The President’s Political Death Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Official White House photo courtesy of Pete Souza

Official White House photo courtesy of Pete Souza

Despite what some called “Obama’s worst year ever” and what everyone agreed was terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Obamacare rollout, Barack Obama’s job approval rating has bounced back out of the 30s and into the mid-40s—not great, but neither the inexorable slide into oblivion that many predicted. Once again, the reports of Obama’s political death have been greatly exaggerated, begging the question as to why pundits seem so eager to pronounce his last rites.

On ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos, Matthew Dowd was the latest to eulogize the Obama presidency.

“A year ago today he was winning a 50 percent-plus victory, first person since Eisenhower to win two terms over 50 percent, everything seemed so great,” said Dowd. “Ever since the start of the second administration, it’s all gone downhill. His presidency, in my view, and the credibility of his presidency and the relevancy of his presidency is dramatically in question today, and I think he can’t recover from it.”

Dowd, whom I worked for briefly almost two decades ago when he was a Democrat, wasn’t making a partisan attack. Despite him later becoming a Republican who helped elect and re-elect George W. Bush, my disagreement with him here is neither personal nor partisan. I like Matthew but suspect he could be wrong.

Without ever earning a cool nickname like “the Comeback Kid” or a reputation for resiliency, Obama has made a habit of bouncing back. We turned our backs without checking for a pulse after Hillary Clinton won in New Hampshire, when Rev. Jeremy Wright god-damned America, and when Obama said “The private sector is doing fine” amid 9% unemployment. Pundits called him a dead man walking after his last “worst year ever” in 2011 when he tried to negotiate with congressional Republicans. We asked ourselves whether he could recover from his first debate with Mitt Romney, forgetting that Obama has rebounded more times that Dennis Rodman.

Yet here he stands, the president who plays his best when he has backed himself into a corner but who never gets the reputation as a clutch performer. We should respect someone who is always proving the naysayers wrong and repeatedly beats the odds. But here’s the thing with Obama—and the reason why I suspect the insiders always seem eager to attend his political funeral: Winning has never felt worse.

Obama has the bad luck to be a serious man in trivial times (Birthers, and truthers, and deniers! Oh, my!), to seek common ground with a party devoted to trench warfare, and to preside over an era of disruption that never feels like peacetime or wartime. He passed landmark laws to reform Wall Street, to make student loans cheaper, to create a new G.I. Bill, and to save the U.S. auto industry. He ended wars, torture, and Osama bin Laden‘s life. He recapitalized banks, repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and nearly doubled fuel efficiency standards. But instead of ticker-tape parades we feel cheated of both justice and satisfaction.

When Obama won in 2008 by putting red states such as Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia into his column, he dangled the possibility of a post-racial, post-partisan peace. Instead, he has had to defend the White House against a political war of attrition. We thought we were getting a Democratic Ronald Reagan and a long spell of feel-good transformation. Instead, we got the black Lyndon Johnson, leaving behind an impressive list of achievements as well as a country exhausted from tension, obstruction, and fighting.

We only feel good when he explains the world to us, but by now we’ve become conditioned to the disappointment that inevitably follows one of his speeches. He hasn’t lost his gifts. It’s just that we know they won’t change our lives.

Instead, those who make a living watch this White House swing wildly from Obama’s political victories (“everything seemed so great”) to congressional obstruction. An improving economy is likely to continue Obama’s recovery, but bad things will happen, both real (Benghazi) and manufactured (BENGHAZI!!). And the grand marshals of the Beltway parade will ask each other whether Obama could possibly recover, ignoring the fact that he always has.

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Jason Stanford

Jason StanfordJason Stanford is a Democratic political consultant and opposition researcher based in Austin. He served as 2006 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell's campaign manager and chief spokesman. As the head of Stanford Research, he leads opposition research for various candidates and interest groups across the region.

Stanford moved to Texas in 1994 to work as a Deputy Press Secretary for the Ann Richards Committee. Jason and a former colleague founded Stanford Ryan Research & Communications, Inc. in January 1997. The firm became Stanford Research in 1999.

He’s the co-author of “Adios, Mofo: Why Rick Perry Will Make America Miss George W. Bush”, and has a degree in Russian from Lewis & Clark College.

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George P. Bush’s Run Adds to Debate on Hispanics and GOP

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Fighting the perception that Hispanic candidates struggle to win statewide Republican primaries, many party officials have pointed to the 2014 land commissioner’s race, which features George P. Bush, the odds-on favorite, whose mother was born in Mexico.

But many political observers in Texas say that Bush, the grandson of former President George H.W. Bush and son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, should not be seen as the start of a trend. After all, Bush has a  famous — and non-Hispanic — name. Candidates with Hispanic surnames are still expected to face challenges in Republican primaries in Texas.

Bush, the founder of a Fort Worth-based investment firm and a co-founder of the Hispanic Republicans of Texas political action committee, is running against David Watts, an East Texas businessman, in the 2014 Republican primary. The winner will face John Cook, a Democrat and a former mayor of El Paso, and Steven Childs, a Libertarian.

Bush declined to be interviewed for this article, but a spokesman, Kasey Pipes, said Bush was proud of his Hispanic heritage and believed “his conservative values are a natural fit for Hispanic voters in Texas.”

While Bush is seen as the favorite in his race, Mike Baselice, a longtime pollster for Republicans in Texas, said that Bush would probably poll 5 to 10 points lower than his opponent if he had a Hispanic surname and one that was not as politically prominent. Baselice said his research showed that candidates with non-Hispanic surnames generally received more votes in Republican primaries.

That is especially the case, Baselice added, in races farther down the ballot, with candidates who are relatively unknown.

“If they’re not well known, it’s the propensity for voters in the Republican Party primary, by a few points, to select the other guy or the non-Hispanic name,” Baselice said. “Once you become known, it’s a whole different game than when you’re starting out.”

