The QueQue

Three-point shot

The bench was deep at Monday night’s fundraiser for District Attorney candidate Nicholas “Nico” LaHood, and we’re not talking about the Spurs all-star lineup that showed. District Court Judge Ron Rangel, whom we spied talking to County Judge Ernest Acevedo Jr., reminded the QueQue that robes don’t stump for candidates — which made a statistically significant portion of the 400-some-odd attendees just curious about the 37-year-old Bexar County special prosecutor and St. Mary’s law-school grad headlining the evening. LaHood is also the son of newly appointed County Judge Michael LaHood, upping the bench count by one more.

But the judges were overshadowed physically and star-power-wise by a stellar roster of ballplayers past and present: Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Bruce Bowen (Malik Rose’s name also appeared on the invitation). Bowen introduced LaHood to the audience but not before the electrified room of attendees (at $100 per, judges excepted) had a chance to snap photos with a compliant San Antonio A-lister.

State Senator Carlos Uresti kicked off the speeches, and when LaHood finally took the podium, he thanked Uresti for being his mentor and “for sharing this bull’s-eye that’s on my chest.” A reference, we suppose, to his opponent next November, decade-long Bexar County DA Susan Reed, who has a reputation among her critics for selective prosecution.

“Nico will bring a renewed sense of energy to the DA’s office,” former judge and prosecutor Joe Gonzales told the QueQue, adding that the morale at the DA’s office is at an all-time low. “Prosecutors look to their leader to provide good judgment, and that’s been lacking of late.” Gonzales ticked off a Reed indictment count heard more than once that evening: the Southwest Airlines ticket scandal, a phone call placed on behalf of her son’s friend, who was arrested for carrying a loaded firearm at the San Antonio Airport. “I believe in Nico,” Gonzales added.

Bexar County Democratic Party Chair Carla Vela is equally enthusiastic. “He’s one of the best candidates we’ve ever had,” she said. “He’s got the full support of the whole Democratic party.”

Bowen, looking statesmanlike in a trim gray suit, pale blue shirt, and yellow power-stripe tie, gave LaHood a classic bromance intro, recalling his first impression of the short, intense attorney (think New York’s Anthony Weiner, played by a young Robert de Niro): “Wow, this dude has a lot of energy … it’s almost like stalker material.” When Bowen described that energy as love for his community, someone from the audience shouted “passion.”

Slice the celeb factor any way you like, but if nothing else it demonstrated LaHood’s solid charisma, which only seemed to gain momentum from Uresti and Bowen. He alluded to a notable youthful indiscretion — a controlled substance in his early 20s — thanked his Pops (not to be confused with the Spurs’ Pop) for getting him back on track, then threw out a slew of statistics in support of more education (eight of 10 Texas inmates are high-school dropouts) and taking care of the children of prisoners, because, he said, more than 50 percent of Texas inmates are parents, and 70 percent of children with at least one parent in jail will do time at some point in their lives. LaHood is also a proponent of drug courts, which emphasize treatment and recovery as well as punishment (Bexar County drug-court founder Judge Alfonso Alonso was said to be in attendance). And he spoke movingly of his brother, Mike LaHood, who was murdered 13 years ago.

“I know what it’s like to not look forward to holidays,” he said, so, yes, he’d be tough on crime. But “In this day and age, we need to be smart on crime, too.” And the applause meter shot past Bowen’s mark.

“If that speech was any indication … ”
mused one visibly impressed Justice. But another opined that it would still be an uphill battle against Reed, who whomped Democratic contender Eddie Bravenec 60 to 40 percent in 2006.

So, what were those Spurs doing there, anyway? “Tim and Nico are best friends,” said campaign supporter Aaron Seaman. “It’s friends supporting friends, family helping family.”

Dealt out this round

Yes, the House passed a health-care-reform bill last week, but more than one sacrifice was made along the way, including access to insurance for what must be the, uh, red-headed stepchild of rights: the right to terminate a pregnancy during the first two trimesters. During last-minute wrangling, conservative Republicans successfully attached the Stupak amendment to the legislation with the help of 63 Democrats, including Congressman Ciro Rodriguez.

If the Stupak language survives the Senate and the conference committee, not only will women utilizing the public option for health insurance not be able to get coverage for non-emergency abortions, but women who purchase private insurance through the new insurance-exchange market and who receive a public health-care subsidy will not be able to purchase coverage that includes non-emergency abortions (emergency = in the case of rape, incest, or to save the life of the woman), unless they buy a separate (and currently nonexistent) abortion rider with their own funds. Companies that purchase employee coverage through the exchange can only offer a plan that covers non-emergency abortions if they can certify that no employee will qualify for a health-care subsidy — that is that they have no employees who earn between 150 and 400 percent of the federal poverty line, or less than $43,000 annually. At least we think that’s how it works, but we’re still waiting for the God machine to deliver our 3-D Venn diagram.

With the Stupak amendment in place, the bill also places restrictions on the type of coverage insurers who participate in the exchange can offer, requiring among other things that if they do offer a plan that covers elective and medically necessary abortions for the few eligible customers, they must also offer an otherwise identical plan that does not.

The goal is to make sure that no federal health-care dollars even “mix” with money that could be used to pay for a non-emergency abortion. But the result, say critics, is that as the insurance exchange grows, as it is intended to do in year three, to include larger employers, more participants will fall under the Stupak rules. As more insurers enroll in the exchange to access the growing pot of eligible clients, reproductive-rights advocates worry that it will have a chilling effect on the market.

