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Political Intelligence

Papers, Y’all?

Dept. of Immigration
photo by Joanna Wojtkowiak

Can something as constitutionally challenged as Arizona’s “papers, please” law pass in Texas? Not likely—but get ready for heated rhetoric and a new round of immigrant bashing at next year’s Legislature.

The Arizona law requires police to demand proof of citizenship from anyone they “reasonably suspect” is in the country illegally. This doesn’t please law-enforcement types like Sheriff Clarence Dupnik of Arizona’s Pima County, which shares 123 miles of border with Mexico. He’s called it “the worst piece of legislation I’ve seen in 50 years,” pointing out that the law forces his deputies to adopt racial profiling. Worse, the law allows any Arizona citizen to sue for non-enforcement. “We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” Dupnik told an Arizona TV station.

And damned if right-wing legislators in Texas haven’t leapt on the bandwagon. State Rep. Debbie Riddle, a Tomball Republican, has pledged to introduce similar legislation. Leo Berman, her Republican colleague from Tyler, is also itching to file an Arizona-style bill.

The fact that Texas is not Arizona will block the effort, says Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston. “The business leadership in Texas is very cool, to say the least, toward any kind of Arizona-type immigration legislation,” he says.

Some Republican Party leaders, including Gov. Rick Perry, agree. The political calculations are clear: Texas has a larger Latino population and a higher percentage of registered Latino voters than Arizona. By 2040, the Latino population in Texas metropolitan areas is expected to rise from 5.9 to 17.2 million; in rural areas, it is projected to double, from 777,000 to 1.6 million. Many of the additions will be young voters, which the GOP sorely lacks.

The Texas GOP walks a political tightrope trying not to alienate Latino voters. Take Perry. Shortly after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (who’s also running for re-election) signed the law there, Texas’ outspoken “border security” advocate said he had “concerns with portions of the law passed in Arizona” and that “it would not be the right direction for Texas.”

No matter how moderate Republican leaders try to sound, it might be too late for them to replicate the inroads the party made with Tejanos in the 1990s and early 2000s, says Jerry Polinard, a political science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American. “Gov. Bush deliberately avoided immigrant-bashing,” Polinard says. “But the Republican emphasis now on border security instead of comprehensive immigration reform is viewed by many Latinos as anti-immigrant.”

Republicans hold a slim majority in the Texas Legislature. If Democrats can avoid losing too many seats in November, an Arizona-type bill would probably not pass next session.

“The likelihood of it passing is slim in the current context,” Polinard says. “I think there are enough moderate Republicans left in the Legislature to let Berman and Riddle’s legislation die a quiet death.”

—Melissa del Bosque


family business

Like Father, Like Son

First, state Rep. Eddie Lucio III followed his dad, state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., into politics. Now the Brownsville Democrat has taken over one of his father’s business ventures: consulting for a sketchy private-prison developer.

The younger Lucio is consulting for Argyle, Texas-based Corplan Corrections Ltd., which has become notorious for selling struggling communities on risky, government-financed prisons with rosy promises of new jobs and economic riches—then leaving communities to figure out how to keep the facilities open. Corplan was part of a consortium behind a now-infamous $27-million jail in Hardin, Montana—it has never housed a prisoner.

The elder Lucio consulted for Corplan and other private-prison outfits from 1999 until 2005. Sen. Lucio helped convince local officials in Willacy County, north of Brownsville, to build a $60 million, 2,000-bed federal immigration detention center. In 2005, he suspended his lucrative consulting in the wake of a federal investigation that led to the conviction of two Willacy County commissioners for accepting bribes to support the project. Who supplied the bribes is a mystery; the investigation led to no further charges.

The stench of scandal has not deterred “Little Lucio” from consulting for Corplan. Recently the company has approached towns in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas with plans to build a detention facility for undocumented immigrant families. The company tapped Lucio to help in Weslaco, just outside his Rio Grande Valley district. In February, Lucio and Corplan CEO James Parkey urged Weslaco commissioners to pass a resolution supporting Corplan’s effort.

It could be a lousy deal for Weslaco.

“I think they’re being duped, frankly,” says Michelle Brané, director of detention and asylum programs with the Women’s Refugee Commission. The Obama administration has pledged to build no new facilities for undocumented children and their parents. According to an e-mail obtained by the Observer, the Weslaco city attorney learned in July 2009 that federal solicitation for new family detention facilities had been canceled.

Weslaco Mayor Buddy de la Rosa says he didn’t know about the policy shift. Lucio and Corplan didn’t mention it. Neither did the city attorney. De la Rosa wonders if it explains why he hasn’t heard from Parkey or Lucio recently. “They have been remarkably quiet for the past several weeks,” he told the Observer in late April.

—Forrest Wilder


dept. of injustice

Slow Burn

After nearly seven months’ delay, the Texas Forensic Science Commission turned its attention back to the disputed case of Cameron Todd Willingham on April 23—for all of 10 minutes.

The upshot: more stalling of its inquiry into whether discredited forensic evidence led to Willingham’s conviction for the 1991 fire that killed his three daughters. Nine fire scientists have examined the case and concluded that Willingham was likely innocent when Texas executed him in 2004. The commission’s investigation halted last September, when Gov. Rick Perry replaced three members of the panel and installed hard-line Williamson County D.A. John Bradley as chair. Bradley kept the politically dangerous Willingham affair out of public view during the GOP gubernatorial primary—a political boon for Perry, who allowed the execution to go forward despite questions about the evidence.

On April 23, the commissioners met for more than six hours in a cramped room packed with reporters and activists in the upscale Omni Mandalay Hotel in Irving. For most of that time, they avoided any talk of cases marred by disproved forensics—the agency’s primary mission—in favor of more mundane topics: backlogs at crime labs, whether to hire a general counsel, and maintenance of the agency’s website.

They finally raised the Willingham issue four hours into the meeting and spent 10 minutes explaining they had a lot of work left on the case and that the inquiry is in its “infancy.” Four members were named to a panel that will continue the Willingham investigation—out of public view.

Bradley made that clear when he talked—and we’re using the term loosely—with reporters after the meeting. Asked about a timeline for the investigation, he said, in perhaps the quote of the year: “However long it takes, that’s however long it takes.”

