Political Intelligence



Mark Strama says there are two languages he speaks that have served him well on the campaign trial. The first is Spanish. An estimated 16 percent of the statehouse district Strama hopes to wrest away from incumbent Republican Jack Stick this November is Hispanic. “I also speak geek,” he says with a laugh. In a district at the center of tech-rich Central Texas, being a wonk is a definite advantage. Most new voters in the district are Internet minded, he says. But the candidate’s high-tech experience has also translated into innovative campaign techniques that future candidates will likely be replicating in years to come.

While post-Howard Dean, Internet fundraising is all the rage, Strama has met with particular success—$75,000 contributed online at press time—and added a few new twists. (As of the October reporting period, Strama had out-raised Stick by $348,000 to $305,000.) Strama has created software that allows those who organize fundraising events on his behalf to send out customized e-mails to potential donors. The system then allows the fundraising host to track totals from the e-mails as well as who has contributed.

Strama has also used the Internet to streamline campaign logistics, making his field effort more efficient. His campaign built a self-updating password protected web page that allows volunteers to identify the polling place closest to their homes and the hours to work at them best suited to their schedules.

Ultimately, at least for now, technology cannot replace shoe-leather campaigning and television commercials. Strama has done both. (Jack Stick declined to make himself available for an Observer interview). The campaign has knocked on 8,500 doors in the district and has television ads running in the Austin media market. Strama says he has encountered a great deal of anger at incumbents. “People feel the Legislature has lost its way and that it needs to return to balance and bipartisanship,” he says.


When the Legislature gave glowing approval for a nuclear waste dump site in West Texas in 2003, critics feared that the Lone Star State would become the country’s dumpster for radioactive waste. A year later, the meager limits the Lege put in place are already melting down.

Waste Control Specialists, the Dallas-based private company that will run the Andrews County waste site, is trying to amend its state permit to allow for more hazardous waste from around the nation. The current limit is 280,000 cubic feet of waste; WCS seeks to quadruple that limit to 1.5 million cubic feet. The company also wants permission from the state to bring uranium waste to Texas from a failed Department of Energy site in Ohio that officials in Nevada and Utah have already rejected. (The attorney general of Nevada even threatened a lawsuit to keep the stuff out of his state.)

WCS officials argue that all this nuclear waste really isn’t that dangerous, and can be transported to, and stored in, Andrews County without risk. But Richard Ratliff, a radiation officer with the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), says the Ohio waste is at least four times (and up to 140 times) more radioactive than the average gram of uranium refuse. “It’s packed with radium and thorium,” says the Sierra Club’s Margot Clarke. “It’s been described as one of the hottest wastes in the country. It’s very hard to contain this stuff.”

Early next year, DSHS will make a recommendation on whether to approve WCS’s dual requests. The issue will then go before an administrative law judge for a public hearing. While that issue simmers, even more toxic trash could be on the way. Nebraska recently offered Texas $30 million to accept its radioactive waste. WCS isn’t likely to turn away deals like that. Says the Sierra Club’s Clarke, “They make more money by collecting more waste.” For WCS, profit is colored radioactive green.


Between October 5th and October 9th, the tiny Lone Star Iconoclast (circulation 900) received more than 700 letters to the editor and 6,000 hits on its website. Suffice it to say, all the attention wasn’t because there were inaccuracies in the farm report. Rather, it seemed some folks were highly peeved that the Crawford weekly had the gall to repudiate the hometown presidential candidate and instead endorse Senator John Kerry for president.

Judging by their outraged reaction, the good people of Crawford may have wondered if Osama bin Laden himself had secretly commandeered their community rag. The paper’s publisher is Leon Smith, a fairly conservative Texan with a white beard and jolly face. Smith had endorsed Bush in 2000 “based on the things he promised, not this smoke screen agenda,” read the Kerry endorsement. “There were elements of a hidden agenda that surfaced only after he took office.”

The fallout in Crawford has been swift and predictable: Subscriptions canceled, ads pulled. Smith wrote in a follow-up editorial that there was an effort in town to run the paper out of business, and that Iconoclast reporters had been physically threatened while covering local events. That’s the compassionate conservative part.

The Iconoclast posted many of the letters it received on its website. Most took the World Wrestling Federation approach to political discourse: “You must be the biggest idiot newspaper in the whole country. John Kerry is a big liar and so are you!” That was one of the more G-rated responses. Others seemed put out by the very idea of dissent: “I am embarrassed and sad that someone who names his paper after the great State of Texas could have the audacity to take a public position against our President. President Bush and the first Lady represent everything real TEXANS and CHRISTIANS stand for today.”

The paper also received lots of laudatory letters from blue-staters and Kerry supporters around the country. There were also notes of gratitude from fellow besieged Texans, “Your straightforward and honest endorsement of John Kerry makes me proud to be a Texan and shows the rest of the world that Texas is not just some backwater full of right-wing zombies.”