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Kory Watkins
Open Carry Tarrant County leader Kory Watkins

Few people in Texas history have made enemies at the Capitol as quickly and decisively as Kory Watkins, the leader of Open Carry Tarrant County, a group that proved too radical for the main body of open carry demonstrators. Lobbying for the right to carry handguns openly in public and without a license, he’s almost single-handedly turned what should have been a sympathetic Legislature against his core cause, irritating and alienating natural friends and generally making himself a nuisance.

Today, he took a big step toward Travis Bickle territory, warning legislators that their behavior was “punishable by death” and that there’s “going to be trouble” if they don’t cave to his demands.

It’s not the first time he’s crossed the line from nuisance to threat: Open Carry Tarrant County’s shameful behavior in state Rep. Poncho Nevárez’s office freaked out the whole Legislature, and caused the Department of Public Safety to give Nevárez a security detail. Dan Patrick, after inadvertently infuriating the open carry guys, has tried to give them consolation prizes. The Senate would allow guns on college campuses, Patrick emphasized. Maybe licensed open carry had a chance.

But open carry activists like Watkins want unlicensed open carry, in part because quite a few of them have criminal backgrounds and can’t get a concealed handgun license under current law.

This morning, Watkins uploaded a video monologue to his Facebook page. It quickly got taken down, but not before anti-open carry activists took it and uploaded it to YouTube.

“Last week, we got to see the games of the legislators,” Watkins tells the camera. “Looks like we have campus carry, no problem. But open carry? I don’t know about that,” he says, mimicking a legislator.

He challenges his audience of activists not to take the bait: “Are you going to settle for the low-hanging fruit that your masters are putting on the tree for you? Or are you going to go to the top of the tree and grab that fruit at the very top?”

Watkins has had enough. “I’m tired of jacking around. I’m tired of playing politically correct games. I’m tired of saying, ‘Well, this is chess, and we gotta take this slowly.’ No, no, no, no, no. This isn’t a game. This is reality. And these are our rights they’re playing with.”

Then, he goes too far: “I dunno if they forgot what their duty is, but it’s to protect the Constitution. And let me remind you: Going against the Constitution is treason. And treason is punishable by death.”

The men and women of the Legislature would do well to heed his words. “We’re not playing around. I don’t think they wanna mess with us too much longer.” If they did, something new would be coming at them. “They better start giving us our rights, or this peaceful non-cooperation stuff is gonna be, um, gamed up. We’re gonna step it up a notch.”

He’d just about had it. “In Texas we’re tired of jacking around with people in suits who think they can take away freedoms in the name of safety,” Watkins says. “These politicians down there are jacking around with your head.”

In Nevárez’s office, Watkins had stuck his foot in the door, preventing the rep from kicking him fully out of his office. It’s time for more, Watkins says.

“I want to put more than my foot in that door. We should be doing way more than that. We should be demanding that these people give us our rights back. Or else it’s punishable by death. Treason,” Watkins says. “You understand how serious this is, Texas? We need to start sticking more than foots in doors. This is treason against the American people. You don’t sell my rights back to me. Or you’re gonna find trouble.”

With that, he ends the recording.

What Dan Patrick’s First Big Mistake Says About Him—and the Senate

Dan Patrick manages to assemble his own personal circular firing squad in the first weeks of the session.
In a campaign ad from 2013, Patrick says he'll support open carry in office.
In a campaign ad from 2013, Patrick says he'll support open carry in office.

Among the myriad embarrassments the Legislature has suffered through in the last week, one subplot has something important to say about the potential embarrassments it will suffer through going forward. Last week saw Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s first big bungle—a totally avoidable trial-by-fire that demonstrates some of Patrick’s possible shortcomings as a leader and political actor.

You may have seen parts of it crop up in the news, but here’s the whole thing, in three painfully mismanaged acts. Last Tuesday, Patrick was interviewed by the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith at an early morning event. Smith asked Patrick if open carry was a done deal given the conservative composition of the Senate.

“Second Amendment rights are very important,” Patrick said. “But the open carry does not reach the level of prioritizing at this point out of all the things we talked about.” In fact, he didn’t even “think there’s support in the Legislature to pass it,” adding that “the votes have not been there” in the past, and little had seemed to change. If the votes materialized, he’d let it pass, but he wasn’t going to be pushing for it.

Patrick had his own priorities—he shoehorned a plug for school vouchers into his answer—and open carry just wasn’t one of them.

This was a careless answer, even if—especially if—it were true. Republican senators may be privately apprehensive about open carry after January’s shenanigans, and Patrick may not care much about it personally. But Patrick ran in the Republican primary by repeatedly pledging he supported open carry. Moreover, he said he would “fight for open carry,” which is a bit more assertive than just saying he would let it pass.

The problem: Under the new rules Patrick forced on the Senate, he can no longer quietly ensure Democrats take the blame for the failure of gun bills, like his predecessor David Dewhurst did. Nineteen of the Senate’s 20 Republicans could vote as a block and pass open carry out of the chamber, but there are quite a few GOP senators who are skeptical.

Of the two proposed Senate bills, licensed open carry may yet show signs of life. But unlicensed open carry, which the loudest activists are demanding, seems unlikely to pass. Patrick and open carry’s backers would have to employ a great deal of arm-twisting and expend a lot of political capital to advance the measure, which may be doomed regardless, and Patrick has other priorities.

That said, why didn’t Patrick just say he’d fight for it now, and then see what happens? Perhaps Senate moderates would take the blame for open carry’s failure—if it does fail—or perhaps the measures would fall apart in the House, where Joe Straus’ merry band of RINOs would suffer the ire of the base instead.

Patrick's campaign website made clear he would "fight for open carry."
Patrick’s campaign website made clear he would “fight for open carry.”

