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Hooks on Politics

Perry's eagerness and Gingrich's grim affect provided a strong contrast.
TPPF
Perry's eagerness and Gingrich's grim affect provided a strong contrast.

Today’s attendees of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s pre-session policy conference were treated to an unusual privilege—the chance to see two figures at the bleeding edge of Republican politics in the same room. Yes, you got it right: Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich, together again. The two sat for a lunchtime talk with Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation.

Every public appearance Perry makes these days is an opportunity to gauge how much progress he’s made since the “oops” days. In his formal speeches, and in media appearances, the answer is “not much,” more often than not. When he’s suitably relaxed and in a casual setting, like today, it’s a bit more complicated. You can see parts of his personality that would do well in another presidential run, and Newt’s dour presence on stage helped highlight them.

And boy, does Perry want it. Both men flamed out in the 2012 presidential election, but it’s easy to forget that Gingrich—who even at the time seemed to be one of the numerous GOP candidates who run for president solely to refresh their personal brand and juice their future speaking fees—did significantly better than Perry, who was running in earnest. Gingrich won two states, South Carolina and Georgia; Perry won some punchlines.

But Gingrich, who gives off a weirdly antisocial vibe much of the time, clearly doesn’t care anymore, if he ever did. Slumped in his chair like an overstuffed tourist in a beach chair, he launched into periodic wordy invective of the kind that briefly charmed Southern voters during the last go-round.

The EPA, he intoned to his audience, was a tool of “liberal ideological implementation” purposefully designed to destroy American industry. He called New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio a “quintessential nut-case left-wing fantasist,” while Perry, momentarily distracted, played with his fingertips. When Gingrich was asked for the first three things he would do as president, Gingrich told the crowd he agreed with Perry’s list, then told the audience they should buy his friend’s recently-written thriller, Day of Wrath, a chilling tale about ISIS and the Mexican border.

If Gingrich was dour, Perry was a bit of a doofus, but not in an altogether unappealing way. He had no books to sell. He spoke about the need for Republicans to peel away Democratic constituencies with a message of opportunity: The party of the donkey had failed to craft an economic message for the middle and working class, and his experience in Texas, he said, would allow him to take advantage.

But the party had to “not take the bait on social issues that pull us apart.” That wasn’t advice he had followed in his last campaign, when his advisors responded to a slide in popularity with crude gay-baiting. But he seemed to believe it well enough today.

In formal settings, Perry comes off as stiff and a little lost: Today, he wore the sunny effusiveness that wins rooms. While Gingrich dropped references to Faulkner and grimly intoned about the country’s future, Perry impressed upon the crowd his marketable background: “When the child of tenant farmers can become governor of Texas, that’s a great story.”

And while Gingrich talked about the necessity of getting teens to work to keep them out of gangs—”Benjamin Franklin was apprenticed when he was 13”—Perry told the room that “the best days of this country, the best days of this state are in front of us.”

He leaned eagerly toward the crowd to speak, and toward Gingrich when Newt spoke. When he concluded his last riff on the universality of the “Texas model”—he’s made a decision not to call it a miracle anymore—he clenched his fist in satisfaction with his message and delivery.

Still, it’s possible to imagine this Perry impressing rooms full of Iowans and South Carolinians. And though the 14-year governor might feel like old news, it’s worth remembering that the two GOPers most in the news now for their 2016 prospects, Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, both last held office in 2007.

Dan Patrick and Greg Abbott at Ken Paxton's inauguration, January 5, 2015.
Christopher Hooks
Dan Patrick and Greg Abbott at Ken Paxton's inauguration, January 5, 2015.

When the 84th Legislature kicks off next week, the state’s new elected officials will be competing with each other for influence over the state’s finances. Each has proposals and pet policy priorities they owe their constituents—or lobbyists—after a lengthy election. The problem: Almost all of them require money. And there’s not that much to go around. The state’s budget is stretched thin even in good years, and more money is needed all the time to keep pace with population growth—and that’s even before you factor in a potential economic slowdown brought about by the oil slump.

Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick released the first draft of his agenda Thursday, at a press conference at the Capitol. In the plan, Patrick redoubles his call for tax cuts for property owners and businesses, calls for adding new spending restrictions to the state budget process, and pushes for significant changes in education, transportation, energy and border policy.

It’s an ambitious platform.

And it comes at a time when the fiscal situation is tightening. The comptroller’s revenue estimate, which restricts the maximum possible size of the state’s budget, doesn’t come out till next week—but there’s a lot of speculation about how crashing oil prices will affect the Texas economy. In 2011, the comptroller’s office overcorrected for a perceived economic slowdown, and the Legislature cut state services needlessly.

The political perception of the economic climate seems to matter a great deal to the comptroller’s estimates, and some suspect the oil shock will clip the wings of Texas’ recent economic growth. Legislators have been counting on a modest surplus this year—though, because of longstanding accounting trickery, even that would have amounted to less than it seemed. But now, even that small windfall may be dissipating a bit.

In this environment, Patrick could’ve scaled back some of his most expensive proposals—in particular, his calls for major tax cuts. But, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, the Dan is not for turning. He’s going full steam ahead. He won with 58 percent of the vote, he said, and he has a mandate for action.

The “people of Texas are very clear on the major issues they care about,” he told reporters yesterday. In response to their demands, he pledged that a “budget with significant dollars allocated for property tax and business tax relief will be passed.” (During his campaign, Patrick talked about raising sales taxes and lowering property taxes—but that didn’t come up.)

