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Anti-Gay Marriage Group: ‘This is the Beginning of an Epic Battle’

Jonathan Saenz of Texas Values says courts could legalize polygamy next.
Jonathan Saenz
Patrick Michels
Jonathan Saenz of Texas Values outside a federal courthouse in San Antonio where the issue of same-sex marriage is being litigated, February 12, 2014.

Just nine years ago, in 2005, Governor Rick Perry told the press that gay people in Texas (gay veterans, at that) should consider moving to other states if they wanted better treatment from their government. He was speaking at a ceremonial signing of legislation that put a same-sex marriage ban on the ballot in November 2005.

How quickly times change—though slower in Texas than elsewhere. Last week, that constitutional amendment was deemed unconstitutional by a federal court in San Antonio, following a number of similar rulings in states as red as Utah and Oklahoma. The matter will be appealed and could be taken up eventually by the U.S. Supreme Court.

To say the gay rights movement in the United States is experiencing a period of success is an understatement—even if the blowback to that success poses risks. Yet here in Texas, where you might expect more conflict about what remains a momentous social issue, you haven’t seen much yet beyond grandstanding. That’s partially a result of the fact that the Texas Legislature won’t meet again for another nine months. Texas groups agitated about the ruling haven’t had any space to float policy proposals or legislation.

But I was curious about what anti-gay marriage activists might have in store. So I called Jonathan Saenz, the president of Texas Values, the group which says it stands “for biblical, Judeo-Christian values by ensuring Texas is a state in which religious liberty flourishes, families prosper, and every human life is valued.”

Saenz, who responded to activists trying to strip anti-sodomy provisions out of Texas law last week by arguing that gay people only want gay rights because they’re gay, flatly denies the “homosexuals” are making any progress at all, and says his movement and Christians in the state won’t give up without a fight. What’s more, he left the door open to pushing for a bill, like the one recently vetoed in Arizona, that makes it legal for businesses to discriminate against gay people if serving them conflicts with a “deeply held religious belief.”

“This is the beginning of an epic battle,” Saenz told me. “There’s a strong likelihood that the Fifth Circuit [Court of Appeals] is going to overturn this decision. If Texas’ gay marriage laws are not constitutional, there’s no guarantee that the court won’t open up marriage to polygamy and polyandry.”

There’s definitely a chance the traditionally conservative Fifth Circuit overturns the Texas decision, but gay rights lawyers in Texas and elsewhere know these cases will be appealed and are laying the groundwork for the Supreme Court to take up the issue. That’s the reason U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia stayed his own ruling, as has happened in many states. It puts the ruling on hold until a higher court can weigh in. But even in that, Saenz sees encouragement.

The fact that Garcia stayed his ruling, Saenz says, “shows some hesitation on his part. I think the homosexual advocates were ready to go on down to the clerk’s office” and get married, he says cheerily, “and he put a stop to that.”

Garcia happens to be the brother-in-law of state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), who is running for lieutenant governor. I asked Saenz if he perceived judicial bias.

“It wouldn’t surprise me,” he says. “What we have here is the homosexuals being used by the Democrats to gain more political power.” He added: “The homosexuals have more political power than ever before.”

But the most enlightening part of our conversation came when we talked about SB 1062, the recently-vetoed Arizona legislation that attracted national attention. Supporters said the bill protected religious liberty while critics, including a number of Republicans, said it amounted to legalizing anti-gay discrimination. “Religious liberty” has become an increasingly important issue for conservatives ever since a number of bakeries across the nation got in hot water for refusing to make cakes for gay wedding services.

A number of states have considered bills carving out an exemption in non-discrimination laws to allow businesses to deny service to LGBTQ people for religious reasons. Some proposed laws even go so far as to extend that right to venues like hotels and restaurants, and to government workers. Arizona has been the only state to pass such a law so far, but it backfired when, in a surprising reversal, arch-conservative governor Jan Brewer vetoed it after mounting pressure. Nevertheless, it stands to reason we’ll see an attempt to advance a similar measure in Texas in the 2015 session.

Saenz is firmly convinced of the need for such laws.

The veto of the Arizona bill, he says, provides incontrovertible proof that “homosexuals do want to force people of faith to be part of their gay marriage ceremonies. They want to use government power to force people of faith to be part of their homosexual lifestyle and ceremonies,” he said.

That’s something of a new tack for Saenz’s crowd. The rhetoric has always been there: Anti-gay marriage activists have long held out the prospect of a dark future in which Baptist ministers are frog-marched to Southern Decadence to preside over Village People-themed weddings. But new developments make that future seem, to some, like an immediate threat, to be confronted in the near future—and that’s been feeding blowback in red states.

“Arizona made it real clear to people of faith what homosexual advocates want,” Saenz says. “They seem to not be satisfied unless they can force people of faith to celebrate their lifestyle. I think you’re going to see a growing concern in Texas, as you are across the country.”

I ask him if Texas Values would support legislation for the 2015 session, or is working to lay the groundwork for it. “That’s all I’m going to say on that subject,” he says.

Texas Values has been active in mobilizing against the gay rights movement in Texas for some time. The group organized in opposition to San Antonio’s LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinance last year, unsuccessfully. In the 2013 legislative session, Texas Values also supported bills that would punish school districts across the state, like the Austin and Pflugerville ISDs, which extend partner benefits to gay couples.

For much of the country, it might feel like the argument over gay marriage is reaching a tipping point. But the fight over the issue could easily become prolonged in Texas. After all, 2014 is an election cycle when Attorney General Greg Abbott, who has argued in court that the state has a need to discourage “prurient interests in autonomous sex and the pursuit of sexual gratification unrelated to procreation” is running for governor while defending the state’s marriage laws.

The possibility of same-sex marriage ceremonies in Beaumont and Lubbock is edging closer as a crop of even-more conservative candidates are primed to win state offices. As the issue continues to get litigated, expect to see an organized fightback from Texas conservatives.

Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book about Life
By David Dow
Grand Central Publishing
288 pages; $25.00
Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book about Life
By David Dow
Grand Central Publishing
288 pages; $25.00

There’s a certain amount of irony in appending the epigraph “I could write a book about what I don’t know” to one whose title foregrounds its intent to share the lessons gleaned over the course of a career, and one walks away from Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book about Life wondering if, in fact, there is anything David Dow has yet to learn. Perhaps the real question is: If there are things Dow still doesn’t know, what hope do the rest of us have?

Things I’ve Learned from Dying is an energetic three-part memoir delineated into sections titled “Beginnings,” “Middles,” and “Endings.” Dow, a professor of law at the University of Houston and of history at Rice University, as well as founder and director of the Texas Innocence Network, details his father-in-law’s death from a quickly metastasized melanoma, his family’s beloved Doberman’s death from acute liver failure, and one of his many clients’ final years on death row and eventual execution. True to its title, the book is peppered with sentences structured around the phrase, “One thing I’ve learned,” such as: “One thing I’ve learned is that there is a time to be silent and there’s a time to hold nothing back. What I might not have learned is which is when.”

Taking some liberties with its timeline and compressing legal cases that spanned the better parts of decades, Dow explains how to argue a death penalty case in Texas, along the way bringing to light some of the nuances of the appeals system—and some of the ways in which he longs for even more nuance. He outlines the four stages of a death penalty case: the trial and state court appeal come first, followed by the state court habeas proceeding; after that comes the federal habeas appeal; the final stage is what Dow describes as “all the last-minute freneticism when death penalty lawyers try to think of anything they can to save their client’s life.” In Things I’ve Learned from Dying, we enter death row inmate Eddie Waterman’s case at the third stage. Dow’s ruminations about representing Waterman before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals show him at his most entertaining and opinionated:

People who think bogus legal proceedings happen only in places like Iran or China apparently haven’t been to Texas.

It hasn’t always been this way. … But decent judges have been replaced by bureaucratic hacks who reach results that melt their political butter no matter how much violence they have to inflict on legal principles on the way to getting there.

In the section titled “Middles,” Dow recounts offering advice to a younger colleague who is distraught after the execution of his first client: “Work on developing a cold cold heart, pal,” he says, invoking Hank Williams. But while there is evidence here of professional numbness—occasional decisions based solely on detached experience and expertise—this is not the narrative of someone unaffected by a life spent with the dying. Throughout the memoir, using passages from a journal he kept during his father-in-law’s illness and recreating other scenes from memory, Dow meditates on the instant between life and death. “One thing I’ve learned,” he writes, “is that beginnings are unambiguous, but endings are not.”

His story’s overlap of human, canine, legal and familial loss ultimately leads Dow to acknowledge the difference between the individual and the universal: “The deepest knowledge, I’ve learned, can be awareness of the chasm separating you from someone else.” In convincing prose, Dow shows what such lessons cost.

Lt. Gov. Dewhurst tours the Rio Grande on a well-armed DPS boat
ltgov.state.tx.us
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst tours the Rio Grande on a well-armed DPS boat

We’re in the middle of an election season that has seen a lot of political posturing over the Texas-Mexico border.

Considering only the lieutenant governor’s race: Dan Patrick has been railing about the state’s “illegal invasion” and the constant threat of violence posed by migrant criminals; David Dewhurst wants a $60 million “permanent surge” of manpower, vehicles and high-tech hardware, even if the Texas Department of Public Safety will have to cut other programs to do it. Todd Staples has spent years as agriculture commissioner talking about border security, and now he’s toting around a “six point plan” to finally lock down the Rio Grande. (Though one of those six points is “secure our border,” so it may not be the most comprehensive plan.)

One long-time border sheriff wishes they’d all just pipe down about it.

Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson, who’s held his post for 14 years, is the chief law enforcement officer in Brewster County, the largest in the state—five times the size of Rhode Island, three times the size of Delaware and 500 square miles larger than Connecticut. It also has the largest stretch of the US-Mexico border of any Texas county. You might think, when it comes to the border, that he’d be ready for Dewhurst and Patrick to hurry on down and exact some Texas Justice. You’d be wrong.

“A lot of politicians are running on securing the border. One’s got a six point plan, one’s got a nine point plan. They’re throwing tons of money at this border. I wish they’d just shut up about it.” he told me. “Recently, we had an operation where they sent game wardens out here to look for drug traffickers—game wardens! I guess they figured the game was secure.”

Dodson’s family has been in Brewster County for five generations. In the early 1900’s, Pancho Villa’s rebels ran his grandfather off his ranch, and the family had to relocate to a protected basin in the Chisos Mountains. Compared to that, the border now looks tame—certainly not the way politicians in Austin are talking about it.

Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson.
Marfa Public Radio
Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson.

“I think they’re just throwing money at the border for nothing. I think people on the interior see all these shows about the border where there’s violence,” he says. That’s a problem for places like Brewster County, the home of Terlingua, Lajitas and Marathon, where tourism comprises a large part of the local economy.

“A lot of tourists will call up to my office and say, ‘Is it safe out there?’ We’ll ask where they’re coming from. They’ll say ‘Houston,’” he says. “We’ll say, hurry up and get out of there! It’s safer here than where you’re coming from.”

A lot of border lawmen, Dodson says, are happy to take money from Austin. “I’m guilty myself of taking quite a bit of that money,” he says. With it, his men are better paid, better resourced. “We have equipment now because of that money that we would never have otherwise.”

But the increased state focus on border security comes with a cost, Dodson says. It drains resources from other causes, and it makes people feel insecure. And besides, he’s not really sure whether it’ll do a damn bit of good.

