Political Intelligence

In this world timing is everything—but place is right up there, too. And what better place to exhibit a collection of photographs called “Denied: the Crisis of America’s Uninsured†than the Texas state capitol? After all, one out of every four Texans lacks medical insurance, the highest percentage of uninsured of any state. Moreover, Texas is home to that great humanitarian, former state GOP Chairwoman Susan Weddington, best-known for her Marie Antoinette impression during the 2003 budget debate. (Weddington suggested that families whose children were removed from CHIP would simply have to buy their own health insurance and “maybe have a little less disposable income or a little less inheritance from mom and dad.â€)

And so it was only fitting that “Denied,†20 powerful black-and-white photographs documenting the lives of just a handful of the more than 44 million Americans who lack medical insurance, was displayed at the Capitol from September 17 to 24. The exhibit was part of a six-city Texas tour, beginning in El Paso, that was sponsored by the nonprofit coalition Health Care for All Texans. The work of photographer Ed Kashi and writer Julie Winokur, “Denied†is an effort to educate the public on the realities faced by families who live without health insurance, such as the Wessenbergs of Coppell, a suburb of Dallas. The Wessenbergs once earned more than $100,000 a year and lived with their two children in a 2,200-square-foot townhouse. Seemingly overnight their lives changed when Sheila was diagnosed with breast cancer and her husband Jim lost his high-paying computer-programming job. When Kashi and Winokur met the Wessenbergs, Sheila’s cancer had spread to her brain, and Jim had taken a new job making $11 an hour. The family, who also have an autistic son, was no longer able to pay monthly insurance premiums of more than $800. Sheila had begun panhandling to pay for groceries and other necessities. Among the other photographs in “Denied†is a particularly striking image of Marcia Felts Wimberly. With her stylish blazer, silver pin, and jeweled earrings, Felts Wimberly looks like a poster child for prosperity and propriety as she recites the pledge of allegiance at a mayor’s breakfast for community leaders. But as Winokur explains in the accompanying text, Felts Wimberly was photographed shortly after leaving her abusive husband. She had stayed in the marriage just to have health benefits to pay for a much-needed operation. Now, she is barely scraping by.

As Winokur and Kashi point out, the majority of uninsured Americans are neither poor by official standards nor unemployed. In fact, seven out of 10 uninsured Americans come from families in which at least one adult is working. “It’s not a sexy subject,†Kashi told the Observer. “But we have to bolt through the apathy.†The photographs, he explained, “are a good way to get people to react… to get people’s attention and empathy.â€

“Denied†has also been exhibited in the state capitols of New York and California, as well as the Empire State Building. It ends its Texas tour at the downtown branch of the Houston Public Library, October 13-18.


Perhaps the most interesting—and most underreported—element of the current presidential campaign is the growing schism between the Bush Administration and the fiscal conservatives in the GOP. A key part of George W. Bush’s stump speech these days is his argument that the tax cuts of 2003 should be made permanent. It’s the same supply-side economics argument the GOP has been touting for the last two and a half decades: Lower taxes will mean more jobs, more investment, and that will ultimately mean more tax revenue for the government.

During his 1980 bid for the White House, George H.W. Bush famously derided this approach as “voodoo economics.†Democrats have long argued the same. But forget the elder Bush and the Democrats for a moment. Instead, consider this assessment, “In retrospect it seems incomprehensible that anyone ever believed supply-side theory would work.†Instead, “spending increased and your generation was left with the bill.â€

That’s from the last chapter of Pete Peterson’s new book, Running On Empty. Peterson is a staunch Republican, an insider’s insider. He’s the chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations and former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. His book is a treatise on the dangers of the massive debt that the Bush Administration—and previous administrations—have run up. This year’s federal deficit will exceed $400 billion. Add in entitlements and future obligations, says Peterson, and the U.S. faces a national debt that totals some $74 trillion. On September 8, Bruce Bartlett, of the conservative National Center for Policy Analysis, a Dallas-based think tank, wrote in the National Review that Bush’s addition of new entitlements, particularly the new prescription drug benefit for Medicare is fiscally reckless. “It goes without saying,†writes Bartlett, “that if any private corporation had behaved the way the government has, it would soon find its executives being sentenced by a federal judge.â€

So now that GOP stalwarts are attacking Bush’s reckless fiscal policies, the key question is: Will voters pay attention?


Every hot streak comes to an end. On September 14, the law of Texas—not to mention the law of averages—caught up with the owners of illegal 8-liner game rooms in Montague Country (TO, “Texas Hold ’Em,†July 16, 2004). Finally, it was the owners’ turn to lose big.

