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Molly Ivins film documentary turning out like one would hope: a side-splitter with a message

Molly Ivins was an old friend of mine.

And film maker Janice Engel, who is a new friend of mine, is in the process of making what promises to be a hum-dinger of a documentary on Molly, titled “RAISE HELL: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins.”

Their work so far is outstanding; for those who knew Molly, it’ll be a breath of fresh air to get to spend another evening with her. For those who didn’t, you owe it to yourself to get to know her through the film. As Engel says, Molly should never be allowed to be come a mere footnote in history.

Please visit the film’s Kickstarter page and watch the footage so far, then consider helping them reach their financial goal so that they can complete this work. Molly was an essential voice in progressive politics, and we owe it to her to make sure her voice continues through this important documentary.

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The story of Easter

It’s always on Easter weekend I’m reminded that my friend Ty Fain used to love to ironically cook rabbit stew every Easter.

One year, knowing I was in Austin heading toward Big Bend where he and his wife Kate lived, he asked me if I could go to Central Market and pick up a couple of rabbits for his annual meal. I told him I’d be happy to, and he warned me that I should call ahead, as the store didn’t always stock them. So I called Central Market, and the butcher said he had 2 left and would hold them under my name.

When I got to the butcher counter the day before Easter, I took a number and waited my turn. Standing next to me waiting her turn was a mother with her two children. Soon my number was called, and I told the butcher “I’m Harold, I called about the rabbits.” The heads of her children whipped around with a horrified speechless expression, and the young mother said, “oh you sick bastard.”

The things I’d do for Ty Fain. I miss him, and I miss his rabbit stew.

When Kate Fain passed away, a friend gathered up all the recipes Kate and Ty had, and put it into a book which went to friends. I looked through the book, and sure enough, found Ty’s recipe for the rabbit stew. It’s a zerox copy of a newspaper clipping, but sadly, since the newspaper isn’t identified, I can’t give credit here to the publication, but there is indication that the recipe is contributed by chef Marco Canora. But for those wanting to make rabbit stew, I reprint it here. Just be sure that when you go to the butcher to pick up the rabbits, you do so more discretely than I did, especially around Easter.

Rabbit Stew with Olives and Rosemary (6 servings)

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Two 3-pound rabbits, each cut into 10 pieces

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 cup dry red wine

1 onion, finely chopped

1 carrot, finely chopped

2 celery ribs, finely chopped

2 tablespoons tomato paste

4 rosemary sprigs, tied into 2 bundles with kitchen string

4 cups chicken stock or low-sodium broth

1/2 pound Nicoise olives (1 1/2 cups)

1. in a large, deep skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Season the rabbit with salt and pepper. Working in 2 batches, brown the rabbit over moderately high heat, turning occasionally, until crusty all over, about 10 minutes. Lower the heat to moderate for the second batch. Transfer the rabbit to a large plate.

2. Add the wine to the skillet and cook over moderately high heat, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Pour the wine into a cup, wipe out the skillet.

3. Add the remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil to the skillet. Add the onion, carrot, and celery and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 8 minutes. Add the tomato paste and rosemary bundles and cook, stirring, until the tomato paste begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the rabbit and any accumulated juices along with the reserved wine to the skillet and cook stiffing occasionally, until sizzling, about 3 minutes. Add 2 cups of the stock, season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Cover partially and cook over low heat for 30 minutes. Add the olives and the remaining 2 cups of stock and cook until the sauce is slightly reduced and the rabbit is tender, about 20 minutes longer. Discard the rosemary bundles. Serve the rabbit in shallow bowls.

Make ahead: the stew can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.

If you serve it on Easter, just don’t tell the kids what it is.

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Where I was.

To this day, I have no idea why I did it, because I never ever do. I turned on the TV in my home office in Austin early that morning. I must have been avoiding getting some work done. I never turn on the TV early in the morning. Not back then, not ever. I still don’t. I hate noise in the morning.

My live-in girlfriend had just gone to the back of the house to the guest room, to take a shower in the guest room bathroom. We had a water pressure issue in the main bathroom back then.

