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New friends of Representative Randy Weber (R-Caucasus)
New friends of Congressman Randy Weber (R-Caucasus)

It’s only been a week since we’ve brought back this accursed round-up, and things keep getting bleaker. The Texas Observer’s offices were annexed to the People’s Republic of Kory at some point during the night, and a certain gun rights activist has demanded that we not use his name, on pain of Facebook tirade and/or death. We will carry on, but we are also cowards. Long live ████ ██████!

1) Everyone knows that it’s fun to be a woman on the Internet. Case in point: Matt Beebe, a friendly Empower Texans fellow-traveler who tweets a lot and has run a series of not-too-successful primary challenges to noted tyrant House Speaker Joe Straus.

To clarify, Beebe is not a woman on the Internet, but he knows some. Last week, we talked a bit about AgendaWise’s super-strange treatment of women under the pink dome. (Spoiler alert: They’re “political concubines.”) Beebe had some thoughts about the “myth of female empowerment,” and he tweeted them at Texas Monthly’s Erica Grieder, with a helpful illustration:

This is weird, you say? Open your mind. Let he who has never sent a woman an unsolicited Reddit pic of a woman getting peed on cast the first stone.

Naturally, Beebe got mad when Grieder didn’t take the pee-picture in the manner in which it was intended. These ladies get hysterical at the drop of a hat, amirite?

2) Dan Flynn knows, presumably, that children are our future, but adults are our present and he’s an adult, living in the present, and have you seen children lately? Those dudes are terrifying.

So he’s got a bill to allow teachers to defend themselves or school property with deadly force. To explain himself, he pointed an Observer reporter to a YouTube video entitled, partially, “Black Student Slams Teacher.”

When you get old enough, I imagine the whole world looks like this:


3)
You might have thought state Rep. Steve Toth would stop Tothing when he lost his seat after a failed bid for the Senate. You would be wrong. He’s as Tothy as ever: He can’t help it.

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There’s a service called Poetweet which composes rhyming poems from portions of your tweets. Here’s a Rondel from Steve Toth:

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 1.55.12 PM


4)
Randy Weber, the able-minded Texas congressman who gained immortality for calling Barack Obama a “socialistic dictator” and “Kommandant-in-chief” before last year’s State of the Union address and who recently compared the president unfavorably to “Adolph Hitler,” (sic) normally has trouble stringing two syntactically correct sentences together. But now he plays an important role on the House Committee on Foreign Relations. So he’s branching out.

Last week, the Washington Times published a special section in the paper entitled “Azerbaijan: A Quarter Century Since Restoring Independence, A Thriving U.S. Ally.” It looked like part of the newspaper, but it was paid for by “friends” of the little Caucasus state, a dictatorship with unresolved borders and lot of oil that has been cracking down on journalists and dissidents. In the section, Weber gave us some of his carefully thought-out thoughts, in an op-ed titled “Why Azerbaijan matters to the United States.

Why would a relatively stable country at the intersection of the Middle East, Europe and Asia, with a strong economy and burgeoning energy supply, matter to the United States? It’s a great question with a relatively easy answer.

Woah! Tell us more, Randy!

Now, more than ever, we must strengthen our current relationships with allies new and old. Azerbaijan has continually shown their willingness to cooperate with our government to foster a healthier, more stable Middle East and Eurasia. It is imperative for the future of our national security that we continue down a path of collaboration and show that we will be a strong and strategic partner to Azerbaijan for years to come.

All hail Azerbaijan! When cleansing fires come, Azerbaijan will stand strong. Azerbaijan best country #1. Someday, Great Leader Ilham Heydar oglu Aliyev will wipe Armenian scum from earth and connect Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic with Azerbaijan motherland, and a thousand years of peace will follow, as was foretold.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the junkets, congressman.

CAKE: The UT-Austin chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas is celebrating Ronald Reagan’s birthday by providing welfare cake to passersby on campus. Get it while you can!

DanFlynn
Dan Flynn

The 84th Texas Legislature has been in session more than three weeks and the Observer has yet to bestow our most dubious legislative accolade: the Bad Bill. We shall dally no more.

We present to you House Bill 868, by Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Canton).

Promisingly dubbed the Teacher’s Protection Act, the bill authorizes teachers to use “force or deadly force” to defend themselves, students, or school property. Flynn’s bill expands the Castle Doctrine—the 2007 law that has led to a rash of justifiable homicides in Texas—to include teachers.

As a former public school teacher, I understand the frustration of catching a student tagging a bathroom wall or having to break up a fight. But suggesting that teachers use deadly force underestimates the potential for hallway misfire. French teachers aren’t trained to use lethal force. Think back to your middle school P.E. teacher. Do you want him locked and loaded?

