Political Intelligence

Target on His Back


Fire When Ready

The News Gods cannot possibly be this kind.

Former state Rep. Mike Martin, a politician of known caliber, set his sights on a city council seat in Bee Cave, but his attempted return to elected office proved too much of a long shot. (We really can’t help ourselves here.)

Perhaps we should reload a bit of history: In 1981 Martin was a Republican representative from East Texas who made national news after allegedly arranging to have his cousin shoot him (buckshot in the left arm) and blaming his injuries on a Satanic cult (specifically, the Guardian Angels of the Underworld, who Martin said were fearful that he would unmask them).

The cops didn’t bite, and Martin found himself in their crosshairs (make us stop, please). Word ricocheted around that maybe Martin was trying to fire up public sympathy to bolster a bid for higher office. When the heat came looking, Martin hid in a stereo cabinet at his mother’s house. He ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor perjury charge, paid a $2,000 fine, and promised not to run for the Legislature again.

Since then the 55-year-old has been going by Wayne Martin (Wayne is his middle name). He works as an electrical engineer in Bee Cave, a town nestled on Austin’s southwest border, and was one of four candidates for three council seats in the May 12 election.

Martin now says, according to the Austin American-Statesman, that he lied about the shooting incident for years because what really happened was that he got into a fracas while driving on South Congress Avenue and fired the first shot himself.

How could Bee Cave voters know he’s shooting straight now? Because, he said, his aim is true. (We really, really apologize, but at this point we’re out of control). “I just feel like the people of Bee Cave need my expertise,” he told the Statesman. Would Bee Cave voters embrace the skills of a politician who’s been tested under fire.? Nope. They apparently decided Martin was shooting blanks and sent him packing.

Payday, Mayday

El Paso Dem-ocratic Sen. Eliot Shapleigh came into this session with a handful of bills to tighten regulations on payday loan operators, businesses that promise (often with a flashy neon sign) quick cash advances with a short-term loan. These lenders charge exorbitant interest rates and fees, often starting at around 600 percent, but accumulating to over 1,000 percent.

Of all Shapleigh’s bills, Senate Bill 855 seemed most likely to pass. The bill would protect active military and their families from predatory lending by capping interest on payday loans at 36 percent. A 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Defense found that payday loan operators around the country are targeting members of the armed forces, clustering around bases and using names like “Military Cash Advances.” Congress has said the loans are a security threat (though what isn’t these days?) for the effects they can have on soldiers’ morale. Shapleigh’s bill is modeled on a federal law, passed last year, to take effect in October. It would allow for increased enforcement at the local level, according to the author.

After a smooth hearing in the Senate Veteran Affairs and Military Installations Committee, the bill passed the Senate unanimously. San Antonio Republican Rep. Frank Corte, who chairs the Defense Affairs Committee, agreed to sponsor the bill in the House. Then the bill was sent instead to the Financial Institutions Committee, and suddenly its future seemed dim. “The predatory lenders have many friends on that committee,” Shapleigh says.

In the last election cycle, the banking and insurance industries threw $128,000 at committee Chairman Burt Solomons, a Carrollton Republican, including donations of $5,000 each from two of the nation’s largest predatory lenders: Southern California’s ACC Capital Holdings Corp., and David Davis, who, with his father and brother, runs Cincinnati-based CNG Financial Corp.

After a disastrous trip through Solomons’ committee, the bill is set to hit the House floor more or less de-fanged. Rather than allowing for state enforcement of the interest rate cap, the committee substitute mandates that Texas’ consumer credit commissioner forward complaints to the feds. As written, the bill would provide no additional enforcement. If approved by the House, the bill could head to a conference committee, where Solomons could still stand tough on behalf of lenders.

“Once these bills get to the floor,” Shapleigh says of his predatory lending package, “once they see the light of day and people start to hear the facts, these bills will pass.”

At this point how much of a difference that makes is questionable.

Royalty at the White House

Conscience in the House

Many assumed El Paso Democratic Rep. Paul Moreno was about to announce his retirement when he wheeled to the front microphone of the House chamber on May 8. After a month’s absence from the chamber, Moreno had requested permission to deliver a personal privilege speech. The longest-serving Mexican American lawmaker in the nation, according to the El Paso Times, had experienced a tough few months. He was injured in a fall from his wheelchair. His chief of staff for more than a decade died during surgery to remove colon cancer. And his longtime caretaker, his “beloved Maria,” required emergency surgery to remove a mass from her stomach. It would have been understandable if, after 40 years in the Texas House, Moreno was ready to quit.

That’s not the speech Moreno decided to give. Moreno is known by many of his colleagues as the “conscience of the House.” His passion for justice was forged in a lifetime of fighting, first in the Korean War and then breaking down barriers as a pioneer contending with discrimination. Since Republicans took the House in 2003, Moreno has stood up to bullying by the new majority, sometimes even as his colleagues tried to pull him back from his lengthy discourses.

This time, a visibly emotional Moreno wanted to talk about immigration. Despite an unwillingness by the leadership to pass legislation penalizing undocumented immigrants, the session has not been entirely free of anti-immigrant rhetoric.

“I detest the word[s] illegal aliens,” he said. “I never did detest it so much as I detest it now. It denotes the fact that we are the cause of the problems that are happening in this country. We do not get the credit for the tremendous economic success that this country is having right now.”

Moreno understands as well as anyone the demographic changes in the state and how vital for the future it is that Texas’ Anglo elite come to terms with them. He said he felt that if anything, the situation for Mexican Americans in Texas had deteriorated since he was first elected in 1966. “There was respect,” he said of those days. “Now the respect has diminished.

“Show us fairness,” he implored fellow legislators. “Don’t be mean.”