Left Field

CPPP, Benito Juarez, The Bush Beat, Creeping Wal-Martism


If any legislation remotely progressive should issue from the 76th Legislature — particularly anything to improve the parlous living conditions of poor Texans — we should all be certain to thank C–3PO.

No, not the Star Wars protocol droid, but the Center for Public Policy Priorities, whose other current nickname (coined last session by San Angelo Democrat Rob Junell) is the “Center for Too Many Ps.” The C.P.P.P. is an Austin-based non-profit research organization which devotes its considerable energies to analyzing state policies — particularly in their effects on low- and moderate-income Texans. Although non-partisan, the Center’s publications declare a belief in “economic and social justice,” and elaborate: “The first aim of social policy should be to facilitate the natural desire of all people for a life lived with dignity, integrity, and … self-sufficiency.”

Those principles are the outgrowth of the Center’s social-action heritage, says Executive Director Dianne Stewart. A group of Benedictine nuns from Boerne founded the Center in 1985, with three staffers and an endowment realized from the sale of a small hospital. The Center (called the Benedictine Resource Center until 1991, when it took a name akin to its informal D.C. colleagues at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities) focused initially on improving poor Texans’ access to health care. Over time, the Sisters’ initial funding was supplemented by foundation grants, and the Center, which now has a staff of eleven, took on children’s issues more generally. Through one project, Texas Kids Count, the C.P.P.P. has built the first statewide database on county-by-county conditions for children. It is also the source of immensely useful publications on the Texas economy, as seen from the bottom up (www.cppp.org).

Recently the Center added tax and budget policy analysis to its bag of tricks, and for three sessions it’s been a primary source of budgetary common sense when political rhetoric waxes flagrante. “When they gave away the oil-and-gas tax,” said one Lege-watcher in February, “they wanted it to seem like a break for the little guys. It was [Senior Fiscal Analyst] Dick Lavine from the Center who quietly pointed out that the tax break would primarily help people who already earned more than $100,000 a year.” Such observations may not win C.P.P.P. the regard of the Lege’s we-love-business crowd, but that doesn’t mean they don’t listen. “[The Center’s] work is so highly respected,” said Houston Rep Garnet Coleman, “that members, regardless of their political bent, actively seek input from the Center and pay attention to the analyses that they provide.”

The Center now has to reckon with its own future: in three years, it will sever financial ties with the Benedictine Sisters, to come of age on its own. To that end, for the first time the organization has begun raising funds from individuals, looking for those crucial “unrestricted funds, the dollars that allow us to turn our research into action through advocacy and direct legislative action” — so that the Texas Lege might have at least one independent source of sane social policy.

Slathering on the Mayo

George W. campaigns in a textbook Spanish that gets better with each speech, he’s hired San Antonio adman Lionel Sosa, and in the last election he worked hard to win 51 percent of the Mexican-American vote. It all kind of makes you miss Governor Bill Clements, who in a radio interview referred to the Governor of the border state of Tamaulipas as the Governor of “Tamale-puss,” and described Mexico’s preeminent demographer, Jorge Bustamante, as “just another Mexican with an opinion.”

But while today’s Republicans may have managed a Hispanic ad campaign, they’re not quite there yet with Mexican history. Witness a celebratory press release from Texas Republican Party Chair Susan Weddington. “Cinco de Mayo is a celebration for all people,” Weddington wrote. “Curious about Cinco de Mayo, and more then [sic] a little ashamed that I did not know more, I asked a Hispanic friend of mine to explain it to me.” The friend did all right describing the Battle of Puebla, “where a small, less professional Mexican Army defeated a very professional, well-trained French Army.” But Weddington, a fundamentalist Christian, goes on to try to baptize Mexican President Benito Juárez, referring to his dedication to the “God-given right of freedom that all people are born with.” This reads suspiciously like Christian revisionism.

In fact, Juárez’s goal, once he rid the country of the French and executed French surrogate ruler Maximilian of Austria, was to rid the country of religious influence by dismantling the church — which Juárez considered a plague and a burden on Mexican society. Juárez’ Reforma resulted in anti-clerical laws so strict that there was a serious debate about whether Pope John Paul II would have to wear a business suit in public on his first visit to Mexico. Under Juárez’s secularization program the church could not hold title to its own churches, and no cleric could appear in a public place in religious vestments. “More anti-clerical laws than the Soviet Union,” Universidad Autónoma de Coahuila professor Juan Manuel García was fond of saying (when there was still a Soviet Union). It was only during the Carlos Salinas administration that nuns were allowed to get back into the habit in public.

