Author Archives: Patrick Svitek

Gov. Greg Abbott endorses primary challenger to state Rep. Sarah Davis

Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, speaks to media regarding her request to add Ethics Reform to the special session on Aug. 2, 2017.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday endorsed a primary challenger to a fellow Republican, state Rep. Sarah Davis of West University Place, following through on his promise earlier this year to play a more aggressive role in the 2018 election season.

Abbott released a video throwing his support to Davis opponent Susanna Dokupil, who worked under Abbott when he was the state’s attorney general.

“We need leaders in Austin who will join me to build an even better future for Texas,” Abbott said. “That’s why I’m so proud to support Susanna Dokpuil for state representative of House District 134 in Houston, Texas.”

Davis, who chairs the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee, had clashed with Abbott over the summer over the governor’s decision not to include ethics reform among a list of 20 items he directed lawmakers to tackle during a special session. Heading into that special session, Abbott had raised the prospect that he could back challengers to incumbents who were less than supportive of his agenda. Dokupil is the first primary challenger to an incumbent he has endorsed this cycle.

Dokupil served as assistant solicitor general in the attorney general’s office.

Abbott made his first endorsement in the 2018 House primaries last week, backing state Rep. Paul Workman, an Austin Republican who had authored legislation for Abbott’s special session agenda. Workman faces a primary challenger from his right, Jay Wiley.

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Dallas County sheriff Lupe Valdez emerges as potential challenger to Gov. Greg Abbott

Dallas County sherif Lupe Valdez speaks during the Dallas County Democratic watch party in Dallas, Texas on Nov. 8, 2016.

Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez has emerged as potential Democratic challenger to Gov. Greg Abbott in 2018.

In an interview Monday, Valdez described herself as “in the exploratory process,” looking at the data for a potential run against the Republican incumbent. “I’ve been approached and I’m listening,” she said.

There are 35 days until the candidate filing deadline for the 2018 primaries, and Texas Democrats are looking for a serious contender to take on Abbott. Valdez said she believes it’s “time for a change” in GOP-dominated state government.

“Too much of one thing corrupts, and I’m a strong believer in a two-party system,” Valdez said. “I’m hoping that enough people are seeing that too much one-sided is not healthy for Texas.”

First elected in 2004, Valdez is serving her fourth term as sheriff of Dallas County, the second most populous county in the state and a Democratic stronghold. She is one of only a few female sheriffs in Texas and the only Hispanic female sheriff in the country.

Abbott and Valdez have a history. In 2015, they clashed over her department’s policy regarding compliance with federal immigration authorities — an issue that later came up in Travis County, which includes the state capitol of Austin. Those debates drove support behind the “sanctuary cities” bill that Abbott signed into law earlier this year. (The law is currently the subject of a legal challenge working its way through the courts.)

So far, only little-known Democrats have lined up to challenge Abbott, a group that includes Dallas businessman Jeffrey Payne and Tom Wakely, a former congressional candidate from San Antonio. In recent weeks, Andrew White, the son of late Gov. Mark White, has said he is considering a run. And Michael Sorrell, the president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas, continues to get mentioned as possible contender.

The filing period for next year’s elections opens Saturday and ends a month later.

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Attorney General Ken Paxton’s trial is delayed for a third time

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton during press conference announcing a lawsuit that had been filed against the U.S Dept of Education, U.S Dept of Justice and other agencies which are requiring TX public schools to open restrooms, locker rooms to both sexes. May 25, 2016

HOUSTON — Attorney General Ken Paxton‘s trial has been put off for a third time.

The judge in the securities fraud case against Paxton sided Wednesday with prosecutors who had been pushing for another trial delay because of a long-running dispute over their fees. The decision by Harris County District Court Judge Robert Johnson scrapped Paxton’s current Dec. 11 trial date and left the new one to be determined, possibly at a Nov. 2 conference.

Paxton had been set to go to trial on Dec. 11 on the least serious of three charges he faces. The date for that trial had already been pushed back twice because of pretrial disputes, first over the venue and then the judge.

For more than two years, Paxton has been fighting charges that he misled investors in a company from before his time as attorney general. The delayed trial deals with the charge that Paxton failed to register with the state securities board.

Paxton has pleaded not guilty to all the allegations. He has already been cleared in a similar, civil case at the federal level.

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Hearing in Paxton case to consider delaying trial for third time

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton during a press conference to recognize January as Human Trafficking Awareness Month on January 12, 2017.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton‘s lawyers and the prosecutors handling the securities fraud case against him are preparing to debate a familiar topic Wednesday: whether his trial should be delayed — for a third time — until the prosecutors can get paid.

Both sides are due in Houston for a hearing on the prosecutors’ latest effort to push back the trial amid a long-running legal battle over their compensation — a fight that recently reached the state’s highest criminal court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Earlier this year, when Paxton’s case was before a different judge, the prosecutors were unsuccessful in a prior attempt to delay the trial until they could collect their paycheck.

Currently, Paxton is set to go to trial Dec. 11 on the less serious of three charges he faces. The date for that trial has already been pushed back twice due to pretrial disputes, first over the venue and then the judge.

In a recently filed motion, the prosecutors asked the judge in the Paxton case to further delay the trial until the Court of Criminal Appeals can sort out of the payment issue — “a process which could take many months.” That ongoing litigation, coupled with logistical difficulties created by Hurricane Harvey, “make a trial date in December impossible” for the prosecutors, they wrote.

