Lord of the Idiots

The 2016 Presidential election has officially entered silly season. There are plenty of political issues on which, no matter how heated and recalcitrant my positions may be, I can understand that there are two realistic answers to the question. On others, however, the same simply cannot be said. Natural selection occurs, the world is more than 5000 years old and vaccines do not cause Autism. Just for good measure, the earth is also round and the sky is blue.

Unfortunately, two serious candidates for president from the Republican Party are having some serious problems accepting one of those axioms, specifically the one about vaccines. First, as The New York Times reports, Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) defended parents who irresponsibly opt out of vaccinations such as measles for their children, saying that parents “need to have some measure of choice” in the matter. In doing so, he broke with President Barack Obama’s position, which is that all children should be vaccinated against preventable diseases.

Christie unsurprisingly received a barrage of criticism for his remarks, and despite attempts to walk back the remarks, the damage was done. But suddenly, a new contender has emerged: Senator Rand Paul (R-KY).

In an interview with NBC News, Paul spoke frankly about his views on immigration. A reputed civil libertarian, Paul took exception with the alleged individual liberty violations inherent in mandatory inoculations. Most troubling, Paul lent his support to the deleterious hoax that vaccines can cause profound mental disorders such as autism.

“I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines,” he said in his CNBC interview.

This doesn’t happen. He would have been better off saying that a magical unicorn deposits gold ingots in his backyard; at least, that way, nobody would have their health put at risk because of his baldfaced lies. There was one study linking Autism and vaccines (specifically the MMR one). It was discredited, many times. The doctor in question had his license revoked, and eventually retracted the entirety of his findings. It has since come out that he just fabricated the whole thing.

Why Paul, a medical doctor, would support such preposterous dribble is beyond comprehension.

Mandatory vaccinations should be self-explanatory. Individuals with compromised immune systems or other serious ailments often cannot manage the stress of receiving a vaccination (which is minimal for those with functional immune systems), so they must rely on herd immunity. Those who can vaccinate but do not selfishly put those who cannot at risk. It is not just foolish, it is negligent and hurtful.

I never thought we would actually have to defend the validity of the measles vaccine in a presidential election. What century is this? Say what you want about Rick Perry, but his unequivocal and succinct response to all this silliness was absolutely spot-on. His partisan compatriots should learn a thing or two.

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Patrick finalizes Senate committees

The Texas Tribune reports that Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has finalized committee assignments in the senate for the 84th Legislature. Making good on two longstanding committees, Patrick both consolidated the number of committees and significantly reduced the number of Democratic chairs for those committees that remained. Three committees (Government Organization, Jurisprudence and Open Government) got the ax, and a further two committees (Economic Development and Natural Resources, respectively) were merged. This had the overall effect of slashing the total number of committees from 18 to 14.

All three folded committees had been chaired in the 83rd session by Democrats, as did a further three committees. Thus, 1/3rd of the committees had Democrats at the helm, roughly the proportion of the chamber controlled by the minority party. Patrick kept State Senator John Whitmire (D-Harris County), the dean of the chamber, in charge of the Criminal Justice Committee, a position he has held for many years. He also tapped State Senator Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Cameron County) as the chair of Intergovernmental Relations, a rather low-ranking post. Reportedly, this was an olive branch extended to the upper house’s most centrist Democrat. Lucio was the one Democrat this past week to vote for the elimination of the 2/3rds rule, as well as for the omnibus anti-abortion bill HB2 (the one Wendy Davis filibustered) in 2013.

Among other important picks and retentions was State Senator Kel Seliger (R-Potter County) staying on as the chairman of the Higher Education Committee. Seliger has been, according to the Tribune article, an “occasional critic” of the Lieutenant Governor. He also is especially pro-Bill Powers and anti-Wallace Hall, for what it’s worth. State Senators Robert Nichols (R-Cherokee County) and Kevin Eltife (R-Smith County), respectively, also retained their chairmanships (Transportation and Business & Commerce, respectively).

