Two hours of the ‘staid’ Republican campaign we once expected

Ted Cruz
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz answers a question during Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate in Des Moines, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

We saw in Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate the campaign we were meant to have before Donald Trump rode an escalator into the race and began sucking all the media oxygen and attention from everyone else. Without Trump’s tiresome Il Duce act taking center stage — call it entertaining if you must — I found the alternate campaign we glimpsed for two hours Thursday refreshing, even if it was “a staid, policy-heavy contest,” as The Associated Press described it in its coverage — a contest in which the other Republican candidates “strained to take advantage” of Trump’s absence.

Fox News hosted Thursday’s debate, and moderators Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier did an excellent job. The two debates hosted by Fox News and as well as the two hosted by Fox Business News have been the best of the campaign. All four have been tightly controlled and have featured tough, fair, concise questions. Of course, one of those questions — about Trump’s many misogynist comments he has made over the years, asked in August by Kelly — is the reason Trump refused to participate in Thursday debate and instead held his own “special event” a few miles away. A snide statement released Wednesday by Fox only hardened Trump’s determination to skip Thursday’s debate.

Trump’s absence had to be acknowledged, of course, and Kelly opened the debate by asking Texas Sen. Ted Cruz about “the elephant not in the room tonight.” Cruz had a well-rehearsed zinger ready to go. “I’m a maniac,” he said, taking a stiff beat. “And everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly.” And with that, “the Donald Trump portion” of the debate, as Cruz put it, was done, rarely to resurface.

OK, it turns out Cruz could have used Trump on Thursday. This was a point the American-Statesman’s Jonathan Tilove emphasized in an analysis previewing the debate. Without Trump to attack, Cruz lost a chance to recover some of the momentum in the polls he has lost the past couple of weeks. An average of polls conducted between Jan. 18 and Jan. 27 shows Cruz trailing Trump by 7 points, and fading. Then again, Cruz is still thought to have the best organization in Iowa and there remains doubt that Trump’s followers in Iowa are dedicated enough to leave their warm homes and caucus with strangers on Monday.

Trump’s absence allowed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Sen. John Kasich and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul to move beyond their expected roles as sidemen to a Trump vs. Cruz match-up. (Yes, I did not mention Ben Carson. Why? Because a random, reasonably informed person could do as well as the good surgeon did, so out of his depth is he.) Placed on equal footing with Cruz on Thursday, each candidate did his best to show that he is the real alternative to Trump, not Cruz, who spent most of Thursday night underscoring why so many colleagues find him so generally unpleasant.

I would like to think that Trump’s petulant refusal to join a debate just because a tough question upset him will be seen in Iowa and elsewhere as cowardice and weakness, but it’s unlikely given that nothing Trump does seems to hurt him. The more bullying he is, the stronger he seems to get. And, of course, the national media remains infatuated with him. So it’s probably foolish to wonder whether Thursday’s debate, however “staid” it was, marks the point where the long-anticipated rally of the so-called Republican establishment finally begins.

If so, it’ll only be seen in retrospect, once actual votes are cast. And the casting of actual votes finally — mercifully — starts Monday in Iowa.

SXSW should do as Sundance did: Ask if the fest has become too big

In this Jan. 21, 2016 file photo, Robert Redford, founder and president of the Sundance Institute speaks at the premiere of "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You" during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP, File)
In this Jan. 21, 2016 file photo, Robert Redford, founder and president of the Sundance Institute speaks at the premiere of “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP, File)

When it comes to public events, is bigger always better? It’s a question that Robert Redford has pondered over with the growth of the Sundance Film Festival.

His recent reply to a question about the future of Sundance, an event he founded more than 40 years ago, made me wonder if SXSW organizers think about the mammoth size of their festival. If they don’t, perhaps they should.

When Sundance began in 1978, Redford wasn’t sure the idea would even work, much less balloon into one of the largest film festivals in the United States. But it did, weathering growing pains along the way. Now, organizers for that festival are at a crossroad.

“As (Sundance) grew, so did the crowds, so did the development in Park City. Well, at some point, if both those things continue to grow, they’re going to begin to choke each other,” Redford told the Associated Press.

Here, one of the most-respected organizers in the film-fest game, admitted he has stepped back and started to analyze the situation facing one of the most popular festivals in the world. It shouldn’t be far-fetched to expect other established festivals to do the same.

