In a community of miracles, First Baptist Church of West senior pastor John Crowder added one more to the mix during a service marking the fifth anniversary of the West Fertilizer Company explosion that riveted the nation. He and fellow civic leaders singled out for praise (and within 90 minutes) almost everyone somehow pivotal in the saga, from ill-fated firefighters racing to the scene, all the way to foot soldiers in the remarkable recovery period that Mayor Tommy Muska Tuesday night proclaimed concluded.

For all the solemnity that should attend the violent deaths of 14 children in the Parkland, Florida, school shootings and any effort to thoughtfully address gun violence, silly season has clearly descended upon the national debate. Example: Last weekend former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum’s inane comment on CNN that students advocating for gun control should instead learn CPR. As one Parkland student noted, CPR won’t help much when you’ve been shot in the head.

However they might feel about state or national politics, the focus of many local Election Day voters was squarely on the McLennan County district attorney’s race, at least judging from interviews at voting centers. And given the convoluted Twin Peaks saga — case dismissals here and there, recusal hearings to and fro, all amid incendiary, back-and-forth campaign volleys — some voters were understandably overwhelmed by it all.

A few weeks ago, West resident Don Garretson took stock of McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna’s failure to convict Dallas Bandidos chieftain Jake Carrizal last fall; the likelihood of similar failures in prosecuting 154 motorcyclists indicted in the deadly 2015 Twin Peaks biker shootout; and, finally, more than a hundred potentially costly lawsuits alleging Reyna led in the slaughter of these bikers’ civil rights, upending lives, careers and family savings.

The safe betting is on Republican Congressman Bill Flores winning re-election in the conservative 17th Congressional District, notwithstanding analysts’ predictions that Democrats have a decent shot of retaking the House of Representatives after more than a year of Donald Trump as president and a fair number of Republican lawmakers retiring from competitive seats. The two Democrats now vying for the chance to take on Flores come fall are aided by campaign themes that suggest the Democratic Party might be more than the party of LGBT rights, pro-choice and Dreamers.

Recent history confirms beyond doubt two truths about social media and “alternative facts”: The former has not only unleashed something closely resembling “road rage” onto the digital highway on which too many of us spend way too much time but also has encouraged and hastened the spread of outrageously fabricated or conveniently exaggerated “news.” So poisoned are many of us in our political passions that we lustfully embrace and post what by all logic should arouse skepticism.

Today the Trib again offers one of its most popular seasonal services to readers, one unique for daily newspapers our size: Q&As with political candidates, in this case those running competitive primary election races. Dominating today’s opinion section are interviews with Republicans vying to be their party’s nominee for McLennan County Precinct 2 commissioner. Look for Q&As with other competing candidates, including the two Democrats seeking the Precinct 2 post, in coming weeks.

About this time a year ago, I sat down with five middle-aged and older white guys who voted to make Donald Trump president of the United States. I wanted to better understand what motivated them to cast their lot with this wildly unconventional candidate. Two things impressed me about this group, drawn from those who wrote articulate letters to the editor for Trump: None took a cheap shot at Hillary Clinton during a ricocheting 90-minute interview and most offered surprisingly nuanced views on illegal immigrants.

Readers gauging the Trib’s top stories of 2017 will notice some are continuations of news events that broke a year or two earlier. They’ll also notice at least two of the top stories, while set in Waco, exploded on the national scene in gripping fashion, even as subsequent, exceedingly relevant developments over the past year ensued with declining acknowledgement and interest from the outside world.

While Congress finishes tweaking its federal tax-cut bill, it’s useful to remember that a significant 44 percent of Americans pay no federal income tax in the first place. And here in Texas the real sore point continues to be property taxes. Cities and counties this year only narrowly avoided seeing tighter percentage caps placed on how much property-tax revenue they can garner from one year to the next.

If black presidential candidate Barack Obama in April 2008 earned the undying enmity of many white, working-class folks with his comment about economic bitterness causing many to “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them,” Baylor University sociology professors F. Carson Mencken and Paul Froese have just accented the profile of some of these same folks.

For months, District Attorney Abel Reyna and his staff made clear they were champing at the bit to try strapping, 35-year-old Dallas Bandidos chieftain and locomotive engineer Jake Carrizal before any of the other bikers rounded up after the deadly 2015 shootout at Waco’s Twin Peaks restaurant and watering hole. Consequently, many of us in the peanut gallery leaned closer to better understand, perchance appreciate, Reyna’s strategy of legally pursuing 154 bikers on identical organized crime charges, as opposed to the more discriminating capital murder charges Waco police originally contemplated.

