Political Intelligence

La Vida Loca


The Horror!

When Tyler Republican state Rep. Leo Berman looks south to the Texas border, he does not see men and women fleeing poverty in search of the American dream. Rather, Berman sees illegal immigration as an onslaught of disease carried by parasites that leech off government services. In a January letter to the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Berman wrote that, “We have 22 million illegal aliens in our country. They have brought with them Tuberculosis, Polio, Leprosy, Dengue Fever, Chagas Disease and Malaria.” According to Berman, “As of last August, the Texas Prison System [sic] is housing 12,500 illegal aliens. That many more are incarcerated in county and municipal jails. Finally, according to a detailed report produced by the Lone Star Foundation in Austin, Texans are spending $3.5 billion each year to support 1.5 million illegal aliens in Texas.”

Berman cannot understand why everybody else doesn’t see the problem the same way. He ended his letter to chamber Chairman Fernando Reyes: “I ask you, as a citizen of the United States of Hispanic origin, when is enough, enough?”

Maybe people have difficulty joining Berman in his fears because they are unfounded.

Texas reported two cases of malaria in 2006, and none of polio in the last five years. Of malaria cases in the U.S., most occur among residents traveling abroad, not foreigners immigrating, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of reported cases in the U.S. of Hansen’s disease, or leprosy, has declined each year since 1988. Though more than half the reported cases are among immigrants, the rate of tuberculosis has been decreasing among both foreign- and U.S.-born residents for 10 years.

In an interview, Berman painted the United States as an immigrant’s field of dreams: “If we did not provide free health care and education, they would not come.”

Berman says “they” are illegal aliens, not undocumented immigrants.

“An immigrant is someone who comes here legally, who wants to assimilate,” he says, “who willingly wants to learn the language and to speak the language, and who eventually will raise their right hand and pledge their allegiance to the United States.” Not the case for illegals, the ones Berman says “fly the Mexican flag, send their money to Mexico. Their allegiance is to Mexico. They do not want to assimilate.”

A century ago, the same was said of the Irish, the Germans, and the Italians. Funny how times change. This March, according to an official presidential proclamation, is Irish-American Heritage month.


ripped through Austin on February 23. Given the buzz surrounding Illinois’ junior U.S. Senator these days, it’s easy to forget that just three years ago, Barack Obama was a state senator largely unknown outside Chicago. But his Texas event, dubbed the Austin “kick-ass” rally, demonstrated those days are gone forever.

Obama was in town for a morning fundraiser with local high rollers, and decided to tack on a public speech. Originally scheduled at the University of Texas campus, overwhelming interest forced the campaign to move to the Auditorium Shores park downtown. A huge crowd showed up despite a light rain—the campaign estimated 20,000 people. It was a stunning turnout, the biggest gathering for a presidential candidate in Austin since President Ronald Reagan visited 23 years ago, according to the Austin American-Statesman. The consensus among reporters covering the event was that no other national political figure—not John McCain, not Hillary Clinton—could have drawn so many people. Texans for Obama volunteers ringed the park grounds selling T-shirts and buttons, signing up supporters for e-mail lists and donations, and handing out blue “Obama ’08” signs. Cyril Neville was the warm-up act and had folks dancing in the rain. The rally had the rock-concert feel of a campaign stop a week before the election rather than a speech 11 months before the first primary by a candidate who had been in the presidential race all of three weeks.

Obama spoke for more than 40 minutes. The content, though short on detail, was standard liberal stuff: universal health care, improved education, conservation of energy, better care for military veterans, and an end to the Iraq war (Obama calls for a “phased withdrawal” to begin on May 1 to end March 31, 2008). Obama called on participants to reject the allure of cynicism and have the “audacity to hope”—the title of his most recent book—”to believe that the world as it is, is not the world as it has to be.” Coming from a lesser speaker, these lines might sound hackneyed. Obama makes a more convincing case because of who he is—the son of a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother—and perhaps because many voters want to hear it. Obama told the crowd he decided to run for president because he sensed a unique political moment. Whether that moment materializes and he becomes its focal point remains to be seen, but Obama’s Austin event seemed a good start.

All Politics Is Loca(l)

Like a rough cut from the movie Milagro Beanfield War, the scene in far South Texas’ Willacy County has been a blend of sublime and bizarre for the past month. For two weeks in February, Juan Angel Guerra, the county’s controversial district attorney, camped out in the parking lot of the county jail along with a horse, a rooster, and several goats. He refused to pick up after them.

