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Purple Texas

Sanctuary Perry

When the $27 billion budget hole was made official, the governor ducked, demagogued, and covered.

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, his political popularity badly diminished by anti-tax policies that led to record budget deficits and the closings of hundreds of schools and state parks, reportedly fled his state early Thursday morning, under cover of darkness, in a National Guard convoy headed to the “sanctuary state” of California, or perhaps farther north into British Columbia. Three newspapers have reported, but we cannot yet confirm, that Perry’s convoy was pursued across parts of New Mexico and Arizona by a heavily armed, loosely organized caravan of middle-class “warriors” from suburban Harris County, including several schoolteachers and small-business owners and middle managers, who were heard shouting through bullhorns such slogans as “Texas Tough!” and “Don’t Tread on Us!” and “Bob Perry is Next!” The pursuing Texas citizens were stopped and detained at the California border on several charges relating to the illegal possession of firearms. …    —Wire Report, 6/17/11

Left-wing daydreams that will never come true. Rick Perry, who was sworn in for his third full term as governor a few days after I wrote this column, will never have the decency to get the heck out of the state he’s spent a decade helping turn into an inhumane, corporate-owned nightmare. And Texans, it appears, will never muster the outrage to run him off.

But Rick Perry takes no chances—at least not politically. He’ll gamble Texans’ futures on a “wealth-first” economic theory that has never worked in practice, but he won’t toss away his popularity without a fight. And so, on the week when Republicans returned to Austin with a state House supermajority and a $27 billion bundle of problems to grapple with, Perry stepped up like the leader he is. That is, he dissembled shamelessly and made a demagogic bid to change the subject.

In press releases, in speeches to the state House and Senate, and in a jittery address to the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, Perry poked fun at people who worry about the budget deficit. He blamed Texas’ revenue shortfall on the “national recession.” And with a rhetorical wave of the hand, the governor shimmied straight past the notion that millions of people will suffer from the budgetary bloodletting that is about to ensue.

“As families and employers are doing all across this state and nation, we will separate the wants from needs, and then cut spending,” he said.

Separate “the wants from needs”? That is, of course, a euphemistic way of telling working- and middle-class Texans that they’re just going to have to cut down on their opulent lifestyles and not make a fuss about it. Why does everybody have to have health care, good schools, that whole nanny-state business? Are such things truly needs, or merely “wants”? 

But this was nothing next to Perry’s even bolder gambit: While pooh-poohing the budget deficit, he invented “emergencies” to stir empty and loud debate and take the focus off that pesky $27 billion. On the Legislature’s first day, Jan. 11, Perry announced his “emergency items,” which are supposed to be pressing issues of such great and immediate consequence to the state that they can be considered and advanced during the first 30 days of the session. Other, lesser bills have to wait. And what are these matters of such great moment, as chosen by the governor? Eminent domain laws, a new round of “tort reform,” and a fictional creation called “sanctuary cities.”

“We must abolish sanctuary cities in Texas,” Perry informed the TPPF, about five of whose members applauded that weird sentiment. Perry himself could not name any sanctuary cities in the state, when the Associated Press asked, though he made noises about Houston.

The beauty part, for Perry the pol, is that the debate over sanctuary cities could get so loud, so emotionally violent, that it will do wonders to drown out the truly necessary debate over the human consequences of Texas’ mountainous budget shortfall. And as an “emergency” item, it can take center stage right away.

Rick Perry has been selling economic snake oil to Texans for a decade now, and peddling it nationally almost as long. At the same time, he’s been kicking the flimsy foundations out from under Texas’ ability to provide decent social services or schools or health care. No wonder, now that the fallout from his chicanery is about to hit millions of Texans right where they live, he’s desperately seeking political sanctuary. Let’s not let him have it.

Bobby Beltran was already having a blue Christmas. Because of his job, the 26-year-old was missing his tight-knit family’s celebration back home in Brownsville for the first time. After work on Christmas night, to cheer himself up, Beltran joined some friends and co-workers at Rain, a gay bar in downtown Austin. He was accompanied by Chris Ortega, an Austin native who’d recently returned to Texas’ supposed beacon of tolerance—and had, only weeks before, come out to friends as gay.  

Let Beltran pick up the story: “Leaving Rain about 1:30 or 2 in the morning, we walked westward to the corner of Lavaca and gave each other a goodbye hug. At that exact moment there was a car going the same way, westbound on Fourth Street. The driver yelled, ‘Hey, you fucking faggots, quit that queer shit!’” 

Plenty of people would have ducked their heads and pretended to ignore the slurs. But Beltran, who came out at age 13, says “that’s just not the person I am.” He’s an activist. He’d joined protests after two gay softball players were followed last February from another Fourth Street bar and brutally assaulted by four men outside city hall. “What came instantly to my mind was what happened to the Shady Ladies, the two softball players,” he says. “They never caught the guys. So that snapped into my head, and I immediately turned around and said, ‘Hey, get that out of here. We do not welcome that in Austin. Get out of here!’ “

It wasn’t long before the five young men were out of the car, surrounding Beltran and Ortega, yelling more slurs while pummeling them. With 20 or so bystanders watching, the beating went on, unchecked, for several minutes before a friend came out of the bar and had the good sense to call 911 and holler, “The cops are coming!” The assailants split. An officer finally arrived and said there wasn’t much he could do. He took their descriptions, gave Beltran and Ortega a case number and said he’d call if anything developed.

