Texas needs to make good on promise to migrant farm workers

rgz migrant housing 0039
A new stove was placed in the kitchen area of the two bedroom apartment shared by six adults and children, in O’Donnell, Texas. One of the state’s requirements is that a stove must have four working burners. (RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

In the run-up to the March primary the editorial board visited with the usual array of candidates. I was not a member of the board during the last presidential cycle, but I was not surprised to hear local and state candidates attempting to leverage the talking points of the nation’s presidential race on the left and the right.

I heard a lot, especially from conservatives, about how Texas and the nation just needs to free up capitalism and let businesses thrive with minimal regulations.  The rhetoric fits nicely with the Texas bootstrap work ethic, but in the broad brush of U.S. history, as they say, that dog just won’t hunt.

Remember, federal and state governments had to clean up and regulate the mess of the Industrial Revolution — one of the most innovative times in American history. By some measures American capitalism was at its apex.  The nation’s rapid technological advances also brought dangerous working conditions for adults and children, indentured servitude in textile mills, exploitative share cropping in the nation’s agricultural fields, chemical dumping of waste in our nation’s waterways. (As a side note, that economic engine also proved to be an incredible magnet for immigrants looking for opportunity, economic security and personal safety.)

Whatever your political position on unions, minimum wage laws, food regulations and environmental protections, the fact remains that these tools were created in response to very real problems. And those problems have not gone away.

Just look at this month’s investigative report on migrant farmworkers by American-Statesman reporter Jeremy Schwartz. Despite regulations approved and adopted by the Texas legislature, they are not being enforced as the spirit of the law intended. The result is a market place scenario where workers are used to produce food cheaply for the benefit of the economy and consumers, while workers are paid minimal wages, for seasonal work, which can create barriers to education and long-term economic stability. Is it more moral to subsidize farmers to keep consumer prices low or invest to  ensure that agricultural businesses do right by its workers or allow even more families to fall into poverty because of high food prices?

According to the investigation, Texas has issued no penalties since 2005 despite confirmed reports of substandard housing. And 9 in 10 migrant farmworkers lack access to licensed and inspected housing. Regulations without teeth are meaningless.

Yes, there is an argument to be had about illegal immigration pushing down wages — but when it comes to farming on a grand scale, this country has always over-relied on importing farm labor from abroad. From the slaves in the cotton fields to Chinese and Filipino workers in the early 1900s to Mexican migrant workers, who were brought to work in the 1930s (only to be deported during the Great Depression and then recruited again during WWII.)

In 2016, the marketplace needs to encourage innovation and set necessary boundaries for what our society will allow in terms of mutual obligations. We can argue about methods — incentives, punitive sanctions or social supports — but it doesn’t change government’s in policing the inevitable abuses that occur in the free market. Putting our heads in the sand while families live in unsafe and unsanitary living conditions is not an option. It is reassuring to see legislators like State Sens. Jose Rodriguez and Eddie Lucio, Jr., (both representing border areas) step forward to shine some light on the issue, but it is also disheartening to acknowledge the relative silence on the issue by our state’s leadership.

Spokesman John Wittman, responded for Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement this week: “Governor Abbott expects TDHCA to follow the statute set forth by the legislature and inspect any housing facility reported to be operating out of compliance with state law.” The offices of House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick declined to comment.

So what is a migrant family to do if members find themselves renting housing without basic sanitation and such necessities as locking doors?

I tried to find a complaint hotline number for migrant labor housing in Texas via Google and after about an hour, I found the complaint number 1-877-724-5676 embedded in the Texas Administrative Code along with a Lubbock mailing address. Fortunately, this section of the code is also written in Spanish. The only other mention of this phone number by a state agency is by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, which is responsible for inspections and complaints. The word “complaint” appears nowhere on the English only web-site, which is mostly devoted to licensing requirements, with a line at the bottom that says: “Questions about inspections or issues at migrant labor housing facilities may be directed to Bradlee Dansbee at 1-877-724-5676 or 1-806-794-2105.”

Only the most savvy, English-speaking workers would be able to determine how to make a complaint — if they had access to the internet. That would, of course, also assume that they knew that the state has laws that should regulate housing conditions.

So, no, Abbott’s “expectations” that the code will be enforced is not enough, especially when Texas lawmakers have opted not to fund the program. It’s not reasonable to suggest that the state is actually enforcing a law that states, “A person may not establish, maintain, or operate a migrant labor housing facility without obtaining a license from the department.” The code leaves the collection of the up to  $200 per day penalty to county and district courts, but those courts can’t collect penalties that are never assessed.