So for whatever reason, I turned in my office chair, and clicked the TV on with the remote. CNN came on, and it appeared that just that moment they’d switched from whatever normal programming they’d had, to special coverage from New York. Something had happened to one of the Twin Towers.

Within a moment, they had a camera trained on the tower, and at first they were discussing how “a small plane” had slammed into it. A few minutes more, and they were chatting via telephone with a cheerful receptionist who was at that moment in that burning tower, many floors lower than the flames. You could hear the sound of alarms in the background from the receptionist’s end of the call. She didn’t know much, but she was there, and was happy to cheerfully provide CNN’s anchor desk with all that she knew, as she continued to sit at her desk, not yet bothering to grab her purse and evacuate the building following the “small plane’s” impact. Finally, whoever was in the anchor chair thanked her for her time, and suggested she should probably move along with joining other building occupants in the evacuation.

In the years since, I always wondered what happened to that woman. Whether she made it. If she regretted those lost minutes chatting with the news people. If she ever realized the gravity of her situation before it was too late.

Reality was slow to sink in during those first minutes. It was slow to sink in at the CNN anchor desk, and it was slow to sink in with me, as I sat in my office in Austin watching. But the smoke plume from that “small plane” was just too much to minimize. The folks at the anchor desk were beginning to have their doubts as well. I stood up, went to the back of my house, and hollered at my girlfriend to get out of the shower right now and come see this.

She was bewildered, but in a moment she joined me on my office sofa to watch, wearing only a towel.

“Is this an accident, or is this terrorism,” she asked?

“I don’t know,” I replied. But the words weren’t even out of my mouth before the second airliner hit the other tower, right before our eyes, on live television.

“It’s a terrorist attack.”

We sat glued to the TV as the bad news and rumors, some ultimately true, others not, were stacked high. Rumors there were other airplanes. Rumors that another was on its way to Washington, D.C. Then the Pentagon was hit. Something about a crash in Pennsylvania. Rumors of other airplanes unaccounted for, from San Francisco to London.

At that moment in time, nobody knew how far this went, or where this ended. How many airplanes had been hijacked? How many targets had evil people chosen? How many Americans would die that day?

My girlfriend’s boss called, to announce that he had decided it would be business as usual in the law office where they worked, which was immediately across the street from both the Texas Capitol and the Governor’s mansion. The same state Capitol and Governor’s mansion which, until recently, had been the home and office of the current President, George W. Bush. I was furious with her boss. For all we knew, the Texas Capitol complex could be another target – it would certainly be an attractive one symbolically, having recently been vacated by the President the terrorists hated more than anybody.

My girlfriend and I were both in stunned silence as I drove her to work, now listening to live coverage on the car radio. We’d seen the first of the towers fall on live TV, before we left my house. We heard the second of the twin towers fall via my radio while we were on the lower deck of I-35. I will always remember the exact spot on that road.

On my way home, the streets of Austin were virtually empty and silent. I thought about that woman as I drove, sitting in her office, delaying her escape while on the phone with CNN.

13 years on, I still do.

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Amazing Grace – KUT’s audio version of the tribute to Grace Garcia

KUT Radio, NPR’s Austin affiliate, was kind enough to ask me in to come in and record a two-minute audio version of my longer tribute to Grace Garcia, as part of their upcoming Texas Standard show, which will air on NPR affiliate stations across Texas. I was honored to do so, and offer it here:

I very much hope to work with host David Brown as a regular contributor to Texas Standard when the show debuts later this summer. check out the beginnings of the show’s website.

And while we’re on the topic of Grace Garcia, here was the discussion on TWCNews’ Capitol Tonight Show last night, as Paul Brown and I discussed both the legacy Grace leaves, and also about Attorney General Greg Abbott’s latest move on public school finance litigation:

You can watch Capitol Tonight weeknights at 7 pm and 11 pm in Austin and on Time Warner News’ brand new channel in San Antonio.

