Political Intelligence

Power Failure

On the August day that Johnny Zamorran’s electricity was disconnected, the temperature in his Houston home climbed to 94 degrees. Zamorran, who suffers from liver failure and chronic pain stemming from a work-related injury, feared the heat would send him into cardiac arrest. Worse, his 10-year-old son has autism and asthma, which requires an electronic machine called a nebulizer to vaporize medication so he can breathe.

“You’re playing Russian roulette with every chamber loaded,” Zamorran said of the heat.

Zamorran, who lives on a fixed income, had pleaded with Direct Energy Texas, his electric provider, to give him more time to pay his past-due bill. The company was unyielding. “It’s sad because we’re begging people,” Zamorran says, “begging them, please don’t cut us off.”

Zamorran isn’t alone. Record heat, combined with soaring electric rates in the deregulated portions of the state, has led to a huge increase in the number of families whose electricity has been disconnected this summer. The spike in disconnections has put untold thousands of Texans at risk, especially the elderly, children, and the ill, consumer advocates say.

Exact figures are spotty, but American Electric Power Co., an electric utility whose subsidiaries serve most of South Texas, reports that it disconnected 15,708 customers in June, almost double the number in 2007.

Political Intelligence Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

While consumers struggle, the state’s Public Utility Commission seems unmoved. Several Texas lawmakers, consumer groups, and the AARP have asked the PUC to declare a moratorium on disconnections for the remainder of the summer. But the PUC chairman, Barry Smitherman, made it clear in mid-August that the commission was unlikely to act on the petition. Smitherman argued in a memo that the three largest utilities-Reliant Energy Inc., Energy Future Holdings Corp. (formerly TXU), and Direct Energy-have voluntary programs that sufficiently “protect the most vulnerable consumers from disconnections.” The three companies serve about 77 percent of Texas consumers. (The remaining 23 percent are presumably on their own.)

Tim Morstad, AARP associate state director, says the PUC is in effect “deregulating customer protection,” allowing private companies to decide whether to protect their customers during extreme heat. “We don’t know if these programs are working or if they’re not at all because there are no reporting requirements and no verification,” he says.

Zamorran sought help from the office of State Rep. Sylvester Turner, a leading critic of electric deregulation. With Turner’s intervention and the arrival of cameras from a local TV station, Zamorran quickly got his power restored and avoided a trip to the hospital.

Alison Brock, an aide in Turner’s office, said the phones ring “all day, every day” with calls from Texans looking for help on their utility bill. Sometimes Brock and other staffers will even pool their money to get constituents out of a pinch.

Zamorran’s reprieve was only temporary. He has no idea how he will pay the next bill. “Come the first of September, it starts all over again,” he says. “It’s a nightmare we’ve been dealing with.” He says he’s run out of possessions to pawn and done everything he can to make his home more energy-efficient, but it’s not enough.

“I don’t care about myself,” Zamorran says, crying over the phone. “I just worry about my kids.”

-Forrest Wilder

Lost in the Tall Corn

On the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, party officials convened a Rural Council Caucus-an event aimed at winning rural voters back to the Democratic Party. The room looked as though it could easily hold the alleged 400 convention delegates here representing rural communities. We’ll never know because so few of them showed up. It wouldn’t have been a surprise to see tumbleweeds blow through the mostly empty Four Seasons Room at the Colorado Convention Center. About 40 people gathered around the podium, where Todd Campbell, Obama For America Rural Vote director, proselytized about the importance of outreach to rural voters.

Democrats once dominated rural areas all through the South, the Midwest, and Texas. Those days are long gone, though you can still occasionally find unreconstructed Yellow Dog Democrats wandering the floor of state and national conventions. Democrats have talked for years about trying to win in rural areas. They opine about how their populist message should play well. (At the caucus in Denver, there was a lot of talk about John McCain’s voting history. He has consistently voted against farm bills, starting in 1985, when he was still a member of the U.S. House. He voted against farm bills twice more in the Senate in 1996 and 2002, and was a no-show for a vote in 2007.)

John McCain enters St. Paul in Triumph

Democrats have largely ceded rural areas to Republicans, especially in national and statewide races. The modern Democratic Party is, for the most part, an urban one. That’s not a bad thing. As rural America loses population, its political influence dissipates as well.

The decline of the farmer was never more evident when, at the end of the caucus, the council opened the floor to questions. David Harper, a row cropper and pasture farmer from Hartsville, Tennessee, stood up to ask if Barack Obama had bothered to engage the Farm Bureau, principally an insurance company that markets products to rural consumers. Campbell’s roundabout answer was that the Obama campaign intends to reach out to as many rural organizations as possible. Hartman then turned to the audience and asked, holding his hand up, “Are there any farm owners here?” One other hand crept up, belonging to an elderly woman with gaunt, weathered skin stretched across her cheekbones. Hartman turned back to Campbell at the podium and said, “That’s rural America … and I’m real concerned about that.”

