After uncertain filing period, Democratic U.S. Senate candidates seek to "get down to business"

Texas Tribune News

From left: Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate Sema Hernandez, former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell, state Sen. Royce West, Houston City Council member Amanda Edwards, Adrian Ocegueda and Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez attend a forum held at at Collin County Community College in Frisco on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019.
From left: Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate Sema Hernandez, former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell, state Sen. Royce West, Houston City Council member Amanda Edwards, Adrian Ocegueda and Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez attend a forum held at at Collin County Community College in Frisco on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019.
Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune

HOUSTON — As he began his closing statement at a forum here Tuesday night, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Chris Bell seemed to sum up well the mood around the long-uncertain primary.

“I thought we were going to wake up to sunshine this morning since the cloud of Beto O’Rourke had been lifted off of this race,” Bell said to some knowing chuckles in the crowd, which had gathered in a Houston church on a rainy evening. “That was not to be, but in all seriousness, the filing deadline has passed, the field is set, and I think it’s time that we get down to business.”

The forum, hosted by Indivisible, fell just about 24 hours after the filing period ended for the 2020 elections — and with it, the speculation that O’Rourke could make a late entry into the Senate primary following his exit from the presidential race last month. Democrats now officially have their work cut out for them as a dozen candidates — some more serious than others but no clear frontrunners — vie for the chance to face U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, despite universally low name ID and modest fundraising at best.

Tensions in the field have run mostly low, but that is beginning to change. At least one candidate, Latina organizer Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, has started moving more aggressively to distinguish herself, while additional areas of potential scrutiny have begun to emerge around other candidates. Tzintzún Ramirez has increasingly found a foil in rival MJ Hegar, who is holding firm on a general election-focused campaign while resisting the progressive impulses that Tzintzún Ramirez and some others have shown.

To that end, Tzintzún Ramirez’s credentials are getting a boost Friday with the endorsement of the Working Families Party, a labor-aligned third party that backed Bernie Sanders for president in 2016 and is supporting Elizabeth Warren for 2020. The group, which has an increasingly active Texas chapter, shared the endorsement first with The Texas Tribune.

“We think she’s the true progressive in the race, and that’s why we’re getting behind her,” said Jorge Contreras, the party’s Texas state director. “We’ve worked with Workers Defense and Jolt” — two organizing groups that Tzintzún Ramirez helped start — “and we see that she’s actually been throwing down for a long time in the state.”

Tzintzún Ramirez is campaigning on Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and a mandatory buyback program for assault weapons — all proposals that Hegar has not embraced or has even overtly rejected. Hegar, an Air Force veteran, is touting herself as neither a moderate nor progressive but an “ass-kicking” working mom with broad appeal. For months, she has talked openly about training her campaign exclusively on beating Cornyn, ignoring primary rivals and declining opportunities to criticize them.

On a conference call with reporters after filing Monday, Hegar said she had no plans to change that approach as the primary gets closer and the field remains muddled, saying, “This is who I am and who I am is not interested in taking shots at people who share my values” and are also trying to “move the needle.”

Still, Hegar’s strategy ran into some controversy a couple days later when she was asked about Tzintzún Ramirez suggesting the primary was coming down to her and Hegar — and Hegar replied: “Well, it is a two-person race. It’s me and John Cornyn.” While Hegar added that she was not taking the primary for granted, Tzintzún Ramirez’s campaign fired back in a fundraising email hours later that said it “seems like MJ forgot that Cristina was most recently shown to be leading this primary, or that there’s a diverse crowd of other incredible Democratic candidates running too.” (The campaign was apparently referring to a November poll that had Tzintzún Ramirez in the No. 1 spot but within the margin of error of other candidates clustered in the single digits.)

It was not the first time there was friction between the two in recent weeks. After Hegar reiterated to The Dallas Morning News in late October that she does not support mandatory buybacks for assault weapons — an idea that O’Rourke championed in his White House bid — Tzintzún Ramirez pushed back in a pointed tweet that said: “Our children’s lives are on the line. This isn’t a time for political caution.” So did Bell, the former Houston congressman, who released a straight-to-camera video saying he was “incredibly disappointed” by Hegar’s stance and tweeted that he is “100% with Beto on this one.”

To be sure, other contenders, such as state Sen. Royce West of Dallas and Houston City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards, have stopped short of backing mandatory buybacks, only going as far as to support an assault weapons ban. And Bell and Tzintzún Ramirez are not the only candidates in favor of mandatory buybacks — so is Sema Hernandez, O’Rourke’s 2018 primary opponent who is a vocal advocate of many of the same issues that top Tzintzún Ramirez’s platform.

Hegar’s supporters brush off the growing scrutiny, noting she is the fundraising leader in the primary — $2.1 million raised as of last quarter — and arguing she will be the strongest Democrat against Cornyn with her resources and ability to appeal to independent voters and even Republicans. They point to her military background as well as her stronger-than-expected performance in a traditionally red congressional district last year, losing by fewer than 3 percentage points to Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock.

“I think she’s the frontrunner — I thought that before, and I think that now,” said Jon Soltz, chairman of VoteVets, Hegar’s earliest national endorser. “When you have a huge state with a lot of media markets, it’s gonna come down to who voters get to know first. MJ’s raised more than anybody else.”

Soltz said his group considers Hegar a progressive — and argued such distinctions are irrelevant if a candidate does not have the resources to compete. “If no one knows who you are,” he said, “you’re not a progressive.”

Tzintzún Ramirez’s campaign is unwilling to cede the viability mantle to Hegar. Noting she had a months-long “head start on us,” Tzintzún Ramirez campaign manager David Sanchez said the campaign is on its way to surpassing $1 million total raised by the end of this quarter. If the primary comes down to money, he added, “we’re gonna be extremely competitive.”

Despite the recent action centering on Hegar and Tzintzún Ramirez, polls show the primary remains wide open, with no candidate well-known to Texas Democrats and large shares of primary voters unsure of who they would vote for. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released last month found no candidate had higher than 24% name ID among Democratic voters, and 57% said they do not know who they will support or have an opinion yet.

The filing deadline was 6 p.m. Monday, and the field was anything but finalized in the days leading up to it. One of the candidates, Midland City Councilman John Love, dropped out three days before the deadline, saying he has “concluded that I lack the time and financial resources to compete as effectively as I would like.” A new candidate, Houston nonprofit leader Annie Garcia, jumped in with days to spare, promising to bring the perspective of “one-fed up mama.” And with a week until the deadline, O’Rourke supporters released a poll showing he would be the strongest candidate against Cornyn, reviving speculation about an 11th-hour run.

O’Rourke reiterated a few days later he would not run and never filed, but he still looms large over the race, both when it comes to policy — mandatory buybacks — and politics. About two hours before the filing deadline, Tzintzún Ramirez announced endorsements from 21 former staffers from O’Rourke’s 2020 and 2018 campaigns — including 2018 campaign manager Jody Casey — seven of which are currently on Tzintzún Ramirez’s staff.

O’Rourke said in September he would not consider endorsing in the primary, though he is not entirely receding from the fray. Hegar spoke with him Tuesday night, she revealed at a Tribune event the next morning, quickly making clear that he appears willing to help any candidate who wants it.

“I want to make sure that I’m not painting it like I have access to him or support for from him that other candidates don’t,” she said. “I think he’s the type of servant leader that would answer the phone for anybody on the ticket and would give any of them advice.”

In addition to swiping at Hegar over mandatory buybacks, Bell has questioned her commitment to the Democratic Party, suggesting in the same video that she has made a “recent entrance” into the party. It appeared to be a reference to her participation in the 2016 Republican primary, which she has explained as a protest vote against Donald Trump.

Tzintzún Ramirez, meanwhile, could tempt criticism with her admission last month that she narrowed her campaign’s initial pledge against accepting all PAC money — a promise that O’Rourke famously adhered to — to just corporate PAC money. She said she dialed back the pledge after hearing from labor unions who wanted to have the option to give to her through their political arms.

Other candidates are largely staying out of the fray, driving messages that date back to their campaign launches. West is continuing to stress his long record on Democratic issues since he first got to the Senate in 1993. “I’ve been there” is a common refrain of his stump speech — so are reminders of his support from large majorities of his colleagues in the Senate and Texas House.

Edwards is continuing to lean on her experience in municipal government, while Bell is also pressing his experience — specifically his time in Congress that saw him file the ethics complaint that helped lead to the downfall of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land. Last month, Bell sought to further highlight that achievement when he released an anti-corruption plan after a Cornyn donor admitted to coordinating illegal campaign contributions in 2017.

As for the incumbent, there has been no shortage of colorful attacks from the Democrats as they seek to portray him as a toady of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump. Hegar has referred to Cornyn as a “spineless, pantywaist, bootlicking ass-kisser,” while Hernandez gave a closing statement Tuesday night that was similarly unvarnished.

“Going forward, I invite you to join me,” she said, “so we can get bitch-ass Cornyn out of office.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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With a deadline for Hurricane Harvey assistance near, Galveston advocates say hundreds could miss out due to bureaucratic mixups

Texas Tribune News

Christine Lopez’s Friendswood home was severely damaged by floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The family has received help from the community but still has no hot water or heat.
Christine Lopez’s Friendswood home was severely damaged by floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The family has received help from the community but still has no hot water or heat.
Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune

When Hurricane Harvey made landfall in August 2017, floodwaters marooned Christine Lopez at her cousin’s house for six days. The scene when she returned to her ranch-style home in Friendswood was devastating; at least 5 feet of water had ruined her family’s car, furniture, photos and documents and much of the house itself.

More than two years later, Lopez and her husband and 13-year-old son are still living in an RV while they make repairs to the house. The 50-year-old insurance saleswoman is hoping for help from a federally funded disaster recovery program that will stop accepting applicants at the end of the month.

But last week, Lopez learned that her application, which she submitted in December 2018, was denied because of missing paperwork. A state official said she failed to respond promptly after she was asked for additional documents in late October. Lopez maintains the agency lost track of documents she had turned in long before.

“What I’m upset about is that for nine months, what did they do? They didn’t work on my case, or I don’t know what was going on in the case,” Lopez said. “Then all of a sudden, you’re out of here.”

The state agency that administers the program denies Lopez’s claims and says it is efficiently distributing aid. But advocates from one disaster-recovery region are raising the alarm ahead of this month’s deadline, saying bureaucratic hurdles have thwarted some hurricane victims’ efforts. A November letter from Galveston County Recovers, a coalition of local governments, nonprofit groups and churches, asked the land office to extend the deadline.

“Barely a day goes by when we do not hear a client relating their difficulties in progressing their case,” the letter said, and many applicants have complained that “they are not given accurate or meaningful information or — often times — they are given no information at all.”

The Texas General Land Office, which administers the federally funded home repair programs, disputes the allegations. A spokesperson says the agency has already helped nearly 3,000 people get aid with homebuilding or home repair and expects that number to grow to roughly 10,000 before the programs end.

“The GLO is turning federal recovery funds into housing repairs and reimbursements for Harvey homeowners at a record pace,” Brittany Eck, the agency spokesperson, said.

“This misinformation campaign is misleading the public and unfortunately discouraging some applicants with remaining unmet need from Hurricane Harvey,” Eck said of the recovery group’s letter.

The land office oversees the Homeowner Assistance Program, which helps pay for repairs and home elevations for hurricane victims outside of Houston and Harris County, which received separate funds for recovery programs. It also runs the Homeowner Reimbursement Program, which reimburses hurricane victims up to $50,000 for certain out-of-pocket expenses on repairs.

