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Craig Estes
Craig Estes

During a panel on immigration at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s annual policy orientation in Austin, Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) was asked by the moderator, John Fund of National Review, what can be done about the ideological divide over immigration policy between traditional Republicans and the tea party.

Estes’ response: “We have to realize we’re not a bunch of white people, we’re not a party of skin color, we’re a party of ideas.”

During the last few years, some mainline and business-oriented Republicans have cautiously favored comprehensive immigration reform, fearing a demographic future where whites are a voting minority, while tea partiers have pushed for a nativist approach: simply deporting the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

What “ideas” did Estes have in mind? He went on to articulate a fairly standard tea party line on immigration and border security.

Estes warned of dangerous drug cartels, sex slaves and mules coming across the border.

“These people are vicious,” Estes said. “They have no place in our country, and the Texas Legislature will do everything we can to stop it.”

Estes said he would work to close the social safety net for undocumented immigrants and repeal the Texas DREAM Act, which allows undocumented students who graduate from Texas high schools and who have been here at least three years to pay in-state tuition at community colleges and public universities.

JoAnn Fleming, chair of the Texas Legislature’s TEA Party Caucus Advisory Committee, spoke after Estes.

“The rule of law has been abandoned in the United States,” Fleming said. “If we continue we’ll end up with problems like we see in Europe.”

Estes nodded as Fleming spoke. “You can tell I get worked up about this,” he said.

Perry's eagerness and Gingrich's grim affect provided a strong contrast.
TPPF
Perry's eagerness and Gingrich's grim affect provided a strong contrast.

Today’s attendees of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s pre-session policy conference were treated to an unusual privilege—the chance to see two figures at the bleeding edge of Republican politics in the same room. Yes, you got it right: Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich, together again. The two sat for a lunchtime talk with Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation.

Every public appearance Perry makes these days is an opportunity to gauge how much progress he’s made since the “oops” days. In his formal speeches, and in media appearances, the answer is “not much,” more often than not. When he’s suitably relaxed and in a casual setting, like today, it’s a bit more complicated. You can see parts of his personality that would do well in another presidential run, and Newt’s dour presence on stage helped highlight them.

And boy, does Perry want it. Both men flamed out in the 2012 presidential election, but it’s easy to forget that Gingrich—who even at the time seemed to be one of the numerous GOP candidates who run for president solely to refresh their personal brand and juice their future speaking fees—did significantly better than Perry, who was running in earnest. Gingrich won two states, South Carolina and Georgia; Perry won some punchlines.

But Gingrich, who gives off a weirdly antisocial vibe much of the time, clearly doesn’t care anymore, if he ever did. Slumped in his chair like an overstuffed tourist in a beach chair, he launched into periodic wordy invective of the kind that briefly charmed Southern voters during the last go-round.

The EPA, he intoned to his audience, was a tool of “liberal ideological implementation” purposefully designed to destroy American industry. He called New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio a “quintessential nut-case left-wing fantasist,” while Perry, momentarily distracted, played with his fingertips. When Gingrich was asked for the first three things he would do as president, Gingrich told the crowd he agreed with Perry’s list, then told the audience they should buy his friend’s recently-written thriller, Day of Wrath, a chilling tale about ISIS and the Mexican border.

If Gingrich was dour, Perry was a bit of a doofus, but not in an altogether unappealing way. He had no books to sell. He spoke about the need for Republicans to peel away Democratic constituencies with a message of opportunity: The party of the donkey had failed to craft an economic message for the middle and working class, and his experience in Texas, he said, would allow him to take advantage.

But the party had to “not take the bait on social issues that pull us apart.” That wasn’t advice he had followed in his last campaign, when his advisors responded to a slide in popularity with crude gay-baiting. But he seemed to believe it well enough today.

In formal settings, Perry comes off as stiff and a little lost: Today, he wore the sunny effusiveness that wins rooms. While Gingrich dropped references to Faulkner and grimly intoned about the country’s future, Perry impressed upon the crowd his marketable background: “When the child of tenant farmers can become governor of Texas, that’s a great story.”

And while Gingrich talked about the necessity of getting teens to work to keep them out of gangs—”Benjamin Franklin was apprenticed when he was 13”—Perry told the room that “the best days of this country, the best days of this state are in front of us.”

He leaned eagerly toward the crowd to speak, and toward Gingrich when Newt spoke. When he concluded his last riff on the universality of the “Texas model”—he’s made a decision not to call it a miracle anymore—he clenched his fist in satisfaction with his message and delivery.

Still, it’s possible to imagine this Perry impressing rooms full of Iowans and South Carolinians. And though the 14-year governor might feel like old news, it’s worth remembering that the two GOPers most in the news now for their 2016 prospects, Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, both last held office in 2007.

Dan Patrick and Greg Abbott at Ken Paxton's inauguration, January 5, 2015.
Christopher Hooks
Dan Patrick and Greg Abbott at Ken Paxton's inauguration, January 5, 2015.

