Tag Archives: Texas Tribune

High court to settle redistricting dilemma?

I don’t expect the current U.S. Supreme Court to decide that Texas’s legislative and congressional boundaries were drawn in a manner that discriminates against people of color.

Why not? Because its ideological composition would tilt toward those who dismiss such concerns.

The court will decide Abbott v. Perez sometime this year. It involves the manner in which several districts were drawn. Critics say that Hispanics were denied the right to choose a candidate of their own because of the way a San Antonio-area district was gerrymandered.

I’ll set aside the merits of the case that justices will hear. I want to concentrate briefly on the method the states use to draw these districts.

They are done by legislatures. The Texas Legislature is dominated by Republican super-majorities. The custom has been that the Legislature draws these boundaries to benefit the party in power.

Legislators don’t like being handed this task at the end of every census, which is taken at the beginning of each decade. The late state Sen. Teel Bivins of Amarillo once told me that redistricting provides “Republicans a chance to eat their young.” I’ve never quite understood Bivins’s logic. To my mind, the process allows the party in power to “eat the young” of the other party.

The 1991 Texas Legislature redrew the state’s congressional boundaries in a way that sought to shield Democrats, who controlled the Legislature at the time. The Legislature divided Amarillo into two congressional districts, peeling Republicans from the 13th Congressional District to protect then-U.S. Rep. Bill Sarpalius, a Democrat. Sarpalius was re-elected in 1992, but then lost in 1994 to Republican upstart Mac Thornberry.

Gerrymandering not always a bad thing

My own preference would be to hand this process over to a bipartisan commission appointed by the governor and both legislative chambers. I favor taking this process out of politicians’ hands. Their aim is to protect their own and stick it to the politicians — and to voters — from their other party.

Perhaps the Supreme Court’s decision might include a dissent that spells out potential remedies to what I consider to be a political travesty.

One can hope.

It was 20 years ago … Oprah won a big victory

Now that we’re all agog over Oprah Winfrey and whether she’ll run for president of the United States — which I hope doesn’t happen — let’s flash back for a moment when the media mogul came to the Texas Panhandle for an extended stay.

Oprah had gotten herself sued by Texas cattlemen over remarks she and others made on her TV talk show. She had an animal rights activist on her show in the spring of 1996 talking about bovine spongiform encephalopathy, aka Mad Cow Disease, suggesting that improperly cooked beef could lead to the potentially fatal disease.

That’s it, Oprah blurted. She said the discussion “has just stopped me cold from eating another burger. I’m stopped.”

The cattlemen, led by legendary Panhandle cattle baron Paul Engler, were furious. So was then-Texas Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry. Engler ended up suing Winfrey. He took her to federal court right here in Amarillo, Texas.

Oprah decided to move her TV show here, too. She rented the Amarillo Little Theater, had it redone to suit her show’s format. She played to packed houses every night after sitting in a courtroom all day — for weeks on end!

The Texas Tribune reports that the community was “split” about the trial and the reason for the lawsuit. Some folks thought the remarks on TV were out of line, according to the Tribune. Others applauded Oprah, given her high public standing in the community at large.

My recollection at the time was that Amarillo opened its arms to Winfrey and her staff. Her show was immensely popular among those who wanted to see it in person at the ALT. I heard stories about how phone lines choked up and damn near croaked with heavy call loads from people looking for tickets. I heard one anecdotal story about how someone called his or her family in the Dakotas, who then called the ALT for ticket information — because the the local caller couldn’t get a call through to the theater office.

Well, Oprah won a victory. The federal court jury dismissed the lawsuit. She stood in front of the courthouse in early 1998  in downtown Amarillo and cheered her hard-won — and deserved — courthouse victory.

Oprah Winfrey likely would have rather spent her time elsewhere than in Amarillo two decades ago defending herself in a lawsuit brought by some cranky cattlemen. My recollection, though, is that she was treated like the TV royalty she was at the time.

She won many more friends than foes here. Those were the days …

Texas coast remains in dire peril

I want to give a shout out to my former neighbors along the Texas Gulf Coast.

They are working diligently to preserve one of the state’s most underappreciated resources: its beaches.

The Texas coast is in peril. It is disappearing before our eyes. It has been disappearing for, oh, many decades. I took an interest in the coast when I moved there in 1984 to take up my post writing editorials for the Beaumont Enterprise.

The Texas Tribune reports that Jefferson County officials are working with a consortium of industry officials, environmental activists, outdoorsmen and women and others to protect the coastal wetlands from drastic erosion.