Steve Munisteri, the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, dismissed the idea that Hispanic candidates were handicapped in the primaries by their surnames, citing Ted Cruz’s  victory in the 2012 race for the U.S. Senate and recent legislative wins by other Hispanic Republicans.

In fact, Munisteri said, Hispanic candidates could “have a slight advantage, given the party’s awareness of the need to attract Hispanics.”

Baselice, who was Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s pollster in his unsuccessful race against Cruz, said that Cruz’s low name identification among primary voters during the campaign was a reason he finished second in the primary. Once the race went to a runoff, Baselice said, Cruz was able to win because he could raise more money and get his message out.

Munisteri, who has worked to increase the party’s outreach to Hispanics, said a victory by Bush would fit within the party’s “Hispanic-inclusive framework.”

“I think it adds to the message that the state GOP has been saying for three years,” Munisteri said, referring to a welcome of more Hispanic voters and an invitation to them to assume leadership positions.

With a win, Bush would become the fourth Hispanic Republican in statewide elected office, joining Cruz, Judge Elsa Alcala of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and Justice Eva Guzman of the Texas Supreme Court. Alcala ran unopposed in the 2012 Republican primary in 2012; Guzman defeated another Hispanic Republican in 2010.

Still, Hispanic candidates have fared poorly at times in Republican races, particulary in statewide races that are farther down the ballot.

A former railroad commissioner, Victor Carrillo, lost a 2010 Republican primary against a lesser-known opponent, David Porter, despite outspending him and running as an incumbent. (Carrillo was appointed to the position in 2003 to fulfill an unfinished term and won an election the year after.)

In a letter to supporters after his defeat, Carrillo said his ethnicity and Hispanic surname were factors in his loss.

“Given the choice between ‘Porter’ and ‘Carrillo’ — unfortunately, the Hispanic surname was a serious setback from which I could never recover, although I did all in my power to overcome this built-in bias,” he wrote.

Justices Xavier Rodriguez and David Medina of the Texas Supreme Court, who were also first appointed to their positions, lost to challengers with non-Hispanic last names as well.

With few Hispanic Republicans running for statewide office, James Henson, a Texas Tribune pollster and director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said there were too few cases to label those losses as “systematic.” But he added that context was crucial.

Some conservative primary voters, Henson said, could justify voting for an unknown candidate with a non-Hispanic surname over a Hispanic candidate by pointing to discussions of loaded partisan issues — like border security or immigration — surrounding an election and connecting negative perceptions on these issues to candidates based on ethnicity.

“There’s enough of a cultural norm that people should feel that they should not make discriminatory judgments based on ethnicity,” Henson said, adding that voters could look for a rationale to justify voting against candidates with Hispanic surnames.

“There’s probably a lot more to how people react to Hispanic candidates than just the surname,” he said.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said Hispanic Republicans in Texas were not “necessarily doomed” in an election, but he agreed that the success of Hispanic Republicans in Texas was dependent on the mood of the electorate and specific election circumstances of each election.

Vargas said the rise of prominent Hispanic Republicans like Cruz and Bush was encouraging for other Hispanics looking to run for office.

“It shows that Latinos can be viable in either party and that no party has a lock on Latinos as either voters or candidates,” Vargas said. “It’s one of the strengths of the Latino community. It participates in both political parties and should not be ignored by either.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

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Alexa Ura, The Texas Tribune

Alexa Ura, The Texas TribuneAlexa Ura covers politics and Latino voters for The Texas Tribune, where she started as an intern. While earning her journalism degree at the University of Texas at Austin, she was a reporter and editor for The Daily Texan. A Laredo native, Alexa is fluent Spanish-speaker and is constantly seeking genuine Mexican food in Austin.

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2013 in Review: Public Education in Texas


Photo courtesy of iStock

Photo courtesy of iStock

Let’s say this outright: 2013 ranks as one of the most significant years for public education policy in Texas in the last two decades.

The last 12 months saw the rollout of a new school accountability system as the state dramatically changed course on high school curriculum and testing requirements, a direction it had followed since George W. Bush was governor. Along with the movement to scale back standardized exams, initiated by the activism of parents and educators, came an unprecedented backlash against the influence of for-profit companies in public education policy. It also brought a focus to the courses needed to earn a high school diploma, leading the Legislature to move away from requiring advanced math and science courses for all students — a decision that continues to generate concern about how it might affect academic achievement and college preparation in the state.

The 2013 Legislature also approved the first expansion of charter schools in the state since they were established in 1995. Along the way, lawmakers lessened the State Board of Education’s involvement in the charter approval process and made it easier for high-performing charter operators to come to the state. The law’s proponents say opening the door to more seats in charter school classrooms will increase the educational opportunities for all students. But some education experts have questioned whether certain charter operators have a sufficient record of reaching out to the low-income communities whose students make up an increasing majority of the state’s public school population.

The legislation was among the few successes in a slate of education reforms pushed by new two new interest groups that emerged this year with the goal of influencing policymaking. Other attempts to shake up the public education system also failed, including a proposal backed by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, to allow parents to receive tax credits to help pay for private school tuition.

But all of the activity didn’t stop lawmakers, just before they gaveled out for the first time in May, from laying the groundwork for a little-known state-developed curriculum system known as CSCOPE to turn into a big-time controversy — and headache — for the State Board of Education and school districts. The dust appears to have settled for now, but the issue continues to arise in Republican primaries.

After the legislative session, and long delay, the state finally received a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law in October. Texas public schools are now freed from the policy that had its origins in this state, including a burdensome mandate that they provide private tutoring to students at underperforming campuses that resulted in few positive outcomes and widespread abuse. Amid doubts about its ability to investigate allegations of cheating violations following the El Paso Independent School District scandal, the Texas Education Agency also moved to step up its scrutiny of accountability violations.

As 2013 closes, it’s possible next year will begin much as this one did: with school districts winning a round in sweeping school finance litigation against the state. Because of the legislative changes since then, Travis County District Court Judge John Dietz has decided to revisit the trial again in January. After Dietz’s second ruling, the case will likely still hang in the balance as it makes it way to the Texas Supreme Court. Its resolution, and the upheaval it is expected to bring, may land just in time for the start of the 2015 Legislature.

Faking the Grade Series: Millions in Federal Funds for Tutoring, With Few Results

Top Academics but Little Diversity at Two New Charters

Despite Effort to Curb Cheating on Tests, Doubts Remain

In Texas, Nixing Algebra II Not Out of the Equation

In Bid to Pare Exams, Lawmakers Target Testing Firm

In Education Reform Debate, One Group Stands Out

Interactive: 2014-2015 School Finance Viewer

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

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Morgan Smith, The Texas Tribune

Morgan Smith, The Texas TribuneMorgan Smith reports on politics and education for the Tribune, which she joined in November 2009. She writes about the effects of the state budget, school finance reform, accountability and testing in Texas public schools. Her political coverage has included congressional and legislative races, as well as Gov. Rick Perry's presidential campaign, which she followed to Iowa and New Hampshire.

In 2013, she received a National Education Writers Association award for "Death of a District," a series on school closures.

After earning a bachelor's degree in English from Wellesley College, she moved to Austin in 2008 to enter law school at the University of Texas. A San Antonio native, her work has also appeared in Slate, where she spent a year as an editorial intern in Washington D.C.

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Is the Pope Catholic? Yep. He’s a Christian, Too.

Photo courtesy of the Catholic Church.

Photo courtesy of the Catholic Church.

As a practicing — but manifestly imperfect — Catholic, I am pleased Time magazine has named Good Pope Francis its 2013 Person of the Year. Also cheering is the most recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, which asked people to rate their feelings — “very positive,” “somewhat positive,” “somewhat negative” or “very negative” — toward the Pope and Catholic Church.

Not surprisingly, Francis, with positive feelings from 57 percent of those polled (34 percent of whom rated him “very positive”) and only five percent negative (barely one percent rated him “very negative”), is much more popular than the church he leads. The less impressive scores for the Church — the American leadership of which had too often been more concerned about limiting institutional damage control than relieving the agonizing pain and damage children experienced under the care and protection of the Church and its abusive priests — were 36 percent positive and 17 percent negative. The Catholic Church is indeed fortunate to have this Pope as its “human face.”

What is the key to his appeal? He is faithful to Church teaching. The words may be the same, but the music is much different. He accepted, and personally drove around the Vatican, the “gift” of a 30 horsepower, stick shift 1984 Renault with 186,00 miles on it. His “limo” is a Ford Focus. He eschews the luxurious papal apartments for simple quarters where he reportedly makes his own bed.

He speaks to and for the poor, teaching us that an economy exists to serve human beings and not the other way around. He corrects our “idolatry of money” and the false promise that “trickle down” economics would miraculously cure poverty. He calls himself “a sinner” and opens loving arms to those, including the divorced, gays and lesbians, who have been marginalized by Church authorities. But these items just describe, not define, what makes Francis exceptional.

For that, I turn to evangelical Protestant Michael Gerson, a columnist and former White House speechwriter and adviser for George W. Bush. Few experiences are more unwelcome for a writer than to have to quote, at some length, a colleague. But that’s what I have to do to try and understand the magical appeal of Francis.

Earlier this month at Georgetown University during an event sponsored by the school’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, Gerson offered these thoughts on the Pope and the poor: “The reason that Francis is so powerful … is because he talks about Jesus and because he acts like Jesus.” Gerson’s other contributions: “Pope Francis is a troublemaker,” a characteristic, he noted, the pontiff shared with the founder of his faith who “wasn’t very popular with church and state in his own time.” He added that there is “nothing more dangerous than a troublemaker with a plan” and that “a Church that looks like this would transform the whole world.” I obviously could not have said it better, or as well, myself.

We are learning once again this holiday season that the best things in life are not things, and that, yes, Francis is both Catholic and Christian.

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Mark Shields, The Creators Syndicate

Mark Shields, The Creators SyndicateThe Wall Street Journal has called Mark Shields “the wittiest political analyst around” and “frequently the most trenchant, fair-minded, and thoughtful.” The Washington Post has called Shields “a walking almanac of American politics.” His insights are first-hand and up-to-the minute, drawn from four decades of knowing, covering and savoring the country and its politics.

A nationally known columnist and commentator, Shields has worked in Washington through the administrations of nine U.S. Presidents. He was an editorial writer for The Washington Post where he began writing his column in 1979. That column is now distributed nationally by Creators Syndicate.

Since 1988, Shields has provided weekly political analysis and commentary on national campaigns for PBS’ award-winning "The PBS NewsHour" where he has matched wits with David Gergen, The Wall Street Journal’s Paul Gigot and most recently with David Brooks of The New York Times. For 17 years, Shields was moderator and panelist on CNN’s Capital Gang. He now is a regular panelist on Inside Washington, the weekly public affairs show which is seen on both ABC and PBS.

A native of Weymouth, Mass., and a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, Shields served as an enlisted man in the United States Marine Corps before coming to Washington where he began working in 1965 for Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire. In 1968, Shields went to work for Robert F. Kennedy in the New York Senator’s presidential campaign and later held leadership positions in three other presidential campaigns. Over 11 years, Shields helped manage campaigns from the courthouse to the White House in some 38 states.

In addition to attending 17 national party conventions and working on or covering the last 11 presidential elections, Shields has taught American politics and the press at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Georgetown University’s Graduate School of Public Policy and he was a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy Institute of Politics. "On the Campaign Trail," his book on the 1984 presidential campaign, has been praised as “funny,” “irreverent,” and “for bringing that race to a magnificent light.”

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Polling Center: Obama Weighs Heavily on Texas Democrats

esident Barack Obama meets with National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling in the Oval Office, Dec. 4, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama meets with National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling in the Oval Office, Dec. 4, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

It takes Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst all of three seconds to mention President Obama in his recent campaign ad. That is faster than the 17 seconds it took him in a previous spot; maybe the lieutenant governor was feeling the heat from one of his rivals in his re-election campaign, state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who trumpets his efforts “FIGHTING OBAMA” five seconds into the ad he released in early October.