As much as anything, Beltran was mystified by the response—not just of the police, but of the silent witnesses who didn’t lift a finger, didn’t call 911, didn’t take down the license-plate number, didn’t use their cell phones to photograph the perpetrators. But again, he did not keep quiet. He went home, photographed his battered face, and posted it on Facebook.  A few local media outlets took notice and ran stories—some outraged, some perfunctory. When I talked with Beltran a week after the hate crime, he broke down twice as we talked. But he remained unbowed. While some have criticized him for talking back to the homophobes, he said he’d do it again.

“I was talking on behalf of everybody: ‘Listen, I don’t accept you calling me that. That is not my name; that is not my label. I’m a person. I’m a human being. Treat me like one.” And now, he says, “I’m not stopping. I don’t know exactly how, but I’m going to fight for the people who it might happen to later, and for people who don’t have a voice, who’ve already been attacked. Because it will happen again.”

In a sense, Beltran and Ortega were caught—physically, violently—in the paradox of being gay in America at this contradictory moment. Queer folk like them, and me, have more of our rights than we’ve ever had before. But with visibility has come a backlash. A recent study of 14 years of FBI hate-crime data by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that gay men and lesbians are more than twice as likely to be victims of hate crimes than Jews, three times more than African Americans, four times more than Muslims.

It’s a long slog yet to full equality—not merely legal rights, but genuine cultural respect. A long slog till it’s every bit as unacceptable to call Beltran a “fucking faggot” as it is to call a black man a “nigger,” a Latino a “spic,” a Muslim a “terrorist.” A long slog to the time when political hate-mongers like Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert and Religious Right leaders like David Barton and John Hagee can no longer bash gays publicly without fear of repercussions.

But when we finally get there—and we will—we’ll have people like Bobby Beltran to thank. People who would not silently let themselves be abused. People who got knocked down and came up fighting for their dignity. And everyone else’s.

Molly Prize Logo 


 The Texas Observer and the Texas Democracy Foundation

announce a call for submissions for

The MOLLY National Journalism Prize of 2011

A national award honoring the indelible memory of our Molly Ivins.

The MOLLY will be awarded for an article or series of up to four short, related articles or columns appearing in a U.S.-based publication in print or as part of an online magazine, telling the stories that need telling, challenging conventional wisdom, focusing on civil liberties and/or social justice, and embodying the intelligence, deep thinking and/or passionate wit that marked Molly’s work.molly

The fourth annual MOLLY will be awarded for work published in 2010. Although Molly can be never be replicated, we look for others following in her tradition.

Gail Collins, veteran journalist, author, and op-ed columnist for The New York Times (and, from 2001 to 2007, the first female editorial page editor of the Times), will be the keynote speaker at the awards dinner.  Previous keynote speakers have been Dan Rather, Ellen Goodman and Seymour Hersh.

The prize will be awarded on Thursday, June 9, 2011, at a dinner in Austin, Texas.

First prize is a $5,000 cash award, plus The MOLLY Prize. Two $1,000 honorable mention prizes will also be awarded. A group of nationally prominent journalists will serve as final judges.

Complete guidelines for submitting an entry appear below. For information on attending the awards dinner, or to contribute to The MOLLY Prize fund, please contact mollyaward at or call 512-477-0746.



· The MOLLY is an annual national print or online journalism award of $5,000 with two honorable mentions of $1,000, each to be presented by the Texas Democracy Foundation and The Texas Observer in memory and in honor of Molly Ivins. The first MOLLY was presented to Molly at a fundraiser in her honor in October 2006.

· All entries will be judged on the basis of either a single piece or a series of up to four related articles or columns. Judges will value work that reflects Molly’s ability to look critically at the issues of the day with compassion and/or humor, tells the stories that need telling, challenges conventional wisdom, and focuses upon civil liberties or social justice.



· Submissions must consist of material originally published in a U.S.-based publication in print or as part of an online magazine (Note: This does not include unedited blogs) between January 1, 2010, and December 31, 2010. One entry per individual will be accepted. Individual writers may enter on their own or be entered by the publication in which the work appeared. Multiple by-lines for a single entry are acceptable.
NOTE: Work that has appeared in The Texas Observer is ineligible in order to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest.

· Both electronic and hard copies of stories are required (unless the method of publication makes one or the other version impossible, in which case that should be clearly stated in the submission).  A cover sheet for each entry must give the following information: author’s name, mailing address, telephone number(s), e-mail address, and a brief biography; publication name, editorial contact person, mailing address, telephone number(s), and e-mail address; and publication date.

· If submitting photocopies of published work, 8 1/2 ” x 11″ pages are preferred. If that requires great reduction of the print (as for a broadsheet), please provide a readable version of the story on 8 1/2 ” x 11″ pages with an additional photocopy of the story laid out in the publication. Award finalists may be required to submit tear sheets of the original work.

· One hard copy of each entry should be mailed to: The Texas Observer, attn: Lorraine Blancarte, 307 W. 7th St, Austin, TX 78701.

· One electronic copy of each entry should be e-mailed to Lorraine Blancarte: blancarte at

· All entries must be postmarked or emailed no later than March 15, 2011.

