INTERVIEWEE: Lon Burnam (LB)
INTERVIEWER: David Todd (DT)
DATE: November 14, 2018
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Robin Johnson
MEDIA: HD video
[Please note that the numbers mark time codes for the interview recording.]
DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. We’re in Austin and it is November 14, 2018. And we have the good fortune to be visiting with—with Lon Burnam. And he has a long and illustrious career. He—he’s worked for the Dallas Peace Center. He’s worked for Texas Citizen Action and for almost twenty years, served as—as state representative for a district in Fort Worth, pushing a lot of progressive causes and—and environmental bills during that time and then—and then since his retirement has been doing a lot of important volunteer work for environmental causes as well. So I wanted to thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your work and your life and I look forward to it.
LB: Glad to be here, David.
DT: Well these—these interviews typically start at some sort of arbitrary starting point in your childhood and hopefully one that might give a signal for the sort of things that you have been interested in and pursued for many years that are in the conservation field that deal with public health or with the natural world. And I was wondering if you could—if you could give us some examples of things or people or experiences that you might have had as a youth that would lead to that?
LB: Well I, you know, we all start with our parents, right. And I had the good fortune of having parents that were very interested in outdoor activities, in wildlife observation, hikes. They ultimately were very active in Explorer’s Post, camping and canoeing, and have been interviewed for this program because of their environmental activism. But, back in the early days, it was more about the family went to National Parks. That’s where we did our vacations. My mother’s parents had a cabin just out of side of Cloudcroft, New Mexico.
So we went to the mountains as often as we could go to the mountains. We had those Norman Rockwell like Christmases where we’d cut down the Christmas tree and bring it back on the sled. And, you know, just that idyllic childhood basically except I had—have always had asthma. And so, unlike most kids at age 9, I couldn’t really play outside in the fall. I was upset because I couldn’t play outside. We wouldn’t—didn’t understand. So I was asking what’s in the air that’s making me sick at age 9 and I’m still asking that because Dallas-Fort Worth has her—terrible air pollution problem.
I’ve worked on that issue for years. No sooner did I finish graduate work—or undergraduate work here in Austin and return to Fort Worth than my father and I started going to Clean Air meetings—the COG—and everything you can imagine. That was the outing of choice for father and—and grown son during that time frame. But they never were activists. They were active as parents. They both—I—I observed both of the graduations from college so, I mean, they both worked their way through school as adults.
So I had those benefits but they were never really activists. They were active with the church. They were active with the PTA doing things that people do when they’re raising kids. My first year in college at UT Austin, I discovered the Sierra Club. And I bought them a Sierra Club membership as their Christmas present. I hung out at Whole Earth Provision over off the drag on 24th Street because I thought it was such a cool store. But they became activists in the Sierra Club. And, ultimately over the years, they became more and more active, first with their local group.
My late mother was Lone Star Chapter Chair at one point. My late father was president of the state Audubon Council. So, you know, those early family interests evolved into activism on both their part and my part. I organized the first Earth Day activities—for the first one back in 1970 on my high school campus. And the principal was not at all happy with the fact that we were doing recycling on the front yard in—at the front door with chicken wire fencing. But I kind of intimidated him. I was one of those aggressive personalities type.
So I’ve been doing environmental activism at least since I was in high school and just a series of activities. I was also very interested politically. I did volunteer work for Lyndon Johnson back in ’64 when I was in the sixth grade. So I’ve just always had that bent. I knew Ralph Yarborough. The late Senator Ralph Yarborough was an environmental hero before I finished high school as did—I felt the same way at—at state government level. I took a state government course my senior year in high school and found out who Don Kennard was and Babe Schwartz.
So, I mean, these are elected officials—heroes—in my mind, during those very formative years that I hope I modeled some of my political career after. And so those interests evolved into my interest in going to graduate school in city and regional planning because that says so much about where and how people live. And initially I was most interested in urban parks. I still have a passion about urban parks. I spent way too much at City Hall in Fort Worth last night trying to defend our botanic gardens against privatizers.
I think my learning experience in city and regional planning was yeah, I really cared about parks but I cared more about things that are poisoning people. And so my environmental consciousness moved from we organized a lot of anti-litter campaigns in high school and we would go out and pick up garbage along the local highway and that sort of thing. And I told somebody in later years I’ve been there, I’ve done that. That’s important entry level environmental activity, but that’s not what I’m doing now. I mainly fight the sources of pollution.
And I’ve even refined that to I spend more time doing anti-nuc work than almost any other environmental activity. I spent the—half of the first half of this year in New Mexico organizing against high level nuclear waste proposed site in Southern New Mexico near where I was born in New Mexico. So, I mean, it’s—it’s all been a natural progression for me from—my father’s Southern Baptist background was more about honoring stewardship and creation of the Earth. It’s—in the Southern Baptist hymnal.
It’s page 59—This is my Father’s World. [tearing up] It’s who I am. [inaudible 00:07:40]
LB: I’m really lucky. I had great parents. They were very focused on what they wanted to accomplish. And they gave me the sense of obligation and mission. And I inherited a lot of money. So my wife and I spend our money in equal parts traveling. Going on a Sierra Club trip to India in February. It’s called Tigers, Taj Mahal and Other Treasures. We’re going to four National Parks. In 2008, it had been a really bad eight years with Bush as president and we knew that we needed to do something after the 2008 election.
We had spent an hour watching a polar bear at the San Diego Zoo the year before. And so we went to Canada to either say goodbye to the polar bears, which we suspected we were doing or at least enjoy them for a while. And most people don’t know their geography well enough to know that Hudson Bay has a little bay—southeastern corner of it—the polar bears were already gone from that bay in 2008. In 2008, the polar bear population of Hudson Bay had been reduced by 25 percent in ten years. Don’t tell me we’re not having global warming.
So my, you know, my wife’s not a camper but we did another Sierra Club ex—trip to Botswana and she spent ten nights in the bush. That’s what we like to do. We, you know, it’s—and it’s kind of who she is as well. She had very similar upbringing and background. We met in a historic preservation class. I was coming at it—I but I had to take a fine arts class. So I could take an architecture class. I wanted to know more about the issues behind conservation of buildings because so much goes into building something.
And then to tear it down after it’s worn out in 25 years, that’s ridiculous. So it’s not the perfect marriage but we’ve been together since ’74 and—and we have very similar interests. She’s an introvert. I’m an extrovert. She doesn’t like to go to political functions at all but we’ll talk about politics for thirty minutes in the morning reading the paper together. So she’s—has continued her interest in historic preservation because we think that’s—it’s important to preserving communities. I mean, we’re filming this in an incredible neighborhood in Travis Heights in Austin, Texas.
We live in an incredible neighborhood in Fort Worth. We live in what, at one time, was the largest intact National Registered—residential district west of the Mississippi—the Fairmont neighborhood in—near Southside Fort Worth. So, I mean, I see all of these things as interrelated. Whether it’s my BA in government, it’s my graduate degree in city and regional planning that’s all the volunteer work that I did—elections. You know, I was very active in the Jim Hightower campaign when he first ran for Railroad Commission in 1980.
I was very active in his campaign in ’82 when he ran for Ag Commission. He served eight wonderful years actually doing the right thing by the environment as Ag Commissioner in this state. And I was very active when Lloyd Doggett first ran for the U. S. Senate. I’ve just—I’ve always done electoral politics combining it with my passion about the environment. I think I mentioned earlier to you my first job out of graduate school was a little contract with Stuart Henry, someone else that ha—a great environmental hero here in Texas, and it was fighting a dam in East Texas.
I mean, the fact of the matter is the culture of the Sierra Club is all dams are bad dams. They should have never been built in the first place because you’re destroying ecosystem there, we should figure out how to do what we need to do without building dams. And—and so I was glad to be a part of that fight. We lose most of those battles fighting dams in Texas but we’ve lot—we’ve won a lot of them too. I know I was the only person in the Tarrant County in Dallas County Delegations to vote against the Nichols Project in East Texas.
Well it doesn’t need to be built. The people that live there didn’t want it built and this is a classic example of urban imperialism on rural Texas that needed to be fought at the time. Didn’t win me any friends with the Chamber of Commerce but I wasn’t really very interested in making friends with them anyway. So oh I—what can I say? It’s—there’s a passion in me that has to do with defending the creation. And that turns into just real practical, electoral politics, real practical legislative politics.
You know, I—I—I had kind of an odd notion as a kid. I really identified with the Kennedys in the early sixties. It’s like wait, they’re Irish Catholic from Massachusetts and they’re rich and I’m a poor, white Protestant kid from Texas. But there’s that whole sense of noblesse oblige that I think is appropriate or most of us—we’re so privileged relative to the rest of the world and most people, unfortunately, choose not to use that privilege to do the right thing. They just kind of, you know, play bridge or go shopping, you know.
Texas’ favorite pastime is watching sports or going shopping. And I kind of think well Marx had it right kind of. When he said it was—a religion was the opiate of the masses, what he should have said is spectator sports is the opiate of the masses. That’s certainly what it is in Texas. And I just think there’s better things to do with your time. That’s the reason I pretty much volunteer fulltime. You know, I’m on too many boards. I do too many fundraising for too many activities. I’m coming back to Austin for my third session post being on the legislature, working as a fulltime volunteer with Public Citizen.
But what can I say, other than I wish more people would get involved. What we saw in this most recent election—people are really patting themselves on the back because we went all the way up to 53 percent of the registered voters bothered to vote and look at the difference in the outcomes here in Texas. Just think what would happen if 60 percent of the eligible voters bothered to vote. My first period of time with the Dallas Peace Center, I had the opportunity to work with a Canadian.
He’s a Mennonite, which is one of the traditional pacifist churches and John [00:14:39] observed to me that it was just almost a crime the way Americans who had the potential—as six percent of the world’s population at—back in that time—to do more good for more people and they just consciously, consistently under-utilized their power and ability to do good. Hit me hard. And that’s the observation of the Canadian that was here through the Mennonite Volunteer Services. Wife was in graduate school but young, Canadian Mennonite. It’s like you guys so waste what you could be doing with your lives.
