Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
"I expect there will be, among Travis County Republicans, some understandable disappointment but also a sympathy for the type of negative campaign which I was the subject of during the special election."
Quote of the Week
Ben Bentzin, telling the Statesman of withdrawal from the Texas House District 48 race. This is the same Bentzin who ran a campaign ad featuring a police video of Gonzalo Barrientos' DWI arrest on a seemingly endless loop during his 2002 Senate campaign.
Republican candidate Ben Bentzin withdrew from the Texas House District 47 race Monday, all but forfeiting the once-Republican seat to Democrat Donna Howard in November. See "Naked City," below.
City Council began haggling over the city budget in earnest last week, searching for the magic number that could restore services to preboom levels without pinching taxpayers. See "Beside the Point."
In a legal blow to Gulf Coast hurricane victims, a U.S. District Court Judge ruled on Tuesday that "a Mississippi couple's homeowner policy did not give them coverage for damage from flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina," the Reuters news agency reports. "The case has been closely watched by thousands of homeowners who believe [flood damage] should be covered under policies generally meant to cover hurricane damage."
A cease-fire in the Lebanon war took effect Monday morning. Israel and Hezbollah both declared themselves the winners; the losers started going back to their homes and trying to rebuild.
Chalk one up for free speech and public discourse. Austin High art teacher Tamara Hoover, suspended by AISD for appearing online in "inappropriate" photos has agreed to a settlement offer. Hoover is not fired but agrees to resign in return for a lump-sum payment of $14,850. The terms of the agreement further state that "each party is free to discuss the settlement" but agree "not to disparage each other." Kate X Messer
City Council is taking the week off sort of. While there's no meeting this Thursday, the gang is no doubt still recovering from a bruising Monday meeting at, of all places, Westlake High School. Council was there to receive comment over the possible annexation of the Lost Creek neighborhood. A tony bedroom community east of West Lake Hills, Lost Creek is home to several vocal residents who vociferously oppose annexation; a large majority of the citizens speaking to council both Monday, and at a City Hall hearing last week, made the case that incorporating the area under the city's wastewater service and street maintenance will drive their taxes up, while providing similar, or worse, service than they already receive as a municipal utility district. While it's unclear if the outpouring of opposition will alter the city's plan, council has ample time to decide: Annexation is anticipated for December 2008. Wells Dunbar
Confirming long standing rumors that he would bow out of his state House District 48 race before the November election, Republican Ben Bentzin announced this week that a teaching job at the University of Houston would effectively take him out of the running. "As a result," he said in a statement posted on his Web site, "it will not be practical for me to either campaign in the upcoming election nor serve in the 80th Legislature," though he will continue to live in Austin. In truth, Bentzin had stopped campaigning in February, after Democrat Donna Howard trounced him in a special election to fill the unexpired term of lawmaker-turned-lobbyist Todd Baxter. GOP leaders immediately tapped Bentzin to fill the House vacancy, but the well-financed Dellionaire candidate never managed to gain traction with voters. He also received negative ratings after he disclosed that he had hired Republican strategist John Colyandro to help him in his unsuccessful run for state Senate in 2002. Colyandro is now under indictment for his role in the campaign finance scandal that grew out of the GOP election sweep that year. Howard, who was favored to win with or without Bentzin in the race, said: "I will continue to work hard in the community to find common ground for positive change and am sure voters will appreciate how difficult this decision must have been for Mr. Bentzin and his family." Amy Smith
Austin Police are asking for help identifying the people responsible for a rash of residential burglaries in far Northwest Austin. According to APD, between May 30 and Aug. 9, a total of 27 burglaries have been reported in neighborhoods within their Northwest Area Command, specifically in the area between Scotland Wells Drive east to Floral Park Drive, and from Research north to the Austin city limits. (During the same two-month period in 2005, a total of 15 burglaries were reported.) NWAC detectives say most of the burglaries have happened during the day and that the burglars at least two people, cops think may actually be parking their getaway vehicle in the driveways of the targeted houses, in order to easily move large items, including electronic equipment. Police are urging residents to be vigilant remember to dead-bolt entries and lock garage doors, and keep bushes or other plants trimmed so that they don't block windows. Anyone with any info on the burglaries should call NWAC detectives at 974-5484. Jordan Smith
Five of Austin's largest law firms each earned an "A+" for their efforts to hire and retain minority attorneys, according to the seventh annual minority hiring report card compiled and reported by Austin's minority bar associations. According to the Hispanic Bar Association of Austin and the Austin Black Lawyers Association, minority hiring and retention at Austin's 27 largest law firms is actually down this year, with minority lawyers making up only 10.7% of the attorney workforce, down from 11.3% in 2005 (and down from a seven-year 11.6% high in 2003); statewide, minority membership in the State Bar of Texas is 14%. Amazingly, of the 573 partners at the largest firms, just 45 are minorities. On a brighter note, nearly 30% of all summer law clerks 43 of 144 were minorities. Pulling in top grades this year were Locke Liddell & Sapp with 18.4% minority attorneys, and Winstead Sechrest & Minick at 15.8%. Also in the top five: Jenkens & Gilchrist and Thompson & Knight, both at 14.3%, and Clark, Thomas & Winters, at 14%. On the flip side, four Austin heavyweights earned an "F" for their efforts including Fulbright & Jaworski, Haynes and Boone, and Armbrust & Brown, who, according to the minority lawyer groups, refused to even participate in this year's report card. "In the past, every Austin law firm we surveyed has responded, even when its minority attorney numbers were not good," said Paul Ruiz, chair of the HBAA/ABLA Committee on Law Firm Hiring. "Armbrust & Brown's refusal to participate in our survey indicates to us that diversity and minority hiring are not a priority to the firm or its attorneys." In the report's seven-year stats, Bickerstaff Heath Pollan & Caroom take top honors with consistently high marks; the most improved award appears to go to Jenkens & Gilchrist, which has risen from an "F" in 2000 to an impressive "A+" two years running. J.S.