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A love letter to Texas women in politics, for Grace Garcia

Let’s set aside for a moment all the women in Texas politics who already reaped the fame that came with the office. They already have their walls full of photos, shelves packed with awards, and reams of newspaper clippings documenting countless achievements. Governor Richards. Congresswoman Jordan. Comptrollers Strayhorn and Combs. Senator Hutchison. Mayors Whitmire, Miller, Strauss, Parker, and Cockrell. State Senator Zaffirini, the first Latina ever there. We salute you all. Your trail-blazing is well-documented.

This piece isn’t about them. It’s about the other women essential to Texas politics. The ones whose names aren’t as well-known. They’re the driven ones who pay attention to the details, work themselves to exhaustion, and really get things done. They may not be elected themselves, but they’re the ones who work to elect others, and keep the trains running on time. They’ve often had to be twice as good as a man to get noticed, and half as much headache as other staff to get ahead.

A few prime examples: Mary Beth Rogers, Ann Richards’ chief of staff. Cecile Richards, founding Executive Director of Texas Freedom Network, and now President of Planned Parenthood. Samantha Smoot, former Executive Director of Texas Freedom Network. Deirdre Delisi, Rick Perry’s former chief of staff. Sarah Floerke, field director of Greg Abbott’s campaign for governor.

I bet if you put these five women, and another ten just like them, in a room, they would agree on very little – they’re in different political parties and hold varied ideologies. But I know all of them well, and take my word for it – they’re all deadly smart, driven women in politics, policy, and government who are very, very good at what they do. Each of them not only demonstrates that women earn their seats at the table, but also that it wouldn’t be just a horrible damn thing if women were at the head of that table from time to time. Few work harder to achieve political and policy objectives, and they have all met with success.

In other words, they all remind me of Grace Garcia.

Grace Garcia

Grace Garcia

In fact, my personal gold standard for “highly successful woman in Texas politics” is “wow – she reminds me of Grace Garcia.”

I’ve known Grace for 22 years. We first met early in Bill Clinton’s upstart campaign for President, and at the time I was much more terrified of Grace than I ever was of Clinton. Grace was a driven, focused, opinionated, serious, smart workaholic.

I’m not entirely sure Bill Clinton would have been elected President but for Grace’s efforts. Later on, I’m fairly certain Grace’s efforts were one key reason Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tenure in the State Department was so successful. And I bet Senator Leticia Van de Putte would not have answered the call to run for Lt. Governor but for Grace, since it was Grace who was making most of those calls in the first place.

For the last year or so, Grace was the Executive Director of Annie’s List, the organization dedicated to electing more women to public office in Texas. The organization was already successful when Grace came home from Washington to Texas to take the helm, and she expertly positioned Annie’s List to improve on that success.

Grace put together her team at Annie’s List, and together they seemingly know only one speed: pedal to the metal full blast. They raise money, recruit candidates to run for office, raise more money, train those candidates, raise more money, recruit top-notch campaign staff and train them too, and raise more money. And then they break for lunch.

Tragically, Grace Ann Garcia was killed yesterday afternoon, in a senseless car wreck. She was on her way to attend a Dallas event featuring Van de Putte and Wendy Davis. They took her away, and nobody who knows her can believe it. I know I can’t believe it; I’m crushed. Hell, it’s only in recent years that I learned how not to be terrified of her, and now she’s gone.

But here’s what I can believe: I believe that because of Grace Garcia and political women like her, there will be a lot more women who see public service as a viable and attractive option. I believe that it’s Texans like Grace Garcia that you could put in front of a classroom full of ten year old girls, and by the end of the talk it would dawn on those girls – some for the first time – that there isn’t anything they can’t achieve if they’re willing to work hard enough. I believe that because of political women in Texas like Grace Garcia, more and more women will involve themselves in politics, and will be successful at it. And I believe that some day, because more women will be in charge around here, we’ll all be bickering about a higher class of stuff than the low-rent crap we bicker about in Texas politics today.

My phone was ringing all evening. Late last night, I talked with my friend Amber Mostyn, who is the Board Chair of Annie’s List. Shortly after midnight this morning, I hung up the phone from a painful call with another friend of mine named Emmy Ruiz, who is Annie’s List’s political director. We were talking about Grace, and the events of the day, and emotionally leaning on each other a bit.

After the calls died down, and as I plugged my phone into the charger as I was getting ready for bed, I thought, “both Amber and Emmy sure do remind me of Grace Garcia.”

