An Observer analysis finds that DPS’ spy planes are flying over Texas communities, with little oversight.
by G.W. Schulz and Melissa del Bosque May 23, 2018
In recent years, the Texas Department of Public Safety hasspent more than $15 million on two high-altitude surveillance planes. Typically flying at more than 2 miles above the earth, the planes are impossible to spot from the ground, leaving Texans in the dark about whether they’re being watched.
The planes, according to the manufacturer, are capable of tracking people and vehicles from several miles away and transmitting high-definition video overlaid with powerful mapping software in real time to analysts. By analyzing flight logs and tracking data, the Observer, in partnership with The Investigative Fund, found that from January 2015 to July 2017, during Operation Secure Texas, DPS flew these high-tech planes hundreds of times over wide swaths of Central and South Texas. The majority of the flights were concentrated over just two South Texas counties — Starr and Hidalgo — along the border.
One plane is stationed near the border in Edinburg, in the Rio Grande Valley. The other is based more than 200 miles north, in San Antonio, which has experienced the highest number of inland surveillance flights. Many of the San Antonio flights were concentrated in the city’s southeast, where the DPS plane flew over Sam Houston High School, Martin Luther King Park and other locations. DPS planes also flew over Austin at least 38 times for criminal investigations or flight training. The planes circled Houston at least 20 times in connection with criminal investigations.
Two small border towns in Starr County — Rio Grande City and Roma — had the most flights per zip code of any place in the state. From January 2015 to July 2017, spy planes flew over Rio Grande City 357 times, making the border town of some 14,500 inhabitants the most watched city in Texas.
Noe Castillo, Rio Grande City’s chief of police, said he was aware that DPS operates surveillance planes, but he’d never asked for a plane’s help with an investigation. “Our city hasn’t used them,” he said. “We can make a request, but we’ve never had a situation where we needed it.”
Castillo said the crime rate in his city is lower than in many parts of the country. In 2016, the most recent year with FBI data available, Rio Grande City had only 17 incidents of violent crime. “I live 200 yards from the border and it’s a peaceful place,” he said.
In the neighboring town of Roma, population 10,265, DPS surveillance planes flew over the border city 274 times during the same time period. The planes flew over the city of Mission in Hidalgo County, home to the National Butterfly Center, 96 times.
The majority of the hundreds of DPS flight logs the Observer obtained through the Texas Public Information Act provide little information about what the planes were looking for. The purpose of the flights was often unlisted. In other instances, the records contain short explanations such as “border interdiction patrol,” or, in the case of non-border flights, “criminal transport,” “criminal photography” or “criminal investigation.”
The planes have also been used for purposes that are even further afield from what DPS Director Steve McCraw has described as a border mission, such as flying out of state to pick up fugitives. In February 2016, DPS sent one of its surveillance planes to Arizona to retrieve John Feit, a retired Catholic priest who’d been ordered to stand trial in Texas for the 1960 murder of a woman in McAllen.
In 2015, DPS sent a surveillance plane to rural Erath County, near Fort Worth, to fly over a corn field and confirm that marijuana was planted there. Days later, the Erath County sheriff conducted a raid on the field, but there weren’t any marijuana growers around and no arrests were made, according to police reports. The sheriff also abandoned attempts to seize the farmland because investigators couldn’t produce any evidence that the lienholder of the property was involved. DPS spokesperson Tom Vinger declined to explain why DPS was using one of its high-tech planes to chase pot growers, or how much the operation cost the agency.
One of the most notable findings from our data analysis and mapping project is that DPS may be flying its surveillance planes over the border and into Mexico, despite department operating procedures that prohibit aerial surveillance missions outside U.S. airspace. The tracking data we obtained from Flightradar24, a commercial flight-tracking service, indicates that DPS planes crossed the Texas-Mexico border several times between January 2015 and July 2017, flying as far as 9 kilometers into Mexico. (Learn more about how we did the analysis and mapping here.) But because the otherwise state-of-the-art planes have used an imprecise transponder, the company triangulated locations based on data compiled from a network of ground receivers. Because those receivers are sparse near the border, Flightradar24 says, the tracking coordinates could be off by as much as 10 kilometers, putting those flights either inside the U.S. border or deeper into Mexico.
Vinger responded to the Observer’s findings of potential cross-border flights by email, saying they were “incorrect” and citing “accuracy issues with publicly available software to track planes.” Vinger also wrote, “There have been no complaints or reports made to the department by the federal government in Mexico or by our federal government.”
But there is some compelling evidence that cross-border surveillance might be occurring. In a contract document obtained by the Observer through a public information request, Pilatus, the company that built the planes, details their surveillance capabilities, listing “searchable satellite and street map layers for North America as well as data vectors for Mexico extending into the country approximately 10 miles from the border.”
Aviation tracking data obtained from the commercial firm Flightradar24 show Texas Department of Public Safety planes crossed the Texas-Mexico border several times between January 2015 and July 2017, flying as far as 9 kilometers into Mexico. But because the planes used an imprecise transponder, the tracking coordinates could be off by as much as 10 kilometers. DPS operating procedures prohibit aerial surveillance missions outside U.S. airspace. Click to learn more.
A 2015 Austin American-Statesman story uncovered a report created in 2010 by former DPS contractor Abrams Learning and Information Systems, a private defense firm, that detailed DPS surveillance, using older RC-26 planes, on the Zetas cartel in Mexico. The agency allegedly shared information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Mexican military. The section detailing the collaboration in the report was preceded with the warning, “Need to be careful here as we are admitting to spying on Mexico.”
