Magazine | August 14, 2017, Issue

The Republican Civil War in Texas

It’s talk radio against the Chamber of Commerce

Can Republicans govern the United States? They cannot govern Texas.

If you want to understand what is up with Republicans in Washington, consider what Republicans are doing in Austin.

Republicans at the moment hold almost all of the cards in Washington: There is a Republican majority in the House of Representatives and a Republican majority in the Senate, while a Republican president is eager to put his signature on Republican health-care and tax-reform bills. But Republicans, especially conservatives, remain frustrated: The so-called Affordable Care Act remains the law of the land, taxes remain unreformed, and, much to the consternation of that nice blonde lady who substituted Donald Trump’s name for God’s in her 2016 campaign book, there is no wall under construction along the Mexican border and no Mexican tribute being paid to fund it.

Why?

In Texas, Republicans are in an even stronger position than they are nationally: There’s a Republican governor, a Republican state house, and a Republican state senate. But there’s much more: There hasn’t been a Democratic governor since Ann Richards, who was elected back when the Soviet Union still existed and practically nobody outside of CERN had ever seen a Web browser. There hasn’t been a Democratic lieutenant governor, attorney general, or comptroller since the 1990s. From the governor down to elected appellate judges, there are 27 statewide offices in Texas, which are occupied by 27 Republicans. There hasn’t been a Democrat on the Texas Railroad Commission (which is the state’s oil-and-gas regulator) since 1994. Democrats are 12 of 31 in the state senate and 55 of 150 in the state house. They are exactly one-third of Texas’s U.S. House seats, and the last Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from Texas was Lloyd Bentsen, a man born during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. The most powerful Democrat in Texas is Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, or maybe Houston mayor Sylvester Turner. The next-most-powerful Democrat in Texas is probably a Friday-night bartender at Chuy’s.

And what do Republicans have to show for all that dominance?

Less than you’d think.

And conservatives have even less to brag about.

There are a number of big items on Texas conservatives’ wish list. One is property-tax reform, a big issue in a state that has no income tax but some of the highest property-tax rates in the country — more than twice California’s and just behind those of New Jersey and Illinois. Texans love their guns, but “constitutional carry” proposals (which would generally permit the carrying of firearms, putting Texas on equal footing with that hotbed of right-wing radicalism known as Vermont) have gone nowhere, despite widespread support for them in Texas.

This summer, Texas governor Greg Abbott was forced to call a special session of the state legislature when restive conservatives held hostage a “sunset bill,” without which funds for several important state agencies (including the state medical board) would have dried up. Normally, Texans take a certain pride in the fact that their legislature meets for only a few months every other year, but the special session has emerged as a popular political tool in recent years: As governor, Rick Perry called twelve of them to deal with everything from congressional redistricting to abortion regulation. The legislature passed the sunset bill, and Governor Abbott then outlined his legislative agenda for the special session: tax reform, public-education finance, teacher pay, school choice for special-needs students, a state spending cap indexed to inflation and population growth, streamlining the permitting process, abortion restrictions, and much more.

But what Texas Republicans spent most of July talking about was a single item on Governor Abbott’s program: “Legislation regarding the use of multi-occupancy showers, locker rooms, restrooms, and changing rooms,” i.e., “the bathroom bill.”

Texas’s public restrooms are not exactly overrun with transgender troublemakers, but the bill did not come entirely out of nowhere, either. Houston’s former Democratic mayor, Annise Parker, a lesbian who ran as a potholes-and-services candidate but took up Kulturkampf with some enthusiasm toward the end of her mayoralty, helped put transgender issues at the forefront of Texas politics with an “equal rights” bill outlawing discrimination having to do with “gender identity.” She campaigned for it hard and thuggishly, going so far as to have city attorneys issue subpoenas for the contents of sermons delivered by pastors opposed to the bill. The Left is always on offense in the culture war, and these kinds of episodes make it easy for Republicans to wrong-foot themselves: Fail to respond and the talk-radio ranters will accuse them of rolling over for progressives (“cultural Marxists” is the risible term of the moment), but if they do respond, as they have in Texas, then they run the risk of looking like they are obsessed with sexual and excretory matters, which, in fairness, some of them actually are.

The dirty little secret is that these kinds of disputes are very popular on both sides of the aisle because they generate a lot of emotion that opens up political donors’ checkbooks. In reality, the “bathroom bill” is almost content-free: It requires only that government facilities and public-school buildings maintain his-and-hers bathrooms, which practically all of them already do, rather than institute single-sex arrangements. There’s almost nothing in the way of enforcement in the law. Critics have charged that it would allow discrimination against transgender people, but in reality Texas law already does that: Its civil-rights statutes do not include any provisions for homosexuals or transgender people. Like a lot of disputes about nothing, the “bathroom bill” is mainly a fundraising instrument.

