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October 12th, 2005:

Anti-Earle ads coming

Via PinkDome, Josh Marshall and email to me, I see that an outfit called the Free Enterprise Fund is going to be running anti-Ronnie Earle ads on TV, starting in Austin and going nationwide. Here’s a story in Roll Call with the scoop.

The Free Enterprise Fund will launch a saturation television ad buy in Austin, Texas, Thursday that accuses Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle (D) of indicting Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) purely for blatant political purposes.

FEF, a conservative, Washington, D.C.-based think tank, declined to disclose the cost of the buy, but said it would run for seven days in Texas’ state capital, where Earle is based, before branching out to other media markets around the country.

“It will run so much, the only way Ronnie Earle will not see it is if he watches PBS, because they don’t let you run ads there,” said FEF Vice President and Political Director Peter Roff.

The 30-second ad features a barking, salivating Rottweiler, with a voice-over that recounts Earle’s alleged prosecutorial misdeeds. It ends by flashing the district attorney’s phone number while encouraging people to call Earle and tell him he’s wrong.

“A prosecutor with a political agenda can be vicious. When liberal Democrat Ronnie Earle went after Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, the judge threw out the case. But now Earle’s after another Republican, Tom DeLay,” the voice-over begins. “Earle’s even exploited the DeLay case to raise money for liberal politicians. That’s wrong. Bad, Ronnie, bad.”

Roff said the ad has more to do with protecting the ability of free market principles to flourish on Capitol Hill than it does with defending DeLay, who was forced to step down as Majority Leader in late September after Earle indicted him for conspiring to skirt Texas election laws.

“Tom DeLay is the leader of the free-market agenda in the House, and any move to sideline DeLay is about sidelining that agenda,” Roff said. “It’s winning with the jury box what they can’t win at the ballot box.”

Whatever. As the Quorum Report says:

Critics in Austin question whether running TV ads taking sides in a criminal proceeding amounts to jury tampering. Of course, the flip side is that it makes it more difficult for Mr. Delay’s attorneys to seek a venue change by claiming that the jury pool in Travis County has been unduly influenced by supposedly pro-Earle local media. Mr. DeGuerin would argue that the change of venue and the use of a visiting judge were crucial to his success in the Hutchison case.

As with other tactics by Team DeLay, this is all about the PR war. It’d be funny if a motion to change venue were denied because of this, but it’s not about the trial. If these guys really do think they can affect that, then I hope there is a countercharge of jury tampering levelled at them.

So is this going to be helpful to DeLay? Well, consider this: According to Survey USA, the percentage of respondents who say DeLay should “resign from Congress” has stayed steady between 32 and 37 percent since May. It hit an alltime high of 40% in the latest iteration, dated October 10. Given that DeLay’s national approval rating is abysmal but his name recognition is still fairly low, I’m not so sure that keeping his name out there in front of everyone is such a hot idea. I guess we’ll find out.

UPDATE: The Public Campaign Action Fund has labelled these ads as jury-tampering and is calling for them to stop being aired. Their statement can be found here.

HISD coverage

The Chron gives some coverage to the HISD I open seat race and the three candidates in it, all of whom attended a candidates’ forum at Hamilton Middle School on Monday night.

Richard Cantú, 36, director of Mayor Bill White’s Citizens’ Assistance Office, has unsuccessfully sought public office on the school board and City Council before. He attended District 1 schools, and so do his children.

Natasha Kamrani, 37, left Ohio 15 years ago to become a Teach for America teacher in Houston. She later served as the organization’s Houston director and is now an attorney. Her husband, Chris Barbic, is a Teach for America alum and founder of YES College Prep, a Houston charter school. They are the parents of two toddlers.

Anne Flores Santiago, 38, grew up in District 1 and is the daughter of Yolanda Flores, a Houston Community College board member. Santiago owns a private ambulance service. Her daughter attends Catholic school.

Natasha Kamrani and a representative from Anne Flores Santiago’s campaign were at the Woodland Heights Civic Association meeting last night, so I’ve had the opportunity to get a little more informed on this race. One thing I can say here is that Santiago has three kids, one of whom is in college, one is 11, and the other is a preschooler – I presume the daughter in question here is the middle child.

Each candidate has a different opinion on tax-funded charter schools, many of which operate within HISD with the school district’s support.

Santiago said she opposes charter schools because they “take funding away from our HISD schools.” Cantú said he supports some charter schools but not those that recruit HISD students. Kamrani favors charter schools because they offer parents more options.

They also have different ideas about preparing students for college. Kamrani said HISD should assume every student will enroll in college.

