AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The race for Texas Governor is hitting a high gear. You’ve probably noticed more ads on air and online, as well as more phone calls and texts from the campaigns.
For Beto O’Rourke, the campaign has new urgency. A poll released last week from the University of Houston and Texas Southern University shows him behind Governor Greg Abbott. In the poll, Abbott has support from 49% of likely Texas voters. O’Rourke trails with 42% support.
O’Rourke faced an uphill battle from the start, like any Democrat running statewide. It has been nearly three decades since a Democrat last won a statewide election in Texas.
But no Democrat in recent years has campaigned like O’Rourke. In his 2018 bid for U.S. Senate against Republican Ted Cruz, O’Rourke traveled to every county in Texas. O’Rourke lost to Cruz. The margin of victory was 2.6%, the closest U.S. Senate race in Texas since 1978.
O’Rourke is taking a similar approach in his campaign for Governor. He just wrapped up a 7-week long “Drive for Texas” that included stops in big cities friendly to Democrats and rural communities in Republican-dominated areas of the state.
He’s faced hecklers at many stops. But O’Rourke says it’s important to bring his message to all Texans, even those who may not support him.
“When we show up and talk about the things that we’re going to do to make Texas better for all of us, we win votes. But you’ve got to show up,” O’Rourke said.
Along the way, O’Rourke has built up a network of volunteers. Now, he’s relying on them to mobilize untapped votes in every pocket of the state.
“The only way we will win is you. It’s not me,” O’Rourke told a crowd at a rally in Lockhart.
He’s tapping volunteers like Alice Wilson to help get Democratic-leaning voters to the polls, who may have stayed home in previous elections in a red state like Texas.
“This state has been Republican for so long that people don’t feel like their vote matters,” Wilson said at the Lockhart rally. “But this year, we know it does,” she added.
O’Rourke echoed that hope in an interview after the rally.
“The very people who’ve been drawn out of our democracy will provide the margin of victory on election night,” O’Rourke said.
In the interview following the Lockhart rally, O’Rourke made the case that many Texans support the ideas he’s touting on the campaign trail.
“People want to make sure we restore protections for every Texas woman to make her own decisions about her own body. That’s about as universal as we get,” O’Rourke said. He has released campaign ads critical of Gov. Abbott’s work to ban abortions in Texas, with no exception for cases of rape or incest.
O’Rourke says his positions reflect what he’s hearing from Texans as he campaigns around the state.
“Voters want to make sure that we prioritize the lives of our kids in our classrooms, they know that we can do better on reducing gun violence in Texas,” he said, highlighting an issue that became a key part of his campaign in the aftermath of the Uvalde school shooting.
O’Rourke said education is also on the minds of the people he’s spoken with in his travels across Texas.
“Other common issues I hear are investing in our public schools, stopping Greg Abbott’s effort to turn our tax dollars into vouchers and destroy public education in Texas,” O’Rourke said.
He added that health care is a big concern he’s hearing from voters.
“They want us to expand Medicaid, so more people can fill a prescription, go to a mental health care provider be healthy enough well enough to live to their full potential,” O’Rourke said. He believes these issues cut across party lines.
“There may be some things that we argue on, but on this much, there’s common ground. And as governor, that’s what I’m going to pursue,” O’Rourke said near the end of the interview.
Nexstar extended the same interview opportunity to Gov. Abbott. His office sent a written statement.
The contrast in this race couldn’t be clearer. More Texans are working today than ever before. Gov. Abbott is running for re-election to secure the future of Texas through increased job creation and economic opportunity for all Texans. Expand energy production to lower gas prices, cut property taxes, secure the border and keep our communities safe by fully funding Texas law enforcement. In contrast, Beto O’Rourke supports open borders, defunding the police, raising property taxes and extreme energy policies.
Gov. Abbott’s office statement
Active shooter policy changed in wake of Uvalde, according to DPS emails
Emails from the Texas Department of Public Safety director show the agency has changed its active shooter policy following the school shooting in Uvalde where 19 kids and two teachers were murdered.
Texas Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, provided the emails to KXAN after they were released in a public records request he filed.
In a July 20 email, DPS Director Steve McCraw said the agency’s officers will be “authorized to overcome any delay to neutralizing an attacker.”
