Author Archives: Christopher Hooks

Civil Offenses: Those Calling for Political Civility Often Have the Least to Lose

Everyone thinks there’s something amiss in the American political system falls into one of two camps — they either have a stylistic critique or a substantive one. Stylists think the way we do politics is corrupting things from the top down, while the Substantivists believe structural problems are rotting politics from the bottom up. It’s a cross-ideological divide. Many conservative Never Trumpers agree with the president on most issues, but think he’s a pig. They share a stylistic critique with many liberals who seek communion with moderate Republicans. The problem, the Stylists believe, has to do with individual responsibility; particular political actors are gross and venal.

Those who hold substantive critiques think the problem is collective, that it’s about institutions, trends and incentives — gerrymandering, political polarization, the breakdown of procedural consensus, court packing, permanent war, campaign finance, the nationalization of local politics, Breitbart, etc.

The stylistic critique is especially prevalent among centrists because it’s simple and easy. Stylists of late include George W. Bush, who recently lamented that “We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization.”

Jeff Flake, in his lauded Senate speech, focused almost entirely on style, decrying the “indecency of our discourse” and the “coarseness of our leadership.” The 51 percent of Democrats who now hold a positive opinion of W. are Stylists too, because they remember his personal decency but not his actions. Stylists, in short, would be more than happy to return to our previous mode of doing politics, with its familiar refrains and patterns, before the great orange Hindenburg crashed into the White House. But what led us to this moment if not the previous mode of doing politics?

To paraphrase Anton Chigurh, if the norms you followed brought you to this, of what use were the norms? Bush revisionism is particularly telling — historians will remember his failed presidency as key to the development of Trumpism. The Republican Party’s ideological collapse, xenophobia, authoritarian fervor and love of conspiracy theories all have roots in the Bush years.

But Bush was civil, it is said. The key word in the stylistic critique is civility, of which it is imagined we once had but no longer have. But political incivility rises in America when something important is at stake. The republic’s early years, Reconstruction, the 1960s: These were rough times to do politics. Assassinations, terror attacks, congressmen beating each other nearly to death on the floor of the Senate. It was that way because the country stood on a precipice. It is not unreasonable to think that we do so again.

It is good to be nice, and civility in a vacuum is a fine attribute. But it’s also worth noting who subscribes to the stylistic critique most strongly — people with relatively less at stake. Many political consultants adopt this framework. The grand game’s not fun anymore, and they wish it were. The media adopts it too, because stylistic critiques are “safe,” according to the unwritten rules of objectivity.

Trump gives the State of the Union address.

Other civility fetishists include those who feel touched by a kind of political insanity they had previously been insulated from, especially people who live in blue states. “Before Trump was elected, the United States was a deeply imperfect democracy. Afterward, it became a shitty kleptocracy,” Slate’s Michelle Goldberg wrote. “Overnight, the very texture of reality changed, becoming surreal and dystopian.”

But of course, a great many people have been living in this America all along. If you’re a kid in Dan Patrick’s Texas terrified every day that your father is going to be deported, or you’re a sick mother in the Medicaid gap, you’ve lived in a surreal and dystopian place for many years. Your problem isn’t that Trump ignores norms.

But the most dangerous thing about stylism is that the superficial critique of political dysfunction allows us to ignore its causes. When Flake, after his speech, told the press that he believes the “fever will break,” that voters will eventually return to being rational, it invalidated everything he said on the floor because it made clear that he doesn’t understand the political moment at all. He, like us, is stuck in a do-loop, in which our politics is systematically worsening and we seek only to change its appearance.

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Greg Abbott Declares War on Moderate Republicans

Representative Sarah Davis, Governor Greg Abbott  via Sarah Davis, Patrick Michels

In the latest episode of Texas Politics, God’s dumbest reality show, Governor Greg Abbott celebrated the beginning of Republican primary season by going to war — against a popular incumbent lawmaker in his own party, in a district that Hillary Clinton won by 15 points. On Monday morning, Abbott issued a fatwa of sorts, calling for the replacement of state Representative Sarah Davis, a moderate pro-choice Republican, with primary challenger Susanna Dokupil, a right-wing lawyer and board member of the Seasteading Institute, which exists to build libertarian cruise ships and permanently station them in international waters, free from the laws of man.

If that information is hard to make sense of, so are most recent events on Texas Politics. Conservative activists hate Davis, the least conservative Republican in the House. Davis is a generally reliable vote for abortion rights, gay rights, public schools, vaccines, etc. But Abbott’s decision to weigh in against a party incumbent breaks an unwritten rule, and the political logic behind it is hard to parse. House District 134 covers much of Houston’s upscale west side, including Bellaire and West University Place, went for Clinton by 15 percentage points in 2016, and was held by Democrat Ellen Cohen before Davis won it in 2010. Davis is probably the GOP’s best chance to retain the seat, so Abbott’s decision to join the fight seems to put his own desire to unseat Davis ahead of the party’s interest.