Though she agrees college is important, Santiago said she would concentrate on expanding HISD’s partnership with Houston Community College to help students get job skills while earning college credits. Cantú said HISD needs a better balance between vocational programs and college preparation.

“I don’t think college preparation and vocational studies necessarily need to compete,” he said.

All three candidates said they favor merit-based pay for teachers but have different ideas on how it should work.

“I favor merit pay for our teachers,” Santiago said. “Not necessarily for administrators.”

Kamrani said she likes the idea of tying teacher and principal pay to their students’ performance but not on an individual basis.

Cantú said he wants across-the-board teacher pay raises and to do away with the big bonuses being paid to principals and high-ranking administrators.

Several weeks ago I sent a questionnaire to these three folks, in an attempt to get more information about them and this race, which will be on my ballot in November (the HISD trustee map is here if you’re not sure which district you’re in). Richard Cantu’s answers are here. I still hope to get responses from the other two – I followed up with them last night – and will print them when I do.

ACLU of Texas blog

Via Scott, I see that the ACLU of Texas has its own blog now. I think that’s great – really, at this point, I have a hard time understanding why any advocacy group wouldn’t have a blog of some kind. Your issues are only going to get so much coverage in the regular media; blogging is an excellent format for in-depth coverage of complex and/or ongoing issues, since it can be done in small pieces and in a timely fashion. This blog’s still a work in progress – no RSS feed yet, for example – but if you want to know what’s happening on the civil liberties front around here, the Liberty Blog would be a good place to start. Check it out.

(And a belated happy one year blogging anniversary to you, Scott. Here’s to many more.)

Bell’s ethics platform

As previously noted, Chris Bell’s plan for ethics reform is now available. Many of these ideas have been floated before, some of them in the 2005 legislative session. All of them strike me as common sense, but they’ve never had a Governor to advocate for them before, and that’s the key. As long as Rick Perry or someone like him is in office, these items will remain on the wish list. Reform requires commitment, and that won’t happen until there’s a change at the top.

Stuff relating to lobbyists, pay-for-play, and special sessions should be the most straightforward and least difficult to pass. Contribution limits and a Texas Ethics Commission with real enforcement and audit powers would be tougher, since they’d have the most direct impact on the Legislature. On the other hand, they’re pretty easy to frame, so a good and aggressive PR campaign in their favor ought to be able to get public opinion on their side. Succeeding on these two items would be a significant achievement, and would have a profound and long-term effect on how candidates run their races.

As for redistricting reform, I’d wager it would take a constitutional amendment, and that’s likely too high a bar to clear. It would, however, provide an appealing opportunity to reach across the aisle, since Republican State Sen. Jeff Wentworth has been its champion for the past half-dozen sessions or so. This one is of a different class than the other items, all of which are really about money and access, and I think it might be better to argue for it separately.

(By the way, for what it’s worth, I think the focus of redistricting reform should be on ensuring that communities of interest are kept together. Splitting them up, as was done to Travis County, or joining together disparate areas like Austin and Corpus Christi, solely for political considerations, is what I want to see done away with. This is true at the neighborhood level as well – I say it’s wrong that Montrose and the Rice/Medical Center area were shoved into John Culberson’s district. Make drawing boundaries that make geographic sense the goal. If that results in some competitive districts and some safe ones, so be it.)

What’s been the response to all this from Rick Perry? Typically, to seize upon a minor error (since corrected) and ignore the rest. I guess when you’ve got nothing to say, you say nothing. Here’s a more focused article on what Bell proposed.

Other reactions, from BOR, Eye on Williamson, The Jeffersonian, and Dos Centavos. This earlier post of mine has more information on some of the points raised here.

DeGuerin’s gambit

No one would ever accuse Dick DeGuerin of being fainthearted.

Indicted Rep. Tom DeLay’s attorneys turned the tables on a Texas prosecutor today, delivering a subpoena to compel his testimony about his conduct with grand jurors. The prosecutor refused to accept the subpoena, a defense lawyer said.

Attorney Dick DeGuerin wants Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle and two of his assistants to testify, alleging prosecutors had improper contact with two grand juries that indicted DeLay and one that refused to file charges.

[…]

DeGuerin said acceptance of the subpoena was voluntary today because it had not been stamped by a court official, but added the defense team would go through the court procedure Wednesday and redeliver it. He said Earle, district attorney for Travis County, would then be obligated to accept the subpoena, but could file a motion to have it dismissed.

The defense lawyer, who is trying to get the indictments dismissed, said an assistant district attorney also refused to accept her subpoena, but a second assistant accepted the subpoena delivered to him. Acceptance simply involves signing a paper acknowledging delivery.