The director went on to say DPS officers must treat the matter as an active shooter situation when a subject fires a weapon at a school — until the person is detained or killed.
In July, DPS said an internal committee would review the actions of every trooper, special agent and Texas Ranger who responded to Robb Elementary to determine if officers violated policy or their rapid response training, according to the same email.
Already, five DPS law enforcement officers have been referred to the Office of Inspector General where a formal investigation into their actions that day will take place. Two of those five officers have been suspended with pay pending the outcome of the OIG investigation.
Officers waited more than an hour before entering the classroom where the 18-year-old shooter killed 21 people. 376 law enforcement officers, including 91 DPS officers, from across the state arrived on scene during that time, according to a report from a Texas House Committee.
The only other agency that had more officers respond to the school was U.S. Border Patrol, which had 149 officers show up during the shooting.
“Although I remain highly critical of the decision to treat the incident as a barricaded subject by the ranking Consolidated Independent School District police official at the scene, DPS and other agencies must also be held accountable for their actions or inactions,” McCraw said in the email.
Uvalde CISD Police Chief Pete Arredondo was first in command in the case of an active shooter situation at any of the schools, according to the district safety plan.
Arredondo drew criticism from McCraw in the weeks following the shooting for treating the scene as a response to a barricaded subject, instead of an active shooter.
An active shooter distinction would have required officers to enter the classroom and stop the shooter immediately.
Arredondo said previously he did not know he was the commanding officer during the shooting. The school board has since fired him from his position as police chief.
The review of DPS officers is being conducted by an internal committee led by the Deputy Director of Law Enforcement Services Jeoff Williams. The committee also includes members of the Office of the Inspector General, according to the email.
McCraw said the ongoing Texas Rangers criminal investigation is also looking into the actions of officers who responded to the elementary school.
Screaming for help; river risk rises for migrants trying to reach south Texas
A group of migrants screamed and flailed as a woman nearly went under as she tried to cross the swollen Rio Grande from Piedras Negras, Mexico, into Eagle Pass, Texas on Sunday night, in an area where nine migrants died just days before.
Border Report witnessed as one woman hung onto a concrete pillar under the international bridge for about 20 minutes as the sun was setting. She screamed in Spanish that she could not hang on and was held upright by flimsy yellow arm floaties.
She had been part of a group of migrants that had been waiting for over six hours to cross the Rio Grande from Mexico into Eagle Pass, a popular area for migrant crossings, a Maverick County constable told Border Report.
The group of over 20 migrants included mostly Cubans and Venezuelans who had waited at the water’s edge. As the sun began to set around 7 p.m., Mexican police moved toward them, leaving them few choices: Surrender and face deportation or try to cross the swirling river.
They chose to swim.
But the current was so swift that they were immediately carried downstream as soon as they entered the water.
They tried to lift the children above their heads but most appeared to be just bobbing heads, kept barely above water, as their bodies were engulfed in the brown, murky water.
The group tried to stick together. But bit by bit they broke apart.
They swirled downstream as tiny dots in the river.
Two young men also were stranded at the bridge pillar, but they were able to quickly hoist themselves up and watched the water below. After they caught their breath, they swam for the U.S. shore and were safe.
The stranded woman, however, had a far more difficult time.
She held on and twirled helplessly at the base of the bridge as darkness moved over the region.
Screams pierced the air as children and other migrants on the embankment yelled, “ayuda!” for U.S. and Mexican officials to
Mexicans gathered on the grassy banks across the river watched the scenario play out.
On the U.S. side, passersby recorded on cellphones, while Texas National Guard stationed on the banks watched the scene unfold.
A boat came and tried to get close to her, but its wake caused the water to rise and she went under for a second.
More screams from children pierced the air.
Finally, someone provided the migrants with a red round flotation device and they tied long ropes together and formed a human chain and waded back into the water and were able to get the ring to the woman who was dragged to safety.
Cheers and high-fives penetrated the night air as the migrants hugged one another and smiled and threw fists into the air.
Tori Rogers, a Marine and aspiring documentarian from Dublin, Georgia, watched horrified as the woman struggled. And she smiled with relief when she was pulled to shore.