Shortly after 9:30 p.m. in the sleepy rural county northwest of Dallas, law enforcement agents began storming one game room after another, serving warrants, confiscating cash, and disabling the video poker and video slot machines. By dawn the next morning, the raid had netted $36,000 in cash and closed down seven game rooms, including Grand Ma’s in Fruitland, Dice’s in Nocona, one in Montague, and four others in Bowie.

“There may be some people out there who will question these raids and say that these are just harmless games being played by consenting adults,†District Attorney Tim Cole said the next morning. “We know differently. These particular games prey on people who can least afford the losses.â€

Last year, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the 8-liner game rooms violated state law. The ruling gave local law enforcement agents a clear mandate to shut down any game room handing out winnings in cash or cash equivalents. But in recent times, Montague County had earned a reputation for tolerating the mini-casinos. As a result, the game rooms flourished, turning the area into a ramshackle North Texas Monte Carlo. This past July, spurred on by a growing number of complaints from residents and increased local media scrutiny after the Observer’s story, County Attorney Jeb McNew and District Attorney Cole bypassed the flat-footed sheriff’s department and met with state law enforcement agents from the Texas Department of Public Safety. Afterward, members of the state’s Special Crimes Unit launched a two-month undercover operation that eventually culminated in the busts. During the raids, officers confiscated two or three machines from each facility and disabled the rest. McNew says that he and the district attorney are still sorting through the evidence. Misdemeanor and felony charges against the owners could be forthcoming.

“I think it’s going to be good for the county,†says Wade Shelton, a semi-retired sewing machine mechanic who led local opposition to the game rooms. “There were a lot of people who weren’t paying their bills, who couldn’t pay their bills because they were playing these machines.†Shelton, for one, feels confident that the days of illegal casinos in Montague County are over. But he worries that unless the district attorney follows through and prosecutes the owners, they will simply move to neighboring counties.


You wouldn’t normally expect an attorney to concoct a false kickback allegation about himself. But that’s apparently the explanation behind year-old charges of a payoff between Corpus Christi attorney Rene Rodriguez and now lame-duck state Rep. Jaime Capelo (D-Corpus Christi). The kickback was simply a creation of Rodriguez’s imagination, according to a recently concluded State Bar of Texas investigation. Confused? Welcome to the theater of the absurd that is Corpus politics.

The kickback charges arose from litigation over a 1997 explosion at a CITGO refinery in Corpus. Rodriguez filed a class-action suit against CITGO on behalf of injured rescue workers. The company tapped Capelo as its local defense attorney. The two sides settled the case in 2002, but in April 2003, a court affidavit surfaced with an incendiary claim: Rodriguez told an associate that he paid Capelo $100,000 in exchange for a settlement in the CITGO case.

The kickback allegation added to an already fierce power struggle among the Corpus political elite. As the Observer chronicled last winter (TO, “Politicos Conflictivos,†January 30, 2004), a rift exploded in the Corpus Democratic party following a contentious state senate primary race in 2002. Rodriguez and Capelo contended that, gosh-golly, it was all just a big misunderstanding. Nevertheless, they landed in the middle of a legal and political furor that spawned three civil suits, and a FBI investigation. Capelo was fired from his law firm and lost his bid for reelection last in the Democratic primary last March.

The state bar began investigating the two attorneys in summer 2003. Its recently released report sides with Rodriguez and Capelo’s version of events: There never was any kickback. Rodriguez, according to the state bar, was supposed to pay Capelo a $10,000 referral fee for a medical malpractice case. Instead Rodriguez’s office mistakenly sent Capelo a check for $100,000. When Rodriguez realized the clerical error and asked for the money back, Capelo refused. According the state bar, an irate Rodriguez decided to get back at Capelo and force him to pay up. So he told one of Capelo’s law partners that the $100,000 payment was actually a kickback. The plan backfired badly. While Capelo eventually returned the money, his law partners informed CITGO of the kickback allegations. CITGO then filed the affidavit. The charges went public and blew up from there.

Capelo and Rodriguez still face legal troubles. While the state bar cleared them of the kickback story, it filed a misconduct complaint against Capelo for initially not returning the $100,000, and against Rodriguez for conjuring up the kickback rumor. An administrative panel in Corpus will hear Capelo’s case. Rodriguez has chosen to defend himself in district court. Both could be reprimanded, suspended or disbarred. There are no added penalties for stupidity.

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Published at 12:00 am CST