Political Intelligence

The Low Road to Higher Ground

The official slogan of the American Red Cross is “Help can’t wait.” And when help can’t wait, the aid group boasts on its Web site, “We’ll be there.” Unless, apparently, you live in South Texas.

When Hurricane Dolly blew through Hidalgo County on July 23, County Judge J.D. Salinas was alarmed to learn that, in his case, the Red Cross had decided that help could wait. Red Cross officials told Salinas they would not be running emergency shelters in the county. Red Cross emergency responders remained in San Antonio, a four-hour drive from Hidalgo County, until after Hurricane Dolly had passed.

The Red Cross blames the delay on a bureaucratic rule change. Historically, the Red Cross had always managed Hidalgo County’s emergency shelters. (In 2005, during Hurricane Emily, the agency ran 13 emergency shelters housing 6,000 evacuees.) In 2007, the Federal Emergency Management Agency designated a majority of the county a flood zone because of its badly deteriorated levees. This triggered a national Red Cross policy that prevents the organization from providing emergency services until hurricanes, and the danger of flooding, have subsided.

“We had no food and no one to run our shelters,” Salinas said. “I asked them why they couldn’t have told me before the hurricane.”

As the hurricane bore down on the county, Salinas asked the Texas National Guard and his county deputies to manage the shelters, but they still didn’t have any food. The Governor’s Division of Emergency Management came up with a solution: Use the federally subsidized food in the county’s school cafeterias. “We opened up our school cafeterias, and that was how we fed people,” Salinas said.

Flood Gauge

Jonathan Aiken, director of media relations for the American Red Cross, said the agency announced in 2007 that it would no longer operates shelters in Hidalgo County. “Much of Hidalgo lies in a floodplain, and we won’t put shelters anywhere where there might be flooding,” Aiken said. “We had the same issues during Hurricane Katrina.”

Chartered by Congress in 1900, the Red Cross is the only nonprofit organization with a congressional mandate to provide domestic and international disaster relief. The charity’s slow response to Katrina brought harsh criticism from Congress and led to reform of the group’s disaster response planning in 2007.

“It makes sense,” Aiken said. “How can we help people in shelters if the shelters are flooded?”

Salinas said he assured the Red Cross that his emergency shelters were in areas that would not flood. “Why would I put my people in shelters that were going to be under water? We know the county well, and we know where we are going to have flooding,” he said. “At least, they could have had their staging area in the neighboring county, where we could get to them.”

In the end, the Red Cross showed up the day after the hurricane-the same day U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Gov. Rick Perry arrived to take a helicopter tour of the damage.

“I just couldn’t believe it when they told me they weren’t coming,” Salinas said. “I had hospitals evacuating, generators going out, and it was just one more stressful situation to deal with.”

-Melissa del Bosque


Company Town

FORT WORTH MEDIA SHILL FOR NATURAL GAS

In May 2007, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram quietly reported-in a little-noticed, 126-word brief buried deep in the paper-that it had signed a gas lease with Chesapeake Energy Corp. on 40 acres the newspaper owns in south Fort Worth. The business arrangement wasn’t all that surprising. Since 2002, Chesapeake has been drilling for natural gas all over town (under schools, churches, parks, anywhere) in the Barnett Shale formation beneath Fort Worth.

What is surprising is what came next. The Star-Telegram wrote extensively about the controversial urban gas drilling-including some glowing editorials-without ever disclosing in its news or editorial sections that the paper is making money with Chesapeake. The paper has refused to disclose even the value of the lease.

A Lexis-Nexis search turned up no Star-Telegram editorials about the company before the paper signed the lease. Since then, the paper’s opinion makers have given Chesapeake the kind of press that public relations people dream about. In September, for example, the Star-Telegram editorialized that the company had a “deserved reputation as a solid corporate citizen” and should receive a city drilling permit on a tree-filled tract of land Chesapeake owns adjacent to the Trinity River trail system. In June, the paper praised Chesapeake for lighting its corporate offices in Fort Worth: “Most everyone’s spirits could use a boost right now, and that’s what the lights blazing atop the Chesapeake building do for us.”

Hell do I know? Ask Obama

“I’ll be absolutely, directly honest-it never occurred to me to disclose in editorials,” said Paul Harral, who oversees the Star-Telegram‘s editorial page. The issue of disclosure, he said, “didn’t strike me and register with me strongly enough to be a big deal.” Harral said he will raise the issue with the editorial board. (A number of the paper’s employees also are personally involved with gas companies. Harral, other editorial writers, and members of the news staff hold gas leases on their property. Op-ed writer Linda Campbell’s husband works for Ackerman McQueen, a public relations firm that promotes Chesapeake.)

The cheery editorials in the city’s daily newspaper aren’t the only positive press Chesapeake has received. The company has launched a multimillion-dollar media blitz in Fort Worth disguised as journalism. The effort is aimed at tamping down growing concerns over safety and environmental risks that have put Chesapeake and other gas drillers on the defensive.

Chesapeake’s efforts include a 30-minute infomercial called “Citizens of the Shale” that has run on local television stations. Chesapeake bills the PR piece as journalism. The narration-by Ginny Simone, a former newscaster who now works for the Mercury Group, a subsidiary of ad agency Ackerman McQueen-begins: “It’s like a gold mine that’s been discovered right underneath my feet, and it’s called the Barnett Shale.”

