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Political Intelligence

Voter Harassment Persists in Harris County

Republican lawyer allegedly causes problem in Third Ward.

With two hours left at the polls, the Houston polls have been quiet with at least one exception in Houston’s Third Ward, a historic black neighborhood.

This morning at about 9:30 a lawyer named Vivian King who is a candidate for a district judgeship said she heard complaints from voters who were being accosted outside the polling place by the alternative election judge, a Republican lawyer named Carmen Cuneo.

King drove to the polling place, a community center behind St. Mary’s Catholic Church, where blacks have been voting without incident for the last fifteen years. King said Cuneo was trying to tell voters they had to fill in a form before they could vote. “She even harassed Quanell X,” King said, with a measure of surprise.

Quanell is a well-known civic activist and leader of the New Black Panthers. He was in the parking lot, immaculately dressed as usual, and very calm though indigant.

St. Mary’s was his precinct voting place, he said, and Cuneo confronted him asking, why he was there.

Quanell said he asked her, “What are you doing questioning me? I’m here to cast my vote.”

The long time precinct judge, Billie Smith, became so exasperated with Cuneo’s behavior she phoned a constable and had Cuneo escorted out. Cuneo returned a couple of hours later with Republican lawyers and a poll-watcher’s certificate allowing her to sit quietly and watch the election.

The chair of the Harris County Democrats, Gerald Birnberg, said he was surprised, too, that an alternate election judge would confront Quanell about his right to vote. But there wasn’t any law against her coming back as a poll watcher. As for the threat of hundreds of tea party poll watchers disrupting the election, Birnberg said, it has been a routine day.

With the exception of the Quanell X incident, he said “We’ve seen nothing out of the ordinary.”

The Harris County Republican Party did not return phone calls about the incident.

Rain Falling on Dallas Democrats’ Parade

Heavy thunderstorm likely to favor Republicans

Dallas County Democrats have some adverse weather to contend with today – and we’re not just talking about voter discontent blowing in off the Potomac. At about 11 a.m., a rainstorm moved in on a chilly breeze and parked itself over Dallas, just in time for lunchtime voting. By the time the countywide storm system lifts this evening, it could leave behind as much as three-quarters of an inch of rain, according to the National Weather Service.

So what exactly does this have to do with voting?

According to a study cited today on The Weather Channel’s Web site, the claim that rain and/or snow decreases voter turnout is true, based on a 2007 study by university researchers.

Political scientists Brad T. Gomez of the University of Georgia, Thomas G. Hansford of the University of California Merced, and George A. Krause of University of Pittsburgh looked at the effects of rain and temperature on voter turnout in more than 3,000 U.S. counties for 14 presidential elections between 1948 and 2000.

They found that not only does weather affect turnout but it provides a boost to Republicans. For each inch of rain, voter turnout declines by about 1 percent, they found. But that one inch of rain increased Republican vote share by 2.5 percent.

Not only is the rain falling on the Dallas Dems parade today—where a number of county and statehouse races are predicted to be closely competitive—but it’s dousing their party plans as well.

The organization announced early this afternoon that they were moving their watch party from an outdoor plaza at the American Airlines Center to the nearby Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Club. “Don’t fret,” the announcement read. “Your hair won’t get wet!”

See more of our Election Coverage.

photo by Peter Silva
Clayton Williams during his 1990 gubernatorial campaign

dispatch from the water wars

They say one vote can make all the difference. For Clayton Williams, one vote could help him make a lot of money.

Williams, the 81-year-old West Texas oilman, has engineered an audacious scheme to pipe groundwater from his farm near Fort Stockton to Midland, about 100 miles away.

A key step in the project took place this month, when one single voter on a barren strip of land near Midland voted to create a water district run by Williams’ cronies. The district, which will have eminent domain power and access to millions of dollars in public bonds, could affect the water supply for thousands of Texans. It’s an insider deal few businessmen could pull off, but Claytie might if he can overcome opposition from citizens of Pecos County.

The plan came together like this: For decades, the Williams family has pumped groundwater on its ranch outside Fort Stockton. Comanche Springs, which once pulsed 42 million gallons a day, has suffered seasonal dry spells since the 1950s, when Williams’ father, Clayton Williams Sr., turned on diesel pumps west of town to water his crops. Now Junior wants to ship that water to Midland for municipal use.

The first challenge for Williams was piping the water to Midland. The answer was a state freshwater supply district, which could finance the pipeline, condemn land, and raise cheap capital through taxpayer-financed bonds.

In 2009, state Rep. Tom Craddick, the former Republican speaker of the House from Midland, tried to pass legislation creating a freshwater district for Williams. Opposition from citizens of Pecos County helped squash the bill.

Not one to lie back and take it, Williams and his attorneys then decided to exploit a little-known portion of the Texas Water Code that allows water districts to be formed by a few landowners. Williams sold 20 acres west of the Midland airport to five of his friends. Then he convinced the Midland County Commissioners Court to put the district’s formation to a vote. (County Judge Mike Bradford declined an interview with the Observer, referring questions to Williams’ attorneys.)

The only eligible voter on the property is Ryan Latham, a 27-year-old Baylor University-educated attorney who claims to live in a trailer on the land. Latham’s father is Paul Latham, a longtime Williams business associate and chief operating officer of Williams Energy Inc. There are three measures on the ballot that Latham approved: The first creates Midland County Fresh Water Supply District No. 1; a second appoints Williams’ five friends to run it; and the third hands them access to $375 million in government bonds.

Once Williams has his personal water district, one barrier will stand in his way—citizens in Fort Stockton and Pecos County. For Williams to divert his groundwater from agricultural use and pipe it to Midland, he needs a permit from the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District, whose board is loath to issue it.

So another fight over water is looming between citizens of Fort Stockton and the Williams family. Next time, Claytie will need more than one voter on his side.

—Forrest Wilder


campaign trail

Bill White U.