DT: Well tell us a little bit about this tenure that you had at the Dallas Peace Center and what you were trying to do and—and do you see a connection of any kind between peace activism and maybe nuclear proliferation and the environmental aspects of [inaudible] activity?
LB: Oh there’s more interconnections than—than you can relate. Accor—you know, I’ve become a Quaker over the years. I was in church for about twenty years. I was, you know, I was going to be a Southern Baptist at one point in my—minister at one point. I wanted to be a—a missionary, which is kind of odd now given where I am. But the only one of the Ten Commandments that I’m really an absolutist on is “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” And that kind of goes to the core of my theological values of there’s no circumstance under which I can imagine that it would be appropriate for me to kill a person.
And I don’t want to impose that on other people but you are so stupid—I’m talking about the general public about how you approach human relations and how you approa—re—approach conflict resolution. I saw—well I came of age her in the Vietnam War. Most of us that were thinking became against the war. I, at an earlier period, didn’t most but—I mean, I was against it when Johnson was elected in ’64. I wa—I was appalled by the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Wars are always terrible for the environment. They always create havoc and—and damage.
I don’t know if you remember the first Iraq war with the first President Bush, the oil fields burning in Kuwait. That’s tremendous calamity. For years as—as the director of the Dallas Peace Center, I had a picture of an elephant that had been wounded and had its leg amputated because Cambodia, now Afghanistan, are the two countries in the world with the most unexploded ordinances. They have more children with amputations and more wildlife with amputations. Those are the first victims of—of the post-war are children and wildlife.
So the—I mean, they’re so interrelated at—the—the Dallas Peace and Justice Center has an Environmental Justice Committee. It goes back to justice within the community. I’m—I’m missing a conference call right now with a gentleman that I know who’s been a civil rights organizer since the sixties. Did prison time for his civil rights work, is now working on joining what is predominantly a white environmental movement with environmental economic justice predominantly black African-American led movement in Dallas.
And what he wants us to do is just share resources because all too often, African-American elected officials are really indifferent to environmental issues unless it’s a NIMBY issue in their district. All too often, particularly republicans now are completely indifferent because they pander to the profit motive before public health. And there’s got to be a—a more intentional conversation about what does it mean to put profit before people’s lives and public health? And, in this state, we do that on a regular basis. I mean, I first worked in the session in 1973.
I’ve never seen a legislative session except for maybe in the eighties when Mark White was governor and Jim Hightower was Ag Commissioner and Ann Richards was treasurer. I mean, there was a period of time when we actually put public health before private profit but, for the most part, state government has always put private profit first and that’s the nexus of the problem. So I spent two years at the Peace Center in the eighties. I was part-time. I was also working part-time for the Sierra Club.
I was a—I was actually a registered lobbyist in the late eighties for the Sierra Club on Specializing on clean air issues. At the time, we knew we could not get a reauthorization of the Clean Air Act under Reagan but literally the Sierra Club planned forward enough where it’s like this is about organizing the grassroots for support when George Bush comes—becomes president, which we were afraid would happen and it did, to get the best possible reauthorization of the Clean Act.
And that is what a, you know, I have a lot of complaints about the Sierra Club from an organizational standpoint, but it is the preeminent, most intelligent national environmental organization the country. It’s got the best grassroots organization. It’s got the best managerial structure—organizational structure—and I have a lot of criticism, particularly about what they haven’t done about nuclear power plants, what they haven’t recognized. I mean, the fact that Paul Ehrlich and his wife and a couple other activists in California had to force the idea of—they created a committee within the Sierra Club talking about what I just said.
My—all wars are bad for the environment. The question is just how bad. And, you know, a nuclear war would be the worst thing possible but every one of these little piddly ass wars like what we’re doing in Yeoman right now. I mean, we’re totally funding genocide in Yeoman and most Americans are not willing to talk about that. And we doing incalculable damage against the environment in Yeoman, but most Americans just don’t want to be bothered to talk about that sort of thing.
The fine—the thing we found in—in Dallas is there’s such a large immigrant community, the people we spend more time now doing advocacy work on global affairs and concerns are people that weren’t born in this country, which is kind of a sad statement about natives to this country being so disinterested. There are faith communities that are more interested in—in these kind of issues. Jewish community has a long history of being refugees. They tend to be more sympathetic and interested in issues around genocide and refugee populations.
The Mennonites obviously—any discriminated against religious minority spend a lot of time with the Muslims now. Muslims in this country in the year 2000, split their vote 50/50 Gore/Bush. By the end of eight years of Bush, they were like ninety percent voting democratic. It just be—because they understand what’s going on in Pakistan. They know what’s going on in Turkey. Most Americans don’t pay any attention to that. So I may have gone way off course about environmentalism in Texas but the reality is it’s all interrelated.
The Environmental Justice str—str—struggles that are going on now are all interrelated and they’re all related to public health. So I have kind of this metaphysical commitment to defending creation against the rapists that are profiteers in this country. I also have the real pragmatic thing of the air pollution in Dallas-Fort Worth is so bad I’d rather spend my summer someplace else because I don’t want to deal with the high ozone levels. As an asthmatic, I can say that. As an asthmatic, I can say there’s a reason that 25 percent of the kids in Tarrant County are asthmatic.
It’s because of the air they’re breathing. And the public policy decision making process does not allow for us addressing those issues and concerns or they just don’t because they don’t care.
LB: So I loved my period—my first stint in the Dallas Peace Center which was ’87 to ’89 but I was exhausted. In the first place, anybody that was raised in Fort Worth really doesn’t want to spend that much time in Dallas. In the second place, I was returning late at night every night because there’s one community meeting, one issue you fight against for another. And I really needed to get a job with health insurance. This was a—a job with no benefits that I’d been doing for two—two years. And so I went to work for Texas Citizen Action, which is a canvass-based organization.
They worked primarily on consumer issues, which means we—went straight to the belly of the beast as far as the electric industry in this state. The electric industry in the state lied over scores of years, starting with going back to Senator Babe Schwartz. Mo—most people don’t know that there was an investigation of the illegal spying on opponents to the nuclear power plant, Comanche Peak in West Texas by DPS, orchestrated by TXU, this is all allegation, that company doesn’t exist anymore. Nobody’s going to sue me, right.
But the fact of the matter is Babe Schwartz did what Babe Schwartz could do in the early seventies, which is to launch an investigation of this abuse of power, of spying on private citizens that had lots of questions about the safety and practicality of a nuclear power plant. In reality, it was going to sto—cost half a billion and ended up to—costing 14 ½ billion. In the period that I went to work for Texas Citizen Action, we were focused on two issues, insurance and it’s totally in—inadequately regulated industry in the state, and opposition to the nuclear power plant.
How were we opposing it? They—through Construction Work In Progress, which the acronym is CWIP, they had been stalled on charging the consumers for their mismanagement and construction, but when they got to putting the plants online, they came through with almost a 25 percent rate increase within a two year period. Now for an activist organizer, it was a great experience. I can remember sometimes we’re sending forty college kids out a night trashing the electric company over utility rates.
And—and the fact of the matter is even the most uninformed suburban couch potato really does not like their insurance company and they don’t like the utility company because those represents bills every month. They kind of resent how high they are. And so it was great fun as an organizer leading these young people on the charge of attacking the utility company. But, in the end, the whole sy—I mean, we’ve kind of lost it in more recent years, but we have, through many struggles, kept it down to two nuclear power plants in the state.
And there was initiative—there’s always going to be a new initiative I guess—of starting new plants, but we were able to kill those as well. That requires citizen activism. If you understand the interconnectedness of how bad and some le—newer environmentalists don’t agree with this but I—I refute their assumptions—you got to stop these power plants. You got to encourage conservation. You got to encourage development of renewals. And if you talk about my legislative program, a lot of that was about encouraging renewables.
But during this period of time when I was with Texas Citizen Action, w—w—my passion was about fighting the nuclear power plant and trying to keep them from screwing the consumer. Of course, they got away with it. We fought them tooth and nail.
DT: Well, can you talk a little bit more about the opposition to—I guess this is mostly Comanche Peak, the—the power plant up in Glen Rose…
DT: …that y’all are working on, not so much South Texas Nuclear Project?
LB: Well when I was an undergraduate here at UT Austin, I spent a lot of time fighting the one in South Texas. But obviously when I moved back to Forth Worth after finishing my undergraduate work, I became pretty quickly involved—right after TMI—very involved in opposition to the Comanche Peak Plant in Glen Rose.
DT: TMI is Three Mile Island?
LB: Three Mile Island was an accident that occurred on Three Mile Island. Talk about absurdities. Even if you think it’s a good idea to build nuclear power plants, maybe you shouldn’t build them on bodies of water like Fukushima comes to mind. The—the one in California that’s on the beach and a fault line, maybe that’s bad site locating, not to mention that it’s a bad idea in the first place.
DT: Diablo Canyon?
LB: The—no, it’s San Luis Ob—I can’t say the name right now.
LB: Yeah, but you know—you know what I’m talking about. In South Texas, during the floods last year, the plant itself wasn’t flooded, but all the grounds that are owned by the utility surrounding the plant were flooded. What’s going to happen the next time? The last hurricanes in Florida—there was very serious concern about what kind of impact there would be. It’s just dumb to build these things.
DT: And—and so let’s see, part of your argument was just the cost mismanagement and—and then was the environmental arguments against—against this [overlapping conversation].
LB: Right, and you never win on environmental arguments. You win on economic issues. You win on people lying, ste—cheating and stealing, but it’s not a winning proposition to appeal to people on moral grounds. That’s where your get your activists. That’s where you the get people that—that are concerned about these issues. That’s where most environmentalists are coming from, but you don’t win the general public on those kind of arguments. You win the general public on this is just stupid. It’s economically unsound.
