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Hooks on Politics

Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Attorney General Greg Abbott

Gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis is launching a new front in her campaign against Attorney General Greg Abbott this week, highlighting Abbott’s history with the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas, CPRIT, the taxpayer-funded cancer-research agency that imploded amid allegations that money earmarked for lifesaving medical research was slipped into major Republican donors’ pockets instead.

The attack first came from the left-wing group Progress Texas, followed by a Davis campaign rally Tuesday that echoed some of the same points. Progress Texas has been trying to tie CPRIT to Gov. Rick Perry and Abbott for two years—but the new push comes as the governor’s race is heating up, and as Perry faces allegations he tried to quash an investigation into CPRIT by the Travis County District Attorney’s office. The ad features cancer survivors talking about their anger over misspent research money.

On Tuesday, Davis appeared at the Austin Tex-Mex restaurant Juan in a Million to level some of the same criticisms. “Greg Abbott allowed our cancer institute to become a piggy bank and allowed his donors to siphon off millions of tax dollars from cancer patients and from taxpayers,” she told a crowd of supporters. “When Abbott served on the oversight board of our state’s cancer research institute, he wasn’t looking out for cancer patients. He was looking out for his political donors.”

CPRIT was a signature Perry initiative, and Abbott was appointed to the organization’s governing board, which was supposed to provide oversight. State Rep. Jim Keffer (R-Eastland), who helped write the legislation that created CPRIT, said Abbott was appointed to the board to provide “that extra set of eyes and knowledge.” Abbott didn’t attend a single CPRIT board meeting, and appointed a deputy to represent him on the board, who missed more than a third of the board meetings. In that time, millions of dollars flowed from the fund into companies ill-suited to perform cancer research—companies with close financial ties to major Republican donors.

For example: conservative Christian activist James Leininger—founder of the right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation, and a family friend of Abbott’s who’d given the candidate more than $275,000—had a financial stake in one company called Caliber Biotherapeutics.

In 2011, Caliber submitted a grant request to CPRIT, and a team of scientific reviewers awarded Caliber’s proposal a score of 4.5 (out of 9), according to the Dallas Morning News. Dr. William Kaelin, a reviewer who once worked with CPRIT’s review board, told the paper that score was effectively a warning:

“A four, five or six meant they really thought it had flaws, that certain things that were proposed were simply not right, they weren’t built on a solid foundation, that the logic was flawed, et cetera,” he said.

Yet Caliber won almost $13 million from the agency.

CPRIT started to unravel in 2012 under increased scrutiny. At one critical meeting in October of that year, the fund’s board members met to work out the agency’s future, amid calls for a sweeping overhaul and resignations from the fund’s officers. Abbott didn’t show, the Morning News again reported, although he had time to appear on Fox News to talk about the presidential elections.

For her part, Davis was one of a number of legislators in the 2013 session to advocate for overhauling CPRIT. Davis’ reforms, which would have removed Abbott and Comptroller Susan Combs from the governing board, stalled in committee, while a rival reform package authored by state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) passed.

Shortly after CPRIT unraveled in 2012, Abbott announced his intention to open a civil investigation into the agency, even though Abbott would be investigating his own donors. That was a year and a half ago—since then, a criminal investigation by the Travis County DA’s office resulted in a felony indictment for one senior CPRIT official.

As for Abbott’s investigation? It’s unclear where that stands—if it’s still ongoing, or if it was quietly dropped sometime in the last 19 months. The Observer asked the AG’s office for an update Monday afternoon—we’ll update when we hear back.

Q&A with U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro

Rep. Joaquin Castro talks to us in Washington this week about congressional dysfunction, immigration reform, Dan Patrick and his political future.
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro outside of his House office. May 1, 2013.
Christopher Hooks
U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro outside of his House office. May 1, 2013.

Joaquín Castro served in the Texas Legislature for 10 years. It wasn’t an easy time—he joined the Texas House at a low point for Texas Democrats, watched them rebuild slowly over the next six years and left just after another historic drubbing. But it was still a place with a relatively intimate, collegial feel. The office of your worst enemy was never more than a few steps away. Then, in 2012, he was elected to Congress.

On Wednesday, I met Rep. Castro in Washington, D.C., at Tortilla Coast, a Tex-Mex restaurant a block away from his perch in the Cannon House Office Building. Tortilla Coast has become a traditional meeting place on the Hill, but it’s most famous for its role in what become known, tongue-in-cheek, as the Tortilla Coast Rebellion. Sen. Ted Cruz held strategy sessions with House Republicans in the basement of the building during last year’s government shutdown, at a time when both were trying to find a way to buck the Republican leadership under House Speaker John Boehner, who was trying to find a face-saving way to end the shutdown.

Cruz—and Tortilla Coast with it—became a byword for Congress’ do-nothingism, and the gleeful obstructionism that seems to pervade all of our national debates recently. Castro’s name inevitably comes up when Democrats talk about finding someone to challenge Cruz in 2018.

The House was in session this week—unlike the two previous weeks—but even still, the body was winding down as it headed toward a long weekend before another abbreviated work week next week… and then another week-long recess. That fact stood in sharp contrast to the day’s protesters, who, despite drenching rain, stood in front of the Capitol to urge legislative action on immigration reform. More than 20 were arrested, including an 11-year-old boy.

At Tortilla Coast, Castro was solemn. Over the next half-hour, we talked about congressional dysfunction, the prospects for immigration reform, Paul Ryan’s budget, his political future and Dan Patrick’s relationship with the Republican Party. Remarks have been lightly edited.

Texas Observer: Did the Texas Legislature teach you anything about being effective in the minority?

Joaquín Castro: Being in the minority forced you to learn to be effective without the benefit of numbers on your side. It’s certainly been helpful with the situation now.

One of the most fundamental things you have to develop is your relationships. Your friendships with people, your ability to be fair and honest and your ability to earn people’s respect. To the extent that I was able to accomplish things in Texas, I think a lot of it was based on that.

TO: Is that possible to do that here in Congress? Are there any Republicans in the Texas congressional delegation you’re particularly close with?

JC: I’m on good terms with several of them—quite frankly, I haven’t spent a lot of time with several of them, also. The challenge in Washington is that it’s such a come-and-go culture for the Congress. You know, we spend more time on airplanes then we do on the House floor. The culture is very different here, the process is very different here than in Texas. In Texas, for example, we had assigned seating, so you were next to the same person all the time. You weren’t divided up by party. Here, there’s no assigned seating. People are nomadic.

Even the way they do debate here is very different. Everything is debated at once—all the bills and amendments for the day. People come in to vote, spend 20 or 25 minutes on the floor, and then they leave. It’s a different environment that makes it more difficult to spend time with people and develop relationships.

TO: If you could change that, do you really think we’d see a change in the way Congress works?