On a late afternoon two weeks before election day, Huey Fisher dressed up in a chicken suit with a giant “Rick Perry” name tag and stood around trying to rev up onlookers. “All I’m asking for is four more years—and a bigger mansion,” the college freshman called out. “I need an extension on my pool!” His fellow campus Democrats offered Bill White T-shirts to those who made five calls at the phone banks across the street. Most people were just milling around, waiting for Bill White to appear.

The “Rally to Restore Competence,” sponsored by Longhorn Students for Bill White, began with less of a bang than its organizers hoped—of the 400 who RSVP’d on Facebook, only about 250 actually showed up to hear the Democratic candidate for governor.

“Frankly, I feel like the same energy that animated Democrats in the last two election cycles is animating the other side now,” state Rep. Mark Strama said with a matter-of-fact expression, though he added that there may still be a lot of energy left in the Democratic base.

Then White took the stage and managed to get the small crowd riled up.

“There is a time where every Texan has the equal voice in the direction of the state and that is the days when the polls are open in this state,” he cried out. “In the next thirteen days are you going to be a spectator in that process or are you going to be a participant in this process?”

His speech, bursting with unusual energy, only touched quickly on issues like Gov. Rick Perry’s political appointments, college tuition and the State Board of Education. Instead, White hammered on the need for turnout and the importance of voting itself. “Who shows up to vote will determine the balance of the state for four years,” he almost thundered. “For some people the choice we will make in the next 13 days will determine the rest of their lives.”

When the speech was over, Strama led the attendees to the early voting polling station across the mall. Most of the attendees seemed pleased, and volunteers promised they were hearing plenty of enthusiasm as they canvassed Travis County.

But senior Peter Wassef, who had voted already for White on Monday, was nonetheless disconcerted. “He probably won’t win because he’s a Democrat in Texas, but I still thought there would be more people,” Wassef said. “I mean it’s Bill White. He’s cool.”

—Abby Rapoport


angry candidate dept.

Kathie Glass Steps Up

Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Kathie Glass can sound a lot like a Republican. She’s big on small government, low taxes and securing the border, but don’t expect to see her at any grand old parties. She’s too disillusioned by the mainstream political system, a feeling shared by many voters. Her outsider campaign is attracting enough support to perhaps affect the governor’s race.

Glass says she likes the ideals of the GOP, but argues that Gov. Rick Perry hasn’t lived up to them. “If you want the things that are in the Republican platform,” she says, “you’re not gonna get it within the Republican Party.”

She has positioned herself as a cultural alternative—untainted by a career in politics—for the  disillusioned, disenchanted Texans who nonetheless plan to vote. There aren’t a lot of them—Glass is polling in the low single digits—but she’s got some big names among her supporters.

Former Democrat (and former independent) Kinky Friedman and black sheep Republican Debra Medina have offered praise. Friedman, who ran for governor as an independent in 2006, endorsed Glass as only Kinky can. “Rough edges is what I’m looking for,” he says. “I don’t really know where she stands on this issue or that issue.”

Medina, a Tea Party candidate who challenged Perry in the March GOP primary, has not gone so far as an endorsement. But her spokeswoman, Penny Langford-Freeman, called Glass “the only conservative” in the race, according to the Texas Independent, a five-month-old website that focuses on state politics. If Glass attracts enough disaffected conservative voters, her candidacy could imperil Perry’s re-election prospects in a close race with Democratic challenger Bill White.

The Republican establishment doesn’t seem all that threatened. “You have a nut backing another nut,” says GOP consultant Jordan Berry, who has overseen several Tea Party Republican races in Texas. “I guess only a few nuts will care.”

—Abby Rapoport

illustration istockphoto

dept. of elections

Politicians talk a lot, mainly about themselves and their opinions, and about how much better they are than their opponents. That makes David Porter, a Republican candidate for Texas Railroad Commission, a rare breed of political chameleon. His strategy: fade into the background and bank on GOP branding to carry him to victory on Election Day.

There’s little doubt that the Democrat in the race, Jeff Weems, is the more qualified candidate. Weems is a lawyer specializing in oil and gas, the industries the commission oversees. He has a long history in the field—and he’s the Democrats’ best hope for a statewide win outside the governor’s race. Weems has been endorsed by the Houston, Dallas and Austin dailies. “I need to continue garnering these endorsements,” he says. “The more attention that can be focused on this race, the better I do.” Weems has campaigned across the state, touting his qualifications and detailing the need for more inspectors to monitor industry.

His opponent didn’t return phone calls from the Morning News editorial board. (Porter didn’t return calls for this story, either.) He worked as a certified public accountant in Midland before he came out of nowhere to best sitting Commissioner Victor Carrillo in the March GOP primary—a victory that Carrillo and some pundits attributed to Republican primary voters’ aversion to a Latino name. The Railroad Commission “should and can and probably should control air emissions from production equipment,” Porter said in the The Texas Tribune’s online “face-off” between the two candidates. It was one of his most declarative statements, but it was an opinion he and Weems share—that the Railroad Commission, as opposed to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, should monitor emissions from oil and gas activity . When he offers opinions, Porter hardly ever disagrees with Weems. During the face-off, Porter was hesitant to say much, except that he has an open mind—and few clear opinions. “I don’t have any programs that I’m just opposed to,” he said.

Obscurity could be a winning strategy. If he’d been a visible force on the campaign trail, Porter might have gotten more attention, and his lack of credentials might have hurt his chances. While he doesn’t know a lot about the oil and gas industry, he does know something about politics in Texas.

—Abby Rapoport

 


The following information was updated on Friday, Oct. 22

*Gilbert was sued in December of 2009. The original article stated he was sued in the summer.

*Gilbert did not show up to a hearing case in January.  The original article stated he did not show up to a hearing case in August.

*Gilbert’s license was suspended, but has been reinstated with “moderate restrictions.” The original article stated his license has been suspended.

 


 

campaign confidential

Hammering Hank

Hank Gilbert isn’t the first politician to face a lawsuit or get arrested or be accused of taking a bribe. But he may be the first to accomplish all three in a single year—and still run for office.