Asked how he would describe the meeting, Bradley responded, “Well, you were here. You heard it. You can report it.”

Why would the Willingham panel meet behind closed doors? “Because the ability to resolve and discuss these issues requires that we have those discussions in private.” Asked when the panel would meet, Bradley said he didn’t know. Then he excused himself to catch a plane.

The commission won’t be seen again in public until its next official meeting in July. (Bradley has changed the meeting schedule from monthly to quarterly.)

It’s too late for Willingham. But the commission’s continued delay tactics could be denying justice to hundreds of wrongly convicted Texans. As the Observer reported last year, more than 700 people remain in Texas prisons on arson convictions—perhaps one-half of them convicted by discredited forensic evidence.

—Dave Mann


Dept. of corrections

Guilty, Finally

In 2005, J.C. Moore was incarcerated at the West Texas State School, a juvenile correctional facility in Pyote. Moore remembers Assistant Superintendent Ray Brookins as an intimidating figure. “If he asked you to jump, you better ask how high, or else you’d be locked up,” Moore says.

At night, Brookins played favorites, taking kids out of their dorm rooms for “cleaning.” Moore knew something wasn’t right. But, he says, “whenever we would bring it up with staff, we would get blown off. We were told, ‘It will be looked into.’”

It never was, at least not by the Texas Youth Commission (TYC), the state juvenile corrections agency. The message that staff members were sexually abusing boys reached as far as Austin, but it wasn’t until a math tutor got word out to the Texas Rangers that an investigation was launched and evidence collected.

Then the case was brushed under the rug. The men quietly resigned from their jobs. Brookins went to work at a hotel, while John Paul Hernandez, the principal also implicated, was hired by a Midland school.

In 2007, the Texas Ranger report was leaked to the Observer and The Dallas Morning News.

A scandal exploded, bringing TYC to its knees. Legislators demanded changes. Sweeping reforms passed. Yet Brookins’ and Hernandez’s cases languished in the Ward County D.A.’s office.

Brookins finally went to trial on April 20. After 11 witnesses testified—one victim stated he was abused as far back as 1994—Brookins was sentenced to 10 years. (Hernandez’s trial date has not been set yet.)

TYC’s incarcerated population has shrunk in the meantime. The Pyote school where the abuse occurred is set to close May 28. The executive director of TYC, Cherie Townsend, denies the closure is related to the scandal, but many interpret the decision differently.

“They wanted a trophy, and the West Texas State School was it,” says Suzanne Smith, a former administrator at the school.

One former employee wrote on Facebook, “IT WAS GREAT AND WONDERFUL WHILE IT LASTED!!! … WE JUST MIGHT HAVE TO DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN!!! I WOULD!!! WOULDN’T YOU???”

J.C. Moore would not.

“I feel relieved that it’s closing,” he says. “The facility should have been closed a long time ago.”

— Laura Burke

A Tea Party Flop

Tax Day Diary
photo by Jen Reel
Tea Party supporters brave the rain on Tax Day to protest the Obama administration.

At a tea party rally in Austin on Tax Day 2009, Gov. Rick Perry tacitly endorsed the notion that Texas could secede from the Union. It caused a bit of a stir. In the year since, the tea party movement has only grown. So the 2010 anti-tax protests figured to be a must-see. Or so we thought. The various, sparsely attended rallies—four in Austin—showcased traits that might be the movement’s undoing.

Gov. Perry skipped the festivities. Steady rain no doubt chased away some people, and other Texans were attending the Washington, D.C., rally. Still, it was surprising that the Tax Day protests couldn’t attract more than a few hundred stragglers.

The day’s first scheduled event, in front of Austin City Hall—where Perry spoke last year—never even happened. When this reporter arrived, he found three members of the press outnumbering two lonely activists. There were the trappings of a protest—a podium, a microphone, a tent—but the activists had apparently not shown up.

The final rally, sponsored by Texans for Accountable Government, got going around 6 p.m. About 150 people huddled in a downpour under the Capitol entranceway to hear a series of speakers shout indictments of the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Reserve and one-world government through a hand-held bullhorn. As the proceedings wore on, members of the small crowd began to steal the show, interrupting with outbursts: “Jefferson was a terrorist!” screamed one man. “So was Washington.”

“What did he say?” one woman asked standing in the back. Her friend answered in a dejected tone, “People are just shouting random stuff.”

—Dave Mann



 

Dept. of energy

Coal, Coal Heart

Ultimate insider Bobby Ray Inman—retired admiral, former CIA deputy director, former NSA director, Austin venture capitalist, failed nominee for defense secretary, professor at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs—got so steamed in the aftermath of April’s coal-mining disaster in West Virginia that he threatened to take up the tea party cause.

Since 1985, Inman has served on the board of Massey Energy, the company under fire after 29 workers died in a preventable disaster at its Upper Big Branch mine, which had some 3,000 safety violations since 1995. It’s been a nice side gig: Between 2006 and 2008, Inman collected $1 million as Massey’s lead independent director. He showed little patience with bad press of the company’s dismal safety record, or with calls from unions and others for the resignation of controversial CEO Don Blankenship.

“My anger level is pretty high for the disinformation pushed by unions,” Inman told the Austin American-Statesman after the disaster. “I’m a political independent, but this is enough to make a tea-partier out of me,”

Blankenship joined up already. Last year he lavished more than $1 million on “Friends of America,” a tea party rally in West Virginia featuring Ted Nugent and Fox News host Sean Hannity. Blankenship mocked the government’s mining regulations as being “as silly as global warming.”

Inman is standing by his man. Blankenship, he told the Statesman, is “without question the best coal miner in the business.”

—Forrest Wilder



 

Bushies in Exile

Rove in Clover

A few minutes before Karl Rove took the stage at the University of Texas’ Texas Union Ballroom on April 19, three protesters with posterboard signs—”Arrest Rove,” “Guilty of Crimes Against Humanity”—trooped in and planted themselves opposite the lectern so that Rove would have a clear view of them during his presentation. The restless audience was grateful, having waited for 30 minutes with little to do but peruse the pocket constitutions handed out at the door.

