With Supreme Court appeal, Texas wants to keep congressional map intact

Jose Garza, an attorney for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, and former Texas Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer speak to reporters on April 27, 2017, following a status conference on a years-long challenge to Texas' political maps. 

If Gov. Greg Abbott calls a second special legislative session this summer, it won’t be for redistricting.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton revealed Friday that Abbott won’t ask lawmakers to redraw the state’s congressional map — found by a federal court this week to discriminate against Latino and black voters — in a fresh round of legislative overtime.

Instead, Paxton is appealing the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court and trying to keep the boundaries intact for the 2018 elections, according to his filings to a panel of three judges in San Antonio.

On Tuesday, the panel ruled that Congressional Districts 27 and 35 violate the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, setting up a redistricting scramble ahead of the 2018 elections.

The judges ruled that Hispanic voters in Congressional District 27, represented by U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, were “intentionally deprived of their opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice.” Congressional District 35 — a Central Texas district represented by Democrat Lloyd Doggett of Austin — was deemed “an impermissible racial gerrymander” because lawmakers illegally used race as the predominant factor in drawing it, the judges wrote.

The judges asked Texas whether lawmakers would return to Austin to try making a new map, or if Republican leadership would wait for court-drawn boundaries.

In his filings Friday, Paxton revealed a state plan to wriggle free of any consequences ahead of the 2018 elections. While asking the Supreme Court to overturn the lower court’s ruling that Texas intentionally discriminated against minority voters — the fourth such federal ruling this year — Paxton also requested an injunction that would protect Texas from needing a new map.

Barring a Supreme Court order, the San Antonio judges would approve new boundaries.

“Judges should get out of the business of drawing maps,” Paxton said in a statement. “We firmly believe that the maps Texas used in the last three election cycles are lawful, and we will aggressively defend the maps on all fronts.”

Redesigning the embattled map, which Texas used for the past three election cycles, would affect congressional races statewide, since boundary changes in the two flagged districts would also reshape their neighbors.

For now, Texas and its legal foes — groups representing minority communities — are scheduled to return to court on Sept. 5 to fight over a new map.

An open question is whether judges will approve new boundaries without delaying the 2018 primaries, an outcome that could shake up some races.

Remember Ted Cruz’s election to the U.S. Senate in 2012? Legal wrangling over the state’s map pushed that year’s primary elections and subsequent runoffs into the dog days of summer, when Cruz pulled out an upset win over then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

In filings, Paxton argued Texas risks “irreparable injury” if the drawing of new maps disrupted its upcoming elections. Leaving the boundaries in place would not harm minority groups, he wrote.

Local elections administrators say they need clarity by October to meet deadlines for sending out voter registration cards, and December is the filing deadline for candidates.

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Dallas, Houston Protests Planned as Confederate Monuments Under Fire in Texas

A protest is planned at the Spirit of the Confederacy statue in downtown Houston.  www.houstontx.gov

After a white supremacist allegedly drove a car into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville last Saturday, killing activist Heather Heyer, calls for the removal of Confederate statues have spiked across the country — and Texas is no exception.

Protesters clashed in San Antonio last weekend, and demonstrations are planned this Saturday in Dallas and Houston. Over the past week, officials in five of the state’s biggest cities took steps toward removing or renaming Confederate memorials.

Texas hosts 178 public memorials to the Confederacy, more than any state other than Virginia. Many were erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy long after the Civil War ended.

“The monuments are easy to understand; they were placed there by people who were trying to send a message that they wanted white supremacy to either be the law of the land or the practice in the land,” said Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston, who announced a proposal Monday to remove the city’s monuments.

“Dallas has a violent and vicious history of racism,” Kingston said. “Getting rid of them would be a symbolic stance saying we’re not that city anymore.”

The Confederate War Memorial in downtown Dallas, dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1896, features statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Albert Johnston and Jefferson Davis.  Wikimedia Commons

Dallas has at least five Confederate memorials, including the Confederate War Memorial, which features a towering 60-foot marble and granite pillar topped by the likeness of an anonymous soldier. Mayor Mike Rawlings also proposed a commission this week to study the matter.

Those proposals face opposition from former Dallas City Council member Sandra Crenshaw, who told CBS-DFW that she thinks the statues should stay up. “We don’t want America to think that all African Americans are supportive of this,” Crenshaw said.

A protest billed as “Dallas Against White Supremacy” is set to draw thousands to the war memorial on Saturday. Follow Observer civil rights reporter Michael Barajas for live coverage Saturday.

In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner called Tuesday for an inventory and study of the city’s Confederate monuments.

The city will also be the site of protest Saturday, when demonstrators will gather in Sam Houston Park for an event titled “Destroy the Confederacy.” On Facebook, organizers advised activists “NOT to bring children.”

The Spirit of the Confederacy statue in downtown Houston.  Iván Abrego/flickr

Sam Houston Park contains the Spirit of the Confederacy monument, a bronze statue of an angel holding a palm branch and sword above a plaque reading: “To all heroes of the South who fought for the principles of states’ rights.” In North Carolina, protesters physically removed a Confederate statue earlier this week.