Paxton’s team scoffed at that ask in a response Tuesday, saying the prosecutor pay battle is “wholly irrelevant to the trial.”

“If ‘a trial date in December [is] impossible,’ for the attorneys pro tem as they state in their brief, then their remedy is not further degradation of Paxton’s right to a speedy trial — it is withdrawal,” Paxton’s lawyers wrote. “Should they wish to do so, Paxton will not lodge any objection.”

Last week, the Court of Criminal Appeals intervened in the dispute over the prosecutors’ pay, issuing a stay of a lower-court ruling last month that voided a six-figure paycheck for them. In its decision, the Court of Criminal Appeals gave all sides 30 days to respond to the prosecutors’ argument that the lower court, the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals, overreached when it invalidated the payment.

The issue of the compensation of the prosecutors on the case stems from a series of lawsuits from Jeff Blackard, a supporter of the attorney general, who has sought to limit the payments by the Collin County Commissioners Court, arguing excessive taxpayer money is going toward prosecuting Paxton. The commissioners ultimately took up the fight, asking the 5th Court of Appeals to cut off the prosecutors’ pay.

For over two years, Paxton has been fighting charges that he misled investors in a company from before his time as attorney general. The Dec. 11 trial deals with the charge that Paxton failed to register with the state securities board.

Paxton has pleaded not guilty to all the allegations. He has already been cleared in a similar, civil case at the federal level.

Paxton will not attend the hearing Wednesday.

“Attorney General Paxton is traveling on official business to meet some long standing commitments that were made prior to the hearing,” Matt Welch, a spokesman for the Paxton campaign, said in a statement. “Both the judge and the special prosecutors agreed to waive his appearance requirement.”

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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott: No special session needed for Harvey aid

Gov. Greg Abbott presides over a briefing at the Texas Division of Emergency Management in Austin on Friday, Sept. 1, 2017.

AUSTIN – Gov. Greg Abbott said Friday another special session of the Texas Legislature won’t be necessary to deal with the response to Hurricane Harvey.

“We won’t need a special session for this,” Abbott told reporters, noting that the state has enough resources to “address the needs between now and the next session.”

The Legislature isn’t scheduled to meet again until January 2019. Abbott has the authority to call them in the interim for special session lasting up to 30 days, as he did in July to address a 20-item agenda.

Abbott also noted that state lawmakers have “smartly kept a lot of money” in the Rainy Day Fund, the state’s savings account. The fund, which is largely made up of tax revenue on oil and gas production, was projected to have a balance of $10.3 billion at the end of August, according to a recent estimate from the Texas Comptroller’s Office.

Abbott made the remarks during a news conference at the state’s Emergency Operations Center in Austin, where he had received a briefing on Harvey.

In recent days, some members of the Texas Legislature have speculated that a special session to address the recovery seemed likely.

“My personal assumption right now is that we will probably be back in Austin at work no later than January,” state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, told the Houston Chronicle on Thursday.

State lawmakers are already preparing to begin work on Harvey assistance before the 2019 session. In a letter to House members Wednesday, Speaker Joe Straus said he will soon issue interim charges to House committees to address the challenges created by Harvey.

“Undoubtedly, the financial cost of rebuilding will be significant,” the San Antonio Republican wrote. “The House Appropriations Committee will identify state resources that can be applied toward the recovery and relief efforts being incurred today, as well as long-term investments the state can make to minimize the impact of future storms.”

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Angela Paxton, Texas attorney general’s wife, eyes Texas Senate run

Angela Paxton, wife of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, sings "Pistol Packin' Mama" at a NE Tarrant Tea Party gathering in 2016. 

Angela Paxton, the wife of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, is considering a run for state Senate, according to people familiar with her thinking.

Paxton has her sights set on Senate District 8, which is currently held by Van Taylor, R-Plano. He’s expected to give up the seat to run for Congress in 2018.

Paxton is a guidance counselor at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco. She’s also active in Collin County Republican politics.

A Paxton candidacy would shake up the current race to replace Taylor. Phillip Huffines, the chairman of the Dallas County GOP, has emerged as a frontrunner after two Republican state representatives from Plano, Jeff Leach and Matt Shaheen, considered running but ultimately took a pass.

“I’m excited to hear that she’s prayerfully considering it and think she would make an incredible state senator for our district,” Leach said. “She already has my support.”

Shaheen, who announced Friday he would instead seek re-election to the House, said Paxton running is a “great idea” and she would “absolutely” have his support. She’s a “needed voice to replace Van,” Shaheen said.

State Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, also said Paxton would have her support.

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Abbott: Removing Confederate monuments “won’t erase our nation’s past”

Gov. Abbott announces he's running for governor in San Antonio on July 14, 2017.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday weighed in on the renewed debate over Confederate monuments in Texas, saying that removing them “won’t erase our nation’s past, and it doesn’t advance our nation’s future.”

Abbott’s statement follows deadly violence that broke out Saturday at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where participants were protesting the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The unrest in Charlottesville led elected officials in some of Texas’ biggest cities to begin looking into taking down similar monuments in their areas.

“Racist and hate-filled violence – in any form — is never acceptable, and as Governor I have acted to quell it,” Abbott said in the statement. “My goal as governor is to eliminate the racist and hate-filled environment we are seeing in our country today.”

