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The Whole Star

Cleopatra DeLeon and Nicole Dimetman, are one of the two plaintiff couples in the Texas marriage case.
Photo courtesy of Cleopatra DeLeon
Cleopatra DeLeon, left, and Nicole Dimetman, are one of the two plaintiff couples in the Texas marriage case.

Same-sex marriage will arrive in Texas before Easter, according to an attorney for two couples who are challenging the state’s marriage bans in federal court.

Daniel McNeel Lane Jr., of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in San Antonio, made the prediction as he prepared for oral arguments in the case at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans on Friday.

U.S. District Judge Orlando L. Garcia struck down Texas’ marriage bans as unconstitutional last February, but stayed his decision pending an appeal from Attorney General Greg Abbott.

Last week, the 5th Circuit Court unveiled the three-judge panel that will hear the Texas appeal—along with marriage cases from Louisiana and Mississippi—on Jan. 9. Although the 5th Circuit is among the most conservative federal appeals courts in the country, Lane said he’s confident the panel will rule in favor of marriage equality within a few months and that the decision will take effect immediately.

Daniel McNeel Lane Jr.

“I don’t think it will be stayed, certainly not by the Supreme Court, I don’t think it will be reviewed by the Supreme Court, and I think we’ll have marriage equality by Easter,” Lane told the Observer on Friday. “That’s my prediction. … That’s my strong feeling.”

On the same day as oral arguments at the 5th Circuit, the U.S. Supreme Court will meet to decide whether to hear same-sex marriage cases from four other states, which could pave the way for a nationwide ruling in favor of marriage equality as early as June. As of Tuesday, when same-sex marriage takes effect in Florida, Texas will be one of only 14 states where it’s still prohibited.

“Whatever the Supreme Court does, we will still make our arguments, the 5th Circuit is likely still to rule, and let the chips fall where they may. I’m sure that’s what our panel’s view will be,” Lane said. “The two will not be connected, and this court knows that if it affirms Judge Garcia, and finds that residents of this state have a right to marry the person they love, regardless of gender … it’s likely that that freedom, that equality, that justice, will come very swiftly, and the tide of that equality will never be turned back.”

Kenneth D. Upton Jr., senior counsel for the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, which is handling the Louisiana marriage case, said marriage equality in the 5th Circuit before Easter is “certainly one possibility.” But Upton added, “There are a couple of things that could throw a wrench in that prediction.”

Upton said if the 5th Circuit panel rules in favor of marriage equality, it’s possible the state of Texas would appeal the decision to the 15-member court en banc—which would be “a more hostile setting.”

“I don’t think the panel would stay it, but if the 5th Circuit grants rehearing before the entire court, the panel decision is automatically vacated,” Upton said. “So, I suspect Abbott’s office would play that card since they have nothing to lose.”

Upton said the 5th Circuit panel could also simply decide to wait for the high court.

“If they [Supreme Court justices] grant any petitions, and because they aren’t staying cases anymore, I think any subsequent court of appeals case will be held to see what the ultimate answer is,” he said.

Lambda Legal has asked the high court to review the Louisiana case even though the 5th Circuit hasn’t decided it yet—a type of request that’s rarely granted but that will also be considered Friday. Upton said whether the Supreme Court agrees to hear the Louisiana case, one of the other four cases or some combination, he thinks Friday’s proceedings in New Orleans will be upstaged by what happens in Washington.

“The arguments in the 5th [Circuit] will not be the real story that day,” he said. “It will be [the Supreme Court]. I feel pretty sure they will grant something that day.”

Although there’s “an outside chance” the high court court will agree to hear one of the cases but hold it over until its next term, Upton said he believes the real question before the 5th Circuit panel is whether same-sex marriage arrives in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi in June—or sometime before then.

Kenneth D. Upton Jr.
Kenneth D. Upton Jr.

However, that’s not an insignificant question for people like Cleopatra DeLeon and Nicole Dimetman of Austin, one of the two plaintiff couples in the Texas case.

DeLeon and Dimetman were inspired to join the lawsuit after DeLeon experienced complications giving birth to their first child. That’s when the couple realized that if something had happened to DeLeon, due to Texas’ marriage bans, Dimetman couldn’t have made medical decisions for the baby.

Now, Dimetman is pregnant with the couple’s second child—and due in 10 weeks. Despite potential risks involving air travel in the third trimester of pregnancy, DeLeon and Dimetman plan to be at Friday’s hearing pending a doctor’s final approval this week.

