As the border wall went up in their communities, over their objections, elected officials along the Texas-Mexico border learned the hard way: Just because they’d been to Washington, D.C., to lobby repeatedly didn’t mean that legislators were going to listen to them.
Despite this lesson, Hidalgo Mayor John David Franz found himself in Washington the second week of May, lobbying the White House and legislators against sending National Guard troops or building more border fence through his community just south of McAllen. “We don’t need the National Guard,” he said. “We need resources at the ports of entry to facilitate legal trade and make it easier for legitimate businesspeople to cross back and forth.”
As midterm elections loom, that’s a tough message to peddle. Last month, 17 congressional Democrats and Republicans sent a letter pressing President Barack Obama to deploy National Guard troops. On June 1, an unmanned Predator drone will begin patrolling the border over El Paso. Texas legislators are lobbying the Federal Aviation Administration to extend the drones over the entire Texas-Mexico border. In the Senate, Republican Jim DeMint of South Carolina tried to amend the hulking finance-reform bill with legislation to build 700 more miles of double-layered fence. The amendment failed, but DeMint has pledged to try again.
Franz, the mayor of a town of 7,322 people that borders the Rio Grande, wanted to emphasize that his hometown is safe. “In Mexico there’s a drug war going on to decide who will supply drugs to the U.S.,” he said. “It’s of great concern, but we haven’t had a single murder for the past 20 years I’ve been mayor.”
Franz said his community had more Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents than ever before. “They’re doing a great job,” he said. “But before Congress throws more money at the border, we’re asking them to take a step back and assess whether it’s working first.
“We want common sense to rule,” Franz said. “We don’t want wasteful spending, and we don’t need any more walls.”
Meanwhile, down the hall, Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn was holding forth in a hearing, pushing Alan Bersin, the new commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, to spend more on border security.
“We need a price tag … because the American people simply aren’t going to be satisfied with flatline budgets, and no more Border Patrol agents because of budgetary concerns,” Cornyn was saying. “The American people are terribly upset, they’re scared, they’re mad, and they don’t understand why we aren’t doing more to secure our border.”
—Melissa del Bosque
The Play’s the Thing
John Jordan Otte loves theater. “You can get into people’s hearts in a very nonconfrontational way,” he says. “If they choose to get out of their homes and buy that ticket and go to the theater, they’re going to see something shared by another human being and not have to be beaten down with its message.”
Otte is a 27-year-old senior in the theater program at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. This spring he took an advanced directing class in which the professor asked each of the four students to select a play, cast it, direct it, publicize it, and stage an end-of-semester production in the school theater. Otte chose Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi. The play portrays gay men living in 1950s Corpus Christi as Jesus Christ and the Apostles.
Otte knew it might be controversial in a conservative town like Stephenville, two hours southwest of Fort Worth. But he wanted to share with an audience not only the play’s portrayal of gay men’s lives, but also its insistence that homosexuality and Christianity aren’t mutually exclusive. “It just really spoke to me,” he says.
Otte grew up a devout Mormon in Granbury. After high school, he served as a Mormon missionary for more than two years in Italy. “I was very faithful in my church,” he says. “However, this was always a struggle and a battle for me because I’ve known this about me—that I was gay—since I was very, very young.”
After returning from his mission, at 22, Otte came out and left the church. His parents are still devoted followers. “That same divergent struggle that I had growing up is seen in the play,” he says. “I found it to be very beautiful and a story of acceptance and love, and not something blasphemous at all.”
Once word spread through the community, Otte got hate mail and death threats, and some alumni stopped donating to the school. The story rocketed from the Stephenville Empire-Tribune to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to the Associated Press and CNN. At one point, Otte had to hide in the fine arts library to avoid more than a dozen camera crews stalking the campus.
On March 26, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst weighed in, calling on school officials to cancel the play, which, he said, depicts acts that are “morally reprehensible to the vast majority of Americans.” Otte and the 13 cast members were determined to stage Corpus Christi. Now it was bigger than their own experiences; it had become a fight for gay rights and free expression.
A day before the performance in late March, the school created a protest zone by barricading a parking lot—some 800 demonstrators were expected. State troopers showed up, as did police in riot gear and snipers for the rooftops. But 12 hours before curtain, university officials canceled the production because, they contended, they feared for students’ safety.
