Politicians talk a lot, mainly about themselves and their opinions, and about how much better they are than their opponents. That makes David Porter, a Republican candidate for Texas Railroad Commission, a rare breed of political chameleon. His strategy: fade into the background and bank on GOP branding to carry him to victory on Election Day.
There’s little doubt that the Democrat in the race, Jeff Weems, is the more qualified candidate. Weems is a lawyer specializing in oil and gas, the industries the commission oversees. He has a long history in the field—and he’s the Democrats’ best hope for a statewide win outside the governor’s race. Weems has been endorsed by the Houston, Dallas and Austin dailies. “I need to continue garnering these endorsements,” he says. “The more attention that can be focused on this race, the better I do.” Weems has campaigned across the state, touting his qualifications and detailing the need for more inspectors to monitor industry.
His opponent didn’t return phone calls from the Morning News editorial board. (Porter didn’t return calls for this story, either.) He worked as a certified public accountant in Midland before he came out of nowhere to best sitting Commissioner Victor Carrillo in the March GOP primary—a victory that Carrillo and some pundits attributed to Republican primary voters’ aversion to a Latino name. The Railroad Commission “should and can and probably should control air emissions from production equipment,” Porter said in the The Texas Tribune’sonline “face-off” between the two candidates. It was one of his most declarative statements, but it was an opinion he and Weems share—that the Railroad Commission, as opposed to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, should monitor emissions from oil and gas activity . When he offers opinions, Porter hardly ever disagrees with Weems. During the face-off, Porter was hesitant to say much, except that he has an open mind—and few clear opinions. “I don’t have any programs that I’m just opposed to,” he said.
Obscurity could be a winning strategy. If he’d been a visible force on the campaign trail, Porter might have gotten more attention, and his lack of credentials might have hurt his chances. While he doesn’t know a lot about the oil and gas industry, he does know something about politics in Texas.
The following information was updated on Friday, Oct. 22
*Gilbert was sued in December of 2009. The original article stated he was sued in the summer.
*Gilbert did not show up to a hearing case in January. The original article stated he did not show up to a hearing case in August.
*Gilbert’s license was suspended, but has been reinstated with “moderate restrictions.” The original article stated his license has been suspended.
Hank Gilbert isn’t the first politician to face a lawsuit or get arrested or be accused of taking a bribe. But he may be the first to accomplish all three in a single year—and still run for office.
Gilbert is the Democratic nominee for Texas agriculture commissioner. He was a long-shot candidate from the start. He lost the ag commissioner race to Republican Todd Staples in 2006, earning 42 percent of the vote. He returned for a rematch, and given that many pundits are predicting a Republican wave in 2010, Gilbert’s odds seem even longer this time, even before Staples’ opposition-research team went to work.
Among the revelations: Gilbert was sued December 2009 by a former campaign consultant seeking back pay. Gilbert didn’t show up for a January hearing in the case, so the judge ordered Gilbert to pay $40,000, according to Travis County court records. Gilbert’s campaign has said the lawsuit is baseless. Gilbert is seeking to have the judgment thrown out.
Meanwhile, the Staples campaign revealed that Gilbert was arrested in September 2009 on outstanding warrants for unpaid traffic tickets. His driver’s license was suspended. Gilbert’s license has been reinstated with “moderate restrictions,” according to Gilbert campaign manager Vince Leibowitz.
Then there was Gilbert’s controversial departure from the governor’s race last December. Gilbert had been part of a two-man Democratic primary with hair-product magnate Farouk Shami. When former Houston Mayor Bill White announced he would run for governor, Gilbert dropped out, declared his candidacy for ag commissioner and endorsed Shami. Four days later, Shami gave Gilbert a $100,000 campaign contribution (and later gave another $50,000), which critics said looked awfully suspicious. (Gilbert and Shami said the money had nothing to do with the endorsement).
But wait, there’s more: Gilbert also has had tax problems. Staples’ campaign released documents from the Internal Revenue Service showing that Gilbert faced two tax liens in the past 12 years and owed back taxes for a three-year stretch, from 2000 to 2002. Gilbert’s campaign has said the tax issues arose when he switched accountants. Besides, that was so eight years ago.
Gilbert has criticized Staples on policy. Gilbert is an East Texas rancher and knows the ag issues facing the state. He’s attacked Staples’ department for failing to inspect gas pumps and paying more attention to divisive social issues like gay marriage than to agriculture policy.
