In Wichita Falls, Airport Officials Are Waging War on Egrets

In Wichita Falls, Airport Officials Are Waging War on Egrets

- Originally published at Texas Monthly - Christopher Collins


In Wichita Falls, Airport Officials Are Waging War on Egrets

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a bird crashing into a plane!

European Starlings fly in front of a plane at an airport in Texas.
European starlings fly in front of a plane at an airport in Texas.
Chris Hamilton/Peloton Land Solutions

Earlier this month, Wichita Falls officials announced that they were doing battle with a familiar foe: the cattle egret. You’ve probably seen one before, even if you didn’t know its name—it’s a tall, white bird with a proclivity for perching on the backs of cattle, dining on the swarm of insects stirred up by a herd. The migratory bird lives in Mexico and Central America year-round and uses Texas as a breeding ground each spring before the state’s simmer turns to swelter. Wichita Falls, a city of 103,000 located on the Red River that blessedly separates Texas from Oklahoma, has been a popular egret hangout for years. 

The birds are persona non grata for city officials and the top brass at Sheppard Air Force Base, which hosts an international pilot training program and shares a regional airport with Wichita Falls. That’s because egrets have the unfortunate tendency to fly across local airfields in search of food, putting them in the paths of departing and arriving aircraft. As you might guess, birds and planes are not a match made in heaven—or even in the airspace slightly below it. In 2013, an egret collision knocked an $8 million training jet out of the sky at Sheppard. The two pilots were able to eject before the plane crashed; they escaped with minor injuries. You can think of egrets as the wildlife equivalent of a party crasher: they show up uninvited, eat all the food, and then start fights.  

Local officials have worked to keep the birds away from aircraft in subsequent years, enlisting various techniques to shoo them off runway-adjacent areas, says John Burrus, Wichita Falls’ director of aviation, traffic, and transportation. Among these tools are noisemaking devices such as propane cannons and pyrotechnics, along with habitat removal and, in the most extreme cases, live ordnance. A waterslide at the city’s municipal water park does double duty as a makeshift egret observation post. Officials have even resorted to name-calling, describing the birds as “noisy” and “messy” in a previous press release. “They’re nasty . . . and unfortunately, this is the time of year that it hits us,” Burrus says. A Sheppard spokesperson said in a statement that the crop of egrets has been beaten back after a six-day offensive. “Since executing the project, there have not been any egret sightings over the airfield,” she wrote.  

Such situations arise regularly in Texas and abroad, though egrets aren’t always the culprits. Grackles, geese, and vultures also cause problems because of their size and inclination to travel long distances for food and water. Last month two United Airlines flights were forced to land in Houston after being struck by birds. Hundreds of bird strikes are reported at the city’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport each year. In 2019 a bird whacked the Plexiglass canopy of a jet returning to U.S. Joint Base San Antonio–Randolph, shattering the canopy and forcing an emergency landing. Officials at these and other airfields across the state have tried to prevent future strikes by making their landscapes incompatible with avian life: removing large trees that would be attractive roosting sites, filling in low spots that collect water, and eradicating seed-producing weeds. Experts say the steps have been met with positive results.  

Perhaps the best-known bird-strike incident didn’t happen in Texas at all, but in New York. In 2009 a commercial jetliner hit a flock of geese near the Hudson River. The collision caused both engines to shut down, and pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (who grew up in the North Texas town of Denison) was somehow able to land the plane in the river with no deaths. It was dubbed the “Miracle on the Hudson” and was later memorialized in a film starring a mustachioed Tom Hanks.

Texas airports reported 1,400 wildlife strikes in 2022, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which tracks the incidents in all fifty states. Most strikes happen during the day, and about half occur from the months of July to October. The agency says the number of strikes is increasing, and it has opined that birds have less warning of approaching aircraft because modern engines run more quietly than they did in the past. 

The San Antonio airport system is one of the only airport systems in the nation that employs a full-time wildlife biologist. Marcus Machemehl has had the job since 2009, and he has his hands full. Once he had to catch a rhesus macaque that was running amok in the baggage claim area. “Any day I come to work, it’s never the same,” he says. The airport system counts approximately one hundred wildlife strikes a year, though only one or two of them do serious damage. The number would likely be higher if not for Machemehl’s proactive trapping and relocation program, which sees him capturing an average of thirty raptors per year (mostly red-tailed and Swainson’s hawks) and releasing them sixty miles away. Any time a strike occurs, Machemehl tries to identify the animal that caused the damage. When he can’t, he uses an alcohol swab to clean the affected area and sends the swab off to the Smithsonian Institution, which does DNA testing to solve the mystery.      

It’s not just birds that pose problems for aircraft, either. Pick any critter—it’s probably caused a Texas airport operator to lose sleep at night. At Sheppard Air Force Base, the rural area surrounding its airfield has an endemic population of jackrabbits that sometimes draws coyotes onto the runways, where they can be struck by planes’ landing gear. At the small airport in Bridgeport, northwest of Fort Worth, officials have dealt with deer clambering onto the airfield, says Austin Hill, the wildlife biologist who developed a mitigation plan for the airport. (He suggested they build a fence around the property to keep the animals out.) Chris Hamilton, another biologist who develops mitigation plans for Texas airports, says he once saw nutrias clog a drainage pipe near a North Texas airport. The resulting flooding created a waterfowl-friendly wetland that was airport-adjacent. “We’re in the Central Flyway for waterfowl. So this time of year when waterfowl are migrating, any water body is attractive,” he says.         

