Education Funding - We Lost Sight of the Mission

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As many of you know, one of the primary responsibilities of the government of Texas is to provide education for our kids. It’s so important, it's written in the Constitution of the State of Texas.  The mission as identified in Article VII, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution:

A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.

The Constitution is clear in the mandate for education. The Legislature has a duty to establish an efficient system of public free schools.  The current situation within our state is far from efficient. While several attempts to solve the issues have been put before the House and Senate in Texas, no tangible improvements have been achieved. The legislature has become such a polarized and divisive environment that it is woefully incapable of addressing the problems with funding education in Texas.

Since 2011, the budget appropriations for education have been inconsistent and inadequate to the requirements of the more than 1,000 independent school districts in the state.   The state has historically provided roughly half of the funding required to maintain public schools.  In the last 7 years, that funding level has dropped to roughly 38% of funding from the state, which in turn forces the local school districts to either reduce costs or make up the balance by raising property taxes.  Neither alternative is an attractive option for the districts. Reducing costs means reducing arts, athletics and other services that enrich a child’s education, or raising property taxes within the local community which places a hardship on the people of the community.

The central currency of the Legislature is trust. Trust is keeping commitments and resolving the tough problems that face the citizens of the state.  We expect our representatives in Austin to solve problems and we trust that working for the common good will overcome any political differences that exist among the members of the legislature.  We trust they will ultimately do the right thing. When that trust is breached, confidence in the legislature erodes.   People seek to place blame for inaction and we become more and more polarized.  Division between the political parties causes more gridlock. With more gridlock there is less accomplished and as a result, dissatisfaction with the representation in Austin increases.  It is not surprising to see the citizens of the state view of Texas Legislature in such a negative light.

We must do better. It is imperative for the people we send to Austin to pass laws, support the Constitutional mandates like the delivery of an efficient public education system, and to do so in a spirit of cooperation and achievement.  That spirit of cooperation and achievement for the common good doesn’t exist today.  Our representatives have failed to maintain the trust they were given when elected.  It is time to change the attitudes in Austin and to not accept inaction or gridlock.  The education of our children is the most important investment we as a state can make for our future.  A good education system that is properly funded attracts companies and jobs.  It elevates the value of the communities and neighborhoods.  It gives the student the tools they need to become productive adults.  We cannot find short cuts to this issue and must do the hard work necessary to make the education system in Texas the envy of the country. 

Please remember when you vote in November that we must elect officials who have the courage, the will and the commitment to rectify the existing problems within the education system in Texas.  This is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It is an issue for all Texans and we can demand no less than a solution to this problem that provides every student in this state with the education they need.

Love Trumps Hate - Guest Contribution from Jenn G. Cohen

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I was gratified to see Salman Bhojani's win in the Euless City Council race on Saturday, especially after all the public unpleasantness that had been directed at him and his family.  I knew I had to say something about what I'd seen from Salman: how hard he worked, the energy and effort and passion he was directing at helping his community, despite some members of the community responding with fear and hatred.  I knew I had to say something about how proud I was - both of him and of the city that I live in - that he'd won, in spite of the divisiveness.  But I was struggling to find the words.  And then my friend Jenn G. Cohen wrote something on social media that said what I'd been feeling, better than I ever could.  Presented without edit, "Love Trumps Hate," by Jenn G. Cohen.

♡Love trumps Hate♡

This is a catchphrase I see pretty often, lately, and I always wonder - do people really understand what it means? We got to see it at work last night as the city council election results rolled in, and it is a truly beautiful thing, y'all.

See, what it DOESN'T mean is "the guy/party I love won, and beat the guy/party I hate." That's not it. No, ma'am .

It means that if we lead with love - love of our fellow humans and animals and planet- then love will always guide you to the right choices.

Last night it meant that a man with a genuine ♡LOVE♡ of his town and its citizens, won an election. He triumphed over a woman who openly posts about what and who she HATES.

He ran as dad concerned about his town. As an immigrant who literally personifies the American Dream, working his way up from a cash register at a gas station, all the way to becoming a lawyer and opening his own practice. He ♡LOVES♡ this country, and is proud to be here. He ♡LOVES♡ his fellow humans enough to do pro bono work with his law firm. Anyone who met this man, volunteered with his campaign, or heard him speak felt nothing but ♡LOVE♡ and light pour out of him.

His opponent was a woman who posts xenophobic rhetoric and memes. Someone who belittles and demoralizes. She was financially backed by people who believe the words "immigrant" and "Muslim" are slurs you hurl at people who are beneath you. This was a campaign fueled by HATE.

The folks in this town said loud and clear last night that hate has no home here. We won't tolerate it, we've had enough.

B asked me the other night about politics and how to vote. I told him honestly, that I won't ever tell you *how* to vote, but I will teach you *why*.

If you lead with compassion for your fellow humans, you'll make the right choices . If you vote or work to protect people, to care for them, to make sure they have the tools and the resources they need, then you'll be making the right choices.

If you vote to stand up to hate, to tell the bullies they aren't welcome here, to show the world you care, then you've done well.

This is how ♡LOVE♡ trumps HATE.

It Starts with an Idea

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It starts with an idea. It begins with the idea that something new is needed or that something that currently exists could be made better. It could also just be the idea that freedom to work for oneself is preferred over working for someone else. These ideas are the seeds of small business in the United States.  Small businesses exist in enormous numbers in this country and employ millions of people providing a product or service.  They are the generators of innovation, invention, and productivity that are the foundation of our economic system.

I've been spending a lot of time talking to small business owners in our community since I started running, and I always come away impressed with their courage and their community focus.  They're not just business owners, they're our neighbors, our fellow PTA members, and our friends.  They contribute to the community not just because it's good for business, but because they know they're a part of it.  