Instead, Patrick appears to have told the truth when he should have lied, which in politics is the greatest gaffe of all. Just a few hours later, he had an easy opportunity to qualify his remarks and quash brewing dissent: At the unveiling of the Senate budget plan, a reporter asked him about his open carry talk. But Patrick snippily declined to answer, and took the reporter to task for asking a question that wasn’t about the budget.

Predictably, the open carry guys went nuts—or, more nuts. But why shouldn’t they? Patrick told them he was a fellow traveller when he needed their votes, but now he had seemingly flipped. So the gun activists turned up the heat on Republican senators, the people for whom Patrick is supposed to provide cover. The leader of Open Carry Tarrant County, Kory Watkins, issued a series of cryptic threats toward, and complaints about, Patrick that promised confrontation later in the week. Here’s a fun video of Watkins after getting off the phone with Patrick’s office.

At any point, Patrick’s communication team could have covered for their boss pretty simply: Patrick, they’d say, cares about gun rights and would fight for it this session, etc. But it took his office two days to put out a statement, which finally came late last Wednesday afternoon. It was a major walkback. Labeled “Senate Gun Bills Update,” Patrick’s office emphasized that the Senate’s campus carry bill, which would force colleges to allow guns on school property, had been co-authored by 19 of the Senate’s 20 Republicans.

Now that the campus carry bill was on its way, Patrick’s Senate could focus on “other 2nd Amendment issues, including Open Carry, which I have consistently supported.”

That night, Patrick took to Facebook, for a long post that put the blame for his statements on… the media.

There were inaccurate reports in the media and across the Internet yesterday regarding my comments concerning Open Carry legislation. Despite reports to the contrary, I have never changed my position on the issue. I remain a steadfast supporter of the second amendment and Open Carry legislation.

As is typical of the media looking to build wedges among conservatives, many stories took words out of context. I did not say the bill was dead but suggested instead that, because the votes were not there (at this time), it had not risen to a level of priority….at this point. That is far different than saying an issue is not a priority, it just means work still needs to be done.

It’s a crisis management tack that would be well-suited for a campaign, but not for governing. Watch the video for yourself—this is not what Patrick said. Certainly, he may have misspoken, but the confidence with which he talked at the Tribune event would seem to argue against that.

There are even some people who have argued that Patrick was playing a kind of three-dimensional chess here by forcing activists to apply pressure to waffling senators to support open carry, but this seems weirdly reminiscent of liberals who insist that President Obama is always following a master plan just slightly out of view. Moreover, his communications team’s response to this episode doesn’t seem especially thought-out.

Eventually, Patrick’s staff met with Watkins, the rogue open carry leader. By Monday, Patrick’s communications team was in full gear, attempting to reassure activists he would follow their lead on their favored gun bills. Many still don’t quite believe him—and again, why should they?

But here’s the crazy thing: The end result of Patrick’s few days of gun heresy could be that he becomes even more beholden to the gun activists than before. They’ll be watching him, and they will be difficult to satisfy.

Why is any of this notable, for those not interested in the pathetic saga of gun bills so far this session? This was Patrick’s first real test, and he didn’t acquit himself well. He let his mouth get far, far ahead of him at a high-profile event, and it took a long while for his team to do damage control. As a result, he’s getting pushed to lead the charge for an effort he may not care much about. The failure or success of open carry will now be more strongly tied to his personal efforts.

Patrick’s temperamental style here put a burden on the senators he leads: It exposed them to a lot of time-consuming ire from constituents and may force them into positions they don’t want to take. That can’t have gone over well. And while there won’t be many more opportunities for Patrick to mouth off like he did in Smith’s interview—his office has no particular love for the media—everything we know about Patrick suggests his shoot-from-the-hip style holds true in his private dealings with other legislators as well. Signs of that will be something to watch for as time goes on, though we won’t see much of it in public.

There’s another part of this: Patrick made a hell of a lot of outlandish promises during his primary and during the general election. The grassroots have invested in him remarkably high expectations. He can’t possibly deliver on all of his promises, this session or even in the next. How will he manage the inevitable disappointment from the people who made him lite guv? Will the gun activists accept campus carry as a consolation prize if open carry dies? Blaming the media will only work for so long.

Kory Watkins open carry
Facebook
Governor Kory Watkins, w/ gun, at a Target.

We’re sorry, Texas. When the Observer discontinued this quasi-liked and occasionally-read feature after last year’s election, it precipitated some two months of relative peace and stability. You did pretty good, Texas. At times, we discerned a sparkle in your eye and a spring in your step that we hadn’t seen since boats-and-hoes-ghazi kicked off the dark times.

But the return of the Legislature proved too tempting. We started to talk about bringing it back. And then everything went to shit.

1) The Texas Capitol is the people’s house, but, to crib from Marx, some of the people are revolting. That’s Groucho Marx, not Karl. Anyway, the beginning of the Legislature is a shining moment, a time for civic reconciliation after a contentious election. We must all recognize each other as coequal human beings and busy ourselves with the hard work of forging compromise, under the watchful eyes of our one true leader: Kory Watkins.

Watkins, the fedora-wearing champion who leads the splinter open carry protest group known as Open Carry Tarrant County, has managed to singlehandedly annex much of the Capitol in recent weeks to an anarcho-capitalist commune of his own making, the People’s Republic of Kory.

As we know from Machiavelli, one can rule through fear or love. Love would seem to be the easiest choice here for Open Carry protesters, seeing as the Legislature really, really loves guns, so much that it kind of gets weird if you think about it too long. For much of the past few months, the lawmakers seemed prepped to hand the open carry guys what they wanted on a silver platter.

But Watkins, despite his love of Honey Boo Boo, is a fear-man, seemingly incapable of adult communication or restraint. He made such an ass of himself in state Rep. Poncho Nevárez’ office that the House saw fit to make it easier for members to install panic buttons in their offices. Support for open carry started to melt away, almost singlehandedly because of Watkins. And yet he didn’t learn:

This would all be funnier if Rep. Nevárez, one of the all-around best dudes in the Lege, didn’t receive threats to himself and his family after his run-in with Watkins, requiring DPS protection.