“They were smuggling across the border when my grandmother was a girl, and they’re going to be smuggling when my granddaughter grows up,” he says. “I wish they’d stop talking about the border and focus on problems in the interior.”

A supporter of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kesha Rogers, before the Martin Luther King Day parade in Houston.
A supporter of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kesha Rogers, before the Martin Luther King Day parade in Houston.

The frantic last week before Tuesday’s primary election has been a truly rich pageant of WTF in Texas politics.

Why, just this morning Barry Smitherman promised to fight border crime by cracking down on jaywalking in South Texas. As he explained to KUT (skip to 20:53):

“It will send a signal south of the border that if you come here and break the law, there will be consequences.”

All across the state, nasty intra-party fights got nastier, candidates for small-time office dialed up big-time promises to Fight Obama, and, speaking to the Dallas Morning News, Texas House candidate Sandra Crenshaw got way candid about why she’s running for a South Dallas seat:

“I want to go to the Legislature for eight years and get a pension so I can take care of myself in my old age.”

This week, the Morning News also dredged up an amazing story that’s pretty much WTF from start to finish, about a four-man North Texas Republican brain trust getting scammed by a man who claimed to have found Noah’s Ark (really) buried in Iran.

Attorney general candidate Ken Paxton, Railroad Commission hopeful Wayne Christian and state Reps. Phil King and Bill Zedler, fresh off their last great success managing to screw in a lightbulb together, moved on to high-dollar electricity trading, only to lose hundreds of thousands in what became a Ponzi scheme. Speaking to reporter Gromer Jeffers, Christian was circumspect about the whole thing:

“There were some of us that he hooked. Sometimes you get took, sometimes you don’t. You hate to say you were a sucker, but he took us for a sucker and made off with the money.”

The Morning News judiciously describes one way the scheme’s architect, Archer Bonnema, managed to get in with the conservative Christian lawmaker crowd:

He had been closely linked with the community for years, often distributing video accounts of a 2006 expedition to Iran, led by Dr. Bob Cornuke, that he participated in. Bonnema said they discovered Noah’s Ark, though experts have disputed the claim.

Speaking of electricity markets, here’s Democratic Senate candidate (with a massive lead in recent polls) Kesha Rogers, quoted by the Observer‘s Emily DePrang this week:

Another policy priority is planetary defense, which is “how we are going to defend the planet from asteroids which are very seriously threatening the planet.” The same technology push will help with the “development of a successful industrialization of the moon,” she says, “[for] the mining of raw materials and resources such as helium-3 on the moon, which is a productive resource for developing fusion. I am a very strong supporter and proponent of fusion development as a source of energy.”

Whether it’s her space mining policy, her insistence on impeaching President Obama, or positive associations with the recording artist Ke$ha, Rogers had a 12-point lead in the Texas Tribune and UT poll released this week. It’s been enough to scare the Texas Democratic Party into blasting an email with the hard-to-mistake subject line, “Don’t Vote for Kesha Rogers.” The email includes the phrase “Do not vote for Kesha Rogers” twice, and party chair Gilberto Hinojosa explains:

Rogers believes that the U.S. economy is secretly controlled by London financial institutions and she has advocated for colonizing Mars. That’s not what real Democrats stand for.

Austin Democratic consultant Jason Stanford might quibble with that last point.

And finally, This Week in Xenophobia, state Rep. Debbie Riddle responds to her Lebanese-born challenger Tony Noun’s claim that Riddle told him to “go back to your country and run a campaign” after a Noun volunteer planted a campaign sign next to Riddle’s. Speaking to the Observer‘s Chris Hooks, Riddle wouldn’t deny making the remarks, but stressed that “there’s context missing”:

“All he spoke was Arabic.”

By way of proving her love of all cultures, Riddle—the woman who popularized the term “terror babies”—added that “half of my volunteers, quite frankly, are minority.”

Make no such mistake about lieutenant governor hopeful Dan Patrick, though, who came under fire from a rival campaign for a letter (which Patrick denies writing) vouching for an undocumented immigrant who once worked for him. Responding to a story about the “former illegal alien” in Breitbart Texas:

“Sen. Patrick stated that the worker in question provided false documents and a social security number, that the allegation he was kind to the illegal alien are not true…”

That was, of course, not the last time this week Patrick had to defend himself against the appearance of a bleeding heart. Even fits of campaign posturing can use an editor:

dan-patrick-tweet

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst reads a scripted speech welcoming the public to the gallery and asking them to follow Senate decorum.
Patrick Michels
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst reads a scripted speech welcoming the public to the gallery and asking them to follow Senate decorum.

In 2012, before last year’s general election, the Observer published a roundup of important state Senate races. The headline: “The Texas Senate Heads Toward the Right.” As the state heads toward this year’s Republican primaries, we could pretty much recycle that headline. And we pretty much have.

In four noteworthy primary elections this cycle—plus a special election in May—the conservative wing of the Republican Party stands a good chance of either retaining last election’s gains or making new ones. The Texas tea party’s strength in congressional elections may be receding, but at the state level, they have a number of chances in the next couple months to prove they are alive and well. And conversely, if they fail to show strength, it could be a sign that the party is starting to shift back slightly toward the middle.

In New Braunfels, tea party wunderkind Donna Campbell stands a good chance of retaining her seat. In Dallas, moderate, business-friendly incumbent John Carona is facing a tough challenge from a Ron Paul acolyte with tea party cred. Houston’s Dan Patrick seems set to be replaced by a man much like himself. The seat once held by outgoing senator Wendy Davis might be filled by a high-profile tea party leader. And in May, a special election will be held to replace outgoing senator Tommy Williams, with two hyper-conservative state Representatives vying for the seat.

