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Texas Pride Is Put to the Campaign Test

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When God was handing out bluster and bravado, Texas must have been first in line because everything in Texas is bigger and better than anywhere else. Just ask a Texan.

They have the biggest sky, tastiest barbecue, best flag, friendliest people, lowest taxes, most oil, prettiest sunsets and, for good measure, they invented the two-step. In Texas, tourists don’t walk around in T-shirts that say “I Love Texas.” Texans do.

But a different picture of the Lone Star State has emerged in the fevered pitch of the presidential campaign. This Texas is an abyss where capitalism breeds without social conscience, the air is dirty, children go without health insurance and the execution chamber is an assembly line of mean-spirited vengeance.

The presidential race has been almost as much a test of Texas forbearance as it has of the state’s governor and GOP presidential nominee-to-be, Gov. George W. Bush. The months-long hyperscrutiny has underscored and sometimes magnified the state’s every flaw--as Al Gore, the presumed Democratic nominee, sought to do during a trip to the state Thursday.

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Texas is now a benighted standard by which awful things are measured. The state that practically invented the frontier spirit, where law and order reign and “Don’t mess with Texas” stickers are state-sanctioned graffiti, is late-night fodder for Jay Leno monologues:

“Bush has a new bumper sticker: ‘Vote for me or I’ll have you executed.’ ”

“Everybody celebrates St. Patrick’s Day in a different way. Like in New York, it’s the big parade. In Chicago, they dye the river green. And in Texas today, they executed a leprechaun.”

“The entire state now stands as proxy for W. Bush, under attack for political reasons,” crabbed Molly Ivins, a syndicated Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist. “The rest of the country likes to look down on Texas as a nest of yahoos, racists and rednecks.”

Part Backwater--And Part Americana

A Democratic Party Web site advises unvaccinated tourists to stay out of Texas, given a new federal report that shows Houston has the lowest immunization rate for children among major U.S. cities. And Gore, during his stop in San Antonio on Thursday, decried the state’s low ranking in several health, education and social-service categories.

“This is a wonderful state, but I think it should be a state where it is just as easy to raise a child as set up an oil rig,” Gore said.

Texas is neither the backwater its detractors claim nor the jewel its natives tout. But it’s a bit of both.

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Texas is home to the world’s largest medical center, in Houston, yet one-quarter of its residents have no health insurance. It has one of the best university systems in the country and one of the worst high school dropout rates. It is at the forefront of the technological economy, yet medieval scenes of poverty play out along its borders.

It is “Star Wars” and Charles Dickens all wrapped up in a land mass the size of France, a state with three of the nation’s largest cities and some of its most rugged country. It is a place most outsiders cannot begin to comprehend, even now, when a lot of outsiders are looking hard.

And for the most part, 20 million Texans couldn’t care less.

Environment Woes Are a Trade-Off

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The clouds are big and puffy, but there is a gauzy haze over the Houston skyline. It is 97 degrees outside and a sign on Interstate 45 is flashing “Ozone watch.” So C.E. Jack Jones Jr. is watching his grandchildren ice skate inside the air-conditioned, air-filtered rink in the upscale Galleria shopping center.

Last year, Houston passed Los Angeles as the smog capital of America--thanks to an oil industry that supports half the nation’s refineries and a state government that has some of the weakest environmental laws in the land.

Houston’s general response has been to politely ask the business establishment to clean up the air. It built an air-conditioned amusement park for its children. Some people think they ought to put a mile-high air-conditioned dome over the Interstate 610 loop that circles the city.

“All we need to do is stop people from coming in here trying to tell us what to do. We can solve our own cotton pickin’ problems,” sputters Jones, a 74-year-old, 6-foot-tall Houston native. “Houston is the most air-conditioned city in the world. That’s how we fight the pollution: We keep it out with air filters.”

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You can’t see the stars in Houston on most nights, but that’s all right, Jones says as his grandchildren come off the rink and plop next to him on a bench. “We can drive to West Texas once a year for that. They’re out there.”

In Texas, government is loath to regulate; it hopes industry will simply do the right thing. As a result, Texas ranks fifth in total releases of toxic substances into the air, land and water.

Indeed, there are few things Texans hate worse than a meddling government. For years, that’s how Texas got rich: exploiting its God-given resources with little regard for the environmental consequences, paying low taxes and letting the poor fend for themselves. It is a trade-off most willingly make. As the late Houston Mayor Jim McConn used to say: Sure the streets are full of potholes, but at least you have money in your jeans to fix your tire when it goes flat.

There is no state income tax and, therefore, meager social services. The governor has no power to make executive appointments. The state Legislature meets 140 days every two years, and a lot of Texans think it should meet two days every 140 years. Voter turnout in the 1996 presidential election was the nation’s third worst, with 41% of eligible citizens casting ballots.

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Yet for all the flak directed at Texas, some analysts say the state’s headstrong individualism mirrors the values and problems of America at large.