It was the beginning of a smashingly successful evening for Rove, who gave a half-hour, on-message address about the evils of the stimulus, health-care reform and the Obama administration. He laced his outrage with folksy humor and, in a show of magnanimity, offered to answer a question from one of the “lunatics” at the back of the room after he had disposed of the pre-submitted questions. (Rove cut the protester short when he began to ramble about a secret cult of pederasty in the Republican Party.)

The evening was a smash, too, for Ryan Ellis, the president of UT’s chapter of College Republicans. Ellis had hoped for hecklers. He’d included a distorted, sinister-looking picture of Rove on the College Republicans’ flyers: “Come See ‘the Architect’ of the Bush administration!”

It was a display of political symbiosis. Rove plugged his book (Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight). College Republicans generated media coverage that might attract some new members. The protesters went away with the satisfaction of having taken a stand. But the human collateral of the policies that Rove’s clients have brought into being—foreign and domestic—were nowhere to be seen, and nowhere to be heard.

—Robert Green



 

Revolving Door Dept.

The Budget Fixer

Last year, Albert Hawkins, commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, retired from state service. This year, he started his own private consulting firm. And he’s landed a plum client already: the state of Texas.

Republican House Speaker Joe Straus has hired Hawkins to consult on the state’s budget. His $5,000-a-month salary will be paid by the speaker’s campaign PAC, Texans for Joe Straus. What he advises Straus to cut or save will be important as legislators grapple next year with an $11 billion to $20 billion budget shortfall.

Straus said in a press statement that Hawkins will use his expertise to scrutinize health and human-service spending: “Albert has given many years of public service to state and federal government, and his guidance and knowledge on budget and health care issues will be key as we deal with the budget shortfall and the added burden of a federal health care mandate.”

Hawkins did not return the Observer’s calls requesting an interview.

Some question the need for a private consultant, since Straus co-chairs the Legislative Budget Board, which is filled with state budget analysts. The question also begs: Why does a state official need to pay a private consultant (who shares an office with a lobby group) with money from his political committee (partially funded by lobbyists)?

—Melissa del Bosque



 

Dept. of Elections

Schooled

Unless you’ve been walking the Earth like Kane in Kung Fu, you don’t need any reminding of what an embarrassment the Texas State Board of Education has been lately. But those days may well have ended after the runoff elections on April 13.

Social conservatives, controlling seven of the State Board’s 15 seats, have consistently voted in a bloc to infuse their Christian worldviews into the social studies and science curriculums. But in the March primary, Christian conservatives lost two State Board races—including the defeat of their standard-bearer, Don McLeroy. And they suffered another setback in April when Marsha Farney, a self-described “common sense conservative,” easily defeated her right-wing opponent in a runoff for an open seat on the State Board.

Farney faces a Democrat in the general election, but is the favorite to replace right-wing member Cynthia Dunbar, who’s leaving the board. Dunbar had hand-picked an Austin attorney named Brian Russell as her successor. “I believe in a rigorous, knowledge-based education that teaches: an unashamedly patriotic view of American history, emphasizing the God-given individual rights and limited government enshrined in the Constitution,” Russell had written on his Web site.

The Christian conservative faction of the State Board has now shrunk to five seats on a 15-member board. For at least two years, the State Board might take a break from the culture wars and go back to simply debating education policy.

—Dave Mann



 

campaign Trail

Heck of a Party, George

On the shiny, fragrant Tuesday morning after Tax Day, white folks angry about health reform waited on the state Capitol steps to hear from the four leading Republican coveters of Kay Bailey Hutchison’s U.S. Senate seat. They’d also be getting a gander at a low-grade presidential aspirant, former New York Gov. George Pataki. Upon the news of Obamacare’s passage, it seems, Pataki had leapt upon his metaphorical horse, Paul Revere-style, to “awaken American patriots to the knowledge that our freedom is in danger today.” He calls his anti-health care effort RevereAmerica, and this was its Texas debut.

Since the Senate hopefuls—Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Attorney Gen. Greg Abbott, Railroad Commissioner Michael L. Williams, state Sen. Dan Patrick—had all come to cheer on Pataki’s “repeal and replace” agenda, you might have expected at some point to hear that agenda spelled out. But the closest anybody got was Abbott, who said: “We’ve got to repeal and replace everyone who voted for Obamacare.”

The four Republican leaders were there, it seemed, mainly to plug into an easy outlet for appearing to stand strong against Obamacare. Dewhurst tried out a campaign line about there now being “one nation under government,” rather than God. Abbott boasted about his health-reform lawsuit and commended the sacredness of the Tenth Amendment and the Commerce Clause. “I filed a lawsuit sending a message to Washington, D.C.: Don’t mess with Texas!” he said. Williams, the rare non-Caucasian at many a tea-party gathering, won over the crowd by radiating positive energy and serving up a soothing message of opposition, contending that health reform “perpetuates a culture of dependence—a culture that has been destructive to the black community.”

“Way to go Senator! Senator Williams!” scattered voices shouted after the railroad commissioner finished.

The size of the crowd wasn’t embarrassing, but it wasn’t large. One hundred would be a generous estimate. Just as on Tax Day, the fizzle appeared to have gone out of the tea party. Maybe that’s just temporary. Or maybe it’s inevitable.

—Bob Moser

Defending Invisibles

Tyrant’s Foes

From a cramped office in their Edinburg home, Nadezhda Garza and her older sister, Anayanse, publicize the plight of an almost invisible population—thousands of undocumented and legal immigrants held in immigration detention for months or even years while their immigration cases are decided.

In 2009, more than 379,000 people were detained by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. That makes ICE the nation’s largest jailer. A recent agency memo revealed that ICE has set a quota of 400,000 detainees for 2010. Increasing numbers of detainees are being shuttled to Texas from places that have a shortage of detention beds. These transplants are thousands of miles from their families and need help getting their grievances heard.

Last year, Anayanse, 32, who works for the nonprofit Southwest Workers Union, started receiving calls from families in New York. Their loved ones had begun a hunger strike at the Port Isabel Detention Facility, north of Brownsville, to protest the lack of due process.