JC: I think you could make changes that would be conducive to bipartisanship and to productivity, yeah. I’ll give you a perfect example. Look at what happened in 2009 in the Texas Legislature. In 2009, there were 76 Republicans and 74 Democrats [in the House] and about 60-something Democrats teamed up with 11 Republicans and elected a moderate Republican speaker. Here, you vote by party—Republicans vote for Boehner, and we, of course, vote for Nancy Pelosi.

It’s crossed my mind that we could essentially do what we did in Texas that time. If you were able to get a group of moderate Republicans to vote with Democrats, you could elect a new speaker of the House. The challenge is, of course, the traditions and customs of this place are so partisan that, at the moment at least, that seems beyond the vision of many folks.

TO: There’s been some talk lately about a push to revive comprehensive immigration reform this summer. A Republican member of the Texas congressional delegation, Joe Barton, announced his intention to bring his bill to the floor. What do you think the chances are Congress is serious this time?

JC: I’m very hopeful. You know I spent a while going on all these Sunday news shows saying I thought it was going to happen in 2013. So, maybe my opinion is not a good one, but…

First of all, I want to thank Joe Barton for stepping forward and being the first of all the Texas Republicans to step forward and clearly state that he supports comprehensive immigration reform, and come forward with a plan. Nobody in Texas had done that. The senators certainly aren’t going to do it, and House Republicans had not come forward. So I think it’s a positive step.

In terms of the prospects for it—what makes it tough at this point, apart from the lack of will on the Republican side, is the way that Boehner has set up the calendar. We’re only in session 26 days after July 31. So that makes it difficult to do anything big—immigration reform, tax reform, any of those bills. But of course, we’re going to keep pushing.

TO: Does Barton’s recent talk represent a opening?

JC: If he presents something, and files something, then yes, it does. Let me say clearly, I’m not saying I agree with the plan that he’s come up with. But the fact that he’s put a foot forward is hopeful, because it’s more than anything else that’s happened.

TO: And if it doesn’t gain momentum by July 31st, it gets pushed to 2015?

JC: The prospects for this year go down dramatically after that point. I think 2016 is the backstop, because Republicans have been chasing the Hispanic vote so intently. But also, by waiting, they’ll have to deal with presidential politics—10 candidates standing up there at a Fox News debate talking about alligator moats and electrified fences.

TO: Your brother, Mayor Julian Castro, participated in a discussion about immigration reform at the recent Civil Rights Summit held by the LBJ Presidential Library. A UT student named Deborah Alemu disrupted the event, calling for Castro to tell President Obama to alter his deportation policies.

Afterwards, she said she blamed Republicans for deadlock on immigration reform—but said she was frustrated that Democrats weren’t more vocal on the issue, when deportations were taking a daily toll on the people around her. What do you say to people who feel the way she does?

JC: Well first of all, it’s good that they’re getting involved and speaking out. Many of the political movements over the years—almost all of them—have started with regular people who have been affected by something, not politicians. So it’s good to see their energy and their passion.

Some of what you see with the Dreamers is an incredible desperation and frustration, and they’re going to focus that frustration on anybody in politics. And that’s understandable. But it also doesn’t mean that [Democrats] haven’t spoken up. Many of us have been pushing very hard. I stood three feet from the president and asked him to review his deportation policies months ago.

TO: What do you think the president should do in regards to deportations?

JC: The homeland security director right now is reviewing it. He has said that he’s going to make short-term changes, and then try to make long-term changes. But the first thing is that Congress needs to pass legislation. Executive action is a stopgap measure. It’s kind of a bridge that the president can provide, and then if you don’t follow it up with legislation, you’ve left people on that bridge, basically. I’m anxious to see what the director of homeland security, Jeh Johnson, comes up with. I would suspect that they’re either going to expand [the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program] or otherwise curb deportations.

TO: Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan has recently been holding hearings about what he’s terming a GOP anti-poverty plan. At the same time, his budget plan, which recently passed the House, makes sweeping cuts to social programs. What do you make of the Ryan budget, and his influence in the House GOP caucus?

JC: The idea that it’s an anti-poverty budget is disingenuous. What makes America special among the nations of the world is that we’ve built up this infrastructure of opportunity, and that includes certain things—public schools and universities, a strong health care system, and an economy that’s built around well-paying jobs. The main difference I see between Republicans and Democrats today is that Republicans would either abandon or dismantle that infrastructure of opportunity, and Democrats are trying to build it up.

So, for example, with the Ryan budget, he cuts $145 billion from Pell grants, cuts work study and student loans, and makes students start accruing interest on their debts while they’re still in school. That’s making it tougher to get a college degree. When he disqualifies part-time students from Pell grants, that’s making it tougher for a working mom or dad to go back and finish off a degree. So you’re starting to really undermine the ways people can pull themselves up in America.

But it’s not just that, they’re cutting things like Small Business Administration loans—billions and billions of dollars administered through the SBA lending programs. You’re cutting off the ability of people who want to be small business owners and entrepreneurs to do that. In most areas that budget is pretty harmful not just to the economy but to the ability of America to maintain itself as the pre-eminent nation of opportunity in the world.

TO: Switching to Texas politics: How did you think your brother did in the recent debate against Dan Patrick? What do you make of the 2014 election cycle so far?

JC: I thought he did very well. I think he did well highlighting Dan Patrick’s extreme move to the right among Texas Republicans. I thought he was very engaging, and I think somebody needed to call Patrick out. I’m glad he stepped up and did that.

In terms of the parties, it’s great to see groups like Battleground Texas and the Texas Organizing Project start to do the hard work of actually organizing Texas voters to register to vote, and mobilizing people to go vote. You know, Texas had been neglected for a long time. You can’t expect campaigns to get disengaged voters to go vote—that’s just not what campaigns do. Campaigns get already-engaged people to vote for them. And so you needed these third party groups to come and help out. Hopefully that will bear fruit in 2014.

But also, if Democrats come back in Texas, it’s not because we’re just going to run these guys over. It’s because you have candidates like Dan Patrick, and others who are following in the mold of Ted Cruz, who are moving so far to the right that most Texans no longer can relate to that.

TO: One interesting thing about the debate is that Patrick clearly hopes to recast himself as the compassionate one, for trying to stop cross-border human trafficking. Do you think Patrick will be able to distance himself from his primary talk?

JC: He used the term “anchor baby.” That’s not compassionate.

No, he won’t be able to run away from this. We won’t let him. He can try to use softer language. He can try to use a gentler demeanor. But those words he used, and those radio programs that he was part of, are always going to be part of the record. He’s the Pete Wilson of Texas. He’s very divisive. He’s dangerous for the Republican Party too. And I think a lot of them realize that.

TO: Will Texas Democrats have the bench to run strong challengers to potential Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Sen. Ted Cruz and a number of other state officials in 2018?

