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Wendy Davis speaking
Patrick Michels

Tonight, Greg Abbott was interviewed by a team of reporters in McAllen. The interesting thing about this interview, which sets it apart from others, is that Wendy Davis was being interviewed at the same time. They even sat close to each other.

Campaigning in Texas is a very strange affair these days. Most Republican nominees, assured of victory, hide: There’s nothing else needed to win. So we can credit Greg Abbott for a willingness to take part in a debate, I suppose, except this wasn’t really a debate. It was more of a structured Q&A with lots of TV cameras. The two candidates didn’t really engage each other—the format didn’t allow them much space to do so. The moderators didn’t ask any follow-up questions and the candidates only asked each other one question apiece. It was, for the most part, a recitation of talking points. The whole thing went down on a Friday evening during high school football season—a great time if you want to minimize viewership.

All Abbott needed to do in this debate was keep words coming out of his mouth in relative order, and this was a charge that he took with the utmost seriousness. There were no “gaffes.” Yes, many of the things he said didn’t make too much sense—like when he seemed to credit the deployment of the state’s National Guard deployment for SpaceX’s decision, years in the making, to build a launch site in Brownsville.

A lot of things about Abbott’s performance seemed … off. There were the little things, like when he mixed up the name of one of the moderators, but anyone could do that. There was something odd about the way Abbott talked: the way he related the story about “visiting with a young Latina of about college age” who “begged and pleaded” with him to secure the border. It was odd, too, how frequently he referenced his Hispanic in-laws to answer questions about issues in the RGV: as if he was saying, Some of my best family members are Mexican-American…

In truth, if this were not Texas, Greg Abbott had a debate performance to feel mildly insecure about. But this is Texas: The bar is very, very low here. We’re a couple of weeks away from the general election, and we still don’t know very much about Greg Abbott. Who is he? What motivates him? What kind of governor would he be?

If Davis did better, she didn’t shine. It’s still remarkable how much Davis feels the need to tack right on many issues, like the border, or the death penalty. She touted several times that she wanted “boots on the ground” on the border, just maybe not Perry’s National Guard deployment. She again called for a special session on the border crisis. Davis said she was a staunch supporter of the death penalty.

She was more aggressive, turning to Abbott at one point and blasting him for for cozying up to Ted Nugent. She accused Abbott of wanting to standardize test four-year-olds and said that if parents wanted to change that they’d need to form a PAC, hire a lobbyist and make a political contribution to the Abbott campaign. One of her best lines came when she told Abbott that cutting $5 billion from public education wasn’t liberal or conservative but “just dumb.”

Davis highlighted her core issues: Her advocacy for pre-K programs, raising the minimum wage, equal pay laws. She hit Abbott—or as much as she could, given the format.

The spin from Abbott’s team post-debate is that Davis had a “meltdown” and “talked over the moderator.” In fact it was one of the few moments that a debate threatened to break out—before the moderator cut her off.

All in all, it’s hard to see how the debate moves the needle for either candidate. But it’s Davis who needs the upset. Abbott is content to play it safe and not make any unforced errors.

WTF Friday: Texas Secede!

texas secede

This week, the world watched as a proud people with funny accents, lots of oil and a long history of oppression at the hands of a distant, semi-foreign government flirted with secession.

I am talking, of course, about Texas. Sure, Scotland almost did the deed but what do those haggis-humpers know about freedom? The real story was happening here at home, where our Union is good but ya never know what’s gonna happen, ya know what I mean? Scotland was merely a warm-up, an inspiration for a referendum on Texas independence. As goes Scotland, so goes Texas, or so I’m told. Just ask Texas Nationalist Movement leader Daniel Miller (and, bizarrely, many journalists did). Pondered Miller in a post titled “Scotland is Paving the Way for Texas Independence”:

Have you wondered why the media on this side of the pond is relatively quiet in regards to Scotland’s upcoming referendum on independence? It is because those in power, sitting in lofty places, know that secession can be contagious. Look at what happened when the southern States of America began to break away. One by one, they followed.

Good ideas are contagious. Call it the bandwagon effect. Like teens buying One Direction schwag, one state decides to, say, defend the institution of slavery by plunging into a bloody conflagration and the rest can’t help but follow. Contagion.

But with independence (and the literal fulfillment of the Economic Development and Tourism Division of the Governor’s Office slogan “WHOLE OTHER COUNTRY”) comes great responsibility. National security. Border security. Public health.

Ain’t no thing, though. We’re already doing it.

First, we’ve got ourselves a secretary of D-Fence in Midland County Sheriff Gary Painter. When he’s not checking the Petroleum Club for jihadis, Painter is reading the morning intelligence briefing at Seems the sheriff has got a bead on a clear and present danger and it’s not mounting tensions between Midland-Lee and Odessa-Permian. Painter sees ISIS terrorist cells at the border. And they could be coming to the Permian Basin.

“I think it’d be naive to say that (ISIS is) not here…We have found Muslim clothing, they have found Quran books that are lying on the side of the trail, so we know that there are Muslims that have come across and are being smuggled into the United States.”