Here’s a guide to five elections that will help you figure out the way the wind is blowing this Tuesday, and in the months afterward:

SD 25: DONNA CAMPBELL v. MIKE NOVAK v. ELISA CHAN

'Campbell's Calvary'
Patrick Michels
Bill and Georgia Thomas drove in from Copperas Cove to present Sen. Donna Campbell with the last of the campaign signs they made for her.

THE PLAYERS: When tea party champion Donna Campbell unseated independent-minded San Antonio Republican Jeff Wentworth in 2012, it was a huge upset. Campbell was poorly funded, inexperienced in politics and hailed from New Braunfels, an odd fit in a district dominated by San Antonio and northern Bexar County. Two years later, she’s no longer an outsider—and she’s struggling with a tough three-way primary fight with a relative moderate, San Antonio businessman Mike Novak, and former San Antonio City Councilwoman Elisa Chan, most famous for her homophobic remarks.

Campbell had a quixotic legislative session in which she strongly supported abortion restrictions (she called the point-of-order that ended Wendy Davis’ June filibuster) and managed to accomplish little else, something noted by some fellow Republicans in unusually frank language. ”There was a large learning curve [for Campbell] on a lot of the issues this session,” Republican state Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio told the Express-News in August. Larson added that he authored “a number” of bills important to San Antonio that Campbell declined to sponsor because she “didn’t understand it or support it.” She also voted for a bill that would ease the construction of toll roads in San Antonio, for which she’s received a large amount of flak from constituents.

Larson’s backing Mike Novak, a San Antonio businessman with connections to the city’s political establishment who might seem like a more natural fit for the district. In the ongoing conflict between the state Republican Party’s tea-party id and its money-making interests, Novak firmly represents the latter. Expect the victor’s supporters to cite the election of a mandate for their side.

On his website, Novak emphasizes job creation, transportation, and water: Campbell emphasizes the fight against Obamacare and touts her appearances with John Hagee, the ultra-right evangelist pastor who calls the Catholic Church the “great whore.” Campbell claims the support of Ted Cruz; Novak the endorsement of the Express-News.

There’s also Elisa Chan, a former San Antonio city councilwoman who seems unlikely to win a spot in a runoff but could act as a spoiler. Chan, who earned national infamy last year when a disgruntled aide released a secret recording of Chan calling homosexuality “disgusting” and “against nature” (and quite a bit else) in the run-up to a vote on the city’s non-discrimination ordinance. Running as a strong conservative, her presence could eat more of Campbell’s votes than Novak’s.

THE MONEY: Campbell, once an outsider, has been carpet-bombing her district with ads. In just three weeks in January, she spent more than $200,000, and, as of February 3, still had $168,575 on hand. Chan spent almost $150,000 during that period, with $76,286 on hand. Novak, who had been staying closer to his rivals in spending last year, spent only $50k, with a mere $8,000 remaining.

SD 16: JOHN CARONA V. DON HUFFINES

Don Huffines.
Facebook
Don Huffines.

THE PLAYERS: In a chamber which has moved increasingly rightward, state Sen. John Carona retains a fairly unusual independent streak. Last session saw Carona trying to move payday lending regulation through the Legislature—the slow battering and defeat of which once led him to tell the Senate he “just want[ed] to go home and feed my cat”—in addition to important utility legislation.

As chairman of Senate Business and Commerce, he often found himself at the nexus between industry and efforts to reform industry. When he shaped and help pass a series of bills through the Legislature expanding the rights of microbreweries, some accused him of watering down the beer bills and being a shill for powerful beer distributors. But as with his payday lending reform package, Carona’s supporters argued he alone was willing to do the dirty work of hammering out a compromise between competing interests.

Not everyone agreed. Texas Monthly named him one of the session’s worst legislators, and a Texas Tribune investigation outlining some of Carona’s personal finances and apparent conflicts of interest between his business and legislative responsibilities made a splash. Meanwhile, he was named the most liberal Republican in the senate by Rice political scientist Mark Jones. All told, it was a bumpy year, and Carona’s seat seemed ripe for a strong, smart challenger.

Instead, he got Don Huffines.

Huffines, a multimillionaire businessman and tea partier, has the support of Glenn Beck, the endorsement of Rand Paul and Rick Santorum and the backing of Michael Quinn Sullivan’s Empower Texans. He’s also got plenty of money—most of it his. But when it comes to his campaign, Huffines has seemed unserious. Whether you like Carona or not, there’s a lot in his record a challenger could campaign on. So it’s been slightly surprising for observers that Huffines’ biggest issue on the trail so far has been the fact that Carona once co-sponsored a bill in the Legislature that would have named a portion of Interstate 20 in South Dallas the “Obama Freeway.”

Don Huffines' Billboard
Twitter
Don Huffines’ Billboard.

The bill died a quick death, but five years later, Huffines appears to think it’ll float his boat all the way to the Capitol. There are other oddities: Huffines sent out one of the strangest mailers of the whole cycle so far, with Carona as a Brando-esque mafia-don. The Dallas Morning News’ editorial board called it “comically bad.”

Still, it’s the toughest race Carona has faced in decades. If Huffines wins, it’ll be seen as proof that no right-wing challenger, if supplied with money and endorsements, is so light-weight that they can’t threaten a Republican who’s wandered too far from the flock. If Carona wins, expect to see the business interests and moderate Republicans that back him proclaim that the result is evidence the tea party can be beat. And a Huffines win would shake up the Legislature in a big way. Huffines could be one of the most conservative senators in the chamber. In his campaign he’s been a flashy, ideological competitor, the total opposite of Carona’s moderate establishment-ism and affection for the political inside-game. This one could significantly change the Senate’s internal dynamics like few other Republican primary races.

The Money: Huffines, a prodigious self-funder, has actually outdone the incumbent recently. He spent more than $1.4 million in February, reporting $174,000 left on Feb. 24. He’s loaned more than $1.6 million to himself over the course of the campaign, and family members have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars. Carona’s spent more than $1.2 million with only $54,000 left on February 24. He’s carrying $1.5 million dollars in loans.