JC: Yes. We’ll have a slate of candidates ready to go. There’s very talented, very passionate Democrats in Texas who are in the pipeline. Rafael Anchia in Dallas, for example, [state Rep.] Mike Villarreal, [state Rep.] Trey Martinez Fischer and others. And they have the horizon in their sights, too.

And I also think, as Democrats come back in Texas, people who are not in politics right now will take this on. Ted Cruz wasn’t an officeholder when he ran for Senate, you know.

TO: Would you include yourself in that pool of potential candidates?

JC: Sure! Yeah, certainly. Of course I’ll consider other races in the future.

People have wondered why me or my brother didn’t run in 2014. But I had just got to Congress. I realize that Tom Cotton in Arkansas is doing what people said I should have done. But that’s a very different situation. And besides, you can’t be on other people’s schedules. You have to be on your own.

TO: The New York Times recently wrote an article about you and your brother that charged some in Texas felt you guys suffered from an “overabundance of political caution.” Is that unfair?

JC: You know, that’s somebody’s take on it. I wouldn’t say that’s unfair, it’s just somebody’s perspective. People are going to have different opinions of you.

Listen, when I first got into politics, I ran against a Democratic incumbent in the primary, and then I was in a swing district in which the Republican was funded by Tom DeLay money that was being funneled illegally at the time. And then I jumped into a congressional race against Lloyd Doggett, another long-time Democratic incumbent. So I don’t think I’ve been especially cautious, waiting for that perfect moment for things to line up.

You should run when you really feel like there’s a calling for that office—when you feel you have something to contribute. And also, yeah, when you think you can win! Otherwise, you’re partially on a fool’s errand.

TO: The New York Times article also emphasized that you aren’t fluent in Spanish. Do you think people make too big a deal out of that?

JC: Well, my family’s been here for 92 years, since my grandmother came from Mexico. Just like people of other ethnicities—Germans, or Italians, Portuguese—there’s some loss of language over the years. You can be part of a community without being fluent in that language. But I think it’s kind of odd—you wouldn’t ask a third-generation German why they can’t speak German.

Of course it’s different, because with those communities, you don’t continue to have waves and waves of folks that come over, but Spanish-speaking Hispanics are constantly refreshing their culture in the United States.

I think the The New York Times has written that a few times now. [laughs] That’s The New York Times perspective on Texas politics.

TO: If you could change one structural thing about the way Washington works, what would it be?

JC: Structurally? There’s different things. Basically, yeah, I would have people around each other more. But you’re not going to force people to hang out, so, structurally, how do you accomplish that?

We’re only in session 103 days this year. And it’s so busy when we’re here, it makes it hard. To some extent you have a group of passing strangers. And that’s not conducive to doing the business of the nation.

The background of the Texas Democratic Party's new anti-Dewhurst attack site.
mountaindewhurst.com
The background of the Texas Democratic Party's new anti-Dewhurst attack site.

This year’s Republican primary for lt. governor has consistently been the state’s weirdest race, and none of the participants shows any signs of calming down as it heads towards its conclusion later this month. If anything, it’s getting weirder. Incumbent David Dewhurst and state Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) are clawing at each other with mounting fury while Texas Democrats are sniping from the side. The runoff is roughly four weeks away—here are three attack ads that show a misstepping Dewhurst, an energized Patrick and a Democratic Party that’s happy about it all.

1) Mountain Dew

Bizarre attack sites have primarily been the domain of Republican candidates this cycle, but this latest effort from the Democratic Party shows there’s talent on both sides of the aisle. Take MountainDewhurst.com, a copyright-infringement-flirting website that plays off everyone’s favorite neon-green swill.

mountain dewhurst screenshotIt’s a strange effort for a couple reasons. One, it’s a backdoor endorsement of Sen. Patrick by Texas Democrats, who clearly think he’ll be easier to beat in November. But if so, the site’s not exactly targeted at Republican primary voters, who will decide if Dew or Dan wins in the coming runoff. It charges that The Dew “only cares about money,” has “no regard for Texas women” and is “anti-immigrant,” which sounds like exactly the kind of candidate that would win a Republican primary.

But the site explicitly calls for viewers to vote for Patrick in the runoff: “Make sure we stop [Dewhurst] on May 27.” If Patrick wins the runoff, and wins in November, will Democrats come to regret this effectively in-kind donation to Patrick’s campaign? Is this a good use of resources? Or was it simply an act of trolling too good to pass up?

Dewhurst, for his part, calls the “website a badge of honor, as it reflects their fear of my strong conservative record of accomplishments in the Senate and my vision for the future of Texas.”

2) The Dewhurst Decade

Does Dewhurst have a conservative record? Ask Patrick. In 2012, as Dew’s campaign is now fond of reminding people, Patrick backed Dewhurst over Cruz in the GOP primary for U.S. Senate and lauded Dew as an “authentic conservative.” How times change.

After Dewhurst’s first attack ad launch against Patrick, Patrick responded in kind. Now, he’s doubling down, with an ad called “The Dewhurst Decade.” The sum of Dewhurst’s career in public service, Patrick argues, is “more taxpayer funded benefits for illegal immigrants.”

Screen Shot 2014-05-01 at 1.02.59 PMMeanwhile, he’s tacked on a hot new app to DewFeed.com, his months-old attack site. DewFeed helped set the tone for this campaign, so it’s fitting that Patrick is returning to it in his hour of need. It’s a quiz—a visitor can guess whether a straw-man position on immigration is held by either David Dewhurst, Julian Castro, or both. (Spoiler: The answer is always both.) Win the quiz, and you’ll be lauded. “Good job! You know the truth about Dewhurst’s liberal ways.”

It’s a reminder that for all the harumphing indignation about Dewhurst’s new negative tack, it was Patrick that went negative first. He’s been jackhammering his opponents with light-on-context misrepresentations since last fall. And he’s going to keep right at it.

3) Stuntman Dan

When Dewhurst launched this tit-for-tat volley last month, he did it with a seemingly misguided ad that slammed Patrick for his decision not to repay debt he’d accumulated before a bankruptcy and ended with a weird insinuation that Patrick changed his name out of fear of his debtors. The second charge was easily disproven, and the first was a bizarre tack because Dewhurst has had debt troubles himself. Presently, Dew’s trying to negotiate down a sum he owes to pollster Mike Baselice.

Dewhurst spent $1 million on that ad, and he’s following it up with $600,000 for a second. Did he get the tone right this time?

This ad works in some of the previous claims, in a manner less likely to earn PolitiFact’s “Pants on Fire” rating. But the main attraction is the inclusion of pictures of Patrick wearing a coat, a tie, and no shirt, in what at first glance might seem to place Patrick at some kind of swingers party.

Dan, is that where you were?

The photo was taken at a Christmas fundraising party for our children with multiple disabilities and our deaf children at Be An Angel in December 2010. I was auctioning off the shirt off my back, literally, as part of the live auction. It sold for $1500 and it hangs proudly in the office of the couple who purchased it. They are long time supporters of mine and Be An Angel.

