Snake Oil

Dan Patrick with the Buc-ee's mascot
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Dan Patrick and the Buc-ee's beaver, standing vigilant

Last week, with the primary elections behind us at last, Chris turned the tables for some real talk about just WTF we were all doing at the polls. But now comes the horrifying realization that the campaigns have only just begun. Still nearly eight more months of news like…

I AM VERY PROUD TO HAVE THE SUPPORT OF BUC-EE and his owners. Meet the men behind Buc-cees.

Like so many Texans I love Buc-ees. The service is great, the food is great, especially my favorite, the Pastrami sandwich, and of course my wife loves the clean bathrooms.

That’s leading Republican lite guv candidate Dan Patrick, two months from a runoff against David Dewhurst, posting on his Facebook page last Sunday. Kolten Parker at the San Antonio Express-News picked up the story the next day, and from there it was off to the freak-out races…

 

The Harris County GOP chair devoted a talk radio segment to what it all means, the Express-News wagged a finger at Castro for his Twitter outrage, and this lady punched a metal Buc-ee’s beaver statue, after buying stuff in the store:

 

More jumped aboard the #BoycottBucees train and the company either backpedaled, flip-flopped or clarified that its owners, not the store, had endorsed Patrick, hoping the cartoon beaver might dam the political divide they’d stepped in. Please, let’s preserve the dignity of our beloved Texas chain, one that’s so well mastered the art of roadside poop jokes. As a company lawyer told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram‘s Bud Kennedy:

“We believe Beaver Nuggets and beef jerky taste good regardless of political affiliation.”

Glad we settled that. And speaking of scientific consensus:

At least Congressman Louie Gohmert is done campaigning for now, so he can get back to what passes for work in Congress. Congressman Ralph Hall, 90 years young and gamely heading into a runoff to keep his seat, is still campaigning and still managed to keep doing what Texas’ congressional delegation does best:

Last this week, good news for anyone who loves freedom, trash bags, and defending the American way:

We have all been asked the question, “paper or plastic?” Regardless of one’s preference, embedded in the age-old question, and consistent with the consumer’s expectation, is the unstated premise that, as an integral part of the consumer transaction, the retailer will be providing the consumer a bag—a means for the consumer to transport the goods purchased from the retailer.

So begins the Texas Retailers Association’s stirring challenge to the City of Austin’s ban on plastic grocery bags. The trade group filed the suit last week, suggesting local bag bans violate state law and increasing the chance that the #freedombags cause—which Republican state Rep. Drew Springer so unceremoniously disposed of a few months ago—might be recycled into a whole new political dust-up.

In fact, state Rep. Dan Flynn isn’t even waiting—he’s already stepped up to treat these national treasures with the reverence they deserve. He’s asked Attorney General Greg Abbott whether Texas law protects our right to tote our groceries in a single-use plastic menace. As he told the Texas Tribune, the stakes couldn’t be higher in this epic fight:

“I can’t begin to tell you how many phone calls we received about the legality of the bans,” said Flynn, whose district does not have any communities that have imposed bag bans. Even though it doesn’t affect him directly, “there are a lot of people who are really inconvenienced by it,” he said.

Joel Klein at SXSWedu
Patrick Michels
Amplify CEO and former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, ready to rock at SXSWedu.

Austin has been a staging ground this week for two movements advocating very different visions for the future of America’s public schools.

On one side, better known and better outfitted, there are the tech and data evangelists who imagine a reinvented school experience with computer games, tablets and other innovative models, gathered for the fourth year of the SXSWedu conference.

On the other, teachers, parents and education researchers who have, over the last four years or so, built a community of advocates for less flashy solutions like better school funding and more freedom for teachers, and a resistance to privatization and “corporate” reformers. For a long time this group has been only informally organized around a handful of blogs and education historian Diane Ravitch.

This year Ravitch and a few top lieutenants organized their movement into the Network for Public Education, and the group held its first conference last weekend, on the UT-Austin campus.

UT researcher Julian Vasquez Heilig warmed up the crowd Saturday morning, by helping to articulate what the new group is about. “The powers that be have decided that poor kids … we want to do education for them on the cheap,” he said. Anthony Cody, one of the group’s co-founders, laid into “hedge fund managers who have recently discovered their passion for the poor.” He lamented “the cycle of corruption has invaded what should be sacred places for learning.”

Diane Ravitch speaks at SXSWedu on Monday, March 2, 2014.
Patrick Michels
Diane Ravitch speaks at SXSWedu on Monday, March 2, 2014.
The movement is most commonly described by its opposition to school choice reforms like charter school chains, online schools and private school vouchers. They’re often criticized for pooh-poohing reformers without offering better suggestions of their own.

“[Network for Public Education] has a very positive message,” Vasquez Heilig said. “I’m not ‘anti-reformer,’ I just disagree with your form of reform.” As Chicago Teachers Union leader Karen Lewis put it: “What we have in common are the values that made this country great.”

