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Snake Oil

Meisha Washington reads a book in the newly reopened library at Houston’s Hogg Middle School. The library had closed due to state budget cuts
Patric Schneider
Meisha Washington reads a book in the newly reopened library at Houston’s Hogg Middle School. The library had closed due to state budget cuts.

There once was a time in Texas when adding more students and building new schools also meant hiring more school librarians. What magical, idyllic times those must have been, way back in 2010.

In the past three years, Texas has been hemorrhaging librarians. Even as the number of students in Texas public schools exceeds five million, the number of certified librarians in schools has dropped by 500, down to 4,640. Texas has about as many librarians today as it did a decade ago, when schools had 600,000 fewer students.

Even after absorbing $5.4 billion in funding cuts from the 2011 Legislature—damage only partially remedied this year—Texas schools have shed 3 percent of their counselors, 2 percent of their teachers and 1 percent of their nurses. But they’ve cut 9 percent of their librarians. (All while the student body grew by 3 percent.) Forced to skimp by the Legislature, many administrators went skimping in the library.

In early October, the Houston Chronicle told the story of Mary Burgert, a middle-school librarian laid off mid-year because of budget cuts. Houston ISD is a particularly tough place for librarians. The state’s largest school district has just 97 certified librarians, down from 169 four years ago, according to the Chronicle. About 60 percent of the district’s schools, the Chronicle reported, are without a librarian this year. In dozens of schools, the library is simply closed.

You might be wondering, So what’s the big deal anyway? Is it really that hard to find a book? Can’t kids just figure out how to Google on their own?

Gloria Meraz with the Texas Library Association says a little respect for librarians, particularly in the Legislature, is long overdue.

“Like every group, we were cut in 2011, but we’ve seen the steady erosion of support for several years now,” she says. “The fact that there are districts that are opting to reduce the ranks of school librarians really puts Texas schoolchildren at a significant disadvantage.”

Meraz cites a 2011 Legislative Budget Board report that called librarians “critical to campus effectiveness and student achievement,” and a 2001 study that found higher standardized test scores in schools with libraries than in those without.

Even in the years before massive school budget cuts, library staffing wasn’t keeping pace with student growth. Many schools that report having a certified librarian on staff, Meraz says, share that librarian with another school. The state doesn’t set minimum standards for library staffing.

Some schools are turning away from physical library stacks in favor of tablet and laptop-borrowing media centers. Some charter schools skip the library altogether.

“I think it’s telling that there is no mandate for school librarians to be on each campus,” Meraz says. “So many people have a very outdated image of what a school library is.”

Beyond clerical shelf-sorting work, librarians are there to instill good research techniques and help distinguish between good and unreliable information—skills that become even more important when you get your facts off the Internet.

“It’s a common misconception. People think that, well, everything is online, so we don’t need librarians. Truly, nothing could be further from the truth,” Meraz says. “What we find is that people need even more help.”


Texas Should Do More to Catch Cheating Schools, Feds Say

La Joya ISD singled out for problems with test administration
El Paso ISD School Board
Patrick Michels
El Paso ISD trustees, in happier times

The El Paso Times‘ Andrew Kreighbaum reported Sunday on a new federal audit into Texas’ school rating system, and how well the state is equipped to catch folks gaming the system. Like a recent state audit, the U.S. Department of Education’s review finds Texas’ internal controls lacking.

That lack of control been a popular subject in El Paso ever since former superintendent Lorenzo Garcia was caught padding his paycheck with performance bonuses on the strength of bogus test score gains. But the El Paso scandal has rippled out to other Texas districts this year, prompting a handful of school administrators to leave or retire under suspicion of having replicated Garcia’s scheme.

This latest audit is one of the first in a state-by-state review by the feds, looking into how well local agencies control the integrity of their test results. At the Times, Kreighbaum summed up the assessment of TEA and its ability to spot cheating schemes like the ones that have scandalized schools in El Paso and Atlanta:

Computer analysis of erasures is one way to detect such cheating, but TEA hasn’t been doing that, the federal audit found.