Some airports have invented creative methods to deter the presence of anything with wings or a snout or more than two legs. At the Dallas–Fort Worth International Airport, a wildlife biologist performed autopsies on dead birds to determine what they had been eating. With the help of a botanist, she zeroed in on seeds from specific plants; officials then worked to eradicate the plants from the grounds. Other airports have taken a high-tech approach, enlisting the help of drone operators to send problematic birds packing. A company in Alberta has even created a drone that looks like a real falcon—the wings flap and everything—to do the trick.

Federal law restricts the removal techniques available to airports after migratory birds have built a nest, so it’s key that they’re removed before that occurs. Burrus, the Wichita Falls aviation director, says, “You can get yourself in trouble if you do the wrong type of mitigation, particularly if they’re already nesting.” After all, “egret” is only one r away from “regret.” In Wichita Falls, a tentative victory has been claimed over the birds, though local aircraft won’t be in the clear until mid-June, a Sheppard spokesperson says. With any luck, the egrets will stay away—at least until next year. “It’s an ongoing thing for us,” Burrus says. “If you would have asked me twenty-five years ago, I would have said, ‘Eh, it’s not really a big deal.’ But guess what? It’s a really big deal.”            

As the Son of a Soldier, I’m Proud. As a Latino, My Feelings Are More Complex.

As the Son of a Soldier, I’m Proud. As a Latino, My Feelings Are More Complex.

- Originally published at Texas Monthly - Aaron E. Sánchez

Politics & Policy

As the Son of a Soldier, I’m Proud. As a Latino, My Feelings Are More Complex.

My father spent twenty years in the Air Force. I value his service, but generations of Latinos have sought equality through the military only to remain suspect citizens. 

The Complex Nature of Latino “Warrior Patriotism”

I grew up an Air Force brat raised on G.I. Joe at the tail end of Reagan’s America. By age four, I could look up into the sky and identify airplanes by their silhouettes. I was surrounded by the rites and rituals of patriotism and nation and performed the catechisms of duty, obligation, and service daily. The pledges of allegiance to the flag—not prayers for daily bread or forgiveness—echoed in chorus. I could see the discipline required for national discipleship in the way my father stood at attention, saluted, and listened to the anthem.

I learned my first Latin not in the church but from the Air Force. Not the “e pluribus unum” found on our coins, but the “mors ab alto” from the patch on my father’s uniform. The messages ran together in my young mind—”out of many, one” and “death from above.” The phrases reinforced each other. It seemed that the ability to rain death from above provided the ability for many to become one.

My father was a soldier, and as a family we were proud of that. He served twenty years, and we spent a good deal of time on Air Force bases. In fact, my two siblings and I were born on one. But people have still yelled at me to “go back to where you came from.” 

The writer's father in uniform.
The writer’s father.Courtesy of Aaron Sanchez

In the eighties, my father made a return trip from boot camp to his hometown of El Paso; my grandfather drove him to the airport. In the middle of their goodbyes, a Border Patrol agent interrupted and demanded that my grandfather show his papers as proof that he was in the country legally. My father stood next to him in his uniform. He’s told me, sometimes only half-jokingly, that he didn’t learn he was Mexican until he joined the Air Force.

My Mexican American father was not alone in being a soldier and a suspect citizen. Many Latinos experienced this before him. Their patriotism couldn’t always change their place in the nation and their part in its imagination.   

In 1941, a twentysomething poet from Brownsville wrote a poem called “The Four Freedoms.” That same year, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had delivered a speech by the same name, announcing a world founded upon four essential freedoms that were to be the pillars of a new peaceful international order that the U.S. would help create after World War II. Down in South Texas, the poet, Américo Paredes, was not convinced. “Este país de ‘Cuatro Libertades’ / nada nos puede dar,” he wrote. (“This country of ‘Four Freedoms’ / can give us nothing.”) Paredes, who grew up during a period of state-sanctioned violence against Mexicans and Mexican Americans, wasn’t so sure the U.S. was in any position to promise his community freedom and justice, let alone the world. And yet, the same year he wrote that poem, he enlisted in the Army. He wrote for Stars and Stripes and even covered the Japanese war crime trials after the war. After nearly four years of service, in 1945, he wrote a poem describing his complex nostalgia. Scenes like the ones painted by Norman Rockwell, or photographs like the famed kiss celebrating Victory Over Japan Day in Times Square, portrayed the nation a certain way. That nation never existed for Paredes. He wrote that he was “homesick for a home I’ve never lived in.”

In 1948, the remains of Private Felix Longoria were returned to his hometown of Three Rivers, Texas. Longoria had been killed in action in the Philippines. The only funeral parlor in town refused to hold his wake because Longoria was Mexican American. Civil rights leader and American GI Forum founder Héctor P. García wrote letters and op-eds about the injustice of segregation that had haunted Longoria even in death. Eventually Longoria would be buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery, but he would never receive his rightful homecoming.    

The importance of the military was not lost on Latino populations in the postwar years. Many saw military service and the GI Bill as the avenue to the middle class. The military, more than any other institution, allowed access and promised socioeconomic mobility. A storied 1947 conversation between famed Mexican American lawyer Gus Garcia and liberal politician Maury Maverick Jr. at the Gunter Hotel, in San Antonio, highlights this notion. It was rumored that García, after debating with Maverick for a lengthy amount of time, turned to him and exclaimed, “You damn gringos can have the Alamo. We Mexicans want Kelly Field.”