But Watkins is taking things a little more seriously now, in song form.

If you’re going to be at the Capitol in the next few months, please remember one simple question: What would Kory do? Don’t do that.

On the other hand, though, like all of the most entitled bullies in Texas history, Kory is set to face zero consequences for his actions.

So maybe, do do that?

2) What’s left to say about state Rep. Molly White, who did her part to make the pink dome at the heart of the People’s Republic of Kory a more welcoming place this week? One tidbit got less attention than the rest:

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 2.01.29 PM

People use the word “renounce” when they leave something they were once a part of, or supported. So think about that: Molly White accidentally asserted she’d once supported the Ku Klux Klan, and it was like the 30th worst thing she did that day. Stellar week for her communications team.

3) If you had the misfortune to follow Newt Gingrich’s last presidential run, you know he cares about one thing above all others, even more than revisiting child labor laws and that moon base. That’s the threat posed by EMPs. The idea of an EMP weapon, in case you’re not familiar, refers to the idea that an enemy could set off a nuclear device high in the atmosphere and fry electronic circuits down below. North Korea, or whoever, could set off a bomb over the Heartland and disable the electrical grid for much of the continental United States. It’s a fear that plays to a conservative love of self-sufficiency and distrust of centrally planned systems, and the fringe’s love of survivalism. Scientists say meh, but who cares?

On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Natural Resources & Economic Development met for the first time and heard testimony from the head of ERCOT, and freshman state Sen. Bob Hall (R-World Net Daily) raised his voice to the microphone for his first time as a legislator. He made it clear he knew he stood on the shoulders of giants. “I want to commend—those that have gone before me here have done a great job.”

But Hall was here now. He’d been to the bleeding razor’s edge of the neo-zeitgeist, and back, and he’d seen the threatscape matrix of tomorrow, thanks to his membership in the Newt Gingrich Book of the Month Club.

“I just want to make you aware of an issue that we will be addressing to make sure that we keep abreast and keep that protection up whether it be a natural or a manmade disaster, such as the EMP threat, that is becoming more important today than it has in the past.”

It’s almost as if a lobbyist gave him a bouncy rubber ball so he wouldn’t be meddling in anything important.

4) Do you read AgendaWise? I’m kidding, nobody does. The site, part of Tim Dunn and Michael Quinn Sullivan’s far-right messaging network that’s been trying for years to unseat House Speaker Joe Straus, provides a scribble-space for two bloggers, Weston Hicks and Daniel Greer. Under the noses of the Capitol establishment, they’ve carved out, with the help of a significant amount of pissed-away donor money, a space for some of the most surreal and hallucinatory writing about Austin’s politics scene.

That’s not to say that it’s good. Hicks and Greer write like children who were raised by wolves and learned to talk at an under-18 Ren Faire live-action role-playing tournament. They make extremely grandiose pronouncements, using curiously out-of-time language, about pretty ordinary shit. Did you know, for example, that our serially middling attorney general, Ken Paxton, is “a hope for all western governments?”

I’m being mean about their turgid prose because—and this is only slightly more important than the quality of their writing—they also have a tendency to be assholes. Greer had to take a brief leave of absence from AgendaWise when he got caught calling moderate GOP state reps “fags,” and “joked” that gay people got AIDS instead of making babies when they have sex because of “#naturallaw.”

This week brings another fine example of the AgendaWise canon. It’s got a juicy title.

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 2.21.22 PM

Woah! Two sentences in and we’ve already got our first zinger!

Here’s the meat of it: People who aren’t on the AgendaWise side are whores.

The grassroots don’t want their hard work capsized because of lechers in Austin who can’t protect their own influence from being hijacked by political concubines.

Political chastity is the discipline of interested political actors not to sleep with one another. The reason this is so important, and much more than a “private matter,” is that politics is a cold war.

Keep going…

In war, sleeping with the enemy is a serious offense. In World War II women who slept with German occupiers were treated harshly and ostracized. The reason is simple – the act signifies vulnerability and openness. Someone who has slept with the enemy has significantly compromised their ability to deny the enemy access to vital communal information, and, to some extent, they’ve compromised their ability to say “no” to the enemy.

The sex act “signifies vulnerability and openness”—spoken like a man who has definitely had the Sex. I like the cut of this guy’s jib! Keep going—

Believe it or not, Austin has actual political whores. They don’t think of themselves that way, but others do, and that is what they are. They may be a disgrace to their families, but they are rife in Austin.

In their minds they are just being “liberated women,” only they are professionally rewarded for being “liberated” in the vicinity of men with crucial intelligence or strategic access to power. It is especially important to find weak links to access in the Austin clan who don’t pledge allegiance to the current special interest regime – conservatives – and this caliber of woman can do this job uniquely well.

At parts, Hicks seems to be using the idea of this slutty whore woman as a metaphor, but at points it seems like he’s talking about an actual, specific woman. He caps the piece with a long and disturbing passage from the book of Proverbs about the dangers of consorting with bad, naughty, and slutty women, which ends thusly:

She seduces him with all her talk. She entices him with her flattery. He goes headlong after her, like an ox to the slaughter, like a deer leaping into a trap, until an arrow pierces his liver, like a bird hurrying to the snare, not aware that it will cost him his life.

The piece is a psychosexual nightmare and crazily misogynist, and if Hicks had written it in high school he’d be called to the counselor’s office. You could read the piece and believe that Hicks was calling almost all of the women who work at the capitol whores.

But I think we can discern, behind this dark mess, what has happened. Hicks, as we’ve previously discussed, knows deep of sex and love, like a man should. Perhaps … a woman caught his eye? A woman of the cause? Perhaps there was a spark, and perhaps, some weeks later, the woman left. Her heart led her in a different direction. She took a job in Straus’ office.