Gilbert is the Democratic nominee for Texas agriculture commissioner. He was a long-shot candidate from the start. He lost the ag commissioner race to Republican Todd Staples in 2006, earning 42 percent of the vote. He returned for a rematch, and given that many pundits are predicting a Republican wave in 2010, Gilbert’s odds seem even longer this time, even before Staples’ opposition-research team went to work.

Among the revelations: Gilbert was sued December 2009 by a former campaign consultant seeking back pay. Gilbert didn’t show up for a January hearing in the case, so the judge ordered Gilbert to pay $40,000, according to Travis County court records. Gilbert’s campaign has said the lawsuit is baseless.  Gilbert is seeking to have the judgment thrown out.

Meanwhile, the Staples campaign revealed that Gilbert was arrested in September 2009 on outstanding warrants for unpaid traffic tickets. His driver’s license was suspended.  Gilbert’s license has been reinstated with “moderate restrictions,” according to Gilbert campaign manager Vince Leibowitz.

Then there was Gilbert’s controversial departure from the governor’s race last December. Gilbert had been part of a two-man Democratic primary with hair-product magnate Farouk Shami. When former Houston Mayor Bill White announced he would run for governor, Gilbert dropped out, declared his candidacy for ag commissioner and endorsed Shami. Four days later, Shami gave Gilbert a $100,000 campaign contribution (and later gave another $50,000), which critics said looked awfully suspicious. (Gilbert and Shami said the money had nothing to do with the endorsement).

But wait, there’s more: Gilbert also has had tax problems. Staples’ campaign released documents from the Internal Revenue Service showing that Gilbert faced two tax liens in the past 12 years and owed back taxes for a three-year stretch, from 2000 to 2002. Gilbert’s campaign has said the tax issues arose when he switched accountants. Besides, that was so eight years ago.

Gilbert has criticized Staples on policy. Gilbert is an East Texas rancher and knows the ag issues facing the state. He’s attacked Staples’ department for failing to inspect gas pumps and paying more attention to divisive social issues like gay marriage than to agriculture policy.

But it’s hard to talk policy when your campaign spokesperson has to make statements like this: “He was never put in handcuffs, never put in jail,” Gilbert spokesman Vince Leibowitz recently told the Houston Chronicle, responding to the Staples campaign. “These are Class C misdemeanor traffic citations, not murder.”

Indeed, Gilbert may have trouble paying taxes and traffic tickets, but, hey, he’s never killed anyone.

—Dave Mann


 

dept. of unintended consequences

Sloppy Wordplay

The Rev. Tom Brown simply wanted to deny health insurance and other benefits to the domestic partners of El Paso city employees. That, he says, is what his ballot measure would do if approved by voters on Nov. 2.

Unfortunately for the good reverend, the wording of his ballot measure reads a little differently. Taken literally, it would not only eliminate benefits for domestic partners, but would also eliminate benefits for anyone who isn’t currently a city employee, including all 1,300 retired city workers. That has members of the firefighter and police unions fighting back.

“We can’t take a chance on losing our insurance,” says Porfirio “Pilo” Tejeda, a retired firefighter. “We have to fight this.”

The ruckus began last year when the City Council voted 7-1 to extend benefits to domestic partners. Brown, the founder and pastor of Word of Life Church in El Paso and a group known as El Pasoans for Family Values, led a successful effort to qualify a ballot measure on the issue. There are now 19 domestic partners receiving benefits. City officials won’t say how many of them are in a same-sex relationship.

When it came time to write the measure, Brown and his supporters weren’t exactly precise. The proposition reads: “Shall the ordinance, endorsing traditional family values by making health benefits available only to city employees and their legal spouse and dependent children, be approved?”

The wording lacks the simplicity and clarity of, say, the Ten Commandments. What is meant by “endorsing”? What about elected officials? Would they lose health benefits, too?

At a meeting with firefighters and other retirees on Sept. 15, Brown said his intent is clear, and he would never leave retirees out in the cold. “I wrote it,” he said. “Don’t you think that matters more than what other people have to say?”

Well, no, actually, according to the El Paso city attorney’s office.

“You can’t say that people thought it would include this or that,” Senior Assistant City Attorney Elaine Hengen said at a council meeting on Sept. 14. “You have to look at the exact language.”

That may be a blessing in disguise for El Paso’s gay city workers. The inexact wording may undermine a discriminatory ballot measure that El Paso voters otherwise might have approved. As they say, the Lord works in mysterious ways.

—Timothy Roberts

 


 

dept. of big brother

Eye Spy

eye

The militarization of the Texas-Mexico   border continues at a steady pace. In September, the Department of Homeland Security began Predator drone flights over the border. Now it’s testing iris-scanning technology used in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the tests succeed, the department hopes to track immigrants by scanning their eyes.

The two-to-eight week test begins in October at a Border Patrol station in McAllen, where agents will use off-the-shelf commercial scanners on undocumented immigrants. The U.S. military has used the technology overseas since 2007. It has amassed databases of biometric information on Iraqi and Afghan citizens.

Like fingerprints, the iris is unique to every person. The Department of Homeland Security plans to test three types of commercial cameras during the pilot project to determine whether iris-scanning technology is faster and easier to use than fingerprinting.

Newer models of the technology allow people to be scanned from distances of up to 30 feet. Individuals can also be scanned within a crowd. Privacy and civil rights advocacy groups, such as the ACLU, are wary of the biometric technology. “Iris scanning can be done without your permission and at a distance,” ACLU lawyer Christopher Calabrese says, “It allows anyone with an Internet connection and a camera to essentially identify and track you.”

The Department of Homeland Security released a “privacy impact” assessment in August to address such concerns. The agency says immigrants will have the right to refuse the scans during the trial period. The agency also plans to keep names and other identifying information separate from the scans. When the test period is over, the agency says it will destroy the iris scan information.

Calabrese doubts that any immigrants will refuse. “If you’re in detention and law enforcement tells you to do something, you’re going to do it,” he says.

