That Time I Spent a Week with Rex Tillerson

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Key Speakers At Ceraweek 2012

This is a post from Emily Roden, the smarter and more attractive Roden, about her brief few days with Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State…

Nine years ago, I showed up to the Denton County Courthouse for jury duty and got myself picked for the job. A young girl had accused her mom’s boyfriend of sexual assault and the case was being brought to trial. If you’ve ever served on a jury trial before, you understand the almost immediate, yet very temporary bond that ties 12 strangers together who are randomly chosen from each of their private lives in order to fulfill a very solemn public purpose.

One of our first tasks was to choose our jury foreman. Perhaps it was his business suit, his impressive stature, or his charisma, but almost everyone in that jury room suggested that this middle-aged man with greying hair was likely the most fit for the task.

“Thanks, but I decline. I’m not interested in the spot light,” he told us. I didn’t think anything of it.

I had just bought my first BlackBerry and used my breaks to catch up on all the emails I was missing from my week at the courthouse. I recall leaving the jury room on a break with this man and remarking how busy I was and how much work I had to do. He smiled as he sat and read the paper.

From the first day of jury selection, we all noticed another suited man always present in the courtroom. His presence was intriguing due to the ear piece in his ear. While grabbing lunch at Denton County Independent Hamburger on the square the 2nd day of the trial, we noticed this mysterious man dining with our fellow juror who declined the foreman spot. The intrigue grew and it was the talk of the jury – who were these men?

Finally, during a break in the jury room, one juror had the nerve to ask; “Who are you? And what do you do?”

Our fellow jury member was reading the paper again and pointed out an article with Exxon in the headlines.

“I work for them,” he said humbly. “There are a lot of people in this world who hate me for what I do, so they give me and my family guys like that to protect me.”

I immediately felt embarrassed for complaining to him the other day about how much work I had to do. It didn’t take long before a few internet searches revealed that I was serving on this jury with the CEO of Exxon Mobile, Rex Tillerson.

The trial concluded and it was time for the jury to deliberate. The story was heartbreaking and the facts of the case were clear enough to make the majority of the jury convinced of the guilt of this sexual offender of a little girl. But the defense did a good enough job to create a couple of hold-outs. As our deliberations came to a close, it appeared we might have a hung jury.

That’s when Mr. Tillerson began to speak. Humbly, delicately, and without an ounce of condescension toward those who disagreed, he began walking us all through the details of the case. I even recall being moved by his thorough explanation about the nature of doubt and the standards set forth by our justice system. With great patience, this man who strikes multi-billion dollar deals with foreign heads of state brought our scrappy jury together to bring a sexual predator to justice and to deliver justice for a scared and deeply wounded little girl.

A local nonprofit was instrumental in fostering that young girl through this process, providing her counseling and legal help. I was so struck by their mission that I toured their facility the week following the case in order to learn how I could donate and volunteer to their cause.

On a whim, I decided to reach out to Mr. Tillerson to encourage him to do the same. I found an email for him online and sent him a note, touting the role this agency played in our trial and urging him to consider supporting the great work that they do. To my surprise, I received an email back thanking me for my note, my jury service, and ensuring me that he would contact the agency. I later received a call from the director of that nonprofit to let me know that Mr. Tillerson followed-through and gave a generous donation.

I didn’t vote for Trump. This is not an endorsement of Mr. Tillerson for Secretary of State. I’m sure that the coming days and weeks will be filled with speculation and political discussion over this clearly controversial pick for Secretary of State. I certainly appreciate those concerns and the process that ensures significant scrutiny for this important position.

But during a news show tonight, I heard the term “corrupt” applied to this man who I spent five days with back in 2007.

All I know is that this man holds one of the most powerful positions in the world and clearly has the means and ability to side step his jury responsibilities, served as a normal citizen without complaint or pretense. I know that a scared little girl who was finally convinced to come public with her account of abuse was inches away from a decision that would have sided with her abuser, yet this man put his negotiation skills to a very noble use and justice was served. All I know is that this man and his myriad of aides could have ignored an unsolicited email from a girl in her 20s suggesting that he donate to a local cause, but he took the time to respond and opened up his pocket book.

My five days with Rex Tillerson is all I know about this man and his character. And in light of the recent news, I thought this a relevant story to tell.

The Fake Controversy of Sanctuary Cities

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I do a lecture for university government classes on the importance of local democracy. While attempting to unpack how it is we’ve gotten to a point where all of our focus, energy, and political rearing occurs on the national political stage, I point out the absolute genius of national politicians and political parties to distract and engage us with shiny, flashy objects – issues that are engineered to divide us by appealing to our deepest sense of justice.

And every election cycle we prove to them that we can’t resist it. Both political parties successfully define our opinions, set the table for us of issues we should care about, and dictate our everyday discourse with friends, families, coworkers, and neighbors around the trumped up controversies they create.

The fake controversy of “Sanctuary Cities” is a great example of this.

