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Hooks on Politics

Mighty Jim Hogan and the Art of the Anti-Campaign

Jim Hogan won the Democratic nomination for agriculture commissioner having spent no time and no money in pursuit of it. Now, he's going for the big prize.
Democratic nominee for agriculture commissioner Jim Hogan at the Cleburne Public Library, his de facto campaign headquarters.
Christopher Hooks
Democratic nominee for agriculture commissioner Jim Hogan at the Cleburne Public Library, his de facto campaign headquarters.

Just down the road from the Johnson County Courthouse in Cleburne, Texas, past the theater where a local company is staging a version of “Steel Magnolias,” sits the Cleburne Public Library. In the back, a few rows down from the display with the Louis L’Amour short story collection, Jim Hogan, Democratic nominee for agriculture commissioner, shows off his seat of power. It’s late June, the day before the Democratic Party’s state convention kicks off in Dallas. Hogan could be there, celebrating his unlikely victory. But he doesn’t want to be anywhere near it. Instead, he’s giving a tour of his unofficial campaign headquarters.

From a line of pressed-wood desk cubbies with internet-equipped Dell computers, Hogan, a former dairy farmer with a small cattle operation, ran what must be the most unlikely primary campaign of any Texas Democrat in the modern era. Earlier this year, Hogan found himself in a three-way standoff in the Democratic primary race for agriculture commissioner. His opponents: the party establishment’s favorite candidate, Hugh Asa Fitzsimons III, and a pot-loving troubadour with populist appeal, Kinky Friedman. Hogan bested both. When the unlucky Friedman found himself in a runoff, Hogan smashed him by more than 7 points.

Yet Hogan raised and expended zero dollars in the course of the campaign, and spent the entire race at home, or on the computers at the library, where he monitored the results that appeared when he Googled his name, and researched the job. If you include the $3,750 filing fee he was required to pay to get on the ballot, he spent 1.2 cents a vote. In terms of money and time, he ran an election effort of record-setting efficiency.

While Wendy Davis’ resource-intensive war machine, virtually unopposed and with millions of dollars in hand, lost much of the Rio Grande Valley to an unknown opponent, Hogan cruised to victory with the steady hand of a zen master. On runoff night, reporters found him at a neighbors’ house, cooking “country boy stew,” which features hamburger meat, carrots, tomatoes and green beans.

Like a warrior-monk who has taken a vow of poverty, he not only let his own campaign lie fallow, he refused campaigning from others. When political consultants from Austin came to a summit with Hogan at Cleburne’s Blue Star Grill and offered their services pro bono, Hogan refused. When a neighbor offered to make a pro-Hogan sign and put it in his yard, he declined.

“Take that money and give it your grandkids,” he says he told the neighbors. “What is that sign gonna do? Nothing. People are gonna vote for me cause a sign said ‘Jim Hogan’? I don’t want people to be that shallow.”

Candidates running for statewide office are normally quite appreciative of shallow voters, so this is an unusual declaration. We’re more than halfway through an election season that, even if no more shallow than the last, will be the most expensive in the state’s history. Unimaginable sums of money are being raised and spent. Pricey out-of-state consultants and nomadic campaign hands with big paychecks abound. We’ve moved from a Republican primary for lt. governor, where one of the critical issues was David Dewhurst’s dinner at an Austin steakhouse, to a general election where earnest discussion of the state’s pressing issues is infrequent at best.

Sid Miller, Republican nominee for agriculture commissioner, at his party's state convention.
Timothy Faust
Sid Miller, Republican nominee for agriculture commissioner, at his party’s state convention.

Elsewhere this cycle, races have been mostly fluff. The worst case might be the Republican primary race for agriculture commissioner. J. Allen Carnes, the mayor of Uvalde—serious, thoughtful and earnest—garnered endorsements from agricultural trade organizations, talked about the needs of farmer… and placed fifth in a five-way race. The winner, Sid Miller, counts Ted Nugent as his campaign treasurer and looks and acts like a French cartoonist’s caricature of a Texan. He ran on gun rights and his opposition to abortion, and when asked about agriculture issues, seemed ill-prepared. He opened his speech at the Republican convention with a slightly bawdy story about his wife on election night.

Hogan has been an object of fascination for political junkies and media types. He may have won purely by chance, but his inexplicable success offers some relief from the absurdity and occasional cruelty of Texas political life. A Tumblr set up by admirers records his exploits. A Texas Monthly piece highlighted Hogan’s runoff win as one of the few bright spots of a generally disheartening night. A column Hogan wrote for the op-ed website TribTalk may go down in the record books as the most memorable piece of political rhetoric from the 2014 election:

It has been reported that I am unknown and do not campaign. If you will pause for a moment and Google “Jim Hogan Texas Agriculture Commissioner,” I believe you will be amazed at the amount of information available about me. I think you will agree that those reports can be put to rest.

Why is he doing this? Does he think he can win? Is he a playful imp, or Chauncey Gardiner? After meeting Hogan, it remains difficult to say. This much is certain: Hogan’s not a fool. He knows Miller will be the likely victor. But, he says, he wasn’t supposed to win the last two times. So who knows? He’s got a healthy belly laugh.

Jim Hogan by Buffalo Creek, which runs through Cleburne.
Christopher Hooks
Jim Hogan by Buffalo Creek, which runs through Cleburne.

His main contention is: Why not me? Ask Hogan a question, and his tendency is to flip it back on you, like a teacher facing a slow-witted student. Over a burger in the Blue Star Grill, where Hogan conducts his meetings, I ask him: what has Todd Staples, the current agriculture commissioner, been doing wrong?

“I don’t know what Todd Staples has been doing,” he says, “other than buying $300,000 worth of cameras.” Staples, intent to run someday for higher office, spent much of his last term talking about border security. His office spent $345,000 on funding security cameras on the border. “Most of what he does has nothing to do with agriculture,” Hogan says.

What would Hogan do as agriculture commissioner? In point of fact, Hogan says, virtually no one, including many farmers, know who the agriculture commissioner is or what it does, because the office has never done a damn thing for a lot of people it’s supposed to help. He grabs a waitress at the Blue Star Grill and asks her if she knows the agriculture commissioner: She doesn’t. “It’s going to be you, though,” she says as she walks away.

“Grab people up in Dallas and ask them what the ag commissioner does, and they won’t know,” he says. “Nobody knows!”

Has Hogan had experiences with the Department of Agriculture that made him want to run? “I’ve never had anything to do with them,” he laughs. Few have. “If you can get somebody on the phone, you’re lucky.” The office, by rights, should be apolitical. “It should be providing services to farmers and ranchers,” he says. “But most people running for agriculture commissioner have no ties to it, and have probably never studied it.”

I ask Hogan what he’d do if he got the post—the latest of several times I’d tried to broach the question. Would there be some big policy initiative? New programs? He explains it to me, again, a bit slower, to help me understand. On the first day, “I’m going to walk in and do this very methodically,” he says. He’d talk to the department’s officers, and he’d get a good sense of the inefficiencies there. He’d travel around the state and talk to farmers and ranchers. He’d get out there in the field. And then he’d figure out how the department could help.

“I’m going to gather the facts and make logical decisions,” he said. “I don’t want to make a complication when you ought to have simplicity.” Basically, his campaign promise is to work hard and do a good job.