Homeland Security said it won’t adopt the technology unless it’s more effective and faster than fingerprinting. The ACLU believes that if the agency adopts iris scanning technology at the border, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes commonplace in the rest of the United States. “We’ve seen time and time again, military applications like drones being used at the border first,” Calabrese says. “This helps soften the transition to the rest of the country.” Someday soon you, too, may have your movements tracked by government eye-scanners.

—Melissa del Bosque

The Perry Plan

photo by Miranda Grubbs/courtesy Lubbock Avalanche Journal
Rick Perry talks education at Monterey High School in Lubbock

Gov. Rick Perry didn’t exactly face a tough crowd at Lubbock’s Monterey High School on Aug. 31. Well before his arrival, 30 or so students had assembled in neat rows of small, wooden chairs in the school’s library while the adults—members of Lubbock’s elite—were finding their seats at the last minute.

 

Perry chose this friendly setting to unveil his education initiative. For months, Democrats have hammered Perry on education—the high dropout rate, the low SAT scores and the poor condition of Texas schools. Perry had come to West Texas to introduce a proposal to help schools operate more efficiently. It promised a rare moment of policy discussion in a superficial governor’s race.

But when Perry took the podium—stationed in front of a wall of books—he spent most of his time being charming. “It’s good to be in the home of the Plainsmen,” he said of the school’s unimposing mascot. He joked about graduating in his high school’s top-10 students—in a class of 13. He told the kids their football team would have “a big time Friday with Odessa.”

As for his proposal, it won’t remind anyone of No Child Left Behind. School districts that combine administrative costs, like bookkeeping and security, would get a little extra money from the state: 10 percent of whatever amount they saved.

Modest as it was, that was the only new proposal. Perry moved quickly through old ones, including virtual high schools and an iTunes station for the Texas Education Agency, then switched back to a more comfortable topic—the supposedly booming Texas economy. “A thousand plus people move to this state every day,” he said, dropping his voice to an awed whisper. “Every day!” Looking at the students, he said, “There’s freedoms here from overtaxation, overregulation.”

Perry then gave way to Robert Scott, the education commissioner, who explained the plan. It will presumably bring a little more money to small districts. But it seemed mostly for show. Many districts already partner on administrative costs, and school officials from Abilene told the Abilene Reporter News they didn’t think Perry’s plan would have much impact on their budget. The Texas Education Agency didn’t bother to mention the proposal on its home page.

When reporters asked about the proposal, Perry again deferred to Scott. The governor stuck to criticizing his opponent, former Houston Mayor Bill White. He remained insistent that he won’t debate White until the Democrat makes more tax returns public. “Just release your tax records, and we can have a debate, and everyone will figure out if a boy from Paint Creek can debate a boy from Harvard .”

Perry’s knock on White’s college education seemed an odd way to end an event promoting a school initiative. But the governor wasn’t sweating the details.

—Abby Rapoport

 


 

dept. of elections

Blocking the Vote

If Democrats hope to win a statewide race in Texas—they haven’t done so in 16 years—they will have to coax new voters to the polls. There are more votes to be had in Texas, especially in Houston, where about 60 percent of eligible voters are non-Anglo, and several hundred thousand potentially Democratic-leaning voters aren’t registered.

Republicans would like to see the electorate remain as it is—especially in Houston. Keeping people off the voting rolls benefits the GOP.

So when a nonprofit and nonpartisan group named Houston Votes began canvassing Harris County this summer, registering tens of thousands, Republicans saw a threat. Harris County Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez, who will leave office early next year after losing the GOP primary, went on the offensive. (The county tax assessor is also the voter registrar and maintains voter rolls.) On Aug. 24, Vasquez held one of the most bizarre press conferences you’ll ever see. He announced that Harris County voter rolls were under an “organized attack” and raised the specter of ACORN-like “voter fraud” (ACORN didn’t commit voter fraud, but that’s another story).

The press conference had the feel of a political rally. The room was packed with cheering Tea Party activists associated with King Street Patriots, a group taking credit for finding the flawed registration forms. Vasquez said his office had found thousands of faulty forms submitted by Houston Votes, including duplicate registrations and non-citizens trying to register. One person had tried to register six times. A spokesman for Vasquez’s office said the matter has been referred to the county prosecutor.

Houston Votes admitted some of its registrations shouldn’t have been submitted. They were honest mistakes, not fraud, said Fred Lewis, who heads Houston Votes. He said the problems have been rectified. “It’s not a pristine process, and everyone knows that,” Lewis said. “Common mistakes by canvassers aren’t fraud.”

Lewis said Vasquez’s press conference was politically motivated, a “gigantic ambush” designed to curtail the number of people registering to vote. While Houston Votes is still registering voters, the numbers are down since Vasquez’s news conference.

—Dave Mann

 


 

dept. of myth busting

No Sanctuary

Anti-immigration advocates often refer to Texas’ more liberal enclaves such as Austin and Houston as “sanctuary cities,” a buzzword implying that they are soft on illegal immigration. The numbers show otherwise. Austin and Houston are among the toughest cities for immigration enforcement in the United States, according to a recent study.

A coalition of nonprofits, including the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights and the Benjamin N. Cardozo Law Center, recently released a report on the federal “Secure Communities” program, which allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to operate in local jails, checking inmates’ citizenship.

The feds aim to have the program in every jail by 2013. The intent is to deport the most serious criminals, according to ICE. Civil-rights groups say undocumented people increasingly are being deported for minor traffic offenses and other misdemeanors.

“Liberal” Travis County has the nation’s highest rate of deporting people for misdemeanors. ICE has deported 724 people from the county since the Secure Communities program began in June 2009. Of that number, 594, or 84 percent, were deported for misdemeanors. The second-highest rate was 54 percent in Maricopa County, Ariz., where Sheriff Joe Arpaio has waged a controversial campaign against undocumented immigrants. The national average is 22 percent.

The findings stunned attorney Jim Harrington, director of the Austin-based Texas Civil Rights Project. “This damages community policing efforts because undocumented people will not report crimes for fear of deportation,” he says. Harrington and immigrants-rights groups have asked Travis County commissioners to review whether Secure Communities is hurting community policing.

