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Hooks on Politics

Bob Hall and the Conservative Persecution Complex

The feedback loop that protects conservatives from legitimate criticism is Bob Deuell's challenger's best friend.
State Senate Hopeful Bob Hall, Our David
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State Senate Hopeful Bob Hall, Our David

I mentioned Bob Hall’s latest troubles a little bit the other week, but it’s worth looking at them again. Hall finds himself in a primary runoff against sitting state Sen. Bob Deuell (R-Greenville) in one of the more surprising upsets of this cycle’s primary elections. A lot of observers figured that Deuell, who’s pretty conservative—if not a member of the Senate’s far-right Dan Patrick/Donna Campbell axis—would coast to re-election, so his challengers benefited from relative obscurity.

After the primary, though, the Dallas Morning News circled back around to Hall, and it’s safe to say the article that resulted won’t be featured in any of Hall’s campaign literature. Hall moved to Texas from Florida, where he seems to have had a turbulent personal and professional life. The most troubling accusation to surface:

Hall and his former wife, Jane E. Hall, had been divorced four years when they took their allegations against each other in July 1994 into Florida courts.

In seeking a protective order against Hall, she said in a document filed in Okaloosa County that she asked Hall to leave her house during a confrontation over alimony. She said he began screaming and threatened to quit paying.

“Asked to leave my house, he refused and became more violent, physically attacking me,” she said. “During our twenty-three years of marriage, he was prone to furious rages. I was physically, sexually and verbally abused for most of our marriage.”

In response, a judge prohibited Hall from “assaulting, battering or otherwise physically abusing the petitioner.”

Bob Hall filed a complaint against his wife, too, alleging that she had “stabbed me with a ballpoint pen.” Her complaint, he said, amounted to “retaliation.” So Hall had a terribly acrimonious divorce, during which horrible things were alleged. It’s difficult to know what to make of all that. But that wasn’t all the Morning News brought to light. His business in Florida—he heavily touts his experience as a business owner—was in running Professional Proposal Management Inc., which helped corporations “in obtaining federal contracts.”

The awful accusations of domestic violation allegations are a character issue, and possible for a supporter to dismiss as hearsay. But his professional history strikes at Hall’s credibility in a unique way. First: he’s running a campaign in which he’s railing against the usual tea party bêtes-noires: special interest groups and government overspending. His first “legislative priority” listed on his website is fighting “spending at all levels of government.”

Yet for much of his life, Hall made his living by helping businesses obtain a greater share of government largesse. That’s a bit odd. Worse:

He racked up nearly $165,000 in federal tax liens on his Florida properties over a 20-year period because of unpaid federal taxes, according to court records in Santa Rosa County, Fla.

That was based on eight separate federal income tax liens during the period, and all have since been settled, including as recently as 2011, records show.

Hall “retired” from his consulting business under the weight of mounting financial obligations, and moved to Texas. Over the next several years, presumably unable to pay the IRS back in full, he negotiated the IRS down and finally settled with them. He got a new wife, and joined the tea party.

All told, he’s not anyone’s ideal candidate. He’s got some skeletons in his closet, and if his ex-wife’s allegations are true, he has some personal demons to contend with. But since the Dallas Morning News’ story came out some 10 days ago, conservatives have rallied even more strongly around Hall. This morning, Empower Texans, the conservative group run by Michael Quinn Sullivan which strongly backed Hall, penned another lengthy endorsement of Hall’s crusade. Deuell, the incumbent, is “Goliath,” and Hall is “our David.”

For years, conservatives have been better at circling their wagons when taking enemy fire than their more cat-like liberal counterparts—on both the national and local level. Lefties started taking pot-shots at Obama days after his first election, while many conservatives stayed with Bush until the bailout. That herd mentality has grown into a veneration of persecution. Nothing could endear movement conservatives to Chris Christie, it seemed, until the media decided he was a crook.

Among conservative grassroots in Texas that phenomenon is even more prominent. Hall may be a political neophyte, but look at how skillfully he spun his tax cheating to the Morning News:

Hall acknowledged that the IRS placed liens on his property, but he said he battled the agency in court and won some reductions.
“I stood up to the IRS,” he said. “We went to court, and I won.”

Shorting the IRS for years, walking away from your business under a crushing tax debt, and then settling with the agency for slightly less than you owed is winning in the same way the Texans won the Alamo when Susanna Dickinson survived. But it’s exactly what his supporters want to hear. When I raised the issue on Tuesday, here’s what the Texas state director of Concerned Women for America told me:

Up is down, left is right. A loss becomes a win. Hall’s inability to keep his business solvent becomes a heroic victory over the federal government. An attempt to recoup owed taxes becomes proof that Obama’s lackeys are running scared. A man whose expertise is in helping corporations win lucrative government contracts becomes a small businessman, a warrior for fiscal sanity. The charges of physical and sexual abuse his wife leveled are evidence of his opponent’s immorality and underhanded tactics. No criticism, no matter how substantive or legitimate, can penetrate a shield of unreality that thick.

