Early voting looms

I’m having trouble catching my breath.

A colleague, Cheryl Berzanskis, reminded me this morning that I have to vote early for the May 9 municipal election. Why? I’ll be unavailable on Election Day. I’m finishing my preparation for an adventure that could change my life. I’ll have much more to say about that later.

But this adventure — which begins May 9 — will get in the way of my being able to vote on Election Day, which is my preferred method of ballot-casting.

Why do I prefer to vote on the final day of balloting? Well, it’s a matter of hedging my bets.

I know for whom I’ll vote for mayor and city commissioner. My fear is that I’ll vote early and then one or more of my candidates will mess up. I cannot take my vote back. It’s like trying to unhonk a horn. Once it’s cast, it’s cast forever.

I prefer instead to wait until the very last day, thus reducing dramatically — but not eliminating — the chance of casting of my vote for the wrong candidate. Yes, they still could mess up between the end of voting and the day they take the oath of office. But that’s a chance I’m willing to take.

Voting early, which the state allows to make the process more convenient for Texans, gives me the nervous jerks.

I don’t know yet if I’ll go to City Hall or to the Randall County Annex to vote early. I have to decide soon.

Then I’ll vote — and hold my breath.

Don’t you dare mess up, City Hall hopefuls.

Let’s debate

Four people — the incumbent and three challengers — want to be the next mayor of Amarillo.

Why no debate? Why haven’t the four of them worked with anyone to stage an honest-to-goodness debate among them?

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting all the candidates during this election cycle. They all have some interesting — and provocative — things to say about how they would govern the city. Their ideas won’t be exposed in a broad public forum for all the residents to hear, to digest and to determine for whom to vote — if they decide to vote at all.

This is a shortcoming in the city’s political infrastructure. We seem to lack an organized, non-partisan framework to facilitate these kinds of activities. The League of Women Voters plays host to a candidate forum every other year in Amarillo. This year, the Potter-Randall Democratic Club also is lending its support to a forum for all city commission and mayoral candidates.

But I’m up for a knock-down debate (in a figurative sense, of course) in which the candidates question each other, put their feet to the fire and make them explain how they would govern. We’ve had plenty of controversy at City Hall since the latest election: red-light cameras, a downtown tax-revenue reinvestment policy, the simmering feelings about the at-large voting plan for the commission, the on-going controversy over whether to ban smoking indoors and maybe some other things I can’t think of right at this moment.

Isn’t it time we had a debate that drew the attention of a sleepy voting public? Maybe one or more of the candidates would say something silly, downright stupid, or come up with the most brilliant idea anyone’s ever heard.

Alas, it won’t happen this year. Maybe in 2011.

Once more, with conviction

I am about to scream.

The other day, I received a submission from an occasional contributor to the Opinion page. She lives in Amarillo. Her submission wasn’t very good. She wanted me to give her space for a guest column. I declined, and suggested she condense it to a letter-length submission (around 200 words).

Then I received this response from her: “Other conservatives told me you would not print it, as it is contrary to your viewpoint, so I am not surprised.”

I responded with this note: “Your friends are wrong … If you would just read the letters and columns we do run, you wouldn’t say such a thing. Nor would they. We present all points of view. We present many … conservative columnists: Krauthammer, Goldberg, Williams, O’Reilly, Malkin, Parker every single week. I would be derelict in my duty if I limited … commentary to just those with which I agree.”

And, of course, I didn’t mention the conservative local contributors who take time to write letters to the editor.

I wear at least a couple of hats here. I get to write opinions; some are published over my own name, while most appear as editorials that speak for the newspaper. I also am a gatekeeper of all the other opinions that fly in over the transom each day. I strive daily to provide a balance of opinion — from the left and the right. My lefty friends say I’m descended from Attila the Hun; my righty friends call me a Commie Pinko. I figure, given the breadth of criticism, that I’m doing my job.

Mission accomplished.

If it walks like a duck …

I have visited a torture chamber.