The myth of the sanctuary city has cropped up in this year’s gubernatorial race. Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign has frequently accused Democrat and former Houston Mayor Bill White of running a sanctuary city during his tenure there. Turns out the opposite is true. Under White’s watch, Houston was the first city in Texas to adopt the Secure Communities program, in October 2008. Since then, Harris County has deported 6,627 people—the most in Texas and the second-highest in the nation, after the jails in Maricopa County run by Sheriff Joe.

—Melissa del Bosque

The Dead City

photo by Eugenio del Bosque
Saint Death

Death greets visitors to Reynosa these days. On the outskirts of this gritty industrial city across the Rio Grande from McAllen, a shining, white altar to the skeletal specter la Santa Muerte (Saint Death)—a favorite of the poor, the disenfranchised, and the criminal underclass—stands guard at her post, a smiling grim reaper, a fitting saint for these times.

My husband and I stop at la Santa Muerte on the edge of town. As my husband snaps photographs, a silver pickup truck careens down the highway at high speed with its hazard lights flashing. It weaves dangerously in and out of traffic. Moments later, a Mexican army convoy of several Humvees speeds down the highway in pursuit, the soldiers’ assault rifles glinting in the afternoon sun. Fear courses through me as I realize what’s happening. I’m standing at the side of the road, and a sliver of Mexico’s drug war is headed right for me. I pretend not to see them. As they pass, I think it would be fitting if I had to take shelter behind the altar to la Santa Muerte. It’s the only place where anyone in Reynosa seems to find comfort.

The altar wasn’t here a decade ago when I worked in Reynosa as a reporter. The city was different. It had a vibrant plaza and a healthy tourism trade. Families strolled downtown. Reynosa was never pretty, but it was alive. It had hope. Now the mood is fatalistic. The city itself has become a victim of the drug violence that has killed more than 28,000 people in Mexico since 2006. The restaurants and small businesses downtown are closed. The ice-cream store is gone. Shop owners can’t afford the extortion payments charged by organized crime. Weeds sprout from the fronts of boarded-up discos. Shuttered restaurants tagged with graffiti crumble under the August sun. Two weeks ago, someone threw a grenade at city hall. It stands deserted now. In the streets, no one smiles; no one makes eye contact.

It’s not only the narco-traficantes that residents have to worry about. The failure of the army to curtail the violence has emboldened other criminals—kidnappers, carjackers and anyone else with nothing to lose. The bullets could come anytime from anywhere. When people speak about the cartels or organized crime, they whisper, even sitting in their own living rooms. I hear again and again: “Don’t use my name,” and “You didn’t hear it from me.” A lawyer tells me he tried to file a lawsuit, but the courthouse no longer functions. Another resident tells me she can no longer visit friends in the neighboring city of Rio Bravo. The Gulf Cartel has checkpoints there, and you must pay to enter the city. They wear uniforms, she says, like an army.

Meanwhile, from her post at the edge of the city, la Santa Muerte smiles. This is her dominion now.

—Melissa del Bosque


 

dept. of Disputed Elections

Home Cooking

Texas’ 5th Court of Appeals turns out to be more sentimental than you might imagine. Home, the court recently ruled, really is where the heart is—at least in the case of Republican state Sen. Brian Birdwell.

Birdwell won a special election in June to replace the retiring Kip Averitt, a Waco Republican. Birdwell, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, is perhaps best known for his inspirational recovery following the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. He sustained burns to 60 percent of his body and had 39 surgeries. He gradually recovered, founded a Christian ministry for burn victims, and even started fishing again.

Problem is, he did it all in Virginia. Even getting the fishing license.

Although he maintained property in Texas, Birdwell only moved back to the Lone Star State in 2007. In fact, Birdwell voted in Virginia elections in 2006, an act that requires voters to declare their residency there. You might assume that would make him ineligible for the Texas Senate, which requires five years of Texas residency.

But you would be mistaken. After winning the special election to serve the final months of Averitt’s term, Birdwell was nominated for the November ballot to serve a full four years. Sensing a chance to steal a Senate seat, Democrats filed a lawsuit seeking to boot Birdwell from the ballot. The case seemed straightforward: Birdwell, according to his voting records, hasn’t been a resident of Texas for five years.

The Democrats’ case fell victim to that tried-and-true legal device: the technical loophole. On Aug. 19, the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas—comprised entirely of Republicans—ruled in Birdwell’s favor. The justices wrote that Democrats should have first asked the state Republican Party to remove Birdwell from the ballot before going to court. In its 12-page ruling, the court barely mentioned Birdwell’s residency.

In an odd twist, the name that did come off the ballot was the Democratic nominee, John Cullar, a Waco attorney and longtime activist. Cullar was never a serious candidate; Democrats had nominated him the day before filing suit.

So the case has been wrapped up neatly. Birdwell has no credible opponent and likely will continue to serve a state he’s resided in for only three years. But, hey, close enough.

—Abby Rapoport

 


 

dept. of injustice

Tim Cole’s Legacy

When the Tim Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions gathered for the first time on Oct. 13, 2009, the first person the judges, prosecutors, innocence attorneys, reform advocates, and legislators on the panel heard from was Cole’s half-brother, Cory Session. “Tim died in prison while being oppressed,” he told them. “Let’s not let it happen again.”

They took Session’s plea to heart. Ten months later, on Aug. 25, the panel members finalized a report that recommends strong reforms to Texas’ criminal justice system. If the reforms are enacted, the number of wrongful convictions in Texas would decline immediately.

Cole is perhaps the most famous of the many Texans who have been wrongly convicted. The former Texas Tech student was imprisoned in 1986 for a rape he didn’t commit. For 13 years, Cole wasted away in prison, while the man who committed the crime tried to convince authorities Cole was innocent. Cole died in prison from asthma complications in 1999—a decade before DNA testing proved his innocence. Last year Gov. Rick Perry made Cole the first Texan to be exonerated posthumously. The Legislature created the advisory panel with one of two bills bearing Cole’s name in the 2009 session.

