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Hooks on Politics

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Legislative Budget Board
A handy how-to guide to the state budget.

These months of committee hearings in the run-up to the next session of the Texas Legislature are like the dropping of a bomb. The hearings started, months ago, with the view from 30,000 feet, and the limitless possibilities of the unborn 84th in all its tea party splendor. As time goes by and we get closer to the end of the year, legislators will still have moments to consider the big, abstract questions of state government, but the features of the terrain below are starting to come into view. When January 13, 2015 hits—zero hour—time will compress, deadlines will appear and the legislators will be left with a bloody, sticky brawl.

The most important of these meetings are the get-togethers of the Senate Committee on Finance, which, guided by its new-ish chair state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), will face the unenviable task of cobbling together a budget. The committee has been meeting intermittently to get an idea of the contours of the state’s fiscal situation, with the help of the Legislative Budget Board. Today, the committee members heard from the LBB on the major items in the state budget—education, transportation, Medicaid, etc. The board’s packet, for those interested, can be found here.

Here’s the key thing: The Legislature is going to get a fairly substantial pot of new money next session. The economy is going swimmingly, tax revenues are up and there’s a small fortune in oil and gas revenue heading in the Capitol’s direction. That boon has left some wondering what they can get for it.

GOP lt. governor nominee Dan Patrick, who hopes to take control of the Senate in January, will want to have his own fun—his first year with the gavel will be a time for him to leave his mark. He’s talked about altering Texas’ tax system—he’d like to see sales taxes displace the state’s property tax structure. And he’d like to develop a voucher program to help kids in public schools go to private schools. If he wants to do either of those things, it would help greatly to have a surplus in his back pocket.

But look more closely at the emerging state budget, as the committee did today, and the fiscal picture is not quite as rosy. The major pieces of the budget pie—public education, health and human services, higher education, transportation—already aren’t in great health and are going to need quite a bit more money next session just to hold steady. To simply keep up with enrollment, the state’s public education system is going to need $2.2 billion more—and that’s without any funding increase. It seems unlikely in the short- to medium-term that Texas is going to get back to pre-2011 funding levels, when the Legislature cut $5.4 billion from public ed.

There’s trouble in the higher education and Medicaid budgets too. Higher ed spending still lags levels from prior to deep cuts in 2011. Today, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) asked what it would take to fully restore funding. The Legislative Budget Board representatives said they’d get back to her. On Medicaid, state Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), the new chairman of Senate Health and Human Services, worried that 720,000 “eligible but unenrolled” people could sign up for Medicaid, significantly increasing costs.

Nelson, Schwertner’s predecessor on Health and Human Services, talked a bit about the need to further squeeze the state’s Medicaid program for savings. (No one really considered the possibility of accepting federal money.) “It’s eating up—it’s squeezing out everything else,” Nelson said. “We can’t do anything about caseload. It is what it is.” So more cost containment measures were needed, the reduction of “fraud and waste.” It’s unclear how much money can be realistically recouped that way, especially after years of those efforts.

On the question of transportation, senators were told that the system needed $5 billion more just to keep things at the current level of congestion—$1 billion of that just for crumbling roads in the oil patch.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, chair of Senate Transportation, told the committee that the amount of money the Texas Department of Transportation was spending for “debt service is greater than what we’re adding in terms of new [transportation] capacity.” Nelson: “That’s crazy.”

Last session, the Legislature narrowly passed a proposal to divert half of the oil and gas tax revenue going into the so-called Rainy Day Fund to state transportation funding—about $1.2 billion a year. The constitutional amendment goes to the voters as Proposition 1 on the November ballot. Getting that legislation through the Lege was like pulling teeth, yet much more might be needed. State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston): “It’s amazing that with Prop 1, we’re only doing a third of what they expect us to do.”

Eighteen members of the 2015 class were present today: 15 sitting senators, plus probable future senators Van Taylor, Paul Bettencourt and Bob Hall. With the new senators in mind, perhaps, Whitmire took two extended interludes to tout the benefits of the two-thirds rule, which Dan Patrick has promised to nuke when he gets to office.

The two-thirds rule requires the consent of 21 senators to bring a bill to the floor—it’s long been leverage for Democrats, and Patrick wants a more pliable chamber. If the rule is retired, Dems have nothing—and the Senate will look a lot more like the contentious special sessions of last summer. But Whitmire tried to sell the room on the rule from a different angle.

“Rural members need a two-thirds rule to make sure we provide for services like farm-to-market roads,” he said. “If you want to make sure you have a state transportation system” that services all parts of the state “you better have a budget 21 senators can support.” If the rule was eliminated, he said, and the state faced a transportation hole of billions, you’d see urban senators from Houston and Dallas conspiring to cut funding for rural roads to keep their own highways paved.

Nelson chided him for going off-topic, but he returned to it later to say much the same thing. In the audience, Charles Perry, recently picked by voters in a special election to represent Lubbock in the Senate, seemed to nod his head along with Whitmire’s exhortation, while Van Taylor, who’ll soon represent suburban Plano, seemed to shake it. On the right flank of the panel of sitting senators, Sens. Eltife, Schwertner and Hancock chuckled at Whitmire. Were they laughing because of Whitmire’s charm and insistence, or because they knew it was futile? We’ll find out in January.

Rick Perry at the 2014 Texas Tribune Festival
YouTube
Rick Perry at the 2014 Texas Tribune Festival

Public discourse, the foundation of democracy, isn’t doing too well in Texas these days. The state’s Republicans have such powerful voices that, for the most part, they don’t need to speak. Past a certain point in the election calendar, silence speaks for them. GOP statewide candidates and legislators alike hoard money, hide from the press, and try not to acknowledge the existence of their opponents. Democrats want to be heard desperately, but don’t get the chance very much. The two sides rarely talk to each other. The conversations we have about the state’s problems become stilted and atrophied.

This weekend’s Texas Tribune Festival, the fourth annual, is one of the rare events in Texas political life that pushes back against the trend a bit—it’s a valuable space that gives political actors room to be a bit more open than they otherwise might be. (Even if they don’t always take that chance.) GOPers don’t much like the Texas press in general, especially newspapers, but some will play along with the Tribune. It’s also a reminder of some of the continuing dysfunctions affecting the state’s political life.

Of the GOP nominees, Greg Abbott, who remains a somewhat mysterious figure away from his slickly-produced ads, declined to come, either to take part in a discussion with Wendy Davis or to be interviewed solo. A screening of his McAllen debate with Davis kicked off the festival: Texas voters didn’t seem particularly well-served by the debate’s format or substance, but at least they agreed to be in the same room as each other.

Land commissioner nominee George P. Bush was game, despite some awkwardness between his campaign and the Trib: His opening night keynote might have been his longest appearance in the spotlight yet, and he still managed to avoid saying much. Asked about immigration, Bush said he didn’t “have a magic wand on this issue. It’s terribly complicated” and would require a “multi-generational viewpoint.” (Accio guest worker program.)

Bush has said there’s still a debate on the causes of global warming. So an audience member challenged him: NASA says 97 percent of scientists in relevant fields agree on the causes. Bush’s answer was one for the ages: “I’ve personally met with folks that have visited with other NASA scientists,” he said, “and they contend that that ’97 percent’ is overstated.”

Attorney general nominee Ken Paxton didn’t come. Comptroller nominee Glenn Hegar took part in a discussion on the budget, but—presumably at Hegar’s urging—his opponent Mike Collier was placed on another panel, one that didn’t have to do with state finance. Lt. governor nominee Dan Patrick, to his credit, consented to be interviewed, but not alongside Leticia Van de Putte—she made sure she sat in the front row during his interview, before taking the stage to do hers.