According to the last census, there are about 28 Million small businesses registered in the United States. The Small Business Administration indicates that roughly 60% of the 126 million people employed in the United States are employed by small businesses. 99.7% of U.S. firms with employees are small businesses. That’s 75 million people working in firms employing less than 500 people. Of those 75 Million, roughly 15 million people are either self-employed and have less than 4 people working for them. This country runs on small business. It is the life blood of our commerce and the engine of productivity in this country. Pick any industry sector: healthcare, construction, retail and food service, or technology services, and you will see millions of small businesses that are generating products and services that drive exports, consumption and progress for the United States. Roughly 48% of US GDP is driven by small business.

Here in Texas, as of 2015, small business accounted for about 45.6% of employment with more than 4.4 million jobs in the private work force. The pattern is similar across the country and shows us how important this cohort of businesses is to our overall economic health and prosperity.

Small businesses are vitally important to our communities. Irrespective of business type, small business brings diversity of thought, talent, and experience that enrich our communities in countless ways. The variety of small businesses that exist in our neighborhoods is amazing. There’s the body shop, the dry cleaner, the insurance agent or the favorite family-owned restaurant; the furniture upholsterers, real estate agents and financial advisers.  

Small businesses owners are terrific examples of the spirit of entrepreneurship that thrives in this country. It takes an enormous amount of courage to strike out on one’s own. It takes persistence, talent, patience, and often a lot of good luck to make an idea turn into a successful business. The idea that takes shape around a kitchen table, in a garage or dorm room and takes root to grow into a thriving enterprise is a dream of many who set off on this journey. McDonald’s, Microsoft, Apple, and Uber started as small companies with big ideas. While most small businesses won’t ever grow into a Fortune 100 corporation, the spirit that made fortunes for Ray Kroc, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs is the same spirit that drives the individual to start the corner store or create a new local craft-brewery. It is a spirit that should be fostered and assisted. It should be celebrated, for it turns ideas into realities and shows those coming next what is possible.

The Work Is Unfinished

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The great American playwright Eugene O’Neill once said: “There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.”  I was thinking about that as I was traveling to work this morning, on the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King.  Fifty years ago, Dr. King was in Memphis supporting sanitation workers striking for better working conditions and compensation.  His activism had expanded toward economic injustice and a fight against the war in Vietnam that in 1968 would see 15,000 American soldiers killed in battle.  It was a difficult time for him, as many of his supporters during the early days of the Civil Rights movement had abandoned him because of this focus on poverty and the war. 

Dr. King was eerily prophetic the night before his murder, when he said during the famous “Mountaintop Speech”:

 Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place.  But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!

His words from fifty years ago remind us that we still have much work to do to get to the promised land. We as a nation can never truly heal until we put aside the three evils of racism, poverty and militarism that he spoke about that night.   I see his legacy of calling out injustice alive today. His message, if anything, was that while there may be violence and injustice, there is also hope. While there may be prejudice and bigotry, there is also love.  His words are evident in the action of citizens in this country who are standing up against those ever-present darker forces that bombard us with cynicism and suspicion.  The movement towards a nation that is emblematic of, as Lincoln said, “The better angels of our nature” has been energized by recent trauma.  I see the hope and determination it in the faces of those kids from Parkland and the marchers in Ferguson. I see it in the grieving faces of those parents who have lost their children due to violence. I see it in the faces of those who teach our children, who have been forced to forego teaching in order to demand better conditions for themselves and their students.  I see it in the faces of everyone that stands up and shouts that we are not where we should be, and more work must be done to get there.  

Our turbulent times today remind us that the work is unfinished.   We need to remember that hope is the fuel that will carry us to the promised land.  There is no better honor to Dr. King’s legacy than maintaining the view that in working together we can eventually ensure a world for our children that is free from racial injustice, free from the tyranny of poverty, and free from the terror of violence.  

6:20

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Six minutes and twenty seconds. It isn’t a long time. It’s not enough time to boil an egg. It’s not enough time to get ready for work. It is such a brief period in our lives that we don’t even think about our day in such small increments of time.

It is, however, all the time it took for a madman to take the lives of seventeen people in Parkland Florida.  Six minutes and twenty seconds brought unspeakable horror to the families, friends and colleagues of those who died under a hail of gunfire delivered from a weapon of war, bought legally by a teenager who could not legally buy a beer in Florida.

That brief, almost unnoticeable part of a day changed this country. Today, on March 24th, I saw first-hand how this change is taking shape. And perhaps, this time, a difference will be made. I had the honor to march with many of my fellow Texans in Fort Worth as we, like countless cities across the nation joined with those in Washington DC to raise our voices and cry, “Enough!”

In Washington DC, a crowd reportedly numbering around 800,000 people walked together, they sang together, and they cried together. They listened as speakers, many whom were survivors of the shooting at the high school in Parkland Florida, raised their voices with righteous anger that they will no longer tolerate this insanity. These were voices of children, many touched directly by the Parkland massacre because they were there. Others, survivors of gun violence from Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and other cities across the land spoke with anguish of the brother lost or the friend severely wounded by gun violence. These voices spoke not only with pain but with hope. They spoke with determination and purpose. They spoke truth to those who hold power but fail to act. Their messages were filled with a wisdom that belied their age.

I am both inspired by these children’s words and ashamed of my generation’s inaction. For it is my generation who has failed to stop the madness. It is the acquiescence by our lawmakers to the powerful out of fear losing an election or the adoption of some perverted philosophy that tells us guns are not the problem that stalls action and allows the carnage to continue. It is the inaction of the voters who put those lawmakers in office to fight for the change so desperately needed.