[...]

For David Dewhurst to use a photo from a charity event for disabled children, and pervert the use of that photo to attack me in his continued negative campaign is about as low as you can go.

Dewhurst continues to spend great big stacks of money on negative ads that seem oddly sloppy. Patrick’s brain trust, the strategist Allen Blakemore, presented the possibility Dewhurst would adopt a “Sherman’s march” strategy for the runoff, but so far this seems like the Charge of the Light Brigade—costly, poorly managed, ill-timed and full of missed opportunities.

Dewhurst’s people says it’s working, though! The polls are shifting, they say. Meanwhile, Patrick’s campaign is calling Mountain Dew “desperate and floundering.” And time’s running out.

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.

A couple of months ago, the Wendy Davis campaign was having a rough time. Then Ted Nugent appeared. Greg Abbott proudly circulated plans to hold a high-profile campaign event with the Nuge, the shock rocker with not-so-thoughtful views about women and non-white people and a guy who occasionally hints at his desire to assassinate the president. Abbott’s dalliance with Nugent blew up in his face, and the story went national, for good reason. It showed poor judgment on Abbott’s part, and it demonstrated the potential for myopic thinking among his campaign team, Texas political veterans who are used to winning elections one way—with red meat and brute force.

The Nugent incident was soon followed by a San Antonio Express-News investigation into pay practices in Abbott’s office. The narrative about the race shifted—the Davis team seemed like it had new energy. Hoping to establish a narrative about Abbott as an imperious, callous misogynist, the Davis campaign seized on subsequent new Abbott slip-ups and attempted to duplicate the political impact of Nugent’s brief foray into the governor’s race. But the tactic is beginning to wear a bit thin. And amid the noise, Davis might be missing an opportunity to talk about how she would govern the state differently than Abbott.

The Davis camp attacked Abbott for weeks because his citation of a Charles Murray book in an education policy paper. Murray’s ideology is extremely problematic, but for better or worse he’s widely cited and the passage in question, one of dozens mentioned, was pretty banal. There was the idea, promulgated by the campaign, that Abbott had called for mandated standardized tests for four-year-olds in the same policy paper, which wasn’t true. (The paper called for a method of evaluating the effectiveness of pre-K programs, but a test was one of three possible evaluation methods—and the drawbacks of testing were diligently noted.)

There was the Boats-and-Hoes blow-up, in which an employee of Allen Blakemore—a Republican strategist who had worked for Abbott a decade ago and is now associated with state Sen. Dan Patrick—created a joke political action committee with an offensive title that referenced a song from the frat-comedy Step Brothers. Recently, the campaign sent the press an item from the Burnt Orange Report asking why Abbott hadn’t denounced Nevada Rancher Cliven Bundy.

All of these items have some significance, but it’s weird to see a statewide campaign make them the major focus of its effort. Last week, Wonkette, a liberal blog that specializes in caustic, satirical polemics (strong language in the link) compared Davis unfavorably to Ann Richards and argued that Davis needed to show more spine.

We love Wendy Davis. You love Wendy Davis. We and you want to do very sexy things to Wendy Davis, even the straight chicks. Unfortunately, even saying that is the kind of thing the Wendy Davis for Governor campaign would send out an OUTRAGED PRESS RELEASE ABOUT. Most of you don’t get Wendy Davis for Governor’s press releases. We are here to tell you they are terrible.

[…]

This whining [and] what (we hope) is fake umbrage is beneath you. It’s not a good look. You’re sounding like the candidate of only delicate flower suburban housewives, and we are pretty sure they don’t think you’re speaking for them.

There must be few things political operatives hate more than pundits and journalists admonishing them to talk about The Issues. But Davis needs to do so at some point. Democrats have not held power in Texas in 20 years, and to be given a chance by voters they need to effectively reassure the state that they won’t torpedo the things people like about the status quo—primarily, economic growth—in the process of trying to fix the things they don’t. That includes a creaking education and health care system, a dysfunctional relationship with the border and millions of new, undocumented neighbors, and an inefficient tax structure that punishes the middle class. As Austin writer Andrea Grimes noted on Twitter, the words “immigration” and “health care” do not appear on Davis’ issues page.

None of this, of course, is to say that Abbott is taking the high road. His new focus is on an arcane legal dispute with the federal Bureau of Land Management, which he feels will appeal to his base after the Bundy debacle. His issues page is similarly uninformative. But what if Davis could find a way to position herself as the grown-up and still attack Abbott?

Consider the criminal charges that might be brought against Gov. Rick Perry. If that happens in the next six months, it would become one of the dominant stories of the election cycle. And it could precipitate a wider conversation about the effect of long-time one-party rule in Texas.

One of the potential roots of that whole sordid tale is Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg’s investigation into the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), a major Perry initiative, which was mismanaged to an almost comic degree. Taxpayer money, intended to be used for life-saving medical research, was effectively poured down the drain—or slipped in the pockets of individuals with political connections to Republicans. Democratic strategists have talked about it quite a bit since last year, but it never got the traction they might have hoped.

CPRIT had a governing board, which was supposed to provide oversight. One of the members was Attorney General Greg Abbott. State Rep. Jim Keffer (R-Eastland), who helped write the legislation that created CPRIT, said Abbott was appointed to the board to provide “that extra set of eyes and knowledge.” Abbott never bothered to show up, appointing a deputy to represent him on the board, who didn’t attend much either. Now one of CPRIT’s senior officials has been charged with a felony for his actions with the fund. That seems like an interesting thing to ask Abbott about.

The bold, bright future of the Texas Nationalist Movement
The bold, bright future of the Texas Nationalist Movement

BUNKERSVILLE, Nevada (WTF FRIDAY)—The Bundy Ranch debacle—Jesus, what a stuffshow, guys—falls outside the strict jurisdiction of the Observer staff who curate WTF Friday, but let’s take a minute to point and laugh at the Texas elected officials who decided to hitch their stars to ol’ Cliven Bundy, the beef-making welfare queen who briefly became a right-wing cause célèbre before wondering out loud if “the Negro” was “better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

That left Bundy’s former superfans running. Texas’ junior senator Ted Cruz said before the incident that Bundy’s plight was “resonating” with Americans because it was the “unfortunate and tragic culmination of the path that President Obama has set the federal government on,” but he quickly denounced Bundy’s remarks. So did gubernatorial hopeful Greg Abbott, who used the moment to pick his own fight with the BLM.

But one Texas politician took longer than the rest: Gov. Rick Perry. And that’s doubly weird, because he seems to be running for president, and the last time he did that he ran into a lot of unnecessary trouble over some N-word issues of his own.

