The Interview: Texas Republican Party Chair James Dickey

The new chair of the Texas Republican Party is a tea party favorite who won his election by a single vote.

Texas Republican Party Chair James Dickey.  Jen Reel

James Dickey lives in enemy territory. In his former role as chair of the Travis County GOP, he was tasked with finding small openings for his party in the Lone Star State’s bluest county. In March 2016, he became the guy who lost his position to Robert Morrow, a prank candidate who wore a jester hat and fills his Twitter feed with Clinton conspiracies and pictures of scantily clad women. Dickey soon regained that Travis County position, and in June moved up the ranks, narrowly winning a race for chair of the Texas Republican Party.

Born in California, Dickey moved with his family to Fort Worth at age 10 so his father could attend a Baptist seminary. He’s a longtime conservative activist who co-founded the Dallas Tea Party before becoming Travis County chair. Dickey spoke with the Observer about the Texas Legislature, the 2018 midterms and his party’s far-right platform.

Q: There’s a divide in your party between the tea party, “movement” wing and the establishment, moderate wing. Does that hamper the party? Take, for instance, the infighting between the House and the Senate in the Texas Legislature this year.

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Dickey: In my race, I made the comment that more than once I’ve ended up disagreeing with myself. As I’ve learned new things, I’ve changed my mind and changed my position. I would hope that that would be entirely appropriate and respected, so some level of disagreement is fine. Where I have concern, especially as chair, is where disagreement leads to actual fractured divide, and I do not believe, with the proper leadership, that one necessarily means the other. I do not believe that disagreements necessarily lead to a giant divide, especially within a fundamentally agreed body like the Republican Party of Texas.

This session, the anti-“sanctuary cities” bill and the “privacy” or “bathroom” bill were criticized by some as damaging to Texas businesses. Are you concerned that the Legislature has alienated the business community?

No, there have been a lot of very positive things passed for the business community, and there are a couple left that if we, in this special session, get those through, those will be big victories for business. Also I think that the perception of the “public school shower” bill, which you referred to as a “bathroom” bill — it’s a law that literally requires nothing of businesses and leaves them entirely free to do whatever they choose but protects my daughters at school in the shower. As a business owner, as an entrepreneur, I see no conflict with those two.

With the “public shower” bill, in North Carolina isn’t it true, though, that the NCAA pulled out of the state? They lost millions of dollars as a result.

Done properly, which I think this bill is, there may be some people who throw up heat because they want us to intentionally go much farther than we should in accommodating exceptions and hurting the majority in exchange. To those people, I am quite sure that they are in the extreme minority, and that Texas has been and will be succeeding just fine without them.

In recent memory, the GOP was softening its immigration stance in an effort to pull a greater percentage of the Latino vote. With Trump and Senate Bill 4, there’s been a swing in the other direction. Latinos are the fastest-growing group of Texans. Does this hurt your party long-term?

The premise that opposition to illegal immigration is a new stance. Opposition to illegal immigration has always been an issue and I’m going back to the ’86 immigration reform; that was an attempt to control and limit illegal immigration by dealing with the reality as it was then. What we saw was that approach actually made things worse and not better, so let’s not do that again. … And the intention on SB 4 is not a racial thing, it’s not an immigration thing, it’s a multiple-offender illegal immigrant thing.

I know many wonderful people who have immigrated here who are contributing in fantastic ways and are wonderful people that our country is better off for having. That is the sentiment within the party. The message we need to deliver is we absolutely welcome immigrants, we want immigrants. Those who have come voluntarily to the country, legally, have been a massive net contributor to our economy, to the country, to the richness of our life. That is a far cry from saying someone who’s broken the law not just once but two or three times should somehow get a free pass compared to the person who’s patiently waiting for legal access to get here.

My daughter is on a student visa in the U.K. right now; I know what it takes to get a visa. It was a lot of work, it was a lot of effort, it was some cost, but it’s absolutely possible. The same process is available for people who want to legally come here.

You would agree, though, that it’s more difficult for a poor person in Mexico to get a visa to come to the U.S. than for a person who’s reasonably well off in the U.S. to get a visa to go to Europe?

I am sure it’s difficult, but so is paying a coyote and risking your life and going across the desert. In fact, I would not be surprised if that ultimately is more expensive and certainly more life-threatening.

Representative Tony Tinderholt filed a bill this session, the Abolition of Abortion in Texas Act, that would’ve made abortion a felony. Do you support legislation that could send women in vulnerable situations to jail?

That’s a really tough — the whole thing is a tough situation, and I feel very much for anyone who finds themselves in a situation where they think that may be their only option, or where they in any way think it may be a preferable option. That’s why I support TruCare, the pregnancy support center here in South Austin.
My understanding, and I’m not an attorney, my understanding is part of the logic in Roe v. Wade was that, because it was not a criminal offense, that that was why they then came up with this new “right to privacy” that they then mandated on all 50 states, which took that whole discussion out of the political arena … took it out of us being able to decide it in the Legislature and instead set a pretty arbitrary and wide-ranging precedent that was forced on everyone.

If that maneuver to reshift the legal possibilities does lead to young women in tough situations going to jail, is that just an unfortunate consequence that’s worth it in the long run?

That’s several hypothetical steps away, so — that would be yet another tragedy in the set of tragedies that right now is the death of millions of babies.

Changing gears a little, 2018 is on the horizon. This is the first midterm since 1986 when the president is neither a Democrat nor a Texan.

That is pretty funny.

Will Trump be a drag on down-ballot Republicans?

I would not put it that he would. No question, our opposition’s gonna be much more energized and is already working really hard to try to lay the groundwork for outsized gains in this midterm, and we take that threat very, very seriously. And that would be true regardless of who the president was.

How did a guy who wears a jester hat and posts nearly naked pictures of women on his Twitter account win the Travis County chair position?

That is a question a whole lot of people have asked. And there is a combination of factors that you could point to. The reality is in politics sometimes wild things happen that you would not have bet. I know a whole lot of people would not have bet that Donald Trump would be president right now. There have been other races that had just as surprising an outcome, and that race was one of them.

This interview appears in the August 2017 issue of the Texas Observer. Read more from the issue or become a member now to see our reporting before it’s published online.

Gus Bova reports on immigration, the U.S.-Mexico border and grassroots movements for the Observer. He formerly worked at a shelter for asylum-seekers and refugees. You can contact him at [email protected]

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