In the Senate, an Expected Exit and a Surprising One

Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, holds a copy of the state budget on the Senate floor March 20, 2013.
Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, holds a copy of the state budget on the Senate floor March 20, 2013.

Add two names to the list of departing state senators, one expected and one a complete surprise. 

Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, is running for governor. Just play like you didn't know that was coming.

The surprise came the day before. Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, announced less than a year after he was sworn into his latest four-year term that he will be resigning from the Texas Senate before the first gavel of the regular legislative session in 2015.

That brings the certain turnover in the 31-member body to four, and the possible turnover to seven. 

Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, is running for lieutenant governor, and Sen. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, is running for attorney general. They would each be up for re-election next year, so their decisions to run mean they won't be back in the Senate. Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, is running for comptroller; should he lose, he would return to the Senate for the last two years of his term. Meanwhile, three midterm Democrats — José Rodríguez of El Paso, Carlos Uresti of San Antonio and Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio — have been in conversations about statewide runs. Van de Putte is considering the lieutenant governor's race; the other two are prospects for attorney general.

That's without anyone unexpectedly losing a bid for re-election.

• The Davis seat will be difficult for the Democrats to keep. U.S. Sen. John McCain won 52.1 percent of the vote in the 2008 presidential race, and former Massachussetts Gov. Mitt Romney won 53.3 percent in the 2012 presidential race in that district, and Gov. Rick Perry won with 52.7 percent in 2010. Down the ballot, where voters are less likely to recognize the names, there is a big difference between presidential and gubernatorial years. Candidates in statewide judicial races just broke 50 percent in 2008 and didn't do much better last year. But 2010 — a big Republican year and also one without a presidential campaign at the top — saw down-ballot statewide Republican candidates getting 57 percent or more. Davis never tried her luck in a gubernatorial year in the district.

• SD-10 votes much like the state as a whole, but not quite as strongly. Statewide Republicans did 3 or 4 percentage points better in Texas as a whole than in Davis' district. But they all won, which is something they haven't done in other Senate districts held by Democrats. 

• It’s really unusual to have both of the top legislative budgeteers leave at the same time. House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, already announced that this will be his last term. Williams’ departure puts the Senate in the same spot. Or worse, since that body might also have a new lieutenant governor in place next session. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has been deep in the budget numbers since he got here. If he loses his re-election bid in 2014, both the new lieutenant governor and the new finance chairman will be on a steep learning curve.

• It’s impossible to look at Williams’ move and wonder whether he knows something about Dewhurst that we don’t know. That’s his patron — the guy who appointed him to head Finance this year. Does Williams think Dewhurst is leaving, voluntarily or otherwise? Does he think the replacement boss would replace him? A hint of that came in a press release from Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, the day after the Williams news broke; Patrick, who is challenging Dewhurst in the 2014 primary for lieutenant governor, said the seat should go to Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. Patrick’s tag: “As lieutenant governor, she possesses the characteristics I would look for in someone to fill this key position.”

• The resignation is a rare complete surprise. Williams didn’t tell anybody he wanted to find a new line of work, save perhaps the folks at Texas A&M, who are trying to close a deal that would add him to their intergovernmental relations staff. And just a few months ago, he was openly considering a run for comptroller — just the opposite of getting out of politics altogether.

• Williams was on the conservative end of the spectrum when he came into the Senate, but the spectrum moved with the elections of senators like Brian BirdwellKelly Hancock and Paxton. He could be replaced by someone whose politics are more like theirs than his. The line is already forming, sort of: Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, might give up his bid for agriculture commissioner and run for SD-4 instead; Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, is looking; Ben Streusand, a serial Republican candidate who doesn’t hold office, is also considering it.

This is a big deal inside the Senate. Williams was often on the prevailing side in internal squabbles and caucus debates, known to tap the brakes from time to time to keep things from spinning into the partisan swamps so popular in the national capital.

Someone — it is not clear who — will step into that role. Someone always has.

