Congratulations! It’s campaign season again. On Saturday, at a public square in Round Rock, businessman Mike Collier made official his bid to unseat Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick in 2018. Texas Democrats are fired up this year, but they’re also weary from so much bad news for so long, like the moles in a whack-a-mole machine. Tammy Young, a Round Rock City Council member and one of the up-and-coming Democrats in formerly beet-red Williamson County, captured the mood: “Are you tired of the circus happening at the state Lege?” she asked.
The crowd cheered. But the problem for Democrats, of course, is that the answer on Election Day has been consistently no: Texans, collectively, have not yet tired of the circus. In fact, the circus has been resoundingly successful, in political terms. In practical terms, less so: Exorbitant property taxes, soaring local debt, crummy infrastructure, an awful school finance system, skyrocketing tuition costs and tough conditions for the working poor have been the norm for a decade or more, but Democrats haven’t been able to capitalize on it.
In part, that’s because Texas Republicans have been very good at maintaining a narrative about what they are for and who they are against. By constantly reinventing Republicanism, and by putting the blame for everything going wrong on other people — the federales, local governments, bureaucrats — they skate effortlessly over dysfunction and back into office.
The narrative Democrats offer is one of competence and good government, often in the form of well-meaning technocrats such as Bill White, the former mayor of Houston who lost to Rick Perry in 2010. This has not been successful. In odd-numbered years, Democrats watch, mystified, as the GOP-controlled Legislature contorts itself into a Twin Peaks episode. Then, in even-numbered years, they’re even more confounded when voters, who may not support many Republican policies, send the Republicans back to do it again.
The race for lieutenant governor is arguably the most important for Democrats this cycle in terms of its potential effect on Texans, thanks to the extraordinary impact Patrick has on political life in the state. If Collier goes on to win his primary bid — he’s currently unopposed — he will have a weighty responsibility on his shoulders. Who is he? He’s a former corporate accountant and a former finance chair of the state party who ran for comptroller in 2014, a role to which he was well-suited. (He lost by 20 points, about the same margin as the rest of the statewide Dems.) He was one of a number of figures who helped fill out the Democrats’ normally-withered down-ballot slate that year, along with attorney general nominee Sam Houston and Railroad Commission candidate Steve Brown, who had very little public experience but could lay claim to a basic understanding of ethics and a desire to demonstrate competence.
Competence and seriousness is still Collier’s core message. “Dan Patrick’s got to go,” he told his Round Rock crowd of about 75 people, who came out to cheer and sign-wave on one of the hottest days of the year so far. “Don’t let them tell you we can’t win. We can win, and I’ll tell you why. Dan Patrick’s the worst lieutenant governor in the history of the state.”
If elected, he would attempt to refocus the Senate on “fixing school finance,” and “making property taxes fair again,” he said. “We’ve got real issues to deal with, right? What has Dan Patrick spent the entire legislative session working on? Bathrooms, good grief!”
“We just want good leaders. We want to end this partisan hooey,” he said. The actions of statewide elected officials, he argued, are endangering the state’s relationship with big business. “We’re becoming one of the most deeply indebted states in the country,” and one in which taxes are already high. “If you want high property taxes, stick with Dan Patrick, ‘cause he’s been sticking it to you for years,” Collier told the crowd. “Dan Patrick is never gonna fix property taxes because his so-called conservative fiscal policies have created the property tax crisis in the first place.”
But is competence enough to win? Patrick is a master at communicating with his base and using wedge issues to drive divisions among his enemies. He has achieved almost complete control over the Senate. Collier is a wonky, quirky figure who came to politics late in life, after a long and lucrative run in corporate America. He used to be a Republican, and he describes his run for comptroller as a political awakening. He wrote a book about it — Out of Comptrol: A Converted Democrat’s Improbable Quest to Save Texas Politics — a political Bildungsroman, wherein Collier starts with almost no political knowledge and becomes the kind of guy who describes state government as a junta.
He’s the latest in a long run of businessmen to come up within the Texas Democratic Party — some better than others — and like them, he has a lot of innate confidence. In office, he’d end corruption in Texas by “propos[ing] something very revolutionary, very novel,” a body which he calls the “Audit Performance and Integrity Commission,” he told the rally. “Texans are gonna love it.”
Collier says that he wants to craft a better message for the party. After the event, as most of the audience had left to find shade, Collier said one of the main lessons he took away from 2014 was that Democrats are insufficiently clear about the policies and the people they stand for. “We saw this very clearly in the presidential election,” he said. “We think that people know we’re the champions of the working and the middle class. But to some extent, what we’ve failed to do is articulate that point and make it real. What does it mean that you’re for the middle class?”
The practical concerns of Texans, he said, were drowned out during the din of the 2014 statewide campaigns. “What Texans are concerned about is fiscal issues, kitchen-table issues, things such as education and health care and tuition,” he said. “Pocketbook issues are my world, as an accountant.” His primary message would be to try to convince voters that Republicans are “actually not good on economic issues.”
Is Collier the man to do it? In his book, he describes the dispiriting experience of coming to terms, on the eve of the election, with the fact that his arguments and his qualifications didn’t matter very much. “Politics, I had learned, is mostly about identity. People identify with their party the same way a student identifies with his high school football team,” he writes. “The players might be perfectly likable and honorable people. But their character doesn’t matter as much as their affiliation. I had no idea, before I ran this race, that this was how politics worked.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of political instincts. Still, this year seems set to be his football team’s best season in years, and the Republicans have crippling injuries up and down the lineup. So who knows — maybe we’ll look back on 2018 as the year Texas got brought back under comptrol.