Where Have You Gone, Adlai Stevenson?
You cannot be a Governor if you do not believe in a Supreme Being.
– George W. Bush
I love George Bush.
– Reverend James Robison
Asked his opinion of the mildly partisan Reverend Norman Vincent Peale, Adlai Stevenson responded that he had “always found Saint Paul appealing and Saint Peale appalling.” It’s difficult to imagine Governor Bush coming up with a line that memorable. It’s also difficult to imagine Reverend Peale taking credit for resurrecting the campaign of any president with whom he had prayed, predicting the election of yet another – or for that matter, recounting a dialogue he recently held with God. (“God said, ‘James, you’re praying with a greater maturity now.’ I said, ‘I don’t understand, Lord.’ He said, ‘You were like so many others….'”) You might not buy the fundamentalist argument that we live in End Times. But it’s hard to argue that we do not live in Odd Times.
James Robison is a fundamentalist Christian preacher who lives in Arlington. His television routine always includes an attack on Roe. v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision guaranteeing women the right to abortion. Robison claims he is the child of a rapist – and that his mother would have sought out an abortion fifty-six years ago, had Roe v. Wade been the law.
In the years since that fateful misstep, he has organized an overseas mission system, taken his sermons to the airwaves, so influenced Ronald Reagan’s public policy that Reagan’s aides (Robison says) told him how much they resented his influence, and ministered to George Bush, elder and younger. Even by the standards of the televangelists of the eighties and nineties, his preaching tends to the histrionic.
On the morning of the inauguration he was preaching to the converted – including the entire top of the Republican ticket, carried into office two months earlier by George Bush: Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, Land Commissioner David
Dewhurst, Ag Commissioner Susan Combs, Attorney General John Cornyn, Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry, and the Governor himself. Also present was most of the Republican legislative caucus – and two Democratic legislators.
The Republicans showed up perhaps because of their religious convictions – but certainly because the Christian Coalition is now an extension of their Party. Coalition voting guides, distributed from pulpits on Sundays before elections, turn out the vote for Republican candidates. The Coalition’s under-no-circumstances position on abortion is canonical among Republican legislators. Both the state Party chair Susan Weddington and co-chair David Barton are fundamentalist Christians with ties to the organizers of this event. Indeed, since the fundamentalist Christian takeover of the Republican Party at the 1994 Fort Worth convention, any lines that divided the party from the Coalition have been erased.
No one is more beholden to the Christian Right than Rick Perry. As the chronically buoyant Abilene State Representative Bob Hunter chirped his introductions, Perry stood on the stage, blowing kisses and occasionally waving. His brief remarks included the obligatory line of scripture, but his appearance (like the Governor’s) was perfunctory, and both departed before Robison began a lachrymose twenty-minute sermon that had many in the audience weeping at the deathbed of Reverend Robison’s adoptive mother.
There will be nothing perfunctory about Perry’s support of the Christian Right’s
legislative agenda. The extent of Perry’s commitment to the religious right’s biggest Texas funder, San Antonio physician James Leininger, is explored by Robert Bryce in this issue (“The Pols He Bought,” page 11). (David Hartman, founder and president of the bank through which Leininger underwrote Perry, was one of six sponsors of the prayer breakfast.)
For ten years Leininger has been investing huge sums of money in Republican campaigns, focusing on two issues: tort reform and a voucher system that would take money from public schools and use it as private school tuition. (He’s also interested in restricting women’s access to abortion.) His tactics – beyond spending whatever is necessary to unseat Democratic incumbents who oppose his beliefs and replace them with Republicans who support them – include contributing to selected campaigns of minority, urban Democratic legislators such as Domingo García, Glenn Lewis, Ron Wilson, Harold Dutton – hoping to build a voting coalition among inner-city legislators whose constituents attend the poorest-performing public schools, and Republican representatives who prefer to see all schools ultimately privatized, who regularly vote against public school funding, and who then point to those underfunded schools as examples of public education’s failure. For Leininger, Perry’s election is a huge return on his investment.
Rick Perry’s note is now due.
Democratic House Speaker Pete Laney has also watched Leininger’s money erode the Democratic majority. Under the rubric of tort reform, Leininger has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into House races, in a successful effort to restrict individual citizens’ ability to sue corporations. Last session, the tort reformers came back for more – but Laney decided they had gotten enough, and appointed Galveston lawyer Patricia Gray, one of the smartest and most skilled members of the House, to chair the committee through which all tort reform legislation had to move. The result was a one-session reprieve from the corporate assault on the civil justice system. Laney is also opposed to vouchers, and it is with great difficulty that voucher legislation moved through the House during recent sessions. But Leininger has not let up, and his spending has helped reduce Laney to the last standing Democrat in Texas, as Republicans control every statewide office, with the Speaker holding onto to his position by a six-member majority.
It appears that the Speaker is at last prepared to engage the Republicans. His call for campaign finance reform in his speech at the beginning of the session bears directly on Leininger’s campaign spending. “When the ever-increasing cost of political campaigns is fueled by many millions of dollars from a small number of individuals and groups, it undermines public confidence in our political system,” Laney said. And his reluctance to come to terms with vouchers suggests that he is ready for a fight. In the same speech, Laney said that investing in education should be a priority for this Legislature.
Laney does not enjoy the same cordial relationship with Perry as he did with Bob Bullock. Laney is also a skilled legislative tactician whose behind-the-scenes work goes largely unnoticed. So as the session begins, it looks like a contest that will pit Laney’s intelligence and integrity against Rick Perry and Jim Leininger’s money. Don’t count the Speaker out yet. – L.D.