By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Houston and its sometime homeboys were on a Republican roll to start the new year.
Much of the city reveled first at the earlier news from Florida, where George W. Bush had emerged victorious from the enigma of the vote recounts. After that euphoria played out, the president-elect set off another wave of Bayou City boosterism. He picked Houston's own Rod Paige to become U.S. secretary of education.
The local media savored the newfound splendor for this seven-year HISD superintendent. His former allies on the school board spoke of a once beleaguered district now destined for world-class acclaim. They listed a range of accomplishments for Paige: higher test scores, an insistence on accountability, zero-tolerance discipline and a school police force to ensure safe schools.
Mike McSpadden followed all the glowing reports. As a state district judge, he had more information than the masses -- including the file of a homicide case against Estanilao Balderas. In a hallway of HISD's Deady Middle School in 1999, the 15-year-old had plunged a screwdriver into the head of 13-year-old Samuel Avila.
The judge, in his many trips to speak to inner-city youngsters, had seen the school corridors crudely emblazoned with gang graffiti. In the Balderas case, he knew about earlier pleas -- from teachers, parents and even frightened students -- for HISD administrators to intervene and stop the escalating violence.
McSpadden was aware that on the eve of the killing, Deady had been the scene of one of the bigger gang fights in the district's history. And that district officials, apparently intent on ignoring the strife, had offered reassuring, if misleading, statistics on urban school safety.
On January 5, 2001, McSpadden sentenced Balderas to five years in prison. In the 21 other felony courts in Harris County, that would have concluded the proceedings. In McSpadden's court, the judge was just beginning to assess blame.
Deady and other urban schools remained out of control, McSpadden told the courtroom in a tone of controlled anger. And the district was as responsible as the teenage killer for what had happened. As for HISD being an example of excellence, McSpadden said many in the city "just rolled our eyes" at the blizzard of those references. If this district was to be held up as a national model, "then God help the rest of the nation," the judge concluded.
His stinging rebuke echoed all the way to the new administration in Washington. National GOP operatives wanted to dismiss it as more grousing from the losing opposition, but that was impossible.
McSpadden has been a 19-year Republican standard-bearer at the ballot box. And for almost that long, he has relished his role of heretic in the minds of the local GOP hierarchy.
Weeks earlier, the judge had learned that regional party leaders had pressured appellate justices with a letter calling for them to reverse their stand against the constitutionality of the state's sodomy law. McSpadden had a letter of his own for the county GOP chairman: If he ever tried threatening tactics against him for a judicial decision, he wrote, "you may be leaving my office head first."
"From almost day one, Mike's been shooting his mouth off," says another judge. "He's been warned. He knows the costs, but he just keeps on doing it. There's no shutting the guy up."
McSpadden has delivered frank commentaries on everything from voluntary castration of sex offenders to condemning the political influences on the county's judiciary. His maverick ways have come at a cost to his career. He's made enemies, some in very high places. They deride him as a publicity hound -- others hail him as a watchdog of judicial conscience.
"He'll take on anybody -- he's not afraid of the devil himself," says Doug Shaver, former criminal administrative judge. "That's what I like about him, and that's what a lot of people like about him. He's based on what his principles are -- not on some party's political position."
While McSpadden is hardly the first rebel in the local Republican ranks, he's one of the few who has done more than survive. By all indications, that's a trait that runs deep in the family.
With grayish-blond hair and blue eyes, Judge McSpadden hardly looks the part of a card-carrying (courtesy of the Bureau of Indian Affairs ID section) Cherokee. Neither did the man four generations removed from him, Jesse Bushyhead. He was the grandson of a Scottish captain who took a Native American wife and the ways of the Cherokees.
Bushyhead drew his tribal name from his thick, curly red hair. In 1830 President Andrew Jackson bowed to pressure from settlers to renege on treaties and drive the Indians out of their fertile southeast homelands. Eight years later began the infamous Trail of Tears -- the brutal forced march of some 16,000 Cherokees to reservations in Oklahoma. Many died along the way. Bushyhead led a band of about 1,200. They fared better than most -- although his own daughter perished as the group prepared to cross the Mississippi.
The tribal elder went on to become chief justice of the Cherokees' Supreme Court. McSpadden's own father, Ray Thompson McSpadden, served on the Cherokee Nation's election committee. His was the first panel to name a woman, Wilma Mankiller, to a ranking position.