State Senator Craig Estes (R-Wichita County), a two-time chair in the 83rd (Agriculture & Rural Affairs and State Affairs), was stripped of both titles. Harvey Kronberg at Quorum Report opined this could be because Estes was the sole Republican against the 2/3rds rule’s demise. Estes was replaced at Agriculture, Water & Rural Affairs by State Senator Charles Perry (R-Lubbock County), a freshman. I found it somewhat interesting and telling that the one freshman tapped was not a right-wing activist like State Senators Don Huffines (R-Dallas County), Konni Burton (R-Tarrant County) or Bob Hall (R-Van Zandt County), to name a few.

Finally, all eyes were on the Senate Education Committee, of which Patrick previously chaired when he served in the upper chamber. He selected State Senator Larry Taylor (R-Galveston County) as the replacement, which garnered a wide variety of responses. Breitbart Texas appears particularly stoked. Many observers prognosticate that Patrick — now flanked by Taylor — will pursue a wide variety of educational reforms, including a more extensive use of vouchers for charter and private schools.

Say what you want about Patrick, but his first few days in office have featured nothing but him staying true on his word. Unfortunately, that means he was not bluffing on the campaign trail about implementing a very conservative agenda if sent to high office.

This is just a preview of things to come. Patrick is looking more and more like a boisterous and powerful lieutenant governor (the anti-Dewhurst, if you will). Meanwhile, Abbott looks as though he may not continue Perry’s mega-powerful theme. Texas politics may very well regress back to the mean, with a more powerful lieutenant governor and a less powerful governor. Still, don’t be surprised if Patrick runs for governor (and wins) in 2018.

The Rick Perry legacy

Tomorrow, Governor-elect Greg Abbott will take the reigns from Rick Perry and officially become just ‘Governor Abbott.’ For the first time since the Clinton administration, Texas will have a new governor. Indeed, Perry has served in office for more than 14 years, shattering all the old records set by his predecessors.

I’ve been putting off writing about this, because I do not necessarily feel qualified to editorialize about political events that transpired in 2000 or 2001. I was six years old when Perry assumed office, so opining on some of Perry’s first acts would be a lot like my father talking about his experience in observing Dwight Eisenhower or Allan Shivers’ respective tenures in office.

Perry, of course, took office on December 21st, 2000, the day that George W. Bush resigned the governorship in preparation to become president. Perry had served as the Lieutenant Governor since 1999, and previously served two terms as Agriculture Commissioner from 1991 to 1999. He also served two terms in the Texas House of Representatives, from 1985 to 1991, the first two of which as a Democrat.

I’m not going to meticulously go over the ebbs and flows of his time in office, others have done a much better job at that. Rather, I want to examine two ideas about Perry that have always stayed with me from his time in office. Contrary to what some may expect from me, they are actually quite positive.

If this makes sense, Perry is an ideologue –but in a good way. When he first took office, his co-leaders were quite different. The Speaker of the House, Pete Laney, was a Democrat, and the acting Lieutenant Governor, State Senator Bill Ratliff (R-Titus County), was a tremendously moderate Republican who could absolutely not succeed in one of his party’s primaries today (think Nelson Rockefeller, except from East Texas). After the conclusion of the 77th Legislature in 2001, Perry vetoed a record number of bills. Even when compared to Ratliff’s successor, David Dewhurst, Perry was right-wing.

Today, however, Perry is seen as an establishment figure. Bud Kennedy at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram opined that he could run for president as the “anti-Cruz,” a more pragmatic establishment type. Compared to, as of tomorrow, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick or Attorney General Ken Paxton (or even Abbott), Perry is on the moderate side of his party. Obviously, the governor did not tack to the left in an era when so many others zoomed the other way. On the other hand, Perry has a firmly planted set of core beliefs, which does not change because of partisan winds. Love him or hate him, that’s an admirable quality, one that is less and less common in successful politicians.

Second, Perry — at his core — always appears to have all of Texas at heart. Sure, there was the rampant cronyism/corruption. But any even rudimentary student of Texas political history knows that is the rule and not the exception. Unlike Abbott or Patrick, in my opinion, Perry genuinely believed what he was doing would be good for the average Texan (as much as he may have been mistaken in some instances), not the average Republican primary voter.

I have found myself agreeing more and more with the band of Democrats who feel that Perry’s successors will be considerably worse than him, and we will one day covet the comparable pragmatism in the Perry administration. There is certainly some truth in this, but it is important to not get carried away.