Oh, and, by the way, if they transport all that high level radioactive waste through Fort Worth, do you know that the way our train system is set up, it’ll probably sit there for 24-30 hours waiting there in the rail yards in Fort Worth. What kind of terrorist target is that? Do you really think that’s a smart thing to do? I can’t talk about all the other reasons to some people about why we should not be transporting all this high level nuclear waste across the country. But it—you can appeal to them on a NIMBY basis. Excuse me. I have to try to maintain a sense of humor about this it’s so bizarre.
DT: So—so while we’re ta—this is going to jump around a little bit in sequence, but—but this might be a good time to talk about your recent activism out near Andrews County and—and the waste depository that’s—that’s under construction. [overlapping conversation]
LB: Yeah, I ki—I kind of jumped from early nineties and bringing the Comanche Peak plant online to currently dealing with high level radioactive waste. And a lot of these plants are aging out. They’re going to be decommissioned and whoever owns it now, they want somebody else to take responsibility for this high level waste. I mean, we have open Pandora’s Box. There’s not really a whole lot we can do about it, but we can offload the responsibility onto somebody else and that’s exactly what all these companies are trying to do.
So you have a company that thinks they can make a profit doing this, wanting to collect all the high level radioactive waste and put it—the Holtec facility is in Southeastern New Mexico near Hobbs and Carlsbad. The other proposed facility is on the state line near Andrews, Texas. In both instances, a very high percentage of the nation’s waste would be transported through the Dallas-Fort Worth area because most of the waste is generated in the Midwest, New England, East Coast, the Southern East Coast still be coming through Houston and San Antonio.
I think this is a really bad idea. Getting Texans to pay any attention to this is not an easy proposition to do. But, once again, you’ve got public citizen, you’ve got Sierra Club, you got a handful of organizations that are doing the hard work of trying to prevent disaster.
DT: All right. So Lon, we—we’ve been talking about your work with Texas In Action and other nonprofit groups in opposing nuclear power and radioactive waste and—and—from, you know, the element of—of construction of a power plant to its decommissioning and the—the storage of its waste and the transport of the same. And—and I was wondering if you could talk about the—the challenges of trying to get these concerns before the public and get them interested and engaged. And, you know, is there a—do you have some insights there that you could share?
LB: I don’t know if I’d call them insights but these observations are the more obscure and less visible the toxic is, the harder it is to explain to people that they should be concerned. You cannot see radioactive poison. You can’t smell it. It was probably—I mean, the whole issue around Fukushima—people just don’t really acknowledge that in the interior U.S. but it’s a huge problem. The issue of—there are uncontrolled releases in virtually every manufacturing activity, including nuclear power production.
Those unscheduled releases are probably causing a higher incidence of cancer in the immediate downwind area of Glen Rose than are in other parts of the state. A different example of that is because of background radiation in New Mexico, New Mexicans have a much higher rate of cancer, almost all forms of cancers, than most of the rest of the country. But, in addition to that, there—the first civilian population that was bombed with a nuclear bomb, they’re the first civilian population that was sub—subjected to uranium mining and that’s so—consequences of uranium mining—they are at, you know, both ends of the uranium cycle—they’re—the mining itself and the bombs.
And I think the energy industry is just a point in between that. Many of us think that the whole purpose of trying to have centralized storage of nuclear waste is to produce more radioactive materials for more bombs. You know, this president is a sociopath and is—has us on the wrong path when it comes to nuclear weapons and their use. I think we’re in the most scary time we’ve in since the height of the Cold War for potential accidental nuclear war or at least one or two bombs.
You know, the one or two bombs go a long way towards completely disrupting the economy and people’s sense of security and lifestyles. So wh—that’s, again, maybe I’m not staying focused, but they’re all interrelated. It’s just like everything else in the environment. It’s just like John Muir said, they’re all interrelated. We have had a bad track record when it comes to recognizing the right way and the wrong way to produce energy. We want to produce energy, we want to harness energy, we want to focus its use so we can do less work and produce more, but you don’t need to be making nuclear power plants.
You don’t need to be—because of the waste. Just like in the process of the oil and gas industry, a lot of the waste could be controlled. Benzene is a carc—carcinogen, we just shouldn’t be producing it. We sure [inaudible 00:35:59] should not be putting it out for kids at [inaudible] High School in Houston to be breathing. But that’s not our value system. We say one thing but we do another and our value system is to put private profit before public health.
DT: It—it sounds like a lo—a lot of these environmental problems are often problems of decision making and political decisions essentially. And I—I—I understand that you’ve been involved in both helping campaigns for other people and also in—in running for your own spot in the Texas House. And I was hoping that you could talk a little bit about your assistance for Jim Hightower when he was running for public office and—and Lloyd Doggett, and maybe there are other candidates that you think have advanced a p—a environmental message while they’ve been serving the public.
LB: Well the kind of missionary zeal that I alluded to earlier about wanting to be a Southern Baptist missionary to China at one point in my young life, I redirected that and decided I had to go home and do good political work in Fort Worth. And my mission was to—to be a missionary to the—to the people that I grew up with. Jim Hightower, excuse me, Jim Wright was on his way to becoming Speaker. I was conc—extremely concerned about his relationship with the war industry, of which my father worked at Lockheed for General Dynamics for 37 years, so I’m not unfamiliar with the industry.
And there was the commitment to el—elect the right kind of people. Well I—I had done volunteer work, like I said, when I was in the sixth grade, again, Sissy Farenthold had a—a student [inaudible 00:37:49] headquarters right on campus. In the spring of ’72, I practically lived there. And it was just a natural progression that I helped do—organize a fundraiser for the Texas Observer when Hightower was editor of the Observer and then when he was going to run for Railroad Commission, I knew because I’d worked in state government for five years that it wasn’t about railroads.
It’s about regulating the oil and gas industry, which we do a totally inadequate job of. And it would be so easy for one of the most profitable industries in the world to absorb doing it the correct way, as opposed to the way they do things. Hightower would have done that. He scared the bojeezus out of the oil and gas industry with that run in 1980 because he almost beat the incumbent. And, you know, those almost wins, like this Beto race just now, they kind of whet your appetite for more competitive efforts.
And so Hightower lowered his sights, ran for the Ag Commission in ’82 and won. I was at the heart of that campaign in the Fort Worth area. And then I first did volunteer work for Lloyd Doggett in the summer of ’73 when I was an undergraduate, my first summer in Austin because he was this 27 year old great charismatic leader and he won special election for the state senate here in Austin. So when he was getting ready to run for U.S. Senate, I was all in. I mean, I spent 18 hour days for 18 months trying to elect Doggett to the U. S. Senate.
So I’ve just—by the time we get to 1992, I’d been doing this for twenty years pretty much. From ’72 as an undergraduate, you know, just steadily. It’s like I’m done. I’m going to do it myself. And so when I first ran for the legislature myself in ’92, did not beat the veteran that had been there since ’46. Ran against him again in ’94, did not beat him again. And finally I think I wore him out. He—and he didn’t seek reelection in ’96 so I—I sought reel—so I sought election. Won in a seven way race. Surprised a lot of the establishment.
I mean, I was opposed by the democratic congressman at the time, the democratic state senator at the time I was opposed because I’m pretty progressive—green. As—as one of my colleagues said at one point, Lon, you’d run as a Green Party candidate if you could get elected. I couldn’t argue that point. I’m basically green and I’m a democrat. At any rate, I won in ’96 and have—would generally consider the whole time I was there is the kind of the go-to person on environmental issues, not that people always agreed with me, not that we always passed the legislation, but I was kind of the center of gravity on this is the right thing to do.
And I think that’s one of the things I’m not willing to let go of. I visited with people in the Capitol this afternoon when I was there about environmental issues and I’m—since leaving the legislature, I’m on the Sierra Club Political Action Committee. I’m on the Clean Water Action Pack Committee. I did some volunteer work for the League of Conservation Voters. Those are the three environmental packs that operate in the state. [coughing] Excuse me. I’m really not sick. I’m just—
DT: Well let—let’s talk a little bit about your—your tenure in the house and, you know, it seems like there are—there are a couple of things that—that you can certainly talk about. One would be just the—the kind of legislation that you might have tried to carry and introduce about air or energy or water or, you know, can look about—at sort of the process of working with your fellow representatives and the whole structure of—of dealing with the—the—the protocol and the process of—of being a—a representative.
LB: Well, you know, unfortunately, by the time I got to the legislature, the democrats were on their way out. I had—excuse me.
LB: By the time I got to the legislature, the democrats were on their way out. Laney was able to hold onto his speakership for three more sessions, but I didn’t have the kind of seniority when I first got there. He had his team. And, frankly, Laney was great on a lot of issues, but he was never a great friend of the environment. I mean, anybody that would appoint Warren Chisum as Chair of the Environmental Reg Committee was not a great friend of the environment. So there was never really a lot of opportunities to pass significant legislation.
And then I had the audacity to be the only person to vote against Craddick when he was elected speaker in 2003 and that put me in outer Siberia as far as committee assignments and—and a welcome mat at the speaker’s office. I just thought it was the moral stand that needed to be taken. I—I’ve always thought him and his daughter [inaudible 00:43:35] on the Railroad Commission to be ethically challenged. And sp—but the interesting thing was he assigned me to agriculture and livestock.
Well Agriculture and Livestock Committee actually has more to do with environmental issues and concerns than the Insurance Committee, I mean, directly. Every little piece of legislation has its nuanced whatever. It was a fascinating committee for me because there was forestry issues. There’s volunteer fire department in a rural area issues. There’s just all sorts of issues that the gen—generally an urban legislator might not be interested I but I was interested in because it was about environmental concerns, frankly.
And I also, from my City and Regional Planning perspective, am concerned about the decl—economic decline of rural Texas, which is something that Laney always liked about me because I understood it and cared about it. I think we should be doing more to encourage ec—economic development in rural areas and—and offered legislation that some people might not think is environmental but, you know what, it makes sense to encourage young, recently completed graduate students to work in our rural communities, to help uplift these communities.
