If you’re finding it hard to make peace with the 109th Congress, you’re not alone. Every day I hear that the American public is trying to end its toxic relationship with the Worst Congress Ever (“a stable of thieves and perverts who committed crimes rolling out of bed in the morning and did their very best to turn the mighty American empire into a debt-laden, despotic backwater, a Burkina Faso with cable,” as Rolling Stone puts it).
And when you visit your polling place at a public school, notice how it’s garroted and turning blue under an unfunded Leave No Child Behind mandate. As you shuffle in that stunned cattle line, try dreaming up bipartisan offenses that would make congressional dingleberries reach for paper balloting and wipe fickle-electronic voting from the Help America Vote Act1. And while you eye the incumbent studs that have already lathered up an $8.6-trillion debt, and plan to spray billions more without ever going soft on social policy, keep in mind: You’re to blame.
Look at Henry Bonilla. After almost 14 years representing Texas’s Congressional District 23, he’s shown incompetence and arrogance, prioritizing favor-trading over the needs of people like your fixed-income, tilted-wig, broken-down Gran. In 2003, Bonilla voted to send her to a prescription timeout in Medicare’s doughnut hole: Expect 3 million hack-coughing elderly to join her in Rx limbo by year’s end.
If only gray power could cough up the quarter-million-dollar patronage drug and the health-insurance lobbyists have given Bonilla over his career … ’cause he didn’t come in fifth place for the House’s Top Fundraiser of 2005 by squeezing the cream out of social-security checks.
And he sure as shit didn’t make Number 7 on this year’s “Power Rankings,”2 a lobbyist handbook of sweethearts to seduce, by showing the door to Casino Jack Abramoff’s clients3 or degenerate friends (Grover Norquist’s tax-reform nonprofit is a great Bonilla ally. It’s also under investigation for funneling money for Abramoff).
Bonilla also played top lieutenant to influence-peddler Tom “The Hammer” DeLay, the guy who did speed-bag routines on House-members’ nuts to get things like Medicare Part D passed by five votes. And what does Bonilla have to say about the man who knocked down House rules (among them, trying to bribe reps with political favors in exchange for votes4)?
“He was a master,” Bonilla told the Express-News after the crooked legislator he voted with 93 percent of the time resigned (is that how he got his tony leadership positions?). “People don’t realize the hard realities that go into building a political success.”
So if you’re waiting for Bonilla’s talent for judgment and integrity to reveal itself, if you are that balcony fool cheering and waving him on (alongside the newspapers that endorse him), then you are getting the Do Fucking Nothing Congress you deserve.
But if you still hang onto the unsullied teenage belief (remember your first hesitant vote?) that even Mr. Stryker’s remedial social-studies class bothered to teach — the American people wield innate powers that their government is subject to; not the other way around — then this is the self-help manual for you.
The Improper Care & Feeding of Congressmen: Special Interest Money
As gun dealer, tackle shop, and camouflage Mountain Stalker jacket-sellers go, the new Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World off I-10 and 1604 doesn’t just feel like a place where a predator goes to replenish his stock of weapons (“Stalk down your savings,” the website says). It offers J. Peterman romance and Natural History Museum wonder, with stiff-walking skinny cowboys shopping against a backdrop of antique canoes and wicker creel fishing baskets (for ambience, not for sale) and wide-load families admiring stuffed deer, elk, black bear, cougar. To be sure, there’s extra reverence set aside for the power of the gun (the $75,000 rifle for starters) — all the 200,000-square-foot store’s missing are wax figures of history’s most influential gunslingers5.
Above the store’s entrance you are greeted by a sign: “Welcome fishermen, hunters, and other liars.” Henry Bonilla must’ve felt right at home at the recent Bass Pro grand opening: pro-gun groups are a key base of support, says campaign spokesman Phil Ricks. Looking back you’ll find the gun-powder-and-steel lobby’s fingerprints all over Bonilla, his 1994 race especially, when NRA money helped him beat Rolando Rios, a civil-rights lawyer whose father, a taxi driver, was shot to death by an escaped mental patient as he sat in his cab. Personal tragedy is no weapon against the gun lobby, who stepped in to repay Bonilla for voting against an assault-weapons ban that year, even though polls at the time said 60 percent of Bonilla’s district supported the ban (the Democratic-majority Congress did, too6).