Molly White
facebook
State Rep. Molly White (R-Belton)

Freshman Rep. Molly White (R-Belton) is a fireball, and we knew that. Fiercely pro-life—she blames her two abortions for a history of substance abuse and mental anguish—she might be the only member of the Legislature to haul around plastic models of fetuses in her SUV. But she’s also a woman of the world, and abortion is not her only issue. Today, as part of an interfaith lobbying effort, a group of Texas Muslims descended on the Capitol to meet legislators. White left her staff specific instructions as to how to deal with the suspicious interlocutors, and was proud enough to post them on Facebook:

Today is Texas Muslim Capital day [sic] in Austin. The House is in recess until Monday. Most Members including myself are back in District. I did leave an Israeli flag on the reception desk in my office with instructions to staff to ask representatives from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws. We will see how long they stay in my office.

White sees the Muslims in her office as an enemy. One might make the assumption that Muslims looking to meet their elected representatives are a different subset than jihadis, but this is not within White’s power. Apart from the odd use of the Israeli flag—as if it were a wooden stake, to menace vampires—White’s desire to see every Muslim who has the singular misfortune to wander into her office pledge “allegiance to America” before they commune with an elected officeholder is insulting and dangerous for reasons that should be obvious. Only an idiot would demand White repudiate the butchers of abortion doctors every time she rose to speak about her core issue on the House floor.

By mid-morning, Molly White was trending on Twitter, and she’s going to catch some flak for this. But White’s words are a reminder that anti-Muslim bigotry is a core part of the worldview of the state’s far-right, which fears little more than Islam. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick boycotted the first prayer delivered by an Imam in the Texas Senate back in 2007. Last year, a hijab-clad reporter from UT-Arlington’s student newspaper wrote about her unpleasant experiences at the Republican Party of Texas’ convention. Cathie Adams, a former chairwoman of the state GOP, has been traveling the state educating tea party groups to the fact that important figures in the national Republican hierarchy and the intelligence community are secret Muslims.

Now, the Texas House has a leader not afraid to speak her mind—and that’s a frightening thought.

Conservatives took to social media after yesterday's ruling to express support for the governor.
Twitter
Conservatives took to social media after yesterday's ruling to express support for the governor.

Rick Perry, of course, is no longer governor, so the get-together he and his legal team arranged today took place not in his old official digs, but in a meeting room at the Omni Hotel in Austin. The raised speaking platform his team had assembled for the press conference put Perry’s head close to the Lone Star Room’s drab ceiling. American and Texan flags had been placed to the side of the podium, to give the ex-governor an official kind of flair, for the benefit of the national press corps that will elevate Perry—or not—to the rank of Presidential Contender as the year goes on. There were, truth be told, not that many of them in the seats.

Yesterday, Perry lost an early bid to get the felony indictments against him tossed by Judge Bert Richardson, a Republican, who is presiding over the case. The indictments were roundly dismissed by national observers when they dropped, but now seem likely to stick around for quite a while. It was widely perceived as a setback for his legal team—but Perry and his lawyers David Botford and Tony Buzbee sounded upbeat.

“Yesterday’s ruling didn’t change the fundamental argument that I’ve made from day one,” Perry said, “that a governor has a constitutional right to exercise line-item veto authority in Texas.”

He was the victim of persecution. “Under our constitution everyone has the right to speak their mind freely, without political interference or legal prosecution,” Perry said. Special prosecutor Michael McCrum’s case “directly assaults the United States Constitution.”

The indictments, in case you’ve lost track, relate to Perry’s bid to dethrone a local elected official, Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, who had publicly disgraced herself during a drunk driving episode.

The key thing: Lehmberg had control over a major state ethics watchdog, the Public Integrity Unit. Perry alternately cajoled Lehmberg, offering to let her take another job instead, and threatened her office. Perry ultimately cut state funding for the PIU, which interrupted corruption investigations into state government misdealings.

The judge seemed to treat McCrum’s arguments fairly skeptically, but nonetheless held that the case needed to proceed, at least for now. But Perry’s lawyers can appeal, which means that an actual trial might not start until next year. And it’s an important year for Perry—he’s hoping against hope that with Oopsghazi in his rear-view mirror, he can prove F. Scott Fitzgerald wrong.

Tony Buzbee,  a member of Perry's legal team, reads a statement.
Tony Buzbee, a member of Perry’s legal team, reads a statement.

So, the next months will bring a lot of bluster and bluff from his legal team. The louder they are in attempting to discredit their enemy, McCrum, the better the headlines are for their client, and the more Republicans will rally to his cause.

Perry spoke for just two minutes, and his lawyers spoke for just a few minutes more. They would move swiftly, they said. They would be dropping daisy cutters on McCrumb. “Understand: We’re not going to let any grass grow under our feet,” said Buzbee, causing Perry and Botford to smile at each other and bob their heads. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Fortunately for Perry, the national press has never been that interested in Perry’s case or his history of shady dealings in state government, and they seem unlikely to get more interested now even though the case looks a little more durable now than it did last week.

When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did that thing with the bridge, the most consequential thing to come of it was that the national media starting paying attention to other skeletons in Christie’s closet. But that hasn’t happened here—national reporters on the 2016 beat aren’t overly curious about Perry’s past, and the context of the PIU veto.

Maybe that’s because the presidential race is still young, and maybe it’s partly because reporters don’t want to waste time on a guy they figure won’t last through the South Carolina primary. Maybe it’s because the flight time from Washington, D.C. and New York City to Austin is so long.

At any rate, coverage of Perry confirms that most #2016 stories tell us extremely little about the quality and character of the emerging presidential candidates, and instead centers mostly on how they choose to position themselves, and their brief interactions with each other, which can be fascinating in its own way, but is more or less all noise. All of us in the media do it, partly because it’s easy.

