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Police: Athens mayor, 3 other area men charged after trying to solicit sex online from minor
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The mayor of an East Texas town as well as three other Longview-area men have been charged after police said they tried to solicit sex online with investigators posing as minors.

Athens Mayor James “Monte” Montgomery, who resigned Friday, and the others were booked into the Gregg County Jail after the operation conducted Wednesday and Thursday, according to a statement from the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The DPS operation was in conjunction with the Smith County Sheriff’s Office, Longview Police Department, Gregg County Sheriff’s Office, Collin County Sheriff’s Office, FBI and Homeland Security Investigations.

Charged in the operation are:

Montgomery, 63, of Athens, was released from jail Thursday on $300,000 bond on a charge of online solicitation of a minor sexual conduct.

Jesse Bennett Mason, 40, of Hallsville, remained jailed Friday on bonds totaling $75,000 on charges of online solicitation of a minor sexual conduct; possession with intent to promote child pornography; and possession of child pornography.

Jordan Rook, 23, remained jailed Friday, charged with online solicitation of a minor. Bond information was unavailable. Rook’s residence is listed as Longview by DPS but Kilgore in Gregg County Jail records.

Michael David Bylsma, 42, remained jailed Friday, charged with online solicitation of a minor. Bond information was unavailable. Bylsma’s residence is listed as White Oak by DPS but Karnack in Gregg County Jail records.

“Solicitation of a minor involves a defendant asking or engaging in a conversation with a minor and during the course of that conversation, the defendant asks (or solicits) the minor to meet them for the purpose of engaging in a sexual act,” DPS said in the statement.

Montgomery stepped down from his post Friday as news spread about his arrest. According to the city of Athens website, his term was set to end in 2023.

City officials said they will appoint an interim mayor within the month.

The city released a statement early Friday that says city officials were shocked to learn about Montgomery’s arrest.

“These are very serious allegations and the City of Athens does not take them lightly,” the statement said. “We are committed to the protection and safety of our children. The City Council will be considering all possible actions as details become available.”

Children get active, learn about Gospel at Longview day camp

More than 150 children from local neighborhoods were treated to a week of activities and outreach during the Pine Cove City summer day camp at First Baptist Church of Longview’s The ROC.

Church members provided $300 scholarships for children from South Ward Elementary School, Buckner Children and Family Services and other Longview schools to attend the week-long camp, an extension of Pine Cove Christian camp in Tyler.

The traveling day camp teams with local churches to provide an opportunity for children to be introduced to the Gospel and encourages them to begin their own spiritual journeys, according to Pine Cove.

Site Director Avery Harlan said Friday that, throughout the week, Pine Cove City counselors led students in first through fifth grades in Bible study and worship while also providing entertainment and physical activities such as a rock climbing wall, laser tag, bungee jumping, obstacle courses, inflatables, a bungee trampoline and more.

“We kinda just take over the church for a week,” Harlan said.

During Friday’s rain, children flooded into an indoor activity room to dance to music and watch a humorous skit performed by camp counselors that Harlan said gets the children laughing and helps to break down walls and build trust.

“Our ultimate hope is that they learn more about Jesus — that they leave here knowing more about who He is, what He’s done for them and what that means for them,” Harlan said. “But also, and maybe for the first time for some of these kids, is that they are valued and truly cared for and that they would leave here knowing that.”

In fight against Texas GOP’s voting bill, options limited for Democrats in Congress and White House
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WASHINGTON — In the wake of their successful gambit to block state legislation that would have scaled back voter access to the polls, Texas Democrats are looking to the federal government to be their last line of defense when Republicans inevitably revive their push on the issue.

But even as Democrats control Congress and the White House, those hopes face long odds.

Texas’ legislative leaders are determined to pass a Republican bill that would enact new restrictions on voting or narrow the latitude local officials have to run elections. The Democrats’ walkout of the Texas House on Sunday will likely only delay that effort until at least summer, when state lawmakers are expected to convene for a special session. And despite national Democrats’ desire to do something to protect voting rights, the weakening of the federal Voting Rights Act and the filibuster in the U.S. Senate limit what they can accomplish.

“The time is now for a responsible federal national response for voting rights in America,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat.

In Senate Bill 7’s most recent form, the Republican-backed legislation in Texas would have restricted 24-hour voting, drive-thru voting and voting on Sunday mornings; tightened the rules for voting by mail; and increased access for partisan poll watchers. Democrats view all of these as a means to set back access to the ballot, particularly for voters of color.

Civil rights groups have warned lawmakers over the last few months that the bill’s provisions possibly violate federal safeguards for voters of color. As the bill neared the finish line, Harris County leaders indicated they were prepared to take the state to court if it were to become law. And House Democrats previously put the Department of Justice on notice after a committee rewrote SB 7 without notice and without public input in what they called “grave deviation from standard operating procedure.”