And that’s kind of the—my background in regional economic development is part of all of that. And I see it as environmental. I mean, it’s where and how people live is an environmental issue. I, you know, I care about the plants and the animals but I also care about what kind of lives people lead. And so that’s all related to economic development. So, you know, I never really passed very much legislation. I can remember my freshman year, my very first piece of legislation. There’s a—there’s a history of hazing the freshmen with their first bill.
Well my first bill to get to the floor was out of the Insurance Committee and it was amending the bad grammar in the insurance code—bad punctuation, bad grammar. And so one of my friends who had the license to tease me, got up from the back mic and railed about how I was going to do all this for the environment and I was going to make the world safe for democracy and wh—here, what are you doing? You’re carrying legislation to—and that is a part of the legislative process. If you don’t have any seniority, if you don’t have any standing with the Speaker, you’re not going to car—carry the significant, important piece of legislation.
It took me—I was in the legislature for six terms before I could get on environmental reg. I was at—or seven. And then I decided everything that was happening that was really important to my community was about the Barnett Shale so I shifted from one session on environmental reg to environmental energy—not environmental—but energy resources because in North Texas, we had been making entirely two slow progress on addressing air pollution issues but we were making progress all the way up through 2005.
Once the b—b—development of the Barnett Shale hit, it we—things started getting worse again as far as air pollution is concerned. And it’s because of the development of the industry and the fact that they’re not adequately regulated and unplanned emissions from every part of the industry. So I shifted my emphasis to wanting to be on Energy Resources. Could I pass any legislation? No. I frequently said while in the legislature, Texas state government’s a wholly owned subsidiary of the oil and gas interest. And it is.
You can’t get anything out of that committee that they don’t approve of. But I filed bills and I’d talk about the issues and I’d have hearings and—and, for me, my legislative experience was more as an organizer talking about issues and getting a public venue than it was about legislation that I could pass. I mean, I was banned from passing legislation under Craddick. The chair of the Local Consent Committee who I had a very friendly relationship went to me after she accidentally let one of my bills out of her committee.
She said you know I really got in trouble for that. It was the one bill that I got to the House floor and it just infuriated Craddick that I even had the—and it was—it was a—the irony of it was I was carrying it for a guy—it was an insurance bill. And it’s like I was carrying it for a guy who was a part of the industry. It was, I mean, it was good legislation. I’m not unproud of it, but it was like on the side of business. But Craddick so hated me for that vote.
DT: Well and do you think that part of your role in the—in the House was maybe more as—as—as you said, holding hearings and trying to educate the other representatives and—and maybe give a—a way for the public to express themselves or it was sort of a defensive strategy that you, you know, you tried to stop bad bills.
LB: I—I think all of the above. And clearly after Craddick became Speaker, it was always about stomping bad bills. That’s the only—the—the most you could hope for is killing bad legislation. But even before that, Elliott Naishtat, who was for 25-6 years a state representative here from Austin and a friend of mine before I got in to the legislature said, you know, Lon, there needs to be a—a—a moral compass. And Elliott was the first person to give me the notion that well maybe that’s my role, to be a moral compass.
And sometimes it’s as much about holding democrats accountable as republicans because you want to think that all the democrats have some sort of moral compass. You’re not sure that the republicans do. So I find a lot of the work is trying to talk to democrats. As Leticia Van de Putte once said look, Lon, you’re the—one of the best Mexicans in the legislature because I just—I was active in the Mexican American legislative caucus. I believed in those issues and concerns and I didn’t sell out for my personal special economic interest.
In—in any given situation, you never know who’s going to sell out. It’s kind of like the evolution of the Speaker’s race which was very short lived and ended this week. Which democrats sold their soul for a very small bowl of porridge in this Speaker’s race. I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t even vote for Craddick.
DT: But you—you felt like there—there was a role in the place [inaudible] of sort of a standard bearer benchmark for hey this is the right thing to do. If you don’t feel conflicted, follow my lead.
LB: And—and I have a really good friend in—in—in Fort Worth that says, you know, the legislature needs five or six people like Lon, but we couldn’t stand 75. And, I mean, it—it—one of my best supporters, best friends, there’s—there’s a role. McGovern had that role. You know, in ’72 when he ran for president, they attacked him for not passing any major legislation. Well okay, he didn’t but he had major impact. How much legislation has Bernie Sanders passed? Not a whole lot but has he had major impact as—as a U. S. Senator? Yeah.
I like to think that I was able to have some major impact. My favorite years I guess in the legislature now are the ones that were the hardest and the worst when Craddick was there and the democrats were unified in opposition. You know, it was the first time we had a republican Speaker since reconstruction. And now we’ve had three in a row or will have had three in a row.
DT: Well wh—could you maybe outline some of the bills that you—you worked on, I mean, that—that may not have gotten to the floor but some that—that you felt would have been good improvements in the area of water or air or energy or other sort of public health or environmental needs?
LB: My last two or three sessions, I always had a package of bills related to energy production. And those were potentially the most important. I know my next to last session, the governor’s staff came in and said if you would just get the phrase “climate change” out of your legislation, we wouldn’t have to kill it the day you file it. So that kind of tells you the—the work environment I was living in but none of those pieces of legislation were going to go anywhere because the oil and gas industry is so influential in this state.
They control the legislative process here. But they were all important. There were ideas that—some of them borrowed from municipal regulations. You know, Denton actually passed a ban which I encouraged the activists not to do—a ban on drilling in the city. The backlash to that that oil and gas orchestrated was House Bill 40, probably the worst piece of legislation passed my entire time in the legislature from the standpoint of what it does to undermine local control and the ability to protect people on an environmental basis.
But it is—it was the piece of legislation that the oil and gas industry came up with in response to this election victory that they had in Denton, Texas that suburban republicans supported because of the NIMBY perspective that they didn’t want those facilities right next to their neighborhoods. But the overall Republican Party is another animal.
DT: And so th—this—this Bill 40 w—w—would have or—or did [overlapping conversation] precludes or trumps local ordinances?
DT: And—and you think there have been some spillovers from beyond Denton and beyond the sort of energy production realm?
LB: I’m not sure I understand your question.
DT: Well I—I think you said that this is—is a—a—a—was a bad bill or bad law and I—it sounds like it was for reasons beyond trying to—to regulate where oil and gas laws might be located in the Denton area to things that are beyond oil and gas laws and beyond Denton. Is that true?
LB: Right. It’s statewide impact obviously, it’s state legislation and it has a negative impact on any local government’s ability to—to regulate in its own interest. And so TML, Texas Municipal League, was on the right side from an environmental standpoint until they capitulated when they realized they couldn’t stop the bill so they were just trying to make it less horrible, which is the nature of politics and the legislative process. So a lot of times you just try to make things less horrible.
The little loss that I had in Fort Worth last night trying to defend our Botanic Garden Center—we were just trying to keep there being a general admission fee on kids. And now because of the economic political climate in Texas, our Botanic Gardens, which have been free for 85 years—since their creation back during the Depression—there’s going to be a twelve dollar fee for adults. And I knew a year out this is a battle to try to mitigate against a bad policy that’s going to be implemented. Sierra Club was against it. Audubon Council was against it.
The League of Women Voters was against it. The Cesar Chavez Committee was against it—all because of the perspective on this. But that’s—that’s the nature of the political process. You frequently are doing good to get a third of the loaf.
DT: Well tell us a little bit more about a third of a loaf in—I’ve got—I’ve got maybe some examples of—of bills that I think you worked on in 2013. And you mentioned energy. Maybe we could start there. I think that one example I thought was—was intriguing was House Bill 380 which involved surveys of oil and gas pipelines to try and see I guess whether they might be leaking because I know a number of them are coming to the end of their useful life and—and they’re having incidents and leaks.
LB: Well this—the origins of this legislation was really about the Barnett Shale because—and this is bad economics as well—you have the economics of what’s in the public good. The public good is to not waste the resource; the public good is to make sure that it’s taxed. The private good is they want to get as much as they can, as fast as they can, and if they lose a little bit since it wasn’t really theirs in the first place, they didn’t produce it, it was produced underground by some other entity—they don’t care how much it leaks. They don’t have to pay taxes on it.
They just want to get it out of there as quickly as possible. So, you know, whether it’s talking about Three Mile Island or the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico with British Oil who wa—
DT: Deepwater Horizon?
LB: Yeah, or—or your local activity. I say it’s the valve, stupid, because it’s a lack of maintenance and monitoring of the valves is what causes the jump in air pollution in 2005. If they’d just monitor these things and try to minimize the amount of leakage into the air. I mean, the whole principle behind the vapor recovery gas pumps is to keep the vapor recovered and keep it from escaping out in the atmosphere. Well basically you’re not going to have a vapor recovery gasket thing over everything but you can at least tighten the valves and you can at least seal for leakage.
And—and it’s—it’s so minor in the scheme of things, but there’s estimates that it could reduce lossage by 75 percent. And, of course, they opposed it. The oil and gas industry opposes any regulation on principle. That’s their principle. Government stay out of our business. We’re going to pump it as quick as we can. We’re going to make as money as we can and we don’t give a damn who we kill in the process.
DT: I—I was—I was also interested in—in I think it’s called House Bill 2633 that came through in 2013. And—and that I thought was—was intriguing because you were sort of segmenting the—the oil and gas industry. You were—you were asking for oil and gas operators to pay damages to landowners, to mineral rights owners, in case of spills or other toxic events. And I—I thought that was something that maybe we could talk a little bit about.
LB: A lot of that legislation—that was the first session—the only session—I was on in a re—Energy Resources. And a lot of it was inspired—my friends who have property that, because of the way the laws work here, they don’t have any choice but to let people do exploration on the land. What they want to do is protect their land. You have a lot of property owners that are really angry at the oil and gas industry. And so I was doing something to try to be protective of them and helpful to them.
Because of the abuse of imminent domain, a person that has several acres of—of post oaks can discover that they’re all cut down for a 30 foot wide pipeline—of a—a pipeline’s not 30 foot wide but the right-away. And so the intent of that legislation was—or the inspiration was coming from property owners. You know, everybody loves to get those royalty checks but nobody likes for their land to be destroyed in the process and there just needs to be better regulation.