“We didn’t want to be doing this, but it’s very important,” Dimetman said. “The reason it’s important for us to go is the same reason it’s important for us to be in this fight. We’re doing this for our family and for families like ours all over the state.

“I’m due in March, but every day babies are born to same-sex couples,” Dimetman added. “Every day that we are not granted our rights is a big deal.”

To further illustrate the point, Lane said he had a gay acquaintance in Florida who passed away during the holidays and had a partner of 20 years.

“Had he lived until today, he could be married, and that’s the difference of a week,” Lane said. “We know that we have hundreds of thousand of citizens who are subject to these unjust laws in Texas, and we know that a number of them will die every week before they have justice and before we have equality, and we need to right a terrible wrong, and we need to do it now.”

Rep. Jason Villalba (center right with red tie) and Rep. Krause (center left) on "Inside Texas Politics"
Rep. Jason Villalba (center right with red tie) and Rep. Krause (center left) on WFAA's "Inside Texas Politics." Villalba says Krause helped him draft a proposed constitutional amendment promoting religious freedom.

State Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) remains adamant that a proposed constitutional amendment he filed earlier this month isn’t intended to undermine local ordinances prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination.

But Villalba also continues to tout the fact that he received input in drafting the amendment from a lawmaker known for his anti-LGBT views and from the Liberty Institute, which is actively fighting a nondiscrimination ordinance in Plano.

Villalba has characterized his HJR 55 as a tamer version of SJR 10, a similar religious freedom amendment introduced in the Senate by Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels).

And Villalba has objected to a “license to discriminate” label that was attached to his amendment in an Observer headline and in a fundraising appeal from Progress Texas, denying accusations that the measure is designed to undermine local nondiscrimination ordinances by allowing business owners to claim religious exemptions.

“Not true at all,” Villalba told Breitbart Texas for an article published Sunday. “That was not our intention at all. … I’m not trying to pander to the right, or to offend the LGBT community or to support discrimination.”

Villalba told Breitbart he supports the authority of local governments to pass LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances, and said HJR 55 is instead designed to protect things like nativity scenes on government property.

But LGBT advocates continue to question Villalba’s motives—particularly since he unveiled HJR 55 on Facebook by posting an Empower Texans article slamming the Plano ordinance shortly after it passed. “We must stand athwart those who seek to eliminate every vestige of our religious heritage from the public square,” Villalba wrote. “Tomorrow, we fight back.”

On Monday morning, Villalba took to Facebook again to post the Breitbart article, writing above it: “Many of you have asked about what HJR 55 actually does. In essence, it protects the free exercise of religion in Texas. Here is an article that spells it out nicely. Special thanks to Matthew Krause and Liberty Institute for their help and insight in putting this together.”

Rep. Krause (R-Arlington) received the lowest score of any lawmaker on LGBT issues from Equality Texas following the 2013 session.

In response to a comment below his Facebook post Monday from this reporter, Villalba sent a chat message referencing Campbell’s resolution.

“Perhaps I should drop HJR 55 and let the alternative version pass,” Villalba wrote. “Is that what you would prefer?”

Asked whether he believes Campbell’s resolution, which has been defeated in three consecutive sessions, would pass in 2015, Villalba referenced an expected shift to the right in the Senate next year thanks to November election results.

“Have you not seen what just happened in the Senate?” Villalba wrote. “It [SJR 10] would easily pass.”

Asked whether he strategically introduced HJR 55 as a more moderate alternative to SJR 10, Villalba said: “My goal is to pass the best bill that advances the cause of religious liberty.”

One commenter pointed out below Villalba’s post that he recently hired a new district director, Christine Mojezati, who previously worked for the American Family Association, which has been identified as an anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Dude. I’m a conservative Republican. What did you expect, the ACLU?” Villalba told the Observer when asked about hiring Mojezati. “I hired her because she is qualified and an excellent ambassador for the district. She worked for the AFA for like 30 minutes as an intern in the summer. She’s 24 and barely out of college. She spent the last three years working on campaigns. Including [Republican Reps.] Linda Koop and Dan Branch.”

According to her LinkedIn profile, Mojezati worked as a field representative for the AFA in Denver from October to November of this year. In addition to Branch and Koop, she has worked for Republican Attorney General-elect Ken Paxton and state Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano).

