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Gregg commissioners hear speakers against, for removing Confederate memorial statue

No clear next step emerged Monday to answer the question about whether a monument to Confederate soldiers will remain on the Gregg County Courthouse lawn.

About two dozen people addressed the Gregg County Commissioners Court on Monday, most in opposition to a petition presented by Longview resident and college student Chelsea Laury calling for the statue to be relocated.

Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt said after the meeting that he would let the commissioners decide what to do next with this issue, but also said that “he might very well” bring the monument’s future to the court to decide.

“Right now, I’m taking it in review,” he said, and said he would continue to “listen” to the public and think about the next step.

Laury’s online petition, which says the monument belongs in a museum, had about 3,800 signatures on Monday, with some of those signing from outside Gregg County. At least one petition has been started in support of keeping the monument in its place. That petition, which shows to have been started about two weeks ago by Joe Reynolds, had about 1,300 signatures on Monday, but it has not been presented to the commissioners court. None of the petitions have the power to legally force commissioners to take action on the monument.

The local R.B. Levy Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated the monument in 1911 in what was known as Bodie Park, located about where the Glover-Crim building is in downtown Longview at Tyler and Fredonia streets. The monument was moved to the courthouse lawn in 1940 after the park property was sold to make way for the Glover-Crim building.

People who spoke against the statue’s removal include the current and former chairmen of the Gregg County Republican Party — Gary Nice and Tracy Vincent, respectively — Longview residents and some people who live in Ore City, Tyler, Carthage and Rusk County, though some of them said they previously lived in Gregg County. A couple identified themselves as members of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Many of the speakers argued against removing what they described as history.

“Our history, I think we need to honor the history that is there, good or bad,” said Keith Lloyd of Longview. He said people need to “grow up a little” and realize people will offend each other. Also, he said people need to realize “our history does matter, and you can’t erase it.”

Laury wore a t-shirt that said “This is Us” as she presented the petition she spearheaded to remove the monument to commissioners.

Laury noted that some in Monday’s meeting said Confederate soldiers need to be remembered.

They do, she said, but not on the courthouse lawn. A cemetery or battleground would be better places to do that, she said.

“This is supposed to be a place of justice,” she said of the courthouse.

The statue stands in front of the courthouse, but she said the soldiers memorialized in the statue did not fight for justice. “They were rebels. They killed American soldiers.”

One other person, Zac Calloway of Longview, spoke in support of the statue’s removal.

Calloway referred to a television interview the judge conducted last week in advance of a prayer rally he organized with the help of local preachers Saturday on the courthouse lawn.

Calloway took issue with the judge saying peaceful discussions about differences of opinions are welcome.

Issues of police brutality and Confederate monuments are not “differences of opinion,” he said.

“They are differences of ideology. The ideology of the Confederacy was rooted in racism and white supremacy,” Calloway said.

Gregg County resident Rhonda Anderson said she worried where it would stop if the monument is removed — if, for instance, the county would be renamed because Gregg County is named for a Confederate general.

She told the commissioners not to allow the “destroyers of history” to “cancel our culture.”

Raymond Leveritt of Kilgore referred to the prayer rally on Saturday.

“That’s the solution. The problem is the statue,” he said.

He said he’s done good and bad in his life.

“I need to remember them all,” Leveritt said.

Michael Hurley of Longview said the Texans who fought in the Civil War responded to the state’s call to defend their homes.

“May God bless Dixie. May God bless the South. Keep our monuments,” he said.

Gregg County turnout low in first day of early voting

A small ballot and a pandemic added up to low turnout for the first day of early voting in Gregg County.

Election Administrator Kathryn Nealy said 68 people voted in the first day of the primary runoff early voting.

“Gregg County does not have any local races, and we realize that’s why there has not been a lot of interest,” she said. “But everybody is involved in the Democrat state railroad commissioner and United States senator, so that’s a very important office. We need our voters to be aware that is a reason to get out and vote.”

The Democratic candidates for senator are Royce West and Mary “MJ” Hegar. The winner of the runoff will face Republican incumbent Sen. John Cornyn in November.

The Democratic railroad commissioner candidates are Roberto R. “Beto” Alonzo and Chrysta Castañeda. The runoff winner will face Republican candidate James Wright in November.

Voters also are not used to voting in July, but COVID-19 pushed the election back from its previously scheduled date in May, Nealy said.

But voters should not worry about safely visiting the polls, she said.

“We have many precautions in place. We have gloves, masks, hand sanitizer for the voters. Our workers are wearing gloves and masks. We have those plexiglass screens between votes and workers,” Nealy said. “We have signs and tape marking 6 feet between voters.”

