Losing Lon

Burnam may not have passed many bills, but the liberal Democrat put his mark on Fort Worth.
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Posted June 4, 2014 by PETER GORMAN in News

On the first day of early voting in the primary, Burnam was second in line at the Worth Heights Community Center. First in line was his old friend Rosas, a bear of a man who served in Vietnam and came home an activist. He ran for the District 90 seat in 1990 and lost in the primary to Willis.

He said that Burnam’s defeat means the whole community will lose a valuable ally.

“What Lon did was make it possible for undocumented immigrants who graduate from high school to go on to college,” Rosas said. “Texas is one of the few states that allows that, and it’s a vital element for our people. And Lon helped make that happen.”

Burnam worked closely with Rick Noriega, a Democratic legislator from Houston, to craft a bill that became the TEXAS Grants program. It allows qualifying high school graduates, including undocumented students, to attend state universities and colleges at in-state tuition rates, and then helps support those in financial need.

Burnam made education one of his top priorities. Courtesy Lon Burnam

Burnam made education one of his top priorities. Courtesy Lon Burnam

“Rick Noriega was the author of the bill, but I worked hand in glove with him on it,” said Burnam. “And then, surprisingly, we got Gov. [Rick] Perry to sign it into law.”

He’s known Burnam for nearly 30 years and never ran against him, Rosas said, because “he voted right on the issues most of the time. I think my running in 1990 pushed him to run the next term.”

Rosas said that Burnam was the key to bringing Cesar Chavez — the United Farm Workers co-founder — to Fort Worth on three occasions. “Now Chavez was one of my heroes, and Lon raised the money to get him here and had a private home opened up, and people like me got to meet him and talk with him one on one. Lon won’t brag on that, but it’s still true.”

Which doesn’t mean Burnam doesn’t have his faults. “I don’t agree with him all the time, and sometimes he’s pretty arrogant, which turns people off,” Rosas said. “He’s sort of like a pit bull that gets hold of a leg and won’t let go. I’ll tell you one thing: I’ll bet there are a lot of people in Austin who are probably happy as hell that he won’t be there anymore.”

Rosas said that the Romero campaign urged people to vote for Romero because he’s “one of us.”

“But just being one of us, a Mexican, doesn’t mean you’re with us. What’s important is what have you done for the community in the past, what are you doing for the community now, and what are you going to do for the community in the future? And Lon’s done a lot for us. Aaron Peña, a state rep from South Texas, once said that Lon votes more Mexican than the Mexicans in South Texas.”

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Not everyone feels the way that Rosas and Peña do about Burnam’s commitment to the Mexican community. One local activist who’s unhappy with Burnam is Raul Duran, who worked with the Fort Worth school district for 18 years as a counselor on various issues.

In 2001 Duran filed a grievance with the district regarding the number of Hispanics employed in supervisory and administrative positions.

“The number of Hispanics in the district was growing, but the supervisors and administrators were all white, and none were bilingual. We had issues with drugs and gangs, and there needed to be some leadership sensitive to the emerging Hispanic school population,” Duran said.

The complaint fell on deaf ears, and Duran was eventually fired in 2010. He called his termination an act of retaliation for pushing for a larger Hispanic presence in the upper levels of the school district (“Counseling for Controversy,” June 13, 2012).

“A number of us brought the issue to Lon’s attention over the years — I know it was a school district issue, but he was in a position to knock on some people’s doors,” Duran said. “And I think he should have done that, but I didn’t see him do it.”

Burnam said recently that simply asking him to knock on doors and demand more Hispanic hires was unrealistic. “Without specifics, it was an impossible task,” he said. “You can’t just order a school district to start hiring people because someone asks you to. That’s not how it works.”

Romero said that what Duran saw in Burnam’s diffidence regarding his request was the same thing that made him decide to run against Burnam in the primary.

“I think Lon and I are similar in a lot of ways but different in others. The first person who ever came to my door to say he wanted my vote and to find out what was important to me was Lon, years ago.