Ask a regular Joe what frustrates him about public education and stand back. It’s the complexity of school finance (including property taxes), state testing results for Joe’s kids and, finally, the state-ordained protocol for closing down failing schools. The situation is compounded by the fact state protocols and accountability standards seem to change from one legislative session to the next.

All through last weekend’s Texas Tribune Festival at the University of Texas in Austin, I kept running into folks who regaled me with colorful details of its many highlights, the really sexy stuff. For instance, Craig Thornton, husband of local civic leader Ashley Bean Thornton, told me about Minnesota Sen. Al Franken’s riotous festival appearance.

Baylor University’s survey profiling the religious wave that catapulted real-estate magnate and reality TV star Donald Trump into the presidency in 2016 isn’t so much a revelation as a stunning confirmation of what must be clear to anyone who digests news daily. Findings: Religious folks behind Trump tend to belong to white evangelical Protestant churches; view the United States as a Christian nation (separation of church and state be damned); believe in an authoritative god actively involved in world happenings (such as hurricanes); deem Muslims from the Middle East a threat; and oppose gay and transgender rights.

Last Memorial Day, longtime Trib photographer Rod Aydelotte and I visited historic Oakwood Cemetery for a Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans tribute to veterans of the most horrendous of all American wars. A couple dozen folks showed up, including an ensemble of re-enactors who fired a salute near some Confederate figures’ graves and then, with genial apologies to this mostly aging crowd (including me), dutifully trudged onward to another part of the cemetery to do so again.

While President Trump played it safe in how he condemned Saturday’s violence at a Charlottesville rally of white supremacists protesting removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of rebel forces in the Civil War, Sen. Ted Cruz didn’t spare the rod. The Texas Republican blasted certain elements of the melee for what they are: a clear affront to American values.

One drawback to reading John F. Kennedy’s classic “Profiles in Courage” at a young age is that it left me forever skeptical of politicians. In more than 40 years as a newspaper reporter, columnist and editor, I’ve encountered precious few who took unpopular stands for the greater public good and persevered through threats, vilification and almost certain electoral calamity.

When the Media Research Center a few weeks ago announced that Fox News commentator Sean Hannity would receive the William F. Buckley Jr. Award for Media Excellence, some of us who cut our teeth on Buckley’s principled, intellectually vibrant conservatism were sure of two things. First, Buckley’s son, Christopher, keeper of the flame, would object to the outrageousness and stunning incongruity of this gesture.

History will note that, for a time anyway, local home renovation experts Chip and Joanna Gaines gave Waco something it has long sought: status as a destination point. Through the charisma, ability and resourcefulness showcased on their popular, Emmy-nominated HGTV show “Fixer Upper,” the Gaineses have drawn to Waco waves of tourists eager to track down the homes they’ve overhauled and to shop at the mecca that is Magnolia Market at the Silos. The couple is even credited with revitalizing home sales in the Waco area. The home-marketing site Realtor.com reports all 10 of the top home-search locations in the nation last year were in Texas — with the 76712 ZIP code in Woodway topping the list. And the 76710, 76711 and 76707 ZIP codes in Waco came in at two, three and four.

By now, many eloquent tributes have been composed regarding late Waco City Councilman Wilbert Austin, the modest civil-rights icon who in 1974 served as one of nine plaintiffs in a lawsuit successfully pressing for single-member Waco City Council districts, allowing minorities access to local leadership roles. The 1976 court ruling served as a wake-up call for other governmental entities to do likewise.

Going by the numbers, the Texas Legislature this session sent a clear message to scandal-plagued Baylor University and all other Texas colleges and universities that might mishandle sexual assaults involving their young charges. No less than six such bills were sent to the governor, including three crafted by tireless state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat and a Baylor alumnus.

In my 40 years of gauging lawsuits, the May 8 suit filed on behalf of four Twin Peaks bikers who maintain they had nothing to do with the deadly May 17, 2015, melee ranks as a howler. It targets the usual suspects in Twin Peaks lawsuits, including Waco police spokesman Patrick Swanton and District Attorney Abel Reyna. But this one goes on and on, indicting Waco society, Baylor University and local history, warts and all — mostly warts.