The bill is attracting ridicule from media outlets across the nation. The New Republic calls it “especially ill-considered, and especially cruel.” Think Progress wrote that the bill could have disastrous consequences for students of color and called it a “fatal can of worms.”

Flynn is disappointed with the reaction. He complained to the Observer that the bill is “being styled that we’re going to give them guns and they are going to shoot people. It’s unfair.”

“I just want teachers to feel like they can protect themselves,” Flynn said. “There’s a lot of fear on the part of some teachers of students attacking them, and if they try to protect themselves then they become the person that is the culprit.”

As evidence, Flynn mentioned a video of a 16-year-old student body-slamming his teacher in New Jersey.

 

“You can tell the teacher is holding his hands up, not wanting to do anything to get himself fired,” Flynn said.  “And the student is bigger than the teacher.”

Others are not so thrilled about a bill encouraging teachers to protect themselves with “force or deadly force.” Louis Malfaro, president of the Texas Chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), says of the bill that there is no desire among educators for “another dumb idea like this.”

If legislators want to make schools safer, Malfaro said, they should provide funding for smaller class sizes so teachers can give students more attention, more school counselors and properly trained security personnel.

“They focus on things like this [arming teachers] because they don’t want to give schools the funding that is needed to address the underlying issues that may cause a child to act out,” Malfaro said.

Ironically, despite all the controversy surrounding the bill, it’s largely redundant.

“Texas already has expansive laws in place allowing the use of deadly force to protect people and property,” said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.

“The bill just restates criminal law, I don’t know why teachers would be different from any other citizen,” he added.

The Castle Doctrine—sometimes called “Stand Your Ground” laws—empowers Texans to use deadly force to protect themselves and their property and has been invoked in several infamous cases.

In 2010 a Houston taco truck owner shot and killed a 24-year-old man who stole a tip jar, and last year a San Antonio man shot and killed a prostitute who took his money and refused to have sex with him. Neither man was convicted of a crime.

Flynn admitted the law may be redundant, but he said that’s of no importance.

“If it has to be redundant for teachers to feel safer, then I’m OK with that,” Flynn said.

Check out our very bad archive of Bad Bills here.

Kevin Eltife
Kevin Eltife

In Texas GOP circles these days almost nothing is as sacrosanct as tax relief.

In fact, you’re about as likely to catch a Republican arguing against a tax cut as you are to nab the elusive chupacabra.

At today’s Senate Finance Committee Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) pretty much went there.

Eltife said state pension funds have been “shortchanged for years,” and something needs to be done before lawmakers consider cutting taxes.

“We should have made the tough decisions to either raise taxes or cut [benefits],” Eltife said. “The reason we’re in this mess is because we haven’t made the tough decisions over the last 10 years.”

The senator’s comments come on the heels of last month’s report from Moody’s, a bond credit rating business, warning state lawmakers to shore up Texas pension funds.

Texas has several state-funded pension funds. The largest, the $128 billion Teacher Retirement System, has unfunded liabilities of $28.9 billion. The second largest, the $25 billion Employee Retirement System (ERS), faces a $7.2 billion shortfall. It is normal for large pension funds to have unfunded liabilities but if they grow too large, it can be difficult for the pensions to make good on promises to future retirees. A rule of thumb for a fund’s health is that the assets-to-benefits ratio not dip below 80 percent. TRS’ ratio sits at about 81 percent. As a result of changes made last session—the Legislature changed benefit plans and chipped in more money—TRS is “actuarially sound,” according to the fund’s managers in a report to the Legislature. It is “one of the best funded public pensions in the nation,” the report states.

Still, lawmakers are concerned with the long-term performance of the funds, especially ERS, which has a funded ratio of about 77 percent.

“Eighteen of the past 20 years the Legislature has underfunded the ERS retirement system,” said Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin). “It is the fault of the Legislature that we’re having this discussion. We’re concerned about how big the nut is that we’re going to need to crack.”

According to the Moody’s report, Texas faces “rising pension costs due to a history of contributions below actuarial requirements.”

Moody’s laid out the options: Increase funding, reduce benefits, or eventually run out of money.

Eltife’s position got plenty of pushback from other committee members.

Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) and Sen. Joan Huffman, (R-Houston) both seemed to reject Eltife’s comments about the urgency of pension funding.

“Texas is doing much better than other states,” Schwertner said. The problem is not how much the state is taxing, but “how much we are obliged to pay through entitlement programs.“

Austin Wallis
YouTube
Screenshot from Austin Wallis' (right) YouTube video

Earlier this week, a 17-year-old YouTube blogger posted an emotional video in which he recounted how he was forced to leave his high school because he’s gay.

In the video, Austin Wallis repeatedly breaks down crying as he sits with his boyfriend and explains how administrators gave him a choice between going back in the closet or finding a new school. Wallis’ story has gone viral, getting picked up by outlets including Huffington Post, and as of Thursday morning, the video had been viewed more than 170,000 times in the four days since it was posted.