The land office has approved nearly 2,000 Homeowner Assistance Program applications for construction, Eck said. Of those, more than 700 homes are under construction and nearly 400 homes are already completed. In the reimbursement program, about $31 million has gone to roughly 1,000 successful applicants so far. The relief programs are intended to prioritize low- and middle-income Texans and those who have an “urgent need.”

“Across 48 counties, we are running out of funds because we have effectively helped eligible applicants submit complete applications in order to get approved under federal requirements,” Eck said.

But advocates say hundreds of eligible applicants have been turned away for largely bureaucratic reasons, and they’ve laid blame at the feet of the state agency.

“There are many GLO-created roadblocks” that have contributed to a high number of applicants with unfinished applications, the local recovery group’s chair wrote.

Of the nearly 14,000 applications that have been opened in the Homeowner Reimbursement Program, roughly 7,500 applications were unfinished or “in draft” as of Dec. 5, according to the land office. The agency approved 957 completed applications and found that another 2,950 were ineligible for aid.

In Galveston County alone, the land office approved 103 applications and found 400 ineligible, while another 749 remained unfinished.

Kimbra Washington, who has worked as a hurricane recovery case manager at a nonprofit in the region, said a recurring complaint among her clients was that the land office or its contractors lost track of crucial, hard-to-replace documents such as proof of taxes or receipts for repair work done to their homes. Washington said she advised clients to make copies of their documents before turning anything over, but elderly and low-income storm victims with limited access to technology often struggle to do so.

Many applicants report being shuffled among multiple coordinators working for the land office because the agency’s employee turnover rate appears to be high, Washington said. Of 15 applicants she says she has advised, only two have been approved.

“They are getting frustrated, and I’m getting frustrated [along] with them,” Washington said. “It’s an all-around bad situation, so I hope the more we let people know what’s going on with GLO, maybe it’ll help them restructure something over there.”

Buckets sit inside a non-functioning shower inside the home of Christine Lopez in Friendswood on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. The buckets are used to fill with hot water that the family then uses to shower. The home was severely damaged by flood water as a result of Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Buckets sit inside a non-functioning shower inside the home of Christine Lopez in Friendswood on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. The buckets are used to fill with hot water that the family then uses to shower. The home was severely damaged by flood water as a result of Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune

Christine Lopez in her kitchen in Friendswood on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. The home was severely damaged by flood water as a result of Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Christine Lopez in her kitchen in Friendswood on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. The home was severely damaged by flood water as a result of Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune

Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune

In Lopez’s case, she and her family stayed with a friend for two months after the storm until they were able to move into a nearby rental house and began to make repairs to her home. Her family received three months of food stamps, she said, and donations poured in from church groups, her son’s school and the Red Cross to help with household items. There were some hiccups — she says she was defrauded by at least one contractor — but over time she and her husband, a skilled laborer, were able to make modest progress: leveling the floors, rewiring the entire electrical system, and installing new sheetrock and some plumbing fixtures.

Then she heard from her temporary landlord that her rent was going up by $400 per month. Two months later, the landlord raised it another $200. Unable to pay, Lopez and her family rented an RV after being evicted. They parked it in the driveway of their partially restored house, which lacks hot water. About twice a week, the family bathes at a neighbor’s house.

In October, she heard back from the land office about her application for homeowner assistance. Lopez said the agency wanted information about child-support payments that her husband had fallen behind on during a period of financial instability after the storm.

Lopez provided documents showing that the family was beginning to catch up on those payments, she said. But the land office also wanted 2018 income tax documents, which Lopez said she had provided almost a year before, and a self-certification of repairs, which Lopez said she promptly mailed to the agency.

On Dec. 3, the agency sent Lopez a letter saying her application had been denied because of the missing documents.

Eck said Lopez’s claims “are not factual” and that the agency made repeated efforts to reach her by phone and email to get hold of her missing paperwork, which was incomplete when it was “originally submitted.” The agency has been “very proactive in calling applicants in all counties with applications in draft status, trying to help them turn in the documents the program needs to get each one deemed eligible,” she said, including hosting outreach events and sending weekly emails to applicants with unfinished applications.

Lopez said she is appealing her rejection to the land office and will append a polite note to the effect of: “Please note this is my second time turning these things in.” She’s hopeful the agency will reconsider her application.

And if it doesn’t, Lopez says she’ll try to remain optimistic about finishing repairs to her home. “Guess what — my family’s already been through hell and back,” she said.

Accusations of shoddy hiring practices dog Texas State University police department

Texas Tribune News

Texas State University campus in San Marcos.
Texas State University campus in San Marcos.
Texas State University

The former police chief at Texas State University and his top deputy were accused of hiring unqualified officers — including one who allegedly “slept with a sexual assault victim” while investigating her case — and presiding over a department marked by favoritism, low morale and high turnover, according to an internal university memo obtained by The Texas Tribune and police department correspondence.

Former Chief Jose Bañales and his chief of staff, Lt. Alex Villalobos, were also accused of overruling investigators who tried to flag problematic job applicants, according to the records.

In a separate lawsuit filed in early November, a 17-year department veteran claims he was fired for reporting “violations of law” committed by university employees, including falsification of documents by Bañales and Villalobos. The lawsuit filed by Jason Moreno claims Villalobos also “used information obtained through his law enforcement position for personal benefit of a brother” — a former Cameron County District Attorney — “who had been charged with and convicted of racketeering and bribery.” He was investigated by the university for doing so in 2013.

Bañales and Villalobos both resigned from Texas State in mid-2018, and Villalobos is now a Kyle City Council member and is running for Hays County Sheriff. He previously told the Tribune that he resigned to pursue a new professional opportunity, and he did not respond to recent requests for comment.

Bañales, who owns a consulting company, denied many of the allegations in the university memo and questioned its veracity. He said he made strides at Texas State to rehabilitate a police force that had high turnover, lax processes and poor records management when he arrived. He characterized the department veteran who’s sued as an aggrieved former employee who had fomented “deceptive” allegations against him.

“Very quickly when I got there, I found that it was a toxic environment with various factions within the department, and I did institute some more accountability in the hiring process,” Bañales said. “I would blame the leadership of the past for failing to recognize they had to formalize the process for that.

“A lot of these things happened prior to my tenure with Texas State, and we were putting things in motion to rectify some of these issues,” he said.

Bañales left the university, in part, because he felt he didn’t have final authority over new hires and personnel matters, he said. His predecessor, Ralph Meyer, said the department followed the university’s rules on hiring during his tenure and that Bañales did not.

The accusations come as Texas State is under review by federal authorities for grossly underreporting the number of rapes and other crimes on campus during Bañales’ and Villalobos’ tenure. The university — one of the largest public higher education institutions in Texas — could face steep fines for violating a federal statute that requires accurate crime reporting so students and parents can assess campus safety.

School officials are making reforms, and a new police chief was brought on last February.

In a statement, the university said the memo summarizes “unsubstantiated allegations brought forward by members of the university police department” in April 2018 — a month before Bañales resigned — and that “many of the individuals referenced in the document” are no longer employed there. Asked about Moreno’s lawsuit, the university declined to comment on pending litigation.

Texas State’s police force protects more than 38,000 students, most enrolled at the picturesque main campus in San Marcos, south of Austin. Police employees operate a nighttime ride service and offer other safety programs, but officers are also expected to respond to incidents as serious as bomb threats, homicides and active shooters. All are issued weapons.

Texas State hired Villalobos — who owned a private investigation company called Intrepid Intel Research, in Kyle — in 2007. His annual reviews at the university were overwhelmingly positive, and he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in October 2016, five months after Bañales was hired. A LinkedIn profile bearing Villalobos’ name shows he became the chief of staff around the same time.

In a 2017 email to local Hays County prosecutors, Bañales said Villalobos had received “verbal counseling” after a 2013 university investigation found he used a law enforcement search tool for personal purposes. At some point, Villalobos’ name was added to a register kept by Hays County prosecutors to flag people whose character could be questioned if they are put on the witness stand in court cases. Many prosecutors keep similar lists — often referred to as Brady lists. Bañales said he never received confirmation that Villalobos was on the local list and that the investigation happened years before he arrived.

Hays County District Attorney Wes Mau would not discuss details of his office’s list but said it is a “39.14 disclosure list,” meaning it includes more names than might appear on other prosecutors’ Brady lists.

“At some agencies, for example, if you’re on the Brady list, that means you have been caught lying or you have been convicted of a crime,” he said. The Hays County list is far broader — reflecting a wide array of infractions and other information “that could be exculpatory or mitigating,” he said. The office doesn’t disclose the information to third parties, in keeping with state policy.

Bañales was hired in 2016 after three decades at the San Antonio Police Department, where he climbed from the rank of patrol officer to assistant chief, overseeing more than 2,000 sworn officers and support staff, according to a job application he completed.

A military veteran, Texas State alumnus and graduate of the FBI National Academy at Quantico, Bañales professed his ability to balance “the social and human considerations inherent to management of a large and diverse service organization” in an October 2015 letter expressing his interest in the Texas State job.

After his first year as chief, Bañales received a laudatory performance review from his supervisor, Vice President for Student Affairs Joanne Smith, who gave him top marks for goals like recruiting and retaining “high-quality, diverse staff.” Bañales similarly touted his efforts that year to “streamline the hiring process for police officers” and told the Tribune he brought more ethnic minorities onto the force.

But the lengthy memo prepared by the university’s human resources department captures a bleaker picture of his tenure. Seven pages long, the document summarizes a “variety of concerns” raised by police employees in private meetings, from hiring “people that may be related and/or connected” to the chief, to “promoting people on the Brady list.”

The memo and other university records viewed by the Tribune identify several problematic hires, including one man who had “very poor employment history” and a “history of dishonesty and being deceitful.” Another had “multiple unauthorized personal purchases on a state issued travel credit card” and exhibited “poor police tactics … during police pursuits putting the public in danger.”

The department “became the dumping ground,” said one officer in an interview. “Everybody started knowing us as: Just go apply at Texas State because they’ll hire anybody.”

The memo said eight grievances were filed after Bañales was hired and that the department’s employee turnover rate hit 55.7%. Between November 2017 and April 2018, 10 to 15 “employee relations” meetings had also been requested, according to the memo.

Most of the employees who met with human resources criticized Bañales’ hiring practices.

In one HR meeting described in the memo, a male employee identified only as “Witness” said he was told to conduct a background check on an applicant although he had no formal training in how to do so. The applicant did not have the required 60 college credit hours and may have had an arrest history. The applicant’s former supervisor reportedly told the witness the applicant was “not rehirable here.”

But when the witness raised concerns about the applicant’s background, he was told by a supervisor to “not discuss this with anyone else” and was later directed to “re-word” his recommendation that the man not be hired. The applicant was hired.

Bañales eventually told investigators assigned to background check job applicants to stop issuing recommendations on whether prospective hires were qualified, according to the memo and interviews with more than half a dozen current and former police employees. Some members of the department were also asked to sign confidentiality agreements preventing them from talking about how new hires were vetted.

Bañales disputed parts of the memo and disagreed with the way many of his decisions were portrayed.

He said privacy agreements are commonly used to protect financial and other personal information included in most job applications, and he recalled overruling an investigator only once — for a man with “one blemish” who turned out to be a “fine officer” and had credentials the department needed.

He acknowledged he changed the vetting process so that only he or a top official — like Villalobos — could make recommendations about hires. Previously, the decisions were made by lower-level officers who he alleged were “gaming the system.” Later, he said there was no formalized hiring process at all before he joined.

Bañales said he did not remember hearing that an applicant had allegedly slept with a sexual assault victim, as the internal university memo recounted. One person with knowledge of the incident told the Tribune they recalled that the job applicant allegedly slept with a stalking victim.

