Political Intelligence

The Good, the Bad, and the Greedy

STOP ME BEFORE I ENDORSE AGAIN

Democrats in El Paso were furious but not surprised when the only major daily in town, the El Paso Times, came out with its endorsement list on October 20. This border city is overwhelmingly Democratic and Latino. It would be logical to think that the paper would endorse Democrat Tony Sanchez–the first serious Latino candidate for governor from the Texas border region–as the person best suited to represent the city’s interests. No so. The Times endorsed Republican candidates for governor, senator, comptroller, land commissioner, agriculture commissioner, and railroad commissioner.

Within three days, Democratic activists were protesting outside of the Times, a story the paper covered, to its credit. The Cornyn endorsement came in for particular drubbing on the Times letters page. Few have forgotten that the attorney general terminated 850 jobs in economy-poor El Paso when he shut down the Tiguas’ Speaking Rock Casino. Wrote one reader: “The El Paso Times–out of step as usual, with the community it serves–recommends Cornyn for U.S. Senate [saying:] ‘El Paso’s best interests will be protected.’ With ‘friends’ like Cornyn, El Pasoans don’t need enemies.”

Critics have long charged that the Times editor and executive vice president Dionicio “Don” Flores regularly shills for the Republicans to his own personal benefit, which he denies. (See “Where No News Is No News: The El Paso Times,” by Debbie Nathan, January 30, 1999.) Democrats note that Gov. Bush appointed Flores to the Texas State University System Board in 1999. Editorial Page editor John Laird defended the picks against the accusation that the Times was out of touch, using the justification that 75 percent of the paper’s choices in the past won or advanced to runoffs.

Laird’s rationale perfectly sums up this insipid paper’s constant effort to ingratiate itself with power. It’s owned by a Gannett media company, notorious for being empty of content, and, true to form, the Times can generally be read cover-to-cover in five vacuous minutes. Since the demise of the paper’s only competitor, the El Paso Herald-Post, in 1998, the Times has been a textbook example of why newspapers need competition to keep them accountable and honest. And despite the paper’s monopoly, readers are failing to endorse the Times these days. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the weekday circulation for the Times has dropped from 77,212 in 2000 to 74,347 in 2002.

HONOR ROLL

This year’s recipient of the Texas Civil Rights Project’s annual Henry B. Gonzales Human Rights Award is Amarillo attorney Jeff Blackburn, the organizer of the Tulia Legal Defense Project (TLDP). Blackburn accepted the award at an October 19 dinner in Austin, which was chaired by Senator Rodney Ellis of Houston and featured Noam Chomsky as guest speaker. Blackburn has coordinated the work of a team of lawyers who have donated their time to prepare writs for all of those convicted in the now infamous sting, including the thirteen still incarcerated. Over the last three years, the TLDP has kept the pressure on authorities in Tulia, winning a settlement on behalf of one exonerated defendant, and forcing the D.A. to drop charges against two defendants with outstanding cases from the bust. “None of the work we’ve done has been brilliant,” Blackburn said earlier this fall. “It’s just been thorough and methodical.”

And costly. Blackburn has invested tens of thousands of his own money in the project, and each of the lawyers or legal assistants involved has donated thousands of dollars worth of time. The focus now is on winning the release of those still locked up. In what could prove to be a major break in the case, on September 25 an appeals judge ordered District Judge Ed Self (the trial judge for most of the cases) to hold evidentiary hearings for two of those convicted in the sting to clarify points of fact raised by defense attorneys. Self, who ran the original trials with an iron fist, is expected to try to limit the fact-finding to affidavits; defense attorneys will push for a full hearing with witnesses. The team has already filed 17 motions since the appellate order came down, according to TLDP member Vanita Gupta, who is with the NAACP in New York. If Self continues to act as a blocking back for the district attorney, the record of his actions will create a good due process argument in federal court, should it come to that. For now, though, the goal is to gain new trials for each of the thirteen, one at a time. “When we started this we all agreed this would be a long term campaign,” Blackburn said. After two-plus years of work, Blackburn said recent developments have actually put the team further along than they thought they would be. “We’re only about half-way through chronologically but about three-quarters of the way through morally,” he said. “We’re in this to the end, and we’re going to win.”

