It's hard to believe the governor saw this coming. When Rick Perry decided to replace the a board on the eve of a hearing about the evidence that sent a Texas man to the executioner, he couldn't have been thinking the story would grow legs and stomp all around his bid for reelection.
He got testy with reporters this week, taking a question about Cameron Todd Willingham and turning it into a critique of the media, of death penalty opponents, and taking the opportunity to say again that the convicted murder deserves no sympathy. The issue remains in play.
It's a weird issue for a Republican primary (or for the state's whole electorate, for that matter). Voters in Texas favor the death penalty. GOP voters favor it more than average. But Perry's two Republican challengers — U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Wharton activist Debra Medina — found ways to work the story. Hutchison said Perry is giving liberals ammunition against the death penalty. Medina said he should be protecting innocent lives (though she didn't say Willingham was innocent). She said Perry should go ahead with the state's review of the case and, if something was wrong, that he ought to fix it before it happens again.
Willingham was accused of setting his house on fire with his three kids trapped inside. The question now is whether the fire was set intentionally. Willingham professed his innocence until he died. The Forensic Science Commission was about to look at the arson evidence when Perry named new appointees instead of holding over the old ones. Since then, he's answered questions about the case every day.
He's not the only candidate whose plans got scattered. On another topic, Hutchison went on WBAP-AM in the Metroplex to talk about an endorsement (from U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Flower Mound) and stepped in a hole when asked about resigning early to spend full time on the governor's race. Hutchison, who told the same station earlier this year that she plans to resign in October or November, now says she's not sure what she'll do or when she'll do it.
The quote: "I am going to leave. I think it's important that I do everything I can when there are such huge issues, and I haven't been able to set that deadline, which I know is something a lot of people are looking at to determine what other possibilities there might be... I can't say anything right now because I dont know. Every day in Washington some new bad thing is coming up."
Perry: Willingham was a Monster
In the latest roundelay, Gov. Rick Perry vigorously defended the state's execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, calling him "a monster" and telling reporters they've fallen under the spell of death penalty opponents.
Willingham was executed for killing his children by setting fire to his house while they were trapped inside. He professed his innocence until he died, and recent reports have brought attention to an arson expert's findings that the fire wasn't intentionally set.
Perry's not buying it.
"Willingham was a monster. He was a guy who murdered his three children, who tried to beat his wife into an abortion so that he wouldn't have those kids. Person after person has stood up and testified to facts of this case that quite frankly you all aren't covering," Perry told a gaggle of reporters after a speech to the Texas Association of Realtors.
Perry recently replaced members of the state's Forensic Science Commission on the eve of hearings into that arson report. But that's not the story, he said.
"You're all being tied up in a process-driven story here, with all these sideshows. Look at the details of the case... we have a system in this state that has followed the procedures and they found this man guilty every step of the way. You have one piece of study that everyone is glomming onto and saying, 'Aha!'"
Perry said Willingham's own lawyer has come to believe Willingham was guilty.
"The facts of this case clearly showed that this was a heinous individual who murdered his kids," Perry said.
His Republican opponents both support the death penalty, but took issue with Perry on this case.
"While I will agree that there are some crimes so heinous the death penalty is the only just punishment, we must protect innocent human life," said Debra Medina, in a press release. "... If the governor cared about justice, he'd work hard to insure that the panel's work is completed in all due haste, that all the evidence is considered."
And U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison told the Associated Press that Perry should have left the commission to its work. "I don't have the facts. I'm not taking up for Mr. Willingham because I have no idea. I'm taking up for the process, for the criminal justice system in our state," she said.
Houston Mayor Bill White raised $1.5 million in the third quarter of the year, and hopes to spend that money running for the U.S. Senate.
His campaign says that brings the total contributions so far to about $6 million. White's campaign didn't total their spending for the three months ended September 30, or how much money they had in the bank at that point (and the full report was not yet posted on the Federal Election Commission's website.
White had $3.7 million on hand at mid-year. Fellow Democrat John Sharp had $3.1 million at that point, and everyone else in the race lagged far behind.
State Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, has raised $1 million for a U.S. Senate race, including $254,020 raised during the third quarter and a total of $110,000 she loaned her own campaign. She ended the period with $555,693 in the bank. And she said in a press release that the money will be there if there's a special election for the U.S. Senate, or if she has to wait until Kay Bailey Hutchison's current term ends in 2012.
Former Secretary of State Roger Williams says he leads the declared Republicans in the U.S. Senate race, with $1.3 million raised and almost $900,000 on hand. Exact numbers will be available when his report is.
The reason we stuck "declared" in that last bit is because Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst could hop into the race and change the money rankings. Hutchison hasn't resigned and so Dewhurst has said he'll run for reelection and will reevaluate if anything else opens up. That preserves his current position, since nobody seems eager to run against the richest guy on the block. But it keeps him out of some things, like a U.S. Senate candidate forum in Frisco on October 24. The Texas Medical Association invited all of the declared candidates, a list that doesn't include Dewhurst.
Not all of the federal candidates' third-quarter reports are posted online yet (keep checking here, as we will), but there are some numbers worth noting. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Surfside, got to the end of September with $2 million in his bank account. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, had $1.8 million on hand. Former Rep. Jim Turner, D-Crockett, had $1 million on hand. Only Barton in that group has said he might be interested in running for U.S. Senate, but they've all got more money than most of the people who've said they are running. Of the Texas candidates whose reports are online, only Barton raised big money during the quarter. He raised $1 million in 90 days.
Is There a Doctor on the Line?
by Emily Ramshaw, The Texas Tribune
Emergency medical technicians and entry-level nurses could be cut out of the telemedicine equation under a proposal the Texas Medical Board is considering.
The change would prohibit anyone but doctors, physicians' assistants and advanced practice nurses from presenting patients for care via long-distance videoconferencing – a move rural hospitals and prison doctors adamantly oppose.
It's an effort that appears to be designed to ensure telemedicine patients are receiving high quality care on both ends of the video camera — though officials with the Medical Board declined to comment Tuesday on their motivation.
Telemedicine advocates say it would hinder use of the technology in rural health centers, where licensed vocational nurses and emergency medical technicians are often the only health care providers available.
"In towns like Turkey, Texas, if you limit an EMT's ability to provide telemedicine, people there will have to drive 80 miles for any kind of health care," said Don McBeath, the former head of Texas Tech's telemedicine program who now advocates for the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals. "It's creating a huge barrier to the growth of telemedicine in rural areas."
And they say it would force prisons, which have limited nursing staffs, to transport more inmates long distances for care — a security risk and drain on manpower.
"We do 4,000 telemedicine visits a month in the criminal justice system alone," said Dr. Ben Raimer, senior vice president at the University of Texas Medical Branch, which provides medical care for much of the state's prison system. "This would be a very unfortunate setback for telemedicine in Texas, and result in a huge increase in cost for health care."
It's not Texas doctors instigating the change. Brent Annear, spokesman with the Texas Medical Association, said many of the organization's doctors do participate in telemedicine, and don't advocate doing anything that would curb its use.
Telemedicine experts say they think the proposal is a result of good intentions run amok. They say lawmakers made broad policy changes to improve Medicaid telemedicine care in 2007 — and that, as a result, the Health and Human Services Commission released its own set of recommendations on the technology. They think the Medical Board took those recommendations one step further and excluded EMTs and certain types of nurses, without realizing the potential consequences.
Medical Board officials didn't immediately clarify that. A public hearing on the rule change is scheduled for November 5.
"We are receiving a large number of comments so it's uncertain exactly what will be adopted," said Medical Board spokeswoman Jill Wiggins. "...We'd prefer to wait until after the November meeting and see what comes out of that."
Advocates of the technology say another tweak the Medical Board is suggesting — one that would limit telemedicine to medically underserved areas — wouldn't affect rural health care, but could affect its spread into impoverished urban communities.
Rules of the Road
by Brandi Grissom, The Texas Tribune
Advocates for legal immigrants who want Texas driver licenses appealed to a panel of judges in Austin this week.
