Dog Days at the Lege
On most days in the Texas Senate, it’s easy to forget Sen. Frank Madla is even there. The San Antonio Democrat isn’t one for fiery floor speeches. In committee hearings, he rarely speaks. And major legislation isn’t his forte, either–his prized bill this session addressed the pressing issue of wine distribution. So it’s a bit ironic that as the redistricting bill steams toward a vote in the Senate, all eyes are on Madla.
With the first special session in 10 years stretching into a second week, it’s increasingly clear to Capitol watchers that Madla holds the decisive vote on redistricting. By rule and tradition, 21 of 31 senators must vote to “suspend the Senate’s regular order of business” before any bill can be debated on the floor. This means that if 11 of the 12 Senate Democrats vote against redistricting, the plan will never get debated, much less passed.
Of course, Republicans made a habit of cracking the Democratic caucus during the regular session. The first to flip were usually Sen. Ken Armbrister (D-Victoria), often called a Democrat in name only, Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville), and Madla. By early July, it was widely assumed in the Capitol that Republicans would easily nab Armbrister’s vote. Since Lucio had come out strongly against redistricting, that left only Madla.
Asked recently how he would vote, Madla repeated what he’d said for weeks, that he hadn’t formed a position on redistricting and would wait to see the Senate map. Cryptically, he explained that, “I don’t see any added need in Washington at this time for additional Republican congressmen.” Why then, he was asked, would he consider voting for the plan. Madla, in a spasm of circular logic, said he’d just have to wait to see the map.
That coyness has spawned speculation about Madla’s intentions. If he sells out the Dems and votes for redistricting, Madla could see a strong primary opponent when he faces reelection in 2006. That is, if he runs again. Rumors abound in the Capitol that the 66-year-old Madla, who’s served in the Lege since 1973, is considering retiring from the Senate to work full time in the private sector. These whispers were fed further by speculation that Madla, a business consultant and insurance salesman, is struggling financially. His 2003 financial disclosures, filed with the Texas Ethics Commission, show he’s accumulated significant debt in the past three years. Since 2000, Madla’s accrued at least $6,000 in credit card debt, according to his most recent filing in April. Madla also owed between $5,000 and $10,000 to AT&T Financial Services. That’s in addition to payments on two cars and two bank loans.
If Madla’s looking to retire, he may hope to leverage his vote for any number of political goodies. The horse-trading possibilities include passage of his cherished wine bill, more pork for his district, which runs south and west from San Antonio, or, given his debt, a future lucrative lobbying gig. When queried about possible retirement, Madla was downright defiant. “That’s wishful thinking on the part of certain individuals,” he said. “The people who are saying that I’m not running for reelection have no way of knowing because I haven’t divulged my plans to anyone. I have no intention of quitting unless my constituents make me quit.” Asked if that meant he was definitely running for reelection, Madla hedged, saying he wouldn’t commit to anything at this point. Three years is a lifetime in politics. He then denied that his growing debt would have any impact on his decisions about redistricting or reelection. “I don’t know where in the hell that’s coming from,” he said. Maybe he’s just not used to being the center of attention.
UNDER COVER OF DELAY While most people were caught up watching Tom DeLay-inspired legislative theater–more commonly known as congressional redistricting–the Republican leadership at the Lege was quietly using the special session for other ends: reviving several especially ill-conceived bills that died in the final weeks of the five-month regular session.
Among the measures sneaking their way toward floor votes once more are a family of government reorganization bills that would grant Gov. Rick Perry significantly more power. (For example, one bill would allow Perry to arbitrarily replace all nine members of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission.) Several of these reorganization measures were originally part of Rep. David Swinford’s (R-Dumas) omnibus government reorganization bill that imploded during the regular session’s final weekend. After calling the Legislature into special session to handle redistricting, Perry swiftly added “government reorganization” to the list of pressing issues lawmakers should deal with. Among the bills that fall under that generic heading is House Bill 54, which would exempt from public disclosure any of the governor’s budget working papers. In April, the attorney general’s office ruled Perry had to release his budget worksheets after several media organizations fought to obtain them under the Texas Open Records Act. At press time, Swinford had tabled the bill just before a House vote, though he may yet bring it back. Another measure, HB 56, which the House passed July 10, would limit the term of the insurance commissioner to just one year, and gives the governor more power to determine the requirements for the commissioner’s job. How convenient! No sooner does the Lege enact insurance reform legislation that strengthens the commissioner’s hand when it comes to rate increases, and what does the governor do? He weakens the commissioner’s hand.
Also revived was Sen. Kyle Janek’s (R-Houston) asbestos bill that never managed to get off the ground during the regular session. The legislation, renamed Senate Bill 8, would prevent victims of asbestos inhalation from filing suit until they developed a debilitating condition such as cancer. It’s yet another giveaway to the wealthy Houston tort reform crowd who are big backers of Perry. At press time, the State Affairs Committee had passed the bill to the full Senate.
