Four candidates for lt. gov.

God’s Man in the Texas Senate


A version of this story ran in the September 2013 issue.

You can be forgiven if you haven’t been following the nascent race for lieutenant governor. The only entrants so far are four Republicans—all white, all conservative, all male—and the only people sampling these different flavors of vanilla are political insiders with a taste for right-wing buffoonery.

But it’s time to tune in, dear reader. Come now, let us join Dan, David, Jerry and Todd as they give life to what Freud called the “narcissism of small differences.” Marvel as they claw at each other to decide who’s next in line in an unbroken succession of white men in the state’s most powerful elected office. Look a little closer, and you’ll detect some differences among the men that, while seemingly small, could mean big differences in governing styles.

I think the race will come down to a runoff between Houston state Sen. Dan Patrick and incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst—and that Dewhurst will learn, again, that GOP grassroots activists can spot a faker.

But first let’s meet the candidates, in ascending order of likelihood to win:

The long shot is Todd Staples, Texas Agriculture Commissioner. If Mitt Romney was the first clip-art candidate, Staples is surely the first bobblehead candidate. His chiseled but weirdly disproportionate visage would prove a challenge for sidewalk caricaturists. He’s already caricature. In 2006, the then state senator was easily elected ag commissioner. Since then, he’s been trying to get an increasingly urban and suburban state to notice him by hollering about narco-terrorists lurking among the Rio Grande Valley’s rutabagas.

Second, we have Jerry Patterson, Texas Land Commissioner. Patterson has assets the rest of the pack seem to lack: iconoclasm and a sense of humor. In a 2008 interview, he was asked whether wind turbines posed a threat to birds. Wind farms in the Gulf of Mexico, he allowed, “would be the first line of defense against avian flu.” I like Jerry Patterson, even if he makes a habit of referring to the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression.” Jerry’s problem is that he’s a little too single-issue-focused (guns, guns, guns) and too open-minded on immigration. He goes his own way and that may be too much for the GOP base to handle.

Third, we have David Henry Dewhurst, self-described “Defender of the Preborn.” If Dewhurst weren’t super rich, is there a chance he’d be lite guv? He isn’t a skilled politician. Insincere, distant, bumbling, awkward with the hoi polloi. He spent $8 million to become land commissioner in 1998. Watching Dewhurst pander to the far right since his loss to Ted Cruz in the 2012 U.S. Senate race has been painful. Even in ramrodding a sweeping anti-abortion bill through the Legislature this summer, Dewhurst managed to bungle it. He dragged things almost literally to the last minute, affording Wendy Davis and a gallery of rowdy protesters the opportunity to filibuster the bill and launch a movement.

And so that’s how we come to Sen. Dan Patrick, perhaps the favorite to win the lieutenant governorship. Patrick, who was born Daniel Goeb in Baltimore, Maryland, is a familiar American type: the snake-oil salesman who’s come to believe his own sales job. Where Dewhurst is unsure, Patrick possesses the certainty of a zealot. He’s an amalgam of the drive-time pablum of right-wing talk radio, the radical but platitudinous theology of the exurban mega-church, and the blinkered orthodoxy of the tea party. He gives political speeches in church, religious sermons in the Legislature, and a medley of both on his Houston AM radio station.

“There is no such thing as separation of church and state,” he told a Baptist church in Conroe in late June, just a few days after Wendy Davis’ filibuster.
A year earlier, he’d told the same congregation, “When I vote—and I’ve cast 13,000 votes in three sessions—the lobbyist I listen to more than any is Jesus Christ.”

Jesus tells him to ban abortion. Jesus tells him that private school vouchers are the “new civil rights movement.” Jesus probably even gives him marching orders on redistricting, tort reform and the boundaries of that new municipal utility district in Cypress-Fairbanks.

Dan Patrick as lieutenant governor is a frightening thought. You could say goodbye to the two-thirds rule, which requires a two-thirds vote to debate a bill and encourages compromise and comity in the Senate. Imagine the anti-abortion bill but without all the drama—many times over. All that stands in the way is David, Jerry and Todd.