Today’s press conference was an exercise in messaging. One reporter asked Perry: “Will this affect your run for the White House?”

Perry took the mic and answered energetically, without denying the premise. “No, we’re gonna continue on. As a matter of fact, we’re just back from South Carolina. Where we had great crowds and great enthusiasm. We spent two days in Iowa, again, an opportunity to talk to people. What I hear overwhelmingly from folks out there is great support for standing up for the Constitution. Americans are looking for a leader who’s not afraid to stand up. Not be intimidated.”

In other words, Perry wants to be both persecuted and a champion. Perry will stand up to Putin, and he’ll stand up to McCrum. Can he spin this into a winning narrative? Last night, the GOP’s leading lights, including many of his future presidential campaign rivals like Ted Cruz, Scott Walker and Rand Paul, lined up behind the ex-guv on social media: They told the world they’d #StandWithRick.

It might have warmed the governor’s heart, but he should be careful. Yesterday’s ruling means Perry’s case might go on for quite a while: That expression of solidarity, from Paul to Cruz to Walker, already has an edge of pity.

State Sen. Kevin Eltife answers questions from State Sen. Rodney Ellis, while Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick listens intently.
Christopher Hooks
State Sen. Kevin Eltife answers questions from State Sen. Rodney Ellis, while Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick listens intently.

When death came for the two-thirds rule, the 68-year-old dictate of the Texas Senate that requires 21 of the chamber’s 31 senators to agree to vote on a bill, it wasn’t exactly swift, but it was a gentler demise than some might have expected. For years, then-Sen. Dan Patrick had fulminated against the rule, which he saw as an unnecessary restraint on the power of Senate Republicans.

In 2007, on Patrick’s first day on the floor, he proposed changing to the rule to a simple majority—and he was voted down 30 to 1. But as the years have passed, Patrick’s critique of the rule has gained traction, and a number of the chamber’s new GOP senators were elected having pledged to junk it. Patrick’s election made it a virtual certainty that the rule would be killed.

But when senators voted on the rules they’ll use for the 84th legislative session today, as part of a package authored by state Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler), it wasn’t Patrick’s simple majority that made it through—his original idea, and one he’d mentioned from time to time during his primary campaign—but a slightly reduced supermajority barrier. Instead of two-thirds, the Senate will now require three-fifths of the Senate, or 19 senators, to bring a bill to a vote.

There are 20 Republicans in the Senate, so the small change means quite a bit. Eltife’s floor speech in defense of the measure made a few simple points: Keeping a supermajority requirement would address some of the arguments made by backers of the two-thirds rule, namely that its disappearance would precipitate a split between urban and rural senators, who could find themselves competing for tight resources.

Winning 19 votes is a difficult thing, Eltife said, and wouldn’t be so different in practice from getting 21. He hoped that the change would bring more decorum to the Senate, not less. It wasn’t about partisanship, he said, but about good government.

The Democrats in the chamber, who will have less leverage than ever as a result of the rule change, had a hard time swallowing that. For nearly two hours, they took turns interrogating Eltife and attempting to poke holes in his reasoning. Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) argued that the rule changes as a whole would make it easier for Senate leadership to sneak through bills and rule changes later in the session. Many others argued from principle, saying that scrapping the two-thirds tradition would make the Senate a less bipartisan place, which was certainly the point.

Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) quoted from former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby’s memoirs, in which he called a 1979 attempt to circumvent the two-thirds rule the “biggest mistake I made as president of the Texas Senate.” Hobby added that “anything that doesn’t have the support of two-thirds of the Senate is seldom a good idea.” Ellis said he hoped those in the chamber today would have enough foresight to agree with Hobby by the time they wrote their books. “I think it’s a sad day for the Senate,” Ellis said, “and one we will look back on with regret.”

Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) was more pointed. The three-fifths standard, he reminded the room, was the same one used by the U.S. Senate, the world’s least effective deliberative body. “Members, I hate to say it,” he said, “but I think we’re going the way of Congress.”

“I have been an advocate of the two-thirds rule since the beginning of the tenure in my Senate,” Eltife said, but it was no longer tenable. He liked the idea of the supermajority requirement, he said, even though some Republican senators wanted to go to 50 percent, and he had worked to preserve it.

The two-thirds rule was broken anyways, he said. The most partisan bills the Legislature has passed in recent years found a way around the requirement. When bills are brought up during a special session, as 2013’s abortion restrictions were, only a simple majority is needed to get them through the sausage factory. And legislators have plenty of ways to ignore or avoid the two-thirds rule when they really want to during session—that’s the way they passed voter ID.

Senate freshmen like Don Huffines (front) and Bob Hall (back) stayed silent as the chamber's elders debated the rules change.
Christopher Hooks
Senate freshmen like Don Huffines (front) and Bob Hall (back) stayed silent as the chamber’s elders debated the rules change.

He has a point. Many Democrats stormed social media today with the hashtag #lockout—the rule change, many said, was patently unfair and would make Texas government dramatically less transparent. But this isn’t a tipping point—it’s more like the Legislature has taken a few more steps down the grand staircase of partisanship that it’s been descending for years. Democrats had very little leverage last session, and they have less now.

At any rate, you could see the two-thirds rule as a sort of artifact of one-party Texas—when the Senate was filled with Democrats, as it was in 1947 when the rule was introduced, the rule helped ensure that broad coalitions were being built and maintained within the party. Its late role as a safeguard for the minority party seems fairly accidental. When then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid saw the need to change the rules of the U.S. Senate to overcome gridlock over nominations, he did so, and Democrats cheered. Politics is about power, and sometimes talk about “principle” can obscure that.

It was Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) who might have put it best, with what we should call Whitmire’s Dialectic: “It’s probably not as bad as I’m making it out to be,” he said during his remarks, “but it’s probably not as good as you’re making it out to be.”