Maybe James O’Keefe dropped his costume? Well, in any case, there’s no proof that ISIS is here but there’s also no proof that they’re not. And ISIS is Muslim, Muslims use Quran books, and Quran books were found. Ergo: Code Red.

“If they show their ugly head in our area, we’ll send them to hell. And I think the United States needs to get busy. And they need to bomb them, they need to take them out.”

You heard the man: Bomb the ISIS stronghold. Bomb Texas.

(Also: the way Painter talks about “the United States” and “they,” you gotta kinda wonder: Has he already seceded?)

Independence, sovereignty, freedom—it means we’ve gotta police those borders ourselves. Greg Abbott’s got the Red River covered; who will take on the Rio Grande? There’s but one man for the job: Tony Tinderholt. Other men just talk; few are willing to admit that bloodshed (lots of it) is the answer.

“What’s going to happen on that border is going to be bad. And people are going to die. And it’s a sad, sad thing to say. But it’s the only thing that’s going to stop this infiltration of our country.”

Instant fact-check: People are dying. Pretty much every day. Authorities reported more than 700 deaths of immigrants crossing the border in the last two years. And those kids that are being deported back to Central America? Some of them are getting murdered. And still they come. And still they come.

But the invaders can rest a little easier this week. An old border battle-ax is moving on. A 21-gun salute for Todd Staples, Protector of America’s Food Supply. Staples is leaving his battle-station at the Texas Department of Agriculture—where he made combating the narco-terror threat to our rutabagas and sorghum a fixture of the office—to head up the Texas Oil and Gas Association.

What happens to our farmers and ranchers now that Staples has moved on to greener ($$$) pastures? They’ll be easier targets of the vegan menace. During his last weeks in office, Staples took on school nutritionists at Dripping Springs ISD, who dared implement a Meatless Monday. Hey if Pink Slime and USDA ‘Grade D But Edible’ chicken “fingers” are good enough for the kiddos on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, they ought to be good enough on the day after God’s day. Wrote Staples in a special op-ed for the Austin American-Statesman:

While we have plenty of room in the Lone Star State for vegetarians, we have no room for activists who seek to mandate their lifestyles on others.

Abiding by the first rule of op-ed writing—never waste an opportunity to invent a conspiracy by not mentioning another one—Staples ends his piece by playing one of the classics of the genre.

Need I remind Texas schools of another ugly fight over agenda-driven propaganda? Remember CSCOPE? Let’s get the propaganda out of Texas schools.

And off the Texas Department of Agriculture website too. Such things will never happen in an independent Texas. If only we can get the quisling squishes to get with the program.


Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples
Patrick Michels
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples at the 2012 Texas GOP Convention in Fort Worth.

Todd Staples, the state’s agriculture commissioner, is cashing his chips in. He’s leaving office now, instead of in January, so he can become president of that great advocate for our state’s agriculture industry, the Texas Oil and Gas Association. It’s hard to blame Staples: He’s gone as far as he can go up the political ladder—he placed third in the GOP lt. governor primary earlier this year—and this is a guarantee of a very comfortable life post-politics. (Though in a statement, Staples couched his decision in terms of his desire to “continue to fight for Texas to be the leader in our national and world economy.”)

But it’s worth reflecting on Staples’ legacy. He’s held the ag commish post for eight years, but his pursuit of promotion has been all-consuming. Now that he missed his chance, what does it all add up to?

For years, Staples’ overriding public concern has been border security, a non-traditional focus for agriculture commissioners. That was his springboard to higher office, he reckoned, and he went in big. Here’s the Observer’s Melissa del Bosque, from 2011:

Not long ago, Staples commissioned an $80,000 “strategic military assessment” of the Texas border. The Ag Commissioner released the 182-page tome, written by two retired generals, yesterday in a press conference at the Texas Capitol.

If you hadn’t heard, Staples is running for Lieutenant Governor in 2014. For the past year, the Ag Commissioner has been beating the war drums and burnishing his border security credentials. Last March, he unveiled a fancy, new taxpayer-funded Web site called “Protect Your Texas Border” which offers such highlights as night-vision surveillance chases of drug traffickers along the Rio Grande and a video interview with a Texas Ranger who proclaims: “We are in a war and I am not going to sugarcoat it by any means. We are in a war, and it is what it is.”

The website quickly became a PR embarrassment for Staples when its message board was flooded by people with helpful tips for fighting border violence:

User jcarrott suggests: “The most well known fighters of our Revolutionary war were not trained, they used hide and shot tactics that would work great today… If we — Americans — start shooting the bad guys, they will get the message!”

2$Bill offers methods like “watch groups, community patrols, land mines, tiger traps and roving packs of rabid [weasels].”

BTKKilla is more succinct, advising: “Killem all!!!! They are destroying or great country.”

Later, Staples used agriculture department money to purchase video cameras for the border, to the tune of $345,000. When Ted Cruz helped shut down the government last year, Texas farmers suffered. So Staples used his bully pulpit:

The government shutdown in October postponed the release of that month’s USDA crop report, which traders, distributors and farmers use to make important business decisions. Cotton prices fell 4.4 percent in the first week of the shutdown—a dramatic change that some pegged to the missing crop report. That price drop hurt already-struggling Texas cotton farmers.

