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Hooks on Politics

Senator Craig Estes presides over a meeting of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs, and Homeland Security. April 7, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Sen. Craig Estes presides over a meeting of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs, and Homeland Security on April 7, 2014.

For a year, gun rights activists have been holding protests around the state, demanding the right to legally carry firearms in public places. They took their assault rifles to San Antonio’s Alamo Plaza, and they showed international visitors Texas’ best at South by Southwest in Austin. On Monday, they got a sign from the Legislature that their “open carry” efforts might be bearing fruit. At a day-long hearing of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Homeland Security, more than 60 witnesses, including a handful of opponents, testified in support of loosening the state’s gun laws—with an open carry measure at the top of the list.

Open carry supporters hope to codify the right to carry long guns like shotguns and assault rifles in public places—preempting local restrictions—and allow concealed handgun license-holders to carry their handguns openly. Last legislative session saw a number of gun bills passed, with “campus carry,” the right to carry firearms on college campuses, narrowly defeated after a lengthy debate. Notably, the open carry bills went nowhere, dying in committee. But now, open carry seems set to join campus carry as part of the gun debate next session, as the Legislature tilts rightward yet again.

In contrast to the passion and heated rhetoric from the open carry supporters who came to testify, the committee itself was poorly attended—only the committee’s chairman, state Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) stayed for the duration of public testimony.

The advocates invited to give testimony—among them, lobbyists from the NRA and the Texas State Rifle Association, and C.J. Grisham, the founder of Open Carry Texas—sold open carry as the correction of a historical error. Alice Tripp of the Texas State Rifle Association said open carry would reverse a restriction put in place in the 1880s as a result of the “occupying federal army during Reconstruction.”

Some had the history a bit wrong. The gun restrictions were enacted after Reconstruction, by Democrats who were, in large part, fearful of gun-owning freed slaves. But that too was raised by witnesses. Michael Cargill, an African-American Austin-area gun rights activist, described the bill as “the last of the Jim Crow laws.”

That was a revelation to Estes, who repeatedly asked for information on the subject, so expect that to become a big talking point next session.

And there were other arguments that abused history to varying degrees.

“The fact that there was so little crime in the Old West is because everyone was carrying around guns,” Grisham told the committee. “Texas was a low-crime state until these laws got passed during Reconstruction.”

That, too, is a bit off. Gun laws in the South came about primarily because of a fear of armed black people, but restrictions on carrying guns in towns in the “Old West,” which were surprisingly pretty common, contrary to the image propagated by Hollywood, were a reaction to spreading violent crime, not the result of it.

“In almost every section of the West murders are on the increase, and cowmen are too often the principals in the encounters,” wrote the Texas Live Stock Journal in 1884. “The six-shooter loaded with deadly cartridges is a dangerous companion for any man, especially if he should unfortunately be primed with whiskey. Cattlemen should unite in aiding the enforcement of the law against carrying of deadly weapons.”

Many newspapers from the Old West, while generally supportive of the right to own arms, found their overuse (and public display in towns and settlements) a menace. But we’ve progressed. It’s 2014. Crime is low. The risk of being targeted by an Apache or Comanche raiding party, while not recently calculated with scientific precision, is also low. Texans predominantly live in urban areas: Five of the nation’s 20 largest cities are in the state.

Yet the demand for a greater variety of legal weapons—some at the hearing made a bid for the Legislature to make Bowie knives legal, and one bemoaned that you couldn’t obtain a machine gun without “jumping through a bunch of hoops”—and more ways to carry and use them has never been greater.

For many of those testifying, guns are the ultimate expression of self-empowerment. They represent the right to free one’s self from any and all collective enterprises—police protection among them. So the stakes are high.

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable,” said Amy Hedtke, a homeschooling mom who brought one of her children to testify as well. “We are not asking you to plow new ground here. We’re asking you to stop salting the earth of liberty.”