· Entry fee is $25. Send payment with your entry or call Lorraine Blancarte at 512-477-0746 to pay by phone.



Initial screening for the entries will be conducted by journalists from the Board of Advisors, which governs the conducting of the award. Finalists and winners will be determined by an annually selected Executive Committee of the Board of Advisors.



An awards dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, Texas, will be held on Thursday, June 9, 2011, with tickets available to the public at $150 each. Sponsor tables seating 10 will be available for $10,000, $5,000 and $2,500. The keynote speaker is Gail Collins, op-ed columnist for, and former editorial page editor of, The New York Times.



Funding of the prizes, expenses of the awards dinner, and travel and lodging for winning journalists and guest speakers will be underwritten through a fund established by friends of Molly Ivins. Contributions are welcome.



Hugh Aynesworth, Maurine H. Beasley, Tom Bettag, Mike Blackman, Nate Blakeslee, Frederick Blevens, Roy Blount, Jr., Robert Bryce, Ken Bunting, Wanda Cash, Carlton Carl, Mike Cochran, Gail Collins, Patrick Cox, Greg Curtis, Lou Dubose, Ronnie Dugger, Doug Foster, Ellen Goodman, Wade Goodwyn, Jim Henderson, Steven Isenberg, Melissa Jones, Lewis Lapham, Myra MacPherson, David McHam, Dave McNeely, Judith Davidson Moyers, Victor Navasky, Kaye Northcott, Larry Norwood, Karen Olsson, John Pope, Dan Rather, Geoff Rips, Matt Rothschild, Ben Sargent, Connie Schultz, Robert Siegel, Erna Smith, Paul Stekler, Carlton Stowers, Diane Suchetka, Mimi Swartz, Saralee Tiede, Calvin Trillin, and Jim Willse.



Jane Barrett, Frances Barton, Becky Beaver, Carlton Carl, Jan Demetri, Karen Farabee, Mary Margaret Farabee, Carol Flake, Clare Hudspeth, Mary Barminski Johnson, Melissa Jones, Mary Jo Kennard, Joan Lava, Susan Longley, Charlotte McCann, Sandie McClellan, Barbara Morgan, Susan Morris, Nona Niland, Janis Pinnelli, Suzy Reid, Margie Rine, Geoff Rips, Nancy Scanlan, Sunny Smith, Sara Speights, Ellen Sweets, Margot Thomas, Kelly White & Caryl Yontz

I miss the days when I could blame booze for killing my brain cells. Now it’s books. Texas Republican books. First Rove, then W., then Rick Perry—and now state Rep. Debbie Riddle, who’s just released Taking Back Your Country, Your Community and Your Kids, which she calls “a quick reference hand book” on “becoming an effective activist.” (What’s next in this literary devolution? Aaron Peña’s I Was a One-Term Republican?)

Until her star turn on Anderson Cooper 360 earlier this year, when she revealed the surprising news that “terror babies” were being born in the United States and then raised overseas to commit acts of terror against their birthplace, Riddle was best known as the “representative from the pit of hell.” During her freshman session representing Tomball in 2003, after a meeting of the Border and International Affairs Committee, Riddle asked an El Paso Times reporter, “Where did this idea come from that everybody deserves free education, free medical care, free whatever? It comes from Moscow, from Russia. It comes straight out of the pit of hell. And it’s cleverly disguised as having a tender heart. It’s not a tender heart. It’s ripping the heart out of this country.”

Riddle does not delve into the terror-baby episode in her book, sold by the online self-publishing outfit Lulu. But she writes in vivid detail about her “pit of hell” experience, first blaming it on the reporter “pushing his agenda,” and then on her having been “tired and cranky.” But why assign blame or make excuses? As Riddle paints it, her anti-immigrant rant heard ’round the world was a triumph of political bravery. After describing her Republican colleagues’ anger after the quote got around, she paints a poignant picture of herself as a scorned champion of the unvarnished truth:

Later that afternoon, we were able to break for lunch – a rare treat! There was a special luncheon at the Austin Club honoring the freshman Republican State Reps. All the Republican State Reps attended – seniors and freshmen alike, as well as Senators and lobbyists. I arrived with my purse and briefcase in hand a few minutes late. As I walked in the door, I scanned the room to see it totally full. There did not seem to be an empty chair at any of the beautifully appointed round tables for eight. There seemed to be only one seat left at a table near where I was standing not far from the doorway. I asked my colleagues (my friends) if that seat was taken and if I could sit there. Their response was a cool “I guess so.” After putting my briefcase and purse at that one empty chair I proceeded to the buffet line to get my lunch. Upon returning to my table, I was shocked to discover everyone had evacuated the table!

Who knew bigotry could be such a lonely business? But there is, you see, a lesson to be learned from all of this—a lesson in courage, in standing alone for what it right. In being a pioneer, even. “Nobody was talking about illegal immigration when this event happened,” Riddle claims, with all the veracity she showed Anderson Cooper and the world. “Not in political circles. Not in social circles. Not even on television or talk radio. Even my staff said I was the only one discussing the issue.” (May I remind you: This was 2003.)

She goes on:

Just because you are right, and even though your “friends” may quietly agree, you can count on having many of them scatter when the tough times hit. There will certainly be times when you may need to sit at the table by yourself. It is not fun. But when you know deep within your heart that you are right, God will give you all the strength you need to sit at the table alone!

The Good Lord has given Riddle all kinds of strength—including the strength to lead a successful crusade to revise the Texas state pledge to, very awkwardly, make mention of Him. (“The Bible says that ‘life and death are in the tongue,'” she writes. “What we say with our mouth is very important.”) But Riddle’s big issue, from the get-go, has been immigration. Or rather, anti-immigration. In November, Riddle camped out at the state Capitol, literally, so she could have the honor of filing the first Arizona-style immigration bills of the 2011 Legislature.

But hey, there I go—falling right into Riddle’s trap, sounding just like “the self-appointed ‘PC police’ who would convict us of being insensitive, selfish, lacking compassion, and—even worse—a racist.”

Riddle really, really, detests political correctness—a phrase she seems hell-bent on reviving. She makes a virtue of rejecting it, illustrating the perils of “correct” language that leads us down slippery slopes to things like, you know, the Holocaust. We must not, she says, fall into that trap. To wit:

Homosexuals are now called “gays.” Gay was a word to describe joy or happiness. Girls were often named Gay for that very reason. Names like Gay Elizabeth, or Sharon Gay, or Debbie Gay were common. In our everyday language, gay was used to describe events or feelings. “It was a party filled with gaiety” or “We had a gay old time” were phrases common to our vernacular. Personally, I have chosen to call “a spade a spade”. When referring to one who wants to make their sexual preference a topic of conversation, I will not use the term gay. It is not disrespectful to say homosexual.

I could not agree more. As a homosexual who occasionally brings up his “preference” in conversation, I can attest there is little that my people enjoy more than being called a “spade.” So refreshing!

But in all fairness, homo-spades are not the only people Riddle insults in the space of 96 pages. Even her own daddy is not spared a come-down (albeit unintentionally). “My father fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima; it was a bloody, tough battle and the stakes were high,” Riddle writes. “Our battle today is no less important and the stakes are equally as high.”

What is this battle to equal WWII, pray tell? “We are at war to regain common sense, integrity, respect for our Constitution, respect for our laws, and religious freedom,” Riddle proclaims. And later: “Bill O’Reilly calls it the Culture War. What people fail to understand is that the far left/the Progressive Democrats/the Secular Progressives/whatever title they choose, have declared war on our culture – on freedom loving Americans.

“We did not start this war, they did,” Riddle writes. “And make no mistake. This is a war our nation must fight within our own borders, neighborhoods, schools, and even homes. That means you and me. We are the ones on the front lines. You must know the enemy and know him well. You must know the enemy better than he knows himself. This book will help you with some tools in this fight.”

And there you have it—straight from the mouth of someone who is, unquestionably, one of the tools in this fight.

Back in July, when the governor’s race still looked like a race, Wayne Slater of The Dallas Morning News bird-dogged Democrat Bill White for a week as he hunted for votes among the Anglo conservatives of East Texas. In one especially vivid account, datelined Palestine, Slater showed White answering litmus-test gun-rights questions at the local Starbucks. The candidate answered satisfactorily, citing a B+ score from the National Rifle Association and artfully dodging a question about the right to pack heat in church. A couple of East Texans admitted to Slater that they were considering voting for this strange, surprising Democrat. But there was just one problem, Jerry Harrison of the Farm Bureau said: “The only holdback I can see is that he’s a Democrat and he’s going to be with Obama.”

Those are hard nuts to crack. Not that Bill White didn’t try his darnedest to erase conservative Anglos’ stereotypical assumptions about what a Democrat who’d been mayor of Houston probably stood for. He swatted Obama away like a malarial mosquito. His campaign was predicated on another  assumption: that the only way for Democrats to win statewide in “red” states like Texas is to convince conservative Anglo suburbanites that they’re just as conservative, essentially, as the Republicans—only more sensible, and less crazy-talking.

Why is this the only way to win? Because Democrats are convinced that minority voters aren’t going to turn out—not until someday in the future, when they finally decide to start voting in large numbers. In the meantime, Democrats will keep focusing on the mythical Anglo “swing voter,” an elusive species the party has been chasing—with almost no success—with single-minded ferocity for three decades now.

Two months after Slater’s story, I spent a day with White on the trail, five weeks before Election Day. He was still beating the bushes for persuadable Republicans. This day, Sept. 23, started with a Chamber of Commerce breakfast in Republican McKinney, moved on to a taped news show in Dallas, then hit the Rotary Club in Republican Plano and a retired educators’ group and high school in Republican Brownwood. The next day, White would be off to El Paso. He wasn’t “neglecting” South Texas and urban voters, exactly, but he was pitching most of his energy and message toward white conservatives. The problem with this strategy was summed up neatly by a chatty retired teacher who turned out for White’s sparsely attended appearance in Brownwood High School: “There’s just not enough Democrats here,” Holly Childers told me.

Election Day bore that out. White ended up winning 41 percent of the vote in Brown County. In Collin County, home to Plano and McKinney, Gov. Perry streamrolled White on Nov. 2, winning some 64 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, statewide, the Democrats also lost ground among women voters and Latinos, who voted 38 percent for Perry after giving him just 31 percent of their votes in 2006.