Patrick’s interview was a nice demonstration of his post-primary grandfather tack. He vigorously denies that he’s been “hiding” on the campaign trail. He praises his interviewer, Evan Smith, as well as both David Dewhurst and Van de Putte, who he’s scorched in other settings. He touts school vouchers as the best friend of the inner-city kid, and says he’ll fund public education in a “smart” way while simultaneously helping local jurisdictions cut property taxes. Rainbow Dan.


There were also a variety of panel discussions, some of which dug deep in policy issues. In some, panelists were so far apart that there wasn’t much room for discussion. In a panel on “dark money” featuring state Rep. Byron Cook, the new chairman of House State Affairs, panelists talked around each other, sometimes unable to even agree on current state of the law. The panel on gay marriage turned briefly contentious when the moderator asked anti-gay marriage warrior Jonathan Saenz about the fact that his ex-wife left him for another woman. (He gave a non-answer.)

Elsewhere, a panel that included former GOP presidential flame-out Jon Huntsman, former Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley—a nice enough lot, but not exactly the vanguard on the bleeding edge of American political life—convened to figure out how to beat back partisanship and give life to the political center. It’s a question that’s never made much sense nationally, but even less so in Texas.

Safely out of office, the three wanted to let people know they had finally figured out how things should work. Bradley had the grandest plan: He wanted to build a “third congressional party” that would “stand for three or four key things.” He wasn’t quite sure what those things should be yet, except one of them should be campaign finance. Somebody should recruit 50 candidates to run in 50 key districts across the country. Half would be ex-military officers, half would be women, etc. All this could be accomplished for the modest sum of $360 million. “Here is the problem with our democracy,” Bradley’s footmen would say. “It is the Congress.”

Hutchison’s complaints were more modest. The president had rejected the Simpson-Bowles plan, that totemic budget proposal embraced by the beltway punditocracy. “The president put it on the shelf,” Hutchison said, “and congressional leaders put it on the shelf.” When an audience member asked how you could realistically change Congress with incumbent re-election rates so high, Hutchison suggested replacing our current system with a United Kingdom-style parliamentary slate system, where candidates are not directly elected.

After that, another soon-to-be ex-politician was joining the Both Sides crusade: At a panel on women’s health issues, Bob Deuell, looking more unhappy to be at an event than anyone you’ve ever seen—presumably, he agreed to do this before getting crushed by an accused wife-beater in his primary runoff—told the crowd that he, personally, might have gone along with less stringent abortion regs last summer, but “no one was willing to compromise,” he said, putting the blame for the expansive restrictions on the pro-choice crowd. “The extremes on both sides” were responsible for what happened last summer. It’s a pretty weird rewriting of history. Democrats didn’t have any leverage during the special session. But he kept saying it, over and over, as he stared at his lap.

Molly White, a pro-life activist who’ll be representing House District 55 after November, spoke about her two abortions, and her contention that they were responsible for her descent into drug and alcohol addiction. She opened the panel by flashing a picture of a woman who “died on the abortion table.”

When moderator Emily Ramshaw told White that there was a very low complication rate from abortion, White batted it down. She knew that was wrong, from “my personal experience and from the testimony of hundreds and hundreds of women across the country.”

Austin Rep. Dawnna Dukes, in no mood to dance around, told White that “it’s a personality type that would turn to drugs and alcohol,” and White’s issues didn’t come from an abortion. White: “If you haven’t had an abortion, you can’t say that.”

“Well guess what,” Dukes said. “I have had an abortion.” The room erupted in cheers and applause. She didn’t have any subsequent psychological problems, she said.

The day after, Deuell unloaded on Dukes in the comments of an article about the incident. “Given her views and some comments she made yesterday and in the past,” Deuell wrote, “one might argue whether Dukes has suffered from her abortion.”

Dukes responded: “I sure will not miss you in the legislature. May God keep you, may God bless your sweet heart and I wish you all the best in your next endeavor.”


Some issues, it seems, can’t be talked out. In Texas, that might be most issues. The last event of the festival was also the most highly anticipated—an hour long sit-down between Gov. Rick Perry, he of the recent legal problems, and Smith. He followed a discussion by national journalists who seemed to pooh-pooh Perry’s 2016 chances. One said GOP donors were saying privately that they hoped Perry wouldn’t come calling for money.

In the interview, he seemed slightly muddled. He brought a small placard that showed the state’s job growth. He bizarrely claimed comedian Joan Rivers would be alive if she’d had surgery inside an ambulatory surgical center, except she had. He came out as a fan of both regulation and the press. Asked about the abortion bills last summer: “There are going to be rules and regulations put into place that you don’t agree with,” he said, adding that it was “important to respect those decisions.” (Nobody tell the EPA.)

More interesting, though, was what Perry wouldn’t talk about: his recent indictments. To be fair, there are some things Perry can’t say about his legal problems. But he’s also shot off his mouth about the indictments recently more times than you can count. He’s happy to talk about it on his terms. Here was a setting in which he would be gently challenged on some of his contentions. Smith started asking:

“That issue has been probably as reported on as much as anything that I’ve ever done in my public life,” he said. “And everything has been said about it that I’m going to say about it.”

Smith tried again. “I think everything that I am gonna say about the activities is pretty much done,” Perry said.

Again: “Everything has been said about that and I’ll refer you back to the press reports about it.”

One more time: “I will tell you that it’s already been addressed and I’m not going to be adding anything new to it because there’s nothing new to add to it.”

The speech imbalance in Texas politics exists at this festival, too, but it still might be the best corrective we have—even if its audience is pretty small. Davis did immeasurably better during her keynote than she did at the McAllen debate on Friday—she was more natural, more compelling and more incisive. It was a better airing of her views than we’ve seen so far. Van de Putte outshone Patrick in her session—she’s a natural and effective communicator. But the festival’s over, so we’re back to the quiet.

Wendy Davis speaking
Patrick Michels

Tonight, Greg Abbott was interviewed by a team of reporters in McAllen. The interesting thing about this interview, which sets it apart from others, is that Wendy Davis was being interviewed at the same time. They even sat close to each other.

Campaigning in Texas is a very strange affair these days. Most Republican nominees, assured of victory, hide: There’s nothing else needed to win. So we can credit Greg Abbott for a willingness to take part in a debate, I suppose, except this wasn’t really a debate. It was more of a structured Q&A with lots of TV cameras. The two candidates didn’t really engage each other—the format didn’t allow them much space to do so. The moderators didn’t ask any follow-up questions and the candidates only asked each other one question apiece. It was, for the most part, a recitation of talking points. The whole thing went down on a Friday evening during high school football season—a great time if you want to minimize viewership.

All Abbott needed to do in this debate was keep words coming out of his mouth in relative order, and this was a charge that he took with the utmost seriousness. There were no “gaffes.” Yes, many of the things he said didn’t make too much sense—like when he seemed to credit the deployment of the state’s National Guard deployment for SpaceX’s decision, years in the making, to build a launch site in Brownsville.

A lot of things about Abbott’s performance seemed … off. There were the little things, like when he mixed up the name of one of the moderators, but anyone could do that. There was something odd about the way Abbott talked: the way he related the story about “visiting with a young Latina of about college age” who “begged and pleaded” with him to secure the border. It was odd, too, how frequently he referenced his Hispanic in-laws to answer questions about issues in the RGV: as if he was saying, Some of my best family members are Mexican-American…



In truth, if this were not Texas, Greg Abbott had a debate performance to feel mildly insecure about. But this is Texas: The bar is very, very low here. We’re a couple of weeks away from the general election, and we still don’t know very much about Greg Abbott. Who is he? What motivates him? What kind of governor would he be?