“People like J. Allen Carnes,” he says. “Those people at least have an inkling. But these people that have been in the Legislature all their life, they really don’t get it.” Count his opponent among those who don’t get it. “I know Sid Miller. If you want to drink beer and rope calves, Sid’s your man,” Hogan says. “But all you gotta do is study what he’s done.” That includes a whole lot of lobbying, and a whole lot of politicking.

Hogan’s Democratic opponent didn’t take the job too seriously, either. “Kinky didn’t say anything about agriculture.” Over the course of his political career, Kinky, supposedly the outsider, had showed a particularly cynical brand of politics. For one thing, his campaign staff tried to buy off Hogan with the promise of meeting Willie Nelson. Kinky “did every bad thing in the world but he said what he said in a funny way that made people laugh. I didn’t laugh at all,” he said. “I didn’t think it was funny because I didn’t think that was kosher.”

He’s not laughing because the Texas farmer and the rancher face real problems. “The price of land’s too high. Cities are moving out. There’s more people and less land to grow on it. Nobody wants GMOs or pesticides on their stuff. Well, here comes Mexico, bringing food over,” says Hogan. “We’re hitting the wall. Things are getting worse. The water situation—it’s going to rain sometime. But the next time we have a drought there’s gonna be a lot more people.”

And farmers and ranchers needed to bring younger people into the field. “Today, we’re overlooking daughters. It’s a woman’s world if you hadn’t noticed out there.” Hogan has two himself, which he raised as a single father after his wife passed away in 2000. “In other words, I’m in tune with the world. Top to bottom. And for simple reasons, I want to be agriculture commissioner. You couldn’t give me governor or anything else, it’s got too much baggage. It ain’t worth it. And I only want it for one term. And during that term, I’d hope to find somebody who’d do something similar to what I did.”

Hogan’s running as a Democrat, but only because he thought he had better odds of winning the nomination. If he wins, he’s going to hire Republicans alongside Democrats. He has no particular affection for either party, but he wishes the system worked better, and that people voted more. Texas’ unbalanced party system, he thinks, has screwed up the state. “I thought we had a two party system in America,” he says.

“Don’t vote Republican or Democrat, look at the person. I don’t even know what a party is, other than the people that run it,” he says. “If you’re a Republican and you got a bad person, and the Democrats have a good person, you’re going to vote the bad person just because he’s a Republican?”

On all matters, Hogan preaches moderation. “I like all people, that’s my philosophy,” he said. Around Cleburne, plenty of people have gotten heated about increasing numbers of immigrants—some won’t go to the H-E-B anymore because there’s too many unfamiliar faces. But Hogan is calm. Migrants “come here to work hard and send money home to their family.” He thinks open carry protesters are silly. “Just cause you can don’t mean you have to,” he says. “That’s the thing with politics everywhere. There’s extremes, and there’s people with logic.”

Hogan may claim the mantle of logic, but in Texas, logic is not enough. Barring the discovery of Miller in bed with, in the immortal words of Edwin Edwards, a dead girl or a live boy, his party affiliation will trump Hogan’s and Miller will spend a number of years doing whatever it is he wants to do in statewide office, before presumably trying to make the jump to another one.

In theory, Americans like people like Hogan—genuine outsiders, rough-hewn pragmatists, underdogs. There used to be more people like Hogan in public office. In practice, today’s strivers come from a very different mold.

Officeholders are as different from us as an alien race. In national races, we’ve come to expect our campaigns, and our campaigners, to function with the mechanical precision and sleek design of a Swiss watch. A wrong word or a step out of place can doom a person’s political fortunes, and so actual fortunes are spent on ensuring that doesn’t happen. Candidates never have a chance to show their real selves, and they become alienated from us. And we become alienated from the political process.

In Texas, at the state and local level, the political process has become perverted in a very different way. A vanishingly small number of voters have a say in the way the state is run, thanks to the total dominance of the Republican Party and its primary elections. Statewide candidates like Miller face little accountability from voters once they get past their primary runoff. Party affiliation is the golden god of Texas politics, and the state is left with demagogues of all stripes running virtually unopposed. Apathy grows, and many voters tune out.

Hogan wants no part of any of that. “I realized that when I signed up to run, I became a product,” he says. “I don’t want to be anything that I’m not.”

Hogan won’t change all that, but he’s having fun trying. “There’s a lot of people around town laughing and having a ball about this, because they know who I am,” Hogan laughs. “A lot of my neighbors wanted clips for their scrapbooks. They never thought Jim Hogan, who mows his lawn with a push mower, would get here.”

Correction: The article formerly identified Jim Hogan as a dairy farmer. Hogan is a former dairy farmer who currently has a small cow-calf business.

Wendy Davis
Patrick Michels

As we enter the last couple of months before the November general election, Democrats here, as they have nationally, have been apprehensive about a cluster of laws and rule changes that they claim represents a modern-day form of voter suppression. On Wednesday, the Texas Democratic coalition launched what they’re calling a “voter protection program”—a joint effort of the Texas Democratic Party and Battleground Texas, which is closely aligned with the Wendy Davis campaign.

The groups will be getting support and advice from a relatively new Democratic National Committee effort called the Voter Expansion Project, supported by Bill and Hillary Clinton, which has been active in a number of states. On a conference call Wednesday morning, Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa explained that the voter protection program seeks to provide additional education and support to voters who may not yet be aware or well-acquainted with voter ID requirements, while training additional poll-watchers to ensure the November election holds to the letter of the law.

Davis, also on the call, touted the importance of the effort for the November election, and her own “strong record of fighting for voter protection” in the Texas Senate. “By contrast, Greg Abbott has fought the Voting Rights Act in court. He’s used his office to try to remove protections against voter discrimination and actively sought to weaken the voting power of some Texans,” Davis said. “He’s using our tax dollars fight against our own rights.”

Added Davis: “We want more Texans to participate in this election, not less.”

Over the years, Abbott’s office has aggressively prosecuted predominantly older, minority voters for small violations of election law, while ignoring potential violations from likely Republican voters. Abbott’s office sent state police officers to spy on older, minority voters to determine whether they were eligible to vote by mail. From a 2008 Observer story:

Fort Worth’s Gloria Meeks, 69, was a church-going community activist who proudly ran a phone bank and helped homebound elderly people like Parthenia McDonald, 79, vote by mail. McDonald, whose mailbox was two blocks away from her home (she recently died), called Meeks “an angel” for helping her, a friend of both women said.


The lawsuit describes various investigative tactics used by Abbott’s special unit, including an incident in which two state police officers were seen by Meeks “peeping at her through her bathroom window” while she was taking a bath on August 10, 2006. “She later learned that these two persons were investigators with the office of the defendant Attorney General Abbott,” the suit said.

But Abbott’s office never showed much interest in white voters:

A PowerPoint presentation used by Abbott’s office to train Texas officials was rife with racial stereotypes associating voter fraud with people of color-communities that in recent history have supported Democrats.

As an introduction to a section of the PowerPoint involving ‘Poll Place Violations,’ a slide depicts a photograph of African-American voters apparently standing in line to vote,” the lawsuit’s complaint said. “Notably, the 71-slide presentation contains no similar photographs of white or Anglo voters casting ballots.”

