Capitol Notebook

Dispatches from around the dome


Guard Your Beer

The Star Bar in Austin is not a good place to go if you are overly sensitive to cigarette smoke or the blustering of local politicos, as the air there is thick with both, and the odor of blustering still clings to your sweater the next day. Right around five o’clock, though, before the fumes get too bad, you can observe certain Capitol personalities easing out of their work days at the bar’s small outdoor patio. Thanks to the invention of the cellular phone, this is not a discrete switch from working to not-working, but instead a continuous transition, as the lobbyist interrupts his drinking with calls, and vice versa. On a recent afternoon, for instance, Don “Dee” Simpson of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees was seen alternating long swigs of beer with gossip, grousing, and his little black phone.

The bar talk soon fell to Simpson’s high blood pressure, Rio Grande Valley grapefruit, and the recent indictment of Yvette Lozano, the woman accused of sending a Bush debate preparation video to a Gore campaign adviser. In between disquisitions on these topics, however, Simpson passed around a chart comparing employment conditions for correctional officers in different states.

The problem of understaffing in the Texas prison system is rooted in more than just low pay, Simpson pronounced, wielding a Dos Equis and a Parliament cigarette. “Compared to what these other systems do, they (the Texas system) don’t do anything,” he said. In states like California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, where state correctional officers have access to a labor-management committee, third-party grievance procedures, career ladders, and continued training (as well as top salaries ranging from $35,000 to $50,000,) turnover rates range from 2 percent to 7 percent. In Texas, where correctional officers enjoy none of those workplace benefits and top salaries of under $30,000, turnover is 23.6 percent.

“What we have is the old Southern system with a little cowboy flavor thrown in,” said Simpson. “We don’t modernize, and don’t modernize, and don’t modernize. We’re still compensating people with a side of beef.” Legislators seem aware of the gravity of the problem, he says, but because of the lack of surplus funds this session, the lobbyist must work extra hard. Indicating an ornately tatooed waitress wearing tight leather pants, Simpson suggested that his next tactic might be to try to hire her to lobby for the guards, since “I don’t think I could find pants like that to fit me.”

Switching chambers, changing genders

Senator Leticia Van de Putte has taken up the banner for the transgendered, having introduced a Senate version of Representative Debra Danburg’s sex-change bill. “Currently Texas law is silent when someone has gone through a sex-change process,” says Van de Putte, sponsor of the Senate version of the bill. As a result, it can be difficult for transsexuals to legally change their name and gender, which leads to problems when it comes to applying for a job or getting married.

Van de Putte has a more than theoretical interest in the legislation: Her husband’s uncle is married to Christie Lee Littleton, the San Antonio woman whose previous marriage was declared invalid by the courts because she was born male. (Littleton tried to sue for medical malpractice after her former husband’s death, but was denied standing on the premise that she had not been legitimately married to him. In its opinion on the case, the state’s 4th Court of Appeals said it was up to the Legislature to clarify the procedure by which a judge can grant recognition of a gender change.) “I’ve known Christie Lee for 15 years,” says Van de Putte. “I went to her beauty shop, and she did my daughters’ hair for prom. My husband’s uncle lived around the block from there, and she used to cut his hair.” She knew the two had been dating for about a year, she says, and recently they informed her they’d been married—outside of Bexar County, where Littleton’s first marriage went unrecognized. “As a family, everybody loves Christie Lee,” says Van de Putte. “To us it’s a real problem. What I’m trying to do is a clarification, as was requested in the court opinion.” Van de Putte also noted that she knows of at least one lesbian couple that was able to wed legally in Texas, because one of the women had once been (and still was, according to official documents) a man.

Clayton’s Gift

March 7 must have brought back the good old days for former Speaker of the House Billy Clayton, as he stood out in front of the Capitol, before a crowd of several hundred cheering women. “I believe you are true citizens of Texas, you believe in individualism, and that a person can do what they want with their own money!” he declared to hoots and applause. While Clayton now lobbies for a variety of clients, including Hewlett Packard and Southwestern Bell, officials from those companies don’t often line up to hug and kiss him the way the members of the Texas Gifting Coalition did a few weeks ago.