John Kuhn and Karen Lewis speak at the Network for Public Education's conference in Austin.
Patrick Michels
John Kuhn and Karen Lewis speak at the Network for Public Education’s conference in Austin.
Presentations were full of epic language and battle imagery—politically popular education reforms were often described as a “scam” or a “hoax” perpetrated by the “corporate elite”; the reform debate as “war.” None amped up the drama more than John Kuhn, (Tyrant’s Foe, Feb. 2013) superintendent of North Texas’ Perrin-Whitt CISD, who lambasted the “new generation of robber barons” meddling in public schools. “The whole setup is a scam and it benefits people in power suits, not the children of America.”

Beyond the rhetoric—there are articulate evangelists on both sides of this debate—were academics who were frustrated by the outsize power wielded by players like Eli Broad and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, even for policies without a solid research base. Teach for America’s five-week teacher preparation program was a popular target, along with new ways to rate teachers based on test scores (and then pay them accordingly).

Kevin Welner, a researcher at the University of Colorado-Boulder, whose National Education Policy Center regularly turns out work skewering reform research from think tanks and foundations, urged academics to “advocate for social justice, not simply for something that improves test scores.”

The next day, Monday, marked the beginning of SXSWedu, a bigger education conference in downtown Austin that has, over the last three years, established itself as a playground for just the sort of private-sector reformers who’d been pilloried at NPE’s gathering. Festival programmers softened that contrast a little this year, including more talks on things like equity and community building, and a presentation by… Diane Ravitch.

On Monday afternoon, Ravitch took the stage in one of the festival’s many rooms, before a crowd almost as big as the one she addressed the day before at NPE. She lambasted “$1,500 conferences where you can cash in on education,” and warned about fetishizing games, apps and online learning. “[They] will harm children, they will destroy the teaching profession,” she said. The targets of her remarks were probably ensconced in another ballroom for a workshop on startup funding, but it was a significant statement with the big orange SXSWedu banner behind her.

A few minutes after Ravitch left the stage, it was occupied by a conversation on “Analytics and Student Success.”

“I am a little nervous,” joked John Wilson, a former Obama administration education official, “being up on the stage right after Diane Ravitch. … Gosh, everything was a hoax, I guess.”

It’s a simplification to sort every player into one side of this debate or the other. If there is a war over public schools, there’s plenty of back-and-forth between the rival camps. Plenty of people at NPE attended SXSWedu (the place and timing of NPE’s first conference was no accident), and SXSWedu—which continues through Thursday—is much more than a product pitch meeting.

But Monday night offered a perfect distillation of the gleeful product boosterism Ravitch decried. SXSWedu’s kickoff party, with drinks, snacks and a performance by Ben Kweller, doubled as a product launch for Amplify, the education tech brand owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. The company made a big show of unveiling a tablet computer for students at last year’s SXSWedu, only to have school districts cancel multi-million-dollar contracts for the devices after they started melting.

This week, Amplify was back promising an even bigger announcement, which turned out to be a new tablet, an Intel processor, and a suite of educational software packaged together for $199 per student, per year. Joel Klein, the former New York City schools chief and Ravitch foil who now heads Amplify, looked the part of the ed-tech rock star, navigating the drum kit and guitar stands onstage in a sport coat and black jeans.

He recalled the “rave reviews” for last year’s Amplify tablet, and promised nothing short of a transformation in schools thanks to this new gadget. “We’re gonna change the way that teachers teach and kids learn,” he said. “I think we’re gonna change the world here.”

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A supporter of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kesha Rogers, before the Martin Luther King Day parade in Houston.
A supporter of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kesha Rogers, before the Martin Luther King Day parade in Houston.

The frantic last week before Tuesday’s primary election has been a truly rich pageant of WTF in Texas politics.

Why, just this morning Barry Smitherman promised to fight border crime by cracking down on jaywalking in South Texas. As he explained to KUT (skip to 20:53):

“It will send a signal south of the border that if you come here and break the law, there will be consequences.”

All across the state, nasty intra-party fights got nastier, candidates for small-time office dialed up big-time promises to Fight Obama, and, speaking to the Dallas Morning News, Texas House candidate Sandra Crenshaw got way candid about why she’s running for a South Dallas seat:

“I want to go to the Legislature for eight years and get a pension so I can take care of myself in my old age.”

This week, the Morning News also dredged up an amazing story that’s pretty much WTF from start to finish, about a four-man North Texas Republican brain trust getting scammed by a man who claimed to have found Noah’s Ark (really) buried in Iran.

Attorney general candidate Ken Paxton, Railroad Commission hopeful Wayne Christian and state Reps. Phil King and Bill Zedler, fresh off their last great success managing to screw in a lightbulb together, moved on to high-dollar electricity trading, only to lose hundreds of thousands in what became a Ponzi scheme. Speaking to reporter Gromer Jeffers, Christian was circumspect about the whole thing:

“There were some of us that he hooked. Sometimes you get took, sometimes you don’t. You hate to say you were a sucker, but he took us for a sucker and made off with the money.”

The Morning News judiciously describes one way the scheme’s architect, Archer Bonnema, managed to get in with the conservative Christian lawmaker crowd:

He had been closely linked with the community for years, often distributing video accounts of a 2006 expedition to Iran, led by Dr. Bob Cornuke, that he participated in. Bonnema said they discovered Noah’s Ark, though experts have disputed the claim.

