I attended the Austin Interfaith forum tonight. As a St Thomas More parishioner, I got the notice, and originally confused this with a parish event. I found out later this was an event that included other churches (St Albert), a synagogue (Kol Halev), and members of other groups (teachers unions). The 'forum' was not really a forum, but rather was an endorsement rally put on by the Austin Interfaith 'faithful' for their issues. (This was said directly by one of the leaders: "Our Issues are our candidate" and they endorse an agenda.) This was a highly scripted event, where almost all the talking was done by the Austin Interfaith leaders and questioners, and only a little time by candidates to answer, and no free-range audience participation.
The most objectionable part of the forum was how it was set up. Before the candidates came in, the 'pre-session' leaders instructed the audience directly that when a candidate answer "YES" to a question, they were to answer with loud applause and when a candidate answered "NO", they were to sit on their hands. They even rehearsed this activity, just to make sure the audience was 'trained' right! So even audience participation was scripted and controlled!
It's very creepy to have the audience trained like seals to applaud when directed rather than simply being permitted to express their opinions openly. Why the mind control? There is a reason: the 'accountability session' clearly has a very heavy hand of intimidation on the candidates themselves, to make them feel accepted if they go along with the Austin Interfaith questions, and very isolated should they be brave enough to have a different opinion than the Interfaith group. This was not about information, but about intimidating candidates and exercising power. By being so scripted and non-open, this 'forum' had the worst aspects of mass-movement power-intimidation.
Further more, the handouts had a scorecard on the back, where the audience members would 'score' the candidates on whether they were answering well or not.
Father Elmer Holtman set the focus with a general speech ("justice for all") that in a few areas got into specifics - such as "We want to make sure immigrant families do not live in fear. ... we support rule of law, but not local officials doing the work of immigration agencies." (But the real issue seems to be they dont want the law enforced by anyone.) While I appreciated the desired to speak about living our moral values through active participation in the public sphere, the elephant in the room at least for me was the complete and utter failure to mention, while lamenting the litany of items affecting us, the moral issues around the unborn, right to life, end-of-life, or the family itself. The agenda was centered around 4 themes: Jobs/"living wage', Education, Affordable healthcare, immigration. The set of issues has a common theme of spend more Government money and relax standards and the rule of law. While they claim to be non-partisan, the group and their agenda is quite liberal.
The candidates who came were: Donna Howard and Pam Waggoner (HD-48 candidates), Jerry Mikus (HD-50), and Gerald Daugherty (county commissioner, pct 3). They had 4 'stories' before they got to the questions, which were short speeches about the challenges these members had in a particular area. After that, they got into questions. The questions themselves were biased and leading, in that they were stumping for their agenda item and demanding a simplistic 'yes' to what in some cases (especially healthcare and education) were complex multi-agenda items.
They first had Daugherty up, since he had to go early. He was supportive of the CapitalIDEA item; on healthcare, he keyed off 'working with you' on for the mental health issue, pointing out how mental health patients should be out of jails. Interfaith's immigration question was to ask if he would call on the County Sheriff to revoke his decision to work with ICE to deport illegal immigrant held in the jail. He did an admirable job being straight with Interfaith and saying no, pointing out that Sheriff Hamilton was an independently elected official.
Then the House Rep candidates took turns on the questions. Each candidate got only 15 to 30 seconds to speak to a question, not enough time to explain where they stand, which made this session more intimidative than informative. The CapitalIDEA item was universally supported. On education, they spoke about being less 'punitive'; there was general support, and for Pam Waggoner, enthusiastic support. The healthcare question had Howard declaring "Health care is a right" (which should be argued against since no 'right' exists to spend someone
else's money on your behalf). Jerry Mikus and Pam Waggoner argued cogently about the risks of expanding CHIP as the agenda desires, so gave qualified answers (which were cut off).
The most contentious perhaps was the immigration question, where Austin Interfaith opposes state law efforts to have local law enforcement work with Federal immigration officials to enforce immigration law. Donna Howard expressed support for Interfaith's pro'sanctuary city' position, but both Republican candidates, Waggoner and Mikus, argued that enforcing Federal law was part of the proper domain/responsibility of local law enforcement; Waggoner mentioned that its in the Constitution.
On the answers that went against the Interfaith agenda, there was a smattering of applause. I was among them, applauding the courage of the candidates for speaking their mind rather than getting intimidated by the forum setup. Their parting shot warning to the candidates was "You are giving us permission to hold you accountable to the questions you say yes to." This struck me as another example of power-mongering/threatening intimidation towards candidates.
In summary, the 'accountability session' was an overly scripted session and excercise in mass-movement intimidation tactics that was disturbing and troubling on several levels:
1. The forum was a hostile environment for free thinking and free exercise of one's conscience. It was an endorsement rally for the specific agenda of Austin Interfaith. There were mind-control and though-control methods used that were frankly creepy, akin to what you see in cults, not a free and open forum (which this was not).
2. Held in a Catholic church venue, it violated the guidelines put out by Texas bishops (Texas Catholic conference) on how Catholic churches should behave. Item IV. "Evaluations of candidates or political parties should be avoided" - when this session did just that - rating candidates 'good' or 'bad' on the Austin Interfaith agenda. This was an endorsement/evaluation rally/exercise, that graded not merely an issue forum.
3. For a Catholic church to host an event - the elephant in the room question - why wasn't the life issue on the agenda? Surely, its unfortunate that Rebecca McIlwain's daughter didnt get into accelerated English in 10th grade (the 'story' on the education, but I've been there too with my daughter in the past week, disappointments happen), but does it rise to the level of the right to life itself for the unborn? The agenda was a narrow agenda and missed "Faith citizenship" agenda items such as the issues of life, family, etc.
We know why life is off the agenda - because the other partners in this coalition force it to be so. After the session, I had a discussion with a woman from the synagogue. She mentioned how there were other 'pro-choice' groups and so that item was 'divisive'. So too was school choice. Why? Oh, because the teachers unions are against it. Yet she warmly related how the lessons learned from catholic colleagues were used by other groups to push for gay marriage (oh joy!) This begs the question of why the Catholic church, which goes out of its way to limit political participation in other ways, would lend credence to a coalition comprised of other groups who are on the other side of the catholic church on fundamental issues.
4. I do not believe that the Austin Interfaith agenda was a genuine grounds-up agenda coming from our parish. Rather, it was a pre-defined agenda that the backing organization, Industrial Areas Foundation, has been pushing, and the 'house meeting' and other meetings are less to discover the agenda of the parish, than to find those members receptive to push this agenda. In short, Austin Interfaith is pushing a narrow liberal agenda (including agenda items of teachers unions) into the church, rather than taking the church members' agenda into the community. The Catholic church should not be taken advantage of in this way. To put it bluntly: Why is the moral capital of the Catholic church squandered on pet issues of the teacher's unions and other external groups, when those groups themselves have enough power to push their own agenda?
These concerns make me wish the Catholic church would reconsider participation in this organization.