“At the time, no one was talking about the hunger strike or other problems going on inside Port Isabel,” Anayanse says. “People are in mandatory detention who shouldn’t be. They have no lawyers and are isolated—everything is working against them.”

She and her sister, who’s 27, contacted local news media, which started covering the story. They started lobbying elected officials.

In February, the sisters had one of their biggest successes when U.S. Congressman Solomon Ortiz, a Democrat from Corpus Christi, visited the Port Isabel facility. The previous day, the sisters had brought Zoila Molina, mother of a detainee at Port Isabel, to Ortiz’s office. Zoila told the congressman she was on a hunger strike in solidarity with her 24-year-old son, Ronald, a legal resident. He had been picked up on a minor drug possession charge and held for four months without a hearing.

After Ortiz’s visit, his office looked into Ronald Molina’s case. Ronald was transferred back to Florida and eventually released. Ortiz promised that when Congress takes on immigration reform, he would address some of the sisters grievances in legislation.

Bob Libal, with the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership in Austin, often works with the Garza sisters. “They’ve had a tremendous impact on publicizing the plight of immigrants in detention,” he says. “When you are locked up and far away from home, it’s an amazing thing to have allies in solidarity with you.”

—Melissa del Bosque


Dept. of justice

Judge Debates the Death Penalty

 

Death penalty opponents have found a hero in State District Judge Kevin Fine. The Houston jurist will hold a hearing on April 27 in the capital murder case of John Green, who is accused of killing a woman while attempting to rob her. Fine has asked both sides to present evidence on whether the death penalty can be constitutional if it has killed innocent people.

The arguments follow a pre-trial hearing on March 4, in which Fine initially declared the death penalty unconstitutional for that reason. According to Fine’s first ruling, the death penalty violates a defendant’s right to due process. Death penalty opponents argue that exculpatory evidence developed using new technologies, such as DNA testing, can’t help wrongfully-convicted persons if the state has already executed them.

But Fine rescinded his order a week later and scheduled the April 27 hearing.

“The implications are more political than legal, because I don’t think that his ruling would ultimately be upheld,” says Robert Owen, a clinical professor at the University of Texas School of Law and co-director of UT’s Capital Punishment Clinic.

“There’s really two separate questions: One is how likely is it that we’re going to execute somebody who’s innocent, and the other question is whether that likelihood is large enough to trigger any legal consequences,” Owen says. “If it went to the Court of Criminal Appeals for their review, based on what they’ve decided in other cases, they would conclude that even if there is some risk that an innocent person will be executed, it’s not a very large risk.”

Owen says that if Fine declares the death penalty unconstitutional and a higher-level court overturns him, he will have still highlighted the risk of executing innocent people.

“By furthering and inspiring a public discussion on those subjects, Judge Fine is doing a great service,” Owen says.

If Fine declares the death penalty unconstitutional, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reinstates it, the case could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court. Even then, Owens says it is unlikely that the current members of the Supreme Court would rule against the death penalty.

—Lara Haase


lesson in zero Sense

The School-to-Prison Pipeline

 

Mindless “git-tough” policies are depriving Texas schoolchildren of education and introducing them to the criminal–justice system. Since 2006, researchers with the Austin-based nonprofit Texas Appleseed have been documenting the school-to-prison pipeline. The group’s research, based on state data and interviews with school officials, shows that in an overwhelming majority of instances, schools are severely punishing students—through suspensions, referrals to academically inferior “alternative” campuses and expulsions—for relatively minor infractions like using profanity in class.

In its study of expulsions, Texas Appleseed found that during the 2008-09 school year, 5,806 of the 8,202 expulsions, or 71 percent, were discretionary and typically involved nonviolent, noncriminal misbehavior.

Of the discretionary cases, half involved students expelled for “serious and persistent misbehavior” in “alternative education programs.” Critics say these “classes” are more like warehouses, with little educational programming. African-American children are nearly twice as likely to be expelled for subjective reasons.

Many of the students expelled from alternative programs are sent to “juvenile justice alternative programs,” boot camp-like schools run by local juvenile justice boards. Some districts are even referring the kids for prosecution, though no crime has taken place.

“This is the point at which you often see the student for maybe the first time coming into contact with the juvenile justice system,” says Deborah Fowler, lead author of the report. “It can have a devastating impact on a student.”

Incredibly, teens forced into juvenil justice programs for low-level misbehavior are more likely to return to the programs than those sent for serious criminal offenses.

Eventually, most kids do return to regular schools, then find they’re way behind their peers. “We hear from parents and students that it’s at that point that they begin to lose hope and consider dropping out,” says Fowler. For plenty, jail or prison is the next step.

—Forrest Wilder


Dept. of Disabled Policy

The Neglect Goes On

 

Despite reforms by state lawmakers, abuse and neglect of Texans with mental retardation in state-run institutions has increased the past three years, according to an Observer analysis of state data. Reforms enacted in response to abuse scandals have left the facilities with fewer residents and more staff, yet confirmed allegations of abuse rose 57 percent from 458 incidents in 2007 to 719 last year. The number of abuse cases has dropped slightly so far in 2010, indicating that perhaps the latest reforms are having some effect.

Texas’ 13 sprawling institutions for the mentally retarded—formerly known as State Schools and now called State Supported Living Centers—have been sources of horrific tales of abuse. Since 2005, investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice and numerous media outlets, including the Observer (“Systemic Neglect,” May 1, 2008), have documented hundreds of instances in which Texans with mental retardation were beaten, neglected and, in some cases, killed by staff charged with caring for them.

Despite reforms passed in the past two legislative sessions—including a 12-percent funding increase and nearly 3,000 additional caregivers—the number of abuse and neglect cases remains high.

The facilities are now closely monitored by Justice Department inspectors, and some reforms have already had an effect. In just six months, State Supported Living Centers have added more than 1,000 full-time employees, according to state records. And the facilities house fewer residents as state officials transfer more disabled Texans into small, community group homes. The centers now employ nearly 13,000 workers to care for 4,000 residents.

In the first six months of fiscal year 2010, which began in September, confirmed cases of abuse and neglect have dipped by 19 percent. While lower than 2007’s peak, the 2010 numbers are still historically high.