The Texas Department of Public Safety has broad power to prevent some legal immigrants from getting driver's licenses, attorneys for the state told the 3rd Court of Criminal Appeals.
"DPS does have a large grant of authority to determine how licenses are given out in Texas," assistant attorney general Erika Kane told the three-judge panel.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund this year sued DPS over rules that prevent noncitizens from getting driver licenses if their legal status in the U.S. expires in fewer than six months. MALDEF argues that legislators have not given DPS authority to implement the rules.
State District Judge Orlinda Naranjo earlier this year issued a ruling that agreed with MALDEF and granted a temporary injunction to halt the new rules.
DPS appealed the ruling and has continued to use the new rules.
Under the DPS rules adopted last October, those whose legal status expires in fewer than six months are denied licenses (even if they expect to renew their legal status). The department also started printing "TEMPORARY VISITOR" in bright red capital letters on vertically oriented licenses for all noncitizens.
Judge Naranjo said DPS overstepped its authority by implementing the rules without guidance from the Legislature.
Kane, the state's lawyer, told the appeals court that the rules were adopted to prevent undocumented immigrants from obtaining licenses and continuing to stay illegally in the country.
Since lawmakers during the recent legislative session did not pass any laws preventing the new rules, she said, there was no indication DPS should change course.
The justices asked Kane repeatedly to site a specific statute that gave DPS authority to deny licenses based on immigration status.
"I don't read (the law) as a limitless grant of authority to adopt rules," said Chief Justice Woodie Jones.
Kane said DPS was allowed broad discretion to determine drivers' eligibility, including residency status.
MALDEF attorney David Hinojosa told the court allowing DPS to continue implementing the new rules would give other state agencies a green light to adopt rules without legislative direction.
"They are essentially expanding their powers to determine who is eligible and who is not under the mask of these rules," Hinojosa said.
MALDEF filed the lawsuit on behalf of immigrants who were unable to obtain licenses and a Dallas landscaping company whose employees were prevented from getting their licenses renewed.
The rules, Hinojosa said, prevent legal immigrants from working and getting pay raises, and hurt businesses that need employees to drive.
The MALDEF suit is one of two filed against DPS over the new rules. The Texas Civil Rights Project filed a similar suit in federal court, arguing the rules are unconstitutional. A ruling is pending in that case.
Hinojosa said he was unsure when the appeals court would rule on MALDEF's case.
"We're hoping sooner rather than later," he said.
by Brandi Grissom, The Texas Tribune
Texas should create a committee to promote participation in the 2010 U.S. Census, state Rep. Mike Villarreal told Gov. Rick Perry in a letter.
"The stakes are high," Villarreal, D-San Antonio, wrote. "Promoting participation in the census will improve our state's chances of attaining the federal funding and political representation that our growing population deserves."
Like more than a dozen other states have done, Villarreal said Texas should establish a Complete Count Committee.
Villarreal, who is vice chairman of the House Redistricting Committee, also urged Perry to use state agencies to reach minorities, the poor, the elderly and others who might not otherwise be counted.
Many state agencies already work with those populations and send them materials about public benefits. Villarreal said those agencies should use their contacts to let people know that the census is safe and that participating is important.
Billions in federal aid for health care, schools and roads depend on Texas residents being accurately counted, he said.
The census count also has huge political ramifications.
Texas expects to grab three or four more congressional seats because of population growth, which has largely been fueled by Hispanic Texans.
Whether those new districts are drawn in a way that accurately reflects the state's population is tied to who gets counted in the census and where they are.
Villarreal said Perry hadn't responded to his letter yet (or even sent him flowers recently, he joked). Perry spokesman Chris Cutrone said via e-mail that the governor appreciated Villarreal's letter.
"We understand this is an important issue, and we're looking into how best to serve the state on this issue," he said.
Flotsam & Jetsam
Ben Bius is finished exploring and now says he'll definitely run for the Texas Senate in SD-5, where Steve Ogden decided not to seek reelection.
