Top 5 Contrarian Moments of 2010

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It’s New Year’s Eve, which means it’s time for customary best-of-2010 lists. In my case, I’ve compiled the most surprising, ridiculous, hilarious and mendacious utterances in Texas politics—the top contrarian stories of 2010.

No. 5: Gov. Rick Perry says the Anthony Graves case shows the system is working.

Anthony Graves, you’ll recall, spent 18 years incarcerated, 12 on death row, for a crime he didn’t commit. Graves ended up death row for murder despite almost no evidence connecting him to the crime (except for made-up witness testimony) and despite multiple alibi witnesses. His wrongful conviction was stunning example of everything that’s wrong with the Texas criminal justice system, from a flawed police investigation to a overzealous, unethical prosecutor to the multiple appeals court judges who unthinkingly rubber-stamped the outcome in the case. (For more details, read Pam Colloff’s excellent recent coverage of the case in Texas Monthly.)

Perry was asked about the case after Graves was released in October.  He said he thought the case showed that “our system is working.”

Most people would look at the Graves case and conclude it was a heart-breaking injustice, and reveals the ugly flaws in the system. But Gov. Perry apparently believes the case shows the system is working. I’m not going to agree with him, but it’s an awfully contrarian position.

No. 4: Marc Katz plays it coy.

In January, Austin restauranteur Marc Katz launched lost-cause campaign for lieutenant governor. Katz’s campaign announcement was one of the more unusual political events I’ve attended in Texas. Katz held it at a gay bar in downtown Austin, replete with buff, shirtless men handing out campaign material.

In an interview after Katz’s speech, I asked him if he’s gay, and he provided one of my favorite quotes of the year. “My sexual preference is nobody’s business. Let’s talk about the issues, not about whether Dewhurst wears makeup.” Then he laughed and added, “If you print that, I’ll love you forever.”

No. 3: The massive voter fraud in Houston that never was.

On Aug, 24, Harris County Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez—a lame duck official who was overseeing the Houston voter roles—held one of the more bizarre press conferences you’ll ever see. Several dozen Tea Party supporters gathered to hear Vasquez  accuse a nonprofit group named Houston Votes of fraud. The group had been registering new voters and turned in duplicate forms—apparently the result of some workers looking to get paid by registering the same people multiple times. The group had clearly made mistakes. But Vasquez took it a step further and accused Houston Votes of a voter fraud conspiracy.

He announced that the Harris County voter rolls were under an “organized attack” and raised the specter of ACORN-like fraud

Vasquez never produced much evidence of an organized fraud. But the accusations did inhibit Houston Votes’ registering of voters, which was perhaps the goal all along.

No. 2: David Bradley and the quote of the year.

Just when I thought I’d heard it all from the irrepressible State Board of Education, David Bradley authored an unforgettable quote.

On Feb. 1, the Texas Tribune ran a story about the SBOE overseeing the multi-billion-dollar permanent school fund despite a lack of any experience with high finance.

Bradley defended his board’s lack of experience:

“If you sit on the mental health commission, do you have to be retarded? If you sit on the [Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission], do you have to be a drunk?”

No. 1: Gov. Perry says the forensic evidence in the Cameron Todd Willingham-arson case was sound.

Perry takes the top spot. The governor was asked about the Willingham case during a pre-election interview with the Texas Tribune, (Willingham was executed in 2004 for starting the 1991 house fire that killed his three children.)

Perry said, “I’m very comfortable that the science was good.”

It’s hard to know what to do with a comment like that, which so obviously contravenes the available facts. Perry has long contended that Willingham was guilty. Nothing wrong with that argument. Many people believe he was innocent, but we may never know for sure whether he was guilty. But what we do know for certain, 100 percent, utterly without a doubt, is that the forensic evidence in the case was flawed. That is simple fact. So says every national fire expert who’s looked at the case —and nine of them have examined it so far.

In fact, the very same week Perry made this comment, two of those experts testified at a court of inquiry in Austin and eviscerated the supposed evidence of arson against Willingham. Perry apparently wasn’t convinced, all evidence to the contrary. But he does get serious points in my book for contrarianism.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.