Asked about Juárez and “God-given rights,” Mexican novelist Elena Poniatowska said she found the notion ridiculous. “It’s odd to hear someone talk about Juárez and God,” Poniatowska said in a telephone interview. “Juárez was the one who drew a line between the church and the state. He was very, very anti-clerical. He was an antagonist of the church and of religion. That statement in Mexico would sound completely ridiculous.”

The Bush Beat

The Jesus Lobby, May 6. It was unseasonably warm and still on the south steps of the Capitol — the National Day of Prayer — and the sudden gust of wind that halted the Governor’s introductory remarks seemed portentous. The twin poles of the banner

behind him fell with a clang, the crowd murmured anxiously, and the Governor paused, uncertain. For a moment he appeared to be formulating a silence-breaking one-liner, but thought better of it and plowed into his prepared speech.

As usual, it was a good read of the crowd by the Governor, who didn’t stay long after his remarks. He joined Senator Jane Nelson for some solemn shoe-gazing during the invocation, but by the time the small noontime crowd got down to the serious praying, Dubya had slipped into the cool, secular haven of the Capitol building. So he didn’t get to return the wooden salute of the Capitol groundskeeper, who prayed with one hand over his head, Billy-Graham style, or murmur along with the trio of slender young white-stockinged women at stage left, whose short gold and beige heels rocked back and forth, in time with their endless mantras.

Ronald Reagan made it official in 1988 by assigning it the first Thursday in May, but the National Day of Prayer (N.D.P.) dates back to an earlier cold warrior, Harry Truman. Currently, promoting the Day is the job of a national task force headed by Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family patriarch Dr. James Dobson. The Capitol event was coordinated by one of the Governor’s legislative deputy directors, Greg Davidson (whose wife sang soprano for the accompanying band, Spirit Junction) in conjunction with Evelyn Davison, who for thirteen years has overseen all official National Day of Prayer activities in central Texas.

When Bush entered the Christian right orbit five years ago, Davison was one of the first stars he encountered. After introducing him at an N.D.P. prayer breakfast, Davison “adopted” the new Governor as part of the “Adopt-a-Leader” program initiated by the national group that year.

Davison prays for George Bush every day. She says she also writes the Governor and speaks regularly with his aides to “encourage him in the areas I think he needs encouragement in.” Although there is no central registry, Davison believes every Texas legislator now has his or her own adoptive “friend” offering encouragement, prayer, and advice. “We have contacts down there and we just kind of know what bills are coming up and that type of thing and just kind of let him know where we feel like the direction he needs to go in to be faithful to what the Scriptures say,” she told Left Field. Davison says the Governor rarely requires “correction,” but when he or other legislators do, “unless it’s blatant … we just ask God to give them wisdom and rain truth in their minds.”

Davison sees “the tax thing” as the most critical issue facing the Governor right now. Regarding the hate crimes bill, which died in the Senate as the Governor refused to support or oppose it, Davison sympathizes with his dilemma. “When you take a right from another person, and give someone else a double right, that is a dichotomy. That is a big decision to make, and I think we already have laws that protect us, and I think the issue is whether they’re enforced or not,” she said. On gun control, Davison was unequivocal: “We live in a world in which children are being abused by evil. It’s not a gun issue, it’s an evil issue.”

Davison says she won’t abandon Bush if he goes off to Washington. Her adoption is for life, she says, or “until the Lord tells me to pick up somebody else and help them.”

Political Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT)

This test consists of one (1) multiple-choice question:

The following is a list of all those countries that the United States has bombed since the end of World War II:

China 1945–46

Guatemala 1960

Cambodia 1969–70

Panama 1989

Korea 1950–53

Vietnam 1961–73

Guatemala 1967–69

Iraq 1991–99

China 1950–53

Congo 1964

Grenada 1983

Sudan 1998

Guatemala 1954

Laos 1964–73

Libya 1986

Afghanistan 1998

Indonesia 1958

Peru 1965

El Salvador 1980s

Yugoslavia 1999

Cuba 1959–60

Nicaragua 1980s

For 100 points: In how many of these instances did a democratic government, respectful of human rights, occur as a direct result?