In a previous interview, Villalba told the Observer he opposes anti-gay discrimination and doesn’t believe being gay is a choice. However, he declined to endorse legislation to ban anti-LGBT discrimination statewide. Asked Monday whether he supports same-sex marriage, Villalba wrote: “I defer to my district on a question of that nature. I believe that marriage is a creature of the state. And therefore, the people of the state should should make that decision.”

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, said Monday the organization opposes HJR 55, in part because Texas already has a state statute that provides strong protections for religious freedom.

“Texas led the nation with the passage of its Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1999, which is a model policy and works well,” Williams said. “Ill-considered attempts to weaken the delicate balance of that policy, however well intended, are not in the best interest of Texas or Texans.”

March for non-discrimination ordinance in San Antonio
Forrest Wilder
March outside San Antonio City Council meeting in favor of updating a non-discrimination ordinance to include LGBT people.

Critics say the proposed constitutional amendments could invite a flood of expensive lawsuits from those who claim various laws are impinging upon their religious freedom.

Former Rep. Scott Hochberg (D-Houston), who authored the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, told the Observer he believes Villalba’s amendment would have the same impact as Campbell’s “as far as opening up all civil rights laws for litigation over ‘compelling interest’ and ‘least restrictive means.'”

In addition to civil rights laws, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act lists exemptions for zoning, land use planning, traffic management, urban nuisance and historic preservation. But the proposed constitutional amendments do not.

Villalba and Campbell’s bills “may be designed to trump local nondiscrimination protections, and that’s a serious problem, but the bigger problem for government is the fact that it then becomes prohibitively expensive to enforce things like food safety law,” said Jenny Pizer, senior counsel for the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal. “What if somebody has a religious belief that requires them to make large bonfires in the backyard as part of a religious tradition, and you have dry, dangerous fire conditions? There are basic safety regulations. … This is far-right grandstanding, but it’s grandstanding with very serious potential implications for government.”

A panhandler in Houston
Alex Proimos/flickr/CreativeCommons
A panhandler at the intersection of Richmond and Chimney Rock in Houston.

When Houston commuters think of I-45, many thoughts and emotions come to mind. Among those that can be referenced in a family-friendly publication are the feelings of rage and resignation when we are buried in traffic jams; the sensations of stupor or sublimity as we blur past strip malls and strip clubs; and the mindless humming inspired by old songs and the mindful attention inspired by a new one.

But rarely is I-45 a stage for moral quandaries—at least until you exit, stop at the first intersection, and confront an ethical impasse at the underpass. There, at the red light, you face a panhandler.

There is no better verb than “face,” if only because that is also the noun that captures what’s at stake. Many of us do our very best to evade these face-offs. There are drivers who, coming to a stop next to the panhandler, will nudge their cars forward. Others will try to edge their way into the far lane. Yet other drivers will run the light, running the risk of an accident in order—or so I suspect—to avoid spending the several seconds in the uncomfortable company of the needy.

When those strategies fail, there are yet others. Some of us stare furiously at our smart phones, while others take a newfound interest in odometer readings. Many of us will gaze straight ahead, pretending to be lost in thought, all the while a prisoner of just one: Why is this light taking so long to turn?

Some of us will look at the panhandler, but in the way we might look at faces in a police line-up or X-rays of our children’s teeth. We try to assess the situation, comparing the pleas on their signs with the clothing on their bodies or the expressions on their faces. Are those Ray-Bans he’s wearing? If he’s really homeless, why is he so clean-shaven? Or, Since he is homeless, shouldn’t he make himself more presentable? If she’s feeding three kids, why is she overweight? No wonder he’s begging; he clearly spent all his money on tattoos.

How do I know all these tactics, ruses and excuses? It’s simple: I’ve tried them all. While I send out yearly checks to a dozen charities, I cannot without effort fork over to a beggar the same couple of bucks that I thoughtlessly spend on an espresso. Why?

For the Jewish thinker Emmanuel Lévinas, our moral understanding is founded on “the face to face.” Truly seeing another person’s face is “the most basic mode of responsibility.” In the beginning, for Levinas, was not the Word, but the wordless encounter between two humans dependent upon one another not just for survival, but for recognition.

But perhaps recognition asks too much of us. In The Brothers Karamazov, one of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s characters declares that while we might love our neighbor abstractly, we rarely do so up close. This is the reason, he concludes, that beggars “should never show themselves in the street.”

