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Political Intelligence

Mad Libs

Campaign Trail
photo by Robert Green
Kathie Glass's rubber stamps

Houston attorney Kathie Glass, the Libertarian Party candidate for Texas governor, had two rubber stamps displayed on her campaign table at the party’s recent state convention at a Holiday Inn in Austin behind the Greyhound bus station. One stamp read “VETOED!” The other, “NULLIFIED!”

“I am so fired up about veto and nullification that I had two stamps made up at Office Max. I was thinkin’: I’m gonna be doin’ this so much I might get carpal tunnel syndrome,” she said. “I got one that says ‘Veto,’ and I got one that says, ‘Nullified your ass!’”

For a bunch as reverent of the Constitution as the Libertarians, Glass’ preoccupation with nullification—the long-discredited notion that individual states can declare federal laws unconstitutional—is surprising.

Her nomination for governor—by a 3-1 margin, no less—shows the party’s new direction. Her opponent was Jeff Daiell, a longtime Libertarian Party fixture who was its candidate for governor in 1990 and 2002. His radical ideas—he opposes all taxation and advocates elimination of public education—are softened by his seriousness and thoughtfulness, and by his remarkable resemblance to Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.

Glass, by contrast, heads up a faction of Libertarians who identify with the Tea Party movement and who eschew thoughtfulness for sloganeering. “The end of the world as we know it is coming soon to a city near you,” Glass proclaimed during her opening remarks on the convention’s first night.

The Glass approach to closing Texas’ estimated $11-$18 billion budget deficit? “One-fourth of our state budget is spent on illegal immigrants,” she said. “That’s $45 billion! I just fixed the budget right there!”

I asked her about the provenance of those numbers, and she cited Dan Patrick, the Houston-based, right-wing Republican talk-radio host turned state senator in whose district Glass resides. “He’s a real policy wonk—he knows his numbers.”

Kinky Friedman fit right into the eclectic proceedings. The Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat-turned-Libertarian set up a table at the convention to sell his two latest books, and delivered a brief reading from one. I asked him why he came.

“Why the hell not?” he said. “I think I’m a Libertarian in spirit,” he said.

Whatever that might mean.

—Robert Green



drill, baby, drill

Accidents Waiting

This has been the Year of Kaboom. Every major fossil fuel has had its own terrible explosion in 2010. In April, the Upper Big Branch coal mine exploded in West Virginia, killing 29 miners. In April, the collapsed Deepwater Horizon rig began spilling millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf. Now comes a turn for natural gas, which usually enjoys a cleaner reputation.

Over the past month, Texas saw two devastating blowups within 24 hours. On June 7, workers struck a 36-inch gas pipeline near Cleburne, causing a massive eruption of flames seen miles away. One worker was killed, and eight others were severely injured.  The next day, another pipeline explosion in the Panhandle killed two workers when their bulldozer punctured another gas pipeline.

Like the Massey coal disaster and the BP spill, the Texas pipeline explosions have focused attention on the dangers of innovative energy exploration. The more technology allows us to harness hard-to-reach reserves like those in urban areas or at the bottom of the ocean, the higher the risk that something will go wrong. In the past five years, 14,000 gas wells have been drilled in North Texas’ Barnett Shale, many in residential areas.

People in Fort Worth have long waited for the “big one,” a catastrophic pipeline explosion in a city or suburb that many believe is inevitable.

“What if that accident happened two blocks from an elementary school?” state Rep. Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth Democrat, asked the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I feel like what we’ve learned between the disaster in the Gulf and these two accidents in Texas … is that regulation has been entirely too lax.”

—Forrest Wilder



dept. of justice

Was Claude Jones Innocent?

It’s never been proven—without a doubt—that a state executed an innocent person.

DNA testing has exonerated nearly 20 death row inmates in the United States before they were executed. But there hasn’t yet been a case in which a person was put to death for a crime that DNA evidence would later prove conclusively that he or she didn’t commit.

That may soon change. On June 11, a state judge has ordered East Texas prosecutors to hand over key evidence from a 1989 murder case to the Innocence Project and The Texas Observer for DNA testing. The analysis may prove for the first time that Texas executed an innocent man.

The Innocence Project and the Observer filed suit in 2007 to obtain a strand of hair from the scene of a homicide at a liquor store in San Jacinto County.  The one-inch strand was key evidence that supposedly implicated Claude Howard Jones in the killing. Jones was put to death on Dec. 7, 2000—the final execution overseen by then-Gov. George W. Bush.