However, the Legislature’s refusal to give State Living Center employees a pay increase may hamper reform. Direct care workers earn a starting salary of roughly $8 an hour, according to the Texas State Employees Union. Families of residents have often blamed abuse and neglect partly on low pay.

It’s worth noting that confirmed cases of severe physical and sexual abuse have remained fairly constant the past three years, according to state data. But there’s been a sharp increase in confirmed incidents of “neglect,” which usually consist of incompetent oversight: allowing residents to fall from a gurney or leave the facility or harm themselves and others. In other words, the kinds of incidents you might expect from a staff that’s largely earning fast-food wages.

Without a pay increase for direct care workers, it’s questionable whether Texas’ institutions for the mentally disabled can be adequately reformed.

—Dave Mann

Kerrville’s Cross to Bear

Dept. of Symbolism
photo by Lance Rosenfield
Max Greiner and his cross.

In 2003, evangelical Christian sculptor Max Greiner had a godly vision of a mammoth cross sitting atop a hill at the gateway to the Guadalupe River town of Kerrville. Now Greiner’s vision appears to be coming true.

That’s thanks to the not-so-divine intervention of State District Judge Keith Williams, who on March 1 blessed a settlement, ending a legal dispute between Greiner’s The Coming King Foundation and local residents. The settlement means Kerrville residents and Interstate 10 travelers soon will be greeted by a 77-foot steel cross.

The giant cross was delivered surreptitiously in October—litigation kept it from being erected. It now lies atop a 400-foot hill in Lot 11 of the Mesa Vista subdivision, next to a massive concrete pad that will support the 70-ton cross, and a portable toilet, both visible from the highway.

The cross will be the crown of a 21-acre, hillside Christian-themed sculpture and prayer garden being developed with private funds by Greiner’s foundation. Subdivision residents originally filed a lawsuit against the foundation on the grounds that erecting the cross would violate deed restrictions for the 37-year-old rural neighborhood (see “A Sign From God?” March 19, 2009).

“This has been a long, emotional journey for everyone,” Williams said in rendering his judgment. “Many people in this community didn’t understand the true nature of this dispute. This was not a freedom of religion or speech issue, but a disagreement among the parties about the enforceability of Texas real estate issues.”

The settlement will allow the foundation to erect its cross in exchange for privacy guarantees for residents. The agreement prohibits public access to Lot 11 and requires the foundation to construct a stone or masonry fence across the two-acre tract fronting Mesa Vista Lane, where most of the plaintiffs reside.

Emma McClure, who owns a lot adjacent to the cross site, says she’s happy the issue has been resolved because the trial outcome might not have been as favorable. She adds that she was “tired of having commotion going on all the time.”

The Coming King Foundation can’t say when the cross will actually go up.  “We had to put money into this lawsuit that was originally intended to be poured into the garden,” Greiner says. “We’re trusting God to do what he said he’d do. We have the largest Christian tour company in the U.S. waiting to book tours, and to work with ministries and churches to send people [to Kerrville] on buses and on planes.”

The coming pilgrimage of evangelicals and other “believers” doesn’t sit well with some Kerr County residents who don’t want their community to become known for a humongous cross that they think might send the wrong signal about Kerrville’s religious and spiritual tolerance. Then there’s its gargantuan size.

“You’ll be able to see that damned thing for 100 miles in each direction,” says area resident David Toms. “That’s just what we don’t need.”

—Robert McCorkle


 

tyrant’s foe

Laredo’s Modest Advocate

 

Along the U.S.-Mexico border, hundreds of thousands of people live without running water, sewage service or electricity in unincorporated subdivisions known as “colonias.” Texas has the largest number of colonias—an estimated 400,000 Texans live in more than 2,200 of them. The average yearly income of colonia residents is less than $10,000, and unemployment is more than eight times the state average.

Texas’ political leaders have done little in recent years to aid colonias. The “about” page of the Texas secretary of state’s “Colonias Ombudsman Program” is blank save for a quote from Gov. Rick Perry.

One person who’s helped improve conditions in colonias is Israel Reyna, though you’ll never hear him take credit for it.

Reyna runs the Laredo office of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, a nonprofit that provides free representation to impoverished residents of South Texas. Reyna and his staff work to ensure that workers receive workers compensation and overtime pay, that day laborers aren’t arrested and harassed by police merely for looking for work, and that water and sewage providers offer service to the colonias that dot the border region.

Reyna joined the nonprofit straight out of law school in 1980. He’s one of the rare advocates who knows how to needle political leaders into action—then step back and let them take the credit.
“He is not someone that has ever been in the limelight or sought the limelight,” says Jose “Chito” Vela, who works in the office of State Rep. Solomon Ortiz, a Corpus Christi Democrat. Before joining Ortiz’s staff, Vela served as the city manager of El Cenizo, a colonia south of Laredo that was incorporated under Reyna’s guidance. Since El Cenizo incorporated, the community has levied taxes and now provides residents with some basic services.

Under Reyna, the legal aid group also serves as what staff attorney Fabiola Flores calls a “baby lawyer factory.” Reyna recruits law-student interns and entry-level attorneys from across the nation and puts them to work on pro bono cases. He enlists them in the cause, as he puts it, “to get things right. To move mountains … for little people.”

He’s reluctant to take the credit. “I am the messenger, not the messiah,” Reyna says. “The heroes are the clients—the people who stick their necks out and expose themselves to the risk of litigation.”

Says Vela, “If you’re promoting democracy, you can’t come in from above and lift up these people—they have to lift themselves. At some point, you’re going to go away, and the people are still going to be there. So they have to be able to organize and lead and fight for themselves.”

—Robert Green


 

Dept. of injustice

Who Gets Wrongly Convicted

 

On Feb. 4, Freddie Peacock was cleared of his 1977 conviction for rape in New York State. He’s the 250th wrongly convicted person exonerated in the United States by DNA testing, according to the New York-based Innocence Project. To mark the occasion, the Innocence Project released a report that details each of the 250 cases. The report is a stunning compilation of who gets wrongly convicted and why.

No state has sent more innocent people to jail than Texas. The Lone Star State accounted for 40 wrongful convictions—16 percent of the national total. That was nearly double the number of exonerees from New York and Illinois, the other two most prolific states.

