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New Lawmaker's Crusade Against Government is a Lonely One

In the just-ended legislative session, freshman state Rep. David Simpson made a name for himself — and not always a nice one — with his passionate push for the “anti-groping” airport bill and his outspoken stance against proposals he believed represented government intrusion into personal freedoms.

State Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, sits at his desk on the House floor with an airplane drawing and the "Come and Take It" slogan visible on May 27, 2011.

He bowed his head, tightly shut his eyes and pressed his index finger to his lips, waiting and praying for the state Senate to approve one of his biggest priorities of his freshman legislative session: a controversial measure that would apply criminal penalties to federal airport security agents who conduct intrusive pat downs.

“It’s just unreasonable for [the federal government] to say, ‘We grope you or you don’t fly,’” said state Rep. David Simpson. “We’re drawing reasonable lines.”

As with all of the bills the Tea Party conservative who represents Longview filed during his freshman legislative session, this one failed. The Senate sponsor of Simpson’s bill pulled it after the federal Justice Department threatened to shut down Texas’ airspace.

In the just-ended 82nd legislative session, Simpson made a name for himself — and not always a nice one — with his passionate push for the so-called “anti-groping” bill and his outspoken stance against bills he believed represented government intrusion into personal freedoms. Driven by his deeply held beliefs in liberty and God, Simpson said he set out in his first legislative session to restrict government. “One hundred eighty-one people don’t have the wisdom, don’t have the knowledge, to tell 25 million people how to live their lives,” he said. “We’re not wise enough to do it. We’re not a house of God.”

Several of his legislative colleagues said they appreciate Simpson’s sincerity and devotion, but they also found his sometimes-confrontational approach, the seeming narrowness of his religious convictions and his independent style off-putting, even annoying. And back home in Longview, at least so far, the reviews of his legislative debut have been mixed. Tea Party leaders who helped Simpson win a place in the Capitol said they were pleased with his principled stand on many issues, and his commitment to smaller government and budget reductions. Others, though, view their representative as an embarrassing grandstander whose views are too radical even for their conservative community.

The 49-year-old father of seven takes the criticism in stride. Quoting the Gospel, he said, “If all men speak well of you, woe be unto you.” Simpson, a Reformed Baptist, graduated from high school in Highland Park, a wealthy Dallas enclave. In 1992, he moved to the tiny East Texas town of Avinger — where six generations of his family have lived — and served as mayor from 1993 until 1998. He runs a lumber company, founded a religious book publishing company and leads prayer at his local church. A self-defined Jeffersonian Constitutionalist, Simpson attributes his victory in a “David and Goliath-like battle,” against seven-term incumbent Republican Tommy Merritt to his encyclopedic knowledge of the Constitution.

“Civil government really should be simply protecting life, liberty and property and getting out of the way,” Simpson said. In his view, life is governed in four spheres (in order of importance): self, family, church, civil. It’s a philosophy that governs his life. Unlike most lawmakers, Simpson brought his family with him to the capital city. Three of his children are grown, but the four younger ones are home-schooled. They moved to Austin, along with his wife, Susan, and often accompanied Simpson to the Capitol.

Even before he was inaugurated, Simpson made waves under the pink dome. He joined conservative Christian groups’ unsuccessful efforts to oust incumbent GOP House Speaker Joe Straus — the first Jewish leader of the chamber — who Simpson said was not conservative enough. Standing on the front steps of the Capitol the night before his own inauguration and the speaker election, Simpson led a small group in a prayer vigil that later aired on The Daily Show. Holding his cowboy hat in hand, he prayed: “Father, we plead with you that you would give us a Godly, humble leader of the Texas House.” He was one of 15 legislators who voted against Straus, a move that usually lands lawmakers in the political doghouse.

Simpson further alienated himself when he used parliamentary procedures to knock the bills of a number of senior legislators off of the fast-track House calendar. One of those was long-time Houston Democratic Rep. Senfronia Thompson’s contentious puppy mill bill, meant to regulate animal breeders. Simpson said it was an unnecessary government expansion that would cost the state money and create a “dog Gestapo.”

His tactics drew the ire of lawmakers annoyed that he broke longstanding unwritten rules of decorum. Many even withdrew their support from Simpson’s “anti-groping” bill. That was a lonely day, Simpson said, but he was resolved, comparing his fight to Sam Houston’s struggle against secessionists. “Providence will dictate whether I did the right thing today,” he said at the time.

Simpson also opposed a measure that would ban salvia, a legal plant that has hallucinogenic effects similar to marijuana. Government’s role, he said, is to punish wrongdoers, not to ban God’s creations. “Things are not the problem, just like guns,” he said. “You don’t solve murders by getting rid of guns.”

Late in the session, Simpson inspired an infuriated public tongue-lashing from fellow GOP Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, of Brenham. During debate over a proposed statewide smoking ban, he suggested the ban include perfume and cologne, which he said may also contain carcinogens. The move drew guffaws and jokes, but Kolkhorst took umbrage. “This is not a laughing matter, and I want to tell you, I thought you were a pretty good member,” she said. “And I still am going to believe that, but this is out of bounds.” Simpson, after explaining he didn’t intend to mock the dangers of smoking, withdrew his proposal.