Bañales also said a different hire with a possible arrest history was not charged with a criminal offense, so he couldn’t “hold that against him.”

And he dismissed other employee complaints in the memo, including that the department was riven by low morale, fear of retaliation, little transparency and preferential treatment in the hiring and internal promotion processes. “That describes the environment I walked into that I tried to change,” he said.

In its statement, Texas State cited a number of changes made since Bañales’ departure and said it is committed to providing “a safe and secure environment in which to live, learn and work.” A reform-minded police chief with experience working in university law enforcement was hired this year, and she has made a number of reforms suggested by a peer review the university requested in 2018. A summary of that peer review said the department was understaffed and “seriously deficient” in key areas like emergency management planning and operations.

The police department’s website advertises a $46,000 starting salary for officers and says prospective employees must pass a criminal background check and not have convictions more serious than a class B misdemeanor, offenses like driving while intoxicated or some criminal mischief. The department is expected to begin a three-year accreditation process in 2020 to give “the university community confidence that the department is adhering to best practices.”

University officials have blamed bad software, poor communication and previous chiefs, including Bañales — who had not worked in university police departments before — for the bungled crime statistics that landed the school in the Education Department’s crosshairs.

Bañales said administrators were “slow to respond” to his warnings, citing a PowerPoint presentation he gave administrators in 2017 about problems with crime reporting and related federal requirements.

Bañales’ former supervisor, Smith, is retiring at the end of the academic year, and the department now reports to a different vice president, Eric Algoe, who oversees finance and support services. University officials say Smith’s departure is unrelated to problems in the police department and that the change in organizational structure reflects a “best practice for university law enforcement entities.”

Texas State has not released most documents related to the incorrect crime statistics that the Tribune requested and paid for under public information laws — including any letter from the Education Department that outlines the scope of the federal review. The university said it complies with all applicable laws.

But S. Daniel Carter, a Georgia-based campus security consultant and expert on the federal crime-reporting statute called the Clery Act, said the federal government imposes the maximum financial penalty — more than $57,000 — for each violent crime that is omitted. Earlier this year, Texas State had to correct its published campus safety statistics to show there were 39 rapes in 2016 and 2017, not eight, as it had previously reported. Other categories of crime had incorrect figures as well.

Disclosure: The Texas State University System has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Analysis: A Houston police death and the debate over who should have guns in Texas

Texas Tribune News

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo speaks out against bathroom bills at a press conference on the steps of the state capitol on July 25, 2017.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo speaks out against bathroom bills at a press conference on the steps of the state capitol on July 25, 2017.
Austin Price/The Texas Tribune

Editor’s note: If you’d like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey’s column, click here.

They wear their gunbelts a little tighter in Washington than in Texas.

You see that in the Texans in the U.S. Senate holding their ground on what’s known as “the boyfriend loophole” while statewide officials back home seem open to at least a conversation about some tougher gun regulation.

Don’t overstate what the locals are willing to do: Baby steps, folks. But officials like Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have hinted at things that furrow the brows of people in the National Rifle Association and other Second Amendment groups.

That response to gun violence at the state level, however slight, isn’t being matched by Texas officials at the federal level. Here in Texas, there’s talk of “red flag” laws that would allow judges to temporarily seize the guns of people deemed dangerous to themselves or others. Expanding required background checks to include person-to-person sales between strangers.

The first was an Abbott suggestion after mass shootings at Santa Fe High School and at Sutherland Springs Baptist Church. The second, a Patrick statement after mass shootings at an El Paso Walmart and at a number of locations in Odessa.

The political weathervanes in Washington haven’t recorded any such changes.

Last Saturday’s killing of Houston Police Sgt. Christopher Brewster prompted Police Chief Art Acevedo to call out U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas for their part in blocking legislation that would ban sales of guns to dating partners convicted of domestic abuse or subject to restraining orders for abuse. Such a ban exists for abusers of family members, but not for boyfriends and girlfriends.

That provision of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act has been called a poison pill by gun rights advocates. It passed in the Democrat-controlled House and stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.

“I don’t want to see their little smug faces about how much they care about law enforcement when I’m burying a sergeant because they don’t want to piss off the NRA,” Acevedo said. “Make up your minds. Whose side are you on? Gun manufacturers, the gun lobby, or the children that are getting gunned down in this country every single day?”

That angered some officers; the Houston Police Officers Union scolded Acevedo for making a political message of Brewster’s death. Cornyn and Cruz responded by saying they’re not against some restrictions. They also pointed to laws already in place they said should have kept guns out of the hands of the officer’s killer.

“I was surprised to hear the chief, who I’ve long considered a friend. He has my number, and if he had bothered to call me, I would’ve told him that we agree that convicted abusers shouldn’t be allowed to own a gun,” Cornyn said. In a phone call with reporters this week, he didn’t respond to questions about how he would vote on the boyfriend loophole.

He said it appears that Arturo Solis, the killer, shouldn’t have had a gun because of earlier convictions for family violence.

“The fact is that this killer was a criminal whom federal law already prohibited from having a gun,” Cruz said in a written statement.

Cruz won reelection last year and won’t be on the ballot for his current job again until 2024. But Cornyn is on the ballot next year, set to face the winner of a crowded Democratic primary in the general election in November.

The federal law expired almost a year ago. A new version passed the U.S. House, but is stuck in the Senate because of proposals to close the boyfriend loophole, expand the protections to transgender victims and allow U.S. citizens to be tried for domestic violence in tribal courts, and other provisions.

Even in Texas, where some leaders seem open to some changes in gun laws, the Legislature has been reluctant to increase restrictions. Abbott’s call for consideration of red flag laws, which preceded last year’s elections and this year’s legislative session, fell flat when Patrick said it wouldn’t get out of the Senate he leads.

The shootings in El Paso and Odessa occurred after the Legislature ended it’s 86th session. Lawmakers aren’t scheduled to return until January 2021 — after the 2020 elections.

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What is the "boyfriend loophole?" Houston's police chief wants lawmakers to prevent abusive dating partners from buying guns.

Texas Tribune News

U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (left) and John Cornyn.
U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (left) and John Cornyn.
Matt McClain/Pool via REUTERS

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo accused U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn on Monday of being too afraid of the National Rifle Association to pass a version of the Violence Against Women Act that would close the so-called “boyfriend loophole.”

The chief made his comments about the two Texas Republicans minutes before escorting the body of Sgt. Christopher Brewster to a funeral home. Authorities said Brewster was killed while responding to a domestic violence incident.

Acevedo suggested that closing the boyfriend loophole might have prevented Arturo Solis from owning a gun because his earlier domestic violence conviction would have made it illegal. But Cruz and Cornyn stressed Texas laws on the books already made it illegal for Solis to possess a gun.

The so-called boyfriend loophole is one of the main reasons the Violence Against Women Act has not been reauthorized this year. A version of the law that would have closed the loophole passed the Democrat-controlled House in April but stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.

What is the boyfriend loophole?

The boyfriend loophole refers to what some describe as a gap in a federal gun law that allows some people convicted of domestic violence charges to own and purchase firearms.

Federal law bans people from owning a firearm if the victim was a spouse, a person they lived with or a person with whom they share a child. The loophole refers to the fact that victims of more casual relationships are not protected.

Unlike federal law, which prevents a person with even a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction from ever owning a gun, Texas restores people’s right to own a gun five years after they complete the terms of their sentences.

What is the Violence Against Women Act?

First passed in 1994, the law provides funding for the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women, as well as services like transitional housing for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors.

The law expired in February, and reauthorization is stalled because lawmakers are in disagreement over new provisions that would close the boyfriend loophole, expand existing protections to include transgender victims, and allow U.S. citizens to be tried in tribal courts for domestic violence and dating violence crimes committed by a non-native perpetrator on native lands.

Some Republicans have argued that closing the boyfriend loophole would be too restrictive of gun rights.

Republicans, including Cornyn, have also blamed Democrats for walking away and allowing negotiations to fall apart.

Where do Cruz and Cornyn stand on the legislation?

Both Cruz and Cornyn voted against reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, despite its passage. Cornyn at the time cited concerns about restricting constitutional rights. Cruz opposed the law at the time because he said punishing violent criminals is a state’s responsibility.

In a phone call with reporters, Cornyn said Wednesday that he agrees with the police chief that “convicted domestic abusers should not be able to own a gun.”

But Cornyn did not respond to questions specifically about whether he would support or oppose closing the boyfriend loophole.

Cornyn introduced a version of the Violence Against Women Act last month that would extend the act for 10 years, compared with the House’s version, which extends it for five years. Cornyn’s version also has 10% more funding than the House’s version, according to his staff.

A spokesperson for Cruz said he is reviewing the legislation.

“For many years, Senator Cruz has worked in law enforcement, helping lead the fight to ensure that violent criminals — and especially sexual predators who target women and children — face the very strictest punishment,” the spokesperson said.

How does the act being stalled affect Texas?

For now, programs funded by the Violence Against Women Act are safe.

Funding through the program was extended, and allocations are being made based on the last version of the proposed law.

Should Congress decide to stop funding, a number of programs would be at risk of shutting down, said Jan Edgar Langbein, CEO of the Genesis Women’s Shelter in Dallas.

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1,000 migrants a day made this tiny Guatemala town a smuggler’s paradise. The business has dried up.

Texas Tribune News

The main street in La Técnica, Guatemala, leads to a boat ramp on the Usumacinta River, which forms the international border with Mexico.
The main street in La Técnica, Guatemala, leads to a boat ramp on the Usumacinta River, which forms the international border with Mexico.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

LA TÉCNICA, GUATEMALA — The tiny town on the edge of the river would stick out even if it weren’t so isolated, even if it didn’t rise up from the jungle like some forgotten Mayan village, only with motor boats instead of dugout canoes.

It got its start as a sustainable logging cooperative in the late ’70s, but a big wildfire ruined all that. Ever since, La Técnica, Guatemala, has been dedicated to what the locals call “tourism.” And it is tourism, sort of. Traditional tourists do regularly come through this remote patch of the Lacandon Jungle — mainly well-off Mexicans, Americans and Europeans.

But La Técnica is more launching pad than destination, and more recently it has specialized in a different kind of tourism: human migration. A few months ago, this town was humming with it. There’s no official count, but local business owners say hundreds a day — and sometimes well over 1,000 — were passing through La Técnica into southern Mexico and, after that, all points north.

Not anymore. On a mid-November afternoon, all the boats were tied to the dock, waiting for passengers. Two boat operators were calmly assessing the condition of an outboard motor. A couple of dogs lazily wrestled in the middle of La Técnica’s main strip, its only paved road, which descends like a boat ramp down to the broad Usumacinta River dividing Mexico and Guatemala.

“Cambio! Cambio! Cambio!” Rolando Argueta Lopez called out. A bus had just arrived, but there were no takers for his money exchange services. His restaurant, Comedor Jehova, sat all but empty. It used to be full.

“People are worried,” Argueta Lopez said. “Not only here but in all of Guatemala, and even in Mexico, because when there are many migrants, the bus owners, the taxis — everyone is making money. Today, it has all stopped.”

The main street in La Tecnica, Guatemala on Nov. 17, 2019.
The main street in La Tecnica, Guatemala on Nov. 17, 2019.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

A group of migrants stop near a restaurant in La Tecnica, Guatemala. The group had recently exited a bus that arrived to La Tecnica. The group will then cross into Mexico and continue their journey north towards the United States. Nov. 17, 2019.
A group of migrants stop near a restaurant in La Tecnica, Guatemala. The group had recently exited a bus that arrived to La Tecnica. The group will then cross into Mexico and continue their journey north towards the United States. Nov. 17, 2019.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Migration can be a fickle business, so this isn’t the first time a dip in “tourism” has hit the local economy. But in the last year, there was a major seesaw — first a peak, then this valley. A flood, then a trickle.