In recent years, state Republican parties in many parts of the country have favored laws that make it more difficult for poor, elderly and minority voters to exercise their franchise. These include voter ID laws, but encompass many different kinds of efforts. Before the 2012 presidential election, Republicans in Ohio, a critical battleground state, attempted to cut early voting periods, restrict absentee voting and reduce polling place availability in major cities, moves that disproportionately affected Democratic-leaning populations.

Democrats have been suitably freaked out about these developments. In Texas, where Democratic groups have been trying to turn hundreds of thousands of people who don’t normally vote into regular voters, it’s seen as especially important to counter restrictive voting laws.

Here, much of the discussion has been about voter ID laws. On the conference call, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio), a Democratic heavyweight and leader of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said the motivation for new voter ID laws was transparently political.

“Of 13 million votes cast across the state in the 2008 and 2010 elections, there were four investigations into improper voter impersonations and one conviction for a young man who voted on behalf of his brother,” Martinez Fischer said. “To go after one person, we threw 795,000 registered voters under the bus because they lacked the proper ID.”

The state offers free “Election Identification Certificates” to those who lack acceptable forms of voter ID, but Martinez Fischer notes that “one-third of Texas counties don’t have a DPS facility where people can go get a free election certificate.” And to get ID, you must obtain other forms of identification first—and because that can cost money, opponents of the ID law have argued it’s a form of the constitutionally prohibited poll tax.

Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks put the effort against voter suppression in the context of long-standing civil rights struggles. “For several decades, my mother served as a precinct election judge in Tarrant County. In the early years of her life, she was told to pay to vote. She wasn’t allowed to vote in the primary, and she was made to enter a test before she could enter a polling booth,” Brook said. “Through her election work, my mother saw firsthand the trajectory of history that always points towards progress.”

Brooks added: “She knew, and I know, that progress isn’t won permanently. It’s renewed every election. Every time we cast our votes, we strike another blow for progress. That’s why I raised my children to know that voting goes beyond a simple right. It’s a sacred duty. But today, too many politicians are trying to roll back the right to the vote.”

Governor Rick Perry speaks at a press conference announcing the deployment of the National Guard to the Rio Grande Valley.
Christopher Hooks
Governor Rick Perry speaks at a press conference announcing the deployment of the National Guard to the Rio Grande Valley.

Does the deployment of 1,000 National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border make any sense? Politically, it makes a great deal of sense to the three state officials who attended the high-profile launch of the effort at a press conference in Austin on Monday. Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Attorney General Greg Abbott are taking charge of the situation and sending the boys in brown-green digicam down to the border, and they’re going to make sure the national media knows it.

At the press conference, Abbott and Dewhurst got to play a fun supporting role—if Obama doesn’t pay for the Guard deployment, we’ll sue him, they said—but this was by and large Perry’s show. He’s been benefiting greatly from this border episode among political observers in Washington, D.C., who value strong action and skillful media positioning. A lot of Republicans (and journalists eager to amplify the 2016 horserace) have been eager to let Perry redeem himself, so he’s won many unearned plaudits lately. What’s more presidential, after all, than the assertive application of military power?

From many in Perry’s conservative base, he’s been getting the opposite. They want “border security,” and they can’t understand why it wasn’t happened in the decade and a half that Perry’s served as governor. Many don’t trust him on this issue. Deploying the National Guard will assuage some members of this crew, at least for a bit.

But does the deployment of the National Guard make sense practically? Monday’s event shined little light on this question. Adjutant General John F. Nichols, head of the Texas Military Forces, gave sober and somewhat glum remarks that cut a stark contrast to the energized politicians around him. The National Guard would be a “force multiplier,” he said. The military will contribute air assets and night-vision equipment. The National Guard would draw on experience carrying out operations on the border in the past, Nichols said.

The National Guard is joining an ongoing Texas offensive called “Operation Strong Safety.” In football, a strong safety is a defensive player who lines up against the strong side of the play and is tasked with either stopping the run or dropping back for pass coverage. But once the troops get to the border, their hands will be essentially tied—they’ll be in the field but it’s hard to see what sort of “tackling” they’ll be doing.

The National Guard won’t actually take part in the enforcement activities of the Border Patrol—for that matter, neither can the DPS. “If we were asked to, we could detain people,” said Nichols. “But we’re not planning on that. We’re planning on referring and deterring.”

The best they can do is make a call to another agency, in the same way a bystander could. Even if they could, minors from Central America—the primary subject of the current crisis—are generally surrendering themselves to the Border Patrol the moment they get here.

It’s also the case that much of the current strain in our immigration system has to do specifically with the handling and processing of migrants after they’re taken into custody. The National Guard isn’t going to build better detention facilities, one presumes.

The Guard might contribute equipment to anti-trafficking and smuggling operations, but law enforcement officials along the border say they haven’t seen an increase in crime. Even if they did, the Border Patrol, the Texas Department of Public Safety and other law enforcement agencies, are already armed to the teeth, with helicopters, a small army of vehicles, unmanned drones and countless other pieces of military hardware. They’ve got a fleet of gunboats that wouldn’t have been out of place on the Mekong River Delta in the bad old days. Even the state’s game wardens have taken to approximating a military unit.

Last week, Gov. Perry conceded that the National Guard couldn’t do much to increase operational control of the border: The military’s presence, he told Fox News in a sometimes-tough interview with Brit Hume, would be primarily important as a “show of force,” to send “a strong message” and create unwelcoming “visuals.”

Even that’s an odd claim, though. It’s up for debate exactly how frightening lightly-armed part-time soldiers will be to migrants who grew up in some of the world’s most violent societies, then made a 2,000-mile trek past nations bristling with military, cops, border checkpoints and criminal gangs. One of the last times armed military units were deployed along the border, one Marine shot an 18-year-old in Big Bend.

And regardless, the National Guard won’t be fully deployed for a month, possibly late August, even though there’s some evidence the surge in border crossings was already in decline last week. Then there’s the cost—the deployment of the National Guard along with the ongoing “surge” of DPS troopers will bring the bill for the taxpayers of Texas to some $5 million a week. An intergovernmental memo obtained by The Monitor, a newspaper in the Rio Grande Valley, reports that “Perry’s office has said the money will come from ‘non critical’ areas, such as health care or transportation.”

At the conference, one reporter pointed out that border law enforcement reported no increase in crime. So why deploy troops now?

“I think an anecdotal questioning of one or two people may not give the full vision of what’s going on along the border,” said Perry, before relating an anecdote of his own about a criminal immigrant.

“The idea that the border is without crime is a very false statement,” Perry said, though no one had suggested that. “What we’re talking about here is clear data.” He pointed to a giant pie-chart that showed the kinds of crimes that undocumented immigrants have been arrested for in the course of the last six years. Nothing about the chart would indicate the changing levels of crime over time.

“This idea that somehow or other there’s a militarization going on is frankly a little offensive to the National Guard,” Perry said. The Guard had been down there before, and Guard members sometimes do charity medical work in the Rio Grande Valley. So it couldn’t be a militarization, could it? Maybe it’s the re-militarization.

As for the conservatives Perry might have hoped to win over with today’s press conference? Some seemed underwhelmed. “Apparently guardsmen are only going to the Rio Grand [sic] Valley sector—same place the [DPS surge] is focused,” wrote Julie McCarty of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party. “That is not where they are needed. Nothing changes. Nearly 400 miles are still uncovered.”