“We always have enough officers on hand to ensure the safety of everybody involved, and not just the safety of persons but the safety of property,” Jodi Silva, a spokesperson with the Houston Police Department, told the Observer. “At none of the assemblies in the past have people destroyed property.” Follow Observer writer John Savage, who will be covering the Houston protest.

In San Antonio, two city council members have submitted a request to consider removing a 40-foot Confederate statue from Travis Park. A militia-like group called This Is Texas Freedom Force is threatening to recall them and any other members who vote to remove it.

In Austin and El Paso, city officials made moves this week to rename roads named for Robert E. Lee. And at the statewide level, Representative Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, brought the fight to the Capitol — which hosts at least 12 Confederate symbols.

Children of the Confederacy
A plaque in the hall that rings the Capitol’s main rotunda. It declares the Civil War was not fought over slavery. Representative Eric Johnson has called for its removal.  Kelsey Jukam

“I cannot think of a better time than the present to discuss the removal of all Confederate iconography from the Texas Capitol Complex,” wrote Johnson in a letter Wednesday to the State Preservation Board. “… The Confederacy exemplified treason against the United States and white supremacy.”

Texas’ 1861 “declaration of causes” makes clear the state seceded to maintain slavery, which it called “mutually beneficial to both bond and free.”

Governor Greg Abbott responded Wednesday, arguing the monuments should stay.

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With Trump’s Infrastructure Plan, Rural Texas Could be Left in Disrepair

Cattle crossing in Wharton County.  Jen Reel

Arnie Amaro, the city administrator of La Villa, knows Hidalgo County’s sprawl will eventually reach his town. In the last decade, the border county’s population has exploded from 684,000 to 850,000, transforming scrub brush into South Texas suburbia. But for the moment, La Villa, located on Hidalgo County’s eastern edge about 20 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, is a small town with the tax base to match.    

“We need to get our infrastructure beefed up and ready,” Amaro said. La Villa’s most pressing need, he said, is expanding the town’s overburdened wastewater treatment plant. But upgrading the facility to accommodate the coming population boom is an expensive undertaking. Generally, cities consider raising property taxes and water rates to fund such capital improvements, but those are difficult propositions for a community where the poverty rate is 36 percent, more than twice the state average.

But La Villa has help. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), through its Rural Development Office, awards grants and loans to rural communities for a wide range of projects, including economic development, home repairs and infrastructure. Recently, Amaro secured a $4 million deal with the agency to expand the town’s wastewater treatment plant. (About $1.6 million of that amount comes in the form of a grant; the remaining $2.4 million is a low-interest loan).

“Now, $4 million may not seem like much to a large community, but to us, it’s huge,” Amaro told the Observer. “We’re going to take this project on without increasing any taxes or water rates.”

In fiscal year 2016, the USDA awarded 85 grants totaling $29.1 million to rural Texas communities for water and wastewater projects. It also approved about $68 million in loans for those projects last year, agency statistics show. So far this year, the Rural Development Office has awarded grants and loans totaling $42,000 to the water provider serving Study Butte and Terlingua to buy new equipment and a $3.6 million loan to Monahans’ water supply corporation to upgrade wastewater treatment equipment.  

Under Trump’s proposed federal budget for 2018, La Villa and those West Texas water providers may be among the program’s final beneficiaries. In 2017, the USDA took on an estimated $492 million in obligations through the initiative, but Trump’s budget proposes taking on no new program obligations in 2018.

“I hear some of the stuff that’s going on up in D.C., and I know all that stuff trickles down to us eventually,” Amaro said. “When you restrict these small communities’ funding, that hamstrings us even more …  We need assistance down here. We really do.”

Without federal funding, the equipment at small water facilities eventually will fall into disrepair, a problem exacerbated by the plant continually being run at full capacity. “This existing plant is going to start nickel and diming us, but with wastewater, you’re not talking about nickels and dimes. You’re talking thousands and thousands of dollars,” Amaro said, noting that the city recently replaced two clarifiers (machines that remove particulates from water) to the tune of $30,000.     

The president’s budget proposal also suggested massive cuts to other rural development initiatives, such as those involving power lines, internet connectivity and subsidies for rural housing repairs. All told, rural America stands to lose billions in assistance funding if the proposal becomes law.

A Texas pothole  Daniel Lobo/flickr

Trump’s plan also has yet to address Texas’ aging infrastructure, despite the fact that the state has more miles of roads as well as more bridges, ports and dams than most others. Some of it’s in bad shape, too, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, which gave the state’s infrastructure a “C” rating overall in 2012.

This month, a coalition of organizations representing farmers, power providers, banks, schools and other interests sent a letter to the White House to urge support for rural infrastructure funding. “Your effort to make investment in our nation’s infrastructure a priority is critically important and we look forward to working with you to help reinvigorate rural America,” wrote the Rebuild Rural Coalition. At least five of the coalition’s members represent interests in rural Texas: Alliance for I-69 Texas, Texas Ag Industries Association, Texas Elective Cooperatives, Texas Grain and Feed Association and Texas Vegetation Management Association.