With the next legislative session more than a year away, and most legislators and policy makers distracted by a national election cycle that has turned immigration into a dirty word, my hopes (which mirror the rest of the board’s) for more funding and more attention are limited. It will be up to lawmakers like Lucio and Rodriguez to persuade their colleagues to provide the political pressure to  give the TDHCA the funding, authority and the moral imperative to actually make a difference in the lives of the state’s migrant laborers. Migrant workers are not just confined to the Rio Grande Valley — agricultural counties in West Texas and the High Plains have high numbers as well, with limited housing.

This is a problem for all of Texas, which means that the solution should start with the Texas Legislature.






Changing the name of Lee Elementary changes a school’s name, not history

SLT+confederate+08Confederate apologists responded to the Austin school board’s decision to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School with a barrage of familiar comments blaming the Civil War on Northern abolitionists, Northern evangelicals, Northern aggression, Northern tariffs, Northern violations of state’s rights — all of which added up to one conclusion: The Civil War was not centrally about slavery. By God, sir, no; bite your tongue.

What the school board’s decision most represented, numerous apologists argued, was a failure to educate students about the “true history” of the 1860s.

Historians value primary sources. The response to Monday’s school board vote is a reminder that few primary sources better clarify the causes of the Civil War than the declarations of secession issued by Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and other Southern states. It’s always worth revisiting and repeating what the American-Statesman’s editorial board and various Viewpoints contributors have argued over the years, whether the issue is the Confederate battle flag or Confederate statues on the University of Texas campus: All one has to do is read these declarations of secession to know that all causes of the Civil War come back to slavery.

The Texas declaration of secession, in defending slavery, denounces “the debasing doctrine” that all men are created equal. So much for your Southern great-great-grandpappy’s patriotic loyalty to the nation’s founding principle.

Mississippi’s declaration of secession wastes no time getting to its point, announcing in its second sentence: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.”

Then there’s Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy. In his infamous “Cornerstone Speech,” delivered March 21, 1861, Stephens concedes that the Founding Fathers, though many of them owned slaves, considered slavery a “violation of the laws of nature” and “an evil” that they hoped would somehow magically disappear over time. But the assumption on which the Founders rested their ideas — that all men are created equal — “was an error,” Stephens declares.

The Confederate government, he continues, “is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the Negro is not equal to the white man; and that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.”

Lee’s apologists like to pull three sentences from an 1856 letter the future Confederate general wrote to his wife, in which he describes slavery as “a moral and political evil,” as proof he opposed slavery, and only joined the rebellion against the United States out of a sense of honor and duty to his home state of Virginia. What they usually leave out, however, is Lee telling his wife that “blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically,” and that slavery was “necessary for their further instruction as a race.” Lee also grouses about Northern abolitionists and cloaks the last part of his letter in a bunch of hooey about how abolitionists should let Providence accomplish its purpose on its own time. He never stops to ponder whether Providence might be using abolitionists to work its will.

Lee inherited about 200 slaves from his father-in-law, George Custis, whose will stipulated the slaves were to be freed as quickly as possible and certainly within five years of his death. Lee tarried and was known as a harsh taskmaster. While Lee opposed secession, in the end he betrayed his oath as an Army officer and joined the Confederacy. Numerous other Army officers from Virginia honored their commissions and fought to preserve the Union.

Changing the name of Lee Elementary won’t change this history of the Civil War.

What changing the name of Lee Elementary does do is it brings another small close to the reactionary, post-Reconstruction effort in the South to revise the Civil War’s history into a Lost Cause myth — an effort that gained new reactionary force during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The naming of Lee Elementary in 1939 was part of this historical revision.

A campaign to rename three other Austin schools named after Confederates — Eastside Memorial High School at the Johnston campus, named after Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston of Texas, who was killed at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862; John H. Reagan High School, named after a Texas member of Congress who served as the postmaster general for the Confederacy; and Sidney Lanier High School, named after the musician and author who served in the Confederate army — has not materialized. As the American-Statesman’s Melissa B. Taboada reported Tuesday, the Austin school district will consider changing a school’s name only if a push to do so develops.

Meanwhile, the district is accepting nominations for Lee Elementary’s new name. Berkeley Breathed* Elementary anyone? …


* Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist of “Bloom County.” Raised in Houston, University of Texas alumnus, former freelance American-Statesman editorial cartoonist (briefly). Offered in lieu of Matthew McConaughey Elementary.

Can wave of citizenship applications hurt Trump? Maybe.