The two-thirds rule was junked by a vote of 20 to 10: One Republican, Craig Estes of Wichita Falls, abstained from voting, and one Democrat, the ever-independent Eddie Lucio of Brownsville, voted for it.

In a separate vote, senators cut the number of the chamber’s committees from 18 to 14. Getting the axe are Jurisprudence, Economic Development, Government Organization and Open Government committees. Three were chaired by Democrats last session, and one by Republican Bob Deuell, who was beaten in his primary.

It’s possible that years from now, we might look back, as Ellis suggested more than once, and see this as an historic moment in Texas government. Ellis predicted that moving to a simple majority vote system was inevitable. It seems clear that Patrick, when he writes his memoirs, will not be able to declare what Lt. Gov. Albert Clinton Horton did, on the last day of Texas’ 1st Legislature, May 13, 1846:

I can safely place my hand upon my heart and say that I have never taken advantage of my station, nor endeavored to pervert the Rules of the Senate, for the purpose of carrying into effect favorite views or projects.

Still, Patrick seemed at peace with himself. As he gaveled the Senate to a close on the first day he’d spent in control of it, he offered the chamber a brief benediction: “Go with god,” he said. “Go safely.”

2015 Inauguration Day Capitol
Kelsey Jukam

 

Inaugurations are an odd part of American civic life, and they vary wildly from state to state. In Oregon this year, the re-election campaign of Gov. John Kitzhaber was nice enough to distribute cookies to the public after his inaugural address. In Washington State, a “non-partisan, nonprofit committee of citizen volunteers” planned a few events, which could be attended by members of the public for a flat fee.

But this is Texas, where we do politics as God intended, and so the inaugural ceremony that ended the decade-and-a-half reign of James Richard Perry and began the bright new era of Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick was a $4.5 million corporate- and donor-powered blowout, complete with a flyover of F-16 fighter jets, cannon fire, and enough barbecue to feed a small army, and their horses and those horses’ horses.

It was a reminder that Texas disdains nothing more than modesty. It was also, of course, a chance to take the pulse of Abbott and Patrick as they take hold of power. Abbott spoke genially and tamely about the greatness and goodness of Texas, his family, and God, in no particular order; Patrick proved he can still stoke fires and poke eyes.

Patrick’s swearing-in came first, administered by his son, a Houston judge. It’s remarkable how little has changed since Patrick’s address to the state Republican Party convention this summer, the first time he declined a chance to swerve to the middle. He opened his speech by invoking Proverbs 21:31 to explain his election victory—“The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord.” Patrick, one presumes, is the horse.

“I worked hard,” Patrick told the crowd, “but the victory was His.” He was now, as he had been during his primary run, “a Christian first, a conservative second, and a Republican third.” He would strive to be “trustworthy, encouraging to others, and humble.”

Dan and Jan Patrick pose for admirers.
Kelsey Jukam
Dan and Jan Patrick pose for admirers.

With humility close to mind, he would strive to be the “best lieutenant governor in the history of Texas.” He urged the crowd again and again to repeat with him his speech’s refrain: “It’s a new day in Texas.” The last decade of all-Republican government had been fine, as those things go, but Patrick would take it to 11. “As conservatives we have done many great things over the last 12 years since taking the majority,” he said to applause, “but it’s time to take it to the next level.”

Remaining humble, Patrick invoked Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous speech. “I don’t think he could have dreamed that 52 years later that many of our inner city schools would still be failing our children,” he said. Dan, too, had a dream. “Some in Austin tell me school choice will never pass, but Dr. King is not the only one who can dream.” Patrick’s voucher and charter agenda would give every left-behind child a way to “break the bounds of poverty.”

Patrick laid out, with a strong measure of certainty, his legislative agenda—school choice, tax cuts, transportation funding, increased use of natural gas, more and more funding for border security. He excels at painting bright lines around himself and his opponents. Will that work well for him this year, now that campaigning is done? Patrick’s grandiose pronouncements—“We’re going to secure the border in this legislative session,” he told the crowd at one point, as if it had never yet been tried—shows what he feels he must deliver to his voters. But as time goes on, the scope of what he can actually get accomplished will narrow. Can he sell it back to his supporters?

Abbott, for his part, gave a much more traditional inauguration speech, in that it was essentially about nothing. Policy did come up, inasmuch as he vaguely asserted he would do something about traffic congestion, and water shortages, and standing up to the feds, but the specifics will wait for another day.

Here is a fine measure of the rhetorical difference between the two men: Patrick, as mentioned, defines himself simply. Christian, conservative, Republican. How does Abbott? He’s proud to claim the title of governor, he says, but the name of which he’s most proud is “Dad.” Aw.

Abbott spoke of his personal struggles—his ascent from his Houston hospital bed some decades ago was thanks to God’s grace, and the boundless possibilities of Texas. His message was carefully post-partisan. “Our children transcend politics in this state,” Abbott said. Except, of course, for the precious moments where he was able to hit at D.C. “Any government that uses the guise of fairness to rob us of our freedom will get a uniquely Texan response,” he said, in one of his largest applause lines. “Come and take it!”

He closed by asking the crowd to look at the pavement and grass under their feet. That was more than just soil. It was the trophy won by the fathers of the Texas Revolution and all those who had fought to give us liberty. Under the shadow of an enormous Confederate cavalryman’s memorial, attendees nodded.

It would not be the end of the festivities—there was barbecue, and a parade replete with Hummers and oil-themed floats, and tonight’s ball, headlined by the country band Lady Antebellum, who had to change their name, one imagines, from “Lady Prewar and her Things Were Better Back Then Band.” Long live liberty.

Greg Abbott in the inaugural parade, the first since 2003.
Kelsey Jukam
Greg Abbott in the inaugural parade, the first since 2003.

