Michael Quinn Sullivan: "Our Side is Winning"

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(Editor's Note: Conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan has become one of the most powerful unelected figures at the Capitol, happily doing battle with lawmakers he says are wasting taxpayers’ money. But in his never-ending crusade to fight spending, he has trained his sights on an unlikely foe: the members of his own party. The following is an exclusive online excerpt of "Primary Targets," a profile of Sullivan from Texas Monthly's January 2013 issue by senior editor Nate Blakeslee.)

One steamy afternoon in September, Michael Quinn Sullivan unfolded his lanky, six-foot-four-inch frame from a rented SUV and considered the friendly facade of the Spring Creek Barbeque in the Houston suburb of Missouri City. He bounced lightly on the balls of his feet, a smile on his face. He had been here before. About 25 members of the Greater Fort Bend County Tea Party were inside, waiting to hear him speak about the Legislature, but he held no notes in his hand. After more than five years of traveling across Texas to speak at gatherings like this one — averaging two hundred speeches per year — he hardly needed them. In that time his organization, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility (TFR), had become one of the most influential advocacy groups in Austin, thanks in large measure to Sullivan’s Fiscal Responsibility Index, a scorecard he uses to grade legislators according to how well they protect the interests of taxpayers, and his Taxpayer Pledge, which has been signed by scores of lawmakers who promise not to raise taxes. 

But his real power had come from places like the bedroom community he stood in now. The tea party insurgency that swept through the Republican party in 2009 had made his message a welcome one across the state, but especially in the suburbs and small cities. This was Sullivan’s Texas. At every stop on his never-ending tour, he adds new names to his email list, a database of the most energized conservative voters in Texas. He does not hesitate to call them into action when he feels legislators need a little pressure on a given issue.

The grassroots credibility that Sullivan has earned sets his organization apart from other taxpayer groups, like the older and more staid Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, which devotes much of its energy to preparing dry reports and testifying at hearings. Sullivan prefers to get his hands dirty. He loves a good fight, especially on Twitter, where his persona is a blend of gee-whiz Aggie enthusiasm (he went to A&M) and partisan sarcasm of the Bill O’Reilly variety. Last summer, after a blustery back-and-forth with state representative Trey Martinez Fischer, the chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, Sullivan—an avid jogger and cyclist—tweeted: “Been a fun day getting ‘threatened’ on Twitter by Steve Mostyn’s pudgy Austin errand boy.” Mostyn, a deep-pocketed Houston trial lawyer who funds Democratic causes and candidates, is a frequent target. 

But what makes Sullivan unique is his willingness to take on the conservative establishment in Texas. Last year, AgendaWise, a spin-off organization Sullivan created in 2009, called the Texas Association of Business “a helpful tool for liberals hoping for higher taxes and more government.” Texans for Lawsuit Reform—the group that has done more than any other to crush the plaintiff’s bar and the Democratic party it has traditionally helped fund—was labeled insufficiently conservative. Bryan Eppstein, the dean of Republican political consultants, is a “grow-government lobbyist.” Then there is Steve Ogden, the former chairman of the Senate Finance Committee who rammed through a state budget in the 2011 legislative session that for the first time in at least fifty years actually reduced spending over the previous biennium. Ogden trampled the chamber’s Democratic minority in an equally unprecedented manner in the process, along with powerful lobbies like teachers and hospitals. But Ogden failed to sign the Taxpayer Pledge and declined to co-sponsor most of TFR’s legislative agenda. His grade on Sullivan’s index? An F.

