Monthly Archives: January 2014

Did Wendy help herself on Tuesday?

Last Tuesday the Travis County Democratic Party held a big fundraising dinner at which Wendy Davis defended herself as a mother. This came on the same day that her daughters released open letters defending their mother. Did this help her? That’s what Matt Mackowiak and I argued about last night on Fox 7.

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I was not given a chance to respond to Matt’s litany of presupposed woe that closed our segment. For one, off-year elections are about base turnout, and the number of grassroots donors she has suggests she’ll be able to turn this issue into a plus for her voters and raise a ton of money off it. But I didn’t get a chance to say that. Instead, I was off camera looking like this:


“At what point”? Maybe this one

Texas-Senator-Leticia-Van-De-Putte-screenshotSometimes rhetorical questions demand answers. When state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte asked, “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues?” the deafening roar from the gallery carried Wendy Davis’ filibuster over the midnight finish line. But Van de Putte only got an answer this week. It doesn’t matter if a woman is dead or raped. Texas Republicans don’t recognize women at all.

The Texas constitution endows the office of the lieutenant governor with such power as to make Dick Cheney shy with desire. The “lite guv” presides over the state senate and picks not only the chairs of each committee but the members of each committee as well, Republican and Democrat. The current occupant of the office, David Dewhurst, lost his primary against Ted Cruz for the U.S. Senate. Now up for re-election, Dewhurst is perceived to be vulnerable and has three serious primary opponents.

Texas_Elections_Lieutenant_Governor_DebateWell, “serious” might be overstating the case, but the four Republicans running for lite guv debated in Dallas on Monday. In fact, “debated” might be overstating things as well because the quartet pretty much agreed that women barely matter at all when it comes to making decisions for themselves, bless their hearts. When the 21st Century deigns to show up in Texas it will be shocked.

The first question out of the box was how they came down on the case of Marlise Muñoz. Last November Muñoz had a pulmonary embolism. At the time, she was 14 weeks pregnant. Muñoz was brain dead and had signed a living will. Her fetus was deformed and likely brain damaged due to her oxygen loss. Her family wanted to let her go. However, the hospital refused to take her off life support, though “life support” is certainly the wrong term. Under state law, the hospital argued, they had to maintain Marlise’s body until they could deliver her baby. After several weeks, a judge ordered the plug pulled.

BagleyAny sane person would send the judge flowers, but in the debate the four horsemen of the Republican Party took turns disagreeing with the judge’s ruling and repeating incantations that they “always err on the side of life.” By implication, they reduced the woman to temporary housing for a fetus, living will be damned.

Also receiving universal according was the subject of abortion exceptions for rape and incest. You may be excused for thinking that after Todd Akin and Richard Murdoch lost senate seats by opposing rape exceptions that the Texas Republicans would avoid making the same mistake, but you would be wrong. All four valiantly opposed exceptions for rape and incest, a position to the right of most Republican voters even here in Texas.

The Republicans took turns “erring on the side of life,” such as this example from Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson.

“To say that we have an unborn child that is the result of rape and somehow that is less lifelike or inferior to the life that was created through a natural, non-catastrophic event like that, doesn’t make any sense. It’s either life or it’s not life.  So I do not support exceptions for rape and incest,” said Patterson, widely regarded as the most thoughtful of the bunch.

CASTIEL femalesPatterson’s position does not lack logic. But when neither Patterson nor anyone else on stage mentioned the rights of the woman who was raped, the Republican field ceded the moral high ground.

Coverage of the debate focused more on the lack of disagreement and less on the fact that the Republicans agreed on radical social positions that make national news when espoused by politicians elsewhere. In Texas, sexism is so institutionalized it seems normal, but at least Van de Putte finally got an answer to the question she asked during Wendy Davis’ filibuster. And as it turns out, she is the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor and will get to run against whichever one of those four men makes it out of the primary.

This fall, she—and millions of Texas women—will finally be recognized.

On Feb. 3, 2013, Cagle Cartoons syndicated this column. 

“Sort of struck me as a Jack Abramoff kind of thing”

When the Canutillo Independent School District found out its superintendent was cooking the books just like in nearby El Paso, the board members knew they had a problem on their hands. But for a couple of local lobbyists, a school cheating scandal was just another business opportunity, underscoring the extent to which the school reform movement has become a special interest that sees public education as a business opportunity.