The causes of wrongful convictions are no secret. The No. 1 problem is witness misidentification, which has contributed to about 75 percent of flawed cases, according to the New York-based Innocence Project. Botched forensic evidence, made-up testimony from jailhouse snitches, and false confessions also are major factors.

The panel took on all these issues. It recommends that Texas require all law enforcement agencies to adopt standard procedures for police lineups. That would prevent coaching eyewitnesses to identify a suspect or stacking lineups so a suspect stands out.

The panel recommends that police officers record their interrogations to reduce false confessions. And it wants Texas courts to ban jailhouse informants from the witness stand unless their testimony can be verified.

These ideas aren’t new. Many have failed in the Legislature for years. The key question is, how much clout does Tim Cole’s name and story carry? Will the Legislature stash the report in a drawer? Or will lawmakers consider criminal justice reforms that would have saved Cole’s life? We’ll begin to find out when the Legislature convenes in January.

—Dave Mann


 

dept. of Literalism

PolitiFact’s Tough Crowd

There’s an old Texas proverb: One man’s joke is another man’s slander.

PolitiFact Texas doesn’t bother to distinguish. The collaborative  venture between the Austin American-Statesman and the national PolitiFact project at the St. Petersburg Times investigates political claims to see how accurate they are—what editor Gardner Selby calls “truthiness.” After examining a statement’s veracity, PolitiFact Texas slaps it with a rating on the Truth-o-meter: anything from “True” to “Pants on Fire” (which comes with a nifty graphic featuring animated flames).

It’s serious business—perhaps too serious.

For instance, state Democratic Party Chair Boyd Richie recently accused Gov. Rick Perry of “spending Texans’ hard-earned money to live like Louis XIV.” PolitiFact explained in more than 800 dour words why Perry’s rental house, while opulent, isn’t quite Versailles. In its piece, PolitiFact Texas acknowledged that “Democrats said Richie was joshing,” but that didn’t stop it from rating the statement “Pantalon en Feu.”

No good line goes unchecked. Jeff Weems, the Democratic candidate for Railroad Commission, observed in June that his reclusive Republican opponent “saw his shadow on the primary day and no one has seen him since.” PolitiFact noted dryly that “Democrat Jeff Weems says Republican foe has been an out-of-sight groundhog since March primaries.” After investigating, PolitiFact rated it “Barely True.”

Jokes are worth investigating, Selby says, because “you’re not guaranteed that a voter’s going to get your joke.” True, and the PolitiFact staff has shot down a variety of seriously false assertions, from Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White’s claim that Perry is the highest-paid state employee, to Perry’s statement that White helped the Obama administration on cap-and-trade legislation, to reminding U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee that there’s now only one Vietnam.

But Hector Uribe, a Democratic candidate for Land Commissioner, found his trousers alight for a bit of political satire. His campaign issued a tongue-in-cheek press release in January lauding the candidate’s role in No Country for Old Men. It mentioned that “Uribe’s Republican opponent [Land Commissioner and noted gun enthusiast Jerry Patterson] threatened to shoot him last week.” Given the tone, it was hard to take the release seriously. The statement still got a “Pants on Fire,” though readers who finished the article saw the label was granted for “making us laugh and for reminding us not to take this stuff too seriously.” They might need more reminding.

By the way, there’s no need to fact-check that proverb at the top. We made it up.

—Abby Rapoport

A Ruling for Capture

courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Soon the state Supreme Court will decide Edwards Aquifer Authority v. Day, a landmark case that could upend the state’s rickety system of groundwater regulation. At issue is whether landowners have an absolute, vested right to the groundwater beneath their property, as the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found. “If this theory were to prevail in this Court, groundwater conservation in Texas would be finished,” warns an amicus brief filed by the Texas Association of Groundwater Conservation Districts.

A foreshadow of that scenario can be found in a little-noticed court decision in another case, Bragg v. Edwards Aquifer Authority. In May, now-retired District Judge Thomas Lee awarded compensation to landowners for the “taking” of the water beneath their property. The litigants in that case have been squared off since 1996, when the newly created Edwards Aquifer Authority prohibited Glenn and JoLynn Bragg, a Medina County couple, from pumping as much water as they wanted to irrigate two pecan orchards. “The Braggs invested their lives, labor and money in a good family farm that could be passed on to their heirs,” wrote Judge Lee. “That life plan has been undermined, and their investment severely devalued.” Lee calculated the Braggs’ loss at $867,000.

The authority says it had to follow its own rules, which are designed to conserve the aquifer, the sole source of drinking water for San Antonio. Opening the door to such “takings” claims could lay waste to the agency, said Darcy Frownfelter, general counsel for the authority. Thousands of people own land over the aquifer, and each could sue for more water. There’s no reason to think “takings” suits would be limited to the Edwards Aquifer Authority. There are 98 groundwater conservation districts in the state, and many are moving toward pumping caps. “Basically you’re hog-tying them,” said Amy Hardberger, a water expert and attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund of Texas.

In Edwards Aquifer Authority v. Day, South Texas farmers Burrell Day and Joel McDaniel are suing for the right to pump as much water as they say they need for irrigation. If the State Supreme Court decides the two unequivocally own the portion of the aquifer beneath their land, then the Bragg case can move forward. If not, Bragg is probably moot. The fate of Texas water hangs in the balance.

—Forrest Wilder

 


 

dept. of popular opinion

A Polling Paradox

When Gallup released its “State of the States” poll numbers, we can only imagine the jubilation that might have poured from Texas Democrats. The state’s long-suffering political losers surely found something to smile about when they saw that Texans are not “above average” in their identification with the GOP. Gallup says we have the “average” number of voters calling themselves Republican or “Lean Republican.” While Texas is “above average” in the number who say they’re conservative, that percentage is nowhere near that of states like Wyoming, Idaho and Oklahoma.

