Left Field

Chawing in the Lege; Bogus Barney; The Bush Beat; Gideon's Bible; Pollution in Midlothian


The tobacco suit settlement is a done deal. Cigarettes are passé. Cigar chic has almost run its course. Yet certain House members still walk the floor of the chamber looking for the spittoons that were removed about the time Ma Ferguson was elected governor. This first came to Left Field’s attention shortly after the current session began, when a Houston Democrat punctuated a description of Governor Bush’s anti-labor politics by leaning over to dribble a stream of brown tobacco spittle into a nearby trash can.

Left Field confronted that legislator, Ken Yarbrough, in his Capitol office, warning that we had the goods on him and were determined to smoke out other tobacco chewers in the lower chamber. An utterly sober Yarbrough confessed at once and – less than two weeks after Elia Kazan faced angry protestors at the Academy Awards ceremony – proceeded to name names. “Yeah, there’s a few of us,” he said of the state representatives who flagrantly defy the House’s tobacco ban. According to Yarbrough, Bay City Democrat Tom Uher is an occasional user. “And then there’s Ray Allen,” referring to the Grand Prairie Republican. Layton Black, Yarbrough said, a former Democratic rep who has gone to work for Republican Attorney General John Cornyn, is a chewer. “Layton had his own special blend,” said Yarbrough (who favors Red Man himself), as if to suggest that Black is a boutique chewer, headed for the Republican Party. “And there is Hightower, but he’s gone,” Yarbrough said of former Democratic state rep Allan Hightower, who has moved on to the lobby and appears to have given up chew. (Yarbrough seemed unconcerned that Houston gift shop owner Dewayne Bohac, who has spent half a million dollars in two failed attempts to unseat Yarbrough, might use chewing tobacco as an attack issue in the next election.)

Speaker Pro Tem Uher is a tricky man to follow because he works the floor so hard, and if he’s chewing he’s hiding it. But before Yarbrough ratted, it had been independently confirmed that Ray Allen doesn’t just write bills to befoul the environment. Rather than lean and spit, like Yarbrough, Allen has adopted a style developed by frat boys at Southwest Texas State University, discreetly bringing his Diet Coke can or Styrofoam coffee cup to his lips and slightly tipping it in a feigned sip. At a March House Environmental Affairs Committee hearing, Allen was observed bringing his cup to his mouth nineteen times during a one-hour period, even stopping to “sip” from his cup as he was questioning a witness. When we sought to take this manic sipping up with Allen himself, we were informed that he had returned to his Grand Prairie district for the Easter holiday.

“It’s completely illegal,” a House sergeant said when asked about tobacco chewing on the House floor. “Although admittedly,” he added, “it’s kind of hard to enforce.”

Do legislators continue to chew when they move on to careers in the lobby? “We’re all cigars here,” one high-dollar lobbyist said when asked about chewing in the lobby, where close-up and intimate sotto voce conversations make chewing tobacco problematic. “Except for the public interest lobbyists, who don’t have any vices. But maybe that’s why they don’t pass any bills.”

The Bane of Bogus Barney

Ever since Barney came after her, Jenna Radtke, owner of a South Austin costume shop called Lucy in Disguise, has tried to avoid cartoon characters and puppets. This is not always easy: “I’ve got a black mouse, and a grey mouse, and so far I think I’m okay like that,” she says. “And on my black mouse I’ve got a dress that will fit it – you see what I mean, you’re getting awful close to Minnie Mouse there, aren’t you? … Every company carries the Minnie Mouse dress, and they call it ‘Mrs. Mouse.’ It’s just a polka dot dress. And the ears. I mean, I don’t think you can get busted for selling a pair of ears and some mitts.”