DPS denied to the Statesman that it had conducted spying operations in Mexico. The Observer asked ICE whether it had worked with DPS on surveillance flights in Mexico, and the agency offered only a brief written response: “ICE officials can neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation or operational activity.”
DPS said the planes have state-of-the-art ADS-B transponders, which could allow for more accurate flight tracking, but according to Flightradar24, DPS hasn’t activated the transponder in the plane that regularly patrols the border. Vinger wrote that each DPS aircraft also uses GPS mapping that is “accurate within 3 meters to assist the crew with situational awareness at all times — this is especially true near the Texas-Mexico border.” DPS declined to release that tracking data.
Two high-altitude surveillance aircraft with an initial combined price tag of $15 million have conducted hundreds of flights over select areas of the border. Operated by the Texas Department of Public Safety as part of its ongoing push to secure the border, the aircraft have flown over schools, hospitals, churches and more in Texas. Click to learn more.
If DPS is crossing into Mexico to conduct surveillance, it’s highly unusual and possibly dangerous, said Raúl Benítez-Manaut, a professor of geopolitics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. The border is already crowded with Mexican and American federal law enforcement agencies, and accidents or misidentification are real risks, he said, especially if the Mexican military is not notified. Drones are one thing, Benítez-Manaut said; if they crash or get shot down mistakenly, at least there’s no one onboard. In 2010, for example, a mini Orbiter unmanned drone operated by the Mexican government crashed in a backyard in El Paso — and no one was injured. But a piloted plane is far more risky, Benítez-Manaut said. “The Mexican Air Force could think the plane belongs to a drug-trafficking organization and shoot it down.”
A spokesperson for the Mexican embassy in Washington, D.C., said by email that Mexican authorities “have no register of such aerial surveillance activities.” She added that the United States is obligated to conduct itself with “strict respect for the territorial and jurisdictional sovereignty of the Mexican State.”
After the purchase of the first spy plane in 2012, McCraw lobbied for a second plane in a letter to Governor Greg Abbott, explaining that it would be used as a “force multiplier” on the border. “During the past two years,” McCraw wrote, “the Pilatus has flown 1,585 hours, participated in 201 investigations, performed 772 agency assists, directed ground personnel to interdict 3,464 persons, and located 20 lost persons.”
According to the agency, it costs $474 per hour on average to operate one of the planes. Vinger said in an email that the agency did not track whether any of those 3,464 apprehensions led to an indictment, prosecution or conviction.
Since the agency publicly releases so little information, it’s impossible to verify McCraw’s numbers. The Legislative Budget Board, a joint committee that reviews state agency spending, issued a critical report in 2015 that found “the lack of consistent reporting on border security” makes it difficult to “evaluate the strategic value” of Texas’ spending.
Victor Manjarrez Jr. worked for the U.S. Border Patrol for more than two decades, including as sector chief. He’s now associate director of the Center for Law & Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso, where he has observed DPS’ growing role in border security with skepticism. “With what the state has done, I think we need to step back and say, ‘Is it worth the value?’” Manjarrez said. The spy planes strike him as little more than “some very expensive toys.”
Flights conducted by the Texas Department of Public Safety’s two high-altitude surveillance aircraft are mostly concentrated in the Rio Grande Valley, where one aircraft is stationed. The other aircraft is kept in San Antonio. Click to learn more.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection already operates an aerial surveillance program using unmanned drones, which has cost taxpayers well over $360 million since the program started in 2004. The program has frequently run into problems. At least two drones have crashed on patrol, and expenditures have been hard to account for, according to a withering 2015 report presented by John Roth, former inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP. Roth recommended halting the purchase of drones until the agency could establish metrics for success. “They never established any performance measures, so they can’t tell whether the program is a success or not,” Roth told C-SPAN after releasing his report.
It’s a criticism that could easily apply to Texas. “They never did set out in the beginning what they hoped to accomplish at the end of the day,” Manjarrez said of DPS and state legislators who have signed off on one expensive border security operation after another. “Now they sure did use the word ‘border security,’ but, by God, you could ask 50 different people what that means and get 50 different responses.”
During his time in the Border Patrol, Manjarrez recalled, part of the strategy was to make the agency’s fleet of planes and helicopters visible at the border, on the theory that the sheer show of force might deter people from trying to cross illegally or smuggle drugs into the country. “The whole point is to have that visual deterrence,” he said. “But how are you doing that with a high-altitude spy plane that no one can see?”
G.W. Schulz is a journalist of 15 years covering security and criminal justice issues and a recent graduate of the Master’s program in journalism at the University of Texas-Austin.
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, where Melissa del Bosque is a Lannan reporting fellow.
To find out where the Texas Department of Public Safety flies its two surveillance aircraft, the Texas Observer and the Investigative Fund teamed up to analyze commercially available flight data that recorded the paths of DPS’ two Pilatus PC-12 aircraft, purchased over the past six years.
Using the tail numbers of the planes — N219TX and N243TX — we obtained tracking data from Flightradar24, a commercial flight-tracking service. The data covers January 1, 2015, through July 31, 2017, and consists of points along the path of each plane’s flights specifying altitude, speed, latitude and longitude. Because the planes were using an imprecise transponder, which communicates information to ground receivers, Flightradar24 interpolated the planes’ locations based on data from multiple receivers. However, because such receivers are sparse near the border, a spokesperson for Flightradar24 says, each coordinate could be off by as much as 10 kilometers.