Before, Perry had essentially blamed the BLM for having guns pointed at the Bundy family: “I have a problem with the federal government putting citizens in the position of having to feel like they have to use force to deal with their own government,” he said.

But when Bundy became toxic, he characterized him as a distraction on a CBS morning show.

“I don’t know what he said, but the fact is Clyde (sic) Bundy is a side issue here compared to what we’re looking at in the state of Texas,” Perry said. “He is an individual. Deal with his issues as you may.”

Perry’s spokespeople denounced Bundy’s remarks later, after “Rick Perry defends Cliven Bundy” became a thing. Perry may actually not have known what Bundy said, but the idea that he went on TV to talk about Bundy without pulling up Google News—or being told anything about it by his staff—is pretty weird. Oops.

Politicians may be dumping their remaining stock in Cliven Bundy, but here, militias are going about their business with renewed vigor. Our friends at the Texas Nationalist Movement are thinking about the future:

Where Are the Noble Men and Women? What does a noble man or woman look like?

Accompanied by a picture of a sword-swinging suit of armor, someone on the Texas Nationalist Movement’s blog recently contemplated the lack of moral fiber Texans exhibit when they remain mysteriously unwilling to join the Texas Nationalist Movement. The author recalls making a pitch to a prospective new “blue-shirt.” The prospect was mad at the federal government, sure. But he lacked passion. He wasn’t ready to pick up the sword.

This is, in the estimation of those within my community, a fine upstanding man. But yet, a man who sees the injustice and enslavement not only he suffers under, but also the injustice and enslavement he is leaving for his kids and grandkids to suffer under, and accepts it without a struggle save his hallowed “Anti-Establishment vote”.

Yet, I remember just a few short years ago, when I too gathered under the “mother hen” political movement to effect change in the federal government. I have not always acted noblely, of the highest character. And here I am, joined in lockstep with noble men and women in the Texas Nationalist Movement, working to awaken others to nobility of character.

Last week, the Texas Nationalist Movement’s appointment of a new “cultural director,” and the use of the term “blue-shirt”—most famously associated with fascist movements of the 1920s—made the group look oddly sinister. In just a week, they’ve become Renaissance Fair re-enactors.

The TNM may be sharpening their broadswords and delicately washing their lords-and-ladies kerchiefs, but up in North Texas, they settle their political disputes the new-fashioned way—tendentious Facebook screeds. Seriously, what’s in the water up there?

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Bud Kennedy flags this exchange between Arlington City Council member Charlie Parker and Tony Tinderholt, the tea party candidate for House District 94. Arlington’s city council recently passed two measures that infuriated open carry activists—one which added language to an already-existing ordinance that prohibits protesters from handing out literature to drivers at intersections, and one that prohibited guns from being carried into city council meetings. Tinderholt didn’t like that one bit, accusing Parker of capital-T Tyranny, and apparently a whole lot else besides:

You are only demonstrating the lack of cerebral cortex that is rampant in your constituents. Don’t make that mistake. The comment about my wife is only evidence of the lack of mental capacity within your gang. The spineless attempt to devalue a marriage of 39 years, of which I’m sure YOU can appreciate, is a desperate attempt of broken logic and despicable behavior. [...] If you continue to saddle up with these vermin, your political future may be very short.

What did Tinderholt say about Parker’s wife? Do we really want to know, WTFers? Sometimes you gotta know how to quit when you’re ahead. Just ask Cliven Bundy.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry
Patrick Michels

Last night brought new developments in the investigation into Rick Perry’s meddling in the affairs of the Travis County district attorney’s office. County officials revealed that Perry’s office was trying to dislodge Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg even after his veto stripped her office of funding. That seemingly strengthens the case against the governor currently being considered by a grand jury.

We know that Perry last spring had threatened to (and later did) veto funding for the Travis County DA’s anti-corruption unit unless Lehmberg resigned following a DWI arrest. But now we know that wasn’t the end of it. (If you haven’t been following the investigation, read this explainer I posted last week.)

First, the Texas Tribune’s Terri Langford got confirmation from Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe that the governor’s office had reached out to certain Travis County officials to make explicit an offer that the governor would restore funding to the Travis County DA’s Public Integrity Unit, which he had previously vetoed, if Lehmberg resigned. That would’ve allowed Perry to appoint her replacement. Shortly after that story broke, the San Antonio Express-News’ Nolan Hicks got Gerald Daugherty, the lone Republican on the five-member Travis County Commissioners Court, to say the same.

We knew that Perry had tied Lehmberg’s resignation to the cut in funding before his veto, but now we know that he reportedly did so after the veto as well. The essence of the thing is the same—if the latter is illegal, it’s hard to see how the former could be legal—but the optics are worse. In effect, he offered to provide funds to a local government body if its leader quit, and his office made the unwise decision to make clear it was a quid pro quo.

In short, this thing—Perry-gate? Lehmberg-gate? Vodka-gate?—is growing legs. “This isn’t really news to us, but we’d never seen anyone go on record,” said Craig McDonald, the director of the left-leaning watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, who filed the complaints that resulted in the grand jury investigation.

The new revelations make it clear Perry “continued to meddle in local affairs after the veto,” McDonald said. “After the veto, he continued to offer things to make her step down.”

That’s important because Perry’s spokespeople have stated repeatedly that the governor did nothing wrong, that he was simply acting in accordance with his constitutionally granted veto power.

But if Perry’s office made the money-for-resignation offer again weeks after the veto,  that blows a major hole in the governor’s public defense so far.

“That certainly strengthens the case for bribery,” McDonald said.

The charges that the Austin grand jury are considering against Perry include bribery, which, under the Texas Penal Code, involves accepting or offering to provide any “benefit as consideration for the recipient’s decision [...] or other exercise of discretion as a public servant, party official, or voter.”

It is “no defense to prosecution under this section that the benefit is not offered or conferred,” the code continues, until after “the public servant ceases to be a public servant.”

The Tribune reported that Perry’s second offer was communicated by intermediaries to Lehmberg, who “rejected the proposal outright because of concerns that such an offer may be illegal,” presumably because of fears she’d be violating this exact statute. (And presumably because she’d rather keep her job.)

In the report, we also see some of the outlines of the governor’s defense strategy forming. Perry’s spokesperson Lucy Nashed told the Tribune that “neither the governor nor any member of staff met with or spoke with Ms. Lehmberg.” Between the lines, the suggestion is the fact that Perry’s threat came through intermediaries insulates him from criminal charges.

Texas Senate Districts
Texas Almanac

A new redistricting lawsuit filed by a national conservative group aims to make sweeping changes to the way Texas does politics, effectively diminishing the representation of non-white voters in the Texas Senate. It’s a bold effort, and while it might not win success this election cycle, Texas election law expert Michael Li says it could prove to be an important “test case” that foreshadows “one of the coming battles we’ll see in the next redistricting cycle.”

