On a gritty street in Galveston, Texas, a few blocks from the Gulf of Mexico, stands a prime example of the largesse of Republican Rep. Ron Paul. Workers here are putting the finishing touches on a new home, one of about 180 that will be built, at taxpayer's expense, for residents who lost their abodes to Hurricane Ike back in 2008.
The money for this project came from a federal Community Development Block Grant that the libertarian-leaning congressman helped direct to Galveston, the seat of Galveston County, and the most populous part of Paul's district. "Federal dollars are key," city spokeswoman Alicia Cahill tells me as a trailer arrives with boxes of new appliances. "Not only to help rebuild these homes, but also for so many infrastructure projects."
Thanks for the digs, America! Photos by Josh Harkinson
As a libertarian, Paul says he opposes federal disaster relief, but one of Paul's staffers told me that his office has shepherded hundreds of FEMA claims, ensured the reconstruction of the county's seawall, and won federal funding for an extensive beach nourishment project. Indeed, between 1999 and 2009 (the most recent year available), federal spending in Galveston County quadrupled to more than $4 billion. In 2009, the county received $14,707 per resident, topping average per capita federal spending in 46 of the 50 states. Paul earmarked some $60 million for projects in and around the city that year.
These local projects illustrate a central irony of Ron Paul's career: Even as the 12-term congressman has become the Cassandra of governmental overreach, he has enabled a deepening dependence on the federal government at home. Paul, who last week announced that he will retire at the end of 2012, will on one hand be remembered as "Dr. No," the politician who always voted "nay" on new spending, and on the other, as "a politician like all the rest," as Galveston GOP precinct chair Josh Daniels described him to me last week, noting that Paul's Janus-faced approach to federal spending "just doesn't sit well with me."
For better or worse, Paul has always cauterized his anti-government views with old-fashioned cronyism. Knowing that most appropriations bills will pass despite his nay vote, he often loads them with earmarks. In this way, he has managed to please both small-government conservatives and pork-loving constituents. From 2008 through 2010, Paul won nearly $125 million in earmarks, most of them for spending in his district. Last year, he was one of just four House Republicans who refused to abide by their party's voluntary earmarks ban. Trying to justify his projects in a 2009 Fox News interview, Paul said, "If they are going to allot the money, I have a responsibility to represent my people." Asked to elaborate on Paul's position, his spokeswoman pointed to a statement on Paul's website arguing that eliminating earmarks "would further consolidate power in the already dominant executive branch and not save a penny."
Welcome to Galveston County GOP headquarters.Over the years, being Ron Paul has not gotten any easier. Take, for example, the window of the Galveston County GOP headquarters, a squat building along Interstate 45 south of Houston, where a campaign sign reads, "Ron Paul: The Taxpayers' Best Friend." Less than a block away is the site of a future Park and Ride facility, courtesy of Paul's $750,000 earmark—never mind that Paul claims to oppose public transportation. Of course, Paul isn't entirely a hypocrite. He has long advocated privatizing NASA, a major employer in Galveston County. Obama is now doing just that; the only problem is that there's another sign in the window of GOP headquarters, reading: "Save NASA, Stop Obama."
For Paul's would-be successors, inhabiting his political wheelhouse is about as desirable as living on Saturn. None of the Texas Republicans vying to replace him in Congress—school administrator John Gay, politically connected attorney Michael Truncale, and state legislator Larry Taylor (who on Wednesday announced he would drop out of the race)—consider themselves libertarians. When I met Truncale at a GOP social hour at a yacht club in Kemah, an affluent resort town on Galveston Bay, he told me that a number of Paul's positions "may be a bit extreme for me." And Gay gripes that Paul wants to shrink government to the point that it's "almost like no government." In fact, nobody I met at the club described themselves as full-fledged Ron Paul supporters.
Part of Paul's duality may stem from his district's shifting political landscape; this year, the Texas Legislature redrew the district to include a swath of Democratic-leaning Jefferson County and larger parts of Galveston County. Paul's turf, once predominately rural, now must draw more conservative votes from the metastasizing Houston suburbs around League City, where billboards advertise new subdivisions with names like Tuscan Lakes and Trails at Bay Colony. Many voters in those places look to the government to provide quality roads, public schools, and law enforcement. "Growth in League City is mainly Republicans," says Daniels, the Galveston County precinct chair. "A lot of the core libertarian voters are not in that district."
"He's just not that popular around here," says a resident of Paul's old neighborhood.
To be sure, Paul still has plenty of loyalists. At Smithart's Downtown Grill in Lake Jackson, where he used to stop in for the signature half-pound burger, I found Sandra Smithart standing barefoot behind the counter, her toenails painted bright red. She told me that everyone knew Paul because, in his former career as a physician, he'd delivered thousands of babies around the county. "I like his honesty," she said, after calling out an order for a big man named Bubba. "He's a politician who won't ever vote for anything he doesn't believe in."
