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July 25th, 2013:

How I would campaign against Greg Abbott

If you’ve been following Greg Abbott’s gubernatorial campaign kickoff, you’ve probably noticed that in addition to being light on substance, the Attorney General has been hitting his personal story hard, in an attempt to portray him as some kind of empathetic figure.

How Greg Abbott views the process, without the wildebeest stampede

Who needs policies when you have destiny?

Over nearly two decades of public appearances as a political figure, Greg Abbott has not shied from noting the obvious: He uses a wheelchair.

During speeches, the Texas attorney general, who is now a gubernatorial candidate, is known to pre-emptively address any questions on the topic — often humorously — with an explanation of the 1984 accident that left him partially paralyzed. At campaign events dating back to 2002, he has shown brief video clips describing how a falling oak tree crushed his spinal cord while he was jogging with a friend through the Houston neighborhood of River Oaks.

He emerged on the statewide political scene in 1995, when, after Gov. George W. Bush appointed him to the Texas Supreme Court bench, the court building updated its facilities to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Court builds ramp to justice, for a justice,” reads one headline from the Austin-American Statesman.

Now, the adversity that Abbott has faced has become the symbolic centerpiece of his recently launched gubernatorial campaign, which he announced on Sunday — the 29th anniversary of his accident.

“My greatest fight began on this date,” he said to a crowd gathered in San Antonio. “It was a challenge that made my even being here, highly improbable.”

In a five-day, 10-city tour across the state since then, Abbott has been introducing himself as a fighter for strong Texas values, a candidate with a literal spine of steel. As someone who uses a wheelchair, he says, he knows what it means to struggle with physical and emotional challenges.

“I demonstrate what every Texan exemplifies every day — the ability to overcome adversity,” he said at a campaign stop in Houston.

See his heartwarming intro campaign video for a distilled version of this. Now we both know that the only thing Abbott fights for is the interests of the powerful. But a lot of people don’t know Greg Abbott well, and they don’t know that he’s never done a thing for regular Texans. To someone who doesn’t know Greg Abbott and is just tuning in now, he might look like an underdog himself, and as long as he manages to avoid talking about his actual record and his beliefs, he might sound downright appealing. The key is making sure that people know about the real Greg Abbott.

Whether Abbott can sway blue-collar voters is uncertain.

Joe Silva, 54, a worker at the boot factory and a lifelong El Pasoan, said he would probably vote for Abbott despite not knowing a lot about him.

“He’s a good man, I heard. He went through that tough accident,” he said.

But when asked if Abbott’s opposition to the federal health care reform legislation or support for the voter ID law mattered to him, Silva paused.

“Oh, I didn’t know that,” he said. “ I guess we’ll see what he has to say. I don’t know much about him.”

Remember, Abbott isn’t used to talking to people who don’t habitually vote in Republican primaries. That’s why he thinks that wooing voters by bragging about the things he’s done that they don’t like is a good idea. He just has no experience talking to non-true believers. That’s all to the good, but we can’t count on that. More to the point, we can’t let Abbott get away with using his personal story as a way to smooth out his extremely rough and, well, extreme edges. To borrow a page from the Karl Rove playbook, we need to turn his strength into a liability.

How to do that? There’s no question that Abbott has overcome a great deal of adversity in his life, the kind of adversity that most of us are fortunate to never face. That speaks well of his character and inner strength, but there’s an aspect to his success at overcoming that adversity that I have not yet seen mentioned anywhere. I don’t know Abbott’s medical history, but I think it’s safe to say that it includes surgeries, medication, physical therapy, medical equipment, and other things that undoubtedly cost a lot of money to provide. I have to wonder where Greg Abbott might be today if he had been one of the millions of Texans that don’t have health insurance at the time of his awful accident. Medical bills force millions of people into bankruptcy every year. Many other people deal with the problem by simply not getting the help and treatment that they need. Last week, Dear Prudence ran a letter from a woman who lost several teeth during a prolonged stretch of unemployment for her and her husband because she just couldn’t afford to go to the dentist. I guarantee you, there are a lot more stories like that in Texas than there are stories like Greg Abbott’s, and it’s not because the people behind those stories lacked character.

