I had wanted to shadow the phenom gubernatorial candidate on the trail since before the first GOP debate, and her handlers told me I could do it on February 11. Little did I know, little did they know, that Glenn Beck's questions about 9/11 "truthers" would turn her campaign upside-down right before my eyes.
by Abby Rapoport
I'd been hoping to shadow Debra Medina on the campaign trail since well before the first Republican debate. Back then she was a relative unknown, but I thought a profile on an earnest, if extreme, candidate would be fun to write. When the Medina campaign finally gave me a day with Debra, it turned out to be February 11 — right in the middle of her meteoric rise to within two points of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the polls. Little did I know how momentous the day would be.
As I was driving to Houston Thursday morning to hook up with the campaign, Medina was being interviewed by Glenn Beck on his syndicated radio program. As all of Texas and much of the country now knows, she was asked her views on the 9/11 "truther" movement, which alleges the U.S. government was complicit in the attacks on the Twin Towers. Medina replied that the she believed there were questions yet to be answered, and she applauded those questions being asked. "There are some very good arguments, and I think the American people have not seen all of the evidence there," she told Beck. "So I have not taken a position on that." When the interview was over, Beck excoriated her for not disavowing the 9/11 truthers, and Medina's primary opponents, Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison, soon did the same.
I met up with Medina and her aides not long after the interview, at the Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce. When we arrived, almost no one seemed aware of the trouble ahead. One rabid supporter talked about the “hatchet job” that Beck had done to the candidate, and word slowly spread through the crowd of about 50 people. Medina entered the room to a standing ovation, eagerly shaking each and every hand in the room. She started her speech talking about where she was from, about her vision of a Texas without property taxes, and about her belief in gun freedom.
“What do you need most?” an audience member asked. Medina took the opportunity to address the Beck interview directly.
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After the speech, I hung around as she finished interviews with NPR and CNN that were previously scheduled, but they were understandably interested in what had happened that morning. Suddenly her attention was focused on one thing: damage control. I arranged to meet her at KTRK-TV, Houston's ABC affiliate, where she had an interview with Ted Oberg. As we walked upstairs, Oberg said he’d try to address the tough questions quickly and move on to more “favorable” topics. Medina laughed and shook her head. “Your job is to be a good journalist,” she said. And so he asked her views on 9/11, conspiracies in general and government transparency.
After the interview, her handler, Joel Tofte, held an umbrella as the three of us ran to her car, which was covered in "Medina for Governor" stickers. As Tofte simultaneously searched for papers, texted and drove, Medina began fielding radio interviews from across the state. As we weaved in and out of traffic, she answered questions and Tofte fielded requests for more interviews. During a brief respite from the media calls, Medina took a call from her campaign. Michael Berry, one of Houston’s conservative radio hosts, wanted her to phone into his show, they said. She had a definite answer to that one — and to any similar requests from conservative radio hosts Dan Patrick or Joe Paggs. [Editor's note: The Perry campaign says it didn't do any 'robocalls' on this subject, that day or since.]
At 5:04, we finally arrived at the “Grand Palace,” a small reception hall on a gravel road in Spring. Medina had to dash out of the car for a 5:05 interview with local news. More damage control: Muslim terrorists crashed those planes, she said, and the U.S. government had nothing to do with it. Suddenly, she looked exhausted. It was nearing the end of day and she hadn’t stopped for food or a break any kind since the initial Beck interview. Someone brought her an iced tea in between radio interviews. As another reporter and I came in to talk to her, Medina was sitting in a dressing room talking to her family. We listened as she reassured them that they would persevere. As she got off the phone, she teared up before taking a deep breath. "Questions?" she asked, regaining her composure. (In this clip, she begins by talking to her family before transitioning into questions from reporters.)
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I left the dressing room and wandered back into the reception hall, where crowd of about 200 had turned out in spite of the rain. They sat in rapt attention. Some approached me to ask if they could defend Medina to the press. Everyone I talked to felt betrayed by Beck. The Grand Palace event, it turned out, was put on by the “Texas 9.12 Revolution,” named after the “Nine Principles and 12 Values” that Beck has preached to followers. He was going back on his own exhortations to “question with boldness,” they said, and Medina deserved better. When Catherine Parker, one of the event's organizers, mocked the host in her introduction, the crowd applauded.
When Medina walked in, the crowd leapt to its feet, cheering her as she came to the podium. The fragility and emotion from earlier now seemed far, far away. She told them with the skill of a seasoned politician that there was no question that Americans should not be allowed to ask, and she turned her own gaffe into an attack on Perry’s and Hutchison’s responses to it. The crowd was so eager to cheer that sometimes the claps came out of nowhere. Medina, it seemed, was back in control.
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