A Tea Party Flop

Tax Day Diary


At a tea party rally in Austin on Tax Day 2009, Gov. Rick Perry tacitly endorsed the notion that Texas could secede from the Union. It caused a bit of a stir. In the year since, the tea party movement has only grown. So the 2010 anti-tax protests figured to be a must-see. Or so we thought. The various, sparsely attended rallies—four in Austin—showcased traits that might be the movement’s undoing.

Gov. Perry skipped the festivities. Steady rain no doubt chased away some people, and other Texans were attending the Washington, D.C., rally. Still, it was surprising that the Tax Day protests couldn’t attract more than a few hundred stragglers.

The day’s first scheduled event, in front of Austin City Hall—where Perry spoke last year—never even happened. When this reporter arrived, he found three members of the press outnumbering two lonely activists. There were the trappings of a protest—a podium, a microphone, a tent—but the activists had apparently not shown up.

The final rally, sponsored by Texans for Accountable Government, got going around 6 p.m. About 150 people huddled in a downpour under the Capitol entranceway to hear a series of speakers shout indictments of the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Reserve and one-world government through a hand-held bullhorn. As the proceedings wore on, members of the small crowd began to steal the show, interrupting with outbursts: “Jefferson was a terrorist!” screamed one man. “So was Washington.”

“What did he say?” one woman asked standing in the back. Her friend answered in a dejected tone, “People are just shouting random stuff.”

—Dave Mann


Dept. of energy

Coal, Coal Heart

Ultimate insider Bobby Ray Inman—retired admiral, former CIA deputy director, former NSA director, Austin venture capitalist, failed nominee for defense secretary, professor at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs—got so steamed in the aftermath of April’s coal-mining disaster in West Virginia that he threatened to take up the tea party cause.

Since 1985, Inman has served on the board of Massey Energy, the company under fire after 29 workers died in a preventable disaster at its Upper Big Branch mine, which had some 3,000 safety violations since 1995. It’s been a nice side gig: Between 2006 and 2008, Inman collected $1 million as Massey’s lead independent director. He showed little patience with bad press of the company’s dismal safety record, or with calls from unions and others for the resignation of controversial CEO Don Blankenship.

“My anger level is pretty high for the disinformation pushed by unions,” Inman told the Austin American-Statesman after the disaster. “I’m a political independent, but this is enough to make a tea-partier out of me,”

Blankenship joined up already. Last year he lavished more than $1 million on “Friends of America,” a tea party rally in West Virginia featuring Ted Nugent and Fox News host Sean Hannity. Blankenship mocked the government’s mining regulations as being “as silly as global warming.”

Inman is standing by his man. Blankenship, he told the Statesman, is “without question the best coal miner in the business.”

—Forrest Wilder


Bushies in Exile

Rove in Clover

A few minutes before Karl Rove took the stage at the University of Texas’ Texas Union Ballroom on April 19, three protesters with posterboard signs—”Arrest Rove,” “Guilty of Crimes Against Humanity”—trooped in and planted themselves opposite the lectern so that Rove would have a clear view of them during his presentation. The restless audience was grateful, having waited for 30 minutes with little to do but peruse the pocket constitutions handed out at the door.

It was the beginning of a smashingly successful evening for Rove, who gave a half-hour, on-message address about the evils of the stimulus, health-care reform and the Obama administration. He laced his outrage with folksy humor and, in a show of magnanimity, offered to answer a question from one of the “lunatics” at the back of the room after he had disposed of the pre-submitted questions. (Rove cut the protester short when he began to ramble about a secret cult of pederasty in the Republican Party.)

The evening was a smash, too, for Ryan Ellis, the president of UT’s chapter of College Republicans. Ellis had hoped for hecklers. He’d included a distorted, sinister-looking picture of Rove on the College Republicans’ flyers: “Come See ‘the Architect’ of the Bush administration!”

It was a display of political symbiosis. Rove plugged his book (Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight). College Republicans generated media coverage that might attract some new members. The protesters went away with the satisfaction of having taken a stand. But the human collateral of the policies that Rove’s clients have brought into being—foreign and domestic—were nowhere to be seen, and nowhere to be heard.

—Robert Green


Revolving Door Dept.

