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Hooks on Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sameena Karmally, Democratic Nominee for House District 98.
Christopher Hooks
Sameena Karmally, Democratic Nominee for House District 89.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Texas Observer: So why did you want to run?

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

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

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

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

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

SK: I’ve been told. (laughs)

TO: So why put yourself through this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO: How has Laubenberg represented the district?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louis XIV
Wikimedia Commons
Not Rick Perry

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 2.26.50 PM

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

*May contain no actual USDA-recognized meat products

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

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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

And yet…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What should be done about this, Tony?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

The crowd cheers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patterson was pissed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that a hybrid?
Christopher Hooks
Is that a hybrid?

Did you feel that? It’s as if there was a great disturbance in the Texas Republican Party, as if a voice said something very slightly unorthodox, hundreds screamed in terror, and the voice was suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible happened this past week—or, nothing did? It’s hard to say.

This is a play in three acts: A tale about an interview gone wrong (?) and ill-founded accusations of journalistic incompetence, framed by a true modern-day profile of political courage. It’s a story of one of the rarer feats in politics: The unforced, involuntary walkback. Take your seats, ladies and germs, and set your phones to vibrate. It’s P-time.

ACT I

If you haven’t been following the riveting race for Texas land commissioner, let’s catch up together. The Republican running is a fellow named George P. Bush, whose family you may be familiar with. He has millions of dollars at his disposal, despite the fact that he faced little opposition in the primary, and faces John Cook, a former mayor of El Paso with little funding, in November.

Despite his pedigree, Bush is new at this politics thing. His media strategy has been, essentially, don’t talk to the media. That’s understandable, because he has no strategic reason to do so until he’s more comfortable.

At the same time, he has some freedom to stake out unorthodox positions. He’s virtually guaranteed a victory in November, and he’s modeling himself as a GOP figure who stands slightly apart from the tea party—though not necessarily by his own choice. (They hate him.)

So when Bush granted the Texas Tribune’s Neena Satija an interview and seemed to speak a little off the cuff about issues relating to climate change, it wasn’t that surprising. Satija is the Trib’s environmental reporter—Bush is running for a position where, as head of the General Land Office, he’ll oversee state lands and the Texas coastline, and play a role in monitoring oil and gas leases. So climate change would have been a natural topic of conversation, and maybe Bush was testing his independence a little.

In the interview, a lightly edited transcript of which was published alongside a shorter, fairly gentle article, Bush talked about carbon dioxide emissions and the risks posed by coastal erosion, and spoke of his intention to keep talking about related issues in office. He won’t have gone far enough for some people, but he unquestionably diverged from what’s become the Republican Party’s line on this issue, which is essentially to shrug and whistle in a studiously carefree manner.

It’s either refreshing, coolly calculated, or treasonous, depending on your point of view. Here are a few excerpts, although it’s definitely worth reading the interview in full.

Satija asks Bush about the transition to a natural gas economy. Bush says emphasizing gas use will have various practical benefits. But then, unprompted, Bush raises the idea that the switch will reduce greenhouse gas emissions:

Bush: But more importantly, it’s been proven to result in less CO2 emissions, as far as our vehicles, [and] in terms of our power plants. Regardless of your politics, the EPA is regulating coal and rationing down of its overall usage in our electricity grid. In my opinion, one of the big stories of this century will be natural gas filling in that void, because it’s readily abundant.
TT: I think you may be the first Republican politician running in Texas to ever talk about reducing CO2 emissions.
Bush: [laughs]
TT: Is that something you plan to talk about more during your campaign, or as land commissioner?
Bush: Well, I do … Absolutely.

Later, Satija asks about climate change directly:

TT: So, because you talked about reducing carbon dioxide emissions, what’s your view on climate change?
Bush: Well, I think people can agree that there has been warming, you know, in recent years. The question is whether or not it’s 100 percent anthropogenic, which means man-made.

OK, that’s not the bravest stance in the world, but it’s still a little unusual for Texas. Bush goes on to talk about the importance of adjusting to coastal erosion and other climate-related issues. And when asked again, he adopts the pose of the political straight-talker. (Emphasis added.)

TT: I am really struck by some of the things you said about climate change, or CO2 emissions, and even talking about leveraging federal funds. Most Republican politicians in Texas run away from all of those subjects. Do you think those are going to help you or hurt you as you continue in your political career?
Bush: Well, you know, I’ve said to myself, to my family, to my friends from day one, that I was always going to run based on my principles.
[…]
And if you look at the facts at hand, whether it’s beach mitigation issues or dealing with future generations so that they enjoy the Gulf Coast, I think most Texans will recognize that these investments are the prudent thing to do …

So, Bush has deviated slightly from the party line, but did so in a fairly oblique way. That’s Bush’s style, it seems, or the style that’s been foisted on him: Everyone assumes that he represents something new in Texas Republicanism, but he’s run an extraordinarily cautious campaign and the leash he’s worn has been pretty short. (I wrote about him a bit earlier this year.)

ACT II

Of course, this very gentle acknowledgement that we live in a world whose climate is changing—remember, Bush never said the warming was manmade—was, for some, an extraordinary apostasy.

“Um, climate change??? Did he let on to his obsession with that lie on the campaign trail?” asks Julie McCarty, with the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party, who was one of a number of conservative grassroots that tried to beat Bush in the primary. “According to the article he lies awake at night weeping over climate change!”

In the comments section of McCarty’s Facebook page, Texas tea partiers pile on. “I will vote for a Libertarian or a Democrat before I help give this guy a platform to do more damage,” writes Jamie Jordan. Others moot the possibility of organizing a write-in campaign. (It’s too late.) “To believe in ‘global warming or climate change’ you are either a democrat or a moron,” writes Gregory Parker. “I suspect he may be both!”

Bush owes nothing to these people, and he’s earned some plaudits from certain corners for his Real Talk. It will not affect his electability one iota. By the time he’s running for governor in 2022 or whenever, not a single soul will care about this episode. So of course he’ll stand by it, right?

ACT III

On Wednesday, Breitbart Texas released a story with a blustering title: REPORTER MISREPRESENTED GEORGE P. BUSH CLIMATE CHANGE INTERVIEW. Turns out Bush doesn’t even have to undo this—Breitbart will undo it for him.

Let’s break this apart. The Breitbart article accuses Satija of both incompetence and malice, which are, of course, really serious accusations! Firable ones, even! So I’m sure the evidence here is good. Here’s the contention: “In the article, Bush was portrayed as taking a more moderate position on climate change than the standard Republican position,” writes Sarah Rumpf, a Breitbart contributor. “Bush’s comments and positions have been seriously misrepresented.”

Did Bush take a more moderate position on climate change than the “standard Republican position” in Texas? He clearly did—compare Bush’s statements in the interview with other GOP notables, like Dan Patrick, who was once asked about climate change and responded: “Leave it in the hands of God—he’s handled our climate pretty well so far.”

Here’s the weird part: Rumpf’s primary evidence is the transcript of the interview that the Texas Tribune posted and touted on its website. So the idea, I suppose, is that the Tribune, including Satija, knew it was falsely propagandizing and then published and promoted the evidence in the hopes that people would read it.

It’s a thin hit piece that performs amazing acrobatics to leave the reader with the impression that Bush didn’t say anything about climate change—didn’t go any further than Greg Abbott might go. In the interview transcript, there’s a section where Bush acknowledges that the earth is warming, then immediately pivots to a discussion about coastal erosion. Breitbart suggests, amazingly, that the two topics have nothing to do with each other:

For starters, Bush never attributes sea-level rise or coastal erosion to climate change. He remarks that Texas is facing challenges with coastal erosion in several areas, and discusses ways to help fight it, but does not state a cause for the erosion. Similarly, with the issue of sea-level rise, Satija asks Bush if he would support Texas conducting “a comprehensive study on the effects of sea-level rise on the Gulf Coast,” but again, a causal relationship to climate change is completely absent from Bush’s remarks.”

What are the causes of coastal erosion? The General Land Office’s own information—the office currently run by Jerry Patterson, mind you—tells us one major cause is that “sea level is rising in relation to the land surface along the Gulf Coast. Small increases in sea level can have profound storm surge impacts in low-lying coastal areas of Texas.” The rise in sea level, the GLO tells us, is part of a global trend.

There are other factors in coastal erosion—subsidence of land, lack of sediment to nourish beaches, storms—but sea-level rise driven by a warming planet (water expands when heated; ice sheets melt) is the coast’s biggest challenge now and in the future. Bush seems to recognize this.