It's not easy being an out-of-work Muppet. That must be why Kermit the Frog is doing ads for the Ford Escape Hybrid SUV, saying "I guess it is easy being green." Ford was in town last week with a yellow, Kermit-adorned Escape to present Mayor Will Wynn with case studies touting the SUV's success as a taxi, purportedly saving 1,666 gallons of gas and 32,000 pounds of carbon over 100,000 miles compared to conventional cabs. Asked if he'd back city testing of conversion kits now being developed by independent companies to transform Hybrids into plug-in hybrids, doubling their fuel economy, Wynn said he's interested and that he's already asked Austin Energy (now operating the Plug In America effort urging automakers to build plug-ins) to investigate mass conversion options. A plug-in converted Toyota Prius, for example, is capable of 102 miles-per-gallon thanks to added large-format lithium ion batteries developed by Austin's Valence Technology. Ford uses older nickel metal hydride batteries and says they're "still researching" plug-ins. Greens blasted Ford in June when it recanted its pledge to build 250,000 hybrids by 2010. Daniel Mottola
Also in transportation news, Capital Metro will hold a series of public meetings Aug. 21-23, followed by a public hearing on Aug. 28, regarding proposed service changes for spring 2007. Most of the proposed changes are minor schedule adjustments to 12 routes, plus three route extensions: The northern termini of routes 983, 986, and 987 are all proposed to change from the current Leander Church of Christ Park & Ride to the new Leander Park & Ride. The meetings are: Aug. 21, 11:30am-1pm at Capital Metro's Downtown Customer Service Center, 323 Congress; Aug. 22, 5-6:30pm at the Leander Church of Christ Park & Ride, 300 Crystal Falls Pkwy. (Highway 275 & U.S. 183), 5-6:30pm; Aug. 22 at the Downtown Customer Service Center; and Aug. 23, 11:30am-1pm at the UT Student Union, 24th & Guadalupe (room TBA). The Aug. 28 hearing will be 6pm at the Capital Metro Administration Building, 2910 E. Fifth. For info, see www.capmetro.org, or call 474-1200. Lee Nichols
Speaking of trying to get around, the League of Bicycling Voters will hold a helmet fashion show and rally at Scholz Garten patio, 1607 San Jacinto, 5-10pm Sunday, Aug. 20, as part of the group's ardent, ongoing opposition to the all-ages mandatory helmet law proposed by former Mayor Bruce Todd. "There is more to bike helmets than symbols of misguided repression. Show your biker pride by doing up your helmet with style," reads an ad for the rally. Prizes will be awarded for decorated helmets in three categories: adults, kids, and most creative. For more, see www.lobv.org/rally.html. Pro-helmeters have also launched a Web site: www.bikesafeaustin.org. D.M.
Gubernatorial race roundup: Last week, Kinky, Chris, and Rick ganged up on Carole after newspapers reported that she uses state labor (comptroller staff) to perform her campaign work, instead of hiring outside staff to do the job with the $8 million she has in political funds. Kinky's campaign filed a complaint with DA Ronnie Earle, Rick's camp posted a video of Strayhorn riding to a political event in a state-owned vehicle to deliver a stump speech researched by her state-owned staff, and Chris revisited the issue of Carole granting $130 million in tax refunds to clients of her best and brightest contributors. And Carole, she just snorted, said "hogwash," and privately thanked the good Lord for letting this stuff come out now, in the dead of August, instead of in October. But even Carole knows she's not out of the woods yet. Meanwhile, James Werner, the Libertarian candidate, complained that he's being shut out of the Oct. 6 governor debate because, as The Dallas Morning News put it, he "had not reached the required threshold in polls," meaning somewhere in the high teens, where you'll find Kinky, Chris, and Carole. A.S.