Does this mean Texas is poised to go blue in November? That’s still a long shot. Among the big states—California, New York, Florida—Texas is the most Republican and most conservative. The Republicans will fight like hell to keep it red.  “Sure, it’s not as solidly Republican as Wyoming, but Wyoming has three electoral votes,” says Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University who specializes in polling and voting behavior.

“Texas is absolutely one of the toughest states for Democrats,” says Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia whose website, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, caters to political junkies and soothsayers. Sabato says the Gallup numbers don’t give the full picture. “It’s a Republican year,” he says, “and Texas is fundamentally conservative and Republican.”

Sabato doesn’t dismiss the Democrats’ chances. He has listed the Texas gubernatorial race under “leans R”—a much better prospect for Democratic candidate Bill White than, say, “likely R” or, worst of all, “safe R.” Sabato’s reasoning has more to do with Gov. Rick Perry’s seemingly endless tenure than with an ideological shift. Sabato says the Texas climate is actually worse for Democrats now than a few years ago. “If Bill White were running this race in 2006,” Sabato says, “and Perry at that time had already served 10 or 11 years, the results might be different than I think they’re going to be.”

For now, experts are telling Democrats it’s not time to pull out the party hats. Polling numbers are “the first word,” says Sabato. “Not the last word.”

—Abby Rapoport

photo courtesy istock

Dept. of Homophobia

It’s been just over a year since Fort Worth police, with Texas Alcohol and Beverage Control agents in tow, stormed into the Rainbow Lounge, a gay bar. They arrested seven patrons for public intoxication, sent one to the hospital with a head injury and caused a national firestorm. The timing couldn’t have been worse: The raid fell on the 40th anniversary of the anti-police harassment uprising at the Stonewall bar in New York, which touched off the modern gay-rights movement.

Late last month, the Rainbow Lounge commem-orated the event—and Fort Worth cops were there. This time they were invited. Instead of harassing people for dancing, uniformed officers were hanging around, chowing down on brisket and trying to heal the lingering wounds.

The get-together showed that at least some on both sides are trying to make the best out of a terrible situation. The raid touched a raw nerve and, initially, police made matters worse by implying patrons had brought the harassment on themselves by flirting with officers. Police Chief Jeffery Halstead piled on, saying he was “happy with the restraint used” by his officers.

Some in the gay community saw an opportunity and formed an organization called Fairness Fort Worth to press city officials for reform. Eventually, three police officers involved in the raid were suspended, and three TABC agents were fired. The city created tight standards for bar inspections, adopted a more inclusive anti-discrimination policy, and appointed a Diversity Task Force. “We had some pretty tough negotiations and discussions with these folks,” says Todd Camp, a founder of Fairness Fort Worth. “But I think the relationship has greatly improved.”

The question remains whether these efforts are enough to make things right. Some members of the gay community feel that glossing things over with a task force and a barbecue trivializes the situation.

“I just don’t think we’re to the point where we should be inviting Chief Halstead back to the Rainbow Lounge to have some drinks,” says Blake Wilkinson, founder of the Dallas LGBT activist group Queer LiberAction. “To me it seems as though we’re almost too eager to forget the treatment that the police department has given us.”

Wilkinson’s caution is not unfounded. The city attorney’s office still intends to prosecute two Rainbow Lounge patrons arrested for public intoxication in the infamous raid—including Chad Gibson, the man whose skull was fractured.

The police say the case is out of their hands. “We’re trying to be in a position to not be on one side or the other,” chief of staff Lt. Paul Henderson said.

Fairness Fort Worth President Thomas Anable says that if the trials go forward, it could destroy much of the goodwill the city has built up. “You want trials? Go ahead,” Anable says. “We’ll bring out 2,000 protesters for each trial. The only thing you could do to re-energize the LGBT community is to have those trials.”

—Ann Elise Taylor

 


 

 

campaign Trail

Weems The Watchdog?

When Jeff Weems took the stage in Corpus Christi at the Democratic Convention in June, the applause quickly turned thunderous. “I know the business, I know the industry,” boomed the brawny, mustachioed candidate for Railroad Commission. “But I’m not running for the business or the industry. I’m running for my family. I’m running for your families!”

As in every speech, the oil and gas lawyer paused to explain that the Railroad Commission—despite its misleading name—primarily regulates the oil and gas industries in the state. “We have to keep it strong,” Weems said. “It’s our biggest employer. It’s one of our biggest sources of revenue. But you gotta watch what they’re doing!”

Weems says his knowledge of the industry makes him the best watchdog in the race. Weems’ secret weapon is his Republican opponent. Weems looked like a sure loser against Victor Carrillo, the well-liked Republican incumbent and close ally of Gov. Rick Perry. But in March, Carrillo lost the GOP primary to David Porter, a relatively unknown certified public accountant. Carrillo did not go quietly, arguing publicly that his non-Anglo last name was to blame for the loss and pointing to Porter’s lack of experience.

Carrillo’s loss could be Weems’ gain. He says he is a proponent of increased regulation. ”You will not find a more vociferous fan of good, smart, responsible regulation,” he recently told the Observer. Weems has deep roots in the industries he’d be regulating. He’s had some unpopular clients—none more so than BP. Porter, inexperienced and untarnished, has tried to take advantage of such associations.

Weems views it differently. “Quite frankly I don’t think you can be a good regulator unless you’ve been out there, unless you’ve been involved with the oil and gas industry,” he says, a not-so-subtle nod to Porter’s lack of experience.

Despite Weems’ energetic speaking style—and a campaign that’s already taken him, he says, to 143 counties—he faces an uphill battle along with other Democrats running statewide. In the May UT/Texas Tribune Poll, Porter led Weems 39 percent to 27, with 29 percent of voters undecided. As he works to close the gap, Weems plans to unveil a “Republicans for Weems” site. He’s hoping some people will switch over to vote for him.

“The Railroad Commission is nowhere near as sexy as the governor’s race,” Weems says. This year, it may be just as competitive.