Perhaps Bush was only referring to other erosion factors. But he was answering a question about climate change, and raised the issue of coastal erosion. It takes a willfully thick parsing of this language to create the false impression Bush is not speaking about climate change.

The Breitbart article objects to a number of other small perceived discrepancies between the transcript and the shorter article. Here’s one: The story suggests that Bush is OK with a move away from coal and toward natural gas and renewables for reasons that include environmental concerns, and Breitbart says that’s a lie. But in the transcript Bush explicitly argues that increased use of natural gas has “been proven to result in less CO2 emissions.”

Breitbart writers wrongly claim that the Tribune article reports that Bush is kept awake at night “by climate change,” when he meant to say that he was kept awake by the threat posed by storms. “Not OK,” writes Breitbart‘s editor.

But here’s the passage from the Trib‘s article:

The 38-year-old energy consultant added that the vulnerability of Texas’ Gulf Coast to storms, which he said is worsened by climate change-related problems like sea-level rise and coastal erosion, is something that “honestly keeps me up at night.”

What’s keeping Bush up at night? It’s “the vulnerability of Texas’ Gulf Coast to storms.”

The short of it is, one reporter accused another reporter of gross negligence (taking quotes out of context) by taking quotes out of context, and not reading particularly closely. But Breitbart’s gonna Breitbart—the sadder thing is the Bush team’s fury with the idea their candidate touched on climate issues, when … he did! Here’s Bush adviser Trey Newton: “This reporter obviously had an agenda. She came in with an agenda and completely misrepresented what he [Bush] said.”

Let’s all cherish this precious week when a rejuvenating wind of spontaneity briefly entered the P. Bush campaign: It could be quite a while before it comes back.

Rick Perry at a press conference in Weslaco.
Office of the Governor
Rick Perry at a press conference in Weslaco.

They came to the forbidding landscape of the Rio Grande Valley from miles away, for reasons beyond their control. Their fates were written in the stars. Strangers to the region, faced with a new and imposing culture, they tried to make the best of it. Hungry, thirsty and lacking the means to make it to their intended destination after they were dumped by the border, they fell on the region’s inhabitants for Christian charity and goodwill. Yes, the National Guard are having a rough go of it in the Rio Grande Sector:

They came here to help protect the border but now the first wave of Texas National Guard troops deployed after Governor Rick Perry made the call are needing assistance to pay for food and gas.

“We were contacted that 50 troops that are in the Valley don’t have any money for food and gas and they need our assistance,” said Food Bank [Rio Grande Valley] Executive Director Terri Drefke.

The Texas Military Forces may have a king’s ransom of gunboats and choppers and night vision goggles and what have you, but none of that’s much good if, as the RGV’s Action 4 News reports, you “won’t get paid until September 5th and have been in the Valley since August 11th.”

These are the guys that were supposed to be so threatening that fearful drug cartels would be forced to conduct their business a hundred miles up the river. Or—well, nobody’s really been able to say what they’re doing, or why. At least they’re not shooting anybody.

Seriously, let’s hope the good folks of the Texas National Guard get through this with a minimum of discomfort and without any serious mishaps. But at the same time, keep this in mind the next time Gov. Perry starts bragging about flexing the state’s military might on Fox News Sunday.

Wendy Davis speaks to the press at an election rally, April 14, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Wendy Davis speaks to the press at an election rally, April 14, 2014.

There’s something weird about the Wendy Davis campaign’s recent ads. Have you seen them? If not, you probably will soon.

We’re at the stage of the campaign where candidates start to open their coffers. This is the most expensive race in Texas history, and at the top of the ticket, Davis has amassed a small fortune, which is absolutely dwarfed by the Abbott’s much larger fortune. These campaigns are set to run a formidable air war against each other come the fall, and it’s starting. But Abbott’s cash advantage—he had $35.6 million to Davis’ $11.1 million mid-summer—means he can run pretty much whatever he wants, when he wants. Abbott has ads running in movie theaters, for Christ’s sake.

Davis needs to be more selective. What the campaign can’t do in quantity, it needs to achieve with quality. So her first ads are an interesting reflection of the campaign’s priorities and direction as we close in on the election.