Todd Staples was worried about the shutdown, too. The day before it ended, his office released a statement and two letters he had sent to U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, urging them to restore funding—for the U.S. Border Patrol. “I commend Congress for the current stand against Obamacare,” he wrote to Sen. Cruz, on Department of Agriculture stationary. “In the fray regarding the current shutdown, there are many questions about what are the essential functions of the government. Border security is absolutely at the top of the list.” Then he plugged his website.

Staples wanted to take the second-highest post in the state on the back of this kind of thing. But Dan Patrick skillfully outflanked him on the border, and it all came to naught. Old politicians don’t die—they just flail away.

Staples’ border activism has consumed almost the entirety of his tenure as commissioner—well, there’s also his long-lived anti-gay marriage activism. So where does that leave us as a state? What can we say Staples accomplished?

Staples’ probable successor—barring a shock landslide for Jim Hogan—is Sid Miller, who’s essentially already told us he’s gunning for the next job, too. He’ll make Staples look like Abraham Lincoln.

Sameena Karmally, Democratic Nominee for House District 98.
Christopher Hooks
Sameena Karmally, Democratic Nominee for House District 89.

If Democrats are going to turn Texas purple, they need to do a lot of work at the local level. Long-hidden voters need to be identified, and organizational abilities need to be strengthened. To do that, Democrats need good candidates to run in local elections. Even if they don’t win, they’ll do their bit to put calcium back in the Democratic Party’s old bones. They might run in red districts with little chance of victory, but they’ll pave the way for future contenders.

But standing for election is hell—it’s costly, and it exacts an enormous personal and professional toll. Most people won’t do it if they don’t have a decent chance of success—and there aren’t many places in Texas these days where a Democrat has that chance. So big pockets of the state don’t have any Democrats of significance running locally, which further alienates ordinary people from Democratic politics. It’s a tenacious feedback loop that’s going to be difficult to break.

Some Democrats, though, are doing their part. Take Sameena Karmally, who’s been waging a long-shot effort in heavily Republican House District 89, which covers an area north and east of Plano. In a different context, Karmally would make a star candidate. She’s a lawyer and mother of two who grew up in the Metroplex. She’s smart and thoughtful, and has a compelling personal story: She’s the daughter of Indian Muslim immigrants, and worked her tail off to get to UT School of Law. This is one of those races that seems to embody the clash of the old Texas and new Texas, particularly because she’s running against state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg (R-Parker).

If you know Laubenberg for one thing, it’s that she became the public face of the coalition backing last summer’s abortion restrictions. Laubenberg sponsored House Bill 2, the legislation that Wendy Davis filibustered. During debate on the bill, Laubenberg famously said that a rape exception for abortion restrictions was unnecessary because hospitals “have what’s called rape kits,” so “the woman can get cleaned out.”

That remark earned her international notoriety, but at home, Laubenberg cruises from re-election to re-election. She hasn’t had a primary opponent since 2002, and hasn’t had to run against a Democrat since 2006. She has perfect scores of 100 from Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and Michael Quinn Sullivan’s Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, wins awards from groups like the Young Conservatives of Texas, and is lauded by the NRA and pro-life groups. She’s the state chair of the influential American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which writes bills for conservative state legislators.

When Laubenberg first won her seat, it was a predominantly rural district. But the Metroplex has experienced explosive growth, and the nature of her district has changed. The last bout of redistricting cut off Laubenberg from the most rural areas, and now HD 89 is heavily suburban, with a growing immigrant population. Many of the district’s residents work for tech companies. The district is less Republican than it used to be, but on paper, it’s still looks prohibitive for Democrats. In 2004, every member of the Republican slate won more than 75 percent of the vote—in 2012, Mitt Romney won just under two-thirds.

The Texas Observer met Karmally in Plano to talk about her race.

Texas Observer: So why did you want to run?

Sameena Karmally: I wasn’t planning on running. You know, my children are very little. But I grew up here in Texas, and I watched what was going on last summer with that whole debate over women’s health and it seemed symptomatic to me of a state government that’s just sort of heading over a cliff.

We’re at the point now where we need to get control over what’s going on. We have so many issues in this state where people not voting is really affecting families and the quality of life and the Texas that we’re going to have in the future.

That’s one of the hardest things to communicate with people as we go out there, is that your vote could save lives. There’s children dying in foster care. Your vote could educate thousands of children because they’re cutting millions, billions from the Texas school budget. And people don’t know.

I guess it reached this critical point where I felt like I couldn’t wait ten years.

TO: A lot of people would look at this district and say that your chances are pretty slim.

SK: I’ve been told. (laughs)

TO: So why put yourself through this?

SK: Well, there’s the numbers on paper—and, nobody who knows me would say that I’m an overly naive or overly optimistic person—there’s what it looks like on paper, and what it looks like when you live here. When you live here, you see a whole lot of people who are frustrated with their state government, who are willing to vote for a Democrat who’s willing to do something.