Republicans have built a kind of trap for themselves—the border can’t really be “secured” in the way that many say when they’re on the campaign trail. But now they have to keep feeding that ill-founded belief. It’s like Slim Charles said: “That’s what war is. Once you in it, you in it. If it’s a lie, then you fight on that lie.” Or, you know, you send the National Guard to Pharr on that lie.

Correction: The article incorrectly stated that National Guard patrols would not be armed. A Guard spokesman clarified that troops “will be armed for self-defense purposes only.”

Anti-immigration protestors at a demonstration at the Mexican consulate in Austin, July 18.
Sarah Mortimer
Anti-immigration protestors at a demonstration at the Mexican consulate in Austin, July 18.

During the evolution of the recent border crisis, Texas has seen no outbursts like the one that took place in Murrieta, California, when a raucous mob blocked the arrival of Central American migrants to a detention center in the town. But given the character of the state’s politics at the moment, it seemed inevitable that there would be demonstrations of some kind.

We’re in the middle of an election year in which rhetoric on the border has been particularly heated—occasionally verging on naked racism—so Texas seemed ripe for more directly expressed anger. But the first incarnation of those protests took place today, and they were pretty underwhelming. Gatherings organized by the conservative group Overpasses for America took place at dozens of locations throughout the state, with more set for tomorrow. Most protests didn’t appear to be well-attended, or well-organized. In major cities, the protests took place outside Mexican consulates, for reasons passing understanding—it’s the surge in immigrants from Central America that’s at issue—and which left the distinct impression that this crowd was not particularly well-read about the origins of the current crisis.

But these protests are never really about policy: They’re about the accumulation of assorted resentments. Of the 20 or so people that gathered at Austin’s Mexican consulate on Friday, several seemed mostly concerned about the Benghazi attacks. Several called for the impeachment of President Obama. And talk about the border was fairly unspecific. Curiously, for a crowd that saw the open border as an existential threat to their freedom and prosperity, they faced away from the consulate and toward the street, unconcerned with the steady stream of Mexican nationals getting consular services who wove in and out of Gadsden-flag waving oldsters.

Shelly Kramer, one of the protesters, urged Perry to deploy the National Guard. Perry has spent much of the last few weeks trying to convince these people he’s their man: But the border, as is its wont, remains insecure. Many believe “securing the border” is just around the corner, and well within the government’s reach, if it just went a bit further. Kramer likened America to a soiled dove, peddling its wares too cheaply.

“America means so much to me, and I feel like they’re cheapening it and giving it away for free. So it really bothers me,” she said. “The administration—this was an agenda on their part. And it’s so awful to use children.”

Many of the protestors, like Kramer, believe the recent surge in migrants is someone’s grand plan—for something. One man held a sign reading, “Today’s illegals, tomorrow’s Democrats.”

A small number of protestors also gathered at the Mexican consulate in Houston.
Fauzeya Rahman
A small number of protestors also gathered at the Mexican consulate in Houston.

In Houston, a similar protest took place near the Mexican consulate there. Liz Theiss, with a group called Stop the Magnet, told the Observer that the only way to stop illegal migration was to make the country an inhospitable place for migrants.

“Our focus is to go after the businesses that are hiring them, or the Republican politicians that are hiring them,” she said. “A lot of these unaccompanied minors, 18 to 20 percent, are gang members. They’re very dangerous, we don’t know what their true names are or their health situation. They’re completely unvetted and being dumped off in cities across America. Americans are not allowed to weigh in. They’re not allowed to weigh in whether or not they want these people in their community. This is tyranny.”

In Austin, protestor Rachel Brunson, holding a sign with the hated hammer and sickle, said that “Mexico and the countries of Central America are working together to get these kids here,” and that Obama is helping them. She knows this because of the emails she’s gotten from her friends, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

She read one of them to an Observer reporter, a piece by conservative writer Rick Wells, who alleges House Speaker John Boehner is a pawn of the American Communist Party and that Mexico is flooding the United States with child migrants to bring the country to its knees. The Observer gently suggests that some of Wells’ assertions may not be true. “Many things we’re told aren’t true,” she says, a knowing look on her face.

Why would Mexico want Guatemalan minors to come to Texas? There’s a pause. “I’m not sure,” she says. “They must have a reason.” What’s the reason? A longer pause. “I’m not sure,” she says. Then she realizes the answer. “To hurt us. To break our economic system.”

She doesn’t like Perry, who has failed, in his 14 years in office to “secure the border.” She likes Ted Cruz. The people here love Cruz. Several have signs that echo Cruz’s call to action: “Make DC Listen.” Cruz, of course, is Cuban-American, and Cubans have long benefited from their special status as political refugees in this country.

But that hasn’t stopped Cruz from taking a particularly hard line on refugees from countries whose present situation is dire. He intends to derail any bill addressing the current crisis that doesn’t include rolling back DACA, a program which offers limited protection from deportation to immigrants who came here without authorization as children.

In other words, Cruz doesn’t just want all the people currently detained deported, he wants to expand the scope and scale of deportations. Imagine one day that the child of a Honduran migrant currently in a detention facility has become a United States senator from Texas, and that child tells her children: “In the bad old days, in my father’s time, there was a man who wanted us gone from here named Ted Cruz…”

Sarah MortimerThe people at this protest are fringe, but Cruz and friends have real influence. And they are responding to the populist anger generated by groups like these. Why are these people angry? They’ve been told a lie: That the border can be totally secured, locked down like you would a bank. It can’t—not really. You can put more people on the border (though it’s very unclear what the National Guard could really do) but migrants will never stop coming, and neither will smugglers.

For years, these activists have been told, by people like Cruz, that the border can be “secured.” But it doesn’t happen. It’s easy to understand why they’re so mad about it. The lie has been told for so long that even politicians seem to believe it: Dan Patrick won his primary campaign by telling it, and he’ll be accountable to that promise if he wins and takes the state senate’s gavel in 2015. Future state Sen. Bob Hall is one of a number of conservative activists who has generated an interesting view of the Texas Constitution, which allows the state to deploy massive state power against an “invasion.” This is one of them, they say.

In theory, it should be possible to tackle both aspects of our immigration problem at once—increase enforcement while expanding legal immigration. But that’s not the political reality of the moment. The crowds at the Mexican consulates on Friday may not have added up to much, but they’re a reminder of why this issue has become so intractable.

Wendy Davis
Patrick Michels
Wendy Davis at her gubernatorial campaign launch.

The raft of campaign finance reports that dropped this week won’t do much to change the narrative of the race, especially the headline bout between Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis. Davis and organizations related to her campaign, structured in a somewhat unusual way, continue to pull in money—but catching up with Abbott’s gargantuan war chest seems far out of reach.

Even though they raised similar amounts of money over the last few months, Abbott counted $35.6 million on hand at the end of June, while Davis counted a little under $13 million. The next four months don’t offer good odds to close that gap. A much greater proportion of Davis’ money comes from out-of-state donors. There are plenty of Democrats elsewhere in the country this cycle that need money, and as the big-dollar donors figure out how to maximize their impact, the Davis campaign may not be at the top of their list.

Of course, that alone doesn’t doom the Davis effort—campaigns are about a lot more than money. But it does mean that she won’t be able to fight toe-to-toe in the TV and radio air war this fall. Abbott will be able to carpet bomb the state with ads, and other novel efforts, like this unusual ad his campaign placed in Texas movie theaters connected to a mobile phone number registration effort (his appalling attitude towards talking and texting at the movies should disqualify him from any elected office, but that’s another matter.) Davis will have to be more judicious.

None of that’s really new. Two other things about the recent campaign reports are more interesting—both pertaining to the Texas Senate. In the race for lt. governor, Dan Patrick and Leticia Van de Putte are pulling relatively even so far.

Since mid-May, Patrick has raised $1.34 million and spent a little over $789,000. He’s got almost $950,000 in the bank, and his campaign is saddled with over $2 million in loans. Van de Putte’s report covers six full months, and she didn’t have to contend with the pricy, high-stakes primary that Patrick did, so it’s hard to compare like to like.

But there are still figures that will cheer her supporters. She raised more than $2 million—roughly $1.1 million since Patrick won his runoff—and she reported more than $1.16 million in the bank on June 30, though Democratic strategist Harold Cook, associated with the campaign, says the current cash on hand figure is closer to $1.6 million.

As we get closer to November, it will be interesting to see how Patrick’s fundraising fares. He raised a small fortune during his brutal primary, but then he spent it. He’s still likely to outdo Van de Putte’s fundraising efforts by a wide margin, but many in the traditional GOP donor class are uneasy with Patrick. He doesn’t have a particularly good relationship with parts of the business lobby. Will he patch things up before the election—or can he find the money he needs with the GOP’s Tim Dunn wing? Can Van de Putte run a good enough campaign to make him need that money in the first place?

There’s also Senate District 10 in Fort Worth, Wendy Davis’ soon-to-be former seat. Davis held this district twice in election cycles that she wasn’t supposed to win. So the district was rejiggered to tilt further to the right. Here, a Democrat named Libby Willis is running against a very right-leaning tea party leader named Konni Burton, who, thanks to the district’s new form, will be the probable victor.

Between May 18 and June 30, Burton’s campaign spent $125,500, but only took in $35,725. She has only $45,364 on hand, and that’s after loaning herself $250,000. The money she raised came from a very small number of donors. Almost a third of the money she raised came from the Accountability First PAC, one of the familiar groups originally dedicated to kicking out House Speaker Joe Straus. There’s an oil and gas company, a few other PACs, and a handful of individual donors, and that’s it.

Willis’ report covers a larger time frame—from February 23 to June 30. That span is about three times as long, but Willis raised six times as much money—more than $210,000. And she has more than $102,000 left in the bank, despite having spent $138,061 more than Burton. And while she received plenty of big-dollar donations, she counts many small donations as well.

When Burton needs it, she can be sure to count on substantial cash flood from the traditional GOP groups. But Willis’ strong backing by big-dollar donors, especially from unions and Democratic PACs, provides the potential for a counterbalance—though of course she will continue to remain the underdog.

Rep. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock)
Rep. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock)

Former state Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) earned a reputation as a pragmatic and thoughtful deal-maker and won acclaim for the pivotal role he played in Austin’s sausage factory, so his resignation to become chancellor of the Texas Tech University System caused consternation among some Legislature-watchers. The Texas Senate, having shorn itself of moderate Republicans, and presented with the possibility of Dan Patrick holding the gavel, will tilt away from pragmatism in 2015 whether had Duncan stayed or not. But in a chamber with only 31 members, every new ego counts.

So the race to replace Duncan as Senate District’s 28’s man will be one to watch. District 28, the largest in the state, is a monster, encompassing 50 counties (nearly a fifth of the state) and part of a 51st, where it bulges to include the northwest quadrant of Abilene. Rural in nature, it’s not necessarily fertile ground for the right-wingers who seem set to take other senate seats this cycle—they mostly come from the suburbs of major cities, like Katy or The Woodlands in Houston, or the fringes of the Metroplex.

Low-density West Texas, by contrast, has always been a touch removed from that particular kind of right-wing fervor. Duncan and state Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), whose district stretches from the top of the Panhandle more than 300 miles to Midland-Odessa, tend more toward pragmatism than some of their colleagues. This was largely David Dewhurst country in the recent Republican primary for lt. governor—only a few counties in the district went for Patrick in the first round. Patrick won Lubbock County, the district’s largest population center, by roughly 5 points, much less than his margin of victory in other Texas cities. But in Abilene’s Taylor County and Jones County, Patrick lost to Dewhurst by 10 points and 17 points respectively. And Patrick lost Tom Green County, the home of San Angelo, by almost 25 points.

Nevertheless, there is a tea partier of sorts in the race to replace Duncan—state Rep. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock)—and his well-resourced supporters might make him the most formidable challenger in the race to emerge so far. Perry was part of the freshman tea party class of 2010, and he’s benefited from tens of thousands of dollars in funding from Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility/Accountability First, groups connected to the right-wing money man Tim Dunn, the Midland oilman who’s been trying, with a great deal of success, to remake the state’s political landscape in his image. Perry’s also benefited from the patronage of figures like Jeff Sandefer, tied to the recent UT fight, whose well-heeled family has long been a prominent presence in Abilene.

Unlike other tea party legislators, who relished their position as bomb-throwers, Perry was hugged by the establishment early on and kept a slightly quieter profile. But he still clashed with many in his party on spending issues—he criticized the governor’s proclamations on the use of the rainy day fund, and popped his head over the ramparts last session to try to cap spending on water infrastructure, though that effort failed.

He’ll be a favorite in the race simply because of his access to campaign funds and status as a sitting state rep, but there are a few others in the running. There’s Jodey Arrington, a Texas Tech official and former Bush appointee—among other agencies, he served as COO for the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding, a post-Hurricane Katrina agency. Arrington’s new to electoral politics, but people with his technocratic background generally hue closer to the middle than people like Perry.

There’s also Greg Wortham, the mayor of Sweetwater, a town of some 11,000 just west of Abilene. Mayors, too, are generally more moderate than the tea party crowd (having to actually govern does that to you.) Wortham’s a major supporter of the area’s wind energy industry—he founded the West Texas Wind Energy Consortium, and has been an internationally-recognized face of alternative energy development in the state.

His visibility in the Abilene area might help him, especially since Perry and Arrington are both from Lubbock, another of the district’s population centers. (Two more Lubbock-based pols have expressed a desire to run, though they haven’t yet declared.) But Sweetwater is a small town, and he’ll face plenty of other challenges.

The race in District 28 seems unlikely to produce the kind of right-wing bomb thrower that will be showing up to work next session in better numbers than ever before—but it will still be a hugely consequential election for the state, especially since the victor will be replacing a longtime Senate mainstay.

Stare into the Oops, and the Oops stares also into you.
Twitter — @kat_deville
Stare into the Oops, and the Oops stares also into you.

Our great state’s recent surge of OTM UACs—that’s Other Than Mexican Unaccompanied Alien Children, in the lovely, humanizing vernacular of our Border Patrol—has thrown our great state into disarray. We face a moral crisis, and the future of millions is at stake. Trapped by circumstances that cannot be controlled, thrown into the lion’s den of public attention, the subject of this crisis desperately tries to be recognized as human while navigating a system seemingly beyond his understanding. I’m talking, of course, about Rick Perry.

1) Rick Perry would like to be president. Did you know this? For much of the last week, he’s been determined to show how very serious he is about cracking down on the flood of refugee children, and by showing how very, very serious he is, so serious that he will very often be frowning in the relevant pictures, he will show how unserious people from Washington, D.C. are. In 2014, this is as good a way as any to win the Republican nomination for president.