That'll pit Bius against Rep. Dan Gattis of Georgetown in the GOP primary. Bius will do a series of campaign events and came out swinging at Gattis, referring to him as "a personal injury trial lawyer" and to himself as "a businessman who supports putting an end to junk lawsuits." Gattis countered that with an endorsement from the Texas Civil Justice League — an Austin-based foe of the trial bar — that was announced by Red McCombs, the head of that PAC and a big Republican funder in his own right. Gattis has a jump — he's been organizing the district longer — and a geographic advantage. Williamson County, where Gattis is domiciled, has far and away the biggest voting population in the district. Bius is serious, though: He's claiming $100,000 in pledged contributions for an event this weekend.
Every little bit helps, but none of these Democratic Houston endorsers lives in Rep. Dora Olivo's Rosenberg district: Sen. Mario Gallegos, and Reps. Alma Allen, Carol Alvarado, Ellen Cohen, Garnet Coleman, Harold Dutton Jr., Jessica Farrar, Ana Hernandez, Scott Hochberg, Kristi Thibaut, Senfronia Thompson, Sylvester Turner, Hubert Vo, and Armando Walle.
The Texas Association of Realtors endorsed Gov. Rick Perry for reelection over his two challengers in the GOP primary. That's a significant nod because of the group's numbers and the size of its political action committee. The Realtors have two of the top committees in Texas for political finance. And the group has members all over the state — handy when it's time to turn out votes in February and March. U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison got something of a heads-up; TAR didn't have any reasons not to stick with the incumbent and told her so before the announcement. He was in Austin developing a tight relationship with the group while she was in Washington.
Jeff Brown picked up a couple of endorsements in his bid for the Texas Supreme Court. Brown, a state appellate judge in Houston, is one of five Republicans running for an open seat. Former GOP Chairman George Strake Jr. and former GOP National Committeewoman Penny Butler, both from Houston, will be on his side. TSC Justice Harriett O'Neill isn't seeking reelection. Others in that primary right now: Debra Lehrmann of Fort Worth, Jim Moseley of Dallas, Rebecca Simmons of San Antonio, and Rick Strange of Eastland. All five Republicans are judges.
Department of Corrections: We bungled a number in a story last week about Bill Moody. He got 44.9 percent in his race against Don Willett in 2006, not 46.9 percent. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
Political People and Their Moves
Ken Levine will take over management of the Sunset Advisory Commission for the time being, filling the spot left by Joey Longley's resignation from state government. The new interim director has been the deputy there for 14 years and has worked for the agency for 28 years.
Deaths: William Wayne Justice, a federal judge in Texas for 41 years and a major voice from the bench on the state's treatment of prisoners, mentally disabled and mentally ill citizens, minority students in public schools, immigrants, and children seeking state health benefits for the poor. He was 89.
Quotes of the Week
Austin attorney Sam Bassett, who was replaced by Gov. Rick Perry on the state's Forensic Science Commission on the eve of a controversial death penalty hearing, asked by the Chicago Tribune whether Perry's office meddled with the agency's work: "I was surprised that they were involving themselves in the commission's decision-making. I did feel some pressure from them, yes. There's no question about that."
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, talking with The Dallas Morning News about her success in earmarking $10 billion federal money for Texas: "I just get constant jabbing from the governor. Why wouldn't I fight for Texas? I'm proud of my effectiveness. To be hit for being effective for Texas is puzzling."
Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, talking about political map-making in The McAllen Monitor: "A lot of people think this is a subject for professors and political geeks. There is nothing that will have a greater impact on the daily lives of people than the winners and losers in redistricting."
Former U.S. Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota, now a Republican consultant, quoted in The Wall Street Journal: "The TEA party movement, in my judgment, has proven to be very real, but it's precisely the fact that it's real that makes it difficult to take advantage of. They don't want to be co-opted by the Republican Party."
State Board of Education member David Bradley, quoted in The Dallas Morning News on a meal paid for by a contractor who reported it even though it was under the state's required reporting threshold: "I enjoyed the sandwich. It was under $250."
Texas Weekly: Volume 26, Issue 39, 19 October 2009. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2009 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (512) 302-5703 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For news, email email@example.com, or call (512) 288-6598.