And if there is one name on the tips of their tongues, the name of the man they blame the most, it’s this one: Donald Trump.

No migrants, no business

Despite its tiny size, La Técnica, population 700 or so, is a major strategic outpost in the human smuggling trade. It sits in a rainforest clearing on the banks of the Usumacinta across from Frontera Corozal, Mexico, and about three hours south of Palenque, which draws a steady flow of tourists because of the nearby sparkling blue waterfalls and well-preserved Mayan ruins.

Frontera Corozal draws some of those international travelers, too. That’s because the town has a little marina with motorized dinghies that will take tourists to the world-class but remote ruins of Yaxchilan, an ancient Mayan city known for its decorative stone sculptures. But the boat owners couldn’t survive on the trickle of tourists from Palenque alone.

While on any given day a handful of gringos might plunk down $70 to go 45 minutes up river to Yaxchilan, migrants pay $2 to $3 each — all day long when business is good — for the one-way, five-minute trip from La Técnica to the Mexican side of the river. In seconds, the boats empty out, the migrants slide into taxis or personal cars, and off they go toward the U.S. border.

Boats are docked on the banks of the Usumacinta River in La Técnica.
Boats are docked on the banks of the Usumacinta River in La Técnica.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Last fall, when Trump was angrily tweeting about a massive migrant caravan that broke through the gates of a bridge connecting Guatemala and Mexico near Tapachula — about 12 hours south of here — migrants were pouring through La Técnica essentially unnoticed. There were no immigration officials to stop them, no throng of international media to record their movements and no president tweeting about them.

Then, business was booming. The “hotels” — flophouses that go for about $10 a night — were at capacity. The restaurants were overflowing with migrant families, typically in the company of their smugglers. And every hour, boats would leave the village for the short ride to Frontera Corozal.

“A year ago, we didn’t have enough space for everyone,” said Marixa Garcia Ramos, a cook at the Cepi Pollo restaurant and hotel. “They would be in here on the floor in the corridor. Now weeks go by without anyone entering the hotel.”

A few months ago, amid a crackdown stretching from Washington to Mexico City, traffic began to slow — and then it all but stopped. Two restaurants here have already shut down, and Garcia Ramos fears Cepi Pollo will soon follow.

Her job is terrible by almost any measure: She makes $6.50 a day working from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. (or later if people are still eating), and she never has a day off. Still, Garcia Ramos says it’s better pay than most cook jobs, and if the migrants don’t start coming back soon, she’ll be looking for work.

“A year ago, we didn't have enough space for everyone,” says Marixa Garcia Ramos, a cook at the Cepi Pollo restaurant and hotel. Now she worries the restaurant will have to shut down.
“A year ago, we didn’t have enough space for everyone,” says Marixa Garcia Ramos, a cook at the Cepi Pollo restaurant and hotel. Now she worries the restaurant will have to shut down.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

“If there are no migrants, there are no sales,” she said inside the empty restaurant. “That’s to say the economy of La Técnica is the migrants. If there are migrants, there is business. If there are no migrants, there is none.”

Border arrests plummet

Experts and people on the ground here say there are two big reasons the traffic died down, and both are tied to Trump administration initiatives: the “remain in Mexico” program that requires people to wait out their asylum cases south of the U.S. border, and Trump’s threat to slap tariffs on Mexico unless it cracked down on migrants crossing through the country on the way to the United States. Mexico’s leftist president, fearful of economic turmoil, responded by putting thousands of uniformed troops from his fledgling National Guard — ostensibly created to help combat cartel-fueled violence — on migrant patrol duty along the country’s international borders.

The results are stark. The number of migrants taken into custody at the U.S.-Mexico border went from a high of 144,116 in May down to 42,649 in November, a 70% drop, U.S. Border Patrol figures show. It was a remarkably busy year even with the downturn: A record number of migrant families crossed the border in fiscal 2019, and the total number of migrants (including families and individuals) taken into custody at and between the ports of entry during the period — nearly 1 million — reached the highest level since 2007.

The remain in Mexico program in particular — a policy formally known as Migrant Protection Protocols — has changed the calculus for migrants in a way that previous efforts failed to achieve.

Before MPP, those traveling with families had the expectation that they would be freed by U.S. authorities after a few days. That’s because under the Flores agreement, a court settlement aimed at ensuring humane treatment of migrant kids in federal custody, undocumented families with children apprehended in the U.S. generally must be released from federal custody within 20 days.

So in recent years, most asylum-seeking families were able to cross the border, ask for asylum, and then live and work in the United States while their cases inched their way through clogged immigration courts. For many, it was worth the hassle and expense even if they eventually lost their asylum cases.

Now tens of thousands of migrants are being sent right back across the border to Mexico — where there’s no guaranteed shelter, limited access to legal services, and the ever-present peril of falling into the hands of cartels who kidnap and extort them for every peso they can shake loose. That dramatically increases the risk — and reduces the payoff — of migrating.

“This is a huge change. You’re now waiting for your asylum cases in Mexican border cities versus inside the United States, beginning to work in U.S. jobs, sending your kids to U.S. schools,” said Stephanie Leutert, a migration expert at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s a very precarious situation. And so for this population, you’re seeing them just choosing to not go north anymore — to look for other options.”

The sudden shift has made Trump a four-letter word on the streets of La Técnica, where businesses catering to migrants blame him for the slowdown even if they are unfamiliar with the legal intricacies of the MPP program his administration launched.

Before the crackdown, “they gave [migrants] a benefit if the mother and father came with a child,” explained Oscar Marroquin, who owns La Mexicana restaurant in La Técnica.

Oscar Marroquin owns a restaurant and operates boat tours in La Técnica.
Oscar Marroquin owns a restaurant and operates boat tours in La Técnica.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

“Trump said … no more minors,” he went on. “Since then, people stopped coming.”

Marroquin laughed when asked if the American president got what he wanted.

“It helped Trump,” he said. “But not us.”

“I heard the shot”

In the wake of the international crackdown, traditional migration patterns have begun to reemerge. By October, Mexico returned to its familiar role as the leading single source of undocumented migrants, displacing Central Americans who made up a surge of “family unit” crossings from the Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) that overwhelmed U.S. authorities earlier this year.

Meanwhile, shelter operators in Mexico say they’re seeing on the ground what statistics have begun to show: It’s mostly single adults making the journey now.

Oscar Cruz Martinez runs the Most Holy Trinity Catholic shelter in Nuevo Francisco Leon. It’s the first shelter migrants reach after leaving La Técnica; given the influx in 2019, he’s expanded it with help from the United Nations.

“In the last few months, we have received more men and more young people than women,” he said. “In the last year, we received a lot of families, many kids, many women. That has gone down a lot.”

Another big change: Many of the migrants, including asylum-seeking families, are scaling back their travel ambitions.

“In the past years, their goal was to get to the United States. All of them,” Cruz Martinez said. “Now if it’s not the United States, it’s Mexico, because they say the borders are dangerous, that the president of the United States increased security and they can’t get in.”

One family that recently migrated through La Técnica demonstrates the new reality. Bus driver Walter Sanchez Reyes, 40, fled Tegucigalpa, Honduras, with his wife and five kids after a Barrio 18 gang member shot him in the jaw with a chrome-plated pistol in July. During an interview in Palenque, Sanchez Reyes spread out bloody pictures, news articles and X-rays on a banquet table to prove he was telling the truth.

A photocopy of a photograph demonstrates Walter Alexander Sanchez in a hospital in Honduras after being assaulted by local gang members. Sanchez plans on presenting this document and various others to U.S. immigration officials and request asylum for himself and his family. Nov. 16, 2019.
A photocopy of a photograph demonstrates Walter Alexander Sanchez in a hospital in Honduras after being assaulted by local gang members. Sanchez plans on presenting this document and various others to U.S. immigration officials and request asylum for himself and his family. Nov. 16, 2019.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

A photocopy of a photograph demonstrates where a bullet entered Walter Alexander Sanchezís face. Sanchez was assaulted while driving a bus in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. He plans on turning in the photocopy and other paper work to U.S. immigration officials in hope of obtaining asylum for himself and his family. Nov. 16, 2019.
A photocopy of a photograph demonstrates where a bullet entered Walter Alexander Sanchezís face. Sanchez was assaulted while driving a bus in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. He plans on turning in the photocopy and other paper work to U.S. immigration officials in hope of obtaining asylum for himself and his family. Nov. 16, 2019.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

An x-ray of Walter Alexander Sanchez jaw reveals a fragment of the bullet that entered his jaw. Sanchez was shot while working his bus route in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. He fled with his family and is planning on seeking asylum. Nov. 16, 2019.
An x-ray of Walter Alexander Sanchez jaw reveals a fragment of the bullet that entered his jaw. Sanchez was shot while working his bus route in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. He fled with his family and is planning on seeking asylum. Nov. 16, 2019.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Walter Alexander Sanchez holds up an x-ray demonstrating the damage inflicted by a bullet wound on his jaw. Sanchez fled Honduras after being shot by gang members while working his bus route.
Walter Alexander Sanchez holds up an x-ray demonstrating the damage inflicted by a bullet wound on his jaw. Sanchez fled Honduras after being shot by gang members while working his bus route.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

“I heard the shot,” Sanchez Reyes recalled. “I saw everything in slow motion, like empty, and I could hear an echo.” He managed to open the door to the bus and dodged a hail of bullets before being taken to the hospital, where he stayed a month.

Although he’d like to reach the U.S. eventually, Sanchez Reyes was already deported from the U.S. once, in 2008, and for now he and his family feel safe in Mexico. He turned himself in to immigration authorities near Palenque last month and is working there while he waits for a visa.

Walter Sanchez Reyes holds his daughter Maria Dolores Sanchez at a migrant shelter in southern Mexico. Sanchez was shot by gang members while driving a bus in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The family plans to request asylum in the United States.
Walter Sanchez Reyes holds his daughter Maria Dolores Sanchez at a migrant shelter in southern Mexico. Sanchez was shot by gang members while driving a bus in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The family plans to request asylum in the United States.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

“I will do what is possible to have them see my case [in the U.S.],” Sanchez Reyes said, “and if it is not possible, I will stay in Mexico because I cannot go back to Honduras.”

“People always come”

This time last year, migrant families like Sanchez Reyes’ weren’t weighing their options in southern Mexico. They were getting to the U.S. border as fast as they could, and they telegraphed their successes to friends and relatives back home — via WhatsApp messages, social media posts and phone calls, said Leutert, the UT researcher.

Now she says that feedback loop is playing a different tune: “Regardless of if you’re a family or an individual, you are going to be sent back to Mexico. And that message has also made a mark and has been heard in Central America.”

That may be just what Trump wanted, but Leutert said it’s come at a high human cost, as migrants endure shakedowns, sexual violence and even murder in dicey border towns while they await their turn in U.S. immigration court.

“If you’re looking only at the number of people who are arriving at the border, yes, you can claim success,” she said. “But if you begin looking at the conditions these people are in, the crimes that are being committed against them … the picture doesn’t look as great.”

Back in La Técnica, old timers like Marroquin, who owns a tour boat in addition to La Mexicana restaurant, say they’ve lived through both boom times and bust, and they figure this downturn will pass just like the others have.