A national theater group, 108 Productions, has stepped forward to stage the play in Dallas June 4-6, but not with the Tarleton State cast. Says Otte, “The show will go on, whether it’s mine or not, and people will be able to see the message.
“I don’t personally believe that Jesus Christ was gay, and that’s not what I was trying to say with the play. … That’s why I hope people go see the show in Dallas so that instead of believing everything [the media] said, they can get past the stigma of reading the title ‘gay Jesus play’ and see what it’s truly about. Which is what each of us in the LGBT community are fighting for too.”
dept. of the environment
With all eyes on the BP oil spill in the Gulf, little attention has been paid to another high-stakes oil drama.
TransCanada Corp., a Canadian energy company, is seeking permission to build a 2,000-mile, 36-inch pipeline from Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast. If built, the high-pressure pipeline would move up to 900,000 barrels per day of oil from the vast tar sands of Alberta through five states, over the Ogallala Aquifer, across 32 streams in East Texas, and to refineries in Port Arthur and Houston, including BP’s Texas City facility (See “Covered Up in Plain Sight,” p. 21.) The pipeline could more than double the amount of tar-sand oil consumed in the United States.
While the Canadian government and energy companies tout the tar sands as a safe alternative to offshore drilling and a boost to American energy independence, some scientists and environmentalists draw a different conclusion. “Both deepwater offshore oil drilling and the tar sands are symptoms of how desperate we’ve gotten for oil,” says Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of the international program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Indeed, tar-sand oil is arguably the filthiest fossil fuel on the planet. Extracting bitumen, the sticky, tar-like gunk that is converted to oil, involves clear-cutting and strip-mining hundreds of thousands of acres of Alberta’s boreal forest. Then vast quantities of water and natural gas are required to upgrade bitumen into a more conventional crude. Compared to conventional drilling, the tar-sand extraction process produces three times as much greenhouse gas. The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club estimates that the Keystone XL pipeline would result in about 38 million tons of additional greenhouse gasses, equivalent to 6 million new cars on the road.
As this issue went to press, public hearings on the pipeline’s potential environmental impact were under way in Beaumont, Liberty, Livingston and Tyler.
Three For Tea
The Austin Club isn’t the most obvious place to meet the tea party candidates for statehouse. It sits in an old opera house, complete with heavy, gold-leafed frames and polished wood banisters. Its clientele includes a high percentage of the carefully coiffed and well-dressed sort of lobbyist who can flex muscles at the Capitol a few blocks away. It’s not exactly tea party central.
But Monday, May 10, GOP royalty—from the governor to the head of the state party—filed into the club to meet the latest additions to their roster. Technically, the House candidates—the three biggest primary winners with ties to the tea party—were each holding separate fundraisers, but the visitors flitted from one room to another. It was a reception that many a longtime incumbent couldn’t dream of getting—and these three hadn’t even taken office yet.
Gov. Rick Perry beamed as he clapped the newly nominated Lubbock tea partier Charles Perry (no relation) on the back and shot the breeze with lobbyists and staffers. In this small room lit with chandeliers, the governor shed no tears for the GOP incumbents who lost their seats in this new wave. “These are not upset races,” he said. “They might have been [in the past]. None of these elections surprise me at all.”
In their primaries, Charles Perry and his compatriot David Simpson bested longtime incumbents Delwin Jones of Lubbock and Tommy Merritt of Longview, respectively. John Frullo, the third musketeer, is Republican Rep. Carl Isett’s chosen successor in Lubbock, and the only one with a Democratic opponent, though few predict serious competition.
Simpson ran on repealing the business tax and stopping illegal immigration without amnesty, but he says now his “greatest concern is that we see a majority of conservatives.” In terms of policy goals, “there’s only so much I can do as a freshman,” he shrugs.
Rep. Bryan Hughes, a Mineola Republican, noticed the sudden shift that led to Simpson’s victory. Of the new activists who cheer for a microscopic government and fewer social services, he says he’s “going to take them at their word.” But he’s not certain that everyone associated with the movement will be as happy when their own communities lose funding. “So many people don’t realize the benefits,” he says.
For the newly nominated tea partiers, Hughes says the challenge may become even greater: “It’s tough to run against the establishment, and then you become part of it.”