To map the flight paths, we converted the points captured for each flight into lines using ArcGIS Pro’s Points to Line tool. These estimated flight paths may be viewed in the “Flight Paths” tab. The individual points captured for each flight may be viewed in the “Flight Points” tab. Flight points that appear to be near the U.S.-Mexico border or inside Mexico may be viewed in the “Border Flights” tab.
Through a public information request, we also obtained almost a years’ worth of DPS flight logs from 2015 to 2016 for one of the planes, which contain more detailed flight information, including each flight’s purpose and a list of any passengers. This information may be viewed by clicking on any flight path that appears under the “Flights with Known Purpose” tab. You can explore potential surveillance of neighborhoods and civic institutions in the final two tabs.
How Texas’ decade-long border security operation has turned South Texas into one of the most heavily policed and surveilled places in the nation.
by Melissa del Bosque May 23, 2018
On a Friday morning, two days before Christmas 2016, Marianna Treviño-Wright decided she’d had enough of the Texas Department of Public Safety’s latest “border surge.” The longtime executive director of the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Treviño-Wright sat down at her desk, next to the baby turtle terrarium and the butterfly kites, to write an angry email to the local DPS captain. “My employees are being repeatedly stopped for a variety of reasons,” she wrote. “They are being questioned in the morning, when arriving at work and opening the gate. … They are being pulled over on Military [Highway] and on Schuerbach [Road] and asked, ‘What are you doing out here?’”
It was an incident the day before that finally pushed her over the edge. That morning, a DPS trooper had pulled over her groundskeeper in the center’s parking lot and demanded to see the man’s driver’s license. In the past, she and her staff had tried to laugh it off, making sarcastic jokes with one another about how one Mexican looked just like the next to DPS, but now it was getting ridiculous. The trooper said he’d stopped the groundskeeper because of a faulty taillight. But the taillight worked just fine. “This particular employee has been pulled over three times in seven days,” she wrote. “So I think it would be easy to assert he is being targeted for harassment.”
The National Butterfly Center sprawls across 100 acres, bordering the Rio Grande in Hidalgo County. The land sits on the migration route for the threatened monarch and dozens of other species that pass through the area every fall on their way to Mexico. For more than a decade, the center has also been inside the zone of one DPS border security operation after another, as state leaders have converted the state police agency into Texas’ own Department of Homeland Security. Once devoted primarily to enforcing statewide traffic laws and conducting criminal investigations, over the past decade DPS has received billions in taxpayer dollars to invest in special-ops teams, armored gunboats, spy planes and other military equipment to patrol the Texas-Mexico border.
A masked Department of Public Safety trooper prepares to patrol the Rio Grande between McAllen and Reynosa, Mexico, on a boat with M240 machine guns in July 2014. JAY JANNER / AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN
The federal government already runs a multibillion-dollar border security operation that has grown over that same time period to include new fences and walls, thousands of additional border agents, surveillance towers, ground sensors and drones. Despite the federal buildup, Governor Rick Perry, facing a competitive re-election campaign in 2006, refashioned himself as a tough-on-the-border candidate, promising to line the Rio Grande with surveillance cameras so that ordinary citizens serving as “virtual Texas deputies” could report the smuggling of people and drugs in real time on the web. After winning the election, Perry doled out $4 million in federal funds to his Texas Virtual Border Watch program. (The Texas Tribune later reported that only 29 cameras had been installed by 2010, netting just 26 arrests at a whopping cost of $153,800 each.) Despite criticism in the media and from Democrats, Perry embraced his border-hawk role, depicting the borderlands as a war zone in need of a tough-talking governor to hold back the chaos and the cartels. That strategy helped Perry build his national profile for his first bid for the White House in 2012.
In 2014, an influx of Central American children and families began arriving at the Texas border requesting asylum, the majority of them coming through Hidalgo and neighboring Starr County, two of the U.S. counties closest to Central America. As their arrival attracted international attention, Perry launched Operation Strong Safety, deploying 1,000 National Guard soldiers and hundreds of DPS troopers to the border. State troopers, he said, would work on a “round the clock basis” to disrupt “drug and human trafficking and other border-related crimes.” At a press conference at the Capitol, Perry proclaimed, “There can be no national security without border security, and Texans have paid too high a price for the federal government’s failure to secure our border.”
Standing at a podium in front of a two-star general from the Texas National Guard and DPS Director Steve McCraw, Perry said he would “not stand idly by while our citizens are under assault.” When a reporter at the press conference pointed out that elected officials from the border disagreed with his depiction of their communities as unsafe, Perry scoffed at him.
In fact, Texas’ border counties have had some of the lowest crime rates in the nation for years, according to FBI Uniform Crime Reports.
Yet, nearly four years later, Texas taxpayers have spent more than $2 billion on Operation Strong Safety and its successor under Governor Greg Abbott, Operation Secure Texas. But the success of these expensive operations in curtailing smuggling and other border-related crimes is a subject of dispute.
The operations have exacted other costs, too. Hidalgo and Starr counties are now among the most profiled and surveilled communities in America, with residents forced to adjust to life under the persistent watch of aerostat surveillance balloons, observation towers, National Guard listening posts, drones, DPS surveillance cameras, DPS spy planes and a barrage of intrusive police stops.
