Skip to main content

Voting with their Middle Fingers

It's embodied in the Tea Party movement, in this week's runoff election results from Lubbock and Plano, in last month's primaries, in Gov. Rick Perry's embrace of state's rights and the 10th Amendment, even in Barack Obama's campaign against the status quo in 2008. Voters aren't happy, and politicians are doing their best to get in line, to accommodate the movement, or to get out of the way.

It's embodied in the Tea Party movement, in this week's runoff election results from Lubbock and Plano, in last month's primaries, in Gov. Rick Perry's embrace of state's rights and the 10th Amendment, even in Barack Obama's campaign against the status quo in 2008. Voters aren't happy, and politicians are doing their best to get in line, to accommodate the movement, or to get out of the way.

"Without the help of the Tea Party in my primary, I don't think I would have got out without a runoff," Perry said in a conference call set up to reach out to those voters this week.

The governor told the Tea Partiers on that call that their work was evident in the runoffs held the day before. "The principles of the Tea Party came through loud and clear in those victories in the last 24 hours," he said.

The governor, who's been in government since 1984 and in his current post since 2000, has managed to position himself with the protestors, railing against Washington and big government and in favor of liberty, freedom, and state's rights. Some think the trend will reinvigorate the GOP.

"The Tea Party group and that movement is pulling the Republicans back to the right and back to where they should have been all along," says Wayne Hamilton, a political consultant and former executive director of the Republican Party of Texas. "I actually think they've done the Republican Party a favor."

It's a fast bandwagon. A group of GOP legislators led by Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston started the Independent Conservative Republicans of Texas this week, appropriating language and ideas from the restive electorate. Attorney General Greg Abbott, among others, has a logo featuring elements of the Gadsden Flag, the one with a rattlesnake on a yellow field with the slogan "Don't Tread on Me." Several Texas pols, including Abbott, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, Patrick and Rep. Linda Harper-Brown of Irving, are throwing in with former New York Gov. George Pataki in an organization called (named for Paul Revere), collecting signatures on petitions to "repeal and replace Obamacare." It's issue-based, and it appeals to voters who aren't happy with the status quo.

"The Tea Party is just people who are upset," Hamilton says, arguing that there's no single issue that describes the group so much as there is a feeling that government is too big and too intrusive, a feeling that finds fertile soil in Texas. "Your issue may be different, but at the core, it's freedom and liberty," he says.

Delwin Jones, who's been in the Legislature since 1989 and served in the House for four terms in the 1960s and 1970s, fell victim to the mood of voters. The 86-year-old state representative drew two challengers, including Charles Perry, a local CPA who co-founded Lubbock's Tea Party. Perry made the runoff and swamped Jones in a primary and runoff that clearly caught public attention in that five-county district.

Were they fired up? Sure. In that HD-83 race in Lubbock, 17,501 people voted in the runoff. Compare it to what happened in the adjacent race in HD-84, where there was no incumbent: 7,901 people voted. Or consider the HD-66 race in Plano, also without an incumbent, which attracted 8,475 voters. Williamson County's hotly contested GOP runoff in HD-52 drew 5,052 voters. Voters might well have decided they'd seen enough of Jones, but he wasn't involved in a scandal and hadn't been the subject of any particularly nasty news. Voters were just worked up, and he was the target. More voted in that March primary — 25,353 — than in any other House race in the state. And only four House primaries drew more voters than the runoff in Lubbock attracted.

Jordan Berry, who ran Perry's campaign, attributes their success to a ground game. They knocked on more doors, basically. "We knew we would be out-gunned. We knew we wouldn't have the establishment support," he ways. "Without a ground game, we wouldn't have won."

To his eyes, Jones never had a message and didn't talk about all of the things he had done for Lubbock. "He actually had some good stuff to talk about, and they didn't go out and talk about it," Berry says. "That blew my mind."

Instead, they went after the challenger in what turned out to be a losing strategy. "They tried to paint Charles Perry as a Tea Party nut sitting in a trailer house in a tin hat," Berry says. That conflicted with the reputation Perry was already establishing — that of a small businessman, a CPA involved in church and community — and didn't work.

What really turned it, though, was that Perry's team identified a new set of voters and got them to the polls: Fed-up conservatives. They compiled lists of people new to the area who had conservative voting patterns elsewhere, he says, and they knocked on thousands of doors with a volunteer labor force of 75 to 100 people. The runoff was a little easier, since the primary election was big and told them who was interested in the race. The fuel behind that, however, was a pool of vexed voters. "It's a sleeping giant," Berry says. He describes it as a group of citizens watching an over-reaching federal government and finally upset enough to act on that frustration. "Obama took advantage of it, too," Berry says. "It pre-dates him."