TEA also did not ensure all school districts were testing 10th-graders — the issue at the heart of the El Paso Independent School District cheating scheme — or assess how those school districts could otherwise influence results.

The federal audit findings overlap with those in the state auditor’s report, which found the agency had relied on local school districts to police cheating themselves and did not have a consistent or defined process for conducting investigations when they were pursued.

That “erasure analysis” is a way to spot places where students’ answer keys might have been doctored to improve their scores, the way teachers and administrators did in the Atlanta scandal that surfaced five years ago. According to the new federal report, TEA has chosen not to perform a massive erasure analysis of all studentstests on the advice of Pearson and a statewide advisory committee. Both warned it was better to consider erasures only “within a larger review process” for specific districts. Last year, the Austin American-Statesman‘s Eric Dexheimer tried to get his hands on erasure data for his own analysis, but was told they were considered “audit working papers” and therefore exempt from open records laws.

The feds also reviewed three Texas school districts where the math and reading scores varied suspiciously—they prefer the word “anomalous”—year-to-year from 2007 to 2010. (Interestingly, that data analysis didn’t flag El Paso ISD for especially “anomalous” gains.) Of those three, only La Joya ISD, a 26,000-student district west of McAllen on the Texas-Mexico border had serious issues.

From 2007 to 2010, 16 La Joya ISD students were simply given the wrong test (including one entire classroom) and four students took tests with the wrong answer sheet. The district had records of 65 possible testing goofs over those three school years—but only ever reported 12 of them to the state.

La Joya ISD agreed with the feds’ ideas for improvement, including the helpful suggestion that the district try “properly administering statewide tests” for a change. TEA, too, agreed with the Department of Education’s suggestions, noting that they’ve already agreed to create an Office of Complaints, Investigations and School Accountability.

As the trouble at La Joya ISD makes clear, though, districts still have great freedom to cherry-pick what they report and how they report it. Especially when, as the audit notes, TEA quit monitoring test days on campuses in 2011, the same year its budget was drastically cut by the Legislature.

"Vote here" sign
Patrick Michels
...if you can afford it.

Election Day last week brought plenty of complaints at the polls about Texas’ new voter ID law, but it also brought one major complaint in Corpus Christi federal court, where nine voters joined La Unión Del Pueblo Entero in suing the state over its tough new voting requirements.

The plaintiffs are long-time voters from South Texas who lack the photo ID now required to vote in Texas since the 2011 law took effect. “The State knew or should have known,” the suit says, “that Hispanic and African-American Texans disproportionately lack the forms of photo ID required by SB 14.” (Read the full complaint below.)

There are, of course, many other legal challenges to Texas’ voter ID law, including from the U.S. Department of Justice, groups like MALC and NAACP, the Texas League of Young Voters and a group led by Congressman Marc Veasey. As recently as September, the Texas Association of Hispanic County Judges and County Commissioners joined in those suits, and True the Vote sought to join the state in defending the law.

The new complaint is focused specifically on the burden the law places on poor, rural voters, according to David Hall, executive director of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which is representing the new plaintiffs.

“What we were trying to do is fill in a niche that didn’t seem to be addressed much by the Justice Department suit or the other plaintiffs,” he told the Observer. “Most of our clients don’t have a handy certified copy of a birth certificate, so they’re going to be paying some money.”

That cost varies from $22—for the copy of a birth certificate you’d need in order to get a new state ID—to $345 for a copy of citizenship papers, according to the complaint. For residents of rural Willacy, Goliad or Karnes counties, getting that paperwork together can mean long, costly trips to the closest DPS office.

These are all familiar concerns to critics of the voter ID law—often raised by Democrats during the Legislature’s debate over the law, and dismissed by Republicans as abstract worries. Each of the nine plaintiffs in this suit demonstrate the very real problems Texas’ voter ID law created.

