A Republican Texas lawmaker tweeting he had an assault rifle “ready” for Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke drew criticism Friday for the apparent threat amid heightened tensions over guns after two mass shootings in the state.
The tweet by Republican state Rep. Briscoe Cain came after O’Rourke pledged Thursday during the Democratic debate that “hell yes, we’re gonna take your AR-15, your AK-47” when asked about a mandatory assault weapons buyback proposal he’s endorsed.
Cain tweeted: “My AR is ready for you Robert Francis,” using O’Rourke’s full name.
O’Rourke called the tweet “a death threat” that proved his argument that such weapons shouldn’t be readily available. A Twitter spokesman said Cain’s tweet was removed for violating the company’s terms of service.
Cain didn’t immediately respond to a reporter’s request for comment.
The U.S. Secret Service said Friday that O’Rourke is not currently under the agency’s protection and declined to comment further.
O’Rourke, a former Texas congressman, has made gun control his signature issue in the aftermath of a mass shooting last month in his hometown of El Paso. A gunman who told police he was targeting Mexicans opened fire at a Walmart on Aug. 3 and killed 22 people, most of whom had Hispanic last names.
O’Rourke’s outspokenness on guns since the El Paso attack earned praise from his rivals on the debate stage in Houston, although it hasn’t elevated his standing in the race.
He told CNN on Friday that Cain’s tweet “drives home the point, better than I could’ve made” that such weapons shouldn’t be readily available.
“No one should have an AR-15 that they could hold over someone else in this country, say, ‘Look, if we disagree on something, let me introduce you to my AR-15.’ Absolutely wrong,” O’Rourke said.
Cain is a lawyer who was first elected in 2016 and is part of the small Freedom Caucus in the Texas House that represents the GOP’s most socially conservative wing. Last year, Cain called for recouping tax dollars from any public school that allowed students to walk out in support of gun control measures following a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.
His tweet came during a politically charged moment in Texas over gun control following the El Paso shooting and a Labor Day weekend rampage in West Texas that left seven people dead.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has resisted calls from Democrats to hold an emergency legislative session on guns, and on Friday, O’Rourke tweeted that Abbott wasn’t going far enough by calling to make voluntary background checks for private sellers easier.
Democratic lawmakers in Texas also rebuked Cain’s tweet.
“In case you forgot, people were just killed in El Paso. People were murdered,” tweeted Democratic state Rep. Mary Gonzalez. “The language you are using and the way you are using it is dangerous. We need leaders who want to change our culture of violence.”
Polls have shown the majority of Americans favor more restrictions on guns and most of the Democratic field has called for a ban on assault weapons.
Federal judges found more problems in Texas’ voting rights laws, ruling that Republicans racially gerrymandered some congressional districts to weaken the growing electoral power of minorities, who former President Barack Obama set out to protect at the ballot box before leaving office.
The ruling late Friday by a three-judge panel in San Antonio gave Democrats hope of new, more favorably drawn maps that could turn over more seats in Congress in 2018. But the judges in their 2-1 decision didn’t propose an immediate fix, and Texas could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Republicans hold two of three congressional districts ruled newly invalid and were found to have been partly drawn with discriminatory intent. The GOP-controlled Texas Legislature approved the maps in 2011, the same year then-Gov. Rick Perry signed a voter ID law that ranks among the toughest in the U.S. Courts have since weakened that law, too.
Judges noted the “strong racial tension and heated debate about Latinos, Spanish-speaking people, undocumented immigrants and sanctuary cities” that served as the backdrop in the Legislature to Texas adopting the maps and the voter ID law. Those tensions are flaring again over President Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigration, and Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is also demanding tough crackdowns on so-called sanctuary cities.
“The record indicates not just a hostility toward Democrat districts, but a hostility to minority districts, and a willingness to use race for partisan advantage,” U.S. District Judges Xavier Rodriguez and Orlando Garcia wrote in their opinion.
Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton did not immediately remark on the ruling.
An attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund welcomed Friday’s ruling.
“The court’s decision exposes the Texas Legislature’s illegal effort to dilute the vote of Texas Latinos,” said Nina Perales, the group’s vice president of litigation and lead counsel in the case. “Moving forward, the ruling will help protect Latinos from manipulation of district lines in order to reduce their political clout.”
Hispanics were found to have fueled Texas’ dramatic growth in the 2010 census, the year before the maps were drawn, accounting for two out of every three new residents in the state. The findings of racially motivated mapmaking satisfied Democrats and minority rights groups, who are now pushing a separate federal court in Texas to determine that the voter ID law was also crafted with discriminatory intent.
