John Sharp"Don’t tax you. Don’t tax me. Tax that fellow behind the tree" was an expression coined by the late Senator Russell Long of Louisiana who was the longtime Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. It is an apt expression as Gov. Perry’s tax reform commission conducts public hearings all across Texas and hears recommendations on various solutions to the school finance issue which must be resolved by a June 1st deadline set by the Texas Supreme Court. It is expected that Gov. Perry will call another special session sometime in April to address this issue once the party primaries and run offs are completed.
Conventional wisdom has it hat the legislature will come up with a patchwork, short-term solution to the Robin Hood scheme of excessive reliance on property taxes which has been declared unconstitutional by the Texas Supreme Court. But, this may be a real opportunity for the legislature, Speaker, Lt. Governor, and Governor to "bite the bullet" and fix the problem for the foreseeable future by putting in place a broad-based, low rate tax that would be far more equitable than the current Robin Hood system.
The two plans that best meet those goals are David Hartman’s business activities tax and Albert Huddleston’s flat-rate income tax. As regular readers of DallasBlog know, I favor Hartman’s BAT while Scott Bennett supports the Huddleston approach. Both plans would rid us of Robin Hood and share many similarities, particularly when it comes to making sure that reform of the current system is part and parcel of any change in the way we finance elementary and secondary education in Texas.
It is not right that 15 in every 16 businesses in Texas avoid the state’s main business tax (the franchise tax) because of loopholes in the law. John Sharp, the Chairman of Perry’s Tax Commission makes a good point when he states: "There are going to be some people that are going to hold out until the end, that think that the good Lord put ‘em here not to pay taxes. But, most of the business community knows that that’s not a situation that can work."
Rick Perry deserves a lot of credit for burying the hatchet with his former opponent John Sharp and appointing his fellow Aggie Classmate to chair this Commission. Now, if the Lt. Governor will get over his grudge against Sharp – who also ran for Lt. Governor against David Dewhurst – and work with Sharp instead of going off in a different direction with his separately appointed Senate Committee to study the issue, then this could be a real opportunity to rid ourselves of Robin Hood and establish a much fairer system of funding public education in our state. I’m betting that John Sharp is just the man to get that done. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sharp's Commission doesn’t propose a solution along the lines of the business activities tax which has been developed by Austin businessman David Hartman. It is the kind of proposal that is fair to all and one that could win bi-partisan support from a majority of legislators if the Sharp Commission were to recommend its adoption.
Pappy O'Daniel and the Hillbilly BoysSo here’s Rick Perry preparing to defend the Governor’s Mansion not just against some theoretical Democrat but also against Carole ("One Tough Grandma") Strayhorn, running as an independent, if you please, with Kinky Friedman threatening to upstage the lot of them – I didn’t say beat ‘em, I said upstage ‘em – and one logical conclusion would be that, if nothing else this fall, the electorate will be empowered to think about matters other than Iraq, Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff, and whether Dallas or Waco gets the Bush library.
Politics, once the preferred form of indoor/outdoor spectacle for Texans, next to high school football, may recover some of its lost cachet. Which would take some recovering inasmuch as the grim partisan wars of the past few decades have drained local enthusiasm for the kind of entertainment the electorate once drank in: Allan Shivers vs. Ralph Yarborough, LBJ vs. Coke Stevenson vs. George Parr vs. the Texas Rangers, the press vs. Preston Smith. We’ve never elected an independent as governor, but the sober Norsemen of Minnesota anointed Jesse Ventura, so even Perry has to crack the door to such a possibility.
Strayhorn and Friedman alike have, seemingly, the potential to let things get wild and crazy. The former disappears when standing behind a rain barrel, but you can hear her from 20 miles away. The latter is presently hawking what the Wall Street Journal’s John Fund this week described as "a 13-inch, cigar-wielding doll with Mr.Friedman’s features holding a news conference." Friedman – I think we might describe him as an entertainer – has hired Ventura’s advertising consultant.