As a way of showing how serious he is, Perry spent much of the last two weeks arguing with Obama about how and when he would meet with POTUS to have his picture taken, where he would be sure to look very serious and grave. After a lengthy bout of sparring over the photo op, during which Perry accused Obama many times of not taking the crisis seriously, at least, not seriously enough to do a photo op with Perry on his terms, Obama consented to meet briefly with Perry and a number of local elected officials, in what appears to be the fallout bunker of an airport-adjacent Radisson. During the meeting Perry frowned, and the rest is history.

Perhaps unhappy to have been taken un-seriously when he had hoped to be taken seriously, Perry donned Terminator sunglasses and body armor and went on a pleasure cruise with Sean Hannity along the Rio Grande. Surely he would be taken seriously here. This was, after all, a boat with machine guns, which are very cool, very serious and very masculine. Here was the solution to the crisis: These rad machine guns could make short work of the teen refugees.

Unfortunately, in much of the reporting, Perry was upstaged by the boat.

“The Texas boats looked badass,” one law enforcement officer told The Blaze.

Despite his social media travails, Perry won the crisis. In fact, you could say that nothing has been better for his presidential hopes than the sudden arrival of tens of thousands of afraid, abused, and disoriented Central American teenagers. We know this because of the verdict rendered by BuzzFeed. Their writeup of the last few days was called “Republicans Are Super Excited Rick Perry Is Back,” and its subhed was: “The border crisis is giving the Texas governor the chance to look serious.”

The thousands of undocumented immigrants crossing into the United States in recent months, and Perry’s perch as the top executive in Texas, have given him the opportunity to be out in front on an issue he knows well: the border.

Several people close to Perry insist his response to the border crisis involves no political calculation at all, and that he would be doing the exact same things were he not seriously toying with a 2016 run.


Ok man!

2) In the race to replace Rick, it was the best of times and the worst of times. Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott stumbled into an actual issue to fight about for the first time in a while—whether or not the placement of dangerous chemical stockpiles should be on the public record. As an issue, it’s not, you know, health care or immigration or education, but after the ammonium nitrate explosion in West leveled half a town, that seems important.

As attorney general, Abbott acted to hide that information from the public, then issues a series of increasingly hilarious proclamations about why it wasn’t a big deal. Flustered, he finally came up with a reason:

Yes, terrorism. He’s the only one fighting it, while Davis stands aside, ladylike. Does Davis support terrorism? We can’t be sure. You may object that there has been a relative paucity of terrorist attacks in Texas lately, and a number of actual chemical disasters, but the absence of evidence, of course, is not evidence of absence. If the al-Dawlah al-Islāmīyah fī al-ʻIrāq wa-al-Shām start throwing around pipe bombs near the Houston Ship Channel, you’ll sorely regret your cynicism on this point.

Abbott ends his editorial in the San Antonio Express-News by urging Texans to do “all we can to protect the memories of the men and women who died in West.” A noble sentiment! Abbott, in his own unique way, is fulfilling that civic responsibility by making sure the victims of the next chemical disaster are less aware of the thing that will kill them. Thanks, Greg!

Of course, in the interest of fair reporting, I feel I must disclose that this is not the first time that Davis has been accused of palling around with terrorists.

3) Abbott wasn’t the only gubernatorial candidate campaigning gubernatorially this week: Davis also did that. Are you on the Davis campaign’s mailing list? You have never received email until you’ve received email from the Davis campaign. Like arrows from an infinite army of political communications majors, so numerous are they that they block out the sun, forcing reporters to write in the shade.

With so many of them, it’s understandable that a few of them fall short of hard-hitting indictments of the status quo. This week, the Davis campaign hit Abbott over the failure of Texas to win … the 2016 Republican National Convention, which had named Dallas as a finalist.

Fort Worth- Today, Davis campaign spokesman Zac Petkanas issued the following statement:

“A major role of the governor is to attract conventions, tourism and business to the state of Texas in order to create good paying jobs and boost the economy. Despite his begging, Greg Abbott was unable to deliver the Republican National Convention to Dallas. It’s unfortunate because this is one of Greg Abbott’s insider backroom deals Texas families could have really used.”

Set aside the fact that this is a weird thing to pin on Abbott, and the idea that the Davis campaign is sanctifying Perry’s approach to the governorship as Texas’ concierge, and the idea that Abbott is bad because he’s not enough of an insider.

It’s certainly true that a major convention would have boosted Dallas’ economy, but I find myself wondering about these “Texas families” who were pining away for the national GOP convention. Are they traveling political button-sellers? Do they enjoy terrible traffic? Is proximity to national politicians the unstable emotional foundation of their family units? I feel like they have deeper problems—problems that the convention alone can’t fix. Spare a moment in your thoughts for the Metroplex sons and daughters whose parents were hoping to keep it together long enough to see Marco Rubio do a meet-and-greet in Deep Ellum.

Obama in Austin: Yes We Can…Finish Out a Second Term

In Austin today, President Barack Obama seemed to be straining from the weight of a system that's not working as well as it used to.
President Obama speaks at the Paramount Theater in Austin, July 10, 2014.
President Obama speaks at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, July 10, 2014.

There were two Barack Obamas that showed up to the Paramount Theatre in Austin today for a domestic policy speech, one of the last legs of a cross-country tour. There was Barry, the friendly fellow with a personal life and two kids who is grappling with the intense, soul-sucking drain of what must be one of the world’s worst jobs, and there was President Obama, the leader of the States of America, ostensibly United but in reality, an increasingly fractious place. He has two-and-a-half more years to preside over a policy-making process in which it seems more and more clear that very little productive—and I mean very, very little—can actually get done.

Both Obamas hate Washington, but for different reasons. Barry’s complaint is easy to understand: The Oval Office is a punishing, dehumanizing workplace, and that must be an infinitely harder burden to bear when the system is frozen around you and you can’t seem to gain any headway.

Before he came to Texas, Obama was in Denver, where he had a few beers and played a little pool with Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. It was the most normal night he would have had in some time, but for pundits, his “boozy” night out was an outrage and a scandal. How could the president have fun when many of his fellow Americans, in point of fact, were not having fun?

At the Paramount, Obama was energetic and present, but at times it seemed to be the kind of unregulated energy that masks a deeper fatigue. Obama’s always seemed to have a certain connection to Austin, and he started out by telling the enthusiastic crowd one reason why.

“The last time I walked a real walk, where I was kind of left alone, was in Austin.” Before one of the debates in the 2008 Democratic primary, he left his hotel and walked around Town Lake. “I was walking along the river, and no one noticed me. And it felt great.” Then on the way back, someone recognized him. His aides descended. And the rest was history.

“I’ve enjoyed the last few days, getting out of Washington,” he said. “At each step I’ve been able to meet people.” In Austin, that number included the late-morning crowd at Magnolia Cafe on Lake Austin Boulevard. He met some students about to travel to Peru, and the Incan ruins at Machu Picchu. “I’ve always wanted to go there,” he says he told them. When he was invited to tag along, he replied: “I’d love to, but there’s some things I gotta do.” The wanderlust of an American president.