“But we must remember that our history isn’t perfect,” Abbott added. “If we do not learn from our history, we are doomed to repeat it. Instead of trying to bury our past, we must learn from it and ensure it doesn’t happen again. Tearing down monuments won’t erase our nation’s past, and it doesn’t advance our nation’s future. As Governor, I will advance that future through peace, not violence, and I will do all I can to keep our citizens safe.”

It’s not just in Texas’ cities that the debate over Confederate monuments is heating up. Earlier Wednesday, state Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, sent a letter to the State Preservation Board asking it to immediately remove a Confederate plaque outside his office. The plaque, Johnson wrote, “has no rightful place in the Texas Capitol.”

“Also, given the recent tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, I cannot think of a better time than the present to discuss the removal of all Confederate iconography from the Texas Capitol Complex,” Johnson wrote, asking for a meeting of the board to discuss the issue and requesting an inventory of such iconography at the Capitol.

Even in recent history, this discussion is not new for Texas lawmakers. Two years ago, after the South Carolina Legislature voted to remove the Confederate flag from its Capitol grounds, a group of five Democratic state legislators from Texas asked the state’s top leaders, including Abbott, for the creation of a task force to study the numerous Confederate monuments, markers and statutes on the Capitol grounds in Austin.

It’s unclear whether anything ever came of the lawmakers’ request. At the time, a spokesman for House Speaker Joe Straus said he’d visit with the legislators to hear their concerns. The offices of Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick did not return requests for comment.

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In special session rubble, spotlight shines bright on Straus

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, emerges smiling from a caucus of Republican members after the 85th Legislature adjourned sine die on Aug. 16, 2017.  

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus and his chamber emerged from the rubble of a bruising special session Wednesday as a subject of both intense criticism and speculation about his future as head of the lower chamber.

There did not appear to be any immediate threats to Straus’ speakership, though the post-session finger-pointing signaled the intra-party conflict that consumed most of it is not going away anytime soon.

The House abruptly closed out the special session a day early Tuesday, declining to further negotiate on a key property tax bill after it agreed to Senate changes to a school finance package. Over the next 12 hours, both the governor and lieutenant governor of Texas sharply criticized Straus, a fellow Republican, making clear they both believed that the blame for measures that didn’t survive should be laid at his feet.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Senate, declared the House “quit on the taxpayers of Texas” and unfurled a bevy of jabs at Straus — one of them invoking the Battle of the Alamo — at a late-night news conference following the Senate’s decision to follow the House’s lead and end the session in their chamber a day early. The Senate did so without accepting a House version of the property tax bill, rejecting what one senator described as a “take-it-or-leave-it” proposal.

Gov. Greg Abbott cranked up the heat Wednesday morning, assigning blame to Straus and the House for slow-walking his agenda and not giving all 20 items a vote on the House floor. He also portrayed Straus as an obstructionist when it came to the most controversial legislation on the call, a so-called “bathroom bill” that would have regulated which restroom transgender Texans can use.

“There’s no evidence he’s going to change his mind on it, and that’s why elections matter,” Abbott told Houston radio station KTRH, immediately stoking speculation that he was laying the groundwork for a Straus ouster.

In a subsequent radio interview, Abbott stopped short of calling for a new speaker but made clear many of the unfinished items on his agenda are unlikely to become law as long as Straus is speaker. “We’ve got to get the votes in the House,” said Abbott, whose well-funded political operation is gearing up for a much bigger role in the upcoming primaries than it had last time around.

Abbott’s blows landed as Straus attended a closely watched meeting of the House Republican Caucus. It had been requested by the conservative Freedom Caucus, which is looking to establish a process for Republican lawmakers to determine a candidate for speaker before the next session — potentially someone other than Straus, who intends to seek a record-breaking sixth term behind the gavel in 2019.

The House elects its speaker on the first day of the regular session. Historically, all of the 150 members in the chamber have voted on their own, leading to speakers supported by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats in the past. Democratic support played a role in Straus’ original election to Speaker in 2009, prompting critics who view Straus as too moderate to argue that the caucus could draw a more conservative speaker if they could unite behind another candidate.

Over 80 of the chamber’s 95 Republican members reportedly showed up to Wednesday’s meeting, which lasted roughly an hour and a half and ended with a standing ovation for Straus. Freedom Caucus members came out of the meeting saying they were looking forward to continuing a discussion about speaker nomination rules at the House Republican Caucus’ September retreat.

“Nothing was decided except that it’s a conversation that’s worthy of being continued,” said state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, chairman of the Freedom Caucus. “We’re not talking about a person. We’re talking about a process.”

Straus briefly spoke with reporters as he left the meeting, making a short walk from the room where the caucus met to a bank of elevators.

“We had a very good conversation, and I enjoyed it,” Straus said. “I think all of us did. Very constructive, very positive, very unifying in a lot of ways.”

He did not answer shouted questions about Patrick’s criticism Tuesday night. In a statement after the meeting, Straus said the House “considered every idea carefully, listened to constituents, and acted on a number of critical issues” during the special session. He also thanked Abbott for working with the lower chamber on his “very ambitious agenda.”

A number of Straus lieutenants were tight-lipped about how the caucus meeting went as they darted out of it. “Very good,” said state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, chairman of the Calendars Committee. “Good, productive meeting,” repeatedly said state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, chairman of the State Affairs Committee. State Rep. Dan Huberty — a Houston Republican who was deeply involved in end-of-session talks as the House’s education chief — declined to comment.