Hundreds of thousands of Mexican Americans and other Latinos served in the military during the decades that spanned the two world wars and the Korean War. Their service created within the population a sense of “warrior patriotism,” as historians George Mariscal and Lorena Oropeza have described it. Military service was directly connected to Latino civil rights during those decades. These were real men and real Americans because they had fought and died in American wars. Their service, they reasoned, made them first-class citizens and should have given them access to government-subsidized home loans and college tuition. Instead, many encountered discrimination. Returning Latino GIs were not always allowed to purchase homes in the neighborhoods of their choosing. Government maps marked certain neighborhoods as safe for home loans and others—overwhelmingly communities of color—as too risky. Unable to build in neighborhoods like West Dallas or purchase new homes in suburbs, many Latinos were relegated to the barrios. Famously, in Los Angeles in 1949, city councilman and veteran Edward Roybal was denied by a builder because he was Mexican American. And while many Latino GIs attended college on the GI Bill, many more were denied admission by individual institutions.

Yet by the sixties and seventies, plenty of young Latinos were still enlisting. Raised on the South Side of San Antonio, the Chicano author Michael W. Rodriguez explained in a short story that “serving in the Armed Forces of the United States was something we grew up knowing we were going to do, so we did it. De verdad, we looked forward to it.”

While President Lyndon B. Johnson believed the war in Vietnam overshadowed his War on Poverty, his assistant secretary of labor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, believed that both wars could work toward the same purpose. The military could be a mix of finishing school and technical college for those who had failed to learn in public schools, churches, or their own homes. “Very possibly our best hope is seriously to use the armed forces as a socializing experience for the poor,” Moynihan said. Vietnam vet and historian Ignacio M. García pointed to this critically in his memoir, writing that “the armed forces had often been the Chicano college life.” García, who grew up on San Antonio’s West Side, had good grades, decent test scores, and two scholarship offers. What he lacked was a quarter to make a phone call to verify the scholarships. Instead, with no money, he boarded a bus to see the Army recruiters. A short while later, he’d find himself in Vietnam.

Like their fathers, many Latinos hoped the military would lead them out of the barrios, in step with their fellow soldiers. But upon their return, they did not always find what they were promised. In a poem inspired by interviews with Mexican Americans in San Antonio, Carmen Tafolla describes a mother’s experience with her son when he came back from Vietnam. Both are still living in a housing project on San Antonio’s West Side. The mother is thankful her son returned at all, but she’s worried about him. He fights constantly because of racist insults and slights. She tries to comfort him, reminding him that his father had similar experiences and that things were much worse then. Even so, her son still cannot find a job. 

Latino warrior patriotism was supposed to prove Latinos deserved to be treated equally. It hasn’t worked. Tens of thousands of veterans have been deported due to a law passed in 1996. Within the military, Latinos are underrepresented in leadership positions. Latinas have enlisted at higher rates than Latinos in recent decades, but the military is still plagued by issues of sexual harassment and sexual violence. The college exemptions allowed during the Vietnam War meant that working-class young men were forced to do most of the fighting, and today’s all-volunteer military service is still seen as operating a shadow “poverty draft,” with promises of college tuition and job training for primarily working-class teens. A 2020 report on Latinos in the military from Syracuse University found that “educational benefits” were the top motivation for enlistment; a close second was the desire to serve one’s country. While impoverished schools cut other kinds of educational programs, they are often funneling students of color into the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, a program that has tripled in size since the 1970s. Over 70 percent of Latino veterans would be happy if their children joined the military, but it is worth asking why some people’s children are duty bound while others’ are college bound. 

My son has photos of his maternal great-grandfather, who served in the Navy, and his paternal grandfather, who served in the Air Force, on his dresser. He is proud of their service, and I am too. But I am torn. There were few opportunities available to them, and they saw the military as their only way out.

While my son keeps my father’s Air Force induction photo on his dresser, I often think of another. In it, my father is in his early twenties, with a wide, youthful smile—mischievous and innocent. It is a smile I don’t recognize, a smile lost to age and responsibilities. It was taken after he and a group of friends got too loud and the military police were called to rein in the party. When an MP knocked, my father and the group of soldiers serenaded the officer to “Roxanne.” They snapped a picture. It was a silly stunt that could have happened in a college dorm, not a military barrack.

Our forever wars have begun and ended with Latinos. The first American POW to escape a Vietnamese prison was a Mexican American from El Paso, Isaac Camacho. The first Marine killed in the Iraq War was José Antonio Gutierrez, a 22-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who arrived without documents when he was 14. Five of the last soldiers to die in the retreat from Afghanistan were Latino.

Service to the nation is not wrong. But for Latinos, our patriotism must do more. After all, what good is it to rename bases after Latino generals when we can’t bring ourselves to say the names of Latinas killed on them? What justice will Fort Cavazos bring to Vanessa Guillen? What good is warrior patriotism when it does nothing to change the fact that we are still suspect citizens?

Remember and Honor Those Who Gave All

Remember and Honor Those Who Gave All

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The Texas House Has Voted to Impeach Attorney General Ken Paxton

The Texas House Has Voted to Impeach Attorney General Ken Paxton

- Originally published at Texas Monthly -

Politics & Policy

The Texas House Has Voted to Impeach Attorney General Ken Paxton

The state’s top attorney will be suspended from duties, pending a trial in the Texas Senate.