Rick Perry, at the time speaking on behalf of presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, scratched at Republican disaffection with Washington all the way back in 2007, telling an Iowa gathering that his candidate would mean a change in Washington. "Rudy's a real fiscal conservative... He's a supply-side, Reagan Republican. George Bush is not — and he never was."

Take the Perry-Bush elbowing out of that, and you've got the gist of the voter anger that's expressed, by some, as the Tea Party movement.

"I think they're just tired of politics as usual," says Charles Perry, the Lubbock winner. Voters don't want to mess with politicians but currently feel they must, he says: "You want to elect them, turn your back on them and hope they'd vote the way you wanted, and they're not doing that." The sparks began in Washington, he says, but the Legislature catches blame because of steady increases in property taxes and other taxes and fees from Austin. "If we can balance the budget [next year] without any increases in taxes... that would be a successful first session," he says. "... People are struggling. I see it every day in my business."

It doesn't pay to be an incumbent, unless the incumbent has figured out how to embrace the calls for change without being held accountable for what's wrong in government. Rick Perry has managed to straddle the divide. Kay Bailey Hutchison, pegged as a creature of Washington, D.C., didn't, and was routed in the primary for governor. Delwin Jones did all of the things he's done to win tough elections before, but in a year where insurgency is popular, endorsements from other officeholders, like Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, don't seem to help. Mabrie Jackson, a Republican House candidate who had the endorsement of Rep. Brian McCall, who resigned and created the opening, lost to Van Taylor. Taylor spent a lot of his own money — at least $840,000, according to reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission — but also had the support of Wayne Richard, a Tea Party candidate who lost in the first round. He easily won the race against a candidate anointed by much of the local GOP establishment.

"The energy of the Tea Party movement and the outpouring of conservative angst... what it has done is help bring Republican officeholders and candidates back to tried and true issues," says Eric Bearse, a former speechwriter for the governor who's now a campaign consultant. Perry is now talking up a balanced budget to the U.S. Constitution, an issue that also found traction in local Republican House races around the state.

That's not far afield for him, and some Republicans are right at home with people who might be said to vote with their middle fingers. Others will come along, Bearse says. "Those that are not movement conservatives might be a little nervous... all they have to do is address issues that are important to the movement conservatives."

Right now, economic issues like federal spending, taxes, and jobs are front and center. Immigration is also high on the list.

"They're not as crazy as they're sometimes portrayed to be," says political consultant Mark Sanders, who has worked for candidates in both parties, but usually for Republicans.

Sanders contends the anger isn't limited to Republicans — that Democrats and independents in Texas are also unhappy with the federal government, and about the pocketbook issues that currently dominate political conversation. "If they have one unifying thought, it's that they're mad at the federal government," he says. "If there ever was a year of the outsider, this is it."

What Happened?

Voters routed state Reps. Delwin Jones and Norma Chávez on Tuesday, turned back former state Rep. Rick Green's bid for a spot on the Texas Supreme Court and handed victories to at least three candidates who appeared to benefit from the Tea Party insurgency in Texas. The two major parties have chosen their candidates for November, and once the Libertarians are done in June, the ballots will be set.


Francisco "Quico" Canseco will challenge U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, in the fall. He beat Will Hurd with 53 percent of the vote. The district is currently rated "likely Democratic" by Cook's Political Report, but an analyst there told The Texas Tribune that rating could change to favor a Republican victory if Canseco came out on top in the runoff. Conventional wisdom has it that Canseco could better appeal to the 65 percent of the district's voters who are Hispanic. On primary night in March, Hurd was the frontrunner, coming out just over 400 votes ahead. But Canseco, who said he was "very humbled, but very, very thrilled" about his win, won Bexar County, where the most of the district's voters live. At 60, Canseco has spent 30 years in South Texas as a banker, lawyer and businessman. He has also run in the 23rd before: In 2008 he lost the Republican primary to Lyle Larson, whom Rodriguez defeated in the general election (Larson won the Republican primary for Texas House in the seat now held by Frank Corte, who didn't seek another term).