If party leaders are serious about winning in rural America, where Obama didn’t fare particularly well even in the primaries, it will take a lot more than voting for pork-loaded farm bills and dispensing happy talk at national conventions every four years. If attendance at the Denver rural caucus was any indication, maybe Obama’s high-tech campaign­-the text messages, MyBarackObama.com, and inspiring YouTube videos on iPhones-hasn’t done the trick out on the farm.

-Rachel Farris

Nobodys Home. Does State Rep. Frank Corte live in his district?

It’s one of the oldest tricks in the campaign playbook: Try to get your opponent kicked off the ballot by claiming he or she doesn’t live in the district. Every election year, without fail, Texas state House and Senate candidates will try this ploy. Sometimes they even have a case: More than a few state lawmakers rent empty apartments in their districts while their actual residence lies elsewhere. These challenges rarely get anywhere. Texas law has always been loose regarding residency-your residence is wherever you say it is.

But state Rep. Frank Corte might be stretching it a little far. If you visit the address the San Antonio Republican claims as his residence, you’ll find a vacant lot.

The Democrats were all too happy to pounce. On August 21, Chad Dunn, a lawyer for the Texas Democratic Party, sent a letter to Richard Langlois, chair of the Republican Party in Bexar County, saying that Corte should be ruled ineligible to run for office in his district.

Accompanying Dunn’s letter were several photos of a vacant lot with a mailbox lying on its side. The mailbox sports Corte’s address-4203 Honeycomb St. Corte has represented the largely Republican district in northwest San Antonio since 1992.

In his letter, Dunn argues that Corte is not a resident of District 122 and that he misrepresented the facts on his ballot application.

Corte called the letter a “ploy to get some headlines.” The representative said he lived at 4203 Honeycomb for 22 years, then sold his house and had it moved in 2006. He lives with his family in an apartment complex about one-quarter mile from the vacant lot, he said.

The apartment complex is located in the district represented by state Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer, a Democrat.

Corte said he plans to build a new house at the Honeycomb address. He wouldn’t elaborate on when construction might begin. “The process of building a house is more than just construction. It’s plans and permits and lots of other things,” he said.

The representative said he thought the residency issue was a “silly thing to talk about” and that it wouldn’t affect his re-election bid in November.

“The Texas Election Code says your domicile is where you live or where you intend to live,” he told the Observer. “I intend to live at that address.”

Just when he intends to live there, he couldn’t say. “My wife would like it to be tomorrow,” he said.

-Melissa del Bosque


It seems fitting that Texas-the nation’s death penalty leader-may become the first state to officially confess to executing an innocent man.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission announced in mid-August that it would-after more than three years of inaction-begin its first investigation into claims of wrongful convictions based on poor forensic work. The Legislature created the commission in 2005 following scandals at several of the state’s crime labs. The commission’s work has stalled for years because of lack of funds and organization [See “The Price of Innocence,” January 26, 2007].

The commission will investigate the arson convictions of Cameron Todd Willingham and Ernest Ray Willis. The state used similar forensic evidence to convict both men of arson. Much of that evidence has since been discredited. In October 2004, Willis was freed after 17 years in prison.

The Art of War

Willingham, however, was executed in February 2004. Texas officials carried out his death sentence despite claims from some of the nation’s leading fire investigators that prosecutors used outdated forensic science to convict Willingham of starting a 1991 house fire in Corsicana that killed his three daughters. (Gov. Rick Perry and the Board of Pardons and Paroles refused to delay the execution despite receiving a report from an arson expert challenging the forensic evidence in the case.) A few months after the execution, a Chicago Tribune investigation into Willingham’s case cast further doubt on the validity of his conviction.

In 2006, the New York-based Innocence Project asked the Forensic Science Commission to investigate the Willis and Willingham cases. “Willis cannot be found ‘actually innocent,’ and Willingham was executed based on the same scientific evidence,” Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck wrote to the commissioners. The Innocence Project convened a panel of the nation’s five leading arson experts to examine Willingham’s case. They concluded that the state of Texas executed an innocent man.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, no American governmental body has concluded that it put an innocent person to death. Texas would be the first if the Forensic Science Commission concludes that Willingham’s conviction was based on flawed forensics. The commission set no deadline for when the investigation would be completed.

-Dave Mann

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Published at 12:00 am CST