Can Texas values transcend politics?

Photo by Nicolas Raymond

Many Americans have spent this election season wondering whether we woke up on an alien planet. Here in the Lone Star State, we bring Texas-sized passion to our politics. With emotions particularly high this year, Texans from both ends of the political spectrum are spending a lot of time demonizing each other. But are we really so different than our neighbors?

I live in Austin, grew up in Dallas and spend most of my time in big Texas cities. But this summer I spent a lot of time in Bonham, a small town northeast of Dallas. Small towns tend to vote differently than big cities these days. I was grateful to find that, regardless of their politics, the people in Bonham were devoted to caring for others in need.

I was in Bonham to visit my dad, who had advanced Alzheimer's and was living in the memory care wing of the Texas State Veterans' Home there. Dad served in the Navy during the Korean War and then went to Washburn College on the GI bill, where he met my mom. His health seriously declined earlier this year, and he passed away last month. Toward the end of his life, he was in and out of nearby TMC Bonham Hospital.

Like many small towns in Texas and beyond, one in three Bonham residents lives below the poverty line. The people of Bonham are mostly white, with 15 percent African-American and a similar but growing Hispanic population. One of the better restaurants in town is Los Amigos; Yelp reviews refer to most of the others as "redneck hang outs." There aren't many political signs on the drive into Bonham, but those I saw were for Trump. In 2012, 75 percent of residents in Fannin County, where Bonham sits, voted for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama.

Yet Bonham was the home of Sam Rayburn, the famed Democratic Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives for 17 years, the longest tenure in U.S. history. Rayburn served with eight different presidents in an era when Democrats and Republicans got things done together for the good of the country.

One Saturday, my mom and I stopped by the Sam Rayburn Library in Bonham after visiting my dad. It was one of several stops on the annual Bonham Quilt Hop. We saw quilts that were beautifully hand-stitched by women in late-1800s Texas and learned about Rayburn's legacy. At another stop, we admired the work of a local black artist who had quilted the faces of African-American icons, from Michael Jackson to Barack Obama.

Though Bonham is just the kind of town where one might expect to hear a lot of anti-Washington rhetoric, I feel certain the majority of residents believe we should care for veterans who have served our country. The federal Department of Veteran's Affairs and the Texas Veterans Commission do just that, and the veterans' facilities in Bonham also provide a sizable chunk of local jobs. The residents at the State Veteran's Home are mostly elderly white men like my father. The nurses and caregivers are nearly all women, and many are Hispanic. I am grateful for the compassionate care they provided to my dad. He loved music and sang with joy in barbershop quartets for years. Near the end of his life, when the nurses gently told us he was no longer eating, they mentioned he was still singing "Oh My Darling, Clementine."

Most folks in Bonham would likely agree that our public policies should ensure that our elderly loved ones receive excellent care, and also that caregivers should have decent jobs and benefits so working families can thrive.

The Bonham Hospital is one of many rural hospitals harmed by Texas' refusal to accept $6 billion a year to expand health care for the poor – federal Medicaid dollars that Texas taxpayers have already paid. Estimates show that, if Texas expanded Medicaid, Fannin County alone would receive between $6.6 million and $9.9 million in new federal dollars each year for health care.

The Bonham Hospital was lucky to receive funds from another federal Medicaid program, the 1115 Waiver Program, which enabled the facility to build a new emergency department, purchase new equipment, expand services and hire more staff. I am very grateful those dollars helped my dad get good care. Yet that could easily change at the end of 2017, when federal 1115 Waiver funds will be drastically reduced if Texas still refuses to accept Medicaid dollars that could have paid for the same services. Just this month, a new study showed that Texas hospitals would receive over $2 billion in new Medicaid income if the state expanded health care coverage.

One late afternoon, after a long day with my dad in the Bonham Hospital, a large woman with curly gray hair ambled into the room. She was a visiting chaplain, doing the rounds. She was funny and kind. In the middle of a prayer, the nurses came in to change the IV, and the chaplain put God on hold and begged his pardon for the interruption. I remembered Clarence, the bumbling angel in It's A Wonderful Life, and felt I'd met his female counterpart.

It was an emotional summer, and I didn't have the stamina to bring up public policy with the Texans I met in Bonham — the freckled hospital aides, the sweet memory care nurses, the curly-haired hospital chaplain. Yet everywhere I looked, people were caring for others. Yes, it's been a crazy election year. But I will keep hoping we can align our public policies with how we live our lives and care for our loved ones.

Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities has been a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Ann Beeson

CEO, Center for Public Policy Priorities