Later this year, Chesapeake will launch a more ambitious effort called Shale TV, a Web-based video news site. Several prominent Metroplex newscasters and journalists have signed on to lead the effort, including Tracy Rowlett, former co-anchor of Dallas’ CBS affiliate, and Olive Talley, formerly of Dateline NBC.

Talley defends the project, insisting that she and the other reporters will maintain full editorial control. “I view it as a public service,” she said. “I view it as an education-based program.” Talley sees Shale TV as not all that different from corporate sponsorships of traditional media outlets such as PBS. She added, “If people don’t think corporations own and run and control the media in this day and age in this country, then they’re not very informed.”

-Forrest Wilder


Marriages Made in Heaven

TEXAS TO COUNSEL COUPLES, DISCOUNT NUPTIALS

State Rep. Warren Chisum is concerned about Texans’ morality. So last legislative session the 70-year-old Republican from the small Panhandle town of Pampa created a premarital counseling program in which Texans can learn about the components of a good marriage-and afterward hear a little of Jesus’ word to boot.

The premarital education course, called “Twogether in Texas,” starts in September. At the same time, the cost of a marriage license will double to $60 as a result of legislation passed by Chisum last session. Couples who complete the optional, eight-hour premarital education course will be exempted from the marriage license fee. They can also get hitched without waiting 72 hours, as otherwise required by law.

The $16 million for the program will come from federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Family (read: welfare) funds doled out to the state.

“I think it’s a very ideological program and not the best use of money, especially during tough economic times when more poor people are in need of cash assistance,” says Celia Hagert, a policy analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

Hagert points out that the Bush administration already gives Texas millions of dollars to promote marriage. The nonprofit Alliance for North Texas Healthy Effective Marriages, known as ANTHEM, was given $950,000 under the “Twogether in Texas” program to hire subcontractors to provide the free course. But ANTHEM already receives $903,425 a year from the federal government to promote healthy marriages among Dallas’ low-income population.

Under Chisum’s bill, faith-based organizations and clergy may conduct the courses, but they cannot carry religious overtones, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which oversees the program. The courses must cover communication skills, conflict resolution, and components of a healthy marriage. While proselytizing is forbidden, there is nothing preventing religious organizations from encouraging couples to stick around and read the Bible after the marriage course has ended.

Stephanie Goodman, a spokesperson for the health commission, says the agency hasn’t compiled attendance numbers for the healthy marriage classes that are already offered. Neither does the agency know how many couples might take Chisum’s courses. So what if no one shows up? The contractors will get paid no matter how many lovebirds sign up.

-Melissa del Bosque


Rah, Rah Rick

PERRY’S JOB #1: ECONOMIC BOOSTERISM

As a student at Texas A&M in the 1970s, Rick Perry was a cheerleader, “yell leader” in Aggie parlance. As the governor of Texas, he’s playing much the same role.

“Man, what a great day!” Perry shouted when he stepped on stage to a standing ovation from hundreds of Texas business and political leaders packed into a ballroom at the downtown Austin Hilton on August 6. They had gathered for the Governor’s Competitiveness Council Summit, at which the competitiveness council-a group comprised mostly of business leaders and GOP ideologues-issued its report on how to keep Texas’ economy, well, competitive. The governor was in a celebratory mood. CNBC had recently named Texas the nation’s No. 1 state for business. “I kind of feel like one of those big motivational speakers at a huge big conference somewhere,” he said, “where we just won the world championship, and I guess we kind of did.”

Perry has made boosting the fortunes of Texas business the central mission of his governorship. He flies all over the world, purportedly to spur investment in the state. In July, he even spoke at the E3 video game conference in Los Angeles to encourage gaming companies to come to Texas. If they do, they’ll probably be rewarded handsomely.

Cartoon

Perry’s economic boosterism isn’t just talk. The governor has doled out hundreds of millions in public funds to corporations-through the state’s Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund-in exchange for job creation. (The Emerging Technology Fund recently awarded $23 million in taxpayer money to a handful of San Antonio tech companies.) Perry calls this economic stimulus. Critics call it a slush fund that feeds corporate welfare.

Many economists attribute Texas’ economic stability to the booming markets for oil and natural gas. But to the members of the governor’s handpicked competitiveness council, it’s because of the GOP’s conservative agenda. The council’s report was a point-by-point argument for how Perry’s policies have spurred economic growth. On education-represented on the council by No Child Left Behind architect Sandy Kress-Texas should “ensure all students graduate college,” according to the council’s report, and continue merit pay for teachers. On energy-represented by Mike Green of Energy Future Holdings Corp. (formerly TXU)-the report recommends more nuclear power in addition to renewable energy.

The council’s report also attributes the state’s economic growth partly to low taxes and caps on lawsuit damages. There’s no doubt that big business likes those policies. But they come with costs-a chronically underfunded education system that could eventually undermine the work force, and a quarter of the population without health insurance. For Perry, though, this was no time for trifling details.

“You lifted the hood of our economy … you examined the various component parts of our economic engine,” he told the council members. “You have affirmed a lot of things we did in the past … that have created this type of story for Texas.”

All together now: Go team!

-Dave Mann

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