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Hooks on Politics

Off to the Races

GOP primary season is almost upon us. Duck.
2015 Inauguration Day Capitol
Kelsey Jukam
A man waves a flag in front of the Texas State Capitol during the 2015 inauguration.

Rest easy, politics junkies and policy-minded sadomasochists—the carnival is beginning anew. The brief lull that follows the end of the legislative session is wrapping up. Texas politicians are now free to raise money after a six-month prohibition coinciding with the session, and many of the key figures in the more interesting primary races are snapping into place. For much of the next year, Texans with a high tolerance for bullshit will have the opportunity to follow along with the finest still-legal bloodsport in the state: Republican legislative primaries.

There will be a lot of other elections happening, of course. The GOP presidential primary in March has the potential to be relatively exciting. It’s earlier in the primary calendar next year than it was in 2012, and the field of power-craving loons currently assembled contains no less than five Texas-connected candidates—Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum—who have an incentive to stay in the race until after the state’s say-so.

But next year’s other events are likely to be considerably less exciting. Texas won’t be competitive in the presidential general election. Democrats stand to pick up a few state House seats—and maybe a congressional seat or two—but that won’t change things much. There will only be one sleepy statewide race: for a seat on the state’s Railroad Commission.

Of all the 2016 contests, the GOP legislative primaries have the most consequence for Texans. If you understand the Legislature as a battle between moderate Republicans and the right—a simplification, but good enough for our purposes—the GOP primaries are the filter through which one side or the other gains strength and foot soldiers.

They have huge consequences for the state; and historically, almost no one votes in them. Fewer than 1 in 35 Texans cast a vote in the 2014 runoff when Dan Patrick turned Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst into an occasional op-ed writer—and down-ballot races were decided by tiny margins. When moderate-ish GOP incumbent Bob Deuell lost his seat to tea partier Bob Hall, whose primary occupation in office has been protecting the state from electromagnetic pulse weapons, the race was decided by just 300 votes.

This go-round, like in 2014, the headlining bouts will be between those state representatives allied with House Speaker Joe Straus and those allied with Midland oilman Tim Dunn and the organizing groups he and his friends help fund. Straus is no commie, but the House remains the most consequential block on right-wing legislative efforts, and his enemies—a faction now led in part by Patrick—have struggled to unseat him for years.

Just three of the 11 Republicans who organized the coup that dethroned former House Speaker Tom Craddick in 2009 could be in office after next November—Straus himself, state Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) and state Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth). Cook and Geren stimulate the ire of right-wingers almost as much as Straus, but barring unexpected developments both men, facing weak opponents, would seem to be favorites in their races. And Straus has recruited new allies to replace old ones over the year. Having already announced he’s seeking another term as speaker, he’s probably a lock to retain it—unless, you know, the American Phoenix Foundation has footage of him at a strip club or a vegan restaurant.

Still, the replacement of old hands with new ones has a consequential effect on how the body runs. Several moderate dealmakers probably bear some of the responsibility for the weak session we just had. This time, we’re losing a few more Republican statesmen. State Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) is retiring. He was one of the few GOPers to openly criticize the Legislature’s fiscal irresponsibility this session, and he helped prevent some really bad bills from coming to a vote, the effort to repeal in-state tuition for undocumented students among them.

State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) is leaving too, along with other seniors such as state Rep. Jim Keffer (R-Eastland), a top Straus lieutenant. Aycock is a GOPer who genuinely cares about public education. As chairman of the House committee that oversees it he tried to do right by the system, though his efforts sometimes dead-ended. Eltife and Aycock represent, in some ways, the best instincts of the Senate and House. In many ways, it has not been a great decade for Texas state government. As long as the state’s political culture is in thrall to the Republican primary system, Texans need lawmakers like them to mitigate possible damage.

Now they’ll be gone. What kind of people will replace them? Here’s six GOP races to watch to take the temperature of the state’s political climate.

Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake)
Patrick Michels
Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake) on the House floor.

The weirdest race shaping up—and perhaps the most entertaining, if you enjoy carnival barking—is a tea party attempt to can state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake), who tea partiers installed in office just three years ago. Gio, as he’s known, has gone soft, you see. Last year, he was much like the rest of the tea party caucus: He handed out chocolate coins on the floor to promote his efforts to bring Texas gold home from the Federal Reserve. (That passed this year, oddly enough.) But just before this year’s session, he told a disbelieving and furious crowd in Tarrant County that he’d be voting for Straus for speaker over hapless tea party favorite Scott Turner.

Now the same people who helped get him elected are out to cut his jugular and wring him dry like a wet rag, thanks to Very Serious Disagreements About Policy. In May, Northeast Tarrant Tea Party leader Julie McCarty discovered she’d been banned from commenting on his Facebook page. He’d gone full Judas. Upon such bans is state history made: In an emotional post to her followers, she announced the gloves were coming off. A primary was coming. Capriglione characterized his critics as “fringe” and a “small minority” to The Dallas Morning News.

Tim Dunn’s house organ, a blog called AgendaWise, suggested McCarty primary him herself. She seemed delighted by the suggestion but has elsewhere hinted another challenger is forthcoming. Now, some of the best organized tea party groups in the state seem poised to spend resources this election cycle further making an enemy out of someone with whom they still agree on most policy particulars. It’s primaries all the way down, man.

Those two top Straus lieutenants, Cook and Geren, each have primary challengers. Could the challengers win? Sure, I guess. But each challenger leaves something to be desired. Geren will face Bo French. French, his site announces, is a “life-long Christian” and “the next generation of conservative leadership,” and he has the smile, hair, and blonde family to prove it. He also has a history of terrible acrimony with Taya Kyle, the widow of Chris Kyle of American Sniper fame. If you want to run in a GOP primary in North Texas, one thing you assuredly do not want to be is the dread and mortal enemy of Kyle’s widow, a woman who has become something akin to the Virgin Mother of DFW. It is pretty mystifying.

Rep. Byron Cook
Courtesy of Byron Cook via Facebook
State Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana)

Cook faces Thomas McNutt, a member of the McNutt family that owns Collin Street Bakery, “world renowned for its fruitcakes.” Thomas seems like a nice guy, but the McNutt family and its patriarch, Bill, have a long and sordid history of creepy behavior toward women, substance abuse, legal problems and other demons, written up extensively in D Magazine and other publications.

Say what you will about the anti-Straus coalition, but their candidate recruitment schemes could use some work.