When the 84th Legislature kicks off next week, the state’s new elected officials will be competing with each other for influence over the state’s finances. Each has proposals and pet policy priorities they owe their constituents—or lobbyists—after a lengthy election. The problem: Almost all of them require money. And there’s not that much to go around. The state’s budget is stretched thin even in good years, and more money is needed all the time to keep pace with population growth—and that’s even before you factor in a potential economic slowdown brought about by the oil slump.

Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick released the first draft of his agenda Thursday, at a press conference at the Capitol. In the plan, Patrick redoubles his call for tax cuts for property owners and businesses, calls for adding new spending restrictions to the state budget process, and pushes for significant changes in education, transportation, energy and border policy.

It’s an ambitious platform.

And it comes at a time when the fiscal situation is tightening. The comptroller’s revenue estimate, which restricts the maximum possible size of the state’s budget, doesn’t come out till next week—but there’s a lot of speculation about how crashing oil prices will affect the Texas economy. In 2011, the comptroller’s office overcorrected for a perceived economic slowdown, and the Legislature cut state services needlessly.

The political perception of the economic climate seems to matter a great deal to the comptroller’s estimates, and some suspect the oil shock will clip the wings of Texas’ recent economic growth. Legislators have been counting on a modest surplus this year—though, because of longstanding accounting trickery, even that would have amounted to less than it seemed. But now, even that small windfall may be dissipating a bit.

In this environment, Patrick could’ve scaled back some of his most expensive proposals—in particular, his calls for major tax cuts. But, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, the Dan is not for turning. He’s going full steam ahead. He won with 58 percent of the vote, he said, and he has a mandate for action.

The “people of Texas are very clear on the major issues they care about,” he told reporters yesterday. In response to their demands, he pledged that a “budget with significant dollars allocated for property tax and business tax relief will be passed.” (During his campaign, Patrick talked about raising sales taxes and lowering property taxes—but that didn’t come up.)

He pledged to expand “school choice” in Texas, and to do right by “parents in the inner cities trapped in failing schools.” By the end of the session, the state would fund “border security at the highest level we’ve ever funded it.” He’d fund programs to support math and science teachers, and medical students, and he’d work the slow the skyrocketing cost of college tuition, calling tuition deregulation a failure.

He called for the state to begin adopting a fleet of natural gas vehicles, and he echoed Greg Abbott’s plan to end road funding diversions and increase transportation funding.

All of this costs money, which either has to come from surplus tax revenue—we’ll find out how much the state actually has next week—or from elsewhere in the state budget. In the case of the transportation funding diversions—money that’s rerouted to the Texas Department of Transportation from other beneficiaries, like the Department of Public Safety—budget-writers have to scrounge up dollars from somewhere else, and so on and so on. Large tax cuts and additional money for services are not compatible goals, especially in a biennium in which the state’s economic prospects are fading a bit.

If legislators end up fighting for pieces of a smaller pie, Patrick will want to ensure that his priorities have a leg up on others. We’ve long known that Patrick would be consolidating GOP power in the Senate—he’s aiming to change longstanding rules that gave Democrats some leverage in the legislative process, and he’s likely to strip Democrats of control of powerful Senate committees.

But there’s another way Patrick is making himself a more important player in the legislative process—the Texas Tribune’s Ross Ramsey reported Wednesday that Patrick was likely to cut the number of Senate committees from 18 to 12, and would be appointing committee chairs later this month, instead of in February, as has normally been in the case.

As Ramsey writes, this means the Senate could be up and running much faster than the House, “perhaps setting up a flow of Senate bills to the lower chamber before the House is ready to send anything back.” It’s a not-so-subtle way of trying to get the jump on Speaker Straus and the House’s own priorities—and it foreshadows an uneasy relationship between the two chambers in the months to come.

There’s one other thing Patrick mentioned today—he pledged to continue the halt in funding for the Public Integrity Unit, the ethics watchdog that operates out of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office and was at the center of the conflict that led to Rick Perry’s indictment by a special prosecutor.

The fact that the PIU showed up on Patrick’s agenda along with weighty issues like education and transportation tells you how important it is to a lot of GOPers. The Senate, Patrick said, would decide what to do with the PIU’s funding. One option, Patrick said, would be to give it to Attorney General Ken Paxton so he could bolster his own ethics outfit. Paxton, you might remember, stands a good chance of being under indictment himself by the time the Legislature appoints him the new guardian of civic virtue. It’s going to be an interesting year.

Cecil Bell Jr.
Cecil Bell Jr.

On the eve of a federal appeals court hearing in a lawsuit challenging Texas’ same-sex marriage bans, a Republican legislator has introduced a bill that would prohibit county clerks from issuing same-sex marriage licenses.

Rep. Cecil Bell Jr. (R-Magnolia) on Wednesday introduced House Bill 623, which he’s calling the “Texas Preservation of Sovereignty and Marriage Act.”

HB 623 would amend the Texas Family Code to prohibit the use of  taxpayer funds for the “the licensing or support of same-sex marriage.” It would also bar government employees from recognizing, granting or enforcing same-sex marriage licenses. Any government employee who violates the provision would be barred from collecting “a salary, pension, or other employee benefit.”

