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In 2021, Texas politics took a sharp right turn – Houston Chronicle

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A Texas House aide cordons off the Texas House Floor after the second special session called by Governor Greg Abbott was quickly adjourned due to a lack of a quorum on Saturday, August 7, 2021 in Austin, Tx., U.S. The Texas House of Representatives did not have a quorum due to a number of Texas House Democrats being absent and adjourned quickly after opening the session on Saturday afternoon.
Gov. Greg Abbott listens as senator Paul Bettencourt talks during a press conference about a package of election reforms, at Senator Paul Bettencourt’s District Office on Monday, March 15, 2021, in Houston.
The Texas Speaker of the House of Representatives Dade Phelan speaks to other legislators after quickly adjourning the first day of the second special session called by Governor Greg Abbott on Saturday, August 7, 2021 in Austin, Tx., U.S. The Texas House of Representatives did not have a quorum due to a number of Texas House Democrats being absent and adjourned quickly after opening the session on Saturday afternoon.
The Texas Senate led by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick opens the second special session called by Governor Greg Abbott on Saturday, August 7, 2021 in Austin, Tx., U.S. The Texas Senate conducted their business of the day while the Texas House of Representatives did not have a quorum due to a number of Texas House Democrats being absent and adjourned quickly after opening their session on Saturday afternoon.
Democratic State Reps. Cheryl Cole, D-Austin, Rhetta Bowers, D-Rowlett, Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, and Re. Ann Johnson, D-Houston, listen to the press conference on the first day of the special session on July 8, 2021.
Marcel McClinton, 20, marches with others as they rally at the Texas State Capitol in Austin to advocate for voting rights on the final day of a 27-mile, four-day voting rights march to the Capitol on Saturday, July 31, 2021. The Republican-controlled Texas legislature, now in a special session, is poised to pass a number of bills that opponents say would limit access to voting for millions of Texans across the state.
Maya Stanton, 10, practices K-pop group Blackpink’s dance moves following a sitting demonstration at the House Gallery at the Texas Capitol Saturday, May 8, 2021, in Austin. The Stanton family went to the Capitol and joined a group of transgender families to demonstrate and speak against bills in the legislature that will affect their lives.
Students protest at the Texas Capitol against Texas?•s new law that effectively bans abortions after six weeks in Austin, Tx., U.S. on Wednesday, September 1, 2021. Texas Senate Bill 8, SB8, that effectively bans abortions after six weeks in the state of Texas went into effect on Wednesday, September 1, 2021. The Austin Students for a Democratic Society along with the Feminist Action Project organized and held a protest against the implementation of the new law outside the Texas Capitol.
People participating in the Houston Women’s March against Texas abortion ban listen to speakers at City Hall Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021 in Houston.
Former President Donald Trump and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speak near a section of the border wall on Wednesday, June 30, 2021, in Pharr, Texas. (Joel Martinez/The Monitor via AP)
Democrats hope O’Rourke can rekindle the energy from his 2018 race as he challenges Abbott for governor in November
The uprising of Texas Democrats over the last few years spurred a Republican reaction in 2021 that resulted in some of the most extreme state GOP legislation in decades.
Abortions were essentially banned.
Gun rights greatly expanded, even over the objections of many in law enforcement.
And the state enacted new restrictions on how teachers can talk about race in classrooms.
It all came as Democrats continue to become more competitive — solidifying their hold on the biggest cities in Texas and coming closer to winning Texas in a presidential election than any time since the 1970s.
But when Democrats made an all-out push to win the Texas House of Representatives in 2020 and fell short, some Republicans saw it as a green light from voters to push for the party’s top priorities.
“The door was opened by the voters,” state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, said earlier in 2021. “We tried to walk as many of those priorities through that door as we could.”
And then there was former President Donald Trump, who jumped into Texas politics, making three trips to the state in 2021, firing off frequent emails to Texas reporters pushing the Legislature to pass more conservative legislation and doling out endorsements to Republicans who know his backing is almost make-or-break in the state’s March 1 primary.
Count Gov. Greg Abbott among those who have picked up endorsements from Trump thanks to the ultra-conservative agenda in Texas this year.
“I’m proud of the work we’ve done together to secure our border, bring more jobs to Texas, & protect the freedoms that make America & Texas great — & we are just getting started,” Abbott said of Trump.
Some Democrats are convinced that as the state’s election trends continue to veer more in their direction, Republicans are underestimating how their far-right turn will provoke a backlash from a changing electorate in 2022.
But Republicans are plowing ahead, convinced 2020 showed the blue wave that Democrats have been riding has stopped short of putting the GOP in real danger. They are promising more of the same.
“The blue wave evaporated on the red rocks of Texas,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston.
It’s clear Republicans are still more concerned with primary elections in March than they are with the general election, even with Democrat Beto O’Rourke at the top of the ticket, said Mark P. Jones, professor in the Department of Political Science at Rice University.
Abbott is facing two significant primary challengers from the right, and because of redistricting, almost all of the incumbent Texas House or Senate members are favored to win the general election. That makes them all more worried about their primaries against other Republicans than with Democrats in November, Jones said. The result is that Republicans were more likely to advance super conservative legislation to appease the base of the GOP and reduce opposition in primaries.