Speaking of electricity markets, here’s Democratic Senate candidate (with a massive lead in recent polls) Kesha Rogers, quoted by the Observer‘s Emily DePrang this week:

Another policy priority is planetary defense, which is “how we are going to defend the planet from asteroids which are very seriously threatening the planet.” The same technology push will help with the “development of a successful industrialization of the moon,” she says, “[for] the mining of raw materials and resources such as helium-3 on the moon, which is a productive resource for developing fusion. I am a very strong supporter and proponent of fusion development as a source of energy.”

Whether it’s her space mining policy, her insistence on impeaching President Obama, or positive associations with the recording artist Ke$ha, Rogers had a 12-point lead in the Texas Tribune and UT poll released this week. It’s been enough to scare the Texas Democratic Party into blasting an email with the hard-to-mistake subject line, “Don’t Vote for Kesha Rogers.” The email includes the phrase “Do not vote for Kesha Rogers” twice, and party chair Gilberto Hinojosa explains:

Rogers believes that the U.S. economy is secretly controlled by London financial institutions and she has advocated for colonizing Mars. That’s not what real Democrats stand for.

Austin Democratic consultant Jason Stanford might quibble with that last point.

And finally, This Week in Xenophobia, state Rep. Debbie Riddle responds to her Lebanese-born challenger Tony Noun’s claim that Riddle told him to “go back to your country and run a campaign” after a Noun volunteer planted a campaign sign next to Riddle’s. Speaking to the Observer‘s Chris Hooks, Riddle wouldn’t deny making the remarks, but stressed that “there’s context missing”:

“All he spoke was Arabic.”

By way of proving her love of all cultures, Riddle—the woman who popularized the term “terror babies”—added that “half of my volunteers, quite frankly, are minority.”

Make no such mistake about lieutenant governor hopeful Dan Patrick, though, who came under fire from a rival campaign for a letter (which Patrick denies writing) vouching for an undocumented immigrant who once worked for him. Responding to a story about the “former illegal alien” in Breitbart Texas:

“Sen. Patrick stated that the worker in question provided false documents and a social security number, that the allegation he was kind to the illegal alien are not true…”

That was, of course, not the last time this week Patrick had to defend himself against the appearance of a bleeding heart. Even fits of campaign posturing can use an editor:

dan-patrick-tweet

Cleopatra de Leon, Nicole Dimetman, Vic Holmes and Mark Phariss
Patrick Michels
From left, Cleopatra De Leon, Nicole Dimetman, Vic Holmes and Mark Phariss, speak with reporters outside San Antonio's federal courthouse after oral arguments in their suit to overturn Texas' same-sex marriage ban. Their attorney Neel Lane is behind them.

Two weeks after hearing oral arguments in an attempt to overturn Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia offered an early sign that he agrees the ban is unconstitutional.

On Wednesday, Garcia granted a preliminary injunction against further enforcement of Texas’ same-sex marriage ban, saying the two couples—two men from Plano and two Austin women—were likely to prevail at a trial. That would have allowed the two men to marry here, and let the two women to have their Massachusetts marriage recognized in Texas—except that Garcia also stayed his injunction pending a decision in the ultra-conservative U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Today’s ruling doesn’t change much in practical terms—as the lawyers noted in court, because the suit isn’t a class action, the injunction would only have applied to the four plaintiffs anywaybut it’s being heralded as another small step in a nationwide march toward same-sex marriage that’s become more of a sprint in the last few months.

Garcia’s order, and the stay, recognized this lawsuit’s place as just one in a complex and fast-changing world of court rulings on same-sex marriage around the country, all leading to a likely resolution with the U.S. Supreme Court. But it also armed opponents of Texas’ 2005 ban with some powerful language. (You can read the whole thing below.)

Texas’ ban, Garcia wrote, “causes needless stigmatization and humiliation for children being raised by the loving same-sex couples being targeted.” That’s a direct response to the state’s main argument that Texas has an interest in kids growing up in healthy, loving families, which it argued couldn’t include those with same-sex parents. Anyway, as Garcia observes, “procreation is not and has never been a qualification for marriage.”

Garcia said the state never backed up its claim that letting gay and lesbian couples marry somehow harms heterosexual marriage. Texas’ ban, he writes, is unconstitutional because it violates the couples’ rights to equal protection, later adding, “this court does not find justification for the disparate treatment of homosexuals.”

“Today’s Court decision,” he writes, “is not made in defiance of the great people of Texas or the Texas Legislature, but in compliance with the United States Constitution and Supreme Court precedent.”

Responses to the ruling from politicians and activists came fast. The national group Freedom to Marry recognized that Garcia’s decision put Texas in league with Utah, Ohio, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Virginia, where judges have all recently tossed same-sex marriage bans. “With 47 marriage cases in 25 states now moving forward, and the possibility that a freedom to marry case will again reach the Supreme Court as soon as 2015, we must continue the conversations and progress—Texan to Texan, American to American—that show that all of America is ready for the freedom to marry,” said the group’s founder Evan Wolfson.

Republican lieutenant governor candidate Dan Patrick seemed momentarily swayed by Garcia’s reasoning this afternoon, tweeting, “MARRIAGE= ONE MAN & ONE MAN,” before copping to his own “oops” moment.

