Gov. Rick Perry didn’t exactly face a tough crowd at Lubbock’s Monterey High School on Aug. 31. Well before his arrival, 30 or so students had assembled in neat rows of small, wooden chairs in the school’s library while the adults—members of Lubbock’s elite—were finding their seats at the last minute.
Perry chose this friendly setting to unveil his education initiative. For months, Democrats have hammered Perry on education—the high dropout rate, the low SAT scores and the poor condition of Texas schools. Perry had come to West Texas to introduce a proposal to help schools operate more efficiently. It promised a rare moment of policy discussion in a superficial governor’s race.
But when Perry took the podium—stationed in front of a wall of books—he spent most of his time being charming. “It’s good to be in the home of the Plainsmen,” he said of the school’s unimposing mascot. He joked about graduating in his high school’s top-10 students—in a class of 13. He told the kids their football team would have “a big time Friday with Odessa.”
As for his proposal, it won’t remind anyone of No Child Left Behind. School districts that combine administrative costs, like bookkeeping and security, would get a little extra money from the state: 10 percent of whatever amount they saved.
Modest as it was, that was the only new proposal. Perry moved quickly through old ones, including virtual high schools and an iTunes station for the Texas Education Agency, then switched back to a more comfortable topic—the supposedly booming Texas economy. “A thousand plus people move to this state every day,” he said, dropping his voice to an awed whisper. “Every day!” Looking at the students, he said, “There’s freedoms here from overtaxation, overregulation.”
Perry then gave way to Robert Scott, the education commissioner, who explained the plan. It will presumably bring a little more money to small districts. But it seemed mostly for show. Many districts already partner on administrative costs, and school officials from Abilene told the Abilene Reporter News they didn’t think Perry’s plan would have much impact on their budget. The Texas Education Agency didn’t bother to mention the proposal on its home page.
When reporters asked about the proposal, Perry again deferred to Scott. The governor stuck to criticizing his opponent, former Houston Mayor Bill White. He remained insistent that he won’t debate White until the Democrat makes more tax returns public. “Just release your tax records, and we can have a debate, and everyone will figure out if a boy from Paint Creek can debate a boy from Harvard .”
Perry’s knock on White’s college education seemed an odd way to end an event promoting a school initiative. But the governor wasn’t sweating the details.
dept. of elections
Blocking the Vote
If Democrats hope to win a statewide race in Texas—they haven’t done so in 16 years—they will have to coax new voters to the polls. There are more votes to be had in Texas, especially in Houston, where about 60 percent of eligible voters are non-Anglo, and several hundred thousand potentially Democratic-leaning voters aren’t registered.
Republicans would like to see the electorate remain as it is—especially in Houston. Keeping people off the voting rolls benefits the GOP.
So when a nonprofit and nonpartisan group named Houston Votes began canvassing Harris County this summer, registering tens of thousands, Republicans saw a threat. Harris County Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez, who will leave office early next year after losing the GOP primary, went on the offensive. (The county tax assessor is also the voter registrar and maintains voter rolls.) On Aug. 24, Vasquez held one of the most bizarre press conferences you’ll ever see. He announced that Harris County voter rolls were under an “organized attack” and raised the specter of ACORN-like “voter fraud” (ACORN didn’t commit voter fraud, but that’s another story).
The press conference had the feel of a political rally. The room was packed with cheering Tea Party activists associated with King Street Patriots, a group taking credit for finding the flawed registration forms. Vasquez said his office had found thousands of faulty forms submitted by Houston Votes, including duplicate registrations and non-citizens trying to register. One person had tried to register six times. A spokesman for Vasquez’s office said the matter has been referred to the county prosecutor.
Houston Votes admitted some of its registrations shouldn’t have been submitted. They were honest mistakes, not fraud, said Fred Lewis, who heads Houston Votes. He said the problems have been rectified. “It’s not a pristine process, and everyone knows that,” Lewis said. “Common mistakes by canvassers aren’t fraud.”
Lewis said Vasquez’s press conference was politically motivated, a “gigantic ambush” designed to curtail the number of people registering to vote. While Houston Votes is still registering voters, the numbers are down since Vasquez’s news conference.
dept. of myth busting
Anti-immigration advocates often refer to Texas’ more liberal enclaves such as Austin and Houston as “sanctuary cities,” a buzzword implying that they are soft on illegal immigration. The numbers show otherwise. Austin and Houston are among the toughest cities for immigration enforcement in the United States, according to a recent study.
A coalition of nonprofits, including the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights and the Benjamin N. Cardozo Law Center, recently released a report on the federal “Secure Communities” program, which allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to operate in local jails, checking inmates’ citizenship.
The feds aim to have the program in every jail by 2013. The intent is to deport the most serious criminals, according to ICE. Civil-rights groups say undocumented people increasingly are being deported for minor traffic offenses and other misdemeanors.
“Liberal” Travis County has the nation’s highest rate of deporting people for misdemeanors. ICE has deported 724 people from the county since the Secure Communities program began in June 2009. Of that number, 594, or 84 percent, were deported for misdemeanors. The second-highest rate was 54 percent in Maricopa County, Ariz., where Sheriff Joe Arpaio has waged a controversial campaign against undocumented immigrants. The national average is 22 percent.
The findings stunned attorney Jim Harrington, director of the Austin-based Texas Civil Rights Project. “This damages community policing efforts because undocumented people will not report crimes for fear of deportation,” he says. Harrington and immigrants-rights groups have asked Travis County commissioners to review whether Secure Communities is hurting community policing.
The myth of the sanctuary city has cropped up in this year’s gubernatorial race. Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign has frequently accused Democrat and former Houston Mayor Bill White of running a sanctuary city during his tenure there. Turns out the opposite is true. Under White’s watch, Houston was the first city in Texas to adopt the Secure Communities program, in October 2008. Since then, Harris County has deported 6,627 people—the most in Texas and the second-highest in the nation, after the jails in Maricopa County run by Sheriff Joe.
—Melissa del Bosque