Texas was forced ahead of the November election to weaken its voter ID law, which allows concealed handgun licenses but not college student IDs, after a federal appeals court found that the requirements particularly hampered minorities and the poor.
The Obama administration had brought the muscle of the U.S. Justice Department into Texas to help challenge both the maps and voter ID law. But barely a month after Trump took office, the federal government reversed course and announced it would no longer argue that Texas purposefully discriminated against minorities with its voter ID law.
It was not yet clear whether the Trump administration will also drop opposition to Texas’ maps. But U.S. Circuit Judge Jerry Smith, in a blistering dissent, had strong words for Obama administration attorneys after they joined the case.
“It was obvious, from the start, that the DoJ attorneys viewed state officials and the legislative majority and their staffs as a bunch of backwoods hayseed bigots who bemoan the abolition of the poll tax and pine for the days of literacy tests and lynchings,” Smith wrote. “And the DoJ lawyers saw themselves as an expeditionary landing party arriving here, just in time, to rescue the state from oppression, obviously presuming that plaintiffs’ counsel were not up to the task.”
The stakes in finding discriminatory intent are higher because it provides a window for opponents to argue that Texas should be forced to resume having changes to voting laws “pre-cleared” by the Justice Department or a federal court. A 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling did away with preclearance by striking down a key provision in the federal Voting Rights Act.
The congressional districts voided by the panel belong to Democrat Lloyd Doggett and Republicans Will Hurd and Blake Farenthold. Hurd’s district, which runs from San Antonio to El Paso, has been a rare competitive swing district in Texas in recent years.
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A federal judge in Texas on Saturday ordered a halt to another Obama administration effort to strengthen transgender rights, this time over health rules that social conservatives say could force doctors to violate their religious beliefs.
The latest injunction signed by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor comes four months after he blocked a higher-profile new set of transgender protections — a federal directive that required public schools to let transgender students use bathrooms consistent with their gender identity. Several of the Republican-controlled states that brought that lawsuit, including Texas, also sued over the health regulations that were finalized in May.
Civil rights groups had hailed the new health rules as groundbreaking anti-discrimination protections. The Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund said the new U.S. Health and Human Services regulations advised that certain forms of transgender discrimination by doctors, hospitals and insurers violated the Affordable Care Act.
But a coalition of religious medical organizations said the rules could force doctors to help with gender transition contrary to their religious beliefs or medical judgment. O’Connor agreed in his 46-page ruling, saying the rules place “substantial pressure on Plaintiffs to perform and cover transition and abortion procedures.”
The rules were set to take effect Sunday.
“Plaintiffs will be forced to either violate their religious beliefs or maintain their current policies which seem to be in direct conflict with the Rule and risk the severe consequences of enforcement,” O’Connor wrote.
Transgender rights advocates have called that a far-fetched hypothetical, saying a person would not approach a doctor who lacked suitable experience and expertise.
The Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund criticized the injunction as contrary to existing law and said it expects the ruling to be overturned on appeal.
“Judge O’Connor’s conclusion that transgender people and persons who have had abortions are somehow excepted from protection is deeply troubling, legally specious, and morally repugnant,” said Ezra Young, the organization’s director of impact litigation.
Federal officials did not immediately react to the ruling, and adding to the uncertainty is a new administration under President-elect Donald Trump. Many transgender people expect him to abandon or weaken the transgender protection efforts pursued by the Obama administration. Trump sent mixed signals about his approach to transgender rights during his campaign, at one point saying transgender celebrity Caitlyn Jenner could use whatever bathroom she preferred in one of his luxury buildings.
At the same time, Trump has declined to repudiate a divisive North Carolina law that restricts transgender people’s bathroom access. He has said such policy decisions should be left up to the states.
O’Connor’s ruling also comes amid the fears of transgender people that more GOP-governed states will approve legislation limiting transgender rights and will reject proposals to expand such rights.
Joining Texas in the lawsuit over the health regulations were Wisconsin, Kentucky, Nebraska and Kansas, along with the Christian Medical and Dental Association and Franciscan Alliance, an Indiana-based network of religious hospitals.
The Obama administration finalized the regulations around the time it issued its directive to public schools regarding transgender students. Thirteen states signed on to fight that directive, including three involved in the health regulations lawsuit, and won a temporary injunction in August from O’Connor.
At the time, O’Connor wrote in that case that the federal education law known as Title IX “is not ambiguous” about sex being defined as “the biological and anatomical differences between male and female students as determined at their birth.”
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Donald Trump’s only visit to the U.S.-Mexico border while running for president was a stop in Laredo that lasted less than three hours. On some days, that’s not long enough for 18-wheelers hauling foreign-made dishwashers and car batteries to lurch through the gridlocked crossing.