Marroquin has lived in La Técnica since 1994 and doesn’t plan on leaving. He noted there are still Mayan ruins nearby in Yaxchilan, Bonampak and Tikal to draw stray tourists. And this town will always be just a stone’s throw from Mexico.

“Because we’re on the edge of the river, people always come, just like you came,” he said. “This is the best border crossing between Guatemala and Mexico. You can ask around: It’s the best.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Watch: In a Guatemalan town where migrants cross, Trump's policies have hit hard

Texas Tribune News

Roughly 700 people live in La Técnica, Guatemala, which sits in a rainforest and owes its existence to two kinds of tourists. The first are the traditional tourists who come to the Mexican side of the Usumacinta River and hire small boats from La Técnica to take them to Mayan ruins in Mexico.

The second kind are the migrants, who pay a few dollars to take those same boats from La Técnica to the Mexican side of the river so they can continue their journey toward the United States — where they hope to find asylum after leaving countries like Honduras that have been wracked by violence.

A year ago, this smuggler’s hub was booming as migrants streamed north, stopping at the restaurants and hotels that crowd La Técnica’s main road. But now that President Donald Trump’s recent policies to deter asylum seekers have taken hold — and U.S. threats of tariffs convinced the Mexican government to help block migrants from crossing through its territory — the residents of La Técnica say business has slowed to a trickle.

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TribCast: Big new names enter Texas congressional races

Texas Tribune News

From left: Republican candidates for U.S. Congress Pierce Bush and Ronny Jackson.
From left: Republican candidates for U.S. Congress Pierce Bush and Ronny Jackson.
Campaign website/public domain

(Audio unavailable. Click here to listen on texastribune.org.)

On this week’s TribCast, Emily talks to Ross, Alexa, Patrick and Abby about some recognizable names in Texas congressional races, racist texts from a GOP county official and a leaked Republican Party memo.

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Texas prison officials violated a judge's order to provide inmates with air conditioning. Now prisoners' lawyers get to investigate.

Texas Tribune News

About 75% of Texas' more than 100 prison facilities don't have air conditioning in all housing areas.
About 75% of Texas’ more than 100 prison facilities don’t have air conditioning in all housing areas.
Shelby Knowles for The Texas Tribune

A federal judge is allowing prisoners’ attorneys to dig deeper and find out who is responsible for the Texas prison system’s violation of a court order requiring that some inmates be housed in air conditioning.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison ruled Wednesday in a lengthy lawsuit over prison heat conditions that inmates’ attorneys can further investigate the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s failures this summer to provide air conditioning for inmates protected by the suit — and agency officials’ previous denials of such failures.

This year’s violations were presented to Ellison after the department settled the lawsuit in 2018 and agreed to air condition one prison and provide inmates who had been housed in it with cooled beds even if they were moved to other units. That settlement followed Ellison’s ruling that keeping vulnerable inmates in sweltering temperatures was cruel and unusual punishment.

“There is no dispute that Defendants violated the terms of the settlement agreement,” Ellison wrote in his ruling. “Additionally, Defendants have also admitted that they had previously made several serious misrepresentations to both [the inmates’ attorneys] and this Court.”

The judge did not decide whether he would hold TDCJ officials in contempt for the violations and declined to issue any fines for now. But the anger and exasperation Ellison often exhibited in his courtroom over prison officials’ noncompliance with the settlement order and misrepresentation of prison conditions were still visible in his writing.

Not only did the state endanger inmates’ lives, he said, but it also prevented the discovery of the danger. Given the agency’s history of violations in this lawsuit and the inaccurate information officials presented to the court, Ellison wrote that the prison agency’s “promises that they will do better without intervention by this Court fall flat.”

The ruling sets the scene for further action in a yearslong lawsuit that originated at the William Pack prison near College Station. In 2014, several inmates at the prison sued the department for keeping them in uncooled housing where temperatures routinely surpass 100 degrees. The Pack prison was one of about 75 Texas prison facilities that didn’t have air conditioning in housing areas at the time.

In 2017, Ellison ordered medically vulnerable inmates at the prison to be placed in air conditioned beds, and the next year, TDCJ and the inmates’ lawyers settled.

Ellison praised the agency for the settlement, but that sentiment disappeared this summer, when the judge threatened to jail TDCJ officials for potentially deadly violations of the order.

In July, the inmates told their attorneys that two prisons housing dozens of prisoners covered by the settlement had temperatures that exceeded what the court order allowed. The prisons are air conditioned, but they claimed the cooling units weren’t working. In one prison, TDCJ officials failed to report faulty cooling equipment to the attorneys, as the settlement requires, the ruling states. In the other, the Le Blanc prison in Beaumont, the agency falsely told the lawyers that temperatures were adequately cool.

When the lawyers continued to receive complaints from prisoners, they asked to inspect the unit, but TDCJ lawyers attempted to reschedule the inspection at the last minute. They said that the warden was out due to a family emergency and that senior TDCJ officials were out of town at a conference.

Both of those things were false, the agency has since admitted. A TDCJ lawyer said in September court hearings that the warden’s daughter had a nonemergency doctor’s appointment, and the conference had already ended.

In August, Ellison held an emergency hearing and demanded the inspection take place as scheduled, and it was discovered that temperatures were much higher than the 88-degree heat index, which accounts for humidity as well. That is the maximum temperature allowed by the settlement.

The inmates’ lawyers asked Ellison the next month to issue court sanctions for the violations, including hefty fines on the department. They claimed TDCJ officials lied to try to cover up the high temperatures and dangerous conditions and withheld information.

There have since been multiple hearings at which Ellison has slammed the agency’s conduct and ordered that the inmates immediately be placed in cooled housing. The agency’s executive director and a defendant in the lawsuit, Bryan Collier, has also appeared in the courtroom for questioning.

Collier admitted fault for the violations, absorbing admonishments from the judge and harsh accusations from the inmates’ lawyers. He outlined a plan to move the inmates and new policies created to ensure future compliance with the settlement, including installing permanent temperature readers at all prisons with air conditioning. But it’s still unclear who is to blame for the violations and misrepresentations.

In Ellison’s ruling Wednesday, he said he would not impose fines on the agency at this point, since that is a cost to the taxpayers, not the individuals. But he said further discovery is necessary to figure out how the agency failed, who provided false information and how to ensure neither happens again.

“Despite numerous hearings, during which multiple witnesses testified, it is still unclear who is responsible for Defendants’ failure to abide by the settlement agreement,” he said. “None of Defendants’ witnesses were able to say who was responsible for the misrepresentations and misleading documents. … Responsibility was too easily pushed to unnamed mid-level TDCJ officials.”

The prisoners’ lawyers can now request more information from the agency on the violations and falsehoods and depose five TDCJ officials of their choice before requesting another hearing before Ellison. Ellison also allowed for the attorneys to collect market-rate fees from the agency for that work.

A TDCJ spokesman said he could not comment on pending litigation. Jeff Edwards, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, said those costs will likely be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“We consider it a success because it allows us to find out who knew that they were violating the settlement agreement and who covered it up,” Edwards said. “It is step one in holding the real wrongdoers accountable.”

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Mexican border cities: too dangerous for Americans but safe enough for migrants, U.S. government says

Texas Tribune News

Migrants walk across an international bridge from the United States into Mexico. They requested asylum in the United States but were returned to Mexico to await their court proceedings.
Migrants walk across an international bridge from the United States into Mexico. They requested asylum in the United States but were returned to Mexico to await their court proceedings.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, MEXICO — It wasn’t an easy decision for the young family to make. But after more than six months in this border city, they knew they had to take their chances.

Like thousands of other Central Americans, Sofia, her husband and their two children fled their country earlier this year to seek asylum in the United States but became tangled in the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program. The policy, also called “remain in Mexico,” forces most asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their court hearings.

It takes time to prepare a sound asylum case, said attorney Virginia Raymond, who is representing Sofia and her family in an El Paso asylum court. But a resurgence in killings in this city has caused some like Sofia — who asked to be identified by a pseudonym for fear of endangering her family’s asylum claim — to take their chances in court earlier than they initially wanted.

“It’s gotten worse since August. They have felt much more in danger,” Raymond said. “They weren’t in a hurry [before].”

Mexican authorities have attributed the violence, which this year has claimed more than 1,400 lives in Ciudad Juárez alone, to cartel wars as criminals vie for control of smuggling routes into Texas and beyond. But migrants have also been easy prey for criminals to extort, sexually assault or kidnap amid the lawlessness.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, is sending conflicting messages about the security situation across the border. The State Department has issued warnings advising U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Mexican border states because of the violence, and the president has publicly considered labeling the Mexican cartels as terrorist organizations. But Trump officials continue to downplay the violence in Mexican border cities where immigration officials are sending asylum seekers under MPP.

In a Monday press conference, acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan disagreed with a reporter who asked about sending people “back to dangerous countries.”

“I object a little bit to the premise,” he said, adding that the Trump administration is working with its Mexican counterparts and providing them with resources to improve conditions for migrants forced to wait in border cities. He didn’t offer specifics about the aid.

“We’re having dialogues with the government of Mexico on a daily basis to ensure that the travel of these individuals who are amenable to MPP are going back and forth in a safe, secure environment,” he said.

During a press briefing last month, Morgan said stories about violence toward migrants was “anecdotal stuff,” adding that migrants put themselves in danger when they reach out to smugglers to help them cross the border illegally.

“The individuals that leave that shelter environment and reengage with the cartels to potentially be resmuggled in the United States … that’s where we’re seeing and we’re hearing some of the anecdotal stories,” he said.

But a recent report by Human Rights First cited 636 instances of crimes like rape, kidnapping and torture committed against migrants since January. They include attacks on migrants who were walking down city streets or staying in shelters. The Texas Tribune also reported in July that some migrants were attacked on their way to look for work simply for being from Central America.

Morgan said Trump administration officials saw security personnel at some Mexican shelters, although he didn’t say which ones. Official in Ciudad Juarez say that while some shelters in their city do have police officers providing security, the city can’t afford to send them to watch every shelter and can’t provide round-the-clock coverage — which leaves many migrants vulnerable.

“We know we need to strengthen security. The municipal government doesn’t have the capacity to have [police] units installed outside of every shelter,” said Enrique Valenzuela, the director of Ciudad Juárez’s Centro de Atención a Migrantes, a migrant transition facility operated by the Chihuahua state government.

Valenzuela said about 17,500 migrants have been returned to Ciudad Juárez under MPP, though it’s unclear how many are still in the city and how many have decided to return home or cross the Rio Grande after growing tired of waiting for their court dates.

There are an additional 1,400 Mexican citizens, the majority of them from southern states like Michoacán, Guerrero and Zacatecas, who are waiting in makeshift tent camps near the bridge.

While Raymond prepares her case for Sofia and her family, she and hundreds of other attorneys and advocates are waiting on federal court decisions that could affect how migrants move forward with their asylum claims. Or if they are able to at all.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is debating the Migration Protection Protocols and whether the policy violates international law by sending asylum seekers to countries where they face danger.

The court is also considering a separate case challenging a Trump administration rule that would deny asylum seekers protection in the United States if they failed to apply for asylum in another country on their way to the United States.

That rule was implemented July 16 and should not apply to people who presented themselves at the ports of entry before that date.

But Raymond, whose clients arrived well in advance of that rule, said nothing is guaranteed. Thousands of asylum seekers arrived in Mexican border towns before the rule was implemented but were forced to wait in Mexico for months to make their claims under the Trump administration’s metering policy — which allows only small numbers of migrants at a time to cross the border and request asylum. Others could have appeared before a judge before the rule change but didn’t initiate their actual asylum claims until afterward.