“There was no reason to hold back on a very conservative agenda,” Jones said.
And hold back they didn’t.
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Beto O’Rourke slams Gov. Abbott at Houston abortion clinic as trigger law takes effect
What to know about the new Texas ‘trigger ban’ on abortion, as it goes into effect
Texas comptroller accuses Harris County of defunding police, threatens to stymie 2023 budget
What Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan means to 3.6 million Texans with debt
In mid-May, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 8, which bars women from getting an abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected. That can be as early as six weeks, when many women don’t know they are pregnant. Later that same month, lawmakers passed legislation that allows Texans over age 21 to carry handguns in public without a license starting Sept. 1, with a few exceptions.
Then in September, at the behest of Abbott, legislators passed what became known as the “critical race theory” bill. It prohibits teaching certain concepts about race and urges educators to teach that slavery and racism are “deviations” from the founding principles of the United States. Critical race theory, an academic approach that examines how systemic racism affects society, has become a popular target among conservatives.
Also in September, Abbott signed into law voting restrictions that Democrats had argued were focused on cities where Democrats have been strongest. Specifically, the legislation ends voter expansion efforts in Harris County — the state’s most populous county, which has become a Democratic stronghold.
The state barred voting past 10 p.m., ended drive-thru voting and blocked election officials from sending out unsolicited absentee ballot applications. Harris County is the only county in Texas that did or tried all three things in 2020.
Bettencourt said all of the legislation was part of a bigger effort to assert what it means to be a Republican after the success of 2020.
“Republicans did a good job in restating what they believe in and what it means to be a Republican,” he said.
Democrats, led by O’Rourke, are out to make Republicans pay for going so far right on social issues instead of focusing on more pressing issues, such as fixing the electric grid after it failed during cold weather in February and preparing hospitals for a continuation of the pandemic. They are convinced Republicans are misreading how far right Texas voters really want to go.
While Texas has not elected a Democrat statewide since the 1990s, over the last eight years the state’s electorate has been changing fast, driven in large part to growing urban populations and more concerted voter registration efforts in cities such as Houston, San Antonio and Austin.
The result is Texas has added 3.5 million more voters to its rolls since 2014. Left-leaning groups have been a big reason for that, and it has shown up in recent election results. In 2018, O’Rourke lost to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz by just 2.6 percentage points. Republicans Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller all won 51 percent of the vote or less in their re-elections. Four years earlier, each of them had won at least 58 percent of the vote.
In 2020, Joe Biden used huge victories in Houston and San Antonio to come within 6 percentage points of winning Texas — the closest a Democrat has come to carrying Texas in a presidential election in more than two decades.
Democrats now have to hope O’Rourke can rekindle the energy from his 2018 race as he challenges Abbott for governor in November. As Republicans push further right, O’Rourke, if he wins the governor’s race, would be in a position to veto legislation such as the permitless handgun carry bill and the abortion legislation that on the campaign trail he has called examples of “extremism and fringe politics.”
But if he loses, Republicans will have no reason not to push further right. Jones said many of the more moderate Republicans in the Texas Legislature are retiring, opening the door to even more conservative members replacing them.
State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said he doesn’t blame Republicans for going so far right. At a rally in June at the Texas Capitol, West said Democrats allowed the Republican onslaught in 2020 by not getting more people to the polls in 2020. In short, he said, elections have consequences and 2021 proved that.
“I blame us,” West said of Democrats falling short in 2020. “We need to do what is necessary to turn out the Democratic and independent base in order to order to take over this building.”
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twitter.com/jeremyswallace
Jeremy Wallace has covered politics and campaigns for more than 20 years. Before joining the Hearst Texas newspapers in 2017 he covered government and politics for the Tampa Bay Times, The Miami Herald and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Previously he covered Congress for the Boston Globe and Detroit Free-Press. Originally from San Antonio, he attended the University of North Texas and earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri. You can follow him on Twitter, @JeremySWallace, or email him at [email protected].
Many residents across the Houston area are still dealing with the lingering effects of Hurricane Harvey, such as mental health issues, unsafe living conditions and financial distress.
By Dug Begley, Sam González Kelly

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Lawyers for the US tell a UK court why WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange should face spying charges

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Lawyers for the US tell a UK court why WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange should face spying charges

LONDON (AP) — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange won’t find out until next month at the earliest whether he can challenge extradition to the U.S. on spying charges, or if his long legal battle in Britain has run out of road.