The subpoenas asked that the prosecutor and the two assistants appear in court or submit to a deposition in which the defense lawyers would question them.

DeGuerin also asked that grand jurors be released from their secrecy oath so they could answer questions about the prosecutor’s conduct.

Earle’s office said in a written statement, “Because of laws protecting grand jury secrecy, there are limitations to what we can say at this time, but we fully expect to prevail in this matter.”

DeGuerin wants Earle to answer 12 questions about conversations he had with grand jurors, including whether the prosecutor became angry when a grand jury decided against an indictment of DeLay and why that decision was not publicly released.

He also wants to know the details of Earle’s conversation with William Gibson, foreman of a grand jury that indicted DeLay on conspiracy charges, whose term has since ended.

“If you did nothing improper, you should not be concerned about answering these questions,” DeGuerin said in his letter to Earle.

He’d have made a good prosecutor, wouldn’t he? I have some serious doubts about a judge allowing this to happen, but that’s not really the point. In fact, I’d bet that DeGuerin is hoping to get rejected here. It’ll fit their poor-persecuted-Tommy story line that much better.

Keith Hampton, a lobbyist with the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said that a defense attorney is entitled to get testimony of a witness who appeared before a grand jury to use in examining that same witness at a trial.

“But the communications between prosecutors and grand jurors are not subject to a subpoena,” said Hampton.

Hampton said that the Legislature has repeatedly rejected bills that would allow inroads into grand jury secrecy.

That’s from the later Chron version of the story. I’m not sure what DeGuerin will argue to make this case the exception, but again, I think the whole point was making the claim. Anything they actually get out of it from an evidentiary perspective is gravy.

It’s not like we shouldn’t have seen this coming. This subscription Roll Call article from when the indictment against DeLay first came down spells it out:

DeLay’s allies privately suggested that they would seek retribution against Earle, although DeLay himself will have no role in that effort. Charges of prosecutorial misconduct may be lodged against Earle, and a public-relations effort to discredit Earle personally had already begun on Wednesday, with GOP insiders repeatedly pointing out that Earle unsuccessfully attempted to prosecute Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) in the midst of the 1994 Senate race in Texas.

“Everything will be in play,” said one high-ranking House Republican aide. “We will throw everything we can at Ronnie Earle.”

They have brought it on. I can only wonder what else they’ve got in their grab bag. Their “Earle took illegal contributions, too!” gambit didn’t work too well, but that clearly hasn’t discouraged them.

More at In the Pink, Talking Points Memo, and TalkLeft.

UPDATE: Always check Quorum Report…Here’s the subpoena, here’s the 12 questions DeGuerin is asking, and here’s the motion to quash the disputed indictment. All are PDFs.

The Halloween Season

Why is Astroworld staying open through October 30 now that it’s announced its closing? Because October is a busy time at theme parks, thanks to a surge in interest for Halloween and haunted houses in recent years.

Not so long ago, Halloween was merely a one-day holiday, observed primarily by kids dressed in fake blood, plastic teeth, ballerina tutus or superhero costumes, who traipsed from door-to-neighborhood door dragging pillowcases full of candy.

Not anymore. Over the past five years or so, the nation’s $11 billion amusement park industry has appropriated the holiday as its own, helping transform Halloween into a monthlong celebration.

“If there are still theme parks out there that aren’t celebrating it, they need to get their heads examined,” said James Zoltak, editor of Amusement Business, a trade publication. “It’s a moneymaker, almost universally.”

Although the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions keeps no figures, industry experts estimate that millions of people go to Halloween celebrations at parks around the nation, generating tens of millions of dollars in extra revenue for them.

[…]

Nationwide, Halloween has grown by leaps and bounds as a holiday, and this year consumers were expected to generate $3.3 billion in Halloween spending, according to the National Retail Federation. Celebrations also have spread abroad to amusement parks in places, such as Mexico and Brazil, without strong Halloween traditions.

“One of the things we know is that this is a worldwide trend. It’s not just in the United States,” said Beth Robertson, a spokeswoman for the amusement park association.

I think the reason why Halloween has become so popular is that in some ways, it’s nature’s perfect holiday: It’s secular, it doesn’t memorialize anything, gifts are not required, and there’s no pressure to spend it with family or a date. It’s nothing but the fun. As an added bonus for you extroverted types (and you know who you are), it’s a rare opportunity to give full flower to your self-expression needs, without the inconvenience of that whole societal-disapproval thing. What more could you want?