He pledged to expand “school choice” in Texas, and to do right by “parents in the inner cities trapped in failing schools.” By the end of the session, the state would fund “border security at the highest level we’ve ever funded it.” He’d fund programs to support math and science teachers, and medical students, and he’d work the slow the skyrocketing cost of college tuition, calling tuition deregulation a failure.

He called for the state to begin adopting a fleet of natural gas vehicles, and he echoed Greg Abbott’s plan to end road funding diversions and increase transportation funding.

All of this costs money, which either has to come from surplus tax revenue—we’ll find out how much the state actually has next week—or from elsewhere in the state budget. In the case of the transportation funding diversions—money that’s rerouted to the Texas Department of Transportation from other beneficiaries, like the Department of Public Safety—budget-writers have to scrounge up dollars from somewhere else, and so on and so on. Large tax cuts and additional money for services are not compatible goals, especially in a biennium in which the state’s economic prospects are fading a bit.

If legislators end up fighting for pieces of a smaller pie, Patrick will want to ensure that his priorities have a leg up on others. We’ve long known that Patrick would be consolidating GOP power in the Senate—he’s aiming to change longstanding rules that gave Democrats some leverage in the legislative process, and he’s likely to strip Democrats of control of powerful Senate committees.

But there’s another way Patrick is making himself a more important player in the legislative process—the Texas Tribune’s Ross Ramsey reported Wednesday that Patrick was likely to cut the number of Senate committees from 18 to 12, and would be appointing committee chairs later this month, instead of in February, as has normally been in the case.

As Ramsey writes, this means the Senate could be up and running much faster than the House, “perhaps setting up a flow of Senate bills to the lower chamber before the House is ready to send anything back.” It’s a not-so-subtle way of trying to get the jump on Speaker Straus and the House’s own priorities—and it foreshadows an uneasy relationship between the two chambers in the months to come.

There’s one other thing Patrick mentioned today—he pledged to continue the halt in funding for the Public Integrity Unit, the ethics watchdog that operates out of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office and was at the center of the conflict that led to Rick Perry’s indictment by a special prosecutor.

The fact that the PIU showed up on Patrick’s agenda along with weighty issues like education and transportation tells you how important it is to a lot of GOPers. The Senate, Patrick said, would decide what to do with the PIU’s funding. One option, Patrick said, would be to give it to Attorney General Ken Paxton so he could bolster his own ethics outfit. Paxton, you might remember, stands a good chance of being under indictment himself by the time the Legislature appoints him the new guardian of civic virtue. It’s going to be an interesting year.

Ken Paxton, after being sworn in, stands among Texas GOP VIP's: From left to right, Governor-elect Greg Abbott, Senator Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Justice Don Willett, and Governor Rick Perry.
Christopher Hooks
Ken Paxton, after being sworn in, stands among Texas GOP VIPs: From left to right, Governor-elect Greg Abbott, Senator Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Justice Don Willett, and Governor Rick Perry.

 

During last year’s elections, Ken Paxton sometimes felt like the odd man out. After trampling his opponents in the Republican primary for attorney general, Paxton admitted to violating state securities law—a potential felony—after unethical business dealings surfaced in the press. He stopped campaigning, more or less, and his fellow ticket-mates, like soon-to-be governor Greg Abbott, shied away.

But he was carried across the finish line, sure enough, and today, at a star-studded inauguration in the Texas Senate, he was welcomed back as a member of the state GOP in full standing. A felony indictment may still be coming—but as the state’s new top lawman, he’s had a pretty unusual rise to the highest echelon of state power.

On hand to celebrate Paxton’s ascension were a who’s who of Republican leaders. Sitting behind the lieutenant governor’s dais at the front of the chamber were David Dewhurst, its current occupant, and Dan Patrick, his soon-to-be successor. Rick Perry was present. Ted Cruz, Perry’s presumptive 2016 rival, was there too. (This was, in part, a Cruz moment: Paxton was his candidate, and his election marks another half-step in the transformation of the state’s political landscape in Cruz’s image.) And there was Greg Abbott, though he seemed dwarfed by his compatriots.

There were, in other words, a lot of bruised and competing egos in the Senate today. The men seemed in a rush to outdo each other in their effusive praise for Paxton: Dewhurst said the new attorney general would be “sustained” by his Christian faith, while Patrick told the crowd he knew in his bones that Paxton would be “first and foremost a servant to his lord and savior, Jesus Christ.”

Perry, our state’s chief lay minister, led the crowd in prayer, in which he managed to slip in a few digs at the president. And Cruz outdid them all, thanking Abbott for his protection of Texas against the “United Nations and the World Court,” along with those pesky feds, and predicted Paxton would do the same.

This was technically Paxton’s show, but his speech, delivered in his typically lethargic style, will not long be remembered. Why are Barack Obama’s federales coming for Texas, he asked? It’s “because we’ve been successful,” he says. But he’s not too worried, because Texas, the “shining city on a hill” that Reagan mentioned that one time in that speech, is strong, and also, our Founding Fathers persevered through the storm with the spirit of 1776, and we rose up to fight those two world wars, and you know, all that good stuff. God bless our great state.

