Gays, Guns and Guest Workers: The Republican Convention

Gov. Rick Perry addresses the Republican state convention in Fort Worth. June 5, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Gov. Rick Perry addresses the Republican state convention in Fort Worth. June 5, 2014.

Party conventions are a time for collective healing—an occasion to pivot away from the infighting of primary season and summon hatred for the other side. It’s a time to come together and put away the angry words directed at each other as recently as the week before. As healing events, conventions are usually successful, and there’s no reason to think that the Texas Republican Convention in Fort Worth this week won’t be, too. But there are a few fault lines in the party that have developed in recent weeks, and the way they’ll play out in the next couple days will say a lot about where the Texas GOP is in 2014.

The biggest fight this week will likely be over a small part of the Republican platform that contains what’s become known, in a strangely grandiose fashion, as the “Texas Solution.” At the 2012 convention, the party managed to include an endorsement of an expanded guest worker program into the platform—a first for the party—but kept other red meat provisions, like calling for English to be made the country’s official language. The idea that this small, symbolic step represented a novel or interesting “solution” to the country’s immigration problems was always somewhat farcical, but it was nonetheless extremely controversial among the conservative base. And for two years, that group has been yearning to strip it back out.

For weeks, conservatives have been gaming out strategies to do just that. But the immigration provisions are a top priority for party leaders, who are trying desperately to drag the party toward a pragmatic approach on immigration, for the sake of both the business wing of the GOP and in the service of the nebulous concept of “Hispanic outreach.”

Conservatives accuse the party of stacking the platform committees with “pro-amnesty” puppets, and of intimidating those who don’t support the measure. On Wednesday night, a platform committee gave a nod to reworked immigration language that kept the main tenets of the 2012 language. The new language rails against “special pathways” to citizenship for undocumented residents, but leaves the door open for undocumented residents who receive legal status of some kind to become citizens using the traditional method—in other words, it wouldn’t aim to prevent them from becoming citizens.

But the current version of the 2014 plank also contains changes designed to assuage conservative fears. The words “guest worker” don’t appear in the platform language—they’ve been replaced by support for “an efficient, cost effective system that responds to labor shortages,” though who this is supposed to fool is unclear.

Lt. governor hopeful Dan Patrick had much to do with the crafting of the new language, as did Greg Abbott. Though Patrick supported a guest worker program in 2007, his recent rhetoric made it appear there was at least a chance he’d weigh in against the plank with the tea party and against the party leadership. So far, that hasn’t been the case. However, the “Texas solution,” which used to be a single package, has been broken up into five planks—making it easier, later in the process, to strip out some provisions but not others.

There’s also the gays. When the party denied the Log Cabin Republicans, a prominent pro-gay GOP group, a booth at the convention last week, it was unsurprising—they’d done so before. In 1996, the Log Cabin Republicans sued for the right to be included in that year’s state convention, and the case went to the Texas Supreme Court. The gay GOPers lost. The justice who wrote the opinion for the majority? Greg Abbott. Eighteen years later he’s running for governor, and the party’s position hasn’t budged an inch.

Well, it’s changed a tiny bit. The draft platform that’s out now nixes previous language: “the practice of homosexuality tears at the fabric of society and contributes to the breakdown of the family unit. Homosexual behavior is contrary to the fundamental, unchanging truths that have been ordained by God.”

If that sounds discouragingly like progress to you, be reassured that the draft adds an endorsement of anti-gay “therapy.” The GOP is preparing to recognize “the value of counseling which offers reparative therapy and treatment to patients who are seeking escape from the homosexual lifestyle.”

Thursday night will see two competing rallies on LGBT issues. The Republican Liberty Caucus, a libertarian-oriented organization, is holding a barbecue on the periphery of the festivities to call for me a more “inclusive” party. The Conservative Republicans of Texas, meanwhile, are holding a fête at the swank Omni Hotel to huff and puff about the recent ruling against Texas’ anti-gay marriage amendment. That one boasts the RSVP of “180 state and local elected officials”—from Ted Cruz and John Cornyn on down.

There’s also a heavy open carry presence here—groups pushing for the right to carry long guns in cities and handguns openly are doing their damnedest to push the issue under the noses of next session’s legislators. They’ll be having a rally Thursday night at Fort Worth’s Water Gardens, but their presence is just as keenly felt indoors. Angela L. Peña, a delegate who’s also representing the Rio Grande Valley chapter of Open Carry Texas, brought her Pietta 1858 New Army Revolver onto the convention floor. Though TABC regulations ban guns in the convention center, there’s an exception carved out for pre-1899 models. Many feel a growing sense of certainty the 2015 Legislature will side with them on their issues.

Then there are the losers—the supporters of David Dewhurst and other “moderate” candidates who got more or less crushed in last week’s primary. Dan Patrick and crew may have won easily, but there’s a not-insignificant cadre of GOPers who don’t have a lot of respect for the man—or his ticketmates.

You wouldn’t know that by walking around the convention center, though. Most of the true believers here—the most passionate and energized in the Republican base—are all in for Patrick, Ken Paxton, Sid Miller, et al. The most popular buttons, stickers and shirts are still those circulated by Ted Cruz’s floor crew—but Patrick is a close second. Dewhurst, meanwhile, the vanquished foe, might have been expected to come and hug Patrick, and smoke the proverbial peace pipe—but he’s going to France instead, for the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Fort Worth is a lovely place, but he might be getting the better deal. While Dewhurst might be savoring a pricey bottle of Pinot Noir in Caen, the true believers here will be slugging it out over amnesty, gay marriage and Obamacare while Dew’s two-minute goodbye video plays on the convention floor to people who were never that into him in the first place.

Gov. Rick Perry made a significantly flashier exit at his last GOP convention in office. A lengthy video montage and an introduction from his wife, Anita Perry, set up a speech that hit all of the points we’ve come to expect from a Perry address: For example, did you know that Texas’ economy is doing very well according to many metrics?

Perry’s speech was one of the first agenda items on the convention, after which he’s bowing out. Also keeping a low profile, strangely enough, is the fellow who’s at the top of the GOP ticket—Attorney General Greg Abbott. He’s addressing the convention, on Saturday, but he’s not showing his face much otherwise—while Dan Patrick’s supporters flood the convention. It’s an odd thing.

This convention belongs to the new generation—even if that new generation is composed exclusively of white men of a similar vintage as the old generation. Even if they look the same, their politics are very different. This weekend will give us some insight into how they’ll govern.

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin, where he grew up. His work has appeared in Politico Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, among others. He graduated from The New School in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in history.

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Published at 6:15 pm CST