Political Intelligence



Midland County sheriff and notorious drug warrior Gary Painter (“The Law West of the Pecos,” by Nate Blakeslee, December 19) has survived his toughest election campaign in years, narrowly defeating Republican primary opponents Mike Hall and Pat Bostic. Polling just 52 percent, Painter narrowly avoided a runoff (his majority was less than 500 votes out of roughly 20,000 cast). Although opponents were predicting Painter’s downfall this season, in the end his political connections proved too powerful. Mike Hall, one of Painter’s deputies, had a considerable lead in fundraising, but Painter received a boost during the campaign’s waning weeks in the form of a $10,000 loan from Midland millionaire Robert Holt, who serves as a commissioner on the Texas Public Safety Commission (which oversees the state police). A rancher and oilman, Holt is a longtime supporter of the Bush dynasty, having served as campaign treasurer for the senior Bush’s unsuccessful 1992 campaign. (Holt’s son-in-law is former Railroad Commissioner Barry Williamson, who owes his start in politics to Holt’s Bush connections.) No Democrat filed for the race, but Painter still faces a November challenge from maverick independent Joe Lozano, a former drug informant for Painter turned political opponent.


The Las Vegas Sun has reported that Congressman Joe Barton, the Menace from Ennis, and his wife Janet took a $17,000 junket to France paid for by the nuclear power industry. The trip, which included stops in Paris and Marseilles, was purportedly a fact-finding tour of European nuclear technology sites. The Sun analyzed travel records for Barton because he is one of three members of Congress (along with Republican Senators Frank Murkowski of Alaska and Larry Craig of Idaho) leading the fight to open the proposed high-level nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Barton is chairman of the House Commerce Subcommittee on Energy. According to records reviewed by the Sun, Barton and his staff have taken seventeen nuclear industry-sponsored trips worth $46,377 since 1996. The three officials’ combined nuclear travel tab since 1996 totals $204,800. “Who pays for the trip is not what is important. What is important is going out to look at the sites, to look at Yucca Mountain, look at the roads, look at the railroads and the projected routes for transportation,” Barton told the Sun. And, no doubt, to look at Las Vegas, which is just a short hop from Yucca Mountain. Although the Clinton administration has expressed reservations about the site, and environmentalists argue that the site is neither as safe nor as permanent as proponents contend, the nuclear utility owners are pushing harder than ever for Yucca Mountain. In addition to the junkets, the industry, mainly through its advocacy organization the Nuclear Energy Institute, spent $1.6 million on lobbying both Republicans and Democrats in 1999. Very little of that was spent in the targeted state – the entire Nevada Congressional delegation opposes the site.


For years, factory pig farm opponents in the Texas Panhandle have been trying to get the state’s attention about the environmental hazards of the mammoth million-hog operations, which use giant unlined settling ponds, or lagoons, to “treat” pig waste. Never mind the stench – the real threat, they say, is that bacteria in the untreated effluent will seep into the underlying Ogallala Aquifer, the main water source for Amarillo and much of the high plains. Local officials and the state environmental agency have refused to intervene, citing the depth of the water – several hundred feet – and the thick layer of impermeable clay that lies between the surface and the aquifer (not to mention the need to maintain a “healthy business climate” in the Panhandle). Lately that celebrated clay has seemed pretty porous. In March, officials told concerned farmers at a meeting in the town of Panhandle, near Amarillo, that an industrial solvent, TCE, had been detected at higher than acceptable levels in the Ogallala. The chemical was widely used – and burned for disposal – in the Eighties at the Pantex nuclear weapons plant near Amarillo. The notoriously slack environmental inspectors at the Department of Energy discovered the TCE last May, but failed to inform the T.N.R.C.C. until ten months later.

Meanwhile, about 100 miles northeast in Perryton, the clay-sayers seem to have been wrong once again. A municipal well contaminated with another solvent, carbon tetrachloride, has been on the federal Superfund site for a year. Recently completed tests seem to suggest that it was not the well itself that became contaminated (i.e. from the surrounding soil), but the underlying aquifer. “Carbon tet” was formerly used as an insecticide in grain elevators in the Panhandle, and may have seeped through the ground, past the “impermeable” clay and into the Ogallala.


“What do you think of Sharp, Cisneros, and Kirk?” a Democratic funder asked. “That’s the dream team.” After fielding no serious candidates for statewide office in this election cycle, the people who write the checks and do the strategic thinking for the Democratic Party are looking ahead at the 2002 election and hoping there will be life after George W. Bush. Sharp and Cisneros have reportedly met to discuss who might run for what – with one possible slate including Cisneros running for Senator against Phil Gramm – or for an open seat should Gramm retire – Sharp running for Governor, and Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk running for lieutenant governor. Asked if he would consider a run for lieutenant governor in 2002, Kirk said he has “a job in Dallas.” (He didn’t, however, say “No.”) Asked if he had been approached to be part of a “dream ticket,” Kirk said, “This sounds like Sharp’s idea.” Not mentioned is another Democratic Party star – the other Kirk – who seems likely to outgrow his current job as mayor of Austin. Kirk Watson, the Austin lawyer who served as Ann Richards’ chairman of the Texas Air Control Board, is another possible Democratic candidate for statewide office.