This article, in turn, will become grist for the mill. “The Texas Observer is Running Scared of Bob Hall,” they’ll say. It’s an odd and disquieting feedback loop that appears difficult, if not impossible, to interrupt.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Attorney General Greg Abbott

On Sunday, Eric Dexheimer at the Austin American-Statesman looked at Greg Abbott’s prosecution of online child predators and found something peculiar. Abbott has long touted his efforts against child predators, and why wouldn’t he? It’s obviously very important work, and it has the added bonus of being very politically popular. But when Dexheimer studied the number of people the AG’s office has prosecuted for attempting to solicit minors, he found that since the start of 2012, more than two-thirds of the office’s busts happened in Williamson County, just north of Austin.

Three law enforcement agencies in Texas have been designated Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces—the Houston and Dallas police departments have their own, which operate primarily in their respective metropolitan areas. Abbott’s AG office has responsibility for most of the rest of the state, some 134 counties. Yet the vast majority of cases Abbott prosecutes take place in the Austin metropolitan area—and one county in particular. “Almost six out of 10 of all cases over the past decade,” Dexheimer reports, “have been brought in a tight geographic circle around Austin.”

In addition to being an extraordinarily narrow concentration of state resources, one result is that over the past three years, three-quarters of the defendants accused by Abbott’s office of stalking children online have been from the Austin metropolitan area, in effect making his office more a local police unit than state agency.

There are a couple of reasons the Attorney General’s office might prefer to use Williamson County to arrange busts. There’s the jurisdiction’s tough-on-crime reputation, and an easy relationship with local police departments. There’s also the fact that it’s a short drive from the office—coordinating a bust in El Paso, of course, would require a much greater expense of both time and money for Abbott’s officers.

But it doesn’t seem like an ideal use of resources, as a deterrent or a general policy. We may hope that the herd of child predators in Round Rock has been thinned significantly, but what about cities far from the attorney general’s task force headquarters, where prospective sex offenders know they are significantly less likely to get caught if they look for prey in Uvalde and not Leander?

While there is nothing improper about the unit’s limited focus, it raises questions about the agency’s commitment to pursue offenders statewide. A listing of the office’s child pornography investigations, by comparison, shows those cases are dotted throughout the state.

The article is a somewhat troubling look at an important state law enforcement initiative, and a system which incentivizes racking up numbers of perps over a more wide-ranging deterrence strategy. But it’s also a reminder that Abbott’s current office is a double-edged sword in his bid to occupy the governor’s mansion.

He’s been able sue the Obama administration a lot, which Republicans love. More than any other figure in the state, he has the ability to adopt a tough stance on the border issues that are coming back in vogue. And when he’s not running against the federal government and drug cartels, he can highlight his fight against even more universally hateable figures—child molesters, deadbeat dads and corrupt politicians. This is Texas, where the image of the no-nonsense lawman has a lot of appeal.

But his time as attorney general comes with a downside. He’s been in the post for 12 years—an eternity in politics. He’s been the head of a sprawling office, with thousands of employees, and has taken on sweeping and diverse responsibilities, which means he has a lengthy and complex record to examine. Media and opposition researchers will be picking apart both Davis’ and Abbott’s personal and professional lives, but there’s a lot more to pick over when it comes to Abbott’s tenure.

There will be a great number of stories about the office he ran, the way that he prosecuted cases, and the wisdom of his policy approaches. That helped sink Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a social-conservative warrior who ran for governor last year and was once seen as a member, along with Abbott, of a rising class of Republican state attorneys general. Newly-purple Virginia is not Texas, of course. But it’s something to watch for. The San Antonio Express-Newsequal pay story was a sort of opening shot—what’s next?

The Prodigal Paul Returns (To Texas)

Texas will be playing a critical role in the 2016 Republican Primary—and Rand Paul is laying his groundwork.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, left, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, right, pose with Sean Hannity.
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Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, left, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, right, pose with Sean Hannity.

Some presidential hopefuls like to play coy with their intentions—not Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. A little less than two years out from the New Hampshire primary, Paul gave Washington Post reporter Robert Costa a look at his burgeoning national fundraising infrastructure—Paul is “the first Republican,” Costa writes, “to assemble a network in all 50 states as a precursor to a 2016 presidential run.” Paul, dogged a bit by the cultural memory of his father, longtime Texas congressman Ron Paul, is trying to establish himself as a legitimate and serious presidential contender well in advance of his run.

One odd thing about this year’s primary elections: Kentucky’s junior senator, Paul, has been more active in Texas legislative elections than Texas’ junior senator, Ted Cruz. Cruz decided early he wouldn’t be making endorsements in contested primaries. (Though there’s been no shortage of Texas pols implying they have his support.) That may be principle—he said he thought the voters should decide, not him—or it could be a neat solution to the tricky problem of whether to endorse establishment figures like John Cornyn and Mitch McConnell, who wield great power in the GOP but are not well-loved by Cruz’s base. (That’s an issue that’s posed some difficulty for Paul.)

Cruz abstained, but Paul made his mark in the Texas primaries. He was perhaps the most important supporter of Don Huffines, the prodigious self-funder who narrowly defeated state Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas). Paul made national waves when he traveled to Texas to campaign for Huffines, who he described as a longtime family friend. Paul’s support of Huffines brought other benefits—Glenn Beck campaigned for Huffines in turn.