“We’ve seen a lot of celebrations when people make it across but what we just witnessed with her almost drowning is sad and that people are willing to risk their lives to come here. I feel like there needs to be a better way,” said Rogers, 44.
“She is very lucky because the water is very high right now. It’s just so sad,” she said.
After a summer of extreme drought, the Rio Grande is now up 5 feet, according to the National Weather Service.
More rains are expected in the next three days for the area that is soaked from nearly 5 inches in the past three days.
But more troubling, according to the National Weather Service, is the heavy rains in West Texas that are sending large amounts of water this way. Six to 8 inches of rainfall has struck West Texas over the last 10 days.
Border Patrol Chief Patrol Agent Jason Owens, of the Del Rio Sector, this weekend issued an urgent warning for migrants not to try to cross.
“This is a warning of extreme importance; the currents of the Rio Grande have become more dangerous due to recent and continuing rainfall and more rain is forecasted for the coming week. Despite these adverse conditions, U.S. Border Patrol, Del Rio Sector continues to encounter large groups of more than 100+, 200+ attempting to cross the Rio Grande daily,” Owens said.
“In an effort to prevent further loss of life, we are asking everyone to please avoid crossing illegally,” Owens said.
That didn’t stop 21-year-old Gabriel Andreas Rodriguez Sanchez and Jose Rojas Contreras, 38, of Venezuela who waded across Monday morning.
Both said in unison the river was “fuerte” (strong) and they said it was fierce.
But they said it was worth the risk.
“We want a better future,” Rodriguez Sanchez said as he sat shirtless and with soaking shorts on the muddy banks.
“There is nothing for us in our country,” Rojas Contreras said just moments before the pair were put into a Border Patrol vehicle and taken away.
At the southern border, Title 42 remains in place, preventing migrants from crossing and claiming asylum. However, migrant advocates tell Border Report that those from countries to which the United States is unable to repatriate them back, such as Cuba and Venezuela, typically are released by the Department of Homeland Security, and that is what prompts them to continue to come.
Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber says his deputies work double assisting federal and state authorities with migrants who enter the country illegally, as well as keeping his South Texas community safe.
“My deputies are working to stop vehicles with smuggling of aliens, they’re picking up aliens, immigrants. It’s a double job. It’s a lot of stress on my deputies,” Schmerber told Border Report.
Schmerber sat down with Border Report on Tuesday at his office in Eagle Pass, Texas. The area is part of the Del Rio Sector, which in July surpassed the Rio Grande Valley Sector for having the most migrant encounters in a single month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported.
The sheriff reflected on the toll that the recent drowning of nine migrants has had on his deputies, as well as all of the rescues and body recoveries they have done for the past six weeks.
“It’s really very hard on my deputies,” said Schmerber, 70, a former Border Patrol watch commander.
“We’ve seen a lot of what we call ‘floaters’ — people who drown and they float in the river. One time we found eight individuals floating in the river. They drowned upriver and end up floating down to the port of entry here,” he said.
Schmerber is halfway through his third, four-year term, and although he is at retirement age, he says he plans to run for “one more term.” He says he just can’t leave his force right now as illegal migration has surged here this past year.
“We’re supposed to be taking care, my priority, is the criminal element — that security for the county,” he said. “But now we’re doing two jobs. We’re doing what we’re supposed to do to secure the county and we have the immigration problem now.”
He says he believes he is uniquely qualified to lead his troops, having worked for Border Patrol for 26 years, many in Presidio, Texas, and many here in his hometown of Eagle Pass.
Through grants from Operation Lone Star — the Texas state-funded immigration initiative — he says he has been able to hire 10 additional deputies, including one more deputy constable for each of the county’s four constables.
His department also gets federal funds from Operation Stonegarden, which pays overtime and helps with equipment and fuel costs for local law enforcement to help Border Patrol patrol the riverbanks.
But he says it isn’t enough.
With 74 miles of riverfront border in Maverick County, he says his deputies are stretched thin. If they encounter a migrant it takes them away from policing the vast region, he said.
Nearly 30,000 residents live in Eagle Pass; the remaining 28,000 live in the vast county that borders Piedras Negras, Mexico.
Plus, he said there is an emotional toll they are suffering from so many recent drownings and near-drownings.
