The Austin Chronicle

IAF: The Promised Land Visits the Hilton

By Michael King, September 15, 2006, News

"Perhaps it was just a kinky coincidence," speculated the Rev. Davis Price wryly from the dais Saturday morning, of gubernatorial candidate Richard "Kinky" Friedman's abrupt cancellation of a scheduled appearance before the weekend conference of IAF Network of Texas Organizations at the Austin Airport Hilton. (The official initials stand for the now anachronistic "Industrial Areas Foundation" created in the Sixties by Chicago organizer Saul Alinsky.) Most of the candidates for governor (although not incumbent Rick Perry), including Friedman, had committed to appear before the statewide coalition of community organizations, whose local affiliate is Austin Interfaith, to be quizzed on the organization's primary issues: education, immigration, health insurance, and jobs. Perry had cited a scheduling conflict, and just before the conference began, Friedman's campaign made the same excuse, after asking if campaign fundraising sales would be allowed (nope). But conference co-chair Price suggested that Friedman might have changed his mind after he had proposed, a few days earlier, putting 10,000 national guardsmen on the border to stop illegal immigration and had also described Hurricane Katrina evacuees now living in Houston as mostly "crackheads and thugs." Militarizing the border and demonizing hurricane evacuees were unlikely to be popular positions among the community activists, many of them black and brown, who form the IAF membership base.

Friedman campaign spokeswoman Laura Stromberg later dismissed Price's suggestion as "ridiculous," noting, "Kinky had another speech two hours later in San Antonio, and it didn't seem to make sense to have him run around the state for what would be effectively a five-minute speech. She said the change in plan's wasn't even Friedman's decision, but the campaign's schedulers. (Price added that the organization would be offering the candidates, should they wish, "make-up exams.")

Whatever the reason for Friedman's withdrawal, that left the IAF field to Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Democrat Chris Bell, who respectively appeared on Friday and Saturday morning. (Libertarian candidate James Werner was not invited.) The conference itself, of about 600 IAF Org members, was primarily devoted to workshops and networking on the organization's major legislative issues, ranging from education to tax reform. Although it's fair to say the membership leans Democratic, IAF organizations are resolutely nonpartisan – under the slogan, "no permanent allies, and no permanent enemies" – and political appearances are notoriously circumscribed, generally confined to brief "accountability sessions" during which the candidates are allowed to say only "Yes" or "No" to organization positions.

The weekend appearances were slightly more flexible, with the candidates allowed brief opening and closing statements, although proscribed from "campaigning" or "disparaging their opponents." Those restrictions presented a bit of a problem for Strayhorn, momentarily paralyzed in midsentence when she was reminded, "No political speeches, please," but she recovered before she lost her breath entirely. As would Bell a day later, Strayhorn agreed to support the IAF's priorities of ending high-stakes school testing, expanding job-training programs, and restoring full funding to children's health insurance. Strayhorn's response – "You've got a deal!" – was enthusiastic enough to create its own protocol controversy, as an embrace of Strayhorn by the Rev. John Bowie of Houston was recalled the next morning by Price: "We have said to Reverend Bowie, 'You hug one, you hug them all.'" Noting the organization's reputation for evenhandedness and explicit rules, Bell joked after his appearance, "There were definitely 15 seconds on the agenda designated for 'hugging.'"

Bell was similarly relaxed when asked about his opponents. Of Strayhorn's repeated insistence that this is simply a "two-person race" (i.e., she and Perry), Bell shrugged, "Since she's been consistently polling third or fourth, I don't know why she keeps repeating that." Of Kinky's description of Houston Katrina evacuees as "crackheads and thugs," Bell joked, "It would appear that he's now completed the Mel Gibson sensitivity course," before adding more seriously that whatever one thought of the challenges represented by the influx of evacuees into Houston, "It doesn't help to engage in stereotyping." (Bell lives in Houston.)

Also appearing briefly Saturday morning was former Comptroller John Sharp (allowed a few more minutes since he's not currently running for anything). He credited IAF activism and lobbying with persuading the governor's tax-reform commission (which Sharp chaired) that increasing sales taxes was not the solution to school funding and to instead look to a broader business tax. "You changed the hearts and minds of the commission," Sharp declared, to sustained applause.

Aside from the political cameos, the IAF plenary sessions were devoted to introducing the various local organizations – from Houston to Lubbock, the Valley to Dallas – and generating waves of enthusiasm. Taking the chance of preaching to an audience filled with preachers (many of the organizations are connected to local churches), founding organizer and Director Ernie Cortés delivered an opening barn burner on Friday afternoon. Cortés called on the membership to build the "Promised Land" of a "relational community," a community built upon "hope instead of fear." "The promised land is for grownups," declared Cortés to a thunderous response, "and to get there we'll need political leadership, will, and courage."

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