I Remember Texas

Two very close friends of mine are on a northbound plane. They have joined a growing number of Texans who are sick of the endless partisan politics and repressive legislation coming out of Austin, and were, ultimately, driven to leave the home they have always loved.

I Remember Texas
A Texas Trans Pecos Sunset

“There is just so much hurt, disappointment, and oppression one can take. The line between reason and madness grows thinner.” - Rosa Parks, Civil Rights Campaigner

As I write, two very close friends are on a northbound plane. They are leaving in Texas children and grandchildren, friends and a lifetime of memories so they might begin anew near the northeastern coast. Moving is not without duress and emotional swings at any age, but the couple are 70-ish, healthy and determined. Their new home will be adjacent to the Atlantic and in farm country with comfortable summers and the type of winters they have not experienced.

He is a retired lawyer and she a former counselor. Both are intelligent, gregarious and charming people who are politically astute and involved the democratic process. The challenges before them as they transition to a New England environment will be to make new friends, find physicians, restaurants, stores, and the commodious endeavors required for the modern act of resettlement. Although they are not confronted with problems that might face a young couple starting out together with lesser resources, not much is going to be easy and simple.

But they can no longer stand living in their home state of Texas.

“We can’t take it any more,” she has told me many times. “We just look at everything happening from the border to our schools, how teachers are treated, all the children who are uninsured and hungry, the absurd property taxes, the brutal heat and water shortages, and just the overwhelming attitude of the people in public office here. I don’t know how this happened. How did this state I love end up with such a mean and venal person as Greg Abbott for governor? If there were any real hope of change, we might stay. But we just don’t see it any time soon.”

Their departure is a loss, not just to me personally, but to their friends and the state of Texas. They are not the type of citizens Texas ought to be losing. Instead, they should be enjoying this latter part of their lives with people they love, free of most worries, secure and comfortable from their achievements in the state where they spent their youth and exercised their educations for professional accomplishments. Unfortunately, they have joined a growing number of Texans who are sick of the endless partisan politics and repressive legislation coming out of Austin, and were, ultimately, driven to leave the home they have always loved.

"How did this state I love end up with such a mean and venal person as Greg Abbott for governor? If there were any real hope of change, we might stay. But we just don’t see it any time soon.”

Although Texas had a net population gain of 174,261 new residents between 2021 and 2022, almost a half million (494,000) left the state during the same period. Relatively affordable real estate, which was much of the original attraction, is disappearing in a competitive market and a growing realization that mortgages will be burdened with the state’s onerous property taxes. The governor continues to brag about Californians moving to Texas and there were 108,000 arriving during that year, but an increasing number have grown concerned about a diminishing and unreliable supply of water for their homes and businesses and a faltering electrical grid. There is also a significant number of Texans leaving for California as 42,279 went west to the Golden Bear State in 2022. As reservoirs like Lake Travis, which supplies water to booming Austin, sit at 38 percent of capacity, potential transplants begin to focus on Midwestern states that are dotted with glaciated lakes and endless fresh water.

I have always been realistic about my fondness for Texas. My youth, too, was spent here as a newlywed and nascent journalist and broadcaster and I saw a land with interesting history constantly unfolding on a beautiful landscape. During my decades as a TV news correspondent, I chased hurricanes along the Gulf Coast and walked with migrant farmworkers from the sub-tropical border as they went to the capitol to press their case for better wages and more humane treatment by growers. I have covered tragic tornadoes in Wichita Falls and little Saragosa out in the Chihuahuan Desert, gubernatorial and presidential campaigns, dry land farmers struggling to grow crops in the Panhandle, the mysteries of the Marfa Lights, the ancient allures of Big Bend National Park, drug cartels working either side of the Rio Grande, the rise and fall of the energy industry in the Permian Basin, and virtually every news story of import in this state for more than forty years.

There are not, in fact, any parts of Texas that I do not know and understand in a relatively intimate manner. After taking trails to the top of Guadalupe Peak and camping in the Big Thicket National Forest, a soul becomes absorbed with the geographic and ecological diversity within the Texas borders. You cannot ride a motorcycle across the Trans Pecos with the sun sinking before you without acquiring an intense love for the state’s grandeur and the beautiful seam where the sky and the land are sewn together for eternity. Standing next to an oil well and watching the great sections of pipe spinning into the ground as gritty laborers bend their backs to the task of running the rig, you understand the complexities and importance of an industry that continues to turn the driving wheels of the world. I have also been fortunate to have lived in a time when we could open our windows to the Rio Grande Valley morning and be taken by the smell of orange blossoms sweetening up a warm winter’s day.

An Evening Redness in the West (photo by John Filo)

In the midst of all its glories, though, Texas has always been slow to change. The people who live here can tend toward believing the mythologies of “rugged individualism” and a kind of frontier ethic that we are all on our own and the only way to get through troubles is to “bury your dead, and move the wagons west.” There seems to be almost a rejection of government as an organizing principle for society as if we do not need roads and airports built and reasonable taxes to fund schools and universities and to protect the air and water and create laws to keep safe the population. This kind of conservative ethos has infected both of the state’s political parties at certain times. During the seventies and eighties, which were dominated by Democrats, you could have taken a member of that party north of the Red River to Oklahoma and they would have likely been thought of as a conservative Republican.