Paul has supported other Texas candidates. Here’s the slightly odd video message he made on behalf of state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), a tea party favorite who was in the middle of a race that briefly appeared competitive.

Paul, of course, has a strong personal connection to Texas. He grew up on the Paul family homestead in Lake Jackson, and went to Baylor University. But his activity in Texas is interesting for a couple of other reasons.

In 2016, the state will be playing a more important role in the Republican presidential primary than it ever has before. The GOP has tried to streamline and shorten its primary calendar, and the first four contests—New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina—have been pushed to February. March 1 will see the process open up, with primaries in other states. Texas is one of them. It’ll be the first big state, and a huge electoral prize.

Moreover, the rules of the 2016 Texas primary are tricky—meaning the state could be a rich vein of delegates for multiple candidates in a crowded field. If any one candidate receives at least 51 percent of the state’s primary vote, he takes all the state’s delegates. But that’s unlikely given how early Texas is in the primary calendar—things usually don’t shake out that quickly. If no candidate wins a majority, all of the candidates who win more than 20 percent split Texas’ large pool of delegates—meaning that candidates who might not be able to win the state’s primary outright have a healthy incentive to compete.

Rand Paul notched an important victory when Huffines beat Carona. And by endorsing figures like Stickland, he’s making an appeal to the state’s conservative base. He’ll face competition. Unusually, the 2016 contenders feature four candidates with connections to Texas: Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who’ll have a healthy network waiting for him in the state if he chooses to run.

The four could face figures like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, who would seem to have little organic appeal to Texas conservatives. When Texas played a small role in the 2008 nomination contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, it felt like an unusual event. Paul’s endorsements foreshadow a much brighter spotlight on Texas.

Abbott 2.0
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Abbott 2.0

Greg Abbott’s campaign has more money than God and an ample talent pool—but he may want to check on his IT department.

For more than a week, senior members of Abbott’s campaign staff have been trying to get the word out about a new attack website they’ve paid for—WhereIsWendyDavis.com. Attack websites—repositories of opposition research that campaigns will build separately from their own pages—are common. They’re usually sleek, well-designed, and well-stocked with mud ready to be slung.

The better ones are designed to “go viral,” with compelling content that your politically active aunts and uncles will feel compelled to forward to you. Supporters of John Cornyn made a great one in his campaign against Steve Stockman (though, alas, it now looks like it’s been taken down.) Lieutenant governor hopeful Dan Patrick has been lighting up the campaign with his attack sites, which are some of the best and strangest of the cycle so far.

It came to be Abbott’s turn. His communications director, Matt Hirsch, announced Abbott’s new site’s launch last week. Click on the link—and it’s an unfinished, grey, shapeless blob with virtually no information. That’s weird. A “Full site coming soon” tag is on the page’s top left. OK, so they jumped the gun. The site wasn’t finished, but they wanted to get it out there. That’s unusual, but Abbott was having a rough week, so it’s understandable.

Since Hirsh first tweeted about it, Abbott’s campaign and many of its senior staffers have been tweeting and making a lot of noise about the site. They really want people to see it. But it’s still unfinished. On Wednesday afternoon, the site was still mostly blank. “Full site coming soon,” the top left says. “Copyright 2013 Texans for Greg Abbott.” (The site was created in 2014, some two weeks ago.)

The look of the thing—monochromatic, heavy on text—may evoke the old-school Netscape internet, but the content isn’t great either (yet?). There’s an embedded Google Maps app with pins across the United States where Wendy Davis has held fundraisers, but it’s so small and cramped that you can’t tell what you’re looking at.

None of this would be too weird, except the Abbott campaign keeps pushing it. As I was writing this post, Abbott’s campaign tweeted it out again. Is this inside baseball? Kind of. Will it matter in November? No. But, man, it’s weird. It’s kind of a rookie move. Hell, even the site somebody made for hapless no-money Democratic Ag Commissioner hopeful Jim Hogan is in better shape.

The Future of the Equal Pay Fight

The Davis campaign is doubling down on equal pay. Is it enough?
At a meeting of the Capital Area Democratic Women, Davis supporters smell blood in the water over Equal Pay. March 20, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
At a meeting of the Capital Area Democratic Women, Davis supporters smell blood in the water over Equal Pay. March 20, 2014.

We’re entering the second week of real conflict between Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis over equal pay, and Davis’ camp is doubling down in a big way. Now’s the time in an issue’s media life cycle when observers turn contrarian, so let’s ask ourselves: How well will this issue suit Davis going forward?

A brief recap: Davis authored a bill last session that would have made it easier for women who’ve experienced pay discrimination to sue their employers in state courts. A version of the narrowly-tailored bill received bipartisan support and passed the Legislature with relatively little fanfare. In what seemed like a strange move, Gov. Perry vetoed the bill. For weeks, Davis tried to draw Abbott into a debate on the issue. He finally relented, making it clear that he, too, would have vetoed the bill, after a week of some fairly bizarre utterances from supporters. (And on the same day that the San Antonio Express-News raised substantive concerns about pay equity at Abbott’s own office.)

