Senate Education Committee chair Dan Patrick (R-Houston)
Six years ago, Houston Republican Dan Patrick debuted in the Texas Senate as an object of fascination, an aggressive harbinger of the Tea Party with a dedicated talk-radio following he addressed from a makeshift studio in the Capitol. Today, he’s a powerful Senate committee chairman on a crusade to help Texas’ poor and disabled children through the healing power of school choice.
Yet he remains as polarizing as ever, and his new responsibilities have only raised the stakes when his emotions get the best of him. Patrick’s brief reign over the Senate Education Committee has been a fascinating mix of empathy and cruelty, in which peaceful agreement rapidly degenerates into hostile shouting matches. Critics say his brand of leadership is taking a toll.
In some ways, not much has changed since his days as a hot-tempered outsider.
The same character who took credit for “discovering” Rush Limbaugh and titled his book, The Second Most Important Book You Will Ever Read: A Personal Challenge to Read the Bible, has distinguished himself at the Capitol as founder of the Senate’s Tea Party Caucus. Thanks to his efforts, the words “In God We Trust” have been permanently added to the Senate chamber, the Texas pledge includes the phrase “under God,” and the controversial sonogram bill passed last session.
Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, says he was on their radar from the start. “Back when Senator Patrick was first elected, the Texas Freedom Network placed him on our ‘far right watch list,’ calling him one of God’s lawgivers,” she said. “One of the problems we identified way back then was that he might have difficulty going from being a radio talk show host to a lawmaker.”
Texas Monthly grappled with the same question. “Patrick has long been known in Houston for a demeanor that can shift in a flash from angelic to aggrieved to outraged to breathtakingly narcissistic,” Mimi Swartz wrote in 2007. In the piece, Swartz recalls sitting beside Patrick on an interview panel of Houston mayoral candidates. Patrick asked to see the questions she’d prepared, so they wouldn’t overlap. And he stole them from her, one after the other, leaving her fumbling to come up with new questions at the last minute.
Swartz wrote she never knew whether he did it on purpose, but that the story fits his “is-he-for-real-or-is-he-a-phony” air, and his ambition. In the years since her story, Patrick has borrowed from each of the paths Swartz predicted for him:
“If, as a freshman senator with no previous experience in public office, he can really deliver on his promises…he has a chance to position himself to reach his presumed, if implausible, goal: to be elected governor of Texas in 2010. But if he becomes a victim of his own darker impulses—self-aggrandizement, self-immolation, a bristling hostility toward those who disagree with him—Patrick will be forever remembered as just another rookie who went to Austin with dreams of playing in the big leagues but couldn’t make the cut.”
Swartz recalls another story from before Patrick’s Senate career, when he made so much noise in a Capitol hearing, screaming at then-Representative (now Senator) Glenn Hegar, that a state trooper was called in. Five years after arriving in the Senate, Patrick was still making noise about elected officials. Last May, he emailed all the other Senate members to accuse Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas) of spreading lies about his marital status. The Quorum Report published the email chain, including Carona’s blistering denial. “I’ve never been shy about sharing my dislike and distrust of you. Put bluntly, I believe you are a snake oil salesman; a narcissist that would say anything to draw attention to himself,” he wrote.
That phony-aggressive combination that Swartz described—and Carona brought home—was evident in a recent appearance Patrick made on Piers Morgan’s CNN show. Patrick, who identifies as a lifetime National Rifle Association member, went on to discuss the NRA’s beefed-up relationship with NASCAR.
Morgan said he was “baffled” that the NRA was sponsoring a race, and that was all the prompting Patrick needed. “Well, first of all, tell me what’s bad about it,” he said, smiling. “I mean, Texans love guns. Texans love fast cars.” Then his voice bounced with frustration. “So, I don’t really understand the fuss. Tell me what your problem is. I don’t get it.” Before long he was red-faced, talking over Morgan and cutting him off mid-sentence.
Patrick keeps returning to Morgan’s show for encore explosions. His most recent turn was on April 9 after a mass stabbing in Houston, when Patrick—a Maryland native who majored in English before leaving his home state and changing his name—dismissed Morgan’s studio audience as “northeast liberals who don’t understand.”
The Patrick on CNN is really no different than the one wielding a gavel in front of a committee room. He reached the same peaks in March at a discussion of his Senate Bill 521, which would prevent any organization affiliated with Planned Parenthood from teaching or providing materials in sex education classes. He respectfully listened to those that supported the legislation, then he screamed, cut off and snapped at those testifying against it. When a witness asserted that abortions might save lives, Patrick boiled. “How about those 40 million that were killed? How about those 40 million plus that were killed?”
Kathy Miller got a share of Patrick’s bullying in that same hearing, when the two bickered back and forth for most of her time allotted for questioning.
“Senator Patrick is extraordinarily friendly toward those who come to support his position on bills, and troublingly inhospitable to those who disagree,” Miller said later. It’s the same old Dan Patrick, just with more power.
“It’s particularly troubling when citizens, ordinary citizens, come to express their opinions about pieces of legislation and he berates or belittles them,” she said.
“Cutting people off, not allowing them to complete their three minutes of testimony, asserting that they hadn’t read the legislation and weren’t prepared to testify appropriately does discourage opposition, whether Senator Patrick means it to or not,” Miller said. “It kind of undermines the whole idea of a participatory government process.”