And that’s why I’m pretty sure things are going to be alright.

Rest in peace, sweet Grace.

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Ty Fain rabble-rousing Austin memorial event!

Last month on these pages we shared the sad news that the legendary Ty Fain had passed away. The original piece invited folks to share their own stories about Ty, and the result was absolutely priceless, just like Ty. You can read them here.

tysmileThe outpouring of support continues to be tremendous, and as a result, those who knew him best have put together an Austin send-off event that Ty would have loved, and those who knew and loved him won’t want to miss.

So please join other friends and family of Ty on Saturday, January 26th, in the auditorium of the Texas AFL-CIO, 1106 Lavaca. We’ll begin the gathering at 3 pm, and the program starts at 4, as we share remembrances of the man, toast his memory, and generally misbehave in ways that would have made Ty smile.

Meanwhile, folks are making honorary contributions in remembrance of Ty by donating in Ty’s name to the Texas Observer or to the Ty Fain Border Justice Fund, benefitting Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.

We hope to see you at the event!

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The legendary Tyrus Fain

My friend Tyrus Fain passed away today. He leaves behind the lovely Kate Fain, some grown up kids, and about thirty bazillion friends.

When I first met Ty he was a political consultant. Later when he moved to the Big Bend, he was the President of the Rio Grande Institute, doing his part to protect that great river. I first met him through then-Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro in 1991. Some of his other friends go back years further than that, perhaps all the way back to one of several Kennedy campaigns for President and/or US Senate, or even before.

I wouldn’t even know how or where to begin to describe Ty in a way that would do him justice. That’s why this is going to be a different kind of tribute, because Ty Fain was a different kind of man. So here’s the deal: there are so many stories about Ty Fain’s never-ending efforts to have fun, screw with Republicans, save the Rio Grande River, or otherwise be notable in some way, that no one person could know them all, much less begin to tell them. So I want to tell a couple of stories about Ty, but I want this tribute to be audience participation; those of you who knew Ty, please please PLEASE share your stories with the rest of the class, in the comments section. While it might not be particularly challenging to tell a great story about Ty, you might find it more challenging to think of one which can be told in mixed company. I know you’ll do your best.

Here are mine:

Ty loved to mess with Republicans. For some reason, he particularly loved screwing with Bush 41. George H.W. Bush was able to claim Texas residency in the 80’s only because he’d registered to vote using the address of a hotel room in Houston. So in 1988, in efforts to demonstrate to Ty’s fellow Texans the extent to which Bush wasn’t much of one, Ty and some friends rented that very hotel room in Houston, put out a bunch of bologna sandwiches, added a cardboard cut-out of Bush, invited the media, and had themselves a party. It got national news.

Ty was also completely absent-minded. He often told the story of how, when he was an advance man for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign, he was advancing the next scheduled campaign stop after the one at which Kennedy was tragically killed. Ty was at that next event site preparing when they called to tell him the news. Ty was shell-shocked when he heard, and he jumped in his rental car, drove back to his hotel, packed his bag, took a cab to the airport, and returned to Washington.

Ty said it was a full six months later when one night, he bolted up out of a dead sleep in bed, suddenly remembering that he’d left that rental car, keys still in the ignition and the engine running, in front of his hotel somewhere in California. He called the rental car company, who upon hearing from him responded, “oh yes, Mr. Fain – we know all about you.” He claims to have been banned for life from renting from that company again.

Ty always offered a chilled shot of Patron tequila and great political war stories to anybody who came to visit he and Kate at their house in Marathon, Texas. Over the years I drank a lot of his liquor and listened to a lot of his stories. And I grew to love him and Kate (and also the tequila, come to think of it) more and more as time went by. I’m very sad that there will be no more visits with Ty.

The professional river guides on the Rio Grande always said that Ty Fain had a death wish. They said they often saw him do things in his kayak on that river that even they would never do. But he always emerged from the rapids on the other end of the run without a scratch. I imagine that Ty’s back floating on the river now, doing what he loved to do, where he loved to do it, pretty smugly happy with himself for leaving it all out on the field. He should be – he did.