Representative Andrew Murr speaks during the impeachment proceedings against state Attorney General Ken Paxton in the House Chamber on May 27, 2023.
Representative Andrew Murr speaks during the impeachment proceedings against state Attorney General Ken Paxton in the House Chamber on May 27, 2023.
Eric Gay/AP

In a history-making late-afternoon vote, a divided Texas House chose Saturday to impeach Attorney General Ken Paxton, temporarily removing him from office over allegations of misconduct that included bribery and abuse of office.

The vote to adopt the twenty articles of impeachment was 121-23.

Attention next shifts to the Texas Senate, which will conduct a trial with senators acting as jurors and designated House members presenting their case as impeachment managers.

Permanently removing Paxton from office and barring him from holding future elected office in Texas would require the support of two-thirds of senators.

The move to impeach came less than a week after the House General Investigating Committee revealed that it was investigating Paxton for what members described as a yearslong pattern of misconduct and questionable actions that include bribery, dereliction of duty, and obstruction of justice. They presented the case against him Saturday, acknowledging the weight of their actions.

“Today is a very grim and difficult day for this House and for the state of Texas,” Representative David Spiller, R-Jacksboro, a committee member, told House members.

“We have a duty and an obligation to protect the citizens of Texas from elected officials who abuse their office and their powers for personal gain,” Spiller said. “As a body, we should not be complicit in allowing that behavior.”

Paxton supporters criticized the impeachment proceedings as rushed, secretive and based on hearsay accounts of actions taken by Paxton, who was not given the opportunity to defend himself to the investigating committee.

“This process is indefensible,” said Representative John Smithee, R-Amarillo, who complained that the vote was taking place on a holiday weekend before members had time to conduct a thorough review of the accusations. “It concerns me a lot because today it could be General Paxton, tomorrow it could be you and the next day it could be me.”

Saturday’s vote temporarily removes a controversial but influential Republican figure in Texas and nationally. He has led an office that initiated lawsuits that overturned or blocked major Biden and Obama administration policies, sought to reverse Trump’s electoral defeat in 2020, aggressively pursued voter fraud claims and targeted hospitals that provided gender care to minors.

The Legislature had impeached state officials just twice since 1876 — and never an attorney general — but the House committee members who proposed impeachment argued Saturday that Paxton’s misconduct in office was so egregious that it warranted his removal.

“This gentleman is no longer fit for service or for office,” said committee member Representative Ann Johnson, D-Houston. “Either this is going to be the beginning of the end of his criminal reign, or God help us with the harms that will come to all Texans if he’s allowed to stay the top cop on the take, if millions of Texans can’t trust us to do the right thing, right here, right now.”

Representative Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, a member of the investigative committee, used his presentation time to criticize Paxton for calling representatives as they worked on the House floor to “personally threaten them with political consequences in the next election” if they supported impeachment.

Speaking against impeachment, Representative Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, called the process “wrong.”

“Don’t end our session this way. Don’t tarnish this institution,” Tinderholt said. “Don’t cheapen the act of impeachment. Don’t undermine the will of the voters. Don’t give Democrats another victory handed to them on a silver platter.”

The vote came as hardline conservatives supportive of Paxton’s aggressive strategy of suing the Biden administration were lining up in support of him. Former President Donald Trump—a close political ally to Paxton—blasted the impeachment proceedings as an attempt to unseat “the most hard working and effective” attorney general and thwart the “large number of American Patriots” who voted for Paxton.

Trump vowed to target any Republican who voted to impeach Paxton.

As lawmakers listened to the committee members make their case, Paxton took to social media to boost conservatives who had come to his defense, including Trump, U.S. representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, and conservative radio host Grant Stinchfield, who tweeted, “Kangaroo Court in Texas.”

About 90 minutes into the debate, the official Twitter account of the Texas attorney general’s office began tweeting at members of the committee to challenge some of the claims being made.

“Please tell the truth,” the agency’s account said.

Because Paxton was impeached while the Legislature was in session, the Texas Constitution requires the Senate to remain in Austin after the regular session ends Monday or set a trial date for the future, with no deadline for a trial spelled out in the law.

Texas state Attorney General Ken Paxton, center, flanked by his staff, reads a statement at his office in Austin, Texas, Friday, May 26, 2023. An investigating committee says the Texas House of Representatives will vote Saturday on whether to impeach state Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Texas state Attorney General Ken Paxton, center, flanked by his staff, reads a statement at his office in Austin on May 26, 2023. Eric Gay/AP

Impeachment represents the greatest political threat to date for Paxton, who has been reelected twice despite a 2015 indictment for felony securities fraud and an ongoing federal investigation into allegations of official misconduct that began in 2020.

The impeachment vote, on the third-to-last day of the regular legislative session, capped a tumultuous week at the Capitol. From Tuesday to Thursday:

  • Paxton abruptly accused House Speaker Dade Phelan of presiding over the chamber while drunk and demanded that he resign.
  • The House General Investigating Committee revealed it had been investigating Paxton in secret since March.
  • The committee heard a three-hour presentation from its investigators detailing allegations of corruption against the attorney general.
  • The committee’s three Republicans and two Democrats voted to forward 20 articles of impeachment to the full House.

Paxton, who was comfortably elected to a third term last year, made a rare appearance before assembled reporters Friday to criticize the process, saying he was not given a chance to present favorable evidence. He called impeachment an effort by Democrats and “liberal” Republicans to remove him from office, violating the will of voters and sidelining an effective warrior against Biden administration policies.

“The corrupt politicians in the Texas House are demonstrating that blind loyalty to Speaker Dade Phelan is more important than upholding their oath of office,” Paxton said. He added, “They are showcasing their absolute contempt for the electoral process.”

Many of the articles of impeachment focused on allegations that Paxton had repeatedly abused his powers of office to help a political donor and friend, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul.

In fall 2020, eight top deputies in the attorney general’s office approached federal and state investigators to report their concerns about Paxton’s relationship with Paul.

All eight quit or were fired in the following months, and most of the details of their allegations against Paxton were revealed in a lawsuit by four former executives who claim they were fired — in violation of the Texas Whistleblower Act — in retaliation for reporting Paxton to the authorities. Paxton’s bid to dismiss the lawsuit is awaiting action by the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals.

According to the lawsuit, the whistleblowers accused Paxton of engaging in a series of “intense and bizarre” actions to help Paul, including intervening in an open-records case to help Paul gain documents from federal and state investigations into the real estate investor’s businesses. They also accused Paxton of directing his agency to intervene in a lawsuit between Paul and a charity, pushing through a rushed legal opinion to help Paul avoid a pending foreclosure sale on properties and ignoring agency rules to hire an outside lawyer to pursue an investigation helpful to Paul’s businesses.

In return, the whistleblower lawsuit alleged, Paul paid for all or part of a major renovation of a home Paxton owns in Austin. Paul also helped Paxton keep an extramarital affair quiet by employing the woman Paxton had been seeing, the lawsuit said, adding that the attorney general may also have been motivated by a $25,000 contribution Paul made to Paxton’s campaign in 2018.

In their report to the House General Investigating Committee on Wednesday, the panel’s investigators concluded that Paxton may have committed numerous crimes and violated his oath of office.

Investigators said possible felonies included abuse of official capacity by, among other actions, diverting staff time to help Paul at a labor cost of at least $72,000; misuse of official information by possibly helping Paul gain access to investigative documents; and retaliation and official oppression by firing employees who complained of Paxton’s actions to the FBI.

The articles of impeachment accused Paxton of accepting bribes, disregarding his official duties, and misapplying public resources to help Paul.

The articles also referred to felony charges of securities fraud, and one felony count of failing to register with state securities officials, that have been pending against Paxton since 2015, months after he took office as attorney general. The fraud charges stem from Paxton’s work in 2011 to solicit investors in Servergy Inc. without disclosing that the McKinney company was paying him for the work.

The impeachment articles also accused Paxton of obstruction of justice by acting to delay the criminal cases with legal challenges and because a Paxton donor pursued legal action that limited the pay to prosecutors in the case, causing further delays “to Paxton’s advantage.”

Taken in total, the accusations showed a pattern of dereliction of duty in violation of the Texas Constitution, Paxton’s oaths of office, and state laws against public officials acting against the public’s interest, the impeachment resolution said.

“Paxton engaged in misconduct, private or public, of such character as to indicate his unfitness for office,” the articles said.

An attorney general had never before been impeached by the Legislature, an extraordinary step that lawmakers have reserved for public officials who faced serious allegations of misconduct. Only two Texas officials have been removed from office by Senate conviction, Governor James Ferguson in 1917 and District Judge O.P. Carrillo in 1975.

If Paxton is to survive, he will need to secure the support of eleven senators. With the twelve Democratic senators likely to support his removal, votes for acquittal would need to come from the nineteen Republican members.

None has publicly defended Paxton. In a television interview Thursday, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, said merely that he believed senators would be responsible jurors and “do their duty.”

A complicating factor is Senator Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, Paxton’s wife. State law requires all senators to attend an impeachment trial, though whether she will recuse herself from voting is unclear.

Paxton’s political base lies in the far-right faction of the Republican Party, where he has positioned himself as a champion of conservative causes and a thorn in the side of Democratic President Joe Biden. Paxton has criticized his opponents as RINOs (Republicans in name only) who “want nothing more than to sabotage our legal challenges to Biden’s extremist agenda by taking me out.”

He also retained the backing of the state Republican Party, led by former state Representative Matt Rinaldi, who frequently attacks Republicans he considers to be insufficiently conservative. On Friday, Rinadi said the impeachment was Phelan’s fault for allowing Democrats to have too much influence in the House.

“The impeachment proceedings against the Attorney General are but the latest front in the Texas House’s war against Republicans to stop the conservative direction of her state,” Rinaldi said in a statement.

Paxton also has maintained a close relationship with Trump and filed an unsuccessful U.S. Supreme Court challenge to the 2020 presidential election. Paxton also spoke at Trump’s rally on January 6, 2021, shortly before the president’s supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune here.

Charming Austin suburb is the fastest-growing city in the country, plus more top stories

Charming Austin suburb is the fastest-growing city in the country, plus more top stories

- Originally published at Austin Culture Map -

Memorial Day is here, which means so are the days of sitting in a lounge chair and sweating while looking unreasonably fabulous. Whether it’s to beat the summer heat or to show off a new swimsuit, Austinites may have more options than they think to take a swim at the many pools around town. Even if you haven’t committed to an overnight stay, most hotels offer day passes, and some even offer other deals or poolside programming.

One great way to find passes not just to pools around town, but also to spas and other hotel amenities, is to browse ResortPass. (Not sponsored, just cool.) There are 26 Austin options on the site right now.

But we wanted to let you know what’s going on beyond the pass — who will set you up for a great meal, who lets you drink out of a coconut, and whose views (or lack thereof) provide the best ambiance for your day off. Some of our choices aren’t even on the platform.

Go grab your sandals, and save us a towel.

Greater Austin YMCA
Let’s start with the less glamorous before we break out the poolside fashion. The YMCA is a family staple for a reason, and if your goal is just to get in the water regularly throughout the summer, especially with kids, it’s a great place to start. There are “interactive hours” at the outdoor pools (more fun than swimming laps) at the East Communities, Hays Communities, Northwest Family, Southwest Family, and Springs Family YMCAs, as well as the YMCA at Camp Moody. The Y is semi-affordable; It would probably be cheaper to visit a hotel pool once or twice, but a Y membership includes a month of access, guest passes, and much more, and may replace your gym membership for the summer. $69 per month, with age and household discounts. austinymca.org

Hotel Van Zandt
If your pool visit doesn’t include spritz and giggles, why are you even there? Hotel Van Zandt is opening up its stylish rooftop pool for the “Spritz & Giggles Poolside Happy Hour & Sunset Swim” event series. Every Monday through Thursday, visitors can enjoy $8 frozen Aperol spritzes, $8 specialty cocktails, and a special pool menu with items like a refreshing green salad, pork belly al pastor tacos, and a spicy fried chicken sandwich. Geraldine’s, the main restaurant, is right inside for even better drinks, expanded bites, and sometimes live music. Starting at $48 per day for adults, $15 for kids. hotelvanzandt.com

Carpenter Hotel
If one day at the Carpenter Hotel pool is just not enough, the hotel has now added monthly passes. In addition to unlimited access to the secluded pool in the Zilker neighborhood, a pass gets a $30 discount for the new monthly BBQ Pool Parties (bringing attendance down to $25). That will include a great spread of less commonly seen barbecue items like grilled bay scallops, mushroom skewers, elotes, deviled potato salad, and more. Monthly pass holders also get to bring one child under 8 for free. $40 daily, $200 monthly. Both Monday through Thursday. carpenterhotel.com

South Congress Hotel
The South Congress Hotel is right in the middle of where many Austinites want to be on a summer day, if it weren’t so dang hot. This rooftop pool solves that problem in style, with daily pool passes every day of the week, as well as cabana rentals. Café No Sé supplies poolside drinks and snacks, and downstairs, Austin’s Best New Restaurant Maie Day offers a hearty meal after a day of napping in the sun. Cabanas can be rented for four people and include self-parking, bottled water, and a bottle of champagne or bucket of High Noon. Days for $40 and cabanas for $300 on weekdays; days for $75 and cabanas for $400 on weekends. southcongresshotel.com

Hotel Viata
Hotel Viata is a bit of a sleeper hotel among Austin boutiques, as it’s located a little beyond West Lake Hills. Still, if you want a taste of Italy, the drive to this retreat will be worth it. Not to mention, with the extra room these downtown hotels can’t offer, a pool pass includes access to a hot tub, fire pits, and great views of the hills around the city. Pool passes are available, but if you want to see it for free before you spend, wait for June 10; The hotel invites guests 21 and up to check out the pool for free at the “Summer Festa in Piscina” party, with a “Taste of Italy” add-on ($55) for Aperol Spritz, limoncello lemon drops, and negronis all day. $45 per day for adults, $25 for children. resortpass.com

Wax Myrtle’s
This rooftop bar and pool is known for its never-ending events calendar, and of course that energy extends to poolside entertainment. There will be live music on the weekends, plus live DJ sets on Saturday nights, alongside whatever other programming happens to be going on inside. Even if it’s a do-nothing day, these large, over-the-top drinks will give you a delicious challenge. The “Boot Scootin Fruity” mixes rum, an aperitivo, hibiscus, and lime in a cowboy hat punch bowl ($90); the luxe “Mojito 75” combines Moët & Chandon with rum and mojito must-haves in a disco ball ($230); and an unnamed cocktail is worth trying just to enjoy it from a real coconut. Starting at $15 for adults, $10 for children, and more for daybeds and cabanas. waxmyrtles.com

Austin Motel
Perhaps one of the best known pools in Austin for its retro vibes, fun events, and accessibility to on-foot wanderers is the Austin Motel. This is a great, less expensive choice that’s probably more fun for casual pool revelers who would feel a little put out by having to dress up and behave in a more luxe hotel setting. There are also frequent poolside events at this motel, like the free “Bounce Motel” series with live DJs, or the body-positive “Chunky Dunk.” The pool is offers daily passes every day, even when there’s nothing on the calendar. $25 on weekdays, $45 on weekends, or $600 in three-and-a-half-month “waves.” austinmotel.com

- Originally published at Austin Culture Map -

The Texas Legislature Finally Comes for Ken Paxton

The Texas Legislature Finally Comes for Ken Paxton

- Originally published at Texas Monthly - Christopher Hooks

Politics & Policy

The Texas Legislature Finally Comes for Ken Paxton

The Texas attorney general has spent nearly eight years—and won two elections—under indictment. So why a vote to impeach now?

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton
Texas attorney general Ken Paxton.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

At the start of this week, the Texas Legislature was sliding toward the conclusion of yet another underwhelming, but basically normal, session. Lawmakers had wasted a lot of time and effort, and soon they would go home. But the calm was illusory. By the end of the week, everything was in flames: blood was sloshing down the Capitol’s marble halls like the building was the Overlook Hotel. Attorney General Ken Paxton called House Speaker Dade Phelan a drunk, urging him to resign and “get the help he needs”; later that afternoon, a House committee announced it had been investigating Paxton for months. The Texas House prepped for a vote to impeach Attorney General Ken Paxton. To paraphrase Mao: everything under the dome is in chaos; the situation is excellent. There’s been a lot of news coverage of the events of the last week. But this being Texas, it’s all underlaid by decades of lore, animosities, and seemingly unaccountable behavior. So if you’re trying to get in on the fun, here’s a primer.