According to the Tribune: Subsidence, sea level rise and storm surges have all contributed to significant land loss, averaging 4 feet per year along the state’s coastline, according to the Texas General Land Office. In some places, more than 30 feet of shoreline disappears underwater annually.

Todd Merendino, a manager at the conservation-focused group Ducks Unlimited, said sand dunes used to line the shore near the Salt Bayou marsh, forming a crucial buffer between the Gulf of Mexico and the millions of dollars’ worth of industrial infrastructure that lie inland. The dunes are “all gone now,” he said.

“One day, you wake up and you go, ‘Wow, we got a problem,'” Merendino said. “And it’s not just an isolated problem where one swing of the hammer is going to fix it.”

The problem has inspired a coalition of strange bedfellows in Jefferson County. Local leaders, environmental activists and industry representatives are working together to execute a variety of projects — some bankrolled by BP oil spill settlement funds — to rehabilitate the marsh and protect the area’s industrial complex.

The massive deep freeze that is paralyzing the Deep South and the Atlantic Seaboard notwithstanding, the worldwide climate change that produces rising sea levels is a major culprit.

Gulf Coast officials are seeking to build a berm along the coast at the McFaddin Wildlife Refuge. I’ve been there. It’s a jewel along the coast. It’s a haven for all manner of waterfowl. It is a gorgeous part of the coastal region.

It’s also vanishing.

Here is the Tribune story

The Texas General Land Office once placed coastal preservation near the top of its public policy agenda. I am unaware of where that issue stands today. The GLO has welcomed the likes of David Dewhurst, Jerry Patterson and now George P. Bush as land commissioner since Mauro left the office in the late 1990s. I trust they, too, are committed to saving the coastline for future generations of Texans to enjoy.

I am heartened to hear about the hard work being done along the coast. It’s good, though, to bear in mind that Mother Nature can take whatever she wants, whenever she wants.

At least the state is not going to give it away without a fight.

Climate change made Harvey wreckage worse? Who knew?

Imagine my (non)surprise to read that independent analyses have concluded that climate change likely worsened the misery that Hurricane Harvey brought this summer to the Texas Gulf Coast.

The rainfall that inundated the coast totaled 50 inches in a 24-hour period; it set a continental U.S. record for most rain to fall during a single day.

Get a load of this: Researchers say that climate change — or you can call it “global warming” — worsened the rainfall by about 15 percent.

Not that a 15-percent increase created the tragedy that brought so much suffering to Houston, the Coastal Bend and the Golden Triangle. A 40-inch rainfall would have done plenty of damage, too … correct?

According to the Texas Tribune: ” … two independent research teams, one based in The Netherlands and the other in California, reported that the deluge from Hurricane Harvey was significantly heavier than it would have been before the era of human-caused global warming. One paper put the best estimate of the increase in precipitation at 15 percent. The other said climate change increased rainfall by 19 percent at least, with a best estimate of 38 percent.”

Read the Tribune story here.

However, the federal government keeps insisting that climate change is a “hoax,” that it’s a made-up creation of “fake news” and the Chinese government, which is trying to undermine the U.S. fossil fuel industry.

It’s no hoax. We can debate its cause. I happen to believe human activity has contributed to climate change. To call it a phony story, though, puts millions of Americans in extreme peril.

Another one bites the dust

Blake Farenthold has given a new, but strangely ironic meaning to the “Me Too” movement.

The Republican member of Congress from Corpus Christi has said “Me, too … I’m ‘retiring’ from the House of Representatives because of sexual harassment allegations.”

Farenthold reportedly is going to call it a career after the 2018 midterm election. He won’t seek re-election.

He joins a growing and infamous list of members of Congress who’ve bowed to immense and intense public pressure brought on by their sexual misbehavior. We have seen the departures of Democratic Sen. Al Franken, Democratic Rep. John Conyers, Republican Rep. Trent Franks and now this guy, Farenthold.

Read more about it here.

Are there other individuals out there? I’m thinking … yep. There are.

Farenthold is a back-bench member. He’s not a GOP leader in the House. He’s just sort of a loudmouth who once implied he would like to engage in a duel — you know, with pistols — with female members of the House who voted against the GOP plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Then it got even worse!

Farenthold was revealed to have spent $84,000 in public money to settle sexual harassment complaints against him. To his credit, he took out a personal loan to pay it back.

That’s not the end of it. CNN reports that new allegations have come forward, accusing Farenthold of being verbally abusive and sexually demeaning.

I guess that signaled the end of the line for this guy. I would prefer he would just walk away now and allow someone else to win a special election and represent the Coastal Bend district with dignity and honor. We’ll have to settle for this clown serving until the end of his term.