—Abby Rapoport

 


 

 

Dept. of mental health

Otty Sanchez Is Spared

It seemed clear from the start that Otty Sanchez—a 33-year-old mother in San Antonio—was temporarily insane when she murdered her three-week-old son and consumed parts of his body in the early morning hours of July 26, 2009. Sanchez is a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic who was suffering from postpartum psychosis, a severe form of postpartum depression that often prods new mothers to violence. When police arrived, Sanchez was screaming that the devil had made her do it. Yet prosecutors in San Antonio charged Sanchez with murder and announced they would seek the death penalty.

In late June, after three psychologists evaluated her, Sanchez was ruled not guilty by reason of insanity. The charges against Sanchez were dropped, and she will remain in a maximum-security mental health facility, though a judge will review her case yearly.

Texas has one of the stingiest mental health systems in the nation. It took a horrifically violent act for Sanchez to receive the treatment she needed. As the Observer reported in January, Sanchez had been receiving free services from a public mental health clinic in San Antonio, but stopped attending when the clinic told her it could no longer afford to treat her.

Six days before the killing, Sanchez sought help, but was turned away from Metropolitan Methodist Hospital’s psychiatric unit. She was among hundreds of thousands of Texans with severe mental illness who go untreated every year.

—Dave Mann

 


 

 

tyrant’s foe

Eddie Aldrete, Banking on Reform

A 50-year-old bank vice president might strike you as an unlikely coalition-builder in the heated debate over immigration reform. If so, you haven’t met Eddie Aldrete, a senior vice president at IBC Bank in San Antonio, or heard his wonky, impassioned take on why America must overhaul its immigration system.

In 2007, Aldrete won kudos for forging an unlikely alliance between Democratic state Rep. Pete Gallego, the chair of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, and Bill Hammond, a conservative Republican and chair of the Texas Association of Business, to defeat a slew of anti-immigration bills. The coalition Aldrete put together, which also included the ACLU, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and League of United Latin American Citizens, staved off legislation such as a bill that would have prohibited young citizens from receiving health care or public education if their parents were undocumented.

“Everyone was focused on the same goal, but at the same time there were personality issues after years of butting heads,” Aldrete says. “But everyone was very professional and stood united on the cause for comprehensive immigration reform. We were successful in 2007, again in 2009, and we plan to be back next session.”

Aldrete comes from a family of Democrats. His father was assistant secretary of commerce for President Jimmy Carter, and his brother, James, is a well-known Democratic political consultant in Texas. Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez is a shareholder at IBC. Still, Aldrete doesn’t hesitate to reach out to Republicans on immigration reform.
Chad Foster, former mayor of Eagle Pass and a Republican, says Aldrete’s success comes from being well-liked and having an impressive list of contacts in both parties. “He’s able to work with both sides,” Foster says. “Eddie takes the spin out of immigration reform and relays the reality of the situation.”

Aldrete likens immigration reform to an iceberg: “The 15 percent that everyone is paying attention to is just the tip of that iceberg. It’s what’s down below that sunk the Titanic.” The part that could sink America’s future, according to Aldrete, is our declining fertility rate, our rapidly aging population, and close to 82 million baby boomers on the edge of retirement.

Aldrete went into action in 2006 as Congress considered penalizing people for handing out bottled water to immigrants in the desert—while failing to fix the immigration system. “Basically, we had a situation where a pipe had burst in the kitchen, and instead of fixing the pipe they were sending in more mops,” he says.

Four years later, the immigration debate has only grown shriller and less substantive. Aldrete expects to be busy this upcoming legislative session. He plans to counter the more politically divisive rhetoric with facts and statistics. “It’s easy to get sucked into the emotional side of the immigration debate,” he says. “But this is not a partisan issue, and the solutions are not partisan, either.”

—Melissa del Bosque

UT’s racism pressure valve

At UT, the fight against discrimination devolves into symbolism

If history is written by those who show up, then the question of renaming UT’s Simkins Hall dormitory—currently named for confederate officer, Florida Ku Klux Klan co-founder and UT law professor William Stewart Simkinsought to be an easy one. Simkins’ name was first applied to the law and engineering dormitory in 1955, in a move that was almost certainly calculated as symbolic defiance against university integration efforts, five years after Heman Sweatt enrolled in the law school in spite of a UT lawsuit, and five weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

Since discussion of renaming the dormitory resurfaced in the wake of a paper by former UT law professor Thomas Russell last spring, the university administration’s stance has shifted from resistant to self-congratulatory open-mindedness (sample dialogue from UT’s website: “President Powers’ decision to have an advisory group study changing the name of Simkins Hall is an indication of how dedicated this university is to creating a welcoming climate of cultural and intellectual diversity.”) UT President William Powers dispatched Vice President of Diversity and Community Engagement Gregory Vincent to head up two public forums collecting public input about a name change. The results of the forums—a clear pro-name-change consensuswill be distilled into a recommendation delivered by an advisory study group to the Board of Regents, who will make the ultimate decision. The regents, however, are not bound by the recommendation.

In a regular address that Simkins, who taught at UT from 1899 to 1929, delivered to his law students, he described a number of attacks that he and others made against blacks during their Florida KKK ‘glory days’ in the late 1860s. One such story involves Simkins himself, brandishing a wooden club, chasing Florida state Senator Robert Meacham—a black manthrough a crowded street. None of the onlookers—black or white—stepped forward to defend Meacham, and authorities never investigated the attack. “The unseen power,” Simkins explained, “was behind me.”

Two public forums to inform an advisory committee to make a recommendation to the actual decision-makers might be the university’s version of expedient action, or they might be looking for some bureaucratic intestine where they can send this controversy to wither and die. Even at its very best, though, the dispute is still just a pressure valve, one that takes the pressure that has built up against prolonged, sustained injustice and channels it into purely symbolic measures. Even if the regents do the right thing, and strip Simkins’ name from the building, it won’t do a bit of good for the thousands of minority and low-income students who face actual, non-symbolic institutional discrimination at UT everyday. And if they don’t, we’ll discover that, eight decades after his death, William Simkins still has the unseen power behind him.