Furthermore, Dokupil does not appear to be a particularly strong candidate. In many ways she’s a fairly run-of-the-mill party hack, a lawyer with ties to the Federalist Society, the American Enterprise Institute, the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Harris County Republican Party. She co-chaired the national finance committee for Ted Cruz’s 2012 Senate campaign. Then there’s the Seasteading Institute, a political project of Silicon Valley’s chief cryptofascist, Peter Thiel. Seasteaders seek to construct “floating communities in the ocean based on the principles of contract and radical consent” — Burning Man meets Waterworld.

Susanna Dokupil  Courtesy

Dokupil is an enthusiastic supporter of the project. In December 2015, she interviewed the Seasteading Institute’s chief guru, Joe Quirk, who calls himself a “seavangelist” and an “aquapreneur,” for an episode of the institute’s podcast, “Seasteading Today.” Over the course of a surreal half-hour, Dokupil exhorts listeners to join in on the creation of Quirk’s new “seavilizations,” utopian leviathans with “start-up mentalities,” ranging the “floating frontier,” free from the harsh yoke of “land-based government.”

We’ll see, in time, how that flies in west Houston. So, again, why is Abbott getting behind this? It may simply be that he knows Dokupil personally — she was an assistant solicitor general when he was Texas attorney general. Or it may be that he’s keeping his promise from the session that any legislator who crossed him would be put on a “list.”

But it’s worth considering the broader conservative political project here. If Abbott’s goal is an ideologically uniform House caucus, then it’s genuinely preferable to lose Davis’ seat than to allow her to continue to win. Beating Davis in the primary — even if it cedes the seat to a Democrat — removes the only openly pro-choice Republican voice from the caucus, and it pushes other lawmakers who show an independent streak back in the herd.

Because the Republicans are in no real danger of losing their overall House majority anytime soon, it’s better for Abbott and friends to have a smaller, purer GOP caucus. And in Davis’ case, a gentle nudge might be enough to do it — for years, Democrats have talked idly about convincing her to switch parties, a prospect that may now be more enticing. (Harris County Republicans had been set to debate a motion to censure Davis for her too-liberal voting record on Monday night; it was apparently withdrawn after Abbott’s endorsement.)

House Speaker Joe Straus’ retirement gives Abbott and others the opportunity to try to force conformity on the House. That’s going to lead to a lot of strange dynamics in the next four months, as the Republican primary heats up. For one thing, Straus has promised to use his ample campaign funds to push hard for his candidates this cycle, which means Davis’ district provides an opportunity for Straus and Abbott to butt heads.

Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio on May 6.  Sam DeGrave

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of the speaker’s election in 2019 on Texans’ lives, and the outcome of that depends entirely on what happens in the next six months of the Republican primary and next year’s general election.

What makes the outcome of the next speaker’s race so difficult to game out — apart from the fact that our world broke at some point in the last couple years — is that there are three strong competing phenomena in the House right now. The first is simply that Democrats may be approaching a wave election. The Democrats have a meaningful chance of winning more seats in the House next year than they’ve won since 2008. That could be helpful in the effort to select a Straus-type speaker.

The second is that Republican primary fights between moderates and conservatives will be especially vicious this year, particularly if Abbott puts the weight of his political machine behind it. That could be good for Democrats, but it also diminishes the chances of selecting a moderate speaker, because the casualties of the primary will include at least a few more experienced moderates, replaced in the ranks by pliable freshmen, as they always do.

The third is that the Republican circle is tightening. The GOP and affiliated organizations, such as Texans for Lawsuit Reform, are pushing hard for Republican candidates to pledge to select the next speaker without Democrats. This leads to a paradox: It’s plausible that House Democrats emerge from next year’s election stronger than they’ve been in years, yet more powerless than ever before.

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Even Hurricane Harvey Can’t Temper GOP Hostility Toward Texas’ Big Cities

Governor Greg Abbott and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner  photos by Patrick Michels

On August 4, less than a month before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick appeared on the Fox Business Network with a diagnosis for what ails the nation. “Where do we have all our problems in America?” he asked. “Not at the state level run by Republicans, but in our cities that are mostly controlled by Democrat mayors and Democrat city council men and women. That’s where you see liberal policies. That’s where you see high taxes. That’s where you see street crime.”

In September, another big problem appeared over Houston, a messy city run by one of those dangerous Democratic mayors, Sylvester Turner. Houston is the state’s beating heart, and Harvey could end up being the most expensive natural disaster in American history. In the past, it would have been of some comfort to the mayor of Houston that the lieutenant governor and some of his top allies, such as state Senator Paul Bettencourt, hailed from the Houston area, because they’d help make sure the city’s needs were met in the months and years ahead. That’s not the case now, and it’s worth taking a moment to place Harvey in the context of the extraordinary animus the Legislature often seems to have for local governments and the people who run them.

Turner now has one of the most difficult and unpleasant jobs of any public official in the United States. To take just one example: An immediate crisis the city faces is waste removal — there are whole neighborhoods full of tall piles of ruined furniture and trash that will rot in the rain and attract pests. Turner recently told the city council that many of the contractors who do the kind of removal work Houston needs fled to Florida, for better rates after Hurricane Irma. The best case scenario is that “most” of the waste will be cleared by Thanksgiving, two months from now.

Flooded furniture, wood and other materials line Houston residential streets more than three weeks after Hurricane Harvey made landfall.  Hana Bakkar/Courtesy

If things go slowly, residents will inevitably blame Turner, just as a backlash immediately materialized when he recently proposed a temporary 8.9 percent property tax hike, which would raise about $113 million for Harvey recovery. For the average homeowner in the city, that comes out to about $117 a year, which doesn’t seem like terribly much given the circumstances. More importantly, Turner’s hands were tied. The storm wiped out the city’s emergency funds and destroyed a lot of city property, and though FEMA will pay 90 percent of trash removal costs, Houston’s share is still something like $25 million. Nonetheless, Turner caught a lot of heat for the proposal.

Later, a new agreement with FEMA caused Turner to reduce the amount he was asking for to $50 to $60 million. For the state, that’s chump change — the rainy day fund alone has more than $10 billion. Though state leaders have signalled a willingness to spend some of the rainy day fund on disaster relief, no one’s rushing to appear overly generous. When Turner’s hand was forced and the tax bump was proposed, state officials had two options: Reassure Houstonians about the forthcoming availability of state money, or let Turner, the Democratic mayor of a city Republicans are increasingly struggling to contest, twist in the wind.

Senator Paul Bettencourt (right), Governor Greg Abbott (front) and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick  Facebook

You know which one they chose. “I don’t understand this mindset,” Bettencourt, Patrick’s lieutenant on tax issues and a resident of the city of Houston, told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s beyond tone deaf. I don’t believe governments should be showing this type of attitude when people are down. Taxpayers are going to be furious.” Bettencourt then added that he now opposes provisions that let local governments raise taxes more easily in the event of a disaster or emergency. Bettencourt even told a Houston radio station that he’s against using any state money to help the city, offering that Houston should be “using the funds that are already there to avoid a tax increase.”

On Tuesday, after Turner made a public request for money from the rainy day fund, Governor Greg Abbott joined in, telling reporters that the fund wouldn’t be touched until the 2019 legislative session. Turner “has all the money that he needs,” Abbott said. “In times like these, it’s important to have fiscal responsibility as opposed to financial panic.” The governor went on to accuse the mayor of using Harvey recovery efforts as a “hostage to raise taxes.”

Bettencourt and Abbott are doing what state lawmakers frequently do now — putting political pressure on local governments to draw attention away from what the state is doing and gather ammo for future internecine battles in Austin. (All last session, Bettencourt was at war with local officials over property tax policy.) The difference now is that he’s doing it right after Texas’ largest city had its legs shot out from under it, at a time when you might hope Houston-area lawmakers would not only refrain from taking potshots at Turner, but find ways to affirmatively help him. But, hey, it’s just business as usual: Everything good in Texas is to the credit of the brave boys and girls of the Lege, and everything bad is the fault of county commissioners courts, city councils and school boards.

Aren’t the different layers of government supposed to work together? In Texas, they generally do not. I’ve talked to many local officials, including Republicans in deep-red counties, who can’t for the life of them get a call returned from their GOP state representative or senator. Even big-city mayors sometimes get the stiff arm, and lawmakers seem to take pleasure in nullifying or canceling popular city ordinances, sometimes because of lobby money but sometimes, it seems, simply out of spite.

Consider Houston before the storm. Its school systems are heavily penalized by the state’s school finance system, which forces locals to raise property taxes. It has huge immigrant populations whose relationships with the police were negatively affected by Senate Bill 4. The culture wars at the Legislature — and the poor quality of state services — hinder Houston’s appeal to the international business community. Houston’s health care system has suffered greatly from the Legislature’s refusal to expand Medicaid.