This is the new culture in Washington, D.C. Women are coming forward, emboldened to speak out strongly against those who they contend are abusing, demeaning and threatening them.

Now … if only we could just get the goods on yet another leading politician, the guy who calls the shots in the Oval Office.

Maybe that day is coming, too.

‘The Gun Guy’ is getting back into the game

Well, I’ll be hornswoggled.

Jerry Patterson wants his old job back. What is that? He is the former Texas land commissioner who four years ago decided against seeking a third term.

His successor is George P. Bush, the grandson and nephew of two former presidents of the United States. Patterson doesn’t think Bush has done well at the Land Office. He considers him to be too much of a politician with his eyes seemingly on grander political prizes.

So the former Texas state senator who once was known primarily for authoring the state’s concealed handgun carry legislation in 1995 is wanting to get back into the political game.

I welcome Patterson back. The former “gun guy” is going to liven the Republican Party primary if he actually takes the plunge.

I remember meeting him years ago during his time as land commissioner. I found him to be self-deprecating yet smart at the same time. I recall him mentioning how he finished “in the top 75 percent of my class at Texas A&M.” He was acutely aware that his primary legislative accomplishment — enactment of the concealed carry bill — would brand him with the “gun guy” moniker.

Those two matters endeared him immediately as someone who did not take himself as seriously as he takes his public service responsibility.

I’ve never met George P. Bush, although I do remember him speaking on behalf of “Poppy” Bush during the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston. The youngster stood at the Astrodome podium as a 16-year-old and declared “Viva Boosh!” in an appeal to Latino voters, given that his mother is an immigrant from Mexico. He brought the house down.

The next time I would see his name would be during the 2014 campaign for Texas land commissioner.

Patterson seems to be primed for a tough battle against the incumbent, according to the Texas Tribune: “Patterson has been a regular critic, recently sending an editorial contrasting the land office’s response to Hurricane Ike, when he was in charge, with his response to Harvey this year. “Harvey victims still living in tents along the coast are, at least in part, victims of a politician’s desire to look good for the next election by being a ‘small government Republican,'” Patterson wrote in what looks like a preview of his political campaign.

This could be a fascinating campaign to watch.

Go for it, Mr. Gun Guy!

Congressman to pay it back … good!

A Corpus Christi congressman got caught doing something bad: He dipped into a taxpayer fund to finance a settlement paid to a woman who had accused him of sexual harassment.

Blake Farenthold, a Republican, has done the right thing in response. He has pledged to take out a personal loan totaling $84,000 to repay what he took from the Office of Compliance fund.

At issue was a complaint filed by Lauren Greene, the congressman’s former communications director. Greene had alleged a hostile work environment, sexual discrimination and harassment against Farenthold, who then got taxpayer money to pay Greene off.

Farenthold denied doing anything wrong. Sure thing, young man. Whatever.

“I want to be clear that I didn’t do anything wrong, but I also don’t want taxpayers to be on the hook for this,” Farenthold said.

But the story here is that Farenthold is seeking to make it right by repaying the Office of Compliance fund. What’s more, he vows to “fix the system.”

Here’s an idea, Rep. Farenthold: Draft a bill that eliminates a certain provision contained in the Office of Compliance. The idea that taxpayer money would be used to finance these settlements is offensive on its face. Indeed, since 1997, the office has ponied up more than $17 million to settle various workplace complaints.

According to the Texas Tribune: “That account — and the elected officials using it — has come under increased scrutiny in recent weeks amid a growing tide of sexual harassment allegations against powerful men.” 

That “scrutiny” isn’t about to let up. Perhaps one possible reform could be to rid that office of the provision that pays these settlements regarding sexual harassment.

Are you in, Rep. Farenthold?

Is she — or is she not — the Dallas County sheriff?

Lupe Valdez says she’s still the top cop in Dallas County, Texas.

She denies reports of her resignation. But she still is thinking about running for Texas governor, as a Democrat. She might challenge Gov. Greg Abbott, the Republican who recently announced his re-election campaign.

I am not going to comment on Sheriff Valdez’s work as Dallas County sheriff, given that I live way up yonder in Amarillo. I would like to offer a brief comment on the reasons she has posited for considering a run for governor.

She has grown weary of Republican dominance of Texas politics.

To be candid, so have I. So have other Texans. Democrats have been yearning for a serious challenger to Abbott in 2018. None has emerged. Valdez might be the one.

Now … before you get on my case for being one of those partisan Democrats who wants to see Republicans toppled at every turn, I want to make an important stipulation.

It is that one-party political dominance — no matter which party is in command — too often produces an arrogance that diminishes the cause of what I like to call “good government.”

