The Sweet Futility of Texas House Primary Races
State Representative Jonathan Stickland’s nickname around Austin is “Sticky,” and it was hard to forget that at Stickland’s dessert-themed Defend Texas Liberty fundraiser, held on Saturday at the convention center in Hurst, where some of the leading lights of the Texas tea party — and the tea party’s Daddy Warbucks, Midland oilman Tim Dunn — lined up to speak in support of Stickland in his time of need.
The room was set up in the style of a traditional banquet, but instead of salmon and rice, the 600 or so guests enjoyed Dublin Dr Peppers, cake, Blue Bell Ice Cream (good luck with that one) and, the pride of the event, a chocolate fountain.
The fountain, oddly hypnotic, is a lot like Texas primary season itself, a sickly-sweet mobius that never really stops from one cycle to the next. On March 1 — with early voting starting February 14 — Texans will come together and help select presidential candidates. There’s also a Railroad Commission seat open, and three interesting state Senate races — though none that will be competitive in November.
The real fights this year are in House races, where three factions — the tea party, the “establishment” GOP and the perpetually hapless Texas Democrats — are locked in a struggle for a kind of control that they never get. (The rest of the state’s under GOP lock and key, of course.) Primary season starts, and money flows. Mud is flung. Shit flows downhill. On election day, little changes. It all gurgles back up to the top and starts over again.
Stickland has become the most visible tea party representative in the Lege — a visibility that comes in inverse proportion to his effectiveness in office. For the second cycle in a row, he has a credible primary challenger, Scott Fisher, a pastor from Bedford. This fundraiser comes shortly after Fisher’s campaign unearthed old Internet posts by Stickland endorsing marijuana use and marital rape, for which he’s apologized. The parade of people taking the stage tonight — tea party lawmakers like Matt Krause, Matt Schaefer, Konni Burton and Scott Turner — do so in defense of Stickland, who they characterize as an unfairly maligned do-gooder reformed from his pot-smoking, rape-endorsing ways.
Standing in the back by the chocolate fountain, it was hard not to be impressed by the turnout. State Senator Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, took the stage to Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots are Made for Walking,” as state Representative Bill Zedler posted up by the chocolate fountain, dipping and re-dipping edibles.
“I got behind him because I saw an honest young man who truly wanted to make a difference for his family, community and state,” Burton said. “Jonathan has distinguished himself from his peers and classmates because he does not legislate to gain political power and favor.”
This is true, certainly: In his four years in office, Stickland has won no power and negative favor. Matt Schaefer came next, talking about his time in Afghanistan and the importance of fighting, which Stickland, he said, could do: “We have a responsibility here today to lace up our boots for Jonathan.” Stickland would stay strong against the Austin lobbyists, just like Schaefer had done against the Taliban. Pretty standard stuff, so far.
During Schaefer’s speech, a man whose name tag identified him as John Holcomb, apparently a precinct chairman in Bedford, ambled over. He stood very close to me. “Are you getting all of this?” I smiled and answered yes. “Do you know where the bathrooms are? Do you want some water?”
He ambled off. I was confused, but took it to mean that the man wanted, in his territorial way, to make clear that I’d been identified as a reporter. Alright. But a few minutes later he ambled back talking to me in an excessively low, controlled manner, as if he was about to give me the bad news about my E-meter results.
“You should go. You can just go home,” he said. “I don’t think you’re one of us. I think you can just ride on. We can call security and have you removed. Tweet your little tweet and ride on.” (I wasn’t actually tweeting the event — at that particular moment, I was reading about Tim Duncan.) Again: “You’re going to go out and throw rocks at us, and we’re not interested in that. And you know, your breath mint isn’t cutting it either.”
Well, fair enough. I told my new friend I’d be hanging out until security comes. He wasn’t a fan of that. “Your little underground act,” he said, “it’s not cute and it’s not funny.” I’m just there to stand in the back and listen, I said. “You’re causing trouble when you throw rocks at us and what we stand for,” he said. “We believe in something. You just beat a path out of here. You get out.”
Could this moment get weirder? Yes: I looked over Holcomb’s shoulder and realized that the event’s hosts were playing satirical videos that seemed to be riffing on last year’s American Phoenix Foundation tapes. If you don’t remember them — there’s no reason that you should — those are the guys, funded and supported by Texas right-wingers, who conducted months of covert, and largely pointless, surveillance on Texas lawmakers during the session.I was being accused of being a spying weasel while the rest of the room celebrated a den of them.
My friend had a point, though: My skill at disguising myself to infiltrate public political rallies — my “underground act” — is legend. On Saturday, I used some of the most advanced tricks of my trade, tactics honed through painful years of trial and error. They included rolling out of bed and driving to the rally and walking through the front door. Standing in the back, with scruffy facial hair, a flannel shirt and a puffy winter jacket, I looked like I just walked out of an East Austin cat cafe. I stood in the back with other media types, which include a few cameramen and a conservative blogger, with my audio recorder held out in front of me.
Eventually I stopped talking to him, though he stayed close. When Tim Dunn took the stage, to the tune of Darth Vader’s “Imperial March,” Holcomb started talking at my phone, hoping to obscure my recording. I suggested that we move to the back of the room so as not to bother the people nearby.