There will also be a few primary challenges in the other direction. Tea party stalwart state Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving) will face another race with former state Rep. Bennett Ratliff, who lost the GOP primary to Rinaldi in 2014 by just 94 votes. With greater turnout in a presidential year possibly favoring more moderate Republicans, Rinaldi will be a high-profile target.

And in the Senate—pretty right-wing already, of course—two races could push it further right. Eltife’s retirement has sparked a flurry of interest from prospective candidates, but the two most prominent are probably state Rep. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), dutiful Christian conservative, and state Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview). Both are more conservative than Eltife in several ways, though Simpson is more of an iconoclast-libertarian (and a proponent of legal pot).

Also retiring is state Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), who long ago ossified into a truculent, paid-for defender of industry with few other convictions besides humiliating freshmen. He’s not much of a loss, to be honest. If state Rep. Susan King (R-Abilene) decides to run, and wins, it may even be a step forward for the Senate—but it’s a race to watch. This is, after all, a district that overlaps with that of state representative and Muslim-whisperer Molly White, who came from obscurity to triumph in her race. She almost certainly won’t run, but another like-minded citizen-activist might.

There will also be a number of primary challenges for Texas congressmen, those filthy RINOs. Blake Farenthold and Lamar Smith face challengers. Up in the Metroplex, there’s been some talk that freshmen state senators Don Huffines and Bob Hall could challenge Pete Sessions and Jeb Hensarling, respectively—they could do that and keep their senate seats—but both have so far demurred. A Hall staffer emailed on Monday to say that he had “no interest” in Hensarling’s seat, and that he was “working hard to make a difference here on the state level.”

Last year’s lege primaries brought with them assault charges, a knife fight, revelations of alleged wife-beating, an ocean of mendacious lies, racial and religious tension and Sun Tzu’s Art of War. This year, it will all be amplified by a pretty insane presidential contest. Good luck, everyone!

Rick Perry
Chris Hooks
Presidential hopeful Rick Perry announces his bid at a sweltering hangar in an airport in Addison.

 

Time is a flat circle: Rick Perry is upon us again.

You didn’t think former Gov. James Richard Perry, of the Paint Creek Perrys, was leaving us for good, did you? It has been 30 years since Perry entered public service, almost half of which he spent as a governor whose level of dominance over the state verged on a personality cult. He entered the Texas House the year The Goonies came out; became agriculture commissioner the year of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion;” and won the lieutenant governor’s gavel amid Y2K panic. A child born on the day Rick Perry became governor of Texas would now be behind the wheel with her learner’s permit, and would have known the state under other leadership for just four months.

Perry was never going to go away quietly, oops or no. If you were to make the case for his presidential ambitions, you could point to his survivor’s instinct and his long history of success as a political chameleon—first a Democrat, then a Republican; first a believer in certain parts of the infrastructure of big government, then a tea partier; a Christian conservative, or a Tenther libertarian. What are his actual beliefs? Does he have any, or is he motivated solely by his love of the performance of power? If the latter, it might be the most presidential thing about him.

His task this presidential campaign, which got its official start today at a hangar owned by the Million Air luxury aviation service company at the airport in Addison, north of Dallas, is this: to be taken seriously again. In 2011, his campaign was a last-minute, unfocused mish-mash, launched to exploit a gap in the GOP field. He delivered metric tons of red meat, but was outed as an immigration moderate (for a Republican) by Mitt Romney, and his campaign died long before his excruciating debate moment.

Now, his campaign seems more focused—premised on a couple of core messages. He placed a heavy emphasis on his respect for The Troops, and a coterie of retired Navy SEALs and veterans of wars dating back to World War II accompanied him on stage. Pete Scobell, a SEAL turned country singer, introduced the vets one by one. “Rick Perry has what it takes to lead,” said Scobell.

He was “the man who we need in Washington,” where “for too long, we’ve lacked leadership.” Obama has disgraced veterans. Implied in Perry’s focus on the military and his own service record: Few others in the Republican field have served in the military. Rick and Anita Perry had helped and comforted veterans, including the twin former SEALs Marcus and Morgan Luttrell, Scobell told the crowd. The virile Perry had even given Marcus advice on his “love life.”

When Perry appeared, he did so to the tune of a country-rap remix about himself—a probable first in the history of American political campaigns. As he spoke, he was flanked by the stern and solemn Luttrells as if they were his honor guard. Perry stood in front of an impressive backdrop: a giant C-130A flown in from Arizona for the occasion, at presumably significant expense. The plane was similar to the one he used to fly as an officer in the Air Force. The decision to launch the campaign in an enormous metal airplane hangar in North Dallas in June had its trade-offs: By the end of his long speech, Perry was sweating heavily.

Perry emphasized, at great length, his hardscrabble upbringing in Haskell County—the outhouse, his hand-sewn clothes—his time as a cotton farmer, his service as a rural legislator. Instead of lunging for the rawest, reddest red meat on hand, he preferred to simply reiterate the core values of the conservative base: “Our values come from God, not the government.”

Rick Perry
Chris Hooks
Missing in Perry’s speech: a treatment of the two decades he spent in Austin, entrenching himself as the state’s top political club-wielder and enriching himself and his friends.

He hammered on foreign policy—something he’s been doing more and more of since his last presidential campaign. He compared the pull-out from Iraq to America’s withdrawal from Vietnam. “Cities secured by American blood are now being taken by our enemies,” he told the crowd.

If America becomes confident again, America will vanquish its enemies, somehow. “We don’t have to apologize for American exceptionalism or Western values,” Perry said. On his first day in office he promised to halt “all pending regulations from the Obama Administration,” issue an executive order to build the Keystone XL pipeline and nullify any deal Barry signs with the Iranians.

He dinged big banks, while saying he would unleash the power of the American economy. (He reminded the crowd that “capitalism isn’t corporatism,” which is a little strange to hear from the man who controlled the purse strings of the Texas Enterprise Fund.) He offered a hand to “millennials,” who he called “forgotten Americans.” In sum, the American people’s faith in government had to be restored, and he, who needed a second chance himself, would be the one to do it.

Missing in Perry’s speech: a treatment of the two decades he spent in Austin, entrenching himself as the state’s top political club-wielder and enriching himself and his friends. Also missing—the word “indictment” did not come up. For example, Anita Perry did not say, “Rick Perry, my husband, is currently under felony indictment.”