I moved to Texas in the spring of 1984. I took up my post as an editorial write — and later editorial page editor — of the Beaumont Enterprise. The Golden Triangle in the early 1980s was still a heavily Democratic bastion. Every elected office belonged to Democrats. And I noted at the time that I believed that good government would do well to see greater Republican challenges of Democratic officeholders.

Sheriff Valdez and I are on the same page. According to the Texas Tribune: “Last month, Valdez told the Tribune she believes it’s “time for a change” in GOP-dominated state government. “Too much of one thing corrupts, and I’m a strong believer in a two-party system,” she said. “I’m hoping that enough people are seeing that too much one-sided is not healthy for Texas.”

Read the Tribune article here.

Healthy challenges force incumbents to defend their record. They must make the case for their re-election. Texas, which once was dominated by Democrats, has totally shifted its political tilt. Republicans have commanded every statewide elective office for more than two decades; the one exception occurred four years ago when Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Larry Meyers switched from Republican to Democrat while he was still in office, only to lose his bid for re-election in 2016.

I hope Valdez runs for governor. I might even vote for her if she wins the Democratic primary and challenges Abbott in the fall of 2018.

If it comes to pass, then let the debate commence.

Coaching pays well, even when you’re no longer coaching

I am all too willing to acknowledge that there’s a lot about many things I don’t understand.

College football coaching contracts is one example.

Kevin Sumlin got canned this week as head grid coach at Texas A&M University. Why did the athletic director fire him? Well, I get this: He didn’t win enough football games for the Aggies.

Now … in my world, that constitutes non-performance. It means to me that Coach Sumlin didn’t fulfill the terms of his agreement with the Texas A&M University System.

Here is where confusion sets in: Sumlin is going to receive millions more dollars even though he’s no longer a public education employee.

How do you justify this?

Sumlin received $5 million annually to coach the Aggies. Five million bucks, man! That’s a good gig, right? Sure it is. But you have to do the job your bosses demand of you.

University of Texas athletics officials faced a similar quandary when head football coach Charley Strong was fired. UT had to pay him lots of cash even though he didn’t measure up, either. The payout was reduced a bit when Coach Strong landed a coaching job at the University of South Florida.

But the Sumlin payout apparently is a bit of an issue in Aggieland. According to the Texas Tribune: Big payouts for fired college coaches are hardly rare, but Sumlin’s payout is relatively large and has been a source of frustration for some fans. Sumlin’s pay was bumped to $5 million per year after his first season — one of A&M’s most successful seasons in the modern college football era. At the time, he was rumored to be a candidate for jobs at other universities or in the National Football League.

These coaches operate in a parallel universe. If they don’t measure up to the terms of their contract, do they really deserve to get the kind of dough they’re getting when they are given the boot?

I need an explanation.

Republicans are ‘eating their young’

The late Texas state Sen. Teel Bivins, in an entirely different context, once told me how Republicans occasionally were prone to “eat their young.”

So this form of political cannibalism appears to be occurring in the current election cycle. We’re seeing Republican officeholders making GOP primary endorsements, picking fellow Republicans over other fellow Republicans.

Donald John Trump endorsed U.S. Sen. Luther Strange in his primary contest against Roy Moore in Alabama. Moore ended up winning that primary and … um … it hasn’t worked out too well for the GOP. Moore has been accused of making improper sexual advances on underage girls. It’s getting ugly down yonder, man.

Closer to home, we have Texas Gov. Greg Abbott endorsing a Republican challenger to a GOP state representative. State Rep. Sarah Davis’s primary foe, Susanna Dokupil, has earned the governor’s endorsement.

As Ross Ramsey writes in the Texas Tribune, it is rare for Texas governors to endorse against incumbents; it’s even more rare for them to get involved in primaries of their own political party. Abbott has scored a two-fer with his endorsement in that particular legislative contest.

Abbott weighs in

And so it goes with the Republican Party’s war with itself.

U.S. senators are lining up against the president, who’s firing back at them. GOP Sens. Jeff Flake and Bob Corker are retiring from the Senate in 2019. They both have been highly critical of the president of their own party. Donald Trump has returned the fire with angry statements and a bit of petulant name-calling to boot.

Republicans in both congressional chambers have fought among themselves over how to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act. They’re now arguing over “tax reform” proposals that look good to one legislative chamber, but not nearly so good in the other one.

And, let’s not forget that the D.C. Republican establishment is gnashing its teeth over what to do if Roy Moore wins that U.S. Senate election in Alabama.

It’s no fun to be a Republican these days.

Especially if they’re about to be eaten.