The lawsuit was filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Austin by the Project on Fair Representation, a one-man outfit based in Virginia that’s scored a number of high-profile legal victories in recent years, including a successful effort to strip a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The suit seeks to overturn the longstanding method by which the Texas Legislature draws state senate districts. Texas, like all other states, draws districts that contain the same total population, using the last available round of census data. After the 2010 census, the Legislature aimed to draw 31 districts that each contained about 811,000 people.

The conservative group’s legal challenge objects to the fact that that number includes many people who can’t vote, including children, convicted felons and, most important, non-citizens—both undocumented migrants and permanent residents who are foreign nationals. The suit argues that counting people who aren’t eligible voters is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Project on Fair Representation wants the Legislature to attempt to draw senate districts that have an identical number of eligible voters, or citizen voting age population (CVAP.) Under that method, each senate district would be drawn to have about 502,000 eligible voters.

That might sound like a relatively innocuous change, but it would dramatically alter the political landscape in Texas. Redrawing districts under the new rules might decrease the political polarization in the state Senate—creating more ideologically-similar districts—but at the same time it would dramatically lessen the voice non-white voters have in the political process. Those who are too young to vote, or legally unable to vote, wouldn’t be counted as people when it comes to distributing representation in the state Senate. And urban areas like Houston, which have a large number of non-voting residents, would be effectively disadvantaged in the Senate.

The state senate districts with the highest number of non-voters are represented by state Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and state Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville), all of whom currently represent both a large number of children and non-citizens. They’re also among the most progressive members of the Senate.

If the conservative group’s plan were adopted today, all three would have their districts redrawn to include more eligible voters. That would mean, especially in Houston, likely pulling from the region’s pool of Anglo voters, according to Li. And those senators would also represent more people than others. Poor and young residents of the district would effectively have their voices in the Senate diluted, as their elected senator found themselves with many more constituents than before.

Meanwhile, the senators who represent districts with fewest non-voters would include state Sen. Bob Nichols (R-Jacksonville) and state Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) who have whiter electorates. Their districts might not change much.

Li says the conservative group’s effort, if successful, might make certain Democratic-leaning districts more politically competitive. But asked specifically about Ellis’ and Garcia’s districts—the biggest outliers—he said the changes might be less about political affiliation than which voices are represented. “I don’t think the risk is that it becomes a Republican district per se,” he said. “But there clearly is a political benefit here, and the benefit doesn’t favor African-Americans and Hispanics.”

Moreover, he says, such a plan would be difficult to implement. The true number of voting eligible residents in a given area would be “very difficult to tabulate.” The Census doesn’t ask about citizenship status. And to exclude voting-age felons, you’d need to ascertain and track their status. “It’s really hard to do this on a state level,” he says, “especially in a state that’s as complicated as Texas.”

No state has implemented such a system, though Li says an increasing number of people on the right are giving it more consideration. He says he expects the Project on Fair Representation’s Texas suit to become “sort of like the big test case on this.”

Asked if he thinks the effort could be successful, Li hedges his bets. “It remains to be seen. I would think it would be a hard sell,” he says, “but then again I had thought that some of the other things that they’ve tried were hard sells too.” The Project on Fair Representation provided counsel to Shelby County, Alabama, which served as the plaintiff in a lawsuit that successfully voided important provisions in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The lawsuit will be considered by a three-judge panel, and could be combined with other redistricting cases currently being considered in San Antonio. If appealed, the case will go directly to the Supreme Court for review.

The header from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's new attack site
RealDanPatrick.com
The header from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's new attack site

David Dewhurst is Texas’ second-longest serving lt. governor. He’s shaped the state like few other public officials in modern history. But though he’s wielded an enormous amount of power for a remarkably long time, for the last several years he’s been in a constant state of free fall. The beginning of the end was his humiliating loss to Ted Cruz in 2012, which quashed his hopes to move up through the political ranks. Then there were the indignities of the 2013 legislative session, where he was pushed to take up a special-session abortion fight that was never a Dewhurst priority, then got slammed for its failure. His re-election campaign this year has seen embarrassing scandals alternate with groveling before tea party groups. Indignities piled upon each other, weighing down a candidate who never seemed to have a lot of political acumen even when times were good. (This is a guy who once included a Luftwaffe pilot in a post-9/11 ad celebrating the American armed forces.)

But we might have finally arrived at the last chapter. After a lopsided primary loss, he’s stuck in a runoff with state Sen. Dan Patrick and is unlikely to win. Would Dewhurst finish his political career standing up, using the time to burnish a tarnished legacy that seemed to be slipping away from him? Or would he write himself a huge check and go nuclear, doing as much damage to Patrick as he could?

Dewhurst seems to be pursuing the latter path, with a blitz of negative TV ads across the state that might have cost as much as $1 million, and an attack site—realdanpatrick.com—that seems to mimic Patrick’s own sites from earlier in the primary. But it’s an odd push, in part because it seems like it’s too little, too late. It follows a month of apparent dysfunction in the Dewhurst campaign—several high-level campaign aides jumped ship two weeks ago. (One wonders if the operatives didn’t want to be affiliated with the push to go negative on Patrick, the likely victor and a potential future leader in the state GOP.)

The ad blitz, which focuses on Patrick’s bankruptcy and past business practices, began late last week, which leaves the Dewhurst camp a little over a month to get the message out before the May 27 runoff. But the issue of Patrick’s past debts—he walked away from more than $800,000 when he declared bankruptcy—are not new to primary voters. The issue has been raised repeatedly, including during January’s televised debate. The ad claims that Patrick changed his name from Danny Goeb to escape debts: In reality, Patrick had used the name since 1978, long before his bankruptcy. PolitiFact rated the claim “pants on fire.”

But the strangest thing about the ad’s emphasis on Patrick’s bankruptcy is that it let Patrick’s campaign remind voters that Dewhurst did exactly the same thing:

Dewhurst also experienced a 1980s bankruptcy and also never paid off unsecured creditors, Patrick’s campaign notes. It highlights Dewhurst’s recent failure to pay more than $1 million in debts to his 2012 U.S. Senate campaign’s vendors. That was an event related to a longtime Dewhurst aide’s alleged embezzlement of campaign funds.

Meanwhile, Dewhurst’s attack machine is going off the rails a bit.

So Dewhurst decided to go negative, but came to the game slow, without attacks that resonate, and with a weird, easily-disproven falsehood about Patrick’s personal history. The best politicians know how to lose just as well as they know how to win.

Rick Perry at The Response prayer rally, August 2011
Patrick Michels
Gov. Rick Perry in happier times

Update: Rick Perry was indicted on two felony counts on August 15, 2014. Read our coverage here.

These days, we’re hearing increasingly less from Gov. Rick Perry. It’s his last year in office, and he’s been taking it easy—having fun in the South Pacific while his would-be competitors in the 2016 presidential primary flame out in spectacular fashion.