Trump’s campaign promise to tear apart the North American Free Trade Agreement helped win over Rust Belt voters who felt left behind by globalization. But the idea is unnerving to many people in border cities such as Laredo and El Paso or Nogales in Arizona, which have boomed under the 1994 treaty.
About 14,000 tractor-trailers cross the border daily in Laredo, the nation’s busiest inland port. Local officials say roughly 1 in every 3 jobs benefits from international trade.
“We are NAFTA on wheels,” Mayor Pete Saenz said.
Free trade across the border, he explained, is the “backbone” of this city of 255,000 people. The Democrat endured a backlash from his party for welcoming Trump in July 2015 after the then-candidate called immigrants from Mexico criminals and rapists.
Trump described NAFTA as “the worst single trade deal ever approved in this country.” That kind of talk resonated in hard-hit industrial towns such as Greenville, Michigan, where Electrolux shut down a factory a decade ago and moved jobs to the Mexican border city of Ciduad Juarez.
During his transition to the White House, the president-elect has not discussed NAFTA at all. The agreement went unmentioned in a video Trump released last month laying out the priorities for his first 100 days in office.
Saenz, the telegenic son of a dairy farmer, talks about the possible repeal of NAFTA like a small-town Midwest mayor trying to keep a factory from moving away. He foresees unemployment spiking to double digits, abandoned warehouses and crippled city finances. Laredo keeps the toll revenue from international bridge traffic, which last year amounted to about $60 million, enough, according to Saenz, to cover police and fire department payrolls.
His grim predictions are not widely shared. Even customs brokers in Laredo who have cashed in on NAFTA believe they will survive and trade will continue if the agreement is abandoned.
But for now, there’s still no better place in the U.S. to get a glimpse of the trade treaty than the Rio Grande city.
Interstate 35, clogged with wheezing 18-wheelers, starts here on its 1,600-mile straight shot to the Canadian border. Busy industrial parks are a revolving door of imported and exported goods. Four years after NAFTA was signed by President Bill Clinton and approved by a Republican-controlled Congress, the Census Bureau named Laredo the country’s second-fastest growing area.
At one time, denim makers thrived in Texas, and El Paso was considered the blue jean capital of the U.S. But those clothing manufacturers closed and the jobs went south.
Bill Hrncir, owner of LMS International, turned a small factory that once made Levi’s into a 200,000-square-foot distribution center. His warehouses are now stocked with coils of steel awaiting transport to Mexico.
Emilio Richer III, whose company has customs brokers and logistic-services offices up and down the U.S.-Mexico border, said ending NAFTA would be felt in his hometown of Laredo, but he does not think Trump is serious.
“I have it in the back of my head that he was being fed wrongful information,” and Trump was talking to people in other parts of the country, telling them “what they wanted to hear,” said Richer, whose vote for Trump was in the minority in heavily Democratic Webb County, which went 3-to-1 for Hillary Clinton.
Repealing or renegotiating the agreement could wallop Mexico, the United States’ largest trading partner. Most American economists do not believe NAFTA has a major effect on the nation’s overall job market.
Nor was NAFTA some high tide that lifted all boats, even in Texas. After NAFTA was adopted, $400,000 homes sprung up in Laredo. But beyond that wealth is widespread poverty in one of the nation’s poorest cities. The poverty rate in Laredo is 32 percent, among the highest in the nation, according to census figures. And 92 percent of students in the city’s public schools qualify as economically disadvantaged.
Warehouse jobs generally are not lucrative, with wages less than double the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. At the South Texas Food Bank, just a few blocks behind Hrncir’s distribution center, Claudia Lira waited in the lobby for a box of food to take home.
She and her husband moved back to Laredo after he retired from a John Deere factory in Iowa. She didn’t know anything about NAFTA but, but speaking in Spanish, theorized why the city has remained so persistently poor.
“A lack of jobs could be a factor,” she said. “There aren’t enough of them.”
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A Houston grand jury investigating undercover footage of Planned Parenthood found no wrongdoing Monday by the abortion provider, and instead indicted anti-abortion activists involved in making the videos that targeted the handling of fetal tissue in clinics and provoked outrage among Republican leaders nationwide.
David Daleiden, founder of the Center for Medical Progress, was indicted on a felony charge of tampering with a governmental record and a misdemeanor count related to purchasing human organs. Another activist, Sandra Merritt, was also indicted on a charge of tampering with a governmental record, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
It’s the first time anyone in the group has been charged criminally since the release of the videos, which began surfacing last year and alleged that Planned Parenthood sold fetal tissue to researchers for a profit in violation of federal law. Planned Parenthood officials have denied any wrongdoing and have said the videos were misleadingly edited.