Sullivan’s favorite target by far is House Speaker Joe Straus. The San Antonio Republican wrested control of the 150-member chamber from Tom Craddick in 2009 by lining up support from all of the House’s 65 Democrats plus 11 Republicans chafing against Craddick’s autocratic rule. Afterward, Straus gave coveted committee chairmanships to all of the Republicans in the gang of 11, along with a number of Democrats. This was not unusual—the Speaker typically gives the minority party at least some leadership role. But Straus’s new Republican chairs were more independent than their predecessors, and his reliance on Democratic votes made his path to power seem illegitimate to Sullivan and other conservative hard-liners. Despite their efforts, Straus managed to hold on to the gavel after the 2010 elections, even though the Republican landslide that year gave the House a supermajority of 101 Republicans and rendered the Democrats all but powerless. In both the 2010 and 2012 primaries, TFR funded candidates to run against many of Straus’s Republican lieutenants and managed to knock off several of them. In 2012 TFR underwrote a challenger in Straus’s own district, all the while keeping up a steady drumbeat of criticism online and on the conservative speaking circuit. Straus survived, but Sullivan had so poisoned the well against the Speaker that by the time the state Republican convention rolled around, his address to the delegates had to be carefully stage-managed to minimize heckling and booing.

“We in Texas are in a happy era,” Sullivan told his audience in Missouri City. “Our side is winning. All our statewide officials are Republicans. Our state Senate has been Republican for quite some time now. The Texas House has been held by Republicans now for a decade.” He paused. “So with all these wins, why does it sometimes feel like we are still not actually winning?” Take state spending, Sullivan said. “Between 1990 and 2012, it has increased over three hundred percent, while population and inflation increased only one hundred fifteen percent.” For years Sullivan and others on the right have been pursuing a constitutional amendment that would prevent the Legislature from increasing year-to-year spending for any reason other than inflation and population growth, a concept that Republican primary voters have endorsed. With a two-thirds majority in the House, he said, “you would expect they would have been able to do anything they wanted to.” Yet the bill to limit spending didn’t get a hearing until the last possible day of the 2011 session, and the committee chair didn’t even allow a vote. “Are we really winning,” Sullivan asked, “if we don’t get the kind of substantive reforms voters want?”

Sullivan’s power is all the more remarkable when you consider how little he has to work with. The tea party movement began in large part as a reaction to the federal debt. While reasonable people may differ on how grave the crisis really is and how it should best be addressed, most recognize that federal deficits are a problem. But Austin is not Washington, D.C. Sullivan likes to collect anecdotes about waste: the Texas Department of Transportation buying yellow trucks and then repainting them a different shade of yellow, high schools buying big stadium scoreboards while laying off staff, and the like. But the actual state budget numbers simply don’t support the idea that Texas has a spending problem. For decades Texas has ranked at or near the bottom in per capita spending. The purported massive increase in spending that Sullivan cites in his stump speech is in fact largely illusory. In the 2010–2011 biennium, general revenue expenditures, the portion of the budget that legislators have the most control over, was actually lower than it was ten years ago, adjusting for inflation and population growth.

There are other ways to assess relative levels of government spending, but none of them show any pattern of growth in Texas. In fact, they show the opposite. As a percentage of the state’s gross domestic product, general revenue spending has been trending downward for the past two decades—from around 4 percent in the early nineties to around 3.5 percent today. As a share of personal income, the downward trend in Texas over the same period is even more marked: from around 5.2 percent to just over 4 percent. It is true that Texans pay relatively high property and sales taxes, but this is because, unlike most states, we do not have an income tax. Only five states have a lower overall state and local tax burden, and each of them is chiefly rural. Among large, urban states, none even come close to matching Texas’s low tax burden. There is also, of course, a much more obvious problem with making the “state spending is out of control” argument at this particular moment in history. Sullivan, who is 42, was complaining to the Greater Fort Bend County Tea Party about the fiscal performance of a Legislature that had just made budget cuts of a magnitude not seen since before he was born.

“The idea that we are somehow profligate is just nonsense,” said Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business. “They are selling Texans a bill of goods.” And yet Sullivan is widely considered one of the most effective organizers in the state, and his access to leaders like Governor Rick Perry is second to none. Can you really build a grassroots movement around a premise that is fundamentally untrue? Perhaps the better question is, Why would you want to?

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