On Dec. 6, 2012, an internal audit into a scheme to scrub the rolls of students with special needs or limited fluency in English was presented to the Canutillo school board, which then suspended the superintendent. A similar scandal landed the El Paso superintendent in federal prison, but the practice is not limited to the western tip of Texas. Superintendents have been “juking the stats” since politicians linked test scores to accountability. Before he became George W. Bush’s education secretary, Rod Paige engineered the Houston Miracle by underreporting dropout statistics. In Ohio, six school districts boosted scores by “scrubbing” more than 4,000 students from their records.

If cheating in accountability is not new, accountability for the cheaters is. No longer do we reward the mendacious with cabinet posts or move the principals into other school districts like pedophile priests being moved from parish to parish. The El Paso superintendent went to prison, and the Texas Education Agency replaced the elected school board with a Board of Managers on Dec. 6, 2012, the same day Canutillo district released its audit. Heading the Board of Managers was Dee Margo, a former Republican state representative close to a conservative business group called Texans for Lawsuit Reform.

The very next day, Armando Rodriguez, the president of the Canutillo school board, got an email from lobbyist Mark Smith that only contained this subject line: “We can help with your problems at CISD.”

Rodriguez had no interest in hiring Smith and had good reason to be suspicious. Smith is a registered lobbyist for the Forma Group, a political consulting firm that handled former Rep. Margo’s campaigns. And if you think that’s incestuous, you must be new to El Paso politics.

Smith texted him the day after that: “We can get marissa to run interference before that board gets taken over. Month to month crisis management and legislative advocacy. 13,500 per month, 6 mos contract. Let’s talk. Mark”. The “Marissa” mentioned was state Rep. Marissa Marquez, a Democrat who crossed party lines to endorse—you guessed it—Margo in 2012 and has enjoyed financial backing from Texans for Lawsuit Reform for her campaigns.

The following week, Ricardo Armendariz of the Forma Group emailed Rodriguez to let him know he’d taken the liberty of discussing his predicament with Rep. Marquez. Out of sheer coincidence, Armendariz was also a registered lobbyist for Texans for Lawsuit Reform and their pro-privatization arm, Texans for Education Reform.

In theory, if a legislator represents a school board, the school board should not have to hire lobbyists to get the state representative to “run interference” for it. But because these lobbyists represented groups supporting a pro-business takeover of school districts, Canutillo’s Rodriguez could not avoid the impression that influence was being peddled.

“At first, I knew they had close ties and influence with the governor as well as with certain people” such as TEA Commissioner Michael Williams, said Rodriguez, who still serves on the board but is no longer president. “It sort of struck me as a Jack Abramoff kind of thing. …  I had suspected that there was more to it than trying to help out our school district with our situation.”

Rodriguez did the hard thing. He said no and guided the school district through a state audit. Rep. Marquez faces a tough challenge in the Democratic Primary, but she has got Texans for Lawsuit Reform backing her, and Texans for Education Reform has big plans to get involved in the 2014 elections. Apparently their business backers were unhappy with the return on their investment in the lobbyists.

On Jan. 29, 2013, The Huffington Post blog reposted this column.

BUY THIS: Birchbox

birchbox_boxA friend turned me on to Birchbox, which every month sends me samples of shaving creams, aftershaves, hair stuff, and other goodies such as a subscription to Men’s Health, a pair of workout underwear, a great undershirt, socks, metal collar stays, and other things. It costs a bit more for men than it does for women, but my wife is consistently jealous of what I get. In fact, I get so much stuff I rarely have to buy products like body wash and moisturizer anymore. Click here to sign up.

What’s up for Obama’s SOTU?

Tonight, President Barack Obama will be taking a new direction in his State of the Union address. Last year he laid out areas of broad agreement – background checks, immigration reform, raising the minimum wage – that went nowhere in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. This year he’ll be going it alone, according to a worthwhile article in the Wall Street Journal. This was the topic of my debate yesterday with Matt Mackowiak on Fox 7.

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Q & A with Trailergate’s Wayne Slater

WayneSlater_head_shotWayne Slater, the senior political writer for The Dallas Morning News, has agreed to participate in a live-blog Q&A right here starting at 1 pm central time. Wayne is the one who wrote the Trailergate article that came out last Sunday and quickly became national news. The reactions to Slater’s piece have provided an interesting Rorschach test. Ann Coulter called Wayne a “rabid partisan Democratic hack.” Democrats have privately speculated about his motives. Journalists have publicly rallied to his side, citing his article as a good test of the Davis campaign’s mettle while privately questioning one of his choices that I’ll go into below.