Wallis doesn’t identify his former school in the video, saying he doesn’t want the controversy to reflect badly on teachers who supported him, but the Observer has learned that Wallis attended Houston’s Lutheran High North.

Dallas Lusk, head of school at LHN, sent the Observer a statement from Wayne Kramer, executive director of the Lutheran Education Association of Houston. The association covers three schools, including LHN, which has an enrollment of 162.

“Lutheran High North welcomes all students and their families to the LHN community,” Kramer said in the statement. “We profess and proclaim our Christian beliefs with the foundations and authority taught in the Bible, all within the teachings of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. We respectfully require students to adhere to these accepted values and moral beliefs. Sometimes, as in this case, students have to make choices and decide whether their beliefs align with our community and we respect their choices. We also respect student privacy and do not comment on any individual student or their actions.”

In his email accompanying the statement, Lusk wrote, “The allegations you received have been misrepresented.” Asked for clarification, Lusk said he couldn’t discuss specifics about Wallis but called the situation “frustrating.”

He also indicated that LHN students are barred from promoting “anything sinful” and referred the Observer to a “morals clause” in the school’s handbook.

“Lutheran High North reserves the right, within its sole discretion, to refuse admission of an applicant and/or to discontinue enrollment of a current student participating in, promoting, supporting or condoning: pornography, sexual immorality, homosexual activity or bisexual activity; or displaying an inability or resistance to support the qualities and characteristics required of a Biblically based and Christ-like lifestyle,” the clause states.

According to the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s website, the denomination views homosexual behavior as “intrinsically sinful.” The LCMS is the second-largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S., behind the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America, which voted in 2009 to ordain gays and lesbians.

“The Missouri Synod believes the Bible teaches homosexual behavior is contrary to God’s Word and will, and the LCMS seeks to minister to those who are struggling with homosexual inclinations,” the denomination’s website states.

Wallis posted a coming out video on his YouTube channel six months ago. Since then, he and his boyfriend have posted dozens of others, including one in which they take off their shirts off and draw on each other’s chests.

In the video about LHN, Wallis notes that he had never previously mentioned the school on YouTube. Nevertheless, he alleges that approximately two weeks ago, he was summoned to the principal’s office. The principal said he knew Wallace was gay and was going to get his parents involved. The next day, Wallis returned to the principal’s office accompanied by his mother.

He said the principal told him that if he wanted to stay at LHN, he had to go back in the closet and delete his social media, including his YouTube account, which he said “means the world” to him.

“It means a lot to me that I can, you know, help a few people who might be feeling like they’re not worth it, or like being gay is too hard, or they need to hide from everybody, and I don’t want people to feel like that,” he says in the video.

Two days after the second meeting with the principal, Wallis says he decided to leave LHN. Although technically it was his choice, Wallis says he felt as though he was in danger of being expelled and didn’t want to attend a school that considered him immoral.

Wallis says he was a good student, and although it seemed the principal was doing everything possible to keep him at LHN, he was baffled by the fact that his sexual orientation had even become an issue.

“I think it’s ridiculous that in this day and age you can be excluded from your own school for being gay,” he said. “When I came out, I knew I was going to have bullies … but I never expected it to be from the people who are supposed to protect you from the bullies, who are supposed to try to stop that.”

Wallis goes on to call LHN’s actions “absolutely disgusting” and says he can’t believe they were legal, even though it’s a private religious school. He says he posted the video because he wants to change the world for the better.

“I am a Christian and I love my God, and I don’t feel like this is what He would have wanted, and I don’t feel like excluding someone for who they are is anything near Christian,” Wallis says.

Ken Upton, senior counsel at the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, told the Observer he personally believes the school’s actions qualify as “abuse.” However, Upton conceded it’s unlikely school administrators violated Wallis’ rights to free speech or privacy.

“The short answer is that if it’s not a government school, if it’s a strictly private school, the First Amendment doesn’t apply to them,” Upton said. “If they’re a private school, then I think it’s game over. They’re entitled to discriminate.”

Julian Bond
Alisa Semiens
Julian Bond at the LBJ School in Austin

Julian Bond, one of the icons of the civil rights movement, gave the keynote address at the 2015 Barbara Jordan Forum yesterday at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs in Austin, where he spoke of the triumphs and challenges of the fight for racial equality. Bond said the election of a black man as president has led some to believe we’ve achieved a post-racial society even as the accomplishments of the 1960s, including the Voting Rights Act signed by LBJ, are under unprecedented assault.