He may not keep that low profile for that much longer, though. A little scandal from the doldrums of last summer is roaring back to life, and Perry faces the threat of criminal charges over accusations that he tried to force the Travis County district attorney to resign. There’s the added intrigue over the allegation that Perry’s aim was to kill an investigation into the scandal-plagued Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). It’s one little thread in the well-worn sweater of Gov. Perry’s long tenure in office, but it threatens to damage his presidential ambitions.

With stories like these, which build up and fade over long periods of time, it’s difficult to follow what’s really going on. Many people—including more than a few national reporters—seemed surprised to learn this week that the longest-serving governor in Texas history may be facing indictment. We hope this primer helps catch you up on the story so far.

So how’d all this start?

Like many schemes, it started with vodka. Rosemary Lehmberg had been serving as Travis County DA for a little more than four years when, late on the night of April 12, 2013, she was pulled over near Lake Travis, west of Austin. Police found an open vodka bottle in the car and arrested her. She verbally berated the arresting officers, and she didn’t stop the verbal abuse when she got to jail. Lehmberg was strapped into a restraining chair. Hours after her arrest, she blew a .239, almost three times the legal limit.

Lehmberg’s jailers starting filming her, as they sometimes do with uncooperative detainees. That footage quickly found its way into the hands of media outlets. It’s incredibly embarrassing stuff—from Lehmberg’s thinly veiled threats against sheriff’s deputies, to her repeated requests to call Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton (“He’s not going to let me sit in jail all night”) to the placement of a hood, commonly known as a “spit mask,” on Lehmberg’s head. She ultimately pleaded guilty and served about half of a 45-day jail term. Calls for Lehmberg to resign started circulating immediately. She didn’t.

Why didn’t Lehmberg resign?

In a word, politics. Lehmberg is a Democrat, and if she stepped down, Rick Perry would be the one to appoint a replacement. Moreover, the Travis County DA—as the prosecutor in the state’s capital—has special responsibilities over a variety of statewide legal issues. Foremost among these powers is the DA’s control of the Public Integrity Unit, which investigates the ethical breaches of state politicians, among a number of other charges.

So?

The Public Integrity Unit might be the most important office in state government run by a Democrat. Gov. Perry has been in office for 14 years—every nook and cranny of state government is filled with his appointees. The Public Integrity Unit is the rare piece that he doesn’t control. In 2005, the work of the Public Integrity Unit led to the indictment of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. So naturally, for years, Republicans in the state have tried to strip that power from the Travis County DA and fold it into Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office.

What’s more, the Public Integrity Unit was in the process of conducting an investigation of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. CPRIT received a ton of money from the Legislature to award grants to high-level medical research projects. The problem: a lot of that money was going to people who shouldn’t have gotten it. And some of those folks had close ties to Perry. Just a few months ago, Lehmberg’s office indicted CPRIT’s former director over his allegedly improper disbursement of an $11 million grant. But when Lehmberg got pulled over with the potato juice in her car last spring, the investigation was just underway.

When Lehmberg’s DWI went public, Republicans saw a way to get rid of a pesky, entrenched foe. (Though they couched this in terms of their deep, abiding concern for the office’s integrity.) Meanwhile, Democrats who would have happily seen Lehmberg canned if the Travis County Commissioners Court could have appointed her replacement rallied around Lehmberg as if she was the last warrior for righteousness on Earth.

But what did Perry do, exactly?

He threatened, publicly, to use his line item-veto power to zero out the Public Integrity Unit’s budget. Since that part of the Travis DA’s office played a statewide role, it was funded by the state. This kind of threat isn’t unusual. Executives use veto threats all the time to get what they want. The difference this time was that Perry had the audacity to do it all publicly. It’s unusual for an elected official to bully another elected official into resigning. And when threats didn’t work, he followed through on it. At the end of last year’s legislative session, Perry eliminated the entirety of the Public Integrity Unit’s funding–some $8 million over two years. Money that was going to investigate, in small part, his own party’s mismanagement of state government agencies, including alleged corruption in CPRIT.

That seems pretty slimy.

It does. The Travis County Commissioners Court pitched in to restore about half of the Public Integrity Unit’s annual budget, which allowed the unit to continue operating at a reduced pace and continue the CPRIT investigation. Residents of the Austin metropolitan area remain very grateful that money didn’t go to road maintenance or a library or whatever.

Couldn’t this whole fight have been really easily avoided if Perry had offered to appoint another Democrat to replace Lehmberg, or ask Travis County to nominate possible successors?

Sure. But Perry really wanted his own person there. We even know, according to some media reports, who it would have been: former Republican state Rep. Terry Keel, someone with excellent ties to the state GOP’s political apparatus.

OK, but that’s how politics goes, right? It’s not beanbag, as they say. What’s illegal about this?

Some charge that Perry’s threat basically constituted blackmail—the state seeking to unduly interfere in local affairs. Lehmberg was elected by the voters, after all. In June of last year, Craig McDonald, the director of the left-leaning watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, filed a complaint (PDF) against Perry in a Travis County court. He charged the guv with a number of criminal acts, including coercion of a public servant, bribery, and abuse of official capacity.

The judge appointed a special prosecutor, Michael McCrum. By most accounts, McCrum is tough and relatively nonpartisan. The investigation ambled along for a couple months until last week, when McCrum broke his silence. He told the Austin American-Statesman that the case had left him “concerned.”

Concerned? By what?

“I cannot elaborate on what exactly is concerning me,” he said to the Statesman. “But I can tell you I am very concerned about certain aspects of what happened here.” When asked if his concerns related to Perry’s actions, he said that they did.

With that, last year’s news came roaring back. The prospect of criminal charges suddenly seemed to become real. A few days ago, Perry hired a very expensive criminal defense lawyer to represent him to the ongoing inquiry. A Travis County grand jury began hearing evidence in the case this week.

Does this hurt Perry even if there’s ultimately no criminal charges?

Maybe. Perry sure looks like he intends to run in 2016. Thanks to Chris Christie, being a “bullying governor” isn’t exactly a hot stock right now. This is a sad little episode all around, and despite the length of this article, it’s relatively easy to explain—Perry blew up something called the “Public Integrity Unit” to undercut a DA he didn’t like. That’s the line Democratic groups are leading with, Lehmberg’s foibles be damned. It undercuts his friendly, down-home image.

But what dinged Christie so bad about Bridgegate was that his victims were innocent—people waiting in traffic, an ambulance delayed. When Christie’s scandal expanded to the even more shocking allegations of a Democratic mayor, there was strangely less outrage. If a conflict is between two political actors, a lot of people think it’s par for the course. One political scientist told The New York Times recently that the case represented an “attempt to criminalize politics.”