Was White’s time really better spent in Brown County than, say, Brownsville? While Democrats eagerly chase votes that aren’t really theirs for the asking, they are foregoing a chance to appeal to voters who are there for the wooing. Texas has more non-voting Latinos than any state in the country. Why did White never come up with a compelling, forward-thinking message for them on education or jobs—one that would have given people a reason to vote for him, rather than against Gov. Perry? Partly because it’s hard to be visionary when you’re so busy pretending that you aren’t.

The Nov. 2 wipeout—with White losing, and Republicans winning an historic 99-51 edge in the state House—ought to send a big, clear, flashing-lights message to Texas Democrats: It’s way past time to set their sights forward and stop obsessing over how to win back the “Reagan Democrats.” If Texas is going to have real two-party competition, Texas Democrats will have to stop keying their campaigns to a diminishing demographic that holds them in suspicion. Instead, the party has to find a message, and an organizing method, that makes more non-voters believe that by going to the polls and voting Democratic, they’ll be improving their lives. Maybe most of all, Texas Democrats need to remember something their Republican counterparts learned long ago: The only thing worse than standing for something unpopular is standing for nothing at all.

One Corporatocracy under God, Divisible

Sponsor an all new Rabble Rouser - help build support for award winning investigative journalism and progressive community building!

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Help build support for award winning investigative journalism
and progressive community building!

The 10th annual Rabble-Rouser Roundup & Fat Cat Schmoozefest needs you!

Sign up for tickets and sponsorships now! See below for details on giving levels.

Wednesday, 2/2/11, from 6 pm to midnight

 The Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center

Keynote talk by Jim Hightower

Recent developments in journalism have shown that the Free Press is critically important to a functioning democracy—but it is not free!

With your help we will continue to deliver top-notch investigative journalism and build progressive infrastructure in Texas. The TDF has revamped its web site, launched new media initiatives and written stories that have won awards and garnered national attention. With this year’s Rabble Rouser event, we will recognize community activists from throughout the state and we will launch outreach to the next generation of progressive leaders in Texas.

Your support makes it possible. Many levels are available and all are given grateful recognition. Sponsor the Rabble Rouser, support investigative journalism and progressive community engagement in Texas and receive these benefits:

$10,000   Visionary
* Your name and logo on all event promotional materials as the title sponsor for one full year
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* VIP Admission for 10 to the full event (each guest receives two drink tickets)
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* Early preview of silent auction items
* Ability to buy selected items at the Buy Now price
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* Option to present the People’s Friend Award and speak at the ceremony

$5,000   Community Leader
* Prominent listing of name and/or company logo on all event promotional materials for one full year
* Large print listing in after-event thank you ad in Texas Observer print and web edition
* VIP Admission for 6 to the full event (each guest receives two drink tickets)
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* early preview of silent auction items
* Public acknowledgment at awards ceremony

$2,500   Agitator
* Your name and/or company logo on all event promotional materials
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* VIP Admission for 4 to the full event (each guest receives two drink tickets)
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$1,000    Rabble Rouser
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$500    Legislative Package
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$100    Next Generation Leader
This level of sponsorship is only open to people under the age of 40 who apply and are accepted into the program.  Details to come, or contact Sharron Rush at [email protected].

Sign me up! I’d like to be a Rabble Rouser sponsor.

Highlights of this years Rabble Rouser and Fat Cat Schmoozefest include:
Master of Ceremonies Genevieve Van Cleve leads the festivities.
Public voting for the favorite Tyrant’s Foe – all will be recognized and the big vote-getter receives the People’s Friend Award at the party!
Great food prepared by culinary arts students in collaboration with Creative Creations and the CinnaMan Dessert catering companies.
Silent Auction will featuring many tantalizing items including a stay in a villa in Portugal, a Caribbean beachhouse, fine art, and a Hill Country Wine Tour weekend B&B trip.

Single tickets are $49.95 and will available in January.


Community Leader – Lisa Blue Baron

Agitator – Alec Rhodes, Sharron Rush

Rabble Rouser – Planet K Gifts, Jesse Oliver, Gilberto Ocañas

Legislative Sponsor – Nancy Alliegro, Carlton Carl, Lloyd Doggett, Deece Eckstein, Melissa Jones, Susan Longley, Eve MacArthur, Mary Nell Mathis, Jim Thatcher, Kelly White

For questions, contact Sharron Rush at [email protected] or call 512-477-0746.
The Texas Observer is a 501(3)c nonprofit organization. All donations are tax deductible within the limits of the law.

Petty, Piddling Perry

Houston gets high praise in the governor's book—while Bill White gets dissed by omission.

When word came down in early September that the publication of Gov. Rick Perry’s Tea Party primer, Fed Up!, was being delayed until after the election, most folks assumed that it was purely a matter of canny timing. Perry’s delusional and poorly hidden itch to run for president was surely, everybody thought, at the root of the rescheduling. With the book coming out immediately after Nov. 2, Perry would be able to launch a national book tour that would double as an exploratory presidential campaign after he cruised to victory over overmatched Democrat Bill White. 

Now that the thing is out, it’s clear—to those of us who have actually made our way through its 185 pages of Glenn Beck borrowings—that there might have been another reason for the publication delay. When Perry talks about the goodness and greatness of Texas, comparing it to the relentless evil and wanton destructiveness of “Washington,” one of his prime pieces of evidence is the city of Houston. More specifically, things that Houston accomplished under a certain three-term Democratic mayor by the name of Bill White—a name that, very conspicuously, never once appears in Fed Up!