Well, why not? When it comes to entertainment of one kind or another, the precedent stretches back at least to 1938. That was when Willard Lee O’Daniel, the Fort Worth flour company owner and radio host, with a hillbilly band and more sheer nerve than an Army mule, took on an entire field of seasoned candidates – and beat ‘em.
There was a Republican candidate, but no one back then cared. The major players were all Democrats – Atty. Gen. William McCraw, Railroad Commissioner Ernest O. Thompson, semi-perpetual candidate Tom Hunter – and Pappy O’Daniel (so-called due to his radio show lead-in: "Please pass the biscuits, Pappy!")The popular Pappy had asked listeners to write and tell him whether he should run for governor. As he told it, 54, 499 of them said yes; just four said no. Into the race he jumped on May 1, 1938. His platform: the Ten Commandments, no sales tax, and $30-a-month state pensions at age 65. His slogan: the Golden Rule. A complementary slogan soon followed: "Less Johnson grass and politicians; more smokestacks and businesmen."
Pappy took to the hustings with faith, his teenage children, and a hillbilly band. By June the crowds had discovered him. At Colorado City 3,000 waited three hours to see him. He pulled the biggest crowd Denton had seen in decades. The small-towners and country folk primarily lined up for him. Yet, in Austin, he drew perhaps 40,000.
There was no TV then. It was face-to-face contact in the middle of the hot summer, with moral exhortation, folk wisdom – and, maybe above all, hillbilly music, including a song of the candidate’s own composition – "O beautiful, beautiful Texas, where the beautiful bluebonnets grow/We’re proud of our forefathers, who fought at the Alamo...")
The music afforded what legend calls candidatorial cover. Asked how he was going to pay for such-and-such a program, so the story goes, Pappy would signal the band: "Play, Leon!" It likely never happened that way. Pappy’s glib-folksy tongue pulled him out of virtually all difficulties.
In the July primary Pappy ran first in 231 of Texas’ 254 counties. It was enough and more than enough. The historian Seth McKay would write: "He had no political organization of any kind, no campaign manager other than his wife, no newspaper support in the early weeks of the contest, and was totally lacking in political experience. The only possible conclusion is that O’Daniel’s victory in 1938 was due to his skill and long record in the use of the radio."
He won a second term as well, broke or bent various of his fiscal promises, ran a thoroughly conservative, businessman’s administration, and won election to the U. S. Senate in 1941, only to step down in 1948. Lyndon Johnson and Box 13, Jim Wells County, lay in Texas’, and America’s, future.
A semi-clown O’Daniel may have been; but he connected with the voters, not necessarily because they, too, were semi-clowns; it was likelier because they liked him. At least then they did. A quarter of a century later, Pappy essayed a comeback. His caravan with hillbilly band came to my hometown. Down at the courthouse I saw a sad reflection of the vital personality that had been W. Lee O’Daniel, back in a day before politics had been turned over to the consultants, the fundraisers, and the sound-bite writers. This time he lost by a mile. But while it lasted, it was – kind of, some of the time – fun.
Samuel AlitoIt’s hard to believe, but the big week is finally here. The confirmation hearings for Samuel Alito will begin today at noon EST. For years, many political commentators have predicted that this particular Senate hearing—the one discussing the replacement for swing Justice Sandra Day O’Connor—will be an unprecedented showdown between the political left and right.
But what, exactly, is behind the furor?
To hear political commentators speak, all sides seem to be espousing the same idea: Good judges should neutrally apply the law to situations before them. Liberal Democratic politicians will say it, as will conservative Republicans. But each side will then identify different judges as their "ideal" candidate for the bench. "Neutrally apply the law" seems to mean something different to each side of the aisle. But what?
The difference is in judicial philosophy. Each side differs in their preferred method of interpreting the law.
Some judges exercise a philosophy of restraint. They are originalists. They seek to find and apply the original meaning of a text, believing that new textual meanings, when needed, should be added by elected legislators. They recognize that the Constitution has one meaning that does not change over time. They are likely to say that shifting political or cultural considerations should be reflected in the legislature, not in judicial opinions. These judges see themselves as the umpires of the legal arena, doing their bests to call balls and strikes within a pre-determined strike zone.