These are just a few of the many examples one should expect in the Republican primary: The constant invocation of a candidate’s anti-Obama bona fides is a familiar refrain for preaching to the Republican primary choir, and a tried-and-true strategy heading into a mid-term election year that is sure to see lower Democratic turnout than in the last two presidential election years with Obama at the top of the ticket.

Results from five years of University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling of Texans’ approval of Obama suggest that constant criticism of the president is unlikely to trigger much backlash among moderates and even Democrats. GOP candidates have lots of latitude when piling on the president, implications of a public opinion landscape that is bad news for the Texas Democrats who recently have been so flush with optimism.

Obama lost Texas resoundingly in both of his reelection campaigns — to John McCain by 11 percentage points in 2008 and to Mitt Romney by 16 points in 2012 — and it’s not surprising that his approval numbers in Texas have never been stellar. This is a red state, and except for a singular instance in our February 2009 UT/TT poll — right after Obama assumed office —Texans’ disapproval of his job performance has outweighed approval in the remaining 15 polls between then and October 2013.


Public opinion toward the president favors the Republicans and hurts the Democrats heading into 2014. In the UT/TT Poll, we somewhat uniquely ask respondents whether they only “somewhat” or “strongly” approve or disapprove of the job performance of a particular officeholder. This is in contrast with most pollsters, who just ask a straight approve/disapprove question. The advantage of our format is that we can measure intensity of opinion — and changes in that intensity over time.

Texas Republicans have long held Obama in low regard, with at least 80 percent of GOP identifiers strongly disapproving of the his job performance since May 2010. The Obamas hadn’t quite finished redecorating the White House when Texas GOP candidates up and down the ballot started running against him as much as their opponents. By the time the 2010 general election rolled around, Gov. Rick Perry was doing everything he could to saddle Democratic challenger Bill White with Obama, and even Republican state legislative candidates were using the president in their ads. (For a reminder of what this was like, review this classic spot, which Republican Patrick McGuinness used — unsuccessfully — to gain ground against Democratic incumbent Mark Strama, D-Austin.) Obama’s unpopularity was no surprise at the time and is surely part of the reason so many Republican hopefuls still deride Obama as proof of their conservative credentials.

The repetitive pounding on Obama is partially enabled by the fact that the president doesn’t enjoy symmetrical support among his own partisans. Strong approval among Democrats has slid throughout his presidency — not an unusual occurrence when early hope and promise hit cold, hard political realities (just ask George W. Bush) — with slight upticks during his successful re-election campaign and after the killing of Osama bin Laden. Obama’s strong approval among Democrats now rests at a near low of 36 percent.


In addition to this lack of intensity among his supporters here in Texas, it’s also the case that in October 2013, nearly a quarter of Democrats indicated either a neutral view of the president (that is, neither approval nor disapproval), or a negative perception — a low-water mark for his presidency. But maybe most importantly when looking ahead to the 2014 races, 42 percent of Texas moderates held a negative opinion of his job performance in October 2013, the largest share holding a negative opinion during his time in office. Democrats and moderates have been consistently kind to the president; more than 50 percent expressed approval of his job performance in 11 of the 16 UT/TT polls since February 2009. If moderates have soured on the president, there is little disincentive for GOP candidates to continue with their primary season Obama bashing during the fall. That includes anchoring an ascendant state Sen. Wendy Davis, the Fort Worth Democrat running for governor, to a sinking president.

Democratic hopes of capturing any statewide office in 2014 rest in no small part on bucking the trend of the president’s party losing ground in midterm elections. The magnitude of that lost ground tends to be foreshadowed by presidential approval numbers. Obama is still the figurehead of his party, a fact that no Republican officeholder, or potential officeholder, is likely to let the electorate forget.

Amid all the speculation about whether Democrats can turn the tide, Obama’s approval numbers are creating a rip current likely to push Democratic hopes farther out to sea — while back on shore, the lifeguards all seem to have disappeared.

Joshua Blank co-authored this story.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

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Jim Henson, The Texas Tribune

Jim Henson, The Texas TribuneJim Henson directs the Texas Politics project and teaches in the Department of Government at The University of Texas, where he also received a doctorate. He helped design public interest multimedia for the Benton Foundation in Washington, D.C., in the late 1990s and has written about politics in general-interest and academic publications. He also serves as associate director of the College of Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services unit at UT, where he has helped produce several award-winning instructional media projects. In 2008, he and Daron Shaw, a fellow UT government professor, established the first statewide, publicly available internet survey of public opinion in Texas using matched random sampling. He lives in Austin, where he also serves as a member of the City of Austin Ethics Review Commission.

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Primary Race for Attorney General Slowly Taking Shape

The three Republican candidates runing for Texas Attorney General in 2014 from left to right: Barry Smitherman, Dan Branch, and Ken Paxton. Photo courtesy of The Texas Tribune.

The three Republican candidates runing for Texas Attorney General in 2014 from left to right: Barry Smitherman, Dan Branch, and Ken Paxton. Photo courtesy of The Texas Tribune.

Speaking at a mid-November fundraiser at her Dallas antiques and home furnishings store, Lisa Luby Ryan, an eloquent Republican activist, struggled to find the right word to introduce her guest of honor.

“I so hesitate and cringe every time I use the word ‘conservative,’” because its meaning had been watered down by moderates, she said. Turning to Ken Paxton, poised to make his pitch, and raise money, for his bid to be the state’s next attorney general, Ryan said, “Please don’t say you’re the most conservative tonight.”

Paxton, a state senator from McKinney, avoided that phrase, but mentioned his “consistent framework of supporting fiscal and social conservatism.” But Ryan’s instruction underscored the difficult task facing him and his competitors in 2014 as they try to draw attention and drum up support in a crowded Republican primary season full of candidates running to the right.

