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Political Intelligence

Can Straus Hang On?

photo by Erin Trieb
Joe Straus

dept. of influence-peddling

The election of the Texas House speaker has always been an insider’s fight. The 150 House members who vote on the speaker usually politick and trade loyalties in Austin’s back rooms without much concern for the voters back home. Until now.

The battle to become speaker in the coming legislative session has become a public affair: website postings by activist groups, open letters from House members, robocalls and email campaigns. So much so, that we have ongoing coverage of it.

Current Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican, is considered a moderate—his position the product of last session’s closely divided House in which the GOP held a four-seat edge. This year’s election results—22 more Republican seats and a 99-51 majority—had barely been reported when hard-line conservative groups began attacking Straus and calling for a more conservative speaker. The day after the election, Straus announced that 130 of the 150 members had pledged their support. But those pledges are non-binding, and he now faces two opponents, not to mention scores of mobilized Tea Party activists.

Less than two days after the election, 46 right-wing activists sent a letter to House members saying “a change to a more conservative Speaker is in order.” Then Michael Q. Sullivan, one of its signatories and the leader of the conservative activist group Empower Texans, began pushing an anti-Straus petition at the website, which quickly gained thousands of supporters.

Socially conservative Republican state Rep. Warren Chisum of Pampa was the first to challenge Straus. State Rep. Ken Paxton, a Republican Tea Party favorite from McKinney who also declared his candidacy, has already peeled off a few Straus supporters, though Chisum and Paxton have a long way to go.

The fight has been in the making for months. At the Republican state convention in June, protesters held anti-Straus signs and drowned out his introduction with boos. More recently, some activists’ calls to arms have bordered on anti-Semitic. (Straus is Jewish.) Harvey Kronberg of Quorum Report wrote that some right-wing activists had “crossed over the line” with calls for a “Christian” speaker. In particular, he cites Peter Morrison, one of the 46 activists who signed the anti-Straus letter. Morrison wrote to supporters, “Both Rep. Warren Chisum and Rep. Ken Paxton, who are Christians and true conservatives, have risen to the occasion to challenge Joe Straus for leadership.”

If the activist groups succeed in toppling Straus, the speaker’s race may never be an insider’s fight again.

—Abby Rapoport


crime and punishment beat

DeLay on Trial

Read our update on DeLay’s verdict here.

The charges for which Tom DeLay was indicted in 2005 hinge on one simple transaction. In September 2002, a political action committee that then-House Majority Leader DeLay set up in Texas sent $190,000 in corporate funds to a national Republican committee in Washington, D.C. Two weeks later, that committee, the Republican National State Election Committee, sent seven checks totaling $190,000—money they claim was contributed by individual, non-corporate donors—to seven Republican candidates in Texas House races. It is illegal to contribute corporate or union money to a candidate for office in Texas. Illegal corporate money went to Washington, and the same amount came back as legal, non-corporate money. Prosecutors call that money laundering. DeLay’s defense team calls it politics.

In the second week of a trial that might run as long as one month, the prosecution introduced an incriminating statement that DeLay insists resulted in his indictment in 2005. As the members of the jury leaned forward in their chairs, listening to an audiotape, they heard the former majority leader agree to the transaction for which he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison for moneylaundering and conspiracy to launder money.

The tape is a recording of an Aug. 17, 2005, meeting with DeLay and his lawyers and then-Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle and his staff. Near the end of the interview, DeLay is questioned about a conversation he had with Jim Ellis, the executive director of DeLay’s Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee.

Asked when he first heard about the transaction, DeLay says Ellis “told me he was going to do it.” Asked if he made a notation in a memorandum regarding what Ellis planned to do with the $190,000, DeLay responds: “I just said, ‘Fine.’” He also argues that “Everybody does it. Democrats. Democrats as well as Republicans.”