If Davis did better, she didn’t shine. It’s still remarkable how much Davis feels the need to tack right on many issues, like the border, or the death penalty. She touted several times that she wanted “boots on the ground” on the border, just maybe not Perry’s National Guard deployment. She again called for a special session on the border crisis. Davis said she was a staunch supporter of the death penalty.

She was more aggressive, turning to Abbott at one point and blasting him for for cozying up to Ted Nugent. She accused Abbott of wanting to standardize test four-year-olds and said that if parents wanted to change that they’d need to form a PAC, hire a lobbyist and make a political contribution to the Abbott campaign. One of her best lines came when she told Abbott that cutting $5 billion from public education wasn’t liberal or conservative but “just dumb.”

Davis highlighted her core issues: Her advocacy for pre-K programs, raising the minimum wage, equal pay laws. She hit Abbott—or as much as she could, given the format.

The spin from Abbott’s team post-debate is that Davis had a “meltdown” and “talked over the moderator.” In fact it was one of the few moments that a debate threatened to break out—before the moderator cut her off.

All in all, it’s hard to see how the debate moves the needle for either candidate. But it’s Davis who needs the upset. Abbott is content to play it safe and not make any unforced errors.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples
Patrick Michels
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples at the 2012 Texas GOP Convention in Fort Worth.

Todd Staples, the state’s agriculture commissioner, is cashing his chips in. He’s leaving office now, instead of in January, so he can become president of that great advocate for our state’s agriculture industry, the Texas Oil and Gas Association. It’s hard to blame Staples: He’s gone as far as he can go up the political ladder—he placed third in the GOP lt. governor primary earlier this year—and this is a guarantee of a very comfortable life post-politics. (Though in a statement, Staples couched his decision in terms of his desire to “continue to fight for Texas to be the leader in our national and world economy.”)

But it’s worth reflecting on Staples’ legacy. He’s held the ag commish post for eight years, but his pursuit of promotion has been all-consuming. Now that he missed his chance, what does it all add up to?

For years, Staples’ overriding public concern has been border security, a non-traditional focus for agriculture commissioners. That was his springboard to higher office, he reckoned, and he went in big. Here’s the Observer’s Melissa del Bosque, from 2011:

Not long ago, Staples commissioned an $80,000 “strategic military assessment” of the Texas border. The Ag Commissioner released the 182-page tome, written by two retired generals, yesterday in a press conference at the Texas Capitol.

If you hadn’t heard, Staples is running for Lieutenant Governor in 2014. For the past year, the Ag Commissioner has been beating the war drums and burnishing his border security credentials. Last March, he unveiled a fancy, new taxpayer-funded Web site called “Protect Your Texas Border” which offers such highlights as night-vision surveillance chases of drug traffickers along the Rio Grande and a video interview with a Texas Ranger who proclaims: “We are in a war and I am not going to sugarcoat it by any means. We are in a war, and it is what it is.”

The website quickly became a PR embarrassment for Staples when its message board was flooded by people with helpful tips for fighting border violence:

User jcarrott suggests: “The most well known fighters of our Revolutionary war were not trained, they used hide and shot tactics that would work great today… If we — Americans — start shooting the bad guys, they will get the message!”

2$Bill offers methods like “watch groups, community patrols, land mines, tiger traps and roving packs of rabid [weasels].”

BTKKilla is more succinct, advising: “Killem all!!!! They are destroying or great country.”

Later, Staples used agriculture department money to purchase video cameras for the border, to the tune of $345,000. When Ted Cruz helped shut down the government last year, Texas farmers suffered. So Staples used his bully pulpit:

The government shutdown in October postponed the release of that month’s USDA crop report, which traders, distributors and farmers use to make important business decisions. Cotton prices fell 4.4 percent in the first week of the shutdown—a dramatic change that some pegged to the missing crop report. That price drop hurt already-struggling Texas cotton farmers.

Todd Staples was worried about the shutdown, too. The day before it ended, his office released a statement and two letters he had sent to U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, urging them to restore funding—for the U.S. Border Patrol. “I commend Congress for the current stand against Obamacare,” he wrote to Sen. Cruz, on Department of Agriculture stationary. “In the fray regarding the current shutdown, there are many questions about what are the essential functions of the government. Border security is absolutely at the top of the list.” Then he plugged his website.

Staples wanted to take the second-highest post in the state on the back of this kind of thing. But Dan Patrick skillfully outflanked him on the border, and it all came to naught. Old politicians don’t die—they just flail away.

Staples’ border activism has consumed almost the entirety of his tenure as commissioner—well, there’s also his long-lived anti-gay marriage activism. So where does that leave us as a state? What can we say Staples accomplished?

Staples’ probable successor—barring a shock landslide for Jim Hogan—is Sid Miller, who’s essentially already told us he’s gunning for the next job, too. He’ll make Staples look like Abraham Lincoln.

Sameena Karmally, Democratic Nominee for House District 98.
Christopher Hooks
Sameena Karmally, Democratic Nominee for House District 98.

If Democrats are going to turn Texas purple, they need to do a lot of work at the local level. Long-hidden voters need to be identified, and organizational abilities need to be strengthened. To do that, Democrats need good candidates to run in local elections. Even if they don’t win, they’ll do their bit to put calcium back in the Democratic Party’s old bones. They might run in red districts with little chance of victory, but they’ll pave the way for future contenders.

But standing for election is hell—it’s costly, and it exacts an enormous personal and professional toll. Most people won’t do it if they don’t have a decent chance of success—and there aren’t many places in Texas these days where a Democrat has that chance. So big pockets of the state don’t have any Democrats of significance running locally, which further alienates ordinary people from Democratic politics. It’s a tenacious feedback loop that’s going to be difficult to break.

Some Democrats, though, are doing their part. Take Sameena Karmally, who’s been waging a long-shot effort in heavily Republican House District 89, which covers an area north and east of Plano. In a different context, Karmally would make a star candidate. She’s a lawyer and mother of two who grew up in the Metroplex. She’s smart and thoughtful, and has a compelling personal story: She’s the daughter of Indian Muslim immigrants, and worked her tail off to get to UT School of Law. This is one of those races that seems to embody the clash of the old Texas and new Texas, particularly because she’s running against state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg (R-Parker).

If you know Laubenberg for one thing, it’s that she became the public face of the coalition backing last summer’s abortion restrictions. Laubenberg sponsored House Bill 2, the legislation that Wendy Davis filibustered. During debate on the bill, Laubenberg famously said that a rape exception for abortion restrictions was unnecessary because hospitals “have what’s called rape kits,” so “the woman can get cleaned out.”

That remark earned her international notoriety, but at home, Laubenberg cruises from re-election to re-election. She hasn’t had a primary opponent since 2002, and hasn’t had to run against a Democrat since 2006. She has perfect scores of 100 from Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and Michael Quinn Sullivan’s Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, wins awards from groups like the Young Conservatives of Texas, and is lauded by the NRA and pro-life groups. She’s the state chair of the influential American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which writes bills for conservative state legislators.

