Political Intelligence

Adapt or Die


Warming Trends

On November 14, Camille Parmesan, a University of Texas at Austin biologist, announced that a comprehensive review of more than 800 scientific studies indicates a worldwide shift in the global environment. Human-induced climate change is forcing wild species to either adapt quickly or, as is happening in record numbers, go extinct.

In Texas, it’s clear the trend has yet to catch up with state Republican officials.

As Parmesan announced her findings, blocks away state Rep. Phil King, a Republican from Weatherford and chairman of the Committee on Regulated Industries, told a gathering hosted by the business-oriented Texas Public Policy Foundation: “I think the global warming issues are highly speculative at best.”

King went on to endorse the building of new coal-fired power plants, a major source of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, in Texas. Even without the new plants, Texas already produces more carbon dioxide than any other state in the nation. If Texas were a country—and we are clearly a whole ‘nother country—the state would be the seventh-largest contributor to global warming.

Nonetheless, Gov. Rick Perry is also on record scoffing at global warming. And when 12 states sued the Bush administration for inaction on climate change, not surprisingly, Texas was on the wrong side of the evolutionary curve. The landmark case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where on November 29, plaintiffs demanded that the feds deal with global warming by regulating greenhouse gases. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, self-identified as “the lawyer for the people of Texas,” signed onto a brief with eight other states supporting the Bush administration. The brief argued that global warming is “beyond the control of the United States” and therefore nothing can be done about it.

It appears that for the state’s Republican officials, adaptation is a nonstarter.

Boosting Bonilla

Texas Republi-cans must really be desperate for Latino politicians. Why else would they work so hard to keep Henry Bonilla in Congress? Bonilla’s support in the Latino community has dropped precipitously over the years. He needed more Anglo voters if he wanted to keep his seat. So Texas Republicans used their controversial 2003 mid-decade redistricting to draw Bonilla a district he could win. This year, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and ordered the specially drawn district reconfigured and restored as a Mexican-American “opportunity district.” In the special election that coincided with the general election, Bonilla didn’t garner enough votes to avoid a runoff against former Democratic Congressman Ciro Rodriguez.

To help give Bonilla an edge in the runoff, Gov. Rick Perry called the election for December 12, which happens to fall on the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The governor’s office claims it was the first available day. A spokesman for the secretary of state said that if it happened any later, it would cut into Hanukkah, even though there are few Jews in the Latino-majority district. The League of United Latin American Citizens protested to no avail. Then the secretary of state determined that early voting wouldn’t include a weekend, when most Latinos were likely to vote. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed suit in U.S. District Court. Eventually, precincts in the Bexar County part of the district added a Saturday to early voting.

In the runoff, as in the special election, Republicans have made sure that Bonilla maintains financial superiority over his Democratic challengers. Bonilla raised about $3.6 million, while Rodriguez’s totals were under a million. Yet despite all of the GOP’s affirmative action on behalf of Bonilla, as the Observer went to press early voting totals appeared to favor his opponent, Rodriguez.

Commissioner Kinky?

Less than a week after he finished a distant fourth in his bid for Texas governor, the irrepressible Kinky Friedman apparently had a lead on another job. The way Kinky was talking in a November 13 interview on Don Imus’ morning talk show, it sounded like a gubernatorial appointment was imminent. “Rick Perry’s been saying some very nice things about the Kinkster,” he told Imus. “We’re ready for some bridge building. In fact, I think I’m going to hear from him as early as later this afternoon.” Sliding back into the self-referential third person, Kinky continued, “He thinks that Kinky has a good heart and a lot of great ideas, and he’s the kind of guy [Perry would] like to have to reach the people [Perry] can’t reach. So it could be a win-win for the State of Texas… Maybe we’ll all be working for the government of Texas.” Later, Kinky added, “When I get my big appointment, I’ll let you know.”

Excited that Kinky might be able to serve the people of Texas after all, we quickly sifted through the governor’s Web site to see which available positions might fit the writer-musician-merchandise-hawking wannabe politician. In the days after the election, Gov. Perry had open spots on numerous state bodies, including the state Board of Examiners for Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, and everybody’s favorite, the Canadian River Compact Commission. But the Kinkster needs to make a living, and the positions are almost all unpaid.

So we checked out the State of Texas job board. A surprising number of postings require a law degree or some previous public policy experience. However, the Texas Board of Architectural Examiners is looking for a marketing specialist—and if there’s one thing Kinky knows how to do, it’s marketing. Along the same lines, the Texas Structural Pest Control Board (yes, the infamous TSPCB) needs a customer service rep. Another position that might suit Kinky: The Board of Nurse Examiners is hiring an, ahem, investigator.