Thankfully for Greg Abbott, he never had to deal with any of that. Yet he has spent the past three years doing everything he can to keep the millions of Texans who lack health insurance from getting it by his relentless litigation against the Affordable Care Act. If he has any alternate ideas how to alleviate this longstanding problem, he’s not talking about it now, and never once in his ten plus years as Attorney General has he used his platform – never mind his personal experience as someone who relies heavily on quality medical care – to advocate for those in that position. In short, he would deny the same type of care that he himself has benefited from to millions of people who could not now receive it. His personal story may be admirable, but it sure hasn’t helped him to learn empathy. If Democrats don’t start pointing that out now, he might just be able to get through this campaign without people realizing that. We cannot let that happen.

Note that I made it this far without mentioning the multi-million dollar award that the strongly pro-tort “reform” Abbott received after his injury. Lisa Falkenberg talked to him about that, and somewhat to my surprised threw him off his talking points a bit. I say “somewhat to my surprise” because Sen. Kirk Watson tried to make an issue of this in the 2002 AG race and it largely backfired on him. That was before the strict med-mal cap was adopted, though, so perhaps another go at it might be worthwhile. It’s clear from reading Falkenberg’s piece that Abbott has the same lack of insight about just how far removed his own experience has been from so many other people’s as he does with health insurance. The point remains that there are some very tough questions that Abbott can and should face, and the sooner the better.

Council to consider wage theft ordinance

Good.

The Houston City Council may step up its efforts to combat wage theft, sanctioning companies that deny workers pay to which they are entitled and monitoring firms accused of doing so, regardless of whether they do business with the city.

City Attorney David Feldman laid out a proposed ordinance to a City Council committee on Tuesday, receiving a generally positive reaction from council members and worker advocates, who flooded the chamber in yellow or teal T-shirts, representing the Fe y Justicia Worker Center and Texas Organizing Project.

Workers who believe they have been improperly denied pay can file civil complaints with the Texas Workforce Commission or in a justice of the peace court, or pursue criminal complaints with police or prosecutors. Feldman said most workers who file complaints choose the state agency.

The city’s best chance to help, Feldman said, is to create a database of companies found guilty of wage theft and to keep a watch list of firms accused of the practice, in the hopes of using its leverage as a source of contracts, permits and licenses as a deterrent.

“Obviously, we do have a large amount of buying power, purchasing power, a large number of contracts, and, obviously, we want to make sure the city of Houston says, ‘We’re not going to be doing business with somebody that’s found to be guilty of this type of activity,'” Councilman Ed Gonzalez said.

Existing city rules state that firms who commit wage theft can be barred from city work, but do not specify how the city would identify offending companies, Feldman said.

Stace was on this earlier and then again afterward. This is a very basic premise: People who do work deserve to get paid for it, and they deserve to get paid what they were promised, without delays or extra conditions or any other BS. Denying someone the pay they were promised is wrong and should carry consequences. This has been a huge national problem lately, and it’s a disgrace. What was especially encouraging about this proposal was the overwhelming agreement that this ordinance would do good. It’s a shame that it’s needed, but it will be good to have it. Contact your Council member and let him or her know that you support this, too.

CSCOPE still in scope

Every once in awhile, whether they intend to or not, the SBOE does something worthwhile.

Thomas Ratliff

The State Board of Education concluded its July meeting without providing further guidance as to whether Texas school districts continued to use lessons from CSCOPE, the controversial state-developed curriculum system.

“It’s not up to the state board,” chairwoman Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, said after the meeting. “I don’t know who it is up to, but it’s not up to us.”

Though she added that legislators are the ones who need to clarify whether districts can still use CSCOPE lesson plans, which are now in public domain, Cargill said the board will discuss CSCOPE at its Sept. 18 meeting.

Meanwhile, the Texas Attorney General’s office, along with Education Chairman Dan Patrick, has requested an official state audit of the program.

“After months of research, once again with the tireless help of the grassroots, it appears that CSCOPE may have spent millions of dollars outside of normal government rules and regulations,” said Patrick in a post on his Facebook page Friday.

Patrick also said in that post that he disagreed with the conclusion that, since CSCOPE material is now in the public domain, districts could continued to use it. He said he would check into it further.

After the Friday meeting, board member Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, issued a release praising Cargill for placing CSCOPE on the September agenda.

“This artificial controversy has gone on too long without someone at the state level taking charge and performing a review of these lessons and separating myth from reality and education from politics,” he said.