When Laubenberg first won her seat, it was a predominantly rural district. But the Metroplex has experienced explosive growth, and the nature of her district has changed. The last bout of redistricting cut off Laubenberg from the most rural areas, and now HD 89 is heavily suburban, with a growing immigrant population. Many of the district’s residents work for tech companies. The district is less Republican than it used to be, but on paper, it’s still looks prohibitive for Democrats. In 2004, every member of the Republican slate won more than 75 percent of the vote—in 2012, Mitt Romney won just under two-thirds.

The Texas Observer met Karmally in Plano to talk about her race.

Texas Observer: So why did you want to run?

Sameena Karmally: I wasn’t planning on running. You know, my children are very little. But I grew up here in Texas, and I watched what was going on last summer with that whole debate over women’s health and it seemed symptomatic to me of a state government that’s just sort of heading over a cliff.

We’re at the point now where we need to get control over what’s going on. We have so many issues in this state where people not voting is really affecting families and the quality of life and the Texas that we’re going to have in the future.

That’s one of the hardest things to communicate with people as we go out there, is that your vote could save lives. There’s children dying in foster care. Your vote could educate thousands of children because they’re cutting millions, billions from the Texas school budget. And people don’t know.

I guess it reached this critical point where I felt like I couldn’t wait ten years.

TO: A lot of people would look at this district and say that your chances are pretty slim.

SK: I’ve been told. (laughs)

TO: So why put yourself through this?

SK: Well, there’s the numbers on paper—and, nobody who knows me would say that I’m an overly naive or overly optimistic person—there’s what it looks like on paper, and what it looks like when you live here. When you live here, you see a whole lot of people who are frustrated with their state government, who are willing to vote for a Democrat who’s willing to do something.

And one of the reasons the numbers look so bad out here is because we just haven’t had any candidates run in so long. I’m Jodie’s first opponent in eight years. So we’ve fallen into this cycle of, there’s no Democrats who live here, there’s no Democrats to vote for. We meet people saying, “I thought I was the only Democrat who lived here,” everywhere we go.

We get them together for these events, and everyone is looking around shocked to find their friends and neighbors sitting with them at a Democratic event. They really thought that there was just no one like them in the area. And that’s very encouraging. That definitely pushes us to do more, versus just putting a name on a ballot, which has been the usual choice in the past.

I guess the answer is that I’m a sucker for hard work.

TO: Do you feel like you’re helping to open up the area for future Dems?

SK: Most certainly. Although—I think it’s a possibility to win in November. It’s just a matter of can we make enough phone calls and knock on enough doors. People are excited this year because of Wendy—we didn’t want to lose the chance to use that to do something locally while at the same time helping statewide candidates.

TO: How has this district changed since Laubenberg was first elected?

There’s many people who have moved here in the last two to four years—there’s just been an explosion of growth along the eastern side of Interstate 75. So that’s a huge opportunity. [Laubenberg] was redistricted, and the new lines were in effect two years ago, but of course there was no one running against her.

This is the first time she’ll be running with these new lines, and the new lines cut away a lot of rural areas that were in her district and left her with these suburbs, which are very diverse and young, and where a lot of people have moved in from the east and west coasts.

So there’s the new people and the new lines, but there’s also the old people. We went block-walking last weekend and we went to a neighborhood where people had lived on that street for 20 years. They had a history of voting independently, D and Republican. They overwhelmingly were willing to vote for a new face, a new person, and they didn’t really care what party I belonged to.

TO: This area up here reminds me of the suburbs north of Austin—House District 50, formerly held by Mark Strama—which experienced rapid population growth and suburbanization and went from Republican-leaning to solidly Democratic in the space of about a decade.

SK: My in-laws are from there. Pflugerville is a good analogy: Think about what Pflugerville was like ten years ago. Solidly rural. You wouldn’t even meet people who really lived in Pflugerville.

It’s a similar situation here. Solidly rural areas have become completely built-up. The city I live in, Allen, which is almost to McKinney, became completely built-up. Huge change in the district. Someone ran against [Laubenberg] in 2006: Even in 2006 it was majority rural out here. There just weren’t a lot of people to reach. Now we have all these new voters.

It’s very similar to Pflugerville. This is called the Telecom Corridor, because of all the tech companies around here. Texas Instruments is right here in Richardson. So there’s a ton of tech jobs around here.

Rep. Jodie Laubenberg (R-Parker)
Rep. Jodie Laubenberg (R-Parker)

TO: Why did you want to run against Laubenberg, specifically?

SK: She was a big motivation, for sure. She’s exactly the kind of person I don’t want in charge of my tax dollars. I don’t want government intruding in my family’s lives. I don’t want religion in public schools.

It was the events of last summer that really tipped me over. I thought, the inmates have taken over the asylum. We have people that just don’t know what they’re doing. Her comment about rape kits

TO: How has Laubenberg represented the district?

SK: She’s taking her orders from special interest groups. You look at her financials, and that’s who funds her. She’s doing the work of very large, monied interests. There’s not a lot of positive contributions that she’s made to our community.

We’re under stage three drought restrictions—she’s been on the [regional] study commission for the [Texas Water Development Board] for years and years and done nothing about it. We have such massive growth here—everyone agrees that our roads need investment. There’s no counter-argument to it. Even city councils are banging their heads against the wall, saying “we need state money to improve these roads our communities

depend on.” And there’s no action from her at the state level to take on these pressing issues.

She voted to cut $5 billion from schools. Many people moved to Plano and suburbs like it for the schools. That’s why they live here. Then she votes to cut $5 billion from public education. Overnight, schools are more crowded. Teachers don’t know where they’re going to be shuffled. Every parent who had a kid in public school out here thought, “Well, this isn’t what I bargained for when I agreed to move out here and pay these property taxes.” That affects everybody, whether you have a child or not.

TO: You’re an Indian-American Muslim woman running in the district of one of the most conservative politicians in Texas. Has anyone tried to make your background an issue in the race?

SK: No, I haven’t attracted that much attention. (laughs) Also, my district is—the census would tell you that it’s about 10 percent Asian. I can tell you that it’s at least 10 percent Asian. So it would be very foolish to run a “she’s not one of us” kind of campaign, or to run on my ethnicity. And I don’t think people take very well to those kind of personal attacks.

TO: As you’ve been working the district and trying to meet these new voters, what are some things you’ve learned?

SK: One question that we’re been struggling with a little bit is—how many Democrats are there here? It’s hard to say. Even in a presidential race, Democrats may not turn out because they know how the state is going to go. And in the off-years, we haven’t always had the most compelling statewide ticket. So it’s hard to say how many potential Democrats there are. And having a good local candidate—and this year we have several good local candidates in the area—will help, I think.

Immigrant communities don’t always realize the potentiality of their vote—how important it is, all the decisions that are being made with their tax dollars. I think that’s true of many communities—many people that moved here from out of state, their vote might not have been as important when they were living in a blue state. Here, it’s a critical matter.

The turnout is so low here, we really have no place to go but up. There’s not as much potential for growth on the Republican side, because many of their voters are registered Republicans and already vote. We have whole neighborhoods, whole blocks, where we can go door to door. We walked just last weekend and I had nobody turn me away at the door—my husband had two. We’re talking almost a hundred doors.

We’re finding a lot of that. I’m from South Asia, my parents are from India. There have been some national studies that say South Asians—Indians, Pakistanis, Bengalis—they vote upwards of 80 percent Democratic. And they consistently vote, once you activate them. And there’s other ethnicities‚ Chinese, Vietnamese, that vote better than 50 percent Democratic and vote consistently once you activate them.

This is all work we have to do sooner or later. Why not do it ASAP?