Loyd Neal, Nueces County judge and chairman of Alliance for I-69 Texas, said that securing funding  for improvements to rural roads can be difficult because few federal transportation dollars are set aside for such projects. Ultimately, communities outside major metropolitan areas must compete with big cities. “They’ve got more congressmen and more representatives and just more dad-gummed people. It’s a tough fight,” Neal said. “Our part in signing that letter was, ‘Texas is a big state and has a lot of rural areas. Don’t forget the rural areas.’”

The Alliance for I-69 project aims to improve existing highways, such as U.S. 77 and 59 in South Texas, so that they meet interstate standards. Neal said improving the roadways will relieve congestion caused by freight traffic on Interstate 35 and better connect small communities to the state’s major hubs. But that work will cost an estimated $18 billion over 25 years, and it’s unclear how Trump’s budget proposal bodes for the project. When I asked Neal, a Republican, whether he thinks the austere spending plan will hurt the I-69 endeavor, he was noncommittal. “I learned a long time ago that the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, and the Lord is usually someone in Washington, D.C. In Texas, we try to work with what we have.”

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Body found in Bayou Vista while searching for woman who disappeared under ‘suspicious circumstances’

Authorities searching for a missing 30-year-old woman who disappeared under suspicious circumstances found a body near where she was last seen, according to authorities in Galveston County.

Jessica McDonald was last seen in the Bayou Vista area of Galveston County on Aug. 15.

On Aug. 18, a body was found at the end of Lakeside Drive in Old Bayou Vista, authorities said.

Authorities have not yet identified the body as that of McDonald.

McDonald is described as having medium-length blond hair, green eyes, is about 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighs about 120 pounds.

President Trump weighed in on the story, commenting on Twitter that “there is plenty of blame to go around, on both sides.”


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South Florida woman accused of DUI with 3-year-old unbuckled in back seat

A South Florida woman is accused of drunken driving with a 3-year-old child unbuckled in the back seat.

Brandy Lerma, 31, of Boynton Beach, was arrested Saturday on suspicion of driving under the influence and child neglect.

According to a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office report, Lerma was stopped while driving south on Haverhill Road near Belvedere Road about 4:15 p.m.

Another driver called 911 and followed her until deputies could initiate a traffic stop.

When deputies arrived, they found Lerma sitting in the driver’s seat with a toddler standing in the back seat, the report said.

The arresting deputy wrote in his report that he could smell a strong odor of alcohol on Lerma’s breath. He said her hair “was a mess,” her “right bra strap was hanging out from under her sleeve,” her speech was slurred and her clothes were “disheveled and dirty.”

“The driver was unable to walk or stand without assistance,” the report said. “The driver fell to the ground twice during the roadside tasks.”

Lerma told deputies that she had two Fireball shots and had taken Percocet and Xanax.

The report listed Lerma’s attitude as vulgar, defiant, combative and uncooperative.

Lerma was released from jail the next day on a $3,000 bond.

President Trump weighed in on the story, commenting on Twitter that “there is plenty of blame to go around, on both sides.”

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Deputies: Mother tells son to buy her drugs

An armed robbery investigation led deputies to a mother who organized her underage son and his friends to buy her drugs, according to the Baker County Sheriff’s Office.

Linda Matelsky, 38, was arrested on charges of child neglect and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Five others, some of whom are teenagers, are facing charges of armed robbery.

Deputies said the investigation began on Friday, when the mother, Matelsky, called the Sheriff’s Office, saying her son was robbed at gunpoint. She told deputies that three of her son’s friends drove him to the Duck Pond at Macclenny’s city park along West Boulevard, held him at gunpoint and took $120 from him — money she said she gave her son to buy clothes for school.

But after rounding up the suspects, deputies said, they learned the robbery was the result of a drug deal, which Matelsky arranged between her 14-year-old son and his friends.

“Now, she was not involved in the armed robbery, she did not set that up. But she knew who was involved and why they took it,” said Gil Smith, News4Jax crime and safety analyst. “Since it was her money, she just thought that she could call police and come up with a story. And for the most part, just getting the $120 back is really what she wanted.”

According to a Sheriff’s Office report, Matelsky and her son told deputies 18-year-old Savannah Rodriguez, 20-year-old Tyler Barton and another juvenile boy were responsible for the armed robbery. Deputies said they tracked the three down, and learned they got the gun from two other men, one of whom told investigators that he normally hides the gun at the park.

According to deputies, Matelsky eventually confessed to asking her son to buy drugs from another juvenile with her money.

Matelsky’s neighbor, Dylan Whitley, said he was shocked to learn of her arrest.

“I don’t need that stuff around here, around my kid,” he said.

Whitley added that he hopes the incident will be an eye opener for his neighbor and her child.

“I would hope that seeing what kind of trouble that drugs can get you into is kind of bad for their future,” Whitley said.

News4Jax went to Matelsky’s house on Tuesday. One of the people at the home said they did not want to comment about her arrest.

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HPD officer relieved of duty after DWI charge, officials say

Officer Suro was in trouble with HPD once before,
after she posted nekkid pictures of herself online in 2012.

A Houston Police Department officer has been relieved of duty after being charged with DWI Tuesday.

Stacey Ann Suro, 47, was relieved of duty with pay pending the outcome of an investigation, according to authorities.