The Budget Fixer

Last year, Albert Hawkins, commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, retired from state service. This year, he started his own private consulting firm. And he’s landed a plum client already: the state of Texas.

Republican House Speaker Joe Straus has hired Hawkins to consult on the state’s budget. His $5,000-a-month salary will be paid by the speaker’s campaign PAC, Texans for Joe Straus. What he advises Straus to cut or save will be important as legislators grapple next year with an $11 billion to $20 billion budget shortfall.

Straus said in a press statement that Hawkins will use his expertise to scrutinize health and human-service spending: “Albert has given many years of public service to state and federal government, and his guidance and knowledge on budget and health care issues will be key as we deal with the budget shortfall and the added burden of a federal health care mandate.”

Hawkins did not return the Observer’s calls requesting an interview.

Some question the need for a private consultant, since Straus co-chairs the Legislative Budget Board, which is filled with state budget analysts. The question also begs: Why does a state official need to pay a private consultant (who shares an office with a lobby group) with money from his political committee (partially funded by lobbyists)?

—Melissa del Bosque


Dept. of Elections


Unless you’ve been walking the Earth like Kane in Kung Fu, you don’t need any reminding of what an embarrassment the Texas State Board of Education has been lately. But those days may well have ended after the runoff elections on April 13.

Social conservatives, controlling seven of the State Board’s 15 seats, have consistently voted in a bloc to infuse their Christian worldviews into the social studies and science curriculums. But in the March primary, Christian conservatives lost two State Board races—including the defeat of their standard-bearer, Don McLeroy. And they suffered another setback in April when Marsha Farney, a self-described “common sense conservative,” easily defeated her right-wing opponent in a runoff for an open seat on the State Board.

Farney faces a Democrat in the general election, but is the favorite to replace right-wing member Cynthia Dunbar, who’s leaving the board. Dunbar had hand-picked an Austin attorney named Brian Russell as her successor. “I believe in a rigorous, knowledge-based education that teaches: an unashamedly patriotic view of American history, emphasizing the God-given individual rights and limited government enshrined in the Constitution,” Russell had written on his Web site.

The Christian conservative faction of the State Board has now shrunk to five seats on a 15-member board. For at least two years, the State Board might take a break from the culture wars and go back to simply debating education policy.

—Dave Mann


campaign Trail

Heck of a Party, George

On the shiny, fragrant Tuesday morning after Tax Day, white folks angry about health reform waited on the state Capitol steps to hear from the four leading Republican coveters of Kay Bailey Hutchison’s U.S. Senate seat. They’d also be getting a gander at a low-grade presidential aspirant, former New York Gov. George Pataki. Upon the news of Obamacare’s passage, it seems, Pataki had leapt upon his metaphorical horse, Paul Revere-style, to “awaken American patriots to the knowledge that our freedom is in danger today.” He calls his anti-health care effort RevereAmerica, and this was its Texas debut.

Since the Senate hopefuls—Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Attorney Gen. Greg Abbott, Railroad Commissioner Michael L. Williams, state Sen. Dan Patrick—had all come to cheer on Pataki’s “repeal and replace” agenda, you might have expected at some point to hear that agenda spelled out. But the closest anybody got was Abbott, who said: “We’ve got to repeal and replace everyone who voted for Obamacare.”

The four Republican leaders were there, it seemed, mainly to plug into an easy outlet for appearing to stand strong against Obamacare. Dewhurst tried out a campaign line about there now being “one nation under government,” rather than God. Abbott boasted about his health-reform lawsuit and commended the sacredness of the Tenth Amendment and the Commerce Clause. “I filed a lawsuit sending a message to Washington, D.C.: Don’t mess with Texas!” he said. Williams, the rare non-Caucasian at many a tea-party gathering, won over the crowd by radiating positive energy and serving up a soothing message of opposition, contending that health reform “perpetuates a culture of dependence—a culture that has been destructive to the black community.”

“Way to go Senator! Senator Williams!” scattered voices shouted after the railroad commissioner finished.

The size of the crowd wasn’t embarrassing, but it wasn’t large. One hundred would be a generous estimate. Just as on Tax Day, the fizzle appeared to have gone out of the tea party. Maybe that’s just temporary. Or maybe it’s inevitable.

—Bob Moser