Over the course of several months, I interviewed dozens of residents and elected officials in both counties. They all described an unprecedented border security buildup that has taken a toll on their civil liberties and, ironically, made them feel far less safe. The two counties have also been targeted by the Trump administration as the site of the first new segments of border wall. Far from being rural, the Rio Grande Valley is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the state, with a dynamic economy and a relatively low crime rate. So why is the region so heavily policed? And why won’t state leaders listen to border communities when they say they’ve had enough?
Click the image to read about DPS’ aerial surveillance program and to view an interactive map with flight data.
“When you’re a hammer, everything else looks like a nail, and that’s very much the way they treat us,” said Treviño-Wright on a chilly morning in January. We were in her mud-splattered black Honda sedan, driving south from Mission toward the Rio Grande and the butterfly center. In the year since she’d filed the formal complaint against DPS, things had improved, Treviño-Wright said. But she and her neighbors were still living under constant surveillance. “A lot of people down here are scared to speak out or say anything,” she said. “But enough is enough, you know.”
We reached Military Highway and turned west, passing fields of beets and citrus groves as we neared Butterfly Park Drive and the center’s angular, modern, light-filled visitors pavilion. It was a Saturday, but Treviño-Wright was dressed for work in high-heeled boots, a long skirt, a white sweater and a colorful embroidered Guatemalan butterfly necklace. Earlier in the day, she’d volunteered as a judge for a local high school’s essay contest, the theme being, naturally, butterflies and the importance of conservation. Every year, more green space near the butterfly center is plowed under to make way for shopping malls and residential developments. Soon, Treviño-Wright said, a cross-border shipping facility will be built not far from the sanctuary. On the east side of the center’s property line, a reservoir is under construction to accommodate the new growth.
National Butterfly Center Executive Director Marianna Treviño-Wright under retama trees at the center. Nathan Lambrecht
As she drove, she pointed out a dirt road near the entrance of the butterfly center. “DPS likes to back right into that drive right there in front of the center and just sit there,” she said. “One of them straight-up asked one of the senior citizens who worked part-time for me, ‘How many illegals you picking up today?’”
The elderly Hispanic gentleman, who had been placed at the butterfly center through an AARP back-to-work program, was unnerved by the experience, Treviño-Wright said, and found a job elsewhere.
She pointed again, this time at a tall steel tower in the distance. “That’s called a RAID tower,” she said. “It’s surplus equipment from Iraq and the Gulf War. They can see everything day and night within 5 miles. I’ve actually been in the command center and they’ve got Border Patrol agents sitting there with what look like PlayStation joysticks panning right, left and up and down. The video surveillance is all the time, and of course they can see right into our center.”
Farther west were the large, white aerostat surveillance balloons, first used by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan and now repurposed for border security in Texas. Operated by the Department of Homeland Security, each balloon costs around $950 per hour to operate, and any time the wind kicks up, they must be grounded to avoid calamity. Three years ago, one of the balloons broke loose from its tether, hit a power line and then crashed in a farmer’s field.
At the moment, however, Treviño-Wright was less concerned about rogue balloons than about a surveillance camera that one of her staff had recently found in a tree on their property. The off-the-shelf game camera was camouflaged with brown bark from the tree. Other than that, it was unmarked, and they had no idea which agency it belonged to. “When we looked at the camera footage, it was just hours and hours of the irrigation canal and the tall grass waving in the breeze,” she said. “We called Border Patrol and asked if it belonged to them, but they said that it didn’t.” Treviño-Wright said she’d never been approached by any state or federal agency about placing cameras inside the sanctuary.
Most likely, the camera was part of DPS’ Operation Drawbridge, another multimillion-dollar surveillance program developed after Perry’s Texas Virtual Border Watch ended. Operation Drawbridge began in 2012, and since then DPS has placed off-the-shelf cameras throughout the Texas border region to combat “criminal activity,” according to the agency. In an April 2018 report — the most current made public — the agency reported that it operates 4,300 such cameras.
In 2016, a similar hidden camera caused controversy after several Border Patrol agents and DPS troopers were dispatched to a baseball game to interrogate a woman and her 5-year-old son about their immigration status. The incident was recorded and uploaded to YouTube, where it quickly went viral. Months later, the ACLU discovered that the agents had been tipped off by a DPS camera covertly planted in the brush near the baseball field. Since the bathrooms were closed, the woman had taken her son into the bushes, triggering the motion-activated camera.
La Joya Sports Park Border Patrol DPS Video Part 1 (112016 via Frances Salinas) - YouTube
More recently, in January, a rancher filed a trespassing lawsuit against the Border Patrol after finding one of the hidden cameras on his ranch north of Laredo. According to DPS reports, the agency often works with the National Guard or the Border Patrol to place the cameras in undisclosed locations along the border. The federal Immigration and Nationality Act gives Border Patrol, unlike DPS, legal authority to enter any private property — though not actual homes — within 25 miles of an international border without a warrant.
When we arrived at the butterfly center, Treviño-Wright showed me the surveillance camera, encased in hard plastic and about half the size of a lunchbox. Her director of operations, Max Muñoz, offered to take me down by the irrigation canal where they had found it. We hopped into one of the center’s ATVs and bumped along dirt pathways lined with native plants and butterfly gardens, past the large enclosure that held Spike, an 11-year-old African spurred tortoise.
