The Back Page

Miss Piggy Goes to Antone's

In a publicity stunt that would have made Don King proud, in late August State Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander raided one of Austin’s most venerable live music venues – during business hours, with a full house – to collect delinquent taxes. With nightly news crews (tipped by Rylander’s flacks), state agents, and Austin police officers in tow, she stormed into Antone’s just as the headliner was taking the stage. While the cops hustled everyone out – about 400 pissed patrons – Rylander’s goons emptied the registers, and the boss hog herself mugged for the cameras. “Tax cheating will not be tolerated,” she warned viewers.

Rylander made off with over $8,000 of the $22,000 owed by the club – a whole two months behind in its payments. Might she have recovered more after the bar closed and all of the night’s receipts were available? Certainly, but there would have been nothing for the cameras to shoot. Call it the opportunity cost of self-aggrandizement. Rylander reportedly has her eye on the Lieutenant Governor’s seat (should Rick Perry replace the Bush-Who-Would-Be-President), and it’s never too early to start accumulating free TV face time. According to the club’s managers, they had already contacted her office about a payment schedule. There are any number of equally delinquent taxpayers at any given time (the comptroller’s office raided seven that night), so why make a media event out of a raid on Austin’s home of the blues? Rylander was stealing a page from the late Bob Bullock, who built his early reputation on business tax raids. But Bullock would never have been so stupid as to raid a popular night club in the name of parsimony. More likely he would have been drinking at the bar.

The Back Page’s crack photo research team may have discovered Rylander’s true motivation. Rylander (who bills herself as the world’s toughest grandma) bears an uncanny resemblance to another infamous old battleaxe with a flair for self-promotion and a distaste for saloons: Carry Nation, the hatchet-swinging prohibitionist who became world-famous by dressing up in religious drag and chopping up bars at the turn of the century. Psychotic rampage in pursuit of temperance? Expensive publicity stunts in defense of taxpayers? Is Carole Keeton Rylander, indeed, Carry Nation reborn?

Consider the facts: Rylander, a former Austin mayor, has reincarnated herself once before, switching from Democrat to Republican in 1985, just a year after serving on Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign steering committee, and just in time to run unopposed in the Republican primary for an opportunity to face Democrat Jake Pickle in that year’s Congressional race. She lost, but launched a career that took her from the State Insurance Board, to the Railroad Commission, to the State Comptroller’s office – so quick to exit she has yet to complete a full term in any statewide office.

Each had a transformative religious experience that changed her worldview. Nation lost a husband to alcoholism, married a preacher, and answered God’s calling to take her message of temperance to the people – whether they wanted to hear it or not. Last fall, Rylander was losing the comptroller’s race to Democrat Paul Hobby, until she received a last-minute $950,000 loan underwritten by Christian right tycoon James Leininger. She answered the Leininger call, delivering the keynote speech at his Texas Public Policy Foundation’s 1999 Legislative Conference. She has faithfully spread his kneejerk message of limited government and privatization, even briefly employing the Foundation’s “job bank placement service”- an ideological screening test intended to root out closet liberals. And although Rylander has not been so devoted as Nation to fundamentalist tracts, she did publish a diet book – without visible effect on its author.

Upon reflection, the comparison is probably unfair to Nation. Carry’s mad crusade was in the name of virtue and sobriety, however tyrannically and foolishly expressed. Rylander has only one cause: herself. The Back Page wishes her as much success with it as the promoters of prohibition.

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Published at 12:00 am CST