This happened because:

The only district judge in the county (Midgalia Lopez) appointed the only public defender in the county (Gustavo Garza) to prosecute the only district attorney in the county (Guerra). That’s the easy part.

Guerra had beaten Garza in four elections. Garza had contributed to Lopez’s campaign for judge. Guerra decided to sue Lopez, but had to file the case in Lopez’s own court because, well, Lopez is the only district judge in the county. Lopez assigned Garza to investigate Guerra, and Garza raided Guerra’s office. Now Guerra won’t prosecute 500 pending cases, which is a problem because he is, of course, the only district attorney in the county.

This is how politics works sometimes in one of the state’s poorest counties. In this political drama, Guerra is casting himself as the crusader under siege by political enemies eager to topple him. Others see in Guerra a borderline incompetent prosecutor who goes easy on certain defendants in exchange for political loyalty.

Guerra claims the drive to oust him began when his investigation into a local prison deal began getting too close to state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., a Brownsville Democrat. In retaliation, Guerra claims, Lopez appointed Garza to investigate him.

When Garza obtained indictments against Guerra for public theft, the DA set up his parking lot encampment in protest and dared the local sheriff to arrest him for not picking up the animal shit.

On February 23, a municipal judge dismissed all charges against Guerra, noting that they seemed politically motivated. Guerra packed up his encampment, but said he will return with the animals if new indictments come down. Garza has said he will seek new charges, this time from a grand jury in Lopez’s court.

“I know am going to get indicted again with lies,” Guerra says. On February 27, Guerra filed a $20 million lawsuit against an array of officials including Lopez, Garza, a deputy sheriff, and “unknown grand jurors,” alleging malicious prosecution, libel, defamation, abuse of office, and other claims.

Hero or villain, Guerra’s theatrics obscure a county justice system beset by political rivalries in a community with so few attorneys that a breakdown in rapport upsets the entire local judicial system.

“There’s definitely a question I think in everyone’s mind as to how this former political opponent could be appointed to prosecute this guy,” says Seana Willing, executive director of the state Commission on Judicial Conduct. “It may not be illegal … but it certainly gives the appearance of impropriety.” She said that under agency rules, she could not say whether an investigation into Lopez had been initiated, but Guerra says he has filed complaints.

Some locals are calling for an outside investigation into the county’s affairs. “What this county really needs is to have everything looked into by objective people, and let the chips fall where they may,” says Billie Pickard, a local civic-minded Republican.

Kings of the Road

The recent report from the State Auditor’s Office on the Trans-Texas Corridor is a road map to a potential disaster. The Transportation Department’s records on the multi-corridor network are so incomplete and inaccurate that it’s impossible to come up with a reliable estimate of what the ultimate price tag will be. TXDOT incorrectly allocated costs to the corridor that should have been allocated to other projects, excluded indirect costs, and did not have a way to link tasks performed to the hours billed. (For example, $52,000 of a $628,000 invoice charged to engineering was actually for public relations expenses. No doubt that was an innocent error, but it’s worth pointing out that TXDOT’s catching heat from lawmakers for the millions spent on “public outreach.”)

The auditor’s office also pointed out that TXDOT is not monitoring the insurance coverage of its private partner, Cintra-Zachry. The insurance is of critical importance because if Cintra can’t cover its liabilities, then third parties could recover the damages from the state. TXDOT’s also not monitoring Cintra-Zachry’s financial health to ascertain if the developer has the capability to take on billions more in debt, nor does the department question financial assumptions, such as inflation and interest rates, that will have a huge impact on expenses as well as revenues.

TXDOT sold the Trans-Texas Corridor and other toll-road projects to lawmakers as a way to get roads built quickly without any public money. But the audit report notes that the state may well end up paying $16.5 billion of the nearly $30 billion it’s going to cost to build TTC-35’s rail lines. With all the confusion, the auditor is recommending that contracts over $250 million be submitted to the attorney general’s office for review and approval. The report also recommends that the toll revenue projection job be transferred from TXDOT to the state comptroller. “Having an independent third party project toll revenue could play a valuable role in increasing the reliability of financial estimates,” the report concludes.