Political Intelligence

Bump & Grind and Those Left Behind

LEGISLATORS GONE WILD State Rep. Al Edwards has probably earned more attention recently for his sexually suggestive cheerleader bill than for his last 15 years’ worth of bills combined. Edwards’ staff said the Houston Democrat has given more than 60 interviews in the past few weeks about his House Bill 1476 (what fellow Houston Rep. Garnet Coleman has taken to calling the “Bootylicious Bill”). It would ban any routines by high school cheerleaders that are “sexually explicit.” Edwards has appeared on CNN, been profiled in the Dallas Morning News, and is scheduled to appear on Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor.” If there’s anyone who finds the subject more titillating than the media, however, it’s Edwards’ colleagues. The March 29 hearing of the House Public Education Committee at which Edwards laid out his bill was as much a spectacle as any gyrating cheerleader. Edwards explained that he filed HB 1476 after attending high school events in his district where he witnessed cheerleaders “bumping and grinding.” “Al, when you’ve witnessed this sort of activity are you sure you [were] at the right place?” asked Rep. Bill Keffer (R-Dallas). Edwards then reached for the heavy rhetorical ammo—Janet Jackson. “America went crazy when part of her privacy was exposed,” Edwards said. “The word came back all across our TV sets that we’re watching this with our families and children and it should not be allowed. We may not be able to stop it on the TV stations, but I think this [bill] would be the beginning of sending a great message. It should not be on our television and Internet where our children can watch all of that porno stuff on there.” Since presumably the cheerleaders in Edwards’ district don’t expose themselves during routines, it remained unclear what any of this had to do with the bill. What exactly constitutes “sexually suggestive?” wondered Brownsville Democrat Rene Oliveira, noting that the bill fails to define which performance moves exactly would be prohibited. How does one define what’s sexually arousing? “I can’t define yours for you or you define mine for me,” Edwards responded. “I don’t have a word-for-word description of it, but any adult who is involved with sex at all in their life, they know it when they see it. I can’t give you a demonstration this evening.” “I’m not sure we’d want one,” chimed in Rep. Kent Grusendorf (R-Arlington). Pam Uhr, a mother of three boys in the Westlake high school area in Austin and member of the ACLU, was one of three women who spoke against the bill. (One man was overheard in the hearing room saying he wouldn’t dare testify against the bill, presumably for fear of being skewered as a dirty old man.) Uhr said the bill is too vague and leaves open the possibility of it being used to restrict freedom of artistic expression. When Uhr mentioned that she is a single mother, Rep. Scott Hochberg (D-Houston) piped in, “That sounds overtly sexual to me.” He then joked about hooking up Uhr with his bachelor colleague Oliveira. Uhr said later that she wasn’t offended by the exchange. “In my job, I’m in a man’s world,” she said. Tracey Hayes, another representative from the ACLU who spoke against the bill, said the humor at the hearing was used for stress relief. But she added, “I was surprised, however, with all of the adult sexual humor in a room full of people legislating that children shouldn’t behave sexually.” CLOSED OUT OF COLLEGE Latinos and blacks will soon be a majority in Texas. Ominously, too few minority high school students are attending college, as recent testimony before a Senate committee made clear. And the situation could get much worse if the Legislature abolishes or caps the admissions program that has modestly boosted minority enrollment at state universities. On March 30, the Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education heard five hours of testimony on the future of the top 10 percent admissions rule, which allows for automatic admission to state universities for Texas high school students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class. The program was implemented in 1997 after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hopwood ruling prohibited using race as a factor in admissions. It has slowly increased minority enrollment at state universities, although the numbers are just now reaching pre-Hopwood levels. (In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of race-based admissions.) The Senate committee, however, is weighing three bills to revise the rule. One of the bills would cap the number of students a Texas public college could admit under the top 10 percent rule. The most controversial bill, authored by Sen. Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio), would abolish the program entirely. Wentworth argues that the top 10 percent rule unfairly penalizes students at competitive high schools. Raymund Paredes, a commissioner on the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, told the committee that even capping the top 10 percent rule would cause a sudden drop in minority admissions for at least two to five years. This is not good news for Texas’ flagship universities, which are already suffering from low numbers of African American and Latino students. The problem is especially apparent at Texas A&M. Texas A&M President and former CIA Director Robert Gates has touted a significant increase in minority enrollment in the past year. Still, Gates conceded to the committee that African Americans make up only 2 percent of his school’s enrollment. Latinos account for just 9 percent. If the Lege abolishes the rule, Gates says, A&M will not institute any race-based admission policies to compensate. That means A&M would have an almost entirely white student body. Minority enrollment at the University of Texas at Austin isn’t much better. In 2004, just 3 percent of UT’s enrolled students were African American, and Latinos comprised 13 percent. The loss of the top 10 percent program could drive down the numbers of minority and poor student even further. Gates and UT President Larry Faulkner both urged legislators to implement a cap on the number of students that could be admitted under the top 10 percent rule. At UT, top 10 percent admissions make up roughly 75 percent of this year’s freshman class. That percentage is expected to increase in future classes. The committee chair, Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas), has vowed to keep the top 10 percent rule, but said he’s willing to compromise on an admissions cap. West left all three bills pending. PROSECUTIONS IN PALESTINE The district attorney in the small East Texas town of Palestine has begun prosecuting the first batch of 72 suspected drug dealers arrested in a suspiciously large sting operation last fall. As the Observer reported in November, the Dogwood Trails Narcotics Task Force arrested 72 suspects in September, all indicted as crack cocaine dealers [See “The Usual Suspects,” November 5, 2004]. Could there really have been 72 crack dealers in tiny Palestine, population 17,000? Even in high-crime rural areas, only about 0.3 percent of the population on average uses crack, according to federal government studies. In Palestine, that would translate into about 70 crack addicts. Advocates at the ACLU suspect that the Dogwood Trails Task Force had followed a familiar pattern in the drug war of sweeping up addicts and charging them as dealers. Sixteen of the defendants were charged in federal court. That left Palestine prosecutors with 56 suspects to go after in state court. In late March, Anderson County District Attorney Doug Lowe obtained the first two convictions from the sting. Claude Beavers, 47, was sentenced to six years in prison for selling a grand total of 1.8 grams of crack, reported the Jacksonville Daily Progress. “I still say he’s a user. He’s not a dealer,” Beavers’ sister, Shirley, told the paper. Ditasha Calhoun, 22, received an 18-year sentence and $15,000 fine for two sales of crack to undercover officers. A third defendant, 23-year-old Billy Lee Paige pleaded guilty on March 28 to selling about 2 grams of crack to the task force’s confidential informant, Othella Kimbrew (most of the suspects are charged with delivering crack to Kimbrew). At press time, Paige hadn’t been sentenced. Typically, in large drug busts, prosecutors will bring the strongest cases to trial first and obtain long sentences in an effort to scare the remaining defendants into a plea bargain. Lowe plans to continue his efforts to send addicts and low-level dealers to prison for long sentences. “I think [the Calhoun ruling] is a significant verdict in that it was a substantial amount of time for a relatively small amount of crack cocaine,” Lowe told the Jacksonville paper. “Even though she was a street-level dealer, that’s where we are going to make a difference.”

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