It’s in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It’s called Tuol Sleng, or S-21. The Khmer Rouge used this former school as a place to torture people into giving them information. Once they tortured them, they killed them and buried them in killing fields scattered throughout the country. I’ve been to one of those killing fields twice (in 1989 and 2004), at Choeng Ek, on the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital city.

One of the more commonly used torture methods was a then little-known tactic called “waterboarding.” The Khmer Rouge goons would drench the captives’ heads in water, giving them a sense of drowning — and then stop. Then they would do it again. And again.

The Cambodians all called the technique torture. A tribunal right now is trying one of the late Pol Pot’s henchmen for crimes against humanity. One of the crimes was the use of waterboarding as a torture technique against helpless Cambodians.

And yet …

Many in this country consider waterboarding an acceptable method collecting information from “enemy combatants.” Then-President Bush declared that “this country does not torture.” But it did waterboard people in U.S. custody.

From what I’ve seen at that torture chamber on the other side of the world, waterboarding is a torture device. It is a hideous, ghastly method of interrogation that goes far beyond your run-of-the-mill sleep deprivation and smoke-filled room with a swinging light bulb hanging from a ceiling.

This country is better than that.

What he could have said

I’m still steamed over Gov. Perry’s implied threat of secession.

He spoke to that Tax Day “tea party” rally in Austin and all but said that Texans could secede from the United States if they get angry enough over our government’s tax policies. Had he asked me, though, here’s what I would have had him say:

Thank you, my fellow Texans, for turning out on this glorious day to rally against the government’s free-spending ways.

I see some signs out there saying things like “Secede Now.” You might think you want to pull out of the greatest nation on the planet. But remember, we did that once and look what happened. The nation fell into a Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in American history.

Look, folks, I know you’re upset with the president’s policies. Same with Congress. You’re angry at the bailouts. But secession creates many more problems for us than it solves. We need to stand together, one nation united, to change the policies we deem to be inappropriate. I plan to call President Obama right after this rally and express my concern — and my support for him and his efforts to right our ship of state. That’s what good Americans ought to do. Unlike some of the blowhards in my party, I don’t want the president to fail, for that would have dire consequences for the nation.

Secede from the greatest nation on Earth? You gotta be kidding!

No, the answer lies in working with the federal government, not against it.

But our governor said nothing like that. Instead, he tossed out all that red meat to the crowd.

And to those who think he misspoke: That was no gaffe. A tough re-election campaign is coming up over the horizon and the governor is energizing his base.

Bite your tongue, governor

Gov. Rick Perry has said something out loud that has shaken the rafters of the nation’s political establishment.

He suggested, hinted, implied — but never really said outright — that Texans might be justified if they wanted to secede from the United States of America. He was talking the other day at Austin’s “Tax Day” rally, the one ginned up by conservative critics of the Democratic-controlled Congress and the White House, which is now occupied by a Democratic president.

Here is what is being lost in all the hoopla over Perry’s ill-considered remarks: The governor is a conservative Republican. Hasn’t it been Republicans — particularly the conservative folks — who have been calling liberal Democrats “unpatriotic”? Yet this governor has suggested in a none-too-subtle fashion that if Texans get riled up enough over federal tax policies that they might commit a treasonous act by pulling out of the United States.

To be fair, the governor is not endorsing such an act — he said.

But fomenting such feelings among his constituents smacks of being, well, rather un-American.

Ground swell or … something less

The protestors who are comparing today’s “tea party” to what happened in Boston in 1773 need to tread carefully when they complain about “taxation without representation.”

Back in the 18th century, it was true. The colonies were being taxed to the hilt without being able to exert the slightest bit of infuence. Today, it’s different.

We do have representation. Whether you like how you’re being represented, though, is another matter.

Amarillo played host to at least two of these Tax Day “tea parties.” Many folks here don’t like President Obama’s tax policies, which is no surprise, given that the Texas Panhandle voted overwhelmingly this past November for the other guy, Republican John McCain. What’s more, the Panhandle’s two congressmen, Mac Thornberry of Clarendon and Randy Neugebauer of Lubbock (whose district includes some southwestern Panhandle counties) have voted against Obama’s tax-and-spend plans.