Sixty percent of the 250 are African-American; 29 percent are white. Seventeen were on death row when they were exonerated. That’s 17 innocent people who would have been executed had DNA testing not cleared them. You have to assume there’s been an innocent person somewhere who wasn’t lucky enough to have testable DNA and was wrongly executed—possibly in Texas and possibly Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004 for killing his three children in a house fire. Forensic experts who have since studied the case believe the fire was accidental.

There are numerous causes of wrongful convictions, but by far the most common is witnesses pointing out the wrong person. Seventy-six percent of the exonerees were sent to prison, at least in part, by witness misidentification. In 38 percent of the cases, more than one eyewitness wrongly identified an innocent person. (It was witness misidentification that sent a Texas Tech student named Tim Cole to prison in 1987 for a rape he didn’t commit. Cole died in prison in 1999 and was exonerated by DNA testing last year. Gov. Rick Perry finally pardoned Cole in early March—which is why he wasn’t on the Innocence Project’s list a month earlier. It’s the first posthumous pardon in Texas history.)

Finally, the 250 wrongful convictions allowed the actual perpetrators to later commit at least 72 violent crimes that could have been prevented. This is a facet that’s often overlooked. Wrongful convictions harm many people, not just the person imprisoned.

After the Innocence Project report’s release in early February, it took just two weeks for the 251st wrongful conviction to pop up. Cole will soon be added to the list. Many more are surely coming.

—Dave Mann


 

militarizing the border

Predator vs. Aliens

 

The Texas-Mexico border has become so militarized—what with the wall, the video cameras, the ground sensors, and the soldiers and Border Patrol agents. Now a Texas congressman is talking about a Predator drone circling overhead.

Congressman Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Laredo, is pushing for a drone to patrol the border. These are the same unmanned, remote-piloted drones that are bombing Pakistani tribal areas. Under Cuellar’s proposal, the border drone would be for surveillance only and wouldn’t be loaded with missiles—at least not yet.

The San Antonio Express-News reported recently that Cuellar plans to ask officials from Homeland Security and the Federal Aviation Administration in April to authorize the border drone. Cuellar told the newspaper that drones could help monitor remote areas that are hard to patrol on the ground.

Each drone costs about $4.5 million. They also seem to have a propensity for crashing, according to the Congressional Research Service. And the FAA has questioned whether the drones can safely operate in high-traffic airspace, according to the Express-News.

The prospect of drones on the border is great news for the California firm General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., which makes  the multi-million dollar Predators, but perhaps not so great for border communities and their civil liberties.

Where does the militarization end?

—Melissa del Bosque

Ain’t No Sunshine When He’s Gone

Campaign Trail
photo by Kate Iltis

We won’t have Farouk Shami to push around anymore. The father of hair-straightening was plowed under by his gubernatorial opponent, former Houston Mayor Bill White, on March 2. All that money spent, all that hustling around the state saying the most quotable and occasionally admirable things. Then—poof—it’s over.

The $11.7 million Shami spent on his campaign might not have harvested the hoped-for votes, but at least the self-described “richest hairdresser in the world” entertained and enlightened Texans for a few months.

During his debate with White, Farouk (as he preferred to be called) backed a moratorium on the death penalty and said: “We have killed many innocent people.” His opponent, who has a better sense of what it takes to get elected in Texas, did not go down that road.

The hair care tycoon had other progressive—well, let’s call them ideals. On border security, Shami said we should build more bridges between the U.S. and Mexico, tear down the border wall, and create jobs on both sides of the border. He called Mexico our “best neighbor” and declared, “A day without Mexicans is like a day without sunshine.”

The man in red (the color gave him power, he said) didn’t know much about the governor’s job, but he showed some pluck when he promised, “I will guarantee everybody a job.” In fact, he did what he does best and offered a money-back guarantee: If he didn’t create 100,000 jobs in his first two years in office, he would resign and pay the state $10 million.

Shami was uniquely unafraid of offending a fairly large demographic: white people. “You don’t find white people who are willing to work in factories,” he said. “And our history proves lots of time when … the white people come to work in a factory, they either want to be supervisors, or they want to be paid more than the average person.”

An attempt to stir dialogue about white privilege? No matter, it backfired. White people are lazy, Farouk implied, and brown and black people are just so good at being exploited. (Not to mention sunshiny.) Farouk had managed to offend most Texans with his comments.

How many candidates can say that?

—Laura Burke



 

Dept. of the Environment

Green Idol

When Texas environmentalists are in the same room with high-level government bureaucrats, it’s usually to plead and prod, not to lavish them with Mardi Gras beads. But for activists who’ve lived through 15 years of Bush and Perry, new regional EPA administrator Al Armendariz is one of them, a no-apologies environmentalist unafraid to take on polluters and their cronies in state government. No surprise, then, that on a mid-February night, several dozen of them feted their new ally at a Mexican restaurant on Austin’s party-hardy Sixth Street.

Longtime activist Tom “Smitty” Smith, who gave Armendariz a green hard hat, described Armendariz as a “dream candidate”: a scientist with no political baggage and a pioneering expert on Dallas-Fort Worth air quality. In spite of organizing and lobbying the EPA, he said, “No way we ever thought he would be appointed”.

Perhaps aware of his supporters’ expectations, Armendariz, a slender, bespectacled El Paso native, asked for patience.

“It took almost 20 years to dig us into this hole, and it’s gonna take us a little while—not 20 years—but it’s going to take us a little while to dig ourselves out,” he said. He promised that details of a reformed state air-permitting program—a top priority for many in Texas—would be revealed soon.

“The way the air programs have been run in the state of Texas for the last 15 years is gonna end, and it’s gonna end really soon,” Armendariz said to the loudest applause of the night.

Armendariz won’t always face such supportive audiences. After his speech, he related a story about a recent visit to El Paso. Armendariz grew up there in the shadow of the Asarco smelter, a source of lead and other hazardous contamination for more than 100 years until the EPA ordered the plant shuttered last year.

“I got accosted by a local group all ticked off about [Asarco],” Armendariz said. “Boy, they just wanted somebody in the federal government to yell at for a few hours, and that was me.”