Add your Ty Fain stories in the comments section so we can all enjoy ’em, and so we can continue enjoying him. Meanwhile, I think it’s high time I had a chilled Patron while I fondly remember my old friend. Rest in peace, old scoundrel. You’ll never be forgotten.

 Update: apparently, settings in the comments section automatically correct “Ty” to “Thank you.” Despite the fact that is seems entirely appropriate, I hope I have changed the settings to disable this temporarily. I fear that the correction is distracting to the central message. Carry on.

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Texas is suddenly one 10-gallon hat short

Oh, come on. You didn’t really expect a blog named “Letters From Texas” to allow the passing of a fantastic Texan like Larry Hagman to go without notice here, did you? We all grew up with JR, loved to hate JR, hated to love JR, and wondered who shot JR. Way before that, he was the lucky guy who got to shack up with the way-hot Jeannie.

Aside from LBJ or either President Bush, it’s hard to imagine a man more closely associated with Texas and more universally recognizable than Larry Hagman. In fact, years ago I went down to Nicaragua chasing after a woman I never caught, and after arriving in the Managua airport, knowing very little Spanish and realizing I needed to be on the other end of the country, I hired a guy who  spoke very little English to drive me there in the middle of the night. The first thing he wanted to know after I told him I’m a Texan: what’s JR Ewing really like?

I laughed and told the driver I didn’t know. I’d only briefly met the man once, in the Texas Capitol. But when I heard that Hagman had passed away, I contacted a couple of other Texans who did know him. I was just as curious as my Nicaraguan driver.

My friend Mary Mapes of Dallas (the town, not the TV show), whose words have long graced the sidebar to your immediate left, knew him. Here’s what she had to say:

He had a great hissing laugh and a really good sense of humor. Very quick, and very self-deprecating. He was interested in journalism and had several subjects he really liked to talk about, including veterans and PTSD.

He loved Texas, and loved making fun of Texas and Texans in the way that only someone from here and of here can get away with.

A fascinating detail I always noticed is how different he looked, and even acted, without the big ol’ hat. I was at a party at Lisa Blue’s house and hadn’t met him yet, when I realized that the rather dignified man walking past me (hatless) was Larry. White hair, regal carriage, quiet, and elegant. Next time I saw him that evening, he had the hat on. And it was a transformation. He seemed taller, edgier, more of a rapscallion, crazy eyebrows, the whole JR look. He seemed to revel in his Texas alter ego.

Philanthropist, politico, and Dallas lawyer (the town, not the TV show – STOP THAT) Lisa Blue knew Larry Hagman well. He was not only among her closest friends, but she also serves as the founding board member of Hagman’s foundation.  He organized the foundation because, as Lisa explained, “he wanted to give back in some way.”

Lisa’s bottom line on her friend:

He was probably the kindest person I ever met. He went out of his way to make sure people were included, and always asked them about their background, and was always very kind to his fans. He was the kind of guy who, if went to the doctor, he’d find out all about the nurse – her interests, her passions. He wasn’t at all like the character he portrayed.

Lisa, who was with him this week, told me that he went the way he wanted to go – quickly, and surrounded by people who loved him, and whom he loved. She said that in their last conversation, he told her that he’d had a wonderful life. That he was blessed. That he was so in love with his wife and his family.

I wish I’d known all that before my Nicaraguan driver asked. Rest in peace, Mr. Hagman. Even in death, you’re bigger than life.

Here’s more about the Larry Hagman Foundation, with an opportunity to contribute.

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“Harold…this is Mario…”

That’s how his voicemails to me would always begin, every single time, in exactly the same tone of voice, no matter the mood he was in or the reason for the call. And usually when I returned the call to my sometimes-client and always-friend state Senator Mario Gallegos, the conversation would start the next wild ride of some sort. He always had an idea on how to stop a bad bill, or pass a good one, or to win some local Houston election, or to make bad people squirm, or to spur some economic development of some sort in his district, or to start a big fight, or something. Always something. Never nothing.

Mario passed away today. I will miss him a lot. Countless people, especially in the Capitol and in Houston, will miss him just as much.