Placards at the launch of the Texas Smart-on-Crime Coalition
twitter.com/TexasCJC
Placards at the launch of the Texas Smart-On-Crime Coalition

We may be some four months away from the start of the 84th Legislature, but preparations are well underway. And while much of that groundwork is taking the form of opposing interest groups getting ready to beat the living daylights out of each other, a somewhat happier tale may have started yesterday at the Capitol, where an unlikely bipartisan group of criminal justice reformers gathered to launch an effort that stands a good chance of making gains next session.

For years, criminal justice reform has been one of the few bright spots at the Legislature. The state still prides itself on a tough-on-crime reputation, but recently the Legislature has rebuffed efforts to increase criminal sentences, and has provided sentencing alternatives for a range of crimes. Even Rick Perry is touting the success of the state’s drug court system. The issue fuses traditional Democratic concerns about social justice, a GOP aversion to the coercive power of big government, and some of the state’s inherent libertarian sensibilities.

But next session, legislators seem set to carry a different tune on a wide range of issues. To keep the cause of criminal justice reform advancing, advocates are launching the “Texas Smart-on-Crime Coalition.” In it, the left-leaning Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation stand united. So do the big-money Texas Association of Business, and the central Texas branch of the non-profit Goodwill Industries. The launch event featured both Terri Burke, the head of the Texas ACLU, and Edna Staudt, a Republican justice of the peace from law-and-order Williamson County.

That’s as unusual a cross-section of the ideological spectrum as you’ll find in Texas politics. Last session, some of these groups testified in support of the same bills: This session, they’re making it official.

“This is the first time that we have officially joined forces,” says Ana Yáñez-Correa, head of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition “And it’s beautiful to see the additions.”

The new coalition will prioritize juvenile justice issues, like decriminalizing truancy and other so-called “status offenses,” but its agenda includes a wide range of reforms throughout the system.

The coalition call for sentencing alternatives for certain offenses, like graffiti; enhancing protections for accused persons throughout the criminal justice system; repealing the widely-loathed Driver Responsibility Program; encouraging rehabilitation programs in jail; and making it easier for ex-prisoners to find work once they enter the general population. The reformers hope to win automatic expunction of arrests that don’t end in prosecution, and change occupational licensing requirements to help ex-cons get good jobs.

Yáñez-Correa has hopes that the next Legislature will be even more amenable to reform than past ones. The coalition announced yesterday is a sign that the argument on reform has been effectively won, she says.

“The criminal justice systems also represents big government,” she said, describing the embrace of reform by many GOPers in the Lege. “This is the only issue that Democrats and Republicans have been able to work together effectively on over the years.”

Many of the “agenda items were bills that were already filed last session, and made it pretty far,” she added.

The bipartisan coalition will play an especially important role next year, particularly because “we’re going to have a lot of new members,” she said. “It was really important for us to let people know that, like [the Texas Association of Business'] Bill Hammond says, this isn’t a Democrat or Republican issue.”

The hope is that the rightward tilt in the Legislature will affect these reform efforts less than it will other issues. “Last session, we had a lot of tea party members in criminal jurisprudence, and they all voted for our stuff,” she said. “Like Charles Perry. I adore that man.”

There is one thing still to be worked out: Dan Patrick, who could take control of the Senate in January, has talked loudly about decreasing the number of Democratic chairs of Senate committees. Houston Senator John Whitmire, the longtime head of Senate Criminal Jurisprudence Justice, has been one of the strongest reform advocates: Will he keep his job?

“I don’t envision Patrick removing him from that position,” says Yáñez-Correa. “He’s been there so long. I don’t know why he would.”

Whitmire’s been a great help, she says. “As he will tell you, experience matters. The man has been around for a really long time. It would be a real loss to lose him. And he’s demonstrated an ability to work with both Republicans and Democrats.”

And there will still be opposition. “For those who benefit financially from the status quo, this will be difficult for them,” she says. “And there’s still some people who think ‘The criminal justice system is there for vengeance. I don’t care about rehabilitation.’”

Still, Yáñez-Correa says, the horizon looks bright. “It’s been such a pleasure working with people who don’t necessarily hold every view that I hold,” she says. “But we’re on the same page on these issues.”

Louis XIV
Wikimedia Commons
Not Rick Perry

These are dark times in Austin. Deranged, ethereal powers lurk in the shadows, and not just in the Cloak Room, where that’s normal. They’re plotting against us: But what kind of plots? And who are they? Will they come for us soon? What’s he building in there? How long do we have?

People are acting crazy this week: Like, more so than usual, even this close to an election. But maybe… they’re right? Just because this state is getting increasingly paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get us. I mean, look: Not even the governor is safe from the designs of the shadowy cabal.

1) Rick Perry, the state’s kind-hearted paterfamilias, is in a spot of trouble—a testament to the cruel powers of our police-/nanny-state. Here’s what he did, in case you hadn’t heard: A communist, drug-addicted district attorney named Rosemary Lehmberg kidnapped and held to ransom close to three hundred children, and Perry politely suggested she step down until the matter was resolved. For this, Texas Democrats threw him in a dungeon, forcing him to fight for his political life in a series of gladiatorial matches which will culminate at the Ames Straw Poll. It’s terribly unfair, really.

Anyway, Perry’s been having an identity crisis. There’s the glasses: But he’s also flirted with non-traditional identities for a Texas governor, like being Californian, and Jewish. In the course of filing a motion to quash Perry’s indictments, Perry’s lawyers are helping him figure out what he’s not.

“A Texas Governor is not Augustus traversing his realm with a portable mint and an imperial treasure in tow,” the motion argues. “No governor can say of his or her state what the Sun King said of France: “L’état, c’est moi.”

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 2.26.50 PM

No, Perry’s not Louis XIV. But Perry wouldn’t be so out of place in a toga. Perhaps it’s something he should explore more fully. Remember Caesar’s last words to Brutus: “Adios, mofo.” And of course there’s his famous declaration upon crossing the Rubicon: “Why don’t you just let us get on down the road?

Think about this, Governor. This could be a fun roleplay for the state after what’s been a sometimes grim 14 years. We’ll call you “First Citizen of the State,” and your Texas Enterprise Fund the “Imperial Treasure.” You can send your legions to foreign borders while aides feed you grapes on a daybed. It’s everything you ever wanted, and there are no debates. Call us.

2) The governor’s legal team might be seized by visions of grandeur, but the thoughts of our other statewide officials are on pettier schemes. Take Todd Staples, the state’s agriculture commissioner. Staples, as he wrote in an op-ed for the Austin American-Statesman this week, is “very concerned.”

Recently, I learned some Texas school districts, such as Dripping Springs ISD, have adopted a policy deemed “Meatless Mondays” for some of their campuses.

[...]

Restricting children’s meal choice to not include meat is irresponsible and has no place in our schools. This activist movement called “Meatless Mondays” is a carefully-orchestrated campaign that seeks to eliminate meat from Americans’ diets seven days a week — starting with Mondays.

Yes, Texans, the vegetarians are here, and they’re coming for your patties. If nObama had his way, we’d all be eating kale, all the time.

Texas is a meat-based culture—meat before all, really—and it seems somewhat unlikely that this “carefully-orchestrated campaign” Staples sees in the shadows will be seizing bratwursts and sirloin anytime soon. But the horror conjured by the idea that Texas kids might have cheese pizza instead of sausage* pizza one day of the week says something about Staples’ commitment to his job, I guess.