Somehow our generation has become convinced this problem is unsolvable. It has been said by many that this issue is too complex or too difficult to overcome. Excuses are offered along with anemic thoughts and prayers while more people die. The excuses are bountiful and frequent. They appear like leaves fallen from a tree that cover the path toward a resolution. It is time to sweep away those excuse as one would when sweeping the leaves away from the path. It is time to remember that we have an obligation that those who come after us are to be given a better world, not one infected with chaos, tragedy and inaction.

These children speaking today have reminded us of what this country could be. They reminded us that we can redeem the collective soul of this nation by working together to make sure “Never Again!” isn’t just a slogan on a sign or a chant at a rally. It is a reality brought about by a people who care more about people than bullets, more about the future than profit, and more about our kids than an election.

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I am proud of the people I marched with today in Texas. I’m proud that our country rallied together across the nation for this day. I’m optimistic that this problem is solvable. I’m energized by these young people. I am convinced we all can see the day where we are rallying to celebrate the fact that we can’t remember the last time a child was killed by a gun.

Our young leaders speaking so eloquently today have given us our direction. Let’s heed these calls. Let’s stop making excuses. Let’s demand and deliver action so we never, ever have to talk about six minutes and twenty seconds in this context again.

A Covenant to Keep

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Just over a week ago an unspeakable tragedy occurred in a school in Parkland Florida.   14 students, and 3 adults were shot and killed by a deranged 19 year old former student.  For those of us who watched the events unfold and then witnessed the heartbreak of those who lost their children and students who lost their friends, we share a collective grief and a growing fear that our own children and friends are at risk of the same fate. 

We live in a time now when a phone call from a school is answered with a sense of dread that was rare just a short time ago.  Back then, it might have been a call about our children being sick, or missing school, or not doing well in the classroom.  Now, we face the frightening reality that a phone call may be news of something much, much worse.  No parent should ever have to take that phone call.  No teacher should have to go to work and think that it might be the last time they leave their house because someone might come to their school and kill them or their students. 

This is not the world we want for our children. This is not the world we want for our teachers who get up everyday and focus on helping prepare young students for the future.  Now, after the events in Florida, there are 14 fewer children who will have that future.  They won’t know the great achievements and set backs that come with adulthood. They won’t know the love that comes with having their own children. They won’t be here when the world changes, hopefully for the better, and we have finally seen an end to the madness that causes such sorrow.

There is evil in this world. It comes in all shapes and sizes and we have an obligation to our friends, our loved ones and ourselves to do everything we can to combat it. We must focus our efforts on making the world we live in a safer place for everyone. We must focus our efforts on finding the causes of such pain and do our best to prevent it from happening again.

As parents, and as adults our duty must be to ensure a safer world for our young.  The responsibility and obligation we have to our children is to strive to make their lives a little better.

As adults, the topic of gun violence is one with passionate points of view from different perspectives. We must put those differences aside and be singularly focused on taking whatever actions are necessary to prevent future tragedy.   Let our covenant to our children and ourselves be that our energy, our efforts, and our actions will remain vigilant and persistent to our purpose.  The time is now to ensure a future where there is less grief, less fear, and our children have an opportunity to live to see that future realized.

God bless the memories of those who lost their lives in Parkland, Florida. God bless the parents and relatives of those lost.  Our hearts go out to them.

A Flawed Survey, Chapter One: GUNS

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Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good. --Ecclesiastes 9:18

I received a very odd survey in the mail yesterday.  It was the first time I'd ever seen it, but the email said it was a "reminder," and I was given 24 hours by a megachurch in the area to fill out a survey for their "values voters guide" that would be distributed to "30,000 plus members and other churches in our communities."  It's a deeply flawed survey - let's just say it's very clear which answers they want respondents to choose, and that's Cardinal Sin Number One when trying to get an impartial result from a survey.  In addition, each of the questions is a simplification of a complicated issue that I can agree with or disagree with, but there's no text box to elaborate on my response.  So, I'm not participating on their terms, but I'd love to give you my answers to their questions, here, in a series of fun and informal posts!  I want to help this church develop a better survey instrument!  

Oddly, almost none of the questions had anything to do with Christianity or religion - being generous, I'd allow that five of the sixteen were tangentially religious questions.  The first question was definitely way outside the teachings of the Bible:

"More restrictive gun control laws are needed now to protect public safety."

(Strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, strongly disagree) 

A neutral way to phrase that question would be something along the lines of:

"In general do you feel that laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict, less strict, or kept as they are now?"

Answer: MORE STRICT.

As our massacre of the week has demonstrated to all of our heartbreak once again, what we've been doing up until now isn't working.  

Let me state clearly upfront: I'm a gun owner.  I have my LTC from the State of Texas.  I support the Second Amendment.  If you're a law-abiding citizen, I don't want your guns. 

But clearly, we have a problem.  We have more mass shootings in the US than any other country in the world has, and the competition is not even close.  First step: define the problem.  We have.  We have too many mass shootings in this country.

Step Two: define the cause of the problem.  This is the point where most of these conversations get hairy.  There are a great many opinions on this subject - I've heard it's a lack of prayer, a lack of parenting, Hollywood movies and video games, mental illness treatment, a general American decline in morals or increase in soullessness, but the answer is really simple: we have an astounding number of guns in this country.