“But I think he’s out of touch with the real issues of the Mexican community now. He went so long without an opponent that I think he forgot to ask the people what they want. What the poor people in this community want is economic development; they want jobs. And Lon was not getting those jobs for them.”

Romero, who has no opponent in the general election, said economic development and job creation will be his primary goals in office, helped by his experience as a business owner. “I know what it takes to build a business and make jobs happen. And that’s what we need in this district.”

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One major difference between Burnam and Romero is their stance on charter schools. Romero is for them; Burnam is dead-set against them. It’s an issue that has been raging in Texas and elsewhere for years now.

Burnam thinks backing charter schools is terribly misguided. “I have been a staunch advocate for quality public school education all my life. My mother taught in the Fort Worth public school system, and my brothers and I attended those schools.”

Charter schools, he said “are the single worst thing for public schools that has been discussed in this state in this decade. They simply siphon money out of the public school system so that the for-profit school industry can make money at the expense of our kids’ education. The solution is adequately funding public education.”

Romero, who describes himself as “that poor boy from Poly,” also attended public schools and promised to do his best to strengthen them. He said he sees no conflict between that promise and supporting charter schools. “I don’t see it [charter schools] as privatizing public education,” he said.

“My experience here in Fort Worth is that a charter school in my neighborhood is doing incredibly well. But I am doing everything I can to educate myself on charter schools and normal public school funding,” he said.

Despite Romero’s experience, Texas Education Agency records show that in 2012, regular public schools had a graduation rate of 89 percent, compared to charter schools’ rate of 53.9 percent.

The statistics were similarly disparate for student dropout rates: 5.7 percent for regular high schools versus 21.6 percent for charter.

“It just doesn’t make sense to take money from public schools and give it to private corporations,” Burnam said. “Their job is to make money for their stockholders, which is very different from the job of the board of education.”

Romero said he is in no way beholden to Education Reform Now, despite the organization having sent mailers on his behalf. “I didn’t even know about it,” he said, “so how could I owe them anything?”

Koppel agreed. “Mr. Romero had no knowledge of our efforts on his behalf,” she said.

“I would in no way support any charter school not performing at its very best,” Romero said.

“I think Mr. Romero is incredibly naïve on the issue,” said Burnam. “Yes, there are some huge grants from wealthy private citizens going to charter schools, and there can be prudent experimentation with private-sector participation in public education. But most of the financing comes right out of the school fund and goes into the pockets of the people who run those schools. So yes, it’s privatization.”

Education has been one of the hallmarks of Burnam’s tenure. He’s pushed for and gotten increased funding for adult basic education and for at-risk students — for tutoring, summer school, and other initiatives to help keep kids in school all the way to graduation.

In 2013 he was a leader in the Democratic caucus effort that blocked the funding of state water projects until the legislature agreed to raise public education funding by $4 billion.

“I have worked very hard on the issue and am proud of what I accomplished,” Burnam said. “Of course, there is always more to be done with public education.”

Romero called Burnam “a tough act to follow. He did tremendous work for the people of Fort Worth and all of Texas. I hope I’m up to the challenge and will work hard to succeed him well.”

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What’s next?

“I’ll do the same thing I did before I was elected,” Burnam said. “I’ll be an activist. I’ll help promote candidates I think would serve us well. I’m working with a civil rights group; I met with two people yesterday on funding a study on clean air. I’ve been an activist since sixth grade. It’s been a useful tool to have been a rep for 18 years — and if I can’t do that anymore, I’ll still be active.”

State Rep. Charlie Geren, a Republican who represents District 99 in North Fort Worth, said he disagreed with Burnam on almost everything. “But he was a good, hardworking member of the House. He represented his constituents aggressively. Some people in Austin might be glad if he doesn’t come back; most of us had a lot of respect for him.”

Adair said Burnam is part of a dying breed of Texas legislators. “He worked not just for his constituents but for what was best for the state. He often championed lost causes, but they were worthy causes. For me, it will be a sad day when Lon is no longer in the legislature.”