“Barack Obama’s election and reelection was testament to one man’s singular abilities, and not to racial nirvana across the land,” Bond said to a room of about 800 people. “His victory didn’t herald the post-civil rights America or mean that race had been vanquished. It couldn’t eliminate structural inequity or racist attitudes. Indeed there is evidence that it fomented them. Obama is to the tea party as the moon is to werewolves.”

Indeed, Bond said that race still dominates American society.

“The truth is Jim Crow may be dead, but racism is alive and well. That’s the central fact of life for every non-white American, including the president of the United States. It eclipses income, position and education. Race triumphs them all,” said Bond.

Bond praised the progress made by the civil rights movement and frowned on the notion that those were the “good old days,” but he said there was still much to do.

“While we struggle today with greater efforts and grander victories, we still are tested by hardships and adversity. The rich have been sitting at the banquet table, and the rest of us have been on the menu.” People of color are particularly beset by growing income inequalities. For example,  the median wealth of white households is 20 times greater than that of black households, and 18 times greater than that of Hispanic households. The chance of imprisonment is 577 percent higher for black Americans than it is for white Americans, Bond said.

Founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the grandson of slaves, Bond recalled his first arrest at age 20 in 1960. He’d led a group of students to a segregated cafeteria in the basement of Atlanta City Hall. When he went before a judge to make his plea, Bond hesitated and one of his lawyers whispered in his ear, “Not guilty, you fool.”

“I had the presence of mind to drop those last two words, or I wouldn’t be standing here today.”

Comparing the movements in 1960 to today, he went on to elaborate on the differences and encourage people to continue to fight and push back against oppression.

Bond said we tend to view the past in terms of dramatic events and huge personalities but that most movements are composed of ordinary people working extraordinarily hard.

“Looking back on that movement from today, we now see a very different view of the events and personalities of that period. Instead of towering figures of kings and Kennedys standing alone, we now see an army of anonymous women and men,” Bond said. “Instead of famous orations made to multitudes, we now see the planning and the work that preceded the triumphant speech. Instead of a series of well-publicized marches and protests, we now also see long organizing campaigns and brave and lonely soldiers often working in near-solitude.”

House staffers wait for their bosses' committee assignments outside of the House post office.
Christopher Hooks
House staffers wait for their bosses' committee assignments outside of the House post office.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick released his committee assignments almost two weeks ago, but House Speaker Joe Straus took his time, as is Legislature tradition. House committee assignments, which came down late this afternoon, are the last piece of the Legislature’s machinery to be assembled before it kicks into high gear.

Because Patrick had a bounty of freshman senators to deal with and a desire to boot Democrats from positions of influence, the makeup of some of his committees is dramatically different than last session. But for Straus the rule of thumb appears to be: more of the same. In general, the same kind of legislators who had influence last year—moderate, Straus-friendly Republicans and moderate Democrats, each of whom share a love of business and the status quo—will hold the reins of power this year.

The most important is the Appropriations Committee, which handles the budget. Moderate state Rep. Jim Pitts had it last year, but he retired. This year the top gig goes to state Rep. John Otto (R-Dayton), another moderate and the former vice-chair of the Ways and Means Committee, which handles taxes. Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) keeps his vice-chairmanship. An accountant in private life, Otto is the kind of lawmaker who wins plaudits from Texas Monthly, which once described him as having “the stolid look of a subject of a Rembrandt portrait.” Well.

Ways and Means, in turn, goes to Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), who was a top Straus lieutenant last session, frequently holding the gavel in the speaker’s absence. Dallas Democrat Yvonne Davis becomes the vice chair—the committee was headed by two Republicans last cycle.

The all-important Calendars Committee, which breathes life into (or takes life away from) bills as they move through the legislative process, stays pretty much the same, with Republican Todd Hunter and Democrat Eddie Lucio III retaining the chair and vice-chair positions, respectively, and keeping the same mix of Democrats to Republicans—five of 15.

Public Education, usually a hotbed of activity during the session, could pose challenges for Patrick’s school choice agenda. Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) keeps his chairmanship. There are a number of rural Republicans, who are generally disinclined to vote for vouchers and are protective of public schools. Of all the committee members, the rep most likely to endorse education reforms might be Rep. Harold Dutton, Jr. (D-Houston).

Committees that have been used to shut down regulatory and reform efforts in the past remain big obstacles to change. Environmental Regulation lost one of its few Democrats—there are now only two donkeys among the committee’s nine members. Investments and Financial Services, which effectively killed payday lending regulation last year, has two Democrats out of seven.

But some committees look better for Democrats. Transportation, which could be a busy committee this cycle, is actually led by two Ds, Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso) taking the top spot and Rep. Armando Martinez (D-Weslaco) taking vice-chair. Neither held those spots last year. And Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) leads County Affairs, an unsexy committee that handles important business.

