Sunday, October 31, 2004

Feeling Good About Texas

At a dance hall down in Texas
That's the finest place to be.
Oh the women, they all look beautiful
And the men will buy your beer for free.

Lyle Lovett,
That's right you're not from Texas
(Texas wants you anyway)

Some days I feel really good about being a Texan. Not every day, but today I do. Perhaps it's relative, because as I check around at my favorite blogs I find things aren't that great everywhere else:

The esteemed Pete Guither at Drug War Rant had his home-district Congressional endorsee reject his donation to protest his anti-prohibition views, while her opponent demagogues against Pete in direct mail. (Hard to believe she's sending money back -- she's getting her ass kicked in fundraising.) I say good for Pete for outing a coward -- another spineless Dem wouldn't have been worth much anyway.

Meanwhile, Baylen at D'Alliance consoles himself that a Green Party DA's candidate from Madison, Wisconsin is talking sense on the drug war, even though she's running against a Dem incumbent who will win.

And drug war critics from High Times to the aforementioned Guither have endorsed Kerry despite a rotten record as an over-the-top drug warrior. In perhaps a moment of excessive fervor, an outraged Last One Speaks found Guither's ostracism by a spineless Democrat reason to vote for Kerry. (Bush is frankly better on a lot of the drug war stuff I care about, than Kerry, though I'm with Natalie Maines and wouldn't endorse him for dogcatcher.)

These blogs are plaintive cries from good folks having to live with half a loaf or less, and I empathize.

Yesterday, I drove to the Metroplex for a well-attended town hall meeting held by the League of United Latin American Citizens, in Grand Prairie, halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth. There I listened to Ray Allen, the Republican chairman of the Texas House Corrections committee -- which oversees the Texas prison system -- refer to the Drug War with comments like, "Let's put people that we are afraid of in jail, not the ones that we are only mad at."

A life-long pro-life and gun-rights activist, Chairman Allen endorsed with few qualifications the findings of fine, recent study by LULAC, which lays out the case against overincarceation based on pragmatic realism, compassion and human rights. Allen called for increasing the parole-release rate, even after his opponent had called for lowering it, hoping to run to his right as tougher on crime.

My friends Ana Correa of LULAC and ACLU's Ann del Llano opened the event tag-teaming to describe eight "myths" about the criminal justice system -- a critique that basically calls for substantially reducing sentences for non-violent crimes and overhauling the probation and parole systems. The crowd issued audible gasps and cries of "no way" when Ann revealed that Texas has identified 1,941 separate acts we've labeled as felonies, including 'electrocuting fish,' and in some cases, prostitution, graffiti, and stealing cable. One in 11 Texans is a felon, and one in 20 is currently in prison, on probation, or on parole. The Fort Worth Startlegram coverage said the audience appeared "stunned" by the statistics. They were almost equally stunned when their Republican state representative stood up and told the crowd, to closely paraphrase, since I didn't take notes, 'everything these extraordinary women just told you was true.'

Allen said the agenda ACLU and LULAC were proposing had historically been considered "liberal," but that the groups brought him only the best of facts and analysis. He'd come to be convinced of the positions in the report because of his conservative principles, he said, not in spite of them. The cost to the state, the harm to inmates' future prospects and their families, and evidence that incarceration doesn't stop recidivism, but other methods do, were the main reasons he cited.

This isn't just a man bites dog story, Chairman Allen in 2003 actually proposed a bill lowering the lowest level drug possession crimes to a misdemeanor. In the waning days of the session, a nationally touted compromise bill passed that kept the charge at a felony, but required judges to sentence defendants to probation and treatment instead of incarceration on the first offense, a provision that affected 4,000 people this year. Allen told Governing magazine he was able to do it for the same reasons Nixon could go to China -- his hard right positions on other issues make him immune to attacks as soft.

As a matter of full disclosure, I worked on Chairman Allen's re-election campaign professionally this cycle -- my first Republican client ever in more than 60 campaigns -- and I'm also listed as a reader on LULAC's report; in other words, I'm conflicted out the wazoo so take it as you will -- I make no pretense at objectivity.

Still, the admission requires some small explanation for my Democrat friends. In this partisan era, crossing party lines inevitably makes some people mad, plus he and I disagree on a lot of important stuff, starting with choice, not just abortions but schools. I chose to work for Allen precisely because of his leadership on the criminal justice issues described above. His district was targeted by pro-choice groups and Democrats as one of the few competitive seats in North Texas, and he's presently in quite a nasty race. To my way of thinking, though, if Allen loses, the Texas Legislature will still be pro-life, but criminal justice reformers would lose an important Republican friend, and a committee chair to boot. That made it a no-brainer. Yesterday I was proud of Chairman Allen, and it made me feel completely comfortable, perhaps for the first time, about the decision to help his campaign.

House District 106 is becoming competitive largely because of a growing Latino population, so whether or not Allen survives on Tuesday, Latinos and LULAC will play an increasingly important role in the district's future. Saturday, Allen came with the exact message LULACers wanted to hear -- shift money away from incarcerating non-violent offenders and toward schools and healthcare -- but it remains to be seen if it won him their votes. If he wins and can deliver at the Legislature, Allen may help demonstrate that progressive positions on the Drug War can earn Latino votes in swing districts in Texas and the Southwest.

If THAT happens, then the light at the end of the Drug War tunnel may not turn out to be a train. I could be kidding myself, but you've gotta try something, huh?

No comments: