Death by a Thousand Budget Cuts

There's something just plain off about Governor Rick Perry, poster boy for the party of wars and bullseyes and shooting at animals out of helicopters, appearing at a "Texas Rally for Life" on Saturday at the steps of the Capitol.  Yet there he was, wearing a black sport coat with gray pants, pontificating about stopping women "before one makes the biggest mistake of their life," as if teasing who gets kicked off the next episode of The Bachelor.

Perry's always been unafraid to go headstrong into a double-standard, but lately seems to exhibit a blinders-on stubbornness that eerily smacks of our former President Bush.  Call it twitching or smoke and mirrors, either way, Perry's been using his "emergency legislation" powers to tickle Texas Republican sweet-spots in between book tour stops in Vegas.

Declaring the need for pre-abortion sonograms as "emergency legislation," however, was a gratuitous use of melodrama and the female body to score political points.  The only problem was: his campaign math didn't quite add up.  The man who has railed against government mandated healthcare and the "unchecked growth" of government is suddenly, unabashedly, doing just that.

"Over the past ten years we've passed laws requiring both parental notification and parental consent ensuring parents are involved in the most serious moment...and today I am pleased to announce I'm designating the sonogram bill an emergency item for the 82nd legislative session."

It wasn't long ago that Perry was concerned about the government getting in the middle of a doctor and their patient.  "We must continue to speak with the freedoms guaranteed us by the Constitution of this great country," Perry said in June at the Republican Party of Texas's State Convention in Dallas, "as it barges into our doctor’s office."

The most blindly hypocritical part of the speech came when Rick Perry tried a choked-up Hillary-in-New-Hampshire moment on for size, struggling to come to terms with the fact that since Roe v. Wade, "Fifty million -- fifty million -- children have lost their chances."

Lost their chances?  At what, Governor?  To grow up in a state whose schools are at capacity and hemorrhaging teachers, librarians and administration?  To grow up in a state whose Governor turned down $830 million of federal education funding because he was just "fed up?"

The next few years aren't looking good for Texas children.  One out of every four children in Texas lives in poverty and yet Rick Perry's working on his book tour.  "There is no such thing as an unwanted child," Perry said in his speech on Saturday.  And yet that's exactly what the State of Texas says every time it turns its back on the poor and the less-fortunate. 

There's more than one way to end a child's chances, Governor.  Maybe you're the one who need a good look inside yourself.

Elliott Naishtat and The Daily Show's John Oliver

John Oliver from The Daily Show was in town last week filming and Elliott Naishtat was right in the thick of things.  The Representative sent me this photo in hopes that it would make it onto the Internet.

The nation will be introduced to The Representative on Thursday, January 27th when he appears in a segment on The Daily Show about the Speaker's Race.  How John Oliver got in contact with him when The Representative doesn't even have a website is beyond me.  Regardless, my autographed 2011 Capitol Calendar just increased in value and the domain is probably going to be a hot item after Thursday.

Hopefully national stardom doesn't change The Representative.

But if it does, I hope it changes his tie.



Our whole damn state is being twitched.

A twitch, for those who haven't had the pleasure of trying to pull a swinging, wild-eyed, bucket-shaped head down from the rafters of a barn in order to trim the fine hairs in the ears or nostrils of a horse belonging to a little girl whose parents pay enormous sums of money to keep looking well-kept, is a method of restraint.

In history, twitches resembled that of the non-business end of an ax attached to a loop of chain.  Newer models, sometimes given the oxymoronic term of "humane twitches," are two aluminum handles with an opening on the end that resembles a nutcracker that, when tightened, stay clamped together with a string wrapped tightly around the end.

The methodology of the twitch is simple:  it is placed over the sensitive upper lip of a horse -- you know, that little soft spot that everyone always says feels like velvet -- and is rapidly compressed.  As a result of the intense pain it initially creates, the brain releases a surge of endorphins that act as natural pain killers.  It's also widely believed that the distraction alone will keep a horse adequately occupied and that in itself will "inspire him to stand quietly while you accomplish your task."  For this reason, twitches are often used when a horse will not stand still in delicate situations or during painful procedures like injections and castrations.

On that note, let's talk about Rick Perry.

"While the budget is our top responsibility," Rick Perry said last week as he addressed the 82nd Legislature, "there are other pressing issues that have waited too long already. That's why I'm declaring emergency items for the upcoming session starting with the pressing need for tougher eminent domain laws."
Our Governor continued:  "Next, we must abolish sanctuary city rules and free up our peace officers to do their job keeping our families and neighborhoods safe."

Flailing heads.  Tossing manes.  The Texas Tribune's Ross Ramsey summed it up well in a headline:  "Perry 'Sanctuary Cities' Focus Offers Political Cover."  Paul Burka over at Texas Monthly calls it a "red meat" strategy:
"Perry’s designation of two sideshow issues as 'emergency' legislation, when lawmakers should be spending every possible moment on the state’s budget crisis, is a continuation of his campaign tactics, which were to do everything possible to deflect voters’ attention from his mediocre record in Texas by throwing them red meat."
This isn't red meat, it's horse meat.  The entire state of Texas is being twitched by our self-serving Governor as he hacks his way to the White House or Senate or wherever it is Texas Republicans go to get richer.  Got a problem with the budget?  Who cares.   Looking for a job?  Get in line.  Need money for schools?  Who doesn't.  Rick Perry's got a bigger task at hand, and Texans are just collateral.  He's got us by the nose, hard, and is just hoping we'll stand still long enough for him to finish.

Twitter Ground Rules for Capitol Newbies

I don't know if the arctic air that blew in has put a damper on Session partying and caused staffers to stay in and practice their social networking skills or what.  In the last few days, I've seen an influx of Capitol staffers, lobbyists and electeds creating new Twitter accounts or reviving old ones that haven't been tweeted from since Aaron Pena was a real Democrat, which falls somewhere between a long time ago and never.

Anyway, for all you greeenhorns out there, here's a little list of Twitter do's and Twitter dear-Lord-don't's:

DO use your Twitter accounts for social good (and by "social good" I  mean "to notify the rest of us where the free booze is on any given evening").

DON'T pull a Linda Harper-Benz and accidentally tweet (when you mean to text) your staffers to "remember to wash your car in the morning." Note: It will not affect your ability to get re-elected but it will make you look like a self-centered jerk.

DON'T tweet at your boss at all after 11:30 PM or six drinks, whichever comes first. 

DON'T say anything nice about Rick Perry or you will receive the twrath (glossary: twitter + wrath = twrath) of @PhillipMartin.  Trust me.

DO tweet any breaking news and scoop the reporters whenever possible.

DO tweet a photo of Paul Burka asleep if you happen upon it.

DON'T curse on Twitter or else @GovernorPerry will block you and send radioactive waste to your state.  Wait, he'll do that either way, but he apparently blocks people who curse.  Or are Democratic bloggers.  Same-same.

DON'T make up words like "refudiate" and if you do, be prepared to get your own reality show.

DON'T be needy or else @RaRapoport will call your ass out.

DO follow me @MeanRachel here.

Finally, the biggest DON'T of all:

DON'T put anything in a Direct Message you wouldn't want your mom to see.  It's technology.  It often fails.  And it never goes away.

"There is a River Whose Streams Make Glad the City of God"

From blood libel to taking joy in jumping in rain puddles, last night President Obama took us from pointing fingers to looking inward at ourselves.

This speech defines leadership.


De Colores: Memories of Zilker Elementary School

I learned today that Zilker Elementary School and the nearby Barton Hills Elementary are at risk of being closed -- but not because of reasons you might think.  Both Zilker and Barton Hills are considered to be exemplary, high-performing elementary schools.  However, AISD is looking to cut costs and, as a result, they are looking to consolidate schools that might be underutilized with smaller, older schools that cost more to run.  The answer for what to do with Barton Hills and Zilker is sobering: Close Barton Hills and Zilker and move students to Becker and Dawson Elementary Schools.

It wasn't quite The Wonder Years but I had an idyllic childhood, one that involved hundreds of cumulative hours running through a little yellow sprinkler in our backyard and long walks on summer evenings that wound through our Zilker neighborhood to exotic destinations like the "Rose Garden House," where we'd, quite literally, stop and smell the hundreds of roses that an old, stooped man tended to every day, or "The Car Slide," the windy bit of Kinney Avenue that leads down to Barton Springs Road where Flipnotics now resides. 

But the crown jewel of my childhood -- easily, always -- was Zilker Elementary School, a squat little brick building that sat perched on what seemed to be a daunting hill of perpetually dewey grass.  My introduction to Zilker was liberating.  It was a step toward adulthood:  Mrs. Matthew's Kindergarten class, staring at her Christmas sweaters and Keds, taking naps on little mats, playing "House," drinking chocolate milk out of sweaty cartons at lunch.