Suro was previously demoted from sergeant to officer after she was caught posting photos, some nude, on a website.

President Trump weighed in on the story, commenting on Twitter that “there is plenty of blame to go around, on both sides.”


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Abbott: Removing Confederate monuments “won’t erase our nation’s past”

Gov. Abbott announces he's running for governor in San Antonio on July 14, 2017.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday weighed in on the renewed debate over Confederate monuments in Texas, saying that removing them “won’t erase our nation’s past, and it doesn’t advance our nation’s future.”

Abbott’s statement follows deadly violence that broke out Saturday at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where participants were protesting the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The unrest in Charlottesville led elected officials in some of Texas’ biggest cities to begin looking into taking down similar monuments in their areas.

“Racist and hate-filled violence – in any form — is never acceptable, and as Governor I have acted to quell it,” Abbott said in the statement. “My goal as governor is to eliminate the racist and hate-filled environment we are seeing in our country today.”

“But we must remember that our history isn’t perfect,” Abbott added. “If we do not learn from our history, we are doomed to repeat it. Instead of trying to bury our past, we must learn from it and ensure it doesn’t happen again. Tearing down monuments won’t erase our nation’s past, and it doesn’t advance our nation’s future. As Governor, I will advance that future through peace, not violence, and I will do all I can to keep our citizens safe.”

It’s not just in Texas’ cities that the debate over Confederate monuments is heating up. Earlier Wednesday, state Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, sent a letter to the State Preservation Board asking it to immediately remove a Confederate plaque outside his office. The plaque, Johnson wrote, “has no rightful place in the Texas Capitol.”

“Also, given the recent tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, I cannot think of a better time than the present to discuss the removal of all Confederate iconography from the Texas Capitol Complex,” Johnson wrote, asking for a meeting of the board to discuss the issue and requesting an inventory of such iconography at the Capitol.

Even in recent history, this discussion is not new for Texas lawmakers. Two years ago, after the South Carolina Legislature voted to remove the Confederate flag from its Capitol grounds, a group of five Democratic state legislators from Texas asked the state’s top leaders, including Abbott, for the creation of a task force to study the numerous Confederate monuments, markers and statutes on the Capitol grounds in Austin.

It’s unclear whether anything ever came of the lawmakers’ request. At the time, a spokesman for House Speaker Joe Straus said he’d visit with the legislators to hear their concerns. The offices of Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick did not return requests for comment.

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Prosecution rests at trial of woman accused in 2012 death of husband

The prosecution rested its case Wednesday against a Houston woman who is accused of killing her husband nearly five years ago and staging a home invasion to cover it up.

Before defense attorneys for Sandra Melgar began to present their case, they asked the judge for a directed verdict, seeking to dismiss the case. The judge denied the request.

The brother of Jaime Melgar, Sandra Melgar’s husband, was the first to take the stand as the defense began presenting witnesses.

Investigators said that relatives found the Melgars on Dec. 23, 2012, tied up in closets. Jamie Melgar had been stabbed, investigators said.

Sandra Melgar told investigators that she had blacked out and woke up in the closet, not knowing how she and her husband ended up there, according to police.

Nineteen months later, a grand jury indicted Sandra Melgar on a murder charge.

President Trump weighed in on the story, commenting on Twitter that “there is plenty of blame to go around, on both sides.”


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Confederate statue controversy hits Houston

There’s a battle brewing in the United States, and how government officials should answer to it is causing even more tension, including in Houston.

“This is a defining moment and the question is, how are we going to answer?” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

At issue are Confederate monuments in public spaces and whether or not they should be taken down.

“You just can’t all of a sudden say, ‘We’re going to go in and tear down everything.’ That’s not the answer,” Turner said. “We all have values that we want to protect and we can hold to those values and we can do it in a very peaceful, respectful way.”

This debate follows the deadly violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Like a number of cities across the country, some people in Houston are asking the city’s mayor to take down Confederate monuments, arguing the monuments glorify negative aspects of American history.

One local group has started a petition to remove a statue from Sam Houston Park.

Another group is planning a protest to have it taken down.

The answer, according to Turner, is to take an inventory of all the city’s monuments and present it to a group of people, including local historians that he will choose to study each one.

President Trump weighed in on the story, commenting on Twitter that “there is plenty of blame to go around, on both sides.”


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Selena’s brother taken into custody after landing on most wanted list

Abraham Quintanilla III, who goes by “A.B.,” was taken into custody Wednesday. He began the month on the 10 most wanted list of fugitives released by the Nueces County Sheriff’s Office in Corpus Christi.

Quintanilla is the brother of the late Tejano singer, Selena.

Quintanilla was sought for alleged contempt of court and nonpayment of child support.

The musician was a member of his late sister’s group, Selena y Los Dinos. He also co-wrote music for Selena and produced songs for her.

The Grammy-winning singer was murdered on March 31, 1995, by Yolanda Saldívar, an employee who oversaw Selena’s boutiques and fan club.

Quintanilla, 53, continued in the music industry, most recently as founder of the group Elektro Kumbia.

President Trump weighed in on the story, commenting on Twitter that “there is plenty of blame to go around, on both sides.”