Another open-carry supporter, William Brown, came for personal reasons. “At the age of 18, I committed a drug crime that cost me the next 17-and-a-half years of my life in penitentiary. I know what a human being is. I have a firm grasp on man’s true nature. I think people who disarm Americans don’t know what a human being really is. There is an element of humanity that is beyond sociopath. They make parole too.”

Brown, in a coat and tie and a long, braided goatee, added: “When I was a youngster, I used to commit robberies. I only went to places that beforehand I knew, they did not have firearms.” Open carry would be a deterrent to people like his younger self, he said. “Back then, if I had walked into a place and seen a gun in a holster, I would have turned right back around and walked out.”

New groups like Moms Demand Action—who were angry that they hadn’t been invited initially and were only included at the last minute—provide a potentially significant counterbalance to the gun rights movement, but they’re still dwarfed in terms of passion and numbers. Open carry will be a significant issue during next year’s legislative session—and Monday’s hearing was another demonstration, if it were needed, that those in support are by far the loudest voices. That counts for a lot.

Texas Renewal Project

The Hyatt Regency on the south bank of Austin’s Lady Bird Lake is a pleasant enough place, but its true purpose on April 3—a temporary respite from the licking hellfire consuming the United States—was not immediately apparent. But cross the threshold into the Texas Ballroom, where attendees of the Texas Renewal Project’s Pastor Policy Briefing are munching on little cuts of meat while a succession of speakers worry about the country’s terminal decline, and you start to feel the heat of the fire outside.

Hundreds of pastors have traveled from all over Texas to the conference, which, according to the invitation penned by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, aims to address the fact that “our Judeo-Christian heritage is under attack by a force that is more destructive than any threat America has faced in decades.” There are speakers, and information sessions, though one suspects that for many the appeal of the event is a weekend in Austin with the wife. I stand in the back, where a stern-looking man unhappy with the offerings of ice tea and water sips on whiskey from the lobby bar. The woman in front of me picks away at her slice of bread, leaving the crust.

The message on offer is grim and fearful. This is a room full of people that are falling out of love with their country. It used to be a place that held promise for them and their cohort. But it’s changed, dramatically and for the worse, and the pastors don’t know if they can get it back in time.

The night’s speakers give them no comfort. There’s former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts, who tells diners that America is “not great enough that we can shake our fist in the face of a holy god and expect to get away with it.”

“That World War II generation gave us something that we have squandered over the last 40 years,” Watts told the crowd. “They gave us an exceptional nation. I don’t want my grandchildren to inherit a normal nation.”

“We can’t just go to church on Sunday and pay our tithe and leave it up to Washington. Washington is a Babylonian system,” says Watts. (According to Revelation 17:5, Babylon is the “the mother of harlots and of the abominations in the earth.”)

Babylon’s enforcement arm is the Internal Revenue Service, which Matthew Staver rose to speak on. Staver, the dean of the Liberty University School of Law, took time to reassure the pastors on one point: The IRS is impotent. There are strictures on tax-exempt churches engaging in political activity, but you can easily work within them. And if you break them outright, it doesn’t matter. “The IRS doesn’t have any teeth in this,” he said. “Some of my friends take their [political] message and sent them to the IRS.”

It’s your duty, he told the pastors, to engage in political activity to the maximum extent you are able. Have candidates speak in your church, acknowledge them in sermons, have candidate forums and debates. “Voting is a prophetic witness to the community,” he said. “No church has ever lost their tax exempt status for lobbying or for political activity. You’ve got to replace the muzzle that the world has placed on you.”

When he shifted to why the muzzle must be removed, things got dark. Staver spoke about legislative restrictions in New Jersey and California on “pray-the-gay-away” counseling services.

“If a minor comes to you and is struggling with same-sex attraction—maybe they were molested by the likes of a monster like Jerry Sandusky—and they have this self-hatred, they want to kill themselves because they have these desires that they don’t want, the desire to act out in the manner that they’ve been acted on,” Staver said, “and they come to a Christian counselor and say, help me, that counselor can’t help that child with those thoughts and behaviors. They have to sanctify that behavior as natural, normal, and good.” The crowd murmured.