Among the everyday folk that Obama met in Texas was one well-coiffed fellow who doesn’t hold much truck with the president: the governor of our great state, Rick Perry. Perry, too, is biding his time before his term ends. Perry desperately wants to have that last “real walk” someday, and so he spent much of the last week trying to outmaneuver Obama and win the best photo op.

The president finally consented to meet him—in an airport meeting room in Dallas with a number of other officeholders where huge Texas and U.S. flags were displayed side-by-side as if it were a meeting of two sovereign nations. Perry won a few free cable news interviews, where he turned around and trashed the man he’d had a cordial meeting with hours before. But in terms of disrupting the visit, he was effectively neutralized.

Back at the Paramount, Obama talked up the economic recovery, and presented a wish list of “common sense” items that he’d like to see Congress take up before his time in office ends.

America, since the crash, had “recovered faster than just about any nation,” he said. “There’s no doubt that we’re making headway. By almost every measure we’re better off than when we took office.” The unemployment rate was low again. The nation is increasingly energy independent, even while its carbon footprint is shrinking. More people have healthcare, more people have jobs.

But there are deeper, fundamental problems with the American system going forward that needed to be addressed, he said. For one, the average American’s income has stagnated, a problem that long predates Obama’s presidency. “This country is not going to succeed unless everyone has a shot,” he said, and to improve individual opportunity and the stability of the nation’s economic model generally, there were things that Congress had to do—things that shouldn’t, by rights, be controversial.

The nation’s infrastructure—roads, ports, rail networks and airports—have been in relative decline for years, but there’s no appetite among congressional Republicans to fund improvements. The government could facilitate job training programs to help the long-term unemployed find work, but the situation in Congress is the same there. Government-funded research programs of the kind that helped secure American scientific dominance after World War II have been pushed to the back of the line.

These weren’t ideological projects—the great Republican presidents of the past had a hand in all of them, Obama said. Many of his proposed domestic programs are not dissimilar from the ones proposed by Eisenhower. But they have no chance of passage: “Republicans in Congress have voted down every smart proposal that could have helped the middle class.”

“The best thing you can say about congressional Republicans is that so far this year they haven’t shut down the government,” he said. “But of course it’s only July.”

But congressional Republicans haven’t done nothing this year. For one thing, they’re suing Obama for his use of executive orders to change policies of government agencies, in a gimmicky midterm-election-year effort that even conservative commentator Erick Erickson called “nothing more than political theater.”

Obama, loose throughout the speech, got even more animated on this point. “I’m issuing executive orders at the lowest rate in a hundred years,” he said.

“I hear some of them out there say, ‘impeach him,’” he said. “Really? You’re going to sue me for doing my job? You’re going to sue me for doing my job while you don’t do your job?”

He added: “There’s a great movie called The Departed.” In one scene, Mark Wahlberg’s character yells at another cop after a failed stake-out. “Wahlberg looks up and says, ‘I’m the guy doing my job. You must be the other guy.’”

At times, his frustration seemed to boil over. On congressional Republicans’ decade-long failure to reconcile themselves with the prospect of immigration reform, he seemed particularly pointed. “They don’t even have enough energy or enough organization to vote ‘no’ on the bill.” They wouldn’t even let it come to the floor. “Ronald Reagan passed immigration reform and you love Ronald Reagan,” he said. “What changed?”

He ended by beseeching the crowd not to give into cynicism, and to choose hope. He would continue to fight for “the American Dream,” and “I am going to need you to be right there with me.”

But the Obamas are on their way back to Washington, where hope seems an insufficient corrective to the stagnation that’s come to afflict the halls of American power.

Outside, a few tea party protesters stood around a Gadsden flag, holding signs that called for border security (and Obama’s impeachment.) Obama’s contention was that Americans could come together around issues like our infrastructure needs, so I asked them about the issue without mentioning Obama’s name.

“We need a really frugal body to study whether that’s really necessary at this time,” said one woman. Maybe it was, but she doubted it. The roads she’d seen around the country seemed fine. A friend came over and challenged the premise. “How much money are we investing in roads right now?” When I told her it was in long-term decline, she went silent for a moment, then returned to getting her picture taken.

UT Austin President Bill Powers.
UT Austin President Bill Powers.

The years-long brawl between the University of Texas System Board of Regents and UT-Austin President Bill Powers may be coming to a conclusion this week. Word broke on Friday—July 4th, when few Texans were paying attention to the news—that the regents were moving to sack Powers.

His firing could come as soon as Thursday’s regents meeting, though quite a few are rallying to save him—it’s rare to see Democratic state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and former Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison on the same side of an issue. For much of the last year, both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature have attempted to stymie the regents’ efforts to depose Powers, including impeachment proceedings for Regent Wallace Hall. But it may be all for naught.

That has huge consequences for the future of the UT System. But how we got to this point—the meandering way a relatively simple power struggle over education policy turned into a years-long bureaucratic trench fight—says a lot about the way politics is conducted in Texas, and not much about Powers himself.

The tactics employed by the anti-Powers coalition, most notably by the groups associated with the conservative powerbroker Michael Quinn Sullivan, have been used on dozens of candidates. All’s fair in politics. But knocking off a (popular) university president feels different, and if they’re successful, it’s a sign that no one, and no institution in the state, is safe from the sprawling blitzkrieg that’s consumed Texas political life.

Though it seems to be infrequently mentioned in a lot of the relevant commentary, the fight between the regents and Powers began for completely different reasons than the ones being debated now. The regents’ efforts to dislodge Powers come in the middle of a years-long fight over the direction of public universities in Texas, which pits a number of right-wing higher ed activists against nearly everyone else.

The first stages of that fight are chronicled in an excellent Texas Monthly story from October 2012. The short of it: An Austin oilman and investor named Jeff Sandefer had a series of long-standing resentments and disputes with the University of Texas, where he once taught in the business school. He, and a number of other wealthy businessmen pulled together in the orbit of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right-wing advocacy organization with a direct line to Gov. Rick Perry. The group sought to make higher ed run more like a business, with a smaller, harder-working faculty, cheaper tuition and less emphasis on unprofitable departments. (Picture an Austin with fewer film students and more petroleum engineers.)

Perry loved their ideas, and appointed the “reform” cohort’s fellow travelers to leadership positions within A&M and UT. They tried to implement their ideas first at A&M, Perry’s alma mater. Among other alienating moves, the reformers made lists of A&M’s faculty, calculating how much money each had generated for the university. Teach lectures with hundreds of kids in an auditorium, and you’d earned your salary—spend time in small groups, or in research labs, and you hadn’t. The A&M fight, too, went on for years.

When they came for UT, the faculty—and many of the university’s alumni—were suitably freaked out from the beginning. Members of the UT Board of Regents made assurances that it wouldn’t try to alter the fundamental character of the university, but the regents’ opponents pointed to their cohort’s past work and statements—that university research efforts provided little of worth, for example. The school’s faculty and alumni feared a more utilitarian approach to college education would cheapen UT’s name and reputation. It fell to Powers, the president of UT’s flagship campus since 2006, to resist the reform agenda.