DT: Well, speaking of—of rights of way, I think that there was another bill that involved energy but not oil and gas. And it was a—I think it’s House Bill 3609 that was encouraging TexDOT to develop alternative routes for transporting hazardous waste or radioactive waste through these—the larger Texas cities. And I—I gather that ties back to your work with Andrews County and, of course, earlier with Comanche Peak.
LB: Yeah, my entire legislative career had this black cloud over it which is opposing the nuclear waste dump in Andrews, Texas. When Laney was Speaker, my first three terms, I was able to kill the legislation in part because Laney didn’t like Harold Simmons, the billionaire right wing republican from Dallas. And so he was helpful, as was his Calendar’s Committees. One year we killed a—it nearly made it out of the last Calendar’s Committee and it would have passed because people don’t pay any attention to these things.
But we killed it in committee. When Craddick became Speaker, he’s from Midland. He was committed to this economic engine for Andrews County. And it was pushed through by a guy that didn’t even understand the legislation. He’s deceased now so I hate speaking badly of the dead but he didn’t know his own legislation, which is not that all—that’s not uncommon in the Texas legislative process. He didn’t understand his legislation. He was carrying it because it was his district. He didn’t understand the nuances.
If I would try to get up and talk about an issue, the members on the House floor don’t really want to be bothered with that because hey, it’s way out in West Texas. We don’t care. And so the bill that passed in 2003 was actually worse than the bill that I killed in 2001. And then after 2003, each successive legislation or session under Craddick—it got worse and worse. You have the original authorizing legislation and then they just—I mean, basically they’re stealing the state blind and the legislature is the accomplice sh—or the accomplices in this process because if there’s any accident, we’re going to get stuck with it. I—it—it’s—Ralph Nader refers to the concept of corporate socialism.
This is a classic example of corporate socialism. They’re going to transfer all—they’re going to make all the profits and then they’re going to transfer all the liabilities to the State of Texas. And nobody in state government is paying attention to this. They don’t really want to. And almost all of the republicans and some of the democrats got a lot of money not to pay any attention. I don’t know if you remember that—I’ll paraphrase it. It’s a quote from Molly Ivins talking about—it’s not what they do, it’s what they’re bought off not to do in fulfilling their responsibilities in the legislative process.
And it happens over and over again, which is the reason I’m kind of glad not to be there anymore.
DT: Well let’s talk about another bill that—that involves energy. I—I think that there was a—an effort that you were part of through HB 3598 in 2013 again, that would have raised the penalties for Railroad Commission penalties. And I guess trying to make the cost fit the benefit that—that a violator might [overlapping conversation].
LB: Yeah, I mean, if you look at it—at—at any sort of cost benefit analysis, any business decision making, it’s worth it to them to violate the law to pay the—the di—almost negligible penalty, and it doesn’t cover the cost of doing business. The Railroad Commission is an agency that should more than pay for its overhead. They are in the position—you, I mean, you can’t have Child Protective Services pay for its overhead. We’ve got to protect children, right. And it’s not going to—nobody’s going to pay for it except for the state government.
In the case of these agencies that are supposed to regulate things like the Railroad Commission, they should be able to pay their entire way. We shouldn’t have to take anything out of general fund to pay for this agency.
DT: I guess we’ve been talking about energy production and supply. I think there’s HB 3602 that provided—would have provided energy efficiency grants I guess to—to increase conservation, lower demand. Can you talk a little bit about the ideas behind that bill?
LB: In a strange way, that goes back to my first job out of graduate school. I was in the Office of—the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development in the City of Fort Worth and I was responsible to help provide technical assistance to small businesses in these economically marginalized inner city neighborhoods. Well a lot of these places are in older structures. They’re not well insulated and energy costs for a lot of small businesses is disproportionately high for their overall operating costs. I mean, we all know that your first major cost is labor.
Then you may pay a major cost for whatever material or—or supply [inaudible 01:05:40] you pay cost for rent, but utilities are way up there for these—particularly in older buildings. And while I love older buildings from the standpoint of a lot of things, they all need some retrofitting. And basically I was trying to address the same thing. If you provide people the opportunity to save money, they will. But a lot of times they can’t afford the infrastructure that’s needed to get started. I don’t think that bill passed either.
DT: Well le—let’s talk a little bit about, which I—I know has always been a big issue in Texas and, in particular in Dallas-Fort Worth. Earlier when we were talking, you—you mentioned that—that you’ve been working against the—a reservoir on behalf of—of Stuart Henry and—and I was hoping that you might be able to return to those days and—and describe what that dam was about.
LB: Well the dam was about somebody making a lot of money out of lake lots. And one can argue whether or not the lake was needed. I use this line a lot in reference to North Texas. We have the highest per capita of water use of any urban area in the world and it’s because we waste so much on St. Augustine lawns and blah, blah, blah. But, I mean, these things can be measured. Now the Tarrant County Water Con—District is making some progress over the last ten years but we just waste a lot of water.
We wouldn’t need nearly as many dams if we just were better at water conservation. San Antonio’s probably one of the urban areas that—in the country that’s best at water conservation because they’ve dealt with dry periods for so long and they understand the importance there. I think this legislation, if I’m rim—remembering correctly, you know, you have your personal water conservation and then you have your water systems.
And most of our systems are old enough now that they’re losing 20 to 25 percent of the water as it goes through the system, trying to get from the lake reservoir to your flushing your toilet. And so there’s a, you know, there’s a lot of lip service given to infrastructure needs but it really is a huge infrastructure need. We need to do better at conserving water within the context of our water systems, not just watering your lawns, but the systemic issues as well.
DT: So this would involve I guess water audits, trying to [overlapping conversation]—
LB: And if you know anything about a municipal water system, you—you understand the—there’s a way that you can audit loss. And it could be as simple as the pipe in front of my house under the street is leaking as much water as is getting to my house or it could be a much bigger systemic problem. And we all know that due to various things, you have water leaks, you have wa—water line breaks and that sort of thing. So just investing in the infrastructure could go a long ways towards saving a lot of water.
DT: I think that there was also a bill that you sponsored in—in HB—it was HB 252 back in 2013, to encourage water utilities to report times when their supplies fell under about a six month period. What was the thought behind that?
You know, I—I honestly—I don’t even remember that bill. I mean, I’ve filed way too many le—pieces of legislation for me to remember them—I average forty or fifty bills per session and it’s like—I had a—kind of an open door policy. I had a whole lot of interns and they all had a right to develop two or three bills that they wanted to work on, which means I carried a lot of legislation that had no hope of passing, which, if you were a smart investor, you wouldn’t do because the lobby looks at your—the lobby looks at your win-loss record as a legislator that files bills.
And they invest appropriately. They invested in me because I killed a lot of bills. They didn’t invest in me because I passed a lot of bills. Is that cynical sounding? It is. I am cynical. I spent eighteen years on the Texas legislature. I think it’s fundamentally a corrupt system.
DT: Well you—you mentioned ho—how you—you enabled your interns to work on bills, develop bills, help you in—introduce them. Can you talk a little bit about how your—your office worked—the in—sort of internal mechanics of it?
LB: You know, every legislator is kind of a free agent and can do a lot of things within the—certain parameters—to set up an office and run it the way they want to. I—well my mom said she wanted me to be a teacher rather than go into politics. So I’ve always had that bent to be the teacher—she was a school teacher. I look at the pe—teaching people the process is—is an important role. And so I always had interns. In my—my district office I had—always had social work interns because they’re learning how to solve people’s problems and teach people how to solve their own problems.
I started but it died because I didn’t get it started until late in my legislative career—an environmental law internship program where we had some really bright graduate students and law students doing some really good work and only getting a—a very limited stipend during the legislative session. But they would literally, you know, stay out of law school for semester or stay out of graduate school for a semester. But I always wanted to have a Mexican-American legislative caucus intern, any intern I could get.
So I would have seven or eight, nine people at my office, whereas some members would only have two or three. Mine were paid at exploited rates of various and sundry. But I was providing an educational opportunity. And everybody had a right to pick on some—you know, it wouldn’t be anything I would disagree with, but it may not be the thing that I was most interested in either. I didn’t really initially want to get into anti-death penalty work but I had an intern that spent his first 14 or 15 years in Iran and witnessed a public execution.
And he was kind of obsessed on opposing the death penalty. And I gave him kind of free reign. And when it’s all said and done, I ended up carrying, for three sessions, legislation in opposition to executing juvenile offenders. Well it’s pretty barbaric. I think the death penalty, in general, is barbaric but it’s pretty barbaric to execute a 16 year old when they’re at 28—or when they’re 28 for a crime that they committed when they were 16. Once the Supreme Court said it was illegal to do this and made it unconstitutional then a republican chair of a committee said well we’ll let those—that legislation out.
A more senior member’s bill passed, but why am I going off on this? It’s a kind of an extreme example of I always encourage initiative in the people in my office and that meant allowing them the opportunity to work on bills that they wanted to. And then, of course, I always carried crap for Smitty at Public Citizen. The, you know, Smitty would try to shop these bills out and the last day of filing when nobody else would take it, I would file it. So there was the Smitty bills that some of my st—
DT: Give us an example of Smitty bills.
LB: Oh God, I can’t remember but all of them were really good ideas that would never pass the Texas legislature. Early on when we were trying to educate people about mercury and mercury poisoning, which is really about coal fired plants and dumping mercury in our water supply, I carried legislation to regulate therm—thermometers because of the mercury in them. And—and it was just—we’ve got to get people, you know—Smitty’s visionary. And it’s always about what can we get people thinking about this session so we can actually pass something meaningful in next session.
And sometimes it would work and sometimes it wouldn’t. But, on more than one occasion, I referred to these, okay, this a Smitty bill. We’ve got to file. We’ve got to try to get a hearing. It—there’s no way it’s going to pass. Neither did my Burma bill, you know. I’ve carried more foreign policy related legislation than is normal and all of it had to do with human rights struggles internationally. And legislation was passed in some states designing boycotts against certain human rights abuse countries.