As prosecutors read it, “Fine” is informed consent to commit a crime. “Everybody does it” is the subtext of the defense advanced by DeLay’s attorney, Dick DeGuerin—though Judge Pat Priest will not allow DeGuerin to make that argument explicitly to the jury.

Prosecutors are creating a narrative that wends through DeLay’s role in the creation of the TRMPAC, the fundraisers’ direct solicitation of hundreds of thousands of corporate dollars, and finally to the election of a Republican majority in the Texas House, which made possible the 2003 redrawing of the state’s congressional districts to the GOP’s advantage.

DeLay is unbowed. After the taped conversation was played for the jurors on Nov. 10, he walked from the Austin courtroom, saying: “Did you hear anything in that tape that justifies the five years of hell they put me through?”

Those five years of hell didn’t include a prison term, unlike his former confidant, the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The former House majority leader is living in somewhat reduced circumstances. Rather than staying at a hotel, he and his wife are sleeping in their 40-foot, luxury motor home, which DeLay drove over from Sugar Land. Golf at St. Andrews in Scotland and fine dining on the lobby’s tab remain on hold.

—Lou Dubose


dept. of elections

Sylvia Garcia’s Stunner

If any race epitomized the troubles of Texas Democrats on Election Day, it was Sylvia Garcia’s defeat in Houston.

Garcia—who had served on the Harris County commissioner’s court since 2003—seemed like a shoo-in for re-election. The slice of eastern Harris County she represents is heavily Democratic. Latinos comprise the majority of her district. Garcia had amassed nearly $1.8 million in campaign money to spend against an underfunded, little-known Republican opponent who not only couldn’t afford to hire a single staffer, but did little campaigning of any kind. Moreover, no Harris County commissioner had lost a re-election bid since 1974.

But as Garcia’s campaign studied the totals from early voting, it became clear she was in trouble. The week before Election Day, Garcia e-mailed supporters: “Right now, our Latino numbers are down from my previous cycles and I need them to win. … We need you to block walk and phone bank every day until Election Day. We are in desperate need of bilingual volunteers, especially for our phone bank.”

The fact that Garcia’s campaign was desperately trying to recruit block-walkers and bilingual callers several days before the election—when 60 percent of the vote had already been cast in early voting—tells you all you need to know. “She, I think, coasted too long in this race,” says Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston. 

Garcia relied on the Latino vote. Her district has few African-Americans, and many of the Anglos typically vote Republican. Relying on the Latino vote in Harris County was problematic this year. Latino turnout there increased a bit over 2006, Murray says, but still equated to a meager 12 percent of the electorate. Meanwhile, Anglo voters turned out in droves, many of them voting straight-ticket Republican. 

Garcia’s campaign was swamped by the bugaboo that defeated many a Texas Democrat in 2010: angry, energized, white Republican voters combined with another disappointing turnout by Latinos. It doesn’t seem quite fair given that her novice Republican opponent, Jack Morman, who will take office in January, barely campaigned. Then again, as Murray put it, “He didn’t need to. He was on the ballot with an ‘R’ by his name this year, and that’s all it took.”

—Dave Mann

Perry For Prez?

photo by Sandra Dahdah
Election Day 2010: Rick Perry celebrates his third term.

campaign trail

It became clear pretty early on election night that Rick Perry was cruising toward re-election as Texas governor. (He ended up beating Bill White, the former Houston mayor, by more than 600,000 votes or 12 percent.) So the hot topic of conversation among the assembled—and bored—reporters at Perry’s celebration quickly turned to rank speculation: Would he run for president?

The Perry victory party had sounded like the place to be. The governor’s campaign and the Republican Party of Texas were holding a joint shindig at an exotic game ranch outside Austin. The ranch is home to zebras, kangeroos, emus and quite a few animals you’ve probably never heard of, like nyla, Nile lechewe and the rabbit-like Patagonian cavy. It’s run by Texas Disposal Systems, a solid-waste hauling company and sits adjacent to a massive landfill, which raises the question of what exactly they’re feeding those poor Patagonian cavy.

