Political Intelligence


Needling the Powerful

THE LEGE & THE DAMAGE DONE To Curt Harrell, it’s very simple. Addicts will die from infectious diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C unless they get clean needles. Before dying, they will likely infect other people in the community. “People have the notion it’s a moral problem,” he says. “It is not. It is a severe medical problem. I have never met a virus yet that had any morals.” Harrell is chairman of the Bexar Area Harm Reduction Coalition. The group of former health care workers, Episcopal Church members, lawyers, and women’s rights activists want to offer an anonymous exchange of clean hypodermic needles for dirty ones. Currently, it’s illegal. Senate Bill 127 by Sen. Jon Lindsay (R-Houston) would change that. For 12 years health advocates have tried to get such a bill though the Lege. SB 127 received two readings on the Senate floor and at press time awaits the third and final vote to pass out of the Senate. Courtney Moore, a legislative aide for Sen. Lindsay, says the senator is waiting to bring the bill up for final vote until he feels the members are ready. She says opponents continue to fear being seen as “soft” on drugs. “It’s more difficult for some people to accept when they’ve had the opinion for the last 12 years that this is a bad idea,” she says. “It’s not something that can come around that fast.” If the bill passes out of the Senate, it would become the first time in Texas a needle exchange bill passed one of the chambers. Similar legislation has been filed in both houses the past six sessions. Only one other time, in 2001, did a bill reach the floor for debate. Activists say that positive data from exchange programs in 21 states is convincing legislators that it could work in Texas. In a New York City needle exchange program, HIV cases among drug users dropped dramatically as the numbers of clean syringes distributed went up. The program refers drug users to treatment programs. The anonymity helps to reach addicts who would not get hooked into a support system any other way. Lindsay says an exchange program in Texas is fiscally conservative and will help bring down health care costs. A clean syringe costs 10 cents. Treatment for a person infected with AIDS or Hepatitis C costs more than $100,000 a year, at low-end estimates. In the Texas Senate, SB 127 faced opposition only from Republicans such as Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), who says, “There’s a very persuasive argument that we are enabling people who are using to continue using.” Even if the legislation makes it off the Senate floor that will likely be as far as it goes this session. Rep. Diane Delisi (R-Temple), who is chairwoman of the House Public Health Committee, the next stop for the bill, has vowed to kill it in her committee. Harrell says his coalition modeled their efforts after successful programs in other states as well as a few operating secretly in some major cities in Texas. These illegal programs in Texas, he says, “receive passive support of the local health agencies as well as law enforcement.” The Bexar group hasn’t discussed what will happen if needle exchange is not legalized this session. “If logic were to prevail it would pass without a question,“ Harrell says. “Unfortunately, in the political process, logic is not always the driving force.” THE COULTER COMETH No one seems to get liberal blood boiling these days quite like Ann Coulter. The right-wing polemicist has a rare knack for inciting outrage just about wherever she goes. And Coulter feeds on the ensuing hostility, both figuratively speaking (she seems to relish confrontation) and financially (three of her books have become New York Times bestsellers). In a May 3 speech at the University of Texas at Austin, Coulter didn’t disappoint. Not 10 minutes into her talk, the packed auditorium seethed with rage. Placard-waving liberal protestors tried to shout her down a half-dozen times, while conservatives heckled and booed them. The event didn’t so much resemble a political debate as an evening at Wrestlemania. Coulter’s speech itself was unremarkable, about 40 minutes worth of the standard fare from her columns: one-liners about Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and the Democratic Party, and all manner of scorching insults aimed at liberals in general. For instance, “Liberals are getting too crazy even for Texas to execute, which is a shame.” But she also had some genuinely funny bits, delivered with precise comedic timing. “Those mean Republicans have named a [submarine] after Jimmy Carter. Now, there are some problems with the sub. The periscope works only in retrospect. It’s vulnerable to attack from giant rabbits. And once it gets into a foreign port, it immediately attacks the U.S.” The real fun, however, came during a lengthy question-and-answer period. A bevy of angry protestors, most from a socialist student group, lined up to hurl hostile questions at Coulter and generally make fools of themselves. One asked about the Iraq war, and while Coulter was in the middle of her response, the man ran back up the aisle making farting noises. “That was an intelligent retort,” Coulter said. A young woman wondered if Coulter really thought that violence against liberals is socially acceptable. “No,” Coulter said, “I think you’ve missed the joke.” Another man unleashed a string of profanity and stormed out. Coulter paused. “They’re lovely people, liberals,” she said. A few liberal questioners kept their cool and elicited reasonable responses from Coulter. But many others took the bait and devolved into the author’s characterization of liberals as unable to engage in logical argument and reliant on anger and insults. By the end, Coulter happily observed, “Liberals want to ask questions, but they can’t. You saw tonight. They’re like infants.” Indeed, watching Coulter toy with the liberal stage props, it was hard not to think that the whole event was simply theater for the mostly conservative audience, and that Coulter’s shtick is more performance art than political punditry. One of the last questions came from