This is despite the obvious fact that Texas’ appeal, and strength, is the quality and dynamism of its big cities. Six of the nation’s 20 largest cities are in Texas, and each has a distinct identity and appeal. (Well, maybe not Dallas.) The state should be helping cities. To take but one too-late example, the Legislature is the only body that could have cut through the mess of overlapping political jurisdictions to control development and strengthen flood planning in greater Houston in a unified way.

Instead, we have a state government that sees its largest generators of economic activity — the six metropolitan areas in which more than half of the state lives — as some kind of threat, either because of their values or the demographic and political threat they represent to the Republican Party. You might hope Harvey would temper that, but don’t hold your breath.

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Trump Nominee to FEC Tried to Shred Texas’ Already-Weak Ethics Laws

Trey Trainor  Twitter/@txelectionlaw

In yet another case of the cosmic satire in which we live hitting its mark a little too hard on the nose, the Trump administration last week nominated Texas lawyer Trey Trainor to a seat on the Federal Election Commission, an agency that’s supposed to enforce and interpret campaign finance laws. Trainor is notable mainly for his general opposition to campaign finance laws, so his nomination makes sense, in that most of Trump’s appointees so far either hate or are ignorant of the thing they’re expected to oversee.

But Trainor’s nomination also provided an opportunity to make note, once again, of the similarities between Texas’ screwed-up politics and the nation’s increasingly screwed-up politics. If you haven’t heard of Trainor, you’re not alone — he’s well-known around the Capitol, but he’s a behind-the-scenes guy. His name rarely pops up in news stories.

Who then, for our out-of-state friends, is Trainor? Well, on social media, he’s a fairly typical right-winger — the kind of guy who got really mad about the New Black Panther Party pseudo-scandal, who approvingly tweets out articles characterizing Obama as a “race hustler,” Protestantism as “poison” and Islam as a “phony religion” manufactured by the “murderous Mohammed.”

Trey Trainor’s Twitter feed  Screenshot

He shares the kind of videos in which, say, a “Wretched old hag harasses Trump supporter on a flight and TOTALLY GETS WHAT’S COMING TO HER!” Perhaps not a great public profile for someone who’s supposed to play a juridical role in ensuring the fairness of American elections. But that’s not why Trainor’s important.

Trey Trainor’s Twitter feed  Screenshot

The civil war within the Texas Republican Party — billionaires, enormous egos, blood grudges, subterfuge, religion, debauchery — is one of the best and most under-told stories in American politics, but it also has a Tolkien-length backstory. The simplified version is this: A decade ago, as the Bush administration started melting down, the Texas GOP began to split into two. One faction aligned with a more genteel and traditional form of business conservatism; the ideology of the other was nativism, Christianism and a nihilistic approach to government.

The second faction eventually won. But at the beginning, all they had were a few ideologically aligned millionaire and billionaire donors — Tim Dunn, Jeff Sandefer, the Wilks brothers — who wanted to buy legislators, a long-standing trade in Texas. The state’s weak ethics laws inhibited, albeit very modestly, their ability to do so. So they went guerrilla. They set up a constellation of organizations to quietly funnel their money into legislative races, and they used the threat of that money to put enormous pressure on elected officials. It was very effective: They didn’t always win elections, but they changed the way politics is done in Austin.



As the legal counsel for Empower Texans, the mothership shadow-money group, Trainor was the faction’s chief legal mind. He was Tom Hagen to leader Michael Quinn Sullivan’s Michael Corleone, but substantially less cool. National publications have described Trainor as an “opponent” or “critic” of campaign finance regulation, but that’s significantly underselling it.

Trainor wasn’t just a fan of lighter regulation; he wanted to dismantle the whole system.

Texas ethics laws aren’t very good. For example, there are no limits on campaign contributions from PACs and individuals to non-judicial candidates. But two core principles that do exist here are financial disclosure and the public registration of lobbyists. Trainor wanted to gut both.

In 2014, when the Texas Ethics Commission charged that Empower Texans’ Sullivan had been acting as a lobbyist without registering — an infraction for which he would then have to pay a small fine — the group went to war with the commission. In a truly bizarre episode, Sullivan moved, or possibly pretended to move, to Denton County, in a temporarily successful bid for a change of venue and a more friendly court. Meanwhile, Trainor’s friends repeatedly called for the commission to be defunded or eliminated outright. The remnants of the investigation into Trainor’s organization were gradually whittled down to near-nothingness by Attorney General Ken Paxton, whose job was to represent the commission in court, and, coincidentally, whose 2016 campaign benefited from a $1 million loan guaranteed by Empower Texans.