That would have been a buzzkill. But it’s true. Plane or no, SEALs or no, back-to-basics messaging or no, there’s a serious chance that Perry will be knocked down by legal troubles as his campaign advances. But even if the case drags on indefinitely, or indeed if he’s ultimately acquitted, the indictment will weigh on him. If you’re a GOP-leaning plutocrat and you’re out to back the winning horse, you’d have to really be moved by the spirit to give your millions to a dude who stands a chance of being convicted, even if those chances might only be, say, 10 or 20 percent.

On the other hand, there are reasons to believe Perry will do better this time. Here’s one: The GOP field will likely have enough members by the time things get going in earnest to make up a pretty crummy football team. If Perry can meet a minimal level of Seriousness—in part by vacuuming up enough rich men’s money—he’ll look good by comparison. And recently, he hired Avik Roy of the Manhattan Institute as a policy advisor. (Roy is a serious figure in conservative policy circles who helped Mitt Romney in 2012, and his decision to back Perry is interesting at the least.)

But Perry doesn’t need to win the nomination to win—if he just does well enough to wash out the stains he left last time in the American popular imagination, it’s a victory. There are worse gigs to have in this culture than a former semi-successful Republican presidential contender, especially for those who love money and fame. Who knows, though? Maybe he’ll go back to flying.

Texas Capitol
The much more commonly expressed sentiment at the Capitol in the last few weeks has been a shrug, and some variation of the sentiment: It could have been worse.

It was the not-so-bad of times; it was the not-that-great of times.

How did the recently laid-to-rest Lege session go? On one side of the analytical spectrum, you have Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who posited that the 84th was “one of the most, if not the most, productive legislative sessions in the history of the Texas Senate,” and added that House Bill 1 was “the best budget the Senate’s ever produced.” On the other, you have Congressman Joaquin Castro, who elected to speak ill of the recently departed by calling the 84th “perhaps the worst legislative session in Texas history,” which is a pretty high bar—there are many other fine candidates.

But the much more commonly expressed sentiment at the Capitol in the last few weeks has been a shrug, and some variation of the sentiment: It could have been worse. None of the three ideological factions that hold power in the Lege—conservative Republicans, establishment Republicans and Democrats—did exceptionally well.

The most fiery impulses of Patrick and the Senate freshman were blunted by the process, and tea partiers know it. Patrick was unable to advance many of the issues he railed on to win his primary, like repealing in-state tuition at state colleges for undocumented residents, and his number one priority, a property tax cut plan, shrank over time. House Republicans helped fix a few substantial issues—pensions, health care for teachers—but lost other fights, including attempts to bolster Medicaid and the state’s crummy school finance system, and did worse than their Senate counterparts in budget negotiations. And effectively powerless Democrats can claim credit for helping to kill some bad bills, but will remain dyspeptic about the state’s general direction.

Where substantial policy disagreements existed, lawmakers often sidestepped the issue entirely rather than hashing things out. A lot of cans got kicked down the road, as Kevin Eltife and Jimmie Don Aycock can tell you. One example of the session’s M.O.: The cost of the Hazlewood program, which discounts tuition at in-state colleges for veterans and their children, has ballooned. Because the state doesn’t fully reimburse colleges for the cost of the law, it amounts to a giant unfunded mandate on overburdened educational institutions.

Lawmakers finally had a debate on Hazlewood this year. They could have fixed the program by cutting the benefits, or they could have used some of the $18 billion dollars in unspent money the state is hoarding to fully fund the mandate lawmakers set. They did neither: In one of the session’s headlining feel-good moments, the House chose to punt the ball. Veterans’ benefits, of course, are laudable. But the cheerful way in which the Lege elected to skip over the hard questions the program poses seemed emblematic of a larger problem.

To be fair, the state had some new players this go-round, Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott among them. There’s a steep learning curve to their new positions. And it’s encouraging that, after what had been a bumpy road, they and Speaker Joe Straus were able to come to agreement on many of the issues facing them, avoiding a potentially disastrous special session on budget issues—even if the results of those deals aren’t particularly laudable. Of the six Legislatures since 2001, five have needed summer special sessions for unfinished work. It seems like we won’t have one. Abbott set reachable goals as his emergency items for the session, and he won enough of them to declare victory.

There are much worse things the 84th Legislature can do than not doing much at all. But there’s also an opportunity cost here: The state’s shaky near-term economic prospects mean the 85th Legislature could face a more difficult set of circumstances than the 84th did. Lawmakers had a hell of a lot of money this go-round, and an opportunity to make more serious, thoughtful changes to the way the state works.

Instead, with tax cuts and other budget ploys, they ensured that future lawmakers will have less money to play with, in a harder economic climate. The longer the state goes without rectifying its systemic underinvestment in education, infrastructure and health care, the more it is going to cost to catch up.

But, you know: It could have been worse! There’s a palpable sense of relief in Austin. School is out, and the state hasn’t burned to the ground. So, lawmakers, enjoy your summer.

2015 Inauguration Day Capitol
Kelsey Jukam
The 84th Texas Legislature has made sure the state will keep its nationally renowned status for nutty politics.

 

The Texas Legislature bids us goodbye today: For the next 19 months—barring a special session on school finance—the state’s residents are more or less safe, as long as you avoid Kory Watkins and Borris Miles. It’s a session that has seen its fair share of comic interludes, and Texas has once again kept secure its nationally renowned status as a nutty state for politics.

But in many ways, the Texas Legislature is probably calmer and more professional than it has ever been. For much of the state’s history, the session was a time where men from far-flung reaches of the state came to a relatively large city to booze and whore for five-month interludes before returning to the Gulf coast or the Panhandle or Highland Park. That held true for longer than you might expect. Billy Lee Brammer wrote in Texas Monthly in 1973 that “the Capitol itself, along with all House and Senate office buildings, is honeycombed with secret lovenests.” The past is filled with many fine statesmen, of course; one shouldn’t generalize.

To be sure, there’s still boozing and whoring, though probably less, and definitely done more discreetly. But in other areas, things are, in many ways, better. Until relatively recently, many legislators had no office at the Capitol and no staff to speak of. With less public scrutiny, they were even easier pickings for the lobby, which operated with zero transparency. Austin’s brothels, no great secret, did a healthy trade. And legislators faced a generally more forgiving attitude from the press corps.

There are still ignorant and corrupt legislators. The lobby still watches each incoming freshman class like vultures. But on the whole, the dysfunction of the recent past can’t hold a candle to its historical counterpart.

Here’s a very short list of some highlights. If you have a favorite story—one that ought to be here—email it to me at [email protected] and we’ll add the best ones.
 