Even on a matter of social improvement as obvious as racial integration, the institutions of Texas moved more glacially than most of the country. There is almost no greater example of that than in football, a cultural talisman for almost everyone who lives under the Lone Star. In the middle of the 1960s, the finest schoolboy football player in Texas was known to be Charles “Bubba” Smith, who played in high school at Beaumont over near the Louisiana line. The 6’7” defensive end had expressed interest in being recruited by legendary Texas Coach Darrell Royal, but there is no evidence they ever had a conversation. Instead, Bubba was contacted by Michigan State Coach Duffy Daugherty, who was building a program with talented African-American athletes who were being ignored by southern teams.

Charles “Bubba” Smith Never Went Back Home with the Armadillo

Smith became a two-time All-American in Michigan and helped the Spartans win two national championships in 65-66 while playing in the famous 10-10 tie with Notre Dame in 1966, a contest still referred to as the “Game of the Century.” Bubba became an All-Pro in the NFL, joined its Hall of Fame, and turned into an accomplished comedic actor in films. MSU, meanwhile, had previously won a national championship in 1952 with a black quarterback named, appropriately, Willie Thrower, who also was the first African-American quarterback in the NFL’s modern era. In fact, Michigan State University’s initial African-American quarterback was Gideon Smith, who played for the Spartans from 1913 - 1915. He was born to former slaves in 1889 and went north above the Mason-Dixon Line to seek an education. His ground-breaking career, too, has been enshrined at the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

The University of Texas, though, was without a Black on its football team until Julius Whittier joined in 1970. The university has erected a statue to honor Whittier outside DKR Texas Memorial Stadium.

Julius Whittier, First African American on University of Texas Football

While Texas slowly progressed politically during that era, its electorate and the officeholders it has chosen in recent decades appear determined to energetically reverse course with all due haste. As pandemic-era Medicaid funding expires, for instance, Texas has dropped an estimated 810,000 children from health care coverage. The state is one of only ten that has not extended the government plan to every eligible person, which leaves 4.9 million uninsured in Texas, and around a million of those are children. Texas’ level of literacy also compounds the problems of health care. The state has lower than the national rates of high school and college graduations and education correlates with better employment opportunities and access to insurance coverage. There has never been a rational argument for not extending Medicaid in Texas. The taxes are still being paid by Texans and the federal government has allocated billions of dollars of that money to other states to fund their Medicaid health care coverage. Politicos here view the expansion of the program as more government intrusion, a hilarious argument given the fact state laws have invaded private lives by ending a woman’s right to choose, banning books, and forcing Christianity into public schools.

There are also the issues of guns and hunger and discrimination against trans-gender youth and a legislated end to diversity programs for hiring at public institutions and for admission to state universities. Guns, unfortunately, became the leading cause of death of youth in Texas in 2022 with an increase from 100 fatalities annually a decade ago to about 300. The rise happened even after the governor had promised to do something about tragedies like the Walmart massacre in El Paso. The only actions he took were roundtable discussions and then the approval of a “constitutional carry” law, which meant gun owners needed neither a permit nor training. Nine months after the permitless carry measure was approved in September of 2021, an 18-year-old bought an AR-15 without questions in his hometown of Uvalde, went to an elementary school, and killed 17 children and 2 adults.

Texas has also proven to be a state that does the least possible for its 3.5 million disabled citizens and an estimated 500,000 of those live with intellectual or developmental disabilities. According to a Houston Chronicle investigation, the government provides only enough funding to help one-fifth of those residents. Because services are so limited by a penurious legislature, there are waiting lists that are said by parents to be more than 100,000 families waiting out years, even more than a decade, before getting help. Circumstances are worse for people wanting intellectual and developmental disability services. In early 2022, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission reported 170,000 waiting for a Medicaid waiver and 18,300 hoping for safety net services from the government. We live in a state that had a budget surplus of more than $30 billion dollars but still cannot care for the less able or give teachers a pay raise. And now the governor wants to give away public tax dollars to private and Christian schools, a move that has the potential to shatter public education.

One of those on that list is the daughter of two other close friends. She is now in her mid-twenties and was put on the state’s waitlist even before she entered school. By the time she had finished her public education, she had barely moved down the stack of numbers of children lined up for intellectual and developmental services. She is still close to 20,000, but no longer eligible as an adult. The absurdity of a living in a state that does not give a damn, that regulates women’s bodies but not guns, became just too much for my friends to bear. Their house was put on the market, quickly sold, and they said good-bye to family and friends who had been a daily part of their lives since they arrived in Austin in the seventies. They live in Colorado now with the front range of the Rocky Mountains out their back door, and a government that manages to provide a full list of services to its citizens with special needs.

I miss them.

And I miss everything Texas ought to be.

James Moore is a New York Times bestselling author, political analyst, and business communications consultant who has been writing and reporting on Texas politics since 1975. He writes frequently for CNN and other national media outlets and can be reached a jim@bigbendstrategies.com.