Abbott, pioneering prevaricator

crowPoliticians should have as many words for lying as Inuits have for snow. To tell the truth in politics requires only the inverse of the courtroom oath: I promise to tell some of the truth at least some of the time, so help me Fox News. Now a right-wing political group has asked the Supreme Court to make lying in politics a First Amendment Right. And you thought nothing got done in Washington.

Politicians are already entitled to taxpayer-funded cars, junkets, pensions, and full-time salaries for part-time jobs. Now the Supreme Court is weighing whether politicians are entitled to their own truth as well. No wonder a recent Rasmussen poll measured a puny 6% approval rating for Congress.

There’s no crying in baseball, but it’s hard to imagine politics without lying. Denying a politician the pleasure of the dodge, the shade, the evasion, and the verbal wink would be like wanting a world with only one shade of blue. Still, giving political lies constitutional sanction would complete our journey from not being able to lie about chopping down the cherry tree to denying the tree was there in the first place.

Any politician can lie. I once had a client caught in a massage parlor of ill repute. He claimed he was there to interview a witness, admittedly without his pants. In the old days, that was a scandal. These days, that’s amateur hour.

We are at the dawn of a new age of political lie, the falsehood that unashamedly proclaims the ridiculous as self-evident. This next-level lie claims that the smoking gun was just having a cigarette if indeed the gun existed at all. Not just any politician can tell a lie of such towering ambition. Only the most accomplished of the next generation of political prevaricators can even attempt a feat of such daring and skill that it leaves us in gasping admiration.

That is how Texas Republican Greg Abbott makes me feel. In a state over-populated with politicians fluent in hooey, Abbott deserves special acclaim for what he recently did when he rolled out his education plan. It’s actually a privilege to be the one to tell you what he did. It’s that special.

Abbott, who is running for Texas Governor against Wendy Davis, opposes universal pre-K. Instead, he wants to improve early childhood education with what he calls “gold standard program” that will direct state funding to pre-K programs showing the greatest success.

Screen Shot 2014-04-22 at 1.09.54 PMHe ran into a bit of a problem on page 21 of his plan that lists three ways to measure the effectiveness of a pre-K program: having the teacher observe, judging the student by his or her work, and “Direct Assessments, norm referenced standardized tests”.

Texas is where the Education Spring rebellion against high-stakes testing started. A grassroots group of angry mothers known officially as Texans Advocating for Meaningful Assessment and unofficially as Mothers Against Drunk Testing convinced the legislature to roll back the number of tests required to graduate high school from 15 to 5, and a recent poll found that 56% of Texans want to get rid of the rest of them. Making kids put down their crayons so they can take standardized tests plays as well in Texas as advocating the abolition of tackle football.

Despite clearly stating in his plan that he wanted “assessments at the beginning and end of the year” for pre-K students who don’t now take standardized tests, Abbott denied that he was advocating increased testing.

“Suggestions to the contrary are absurd,” said his spokesman, whose future in political lore should be secure for then claiming that the proposal that 4-year-olds take “norm referenced standardized tests” was “there for informational purposes only.”

It almost makes one weep with wonder. Claiming that one’s proposals exist without meaning or context brings us closer to a more perfect union. We truly live in the golden age of political deceit, thanks in part to pioneers such as Abbott. With humble respect, I bow down to my betters, and that’s the truth. You can believe me. I’m in politics.

On Apr. 23, 2014, Cagle Cartoons syndicated this column. 

Is Texas losing “fertilizer happens” attitude?

boomThe arch of history is long, but it does not always bend towards justice. In Texas, it usually veers off and gets lost. A year ago, 15 people died in the fertilizer plant explosion in West, forcing the Texas legislature to pass regulations, but these new laws had jack squat to do with fertilizer plants. Instead, the legislature passed a bill regulating women’s uteruses.

Even for Texas, which doesn’t so much have a history as a series of cautionary tales, dealing with fertilizer plants that store ammonium nitrate like the one in West should have been easy. That’s the stuff that domestic terrorists used to build the bomb that leveled the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995. Intentionally or not, this stuff kills people wholesale.

But this is Texas, where the State Fire Marshal lacks the power to inspect fertilizer plants unless they feel like letting him in. To store ammonium nitrate, you need to lock it up or put a fence around it, but not both, and a security camera isn’t necessary. You don’t need to install a sprinkler system—which would have contained the damage in West to a relative annoyance—and storing this explosive material in a wooden room is perfectly legal.