Masonic cabals!

 
The Legislature can, at the best of times, sort of run the state, so imagine the sheer drama of watching its predecessor, the Congress of the Republic of Texas, run a nation. It was filled with rough men, and they often had a rough go of things.

On April 14, 1838, President Sam Houston gave an address to a joint session of Congress. Just after, Thomas William “Peg Leg” Ward, a fearsome Irish-born Texas pol, hit Francis R. Lubbock, then the Republic’s comptroller, with a stick. (History does not specify that the stick was, in fact, Peg Leg’s leg, though it is fun to think so.) Lubbock pulled a derringer and fired, with only the “timely intervention of a bystander” preventing Lubbock’s aim from being true.

The two were arrested and brought before the Senate, but, as is recorded in The Texas Senate: Volume I, Lubbock was “honorably discharged” from his arrest by Sen. Jonathan Russell. Both were brothers in the Holland Lodge, a Masonic organization that met in the Senate chamber and was instrumental in setting Republic policy. The group counted eight of the upper chamber’s 17 senators as members. Poor Peg Leg, the guy who was the one actually shot at, was officially reprimanded.

Volume I goes on to note, cautiously: “It is interesting to note that Lubbock earlier had sold his warehouse to be converted into an official residence for President Houston, also a Mason.”

Shady real estate deals involving Texas’ chief executive? Things really have changed.
 

Coups!

 
We had some tense committee meetings this session, and some tense floor debates. None match the furor caused in 1870, when a bill authorizing the governor to declare martial law and deploy the state militia hit the Senate floor.

When 13 senators opposed to the bill left the chamber to deny the Senate a quorum, and bolted the door of their conference room behind them, the radical Republicans who ran the Senate sent the long arm of the law after them. Windows of the room were smashed, and the senators were arrested. The Republicans voted for the militia bill without them. They released four—just enough to maintain a quorum—and kept the others under arrest for some three weeks while they passed bills.

When one senator involved in the walk-out, E.L. Alford, was stripped of his seat and a special election selected his replacement, Alford came to work anyway. His elected replacement had to sit in the wings.

Next session: Bob Hall passes his EMP bill—by any means necessary.
 

Heroes!

 
A frequent complaint among tea partiers is that no one in Austin reads the bills they pass. But even here, things are better than they used to be, in part because of the addition of legislative staff.

In 1969, state Rep. Tom Moore introduced and passed a resolution through the House, honoring a man he said had done important work in the field of “population control.”

This compassionate gentleman’s dedication and devotion to his work has enabled the weak and the lonely throughout the nation to achieve and maintain a new degree of concern for their future. He has been officially recognized by the state of Massachusetts for his noted activities and unconventional techniques involving population control and applied psychology.

The resolution honored Albert DeSalvo, otherwise known as the Boston Strangler.
 

Shootouts!

 
State Rep. Curtis Graves, a liberal African-American legislator from Houston elected in 1966, had to improvise in order to be heard. Once, he railed against a tax bill by standing and yelling on the House press table. In 1971, concerned about measures that made it easier to purchase handguns—thankfully, an issue we no longer face—he took the back mic in the House, pulled a revolver out of his pocket, and fired twice at the House ceiling.

Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 5.51.57 PM
Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 5.52.02 PM

Please, nobody tell Stickland (R-Highlander).
 

Ballads!

 
Writeth Paul Burka, in 1976, of one of the greatest Sine Die nights ever:

The scene on the floor of the House was bedlam: representatives clustered around the Speaker’s desk whispering advice; others gathered at the back microphone bellowing for recognition; and smaller groups huddled at scattered spots across the giant chamber where members passed rumors or strained to hear them. It was the closing hour of the 1971 regular session of the Texas Legislature, and the legislative process had broken down under the weight of the Sharpstown Scandal.

The heavy-handed tactics of Speaker Gus Mutscher, under attack for shepherding two suspicious-looking banking bills through a previous special session for discredited Houston promoter Frank Sharp, had divided the House into three groups: blind loyalists, troubled conservatives, and a coalition of liberals and Republicans known as the Dirty Thirty. A huge backlog of legislation was hopelessly stalled, and time was running out. Would Mutscher ask the governor to call a special session? Or would he order the hands of the clock turned back at midnight, extending the session while he tried to arm-twist members into passing a few of the more important bills? Or perhaps he would make a dramatic appeal to the House, asking members to put aside animosities and try to pass something in the little time remaining.

“May I have your attention, members?” Mutscher for once had no trouble with this request; all eyes were on him. “The Chair recognizes Mr. Nelms.”

The legislators were stunned. Why Nelms, everyone was thinking. Johnny Nelms of Pasadena was only a freshman, and a mediocre one at that. What could he do? The silence was broken by the sound of a guitar. Johnny Nelms could sing, that’s what he could do. And as the clock at the back of the chamber ticked away the final minutes of Gus Mutscher’s hegemony over the House, Johnny Nelms serenaded his colleagues with a song the Speaker particularly liked. It was called “Everything I Touch Turns to Dirt.”

Shortly after, Mutscher was indicted.
 

Anuses!

 
Earlier this session, Rep. Harold Dutton quizzed Rep. Stuart Spitzer about his sexual history, in what some felt was a session low point for the gentlemanly decorum the Texas House has become world-renowned for.

That’s nothing.

In 1993, state Rep. Warren Chisum, terrified that the state’s ban on sodomy would someday be overturned, offered an amendment that was very nondiscriminatory—it would have banned everyone from having anal sex. Chisum read his amendment, though he said it was “quite offensive to me to have to read it in public.” The amendment would make it a Class C misdemeanor for the “sexual organs” of one person to touch the “anus of another.” The following debate ensued:

State Rep. Debra Danburg: You’re trying to criminalize behavior between the opposite sex, is that right?
Chisum: That’s right.
Danburg: Even if they’re married.
Chisum: More especially if they’re married. Can’t believe anyone would do that if they were married.
Danburg: Even if it’s consensual.
Chisum: Under any circumstances.
Danburg: Even if they slip. Is that right, Mr. Chisum?
[laughter]
Chisum: A violation of the law is a violation of the law.
Danburg: OK, Warren. […] Say my husband and I were having intercourse, and it slipped. And it touched my anus. Do I need to go turn myself in to some health official?
Chisum: I would suggest you see a doctor about his aim.
 