I moderated a candidate debate for the three Republican candidates vying to replace Myra Crownover for the TX State Representative seat for District 64 during last Spring’s primary season. During the course of that campaign, all three candidates put out mailers declaring that they would put an end to sanctuary cities in Texas. Having received angry emails from angry constituents over Denton being on some list as a sanctuary city, I looked forward to engaging them on this topic.

My question was simple: “What is a sanctuary city and is Denton one of them?”

Despite this being a major “issue” in state and federal politics and despite this being a major campaign platform for these three candidates, not one of these candidates had any idea what they were talking about on this topic. Two of the candidates admitted as such and revealed that they, in fact, had no working definition of what a sanctuary city was. Without that, they had no idea whether Denton – or any other city, for that matter – was a sanctuary city. The third candidate at least attempted a definition, albeit an absurd one: “every city in the US in now a sanctuary city now that President Obama is in office!”

Complete nonsense. This controversy was nothing more than a slogan that could fit on a bumper sticker. There were no problems, nothing demanding any real policies, just a way to piss off a bunch of voters into getting angry enough to get to the polls and vote.

And nothing has changed on this front between then and a few weeks ago. There still exists no legal definition of a sanctuary city, no formal declarations coming from cities, no agreement on what policies anyone is even pointing to that would put a city in or out of this camp – just more nonsense.

Other than the self-understanding that politicians are generally a dumb breed, I can’t for the life of me understand why some mayors and cities and going overboard making public declarations that they are Sanctuary Cities and intend to keep it that way. They are appropriating a completely made-up designation – a designation made up, to be sure, to criticize them – and proudly applying it to themselves and the cities which they represent.

This has, in turn, led to a movement of citizens (who are concerned for the plight of immigrants in their community) demanding that their city become a Sanctuary City!

I can understand why a politician or political party would want to make up a controversy, make up a name for it, apply it to their political opponents, and whip up citizens into a frenzy on the basis of all of this in order to win votes. What I can’t understand is why those who are the target of this nonsense are so willing to accept the terms of the debate without much reflection and willingly describe themselves in the very made-up slogans that were meant to criticize them and stir up fear in their community.

Fellow city leaders: try a different approach. Call out this nonsense, don’t join it. This sort of bumper sticker discourse is making us all dumber.


Mike Pence, Hamilton, and What We Should Value in a Democracy

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My Twitter and Facebook feeds are lit up with praise for Brandon Dixon and the cast of Hamilton for boldly standing up to the Vice President-Elect after the performance that he attended. This after Mr. Pence arrived to the performance to boos and jeers from those in the audience.


All of this amounts to perfectly acceptable forms of first amendment expressions of political beliefs.

But when we think about what democracy is, how it works, and what values and behaviors we should encourage in order for democracy to flourish, we just might be praising the wrong people here.

It certainly is no display of political bravery to stick it to Mike Pence in a Manhattan Theater surrounded by a cast and audience who, for the most part, shares your political leanings.

But what about Mr. Pence? He took time to go enjoy and learn from a great work of art. He willingly put himself in a situation where he knew many in the cast and audience disagreed with him. He walked in to a crowd of boos and made the decision to stay nonetheless. And with dignity and class, he stopped, stayed, and listened while he received admonition from the cast, to the cheers of all those around him.

Surrounding ourselves with those who agree with us and receiving praise by that crowd for sticking up our middle finger at those we disagree with is all well and good, but it is neither a display of courage nor a productive form of democracy.

On the other hand, placing ourselves into a crowd of those who disagree with us, listening, and taking the lickings that inevitably result with poise and class, is something we could all do more often.

The virtue of democracy is that, when practiced, it moderates our passions. We learn to take our self-interests, ideologies, and desires and allow them the uncomfortable confrontation with our neighbor’s self-interests, ideologies, and desires. It is precisely in this confrontation that democracy has its most humanizing effect: we learn from one another and ultimately seek compromise and shared values.

If we are really concerned with the effects of a Trump/Pence administration, we’d do well to welcome them into circles of those who disagree with them more often. And we’d do well to do the same ourselves.

On Big Cities and Small Towns: Cultural Relevance and the 2016 Election

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One of my favorite relatives took to Facebook recently to post this New York Times analysis of “The Two America’s of 2016,” displaying the stark divide between big city America and small town America in their opposed political sentiments as evidenced by the voting trends in this past presidential election. In his post, he made this claim: 

What a surprise that all culturally relevant cities (where there is great economic, religious, and racial diversity) voted against Trump.”

That led me to reflect on big cities, small towns, and the history of cultural relevance…

I recall spending some time in San Francisco a couple years ago and pondering the difference between small town and big city mentality. It occurred to me that they are both alike in one crucial sense: their inhabitants have it all figured out.

They understand the world, have a pretty dogmatic opinion of how things are or should be, and there are generally no longer any open questions about reality. All wondering is gone. And whether that comes from a dogmatic conviction to the religion of one’s youth or from the dogmatic conviction that the values of The New Yorker are unassailable, both have it pretty damn well figured out. They are both insulated in a world where everyone shares their opinions and values and can’t for the life of them figure out why in the hell anyone would think any differently.