“There is not a natural shape to the attorney general’s race,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “You’ve got several credible contenders, but none of them are already statewide names. I don’t think that citizens, even Republican primary voters, have yet begun to sort these guys out.”

A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released in early November showed that about 74 percent of Republican voters were undecided on the race. And more than a third of participants in an online straw poll recently conducted by Young Conservatives of Texas indicated “no preference.”

Other metrics are hardly more enlightening.

ken paxtonPaxton has won six of six straw polls held throughout the state, which indicates grass-roots support but does not necessarily translate to electoral victory. Neither does having more money in the bank: at last count in July, Branch’s campaign, whose coffers include a donation from former President George W. Bush, had more than twice as much as his opponents. At the outset of the race, Smitherman, having recently run a successful statewide campaign, albeit a lower-profile one, claimed an advantage in name identification among voters.

“I don’t think anybody could call this race right now,” said David Jennings, who writes about conservative Texas politics at and has watched the race closely.

But beneath such similarities, the three candidates bring markedly different backgrounds and styles to the race. For anyone looking for evidence of a rift between the establishment and Tea Party wings of the Republican Party, Jennings said, “It is sort of playing out in this particular race.”

Photo courtesy of The Texas Tribune

Photo courtesy of The Texas Tribune

Speaking last month to the Downtown Houston Pachyderm Club, a local Republican organization, at a Spaghetti Warehouse, Branch emphasized his three decades as a practicing lawyer and extolled endorsements from legal advisers to Abbott and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

“People get that it’s the chief lawyer in the state,” Branch said afterward of the office. “When you go hire a lawyer, most people want a good one. That means someone who has done it a lot, who has practiced a lot.”

Under House Speaker Joe Straus, whom he helped elect to power in 2009, Branch has served as the chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, leading the effort to increase the number of top-tier public universities in the state. His campaign has also promoted his involvement in passing a bill establishing the right of public school students to observe a moment of silence.

“I like to accomplish things,” he said. “I can get stuff done. I’m a conservative, but I like to make sure we get results. We don’t just have rhetoric; we actually move the ball.”

But Branch’s connections to the leadership, derided as moderate by Tea Party activists, have also made him a target, despite his protests that he has “been pushing limited government solutions for a long time, before it was vogue.”

Paxton, a fellow longtime lawmaker who has made a name for himself as an outsider, is a natural foil. In 2011, while still a House member, he excited grass-roots groups with an unsuccessful bid to oust Straus as speaker. “You don’t always have to be on the inside of whatever structure is in charge,” Paxton said in a recent interview. “Leadership can be, sometimes, opposition to Democrats or less conservative or more moderate Republicans.”

“A lot of people in this race, anyone running for office, will talk about fighting Obama,” Smitherman, who has been involved in seven of the state’s lawsuits against the federal administration, recently told a meeting of the Clear Lake Area Republicans. “I’m the only one actually fighting Obama.”

Photo courtesy of The Texas Tribune

Photo courtesy of The Texas Tribune

After a career as an investment banker, Smitherman served as a prosecutor in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office before being appointed by Gov. Rick Perry to the Public Utility Commission in 2004, and then to the Railroad Commission in 2011. He served as chairman of both, potentially giving him crossover appeal among establishment and Tea Party conservatives.

“You need a proven conservative leader,” Smitherman told the roughly 30 people gathered in Clear Lake. “Not someone who has been a part-time legislator, but someone who has led large important agencies.”

So far, Smitherman has generated the most media attention, largely for comments some have found jarring. While he insisted that he does not advocate for secession, he has repeatedly said that Texas should operate in a manner consistent with preparation for independence. He also said that most aborted fetuses, had they been born, would be Republican voters.

Barring the entry of another contestant before the Dec. 9 filing deadline, the Republican primary victor will face Sam Houston, a Houston lawyer running unopposed in the Democratic primary.

Houston, who will be considered the underdog, said that after a cursory assessment of his potential opponents, he concluded, “They are all the same.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

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Reeve Hamilton, The Texas Tribune

Reeve Hamilton covers higher education and politics for The Texas Tribune and hosts the Tribune's weekly podcast. His writing has also appeared in Texas Monthly and The Texas Observer. Born in Houston and raised in Massachusetts, he has a bachelor's degree in English from Vanderbilt University.

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An Evolution Away From History and Toward Peace

President Barack Obama talks with Secretary of State John Kerry in the Oval Office, Nov. 1, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama talks with Secretary of State John Kerry in the Oval Office, Nov. 1, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Four years ago Dec. 10, President Barack Obama traveled to Oslo, Norway, to accept a Nobel Peace Prize he’d done very little to earn except for not being George W. Bush, which was good enough for the prize committee.

Four years on, Mr. Obama has burnished his peacemaker’s credentials in ways that might not be Nobel-worthy, but surely have made the world a safer place.

— In 2010, his administration negotiated a replacement for the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty with Russia. Each nation agreed to limit its nuclear stockpiles to 1,550 over seven years, a 30 percent reduction. Each nation will reduce long-range missiles and launchers to 700.

— He finally extricated U.S. forces from Iraq and began the long — too long, in our view — process of bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan. All except a residual force were scheduled be home a year from now, but Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai may want to accelerate the schedule.

— Taking advantage of Secretary of State John Kerry‘s slip of the tongue in September, Mr. Obama seized an opening from Russian President Vladimir Putin that has resulted in the ongoing destruction, under U.N. auspices, of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.

— Mr. Obama saw another opening in March, created by the approach of Iran’s presidential election. The volatile Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was on his way out, and Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, was on his way in. A back-channel diplomatic effort was opened, followed by a public channel after the election in June. The efforts culminated Sunday with the signing of a six-month stand-down of Iran’s nuclear program.

Does Mr. Obama deserve all the credit for these initiatives? Of course not. But it’s clear that his willingness to recognize an opportunity when it presents itself was important to all of them.