This is especially the case on the feeder roads of I-45. Unlike downtown’s sidewalks and parks, the concrete banks and macadam tributaries of I-45 are the last place one expects to face a face. Encountering a human who isn’t enveloped in a shell of steel and glass shell in these parts is always a bit of a shock.

And yet there she is, a human being, her head abuzz with the torrent of traffic as she slowly works the line of cars. Let’s face it: She wants to be seen. Will I allow myself to see her? Or will I allow the inevitable bottleneck of questions and rationalizations to come between us? Will she spend my buck on drugs or booze, or drive off in Mercedes once her  shift is over?

But where is my common sense? Must we be sociologists to know that most panhandlers spend their money on food? Do I need to be an economist to know that giving cash to the poor is the most efficient way to help them? Do I have to consult a psychologist to grasp how difficult it is to ask strangers for help in the shadow of an underpass?

The next time we face another at an intersection, we should take the opportunity to face ourselves as well.

Legislators Seek to Overturn Anti-Gay Birth Certificate Law

LGBT group says the 1997 restriction hurts kids, calling it ‘the lowest form of politics’.
Andy Miller (left) and Brian Stephens with their son, Clark
Andy Miller (left) and Brian Stephens with their son, Clark


The day Andy Miller and Brian Stephens jointly adopted their son Clark in 2007 was among the happiest of their lives.

But the couple’s elation turned to disappointment when they walked out of the courtroom and down a hall to the Travis County Clerk’s Office.

That’s when Miller and Stephens realized they faced a difficult choice, because they couldn’t include both of their names on Clark’s supplemental birth certificate.

“As he got older, it became less about us and it became more about him,” Miller said this week of Clark, now 7. “This is his document that he’ll carry with him the rest of his life, and it very clearly only lists half of his family on it, and that’s when we kind of became angry and said the state is treating our son differently because of who his parents are, not because of anything he has done or hasn’t done. This needs to change because of our kids. The state is basically targeting them for unequal treatment.”

The Texas Legislature added a provision to the Health & Safety Code in 1997 requiring supplemental birth certificates issued to adoptive parents to contain the name of one female, the mother, and one male, the father.

According to the legislation’s author, former state Rep. Will Hartnett (R-Dallas), it was part of a renewed commitment to “conservative values.” But Hartnett acknowledged last year that the law should be revisited if it’s negatively impacting children.

On Wednesday, state Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) introduced a bill for the fourth consecutive session that would remove gender requirements for adoptive parents on supplemental birth certificates. And for the first time, a companion to Anchia’s bill was introduced in the Senate by Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston).

Many judges in Texas routinely grant joint adoptions to same-sex couples, so the legislation wouldn’t create new parental rights. But not having accurate birth certificates causes problems when it comes to enrolling children in school, adding them to insurance policies, admitting them for medical care and obtaining passports.

Anchia, whose bill has never made it out of committee, said if it fails to do so in 2015, he plans to force a floor vote by offering it as an amendment, and he’s confident it will pass.

“I think if you asked every member of the Legislature, they would say they care about orphaned children, and if we can get them to understand that this bill is about children and not about who their parents are, then that should carry the day,” Anchia told the Observer this week. “There’s no doubt that this policy has cruel effects.”

According to Equality Texas, the birth certificate restriction is among the inequities facing the LGBT community that wouldn’t be solved by legalization of same-sex marriage—since it involves the relationship between a parent and a child, not between parents.

About 9,200 same-sex couples in Texas are raising children, according to Census estimates, but it’s unclear how many are adoptive parents.

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, called the birth certificate restriction “the lowest form of politics possible—if you don’t like someone, attack their children.”

Williams said the legislation filed by Anchia and Garcia on Wednesday has bipartisan support in both chambers, but added that he didn’t know of any Republican legislators who’d be willing to publicly endorse the bills at this stage.

Two years ago, Anchia’s bill faced opposition from the anti-LGBT group Texas Values. The group’s president, Jonathan Saenz, said in media interviews it would result in the words “mother” and “father” being removed from all birth certificates. PolitiFact rated Saenz’s claims “mostly false.”

Ken Upton, senior counsel at the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, said Texas is one of only a handful of states that don’t issue accurate birth certificates to same-sex adoptive parents.

A few years ago, Upton challenged a similar law in Louisiana and won in district court before the decision was overturned by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Upton said he’s interested in challenging the Texas law, too—and plans to do so eventually if it isn’t overturned legislatively—but he added that “no one thinks the time is right in the 5th Circuit.”

Miller and Stephens said they remain focused on the Legislature, where they see an opportunity to change hearts and minds.