The real Texas Miracle is that more fertilizer plants don’t explode. Chris Connealy, the State Fire Marshal, politely asked for permission to inspect Texas’ fertilizer plants and found that 46 store ammonium nitrate in wood-frame buildings. His suggestion to lawmakers that they require plants to store the stuff in stand-alone buildings made of material that won’t burn is a lesson we learned when we read The Three Little Pigs.

But regulations ain’t Texan. The Texas House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee has held three hearings, and there is no consensus that we need new safety regulations. One member, Republican Dan Flynn, cited “old-timers” who stored ammonium nitrate without taking precautions and didn’t want new regulations because so far nothing has exploded. I’m not making this up.

“We haven’t had that many incidents. What’s kept that from happening – luck?” asked Flynn, who leads the “fertilizer happens” contingent on the committee. In an earlier hearing about the West explosion, he urged lawmakers to “keep it in perspective” and not “paperwork a company to death.”

That’s not to say that Texas is totally opposed to regulation. Progress Texas, a liberal advocacy group dedicated to the proposition that its name is not an unintentionally oxymoronic taunt, pointed out recently that since the West explosion “Texas has done more to regulate women’s bodies than it has to regulate fertilizer plants.”

That isn’t entirely accurate. What the legislature actually did was regulate women’s health care clinics that perform abortions, forcing many to close. The law regulated janitor’s closets, ventilation systems, and the width of hallways in abortion clinics. The legislators swore up and down that they were doing this all in the name of protecting the health and safety of Texas women.

Here’s the funny thing: Getting an abortion is safer than living next door to a fertilizer plant in Texas. (And yes, there are no rules against having a fertilizer plant in a residential neighborhood or next door to a school, just as happened in West.) Getting an abortion is 10 times safer for women than giving birth, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The Texas Tribune reported that the last time a Texas woman died seeking an abortion was 2008, a safety record that the residents of West would probably take.

Joe Pickett, the Democratic chairman who has presided over the hearings, promises to push for regulations next year that will require fertilizer plants to secure ammonium nitrate in rooms made of non-combustible material. He also wants to give the State Fire Marshal the power to inspect and to regulate these plants. All that remains is to name the bill. I propose Demonstrating Understanding of Health, or DUH.

Texas has more than twice as many fertilizer plants with ammonium nitrate than it has abortion clinics. If successful, Pickett’s common-sense reforms would bend the arch of history back toward progress. If not, Texas can go back to regulating lady parts. Republicans like that here.

On Apr. 19, 2014, Cagle Cartoons syndicated this column.

The weird thing about the PPP poll

The new PPP numbers are out in Texas, and they are bad for Wendy Davis. Not only has she not moved the needle against Greg Abbott, but her negatives have shot up at a time when Abbott was getting sustained bad press. What gives?

Before I went on Fox 7 last night, I looked inside the numbers and found a strange and startling result. Apparently 27% of Obama voters in Texas don’t know who Wendy Davis is. This makes no sense to use, since everyone we know knows who she is. But this helps explain why Davis faired so poorly in the border counties in the primary. It wasn’t that they were voting against her on abortion as Republicans claim, but that they were voting for the Hispanic name over the Anglo name of the unknown candidate.

That isn’t great for Davis, who needs to do a lot of work in the Valley. But it’s better than everyone hating her.

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Blood Moon Risin’

blood moon

The Blood Moon on Monday night might have brought on the apocalypse, because a rash of stupidity in politics seems to have infected this great land of ours. When you have one major political party winning the argument against evolution, brainless is the new black. But if Republicans define dumb down any more, soon they’ll have to apply for drilling rights.

How low can they go? Mike Huckabee (R-Fox News) turned a legitimate gripe about airport security into this bon mot: “My gosh, I’m beginning to think that there’s more freedom in North Korea sometimes than there is in the United States.”

Well, sure. The similarities are obvious. For example, political dissidents in North Korea are sentenced to three generations in a prison camp, meaning their families, their children’s families, and their grandchildren have to live out their lives in prison as punishment. Huckabee makes a good living enjoying his First Amendment rights on TV and is the 2016 Republican frontrunner for president. The similarities are inescapable, kind of like North Korea.