SD 7: PAUL BETTENCOURT VS. JAMES WILSON

Paul Bettencourt campaigning.
Facebook
Paul Bettencourt campaigning.

THE PLAYERS: Sen. Dan Patrick is a conservative radio talk-show host and businessman who loves picking fights with Democrats and railing against taxes. He’s 63, white, and hails from the Houston ‘burbs.

Paul Bettencourt is a conservative radio talk-show host and businessman who loves picking fights with Democrats and railing against taxes. He’s 55, white, and hails from the Houston ‘burbs.

So, who better to succeed Dan Patrick in Senate District 7 than his political doppelgänger?

Bettencourt is the heavy favorite in this deeply Republican enclave of northwest Houston, which stretches from I-10 north to Tomball and Spring and includes a disproportionate number of golf courses. Patrick, of course, is trying to take hold of the Senate gavel and move up to lieutenant governor. That leaves his senate seat open—and the Republican primary, featuring Bettencourt and Phil Gramm protege James Wilson, will almost certainly decide the winner.

Although Bettencourt lacks the smarmy braggadocio of Dan Patrick (“Think of Paul Bettencourt as a good-natured Dan Patrick” is how the Houston Chronicle put it), he’s earned his conservative warrior status. Bettencourt served 10 years as Harris County tax assessor-collector, where earned the nickname “The Taxman.” Harris County tax assessor is a politically-charged office in part because it oversees the voter rolls in vote-rich Houston. On his campaign website, Bettencourt brags that he was pushing for requiring a photo ID at the polls “before it was ‘cool’.” His aggressive purging of the voter rolls drew accusations—and lawsuits—from the Texas Democratic Party that he was illegally scrubbing Democratic-leaning voters. Then there was the matter of his very short third term: In 2008, he narrowly beat his Democratic opponent, but quit just a month later, before he was even sworn in, to start up a tax advising firm.

Bettencourt described himself to Quorum Report as a “public policy guy” who was called back to public service to deal with weighty issues like rejiggering school finance.

Also in the hunt is James Wilson, a Spring insurance agent who—in a not-so-subtle jab at Bettencourt—”promises to serve a full term” if elected. His other career highlight is serving as a regional director for former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm. Wilson ran against state Rep. Debbie Riddle in 2012, losing 81-19.

The Money: Bettencourt has the edge here, by far. He raised $142,000 between July and late January, with $61,000 still on hand. Wilson has raised just $7,675 in the same time period.

SD 10: WENDY DAVIS’ REPLACEMENT FREE-FOR-ALL

North Texas tea party leader Konnie Burton.
Facebook
North Texas tea party leader Konnie Burton.

THE PLAYERS: Senate District 10 might be the only Senate seat to switch party hands this year, so it’s been the focus of a lot of attention. It was also the source of a lot of handwringing among Dems—Davis was able to pull off a narrow underdog win in this district in 2012, but Republicans gunned for SD 10 during redistricting, tilting the district further to the right. That made her 2014 re-election prospect an even more uphill battle for her. So she opted to run for governor instead.

If she loses her gubernatorial race and Democrats lose SD 10, some might wonder if her race was worth it. A Republican win in SD 10 would give the GOP 20 seats in the Texas Senate, one seat away from gaining a supermajority under the senate’s two-thirds rule, in which 21 votes are necessary to consider bills. It also puts them two seats over the margin of 60 percent control, which some Republican lieutenant governor candidates are talking about adopting as a threshold for taking up a bill instead of the two-thirds (66 percent) rule next session. Bottom-line: The stakes are high.

There are five GOP candidates in the primary, making a runoff a near certainty. But the Republican frontrunner in the district could be Konnie Burton, a tea party activist who was the first to announce her run. Burton’s been endorsed by Rafael Cruz (Ted’s dad), Michael Quinn Sullivan’s Empower Texans, and tea party elected officials like state Reps. Jonathan Bedford (R-Bedford); Matt Krause (R-Arlington); Bill Zedler (R-Arlington); and Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake). She’s received the backing of a large number of conservative activists, and seems likely to be in the runoff.

Former state Rep. Mark Shelton, the candidate who lost to Davis in the 2012 upset, is also running, and could end up in the primary with Burton. Shelton lost to Davis 51-49, and had been planning a rematch ever since. He cuts a slightly more establishment figure than Burton. There’s also chiropractor Jon Schweitzer, former Colleyville City Councilman Mark Skinner and Arlington School Board Trustee Tony Pompa.

On the Democratic side, some hoped Fort Worth city councilman Joel Burns would run, but he ruled himself out in October. (Now he’s resigning to go to Harvard.) Now, Dems have only two candidates vying for their nomination: energy executive Mike Martinez, and Libby Willis, who bills herself as a neighborhood association leader. All told, the district looks like a likely GOP pick-up. If the Democratic nominee proves to be an unusually adept candidate, and Burton wins the GOP primary and proves to be too-far right for the district, it might be more competitive—but Republicans would seem to have a comfortable margin. If voters replace Wendy Davis with a tea party organizer, it would, of course, dramatically change the Senate.

THE MONEY: On the Republican side, Burton and Shelton are competitive. Burton spent $85,724 in February, and has a little under $59,000 on hand at the end of February. Shelton spent $71,195 in the same period, with $129,482 on hand. In third is Pompa, who spent $61,600, with $29,000 on hand. Schweitzer reports only $3,900 spent, with $2,500 on hand, and Skinner has only $1,800 on hand, having spent $6,300.

For the Democrats, Martinez lags behind Willis. Willis spent over $88,000 in February, with $48,000 left—plus a post-report $15,000 infusion from the Association of Federal, State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Martinez spent a mere $5,685, with $35,866 in the bank.