Beyond City Limits
In other election-related news, the recent court decision redrawing the boundaries of congressional districts 15, 21, 23, 25, and 28 necessitated that March primary results for those districts be thrown out, and special open elections be held concurrently with the Nov. 7 primaries. As of Wednesday morning, only four candidates had officially filed to run: Incumbents Rubén Hinojosa (District 15), Lamar Smith (District 21), and Lloyd Doggett (District 25), and perennial candidate Gene Kelly (District 21), who never campaigns yet forced Democratic favorite Barbara Ann Radnofsky into a run-off in the U.S. Senate primary earlier this year. All of the other primary winners, plus a few others, will likely refile by the Aug. 25 deadline. L.N.
Also, Democrat Barbara Ann Radnofsky's bid to unseat incumbent U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison looks bleak, according to polls from both Rasmussen Reports and SurveyUSA. The more recent Rasmussen survey of 500 likely voters on Aug. 3 showed the 13-year senator incumbent winning by 61% to 31%. The July 14-16 SurveyUSA poll of 600 adult Texans found that 60% approve of Hutchison's job performance, with 31% disapproving. Radnofsky's attempts to hang the Bush administration's miserable performance in the Middle East wars around Hutchison's neck are apparently not only failing, they aren't even making Hutchison flinch. "Can you imagine a worse signal to send to the world; just because we're in a tough fight maybe the toughest one we've ever faced that the United States of America would turn and run when the times get tough?" Hutchison asked supporters in Tyler on Monday. "My opponent is absolutely wrong to demand more troops in Iraq," replied Radnofsky. "Blind rubber-stamping and continued buildup of the failed Iraq war has made the world a more dangerous place, wasting hundreds of billions of tax dollars with no exit strategy and no goals." L.N.
Remember the old Peanuts comic strip, the one where Lucy pulled the football away, just as Charlie Brown was stepping up to kick it, leaving him flat in the dirt? That might be the way the Texas Education Agency feels right now about the much-heralded "65 percent rule," that requires all school districts to spend 65% of their budgets on classroom expenditures. This was the rule that conservatives said would force school districts to cut waste, squeezing more money out of administration and into the classroom. Just as TEA got ready to unveil its district ratings on the 65% rule this week, though, the arbiter of what should be considered "instructional costs" the National Center for Education Statistics changed its definition of instructional costs to include librarians, proving that federal agencies can sometimes co-opt partisan efforts. Whether that means that the baseline should change perhaps it's now 66.5% or even 67%, counting librarians is still up in the air. No one has ever justified the 65% as being anything more than an arbitrary number set by conservatives to define best practices. Kimberly Reeves
James Leininger the infamous San Antonio multimillionaire who bankrolled candidates to unseat anti-voucher incumbents in the recent GOP primary is again using his money to back a pro-voucher campaign. Leininger's new venture, Texans for School Choice, is a public-awareness campaign of billboards and radio ads in San Antonio, Fort Worth, Dallas, and Houston, encouraging parents dissatisfied with public schools to call a toll-free number. The goal is to mobilize a grassroots movement of constituents of inner-city lawmakers, who typically oppose vouchers, says spokesman Ken Hoagland. Craig Tounget, the coordinator of the Coalition for Public Schools, says choice has never been Leininger's goal. Charter schools and provisions for transfers out of low-performing schools have given parents choices. "It is, and always has been, about diverting public money from public schools and giving it to private and religious schools," Tounget said. K.R.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced Aug. 11 that two of the five Electric Reliability Council of Texas managers who worked an illegal scam to bilk the state of millions have been sentenced to prison time and ordered to pay thousands in restitution. James Christopher Uranga was sentenced to seven years in prison for engaging in organized crime and for misapplication of fiduciary property and ordered to pay $505,000 in restitution; Kenneth Shoquist was sentenced to eight years in prison for engaging in organized crime and for bribery, and was ordered to pay $120,000 in restitution. Two other ERCOT defendants have yet to be sentenced, while a fifth is still awaiting trial. According to Abbott, Carlos Luquis a former FBI agent who resigned his post to join ERCOT masterminded the security-contract scam, forming shell companies that billed the state for "security services and products" that were never provided. A jury convicted Luquis for his role in the scam, and on Aug. 3 he was sentenced to 12 years in prison and ordered to pay more than $195,000 in restitution. J.S.
James Dobson, of the Colorado-based Focus on the Family, stepped out last week in defense of the ever-kooky Mel Gibson, issuing a press release calling for an end to the unwarranted Mel bashing. Sure, Gibson broke the law by driving drunk, acted like an ass when pulled over by cops, and then tried to run away to avoid being arrested. And yes, while being transported to jail, he launched into a bizarre anti-Semitic rant. But he apologized, Dobson says in his two-paragraph release, and that, according to the Good Doc, should be enough. Dobson also says that Gibson's strange behavior should in "no way" reflect poorly on his 2004 movie The Passion of the Christ, "One of the finest films of this era." J.S.