Yes, I get that comparing the size of Sundance and the size of SXSW is moot. They are two completely different animals, after all. An apples-to-apples comparison shouldn’t be attempted. Size, above all, is what separates the two.

Most significant is the difference between the sizes of the location and attendance of these festivals: Park City, Utah’s population is a little more than 8,000; Austin’s population is closer to 1 million. Attendance at each you ask? In 2015, Sundance had over 45,000 attendees. SXSW Music, Film and Interactive 2015 attendance was at 84,385; of those, 20,252 attended the Film Festival portion.

Like in most growth scenarios, troubles and challenges come regardless of the size of a city or town.

“I’m starting to hear some negative comments about how crowded it is and how difficult it is to get from venue to venue when there’s traffic and people in the streets and so forth,” Redford told the Associated Press. “We’re going to have to look at that.”

It’s no secret that similar negative observations have been pointed out about SXSW. Austin residents and festival attendees have been complaining for a few years now about public safety, traffic and the effect they have on the quality of a SXSW experience. Then, critics had more to make their case against SXSW growth after a tragic crash killed four people during SXSW in 2014. While enhancements to public safety measures have been made since the accident — measures applauded by the American-Statesman editorial board — it will be necessary for festival organizers to be more proactive in their planning to prevent more tragedies.

What started in 1987 as a stage to showcase independent musicians — adding film and interactive branches in 1994 — has exploded into a one Texas’ biggest Spring Break gatherings full of big names, big parties and bigger headaches for those who live and work in downtown where most of the official and unofficial SXSW gigs take place.

Despite Sundance and SXSW being two very distinct beasts, it’s not unreasonable to suggest SXSW organizers ask themselves how much more, if at all, the festival should be allowed to grow.

In Redford’s case, that has meant facing the growth issue head on and searching for solutions on how the Festival can evolve.

“You have a couple of choices. You can go hard and say we’re going to stop it. Say ‘that’s the end.’ Let it go. Let someone else do it,” he said. “Or, you say well, if you want to keep it going, we can’t keep it going the way things are.”

One of Redford’s idea is to break up the festival into sections and multiple dates throughout the year, instead of packing the entire lineup just 10 days. For example, the festival could screen narrative features in January, and documentaries a month later.

Change, understandably, is inevitable. Festivals should aspire to grow. But at some point, arguably, an event the size of a Sundance or a SXSW festival can become too big.  Hopefully, the thought does not elude our friends at SXSW.

 

 

$1,000 to fix a broken bone? Try $25,000

10557787_10153743513238617_3292451984978331063_oThe world of medical bills can be bewildering, even for those of us with good health insurance. The Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare, has meant more people are covered in Texas than ever before, but it is not a stretch to say the billing is just as confusing, and depending on the size of your deductible and your paycheck, an unexpected medical expense can still be a substantial hit to the family’s pocketbook.

A story in today’s Business section cites a national study by Bankrate.com that 66 percent of Americans can cover a $500 crisis a car breakdown or a trip to the emergency room would wipe out nearly tw0-thirds of Americans’ savings. The statistic was not as startling as the estimated cost of treating a broken bone, which Bankrate put at about $1,000.

I know a little something about broken bones and hospital bills, because my two daughters, ages 6 and 8, have managed to have three between them in the last two years (jumping on the bed, bike accident, and falling off a chair.) The last of which happened on Christmas Day and ended in emergency orthopedic surgery. The bills are still coming in on that one, but the total if I were uninsured would be in excess of $25,000. By virtue of the fact that I have pretty reasonable insurance through the Statesman and the fact that my daughter had already maxed out her medical deductible earlier in the year, we will be on the hook for about $1,000 of that cost. We can afford to pay it, but others are not so fortunate.

For those Texans who fall in the Medicaid gap — those whose incomes are below the poverty level but are ineligible for Medicaid and do not qualify for the federal health insurance subsidies — $25,000 might as well be $250,000. That fact alone would explain why unpaid medical bills are considered the No. 1 cause of bankruptcy. Nationally, nearly 3 million people are in the coverage gap; a quarter of those live in Texas, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In my time on the editorial board, I’ve heard various groups attempt to explain that rising medical costs are due to a failure of families to research the costs or an inability to prioritize their spending. But when your child falls and her bone is unmistakably broken, there is no time to go online and compare costs for orthopedic surgery, there is no form to sign to require hospitals to use only “in-network” specialists, and I dare anyone to suggest that perhaps you cut back on the pain medication to cut costs. Saying “Nevermind, let’s not fix this arm today” is not an option.