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

It’s official: even racism’s professional apologists are now embarrassed by Tulia. Jeff Blackburn took time out from his Tulia advocacy last month to debate UT law professor Lino Graglia (remember him?) at Texas Tech Law School in Lubbock. A long-time opponent of affirmative action, Graglia made national news a few years ago with his comments about the poor performance of black and Hispanic law students. The affirmative action debate was at its height, and Graglia–who refused to back down in the national spotlight–briefly became the country’s leading curmudgeon, even earning a visit to UT from Jesse Jackson. In Lubbock, Graglia covered familiar territory: racism as earlier generations understood it has been all but eradicated from American society, and efforts to combat the vestiges of it do more harm than good. Fresh from his Tulia writ-writing, Blackburn countered with the story of Jason Williams, currently serving 45 years for allegedly dealing about the same amount of cocaine that Noelle Bush (the First Niece) was recently given ten days in jail for possessing. Graglia’s response to Tulia: “Admittedly, that’s a bad situation.” When Lino Graglia concedes a point in a debate on racism, Blackburn said, “you know you’re winning the war of hearts and minds.”

CENSORSHIP SCORES A VICTORY

Textbook publishers knuckled under to the fundamentalist flat earth crowd recently. In response to comments from Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy and Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, a number of companies have changed their social studies text books. (See “History 101: Ignorance As Power” by James McWilliams, August 30.) Textbooks were altered to promote Christianity in the face of accepted science, to attack Islam, and to de-emphasize the horrors of slavery.

Some highlights brought to you by the Texas Freedom Network:

Publisher agreed to “eliminate the references to fossil fuels being formed millions of years ago” so as not to conflict with Biblical timelines. (Glencoe/ McGraw-Hill)Publisher agreed to DELETE a sentence reading “[M]any other teachings in the Quran, such as the importance of honesty, honor, giving to others and having love and respect for their families, govern their daily lives.” The critic called the statement “more propaganda for Islam.” (Prentice Hall)Publisher agreed to DELETE “entire box called `Changing the Earth’s Environment'” because critic objected to the discussion of global warming as a fact. (Prentice Hall)Publishers agreed to DELETE a sentence reading “Christians would later accept slavery in other contexts,” because critics thought discussions of U.S. slavery were too negative, were anti-Christian and emphasized the U.S. role in slavery too much. (Prentice Hall)

The state board of education will vote on which textbooks to adopt on November 14 and 15. The Texas Freedom Network is distributing postcards to be sent to the board, the education commissioner, and legislators. “We still have time to get the message to publishers that the majority of Texans don’t agree with this,” says Ashley McIlvain, TFN political director.

Send your requests for postcards to [email protected]

PHONE TAG

If you think the Perry-Sanchez slanderama is ugly, check out the war of words currently underway between the telephone companies over local phone service. Thanks to some federal anti-trust reforms, SBC (formerly Southwestern Bell) is being forced for the first time to allow some competitors, mainly AT&T and MCI, to sell local phone service over its lines. In a new marketing campaign, SBC is claiming that the reforms are killing the company and forcing thousands of layoffs. The competition has responded with a series of ads (signed Voices for Choices), chastising the longtime monopoly for crying foul at the first sign of lost market share. Both sides have spared no expense, spending freely on TV and print ads. SBC’s commercials feature the voice of Texas actor Tommy Lee Jones, waxing on admiringly about trenches and lines and how hard it is to be an honest phone company these days. Most recently, dueling full page ads appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on October 28. The anti-SBC ad features a wolf dressed as a sheep with the tagline: “What if the company crying wolf is the wolf?” SBC counters a few pages later with a grim-faced technician with the rugged name of Dave Clark, who complains that “good, union jobs” are disappearing because of the new laws.

Funny, then, that officials from the Communication Workers of America didn’t show up at a rally organized by SBC at its San Antonio headquarters on October 16, according to the San Antonio Express News. The layoffs are real, but union officials are having trouble squaring them with the company’s reported profits for last year. And consumer advocates are having trouble swallowing SBC’s line as well. “SBC has always blamed everything they don’t like on regulation,” said Janee Briesemeister of Consumer’s Union. The layoffs are no surprise, Briesemeister said, because the entire industry has been in decline since the economy went sour–half a million telecommunications jobs were cut nationwide in recent years. Briesemeister chalked the ad barrage up to the coming Texas legislative session, which will start in January. SBC will be pushing legislation to make it harder for competitors to use their lines; the onslaught of ads and rallies is common practice for the company when it wants to build support in advance of a legislative push. One person who doesn’t need to be convinced is San Antonio Senator Leticia Van de Putte. Speaking at the October 16 rally (along with the mayor and the county judge) the Democrat demonstrated why she is occasionally referred to as the Senator from Southwestern Bell. “They [the anti-SBC ads] make me angry, and don’t make mama mad,” the Express News quoted her as saying. “Who builds the trenches,” she went on. “Who maintains the lines?” Yes, and who’s been watching too much TV?

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