Perry pushed through venal so-called “tort reform” that lobotomized much of our court system, including the resurgence of cruddy legal jurisprudence typically only found in Great Britain. He was instrumental in the horrendous gerrymandering scheme that reduced 90%+ of legislative districts to uncompetitive backwaters. More recently, he vigorously pushed the omnibus anti-abortion legislation that Wendy Davis filibustered and he attempted to coerce an unfriendly prosecutor into resigning by threatening (and following through) to veto funding (this is what he was indicted regarding).

Obviously, Texas can’t get much worse off on many fronts, but on others it surely can. Perhaps most horrifying about Abbott and his ilk is that they have no central moral principles, nothing preventing them from grandstanding and demagoguery in the face of an increasingly extreme minority that monopolizes the political process. When they start demanding book burnings or the rescinding of the bill of rights, Perry would have rightly put his foot down. Abbott and Patrick, to the contrary, I’m unsure about.

Adios, mofo. We’ll miss you (sort of).

Catching up, Part II

When it comes to state politics, if something feels different in the last couple of days, it is because things have — indeed — changed. A new crop of officeholders have taken office, namely Attorney General Ken Paxton, Comptroller Glenn Hegar, Land Commissioner George P. Bush, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton and a few new members of the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals. In the next week, Governor-elect Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor-elect Dan Patrick, respectively, will assume their offices at the top.

Despite not yet taking office, both men have already staked out positions both toward the far-right and toward the middle (leaning a little more to the former option). First, as the San Antonio Express-News reports, Abbott went on the offensive earlier this week on what he called the “Californization” (Californication?) of Texas. Specifically, he took issue with municipal bans on tree-cutting, plastic bags and fracking.

Evidently, Abbott finds municipal bans on cutting down large trees uniquely objectionable, and he openly compared the practice to “collectivism.” He similarly fumed over municipal bans on single-use plastic bags, enacted in cities such as Austin and Laredo. The bag bans have particularly drawn the ire of legislators and politicos since they must spend so much time in the state capital. Finally, Abbott took a firm stance against Denton’s recent referendum to ban fracking within its city limits. Since the enactment of the ban in November, numerous legislators have filed bills to prohibit such bans statewide, and Abbott now looks amenable to signing such a bill.

All this being said, perhaps there is something to be said for Abbott having at least one pragmatic side in office. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram published an editorial examining if Abbott is coming around on medicaid expansion. The statewide sentiment has recently turned against the opponents, but I’d still say true expansion is a longshot. Back in November, I opined in The Daily Texan that this was a possibility nonetheless, well before anyone else did.

Moving onto Dan Patrick, he recently outlined his legislative priorities in a series of interviews. The Texas Observer reports that Patrick would be fighting for an ambitious conservative agenda while in office. The topics outlined were garden variety right-wing ideas involving tax cuts, immigration and school privatization, but a few novel specifics stood out. Among them was a proposal to rescind state funding for the Public Integrity Unit within the Travis County District Attorney’s office. The PIU, always overseen by a Democratic DA hailing from Austin, is typically a thorn in the side of prominent Republican officeholder, be it former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, former Congressman Tom DeLay or Governor Rick Perry.

The Texas Tribune also looks at Patrick’s historically animosity toward the Senate’s 2/3rds rule. For those of you playing at home, the 2/3rds rule is an anachronism for the chamber stemming back to when it was comprised exclusively of Democrats. It requires the votes of 21/31 senators to advance any particular piece of legislation during the regular session. Patrick will likely get the needed votes to lower that threshold to 19 votes, conveniently just below the 20 Republican votes in the upper chamber.

However, as the Brownsville Herald reports, Patrick could have at least something of a mind toward bipartisanship. State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-Hidalgo County) has been selected as the President Pro Tempore of the chamber, meaning he would serve as the President of the Senate in the lieutenant governor’s absence.

Last but not least, as the Houston Chronicle reports, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller has dedicated his first official act in office to implementing so-called “cupcake amnesty.” About a decade ago, the Department of Agriculture (which has power over school lunches) opined against parents packing cupcakes and other sugary foods in their children’s lunches. The policy was quietly reversed last year, and now Miller is wishing to publicize the change. Miller also noted that he has set his sights on removing restrictions on sodas and fries.

“We’ve been raising big, strapping healthy young kids here in Texas for nearly 200 years and we don’t need Washington, D.C. telling us how to do it,” Miller said.