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In special session rubble, spotlight shines bright on Straus

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, emerges smiling from a caucus of Republican members after the 85th Legislature adjourned sine die on Aug. 16, 2017.  

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus and his chamber emerged from the rubble of a bruising special session Wednesday as a subject of both intense criticism and speculation about his future as head of the lower chamber.

There did not appear to be any immediate threats to Straus’ speakership, though the post-session finger-pointing signaled the intra-party conflict that consumed most of it is not going away anytime soon.

The House abruptly closed out the special session a day early Tuesday, declining to further negotiate on a key property tax bill after it agreed to Senate changes to a school finance package. Over the next 12 hours, both the governor and lieutenant governor of Texas sharply criticized Straus, a fellow Republican, making clear they both believed that the blame for measures that didn’t survive should be laid at his feet.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Senate, declared the House “quit on the taxpayers of Texas” and unfurled a bevy of jabs at Straus — one of them invoking the Battle of the Alamo — at a late-night news conference following the Senate’s decision to follow the House’s lead and end the session in their chamber a day early. The Senate did so without accepting a House version of the property tax bill, rejecting what one senator described as a “take-it-or-leave-it” proposal.

Gov. Greg Abbott cranked up the heat Wednesday morning, assigning blame to Straus and the House for slow-walking his agenda and not giving all 20 items a vote on the House floor. He also portrayed Straus as an obstructionist when it came to the most controversial legislation on the call, a so-called “bathroom bill” that would have regulated which restroom transgender Texans can use.

“There’s no evidence he’s going to change his mind on it, and that’s why elections matter,” Abbott told Houston radio station KTRH, immediately stoking speculation that he was laying the groundwork for a Straus ouster.

In a subsequent radio interview, Abbott stopped short of calling for a new speaker but made clear many of the unfinished items on his agenda are unlikely to become law as long as Straus is speaker. “We’ve got to get the votes in the House,” said Abbott, whose well-funded political operation is gearing up for a much bigger role in the upcoming primaries than it had last time around.

Abbott’s blows landed as Straus attended a closely watched meeting of the House Republican Caucus. It had been requested by the conservative Freedom Caucus, which is looking to establish a process for Republican lawmakers to determine a candidate for speaker before the next session — potentially someone other than Straus, who intends to seek a record-breaking sixth term behind the gavel in 2019.

The House elects its speaker on the first day of the regular session. Historically, all of the 150 members in the chamber have voted on their own, leading to speakers supported by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats in the past. Democratic support played a role in Straus’ original election to Speaker in 2009, prompting critics who view Straus as too moderate to argue that the caucus could draw a more conservative speaker if they could unite behind another candidate.

Over 80 of the chamber’s 95 Republican members reportedly showed up to Wednesday’s meeting, which lasted roughly an hour and a half and ended with a standing ovation for Straus. Freedom Caucus members came out of the meeting saying they were looking forward to continuing a discussion about speaker nomination rules at the House Republican Caucus’ September retreat.

“Nothing was decided except that it’s a conversation that’s worthy of being continued,” said state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, chairman of the Freedom Caucus. “We’re not talking about a person. We’re talking about a process.”

Straus briefly spoke with reporters as he left the meeting, making a short walk from the room where the caucus met to a bank of elevators.

“We had a very good conversation, and I enjoyed it,” Straus said. “I think all of us did. Very constructive, very positive, very unifying in a lot of ways.”

He did not answer shouted questions about Patrick’s criticism Tuesday night. In a statement after the meeting, Straus said the House “considered every idea carefully, listened to constituents, and acted on a number of critical issues” during the special session. He also thanked Abbott for working with the lower chamber on his “very ambitious agenda.”

A number of Straus lieutenants were tight-lipped about how the caucus meeting went as they darted out of it. “Very good,” said state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, chairman of the Calendars Committee. “Good, productive meeting,” repeatedly said state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, chairman of the State Affairs Committee. State Rep. Dan Huberty — a Houston Republican who was deeply involved in end-of-session talks as the House’s education chief — declined to comment.

Straus’ situation was not just the talk of Republicans on Wednesday morning. He was repeatedly mentioned at a nearby Capitol rally featuring Democratic lawmakers, where U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, a former member of the Texas House, spoke of a “very ugly internal fight” in the Texas GOP and accused Abbott and Patrick of seeking to “cannibalize” Straus. As for the speaker’s future, Democrats suggested they were watching the GOP caucus deliberations with interest.

“The jury’s out,” state Rep. César Blanco of El Paso said, “and we’ll see what Republicans decide.”

Straus has easily survived various challenges since he rose to power in 2009. The last time the GOP caucus chose to collectively nominate a speaker candidate — in 2011 — Straus prevailed with the support of an overwhelming majority of members.

Straus does not seem fazed by his critics as of late. With a few days left in the regular session in May, Straus quietly filed paperwork with the Texas Ethics Commission declaring his candidacy for speaker in the 2019 session. Asked if he was definitely running again Wednesday, Straus offered a smile and few words as he waited for elevator doors to close, a pack of reporters in tow.

“No big announcements in that room,” Straus responded. “It was a good conversation. Very positive.”

