Who is Smokey Joe Barton?

Who is Smokey Joe Barton?
Published: 30 March 2005

Did the Dallas Morning News soften its pro-environment stance after a visit from a powerful congressman? Joe Barton, a Republican congressman, represents Ellis County, just south of Dallas, where cement plants and other industries contribute mightily to the area’s smog problem. But besides contributing to the smog, the companies that own these plants also contribute to Barton’s political campaigns, and Barton fights doggedly to shield them from government clean air rules.

Before they were laid off in October, two of the News’ editorial writers, Timothy O’Leary and Jim Frisinger, had given Barton a very hard time, accusing him of using sneaky legislative maneuvers, regulatory loopholes and plain old political pressure to protect some of North Texas’ worst polluters. Local advocates for clean air drew comfort from these editorials. They felt that the paper was on their side in the fight against Barton.

But now, says Wendi Hammond, executive director of Blue Skies Alliance in Dallas, "There are a lot of people in the environmental community who are not happy with what’s going on at the paper." They fear that political pressure may have played a role in the two writers’ departures, says Hammond, and in what they perceive to be a toned-down editorial policy. The newspaper denies this, but here is why suspicion lingers:

The Texas Associated Press Managing Editors honored O’Leary for three of his editorials that year, including this one. It ran with a cartoon drawing of "Smokey Joe" Barton with belching smokestacks rising from the top of his head and toxic pollution pouring from his ears and nostrils. The nickname "Smokey Joe" caught on. It reappeared in several subsequent editorials and it was taken up by some local environment and health advocates, and it even appeared in at least one article in the Morning News’ rival paper, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Since last spring, the few references to Barton on the editorial page have been much more respectful in tone. Readers active in air quality issues have complained, in letters to the editor and on their Web sites, about the perceived change. What emerged was an editorial compromise that seemed carefully conciliatory toward Barton. It listed some issues on which he and the paper agreed and others, including clean air, on which they disagreed. The editorial didn’t recommend for or against his reelection. It merely concluded: "Whatever the future holds for Mr. Barton, we will maintain our end of this dialogue and speak plainly and respectfully about the issues we both care about but sometimes see differently."