Patrick has run many more hearings like that one. In one, he compared prohibiting private and parochial school students from playing in the University Interscholastic League to racial discrimination in the civil rights era. At a hearing on Senate Bill 2, his omnibus charter school bill, Patrick began by cautioning those who might oppose his measure, “When you’re testifying, you’re not testifying against a bill. You’re testifying against 100,000 families that have children on a waiting list,” he warned. Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) pressed him on the cost of his bill, and Patrick suggested he instead consider the “poor students in failing schools who are desperate for options.”
“Let’s not demagogue this,” West said.
At another hearing, Patrick repeatedly asked critics of a school-voucher proposal, which would provide money for special-needs kids to attend private schools, whether they had disabled children. When they said no, Patrick said they couldn’t offer a valid opinion on the issue if they didn’t have a special-needs child. (It should be noted that neither does Dan Patrick.)
I wanted to ask Patrick about these emotional hearings, so a few days ago on the Senate floor I handed in a press request. It changed hands a few times and landed on his desk. Then, I turned to watch him pick it up. He read it, briefly looking over my name and affiliation. And then he placed my request in the garbage.
I thought of Swartz’s encounter with him on that panel years ago. I sent another press request and finally flagged him down outside the railing on the Senate floor, and when we finally began talking, he was so friendly I wondered if I had imagined the slight.
Patrick agreed that his committee has been dramatic so far. “It has been emotional,” he told me. Patrick compared tearing up in some hearings to his pastor crying while delivering friends’ eulogies. “I thought about it afterwards and I thought about something my pastor told me. … He says that when it comes to being a pastor at a funeral or maybe a legislator, as long as your emotions do not impact your professionalism, it’s OK to be who you are.”
Despite the evidence to the contrary, Patrick believed he was accomplishing this. “I never let my emotions impact my professionalism,” he said.
I asked Patrick about what he thought of criticism that he might be selectively harsh with witnesses opposed to his bills. ”I can only remember three witnesses that I was firm with,” he said, pointing to the man testifying against the sex ed bill as an example. Patrick contends that the Youtube video of him yelling was edited to cut out the witness’ provocative comment. “He said that abortions actually save lives. … He said, ‘Well, really, those 44 million abortions didn’t happen.’ That was offensive to me…and I would say it to him again if he was here.”
“If there have been three [witnesses] that I was short with, probably two were justified and probably one wasn’t,” he said.
Patrick’s ideology and his fervor have made him stand out, in radio and in politics. Not many others would call school choice the “civil rights issue of our time” in the year 2013… or ever, actually. But Miller said there’s a real drawback to the showboating.
“This is not really a partisan criticism,” she contends. “His counterpart in the House, Representative [Jimmie Don] Aycock, has not experienced the same kind of animosity in his hearings. Folks have been quick to point out that they feel heard in his hearings.”
“It’s about the willingness to actually listen to folks and allow them to feel as if they are genuinely a part of the decision-making process,” Miller continued. “Senator Patrick has shown an inclination to bring controversial pieces of legislation into his committee early in the game. We’ve heard CSCOPE hearings and sex ed bills and voucher bills and more controversial pieces of legislation, whereas the House committee has really taken up the major pieces of legislation.”
A prime example of this type of behavior—of his unwillingness to form alliances—can be seen in the committee’s discussion of his charter school bill, during which Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) and Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) both said they felt left out of back-room discussions on the measure and couldn’t support the legislation since they didn’t have any information on it.
His handling of the charter school bill seemed, at that point, to be a good example of the lack of consensus behind his school choice efforts. But when his bill reached the Senate floor in early April—after a few hours’ delay for more negotiations—his usual opponents couldn’t praise him enough. He’d compromised on major sections of the bill, and worked the measure like a true politician.
West was cautious enough to secure a promise, on the record, that Patrick wouldn’t abandon their compromise later in the process. But he was enthusiastic about the way that the committee chairman was shaping up.
“Mr. President and members, I want to introduce the new Dan Patrick,” West said. “I know that the best is yet to come.”
A few days later, though, Patrick was back to his old self. Introducing “an unusual amendment, but one I feel strongly about,” he called for an unheard-of recall vote on a bill the Senate passed the previous day, because he hadn’t understood the bill. Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), author of the measure, wondered: “Are you telling us you vote on bills all day long and don’t read the bills?”
“I’m not going to stand here and be insulted by you,” Patrick shot back. And while his recall vote passed, the point was moot—the bill had already been sent to the House, where members refused to give it back.
Despite the dramatics, Patrick feels that his chairmanship has been successful. “I believe we’re going to impact special need children and foster care students more than we have in a long, long time. … My focus this session was special needs students, foster students, [and] dropout students,” he told me. “We’ve all come together with a lot of consensus.”
The real story of Patrick’s chairmanship lies not in his angry outbursts, but in these “angelic” and “outraged” extremes. The hearing for his bill requiring cameras in special education classrooms was an emotional one in which he showed empathy, patience and grace with parents whose children had been abused.
Patrick told me his most emotional day this session included a hearing on allowing more charter schools geared toward dropouts. It was another day packed with emotional testimony, this time about the saving power of the right school for the right child. “Those students—one young man who said he might be in prison without the dropout recovery charter, the young lady who said she just wanted to make her mother proud … there’s no question that I did tear up and my voice did crack,” he said.
The emotion, he says, is fine if that’s who you are—the other extreme would be far worse. “If you become such a professional politician that you lose your heart, it’s time to not run for office anymore,” Patrick said.