Eulalio Mendez, Jr., is an 82-year-old man living in Willacy County whose driver’s license expired in June 2012, and who has no way to travel to the DPS office in Harlingen that issues ID cards. Roxsanne Hernandez, in the Goliad County town of Berclair, had her state ID card stolen last year and doesn’t have a copy of her birth certificate. Estela Garcia Espinoza is a 69-year-old Raymondville woman who no longer drives, and whose license expired four years ago. She was born on a Starr County ranch in 1944 and her birth was never officially registered.

All the plaintiffs had voted regularly before this year, according to the complaint, and have incomes well below the poverty line.

They’re joined in the suit by La Unión Del Pueblo Entero, a group founded by Cesar Chavez, which advocates for immigrants and poor people in South Texas. Juanita Valdez-Cox, the group’s executive director, told the Observer that she has personal reasons for joining in the suit. She compared the new law to the poll tax her own father had to pay to vote until 1966, and said her 92-year-old mother lacks the ID now required to vote in person because her state ID is expired. Local officials suggested she vote by mail instead, but Valdez-Cox wasn’t satisfied with that solution. “People make the choice, not the state, how they want to vote,” she said.

Valdez-Cox said she was frustrated by a news story in which the local elections administrator said the voter ID rollout went smoothly this year, and that nobody had been turned away at the polls. (That was a common report across the state.)

“She only speaks for the ones that showed up to vote,” Valdez-Cox said. “She doesn’t know how many stayed home because they already knew they didn’t have the required ID, they were already discouraged to show up. Those are the ones that we are concerned about.”

Roxanne Joganik, left, and Darlina Anthony outside their RV in Seven Points, where they moved after being evicted from a park in Athens.
David Taffet/Dallas Voice
Roxanne Joganik, left, and Darlina Anthony outside their RV in Seven Points, where they moved after being evicted from a park in Athens.

Roxanne Joganik moved into the Texan RV Park in Athens—the “black-eyed pea capital of the world,” halfway between Tyler and Corsicana—in April 2011. She was in her mid-50s, a Texas Army National Guard veteran living on Social Security in a trailer with her partner, Darlina Anthony. They had a happy, modest life in the park, enjoying the hillside scenery, grilling with neighbors and helping the owners, a couple who performed as a country gospel duo, fix the wireless Internet when it went out.

But when a man named George Toone bought the park in spring 2012, according to a federal lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice, it was the end of Joganik’s good times in Athens—and the start of what could be a landmark civil rights case.

Trouble began, according to the Justice Department complaint, when Joganik explained to Toone that she’s a transgender woman and asked his permission to wear women’s clothes around the park. He refused, saying it would create the wrong atmosphere for the park. He worried about children seeing her at the pool.

Soon it became clear Toone wanted to force her out of the park altogether. As Joganik told the Rare Reporter blog in September, Toone circulated a new set of park rules that seemed aimed at her: a non-discrimination clause pointedly omitted any protections based on gender. Another clause outlawed killing wildlife on park grounds; Joganik sometimes killed turtles in the pond that stole bait off her hook.

Joganik says Toone refused to accept her rent. When Anthony, who is bisexual, offered to pay it instead, she says, Toone told her “he didn’t like my kind either.”

Within a month, Joganik and Anthony found an eviction notice posted on their trailer door. They insisted on a formal eviction hearing in a county justice of the peace court, and lost. In July, they were finally evicted by law enforcement.

“Fifteen deputies to evict two women,” Joganik told the Dallas Voice. “It was crazy.”

Joganik and Anthony filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which did its own investigation and decided their eviction violated the Fair Housing Act. The federal statute bars discrimination based on gender. Experts say it’s likely the first time the Justice Department has gone to court over housing discrimination against a transgender person.

Joganik’s case is the latest sign of HUD’s interest in protecting LGBT housing rights. In June 2012, the department banned any housing provider that receives HUD grants from asking questions about sexual orientation or gender identity. This summer, HUD released its first-ever estimate of discrimination against same-sex couples, showing LGBT couples were just as likely to face discrimination in states with laws against it.

A 2011 survey by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality shows the situation is more dire when the person is transgender: One in five transgender people reported being denied a home or apartment, one in five said they’d been homeless and one in 10 had been evicted. For non-white people, the numbers were even higher.