Meanwhile, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality officials—Rick Perry appointees—have derided Armendariz as an “environmental activist,” a label he doesn’t disown.

“I am an environmentalist,” Armendariz told the Observer. “I’ve been an environmentalist for many years, and it’s something that I’m very proud of.”

—Forrest Wilder


 

Dept. of Déjà Vu

Abolish the State Board of Education?

Texas’ State Board of Education will gather on March 9 for a three-day meeting that’s likely to scare the bejesus out of anyone who favors rational governance.

This time around, the 15 elected board members will consider final changes to the social studies curriculum taught to Texas public school kids. Just as they did with the language arts and science curriculums the past two years, the board’s seven Christian conservatives will likely try to slip their own wing-nut beliefs into the curriculum. Most mainstream academics would find their ideas funny if they weren’t about to end up in millions of textbooks.

Christian conservative board members have previously argued that the social studies curriculum should portray America as a “Christian nation”; that students should learn American exceptionalism; and that students shouldn’t study Thurgood Marshall and Cesar Chavez as significant historical figures. Board member Don McLeroy is expected to re-introduce an amendment requiring students to learn that the civil rights movement created unrealistic expectations of equality.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y9vJ5XTFBFU

Given that board meetings have devolved into one culture-war battle after another, in which dentists and insurance salesmen on the board waste hours debating the details of evolution, global warming, geology and world history—subjects about which they have little expertise—should the board even exist?

The duties of the board—developing curriculum, approving textbooks, and overseeing the multibillion dollar Texas school fund—could easily be handled by the Texas Education Agency.

“It could hardly be worse than what we have now,” says Dan Quinn, communications director for the left-leaning Texas Freedom Network. The network supported several bills last legislative session sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats removing power from the board, though none passed. Quinn points out that only 10 states, including Texas, select education boards through partisan elections. Most state education boards are appointed.

Some on the right think that’s a terrible idea. “Democracy is messy,” says Peggy Venable, state director for the conservative group Americans for Prosperity. “Usually those are folks who don’t get their way that are complaining about the process, and what they would look for is maybe appointed boards or boards that wouldn’t be as responsive to the public. We all have a stake in this. We may not always get everything we want, but we can’t chide the process. … I feel like this process has served Texas well.”

The Legislature may address the issue again next year. Until then, we’re stuck with the current state board. Brace yourself.

—Dave Mann


On the Scene

Litmus Test

On a recent Saturday afternoon, more than 700 immigration advocates from across the state packed into a crowded Austin conference hall. They were organizing to pressure Congress to remember the millions of families waiting for immigration reform.

American flags hung from the walls of the Travis County Expo Center room. “Mr. Obama,” one woman wrote on a “Wall of Hope” in careful, cursive letters, “Your decision is our American Dream. Don’t separate more families. Don’t forget your promise.”

Politicians, law-enforcement representatives, reform advocates, and business leaders took their turns, speaking on topics from national security to economic recovery. Ali Noorani, director of the National Immigration Forum in Washington, D.C., exhorted the group to keep applying pressure on Congress. “The Democratic Party has become the party of ‘I can’t,’ and the Republican Party is the party of ‘I won’t,’” he said.

“Immigration is the litmus test for Latino voters,” Noorani said. “Voters are waiting for Obama to make good on his promise.”

Outside the conference center, activists from around the state got a rare chance to mingle. “This is an unprecedented gathering,” said Fernando Garcia, a conference organizer and executive director of the El Paso nonprofit Border Network for Human Rights. “In the past, Texas did not have a unified voice or much of a place in the national discussion about immigration reform.”

Conference-goers agreed on the big things to ask for when Congress takes up the debate over fixing the country’s broken immigration system: a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and more work visas for foreign workers.

“It’s going to be a powerful struggle,” Garcia said. “It’s going to bring up a lot of emotion and a lot of fear, most of it irrational, but reform is going to happen sooner or later.”

—Melissa del Bosque

Kinky’s Farm

On the scene.
photo by Matt Wright-Steel

When Kinky Friedman finally arrived close to 10 p.m. on Feb. 5 at the “Barn Bash” celebrating the 25th anniversary of Galveston’s revived Mardi Gras and parade (for which the Kinkster would serve the next day as grand marshal), he didn’t, and frankly couldn’t, make much of an impression on the 1,100 revelers. Many in the shoulder-to-shoulder crush had been partying hard since the barn doors opened at 7 p.m. (For $20, unlimited beer and wine.)  And they had other matters on their minds than the March 2 Democratic primary in which Kinky is running for agriculture commissioner against rival Democrat Hank Gilbert.

Almost everyone expressed some admiration for Kinky, but most had missed the news in mid-December that Friedman was abandoning his second run for governor in favor of the more obscure post of agriculture commissioner. (Four years ago, running for governor as an independent, Friedman attracted more national-media coverage than the rest of the candidates combined. He received 12 percent of the vote.) “Agriculture commissioner? Get outta town,” said Christine Haas, a 45-year-old Galveston hairdresser. Aircraft mechanic James J. (Speedy) Dodranich, 58, describes himself as “one of those Tea Party idiots who believes this country needs to be run by the people and not the politicians.” He said of Friedman: “I wish he’d stuck with running for governor, but Kinky’s gotta do what Kinky has to do. I’d vote for him for President if he’d run.”

Minutes after Friedman’s arrival, the blaring band at the back of the barn surrendered the stage, and the candidate spoke—or tried to. The din from the crowd drowned out his words for all but maybe the 50 people closest to the stage: “Hi, I’m Kinky Friedman,” he said. “Vote for me for agriculture commissioner: No cow left behind! My platform is simple: Protect the land. Take care of the animals. Listen to the people.”

With that, Friedman and his entourage stepped out the barn’s back door and into the adjacent parking lot of the Artillery Club, Galveston’s most exclusive dining venue. The club’s manager spotted Friedman and invited him and his campaign manager in for a complimentary meal (rack of lamb, baked oysters, crab cakes). They sat in a private dining room, doubtlessly because Friedman was puffing away on his iconic Cuban cigar (“I’m not supporting their economy, I’m burning their fields”) in blatant violation of Galveston’s tough new anti-smoking ordinance. But those fumes didn’t stop a procession of what Friedman calculated were “more than 100” of Galveston’s elite from coming in while he held court.