And my Burma bill, I had a great hearing in late April, which means it had no chance of probably getting out of committee, much less passing. But it was—gave the Burmese immigrant community an opportunity to have their day in the legislative process. You talk about human rights abuses in Burma, I—I carried in—I am proud of this one and some people don’t see how it’s related to environmental issues but, you know, I—I—I’ve always been opposed to slavery.
Most people I know are, at least in the abstract, but most people didn’t know and I talked a lot about in 2003, there were more people in this country living in de facto slavery, not de jour, than there were living in slavery at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. That’s a pretty horrendous fact. But I brought in a—a guy that had written the seminal book on modern day slavery and Texas ended up being the second state in the country to pass anti-slavery legislation in the 21st century. Go figure. That’s not the progressive Texas, you know.
It was a peculiar set of circumstances that and—and tragic circumstance because it was flound—it was languishing, you know, when there was an incident involving a bunch of people that were being transported in a 18-wheeler in, you know, 20 or 30 of them died. And when Leticia Van de Putte heard about it, she yanked that bill out of committee. It ended up getting reformulated, reprocessed. And once that legislation passed in 2003, the Dean of the Democratic Caucus, Senfronia Thompson, who is African-American female decided it was her issue.
So the white guy that initiated the process stood aside and said, okay. And—and—and she also has had the power of she’s been chair of local consent committees so she can kind of bully anybody she wants to out of the way to get that legislation passed. But until that legislation, State of Washington was the only state to have passed anti-slavery legislation. Now people are generally aware there are huge trafficking issues. It’s a—a—tremendous problem in this country. A lot of teenagers are victimized by it because they’re—they find themselves kicked out of their homes or they decide they can’t stay.
Anyway, they’re out on the street. Sex trade—trafficking—there’s also a problem with—and the reason it came home to me was, once again, it was a neighborhood issue. We had a situation where it was Hondurans exploding Hondurans at a Honduran bar on the north side of Fort Worth. They—basically they were prostituting them and the women—you—sometimes you just don’t notice things—but one of the houses was in my block and we just hadn’t noticed what was going on until the SWAT team was there.
Well my middle class neighborhood was horrified to find out that there were two houses in our neighborhood were—these women were being sexually exploited and being held— basically blackmailed, kidnapped. So there was a whole development around that, including having the social work intern at—working in my district office work with retraining police because very often traditional police mindset is not to notice that the hooker is the victim. And, in this case, these women were all victims. They were in this country.
They didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t have papers. They were scared. And there were threats against their families in the villages in Honduras. And that happens a lot in this state. Ne—there’s Chinese trafficking rings. A lot of those ads in the back of your weekly newspapers are really about human trafficking.
DT: Well this is—I—I think it’s really fascinating because it gives me an idea of—that you were sort of an open shop, whether it was a good idea from an intern or it was a good idea from Smitty, that, you know, you would try to help it see the light of day at the legislature. And I—I was wondering if we could go back to Smitty and if th—are there any other examples of Smitty legislation that—
LB: Well, you know, I’m not thinking of any right now. The m—the mercury was like—was both the one that made the most sense and co—could have, should have passed. But there’s all sorts of stuff that, over the years, we would file and we know that we would be doing good to get a hearing on it.
DT: Well maybe we could use the—the example of the mercury in the thermometers as a segue to later, talking about mercury emissions from power plants to—to talk about that kind of strategy of looking at legislation as a multi-session process, that, you know, you—you introduce something easy to educate people in the first session. And then it gets more complicated and closer to your target as sessions go on. And did you use that kind of approach very often?
LB: Yeah, and this is something we haven’t talked about that really influenced my approach to both being director of the Dallas Peace Center and my legislative process. Soon after I got elected to the legislature, some of my Quaker friends said, you know, you need to get involved with Friends Committee on National Legislation. I thought I ha—don’t have time to put one more thing on my plate. And they kept bugging me. So I went to a yearly meeting in Washington, D. C. and began to realize that, like any professional organization, you ne—you need that annual retreat to kind of refocus and learn what you’re doing.
And they served as a real important influence for my role as Director of the Dallas Peace Center, but they also really helped me develop a long haul perspective on some of the legislative initiatives that we’re trying to do. If you understand the history of the Civil Rights Movement, if you understand the history of the Anti-Nuclear Bomb Movement, I mean, it—it was a long campaign and struggle to stop above ground testing. Now people kind of get that at an intuitive level—that’s probably really stupid, but it took a couple of decades to get to that point, to have it banned.
And so the—I—I am still very active with Friends Committee on National Legislation. They’re celebrating their 75th anniversary year. They were founded in 1943. They are really good at helping me keep a perspective on this is long haul. And this is not a—a—in the Texas legislature, it’s kind of known any major piece of legislation is not going to pass for two or three sessions. It’s very common. You’ve got to get people used to the idea of this makes sense. You have to have it in this committee two or three years.
And so the—Smitty got that—I think the Sierra Club gets that. Going back to my organizing on clean air issues, they’re just—the—there’s going to be more bad come out of the Trump Administration than anything else, but there’s going to be some good and that’s the learning experiences that people are having. If you’ll look at the diversity of the democratic caucus now, if you’ll look at the number of women that are going to be in congress for the first time ever. Now I hope they’re also environmentalists.
It’s not a given but, from a Sierra Club pact, Clean Water Action Pact perspective, we supported most of those new democrats that got elected to the Texas legislature substantially, both with money and volunteer time. And so that’s looking to the long haul.
DT: Okay. Well I think we talked a little bit about energy and water and earlier air quality initiatives. I—maybe we can talk, not just about the internal dynamics of your office but also about how you get elected, you know, how you organize your [overlapping conversation] and how you paid for it?
LB: How did a Quaker from Cow Town, which is the defense weapons industry capital of the world who doesn’t eat beef, get elected? I didn’t tell them that I didn’t eat beef before th—I had to. And I didn’t tell them that I was a pacifist before I had to. So in 1996 when I finally won, I had been very active in the local Democratic Party and in local democratic campaigns since 1976, so people knew me and liked me. They knew that I did a lot of volunteer work and, you know, they—we—I just didn’t talk about my pacifism, except for when it was convenient to do so.
And I didn’t talk about the fact that, from an environmental standpoint, I don’t eat beef. I do sometimes but I avoid eating beef. I avoid veeding—I—my term—phrase is I avoid anything off the hoof because anything off the hoof is just too high on the scale of water consumption and energy consumption and, you know, the—the—the rape of the rainforest in South America is directly related to the excessive hamburger eating in this country. So I don’t eat beef and I choose when to talk about it and who I talk about it to.
DT: So part of your effort when you—you run for office is to tell people what they need to know about how they [overlapping conversation]—
LB: Oh here’s a classic. Here’s a classic. Fort Worth has two religious seminaries—Southwestern Baptist Seminary and Texas Christian University Seminary. And the Southern Baptist Seminary is in the district that I represented for eighteen years. And the first time I ran, somebody it—not at all in common in Fort Worth for somebody to ask you where you go to church—and I kind of go [clearing throat] oh well, I go to a little, small faith community that meets at the Methodist Student Center on the Texas Christian University campus and that’s almost good enough for some of the Baptists, but not quite.
But it’s like I didn’t even try to explain what a Quaker is. I just threw in the Methodist and the Disciples of Christ and hoped it would be good enough. By the same token, that same election cycle, there was a woman that answered her door in curls and looked like what you would have as a stereotype frumpy housewife, right. But when she immediately asked me where I was on 2106, I thought mm, I’ve either hit a homerun or I am damned to hell. 2106 is the sodomy law. It was a lesbian. And it’s like I was [inaudible 01:26:21] on the issue as far as she was concerned.
I was going to answer the question but I would have never have brought up 2106 in casual conversation, you know. You just—you pick what you talk about. And all politicians do. Even Beto as honest—as straightforward as he is, I wish he’d been a little less straightforward in some of his comments—he might be senator elect if he had been.
DT: And—and so how do you—also do you, when you’re presenting yourself to the public and, you know, a lot of folks’ concerns are probably pocketbook or—or health or education, but you have interests in environmental stuff as well, but sometimes that doesn’t rise to the—maybe the top of mind for most people. How do you present that package?
LB: Oh, I almost never—I almost never talk about environmental issues as a candidate. And the one time that I did, which was an interesting experience, was during the 2000 presidential election. You may have heard that George Bush was running for president and he was the Governor of Texas. And he had a horrible record on public education. He had a horrible record on healthcare issues and he had a horrible record on the environment.
And in the swing states, the Democratic National Committee that was funding taking the Texas Truth Squad all around and I went to several states, spent a lot of time out of state—out of Texas that year—they wanted me to talk about the environment. But, by and large, Democratic Party doesn’t want to talk about that issue. By and large, the general public doesn’t want to hear about those issues so you talk about public schools, you talk about healthcare, you talk about job opportunity in a—in a democratic district. Those are the things you always talk about.
But that particular year, they prohibited me from saying what I really wanted to talk about which is if George Bush gets in the White House, he’s going to start a war. I knew that from serving with him. I knew that about his personality. And, sure enough, he used 9/11 as an excuse to do what he wanted to do before he got sworn into office. And I’m not saying that I’m a genius or a good procras—not a good—I can’t forecast well but I knew this.
And so while I was allowed to talk about the environment in Washington State and Minnesota and Wisconsin I was allowed to talk—but I wasn’t allowed to talk about the fact this fucker’s going to start a war. Most important issue on a national level. And I even say today, okay, Trump is really, really, really bad but, you know, he hasn’t actually start—started a shooting war yet. And, by this time in Bush’s Administration, he had. Oh yeah, think about it. We haven’t actually gone to war yet.
DT: Well and may—this—this may be naïve but I—I’m just curious why—it—it seems like there’s—there’s broad support for environmental causes. It sort of, you know, national parks are considered one of America’s best ideas. You know, most people have—have a Boy Scout or a Girl Scout that they know or who was in their family. They—I think there’s some connection and—and understanding of environmental matters, but it never seems to be decisive for people’s choices in—in an election. So I was wondering why—why is that? Why is it [overlapping conversation]?