Staver stepped back.

“I never thought I would ever say this,” he said.

Recently he had traveled to Peru, where that country’s congress asked him to speak on religious issues, particularly, on the Obama administration’s support for LGBT issues abroad. He found himself unable to defend his country. He told the Peruvian legislators: “America used to be proud that we were a city on the hill, a shining example. In these areas of religious liberty, we are no longer setting the example. I received a standing ovation, and a Congressional Medal of Honor,” he said. “I never would have received that treatment in our own congress.”

His trip culminated in another appearance, at a 70,000-seat soccer stadium, packed full with Peruvian Christians. When the first speaker addressed the crowd, Staver said, he carried a stern warning. “Any nation that supports or proposes laws that are contrary to God’s natural created order is cursed and will cease to exist.” Back at the Hyatt, audible gasps. A man in the audience yells “that’s true!”

Staver continued: “Tears began to roll down my eyes, because I began to think about the United States of America—the country that I was born in, that I love.” He added: “What we are doing now is not only destroying this country, but we are working to undermine Christian values in Peru and in countries around the world. This country is doing that. Under our watch! We can no longer be silent.”

Politically-minded evangelicals have been warning about America’s fall from grace and downfall since time immemorial. But the ground really has shifted: The demographic changes that are concerning the whole conservative coalition will hit the Religious Right especially hard. Even within the Republican Party, more libertarian strains of thought are ascendant. There are national politicians who can speak the language of evangelicals—Cruz, with his pastor father, among them.

But he, like Gov. Perry, has adopted a state’s rights position on thorny social issues like gay marriage. That doesn’t go far enough for this crowd, who’d like to see gay marriage prohibited in the 50 states and territories and gay people disappear from public view.

Nonetheless, this has been a particularly good election cycle in Texas for evangelicals. That’s especially strange because evangelical candidates—think Rick Santorum—tend to underperform here. Both Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton, who seem set to win the GOP lt. governor and attorney general nominations, respectively, have received the imprimatur of Mike Huckabee, who spoke at the Hyatt the morning after. Cruz skipped the event, to the disappointment of the crowd, to appear at Fort Hood.

Even if Patrick and Paxton win this November, that won’t be enough to assuage the deep disquiet many feel about the direction of their country. This is a group that’s primed for disappointment—this is, after all, a fallen world.

WTF Friday: Glass Houses

Charles Murray
AEI
Charles Murray

Race and ethnicity and stuff: Let’s think big thoughts about it, together. Texas is an increasingly diverse place. That’s great for our palates, but sometimes it makes people “uncomfortable.” And “sometimes” we need to have “conversations” about whether it’s “inappropriate” to cite “white supremacists” in “policy papers.”

1) How about that Charles Murray, huh? Don’t get me wrong, Murray should be dropped down a well. Murray, a Thinker, earned most of his renown and public fame for Saying What We’re All Thinking about women and black people—they’re not as smart as Charles Murray and people like him (white, rich, men.) You could describe him as a sort of white supremacist, with the caveat that he doesn’t have much affection for poor white people either. He’s a sort of cheerleader for the elite, in the traditional WASP sense, or Mencken’s sense: Those with education and power have it because, on some level, they deserve it, and those who are poor are poor not because of history, or circumstances, but because they lack the natural ability and intelligence to not be as poor anymore.

That basic idea has been present throughout Murray’s work—implicitly and explicitly. It’s not too far distanced from the pith-helmeted Englishmen who wandered around darkest Africa a century ago measuring skull ridges. (And actually, Murray occasionally relies on contemporaries of those people in his work.) But his Straight Talk on Race has made him a popular figure among some in the Acela corridor, who, as luck would have it, look a lot like Murray. “A huge number of well-meaning whites fear that they are closet racists,” said Murray about one of his turgid tomes. “This book tells them they are not. It’s going to make them feel better about things they already think but do not know how to say.”

