News of the Weird

Reps in ethical binds, Senate race upsets and who might wind up Speaker


The summer is supposedly a slow time for political news. So I figured by this time I’d just be sitting by the pool, getting calls from Editor Moser. “Why haven’t you written anything in weeks?” he’d ask me as I sipped from some appropriately girlie alcoholic beverage. “Sorry Bob,” I’d say. “There’s just nothing to report, I’m afraid.” It was a lovely dream.

Alas. Instead it’s been one bit of madness after another. Speakers races, delegates in custody, blah blah blah. Here’s a run-down of news from the past three days—there may be a few observations mixed in.

Ethical dilemmas? Democratic Rep. Tara Rios Ybarra, who works as a dentist when she isn’t representing South Padre Island, went into federal custody this morning after she got charged in a Medicaid fraud round-up. She’s accused of taking money to refer Medicaid recipients to a McAllen oral surgeon. (Incidentally, Rios Ybarra’s practice is in Brownsville. Going to an oral surgeon is bad enough—driving an hour home after a visit sounds like torture. Trust me, I have terrible teeth.) Rios Ybarra already lost her seat back in the March Democratic primaries to J.M. Lozano, and there’s no Republican challenger. The biggest loss comes to TV viewers, who may miss out on Rios Ybarra’s planned weekly show.

But still it’s not what you’d call good publicity for the Democrats—and it’s not the only instance of Dem reps in trouble with the law. Just yesterday, former Dallas Democratic Rep. Terri Hodge began her year-long term in a federal prison for tax fraud. The Republicans happen to have noticed—they sent out a release this morning, before the Rios Ybarra excitement, noting that Hodge was now in prison and another former Democratic rep, Kino Flores, is under indictment for failing to disclose $800,000 in income.

And the Democrats aren’t the only ones looking like the need a good dose of Thomas Aquinas (or is Kant?) Rep. Linda Harper Brown turns out to be driving a 2010 Mercedes owned by major state highway contractor Jeffrey Bryan. If that doesn’t look bad enough, she also happens to serve on the House Transportation Committee. Brown’s husband, who drives a 2004 Chevy Tahoe owned by the same contractor, says the cars serve as payment for work he does separately from his wife. In which case, one might ask why he’s stuck with an ’04 Tahoe while she’s riding in style. But unlike Rios Ybarra, Harper Brown is facing a tough re-election race. Legally the actions seem to pass muster, but the Dallas Morning News already slapped her down in an editorial and it looks like the onslaught of self-righteous indignation from Dems won’t stop any time soon. But thanks to the Rios Ybarra news, the Rs will likely have something of a response.

The race is over. Money isn’t everything. And apparently neither is name recognition or past experience. Just ask David Sibley, the former senator for Senate District 22 who tried—and failed—to win a second bout in the state Senate. State Sen. Kip Averitt, a Sibley protege, stepped down for health reasons, and this race determined who would fill the remaining six months of Averitt’s term.

Sibley lost to Brian Birdwell, a 9/11 Pentagon survivor who, despite the green-light from one judge, doesn’t appear to meet the residency requirements to hold office. He voted in Virginia in 2006, while state law requires senators to have lived in the state at least five years. But Birdwell has something greater than residency requirements, my friends. He has Tea Party backing. And Sibley had a lot of baggage from his career as a high paid lobbyist.

While he had stepped down, Averitt had not taken his name off the ballot for the November election, meaning that while last night’s winner would get six months with a new title, Averitt could return for next session. (No Democrats were running.) For a brief period on Tuesday, rumors abounded that should Birdwell win, Averitt would return to the Senate in January. But apparently our moms were right about gossip. Averitt has announced he’ll take his name off, giving both the district’s parties both a chance to name new candidates. The Rs will likely select Birdwell. After all, all’s well that’s Birdwell.

The race is on. Rep. Leo Berman filed paperwork to challenge Joe Straus for his title as Speaker of the House. Berman, a Tyler Republican, is well known for adding amendments to each bill to ensure no funds help illegal immigrants. He claims that Straus promised Democrats there would be no floor votes on Voter ID, immigration or abortion legislation. Straus came back swinging. But more importantly, the announcement has people wondering whether the social conservatives will make a move to oust the current Speaker, who has emphasized procedural consistency more than a conservative agenda. His predecessor, Speaker Tom Craddick, ruled the the House with an iron-fist approach that prioritized a hard-right fiscal and social agenda.

I just want to know whether Berman can win a Texas Speaker’s race with a New York accent.