Here’s the way it will work: I’ll post a question after emailing it to him. When he emails his response, I’ll post that. You keep up with the conversation by refreshing this page. Feel free to post suggested questions in the comments section, though I can’t promise to pose them. Slater’s responses will be reprinted verbatim. 

JS: First off, Wayne, let me say for disclosure’s sake that you’ve always struck me as a decent guy. You’ve quoted me in one of your books. We’ve been in a documentary together. You tweeted out excessively generous praise about me. So I’m not going to pretend that you and I don’t get along. But when Ann Coulter, who has set the transgendered community back 100 years, called you a “rabid partisan Democratic hack,” I have to laugh. You and I have often found each other on opposite sides of arguments about campaigns I’ve worked on and you’ve covered. (For the record, I’m not working for the Coalition of the Wendy.) So if you’re a rabid partisan Democratic hack,” as Coulter claimed, you’re a really bad one. You’re a damn journalist, for better or for worse.

To wit, you wrote:

“She lived only a few months in the family mobile home while separated from her husband before moving into an apartment with her daughter.”

Why “only”? How long would she have had to live in a trailer park before you would drop “only”? And more importantly, do you think “only” contributed to the impression that she had misled anyone about the length of her residence in a trailer park?

While Wayne works on his answer, here’s his book that I’m quoted in. I even enjoyed the parts that didn’t quote me, though Karl Rove did not.

Great, Gmail just crashed. Figuring out a workaround to get Wayne’s answers. Stay tuned.

1:44pm: We’re back, or at least email is. Wayne’s working on his answer.

WS: The Wendy Davis personal story was that she lived as a divorced teenage mother in a mobile home with a young daughter and facing difficult prospects. The campaign narrative trumpeted that as a significant time in her life and, clearly, it’s a compelling picture for voters. In fact, the time she lived in the mobile home was mostly with her first husband, and only after he temporarily moved out as they prepared to divorce, did she and her daughter live there, a matter of a few months.

What’s significant is not the number of months, but that she was never a divorced mother in a mobile home, as she and her campaign stated. And while the campaign narrative clearly left the impression that living in the trailer was a significant part of this difficult period of her life, it was actually only a brief period. Since the campaign made the trailer a significant part of her story, it seems right to set out the fact that she wasn’t there very long.

JS: Our friend Jim Moore, co-author to you on you corps de Rove and to me on our misbegotten Perry book, wrote this:

Quite a tale, eh? Reframe it around a man. And here’s the interpretation: Can you believe the sacrifices he made for his family, to get his degree, and lift them out of their situation? Lived in a mobile home a few months, lived with his mother, lived in a small, cheap apartment, went into debt, paid off his loans, endured long weekends to make sure he was involved in the raising of his children while reading the law, and managed to eventually become a Texas State Senator and run for governor. The marriage didn’t survive but the couple separated amicably and continued to raise their children together and still have mutual respect. Who is this great man?

He’s a woman. Name of Wendy Davis. Democrat of Fort Worth.

How do you respond to Moore’s criticism that your article’s portrayal of her life was “unfair”? [Jim Moore checks in offline: "That is not a criticism of Wayne's story. It is criticism of the interpretation of the facts he reported.]

While Wayne types, here’s a link to David Hartstein’s great documentary about the 2006 governor’s race that Wayne and I both received billing in.

WS: Our story included those elements, but it included other elements as well to connect, correct and fill omissions or errors in the official narrative. The first narrative is like a comic book. The second is more like a short story, adding detail and connective tissue. The challenge for the journalist is to look at what a campaign is saying and ask — is it true? And to fill in the blanks. 

Having said that, there is clearly a double-standard. The sexism that existed back in 1990 when Ann Richards launched her successful campaign for governor — skeptical voters, doubting campaign contributors, a press corps comfortable in the traditional, male-oriented view of politics — was very much an obstacle. I know that because I covered that race and was very much aware of the slight advantages and considerable disadvantages Richards faced. In a quarter century, sexism might have abated, but it hasn’t been erased. I know that. As I take that seriously.

But in a case like this, if the details of a candidate’s up-from-poverty life story had errors and omissions, if the candidate had left the impression going to college on their own initiative and if, upon divorce, the candidates’ spouse had been granted custody of the children (the 21-year-old daughter returned to live in the family home) and the candidate ordered to pay child support — should it not be written because the candidate was a woman? Or should it be written whether the candidate was male or female.