Ratliff and Patrick have been slugging it out over CSCOPE for some time now. I think it’s safe to say there’s no love lost there. I didn’t follow this closely during the session, but from what I can see Ratliff is in the right. If the SBOE does review this in September, it will be a good thing. However, Dan Patrick will not give up.

An extended drama over a controversial curriculum tool used by Texas public schools took a new turn Wednesday as Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst entered the fray with a letter to the State Board of Education and a key state senator pushed to add the issue to the special session agenda.

“We were all told that our CSCOPE problems were behind us,” Dewhurst said in the letter. “Over the past few weeks I have learned this could not be further from the truth.”

The statement could be interpreted as swipe at Patrick, one of Dewhurst’s 2014 Republican primary opponents. Near the end of the recently concluded regular session, Patrick declared the “end of an era” for the CSCOPE lessons, which grassroots activists have relentlessly pushed to eliminate because of a perceived liberal, anti-American agenda. At the time, Patrick, R-Houston, announced that the coalition of state-run education service centers that develops the lessons had agreed to stop producing them.

[…]

In his letter to the state board, Dewhurst joined those expressing their dismay, saying he was “deeply troubled” that the state’s public schools may continue to use the lessons. The board is already set to address confusion over CSCOPE at a Sept. 18 meeting, but in the letter, Dewhurst urged the board to hold a hearing sooner so that it could help districts find ways to avoid using the lessons or to “at least provide transparency for parents and local voters to know what their local districts are using to educate their children.”

Patrick responded late Wednesday afternoon with a press release asking Gov. Rick Perry to add legislation banning the use of CSCOPE lessons to the special session agenda. In the release, Patrick said he also thought the issue had been resolved.

Josh Havens, a spokesman for Perry, said in a statement that it was “premature to talk about adding to the call” until the Legislature finished its current business.

Did we mention that there might be a third special session because the conference committee remains at loggerheads over how to pay for transportation funding? So adding yet another wingnut issue to the endless legislative summer is not out of the question. Burka has more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of July 22

The Texas Progressive Alliance supports the call for justice for Trayvon as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

Uber writes to the city about its taxi demand study

You can see the letter here. They make two basic points: One, the $70 minimum fare for private car trips “serves neither the driver community nor the riding public, and should be eliminated as a matter of public interest regardless of any study”. I agree that this is an excessive level and that it doesn’t need to wait on the outcome of a study on demand for taxi services to be taken up by Council. Two, they charge that the firm conducting the study is a “paid advocate for the taxi industry”, and they call the impartiality of the lead consultant doing the study in question. Read the whole thing and see what you think.

As I’ve written before, I think Uber makes a strong case for changing the city’s taxi ordinances to allow it and its app entry into the market. Since that was published, I have been contacted by one of the people representing the local cab companies, and we are making arrangements to get together so I and perhaps some of my blogging colleagues can learn their perspective. My inclination in these matters is to lean in the direction of whatever makes things better for consumers – see, for example, the saga of Texas’ microbreweries and the effect of consumer choice it had – so I will be very interested to hear what they have to say.

UPDATE: I received the following from Christopher Newport, the Council Liaison and Public Information Officer for the Department of Administrative and Regulatory Affairs:

I appreciate the tone of Uber’s most recent missive, however Mr. Owen’s letter and his subsequent commentary on the City’s study rests on a pretty important assumption: the scope of the study currently underway is limited to taxicabs.

While it is true that the scope of the work being conducted by a contractor we have engaged is limited to taxicabs, that is not the scope of the study we (ARA/City) are conducting.

With respect to the taxicab study, the primary responsibility of the contractor is to collect and analyze data that we do not currently have. I think it is to the City’s benefit that the taxicab industry is being solicited by someone they might be comfortable with; that only increases the probability that we will get a sufficient quantity of high quality information. I have not heard Uber state, yet, that they don’t believe the City is capable of independent analysis of raw data.

The set of aspects of this industry being examined currently is comprehensive in nature. Any revisions to taxicab regulations can potentially have feedback effects on the other categories of vehicles for hire. Furthermore, the vehicle for hire app “universe” is larger than Uber (see Sidecar, Lyft, Taxi Magic, MyTaxi). We have to look at the entire picture. Well, we don’t have to I guess, but it would not be very bright to not take a comprehensive view.

Hope that helps clarify things. My thanks to Christopher Newport for the feedback.