Inside the lodge, suspense faded fast when initial election returns showed every statewide Republican candidate holding insurmountable leads. So the assembled media milled around and watched several hundred giddy, mostly Anglo, Republicans line up to feast on a less-than-exotic buffet of beef and chicken.

Most seemed to agree that Perry’s dominating victory, more decisive than polls predicted, made a good launch point for a national campaign. Of course, it could prove a little awkward for a politician who’s spent 18 months bashing Washington to suddenly ask voters to send him there.

“I believe him when he says he’s not interested,” said Ilene Witt, a diehard Perry supporter from San Antonio.

A few feet away, however, staffers were selling Perry’s new book, Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington, for $24 a pop. From the early excerpts, the book seems very much the kind of memoir that other candidates have used to start a presidential run. And Perry was scheduled to appear on Fox News, The Today Show and Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to publicize his book and himself the week after Election Day.

A decade into Perry’s tenure—which already makes him the state’s longest-serving governor—a healthy majority of Texas voters hasn’t had its fill of him yet. With a fresh four-year term, Perry is now in line to serve 14 years as governor—longer than the lifespan of your average Patagonian cavy. Given the state of Texas Democrats, the only way Perry might vacate the governor’s office in the near future is to move to the White House.

—Dave Mann and Melissa del Bosque



dept. of elections

Watching Acres Homes

On one of the last days of early voting, Chris Alfred was prepared to help his mother vote at the Acres Homes Multi-Service Center. Like most people in Harris County, he had already heard about the poll watchers who were coming to largely minority precincts like Acres Homes to look for wrongdoing.

Chris spends his days helping his mother, Gloria Alfred, who’s been disabled by a stroke. When the pair arrived at the polling station, he got duly sworn in to assist her. The two entered the voting booth. Almost immediately, they say, one of the watchers appeared and said, “You can’t help her!” Chris said he carefully explained that his mother needed help, that he had been sworn in. The poll watcher backed off, but Gloria was still shaken. What if Chris hadn’t known what to say? she asked. “I might have been to the point where I couldn’t even have voted.”

Months ago, the King Street Patriots, a Harris County Tea Party group, launched an initiative called True the Vote to train poll watchers. Supporters say the project was meant to restore integrity to a voting process rife with fraud. Opponents argue there’s no such problem and that the Patriots are trying to suppress turnout and intimidate voters—particularly minority voters. After both True the Vote and Democratic elected officials called on the Department of Justice to intervene, federal personnel came to Harris County to monitor polls on election day.

Even during early voting, it was easy to see how things could flare up in Acres Homes. With voting booths, there was barely room for people to stand in their rows. When the two poll watchers—both white men—would walk amongst the voters, they often had to squeeze by. There was no missing them.

Poll watchers aren’t allowed to hover over voters, or to communicate with them. Democrats filed incident reports of poll watchers breaking these rules. True the Vote says there’s no evidence to back up those allegations and that it’s the poll watchers who are getting harassed.

“People are feeling very uncomfortable with the situation,” said one of the building workers who watched the scenes unfold over the early voting period. The man, who asked not to be identified, said there’d been flare-ups between voters and poll watchers. Mainly, he believed the efforts to be politically, not racially, motivated. The distinction is important—if True the Vote used racial bias in selecting polling sites, it would likely be violating the Voting Rights Act.

Still, most of the people at Acres Homes seemed unperturbed by the poll watchers, and some were supportive. “I’m glad for it,” said voter Deborah Williams as she left the center after casting her ballot. “People watching me has never bothered me.”

Gloria Alfred, who’s seen more elections than most, was more convinced that poll watchers kept people from voting. She argued the poll watchers targeted black neighborhoods “because a lot of us are kind of illiterate” about voting rules and it’s easier to use the legalese to intimidate. “I imagine a lot of people feel they shouldn’t even come to vote,” she said.

