In the shadow of the Tower

I have five classes on Tuesdays. Combined with some shuffling back and forward to my office at The Daily Texan (speaking of which, I recently received a new title there), this meant a full day of walking around campus. By my estimations, I walked past the Main Mall, just in front of the Tower, about a half dozen times. One such time was a little past 11:45 in the morning, as I was leaving Astronomy and (unsuccessfully) attempting to not be late to Japanese Politics. About 48 1/2 years ago, at that exact time, I would have been in the crosshairs of a psychopathic sniper named Charles Whitman, who had barricaded himself at the top of the observation deck and started shooting at random, murdering 17 people in all that day.

Now, as the Houston Chronicle reports, legislators are determined to liberalize gun laws on college campuses all around the states, including at UT-Austin. Specifically, 19 of the 20 Republicans in the state senate co-sponsored SB11, which would do exactly that (the one exception was State Senator Joan Huffman (R-Harris County)). It would mainly allow concealed handgun license (CHL) holders to bring the weapons to campuses.

I wrote somewhat extensively about this topic throughout the 83rd Legislature. In a wonderful example of how much things can change in just two years, I was opining back then all the way from Boston, instead of actually on the 40 acres. At the time, the bill passed the House but got lost in the Senate. Since that does not look to happen again this time, I would say get ready for this horrendous proposal to get enacted into law.

The reason I reference the Tower sniper attack in my introduction is not to suggest that this will open the floodgates to more mass shootings. Rather, it is to demonstrate the futility of such a proposal. Say, for example, one of the students had a legally concealed handgun. The likelihood of him or her effectively firing at the top of the tower and subduing Whitman would have been quite low.

The Daily Texan has an editorial, coming to print tomorrow morning, that addresses most of the other points on “Guns on Campus” one way or another, but the main argument remains the same: this is a spectacularly bad idea. As time goes on, I will continue to closely follow these bills.

In other news, the Texas Tribune reports that Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has announced that the “Open Carry” proposals currently do not have the votes to move the legislation. He also implied to the Tribune that other priorities would likely come first. This has drawn the ire of right-wing grassroots.

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Patrick finalizes Senate committees

The Texas Tribune reports that Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has finalized committee assignments in the senate for the 84th Legislature. Making good on two longstanding committees, Patrick both consolidated the number of committees and significantly reduced the number of Democratic chairs for those committees that remained. Three committees (Government Organization, Jurisprudence and Open Government) got the ax, and a further two committees (Economic Development and Natural Resources, respectively) were merged. This had the overall effect of slashing the total number of committees from 18 to 14.

All three folded committees had been chaired in the 83rd session by Democrats, as did a further three committees. Thus, 1/3rd of the committees had Democrats at the helm, roughly the proportion of the chamber controlled by the minority party. Patrick kept State Senator John Whitmire (D-Harris County), the dean of the chamber, in charge of the Criminal Justice Committee, a position he has held for many years. He also tapped State Senator Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Cameron County) as the chair of Intergovernmental Relations, a rather low-ranking post. Reportedly, this was an olive branch extended to the upper house’s most centrist Democrat. Lucio was the one Democrat this past week to vote for the elimination of the 2/3rds rule, as well as for the omnibus anti-abortion bill HB2 (the one Wendy Davis filibustered) in 2013.

Among other important picks and retentions was State Senator Kel Seliger (R-Potter County) staying on as the chairman of the Higher Education Committee. Seliger has been, according to the Tribune article, an “occasional critic” of the Lieutenant Governor. He also is especially pro-Bill Powers and anti-Wallace Hall, for what it’s worth. State Senators Robert Nichols (R-Cherokee County) and Kevin Eltife (R-Smith County), respectively, also retained their chairmanships (Transportation and Business & Commerce, respectively).