Glossing over the obvious problems with that statement, Miller made a lot of sense when he noted that local control should be trumpeted in these cases. Sadly, it seems that local control is not respected unless it is convenient for Republicans, as Abbott has clearly shown.

Jeb Bush 2016

The New York Times reports that former Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL) has taken the first decisive step toward running for president in the upcoming 2016 election. Bush created something called a “leadership PAC” that actively explores the possibility of running for president. It is tantamount in all but name to an Exploratory Committee, and few — if any — serious observers contend that there is a realistic chance he would not follow through and run at this time.

Bush, the brother of former President George W. Bush and son of former President George H.W. Bush, is largely seen as the continuation of a quintessential Republican establishment dynasty. While the family may have been, in some circles, considered on the rightward periphery of the party in 2000, times have markedly changed since that time. Specifically, since the advent of the Tea Party, Bush has been lambasted by the base of his own party as insufficiently conservative on immigration-related issues. Earlier this year, he even suggested unauthorized border crossings were an “act of love,” drawing the ire of the right-wing. Bilingual and the husband of a Mexican-immigration (additionally the father of Land Commissioner-elect George P. Bush), Bush is seen as a uniquely formidable Republican opponent for Democratic presidential contenders, namely former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Prompted by Bush, a few other names have clamored to reiterate their longstanding almost-campaigns. The serious politicians who belong in that category include Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), Governor Rick Perry (R-TX), Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Governor Scott Walker (R-WI), among other less glamorous options.

Last month, I prognosticated that Cruz has the best chance of the pack to be nominated, and I reiterate that comment again tonight. Make no mistake, the ultra-conservatives (Tea Party) are in firmer control of the party now than they were four years ago. They have only been enraged over the years as their preferred candidates have been cast aside in favor of comparable-pragmatists, such as John McCain and Mitt Romney, who then fell in the general election. Bush — or Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ), for that matter — will be shunned because he will be seen as a continuation of the “play it safe” strategy.

Of course, the success of a presidential candidate has little to do with ideology, because the American public does not care enough to understand said ideology. They care about the charisma and soundbites of the messenger. That is why Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in a way that Gerald Ford likely would not have, even though Reagan was significantly more conservative.

Much in the same respect, Cruz is a phenomenal messenger in a way that none of the other candidates are. Not since Joseph McCarthy have the Republicans had a national figure so comfortable with making things up and completely disregarding the truth without so much as a modicum of shame. The only difference is that the media is so impotent and feckless nowadays that there is no Edward R. Murrow to call him out. Cruz is confident, assured and smart, so the base in his party goes along for the ride, even though I think it is fairly obvious he would sell them out in an instant to further his own interest. When the time comes, I believe, the general public will similarly fall for him.

If the Tea Party is looking for a knight in shining armor, they will be sorely disappointed just about any way. Cruz may be appealing, quoting Cicero and all. But in the end, his most rapid supporters will just be muttering “Et Tu, Theodore?” At least Bush puts his cards on the table.

The Panetti execution

On Wednesday, Texas plans on executing a man named Scott Panetti. The underlying details of the capital murder in question have been delineated sufficiently previously, namely in an editorial I recently participated in for The Daily Texan, in which the editorial board not only argued for clemency in his case but for the abolition of the death penalty in general (something Texpatriate did last August). The basics are that Panetti, who murdered two people in the early 1990s, is severely mentally ill, to the extent that no reasonable medical professional could certify him as competent for execution under the standard set by the Supreme Court in the 2007 case of Panetti v. Quarterman.

And yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, Texas is soldiering on with the execution nonetheless. His attorneys, after reading about the tentative December 3rd execution date in the newspaper, quickly appealed up the ladder of the Texas appellate system. On Wednesday, the Court of Criminal Appeals (the highest criminal court in the state) ruled 5-4 against granting a stay of execution. The per curiam decision, however, did included the concurrence of the court’s lone ostensible Democrat, Judge Larry Meyers. As I noted in May, I’m not really a fan of Meyers, and there are plenty of Republicans on the court I like far more than him. They include Judge Elsa Alcaca, who wrote a blistering dissent, as well as Judge Tom Price, who wrote an individual opinion calling for the abolition of the death penalty.