There are two things that could be said about Mario Gallegos that one couldn’t honestly say about most people.

First, Mario Gallegos spent the entire span of his professional life in public service. Mario was a firefighter for 22 years, followed by his service of 21 years in the legislature – most straightforward resume in history. How many people can say they spent their entire life working to make everybody else’s life work better?

Second, every single day of his life – both good days and bad days – he did his very best. That’s hardly ever true of anybody, but I believe it’s true of Mario. He had some days he wasn’t proud of, and some days he fell short, other days during which he was nothing short of spectacularly heroic, and every kind of day in between, but he always did. His. Very. Best. How many people can you say that about?

There’s an old quote that I read to Senator Gallegos and his family Sunday night in Houston when I was saying goodbye. I told them that it’s a shame it’s an old quote, because anybody who knows Mario Gallegos would recognize it as something that damn well should have been written up specially for him. Here’s what I read him:

Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, “holy crap! What a ride!”

Mario, they broke the mold when they made you, buddy. It was, indeed, a hell of a ride, and I will miss you something fierce. Rest in peace.


( Also consider reading “Rodeo Clowns,” a piece I wrote featuring Senator Gallegos more than three years ago)

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Leslie Cochran: rest in peace. Or fun. Or fashion. Or wherever you want to rest.

Leslie, the life of the party in Austin, has reportedly died.

The life of Leslie Cochran, to paraphrase an old saying seemingly written for him, was not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well-preserved body, but rather one which skidded in sideways with throttle full-out, covered in scars, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and screaming, “whoo-hoo, what a ride!!”

Congratulations, Leslie, on the start of your next great adventure. You will be missed here in Austin.

Here’s the tribute to him I wrote a couple of years ago.

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Carlos Guerra

I was absolutely flabbergasted and upset to learn yesterday afternoon that former San Antonio Express-News columnist Carlos Guerra has passed away.

I knew Carlos Guerra by reputation and writing before I met Carlos Guerra the man, years ago. I still remember my first impression of him, immediately before first reading his column, which I ran across in the legislative news clips one morning when I first started working at the Capitol. His photo was on top of his columns, and my first impression was, “holy crap, what a mean-looking man!”

Carlos wasn’t a complicated guy, and his positions on the way the world ought to be didn’t confuse him. He mainly just wanted everybody…everybody…to be able to sit at the grown-ups’ table, and continually seemed astounded at the stiff opposition to that seemingly-simple value. For the newspaper, he wrote about inequities and indignities. He pounded out column after column, hoping to change a mind, or soften a hardened heart, crafting his pieces as observation, and along the way carefully taking his ideas to the limit of what he thought his editors would print.

In our personal conversations, he expressed great frustration that people were continually beat down, out of reach of real opportunity, and that it usually had everything to do with money and greed. After he left the Express-News, he put a lot of effort into another idea he had – a scholarship fund he initiated, hoping that educating kids from families of modest means would expand that grown-ups’ table. He started calling me more often, discussing his frustration with Republican policy initiatives which had the effect of taking away what little opportunity somebody living behind the 8-ball might have, and equal frustration with Democrats’ inability to motivate Latinos and use that motivation to win elections. He always had plenty of ideas on how to address the challenges, they all just required funding he didn’t have.

The older he became, the more value he saw in the young, and knew that persuading the next generation would win the war faster than changing the hardened minds of those already established. The old warrior kept writing what needed to be written, and, amusingly, he discovered the power of social and online media. His later musings appeared in the Texas Observer and in, an online publication of which he was among the founders.

His great frustration – that not everybody was allowed at the grown-ups’ table – finally hit home toward the end of his career at the Express-News. Distraught, he called me a couple of years ago and said, “Harold, they’re trying to get rid of me.” Maybe bean-counters at the newspaper (and virtually every other newspaper) had decided that the most important journalism is the kind that sells ads, and Carlos Guerra didn’t fit the bill. Maybe they were just trying to reduce personnel costs, and he was collateral damage. Maybe he rubbed the powers-that-be the wrong way. It was probably all of the above. Within a year, they’d bought him out and he was gone. He never complained, at least not to me.