Conservative Officials Turn to Crowdsourcing

In the first months of his gubernatorial campaign, Attorney General Greg Abbott has criss-crossed the state on a “Main Street Texas Tour,” speaking at dozens of campaign events as he tries to reach voters.

It’s a difficult feat in a state with 254 counties, so his campaign is now taking its outreach efforts online and recently launched Townhall254, an online forum where individuals can post ideas on policy issues that will allow the campaign to gather public input and keep in touch with supporters.

Abbott’s initiative is the latest among Texas Republicans to integrate crowdsourcing — collecting ideas or information from large numbers of individuals who respond to specific requests — into his politics. But some political scientists say such efforts tend to only serve a candidate's base supporters and rarely produce new ideas for the candidate to consider. 

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst recently launched an online portal, Your Texas Voice, to collect ideas for interim charges that legislative committees will be assigned to research before the next legislative session.

Senate interim charges are usually determined with help from state senators and interest groups about legislation they’d like to prioritize, but crowdsourcing presents an opportunity to connect to Texans in what Dewhurst called a “citizen Legislature” in a statement released the day the forum was launched.

During his 21-hour speech last month, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz read tweets on the Senate floor from individuals who had posted comments about their opposition to the Affordable Care Act. He and his aides used the hashtag “#MakeDCListen” to track the posts.

The use of crowdsourcing in Texas politics isn't an exclusively Republican tactic.

Democrats tailored a Twitter hashtag for supporters of state Sen. and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis of Fort Worth. Davis' team can track posts by supporters using the "#TeamWendy" hashtag. The Texas Democratic Party also used it to promote Davis' first campaign video and asking supporters to repost it.

In a political era where most elected officials reach out to supporters through social media, crowdsourcing is a way politicians can have direct and continuous contact with their base supporters, according to Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.

“It doesn’t tend to enlarge the circle of communication, much less support, but it does allow politicians to stay in close contact and really two-way contact,” Jillson said. 

Jillson said crowdsourcing gives politicians a platform they can use to make voters believe they want to hear their ideas and their take on how they can do better in a way that comes with less repercussions than posting something on social media themselves.

“The odds that you’re going to get an idea from that that’s never been considered is vanishingly small, but the guy that hits ‘send’ on that tweet or the person who sends in that idea feels empowered by that, and it means next to nothing,” Jillson said.

Jim Henson, a Tribune pollster and director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said crowdsourcing allows for a mobilization of supporters but doesn’t tend to persuade new supporters.

“The tools of expanding your base, if you will, or having a persuasive effect on public opinions is pretty limited,” Henson said. “They have a tendency of an echo-chamber quality to them.”

The policy issues Abbott supporters can comment on — individual liberties and constitutional freedoms, border security and immigration and health care reform — are issues Abbott has spoken on and defended in the past.

The creation of specific tags on social media, like Cruz used on Twitter during last month's discourse on the Senate floor, also help support a politician’s agenda while garnering more publicity and free media, Henson said. 

While some politicians tout grassroots support, they may also use different approaches, like crowdsourcing, to push their agenda onto grassroots supporters through targeted campaigns or initiatives.

“It’s hard not to see this as a different manifestation of astroturfing,” Henson said. “It creates a perception of public opinion that becomes self-validated.”

The Politics of High-Speed Rail in Texas

The JR Central N700 Series, a Japanese Shinkansen bullet train developed by two railway companies in Japan.
The JR Central N700 Series, a Japanese Shinkansen bullet train developed by two railway companies in Japan.

The current political calculus is pretty simple: If the Obama administration is in favor of something, Republicans will be against it. In recent years, high-speed rail has been added to that list as Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime rail enthusiast, has touted federal proposals to fund projects around the country in the face of GOP opposition.

Texas may turn that political wisdom on its head next year as a private firm moves forward with plans to build a bullet train between Dallas and Houston. While the project has the potential to transform the way Texans get around, it could first become an issue in next year’s elections.