I remember my first grade teacher, Mrs. Callahan, who taught us about Desert Storm and the Presidential election that was going on at the time.  She got pregnant and left near the end of the school year, which was fine by me as I had never forgiven her for a comment she wrote on my double-ruled handwriting paper one day.  We were supposed to draw and decorate a picture of a snowflake and then write a few sentences about winter underneath it.  I drew a haphazard snowflake, dusted some glitter on it and then got to work, writing several pages about a winter wonderland that existed only in my mind.  "Rachel: A picture's worth a thousand words," she wrote at the top of the page, next to a big bubbly smile.  I decided she had no idea what she was talking about.  Mrs. Oltjen took over and I admired her gritty, no-snowflakes approach.

It wasn't until second grade that I really remember becoming aware of my classmates, or, more specifically, the diversity of my classmates.  Many of my peers lived in subsidized housing, had family members in jail, or simply were neglected at home.  Many of them spoke only a little bit of English.  My second grade class was taught by Ms. Olga Milk, a fiesty Ecuadorian who explained that the equator was at the center of the planet, which was where her home in Ecuador was located.  I believed that this woman who came from the middle of the earth must be pretty special.  She had a thick accent that made it sound like she said my name when she was actually calling on Richard, one of my classmates.  The class was bilingual, so I was exposed, daily, to several of my peers speaking in Spanish around me.  I remember wearing a puebla dress and dancing on Cinco de Mayo with my childhood friend Noah to my favorite of all the songs we sang, De Colores:

Y por eso los grandes amores
De muchos colores me gustan a mí.

And that is why I love
The great loves of many colors.

In the photo above, there's eight year-old me (I'll give you one hint: I have a horse jumping on my sweatshirt and I'm rocking a sweet pair of leggings) and there's a boy named Louis.  You can see him standing at the top row in a red shirt, third from the left.  Louis and I were in the same class from the time we were five until we were eleven years old.  One time, probably not long after this photo was taken, I walked up behind him at the pencil sharpener and discovered he was crying.  I asked, "Louis, are you okay?" and he gave me a look that said no, but he didn't answer.  I never knew why he was crying, but I do remember, specifically, that this year -- third grade -- was the last year he was ever really a kid.  He turned tough and mean.  He turned to gangs.  He was kicked out of fifth grade for a while.  But he was always Louis, and he was always nice to me.

Zilker, it could be said, is where I learned the great loves of many colors.  It was, and still is, a vibrant school that drew a stark contrast to the whitewashed halls of Westlake I was exposed to when we moved across the park in 1994.  For many years, I fantasized about reuniting with my Zilker classmates, until 2005, when I organized a 9 year elementary school reunion for the Zilker Elementary Class of 1996 (the slogan was "Why wait another year?").  To my surprise, about fifteen past students showed up and several of our teachers even made the trek, including my third grade teacher Mr. David Suehs, who brought his accordion and led us in a round of "Froggy Went a Courtin'."  Then we drank lemonade (spiked with vodka) and played foursquare until the sun went down.  I hoped he would, but Louis never showed.

I hope they don't close Zilker.  There are a lot of rounds of De Colores left to be sung there.  I may have learned how to write an AP essay at Westlake, but I learned so much more about how to live in a world de colores at Zilker.

Sign the petition to keep Zilker Elementary School open here.


Just Words

Remember Barack Obama's "Just Words" speech?

"Don't tell me that words don't matter.

I have a dream. Just words.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.  Just words.

We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Just words."

They may have been just Deval Patrick's words, but regardless of who they originally belonged to, I was reminded of the speech yesterday as I processed the news of the Arizona shooting.  Questions of what responsibility the rhetoric of Sarah Palin and others played in the shooting began almost immediately, and so we come back, again, to debate the power of "just words."

Every word we speak has power.   If all words were "just words," it would mean nothing to find "I love you" on the lips of another.  Yet it does.  It would mean nothing to hear one spoken from a child for the first time.  Yet it does.  And, I was reminded as I sat in church today, thinking of just words, the word of the Lord would mean nothing.  And yet, to billions, it does.

I have a dream.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

Those three sentences declared at such very different points in history by such very different leaders defined "just" in a way that transcended the meaning as merely words from flowery speeches.  They defined the word "just" at its highest power:  "guided by truth, reason, justice, and fairness."  They gave us understanding; they united us; they led us into a better place in our nation and our world.