Ken Paxton with his family
Christopher Hooks
Paxton with family

A large number of Paxton’s family were in attendance—his wife sang the national anthem—and they can be suitably proud. The boy from McKinney (well, he was born in some place called Minot, North Dakota but that’s not important here) has done good, in spite of himself. And perhaps the large turnout of notable conservatives today is a sign that if and when the indictment comes down, the party will stand by him.

The closest analogue to Paxton in recent Texas history might be Jim Mattox, the sleazy Democratic populist who took control of the attorney general’s office in 1983 and was indicted just nine months later. Can our humble champion beat Mattox’s record? Today, pomp and circumstance; but the clock is ticking.

Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.
Patrick Michels
Texas State Capitol in Austin

Gather round, boys and girls: The 84th Texas Legislature is close at hand. Our state, much as it did at the beginning of the 83rd and 82nd and 81st and so on and so on, sits at a crossroads. Down one side of the fork, we see a future of good government, long-term planning and legislative restraint. Down the other, we have … not that.

Monday was the first day bills can be filed for next session, an occasion which is now rung in annually by the filing of state Rep. Tom Craddick’s (R-Midland) probably-doomed-again push to make texting while driving illegal. Hundreds of bills have been filed so far, and some are predictable: Democrats are lining up to repeal anti-same-sex-marriage measures. Republicans are lining up to pass open carry laws. There’s a wide variety of technocratic fixes on both sides of the aisle. Here are a few of the stranger ones.

Newly elected tea party state Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) has produced an extraordinary oddity in Senate Bill 62, which would require the state’s comptroller to produce a detailed invoice totaling up the cost of illegal immigration to the state—and then would require the comptroller and attorney general to present the invoice together to the feds. If the federals don’t pay up, Huffines would have the state turn up the heat:

After the submission, the comptroller and the attorney general shall use every means available to collect from the federal government the amount requested by the invoice, including by withholding any payments of money this state owes to the federal government in a total amount not to exceed the amount requested.

And if the comptroller doesn’t go along with Huffines’ scheme and compile an invoice? Under the bill’s provisions, the comptroller’s office would have $25,000 of its funding cut every day. Huffines, apparently, thinks government should work mostly via extortion.

Just as thought-through is Huffines’ Senate Joint Resolution 6, a proposed constitutional amendment that would provide term limits for Texas legislators—three full terms for senators, and six full terms for representatives, or 12 years each. Odder are the provisions that would also impose a 72-month cap on the speaker of the House, as well as committee chairmanships, where accumulated expertise is generally considered an asset.

These bills have as much chance of surviving the Legislature as a polar bear in Death Valley, but it’s a fun confirmation that Huffines, like a number of new senators, isn’t going to develop a reputation for subtlety.

State Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van), who pledged to deal a fatal blow to the specter of Sharia law in Texas a few months back, doesn’t have a bill along those lines yet: But he does have legislation to kill daylight savings time, ensure teachers can place the Ten Commandments in a “prominent position” in classrooms, and establish a 14-member “joint nullification committee” to determined which federal laws are unconstitutional and should be nullified in the state. OK, man.

There are more substantial bills, of course. Among them, state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) proposes raising the minimum wage to $10.10—though that measure has little chance of making it to the floor, either.

The most consequential bills filed yesterday have to do with the state’s revenue structure. The state’s tax base is growing, and legislators never fully restored the sweeping spending cuts they made in 2011. Which means they have money to play with—they can either restore funding to state services, or cut taxes yet again. From Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick on down, the latter impulse seems to have more momentum.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), who is climbing up the senate ranks as the new head of the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, has a bill out that would raise the state’s franchise tax exemption to $5 million.

This “fiscally responsible approach,” Schwertner said in a statement, would provide tax relief while “still maintaining a balanced budget,” because it would only deprive the state of $880 million dollars in revenue each biennium. That’s a hefty chunk of change. But, Schwertner’s office says, it’s certainly more “responsible” than proposals that would “eliminate the franchise tax entirely.” Expect to hear a lot of that kind of reasoning this session.

Oh, and here’s a bonus: One fun subplot in Austin these last few months has been the efforts of the Texas Ethics Commission to enhance disclosure requirements for dark-money groups like the one run by Michael Quinn Sullivan, the conservative kneecapper and would-be powerbroker who’s been struggling mightily to unseat House Speaker Joe Straus.

In past sessions, state Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth) and state Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) were key supporters of dark-money disclosure bills. Seliger’s proposal zipped along in 2013, until it was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry. Geren told the San Antonio Express-News in January his first bill this session would be about dark money disclosure, but neither he nor Seliger have filed one yet.

But incoming state Sen. Van Taylor, a Sullivan-aligned tea-party-type who’s replacing Ken Paxton in the upper chamber, proposes a constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature authority to tweak and alter rules passed by state agencies. The Ethics Commission isn’t singled out—the wording of the amendment is broad—but just the other week, Van Taylor signed a letter condemning TEC’s rulemaking process, and it makes sense that the two would be related. It’s going to be a down-and-dirty session.

Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 4.50.04 PM
Twitter

Do you remember the olden times, before Election? Fruit grew on every tree, and children’s laughter came from every hall and bough. There was brisket on every slab, a truck in every garage, and every Manuel was king. What a golden time it was—a gone time.

This is how we live now. This is our true-true, for another 4.5 days. Help us. Anybody. Help us?

Please?