The footage from the clinic in Houston showed people pretending to be from a company called BioMax that procures fetal tissue for research touring the facility. Planned Parenthood has previously said that the fake company sent an agreement offering to pay the “astronomical amount” of $1,600 for organs from a fetus. The clinic said it never entered into the agreement and ceased contact with BioMax because it was “disturbed” by the overtures.
In a statement announcing the indictment, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson did not provide details on the charges, including what record or records were allegedly tampered with and why Daleiden faces a charge related to buying human organs. Her office said it could not disclose more information and a court spokesman said it was unclear whether copies of the indictments, which typically provide more insight, would be made public Monday.
“We were called upon to investigate allegations of criminal conduct by Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast,” Anderson, an elected Republican, said in her statement. “As I stated at the outset of this investigation, we must go where the evidence leads us.”
Daleiden issued a statement saying that his group “uses the same undercover techniques” as investigative journalists and follows all applicable laws.
“We respect the processes of the Harris County District Attorney, and note that buying fetal tissue requires a seller as well,” he said.
Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has his own ongoing investigation into Planned Parenthood, said Monday that the “the videos exposed the horrific nature of abortion and the shameful disregard for human life.”
The Texas video was the fifth released by the Center for Medical Progress. The videos provoked an outcry from the anti-abortion movement and prompted numerous investigations of Planned Parenthood by Republican-led committees in Congress and by GOP-led state governments. Congressional Republicans unsuccessfully called for cutting off funding for Planned Parenthood.
Planned Parenthood has said a few clinics in two states used to accept legally allowed reimbursement for the costs of providing tissue donated by some of its abortion clients. In October, Planned Parenthood announced that it would no longer accept reimbursement and would cover the costs itself.
The group called Monday’s indictments the latest in a string of victories since the videos were released, saying that by its count, 11 state investigations have cleared the nation’s largest abortion provider of claims that it profited from fetal tissue donation.
“This is absolutely great news because it is a demonstration of what Planned Parenthood has said from the very beginning: We follow every law and regulation and these anti-abortion activists broke multiple laws to try and spread lies,” said spokeswoman Rochelle Tafolla of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast.
Before the Texas video was released, Melaney Linton, president of the Houston Planned Parenthood clinic, told state lawmakers last summer that it was likely to feature actors — pretending to be from a company called BioMax — asking leading questions about how to select potential donors for a supposed study of sickle cell anemia. Linton said the footage could feature several interactions initiated by BioMax about how and whether a doctor could adjust an abortion if a patient has offered to donate tissue for medical research.
Despite the lofty name of the Center for Medical Progress, public filings suggest only a small number of people are affiliated with the nonprofit, none of whom are scientists or physicians engaged in advancing medical treatments. The people named as its top officers are longtime anti-abortion activists with a history of generating headlines.
Earlier this month, Planned Parenthood sued the center in a California federal court, alleging extensive criminal misconduct. The lawsuit says the center’s videos were the result of numerous illegalities, including making recordings without consent, registering false identities with state agencies and violating non-disclosure agreements.
After the lawsuit was filed, Daleiden told The Associated Press that he looked forward to confronting Planned Parenthood in court.
Associated Press Writers Juan A. Lozano in Houston, Will Weissert in Austin and David Crary in New York contributed to this report.
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When former Gov. Rick Perry ordered a big reinforcement of security at the Mexico border in 2011, Texas bought six new gunboats that can fire 900 rounds a minute and clock highway speeds. But the boats, which cost $580,000 each, spent more time docked than patrolling the Rio Grande.
That was a small price tag compared with what Texas is about to spend. The new Republican governor, Greg Abbott, this month approved $800 million for border security over the next two years — more than double any similar period during Perry’s 14 years in office.
On Texas’ shopping list is a second $7.5 million high-altitude plane to scan the border, a new border crime data center, a 5,000-acre training facility for border law-enforcement agencies and grants for year-round helicopter flights. The state also wants to hire two dozen Texas Rangers to investigate public corruption along the border and 250 new state troopers as a down payment on a permanent force along the border.
Other states along the nearly 2,000-mile Southwest border — New Mexico, Arizona and California — do not come remotely close to the resources Texas has committed. And Texas is doing so long after last year’s surge in immigrants crossing the border illegally has subsided.
So why is Texas setting up what appears to be a parallel border patrol alongside the federal force?
“Google ‘cartel crime in Mexico’ and just put a time period of the last week, and you’ll see some dramatic instances of what the cartels are doing in Mexico right now,” Abbott told reporters this month following the legislative session. “The first obligation of government is to keep people safe and that means ensuring that this ongoing cartel activity, which is not abating whatsoever, gains no root at all in the state of Texas.”