State Senator Craig Estes (R-Wichita County), a two-time chair in the 83rd (Agriculture & Rural Affairs and State Affairs), was stripped of both titles. Harvey Kronberg at Quorum Report opined this could be because Estes was the sole Republican against the 2/3rds rule’s demise. Estes was replaced at Agriculture, Water & Rural Affairs by State Senator Charles Perry (R-Lubbock County), a freshman. I found it somewhat interesting and telling that the one freshman tapped was not a right-wing activist like State Senators Don Huffines (R-Dallas County), Konni Burton (R-Tarrant County) or Bob Hall (R-Van Zandt County), to name a few.

Finally, all eyes were on the Senate Education Committee, of which Patrick previously chaired when he served in the upper chamber. He selected State Senator Larry Taylor (R-Galveston County) as the replacement, which garnered a wide variety of responses. Breitbart Texas appears particularly stoked. Many observers prognosticate that Patrick — now flanked by Taylor — will pursue a wide variety of educational reforms, including a more extensive use of vouchers for charter and private schools.

Say what you want about Patrick, but his first few days in office have featured nothing but him staying true on his word. Unfortunately, that means he was not bluffing on the campaign trail about implementing a very conservative agenda if sent to high office.

This is just a preview of things to come. Patrick is looking more and more like a boisterous and powerful lieutenant governor (the anti-Dewhurst, if you will). Meanwhile, Abbott looks as though he may not continue Perry’s mega-powerful theme. Texas politics may very well regress back to the mean, with a more powerful lieutenant governor and a less powerful governor. Still, don’t be surprised if Patrick runs for governor (and wins) in 2018.

The Rick Perry legacy

Tomorrow, Governor-elect Greg Abbott will take the reigns from Rick Perry and officially become just ‘Governor Abbott.’ For the first time since the Clinton administration, Texas will have a new governor. Indeed, Perry has served in office for more than 14 years, shattering all the old records set by his predecessors.

I’ve been putting off writing about this, because I do not necessarily feel qualified to editorialize about political events that transpired in 2000 or 2001. I was six years old when Perry assumed office, so opining on some of Perry’s first acts would be a lot like my father talking about his experience in observing Dwight Eisenhower or Allan Shivers’ respective tenures in office.

Perry, of course, took office on December 21st, 2000, the day that George W. Bush resigned the governorship in preparation to become president. Perry had served as the Lieutenant Governor since 1999, and previously served two terms as Agriculture Commissioner from 1991 to 1999. He also served two terms in the Texas House of Representatives, from 1985 to 1991, the first two of which as a Democrat.

I’m not going to meticulously go over the ebbs and flows of his time in office, others have done a much better job at that. Rather, I want to examine two ideas about Perry that have always stayed with me from his time in office. Contrary to what some may expect from me, they are actually quite positive.

If this makes sense, Perry is an ideologue –but in a good way. When he first took office, his co-leaders were quite different. The Speaker of the House, Pete Laney, was a Democrat, and the acting Lieutenant Governor, State Senator Bill Ratliff (R-Titus County), was a tremendously moderate Republican who could absolutely not succeed in one of his party’s primaries today (think Nelson Rockefeller, except from East Texas). After the conclusion of the 77th Legislature in 2001, Perry vetoed a record number of bills. Even when compared to Ratliff’s successor, David Dewhurst, Perry was right-wing.

Today, however, Perry is seen as an establishment figure. Bud Kennedy at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram opined that he could run for president as the “anti-Cruz,” a more pragmatic establishment type. Compared to, as of tomorrow, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick or Attorney General Ken Paxton (or even Abbott), Perry is on the moderate side of his party. Obviously, the governor did not tack to the left in an era when so many others zoomed the other way. On the other hand, Perry has a firmly planted set of core beliefs, which does not change because of partisan winds. Love him or hate him, that’s an admirable quality, one that is less and less common in successful politicians.

Second, Perry — at his core — always appears to have all of Texas at heart. Sure, there was the rampant cronyism/corruption. But any even rudimentary student of Texas political history knows that is the rule and not the exception. Unlike Abbott or Patrick, in my opinion, Perry genuinely believed what he was doing would be good for the average Texan (as much as he may have been mistaken in some instances), not the average Republican primary voter.