Yet on the leafy streets around Paul's old ranch-style home, yard signs in support of his presidential campaign were hard to come by. "He's just not that popular around here," explains retired engineer Jim Struthwolf, stepping off his riding mower to talk. Though Struthwolf has seen Paul speak at the Lions Club and his wife worked with Paul's wife on the Girl Scouts 20 years ago, he doesn't consider himself a supporter. "He went off a different way when he became a libertarian."
If all politics are local, as the famously liberal House Speaker Tip O'Neill liked to argue, then the Ron Paul revolution may be destined to fizzle. Back home, Paul never fully walked his libertarian talk. Struthwolf recalls Paul's early days in Congress, when he lambasted O'Neill for riding around Washington in an expensive, state-issued Lincoln Town Car. Well, the last time Paul showed up at his house, Struthwolf tells me with a chuckle, he showed up in, yes, an official Lincoln Town Car. (Paul's spokeswoman said the car could have belonged to someone else). "Tip O'Neill," Struthwolf says, "is probably laughing in his grave."
Texas lawmakers are expected to vote on a bill Wednesday that would effectively outlaw many routine airport searches by the Transportation Security Administration. If it passes, a TSA screener who touches the "anus, sexual organs, or breasts" of a passenger without probable cause could face jail time—a prospect that has the Obama administration threatening to sue the Lone Star state and even cancel flights. A rattled state Senate seemed to have dropped the bill before Gov. Rick Perry put it back on the agenda again last week, perhaps seeing a high-stakes fight with the feds as fuel for a presidential bid. But why stop at that? Some of the bill's most enthusiastic backers view it as a key first step towards an even bigger goal: The establishment of an independent Republic of Texas.
"If the federal government follows up on its threat and suspends air travel, I honestly think we are going to gain a lot of members in a big hurry," says Dave Mundy, media director for the Texas Nationalist Movement (TNM), a pro-secession group that claims an active membership of 10,000. "An air embargo, which is what they are talking about, would actually be an act of war. I mean, that's what happens when you declare war on somebody. You establish a no-fly zone."
Yesterday, TNM president Daniel Miller wrote on the group's website that "Texas is not Iraq." ("Will Washington choose to engage the Texan 149th Fighter Wing and their F-16 air superiority fighters?") Miller also pointed to this "brilliant" observation from an anonymous blogger: "The state of Texas has more military capability than the United Kingdom, and so, unless Washington plans to nuke them, they might want to consider how well they might do engaging Texan F-16s while they allege the right to violate United States Code and the Constitution."
This month marks the 40th year of the War on Drugs, but the Republican love affair with pot prohibition certainly isn't experiencing a ruby anniversary. On Monday, the editors of the National Review called the federal drug war a "colossal failure":
It has curtailed personal freedom, created a violent black market, and filled our prisons. It has also trampled on states' rights: Sixteen states have legalized "medical marijuana"—which is, admittedly, often code for legalizing pot in general—only to clash with federal laws that ban weed throughout the land.
That last sin is not the War on Drugs’ greatest, but it is not insignificant, either. A bill introduced by Reps. Barney Frank (D., Mass.) and Ron Paul (R., Texas) would remove the federal roadblock to state marijuana reform, and though the Republican House seems almost certain to reject it, the proposal deserves support from across the political spectrum.
Though the National Review has argued for legalizing marijuana off and on since the 1970s, it has a lot more friends on the Right these days. As I noted last year, pot-friendly Republicans now include everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Tancredo to Sarah Palin and Rick Perry. There's even a Tea Pot Party informally led by the Red State stoner-in-chief, Willie Nelson. His new pro-legalization video for NORML is below. . .
By all appearances, Texas Governor Rick Perry is edging closer to a presidential run. His wife wants him to jump into the race and so do the big money guys in New York. Also enthused by the idea were attendees of last weekend's Republican Leadership Conference, where the crowd chanted, "Run, Rick, Run!" But despite everything that Perry's got going for him—a strong state economy, great hair, bible-thumping bona fides, and more than a decade as a sitting governor—he also has a lengthy track record of gaffes, controversial remarks, and dubious dealings. Here are some of the most notable:
Shady home sale: With the help of well-placed friends, Perry earned nearly $500,000 in questionable profits from a waterfront home in Horseshoe Bay, Texas, the Dallas Morning Newsrevealed last year. Doug Jaffe, a prominent political powerbroker, sold the house in 2001 to a Perry friend and political ally who passed it on to the Governor for $300,000, two-thirds of its true market value. Six years later, Perry sold it to a friend and business associate of Jaffe for $350,000 above its market value—a cool $1.3 million.
A builder's best friend: In June, 2003, Perry helped push through a bill creating the Texas Residential Construction Commission, a new government agency that was supposed to protect homebuyers from unethical builders. In reality, the bill was written by the housing industry with the help of John Krugh, a lobbyist for the homebuilder and GOP money man Bob Perry (no relation). That September, after getting a $100,000 check from Perry, the Governor appointed Krugh to the TRCC. Consumer groups fought back and got the agency abolished in 2009.