The company, Texas Central High-Speed Railway, drew attention last year when it announced plans to develop a high-speed rail line without public subsidies. Texas transportation officials took the project seriously, noting the pedigree of the investors: Japanese financiers behind a profitable bullet train line in Japan. Interest has only increased in recent months as the company has added former Texas Rangers president Tom Schieffer and Peter Cannito, former president of the New York-based MTA Metro-North Railroad, as senior advisers. 

At the recent Texas Tribune Festival, Texas Central High-Speed Railway President Robert Eckels provided new details about the timeline for the company’s plans.

“We expect to go out in the field after the first of the year with our notice of intent and our environmental impact statement,” said Eckels, a former state legislator and Harris County judge.

Local and state officials have been waiting for those filings to learn more about the exact route the company wants its bullet trains to take and the locations of the rail stations. Though some North Texas officials had lobbied the company to place its northern station at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, company officials have confirmed they are focused on downtown Dallas.

As more details come out, the project could present political pitfalls for those on next year’s ballot.

While Republicans may favor the company’s free-market focus, that doesn’t mean the project won’t be completely free of public costs. During this year's legislative sessions, some lawmakers opposed the allocation of any new transportation resources unless they were dedicated to road construction and maintenance. 

“We don’t want operations subsidies,” Eckels said. “We do need regulatory help. We may need help with infrastructure relating to our project.”

Democrats may find themselves questioning whether low-income Texans will be priced out of the service if tickets are priced to cover expenses and make a profit without subsidies.

And both Democrats and Republicans may feel a sense of déjà vu as they draw questions about whether Texas Central High-Speed Railway should be permitted to acquire private Texans’ property. Though the firm hopes to develop most of the line along current freight line rights-of-way, Eckels acknowledged that those won’t cover the entire route. The idea of a foreign-backed private company employing eminent domain for a major transportation project could draw comparisons to the Trans-Texas Corridor, a political headache of a project that lawmakers had to repeatedly declare dead in order to appease angry voters.

Texas Central High-Speed Railway hopes to start construction in 2016, with Texans making the first trips between Dallas and Houston in less than 90 minutes as early as 2021. Whether the project stays on that timeline will be dependent in part on how it is received next year, just as statewide political races are heating up. If politicos don’t put up too many obstacles, Republican-friendly Texas could sport the country’s first true high-speed rail line.

Somewhere, Joe Biden is smiling.

Newsreel: Water, the Other Perry and Davis

This week in the Texas Weekly Newsreel: Gov. Rick Perry and others are traveling the state encouraging voters to approve water funding, first lady Anita Perry makes news with her views on abortion and Wendy Davis makes if official.

Inside Intelligence: About That Shutdown...

As the federal government was shutting down, we asked the insiders about the political ramifications, starting with the blame game. Three out of four insiders agree that voters will blame Republicans for the trouble. And the Republicans won’t get one of the things they were hoping for, if the insiders are right: 59 percent said the shutdown will not focus voter attention on federal health care.

The general elections are a year away, but 83 percent of the insiders expect the federal health care law to be a major political issue in November 2014.

Finally, we asked which party’s candidate will reap the biggest benefit in next year’s elections if the federal health care law goes into effect without delay; about half of the insiders thing the Democrats will get the win, and 35 percent think the Republicans will benefit most.

The respondents had a lot to say on the subject and a full set of their verbatim remarks is attached. Here’s a sampling:

Which party will voters blame for the federal government shutdown?

• "People want to have elections respected & they expect negotiation to solve problems."

• "While there's plenty of blame to go around, the media will focus only the role of Republicans."

• "The public is so weary of the Washington blame game the attempt by each party to blame the other will fall on deaf ears."

• "The shutdown is a manufactured crisis by the House Majority. Culberson was quoted as saying he is 'excited' about shutting it down. The Rs want the 'blame'."

• "This government shutdown is speeding up the exodus from the Republican party that include Young Republicans, Latino Republicans, and Reagan Democrats. Good Luck, Wackos."

• "This is a partisan divide issue and we are at a stalemate.  Each side will blame the other and folks will follow depending on the way they lean.  No Republican will look at the shutdown and say, gee, my guys are to blame here and no Democrat will say, golly, I wish the Democrats would have at least met with the GOP.  Everyone is dug in."