“You want to have a job training program for welfare mothers? You think that’s going to cure the welfare problem,” Murray told PBS in 1994. “You had better keep in mind that the mean IQ of welfare mothers is somewhere in the 80s, which means that you have certain limitations in what you’re going to accomplish.”

For this and a hundred other reasons stemming from his disturbing and malevolent career, drop Charles Murray down a well. But when the Huffington Post and Wendy Davis jumped on Greg Abbott for citing one of Murray’s books in an education policy paper his team put together, they may have overreached. For one thing, the footnote is one of dozens. And while the book cited, Real Education, (though the Abbott campaign cited it as “Read Education”) makes some unusual arguments—Murray says all primary and secondary education in the United States should be privatized—the footnoted passage is actually pretty mundane.

The most WTF-y thing about the whole incident is Abbott’s reaction. Shortly after the original HuffPo story broke, Christy Hoppe at the Dallas Morning News wrote a follow-up. After a recitation of a few of the cringe-inducing things Murray’s said, Hoppe turned to the campaign for a reaction.

Abbott’s campaign stated that Murray is a widely noted education thinker, whose work is cited frequently, including by columnists for our own newspaper.

He told the AP:

Abbott on Thursday said Murray is often widely cited and ran down a list of mainstream publications that have published Murray’s work.

From KSAT:

[Abbott] also said Murray has been quoted by national media, and recognized as being among those who “define the contemporary intellectual debate about social policy.”

You want to put Abbott on trial? Abbott’s putting this whole court on trial. How can you get mad at him for deferring to a white supremacist when everyone else does too? He’s a “best-selling author” who holds a perch at a respected conservative think tank. He’s lauded as one of this country’s great original thinkers. People from Bill Clinton—”He did the country a great service,” the president said about his welfare reform advocacy—to David Brooks and the editorial boards of major newspapers celebrate him and his works. Far more dispiriting than Abbott’s footnote is the fact that he’s right. Charles Murray, after decades of racist pseudo-science and policy quackery, still has an important place in our discourse. WTF.

Drop Charles Murray down a well.

2) I may be astonished that America still has a place in its heart for Charles Murray, but state Rep. Dan Flynn sees things going in the opposite direction—and it sickens him.

It is the era of multiculturalism, diversity, and political correctness. Our society has been fooled into believing that differences must be accepted with an unobjective cordiality, without question and of course, at face value.

Flynn represents Van, Texas, population 2,600. It’s almost 90 percent white.

Many on the right have been warning us for years, when a culture weakens its own principles in favor of an amorphous multicultural society, eventually, a stronger culture simply undermines and supplants the impoverished values it encounters.

Unsurprisingly, he has a particular kind of person in mind when he’s talking about the dangers of diversity. Sharia law is coming to Texas, he says, and it’ll rule us all someday. To safeguard the social cohesion of Van from the encroaching hoards of halal food carts and madrassa-building jihadis, Flynn has a plan. Come next year, he’ll be introducing a bill “that will require our Texas Judicial System to only allow American Law on American Soil in our Texas Courts.”

What’s he talking about? Many religious communities prefer to use mediation to resolve legal disputes, and do so along the lines of their religion’s legal code. When bills to “ban Sharia” in other states have popped up, they’re most resolutely opposed by the Jewish community, whose members sometimes mediate legal disputes using Jewish religious law. So Flynn may scare away the hookah joints from Van, but wake up to find a flock of angry rabbis on his doorstep. Small-town Texas is going to seed, I tell you.

3) Speaking of Jews, steadfast weirdo Congressman Louie Gohmert has some words of encouragement, or—wait, I don’t really know what this is. Gohmert was being interviewed about the dying Israeli/Palestinian peace talks, and the possible release of Israeli spy-for-hire Jonathan Pollard as part of a trade.