The key to the Syria deal was Mr. Putin, who has long been the enabler of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The key to the Iranian deal was Mr. Rouhani, who had the tacit support of Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Both men’s hands were forced by ongoing international sanctions of Iran.

Mr. Obama appears to understand the adage that there’s no limit to what someone can accomplish if he doesn’t care who gets the credit. It was he who appointed Mr. Kerry as secretary of state, understanding that an iron will and a willingness to talk at great length sometimes are useful assets.

The agreement signed with Iran and other states last Sunday in Geneva will not halt the Iranian nuclear program. But it buys six months to reach a broader agreement even as it allows Iran access to assets and banking networks frozen by Western nations.

The deal introduced the world to a new term, “dash-time.” That’s defined as how long it would take a nation to extend the peaceful development of nuclear capabilities to military capabilities. Iran’s dash-time is now longer, and that can be nothing but good.

Naturally there were critics. We’ve noted before that Mr. Obama couldn’t announce a cure for cancer without someone whining, “What about heart disease?”

This time the prize for stupidest criticism went to Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who tweeted”Amazing what WH (White House) will do to distract attention from O-care (Obamacare).”

Peace in the Middle East a distraction? Bringing what Mr. Bush called a “rogue state”back to reasonable discourse? Learning to talk with a nation whose fingerprints are all over Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan and Iraq? This is a distraction? Republicans like Mr. Cornyn are bidding fair to make their entire party a distraction.

Then there was Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who for domestic political reasons felt compelled to suggest that further sanctions might be needed.

As always there was the redoubtable Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s hawkish prime minister, who called the Iran deal a “historic mistake.” Mr. Netanyahu, for obvious reasons, had been left out of the private discussions, being presented with a done deal that he felt obliged to hate.

In the light of history, Israel’s misgivings are understandable. But if the world is to get past its history, it must look forward.

“(W)e cannot close the door on diplomacy, and we cannot rule out peaceful solutions to the world’s problems,” Mr. Obama said Monday. In words that could have been directed at Mssrs. Cornyn, Schumer and Netanyahu, he added, “Tough talk and bluster may be the easy thing to do politically, but it’s not the right thing for our security.”

It sounds odd, but among Mr. Obama’s other peace-keeping achievements has been his willingness to use or threaten force — in air-support over Libya, in arming and training Syrian rebels and in prosecuting the war on al-Qaida. We have reservations about tactics — the CIA’s too-broad targeting policies for drone warfare, the NSA’s too-broad electronic surveillance of American citizens — but they too have made America more secure.

In Oslo four years ago, Mr. Obama made the case for war in accepting his premature prize for peace. But he quoted President John F. Kennedy on the necessity of allowing for the possibility of change.

In his June 1963 address at American University in Washington, D.C., perhaps the most important but least-known of his speeches, Mr. Kennedy said, “Let us focus on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions.”

Mr. Obama echoed that last line, “A gradual evolution in human institutions,” he said. This is evolution we can all believe in.

Republished from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by

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Explanations Vary as Tutoring Program Falls Short

Photo courtesy of Travis Ekmark

Faking the Grade

This is the second story in a series on how the state spent millions tutoring its poorest students — and has little to show for it.

Among the many reforms in the massive education legislation that Congress passed in 2001 was a program that would provide tutoring to children from low-income families.

Proponents hailed the program as an academic lifeline that would level the playing field for students trapped in underperforming schools.

“Any school that doesn’t perform, any school that cannot catch up and do its job, a parent will have these options — a better public school, a tutor or a charter school,” President George W. Bush said in early 2002 when he signed the landmark No Child Left Behind Act into law.

But after more than a decade and hundreds of millions in federal dollars spent on the initiative, it is difficult to find anyone willing to call the program — or the greater law that enacted it — an unqualified success. And now that Texas has obtained a waiver from the federal education law and officials look for the best way to move forward, there is disagreement on why the tutoring program fell short of the lofty aspirations that marked its debut.

A Texas Tribune investigation found that confusion over the tutoring program resulted in years of inaction at the state level while companies with deficient financial and academic track records continued to receive millions of dollars in government funding.

The No Child Left Behind provision that created the “supplemental educational services” (SES) program was the result of a standoff between the bill’s two Democratic co-authors and congressional Republicans who wanted to include a voucher provision that allowed parents to use public money to send their children to private schools. The compromise resulted in a program that preserved the essence of a voucher but was confined to a specific area: tutoring. Low-performing schools would be required to set aside a portion of their federal funding to allow parents to hire tutors for their children.

“The idea was that for all children, especially those who hadn’t had much attention paid to them, to be thought of,” said Rod Paige, who as Bush’s first secretary of education helped pass and implement the law. “Able parents can provide tutoring for their children — through tutorial services, summer camps. Many low-income parents did not have these benefits.”

From the start, the program suffered from a complicated implementation. A structure that set up the state as a monitor of a federal mandate and school districts as the contractors led to uncertainty over who should resolve complaints or ensure schools and providers alike complied with the law.

Principals would have little control over which companies parents could select for tutoring services on their campuses — the companies only had to be on the state approved-list. And the state often found that its authority to intervene in local disputes was limited — telling districts that reported issues with the program that they needed to pursue resolutions on their own.

Lagging student participation also added to the challenges. Many campuses in the state reported that fewer than 20 percent of students eligible for tutoring under the law received services. But with a huge pot of federal money for the taking, a proliferation of new companies sprung up. At one time in Texas, almost 200 were authorized to provide tutoring services — many with instructional techniques teachers viewed as lacking evidence, like completing lessons via phone or online.

The biggest obstacle to the program’s success, many of its supporters say, was school districts’ reluctance to part with federal money that could go to other school functions.

School administrators resented the loss of authority over funding, Paige said, so in some cases, they avoided providing parents access to the program. Because of that, he said that the federal government should “have anticipated more pushback than we did” in implementing the law.