• "Really, you even have to ask this question.  Obama says I don't have to compromise?  How arrogant is that.  Reid will not appoint negotiators to a join committee on budget issues?  I would say that means they are to blame."

• "Both are in fantasy land."

Does the shutdown accomplish the goal of focusing voter attention on federal health care?

• "Nope, now they're focused on other government issues: military pay, VA funding, SS and Medicare continuance."

• "What conventional pundits are missing is that there will be a huge impatience and then anger at how poorly the ACA is being administered. All of this will work far better for Republicans, whether they 'win' or 'lose' the short term battle."

• "As I type this response the news is reporting on WWII veterans breaking into their own shuttered memorial. How many days of stories like this before the public loses focus on the underlying reasons for the shutdown?"

• "No. It puts the focus on a dysfunctional group of people who would rather cut off income for their employees than get in a room and work it out.  Can you imagine if businesses operated like this? And let's not forget this was a temporary budget, not even the real thing."

• "It really focuses attention on how the Tea Party is destroying the Republican Party and how gutless main stream Republicans are in standing up to the Tea Party."

• "Yes, but not in the way Republicans will have wanted. When the ACA is in place, hardliner Rs will lose some credibility in all but the most conservative areas because they have overplayed how bad it will be."

• "The only goal it accomplishes is to highlight the 'broken-ness' of Washington."

• "Absolutely.  And the debt."

Do you think the Affordable Care Act will still be a major political issue before the November 2014 elections?

• "Without question. This is a much larger albatross for Democrats as it plays out than anyone, perhaps even including Ted Cruz himself, presently understands."

• "I suspect it will be a major positive issue for Dems in that election.  Obama should not have screwed with it, and that is hurting, but the marketplaces are online and millions of people will be acquiring health insurance for the first time ... and seeing the difference it makes to their lives.  If the Republican post-2010 congressional and legislative redistricting effort hadn't been so effective - and ours so ineffective - we would use their opposition to ACA to toss a bunch Republicans out of office in 2014, but those districts are just too damned tight for us to win back the house for a while."

• "The fight about Obamacare will define domestic policy in national races for the remainder of the decade."

• "2010 all over again."

• "Yes, but by that point, the story will be how well or how bad the implementation and roll out has gone."

• "If only to fire up partisans on both sides of the issue."

• "About all the Republicans can talk about these days."

• "Hopefully for Red State Democrats."

• "Ted and Co. will not let this financial albatross be forgotten"

Assuming the Affordable Care Act goes into effect without delay, which party's candidates will reap the biggest benefit in the 2014 elections?

• "It depends on how well it is implemented."

• "Flawed question, the ACA's full implementation is already hindered by various delays of certain provisions irrespective of what's happening with the funding shutdown.  Still, as premiums rise and people realize ACA is not all it was promised, scalps will be collected in 2014, starting with those who voted for it in late 2009 and early 2010."

• "I depends on whether the D's can deliver lower premiums and more access to health care.  Frankly, I am skeptical."

• "From college kids being able to stay on their parents' insurance to the prescription drug savings, Obamacare is working. A majority already opposes defunding. That number will grow as more people benefit."

• "The reason Republicans are fighting so hard (and they've said as much), is once the ACA goes into effect, people will like it."

• "It won't be working well in 2014, so that will help the GOP.  Whether it will impact 2016 is the bigger question."

• "Voters will feel the pain of job losses, cost increases for insurance, dropped insurance coverage, etc."

• "Depends on how implementation goes and if the law really works.  If it does people will start enjoying the benefit just like social security."