I have found myself agreeing more and more with the band of Democrats who feel that Perry’s successors will be considerably worse than him, and we will one day covet the comparable pragmatism in the Perry administration. There is certainly some truth in this, but it is important to not get carried away.

Perry pushed through venal so-called “tort reform” that lobotomized much of our court system, including the resurgence of cruddy legal jurisprudence typically only found in Great Britain. He was instrumental in the horrendous gerrymandering scheme that reduced 90%+ of legislative districts to uncompetitive backwaters. More recently, he vigorously pushed the omnibus anti-abortion legislation that Wendy Davis filibustered and he attempted to coerce an unfriendly prosecutor into resigning by threatening (and following through) to veto funding (this is what he was indicted regarding).

Obviously, Texas can’t get much worse off on many fronts, but on others it surely can. Perhaps most horrifying about Abbott and his ilk is that they have no central moral principles, nothing preventing them from grandstanding and demagoguery in the face of an increasingly extreme minority that monopolizes the political process. When they start demanding book burnings or the rescinding of the bill of rights, Perry would have rightly put his foot down. Abbott and Patrick, to the contrary, I’m unsure about.

Adios, mofo. We’ll miss you (sort of).

Catching up, Part II

When it comes to state politics, if something feels different in the last couple of days, it is because things have — indeed — changed. A new crop of officeholders have taken office, namely Attorney General Ken Paxton, Comptroller Glenn Hegar, Land Commissioner George P. Bush, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton and a few new members of the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals. In the next week, Governor-elect Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor-elect Dan Patrick, respectively, will assume their offices at the top.

Despite not yet taking office, both men have already staked out positions both toward the far-right and toward the middle (leaning a little more to the former option). First, as the San Antonio Express-News reports, Abbott went on the offensive earlier this week on what he called the “Californization” (Californication?) of Texas. Specifically, he took issue with municipal bans on tree-cutting, plastic bags and fracking.

Evidently, Abbott finds municipal bans on cutting down large trees uniquely objectionable, and he openly compared the practice to “collectivism.” He similarly fumed over municipal bans on single-use plastic bags, enacted in cities such as Austin and Laredo. The bag bans have particularly drawn the ire of legislators and politicos since they must spend so much time in the state capital. Finally, Abbott took a firm stance against Denton’s recent referendum to ban fracking within its city limits. Since the enactment of the ban in November, numerous legislators have filed bills to prohibit such bans statewide, and Abbott now looks amenable to signing such a bill.

All this being said, perhaps there is something to be said for Abbott having at least one pragmatic side in office. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram published an editorial examining if Abbott is coming around on medicaid expansion. The statewide sentiment has recently turned against the opponents, but I’d still say true expansion is a longshot. Back in November, I opined in The Daily Texan that this was a possibility nonetheless, well before anyone else did.

Moving onto Dan Patrick, he recently outlined his legislative priorities in a series of interviews. The Texas Observer reports that Patrick would be fighting for an ambitious conservative agenda while in office. The topics outlined were garden variety right-wing ideas involving tax cuts, immigration and school privatization, but a few novel specifics stood out. Among them was a proposal to rescind state funding for the Public Integrity Unit within the Travis County District Attorney’s office. The PIU, always overseen by a Democratic DA hailing from Austin, is typically a thorn in the side of prominent Republican officeholder, be it former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, former Congressman Tom DeLay or Governor Rick Perry.

The Texas Tribune also looks at Patrick’s historically animosity toward the Senate’s 2/3rds rule. For those of you playing at home, the 2/3rds rule is an anachronism for the chamber stemming back to when it was comprised exclusively of Democrats. It requires the votes of 21/31 senators to advance any particular piece of legislation during the regular session. Patrick will likely get the needed votes to lower that threshold to 19 votes, conveniently just below the 20 Republican votes in the upper chamber.

However, as the Brownsville Herald reports, Patrick could have at least something of a mind toward bipartisanship. State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-Hidalgo County) has been selected as the President Pro Tempore of the chamber, meaning he would serve as the President of the Senate in the lieutenant governor’s absence.