Straus’ situation was not just the talk of Republicans on Wednesday morning. He was repeatedly mentioned at a nearby Capitol rally featuring Democratic lawmakers, where U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, a former member of the Texas House, spoke of a “very ugly internal fight” in the Texas GOP and accused Abbott and Patrick of seeking to “cannibalize” Straus. As for the speaker’s future, Democrats suggested they were watching the GOP caucus deliberations with interest.

“The jury’s out,” state Rep. César Blanco of El Paso said, “and we’ll see what Republicans decide.”

Straus has easily survived various challenges since he rose to power in 2009. The last time the GOP caucus chose to collectively nominate a speaker candidate — in 2011 — Straus prevailed with the support of an overwhelming majority of members.

Straus does not seem fazed by his critics as of late. With a few days left in the regular session in May, Straus quietly filed paperwork with the Texas Ethics Commission declaring his candidacy for speaker in the 2019 session. Asked if he was definitely running again Wednesday, Straus offered a smile and few words as he waited for elevator doors to close, a pack of reporters in tow.

“No big announcements in that room,” Straus responded. “It was a good conversation. Very positive.”

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As congressional races draw big interest, Democrats still filling out statewide ticket

U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, speaks to a packed crowd at Scholz Garten in Austin on April 1, 2017, one day after launching his 2018 campaign against incumbent U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

Lillie Schechter, the new chairwoman of the Harris County Democratic Party, has watched in recent months as at least seven candidates have come through the doors of the party headquarters to introduce themselves, eager for their shot at U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston.

That’s seven candidates that she can recall, but she may be forgiven for forgetting: Texas’ 7th Congressional District is one of several that have already drawn a swarm of Democratic candidates for 2018. The bonanza is unfolding not just in districts like the 7th — one of three in Texas that national Democrats are targeting — but also in even redder districts, delighting a state party that is not used to so much so interest so early.

“When we have competitive primaries, we get to engage with more Democrats,” Schechter said. “I do not see that as a negative thing.”

Yet it’s just one part of the picture for Democrats at the outset of the 2018 election cycle. While the congressional races are overflowing with candidates, the party remains without a number of statewide contenders — a reality that is coming into focus ahead of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott‘s anticipated announcement Friday that he’s running for re-election. Barring any last-minute surprises, Abbott will make his second-term bid official without the presence of a serious Democratic rival.

The state’s Democrats are urging patience, saying they are in talks with potential Abbott challengers and other possible statewide candidates.

“I think if you look in past years, traditionally candidates will start filing in the fall, and by the end of the filing deadline, I think we’ll have a full slate of strong candidates to run statewide,” said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, who himself took a pass on statewide race earlier this year, declining to challenge U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. “I know there’s been a lot of energy across the country and in Texas on the Democratic side, and so many people want to get a move on already, but by the end of year, I’ll think you’ll see a full slate of strong Democratic candidates.”

Several holes to fill

So far, Democrats have three statewide candidates they see as serious: U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso for U.S. Senate, Houston-area accountant Mike Collier for lieutenant governor and Kim Olson, a retired Air Force colonel, for agriculture commissioner. They are without similarly credible contenders for governor, comptroller, land commissioner, railroad commissioner and attorney general — a seat considered particularly worth targeting because the GOP incumbent, Ken Paxton, is under indictment.

By far the biggest profile belongs to O’Rourke, who announced his challenge to Cruz in March. As the top of the ticket — assuming he wins his party’s primary next year — he stands a chance of being Texas Democrats’ standard-bearer in 2018, regardless of whom they ultimately put up for the other statewide jobs.

In an interview Monday, O’Rourke said he was not worried about the lack of company so far on his party’s statewide ticket.

“I can’t worry about what I can’t control, and so we’re just going to focus on our campaign,” he said.

But he also expressed optimism for the party’s prospects up and down the ballot in 2018 “as more people become aware of how significantly the dynamics have changed in Texas.”

It may be somewhat early, but the lack of a gubernatorial candidate — or even a well-known potential contender — is particularly glaring. Taking out Abbott would likely be an even steeper climb than usual for Texas Democrats seeking statewide office, as the governor has a massive $34.4 million war chest. It’s a number expected to grow by the millions when he discloses his latest fundraising numbers next week.

“We’ve had conversations with a handful of folks who are considering a run for governor,” said Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. “They’re the kind of people that make us excited. They’re the kind of people who can raise credible resources, they have a great story to tell and they’re the kind of people who, most importantly, could get the job done.”

Of the last four Democratic nominees for governor, none of them announced his or her campaign this early. The closest was 2006 nominee Chris Bell, whose announcement came on July 28, 2005 — 467 days before Election Day. The 2018 election is currently 481 days away.

Yet previous cycles have typically brought a bit more excitement and buzz leading up to such announcements. There were the months of speculation that came before the launch of South Texas millionaire Tony Sanchez’s 2002 bid to become the first Hispanic governor of Texas. In 2014, former state Sen. Wendy Davis kept Democrats waiting until 14 weeks after her anti-abortion filibuster made her a national star.

This time around, such hype is subdued at best. Perhaps the most prominent name to garner some speculation is former state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio, who recently told his hometown newspaper a potential candidacy is “not a conversation that I’m entertaining at this time.”