Voting against the ban in 1994 was a special Ron Burgundy “Go fuck yourself, San Antonio” moment for Bonilla, a homegrown former KENS-TV newsman, considering that just the year before the Alamo City was terrorized by 1,200 drive-by shootings. Even now, as San Antonio’s homicide ticker jumps to triple digits, as the Justice Department says after a long decline gun violence is back on the rise, NRA House sycophants like Bonilla have passed a bill to let your friendly AK-47 dealer keep his license even if his wares end up trafficked or in terrorist-martyr videos. That means the Washington state dealer who “lost” the assault rifle that the D.C. Sniper eventually “found” would still be selling and losing guns7. And if HR 5092 had already been law, the New York Times writes, the Pennsylvania dealer whose battlefield weapons ended up with one of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers would still be in business.
No other industry — not drug makers, not tobacco companies, not roman-candle, retina-singeing firework-makers — keeps legislators working so hard to protect its business from lawsuits and regulation. (Contrast guns with lawn darts: After the toy punctured the skulls of and killed three children in the ’80s, a grieving father lobbied Congress and got them banned. What if there had been an invincible lobby for the right to hurl tiny javelins with fins?)
Bonilla must’ve chuckled when he saw the Bass Pro event billed as an Evening for Conservation (having voted to speed up forest thinning and prune back critical habitat for endangered species: conservation still doesn’t pay). As it turned out the opening was an appropriate showcase for Bonilla’s allegiances — he fingered a few shotguns, used a Bowie knife for the ribbon-cutting — but what in the Horace-Mann8-hell was he doing at an institution of higher learning the next day?
Show Some Disrespect
“As soon as we give the sign, would everyone stand and clap for the Congressman?” the woman tells the buzzing audience at UTSA’s Retama Auditorium, where some 200 South Texas high-school students and their handlers were bused in to thank Bonilla for a $2.4-million federal pledge for the TRIO college prep program. “Mr. TRIO” used the program himself while at the disadvantaged South San Antonio High School in the ’70s, and his election ads won’t let you forget it.
A confused salt ’n’ pepper man walks into the auditorium and the teens not already up and taking pictures with Rowdy the Roadrunner dutifully get to their feet. It’s not Bonilla.
“This is a test drill of what’s really going to happen when the actual congressman walks in,” says the woman on the mic, making some effort at crowd control as the spirit of mischief takes hold and kids get the idea to clap for anyone who enters. Finally, Bonilla’s ministers scamper in (to wild applause!), and a large-headed man floats in behind and graciously makes his way up the aisle, sunning underneath his tapering and coerced ovation.
“That’s for someone who really does merit that,” UTSA President Ricardo Romo says.
Really? Romo, your pachyderm epidermis is showing. (After all, just two men had the recent honor of welcoming Air Force 2, the plane that earns Friends of Dick Cheney their frequent moneymaking miles yet stayed curiously docked in Wyoming while New Orleans drowned. Cheney’s greeters: the Bexar County GOP Chairman and Romo.)
Bonilla is no great champion of education and his report card shows it: He got a zero from the National Parent Teacher Association, a 25-percent rating from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and his most recent grade from the National Education Association? Down a letter grade from last year to an “F.” Perhaps for disruptive behavior like voting against $84 million in grants for historically Black and Latino colleges this year. Or when he voted for a bitch of a deficit-reduction omnibus bill last year that slashed at social programming like an aggrieved samurai, killing $12.7 billion from federal student aid over five years (cue gushing artery).
“The NEA has always ranked us low because of unions,” Bonilla angrily insists when I corner him in the service corridor behind the auditorium. He blinks with contempt, like a lizard, refusing to say more as fans — reporters and Romo among them — circle around a congressman whose record has hurt the disadvantaged and minority students that college-prep programs were meant to help, back when a better Texan, Lyndon B. Johnson, declared a war on poverty and called for TRIO.