Who is Ken Paxton—and why won’t the haters let him do his thing?

Paxton is the attorney general of Texas, the top law enforcement official in the state. In theory, as the job description suggests, this should be a man or woman of unquestionable integrity. In practice, Texas AGs have often been scoundrels. It is an ideal job for a scoundrel, counterintuitively: there are few constraints on your behavior and a lot of opportunities to make money. Dan Morales, the last Democratic AG in Texas, went to prison for trying to parcel out state settlement money to a friend.

What sets Paxton apart from his predecessors is the sheer width and breadth of his scoundrelhood. One of the problems of writing about Paxton is that there’s never quite enough space to lay out all the things he’s alleged to have done wrong. (The word “allegedly” is going to get a workout in this article.) That has helped him enormously. This stuff can be difficult to keep track of. It’s the scandal version of Montgomery Burns’s disease door: There’s so much that none of it seems to break through.

But it’s important to understand the latest allegations of Paxton’s wrongdoing as an extension of a pattern that dates back to when he was a lowly state representative, from 2003 to 2013. Among other infractions, he took money from a company that benefited from a state contract, and he invested in a property in his district that a local government would soon buy at a markup. In private life he was a probate lawyer, adjudicating wills and estates, and he stood accused of improperly skimming money off the top from a wealthy deceased client. He infamously stole a fellow lawyer’s Montblanc pen at the Collin County Courthouse, and only returned it after he was caught red-handed on security camera footage.

He nonetheless rose through the ranks: first to the state Senate, and then to the AG’s office. In his 2014 race for AG, it was reported that in private practice, Paxton made a habit of advising his legal clients to invest in his friends’ companies or investment firms without telling them he was getting a cut for referring them. In the baroque terms of the legal profession, that type of behavior is known as “criming,” or “doing crimes.” This did not stop Paxton from winning office, but shortly afterward he was indicted for felony securities fraud. This was an earthquake. If convicted, he would be booted from office: felons can’t be attorneys general.

Wow. What did the jury say?

Nothing, yet! The indictment came down nearly eight years ago. Paxton got the case kicked back to Collin County, his home base, where he would be “among friends,” as a mobster might euphemistically say. He and his lawyers have used a long series of procedural and political maneuvers to postpone the trial. As it stands, there’s no resolution in the criminal case.

This seems like suboptimal behavior for a guy whose job it is to put other people in jail.

Yeah, I mean, no disagreements here. But that’s prelude. It’s not even the issue that’s at the crux of Paxton’s current problems. What really got Paxton in trouble recently are two overlapping sets of issues related to Paxton’s friendship with Nate Paul, an allegedly corrupt Austin real estate kingpin—or former kingpin—whom the FBI has been hovering around for years.

The first set of allegations concerns Paxton’s very messy friendship with Paul. Paul was a campaign donor, but he helped Paxton in other ways. For one, Paul employed Paxton’s alleged mistress, offering her a landing pad after she left the AG’s office. For another, as House investigators alleged during this week’s hearing, a “Nate,” presumably Nate Paul, paid to renovate Paxton’s house. Paxton allegedly told the crew doing the renovation work that his wife—that is, state senator Angela Paxton—wanted a particular kind of very expensive granite kitchen countertop. The chief said he would have to “check with Nate.” (In a Friday afternoon address, Chris Hilton, chief of litigation at the AG’s office, told reporters the attorney general’s countertops are tile, not granite.)

When the FBI came for Paul, Paxton stepped in to protect him—like a good bro does. According to investigators, he took steps to interfere with the FBI’s investigation and tried to have his staff investigate the Bureau’s actions. When they refused, he hired an independent investigator with taxpayer money to protect Paul—then seems to have lied in official documents about what he was doing and why. Paxton’s senior staff, conservative legal minds who had been handpicked by Paxton, hated all this. So in 2020, seven of them blew the whistle. They wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice, accusing Paxton of bribery and corruption. Few other figures in the world had as much insight into Paxton’s life as this group. For them to accuse Paxton of serious criminal behavior was an incredibly damning development.

The second set of allegations concern what Paxton did to cover up his Nate Paul–related oopsies. Namely, he fired all the whistleblowers. This was a straightforward violation of the law—retribution against whistleblowers who act to expose illegal activity is something courts take seriously (or they’re supposed to).

That all sounds pretty bad.

Yeah, I mean, it ain’t great. Even in Texas, where a lot of unethical behavior is tolerated as the cost of doing business, this was some painfully on-the-nose and scandalous stuff.

So what happened?

Nothing. The Legislature pretended Paxton didn’t exist in its 2021 session, and he won reelection in 2022 by an even wider margin than he did in 2018. Nihilism is the WD-40 of Texas politics: everything goes down easier if you accept that nothing really changes and nothing really matters. Until, suddenly, it does.

What changed, then? Why is there a willingness to hold Paxton accountable now?

Well, there are a few possible answers to that.