And there are plenty of unusual footnotes. Rep. Gary Elkins (R-Houston), the Sith lord of Texas payday lending, was named the chairman of Government Transparency and Operations. Molly White, the freshman rep who’s off to a rough start, will now have a venue for her theories about Muslims in Homeland Security and Public Safety. Homeland Security’s vice-chair, Rep. Poncho Nevárez (D-Eagle Pass), has had some experiences at the Capitol lately that might inform his understanding of the need for public safety.

Legislators who voted against Straus in the leadership election got hosed, more or less, as you’d expect they would. Poor Scott Turner, who ran a hapless campaign against Straus for the speaker’s gavel, got shunted all the way down to International Trade and Intergovernmental Affairs, which has been known in past years as a place for the speaker to stick too-promising Democrats—Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) is the chair—and unloved Republicans. (Perhaps unfairly.)

But Giovanni Capriglione, a Republican from the Metroplex who bucked his tea party supporters and loudly supported Straus, came out of his ordeal pretty decently. He sits on Appropriations, Local and Consent Calendars, and Investments and Financial Services—the last committee is sought-after for its members ability to raise money from the many well-heeled outsiders who have business before it.

Here’s a last thing to chew on: While almost all of the committees have a masculine, musky flavor, seven of the House’s 38 committees don’t have a single woman.

Purple Zone merchandise on the shelves.
Tom Cochran
Merchandise on the shelves at the Purple Zone in Alpine, Texas, the subject of repeated raids by police looking for synthetic drugs.

From the spice-ravaged wilds of East Texas to the incense-dusted Panhandle plains, lawmakers headed to Austin this year vowing to snuff out synthetic drug sales once and for all. Stories about horrific overdoses, particularly among children, are common today in the small-town papers; in early January the Beaumont Enterprise reported that “a particularly vile batch” of synthetic drugs sent 50 people to the hospital over one week, suffering from hallucinations, extreme paranoia, violent outbursts and seizures. As state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) told the Longview News-Journal, “We need to do whatever it takes this legislative session to solve the problem.”

But what, exactly, will it take? Lawmakers thought they’d outlawed synthetic marijuana back in 2011, creating a new class of banned substances, and even banning chemical “analogs” similar to those listed in the law. But walk into the right gas station or head shop today, and you’ll still find foil pouches of “incense” with the same winking warnings that their contents are “not for human consumption.”

That’s partly a marketing issue; synthetic cannabinoids were unregulated for years, advertised as a legal high before the first federal and state bans took effect, and some shop owners may still think they’re legal. But it’s also a problem with the law—first because manufacturers can invent new chemical compounds faster than Texas’ biennial Legislature can add them to the banned list, and second, because the 2011 law only bans chemicals that “mimic the pharmacological effect” of natural marijuana.

That’s a judgment call that no lab chemist can make in court, says Texas District and County Attorneys Association spokesman Shannon Edmonds. “The lab folks say, ‘We can diagram this chemical compound for you, but we can’t tell you whether the effect was similar,’” Edmonds says.

Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) proposed a fix in 2013, but her bill fell victim to a brutal sort of Capitol justice, killed by Democratic Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon because Huffman torpedoed an important bill of hers. This session, Huffman has filed new proposals to clean up the language and ban a few new chemicals. Lubbock Republican Sen. Charles Perry has a similar bill.

But for now, Texas has a 4-year-old ban on synthetic drugs that simply can’t hold up in court. “Although the laws on the books are in place, we have not been able to prosecute those cases,” says Harris County Assistant District Attorney Justin Wood, “because of the wording of the statute.”

Despite being worthless at trial, the ban has been invoked to justify raids on smoke shops, including Glass Dragon shops in Longview and the Purple Zone in Alpine (see our story “The Thin Purple Line” from July 2014), letting police confiscate merchandise from the shelves. Prosecutors can either drop the case or bluff their way to a guilty plea.

Other officials have gotten more creative. Houston and Lubbock have city ordinances restricting synthetic drug sales. In the Lubbock County District Attorney’s Office, chief investigator Todd Smith says they focus on enforcing labeling requirements—like the contents’ weight and a list of ingredients—that most spice packets don’t meet. But if manufacturers start labeling their packets properly, Smith wonders how else he could stop them.

“I don’t know if you can ever beat it,” Smith says. “You have a group of people that are always going to be in the market for something like this, and … I’ve never underestimated somebody willing to make a dollar.”

Kory Watkins
Open Carry Tarrant County leader Kory Watkins

Few people in Texas history have made enemies at the Capitol as quickly and decisively as Kory Watkins, the leader of Open Carry Tarrant County, a group that proved too radical for the main body of open carry demonstrators. Lobbying for the right to carry handguns openly in public and without a license, he’s almost single-handedly turned what should have been a sympathetic Legislature against his core cause, irritating and alienating natural friends and generally making himself a nuisance.