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Take a look at this scatter plot graph from the New York Times,* all the countries of the world, their mass shootings per capita on the vertical, and the number of guns per capita on the horizontal.  I don't know of any way to look at this data and come up with any other conclusion besides, "The more guns a country's residents have, the more mass shootings they'll have."  Please do tell me if there's any other conclusion we could draw from this, I'm all ears!  Yemen is an outlier, fewer guns per capita than us, but more mass shootings per capita - though in terms of sheer number of mass shootings, we've got them beat by a country mile: 90 to 11.  Other countries have mental health problems, and violent video games, and bad parenting.  No other country has this many guns per person, and no other country has this many mass shootings. 

So we've defined the problem we have (too many mass shootings) and we have what looks like a cause (too many guns).  What's the solution?

I think we should start with instituting universal background checks throughout the country, and ensuring that those checks are followed to the letter.  We also need to ensure that the consequences for not following them are economically dire.  The person and the business entity responsible for selling a weapon to someone that didn't pass a check should be civilly and criminally liable for every death caused by that weapon.  Those convicted of violent crimes - especially including spousal abuse, the most common precursor to a mass shooting - should not be able to pass a background check.   

Also, this is at its core an economic problem: the full cost to society of this many guns is not being paid by those who manufacture them, or those who sell them, or those who purchase them.  The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), a law passed in 2005 to shield the makers of guns from any liability should their products be used illegally, must be repealed.  No other industry gets this kind of protection.  We should also add taxes to the manufacture, sale and purchase of firearms - all three economic activities - to reduce the economic appeal of manufacturing them, selling them, or purchasing them.  Here's the kicker: those taxes must be earmarked to only be used to further mental healthcare in this country.  More clinics, more hospitals, cheaper medications, and better insurance coverage for all.  We could also use the revenue for voluntary buy-back programs, with the stipulation that the weapons bought back be destroyed.

I'll anticipate the next argument, "But Steve, these policies would not have stopped Nikolas Cruz!"  We should not be trying to stop Nikolas Cruz - that happened this past Wednesday.  It's too late to stop.  We should be trying to stop the next mass shooting, or the one after that, or the next twenty-two mass shootings.  By reducing guns over time, we'll reduce mass shootings.  The time for thoughts and prayers has passed.  It's time for action. 

*https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/07/world/americas/mass-shootings-us-international.html

 

 

Who I'm Running For

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I’m running for the teacher who told me she’s wondering whether the next cut to education funding in this state will be enough to cause her to lose her job.

I’m running for the woman who told me that, even though she’s morally opposed to abortion herself, it breaks her heart that the state has gone so far trying to reduce abortions and that they've caused the deaths of women that couldn’t find post-natal healthcare they could afford. 

I’m running for the neighbor who told me he longs for a return to the time when statesmen worked together and compromised.

I’m running for the Muslim woman who told me she’s had moments of fear about wearing the hijab in public, lately – but she always does anyway, because it’s what she believes. 

I’m running for the small business owner who wondered aloud why the Enterprise Fund is only used to attract big businesses to Texas, when small businesses are the real engine of our state’s economy.

I’m running for the woman in Euless who asked me “why nobody talks about the earthquakes anymore.” 

I’m running for the philanthropist that showed me how businesses, charities and local governments can work together to make life better for everyone in the community.

I’m running for the woman that told me how the “war on drugs” has negatively affected her family because she occasionally smokes marijuana, while dangerous “legal” prescription drugs are tearing at the fabric of society.  “What’s the real problem here?”

I’m running for the conservative that told me that he doesn’t agree with the direction of the state, and that the legislature only listens to the wealthy now, not to the little guys.

I’m running for the high school principal that told me he’s losing some of his best teachers, because they’re doing the math and discovering they can’t retire with the benefits they’re offered.

I’m running for the police chief that told me that he and his officers spend the majority of their time preemptively visiting people with mental health issues that our society has forgotten to ensure they’re taking their medications.  “I don’t know what the solution is, but we’re not even having the conversation,” he said.

I’m running for the transgender high school student, who told me how tired he is of having to defend who he is to people that won’t listen, and how frustrated he’s become with a state government that wants to score political points by making his life harder. 

I’m running for everyone who’s felt left out and silenced by “the way things are.”  I’m running for everyone that thinks their voice isn’t being heard by the people whose job it is to listen.  I’m running for everyone that’s given up on politics, because they believed that someone that speaks for them in this democracy isn’t a thing they would ever see. 

I’m NOT running for billionaires that don’t live here – there are already plenty of politicians falling all over themselves to represent them.  If you live in this district, I’m running to represent you.  

Why Diversity Matters

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"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."  -Sir Isaac Newton, 1675

Diversity matters because it’s responsible for every innovation humanity has ever made, and will be responsible for every innovation of the future.

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“Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond is one of my all-time favorite books.  If you love to study history, you must read this book!  The central question is this: why did the technology of Eurasian landmass and Northern Africa develop so much more quickly than the rest of the world, to the degree that those cultures were able to dominate all the other cultures of the world, like the Americas, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Oceania?  The answer to such a complicated question is obviously also complicated, but the answer is definitely NOT “because the peoples of Europe and Asia are naturally smarter, and work harder.”  It’s actually because they were just very lucky, geographically speaking, to have started out where they did. 

