging calm, promising to give parents a chance to review the titles alongside teachers and students, and hopefully reach an understanding.

In a message sent Monday, Highland Park High School Principal Walter Kelly invited students and parents to join in the review. “Beyond the discussions of seven books out of hundreds of literary selections, I am more concerned about how we handle this as a school and community,” he wrote. “Central to the long-term discussion is how we make appropriate choices regarding instructional materials and books.”

Highland Park ISD spokeswoman Helen Williams says only one of the seven titles—Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain—was being taught this fall. Two others are slated for use in the spring, but she expects those books’ reviews will be completed by then.

“In terms of the effect immediately, it is not that onerous,” Williams says. “To give us time to conduct a thoughtful review, we are suspending use of those books.”

All of the books, she notes, are still available in the library—so this isn’t an outright ban—and parents always had the option to excuse their children from reading a given title. Still, this is the first time in more than a decade that parents have raised such widespread concern.

“It certainly a worthy topic and something I think is an age-old debate. What happened at the board meeting September 9 was standing-room only,” Williams says. September’s was the first board meeting of the new school year, and the first opportunity parents had to share their concerns after an email with controversial book passages began circulating in the spring.

The Morning News reports today that a new group of parents has formed to urge the district to put the books back in the classroom.

Highland Park’s banned-for-now list includes Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon—which Barack Obama has called his favorite book—and Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, both of which are on the College Board’s reading list for Advanced Placement English Literature. The Morning News has more details on the objectionable content in each of the seven banned titles.

It’s noteworthy that parents would declare war on so many books after more than a decade of peace—though, as Williams notes, worries about sex scenes or swearing in required reading are nothing new.

But there is also something especially rich about parents in Highland Park—where there are zero economically disadvantaged students, compared to 89 percent of the student population in neighboring Dallas ISD—objecting to their children being exposed to David K. Shipley’s 2004 work, The Working Poor: Invisible in America. “Some parents objected to the nonfiction book because it has a passage about a woman who was sexually abused as a child and later had an abortion,” Repko explains.

But then there’s the offending “passage that criticized capitalism,” which was read aloud at the board meeting. That’s not about coarse language, or even “adult themes” that could threaten the book’s G-rating. That’s about trying to control what ideas students are exposed to when they’re away from home—not so far, intellectually, from today’s conservative education movement, which has made statewide causes out of CSCOPE, the Common Core standards and the revised AP U.S. History course they say is too critical of the U.S. and its founders.

Every school district can choose which books to teach, which to put in the library, and which to avoid altogether. According to the ACLU of Texas’ 2013 banned books report, Texas schools have banned fewer books every year since 2007. The group says its 2014 report will be out later this week.

“We respect parents’ right to choose what books their children read and to work with teachers to find alternate titles when parents have concerns,” says ACLU of Texas Communications Director Tom Hargis. “But efforts by a single parent or small group to ban a title and keep all students from reading it infringes on the rights of other parents to make their own choices. No matter how well-intended, banning books is censorship and infringes on the rights of a free society.”

It also, in this case, made things a little awkward for the author Jeanette Walls, who is slated to keynote Highland Park’s literary festival next year, now that Highland Park parents have placed her memoir, The Glass Castle, on the chopping block. Walls explained to the Morning News why people should be allowed to read her book:

“Walls said she was heartbroken to learn that her book was on the list. Her memoir is about growing up in poverty with a father who spent his money on alcohol and a mother who became homeless.

“‘My book has ugly elements to it, but it’s about hope and resilience, and I don’t know why that wouldn’t be an important message,’ she said. ‘Sometimes you have to walk through the muck to get to the message.'”

 

Update Sept. 29: The Associated Press reported that Highland Park ISD has lifted the temporary ban on the seven titles mentioned below.

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