The more we thought about it, though, the more we began to question the Kinkster’s claim. So we dialed up the governor’s office. “They had a good conversation the week after the election,” Perry spokesperson Ted Royer said. “Very friendly. Very gracious. I think Kinky offered his help, and the governor appreciated it. I don’t think that there’s any [job] offer.” So, will there be a state appointment in a Perry administration in Kinky’s future? Answered Royer, “No.”

Money Limits

Money can’t buy you love. But in Texas, for the longest time, it could buy you political office. In recent years, a handful of special interests have set policy for the state by following a simple recipe for victory. Dip into nearly unlimited treasuries and spend lavishly, bombarding voters with a flurry of mailers and television ads touting your candidate and drowning out less flush opponents. Legislators thus elected usually repay the contributor’s largesse with appropriate votes.

Two of the biggest special interests responsible for stacking the Texas Statehouse with their allies are Bob Perry and the political action committee Texans for Lawsuit Reform. While each contribute to both parties, in contested races they mostly favor Republicans. In the 2006 cycle, Perry gave $6.7 million to state PACs and candidates, according to a recent report by campaign watchdog Texans for Public Justice. In addition, the Houston homebuilder contributed $4.1 million to 146 candidates, with $2,434,000 of that going to individual House and Senate candidates. (Perry was also the No. 1 federal donor in the nation, giving $9.3 million, mostly to shadowy political action committees.) Texans for Lawsuit Reform gave $3.8 million to Texas candidates in the 2006 cycle, 95 percent of which went to legislative races.

This year, though, something remarkable occurred: The money didn’t make the difference. A national mood of revulsion toward Republican politics-as-usual neutralized the GOP’s big spending, even in Texas. Only two of Perry’s top 14 Republican state legislative candidates won, and 71 percent of the money spent by TLR went to candidates who failed to win, according to TPJ. And something even more significant happened: In some races, the origins of the money used to finance candidates became an issue.

One noteworthy example was the contested race to fill outgoing Austin Republican state Rep. Terry Keel’s seat. Democrat Valinda Bolton faced Republican Bill Welch. It was not a battle of equals, and the amounts amassed were more in line with a congressional race than a mere state rep contest. By Election Day, Welch had raised almost $700,000. TLR alone gave Welch $434,487, and Perry chipped in another $65,000. Bolton amassed a little more than $225,000. Welch’s candidacy was hurt when, during a public forum, someone asked him to name his top three donors. He failed to mention Perry or TLR, and after that his contributors increasingly became an important issue in the campaign. Welch lost.

Toxic Streets of Laredo

State and federal regulators are supposed to be protecting Laredo from the toxic legacy of the Anzon-Cookson smelter. Instead, Laredoans are finding the company’s poison underfoot—literally.

The Anzon smelter processed antimony, a toxin used in flame-retardant products. Anzon took over operation of the smelter in the late 1970s. In 1995, the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (now the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ) fined Anzon $3,000 for contaminating groundwater with antimony and required the company to submit a “closure plan” that would address “all identified contaminated media including groundwater, surface water and surface soils.” Four years later, the facility officially shut down, but today, Laredo activists say, Anzon, renamed AI Divestitures Inc., has done little to clean up its mess.

“The cleanup process is not taking place at all,” said George Altgelt, general counsel for the nonprofit Rio Grande International Study Center.

The retired smelter site contains six-story-high piles of contaminated soil as well as polluted containment ponds that overflow into the adjacent Manadas Creek, according to Altgelt. Manadas drains into a segment of the Rio Grande a few miles upstream from the city’s only water intake. Recent water quality sampling of the creek has shown elevated levels of antimony, according to Thomas Vaughan, a biology professor at Texas A&M International University in Laredo.

With TCEQ’s blessing, Anzon was allowed to repackage the hazardous antimony slag into a commercial product. The company was responsible for testing the soil to make sure it met government standards, according to Gerry Pinzon, former regional director of TCEQ in Laredo. “There’s no follow-up, there’s no one verifying that the soil actually even came from the site,” said Pinzon. The slag, used as a road base, has ended up at the city airport, on the streets of colonias, at elementary schools, even on a city-owned hike-and-bike trail. When the residents of Los Arcos Colonia, whose roads had recently been covered with the slag, began complaining of rashes and respiratory problems, the TCEQ opened an investigation. In June 2005, the TCEQ determined the antimony at the site exceeded state standards for solid waste, according to Kathleen Decker, an attorney with the agency.

The Texas attorney general is suing AI Divestitures on behalf of the TCEQ to recover the $56,000 the agency spent removing the material at Los Arcos; the company is currently restricted from selling any more slag. But Laredo activists are far from satisfied. Altgelt points out that there are 42 other identified sites where the soil is still in use and that contamination at and around the 20-acre smelter site has barely been addressed.