Naked City

Does Compassion Pay?

When Gov. Rick Perry signed the hate crimes act  last week, Stella Byrd (l) called it the best Mother's Day present I've ever received.
When Gov. Rick Perry signed the hate crimes act last week, Stella Byrd (l) called it "the best Mother's Day present I've ever received." (Photo By Jana Birchum)

The ink had barely dried on a new hate crimes bill when political pundits started placing bets on how Gov. Rick Perry's decision to sign the legislation into law will play out in the 2002 statewide election. Perry hasn't officially stated his intent to run for the seat he inherited from former Gov. George W. Bush, but he is expected to top the state Republican ticket next year with no GOP opposition.

Given that, Perry's May 11 signing of the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act took many by surprise, since a large chunk of his constituency is made up of right-wing Republicans who opposed the legislation. Still, his unexpected decision seemed a fitting end to what had already been a surreal, madcap week at the Capitol. Lawmakers, working into the wee hours to move bills along or risk losing them altogether, had by the end of the week grown weary and punchy, a state that was brought on in part by the emotionally charged hate crimes debate that had preceded the Senate vote on May 7.

What moved Perry to sign the bill will long be a topic of heated debate in its own right, though he said at the signing that he arrived at his decision after taking a figurative walk or two in other Texans' shoes. Those who had worked for and lobbied for a tougher hate crimes law praised the governor's decision to sign the bill within hours after it reached his desk. But others -- such as the conservative Texas Eagle Forum and a high-level Democratic political strategist -- were more critical of the governor's move, albeit for very different reasons.

Kelly Fero, a spokesman and strategist for two Democratic statewide office-seekers -- former Perry opponent John Sharp for lieutenant governor and Tony Sanchez Jr., a likely candidate for governor -- says Perry's actions on hate crimes have earned him the nickname "Captain Kowtow."

"First he tried to block the bill," Fero said, referring to Perry's successful maneuver last month to halt the bill's move to the Senate floor for debate. "Then he tried to get in front of the bill and sign it right away. But even as he signed the bill he said he had problems with it." In reality, Fero continued, "Rick Perry's hand was politically forced on hate crimes. And, as with most politicians, he tried to have it both ways, but in the end he may not have it either way."

In contrast, public relations consultant Bill Miller, who has represented both Democrats and Republicans, says Perry's act will pay off in his gubernatorial campaign. "There might be some griping from the right wing, but at the end of the day they're going to vote for him over a Democrat in the general election," Miller said. "Perry helped himself by signing the bill," he added, "because it's going to be hard for the Democrats to portray him as a conservative. He'll be recognized as a moderate, popular Republican -- and that's real tough to beat in Texas these days."

Whatever differences the two Democratic sponsors of the legislation have had with Perry in the past, those differences weren't evident at last week's ceremony, attended by Stella Byrd and James Byrd Sr., the parents of the1998 hate crime victim for whom the bill is named. "This is the best Mother's Day present I've ever received," Stella Byrd said afterward. House sponsor Senfronia Thompson's eyes welled with tears as she watched Perry put his signature on the bill. Rodney Ellis, the Houston lawmaker who carried the proposal in the Senate, credited Thompson's tenacity. "More than anything else," Ellis said, smiling, "this bill needed a tough, strong black woman" to get it through.

The hardest-fought battle on the way to passing the bill, of course, centered on opposition to the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the new statute, which takes effect Sept. 1. Dianne Hardy-Garcia, executive director of the Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, praised the Byrd family for not backing off from the inclusion of "sexual preference" in the legislation. "There were many opportunities to cut gays out of the bill, and the bill would have passed easily, but the Byrd family never wavered on the gay issue. They stuck by us," Hardy-Garcia said.

From a prosecutorial perspective, the Travis Co. District Attorney's office lauded the merits of the bill. "This particular statute is probably more useful in lower-level assaults," said First Assistant DA Rosemary Lehmberg, referring to the stiffer penalties that will go on the books for a broad range of crimes, from graffiti to arson. If, for example, police and prosecutors charge that a church or synagogue arson was motivated by hatred, the second-degree felony is ratcheted up to a first-degree felony, which carries a penalty of five years to life in prison.

"The key to a successful prosecution of a hate crime," said Lehmberg, "is on the investigative end. We need to make sure we collaborate with police to identify these hate crimes."

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Rick Perry, James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, Kelly Fero, Senfronia Thompson, Rodney Ellis, Bill Miller, Stella Byrd, Dianne Hardy-Garcia, Rosemary Lehmberg

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