The really culturally relevant cities throughout the history of Western civilization have been those who experienced a drastic and profound collision of competing world views – Rome when confronting Christendom and its ancient past, Middle Age Europe upon the discovery and confrontation with Ancient Philosophy, Early Modern Europe upon the radical threats and new ideas that early modern science brought to the late middle aged world, and on and on. It was precisely the conflict between faith and reason, religion and science, ancient and new that brought about the most productivity in the arts, literature, music, philosophy, science, inventions, new political systems, and everything we’ve come to understand as “culturally relevant.”

It’s in this space of conflict where new questions arise – all sides are challenged to awake from their dogmatism and the world suddenly becomes big once again.

The world is very small in today’s small towns, I agree. I also submit that the world is very small for most people in today’s big cities. They both have it figured out.

The cities that were split 50-50 on an election like this, where religion is as vibrant as academic thought, where the guy from the small town is forced to engage with the gal from the big city and both are made uncomfortable – those are the cities to watch. And I suggest that those will be the culturally relevant cities of the future.

Denton voted just about 50-50, by the way.

We Should Continue Investing in Downtown Denton

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The revitalization of Downtown Denton didn’t happen by accident. Connecting Denton to the greater DFW area with a commuter rail that terminates in Downtown Denton didn’t happen by accident. Overturning city codes that outlawed downtown residences and encouraging a bustling Downtown Denton neighborhood with thousands of residents didn’t happen by accident. Seeing private investors spend millions of dollars to revitalize historic buildings in Downtown Denton that they don’t own didn’t happen by accident. A year ago, Denton didn’t allow breweries in the downtown area – the change didn’t happen by accident. Three years ago, Denton didn’t allow food trucks downtown – the new ordinance didn’t happen by accident. The current trend of high tech jobs converging on Downtown Denton didn’t happen by accident. Creating Downtown Denton into one of the most vibrant, walkable urban centers in Texas didn’t just happen.

All of this came about with vision.

Of all the investments the city has committed in the downtown area over the last two decades, perhaps the cheapest has been the commitment to invest $100,000 a year in local mixed beverage taxes for capital improvement projects aimed at making Downtown Denton more attractive, more walkable, and our historic buildings more preserved.

Considering that in just one month – August of this year – the downtown establishments single handedly contributed over 87% of this annual investment, there are certainly no good fiscal arguments to discontinue this program. Assuming those numbers track throughout the year, that means that the Downtown Reinvestment Grant draws annually from a mere 10% of the mixed beverage taxes contributed solely by downtown businesses.

But on this Tuesday’s agenda is another discussion aimed at “expanding” this program to other areas of the city. Now to be sure, I have for years been an advocate of thinking beyond the square and finding new areas of our city with the potential to be other great cultural centers of vibrancy in our town. Finding new areas to invest in based on the successful model of Downtown Denton is a great idea.

Simply diluting the current investment in Downtown Denton, however, in order to invest in other areas without any specific vision on what precisely we are hoping to accomplish in those areas is not good policy. For one thing, the entire thrust of the Downtown Reinvestment Grant is to improve the downtown streetscape, encourage historic preservation and character, and incentivize projects that enhance the walkable character of the greater downtown area. If we divert funds to other areas of town, what vision are we trying to fulfill? What criteria will we use to judge the appropriateness of the request and project? What advisory body will advise us on the goals of that area so as help us make sound financial investments?

There appears to be an interest in taking money from downtown and investing it in other areas of town without any thought or vision as to what we are trying to accomplish.

Here are my suggestions:

First, let’s not take away a good thing. Something that has been a simple, low-cost tool in a limited tool box to help bring about the obvious revitalization of Downtown Denton shouldn’t be cast aside. Instead, we ought to be considering upping that financial commitment.

Let’s consider revisiting the goals of the Downtown Reinvestment Grant to better align them and the criteria for the grant to current circumstances. While the immediate square area and the East Hickory area have taken off, there are still many off-street areas that have yet to realize significant investment in the same way. What are the barriers to redevelopment and investment in these areas? How do we get the areas South and North of the square to pop in the same way? Are their certain types of business that we would be better off incentivizing over others in order to keep a healthy mix of businesses downtown? How can we continue the obvious momentum happening around the Downtown Transit Center and encourage underutilized industrial property to flip? Let’s have a robust discussion on these matters with the Downtown Task Force, Main Street Association, and Economic Development Partnership Board to explore further.

Let’s continue the very healthy conversation of finding another area (or two or three) for investment. But let’s separate that conversation from the Downtown Reinvestment Grant. As was mentioned earlier, that grant is connected to a clear vision and clear goals for the specific circumstances of our downtown area. It is fostered and administered by the Downtown Task Force, a volunteer city advisory board created to do just that. Both the vision and mechanics involved in pursuing investment in another area require an entirely different conversation.

Downtown Denton is the jewel crown of our city. It deserves our continued focus and investment.


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