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It’s because of the layout of the landmasses.  Eurasia is one long horizontal continent with a wide band of similar climates from Portugal to Korea.  Agriculture – the engine of civilization – could, and did, spread across that band like an information superhighway.  The seasons are similar in China and Spain, and in most every town in between them.  The seasons are not similar in Canada and Mexico, or in Colombia and Argentina, or in New Zealand and Hawaii, so the farming has to be very different, and the techniques can't be easily shared.  Here’s how it worked in Ancient Eurasia: a farmer in ancient Turkey notices that, by strapping a plow to an auroch, he can plow his field twice as fast.  A vagabond traveling from town to town sees the farmer doing this, and when the vagabond arrives in the next town to the east, he goes to the market and says, “Hey, you know those big cow things you have in a pen over there so you can eat them later?  The people over in Abu Hurayra are using them to plow fields!  I’ll show you how if you buy me a beer.”  These little (and big) innovations in food production spread along the geographical band over the course of a few thousand years.  Efficiency improvements led to extra food.  Extra food meant not everyone had to farm, which created priests, poets, blacksmiths, soldiers, and sailors.  That job specialization created every innovation there ever was.  In short: civilization as we know it.  Those innovations continued to spread for thousands of years, from the ancient Han Empire in China to the Roman Empire along that same geographic band, now dubbed “The Silk Road” by the Romans – because that’s where the silk came from. 

People living on landmasses that were “cut off” from other cultures by mountain ranges, or different climates, or oceans – didn’t develop as quickly because the innovation couldn’t spread as far, and there weren’t as many different cultures with different ideas contributing to the conversation. 

There's a myth about invention and innovation that we generally believe, that it occurs as a result of one brilliant person creating something wholly unique out of absolutely nothing.  The truth is that every invention ever is a culmination of the work of many different people that came before - as Newton said, he had the advantage of the giants' shoulders to stand on. 

That’s why diversity matters: not so much for the campfire “Kumbaya” harmony, but because the interaction of different cultures moves humanity forward.  Giving everyone a chance to speak, and listening to what they say, especially when their perspective is different from yours: that can change the world.  Look around you – all that we have is a result of that conversation.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York:Norton, 1999.

"I don't care about politics. . ."

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"What is called "apathy" is, I believe, a feeling of helplessness on the part of the ordinary citizen, a feeling of impotence in the face of enormous power. It's not that people are apathetic; they do care about what is going on, but don't know what to do about it, so they do nothing, and appear to be indifferent."  --Howard Zinn

In my years in the trenches of political volunteering, I've spent a great deal of time going door to door, and making phone calls to strangers, on behalf of several candidates that sought to do some positive works in the world.  Before November of last year, one of the most common responses I'd hear from people - and frankly, one of the most frustrating! - was:

"I don't care about politics."

Granted, in the past year, I don't hear that response nearly as often as I used to in prior years!  But I wonder: is it because the average person does now care about politics, since the consequences of political apathy are now so clear, or is it that the average person sees so many around them suddenly caring about politics that apathy seems no longer on trend?  

I believe it's the former.  I've seen many signs since I started out on this path that point to a level of engagement this area has never seen.  It's my conviction that more people care about the process of democracy in this country today than did fourteen months ago.  But for those that still - secretly or publicly - feel that they don't care about politics, let me assure you of one thing:

Politics cares very much about YOU.

Those in power care very much if you aren't paying attention - in fact they prefer it that way.  They care very much if you only care about one, emotionally-charged subject that has no impact on your everyday lives - it makes you very easy to distract.  And they know, and they especially care, if you're not voting at all.  Here's why: if you're not voting, your opinion has no weight in their calculations.  They're watching you very closely, and breathing a sigh of relief when you don't show up.

In 2016 in District 92, 61,497 voters showed up to make their voices heard - a number that broke all previous records for our area.  In the previous three presidential-year elections, there were 60,110 (2012), 61,098 (2008) and 57,571 (2004).  In midterm years, like 2018, our district's average votes cast for the past three years have averaged around 34,000.  There are currently an estimated 120,000 citizens of voting age living in the district.  This means that in an average midterm election year, the candidate is chosen by less than a third of the people that could choose.  The other two thirds of you, politics cares about you.  And they very much want you to continue as you've been!

Maybe you don't care about politics, but you do care about your children's education, your safety on our streets, your ability to get a job (or keep one), or clean water and air.  All of these things are directly impacted by your state legislature.  Presidential elections make a big splash and a lot of noise in the media, but their impact on your everyday lives is markedly less than the impact of midterm elections. 

Maybe you feel like your vote is too small to make a difference.  Did you know: in a district in Western Dallas County last year, a House race was decided by 64 out of 47,000 votes! 

Or maybe you feel that it's too big for you to take on.  I can understand that - but that's only true of JUST YOU.  It's not true of all of us together.  All of us together can change the world.

So let's surprise them this year.  Let's show them how much this electorate cares. 

 

. . .and a Happy New Year!

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Friends, as we see the dawning of a new year, our politics must also begin anew.  For the last two years we have seen the worst in our political system. The demeaning and divisive comments by many of the candidates in the 2016 election took center stage over the issues we must face together as a nation. When one group would bring up an issue such as race, the response was to act as if there was nothing wrong and deride the person bringing up the issue as a whiner or accuse them of "Identity Politics!", a term invented to make the group or person highlighting a problem seem small or worse, radical and out of the mainstream.  When a person or group would bring up income inequality, opponents would cry "Class Warfare!", or worse, that the group of people hurt by inequality were shiftless and lazy.  When one group would point out that the healthcare system needs attention and support, others would attack a program designed to help people as "a disaster" that must be ended - but offer no credible alternative.

We are better than this. The issues facing us in 2018 are challenging. Many seem intractable insofar that they have been with us for decades with little focus paid to them by our elected officials.  We must rethink our approach. Instead of demagoguery, we must have debate. Instead of deferment we must have decision. We must come together regardless of political ideology and tackle the great challenges with unity and purpose. Our cause should be a common cause; no child should go hungry, be homeless, be uneducated, or be unsafe.  Our efforts in the legislature should focus on those least able to help themselves and bring the full force of our ideas, our passions and our intelligence toward achieving the hopes of every parent in this state: Making our children's lives better.