Today, he took a big step toward Travis Bickle territory, warning legislators that their behavior was “punishable by death” and that there’s “going to be trouble” if they don’t cave to his demands.

It’s not the first time he’s crossed the line from nuisance to threat: Open Carry Tarrant County’s shameful behavior in state Rep. Poncho Nevárez’s office freaked out the whole Legislature, and caused the Department of Public Safety to give Nevárez a security detail. Dan Patrick, after inadvertently infuriating the open carry guys, has tried to give them consolation prizes. The Senate would allow guns on college campuses, Patrick emphasized. Maybe licensed open carry had a chance.

But open carry activists like Watkins want unlicensed open carry, in part because quite a few of them have criminal backgrounds and can’t get a concealed handgun license under current law.

This morning, Watkins uploaded a video monologue to his Facebook page. It quickly got taken down, but not before anti-open carry activists took it and uploaded it to YouTube.

“Last week, we got to see the games of the legislators,” Watkins tells the camera. “Looks like we have campus carry, no problem. But open carry? I don’t know about that,” he says, mimicking a legislator.

He challenges his audience of activists not to take the bait: “Are you going to settle for the low-hanging fruit that your masters are putting on the tree for you? Or are you going to go to the top of the tree and grab that fruit at the very top?”

Watkins has had enough. “I’m tired of jacking around. I’m tired of playing politically correct games. I’m tired of saying, ‘Well, this is chess, and we gotta take this slowly.’ No, no, no, no, no. This isn’t a game. This is reality. And these are our rights they’re playing with.”

Then, he goes too far: “I dunno if they forgot what their duty is, but it’s to protect the Constitution. And let me remind you: Going against the Constitution is treason. And treason is punishable by death.”

The men and women of the Legislature would do well to heed his words. “We’re not playing around. I don’t think they wanna mess with us too much longer.” If they did, something new would be coming at them. “They better start giving us our rights, or this peaceful non-cooperation stuff is gonna be, um, gamed up. We’re gonna step it up a notch.”

He’d just about had it. “In Texas we’re tired of jacking around with people in suits who think they can take away freedoms in the name of safety,” Watkins says. “These politicians down there are jacking around with your head.”

In Nevárez’s office, Watkins had stuck his foot in the door, preventing the rep from kicking him fully out of his office. It’s time for more, Watkins says.

“I want to put more than my foot in that door. We should be doing way more than that. We should be demanding that these people give us our rights back. Or else it’s punishable by death. Treason,” Watkins says. “You understand how serious this is, Texas? We need to start sticking more than foots in doors. This is treason against the American people. You don’t sell my rights back to me. Or you’re gonna find trouble.”

With that, he ends the recording.

What Dan Patrick’s First Big Mistake Says About Him—and the Senate

Dan Patrick manages to assemble his own personal circular firing squad in the first weeks of the session.
In a campaign ad from 2013, Patrick says he'll support open carry in office.
In a campaign ad from 2013, Patrick says he'll support open carry in office.

Among the myriad embarrassments the Legislature has suffered through in the last week, one subplot has something important to say about the potential embarrassments it will suffer through going forward. Last week saw Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s first big bungle—a totally avoidable trial-by-fire that demonstrates some of Patrick’s possible shortcomings as a leader and political actor.

You may have seen parts of it crop up in the news, but here’s the whole thing, in three painfully mismanaged acts. Last Tuesday, Patrick was interviewed by the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith at an early morning event. Smith asked Patrick if open carry was a done deal given the conservative composition of the Senate.

“Second Amendment rights are very important,” Patrick said. “But the open carry does not reach the level of prioritizing at this point out of all the things we talked about.” In fact, he didn’t even “think there’s support in the Legislature to pass it,” adding that “the votes have not been there” in the past, and little had seemed to change. If the votes materialized, he’d let it pass, but he wasn’t going to be pushing for it.

Patrick had his own priorities—he shoehorned a plug for school vouchers into his answer—and open carry just wasn’t one of them.

This was a careless answer, even if—especially if—it were true. Republican senators may be privately apprehensive about open carry after January’s shenanigans, and Patrick may not care much about it personally. But Patrick ran in the Republican primary by repeatedly pledging he supported open carry. Moreover, he said he would “fight for open carry,” which is a bit more assertive than just saying he would let it pass.

The problem: Under the new rules Patrick forced on the Senate, he can no longer quietly ensure Democrats take the blame for the failure of gun bills, like his predecessor David Dewhurst did. Nineteen of the Senate’s 20 Republicans could vote as a block and pass open carry out of the chamber, but there are quite a few GOP senators who are skeptical.

Of the two proposed Senate bills, licensed open carry may yet show signs of life. But unlicensed open carry, which the loudest activists are demanding, seems unlikely to pass. Patrick and open carry’s backers would have to employ a great deal of arm-twisting and expend a lot of political capital to advance the measure, which may be doomed regardless, and Patrick has other priorities.