—Abby Rapoport



dept. of justice

Disorder in the Court

It’s not uncommon for Houston lawyer Geoffrey Hoffman’s clients to wait more than a year for a hearing before an immigration judge. “I have cases postponed until 2011, 2012,” he says. With a whopping backlog of more than 247,000 pending cases nationwide—7,444 in Houston alone, as of June—the immigration courts move at a glacial pace. In August, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency finally did something about it. Assistant Secretary John Morton directed his attorneys in a memo to examine pending deportation cases nationwide and dismiss those cases where non-criminal immigrants had legitimate U.S. citizenship claims.

In Houston, the number of cases dismissed increased from 27 in July to 271 in August. Hoffman, faculty supervisor of the University of Houston’s Immigration Clinic, says that two of its 100 active cases have been dismissed so far. One of those dismissals involved a man who was in the process of filing for his legal residency when he received a ticket for not having a driver’s license. Because of the driver’s license violation, ICE ordered his deportation, despite the fact he’d since become a quadriplegic. “Cases like this should be dismissed,” Hoffman says, “so the immigration courts can be used in the most efficient way.”

Republican senators, including Texas’ John Cornyn, don’t see it that way. News of the dismissals created a national controversy among immigration hardliners who called the new policy “back-door amnesty.” In late October, Cornyn and other GOP senators on the committee demanded a report from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano by November 15 on the number and types of dismissals ICE had granted. In the letter, the senators took offense at the agency’s “selectively enforcing the laws against only those aliens it considers a priority.” 

—Melissa del Bosque

Democrats were in a fight to retain their edge in Dallas County, although Bill White pulled ahead of Gov. Rick Perry in the county with 54 percent of a heavy early vote. Returns were released just as the polls closed at 7 pm.

With an all-day rain falling across the county, the early vote could be more important than ever if the weather worked to suppress Election Day turnout.

District Attorney Craig Watkins, the Democratic incumbent, was 3,547 votes behind Republican challenger Danny Clancy out of 212,725 early votes cast. That’s just over a 1 percent margin. Many courthouse races were just as tight.

Republicans took bigger leads in several statehouse races in which freshman or second-term Democrats are trying to hold onto seats they won in 2006 and 2008.

In House District 107 in northeast Dallas, Republican Kenneth Sheets opened a 55-42 lead over two-term Democrat Allen Vaught.

In Mesquite’s House District 101, Republican Cindy Burkett opened a 53-47 lead over incumbent Robert Miklos, a freshman Democrat.

In District 102, Republican Stafani Carter sprung ahead by a 58-41 margin over incumbent freshman Democrat Carol Kent.

There is apparently nothing as cozy as a thoroughly safe seat to keep one dry when voters are in a stormy mood. Despite a scandal in which she was caught giving scholarships to family members from a Congressional Black Caucus fund, Eddie Bernice Johnson, the longtime Democratic incumbent in the 30th congressional district, was pasting Republican Stephen Broden by a 76-21 percent margin of the 59,325 early votes cast.

A Poll Watcher Watches People Vote

Rightwing poll watcher finds no problems in East Austin

In recent days, it appeared that the tense voting situation in Harris County was going to spread to other areas on election day. The lead-up to the election got so hot in Houston that voting machines combusted into flames, which was followed by accusations by a Tea Party group, called the King Street Patriots, claiming that Democratic registration efforts were an attempt at large scale voter fraud.

The Patriots sent poll watchers to early voting as part of their campaign to “True the Vote,” which led to accusations by Democrats that poll watchers stepped over the line and intimidated minority voters. Then the Department of Justice decided to send observers to keep an eye out in Houston. If that wasn’t enough, word spread this week that the King Street Patriots were setting their sites on Austin.