Last but not least, as the Houston Chronicle reports, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller has dedicated his first official act in office to implementing so-called “cupcake amnesty.” About a decade ago, the Department of Agriculture (which has power over school lunches) opined against parents packing cupcakes and other sugary foods in their children’s lunches. The policy was quietly reversed last year, and now Miller is wishing to publicize the change. Miller also noted that he has set his sights on removing restrictions on sodas and fries.

“We’ve been raising big, strapping healthy young kids here in Texas for nearly 200 years and we don’t need Washington, D.C. telling us how to do it,” Miller said.

Glossing over the obvious problems with that statement, Miller made a lot of sense when he noted that local control should be trumpeted in these cases. Sadly, it seems that local control is not respected unless it is convenient for Republicans, as Abbott has clearly shown.

What’s next for Texas Democrats?

A day after the 2014 election, when Democrats all across this country suffered what could generously be described as a shellacking, this publication ran a cover article with the headline “TEXAS WILL NEVER TURN BLUE.” Three months on, as Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick stand ready to assume the offices of governor and lieutenant governor, respectively, that sentiment looks true as ever. State Senator Leticia Van de Putte (D-Bexar County), the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, wishes to abandon the legislature and flee into municipal politics, specifically by attempting to become the next mayor of San Antonio (directly contradicting herself from July). Will Hailer, the longtime executive director of the Texas Democratic Party who was heralded as a prophet to lead them into the promised land, just left Texas. And then there’s Battleground Texas. Oh, Battleground Texas.

In February 2013, a gaggle of former Obama campaign staffers came together to create the organization, which promised to hastily turn Texas blue. Obviously, that was a bit of a stretch, but the idea nonetheless was that they would expedite the progress already underway to make the state politically competitive. Whatever they did, it didn’t work. Actually, that’s a gross understatement; they actively made things significantly worse.

Accordingly, when I saw the article in the Texas Observer entitled “Does Battleground Texas have a future?,” all I could think was “oh my gosh, I sure hope not.” Whatever they did in this election cycle, which is still a matter of open debate, was deleterious and had a net negative effect.

Before I get into this, there is an obligatory disclosure. There were countless people, from the top to the bottom of that organization, who undobutebly did yeoman’s work. Be that spending their whole days volunteering or making numerous sacrifices, there were hundreds — some of which I personally know — who put in a great deal of work striving toward, what I believe was, an honorable cause. But none of that discounts the fact that the strategy employed by Battleground Texas was indisputably awful.

As the Observer article delineates (I highly recommend reading it), Battleground Texas siphoned money away from other deserving beneficiaries, namely the Texas Democratic Party, and appears to have squandered it. Their top-down approach, with its over-reliance on rosy numbers and optimistic prognostications, is eerily reminiscent of the Chinese Communist Party’s bureaucratic management during the Great Leap Forward. Of course, I’m not trying to flippantly make light of a famine by comparing it to a tougher-than-expected loss suffered by Texas Democrats, but the principle is the same. These tactics lead to dishonesty and spin until some type of cataclysm unveiled the truth.

I noted, ahead of the election, that if Wendy Davis, who the Democrats nominated for governor, did not crack 40%, then Battleground Texas would disappear, merely becoming a lamentation of drunken staffers at Capitol Hill bars. Well, Davis didn’t crack 40 percent (she didn’t even make it to 39), and yet Battleground Texas is still here. I suppose it will limp along into the future for perhaps another year or two, but if it is ever taken seriously again, that would be a profound mistake.

With all that pleasantness out of the way, the underlying question pegged in the headline still remains: what should Texas Democrats do? To put it evocatively, give up. Wave the white flag. Forget about competing at a statewide level because, in most of the political class’ lifetimes, it simply will not happen. Rather, instead of humoring the delusions of grandeur within the Austin elite, the concerted effort among progressives in this state should be on grassroots building at the local levels. Specifically, this means turning Bexar (San Antonio), Harris (Houston) and Nueces (Corpus Christi) counties blue. The cornerstone of that is finding suitable candidates to run for all the open offices and then supporting them with money. Battleground Texas actively took money away from these local efforts, especially here in Harris County. Why didn’t they held the overworked and underfunded Harris County Democratic Party fill all the judicial offices?