HB 623 would also require Texas courts to dismiss challenges to the law and award attorneys’ fees to defendants. And it would grant Texas sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when it comes to enforcing the law, “regardless of a contrary federal court ruling.”

“When I was elected, I made a promise to my constituents to fight to protect our traditional values and to stand strong in the defense of our constitutional rights as Texans and Americans,” Bell said in a release. “Texas is a sovereign state and our citizens have the right to define marriage. We as Texans voted in 2005 to define marriage as being solely between a man and a woman. In Texas marriage is sacred and traditional families are recognized as the fabric of our society.”

Bell said he was “disappointed, to say the least” when U.S. District Judge Orlando L. Garcia struck down Texas’ marriage bans as unconstitutional last February.

“The 10th Amendment protects the right of Texas to pass Prop 2 [the 2005 marriage amendment],” Bell said in the release. “With the 84th Session around the corner, Texas will stand up and defend its constitutional right against federal overreach.”

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments Friday in the state’s appeal of Garcia’s ruling.

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, told the Observer that Bell’s assertion that Texas can ignore federal law is “preposterous.”

“To then turn around and threaten the pensions, benefits and jobs of state employees for just doing their jobs is abhorrent,” Williams said. “It’s buying a lawsuit for the state.”

With the session set to begin Jan. 13, Williams said it’s too early to predict whether Bell’s bill has a chance of passing.

“It’s certainly far outside the mainstream, but it’s something we’ll be watching very carefully,” Williams said. “The Legislature can always pass unconstitutional laws, and then it’s litigated in the courts. I’m guessing Cecil Bell wants to make sure Ken Paxton has plenty of work to do in his new job as attorney general.”

Equality Texas is predicting a defensive session for the LGBT community, due to backlash from the spread of marriage equality to 36 states and counting. HB 623 is at least the third piece of anti-LGBT legislation that’s been pre-filed for the session. The first two took the form of proposed constitutional amendments that would grant businesses a “license to discriminate” against same-sex couples.

Donna Campbell
Patrick Michels
State Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) promotes her new school choice bill at a Texas Public Policy Foundation event with, from left, former state Rep. Kent Grusendorf and economist Arthur Laffer.

 

If ballplayers wore suits with their pinstripes and vendors walked the stands hawking copies of Steve Forbes’ new book (it’s actually just called Money), then the Sheraton by the Capitol would feel an awful lot like spring training. Here at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s pre-session policy confab, the air is thick with free-market dreams for another Lege session.

There’s a little extra spring in Rep. Bill Zedler’s step as he strolls by, a little extra shine on the ostrich boots shuffling across the lobby floor. And nobody in this hotel is half as excited as Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) telling the press about her hottest prospect for the new session, filed just yesterday: Senate Bill 276, “Relating to state savings and government efficiency achieved through a taxpayer savings grant program administered by the comptroller of public accounts.”

In a word: vouchers.

Or, as Campbell suggested today: “universal school choice,” because “voucher” suggested a golden ticket in limited supply. Her plan is unlimited.

Two years ago, it was then-Sen. Dan Patrick who delivered an enthusiastic pitch for vouchers just before the session’s start. Today, with Patrick in the lieutenant governor’s office, it was Campbell’s turn to beam about the miracles school choice will bring, to help us forget how decisively the Legislature has rejected vouchers in the past, and inject her voice with a little extra gravity as she describes our “moral obligation” to spend public money on private schools.

Her plan was simple: parents who move their kids from public to private schools get a tuition reimbursement of up to 60 percent of the state’s average payout—for classroom operations, but not facilities funding—for each public school student. Campbell and new Attorney General Ken Paxton offered the same proposal in 2013; back then, the maximum grant would be $5,000. In five years, the Legislative Budget Board estimated, the program would save the state $1.1 billion.

She spoke quickly—too fast to catch it all—as she related the miracles in store for a Texas that embraces school choice. “It will turn poor performing schools into better schools,” Campbell said. “It will equalize the playing fields. … It will improve our economy. … It decreases the number of dropouts. It improves the graduation rates.”

Many of these are familiar arguments for school choice, but then there’s so much more. At some point, standing there circled around the podium, you had to stop and wonder, where’s she getting this stuff?

The answer was in a booklet on a table beside her, a new 43-page literature review produced for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Texas Association of Business, written by the man standing next to her: Art Laffer, namesake of the “Laffer curve”—an economic model often wielded as a cudgel against higher taxes—who hugged Campbell at the podium and called her a hero.

“There’s not one thing that isn’t improved by charters and choice,” Laffer explained.

At a panel discussion later, Laffer elaborated. His report, he said, reviewed the research out there already on the subject. What he found, he said, was “just a huge volume of evidence, all supporting school choice. There’s almost nothing negative about school choice at all.”

