DALLAS — Cartoonist Garry Trudeau was still explaining why this week’s Doonesbury strip focuses on Texas’s sonogram-before-abortion law when we learned that a Texas mayor was under fire for remarks to a Hispanic colleague about “a bunch of Mexicans.”
Both issues speak to the political culture of the state, as does the Justice Department’s decision Monday to block Texas from enforcing one of the country’s most stringent voter identification laws.
In a country founded on the idea of upholding rights of those with a minority viewpoint, Texas can be a hotbed of hostility and contempt.
Trudeau, of course, was using satire to mock the state’s new law requiring women seeking a legal abortion to be subjected to various procedures designed to prompt second thoughts about the decision to terminate a pregnancy.
Meanwhile, in the Dallas suburb of Arlington, Mayor Robert Cluck was trying to backpedal after an anonymous ethics complaint accused him of speaking about a “bunch of Mexicans” attending a National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials conference in Washington.
Cluck said what he remembers is someone commenting about “dinner at a Mexican restaurant.”
The incident happened last month at City Hall with council member Robert Rivera and in front of firefighter association leader David Crow.
Rivera planned to miss a council meeting to attend the conference.
The complaint alleges that when Rivera told Cluck about the Latino association meeting, Cluck replied, “Oh, a bunch of Mexicans.”
Crow told the mayor, “I don’t think you can say that,’’ according to the complaint, which also maintains that the mayor replied: “What? Mexican?”
On Monday, Cluck issued a written statement denying mentioning “bunches of Mexicans” and apologizing to anyone who was disturbed by his comments.
Earlier, in a TV interview, he said he didn’t remember making the remark but “if there were enough witnesses who said I did, then I would have to believe I did.”
The Arlington ethics complaint came to light the same day the Justice Department said it would block enforcement of Texas’s plan to require voters to show a photo ID.
And it reminds us why Texas and 15 other states are required to get pre-clearance from the Justice Department before making changes to election laws. To some, the federal pre-clearance provides a measure of protection in locales with a history of racial discrimination.
To Gov. Rick Perry and other Republican lawmakers, such oversight is intrusive.
It also makes good fodder during presidential campaigns, as Rick Santorum demonstrated, saying: “This is just another example of the misplaced priorities of the Obama administration. This is not about voter disenfranchisement, it is about ensuring that our electoral system has integrity and voters are confident that their vote is counted accurately and fairly. “
But to those who have faced institutional and social barriers to political participation, the oversight is an important safeguard against the kind of personal bias Cluck is accused of voicing.
Council member Rivera, who was born in Dallas, didn’t stoke the fire over the mayor’s comments, saying instead: “It is unfortunate that any employee overheard the comments and were offended enough to file a complaint. This will not be a distraction from the responsibility and focus of helping to make Arlington a more perfect city.’’
It was unclear whether Cluck’s comments were directed at the national Latino group’s mission, which has included a citizenship drive and advocacy on redistricting.
The North Texas area is expected to get a new congressional seat with a heavily Democratic base, potentially producing an opportunity for a new black or Hispanic leader from the area.
If that happens, Latinos may well have another voice at the power table, regardless of the fate of the Texas voter ID law.
Lori Stahl is a journalist based in Dallas. Follow her on Twitter at @LoriStahl.