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Analysis: Two Faces of a Conservative House District

Voters in Tarrant County's House District 92 have sent two very different types of politicians to Austin recently — and both the new guy and the old one made news this week.

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It’s funny to see Todd Smith and Jonathan Stickland in the news on the same day. It offers fresh proof that the voters themselves are the biggest flip-floppers in politics. 

Tarrant County voters elected both men, at different times, to represent House District 92, jumping from an officeholder at the establishment end of the Republican spectrum to another at the insurgent end. And both men are showing their stripes.

Smith, a former state representative from Euless, wrote a ferocious public letter to Gov. Greg Abbott complaining that Abbott was “pandering to idiots” by asking the Texas State Guard to keep an eye on a military simulation in Central Texas.

That operation — called Jade Helm 15 — stirred conspiracy nuts near Bastrop enough to get the attention of high officials in Austin, like Abbott. “During the training operation, it is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed,” Abbott wrote in a letter to Maj. Gen. Gerald Beatty of the State Guard. Abbott also asked for regular updates on the operation.

“As a 16 year Republican member of the Texas House and a patriotic AMERICAN, I am horrified that I have to choose between the possibility that my Governor actually believes this stuff and the possibility that my Governor doesn’t have the backbone to stand up to those who do,” Smith wrote. “I’m not sure which is worse.”

Stickland, now a second-term member of the House from Bedford, was ordered out of a House committee meeting Thursday after a heated exchange with the chairman, Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, and has now prompted an investigation that might go into the general category of bearing false witness. The House General Investigating and Ethics Committee wants to know whether out-of-town witnesses in favor of banning red light cameras in Texas were signed in for a committee hearing by Stickland or someone in his office. The chairman of that panel, Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, said “no individual member is targeted by the investigation at this time.” Right now, they’re just trying to figure out what happened.

The red light camera ban has a real populist twang to it, and Stickland isn’t the only legislator who would like to get rid of what they see as a sign that Big Brother government exists outside of George Orwell’s 1984. It’s easy to get people to testify for the ban, but it appears to be harder to get them to show up.

Here’s the problem with that: You have to be present to sign in on a tablet computer outside the hearing room. It’s a government form, and it says this at the bottom of the last screen: “I acknowledge that by signing or marking this document, I am swearing an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I solemnly swear and affirm, under penalty of perjury, that the information entered herein and the testimony I may give in connection with this official proceeding are true and correct.”

It’s hard to do that on a computer in a hallway of the State Capitol building if you’re not even in Austin, and that’s why there’s an investigation.

If you could sign up witnesses like this, it would be a whole lot easier to show official support or disapproval of legislation. Texans could do it from their couches. Rich trade and political groups could engineer campaigns to make their positions look popular.

That’s why the rules say you must be present to testify under most circumstances.

Smith gave up the House seat after the district was redrawn. He turned his attention to the state Senate, but lost the Republican primary in 2012 to Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills. Hancock, who served with Smith in the House, is still in the Senate. Smith’s at home.

While that contest was going on, Stickland was busy winning the election to replace Smith in the House. His pitch, one that voters evidently agreed with, was that the more moderate Smith ought to be replaced by a Tea Party favorite like Stickland.

It’s safe to say they got the ideological change they were looking for, and that they weren’t looking for a shrinking violet either time.

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