~ Bonus Whitmire! ~

 
This session, a couple senators—though especially poor state Sen. Don Huffines—got the full-on Boogie treatment from state Sen. John Whitmire, who from time to time feels his ire rise on the Senate floor and verbally, brutally bludgeons his opponents like a partially-reformed loan shark collecting gambling debts.

This doesn’t really belong on the list, but at the end of this session in particular it needs to be seen. Here’s Whitmire giving the full dressing-down to then freshman state Sen. Dan Patrick in 2007:

They’re debating the budget. Patrick has suggested that there are $3 billion in cuts to be made, and Whitmire smells bullshit. He starts pacing and throwing fingers around.

“Give me the method of financing that you would use to make those cuts. It’s your time to show this body that you know what you’re talking about. Give us the $3 billion in cuts,” he half shouts. “And take your time.”

“I will take my time, senator,” Patrick says, “and I do know what I’m talking about. And I don’t have to stand here and be lectured by you.” To which Whitmire shouts: “Let’s GO!”

Patrick: “I don’t have to be lectured to by you.” Whitmire shouts back: “You can dish it out but you can’t take it, huh?

It goes on for a while. The whole thing is worth watching, with headphones, if the Legislature entertains you. Eight years later, Whitmire is still a shouty, fierce maniac who terrifies freshmen. And Patrick still wants to cut government, but doesn’t seem to know now. The more things change …

Norman Adams, left, and Steven Hotze, right, two prominent supporters of the so-called Texas Solution, at the back mike during a heated floor debate.
Christopher Hooks
Steve Hotze, right, at the 2014 convention of the Republican Party of Texas

It’s nice to be read. On Thursday, the Observer published a short item on the anti-gay marriage resolution Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Senate passed this week. The gist of the piece: The resolution amounted to nothing, and reflected Patrick’s failure to pass other socially conservative legislation through his chamber. Because of that, his conscious attempts to blame the House for not passing gay-baiting bills are a bit… strange.

The piece was endorsed by an unusual source—would-be conservative warlord and pseudo-medical quack Steve Hotze, who leads the Conservative Republicans of Texas. Hotze is a considerable, oddball force in GOP politics here in Texas. Yes, he raps. But he’s not simply a joke: his endorsements carry real weight, and the CRT is an influential group. He was a huge fan of Patrick during the election last year:

Yesterday, the CRT sent out a lengthy email to its supporters, excerpting much of our piece. The headline—“Republican Leadership Fails to Defend Biblical Marriage: Huge Opportunity Squandered.”

Here’s a sample of the juicier bits. (Emphasis Hotze’s, throughout, and pics of the full email here.)

The reason the Republican leadership in the House and Senate did not pass a law prohibiting the issuance of homosexual marriage licenses is because they chose not to bring it up for a vote. […] Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and his lieutenant, Senator Joan Huffman, refused even to give a hearing in the Senate State Affairs Committee on SB 673, the senate companion bill to HB 4105, the Preservation of State Sovereignty and Marriage Act.

Hotze blames Abbott and Straus too, at length, but his criticism of Patrick is the most notable part. What are the stakes here? Gay people, you see, are “fascists” who going to force “the practice of sodomy” on Texas “families, churches, schools and businesses.” (Wait, how does a business practice sodomy?)

A bill preserving Biblical marriage in Texas should have been passed by the Texas Legislature months ago. The legislature has passed hundreds of other bills, but the Republican leaders chose not to pass legislation that would defend the Texas Marriage Amendment against the usurpation of our state sovereignty by the federal courts. Their lack of action and cowardice is inexcusable.

The homosexuals are intent on destroying Biblical marriage and throwing our state and nation into sexual and moral anarchy. They are fascists who want to force the acceptance and normalization of the homosexual lifestyle, the practice of sodomy, upon individuals, families, churches, schools and businesses. They want the government to mandate that homosexual conduct be taught to school children starting in kindergarten. The teachers will encourage the children to experiment with homosexual activity so that they can more easily be recruited into the homosexual lifestyle. The homosexuals and their pro-homosexual allies in the media are demonizing Christians and intend to criminalize Biblical Christianity.

Hotze instructs his email recipients to call Abbott and ask for a special session on gay-baiting. Good luck with that.

Then, he copy-and-pastes much of the Observer’s piece. Here’s the last graph quoted from our story—again, emphasis his—followed by his commentary:

It’s a comprehensive flop for the forces who oppose gay marriage. Nonetheless, Patrick told the Senate to buck up. They “should be proud,” he said. “The House decided not to have this debate.” That’s a dig at Speaker Joe Straus, of course. But since Patrick couldn’t get anything consequential out of his own chamber either, who is he pointing fingers at?
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Texas failed to lead the nation in defense of Biblical marriage. How tragic! This was so avoidable!

Hotze is a clown—a lot of Republicans think so, too—but he’s an important and powerful clown. A session in which both the tea party and Hotze are unhappy with Patrick is not the worst session the state could have had.

After the 2014 election, there was some talk that Hotze had drawn up a nefarious “Contract for Texas” as a plan to advance socially conservative legislation, with the knowledge of some people in Patrick’s camp. So much for that, I guess.

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payday loan
Courtesy of Taber Andrew Bain via Flickr

Last session, legislators took sides in a marathon brawl over payday lending reform. But after those reforms died, there seemed to be little hope for action on the issue this year. As the 84th Legislature unfurled, though, a few small bills advanced. One of them, Senate Bill 1282, was hailed by some reformers as a modest but helpful augmentation of the ability of the Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner to regulate short-term lenders, including payday lenders. On Wednesday, it was killed by state Rep. Marisa Márquez (D-El Paso).

It’s a move one reformer who supported the bill called “disrespectful.” Márquez says her distaste for the bill didn’t necessarily have to do with the bill’s provisions, but rather the lack of opportunity lawmakers had to change it—something advocates of the bill had been trying to avoid. “With an issue this important, there should have been an opportunity for the rest of us to participate in it,” said Márquez.

The legislation—authored by state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) and carried in the House by state Rep. Tan Parker (R-Flower Mound)—was a relatively simple “clean-up” bill that would have clarified the powers of the little-known Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner, or OCCC, the state agency that licenses and regulates lenders. The agency had been asking for the bill for several sessions, and reform groups had been helping to drag it to the finish line.