Now that the Justice Department suit has been filed, Joganik wouldn’t discuss her case with the Observer—except to say this: “Anybody, no matter who you are and how you are, you should be able to live how you want in this country.”

"Vote here" sign
Patrick Michels
An Election Day sign outside the Travis County Clerk's Office

In the run-up to Election Day, county election officials around the state were almost uniformly upbeat about the first big test of Texas’ voter ID law.

During the early voting window, local papers were full of cooing headlines like, “ID law no problem in Galveston vote,” “Voter ID law no problem in Crossroads,” “New voter ID law working so far,” and maybe best of all, “Voter ID rollout smooth, despite complaints about women being turned away.”

Sure, maybe women were upset, but the line from elections officials around Texas was the same everywhere. Elections administrator Steve Raborn reassured Tarrant County voters that “we’ve really had no complaints, concerns or issues.”

And sure, Wendy Davis, Leticia Van de Putte and Greg Abbott all had to sign affidavits in order to vote because the names on their IDs don’t exactly match their voter registrations. But Abbott says the inconvenience of that extra step has been “overhyped”—how hard is it to sign an extra form?—and that “in reality, there has been no problems whatsoever.”

In reality, the problems with the voter ID law are the same ones they’ve always been.

The voter ID law still gives local election workers—and the tea party poll watchers over their shoulders—far too much leeway in determining whose votes get to count.

The photo ID requirement still adds an extra hassle to something that we should make as easy as possible. One Observer staffer voting today at Austin’s Carver Elementary School was told she couldn’t vote using her U.S. passport—one of the seven approved forms of photo ID—because the polling place didn’t have a machine to read it. She was allowed to vote only after insisting, and waiting for a poll worker to get approval from a call center.

As of 2011, around 600,000 registered Texas voters didn’t have an driver’s license. (By Monday, Texas had issued just 104 voter ID cards.) Some of those people may cast provisional ballots today, and some of those may return later with proof of ID so that provisional vote will count.

Some of them—like 90-year-old Jim Wright, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives—won’t have the right ID and will need someone to drive them to a Texas DPS office for a voter ID card. Then they will need to go back again because they didn’t bring the proper forms of ID required to get the right form of ID to vote.

Most of them will struggle with this system, or choose not to, quietly. They won’t have time to miss work while a poll worker confirms their ID over the phone. They won’t have a personal assistant to drive them around town.

Texas’ voter ID law is so dangerous because its real harm is difficult to measure. The state that already has the lowest voter turnout in the nation just sinks a little lower. High-level election administrators will simply see a system running smoothly. And the prevalence of voter fraud will remain steady at almost zero.

This year’s early voting total actually far outpaced early voting in the last constitutional election: 318,000 votes this year compared to 167,000 in 2011. That could be because early voting is more popular, or because of big-ticket items like Prop 6 to fund the state water plan, Houston’s mayoral race or Astrodome renovations.

Secretary of State John Steen has floated the theory that so many more people are voting this year because of the new voter ID law—voting, in other words, to make sure they still can.

March in favor of a non-discrimination ordinance outside San Antonio City Council meeting.
Forrest Wilder
A September march in favor of San Antonio's LGBT non-discrimination ordinance.

When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act last summer, it opened the door to state-by-state challenges to laws barring same-sex marriage.

Justice Antonin Scalia pretty well set the stage in his dissenting opinion: “By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition.”

Within weeks, a Pennsylvania county clerk and two lesbian couples in Virginia mounted challenges to their states’ bans on same-sex marriage. Gay couples in Tennessee and Ohio sued to have their marriages from other states recognized where they live.

And on July 2, a Galveston man named Domenico Nuckols filed a challenge to Texas’ constitutional amendment that bars him from marrying another man.

Less than two weeks later, though, he withdrew it, saying his case “would waste the courts [sic] time and resources.” He’d spoken with national groups like the ACLU and Lambda Legal, and heard the timing just wasn’t right for a challenge in Texas and the conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I’m disappointed,” Nuckols told the Dallas Voice, “but when you have so many people telling you you’re beating a dead horse, you should listen. … There’s a fight out there, but you can’t pick it in Texas.”

