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Brian Birdwell: The TT Interview

The newest state senator talked to the Tribune on Wednesday about being a 9/11 survivor, whether he's really eligible to serve, his ties to the Tea Party, why he'd eliminate property taxes and the Texas pols he'll model himself after.

Brian Birdwell

Meet the newest state senator in Texas: Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury. But do it soon. There's a chance he could be out of office by January. 

In a special election on Tuesday, after a campaign touting his ideological purity, Birdwell defeated former state Sen. David Sibley, even though Sibley, most recently a lobbyist, was supported by the likes of former President George W. Bush; U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis; and a number of prominent state legislators.

With his victory, Birdwell has won the Senate District 22 seat for a grand total of six months — serving out the remainder of the term of retiring state Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco. Of course, his real goal is to serve on through the 82nd legislative session, and maybe even beyond.

But there's a hitch. Averitt is still on the November ballot for as the GOP's nominee but says he will be withdrawing his name this week. When that happens, his replacement will be chosen by a group of local party chairs who are expected — but not obligated — to choose Birdwell. Averitt’s exit will also open the door for the Democrats to choose a nominee — which they failed to do originally, believing Averitt would be an unbeatable opponent — to fill their currently empty slot on the ballot.

Questions also remain about Birdwell’s residency. The Texas Constitution requires a state senator to live in Texas for five years, but Birdwell voted in Virginia in 2006. He says he maintained his Texas residency while serving his country elsewhere, and he has a declaratory judgment from a judge concurring. It remains to be seen whether Democrats choose to press the issue, as Averitt has suggested they might.

For now, call him Senator Birdwell. 

You have quite a backstory. Of course, the first thing people mention about you is that you are a 9/11 survivor.

Well, we’re just very blessed. The Lord was very good to us on the morning of September 11. A lot of people ask, "Where was God that morning?" I can tell you he was at the intersection of the fourth corner in the E-Ring at the crash site. For me to survive … there’s no human reason that I survived. It’s just simply the Lord’s hand. I’m very blessed to continue my life and my marriage with my wife, Mel. We just celebrated our 23rd anniversary. Our son Matt just celebrated his 21st birthday. However many years more the Lord grants me life on earth, we’ll continue to enjoy it.

You only won the right to serve until January.  Do you expect to be the Republican candidate in November?

I would expect so, but the county chairs are not tethered to having me be that candidate for the November ballot. I certainly expect it, but the county chairs will make that decision sometime no later than August.

I sure will [be talking to them in the meantime]. Similar to what I did when we first began the campaign. ... I’ll do so again and just visit with them and tell them my desire to serve and respect whatever decision they make.

Before saying he would remove his name from the November ballot, Sen. Kip Averitt expressed concerns about your eligibility because of residency issues. Is there any validity to his concern?

Well, one, I don’t have any concern. We’ve taken all the right actions. We’ve got the declaratory judgment. The residency issue is not an issue. It’s been thrown out there as a means to potentially cause voters concern they should not have. ... I’m absolutely a resident of the state of Texas, and having that confidence and strength, we went forward to the courts, and Judge Brigham, [a] 2nd Court of Appeals judge, gave us that declaratory judgment, and we’re continuing to move on. So we don’t think we have an issue at all ...

I’m very gracious and appreciative of Sen. Averitt’s comment this morning that he’d given you and look forward to the opportunity of garnering his wisdom and experience as our previous serving state senator. I’d love the opportunity to listen to him and learn more about how things work in Austin and then continue to advance conservative principles with my fellow members of the state senate.

Can you lay out the timeline of events to clarify your residency?

Sure — there’s a number of aspects involved that we meet. I mean, I don’t want to bore you with the legalese. 

The secretary of state certified me. In the declaratory judgment, Judge Brigham said Brian’s been a 37-year resident of the state of Texas. I was born in Fort Worth in ’61 [and] commissioned as an officer in the United States Army. [T]hroughout my military career, then upon my retirement the medical necessity of remaining in a temporary absent state, remaining in Virginia to complete my medical care, [I took] actions to prepare me to move home. Those facts and circumstances lay out that I’m a Texas resident.

I’ve lived in Hood County for three years. We’ve owned our property here for five — we had bought [it] prior to moving here so that we could be in the process of building a home.

Those facts and circumstances are cleanly laid out in the declaratory judgment, and that’s exactly why Judge Brigham gave us the decision he did as quickly as he did ...

So even though you voted in Virginia, you were only there in the capacity of serving your country?

Right. I owned property in Hood County in 2005. That’s when we closed on it. We had to make that decision when we began closing down the medical operations. So we absolutely met the intention, action and volition aspects of the law that are required for residency.

Legal experts have questioned the validity of the declaratory judgment because the other sides weren’t represented before the judge. Was it a misstep to not include them?

I don’t believe it was a misstep at all. [T]he secretary of state had certified us. We wanted to go forward to the voters and say, “Look, okay, we’ll step forward — we have solved this problem.” Having already been on the ballot, it did not affect either candidate in going to the declaratory judgment.

Had any of the candidates — the three in the original race or my opponent in the runoff — decided, they could have gone to the courts at any time.  They chose not to. So, not inappropriate at all.

Is it accurate to refer to you as the Tea Party candidate?

It is — not in the sense of the Tea Party being a third party, you know, separate from Republican or Democrat. But we had a lot of Tea Party support, both in the Waco area and in the northern part of the district — in Ellis, Navarro, Johnson Counties. We had a lot of Tea Party support [friom] workers and activists in that arena that we’re very appreciative of. 

Tea Parties are about getting back to our founding principles, not so much “new ideas," but new people executing classic principles of conservatives — or conservative principles that our founders espoused in not only the Declaration but how we founded the government. They’re ready to take their government back, and that’s what our campaign was about as well. So I was very pleased and privileged to have Tea Party support.

Which of your issues most resonated with voters and put you over the top?

I think the issue was conservative principles — it wasn’t a particular one thing. While there’s a number of challenges we face in the district and in the state, it was who had the best ability and the best opportunity to represent conservative principles, and that’s what I think was at stake throughout the race.

You also are a big proponent of eliminating property taxes.

I think we have a huge problem with property taxes. 

I can’t tell you the number of folks concerned about being taxed out of their homes by the way the property tax system is currently structured. But how do you do that without damaging our public schools? So we’ve got to come up with a means to determine how to best make sure, one, home ownership means home ownership and, two, maintain good schools and do that with the broadest base of tax support.

So we’ve got to take a hard look at what we can do to restructure how we actually fund schools in such a way that makes it broad-based, fair and keeps people in their homes after they’ve paid their mortgage.

Are there other Texas politicians you intend to model yourself after?

Yes, sir. Sen. Jane Nelson out of Denton and Sen. [Dan] Patrick out of Houston. Both are very gracious, and those types of conservatives in the Senate are the folks that I wish to come beside and have them mentor [me], groom, [me] etc. as a brand new state senator.

You might end up having to go right back to campaign mode in the November election. Are you confident you could beat a Democrat, if one [runs] against you?

Yes, sir. We stepped up and took on a former state senator, very well respected, [who] had a lot of name recognition, and we won. So we’re ready for whatever the next challenge is.

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