Muñoz parked near a large gate, then fiddled with a lock until the metal gate swung open. He pointed up at a tall hackberry overlooking the irrigation canal, a remnant from a time when the sanctuary property was nothing but onion fields. The fallow fields had been painstakingly restored to a native habitat for more than 200 species of butterflies.
Left: National Butterfly Center’s Max Muñoz points to a faint handwritten number found on a motion-activated camera that was discovered in a tree on the center’s property. Right: Muñoz points to the spot where he found a motion-activated camera overlooking the property.
The center’s land is divided by an earthen levee; the staff calls the 70 acres south of the levee the Back 70, a portion of which borders the Rio Grande. Muñoz said the center has always been cooperative with Border Patrol, and agents drive the property near the river daily looking for undocumented crossers.
Since the agency hadn’t claimed the camera, center staffers had decided to repurpose it to make nature videos for children visiting the center. “I like to show them all of the animals that come here at night,” Muñoz said. He’s recorded bobcats, javelinas and raccoons.
As we got back into the ATV, Muñoz told me that the center’s tranquility had saved him during a personal crisis. “I had a business. I had a lot of big clients and was doing really well,” he said. “But I was stressed out, angry at everything and everyone and weighed about 300 pounds. My wife said, ‘Why don’t you start walking. You’ll feel better.’” So Muñoz started riding his bike to the center and meandering along its paths. “It felt so peaceful here,” he said. “Eventually, I lost the weight, lost my anger and decided this was where I wanted to spend my days.” So he volunteered to help plant trees and do whatever else needed to be done around the property. When the director of operations job came up eight years ago, he eagerly applied. “This place changed my life,” Muñoz said.
But now it felt like the tranquility he’d found was as threatened as the monarch. Muñoz said he’d been pulled over and questioned by DPS, often when he was driving his children to school or to the store, or when going to work. Under the surge, state troopers, Texas game wardens and Texas Rangers are dispatched from around the state to work 12- to 14-hour shifts at the border for seven consecutive days before rotating back to their home posts. These rotations have saturated the area with state law enforcement. Since Muñoz lives just off Military Highway, where many of the troopers circulate in their black-and-white patrol cars, he had come to expect frequent encounters with them.
It was hard to see how the surge was having an impact on cartel-related crime, or deterring smuggling, as DPS claimed it would. Border Patrol and DPS armored gunboats were already plying the river, so the troopers spent the majority of their time parked along Expressway 83, a major thoroughfare in the Rio Grande Valley, or on Military Highway to the south, issuing warnings and traffic citations. Austin TV station KXAN reviewed all of DPS’ border surge arrests from June 2014 to September 2016 — 31,786 violations in total — and found that just 6 percent were for felony drug possession. Even fewer arrests — 1 percent — were related to human smuggling. The vast majority were for drunk driving or misdemeanor drug possession. It seemed the surge had simply concentrated routine highway enforcement functions along the border, while enforcement dwindled in the rest of the state. In November 2016, the Dallas Morning News reported that traffic citations had risen by 30 percent and warnings by 160 percent in Starr and Hidalgo counties, while in the rest of the state both had fallen by more than 20 percent.
“I understand they’re just trying to do their job,” said Muñoz. “But a lot of times they would follow me halfway home. I guess they were running my plates.” Muñoz used to fish with his 10-year-old son for alligator gar and catfish in the canal at the sanctuary. “But to be honest with you,” he said, “I haven’t fished out here in about a year, or a year and a half, because it felt weird being followed constantly.”
A new class of Texas tea-party darlings, buoyed by millions of dollars in outside spending, won their Republican congressional runoffs Tuesday — all in deep-red districts. Come January, that means the obstructionist wing of the U.S. House Republican conference — the Freedom Caucus — will add a few more Texas wingnuts to its ranks.
Of the six GOP congressional runoffs around the state, all but one of the candidates posturing themselves as purest right-wing conservative — and the most adherent to President Trump’s agenda — in the race wound up winning.
In the 21st Congressional District, Chip Roy, Senator Ted Cruz’s former political operative, beat out Matt McCall. He was helped by about $1 million in outside spending, according to figures compiled by the Texas Tribune’s Patrick Svitek, by the Club for Growth super PAC — the same right-wing group that helped the underdog Cruz win his Senate seat back in 2012.
In the battle to replace disgraced frat boy-turned-Congressman Blake Farenthold in the 27th Congressional District around Corpus Christi, tea party favorite and Victoria County GOP Chair Michael Cloud stomped Bech Bruun, a former chairman of the Texas Water Development Board. Cloud also was aided by more than $600,000 in Club for Growth spending, largely blasting Bruun as a swamp creature.
Ron Wright, the Tarrant County tax assessor, won his runoff against Jake Ellzey in the southern Dallas-Fort Worth seat currently held by sexting-Republican incumbent Joe Barton. Military veteran Dan Crenshaw beat lawyer Kevin Roberts in the runoff for Republican Ted Poe’s Houston area seat.
Bunni Pounds, who was running to succeed her former boss Jeb Hensarling’s Dallas-area seat with backing from Vice President Mike Pence and Cruz, looks like she is on her way to losing to outgoing state Representative Lance Gooden. She, too, was backed with more than $650,000 in Club for Growth money largely spent attacking Gooden as a liberal Republican.
Unless there’s a blue wave that washes into unprecedented GOP turf in Texas, most of the Republican runoff winners will likely skate to victory in November. Roy will face the most contested race against Democrat Joseph Kopser in CD 21.