Bill Flores pulled out an early win against Rob Curnock in the GOP contest to see who will challenge Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, for his seat in the conservative 17th congressional district. Flores, a retired Bryan oil and gas executive, also came out on top in the March primary with 33 percent of the vote to Curnock's 29. Curnock, who ended up with just 36 percent of the vote last night, has run for the Republican nomination in the district three times before. In 2000 and 2002, he was defeated in the primary, and in 2008 he ran unopposed and lost to Edwards in the general election by 8 percentage points. Flores' campaign brought former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, who endorsed the Texas A&M University alumnus and actively stumped for him on the trail, back into the limelight. At one point, Curnock's campaign brushed off Gramm's support as "just another example of Washington insiders working together." Shortly after Flores' victory, Edwards' office released a statement congratulating him and saying the congressman "looks forward to the campaign ahead," but emphasizing Edwards' "strong support from Republicans, Democrats and independents alike."

Texas Supreme Court

Green didn't manage the upset he sought against establishment-backed Debra Lehrmann. She raised close to $280,000 after the March 2 primary, and he finished well behind. After Justice Harriet O'Neill announced in August that she wouldn't seek re-election, six Republicans jumped into the race. Green and Lehrmann, the only candidates in the field with no appellate experience, pulled in front of the pack. The runoff campaign was contentious, with members of the State Bar firmly in the Fort Worth district court judge's camp and social conservatives (including Chuck Norris) flocking to Green.

In early April, GOP elders circulated a letter cautioning voters not to "jeopardize" the court's reputation "by electing someone who is likely to attract criticism and ridicule for himself and our entire judiciary." Five former Supreme Court justices, including former Chief Justice Tom Phillips and former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, supported her candidacy. She also received endorsements from two powerhouses of judicial politics: Texans for Lawsuit Reform and the Texas Medical Association. Green, who raised almost $75,000 after the primary, received a nod from former Supreme Court Justice Scott Brister, WallBuilders' David Barton and several state legislators, including Reps. Leo Berman, Wayne Christian and Warren Chisum.

But all told, Green's colorful past and lack of judicial experience were too much for voters. While in the Legislature, his activity lobbying the state health department prompted a criminal investigation from the Travis County district attorney's office, and his appearance in an early morning infomercial for a dietary supplement called FocusFactor in his Capitol office attracted criticism from his colleagues. Green also made headlines for decking his successor, Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, on Election Day 2006.

Lehrmann will face Democrat Jim Sharp in the fall. And in spite of the rancor, she said, the two remain friends: "I really want Rick Green to know that I appreciate him and what he's done for the state of the Texas in his own way."

State Board of Education

Career educator Marsha Farney easily defeated social conservative Brian Russell in a closely watched race for the State Board of Education. That's the seat now held by Cynthia Dunbar, and the outcome weakens the power of the conservative bloc that currently holds sway on that panel. Farney made it look easy, winning every county in the district and more than three-fifths of the votes cast.

Texas House

Republican voters in Lubbock and four other counties ousted longtime state Rep. Jones in favor of Charles Perry, a Tea Party organizer who campaigned for change and apparently got voters worked up about his candidacy: The runoff drew 17,501 voters — more than most primaries in March turned out. There's no Democrat ahead, so Perry will take a chair in the House next January.

In El Paso, Chavez, a Democrat who provided her political opponents with everything they needed to take her down, was in a close race with former Assistant County Attorney Naomi Gonzalez. Chavez lost the early vote and never caught up. The race was remarkably nasty, with Gonzalez capitalizing on Chavez's self-possessed blunders and Chavez, at one point, calling out Gonzalez as a lesbian one day and then making a public apology the next. And it was remarkably expensive, too, with outside lawyer (Chavez) and business (Gonzalez) interests pushing the total tab close to seven digits.

The only other incumbent on the runoff ballot — Rep. Fred Brown, R-Bryan — easily won his runoff against Gerald "Buddy" Winn and will get another term in the House as a result. Like Perry's, his race didn't draw a Democrat.

John Frullo upset the establishment candidate in Lubbock's other race for the Texas House, an open seat in which Republican Rep. Carl Isett decided not to seek re-election. Isett endorsed Frullo and helped finance and run his campaign. And they overcame endorsements from the likes of state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, for Mark Griffin. The former Texas Tech regent nearly won the race in March, but a last-minute mailer in that round undercut his lead and set the table for his loss in the runoff. Frullo will face Democrat Carol Morgan in November.

