Republicans are scrambling to malign Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle in order to cast doubts on a grand jury investigation of possible campaign violations during the 2002 election. The inquiry centers in part on U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land) and an organization he helped found, Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC). As part of the sputtering offensive, DeLay spokesperson Jonathan Grella recently told the Associated Press that, “Ronnie Earle has stooped to the level of subpoenaing the majority leader’s daughter, whose role was limited to selecting the caterer for a function. Who’s next? The florist?”
So, all she did was select the caterer? Interesting. According to TRMPAC’s tax returns, the group paid DeLay’s daughter, Danielle Ferro, and her fund-raising firm nearly $30,000 in monthly installments during the 2002 election cycle. Either Grella isn’t telling the whole truth or Ferro actually received all that cash simply for selecting a caterer. If the task took, say, two days, that works out to roughly $2,000 an hour, $320,000 a month, or an annual salary of $3.8 million. To which we ask, how do you get that gig? And what were they paying the florist?
INFORMATION IS POWER
It seemed at first blush rather predictable. What would be the result of a 2001 Texas racial profiling law that required local police and sheriff’s departments to gather info and report on the ethnicity of all suspects in traffic stops and searches? It wasn’t hard to guess that the data would show police departments across the state use racial profiling widely, singling out blacks and Latinos for special scrutiny. But as Will Harrell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas (ACLU) observes, you can’t manage a problem until you assess it. When the ACLU recently made a public records request for the racial profiling data compiled in 2002 from more than 1,000 Texas law enforcement offices across the state, it only received a 40-percent response rate. Yet the results have set off tremors that will be rippling through Texas for years to come.
The data that was reported paints an even more disturbing picture than many suspected. Approximately three out of four law enforcement agencies reported stopping blacks and Latinos at higher rates than Anglos, according to a study by the Texas Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (TCJRC), the ACLU, the League of United Latin American Citizens of Texas (LULAC), and the Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches (NAACP). People of color are also much more likely to be searched: Approximately six out of every seven law enforcement agencies reported searching blacks and Latinos at higher rates than Anglos following traffic stops.
Harrell says the paucity of the response from Texas police officials can be attributed to everything from a willful disregard of the law to general confusion over how to interpret the statute. Anticipating the possibility of problems, the ACLU held a conference in Austin in January 2003 where more than 250 police officials learned about the legislation and a methodology for collecting and reporting the data. Nonetheless, a number of departments seem intent on disobeying state lawmakers, according to the ACLU.
“Some agencies are cooking these numbers like methamphetamines,” says Harrell.
But what’s more surprising than the numbers is the effect they are having in minority communities. The coalition that pushed the law through the Legislature is holding 11 town hall meetings across the state. Hundreds of activists are meeting at these public forums to discuss racial profiling. (Texas is the only state of the 14 that have racial profiling laws to hold such meetings.) The 2001 law requires police and sheriff’s departments to report their racial profiling data directly to city councils and county commissions, so the public can ultimately hold elected officials accountable for the behavior of their law enforcement employees. And those in attendance are vowing to do just that.
As the Observer went to press, forums in Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Tyler had already been held. Anecdotal testimony at the events has revealed at least one tactic police appear to be using to circumvent reporting requirements, according to Harrell. Per the statute, police are supposed to indicate ethnicity on the citations they issue, but it appears some officers are marking down people of color as Anglos. “In Fort Worth, one guy didn’t even speak English and the officer marked him as white,” says Harrell.
The shared public testimony is spawning a grassroots leadership, say participants. The forums also signal what is likely a historic alliance between black and brown activists in Texas. “Even in places where we didn’t have a history of working together,” says LULAC policy director Ana Yanez Correa, “by the end of the town hall meetings, we are not only seeing them getting along but also a commitment to work together on issues.”
The issue of racial profiling clearly resonates in a state where minorities are likely already the majority of the population. “We don’t ask ourselves if this is a black or brown issue; we know it,” says Yanez Correa. “And it extends beyond just traffic stops. In order to get decent medical care or to obtain housing we are often racially profiled. We are also being racially profiled in our schools—even just walking on the street.”
A HEALTHY MOVE?
You can’t blame Albert Hawkins if he wants to get the hell out of Dodge or, in this case, Austin. Hawkins heads the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC), a large hunk of the state bureaucracy that administers, among other things, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. He served as George W. Bush’s budget director when Bush was governor, and he’s known as an ace numbers man. With the state facing a $10 billion budget gap last January, Hawkins returned from a White House post to run HHSC. But before Hawkins could make any budget decisions, newly empowered right-wing state lawmakers seized on the budget shortfall as an excuse to remold the state’s entire social safety net to fit their vision of limited government. Twelve state agencies will be folded into five. Numerous services have been cut and many others will be privatized. As HHSC commissioner, Hawkins has been charged with implementing this new monstrosity without imploding the system on which millions of Texans depend.