1) After the election, we’ll be faced with a difficult task: We must rebuild. Fortunately, a friendly Japanese conglomerate has come up with a plan to connect Dallas and Houston with a high-speed train.

Now, Texas conservatives hate trains. Goddamn, do they hate trains. You wouldn’t believe how much they hate trains. But most of that hatred of trains is premised on the fact that governments usually have to spend money to build and maintain them, unlike highways, which are conjured by a paste made from pixie dust and black tar. But the Japanese rail proposal involves no public funds, so they’ll love it, right?

In steps Thelma Taormina, past-life Viking and current leader of the We The People Are The 9-12 Association, Inc./We Surround Them in Houston (real name). Taormina once gained fame for pulling a gun on a guy who tried to install an electrical “smart meter” at her home. But now she’s heard about the Far-Easterners and their train. She’s mobilizing. She knows what this is about: It’s the UN.

Everyone who has been on our mailing list for a while now knows that the plan for high-speed rail from Houston to Dallas is a part of a much bigger plan entailing Agenda 21, and a total deception to box us all in to the areas that the elite wish us to live.

Yes, the elite are coming to box us in—to… Houston and Dallas. Nothing says “New World Order” like Houston, a city which can’t even figure out how to use zoning laws. When fascism comes to America, it will swathed in Astros gear and carrying a rail pass.

2) Your humble correspondent has tried to record some of the weirder moments of this year’s nauseating electoral carnival ride, but I don’t think I’ve written or read a single thing stranger than Jonathan Tilove’s hallucinatory chronicle of his time at Greg Abbott rallies in Frisco and Abilene. (That might just be sleep deprivation talking, but I doubt it.) Abbott has come to travel the campaign trail and meet that great mass called “the people,” and Tilove, of the Austin American-Statesman, has tagged along. He meets some friendly fellows:

I arrived early for his appearance at Mattito’s Tex-Mex and was standing by myself amid the milling crowd, when a nattily attired man in sport jacket and tie approached me, looked me up and down, and with a look of disgust said something to the effect of “nice outfit.”

[…]

Unsure of where this was going, I mumbled some kind of apologetic, nondescript reply.

“It looks like you slept in it,” he said. And then, after another look at me, “How many nights?”

[…]

“Typical wacko,” my critic said to me, at me. He turned, walked a few steps away and posted himself. When I turned to look at him he trained a contemptuous glare at me.

Here’s the thing. Journalists—actually, I’m just going to single out male journalists here, though our XX-chromosomed companions are by no means universally excluded—are, as a rule, terrible slobs. Even when we look nice, we don’t look great. But Tilove, given his membership of a generally sad-sack cohort, is, I believe, an above-average sartorialist. I would testify to this belief in court.

I walked over to him and asked, “Did I do something to offend you?”

“Yes,” he said. “Breathe.”

My look betrayed my shock, and so he elaborated, just so I would know my shock was not misplaced.

“You are breathing my oxygen.”

Shaken, I walked away. I went into the men’s room and looked in the mirror. I looked pretty much like I always look, my attire no worse than usual.

From such simple encounters do existential crises emerge.

Solidarity to you, Mr. Tilove.

But that’s not even the weirdest thing that happened to Tilove as he tagged along with the Abbott campaign. In Abilene, Tilove meets a woman named Renee Higgins and her two friends. Comes the question: Fellas, what do you think about things?

“I didn’t have a problem with the liberals until this past six years and I’m sick and tired of everybody saying this is racism and this is not politically correct and I want to tell you, in my opinion, until we put God back in our schools, our homes and our government and our country, we are going to be under judgment,” Hayes said.

Sounds good. Renee, what did you ask General Abbott? A query about West Texas’ water infrastructure needs, perhaps? A critique of his higher education plan? An appeal against high-stakes testing?

Higgins also asked Abbott a second question, about reports she heard of the convicted pedophile murderer in a local prison “who wanted an eight-year-old little boy as his last meal.” “I said to him, ‘Is this a for-real deal, surely they wouldn’t do it,’” and he’s like, ‘No way that’s going to happen.’”

And she said it on camera:

We may not know much about the kind of governor Greg Abbott is going to be, but thanks to the diligent citizen journalism of Madam Higgins, we can say this much: He has taken a strong and decisive stand against cannibal pedophiles.

3) Elsewhere in Frisco news, here’s state Rep. Pat Fallon, whose most notable achievement in public life is a law which allows teachers to say “Merry Christmas,” telling a joke about how Wendy Davis is going to hell:

4) Up in Senate District 10, Democrat Libby Willis, in a tough fight with tea party organizer Konnie Burton for Wendy Davis’ soon-to-be-former Senate seat, has a new mailer out. It’s a great one. Here it is:

libby willis gay mailer

This, Willis boldy declares, is her vision for Texas’ future. In these hale and hearty fellows, we see the full flowering of the Democratic project here in Texas, in a way few candidates have been able to effectively communicate.

These obviously healthy guys have benefited enormously from improved access to health care across the state—they’re in tip-top shape. Policies that enable Texans to reap the rewards of our economic boom while building a social safety net have given these fine folks more disposable income, which they’ve spent on accessories and decorations, which in turn feeds the economy. The shirtlessness conveys a carefree and easy-going feeling. And yet at the heart of it, they embrace nominally conservative concepts and language so central to the state’s DNA, like “freedom,” and “marriage.”