“I’m really embarrassed that I don’t know about that,” said Sara Bixler, a Uvalde ISD assistant superintendent, when given some of the lowlights from Bonilla’s education record, as TRIO celebrants left the auditorium. Ma’am, that’s the problem. Most people know where he stands on explosive cultural issues like abortion and gay marriage, but, like the heartland voters in the book What’s the Matter With Kansas?, know little else about the representative’s record. So they end up voting for a candidate working against their interests. And thanks to $2 million in his war chest, Bonilla has waged what one of his opponents in the CD-23 race has called a “disinformation campaign,” miraculously styling himself as a bleeding-heart advocate for health care and school funding in $800 ads in the Southside Reporter. Don’t buy it (and please re-read the first 1,700 words of this piece if you’re considering). Ignorance is a welcome thing for a congressman. Which is probably why the Students for 9-11 Truth, the largest unofficial group on UTSA’s campus (91 members, 221 on the mailing list), were not welcome inside the Retama Auditorium.
Instead, they had set up their table on the second floor of the UTSA student hub, the University Center, with a laptop playing an MSNBC Keith Olbermann rant about the the Military Commissions Act aka the torture bill aka the bringer of death to habeas corpus, the safeguard against illegal imprisonment.
When word spread about the “dignitary” in their midst (and after Wikipedia-ing him and googling his vote on the torture bill) Jonathan Rumion, a computer-science major that looks like George Harrison, and Thomas Laffoon, who looks like that other great Harrison (Ford), whipped up a protest poster that read “Henry Bonilla says torture is OK!!” and tried to follow on the heels of the congressman when he made his big entrance.
If only they’d gotten through the ministers and security, then we’d have had some applause for people that merit it.
A Good Congressman Is Hard to Find, Not Keep
Now the story of Henry Bonilla. He came into being the year of The Caine Mutiny, 1954, when Bogart played a battle-fatigued Navy captain on the wrong side of a questionable officer rebellion. It was also the year school segregation was torpedoed in the high court. But back to the watery ethics drama: It’s a metaphor, with San Antonio’s own stubborn Bogey played by the late Congressman Henry B. González, who began a storied career in politics on our city council in 1953, back when Bonilla was just an ensign in his father’s eye.
Bonilla grew up in the Mirasol Housing Projects on the West Side, a Hispanic-heavy area that Henry B. would later come to represent his 37 years as a Democrat in the U.S. House. Bonilla did not rise through the political ranks of his party; he likes to brag he never even ran for student council. In 1992 the no-name handily defeated a shady Democratic incumbent that went to jail right after the election for accepting bribes from a food-service company. Since then, Bonilla has been the poster boy for GOP diversity, headlining big-tent party conventions. Ignore for a moment that he’s currently the only Mexican-American Republican in the 435-person House.
Bonilla and Henry B.’s tenures overlapped. And in a way the junior Henry has pulled off a mutiny against the elder.
That’s what was said at last week’s celebration of the Henry B. González Collection, the private papers and political effects acquired by UT Austin’s Center for American History. At the Convention Center, attendees ate sushi and tipped wine glasses to Henry B. — Texas’s first Mexican-American U.S. representative. “No one could be more devoted to his constituency,” they said, remembering how he was sworn into office in 1961 holding a draft bill against discriminatory poll taxes, which later became a part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And no one could hurt the poor and downtrodden more, a former Washington aide said of Bonilla. She had heard that before a vote, Bonilla boasted, he would look up Henry B.’s position … then vote the opposite.
This isn’t just a rumor about giving a fellow legislator the dog-eye. Bonilla actually hates the concepts of equal rights that good congressional members like Henry B. and Barbara Jordan stood for.