“Don’t you worry about Lon,” Rosas said. “He’ll land on his feet.”


14 Comments


  1.  
    Roy

    Romero is a Republican masquerading as a Democrat. The Republicans have realized that they can win Democratic districts by running Hispanic-surnamed fakes. Just like the Republican in Arizona who literally changed his name to Cesar Chavez and is running now as a Democrat.




  2.  
    Jim

    Thanks for this. Lon’s help was invaluable to the local and statewide environmental community. For a grassroots perspective: http://www.downwindersatrisk.org/2014/03/lon-burnam-fighting-the-good-fights-that-needed-fighting-in-austin-for-18-years/




  3.  
    Stark

    Calling Romero a Republican is pretty brain-dead. I don’t know many Republicans who live in Poly and work as hard as he has in the community. Lon had many admirable stands on issues. But too often he was tilting at windmills and not focusing on the bread and butter concerns of his constituents. Those in the know find it hilarious that Lon Burnam has launched an ill-fated election challenge while accusing Romero of harvesting ballots.

    Too funny! No one has employed more “ballot harvesters” than Lon Burnam. Lon pulled out all the stops in this last election and had more money “on the streets” than ever. If anyone engaged in illegal practices, it was Burnam.

    The author may want to look for a better source to vouch for Burnam than Renny Rosas. Renny is notorious for always backing an anglo “patron” over qualified Hispanics. So backing Lon is no surprise.

    Too bad Lon could not have salvaged his dignity in the way he went out. But he did it as he always has: Lon’s way regardless of the cost or the consequences.




  4.  
    JT Grant

    Lon has been an unfortunate mistake from the start. He tried repeatedly to impose a state income tax on Texas apparently oblivious to the state constitution disallowing such a move. Even more, to the universal disapproval of the people of such a bizarre, regressive plan to reduce property taxes (he says), answering my own question about his logic with “the average person simply can’t understand the economics of it.”
    The book of personal and public anecdotes about him is legendary. His rancorous nature has had some of Ft Worth’s top pols and executives throw him out of their offices for his baseless accusations and threats. When voting was taking place including legislation naming Martin Luther King Day as a holiday his colleagues engaged him in admiring conversation. He mindlessly voted “no” on every called measure as they chatted him up like an old buddy. When The MLK measure came up he again automatically voted no. At that, his good friends burst into laughter and walked awayOur forlorn Frank Burns had to scramble to have his vote changed. When the KKK attempted to “adopt a highway” here he spoke in favor of it saying, as he so often does, “We need every penny we can get.”
    He is an unfortunate mistake who has finally been erased.
    Those who love him always will.
    There is little doubt that this poor legislator and poorer sport will attempt to unseat Romero in the next election, but hopefully bright contrast will show him as he is….simply an unfortunate bumbler.




    •  
      weekly reader

      Actually a state income tax would make more sense than the crazy property tax and sales tax machinations we have now.




    •  
      Guest

      Anyone who calls an income tax (that started at $100k+ income) regressive compared to a property taxis too dumb to understand the economics of it.




  5.  
    Colleen Morgan Butterfield

    I’ve known, respected and admired Lon Burnam for over twenty-five years. He remained a hero to the environment, a lover of Ft Worth and its’ citizens, and never lost sight of fighting for justice for the people who cannot speak for themselves. He has been a wonder to behold, and we will all miss his voice of conscience. A good and fearless servant of the people.




  6.  
    Logan McNatt

    As an “outsider” living in Austin, all I know about Lon is based on the article, comments, and a few campaign emails from him. Very interesting discussion. As a liberal Democrat, I tend to agree with most of the positions he has taken and bills he has fought for or against. Sounds like he has a strong personality and unpopular beliefs, so of course he has made some people angry–what legislator hasn’t? But it appears he also has strong principles about supporting people and issues (education, environment, minorities, etc) for which the State of Texas ranks very poorly, especially in recent times. If only more Texans who “serve the people” would do the same for those without power and money as they do for those with it. (FYI, I’m a 5th generation Texan and proud of it; just not proud of the decisions the majority of our state “leaders” are making.)