The result: A happy, friendly, fun-loving state. Very well done, Willis campaign. Let’s flip it over:

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Oh. Wait—I don’t understand. Willis didn’t do it? What do Homosexual-Americans have to do with this?

Democratic nominee for comptroller at a campaign event with Tejano legend Little Joe, October 24, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Democratic nominee for comptroller at a campaign event with Tejano legend Little Joe, October 24, 2014.

Update: Last week, the Observer sat down with Democrat Mike Collier to talk about his candidacy for state comptroller. Collier, a veteran accountant, is in a race with state Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy) for control of an office that plays a crucial role in the state’s budgeting process. The Observer asked both candidates to sit for a Q&A, but Hegar’s campaign didn’t reply to our request.

In the interview, Collier spoke about the poor performance of the state’s current comptroller, Susan Combs, and the importance of producing reliable revenue forecasts for the Legislature to use while creating budgets. “We’re a very large, very prosperous state,” Collier said. “But for some reason we can’t seem to find the money for roads, schools, and water.”

Collier has proposed producing quarterly revenue forecasts, which would make it easier for the comptroller’s office and Legislature to adjust to changing economic conditions. More accurate revenue forecasting, he says, would provide the Legislature with more money to invest in the state without raising taxes.

He also spoke about the need to correct dysfunction in the state’s property tax system, where owners of commercial and industrial properties pay artificially low property taxes, shifting the state’s tax burden to homeowners.

“It’s patently unfair to homeowners and owners of small businesses,” Collier said. But attempts to fix the system have always met a quick death in the lege, where monied interests hold sway. If he’s elected, Collier says he’ll “be fiercely independent and call to people’s attention where these bills stand.” In the past, Hegar has helped kill tax reform bills.

Collier also said that the comptroller should act more assertively as a watchdog over public funds. “We have a pattern in Texas where the leaders at the very top can dole out this money and act like they’re above the law,” he said. “A big part of that problem lands at the feet of the comptroller.”

The comptroller’s office, he said, should be shorn of ownership of the Major Events Trust Fund and other marginal responsibilities so that the comptroller can maintain his or her narrow focus on sound financial policy.

Previous story: The comptroller’s debate last night was a pretty rare thing in the crazy tilt-a-whirl of this election cycle—it was substantive, contained serious but civil disagreements between two generally well-informed and earnest candidates, and illuminated real policy distinctions that are both important and little-discussed in the state’s public sphere. Compared to the rest of the debates and candidate forums we’ve seen over the last year, it might as well have been a unicorn convention.

In part, that’s because almost no one in the state is paying attention to the comptroller’s race. That’s unfortunate, because it is a hugely influential and important position. The comptroller provides the Legislature with an estimate of how much money the state can spend over each two-year cycle. If the comptroller bungles the estimate, legislators will either spend too much money or, as has happened under the tenure of incumbent Susan Combs, will make sweeping cuts to state government they didn’t have to make. (Combs is partially responsible for the gargantuan cuts in 2011 to the state’s public education system, which proved to be essentially unnecessary.)

And that lack of attention is unfortunate for Democrat Mike Collier, because it’s hard to see how many people could watch his debate with state Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy) and come away with the impression that Hegar deserves the state’s purse strings more than he. Collier, a former partner at the global accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, is an ideal technocrat: He’s passionate about good government and good accounting, and he lacks political ambition. Hegar was a so-so senator who doesn’t have much of a plan for the office.

The moderator of last night’s debate asked how Collier and Hegar would avoid the kind of foul-ups Combs has had. How would they come up with better revenue estimates? Collier said he’d provide quarterly revenue forecasts, which would help the office more nimbly adjust to economic conditions and give observers a better sense of whether he was doing a good job. He had decades of experience with revenue forecasts, he said.

Combs’ failure was so massive and so inexplicable, he said, that he “personally believes it’s a possibility” that she screwed up the revenue forecasts on purpose to squeeze state government. The office needed an apolitical hand on the till. “We need somebody in the office who knows what they’re doing,” he said, which in Texas is a virtually revolutionary statement. He’d be a “watchdog” that would use the office’s authority to beat back corruption in different crannies of state government.

How would Hegar make sure he wasn’t botching revenue forecasts? Well, he would travel around the state and talk to businessmen, to “get the pulse” of the state, in order to better understand Texas’ “economic vibe.” He’d use “21st century communication technologies,” including YouTube, to spread the word about the comptroller’s office. Well, OK.

Collier called for closing “loopholes” relating to the tax assessment of large industrial and commercial properties, which shifts the state’s tax burden to homeowners. Hegar said a broader fix was necessary, but couldn’t say much about what that fix would be.

Glenn Hegar
State Sen. Glenn Hegar

Collier brought up Hegar’s proposal to abolish property taxes, and replace them with sales taxes—an idea that few policy analysts take seriously but has nonetheless won favor with state GOPers, including lt. governor nominee Dan Patrick. Collier characterized Hegar’s proposal as “tripling sales taxes.” Hegar angrily denied wanting to do so, but then told his TV audience that “consumption taxes are the best method of collection,” seeming to indicate he’d be fine with a shift toward them.

Collier, like his Democratic ticket-mates Sam Houston, running for attorney general, and Leticia Van de Putte, nominee for lt. governor, have won every major newspaper endorsement in the state. Collier projects competence and practicality—Hegar projects ideology and ambition. In a more civically engaged state, Collier would at least have a shot at comptroller. But this is Texas, and the odds are stacked significantly against him.