Price, first elected in 1996, chose not to run for a fourth six-year term this year and will leave office in January. In his bombastic six page dissent, which you can find at this link, he explained in careful detail both his steadfast opposition to Panetti’s execution as well as to capital punishment altogether. One by one, Price dismantled the arguments for the death penalty, before chronicling his own personal journey. It is all eerily reminiscent of Justice Harry Blackmun’s big change of heart in the 1990s. Like Blackmun, Price will no longer “tinker with the machinery of death.” It’s a shame he won’t be on the court much longer, although it makes senses; no death penalty opponent could survive a statewide Republican primary.

Today, as the Texas Tribune reports, the Board of Pardons and Paroles voted unanimously to deny Panetti any type of commutation, clemency or reprieve. The only other state recourse would be one 30 day delay by Governor Rick Perry, which appears rather unlikely. Accordingly, Panetti’s lawyers have appealed the case to the US Supreme Court. Who knows what the Supreme Court will do, but the odds are placed squarely against Panetti in this instance.

This case, like most every other capital murder case, involves a totally reprehensible crime. Panetti brutally murdered two people. And while he is severely mentally ill, he is not so delusional that he literally does not understand the distinction between right and wrong. He understands, to some extent, that he erred in killing two innocent people.

All this is to say that I do not want him to spend any of his days as a free man. But the Supreme Court has held for many decades that a higher standard exists for capital punishment. And while I believe the barbaric punishment to be, in all cases, cruel and unusual, even tepid proponents should see that the execution of Panetti is wrong.

Texas Senate changes

The Texas Tribune reports that Comptroller-elect Glenn Hegar, also a member of the State Senate, has resigned his seat in anticipation of assuming high office. Governor Rick Perry has called a special election for December 6th, which will likely have to be resolved by a runoff election some point after the 84th Legislative session convenes at the start of next year.

The three candidates for the State Senate district, which stretches from Katy (Hegar’s hometown) to Corpus Christi to the outskirts of Austin (map here), include Gary Gates and Charles Gregory of Fort Bend County as well as State Representatives Lois Kolkhorst (R-Washington County). Needless to say, the huge district will continue to be dominated by its Greater Houston subdivision. No Democrats have, at print time, announced their interest in the district, and it is not outside the realm of possibility that none will run (the last time the district held an election, in 2012, Hegar ran unopposed).

Perhaps the bigger piece of news is some convincing evidence that State Senator Leticia Van de Putte (D-Bexar County), this year’s unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor, will in fact resign her senate seat to run for Mayor of San Antonio. I went over most of the odds-and-ends involving this possibility last week, when I emphatically opined against the decision. Selfishly, I think Van de Putte could continue being an asset for Democrats in this state as an articulate and highly-visible leader of the opposition against Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick in the next session.

The source for this is Robert Miller, a lobbyist in Houston who has a history of breaking these types of stories via Twitter. The tweets were immediately confirmed by former staffers of Van de Putte. Miller, as you may remember, correctly pointed to Wendy Davis running for Governor in August of last year (Back when I thought she would only lose by eight-to-ten points, how naive of me).

With Van de Putte out, another special election would have to be called. The Houston Chronicle has suggested that both State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer and State Representative Jose Menendez, both San Antonio Democrats, would throw their hats in the ring to succeed Van de Putte in heavily gerrymandered (for the Democrats) district. Meanwhile, State Representative Mike Villarreal (D-Bexar County), who recently resigned his House seat to run for Mayor of San Antonio, may still end up switching races.

The San Antonio Express-News has a great profile out that discusses the “friction” between Van de Putte and Villarreal. In 1999, Villarreal had succeeded Van de Putte in the State House when she was first elected to the senate, defeated her hand-picked successor in the process. Ever since, the relationship has been tense. Accordingly, the two might have a nasty campaign ahead of them, though I would think Van de Putte (the only statewide Democrat to carry Bexar County) would be heavily favored.

But the optics about candidates and what not can wait until we have more information. Perry and Governor-elect Greg Abbott, when he takes office, are just petty enough to purposefully drag their feet on a special election to ensure the Democrats start the session with one fewer voice, short of the 1/3 needed to block legislation. Although, as I have previously mentioned, the 2/3rds rule is likely doomed anyways.

Off the Kuff has more (regarding Hegar).