The 320-mile Rio Grande Valley sector of the border was ground zero last year for a wave of Central American migrants, mostly unaccompanied minors and women with children. The Valley sector accounted for 53 percent of all migrants captured in the Southwest during the fiscal year ending September.
That alarmed Texas Republicans, who called for a crackdown during the election campaign last year. But the number of migrants caught is down 44 percent in the first eight months of this fiscal year.
Raul Ortiz, deputy chief of the federal border patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector, attributed the decrease mainly to beefed-up law enforcement on the Mexican side, especially along its own borders with Central America. He also gave a nod to the Texas Department of Public Safety, or DPS, and other law enforcement for helping.
Critics worry that the border buildup is open-ended, with little accounting for how the money will be spent and whether it will be effective.
Republican lawmakers in the final weeks of the legislative session stripped language from the bill Abbott signed that would have required monthly updates and crime data from a new oversight board. The panel is only tasked with giving lawmakers a single report by 2017.
“In a third-grade classroom or with DPS, if you have no metrics and no way to evaluate success, you are wasting your money,” Dallas Democratic state Rep. Rafael Anchia said.
In one report, the Texas public safety agency defined a secure border as “interdiction of all people, drugs and other contraband.”
“That is so far from reality,” said Adam Isacson, a longtime border analyst at the Washington Office On Latin America, a human-rights advocacy group. “Even the most secure sectors of the border still have thousands of people get through.”
It is has not always been clear what DPS has gotten for its money.
Records provided to The Associated Press in 2013 showed that the state’s new gunboats on the Rio Grande were used as little as one day a week or docked for repairs during the first year of deployment.
At the time, agency leaders said that the boats spent about 30 percent more time in the water than what records suggested. DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said this month that those records are dated and the boats now conduct round-the-clock operations, performing more than 1,400 missions in the last year alone.
Texas officials say that all law enforcement agencies, including the federal border patrol, have tracked more than $2 billion in drug seizures, mostly marijuana, and discovered more than 150 stash houses used by human smugglers in the past year alone.
U.S. Border Patrol data, provided to Texas Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro, show its agency being solely responsible for seizing more than 416,000 pounds of marijuana in the Rio Grande Valley sector from June to February. DPS has declined to break out how much its troopers are responsible for intercepting.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske, in a letter to Castro, said that his agency “declined participation” in the recent surge known as “Operation Strong Safety” that Perry ordered last summer, even though DPS refers to them as a partner. But Vinger, the spokesman for the Texas agency, said on Thursday that Border Patrol provides agents staff and assist a command center as part of the Texas mission and the federal agency has “worked closely” with Texas for many years.
Down in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas troopers are stationed about every quarter mile inland from the border along Highway 83. The heavy trooper presence has alarmed the large community of immigrants living permanently in the area, many of whom crossed illegally years ago, said Efren Olivares, a lawyer for the South Texas Civil Rights project.
“Local police are used to interacting with undocumented people,” Olivares said. “But with DPS it’s particularly bad because most are not from here.”
Other locals see improvements in safety. Othal E Brand Jr., president of the water district that supplies the McAllen area, said employees used to be threatened by smugglers but now work safely night and day.
On a recent afternoon in Rio Grande City, the Texas Cafe was full for lunch, with conversation a mixture of Spanish and English. Jaime Alvarez, a longtime resident now running for county commissioner, said residents have complained to him about the constant traffic stops along Highway 83.
“It’s just too much,” he said. “The politicians up north sometimes overreact.”
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For years Republicans have controlled every lever of Texas politics — every statewide office, both houses of the Legislature, the state Supreme Court. Every nexus of power, that is, but one: the capital city.
Liberal Austin has made itself a painful exception to Republican rule. The big college town where Whole Foods got started is home to the grand jury that indicted former Republican Gov. Rick Perry while he was in office and to judges who authorized a gay wedding and struck down abortion restrictions and GOP cuts to public schools.
Finally, though, the Texas Legislature has put its boot down. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott this month is signing laws that will draw power away from solidly Democratic Travis County and weaken its local jurisdiction over state business done inside its borders. Political corruption cases will now be steered to the hometowns of the accused and Travis County judges, who are all elected Democrats, can now no longer singlehandedly upend major legislation.
“I understand that some of the Travis County politicians jealously wanted to hold onto this unfair advantage, but they shouldn’t be able to,” said Republican state Rep. Mike Schofield, who sponsored the changes in the Legislature and is a former Perry aide.