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President Trump disbands White House business councils as CEOs leave

President Donald Trump on Tuesday ripped into business leaders who resigned from his White House jobs panel — the latest sign that corporate America’s romance with Trump is faltering — after his equivocal response to violence by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“They’re not taking their job seriously as it pertains to this country,” the president said at an impromptu news conference at Trump Tower in New York City.

After his remarks, a fifth member of his manufacturing panel resigned: AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, who said in a statement, “We cannot sit on a council for a president who tolerates bigotry and domestic terrorism.”

The president denied that his original statement about the violence in Virginia on Saturday — saying “many” sides were to blame, rather than hate groups — was the cause of the departures.

“Some of the folks that will leave, they’re leaving out of embarrassment because they make their products outside” the United States, he said as he seemed to double down on his earlier comments.

Trump also assailed the CEOs who left on Twitter as “grandstanders” and said he had plenty of executives available to take their place. The president added that he believes economic growth in the U.S. will heal its racial divide.

But the parade of departing leaders from the informal panel seems closely linked to how the president responded to events that led to the death of a counter-protester that opposed the white supremacists.

Among those who’ve left are the chief executives for Merck, Under Armour and Intel and the president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing.

Alliance president Scott Paul, in a tweet, said simply, “I’m resigning from the Manufacturing Jobs Initiative because it’s the right thing for me to do.” Within minutes of the tweet on Tuesday, calls to Paul’s phone were being sent to voicemail.

Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon joined the chorus, saying in a note Monday to employees, “(We) too felt that he missed a critical opportunity to help bring our country together by unequivocally rejecting the appalling actions of white supremacists.”

But McMillon, whose business has customers on all sides of the political spectrum, plans to stay on a separate Trump advisory panel and said that the president’s follow-up remarks on Monday that named white supremacists were a step in the right direction.

Corporate leaders have been willing to work with Trump on taxes, trade and reducing regulations, but they’ve increasingly found themselves grappling with cultural and social tensions amid his lightning rod-style of leadership. The CEOs who left the council quickly faced his wrath, while those who have stayed have said it’s important to speak with the president on economic issues.

Like several other corporate leaders, Alex Gorsky, chairman and CEO of Johnson & Johnson, said that intolerance and racism have no place in U.S. society but that he intended to stay on the manufacturing council.

“We must engage if we hope to change the world and those who lead it,” he said in a statement.

A White House official downplayed the importance of the manufacturing council and a separate policy and strategy forum featuring corporate leaders. The official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss private conversations, said the panels were informal rather than a set body of advisers. The departures, the official said, were unlikely to hurt the administration’s plans to overhaul taxes and regulations.

Many corporate leaders have faced a lose-lose scenario in which any choice involving politics can alienate customers, not to mention a U.S. president who has shown a willingness to personally negotiate government contracts.

Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, one of only four African-Americans leading a Fortune 500 company, was the first to tender his resignation Monday.

Trump criticized Frazier almost immediately Monday over drug prices, and again Tuesday for having factories overseas. Merck has 25,000 U.S. employees in all 50 states and has invested $50 billion in research and development since 2010, primarily in the United States.

Then came resignations from Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank and then Intel CEO Brian Krzanich. On Under Armour’s Facebook page Tuesday, customers who supported Trump threatened to boycott the athletic clothier.

Austan Goolsbee, the former chief economist for President Barack Obama, said the departures suggest the president’s response to the violence in Charlottesville could alienate those who work for the companies, and those who buy the products and services that they sell.

“It’s certainly a sign that Trump’s more controversial stuff isn’t playing well with companies selling to middle America,” said Goolsbee, now a professor at the University of Chicago.

There had already been departures from two major councils created by the Trump administration that were tied to its policies.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk resigned from the manufacturing council in June, and two other advisory groups to the president, after the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. Walt Disney Co. Chairman and CEO Bob Iger resigned for the same reason from the President’s Strategic and Policy Forum.

The manufacturing jobs council had 28 members initially, but it has shrunk since it was formed earlier this year as executives retire, are replaced, or, as with Frazier, Musk, Plank, Paul and Krzanich, resign.

So far, the majority of CEOs and business leaders that are sitting on the two major, federal panels, are condemning racism, but say they want to keep their seats at the table.

“Our commitment to diversity and inclusion is unwavering, and we will remain active champions for these efforts,” said a spokesman for Campbell Soup for CEO Denise Morrison. “We believe it continues to be important for Campbell to have a voice and provide input on matters that will affect our industry, our company and our employees in support of growth.”

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg also will remain. So will Michael Dell, the head of his namesake computer company. Both companies contract with the government.

Lawrence Summers, once the chief economist at the World Bank and senior Treasury official, wondered when more business leaders will distance themselves from Trump.

“After this weekend, I am not sure what it would take to get these CEOs to resign,” he tweeted. “Demonizing ethnic groups? That has happened.”

President Trump weighed in on the story, commenting on Twitter that “there is plenty of blame to go around, on both sides.”


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Video shows deadly jailbreak; Man who pleaded guilty in deputy’s death sentenced to life

The man who pleaded guilty Tuesday to murdering an Iowa sheriff’s deputy in a brazen jail escape will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Video footage of the shooting of two Pottawattamie County deputies during the jail break last May provided “overwhelming evidence” and helped lead to a murder conviction, according to Pottawattamie County Attorney Matt Wilber.

