Naked City

Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond

It’s just an arbitrary number, no more or less tragic than all the others, but U.S. combat deaths in Iraq passed the psychological barrier of 2,000 last week. To mark the death – and officially, his name was Staff Sgt. George T. Alexander, 34, of Killeen – about 250 anti-war activists met on the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge over Town Lake, joining others around the nation, on Oct. 26. At press time, the toll had risen to 2,026. With 94 combat deaths, October was the fourth deadliest month since the war began in 2003.
It’s just an arbitrary number, no more or less tragic than all the others, but U.S. combat deaths in Iraq passed the psychological barrier of 2,000 last week. To mark the death – and officially, his name was Staff Sgt. George T. Alexander, 34, of Killeen – about 250 anti-war activists met on the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge over Town Lake, joining others around the nation, on Oct. 26. At press time, the toll had risen to 2,026. With 94 combat deaths, October was the fourth deadliest month since the war began in 2003. (Photo By Jana Birchum)


Quote of the Week

"Our goal for this process was to create a policy of disablement, not deadly force, for African-Americans. It's not really a new policy, because in reality, white folks already have it." – Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder, discussing police proposals under the African-American Quality of Life Implementation Plan. See "Engineering Quality – and Equality."

Headlines

Early voting for next week's constitutional amendment propositions and Travis Co. bond proposals ends Friday, and election day is Tuesday, Nov. 8. A Texas group calling themselves the American White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan plan to rally Saturday afternoon, 1-3pm, at City Hall, on behalf of "family values" – their way of supporting a yes vote on Prop. 2, the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Counter-demonstrators, heavy security, and full moons are all likely.

• Longtime Austin civil rights activist Volma Overton, 81, died Monday after a long illness. Overton was president of the Austin NAACP for 20 years and was legendary for his gentleness, kindness, and resolute courage in the face of racism. He filed the 1970 lawsuit (with his daughter DeDra as chief plaintiff) that eventually ended legal segregation in AISD.

• The Citizen Review Panel of the city's Police Monitor's Office held a hearing Monday night to hear public comments on the June police shooting of Daniel Rocha in southeast Austin. The shooting remains under investigation, and the panel will make its recommendations to the Austin Police Department for action this week.

• U.S. House Majority Leader-in-Exile Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, was in an Austin courtroom again this week, where his lawyers successfully argued that Judge Bob Perkins should be recused because of the potential public perception of bias – Perkins has contributed to Democratic candidates and causes. DeLay also hopes to be granted a change of venue from Travis Co. – despite our widespread reputation for being soft on crime.


Naked City

• Turnout for early voting on the constitutional amendments and county bonds has been predictably light in Travis County, even with the hot-button issue of gay marriage on Proposition 2. Combining early votes and mail-in ballots, 6.17% of registered voters had made their choices as of Tuesday night, comprising 32,911 total ballots cast. Highest turnout by far has been at UT with 3,456 voters; lightest has been the Northeast Health Center, with a mere 235. Early voting continues through Friday, Nov. 4; see p.10 for locations and hours. Election day is Nov. 8. – Lee Nichols

• In the ongoing war of words over Proposition 2, state Attorney General Greg Abbott has weighed in with a pro-Prop. 2 memo refuting opponents' claims that the measure would actually threaten heterosexual marriages. "In my legal judgment," Abbott wrote Thursday, "this argument is wholly without merit." Abbott was responding to charges made by Save Texas Marriage, a sister organization of the No Nonsense in November campaign, which points to the amendment's language prohibiting the recognition of unions that are "identical or similar" to marriage. A literal interpretation of the language could jeopardize male-female marriages, the group attests. Not so, says Abbott, who cited a 1991 Texas Supreme Court decision instructing courts to consider legislative intent when ruling on a constitutional amendment's meaning. However, Liz Brenner, an attorney for STM, says Abbott neglected to consider one of his own opinions – a 1997 case in which then Supreme Court Justice Abbott wrote that, when interpreting the state constitution, "we rely heavily on its literal text and are to give effect to its plain language." The opinion in that case favored the Republican Party in a lawsuit. "We should give more weight to what Justice Abbott wrote in his capacity as a judge," said Brenner, "than a letter that attorney Greg Abbott wrote in an effort to bail out his cronies who can't put a sentence together correctly." – Amy Smith

• Having successfully knocked off the judge in his money-laundering case, U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay now turns to his next target – Travis County, where he says he can't get a fair trial. Following testimony Tuesday, Visiting District Judge C.W. "Bud" Duncan of Bell County granted DeLay's motion to remove District Judge Bob Perkins from the case, an unprecedented decision in Texas criminal courts. But DeLay is no ordinary criminal defendant. DeLay had argued that Perkins' political contributions to Democratic groups and candidates – more than $5,000 since 2000 – taints his ability to preside over DeLay's trial in a fair and impartial manner. Of course, that's small change compared to the $1.4 million DeLay's defense fund has taken from Republican supporters and political action committees during the same five-year period. (It was also noted that Duncan, a Democrat, gave some $500 to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn during the latter's tenures as state attorney general and Texas Supreme Court justice.) A new judge for DeLay's case could be named by the end of the week. That decision falls on Seguin Republican Judge B.B. Schraub, who presides over the 3rd Administrative Judicial Region. – A.S.