a Republican who wondered how the GOP could pass its large tort reform measures. Coulter answered by first making fun of trial lawyer John Edwards. She then paused and added, “As far as the actual legislative maneuvers of implementing tort reform, I don’t know. I don’t get into the details.” PERRY’S PERIL It looked like Governor Rick Perry’s worst nightmare. Assembled in front of the Capitol steps on May 3rd, were more than 300 rural Anglos shouting, “Impeach Perry.” These folks, mostly from Central Texas, are supposed to be Perry’s base, but instead they left their homes to demonstrate against the governor and his plan for the Trans-Texas Corridor. As conceived, the TTC would be as many as 4,000 miles of toll roads, high-speed rail, freight rail, and utility pipes crisscrossing Texas. It would be built largely by private industry. Each company would have control of its piece of the corridor for decades. The first phase, the TTC-35, which would parallel I-35 from San Antonio to Dallas, has already been contracted out to a Spanish company called Cintra. In order to make the TTC happen, the Legislature passed a bill that gives the state increased power to condemn property. Ranchers and farmers throughout the state are mobilizing to try and stop the project, which they are afraid will take their land. Many of those gathered for the rally consider themselves Republicans, and view Perry’s TTC as an attack against property rights. The Texas Farm Bureau—not generally recognized as a left-wing organization—has come out against the proposal. Rod Spencer from Fayetteville County in Central Texas stood in the crowd and held aloft a sign that read: “Don’t confiscate our land to give it to a foreign company.” “Perry is a former Agriculture Commissioner, he should be concerned about saving rural land,” said Spencer, whose grandfather struggled through the Depression to keep the family ranch together. Spencer identified himself as a “straight-ticket Republican,” but said, “I would vote for a Democrat for governor based on this one issue.” Not surprisingly, state leaders have benefited handsomely in campaign contributions from highway contractors involved in pushing the corridor, according to an analysis by the Austin-based public interest group Campaigns for People. The top 10 TxDOT contractors and TTC-35 bidders gave $341,025 to Perry between January 1, 2001 and December 31. 2004. Just Zachry Construction alone, which has partnered with Cintra to build the first phase of the corridor, gave $45,500. The star speaker at the rally was Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who is mentioned as a possible opponent for Perry in the Republican primary. As of yet, the undeclared potential frontrunner to take on Perry, U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, has declined to take a position on the TTC. Hutchison’s campaign manager Terry Sullivan says that the Senator is focusing on doing her job in Congress. “She does not want to inject herself into the legislative session,” he said. If Hutchison did decide to run against Perry, the corridor could be a potent way to peel off votes from the incumbent. It remains to be seen whether Hutchison will try. She is also the recipient of the highway contractor’s largess, including the maximum $2,000 contribution from at least three Zachry family members in the past three years. TAKING STOCK AT TXU The repercussions continue from TXU’s near-death experience in the fall of 2002. The Dallas-based energy company revealed recently that the federal Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has opened an inquiry—more than two years after the fact—into TXU’s dealings between January 2001 and March 2003. That was when the company skirted bankruptcy, watched its share price plummet, and lost billions for its investors. In October 2002, TXU’s European subsidiary revealed glaring financial weaknesses and was eventually sold at a $4 billion loss. During the crisis, then-Chief Executive Erle Nye assured a national CNBC television audience that the company’s quarterly dividend wouldn’t be cut. Three days later, the company slashed its dividend 80 percent. That robbed many elderly shareholders of the dividend income that some rely on to supplement their living. TXU’s stock, which traded around $40 a share in summer 2002, sank to nearly $10. In the spring of 2003, former TXU vice president Jim Murray filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit against the company. Murray claims that TXU executives engaged in securities fraud in 2001 and 2002 leading up to the crisis. As the Observer reported last fall, Murray argues in his suit that executives knew all along that the company was risking bankruptcy and lied to shareholders and analysts about TXU finances [see “Power Players,” September 10, 2004]. The SEC also subpoenaed TXU documents relating to Murray’s lawsuit, the company said. Murray’s attorney, Hal Gillespie, has said that his client will cooperate with any federal inquiry (the SEC, citing agency policy, has refused comment to the Observer on any ongoing investigation). Murray’s suit is scheduled for trial in early June in federal district court in Dallas. Nye told the Observer last fall that Murray’s suit lacks merit. In announcing the SEC probe, TXU maintained that the firm did nothing wrong. TXU executives in 2002 have thus far escaped any fallout from the financial crisis. Nye, in particular, has profited quite nicely since the whole affair. He stepped down as CEO in February 2004, but remained chairman of the board. Since then, TXU’s stock has taken off (it traded near $80 a share in early May). That increase has triggered several stock bonuses for Nye that are tied to how much the company’s shares increase. The 66-year-old Nye’s term on the TXU board expires this month, and he’s expected to retire this year. According to TXU’s most recent public filings, if Nye cashes out at the current share price, with various bonuses and stock holdings, he will pocket more than $70 million. That’s just from stock, not counting salary or pension income. Not a bad haul after nearly bankrupting your company.