When Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick named his Grassroots Advisory Board in January, he offered a brief, polite statement noting his "great enthusiasm" for the panel of 20 conservative activists, many of whom he regularly consulted as a firebrand state senator.
The board's chairwoman — a ubiquitous Tea Party organizer named JoAnn Fleming — had a bit more to say, touting the newly minted lieutenant governor's "reputation for valuing folks outside the Capitol complex who ask tough questions."
Three months into the legislative session, those tough questions are spilling into public view, putting Patrick on the defensive as he navigates leadership politics under the dome. The tension seemed to come to a head Wednesday, when Gov. Greg Abbott confronted Patrick about a letter the lieutenant governor's advisers sent to senators urging them to oppose a pre-kindergarten plan backed by Abbott.
The episode has thrown the advisory board into the spotlight; its members have been unrepentant since the letter surfaced. Patrick has maintained he had nothing to do with it, but that has not curbed questions about the panel's modus operandi — and just how close the lieutenant governor is to a group working to derail one of Abbott's emergency-item priorities.
Fleming said Wednesday the advisory board is beholden to no one.
"Dan Patrick did not tell us to write the statement, and as a matter of fact, we're not the kind of people who take orders from elected officials," she said, making clear there will not be any "walking back" of the pre-K letter.
"It's his grassroots council," said Geren, a Fort Worth Republican. "He has the ultimate responsibility."
The missive that sparked the breakfast blowup is not unique. In a letter dated April 15, the panel pressed lawmakers to support a pair of bills that aim to ensure Shariah law — the framework of a legal system based on Islam — does not creep into U.S. courts. House Bill 562 was voted out of committee last week, while Senate Bill 531 has not had a hearing yet.
The letter came with a one-page "white paper" that warned that "further erosion of Texas and U.S. sovereignty is all but inevitable unless the Texas Legislature takes action." The paper, dated March 4, calls for more support for the measure in Patrick's chamber, noting that the House bill has "4 joint authors and 14 co-authors," while the Senate version has just an author and a coauthor.
Both the letters on pre-K and Shariah law were printed on letterhead that left no doubt where the message was coming from: "Lieutenant Governor's Grassroots Advisory Board."
Patrick is no stranger to keeping activists in the loop. As a state senator, he convened an advisory committee for the Tea Party Caucus — which he also started. He had promised to bring the model to the lieutenant governor's office if elected.
The creation of Patrick's latest panel set off some unease in the House, where Straus in January easily defeated a challenger for the gavel — Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco. Some members of Patrick's advisory board vocally campaigned for Turner, who took 19 votes to Straus' 128.
Among those who believe Patrick is gunning for Abbott's office — something the lieutenant governor has denied — there's a sense that the advisory board and its activities are part of his calculus. Democratic strategist Matt Angle said Patrick "wants to have these fights and wants to throw temper tantrums" so he can look like the unwavering conservative when it's primary time.
"I think that Dan Patrick had a playbook going into this session, and I think he's running plays," said Angle, who directs the Lone Star Project, a Democratic research group. As for Patrick's current dilemma — threading the needle on a pre-K plan his advisers loathe but the governor supports — Angle said it is "what happens when you empower people who have no interest in solving any problems."
Patrick has met once in person with the advisory board members and speaks with them about once a month by phone, said Alejandro Garcia, a spokesman for the lieutenant governor. Fleming said the advisory board is due to see Patrick again in the coming days.
In the meantime, the group is plugging away on a portfolio of issues not limited to pre-K or Shariah law. Fleming has divided its ranks into six subcommittees focused on the priorities Patrick outlined shortly before taking office in January.
Asked Wednesday whether to expect any more letters that could shake things up at the Capitol, Fleming played coy.
"Everybody's working on some things," she said, "and we'll just have to see what comes out."