Like many Texas Republicans, Gov. Rick Perry largely stuck to a state’s rights argument.

“Texans spoke loud and clear by overwhelmingly voting to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman in our Constitution,” he said in a statement, “and it is not the role of the federal government to overturn the will of our citizens. The 10th Amendment guarantees Texas voters the freedom to make these decisions.”

Notably, Perry did not spend a lot of time moralizing about how banning same-sex marriage is for the “eternal benefit of our children,” as he did in 2005 when he signed legislation that put the ban in front of voters. Instead, marriage equality is now consigned to the same status as other “10th Amendment” issues—gun rights, environmental regulation and healthcare. And perhaps that’s a tacit reflection of how much things have changed since 2005, when Texas voters approved amending the state constitution to include a ban on same-sex marriage. The vote wasn’t even close: 76 percent to 24 percent. Of Texas’ 254 counties, the only one with a majority voting “no” was Travis County. Good old Republic of Austin.

Still, the special constitutional election hardly represented the permanent, conclusive “will of our citizens.” Turnout was only 17 percent and almost certainly skewed older, white and conservative relative to the state’s population. (Leaving aside, of course, the wisdom of putting rights to a vote.)

And in sociopolitical terms 2005 is a long, long time ago.

In 2005, only 29 Democrats in the Texas House voted against the proposed same-sex marriage ban—and many of those said they were only doing so for technical reasons. Here’s what former state Rep. Jim Dunnam, who was Democratic caucus chair at the time, and state Rep. Pete Gallego (now a congressman) had to say at the time:

“I fully agree that the institution of marriage should be limited to one man and one woman. I supported the Defense of Marriage Act, which is current Texas law. If that were the issue before us today, I would vote the same way again.”

Just in the past few years, there has been a seismic shift in public opinion on same-sex marriage. Texas has not been immune to this trend. Roughly 70 percent of Texans now support either same-sex marriage or civil unions (39 percent and 30 percent, respectively) and pro-marriage equality is the plurality view among Texans. While that’s still not a majority expressing support for allowing gays and lesbians to marry, the trend is pushing inexorably in that direction, as the courts have clearly recognized.

Even if the Supreme Court leaves this decision up to states, would Rick Perry be willing to put same-sex marriage to a vote again today? Should we test the will of the people again? How about in five years? Or 10?

Ginger Russell
Patrick Michels
Houston tea party activist Ginger Russell, one of CSCOPE's earliest and most outspoken opponents.

Remember CSCOPE, the state-produced curriculum tool used by the majority of Texas’ schools to plan out classroom lessons and ensure they’re covering the state’s education standards? Not ringing a bell?

What about CSCOPE, the stealth doomsday device planted by the socialists, Marxists, Muslims, anarchists, environmentalists, artists, Obama cronies and agents of the United Nations who secretly control what your children learn in Texas schools? Right, that CSCOPE.

The obscure curriculum tool that went overnight from, at worst, a frustrating tool of school bureaucracy, to a covert plot threatening our American freedoms is back in the news this week, thanks to the Austin American-Statesman‘s Kate Alexander.

The long-awaited independent review of CSCOPE’s lessons is finally complete, and the Statesman, in a Saturday story tucked behind its paywall, did the hard work of reading through them all and synthesizing the results.

“There is a war going on right now in this country for the heart and soul of who we are and who we will be. … There is a fear that that war has now gone down into the trenches of the classroom,” state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, told the American-Statesman last summer. “Is that the aim of CSCOPE? That’s still under investigation.”

Six months later, there is an answer to that question. It was met with a collective “meh.”

Of the 140-plus volunteers tasked by the State Board of Education with reviewing the lessons, Alexander writes, “fewer than 10 of the panelists found evidence of pervasive liberal bias.”

These volunteers are a self-selecting group of folks including many CSCOPE truthers, and not even 10 found evidence of some political or religious tilt to the lessons.

For months last year, state Sen. Dan Patrick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst jockeyed for the title of CSCOPE-buster-in-chief, hinting at the mighty reckoning they’d visit on CSCOPE’s architects someday. “I’m going to step all over their face on this,” Dewhurst famously said.

As a result of the controversy, the collaborative of regional education service centers that managed CSCOPE dissolved their nonprofit, changed the program’s name and quit selling licenses for the lessons. School board members ran, and won, on anti-CSCOPE platforms. Districts faced lawsuits, and activists swamped school board meetings. In its Saturday story, the Statesman points to a Dallas Morning News report that Irving ISD even “spent $1.3 million to design a replacement curriculum compared to the $190,000 it spent annually on CSCOPE.”

On Monday, the Texas Freedom Network’s Dan Quinn wondered whether teachers would get an apology from the folks who inflated the controversy. Dewhurst’s spokesman wouldn’t comment on the review for the Statesman.

The controversy began with a handful of now-infamous lessons such as an exercise asking kids to imagine the Boston Tea Party as an “act of terror” from the British perspective. The line from activists from the start was that they’d only gotten their hands on a few lessons; just imagine the horrors they’d find when all the lessons were public.