The outspokenly conservative Perry once called Austin “the blueberry in the tomato soup.” The booming city, propelled by its thriving technology and entertainment industries, nurtures an oddball charm and progressive politics — taking the lead on banning plastic bags and guided by a slacker slogan that urges locals to keep it weird, man.
Meanwhile, voters in the rest of Texas keep sending more and more Republicans to run the Capitol downtown. Democrats virtually sweep elections in Travis County, but in statewide races they’re 0-for-113 since 1994.
One of the new legal changes defangs the state’s Public Integrity Unit that had jurisdiction over political corruption cases. Because the unit runs out of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, conservatives have long grumbled that it wields a partisan hand. The complaints escalated to outrage when former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was convicted of money laundering in 2010.
But the final straw was Perry, who’s now launching his second run for president under the cloud of a criminal indictment. He was charged last year with abusing his power after vetoing the unit’s funding in 2013 in a dispute with Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, an elected Democrat. Perry has pleaded not guilty.
Henceforth, political wrongdoing will be investigated by the Texas Rangers, and the accused will face trial in their hometowns instead of Austin.
“We lost funding for very important functions because of a bunch of political rhetoric that was false,” said Travis County Assistant District Attorney Gregg Cox, who runs the unit. He added: “They have politicized the judicial branch at this point. The judicial branch should be free from political influence.”
Cox said that only three cases in the last 15 years would’ve been taken away from his unit under the new rules — and two of the accused were Democrats. Even DeLay would still be prosecuted through his unit today, Cox said, because the changes only apply to state officials.
Republicans also overhauled how state courts will handle lawsuits over school finance or voting maps — two of the biggest decisions legislatures make. Last year an Austin judge struck down the state’s school finance system, dealing GOP lawmakers a setback over funding cuts orchestrated in 2011. The new rules will put three-judge panels over those major cases.
Two of the judges on the panels will be picked by the Texas Supreme Court, which is entirely Republican. Richard Gray, the lead attorney for more than 600 school districts suing Texas, says he thinks the intent was to make it “more difficult to try school finance cases.”
Republicans say far-reaching decisions shouldn’t fall to one judge and deny trying to stack the deck.
“Assuming a lack of integrity on the part of the chief justice of the Supreme Court is over and above the line,” Schofield said.
Bedraggled Texas Democrats aren’t happy, but are mostly surprised it took this long.
“If Republicans wanted to celebrate Christmas in April,” Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer says, “they have the votes.”
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When the movie “Urban Cowboy” made this refinery town famous in 1980, the honkytonk Gilley’s was booming and wannabe cowpokes from the white Houston suburbs flocked here to drink and dance. Houston was the big city, but Pasadena was for kicks.
Today Pasadena is a mostly working-class Hispanic suburb that looks as hard-ridden in some pockets as the mechanical bull that bucked John Travolta. Gilley’s burned down years ago. Now a federal lawsuit accuses the town’s white councilmembers of leading a discriminatory plan to turn back the clock.
Pasadena is preparing to change the makeup of its city council in a way that city fathers hope fosters new development, but that some Hispanics allege dilutes their influence. The case could become a test of the Supreme Court ruling last year that struck down most of the federal Voting Rights Act, giving cities in many Southern states new latitude to change election laws affecting minorities without first getting federal approval.
“Clearly it was racism,” said Pasadena Councilman Ornaldo Ybarra, one of two Hispanics on Pasadena’s eight-member council, about the town’s planned council changes. The campaign for a new voting system “was meant to scare Anglos, and it was effective,” he said.
In Pasadena, which is roughly 60 percent Hispanic, voters approved a referendum that replaces two city council seats representing districts with at-large seats, which Hispanic leaders say will negate their growing population numbers. The new format was proposed by the mayor, who is white, in July 2013, one month after the high court decision.
The mayor and supporters insist the new format will bring more participation by all Pasadena residents because they’ll have more to vote for. They note that other cities, including Houston, have at-large council members.
The change comes as city leaders are pressing for more investment to boost the local economy. Supporters say at-large council members are more likely to consider a city’s larger interests than the concerns of individual districts.
Since its Gilley’s heyday, Pasadena’s cachet has gradually been swallowed by newer, more affluent suburbs. Well-paid refinery hands and white-collar downtown commuters moved away, and whites are now mostly concentrated in Pasadena’s south side. Gilley’s old address is now a used-car lot. Even the ground under the aging city hall building is sinking.
To turn things around, the mayor and allies are angling for new entertainment district that could include a dance hall on the south side. The council could move forward on the idea after the new voting system takes effect following elections in May.
But Ybarra and some other residents say they fear the projects will cost money needed for improving services in the city’s low-income neighborhoods.