That said, why didn’t Patrick just say he’d fight for it now, and then see what happens? Perhaps Senate moderates would take the blame for open carry’s failure—if it does fail—or perhaps the measures would fall apart in the House, where Joe Straus’ merry band of RINOs would suffer the ire of the base instead.

Patrick's campaign website made clear he would "fight for open carry."
Patrick’s campaign website made clear he would “fight for open carry.”

Instead, Patrick appears to have told the truth when he should have lied, which in politics is the greatest gaffe of all. Just a few hours later, he had an easy opportunity to qualify his remarks and quash brewing dissent: At the unveiling of the Senate budget plan, a reporter asked him about his open carry talk. But Patrick snippily declined to answer, and took the reporter to task for asking a question that wasn’t about the budget.

Predictably, the open carry guys went nuts—or, more nuts. But why shouldn’t they? Patrick told them he was a fellow traveller when he needed their votes, but now he had seemingly flipped. So the gun activists turned up the heat on Republican senators, the people for whom Patrick is supposed to provide cover. The leader of Open Carry Tarrant County, Kory Watkins, issued a series of cryptic threats toward, and complaints about, Patrick that promised confrontation later in the week. Here’s a fun video of Watkins after getting off the phone with Patrick’s office.

At any point, Patrick’s communication team could have covered for their boss pretty simply: Patrick, they’d say, cares about gun rights and would fight for it this session, etc. But it took his office two days to put out a statement, which finally came late last Wednesday afternoon. It was a major walkback. Labeled “Senate Gun Bills Update,” Patrick’s office emphasized that the Senate’s campus carry bill, which would force colleges to allow guns on school property, had been co-authored by 19 of the Senate’s 20 Republicans.

Now that the campus carry bill was on its way, Patrick’s Senate could focus on “other 2nd Amendment issues, including Open Carry, which I have consistently supported.”

That night, Patrick took to Facebook, for a long post that put the blame for his statements on… the media.

There were inaccurate reports in the media and across the Internet yesterday regarding my comments concerning Open Carry legislation. Despite reports to the contrary, I have never changed my position on the issue. I remain a steadfast supporter of the second amendment and Open Carry legislation.

As is typical of the media looking to build wedges among conservatives, many stories took words out of context. I did not say the bill was dead but suggested instead that, because the votes were not there (at this time), it had not risen to a level of priority….at this point. That is far different than saying an issue is not a priority, it just means work still needs to be done.

It’s a crisis management tack that would be well-suited for a campaign, but not for governing. Watch the video for yourself—this is not what Patrick said. Certainly, he may have misspoken, but the confidence with which he talked at the Tribune event would seem to argue against that.

There are even some people who have argued that Patrick was playing a kind of three-dimensional chess here by forcing activists to apply pressure to waffling senators to support open carry, but this seems weirdly reminiscent of liberals who insist that President Obama is always following a master plan just slightly out of view. Moreover, his communications team’s response to this episode doesn’t seem especially thought-out.

Eventually, Patrick’s staff met with Watkins, the rogue open carry leader. By Monday, Patrick’s communications team was in full gear, attempting to reassure activists he would follow their lead on their favored gun bills. Many still don’t quite believe him—and again, why should they?

But here’s the crazy thing: The end result of Patrick’s few days of gun heresy could be that he becomes even more beholden to the gun activists than before. They’ll be watching him, and they will be difficult to satisfy.

Why is any of this notable, for those not interested in the pathetic saga of gun bills so far this session? This was Patrick’s first real test, and he didn’t acquit himself well. He let his mouth get far, far ahead of him at a high-profile event, and it took a long while for his team to do damage control. As a result, he’s getting pushed to lead the charge for an effort he may not care much about. The failure or success of open carry will now be more strongly tied to his personal efforts.

Patrick’s temperamental style here put a burden on the senators he leads: It exposed them to a lot of time-consuming ire from constituents and may force them into positions they don’t want to take. That can’t have gone over well. And while there won’t be many more opportunities for Patrick to mouth off like he did in Smith’s interview—his office has no particular love for the media—everything we know about Patrick suggests his shoot-from-the-hip style holds true in his private dealings with other legislators as well. Signs of that will be something to watch for as time goes on, though we won’t see much of it in public.

There’s another part of this: Patrick made a hell of a lot of outlandish promises during his primary and during the general election. The grassroots have invested in him remarkably high expectations. He can’t possibly deliver on all of his promises, this session or even in the next. How will he manage the inevitable disappointment from the people who made him lite guv? Will the gun activists accept campus carry as a consolation prize if open carry dies? Blaming the media will only work for so long.