Still, Collier has been putting in a performance he can be proud of as one of the punchiest members of the Democrats’ good-government ticket. “It’s almost comical that a career politician would lecture a 30-year businessman about job creation,” Collier said of Hegar in his closing statement. Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up one day next year and know the man keeping the state’s books knew what he was doing? “We’re all tired of politics and we’re all tired of politicians,” he added.

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Wendy Davis speaks to students at the University of Texas at Austin, October 27, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Wendy Davis speaks to students at the University of Texas at Austin, October 27, 2014.

On the campus of the University of Texas at Austin today, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis urged a packed room of students to vote and to help her campaign turn out voters. The rally comes as spotty turnout numbers during the first week of early voting have called into question Democrats’ ability to turn out enough voters to make an impact on Election Day, only a week away.

At the rally, Davis told students that her opponent, Greg Abbott, would “shortchange the future of the state.” Davis ran through her campaign’s core arguments—Abbott only cared about his “insider buddies,” and hadn’t used his office to protect the state’s citizens. She highlighted Abbott’s defense of school funding cuts, and told the crowd she would try to win an increase in the minimum wage, increased access to health care, and equal pay laws for women.

“I know very much who I am. I know very much where I come from. It is deeply embedded in me,” she told the crowd. “I am a fighter for people.”

With Davis’ campaign behind in most polls, Democrats have to turn out a large number of unlikely voters to make an impact this cycle. But turnout in the first week of early voting has been low. Davis and other Democrats are traveling the state, hoping to excite their core constituencies.

At Monday’s rally, Davis predicted that young voters would “lift us across the finish line.” She told the young crowd that her campaign “need[s] your help in this next eight days. I need you to make sure that no one stays home. I need you to talk to your friends about the fact that not voting is voting to keep the status quo.”

Afterward, Davis told members of the press that her campaign was in a “place of momentum,” and boasted of her campaign’s “32,000 volunteers.” She blasted recent polls, including one from the Texas Tribune that gave Abbott a 16 point lead, as “internet polls” that were “wildly inaccurate” and didn’t reflect the true state of the race. “The real poll is taking place right now,” she said. “The momentum is going to continue through this week of early voting.”

When a reporter pointed out that turnout has been flat so far—the state’s major population centers have seen fewer voters take advantage of the first week of early voting than in 2010—Davis said the campaign had evidence that “our voters are increasing. And they’re a greater percentage of the overall vote.”

When another reporter pressed her for the source of that belief, Davis said the campaign’s models and data operation showed a more Democratic-favorable electorate coming to the polls. “We’re very encouraged by what we’re seeing in those numbers,” she said. “More people who are inclined to vote for me are showing up and voting.”

She continued to hit Abbott hard on ethics, as she has for much of the campaign. On Abbott’s mishandling of materials relating to the Texas Enterprise Fund, she told a reporter that Abbott “has shown himself to be a dishonest person,” she said, adding that she would fight for “accountability” in office.

Leticia Van de Putte addresses a crowd of students at the University of Texas-Pan American
Christopher Hooks
Leticia Van de Putte addresses a crowd of students at the University of Texas-Pan American, October 23, 2014.

At a campaign event in Edinburg on Thursday, Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor Leticia Van de Putte—with a little help from actress Eva Longoria—made a strong and pointed pitch to a cohort that will be an important factor in whether Democrats put up a strong showing on Nov. 4: young voters of the Rio Grande Valley.

For decades, predominantly Hispanic communities in South Texas have had some of the lowest voter participation rates in the country, and hopes for a Democratic revival in the state are premised partially on raising those rates. On the campus of the University of Texas–Pan American, Van de Putte, along with a number of other speakers, made a multi-pronged argument for the Democratic ticket.

There was the positive case: More civic engagement would help the Valley—the area needed good government to keep growing, and Van de Putte told the crowd of mostly students that she would convince the Legislature to spend more on education and infrastructure.

But Van de Putte also hit her opponent Dan Patrick directly. At a rally the night before in San Antonio, Van de Putte’s mother had been in attendance. “My mom always told me, ‘Leticia, if you can’t say anything nice about somebody, then don’t say anything at all,’” Van de Putte told the Edinburg crowd. “But my mom’s not here.”

Patrick, Van de Putte said, stood for the “past.” He had voted for and supported cuts to education funding, and his rhetoric on the border represented policy preferences that were a threat to the future and stability of South Texas. When Van de Putte told the crowd that one of Patrick’s first acts in office would be to end in-state tuition for undocumented migrants, there was a round of boos from the students. UTPA has a significant number of undocumented students.

Afterwards, Van de Putte spoke to local media and again criticized Patrick’s attitude toward the region. Patrick had ”only been here one or two times,” she said, to “take a picture of him in a gunboat. He understands that to get votes in his primary, he has to insult our families, our culture.”

Earlier this year, Democrats were excited about the prospect of running against Dan Patrick, whose extraordinarily strange and alienating rhetoric during his GOP primary run seemed to present the possibility of being too far-right even for Texas. So far, that hope hasn’t seemed to materialize—most recent polls have Patrick considerably ahead of Van de Putte, doing even better, relatively, than Greg Abbott in his race. But Democrats still hope Patrick excites Hispanic turnout and alienates some number of moderate Republicans.