The purpose of the program, Paige said, was to offer different choices for students at schools that had underperformed.

“From the federal point of view, the feeling was, for three consecutive years these children have not had the kind of instruction that could keep them on the trajectory that you the state had set, because what you’ve done so far has not worked,” he said.

Ron Cavazos, the director of federal programs for the Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District in the Rio Grande Valley, said he understood the reasoning behind the program. But he rejected the idea that blame rested with school districts for its failure.

“We had people who were not educators running SES programs. We had SES companies operated and being implemented by people who were not educators,” he said. “You just don’t know what you are going to get.”

Policymakers and researchers have pointed to deeper issues with the program.

“These organizations in many cases were fleecing school districts, charging hourly rates comparable to expensive lawyers,” said state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio. “While this law was well intended, the provision that required school districts to purchase these services ultimately created a quasi monopoly for tutoring companies to have a guaranteed customer base to sell at nonmarket prices.”

Villarreal passed a bill during this year’s legislative session that required school districts to provide information about the most effective providers so that parents could make better choices.

He said he was inspired by the research of Carolyn Heinrich, a University of Texas at Austin professor who has studied No Child Left Behind tutoring since 2006 in school districts across the country.

“While there are providers that do a good job, overall we don’t see the program as effective,” she said.

Students had to receive at least 40 hours of tutoring for any kind of supplemental instruction to have an impact, Heinrich said. Although districts were required to set aside 20 percent of their Title I funding and divide that among eligible students for services, the program allowed providers to freely set their own rates.

In the districts she studied, those rates increased over time, with some companies charging as much as $157 an hour — which they said went to providing quality services — meaning that even when a district set aside $1,200 for each of its students, they could receive less than 10 hours of tutoring before they used up their allotment.

The practice of aggressively recruiting students with a variety of incentives — which Heinrich said in the districts she studied included free iPods, pizza parties and movie passes — could also lead to students signing up with one provider, completing a few sessions and then moving on to the next. Under the law, companies were permitted to offer such incentives as long as they qualified as “learning tools.”

While acknowledging flaws in the program’s implementation, Steve Pines, the executive director of the national Education Industry Association, an organization that lobbies for private entities, including tutoring companies, that work in public education, said it was impossible to ignore that it was a “game changer” in providing tutoring to low-income children.

With the stroke of a pen, he said, the law created “an exciting new swirl of entrepreneurship” in the private sector focused on public education. For the first time in federal education policy, he said, private commercial organizations had been written into legislation as a group of eligible service providers.

But he said that did not change the fact that school districts were left a daunting task of administering the program with little help from the state or federal government.

“It was not a well-thought-out policy,” he said. “It was enacted by necessity, not by grand design.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

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Morgan Smith, The Texas Tribune

Morgan Smith, The Texas TribuneMorgan Smith reports on politics and education for the Tribune, which she joined in November 2009. She writes about the effects of the state budget, school finance reform, accountability and testing in Texas public schools. Her political coverage has included congressional and legislative races, as well as Gov. Rick Perry's presidential campaign, which she followed to Iowa and New Hampshire.

In 2013, she received a National Education Writers Association award for "Death of a District," a series on school closures.

After earning a bachelor's degree in English from Wellesley College, she moved to Austin in 2008 to enter law school at the University of Texas. A San Antonio native, her work has also appeared in Slate, where she spent a year as an editorial intern in Washington D.C.

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Incomprehensible Sums

Phot courtesy of Joe Mazzola taken on December 2, 2013

Phot courtesy of Joe Mazzola taken on December 2, 2013

I remember when a billion used to be a number so big nobody could comprehend it, though it is still a massive number.

According to 1 billion seconds equals 31.7 years. A billion seconds have elapsed since 1981.

One billion minutes is equal to 1,901 years — which would take us back, almost, to the time Jesus Christ roamed the Earth.

One billion hours is equal to 114,000 years — which would take us back to the Stone Age.

In more recent times, our inability to comprehend the sheer magnitude of 1 billion has been eclipsed by our inability to comprehend 1 trillion.

One trillion is equal to one thousand billion.

Our federal deficit has been averaging nearly $1 trillion since the collapse of 2008 — causing us to rack up more than $5 trillion in new debt.

In order to cover our nearly $4 trillion annual budget, the U.S. Treasury spends about $1 billion every two hours — accumulating $1 billion in new debt about every eight hours.

ABC’s Jake Tapper tried to simplify these incomprehensible numbers. He compared America’s finances to a typical American’s finances. By removing eight zeros from America’s $3.8 trillion budget, he came up with a sum of $38,000.

Now if you are a retiree, you are probably getting by OK if you are able to spend $38,000 a year — unless your finances are as messed up as America’s.

Though you are spending $38,000 annually, your income is only $29,000 — you are growing your debt by $9,000 every year.

What’s worse is that you already owe nearly $170,000 to creditors. Paying off that amount of debt with $38,000 in income would be hard under any circumstances.

But of course your income is $29,000, not $38,000, so you must borrow about $175 a week to keep up with your expenses.

In other words, the U.S. government is growing our debt by $175 billion a week, which is producing around $1 trillion in new debt every year.

Still not comprehending how much $1 trillion is? Then you’ll like this description by Bill Bryson, one of my favorite authors, from his book “Notes from a Big Country.”

Bryson asks his readers to guess how long it would take to initial and count 1 trillion dollar bills if you worked without stopping.

“If you initialed one dollar bill a second,” writes Bryson, “you would make $1,000 every 17 minutes. After 12 days of non-stop effort you would acquire your first million. Thus, it would take you 120 days to accumulate $10 million, and 1,200 days — something over three years — to reach $100 million. After 31.7 years you would become a billionaire. But not until 31,709.8 years elapsed would you count your trillionth dollar bill.”

We all understand that very large numbers are OK so long as they add up. So long as we have trillions of dollars coming in to the government to balance out the trillions of dollars we have going out, we should be OK.