Adam Sonfield, senior public policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute, calls it the “spillover effect.” He mentions the effect of state-mandated coverage of contraception, which began in the ’90s and quickly reached a tipping point where the larger national insurers decided to make the coverage standard rather than varying it state by state.

“You know, you have to figure out how the markets are going to react,” said Congressman Charlie Gonzalez, who voted against the Stupak amendment, but for the final bill. “Initially, it is basically your last resort,” but “it is anticipated that `the exchange` would service a greater number of people down the road.”

The more immediate concern, Gonzalez says, is that the women purchasing coverage through the exchange “would be the least able to pay for `an abortion` out of pocket.” According to studies conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, in 2001, 26 percent of abortions were billed directly to insurance companies and in 2005, abortion fees for nonhospital abortions performed with local anesthesia ranged from $90-$1,800, and the average amount paid was $415.

Planned Parenthood told the QueQue that Latino Catholic lawmakers in particular had been lobbied by the Catholic Church to support the Stupak provisions, but a spokeswoman for Rodriguez said he felt no undue pressure.

“Stupak could broaden that principle but clearly does not prohibit a woman’s right to choose such a procedure,” wrote press secretary Rebeca Chapa in an email. “In casting his yes vote on the Stupak Amendment, the Congressman was responding to overwhelming feedback from constituents throughout the 23rd Congressional District that federal funding NOT be used to pay for abortions.”

Gonzalez said he hadn’t felt “extraordinary pressure” either, though “the Church’s position is made known to us.

“But as an elected official, I have many constituents who don’t share the core Catholic beliefs. I have to respect that, too. Members
really cannot allow themselves to be extensions of particular denominations.

“We must remember that the separation of church and state is really there to benefit the church.”

And in this ring ...

Former District 2 Council member Sheila McNeil is officially in the race for the Precinct 4 County Commissioner seat, bolstered by a brand-new poll that shows her name recognition nearly on par with that of incumbent Tommy Adkisson, whom she’ll face in March’s Democratic primary. McNeil declined to discuss the exact figures, which were compiled by Wilson Research Strategies but, she says, “The results were very exciting. ... I see that he’s vulnerable. People are not very confident in him.”

A call placed to Adkisson for comment was not returned by press time.

Voters will find the two easy to distinguish on a couple of key issues: McNeil opposed the new Eastside Crosspoint transitional facility that will be built on the grounds of the old Sisters of the Holy Spirit convent, calling it a “correctional facility” because, she says, that’s how it was described in the zoning application, and “anytime you’re mandated to be somewhere, you’re not free.” Adkisson supported the Crosspoint reuse. (Former District 1 Zoning Commissioner Michael Westheimer, husband of Current Editor Elaine Wolff, voted against the rezoning.)

Adkisson has also been a vocal opponent of toll roads as the current chair of the Metropolitan Planning Organization (a post McNeil held when she was on Council), while McNeil says that “toll roads are a transportation option” that should remain on the table, especially because of “the current economic environment.”

McNeil has faced her share of controversy, including charges in the Express-News that she was lobbying against the Crosspoint deal on behalf of her current employer, the George Gervin Youth Center, along with Academy director and former District 2 Zoning Commissioner Barbara Hawkins.

Is she worried that the anti-toll watchdog troops led by Terri Hall will derail her dreams? “Absolutely not. They don’t live in the county, much less the area. My community is pretty sophisticated. We don’t need anybody coming in and telling us who to vote for.”

Park place

For almost 80 years, officials north and south of la frontera have talked of establishing a Mexican counterpart to Big Bend. But with little history or experience with federal wilderness management, it has taken Mexico’s largest cement company and some influential nonprofits to begin cobbling together private land across the river for conservation. More recently, the federales have designated some areas as protected, but these mostly remain in private hands.

But early next year Ernesto Enkerlin Hoeflich, head of the nation’s National Commission on Protected Areas (and, we should note, an Aggie), expects the Mexican government to announce the first “umbrella agreement” on the creation of a true bi-national park system with the U.S. It seems that Mexico, despite being in the midst of gangland warfare between and within the various drug cartels, army, and police forces, is experiencing what Hoeflich calls a “small golden age for conservation.”

“Right now in Mexico, we’re living in a time of very positive things happening for conservation,” he said.

But don’t strap on your hiking boots just yet. Since a dramatic show of force by the U.S. Border Patrol in 2002, the long-used area crossings have been closed. They’ll likely remain that way even as ecological connections and international agreements are signed. Referring to the reopening of those crossings — an issue Big Bend National Park’s spokesperson says remains in the hands of U.S. Homeland Security — Enkerlin said:

“That’s, of course, something that’s going to happen eventually, we hope, but it’s not something that we should worry too much about right now. Because if we focus on that we might not get the other part, which in a way is more important.

“There was a continuous presence `before 2002` and that made for a good environment, safety wise,” he said. “So we’re hoping to recuperate that good environment. We understand why it needed to be stopped, but we think there are good possibilities.”

Ultimately, Enkerin said his department is hoping to see 300,000 hectares, or 730,000 acres, designated as protected wilderness.

David Elkowitz, Big Bend National Park’s spokesperson, tried to manage expectations, saying: “There is hope, but that does not necessarily mean it’ll be realized. There are hoops to jump through.” Adding that, “We might know more in a couple of months.”

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