  7.  
    JT Grant

    Speaking of dumb, Guest, it’s is also important, in matters of US Constitutional protections to understand that a tax may not be specifically targeted to affect only a certain income level. It’s called the equal protection clause. . . that may seem dumb to some, but there is more to legislative matters than blather and bluster. There’s more to creating law than just mindless posturing. That was always Lon’s problem….couldn’t think things through…all mustache and no cattle.




  8.  
    Raul Duran

    I couldn’t leave Lon’s flippant response to my attempts to have him do something— anything —to address the unfair treatment of Hispanic students (now the majority number in FWISD), their parents, and Hispanic employees in Fort Worth ISD.
    Lon, you are well aware that I personally handed you a notebook of documentation that included copies of open records, court papers, witness statements, etc. You stood me up for our first scheduled appointment (set by one of your own staffers) in your Ft Worth office, finally met with me and a witness (that I felt I needed to have present), promised to pursue my issue because I had provided you the “… specifics [that would make it a possible] task”. Two subsequent visits to your Austin office where you were never available and your staffers knew nothing about any such issue and worse, couldn’t locate the documents— but promised that you or someone in the know would quickly get back to me— I’m still waiting for that phone to ring.
    We were looking, in you, to be an Eliot Shapleigh, the state senator from El Paso who brought the Department of Education, U. S. Justice Department, and the FBI down on the El Paso ISD. Indictments and prison sentences, along with much needed reform are now occurring there.
    But flittering around like a nervous gnat doesn’t help you stop, listen, and learn the issues (those specifics you wanted)— it just makes you look busy.
    You lost Hispanic support because we are now discerning enough to recognize that throwing frequent “pachangas” disrespects the serious nature of our concerns and you never took the time to hear us — while burying our documentation.
    Chasing land mines in other parts of the globe, those “beautiful blue eyes (Gorman’s comment, not mine)” were blind to the booby traps set by FWISD against our childrens’ and our community’s future. “There is none so blind as he who will not see”.
    The Palazzalo and other cases, plus recent developments have exposed that status quo within the FWISD that your inaction helped to preserve
    Being a Democrat, how could you have forgotten Speaker Tip O’Neill’s statement that “all politics is local”?




    •  
      Marcie H

      Prolonged terms of office by local politicians in state legislative positions produce self serving, useless beings who forget all about their constituencies and- regardless of party affiliation- all turn out about the same in behavior and the expectation that they will be re-elected in perpetuity. (kind of like a political version of “Body Snatchers” or “Stepford Wives”). They even start to look alike after a while– Lon looks eerily like former state legislator Kent Grusendorf in recent photos, for example. Wendy Davis, bless her, also stood people up, if that makes you feel any better. Somewhere along the line, I suspect fueled by personal interests and opportunities for enrichment (like the current energy trading scheme which ensnared Tea Partiers Paxton, King, Zedler,etc), and constant adulation by lobbyists, our legislators lose connection with the voters. If a “cause” isn’t politically expedient, they will find a way to ignore it.




  9.  
    Tim Ruggiero

    Sometimes, people are much more powerful after leaving office than when in it. Lon is one of those people. Lon is undoubtedly going to keep doing what he’s always done-fighting for people, especially the ones who at a disadvantage. Now he gets to do it on his terms.




  10.  
    Ben & Paulette Holland

    Every Texan living in Texas today, even if they moved here today, is prospering better…no, much better than if Lon Burnam had not served all of us so splendedly in our Capitol and here in Ft. worth & the Metroplex.. Most politicians, policemen, and Preachers careers and lives are spent looking after their personal needs more than their citizens, or parishoners needs. I have been acquainted with Mr. Burnam since before he became a Public Servant and I have watched him closely. Here is the rare difference between Lon and most other people…. he loves his work. He is driven to do good. He works hard, long, & consistently. He is imperfect but far, far, far above average as an organizer, politician, Texan and human being. God bless him.





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