Julio Leon, left, collects study materials from Jose Franco during a naturalization workshop in Denver, Feb. 27, 2016. Donald Trump, a Republican presidential hopeful, has used harsh language against Mexican immigrants, compelling legal residents to seek citizenship in time to vote against him in November. (Theo Stroomer/The New York Times)
Julio Leon, left, collects study materials from Jose Franco during a naturalization workshop in Denver, Feb. 27, 2016. Donald Trump, a Republican presidential hopeful, has used harsh language against Mexican immigrants, compelling legal residents to seek citizenship in time to vote against him in November. (Theo Stroomer/The New York Times)

While the number of applications for naturalization generally rises during presidential election years, Donald Trump has provided an extra boost for just such efforts this year. All across the nation, the fear of a Trump presidency and its possible accompanying anti-immigrant policies have created urgency for thousands of immigrants to become U.S. citizens.

Throughout his campaign, Trump — despite describing Mexicans as drug-traffickers and rapists, pledging to build a border wall and vowing to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. — has assured us all that he has the Latino vote in his pocket because, well,  Latinos know he is a job creator. Really? A surge in naturalization applications suggests otherwise.

Motivated by the fear rooted in the harsh immigration rhetoric that’s become all too common in GOP presidential race, many Latino immigrants are taking the steps to become voters. [Now if only all Latinos eligible to vote in the U.S. felt as compelled, Latinos would finally be that force so many politicians fear. (I’ll come back to that point in a separate commentary at a later date.)]

Figures from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services show a 14.5 percent jump in naturalization applications between June-December of 2015 compared with the same six months in the previous year. And that pace speeds up every week. Advocates estimate applications could approach one million in 2016, about 200,000 more than the average in recent years, reported the New York Times.

While much of the citizenship movement have been reported in Colorado, Florida and California, there has been a significant uptick in applications in Texas as well.

In San Antonio, a citizenship workshop in September drew approximately 400 people — up from the 150 to 200 that normally show up, Liliana Mireles, a regional program manager of civic engagement for the NALEO Educational Fund told Texas Tribune reporter Alexa Ura.

In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Proyecto Inmigrante, which typically helps about 1,000 legal residents apply for naturalization each year, has already has already helped 900 in 2016, the group’s director told Ura.

There is no hard deadline to apply for immigrants set on  voting in November, but with approval of naturalization applications taking about five months, immigrant groups in Texas are urging folks to get applications in by April 15 to allow new citizens time to register to vote.

Those who become citizens by then will then have to clear two more hurdles: registering to vote and showing up to the poll. Until each one of those ‘must-do’ boxes are checked, the opportunity to have a voice will go unheard.


‘How do you defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorized.’

A man wears the Belgian flag as people observe a minute of silence in Brussels on Wednesday in honor of the victims of Tuesday’s terror attacks. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

It didn’t take long after news broke of Tuesday’s terrorist bombings in Brussels for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to politicize the attack and issue a call on Facebook urging his fellow Americans “to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” What these new “patrol and secure” powers would be or how they would jibe with the Constitution, Cruz didn’t say. But his post reinforced an observation I have long held that those who claim to love the Constitution more than the rest of us are also the ones who seem most likely to abandon it in a panic.

Cruz’s posturing was just one of several unhelpful reactions to Tuesday’s bombings in Belgium that killed 31 people and wounded 270 others. The response from Republican U.S. Rep. Roger Williams of Austin, for example, was wearily familiar: Brussels was bombed. Seal the border with Mexico!

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Brussels bombings and on Wednesday warned of additional attacks in the West. Two of three suicide bombers were brothers born in Belgium. A third suicide bomber was a Belgian born in Morocco. The three may have been part of a cell that also carried out the attacks in Paris in November that killed 130 people.

In 2008, scholars with the RAND Corporation produced a study, “How Terrorist Groups End,” that surveyed the fates of numerous terrorist organizations worldwide since 1968. Most terrorist groups end either because they eventually decide to join the political process, the study’s authors found, or because police and intelligence agencies arrest or kill a group’s key members. While the military has a role to play in the fight against terrorism, and sometimes the role can be large, the study’s authors concluded that terrorism is most effectively attacked as a political and criminal act rather than as an act of war. They called for a fundamental rethinking of America’s post-9/11 counter-terrorism strategy, starting with trashing the phrase “war on terrorism.” After all, you can’t defeat an abstract noun.

The Islamic State is not abstract. It is a religious terrorist organization as well as a rebel army that governs parts of Iraq and Syria. As a religious terrorist organization, it is even harder to defeat than groups that are exclusively political, and thus is a difficult law enforcement and intelligence challenge. As a rebel army, it can be pushed out of territory it occupies. And, in fact, the Islamic State has lost more than a fifth of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria.