The funniest thing might be this attempt at inclusion, though: “While we have plenty of room in the Lone Star State for vegetarians,” Staples writes, “we have no room for activists who seek to mandate their lifestyles on others.”

That’s kind of nice, except “we have plenty of room” sounds like the kind of thing that holds true until there’s not enough room anymore. When Staples is king, and we run out of water, beware: We’re eating the vegetarians first.

*May contain no actual USDA-recognized meat products

3) Two of the three members of the state’s Railroad Commission, which oversees oil and gas exploration, are now convinced Vladimir Putin is behind efforts to slow fracking in Texas.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

4) Remember that Dewhurst guy? The lieutenant governor, David. He suffered through a pretty stupid primary recently, which he lost to Dan Patrick. He’s a lame duck now and is probably leaving professional politics for good in a couple months, so he might as well drop his tea party pretenses, right? There’s no reason to put on a show anymore.

And yet…

This week, the Mexican government issued a statement protesting Texas’ national guard deployment to the border:

Mexico asserts that it is irresponsible to manipulate the current state of border security for political purposes. It reiterates that immigration must be addressed from a comprehensive and regional perspective, with a mid-term vision and with shared responsibility, to ensure peace, inclusion and prosperity in the region.

The measure taken unilaterally by the Texas government is clearly erroneous and does not contribute to the efforts being made by our countries to create a secure border and a solution to the issue of immigration.

Governor Perry’s office shrugged. But Dewhurst, in his infinite wisdom and infinitely questionable political skills, saw… a plot. TO DISHONOR THE MEMORY OF THE FALLEN.

“I find it puzzling and frankly offensive that the government of Mexico chose the 13th anniversary of the most tragic attack on our homeland to call on Texas to throw open our international border to illegal immigration, trafficking in drugs and human lives, and potentially even terrorists who wish to harm America,” Dewhurst said in a statement.

Setting aside the issue of the Dewhurst team’s questionable reading comprehension, consider the idea that it’s offensive for foreign governments to say anything to the United States on September 11. For the rest of this century, perhaps, we should set aside the second week of the ninth month as the “No Saying Mean Things to America Zone.”

But that’s not all, of course—the Mexican government’s statement was actually dated September 10. Great job, everybody. Great job, Dew.

You know what? In spite of everything, I’m actually going to miss that guy.

Tony Tinderholt Unloads: ‘People are Going to Die’ at Border

The "only thing that's going to stop the infiltration of our country" is a lot more people dying, says state rep candidate.
Tony Tinderholt, GOP nominee in House District 94, poses with a Texas Border Volunteer
Twitter
Tony Tinderholt, GOP nominee in House District 94, poses with Mike Vickers, head of the Texas Border Volunteers

Plucked from relative obscurity, Tony Tinderholt was one of the Empower Texans-backed challengers that popped up in GOP primaries this year. In Arlington’s House District 94, he beat four-term incumbent Diane Patrick, who’d earned ire from conservative groups for moderate stands. In November, he’s facing a local Democratic businessman named Cole Ballweg, but it’s a heavily Republican district and Tinderholt is favored to win. Last week, Ted Cruz and Dan Patrick helped him block-walk the district.

Tinderholt is a veteran, and an excitable guy. He believes in gun rights and hates Obamacare, which is pretty standard. But he also thinks that border-crossing migrants who are coming here to take our “free stuff” won’t stop coming until we take up arms and put a stop to it ourselves, just like the Spartans did in the movie 300. “People are going to die,” says the likely legislator, and that’s the only thing that’s going to stop migrants from “taking the lifeblood of our country.”

This summer, Tinderholt took a trip to the Rio Grande Valley with the Texas Border Volunteers, one of the major militia groups. They don camo and ride around on ATVs. When he got back, he wanted to share details of his trip. So in July, Tinderholt gave a talk to a Ft. Worth-area 9/12 group. It was the high point of the flood of Central American children and teenagers that consumed the nation’s attention.

At the meeting, Tinderholt stood in front of an American flag, clutching a podium bearing the words “God Bless America.” To the side, a screen showed a picture of Tinderholt in Iraq, titled “Briefing: My Experience on the Texas Border.”

Tinderholt’s speech to the group was recorded and uploaded by his own campaign, which subsequently took it down. But others saved the video, which was provided to the Observer. The whole thing is worth watching, because it helps give a fuller impression of the man and his attitude toward the world. But here are some excerpts. (Emphasis added throughout.)

Tinderholt opens the talk by telling the crowd he’s going to be a little looser than normal. “I’m going to change this up a little bit,” Tinderholt says. “Sometimes God talks to you in different ways, and I feel like he’s talking to me right now. I want to talk about my trip down to Mexico.”

He tells the crowd not to be discouraged by how rotten things are right now—there had been several speakers that night. Conservatives shouldn’t be discouraged, he says. “There’s a whole lot of people like myself and you that are true conservatives. The Bill Zedlers, the Dan Patricks, the Konni Burtons, the Jonathan Sticklands. Myself.”

Then he gets to the subject of his speech. “I want people to quit coming into this country and taking free stuff from us.”

He expounds: “If someone came into my house and started stealing my food, wearing my clothes, and taking my checkbook and using it, I’d be a little bit frustrated. And that’s what’s happening right now,” Tinderholt says. It’s true that there’s a humanitarian side to this. It’s true that the kids who were coming across the border this summer were coming across “for hopes of a better life. But that better life for them is free stuff. We have to stop them.”

Liberty is under attack, he tells the group. Drastic measures are needed. “Have any of you ever seen the movie 300? It’s pretty graphic, right?” In the movie, an intensely homoerotic army of Spartans give their lives at a strategic choke-point to hold off the Persians. “We have to stand in that gap and stop this stuff from happening. We need to stand in the gap and not be scared.”

Having established the theme of military violence, he tells the crowd about his background. He worked with Air Force intelligence in anti-trafficking operations in the 1990s, and he took part in “combat operations” on the Mexican side of the border, he says. “I also did interrogations.”

So he knows about the border, he tells the crowd. He’s speaking from personal experience. It’s a terrible place. Take the “mothers and fathers who are sending these 8- and 10- and 12-year-old children with these coyotes to bring them across—if you got a cute child, do you think they’re going to make it to the U.S.?” Tinderholt answers: “I think they’ll probably make it here. But they’re going to make somebody money. And they’re going to make it in a very illegal disgusting and gross way. Immoral.

After this tasteful evocation of sex trafficking, Tinderholt raises another “staggering and disgusting” concern: The border-crossers include people from Iran, Pakistan, Somalia and China. “They’re not friends of ours. They’re not coming here to live a great life. There’s probably a small percentage of them that might be harmless—but what are they bringing with them? Is it in their mind?” he asks, pointing to his noggin. “Are they coming up with plans to do horrible, disgusting things to American citizens? In a year? In 18 months? In 36 months? Are they regrouping? What are they doing?

Now, Tinderholt gets real. “When I come here and speak to these events, my wife says, ‘Okay, hold your tongue,’” Tinderholt says. He’s a “passionate” guy. “What comes out of my mouth just kinda comes out sometimes.” But he’s going to speak the truth anyway.

Mr. and Mrs. Tinderholt
tonytinderholt.com
Mr. and Mrs. Tinderholt

Tell us, Tony. “It’s very hard for me sometimes to talk about this kind of stuff, because…they’re stealing from us. We’re being thieved. They’re taking from you and I and the American people and they’re taking from the lifeblood of our country.”

What should be done about this, Tony?