Abbott handled the issue badly, and he’ll be dogged by it for a while. Think about it this way: As a well-funded Republican running in a red state, Abbott has a substantial margin of support over Davis to play with here. Moreover, blocking a state Lilly Ledbetter Act is not a priority issue for movement conservatives. Hell, tea party idol Donna Campbell voted for Davis’ bill. If you’re Abbott’s campaign manager and thinking about this in a purely tactical light, saying “yes” to a hypothetical version of Davis’ bill gives your candidate a little bit of moderate cred, a little bit of goodwill with women, doesn’t hurt you with your base and deprives Davis of an important issue. The business community that opposes the bill might not like it, but it’s not at the top of their issue list. It shuts down the whole issue, likely for the duration of the campaign.

For whatever reason, Abbott didn’t do that. And the Democratic machine hitting Abbott on the issue early last week has kicked into overdrive, approximating a jackhammer. On Monday, Davis appeared at Scholz Beer Garden in Austin to talk about the event, and the Express-News‘ story. It was the most aggressive she’d been since she declared her run—a pretty remarkable reversal after months of playing defense on small-ball issues.

“I have a message for Greg Abbott today: Stop hiding behind your staff members. Stop hiding behind your surrogates. This Texas gal is calling you out,” she told the crowd. “Act like a Texan and answer this question for yourself: What on earth is going on at your Attorney General’s Office? Why do you think it’s okay to pay women in your office less than men when they do the same work?” (Abbott has stayed pretty far away from the media lately, and as long as he does, Davis will be able to criticize him for “hiding.”)

Democrats up and down the chain have got the message. Last Thursday, Grace Garcia, the executive director of Annie’s List, joined Austin state Rep. Donna Howard to speak at a meeting of the Capital Area Democratic Women. Underlining the sense of political opportunity, the event took place at a Joe’s Crab Shack, underneath an enormous hanging shark.

Afterwards, Howard told me she thought the Legislature should take a deeper look at pay equity in state agencies next year. “If we’re doing things that are discriminatory, that’s against the law. If we’re aware of something that’s discriminatory and could result in a lawsuit,” she said, “I would think that it would be our responsibility to put a stop to it in any fashion we can.”

The effect of the whole thing has been to give the Davis campaign—and the Democratic ticket generally—a burst of energy after what had seemed like a long and demoralizing slide. But can it sustain the momentum on this issue alone?

There’s a specter hanging around this year’s governor’s race—that of Clayton “Claytie” Williams. Williams, the good-old-boy oil magnate who ran against Ann Richards in the 1990 gubernatorial contest, started the campaign with a 20-point lead. He lost the election by 3 points. The reversal was thanks in large part to an unbelievably crass rape joke, which was in turn leveraged by the Richards campaign to make Williams look like an out-of-touch dinosaur. That, together with other critical errors, doomed him, even though he outspent Richards 2-to-1.

Why are Democrats thinking about Clayton Williams? The implication is that the Davis campaign doesn’t just need to run a tight ship themselves—they need Abbott to slip. But Abbott hasn’t seemed like the kind of guy to do that, at least not in the grotesque way Williams did. Since early in the cycle, Democrats had talked about the possibility that hip-shooting state Sen. Dan Patrick, who doesn’t seem to have much respect for either immigrants or non-Christians, would win the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, and spent the next six months alienating moderate voters. He seems likely to win, which will cheer some Democrats.

In truth, the memory some have of Williams—he lost because of the rape joke—is a bit too simple. The rape joke played into a bigger narrative that Richards was able to construct about Williams: a glad-handing, reckless, good-old-boy wildcatter who didn’t belong in state office. Davis will need to build a narrative like that for Greg Abbott if she’s going to retain the traction she’s experiencing right now. But Abbott isn’t as soft a target as Claytie. In public he seems relatively thoughtful and likeable.

The equal pay fight is the second strike against Abbott, after February’s sordid Nugent affair. The Davis campaign is doing a pretty effective job right now in defining their opponent—but they’ll need more unforced errors from the Abbott camp to carry this through.

WTF Friday: Busy Bees

Sun Tzu
Wikimedia Commons
Noted tea party activist Sun Tzu, depicted during a women's outreach campaign.

Oh, what a week of WTF.

Last week, the Observer’s senior WTFologist Patrick Michels devoted this space to a revealing, deep-dig look at the relationship between one Texas man and a beaver. This week, we start, instead, with women. You know women, right? They’re like men, but different.

1) Attorney General Greg Abbott got lured into a debate over equal pay, so our state’s fourth estate got to go around asking Republican women what they thought about it. In normal circumstances, this would have been as perfunctory an exercise as you could imagine: Republicans generate talking points. They speak those talking points into a camera or microphone. C’est fini.

Making this even easier, a friend pointed out recently, is that our generation’s foremost/most insufferable political scribe, Aaron Sorkin, wrote out a pretty good response to this question some 13 years ago, when he had Republican Woman character Ainsley Hayes of The West Wing, a long-running political tutorial for Millennials on NBC, argue against the Equal Rights Amendment. Women don’t need “special” rights and protections, redundant laws are bad, etc.