Lately, it’s been hard to get Republicans to admit that racism exists these days. Now it’s hard to get them to admit it existed in the past. At a town hall, Rep. Ted Yoho (R-And a bottle of rum) told a black constituent that ending segregation was unconstitutional. On a Christian radio show, Jim DeMint, the ex-senator who now heads the Heritage Foundation, claimed that government played no role in ending slavery. It was “the conscience of the American people” and not, for example, the Union Army that won the war.

The stupid, it burns, and the rash is spreading. The minimum wage last rose in 2009 to $7.25 an hour. Congress isn’t going to do anything, so Oklahoma stepped in , and Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill banning minimum wage increases. Supporters of the law said that raising the minimum wage could hurt economic development. Opponents of the law pointed out that this was Oklahoma and asked, “What economic development?”

If you look at the words conservatives use to describe the “War on Women,” it’s clear someone bought a new thesaurus at the He-Man Woman Haters Club: deceptive, fraudulent, phony, blather. Except there’s always another story about goofy Republicans who thought new ways to punish women for having lady parts.

In Missouri, a lawmaker is demanding that women seeking abortions undergo invasive ultrasound procedures to give them the shocking news of their pregnancies. But to State Rep. Chuck Gatschenberger (R-you kidding me), this is really very simple. Getting an abortion is like buying a car.

“I have to look at it, get information about it, maybe drive it, you know, a lot of different things. Check prices,” he said. “There’s lots of things that I do putting into a decision. Whether that’s a car, whether that’s a house, whether that’s any major decision that I put in my life. Even carpeting.”

Actually, he’s not far off. People hate getting lied to at a high-pressure used car dealership, which is remarkably similar to what goes on at a crisis pregnancy center.

But that’s nothing compared to what they’ve got going on in South Carolina, where a legislative committee expanded the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law to allow women to shoot people to defend “unborn children.” It seemed to have occurred to no one that a woman’s self-defense might have been sufficient cause for deadly force. Kudos to South Carolina for hitting the trifecta: guns, abortion, and race.

Some Christians see the Blood Moon as a sign of End Times. “There’s a sense in the world that things are changing and God is trying to communicate with us in a supernatural way,” said Texas pastor John Hagee, whose sermon series “Blood Moon Prophesies” predicted a “world-shaking event” in the Middle East between now and October 2015.

Turns out, a Blood Moon is just a lunar eclipse in which the Earth is between the Sun and the Moon. They happen frequently. The next one is in October. The Blood Moon isn’t End Times. Unfortunately, neither is the Republican Party. It looks like we’re stuck with each other.

On Apr. 16, 2014, Cagle Cartoons syndicated this column.

Perry’s problems serious enough for Botsford

abbott-perryThere are some lawyers you keep on retainer to keep you out of trouble. There are some lawyers you hire to make sure matters don’t become trouble. And there are some lawyers, such as David L. Botsford, whom you hire when you’ve got trouble.

Rick Perry hired Botsford.

Long story short, he told the Travis County District Attorney to resign lest he cut her budget, which includes jurisdiction over official corruption in Texas. At the time, the Public Integrity Unit was investigating the Perry administration. Whether Perry’s threat constituted official corruption has been the subject of an investigation by a special prosecutor who recently said he was “very concerned” about Perry’s actions. Today, a grand jury is being impaneled to investigate this matter.

botsfordThat “very concerned” comment caused much ink to spill in Texas, but it’s Perry’s hiring of Botsford that is the real sign that this investigation is getting serious. According to The Austin American-Statesman, Botsford is the guy you call when you’ve run out of most of your life lines. Here’s a partial list of his clients:

  • Hussein Ali “Mike” Yassine, an Austin nightclub owner now serving time in federal prison for money laundering.

  • Wendell Loy Nielsen, a lieutenant of polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs’. Nielsen was convicted of bigamy in 2012 in connection with underage marriages at the sect’s West Texas ranch.

  • Michael Angelo’s Gourmet Food Co. in the 2003 death of a worker who was killed in a meat processing machine. The company settled the case without criminal charges being filed.

  • San Antonio businessman Allen Blackthorne, who was sentenced to two life prison terms in 2000 for arranging the murder of his ex-wife while she was home with her toddler quadruplets in Sarasota, Fla.