Bee Moorhead, the executive director of Texas Impact, an interfaith advocacy group, said the bill was “not radical reform legislation,” but a series of needed technical changes. Among other things, the bill would have added references to the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to state law. And it would have given the OCCC clear authority to regulate lawsuit lenders, who loan cash to plaintiffs awaiting judgements or settlements in civil lawsuits. “Regulating this relatively new product early would help Texas avoid future conflicts,” Moorhead said, “like those that have occurred in other markets, such as payday lending.”

SB 1282 had already traveled a rocky road through the session. Some, including Republicans like state Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland), wanted to add other, stronger reform measures as amendments to the bill. But progress slowed, and Craddick never got the chance. That’s a familiar story for legislation reforming consumer loans, such as payday, auto title and property tax loans—only simple and carefully negotiated bills can make it through the process, and advocates are divided between those who want to push for more and those who are happy with incremental reform.

But SB 1282 wound up on the Local & Consent calendar on Wednesday, giving the House one more chance to send it to the governor’s desk. That’s when Márquez knocked it off the calendar—a procedural move that effectively killed it.

“There was concern that language in there could promote cash lending. So it was something that we probably should have debated on the House floor,” said Márquez. “I’m sorry it was there so late, but it wasn’t something we could just pass without debate.”

But opening the bill up to amendments could have tanked it by making the legislation unpalatable to lenders—something that has happened to other payday lending bills in the past. And the result of the bill’s death is simply that state regulators will go for the next two years without the tools they say they need to do their job.

Moorhead, who denies the bill would have “promote[d] cash lending,” says the bill was a simple matter of upholding good government. “It seems irresponsible for legislators to talk so much about the need for efficiency and accountability at agencies, and then to allow routine agency legislation to become collateral in political showdowns.” She added: “It’s a small moment in a legislative session that has been full of big moments, but that should not be an excuse to let it go by unnoticed.”

Márquez, though, puts the blame back on the reformers. If they wanted the bill to pass, she says, “they probably should have involved more of us in the conversation about it.”

gay marriage rally
Gay marriage rally in Houston, Texas.

 

Did you know that Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, and Senate Republicans, oppose gay marriage? If you didn’t know before, you do now. There’s proof: It’s called Senate Resolution 1028, offered by state Sen. Kelly Hancock. Here’s part of it:

WHEREAS, Traditional marriage is the bedrock institution

of both our society and the success Texas has been blessed to

experience since our admission as the 28th state within these

United States of America; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the Senate of the State of Texas, 84th

Legislature, Regular Session, hereby affirm the preservation of

the present definition of marriage as being the legal union of

one man and one woman as husband and wife and pledge to uphold and

defend this principle that is so dearly held by Texans far and wide.

The resolution was written, introduced and passed last night, circumventing the normal procedure for bringing up bills and resolutions. It’s signed by every GOP senator, and Patrick too.

The resolution has no significance and no effect—it carries exactly as much weight as Senate Resolution 997, recognizing March 26, 2015 as John Wayne Day. The House GOP caucus did the same thing a few weeks ago after House Bill 4105 died, except theirs was only a letter. It’s the kind of thing people do when they’re losing, and they know that they’re losing and they want to show somebody that they tried.

They’re losing because it seems almost a certainty that gay marriage is coming to Texas soon, and they’re losing because polls show the public is changing its mind on the issue. They’re losing because all of the anti-LGBT bills carried died this session.

But Patrick is also losing here. He and conservatives like to blame the House for failing to pass socially conservative bills, particularly ones to do with abortion and gay rights. But he doesn’t have a lot of success to show in this department either. In recent days, he’s tried to inject language from dead House bills and initiatives into Senate bills. All of them have failed.

When state Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) attempted to add an amendment to a bill that mirrored an amendment state Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney) once hoped to add to a House bill, establishing the right of religiously affiliated child welfare agencies to discriminate against gay couples, it was easily knocked down on a point of order. There was talk on the Senate floor last night that language from a dead House bill that would prohibit insurance plans from covering abortions would be added to another of Campbell’s bills, but it never came up.

One fight in particular precipitated last night’s resolution. State Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville) added the anti-gay marriage language from HB 4105 into a totally innocuous bill by state Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston).

When the language was discovered—it had been effectively hidden—it caused an uproar. Coleman pledged to kill his own bill if the language stayed in.

In last night’s “debate” over the resolution, Lucio, a passionate pro-life Catholic, rose to give a personal speech about his own convictions. “From our bibles, we learn of one man and one woman,” he said. “For me, nothing is more sacred than our biblical teachings.” The institution of marriage came from Jesus himself, and cheapening it was sacrilege. “By now, everybody knows how this senator from the Rio Grande Valley feels,” he told the chamber.

Nonetheless, he’d had a change of heart. He wouldn’t be signing the resolution, and he’d be withdrawing Coleman’s poor bill.

Patrick, who’d been listening to Lucio intently and rocking in his chair, stood to speak. With clasped hands, he told the chamber he’d given Lucio an ultimatum. If he tried to strip the anti-gay language out again, Patrick wouldn’t let the bill come to the floor. But Lucio had made his decision.

So, having been deprived of the chance to approve the strong, consequential language from HB 4105, senators drafted last night’s resolution on the fly. While it was being debated, the text of the resolution hadn’t even been uploaded to the Capitol website. The resolution was approved quickly. The thin document is the only real say-so the Legislature will have on the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court decision this summer.

It’s a comprehensive flop for the forces who oppose gay marriage. Nonetheless, Patrick told the Senate to buck up. They “should be proud,” he said. “The House decided not to have this debate.” That’s a dig at Speaker Joe Straus, of course. But since Patrick couldn’t get anything consequential out of his own chamber either, who is he pointing fingers at?

Rep. Byron Cook
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State Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana)

It was supposed to be one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s first signature initiatives: ethics reform. What a fine way to signal the beginning of a new era, one washed of that Paint Creek musk. Ethics, it is generally held, are good. Reform? Even better. People love Ethics Reform.

There was never a great deal of substance to Abbott’s outline of what constituted cleaning up Texas politics. And the lawmakers who hammered out the details didn’t exactly reach for the stars either. As it unfolded during the session, Ethics Reform started to seem like it was more about political positioning than a substantive attempt to attack political corruption. But that didn’t much matter. The point was to Get Something Done.

We’re a few steps closer to mission accomplished. On Tuesday, nearing the end of a brutal death-march through the Legislature, Senate Bill 19, the main package of new ethics laws, limped to a preliminary House vote of 96 to 48.

