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The Circus is Coming

Brace yourselves. There's still a possibility it won't happen, but brace yourselves nevertheless, because in some ways it’s happening already.

Brace yourselves.

There's still a possibility it won't happen, but brace yourselves nevertheless, because in some ways it’s happening already.

The scrutiny of all things Texas has begun. The poking and prodding. The relentless, sometimes snobbish interpretations — yes, there's some bashing out there — of the Lone Star State.

Are we an economic powerhouse, worthy of praise for being home to more Fortune 500 companies (2009 figures) than any other state? For creating somewhere between 38 and 48 percent of all the jobs created in America since June of 2009?

Or do we embody all the vexing challenges that the do-gooders love to fret about? Like having more uninsured than any other state, and being the biggest emitter of greenhouse gasses, and for racking up huge Medicaid bills since more than half of all births here are paid for by the federal health care program.

We are all of the above, of course, as untamed and swagger-prone as the man triggering this latest round of scrutiny — Rick Perry. And the more Perry flirts with running for president, the more attention we can expect.

If you have a Google news alert set up on Perry (and if not, you ought to), you have probably already noticed the increase in scrutiny. Here is a tiny sample of the headlines, from blogs and various news outlets, he has generated in the last week:

“Why Does Rick Perry Keep Bragging about How Awesome Texas’ Economy Is?” … “Help Wanted: Rick Perry on Economy, 2012.” … “Rick Perry Says He’s a Prophet and That’s Why Texas Don’t Like Him Much.”

Don’t expect it to subside. It’ll likely only increase. Just imagine all the hordes of reporters that will be descending on tiny Paint Creek in Haskell County, pressing cotton farmers to cough up some kernel of wisdom or insight about the young Perry. If the nation didn’t know what six-man football was before, they will if the West Texan gets into the race.

They’ll want to know what makes Perry tick. What food he likes to eat. Controversies. His record in office.

It seems like a long time ago now, but this all happened in the run-up to the 2000 race, of course, when then-Gov. George W. Bush was running for president. There are some notable differences: Perry would be getting started much later than Bush did, but the current governor has a much longer tenure in public office. So there will be a lot of scrutiny crammed into a much shorter time period.

There is no question that Perry and his record have been “vetted” by the state press corps, so a lot of this won’t be new. But when it comes to media examination, there’s nothing quite like a presidential campaign. It’s part magnifying glass, part echo chamber and part circus.

And Texans, once again, will have a front-row seat.

The Map Spats Continue

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, praised lawmakers this week for “passing a fair and legal congressional map” outlined in SB 4, but it’s likely the measure will head to court for a final resolution. In its current form, the bill preserves the GOP’s overwhelming majority in the state’s congressional delegation. 

Democrats took a completely different approach to the process, arguing for hours Tuesday afternoon that SB 4 would “ensure” minority voters lack proper representation in Washington for the next decade. They attempted numerous times to pass amendments that would have created more so-called minority-opportunity districts to account for growth fueled largely by increases in the Hispanic, African-American and Asian-American populations. Those efforts failed along party-line votes.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, called SB 4 an example of "purposeful, intentional discrimination" because it keeps the heavily Anglo population in West Austin in one district while it splits the eastern part of the city, largely inhabited by Hispanics and African-Americans, into several districts. She said that "diminishes" their power as a voting bloc.

Dukes’ efforts to consolidate the districts in Austin and Travis County were perceived as a response to the GOP’s effort to draw Democratic U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett’s into a Republican district.

"Cutting Travis County into five crooked congressional districts, each connected to distant communities across Texas, is maliciously designed to prevent any Austinite from serving our community in Washington during an entire decade,” Doggett said in a statement. “The courts should reject this illegal plan."

The fight wasn't just between Democrats and Republicans. Early in the debate, Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, attempted to move 300 acres of undeveloped land and 28 voters out of U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady's district and back into the district represented by U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble. She called the move a “power grab” because the "crown jewel" parcel is expected to be the site of the new world headquarters of ExxonMobil.

Despite Riddle’s strong assertions, Brady’s spokeswoman Tracee Evans released a joint statement with Poe’s press secretary, Shaylyn Hynes, saying, “There is no animosity between Rep. Poe and Rep. Brady over the current map. These Members of Congress have a close relationship and share the belief that the Texas Legislature, not the Congress, should be drawing redistricting maps.”

Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Forth Worth, argued that SB 4 is "blatantly illegal" and "dilutes" minority votes. He asked House Redistricting Committee Chairman Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, how he could justify adding three out of four new congressional seats to Anglo districts, ignoring the fact that 90 percent of the state's population growth came from minority communities.

Solomons defended the bill as the Legislature's best effort to recognize historical lines combined with population growth and the number of voters in each district.

"What we did with the map was fair and legal,” Solomons responded. “We’re probably going to go to the courts and decide whether we’re right in that issue.”  

Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, agrees that the courts or the U.S. Justice Department will weigh in on the maps. He said Democrats may have one advantage not seen in Texas since the Johnson White House: redistricting during a time when Democrats are in charge at the DOJ.

“The DOJ has to sign off on the maps according to whether they’re complying with Civil Rights Act guidelines,” Henson said, pointing out that during the last round of redistricting, President George W. Bush’s appointees overruled any problems with the GOP-favored maps.

This session, Henson said, no one should be surprised the Republicans have drawn a map that heavily favors their party’s candidates.

“Honestly, people harp about that, but ... serious Republicans and Democrats understand how redistricting works, and they understand there’s going to be an advantage,” Henson said. “It’s really about the magnitude of the advantage at this point.”

Sanctuary Strategy

There has been more than a full day’s worth of testimony over legislation that would allow local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws in Texas. But House Democrats say that’s not enough.

Senate Bill 9, by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, would deny state funds to entities that prohibit peace officers and employees of special districts from inquiring into the status of a person arrested or detained for the investigation of crime. It also expands the federal government’s Secure Communities initiative to all detention facilities and codifies tighter regulations for applicants for driver’s licenses and state-issued IDs.

At an immigrant rights rally Wednesday, House Democrats said they intend to meet soon to hammer out a strategy to make the bill less draconian. They also hope for another public hearing, this time to convince House members the bill needs to be changed to protect certain segments of the immigrant community.

“We might have some more success with some amendments on the House side,” said Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas.

But Anchia and co.’s attempts may be little more than wishful thinking if Republicans in the House pick up where their Senate colleagues left off. Twelve amendments were offered in the upper chamber during a grueling and emotional six-hour debate, two of which were accepted. Democrats called them mostly symbolic in nature: One would adopt Department of Public Safety standards to question and arrest an illegal immigrant, language that is already in the bill. Another amendment strengthens the bill’s anti-racial-profiling provision.

It’s what wasn’t adopted that’s turning Democrats’ stomachs as much as the bill itself is. Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, offered two amendments that would have exempted minors who are victims of crimes, including sex and trafficking crimes, from being asked their immigration status. Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, a former county attorney, offered an amendment to exempt all crime victims and witnesses to crimes. Williams said the amendments were unacceptable, alleging they would interfere with the victims’ ability to obtain federal U or T visas, which are awarded to victims of sex and trafficking crimes. Democrats balked at that notion and said Williams’ refusal to accept the measures proves the bill isn’t solely aimed at criminal aliens, as he claimed, but instead all illegal immigrants.

But the Democrats’ strategy sessions may be all for naught. Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, carried the sanctuary cities bill during the regular session. He said he may or may not carry the special session bill because of the additional provisions. Either way, he said, there is talk about forgoing public testimony when the bill is referred to a House committee.  There has already been enough said about the issue, he said.

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