Sink or swim in the land of no rules

TEXAS TALES Elaine Davenport on her state's progress during the run-up to the US elections
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The Independent Online
Austin - "You're swimming above the eel," said the man on the side of the pool at Barton Springs. I peered down. "How big is it?" He spread his arms; I swam faster.

The pool I go to is no concrete and chlorine contraption: Barton Springs, the soul of Austin, is a natural swimming hole that smells clean and alive, with a hint of green apples. Endangered salamanders reside here, as do ducks, and the eel which is seldom seen. And Barton Springs is now at the centre of political action as Texas heads into the election season.

It has been closed several times with high bacteria levels, attributed to development in the watershed. The City Council passed the Save Our Springs (SOS) ordinance in 1992, limiting building and people piping off water upstream. It was challenged in the courts and defeated in 1994 but an appellate court has just reinstated it.

The battle over the springs and water quality - the environment - has determined the fate of many local politicians. One, Max Nofziger, sold flowers on street corners before being elected to the council, where he was apt to vote for the environmental side. His most recent idea was a $50,000-a-year (pounds 33,300) Pedestrian Co-ordinator, which was passed and then rescinded after many said the money should be spent on more police and filling potholes.

Max did not run for re-election. Fellow environmentalists were surprised to see him peddling petrol-guzzling pick-up trucks on television: "Since there's no Pedestrian Co-ordinator here in Austin, you're going to need a new truck," he grins.

Max's stint illustrates the first of three cardinal rules of Texas politics: There are no Rules. The second rule is Never play by the Rules, which is illustrated by the local conservatives' fair-haired boy Terry Keel, who will unpin his sheriff's badge and try in November for a state-legislature seat. He was the first Republican elected Travis County Sheriff and is leading the county effort to elect Bob Dole president. However, Mr Keel has found himself on the wrong end of defamation, civil-rights and wrongful- arrest suits which cost taxpayers big bucks. The local paper called him a "self-promoting bully" but he points out how hard it is to do the conservative thing in a county administration chock-a-block with Democrats out to get him.

The seat he seeks came vacant earlier this year and a special election was called. Mr Keel did not want to forgo his $81,720 salary for those months, so he did not run and instead got his mother, a retired nurse, to try for the unexpired term, and she won.

The race for Travis County District Attorney (prosecutor), illustrates the third rule of Texas politics: I make the Rules. The incumbent, Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, recently obtained the conviction of a 12-year-old black girl, Lacresha Murray, for "intentional injury to a child" after first charging her with capital murder.

A two-year-old at an unlicensed day-care centre in the home of Lacresha's grandparents had died while in the 12-year-old's care. Blacks said that she was tried quickly and thrown into a juvenile facility because of her colour and because she is poor, and because Mr Earle wanted to appear tough on juvenile crime.

They held a fund-raiser to hire a lawyer for the appeal.

Mr Earle's detractors also accuse him of politicking. Well, gosh. They need to brush up on The Rules - There are no Rules, Never play by the Rules and I make the Rules. All of which will be even more evident in the run-up to 5 November. We all might need a dip in Barton Springs.