In the lead-up to the walkout, most of the state’s Democratic Congressional delegation wrote to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to push him on how the Department of Justice was preparing to review or challenge the bill if it became law.

But one key tool for the DOJ to intervene was eliminated eight years ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 known as preclearance.

A section of that civil rights law required states and jurisdictions that have a history of voter suppression to clear changes to their voting rules and political maps with the federal government to ensure they didn’t harm voters of color. In 1975, Texas joined that group, and since then, voting legislation and redistricting plans had to be approved by the Justice Department in the preclearance process.

Congress repeatedly reauthorized the law over the years with bipartisan backing. The most recent extension came in 2006, when Republicans controlled Congress and George W. Bush was president. That bill passed unanimously in the Senate, with the support of the Texas’ two senators at the time, John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison. The House version of the bill passed 390-33. Most of the Texas delegation backed the legislation, with the exception of six House Republicans.

That reauthorization was supposed to last for 25 years.

But in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the section of the Voting Rights Act pertaining to preclearance was no longer necessary. Chief Justice John Roberts pointed toward racial progress in politics as proof. He did, however, leave room for Congress to pass a more modern version of the law that would address more recent instances of discrimination in voting restrictions.

In a separate letter last week, the entire Texas Democratic congressional delegation cited the proposed Texas bill as its main exhibit in calling for the U.S. Senate to act on federal voting legislation that would significantly reform elections and bring back preclearance.

“Since the Supreme Court invalidated key provisions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Texas has passed, defended, and implemented a number of election laws that have added barriers for communities to access the ballot box,” the members of Congress wrote.

“... The bills that the Texas legislature is prioritizing this session would close polling places in communities of color, foster intimidation of voters with disabilities as well as those who have limited English proficiency, and reduce opportunities for early voting.”

There is no other state where the elimination of preclearance will prove more consequential than Texas. Decade after decade ahead of the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling, federal courts found state lawmakers intentionally discriminated against voters of color in their political mapmaking by diluting the power of their votes. The 2021 redistricting cycle will mark the first time in nearly half a century that lawmakers will have a free hand at drawing the next congressional and legislative maps without the possibility of the Justice Department preemptively overruling their district lines.

In the last decade, preclearance also kept Texas from immediately implementing its stringent voter ID law when it was passed in 2011. Federal courts later found lawmakers intentionally discriminated against Hispanic and Black voters in selecting the short list of IDs voters needed to present in order to cast their ballots. The law was slightly rewritten as a result of the legal intervention.

“Without this federal intervention, we will be open, we would be left exposed to the continued assault on our rights,” said state Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, at an online town hall hosted by several Dallas-Fort Worth-area Democratic officials Thursday night.

There are two bills in Congress that would restore preclearance, but both face long odds. The most sweeping is the For the People Act, which passed the House earlier this year by a 220-210 vote, with the Texas delegation falling along party lines.

That bill would expand automatic and same-day voter registration, voting by mail and early voting and would limit removing voters from the voter rolls. Furthermore, the bill would call for independent redistricting commissions in all states, which would take that power from the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature. It would also enhance election security by sharing intelligence with local officials administering elections and require candidates for president and vice president to release 10 years of tax returns.

A second, more narrowly tailored bill called the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act has yet to pass either chamber but is far narrower in scope. It would create a formula that would pass muster with the court and bring back preclearance.

There is little optimism that either bill will pass the U.S. Senate. While Democrats have a narrow majority in the Senate — there are 50 senators from each party, and Vice President Kamala Harris serves as a tie-breaker in capacity as president of the Senate — most of the party’s legislative priorities are dead on arrival due to Senate traditions.

While Senate bills only need a simple majority to pass, 60 votes are needed to put a bill on the floor. Both parties have implemented a legislative maneuver called the filibuster in recent years, which enforces that de facto 60-vote threshold.

It is highly unlikely that there are 60 votes for a voting bill, and two Democratic senators — U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — have refused to do away with the filibuster.

President Joe Biden lamented Tuesday that his options are limited on issues like voting while the filibuster remains in place.

Despite the frustration in Texas, Democrats say they will keep Texas at the forefront of the national debate on voter access.

“If they want to steamroll folks in Georgia and go to Florida and steamroll them,” said Martinez Fischer, the state legislator. “If they steamroll us in Texas, they’re just going to march across this country until everybody loses their voting rights.”

West resigns as chair of Texas Republican Party, says he's mulling statewide run
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WHITEHOUSE — Texas GOP Chair Allen West announced his resignation Friday morning and said he is considering running for another office, potentially one that is statewide.

During a news conference in Whitehouse near Tyler, West said a statewide run is “one of the things that I have to go to the Lord in prayer.” He said it would be “very disingenuous with so many people that have asked me to consider something” to not explore a run.

“Many men from Georgia, many men from Tennessee, came here to serve the great state of Texas, and so we’re gonna consider it,” said West, who grew up in Georgia. He added that he was announcing his resignation, effective next month, so that there is no conflict of interest as he weighs his next political move.

