Political Intelligence

Ranting and Railing

For decades, powerful Houston Republicans like U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land) have fought rail through every means at their disposal including denying the city federal public transportation funds. This time, the light rail plan had consistently led in the polls but a last-minute barrage of advertising by anti-rail groups had narrowed the gap. Since Houston has some of the worst traffic in the nation and the skies are fouled with pollution, rail foes all but ceded the need for some form of public transportation, and instead chose to attack Metro’s plan as paradoxically too limited and too expensive.

Increasingly isolated, the suburban developers and highway contractors who have ensured that Houston is one of the only major metropolitan cities without rail felt compelled to cover their naked self-interest. To do so, they created an organization called Texans for True Mobility. They claimed it was an educational organization sponsoring “issue ads” not a political action committee involved in an electoral campaign. Their attorney, Andy Taylor—the same lawyer defending the Texas Association of Business, which is under investigation by a Travis County grand jury for a similar strategy in the 2002 elections (See “Rise of the Machine,” August 29, 2003)—argued that to reveal the names of the group’s donors and the amount of contributions would be a violation of free speech. It is unclear how much Texans for True Mobility spent but pro-rail campaigners estimate it was at least $2 million.

After the Houston Chronicle and Common Cause Texas complained about the lack of disclosure, Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal launched an investigation. At press time, the inquiry was still underway. A pro-rail group also filed a lawsuit seeking damages double the sum collected and spent by Texans for True Mobility.

Unfortunately, despite the electoral victory, those hoping for a sane transportation system in Houston are not in the clear yet. The non-partisan mayoral race held on the same day resulted in a run-off between Democrat Bill White and Republican Orlando Sanchez to be held on December 6. White has vowed to support the rail plan while Sanchez opposes it. The mayor of Houston appoints five of the nine members of the Metro board and thus can effectively kill any plan. Despite the initial bond issue, full completion of the project is expected to cost $7.5 billion and will require considerable federal support.

The only Texan on the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation is a committed rail foe, U.S. Rep. John Culberson (R-Houston). Culberson and DeLay promised to support the plan if approved by the voters. Since they are two of the most powerful men in Congress, if White becomes mayor, they will have little cover if they fail to deliver for Houston.

Former President George H.W. Bush’s tribute to Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) on Nov. 7 at Texas A&M University felt like a return to a bygone era. Kennedy was in College Station to receive the annual George Bush Award for Excellence in Public Service from the former president. The two aging political rivals sat on the same stage in red leather arm-chairs and joked like old fraternity brothers about the barbs of past campaigns.


GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER

“It is a well-known political fact of life, particularly here in Texas, that when you want to fire up a Republican crowd—and give them a little ‘red meat’—nothing works quite like jumping on Ted Kennedy,” Bush joked. He admitted successfully employing the tactic himself on a number of occasions. Kennedy laughed and feigned walking off stage in protest, inciting more laughter. The scene recalled the days when there was a difference between campaigning and governing; in the former, one could sling mud but it was expected that upon taking office, the candidate would put the country first and work at building consensus.

Outside the auditorium, today’s prevailing political tone of sneering partisanship raged in full force. Four dozen members of the Young Conservatives of Texas (YCT) gathered for a protest of Kennedy’s appearance in College Station and of Bush’s decision to honor him. Some wore anti-Kennedy t-shirts, others toted homemade signs whose messages—”Absolut Kennedy: 80 proof,” and “Go Home Yankee”—demonstrated the elevated political discourse at work.

A scorching speech by Kennedy in October on the Senate floor questioning the truthfulness of George W. Bush’s case for a preemptive war in Iraq had further inflamed the conservative shock troops at A&M. The notion that the president’s father would now honor such a traitor was apparently more than the protesters could stand. “While YCT certainly respects former President H.W. Bush and his role in selecting the recipient of this award, we have too much respect for Texas A&M, the state of Texas, and the current President of the United States to not make it clear Ted Kennedy does not represent Aggie Values,” said chapter Chairman Matthew Maddox in a press release. In making its case, the group accused the senator of being a drunk, a socialist, an abortionist, an obstructionist, and a murderer. For good measure, they also dredged up an alleged cheating scandal at Harvard nearly 50 years ago.

The decision to designate Kennedy the first American to receive the Bush Award (Mikhail Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl were the previous honorees) was made back in January. The Bush Presidential Library Foundation Committee recommended Kennedy, and Bush the elder endorsed the choice. Kennedy’s public service merits are, of course, impressive: His 41 years in the Senate make him that body’s second-longest serving member.

In his speech, Kennedy offered a subtle shot at the current president by comparison. Bush Sr., Kennedy said, was a “caring” and “inclusive” president who constructed a multilateral foreign policy in the post-Cold War “new world order.” He then said, perhaps with Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz in mind, “In this new world order, we need to take a wider view. No one has all the answers.” Kennedy was interrupted by two hecklers in the auditorium. One older man stood and shouted, “You’re hurting America,” before being escorted out. Another man pithily yelled, “Shut up.”

After Kennedy’s speech, everybody headed up George Bush Drive to the presidential library, where Bush and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft presented Kennedy with the award. As the ceremony drew to a close, it became clear what Bush and his inner circle were hoping to get across by honoring Kennedy. “The senator from Massachusetts has often reached out to form consensus where possible. He is a true point of light,” said Scowcroft, one of Bush’s closest confidants. “The message of tonight…is bipartisanship. That’s what makes us so strong as a country.” Judging by the reaction of protesters, hecklers, and radio talk show hosts, that’s not a message the radical right cares to hear.