Four Texans who disagree: Cleopatra de Leon, Nicole Dimetman, Victor Holmes and Mark Phariss. The two couples are plaintiffs in a suit filed Monday in San Antonio federal court, claiming Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage violates their constitutional rights.

“The State’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriages is a very public rejection of Plaintiffs’ most significant relationship,” they claim, and “Texas’ prohibition of same-sex marriage does not bear any relation to a legitimate government purpose.”

The political climate that deterred Nuckols from his suit can’t have changed much in the last three months, but there are important differences between the two attempts to end Texas’ ban on marriage equality.

For one thing, Nuckols’ suit didn’t mention that he ever tried to marry in Texas. De Leon and Dimetman were married in Massachusetts in 2009, and want their license recognized in Texas. Holmes and Phariss say they want to marry here for the first time.

“We’ve talked numerous times of getting married and going to one of the states that allows gay marriage,” Phariss told the San Antonio Express-News on Tuesday. “The problem with that is we have no legal rights when we return.”

For another thing, the two couples in the new suit have some legal firepower behind their cause: three lawyers from the San Antonio office of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld who took the case pro bono, including Barry Chasnoff, a partner at the firm.

Chasnoff told the Observer there was no special calculation in the timing of this case—the plaintiffs just asked him to take it on. He said he did speak with groups including the ACLU and Lambda Legal, “but I didn’t ask their permission. We coordinated with them in a sense, letting them know, and sought their wisdom and insights.”

Chasnoff says he hopes to file for a preliminary injunction within a few weeks, to get the case moving quickly. In the days since the case was filed, Chasnoff says he’s gotten supportive calls and emails from gay people who just want to share their stories.

“You think, looking from the outside into their lives, that you have some feel for the difficulties it creates,” but hearing their stories of unequal treatment, he says, “it’s pretty overwhelming.”

In September, San Antonio became the latest big Texas city to formally ban LGBT discrimination.

Texas Lawyer reached Bexar County Clerk Gerry Rickhoff—who’s named as a defendant in the case—about the case Thursday.

“As clerk of Bexar County, I’m restricted to do what the Legislature wants me to do,” he told the magazine. “I have strong feelings about these issues. … As I read through the lawsuit, it brings up an uncomfortable truth of what a reasonable person would expect as equal rights under the law.”

Youth in the Texas Juvenile Justice Department's Phoenix Program
Patrick Michels
Youth in the Texas Juvenile Justice Department's Phoenix Program, photographed in September 2012.

It’s been a little over a year since we reported on the Phoenix Program, Texas’ latest experiment in getting its troubled juvenile lockups under control. The program promised intensive counseling and extra staff attention for the most violent and troubled kids in state lockups, while also removing them from the general population.

Phoenix was a sort of pilot program, an extreme measure meant to curb a troubling spike in violence within Texas’ juvenile lockups. So how’s it going?

As the Austin American-Statesman‘s Mike Ward reported Wednesday, not well. The Phoenix Program, Ward writes, unraveled over the summer into an intense place where some guards even joined in fighting the kids in their custody.

The story, which is behind the Statesman‘s paywall, is based largely on a special report by Debbie Unruh, the Texas Department of Juvenile Justice’s independent ombudsman. You can read the full report below.

That report describes at least three incidents in which guards fought with juveniles, only some of which were caught on security cameras. In one case, a guard told the juvenile to cover the camera lens with a tissue before they began fighting. Many of the incidents described involve throwing youth to the ground, pinning them there and punching them in the ribs.

Ward points out these incidents reportedly happened with disturbing regularity:

Concerning the fights with guards, at least one youth told an investigator he “liked the behavior. … This is just the staff being friendly with them.”

“The youth stated that the practice was for the staff and youth to trade punches in the ribs until one or the other gave up,” the ombudsman report states. “Some youth claimed they did not want to participate but felt they would be made fun of if they refused.”