As he discusses the socialistic excesses of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, Perry makes the extravagantly ludicrous claim that “Texas’ commonsense system has been hugely successful in tackling air pollution.” To wit? “Houston is second only to Atlanta in the total percent [sic] decrease in ozone for metropolitan areas, this while Houston’s population increased by 20 percent.” Of course, this had nothing to do with the Houston mayor’s deft handling of polluters—or his battles against the laughably lax regulatory processes of Perry’s Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which has never seen a polluter it wouldn’t give a green light to.

But it is Perry’s petty, deeply dishonest account of Houston’s praiseworthy response to Hurricane Katrina that truly takes the cake. In his first chapter, “America Is Great, Washington Is Broken,” Perry’s main example of the saintly “character of our people” in Texas is the fact that “[t]he people of Harris County did not hesitate to welcome as many as 200,000 residents of New Orleans, processing tens of thousands of evacuees and working hard to find shelter, food, clothes, medicine, and other basic necessities.”

Who led this admirable effort? In Perry’s account, then-Houston Mayor White is entirely absent from the scene. In a chapter titled “States Do the Work of the People,” Perry himself takes the bulk of the credit for Texas’ response to Hurricane Katrina—using Houston, again, as his prime example. White has been justly credited and praised for his moral and pragmatic leadership—not only in welcoming the huddled masses from New Orleans, but more importantly in setting up successful programs to find them long-term housing, jobs and educational opportunities. The mayor won the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for his efforts. But if you buy Perry’s account, you’d never know that White had a darn thing to do with any of it.

“Our state’s emergency management team, a division within the Department of Public Safety, was working with local officials across Texas to be ready for possible evacuees,” Perry writes. “Judge Robert Eckels was in charge of the Citizen Corps in Harris County, Texas, a program launched by President Bush in the aftermath of 9/11, to be set up by local citizens to respond to area emergencies, and he coordinated with state, federal, and Louisiana officials.”

Praising Eckels is well and fine. But giving him exclusive credit for Houston’s Katrina response is patently absurd. As the Houston Chronicle reported at the time, “White, the commanding former CEO, has taken charge, and Eckels, the genial former state representative, seems comfortable with that. … White has shaped much of the official response to the hurricane. He formed and chairs the Katrina Working Group, the large panel at the city-run George R. Brown Convention Center that weighs evacuees’ needs and plans accordingly. He’s spearheaded the effort to obtain corporate help and to move the evacuees out of shelters and into apartments and houses.”

Perry damn well knows that White’s leadership defined the response. But he goes out of his way to avoid giving his vanquished foe the slightest scintilla of credit. “The schedule was cleared for the Astrodome through December,” he writes—as if it simply happened. (Act of God, maybe?) Instead, it was “the people of Houston” who “stepped up to the plate. They did the vast majority of the work and the organization, getting together the cots, blankets, pillows, security, food, medicine, water, and all the basic necessities of life. They enrolled children in schools and organized a network of people to open their homes. They did it because it was the right thing to do.” And they did it, apparently, without a mayor challenging and prodding and encouraging and organizing them.

So there was, clearly, another reason for delaying the release of Fed Up! Maybe Perry’s people realized that it wouldn’t do to be praising Bill White’s Houston while the governor was busy trashing and distorting the Democrat’s record as mayor. Or maybe they feared that Perry’s piddling refusal to deny White his due for Houston’s accomplishments would make the governor look like a hypocritical jerk. Which it certainly does.

While Fed Up!—which reads like a boilerplate “Tea Party for Dummies” manual—reveals precious little about the governor’s elusive character, Perry’s diss-by-omission of White speaks volumes about the sorry stuff this man is made of. Even in a book that would be coming out after his race against White was over, the governor couldn’t bring himself to muster up the common decency and basic honesty to give him even the tiniest measure of recognition for his leadership after Katrina—the single most praiseworthy example of political leadership in recent Texas history.

It’s no surprise that Fed Up! reveals Perry as a dimwitted anti-government tool. But praising Bill White’s Houston, while bending over backward to ignore the mayor’s role, is downright classless and egregiously, unnecessarily insulting—both to White and to the truth. In this book, Bill White is beneath mentioning. And the governor of Texas is beneath contempt.

Goodbye, Government

Rick Perry couldn’t wait to hightail it out of Texas, practically as soon as the ballots were counted and the victory speech given on Nov. 2. Dispatching his third Democratic challenger had barely caused the governor to break a sweat. He looked tanned and rested, fresh as a daisy. Now the real work of the fall would begin: touting his new anti-Washington book, Fed Up!, and along the way, touting himself as plausible presidential material. A few days after leading the Texas Republicans to an historic level of power, Perry was rocking a flaming pink tie and introducing his platform on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “When you look at Social Security, it’s broke,” Perry said. “My kids, 27 and 24, they know this is a Ponzi scheme.” One answer, Perry said, is to give up on a federal program to protect the elderly and just “let the states do it.”

Oh, excellent. Let states run Social Security. States like Texas, for instance—where there will be no social safety net whatsoever after the next Legislature gets done slicing another $25 billion off the brittle bones of our budget. (Rest easy, old folks: We’ll take care of you!)