Judge Paul Murphy issued a one-page order commanding the San Jacinto district attorney’s office to turn over the hair for DNA testing. The Innocence Project and the Observer hope that DNA tests on the hair will confirm Jones’ guilt or prove he was innocent, as he always claimed. Prosecutors can appeal the ruling.

Questions linger about Jones’ guilt.

In late 1989, Jones had just been paroled and was hanging out with two other men, Kerry Dixon and Timothy Jordan. On Nov. 14, 1989, witnesses said that three men pulled into a liquor store in rural San Jacinto County, about 80 miles northeast of Houston. One man went inside and shot the owner, Allen Hilzendager, three times. Witnesses who were standing across the road couldn’t positively identify the killer.

The key question: Was the lone killer who entered the store Jones or Dixon?

Jones claimed he never entered the store, but Dixon and Jordan said he did. Both men were spared the death chamber for their testimony. (Jordan later recanted).

The only reliable evidence that linked Jones to the murder was the strand of hair found on the liquor store counter. At Jones’ 1990 trial, a forensic expert testified that the hair appeared to come from Jones.

Advanced DNA testing—which didn’t exist at the time of trial—could prove whether Dixon or Jones committed the shooting inside the store. After Judge Murphy’s recent ruling, we’re one step closer to finding out.

—Dave Mann



dept. of the disabled

Reform on Hold

Imagine working a demanding job for low pay, and if your replacement doesn’t show up, you can’t leave. You’re forced to work up to 16-hour days, unable to pick up the kids or care for elderly relatives. That’s what you deal with if you’re a direct-care worker at Texas institutions for the mentally disabled. Some employees say the policy is hurting attempts to improve care at the facilities.

The state operates 13 sprawling institutions—known as state-supported living centers (formerly called state schools)—that house about 4,000 Texans with mental retardation. The centers care for some of the most vulnerable Texans, many of whom need 24-hour care. The state has underfunded and understaffed these facilities for years. Several years ago chronic staff shortages led the agency that oversees state schools, the Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS), to implement a policy known as “holdover.” The policy states that direct-care workers—those who watch over residents—can’t leave until a replacement arrives, for up to eight hours.

Direct-care workers who spoke anonymously with the Observer say facilities employ the holdover policy far too frequently—almost daily.  “I don’t know anyone who works any other job who would stay in a position where you … pretty much give up your life outside of work on a regular basis,” a worker wrote in an e-mail. About half the direct-care workers leave their jobs every year.

The turnover rate was one of the main causes of an abuse scandal that has embroiled Texas’ institutions for the disabled since 2005.

Last year, the Legislature—prodded by the federal government—instituted reforms that included a 12-percent funding increase and added staff. But the holdover policy remained.

State officials acknowledge the policy is tough on workers, but say it’s necessary to ensure continuous care for vulnerable residents. Allison Lowery, a DADS spokesperson, says the agency hopes holdover will be used less frequently as staffing levels increase.

It will be difficult to raise staff levels—or improve care—unless the turnover rate drops.

—Dave Mann


underwater texas

From the Depths

During last summer’s drought, Central Texas lakes Travis and Buchanan fell to their lowest levels in 30 years.

By August 2009, Lake Travis was more empty than full, having fallen 54 percent. As the water level fell, long-covered areas of lake bed were exposed—and with them, decades-dormant debris full of mysteries and secrets. Police recovered a motorcycle and two cars, one that had been missing since 1988. That was far from the strangest thing that has emerged from the lakes. In 2006, a boater on Lake Buchanan reported a 55-gallon barrel sticking out of the water. When the barrel was opened, police found the remains of a human body stuffed inside. They were eventually identified as those of 79-year-old Charles Maynard Wyatt, a colorful character who was convicted of being part of one of the largest marijuana smuggling operations in the U.S. before becoming a Florida real estate investor. He went missing in 1990, until being found in the submerged barrel, still wearing his familiar diamond ring.

There were more ancient finds. A boater on Lake Travis spotted parts of a human skeleton poking out of the mud along the water’s edge. The police passed the bones on to Lower Colorado River archaeologists, who determined that it was the remains of a male, middle-aged, arthritic hunter-gatherer who lived about 1,000 years ago.