Three guards have been fired and four others disciplined. Those actions came in response to investigations by TJJD’s Office of the Inspector General, which operates separately from the ombudsman. Chief Inspector General Roland Luna told the Observer that their investigations were prompted by separate complaints about fighting in August and September, and that one guard in each incident was referred to a special prosecutor. Both were no-billed by a McLennan County grand jury. (The Phoenix Program is housed in TJJD’s Mart facility outside Waco.)

According to the ombudsman’s report, the inspector general’s earliest investigation “made the determination the activities were ‘horseplay,'” before taking further action. TJJD spokesman Jim Hurley told the Observer that while guards involved and even some of the youth used that word to describe the incidents, “it’s just totally unacceptable behavior. … There’s no such thing as horseplay at TJJD.”

According to the report, the agency has scheduled new training sessions for Phoenix Program staff beginning in November, and will consider reworking the program. “Clear lines of responsibility have been established and formal oversight of the Phoenix Program has been placed under the Assistant Superintendent,” the report says.

In its response to the investigation, TJJD also plays up its success stories:

Since its inception, 43 youth have completed the Phoenix Program with average stays of 104 days. Fourteen of the 43 youth have had no assaults following program completion, and 34 of the 43 have seen a significant reduction in the number of incidents following completion.

But the ombudsman’s report blames TJJD leadership, at least in part, for the lapse in oversight that let guards get away with nightly fights with the kids in their charge.

Lack of oversight was, of course, the only reason Texas Youth Commission guards were able to get away with abusing kids in their custody for so long. That scandal, which the Observer first reported in 2007, prompted a wave of reforms including the creation of an independent ombudsman, and the creation of the new TJJD to replace TYC.

Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) led the charge on those reforms. Quoted in the Statesman‘s story yesterday, he doesn’t sound too happy with the results so far.

“It’s time,” he told Ward, “for the buck to stop at the top at what appears to continue to be an inherently poorly run agency.”

Ted Cruz
Ted Cruz soaks up the adulation Monday night in Houston.

After Ted Cruz’s turn on the national stage—the “filibuster,” the shutdown, the flirtation with self-inflicted economic meltdown—the man has probably earned a little me-time. A little break from the arm-twisting and the name-calling, a chance to joke around with a few old friends.

Sometimes you want to go where everybody chants your name.

For Cruz on Monday night, that was King Street Patriots headquarters in Houston, home to Texas’ preeminent bunch of red-blooded, freedom-loving and positively nonpartisan warriors for the old stars and stripes.

Before a standing-room crowd in King Street’s warehouse, Cruz made a symbolic Texas homecoming—on a tour that continues Tuesday night at a tea party-sponsored “Thank You Ted Cruz” party in Arlington—to share the good word from the front line.

The King Street Patriots’ founder, Catherine Engelbrecht, made sure Cruz left with a souvenir from the occasion: a copy of War and Peace signed by members of the crowd, which she suggested he use as ammunition for his next filibuster. The book, she joked, is “widely considered to be one of the nation’s greatest works of fiction … like the Obamacare bill.”

Michael Berry—the conservative Houston talk radio jock who once said he hoped someone blows up the Islamic community center at Ground Zero—had the honor of revving up the crowd before Cruz took the stage.

Berry fondly recalled Cruz’s 21-hour stand against Obamacare as the night “when Ted Cruz captured the national imagination,” proof that “one guy standing up can stop the status quo in its tracks.”

Ted Cruz and "Green Eggs and Ham"
A video presentation recalled highlights from Ted Cruz’s 21-hour speech against Obamacare

King Street’s warehouse, full of the folks who propelled Cruz’s unlikely Senate win last year, incubated a rich new reality Monday night. Cruz became a triumphant everyman, someone any of us could be someday.

“Mark my words,” Berry said, “there’s another Ted Cruz waiting in the wings. There are more Ted Cruzes waiting in the wings.”

But on Monday night, there was just one Ted Cruz.