And one of the reasons the numbers look so bad out here is because we just haven’t had any candidates run in so long. I’m Jodie’s first opponent in eight years. So we’ve fallen into this cycle of, there’s no Democrats who live here, there’s no Democrats to vote for. We meet people saying, “I thought I was the only Democrat who lived here,” everywhere we go.

We get them together for these events, and everyone is looking around shocked to find their friends and neighbors sitting with them at a Democratic event. They really thought that there was just no one like them in the area. And that’s very encouraging. That definitely pushes us to do more, versus just putting a name on a ballot, which has been the usual choice in the past.

I guess the answer is that I’m a sucker for hard work.

TO: Do you feel like you’re helping to open up the area for future Dems?

SK: Most certainly. Although—I think it’s a possibility to win in November. It’s just a matter of can we make enough phone calls and knock on enough doors. People are excited this year because of Wendy—we didn’t want to lose the chance to use that to do something locally while at the same time helping statewide candidates.

TO: How has this district changed since Laubenberg was first elected?

There’s many people who have moved here in the last two to four years—there’s just been an explosion of growth along the eastern side of Interstate 75. So that’s a huge opportunity. [Laubenberg] was redistricted, and the new lines were in effect two years ago, but of course there was no one running against her.

This is the first time she’ll be running with these new lines, and the new lines cut away a lot of rural areas that were in her district and left her with these suburbs, which are very diverse and young, and where a lot of people have moved in from the east and west coasts.

So there’s the new people and the new lines, but there’s also the old people. We went block-walking last weekend and we went to a neighborhood where people had lived on that street for 20 years. They had a history of voting independently, D and Republican. They overwhelmingly were willing to vote for a new face, a new person, and they didn’t really care what party I belonged to.

TO: This area up here reminds me of the suburbs north of Austin—House District 50, formerly held by Mark Strama—which experienced rapid population growth and suburbanization and went from Republican-leaning to solidly Democratic in the space of about a decade.

SK: My in-laws are from there. Pflugerville is a good analogy: Think about what Pflugerville was like ten years ago. Solidly rural. You wouldn’t even meet people who really lived in Pflugerville.

It’s a similar situation here. Solidly rural areas have become completely built-up. The city I live in, Allen, which is almost to McKinney, became completely built-up. Huge change in the district. Someone ran against [Laubenberg] in 2006: Even in 2006 it was majority rural out here. There just weren’t a lot of people to reach. Now we have all these new voters.

It’s very similar to Pflugerville. This is called the Telecom Corridor, because of all the tech companies around here. Texas Instruments is right here in Richardson. So there’s a ton of tech jobs around here.

Rep. Jodie Laubenberg (R-Parker)
Rep. Jodie Laubenberg (R-Parker)

TO: Why did you want to run against Laubenberg, specifically?

SK: She was a big motivation, for sure. She’s exactly the kind of person I don’t want in charge of my tax dollars. I don’t want government intruding in my family’s lives. I don’t want religion in public schools.

It was the events of last summer that really tipped me over. I thought, the inmates have taken over the asylum. We have people that just don’t know what they’re doing. Her comment about rape kits

TO: How has Laubenberg represented the district?

SK: She’s taking her orders from special interest groups. You look at her financials, and that’s who funds her. She’s doing the work of very large, monied interests. There’s not a lot of positive contributions that she’s made to our community.

We’re under stage three drought restrictions—she’s been on the [regional] study commission for the [Texas Water Development Board] for years and years and done nothing about it. We have such massive growth here—everyone agrees that our roads need investment. There’s no counter-argument to it. Even city councils are banging their heads against the wall, saying “we need state money to improve these roads our communities

depend on.” And there’s no action from her at the state level to take on these pressing issues.

She voted to cut $5 billion from schools. Many people moved to Plano and suburbs like it for the schools. That’s why they live here. Then she votes to cut $5 billion from public education. Overnight, schools are more crowded. Teachers don’t know where they’re going to be shuffled. Every parent who had a kid in public school out here thought, “Well, this isn’t what I bargained for when I agreed to move out here and pay these property taxes.” That affects everybody, whether you have a child or not.

TO: You’re an Indian-American Muslim woman running in the district of one of the most conservative politicians in Texas. Has anyone tried to make your background an issue in the race?

SK: No, I haven’t attracted that much attention. (laughs) Also, my district is—the census would tell you that it’s about 10 percent Asian. I can tell you that it’s at least 10 percent Asian. So it would be very foolish to run a “she’s not one of us” kind of campaign, or to run on my ethnicity. And I don’t think people take very well to those kind of personal attacks.

TO: As you’ve been working the district and trying to meet these new voters, what are some things you’ve learned?

SK: One question that we’re been struggling with a little bit is—how many Democrats are there here? It’s hard to say. Even in a presidential race, Democrats may not turn out because they know how the state is going to go. And in the off-years, we haven’t always had the most compelling statewide ticket. So it’s hard to say how many potential Democrats there are. And having a good local candidate—and this year we have several good local candidates in the area—will help, I think.

Immigrant communities don’t always realize the potentiality of their vote—how important it is, all the decisions that are being made with their tax dollars. I think that’s true of many communities—many people that moved here from out of state, their vote might not have been as important when they were living in a blue state. Here, it’s a critical matter.