For your answer, choose one from the following:

(a) 0

(b) zero

(c) none

(d) not a one

(e) a whole number between –1 and +1

Editor’s Note: List for question compiled by historian William Blum

The Green Party

Shortly after Governor George W. Bush referred to the Greeks as the Grecians, his advisors started home-schooling him on foreign policy, bringing in old foreign policy hands like George Schultz and young Turks like Condoleeza Rice. Bush is still a bit tentative — going so far as to criticize Clinton, but not so far as to suggest what sound policy in Yugoslavia might be.

Would Bush, for example, use ground troops in Kosovo? “That’s dependent upon the military advisers that would be advising me,” Bush said.

Where does such equivocating come from? Who, exactly, has had Bush’s ear lately? One clue lies in the unusually high volume of asparagus sold at Austin’s Whole Foods Market in early May. Shortly before being named U.N. envoy on Kosovo, former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt was spotted there, in the company of Karl Rove, Bush’s top advisor. They were shopping for vegetables.

Bildt and several other Scandinavian types were following Rove through the aisles of Whole Foods, the upscale grocery where Austinites spend as much on food as Sweden does on national health care. They were carrying asparagus to the checkout line — huge farmworker armloads of asparagus, enough asparagus for several really generous asparagus dinners. “We only get asparagus like this in Spain,” Bildt said to the checker, who seemed startled to see three men carrying such a bounty.

The appointment books of the White House on Colorado Street confirm that Bush hosted Bildt (who served from 1995-1997 as the U.N.’s man in Bosnia-Herzegovina), and the quality of the Governor’s Yugoslavia critique did peak for a few days after Bildt’s asparagus binge. “The objectives are to return the Kosovars to their home, to remove the Serbs from Kosovo, and to have a settlement that will yield autonomy,” Bush said.

But by mid May, the Governor was back to circular pronouncements about “the military advisers that would be advising me.” And perhaps waiting for Maggie Thatcher. After all, it was Maggie who (in Aspen in 1991) helped push George Sr. into war with Iraq: “This is not the time to go wobbly on us, Mr. President,” the Iron Maiden told him. Like a well-cooked spear of asparagus, The Leader of the Free World must stand firm.

Creeping Wal-Martism

s legions of today’s college students make time for community service, newspapers have taken to saying that campus activism isn’t dead, it’s just less political. Naturally this all depends on what you mean by “political.” Among the many thousands of undergraduates who volunteer in schools are the members of Students In Free Enterprise, an international organization with more than 600 campus chapters, underwritten by a whole slew of companies — like Wal-Mart, Valvoline, and Rubbermaid. Founded in 1975 by a Texas attorney named Sonny Davis (with funding from Southwestern Life Insurance), S.I.F.E., according to its website, gives its members a chance to “tackle issues like illiteracy and the undereducated work force, the dangers of deficit spending and the consequences of excessive government regulation.”

In practice this means, “We teach free enterprise, from kindergarten on up,” said Vicki West of Southwest Texas State University, in a very businesslike phone interview. West is one of two faculty advisers to the S.I.F.E. program at Southwest Texas — the other is Business School Associate Dean Jim Bell — both of whom have been named Sam M. Walton Free Enterprise Fellows for their efforts.

In April, the Southwest Texas team won the S.I.F.E. regional championship in Fort Worth, taking top honors for such programs as “our award-winning cupcake factory project,” said West. “It’s for fourth through sixth grades — we go into schools and teach children how to develop a market survey; we teach them to form a little company, and issue stock certificates, form committees, choose a president of sales, president of finance….” The cupcake factory project was originally developed some twenty years ago, and refined by the 63-person Southwest Texas team, said West. The chapter’s other endeavors include “consulting projects” and a coloring book, called “Seeds to Success.”

Though clearly not one to linger over an interview, West rattled off some statistics for Left Field: the Southwest Texas S.I.F.E. chapter has reached 2,235 students in eighteen cities with its K through third grade outreach programs, 2,721 students in seventy-four cities with its fourth through eighth grade programs, and 573 students in four cities “and Korea” with its high school programs. Over the past year, the chapter “started to realize its potential,” according to a fact sheet later faxed by West’s office. Yet “to become and remain internationally competitive at a top level, SWT SIFE must have dedicated leaders and adequate financial resources,” it continued, pleading for funds. Because even free-market boosters can use a little boosting now and then.