Cruz and Donald Trump promise to bomb the Islamic State into oblivion if elected president, though at what cost or sacrifice they don’t say. I don’t mean to be overly pessimistic, but I don’t think anyone should be under any illusion that a President Cruz or a President Trump — or a President Hillary Clinton, for that matter — is likely to fundamentally redirect the nation from the counter-terrorism track it’s been on the past 15 years, or engage Islamic terrorism in a way that doesn’t continually risk making matters worse.

The agreements that drew the borders of the modern Middle East after World War I and unsteadily held it together for almost a century appear to have been thrown on history’s ash heap. Their dissolution probably was inevitable after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, out of which the Islamic State evolved. Acknowledging that fact would be helpful. Ditto acknowledging the counterproductive roles that Turkey and Saudi Arabia play in the Middle East — Turkey in undermining the fight against the Islamic State and Saudi Arabia in promoting the spread of radical Islam.

A determined respect for perspective over fear, and a resolute trust in our values, also would help, lest we become the giant who brushes away gnats by smashing furniture and breaking windows. I close with this quote from Salman Rushdie, written after 9/11:

“The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. In his world-view, he has his absolute certainties, while we are sunk in sybaritic indulgences. To prove him wrong, we must first know that he is wrong. We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love. These will be our weapons. Not by making war but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them.

“How to defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorized. Don’t let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared.”

Austin seeing new trend in affordable housing

The city is negotiating an affordable housing deal that requires Brookfield Residential to make 1,000 new housing units in their 10,000-unit Easton Park development available as affordable housing. The first phase for 188 single-family homes is under construction. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
The city is negotiating an affordable housing deal that requires Brookfield Residential to make 1,000 new housing units in their 10,000-unit Easton Park development available as affordable housing. The first phase for 188 single-family homes is under construction. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Austin is seeing a new trend emerge in affordable housing through the city’s smart housing program, which has been on the books since 2000, but only now is being used to generate hundreds of permanent affordable housing units that offer the opportunity for home ownership across the city.

That trend can be seen in at least two deals on the table, the Easton Park development in Southeast Austin and The Grove at Shoal Creek in Central Austin.

The new path is the result of a confluence of politics — as in a new mayor and city council — and a recent change in state law.

Though the city’s smart housing policy always permitted affordable housing developments of this scale, the policy lacked the tools to make it viable, including legislation that would clear the way for cities and nonprofits to use land trusts or other such structures for tax appraisal purposes.

With those limitations, the city’s smart housing policy typically was used to generate one-time affordable housing that reverted to market-rate once sold or rental agreements expired. A change in state law to accommodate land trusts came in 2011. The wheels at the Travis Central Appraisal District turned soon after that.

But politics nor policy changed at City Hall. Mayor Steve Adler said it took Austin’s new 10-1 council to realize the full potential of the smart housing program working with city staff. As a result, the city might well have its most effective tool in generating permanent affordable homes across the city without staging bond elections, accumulating debt or raising taxes.

Despite the benefits, the road has been, well, bumpy.

You might recall that Easton Park, advanced by Adler and District 2 Council Member Delia Garza, initially ran into trouble when critics saw it as a multi-million dollar giveaway to a developer as well as a financial drag on the city’s water utility. It is neither, we are learning as details emerge.

The deal involves waiving fees for Easton Park a planned mixed use development in Southeast Austin that sought zoning changes from the city. The largest of those fees are water and wastewater impact fees, totaling about $51 million over a couple of decades. That could add 64 cents to 96 cents to monthly water bills of Austin residents over multiple years.

What was not fully understood in the roll out is that the developer still must pay those fees. Instead of going to the water utility, however, an amount equal to those fees would be put in a city-run fund. That money would be used to ensure that 10 percent of the 6,500 homes, condos and townhomes planned by developer Brookfield Residential are permanently affordable to lower-income households. In all, 650 homes would be affordable most likely through a land trust so they remain in the hands of lower-income homebuyers forever — even when they are sold.

Another 350 rental units would be reserved for low-income households for a 40-year period.

To quell the controversy, Adler tweaked the details to give the city greater flexibility in using developer fees for either permanent affordable housing or the water utility. With that clarification, the deal looks like it moving toward final approval.

A similar deal is being discussed with developers of The Grove at Shoal Creek as it seeks favorable zoning from the city for its mixed use community in Central Austin. Though it is far from done, it would be the first in a pricey central Austin neighborhood to take advantage of the city’s smart housing program, allowing fee waivers on all housing units in a development so long as at least 5 percent of the ownership units are permanently affordable.