There was a godly theme at the Capitol grounds today. Dr. Tony Evans, a Dallas preacher who bills himself as “the urban alternative,” urged his audience to remember that “government was created by God, for the benefit of the people it serves.” He hoped that the pink dome behind him would continue to be “His house,” belonging to the “ultimate King.” Abbott and Patrick’s speeches did their best to flesh out what this would mean in practice.

Joe Gaston will be carrying his cross around the capitol grounds for three days of prayer and fasting.
Kelsey Jukam
Joe Gaston will be carrying his cross around the Capitol grounds for three days of prayer and fasting.

This was not lost on Joe Gaston, who came to the Capitol with an enormous, wheeled cross. He told the Observer he’d be circling the Capitol for the next two days, bearing the cross and praying for the state’s leadership. He was happy, he said, that “God was not hid” in the men’s speeches: “To hear a politician get up and publicly make that kind of statement, you’ve got to be bold.”

But beneath the godly gild today was a surfeit of earthly riches. Today’s big bash cost a hell of a lot of money, a modern record. To put it in context, it’s roughly comparable to the total amount of money Leticia Van de Putte, the Democratic nominee for lite guv, raised for her race in 2014. Some came from corporate donors like Comcast and Chesapeake Energy, companies with important business before the Legislature. There’s no requirement that donations for the inauguration be made public.

Some came from individual donors. Abbott’s appointees to the inaugural committee, which planned today’s events, include plenty of traditional GOP donor types, like Javaid Anwar, a Midland oilman who recently got named to serve on Dan Patrick’s advisory committee on energy. There’s even a member of the Walton family. Patrick’s appointees include more grassroots types—but that apparently didn’t inhibit them from raising the money they needed. In that respect, the new regime is the same as the old regime.

Additional reporting by Kelsey Jukam

Leticia Van de Putte
Christopher Hooks
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte at a campaign rally on the campus of the University of Texas-Pan American.

To the victors go the spoils. To the defeated, San Antonio. So goes the career arc, it seems, of state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who recently lost her bid for lieutenant governor. Soon after the election, Van de Putte announced a dramatic change in course: She’d run for mayor of her home city, abandoning an essentially tenured position in the Senate. That decision set off a cascade of political changes in the Alamo City—and illuminates the dilemma of Democratic political talent in Texas.

Van de Putte’s pivot surprised many, and not just because she told the San Antonio Express-News last summer that she’d run for mayor under “absolutely no circumstances.” But it makes sense. If she stayed in the Senate, she’d likely suffer at the hands of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has pledged to take committee chairmanships away from Democrats. Democratic influence in the Legislature seems on the decline yet again.

But the state’s largest cities shade bluer and bluer every year, and there, the party is at its most vital. The mayor’s office offers a tantalizing measure of executive power, a high profile, and the opportunity to build a useful political base. Some of the most celebrated Texas Democrats are local leaders such as former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, Houston Mayor Annise Parker and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins.

Van de Putte will face San Antonio state Rep. Mike Villarreal, another party prospect fleeing the Lege. Villarreal, a bright and well-liked figure, suffered through a frustrating session in 2013. As the chairman of the seven-member House Committee on Investments and Financial Services, it fell to him to get payday lending regulations past the committee’s five Republicans—a Sisyphean task.

State Rep. Mike Villarreal
State Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio)

Villarreal and Van de Putte aren’t the only talented Democrats deciding the Lege isn’t the best use of their talents, but they’re unusual in that they’ve turned to fight each other. Though Van de Putte starts with significant advantages, Villarreal’s early entry in the race means he’s locked up significant donors and endorsements.

As the two take leave of an increasingly one-sided Legislature, though, there are still ambitious figures anxious to overtop the trenches. The special election to replace Van de Putte produced a runoff between state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, one of the punchiest Democrats in Texas, and state Rep. José Menéndez, a lower-key figure, with the former the favorite. Villarreal’s seat will be filled by a runoff as well.

If Fischer ascends to the Senate, Democrats will have a champion to spar with Patrick. But the long-term trend will hold: a more partisan Legislature, with fewer ways for Democrats to shine. Can Democrats turn the cities into a launchpad for their statewide aspirations? San Antonio’s Castro cast one vote: He left for a cabinet post in the Obama administration. But Van de Putte, if she wins, may be in a better position to test the proposition.

Rick Perry addresses a joint session of the Legislature near the end of his final term in office.
Christopher Hooks
Rick Perry addresses a joint session of the Legislature near the end of his final term in office.

A child born when Rick Perry became governor of Texas would now be in her freshman year of high school: The guv’s been with us for so long that it’s difficult to remember what life was like before his immaculately-coiffed visage appeared atop the state’s public life in that gleaming, pre-9/11 interregnum between the Clinton and W. Bush administrations. But now, he’s finally, finally, finally leaving.

Governor Goodhair, as the Observer’s Molly Ivins used to call him, said goodbye to the Texas Legislature today, where he’d gotten his start some 30 years ago. He’s been governor so long that we’ve seen several different iterations of Perry, as if he were a teenager exploring new trends—there was the handsome young fellow who was elevated to governor thanks in large part to Karl Rove and Bush-era machinations, but who nobody expected to last this long. He went through a more heavily Christian phase during the Bush years, and then joined the Tenthers. After his run for president, he bought glasses, and fashioned himself into the kind of man who wears glasses confidently.

This was an opportunity to wrap it all up into a cohesive whole—as well as all that had happened in the last decade and a half—and he made the attempt. The soaring eagle of Texas had flown through the canyon of adversity and found itself in the gentle forests of triumph. He quoted Lincoln, and recounted his biography and Texas’ job numbers.

“Texas doesn’t recognize artificial barriers of race, class, or creed. The most vivid dreams take flight from the most humble beginnings. And so it was for me,” he said. From Paint Creek, a mighty tree had grown, a tree named Perry. The Legislature, he said, was in the “business of making dreams possible. Every dream counts, every child matters, and in Texas, every child has a chance.”