In Lake Buchanan, the ruins of Bluffton, a 19th-century town that had been submerged since the completion of the Buchanan Dam in 1937, poked above the surface. Rains last fall have drowned these memories again, for now.

—Robert Green

The Wrong Texas?

Standards Dept.
Positive representation of Texas? A scene from Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused.

In May 2009, Austin filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, creator of the blockbuster Spy Kids, hosted a celebratory press conference at his Troublemaker Studios. As state legislators and Gov. Rick Perry looked on, Rodriguez cheered a new, $62 million incentive program for movies made in Texas using Texas-based crews. The grants reimburse from 5 percent to 15 percent of production money spent in the state.

Now Rodriguez could lose an estimated $2 million in incentives for his latest project because of a 2007 law that denies state funding if films include “inappropriate content or content that portrays Texas or Texans in a negative fashion.”

The trouble started on Cinco de Mayo, when Rodriguez released a spoof theatrical trailer for his upcoming film, Machete. Rodriguez meant the gory, over-the-top trailer to satirize anti-immigrant legislation recently passed in Arizona. The trailer shows the titular character aiming a .50-caliber assault rifle at a senator (played by Robert De Niro) leading an anti-immigrant rally in front of the Texas Capitol. It ends with the words, “They just fucked with the wrong Mexican.”

The trailer drew return fire from conservative bloggers and Alex Jones, the conspiranoid, Austin-based radio talk show host. “We need to get the funding at the state level stripped out of the film commission if they do not stop this,” Jones said during a recent show.

Rodriguez did not return calls, but he told Ain’t It Cool News, where the trailer debuted, that he wasn’t trying to provoke a “race war,” as some critics had suggested. “It’s only because of what’s happened in Arizona that some scenes actually feel at all grounded in reality,” he said, “which is pretty nuts and says more about Arizona than any fictional movie.”

Bob Hudgins, director of the Texas Film Commission, reviews initial scripts, then signs off on the movie’s final cut before state funds are released. He says Rodriguez has assured him that the Machete trailer had nothing to do with the film set for release in September. “It’s hard to prejudge whether it’s offensive to Texas because I haven’t seen it yet,” Hudgins said. “I probably won’t see it until August.”

In May 2009, a company filming a movie based on the 1993 Branch Davidian raid in Waco accused the film commission of censorship after state aid was denied. Producers moved their $30 million project to another state.

Hudgins said the decision wasn’t censorship. He said he told the filmmakers their characters were factually inaccurate and that they chose not to apply for a grant. “The characters were based on real people in Texas who are still alive,” Hudgins said. “I showed them the script, and they said it was inaccurate.”

Problem is, lawmakers have forced Hudgins to make such judgments. The standard he’s working with is about as wide open as West Texas. “It’s a very difficult determination,” he said. “I won’t hedge on that. But I take it very seriously.”

—Melissa del Bosque




texas vs. epa

Permitted To Pollute

The faceoff between President Barack Obama’s EPA and Gov. Rick Perry’s Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has escalated dramatically. On May 25, the EPA prohibited the commission from issuing a permit for a refinery in Corpus Christi, and promised to do the same for dozens of other industrial facilities if TCEQ doesn’t fix its flawed flexible-permit program. Such drastic action is unprecedented and signals that new EPA regional administrator Al Armendariz is not backing down from his promise to end business as usual in state environmental regulation.

“Flex” permits issued by TCEQ give polluters a pass on reducing emissions at individual sources such as smokestacks and storage tanks, instead placing a cap on entire facilities.  The EPA and environmental groups say such caps are too lenient and virtually unenforceable, in part because the program is riddled with secrecy.

The Texas attorney general’s office has ruled for years that emissions data must be made public under the Clean Air Act, but often defers to TCEQ to decide what emissions data are released. TCEQ has allowed companies to decide what’s confidential. For example, the flex-permit application for Exxon Mobil Corp.’s Baytown chemical plant lists as “confidential” an analysis of health effects from storage tanks. Exxon also refused to make public details on pollution released during startup, shutdown and maintenance. In 2006, President George W. Bush’s EPA wrote to the TCEQ that withholding such data was contrary to federal and state law. “All emissions data must be made public,” the letter stated.

Nonetheless, TCEQ permitted Exxon’s Baytown facility. Today no one knows what type of startup, shutdown and maintenance activities are authorized under the flex permit.

Ilan Levin, an Austin lawyer with the Environmental Integrity Project, says he recently raised the secrecy issue with EPA officials. “You should have seen their jaws drop,” he said. “For a regulator who deals in air pollution, this is unheard of.”