LB: Well, in—in rare communities, it can re—rise to the top—three issues of concern. I worked for a legislator from Houston back in ’73 and he did, you know, that kind of self-selected polling in this district where they’d turn in the questionnaires. Twenty-five percent of the people from this district favored jailing corporate executives that contributed to the air pollution in Houston. That was 1973. But, by and large, you don’t talk about environmental issues except for a postscript down there at the bottom when you’ve already covered the main things.
And, you know, in basic debate, they tell you don’t cover more than three issues. So the three issues that DNC wanted us to talk about this time around—Texas Truth Squad, you had democratic school board members, you had democratic ca—elected officials that were involved in health issues, and you had me doing environment. So that’s what they allowed us to talk about, but that was the targeting of 2000. I never really talked about environmental issues when I was first running for office unless it was to my supporters, not to the general public.
I mean, my supporters in Fort Worth, they knew my parents, they knew my—my work—I had—I—I always represented a majority of Hispanic district, but I got a lot of Hispanic support from word go, because, as one couple said, we know you and we know his father. We know you’ve been doing advocacy work for us for twenty years, neighborhood advocacy, consumer issues, and we knew his father. And so that would be kind of the closest I would come to talking about environmental issues. This is what I’ve done with my adult life for the last twenty years.
You can count on me to represent that. But that wasn’t in any of the mailers. I was attacked for being a Quaker, but it’s Fort Worth, you know, what can you say.
DT: Well let’s talk a little bit about another aspect of—of getting elected and besides securing votes, you got to raise a lot of money. And—and I was looking at the amount that it costs to win your district and it starts out eighty, ninety thousand dollars and then it, you know, over the years, it—it creeps up till I think the last election was over three hundred thousand dollars.
LB: How much did I spend?
DT: Over three hundred.
LB: To lose? That money could have been better spent.
DT: Well so, do you have any comments about campaign finance and—and how some of these costs can be controlled?
LB: Oh it’s obscene. It’s obscene. And—and, you know, I—I—I, you know, I’m afraid we’ve destroyed our democracy. The Supreme Court ruling on the money into things electoral, I’m—I’m not sure we’re ever going to be able to recover from that. I think we survived it during the Obama years because there’s an Obama bump, the charisma factor. I think Beto’s campaign was as important for the grassroots fundraising that he was able to do and his refusal of PAC money.
I think that’s part of the reason Bernie Sanders’ campaign was incredibly important, but I’m not sure we haven’t already lost the republic. I mean, I hate to be so pessimistic because I’m supposed to be talking about the future. But it’s really grim.
DT: And—and your concern is that—that money interests will control the outcome of selections, not—?
LB: Right. I—I’m one of the last people that, I mean, there are not very many people that come from the relative meager economic situation that I was coming from in 1996 to run and win. And I know in ’96, I might not have won, had it not been for a ten thousand dollar gift from Don Henley of the Eagles. Don Henley’s supported a lot of environmental candidates in Texas over the years.
And about two and a half weeks before my runoff in ‘96, a ten thousand dollar check came in the mail and I said something to the effect, screw fundraising, it’s all about Geo TV because that was more money than I knew how to spend intelligently back in those days. Ten thousand dollars in two weeks. That was, you know, money from heaven, literally. But now it— particularly if it’s a competitive race in November, you’re talking, at minimum, 350 thousand, maybe half million for a Texas House seat. That’s kind of shocking.
DT: So one of the other things I think that—that politics is known for in—in Texas and, in particular, in your district, is—is gerrymandering. And—and I was hoping that you might be able to give us some insight into how that might affect who gets elected and which constituents get represented, and what topics get—get treated, and—and how environmental matters get discussed.
LB: Most people lack a good sense of history behind why things have evolved the way they have. Gerrymandering is a term that goes back to maybe the nineteenth century or further back. But the reality is a really important piece of progress was the legislation that came out of the Civil Rights Movement in the sixties was a commitment to empower minority communities. And one of the thinkings there was you had to draw legislative districts that—and congressional districts—that gave them an opportunity to elect one of their own. I’m all for that.
Nuances of that over the decades has been they now think it’s got to be 65 percent Hispanic in order to guarantee a Hispanic winning or something like that. So the lines get manipulated for—I went through two redistricting processes while I was in the legislature. The first one was much more open and fair. It was run by Laney as opposed to tw—2010 when it was run by the republicans.
In 2000, the democrats and republicans of Tarrant County sat down and we worked from the premise that there had to be a majority African-American district, there had to be a majority Hispanic district, just because of where the demographics were, and then things would fall out from there. Well that worked fine and I represented a co—when it—when this district was—that I represented was first created by a federal judge back in ’78, that’s when we went from at large districts in Tarrant County to single member districts, it was considered a coalition district.
It was majority Hispanic and African-American and they could decide between themselves who they wanted to support. As reality has evolved, statistically speaking, African-Americans ha—had almost rather vote for a white name than a Hispanic name. And so the reality about my election is I got overwhelming support—my election in ’96—from the African-American community—I’m a life member of the NAACP—that helped a little bit. The Anglo community—I had run for three times and every old codger in the district said I’ll vote for you when Doyle’s not running anymore.
And I got a lot of support from the Hispanic community just because of my community organizing. But fast forward, when you do that all over the state, now you are minimizing the number of democrats that can get elected. Tarrant County only has three democrats. All three of th—out of ten—all three of them represent majority minority districts. But if you can figure the lines a different way, it’s a very even split in Tarrant County. Beto carried Tarrant County by half a percentage point. So, in theory, instead of three, there should be five democrats.
But because of our commitment and I’m—I’m not disowning this commitment—I think we need to adhere to this commitment—I knew when I got elected that I would be replaced by a Hispanic and I knew that it was my job to find a progressive Hispanic to replace me. I hadn’t found that Hispanic and I got replaced by a not progressive Hispanic, but a Hispanic that just wanted to be in the office, which is true of a lot of people—I don’t care what your demographics, there are people that just—they want to hold an office, they want the recognition, the need the ego stripe.
They don’t really want to work and use—use the office. So gerrymandering is a problem. It’s really hard to get to a—another place because the very elected officials that benefit from the gerrymandering are the ones that would have to change the rules. They’re not going to change the rules, which is the reason all reform legislation is difficult because—and it’s the reason elected officials don’t spend very much time doing voter registration. It’s like hey, this electorate has elected me nine times now, why would I want to change anything. So there you have it.
D—di—district—I wanted to keep an African-American community in District 90 that was taken out not—it could easily interpreted as self-serving—but the reality is I was raised out on the west side of Fort Worth. I grew up knowing about this African-American community. I saw the apartheid wall when I was growing up. I saw the demonstrations at the local movie theatre to desegregate. I did volunteer work at the Baptist Church in the black community there. So I have a passion about this particular community, which is they deserve to be represented in the legislature.
Because of gerrymandering, they are in a state senate district that is dominated by Denton County. That’s outrageous. They were taken out of District 90 and put in a republican district and the republican that represented them then says Lon, you can have them back. I don’t want them. It cost me too much barbecue. No subtleness in that racism. Yeah, you know, it’s funny. People think I’m white but I’m really kind of sensitive to these issues and I’m really offended by a lot of things I hear—or heard from my colleagues over the years.
White people are just friggin’ clueless on race issues and they assume just because you’re white, you agree with them. At any rate, th—th—the seat that I represented wa—it was the only one that they overturned in the courts. And so it is the only district that’s going to have to be redrawn in this upcoming legislative session, which will be very interesting because I will testify to keep this African-American district in District 90 because I think it’s a very compact, majority African-American, now a third Hispanic, neighborhood on the white side—I mean west side of Fort Worth.
I was raised on—out on the white side—West Fort Worth—and I understand the socie—socioeconomic situation there. So, I mean, there’s no perfect way to do districting. Re—re—the way we’re doing it now is really very bad because it’s pretty much, as you can tell from all over the country, controlled by whoever’s in control.
DT: You—you mentioned the—the role of—of the African-American and Hispanic community in politics and I was curious about it from the sort of lens of—of environmental protection if—if you see much environmental racism as—as sort of an element in pollution and—and public health issues in—in the state?
LB: Oh yeah. [laughter] I mean—
DT: I had to ask.
LB: I mean, you had to ask to set me up but yes. Now I’m prejudiced by an academic experience I had. My urban geographer professor when I was in graduate school was a Caribbean—black Caribbean Marxist. He gave me a tour of my hometown and I saw it in a way I had never seen it before. The reason there’s a black neighborhood on the north side of Fort Worth—it’s immediately downwind from the stockyards. And the lowest end wage workers at the stockyards were African-American.
So they’ll live there. It is also true that up until World War II, Hispanics were not allowed to buy west of Main Street in Fort Worth on the north side. Keep them over there in the stockyards. That’s environmental racism going back to the early part of the last century. And you—you can see that in every urban community in Texas. The minority communities, the low income housing, are all downwind from the sources of pollution.
DT: That’s a lot of [inaudible] communities that are near industry.
LB: Look—look at who lives in East Houston now next to the shit—I mean, ship channel. Look who lives in the flood regions of Dallas—African-Americans. Look who gets the landfill dumped here in Austin, East Austin. I mean, yeah, there’s—I mean, the reason I’m excited about this group that’s getting formed in Dallas is so many of these issues, environmental justice issues, have such a clear and obvious element of racism in them. And I just go back to my first activism is I was for Johnson instead of Goldwater because he was for civil rights, you know.
And that was 1964 and fast forward, it’s still about Civil Rights struggles.
DT: Well we—we’ve talked a bit about legislation and your work at the House. And I was wondering if you could talk briefly about your run in 9—2016 as a democratic candidate for the Railroad Commission?