While there has not been frenzied speculation about the governor’s race, Democrats note their talent was on full display earlier this year when two rising stars, O’Rourke and Castro, both seriously considered the Senate race. While Castro ultimately declined to run, there’s still another statewide contest that could involve two credible Democrats: former state Rep. Allen Vaught of Dallas is weighing whether to join Collier in the race for lieutenant governor.

Flood of congressional contenders

In any case, the current state of Democrats’ statewide ticket provides a contrast with the congressional map, where several vigorous Democratic primaries are already underway — not just in the three districts in the crosshairs of national Democrats but also in a few not on their radar.

There are at least half a dozen Democratic candidates in the 21st district, which is currently represented by Lamar Smith, a San Antonio Republican who drew only two challengers in 2016 and won re-election by more than 20 percentage points. In the 31st district, John Carter, a Round Rock Republican, is up to at least four Democratic foes after just one ran in the primary last time.

Candidate after candidate points to a common denominator in their decision to run.

“Knowing what happened on Nov. 8 and knowing that Donald Trump is our president … it’s just really galvanized a lot of Democratic support all around the state and locally, and people are stepping up,” said Ed Meier, a former Hillary Clinton staffer looking to unseat U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas.

Early signs indicate some of the races are also drawing big money. In the 32nd district, Meier’s campaign says he raised $345,000 in its first two months, while another Democratic hopeful, Colin Allred, took in more than $200,000 over a similar period, according to his team. In the 7th district, Democratic contender Alex Triantaphyllis says he raised over $450,000 in eight weeks, while primary rival Lizzie Pannill Fletcher has announced a haul of more than $365,000 in seven weeks.

With Abbott’s announcement looming, though, the spotlight is intensifying on Democrats’ statewide recruits. Republicans say they are being anything but complacent as they wait for Democrats to fill out their statewide ticket.

“Texas Democrats have two problems aside from being unable to field a full slate of credible candidates in 2018: We’re mobilizing our grassroots as vigorously as if they did have that full slate, and Texas Republicans continue to deliver for Texans,” state GOP spokesman Michael Joyce said in a statement.

Harris County, the biggest in Texas, will no doubt be on their radar next year. While Clinton easily won it in the 2016 presidential election, it has a history of being a battleground for both parties — and a highly prized ingredient in any recipe for statewide victory.

For all the Democratic enthusiasm in the Trump era, Schechter said she was not too surprised it has not yet translated into a full and robust statewide slate.

“I think Texas is a really big state, and it’s a really big challenge,” she said, adding that her central focus is the countywide ticket in 2018. “We still need to shore up our votes in a major metropolitan area like Harris County to make it an easier statewide run.”

Abby Livingston contributed to this report.

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Ted Cruz gets an earful in McAllen for July 4

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks to supporters at Fourth of July festivities in McAllen.

MCALLEN — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, waded into this Democratic stronghold Tuesday to celebrate the Fourth of July — and predictably got an earful from protesters, many upset with the Senate’s efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Cruz, who has a knack for confrontation with his political opponents in Washington and far outside it, had to speak over the demonstrators for most of his speech at an Independence Day ceremony, twice pausing to address the commotion. They were countered by a similarly vocal group of Cruz supporters, who sought with varying success to drown them out with chants of “USA!”

“Isn’t freedom wonderful?” Cruz said shortly after taking the stage. “Think about it: In much of the world, if protesters showed up, they would face violent government oppression. In America, we’ve got something different.”

As he ended his remarks, Cruz again made reference to the protesters, addressing them as “our friends who are so energized today that they believe that yelling is a wonderful thing to do.”

“I will say you have the right to speak, and I will always defend your right to speak and participate in the democratic process,” Cruz said. “That’s what makes us free, that’s what makes us America.”

Protesters turned out for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz's Fourth of July visit to McAllen.
Protesters turned out for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s Fourth of July visit to McAllen. Doug Young for The Texas Tribune

Cruz received a calmer reception later in the morning as he participated in a parade through downtown McAllen, waving from the back of a convertible followed on foot by two security guards.

Yet Cruz’s appearance in McAllen did not go unnoticed by local Democrats. Speaking after Cruz at the ceremony, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen called on Cruz, who was seated behind the congressman, to join him in urging President Donald Trump to work to bring home military veterans who have been deported. Gonzalez recently met with Trump about the issue.

“Today I ask Sen. Cruz to support me on this idea — and all the others senators and members of Congress,” Gonzalez said. “We should not leave one soldier behind.”

Cruz’s involvement in the July Fourth festivities had become something of a local story here in recent days. After the announcement of his participation drew a backlash, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling released a statement defending the senator’s attendance at the event, which Darling called an “opportunity to engage in productive dialogue.”

There appeared to be an initial possibility that Cruz could meet with La Union del Pueblo Entero, a local immigrant rights group, while in McAllen. But the organization ultimately declined to visit with Cruz, pushing instead for a town hall where the senator could hear directly from his constituents.

Cruz has made three trips to McAllen since December, part of an uptick in travel across the state after his 2016 presidential campaign — and a 2018 re-election race against U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso. For his part, O’Rourke was over 600 miles away Tuesday morning, participating in the July 4 festivities in Lubbock, an area as Republican as McAllen is Democratic.