For Radtke and hundreds of other shop owners, the trouble began almost three years ago, when U.S. Marshals raided National Discount Costume Company, a San Diego costume manufacturer, and, in the words of one newspaper report, “removed dozens of Barney costumes in adult sizes.” Also taken in the raid was a list of more than 1,000 National Discount customers – mostly small costume shops and children’s entertainers. The owners of the Barney character, the Richardson-based Lyons Partnership, went on to send demand letters to the customers, and to file lawsuits against some 700 of them for trademark infringement. In Texas, Lyons filed suit against thirty such parties.

According to Lyons’ written statement regarding the lawsuits, “Barney’s young fans accept him as a ‘real’ best friend, and trust him completely. Many of these very vulnerable children have been shocked and disappointed by seeing someone in a bogus ‘Barney’ costume behaving rudely, smoking, drinking, and otherwise behaving in ways they know are not appropriate for Barney.” Lyons also warned that a bogus adult-sized Barney could very well “prey on a child’s trust and persuade him or her to do something inappropriate.”

Yet as lawyers for the defendants have suggested, the spectre of child molesters loping about in purple dinosaur attire may not have been the company’s only motivation. The costume shops’ insurance companies have been settling with Lyons for thousands of dollars apiece, which when multiplied by hundreds of defendants, equals a lot of money.

Radtke says her insurance company “covered it, but they won’t ever cover it again if something like that happens, so it changes the way that everybody does business.” Meanwhile, she says, the real burden falls upon the small-time dinos – the uninsured birthday party entertainers who’ve been dragged into court.

Another Texas costume shop owner, whose insurance carrier is still negotiating with Lyons, was reluctant to talk about the issue at all: “I don’t know who you are, you could be a lawyer for the other side, for all I know,” he said. “We get calls almost daily from lawyers who are trying to catch us off guard.” Left Field interrupted: Almost daily? “Almost daily. They don’t disclose who they are, but you can almost tell by the nature of the inquiry. They just want to see if you’re renting a Barney.”

All this, according to Radtke, for a getup that never saw much action to begin with, outside the birthday party circuit. “I paid a lot more out than I ever took in. They got the costume back. So that’s the end of Barney for me.”

The Bush Beat

The declared undeclared George W. Bush presidential campaign has been the early beneficiary of largely favorable national press. But some cracks have recently appeared in the shield of spin. For those Republicans looking for evidence of the liberal media anti-Shrub conspiracy, a couple of items provided handy fodder.

A March 15 New York Times story about the Gov’s pre-campaign cramming described regular study sessions at the Mansion, during which conservative scholars instruct the almost-candidate on “What you need to know to run for President.” The article called the sessions “comprehensive and elaborate,” then opined bluntly, “There may never have been a ‘serious’ candidate who needed it more.” A few days later, the Times published a correction, withdrawing the last comment as an editor’s private note which had mysteriously leaked into the published copy. Could it have been a printer’s gremlin – or a plant by a secret Lamar Alexander sympathizer?

A few days later, when Bush was asked about a pending hate crimes bill, the Austin American-Statesman quoted him as saying such a law would “vulcanize” Texans. The following day the Statesman reassured its readers that Bush in fact had said “balkanize.” (The paper did not, however, correct Bush’s insistence that “all crimes are hate crimes” – presumably because speeding, shoplifting, cross-burning and lynching all strike with equal fury at the roots of civilization.)

It’s not all work and no play for the UnCandidate. The Governor and Attorney General John Cornyn took swift action in defense of a hallowed Texas tradition: solemn invocations of divinity before high school football games. In response to a lawsuit filed by parents in the Santa Fe school district (south of Houston), a federal court ruled that such prayers are unnecessary and unconstitutional for sports contests (“hardly the sober type of annual event that can be appropriately solemnized with prayer”). Bush and the A.G. – hoping to preserve the right of every God-fearing Texan to call down divine wrath on the kids praying on the other sideline – have filed a joint brief for appeal before the Fifth Circuit. “The purpose of the policy is not to advance religion,” wrote Cornyn, “but that of promoting solemnization and good sportsmanship.” Responded Anthony Griffin of the A.C.L.U., representing the parents in court: “Maybe football is sacred in Texas.”