Remember Bonilla’s American Dream PAC, whose purported mission of grooming GOP minorities for office was a sham? The Washington Post discovered in 2004 that only 9 percent of the PAC’s $547,000 went to minority office-seekers. The rest went to a legal-defense fund for DeLay, to Bonilla’s reelection campaign, “to fundraisers, airline tickets, hotels, catering services, consultants … salaries,” and to Texas’s 2003 redistricting effort. Therein lies the ruling-class rub. With that Dreamy minority money, Bonilla helped extract 100,000 Hispanic voters from his district and plugged in the hole with white, Hill Country Republicans mined from an area Republican Lamar Smith has represented since the ’80s. Based on Voting Rights Act protections against minority discrimination, the Supreme Court declared the district he cherrypicked unconstitutional. (What do you do when the highest court in the land calls you a racist?)
Which brings us to this week’s special election, where Bonilla faces six challengers in a newly designed CD-23 that extends from south San Antonio9 to just east of El Paso.
You Can Live Without Your Congressman
Absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco said the single defining characteristic of powerful men is they lust for power. And certainly those mute blue billboards that loom over every major freeway in San Antonio, simply touting Henry Bonilla’s name, are a testament to his appetite and dominance; most of his challengers can’t scrape together enough to buy a billboard made of sand.
But for around $1,200 a month (depending on the popularity of the freeway), Republicant.org will design and place a billboard bawling out your “sorry ass Republican Congressman or Senator,” in hopes of poisoning “the word ‘Republican’ like they poisoned the word ‘Liberal”; it’s the brainchild of Brian Rodgers, an Austin real-estate broker.
Two months ago, just 200 yards from one of those mute blue Bonillas on Highway 90 in Castroville, the billboard above the all-season feeders and deer corn outside Andrew Magninat’s wildlife shop became an anti-Bonilla domain. “Henry Bonilla, Just Another Republican’t” and “Incompent Failure” and “American Dream No Se Puede” it reads. Cars bust a U-ey to take photos of it all the time, Magninat says, leaning against the chain link, wrists crossed above his head like Bono in the “With or Without You” video.
“They’re all liars,” says Magninat, an undecided, while a donkey brays among the goats kept at the RV park next door. “They all get in office and they never want to come out.”
It’s true, affairs are easier of entrance than of exit. But, sometimes, in the name of neglected-voter revenge, you can find the courage to show your special-interest whoring, sell-out congressman the door10.
1 In a Florida dumpster, a mall cop finds 90 trashed iVotronic machines, a healthy Michael J. Fox in a “I Heart Litterbugs” T-shirt, and an assortment of spoiled stem cells in styrofoam cups. E-vote oversight talks begin …
2 Speaker Denny “I Have No Power Over the Pederasts In My Care” Hastert was named House supreme power on Knowlegis’ “Power Rankings”
3 Abramoff’s clients the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe gave Bonilla $1,000 and Tyco International $2,500 in 2004 according to Center for Responsive Politics. Tom DeLay, who called Abramoff was “one of my closest and dearest friends” according to the new Peter Stone book Heist, funneled $24,000 to Bonilla via his corrupt ARMPAC since 2004.
4 During the Medicare Part D vote, held from 3 a.m. until almost 6 a.m. to keep the public and sleepyhead Democrats away, Tom DeLay tried to bribe members in exchange for votes, said Michigan’s GOP Rep Nick Smith. DeLay was later admonished by the House Ethics Committee.
5 See Gavrilo “Shot Heard Around the World” Princip! A lifelike Charlton “From My Cold, Dead Hands” Heston!
6 Recently, the GOP cabal and President Bush let the assault-weapons ban expire.
7 The top 100 rogue gun dealers lost 12,000 guns in 2005, according to the ATF.
8 Horace Mann, “The Father of American Education.” Didn’t you learn that in school?
9 Good god. According to GOP pollster Mike Basilice, Bexar County is expected to cast 61 percent of the vote.
10 Henry Bonilla’s not worth the lies and headaches and deserves an entry on DontDateHimGirl.com. And if he doesn’t get more than 50 percent of the vote on Super Tuesday, he’ll face a December runoff and the national Democratic party jumping into his race with both feet.