Laffer was clear that his report doesn’t break new ground. The handful of voucher programs around the country have been studied closely, and there are plenty of meta-analyses on school choice out there already. Laffer’s is hardly the only example of cherry-picked research on vouchers, but with its bold promises that school choice will mean “$260 – $460 billion more in our economy,” it could grab plenty of attention at the Legislature.

Arthur Laffer
Patrick Michels
Economist Arthur Laffer speaks on school choice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s policy orientation in Austin.

Many times today, Laffer joked that the research he reviewed—”all these boring articles, and they truly are boring”—was too dry for the audience to worry much about. (For what it’s worth, the University of Colorado’s National Education Policy Center has found plenty of negative findings about the impact of voucher programs.) But Laffer impressed on the audience that school choice isn’t all about the bottom line, after all, but about “bringing ethnic minorities into the mainstream. … Once you lose these kids, you lose them forever. And they become hostile, and you have to spend a fortune protecting yourself from them.”

And then it’s about the bottom line again.

Laffer made three speaking appearances for TPPF today—probably a sign of how important this issue is to the group—and always returned to the question of race. On a panel with Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick, Laffer put it this way: “We’ve seen it on CNN, and Al Sharptons [sic] and what’s going on with Trayvon Martin. … The opportunities for inner city kids are not there. School choice will bring those opportunities for those kids.”

Laffer strolled further down this path earlier in the day, explaining that the higher property values sure to follow school choice would, on their own, make racism a thing of the past.

“There may be racists on both sides of the aisle, but when these racists have good paying jobs and they’re making money hand over fist, they don’t have time to be racist.” After all, he said, employers only have the luxury of discrimination if there’s competition for their job. “If you have 15 job openings and one person applies, you hire the son of a gun as quick as you can.”

To hear Campbell tell it today, you’d think she had hit on a big new idea—and not that vouchers have been proposed, and even tried once, and then shot back down again for decades in Texas. Every two years TPPF, or its founder James Leininger, shepherds a voucher bill into the Capitol and every two years a coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans shoots it down. Last session the House made a big show by preemptively banning voucher funding even before a bill came over from the Senate.

The new school choice bills are sure to face similar concerns—private schools are specifically exempted from state testing under Campbell’s bill, for instance, and most private schools (see anecdotal accounts from Dallas, Houston and Austin) charge more than $5,000 a year, so parents would have to pony up the rest.

Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond briefly alluded to Dan Patrick’s bill last session, saying only that “for whatever reason, it didn’t gather momentum.” The game for Campbell today was to build new momentum for the coming session, armed with Laffer’s report and her own emotional appeals. As she explained today, probably not for the last time, “Every year that we wait is another precious year for a child that passes.”

Strangest State: Death by Donkey, Popular Plots and Meth by the Mail

Notes from far-flung Texas for January 2015
Officials in Jasper gather to appreciate nature's majesty.
Officials in Jasper gather to appreciate nature's majesty.

In this month’s issue of the Observer, we’re debuting “Strangest State,” a recurring feature on local news you might have missed from around Texas. From profiles of small-town doctors to monstrous swamp creatures found by local kids, they’re stories that don’t fit… anywhere, really, but we want to be sure don’t go unnoticed. Got a local oddity or some small-town news to share? Tips are welcome at [email protected]

The family of late Hollywood Park Mayor Bill Bohlke spent the last two years lobbying, apparently in vain, for Atascosa County officials to investigate Bohlke’s 2012 death as a cold case, rather than stand by the long-unquestioned conventional wisdom: that Bohlke was fatally trampled by an angry 500-pound donkey. Bohlke’s widow managed to secure a court order to exhume the mayor’s body for a proper forensic examination—he’d been buried without one, the San Antonio Express-News reported, because the local morgue was full—but per the judge’s ruling, the family must pay for the procedure. The family’s fundraising campaign—“Help us get the body of Bill Bohlke exhumed!”—had raised $575 by late October, when, according to News 4 San Antonio, Tonia Bohlke was shocked to find a fresh layer of sod at her husband’s gravesite. Without alerting Bohlke’s widow, the county had apparently exhumed his body. County officials wouldn’t comment except to say that an investigation is ongoing. The family’s lawyer, Edgardo Baez, explained: “This is a very peculiar case.”

Stephenville // Demand for new plots at the expanding West End Cemetery has outpaced the city’s best-laid plans. Per the Stephenville Empire-Tribune, a crowd of prospectors braved freezing temperatures to line up well before the cemetery opened on the morning of Nov. 12, hoping to secure prime real estate for their eternal homes. “We thought we’d have, at the most, five people,” Butch Lovvorn told the Empire-Tribune. “We’ve tripled that already.”

Jasper // A record half-ton alligator was discovered in the Rayburn Country Resort, the Jasper Newsboy reported, when game warden Morgan Inman noticed kids throwing rocks at it. Harley Hatcher, “a nuisance hunter and a star on Swamp People who lives in Fannett,” was called in to dispatch the gator, but circumstances required Inman to subdue the beast before Hatcher’s arrival. “It required several shots,” the Newsboy explained, “as it was moving and Inman could not get very close to it as aggressive as it was acting.”