The turnout is so low here, we really have no place to go but up. There’s not as much potential for growth on the Republican side, because many of their voters are registered Republicans and already vote. We have whole neighborhoods, whole blocks, where we can go door to door. We walked just last weekend and I had nobody turn me away at the door—my husband had two. We’re talking almost a hundred doors.

We’re finding a lot of that. I’m from South Asia, my parents are from India. There have been some national studies that say South Asians—Indians, Pakistanis, Bengalis—they vote upwards of 80 percent Democratic. And they consistently vote, once you activate them. And there’s other ethnicities‚ Chinese, Vietnamese, that vote better than 50 percent Democratic and vote consistently once you activate them.

This is all work we have to do sooner or later. Why not do it ASAP?


Screw the tea party. I’m going to start a P.E.A. (Penalized Enough Already) Party. Because in Texas we don’t have a tax problem—though the system is deeply inequitable—so much as a fine, fee, penalty and surcharge problem. Instead of tricorn hats, P.E.A. Partyers will don green eyeshades and scour the state’s books for the insidious ways in which lawmakers fund government through hidden fees, usually imposed on those who can least afford them.

There is no greater enemy of the Texas P.E.A. Party than the Driver Responsibility Program. Never heard of it? Few have, but millions of Texans have been hurt by this disastrous and cruelly petty program. Passed with almost no debate by the Legislature in the bad-budget year of 2003, the program was intended to make bad drivers pay for trauma care by levying steep civil surcharges on top of criminal penalties for DWIs, multiple traffic violations and (most problematic) driving with an invalid license or no insurance. The Driver Responsibility Program was supposed to improve public safety. Instead, it has saddled countless drivers with onerous fines, introduced a new form of double jeopardy to the legal system, stripped more than a million drivers of their drivers’ licenses and—in a classic example of perverse incentives—decreased DWI convictions.

Here’s how it works: For most traffic violations (e.g., running a red light) drivers accrue “points,” and if you rack up six points in any three-year period, you’re levied a fine of at least $100 each year for three years. If you get convicted for DWI, no insurance, driving without a license or driving with an invalid license, you’ll receive an automatic surcharge on your fine of $100 to $2,000 each year for three years, depending on the offense. Or even more if you’ve already accumulated six points. That’s on top of court fees, criminal penalties and the administrative charges levied by Municipal Services Bureau, a for-profit company that runs the surcharge program for the Department of Public Safety. Each surcharge is treated as a different “account” by Municipal Services Bureau, and many people report never having received notice of their surcharges. Missing a single payment can lead to suspension of your driver’s license. You may not even know your license has been rendered invalid until you get pulled over and slapped with a ticket (cost: $500, plus court costs, plus $750 in surcharges, plus an automatic one- or two-year suspension of your license). A second offense means you’re probably going to jail.

The failure of the Driver Responsibility Program can be measured in many ways, but here’s just one: Of the $3.4 billion in surcharges that have been assessed over the last decade, only $1.4 billion has been collected—an abysmal collection rate of 40 percent. Another telling stat: Nearly 1.3 million Texas drivers now have invalid driver’s licenses due to the program’s spiraling penalties, making a simple trip to the store, or to work, either a hassle or a risk.

Many folks just can’t pay. The surcharges are tantamount to a tax on poverty.

“We shouldn’t be taking driver’s licenses from somebody because they don’t have money,” Edna Staudt, a conservative Republican justice of the peace in notoriously tough-on-crime Williamson County, told a legislative committee in early August. “They’re not crooks; they’re not criminals; they’re not thieves; they’re not robbers or rapists; they’re just people that didn’t have money. ”

As lawmakers have heard in hearing after hearing, the program is deeply unpopular, and voices calling for its abolition are unusually diverse. Judges, prosecutors and jailers hate it. Hospitals, whose trauma centers are directly funded by the program, are happy to find other sources of revenue. Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving wouldn’t protest its repeal.

And yet the Legislature shows almost no appetite for serious reform. At a hearing in August, Rep. Joe Pickett, the El Paso Democrat who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said, “There is no intention on my part to do away with” the program. Instead, he circulated draft legislation that would modestly reduce the fees while trying to bolster “compliance.” Criminal-justice blogger Scott Henson rightly called Pickett’s weak bill “lipstick on a pig.” Why are lawmakers refusing to budge? Simple: They won’t find another way to fund trauma care. Pickett was blunt: “We’re the government. We’re living off of these monies … We’re not going to give up the money.”

This isn’t fiscal conservatism. And it sure as hell isn’t good governance. Time for a P.E.A. Party revolt.

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Placards at the launch of the Texas Smart-on-Crime Coalition
Placards at the launch of the Texas Smart-On-Crime Coalition

We may be some four months away from the start of the 84th Legislature, but preparations are well underway. And while much of that groundwork is taking the form of opposing interest groups getting ready to beat the living daylights out of each other, a somewhat happier tale may have started yesterday at the Capitol, where an unlikely bipartisan group of criminal justice reformers gathered to launch an effort that stands a good chance of making gains next session.