“All the attacks on Texas are attacks on America in the early 21st century. Nowhere is anyone committing to education, coming to grips with the environmental problem. Seventy percent of the nation believes in the death penalty,” says Stephen L. Klineberg, a professor of sociology at Rice University in Houston.

But Texas is changing, Klineberg says. Some predict a state income tax is coming, a notion that once was as likely as making the Alamo a time-share. The Houston business community is acknowledging it must clean up the air if it is to attract new residents who have the mobility to live and work anywhere in a wired world.

Still, change comes harder to a state that was wildly successful under the old, stubborn ways. When oil prices soared in the 1970s and the country plunged into a recession, the Texas economy boomed. The rest of the country was recovering when Texas finally crashed.

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Now it is finding its place in the global economy. The dig-a-hole-and-strike-it-rich days are gone, and Texas is challenged.

“When all you had to do was punch a hole in the ground and strike oil, it was easy to have the highest high school dropout rate. But you can’t drop out and invent a new microchip,” said Paul Begala, a former Clinton advisor and Virginia resident so loyal to his native Texas that he took a sack of its soil into the delivery room when each of his three children was born. “Texas is changing, but the constant is hatred of government, and that’s a mistake in the 21st century.”

Don’t Like Rules, Don’t Like Handouts

The drugstore in Johnson City, population 932, was recently put out of business by a Wal-Mart. The Wal-Mart was 22 miles away, but that didn’t matter because Texans aren’t daunted by distance and the time it takes to make the drive.

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This is the fabled Hill Country, the wide open Texas of popular imagination. It’s only about an hour outside of trendy Austin, but out here things slow waaaaaay down. Johnson City is where President Lyndon B. Johnson’s boyhood home is--Lady Byrd still attends garden club functions. It is the proverbial one-stoplight town, except two people had to die in traffic accidents before the county put that stoplight in. Texans do not care much for rules.

The average income here is about $8 an hour. What people can’t buy, they barter. Robyn Henderson, editor and publisher of the Johnson City Record Courier, has traded advertising space for eggs. The local doctor once swapped an office visit for an oil painting.

That sort of determination is what helped pull Texas out of its recession, but it also holds people back. A local fund for indigent health services is rarely tapped, Henderson said, because folks don’t like handouts.

Some do without, such as Ladd Clark, a 52-year-old self-employed saddle maker who built a house on 13 acres for himself and his three dogs. They live fine, except that he is a diabetic and one of the millions of Texans with no health insurance.

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He doesn’t tell that story willingly; it dribbles out over a barbecue lunch at Ronnie’s, where, locals say, “every hard-workin’ boy ends up at one time or another.” But what is essentially Texan about his situation--Clarks thinks he probably needs insulin but can’t afford it--is that he does not expect anybody to help him, least of all the government.

“If I can’t get it, I can’t get it,” he says.

Back at the newspaper office, Henderson observes, “There is a puckered-up feeling people have. They are boastful and independent--'If I can’t do it, I don’t need it and I don’t want you to give it to me.’ ”

That’s the way it’s been in Texas as long as most people can remember, a philosophy that has given the state license to provide minimal assistance to those in need. But that is not necessarily the way most Texans think things should stay.

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“Texas is the nearest thing to heaven there is,” Begala says. “We love our state but we are embarrassed by our weak government. We ignore 400,000 souls in Third World conditions with no electricity and no running water. We pay our teachers less than our football coaches, and we get the results you’d expect.”

The hope of environmentalists and other activists is that this national airing of its imperfections will move Texas to change. After all, look what happened in Massachusetts, a state that long has considered itself a model of social enlightenment. After Boston Harbor’s pollution problems were spotlighted to discredit former Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis in his 1988 presidential bid, Boston cleaned up the waterway. Earlier this year, when the presidential primary drew attention to the Rebel flag flying over South Carolina’s Capitol, the long-defiant state brought it down.

What puts added pressure on Texas is that, unlike many other states, it clearly has the resources to do more. Even some defenders say as much.

“It’s a low-tax, low-service state--so shoot us,” columnist Ivins wrote. “The only depressing part is that, unlike Mississippi, we can afford to do better. We just don’t. . . .Maybe this spell in the national spotlight will inspire us to fix some things.”

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How Texas Ranks

Texas vs. other states:

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Texas Ranking Number Executions since 1976 1st 224 Adults without health insurance 1st 24.5% Children without health insurance 2nd 25.4% State prisoner incarceration rate 2nd 724/100,000 residents Births to mothers aged 15-19 2nd 71/1,000 Children living in poverty 3rd 26% People living in poverty 10th 15.1% Unemployment rate 16th 4.6% Per capita personal income 27th $26,525 Teacher salaries 29th $36,158 Per-pupil spending 35th $5,815 High school dropouts 45th 13% Homeowners 45th 62.9% Per capita state taxes 48th $1,246

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Sources: Death Penalty Information Center, U.S. Census Bureau, Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Center for Health Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bureau of Economic Analysis, Department of Education, Federal Election Commission, Federation of Tax Administrators, Annie E. Casey Foundation

Compiled by SUNNY KAPLAN / Los Angeles Times

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