Political Intelligence

Cashing, Thinning, Bashing & Building

Hog at the Trough

One of Gov. Rick Perry’s strongest attributes as a politician is his ability to raise campaign cash from special interests. His fundraising network is likely a major part of why his fellow governors tapped him last December to head the Republican Governors Association. The Dallas Morning News reported recently that a quarter of the $7.1 million raised by the group since January came from Texas.

Perry also took in $2.6 million for himself in the final six months of 2007, the last period for which filings are available. Who’s been currying favor with the governor? Frequent Perry donor Harold Simmons gave $25,000. Simmons’ company, Waste Control Specialists LLC, has been trying to expand a nuclear waste dump in far West Texas (see “Good to Glow,” April 4, 2008).

Perry’s most prolific moneyman, homebuilder Bob Perry (no relation), gave him a paltry $5,000. But the GOP mega-donor and former swift-boater forked over $250,000 to the Republican governors’ group, its largest check of the past four months. Bob Perry gave $1 million to the Republican governors in 2006. The association then turned around and cut a check to Rick Perry for””wait for it””$1 million. None of this was reported until after the election. Frequent contributor James Leininger bankrolled a $19,000-Perry trip to Miami to “meet with Governor Bush,” according to filings. (Bush was no longer governor at the time.)

Perry also received $27,000 from various members of the Zachry family (Zachry Construction Corp. holds a major contract on Perry’s controversial $145 billion Trans-Texas Corridor plan), and money from other corporate interests: $50,000 from AT&T Inc. and $40,000 from Landry’s Restaurants Inc.

The largest and most puzzling contribution was $100,000 from billionaire New York businessman Ira Rennert on October 26, 2007. Rennert founded and runs Renco Group Inc., a holding company that owns a plethora of companies, including the one that first manufactured the Hummer.

Why would a New York billionaire so lavishly reward a Texas governor? Perry’s recent activities on the presidential hustings might give a clue. Rennert is close to former presidential candidate and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Perry endorsed Giuliani for president the same month that Rennert’s check arrived. The governor provided vital GOP bona fides to Giuliani at a time when social conservatives were publicly repudiating him. Seems like Perry got the better part of the bargain. Perry also received a $1,000 contribution from the managing partner of Giuliani’s law firm.

Then there was the free travel: airline tickets donated by Continental Airlines and Southwest Airlines for Perry, his wife, and members of his staff to fly to San Diego, Newark, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. Nobody works the angles like Rick.

Thinning Thicket

Known as the “American Ark,” the Big Thicket National Preserve in East Texas is one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet. Its treasures include 100,000 acres of cypress-covered swamps, dense stands of soaring longleaf pines, dainty orchids, and four species of carnivorous plants.

This species-rich slice of primordial Texas is endangered by encroaching development, according to a new report by the National Parks Conservation Association. The report identifies 10 national parks, including the Big Thicket National Preserve, that are in such jeopardy.

The Big Thicket’s problem dates to its inception. The preserve is fragmented into nine land units and six water units, with private holdings “mostly forest owned by timber companies” connecting the parcels. When Democratic East Texas Congressmen Charlie Wilson and Bob Eckhardt created the preserve in 1974, they sold this patchwork of protected land and water as a “string of pearls.” But in the past six years, three major timber companies have put millions of acres, including critical wildlife habitat within or near the preserve, up for sale. Developers have already snatched up some of the property, and others are circling.

“A lot of it really ought to be conserved, preserved, and become part of the Big Thicket National Preserve,” said Bruce Drury, president of the nonprofit Big Thicket Association. “Once the property is sold, the trees are cut and the roads go in””you can’t undo that.”

Congress could save the Big Thicket. Unfortunately, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program designed to purchase land for conservation, has dropped from a high of $148 million in 1999 to $44 million in 2008, and competition for the remaining dollars is fierce.

In its report, the conservation association calls on Congress to purchase 2,800 priority acres in the Thicket at an estimated cost of $4.75 million. “The tracts offer significant biological diversity and one of the most outstanding wildland canoeing opportunities in the region,” the report says. “Not only would incredible recreational access be lost, but earthmoving activities would significantly impair the water quality and biological diversity of the preserve, including a number of rare or endangered species.”