“I don’t think that it should affect them, but I am worried,” she said. “I am worried [because] for one thing, asylum is always discretionary. There is what’s supposed to happen and what does happen, and there is more of a gap between that over the last two years.”

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Analysis: The Texas Senate will be a quiet zone in a noisy, important election year

Texas Tribune News

Only one Republican in the Texas Senate — Pete Flores of Pleasanton — is in immediate political peril next year.
Only one Republican in the Texas Senate — Pete Flores of Pleasanton — is in immediate political peril next year.
Juan Figueroa/The Texas Tribune

Editor’s note: If you’d like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey’s column, click here.

A quick takeaway from the deadline of candidate filings: The Texas Senate is going to be the calmest spot in the state’s electoral ocean in 2020.

Republicans hold the majority in that chamber, and not one of them will face an opponent in next year’s GOP primary.

It’s hard to say whether that’s an exhibition of discipline on the party’s part or a lack of ambition among potential challengers.

It might be a sign of relative tranquility, when you get down to it. Republicans aren’t in serious danger of losing their Senate majority. And the incumbents in that party are closely bound to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a former state senator who wields as much control over his senators as anyone since Bob Bullock.

Patrick doesn’t appear likely to encourage Republican opponents for any GOP incumbents on the 2020 ballot.

There will be at least one new senator, with José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, not seeking another term. Only one Democrat, state Rep. César Blanco, signed up to run for that seat. He would have to be counted as the favorite to replace him in that reliably Democratic district.

Only one Republican — Pete Flores of Pleasanton — is in immediate political peril next year. He won a special election a little more than a year ago in Senate District 19, a 17-county district that includes a large chunk of Bexar County and San Antonio. That chunk accounts for more than half of the district’s population.

Until Flores snuck up and took it away, Democrats had a relatively firm hold on the territory; they’ll fight to take it back, and Flores will try to prove that his victory last year wasn’t a fluke. It’s a swing district, and the outcome could depend on what happens above the state Senate race on the ballot — up there where presidents and U.S. senators and members of Congress joust.

But the election is not going to change the Senate in a significant way. In its current configuration, the Senate has 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats. It’ll take a change in more than one seat to make any difference, and flipping four spots to the minority party would require serious magic.

Anyway, the focus of national, state and local pols in the state is on the Texas House, where a nine-seat change would turn a Republican House into a Democratic one. That would change the bargaining on everything from the state budget to education.

And, of greater interest to the political class, the redrawing of the state’s political districts.

That’s why the national Democrats are interested in the little ol’ Texas House of Representatives: Winning a majority would improve their chance of a less punishing political map for the U.S. House delegation.

They are playing the same game Republican Tom DeLay pulled off in 2003, turning enough seats in a Texas congressional map to change the odds in his party’s favor in Washington.

What the Democrats hope to do would require two long shots.

First, they would have to win a majority in the Texas House. They won 12 seats in 2018, but retaining some of those will require strong defense. And if that works, they’ll still have to add nine more.

Second, the Democrats probably won’t get a map they like from a divided Legislature, but with control of the House, they could block any legislative map, throwing the final artwork to a panel of three federal judges — a so-far unnamed panel that might, possibly, be less inclined to draw a strongly Republican map than the Legislature.

That best-case scenario for Democrats isn’t great, in other words, but it’s better than the worst case: a congressional map devised by a Republican House and Senate and signed by a Republican governor.

Flipping the Senate is too hard and too unlikely, and everybody is leaving it alone. The show — and the real work, for both sides — is in the House.

Maybe state senators — from both parties — will get bored and help out.

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Travis Runnels is set to be executed for a prison murder. His lawyers hope false testimony at his trial will save him.

Texas Tribune News

Travis Runnels was sentenced to death for the 2003 murder of prison employee Stanley Wiley.
Travis Runnels was sentenced to death for the 2003 murder of prison employee Stanley Wiley.
TDCJ

Texas officials aren’t disputing that prosecutors introduced false testimony at Travis Runnels’ 2005 capital murder trial in Amarillo. Instead, they argue the state should still execute him even if they did.

Runnels, 46, is scheduled to be executed Wednesday evening in Texas’ death chamber in Huntsville. There’s no question of his guilt in the 2003 prison murder of Stanley Wiley, a supervisor at the Clement Unit’s boot factory where Runnels worked while serving a 70-year aggravated robbery sentence. He pleaded guilty at trial, despite knowing the state was seeking the death penalty.

But at his punishment hearing, where jurors in part weigh how likely a capital murder convict is to be dangerous in the future, the state introduced as a witness A.P. Merillat, who at the time was a criminal investigator for the state prosecutors that handle prison crimes. He has testified in at least 15 trials that resulted in death sentences, but his incorrect testimony on the levels of security in prisons has since led to two overturned death sentences in Texas.

Runnels is hoping the state’s reliance on Merillat’s testimony will prompt the U.S. Supreme Court to stop his execution, too.

“As was the case in several other capital trials in which Merillat testified, the purpose of his testimony was to establish for the jury that the state prison system’s security for non-death sentenced inmates was so lax that the defendant would be a danger to others in prison if he received a life sentence,” wrote attorneys Mark Pickett and Janet Gilger-VanderZanden in a petition to the high court.

The Supreme Court has ruled that a death sentence based on materially inaccurate evidence is unconstitutional, and a court must overturn a death sentence unless judges determine beyond a reasonable doubt that the falsehood didn’t contribute to the punishment, according to a Texas court ruling. Texas and Potter County officials have argued that Runnels’ crime and his assaults on guards afterwards were more than enough for the jury to have decided he was a future threat, regardless of Merillat’s testimony.

Runnels’ appeal was rejected by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals without comment or consideration of its merits. Potter County had argued Texas law did not allow the court to review the appeal because it was filed too near his execution and could have been raised earlier. Pickett pointed plainly to the claim of false testimony in response.

“You shouldn’t be allowed to get a death sentence based on false testimony,” he said after the Texas court ruling. “This is testimony that… no one is disputing is false.”

Merillat was called as a witness to describe how the Texas prison system decides the level of supervision and types of restrictions on housing and activity that inmates need. Generally, prisoners are assigned to one of five levels of the general population — with G1 being the least restrictive and G5 being the most — or to solitary confinement. Death row inmates are housed in solitary confinement, which means they are almost always in their cells except for solo recreation or limited visits behind glass.

At trial, Merillat testified that, unless they are sentenced to death, capital murder convicts automatically are assigned to the relatively unrestricted housing as a G3 inmate. Inmates at that level live in dorms or cells with other prisoners and have less supervision. They also have more job options and recreation time. Merillat said the prison wouldn’t look at previous convictions (Runnels had three) and that after 10 years, they could get an even less restrictive custody level.

Runnels’ lawyers say his testimony was “plainly and patently false.” And Merillat acknowledged in an interview with The Texas Tribune that he might have been wrong in Amarillo.

“When I testified, I testified with the knowledge that I had at the time,” he said.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s classification plan was changed months before Runnels’ trial to indicate that capital murder convicts sentenced to life in prison would never be allowed to be classified at a level below G3. It also states that those designated as having assaulted prison staff must first be at least a G4 — meaning more restrictions on visits, jobs, housing and recreation. Finally, though Merillat testified it’s an automatic process, the plan says custody level is set by a committee based on their professional judgment and the inmate’s total record.

A.P. Merillat was a go-to expert for prosecutors seeking the death penalty. In 2012, the courts reversed a second death penalty conviction based on his inaccurate testimony.
A.P. Merillat was a go-to expert for prosecutors seeking the death penalty. In 2012, the courts reversed a second death penalty conviction based on his inaccurate testimony.
Michael Stravato

Runnels’ record is gruesome.

He was a janitor at the prison boot factory in Amarillo, serving a long sentence for an aggravated robbery in Dallas. During a shift in January 2003, Runnels was angry about not being transferred to the barber shop for work, according to court records. He approached Wiley with a knife and slit his throat, killing him.

Runnels had previously hit a guard in the jaw. And after Wiley’s death, when Runnels was kept in high-security custody while awaiting trial, he threw urine, feces and a light bulb at guards on separate occasions, according to court records.

Runnels’ attorneys point to such offenses as reasons why he would have been kept in solitary confinement if given a life sentence, not as a G3 inmate as Merillat said. Prosecutors argue Runnels’ history is a clear reason why the jury decided he’d be a future danger, therefore giving him a death sentence.

“The jury would undoubtedly have found Runnels to be a future danger no matter how strict his classification,” Texas Assistant Attorney General Jefferson Clendenin wrote to the Supreme Court Monday in the state’s brief.

In the two cases where the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals tossed death sentences based on Merillat’s testimony, state officials said the men had little or no criminal histories. In one case, the jury specifically questioned during sentencing deliberations if the convict would get less restrictive housing later, according to the attorney general’s filing. Others who have fought in the courts over Merillat’s testimony have been executed.

Merillat now works for the Montgomery County’s District Attorney’s Office. He wanted to make clear that he didn’t testify in Runnels’ case for money, and that he had no agenda. He said he wouldn’t want anyone to suffer because he may have given bad information.

“If the jury gave him the death penalty because of his particular crime and the heinousness of it and the actions he committed after his crime…then the jury’s verdict should stand,” he said. “If they gave him the death penalty because of what I said and I was wrong, I don’t want him to have the death penalty.”

Runnels is set to be the ninth and final person executed in Texas this year. Seven more are scheduled for execution through May.

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Watch: A conversation with MJ Hegar, candidate for U.S. Senate

Texas Tribune News

We’re sitting down for a live conversation with MJ Hegar, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, moderated by Texas Tribune co-founder and CEO Evan Smith.

Hegar is a retired Air Force officer and recipient of the Purple Heart. In 2012, she successfully sued the Department of Defense to repeal the Ground Combat Exclusion Policy, which prevented women from serving in combat positions. Hegar announced her candidacy for the U.S. Senate in April.

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Federal judge blocks Trump plan to spend $3.6 billion in military funds on border wall

Texas Tribune News

A section of border fence in Hidalgo, which runs between a national wildlife refuge and a local nature center.
A section of border fence in Hidalgo, which runs between a national wildlife refuge and a local nature center.
Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune

A federal judge in El Paso on Tuesday blocked the Trump administration’s plan to pay for border barrier construction with $3.6 billion in military funds, ruling that the administration does not have the authority to divert money appropriated by Congress for a different purpose.

The Trump administration was planning to use those funds to build 175 miles of steel barriers, and the court’s permanent injunction casts new doubt on Trump’s pledge to erect 450 linear miles of fencing by the end of next year.

District Court Judge David Briones, a Bill Clinton appointee, said in his ruling that the administration’s attempt to reprogram military construction funds by emergency proclamation was unlawful and that the plaintiffs in the case were entitled to a permanent injunction halting the government.

A ruling Briones issued in October placed a temporary hold on Trump’s plan to use the funds, but that decision did not have a nationwide scope.

The Trump administration has budgeted nearly $10 billion for barrier construction to date, so the ruling affects roughly one-third of the money the president plans to spend on his signature project. Briones’s decision does not apply to other money available to the administration, including reprogrammed military counternarcotics funds.

The ruling marked the first instance of a local jurisdiction successfully suing to block construction of Trump’s border barrier.

El Paso County, one of the two plaintiffs in the suit, had argued that the new border barrier was unwanted by the community and would inflict permanent harm on its reputation as a welcoming, cross-border place.

Kristy Parker, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, said the decision means the president cannot spend money on the project that wasn’t authorized by Congress.