Our thanks to this week’s participants: Cathie Adams, Brandon Aghamalian, Jenny Aghamalian, Victor Alcorta, George Allen, Jay Arnold, Louis Bacarisse, Charles Bailey, Walt Baum, Eric Bearse, Dave Beckwith, Andrew Biar, Allen Blakemore, Tom Blanton, Hugh Brady, Chris Britton, David Cabrales, Kerry Cammack, Marc Campos, Snapper Carr, Janis Carter, Corbin Casteel, William Chapman, Elizabeth Christian, Elna Christopher, Harold Cook, Addie Mae Crimmins, Chad Crow, Beth Cubriel, Randy Cubriel, Denise Davis, Hector De Leon, Eva De Luna-Castro, June Deadrick, Nora Del Bosque, Tom Duffy, David Dunn, Richard Dyer, Jeff Eller, Jon Fisher, Wil Galloway, Dominic Giarratani, Eric Glenn, Kinnan Golemon, Daniel Gonzalez, Clint Hackney, Anthony Haley, Wayne Hamilton, Bill Hammond, John Heasley, Jim Henson, Steve Holzheauser, Deborah Ingersoll, Richie Jackson, Cal Jillson, Bill Jones, Mark Jones, Robert Jones, Lisa Kaufman, Robert Kepple, Richard Khouri, Tom Kleinworth, Sandy Kress, Dale Laine, Nick Lampson, Pete Laney, Dick Lavine, James LeBas, Luke Legate, Leslie Lemon, Richard Levy, Ruben Longoria, Vilma Luna, Matt Mackowiak, Luke Marchant, Dan McClung, Robert Miller, Bee Moorhead, Mike Moses, Steve Murdock, Keir Murray, Nelson Nease, Keats Norfleet, Pat Nugent, Todd Olsen, Nef Partida, Gardner Pate, Robert Peeler, Jerry Philips, Tom Phillips, Wayne Pierce, Richard Pineda, Allen Place, Royce Poinsett, Gary Polland, Jay Pritchard, Jay Propes, Ted Melina Raab, Bill Ratliff, Brian Rawson, Karen Reagan, Tim Reeves, Patrick Reinhart, David Reynolds, Kim Ross, Grant Ruckel, Jason Sabo, Andy Sansom, Jim Sartwelle, Stan Schlueter, Bruce Scott, Robert Scott, Steve Scurlock, Christopher Shields, Jason Skaggs, Ed Small, Larry Soward, Leonard Spearman, Dennis Speight, Tom Spilman, Jason Stanford, Bill Stevens, Bob Strauser, Colin Strother, Michael Quinn Sullivan, Sherry Sylvester, Russ Tidwell, Trey Trainor, Ware Wendell, David White, Darren Whitehurst, Woody Widrow, Christopher Williston, Seth Winick, Peck Young, Angelo Zottarelli.

The Calendar

Monday, Oct. 7:

  • Harris County Republican Party reception for U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul; 10239 Pineland Drive, Houston (5:30-7 p.m.)

Thursday, Oct. 10:

  • Sen. Jane Nelson's Annual 40th Birthday Celebration; Circle R. Ranch, Flower Mound (6-8 p.m.)
  • Reception for Rep. Rafael Anchia; Haynes and Boone, Dallas (10-11:30 a.m.)
  • Reception for Rep. Nicole Collier; Fort Worth Club (4:30-6 p.m.)
  • Reception for Rep. Yvonne Davis; Sambuca Restaurant, Dallas (5:30-7 p.m.)
  • Reception for Rep. Roberto Alonzo; Bishop Arts District Winery, Dallas (5:30-8 p.m.)

The Week in the Rearview Mirror

State Sen. Wendy Davis, standing on the stage where she got her high school diploma more than 30 years ago, finally announced Thursday what has been anticipated, telegraphed and talked about for weeks: She is running for Texas governor. Davis promised to be an advocate for those who feel they no longer have a voice in the halls of the Texas Capitol, to fight for more education dollars and to take on Republicans leaders who she said are listening to their campaign contributors instead of average Texans. "In Austin today, our current leadership thinks promises are just something you make to the people who write big checks," she said. "But the promise I’m talking about is bigger than that. It’s the promise of a better tomorrow for everyone. Texas deserves a leader who will protect this promise. Texas deserves a leader who will keep it."