Lubbock // The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal’s advertising department did brisk holiday business, according to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. The newspaper’s Thanksgiving edition included a whopping 800 pages of advertising—which meant heavy lifting for delivery crews. In a candid interview, circulation director James Grimmett admitted to his employer: “Quite frankly, our carriers do a great job.”

Hooks // Chris Harris resigned from the Hooks Independent School District board after jokes he posted to Facebook, in his words, “got taken way out of context.” According to Raw Story, Harris posted a logo for a “Black Panther Hunting Club,” a photo of a hooded Klansman emblazoned with the words “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” and the following commentary on Ferguson, Missouri: “I say the hell with the national guard let’s bring the KKK in they will settle shit down.”

Lorena // A federal task force busted mail carrier Edward Flores for delivering methamphetamine on his route. Officials told the Waco Tribune-Herald that Flores had been selling meth for years using his job as a cover.

Dallas // City records show Dallas spent $26,000 to care for nurse Nina Pham’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Bentley, while Pham was being treated for Ebola last year, The Dallas Morning News reported.

Nueces County // Sheriff Jim Kaelin vowed that Todd Hebert, an inmate at the Nueces County Jail, will be “held accountable” for causing a five-hour lockdown and incurring costs “in the five digits” by telling jail staff he’d ridden on a Mexican bus with a fellow passenger who had Ebola, according to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Medical officials determined that Hebert had not, in fact, been in Mexico.

Madisonville // Madisonville’s newest doctor, Yemi Chukwuogo, is enjoying life in East Texas, according to The Madisonville Meteor. “Chukquogo [sic] knows and accepts the fact that differences exist,” the Meteor wrote in a recent profile. “I love change and differences. We’re all people and we all bleed red,” Chukwuogo told the paper, sharing a bit of her medical knowledge. The paper reported that Chukwuogo studied medicine in New York, Dominica and New Jersey. “Dominica,” the Meteor clarified helpfully, “is an island in the Caribbean.”

Denton // Kids at a birthday party found Vicodin tablets among leftover Halloween candy in a piñata, WFAA-TV reported.

Larry McQuilliams
Facebook
Larry Steve McQuilliams

On Thanksgiving night, a religiously motivated political extremist on a suicide mission took to the streets of downtown Austin, wearing military-style riot gear and armed with illegally obtained automatic weapons and a van full of explosives, just as revelers from the surrounding entertainment districts were pouring into the street after bar-closing time.

Larry McQuilliams, 49, trekked across the city from the federal courthouse to the Mexican Consulate to police headquarters, firing hundreds of rounds and attempting—unsuccessfully—to set off improvised explosive devices along the way. No one was injured except McQuilliams, who was killed by police.

Following McQuilliams’ rampage, the Austin American-Statesman went looking for more about this homegrown terrorist. According to the Statesman headline, he was a Midwesterner who’d sought a “fresh start in Austin.” The Statesman went on to interview McQuilliams’ neighbor, Katie Matlack, who described him as a “very kind person” who was “frustrated.” (Later, Matlack wrote a first-person piece for the Observer describing McQuilliams’ relationship with his South Austin neighbors).

I thought of the coverage following the police shootings of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

A New York Times piece described Brown, who was stopped for jaywalking before being shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson, as “no angel.” After officer Tim Loehmann shot and killed Rice at the park gazebo where Rice was playing with a replica gun, the Cleveland Plain Dealer hurried to run a story about Rice’s parents’ criminal records, apparently desperate to associate the boy with criminality any way it could.

Surely these people must have done something to invite their deaths at the hands of law enforcement?

Meanwhile, a white Christian man plans and executes a terrorist attack in Texas’ capital and he’s just a nice guy who lost his way, a Renaissance Faire enthusiast in a tricorn hat who enjoyed tubing and trying to blow up government buildings.

This response accomplishes two things: It obfuscates the role of racism and white supremacy in the construction of the “victim” in our discourse, and it excuses white-perpetrated violence as a fluke, rather than as the not-illogical result of pro-gun, anti-government and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Austin police chief Art Acevedo was unequivocal in calling McQuilliams a terrorist, and local and national news outlets did pick up on that language in the brief spate of coverage following McQuilliams’ spree, though rare was the coverage that exposed and examined the connections between McQuilliams’ beliefs and mainstream conservative ideology about border militarization, the unassailable right to bear arms and an imagined war on Christian religious freedoms.

We heard no calls for a national conversation about religious extremism in the Christian community, no hand-wringing cable news pundits imploring American whites to get their violent males in line, no somber public statements from Christian leaders hurrying to distance themselves from McQuilliams and his ilk.

And while Acevedo connected McQuilliams’ motivations with right-wing rhetoric, he also called McQuilliams a “lone wolf.” Indeed, McQuilliams appears to have acted alone, but we should not pretend that his ideology or his actions came wholly formed out of some unfathomable ether.