But Simpson said he doesn’t believe he broke rules of decorum. “I think I showed,” he said, “that if you stand up for your principles, you can still agree to disagree and work together.”

Rep. Mike “Tuffy” Hamilton, R-Mauriceville, said his freshman colleague did much better at the end of the session than at the start, ironing out his differences with other legislators. Most lawmakers have religious convictions that guide their lives, Hamilton said. “Some people may go a little further with it than others,” he said. “But I think religion will always play a part in making laws. It’s part of who you are.”

Some of his colleagues, though, said Simpson missed the importance of building alliances in the Legislature. Even his GOP peers found Simpson’s surprise opposition to their bills and his religious zeal confounding. Without support from other lawmakers, guiding any bill through the byzantine legislative process is impossible. Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, said she appreciated Simpson’s integrity, but that it didn’t always work out best for his constituents. “He is about what he thinks is right, and I think sometimes that sabotages the good things that could happen for his district,” she said.

His public religiosity also generated questions in the Capitol. Rumors swirled that Simpson laid his hands on other lawmakers, seeking to heal their medical afflictions through prayer. Some whispered that he forbade his wife and daughters to wear pants or cut their hair and that he required them to always be chaperoned around other men.

Simpson, offended by the stories, dismissed the rumors and said, "I don’t know where in the world that is coming from. Someone is out to misrepresent me." The family supports liberty and virtue, and seeks to dress modestly, but Simpson said he doesn’t tell his wife and daughters not to wear pants. “I just tell them to dress well,” he said. He says his religious beliefs are narrow, but he does not want to impose them on others.

Freshman legislators typically stick close to home, filing local bills that bring dollars to their districts and votes to their re-election campaigns. None of the 12 bills Simpson filed were local. He refused to sponsor a bill in the House — even voted against it — that was a major priority for his home town of Longview: getting permission to increase the local hotel-motel tax to raise money to build a civic center. After studying hotel prices and occupancy rates over the last year, he said he decided, “this was not a good time to be raising taxes.”

Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, who represents Longview in the upper chamber, said he was thankful that Simpson at least didn’t try to kill the bill. “He stood for what he believed in,” he said. “I’m not going to criticize anyone for how they handled themselves when they represent their district. I’ll let the voters do that.”

And then, there was the anti-groping bill, which would have made it a misdemeanor offense for a federal security agent to “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly” touch someone in places that would be “offensive to a reasonable person.” Simpson said his goal was to uphold the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches. The bill passed the House — with more than 90 legislators signed on — and nearly made it through the Senate before federal officials threatened to shut down Texas airports.

The next day, Alex Jones, a notorious radio host and conspiracy theorist, and a rowdy bunch of protesters stormed the Capitol, calling lawmakers cowards for caving to federal threats and not passing the anti-groping bill. As the angry protesters later watched from the Senate gallery, hoping lawmakers would give the bill a second chance, Simpson sat diligently on the sidelines of the floor, alternately praying, reading the screen of his iPad and whispering with Senate staffers. Ultimately, not enough senators supported the measure, and it failed. Protesters hollered insults at the senators, and a disappointed Simpson silently watched.

Dean Waskowiak, a Longview businessman who contributed to Simpson’s campaign, said the freshman lawmaker kept his conservative campaign promises. And Simpson’s anti-groping bill, Waskowiak said, was a measure most Americans would probably support. “They don’t want federal people touching our junk,” he said.

JoAnn Fleming, executive director of Grassroots America We the People, a conservative PAC in Longview, said Simpson showed enormous courage as a freshman legislator. He may have ruffled other legislators’ feathers, she said, but he took a stand against government spending and intrusion, voting against a Republican-made budget that cut $15 billion, because it wasn’t conservative enough. “He didn’t sit down and shut up in a corner and do what he was told,” she said.

Not everyone in Longview, though, was as pleased with Simpson’s performance. Some, both Republican and Democrat, even called his headline-making antics embarrassing.

Longview lawyer Kelly Heitkamp is a Democrat who supported Simpson’s Republican predecessor and rival, former state Rep. Tommy Merritt. She spent time in Austin advocating for the puppy mill legislation and was astonished by Simpson’s opposition to it. He may mean well, she said, but Simpson damaged the city’s credibility in the Legislature and hurt its ability to get things accomplished at the state level.  

“This is not a far-right-wing community, and he is not representing this community as a whole,” Heitkamp said. “I offered to send him some boxes to start packing.”

Despite his tumultuous start, Simpson plans to run for re-election. He said he learned a lot during this first go-round, including the importance of working with other lawmakers. And he’s hopeful that the anti-groping bill may be resurrected in the special session.

“Freedom brings people together,” he said, “and that’s why I’m here, really.”

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