There are greater trade-offs in this deal because the developer, ARG Bull Creek, will keep the savings from fee waivers, so it means less revenue going to Austin Water and other city services. Even so, it’s the right thing to do.

The Grove project would generate dozens of homes and apartments for working- and low-income people in a section of Austin where the median home price was more than $544,000 as of the 2010 census. Consider that affordable-rate condos are estimated to cost from $160,000 to $200,000, while rentals would start at $753 for a one-bedroom apartment and $967 for a three-bedroom unit. In all, the developer is committed to making 5 percent of the ownership units permanently affordable and 10 percent of the rental units affordable for decades.

Adler is talking about the potential of doing similar affordable housing deals with developers of Whisper Valley, Indian Hills and Wildhorse, all in northeast Travis County in the city’s extra territorial jurisdiction or its limited purpose area.

“It’s to the point where we begin the conversation (with developers) with what can we get in permanent affordable housing in mixed-income (developments),” Adler said.

The timing couldn’t be more critical. As Austin’s hot housing market continues to force long-time Austin residents out of the city — in particular African Americans and Latinos — the creation of permanent affordable housing through fee waivers and city housing dollars may be the city’s best tools against gentrification and further economic segregation.

These two election-related podcasts will give you some of the perspective you seek

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Hickory, North Carolina, on Monday. (Chuck Burton / Associated Press)

Perspective is a wonderful thing. Two podcasts — one historical, the other focused on the numbers of the 2016 campaign — can help you put this year’s crazy presidential election in its place.

First, the history. “Presidential” is a Washington Post podcast about, as its name implies, the presidency and the men who have been president. Host Lillian Cunningham assumes a winning naïveté as she interviews historians and journalists, reads from speeches and diaries and old newspaper accounts, and generally pokes into some dusty, forgotten corners to try to discover how each president became president and what each president — “effective or ineffective, esteemed or forgotten” — has to say about the nation’s highest office.

The podcast began Jan. 10. Its 44 weekly episodes, posted each Sunday, are scheduled to conclude Nov. 6, two days before Election Day, with a look at Barack Obama. Because “Presidential” plans 44 episodes, and not 43, I guess I can look forward to its covering Grover Cleveland twice, since he is our 22nd and 24th president. I can’t wait to hear Cunningham take us down the Mugwump path to the Pullman strike.

So far, episodes are averaging an undemanding 39 minutes. The most recent episode, the podcast’s 10th, was about John Tyler, the first vice president to assume the presidency upon the death of a president — in Tyler’s case, William Henry Harrison — thus establishing what became known as the “Tyler Precedent.” Tyler was a lousy president, but he’s the other half of the greatest campaign song — turned campaign slogan — in presidential history, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.”

In 2004, They Might Be Giants released a fantastic version of the song used to defeat that “used up man,” Martin Van Buren, in 1840. Enjoy.

So what perspective does “Presidential” offer? That we’re no crazier than generations of Americans that have gone before us. That we have survived numerous bad presidents in the past. That we’ll probably survive President Trump, too.

The other podcast I want to recommend is “FiveThirtyEight Elections,” produced by the website started by statistical guru Nate Silver, whose number-crunching work has been a necessary political read since 2008.

“Elections” features Silver, host Jody Avirgan, political reporter Clare Malone and Harry Enten, who’s always introduced as FiveThirtyEight’s resident “whiz kid” but who comes across more often as its resident curmudgeon. New episodes post each Monday, and as election results merit. The focus is on polls and votes and what conclusions, if any, can be drawn from the data. But the media — primarily the cable news networks; yeah, looking at you CNN, Fox and MSNBC — are frequently criticized for the occasionally stupid things their analysts and correspondents say and for their frequently misleading and incorrect use of polls and numbers.

What you learn from listening to “Elections” is what any longtime reader of FiveThirtyEight should know by now: Political campaigns are long affairs that reveal themselves slowly. Nothing can tell you anything with certainty — and certainly not a single poll.

In other words: Always take the longer view.


‘An exemplary judge’ for the Supreme Court, not that Republicans care

Judge Merrick Garland speaks at the White House on Wednesday after being introduced by President Barack Obama as his nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

As President Barack Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, visited Democratic Sens. Harry Reid and Patrick Leahy on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stuck to his position that he would not be holding “a perfunctory meeting” with the appeals court judge. A handful of more mannerly Senate Republicans have said they are open to meeting Garland.