There was another warning for the students on Thursday. Eva Longoria and Henry R. Muñoz III, co-founders of the Texas-focused Latino Victory, both told students at the rally that “’they’ don’t want you to vote.” Republicans like Patrick were counting on young and Hispanic voters to stay home. “They” might talk about inclusion, and in the importance of voter participation, but they didn’t really care. It served as an implicit criticism of Patrick as well as Abbott, who has been campaigning in the Rio Grande Valley in an effort to bolster the GOP’s Hispanic vote share.

Afterwards, Van de Putte and Longoria worked a ropeline together, and the campaign headed for Corpus Christi, where Abbott had been campaigning with Chuck Norris just the day before. If you needed yet another way to distinguish between the Democratic and Republican tickets this November, there you have it: It’s the Chuck Norris slate vs. the Eva Longoria slate.

Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Attorney General Greg Abbott soaks up the applause after announcing he's running for governor.

If you’re a politician who has taken a public position against gay marriage, as Greg Abbott has, there’s a tricky thing you have to do to keep your position cogent. You need an argument for a same-sex marriage ban that doesn’t contradict or aim to invalidate the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia, which struck prohibitions against interracial marriage, including in Texas, and established marriage as one of the core, basic rights enshrined in the Constitution.

That’s proven tough for many anti-gay marriage politicians. When the Supreme Court declined to consider lower court rulings earlier this month, effectively making same-sex marriage legal in a number of states, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who used to argue cases before the high court and so should know better, released a statement asserting that “marriage is a question for the States.”

Yet in Loving, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the court’s unanimous opinion that marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” and that the “freedom to marry … cannot be infringed by the State.” When the GOP candidate for attorney general in Wisconsin responded to a question about Loving by saying that he would have defended a ban on interracial marriage in court, too, he was at least being consistent.

When Abbott met with the San Antonio Express-News editorial board recently, reporter Peggy Fikac asked him about Loving. He had defended the state’s gay marriage ban in court recently—would he have defended a ban on interracial marriage? Abbott took a different tack:

“Right now, if there was a ban on interracial marriage, that’s already been ruled unconstitutional,” Abbott pointed out. “And all I can do is deal with the issues that are before me … The job of an attorney general is to represent and defend in court the laws of their client, which is the state Legislature, unless and until a court strikes it down.”

When I said I wasn’t clear if he was saying he would have defended a ban on interracial marriage, he said, “Actually, the reason why you’re uncertain about it is because I didn’t answer the question. And I can’t go back and answer some hypothetical question like that.”

Some hypotheticals are difficult to answer. What if the South had won the Civil War? Is it nobler for a Danish prince to suffer the slings of outrageous fortune or take arms against them? How many roads must a man walk down? This one shouldn’t be particularly difficult. It’s especially odd because Abbott is himself married to a Hispanic woman—though the anti-miscegenation laws struck by Loving were particularly targeted to black-white relationships.

But perhaps Abbott was wise to have dodged the question, because he likely would have defended a ban on interracial marriage, according to his own principles and record. He wouldn’t have known how not to. Abbott hasn’t shown a whole lot of independent spirit during his tenure as AG—he’s bound, he says, to defend whatever the Legislature vomits up:

“Believe me, I would love it,” he added, “The state would look a whole lot more like me right now if I did abandon my role and exercised my magic wand and decided what cases I would defend and which I didn’t, and therefore allowed me to dictate policy in this state.

“But I think that by doing what I do, I am maintaining the policy that I think is appropriate, and that is for each elected official to fulfill their constitutional obligations,” he said.

But while the Attorney General may have to mount some kind of defense of the state, he has “a tremendous amount of discretion” over how aggressively to prosecute those cases, how “effectively” to prosecute cases, and which cases to bring to court. Abbott has been using his stint as AG to campaign for governor for years—he’s brought failed case after failed case against the federal government, costing Texas taxpayers millions. But his hands are tied when it comes to gay marriage and school finance, he insists. He has to aggressively defend bad laws to the last.

Abbott’s tenure has included a number of instances in which he pursued comically bizarre legal arguments in cases for which he could have no reasonable hope of victory—seemingly forfeiting his powers of discretion. In 2008, Abbott chose to defend the state’s ban on the sale of sex toys, a case that emerged from the fallout of Lawrence v. Texas. Over the years, Abbott has deployed novel legal arguments against gay marriage. But this wasn’t a case about gay marriage, a subject that still animates sincere moral disagreements. This was a case about every American’s god-given right to buy dildos.

At the time, anti-sex toy laws were widely understood to be unconstitutional, but Abbott suited up for battle. The state, his lieutenants argued with straight faces before the 5th Circuit, had an interest in “discouraging prurient interests in autonomous sex and the pursuit of sexual gratification unrelated to procreation.” The state of Texas has a pressing interest, Abbott said, in discouraging you from masturbating or blowing your boyfriend. That was just six years ago.

As The Dallas Morning News notes, several past attorneys general, including Abbott’s predecessor John Cornyn, have refused to take part in cases when they felt they’d be in the wrong. But it seems there’s no law so bad Abbott won’t defend it.

Here’s the thing: We’re just two weeks away from Election Day, and we still don’t know much about what kind of governor Greg Abbott would be. Apart from the fishing ads and vague policy proposals, and even given his lengthy record as attorney general, we don’t necessarily know much about what drives him, or his leadership style.

