On the second day of the Texas Tribune Festival, the LEAP team attending came together, divided, and attended a multitude and variety of sessions (together and in smaller groups), while critiquing the panels, the speakers, and the venues, over the course of the day, and over a series of coffee breaks and meals at some distinctly Austin establishments…
Student Breakfast with Jennifer Palmieri (Annie Jamarik)
The Student Breakfast at CapMetro Project Connect Community Office, hosted by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, had special guest speaker Jennifer Palmieri, former White House Director of Communications (2011 to 2015, under President Barack Obama), as well as Director of Communications for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. As we ate breakfast tacos (like true Austin natives), Ms. Palmieri shared her unique perspective from working on a presidential campaign and applied her knowledge and experience to thoughts on the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries.
She was sure to stress that, while still early in the race, Senator Warren was the current candidate to watch due to her steady climb in the polls.
During Q&A, when asked for her advice to students entering the world of politics, Ms. Palmieri passed on wisdom she received from the Secret Service: “Listen to criticism, process it, move forward, and draw fire.”
Ed and the Feds (Miranda Estrada)
This discussion centered on how our federal and state agencies can work collaboratively on building education policy more effectively; the panel was comprised of moderator Sarah Darville (editor of Chalkbeat), Susana Martinez (former governor of New Mexico), and Jack Markell (former governor of Delaware).
Both Martinez and Markell placed education as a high priority during their tenure in office; however, they used different approaches to improving the quality of education in their respective states. Martinez believes in the importance of engaging parents by using transparency in giving grades to the school their children attended, and emphasized a ranking system of schools and their teachers is during her administration. She stressed the important roles teachers play as gatekeepers of information, and that they should be assessed on that. Markell used a different approach, instead opting for measuring academic growth of a student versus their proficiency. Both agreed, though, that regardless of the method, there are always unintended consequences and no one plan is perfect. Overall, we learned more about how leaders can work to improve their educational systems in ways that best fit the needs of their citizens — and children.
Governor Martinez proved particularly gracious afterward, posing with photos and discussing education policy additionally.
Break! On our walk between session venues, we popped in to The Coffeehouse at Caroline. Try the chocolate & cherry or cheese scones – depending on whether you want a sweet or savory bite – or the chocolate zucchini bread; or, well, anything. It was all good, from the smoothie, to the coffee & tea, to the wide selection of baked goods!
Civic Enragement (Esmeralda Mata)
We all agreed that the Civic Enragement (“How progressive politics are turning citizens into warriors and cities into battlegrounds.”) panel was the most controversial of all! The panel was substantially synergized in voicing their opinions on issues ranging from local to state and federal, discussing not only specific policy, but also the challenge in cultivating a good relationship between city and state leaders, given the difference between conservative and liberal governance styles and implementations.
Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt’s opening comments, on the importance of being able to disagree agreeably, and in recognizing that an opponent can be your best ally at a local level by coming together in finding issues and solutions that can be exported to a federal level, did not parlay into how she will be remembered.
She argued that state legislators do not provide county government with enough aid, as compared to a city governments, and focused on some particular ordinances. After noting that state legislators hate Austin (“because we are so successfull”), she focused on Austin’s tree ordinance, noting that that, “Governor Abbott hates trees because one fell on him,” a quote that left our group wondering all day why an elected official would agree to be on a panel designed to bring people together, only to say something so callous.
As a counterpoint, Midland Mayor Jerry Morales discussed sustainable growth, detailing jobs and other opportunities Midland has created with cohesive support from not only the state but also the federal government. And while most of the panelists (and the audience) agreed that the responsibility of enforcing immigration laws is the responsibility of the federal government and not a city, Mayor Morales opposed this discussion, too, stating that every city should protect their citizens. In general, the difference between rural and urban viewpoints of Texas was definitely highlighted among the diverse panelists at this session.
Break! We ambled over to the TribFest “Hub,” the place for registration, light snacks and water bottle refills, and book signings. Stations were set up with a number of books offered by the various speakers at TribFest. We all picked out books, some of the group getting multiples, a decision we all lauded later when we were able to proceed directly to the signing line instead of first having to go through the buying line!
From Within (Annie Jamarik)
Next up was a panel of experts who discussed how our country fights (or should fight) domestic terrorism. The panel included Robert Chesney, Director of the Strauss Center for International Security and Law and Associate Dean at the UT School of Law; Lisa Monaco, former White House Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor; Mary McCord, former acting Assistant Attorney General for the National Security Division of the U.S. Department of Justice; and Nick Rasmussen, Former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center. David Priess, former CIA officer, author of “The President’s Book of Secrets” and the Chief Operating Officer of the Lawfare Institute, was a model moderator.