A road to nowhere: In 2003, Perry proposed the Trans-Texas Corridor, a 4,000-mile mega-highway that would have destroyed 500,000 acres of farmland while enriching a handful of politically-connected toll road operators. After the state spent nearly $60 million on the plan, overwhelming public opposition killed it.
Hands off: In 2004, whistleblowers repeatedly informed Perry's office that the Governor's Texas Youth Commission hires and protects "known child abusers." His office ignored the warnings. Three years later, the story broke that top officials with the TYC had learned of and done nothing to stop widespread child molestation at a juvenile detention facility in West Texas.
Nader raider?: Perry's political associates, including top adviser Dave Carney, have been repeatedly accused of helping the Green Party qualify for the ballot in order to siphon votes away from Democratic candidates.
A shot in the arm: In 2007, Perry bypassed the state legislature and signed an executive order making Texas the only state in the nation to require 6th grade girls to receive a vaccination against a sexually-transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer. At the time, Perry's former chief of staff, Mike Toomey, was a lobbyist for Merck, the manufacturer of the vaccine. When conservative Christians protested, the legislature repealed his order.
The stimulus two-step: In March, 2009, Perry refused $555 million in stimulus money that would have funded unemployment benefits. The move backfired four months later when Perry asked the federal government for a $170 million loan to cover his state's dwindling unemployment funds.
If at first you don't secede: At a tea party rally in April, 2009, Perry said: "We've got a great Union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that?"
Blame God, not BP: Last year, Perry called the BP oil spill an "act of God."
Crony capitalism: Perry has used the state's Emerging Technologies Fund to benefit political allies. According to the Dallas Morning News, $16 million from the fund, or nearly 10 percent, has been awarded to companies with investors or officers that are large campaign donors to Perry.
Black Ops: Perry keeps a daily "political schedule" that he argues is separate from the "official schedule" that must be disclosed under Texas open records laws. His official schedule for the first six months of 2010 showed an average of 7 hours of work per week; he has admitted that he simply doesn't record much of his official business. His office destroys its emails weekly.
Getting Wasted: Perry has accepted $1.2 million from Texas billionaire Harold Simmons, who is building a nuclear waste dump in West Texas over the objections of some of the state's own environmental regulators. In January, Texas' Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission opened the door to allowing the dump to accept nuclear waste from around the country. Six of of the commission's seven members were appointed by Perry.
Juarez, Texas?: Earlier this year, Perry told reporters that "Juarez is reported to be the most dangerous city in America."
Greetings from Texas! I've been staying on my family's ranch in the heart of the Lone Star State for about two weeks now, and I already have about a month's worth of chigger bites—the little terrorists love the mulch on the vegetable garden, which I've been frantically laying with drip lines. As the river runs dry and wildfires rage, I'm starting to doubt Gov. Rick Perry's Prayer for Rain will seed the clouds. As for his prayers about the Republican presidential primary, who knows? The Lord works in mysterious ways.
I've dropped in from San Francisco for two months to write about Perry and other outsized characters from the state where I grew up. And the ranch—located in the Hill Country at the confluence of the Blanco River and Blasingame Creek—is the perfect staging ground, equidistant from Austin and San Antonio as well as Dallas and Houston. Downsides include the half-hour drive to find organic greens or crusty bread, and internet that's slower than the armadillo living under the rusty ranch truck. But sometimes distance gives you perspective. For instance, I've been thinking a lot recently about the decaying log cabin out past the chicken coop and the beehives. It embodies a tale that's alternately presented either as a cold-blooded crime or one of the region's most famous showdowns. How you think about it might depend on your politics.
In the 1854, the family of Woodson Blasingame, a low-income subsistence farmer, built the cabin on land purchased from James Callahan, a land speculator and captain with the original Texas Rangers. Blasingame is thought by some to have sympathized with the area's progressive German community, while Callahan, the namesake of Callahan County, was a swashbuckling good 'ol boy best known for nearly causing another war with Mexico. "It took a lot to make him angry," says Tom McDonald, Callahan's great-great-great grandson, who is writing a book about him, "but when you did, you'd better get out of his way."
In late 1855, Callahan and a posse of nearly 100 Rangers pursued a band of Lipian Apache Indians out of the Hill Country and across the Rio Grande into Mexico. The Indians joined forces with local Mexicans and ambushed him, killing four of his men. The Rangers fought their way out and occupied the nearby Mexican town of Piedras Negras, where they looted food (and gold, according to one account) before burning it down and fleeing back across the border. The raid was widely praised in the local press, where it fed into support for the "Know Nothings," a nativist antecedent to the tea party. However, one progressive German-American paper in the area opposed it as illegal.