Meanwhile, the Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Fund, and other groups are working to use private funds to buy land in the Big Thicket before it falls into the hands of developers. Additionally, at the request of The Woodlands Republican Congressman Kevin Brady, the National Park Service has drafted legislation that would expand the boundaries of the Preserve by another 100,000 acres.

Now that would be a truly big Big Thicket.

Does Jesus Hate Jesús?

It must be election time in the suburbs. The scapegoating crowd is in full froth. A recent meeting of the House State Affairs Committee in Austin served as a forum for immigrant-bashing by some of the statehouse’s most prominent wingnuts.

They are still peeved that Speaker Tom Craddick and Committee Chair David Swinford, an Amarillo Republican, quashed anti-immigrant legislation last session. Of course, the send-“˜em-all-back crowd can’t focus its anger on the real impediments to their perverse desires. Their legislation failed because GOP donors like the Texas Association of Business and homebuilder Bob Perry know that going after immigrants is bad for business. It’s also terrible public policy.

Still, with voting only six months away, some posturing was in order. Tyler Republican Rep. Leo Berman is obsessed with punishing the undocumented who live among us. Last session, he proposed repealing birthright citizenship, which, last time we checked, was in the U.S. Constitution. He vowed to refile that bill, along with others to mandate that local police officers enforce federal immigration laws, end public assistance for illegal immigrants, ban the undocumented from filing lawsuits, and punish employers who hire undocumented workers. With all the pomposity he can muster, Berman is calling this a new “battle for Texas independence.”

As usual, it was Tomball Republican Rep. Debbie “Pit of Hell” Riddle who skirted furthest on the fringe. Riddle had recently returned from testifying at the Kansas Legislature, which is considering its own “Illegal Immigration Relief Act.”

“My district and the people of Texas are demanding action,” Riddle told the committee in Austin. “And if we don’t do what we need to do this session, there’s going to be a price to pay.”

A press release sent out by Riddle’s office ended with the following:

At the conclusion of Riddle’s testimony, a committee member suggested to her that just because no bill was actually brought to a vote last session doesn’t mean positive steps hadn’t been taken to advance the issue.

“John Quincy Adams said “˜Duty is ours, results are God’s,'” the member said. “He said that in 1830 and it’s still pretty good in 2008.”

“Yes, and I think God would have us work on this and then vote,” Riddle replied.

Border Boondoggle

Is it too late to convince Congress that Texas doesn’t need an 18-foot-tall border wall? That might be the only hope for border residents who have recently received bad news from the courts.

Eloisa Tamez has been fighting Homeland Security’s plan to build the wall through her backyard for the past 10 months. She suffered a setback when U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen ruled in Brownsville in favor of the feds on April 10. Hanen’s decision came about a week after Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced that he would use his waiver authority to push aside more than 36 federal laws to speed fence construction. At press time, the Supreme Court had not decided whether to hear a challenge to Chertoff’s unprecedented power play. The secretary’s goal is to have 370 miles of fence built before George W. Bush leaves office.

Ironically, both Chertoff and U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez are on record saying that the border wall will not halt illegal immigration. In a Rio Grande Guardian story, Gutierrez said it would take comprehensive congressional reform to cure the United States’ immigration woes. Nonetheless, the border fence has become an indicator for many Americans of whether the federal government is serious about enforcing immigration, according to Gutierrez.

The Texas Border Coalition, a group of border mayors, county judges, and business leaders who represent cities from El Paso to Brownsville, has made repeated trips to Washington to educate members of Congress on the idiocy of a border fence. The coalition even hired a lobbying firm, Via Novo, to help pitch its perspective to congressional leaders.

The coalition has also joined a class-action lawsuit with Tamez. Lawyer Peter Schey will handle the suit. Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, chair of the coalition, estimates his group represents between 2 million and 3 million border residents. “The Secure Fence Act may give the rest of America a warm, fluffy feeling, but it is nothing more than a false sense of security,” said Foster.

Two congressional subcommittees were scheduled to hold a joint hearing on the border wall in Brownsville on April 28. Some South Texas landowners believe they’ve already lost the battle with Homeland Security. But both Tamez and Foster still hope they can convince the rest of America that 18-foot steel fence segments will do more harm to border communities than good in solving the problems of illegal immigration.

Dave Mann is a former editor of the Observer.

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