Her first ad, which dropped earlier this month, is called “A Texas Story.” That sounds promising, right? Davis has an incredible personal story: Remarkable individual achievement and perseverance, coming from a highly disadvantaged background. Her story, you could say, is the state’s story writ small. There’s so much most voters still don’t know about who she is. This could make a great ad.

Of course, “A Texas Story” wasn’t about Davis: It was about a “young mother” getting “brutally raped” while “her children slept in the very next room.” Those quotes are from the Davis campaign’s own copy. It’s one of the most disturbing campaign ads you’ll ever see: It makes the Willie Horton ad look like a documentary about a cupcake factory (albeit, a racist one.) It’s the only campaign ad I’ve ever seen that needs a trigger warning.

It’s an extremely slick and exploitative video. It feels like it was pulled from one of the more sordid true crime shows that populate basic cable. A carefully placed upturned tricycle, near the end, signals the lost innocence of the “brutally raped” woman’s children.

About 45 seconds into the ad, we get to the point: The rapist was a door-to-door salesman for a vacuum cleaner company, and the woman sued that company. When Abbott was a Texas Supreme Court Justice, he heard the case and opined that the company didn’t owe damages. He was in the minority.

There’s a lot of weird things about the ad, like the fact that Abbott doesn’t appear until the end. The worst thing might be that the Davis campaign, when asked the obvious question, didn’t seem to know whether they had told the “brutally raped” “young mother” that her story would be on TV, inviting a flood of scrutiny. Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson, who’s the closest thing we have to a referee on these sorts of things, told the Houston Chronicle that if the campaign hadn’t informed the woman, they were at “moral and political fault.”

But that’s not the weird thing I was thinking of at the top of this piece. The rape-y ad was from earlier this month—here’s a more recent one:

In it, Manuel Alvarado, a cancer survivor from Fort Worth, bemoans the failure of CPRIT and ties its failures to Greg Abbott. It’s a much more conventional political attack ad.

Here’s the thing: Where’s Wendy? Does this look to anyone like the kind of campaign people thought Davis was going to be running when she jumped in the race last year?

A caveat: I don’t know how to run campaigns. Bill White ran a bunch of positive ads in 2010 and lost. Maybe these are really, really smart ads. Maybe they’re effective on apathetic, low-information voters, and maybe they’ve tested alternatives and come to the conclusion that this is the best option.

But think about what Democrats were most excited about after Davis filibustered, and declared her candidacy. They were excited to have a Candidate. Bill White and Chris Bell were nice fellows who were OK candidates and probably would have been good governors, but they weren’t Candidates. Davis was a Candidate.

She had massive star power among the Democratic base, and she had a unbelievably impressive biography. She could draw big money from out-of-state liberals. She represented a seemingly center-right district and held it as a Democrat in two rough cycles. Suburban Republican women loved her. Through the strength of her personality and sheer force of will, she would make this a fight. Whatever it was, she had it.

So where is it?

A recent Rasmussen poll had Abbott’s favorability numbers dipping, so maybe the attack lines are working. But Davis’ favorability numbers have been a problem the whole campaign—one PPP poll from April had her unfavorability rating at 47 percent. (Abbott’s was 27 percent.) A lot of voters don’t seem to know much about her, and she has trouble with the ones that do.

There’s a little over two months left, which, in politics, is both an eon and not very much time at all. Can the Davis that Democrats were excited about last year break through the smooth machining of a consultant-driven, attack ad-heavy campaign?

As a coda, consider two other videos. Leticia Van de Putte’s campaign hasn’t had enough money to participate in the ad war yet, but it will at some point. But here’s a video her campaign put together to use as an intro at the Democratic convention in June. It’s a bit corny at points, but it’s humanizing and warm and funny, and it’s hard not to come away from it liking Van de Putte more. It’s the polar opposite of “A Texas Story.”

And here’s one of the zillions of web ads that Greg Abbott has produced—here’s, effectively, what “A Texas Story” stands in opposition to. Consider that Abbott, frankly speaking, is not a charismatic guy, or a particularly talented politician. Watch how effectively the ad masks that:

Look at that smiling, happy man. Look at the pretty boats and sky and fish, and how hard those guys are working. Listen to how he’ll fight for you. Don’t you want him to be your governor?