One of the items that really stood out was the specific qualifications a violent attack must have to be classified as a domestic terrorist attack.
Chesney explained one of the gaps in federal statutes regarding domestic terrorism, in that requirements are so specific that the weapon used in an attack determines if an attacker could be charged at the federal level – or not. (Explosives = yes; guns = no.) During Q&A, one question referred to monitoring and regulating online public forums (social media platforms) for hate speech and rhetoric. The panel all agreed that, because these online forums are owned by private companies, the government cannot regulate material, so it is up to the private companies to regulate themselves. We would have loved to hear more on this, but the clock had run out.
Break! We had to make a game time change to our lunch plans. The line for our first choice stretched throughout the restaurant and out the door, so we dropped back and punted to an Austin-based chain, P. Terry’s. After some quick burgers and lemonade, and a brief respite from the sweltering heat, we maneuvered our way through the crowded city blocks.
Points of Light (Sawyer Massie)
In spite of the relatively short walks between venues, we still took a moment to linger and appreciate the air conditioning before proceeding into the main auditorium. Despite taking our seats only moments before the panel began, only the first three rows were occupied. It soon occurred to us that the Pete Buttigieg session at the Paramount more than likely took a toll on attendance for this and other panels held at the same time. Unfortunately for Mayor Pete fans – but fortunately for us – they missed out on a wholesome and enriching discussion on the legacies of George and Barbara Bush.
The discussion – aptly entitled “Points of Light” – was moderated by Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty and featured Land Commissioner (and Bush “grandson”) George P. Bush, presidential author Michael Beschloss, and Susan Page, USA Today’s Washington Bureau Chief and Barbara Bush biographer.
Much like previous panels, this one followed the Q&A format with audience questions toward the end. Likewise, current events and other inevitable topics in this heated political climate were discussed; however, this panel took an unusual turn in that it became emotional.
The panelists opened up by explaining how America had to reassess its values following the deaths of former First Lady Barbara Bush, and President Bush, Sr., then delved into the inner machinations of their relationships to one another – and specifically, their last moments seeing one another. Page recalled that after Barbara Bush was placed into hospice care – and knew these were her last moments – she reached out to her husband’s hand at the bedside and told him “I’m not worried about you, George.” This was her granting permission to him that he could live his life and she’d die knowing he’d be okay. By the end, some of us were misty-eyed; it was touching to hear this from someone who got to spend so much time interviewing them.
After the panel, we were also fortunate enough to snap a quick photo with George P. Bush with a few minutes to spare before queuing up for our last panel of the day.
One-on-One with Susan Rice (Miranda Estrada)
We did not score seats at the front of the packed venue for former UN Ambassador and National Security Advisor, Susan Rice. Our moderator for the evening, Margaret Talev, worked with Mrs. Rice during her time with the Obama administration. Their “conversation” started with the topic of the day, the impeachment inquiry on President Donald Trump. Mrs. Rice stressed the importance of policy action being used only for the best interest of the United States as a whole and not for a single person.
Mrs. Rice also spoke with the audience about her new book, “Tough Love,” reading an excerpt that covered a horrible yet funny-now experience. Her book is broken into the major parts of her life: early childhood, early years in government, time as UN Ambassador, and then as National Security Advisor. Mrs. Rice felt the need to write the book as a reintroduction of herself to the public – to address her feelings and thoughts regarding her treatment in the years following Benghazi that she was made out to be a monster. In her career she was used to speaking for the United States; this book allowed her to speak for herself and be her own advocate, champion, and spokesperson.
Break! With the panels over, and a short refresh break under our belts, we did some sightseeing. The Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge, dedicated to the former Texas Governor, is home to North America’s largest bat (specifically, the Mexican Free-Tailed Bat) population. We lined up like good little tourists and watched for a while the colony head out for their dinner. Then we headed to ours!
Dinner at Kerbey Lane Café (Sawyer Massie)
After a long day, there was no question that we were famished and looking forward to dinner at an Austin staple: Kerbey Lane Café. We slumped in our seats and indolently chatted from our slouched positions. Suffice it to say, we had expended all our energy on TribFest. Everyone perked up, however, when platters of food arrived. Plates of bacon and eggs, “green” mac-n-cheese, French toast and, in a nod to the calendar’s claim of the Fall season, pumpkin pancakes. We leisurely ate and recapped trip highlights (so far!) while enjoying relaxing in a comforting atmosphere, ending this day in preparation for an even longer day ahead of us.