With the deadline for signing up for health insurance on the federal exchange on Sunday, those who qualify for ACA should absolutely take advantage of it — regardless of how young or healthy you may be. A single, freak accident or unexpected medical diagnosis can be a financial catastrophe.

Republicans in Congress have spent years trying to repeal a law that is needed for American families, although currently imperfect. A family should not have to take on the equivalent of a car loan to fix an 8-year-old’s broken arm.

New AISD board leadership has plenty of challenges ahead

Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees members: (from left) Ann Teich, District 3; Edmund T. Gordon, District 1; Julie Cowan, District 4; Amber Elenz, VICE-PRESIDENT, District 5; Gina Hinojosa, PRESIDENT, At Large 8; Jayme Mathias, SECRETARY, District 2; Kendall Pace, At Large 9; Paul Saldaña, District 6; Yasmin Wagner, District 7.
Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees members: (from left) Ann Teich, District 3; Edmund T. Gordon, District 1; Julie Cowan, SECRETARY, District 4; Amber Elenz, District 5; Gina Hinojosa, At Large 8; Jayme Mathias, District 2; Kendall Pace, PRESIDENT, At Large 9; Paul Saldaña, VICE PRESIDENT, District 6; Yasmin Wagner, District 7.

The Austin ISD Board of trustees has new leadership. On Wednesday evening, Kendall Pace was elected as board president, Paul Saldaña was named vice president and Julie Cowan as board secretary.

The election was prompted by the resignation of board president Gina Hinojosa who has filed as a candidate for the Texas House of Representatives District 49 seat. Hinojosa will continue to represent the At-Large Position 8 seat on the AISD board of trustees.

If their experiences are any indication, this could prove to be a very effective team. Collectively, the three new board officers have worked with local business, city, county and state leaders – equipping the board with skill sets that could prove to be crucial for the district.

Pace is a management and financial consultant and has served on the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce’s education and talent development council and the district advisory council. Saldaña is a public relations consultant and longtime activist widely known for his work as chief of staff for former Austin Mayor Gus Garcia. Saldaña has more than 20 years in local municipal government and public policy. And Cowan has for nearly 20 years volunteered on various school district advisory committees – including budget and bond committees as well as serving as vice president on the Austin Council of PTAs. I should point out that the American-Statesman’s editorial board endorsed Pace, Saldaña and Cowan in their respective races last November.

“We have a lot of challenges ahead,” Saldana told me. But to borrow from a colleague, he said, “this is a shared leadership. We need to come together to get the work done.”

And, boy, is the workload heavy.

Facing the district are curbing declining enrollments and dealing with affordability challenges that are driving families and teachers out of the district. The district must also address academic performance of lower- and higher-achievers and finding a source of financing for annual pay raises for the district’s nearly 6,000 teachers. It will be a difficult task as long as the legislature continues to force the Austin school district to annually surrender tens of millions of dollars of its local revenue to the state, which distributes the money to poorer school districts.

What the new trustee leadership brings to the table will be vital to how much the needle moves in favor of Austin students.

In just under a year as one of the newest board members, Pace already has helped refocus the district’s public education foundation, which raises money from the private sector, just as she vowed to do during her campaign for her At-Large Position 9 seat. The Austin Ed Fund has raised more than $200,000 this year and already awarded nearly $50,000 for innovative classroom projects that enrich instruction in science, technology, reading and ecology, as well as skills in leadership and resolving conflicts or problems constructively.

Aside from the strong advocacy work she’ll need to keep, Pace now has the additional burden of keeping the entire board focused and forward-moving. She will be wise to learn from Hinojosa for finessed coalitions building and artful, deliberate compromise. Pace will have to learn to lead eight other personalities with varied communication and work ethic styles – all which may change by this time next year. The board, after all, could end up with five new trustees as terms expire in November for Jayme Mathias, District 2; Ann Teich, District 3; Amber Elenz, District 5; Yasmin Wagner, District 7 and Gina Hinojosa, At-Large Position 8.

