Vol 29, Issue 19 Print Issue

Like High School, With Money

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas (l) and Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston (r)
Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas (l) and Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston (r)

Does the John Carona-Dan Patrick spat help either senator's hopes of becoming the next lieutenant governor?

A friend in the lobby calls the Legislature "high school, with money." He's dead on. Look who's passing nasty notes back and forth for the whole class to see: Patrick, a pious Houston Republican and the self-appointed voice of the conservative faction in the Senate's GOP caucus, and Carona, a pugilistic Dallas Republican who would like to be the next lieutenant governor of the state and who seems perfectly willing to accept the 16 votes that would take from anyone in the Senate — even Democrats.

Over the weekend, somebody in the 31-member Senate shared a note with the Quorum Report that was supposed to stay inside. (Memo from Benjamin Franklin: "Three may keep a secret so long as two are dead.") In it, Patrick blasted Carona for spreading a rumor about Patrick and his wife breaking up. It's not true, he wrote, parboiling the Dallas senator for spreading gossip. Carona responded the same way you might expect from a guy known in the Senate for his volcanic temper. He wrote a note — copying everyone — scorching Patrick for scorching him, and raising new gossip about the Houstonian's sexual preferences. And then Patrick responded in kind, kicking Carona and declaring that he would speak no more of it.

If you haven't seen this (Out of town? Wireless was down? Dropped the phone in the sink?), here are some excerpts.

From Patrick's note:

I was in Dallas last week and learned that Senator Carona has told people outside the Senate that Jan and I are separated and may get divorced. He added in a few other negative comments about me in an obvious attempt by him to discredit me for some reason. He can say anything he wants to about me, but saying that Jan and I are separated and may get a divorce is not fair to her or my family.

From Carona's note:

Though I have heard rumors regarding your marital status and sexual preferences for a while now, at no time have I told anyone that you are either separated, divorced, or gay. These are private matters between you, your family, and your minister and none of us wishes to engage in the public discussion that you have now commenced.

Call me cynical, but I believe your motivation for pulling this stunt centers around your paranoia over the 2014 Lt. Governor's Race (for which you appear to have declared candidacy) and your concern that no other Senate Republican emerge as a threat to your ambitions. As you know, if you truly believed I had said something unflattering, you could have simply asked.  I've never been shy about sharing my dislike and distrust of you.  Put bluntly, I believe you are a snake oil salesman; a narcissist that would say anything to draw attention to himself.

The Senate likes to think itself decorous, especially in comparison with the raucous House. Hard to tell Downton Abbey from Ridgemont High, isn't it?

This is all about the fight and not about the substance of the fight. Carona hopes to win the lieutenant governor's chair if and when David Dewhurst leaves the Senate; the presumption in that body is that Dewhurst will win the race for U.S. Senate and it will fall on senators to name one of their own to fulfill the remainder of his four-year term.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, chimed in at the end, wondering whether Patrick would share the name of the person who accused Carona of telling stories and wondering, as Carona did, why Patrick didn't just pick up the phone and call his Dallas colleague.

One possible answer: Patrick wants someone else. Maybe Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, a class favorite who has stayed clear of the pillow fights. Or Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, a conservative veteran who would be the first woman to hold the job since the earth cooled. She stayed well clear, too. Other names come up, too, like Robert Duncan of Lubbock and Tommy Williams of The Woodlands. Somewhere in Texas, contenders were giggling all week. 

Patrick wants to shut the Democrats out of the vote. Most senators — 19 — are Republican, and he thinks the presiding officer should also be a Republican. In fact, no Democrat has a chance. But Patrick wants the Republican caucus to elect Dewhurst's replacement and then to vote as a bloc when that candidate appears for a vote from all 31 senators.

Think like a candidate for a minute. If you wanted to be president of your high school class, you'd take your votes where you found them, right? Why limit it to the cool kids — the football team, the cheerleaders, the social magnets?

That's how Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, became speaker. There were 74 Democrats in the 150-member House, and the vast majority of them wanted to dump Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland. And there were just enough Republicans, Straus included, to combine with them to elect a new speaker. Straus had to find 76 votes — and he took them wherever he could find them.

He later won reelection from a House with a conservative supermajority. Some Republicans have never forgiven him. They have failed to knock him off for that particular apostasy, but are still trying.

That informs the Senate fight. On the other end of the Capitol, Patrick is playing to the same people who didn't like the idea of a Republican speaker initially elected with more Democrats than Republicans at his side. Carona, for example, who is popular enough with the Democrats to raise the question. (It's not at all certain how anyone would vote, including the Democrats, and there are months of inside politics ahead.)

Patrick would prefer a Senate run by Republicans to one run by a majority of its members — unless that majority is from his party.

So who won? Carona did more damage, and Patrick got his nose twisted for making a public fuss. But the case against Carona, if there is one, is that he's not the most politic of politicians, and the occupant of the corner office is supposed to be a level-headed referee. Bob Bullock had a helluva temper, but he wasn't elected to the office by the senators, either. And many of them complained of his stress for success style of management. Patrick might have a long run angle; if he seeks the office in 2014, Carona might have inoculated him against the trouble-at-home rumors. As others have done — the governor is a prime example — he can dismiss it two years from now as old and false gossip spread by a political rival, and move on. Also, he's playing the outside game: Patrick doesn't want to run for the job among the senators, but is considering the possibility of asking voters for the post in 2014. That's a different audience, and one that doesn't care about the Senate's tender sensibilities.

It's early for this. Senators are talking about it, but Dewhurst is still in office. And the elections will tell the survivors something about what voters want. Is this going to be a big Republican year? Which kinds of Republicans will prevail? Voters will answer those questions later this month, in the primaries, and in November.

The senators will continue their sorting. Someone won't measure up. Someone will. If it goes the way it did when Rick Perry left to replace George W. Bush in the governor's office, nobody will know for sure until the Senate's own votes are counted.

Just like the elections in high school.