“If it doesn’t work out, then the city is left with a vacant building. The city is already full of vacant buildings,” said Jennifer Halvorson, 40, a lifelong Pasadena resident, about the prospects of another dance hall.
Mayor Johnny Isbell declined to discuss the lawsuit. But Pat Riley, a former mayor pro-tem, said the change in council seats won’t prevent Hispanic residents from making their wishes known.
“I don’t think it’s taken anything away from them. If that’s the case, why can’t they run somebody they want in there and vote for them?” said Riley, who moved to Pasadena in 1942 and recalled having just one Hispanic in her high school class.
Some Hispanics fear that wealthier white candidates will have the upper hand in at-large races that demand costlier citywide campaigns.
Suing the city on behalf of five Hispanic residents is the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which also took Texas to court over the state’s new voter ID law.
Since the Supreme Court ruling last year, most attention has focused on statewide-voting changes made in some of the 15 states covered by the Voting Rights Act, which was passed during the Civil Rights era. The Pasadena case is one of the first involving a city.
The plaintiffs face the burden of proving intentional discrimination. Civil rights attorneys say they worry that the money and effort of mounting a challenge will discourage action in many cities.
When a school board parish in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, redrew voting districts a month before an election, opponents sought to invalidate the changes under an administrative loophole in state court, where the costs and threshold for victory are lower, said Alfreda Tillman Bester, attorney for the Louisiana State Conference of the NAACP. But the challenge failed.
Attorneys who helped dozens of Texas cities and counties redraw their political boundaries after the 2010 Census said cities moving to change their election systems aren’t necessarily attempting to discriminate, and are eager to move beyond the bureaucratic process of the Voting Rights Act.
“Not because of nefarious purposes,” said Chris Gober, a conservative Austin attorney who has represented Republicans in redistricting cases. Previously, “The bottom line…is that it imposed real administrative burdens.”
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It’s a sunny afternoon just before the election and Wendy Davis isn’t addressing an arena packed with adoring supporters, speaking on national television or working a hotel ballroom of top donors.
Instead, the Democratic candidate for Texas governor is in a soldier’s backyard in an especially conservative corner of the state that she has no hope of carrying, addressing 30 campaign volunteers as they slap at stinging fire ants.
Davis’ campaign, which began with sky-high hopes among Democrats nationwide, is nearing the finish line facing seemingly insurmountable odds. The state senator dares critics to count her out, but her well-funded and popular Republican opponent, state Attorney General Greg Abbott, looks so unstoppable that the question now looming over the race is whether defeat will reduce her to a spent political force.
“Not everybody’s going to win the first time. She’ll be back,” said Alfred Nairn, a retiree at the backyard event in Killeen, a town of fast-food joints and billboards emblazoned with religious slogans. The community of almost 140,000 is anchored by Fort Hood, one of the largest U.S. military posts in the world.
Davis, 51, built a national brand and showed more sizzle than most unsuccessful candidates. So even a sizeable loss could leave her with more appeal than any southern Democrat in recent memory. But her challenge will be retaining enough notoriety to capitalize on her state’s booming Hispanic population, which holds the potential to help Democrats eventually end a 20-year, longest-in-the-nation losing streak in statewide elections.
Win or lose, Texas Democrats insist, Davis will remain atop the party alongside rising state stars such as Julian Castro, who stepped down as San Antonio mayor to become the nation’s housing secretary and has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential nominee in 2016.
Since Davis is giving up her Fort Worth-based Senate seat, she could take her national profile to a political think tank or a job as a television pundit.
“She does well on TV. That’s a pretty well-tried path for people like her,” said Matt Bennett, former aide to President Bill Clinton and Al Gore and co-founder of the moderate Democratic group Third Way. “That is a path she might be happier on anyway. She of all people knows how tough it is to win in Texas.”
But Cathy Bonner, who was a close confidant to Texas’ last Democratic governor, Ann Richards, said Davis isn’t “as jaded as a pundit.”
“She’s very sophisticated in politics and elections,” said Bonner, also a Davis donor. “I don’t think she would ever be that.”
Since Richards’ day, most Democratic gubernatorial candidates have disappeared from the political landscape after defeat. That includes Gary Mauro, who was beaten by then-Gov. George W. Bush in 1998. Mauro said the state party would applaud any future political moves Davis makes, including possibly challenging tea party-backed U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2020.
“I would hope that she do that rather than take the pundit route,” he said. “I think most Texans feel the same.”
Cody Schuette, the 29-year-old Army captain who hosted Davis in Killeen, suggested she could run against Abbott again in four years.
