AUSTIN – Here it sits, surrounded by fences, workers, and four DPS cars plus state troopers. How things have changed since early on June 8, 2008, almost three years ago, when some idiot tossed a Molotov cocktail at the front door of this beautiful Governor’s Mansion.
It was built in 1856 and has been home to 40 of our governors. It is the fourth oldest governor’s residence continuously occupied in the U.S. and the oldest west of the Mississippi River. Have you ever visited here? Why not, you own it? Of course, you can’t visit right now, but maybe your grandchildren can. Rebuilding the mansion is going painfully slow, even for a government project.
First, there is the matter of money. The Legislature earmarked $22 million to restore the place, and, at last report, Texans have donated more than $3.5 million to the Texas Governor’s Mansion Restoration Fund, which is about 14 cents per Texan. Fortunately, the mansion was undergoing a $10 million reconstruction project when the fire hit, so all the furniture and fixtures were in storage. Incidentally, the Texas Constitution specifically gives the guv use of the Governor’s Mansion, fixtures and furniture.
The State Preservation Board, working with a specialized design team of experts on construction and preservation, developed cost estimates to restore the structure, and, at the same time, improve security, update mechanical systems and make other improvements. The cost: more than $20 million. So there are a lot of numbers knocking around, but that’s not the main problem.
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, but if it’s burned, change it. There was a serious plan, favored by the governor’s wife, Anita, to add a 3,000-square-foot addition to the mansion. After many objections, that was scrapped for a 1,000-square-foot addition on the back. But the place is already 8,920 square feet with 25 rooms and seven bathrooms – this includes spaces open to the public during visiting times — and no other guv or family has complained about the size.
What about insurance? Every year ‘‘the state’’ – I’m not sure who that is — reviews the idea of insuring state buildings, but the Lege has consistently decided to self insure, except when construction bonds require insurance. Besides, it’s hard to insure against criminal acts of vandalism, including arson.
How could such a catastrophe hit this most-beloved structure right here in the middle of Austin? Let us count the ways. The mansion was supposedly protected by the state’s Department of Public Safety, the same agency that keeps us waiting in endless lines to get our drivers’ license renewed. But only 13 of 20 security cameras were working when the fire started. Also, the alarm system designed to alert troopers if an intruder entered the grounds of the mansion was broken, and had been for some time – no one seems to know just how long, which in itself is unnerving.
When the arsonist struck, there was only one DPS trooper on guard in a back house, and he had just worked an eight-hour shift at the Bob Bullock Museum. Fortunately, because of the rebuilding, Gov. Rick Perry and his wife were not living in the mansion, so the Perrys had to make do with a $9,000-per-month (originally $9,900) new home rental, complete with pool and guest house. At the time of the fire, the Perrys were visiting Europe — with a DPS security guard.
This situation has happened before. You may recall when then-Rep. Tom DeLay diverted state troopers from their normal pursuit of serial killers to hunt down Democratic legislators who had fled the state to break a quorum during DeLay’s Congressional redistricting battle.
Today the Texas Rangers are on the job, but no luck. In February, a sketch was released of the person seen throwing a Molotov cocktail at the building. The DPS is describing the man as a “person of interest.” The sketch was made from surveillance video – those that worked — taken the night of the fire. Investigators also identified three people who took pictures of the mansion and surveillance cameras four days before the fire. I’ll bet people took pictures of the mansion every single day.
The three photographers, also “persons of interest,” were in a Jeep Cherokee and have been tied to an Austin-based group linked to a planned attack on the GOP convention in Minneapolis in 2008, which also involved Molotov cocktails, but they denied having anything to do with the fire. “One passenger initially denied having been in the vehicle, but later admitted to having been in the vehicle and taking photographs after failing a polygraph examination,” according to the Rangers. At least one of the suspects has been placed in the downtown area the morning of the mansion fire. Investigators said the person in the sketch was not in that vehicle. So they either had two clues or none. The state is offering a $50,000 reward for information that can lead authorities to the arsonist.
After the fire, Allan Polinsky, chairman of the DPS commission, said on the Rangers’ search for the Governor’s Mansion arsonist. “The Texas Rangers have a pretty long history of getting who they are looking for.” We’re still waiting.
Some Democratic libs might be asking if the Perrys had not taken state troopers with them on their trip to Europe, just maybe one or more of the bodyguards/sherpas could have been hanging around the mansion and prevented the arson. We’ll never know, of course, but a hint was the state expenses run up by the guv’s security detail on his 23 foreign trips. His office released one figure of $928,477.71, but that only covered some of the trips from 2004 to 2010 — five more were not on the list. Major Texas newspapers have been trying to get all the figures, since any costs would be revealed only after the trips were over. No costs have been coming. The reason was “security.”
Ashby is fired up at email@example.com