Perry responded to the EPA’s effort to fix the flex-permit program with typical bombast, calling the move part of Obama’s “campaign to harm our economy and impose federal control over Texas.”

Forrest Wilder




dept. of gentrification

East Austin Cleanup

On a recent Friday night in East Austin, seven Austin Police Department (APD) officers and I visited Clicks Billiards, a local bar, nightclub, and pool hall. I was riding along on an initiative to curb violent crime in what the officers call the “East Riverside Corridor”—a low-income area populated primarily by recent immigrants from Latin America. The city would like to see the area redeveloped from strip malls, seedy bars, and Mexican restaurants into mixed-use residences and retail businesses. Upscale apartments and condos are under construction.

At Clicks, the officers followed protocol. One carded the bouncer at the door, another went to the bathroom, and the others circulated through the crowd, shining their flashlights onto people’s drinks and peering through the dark, trying to spot anyone who looked underage. Satisfied nothing transparently illegal was going on, one beefy, mustachioed officer greeted two men leaning against a pool table. They shook hands; the officer bent over and took a shot (he missed).

“We’re looking at Friday and Saturday nights, from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.,” said APD Lt. Paul Christ. “We have one sergeant and six officers, on overtime, working that area.”

The department says that by targeting bars and nightclubs in the area, it can reduce robberies, assaults and public intoxication. Statistics indicate the East Riverside corridor is a crime hotspot, and the officers I rode with were adamant that the initiative is the result of those numbers.

When I asked APD Commander John Hutto whether the anti-crime initiative is linked to city support of redevelopment in East Austin, he said, “Absolutely. We recognize that there’s quite a few bars and nightclubs along Riverside Drive, and what we’ve seen in the past is that more often than not, our late-night violent crimes—you know, the robberies and aggravated assaults—are in some ways fueled by alcohol.”

Erica Leak, a senior city planner who oversees the East Riverside Corridor Master Plan, said the area is already changing. “A number of older apartment complexes have been torn down,” she said. “With more private investment in the area, that often helps with crime rates. Throughout the master planning process, we have been contacting lots of different departments throughout the city in trying to coordinate their efforts with ours.” In effect, the police are helping clear the way for gentrification.

By the time the officers dropped me back at the station around 1 a.m., they had walked through seven bars and pool halls, stopped by a taco trailer for dinner, and intended to visit at least four more nightspots. The officers had issued a few jaywalking citations, made a cocaine arrest, and received a report of one UFO sighting. They still had three hours to go.

—Robert Green



State Board of excuses


The Texas State Board of Education’s three-day showdown in May over social studies standards attracted reporters from across the country, from The New York Times to Fox News. Accounts focused on the fiery, often entertaining back-and-forth over which historical figures to include: the Dolores Huertas or the Phyllis Schlaflys?

After the final votes on the new standards (Huerta and Schlafly both made it in), the cameras were packed up, onlookers drained from the room—and the board voted to postpone buying the new science textbooks it spent much of 2008 and 2009 debating.

The argument over science curriculum centered on whether to require that students learn the “strengths and weaknesses” of the theory of evolution. In the end, social conservatives lost that struggle; of the many changes made to the curriculum, one of their few successes requires biology teachers to explain “any data of sudden appearance” in the fossil record—proof, supposedly, of evolution’s fallibility. They also succeeded in requiring students to “distinguish between scientific hypotheses and scientific theories.”

Now it appears that Texas kids will have to glean those points from supplementary materials rather than new textbooks that were supposed to arrive in the fall. The state normally replaces textbooks on a rotating basis every 10 years. With Texas facing a budget shortfall of at least $11 billion in 2011, the money isn’t going to be there. Textbooks covering the new science standards would have cost $400 million, and the Legislature is already expecting a bill of $888 million for textbooks already ordered.

In the 2011-12 school year, the state will begin standardized, end-of-course exams for high-schoolers, and students will be expected to have mastered the new science standards. So board members crossed their collective fingers that the Legislature would approve money for an unorthodox plan: a supplement covering the new standards as a stopgap.

The Texas Education Agency had proposed to provide science supplements for high schools only at a cost of about $17 million. Instead, board members approved supplements for science classes from fifth grade through high school. They have no idea how much the supplements will cost.

It’ll be a couple of years before the state has to pay for new social studies textbooks, scheduled to arrive in fall 2013.