Instead, Texas Republican Party Executive Director Beth Cubriel put her Netflix subscription aside and took a different tack. Women are paid less in Texas because they’re too soft and timid—unlike Beth Cubriel.

Men are better negotiators. I would encourage women instead of pursuing the courts for action to become better negotiators.

Putting aside the fact that Cubriel is only talking to women in professional fields—Lilly Ledbetter, the inspiration for the federal equal pay act, worked in a tire factory, presumably a place where most workers have little ability to “negotiate” the size of their paychecks—and the fact that women are held to different standards than men when it comes to being assertive in the workplace, Cubriel’s response was, at least, cogent.

Then there’s Cari Christman, the Executive Director of the RedState Women PAC. Christman gained national fame for arguing that women were “too busy” to use the court system, but it’s worth quoting in full:

If you look at it, women are extremely busy. We lead busy lives whether we are working professionally, working from home. And times are extremely, extremely busy. It’s just a busy cycle for women and we’ve got a lot to juggle.

Happy Friday, ladies.

2. Michael Q. Sullivan, the conservative powerbroker in the middle of a years-long brawl with the Ethics Commission, likes to present himself as a happy warrior connecting the people—the ones that matter, anyway—with the Midland oil zillionaire who can finance their aspiration to dismantle much of state government. But it does seem like word is getting out. When a policial scientist at Southern Methodist University told the Austin American-Statesman that MQS was “vengeful” and “short-tempered,” it was eye-catching.

But that’s just the view of an outsider. Sullivan’s groups are staffed by a small and close-knit crew, and I bet they feel differently about their enterprise. Just look at this heartwarming Sullivan tweet, recounting a playful exchange between Empower Texans’ Executive Director Dustin Matocha and Development Director Nathan Ofe:

Hah hah! They have fun.

3. When state Sen. Bob Deuell (R-Greenville) was forced into a primary runoff to defend his seat, it was something of a surprise—few saw it coming. Who was this newcomer Bob Hall, this “strong conservative leader” who could shock a longtime incumbent like this? This bold new tea party warrior must have a future with the party—what’s his story, Dallas Morning News?

Shot:

Hall and his former wife, Jane E. Hall, had been divorced four years when they took their allegations against each other in July 1994 into Florida courts. In seeking a protective order against Hall, she said in a document filed in Okaloosa County that she asked Hall to leave her house during a confrontation over alimony. She said he began screaming and threatened to quit paying.

“Asked to leave my house, he refused and became more violent, physically attacking me,” she said. “During our twenty-three years of marriage, he was prone to furious rages. I was physically, sexually and verbally abused for most of our marriage.”

In response, a judge prohibited Hall from “assaulting, battering or otherwise physically abusing the petitioner.”

Chaser:

Hall owned a Florida-based company, Professional Proposal Management Inc., that assisted businesses in obtaining federal contacts.

He racked up nearly $165,000 in federal tax liens on his Florida properties over a 20-year period because of unpaid federal taxes, according to court records in Santa Rosa County, Fla.

4. Let’s play a game: Militia leader, or probable state representative? Today’s contestant is lawnchair warrior Phillip Eby. Eby’s real, real mad, he told a conservative gathering in Bosque County this week. Tyranny washes over our state, sickening the body politic like one too many Lone Stars:

The truth of the matter is that we’re in a war for conservative principles, and we’ve been losing that war. The question is: why are we losing? I’m tired of losing. I don’t know if y’all are tired of losing, but I’m tired of watching freedom lose every time and tyranny take control.

Wait for it:

Sun Tzu said in his classic work, The Art of War, that if you know yourself, and you know your opponent, you will never lose. [...] The question is, who is our opponent?

Most people today say that the Democrats are our opponent. And they’re right, they are. But in some ways they’re wrong, also. Our opponent is not a person, or a group. Our opponent is an idea. And that idea is the idea of Collectivism.

Later:

In Texas, we’ve been winning for years, as Republicans, yet we’re still losing the battle of conservative values so often. It’s because we have Republicans who are infected by the idea of collectivism.

The difference between Eby and other white dweebs who’ve built an ethos around Sun Tzu is that he’s currently the favorite in a primary runoff to replace retiring state representative Rob Orr. He won 40 percent of his primary, and is floating toward the Capitol, where he’ll help preside over collectivist endeavors like the Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Education Agency. So make hay while the sun shines, fellow WTFers.

Eby’s coming.

Conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan
Courtesy Office of the Governor
Conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan

When lawyers representing conservative powerbroker Michael Quinn Sullivan were last dragged in front of the Texas Ethics Commission, they adopted an unusual strategy. Instead of negotiating with the commission and accepting what would probably amount to a slap on the wrist, Sullivan went to war. The whole Ethics Commission—both how it operated and what it was trying to do—wasn’t just unconstitutional, it was un-American, tantamount to the Nazi army, he argued. His lawyers, led by former state Rep. Joe Nixon, intended to put the whole of the Ethics Commission on trial, preferably in federal court. They had their first chance today, and U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks was having none of it.