No meetings. No hearing. No vote. Let the people have their say in November. The Republican position on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee was expressed in a flurry of statements released Wednesday after Obama introduced Garland:

“Texans and the American people deserve to have a say in the selection of the next lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate and a member of the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement released by his office. “The only way to empower the American people and ensure they have a voice is for the next president to make the nomination to fill this vacancy.”

Though members of the U.S. House have no constitutional role in the confirmation of Supreme Court justices, Republican U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul of Austin released his own statement, saying,Sen. Cornyn and the Republican leadership in the Senate are correct in their decision to not confirm President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court. The precedent has been set for decades, and was continued by Vice President Biden when he was in the Senate, that the Senate should not confirm a Supreme Court nomination in an election year. The American people should have a voice in the direction of the court. They will have the opportunity to be heard at the ballot box in November.”

Obama is not technically a lame duck, which is how Republicans have framed their argument that the seat on the Supreme Court unexpectedly left vacant by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death on Feb. 13 should be filled only after November’s presidential election. Yes, a lame duck is an elected official whose time in office is nearing its end, but traditionally, an elected official becomes a lame duck only after voters elect his successor.

If this debate were happening eight months from now, in mid-November — or maybe even in July or August after each party has selected its presidential nominee — I would agree with the Republicans’ argument that we should let the next president choose Scalia’s successor. But government is meant to act on what voters have done, not on what they might do. Obama is president for another 308 days and the election is 236 days away. There is plenty of time to hold a confirmation hearing and a vote on Garland’s nomination.

Vice President Joe Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1987 to 1995. In a June 1992 Senate speech, he said the Judiciary Committee should “seriously consider not scheduling confirmation hearings” for a Supreme Court nominee in a presidential election year.

Some context to Biden’s remarks, and context matters because it explains Biden’s speech: There was no vacancy on the Supreme Court that Biden was addressing; he was speaking hypothetically in the wake of the contentious Clarence Thomas hearings (which Biden had badly mishandled, I must add); the first of the presidential nominating conventions was only a month away; and should “seriously consider” is not the same as “won’t consider.” By no means was Biden announcing any “rule” that senators shouldn’t consider Supreme Court nominations in a presidential election year.

In choosing Garland, Obama has offered Republicans someone who should be, by any reasonable measure, a consensus nominee. Garland is 63, the oldest Supreme Court nominee in 45 years, so his stay on the court might not equal the generational stay of a nominee a decade or more younger. He is a former federal prosecutor with a reputation as a law-and-order centrist. Thirty-two Republicans voted in 1997 to confirm Garland’s appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, a court over which he currently presides. He is a judge whom Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah once said could be confirmed to the Supreme Court “virtually unanimously.”

There is no apparent reason to reject Garland, whom Obama on Wednesday called “a serious man and an exemplary judge.” He deserves a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee and a confirmation vote. And if the Republicans want to reject his nomination, that’s their constitutional right. But not acting on his nomination violates the spirit of the Constitution.

Politically, having cultivated a sense of betrayal in their constituents for decades, Republicans have locked themselves into an obstructionist corner — out of which they probably will crawl if Hillary Clinton wins the White House in November. Because they know there is no good reason to reject Garland.

Adler: Modernize rules for Uber, Lyft, other e-business

Uber driver Adrianna Garcia shows her support for Uber during a Sept. 2 meeting of the Austin City Council's Mobility Committee. (LAURA SKELDING / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
Uber driver Adrianna Garcia shows her support for Uber during a Sept. 2 meeting of the Austin City Council’s Mobility Committee. (LAURA SKELDING / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Austin is at the top of many lists for technology job creation and number of new startups. But when it comes to regulating e-business, local government still is using regulatory methods more suitable for the Industrial Age than the digital era. That oftentimes creates the kind of political collision Austin is experiencing with ride-hailing companies, Uber and Lyft, according to Mayor Steve Adler and some tech leaders speaking at SXSW on Saturday.

On the one hand, government has a role to play as it is tasked with keeping the public safe, the air clean and roads maintained. But that bumps up against the practices of tech sector businesses that aim to disrupt their way to success.

Moving beyond that impasse requires both — government and private companies – to come up with a new set of regulatory measures that advances the goals of both. Adler’s Thumbs Up! Austin program aims to bridge the gap between the City Council’s fingerprinting mandate for Uber and Lyft drivers and the companies’ business practices that rely on their own background checks, using computer software and social security numbers.

I was inspired and hopeful as I listened to Adler and high tech leaders, Josh Jones-Dilworth, CEO of Jones-Dilworth, Inc. and Francisco Enriquez, co-founder and managing director of Glasshouse Policy, discuss a way forward without the harsh words or hyperbole that has punctuated talks between Uber, Lyft and the Austin City Council.