Last year, Trainor took a job with the Trump campaign. In a back office at the Republican convention in Cleveland, he was instrumental in helping Trump save face by quashing a last-minute rebellion by Ted Cruz delegates, who wanted a roll call vote. For his service, Trainor was given a job at the Pentagon, until he got this better reward.

The early stages of the Ethics Commission fight were some of the first events I covered when I started writing about Texas politics, and in hindsight they were a useful introduction to a particular feature of Texas government. The institutions of government are all there, and their leaders say the right things, but within each agency is a sort of shadow-agency, self-negating. As a result, the institutions are often not just bad at their mission, they do the opposite of the thing they’re supposed to do.

The Texas Education Agency inhibits access to education and Health and Human Services puts health care providers out of business. The same politicians who keep Child Protective Services weak and underfunded pile on the agency when another 4-year-old in state care gets beaten to death. Trainor and his friends helped nullify the Ethics Commission by definitively proving its powers were ceremonial at best. They’re the people who bring the shadow.

So it makes perfect sense that Trainor was nominated to the Federal Election Commission, which is also a broken institution. Created after Watergate to help restore the public’s faith in the electoral process, the commission is supposed to have three Democrats and three Republicans, with four votes needed to pass any kind of ruling. That was supposed to foster consensus, but in the last decade the FEC has frequently deadlocked 3-3, which nullifies the purpose of the thing.

That’s when the commission is fully staffed. There may only be four commissioners by the time Trainor is confirmed. There’s only one Democrat left, whose term technically ended in 2007 and hangs around, one would guess, out of a general sense of obligation. Trump could appoint more Democrats, or, as seems more likely, he could leave the commission in its weakened state. The FEC has become a very Texan thing — a fake, or self-nullifying, institution.

There’s something quaint, almost sweet, about the idea that a panel composed equally of the two parties was ever able to come an agreement. It’s an artifact of a bygone era. And maybe it never worked well — it’s a bit like having two foxes guard the same henhouse. But it’s obviously impossible when one of the parties doesn’t believe in the purpose of the thing at all.

While the appointment makes sense, it’s hard for me to understand why someone would accept it. Trainor’s signing on for at least a six-year term to be a nullifying vote on a non-functioning commission in an unfortunate city where nothing ever gets done. To which I suppose we should say: Congratulations!

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It’s a Trump Miracle! There are Signs of Life Among Texas Democrats

Donald Trump
Donald Trump greets his supporters in Austin.  Patrick Michels

November 8, 2016 should have been a night of unmitigated joy for the Harris County Republican Party, the largest local GOP organization in Texas. After all, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, hometown hero, had rushed to back Trump as soon as Ted Cruz’s body hit the floor.

But when Patrick took the stage late in the night to address the crowd, he felt obligated to acknowledge the elephant in the room: The Republican Party had been crushed in Houston. In 2012, Obama and Romney had tied in Harris County; in 2016, Clinton beat Trump by more than 12 percentage points. The Democratic wave washed out every Republican running for a countywide office. “We have to hold the line,” Patrick said. “We have to keep Democrat victories in Harris County to a minimum so that we win statewide.”

Since his first days in the world of New York real estate, nearly everyone who’s cut a deal with Donald Trump has gotten burned. In Patrick’s case, the electoral climate he so fervently embraced came at an acute personal cost: Ryan Patrick, his son, lost his position as state district judge in Harris County, a seat he barely retained in 2012.

But it’s not just him. Trump’s deep unpopularity in the state — only 42 percent approval, in one recent poll — threatens Texas Republicans as a whole. At the same time, the sudden absence of a Democratic president has left the Texas GOP adrift. For years, the party has been too big, containing too many disparate interests. Opposition to big-spending D.C. liberals kept the coalition together, but it has gotten harder to answer the question: What is a Texas Republican? For the last 15 years, Texas Democrats have been accusing Republicans of overreach. This time, they might be right.

During this year’s legislative session, the tensions in the Republican coalition became explicit. For example, Senate Bill 4, the “show your papers” law, flipped the bird to the business lobby, which was also at odds with lawmakers over the “bathroom bill” and a host of other issues. SB 4 blew up a long-standing truce that kept hard-line immigration rhetoric from becoming law. “It may not be soon,” Representative Poncho Neva?rez promised the House chamber, “but there’s going to be a reckoning.”

There’s some reason to believe him. It’s not just Houston — Clinton outdid Obama’s 2012 result by at least 7 points in the state’s five other large urban counties, and did remarkably well in populous suburban counties such as Collin, Hays and Fort Bend, which voted for a Democrat for president for the first time since LBJ.