The material facts of the case changed in the past few months. The whistleblowers had a slam-dunk case for illegal termination. Some of them sued. Partly in order to shut down the lawsuit quickly—and to prevent the plaintiffs from liberating AG documents via the discovery process—Paxton settled in February 2023, offering them $3.3 million in taxpayer money. He asked lawmakers to fund the settlement. Even though the dollar amount was trivial, this didn’t sit well with many in the Legislature. Paxton was asking them to eat a turd sandwich so he could protect himself from his own stupidity. It made them look bad. It made the party look bad.

In March, the House Committee on General Investigating opened an investigation into the settlement. The committee is most famous this session for laying the groundwork for the unanimous expulsion of Bryan Slaton, the Republican former representative from Royse City who had sex with a nineteen-year-old staffer after giving her alcohol. The Slaton case was known within the committee as “Matter B.” The Paxton inquiry was known as “Matter A.” The committee has been working on it for months, hiring five investigators. Though their work was clearly diligent and thorough, it couldn’t have been all that difficult: most of the material behind the twenty impeachment charges the committee gave to the House is publicly available. Some of it has been known for the better part of a decade.

And look, these guys all knew what Paxton was. There’s a famous story about Paxton and Governor Greg Abbott that has circulated in Lege circles for years but has never been addressed by either man. When Paxton was a lowly lawmaker and Abbott was the attorney general, the story goes, they ended up in a box together at a football game. Supposedly, Abbott unleashed on Paxton about his unethical and potentially illegal behavior, making his contempt clear. Within just a few years, Paxton was attorney general and Abbott was celebrating him on the campaign trail. Lawmakers and state leaders hadn’t learned to love Paxton, presumably. But taking him on would have eaten up political capital and alienated Paxton’s powerful right-wing backers. So they just . . . didn’t.

The reality is, there was no clear way for the Lege to get rid of Paxton other than by beating him in an election or impeaching him. The first has proven very difficult. Impeachment, which is so alien a process to the modern Legislature that it might as well have come from Mars, needed a hook. Nothing Paxton did before he became attorney general would work—that includes his Servergy escapades. It’s arguably not until this session that the Lege has had a clear case: Paxton asked for taxpayer money to pay off whistleblowers he had illegally fired to cover up other illegal activity. On Friday, the House committee conducting the investigation released a statement in which it underlined the connection. “We cannot over-emphasize the fact that, but for Paxton’s own request for a taxpayer-funded settlement . . . Paxton would not be facing impeachment.”

But this is still an extraordinary, earthshaking thing for the Lege to do. After it became public what the House was up to, Paxton was asked by a conservative radio host what he thought about the news. Paxton affected an air of wounded surprise. “I have no idea why they’ve chosen to do this,” he said. The House had violated the omertà that state officials in Texas generally follow, in other words—they don’t hold each other accountable. In a properly functional system, of course, they’d be doing that all the time.

Didn’t you say something earlier about Dade Phelan being drunk?

Yeah, so—shortly before all this went public, Paxton released a statement calling for House Speaker Phelan, who has been under a lot of criticism from the far right, to resign. His reason: a 44-second video clip circulating of Phelan, during a long late-night floor debate, slurring his words.

Was he drunk?

I don’t know, maybe? Maybe he was plastered; maybe he was tired. Maybe he accidentally took NyQuil during the day. Being drunk on the House floor, if he was, is the legislative equivalent of a class C misdemeanor. In the House, where members often work multiple eighteen-hour days back-to-back, lawmakers drink—which Paxton knows, because he served there for a decade. Paxton’s call for Phelan’s resignation was a shocking development for about an hour, until it became clear that it was a preemptive attack. And that’s about all the attention it deserves.

Can I see the video, though?

Yeah, you bet. Here you go.

Is Paxton cooked?

Well, we’ll see. It’s certainly not smart to bet against Kenny—he’s wriggled out of more traps than anybody in politics today except maybe Donald Trump, whom Paxton has furiously and unsuccessfully attempted to enlist in his support this week. (Though he did get the off-brand endorsement of Donald Trump Jr.)

On Saturday afternoon, the House will meet to vote on an impeachment resolution, which looks likely to pass. The case will then proceed to the Senate, where Paxton will likely find more supporters. But Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who controls the Senate, has so far refused to rule anything out. And if Paxton goes, Greg Abbott will appoint his successor. You can be sure he would be thrilled to do that.

Paxton has survived so long in part because of his ability to frame his opposition as a liberal mob, and to frame himself as the nation’s foremost warrior for conservative values. That view still has real support among the Republican base. On Thursday night, right-wing representative Steve Toth, from the Woodlands, recorded a live stream in which he said Paxton’s impeachment would set back the conservative cause and let the Biden administration, which Paxton sues regularly, off the hook at a critical moment in the nation’s history. That’s still a pretty common sentiment among conservatives.

It’s also exactly backward, 100 percent wrong. As attorney general, Paxton has two responsibilities to perform for his party. He can take the fight to the Democrats in the White House and big Texas cities, and he can prosecute criminals to win positive headlines. But he’s extremely bad at both of those things. He can’t even keep the office of the attorney general staffed anymore. After he fired the whistleblowers, he had to bring in whomever would agree to work for him. As the AP reported, one of those B-team legal experts was quietly fired after he intentionally showed child pornography at a meeting.

The truth of the matter is, nearly anyone the governor could appoint to replace Paxton would likely be better at the job than Paxton—every bit as conservative, but also cleaner and smarter, with more integrity. They’d go after Biden with more vigor, and they’d be better at making the party look good. In Texas it’s one thing to be corrupt: to be corrupt and useless is another matter. If anything, the state’s Democrats may look back with fondness on the Paxton era.