The reviews were posted online in late January, as a series of Microsoft Word files in which individual reviewers answer whether—using U.S. history as an example—the lessons “fairly and accurately” present things like “positive aspects of US heritage” and “males and females in various activities.” In free-form summary documents, reviewers were given a little more authorial freedom.

Bill Ames of Dallas, a longtime textbook reviewer for the state board, who devotes both his activism and his grooming to keeping the Founding Fathers’ legacy alive, penned a 12-pages “minority report” on the U.S. history lessons because he was outvoted by other reviewers. He begins with a point-by-point critique of lessons, then maneuvers into an anecdote about meeting “a group of disheveled young people, one of whom was [a] young lady in her early twenties.”

The girl’s distinguishing characteristic was a prominent nose ring.

The young lady, carrying a “Stop Fracking” sign, was adamant that fossil fuel exploration is destroying the Earth’s biodiversity.

The tragedy is that this young woman, due to her brainwashed, dogmatic behavior, is virtually unemployable as a professional in mainstream America.

CONCLUSION – CSCOPE IS THE OBAMACARE OF PUBLIC EDUCATION –IT CANNOT BE FIXED

As the Statesman notes, the most vocal anti-CSCOPE activists like Alice Linahan have already transitioned to new worries about the national Common Core standards ruining Texas schools (Texas has rejected the Common Core standards, but they’re the Next Big Conspiracy for tea party groups elsewhere).

Ginger Russell, the Houston tea party activist who helped launch the CSCOPE outrage, hasn’t mentioned the review’s conclusions on her Red Hot Conservative blog, but weighs in often on the more general specter of “transformation” or change. And Russell still blames the usual suspects for the latest looming disaster: superintendents, technology, IslamObama and the United Nations.

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A water tower marked for UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College
Beth Cortez-Neavel

Three former professors filed a federal lawsuit late Thursday morning against the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, escalating a two-year battle over tenure rights between faculty members and the schools.

The two schools—one a state-funded university, the other a community college—are splitting after a 20-year partnership that’s become strained in recent years as the separate entities argued over budgets and other decisions.

As the Observer reported in May, the separation has left some faculty members without the jobs they’d been guaranteed years earlier. Others have been re-hired but without tenure. The schools announced their separation in November 2010, but aren’t scheduled to completely split until August 2015.

Last year, laid-off nursing professor Karen Fuss-Sommer told the Observer: “I’m a dedicated employee, have been a dedicated faculty member of our institution from the day I stepped on that campus, and this is how it ends for me.” Now, she’s one of three former faculty members suing to get their old jobs back, with tenure, at Texas Southmost College, along with back pay and benefits.

According to the terms of the schools’ original partnership, if the schools ever split, Texas Southmost could re-hire the faculty given a pink slip from UT Brownsville.-Tenured faculty who’d been with the schools since 1992 would be guaranteed similar jobs with tenure at Texas Southmost.

But that’s not what happened when the schools began their divorce.

Last year, UT-Brownsville President Juliet Garcia told the Observer her school had to cut staff to match a student body projected to shrink as the schools split. UT Brownsville has shed more than 360 of its 518 faculty members so far (the school is also in the midst of combining with UT-Pan American into the new UT-Rio Grande Valley).

This week’s lawsuit, filed with the help of the Texas Faculty Association and the Texas State Teachers Association, came after a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation resulted in a “right to sue” letter saying the schools refused to cooperate with the commission to mediate charges of discrimination.

A TSTA press release said Fuss-Sommer, Juan Antonio Gonzalez and Dorothy Boven were fired using a process that gave non-tenured faculty members priority over tenured faculty, and went against University of Texas System rules. The suit claims that process was especially hard on faculty members over age 40, and was an “artificial, arbitrary, and unnecessary barrier to employment.”

“All tenure is a right to due process and you can’t be let go without good cause,” Texas Faculty Association Executive Director Mary Aldridge told the Observer. “They didn’t do either. These people have been there for decades and they just washed them.”

Although Texas Southmost has hired Fuss-Sommer, Gonzalez and Boven according to the original partnership agreement, the professors no longer hold tenured positions and have taken a pay cut. The three have lost retirement benefits, including health and life insurance policies and, the suit claimed, suffered “damage to both their professional and personal reputation.”

Congressman Marc Veasey
Patrick Michels
U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey represents the district with the nation's highest rate of uninsured people.

Last Friday in Dallas’ Oak Lawn neighborhood, a former college football player, a global expert on walkable cities, a 57-year-old Ethiopian immigrant and a U.S. congressman gathered outside a Chinese restaurant. Facing a row of TV cameras and reporters, they took turns praising the new health insurance options available since Obamacare took effect, and urging their uninsured neighbors to enroll in a plan by March 31—the deadline to get health insurance before facing a tax penalty.

The press conference was part of a nationwide blitz in the weeks before the deadline, led by groups like Organizing for Action and Protect Your Care, which are trying to stoke enthusiasm for President Obama’s signature health care law, and encourage new insurance enrollment.

“I’m determined to do everything that I can to make sure that the Affordable Care Act is implemented successfully,” Congressman Marc Veasey said.