The Governor’s unusual intervention in a federal case came in response to what his brief called “a question of exceptional importance.” But it reminded Left Field that a few weeks ago, state Senator Carlos Truan had asked the new A.G. to reconsider the state’s opinion in the Hopwood matter – that is, the 1996 opinion by ex-A.G. Dan Morales that judicial restrictions on affirmative action in admissions at the U.T. Law School would henceforth apply to all programs in Texas higher education. The Morales doctrine left the universities and the Lege scrambling to find ways to sustain minority enrollment, and Truan had asked Cornyn to take another look.

A spokesman for Cornyn’s office says the A.G.’s response is officially due within 180 days, but that Cornyn has placed a high priority on the matter. Presumably, the Governor might also be expected to take an interest in “a question of exceptional importance” to so many Texans and their children. Asked whether the Governor would take a position on Hopwood, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan would say only, “We’re not involved in that matter.” In an almost-presidential year, the UnCandidate has his priorities: football and school prayer definitely outrank minority education.

To Boldly Go . . .

Have you ever wondered how all those Gideon Bibles make it into all those motel rooms? If you don’t know, it’s no accident: Gideons International, headquartered in Nashville, is not terribly forthcoming about its work, despite the fact that its minions have left their mark on literally millions of cheap nightstands across the U.S. and around the world. Jerry Jones of Midland, who oversees all the Texas Gideons chapters, politely stonewalled a Left Field inquiry, first recommending a call to Gideons H.Q., then placing the call himself and reporting back: “Nashville suggests you look at our web page.”

But would the web page reveal how many Gideon Bibles are out there? Where they’re produced? How they’re distributed? “That would be getting into an interview,” said Jones. “The web page … is basically the information that would be available. Our policy is to not seek publicity and not in any way to appear to be trying to seek publicity.”

As expected, the web page doesn’t really get down to the nitty gritty. It does provide a brief history of the Gideons, beginning in good Christian fashion with an overcrowded inn – located not in Bethlehem but rather in Boscobel, Wisconsin. One autumn night in 1898, two travelers, John H. Nicholson and Samuel E. Hill, came to share a double room at Boscobel’s Central Hotel. “The two men,” according to the website text, “soon discovered that both were Christians.” (The bold is indeed in the original.) “John Nicholson, as a 12-year-old lad, had promised his dying mother that he would read God’s Word and pray daily, and it had been his custom for many years to read the Bible before retiring.” Hill joined Nicholson in prayer that night, and the following summer they convened a meeting of Christian commercial travelers who were interested in a little mutual witnessing.

Unfortunately only one other guy showed up, but happily enough he also used a middle initial: thus John H. Nicholson, Samuel E. Hill, and Will J. Knights founded the Gideons (settling upon that name because “Gideon was a man who was willing to do exactly what God wanted him to do”).

A century later the Gideons claim more than 130,000 members in over 170 countries. One of those members is John Hearn, Chief of Scripture Distribution for one of Austin’s three Gideons chapters. When asked whether he had a few minutes to respond to questions, Hearn declaimed his own: “Do you know the Lord Jesus as your savior? We would like to talk to you about that first of all.”

After mumbling in the negative, Left Field was able to glean a little information from Hearn. The Gideons “camp” to which he belongs has about fifty male members, and about twenty-five women make up the Ladies’ Auxiliary. They hold monthly dinner meetings at a hotel. “The average age tends to be above fifty, because of time demands. Younger people don’t have the time to devote to it,” Hearn said.

Hearn explained that he personally delivers Bibles to motels and hotels.”Usually they contact us if they need Bibles. From time to time, if we haven’t heard from them, we check to see if they have them. Usually we’ll leave them about a dozen extras,” in case the Bibles are damaged or stolen, he said. “In addition to hotels, we place them in hospitals, waiting rooms – all the crossroads of the world.” Hearn keeps a few spares, but for the most part tries to distribute them as soon as possible, because “the Bible doesn’t touch any lives when it’s sitting in a garage.” Various cover colors are available, including red, blue, green, brown, burgundy, and gold.