Other judges, by contrast, maintain a more activist judicial philosophy. These judges tend to speak of the Constitution as a "living" document with a meaning that changes over time. Such a statement is as ridiculous as believing that an umpire can unilaterally change the strike zone over the course of several games, months, or years. A formal rule change is needed before an umpire can start calling balls thrown at ankle height a "strike." In the same way, if and when an amendment to the Constitution or laws is needed, it is the job of lawmakers, not judges, to begin this process.
After all, legislators who misread the political tealeaves can be voted out of office. Judges cannot.
The President has chosen to nominate Alito because he believes that Alito will exercise a philosophy of restraint. All evidence indicates that his confidence in Alito is well-founded. Alito will do his best to apply a pre-existing strike zone to the situation before him. He will not create new strike zones as he perceives that the Constitution is "growing" or "changing" over time.
Such a situation is healthy for our country. Judges who exercise a philosophy of restraint allow the voters to govern themselves. By contrast, activist judges undermine the democratic principles in our Constitution, instead setting themselves up as the ultimate arbiters of what is good and bad, right or wrong.
When Senators argue about Alito’s fitness this week, remember that they are saying the same words, but with different meanings. Some Senators want judges who are restrained. Others like the world in which activist judges can use a "living" Constitution to deliver political results.
Athletics has always played a key role in the civil rights movement. Because of the unique relationship between whites in power and Black super star football player, for a brief moment in history, Texas Longhorn quarterback, Vince Young, was the next Martin Luther King, Jr. In the glare of the world’s sports media spotlight, just a week and a few days before the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, Vince Young became a shining example of what Dr. King wished for in his “I Have A Dream “speech. I don’t mean to overstate the magnitude of a college football game, but Vince Young showed the world that white folks who have talented Black folks in their midst are better off then those whites who have not taken advantage of one of our country’s greatest assets.
Dr. King’s memorable “I Have A Dream” speech was all about seeing doors open for African-Americans allowing us to compete and succeed in a world that was dominated by Anglos. Throughout the 2005 college football season, Vince Young set out to lead a team and a state like no other Black man has ever been allowed to do. This quest was even more significant when you consider the University of Texas held the dubious distinction of being the last all white team to win the national collegiate football championship.
Let’s be clear here. There have been several Black quarterbacks who have excelled in college football on white teams before Vince Young. Florida State’s Charlie Ward won the Heisman and gave legendary coach, Bobby Bowden, his first national championship. Texas has even been led by a Black quarterback in the past. Several Black quarterbacks currently hold starting jobs in the NFL. So, what makes Vince Young a momentary incantation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?
After Hurricane Katrina and the horrific images of Black Americans being treated like third world refugees, Black communities all over America are nervous about the state of race relations. The current Republican administration with a president that has the lowest approval rating among African-Americans then any president in recent memory does not ease Black America’s concerns that maybe race relations have been put on the political back burner. The University of Texas ironically is considered by many South of the Trinity as far more racist then the rural dwelling, Texas A&M, even though Austin is considered an urbane yuppie oasis for many whites.
With all of that on the table, here comes Vince Young. All week leading up to the big game, UT past greats were praising Young for his leadership qualities. The pundits talked of how a young Black kid from the Houston ghetto was able to change a white coach’s style enabling the coach and his staff to better relate in a positive way to the young Black urban males who made up the nucleus of the Texas Longhorn football team.
Dr. Martin Luther King was not able to fulfill his dream and lead a color blind America into the Promised Land where race is no longer a factor. And Vince Young did not fulfill King’s dream either. But for one shining moment in the course of a college football season, Vince Young made some white folks wonder if maybe they needed to loosen up and listen to what some African-American are saying about the state of our great nation. There was one other thing Vince Young, an urban Black male brought up almost entirely by Black women, did accomplish. He opened up “the eyes of Texas” and that’s how we see it South of the Trinity.