“Parker was a catalyst, an opportunity for Republicans to segue into it,” Orange-based conservative activist Joshua Delano says of the bathroom bill. Delano is a veteran of Steve Stockman’s staff and a media consultant for Ted Cruz. “It was already on the national stage in North Carolina. They’re looking at it as a messaging bill that they can raise money off of.”

It does one other thing, too: It highlights the split in Texas between Speaker of the House Joe Straus, a moderate Republican from the suburbs of San Antonio, and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, a strident former talk-radio host from Houston.

Straus’s way of doing business rubs many more conservative Texas Republicans the wrong way: He became speaker of the house in 2009 by overthrowing the previous Republican speaker, brokering an alliance between the Democratic minority in the house and ten other dissident Republicans unhappy with the direction of the party. He paid for those Democratic votes with 16 committee chairmanships, almost equal to the 18 chairmanships he assigned to Republican members. Since Straus became speaker, many bills important to conservatives have been quietly stifled in committee. Conservatives complain that with Straus reliant on Democratic support for his gavel, the minority party has an effective veto over the majority party’s priorities.

“The people who have controlled the party for a long time are taking a stance against conservative and libertarian voters in the state by refusing to take things out of committee,” Delano says, “things like property-tax, constitutional-carry, and pro-life bills. So we have property taxes and the bathroom bill for special session — theatrics on one side, and on the other side something people actually want and care about.”

Dan Patrick has been a vocal supporter of the bathroom bill. Straus opposes the measure, and he killed a stronger version of it offered by Patrick and the senate by refusing to appoint house negotiators to work out differences in conference. The two legislative leaders — in Texas, the lieutenant governor presides over the senate, which is one of the reasons the position was long considered more powerful in practice than the governorship itself — ended up holding dueling press conferences on the bill. “For many of us, especially for me, this was a compromise,” Straus said. “As far as I’m concerned, it was enough. We will go no further.” Like a lot of more moderate Republicans, Straus is basically a Chamber of Commerce guy, and many Texas business leaders were afraid that the state would be put through the boycott wringer the way North Carolina was. (North Carolina ended up repealing its bathroom bill after a painful boycott by, among others, the NCAA.) Business leaders including IBM executives and a who’s who of Austin-based technology companies came out against the bill, and the Dallas tourism bureau reported that more than $60 million worth of bookings already had been canceled on the assumption that the bill would pass. Straus argued that killing the stronger senate bill supported by Patrick was “the right thing to do in order to protect our economy from billions of dollars in losses and more importantly to protect the safety of some very vulnerable young Texans.” Patrick, for his part, pointed to a study — conducted by Texans for Dan Patrick — finding that a substantial majority of Texans supported the bill.

In a conversation with conservative talk-radio host Robert Pratt, Straus was pointed about his colleague: “The lieutenant governor . . . has a different audience,” he said. “Literally an audience. He was in your business. He’s an entertainer, a talk-show guy.” Straus did not seem to mean it as a compliment.

But the biggest beef with Straus for conservatives isn’t that he’s too soft or too eager to engage in bipartisanship, but that he isn’t eager enough when it comes to everything else. Despite their commanding political position, Republicans in Texas just are not getting much done. And this isn’t salutary neglect on the Calvin Coolidge model: Texas has some serious problems that need dealing with.

Inaction and complacency are the real problems, says Jeff Leblanc, who, as state chairman of the Ron Paul–aligned Republican Liberty Caucus, knows a little something about Republican-party infighting. “You’re going to get that talk-radio feel from Dan Patrick, and we all know that conservative talk can be over the top,” he says. “It’s entertainment. I think in time we have to realize that our party needs to be broader than that. But I like Dan Patrick. He’s moving things in the senate, whereas the house didn’t move things in the regular session and isn’t moving things in the special session. Watch them in session: It’s come to order, do some memorial, recognize somebody, and then the house stands adjourned. It’s a joke in the house, but Patrick keeps things moving on his side. He will use that hard-right style for political fodder, but he is moving things.”

The talk-radio gang vs. the Chamber of Commerce gang. Sound familiar?

Leblanc points to the obvious parallel with the national political scene: “We spent eight years holding show votes on repealing Obamacare, and now they have the power and can’t get it done. Republicans are getting frustrated with the lack of leadership. They no longer know how to lead — they only know how to be a minority party.”

Who knows? They may get some more practice at that in the near future. There’s an election every other year.

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