“The president can’t use the National Emergencies Act to override a congressional appropriations decision,” Parker said. “That specifically means he cannot use funds appropriated for military construction and divert it for use to build border barriers.”

The Trump administration is expected to appeal the decision.

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State Rep. Bill Zedler decides against reelection bid

Texas Tribune News

State Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, withdrew from the race Tuesday, according to the Tarrant County GOP.
State Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, withdrew from the race Tuesday, according to the Tarrant County GOP.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

State Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, has made a late decision to not seek reelection after filing to run for another term in the Texas House.

Zedler’s office confirmed the news to The Texas Tribune on Tuesday afternoon. Zedler withdrew from the race later Tuesday, according to the Tarrant County GOP.

The timing of Zedler’s decision — the day after the filing deadline — triggers a deadline extension by five business days in the GOP primary for the seat. The website The Texan first reported news of Zedler’s retirement.

Zedler said his decision to retire was rooted in various health issues he’s had in recent months.

“I kept thinking, “I’m gonna get better,” he told the Tribune. “When I went and withdrew, it was kind of a relief — I can finally start giving more attention to my health.”

Zedler, who said he still plans to be involved with politics, has served in the House every year since 2003, except for a two-year period after he lost reelection in 2008. He has also served as a member of the hardline conservative Texas House Freedom Caucus since it was formally created at the beginning of the 2017 legislative session.

Zedler was set to face a primary challenge from Mansfield Mayor David Cook, who filed to run for the seat. On top of that, state Democrats were already targeting Zedler after he won reelection last year by 4 percentage points. Crowley lawyer Joe Drago is the sole Democrat running for the seat in 2020.

Democrats cast the news Tuesday afternoon as the latest sign of GOP fatigue ahead of 2020.

“Texas is the biggest battleground state,” Abhi Rahman, Texas Democratic Party spokesman, said in a statement. “That’s why vulnerable State Representative Bill Zedler becomes the latest Republican to give up before getting thrown out of office.”

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To relief of Texas business leaders, Congress reaches deal on new North American trade agreement

Texas Tribune News

Trucks wait in a line to cross into the U.S. from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
Trucks wait in a line to cross into the U.S. from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

WASHINGTON — Congress reached an agreement with the Trump administration Tuesday on a new North American free trade deal, leading lawmakers and business leaders in Texas to breathe a sigh of relief.

Hours after Democrats brought forth articles of impeachment, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, announced the deal alongside more than a dozen Democrats, among them Texas freshman U.S. Reps. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso; Colin Allred, D-Dallas; and Lizzie Fletcher, D-Houston.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, called the deal a “21st Century trade agreement that not only encourages more trade but adds protection for the environment and workers.”

“While imperfect, the new tools included for effective enforcement should become the minimum included in future trade negotiations,” Doggett said in a statement, adding that it could be approved as soon as next week.

The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement will replace the North American Free Trade Agreement. On Tuesday, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer was in Mexico City presenting the agreement to the Mexican government. The House will likely pass the agreement in the coming weeks.

The months leading up to the agreement were particularly stressful for Texans in Congress; the border state’s economy relies heavily on trade, particularly with Mexico. Republicans have often blamed the deal’s slow negotiations on Democrats’ preoccupation with impeachment proceedings.

As recently as last week, many were beginning to lose faith that the deal would pass this year. Last week, more than half of Texas’ 36-member congressional delegation made statements pushing for approval.

The Trump administration reached a deal with Mexico and Canada more than a year ago, but Democrats objected to certain provisions, arguing that it was too friendly to pharmaceutical companies, didn’t do enough to protect workers and failed to hold manufacturers accountable to environmental laws. Generally, Republicans agreed with the deal.

U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, recently characterized the negotiations as “salami” legislation, in which a small piece is brought up and addressed at a time. That resulted in frustrating talks with trade representatives in Mexico, which passed massive labor reform as part of the agreement and then received more demands from U.S. representatives. U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Laredo and one of the members most involved in the negotiations, stood next to more than a dozen of his Republican colleagues pushing for the deal to pass.

Ultimately, Democrats included a provision that allows American inspectors to enter Mexican factories to check for labor violations, which Mexico was not particularly averse to. They also pushed the Trump administration to remove a provision establishing a 10-year protection period for biologic drugs, which opponents say would allow drug companies to keep prices high. That was particularly important for representatives in border communities, whose constituents often buy prescription drugs in Canada or Mexico.

Meanwhile, Cuellar’s colleagues from the Rio Grande Valley, U.S. Reps. Vicente Gonzalez and Filemon Vela, sent a letter to Pelosi urging her to include provisions that would require security measures in highways that lead to Texas border cities. As those highways have become more dangerous to drive on, cities like McAllen and Brownsville have lost sales tax revenue as tourism from Mexico declines. As party leadership inched toward a deal, those security provisions did not appear to come up.

“I’m a little disappointed that we rushed this agreement even though the Senate won’t vote on it until next year,” Gonzalez said. “As I have said, if we’re talking about taxes and tariffs and we have an extra security cost or security that is affecting the bottom line of trade, then that’s definitely a missed opportunity.”

Gonzalez previously said he wouldn’t vote for the deal if it didn’t include the security provisions. On Tuesday, he said he will likely vote to approve it, but won’t stop pressuring Pelosi to address the issue.

“At the end of the day, it’s something that’s positive for Texas and positive for South Texas,” he said.

Business leaders in the state praised the deal on the whole, saying free trade was vital to the economies on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border.

“Following more than 30 months of negotiations, political maneuvering and the economic uncertainty that resulted, I am excited that the USMCA is moving forward,” said Justin Yancy, president of the Texas Business Leadership Council.

“This is a big win for Texas,” he added.

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University of North Texas is opening a cafeteria without milk, eggs, wheat and more. It's free of most food allergens.

Texas Tribune News

Chef Rudy Vasquez fries chicken fingers in the Kitchen West cafeteria at the University of North Texas.
Chef Rudy Vasquez fries chicken fingers in the Kitchen West cafeteria at the University of North Texas.
Bill Zeeble for KERA

Chef Rudy Vasquez is busy deep-frying one of today’s lunch specials, chicken fingers. Only there’s no wheat on the flour-dredged meat. The breading is gluten free because some people are allergic to it or have Celiac disease.

“And so we experimented with a number of different flour blends. Some of them had too much of one particular flour, such as rice or tapioca or potato starch. And some didn’t have enough. So we had to find the right balance,” Vasquez said.

The University of North Texas says it has opened the state’s first college cafeteria called Kitchen West that is free of the “big eight” ingredients that cause most food allergies. These ingredients are milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat, soy, tree nuts, fish and shellfish.

Vasquez embraced the challenge to keep the flavor but change the flour. UNT’s executive director of dining services Peter Balabuch, says delivering big taste is a big deal.

“Ultimately, we’re culinarians,” he said. “We’re chefs. So the idea is taking food, making it outstanding minus these ingredients.”

Some of the day’s cafeteria offerings, under glass.
Some of the day’s cafeteria offerings, under glass.
Bill Zeeble for KERA

The non-profit FARE, which stands for Food Allergy Research and Education, says 32 million Americans have food allergies or intolerances. Symptoms can range from mild itching to closing of the air passageway in the throat. In rare cases, a food allergy can kill.

At first, Kitchen West manager Mike Falk feared everything made here would turn bland, but he says the meals haven’t become hospital food.

“In some things they may taste a little of the difference, the cheese, because it’s plant based,” Falk said. “When we make our gravies you’re going to have rice milk or plant-based cream. And that product is going to have a little off taste to it that they’re not familiar with but it’s still got a great flavor profile. Nothing leaves ’til every cook in here has tasted the food. If it’s not perfect it don’t go out.”

Connor Jones likes it.

“It’s awesome. It’s delicious,” Jones said.

He’s a 23-year-old UNT senior who learned when he was little that he couldn’t tolerate gluten or dairy. So for him, Kitchen West goes down easy.

“I can come here and just know that anything in here is good for me to have. We have incredible chefs here you know?”

Balabuch says delivering top taste without the top eight allergens has taken some work.

“We’ve changed over all the cookware. We did a deep sanitizing of the kitchen. We brought in all new plates. Getting the ingredients in that we can verify on the ingredient list, if it says something is manufactured in a facility that has tree nuts or pea— we’re not getting it,” Balabuch said.

UNT’s registered dietician Samantha Krysiak says establishing and maintaining high allergen free standards wasn’t just championed by staff or students.

“I think as parents you worry a lot sending your kid off to college for the first time. And especially with a kid with a food allergy. So it doesn’t provide a safe place just for the student but it provides comfort to the parent,” she said.

Paul Antico’s one of those parents. Three of his seven kids have food allergies. He lives in New England and has spent years seeking restaurants safe for the whole family. About a decade ago he launched the AllergyEats webpage to help other parents. It lists restaurant allergy policies and menus. Antico’s never seen something quite like what UNT’s created.

“This one is really unique. I have not seen a college that has a dining hall that’s entirely free of ‘top eight,'” Antico said. “That’s really revolutionary because it’s also offering kids a lot of choice, which is great.”

The University of North Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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U.S. Rep. Al Green tried for two years to impeach Donald Trump. Is that hurting Democrats now?

Texas Tribune News

Republicans have latched onto the words of U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, using them to help make their case that Democrats as a whole aren’t acting out of true concern for the country, but in order to score political points against a president they despise.
Republicans have latched onto the words of U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, using them to help make their case that Democrats as a whole aren’t acting out of true concern for the country, but in order to score political points against a president they despise.
REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

WASHINGTON — While congressional committees have hosted their nationally televised impeachment hearings, Republicans in the House have made sure the words of Texas Democrat Al Green were on full display.

His quote has been printed in big black and white letters on a poster board set up by the Republican staff on the Intelligence and Judiciary committees: “I’m concerned if we don’t impeach this president, he will get re-elected.”

Green said that in a July interview with NBC News after he was asked for his thoughts on the President Donald Trump’s unwillingness to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin over that country’s meddling in the 2016 elections.

At the time, Green was largely running a rogue campaign. He had tried and failed three times to press Congress to impeach the president. Now Republicans have latched onto the words, using them to help make their case that Democrats as a whole aren’t acting out of true concern for the country, but in order to score political points against a president they despise.

In the Republican House Intelligence Committee’s 123-page impeachment report, Green is mentioned six times — more than any other lawmaker.

When asked, U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Heath, who sits on both the Judiciary and Intelligence committees, said Green’s statements are “reflective of the Democratic conference.” U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, who frequently quotes Green in press releases regarding impeachment, said Green made a “fatal mistake” when he exposed the Democrats’ true intentions for impeachment proceedings.

U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, stands before a sign with a quote from U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston: “I’m concerned if we don’t impeach this president, he will get re-elected.”
U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, stands before a sign with a quote from U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston: “I’m concerned if we don’t impeach this president, he will get re-elected.”
Jack Gruber-USA TODAY via REUTERS

“He told the truth in public when he said their key purpose here is, their concern is if they don’t impeach the president, he’ll get reelected. I watched his full interview; that’s exactly what he said and meant,” Brady said. “That reveals, pulls back the curtain on the whole purpose for this impeachment. It is to create a constitutional crisis for purely political reasons.”

Green said Republicans are taking his words out of context.

“All of these things that they are attempting to do to confuse the public that may not be as tuned in as they would like to be will not prevent this president from being impeached,” Green said.

But Green’s words have nonetheless created a political headache for his party. House leadership consistently opposed Green’s attempts to impeach. In 2017, while Republicans still controlled the House, Green laid out a resolution pushing for impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” including Trump’s defense of white nationalists protesting in Charlottesville, Virginia; his criticism of NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem as a protest of police violence; and his retweeting of anti-Muslim videos from a far-right British account. Only 58 members voted in favor of the resolution.