Historically, an unpopular Republican president is the only thing that has really worked for Texas Democrats: The 2006 and 2008 elections brought them to the cusp of control of the Texas House. Trump has never been popular in Texas, and it’s likely that he’ll become even less so. The policies he champions — harsher immigration enforcement, opposition to global trade — threaten the state’s economy. The GOP is courting its own electoral backlash, right ahead of elections in 2018 and 2020, which will determine who gets to draft redistricting plans and shape the contours of power over the next decade.

But Texas Democrats are experts at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Last decade, there was a sustained campaign to pick up legislative seats that peaked with Obama’s first election. There’s no such effort now. The party waged an expensive campaign in 2014, but it got crushed, and much of that electoral infrastructure has collapsed. Coordination and candidate support is now mostly handled by outside groups on an ad hoc basis, with mixed results.

Beto O’Rourke’s campaign has garnered energy and excitement, but Democrats have no obvious contender to run for governor. The sole challenger to Patrick is a competent technocrat, Mike Collier, who is not a particularly strong candidate. The 2018 ticket could be full of holes, and it remains hard to get good people to run in Texas at the local level.

In other words, all the usual caveats about Texas progressives still apply. But if you’ve been considering volunteering or running for office, now’s the time. And if Democrats can’t, ultimately, make significant headway in this climate, it’s hard to imagine one in which they can.

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Is Competence Enough? Mike Collier is Counting on it in Race Against Dan Patrick

Mike Collier announces his 2018 bid for lieutenant governor  Christopher Hooks

Congratulations! It’s campaign season again. On Saturday, at a public square in Round Rock, businessman Mike Collier made official his bid to unseat Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick in 2018. Texas Democrats are fired up this year, but they’re also weary from so much bad news for so long, like the moles in a whack-a-mole machine. Tammy Young, a Round Rock City Council member and one of the up-and-coming Democrats in formerly beet-red Williamson County, captured the mood: “Are you tired of the circus happening at the state Lege?” she asked.

The crowd cheered. But the problem for Democrats, of course, is that the answer on Election Day has been consistently no: Texans, collectively, have not yet tired of the circus. In fact, the circus has been resoundingly successful, in political terms. In practical terms, less so: Exorbitant property taxes, soaring local debt, crummy infrastructure, an awful school finance system, skyrocketing tuition costs and tough conditions for the working poor have been the norm for a decade or more, but Democrats haven’t been able to capitalize on it.

In part, that’s because Texas Republicans have been very good at maintaining a narrative about what they are for and who they are against. By constantly reinventing Republicanism, and by putting the blame for everything going wrong on other people — the federales, local governments, bureaucrats — they skate effortlessly over dysfunction and back into office.

The narrative Democrats offer is one of competence and good government, often in the form of well-meaning technocrats such as Bill White, the former mayor of Houston who lost to Rick Perry in 2010. This has not been successful. In odd-numbered years, Democrats watch, mystified, as the GOP-controlled Legislature contorts itself into a Twin Peaks episode. Then, in even-numbered years, they’re even more confounded when voters, who may not support many Republican policies, send the Republicans back to do it again.

The race for lieutenant governor is arguably the most important for Democrats this cycle in terms of its potential effect on Texans, thanks to the extraordinary impact Patrick has on political life in the state. If Collier goes on to win his primary bid — he’s currently unopposed — he will have a weighty responsibility on his shoulders. Who is he? He’s a former corporate accountant and a former finance chair of the state party who ran for comptroller in 2014, a role to which he was well-suited. (He lost by 20 points, about the same margin as the rest of the statewide Dems.) He was one of a number of figures who helped fill out the Democrats’ normally-withered down-ballot slate that year, along with attorney general nominee Sam Houston and Railroad Commission candidate Steve Brown, who had very little public experience but could lay claim to a basic understanding of ethics and a desire to demonstrate competence.

Competence and seriousness is still Collier’s core message. “Dan Patrick’s got to go,” he told his Round Rock crowd of about 75 people, who came out to cheer and sign-wave on one of the hottest days of the year so far. “Don’t let them tell you we can’t win. We can win, and I’ll tell you why. Dan Patrick’s the worst lieutenant governor in the history of the state.”

Mike Collier announces his 2018 bid for lieutenant governor  Christopher Hooks

If elected, he would attempt to refocus the Senate on “fixing school finance,” and “making property taxes fair again,” he said. “We’ve got real issues to deal with, right? What has Dan Patrick spent the entire legislative session working on? Bathrooms, good grief!”

“We just want good leaders. We want to end this partisan hooey,” he said. The actions of statewide elected officials, he argued, are endangering the state’s relationship with big business. “We’re becoming one of the most deeply indebted states in the country,” and one in which taxes are already high. “If you want high property taxes, stick with Dan Patrick, ‘cause he’s been sticking it to you for years,” Collier told the crowd. “Dan Patrick is never gonna fix property taxes because his so-called conservative fiscal policies have created the property tax crisis in the first place.”