It’s a particularly monumental task in Dallas. From that press conference at Mr. Panda’s Restaurant and Bar, it’s just a few minutes’ drive north to George W. Bush’s ritzy Preston Hollow neighborhood. Just a few minutes to the south or west of Mr. Panda’s, and you’re in U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey’s Congressional District 33, home to more uninsured people than any district in the country.

It’s pretty well known by now that Texas has the nation’s highest uninsured rate, thanks in part to Gov. Rick Perry’s refusal to expand Medicaid coverage. One in four Texans lacks health insurance, too often turning treatable health problems into a death sentence.

CD-33
Texas Legislative Council
The “minority opportunity” Congressional District 33: a really weird barbell, maybe, or kinda like the earth’s continents laid out flat.

Veasey’s district, a new one created in the latest round of redistricting, is a sort-of barbell-shaped expanse from West Dallas to Fort Worth. It’s home to Dallas’s trendy Oak Cliff neighborhood, the Dallas Cowboys, and more than 265,000 people without health insurance. Nationally, it’s not in the top 10 in unemployment, food stamps or percent of people below the poverty line. But its 38 percent uninsured rate is the nation’s worst, according to 2012 U.S. Census data.

That’s somewhat surprising. U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela’s rural district in South Texas has a higher poverty rate, though not by much. Troubled areas like South Dallas or Houston’s Fifth Ward are better known around the state. But Veasey’s district owes its distinction to some combination of cartographic chicanery in redistricting, and a recent trend of rising suburban poverty.

“When the economy starts getting bad, the ones that I represent are usually the hardest hit,” Veasey told the Observer last week, when asked why he thought his district had the nation’s most uninsured. The suburbs and older urban areas Veasey represents are 65 percent Latino and 15 percent African-American. The 33rd District includes manufacturers like Bell Helicopter, which has laid off hundreds of workers in the last year.

Other organizers at the press conference lauded the new reports that more than 207,000 uninsured Texans had signed up for health insurance since the new law took effect. Jason Roberts, an Oak Cliff urban planning evangelist who ran against Veasey in the 2012 Democratic primary, said the law helped him get coverage for his recovery from testicular cancer, which he wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise. Lemlem Berhe said she was able to retire without worrying about how she’d pay for her new health insurance plan.

After delivering messages for the cameras in English and Spanish, folks from Organizing for Action went door-to-door to encourage people in Veasey’s district to get insured. They’ve got a long way to go.

Brianna Banks
Patrick Michels
Texas Organizing Project health care organizer Brianna Brown

Brianna Brown, who heads the Texas Organizing Project’s healthcare outreach in Dallas County, was also at the press conference. Her group runs phone banks, sends volunteers door-to-door, and holds workshops to explain the new law. Statewide, she says they’ve reached 420,000 people to explain the new law and encourage them to get insured. As the March 31 deadline approaches, people have started inviting them to give workshops explaining the law.

“I think that sense of urgency that you had to create before—I think it’s human nature to procrastinate—has been replaced with a very organic sense of urgency,” Brown says.

She says the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid has made her job much harder, because so many of the uninsured people in West Dallas, Irving and Oak Cliff—areas Veasey represents—are working families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, too little for new federal subsidies on the marketplace, but still have trouble affording private health insurance.

“That’s been the challenge. Especially for families that have never had health insurance before, and have thought this would be an avenue to access health care,” she says. After hearing about people in other states getting subsidies for their health insurance, she says, they’re disappointed to learn they won’t get that help in Texas.

Cleopatra de Leon, Nicole Dimetman, Vic Holmes and Mark Phariss
Patrick Michels
From left, Cleopatra De Leon, Nicole Dimetman, Vic Holmes and Mark Phariss, speak with reporters after oral arguments in their suit to overturn Texas' same-sex marriage ban. Their attorney Neel Lane is behind them.

 

Couples that challenged Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage last fall—two women from Austin and two men from Plano—were in federal court today as their lawyers made their case before U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia. Attorneys for Nicole Dimetman, Cleopatra De Leon, Mark Phariss and Vic Holmes argued in San Antonio this morning for a preliminary injunction, which would scrap Texas’ same-sex marriage ban while the case proceeds through the courts. After two hours of oral arguments today, they’re waiting for Judge Garcia’s decision, which may take a week or more.

“Every day this prohibition is in place is another day these people are denied equal protection under the law,” their lawyer Neel Lane said.

San Antonio was home to an acrimonious debate last year over extending the city’s non-discrimination ordinance to cover sexual orientation. But there were no chanting activists waving signs outside the John H. Wood, Jr. U.S. Courthouse this morning. Only a short line for the metal detector and a few people in the packed courtroom with the words “NO H8″ on their cheeks suggested this was the opening day of a potentially momentous case in Texas.

The national mood toward marriage equality has changed dramatically even since 2005, when three-quarters of Texas voters supported a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to approve same-sex marriage, and after a decade, 16 more states plus Washington, D.C. have followed suit. With the case heard this morning, Texas joins the ranks of states forced to defend their bans in court—many of them launched since 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Some of those cases are further along, and the decisions are coming fast—just today, a federal judge in Kentucky struck down that state’s ban on same-sex marriage. On Monday, Nevada’s attorney general announced she’d quit defending her state’s ban.