Abby Rapoport

The Midterm Surge

Border Madness

As the border wall went up in their communities, over their objections, elected officials along the Texas-Mexico border learned the hard way: Just because they’d been to Washington, D.C., to lobby repeatedly didn’t mean that legislators were going to listen to them.

Despite this lesson, Hidalgo Mayor John David Franz found himself in Washington the second week of May, lobbying the White House and legislators against sending National Guard troops or building more border fence through his community just south of McAllen. “We don’t need the National Guard,” he said. “We need resources at the ports of entry to facilitate legal trade and make it easier for legitimate businesspeople to cross back and forth.”

As midterm elections loom, that’s a tough message to peddle. Last month, 17 congressional Democrats and Republicans sent a letter pressing President Barack Obama to deploy National Guard troops. On June 1, an unmanned Predator drone will begin patrolling the border over El Paso. Texas legislators are lobbying the Federal Aviation Administration to extend the drones over the entire Texas-Mexico border. In the Senate, Republican Jim DeMint of South Carolina tried to amend the hulking finance-reform bill with legislation to build 700 more miles of double-layered fence. The amendment failed, but DeMint has pledged to try again.

Franz, the mayor of a town of 7,322 people that borders the Rio Grande, wanted to emphasize that his hometown is safe. “In Mexico there’s a drug war going on to decide who will supply drugs to the U.S.,” he said. “It’s of great concern, but we haven’t had a single murder for the past 20 years I’ve been mayor.”

Franz said his community had more Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents than ever before. “They’re doing a great job,” he said. “But before Congress throws more money at the border, we’re asking them to take a step back and assess whether it’s working first.

“We want common sense to rule,” Franz said. “We don’t want wasteful spending, and we don’t need any more walls.”

Meanwhile, down the hall, Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn was holding forth in a hearing, pushing Alan Bersin, the new commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, to spend more on border security.

“We need a price tag … because the American people simply aren’t going to be satisfied with flatline budgets, and no more Border Patrol agents because of budgetary concerns,” Cornyn was saying. “The American people are terribly upset, they’re scared, they’re mad, and they don’t understand why we aren’t doing more to secure our border.”

—Melissa del Bosque




tyrant’s Foe

The Play’s the Thing

John Jordan Otte loves theater. “You can get into people’s hearts in a very nonconfrontational way,” he says. “If they choose to get out of their homes and buy that ticket and go to the theater, they’re going to see something shared by another human being and not have to be beaten down with its message.”

Otte is a 27-year-old senior in the theater program at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. This spring he took an advanced directing class in which the professor asked each of the four students to select a play, cast it, direct it, publicize it, and stage an end-of-semester production in the school theater. Otte chose Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi. The play portrays gay men living in 1950s Corpus Christi as Jesus Christ and the Apostles.

Otte knew it might be controversial in a conservative town like Stephenville, two hours southwest of Fort Worth. But he wanted to share with an audience not only the play’s portrayal of gay men’s lives, but also its insistence that homosexuality and Christianity aren’t mutually exclusive. “It just really spoke to me,” he says.

Otte grew up a devout Mormon in Granbury. After high school, he served as a Mormon missionary for more than two years in Italy. “I was very faithful in my church,” he says. “However, this was always a struggle and a battle for me because I’ve known this about me—that I was gay—since I was very, very young.”

After returning from his mission, at 22, Otte came out and left the church. His parents are still devoted followers. “That same divergent struggle that I had growing up is seen in the play,” he says. “I found it to be very beautiful and a story of acceptance and love, and not something blasphemous at all.”

Once word spread through the community, Otte got hate mail and death threats, and some alumni stopped donating to the school. The story rocketed from the Stephenville Empire-Tribune to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to the Associated Press and CNN. At one point, Otte had to hide in the fine arts library to avoid more than a dozen camera crews stalking the campus.

On March 26, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst weighed in, calling on school officials to cancel the play, which, he said, depicts acts that are “morally reprehensible to the vast majority of Americans.” Otte and the 13 cast members were determined to stage Corpus Christi. Now it was bigger than their own experiences; it had become a fight for gay rights and free expression.

A day before the performance in late March, the school created a protest zone by barricading a parking lot—some 800 demonstrators were expected. State troopers showed up, as did police in riot gear and snipers for the rooftops. But 12 hours before curtain, university officials canceled the production because, they contended, they feared for students’ safety.