“I think the fact [Cruz] has been in office so long and only recently taken interest in the Rio Grande Valley means that he’s not really interested in listening,” said John-Michael Torres, the communications coordinator for LUPE. “He’s just trying to improve his image.”

While the town hall did not materialize Tuesday, Cruz did get some face time with his critics. He worked the crowd for several minutes before the ceremony, though he stopped short of the most vocal group in the bleachers, where awaiting him were signs saying, “Ted wants us dead,” and “Cruzin for a Bruzin 2018.”

Speaking with reporters after his remarks, Cruz suggested the protesters were part of “a small group of people on the left who right now are very angry.” Asked if he planned to directly acknowledge the protesters, he insisted he had visited with them when he greeted the crowd earlier and nodded to some common ground, noting he saw one sign about health insurance costs being too high.

“I tell ya, I agree,” said Cruz, who has had a key role in negotiating the Senate’s plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, though he remains a holdout on its most recent version. “I hear that from Texans all over the state who face premiums skyrocketing under Obamacare, who want relief.”

Health care was a resonant issue for Matthew Martinez, a local accountant who was toting one of many signs in the crowd reading, “Health care is a human right,” on one side and “Beto 2018,” on the other.

“He wants to completely gut Obamacare,” Martinez said of Cruz, “and he’s one of the few people against the Trump plan because he wants it to be stronger, which is crazy.”

Alex Gelman, a local GOP activist who had helped pass out pro-Cruz shirts and signs, said he and others wanted to show Cruz still has support in the Valley despite its strong Democratic tradition. Lingering on the sidewalk after the program, he said he found the protesters a bit disrespectful.

“If you want to protest us, fine, but just let him speak,” Gelman said. “He might — might — say something you like.”

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Trial date still uncertain as new judge holds first hearing in Paxton case

The securities fraud case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton kicked off Thursday in Harris County with no new trial date being set.

Instead, the new judge in the case, Robert Johnson, asked both sides to come back July 27 to continue discussing a potential schedule. Prosecutors pushed to hold off setting a trial date until they can get paid – an issue currently tied up in a Dallas appeals court.

Paxton has had two previous trial dates scrapped due to legal disputes – first over the venue, then over the judge. The hearing Thursday was the first time Paxton appeared before Johnson, the new judge, in the relocated venue of Harris County.

Paxton is accused of misleading investors in a company from before his time as attorney general. He has been fighting the charges for nearly two years now, and if convicted, he faces up to 99 years in prison.

He has beaten a similar, civil case at the federal level.

The issue of the prosecutors’ pay has long consumed the case. Collin County commissioners voted last month not to approve payments to the prosecutors and to instead take the dispute to the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals, where it has not yet been resolved.

“As long as they continue to sue us, our hands our tied,” said one of the prosecutors, Brian Wice. “This is an unprecedented attempt to defund and ultimately derail the prosecution.”

Paxton’s lawyers countered that the payment case could take much longer than the prosecutors were letting on, insisting that Paxton has a right to a speedy trial.

“Whether they get their money is not our problem,” Paxton lawyer Dan Cogdell said, adding that the citizens of Texas also deserve a speedy trial. “He is the sitting attorney general.”

The former judge in the case, George Gallagher, had rejected a similar effort by the prosecutors to put off the trial until they could get paid. 

Johnson made another ask of both sides at Thursday’s hearing: He wants them to prepare a timeline of the case so far and submit it to him before their next meeting. They agreed on a July 7 deadline.

Whenever the trial date is set, it will only be for the lesser of three charges Paxton faces. Both sides expect the other two charges to be taken up in a potential subsequent trial.

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New Texas GOP chair starts tenure with big platform push

Back in March, James Dickey, then the chairman of the Travis County Republican Party, showed up at the state Capitol to testify in support of House Bill 1911 — a proposal known as constitutional carry, or the ability to carry firearms without a license. It was a top legislative priority for the state GOP, and Dickey brought a message tailored for the Republicans on the House panel considering it: Don’t forget the platform.  

“The plank which said we should have constitutional carry scored a 95 percent approval rate, outscoring over 80 percent of the other planks in the option,” Dickey said, referring to the party platform — a 26-page document outlining the party’s positions that is approved by delegates to its biennial conventions. Constitutional carry, Dickey added, “is something very clearly wanted by the most active members of the Republican Party in Texas.”

The bill never made it to the House floor, but a couple months later, Dickey ascended to the top of the state Republican Party — a perch he is now using to wield the same platform more aggressively, especially under the pink done. It’s become an early hallmark of his tenure, which is unfolding in the run-up to a special session expected to re-ignite many intra-party debates. 

“I think he wants to try to utilize the party infrastructure to push for the ideas, not just simply elect Republicans,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist steeped in Travis County and statewide politics.

Could that lead to Dickey ruffling feathers at the Capitol? 

“I hope so,” Steinhauser replied, “and I think so.”

Even before Gov. Greg Abbott announced earlier this month a special session beginning on July 18, Dickey sought to put a new emphasis on the platform. A day before the announcement, Dickey and most of the State Republican Executive Committee sent Abbott a letter asking him to use a potential special session to address the party’s incomplete legislative priorities. 

Dickey claimed victory after Abbott announced the special session and its agenda, noting that half the items matched up with platform planks. They included Abbott’s calls for property tax reform, school choice for special needs students and a so-called “bathroom bill” that would regulate which restroom transgender Texans can use.