The hearing today was a continuation of a long-running fight between Sullivan—who leads a set of closely-related groups under the banner of Empower Texans or Texans for Fiscal Responsibility and has used so-called dark money to gain outsized influence in the state Republican Party—and the Ethics Commission, which is considering several complaints against Sullivan filed by Republican state Rep. Jim Keffer and former Republican state Rep. Vicki Truitt. To evaluate those complaints, the commission hoped to subpoena information about Sullivan’s groups, a move Sullivan appears intent to fight at any cost.

Sparks, a veteran jurist with a legendarily low tolerance for bull—recently, the FBI rounded up members of the Zetas cartel who tried in vain to bribe him—denied Sullivan’s request for an injunction to halt his disciplinary proceedings after an occasionally contentious hearing. But Sparks also characterized key aspects of the case in a way that would seem to discourage Sullivan’s aspirations to upturn the whole commission.

Then, at the end of the hearing, Sparks sought to find a middle ground between Sullivan and the commission—then angrily revoked his proposal and left the chamber when Nixon objected. The case is still in limbo, and likely will be for some time—but today was not a result Sullivan might have wanted.

The hearing was characterized by the same everything-but-the-kitchen-sink legal tactics Nixon employed in front of the Ethics Commission. For example: recently, Sullivan’s been “reporting” for the “journalism” site Breitbart Texas, an event met by astonished, laughing incredulity by both the state’s media and political establishment. Why was Sullivan, who has an enormous power base of his own, trying to join the lowly ranks of the fourth estate?

One possible answer was provided today: Sullivan’s lawyers invoked constitutional protections for the press. If Sullivan’s groups were forced to turn over information about their political activities, it could compromise Sullivan’s “sources.”

“We’re just kind of wasting time,” said Sparks, sweeping aside most of the constitutional concerns Nixon raised, leaving them for a later date. The judge was interested in only one thing: the scope of the subpoenas. He wasn’t sure if they were unconstitutional, he said, but he hoped to narrow them by consent of both parties.

“I know of no courtroom in the land where subpoenas this sweeping would be approved,” said Sparks. “This is asking for the cattle in the pen by asking for everything in the pen—the dirt, the mosquitos, the ticks.”

He asked the commission’s lawyer, Gunnar Seaquist: “Why couldn’t a meeting have been made and reasonable minds worked out what was necessary” instead of asking for everything?

Seaquist’s answer: Sullivan’s team was not willing to negotiate. “The sticking point has been that they feel the whole process is unconstitutional.”

So Sparks turned to Nixon. “You haven’t got much help from your clients in limiting these subpoenas,” he said. Nixon returned to the idea that the subpoenas were, on their face, a violation of the rights of Sullivan’s organizations.

“Our 100,000 subscribers,” Nixon said, referring to Empower Texans’ supporters, would be “subject to threats, abuse, and intimidation. My client is the same size as the Austin American-Statesman.”

Sparks appeared unmoved. “Frankly, I find the Austin American-Statesman a very thin paper,” he said.

Still, Sparks hoped to work out a compromise between Sullivan and the commission. He wasn’t bound to, he said, but it would save everyone a lot of time and money. So he told the courtroom he would be declining to issue an injunction to halt the commission’s proceedings—Sullivan’s primary aim—but proposed that the two sides meet and produce a proposal for Sparks about narrowing the scope of the subpoena process. It wasn’t what Sullivan wanted, but it was something to take home.

But that wasn’t enough for Nixon, who rose again to condemn the process. Piqued, Sparks withdrew his olive branch. There would be no report. “I see how this is going,” he said. Instead, Sparks gave Sullivan seven days to prepare an argument regarding the unconstitutionality of the Ethics Commission’s requests. Then he left the courtroom.

On Twitter, Sullivan was characteristically triumphant. There will be many more court hearings. But for Sullivan, it wasn’t a good first step.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott at a campaign event

Today, Peggy Fikac and a team of reporters at the San Antonio Express-News had the kind of story that’ll have state politics reporters walking around Austin aimlessly, asking themselves why they aren’t more enterprising. (Maybe it’s just me.) Amid a sprawling fight between Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott over equal pay laws—Davis authored one last session that earned wide bipartisan support, and until today Abbott wouldn’t say if he would veto it like Perry did—Fikac got salary data for employees of Abbott’s attorney general office, and identified instances of unequal pay between women and men.

Some of the features Fikac describes about the AG’s employee pool would be true of just about any large office in America. Though there are more female employees overall, there are more male employees at the top of the organization and a greater share of women at the bottom. That results in an average salary for men at the AG’s office of $60,200 a year, and $44,708 for women. Of course, that doesn’t account for differences in position, experience and time with the agency.

But when Fikac narrows it to one group of employees—the 722 assistant attorneys general Abbott oversees—there’s a roughly $6,000 discrepancy in annual salary. ($79,464 for men, $73,649 for women.) Abbott’s office argues, again, that this is based on a difference in experience.

Abbott’s office said the men on average had more than 16 years of being licensed, while the women had nearly 14 years. The men had an average of nearly 104 months of service, while the women had more than 92 months, his office said.