Frullo, Perry and Van Taylor in Plano all had significant support from Tea Party supporters and from voters upset with incumbents in general. And their victories came in a week in which legislative Republicans pulled together a new group designed to co-opt some Tea Party ideas and to repair the fracture that appeared in this year's GOP primaries, and to do so before the November general election.

Taylor beat former Plano City Councilwoman Mabrie Griffith Jackson, who was endorsed by former Rep. Brian McCall. Taylor had the Tea Party folks (many of whom supported the third candidate, Wayne Richard, in the March primary) and also had endorsements from two other Collin County lawmakers, Reps. Jodie Laubenberg of Parker and Ken Paxton of McKinney. That wasn't even close, with Taylor — dubbed "Moving Van" by Jackson for his recent move into the district — pulling 58 percent in the runoff. There's no Democrat in that race, so Taylor is on his way to Austin.

Paul Workman defeated Holly Turner in a suburban Austin race in which the GOP hopes to knock out an incumbent. In this case, the target is Democrat Valinda Bolton. In the suburbs to the north, in Williamson County, Larry Gonzales handily won a nasty race against John Gordon that featured commercials with Gordon giving a traffic cop a hard time. Gonzales will face freshman Rep. Diana Maldonado, D-Round Rock, in a race both parties say will be competitive. Jack O'Connor beat Dianne Williams in HD-149 and will face Democratic Rep. Hubert Vo of Houston in November.

Crumpets, Anyone?

The Austin Tea Party is taking on a more positive tone.

"We spent the last year complaining about the way the government was heading," says spokesman Greg Holloway. "Now it's time to say there's a lot — a lot — we love about America. It's time now to make sure the kinds of things we think will strengthen America and help the people in it get passed, and we're going to move toward those positive ideas. Everybody in the world already knows what we're against."

At an April 15 event, they introduced the new "Contract from America" — a ten-point conservative agenda for the future. The driving force behind 1994's "Contract with America," Newt Gingrich, spoke. Holloway says the Gingrich's attendance was huge for the Tea Party — and he sought them out, not the other way around. "The biggest difference is that the Contract with America came from the politicians to the people," Holloway says. Contract from America is the other way around.

Holloway says this move into what the Austin Tea Party refers to as "Phase II" is a statewide transition, though it's not coordinated. "Obviously we all talk, and we've been pointing toward this for some time," Holloway said. "I suspect you will see virtual unanimity in Dallas, Houston and Austin, but how they implement it in their area might be a little bit different."

The Week in the Rearview Mirror

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, announced the formation of a new conservative group —the Independent Conservative Republicans of Texas. Patrick was moved to start ICROT as response to the Tea Party movement, sensing a need among conservatives “to know there are Republican legislators who share their beliefs and will uphold their principals.” Many Republican legislators have signed on, but among the omissions are Speaker Joe Straus and his inner circle.

• Exactly a year after the Tea Party movement asserted its might, its sympathizers want you to know something: they’re still Tea’d. April 15, known to others as Tax Day, was the first anniversary of the anti-government movement, which joined together last year in a host of symbolic tea parties to express displeasure with the current state of affairs.

• Metal detectors are apparently coming to the state Capitol following a 5-1 vote by the Texas State Preservation Board that approved the enhanced security effort. Gov. Rick Perry was the only “nay” vote and has been opposed to the measure since a February shooting at the statehouse prompted lawmakers to push for the change. That was when a Houston man fired shots on the south steps of the building. No one was injured.

• The State Preservation Board approved two scaled-back renovation plans for the Texas Governor’s Mansion. The smaller of the two would add about 700 square feet in the kitchen and some storage space. The larger version would add a bedroom, storage areas, enlarge a bathroom, and make way for a home office — a total of approximately 1,500 square feet. The Texas Historical Commission will make the final decision.

• Public Utility Chairman Barry Smitherman decided not to proceed with a bid for the top job at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which PUC regulates. He had been kicking around the idea of vying for the $350,000-per-year job, much to the chagrin of environmental watchdogs. This week, he said, “"I think to everybody — to the ERCOT board and to me — it just doesn't feel right to go forward."

• Valero’s asking the state for a tax break — and it’s a big one. The refinery, one of the nation’s largest, has asked for an exemption that would cover more than 70 percent of its appraised value under Proposition 2, a law that allows companies to receive breaks on equipment that reduces pollution. Taxes on the refinery account for roughly $1 billion in value in Harris County alone.