But it’s hard to talk policy when your campaign spokesperson has to make statements like this: “He was never put in handcuffs, never put in jail,” Gilbert spokesman Vince Leibowitz recently told the Houston Chronicle, responding to the Staples campaign. “These are Class C misdemeanor traffic citations, not murder.”
Indeed, Gilbert may have trouble paying taxes and traffic tickets, but, hey, he’s never killed anyone.
dept. of unintended consequences
The Rev. Tom Brown simply wanted to deny health insurance and other benefits to the domestic partners of El Paso city employees. That, he says, is what his ballot measure would do if approved by voters on Nov. 2.
Unfortunately for the good reverend, the wording of his ballot measure reads a little differently. Taken literally, it would not only eliminate benefits for domestic partners, but would also eliminate benefits for anyone who isn’t currently a city employee, including all 1,300 retired city workers. That has members of the firefighter and police unions fighting back.
“We can’t take a chance on losing our insurance,” says Porfirio “Pilo” Tejeda, a retired firefighter. “We have to fight this.”
The ruckus began last year when the City Council voted 7-1 to extend benefits to domestic partners. Brown, the founder and pastor of Word of Life Church in El Paso and a group known as El Pasoans for Family Values, led a successful effort to qualify a ballot measure on the issue. There are now 19 domestic partners receiving benefits. City officials won’t say how many of them are in a same-sex relationship.
When it came time to write the measure, Brown and his supporters weren’t exactly precise. The proposition reads: “Shall the ordinance, endorsing traditional family values by making health benefits available only to city employees and their legal spouse and dependent children, be approved?”
The wording lacks the simplicity and clarity of, say, the Ten Commandments. What is meant by “endorsing”? What about elected officials? Would they lose health benefits, too?
At a meeting with firefighters and other retirees on Sept. 15, Brown said his intent is clear, and he would never leave retirees out in the cold. “I wrote it,” he said. “Don’t you think that matters more than what other people have to say?”
Well, no, actually, according to the El Paso city attorney’s office.
“You can’t say that people thought it would include this or that,” Senior Assistant City Attorney Elaine Hengen said at a council meeting on Sept. 14. “You have to look at the exact language.”
That may be a blessing in disguise for El Paso’s gay city workers. The inexact wording may undermine a discriminatory ballot measure that El Paso voters otherwise might have approved. As they say, the Lord works in mysterious ways.
dept. of big brother
The militarization of the Texas-Mexico border continues at a steady pace. In September, the Department of Homeland Security began Predator drone flights over the border. Now it’s testing iris-scanning technology used in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the tests succeed, the department hopes to track immigrants by scanning their eyes.
The two-to-eight week test begins in October at a Border Patrol station in McAllen, where agents will use off-the-shelf commercial scanners on undocumented immigrants. The U.S. military has used the technology overseas since 2007. It has amassed databases of biometric information on Iraqi and Afghan citizens.
Like fingerprints, the iris is unique to every person. The Department of Homeland Security plans to test three types of commercial cameras during the pilot project to determine whether iris-scanning technology is faster and easier to use than fingerprinting.
Newer models of the technology allow people to be scanned from distances of up to 30 feet. Individuals can also be scanned within a crowd. Privacy and civil rights advocacy groups, such as the ACLU, are wary of the biometric technology. “Iris scanning can be done without your permission and at a distance,” ACLU lawyer Christopher Calabrese says, “It allows anyone with an Internet connection and a camera to essentially identify and track you.”
The Department of Homeland Security released a “privacy impact” assessment in August to address such concerns. The agency says immigrants will have the right to refuse the scans during the trial period. The agency also plans to keep names and other identifying information separate from the scans. When the test period is over, the agency says it will destroy the iris scan information.
Calabrese doubts that any immigrants will refuse. “If you’re in detention and law enforcement tells you to do something, you’re going to do it,” he says.
Homeland Security said it won’t adopt the technology unless it’s more effective and faster than fingerprinting. The ACLU believes that if the agency adopts iris scanning technology at the border, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes commonplace in the rest of the United States. “We’ve seen time and time again, military applications like drones being used at the border first,” Calabrese says. “This helps soften the transition to the rest of the country.” Someday soon you, too, may have your movements tracked by government eye-scanners.