Political Intelligence

Schoolyard Bullies



For much of its history, the North Texas town of Denison has nursed a civic inferiority complex. Though it thrived for a century as a railroad hub near the Oklahoma border and counts itself as the birthplace of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Denison lagged behind its neighbor, the city of Sherman, in population and prestige. Some believe a competitive streak pushed city leaders to erect one of the area’s grandest buildings and may help explain why, nearly a century later, they want to tear it down.

In 1913, the town built the enormous Denison High School on Main Street to rival Sherman’s elaborate county courthouse. Built in the Mission Revival style and filling an entire city block, the intricately detailed high school featured a white clock tower, two towering chimneys, rounded archways, an amphitheater, and a basement reportedly strong enough to withstand a strong earthquake.

The local school system abandoned the building and moved the children to a modern school in the mid-1980s. As the old building fell into disrepair, so did the surrounding downtown. The railroads had started the process, leaving Denison in the 1970s. The town’s population and tax dollars began to melt away. In 2006, city officials grabbed the school building from a bankrupt nonprofit tasked with managing the property.

City officials planned to raze the old school as an offering to that perennial just-out-of-reach savior of small, dying towns-an economic development deal. The mayor, city manager, and city council hoped the site would catalyze a revitalized downtown, one that would be the equal of wealthier Sherman. City officials have yet to disclose plans for the site. Rumors include everything from a library to a box store.

A group of Denison residents and preservationists from around the state, appalled by the idea of the demolition, fought to save the building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Engineers declared it structurally sound. Preservationists raised roughly $2.2 million in donations for restoration. Brad Patterson, of the Texas Historical Commission’s architecture division, said the amount would be sufficient to restore the building’s façade. Patterson and other commission officials spent the past year urging Denison officials to spare the unique structure.

None of it dissuaded city leaders. (Both City Manager Larry Cruise and Mayor Robert Brady declined to respond to four calls for comment.)

In mid-September, a district judge denied the preservationists a temporary restraining order. Demolition began on the high school that afternoon. At press time, roughly 60 percent of the structure had been destroyed, and wrecking crews planned to bring down the rest soon.

Many question District Judge Lauri Blake’s ruling. (Blake is the same judge who gained international notoriety two years ago by sentencing a teenager to abstain from sex until she finished school.) Obtaining a restraining order isn’t usually difficult. The preservationists’ attorney, Ben Baker, said the high school sits in a historic district and the city didn’t apply to the Historic Preservation Board for demolition as required by city ordinance

After Blake condemned the building, desperate preservationists bought a full-page ad in the local newspaper offering to buy the property. At press time, they had received no response. Barring a last-minute miracle, the rest of the beautiful old structure will soon be gone.

President Bush neglects CHIP


The Legislature has been out of session for months, and it’s not quite campaign season yet, so why is interest group Environmental Defense running radio ads bashing Angleton Republican state Rep. Dennis Bonnen? “He’s a bully, and someone has to stand up to a bully, so it might as well be us,” said Jim Marston, president of Environmental Defense of Texas. (Full disclosure: Marston also chairs the board that publishes The Texas Observer).

The Angleton insurance salesman is a bete noire of Texas environmentalists. As chair of the House Committee on Environmental Regulation, Bonnen has been a one-man bottleneck to environmental progress in the Legislature since 2003. This session, Bonnen’s body count was especially high. He killed 15 pollution-reduction bills by simply refusing to give them a hearing.

When Bonnen does grant hearings, he treats environmentalists like unwelcome dinner guests. He badgers witnesses, ruminates that “emissions” from East Texas trees may contribute to global warming, and interrupts testimony by sarcastically mumbling, “Interesting.”

His intransigence is all the more irresponsible considering Bonnen’s district houses one of the state’s toxic hot spots-a petrochemical industry-produced stew of chemicals such as arsenic and nickel in and around Freeport.

Marston said he wants Bonnen’s constituents to see exactly who’s representing them. “He counts on people in his district not knowing how hostile he is to protecting the health of children,” Marston said. He noted that Bonnen even opposed fully funding a program for clean-running school buses.

Four AM radio spots and a billboard all label Bonnen “Dennis the Menace” and call on citizens to pressure the politician to change. “Tell Bonnen to do his job and protect the air we breathe or get off the environment committee and make room for a Texan who will,” one of the ads says. The billboard directs drivers to www.stopdennisthemenace.com. Bonnen has not publicly responded to the attacks, which cost Environmental Defense $17,000. He declined an Observer request for comment.

Bonnen won’t be easy to dislodge. He has handily won re-election six times in his overwhelmingly Republican district, often running unopposed. But Brazoria County Democrats think he’s vulnerable and are seeking a candidate to run against him. “The environment is starting to get people’s attention here,” said Sue Funkhouser, chair of the county party. “I don’t think Dennis Bonnen recognizes that, or at least he chooses not to.”


If cutting-edge analysis was what they expected, the several hundred folks who showed up for the LBJ School conference, “The Future Is Now: The Hispanic Impact on American Politics and Government,” came away sorely disappointed. The mid-September conference kicked off a new Center for Politics and Governance at the school, funded with a million dollars from AT&T Inc. It was an inauspicious start.

The panel that brought out the Austin Capitol press corps had an ambitious title: “The State of Hispanic Politics: Understanding Hispanic Voters and their Electoral Impact.” The panel’s premise-and the center’s-is a good one. Bring practitioners of the political arts together with graduate government students. “We expect this research center to give voice to a diverse new generation of political leaders who will transform the landscape of American politics in the coming decades,” said William Powers, president of the University of Texas at Austin, at the dedication.

The panel had a surfeit of heavy hitters, but moderator and UT professor Paul Stekler never seemed to engage them with serious questions. Instead, panelists hewed hard to conventional wisdom. San Antonio-based consultant Frank Guerra ran Hispanic media advertising for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. He mainly works for corporate clients now. Guerra appears intoxicated by the economic choices Hispanics have, and believes that promiscuousness should carry over to politics. Hispanics should play hard to get, he advised, dividing their strength rather than embracing one political party. “The more they come after us, the more political power we’ll have,” Guerra said.

Luis Saenz got his start in 1980 at the Heritage Foundation, where he rebelled at efforts to pigeonhole him by culture or race. Most recently he was campaign manager for Gov. Rick Perry in 2006. What appears to have made Saenz an anomaly in Republican circles is that he advocates treating Hispanics as humans. “Hispanics, we have the same concerns as everyone else,” he said. “We want to be part of the mainstream.”

Saenz joined other minority Republicans in expressing dismay that a majority of the GOP’s presidential candidates bailed on Hispanic and African-American sponsored debates. “It’s a sign of respect,” he said. “Show up.”

Panelist Kelly Fero, a Democratic campaign consultant, practically beamed at the long-term damage Republicans have done to their party with the immigration debate. “There is a narrative that has been cast over the past few years that is going to be around for a very long time,” he said.

Only panelist and Democratic consultant James Aldrete highlighted a path to the future. He said Democrats could build on the importance Hispanics attach to family and community. By the panel’s conclusion, the gathered reporters were grumbling openly about the lack of excitement and bemoaning that they had nothing to write about.