I repositioned myself so that Holcomb couldn’t get a good angle from which to impart his sweet nothings for my later benefit, so he bent over a table and craned his head instead. It must have appeared that he was talking to my crotch. This continued for several minutes.
In a way, I admired his persistence, though I remain pretty confused by it, inasmuch as it wasn’t very effective and he seemed intent on appearing in this story. Dulce et Decorum est, I guess.
But it’s doubly strange because, rather than standing in the back plotting ways to make fun of all these heartland values, I’d been thinking something very different all day: What a goddamn waste of time this all is. Not just Stickland’s rally, though it certainly was a waste of time and money for all involved. All of it — the whole war over the House.
While nearly everything else in the country operates on strict political polarization, the House is one of the few places which operates around coalitions. That means nobody’s ever really happy, and it can also be a fun place for the lobby. But the far-right can only contest a few seats a year and defend a few of them. Millions of dollars are spent every two years trying to drag the House to the right, and it never really works. So they back symbolic figures like Stickland. To his supporters, who will not abandon him over his dumbass internet activity a decade ago, he is a warrior god. Schaefer compared his fighting spirit to Winston Churchill’s.
But Stickland, in every real sense, doesn’t matter: He’s probably the least effective lawmaker in the Legislature. He’s never passed a bill. All he does, really, is yell. That’s what his people want, and if his supporters want to spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in his defense, they’re free to do so. But people’s love or hate for Stickland misses the point about how the House works.
Individual lawmakers do matter: They help set the tone for how things work, and they can provide valuable insight as bills are being negotiated. But what people talk about when they talk about changing the House is changing the legislation that it produces, and individuals don’t matter much in that. In fact, things can work in perverse ways.
Let’s say you support abortion rights, and you hate Stickland because he vocally opposes abortion. Stickland’s terrible at advancing anti-abortion legislation! His opponent, Pastor Scott Fisher, is also anti-abortion — he once sat on the board of a pregnancy counseling clinic — and if elected, he’d have closer ties to House leadership. He’d also be obligated to pass conservative legislation to be re-elected. In other words, Fisher could arguably be a better advocate for anti-abortion causes than Stickland would, even though he’d be better aligned with the “centrist” House leadership.It’s not just tea party guys who have blinders on this. Liberal Democrats, like the far right, can only nip at the mushy bipartisan center that controls the House. Many of the seats Democrats have a chance to capture, based on their performance in 2014 and 2012, belong to Hispanic Republicans or figures like state Representative Sarah Davis, a pro-choice Republican from the more upscale bits of Houston. But if Davis is replaced with another faceless Democrat in a weak caucus, Democrats get nothing for it. Liberals may not like Davis, but it’s arguably better to keep people like her close to the House leadership.
Texas House elections are fun to write about, and they’re crazy as hell. But their primary benefit seems to be their ability to get consultants paid.
The fellow paying quite a few of those consultants, indirectly, is Tim Dunn, the Midland oilman who supports many of the conservative groups trying desperately to unseat House Speaker Joe Straus. He normally lets his money do his talking, so it was something of a surprise to see him rise in support in Stickland.
“We’re all here because we love Jonathan. And we don’t love him just because he’s lovable. Admittedly, he’s so cute and cuddly that he’s hard not to love,” Dunn said.
“If anybody can turn from as big of a knucklehead as Jonathan was,” he continued, “and take those same characteristics that made him an incorrigible knucklehead and turn into an incorrigible patriot, and a servant leader, then there’s hope for us all.”
Dunn spoke at length about what motivated him to spend so much money in pursuit of political change, including the charge that he opposed Straus in part because he’s Jewish. “I don’t know how you can be a Christian and not love the Jewish people,” he said. “We’ve got to perpetuate our heritage of self-government. You know, God invented self-government,” Dunn said. In effect, the noble traditions of the Texas Legislature, Dunn said, could be traced back directly to the transfer of God’s commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
Here is what God hath wrought: When Stickland took to the stage — to proclaim his rehabilitation — he does so to the upbeat pop sound of “Some Nights,” by the band Fun.
“This has been the hardest 30 days of my life,” he said after the applause died down. “You get to see how big God is when you’re in the valley, don’t ya?” He added: “I said and did a lot of stupid things as a young man.” Members of the crowd shouted, “We all did!”
“This side of the campaign is going to run on the issues. And it’s going to run on the idea of redemption and forgiveness and Christ Jesus my savior. While the opposition yells, ‘Stone him,’ we’re going to talk about love,” promised Stickland, who once tried, on the House floor, to kill an uncontested bill to curb dog euthanizations at shelters for reasons that he could not explain.
It’s a hell of a speech, though Stickland’s promise to run a clean campaign on the issues rings a little hollow when he knows his supporters and donors will sling mud for him.
“I am not going to back down when it gets tough,” Stickland vowed. “I am not going to drop out of the race because they want me to.”
At the crescendo, Stickland teared up, or appeared to, and the audience was audibly moved. Tim Dunn’s primary stooge, Michael Quinn Sullivan, popped up on screen in a video asking for money and Matt Krause auctioned off a pair of his army boots.
Soon, the chocolate fountain was disassembled and taken away.
A little ocean of money will be spent in House District 92 in the next month, on Stickland’s behalf and Fisher’s. Probably, Stickland will go back to Austin anyway, where he’ll do… something? Nothing? And then we’ll do it again. Mr. Holcomb, I’ll see you in 2018.