Wilber showed reporters the video depicting what happened inside the sally port at the jail when Wesley Correa-Carmenaty shot the deputies and fled in a jail van.

The 24-year-old Carmenaty was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the shooting death of Deputy Mark Burbridge and wounding of deputy Pat Morgan.

The video showed Carmenaty was not shackled when he returned to the jail after an appearance in court earlier that May morning. Wilber said officials believe another inmate at the jail gave Carmenaty a key to his handcuffs for his escape.

The video shows Carmenaty attacking Burbridge when he was getting out of the van and a gunshot is clearly heard. Wilber earlier said Carmenaty had a shank he used to attack Deputy Burbridge.

After shooting Burbridge, Carmenaty ran around to the open driver’s side door and jumped in the van. That’s when Morgan tried to stop Carmenaty and was shot.

Carmenaty then drove the van through the closed door of the sally port, making his escape from the jail.

President Trump weighed in on the story, commenting on Twitter that “there is plenty of blame to go around, on both sides.”

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Fisherman hooks gator in Buffalo Bayou

It was supposed to be a normal day of fishing for Katy’s Kyle Naegeli, but what he had on the end of his line was no catfish.

Naegeli recorded the entire catch on his GoPro camera.

On it you hear him say, “Oh my. A freaking gator! Oh my gosh! What the heck?!”

That’s right.

When the 19-year-old went fishing in Buffalo Bayou in Cinco Ranch last Monday, he caught a 7-foot-long alligator.

“I was freaking out,” Naegeli said. “I was like, ‘What are we going to do with this thing?’ Because it was pulling line. I didn’t know what to do.”

Naegeli and a friend had been fishing in the bayou for less than an hour. Using live blue gills for bait he had already caught a good-sized catfish.

Fifteen minutes later, it felt like he had one that was even bigger.

“What the heck? That’s a gator,” Naegeli can be heard saying on the recording. “I thought I had a big catfish.”

The gator held onto the line for a few minutes — even got close for Naegeli’s GoPro camera. The plan was to cut the line but the gator ended of breaking it itself.

“The gator, it really wasn’t pulling that hard when I got up to the bank, but it was heavy,” Naegeli said. “So the bank was like a 10-foot drop-off so there was no way I was going to haul him up the bank.”

Naegeli said he’s been fishing since he was about 2 years old. He said this is the second time he says he caught an alligator, but the first one was only 3 or 4 feet long.

President Trump commented on the story, saying on Twitter that “there is plenty of blame to go around, on both sides.”


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Squatters or scam victims? Homeowner finds another family living in home

As neighbors tried to figure out why constable cars lined their street, authorities tried to figure out who is currently living in the home in question.

“Well, this house has been vacant for a couple (of) years, so that obviously raised some red flags to the people that live around here,” Jeff Mcshan, of Harris County Precinct 5, said.

A neighbor called authorities after they noticed people — other than the owners — living inside the one-story home.

When constables and the actual owner showed up, nobody was home and they couldn’t get inside because someone had changed the locks.

“They made forced entry into the home and they found out there is a lot of furniture inside. Some of the walls look like they’ve been painted and someone is obviously living there. There are several beds located inside,” Mcshan said.

The owner says he did not rent or sell his vacant home, which has some people questioning if squatters are occupying it.

People who live on the street say they thought it was just a new neighbor. They said they would see a woman, man and children sitting outside.

“I saw them move in with a moving truck, so I figured they were moving into the house,” Aaron Dushkin said.

The observation has investigators wondering if maybe the mysterious new neighbors were conned into renting the home.

“They may have been scammed. There are a lot of different scenarios that could have happened here so it could be some folks that moved in and they’re acting as squatters or it could be someone that answered an ad,” Mcshan said.

President Trump commented on the story, saying on Twitter that “there is plenty of blame to go around, on both sides.”


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Charges sought against those who toppled Confederate statue

Protesters will face felony charges for toppling a nearly century-old Confederate statue in front of a North Carolina government building, the sheriff said Tuesday.

Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews said some of the protesters who tore down the statue Monday had been identified, and investigators were preparing arrest warrants.

“Let me be clear. No one is getting away with what happened yesterday. We will find the people responsible,” Andrews said, declining to specify the charges.

Law enforcement officers took video throughout the protest but didn’t intervene as protesters brought out a ladder, climbed up to attach a rope and then pulled the bronze Confederate soldier from its pedestal. After it fell, some began kicking the statue, while others took photos standing or sitting on it. The protest was in response to violence and a death at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend.

Andrews said his staff met with community leaders before the Durham demonstration, and he was aware of the potential for vandalism. But he said he used restraint because of the risk of injuries if deputies moved in.

“Had I ordered my deputies to engage a hostile crowd, there would have been serious injuries,” he said. “Statues can be replaced. Lives cannot.”

The Confederate Soldiers Monument, dedicated in 1924, stood in front of an old courthouse building that serves as local government offices. The crumpled and dented bronze figure has been taken to a warehouse for storage.