About 200 protesters took to the street Saturday in a march that ended at the Governor’s Mansion. The sixth annual March to Stop Executions was organized by the Texas Moratorium Network, among other groups.
About 200 protesters took to the street Saturday in a march that ended at the Governor’s Mansion. The sixth annual March to Stop Executions was organized by the Texas Moratorium Network, among other groups. (Photo By John Anderson)

• Speaking of DeLay, in a letter to his conservative base last week, he charged that Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle brought the illegal campaign finance charges out of vengeance. "I am being attacked not for doing anything wrong," he wrote. "I'm being attacked for being effective and standing up for what's right." He also accused Democrats from here to Washington of having "dropped to the least common denominator – the politics of personal destruction." DeLay's letter followed a SurveyUSA poll showing him with a 51% disapproval rating; 42% of Texans polled said he should resign. DeLay appealed to his constituents to "stand with me, fight these unjust attacks, and remember that while our victories may come at a price, they're always worth the fight." – A.S.

• The news came and went with little fanfare last week, but just for the record, Ronnie Earle secured a conviction on charges of illegal campaign finance activity that had nothing to do with Tom DeLay or the Republican Party. Rather, the U.S. Hispanic Contractors Association quietly pled guilty to two counts of contributing corporate money to two Democratic candidates during the 2002 election. The Austin-based group gave $1,000 to John Sharp, a candidate for lieutenant governor, and $2,000 to Sam Guzman, a candidate for House District 51. Both lost. The group paid a $3,000 fine on each count. "Texas law is very clear in prohibiting campaign contributions by corporations and labor unions," Earle said. The charges against DeLay and two associates also stem from the 2002 election, but carry stiffer allegations involving the circular path of $190,000 in corporate funds that DeLay's group transferred to the Republican National Committee, which then sent separate checks totaling that amount to several GOP legislative candidates. – A.S.

• In its first major programming move since launching Air America in the spring, KOKE-AM (1600) is dropping format stalwart Randi Rhodes from the key afternoon slot. As of press time, the station was expected to replace her this week with rising talk star Ed Schultz, according to station executives. Air America has been slowly building an audience in Austin, but it has generated few hits, aside from Al Franken. Rhodes was considered one of the early stars of the format, but her shrill style clearly wasn't winning over Austinites. "I think unfortunately there is a disconnect between Randi and Middle America on many issues," said Jason Kane, the station's operations manager. Schultz, who is syndicated by Jones Radio Networks, not Air America, is a middle-aged white guy known for his moderate views and connecting to the "heartland." According to his online bio, Schultz is a "21st Century Teddy Roosevelt who believes the salvation of the American people lies in their voices, not in the parties." – Kevin Brass

• The Salvation Army announced this week construction of a $30 million community center in the redeveloped Mueller Airport tract. "It's really a $90 million project," the Salvation Army's John Welton told Naked City. Funding for the center asks the Salvation Army to also raise $30 million; this money is then matched and used for construction. Upon completion, the center will receive an additional $30 million endowment. Money for the 100,000-plus square-foot facility comes from the estate of the late Joan Kroc, widow of McDonald's hamburger maven Ray Kroc. The center, to be built directly south of a new elementary school at Mueller, has certain requirements as stipulated in the funding; these include an Olympic-size swimming pool, full-size basketball court, and chapel. However, a steering group and subcommittees – on the arts, recreation, education, and family services – are forming in January to evaluate possible services. Noting the project's size, Welton called it "a magnet center" for the new Mueller, and the city. – Wells Dunbar

• AISD employee union Education Austin unveiled a campaign this week to fill Travis County's three vacant seats in the Lege (those of Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos and Reps. Terry Keel and Todd Baxter) with politicians devoted to public education. "Change Education One Elected Official at a Time" has signed up 1,000 teachers and volunteers for "block walking, phone calling, letter writing, campaign volunteering, voter registration, or other activities that will help elect pro-public-school candidates to the Legislature and school board," said EA President Louis Malfaro. Volunteers will also attend "political action academies," beginning in January, which provide info and outreach tools. "The financial crunch our schools are facing has been turned into an opportunity by the extreme right wing to enact an agenda of dismantling state standards for public schools and promoting state funding for private schools," Malfaro said at the event, timed to coincide with the departure of "disgraced" (in his words) Rep. Baxter. "The truth is that since the declaration of war against teachers and school children three years ago, public education in this state has been under sustained attack. Educators and mild-mannered PTA moms alike have been forced to fight back." Education Austin hopes to double their volunteers within the next three months. – W.D.