It was in dubious shape when it left the Senate floor a few weeks back—some of its key provisions were gutted against its authors’ wishes in the upper chamber, and the bill was stuffed with petty and silly amendments. And the sweeping changes made to the House version, including provisions to bring transparency to political machines that run on so-called “dark money,” make it unlikely that a strong draft of SB 19 will make it to the governor’s desk in time—the House and Senate versions are so far apart that a conference committee would essentially have to write a third bill from scratch, one that might not have much in the way of teeth.

In an extremely strong statement, the bill’s author, state Sen. Van Taylor (R-Plano), “expressed astonishment for the elimination of meaningful ethics reforms” and faulted “Chairman Bryon Cook” [sic] for “one of those head shaking moments” that tore “a page from Hillary Clinton’s playbook.”

The debate in the House was, in effect, a proxy war between conservative moneyman Tim Dunn and House Speaker Joe Straus, between the House and the Senate, between the governor and the Legislature, and between House Democrats and the clock.

The bill’s dark money disclosure rules—the most significant addition Rep. Byron Cook made to the bill in committee—represent a threat to conservatives aligned with the wing of the Republican party associated with Midland moneyman Tim Dunn, who have been extremely vocal about denouncing the bill. Once a weak version of the bill emerged from the Senate, they seemed to know what was coming. The agitprop machine went into action—if Cook “repeal[ed] the First Amendment” by demanding shadow groups like Empower Texans disclose their donors, he would be tanking the bill. That didn’t stop him.

State Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving), a legislator backed by Dunn’s groups, offered an amendment that would return the bill to the Senate draft and kill the dark money rule—but he lost his vote 113-33.

By forcing a dark money disclosure rule through the House—and in the process, killing bills offered by further-right conservatives—Cook was, in effect, giving the middle finger to Dunn and his groups. They’ve hated Cook all session, and their contempt has only seemed to grow. As the chairman of House State Affairs, Cook has probably done more to kill bad right-wing bills than any other House Republican. Now, Cook gave them a reply.

Those conservatives have been raging over the idea that Cook “killed” Abbott’s prized ethics bill, by turning it into something that could not meet Senate approval in time before the end of the session. The Senate GOP, much more aligned with the faction railing against Cook, will almost certainly not let the dark money rule through. But they too deserve a share of the blame.

The version of the bill that escaped the Senate was weak, and became a plaything during floor debate. Senators inserted provisions just to mess with each other as individuals. One successful amendment would require legislators to undergo drug tests. The draft that left the upper chamber was a joke—and though Abbott praised the bill, he had no real reason to do so.

Now, the ethics bill will face a conference committee to resolve difference between the House and Senate, but the two versions are planets apart. There’s less than a week to close the gap and hand the governor something. Given Taylor’s militant statement, it seems doubtful they will.

Abbott made ethics one of his top five priorities for the session, but he probably didn’t have this fight in mind. If the bill doesn’t pass at all, will it be enough for him to call a special session? Or will he declare victory and move on if the bill passes in an emaciated form? Lesson learned: Legislators don’t much like binding themselves with additional rules and requirements. And in the absence of a serious scandal, strong ethics reform might not be possible—at least, certainly not without direction and a strong push from the governor. That was lacking here.

It did, however, give Democrats a chance to fight against the clock. At midnight, some of their most hated bills would die. They talked and talked and debated amendments to the bill. By the time debate on SB 19 ended, more than 100 amendments had been filed on legislation authorizing concealed handguns on college campuses. Though Republicans used a procedural maneuver to force a vote on campus carry, several other significant bills died, including legislation banning private insurance coverage of abortion and another measure to tighten the state’s spending cap.

So on one of the last long nights of the 84th Legislature, Cook walked away with a bill that serves as a strong statement about his displeasure with the current state of GOP intra-party politics. And in his wake, more dead bad bills. But if it’s strong, meaningful ethics reform you want, you’ll probably be waiting till next session.

Jonathan Stickland

Most normal, God-fearing Texans spent their Memorial Day weekend barbecuing (indoors), watching Netflix and honoring—if only between kegstands—the fallen.

What did Texas legislators do for Memorial Day weekend, apart from debating whether to cut education benefits for veterans? Bickering about abortion, mostly. An odd sequence of events at the Capitol, culminating in a near-fistfight on the House floor, turned Sunday into a pretty good day for pro-choice activists. (That is, of course, relatively speaking.)

Though one major package of abortion restrictions is likely to win final approval in the next week, another significant anti-abortion initiative is dead and a third could meet the same fate Monday, victim of a legislative logjam in the House.

That’s strange in part because Sunday had been expected to be a day of abortion showdowns, in both chambers. State Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), a loud but hapless champion of conservative principles and himself a former fetus, issued yet another ultimatum to the RINOs: He’d drop an amendment to prevent abortions in the case of severe fetal abnormalities after 20 weeks gestation, if House leadership allowed Senate Bill 575, a held-up effort to ban insurance providers in the state from covering abortions, to move forward.

It was a Mexican standoff—but as it turned out, one in which both bandit’s guns were pointed in the same direction. Stickland and his pro-life allies seem to have gotten very little.

Why did Stickland make the trade? It’s not entirely clear.

If Stickland had gone on to raise the amendment, it likely would have passed—Republican lawmakers find it very difficult to vote against pro-life initiatives, even if they don’t much like how they’ve been offered. Trading a probable win for a tenuous promise that SB 575 would advance seemed like a weak plan.

Whatever he was thinking, Stickland got Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), a senior Republican who chairs House State Affairs and has become one of the foremost bête noires of conservatives this session, to agree to vote SB 575 out of committee and push it to the Calendars Committee, which decides what gets heard on the House floor. Stickland withdrew his amendment, and the Health and Humans Services Commission sunset bill, the potential vehicle for the amendment, passed without the pro-life language in it.

Jonathan Stickland - former fetus signStickland had released his hostage. But when SB 575 got to calendars, it face-planted. Three Republicans—Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University Place), Rep. Patricia Harless (R-Spring), and Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball)—voted with the Democrats to prevent the bill from being scheduled for a vote. Davis is a vocally pro-choice Republican, but the other two are very, very not.

It was a surprise, and pro-lifers were absolutely livid. Here’s what Byron Cook told the Texas Tribune:

“My commitment was to get the bill out [of State Affairs], to get it to Calendars,” Cook said. “I did everything I could do. What I can’t do is interfere with other members’ free will to vote their conscience. Everybody should be able to do that. And women sent a clear message that they weren’t comfortable with this legislation, probably weren’t comfortable with us men telling them what to do. And I respect that.”