Next session, if the GOP sweeps important races, Abbott will face a divided Legislature, with House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick representing very different policy preferences and styles. Which will Abbott rely more on? How forceful will he be in asserting his own will over the Legislature? Perry used his longevity to turn a relatively weak office into a powerful one: Under Abbott, would the position revert to its former status, or would Abbott seize Perry’s reins?

From time to time, we get little glimpses of Abbott and how he thinks about government. At the second debate, we caught one when Abbott, flustered, said he wouldn’t prevent the Legislature from repealing the Texas DREAM Act. Miscegenation-gate is another interesting episode. Abbott seems more like a follower than a leader, which isn’t a very good sign when you consider the forceful personalities he’ll be clashing with next year.

Vote for me or the little guy gets it, see?
Vote for me or the little guy gets it, see?

Over the last few weeks, the editorial boards of the state’s newspapers have been rolling out their endorsements. On Thursday night, the first major newspaper endorsement in the governor’s race dropped—The Dallas Morning News is backing Greg Abbott.

That’s not particularly surprising. Unlike other statewide races, both Abbott and Wendy Davis are relatively serious, thoughtful people, capable of approximating the kind of serious, thoughtful figure editorial boards like. Texas newspapers have turned heavily against more tarnished GOP figures like Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton, but Abbott’s not really one of them. There’s the added factor that newspapers may aspire to endorse candidates from both parties, and they frankly don’t have many Republican options who meet the low bar of being able to appear serious and thoughtful.

There are plenty of perfectly reasonable arguments in favor of Abbott, and the Morning News gives some of them. But one of their reasons for endorsing Abbott is fascinating. Here it is:

Where Davis would be likely to encounter ideological battles at every turn, Abbott has the best chance to inspire legislative progress.

Davis has fought valiantly. But for all her progressive promise, and alignment with this newspaper on many issues, Texas cannot afford to provoke the kind of partisan stalemate her victory would probably bring, much like the gridlock that has paralyzed Washington. As much as Texas needs to counterbalance its GOP hard-liners, we fear Davis would only invigorate them.

Elect Davis, and GOPers will be so mad they won’t cooperate on anything, just like what happened when Barack Obama took office. This is a really beautiful encapsulation of some of the most depressing features of American politics right now—a reminder that we do government primarily these days by hostage-taking, in contravention of the ostensible norms of representative government. It’s also an assertion that the hostage-takers should win, and a demonstration of why they will keep winning. It’s monumentally demoralizing. But applied to the Texas context, is it right?

What would a Gov. Davis look like? Well, she would probably have little influence over the Legislature. Assume Davis wins and so does Patrick—Davis would be able to get hardly any of her legislative priorities through. Patrick would be preparing to run against her in 2018, and his Senate would kill or mangle almost anything that bore her personal stamp. But Davis would have a veto which would prevent Patrick’s worst bills and initiatives from getting through.

But the Morning News endorsement anticipates something worse—that the conservative Legislature seizes the levers of state government and goes to war against Davis, refuses to budge on any issue, refuses to put together a budget, refuses to consider new and important legislation, until its demands are met and Davis effectively surrenders. In effect, if the people of the state elect Davis to lead them, conservatives in the Legislature—probably led by Patrick—will take Texas hostage.

So the Morning News’ instinct is to reward the hostage-taker, pay the ransom, and keep the state safely gripped by one-party rule. On the one hand, it feels like a pretty bleak misperception of how small-r republican government is supposed to work. It’s especially odd because the endorsement urges Abbott to be “a moderating influence” for his party—a bit like a liberal urging his radical-left friends to “work inside the system.”

It seems probable that Patrick will be the dominant figure of the 2015 legislative session, not Abbott. It would be very difficult to make the case that a Gov. Abbott will be better at containing Patrick than a Gov. Davis, with a veto stamp and a reason to oppose him openly. It seems like extraordinarily wishful thinking to hope Abbott will turn out to be the state’s version of a Rockefeller Republican. On Friday, the Houston Chronicle and the Austin American-Statesman issued strong endorsements for Davis, in part because of the belief that putting Davis in the governor’s mansion would provide a check on the state GOP’s worst impulses.

But on the other hand, the Morning News might just be conceding to reality. Certain features of the American system of government simply aren’t working as well as they used to. One fundamental cause of that is that the two parties have become ideologically purified—no longer is there much overlap between Republicans and Democrats in Congress, and they have little reason to work together. But the way that problem manifests itself most severely is within the Republican Party, and its willingness to throw gum in the system’s gears.

Consider Texas’ extraordinarily polarized politics. As the state inevitably moves toward a two-party system, it’s easy to anticipate Texas GOPers picking up the tactics of John Boehner and Ted Cruz. Patrick’s probable victory may be one sign that’s already happening.

That’s also a pretty big problem for Democrats. As long as the economy is going OK here—without a prolonged drop in oil prices, or the bursting of a regional real estate bubble—a lot of people will be a little frightened of the implications of a competitive two-party system. It’s not unlike the way a lot of people feel in a truly one-party system—be it the PRI in Mexico, Augusto Pinochet’s Chile during the 1988 plebiscite, or China today. Why mess with (relative) success? Why leave the devil you know for the devil you don’t?

In Texas that feeling is shared, apparently, by the editorial board of the state’s second-largest newspaper.