Two High Court judges said Wednesday they would take time to consider their verdict after a two-day hearing in which Assange’s lawyers argued sending him to the United States would risk a “flagrant denial of justice.”

Attorneys for the U.S., where Assange has been indicted on espionage charges, said he put innocent lives at risk and went beyond journalism in his bid to solicit, steal and indiscriminately publish classified U.S. government documents.

Assange’s lawyers asked the High Court to grant him a new appeal — his last roll of the legal dice in the saga that has kept him in a British high-security prison for the past five years.

The judges overseeing the case reserved their decision, and a ruling on Assange’s future is not expected until March at the earliest.

If judges Victoria Sharp and Jeremy Johnson rule against Assange, he can ask the European Court of Human Rights to block his extradition — though supporters worry he could be put on a plane to the U.S. before that happens, because the British government has already signed an extradition order.

The 52-year-old Australian has been indicted on 17 charges of espionage and one charge of computer misuse over his website’s publication of a trove of classified U.S. documents almost 15 years ago. American prosecutors allege Assange encouraged and helped U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks published, putting lives at risk.

Lawyer Clair Dobbin, representing the U.S. government, said Wednesday that Assange damaged U.S. security and intelligence services and “created a grave and imminent risk” by releasing the hundreds of thousands of documents — risks that could harm and lead to the arbitrary detention of innocent people, many of whom lived in war zones or under repressive regimes.

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Dobbin added that in encouraging Manning and others to hack into government computers and steal from them, Assange was “going a very considerable way beyond” a journalist gathering information.

Assange was “not someone who has just set up an online box to which people can provide classified information,” she said. “The allegations are that he sought to encourage theft and hacking that would benefit WikiLeaks.”

Assange’s supporters maintain he is a secrecy-busting journalist who exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have long argued that the prosecution is politically motivated and he won’t get a fair trial in the U.S.

Assange’s lawyers argued on the first day of the hearing on Tuesday that American authorities are seeking to punish him for WikiLeaks’ “exposure of criminality on the part of the U.S. government on an unprecedented scale,” including torture and killings.

Lawyer Edward Fitzgerald said there is “a real risk he may suffer a flagrant denial of justice” if he is sent to the U.S.

Dobbin said the prosecution is based on law and evidence, and has remained consistent despite the changes of government in the U.S. during the legal battle.

She added that the First Amendment does not confer immunity on journalists who break the law. Media outlets that went through the process of redacting the documents before publishing them are not being prosecuted, she said.

Assange’s lawyers say he could face up to 175 years in prison if convicted, though American authorities have said the sentence is likely to be much shorter.

Assange was absent from court on both days because he is unwell, WikiLeaks said. Stella Assange, his wife, said he had wanted to attend, but was “not in good condition.”

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Assange’s family and supporters say his physical and mental health have suffered during more than a decade of legal battles, including seven years in self-exile in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

“Julian is a political prisoner and he has to be released,” said Stella Assange, who married the WikiLeaks founder in prison in 2022.

“They’re putting Julian into the hands of the country and of the people who plotted his assassination,” she added, referring to unproven claims by Assange’s lawyers that he was a target of a CIA plot to kidnap or kill him while he was in the Ecuadorian Embassy.

Supporters holding “Free Julian Assange” signs and chanting “there is only one decision — no extradition” protested outside the High Court building for a second day.

Assange’s legal troubles began in 2010, when he was arrested in London at the request of Sweden, which wanted to question him about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women. In 2012, Assange jumped bail and sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy.

The relationship between Assange and his hosts eventually soured, and he was evicted from the embassy in April 2019. British police immediately arrested and imprisoned him for breaching bail in 2012. Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed.

A U.K. district court judge rejected the U.S. extradition request in 2021 on the grounds that Assange was likely to kill himself if held under harsh U.S. prison conditions. Higher courts overturned that decision after getting assurances from the U.S. about his treatment. The British government signed an extradition order in June 2022.