Addressing the crowd at Schuette’s home, Davis spoke over the barking of a neighbor’s dog and the squeaking of a trampoline from which two girls caught glimpses of the event by peering over a fence. She scoffed at the notion that she would be a stronger candidate in future elections.
“We know we have enough votes out there,” Davis said. “We just have to make sure they show up.”
That kind of defiant tone made Davis an overnight sensation in Democratic circles when she laced up a pair of pink sneakers and launched a 12-plus-hour filibuster in the Texas Senate to temporarily stall tough new abortion restrictions.
Davis shattered Texas Democratic fundraising records and continues raking in big bucks from out-of-state sources. But her political power peaked with the filibuster. Since then, she has struggled to define herself beyond abortion rights and spent most of the campaign reacting to Abbott rather than honing her own image.
She eventually fired her veteran campaign manager, shook up her communications staff and launched a book tour to promote her highly anticipated memoir. But those efforts failed to make up much ground.
Her campaign recently created a television ad noting that Abbott collected millions from a lawsuit he filed after a tree fell on him while he was jogging — an injury that put him in a wheelchair. The ad accused her opponent of hypocrisy for his part in a Republican-led effort to limit “frivolous” lawsuits and cap damages awarded by juries. The message was decried by Republicans and even some Democrats as desperate.
“Hope outran reality” for Davis, Bennett said, but “she’s definitely an asset” nationally.
“She’s still a star in Democratic politics,” he added. “It doesn’t matter what Texas thinks of her.”
Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, who became a national political sensation by filibustering her state’s tough new restrictions on abortion, discloses in her upcoming memoir that she had an abortion in the 1990s after discovering that the fetus had a severe brain abnormality.
In “Forgetting to be Afraid,” Davis also writes about ending an earlier ectopic pregnancy, in which an embryo implants outside the uterus. Davis says she considered revealing the terminated pregnancies during her nearly 13-hour speech on the floor of the Texas Senate last summer — but decided against it, saying “such an unexpected and dramatically personal confession would overshadow the events of the day.”
The Associated Press purchased an early copy of the book, which goes on sale Tuesday.
Both pregnancies happened before Davis, a state senator from Fort Worth, began her political career and after she was already a mother to two young girls. Davis catapulted to national Democratic stardom after her filibuster temporarily delayed passed of sweeping new abortion restrictions. She’s now running for governor against Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is heavily favored to replace Republican Gov. Rick Perry next year.
The second pregnancy happened in 1996. Davis writes that during her second trimester she took a blood test that could determine chromosomal or neural defects, which doctors first told her didn’t warrant concern. But a later exam revealed that the brain of the fetus had developed in complete separation on the right and left sides, Davis says. She sought opinions from multiple doctors, who told her the baby would be deaf, blind and in a permanent vegetative state if she survived delivery, she writes.
“I could feel her little body tremble violently, as if someone were applying an electric shock to her, and I knew then what I needed to do,” Davis writes. “She was suffering.”
She goes on to say that an “indescribable blackness followed” the pregnancy and that the loss left her forever changed.
The ectopic pregnancy happened in 1994, and terminating it was considered medically necessary, Davis writes. Such pregnancies generally aren’t considered viable, meaning the fetus can’t survive, and they can endanger the mother’s life. But Davis writes that in Texas, it’s “technically considered an abortion, and doctors have to report it as such.”
Davis’ filibuster in June 2013 set off a chaotic scene in the Texas Capitol that extended past midnight. Thousands of people watched it online, with President Barack Obama at one point tweeting, “Something special is happening in Austin tonight.”
In the book, Davis recalls reading testimony during the filibuster about a woman who had had an abortion after learning her daughter would be born with a terminal illness. She says the story could have been hers and writes about her hands shaking and wiping tears from her eyes.
Davis’ filibuster only temporarily delayed the restrictions, which passed overwhelmingly when Perry called a special legislative session. The measure requires doctors who perform abortion to obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and mandates that clinics upgrade its facilities to hospital-level operating standards. A federal judge in Austin last month blocked a portion of the law that would have left Texas with only seven abortion facilities statewide.
Anti-abortion groups, including those that have attacked Davis’ candidacy, expressed sympathy for the tough choice Davis confronted with the second terminated pregnancy but said they hoped all decisions end in choosing to continue a pregnancy.
“That’s an incredibly difficult position for anyone to find themselves in. While our heart goes out for the decision she had to make, again, still the value of life is precious,” Texans Right to Life spokeswoman Melissa Conway said Friday night.
Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch did not return messages seeking comment.
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood and the daughter of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards praised Davis’ “unwavering courage”
“We are grateful to her for sharing her story and shining a light on a subject that is too often hidden in the shadows of shame and stigma by people like Greg Abbott and his allies,” Richards said.