As an aside, what should be next for Wendy Davis? A few days ago, The Dallas Morning News reported that her big flop back in February to support open carry was just a total lie that she fabricated in a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to curry favor from the pro-gun crowd in the election.  Still, as the Houston Chronicle reported, Davis intends to run for office in the future. Personally, my reaction is “thanks but no thanks.”

Davis has always struck me as a dedicated and effective public servant, but the truth is that she makes a lousy politician. She isn’t articulate, she isn’t especially charismatic in front of cameras and she doesn’t think on her feet very well or quickly. Sound bites are anathema to her, and debates are even worse. Worst of all, she appears to have been ordered around by misguided campaign staff, leading to a ship sailing along with anyone competent at the helm for much of 2014. But all of that pales in comparison to what makes Davis an atrocious future pick: she lost bad. Davis will always indelibly be linked to that 20-point whooping, and it will not do the Democrats any favors. They need to move on.

And they also need to move on from statewide politics, for the time being. Breitbart Texas recently accused the Democrats of “abandoning” said politics while “retreating” to municipalities. It evoked strong reactions from the usual suspects. But perhaps it isn’t that bad of an idea.

No matter how many marathons you participate in, if you only run marathons, you won’t ever do all that well. You have to start small, running shorter distances, and only moving on when you have mastered those simpler tasks. Texas Democrats need to do the same thing.

Texpatriate’s Person of the Year 2014

If one were to scour the bars of downtown Austin last year, 2014’s election would have sounded like the big one, the year when Texas Democrats would show they were truly a force to be reckoned with. At the very least, the year they continue what had been incremental progress toward competitiveness. Of course, that did not happen, as the Democratic gubernatorial nominee lost by more than any of her predecessors in this century.

But to characterize this year merely as one of Democratic failure would be a gross oversimplification, and would ignore the impressive independent successes of Republican campaigns this year. Long chastised as technologically backwater, Republicans closed the digital gaps all around the country, but especially so within Texas. Governor-elect Greg Abbott’s campaign in particular functioned as a well-oiled machine. Lamented by many as politically untested, Abbott was cautious and — for the most part — outwardly reasonable on the campaign trail (despite whatever far-right position he espoused away from television cameras).

However, caution did not permeate the entire ticket. Specifically, Lieutenant Governor-elect Dan Patrick appeared content to continue the ultra-conservative, divisive rhetoric he used to win the Republican primary, reiterating it without shame throughout the general election. In the end, he only won by marginally less than Abbott, despite such a very different strategy. Patrick, more than anyone else, embodies the current realities of Texas politics; the state is controlled, with an iron fist, by the few percent that bother to vote in Republican primaries. And Patrick echoes their voice louder and with more certainty than any of his colleagues.

Historically, lieutenant governor has been the most powerful position in the state, even more than the governor. The roles have only been reversed for the best decade or so because of a uniquely audacious governor and a strangely milquetoast lieutenant governor. But Patrick, previously a State Senator with no adversity to controversy, does not have a single timid bone in his body.

Since being elected, Patrick has exhibited no signs of slowing down his charge to change the state. He has already begun holding hearings on education matters, and a radical restructuring of the system — likely involving the extensive use of charter schools and vouchers — looks slated for the next session. With Patrick holding almost despotic power over the upper chamber, his word will carry more weight than just about anyone else.

As an editorial board, we aren’t much for Patrick’s extreme political positions. Be it education reform, guns, immigration reform or environmental factors, we disagree with him quite strongly and repudiate many, if not most, of his tactics. Throughout both his lengthy primary campaign against incumbent David Dewhurst as well as Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson & Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and general election campaign, Patrick demonstrated a working unfamiliarity with telling the truth, which earned him the honorific of “pathological liar” from one such opponent (Patterson). We endorsed his Democratic rival for lieutenant governor earlier this year in about the strongest way we knew how civilly.