Meanwhile, the Australian parliament last week called for Assange to be allowed to return to his homeland.

Andrew Wilkie, an Australian lawmaker who attended the hearing, said he hoped that sent a strong message to the U.K. and U.S. governments to end the legal fight. “This has gone on long enough,” he said.

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Associated Press video journalists Kwiyeon Ha and Jo Kearney contributed to this report.

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Biden to create cybersecurity standards for nation’s ports as concerns grow over vulnerabilities

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Biden to create cybersecurity standards for nation’s ports as concerns grow over vulnerabilities

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed an executive order and created a federal rule aimed at better securing the nation’s ports from potential cyberattacks.

The administration is outlining a set of cybersecurity regulations that port operators must comply with across the country, not unlike standardized safety regulations that seek to prevent injury or damage to people and infrastructure.

“We want to ensure there are similar requirements for cyber, when a cyberattack can cause just as much if not more damage than a storm or another physical threat,” said Anne Neuberger, deputy national security adviser at the White House.

Nationwide, ports employ roughly 31 million people and contribute $5.4 trillion to the economy, and could be left vulnerable to a ransomware or other brand of cyberattack, Neuberger said. The standardized set of requirements is designed to help protect against that.

The new requirements are part of the federal government’s focus on modernizing how critical infrastructure like power grids, ports and pipelines are protected as they are increasingly managed and controlled online, often remotely. There is no set of nationwide standards that govern how operators should protect against potential attacks online.

The threat continues to grow. Hostile activity in cyberspace — from spying to the planting of malware to infect and disrupt a country’s infrastructure — has become a hallmark of modern geopolitical rivalry.

For example, in 2021, the operator of the nation’s largest fuel pipeline had to temporarily halt operations after it fell victim to a ransomware attack in which hackers hold a victim’s data or device hostage in exchange for money. The company, Colonial Pipeline, paid $4.4 million to a Russia-based hacker group, though Justice Department officials later recovered much of the money.

Ports, too, are vulnerable. In Australia last year, a cyber incident forced one of the country’s largest port operators to suspend operations for three days.

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In the U.S., roughly 80% of the giant cranes used to lift and haul cargo off ships onto U.S. docks come from China, and are controlled remotely, said Admiral John Vann, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard’s cyber command. That leaves them vulnerable to attack, he said.

Late last month, U.S. officials said they had disrupted a state-backed Chinese effort to plant malware that could be used to damage civilian infrastructure. Vann said this type of potential attack was a concern as officials pushed for new standards, but they are also worried about the possibility for criminal activity.

The new standards, which will be subject to a public comment period, will be required for any port operator and there will be enforcement actions for failing to comply with the standards, though the officials did not outline them. They require port operators to notify authorities when they have been victimized by a cyberattack. The actions also give the Coast Guard, which regulates the nation’s ports, the ability to respond to cyberattacks.

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Jill Biden is announcing $100 million in funding for research and development into women’s health

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Jill Biden is announcing $100 million in funding for research and development into women’s health

WASHINGTON (AP) — Jill Biden on Wednesday announced $100 million in federal funding for research and development into women’s health as part of a new White House initiative that she is heading up.

The money is the first major deliverable of the White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research, which was announced late last year. The money comes from the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, which is under the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

The first lady announced the ARPA-H Sprint for Women’s Health during an appearance in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Biden has said women don’t know enough about their health because the research historically has been underfunded and lacking. The White House initiative aims to change the approach to and increase funding for women’s health research.

The $100 million will be used to invest early in “life-changing” work being done by women’s health researchers and startup companies that cannot get private support, Biden said.

“We will build a health care system that puts women and their lived experiences at its center,” she said. “Where no woman or girl has to hear that ‘it’s all in your head,’ or, ‘it’s just stress.’” Where women aren’t just an after-thought, but a first-thought. Where women don’t just survive with chronic conditions, but lead long and healthy lives.”

President Joe Biden created the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health in 2022 to work on advancing solutions to health issues. The agency is part of what he called his “ unity agenda.”

In the coming weeks, the agency will solicit ideas for groundbreaking research and development to address women’s health, according to the White House.

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The first lady said last year when the White House initiative was announced in November that it grew out of meeting she had had with Maria Shriver, a women’s health advocate and former California first lady. Shriver, Biden said, spoke of the need for a public-private effort to close the gaps in women’s health research. Shriver also participated in Wednesday’s announcement in Massachusetts.

The White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research is led by Jill Biden and the White House Gender Policy Council.

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