The TGC, whom Clayton also lobbies for, is made up of people who participate in “gifting”—a curious hybrid of Junior League, feminist empowerment, and (just don’t call it a) pyramid scheme. The mostly female participants give “gifts” of money to a designated recipient, who can use her windfall however she likes, with the vague stipulation that she is supposed to donate some fraction of it to a good cause. It is possible (but not, gifters insist, guaranteed) that the givers will one day end up on the receiving end.

While advocates claim that gifting organizations are not pyramid schemes, the authorities in places like Corpus Christi see things differently, and have ordered gifters to cease gifting or else face prosecution. As a result, the gifters want the Legislature to pass a bill that will get the law off their backs.

“I have a lake house up in Whitney, Texas,” explained Clayton after his speech, “and this woman that we knew up there came to me and told me about how some gifting groups in Dallas were being harassed.” The diminutive blue-eyed west Texan paused to receive a hug and a god-bless-you from a passing gifter. “So I said, tell me about it. She told me the whole story, and we got some people together.”

He originally convinced Houston Representative Gary Elkins to carry their bill, but Elkins apparently lost his enthusiasm for it in the wake of a news report that “pretty well crucified” gifting groups, said Clayton. Hence the crowd of women, who had come in search of a co-sponsor. (Elkins’ name will remain on the bill, but he won’t push for its passage.)

The president of the Texas Gifting Coalition is Lynda Lyles of Dallas, who also rallied the crowd on gifters’ lobby day and led the charge on representative’s offices. After it was all over, Lyles posted an enthusiastic recap on the organization’s website: “It was an ABSOLUTELY AMAZING DAY for us all, and something I believe none of us will EVER forget. Now that the groundwork has been laid, the fear should be gone!” she wrote. “Each and every one of us (and you) has the God given right to gift!”

Candidate Chic

There’s been some question as to whether likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez has an image problem. Not because he has no political experience, gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to George W. Bush, and opposes abortion: Conventional wisdom has it that none of this matters, because he’s rich and Hispanic and will lure legions of Hispanic voters to the polls, thanks to the magnetic pull of his surname and his television ads. But what about the fact that he looks like an extra on the old television show “ChiPs”? What about those not-quite-aviator glasses? What about the moustache?

There’s a rumor going around that at least one more experienced Democrat advised Sanchez to lose the moustache, but nobody’s owned up to it. “I did not tell him that,” said former Comptroller and likely Lieutenant Governor candidate John Sharp. “I haven’t worked up the courage yet,” he joked. “I heard there was somebody that suggested it, but that person probably didn’t like moustaches.”

Sharp would not identify the anti-moustache adviser. “I’m kind of neutral on moustaches myself,” he said. “I’d probably have one if I could grow one.”

Oration in Favor of Declaration Recitation Legislation

Former presidential candidate and right-wing gadabout Alan Keyes demonstrated his oratorical talents in a Capitol briefing room recently, as Representative Rick Green (R-Dripping Springs) and other conservative legislators stood behind him and beamed their approval. In front of Keyes was a minimal audience: three television cameramen, a photographer, one reporter, and a bunch of Green aides. Even so, Keyes spoke sweepingly of the risk that Americans might “take for granted the fundamental insights that have made our freedom possible,” and thereby slide back toward “despotism and tyranny instead of freedom.”

Keyes had popped into town to endorse Green’s bill establishing Celebrate Freedom Week. The bill would erect a safety rail between the Texas populace and despotism by requiring schoolchildren to study the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution during the last week of September. It would also require students to recite certain lines of the Declaration every day during that week. At the press conference with Keyes, Green called his bill “the most important piece of legislation that will pass out of the House this session.” A similar bill (“Recitation Legislation”) awaits passage in the New Jersey Assembly, while last fall, California Governor Gray Davis vetoed a bill requiring students to recite part of the Declaration.

Thanks to the efforts of Keyes’ nonprofit Declaration Foundation and other conservative groups, mandatory recitation is enjoying a vogue among righteous right-wing types. Their enthusiasm seems to attach to two particular clauses within the mandatory text: the part that says that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” and the part that says governments derive their powers “from the Consent of the Governed.” Some conservatives seem to hope that the combination of the two will inspire children to revere God and distrust the government as much as they themselves do. “Every individual has the right to stand before the world,” Keyes told the cameramen and the aides, “and even if all the powers are ranged against him, even though it looks as if he stands alone, God Almighty stands with him.”