Beyond City Limits

• In response to opposition from groups like Wake Up Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart Watch, the "big-box-building beast from Bentonville" has launched a new image-boosting campaign touting recent social and environmental betterments. Wal-Mart has also initiated a ratcheted-up PR thrust that The New York Times compared to a political campaign's war room, opening eight community-relations offices nationwide to answer local criticism, hiring a well-known national PR firm to respond to detractors' claims that the company is anti-labor and anti-community, and soliciting strategists from the tobacco industry and at least three separate former presidential campaigns. The spin doctors had their work cut out for them last week when the Times published details of a leaked internal memo focused on cutting health care and benefit costs – suggesting that the company not hire certain unhealthy or obese workers and stating "our critics are correct in some of their observations. Specifically, our coverage is expensive for low-income families, and Wal-Mart has a significant percentage [46%] of associates and their children on public assistance." The PR machine is also attacking the new Robert Greenwald documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price prior to its upcoming release. There will be eight separate screenings in Austin during the premiere week of Nov. 13-18. See www.walmartmovie.com or www.wakeupwalmart.com for info. – Daniel Mottola

• President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney's place of worship, the United Methodist Church, has passed a resolution calling for the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq, the Democracy Now radio show reported on Tuesday. The resolution, dated Oct. 19, read, "As people of faith, we raise our voice in protest against the tragedy of the unjust war in Iraq. We urge the United States government to develop and implement a plan for the withdrawal of its troops. Waged on false premises … thousands of lives have been lost and hundreds of billions of dollars wasted in a war the United States initiated and should never have fought." A statement on the church's Web site says the resolution passed easily at the United Methodist Board of Church and Society meeting in Washington. The church board also called on Congress to create an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate U.S. treatment of detainees overseas, applauding the U.S. Senate's vote to prohibit the "cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment" of prisoners, and stated, "We do not believe that all those responsible have been held accountable." – D.M.

ExxonMobil, the world's largest oil company, widely regarded as an environmental bad actor, last week reported the highest quarterly earnings total in U.S. history, $9.92 billion. Environmental groups were quick to call on the oil giant to refuse the $10.7 billion in federal tax breaks and subsidies they stand to gain between 2005 and 2009. "It simply does not make sense, especially in the wake of two major hurricanes, for taxpayers to subsidize a multi-billion dollar industry while Congress is considering significant cuts to important domestic programs in order to fund hurricane relief," read a letter to Exxon CEO Lee Raymond from the Exxpose Exxon Campaign, a collaborative designed to "educate and activate Americans about ExxonMobil's efforts to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, prevent action on global warming, and encourage America's oil dependence." In 2004, Exxon was the top oil industry contributor to federal candidates and parties, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The top five oil industry recipients include Texas GOP Reps. Joe Barton and Tom DeLay and Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn. Said Austin Rep. Lloyd Doggett: "Republicans up here want to be sure that Exxon gets every write-off and pays as few taxes as possible. What we urgently need is a true national energy independence policy that addresses the growing threat of global warming and focuses on [renewable energy], plug-in hybrids [automobiles], and energy conservation. Instead, all we get is more of the same old corporate welfare for the fossil fuel dinosaurs, who pollute our planet." For more, see www.exxposeexxon.com. – D.M.

• All but one company's brand of blended biodiesel fuel became illegal statewide on Tuesday, with the implementation of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality-imposed Texas Low Emissions Diesel Rule – designed to get several cities, including Austin, back into federal air-quality compliance by reducing nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, a central ingredient in smog. Biodiesel, the renewable fuel typically made from soybean oil or recycled fry grease, is often blended with petroleum diesel to make what's called B20. According to the TxLED rule, diesel sold in Texas, and any alternative fuel blended with it, must meet a strict emissions certification. In tests, biodiesel has created elevated NOx emissions. The TCEQ's Morris Brown said California-based Biodiesel Industries is the only company to have certified an additive for B20, and that its formulation remains proprietary, saying, "They bought the Cadillac, they want to drive it, they don't want the neighbors driving it." Brown said the National Biodiesel Board is in preliminary testing stages for three B20 additives, which, once certified, will be made available to suppliers and producers. Local supplier Austin Biofuels can continue selling 100% biodiesel, which isn't regulated by the TCEQ, but not blends. – D.M.

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