He filed past the crowd in a blue coat and khakis, greeted by attorney general hopeful Ken Paxton, who stopped him for a photo op, and a fawning woman whose cries reached Cruz’s mic: “You’re my hero. … I just love you, I do. You speak for all of us, makes me proud of America. I love you.”

The crowd chanted as he prepared to speak: “Thank you Ted! Thank you Ted!”

“I feel a little bit like I’m introducing Davy Crockett after the Alamo has fallen,” Berry had said, but Cruz proved even livelier than that.

He claimed his victories on behalf of the grassroots, he lauded House Republicans for their bravery during the shutdown and he railed against “the disaster, the nightmare, the trainwreck that is Obamacare.”

He drank from a bottle of water in mid-sentence, then broke off to have a little fun with the crowd.

“You know when Marco Rubio reached for a thing of water, they gave him endless grief,” he said. The crowd cheered. Cruz drank again.

“It used to be in Washington, D.C., when they said you had a drinking problem it meant something different from this!” More raucous cheers for Cruz and his keen timing.

The admiration went both ways. Cruz singled out his biggest fans in the crowd, and reminded them all of “what we’ve accomplished in the last two months.” Which is…?

“In the last 2 months we saw something extraordinary happen. We saw millions of Americans from across this country rise up and say we want to take our country back,” Cruz said, referring to two million visitors to an Obamacare opt-out pledge site.

“Y’all melted down the phone lines on Capitol Hill, scared the living daylights out of Washington,” he said. “And you know what, liberty is never safer than when politicians are terrified.”

He credited the crowd with helping “Saturday Night Live” skewer the disastrous rollout, and for inspiring the Daily Show. “For those of us who haven’t seen it, when [Health and Human Services Secretary] Katherine Sebelius went on Jon Stewart’s show, he ripped her apart,” Cruz said. “That’s what happens when the grassroots get engaged.”

Cruz closed by reflecting on why he’s gone to such extremes: “So that one day we don’t have to answer to our children and our children’s children, ‘What was it like when America was free?'”

Cruz cast himself on the front lines of a war over Obamacare today and the Bill of Rights tomorrow, and it would have sounded like more of a reach if Engelbrecht hadn’t already gone there.

Before Cruz arrived, she worried we’re witnessing “the managed decline of a once-great nation.” What she suggested—but, mindful of her group’s nonpartisan status, was careful not to say directly—is that Texas ought to elect a lot more of those Ted Cruzes waiting in the wings.

“I do not want to see my children’s future sacrificed,” she said, “because the guys that we elect aren’t willing to put it all on the line.”


Sebadoh's "Harmacy"

For years, we’ve been hearing that Texas is running out of the drugs it uses to carry out the death penalty.

In 2011, the state’s supply of the three-drug combination it had long been using expired. Texas switched to using a single drug called Nembutal, then used the last of that Nembutal in an execution late last month.

These shortages aren’t like the dwindling national helium reserve, or NASA’s plutonium-238 shortage. There’s plenty of Nembutal out there, but the drug’s Danish manufacturers refuse to sell them to us, or any state that’ll use them to put people to death.

It’s a strange situation for the state, where there’s still strong support for the death penalty—and most people even think it’s being fairly applied. Nowhere but Ikea have Texans been so susceptible to Scandinavian norms.

Michael Yowell, convicted in 1999 of killing his parents for drug money, argued in a last-ditch lawsuit this month that using an unproven, unregulated replacement drug in his execution could constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The suit, which also includes two other death row inmates, notes the “unprecedented nature of recent events” as Texas scrounges for the drugs it needs to deal out its toughest justice. According to the complaint, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s “secretive approach makes it impossible for Plaintiffs to discover the method by which they will be executed.”

Like so much with the death penalty, it’s an eerie thought: a condemned man arguing his right to know how the state plans for him to die, and whether the drug that kills him will be safe. Early this week, a federal judge rejected Yowell’s appeal, essentially saying that Yowell wouldn’t be around to worry about any long-term health risks the drugs may carry. He was executed Wednesday night.

But in the course of that legal wrangling, Texas’ new source for death row pharmaceuticals was revealed to be the Woodlands Compounding Pharmacy, a 5-year-old custom drug maker tucked away in an industrial office complex in Houston’s dreamiest suburb.