In mid-August, his deputies came upon the body of a dead 3-year-old whose uncle slipped while carrying him and his 4-year-old brother across the Rio Grande here, he said.
CBP reported that Aug. 17, three bodies were recovered from the river here in a span of four hours.
“It’s hard when they saw that little baby, just 3 years old and he drowned. They tried to give him CPR and he died,” Schmerber said. “The uncle was carrying two babies. He stumbled and he let loose of the kids. One drowned and the other made it. He was in critical condition in San Antonio, but he made it. But it’s those things that really have an effect on the individual deputies. They’re human beings. They’re family men. It affects them — maybe not right away but later on.”
The solution, the sheriff says, is for lawmakers in Washington, D.C. to enact a “zero-tolerance policy.”
“They can wait in their own countries,” Schmerber said.
SNAP benefits backlog continues; state workers say they need help too
Miki Spurlock had grabbed her groceries.
She was checking out when her Lone Star Card declined. She said she was supposed to have gotten food benefits already.
“Luckily, I was with my mom, and she paid for all of my groceries so I could feed me and my kids,” explained Spurlock.
Four months later, she said she was still waiting.
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP food benefits.
The agency said an increase in applications and staffing shortages has made the backlog even more challenging.
“I had all of my paperwork that they requested turned into them prior to the expiration date. So, they had plenty of time to review my case, contact me for an interview, and I’ve heard nothing from them,” said Spurlock.
Some state workers processing applications tell KXAN investigators, “We are working diligently to get these apps [applications] processed ASAP.”
Worried about losing their jobs, the employees asked to remain anonymous but explained that there have been no pay increases for those who have worked with the state for years.
“We, ourselves, are having to go to pantries or the food bank to put some kind of meal on our own tables by the end of the month,” said one employee. “The cost of living is going up higher these days, and our state isn’t even considering giving us a raise or merit to help its employees out.”
HHSC said it’s committed to increasing capacity and retaining staff so that applications can be processed as quickly as possible.
“HHSC has reduced eligibility advisor vacancies from 18.72% in January 2022 to 13.28% to date,” said Tiffany Young, Assistant Press Officer with HHSC.
Last month, Young explained that the state increased base salaries for clerks, eligibility advisors and supervisors.
The agency said it has also implemented workforce initiatives to improve retention and increase hiring, including exploring the hiring of part-time employees who have previous eligibility experience and working with The Office of Veteran Affairs Services Coordinators to recruit military spouses.
The state said it held 70 job fairs between December through July trying to recruit more staff.
“HHSC participates in federally led workgroups and forums where states share best practices and strategies on mitigating workload challenges during the public health emergency,” said Young.
HHSC is also helping some employees with a newly created Grab and Go market.
Young said it’s for staff at the Austin State Supported Living Center, a facility for medically fragile people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and behavioral problems.
The state has partnered with a nonprofit to create the mobile food pantry for its lowest-paid employees and to help offset the rising cost of groceries.
The Grab and Go Market opened in May, and since then, the state explained that staff had visited the pantry 1,755 times.
Young said the food provided has a shelf life, cannot be sold in stores and would otherwise go to waste.
“Our staff work in a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week facility serving adults with disabilities. Staff are often working more than 40 hours a week to ensure our most vulnerable individuals are fed, cleaned, and cared for, and the food pantry is one way we show our appreciation for their dedication,” said Young.
KXAN investigators asked if other state employees could access the Grab and Go Market, but the spokesperson explained that it’s only available to those workers on the Austin State Supported Living Center campus.
KXAN also asked if HHSC is considering offering something similar to other employees who also make lower wages, but no response was provided.
Spurlock said she understands that even state workers are struggling. She added that she’s trying to be patient, but it’s been tough to go months without being able to buy food for her family.
The state explained that currently, 71% of SNAP applications are processed within 30 days from receipt of the application.
As of Aug. 29, 2022, Young said there is an estimated total of 198,025 SNAP applications waiting to be processed.
Spurlock said she’s never experienced this type of delay with her benefits.
“They’ve escalated my account – my benefits twice. I have spoken with their special resolution or escalation department,” said Spurlock. “I don’t even know if I’ll get my benefits next month or not yet.”