But one would have to be delusional to deny the huge impact that Patrick already has, and will continue to have, on Texas politics. His defeat of Dewhurst, simultaneous with similar primary battles for Attorney General and Agriculture Commissioner, signaled a transition for control of the Texas Republican Party (and, in effect, the State of Texas). Make no mistake, the Tea Party is not a faction within the party, there are the party; and Patrick is their prince.

In the next session of the legislature, Abbott may very well play it safe and push a rather non-controversial agenda from a technocratic point of view. But no one expects Patrick to do the same. If/when the legislature passes big measures such as so-called “School Choice,” “Open Carry,” “Campus Carry,” and the end of concepts castigated as “Sanctuary Cities” or the “Texas DREAM Act,” we will have Patrick to thank/curse for it. He will quickly and hugely make his mark on Texas.

Accordingly, we denote Dan Patrick as our Texpatriate 2014 Person of the Year. Previous recipients include ANNISE PARKER (2013), LANE LEWIS (2012), ANDREW BURKS (2011), THE HOUSTON MUNICIPAL EMPLOYEE (2010) and ANNISE PARKER (2009). Criteria for recipients has changed over the years.

The Texpatriate Editorial Board is comprised of George Bailey of Boston, Noah M. Horwitz of Austin and Andrew Scott Romo of New Orleans. Editorials comprise a majority opinion of the board.

Dewhurst for Mayor?

The Houston Chronicle reports that Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, who leaves office this January after a dozen years in office, is thinking about running for Mayor of Houston next year.

“I ain’t riding off into the sunset, ever,” Dewhurst told the Chronicle. “I’m a real believer in the Lord’s will, and He’s got something else He wants me to do, and so I’m pursuing what I think is good for me and good for the state.”

Dewhurst, who was defeated for re-election by Lieutenant Governor-elect Dan Patrick earlier this year, must think the third time is the charm. Before being defeated for re-election, he ran for the US Senate in 2012 when Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison retired. Despite being the odds-on favorite for most of the campaign, Ted Cruz won an unexpected, grassroots-based victory over him and succeeded Hutchison in the Senate.

Speaking of next year’s mayoral candidates, another name has popped up since I last profiled the plethora of pretenders to the throne, so to speak. Bill King, the former Mayor of Kemah and a longtime columnist for the Houston Chronicle, is now telling people behind the scenes that he will toss his hat in the ring. King has always been a nice guy with noble ambitions, but many of his Chronicle columns were sometimes just silly. Every single week he would repeat the same trite points about how it was absolutely necessary to gleefully crush public sector pensions or else Houston would turn into Detroit. I tend to agree that something needs to be done in the budgetary department, but the points lose their ripeness the fourth time they are iterated in a month. Additionally, being the Mayor of multiple cities (when they do not merge) just makes me uncomfortable, similar to Scott Brown’s ill-fated run for the Senate in New Hampshire this year.

Back to Dewhurst, I’m not sure how much financial support he could muster, though he is independently wealthy enough to self-finance. Moderate Republicans already have a gaggle of affluent White men competing for their support, and I’m not really convinced that Dewhurst fills any unfilled niche.

And, to bring up the obvious point, Republicans will not likely win the Mayor’s office this next election. Houston is and continues to be a ferociously liberal city. It has not elected a Republican Mayor since the 1970s, and 2015 certainly does not look to be the exception to the rule.

Additionally, though Dewhurst deep down is rather moderate and likely doesn’t care much for social issues, that side of him has been all but eviscerated in two statewide Republican primaries dominated by the Tea Party. The Republicans running for Mayor this year either openly disagree with their party on issues such as gay marriage and abortion, such as City Councilmember Stephen Costello (R-At Large 1), or prioritize other issues, such as City Councilmember Oliver Pennington (R-District G). If Houston doesn’t elect Republicans, we most definitely do not elect socially conservative Republicans. Not in 1985, not today.