Republican Greg Abbott is leading Democrat Wendy Davis by 8 points in a hypothetical matchup for Texas governor, but it’s a statistical dead heat among women, according to a Texas Lyceum Poll of registered voters. Abbott, the attorney general, leads Davis, a state senator from Fort Worth, 29 percent to 21 percent in the poll, with a whopping 50 percent undecided. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 3.47 percentage points. Abbott’s lead shrinks to 2 points, within the margin of error, when only women are counted. In that slice of the electorate, Abbott had 25 percent and Davis was at 23 percent, with 51 percent undecided.

Saying that the current federal government shutdown and tensions between Republicans and Democrats have made Texans ready for a change in leadership, Libertarian Kathie Glass announced her candidacy in the 2014 governor’s race. "We’re going to be active in every aspect of this race,” said Glass, a Houston lawyer who also ran for governor in 2010. “We are getting out there a lot sooner.” Glass said she plans to visit every county in Texas during her campaign and will talk to Texans about their frustrations with the current state of affairs.

Ongoing technical difficulties on the new federal health insurance marketplace’s website have created road blocks for Texans trying to sign up and review coverage options under the Affordable Care Act. “We keep getting kicked off the network, but we’ve screened some patients,” said José Camacho, executive director of the Texas Association of Community Health Centers. “People, from what we can gather at the centers, are quite excited.” Although Tuesday marked the beginning of a six-month enrollment period, Camacho said many Texans have already shown up at federally qualified health centers to receive assistance applying for coverage in the exchange. 

Political People and their Moves

Wallace Jefferson is joining the Alexander Dubose & Townsend law firm, as is Rachel Ekery, who was his staff attorney at the Texas Supreme Court for ten years. Jefferson was chief justice of that court until this week. He’s joining the appellate boutique firm, and adding his name to the letterhead: It’s now Alexander Dubose Jefferson & Townsend.

Attorney general candidate Ken Paxton picked up an endorsement from Ernie Angelo Jr. of Midland, a former Midland mayor and Republican national committeeman.

The Texas Right to Life PAC endorsed in the attorney general’s race, saying they would be okay with two of the three Republican candidates in that primary. They like Barry Smitherman and Paxton. 

Attorney General Greg Abbott picked up an endorsement from the Texas Civil Justice League for his bid for governor. 

Adam Haynes is joining the Cross Oaks Group, a lobby and public affairs firm started by Jim Dow and Mark Homer. Haynes was most recently with Chesapeake Energy and, before that, with the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association.

After 26 years with the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, Russ Tidwell is leaving. He was TTLA’s political director; no replacement has been named.

Gov. Rick Perry appointed Mary Murphy as presiding judge of the First Administrative Judicial Region. She retired from the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas.

Perry also named Jaime Tijerina of Mission as judge of the 92nd Judicial District. He is a private practice attorney, owner and managing partner of a ranch and the former Kenedy County attorney

Quotes of the Week

That could be a woman’s right, just like it’s a man’s right if he wants to have some kind of procedure.

First Lady Anita Perry, on women who have abortions, at The Texas Tribune Festival

From time to time we’ll stick the wrong word in the wrong place, and you pounce upon it.

Gov. Rick Perry to reporters, referring to his wife's remark on abortion

Right now we have a universal health care system — it’s called the emergency room.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, at The Texas Tribune Festival

I don’t have outsized weird ambitions. I’ve got plenty to do right where I am.

Speaker Joe Straus, asked by a teenager whether he wants to run for governor, at The Texas Tribune Festival

Cruz said he would deliver the votes and he didn’t deliver any Democratic votes. He pushed House Republicans into traffic and wandered away.

Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist in an interview with The Washington Post

It’s very hard from a distance to figure out who has lost their minds.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., quoted in The New York Times on the federal government shutdown 

He was the one who said if the House voted to defund, that the Democrats would fold and the president would fold. So if the government shuts down, it’s obviously Ted Cruz’s fault.

U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., to The Dallas Morning News