Stickland and the pro-lifers had been comprehensively defeated. His reaction, naturally, was to confront Cook on the floor, yelling at him. The two men had to be separated. (Stickland’s account of the encounter, in which he is assaulted by a bullying Cook, can be found here.)

Then, near midnight, the Calendars Committee seemed to reverse itself. At a quickly-scheduled meeting, Riddle and Harless switched votes, sending SB 575 to the floor. So the pro-lifers won after all, right? Stickland certainly thought so:

Well, maybe. SB 575 could still pass. Anything is possible. But because it was added to the calendar so late, it seems very possible it will never come to a vote. Tuesday at midnight is the deadline for Senate bills to pass the House. SB 575 has been slotted as the fourth of four items on that day’s major state portion of the House daily calendar. It’s easy to imagine it not making it out by the midnight deadline.

At this point, it’s possible for the Democrats to talk and delay until the calendar is chewed up—that’s what happened with the anti-gay House Bill 4105 a few weeks back. Successful points of order are lethal, because there’s not enough time to send bills back to committee and fix them. And when senior Republicans tack a bill on the end of a calendar like this, especially this close to a deadline, they’re effectively declaring that they don’t really care about it.

Tuesday’s House calendar is packed with potentially complicated and lengthy debates—it could be one of the most fascinating days of the session. On Tuesday, the House will debate the gutting of the Public Integrity Unit—part of the significant amount of postponed business the House didn’t get around to Monday. That’ll eat up a lot of time. Then when we move on to Senate Bill 19, an extremely convoluted and controversial ethics overhaul that will also take a lot of time if debated.

Next up are four items that involve lengthy debates. The only must-pass bill is the first one, the Department of Family Protective Services sunset bill, Senate Bill 206. There’s Senate Bill 9, a proposal to change the spending cap favored by Senate conservatives. Expect a lot of debate there. And then, there’s Senate Bill 11—campus carry. That could well be one of the most heated debates of the session, with a lot of uncertainty about how the House will react to certain provisions.

If lawmakers finish all that, then it’s SB 575’s turn. They could certainly still get around to it, and Tuesday will be a day of high drama on the House floor—must-see TV. But on Sunday morning, it was at least hypothetically possible that two sweeping new abortion restrictions could make it the governor’s desk. Now it seems more likely that neither will. Well-fought, fellows.

A large gun
megan ann/Flickr

Friday’s Senate debate over the licensed open carry of handguns was supposed to be so easy.

Open carry, for all its detractors, had been one of the most fêted issues facing the 84th Legislature, passed pretty early in the session by both chambers. But after the House and Senate open carry bills became hostages of a protracted budget debate, it fell to the upper chamber to pass House Bill 910, the lower chamber’s open carry bill, in the last days of the session.

Much of the debate followed the script: Democrats offered amendments, and those amendments were voted down. Then, things went off the rails.

State Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) offered an amendment that would prohibit police officers from stopping someone solely because they are visibly carrying a handgun. One Democrat, state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), and a handful of senior Republicans, began talking in an effort to kill the amendment. But they failed, after an unusually heated and unscripted debate, especially by Senate standards. Huffines won a 19-to-12 vote on his proposal, thanks to an extremely unusual coalition of Democrats and tea party senators. And eight hours after the debate began, the Senate passed HB 910 by the same margin.

Don Huffines
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Don Huffines

Under Huffines’ amendment, if a law enforcement officer sees a man with a gun walking down the street, the officer can’t ask the man for verification that he’s carrying the gun legally unless the man is also breaking another law. Opponents say the provision amounts to de facto unlicensed open carry. Law enforcement organizations have fiercely opposed it, saying the inability to determine whether someone is carrying a weapon legally poses a lethal threat to them and the public.

But some on the right say the fact that a person is carrying a gun shouldn’t give a police officer the right to compel identification, since carrying a gun is not necessarily an illegal act. And Democrats, particularly those with large minority constituencies, fear giving police officers more pretext to detain citizens. The Huffines amendment mirrored a provision originally added to HB 910 as it passed in the House, authored by state Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) and state Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving). The House amendment passed easily, 133 to 10.

But when the bill came to the Senate, Dutton and Rinaldi’s provision was stripped from the bill as it went through committee. Huffines’ bid to put it back seemed to seriously unnerve a number of senators, including those who had fought for open carry early on, like state Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls), the bill’s sponsor, and state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), the chair of the Senate Committee on State Affairs, which initially gave the high sign to this session’s gun bills.

The heated debate pitted two unusual bipartisan coalitions against each other, starring an angry Whitmire and a cutting Huffman, who both grilled Huffines at length about his amendment, charging that the measure would have fatal consequences for police. Huffines did not seem particularly prepared for the fight. At one point, he falsely claimed his amendment had the support of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, bringing an immediate rebuke from the organization on Twitter, which Whitmire raised on the floor.

“Why won’t you listen to the people who put their lives on the line every day for us?” Whitmire asked a generally quiet Huffines. “We are really playing with a dangerous matter. It’s not something that we can afford to be wrong about.”

But as Huffines fumbled easy questions about his bill, he leaned heavily on support from state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) and state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), two of the more liberal senators in the chamber. Ellis said his group of allies on the amendment vote was “the strangest bed I have ever slept in.”

They prevailed. The Senate bill, with the cop-limiting amendment in it, will head back to the House for a final vote. If they concur with the Senate changes, the bill will go straight to the governor’s desk. If they don’t, for whatever reason, there could be trouble ahead for the bill.

Huffines has long desired to pass constitutional carry, which would allow individuals to carry handguns openly and without a license. This amendment, as many opposing senators pointed out, was an excellent way to accomplish that goal. If cops aren’t allowed to stop individuals openly carrying guns to ask for proof of their license, why would anyone need to carry a license? It was, it seemed, a great victory for the gun-rights crowd.

Huffman warned of future consequences. “This is a mistake, and I think it’s a mistake the state of Texas will come to regret,” she said. “I was raised with guns, I was raised with hunting. I believe in it. But I believe in some social order, too.”

But as the Senate was wrapping last night, a tweet from Gov. Abbott seemed to call into question the future of the bill as currently drafted. After the lengthy debate over whether the bill would put officers at risk, Abbott seemed to weigh in:

 

Abbott has been getting pressure from law enforcement groups who are nervous about this open carry bill. Was this empty signaling, or was it intended as a warning? Could there be a last-ditch attempt in the coming days to strike Huffines’ hard-won amendment?

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