• Prison counseling services won’t make it through budget cuts this year unscathed, though studies indicate offenders with substance abuse problems will more likely return to prison without treatment. Of the $294 million the Texas Department of Criminal Justice came up with to cut for state leaders' mandated 5 percent reduction in state agency budgets this year, $23 million came directly from in-prison treatment programs.

• A jury in El Paso found FBI agent John Thomas Shipley guilty of illegally buying and selling firearms, one of which was used in a cartel-related slaying in Chihuahua. Shipley, according to the El Paso Times, sold 51 firearms for about $118,000 and lied to gun dealers in order to make the purchases.

• Juárez Mayor José Reyes Ferriz again denied living in El Paso during a stop at the University of Texas at Austin to discuss border violence. Ferriz has been criticized after reports that, due to threats against him and his family, he moved across the Rio Grande. Reyes Ferriz said the rumors all began after a mistake in a magazine report but many people on both sides of the river continue to believe he lives in Texas.

Political People and Their Moves

There's a budget session ahead and everybody's stocking up on experts. Speaker Joe Straus hired former Health & Human Services Commissioner Albert Hawkins to be his senior policy advisor, presumably overseeing health and human services and the budgetary realm. Prior to heading HHSC, Hawkins was a senior White House aide to President George W. Bush for two years. From 1995 to 2000, he was the budget director for the governor's office. And he was a fixture at the Legislative Budget Board before that.

Meanwhile, the Texas 20/20 PAC retained Billy Hamilton as fiscal policy advisor to the organization. Hamilton was the deputy comptroller of public accounts from 1991 to 1998 and from 1999 to 2006, and was the state's chief revenue estimator before that.

Luke Marchant is leaving Texans for Greg Abbott for Florida, where he'll join Marco Rubio's campaign for U.S. Senate. He'll join Joe Pounder, who left for the Rubio race after Kay Bailey Hutchison's bid for governor fell short.

In Gov. Rick Perry’s reelection campaign, Catherine Frazier was promoted to deputy communications director and Alejandro Garcia was named press secretary. Frazier has been the deputy press secretary since August 2009. Garcia previously served in the special projects section of the Texas Secretary of State Elections Division where he was spokesperson to Hispanic media outlets across the state.

The governor appointed Terrie Livingston of Fort Worth as chief justice of the Second Court of Appeals. Her term will expire at the general election in November.

Straus appointed Barbara Canales of Corpus Christi to the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas Oversight Committee.

Quotes of the Week

Michael Sullivan of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility to the Austin American-Statesman on being asked who's the leader of the Tea Party: "That's like asking who the leader of people with brown hair and green eyes is."

Gov. Rick Perry warning Tea Partiers at a rally on Thursday: "You can bet that every dirty trick is going to get played on Tea Parties, trying to marginalize them, trying to make them into something that they're not."

State Board of Education member Don McLeroy in an interview with Al-Jazeera: "What we're seeking in social studies is just good historical accuracy and to provide balance and remove bias."

Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra, on whether the Texas Attorney General's office should intervene in local prosecution cases: "You can't depend on them. They don't know the community, and they bring in investigators who really don't know what they're dealing with."

Juárez Mayor José Reyes Ferriz, on his efforts to clean up the city's notoriously corrupt police department, to an audience UT-Austin: "We have managed to clean up the police department as best we could. It's not 100 percent clean and I am not going to suggest otherwise."

Former state Rep. Pat Haggerty, on Assistant El Paso County Attorney Naomi Gonzalez's defeat of incumbent Norma Chavez, in the El Paso Times: "Certainly if she gets around the neighborhood, gets to know people and maybe becomes the kinder, gentler Norma that everyone said she was going to become, then she may have a chance."

Perry campaign spokesman Mark Miner, on opponent Bill White's recent anti-Perry ads in campus newspapers: "Bill White is a liberal trial lawyer and shady businessman who refuses to release his tax returns and supports Obamacare. You will see that in an ad also."

University of Texas Law School professor David Anderson, who taught possible Supreme Court nominee Diane Wood, who moved to the state from New Jersey when she was 16, in the Houston Chronicle: "I didn't notice her as a Yankee at that time. She seemed pretty Texan to me."

Contributors: Julian Aguilar, Reeve Hamilton, and Morgan Smith

Texas Weekly: Volume 27, Issue 15, 19 April 2010. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2010 by The Texas Tribune. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (512) 716-8600 or email For news, email, or call (512) 716-8611.

Wait! We need your help.


Explore related story topics