But hey, it’s a democracy. And Texas voters said at least one thing loud and clear on Nov. 2: If it’s a question of paying to have a functioning government or not, they’d really rather not. “If anything starts with a ‘T’ for tax or ‘F’ for fee, forget it,” said Republican consultant Bill Miller as his party celebrated its fourth straight statewide sweep and dramatic seizure of the state House, where they’ll have at least a 99-51 edge in January. “They’re struck from the legislative alphabet.”

This was not exactly the ideal time for Texas to go all Grover Norquist. Even before the election, Texans were plunging down a rapids with a budget shortfall estimated at up to $25 billion for the next biennium. Now we’re neck-deep in the swirl without a paddle. When Democratic Rep. Rene Oliveira of Brownsville said in October that the Legislature is likely to take a “meat-cleaver” approach to the state budget, it wasn’t the most tasteful turn of phrase. But it was grimly accurate. 

Take one awful example: Services for as many as 30,000 mentally ill Texans are likely to be eliminated. These huge cuts will come to a system that is already anemic at best: While the national average for mental health care spending is $103 per capita, in Texas, it is $34. Texas is already 49th in spending for mental health and substance abuse. But those are just statistics. What will happen to people? Among other things, more will land in jail. Already, the Harris County Jail is the largest mental health ward in the state, treating some 2,500 inmates for mental health conditions. It’s more expensive to do it this way. And less effective. Perfect!

But voters in 2010 were in no mood to think about what government should do—only to obsess over what it shouldn’t do. And on the Democratic side, nobody made a very convincing case for government doing things.

For most of 2010, Texas Democrats swore they had figured out how to break the Republicans’ 16-year spell over the voters. They hadn’t. Bill White fell beneath Barack Obama’s Texas vote in 2008, which wasn’t easy to do. Even conservative Democrats who’d successfully stuck to the old rules for years, bringing home the bacon and voting with the Republicans on enough big issues to ward off the dreaded liberal label—Congressman Chet Edwards of Waco, state House members Jim McReynolds in East Texas and Joe Heflin in West Texas—got creamed. By anti-government Republicans. In districts where people badly need government money. (It’s not enough to vote against your personal economic interests anymore, apparently; it’s now de rigeur to vote against the economic interests of your own district.)

Texans who voted this fall didn’t want to create; they wanted to destroy. And with a mandate like that, the governor and the new Republican Legislature will happily start wielding their cleavers, and damn the consequences.

While Perry tours the country glorifying Texas as a Shangri-La of unregulated, unfettered capitalism, the state will be turning into a colder, meaner place. As Perry peddles his “Morning in Texas” message, the bitter consequences of his anti-government politics will be coming home to roost. No wonder he’s eager to fly the coop.

Blood on Our Hands: Why the Jones Case Matters

What the DNA results tell Texas citizens—and journalists

On Friday morning in Houston, I spoke at a news conference discussing the upshot of the Observer‘s successful lawsuit to preserve and test DNA evidence that might have posthumously exonerated Claude Jones, who was executed on Dec. 7, 2000. Former Gov. Mark White, Innocence Project director Barry Scheck, and attorneys from Mayer Brown, the firm that won the suit, also addressed the media along with Jones’ son, Duane.

As Dave Mann has reported, the DNA evidence didn’t prove Jones’ innocence—but it did show that he was convicted, and executed, based on false evidence. And documents dredged up by the lawsuit showed that Gov. George W. Bush, making his last decision on an execution in Texas, was not informed that Jones was requesting DNA testing that might exonerate him.

Watch Dave Mann’s interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow

As Gov. White said, “a mere memo written by a subordinate member of Bush’s staff made this life-and-death decision.”

With two Texas executions—Jones’ and Cameron Todd Willingham’s—now known to have been based on false forensic evidence and mishandled by the state, every citizens’ conscience should be shaken to the core, no matter their opinion on the death penalty. We can all agree, surely, that the highest punishment should be reserved for those who are guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt. In Texas, we now know, that fundamental moral and ethical standard has not applied.

Here’s what I had to say this morning about what the case means, for Texas citizens and for Texas journalists:

It’s a bit unusual for me to be on this side of a press conference. And it might be unusual for a media outlet to be co-plaintiff in a lawsuit like this one. We don’t go around suing people much; we’re too busy steering clear of being sued ourselves. But for the Observer, this was a critically important case of the public’s right to know. That’s a right that journalists fight for every day—and here in Texas, as most of you know, it can be one hell of a fight.

But there was more than a First Amendment principle at stake in the case of Claude Jones: The people of Texas had a right to know whether they had blood on their hands—whether they had been responsible, together, for the murder of an innocent man.

In the past few years, Texans have learned some very disturbing truths about the way their state carries out its most solemn duty, administering the death penalty. That’s been thanks in small part to the efforts of journalists in publications as far-flung as the Observer and the Chicago Tribune and The New Yorker, but also to criminal-justice activists like the Innocence Project, truth-seekers like Duane Jones, truth-tellers like Gov. White, and socially conscious attorneys like those at Mayer Brown. That’s what it takes. And we were proud to be on this team.

As citizens of Texas, we are also both profoundly sad and outraged at what we’ve learned from these DNA results and from the documents that emerged from this process.