Waiting to Inhale

“There’s nobody in our area, I don’t think, that’s more environmentally conscious than I am.” So says Maurice Osborn, the mayor of Midlothian, a small town about thirty miles southwest of Dallas. Midlothian happens to be home to a huge cement plant, owned by Texas Industries, that burns hazardous waste as fuel. It is the single largest source of industrial air pollution in North Texas. And on the strength of a new permit recently granted by the state, the facility is poised to become the largest burner of hazardous waste in the United States, annually emitting as much as fifty-two tons of toxic metals alone.

During his twelve years in office, Osborn has been one of TXI’s biggest supporters. The relationship became official a couple of years ago, when he became a vice-president with the Brookhollow Corporation, a TXI subsidiary. In October of last year, Osborn became TXI’s Community Relations Manager. And among TXI’s most recent lobbyist filings at the state Ethics Commission – is none other than Maurice Osborn, with a compensation level “less than $10,000.”

Osborn says he registered not on behalf of TXI’s Midlothian operations (“the law allows elected officials to lobby without registration”) but because he sometimes defends TXI’s interests elsewhere. He’s not paid directly for that lobbying, which is just part of his job; the compensation note is strictly to comply with the law. He doesn’t want anybody to think he’s concealing anything.

That could well be a suspicion, since Osborn has been less than frank in the past. In 1997, he testified before a House environmental committee for a TXI-supported anti-regulation bill, and somehow neglected to tell his audience he was employed by the company. He dismisses the notion that his job causes any conflict of interest with his (unpaid) position as mayor. “No, when I took this position, the first thing I did, I had an understanding with the company I would not allow that to happen.” He says he abstains from any city council discussion or votes on matters which involve TXI.

Midlothian resident Mary Risinger dismisses Osborn’s claims of independence with a bitter laugh: “That’s hogwash.” Risinger lives three miles northeast of
the TXI plant, is often confined to her house by its noxious fumes, and is a board member of Downwinders at Risk, an environmental organization which has been fighting TXI’s waste burning for years. Of the company’s influence, she says bluntly, “I think TXI owns the town. That’s just my opinion.” (Downwinders’ organizer Jim Schermbeck describes Midlothian as “the closest thing to a company town as you’ll find in Texas,” and says that environmentalists have found more support literally downwind, in the small communities north of the town and in Dallas and Fort Worth.) Of the mayor, Risinger said, “I think he was put in office to run the town for TXI…. He was hand-picked.” But, she added, he is hardly alone. “The mayor pro tem works at Chaparral Steel [also owned by TXI], and the real estate people on the council, they don’t want anything said about the problems, either.”

Risinger says many of her neighbors are concerned about the pollution, but are afraid to oppose the company. “Most people believe there is a problem, but they don’t think we can do anything about it. TXI’s too big, they think, and you can’t fight big industry.” As for Osborn’s insistence that regulatory agencies have declared the plant safe, Risinger responded, “The T.N.R.C.C. and the E.P.A. have both been wrong in the past, and they’re wrong about this, and time will prove them wrong…. Everywhere you turn, you run into people who have respiratory problems, who didn’t have it until they came here.” She and her husband are looking for a new home, at least thirty miles away and upwind of TXI. “I’ve had people tell me, well, you just need to stay in the house with the windows closed. That’s no way to live – but I have neighbors who live that way.”

TXI’s new ten-year permit will allow it to double its on-site storage of hazardous waste, and increase dramatically its emissions of such toxins as arsenic, mercury, lead, and dioxin. Maurice Osborn says it’s not a problem. “Until somebody can show clearly that it’s a problem, then I don’t have a problem with it.”