Days later, Dickey sent letters to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, asking them to identify members in their chambers who could “take point” on the 10 items. 

Now, the party is organizing teams of activists to focus on 15 issues during the special session, including the 10 that relate to platform planks.

The flurry of platform-related activity is not by accident. In an interview, Dickey said he saw delegates working hard on the platform at the last convention, and it was “such a wasted opportunity … in that we weren’t clearly, publicly showing them that we took all that effort seriously, and I wanted to fix that.”

“I absolutely felt like this was something people were looking for, but I’m also a marketing and business guy with a customer service background,” Dickey said, describing the platform as a way to both unify and grow the party. “In business, the easiest way to get extra customers is to show you care about your current customers and listen to what they ask for.”

Dickey’s predecessor, Tom Mechler, was far from absent at the Capitol but was viewed as less willing to push the platform in legislative debates — a disinclination that sparked some criticism as he prepared to step down. His tenure nonetheless saw some notable developments in the party’s platform process: The 2016 convention was the first time delegates voted on the platform plank by plank, and it was the first time they included legislative priorities in the document. 

Mechler “was engaged a lot with us,” said Mike McCloskey, an SREC member from Cedar Park who serves on the legislative committee that is responsible for seeing the priorities through at the Capitol. For Dickey, the platform is “an area that is obviously important to him, and he has placed an emphasis on that,” added McCloskey, who supported Dickey’s opponent, Rick Figueroa, in the chairman’s race earlier this month. 

It remains to be seen how GOP lawmakers are receiving the platform push. In an email to supporters Saturday, Dickey said Patrick had responded to his letter, promising the Senate is “ready to take action.” The party has “received multiple calls and emails from legislators who are willing to take point on Republican platform planks and put those bills in motion,” Dickey wrote.

The likeliest source of resistance is in the House, where leaders have shown no signs of backing down from their opposition to a number of the plank-related items. In just the latest example, state Rep. Dan Huberty, the Houston Republican who chairs the House Public Education Committee, said Sunday that school choice — Plank No. 147 — remains a nonstarter in the lower chamber. 

For those watching Dickey’s early days as chairman, such resistance raises the question of how willing he’ll be to call out lawmakers who do not hew to the platform. In the interview, the new party leader presented himself as a “very much a glass-half-full guy,” saying he is aiming for “meaningful progress toward” the plank-related items and not demanding absolute loyalty.

“I would not expect anyone to know them all, much less than support” them all, Dickey said. “On the other hand, I would be gravely disappointed if anyone was a current Republican officeholder and could not find a few in there that they could not wholeheartedly support.”

While the platform has long included planks supported by the vast majority of Republicans, such as opposing a state income tax, there are other sections that are more controversial. The latest version urges support for a “return to the precious metal standard for the United States dollar” and describes homosexuality as a “chosen behavior that is contrary to the fundamental unchanging truths that has been ordained by God in the Bible.”

But Dickey is far from the first party chairman to grapple with how to best utilize the platform.

“There are debates on the platform and there are heated divisions, but I think it’s more a question of representing the conservative philosophy, which we tried and which was consistent with the platform,” said Tom Pauken, who led the state party in the 1990s. “I don’t think it makes sense to get into every detail of platform because conservatives have differences.”

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Lawmaker says he was misled into sponsoring rally for white nationalists

A state lawmaker says his office was “grossly misled” by a group of white nationalists that wanted to have a rally at the Texas Capitol.

State Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, said Monday that his office last month received a request from a man claiming to be a veteran with family from Schaefer’s district, asking if the lawmaker could sponsor a rally Saturday at the Capitol in support of Gov. Greg Abbott‘s and President Donald Trump’s policies. Schaefer, the leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, approved the request but said he immediately withdrew it when he learned the rally “involved participants who have a reputation for racist rhetoric.” 

The rally, organized by a group called Tomorrow Belongs to Texas, was intended to “demonstrate how white identity is necessary to continue as a people and preserve Western culture,” according to a news release. 

Earlier Monday, the Texas Democratic Party highlighted the rally, saying Schaefer “owes all Texans and the taxpayers who pay his salary an apology and complete explanation.” Schaefer fired back at the party in a statement explaining the situation.

“The Texas Democratic Party press release is false on its face and is a despicable fundraising ploy on an issue where we actually have common ground,” Schaefer said. “I guess Democrat party officials are more interested in political posturing, instead of standing together against hate speech.”

It appears Schaefer was not the only one to have been duped by the group. Scholz Garten, a popular restaurant near the Capitol, suggested on Facebook that the same group misrepresented itself as a veterans group when it made short-notice accommodations for a Saturday party.

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Paxton gets new judge in securities fraud case

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has received a new judge in his securities fraud case — a newly elected Democrat who unseated Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick‘s son last year.

Harris County District Judge Robert Johnson’s court has been randomly assigned to the case, according to Bill Murphy, a spokesman for the county district clerk. 

Paxton’s lawyers had fought for months to get rid of the previous judge, George Gallagher, who had presided over the case since its early days in 2015. They were finally successful last week when the state’s highest criminal court declined to overturn an appeals court ruling backing their push for a new judge. 

Last year, Johnson, a Democrat, narrowly unseated a Republican incumbent, Ryan Patrick, the son of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick

A 2011 graduate of Texas Southern University’s law school, Johnson worked for more than a decade in private practice before running last year for the 177th State District Court. As an attorney, Johnson mostly specialized in criminal defense.