Outside the courthouse in San Antonio today, Phariss called on Attorney General Greg Abbott to do the same in his case. But in the courtroom, Abbott’s lawyers made it clear just how unlikely that would be.

After acknowledging the “robust social and democratic debate” about same-sex marriage around the country, Assistant Texas Solicitor General Michael Murphy explained the state’s intent to “preserve the traditional definition of marriage” and reject what he called—referring to Massachusetts’ 2004 law approving same-sex marriage—”a more recent innovation than Facebook.” This lawsuit, Murphy said, was simply intended to “remove the issue of same-sex marriage from the democratic process.”

But Barry Chasnoff, another of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, argued that Texas’ democratic process had simply left his clients behind, forcing them to ask the courts to help guarantee their rights. “The very existence of [Texas' ban] is evidence they don’t have political power,” he said.

Murphy disagreed. After many recent advances to the LGBT rights cause, he said, gay and lesbian couples were doing just fine without the courts getting involved. “The staggering political gains by these people in such a short period of time,” he said, “belies their claim of political powerlessness.”

The plaintiffs, sitting just behind their lawyers, furrowed their brows and exchanged skeptical looks as Murphy laid out the state’s case—particularly as he explained that Texas’ law is not meant to discriminate against same-sex couples, but to “promote responsible procreation.”

Chasnoff called that argument “ludicrous,” recalling his aunt who married when she was 80 years old, and never had to prove she could have kids. That was the only line that drew laughs from the courtroom this morning, but the point underscored a serious difference between the two sides’ definition of marriage: Murphy suggested Texas’ interest in marriage was about making more Texans, while the plaintiffs’ lawyers noted there are lots of other reasons two people might want to marry—and by the way, same-sex couples (lots of them) raise kids in Texas too.

When De Leon had a baby, Chasnoff noted, her partner Dimetman couldn’t be included on the birth certificate. Along with other parental rights, Lane added, there’s the state’s recognition of communal property, rights to child support if a couple divorces and a couple’s right to make healthcare decisions for one another in an emergency.

“What my clients want are the rights, the benefits, the responsibility and the respect that come with being married,” Chasnoff said. “What makes it a fundamental right is their relationship, not the color of their skin or their sexual orientation.”

Chasnoff said same-sex marriage is just the latest cause in which a group has appealed to the courts for protection from state laws, referencing U.S. Supreme Court decisions on school segregation, voting rights and interracial marriage. “We’re not asking the state to redefine marriage,” Chasnoff said. “Our clients just want the same rights as other citizens.”

Judge Garcia left the courtroom without deciding on the injunction, but he recognized that whatever he decides, the appeals and rulings on other same-sex marriage cases will take the ultimate call out of his hands. “Any one of these cases,” he said, “or a combination, or all of them, will make their way to the Supreme Court.”

 

Dwayne Stovall campaign flyer
Dwayne Stovall campaign
Dwayne Stovall is Texas

Steve Stockman, the congressman and provocateur who’s trying to unseat longtime U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in next month’s Republican primary, has talked his way into more than his share of our WTF Friday roundups. And this week, he’s done it again.

Per an anti-Cornyn screed on his campaign site Thursday:

He thinks all these illegal aliens will vote for him and other Republicans.

That’s stupid!

The million of illegals John Cornyn wants to turn into legal voters will cancel out your vote.

And John Cornyn’s illegal alien voters will elect a permanent Democrat White House.

That’s why Obama is pushing Cornyn do [sic] hard to pass it!

[...]

That’s why the illegal alien lobby has endorsed John Cornyn.

But Stockman isn’t the only candidate running to Cornyn’s right in this race. And this week, his other challengers have been fighting back. Ken Cope, a retired Army officer from Midlothian, called on Stockman to drop out:

“As long as you continue in the race, your antics and embarrassing actions will steal the limelight from the serious candidates.”

Serious candidates, presumably, like Dwayne Stovall, the bridge-builder from north of Houston who’s garnered endorsements from the Pearland Tea Party to something called the Facebook Tea Party.

In a video posted this week from the Liberty Forum in Houston in January, Stovall showed he was a serious candidate, indeed. Serious as slavery. Serious as abortion. Serious as paying your taxes:

“Fiscally speaking, we are being enslaved. We are being stolen from 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. … That’s theft. They take our money and add to it with money we don’t have, and by the way the ol’ taxation without representation? What about unborn children? When your taxes, when you enslave the people of the nation in servitude to a national government to things you don’t give your consent to? You talk about tyranny.”

But the week’s most outstanding show of campaign seriousness came from retired Air Force Lt. Col. Reid Reasor. So many true statesmen who’ve stood bravely before a camera to share their disgust with President Obama’s State of the Union speech, but Reasor may have done it best. His 36-minute response to Obama’s hour-long speech hit YouTube Thursday, includes a stiff defense on behalf of “you white men banking Republican GOP guys,” George Soros’ plans for armed revolution in the streets, and a few lessons Reasor picked up in his time in San Marcos, “the Berkeley of Texas.”