This March, Green cited bigotry, a slew of offensive comments and controversial policy choices Trump has made over his first two years, along with his firing of former FBI Director James Comey, as the primary reasons for impeachment. In July, Green sought again to impeach after Trump tweeted that that four Democratic women of color in Congress should “go back” to the “broken and crime infested places from which they came.” By then, Green’s support had grown slightly, but his efforts still easily failed — 95 House members backed him; 332 voted to table his articles of impeachment.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barely contained her annoyance at the time. Her words from March explaining why she didn’t back impeachment have also been put on Republicans’ posters.

“Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path because it divides the country,” she told The Washington Post. “And he’s just not worth it.”

Both Pelosi’s and Green’s statements were made before the current impeachment inquiry and before the information related to Trump’s dealings in Ukraine was made public. Those actions were what prompted the latest inquiry, and they have been the primary focus of proceedings so far. Now that the inquiry is in full swing, Green is still not on the relevant committees and is by no means leading the impeachment proceedings.

Just this week, Green sent a memo to the House Judiciary Committee calling for it to bring on more diverse witnesses. He’s also asked the Judiciary Committee to consider including the president’s “racist actions” in articles of impeachment. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, said that “any information coming from members will be reviewed appropriately,” but didn’t comment further.

The impeachment trajectory is largely predictable, though. Democrats in the House will draft articles of impeachment, and they will more than likely pass. Once they’re in the Senate’s hands, it’s unlikely the upper chamber will remove him from office.

“The facts are uncontested,” Pelosi said Thursday when she announced the Judiciary Committee will begin drafting articles of impeachment. “The president abused his power for his own personal political benefit at the expense of our national security.”

But what happens in the nationally broadcast hearings shapes public opinion, too. Republicans have used Green’s words to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the proceedings, causing frustration for Democrats.

“I think the Republicans are doing anything possible to distract from the facts,” said U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, a member of the Judiciary Committee. “The facts are so damning and so indefensible that they are looking for a way to ensure that the American public doesn’t pay attention to what the president did.”

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Optimism abounds for Texas Democrats in 2020, but campaign staffers are sparse

Texas Tribune News

Democratic Party signage and logos at the Texas Democratic Party office in Austin on Oct. 8, 2019.
Democratic Party signage and logos at the Texas Democratic Party office in Austin on Oct. 8, 2019.
Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

Though the news broke last week from Baltimore, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris’ withdrawal from the presidential campaign reverberated all the way to Texas.

Harris made a few inroads in the state. But most prominently, she hired over the last few years a stable of female operatives with Texas roots. And one particular woman was on the mind of a number of Texas Democrats, now that she was without a campaign.

“What’s Emmy going to do next?” was the question bouncing around Austin and Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston on Tuesday, referring to Emmy Ruiz, an Austin-based Democratic field organizer who was one of the most sought-after campaign consultants this cycle.

The hope among many Texas Democrats is that Ruiz will turn her attention to her home state. But her trajectory is the story of where the state’s Democratic operative class is today: With scant campaign opportunities in Republican-dominated Texas over the last two decades, many of the best and brightest young Texas Democrats deployed their talents elsewhere, like Virginia, California, Colorado and Ohio. Now the state is booming with Democratic campaign activity, but polished political staff is so scarce that poaching or struggling to retain talent is common to practically every campaign in the state.

It’s a high-class problem for Democrats. But it is still a problem.

“We have a huge staff shortage across the board, at every level of the races because in Texas so much of the talent has left,” said Harris County Democratic Party Chairwoman Lillie Schechter. “I am weekly — if not daily — being asked about staff to help with these campaigns.”

“A lost generation”

There is, effectively, a lost generation of talent in Texas Democratic politics.

Democrats were in decline in the 1990s, but the death blow came in 2003 at the hand of then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Thanks to his successful mid-decade redistricting plan, Republicans destroyed Democrats’ candidate and staffer farm team. With a Republican-favored redrawn map, Republicans targeted five Democratic incumbents in newly-hostile districts. Four of those members lost reelection in 2004. Eventually the fifth, U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, lost reelection in the 2010 wave, along with two other Democratic incumbents.

With this new map, and the next decade’s succeeding map, competitive races were mostly eliminated from the state, save for West Texas’ 23rd District currently held by U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, in a region remote from most of the state’s urban Democratic strongholds.

Erin Mincberg was one of those Democratic operatives forced to become Tex-pats. Doors slammed in her face in the late-2000s, like they did for so many other young Texas Democrats. It made no difference that Mincberg had a political pedigree: Her father served in the mid-1990s as Harris County Democratic Party chairman and her mother served on the Houston school board.

Mincberg described a culture of “limited competitive races to get legitimate experience.” So she packed up and moved to California to get hands on experience in high stakes races.

She, too, is a Kamala Harris alumna. After raising money for a Sacramento-area Congressional campaign, she worked for Harris for five years, including the California attorney general’s 2014 reelection race.

As she was already anxious to come home, something curious happened on election night 2016: Hillary Clinton won more votes than Donald Trump in her home 7th Congressional District.

With her own backyard in play, she quickly joined future U.S. Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher’s campaign to unseat longtime Republican incumbent John Culberson. After establishing a chemistry with Fletcher, Mincberg was promoted to campaign manager.

“In terms of moving back … it was the right time for me, personally,” she said. “However, I think it’s more about why I left in 2009.”

Many Texas Democrats put Crystal Kay Perkins, a former state Democratic Party executive director who returned home, in this category. Perkins is now with the Biden campaign, and worked early in her career for the national House and Senate Democratic campaign committees. Otherwise, there are few prodigal sons and daughters returning to the state, and there’s a worry that many of those who are in the game now have daunting learning curves.

“Beggars can’t be choosers”

The issues first manifested in 2018, when a wave of Democratic candidates were forced to hire neophytes and dealt with campaign quality control. The complications were nearly comic in effect. Some candidates struggled with their own names misspelled on campaign signs.

But with so much at stake this cycle for Democrats, the tone is more anxious. While national intrigue surrounds whether Texas will truly be a battleground at the presidential and Senate level, many state-based Democrats most covet winning the state House chamber — and the redistricting implications involved with such power — above all other priorities.

Four years ago, the opposite was true. Back in 2016, there were only two truly viable Democratic presidential campaigns. Democratic star staffers found themselves taking lower pay and titles for opportunities to work on a presidential campaign. With over 20 presidential campaigns at one point this year, operatives are signing onto jobs they might not qualify for in more conventional cycles — leaving even fewer options down-ballot when that talent is sorely needed.

Prior to 2018, the Texas 23rd District, along with a handful of state legislative seats, were the only games in town. Now, in the 2020 cycle, there are potentially over 30 competitive state legislative races, nine competitive U.S. House seats, a hot U.S. House Democratic primary in South Texas, a crowded U.S. Senate primary and a presidential primary that could turn into a competitive general election campaign in the fall.

Candidates now confess to staffer envy, as they see campaigns snapping up coveted talent.

Texas candidates are hiring applicants who might otherwise only qualify for assistant-level posts as department heads. Out-of-state operatives with few Texas connections or institutional knowledge are parachuting in. And the mantra is, beggars can’t be choosers and candidates ought to be grateful for those under-qualified warm bodies.

Some campaigns cannot even find interns.

“It’s not a lack of talent, it’s a lack of experience,” said a Capitol Hill staffer who was not authorized to speak on the record.

He observed that his generation of Republican counterparts were able to “be in the room” amid major decisions and had opportunities Democrats did not have. The current Texas Republican operative class is populated with acolytes to elders like former President George W. Bush, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and former presidential candidates Rick Perry and Ted Cruz, along the current slate of statewide officials.

“We’ve tried to mitigate that every way we know how”

Several state-based organizations have responded to the challenge with intensive training efforts. Local Democrats credit the state party, the women’s groups Annie’s List and Arena, a national progressive group called Run for Something and a training organization called the Blue Leadership Collaborative.

Texas Democratic Party Executive Director Manny Garcia said in a statement that his organization recognizes the stresses to the system due to Texas’ increasing competitiveness and is in the process of hosting a second of two rounds of training this cycle.

“That means there are hundreds of candidates who need professional staff and strong campaigns to engage their voters,” he said. “The first round was a massive success, graduating 57 Texas-based campaign operatives in various campaign roles and placing the majority in crucial campaign jobs across the state to help turn Texas blue in 2020.”

Lisa Turner, the state director for the Democratic PAC the Lone Star Project, detected the coming dilemma years ago.

“It is a challenge for sure, but it’s something we’ve been aware of for awhile, and we’ve tried to mitigate that every way we know how,” she said, referring to the training efforts.

Meanwhile, plenty of well-regarded Texans did hang back to run campaigns in an environment that was far more hostile than that of many celebrated Democratic national consultants. Democrats interviewed pointed to the state party’s Garcia, Progress Texas Executive Director Ed Espinoza, state Rep. Celia Israel of Austin, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign Texas state director Jenn Longoria, Dallas-based fundraiser Megan Rodman McGilberry and Jackie Uresti, who has worked in both the Legislature and for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Amid the exodus, Texas has been a draw for out-of-state talent. Jane Hamilton, a Louisiana native, moved back and forth between Capitol Hill and Dallas County over the last 20 years. A previous chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, she is now former Vice President Joe Biden’s state director.

And one of the foremost experts of the state’s geography is a newcomer. At least one national campaign strategist pointed to U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s spokesman Chris Evans as a key hire for any organization aiming to run a statewide campaign. Evans followed O’Rourke on his 254-county tour, live-streaming every corner of the state.

While Trump is credited with activating interest in political careers, O’Rourke’s campaign could prove to be the first training ground for the state’s future talent.

There are others, both homegrown and transplants. But it’s simply not enough to go around among the dozens of campaigns in a state as unique, populous and geographically expansive as Texas.

And as the presidential campaign drags on, there will be other candidates beyond Kamala Harris who drop out. Texas candidates are sure to be lying in wait, praying they will be the ones to land the talent left behind.

But Hamilton, the Biden staffer, told the Tribune there is only one way to build for the future.

“With so many viable races, this election cycle is on a great path but in order to continue on that path, we’ve got to win.”

Cassandra Pollock and Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

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State. Mike Lang opts against reelection for second time

Texas Tribune News

State Rep. Mike Lang, R-Granbury, listens in during the House Select Committee on Mass Violence Prevention & Community Safety hearing on Sept. 17, 2019.
State Rep. Mike Lang, R-Granbury, listens in during the House Select Committee on Mass Violence Prevention & Community Safety hearing on Sept. 17, 2019.
Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

State Rep. Mike Lang, R-Granbury, is apparently not running for reelection — again.

With minutes to spare before the deadline, Lang filed Monday evening for Hood County commissioner, according to county GOP Chairman David Fischer. Lang did not immediately respond to a request for comment but retweeted a House colleague who wished him luck in the race for county commissioner.

It has been a whirlwind fall for Lang, who initially announced in September that he would not seek reelection and instead run for county commissioner. However, he reversed that decision days later.

Lang was facing two primary challengers for his safely Republican seat, Glenn Rogers and Kelly SoRelle. Both had filed by the Monday evening deadline. A third Republican, Mineral Wells Mayor Christopher Perricone, told The Texas Tribune on Monday evening that he had also filed to run for the seat earlier in the afternoon at party headquarters in Austin.

Lang has until Tuesday evening to withdraw from the state House race so that his name does not appear on the ballot.

Cassi Pollock contributed reporting.

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