In 2002, state Rep. Paul Sadler of Henderson, was one of the most powerful Democrats in the Texas Legislature when he announced he was not running for re-election.
At the time, he was the chairman of the House Public Education Committee and a force that even the state’s governor had learned to be mindful of when it came to anything involving schools.
Ten years later, Sadler, 57, is the unequivocal underdog in his bid for U.S. Senate against Ted Cruz, a rising national star in the Republican Party. As he crisscrosses the state, Sadler is learning firsthand that before he can persuade voters to view him as a serious contender, he must first remind them of the power player whom he once was.
“We have the qualified candidate. They do not,” Sadler recently told a crowd of Democrats in Seguin. “I am the one that served in the Legislature. I am the one that chaired committees. I am the one that built a school system. I am the one that helped you build schools and educate your children.”
While the U.S. Constitution does not require senators to have experience in elected office, Sadler has made clear that Texans should demand nothing less from whomever they elect to replace Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is retiring.
Cruz, a lawyer, has never held elected office. For more than five years, he defended Texas in court as the state’s solicitor general. Before that, he was a domestic policy adviser to President George W. Bush. He has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court nine times. He pulled off a political upset in July by defeating Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst for his party’s Senate nomination. Last month, he was a featured speaker at the Republican National Convention.
Sadler, also a lawyer, serves as a paid consultant for the Texas Association of School Boards. Until February, he was executive director of the Wind Coalition, an Austin-based advocacy group for wind energy. His 12-year stint in the Texas House ended in 2003.
“Unfortunately most people’s political memories just aren’t that good,” said Allen Blakemore, a Houston-based Republican strategist. “Sadler’s dealing with first-time introductions across the state. People in Lubbock, Houston, San Antonio, they never knew who he was.”
Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin and a Texas Tribune pollster, said polling suggests Sadler’s name recognition among voters remains low, despite his former political achievements.
“He’s not been a public figure for some time,” Henson said. “He’s going to go into this needing money to remind people or, more realistically, reintroduce himself.”
Sadler, who fully expects Cruz and his supporters to outspend him, contends that Cruz’s views are too extreme for Texas. He said Texans usually laugh when he tells them that Cruz wants to eliminate several federal agencies including the Department of Education and the IRS.
“If we in Texas are laughing at the Republican nominee for United States Senate, what do you think the rest of the country is doing?” Sadler said. “We’ve had enough of politicians standing up on the national stage and everybody else laughing at us.”
So far, Cruz has largely ignored Sadler on the campaign trail. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Texas Democrats have not won a statewide race since 1994. Sadler is hoping to break the streak, though many pundits have written off Cruz’s victory in November as a foregone conclusion. Such predictions will not deter Sadler, according to state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, a San Antonio Democrat who served with Sadler in the House.
“If something’s easy, don’t expect Paul Sadler to be involved in it,” she said.
Indeed, Sadler had served just four years in the Texas House when he and Sen. Bill Ratliff took on an ambitious rewrite of the state’s education code. Sadler’s quick rise to head of the House Public Education Committee was widely attributed to a razor-sharp intelligence and data-driven focus.
“What he said was taken as gospel truth both by Democrats and Republicans because he knew his subject matter so well,” said Rep. Pete Gallego, an Alpine Democrat now running for Congress.
In Bush’s 1999 book A Charge to Keep, he described Sadler as “a scrappy and fiercely independent trial lawyer, stubborn and known for an insistence on doing things his way.”
The Legislature passed the Ratliff-Sadler Act, a landmark overhaul of Texas education policy, in 1995, Bush’s first year as governor. Bush signed the bill in Sadler’s hometown of Henderson and praised his work on it.
Amid a string of legislative victories, Sadler also gained a reputation as biting and at times arrogant in dealings with those with whom he did not agree. That same Sadler sharpness is often on full display on the campaign trail as he criticizes Cruz, though it immediately falls away when the subject turns to why he did not run for a seventh term.
Sadler was chairing a committee hearing on teacher health insurance one evening in 2001 when he received word that his 10-year-old son, Sam, had been in a car accident. Sadler rushed to a Tyler hospital. Sam spent four days in a coma. A brain injury would necessitate years of physical, occupational and speech therapy.
Later that year, Sam expressed interest in playing baseball again. Sadler took his son to their backyard and ventured a game of catch. His son could catch a ball coming toward his left or right. When Sadler softly tossed a ball over his son’s head, Sam let it pass by.
“So I put a helmet on his head, and every night we would toss the ball,” Sadler said.
His son played baseball again and later took up golf, feats Sadler viewed as “an absolute miracle.” Sam Sadler is now a senior in the PGA golf management program at Mississippi State University.
Sadler was on the phone with Sam in 2010 as Congress passed the Affordable Care Act. Both father and son had long worried about whether Sam’s brain injury would prevent him from securing health insurance once he aged out of his parents’ plan. The new law bans health insurers from denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions.
“We watched the vote together and he said, ‘Dad, I’ve got tears in my eyes. This is probably the most important day of my life,’’’ Sadler said.
Cruz has called the bill unconstitutional and has vowed to file legislation repealing “every syllable of Obamacare.”
Those kinds of statements bring back the hard edge in Sadler’s voice, the same tone unlucky witnesses before the House Public Education Committee used to hear as its chairman tore apart their testimony.
“These issues are so critical for us as a people and they are so unbelievably misunderstood by my opponent and that portion of the Republican Party,” Sadler said. “They either don’t understand it, or they don’t care. I choose to believe they don’t understand it.”