SD 4: BRANDON CREIGHTON v. STEVE TOTH v. GORDY BUNCH (Special Election, May 10)

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Re. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) and Alice Linahan
Patrick Michels
Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in happier times.

THE PLAYERS: When powerful state Sen. Tommy Williams resigned in October to take up a lucrative position at Texas A&M, he was capping off a conservative but somewhat idiosyncratic tenure in the Senate.  He was one of the primary legislators responsible for the voter ID law that passed in 2011, but this session, as chair of the Senate Finance Committee, he was responsible for a lot of spending increases that accompanied 2013’s newly healthier state coffers. He helped push major spending packages on water and transportation infrastructure, something that infuriated the right wing of his party. In 2009, he was on Texas Monthly’s list of worst legislators; in 2013 he was named one of the best. Then he announced he was stepping down, forcing a special election scheduled in May. Whoever wins will replace him for the remainder of his 4-year term, which ends in 2016.

The two GOP candidates are state Reps. Steve Toth and Brandon Creighton, who both hail from the far right of their party. Toth has been a smart but fiercely conservative—sometimes obstinate—state rep, serving The Woodlands since 2012. His freshman term in the House was filled with conflict. On the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee he frequently sparred with those seeking reform. He carried a bill that would have nullified federal gun laws, one of the most absurd gun measures ever floated in the Texas Legislature. In August, he tweeted that President Obama was about to launch military strikes in Syria to “support his friends in Al-Qaeda.” He didn’t accomplish all that much, and his decision to run for Senate after just one term came as something of a surprise.

Creighton’s no centrist, either. Since 2006, he’s represented Conroe in the House. In 2011, he chaired the Select Committee on State Sovereignty, a red-meat machine that had little practical impact. He supported campus carry, and Toth’s nullification bill. But as chairman of the House GOP caucus, he may be more comfortable playing the inside game than Toth is: He attempted to employ a couple of clever maneuvers in support of the big water bill last session, whereas Toth has often acted as a bomb-thrower.

There’s also Gordy Bunch, a political outsider and Coast Guard veteran from The Woodlands. Creighton’s and Toth’s political ties and House experience make them the favorites for the seat, but anything’s possible in a special election. It’s possible that Bunch could force the already-strangely timed May 10 special into a runoff.

THE MONEY: The latest financial information comes from January 15, but it has Creighton blowing his opponents away in fundraising: He has more than $1 million on hand, having spent more than $205,000 in the last six months of the year. Toth spent $48,000 and had $123,000 on hand. Bunch, meanwhile, spent only $8,000 in the same time frame but retained over $274,000.

A house destroyed by the West fertilizer plant explosion in the northern part of town.
Jonathan McNamara
A house destroyed by the West fertilizer plant explosion in the northern part of town.

In the aftermath of the West fertilizer plant disaster, media outlets—The Dallas Morning News in particular—and some of our better public servants have done yeoman’s work exploring the failures that led to the tragedy. We now know that the oversight and regulation of ammonium nitrate fertilizer plants is complicated and lax at the same time. We know, as the Morning News put it, that “it could happen again” at one of Texas’ hundred or so fertilizer plants. And we know what needs fixing. (For example, it’s remarkably stupid that Texas bans small counties from adopting fire codes. Whatever happened to local control?)

Yet the state has done little to address the problems. The Texas Legislature met for almost four months following the West disaster and didn’t pass a single reform to address the holes in the system.

That’s not to say that some aren’t trying. God bless the state fire marshal, Chris Connealy, for at least doing what he can to prevent another West. Connealy’s team has aggressively inspected all 104 ammonium nitrate facilities in the state. He’s holding town hall meetings in the 68 counties with a fertilizer plant and plans to conduct follow-up inspections this spring. But a can-do attitude goes only so far. The inspections are voluntary, their scope is limited and Connealy has no enforcement authority. All he can do is plead and prod—something he readily acknowledges.

“I guess if they didn’t correct [a problem identified in the inspection] by the time we come back, then that tells us we need to encourage them more strongly,” Connealy says. “I can’t make them do it.”

Still, I was curious what Connealy was turning up in his inspections. Through the state open records process, I requested a handful of the most recent inspection reports. Within a couple of weeks, the fire marshal’s office sent me a set of heavily redacted documents. Missing was any information on how the fertilizer is stored, site security, descriptions of the buildings and any hazardous findings. The agency even blacked out the names of local fire departments and the precise locations of fertilizer plants, though that information could be gleaned from other unredacted details. With all the secrecy, the reports were worthless to me and to any citizens trying to figure out what might be happening in their backyards.

After an opinion from the Texas Attorney General’s office, I obtained more information from the reports. However, the AG had ordered the fire marshal to redact the names and addresses of the facilities. Only by looking at the two versions together was I able to get a full picture of what the inspectors found—and where.

I examined three reports, which is admittedly a small sample, but they still made apparent that some fertilizer plants are vulnerable in the same way West’s was. None of the three facilities—Standley Feed & Seed locations in Madisonville and Iola, and Anderson Fertilizer in Carthage—had sprinkler systems to suppress fires. Only one of them even had a portable fire extinguisher. Two of the facilities had electrical problems, including exposed and damaged wires. All three are housed in combustible wooden structures, just like in West, and a top concern for Connealy.

The Anderson facility, the inspection report notes, has dry vegetation around it, which could help a fire “rapidly spread into the building.”

Standley Feed in Iola is located 500 yards from two “public assembly buildings” and three-tenths of a mile from a school. The one in Madisonville is planted on the town square, across the street from the county courthouse. The report states that Standley no longer plans to carry ammonium nitrate, and Connealy says his inspectors will follow up to confirm.