Ultimately, that means there will be a fresh crop of Texas tea partiers in Congress who are hellbent on pushing the Republican Party further to the right.
The Texas runoffs were mostly rough sailing for Bernie Sanders-style Democrats. As of late Tuesday night, only three of 10 runoff candidates appear to have made it over the hump.
Two Congressional candidates, Laura Moser in Houston’s 7th District and Rick Treviño in West Texas’ swingy 23rd, were trounced by more than 35 points as of late Tuesday. In the win column, Austin attorney Mike Siegel won handily in Congressional District 10 and was joined by Texas House candidates Erin Zwiener and Andrew Morris. The race for Congressional District 25 hasn’t been called as of late Tuesday, but Chris Perri — another Austin attorney — is trailing by 5 points with nearly all votes counted.
Pairing the runoff results with March’s primary outcomes, Berniecrats — those endorsed by Our Revolution Texas, the Democratic Socialists of America or otherwise fitting the criteria — have a success rate in Texas this year of around 30 percent. All that, of course, is pending the results of the November 6 general election. Here’s the runoff list:
Chris Perri — CD 25 — Appears to have lost
Rick Treviño — CD 23 — Loss
Mike Siegel — CD 10 — Win
Laura Moser — CD 7 — Loss
Christine Mann — CD 31 — Loss
Mary Street Wilson — CD 21 — Loss
Fran Watson — SD 17 — Loss
Erin Zwiener — HD 45 — Win
José “Chito” Vela — HD 46 — Loss
Andrew Morris — HD 64 — Win
Berniecrat candidates who won their primaries in March:
State Representative René Oliveira, who first won his Brownsville-area statehouse seat in 1981, has been run off the electoral road by one-term Cameron County Commissioner Alex Dominguez. Oliveira nearly won the March primary outright with 48.5 percent, but his campaign appeared to swerve off course when he was arrested and charged with a DWI late last month. As of late Tuesday, Dominguez held a 13-point lead over Oliveira with nearly all votes counted.
Dominguez, who tried and failed to unseat Oliveira in 2012, criticized Oliveira during the primary campaign of neglecting his district, whose 39 percent poverty rate is one of the highest in the nation. Dominguez also accused Oliveira of spending too much campaign money on food and booze.
“It’s like his legislative office is in Cobbleheads [a Brownsville bar and grill],” he told the Observer in February. Indeed, on the night of Oliveira’s April arrest, he had recently left Cobbleheads when he crashed his Cadillac into a vehicle that was stopped at a traffic light, according to the Brownsville Herald.
Dominguez, who did not immediately return a call for comment, was dramatically outraised by Oliveira: From February 25 to May 12, the totals were $126,230 to $17,525.
In the race to face GOP incumbent John Culberson in west Houston, writer-activist Laura Moser, who was targeted before the March primary with a DCCC opposition research dump, is getting trounced by runoff opponent Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, according to early vote returns.
Fletcher is leading with 70 percent to Moser’s 30 percent, staking out a commanding and perhaps insurmountable lead early in the night. The Democratic runoff in the 7th District has been one of the most-watched intra-party battles in the country, one that debates whether to embrace strong progressivism or moderate pragmatism to win GOP districts.
The 7th District results mirror a trend across Texas, where the Democratic Party’s favored candidates are running far ahead of the candidates positioning themselves as anti-establishment.
In the 32nd District, where Democrats are vying to unseat Pete Sessions, DCCC-backed Collin Allred is beating Lillian Salerno by the same margin. In West Texas’ 23rd District, the swingiest seat in the state, Gina Ortiz Jones is running far ahead Berniecrat Rick Treviño. And in the 21st District, Joseph Kopser is beating the surprise-primary winner Mary Street Wilson 60-40.
For progressive activists hoping to stick it to the DCCC in Texas, they might be in for a disappointing night.
The Democratic runoff between Lupe Valdez, Andrew White for Texas governor is a 5-vote difference with more than 215,000 early votes counted. Election Day results have not been posted, but this story will be updated as they come in.
One interesting thing to note: The two gubernatorial candidates are leading in early voting in their respective home counties. Valdez is up 65-35 in Dallas County while White is winning 76-24 in Harris. One big question is how well Valdez would perform with Latinos. One data point is that she’s up 70-30 in Cameron County in the Rio Grande Valley. It’s early and her lead is not great enough to make any predictions.
Thoughts and prayers aren’t good enough following Texas’ latest mass shooting, not even for some of the state’s gun-loving officials.
“We need to do more than just pray for the victims and their families,” Governor Greg Abbott declared at a press conference on Friday, just hours after a shotgun- and pistol-wielding teenager forced his way inside a Santa Fe high school art class and began firing, ultimately killing 10 people, eight of whom were his classmates. The tragedy was so fresh that Abbott briefed reporters on basic details of the crime, suspect and police search for explosive devices that the shooter had left behind — that is, after the governor announced his new plan to address “school safety” in Texas.
Abbott’s plan centers on a series of “roundtable discussions” he’s hosting at the Capitol this week with school officials, shooting survivors, gun control advocates and “those who hold the Second Amendment right in high esteem.” The governor said those meetings, which are closed to the public and press, should help state leaders arrive at “laws that protect Second Amendment rights, but at the same time ensure that our communities, and especially our schools, are safer places.”