West, who has been most frequently discussed as a potential challenger to Gov. Greg Abbott, declined to say whether he was eyeing any particular statewide office, though he told a radio host earlier Friday that the host was “safe” to assume West was mulling a gubernatorial run. At the news conference, West also did not say when he would announce a decision on his next step, telling a reporter with characteristic combativeness that his “timeline is in my head and not in yours yet.”

West also raised the prospect he could run for Congress, noting he is a resident of the 32nd Congressional District, “and there’s a guy in Texas 32 I really don’t care for being my congressional representative.” The incumbent is Democratic Rep. Colin Allred of Dallas.

As for a statewide campaign, West said he would not be deterred by an incumbent having the endorsement of former President Donald Trump. Trump has already backed Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick for reelection.

“You know, I don’t serve President Trump. I serve God, country and Texas,” West said. “So that does not affect me whatsoever.”

West, who has been at the helm of the state party for just shy of a year, will remain chair until a successor is picked July 11, the party said Friday.

“It has been my distinct honor to serve as Chairman of the Republican Party of Texas. I pray Godspeed for this governing body,” West said in a statement from the party, which also said West “will take this opportunity to prayerfully reflect on a new chapter in his already distinguished career.”

Critics have speculated for months that West was using the job of state party chair as a platform for future political ambitions. West has not ruled out challenging Abbott, and he has also had tension recently with Patrick. The job of land commissioner is now open in 2022 after incumbent George P. Bush announced Wednesday he is running for attorney general, challenging fellow Republican Ken Paxton.

Abbott has already drawn a primary challenge from former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas. In addition to West, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller could also take on Abbott, who got Trump’s endorsement Tuesday.

West appeared Friday morning in Whitehouse, where the State Republican Executive Committee is holding its quarterly meeting.

A former one-term Florida congressman and retired Army lieutenant colonel who moved to Texas several years ago, West took over the party last summer, unseating incumbent James Dickey.

He quickly made a name for himself for his willingness to speak out against fellow Republicans. West sued Abbott for extending the early voting period due to the coronavirus pandemic, protested outside the governor’s mansion over pandemic-related shutdowns and assailed state House Speaker Dade Phelan as a political traitor.

West used the latest legislative session to push hard for the party’s eight legislative priorities, and he has spent recent days lamenting the lack of progress that lawmakers have to show on them. At the news conference, West recognized that lawmakers made strides on the party’s priorities related to abortions and gun — and the one related to elections remains pending — but said “everything else, it seemed, that it just fell apart.”

“We’re not pleased with that performance,” West said, calling it “very discouraging to the people that voted for Republicans in Texas.”

Abbott is not the only statewide official with whom West has butted heads. Toward the end of the session, West put pressure on Patrick, the presiding Senate officer, to pass a House-approved bill allowing permitless carry of handguns, questioning Patrick’s commitment to the cause and alleging the Senate added “poison-pill amendments.” Patrick eventually wrangled the votes. He got the bill through the Senate, and it is now on its way to Abbott’s desk for his signature.

Without naming West, Patrick said in a statement at one point after the bill passed the Senate that those who claimed the Senate-amended bill was in peril “willfully misled many Second Amendment supporters in Texas.”

West has caused controversy beyond just his conflicts with state leaders.

When he took over, he gave the state party a new slogan, “We are the storm,” which raised speculation he was signaling support to QAnon, a conspiracy movement identified by the FBI as a domestic terrorism threat. West said the slogan was unrelated to QAnon.

Last weekend, West delivered remarks at a Dallas conference whose organizers have ties to the QAnon movement. At the conference, former Trump administration official Michael Flynn also spoke to the crowd and advocated for a military coup on the U.S. government. Flynn later backtracked on his comments, and West said in an interview later in the week that he didn’t support “any type of military coup.”

The next Texas GOP chair will be elected by the 64-member State Republican Executive Committee. Speculation about who could run to succeed West immediately turned to Vice Chair Cat Parks, who has repeatedly shown daylight with West in the No. 2 position.

”Once SREC business is completed, Vice-Chair Parks will be having conversations with her family on her decision going forward,” Parks spokesperson Justin Farrell said in a statement.

At the news conference, West said he did not know who he wanted to follow him as chair and that it is up to the SREC, but he suggested he would like someone who would continue in his mold.

By Friday afternoon, former GOP state Rep. Matt Rinaldi announced his candidacy for the party leadership. Rinaldi, who lost his reelection to a Democrat in 2018, was a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus. At the end of the 2017 legislative session, he called Immigration and Customs Enforcement on people protesting against a bill to block “sanctuary cities” for immigrants.

”We need a Chair willing to stand strong for the party and ensure that grassroots don’t lose their voice in the political process. The party also needs a leader with a history of raising money and organizing party activists at the local level, who is also committed to its mission and legislative priorities. I look forward to earning the support of the SREC over the coming weeks,” he said in a Facebook post.