That wasn’t exactly what Hawkins signed on for. So it’s not surprising that rumors have zipped around Austin recently that Hawkins will step down in the coming weeks to return to Washington. HHSC spokesperson Russell Smith, however, denies that his boss will resign. “We’ve heard also the rumors of Commissioner Hawkins leaving,” he says. “There’s no truth to them. He’s not going anywhere.”
If Hawkins is considering resignation, two factors involved in the decision could be Governor Rick Perry’s staff and Arlene Wohlgemuth, the state rep who crafted the re-org legislation. Wohlgemuth is now running for Congress, while also trying to micromanage the overhaul, sources at the Capitol and HHSC say. Wohlgemuth has reportedly pressed Hawkins to eliminate the state offices that enroll Texans in programs like Medicaid, welfare, and food stamps, and replace them with privately run call centers. Hawkins and top HHSC officials are said to be less than enamored of the idea. Neither Kathy Walt, spokesperson for the governor’s office, or Wohlgemuth aide Todd Smith responded to requests for comment.
Hawkins’ bosses at the Capitol seem to have made sure he fills his staff with managers who have the right political outlook. Gregg Phillips—a former Republican campaign operative and architect of Mississippi’s failed effort to privatize its welfare system—was hired to oversee the HHSC re-org [see “Send Out the Clowns,” October 24, 2003]. More recently, HHSC hired Sidonie Squier, an import from Florida’s own drive to privatize health and human services, as policy director of family services, which oversees Medicaid and CHIP. Her resume reads like a greatest hits tour of the Right’s efforts to reduce or eliminate social services. Squier was a speechwriter and campaign aide for former California Governor Pete Wilson and later a spokesperson for Wilson’s cash-starved department of social services; a key cog in Michigan Governor John Engler’s controversial welfare overhaul; and a top official in Jeb Bush’s troubled health and human services department. Squier replaced Judy Denton, a long-time, well-respected state employee with years of experience with Medicaid. HHSC inexplicably didn’t consider Denton for her own job, said sources inside the agency. Denton’s status is now in limbo.
With morale at HHSC reportedly plummeting, it’s little wonder Hawkins might be thinking of resignation. If Hawkins does step down, it would open one of the state’s most powerful bureaucratic posts to be filled by an ideologue masquerading as a state health official.
RACE TO THE RIGHT
Texas Congressional District 10 used to be known for its history of solid Democratic and liberal representation—folks like Lyndon Johnson, Jake Pickle, and Lloyd Doggett. Thanks to Tom DeLay’s recent gerrymandering, the winner of the March 9th Republican primary will be unchallenged come November in the newly drawn CD 10 that stretches from Austin all the way to Houston. From a look at the campaigns of the eight Republicans who are running in the primary, it’s clear they believe the votes that count will come from the party’s hardcore committed activists. Their efforts to pander to the activist fringe have made for campaign pledges that grow nuttier by the day.
Candidate Dave Phillips is proposing “tax incentives to re-energize exploration.” In other words, just keep cutting taxes, and who knows what America will discover. Candidate Brad Tashenberg, on the other hand, brags on his web site about learning tax-cutting jujitsu at the highest dojo in the land, the Heritage Foundation—or as he puts it, “the most conservative think tank in America.”
A retired airline pilot from Brenham, candidate Pat Elliott wants to exterminate all the fire ants in Texas. But don’t get Elliott wrong; the Republican candidate is no friend to big government. If elected, Elliott says he would study the tax code, pinpoint the pesky ant restrictions, and crush them. “Private enterprise should be the ones to do this,” says Elliott. “Just give them some tax incentives, some profit motives, and they’ll find an answer.”
Get rid of the taxes, and you’ll get rid of the ants. Got it?
It’s a philosophy that Elliott extends to other corners of government. He also wants to eliminate the marriage tax, the military tax, the manufacturing tax, the property tax, the personal income tax, and the inheritance tax. All America needs, says Elliott, is a flat sales tax.
But it’s candidate Ben Streusand who is promising to hog-tie the ultimate beast of federal burden. Elliott can have his ants. Streusand is proposing to eradicate the Internal Revenue Service in toto. Perhaps that’s the kind of pest control Tom DeLay had in mind when he helped create the new 10th District.