“Well, I don’t know what the deal is,” Gohmert said.

Admirable! I wish more congressmen admitted they have no idea what’s going on. Let’s move—

“Since I do believe the Bible, those nations that divide Israel are going to be judged and it isn’t going to be pretty. I’d hate to be the country that betrays Israel, that demands that they give up land that had been given to them. I think that we’re in real trouble with the pressure that this administration’s doing.”

If Israel gives up the land that it annexed in 1967, Gohmert says, God—the one that blesses America, I guess—will take vengeance on America. And Israel? And Palestinians? Man. That guy is fickle.

4) Hey, it’s Steve Stockman (R-Huckster.) What have you been up to, bro?

“Only the most out-of-touch radical would try to disarm soldiers,” said the Clear Lake Republican, who lost the U.S. Senate primary in March. “It’s time to repeal this deadly anti-gun law before it creates another mass killing. This is another tragedy created by anti-gun activists.”

The day after the shooting at Fort Hood, Stockman stood up to try to resuscitate a bill he authored that would let military personnel carry personal weapons on military bases. Aren’t these the people that tell Americans not to “politicize” mass shootings? The fun thing about this one is that it’s moving towards a consensus position for Republicans: limelight-lover and chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security Michael McCaul endorsed it recently.

Not that it will matter, but the Army itself doesn’t want this. You know who’s leading the “out-of-touch radical” contingent? Some lib wacko, right? Oh, it’s the commander of Fort Hood.

Go forth and drink, WTFers.

Ted Cruz Tanks a Major Diplomatic Effort

While no one was looking, Cruz helped scuttle a critically important international initiative.
Ted Cruz
Patrick Michels
Senator Ted Cruz

Sen. Ted Cruz has been keeping a lower profile than he did last year, but he’s been busy. Take the last couple weeks. In the background of the brawl over what to do about Russia’s transgressions in Ukraine, Cruz quietly helped mobilize congressional Republicans against an agreement, years in the making and exhaustively negotiated, which would have reformed the International Monetary Fund. He threatened to try to block a critically important aid package to Ukraine’s new government if the reforms weren’t stripped out of the bill. Slowly, Cruz’s position became the position of the Republican caucus. And Democrats blinked.

It’s a major setback for the White House, whose ability to get these reforms passed at all is now in doubt. And it’s an interesting look at how Cruz can play the inside game when the cameras are off him.

For years, advocates of the International Monetary Fund—a sort of international bank, funded by wealthy states, to provide loans to countries in financial turmoil with the goal of promoting international economic stability—have sought to make changes to the way the fund is governed. Founded in 1945, the fund and its sister organization, the World Bank, have tended to reflect the post-war balance of power, when America and Europe had enormous economic influence.

But in the last two decades, the nature of the world economy has changed. The increased economic power of countries like China, South Korea and Brazil, which are providing much of the fund’s new capital, hasn’t been reflected in the IMF’s governing structure. The current structure privileges European states like Belgium and Germany. In 2010, the fund’s board—and all of the fund’s members, including the United States—agreed to shift more control to emerging economies. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the IMF, described it as a historic agreement that would allow the fund to “catch up with reality.”

The problem: the move needs to be ratified by Congress, where the idea of slightly reducing America’s power over the organization and increasing China’s has gone over like a lead balloon. That’s where Ted Cruz comes in.

Cruz has been talking really, really tough on Ukraine. Since last month, he’s issued strong statements condemning America’s inaction while “liberty-seeking Ukrainians are brutalized by their own government.” At times, he’s gone even further than that. “President Obama has done nothing to help the people of Georgia reclaim the some 20 percent of their sovereign territory that was violated by the 2008 Russian invasion,” he cried. (It’s hard to know what the United States could do about that without strategic bombing.)