For years, criminal justice reform has been one of the few bright spots at the Legislature. The state still prides itself on a tough-on-crime reputation, but recently the Legislature has rebuffed efforts to increase criminal sentences, and has provided sentencing alternatives for a range of crimes. Even Rick Perry is touting the success of the state’s drug court system. The issue fuses traditional Democratic concerns about social justice, a GOP aversion to the coercive power of big government, and some of the state’s inherent libertarian sensibilities.

But next session, legislators seem set to carry a different tune on a wide range of issues. To keep the cause of criminal justice reform advancing, advocates are launching the “Texas Smart-on-Crime Coalition.” In it, the left-leaning Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation stand united. So do the big-money Texas Association of Business, and the central Texas branch of the non-profit Goodwill Industries. The launch event featured both Terri Burke, the head of the Texas ACLU, and Edna Staudt, a Republican justice of the peace from law-and-order Williamson County.

That’s as unusual a cross-section of the ideological spectrum as you’ll find in Texas politics. Last session, some of these groups testified in support of the same bills: This session, they’re making it official.

“This is the first time that we have officially joined forces,” says Ana Yáñez-Correa, head of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition “And it’s beautiful to see the additions.”

The new coalition will prioritize juvenile justice issues, like decriminalizing truancy and other so-called “status offenses,” but its agenda includes a wide range of reforms throughout the system.

The coalition call for sentencing alternatives for certain offenses, like graffiti; enhancing protections for accused persons throughout the criminal justice system; repealing the widely-loathed Driver Responsibility Program; encouraging rehabilitation programs in jail; and making it easier for ex-prisoners to find work once they enter the general population. The reformers hope to win automatic expunction of arrests that don’t end in prosecution, and change occupational licensing requirements to help ex-cons get good jobs.

Yáñez-Correa has hopes that the next Legislature will be even more amenable to reform than past ones. The coalition announced yesterday is a sign that the argument on reform has been effectively won, she says.

“The criminal justice systems also represents big government,” she said, describing the embrace of reform by many GOPers in the Lege. “This is the only issue that Democrats and Republicans have been able to work together effectively on over the years.”

Many of the “agenda items were bills that were already filed last session, and made it pretty far,” she added.

The bipartisan coalition will play an especially important role next year, particularly because “we’re going to have a lot of new members,” she said. “It was really important for us to let people know that, like [the Texas Association of Business’] Bill Hammond says, this isn’t a Democrat or Republican issue.”

The hope is that the rightward tilt in the Legislature will affect these reform efforts less than it will other issues. “Last session, we had a lot of tea party members in criminal jurisprudence, and they all voted for our stuff,” she said. “Like Charles Perry. I adore that man.”

There is one thing still to be worked out: Dan Patrick, who could take control of the Senate in January, has talked loudly about decreasing the number of Democratic chairs of Senate committees. Houston Senator John Whitmire, the longtime head of Senate Criminal Jurisprudence Justice, has been one of the strongest reform advocates: Will he keep his job?

“I don’t envision Patrick removing him from that position,” says Yáñez-Correa. “He’s been there so long. I don’t know why he would.”

Whitmire’s been a great help, she says. “As he will tell you, experience matters. The man has been around for a really long time. It would be a real loss to lose him. And he’s demonstrated an ability to work with both Republicans and Democrats.”

And there will still be opposition. “For those who benefit financially from the status quo, this will be difficult for them,” she says. “And there’s still some people who think ‘The criminal justice system is there for vengeance. I don’t care about rehabilitation.’”

Still, Yáñez-Correa says, the horizon looks bright. “It’s been such a pleasure working with people who don’t necessarily hold every view that I hold,” she says. “But we’re on the same page on these issues.”


A new report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that last year the incarcerated U.S. population grew for the first time since 2009. Texas had plenty to do with that.

It wasn’t a huge increase—about .3 percent or just 4,300 more prisoners out of the national total of almost 1.58 million. Nor did it erase all of the previous three years’ progress. The prison population peaked in 2009 with almost 41,000 more prisoners than were reported at the end of 2013. But it’s still a disappointing reversal, especially since this should have been a banner year for de-incarceration. The report showed that, for the first time since 1980, the federal population dropped. But that achievement was cancelled out by growth in the number of state prisoners.

As usual, Texas did more than its share. It continues to have more prisoners than any other state, and not by a smidgen, either. At the end of 2013, Texas had about 24 percent more prisoners than California, the No. 2 state. Besides an overall growth in prisoner population, Texas also saw a modest growth in prison admissions—1.5 percent—but a striking, almost 10 percent drop in prisoner releases. In other words, authorities are locking up somewhat more people but releasing far fewer.

U.S. Prison Population 2013

Texas also incarcerates more non-citizens than any other state—more than 8,800—and, like many states, is sending more women to prison than ever before. The study doesn’t break down prisoner populations by race per state, but does confirm that nationally, almost 3 percent of black male U.S. residents are incarcerated, which is six times the rate of white men. And while the number of black women in prison decreased slightly from 2012 to 2013, the rate at which black women are incarcerated was still double that of white women.