I went searching for the militant watchdogs in precinct 426 in East Austin, where a coalition of Hispanic and black activists had launched a voter drive to increase turnout by 20 percent. It’s too early to tell if the campaign was successful at turning out votes — and voters were only trickling in to the polling place at Govalle Elementary around 3pm — but the precinct did attract the elusive poll watcher.

Michael Adams, a volunteer with the Travis County Republican Party, stood sternly next to the election officials, where he said he’d been standing for more than five hours.

Adams was at the end of his shift, so we stepped outside to chat. He said he’d come to look out for telltale signs of fraud, like bus loads of suspicious people coming in to vote, or people helping other people vote who were not authorized to vote, or officials allowing people to vote without registration. But he says he didn’t see anything like that going down. “I’ve been an election judge,” he says. “This polling place was a well-oiled machine.”

But Adams said it was important to have poll watchers to protect against skullduggery. I offered that if the Democrats are stealing elections in Texas, they haven’t been doing a very good job. “Donna Campbell is in a tight race with Lloyd Doggett,” he replied. “And I have Black friends in the Republican party from East Austin. The stories they tell me are hair-curling. They say there are dead people voting. There are people coming in to vote and being told they already voted—someone stole their vote and now they are turned away. The corruption happens in urban areas, which is controlled by the Democrats.”

Although there have been few documented cases of voter fraud in Texas, Adams, like many Texas Republicans, are convinced it’s a real problem. He calls it an “inescapable fact.” Adams says the best solution is a Voter I.D. bill. “People steal envelopes with names and addresses from the trash, especially in apartments in urban areas, and they use that to register and vote” says Adams. “Voters should have to produce a photo I.D. at the polls.”

Adams has been transformed by the politics of voting. He says he was a Democrat for 30 years. But when the Gore campaign challenged the election in Florida in 2000, he saw it as a naked attempt to steal the election. He’s been a Republican ever since. “Before that, I thought the Democrats were the good guys,” he said.

Adams believed the accusations leveled at “True the Vote” were overblown. “It seems impossible to intimidate voters while poll watching,” he says. “You’re not allowed to talk to voters. It doesn’t intimidate anyone — expect perhaps the registrar.”

But Adams admits that, at least at this urban polling place, the election was proceeding as it was supposed to. As he walked off, several voters approached the school, all of them democrats. Sally Salazar was upset that Obama hadn’t pushed harder for immigration reform. But she was excited for Bill White (“Maybe someday he’ll be president!). She said, “I’m coming in with my one vote, but with me are thousands of others.”

She meant that metaphorically.

Voter Harassment Persists in Harris County

Republican lawyer allegedly causes problem in Third Ward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rain Falling on Dallas Democrats’ Parade

Heavy thunderstorm likely to favor Republicans

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

So what exactly does this have to do with voting?

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

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

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

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

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

See more of our Election Coverage.

photo by Peter Silva
Clayton Williams during his 1990 gubernatorial campaign

dispatch from the water wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Forrest Wilder

campaign trail

Bill White U.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Abby Rapoport

angry candidate dept.

Kathie Glass Steps Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Abby Rapoport

illustration istockphoto

dept. of elections

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

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

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

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

—Abby Rapoport


The following information was updated on Friday, Oct. 22

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

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

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



campaign confidential

Hammering Hank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Dave Mann


dept. of unintended consequences

Sloppy Wordplay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Timothy Roberts



dept. of big brother

Eye Spy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Melissa del Bosque

The Perry Plan

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Abby Rapoport



dept. of elections

Blocking the Vote

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Dave Mann



dept. of myth busting

No Sanctuary

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Melissa del Bosque

The Dead City

photo by Eugenio del Bosque
Saint Death

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

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

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

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

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

—Melissa del Bosque


dept. of Disputed Elections

Home Cooking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Abby Rapoport



dept. of injustice

Tim Cole’s Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Dave Mann


dept. of Literalism

PolitiFact’s Tough Crowd

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

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

It’s serious business—perhaps too serious.

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

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

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

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

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

—Abby Rapoport