A LOSING HAND?

Former Reagan Secretary of Education, self-appointed morals watchdog, and inveterate Las Vegas gambler William Bennett is on a losing streak in Texas. The University of North Texas decided this week not to apply for a “virtual” school charter that would likely have contracted with Bennett’s online education company, K12, Inc. This is strike two for Bennett. The Texas House of Representatives voted down a bill authored by Education Committee Chair Kent Grusendorf (R-Arlington) last spring that would have created a similar “virtual” charter schools program. Both efforts seemed tailor-made for K12, a virtual education conglomerate that provides software, online curriculum, and electronic access to teachers.

In its inaugural year, UNT’s virtual school would have claimed $13 million in state funding, and was scheduled for rapid expansion. Within five years, the school planned to enroll 7,500 students and net just under $49 million a year. Students enrolled in the virtual charter school would have worked from home, with curriculum supplied online. Teachers, also working from home, would have communicated regularly with students via electronic media, and, occasionally, on the phone.

When UNT announced its intention to apply for the charter, Bennett’s company was the only vendor under consideration. UNT planned to ask the State Board of Education for several adjustments to charter school rules and state education requirements. The university would have sought a more flexible definition of “school day” and “school year” and expanded class sizes up to 60 students for every teacher.

Controversies about those waivers, and the dubious legality of “virtual” charters themselves, led the university to withdraw consideration of its application from the November Board of Education agenda. (The university’s own College of Education declined to participate in the running of the virtual school. Dean Jean Keller says the college prefers to train “more traditional” teachers.)

There’s a tidy profit to be made in state-sponsored online education. Under the virtual charter school proposals floated to date, virtual “schools,” like traditional charter schools, are paid by the head. Charter schools receive a per-student payment that approximates the state’s average spending on public school students. Of course, unlike public schools—or traditional charter schools—”virtual” schools don’t pay massive overhead costs like construction, maintenance, and transportation. Expanded class sizes cut down on salary costs and benefits which means more money for vendors like K12 that supply hardware, software, and curriculum.

Bipartisan opposition to Grusendorf’s HB 1554 last April stressed the folly of taking money from the Foundation Schools Program at a time when the Legislature was slashing teacher health insurance and delaying textbook purchasing. (The same argument has been used to counter vouchers.) Some critics have also worried that previously home-schooled students would enroll in virtual schools, stretching the state’s education dollars even thinner.

Despite a substantial lobbying push by K12, the bill was quashed in the House by a healthy margin. But the odds are, we haven’t heard the last of virtual charter schools in Texas. Containing elements of decentralization and privatization, virtual charter schools—once popular only with a fringe element who fear the socialist indoctrination of “government schools”—may be moving onto the mainstream right’s agenda.

Bennett’s no doubt betting on it.

WE KNOW HOW THIS MOVIE REALLY ENDS

It was back to the future as Charlie Wilson returned to Austin for the Texas Book Festival earlier this month. In his booming baritone, the former state senator from Lufkin (also former Congressman from East Texas and a longtime lobbyist for the government of Pakistan) repeatedly uttered a phrase not heard much since Ronald Reagan left Washington, D.C.—”Evil Empire.” Wilson was joined in the Senate Chamber by veteran 60 Minutes producer George Crile, author of Charlie Wilson’s War, a breathless, made-for-Hollywood adventure story that Crile describes as the most successful CIA operation in history—the arming and financing of the mujahedeen and the defeat of the Soviet Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s. All of that, he explained, was done right under the nose of the U.S. Congress, thanks to the man that the press used to call “Goodtime Charlie” for his hedonistic antics. (And a CIA agent whose main claim to fame was having served as the right-hand man to the right-wing Colonels who ruled Greece with an iron fist following the coup in 1967—a charming bunch of fellows.)

In fact, the Charlie Wilson story is so made for Hollywood that Tom Hanks bought the film rights and will play the congressman from Lufkin. (Sharon Stone is a top candidate to play Joanne Herring, according to the Houston Chronicle. Herring, now Joanne Davis, is the former member of the arch-conservative Minutewomen-turned TV host-turned Honorary Pakistani Consul and champion of the late dictator Zia ul Haq. It was Herring who initially recruited Wilson to the cause of the mujahedeen.) Despite its lionizing portrait of Wilson, Crile’s book is highly educational. He describes, for example, how Wilson’s CIA sidekick was able to enter and leave Langley at will—at a time when he was supposed to be banned from CIA headquarters from having twice told a higher-up to go fuck himself.

Now, that’s security for you. There’s lots of information about how the Appropriations Committee really works and the wonderful wacky world of the arms business. Unfortunately, everyone has seen this real-life movie already and knows how it really ends. (Wilson’s legacy, of course, includes a scary number of should-fired missiles leftover from the Afghan odyssey.) Listening to Charlie in his old hunting grounds at the Capitol, it was hard not to recall Henry Kissinger and Oriana Fallaci. In his infamous 1973 interview with the Italian journalist, Kissinger confessed, “I’ve always acted alone. Americans like that immensely. Americans like the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead along on his horse…This amazing, romantic character suits me precisely…” As Fallaci later said of Kissinger, “If I were a cowboy, I’d be offended.” And if Charlie Wilson is a hero, than we’re Mother Theresa and the Queen of Sheba rolled into one.

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