Kinky’s routine may not have changed much since 2006, but his run for ag commissioner isn’t generating the same interest. During Saturday’s parade in Galveston, Friedman rode in a car with his campaign signs stuck to both rear doors. But parade organizers had discreetly placed blue masking tape over the phrase “for Agriculture Commissioner,” so the sign on the grand marshal’s ride read only “Kinky Friedman.”  

—Tom Curtis


 

 

Campaign Trail

 

Sandra Rodriguez’s Second Take

In 2008, Sandra Rodriguez came within 1,000 votes of winning the state representative race in western Hidalgo County. Her campaign against Democratic incumbent state Rep. Ismael “Kino” Flores was expensive and grueling. Flores had kept an iron-fisted hold on the border communities in District 36 for 13 years. At a low point in the campaign, the two candidates had to be separated by sheriff’s deputies during a heated argument outside a county precinct office.

Rodriguez, 50, a former probation officer and high school teacher, had little appetite for a rematch with Flores. In late July 2009, she decided to sit out the next election cycle. That decision didn’t last long. Flores was indicted in July for allegedly hiding more than $847,000 in income and assets from state regulators. Flores also had lost his political pull at the Capitol with the ouster of former House Speaker Tom Craddick. In August, Flores announced he wouldn’t run again, and Rodriguez jumped back in.

Though Flores has left the race, Rodriguez hasn’t broken free of her old rival. She will face Flores’ anointed successor—Sergio Muñoz Jr.—in the March Democratic primary. Muñoz, a 27-year-old lawyer, announced his candidacy the day after Flores called it quits. Political insiders in Hidalgo County think that Flores is supporting Muñoz’s candidacy.

The race has been the most costly and talked-about in Hidalgo County this election year. The candidates have spent a combined $296,000. Rodriguez raised $156,000. Muñoz brought in $77,000 and received a $125,000 loan from his father.

Rodriguez has allies with deep political roots in the district. She is the wife of a former state district judge. Billy Leo, former mayor of La Joya, a political kingmaker in western Hidalgo County, and a Flores foe, supports her. Leo’s daughter, Lita, is Rodriguez’s campaign manager. Muñoz, meanwhile, has endorsements from the mayors of Mission and Pharr, two traditional allies of Flores.

Sometimes you just can’t shake an old foe.

—Melissa del Bosque


 

Hopson’s Choice

 

A GOP Convert Stirs Up the Tea Party

When state Rep. Chuck Hopson, a conservative Democrat from rural East Texas, switched to the Republican Party in November, some Democrats saw it as more than a political setback.

“I feel betrayed by his lack of conviction,” Phillip Martin, a former Hopson legislative aide, wrote on the liberal Burnt Orange Report blog.

Distaste at Hopson’s party-hopping wasn’t confined to former allies. Six hours after his announcement he had a serious opponent in the Republican primary. Michael Banks, a 62-year-old Jacksonville dentist, is challenging Hopson from the tea-party right with a grassroots campaign.

Banks describes his opponent as a liberal who switched parties because “his polls showed him that he couldn’t win in 2010 as a Democrat.”

In 2008, Hopson defeated his Republican opponent by 114 votes in a region that tilts Republican. McCain walloped Obama with 71 percent of the vote in a district that includes Jacksonville, Rusk and Crockett.

Sen. John Cornyn, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Gov. Rick Perry have endorsed Hopson. At the end of 2009, Hopson reported raising $176,000; Banks had collected $5,700 and loaned his campaign nearly $80,000.

Nonetheless, Banks says Hopson is “shaking in his boots.” Banks—a hunter, fisherman, and kayaker—has led a high-profile fight to preserve 25,000 acres of rare hardwood forest along the Neches River where powerful water interests in Dallas want to build a reservoir.

It’s not the most orthodox selling point for a conservative politician, but Banks contends that it has put him in touch with thousands of voters. He takes partial credit for forcing Hopson to take a stronger stand against the reservoir.

Could his advocacy open him up to charges of being a tree-hugger?

“They tried to briefly, but the people in East Texas and the district know better,” Banks says.

The Republican nominee will face Democrat Richard Hackney, CEO of a pharmaceutical consulting company and Cherokee County native, in November.

—Forrest Wilder


 

Tyrant’s Foes

 

Ted and Betty Dotts

Lubbock is not gay-friendly. A few years ago, when some straight high school kids tried to support some gay kids by forming a Gay-Straight Alliance, the Lubbock  Independent School District banned it. A school board member explained, “If I let something in like y’all, I’d have to let in the Ku Klux Klan.”

The district’s decision violated federal law. However, in Caudillo v. LISD, the judge ruled that “the local school officials and parents are in the best position to determine what subject matter is reasonable.”

Ted and Betty Dotts

“It was terrible. We felt very cut down,” says Betty Dotts, who had called in a lawyer from Lambda Legal in Dallas. Betty and husband Ted, a retired Methodist clergyman, have been fighting for gay rights since 1975, a continuation of their civil rights activism that began in the 1950s. Betty and Ted are also advocates for comprehensive sex education in a school district that teaches “abstinence only.” Faced with high sexually transmitted disease and teen pregnancy rates, Betty and Ted teach sex-ed in church.

In 1993, a friend asked Betty and Ted to start the first group for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays in Lubbock. Betty said she “felt like a huge wave of water was coming over me and I was drowning,(because) I know the people here.” Nevertheless, she scheduled the first meeting.

Betty kept the lights low, and security stood at the door on the church’s second floor. When 50 people showed up and weren’t protesters, she was relieved. But many in the congregation were angry.

“We got some very harsh letters—some from our own Methodist ministers,” Betty says.

The couple also received menacing phone calls. Betty remembers wondering how far the critics would go. But Mary Vines, one of Ted’s former parishioners, says Ted has a way of diffusing resistance. “He would be at home with the Greek philosophers,” she says.

Ted and Betty have now made their home a haven for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered youth. Ted meets with a transgendered support group twice weekly. The Dotts show the kids unconditional acceptance; a rare thing in Lubbock. 

—Laura Burke