But when it came time to offer practical help to Ukraine—the country is broke, and Russia is hoping the new government dissolves before it can get its financial house in order—Cruz didn’t have much to offer.

“More important than aid is expanding economic trade,” he told Politico earlier this month. Pass a free trade treaty, and sell them gas and oil some years down the road, he seemed to say, and that’ll take care of it. That’s not a view shared by Ukranian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who recently told his countrymen that the nation was “on the brink of economic and financial bankruptcy” and facing imminent “financial disaster”—which would, in turn, bring the Russians.

To help Yatsenyuk, Democrats in the Senate started putting together a bill that would enable the International Monetary Fund to loan Ukraine a substantial amount of money. Attached to that bill: the IMF reforms that had been on Congress’ to-do list for years. Why attach the reforms to a bill that needed to pass quickly? Two reasons: One, the structure of the reforms would allow Ukraine to borrow more money. Two, there seemed to be little real opposition, at first. It passed the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations by a 14-3 margin.

The reforms were supported by GOP foreign policy experts. Daniel Runde, a Republican aid specialist who worked for years in the Bush administration’s foreign policy establishment and advised Mitt Romney on aid issues, urged Congress to speedily adopt both the aid package and the IMF reforms.

“For the United States to lead, we need IMF quota reform,” Runde wrote in Foreign Policy. To the doubters who worried about American influence lessening, he reassured: “The United States gives away less than 0.3 percent of its votes (a 0.4 percentage point drop from 17.7 percent to 17.3 percent); it remains the largest shareholder; it retains its veto.”

The day after, on March 13, Cruz released an open letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announcing his intention “to object to any floor consideration of Ukraine aid legislation that contains these IMF provisions.” It’s been reported that Cruz asked all Senate Republicans to co-sign the letter. In the end, only five did (stalwart Cruz ally Mike Lee and the idiosyncratic Rand Paul among them.) The letter is full of blank lines for signatures that were not provided. Nevertheless, the bill started to have problems.

House Republicans began announcing their intent to oppose the Senate language. A growing number of GOP Senators began to express disquiet. That left longtime Cruz nemesis John McCain sputtering with fury. Those who were hoping to slow or strip the bill were “on a fool’s errand,” just like the government shutdown. They had left him “embarrassed” by his party.

But the opposition to the bill grew. The aid bill slipped into the next week—then the next. What had begun as an uncontroversial provision had become a poison pill. Marco Rubio joined the crusade, though he didn’t go as far as Cruz. (He’d previously characterized the reforms as “Russian-backed.”) It became apparent that many were willing to kill the Ukraine aid bill rather than accept the IMF reforms. Early last week, Reid conceded defeat—he’d strip the bill.

The IMF reforms aren’t dead, but it’s now clear that many in Congress don’t accept the reform package at all. They may want to make changes—and that could require the whole thing to be renegotiated. Ultimately, they may not want to pass it at all. This is, after all, the legislative body that refuses to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is about as milquetoast as international relations gets.

To add insult to injury, the Ukraine aid package took another six days to pass Congress, weeks after it was first circulated. The House of Representatives decided to vote on the bill after a weekend recess, meaning it didn’t get a final vote until Monday. Meanwhile, discontented Ukrainian fascists are pounding on Yatsenyuk’s door, he’s had difficulty getting his Parliament to follow him, and the Russian army gathered to his east and west.

The conservative Heritage Foundation, meanwhile, is celebrating the great victory over IMF quota reform. Deeming the reforms “extremely controversial,” the fight—in which Cruz was the “spearhead“—provided a fine framework for “how conservatives can win.”

Cruz’s 2016 presidential prospects may be oversold, but we’re in the process of seeing what kind of senator he’ll become. In the past, he’s cited the late North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms as his great inspiration. Helms, a peerless model of reactionary intransigence, hung around the Senate for decades, a great boulder and “master obstructionist” who loved nothing better than gumming up the works. If that’s what Cruz aspires to, he’s learning quickly.

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.