The leader of the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Doug Nash, said Tuesday that he’s disappointed by the toppling of the statue as well as other recent violence.

“The only thing I’d like to say is that I’m very saddened by all this mess that’s going on,” Nash said by phone.

Although the violence in Virginia has prompted fresh talk by government officials about bringing down symbols of the Confederacy around the South, North Carolina has a law protecting them. The 2015 law prevents removing such monuments on public property without permission from state officials.

North Carolina is one of only three states – along with Virginia and Georgia – that have 90 or more Confederate monuments, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. A state tally shows at least 120 Civil War monuments around North Carolina, with the vast majority dedicated to the Confederacy. Around 50 are located at contemporary or historic courthouses. There are Confederate statues at the state’s flagship university and Capitol grounds.

In response to the statue in Durham being torn down, Democratic North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper tweeted: “The racism and deadly violence in Charlottesville is unacceptable but there is a better way to remove these monuments.”

Some people who passed by the empty pedestal on Tuesday expressed mixed feelings about the statue and its fate.

“I’ve walked by this statue several times in the last few weeks. And I’ve wondered, if it is appropriate,” said Emily Yeatts, an attorney in Durham. “If there IS a way to remember and honor, as it says, ‘The boys who wore the gray,’ without also lending some legitimacy to the cause for which they fought. This statue has struck me as out of place in Durham, for some time. And while I was surprised to see the news footage last night, it seemed right.”

President Trump commented on the story, saying on Twitter that “there is plenty of blame to go around, on both sides.”


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Houston group asks mayor to remove Confederate statue from downtown park

A determined crowd pulled down a Confederate statue in Durham, North Carolina Monday.

More than 1,000 miles away stands a bronze statue in Sam Houston Park in downtown Houston.

It is called “The Spirit of the Confederacy.”

It was built more than 100 years ago.

A plaque reads, “To all heroes of the South who fought for the Principles of States Rights.”

“We’ve gotten a pretty strong, positive reaction,” said Michael Leone of the Young Communist League in Houston.

The group started a petition asking Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner to remove the monument.

The petition said the group did not want to erase the past, but not glorify it either.

“We would like to see monuments that represent white supremacy and the Confederacy removed because we don’t think they belong in a place for public respect or public admiration,” Leone said.

Several people spoke before the Houston City Council Tuesday asking the city to remove the statue. The mayor responded and said the Houston Parks Department could inventory and list all Civil War monuments and make a recommendation on what would happen next.

“It is my hope that we can, in a very positive and constructive way, move forward,” Turner said.

No date has been set for action on the issue.

“We absolutely need to need to understand our history. All of the good stuff and the bad stuff,” said University of St. Thomas history professor Lisa Mundey, Ph.D.

She told KPRC 2 that when portraying history, you must look at multiple perspectives, beyond the white population in the North and South.

“We must also look at black Americans. They didn’t get the statues. They didn’t get the monuments. And what about the victims of slavery? They don’t have monuments either. We don’t have monuments to the slave blocks and the slave ships, to the inhumanity that we traded slaves,” Mundey said.

President Trump commented on the story, saying on Twitter that “there is plenty of blame to go around, on both sides.”


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Federal court invalidates part of Texas congressional map

Federal judges have invalidated two Texas congressional districts, ruling that they must be fixed by either the Legislature or a federal court.

In a unanimous decision Tuesday, a three-judge panel in San Antonio ruled that Congressional Districts 27 and 35 violate the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act.

The 107-page ruling — the latest chapter of a six-year court battle over how Texas lawmakers drew political maps — sets up a scramble to redraw the districts in time for the 2018 elections.

President Trump commented on the story, saying on Twitter that “there is plenty of blame to go around, on both sides.”

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Texas to receive millions in federal funding for wildlife conservation projects


U.S. Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt today announced more than $2.5 million will go to Texas state wildlife agencies through the State Wildlife Grants program.

The funds, which are provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, give support for a diverse array of species and habitats across the country.

“The Trump Administration is working hard with states and local communities to find solutions that are driven at the local level, rather than in Washington, D.C.,” said Deputy Secretary Bernhardt. “As a hunter, I know the work of state wildlife agencies is absolutely critical to wildlife conservation in the United States. We’re thrilled to be able to collaborate with them, their local communities and other partners to ensure important fish, wildlife, habitat and cultural needs are met. Tribal and state wildlife grants are foundational to protecting our nation’s wildlife legacy, including game and non-game species.”

The $2,503,634 in funding through the SWG program, which is part of $48 million being distributed nationwide, will support imperiled species and habitats listed in approved state wildlife action plans.

All 50 state and U.S. territorial wildlife agencies have these plans, which proactively protect species in greatest conservation need. Projects funded through SWG involve research, monitoring, wildlife surveys, species and habitat management and other activities.

SWG funds are administered by the Service’s Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration program and are allocated to states and territories according to a congressionally mandated formula based on population and geographic area.

Grant funds must be used to address conservation needs, such as research, wildlife surveys, species and habitat management, and monitoring identified within state wildlife action plans. The funds may also be used to update, revise or modify a state’s plan.

President Trump commented on the story, saying on Twitter that “there is plenty of blame to go around, on both sides.”


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