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Political Intelligence

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

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