And when the Express-News narrows down the employee pool even further, Fikac finds that rationale doesn’t always hold up.

Of seven different classifications of assistant attorneys general, the average salary for men is higher than the average salary for women in six of them, with the difference ranging from $647 to $4,452. In one category, the average salary for women is $3,512 higher than that for men. In three categories, the women on average either had more years of service or had been licensed longer, or both, despite being paid less, according to figures from the attorney general’s office.

The situation in Abbott’s office, of course, is part of a much wider problem. Cases like these don’t require active prejudice or intentional discrimination (though that sometimes happens too.) Elsewhere in the article, Abbott touts the number of women the agency has hired during his tenure, something he’s probably genuinely proud of.

Pay discrimination happens because of entrenched institutional and personal biases and assumptions—ones the people responsible for hiring and setting salaries may not even be aware of. It doesn’t mean someone said: “I’m going to pay women less.” It’s not because women aren’t “better negotiators,” as the executive director of the state GOP recently said, or because Texas hasn’t amped up “job creation” enough, as the director of the RedState Women PAC recently said (before she said a lot else.) So why not give women more tools and legal leverage to address pay discrimination, to balance out the fact that many institutions—often without malice—value their work less than their male counterparts? Let’s go live to Attorney General Abbott:

Texas Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott would not sign a measure to make it easier for women to bring pay discrimination lawsuits in state court if he were governor, a spokesman said Wednesday, hoping to get past an issue that has dogged the campaign for weeks.

So sayeth the man  today to the Associated Press, after a lengthy period of equivocating on the issue of whether he’d veto it. From a political standpoint, this seems like an incomprehensibly weird move. Will the Davis campaign stop hammering Abbott over this issue now that Abbott has swept away doubt from his position? The opposite! He’s given the Davis campaign—even more than they had before—a clear line to use against Abbott: “Abbott opposes making it easier for women to demand equal pay.” Pay equity is something women really care about. And he did it, apparently, just hours after a major newspaper raised substantial questions about pay equity at his own office.

Until recently, it seemed like the Davis campaign couldn’t stop scoring own goals. But Abbott’s campaign and his supporters—though they have a much, much greater margin of error—have been having a rough go of it since that Ted Nugent campaign event last month. What’s next?

Activists Want to Return Texas GOP Platform to Hard-line Stance on Immigrants

The 2012 GOP convention's great achievement is back on the chopping block.
immigration reform
Priscila Mosqueda

When the Texas Republican Party made a guest worker program part of its 2012 platform, it was hailed as an important step forward for the party. The GOP needed to adjust itself, people said, to appeal to a new generation of Texas voters, and reorient itself toward some kind of immigration reform package. The acknowledgement of the need for a guest worker program was a small move in that direction, but it was significant. So naturally, two years later, some Republicans want to strip it back out of the platform ahead of this year’s state convention in June.

As reported by the Quorum Report’s Scott Braddock Monday, the Texas Eagle Forum’s Cathie Adams has been floating language that would strip the guest worker plank out of the party’s platform. Cathie Adams, as Phyllis Schlafly’s top lieutenant in the state, may seem like a marginal figure to some—she’s spent much of the last several years attempting to persuade tea party groups that major figures in the national Republican party and U.S. government are secret Muslims—but she’s also a former chairwoman of the Texas Republican Party, and she holds a lot of sway with tea party groups around the state.

Adams told Quorum Report that it’s a mistake for the GOP to have anything other than a hard-line position going into the 2014 midterms and 2015 legislative session. Her proposed language unambiguously rejects any congressional moves to address immigration:

THEREFORE BE IT IS RESOLVED that we reject any and all calls for blanket or incremental amnesty and encourage the enforcement of existing state and federal laws regarding border security, national security, immigration and employment.

News of Adams proposal brought a strong rebuke from Hispanic Republican state Representative Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) who tweeted Monday night that the state GOP was facing an “existential” crisis.

This is primarily a fight, as it was in 2012, between business interests in the Republican Party and the more conservative faction personified by Adams. You might assume the former will win out—especially if the consequences are seen to be as dire as Villalba says—except that the adoption of the guest worker program last time around had seemed unlikely even then. It happened late on a Friday night at the convention. As a measure of how illegitimate some conservative activists see the change, several have told me they’re convinced that advocates of the guest worker program waited until many convention-goers were drunk or had left the hall before they made their move. In reality, the debate was well-attended and extremely heated.

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who became prominently identified with the platform change, told Bloomberg Businessweek he was less than certain about his side’s success as he rose to speak in favor of the change. “Well, here’s the end of a political career,” he remembers thinking. But the platform did change. Supporters hailed it as a “bold step toward leadership” on immigration.

But it’s debatable how much that small shift is evidence of a larger one in the GOP. For one thing, it’s never presented as a humanitarian issue—it’s a business issue. The important thing is ensuring a steady supply of labor, not the welfare and well-being of the countless documented and undocumented migrants in the state. “I’m no bleeding heart; I oppose birthright citizenship,” Patterson said later. “But we need the labor.”