But absent new laws and regulations, it’s not clear how Connealy or anyone else is going to minimize hazards. Bobby Anderson, the owner of Anderson Fertilizer, says he fixed the electrical problems identified by the state fire marshal but has no plans to replace his wooden storage bins, install fire suppression systems or make any other expensive and, in his mind, unnecessary changes. “Let me tell you, a fire extinguisher is not going to do any good when a nitrate bin blows up,” he said. “I’ve got children, wife, parents, grandbaby right there within 200 or 300 yards. We live there on the farm, and I wouldn’t do anything to hurt anybody.”

Anderson says he’s not going to let fears about West or new regulations push him out of a business he’s been in for 29 years. “Shit, I ain’t getting out,” he told me. “Until they quit making the same damn stuff I’m gonna keep using it because it’s the best source of nitrogen there is.”

 

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Cleopatra de Leon, Nicole Dimetman, Vic Holmes and Mark Phariss
Patrick Michels
From left, Cleopatra De Leon, Nicole Dimetman, Vic Holmes and Mark Phariss, speak with reporters outside San Antonio's federal courthouse after oral arguments in their suit to overturn Texas' same-sex marriage ban. Their attorney Neel Lane is behind them.

Two weeks after hearing oral arguments in an attempt to overturn Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia offered an early sign that he agrees the ban is unconstitutional.

On Wednesday, Garcia granted a preliminary injunction against further enforcement of Texas’ same-sex marriage ban, saying the two couples—two men from Plano and two Austin women—were likely to prevail at a trial. That would have allowed the two men to marry here, and let the two women to have their Massachusetts marriage recognized in Texas—except that Garcia also stayed his injunction pending a decision in the ultra-conservative U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Today’s ruling doesn’t change much in practical terms—as the lawyers noted in court, because the suit isn’t a class action, the injunction would only have applied to the four plaintiffs anywaybut it’s being heralded as another small step in a nationwide march toward same-sex marriage that’s become more of a sprint in the last few months.

Garcia’s order, and the stay, recognized this lawsuit’s place as just one in a complex and fast-changing world of court rulings on same-sex marriage around the country, all leading to a likely resolution with the U.S. Supreme Court. But it also armed opponents of Texas’ 2005 ban with some powerful language. (You can read the whole thing below.)

Texas’ ban, Garcia wrote, “causes needless stigmatization and humiliation for children being raised by the loving same-sex couples being targeted.” That’s a direct response to the state’s main argument that Texas has an interest in kids growing up in healthy, loving families, which it argued couldn’t include those with same-sex parents. Anyway, as Garcia observes, “procreation is not and has never been a qualification for marriage.”

Garcia said the state never backed up its claim that letting gay and lesbian couples marry somehow harms heterosexual marriage. Texas’ ban, he writes, is unconstitutional because it violates the couples’ rights to equal protection, later adding, “this court does not find justification for the disparate treatment of homosexuals.”

“Today’s Court decision,” he writes, “is not made in defiance of the great people of Texas or the Texas Legislature, but in compliance with the United States Constitution and Supreme Court precedent.”

Responses to the ruling from politicians and activists came fast. The national group Freedom to Marry recognized that Garcia’s decision put Texas in league with Utah, Ohio, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Virginia, where judges have all recently tossed same-sex marriage bans. “With 47 marriage cases in 25 states now moving forward, and the possibility that a freedom to marry case will again reach the Supreme Court as soon as 2015, we must continue the conversations and progress—Texan to Texan, American to American—that show that all of America is ready for the freedom to marry,” said the group’s founder Evan Wolfson.

Republican lieutenant governor candidate Dan Patrick seemed momentarily swayed by Garcia’s reasoning this afternoon, tweeting, “MARRIAGE= ONE MAN & ONE MAN,” before copping to his own “oops” moment.

Like many Texas Republicans, Gov. Rick Perry largely stuck to a state’s rights argument.

“Texans spoke loud and clear by overwhelmingly voting to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman in our Constitution,” he said in a statement, “and it is not the role of the federal government to overturn the will of our citizens. The 10th Amendment guarantees Texas voters the freedom to make these decisions.”

Notably, Perry did not spend a lot of time moralizing about how banning same-sex marriage is for the “eternal benefit of our children,” as he did in 2005 when he signed legislation that put the ban in front of voters. Instead, marriage equality is now consigned to the same status as other “10th Amendment” issues—gun rights, environmental regulation and healthcare. And perhaps that’s a tacit reflection of how much things have changed since 2005, when Texas voters approved amending the state constitution to include a ban on same-sex marriage. The vote wasn’t even close: 76 percent to 24 percent. Of Texas’ 254 counties, the only one with a majority voting “no” was Travis County. Good old Republic of Austin.

Still, the special constitutional election hardly represented the permanent, conclusive “will of our citizens.” Turnout was only 17 percent and almost certainly skewed older, white and conservative relative to the state’s population. (Leaving aside, of course, the wisdom of putting rights to a vote.)

And in sociopolitical terms 2005 is a long, long time ago.

In 2005, only 29 Democrats in the Texas House voted against the proposed same-sex marriage ban—and many of those said they were only doing so for technical reasons. Here’s what former state Rep. Jim Dunnam, who was Democratic caucus chair at the time, and state Rep. Pete Gallego (now a congressman) had to say at the time:

“I fully agree that the institution of marriage should be limited to one man and one woman. I supported the Defense of Marriage Act, which is current Texas law. If that were the issue before us today, I would vote the same way again.”

Just in the past few years, there has been a seismic shift in public opinion on same-sex marriage. Texas has not been immune to this trend. Roughly 70 percent of Texans now support either same-sex marriage or civil unions (39 percent and 30 percent, respectively) and pro-marriage equality is the plurality view among Texans. While that’s still not a majority expressing support for allowing gays and lesbians to marry, the trend is pushing inexorably in that direction, as the courts have clearly recognized.