Linda Livingstone dropped no major bombshells during her teleconference interview introducing her as Baylor University’s 15th president in April or her subsequent solo Q&A with the Trib. That’s not so surprising. Livingstone strikes me as smart, articulate and press-savvy — and she’s in no hurry to get crossways with the embattled Baylor University Board of Regents and rankled alumni over a sexual-assault scandal raging on and on partially because of misguided actions by Baylor leadership. Who can blame her?

Considering ongoing upheaval by the Texas Legislature, I wasn’t surprised when the mayor of Waco, the county judge and the superintendent of Waco Independent School District all showed up at the Trib to tout an Election Day measure creating a travel-tax surcharge to fund a sweeping, impressively strategic expansion of Extraco Events Center and city and school facilities contiguous to it. Bill by bill, state lawmakers are making it harder and harder for local governing entities to pursue the priorities of their constituents.

Last week Bears for Leadership Reform joined calls to legally force Baylor University to throw open the doors of its long-cloistered regents meetings. The group of BU alumni, donors and past regents formed amid controversy over Baylor’s questionable handling of sexual-assault cases and governance decisions. And now it has backed state legislation that would use Tuition Equalization Grants to strategically strike at embattled Baylor leadership.

Given that Meals on Wheels organizations have collectively become a virtual poster child for all that seems wrong-headed about the bare-bones 2018 federal budget proposed by the Trump White House this month, I asked Melody McDermitt, executive director of Waco’s Meals & Wheels, if she worries much about funding problems.

If past trips are any indication, business will mix with pleasure when the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce leads a delegation of business leaders and city officials to the State Capitol Wednesday. Let’s hope the delegation cuts through the pleasantries to make clear they mean business about local control.

One idea that unsettles and even terrifies many conservatives and liberals and excites many others is the drumbeat for an Article V Convention of States to forge constitutional amendments demanding the federal government balance its budget, rein in its powers and, most importantly, force term limits on U.S. representatives and senators. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has pushed this idea hard, including nine of his own amendments.

Last week was just another week in the national spotlight for Baylor University. A high-profile ESPN commentator urged parents to not send their daughters to Baylor and said corruption in its athletics department “screams [NCAA] death penalty without question.” A prominent blogger called for the Texas Rangers to storm the university. Oh, and the Big 12 Conference put Baylor on notice by withholding millions of dollars in revenue.

Today is a day many people fear and others have longed for: the last day of the Barack Obama administration after eight years. At 11 a.m. our time Friday, real-estate magnate and reality TV star Donald Trump becomes president of the United States. Journalists will accelerate their coverage of what promises to be a chaotic Trump administration. Historians will seek a keener perspective on the Obama tenure.

In a salvo launched in what appears to be a renewed war on the news media, my epistolary acquaintance and perennial news-media critic Sammy McLarty offers a seething variation on the old saw about liberals dominating the news media. I’m going to surprise Sammy. I’m not going to deny the possibility of it.

For seven years now, from his days as a congressional candidate riding the 2010 tea-party tidal wave to Washington to his concluding tenure as chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, Bill Flores has lambasted President Obama as contemptuous of Congress and intent on circumventing its constitutional authority to forge law through bureaucratic overreach and executive orders. The Central Texas congressman has spoken eagerly of the Obama administration’s Jan. 20 exit.

Every year about this time, someone in the astronomical realm speculates what the Star of Bethlehem was. Some say a supernova. Some say a comet. Or, as a Real Clear Science article this year argues, some say the giant planet Jupiter, an unusually bright celestial object when it crosses our nighttime sky.

If nothing else, Tuesday’s meeting between two state lawmakers and members of the Waco City Council, McLennan County Commissioners Court, Waco Independent School District and McLennan Community College reinforced something political scientists have long recognized: One man’s conservatism is anything but to the next guy who, ironically, also believes himself a conservative. The two strains often break down into conservative ideologues, whose approach to problems is governed by rigidly held principles, and pragmatic conservatives, who see themselves governed by common sense and practical solutions as much as principles — maybe more so.

If anything strongly bolsters the Bears for Leadership Reform case for an independent investigation of Baylor University regents’ handling of the sexual-assault scandal that has sadly come to define the Christian campus for some, it’s Liberty University’s Nov. 28 hiring of former Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw. National media immediately pounced, questioning the prudence of the nation’s largest evangelical university, given that pending litigation questioning McCaw’s department oversight remains to be resolved.