Tinderholt recalls the metaphor of the house that’s been broken in to. “At some point, you’re going to lock your doors. You’re going to put up video cameras. You’re gonna do surveillance on your house. You’re gonna call the police to come over and do security around your house every once in a while. If it keeps getting broken into, you’re going to get a gun. You’re going to protect your family and your house.”

He continues: “Well, with 21 years in the military, I’m not proud to say,” he continued, “I saw and did a lot of things that many people would think were very horrific. And they were.

He had seen the dark side, the scum, for what they were. And he knows exactly what needs to be done about it. “It’s really sad to say that at some point, what’s going to happen on that border is going to be bad. And people are going to die. And it’s a sad, sad thing to say. But it’s the only thing that’s going to stop this infiltration of our country.

He returns to his “horrific” past. “War is not pretty. Being in the military is not a glorious heroic cool job like everybody thinks it is. It’s dirty. It’s disgusting sometimes. I’m just telling you the facts, and I’m sorry if you don’t like them. But we have to stop this influx at the border.”

One way to stop it would be to send troops into Mexico, to kick some ass. But that’s in the longer term. “I think we should go across the border and stop it. I think we should shut money off across the border. But I’ll tell you in the short term, we gotta put our military at the border and stop this crap from happening now.” The room applauds. “But we can’t have our military men and women standing at the border with their weapons hugging drug cartels coming across because they don’t like hugs. They use chainsaws. We use rifles.

Perry’s National Guard deployment is a joke, Tinderholt says. “Our border is not even close to secure. Our border is not gonna to be secure with 1,000 National Guardsmen. Our border will be secure when we arm it and stop the people from coming across.” How the rifled men would stop people from coming across, Tinderholt doesn’t say. He doesn’t need to say it. We’re in Dirty Harry territory.

If that seems extreme, Tinderholt would like you to know that you have more to lose by not shooting at migrants than by shooting at migrants. “Your faith. Your family. Your inalienable rights granted to you by God. Your rights granted to you by the Constitution of the United States. All those things are really important to you, and they’re important to me,” says Tinderholt. “And if we don’t secure that border right now and take charge of it, we’re going to lose everything we have.” Everything.

He’s coming to Austin, he tells the crowd, and he’ll use his seat in the hallowed chamber of the Texas House to beat back against the scum and the RINOs and the traitors. “I don’t care who watches this video and I don’t care who’s watching me and listening,” he says. “I’ll tell you this: If you get in my way of trying to stop people from trying to come across the border, I’m rolling over the top of you, period.”

If you have time, and you’d like to know Tony Tinderholt, watch the video. The remarkable thing about his delivery is how neatly he slips in between comparatively reasonable statements—the messaging that conservatives need to talk to moderates—and grandiose threats of violence and profoundly delusional statements. It’s really something. He’s a few shades away from Travis Bickle territory. Some day a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the border: Tony Tinderholt 2014.

How the hell did this guy get so close to the statehouse? On the one hand, the message of “people are going to die” is not too far from the talk of ostensibly more responsible figures, like Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, who told Waco Tea Party Radio in August that state troopers would target threats with “suppressing fire, and somebody’s going to get hurt.” But at least in Dewhurst’s fantasies, the violence was a two-way street.

Like with many of our other biggest legislative lumps, you can in part thank Michael Quinn Sullivan for Tinderholt. To knock off Republican incumbents, his groups will back just about anybody. In fact, if the challenger is a nobody, that’s better: They’re easier to control. There’s no vetting process. They really don’t care. When another one of the anti-Straus coalition’s challengers, Phillip Eby, told a room full of folks that Sun Tzu was the guiding light for his primary campaign in March—two months before one of his supporters allegedly assaulted his opponent’s campaign manager—it was par for the course. But this is an entirely different order of magnitude.

For the record, here’s how Empower Texans described Tinderholt in the primary:

Some dedicate their lives to serving others. Others use public office to serve themselves. Tony Tinderholt is one of those who has dedicated his life to serving others, even putting his life on the line on behalf of his country.

[...]

Voters in Arlington need to ask themselves who they would like representing them, a liberal like Rep. Diane Patrick who uses her office to benefit herself and her husband, or a fiscally responsible conservative like Tony Tinderholt who has a lifelong record of service.

Here at TFR we think the choice is obvious. We have endorsed Tinderholt for State Representative.

A lifelong record of service. Let’s allow the man himself to close this out: What kind of state representative will you be, Mr. Tinderholt?

“I’m not going down to Austin to make friends,” he tells the 9/12-ers as he closed his talk. “I’m probably not the greatest speaker in the world, but I tell you what: When I get down to Austin and [others] can come back and tell you how much I fought ‘em at that back mic and pissed a whole bunch of RINOs and Democrats off, you’ll love it.”

The crowd cheers.

Gov. Rick Perry and GOP House candidate Charles Perry pose for photos in 2010.
Abby Rapoport
Gov. Rick Perry and GOP House candidate Charles Perry pose for photos in 2010.

Have you ever heard that story—probably apocryphal—about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington discussing the proper functioning of our bicameral Congress? The idea, Washington says, is that the House, with intense passions, short terms, and many desks, is like a cup of hot tea. The Senate, which moves glacially, is like the saucer that cools the tea and keeps your hand from being burned.

Here’s the way to think about how the Texas Legislature is going to work next year: The hot tea of the House is still there, but the Senate’s saucer is being replaced by a Bunsen burner.

Special elections for the Texas Senate aren’t exactly the sexiest items on the political calendar, but they’re hugely important. The upper chamber isn’t like the House, which depends on parliamentary-style coalitions. The Senate is the sum of its personalities—every new member counts. And the next Senate’s roster is slowly clicking into place. Last night saw the election of state Rep. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) to replace former Sen. Robert Duncan in Senate District 28, a huge district that spans the lower reaches of the Panhandle down through San Angelo and I-10.

Perry beat a six-person field and avoided a runoff—a pretty remarkable feat. He snagged 54 percent of the vote, with Jodey Arrington, a former Texas Tech vice chancellor, pulling only 30. In most recent Senate elections, the guy who has the backing of Tim Dunn, the Midland oilman who finances a number of conservative causes around the state, wins. Perry had it in spades, and has throughout his short political career. So his victory wasn’t necessarily a surprise—but the margin was.

West Texas has had a reputation for more pragmatic-oriented conservative politics, perhaps mostly because of Duncan and the Panhandle/West Texas’ other senator, Amarillo’s Kel Seliger. Arrington ran on water and good government, and seemed to want to mold himself in Duncan’s image. He even openly criticized Dunn’s groups, which didn’t exactly endear him to Dunn’s lieutenant, Michael Quinn Sullivan.

Duncan, a moderate, was one of the Senate’s top dealmakers. Perry seems unlikely to fill those shoes, but neither does he seem likely to be one of the Senate’s biggest bomb throwers next session. He’s a pretty right-wing guy, but he also plays ball. He’s not, in other words, a Steve Toth or a Jonathan Stickland: He was one of the tea party wave that came to Austin in 2010 with the desire to keep moving up, as you could already tell in Abby Rapoport’s piece for the Observer that year.

Still, on the whole, his election is probably not great for the chamber’s comity. There are two big question marks still remaining as to the Senate’s composition. One is in Senate District 10, the only seat with a competition in the general election, where a remarkably far-right tea party leader named Konni Burton may beat Democrat Libby Willis to take over for Wendy Davis. There’s also Glenn Hegar’s soon-to-be-former seat: Hegar is likely to be the next comptroller, and conservative state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst has lined up to replace him, with the possibility of more moderate challengers.

