Last summer, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick was neck deep in a dehumanizing and convoluted political brawl over the ability of transgender people to use the appropriate bathroom. It was the kind of thing that seems to give the former talk radio yakker his greatest thrills — and he lost. Ever since, Patrick has been uncharacteristically quiet. He’s dipped into primary races and national politics here and there, but mostly he seems content to let others grab headlines for what might be the first time in his career. In the interim, observers have described the birth of a “loose coalition” of moderates, teachers and business groups who are gunning for Dan. Is Patrick on the back foot?
Just before the Republican primary this year, Patrick gave his own answer to that question, one that tells us something about how the state has changed since he was elected lieutenant governor in 2014. As early voting started, he took out a full-page color ad in the major newspapers of Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and Midland touting his support from the state’s business class.
“Texas Business Supports Lt. Governor Dan Patrick,” the ad was titled. It featured gushing endorsements from people like Red McCombs, a major donor to conservative causes, and noted Oklahoma weirdo T. Boone Pickens, as well as a few dozen interest groups. Near the end of a list of more than 100 businesspeople supporting Patrick was a name set in very small type: former state Senator John Carona of Dallas.
If Patrick’s political career were a prestige TV drama — say, Breaking Bad — Carona, who served in the Senate until 2015, would be one of the colorful characters who gets popped in the first or second season, as Walter White is coming up in the drug game. Carona was an eccentric and occasionally ill-tempered lawmaker who represented some of the richer, whiter parts of the Metroplex. He could be a moderating voice on some issues, like payday lending, but he also used his influence to help his own business, Associa, a company that provides services to homeowners associations.
But the most notable thing about Carona is that he absolutely loathed Dan Patrick. He wasn’t alone — Patrick entered the Senate in 2007 as a lonely hellraiser. But over the next few years, he slowly took over. Carona was one of many Republicans who tried to freeze Patrick out at first, and it quickly became personal. Carona, who is Italian-American and clearly relishes The Godfather, once put a plastic horse’s head on Patrick’s Senate desk. “I’ve never been shy about sharing my dislike and distrust of you,” Carona wrote in an open letter to Patrick in 2012 that also speculated about Dan’s sexual orientation. “Put bluntly, I believe you are a snake oil salesman, a narcissist that would say anything to draw attention to himself.”
I recently wrote to Carona to ask if he had changed his mind about Patrick. His response: “I do not agree with the Lt. Governor on every issue he champions. I do know, however, that Dan is pro-business.” For that reason, he said, “I want him to know that mainstream businessmen like myself stand beside him.”
I followed up: Does Carona no longer believe that Patrick is a snake, or does he merely think that Patrick is good for business? “Over time,” Carona replied, “I have come to better understand and appreciate the approach of the Lt. Governor, given the changing dynamics within the Republican electorate.”
That’s an admirably honest answer. Patrick, even though he makes many Republicans queasy, is the cost of doing business. Associa needs things from the government, and Patrick is now the government. Sooner or later, everyone will want something from Dan. For example, Pickens wants the state to use compressed natural gas in its automobile fleets, which Patrick has duly promoted. The McCombs fortune comes from car dealerships, which Patrick has agreeably helped protect from Tesla and other threats.
There will be no business revolt against Patrick for the same reason the American business class will never challenge Trump. Both leaders can provide enough favors, and dish out enough pain, to easily secure the loyalty of people who care primarily about money. That offers one explanation for Patrick’s recent relative quiet — he’s part of the machinery now. Patrick, somewhere between 2014 and now, experienced apotheosis. Well done, Dan.