In one of Houston’s poorest areas, a Democratic primary borders on farce.
Texas House District 146 looks like a dragon drawn with an Etch-a-Sketch. That’s because the largely black and Hispanic district on Houston’s south side has been gerrymandered over the years, ensuring it remained one of the city’s poorest. It’s also played host to a tragicomic political grudge-match that will see its fourth iteration in next week’s Democratic primary.
The district’s largest chunk surrounds the intersection of Highway 288 and the 610 Loop, but does not extend south to the Texaco station at 288 and Almeda Genoa. Yet this is where District 146’s erstwhile elder statesman, Al Edwards, has insisted that I meet him.
“Really?” I said. “I’ll meet you anywhere you want. Really. I don’t mind.”
“No, let’s do that Texaco,” Edwards said. “They’ve got a place to sit in the back.”
The Texaco is sizeable, with a gravel lot for big rigs. I park next to the only black Mercedes—Edwards is a real estate broker—10 minutes late because Edwards initially directed me to the wrong exit.
Edwards is standing by the checkout counter, which is encased in bulletproof glass, talking on the phone. He’s tall, and wearing a loose suit with a brown tie from Alpha Eta Lambda, a black fraternity. He is 75. Edwards represented District 146 from 1979 until 2006, when he was ousted in the Democratic primary by newcomer Borris Miles, now 47. Edwards won his seat back in 2008, then lost it again to Miles in 2010. This year, he expects to get it back.
Edwards eyes me as I click through the sliding doors. “I’ll call you back,” he says. “The reporter’s here.”
This Texaco has a Subway sandwich shop, but that’s not where Edwards leads me. Off to the side, adjacent to a small fry counter, is a room with white booths and a mounted television showing Divorce Court. Exhausted men are scattered at the tables, and their cell phones, all of which seem to play accordion music, go off regularly. The air is redolent of corndogs.
As soon as we’re settled, Edwards kicks off our chat in the first person, then drifts into the third.
“The thing that I’m try to educate folks on and make them aware of is how the legislative process works. Because if you don’t know how it works, you’re gonna do some strange things to yourself. Why throw away 28 or 30 experienced years for two or three years?” he asks rhetorically. “The person with 28 or 30 years—he didn’t lie, he didn’t get caught stealing, he didn’t get caught raping some child. And he’s producing. Why would you get rid of that person?”
The answer, if you listen to Edwards’s critics, is that he wasn’t producing. Edwards knows it. “When people, especially my opponent, say that I haven’t done anything, that’s the most absurd statement a person can make,” he says.
(I tried to interview Miles for this article, but his headquarters didn’t answer multiple emails and phone calls and appeared not to have a voicemail box.)
“I put medical doctors in the community for free,” Edwards says, referring to House Bill 2154, which he authored in 2009. It arranged to pay off student loans for doctors who promised to work in medically underserved communities for four years. “[It’s free] because I made the tax on non-smoking tobacco equal to other tobacco,” he says, although that amendment was written by Republican Warren Chisum.
Edwards also describes his HB 2153 as having introduced regular registration for sex offenders, but actually his bill applied only to homeless sex offenders, who are now required to update police about where they usually stay. Sex offenders with homes were already required to register.
As further proof of his productivity, Edwards mentions having co-sponsored the original Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) legislation, which provided health insurance to children of working families. He doesn’t mention that he was one of 53 sponsors and cosponsors.
I ask him about a bill he authored in 1989 that proposed amputating the fingers of convicted drugs dealers. He stands by it. “Drug dealers should be punished for selling drugs to our young folk,” Edwards says. “A lot of countries where they don’t have the problem, it’s because they have some form of penalty. So I drafted a bill that said if you are found guilty of selling drugs to our young folk, then we would consider maybe chopping part of your finger off.”
I ask if he was serious.
“That was real serious,” he says. “I bet if that were the case today, we wouldn’t have the kind of drug problems, the rapes, the imprisonment, the killing, that we have today.” He looks a little crestfallen. “But it didn’t pass.”
Then he perks up. “I thought you were gonna ask me about the cheerleaders,” he says.
Edwards earned national attention in 2005 when the introduced the ultimately unsuccessful “booty bill,” which banned sexy dancing by high school cheerleaders. “The Daily Show” interviewed Edwards for a segment on the bill called “No Child’s Sweet Behind,” in which Edwards correlated sexy cheerleading with “the herpes, or catchin’ AIDS.”
I ask how cheerleaders would know when they’d crossed the line. Edwards narrowed his eyes and laughed. “Oh, they know,” he says. “Theeeeeeeey know.”
Edwards’s prohibitionary spirit may come from his work as a lay minister at Progressive New Hope Baptist Church. His Wikipedia entry, and virtually every source with a biography of him, says he has a doctorate in divinity, which I ask about.
“Uh-huh. I have two doctorates. One from South Texas and another one from the University of Belize.”
Me: “South Texas?”
He clarifies, “South Texas Enrichment and Theological…
Me: “Seminary? School?”
“Institute,” he says. “And the University of Belize. Honorary doctorates.”
I say I knew I must have the name wrong, because his Wikipedia page says World Bible Christian University—
“That’s what it is! That’s right. World Bible Christian University,” Edwards interrupts.
—but I hadn’t been able to find any record of World Bible Christian University other than citations about Edwards. I’d even called the Association of Theological Schools Commission on Accrediting, who said they’d never heard of it.
Edwards looks thoughtful. “I think it got merged with somebody else or closed,” he says. “I’m not sure that university still exists.”
We return to his legislative record. At last, Edwards mentions the bill for which he is best known. It made Juneteenth (Emancipation Day) a paid holiday. That was in 1979, during Edwards’ first term.
Edwards’ opponent, Miles, earned most of his notoriety outside the legislative chamber. After being elected in 2006, Miles shot one of two burglars he found stealing copper from the construction site of his new home. The burglar survived and Miles, who had a concealed carry permit, was not charged.
Then, in January of 2008, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office investigated Miles after witnesses claimed he crashed the party of a rival businessman, David Harris (Miles owns an insurance company). Miles allegedly appeared intoxicated, kissed Harris on both cheeks and then the mouth, brandished a gun, and kissed Harris’s wife before leaving.
These incidents probably contributed to Miles’s loss to Edwards in 2008.
Citing Miles’s past partying, Edwards publicly challenged him in 2010 to take a drug test within 72 hours. Though it was more than 72 hours later, Miles accepted, also publicly—he took the urinalysis live on local radio. He passed.
Miles beat Edwards in 2010 by only eight votes out of more than 5,000.
In his two terms, Miles has authored, joint authored or amended 25 pieces of legislation.
As we walk together back out to Edwards’s Mercedes, he speculates that I wasn’t able to reach Miles because he was in a hospital, “getting cleaned up.”
“He hasn’t changed,” Edwards says, chuckling. “We laugh at him all the time. He hasn’t changed.”
It seems very little in District 146 has.