  • Death row inmate Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War. Tucker, a born-again Christian, challenged the legality of Texas’ clemency process but was executed in 1998.

Botsford and I found ourselves on the same side on one high-profile corruption case involving a Democratic donor who had hired me for crisis communications. He was added to the legal team to head up the appeals process after some of the top criminal defense attorneys in Texas failed to prevent what I still feel was a politically motivated prosecution. He is a serious man you only hire for serious times. Whatever Perry says publicly about this investigation, hiring Botsford proves that he is taking it seriously.

Daily Caller gets math wrong in attacking Wendy Davis

Been off the teevee for a couple weeks as I dealt with a hellish cold, but last night I was back to explain to my friend Rob Johnson, a Republican consultant and Rick Perry’s former presidential campaign manager, why The Daily Caller‘s equal pay attack on Wendy Davis was a load of crap:

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“You can’t call someone ugly and expect them to go to the prom with you”

When it comes to explaining the GOP’s Hispanic problem, you can’t do much better than former House Republican Leader Dick Armey. “You can’t call someone ugly and expect them to go to the prom with you,” he said. Some Republicans think their problem is simply not asking for the votes, but by obstructing immigration reform, insulting Latinos, and calling for cuts to the programs Hispanics support, Republicans aren’t going to the prom any time soon.

This isn’t news to Republican leaders, who, in the “autopsy” of the 2012 election in which they got 27% of the Hispanic vote, laid out a map back to George W. Bush’s high-water mark of 44%. Bush did so well because he spoke well of Hispanics, calling immigrants “Americans by choice” and saying, “Family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande and a hungry mother is going to try to feed her child.”

By welcoming immigrants to our country, he made Hispanic feel welcome in his party, but this is not his Republican Party, noted the GOP roadmap:

“If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence. It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”

It’s not complicated, but since the GOP released their roadmap in Mar. 2013 Republicans can’t get it right.

No sooner did the GOP release the report than Don Young reminisced about the “wetbacks” picking tomatoes on his dad’s farm. Louie Gohmert, a congressman who merely needs to be quoted to be mocked, said Al-Qaeda was training terrorists “to come in and act like Hispanic [sic] when they are radical Islamists.” And Steve King passed an amendment to deport foreign-born children brought here by their parents. Every Texas Republican voted for the King amendment except Pete Sessions, who sat on his hands.

Republicans have gone from George W. Bush welcoming immigrants to state Sen. Dan Patrick calling immigration an “illegal invasion.” Republican voters overwhelmingly oppose a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, and the Republican congressmen who represent them have successfully obstructed comprehensive immigration reform.

All hope is not lost. At the Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library last week, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour expressed optimism that Speaker John Boehner could pass comprehensive immigration reform. “There’s clearly a path to success,” he said.

But now another Bush, this time George P., says Republicans don’t need to support immigration to woo Hispanics.

“We don’t have to change our positions and our ideas as conservatives and Republicans to win the Hispanic vote,” George P. Bush told CNN. “We need to change our tactics. And I believe that as Republicans it’s incumbent not only on the party and also elected officials and aspiring political candidates to spend time in the Hispanic community.”

Pobrecito. George P. is lucky. He’s not only rich, good-looking, and from a famously pro-Hispanic family, but he’s also Hispanic. Everyone is happy to see him. He’s the John Hamm of Texas Republicans, finding nothing but open doors and happy faces everywhere he goes. But being famous, good-looking, and Hispanic is not an option available to most Republican candidates, especially when you consider their voters.

But let’s assume we are George P. Bush, here to save the Republican Party from itself with Hispanic voters. Let’s pretend Republican partisans have stopped making Hispanics feel unwelcome in this country, let alone the party, and congress passed immigration reform.

Even in this fantasyland, Hispanics will vote for Democrats as long as Republicans are the party of limited government. Poll after poll shows that big majorities of Hispanics favor a bigger government that provides well-funded schools and access to health insurance. Democrats don’t have to fake liking that music.

Expecting George P. Bush to rehabilitate the GOP with Hispanics is like thinking Julian Lennon will start a band as famous as his dad’s. Until the Republican Party decides to stop insulting Hispanics and start giving them what they want, Democrats are happy to dance with them that brung us. Another Texan said that, but he was smart enough not to serve in congress.

On Apr. 14, 2014, The Austin American-Statesman published this column.