But that is the frightening part. We are not even close to covering our spending. Our economy has not recovered enough to generate the growth and tax revenue we need to pay our bills.

Piling on new entitlement programs and lots of new regulations, rules and mandates certainly isn’t helping the recovery.

And so we limp along racking up debt and our leaders are doing little to address this incredible challenge. In fact, we have racked up more than $11 trillion in new debt since George W. Bush assumed office in 2002. We are the proud owners of nearly $17 trillion in debt, a startlingly incomprehensible sum.

Yet too few people worry about it. Who can blame them? After all, $17 trillion is only 17,000 billion dollars.

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Tom Purcell

Tom PurcellAfter an eight-year tour in Washington, D.C., where he worked as a writer and communications consultant, Tom Purcell returned to his home town of Pittsburgh, PA, land of friendly, down-to-earth people. He spends his days in blue jeans pecking away on his laptop in a coffee shop. Purcell's weekly column, now in its 15th year, is syndicated by Cagle Cartoons to hundreds of publications and Web sites nationally and internationally. It has been featured on the Rusty Humphries Show, the Laura Ingraham Show and the Rush Limbaugh Show, as well as other radio programs in Canada and the U.S.

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Unknown Soldiers: The Man He Became

U.S. Army Sgt. Alex Funcheon, 21, of Wichita, Kan., was on his first deployment to Iraq when he killed in action on Apr. 29, 2007, in Baghdad. Photo courtesy of the Funcheon family.

U.S. Army Sgt. Alex Funcheon, 21, of Wichita, Kan., was on his first deployment to Iraq when he killed in action on Apr. 29, 2007, in Baghdad. Photo courtesy of the Funcheon family.

Before Alex Funcheon became a soldier, he was a high school dropout.

“He was a handful,” Alex’s father, Bob Funcheon, told The Unknown Soldiers. “He got involved with drugs … it messed him up.”

After quitting school, Alex, who grew up in Wichita, Kan., quickly found himself broke and in trouble with the law. That’s when he turned to a lifelong source of inspiration.

“He was always interested in the Army ever since he was a little boy,” Alex’s mother, Karen Funcheon, said. “His grandfather served in World War II … he landed at Normandy.”

Alex “didn’t enlist because of 9/11,” according to his dad, but because he recognized that when it came to turning his life around, time was running out.

“He wanted to earn his spurs,” Bob said. “He wanted to live up to the expectations of a professional soldier.”

After initially struggling with the rigors of boot camp, Alex surprised his parents by earning the reputation of a serious young warrior, rather than the irresponsible partier of his youth.

“It just showed that he was really starting to figure things out,” Alex’s dad said. “(The military) allowed him to start becoming the man he was meant to be.”

On the eve of the military’s troop surge in Iraq, U.S. Army Sgt. Alex Funcheon spent a night with his parents before deploying in the fall of 2006.

“I’m not scared of dying,” Alex told his dad. “I’m scared of letting my friends down.”

Alex was always extremely popular.

“He was very loyal … he would never ‘rat’ on anyone,” his mom said. “Everybody just loved him.”

“He always took care of his friends, and that carried over to the military,” Alex’s dad added.

As a soldier, Sgt. Funcheon made sure to keep in touch with his parents, who worried every day about his physical safety and emotional well-being. Their fears escalated around the 2006 holiday season, when Alex didn’t contact them for almost three weeks.

“Then we found out that there was a Humvee that had blown up in his area, and he was part of the detail that was there to clean up after it,” Bob said. “I can only imagine how that affected him.”

When it became clear to Bob and Karen that their only son was experiencing some of war’s most visceral horrors, they worried he would return to Kansas with wounds, including the kind nobody can see.

“The more I learned about (post-traumatic stress), the more I realized that he probably would have come home with that,” Alex’s dad said. “Even though I knew he could die, I never really expected that.”

Bob was out playing golf on April 29, 2007, when his wife had an encounter that every military mother was dreading during that violent spring of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“I heard this big old knock on the door,” Karen said. “I turned the corner, saw the window and saw the two uniformed men standing there.

According to the Pentagon, Sgt. Alex Funcheon, 21, was killed when an explosion tore through his vehicle in Baghdad. Two fellow Americans died at Alex’s side, along with an Iraqi interpreter. The Funcheons later learned that one U.S. soldier survived the attack.

“My initial response was disbelief,” said Bob, who will always remember his wife’s frantic phone call.

For Bob and Karen Funcheon, as well as their surviving daughter, the last six and a half years have been filled with surreal moments, including a funeral attended by over 1,000 people and an Air Force One meeting with President George W. Bush. They’ve also been haunted by painful dreams of what could have been.

“(Alex) wanted to get married; he wanted to have children,” the fallen hero’s mom said. “He wanted to have grandchildren.”

“He started living up to his abilities,” said Bob Funcheon as his voice cracked with emotion. “The toughest part for me is that I’ll never meet that man he had become.”

As politicians insist that America’s post-9/11 conflict is “winding down,” it’s easy to set aside the sacrifices made in Iraq and Afghanistan. The words of a grieving family remind us to never forget.

“He wasn’t a number,” Karen Funcheon said. “He was our only son.”

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Tom Sileo, Creators Syndicate

Tom Sileo, Creators SyndicateAn award-winning journalist who worked in newsrooms for eight years, Tom Sileo is a nationally syndicated columnist and communications director at the Travis Manion Foundation. Tom's weekly newspaper column, also titled "The Unknown Soldiers," has been distributed by Creators Syndicate since its February 2011 launch.

Tom is the author of "BROTHERS FOREVER: A Marine and Navy SEAL's Sacrifice." Written with Col. Tom Manion (Ret.) and published by Da Capo Press, "BROTHERS FOREVER" will be released in Spring 2014.

Previously, Tom spent almost five years as a copy editor for CNN's broadband news service. He also worked at the USO, Associated Press, Tribune, WSPA-TV, and WTVM-TV. Tom has a B.A. in Journalism and Mass Media from Rutgers University.

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