So, the folks at the “tea party” rallies here can claim with a semi-straight face that they’re being taxed without their approval.

But let’s remember: Elections have consequences. The Panhandle’s wishes weren’t followed in the election this past November. The rest of the country voted decisively for Obama — and in the process endorsed the message on which he campaigned.

No, many folks here don’t like what happened. But we, as a nation, have the representation in the White House and on Capitol Hill that the majority said they want.

It’s all open

Contrary to popular opinion, the Amarillo City Commission doesn’t conduct the meat of its business in a star chamber.

It has a “work session.” It’s also open to the public. The commission, all five of whose members are seeking re-election this year, meets in a small conference room on the other side of the wall from the commission chambers.

OK, so it’s not a spacious room. A conference table gobbles up most of the space in the room. But it does have about 10 chairs lined up along one wall. Residents can attend the open portion of the meeting, where commissioners and the mayor get briefed by senior city staff, led by City Manager Alan Taylor.

The work session, as its title implies, allows commission members to work out the nuts and bolts of topics to be voted on during the business meeting that convenes at 3 p.m. every Tuesday at City Hall. These work sessions convene usually around 2 p.m. on commission meeting days and last until just prior to the start of the regular meeting.

And, yes, they do it in the open — just as if they were in the chambers, with the mayor calling for votes and wielding the gavel.

These work sessions just happen to be a well-kept secret.

Maybe now, though, the secret is out.

Teaching to the test

I’ve struggled for years over how I feel about Texas’ standard for determining whether public school students are performing adequately.

But I am beginning to understand a couple of things about the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. One is that it has a life of its own, given that teachers, parents and certainly students all seem to hate it universally. You can’t kill this thing.

Another is that a statewide standard might not work in a state that is as huge and diverse as Texas. Panhandle students bear no resemblance to their peers in, say, the Valley or the Piney Woods.

State Sen. Kel Seliger of Amarillo is among a number of lawmakers trying to find a solution to TAKS, which only is the latest name in a string of standardized state tests mandated over many years by the Legislature.

But this attempt at change is falling short. Legislators cannot seem to agree on the best alternative to TAKS or whatever name it might assume in the future.

Here’s a thought: Form a blue-ribbon commission.

Flash back to 1983. A Dallas businessman, H. Ross Perot, popped off about how Texas was more interested in producing blue-chip football players than graduating students with diplomas worth a darn. Then-Democratic Gov. Mark White then said, in effect: OK, Mr. Smarty Pants, if you have all the answers, then why don’t you head a governor’s blue-ribbon commission to reform the way we educate our kids? Perot called White’s bluff and led the Perot Commission, which produced dramatic reforms that led to a special legislative session that crafted House Bill 72. I had the honor of meeting Ross Perot during one of his barn-storming tour stops, in Beaumont, in mid-1984. Take my word for it: For a diminutive guy, he has a way of commanding a room.

Well, this might be time for such a commission. If we’re going to keep nibbling around the margins of improving standardized tests, then we’ll never get the job done.

Paging, Ross Perot.

Always know where you are


U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison may have given her likely chief Republican gubernatorial opponent next year some campaign ammo.

Hutchison came to West Texas A&M University this week to promote a federal grant to help WT pay for redeveloping a former hospital into research and development offices. But, durn it, she referred to the school several times by its former name, West Texas State University.

Oops …

If we fast-forward to, say, January 2010, we can imagine Texas first lady Anita Perry — who graduated with a nursing degree from WT before it joined the A&M System — speaking to a rally at the Courthouse Square while campaigning for her husband, Gov. Rick Perry.

“I’m so happy to be here with you, my people,” Mrs. Perry might say. “And y’all can rest assured, I know the name of West Texas A&M University, unlike my husband’s opponent. Go Buffs!”

Could the campaign get so cheap and cheesy as to lampoon Hutchison’s relatively minor faux pas?

Ummm. Yes it could.