For Abbott, even that nebulous call to action is a departure from previous shootings. After a gunman killed 26 churchgoers in Sutherland Springs last November, the governor dodged questions about gun policy with soliloquies on the biblical battle between good and evil. It was the deadliest mass shooting in modern Texas history, and Abbott responded by invoking the Dark Ages and Hitler as a sign that evil has “permeated” the world.
The typical reactions from Texas’ leading politicians after a mass shooting — from Senator Ted Cruz excoriating the media for asking about gun laws, to Attorney General Ken Paxton, the state’s top law enforcement official, questioning whether laws really matter and predicting that “this is going to happen again” — have set the bar so low that anything beyond “thoughts and prayers” now looks like progress.
Governor Greg Abbott, his wife, Cecilia, and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick prepare to place flowers at Santa Fe High School. Jennifer Reynolds/The Galveston County Daily News via AP
Friday’s shooting does, however, appear to have cracked open at least some space for dialogue with Abbott. Speaking on Democracy Now! on Monday, Ed Scruggs with Texas Gun Sense insisted that common ground does exist between gun control advocates and the state’s Republican leadership in the form of laws to improve background checks, mandate safer gun storage and establish “Red Flag” policies that make it easier to confiscate weapons from people viewed as threats — all ideas Abbott teased in his press conference on Friday after the bloodshed in Santa Fe.
“We have received bipartisan support in private conversation on those issues, we just have an intractable entrenched political system in our Legislature,” Scruggs said.
Advocates for stricter gun laws tend to see Abbott’s shifting tone as evidence that the groundswell of student activism, walkouts and marches sparked by the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, are finally changing the discussion, even in the gun-totingest of states. Perhaps Abbott read the recent poll that indicates more than half of registered Texas voters support stricter gun laws. Or maybe the governor is learning that immediate, if vague, calls for action are a much more palatable reaction to mass death than, say, the biblical version of “shit happens.”
But as for actual action, in the form of new laws, it remains unclear how anything that might be construed as “gun control” could ever pass muster with Abbott, who last year joked about shooting reporters while signing a bill to make handgun licenses easier to obtain. Who knows what could clear Texas’ GOP-dominated Legislature, either, which in recent years has passed gun laws allowing everything from firearms on public college and university campuses to the open carrying of handguns. After the Parkland shooting, the Florida Legislature passed a slew of new gun laws, including raising the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21. The NRA sued Florida after the state’s governor signed the legislation. Abbott, who spoke at the organization’s convention in Dallas earlier this month, blaming gun violence on “hearts without God,” clearly isn’t looking to spar with the NRA.
The kind of swift action that followed the Parkland shooting seems unlikely from Texas’ part-time Legislature. Since Santa Fe (mass shooting no. 101 in the United States this year), Texas Democrats, and even a couple of Republicans, have urged Abbott to call a special session on school shootings. Otherwise lawmakers can’t do much until they reconvene in January 2019 — an entire election, and who knows how many shootings, from now.
The typical reactions from Texas’ leading politicians after a mass shooting have set the bar so low that anything beyond “thoughts and prayers” now looks like progress.
Meanwhile, other conservative leaders in Texas have shoehorned a hodgepodge of ideologies into the gun debate, in the process cooking up some very creative explanations for mass shootings. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who was widely panned for his war-on-doors rant in the immediate aftermath of the Santa Fe shooting, went on ABC this weekend to blame gun violence on everything from Facebook and Twitter to abortion and the “breakup of families.”
After the shooting in Santa Fe, officials for and against stricter gun laws seem to agree that Texas should, at the very least, enhance security at schools. Former Democratic lawmaker and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who’s called for “pragmatic gun control” and whose police chief is openly fighting with the NRA on Twitter right now, recently demanded that the state “Make our schools as secure as airports and government buildings.”
Is Abbott’s new willingness to discuss guns just a better form of damage control? We’ll have to see how the discussions on “school safety” that he’s initiated evolve, and whether they ever include anything beyond just further militarizing schools. But at least for the moment, the political climate has changed. This week, Abbott canceled a shotgun giveaway raffle that was part of his re-election campaign. Because who brings a shotgun to a gun safety fight?
As part of its plan to win back the U.S. House, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has set its sights on a handful of Texas congressional seats, all of which have Democratic runoffs on Tuesday. It has a clear favorite candidate in each race, including Houston’s 7th Congressional District, Dallas’ 32nd, and the vast 23rd in West Texas, creating varying degrees of an establishment vs. anti-establishment dynamic.
Since infamously dropping an opposition bomb against Laura Moser in the 7th’s primary, the DCCC has continued to exert influence. Namely, it’s put Colin Allred, a former NFL player running in the 32nd, and the 23rd’s Gina Ortiz Jones, a Filipina lesbian Air Force veteran, on its “Red to Blue” list of top-tier candidates in targeted districts. Moser’s opponent, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, is also a party favorite.
This national party influence-peddling in Texas has sparked accusations that D.C. operatives are trying to railroad progressive candidates. The party contends that it is merely backing candidates who have the strongest amount of local support.
Keep an eye on how these party’s favorites fare, especially in the 7th district between Fletcher and Moser, where the DCCC has rankled lots of activists and could be a decisive factor in what’s expected to be a close race.
Both Allred and Jones took a commanding chunk of the primary vote and are the heavy favorites in their respective runoffs against Lillian Salerno and Rick Treviño. But anything can happen in a runoff. —Justin Miller
How many new tea partiers will Texas send to Congress?