In the early 80s I attended an Austin party and met a young state rep from Houston by the name of Tom DeLay. As I recall we chatted for nearly half-an-hour and to the extent he made any impression at all the memory is mostly of a not terribly bright, amiable, even slightly goofy good-time-Charlie. During the days I covered the Texas Legislature I cannot recall anyone ever mentioning Tom DeLay except in relation to party antics.
In 1990 I again met Tom DeLay for lunch in Washington DC. It was an off-the-record lunch with a man I was told was fast becoming one of the most powerful GOP politicians around. Huh? Hot Tub Tom? Surely someone was pulling my leg. But no this Tom DeLay bore no relation to the man I had met years before. That Tom DeLay was ready to rock. This Tom DeLay was ready to fight.
On a personal level I took an instant and total dislike to him. He was openly irritated his staff has arranged a meeting with a member of the press, even one reasonably philosophically in tune with his views. He clearly considered anyone working for a mainstream media organization to be an enemy and his way of dealing with enemies was to get in their face. What I remember most about this Tom DeLay was that he was only too happy to make enemies – looked forward to it. Friends, he told me, were fickle but you could count on enemies. See who a man’s enemies were and you would know instantly if you could trust him, he advised.
On a political level I found DeLay fascinating. One of my personal political heroes has always been Sam Rayburn. Mr. Sam was a man who knew how to accumulate and use power. My favorite Rayburn story had Mr. Sam calling a committee chairman from Maryland to demand he cut lose a bill Rayburn wanted passed. He told the chairman he had 24-hours to report the bill favorably, or he, Rayburn, would move Annapolis to Galveston. The bill was duly reported out.
DeLay at this point was nobody. Newt Gingrich was just a rabble rousing backbencher. Dick Armey was just a nutty professor sleeping under his desk. But the new Tom DeLay was clearly in the thick of planning an overthrow of the regime ancient in Congress. Enough Mr. Nice Guy, he said. Republicans had to stop thinking like they were a “constitutionally ordained minority.” The time had come to get in some face and kick some butt. Yes, you needed “media smoothies” (I think he meant Gingrich) and “pointy heads” (I think he meant Dick Armey), but what you really needed was somebody who could get people elected and break heads. He clearly meant DeLay.
I have never seen or spoken with Tom DeLay since. But that meeting encouraged me to watch carefully and with interest. Personal distaste aside the idea of someone who was willing to seek and use power to create party discipline was an idea I liked. Political parties needed to stand for something and their members shouldn’t be able to take party money and then become free agents. DeLay I believed could never be Speaker; he was too unpolished to be a public spokesperson, and too hard-line right to be out front; he wasn’t made for the media age. But boy if he was willing to operate in the shadows - look out.
In 1994 the hero of the mainstream media, Bill Clinton, handed control of Congress to the GOP and “Hot Tub Tom” became the “Hammer.” The Hammer rose quickly to become the most powerful party master since Rayburn. But he wasn’t Mr. Sam. Mr. Sam understood when to hold them and when to fold them. He never gave his enemies any more reason to hate him than they already had. He allowed his defeated foes their dignity. Mr. Sam knew today’s foe could be tomorrow’s friend and he didn’t want to make the trip back more difficult. Finally, Mr. Sam knew that there was a legal limit and an ethical limit. He never crossed either line.
Personally, I believe that Tom DeLay did what Ronnie Earle says he did; I just don’t think it was illegal. Personally, I don’t believe that Tom DeLay played ball any harder than Democrats in years gone by when he manipulated the redrawing of Texas Congressional lines; he just did it at the wrong time. He saw that the key to a Republican Congress and his own power was raising money just like Mr. Sam whose power was largely built on oil money flowing into Democratic campaigns across the country. But just as Mr. Sam had a blind spot for Lyndon Johnson, the Hammer apparently had one for Jack Abramoff. The problem was that Lyndon was bound for the White House and Abramoff for the jail house.
The DeLay era is over. We may never see his like again. That is both a good thing and a bad thing.