Right (and Wrong) on Crime

For all the praise heaped on Texas for criminal justice reform, we’ve barely even begun the thaw.
Dawson State Jail
Patrick Michels
Tall and imposing, the now-shuttered Dawson State Jail offers an ominous greeting into downtown Dallas.

In January 2014, Rick Perry flew to Davos, Switzerland, to participate in the World Economic Forum—just the kind of cerebral gathering of global Thought Leaders that Perry has favored after his disastrous presidential run. Maybe it was the thin Alpine air, but Perry made international news when he expressed some tentative interest in decriminalizing marijuana. Sharing a stage with former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, Perry said he thought states should be able to experiment with drug policies (10th Amendment rah! rah! rah!) and held Texas up as a model for relaxing marijuana laws.

“[A]fter 40 years of the war on drugs, I can’t change what happened in the past,” he said. “What I can do as the governor of the second-largest state in the nation is to implement policies that start us toward a decriminalization and keeps people from going to prison and destroying their lives, and that’s what we’ve done over the last decade.”

Lost in the gee-whiz coverage of Perry’s remarks was the niggling fact that the Legislature wouldn’t meet again during his tenure as governor, and that over his four terms, he’s done very little to reform Texas’ draconian drug laws. During America’s 40-year drug war, he’s been governor for 14. Plenty of time to “keep people from going to prison and destroying their lives.” Yet, I’m hard-pressed to think of a single policy he’s responsible for that has moved us closer to decriminalization. (He gets some credit for not standing in the way of legislative efforts to create drug courts.)  Kudos to the Mexican reporter moderating the Davos panel who pointed out that Texas still has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. (According to the Prison Policy Initiative, only four other U.S. states are worse. Texas’ rate actually went up slightly between 2012 and 2013. And if we were a country, our nearest competitor would be Cuba, with just half our incarceration rate.)

“I haven’t been governor of Texas forever,” said Perry.

“Well, 13 years is a pretty long time,” the reporter replied.

You don’t even know.

Why bring this up now? While Perry’s apparent change of heart is a welcome departure from the usual Tuff on Crime talk that’s dominated Texas for decades, he’s said little about it since, even as his Perry 2.0 tour (Smarter! Humbler! Seriouser!) continues. Perry wants to take credit for a tiny softening in his rhetoric just in time for another presidential run, after 14 years of enthusiastic prison-building, border militarization, executions and wildly disparate treatment of black, brown and poor folks. Gimme a break.

But I don’t just want to pick on Perry. For all the praise heaped on Texas for criminal justice reform, we’ve barely even begun the thaw. True, there have been a handful of prison closures and our incarceration rate has dropped 18 percent from 2000 to 2013 (though the total number of prisoners has climbed).

Incarceration rate, Texas and U.S.
Bureau of Justice Statistics
Texas’ incarceration rate has dropped but is still well above the national average.
Texas prison population, 1978-2013
Bureau of Justice Statistics
Texas’ prison population remains stubbornly high, one of the largest ones in the world.
Incarceration rate (multi-state)
Bureau of Justice Statistics
While Texas’ incarceration rate has fallen steeply since 2000, we still lag other big states like California and much less punitive places such as Minnesota. Thank God for Louisiana.

We’ve also made some truly meaningful progress on exonerating the wrongfully convicted and establishing drug courts that emphasize treatment over imprisonment—a point that Perry underscored in his farewell speech at the Legislature last month. The conversation has inarguably shifted, with conservatives—under the Right on Crime banner—now applying some fiscal discipline to the out-of-control prison budget.

That will only get us so far though. One of the inconvenient facts about our vast criminal justice machine, our archipelago of hellish prisons with their solitary confinement units and sweltering summer heat, not to mention our militarized police units and $86 million border “surge,” is that we can afford them. Only 10 percent of the state’s discretionary spending goes to public safety and criminal justice. The border operation is being paid for, in part, out of unspent disaster funds. Worse, many courts, cops and DAs are addicted to the revenue streams generated from discredited facets of the drug war such as Texas’ ludicrously unfair civil asset forfeiture laws. There are just not that many financial incentives to dismantle the prison-industrial complex.

The vision of the budget hawks extends not far beyond the balance sheet. These are the same folks who also zealously pursue prison privatization and often support draconian border enforcement policies that are driving a massive expansion of for-profit immigrant detention centers, many of them in Texas.

The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice—not lower spending.

We should acknowledge that deep, abiding reform must be based on fundamental notions of racial and economic justice.

Texas’ brutal and punitive criminal justice system is rooted in slavery and economic exploitation of the most vulgar kind. Our prisons are built on the back of Jim Crow. Plantations are not dismantled by cost savings or pilot programs. They’re toppled by rejecting the base impulses that have created a state in which progress seems forever in the distance.

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