Even if the Supreme Court leaves this decision up to states, would Rick Perry be willing to put same-sex marriage to a vote again today? Should we test the will of the people again? How about in five years? Or 10?

Houston Rap Tapes

I mean, most poor people don’t even know they can do something… You don’t know. You don’t even know that you have recourse. And people ain’t been educated on fighting’ back unless it’s some street shit, like fighting your neighbors or beating up… fighting your family members, killing your best friend. And nobody like… fightin’ the government, the city. “What the fuck you mean, fight the city? You mean like… Houston against me?” —Willie D., Houston Rap Tapes

“Your city is only as big as the parts of it you allow yourself to see,” writes Lance Scott Walker in the preface to Houston Rap Tapes. Walker will be at Brazos Bookstore in Houston tonight at 7 p.m. signing copies of Houston Rap Tapes, the companion book to Walker and photographer Peter Beste’s documentary photo book, Houston Rap (excerpted in the January issue of the Observer). Walker will also be at Sig’s Lagoon in Houston tomorrow, Feb. 27, at 6 p.m., and at Farewell Books in Austin on March 1 at 1 p.m.

Houston Rap provided a window into Houston rap culture through the faces and stories of the producers, MCs, DJs, radio personalities and community members who shaped it. The photo-heavy book had room for only brief excerpts from nearly 10 years’ worth of interviews, so Houston Rap Tapes tells the rest of the story. The new book’s oral histories illuminate what Walker calls a “cross-section” of Houston hip-hop, and each person’s story reveals something about the larger story of Houston—and about the people and places that too often go unseen.

Though Houston Rap and Houston Rap Tapes offer a big picture of Houston, Walker notes that the picture is in no way complete. “I think there are a lot more stories to tell, and we’re successful if this encourages people to take another look into the history of Houston rap artists and learn more about the city. If you’re from the area or identify with the city, you end up learning about yourself along the way,” Walker says. “The great thing about finishing a project like this is that once it’s out in the world, it takes on a life of its own, and when that manifests in something that’s going to turn people on to the culture and the music, that’s good for everybody involved.”

katherinegriffin
Katherine Griffin

Katherine Griffin, host of The Prison Show on Houston’s KPFT, opened the first show of 2014 with typical positivity. “As long as you’re breathing you have a shot at this thing,” she declared to the many inmates and their families who tune in each Friday night, her natural optimism discernable over the airwaves. “It don’t stop ’til the casket drop.”

It was the kind of encouraging sentiment you often hear on The Prison Show, started in 1980 and hosted, until his retirement last year, by local prisoners-rights activist Ray Hill. Hill said he hand-picked Griffin to succeed him because of her charisma and natural flair as a singer and entertainer. Griffin’s father, Ed Townsend, was a music producer who co-wrote songs with Marvin Gaye. Perhaps more important, Griffin, like Hill, is an ex-con.

Griffin, 53, was born in Inglewood, California, and grew up in Heidelberg, Mississippi. She received a scholarship to Texas Southern University when she was just 16 and relocated to Houston. But as a teen on her own in a major city, she began living a fast lifestyle. She went on dates with wealthy, older men who introduced her to exchanging sex for money. She soon descended into a life of prostitution and drug addiction.

“I was a juvenile living in an adult world,” Griffin said. “My childhood and innocence was stolen, and it made me want to rush and grow up real fast.”

Griffin began cycling through the criminal justice system but found little help from a monolithic Texas penal system that seemed uninterested in treating her addictions or the traumas she experienced. “Nobody was allowing me to address … the rapes, it was all about drugs, drugs, drugs,” Griffin said of her $30,000-a-month cocaine addiction. “I couldn’t get sober.”

She found the way out through a then-experimental Harris County drug court program, and has now, for over a decade, helped rehabilitate other women through her own nonprofit, We’ve Been There, Done That. Griffin is also the lead recovery coach at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. Her nonprofit operates on a $40,000 annual budget, but Griffin said she often pays for clients’ temporary lodging, clothing and food out of her own pocket.

Through her efforts with various programs like Volunteers of America, Griffin said she’s overseen the rehabilitation of 400 former prostitutes. Offenders sentenced to prostitution recovery programs often work with Griffin for years past their release.

“It can take up to four years to get retrained to live a productive, tax-paying, American life,” Griffin said.

The work Griffin does on The Prison Show provides a more ephemeral kind of catharsis for inmates who tune in, but it’s no less important.

“Little babies sing songs to their fathers,” Griffin said. “It’s just an awesome, beautiful experience.”

Though Texas devotes hundreds of millions to imprisoning its citizens, the state has often been reluctant to improve conditions within the penal system. A series of federal court rulings in the infamous Ruiz v. Estelle lawsuit improved conditions in Texas prisons starting in 1980, though until 2006 Texas prisons weren’t compelled to provide inmates access to pay phones. Excerpts from The Prison Show were used as testimony during public hearings on the legislation that required the phones.

The program, now in its 34th year on the air, is poignant not because calls from families reveal a secret dialogue between the free world and inmates, Griffin pointed out, but because the messages sent to the men and women in lockup are often stories of everyday life.

Loved ones don’t just phone in to relay brief salutations or fraught declarations of love. Rather, callers easily slip into meandering accounts of the mundane. The one-sided conversations feel as though they’re taking place in living rooms or on front porches.

“The family members that call in, a lot of them are elders … a lot of them aren’t able to afford to go travel because they’re so far from where loved ones are housed,” Griffin said.

One woman from North Carolina called in during the Jan. 4 broadcast to relay news to a Polunsky Unit inmate in Livingston of a pet’s visit to the vet. “[The dog’s] surgery went well,” the caller named Bella said to inmate Jedediah. “I wish you could have seen her when I first got to the vet and they let her out… she was crying and crying like she hadn’t seen me in 100 years.”

For Griffin, it was just another night of bringing prisoners a slice of the free world.

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