A national theater group, 108 Productions, has stepped forward to stage the play in Dallas June 4-6, but not with the Tarleton State cast. Says Otte, “The show will go on, whether it’s mine or not, and people will be able to see the message.

“I don’t personally believe that Jesus Christ was gay, and that’s not what I was trying to say with the play. … That’s why I hope people go see the show in Dallas so that instead of believing everything [the media] said, they can get past the stigma of reading the title ‘gay Jesus play’ and see what it’s truly about. Which is what each of us in the LGBT community are fighting for too.”

—Dave Mann


dept. of the environment

Tar-Pipe Cinch?

With all eyes on the BP oil spill in the Gulf, little attention has been paid to another high-stakes oil drama.

TransCanada Corp., a Canadian energy company, is seeking permission to build a 2,000-mile, 36-inch pipeline from Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast. If built, the high-pressure pipeline would move up to 900,000 barrels per day of oil from the vast tar sands of Alberta through five states, over the Ogallala Aquifer, across 32 streams in East Texas, and to refineries in Port Arthur and Houston, including BP’s Texas City facility (See “Covered Up in Plain Sight,” p. 21.) The pipeline could more than double the amount of tar-sand oil consumed in the United States.

While the Canadian government and energy companies tout the tar sands as a safe alternative to offshore drilling and a boost to American energy independence, some scientists and environmentalists draw a different conclusion. “Both deepwater offshore oil drilling and the tar sands are symptoms of how desperate we’ve gotten for oil,” says Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of the international program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Indeed, tar-sand oil is arguably the filthiest fossil fuel on the planet. Extracting bitumen, the sticky, tar-like gunk that is converted to oil, involves clear-cutting and strip-mining hundreds of thousands of acres of Alberta’s boreal forest. Then vast quantities of water and natural gas are required to upgrade bitumen into a more conventional crude. Compared to conventional drilling, the tar-sand extraction process produces three times as much greenhouse gas. The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club estimates that the Keystone XL pipeline would result in about 38 million tons of additional greenhouse gasses, equivalent to 6 million new cars on the road.

As this issue went to press, public hearings on the pipeline’s potential environmental impact were under way in Beaumont, Liberty, Livingston and Tyler.

—Forrest Wilder



campaign trail

Three For Tea

The Austin Club isn’t the most obvious place to meet the tea party candidates for statehouse. It sits in an old opera house, complete with heavy, gold-leafed frames and polished wood banisters. Its clientele includes a high percentage of the carefully coiffed and well-dressed sort of lobbyist who can flex muscles at the Capitol a few blocks away. It’s not exactly tea party central.

But Monday, May 10, GOP royalty—from the governor to the head of the state party—filed into the club to meet the latest additions to their roster. Technically, the House candidates—the three biggest primary winners with ties to the tea party—were each holding separate fundraisers, but the visitors flitted from one room to another. It was a reception that many a longtime incumbent couldn’t dream of getting—and these three hadn’t even taken office yet.

Gov. Rick Perry beamed as he clapped the newly nominated Lubbock tea partier Charles Perry (no relation) on the back and shot the breeze with lobbyists and staffers. In this small room lit with chandeliers, the governor shed no tears for the GOP incumbents who lost their seats in this new wave. “These are not upset races,” he said. “They might have been [in the past]. None of these elections surprise me at all.”

In their primaries, Charles Perry and his compatriot David Simpson bested longtime incumbents Delwin Jones of Lubbock and Tommy Merritt of Longview, respectively. John Frullo, the third musketeer, is Republican Rep. Carl Isett’s chosen successor in Lubbock, and the only one with a Democratic opponent, though few predict serious competition.

Simpson ran on repealing the business tax and stopping illegal immigration without amnesty, but he says now his “greatest concern is that we see a majority of conservatives.” In terms of policy goals, “there’s only so much I can do as a freshman,” he shrugs.

Rep. Bryan Hughes, a Mineola Republican, noticed the sudden shift that led to Simpson’s victory. Of the new activists who cheer for a microscopic government and fewer social services, he says he’s “going to take them at their word.” But he’s not certain that everyone associated with the movement will be as happy when their own communities lose funding. “So many people don’t realize the benefits,” he says.

For the newly nominated tea partiers, Hughes says the challenge may become even greater: “It’s tough to run against the establishment, and then you become part of it.”

Abby Rapoport

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.


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


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.

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