In this case, Gov. Bush did not get the essential information about Claude Jones’ appeal that he should have had before making his fatal decision. In the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, convicted and executed based on faulty arson forensics, Gov. Rick Perry either did not know about expert reports debunking the evidence against, or he ignored them. In 2007, in the case of Michael Richard, Judge Sharon Keller closed her court at 5 p.m. and blocked his attorneys from filing a last-minute appeal.

Even those who support the death penalty should be deeply concerned about this pattern. The most notorious case is Willingham’s, of course. But as we see today, it’s not the only case where Texas has executed someone on the basis of faulty evidence.

Executing an innocent person is the worst-case scenario, of course. But as The Observer has reported in 2009 and 2010, there are also hundreds of Texans in prison because they were convicted by false arson forensics or faulty blood-spatter analysis DNA is now reliable, but other forensic evidence continues to be employed in faulty ways and to convict innocent Texans.

The people of Texas needed to know whether Claude Jones was indeed guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt. Now we know that he was not.

Given what we know now, it’s clear how important it was that the people of Texas had access to this information. We now know more about the workings, and shortcomings, of our criminal-justice system. And what we know is deeply unsettling.

Now it’s our collective responsibility to make sure that what happened to Willingham and Jones cannot happen again. And it’s Texas journalists’ responsibility to continue ferreting out the hard-won truth about the injustices that have already occurred.

Perry’s Presidential Non-Campaign

The governor's national shrink-the-government act is humming along. But the will you/won't you questions keep coming.

Rick Perry’s national “Not a candidate—really!” tour is going great guns, as you have surely heard. Fortunately for the rest of America, the governor not only took his government-shrinking message along with him, he also took his trademark syntax. It’s kept Texas journalists entertained, and Texas voters puzzled, for years. Of course, national journalists probably just look at Perry’s quotes, shrug and say, “Well, hey, he’s from Texas.”

On Real Clear Politics, I found this sterling example in a story called “Perry: Bush ‘Missed Some Opportunities’.” He’s speaking to Washington reporters about Saint Ronald Reagan: “I talk about him in my speeches, but I also talk about other presidents,” Perry said. “We have had some great individuals to serve as presidents of the United States. John Kennedy gets talked about from a smaller government, tax cutting president.”

Where to begin? The second sentence (“had some great individuals to serve…”) is ungrammatical and awkward, but not altogether unclear. The third one, though! It attains a standard of almost dazzling incomprehensibility.

Lord knows, Perry would hardly be the first Texan to propel himself ungrammatically into national prominence. I don’t know much about what Vice President “Cactus” Jack Garner sounded like, but I know from all-too-fresh memory that the Bushes were not syntactical wunderkinds. After the Georges, it surprises people everywhere else in the country when a Texan materializes who can speak English fluently. (This can be used to your advantage when you’re on the road, I’m finding—you get to be the civilized Texan. A marvel, a mystery, and treated like one, with respectful curiosity.) And with memories of W.’s verbal ininquities still reasonably fresh, Perry sounds damn near lucid most of the time.

But the long and short of it is: Tripping over his words won’t stop Rick Perry from doing his damndest to propel himself to some kind of national office. On Monday’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart, we got a taste of what Perry’s peddling on his I’m Not Running campaign (and, incidentally, book tour for Fed Up!):

PERRY: If you want to know when Washington really got off the track—the 16th amendment, giving them the opportunity to take your money with a personal income tax. […]

STEWART: But let me just back that up a second, because there are… very few people, I think, who would go back to a pre-1920s United States, because that movement didn’t arise out of nothing. Children worked in factories. Women weren’t allowed to vote.

PERRY: I get that —

STEWART: You may get it, but that ain’t nothing.

PERRY: But the fact is, then you had the Great Depression, and again—government program after government program—that, looking back on it now, didn’t work. Big government really has really not helped this country from the standpoint of economically.

The governor hit on just about every Tea Party talking point he could in the short span of a TV interview—the evils of Woodrow Wilson, even. Take a listen if you missed it somehow.

It doesn’t take a genius to see the strategy at work here: Cozy up to those Tea Partiers while the cozying is good. If Sarah Palin doesn’t run, Perry wants to be their guy. Even if she does, he wants to be in the picture in case she implodes. Rick Perry, oddly enough, would be the “moderate” Tea Party option in that scenario. (Did I just type the words “moderate tea party option? Heaven help us all.)

Perry has been talking a blue streak about Texas’ job creation and its wonderfully “fair and balanced” regulatory climate—”fair,” of course, being the code word for “non-existent.” He hasn’t had to field a lot of in-depth questions about Texas’ estimated $21-$25 billion budget deficit for the next biennium. He gets a lot of this, instead:

VIERA: “So you don’t see any scenario where the party may come to you and say, ‘We need you in 2012,’ and you would accept?”

PERRY: “I don’t see that scenario—at all.”

VIERA: “But if they did?”

PERRY: “At all.”

VIERA: “You’re saying, like, no, off the table?”

PERRY: “I am not running for the presidency of the United States.”

To believe him, you’d also have to believe that … insert your punchline here. You’d have to be pretty dimwitted, is what I’m trying to say. If things line up right, Perry will surely try to follow W.’s Austin-to-Washington trajectory. At least then it’ll be the whole damn county’s fault if he wins.