Six Republican members of Congress are retiring from seats that are almost all seen as safely red. In many of those districts, this has prompted an epic intra-GOP runoff battle over who will replace them: your typical conservative Republican or an uber-conservative wingnut.
In the 21st District, a seat long held by outgoing climate change-denier Lamar Smith, Ted Cruz’s political apostle Chip Roy is the favorite against Matt McCall, whom Roy has blasted as a lackluster do-nothing conservative. The soon-to-be-retired Jeb Hensarling handpicked his longtime fundraiser and tea party evangelical activist Bunni Pounds to take over his Dallas-area seat. But first she’ll have to beat frontrunning Texas state Representative Lance Gooden, who she claims is a tax hike-loving liberal who’s insufficiently opposed to abortion.
Aided by an arsenal of well-funded outside groups, like the far-right Club for Growth, a new batch of tea party insurgents in the mold of Cruz could very well be headed to Washington, D.C., where they’d join the ranks of fellow right-wing obstructionists like Louie Gohmert. —Justin Miller
Year of the Woman?
The election of Donald Trump and the ensuing #MeToo movement prompted women to take the plunge and run for office at historic rates. One count in February found that 431 women were running for Congress around the country, according to NPR — the vast majority as Democrats.
In Texas, scores of women ascended through crowded primaries and into the runoffs. The Observer counts 10 Democratic congressional and legislative races where a man and woman are facing off — from the gubernatorial runoff to a statehouse race to represent East Austin — that will in some ways test just how much women are galvanizing politics in 2018.
Wilson speaks at a March for Our Lives town hall at William B. Travis High School in Austin. Justin Miller
Take, for instance, Mary Street Wilson, who came out of nowhere in the primary to beat every other candidate running in the 21st Congressional District. “This is the year of the women,” Wilson recently told the Observer. “Four years ago, 10 years ago, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here with you right now. But there’s just a change in the air and I happen to hit it at the same time many other women did.”
Now she’s running head to head against party favorite Joseph Kopser, one of the most well-funded Democratic candidates in the state. She’s struggled to raise much money, but if Wilson manages to repeat her surprise primary performance it will show there’s a forceful wind at the backs of women running for office. —Justin Miller
Just how poor will voter turnout be?
Texas runoffs are infamous for being extremely low-turnout affairs, which, in this state, is saying something. This creates fertile ground for upsets since it’s difficult for candidates to predict which of their supporters will turn out to vote for them again.
The question is: just how much will turnout fall from the primary and who will it benefit?
The vast majority of statewide turnout will likely come from districts where there are marquee runoffs, especially in the major metro areas of Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. But a big and unpredictable falloff in turnout may aid insurgent candidates in some of the runoff races and could have a major impact on the Democratic gubernatorial runoff, too.
Runoff turnout is also a rough gauge of how durable enthusiasm is among each party’s respective bases.
In the last midterm election in 2014, Texas Democratic primary turnout plummeted from 4.12 percent of registered voters to 1.48 percent in the runoff. Republican turnout also fell by about 50 percent.
This year, early runoff voting has already outpaced the 2016 and 2014 runoffs, but it pales in comparison to the 900,000 who voted early in the March primary, according to the Houston Chronicle. —Justin Miller
Battle of the Also-Rans
Give this to Andrew White and Lupe Valdez: They’re running. It’s widely known that the A-listers in the world of Texas Democratic politics — yes, there are a handful — decided to sit this gubernatorial race out. Greg Abbott, with his $41 million war chest and relatively high approval ratings, was simply considered unbeatable, even in what’s supposed to be a wave year for Democrats. After a nine-way primary, voters (or at least the paltry percentage that will show up for a runoff) will choose between former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez and political neophyte and Houston businessman Andrew White.
Andrew White, Lupe Valdez Courtesy/Twitter
Valdez is probably considered the frontrunner, but in recent weeks has shown a remarkable inability to answer even the most cursory questions about major issues facing the state — something she blamed on “newspaper language.” (Editorial note: Newspaper stories are written at a high school reading level.) Add to that her mixed record as a jailer, the inexplicable loss of slam-dunk endorsements and the fact that Abbott is salivating to run against a candidate associated with “sanctuary cities.” White seems to be running the better campaign and has clearly articulated positions, but he also showed no evident interest in politics, despite being the son of a Texas governor, until Hurricane Harvey. White has repeatedly gotten crosswise with key Democratic constituencies and figures, including, most recently, former Planned Parenthood leader Cecile Richards. (Call it White privilege?)
The stakes are not terribly high here. It’s hard to see how either one could beat Abbott. Perhaps the question is: Who will embarrass the rest of the Democratic ticket the least? —Forrest Wilder
Kinds of Blue
Like a swarm of cicadas, Texas Democrats are struggling to emerge after two decades spent buried underground. But which wing of the party — the populist or the pragmatist — has the best chance of taking flight in the Lone Star State?
For the March primaries, the Observer compiled a list of 25 congressional and state legislative candidates running left/populist campaigns à la Bernie Sanders. Of those, four won, 12 lost and nine made the runoffs — a success rate (so far) of about 50 percent. The runoffs should shed light on whether the Sanders approach has legs in Texas. Here’s the list, which includes one newcomer: Mary Street Wilson, who won the endorsement of Our Revolution Texas after a surprise primary victory in the race for Central Texas’ Congressional District 21.