Though his violent downtown tour blessedly resulted in no civilian deaths, McQuilliams follows in the terroristic footsteps of Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, and Joseph Andrew Stack, who flew his single-engine plane into an Austin IRS building in 2010.

The Southern Poverty Law Center keeps a tally of dozens of such plots and attacks on government buildings, abortion providers, gay bars, civil rights groups and minority neighborhoods. And yet the media ignores the pattern time and time again, choosing instead to focus on what a 12-year-old boy might have done to provoke a police officer to shoot him on sight or whether an 18-year-old Missouri man deserved to be murdered for jaywalking.

In the aftermath of McQuilliams’ rampage, one Austinite told a local news team that he’d seen the white man in riot gear and wasn’t immediately sure if he should report the gunshots. Maybe, he’d thought, McQuilliams was one of the good guys.

I don’t wonder where he got that idea.

Ken Paxton, after being sworn in, stands among Texas GOP VIP's: From left to right, Governor-elect Greg Abbott, Senator Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Justice Don Willett, and Governor Rick Perry.
Christopher Hooks
Ken Paxton, after being sworn in, stands among Texas GOP VIPs: From left to right, Governor-elect Greg Abbott, Senator Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Justice Don Willett, and Governor Rick Perry.

 

During last year’s elections, Ken Paxton sometimes felt like the odd man out. After trampling his opponents in the Republican primary for attorney general, Paxton admitted to violating state securities law—a potential felony—after unethical business dealings surfaced in the press. He stopped campaigning, more or less, and his fellow ticket-mates, like soon-to-be governor Greg Abbott, shied away.

But he was carried across the finish line, sure enough, and today, at a star-studded inauguration in the Texas Senate, he was welcomed back as a member of the state GOP in full standing. A felony indictment may still be coming—but as the state’s new top lawman, he’s had a pretty unusual rise to the highest echelon of state power.

On hand to celebrate Paxton’s ascension were a who’s who of Republican leaders. Sitting behind the lieutenant governor’s dais at the front of the chamber were David Dewhurst, its current occupant, and Dan Patrick, his soon-to-be successor. Rick Perry was present. Ted Cruz, Perry’s presumptive 2016 rival, was there too. (This was, in part, a Cruz moment: Paxton was his candidate, and his election marks another half-step in the transformation of the state’s political landscape in Cruz’s image.) And there was Greg Abbott, though he seemed dwarfed by his compatriots.

There were, in other words, a lot of bruised and competing egos in the Senate today. The men seemed in a rush to outdo each other in their effusive praise for Paxton: Dewhurst said the new attorney general would be “sustained” by his Christian faith, while Patrick told the crowd he knew in his bones that Paxton would be “first and foremost a servant to his lord and savior, Jesus Christ.”

Perry, our state’s chief lay minister, led the crowd in prayer, in which he managed to slip in a few digs at the president. And Cruz outdid them all, thanking Abbott for his protection of Texas against the “United Nations and the World Court,” along with those pesky feds, and predicted Paxton would do the same.

This was technically Paxton’s show, but his speech, delivered in his typically lethargic style, will not long be remembered. Why are Barack Obama’s federales coming for Texas, he asked? It’s “because we’ve been successful,” he says. But he’s not too worried, because Texas, the “shining city on a hill” that Reagan mentioned that one time in that speech, is strong, and also, our Founding Fathers persevered through the storm with the spirit of 1776, and we rose up to fight those two world wars, and you know, all that good stuff. God bless our great state.

Ken Paxton with his family
Christopher Hooks
Paxton with family

A large number of Paxton’s family were in attendance—his wife sang the national anthem—and they can be suitably proud. The boy from McKinney (well, he was born in some place called Minot, North Dakota but that’s not important here) has done good, in spite of himself. And perhaps the large turnout of notable conservatives today is a sign that if and when the indictment comes down, the party will stand by him.

The closest analogue to Paxton in recent Texas history might be Jim Mattox, the sleazy Democratic populist who took control of the attorney general’s office in 1983 and was indicted just nine months later. Can our humble champion beat Mattox’s record? Today, pomp and circumstance; but the clock is ticking.

Cleopatra DeLeon and Nicole Dimetman, are one of the two plaintiff couples in the Texas marriage case.
Photo courtesy of Cleopatra DeLeon
Cleopatra DeLeon, left, and Nicole Dimetman, are one of the two plaintiff couples in the Texas marriage case.

Same-sex marriage will arrive in Texas before Easter, according to an attorney for two couples who are challenging the state’s marriage bans in federal court.

Daniel McNeel Lane Jr., of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in San Antonio, made the prediction as he prepared for oral arguments in the case at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans on Friday.

U.S. District Judge Orlando L. Garcia struck down Texas’ marriage bans as unconstitutional last February, but stayed his decision pending an appeal from Attorney General Greg Abbott.

Last week, the 5th Circuit Court unveiled the three-judge panel that will hear the Texas appeal—along with marriage cases from Louisiana and Mississippi—on Jan. 9. Although the 5th Circuit is among the most conservative federal appeals courts in the country, Lane said he’s confident the panel will rule in favor of marriage equality within a few months and that the decision will take effect immediately.