LB: Well I lo—I lost the democratic nomination in 2014 to the Hispanic that I had anticipated if I didn’t find somebody to replace me would beat me and he did. And I don’t want to go into the details of that story. But, in the fall of 2015, I actually was doing a volunteer senior citizen internship in Washington, D.C. but I was obviously keeping a close eye on Texas and I was appalled by the idea that nobody was running for the Railroad Commission. Democratic activists were so demoralized by Wendy Davis’ loss whereas they’re energized by Beta’s loss.
I mean, it’s just the difference in outcomes. I was just appalled that this perennial candidate might end up being the democratic nominee for Railroad Commission when I had a passion about the issues going back to when Hightower ran in 1980, when John Polin ran. I had frequently been involved with the Railroad Commission races. My last term in the legislature, I was on the Energy Resources Committee, which is supposed to b—do legislative oversight for the Railroad Commission. And I just couldn’t stand the idea of—it was an emotional reaction.
I could not stand the idea of nobody of substance running for this office. And, in fact, the two people that made the runoff didn’t have much substance. Great name and that also tells you how fundamentally flawed our electoral process is in that people don’t pay attention, they don’t participate, and they vote for names on the ballot.
DT: What—what—what was it that—that appealed to you besides there being an opponent to somebody not of substance? What was the sort of content of the Railroad Commission’s vision and [overlapping conversation]?
LB: Oh I would have—I would have loved to have won but I ran expecting to lose, you know. Let’s face it, no democrat has won a statewide race in Texas in a quarter century now and—and we reaffirmed that last week in the general election. Close but no ci—cigar Beto. I ran because I wanted to talk about the issues. And I actually had a close working relationship with a libertarian candidate and we were going to do a road show together because the libertarian candidate actually believes in some regulation, believes that there’s a role for protecting the environment and public safety.
And we were going to try to hold a candle. We would have had great fun in the general election of 2016 with a democrat and a libertarian going all over the state saying this agency is corrupt and it needs to be changed. Who knows if it would have had any impact on the outcome of the election? Probably not. But they elected a buffoon. It’s real easy to ele—I mean, you know, we reelected an indicted Attorney General. The—the—it’s real easy for that to happen in Texas.
DT: We—te—tell me more if you would about the issues and the corruption that you saw at the Railroad Commission that—that you felt you, you know, were [overlapping conversation]?
LB: They take money the same week they’re making decisions. I mean, there’s no—there’s been all sorts of legislation—I probably carried some of it—to try to clean up at least the appearances of the thing at the Railroad Commission. There—but there’s no attempt to even—you know, the thing you have to respect about the Southern Baptists, it—even if they are opposed to drinking and drink, they put it in a brown paper bag. There is no attempt to be discreet in the corruption at the Railroad Commission. It’s just—it’s horrible. The closer you look at it, the more appalled you get.
DT: And so it’s—it’s contributions in the regulated community to the decision makers?
LB: Yes, yes. And—and, you know, Christi Craddick, who was just reelected, has been corrupt from the word go, going back to—I deeply resent the fact that when her father became Speaker, he cut back access to healthcare insurance for state employee—for the people working in the legislature. You had to be an employee for over ninety days before you could even get on the insurance. Well, you know, a lot of people it’s kind of seasonal work.
And so they come to work during the session and they can’t—I—I had an employee that literally worked for me part-time in Fort Worth. She had like three part-time jobs. I didn’t have enough money to pay her but she got on working for me in—back in the early stages of my legislative career for the health insurance. I mean, I believe in single payer healthcare but I also believe in trying to work the system so everybody can get access to healthcare they can. And Christi Craddick, who was like 28 or 29 years old, was getting healthcare through her father but her father screwed the state employees in the legislature.
That, I mean, it’s kind of—I shouldn’t put this on camera but I just did, didn’t I. I have an uncle who’s extremely conservative that lives in Midland. And he called me the day after I was the only person to vote against Craddick and it was in the news all over Midland. He says, “Okay, we’ll probably never have a friendly conversation about politics again, but I’m so proud of you voting against that bastard.” This is Midland businessman to Midland businessman. He could not stand Craddick. A lot of people don’t like him.
He’s a kind of real obnoxious personality and he’s sanctimonious and si—and he’s a crook. Can I get sued for saying that?
DT: Well and—and so were there also things that—I think a lot of people get—get confused by the Railroad Commission because it’s—has “railroad” in the name of it—of—of the agency’s title. But—but I understand that it has a lot to do with oil and gas.
LB: Has almost nothing to do with railroads. I think they eliminated the last relationship ten years ago. And—and, I mean, it was founded as the Railroad Commission and had a role back at the turn of the last century but it has evolved now where it’s all about oil and gas and mining activities—uranium mining. I mean, I had a—a undisclosed particular interest in the Railroad Commission because they’re supposed to regulate uranium mining. And there are still open uranium pits in South Texas that kids swim in because it collects water. I mean, how bad is that?
No, it’s—it’s supposed to be—it should be renamed the Energy Resources Committee and it—and it—it should have some sort of Chamber of Commerce, boosterism role in promoting energy production and conservation. But, as it is, all it does is have the Chamber of Commerce boosterism role for the oil and gas interests. It should be based in alternative energies—solar wind. It could. It should. It’s in the best interest of the state, with the oil and gas industry’s control of the state government.
DT: Well since you ran for the commission seat, you have since I think turned towards volunteering for other sort of policy activities outside of government. And I was hoping that you could talk a little bit about that before we move on to sort of wrap things up.
LB: Well since I was forced into early retirement at age 62, and I have a very generous retirement check from the state because, in addition to eighteen years in the legislature, I did about ten years of state employee, all of which is wrapped into a—a very generous retirement check. I thought, you know, I got to keep working fulltime and it’s just my nature anyway, so I’ve mainly done fulltime volunteer work. And I try to restrict it to environmental peace, justice, and civil rights—the passions all my life.
And I’m on too many fundraising committees and I’m—well I mentioned I made the decision to run for Railroad Commission—I was doing volunteer work for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, spent three months fall of 2015 in Washington. So basically I do fulltime volunteer work. And when you get to the election time, I spend a lot of time on elections. And I’ll probably do that as long as I can because I really don’t want to make any more money because I don’t want to pay federal taxes to a corrupt government headed by Trump.
DT: I—I think that—that some of your volunteer work has most recently been for Public Citizen. Can—can you talk about some of the efforts there?
LB: Public citizen, you know, I—I love and respect Smitty and he needed to retire and he has and we’re in transition. But my first—within a month of losing my primary, I said, “Hey Smitty, I want to come do volunteer work for you.” And he said, “Yeah, I’ll take you.” Since Laney left—pe—former Speaker Laney left, she says, “I thought you always worked for Smitty.” That’s just his sarcastic comment but yeah, I did the—the last two sessions since leaving the legislature, I did volunteer work for Smitty at Public Citizen and I basically took on the stuff that he didn’t really want to do.
But I’m okay with that. I’m doing it again a third time because I really want Adrian Shelley to succeed. He’s the new executive director. I love the concept of Public Citizen. Citizens should be more actively engaged in re—running their own lives by impacting what government does. And that was the whole principle behind Public Citizen when Ralph Nader set it up. To Smitty’s ever living credit, this is the only state Public Citizen Office anywhere. And he’s run it for thirty years and he’s earned a retirement but I want to make sure Public Citizen itself keeps going.
So I’ll be back in Austin this next session.
DT: Do you—what kind of portfolio do you think you’ll be carrying for Public Citizen?
LB: You know, Adrian and I have not talked about that yet, but I have a real passion about ethics and reform issues. I—I did an internship when I was an undergraduate helping to open up the Common Cause Office in the fall of 1972 here in Austin because they had a key role in the reform legislation of 1973. That’s when we got really progressive and said public decision making should be done in the public so they had open meetings requirements and open records requirements. And there are ten pieces of reform legislation.
Well we’ve been doing a lot of backsliding since then. We were in a better place at the end of that session in ’73 than we are now and there’s a lot that needs to be done to promote ethics reform but we’re not going to pass anything significant that this governor will sign. So a lot of it is, once again, perspective work, getting people accustomed to the idea that this is what should be. But obviously I have a passion about energy and energy production and the environment so kind of the mantra of the three E’s—ethics, energy, environment.
That’s what I’ll be working on and a little bit of redistricting on the side.
DT: Okay. Well, as we move towards I guess my last two questions, I hope you—you might ponder—ponder anything you’d like to add. One standard question we ask people is do you have a special place in the out of doors that you enjoy visiting that—that gives you some sort of comfort or reti—re—some sort of memory of why you started working on environmental matters in the first place?
LB: You know, that’s hard to say any one special place. I know, at one point, this was early mid-twenties; I thought if I can just make it to the mountains and to the coast once a year, everything will be okay. And that was kind of like, you know, it wasn’t a bucket list, but it’s like that’s what I want to be able to do. My wife and I have joked quite a bit about wanting our ashes thrown out the window in the Chisos Mountains at Big Bend. A critic of mine, my brother, said, “Well, you’re so old and you have so much chemical accumulation in your body, you are hazardous waste and you should not be thrown out the window.”
So I have not reconciled where I’m going to spend eternity but it’s going to be spread somewhere.
DT: Okay. And then this last question that—that I—I would like to ask you, you’ve had a lot of experience in—in environmental work as well as—as many other progressive causes. And I was curious if—fi, from that—that sort of wellspring of—of work and life, if you’ve got some advice for younger people who are coming into, you know, the conservation movement? Is—is there anything that you might pass on to them?
LB: Stay at it. Recognize that you’re going to have as many defeats, if not more, than successes, but it’s all about the journey. It’s not about the destination. That’s it.
DT: Okay. Well I have nothing more to trouble you with, but if you have something to add, I would love to hear it.
LB: This has been better than seeing my therapist. [laughter] Not that I’ve had one recently, but my previous experiences. You know, you just unload on a lot of stuff. So, I’ve enjoyed it.
DT: Well good. Thank you very much.
LB: Am I going to get to see it sometime?
[End of Interview with Lon Burnam – November 14, 2018]