It’s runoff time in the Democratic primary, and one to watch is in Senate District 20 in South Texas. Whoever wins the primary will become the new senator, since there is no Republican candidate in the race. Or is there? Barbara Canales-Black, who came in second in the first round of balloting to McAllen State Representative Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, doesn’t have much background in politics, but what she does have is a bit strange for a Corpus Christi Democrat. Her dad is Tony Canales, private lawyer to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez. So what is her husband, Paul Black, doing donating $5,000 to Texans for Rick Perry? Black gave the money on June 28, 2001, when it was already widely known that the Democrats wanted Sanchez to be their man. Black has also donated to David Dewhurst’s campaign for Lieutenant Governor. (Not that he needs it–like Sanchez, Dewhurst is largely funding his own campaign from his personal fortune.)
Canales-Black and her husband also have their own family foundation, the Paul and Barbara Black Foundation, incorporated in 1997. What the foundation actually does is unclear, but the mission statement reads like the Republican party platform: The group will fund non-profits that “operate in a manner that is consistent with historic Judeo-Christian principles, and consistent with protecting and enhancing the rights of private property, free enterprise and minimizing the role of government in the affairs of men.”
As we reported last issue in this space, Canales-Black’s family oil company, BNP Corporation, has recently begun a controversial natural gas drilling operation on the Padre Island National Seashore. BNP has a permit to drill in a 1,300-square-kilometer area, a good portion of which is critical habitat for an endangered bird, the piping plover. (Earlier this month, the Sierra Club parked a tanker truck outside of one of Canales-Black’s fundraisers to illustrate how, whether you’re at a champagne breakfast or strolling on the beach, such vehicles are pretty hard to ignore.)
South Texas is the only region remaining where the Republicans have yet to make significant inroads. But with Dems like these–donating to R’s, drilling on public parkland, “minimizing the role of government”–who needs Republicans?
On the reliability scale, our state unemployment system ranks somewhere between the California electricity grid and Enron’s Osprey 6.31% bonds. According to a recent state-by-state analysis, produced jointly by the Economic Policy Institute, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and the National Employment Law Project, the Texas system flunked four out of five categories examined. These include: eligibility of displaced workers for benefits, revenue entering the system, insufficiency of the trust fund, and mechanisms for providing additional help during recessions. According to AFL-CIO President Joe Gunn, the Legislature is to blame for not saving for a rainy day during the recent boom. “When our economy was humming, employers lobbied successfully to keep UI tax rates artificially low,” Gunn said in a press release. Now that the economy has leveled off, the system’s trust fund has a deficit that everyone outside of the governor’s office regards as staggeringly large. The other culprit, Gunn said, is the Texas Workforce Commission, which has set strict eligibility rules for the program. Part-time and temporary workers in particular have trouble getting relief from the system in Texas. Nationwide, the report found that 43.3 percent of unemployed workers get benefits; in Texas, the rate is just 29.8 percent, making us 43rd in the nation.
COP WIVES ATTACK
On March 19, the Austin City Council voted down a reform that might have led to a truly independent police monitor and oversight board. The current system, negotiated as part of the contract with the police union, allows the city manager to appoint the monitor and board. Because the police chief is also hired by the city manager, the ACLU and other activist groups argued that the city council, as a more objective and democratic body, should handle oversight instead. (The amendment they proposed would begin the council’s independent oversight after the police contract expired in 2003.)
The vote was another flashpoint in a long-term fight to get independent review of the Austin police, which dates back to at least 1998. In recent years, a string of controversial incidents–including bungled investigations, police shootings, and allegations of excessive use of force against minorities in East Austin–has brought increased criticism of the department. Polling shows 87% of Austinites support independent police oversight.
In this round, the battle was, as usual, shrill and bloody, with activists accusing the police of declaring war on the citizenry and the ACLU labeled anti-union cop bashers. In particular, the Austin Police Association pulled out all the stops, including intensive behind-the scenes-lobbying, a vituperative opinion piece in the Austin American Statesman, and the airing of a radio ad as craven as any attack the ACLU has ever received.
The ad begins with stirring martial music. (One can almost see the flags fluttering in the distance.) It then features the (alleged) voice of a police officer’s wife: “I watch my husband getting ready for work, he fastens on the body armor, pulls on that dark blue uniform, straps on his gunbelt, and I am so proud. He is an Austin Police Officer.”
A man then intones: “Not everyone supports the police. Maybe that’s why the American Civil Liberties Union and other anti-police groups are trying to cut a secret deal with city council members, asking them to turn their backs on your police officers.”
The worried wife continues: “I know it hurts him that the ACLU and other folks want to destroy the police contract and talk council members into hurting officers and their families, but my husband just keeps on doing his job, because he’s not a politician, he’s a policeman.”
The man then returns to say that even though some form of oversight has been enacted, the ACLU is still unsatisfied (the ingrates!) and “now are trying to sneak in two secret charter amendments through the city council that would strip away civil service protection that was enacted by the voters of Austin.”
Finally the wife returns with the kicker, standing on top of the bodies of those who died during the attack on the World Trade Center: “After September 11, you’d think they would show some respect, but you know, some people just don’t care.”
Will Harrell, executive director of the ACLU was not amused.
“They try to drive a wedge between our constituency by calling us anti-union which has nothing to do with police oversight,” says Harrell. “It tells me we must have hit a pretty sensitive nerve if they were prepared to go to such depths.”
NEW FACTS, NO CULPRITS
Mexico City attorney Barbara Zamora, who represents the family of slain human rights lawyer Digna Ochoa, wants to set the record straight–she has no plans for suicide, now or ever. Zamora made that statement after receiving an e-mailed death threat similar to the many that Ochoa had received before she was found shot to death in her office last October. On March 12, the Mexican daily Reforma ran a front-page story suggesting that Ochoa had, in fact, not been murdered, but had committed suicide. Citing unidentified sources within the Mexico City Attorney General’s office, the front-page story said “new facts” in the investigation were leading to a strong possibility that the human rights defender had taken her own life.
Ochoa was shot with her own gun. One bullet entered her head above the left ear; another struck her left thigh. A third bullet was found in the couch where her body was discovered. Investigators found the weapon under her body; red latex gloves had been pulled onto her hands. Starch, used to slip her hands into the gloves, was scattered on her clothes and around her body.
Human rights organizations, friends, and family members have categorically rejected the suicide theory, saying that anyone who knew Ochoa–a former nun, who had battled with high military officials, including Mexico’s current Attorney General in the defense of her clients (See “Remembering Digna,” Novem-ber 9, 2001), could never accept such an idea. Even city prosecutor Bernardo Batiz agreed that the suicide theory was the least convincing. He noted she had had death threats in the past and was a fighter for human rights in the prime of her life. “It’s not easy to imagine” she would take her life, he said, and called the informer who leaked the information a “traitor” and a “mercenary.” A special prosecutor is heading up the case; among those who have been called in for questioning are several military officers.
The day after the Reforma story was published, Zamora accompanied Ochoa’s family in accusing the police of dragging their feet in the investigation. Days later she received an e-mail message consisting only of scattered words: “car crash,” “accident,” “lawyer,” and “urgent.” A similar note had been found in the office where Ochoa was killed, with threatening words cut from a newspaper, pasted on a sheet of paper.
While Zamora had received numerous death threats in the past because of her involvement in politically sensitive cases, the e-mail message was the first she had received since Ochoa was killed. The Reforma story has prompted a wave of conflicting and confusing reports in the Mexican media. A suicide theory, Zamora observes, “means there are no culprits.”