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Fear and Loathing in San Antonio

Republicans get riled up over immigration and taxes at their state convention
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Gov. Rick Perry, photo byTim Eaton

The 2006 Republican State Convention in San Antonio had all the usual trappings. There were women in red, white, and blue sequined vests, the anti-Hillary T-shirts, and, as ever, the copious praying, pledging of allegiances, and chattering on about freedom. And yet something was different. The prevailing mood inside the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center the first weekend in June was one of intense fear and anger, even by Republican standards. The fear grew from the perceived threat of illegal immigrants pouring through an insecure border; the anger was mostly over the recently expanded state business tax.

State Party Chair Tina Benkiser set the tone in the opening speech. “Unfortunately, the Americanization movement of previous centuries has given way to multiculturalism, hyphenated Americans, and those whose loyalty is to a foreign flag,” she told the mostly white crowd of delegates. “Although ours is a nation of immigrants, integration into one American culture has been the key to success. In the first two centuries, immigrants came to America to become Americans. While respecting their heritage, they learned English, embraced traditional American values, and became American patriots.”

Similar invective surfaced in the state party platform, the document that outlines the GOP’s core beliefs. The Texas Republican platform is infamous for its extreme rightward tilt, and the 2006 version was no different. But this year, the ultraconservative delegates who comprise the platform committee added hard-line rhetoric on illegal immigration: “No amnesty! No how. No way.”

Opposition to amnesty (or legalization, as it’s described in the immigration reform bill passed by the U.S. Senate) was just the beginning. The platform includes a demand to find and deport all undocumented workers, to build a barrier along the length of the border, and to create a tracking system for all immigrants. The platform also calls for repeal of the law that grants citizenship to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.

Gov. Rick Perry’s views on immigration aren’t nearly that extreme. He favors some form of guest worker program, and opposes building a fence along the entire border. Yet when Perry addressed the crowd after Benkiser, he too tried to prove he that he could go mano a mano with the state’s most conservative Republicans. “I believe the greatest threat to our future is a porous and unsecured border,” he told the crowd.

Perry, who faces three opponents in the November election, needs to keep his right-wing base happy. So he rolled out the immigration tough talk. “Texas is not waiting on Washington to act,” he declared. “I have authorized the use of state trooper strike teams, covert surveillance units, canine tracking teams, DPS helicopters and the Texas Civil Air Patrol to help border sheriffs and police stop illegal activity. And I will ask the Legislature to dedicate $100 million to fund these border security initiatives until the federal government starts enforcing our sovereign border with Mexico.”

So it went throughout the weekend as each speaker tried to outdo the other with anti-immigrant rhetoric. Such nativism might be what it takes to keep the Republican base happy in the here and now, but it’s hard to imagine how the GOP expects to keep winning elections with rhetoric that borders on sounding anti-Latino. Delegates needed only to glance around San Antonio—a city that is about 60 percent Hispanic—to see what Texas will look like in about 10 years.

Meanwhile, conventioneers made it clear that perceived threats from the outside were not the only things to worry about. When you have total control of state government, it’s only a matter of time until the party grows fat and lazy, and devolves into factional infighting. Democrats are more than a little familiar with this phenomenon. At this year’s convention, those ever-so-slight cracks in the GOP’s famous unity appeared to be growing wider. Ultraconservative, grassroots activists constantly griped that their elected officials weren’t, as the saying goes, “standing on conservative principle.” Little usually comes of this friction. The grassroots folks always like to gripe at state conventions, but predictably they fall in line by election season. This time around may be different. At this year’s convention, many GOP delegates weren’t just angry, they were downright uppity.

The source of their anger was the expanded business tax that Perry had pushed through the Legislature and signed into law just a few days earlier. The tax is a centerpiece of the five-bill school-finance and property tax-cut package the Legislature passed in its recent special session. The revenue from the business tax and a higher cigarette tax will partly offset more than $15 billion in property tax cuts over the next three years. Perry and the GOP leadership hailed the package as historic. And everyone agreed that it was historic in at least one sense: The new levy is the biggest tax increase in state history—a notion that doesn’t sit well with some GOP activists. Perhaps the only sin worse in conservative ideology than a tax increase is a tax increase on business.

“House Bill 3 is a disaster for the Republican Party—we all know it,” Steven Hotze, a Houston physician and longtime GOP activist, told the platform committee on the convention’s second night. “It’s going to destroy the party in the long term.” Hotze was one of a half-dozen angry conservatives who testified that the platform should oppose the tax. Hotze had lobbied fiercely against the tax bill a month earlier at the Capitol. He wrote an op-ed piece that ran in the San Antonio Express-News on the convention’s first day that criticized Perry and the GOP leadership for abandoning conservative ideals. He urged the platform committee to remove a plank—inserted by Perry backers—that expressed official party support for the business tax. What galls Hotze and some conservatives is that previous platforms called for the repeal of the state business tax—the same tax that Perry expanded. Perry ignored “our platform,” Hotze told the committee. “If we don’t stand up on this, they’re going to roll over us every time. I urge you to send a message to the governor.”

The committee, however, sent no such message, and pro-business tax language remained in the platform. Hotze and his supporters made one final push to strip the HB3 plank from the platform on the convention’s final day, when the document came up for approval on the convention floor. They lost that vote, too. But it was a close count (55 percent to 45 percent)—an indication of just how many true believers despise Perry’s business tax, and perhaps a source of potential peril for the governor’s re-election.

While Hotze did much of the dirty work, the true face of activist anger at the business tax is Dan Patrick, the Silvio Berlusconi of Texas politics. The Houston right-wing talk radio star is all but assured of winning a seat in the state Senate come November. Ostensibly, Patrick tried to keep a low profile at the convention, but it was impossible to miss him. On the first day he made the biggest news splash of the weekend by announcing that he had purchased a Dallas radio station, which will allow him to carry his right-wing message—and presumably his cult following—beyond Harris County and Southeast Texas. (Not so coincidentally, Hotze, the anti-business tax activist, also hosts a talk show on Patrick’s Houston station.)

Dan Patrick turned some heads at the convention, photo byTim Eaton

Patrick is a true believer, an insurgent candidate from the GOP’s right-wing grassroots who’s trying to break into the party’s ruling elite [see "Party Crasher," February 24, 2006]. In the primary election last March, he beat three opponents and ended up with nearly 70 percent of the vote (a win so overwhelming in political terms that “blowout” doesn’t do it justice).

When he addressed a caucus meeting of Harris County delegates at the convention on Friday afternoon, the assembled die-hards greeted him with a loud cheer and a standing ovation. (The only folks in the room not clapping were two reporters and three members of the governor’s staff seated in the back.) First he railed against HB3 as an abandonment of conservative principles. Then he backpedaled and called for unity. “It’s OK to disagree. I don’t like House Bill 3,” Patrick said, “but I’m not personally angry with the governor. A Republican on their worst day is still better than a Democrat on their best day.”

Such pleas were heard repeatedly throughout the convention. Party leaders are clearly concerned that the ultraconservative, grassroots activists, discouraged by the performance of the elected GOP officials in Austin and Washington, will stay home this November. The top of the GOP ticket seems safe—only Perry faces any re-election threat, and it’s only a marginal one. But without a strong turnout from the GOP base, Republicans could lose state legislative and judicial races, particularly in Harris County.

“We can’t be staying home,” said Houston Rep. Debbie Riddle. “I know you’re upset with the governor over HB3, but he’s still our governor,” she told the Harris County Caucus. State Rep. Bill Zedler of Arlington told another caucus, “If you hear someone who says they’re going to stay home [in November], remind them of the alternative.”

For the party leadership, that alternative—not multiculturalism or hyphenated Americans or businesses taxes—may be the biggest fear of all.