The State of the Union, Reasor says is revolution:

“Who we are fighting is not the 1980s communists. That’s not who we’re fighting. We’re fighting the 1960s communists. We need to understand this is the era that influenced and impacted and made these people the way they are. These are the anti-America, you white rich people, you ugly imperialist folks. You capitalist haters that make people lower than. So much so that they actually hate America and love communism. They love communism, that’s who these people are. These are the Clintons, this is Obama.

[...]

Do I think our government right now is intentionally trying to cause the conditions for violent revolution in America? Absolutely.”

Feast your eyes, melt your mind, on the entire response below:

 

Alfred Wright
Sabine County Sheriff's Department
Alfred Wright

For months now—during the search for 28-year-old Alfred Wright last fall, and the investigations into his death that followed, on Jasper’s local TV news and on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360″—Wright’s family has resolutely hoped for one thing: a federal investigation they believe could uncover a truth local authorities might rather keep hidden.

Now, according to Houston Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, the family may finally get its wish. On Monday, Jackson Lee announced the U.S. Department of Justice had been swayed by her request last month and would “investigate and take appropriate action” regarding Wright’s death.

The announcement, first reported Tuesday by the Beaumont Enterprise, is light on details of the scope of this new federal investigation, who’ll carry it out, and what impact it might have on the ongoing Texas Rangers’ investigation. The congresswoman’s office referred me to the Department of Justice for details.

A spokeswoman at the U.S. Attorney’s regional office in Beaumont said Tuesday she was aware of Jackson Lee’s announcement, but declined to comment, as did a Department of Justice spokeswoman in Washington.

Jackson Lee asked Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate Wright’s death shortly after meeting with Wright’s family two weeks ago. Wright’s family and friends, and activists who’ve flocked to the “Justice for Alfred” cause, say the Sabine County Sheriff’s Department has mishandled Wright’s case from the start, or may even be hiding evidence that Wright was murdered.

A toxicology report attributed Wright’s death to a lethal combination of cocaine, methamphetamine and amphetamine, and said there were no signs of foul play. A forensic pathologist hired by the family disagreed with that last point, saying she found “signs suspicious of homicidal violence” on Wright’s body, including a cut across his neck.

Wright’s body was found in a field near where he’d disappeared weeks earlier, missing his eyes, an ear and some teeth—damage the official autopsy attributes to animal activity, but which some activists take as signs Wright was tortured before his death. Wright’s case has been a lightning rod in Jasper’s African-American community; rallies and fundraisers for Wright’s family have featured other stories of black men and women who’ve died or disappeared in the area under mysterious circumstances.

There’s no word on how soon Texas Rangers might finish their inquiry, or how federal involvement might affect their efforts. “The case remains under investigation,” Department of Public Safety spokesman Tom Vinger told the Observer Wednesday. “I don’t have any additional information at this time.”

In the absence of a conclusive investigation, Wright’s family and friends, and others around Jasper, have begun sharing a general sense of injustice, and specific theories about what really happened to Wright. Those theories got a national airing in a three-night series of reports on Anderson Cooper’s show. The third installment included a segment on a dime found near Wright’s body, suggesting a connection to Sheriff Tom Maddox’s ex-girlfriend, who said that when they were together, she often found dimes around her home. Reporter Deborah Feyerick explains the significance: “In the criminal world, dropping a dime means snitching on someone, and leaving a dime on a scene can be a warning to keep your mouth shut.”

On Monday, the Shreveport TV station KSLA aired a report on Wright’s case including a new anecdote from a Sabine County woman who said her husband, who is black, had recently stopped outside the same liquor store where Wright was last seen alive, two days prior to Wright’s disappearance. The woman said two men attacked her husband at the store and called him racial slurs, but Sheriff Maddox dismissed her concerns that the cases could be related.

And this morning, “Good Morning America” aired an interview with Wright’s wife, mother and father. Wright’s mother Rosalind directly addressed her doubts that her son’s death was accidental: “I feel like they held him hostage, and they tortured him.”

UPDATE Thursday at 3 p.m.:

Wright’s brother Savion is a contestant on the current season of American Idol, and on Wednesday night he performed a song he wrote for Alfred. Talking to host Ryan Seacrest, Savion only hints at the controversy around his brother’s death, saying, “I put all my anger and my emotions into my song.”

The reality show has driven even more national attention to Wright’s death than any previous reporting, and coincided with a crowdfunding campaign Savion Wright began for his brother’s family. Idol fans shared their outrage on Twitter, often sharing new stories in Rolling Out magazine that reject the official autopsy outright, including: “Black father found dead with throat cut, ear missing: Texas sheriff claims he overdosed” and “Alfred Wright murder: Ear cut off as trophy, like lynching postcards.”

Also on Thursday, KTRE reported that the Texas attorney general’s office has taken over the case from Sabine County prosecutors. District Attorney Kevin Dutton said in a press release:

“It is my understanding that the investigation by the Texas Rangers is substantially complete. … Due to the allegations against the sheriff, and to avoid any appearance of impropriety, I have been requested and have agreed to turn this case over to the Texas Attorney General’s Office.”

 

Previous coverage:

A Missing Man and Familiar Old Wounds in Jasper

Family, Activists Want Outside Help Investigating Jasper Man’s Death

Official Report Cites Drug Overdose as Cause of Alfred Wright’s Death