There is one spot of good news for reformers, though. Texas still puts more citizens in private prisons than any other state—about 14,500, or 23 percent more than Florida, the next highest—but private prison use here seems to be waning. The private prison population in Texas dropped by more than a fifth in just the last year.

The Pew Charitable Trusts also released its look at the correlation between prison populations and crime just last week. While they characterized the relationship as “a complex link,” the data seems to indicate non-linkage. Between 1994 and 2012, the five states with the largest decreases in imprisonment rates saw, on average, a 45 percent drop in crime. (Texas was ranked sixth, with a 6 percent decrease in its incarceration rate and a 36 percent decrease in crime. Not too shabby.) But the five states with the biggest increases in incarceration—nearly or more than doubling it—saw much smaller drops in crime, or, in the case of West Virginia, an increase in the crime rate.

That ranking may seem simplistic, but it confirms what much more exhaustive studies have found: Long prison sentences have minimal impact on crime prevention and powerful negative social and financial consequences. That was the conclusion of the National Research Council in its massive report on the growth of incarceration released in May.

“We are concerned that the United States is past the point where the number of people in prison can be justified by social benefits,” said Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, in a statement about the National Research Council report. “We need to embark on a national conversation to rethink the role of prison in society.”

And by society, we should all read “Texas.”

When Charles Bowden, the prolific  investigative journalist and writer, died in his sleep on Saturday, Aug. 30, at the age of 69, it was an uncannily quiet end for a man who’d spent his life recording turmoil and violence along the Mexican-American border in prose that cut through the fog of political rhetoric to reach the harsh realities of the desert Southwest. Bowden forged his career primarily in Arizona. He died in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in recent years.

To mark Bowden’s passing, the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University has opened an archive of Bowden’s papers and published work for research. The collection stretches to 50 linear feet of boxes stuffed with correspondence, research materials, photographs and manuscripts that span Bowden’s career up to 2007.

Bowden’s life was dominated by the border. Over the course of more than 100 articles and 25 books, he dug deeply into topics as diverse as ecology, crime, drugs and social policy. His attention fell equally on people and the environment in which they live, and most of the books he published with University of Texas Press explored the interwoven fate of landscapes and their inhabitants. His first book with UT Press, Killing the Hidden Waters, focused on the dwindling water resources of the western states. Another, Inferno, explored the Sonoran Desert with photographs by Michael P. Berman. Exodus, a collaboration with photographer Julian Cardona, examined both migrants and the people who prey on them. In 2010 UT Press published The Charles Bowden Reader, a collection of essays and excerpts from his major books.

Bowden’s former editor at Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery, described him in a remembrance as a mix between Humphrey Bogart, Sam Elliott and True Detective’s Matthew McConaughey. Conversations with Bowden, she recalled, were like reading his writing: a steady stream of subjects, references and ideas. “That he died in his sleep,” she wrote in an obituary, “and not at the hands of the cartels, or the coyotes, or dirty cops on either side of the border, is something.”

The violence that Bowden witnessed as a reporter infected his work, and he spent a lot of time dissecting his own reactions to violence. In “The War Next Door” he described receiving a call from a friend in Juarez. “He says a man just put a gun to his head and threatened to kill him,” Bowden wrote. “He wants me to call his wife if he turns up dead and explain what happened. I hang up and go back to reading a book. That is what the numbness feels like.”

The situations Bowden documented were stark and often murderous, and he had no patience for people who proposed easy solutions to complex problems. He wrote to expose the truth as he saw it, however cruel or uncomfortable. “The world is rushing in,” he wrote in the same article, in reference to  climate change. “We can hardly alter that fact if we continue to believe in fantasies.”

Archival research at the Wittliff Collections is by appointment only,

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TSTC culinary arts class
Courtesy TSTC
A culinary arts class at Texas State Technical College West Texas

If you’ve spent any time watching daytime TV, you know the pitch: Industries are critically short on skilled workers, and with the right training, an exciting career with great pay could be waiting for you! Enroll now!

Among technical colleges, the competition for students is fierce, and many make big promises to lure recruits (and the federal loan money they often bring). Texas has been cracking down on for-profit chains, even revoking the license of Dallas-based ATI Career Training Centers. As former Texas Workforce Commission Chairman Tom Pauken explained in 2011, “Schools that misreport employment information about their programs potentially exploit vulnerable individuals with false hopes.”

Today, the commission ensures that for-profit trade schools are up-front with recruits about placement rates—and specifically whether graduates are working in a field related to what they studied. For trade schools, more than any other sort of higher education, it’s a critical measure of success. To stay open, such colleges need to keep their program-related employment rates above 60 percent.

But those regulations don’t extend to public trade schools. Each year, almost 30,000 students attend one of 11 campuses in the state-funded Texas State Technical College System (TSTC). To compete against for-profits and their enormous ad budgets, public trade schools have relied mostly on good public relations; local papers near TSTC campuses often run glowing stories about high placement rates and soaring industry demand.

In 2012, the Marshall News-Messenger cited “a job placement rate at nearly 90 percent” for TSTC’s Marshall campus. In a Valley Morning Star story this March, the chair of TSTC’s surgical technology program flatly declares that “all graduates are placed in jobs.” TSTC makes similar claims online about its Waco campus: “on average, industry has more job openings than TSTC has graduates. TSTC boasts placement rates of more than 90 percent.”