Lane.Neel
Daniel McNeel Lane Jr.

“I don’t think it will be stayed, certainly not by the Supreme Court, I don’t think it will be reviewed by the Supreme Court, and I think we’ll have marriage equality by Easter,” Lane told the Observer on Friday. “That’s my prediction. … That’s my strong feeling.”

On the same day as oral arguments at the 5th Circuit, the U.S. Supreme Court will meet to decide whether to hear same-sex marriage cases from four other states, which could pave the way for a nationwide ruling in favor of marriage equality as early as June. As of Tuesday, when same-sex marriage takes effect in Florida, Texas will be one of only 14 states where it’s still prohibited.

“Whatever the Supreme Court does, we will still make our arguments, the 5th Circuit is likely still to rule, and let the chips fall where they may. I’m sure that’s what our panel’s view will be,” Lane said. “The two will not be connected, and this court knows that if it affirms Judge Garcia, and finds that residents of this state have a right to marry the person they love, regardless of gender … it’s likely that that freedom, that equality, that justice, will come very swiftly, and the tide of that equality will never be turned back.”

Kenneth D. Upton Jr., senior counsel for the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, which is handling the Louisiana marriage case, said marriage equality in the 5th Circuit before Easter is “certainly one possibility.” But Upton added, “There are a couple of things that could throw a wrench in that prediction.”

Upton said if the 5th Circuit panel rules in favor of marriage equality, it’s possible the state of Texas would appeal the decision to the 15-member court en banc—which would be “a more hostile setting.”

“I don’t think the panel would stay it, but if the 5th Circuit grants rehearing before the entire court, the panel decision is automatically vacated,” Upton said. “So, I suspect Abbott’s office would play that card since they have nothing to lose.”

Upton said the 5th Circuit panel could also simply decide to wait for the high court.

“If they [Supreme Court justices] grant any petitions, and because they aren’t staying cases anymore, I think any subsequent court of appeals case will be held to see what the ultimate answer is,” he said.

Lambda Legal has asked the high court to review the Louisiana case even though the 5th Circuit hasn’t decided it yet—a type of request that’s rarely granted but that will also be considered Friday. Upton said whether the Supreme Court agrees to hear the Louisiana case, one of the other four cases or some combination, he thinks Friday’s proceedings in New Orleans will be upstaged by what happens in Washington.

“The arguments in the 5th [Circuit] will not be the real story that day,” he said. “It will be [the Supreme Court]. I feel pretty sure they will grant something that day.”

Although there’s “an outside chance” the high court court will agree to hear one of the cases but hold it over until its next term, Upton said he believes the real question before the 5th Circuit panel is whether same-sex marriage arrives in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi in June—or sometime before then.

Kenneth D. Upton Jr.
Kenneth D. Upton Jr.

However, that’s not an insignificant question for people like Cleopatra DeLeon and Nicole Dimetman of Austin, one of the two plaintiff couples in the Texas case.

DeLeon and Dimetman were inspired to join the lawsuit after DeLeon experienced complications giving birth to their first child. That’s when the couple realized that if something had happened to DeLeon, due to Texas’ marriage bans, Dimetman couldn’t have made medical decisions for the baby.

Now, Dimetman is pregnant with the couple’s second child—and due in 10 weeks. Despite potential risks involving air travel in the third trimester of pregnancy, DeLeon and Dimetman plan to be at Friday’s hearing pending a doctor’s final approval this week.

“We didn’t want to be doing this, but it’s very important,” Dimetman said. “The reason it’s important for us to go is the same reason it’s important for us to be in this fight. We’re doing this for our family and for families like ours all over the state.

“I’m due in March, but every day babies are born to same-sex couples,” Dimetman added. “Every day that we are not granted our rights is a big deal.”

To further illustrate the point, Lane said he had a gay acquaintance in Florida who passed away during the holidays and had a partner of 20 years.

“Had he lived until today, he could be married, and that’s the difference of a week,” Lane said. “We know that we have hundreds of thousand of citizens who are subject to these unjust laws in Texas, and we know that a number of them will die every week before they have justice and before we have equality, and we need to right a terrible wrong, and we need to do it now.”

The Things We Feared, 2014

"A Clockwork Orange"
"A Clockwork Orange"

As the year 20 and 14 draws, blessedly, to a close, let us reflect on that one thing that brought us together: fear. This was a year that saw a succession of freak-outs, each one eclipsing the next in apocalyptic panic. Texas seemed to be under constant siege: from children, from prayer-rug-wielding terrorists, from invisible (and possibly airborne!) West African diseases, from liberals. Just as one crisis was fading, another one roared to life. The fear was free-form, uncontained, whipping from one target to the next—and, then, like a flash mob with a short attention span, dispersing. Quickly, the old crises—the ones that just months before were supposed to cripple our way of life, rob us of our sovereignty, destroy our communities—were discarded, forgotten, as if they’d never mattered.

Imagine a thousand Alamos—and then forget almost all of them. But should auld crises be forgot, and never brought to mind?