It will be interesting to see how Pace and the rest of the board work together. For now, congratulations to the new leaders and good luck to the entire board.

 

 

 

Immigration and the Supreme Court: A politically charged caseload, amplified

immigration rally
Supporters of President Barack Obama’s immigration policies march around the Governor’s Mansion during a November 2015 immigration reform rally. (JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Sometime in June, arriving a few weeks before Republicans and Democrats hold their nominating conventions in mid- and late July, the U.S. Supreme Court will issue a series of rulings sure to fire up or anger — or fire up and anger — each parties’ candidates and hardcore supporters. Pending before the court’s justices are cases involving affirmative action and abortion, the meaning of “one person, one vote,” and, as of this week, the authority of the president to enforce or not enforce immigration law. And all of these cases came to the court courtesy of Texas or Texans.

Yee oyez haw.

In November 2014, President Barack Obama protected from deportation the parents of American citizens or permanent residents to allow them, as Obama said, to “come out of the shadows and get right with the law.” Obama also expanded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that he initiated in June 2012 to help immigrants younger than 30 who were brought to the United States as children remain in the only country many of them have ever really known. The president’s actions were set to allow perhaps as many as 5 million unauthorized immigrants to remain and work in the United States. Gov. Greg Abbott, then in his waning days as Texas attorney general, sued to keep Obama’s policy from taking effect; 25 states joined Texas in opposing the president.

A U.S. district judge and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the policy’s implementation. So the Obama administration asked the Supreme Court to weigh in, and on Tuesday the justices agreed to do so. The court is expected to hear oral arguments in April, with a decision, as noted, probably coming in June. Because immigration is a top and contentious presidential issue, coverage of the court’s decision this week has been framed as an “election-year clash,” to cite The Associated Press as one example. Even if the Supreme Court justices rule in Obama’s favor — precedent suggests they should — his administration will have less than seven months to implement its policy before the next president assumes office. So Obama’s policy lives or dies not only with the court, but also with the next president.

The Supreme Court will consider four questions in the United States v. Texas, as the immigration case is formally known. (Detailed, clear explanations both lawyerly and in “plain English” of the legal issues involved can be found on SCOTUSblog, here and here.) A summary:

The first question is whether Texas and the other 25 states have “standing” to sue the federal government. Clearly the states disagree with Obama’s policy, but simply disliking a federal program does not give states the right to challenge it in court. Direct harm must be suffered to seek legal relief.

Last February, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen of Brownsville ruled that costs associated with granting temporary legal status to a group of undocumented immigrants — Hanen highlighted the issuance of driver’s licenses — would directly harm Texas. A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit affirmed Hanen’s ruling, 2-1, in November.

The Supreme Court could deny Texas standing and end the case without considering any other question. But I don’t think anyone expects that to happen.

Another question involves whether the Obama administration failed to follow the Administrative Procedures Act by not giving the public sufficient notice of its immigration change along with the opportunity to comment on it. Hanen based his decision blocking Obama’s action on this technical, procedural issue, a detail most news stories skipped past this week.

The final two questions are related if not redundant. They certainly are politically charged. Does the Obama administration have the authority to issue a new immigration policy? And did the president’s actions violate the Constitution’s requirement that he “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

Only Congress, of course, can make law, but the president has “prosecutorial discretion” when it comes to enforcing the laws. Limited resources dictate the administration set priorities. So Obama decided to defer action against one group of undocumented immigrants to focus on other groups, like immigrants who pose a public safety threat, for example. Texas accepts that the administration has discretion to enforce the law, but only case by case, not by issuing a sweeping policy.

Neither Hanen nor the 5th Circuit addressed the constitutionality of Obama’s policy. The Supreme Court added this question to its review at the states’ request. The court rarely considers issues not taken up by a lower court.

As The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin wrote this week, the United States v. Texas is one of those cases that threatens to scramble the usual ideological positions. The issue of standing is one example: Conservatives view it narrowly, liberals more broadly. But this case could reverse those traditional positions. “If the Court splits along its customary ideological lines — the conservatives against Obama, the liberals for him — the case may serve as another illustration that politics, rather than precedent, is the real currency of the Supreme Court.”

Meanwhile, whether the courts rule with the president or against him, the country’s immigration system will still need reform. And on immigration, Congress continues to show it can’t even work with itself, much less the president.