It’s a timely conversation, coming as the city readies for a May 7 referendum that pits the City of Austin’s regulations governing Uber, Lyft, GetMe and other ride-hailing companies against regulations and fees Uber and Lyft crafted. The stakes are high as Uber and Lyft have threatened to bolt if the current mandate requiring fingerprint-based background checks of drivers remains in place. Meanwhile, there is potential for mischief and/or abuse if corporations — in this case Uber and Lyft — get to write their own their own rules for operating in the city.

In laying out the issue Adler said the city could not ignore or abdicate its safety responsibilities, explaining to an audience of dozens of people why fingerprints checks and the presence of Uber, Lyft and GetMe are important to public safety.

“Our public safety people both locally and at the state level were coming to us saying if drivers were fingerprinted that the community is safer — if you look at just that one element. That was precipitated by the dramatic increase in the number of rapes and sexual assaults showing up at the rape crisis center here in town, Safe Place.

“A lot of women mostly, in their early 20s coming down to Sixth Street or Rainy Street, partying too hard and then getting put into a back seat of a TNC (transportation network company car), being driven home and then waking up the next morning to find they had been assaulted.”

But TNCs, Adler said, also are a key part of the equation of keeping the city safe.

“At the same time, we knew that TNCs were taking drunk drivers off the road, we needed TNCs in town in order to address that safety issue.” Adler told dozens of people attending the SXSW panel.

“I think we’re in the middle of the second industrial revolution,” said Jones-Dilworth. “Government had to step in during the first Industrial Revolution to change some of the ways we regulated labor, environment and pollution.

“There’s been such a sea change in the way goods and services are produced, the onus is on government to react because the old rules no longer apply,” Jones-Dilworth said. “You are seeing that across the board with Apple and the FBI.

“Government needs to catch up.”

Jones-Dilworth, one of the tech leaders who worked on the Thumbs Up! initiative said the program modernizes regulations to make sharing-economy services widely available and at the same time, safer for the community.

The Thumbs Up! program would act as sort of a Good Housekeeping seal for ride-hailing companies and other e-businesses operating in Austin, such as HomeAway and Airbnb. Companies could display on their apps, or even on vehicles, a badge indicating that a driver or homeowner had passed safety checks, including fingerprint checks for drivers. Instead of mandates, Thumbs Up! would use incentives to achieve that goal.

In the case of ride-hailing, that could include reserving for “Thumbs Up” drivers the most convenient passenger loading spots for big events such as the South by Southwest and Austin City Limits music festivals.

Sounds reasonable. But that kind of reason has gotten lost so far in the Uber, Lyft debate. Perhaps it can be resurrected after the May 7 election.




Should parents really worry about Donald Trump?

Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at the Trump National Golf Club, Tuesday, March 8, 2016, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Word to the wise, parents. Your kids are watching you more closely than they are watching Donald Trump.

New York Times writer Sarah Lyall’s piece this week about how parents are dealing with the Trump factor with kids had made the rounds in political and parenting circles. Name calling, mentions of body parts during debates and generally discussions about bullying are popping up left and right because of the nature of the the political discourse this election cycle. During MSNBC’s Morning Joe, journalist Cokie Roberts tried to pin down Trump (video) on the effect that his rhetoric is reportedly having on American children:

“There have been incidents of children, white children, pointing to their darker-skinned classmates and saying, ‘You’ll be deported when Donald Trump is president.’ There have been incidents of white kids at basketball games holding up signs to teams which have Hispanic kids on them, saying, ‘We’re going to build a wall to keep you out,'” Roberts asked Trump on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “Are you proud of that? Is that something you’ve done in American political and social discourse that you’re proud of?”

“Well, I think your question is a very nasty question,” Trump replied. “And I’m not proud of it because I didn’t even hear of it, okay? And I don’t like it at all when I hear about it. You’re the first one whose told me about it.”

My girls are young – 6 and 8. They did not watch the now infamous debate, but if they had, I suspect the reference to Trump’s anatomy would have gone way over their heads. What has not gone over their heads are the snippets on the news about Trump’s and other candidates views on immigrants and women. My oldest is one of those kids who knows which of her classmates parents are immigrants, she knows what the border patrol is and does from driving through El Paso, and yes, she’s fairly convinced that Trump would kick all her friends’ families out.

Of course there are those who argue that such “politically correct” views are exactly what Trump is railing against. But since when did public bigotry and vulgarity come back into favor? There was a time when such behavior was considered inappropriate even if children were not in earshot.