After any hard-fought election in which the nation and its values seem at stake, it’s typically American for some to battle sorrow and disappointment with humor. So it was the very gray morning after Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump won elevation to the White House following his months-long campaign displaying derision, racist rhetoric, misogyny, utter constitutional ignorance and vows to jail his opponent after his victory.

Considering political analysts last week were predicting Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton might win between 300 and 400 electoral votes — a decisive victory either way — one could sure understand some of the despair, dejection and even desperation at the McLennan County Republican Club luncheon Thursday. An uncharacteristic air of resignation hung over the large hall in a fiercely Republican stretch of Texas.

This month’s astonishing dustup between Baylor University and departing Title IX coordinator Patty Crawford over book and movie rights is troubling but only a minor distraction from the broader, more relevant scenario at hand. And that’s the one concerning Baylor’s much-touted campaign involving campus teams implementing a Philadelphia law firm’s 105 recommendations to more decisively address matters of sexual assault while squaring Baylor with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which oversees such prickly matters.

I don’t know if he was drunk, just irate or both, but the frustration of at least some American voters might well have been caught up in a graying man only steps behind me as I strolled into Republican Congressman Bill Flores’ summer town-hall meeting at Texas State Technical College last week. The guy seemed to be spoiling for a fight.

If you’re wondering what bombastic Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, after days of waffling and wavering, intends to do about some 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, imagine the plight of Waco’s Rev. Ramiro Peña. He’s confused too. And he’s one of those advising Trump on immigration policy.

As if colleges and universities didn’t already have enough headaches between the sexual-assault allegations involving their students and stupefying complexities of Title IX gender-violence protocol, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals has made everything even more bewildering. Its July 29 ruling highlights the tribulations now experienced by schools such as Baylor University.

Although his going-away party was two weeks ago, today marks Waco Police Chief Brent Stroman’s final day on the force. And, frankly, the unflappable, straightforward, by-the-book lawman’s departure is a little unsettling, coming at a time when so many politicians and activists seek to make the twin concerns of quelling racial strife and improving law enforcement a divisive, either/or issue.

Whatever one thinks of his embattled and often erratic presidency, President Obama remains unrivaled as an orator. And America’s first black president put both law enforcement and the African-American community on notice during his 40-minute address at Tuesday’s memorial service for five Dallas police officers slain by a Black Lives Matter sympathizer bent on cold-blooded murder during an otherwise peaceful protest regarding, ironically, police use of deadly force nationwide.

A few years ago, when plans and fund-raising for the $266 million riverfront McLane Stadium were coming together, I mentioned to a Baylor University athletic official how it certainly would be the stadium that standout Baylor football quarterback Robert Griffin III built. Acknowledging Griffin’s athletic prowess and leadership skills, the Baylor official nonetheless corrected me: The new arena would be the stadium that Baylor head football coach Art Briles built.

Flashback

What were we talking about one year ago? Take a look back.

In my 40 years of gauging lawsuits, the May 8 suit filed on behalf of four Twin Peaks bikers who maintain they had nothing to do with the deadly May 17, 2015, melee ranks as a howler. It targets the usual suspects in Twin Peaks lawsuits, including Waco police spokesman Patrick Swanton and District Attorney Abel Reyna. But this one goes on and on, indicting Waco society, Baylor University and local history, warts and all — mostly warts.

Linda Livingstone dropped no major bombshells during her teleconference interview introducing her as Baylor University’s 15th president in April or her subsequent solo Q&A with the Trib. That’s not so surprising. Livingstone strikes me as smart, articulate and press-savvy — and she’s in no hurry to get crossways with the embattled Baylor University Board of Regents and rankled alumni over a sexual-assault scandal raging on and on partially because of misguided actions by Baylor leadership. Who can blame her?

Considering ongoing upheaval by the Texas Legislature, I wasn’t surprised when the mayor of Waco, the county judge and the superintendent of Waco Independent School District all showed up at the Trib to tout an Election Day measure creating a travel-tax surcharge to fund a sweeping, impressively strategic expansion of Extraco Events Center and city and school facilities contiguous to it. Bill by bill, state lawmakers are making it harder and harder for local governing entities to pursue the priorities of their constituents.

Last week Bears for Leadership Reform joined calls to legally force Baylor University to throw open the doors of its long-cloistered regents meetings. The group of BU alumni, donors and past regents formed amid controversy over Baylor’s questionable handling of sexual-assault cases and governance decisions. And now it has backed state legislation that would use Tuition Equalization Grants to strategically strike at embattled Baylor leadership.