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5 top moments from Texas Tribune Festival 2017

5 top moments from Texas Tribune Festival 2017

Texas Tribune Festival 2017 Opening Keynote Evan Smith Al Franken
Evan Smith and Al Franken were a highlight of the fest. Photo by Shelley Neuman

When an event features Al Franken, the University of Texas Longhorn Band, food trucks, Ted Cruz and John Cornyn on the same stage, and trivia night, choosing highlights poses quite a challenge. But if the 2017 Texas Tribune Festival had a main message, it might be that there’s only one way to respond to a challenge: go for it.

Here, in no particular order and based on an entirely subjective selection process, we present the top moments from this year’s event, held September 22-24 on the UT campus.

Al Franken
Festivalgoers waited upwards of 45 minutes in the heat for the senator’s "One on One with Evan Smith," and no one left disappointed. Franken may have been a comedian before running for a senate seat from Minnesota, but he took the job seriously, especially during his first term. He views the job as a way to make people’s lives better and told poignant stories of how his state has welcomed its large immigrant population. Franken can’t seem to help being funny even so.

Accountability journalism
One of the festival tracks, titled "Politics and the Media," featured a panel of heavy-hitters including Washington Post reporter David Farenthold, known for taking hard looks at Trump charities; Joshua Green at Bloomberg and an expert on Steve Bannon; and Amy Chozick, a national political reporter for The New York Times who has covered Hillary Clinton since 2008 (and is writing a book about it). The work they and other professionals do keeping an eye on people holding power is critical in today’s uncharacteristic political landscape.

Responding to sexual assault
The sexual assault scandal at Baylor University led to some soul-searching by other institutions of higher education, a flurry of legislation, and, of course, a book (Paula Lavigne’s Violated). This panel included Lavigne; UT System associate vice chancellor for academic affairs Wanda Mercer; Sen. Kirk Watson; and Sierra Smith, a sexual assault survivor and advocate for reform in the handling of these cases. A key element to such reform is including notice of disciplinary action on school transcripts so offenders can’t simply transfer their way out of consequences. Panelists noted that, the previous day, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded rules on handling of sexual assault cases, a setback to efforts to change the culture on college campuses.

Texas and refugees
In another case of eerie timing, this panel came on the heels of a new executive order banning immigrants from nine countries. Director of policy studies at the Center for Immigrant Studies Jessica Vaughn asserted that the U.S. does not have an adequate system in place to vet refugees, while Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, reported that of the 10 U.S. cities taking in the most refugees, nine of them have become safer. Mustafa Tameez, a former consultant to the Department of Homeland Security, noted that many security experts say the threat comes from within, people here who become radicalized. He added that the vetting process takes almost two years and involves interviews, biometrics, and more than 17 agencies having your file.

Art Acevedo
Texas Tribune editor-in-chief Emily Ramshaw interviewed the Houston police chief — formerly of Austin — about the experience of Hurricane Harvey. Acevedo “likes to lead from the front” and spent many days in a row leading the city’s police officers working around the clock rescuing people and keeping order in the city, which saw almost no looting. He admitted to a profanity-laced tirade when officials balked at deploying the Cajun Navy and its uncertified boats and people, which were instrumental in saving many lives. He also urged the legislature to loosen the purse strings on its rainy day fund saying, “If 50 inches isn’t a rainy day, I don’t know what is.”

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Sorry you missed all of this? Many talks and interviews can be viewed online.