Several months ago, I drove to San Antonio and had more-than-a-few-drinks with him, during which we almost surely solved most if not all of the world’s problems, only to be unable to recall our solutions once sobriety returned. All evening long, he shot out idea after idea, seeking input and advice on how something might work, toward the goal of getting more little guys at the grown-ups’ table.

A week and a half ago, he called me while I was stuck in Austin traffic, so I had plenty of time to talk. He wanted to come to Austin and continue our discussion. Sadly, the meeting never happened.

Carlos Guerra never ran out of ideas. He just ran out of time.

Rest in peace, buddy.

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Two biguns fall

There are a lot of things that make Texas politics the greatest spectator sport in the world. Most of the things that make our politics interesting are ridiculous, outlandish, off-the-wall, or just plain cajones-inspired.

Dolph Briscoe

“Sputnik,” well-liked and universally-respected around the big pink building, was proudly all of the above. And Governor Dolph Briscoe could well be assigned with some of the above himself, if only because he would get himself elected as the Governor of Texas, then go home and not be heard from again for a while.

In office, Briscoe often had better things to do, and seemed to believe that there’s only so much seriousness that can be associated with state government – and if all one knows about Texas government is what they read from Molly Ivins, Dolph probably had a hell of a point. Once out of office, he became a fierce Democrat, always weighing in when he thought it was important. He was conservative and traditional, as most South Texas ranchers were, and are.


Meanwhile, Sputnik was the lobbyist for the motorcycle rights folks. He wore leather, had a mohawk, was inked everywhere (including his forehead), and had more appendages missing than remaining. And, oh yeah, he was one of the most effective advocates in a building cram packed full of high-priced advocates.

Sputnik played hardball in Democratic politics, and he would bring a large and disciplined caucus to Democratic state conventions, and they all voted as a bloc. That made them very influential. I recall one state convention in which a major candidate for state Democratic Party chairman dropped out of the race when Sputnik’s caucus announced they’d all vote the other way. I heard he passed away at his desk early Thursday morning, after he shot off an email and just before he was to leave to travel to this year’s Democratic convention.

I first found out about Sputnik’s passing in a tweet from Republican Senator John Carona Thursday night, which is is a perfect combination describing what makes Texas politics unique and endearing in so many ways: a leather-clad inked-up mohawk-sporting motorcycle rights guy’s passing is sadly and respectfully announced by a conservative Republican Senator, who in turn holds absolute respect and credibility from a Democratic flack who agrees with him hardly ever – and all three are friends anyway.

You just can’t help but love Texas politics. And while I’m very sad for Sputnik’s passing, I absolutely can’t wait for his memorial service. I would bet good money it will be one which, if he could attend, Sputnik would love.

Meanwhile, Governor Briscoe’s passing signals the end of an era of old-style South Texas giants.

The only thing that could make either memorial service any more epic, is if both families got together and decided to hold a joint funeral.

Both of you – rest in peace. You each played a big role.

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Boyce Breedlove – a love story in politics

During the 1996 Democratic State Convention in Texas, there was a private meeting to try to come to some agreements on something-or-other that seemed important at the time. I walked through the convention hall to the conference room with then-AFL-CIO state director Rosa Walker and her husband Boyce Breedlove. We were to be joined in the conference room by then-Land Commissioner Garry Mauro, Bill White, and a few others. Rosa and I didn’t expect the meeting to last more than a few minutes.

Now retired, Rosa is a legend among Democratic political circles. During her amazing 38-year career with the AFL-CIO, there wasn’t a Democratic activist, leader, or candidate for public office she hadn’t helped, advised, or chewed out – sometimes all in the same day. In fact, by coincidence, she’s scheduled to be inducted into the Labor Hall of Fame tomorrow. She’s been one of my closest buddies for 20 years, and I’d trust her with my life. She and her husband Boyce have the kind of longstanding rock-solid relationship most people only dream of, and I adore him too.

When the three of us arrived at the meeting room that day, Boyce asked Rosa what she wanted him to do while she was in the meeting. Rosa jokingly replied, “I’ll only be a few minutes. You can guard this door. Don’t let anybody in.” We all chuckled, and Rosa and I went into the room, leaving Boyce outside.