Two years ago, when Miller and Stephens lobbied on behalf of Anchia’s bill, they took Clark with them, and his gregariousness helped initiate conversations with even the most conservative legislators.

Earlier this year, Clark pulled a wagon into the attorney general’s office containing thousands of petitions calling for Attorney General Greg Abbott to stop defending Texas’ marriage bans.

Miller and Stephens, who also run a support group and website for gay dads, The Handsome Father, said they view their activism as a way of setting an example for their son.

“If he doesn’t like something and feels that something needs to change, we want him to see that he can be a part of that change,” Miller said.

CPPP chart on kinship care benefits
Center for Public Policy Priorities/Texas Department of Family and Protective Services/Kids Count Data Center

A quarter-million Texas children are living with family members other than their parents, and many aren’t getting the state and federal benefits they’re due, according to a report released Tuesday.

When the state of Texas decides a parent is no longer able to care for their child, formal procedures dictate a few options: children may be placed with foster families, or in group homes or residential treatment centers. Or children may be placed into what’s known as kinship care, living with family members through a court order or an arrangement with the state. Children and their caregivers get health and financial benefits, and often a caseworker to help them navigate the system.

But a new report from the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning Austin-based policy analysis group, estimates that many more Texas children are living with relatives or family friends without the state’s involvement, and without the benefits they’re entitled to receive.

“Kinship caregivers are raising some of Texas’ most vulnerable children in challenging circumstances, and their service saves the state millions of dollars each year,” said Rachel Cooper, the report’s lead author and a senior policy analyst with CPPP, in a statement. “Texas has the opportunity to ease the financial burden of becoming a caregiver by providing the support families need to offer stable, loving homes for children in need.”

The report, “Keeping Kids with Family: How Texas Can Better Support Kinship Care,” notes that informal kinship caregivers are more likely to be “poor, single, older, less educated and unemployed than traditional families with at least one parent present.” Yet these caregivers often face significant barriers to getting public benefits like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. Caregivers may not have access to the documentation necessary to receive benefits for a child, or they may hesitate to take a “handout” from the government. The report shows a small percentage of these caregivers enroll children in Medicaid, even though almost all children qualify if they live in households other than their parents’.

Much of the problem, according to the report, is that the agencies that run support programs aren’t reaching informal caregivers, and the application process can be cumbersome and confusing.

The report estimates 253,000 children live in informal kinship arrangements in Texas, the second most in the nation after California. There are 27,000 children in state custody, either in formal kinship care or paid foster care, under the Department of Family and Protective Services. But that much smaller group receives far more attention from the state.

The Center for Public Policy Priorities says one solution is to establish a Kinship Navigator Program, where the state could partner with an existing nonprofit that would continue to educate caregivers and serve as a referral network for services. The report says the Legislature should also raise TANF payments to caregivers.

“To support families and keep children out of the state’s already overburdened foster care system,” the report states, “Texas should move quickly to ease the financial burden of becoming a kinship caregiver in Texas.”

Under the state’s formal kinship program, caregivers receive at least $400 a month. Foster families get, at minimum, just under $700 per child. But the most an informal kinship caregiver receives is $96 per month from TANF programs for one child. That is hardly enough money, says Angie Grindon with the Houston-based Relatives as Parents Program. The program helps keep kids out of state care by helping caregivers access resources and educate them about their new roles.

“We need to raise the awareness of all of the folks out there throughout our community that are doing this and raising our children,” Grindon says. “If you don’t have the kinship caregivers stepping up to take care of these children, they’re going to end up in [state custody], and that’s gonna require state money to take care of them.”

Grindon says the first two years of informal kinship placements are the most difficult, but keeping children in their family or community is often best. “When you take on an extra child, there’s extra money involved,” she says. “People do not want their children to go into the CPS system. They much prefer that they stay with a relative without having to become a ‘child of the state,’ so to speak. People really step up to keep the children in their own extended family as much as possible, but they struggle tremendously.”

Parade in favor of Denton fracking ban
Garrett Graham
A parade in favor of Denton's fracking ban


The exhilaration my neighbors and I felt on election night after Denton’s referendum to ban fracking passed by an overwhelming majority lasted about 12 hours or so. But by the next morning Denton was under assault—not only from the oil and gas industry, but from Austin bureaucrats and politicians.