Hope for a better life fuels innovation, it fuels compassion, it fuels positive action for our families and our neighbors.  Let us declare a covenant to each other that we will not be distracted or deterred. Let us put away petty grievances that cause division when there should be common effort. Let us begin today and establish a cycle of progress that becomes so momentous, that when we finally see those hopes realized, we will have established a legacy that our children will be proud of.

I wish you all great success in the coming year. Let's get to work.

Merry Christmas!

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Friends, this time of the year is a special one. Most of us will have an opportunity to spend some quality time with family and friends, remember those no longer with us, reflect on the opportunities and challenges we faced in the last year, and plan for the new ones we will see in the coming year.

Many of us also celebrate the birth of a young child who as an adult would change the world with a message of hope, charity and forgiveness to all. This time of year, perhaps more than any other, reminds us that it is love and hope that powers our efforts toward feeding the hungry, healing the sick, comforting those in distress, and making the world a better place for our children. Ours is a great community, we have so much generosity and compassion as a people.

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Chrystal respects my annual tradition of watching "It's a Wonderful Life" on Christmas Eve after the kids are in bed and Santa's errands are complete, but that doesn't mean she won't give me a gentle hard time towards the end of the movie, when I get a little misty-eyed - every year! - as all of George Bailey's friends show up to remind him how rich he truly is.  That's what Christmas means to me: a time to appreciate the true value of our friends, our families, and our community; all the people that surround us that make this life so wonderful.

Let's work together this holiday season and in the coming new year to help all of our children, regardless of economic circumstances, realize their dreams. Chrystal and I, along with our children, wish you a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Patchworks of Local Regulations

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In 2014, the City of Denton had a problem: natural gas pad sites were springing up all over town.  There were over 300 gas wells within city limits alone.   By that time, the connection between fracking and seismic activity had been scientifically well-established, so Denton’s citizens were concerned.  They decided to act: they participated in democracy at a neighborhood level.  They gathered enough petition signatures to put a ban on fracking within city limits on the ballot.  Despite aggressive tactics from industry groups – they outspent the ban supporters by 10 to 1 in trying to persuade voters not to adopt the ban - the measure passed by a wide margin:  59% to 41% in November of that year.  It was a classic case of grassroots effort beating corporate money in a democratic contest.

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There was a victory party, but the victory was short-lived.  The next day, the Texas Oil and Gas Association filed a petition for injunctive relief, and the following May, the Texas Legislature passed HB 40, the compellingly-named “Relating to the exclusive jurisdiction of this state to regulate oil and gas operations in this state and the express preemption of local regulation of those operations.” 

Upon signing, Governor Greg Abbott said the intent of the bill was to prevent “a patchwork of local regulations” from preventing oil and gas production. 

I’m a businessman.  “A patchwork of local regulations” is one of those environmental factors that a business has to learn to deal with, or perish.  Any business that can’t manage its way around a patchwork of local regulations has no right to be in business.  I suspect that oil and gas companies have sufficient internal resources to manage patchworks, and if they don’t, they can afford to hire a patchwork analyst.

When it comes to a community’s people determining for themselves how to manage their natural resources versus corporations using outsized power to put the kibosh on democracy – folks, I may be a businessman, but I’m always going to side with democracy.

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The war on local control has continued since: the 85th legislative session saw multiple state-led attacks on local control on several fronts, from trees to bathrooms to ride-sharing applications, but most particularly on a community’s ability to raise property taxes if needed – a need that’s ironically been made more acute in the past few years as the state reduces its contributions to public education, but that’s another blog topic! – and the legislative approach from Abbott and the Legislature has been directive, not cooperative.  I believe there’s a better way: the relationship between the state and the communities that it serves should be an ongoing negotiation.  I further believe that in issues of natural resources, the community’s voice should carry the most weight.  Those closest to a resource know best how it should be used.  Their voices should be heard.  

My Duty to Walter

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Our companion animals enrich our lives daily, as they have for thousands of years.  Who knows where humanity would have ended up if not for our companionship with animals?  

I have a great relationship with my dog, Walter.  He makes it easy, since he's probably one of the most chill dogs in the universe!  I'll never forget the day he became a member of our family: we went to an adoption event in the parking lot of the Bass Pro Shops in Grapevine, and I was walking around while the rest of the Riddell crew was looking at cats.  Walter was in an enclosure and had been all morning, according to the staffers there, just lying back and watching people walk by, but as soon as he saw me, he stood up and cried to be let out.  It's like he'd seen an old friend.  I went over and met him, and he was the friendliest guy, laid back but excited to meet me.  They put him on a leash and I took him over to meet my wife and kids; he snuggled up against them immediately.  All of us just knew right away that we belonged together - Walter included.  The rest of the family is convinced he's a Tibetan Terrier, but I think he's an adorable mutt.  Whatever the breed, he's terrific.  

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I'm not sure who gets more out of the relationship, Walter or us.  But we as a family understand that the relationship isn't all fun - there are responsibilities as well.  We know that Walter considers us his pack, and since dogs are unhappy outside their pack, we make an effort to make sure he isn't without one of his pack being around him for too long.  When all four of us are home, his joy is obvious

Animals have no voice of their own, and can't speak for themselves.  When we enter into a relationship with them, it's our responsibility to treat them humanely.  