For several years, it seemed like a stalemate. Members of the Board of Regents, appointed by the governor, were determined to overhaul the system, but unable to do so without the control or consent of UT’s top officers. The regents talked occasionally about firing Powers, but never followed through. In 2012, Teresa A. Sullivan, the widely-liked president of the University of Virginia, was fired for her failure to comply with similar reform efforts, but was swiftly reinstated as a result of demands from faculty and alumni. The lesson from Virginia must have been clear to the Texas regents. If they wanted to fire Powers, they needed to find another reason. And they seemed confident that they would. In early 2013, Hall was in talks with Alabama football coach Nick Saban. Wallace Hall told Saban that Powers would be out of a job by year’s end, an assurance that must have done wonders for Saban’s estimation of UT’s stability.

So, over the course of the last year, they cast around for a reason to fire Powers until they found one. During this whole sordid process, the Legislature had stood firmly behind Powers. Wasn’t it a scandal, Powers’ opponents said, that during this time legislators had written letters of recommendation for friends and family applying to the university? Had Powers helped legislators in exchange for their support? The campaign always seemed thin, but it rumbled on regardless. UT is currently investigating the allegations of improper influence.

So the anti-Powers coalition pivoted, and with a little effort, they recast the whole episode into a more sympathetic narrative. Any mention of the debate over UT’s direction was excised from the stories they wrote. Powers, they started to say, was a fat-cat ally of the fat-cat Legislature. He was a relentlessly corrupt influence peddler, part of the Establishment’s machine. And Regent Wallace Hall, who led the anti-Powers effort, was a bold truth-seeker and whistleblower who had charged, like a lion, into UT’s den of iniquity and emerged triumphant with the terrible, awful truth.

If that new narrative sounds familiar, that’s partly because the effort was led by the amorphous messaging machine around Michael Quinn Sullivan, and his network of organizations, which now seems to have expanded to annex the conservative content aggregator Breitbart Texas. Sullivan used the same Manichean language he’s used in his other crusades in the UT fight, to great effect—he even appointed Powers an ally of House Speaker Joe Straus, his hated enemy. When word first broke on Friday that Powers might be canned, it was Sullivan that wrote it up for Breitbart in an article heavy on anonymous sources.

And his approach went national. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, which seems, when it comes to Texas, to be the end point of a pneumatic tube that delivers talking points directly from Sullivan’s office, wrote about the fight in exactly the terms Sullivan outlined. Hall, the Journal wrote, was a crusader that had tried his level best to “root out potential wrongdoing at the university,” and had been penalized by a corrupt and mendacious legislature.

If Powers goes down, he’ll only be the latest public figure to be taken down this way. This playbook–find a hidden flank and relentlessly attack it, sling mud, perpetuate gross distortions and substitute issues of your choosing for the things that are really at stake—has helped the groups attacking Powers knock off dozens of primary candidates and legislators in recent years. They’ve transformed not only the state’s political landscape, but how the state does politics.

But Powers isn’t a politician—he’s outside the political system, ostensibly, though his situation has become increasingly politicized in recent years. Sullivan and his allies specialize in covering up power plays with the cloak of principled opposition. They supported an accused wife-beater against Republican state Sen. Bob Deuell in this year’s Republican primary because Deuell had been insufficiently subservient to Sullivan’s organizations. Instead of saying that, they settled on a lie—Deuell was a pro-choice liberal—and repeated it ad nauseam, until, on election day, he crumbled.

Now, the mau-mauers appear to be expanding their successful campaign to the Forty Acres. If they succeed in picking off the popular leader of a major public institution like UT Austin, that sets a dangerous precedent.

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte speaks at the 2014 Democratic state convention in Dallas.
Sarah Mortimer
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte speaks at the 2014 Democratic state convention in Dallas.

The Texas Republican convention last month featured a number of GOPers from across the country, including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, and Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska. They came to network, build ties with the state party, and raise money, and their presence helped give the convention a greater profile in national media. The slate of speakers at the Texas Democrats’ convention this past weekend in Dallas, by comparison, was devoid of such national figures.

It didn’t have to be that way, though. Democrats involved with planning the convention told the Observer that Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand were in talks to speak at the gathering. Each had seemed to signal a willingness to speak—with Gillibrand even offering to help with the cost of attending the convention. But Wendy Davis’ representatives nixed the plan, fearing the national pols would be a liability for her.

The Davis campaign wanted its candidate to be the primary focus of the convention and worried that the presence of national Democrats would distract from the Fort Worth state senator’s keynote. And according to Democrats with knowledge of the debate over the speaker lineup, the campaign feared connecting Davis’ name to national Democrats who may be unpopular in Texas. Davis has suffered from quite a bit of that kind of coverage.

What would the participation of Clinton, Biden or Gillibrand have meant for the convention? According to Democrats who thought the decision to exclude national figures was a mistake, there would have almost certainly been more media attention. There simply wasn’t much to write about in Dallas, and coverage, even among Texas outlets, reflected that. And there would likely have been better attendance at the convention—Clinton, Biden and Gillibrand are generally quite popular among the progressive crowd of delegates that attended the event. “Ready for Hillary” stickers adorned many delegates. Gillibrand is an icon for progressive women thanks in part to her doomed push for military sexual assault legislation.

Clinton’s attendance, especially, would have drawn the convention into the national spotlight. Major national publications have reporters dedicated solely to chronicling Clinton’s activities. In the past, Clinton’s camp has made noises about contesting Texas in the course of the 2016 presidential race; if she spoke at the convention, that would likely have featured heavily in coverage and been a boost for a party in need of some encouraging headlines. Some closer to the party said they would have loved to see that boost—and the slate of statewide candidates that the Democrats are backing, many of whom suffer from low name recognition and limited fundraising ability, could have benefited from it, sources said.

As it was, Davis was asked to carry the convention—giving a keynote speech that ended pretty late on a Friday night. In that role, she performed adequately. But national speakers might have taken some of the pressure off Davis. (Greg Abbott, by contrast, gave a relaxed speech to his convention earlier in the day.)

The decision to exclude national speakers at the convention is fascinating for a couple of reasons. For one, it highlights a split in thinking between groups backing Wendy Davis—her campaign team and Battleground Texas—and the state party, which is providing the primary backing for most of Davis’ ticketmates, including Leticia Van de Putte. The two groups are bringing markedly different approaches to the general election. While those different strategies may complement each other in some areas, they clash in others. At the convention negotiations, Davis’ team won.

A spokesman with the Davis campaign declined to comment, but an official with knowledge of the convention planning told the Observer that “there was an effort to make sure Texas was the focus of the convention.”

Davis is running a pricey, high-stakes campaign that’s banking heavily on its ability to win over moderates and independents—the kind of voters that helped her retain a center-right Texas Senate district in Fort Worth. Some of her pronouncements in the past—flirting with open carry laws, embracing some abortion restrictions, and talking tough on the border crisis—make sense if seen through that prism. And it also makes sense that she would shy away from affiliation with national Democrats, who may not be popular with the moderates she hopes to win over.

Other candidates on the Democratic slate are being backed more heavily by the state party. They, particularly Van de Putte, have a very different strategy in mind. With a fraction of the resources Davis has, Van de Putte’s team will rely more heavily on turning out the base while taking advantage of as much free media and attention as she can. And she’ll hope that her opponent, Dan Patrick, alienates moderate voters on his own.

As such, Van de Putte, and the rest of the candidates the party is backing, might have relished the chance to stand on the same stage as Clinton et al, which might have brought some attention and resources to a party, and the party’s candidates, that are badly in need of both. But the Davis campaign was calling the shots. In the next couple months, we’ll see how this unusual dynamic plays out.

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