Johnson, who is black, said in 2015 that he was running for judge because the criminal justice system was “broken” and that the courts needed more diversity.  

“I don’t want you to vote for me because I’m a Democrat,” he said in one appearance on the stump. “I want you to vote for me because you believe I can make a difference.”

Paxton, a Republican, has been fighting the securities fraud charges for almost two years. He is accused of misleading investors in a company from before his time as attorney general. If convicted, he faces up to 99 years in prison. 

Before the judge shakeup, Paxton had been set to go to trial on Sept. 12 in Houston on the lesser of three charges he faces.

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Why bills to bind Texas’ Electoral College never reached Gov. Abbott

The momentum seemed to be there.

After Donald Trump easily defeated Hillary Clinton in Texas, two of the state’s 38 Electoral College members cast ballots for someone other than the Republican nominee — a less-than-flattering moment for a state with a strong GOP tradition. In the days — even hours — after the Electoral College meeting in December, some of the state’s top Republicans rallied around proposals to “bind” presidential electors to the result of the statewide popular vote.

“This charade is over,” tweeted Gov. Greg Abbott shortly after the meeting ended. “A bill is filed to make these commitments binding. I look forward to signing it & ending this circus.”

Yet no such legislation made it to Abbott’s desk over the course of the legislative session that ended in May. Instead, lawmakers are now seeking to study the issue during the interim, an anticlimactic end to a session that began with major-league support for the cause.

“We were kind of stuck,” said Eric Opiela, the former general counsel for the Texas GOP — which ended up opposing the way one of several filed bills dealt with “faithless electors.”

The debate appeared to boil down to whether such electors should be fined after going rogue or be immediately disqualified if they submit a ballot for someone other than the winner of the statewide popular vote. The former proposal was what emerged in the immediate aftermath of the Dec. 19 meeting, when electors Chris Suprun and Bill Greene voted for Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Lake Jackson, respectively. 

More than a week before the vote — but after Suprun had already made clear he would not cast a ballot for Trump — state Rep. John Raney, R-College Station, filed House Bill 543, which would have created a $5,000 fine for any elector that does not support the winner of the statewide popular vote. Two days after the Electoral College meeting, Raney’s bill received a Senate companion, Senate Bill 394, by then-incoming state Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway. 

In the House Elections Committee, HB 543 received a committee substitute that did away with the fine, instead making any elector ineligible to serve if he or she submits a ballot for someone other than the candidate who received the most votes in the general election in Texas. On April 17, the House elections panel approved the committee substitute on a unanimous vote. However, it never got a vote on the House floor.

Three days later, the Senate State Affairs Committee held a hearing on Buckingham’s legislation, which still included the fine. It was there that SB 394 encountered opposition from the state Republican Party. Opiela told the committee that the bill “would not solve the problem it is intended to address,” saying the fine could be “easily covered” by the elector or third parties and questioning whether it would survive a court challenge. 

“The preferred method of ensuring the will of Texas voters is respected — and one which has been tested and withstood constitutional scrutiny by federal and district courts of appeal this past cycle — is to bind electors to the vote in Texas and provide a process for automatic resignation when an elector violates his pledge,” Opiela said during the hearing.

SB 394 was left pending in committee that day. It never got a vote.

Meanwhile, more legislation addressing rogue electors had cropped up. A pair of bills filed in late December and early January proposed to invalidate any ballot cast by a faithless elector — similar to the committee substitute to the Raney bill.

Neither bill made it out of committee, but in the final days of the session, one of their authors, GOP state Sen. Paul Bettencourt of Houston, sought to add his proposal as an amendment to another bill making various other changes to the state’s election code, House Bill 1735. That led to a tense exchange between him and Buckingham, who argued Bettencourt’s approach would make the Electoral College “obsolete.”

“If we’re going to force our Electoral College into a rubber stamp — against what our Founding Fathers wanted — why have an Electoral College at all?” Buckingham asked on the Senate floor.

Bettencourt, who insisted his amendment was “elegant in its solution,” ultimately withdrew it.

Later acknowledging that lawmakers were beginning to “have a very lively discussion” on whether to bind electors, state Sen. Joan Huffman, the Houston Republican who chairs the State Affairs Committee, suggested making the topic one of the interim charges Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick directs members of the Senate to research between the current session and the next one.  

“I will ask for an interim charge on the issue at the appropriate time, and the lieutenant governor will make the ultimate decision as to whether it is issued,” Huffman said in a statement Thursday. 

Elector-binding supporters will likely have a sympathetic ear in Patrick, who served as the Trump campaign’s Texas chairman. He had called Suprun’s decision a “slap across the face” to Trump’s voters in Texas and was among the first elected officials at the time to raise the prospect of an elector-binding law for the state. 

Looking back on the session, people involved in the debate cite a number of reasons why a bill never made it to Abbott’s desk, including the Texas GOP’s influential opposition and the emergence of more pressing issues once the session got underway in January, a month after the Electoral College meeting. Abbott also never publicly weighed in on the issue beyond his remarks in December.

“Unfortunately the bill itself was hung up in the legislative process, but it is my understanding that the topic will be revisited as an interim study,” Raney said in a statement. “We will use the information gathered in the interim study, and review the issue again before the 86th Legislature.”

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