Political Intelligence

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Politically Unhealthy

The GOP-dominated Texas Legislature has found some cruel and ingenious ways to shrink the Children’s Health Insurance Program in recent years. But it’s not just kids who have paid the price. The GOP has suffered for its policies at the ballot box as well.

It’s a history Republicans in Washington might keep in mind, now that the Bush administration and congressional Republicans are trying to take the Texas approach to children’s health care nationally. Congress has until September 30 to reauthorize the popular program. The White House has threatened to veto any effort to substantially increase the number of insured kids through CHIP.

The administration is also trying to limit CHIP bureaucratically. It recently proposed stricter rules that mirror the bureaucratic barriers the Texas Legislature placed on CHIP at the state level. The administration has proposed waiting periods before kids could enroll, higher premiums and co-payments, and a requirement that kids remain uninsured for a year before joining CHIP. The Lege tried variations of all three. As a result, the Texas program withered, and the political fallout was severe.

Just ask Chet Edwards. In 2004, the Democratic congressman from Waco seemed unlikely to survive a strong challenge in a redrawn district that was 64 percent Republican. He beat state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, a formidable state legislator, mainly because of her disdain for CHIP. She wrote the bill that cut the program in 2003 [see “Storming the Hill,” October 22, 2004].

“The CHIP program became the central issue in my campaign,” Edwards said recently by phone. “I beat Arlene Wohlgemuth in the most Republican congressional district in America represented by a Democrat because she wrote the law that gutted the CHIP program in Texas.”

Wohlgemuth defended the CHIP cuts in that 2004 campaign with the same spin that some Republicans are using now: that families who could afford private insurance are using CHIP to mooch off the government, wasting taxpayer money. That argument didn’t work.

“The reality is conservatives should support CHIP,” Edwards said. “It is helping people who are trying to help themselves. It is helping people who have tried their best to stay off welfare and go to work.”

Of course, ads about government waste just can’t match the power of kids losing health care. Edwards’ 2004 campaign ran a devastating ad featuring a single mother whose daughter had lost CHIP coverage. He credits the spot with helping sink Wohlgemuth’s candidacy.

The ad has lost none of its potency. Edwards said he recently showed it to Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the House Democratic Caucus chair. Emanuel played it to wavering Democrats on the eve of the recent U.S. House vote on the CHIP reauthorization bill. “His conclusion was, would you want this kind of ad run against you?” Edwards said. “It had an impact on unifying support.”

As CHIP rolls have declined in Texas, Democrats have gained seven seats in the Texas House. Some Republicans clearly get the message: Last spring, many GOP state lawmakers voted to partially restore the CHIP cuts on the state level.

“I would hope people would support CHIP because it’s the right thing to do,” Edwards said. “But if they won’t support it for the right reasons, then they ought to at least consider there could be a high political price for opposing better health care for children.”

cartoon by Danziger

Still a Prison

The federal government has agreed to improve living conditions for immigrant families held at a for-profit detention center in Central Texas. By doing so, it avoids trial in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU. A settlement reached in late August limits the types of immigrant families that can be held at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, and should make life a bit less miserable for them.

The former prison in Taylor reopened in May 2006 as a detention center for parents and children captured by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Operated under contract by Corrections Corp. of America, it quickly became a target of activists concerned about the deepening crackdown against undocumented immigrants.

The center will undergo an extreme makeover, ranging from cosmetic tweaks, such as removing the phrase “corrections facility” from signs, to far reaching reforms, like improving mental health care and increasing freedom of movement for children. Children must be allowed to receive donations of toys, play more freely, and participate in activities outside of school hours. Parents gain better access to legal services and are permitted to interact with spouses during daytime hours.

The agreement also stipulates that the center will hold only immigrant families subject to “expedited removal,” a sped-up deportation procedure designed for undocumented immigrants with no legal claim to stay in the United States. (Immigration authorities began releasing asylum seekers on bond shortly after the suit was filed.) A magistrate judge will oversee compliance with the terms.

The settlement caps a yearlong movement involving immigrant rights groups, Taylor locals, and former detainees appalled at the idea of a prison holding children. The ACLU filed the suit on behalf of 10 child detainees against the Department of Homeland Security and others in March, following a barrage of reports of harsh conditions inside. A report by two faith-based refugee rights organizations in February skewered the feds for using “a penal detention model that is fundamentally anti-family and un-American.” But the settlement falls short of the goal of many activists-to shut down Hutto.

“The Hutto fight is not over at all,” said Bob Libal, a member of the coalition Texans United for Families. “You still have hundreds of immigrant children and their families in a prison. We feel there need to be alternatives to that.”

Brand Granger

The motto of the just-opened Kay Granger Elementary School in the ‘burbs of far north Fort Worth is “Riding the Brand of Excellence.” That might be fitting for a school in Cowtown, but could also apply to the kiddos’ role in promoting a different kind of brand, that of Republican U.S. Rep. Kay Granger of Fort Worth. The six-term congresswoman and former mayor of Fort Worth has the unusual honor of having a public school named in her honor while she’s still alive and in elected office.

“It’s a very personal thing to me,” Granger told the Wise County Messenger in August. “I can’t describe the feeling to see Kay Granger Elementary on the front of the school.”

How Granger got her name on a school involves a nifty bit of political patronage. Sometime in the ’80s, Hillwood Development Co., the Ross Perot family company that has developed vast swaths of Fort Worth, including the Saratoga subdivision that feeds the Kay Granger school, donated the land where the school sits to the Northwest Independent School District. The gift had strings attached. Hillwood wanted the school to bear Granger’s appellation. “She was a major political contributor to the development of the Alliance Airport area, which was built by Hillwood Development,” said Northwest board President Davis Palmer. (The Perots and other Hillwood principals have given Granger over $23,000 in campaign contributions in the past decade.)

Northwest’s policy at the time didn’t permit schools to be named after living people. So in 2004 the board eliminated the requirement. Afterward, Palmer said the board “kinda realized there was a political situation” and in November 2006 voted to reinstate the policy, after naming the school and two others.

Kay Duffy, a Democratic Party precinct chair with kids in Northwest ISD schools, is naturally unhappy with the decision. “The most valuable asset a politician can have is name recognition and politicians spend lots of money to get it,” Duffy told the school board in May. Duffy told the Observer that the T-shirts Granger Elementary kids and employees have been issued prominently display the politician’s name. “As a school district representing kids from both Republican and Democratic families, I don’t feel it is our place to provide this free PR for Ms. Granger.” (Granger’s office declined an Observer request to comment.)

Actually, the Ds have the Rs beat in the free PR category. There’s a “U.S. Congressman Solomon P. Ortiz Elementary” in Brownsville and another in Robstown, where the school motto is “Securing Our Future” and the mascot a bald eagle. Ortiz sits on the House Armed Services Committee. Congressman Ruben Hinojosa has two eponymous elementary schools in his district. State Sen. Eddie Lucio has his name etched on a middle school in his hometown of Brownsville. State Sen. Judith Zaffirini and Congressman Henry Cuellar both got elementary schools in Laredo in 1999. Cuellar, Ortiz, and Hinojosa received high approval ratings from the National Education Association, but Granger flunked out with an “F” for her education votes in 2005-2006.

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