JS: Many of Jeff Davis’ assertions were presented unchallenged as fact. For example, you wrote, “Jeff Davis paid for her final two years at TCU.” Though you gave her space to point out that it was by law community property, this comes across as a he said-she said disagreement. And while he may have cashed in his retirement account, they took out loans together for her law school education while in your article he did this alone. And while you note that she became a working lawyer, you allow him to take sole credit for paying off her student loans. Because this period of her life is summed up by Jeff Davis’ implication that she left as soon as he paid off her loans, your article gives rise to the perception that he was her sugar daddy and not her husband of more than a decade, stepfather to her oldest daughter and father to their daughter in common. Much of this impression is perhaps due to you presenting his perceptions as fact. To what extent do you think your choices as a writer contributed to this misperception of her role in that marriage?

Why Wayne cobbles together a response, here’s a link to my favorite of his Rove books because of the revelation of his first Rovian tactic. When he was a high school debater, he carted in boxes of blank cards to give the impression of over-preparation.

WS: When Jeff Davis cashed in his 401(k) and subsequently took out the loan for Harvard, she was a student, not a working lawyer. In the years after graduation, she did have an income from a law firm and as an officer in the title company that Davis led in Fort Worth. Under community property, they both owned any and all income generated by each partner. So you’re right, the latter payments on the loan were from their joint bank account. And I quoted her in the story saying that. But the fact that Davis told me they separated the same week he made the final payment is a fact as well. And I put that in the story. I think the story accurately sets out details that allows the readers to decide what they think.

Rush Limbaugh interprets it one way, Davis supporters interpret the details another way. That’s our job, putting details in the story that allow readers to come to their own conclusion.

JS: Last question, because I know you have a TV thing to get to. Thanks so much for your time and generous cooperation.

Why the anonymous quote? What news value is there in someone anonymously saying she won’t “let family or raising children or anything else get in her way”? The gratuitous sexist slur seems to give tacit approval and at the very least an unchallenged platform to the same sexist impulses you claim to oppose.

In closing, let me encourage you all to follow him on the Twitter where you can keep up with his articles:

WS: The use of anonymous quotes is a debatable issue in journalism. Some people never use them. Bob Woodward couldn’t exist without them. Clearly, anonymous quotes make sense in the case of whistleblowers, people inside a company or a government office who would suffer repercussions if they told the public the truth.

But that’s not what happened her. The reason I used the quote was because the person is a Davis supporter, a Democrat, someone who has worked with Davis in the past and who intends to vote for her. I talked to a lot of people, not just a few, in preparing the story. And while most people didn’t want to be quoted, many made much the same observation about Davis. There was, therefore, a clear sense that what the person was saying was true. Moreover, it helped frame the facts of the story in a way to help the reader, I felt.

Had it been a Republican, I wouldn’t have used it. Had it been somebody who barely knew her, I wouldn’t have included it. But it mirrored what I was hearing from others. And the quote was from a supporter who didn’t want to lose friendship with Davis but wanted the story to be accurate. In other words, I concluded this quote helped present a truer account  for readers.

That said, I understand there are compelling arguments for not using blind quotes in such cases. It’s a judgment call. And readers can judge whether the quote helped understand Davis or unfairly gave a false impression of her. I have a feeling we’re not going to agree.

Thanks, Wayne. And thanks everyone for following along.

If Obama’s tanking, why are his numbers up?

Yesterday, Matt Mackowiak and I debated the meaning of a new poll that did not look good for Obama. Rather than explain all the blah blah blah, here’s a picture that’s worth a few choice words:

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No bueno for Team Blue, but as Mike Warren pointed out, that number hasn’t changed much since the beginning of 2013, so what is probably happening is that people are mad at Washington and the federal government, and Obama is the most public face of that. In other words, as I said last night, if you’re the lead singer in a band that has a really crappy guitar player, people will probably think you stink no matter what. Click on my goofy face to watch the show:

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It seems like the media (and certainly Republican mouthpieces) are eager to sell the narrative of Obama’s inexorable polling decline. Matthew Dowd laid out this storyline a few weeks ago on one of those Sunday morning shows:

“A year ago today he was winning a 50 percent-plus victory, first person since Eisenhower to win two terms over 50 percent, everything seemed so great,” said Dowd. “Ever since the start of the second administration, it’s all gone downhill. His presidency, in my view, and the credibility of his presidency and the relevancy of his presidency is dramatically in question today, and I think he can’t recover from it.”

There’s just one problem. The Big O is rebounding from his horrible November. There’s a new CBS poll out this morning that shows the following:

His 46 percent approval is up four points from December (42 percent) and up from his all-time low of 37 percent in November.

You can read the whole poll here:

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It seems like I read this somewhere before. Hmm.

drops mic