His Texas had been tested, by the disintegration of a space shuttle—he meant Columbia, but called it Challenger—hurricanes, wildfires, Ebola and Central American teenagers. But Texans were a “people whose character has been refined by fire, whose souls are resilient, who respond to tragedy with grace and who look to the future with hope.”

There were a few digs at Barry O—“We do not accept the false choice the president offers between protecting the environment and declaring war on American industry”—a few brags on Texas’ cultural growth since 2000—more theater seats, performing arts centers, South by Southwest and Formula One.

He touted efforts that took place during his tenure on criminal sentencing reform, and he urged the next Legislature to “get beyond our differences and seek common ground,” which is the kind of thing a politician is expected to say when he’s about to leave office, even if he’s never cared about it much before. “Compromise is not a dirty word if it moves Texas forward.”

He praised Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick and Joe Straus, and said he knows the “future is in good hands.” His final admonition: “Be true to Texas, always, and she will be true to you. Good luck, Godspeed, God bless you, and through you, may God bless Texas.” He took his wife Anita by the hand and descended the stairs, to healthy applause.

Goodbye, governor. We’ll see you in Iowa.

Senate Education Committee chair Dan Patrick (R-Houston)
Patrick Michels
Sen. Dan Patrick presides over a committee meeting.

At a press conference this morning, Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick announced a new pillar of his transition: the creation of six advisory boards, filled with businesspeople, to guide him on public policy. At first, that might sound useful. The business community as a whole has sometimes been a helpful voice in favor of transportation, water infrastructure and education spending.

But the list of names Patrick released today aren’t neutral technocrats and disinterested businesspeople—many are longtime GOP donors, and many have a strong personal interest in what the state does and doesn’t do. As a whole, the six panels—economic and workforce development, economic forecasting, energy/oil & gas, tax policy, transportation and water—represent a potential rat’s nest of conflicts of interest and influence peddling.

At the press conference, Patrick touted the boards as an unprecedented effort to close the ever-narrowing gap between the public and private sectors. He was proud, he said, to be able to reach out to a marginalized and voiceless community in Texas: big business. Often in Texas, Patrick said, “the private sector is asked for help by a candidate but after they get elected, there’s not much follow up.”

He asked: “Why would you want a legislative body to disconnect themselves from the private sector?” Pointing to the fact that the state’s legislators work part-time and need to find income elsewhere, he said of the Legislature: “We’re all in business.” Indeed!

The boards, which will meet privately, will be called upon by the lieutenant governor to give advice, but will also generate their own policy proposals. Patrick said he wouldn’t be shy about telling the public which proposals had come from the advisory panels. One major proposal already has.

Last week, Patrick released a rough draft of his agenda—among big-picture items like education reform and transportation funding, he included a curious provision. The state should strengthen and support the market for natural gas, Patrick said. Twenty percent of new vehicles purchased by state agencies should run on compressed natural gas, or CNG.

Today, Patrick said, his new love of natural gas had come from conversations with business leaders, like his new friends on the energy/oil & gas advisory board. The leader of the board is Dallas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, who for years has heavily invested in natural gas and has attempted, with limited success, to expand the market share of CNG vehicles.

His California-based company, Clean Energy Fuels Corp., has been angling to become a CNG leader. In January of 2014, the Los Angeles Times reported that Clean Energy was losing money and in need of finding new vehicle fleets it could serve.

Natural gas vehicles might well be a great idea, but that’s beside the point—the inclusion of people who stand to make money by advocating certain policies in the policy-making process in this very public way is problematic on its face. At a minimum, many citizens will perceive it as cronyism.

You see the potential for conflicts of interest up and down Patrick’s boards. Also on the energy/oil & gas panel are Tim Dunn, the Midland oilman who single-handedly finances important parts of the state’s conservative network, and who has been in a war with House Speaker Joe Straus for years, and Javaid Anwar, another Midland oilman and GOP donor who gave heavily to Rick Perry’s presidential run.

Then there’s Brint Ryan, who will lead Patrick’s new tax policy advisory board. He’s a tax consultant who specializes in helping companies like Raytheon and ExxonMobil win Texas tax breaks. He is, in other words, one of the top practitioners of what the left and tea party alike call “corporate welfare.” And, of course, he’s a major GOP donor—he gave $250,000 to Rick Perry’s presidential campaign effort alone.

Ned Holmes, who will lead Patrick’s transportation panel, is a Houston real estate developer, a major GOP donor, and a prominent supporter of Greg Abbott. He’s not exactly new to state government—someone who can bring fresh, outside ideas into play. He donated almost $200,000 to Rick Perry before Perry appointed him to the Texas Transportation Commission in 2007, where he made a special effort to support projects favored by Houston developers like himself. He’s a current board member of the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas. He has a strange and slightly cryptic business history.

There are 55 names on this morning’s list in total—the above is what resulted from a cursory scan and a few quick searches.

This morning, Patrick touted the panels as being like a “team of rivals,” the name of a Doris Kearns Goodwin book that describes how Abraham Lincoln convened political enemies to serve in his cabinet. Not all of the figures on the panels were his supporters, he said. But there’s only one notable Democrat, Alonzo Cantu from McAllen. The rest might not have supported him in his last primary, but it would seem highly likely that they’ll be donors next time.

Of course, influence peddling is not new to the Legislature, and we’ve had these kinds of advisory panels before—Patrick’s spokesman pointed to one in 1981. But this feels new, if only in scope. And it’s already affecting the policies the 84th Legislature generates.

In the past, a lieutenant governor might have tried to obscure, if only superficially, the fact that he took policy direction from some of the state’s richest oilmen. But Patrick’s approach is, in a way, a classically Texas approach: Make influence-peddling transparent, and, suddenly, it doesn’t seem so bad. Now, it’s the seamless interchange of ideas and policies between the public and private sector. Don’t you feel better already?