Workers also use disinfectant wipes to clean surfaces after voters come in, she said.

“We have been communicating with the secretary of state for three months now to secure these products and get them in place and have a plan for how to protect our voters,” she said.

Voters can cast their ballots at five locations:

  • 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily through Thursday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. July 5 and 7 a.m.-7 p.m. July 6-10 at the Gregg County Courthouse
  • 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily through Thursday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. July 5 and 8 a.m.-6 p.m. July 6-10 at the Judson Community Center
  • 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily through Thursday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. July 5 and 8 a.m.-6 p.m. July 6-10 at the Greggton Community Center
  • 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily through Thursday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. July 5 and 8 a.m.-6 p.m. July 6-10 at the Kilgore Community Center
  • 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily through Thursday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. July 5 and 8 a.m.-6 p.m. July 6-10 at the Broughton Recreation Center

Texas city and county leaders ask Gov. Greg Abbott for authority to implement local stay-at-home orders

As Texas grapples with soaring coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, local elected officials in some of the state’s most populous counties are asking Gov. Greg Abbott to roll back business reopenings and allow them to reinstate stay-at-home orders for their communities in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.

Officials in Harris, Bexar, Dallas and Travis counties have either called on or reached out to the governor in recent days, expressing a desire to implement local restrictions for their regions and, in some cases, stressing concerns about hospital capacity.

Local governments across the state implemented stay-at-home orders, which generally direct businesses deemed nonessential to shut down, to varying degrees in March before the governor issued a statewide directive at the beginning of April. Abbott’s stay-at-home order expired at the end of April, when he began announcing phased reopenings in the state and forcing local governments to follow his lead. Since then, a number of local officials, many of whom have been critical of Abbott’s reopening timeline, have argued that the jurisdiction to reinstate such directives is no longer in their hands.

“If you are not willing to take these actions on behalf of the state, please roll back your restriction on local leaders being able to take these swift actions to safeguard the health of our communities,” Sam Biscoe, interim Travis County judge, wrote in a letter to Abbott on Monday.

Biscoe asked Abbott “to roll all the way back to Stay Home orders based on worsening circumstances,” further cap business occupancy, mandate masks, and ban gatherings of 10 or more people.

On Monday afternoon, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner issued an impassioned plea for Abbott to let cities and counties make decisions for themselves.

“We need more tools. If I had my ultimate ask to him, I would say restore to local governments, to mayors and County judges, all the tools that we had in March and April. Give us back our tools,” he said. “Because the situation is more critical now than then, and we had more tools at our disposal then than now. And I will tell you it is frustrating, because when people are reporting locally and nationally, they are talking about the city of Houston, as well as other cities. I would like to have the ability to do what is in the best interest to the city of Houston to get on top of this virus.”

Officials in Bexar County also wrote a similar letter to the governor Monday, saying that “the ability to tailor a response and recovery that fits the San Antonio region’s need is vital as we look forward to a healthier future.”

“Our region’s hospital capacity issues and economic circumstances require stronger protocols to contain the spread of this disease,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg wrote. The two asked Abbott to “restore the ability for the City of San Antonio to take additional local preventative measures, including potential Stay Home/Work Safe restrictions.” They also asked the governor to mandate face coverings for people who are outside a household and issue “clearer language that strictly limits social gatherings,” among other things.

Abbott, whose office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, took his most drastic move yet Friday to respond to the surge in cases this month, ordering bars to close again and lowering restaurant occupancy to 50%. Before that order, bars were allowed to operate at 50% capacity and restaurants at 75% capacity under a phased reopening Abbott has led since late April — a process that at times has drawn criticism from public health experts and local officials who argued the state was reopening too quickly.

Later Friday, Abbott publicly expressed regret for the first time over his decision to let bars reopen, saying in an evening interview with KVIA-TV in El Paso that the “bar setting, in reality, just doesn’t work with a pandemic.”

Meanwhile, counties and cities across the state have implemented face mask requirements for businesses after Wolff, the Bexar County judge, moved to do so without facing opposition from Abbott. The governor had previously issued an executive order banning local governments from imposing fines or penalties on people who chose not to wear a face mask in public.

Local leaders have also voiced concerns about the testing capacity of large cities. In Travis County, Biscoe explained that because of the “rapidly increasing demand,” officials are rationing testing only for people with symptoms. The stress on the system is also making contact tracing efforts more difficult.

“In summary, the rapid increase in cases has outstripped our ability to track, measure, and mitigate the spread of the disease,” Biscoe wrote.