But is competence enough to win? Patrick is a master at communicating with his base and using wedge issues to drive divisions among his enemies. He has achieved almost complete control over the Senate. Collier is a wonky, quirky figure who came to politics late in life, after a long and lucrative run in corporate America. He used to be a Republican, and he describes his run for comptroller as a political awakening. He wrote a book about it — Out of Comptrol: A Converted Democrat’s Improbable Quest to Save Texas Politics — a political Bildungsroman, wherein Collier starts with almost no political knowledge and becomes the kind of guy who describes state government as a junta.

He’s the latest in a long run of businessmen to come up within the Texas Democratic Party — some better than others — and like them, he has a lot of innate confidence. In office, he’d end corruption in Texas by “propos[ing] something very revolutionary, very novel,” a body which he calls the “Audit Performance and Integrity Commission,” he told the rally. “Texans are gonna love it.”

Collier says that he wants to craft a better message for the party. After the event, as most of the audience had left to find shade, Collier said one of the main lessons he took away from 2014 was that Democrats are insufficiently clear about the policies and the people they stand for. “We saw this very clearly in the presidential election,” he said. “We think that people know we’re the champions of the working and the middle class. But to some extent, what we’ve failed to do is articulate that point and make it real. What does it mean that you’re for the middle class?”

The practical concerns of Texans, he said, were drowned out during the din of the 2014 statewide campaigns. “What Texans are concerned about is fiscal issues, kitchen-table issues, things such as education and health care and tuition,” he said. “Pocketbook issues are my world, as an accountant.” His primary message would be to try to convince voters that Republicans are “actually not good on economic issues.”

Is Collier the man to do it? In his book, he describes the dispiriting experience of coming to terms, on the eve of the election, with the fact that his arguments and his qualifications didn’t matter very much. “Politics, I had learned, is mostly about identity. People identify with their party the same way a student identifies with his high school football team,” he writes. “The players might be perfectly likable and honorable people. But their character doesn’t matter as much as their affiliation. I had no idea, before I ran this race, that this was how politics worked.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of political instincts. Still, this year seems set to be his football team’s best season in years, and the Republicans have crippling injuries up and down the lineup. So who knows — maybe we’ll look back on 2018 as the year Texas got brought back under comptrol.

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Worst. Legislature. Ever. How Did We Get Here?

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick  Sam DeGrave

Grind with me for a moment the gears of imagination, and consider a state not unlike our own — let’s call it Rexas — which has demonstrated an unusual degree of political stability over the last 20 years. One party has held every statewide office since 1998 and both chambers of the Legislature since 2002. The Party effectively has a supermajority in the Senate, and it almost holds one in the House. Ever since Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” topped the Hot 100 Singles Chart, The Party has controlled every part of state government where policy is formulated, passed into law and implemented.

Rexas is a very boring state, especially for political journalists. There are no surprises. After 15 years of The Party ordering and reordering the state to its liking, there’s little for the Legislature to argue about. Pass a budget, make patches to state government, go home. But we live in Texas, where something very peculiar is in the water, and where things can, and do, always get worse. And here, our politics have never — at least, in living memory — been more dysfunctional, more stupid or more deranged.

There have been plenty of tough times at the Legislature: mid-decade redistricting in 2003, the budget crisis in 2011, the abortion special sessions in 2013. But in the closing days of this year’s session, a wide array of Lege vets — conservative Republicans, business Republicans, Democrats, lobbyists and journalists — agreed that there was something uniquely acrid in the air, and that it had pervaded just about everything. What was especially poisonous this time was the extraordinary amount of procedural dishonesty — the willful dishonesty from different parties about what was happening and why.

A good deal of that dishonesty came from Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s office, a theme that ran throughout the session. His first press conference, back in January, was an angry defense of his bathroom bill in which he denied its true intent. Elsewhere, he insisted that he had saved the spending cap last session, when the opposite was true. And in the last two weeks, he made three laughably bad-faith assertions about the Legislature’s final negotiations. Patrick argued that the House had killed its own school finance bill, derailed must-pass sunset bills, and forced a special session. In each case, he was verifiably wrong, dishonestly removing his own agency from the equation. He doesn’t care. He sounds more and more like Trump.

Members of the House Freedom Caucus gather around the desk of Representative Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler  Sam DeGrave

But the bad vibes went beyond Patrick. Legislators sniped and cried and yelled and bullied and debased themselves by carrying bills they seemed to know were bad. Lawmakers and staffers both appeared generally unhappy to be there. From the House gallery, you could watch lawmakers play with fidget spinners, the toy for adults who would rather be doing almost anything else, almost anywhere else. Then the regular session ended, spectacularly and appropriately, with a threat of lethal violence on the House floor. And it ended in failure — because of Patrick’s refusal to advance must-pass legislation with the hope of forcing a special session for his bathroom bill.