Not only that, the pharmacist was having second thoughts. “I must demand that TDCJ immediately return the vials of compounded pentobarbital in exchange for a refund,” Jasper Lovoi III told TDCJ in a letter dated October 4. Though he’d been assured his involvement would be kept “on the ‘down low,'” Lovoi writes, “I find myself in the middle of a firestorm that I was not advised of and did not bargain for.”

Protesters had gathered outside Lovoi’s pharmacy before Yowell’s execution. Lovoi’s Google reviews are in the tank. Critics decried the conflict between supplying the state’s lethal drugs after taking the pharmacist’s oath to consider “the welfare of humanity and relief of human suffering.” And Texans for Public Justice noted Lovoi’s side business selling anti-aging creams, dryly suggesting his custom pentobarbital was the ultimate cure for old age.

All that for a $2,800 order.

TDCJ refused to return the drugs to Lovoi. The Chicago-based drug maker Hospira asked for its drugs back too, but again TDCJ refused.

So it’s not just European drug makers who’ve grown squeamish about their role in putting convicts to death. As Dan Solomon put it at Texas Monthly this week, “the invisible hand of the market is increasingly uncomfortable participating in executions.”

It’s not just market forces at work, though—it’s the concerted efforts of anti-death penalty activists who’ve spent years lobbying pharmaceutical companies in the hopes of creating a storm just like this. Without winning over the public sentiment or even scoring a major political debate over the capital punishment, they’ve put the death penalty in Texas on shaky ground.

It’s a fascinating trend playing out all over the country. Just this week, Missouri agreed to return some of its lethal injection drugs to a frantic supplier who said it only filled their order by mistake.

One elegant solution to this problem, from the state’s perspective at least, could be to copy recent laws in Georgia and South Dakota protecting death row drug makers’ identities. Georgia’s law is facing a court challenge right now.

Earlier this year, NPR quoted Georgia’s assistant attorney general Sabrina Graham, who defended the law in court by imagining  just the situation Lovoi and Texas find themselves in today:

“Once that compounding pharmacy’s identity is revealed, how will the Department of Corrections ever get another compounding pharmacy to sell to us?”

Juan Mendoza, left, and Joe Gallegos
Patrick Michels
Former San Antonio barrio gang members Juan Mendoza, left, and Joe Gallegos. Each are organizing events this month to help preserve West Side San Antonio's street gang history.

Back in August, the Observer featured a fascinating project in the works at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where criminologist Mike Tapia is gathering oral histories from veterans of the 1950s barrio gang wars on the city’s West Side.

At a time when train tracks separate much of the West Side from downtown, when many of the streets were still unpaved, the street gangs were built on fierce neighborhood pride. Boys and girls got caught up in the scene young, and were on the way out by the time they reached 18.

Today’s street violence is of a vastly different character, with more cars and guns and often a connection to highly stratified prison gangs. But many of the West Side neighborhoods have kept their names. Many of the old street brawlers still live in them.

This month, two events will bring some of those old days back to life.

The first is a three-day festival this weekend, organized by Juan Mendoza, a former member of Los Cocos in the early ’50s. Decades after that, his bar—Los Cocos Lounge—was a place where old gang members got together to tell old war stories, swap old photos and take new ones. The bar has closed, but for three nights this weekend, Friday to Sunday, he’s hosting a reunion at Dora’s Patio Bar, 1225 S. Brazos, inconjuntion with the Hampton Roads Mexican-American Club. Here’s the flyer with more details.

The following Friday, October 18, is a fundraising reception for Tapia’s project, to help fund more work committing stories from San Antonio’s West Side to the historical record. Joe Gallegos—a member of the Ghost Town Boys who spent years counseling gang members once he grew up, and is also featured in the Observer‘s story—is helping to organize this event, with Adelante Second Chance and the Hispanic Community Center. Here’s that flyer with more details.

Both events, in their own ways, will help ensure more of this often-overlooked history gets remembered.

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