I will say that while I have no problem letting my kids watch a debate if they were interested, anyone who does so should be prepared for questions on all manner of sensitive topics: race relations, poverty, terrorism, torture, abortion. Not exactly the stuff of bedtime stories. Schoolyard innuendos about a candidate’s sexuality are frankly small potatoes.

But the important thing to remember is that kids aren’t watching Trump in a vacuum. Children’s interpretations are a reflection of their parents and those they personally respect — they aren’t watching Trump, Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio or even President Obama for how to act, as much as they looking to how we respond to the  candidate’s actions or statements. They are leaning over our shoulder watching our Facebook posts, listening to whether we cheer when a candidate gets a zinger in,  noting when we chuckle in agreement with a one-liner or copying our nods of approval.

That’s where children get “permission” to single other kids out on the playground. That’s where they  model behavior with their friends, interpret what they see with a child’s lens of social appropriateness and see how far it gets them.

My younger daughter told me the other day that one of her classmates told her that President Obama was evil, and she wanted to know if that was true. I had to carefully explain that there are a lot of people, including at her school, who don’t agree with with his politics or his decisions, but that he is a good man doing what he believes is right. However, I’m betting that the kindergartner who told her that didn’t get it from Trump, Ted Cruz or anyone else running for office. She is repeating what her parents have said to others or to each other at the dinner table.

The real question regarding Trump is whether one can bully, needle and insult his or her way to the presidency? We shall see. If our children start seeing such behavior as a ticket to success, don’t blame Trump or any of the other candidates, blame ourselves.






My Brother’s Keeper director encourages more diversity in nonprofit boards

Michael D. Smith, special assistant to President Obama and Senior Director Cabinet Affairs for My Brother's Keeper at the White House. (Photo by Photo by Miguel Angel #ulovei)
Michael D. Smith, special assistant to President Barack Obama and senior director of cabinet affairs for My Brother’s Keeper at the White House, during the second installment of The New Philanthropists speaker series on March 10, 2016.  (Photo by Photo by Miguel Angel #ulovei)


Take a close look at the board members of many, if not most, local nonprofits and you’ll notice people of color are either missing entirely or make up just a fraction of a particular board’s membership.

It’s s a problem The New Philanthropists, a collaboration between GivingCity Austin and Mando Rayo + Collective, is trying to address by having the much-needed conversation and matching interested individuals with nonprofits. On Tuesday, nearly 100 members of local nonprofits as well as concerned citizens gathered at the KLRU studios at the University of Texas for the second installment of The New Philanthropists speaker series.

On hand to underline the urgency of the local efforts to increase diversity in nonprofit boards was Michael D. Smith, special assistant to President Barack Obama and senior director of cabinet affairs for My Brother’s Keeper at the White House. During his one-hour keynote address, Smith shared some of his personal experiences in the world of charity and reminded the audience of the benefits of a diverse executive board. Before coming to work for the White House, Smith was senior vice president of social innovation at the Case Foundation.

Good intentions notwithstanding, non-profit leaders may very well have a plan on how to help low-income Central Texans, many of whom are of families of color, move out of poverty and access better education. But, if these organizations have no one on their board with similar life experiences as those they hope to serve, the organization’s reach will be limited. Long-term impact comes with a deep and wide enough pool of diverse opinions and ideas, which includes more people of color.

Some Austin nonprofits have already made a conscious shift to include more experienced, bright people of color on their executive boards, but more groups need to follow suit.

President Obama would say that, “this is not just a moral obligation. This is about an economic imperative,” Smith told Tuesday’s audience. “And it is about having the courage to break down the barriers of racism, of inequities and some of the implicit bias that we see every single day.”

“If we can close the gap in employment between young men of color age 16 to 24 and their peers, we’d see an increase in the GDP by 2 percent,” Smith continued.

With an increasing need for science, technology, engineering and mathematics jobs in Texas and a narrow pipeline of talented young people to fill them, nonprofits can help fill the gap. So, it’s imperative that the organizations focused on helping children of color succeed in reaching those kids. Having adequate representation of that community – someone who knows the pulse of the people, how to reach them, as well as knows what brings them together and tears them apart – at the table when writing its mission is key to that success.

“If we can get to that place and end that measure of segregation (of non-diverse executive boards), that intellectual segregation that this city still has, we will be in such a wonderful place,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who acknowledges the need for more diverse nonprofit executive boards, said in his introduction of Smith. “We’ll function better and find that the mission of these organizations perhaps changes, but will meet its mission and purpose in ways that are today aren’t really being met.” And that, my friends, will benefit us all.