In the interest of remembering, in the spirit of the new year, and perhaps in the hope of learning something (I’m an optimist) from them, here are the leading Everyone Freak Out, We’re All Gonna Die events of 2014:

 

Central American Refugees

For a time earlier this year, it seemed like all any Texas politician and tea party activist wanted to talk about was the Invasion of the Kiddos.

The phenomenon of children and teens traveling to the U.S. by themselves is not a new one. Immigration authorities and child welfare advocates have been grappling with the extremely delicate problem of what to do with unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border for many years. And the numbers of children from Central America began ticking upward, and then surging, several years ago. However, anti-immigrant groups and Texas politicians hardly took notice until this year when the system became overwhelmed by record numbers of children and families fleeing violence, insecurity and poverty in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

And then the reaction was furious. Anti-immigrant activists created elaborate alternative theories about the children. They weren’t actually kids. They weren’t fleeing violence. They were coming to the U.S. because of “the magnets” of free stuff and the promise of one day being able to vote for Malia Obama. Best not to even call them children, or refugees. The kids had leprosy, they had polio, they had Ebola.

Breitbart Texas deployed its crack team to South Texas to snap photos of scenes like “ANIMALS FEAST ON DEAD MIGRANT” and whip its audience into a frenzy with the usual Breitbart-ian admixture of shrieking headlines, seething rage and nonexistent editing.

State Rep.-elect Tony Tinderholt toyed with the idea of invading Mexico. State Rep. David Simpson was nearly pilloried for suggesting a modicum of compassion. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst accused Mexico of ushering the kids into the U.S. Rick Perry and Sean Hannity rushed to the border to pose on armored gunboats. For a mere $86 million, Perry deployed the National Guard and state police to the border for, as he explained to Fox, “the visual.” Politicians, including Democratic border Cnongressman Henry Cuellar, fell all over each other to see who could stand up to these underage alien invaders the most aggressively.

And then, in early fall, interest just flickered out. Oh, the children and families were still coming—albeit in smaller numbers—and the feds were busy in South Texas building giant no-bid for-profit “family detention centers,” and reports continued of deported youth being murdered back in their home countries, but then it just suddenly—around the time of an election, no less—seemed as if the fire had gone out on the issue.

Where are they now?

Reports suggest that many children and their parents have been deported to their deaths. Others are forced through for-profit prisons where attorneys and activists have reported detainees are poorly treated, sometimes sexually assaulted, and denied due process for their asylum claims. Recent data also indicates an uptick again in the numbers of people turning themselves in at the border, suggesting that the U.S. government’s response to the influx may not be enough to overcome the factors driving people out of Central America.

 

ISIS at the Border

The borderlands, it seemed, had all the fun this year. When it wasn’t the Central Americans, it was the Islamic State expanding the borders of the caliphate to Rio Grande City. As an actual crisis gripped the Middle East, with the fate of entire nation-states and the lives of millions in the balance, with the Islamic State actually (sometimes literally) threatening the borders of American allies, GOP leaders in Texas worried that the Islamic terror group was coming to Texas do the jihad. Evidence: “Quran books.” And an apparent Adidas soccer jersey that the crack team at Breitbart believed was a Muslim prayer rug. And California Congressman Duncan Hunter’s beautiful mind.

Meanwhile, not a single credible authority could be found that found such a theory plausible.

In late October, Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick warned in a TV ad that “ISIS terrorists threaten to cross our border and kill Americans.”

(Ah, but he just said “threaten,” and surely somewhere some jihadi with a Twitter account had threatened to come blow America up. Could be, could be.)

The “ISIS at the border” crisis seems to have cooled considerably, probably because it was so wildly unsupported that it was bound to die off once the politicians and propagandists wrapped up election season. Still, the ISIS claims, coupled with the hysteria over the Central Americans, certainly helped justify the ongoing border “surge.”

Where are they now?

Still in Syria, still in Iraq.


Ebola

For a little minute there, it seemed like we were all going to die. But in the end, just one person in Texas did: Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian man who contracted Ebola in Liberia, was diagnosed on Sept. 30 in Dallas and died in a Dallas hospital on October 8. Two of the nurses who treated Duncan were treated and released, disease-free, within weeks. Texas was declared Ebola-free on Nov. 7.

During that month and change, Ted Cruz proposed banning travel from affected West African nations, despite widespread concern from the medical community that such a draconian measure would make the disease outbreak worse. Rick Perry ordered mandatory quarantines for returning aid workers, although the risks of Ebola spreading from doctors and nurses is “near zero” and needlessly isolating people tends to discourage them from rendering aid. Schools closed. Parents kept their kids inside. Breitbart accused Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who showed considerable compassion toward the Duncan family, of being a “NAIVE LIBERAL” and doggedly spread the lie that Ebola is an airborne disease.

To recap: We were all going to die, then we didn’t. Huh, guess we got lucky.

Where are they now?

In West Africa, 7,800 have died and the disease has “roared back” after recent gains.

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