When I talked to the affable Villalba in January about the attempt to build up Republican outreach to the Hispanics in the state, he was characteristically sunny about his party’s future. “What you’re seeing today is this mind-shift,” he says. “There are some in our party that are resistant of [change.] But I think they’re starting to come terms with it.”

Now, we’re heading toward a GOP convention that seems likely to nominate Dan Patrick, one of the most anti-immigrant statewide candidates in recent memory, as the party’s candidate for lieutenant governor—someone Villalba has indirectly but pointedly criticized. The next couple months, as activists began to consider the party platform in more detail, will provide an opportunity to test Villalba’s thesis.

New Wendy Davis Attack Group Run By Political Cronies

Cari Christman, the director of a PAC trying to counter Dems' advantage with women, had a strange interview Sunday. Stranger still: who's running her group.
RedState Women's logo
RedState Women's logo

RedState Women PAC, a new Texas Republican women’s group, has had a rocky coming-out party this week. The group’s executive director, Cari Christman, talked to Jason Whitely of Dallas’ WFAA on Sunday and offered an odd critique of equal pay legislation, which has become a central issue in the gubernatorial race between Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott. Christman suggested—over and over and over and over again—that a state Lilly Ledbetter law was a bad idea because women are “too busy” to use the courts.

It was an odd moment, to say the least, but it also raises the question: Who the heck are RedState Women? So far, they appear to be a motley collection of politically-connected lobbyists, ex-lobbyists and staffers of legislators who haven’t exactly distinguished themselves on women’s issues.

This morning, the Dallas Morning News‘ Wayne Slater noted the connection between RedState Women, Mike Toomey and Dave Carney—the latter two being longtime GOP insiders. But the RedState Women’s staff and board feature an even more eclectic crew.

There’s Lara Laneri Keel, the president of the group’s board, who writes in her bio that she’s “regarded as one of the top female lobbyist (sic) in Austin.” One of her clients: the private prison industry. Keel is a partner at the Texas Lobby Group, whose most prominent member is Toomey, a former Perry chief of staff and one of the governor’s closest associates. Keel is the cousin of Terry Keel, a former state representative and House parliamentarian, and wife of John Keel, former head of the Legislative Budget Board and current state auditor. Both Terry and John Keel were close associates of former House Speaker Tom Craddick.

There’s Cristen Wohlgemuth, a former lobbyist who now serves as chief of staff to state Rep. Craig Goldman (R-Fort Worth), a tea party rep who voted against last session’s equal pay bill and co-sponsored the sweeping abortion restrictions that passed the Lege last summer. Wohlgemuth, the daughter of former state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, worked for famously fundamentalist former state Rep. Warren Chisum before Goldman. Both Chisum and Arlene Wohlgemuth were top Craddick lieutenants. Arlene Wohlgemuth is now executive director of the corporate-funded Texas Public Policy Foundation.

And there’s Mia McCord, a former fundraiser with the state GOP who’s the current chief of staff for state Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills).  As chairman of the Republican Policy Caucus in 2011, Hancock played an important role in decimating state funding for women’s health care programs.

Christman herself is the chief of staff to state Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) who was a key supporter of the effort to “defund Planned Parenthood” that ended up capsizing the whole system of women’s health care in the state.

Then there’s Tony Hernandez, the group’s treasurer, according to the only financial report. Hernandez is another lobbyist (he works with Keel at the Texas Lobby Group) and the only XY chromosome in the bunch. Hernandez has an even more eclectic past—before he came to Texas, he worked for Andrew Laming, the bro-tastic Australian politician, most famous for calling out Aborigines and Pacific Islanders for an addiction to “welfare on tap” and chugging beers while doing handstands for Australia Day this year. (“This is the way I chose to celebrate Australia Day,” Laming said, Australian-ly. “I chose to drink my beer upside down.”)

It’s a strange group—not the dream team you might have assembled for a Texas women’s advocacy group. But they’ve been earning a lot of headlines. RedState Women launched its website on Wednesday after giving Politico a sneak peek, and earned a cameo in a recent Wall Street Journal story about women voters. As a PAC, the group will presumably be raising and spending money on candidates. But the most important role RedState Women will play this election cycle, it seems, will be in messaging.

To that end, the splashy new website—complete with an odd red-and-black logo that calls to mind Fantine from Les Miserables joining an anarchist collective—features the start of a video series, “Why I am a Red State Woman,” whose goal is to explore the many flavors of conservative women in Texas. The first video features Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick, the daughter of 45-year incumbent and former House Speaker Tom Craddick, who offers a genial series of anecdotes about her family. As noted, several of the PAC’s members have direct or indirect ties to the old Craddick establishment.

The group hopes to emphasize the diversity of Texas Republicans. “RSW represents a variety of life experiences and reflects the Texas spirit of strength and independence,” Christman wrote at time of the PAC’s launch. But it’s unclear how much Red State Women’s staff and board reflect that “variety of life experiences.”

Who’s funding RedState Women PAC? Christman declined to provide any additional information to Politico, telling the publication that information wouldn’t be available before this summer’s round of financial reports, some four months away. Until they’re released, expect to see RedState Women’s contention that they represent a burgeoning swath of passionate women activists go mostly unchallenged, Christman’s slip-up aside.