George Reamy remembers how impressed he was the first time he heard numbers like those, back when he taught English at TSTC Waco. “I remember talking to people about that,” he said, “and they kind of whispered to me, ‘hey man, that’s not quite what’s goin’ on.’”

In fact, the “success” rate for graduates includes students employed in any field or enrolled in further education. Say you’ve got a job at Taco Bell, graduate from a biomedical technology program, and then keep on working at Taco Bell. TSTC counts that a “success.” “You’ll never see phrases like ‘program-related’ or ‘in their field of study’ or even ‘technical’ next to the word ‘job,’” Reamy says.

TSTC campuses in Marshall and Sweetwater recently begin posting data on training-related employment. At the West Texas campus in Sweetwater, which advertised a 90 percent placement rate for 2013, the degree-related job placement was just 65 percent. In the News-Messenger last December, TSTC Marshall Director of Career Services Benji Cantu announced a “substantial” placement rate of 81 percent—but didn’t mention the school’s program-related placement rate for 2013 was a less-substantial 40 percent.

Generally, Reamy says, the future for tech school grads is more complicated than these statistics let on. He points to a 2012 survey in which TSTC Waco graduates say they wish the school had been more up-front about their job prospects; the mixed reviews include some very positive comments, and more than a few from graduates who discovered their education was of little help in the job real world. Four call their degrees “a waste.”

For the same reason Texas doesn’t let for-profits make inflated claims about their programs, Reamy says, public schools ought to be transparent with recruits. “People make life-changing decisions based on stories like these,” he says. At his blog, “Watching Texas Technical Colleges,” he keeps up a drumbeat of criticisms against TSTC’s placement claims.

TSTC System Vice Chancellor Eliska Smith is familiar with these sorts of charges. But the truth, she says, is that there’s no systemic way to know which jobs are truly training-related. Unemployment insurance data doesn’t track graduates who leave Texas is prone to broad generalities that could accidentally list a graduate as working outside their field of training.

As an example Smith points to an automotive technology graduate who gets work as a mechanic at a Wal-Mart auto shop. State employment data wouldn’t count that Wal-Mart job as field-related. If a nursing graduate hires on at a school district and not a hospital, the state’s best data would consider that an unrelated field.

“There’s some fallacies in using ‘in-field,'” Smith says. “What matters to us, and what we think matters to our students is that our students are getting jobs.”

For the same reasons, even the Texas Workforce Commission—which has been requiring for-profits to maintain a 60 percent field-related employment rate—is moving away from its current measure, according to Richard Froeschle, the commission’s director of labor market and career information. Froeschle, one of the state’s experts on measuring career school outcomes, says the workforce commission relies today on self-reported numbers from schools, but is working on an objective measure more like what TSTC uses. “A level playing field, if you will,” Froeschle says.

Michael Bettersworth, an associate vice chancellor and data guru at TSTC, is well acquainted with the limitations of the data on training-related employment. For now, at least—until there’s better data on graduates’ jobs—he says it’s the wrong way to measure a school’s success. “I have gone down the rabbit hole of these data elements and philosophical debates,” Bettersworth says. “There are major structural limitations on the available data that limit the assumptions you can make.”

TSTC graduate earnings
Source: Michael Bettersworth and Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board
Texas State Technical College graduate earnings from 2009 to 2012

For now at least, Bettersworth says the best measures of TSTC’s success are how many graduates find jobs and how much its graduates earn after leaving. He says it’s a natural fit for TSTC, where the institutional mission is to grow Texas’ economy through workforce training.

Pressure to keep those numbers up has only increased now that the Legislature has tied TSTC’s state funding to its graduates’ earnings. The state’s calculations don’t include whether that job relates to what a graduate studied—they rely instead on a measure of graduates’ wages—a figure Bettersworth happily notes has risen in the first years of the new funding scheme (see the chart to the right).

For its willingness to stake its funding on graduates’ performance, TSTC has become a darling of the results-based higher ed movement that both Gov. Rick Perry and gubernatorial hopeful Greg Abbott have embraced. In his campaign, Abbott’s plan for higher ed includes funding all sorts of institutions—not just trade schools, but community colleges and four-year universities as well—based on some measure of their performance.

The trade schools offer a good example of how complicated school performance metrics can get, even for a relatively straight-forward question like whether graduates got jobs related to their studies. Performance metrics for, say, a university philosophy department wouldn’t be so straightforward.

And while folks like Froeschle and Bettersworth are fine-tuning measures for the state—probing data sets for weaknesses and being careful not to assume too much—what prospective students see in their local newspapers more often are local trade school officials’ certain claims that “all graduates are placed in jobs.”

Reamy says that’s where his frustration still lies: in the local recruitment pitches, where the nuance is often stripped from the numbers. “If there’s no good data on where people end up after graduation, officials need to quit talking about their employment rate without explanation or caveat,” Reamy says. “Anything less leads to false expectations and disappointment on the part of students and their families. … It boils down to integrity.”

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