Biscoe said the regional hospital system has hit about 70% of its capacity, which has prompted Austin Public Health to begin working on an alternative care site. A spokesperson for Austin Mayor Steve Adler did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Officials in Harris County have also considered plans for a temporary facility. Over the weekend, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who oversees the state’s largest county, suggested in an interview with ABC-13 that she was pushing for the authority to issue another stay-at-home order.

And in North Texas, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins sent a letter to Abbott over the weekend, requesting that the governor consider a list of recommendations from a citywide public health committee, such as instituting a 30-day stay-at-home order and mandating masks.

“I recommend that you enact these requirements statewide, or at the very least, regionally. If not, please rescind your prior order restricting local control and allow Dallas County to implement the above recommendations in an effort to slow the spread of the rampant and devastating COVID-19 virus,” Jenkins wrote in a letter Saturday. “Lives depend on swift action.”

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson has not publicly weighed in on whether he supports the governor reauthorizing local officials to implement stay-at-home directives. The mayor has asked Abbott to consider implementing a statewide mask policy and adopting a statewide or regional approach to curbing the spread of the virus in an attempt to minimize confusion and increase compliance, according to a spokesperson in Johnson’s office.

Supreme Court affirms abortion protections, strikes down Louisiana abortion law

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law Monday that would have curtailed access to abortions in the state and that was nearly identical to a measure the court overturned in Texas in 2016.

The ruling is a win for advocates of abortion access, who feared the case could quickly pave the way for states to impose greater restrictions on the procedure. But legal and legislative battles over the procedure are sure to continue, including in Texas, where there are more than 6 million women of reproductive age. More than 53,800 abortions were performed in Texas in 2017, including 1,1,74 for out-of-state residents, according to government data.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joined the liberal justices in a 5-4 decision that struck down a Louisiana law that would have required doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Roberts had dissented in the 2016 decision that found Texas’ restrictions placed an undue burden on a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion. He did not agree with the liberal justices’ reasoning Monday, instead citing the precedent set by the previous case.

“The result in this case is controlled by our decision four years ago invalidating a nearly identical Texas law,” Roberts wrote.

The Waskom City Council near Texas state line with Louisiana just more than a year ago passed an ordinance claiming to make abortion illegal and to become what they called a “sanctuary city for the unborn.” Right to Life of East Texas and its director, Mark Lee Dickson, chose Waskom because of concerns that abortion clinics might move to Texas over changing laws in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, Moore said at the meeting.

The Supreme Court’s Monday decision is seen as a harbinger of how a reconstituted U.S. Supreme Court may rule on abortion issues in the future. Since the Texas case was decided in 2016, the court’s ideological center has shifted to the right with the addition of Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch — both appointed by President Donald Trump, who pledged to appoint pro-life justices who would overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. Kavanaugh and Gorsuch dissented on Monday’s ruling.

State officials say requirements for admitting privileges are meant to protect women’s health and ensure doctors are qualified. Advocates of abortion access counter that these privileges are medically unnecessary because the procedure rarely results in hospitalization and when complications do arise, they often occur after the woman has left the clinic. Doctors may have their admitting privileges denied for reasons unrelated to ability or experience, including not having a track record of admitting patients due to the relative rarity of complications requiring hospitalization, critics of the Louisiana law say.

Lawyers challenging the law argued it was a carbon copy of the Texas requirement overturned in 2016. The Supreme Court said in its decision then that there was “sufficient evidence” showing that the requirement for admitting privileges shut down about half the abortion clinics in Texas — more than quadrupling the number of reproductive-age women living more than 150 miles away from one — with no proof they better protected women’s health.

During the period in which the requirement was in effect in Texas, the number of abortions performed in the state declined from around 63,000 in 2013 to 54,000 the next year, government data shows. In neighboring Louisiana, where some 10,000 women seek abortions each year, one clinic and one doctor would be left to perform the procedure if the requirement for admitting privileges went into effect, the law’s challengers said.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said the court should have upheld the “commonsense” Louisiana law. “Instead, in striking down these basic health-and-safety regulations, the Supreme Court has allowed abortion clinics to endanger women,” he said in a statement.

While advocates for abortion access celebrated the ruling, they expressed worry about future fights over the procedure.

“We’re relieved that the Louisiana law has been blocked today, but we’re concerned about tomorrow,” said Nancy Northup, head of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a nonprofit that represented the Louisiana abortion providers. “Unfortunately, the court’s ruling today will not stop those hell bent on banning abortion.”

The Texas Democratic Party said the decision underscores the need to elect Democratic politicians who support “every woman’s right to choose.”

“Our fight for choice and quality access to health care continues this November,” Texas Democratic Party senior brand director Brittany Switzer said.