There’s an extra layer of irony in this. Perry’s gotten really comfortable with power over the last 14 years. He controls many of the levers of state government. He’s built up large slush funds inside the governor’s office, disbursing them at his discretion to attract businesses and other projects to the state. He’s been accused of cronyism and patronage numerous times, including perhaps corrupting an agency designed to fight cancer.

Yet it’s this Lehmberg thing—a relative afterthought—that’s tripping him up just nine months before he leaves office. He’s like the guy in a cop movie who gets pulled into a firefight on his last day on the job. Or, maybe, The Sopranos’ Silvio Dante, quoting yet another defender of public order and integrity: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

Dan Patrick thinks it's simply shameful that you would try to politicize immigration.
YouTube
Dan Patrick thinks it's simply shameful that you would try to politicize immigration.

The story of last night’s Dan Patrick/Julian Castro debate, entertaining though it was, is the story of two politicians, each with bright futures but on radically different trajectories, passing each other like ships in the night. (You can watch the whole thing here: If you enjoy political theater—or even if you just live in this state—it’s well worth it.) Each will feel like they did what they needed to do. Castro landed enough punches for his supporters to argue he “won,” but not enough to corner Patrick or do real damage to his election bid. The debate will become part of the Castro legend, and help him continue his seemingly effortless slide to some kind of higher office.

For his part, Patrick, now that he’s more-or-less freed from his primary runoff fight—Dewhurst’s name didn’t come up once—showed how he’ll be trying to pivot away from some of his more hard-line stances in the primary during this year’s lieutenant governor election. Patrick is a great showman, highly adept at verbal performance after years of hosting talk radio, and he succeeded in evading the campaign-damaging gaffes some hoped would take place in the San Antonio Univision studio that hosted the debate. He got dinged a little bit, but struck Castro too.

If that sounds like an overly clinical analysis, that’s in part because the policy problem at the heart of this thing—the question of what to do about the million-odd undocumented immigrants who live in Texas—wasn’t actually discussed much. The moderator, Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune, seemed aware of (and maybe, contributed to) the artifice of the event in his introduction. Smith ventured a guess as to what each politician needed to accomplish: Patrick needed to show he was tough, but compassionate, and Castro needed to show he was compassionate, but also tough.

“I’m compassionate, and I’m not tough,” opened Patrick. He expressed his hope that Castro would “stay away from politics” and address the “the most important public policy issue” that faces Texas. This is, in the immortal words of California Gov. Jerry Brown, barely a fart. As anyone who followed the GOP lieutenant governor primary can tell you, “Compassionate, not tough” is not a slogan that would have appeared on a Patrick campaign bumper sticker. When he talked about immigrants to voters, he emphasized the violence they brought to Texas, the drain on the economy. He expressed a belief in the general policy of “standing up for American citizens first;” he called himself “Dan Patrick, Border Champion.”

At an October candidate forum held by the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party, he told an awed crowd that the border was his No. 1 issue because of the “141,000 illegal aliens put in our jails who committed 447,000 crimes, committed 5,000 murders and 2,000 rapes” between 2008 and 2012. No time was given to the consideration of migrants who might not be rapists. (And four months later, the San Antonio Express-News pointed out Patrick’s numbers were inflated.)

If Patrick was indeed a compassionate man, he could have had no better character witness than Miguel “Mike” Andrade. Andrade came forward during the primary with the news that he had worked at Patrick’s chain of sports bars in the 1980s. He and his friends were undocumented, Andrade said. He told a Houston TV station that his boss “offered sympathy over their anguish at living so far from their loved ones and being constantly in fear of being deported.” When Andrade’s mother fell ill in Guanajuato, Patrick offered to help him find a way to visit. He said Patrick tried to help him gain legal status after President Reagan’s amnesty.

When Andrade’s claims surfaced in February, it presented a more appealingly complex picture of Patrick. Was he more thoughtful than he had pretended to be? Then Patrick fired an unforgettable reply to the “accusations” to Breitbart Texas: “The worker says I was personally very kind to him and goes on to allege other preposterous events that are not true and which he offers no evidence.”

Now, Patrick’s hoping to position himself to be the “compassionate” one by demanding a total clamp-down on the border. He seeks to substitute the problem of illegal immigration with the evils of human trafficking. The broken system “forces people to come here illegally,” which puts them in danger. “People should be able to come here in honor and dignity. It’s not right for a man who’s crossing the border with his family to watch his wife and daughter raped by a coyote at midnight as they cross the border.”

This is premised on a couple of nested fallacies. One is the idea that border really can be “secured”—it can’t be. Making it harder for people to come here gives coyotes and human traffickers more power, not less. And short of totally opening the doors to legal immigration, there will always be a greater number of people who want to come here than are permitted to legally. This is a fundamental truth.

Second, Patrick hasn’t been a reliable supporter of measures that would alleviate the demand for the services of coyotes. In 2007, after a tour of the Rio Grande Valley with the area’s legislative delegation, Patrick endorsed a guest worker program, arguing that it would help border security—that it could come before “securing the border.” By 2012, as conservative anger on border issues was ramping up, he opposed including a guest worker program in the state Republican platform. That plank was supported by Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, Patrick’s opponent in the recent lite guv primary, and Patrick gleefully used it against him. Now Patrick says he’s for a guest worker program in the future—not until we have a secure border—but against the concept of a guest worker program being included in the Republican party platform. He thinks the GOP should strip it back out this year. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

But this is still new rhetoric for Patrick. And it’s also a neat trick to get away from talking about what to do with the immigrants who are already here, some of whom were in the audience. Now that he’s about to gain real power, Patrick opposes letting people like Andrade become citizens despite the fact that many undocumented residents, if not most, will be here for decades to come. And that’s the main public policy problem Texas faces.

The other tactic Patrick employed last night—describing what he talks about as high-minded policy, and dismissing what others talk about as cheap politics—is nothing new. In the primary, when he was criticized for hypocrisy or untruthfulness by his opponents, he would charge them with launching personal attacks. When he attacked them, he would proudly announce that he was sticking to policy. But it’s amazing how often he uses it, and how successfully—it’s an effective way for him to set boundaries on the conversation and steer things to a place where he’s comfortable. All last night, Patrick criticized Castro for engaging in partisan demagoguery—then succeeded in spending a fair portion of the night talking about either Obamacare or abortion.

“If a mom comes across the border pregnant, I want her to have that child, I want her to have that Hispanic child,” Patrick said. “You believe she has a right to take that baby. I want to protect that baby, because we are born in the image of God.”

Castro, for his part, tried to steer Patrick back to the question of what to do with those living here without authorization now. He tried to goad Patrick into misstepping, contrasting his previous “big bad wolf” impersonation with his current “little red riding hood.” Or, memorably, “Cinderella.” That proved tough to do—Patrick is an excellent dissembler. But will changing the subject be enough this November? When Patrick asserted that he was the Republican candidate Democrats most feared, Castro disagreed. “You’re our meal ticket back in,” he said.

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