Still, assume for a minute that a Republican sweep happens this November. In that case, napkin math says the Senate next session will have 11 or 12 senators who could be described as tea party members or aligned with Tim Dunn’s faction—with Dan Patrick in the driver’s seat. Democrats in total will only have 11 seats. More moderate and old-school GOPers make up the rest—they’ll be severely squeezed. These days, Austin politicos are wandering around, muttering to each other and themselves, sometimes in the shower: “What a session this is going to be,” they say, before they remember the prospect of a summer-long series of special sessions on school finance and break down weeping.

There’s one other small thing to keep in mind about Perry’s victory: the future of state Sen. Kel Seliger, Amarillo’s man in the chamber. His district and Perry’s new district hug. Seliger, who possesses a healthy independent streak, is one of Dunn & Sullivan’s nemeses in the Senate. Last session, he authored a bill that would have required disclosure of “dark money” expenditures from political groups like Sullivan’s.

He may not be up for another primary challenge until 2018, but this election is another warning of sorts. The biggest shot across the bow came in the primary, when a former Midland mayor came within five points of beating Seliger, after a low-profile race that few in the state had paid much attention to.

Perry’s win in the first round, in a district similar to Seliger’s, is another reminder that his next go-round could be a lot more difficult. Seliger, whatever you may think of him, is ripe for a primary challenge. Picture mailers about his million-dollar Pebble Beach vacation home blanketing Amarillo. Will it change his attitude for the next couple years? Will this continuing groundswell in the chamber change other Republicans’ attitudes as well?

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson
Patrick Michels
Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson at the 2012 Texas GOP Convention in Fort Worth.

It was, despite the gravity of the topic, a pretty standard college panel discussion. On the third floor of UT-Austin’s Texas Union, more than a hundred people convened to consider the “roots” of the humanitarian crisis that’s seized the Texas-Mexico border this year. Grievous human suffering was explored through PowerPoint. In the corner, there was lemonade and cookies.

The speakers exchanged heartbreaking stories of abuse and loss. Ana Lorena Siria de Lara, the consul for El Salvador in Houston, spoke of the anguish of seeing a generation of her country’s youth in humiliating positions in detention facilities in Texas border towns. Seated next to her were representatives from human rights groups in South Texas, and UT faculty members. And on the far side, next to NPR journalist John Burnett, there was the surprising sight of Jerry Patterson, Texas land commissioner.

Patterson was pissed.

“We’ve reached a point in this discourse where it’s not so much what you say, as who is saying it,” Patterson tells the crowd. “If a Republican says it, a Democrat has to disagree. And if a Democrat says it, a Republican has to disagree. And we’re in really sorry shape. Politicians are not serving you well.”

Patterson, a libertarian-minded iconoclast and staunch gun-rights advocate, has, in recent years, become the Texas Republican Party’s only voice in statewide office advocating for a pragmatic position on immigration and border security. He helped get a call for a guest worker program in the 2012 Texas GOP platform. A year later, he ran for lt. governor, where his talk on immigration played a significant role in his last-place primary finish.

So in January, he’ll be leaving office, and there won’t be anyone left to pick up the slack—on this issue, at least. The new slate of GOP heavies are all hardliners. This panel doesn’t mean much in the big scheme of things, but Patterson’s willingness to spend time here at all is a testament to what the state GOP will be losing. It’s hard to imagine Sid Miller here in his place, listening patiently to a Spanish-to-English translation of a consular official’s description of the bathroom facilities at a McAllen detention facility.

At the UT panel, Patterson, given a brief period to speak, was clearly still mulling over the results of his primary battle. “This subject has reached the point where you can’t talk about it. You cannot honestly, objectively discuss. If you are a candidate, you’re relegated to saying things that fit on a bumper sticker,” he said. “That’s your policy. And if you venture outside of a few bumper sticker-like comments, such as ‘Build a Fence,’ ‘No Amnesty,’ ‘Secure Our Borders,’ you’re in deep trouble. That’s where we are politically.”

Over the course of his primary campaign, Patterson became obsessed with halting the rise of Dan Patrick, who elevated hard-line immigration pandering to the level of self-parody. Patrick’s fence-shaped “Secure Our Border” sign has adorned every border rally in the state for months—and littered the 2014 Republican state convention, where delegates undid the guest worker provision Patterson helped add two years before.

The political impasse we’ve reached on immigration, Patterson says, is occurring despite the fact that things have been just as bad—or worse—at many points in the past. “If you think we’re in the dark ages now, go back and look at history,” he said. “There is nothing new that’s going on today. It’s all been done before. And of course we could learn something from that if we choose to. But unfortunately we’re not able to do so.”

He told the crowd of the race-baiting of past governors, including the probably apocryphal quote sometimes attributed to Gov. Miriam “Ma” Ferguson on the question of Spanish-language education: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.” None of the recent National Guard deployments, he said, mattered in scale next to Woodrow Wilson’s deployment of the Army during the Mexican Revolution “to fight real border violence. This stuff that’s going on now is not even violence. Most of it is occurring—it shouldn’t occur anywhere, but unfortunately most of it is occurring in Mexico,” Patterson said.

Patterson’s history lesson may have seemed slightly out of step to some of his listeners. It’s not entirely clear what the story of General John J. Pershing’s punitive expedition has to say about the question of whether the current National Guard deployment will have a positive or negative influence in the Rio Grande Valley. In truth, he’s probably much closer to the rest of his party on border issues than he is to the people in this room. But he’s still the one who came.

“Frankly, the illegal immigration scheme we had was working fairly well when it was circular—when someone could come here to work for two and three months and then go home to their family. That worked pretty well,” Patterson said. “We’ve taken that and made what was a circular scheme a unidirectional system. If you can get here, you can’t go home.” Since workers can’t risk or afford multiple border crossings now, they have an incentive to bring their families here with them and try to stay permanently.

Patterson didn’t offer much hope for a political breakthrough. “I don’t know what we’re gonna do to fix it,” he said. “But I know that the course we’re on right now is not a very good one.”

Afterwards, I caught up with Patterson to ask him if he thought there would be voices in the state GOP who could advocate for some degree of border pragmatism after he leaves office. “I don’t think there are,” Patterson said. “There are people who want to, but they’re afraid.”

They may come around to it later when the political winds shift, he added. “Frequently, you can be on the right side of something, but be there at the wrong time. I think maybe I was a little too early.”

The awful state of the debate was frustrating to him, he said, because “if I was a dictator, I could, if not fix this, I could make it dramatically better in about three years.” There had to be a strong and accessible guest worker program, and the full weight of law enforcement had to go after coyotes and traffickers, not individual undocumented migrants. The conditions in Mexico and Central American countries had to be improved.

But he didn’t see much prospect for any of that, because of the “incomplete narrative” held to by so many—that is, those who talk about border security as being a wholly separate subject from immigration reform, like Patrick.

“You can say, ‘secure the border, build a fence, no amnesty.’ OK, fine. I’m not necessarily opposed to building a fence where it makes sense,” he said. “But that’s not enough. You know, politicians play to the lowest common denominator. Whatever it takes to get by. Whatever you can say to get you the votes. That’s the way it’s always been.”

If the GOP takes the U.S. Senate this year, as some think is likely, “we’ll no longer have an excuse that an immigration bill can’t be passed.” But Patterson doesn’t think we’ll see a breakthrough anytime soon. “I don’t think it’s going to get any better until it gets worse.” Then he set off down the Drag.

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