Last session, State Rep. Sarah Davis (R) of West University introduced HB1156, a bill intended to "prohibit a person from tethering a dog outside with a chain or with a restraint that has weights or is shorter than five times the length of the dog. In addition, a dog could be restrained to a stationary object only if the dog has access to a clean and sturdy shelter, shade and water and if the area is dry."  The existing laws had no real penalties.  Davis' bill, if enacted, would have made tethering for extended periods a Class C misdemeanor, with a fine of up to $500.  It enjoyed bipartisan support and support from law enforcement.  But the bill was killed via parliamentary measures as part of the "Mother's Day Massacre" of non-controversial bills by the Freedom Caucus - the full story is here:

http://www.thln.org/the_tethering_story

It's an issue that needs to be addressed, and I'd like to reintroduce the bill in the next session with Rep. Davis's support and cooperation.  

Statues and Flags

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I was talking to a friend of mine last night – you might say it was more of a rant! - about the buzz around the NFL’s “will they take a knee during the Anthem or won’t they?” kerfuffle.  I said, “It seems like for months now, while really important things are happening, all people want to talk about are flags and statues.  North Korea claims we’ve declared war against them.  Congress is trying to destroy the healthcare system without a decent replacement again this week.  Puerto Rico has been devastated and has no means of rebuilding itself without assistance.  There was another shooting at a church yesterday.  But all anyone can talk about today is whether NFL players are being sufficiently respectful to our National Anthem!  What matters now is the same thing that has always mattered: who gets access?  Who gets access to natural resources, and capital, and representation in the government?  These other things don’t matter at all, they won’t make one ounce of difference in anyone’s lives, but people are having disproportionate responses to them, at every point along the political spectrum.  I don’t get it!”

My friend, who’s a fairly wise man, said calmly, “Steve, flags and statues are symbols, and symbols matter.  Symbols matter a lot.” 

I’ve been thinking about it ever since!  And of course, he’s right.

I’ve been thinking about what the symbols mean, and realizing that the way we talk about the symbols enables us to talk, as a society, about the meanings behind the symbols without speaking directly about them, and that transference enables us to address very difficult topics. 

A statue is far more than a lifeless hunk of bronze, it’s on a pedestal: it’s literally a depiction of someone you are intended to look up to.  When people speak about statues of generals in the Confederacy, they’re not discussing history or what really caused a conflict that began over a hundred and fifty years ago – even though that’s what they’re saying on the surface.  What they’re really talking about is access.  For people that think in terms of race, or assume that their genetic material has any bearing on their destinies - personally, I don’t, but I know many people in this country do – the predictions of demographic trends are frightening.  If demographic trends continue, sometime around 2045, non-Hispanic Caucasians will be a minority in the United States.  I believe we’ll be stronger as a nation when that day comes, because maybe by then we’ll have moved beyond judging others by their skin color – a person can dream!  For people that still think in terms of race, though, it’s a cause to worry about whether “people like me” will have access to the same opportunities.  It’s telling that the tiki torch marchers in Charlottesville were chanting (among other things), “You will not replace us.”  To them, the removal of a lifeless hunk of bronze was a metaphor for the erasure of their own identity, because they’d based the core of their identity on the color of their skin.  The challenge for all of us is, how can we, as a society, get people to stop thinking of “people like me” in terms of skin color – how do we change that population to “fellow human beings?”  Maybe that’s why we’re having passionate conversations about statues: because we can’t yet answer that question.

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Also, think about what those statues raised during periods of racial strife mean to people whose family histories include slavery.  They are invited to look up to people that fought and died to keep their ancestors in a system that defined their ancestors as three fifths of a human.  It doesn’t matter physically to them now, but as a symbol, it says, “The people that fought to dehumanize your ancestors are worthy of emulation.”  What message does that send about their own access to dignity, or the value of their own history?  Who is given access to history, those that oppressed and lost the right to oppress, or those that survived the oppression?

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NFL players were kneeling during the Anthem to make a statement about access to justice, at first, and subsequently to make a statement about access to free speech.   For some, this is a legitimate expression for concern for a trend in our society, namely, that African Americans in the United States are three times more likely to be killed by police officers than white people.  For others, any type of protest is excessively demanding or ungrateful, and is met with outsized hostility.   Think of how popular the topic of running over protesters became – and how popular it remained, even after it happened in real life. 

When we discuss the details of the salaries of NFL players, or how established the tradition of standing for the anthem is at NFL games, or whether the action disrespects the military, or whether it’s “the right time” to protest, the question we’re dodging is: who has access to justice in America?  Those that support the knee believe there’s still unequal access to justice in this country for some, based on the color of their skin.  Those that are incensed by the knee fundamentally believe there’s no inequality of access to justice for that reason.  But because this subject is so difficult to raise and discuss rationally, we speak about the details around the knee – passionately.  How do we get past talking about the surface topic of standing for the Anthem, and instead talk about the things that matter?

When can we as a people start having honest conversations?

Repeal HB 1774

Joint Statement from North Texas House Candidates:

September 1st, 2017 – We urge Governor Abbott to convene a special session to repeal HB 1774. This new law weakens homeowner protections and homeowner remedies when an insurance company acts improperly in paying their weather-related claims. As Texans and Americans, we can all agree that the families devastated by Hurricane Harvey deserve to be paid every penny they are due from insurance companies so that they can begin rebuilding their lives.

Without repealing this disastrous law, thousands of Texas families already devastated by Hurricane Harvey may be open to further victimization by predatory insurance practices. The Texas Legislature must act now to ensure every family can rebuild their lives and communities.