And therein lies the struggle I face with the argument that messages like "Don't retreat. Reload," are just words.

Because those words are not just.  They are guided by manipulation, violence, anger and contempt.  They have no higher calling beyond themselves.  Our nation is so quick to trade justness for hatred that we have begun to accept these types of words, instead of just words, as acceptable political rhetoric. 
And so, the argument here isn't whether Sarah Palin said the words that caused the shooting. 

It's that those words -- which were not and never will be, by any definition, "just" words -- were ever said at all. 

Lost in Translation: Aaron Peña's Tilde-less Entry into the Republican Party

Blogger's Note: This post initially appeared today as a guest column in the Rio Grande Guardian.  It is reprinted here with permission.  I have received some really interesting feedback from Guardian readers today and am hoping to share some of the emails I've received in the upcoming days.  If you have any feedback, feel free to leave it in the comments below or email me.  

Rachel Farris
AUSTIN, Jan. 3 - When Aaron Peña switched parties a few weeks ago, he lost more than just the trust of his Democratic constituency. He lost, in the seemingly innocuous omission of a tilde, his heritage.

Peggy Fikac of the Houston Chronicle has been covering the Republican Party's decision to remove the tilde from Aaron Peña's name in their press release welcoming Peña to the party. Republican Party spokesman, Craig Elam, told Fikac in the Chronicle that tildes don't always "translate properly" in email. He went on to joke that "since it's become a big deal, I said, the heck with it - I'm putting a tilde on everything." 

I suppose it's too much to ask of a party that wants to strip minorities of their right to vote and, in Arizona, a Party that has now banned ethnic studies, to understand the nuances of another language. It must be easy, if you're the all-powerful Republican Party of Texas, to glibly toss tildes wherever they are convenient -- or where they might get votes.

Peña, with the tilde, is a surname derived from the original Spanish surname of de la Peña, meaning "of the rock." Indeed, the translation of Peña means a rock or stone. 

With his conservative voting record, Aaron Peña was never the "rock or stone" of the Democratic Party as his last name would imply. But he did represent the rock that was the Democratic stronghold in South Texas. His constituents -- many with accents and tildes over their own names, representing years of fighting for their diverse heritage -- block-walked for him, phone banked for him, bought his t-shirts and yard signs, donated money to him, prayed with him and voted for him.

So, it's poetic, really, what the Republican Party lost in translation for the sake of properly formatted emails.

"Penar," sans tilde, is the Spanish verb "to punish," with the naked "pena" meaning "punishment or penalty" when used as a noun. "Grief, sorrow and pain" comprise the second definition of "pena" and, finally, aptly, "a shame, a pity" is the third and final definition.

It is the stuff of parables: The tilde-less turncoat who lost sight of the people he was elected to represent -- and lost his meaning in return.

It's a shame.  It's a pity.

Native Austinite and Democratic activist, Rachel Farris writes, a progressive blog that covers everything from local congressional races, to social media strategies, to places with rockin' piano bars. She covered the 2008 Democratic National Convention with The Texas Observer team and has spoken about social media and communications at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs, Texas State University's "Mass Communication Week" and St. Edward's University. She also writes for The Huffington Post. She recently organized "Call Out Aaron Peña Day," an online protest of Rep. Peña's party switch.  

Editor's Note: The Guardian is actively looking for op-eds in support of Rep. Peña's party switch. We have commisioned a couple and will be posting them soon. Anyone wishing to submit an op-ed should e-mail it, with a photo and bio, to

New Year Housekeeping

I thought I'd get some news items out of the way.  The best way to find out most of this is by following me on Twitter here.  Yeah, I tweet, so what?

I was FOX talking about Call Out Aaron Peña Day:

Peggy Fikac wins my Favorite Headline of 2010, "Angry Dem blogger mocks 'tilde-less' Peña." Who has two thumbs and is an angry Democratic blogger?  Yup.  This one.

Also, this is fun.   I was nominated for an Austin American Statesman Texas Social Media Award recently (which was super cool) and some Republicans (or maybe it's just Aaron Peña) have been having some fun by trashing me publicly.  If you'd like some enjoyable morning reading, I highly recommend you go read random Tea Partiers and conservatives' comments who are unclear on the concept of "advocacy" and how they just don't seem to understand that in no way am I a paid political consultant.

Happy 2011!