The city was slammed with lawsuits from the Texas Oil and Gas Association and the Texas General Land Office, now headed by George Prescott Bush. In true “Bush Doctrine” fashion, the lawsuits seek the preemption of Denton’s democratic process, attempting to halt the ban’s enforcement before it began.

This backlash from the oil and gas industry and their bought-and-paid-for legislators in Austin was more than anticipated by those of us who have struggled against fracking in Denton for more than five years. On election night, moments after the results were announced, the only words that the president of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, Cathy McMullen, could muster were: “Bring it.”

We’re certainly not naïve about what it means to rebuff fracking in the shale where the technique was pioneered. But it’s the response from the Texas Railroad Commission Chair Christi Craddick that seems to have struck a raw nerve here in Denton.

Craddick told The Dallas Morning News in early November that she would continue issuing drilling permits to the industry for fracking operations in our city. “I believe it’s my job to give permits, not Denton’s,” she told the Morning News. Her comment was not only a reactionary and obstinate slap in the face, but revealed the lengths to which the Railroad Commission will go to protect the interests of the very industry it regulates.

Craddick’s comments make little sense to Denton residents who’ve watched city council members use their home-rule authority to approve various drilling permits over the years. Indeed, it was the issuance of special use permits, like the one granted to Range Resources in 2009 to drill across the street from a public park and a hospital, that set off the movement against fracking in Denton.

Adding further insult to injury, the Denton Record-Chronicle published an op-ed from Craddick in November that attempted to explain how we had been manipulated into our beliefs by unnamed groups:

Since hydraulic fracturing became a widely used practice in Texas, it has been plagued by a cloud of misinformation, mainly due to groups more interested in scaring people than actually understanding the complex science of minerals extraction.

In the op-ed, she implores Denton residents to “work together” with the Railroad Commission to “find solutions” even after publicly stating she would continue to issue permits for fracking operations in Denton.

Craddick’s op-ed is not just patronizing, it is myopic, revealing how little she understands about the regulatory situation that brought Denton to this point. Since Range Resources’ McKenna Park gas well was drilled in 2009, residents and city staff have tried every single institutional avenue available to regulate fracking in Denton.

The battle over the McKenna Park gas well prompted the city to review its entire drilling ordinance in 2009, and despite an industry-stacked gas drilling task force, which vetted the proposed changes to Denton’s drilling ordinance, the community was able to pressure the City Council to approve a stronger set of new rules, including a 1,200-foot setback requirement.

But after the new rules were passed, the gas companies found a loophole, arguing that their permits to frack pre-existing gas wells were grandfathered under the old rules. This is the history that Craddick doesn’t understand; it’s what led voters in Denton to pass the frack ban in a landslide.

There’s something else that Craddick’s comments fail to address: her potential conflicts of interest. Before she was elected to the Railroad Commission, Craddick lobbied for oil and gas interests and represented oil and gas clients as an attorney. According to LittleSis, a research arm of the Public Accountability Initiative, Craddick reported $50,000 in personal royalties from the oil and gas industry in her 2012 financial disclosure form, including one royalty payment of $25,000 from Kinder Morgan, which is active in Denton County.

Craddick’s potential conflicts of interest are part of a deep-rooted problem with the Railroad Commission. Industry ties and monied influence are “business as usual” for the agency. So much so that in 2010 the Sunset Advisory Commission, a legislative body that reviews state agencies for efficiency, recommended that the Railroad Commission be abolished and replaced with a new entity, the Texas Oil and Gas Commission. Under the sunset plan, the Oil and Gas Commission would be run by a part-time five member board appointed by the governor.

The sunset commission also found that the Railroad Commission is the only Texas regulatory agency overseen by elected officials who overwhelmingly rely on campaign contributions from the industries it oversees. No wonder, then, that the Railroad Commission pursued action on enforcement in only a tiny percentage of the thousands of violations identified each year.

Denton and other home-rule cities provide a clear example of why municipalities are perfectly capable of handling many regulatory tasks on their own. Cities following Denton’s lead in confronting fracking are putting in place restrictions that the Railroad Commission either is unwilling or unable to enact.

The Railroad Commission has created many enemies, both on the right and the left, with its failure to protect citizens directly impacted by the oil and gas industry. It’s now clear that the Railroad Commission is willing to abandon and overrule the democratic decision of a community it is meant to protect. But in doing so, it’s helping to build a movement of people who can put pressure on legislators to abolish the Railroad Commission, as the sunset commission recommended. Many Dentonites are planning to make this case to our legislators in January.