This is the kind of thing you might expect in the most polarized legislatures, when two parties that loathe each other share the levers of power. But all this happening without the input of Democrats. It’s happening after two decades of Republican dominance. And all available signs point to it getting worse, not better. What’s happening?

Partly, it’s the delayed impact of the changes that occurred in the Republican Party of Texas during Barack Obama’s presidency and ripened during Trump’s candidacy. Perry’s long tenure maintained a sort of detente, in part because no one could easily move up the political ladder. It wasn’t until 2015 that we had our first post-tea party statewide candidate slate, and that year’s Legislature was sort of a bust. The 85th was the session when the promise of Patrick’s 2014 campaign came into fruition, along with the steady turnover of old-style Republicans in the Senate and House.

The party’s like a shark — if it stops moving, it dies. At his 2015 inauguration, Patrick promised a “new day” in Texas, as if he’d just ended a war. What did he mean? In short, that the people he was replacing were frauds. The old Republicans cared first about making money and helping others make money. What the business lobby wanted, it mostly got. They inherited that from the old Democrats — in Texas, economic development has traditionally been king. That’s no longer the case. The business lobby got beat up this year in an unprecedented way.

The new politics comes out of the massive population growth in the state’s new suburbs — alienated, paranoid, distrustful of any government program. That dynamic had been growing for years — Patrick was first elected in 2006 — and then a black guy became president. Conservatism has traditionally been about the preservation of the status quo and the maintenance of a traditional social order. The new politics, which is much bigger than Patrick as an individual, is about change. It’s radical, and radicalism has its own compelling internal logic.

Everything is pushing the party in that direction, and everyone else is struggling to keep up. Patrick’s unpredictability and ambition colors much of what happens at the Capitol and the governor’s mansion. Governor Greg Abbott wants to stay in alignment with the state’s current political orientation, which long postdates his entry into Texas politics. And a circular firing squad has formed, with the House, the last bastion of more traditional conservatives, at the middle. When House conservatives don’t get what they want, they blame House leadership. When Republicans pass a crappy bill, the group that takes the most direct fire from Democrats is House leadership. When Dan Patrick doesn’t get what he wants, he blames House leadership.

House Speaker Joe Straus  Sam DeGrave

But it’s important to be clear about one thing — the war between half of the state Republican party and House Speaker Joe Straus is about process and procedure, not policy. For all the arguing about who is the real conservative, the gap between what the House passes and the Senate passes is small in real terms, especially on matters that the governor has embraced, and it was smaller this session than probably ever before. There’s only one major substantive issue on which the two chambers are far apart — “school choice.” But the major problem adversaries of public education have in the House is that many Republicans come from rural districts, and it’s far from clear a new speaker would make a difference.

Everything else can be chalked up the narcissism of small differences — a radical can brook no dissent at all. The real objection Straus’ opponents have is to the way the House is run day to day. Conservatives want Democrats to be prevented from “grandstanding” on the House floor and to be given less influence in even the most innocuous committees. Though it’s rarely said, they also want a speaker of the House who is, ahem, not Jewish. But vanishingly few people outside downtown Austin and the orbit of Empower Texans care anything about that at all — it’s the domain of people who have run out of better things to argue about.

And yet, the divisions among factions of the Republican Party subsume just about everything else at the Capitol. Why did the session’s school finance bill, which passed 134 to 16 in the House and 21 to 10 in the Senate, die? Patrick’s anger at the House’s refusal to pass his voucher program. Why did members of the House kill unobjectionable bills addressing maternal mortality on the Friday before Mother’s Day? House conservatives were acting out of spite. Why are we facing a special session? So Patrick can put more political pressure on Straus and Abbott. Can anyone say honestly say that this is a reasonable way to run a state?

The Republican Party of Texas will never fix itself. It’s hostage to its own overreach and gerrymandered districts, and political pressure groups will continue to purge moderates and install younger, less-independent members. The “moderates” aren’t coming back, and we’re likely to lose more of them in coming election cycles. The incentives are all wrong, and political independence only has downsides.

The only way out is through the Democratic Party. Until Democrats make serious headway, expect that every session will be worse than the last, and the stakes are only going to get higher. The 86th Legislature just may get the chance to overhaul Medicaid with new freedoms granted by Paul Ryan and the Trump administration, a truly horrifying prospect. Let’s just hope everybody keeps their guns holstered.

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