The meeting ended up being somewhat of a tense ordeal. Nothing notable about why – I don’t even remember what the big hangup was. I’m sure it was just one of those touchy situations that comes up during political conventions which, if handled gracefully, nobody remembers, but if mishandled, some people would get upset. As it turns out, we were in the room for three hours. In all that time, Rosa and I forgot all about poor Boyce.

When we finally left the room three hours later, there was Boyce. He’d found a chair somewhere and was sitting in it, in front of that door, taking very seriously his commitment to Rosa to guard it. He was also very hungry, very thirsty, and very much in need of a restroom.

“Oh, bless your heart, I’m so sorry, you could have left,” Rosa said.

“No I couldn’t,” Boyce replied, with a characteristic grin at his wife. “I had to guard this door.”

And – oh boy – the way Boyce grinned at his wife. All the time. No matter the circumstance. There isn’t a woman alive who wouldn’t give anything for her husband to look at her the way Boyce always looked at Rosa. Year-after-year, his absolute love and adoration of Rosa was apparent at first glance, constantly. I bet he had that same look way back when they first met, and that look, and the adoration behind it, was still there years later, to the end.

Sadly, that end came yesterday evening, because Boyce passed away. It was his time, and he knew it. In a lot of pain, among his final acts yesterday was to tell Rosa how much he loved her. I know it was wonderful for her to hear it one more time, but I also know she didn’t need to be told – he showed it every day of their lives together. She did the same for him. Their relationship served as the gold standard for everybody else’s relationships.

I’ve always been glad that Rosa is one of the strongest people I know. But when I heard the news last night, I was especially grateful that she’s so strong, because I know her strength will  help her get through this terrible loss.

And as she works her way through this difficult transition, I hope she’ll take comfort that, somewhere, an adoring Boyce will be grinning at her, guarding the door.

Rest in peace, Boyce. You were a damn good man.

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Emma Barrientos

After hanging out in Big Bend for almost two weeks over the holidays, driving back into Austin last night resulted in a bit of sensory overload. From all directions – there were so many cars, so many people, so many lights. But having heard while out of town that my (and seemingly everybody’s) friend Emma Barrientos had unexpectedly passed away while I was gone, I was acutely aware that there was one light in Austin too few.

One would be foolish to characterize Emma Barrientos merely as “Gonzalo Barrientos’ wife.” While true that she was admirably and very effectively a solid rock behind, and beside, Senator Barrientos, her individual accomplishments are many, varied, and made this a better place to live. And while it can’t possibily be easy to be married to a Texas Senator, because you have to share your spouse with about three-quarters of a million people, you never would have guessed it by talking to Emma. She knew her husband was just doing what needed doing, and she stayed busy doing the same.

One would see her everywhere, attending events, lending her support, and rolling up her sleeves and doing the real work. It might have been easy for some to take Emma’s tireless work for granted, because whatever needed doing, she seemed to be constantly doing it, as if it were no big deal to do. Her passing no doubt leaves a big hole in the Barrientos family, but it also leaves a big hole in Austin, and in our hearts.

I come from a family in which it seems almost everybody has lingered and suffered much too long in their passing, so to me, there is something almost magic about one who passes away quickly and unexpectedly, as Emma did. It is certainly more jarring and painful for those they leave behind, but it’s almost as if a supreme being decided to spare Emma from the painful details of a drawn-out and painful process. Emma earned and deserved every break such a being has to offer. I just wish she’d stuck around a lot longer, for our sake.

Sometimes, we just don’t know when we’ve already had our last kiss, our last hug, or our last goodbye. That’s why a sudden passing can sometimes bring extra regret to those left behind. It always brings extra sorrow. But in Emma’s case, knowing her family, and knowing many of those around Austin and the rest of Texas who cherished their relationship with her, I bet she always felt the love from all corners.

Rest in peace, Emma. You were a peach.

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He’s definitely going to miss Wapner

Please take a minute to ponder and appreciate the life and passing of Kim Peek, the man who inspired the movie “Rain Man.” Because you just never know who’s going to change somebody’s life, or the world, next.

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