The Undersigned

Michelle Beckley for HD 65 @ForHD65

Sarah Depew for HD 67  @SarahHD67

Steve Riddell for HD 92 @S_RiddellTX92

Nancy Bean for HD 93 @NancyBean4TX

Beth Llewellyn McLaughlin for HD 97 @beth4TX97

Mica Ringo for HD 98 @ringofortexas

Brandy K. Chambers for HD 112 @BrandyforTexas

What Unites Us

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I'd like to tell you about an incident I had a few months back on social media.  I noticed a friend with substantially different political views from mine, posting what I suppose must have been, in retrospect, a rhetorical question about "liberals and how they think." I replied to it, politely, respectfully and intelligently, assuming he'd asked the question because he wanted to understand a perspective that differed from his own.  One of his friends replied to my comment with ANGRY COMMENTS IN ALL CAPS that weren't quite as well-reasoned as my own, from my perspective, but I took the time and trouble to respond to them politely, maintaining my desire to be informative and get to a place of civil discourse.  My friend deleted the entire thread.  I reached out to him privately and expressed remorse that my wish to be informative had caused so much conflict.  I told him that it was important to me to retain connections with people of differing opinions, because that's increasingly necessary today, and he agreed.  The next day, he sent a note out that he was "taking a break from social media" because he hated it, and was unfriending everyone, but it was nothing personal.  It's a small world, though, so I still see his comments on the posts of mutual friends.  I suspect he may have only unfriended people that weren't like-minded with respect to politics - or maybe he just unfriended me, that's certainly possible!

From where I sit, the most dangerous trend in America is our increasing tribalism.  To the greatest degree in our country's history since the Civil War, we're separating ourselves into factions and demonizing the people on the other side.  We no longer think of ourselves as "We the People," it's becoming "us versus them."  In the conversations I've had so far in this campaign, with people of all political stripes, I hear occasional comments like, "I wouldn't vote for a Democrat if my life depended on it," or, "This is proof that all Republicans are evil."  More often, though, the people I talk to express an eager desire to return to civil discourse, to elect politicians that work cooperatively for the betterment of the community, and who listen to all the people they represent, not just the people they agree with.

The unifying potential of the technology of connection that has sprung up in the past thirty years has become little more than a lost opportunity, and it isn't the fault of the technology.  The fault lies in our humanity and its clash with that technology - the two gears of human nature and technology are grinding up against each other with sub-optimal results.  

When we first started climbing up the evolutionary ladder, human beings could not survive as "rugged individualists" - we needed our group to eat and live through winter.  Over millennia, we passed along the genetic traits of sensitivity to the opinions of others - because insensitive jerks tended to get kicked out of the cave to be eaten by saber-tooths.  In the centuries since, the people that were aware of social cues tended to get more dates than those that weren't and thus, passed on that awareness to their children.  It's so refined in us now to seek the positive approval of our peers, and the corollary, to fear the disapproval, that scientists have noticed that people receiving social criticism - being told, "No, you're wrong" – show activity in the same part of their brains as physical pain appears.  Scientists believe that’s why so many people fear public speaking: it’s an entire roomful of peers that might disapprove of us and kick us out of the cave!  We feel like we must seek and retain the approval of our group to survive - even though that survival is not as threatened as it was twenty thousand years ago.  Our brains can't tell the difference.  

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At the same time, technology is shrinking the world at an accelerating rate.  When you can sit down at any computer and immediately communicate with any person in front of a computer in Ho Chi Minh City or Helsinki or Harare, how do you define "our group?" Some people react to this inevitable world-shrinkage with hostility and alarm, and they lash out at the people getting closer to them.  We've seen evidence of this in such diverse places as Mosul and Charlottesville, in Richmond and Urumqi.  Some people want their groups to remain small and very specific.  Larger groups present a greater risk of social pain.  

The "public square" used to be a physical place, an actual public square, and it was a place you had to go to conduct personal business, hear the latest news, interact with the state and socialize with your peers - where is that place now?  All of these functions have moved - either partially or completely - into online places.  When the public square was physical, you had to interact with people you disagreed with - there was no avoiding them.  You had to be civil, and you had to listen to your neighbors, even when you disagreed with them.  

Technology changed all that.  We now have the ability to self-select our public squares.  We can watch news catered to our opinions.  Media corporations have happily responded to the demand for programming that prevents us having to feel the pain of being wrong about our beliefs.  We can remove from the square all of the people that might disagree with us, and live happily in a cocoon of comforting agreement.

But of course it doesn't make us happy.  Most often these cocoons enrage us, because they render us less able to hear the ideas of people that are different, and that acting against our instincts to build communities and cooperate - it frustrates us, because we know it's wrong.  I believe we must work past the pain and fear of hearing differing opinions, and start working together to build the world we all want, our mutual goal of a world of peace, opportunity and cooperation.  

I'm a Democrat, and proud of it, but I seek out the opinions of people that aren't.  I make it a monthly mission to check the websites of media outlets far to the right of my position.  I cherish the friendships I have with people that disagree with me, and I love a spirited but civil debate.  One of my primary motivations for being in this race is to bring back the kinds of conversations we had, as a people, in the public square.  As a people, as a nation, and as a state, we have to see ourselves as - in precisely this order - fellow humans, fellow Americans, and fellow Texans.  

Citizenship in the Community

Citizenship in the Community

My son and I just finished working on his Boy Scout merit badge for Citizenship in the Community.  I really enjoyed spending the time with him, sharing my passion for one of my favorite topics.  We had an extended conversation during the process about the difference between being “a citizen” and being “a good citizen.” 

Texas Roots

My 3-x-great grandfather Sheridan Riddell was the eleventh child of the big boss of Gilmer, West Virginia. Sheridan was born in 1829. The records don’t show when Sheridan moved to Texas, but he was there by 1859, when he married Nancy Oxford in Erath County. The records don’t show why he moved there either, but I imagine as the youngest of eleven children...