Senate Education Committee chair Dan Patrick (R-Houston)
Senate Education Committee chair Dan Patrick (R-Houston). (Patrick Michels)

Why Julian Castro and Dan Patrick Should Debate


In late January, the Texas political press corps, who leap at compelling political theater like lions at prey, was presented a tantalizing new possibility. Lieutenant governor candidate Dan Patrick, a skilled showman who was a right-wing radio host in Houston for years before he ascended to the higher calling of the Legislature, responded in a fit of outsized pique to a critique made by San Antonio mayor Julián Castro.

Patrick, who’s running slightly to the right of a Cossack general, has premised a large part of his campaign on the contention that he’s the only one who can wage the war against illegal immigration effectively. Given his public record—he talks about immigration primarily in terms of crime and the danger immigrants pose to Texans—Castro’s quip was a word away from something Patrick might have taken as an endorsement. But he didn’t.

Castro agreed to a debate, and asked for the Texas Tribune to livestream it. So for the next week, the spectacle of a clash between Julián Castro, a national Democratic rising star, and Dan Patrick, the most right-wing candidate that might currently have a chance at statewide office, with “the future of Texas” at stake, was on everyone’s minds. Then it faded.

The timing was the thing. Castro had offered Patrick a couple of dates in March, after Patrick’s primary race for the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor concluded. Patrick wanted it to happen in February, before the primary, and accused Castro of backing down. Patrick obviously thinks the debate will help him win his white-hot primary fight, and—though we don’t know Castro’s thinking—we can infer that Castro doesn’t want to help him.

Both Castro and Patrick are playing a bit of a game here (though Patrick more so.) But Texans should hope the debate happens, for a couple of important reasons. And if Patrick will only consider doing it in February, Castro should consider obliging him.

First, if Democrats have any confidence in Leticia Van de Putte, Patrick is the candidate they should hope to run against. While certainly right-wing in the Legislature, Patrick’s campaign for lt. gov. has transformed him. He’s now a one-man right-wing outrage machine who warns menacingly about the pervasive “darkness in this world,” the “anti-God, anti-capitalism philosophy” that’s everywhere, “not just in the White House,” as he did recently on an Empower Texans telephone town hall. He’s a perfect distillation of the dark, insular fears of a particularly sheltered branch of the state conservative movement.

Also, anti-immigrant politicians in Texas are like molting birds. The anti-immigrant rhetoric they employ builds as they move toward primary season, reaches a fever pitch as votes are cast and can then be abandoned to a degree once threats to their electoral success lessen. Though by all accounts a true believer, the Dan Patrick in March—when the state party is plotting for sweeping electoral success—may not be the same as Dan Patrick in February, when he’s desperately trying to outmaneuver his primary opponents. Lately, he’s repeatedly described the state’s immigration mess as an “illegal invasion,” and characterized undocumented residents as a violent, nameless horde. It’s a bit much even for members of his own party, including Hector de Leon, the chairman of the Associated Republicans of Texas, who suggested to the Texas Tribune that Republicans not engage in “rhetoric that sounds like thinly veiled racism.”

Dan Patrick’s attempt to reach the state’s second highest political office on the back of the nearly 7 percent of the state’s population that is undocumented, at a time when Republican organizations are making attempts to broaden Hispanic outreach, seems like it should be aggressively spotlighted by Democrats. And why not before this primary election, when this frenzy is at its peak?

After the first televised lieutenant governor’s debate, in a coincidence that seemed like a brilliant act of trolling, some PBS stations in the state aired “The State of Arizona,” a thoughtful, fascinating documentary about the aftermath of SB 1070, the Arizona law which subjected state residents suspected of being illegal immigrants to citizenship checks by police. It should be watched in full, but one thing that emerges in the film’s treatment of the most hard-core anti-immigration activists is that their ire is not simply directed at crime or certain social dysfunctions. They feel that they’re losing a grip on control of their homeland, to people who feel dangerously unfamiliar. “It’s the numbers,” the elderly white activist Kathryn Kobor, of the Greater Phoenix Tea Party Patriots, told filmmakers outside of her beautiful and spacious Arizona home. “I don’t want to live like I’m in Calcutta. Have my neighbors living in boxes. Have sewage run in the streets.”

It’s no better in Texas. Last August, when U.S. Rep. John Carter (R-Round Rock), who had taken part in a bipartisan working group on immigration reform, came back to Salado to stave off unrest in his hyper-conservative constituency, he got an earful. A rancher compared the U.S. to the Titanic; a woman wondered why ICE can’t track residents if “we can track a cow from birth to slaughter.” Another audience member: “If you go down to the hospital here today and park in front, you’ll find numerous Mexican ladies about to go into labor. They go to the hospital and wait until their water breaks, and then they’ll get $490 a month per child until that child is 18 years old. We’ve got to stop it.”

(Soon, Carter dropped out of his working group, and he’s not moving on immigration anymore. Why? “It’s an election year,” he told Roll Call.)

That’s the constituency Patrick is playing to—and betting his political future on. Texans deserve a debate, Democrats should hope for one and Patrick’s extended thoughts on Texas’ present, and future, should go into the public record so that, someday, his ideological descendants can look back in shame.