Not to be outdone, Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), chair of the House Environmental Regulation Committee, has brought back legislation that would “streamline” the permitting process at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. He’s pushing HB 21 and HB 73. Combined, the bills put new limits on the public’s lone administrative weapon against polluters’ permits. At press time, Bonnen was reportedly searching for a Senate sponsor. This legislation was originally known as HB 2877 during the regular session. It died on the House floor on a point of order–one of the few giveaways to industry that failed this session.
Of course, for some people, too much is never enough. The Republican leadership got virtually everything it wanted during the regular session. But virtually everything just wouldn’t suffice. Now, while the redistricting battle dominates headlines, the leadership is back to gobble up the legislative crumbs.
DEFINITELY ONE TO WATCH
In early May, the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, the same folks who gave us the Third Way and the New Democrats, released its list of 100 New Democrats to Watch. The only Texas selection was Corpus Christi’s Jaime Capelo. It was a curious choice, to say the least. If you’re looking for rising Democratic stars in the Lege these days, you could probably do better than Capelo. For one, he allied himself with House Speaker Tom Craddick and the new Republican leadership. Then he co-authored the fairly hideous tort reform legislation, House Bill 4, and helped Rep. Joe Nixon (R-Houston) shepherd it through the House. Now Capelo may soon come under investigation in Corpus Christi for allegedly accepting a kickback in exchange for settling a lawsuit.
The allegations stem from Capelo’s work as local defense counsel for CITGO Petroleum Corporation in a civil suit related to a 1997 explosion at a Corpus Christi refinery. CITGO settled the suit earlier this year. But after the settlement, plaintiffs’ attorney Rene Rodriguez allegedly wrote Capelo a check for $100,000. The allegations became public in June when CITGO attorneys filed an affidavit in the 148th District Court of Nueces County. The affidavit claims Rodriguez and Capelo “‘worked a deal’ whereby they agreed that, as part of settlement in this matter…Capelo would personally receive a payment for his part in negotiating a settlement.”
According to the affidavit, when Capelo was confronted by his partners at Chaves Gonzales and Hoblit about the payment, he said the money was a referral payment for a medical malpractice case he had steered to Rodriguez. But Capelo couldn’t provide his partners many details about the medical malpractice case, and he later resigned. The affidavit further states that Capelo tried to defend himself to CITGO attorney Jeffrey Sherwood by saying that the “politics in Corpus Christi relating to tort reform were very ‘hot’ and that numerous false accusations had been made against him.”
In a statement released July 7, Capelo said, “I want to assure everyone that the allegation of wrong doing presently being aired through the media is completely untrue.” He was unavailable for further comment, according to his Capitol office. Corpus District Attorney Carlos Valdez is considering a criminal investigation, reports the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.
As for the DLC, executive director Chuck Alston said he had no idea about the kickback allegations. But he added that Capelo wouldn’t be taken off the top 100 list. “We don’t want to make anybody look bad,” he said. So far, Capelo’s done a decent job of that on his own.
AEI’s APB on NGOs
You’ve got to hand it to those right-wingers at the American Enterprise Institute: a least they have a sense of humor. AEI has launched an assault on the scourge of the free world: non-governmental organizations, or NGOs. Last month, the AEI held a conference to discuss the perils of NGOs and it also launched a website, ngowatch.org, which claims that NGOs “have strayed beyond their original mandates and assumed quasi-governmental roles. Increasingly, non-governmental organizations are not just accredited observers at international organizations, they are full-fledged decision-makers.”
The ngowatch.org website, which AEI is running in a partnership with the equally right-wing Federalist Society, currently contains only a handful of profiles of the evil NGOs who are now running the world. But its portrayal of several groups gives a good indication of AEI’s bias. For instance, the site says that Human Rights Watch, a group that investigates and reports on governmental and non-governmental human rights abuses around the world, “promotes sexual orientation rights,” “denounces abstinence from sex programs,” and, horror of horrors, “demands release of some detainees at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay.” Never mind that nearly 700 men are being held at the camp (built by Halliburton Co.) without being charged, or without access to legal assistance.
Tom Malinowski, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch, says the AEI program “is too pathetic to be worthy of comment. It’s a wacky, ideologically driven effort that no one here takes to seriously.” He said the portrayal of his group is overly simplistic. As for the Guantanamo Bay detainees, he said his group “pleads guilty to agreeing with every U.S. ally” that some of the captives should be set free.
Underlying the AEI’s attack on NGOs is a fairly astounding bit of myopia. In promoting their June 11 conference on the dangers of rising NGO power, the AEI said that the “growing power of supranational organizations and a loose set of rules governing the accreditation of NGOs has meant that an unelected few have access to growing and unregulated power.” Hmmm. Just last February President George W. Bush boasted that his administration now has 20 former AEI personnel in its ranks — all but one of them unelected. Those AEI veterans include Vice President Dick Cheney and super-hawk Richard Perle, the former chairman and current member of the Defense Policy Board, an unelected and secretive body which advises the Secretary of Defense. To keep it in the family, the vice president’s wife, uber-conservative Lynne Cheney, is listed as a “senior fellow” on AEI’s web site as well.
Given AEI’s pedigree and its obvious influence within the Bush Administration, would it be too boorish to note that AEI is an NGO?