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Analysis: Words Say One Thing, Actions Another

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has taken to starting interviews by saying he won't run for governor against Greg Abbott. But it is a question, in part, because of the two men, Patrick often acts more like the governor than the governor does.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was interviewed by Tribune CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith on Oct. 16, 2015.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has added a disclaimer to many of his public appearances, starting those conversations by saying that he will not be running for governor against Greg Abbott in 2018.

Nobody even has to pose the question before he answers. But it is a question, in part, because of the two men, Patrick often acts more like the governor than the governor does.

It happened most recently at the Texas Tribune Festival, the  Tribune’s annual policy conference. Patrick took the stage for a live interview with this starter:

“Before we start, before I forget, in case you didn’t hear, I’m not running for governor in 2018, I just want to make that clear,” he told his interviewer, Tribune CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith, before Smith could pop out a question.

Smith reminded him that he had said as much in an earlier interview.

“We established that before, and people still write it,” Patrick said. “Put it in cement. Greg Abbott is a close ally. We campaigned on the same issues. I think we had a very good session because the senators did a great job, and we’ll be working side by side.”

Why do people keep writing it? Set aside, for a second, the most obvious and possibly even correct answer — that journalists are fight promoters and an Abbott-Patrick showdown would be a heckuva fight.

Look instead at how the two politicians are positioned and how they have conducted themselves during their first 10 months in office.

Both get a lot of attention, but during legislative sessions, governors have their big moments at the beginning — their state of the state speeches — and at the end — when they veto bills. In between, they’re wallpaper. Sessions belong to the House and the Senate, to the lieutenant governor and the speaker. Governors are involved in all kinds of parleys and backroom negotiations and a strategic appearance here and there to move pet issues along, but they are largely background players.

When lawmakers leave, it’s time to change the wallpaper. The governor has the floor, typically, along with other elected officials in the executive branch, and it’s time for legislators, lieutenant governors and speakers to go quiet.

Patrick either didn’t get that memo or didn’t stop to read it.

He has done some normal things in new ways. It’s normal for lieutenant governors and speakers to issue lists of “interim charges” to get legislative committees working on potential legislation in advance of the next regular session.

It’s pretty easy to drop those lists without anyone outside the Legislature and the lobby hearing the pages hit the ground. The Legislature wants to get to work, and the lobby wants to get an early jump on new laws that might help or hurt their clients; both have a natural interest.

But Patrick has a populist streak and a weird notion that voters might be interested in this stuff. He dropped his assignments on five consecutive weekdays (1,2,3,4,5), the better to get running coverage from the news and social media.

And because he was first and loudest, Patrick grabbed an opportunity to claim some wins when the session finally gets here, and to appear to be the guy setting the agenda before it starts. House Speaker Joe Straus will weigh in soon with his own interim charges, and between the two, you’ll have a pretty good outline for the next legislative session.

Governors can set the civic agenda with town halls or blue-ribbon panels and whatnot — think of Rick Perry’s Texas Tax Reform Commission in 2006 — but Abbott hasn’t hitched himself to a specific issue in that way. He has continued what he started as attorney general — manning the barricades against a federal government he believes is overly intrusive.

Patrick, the guy who’s not running against him, is meanwhile doing the kinds of things governors do. Just last week, he announced he has been “on a listening tour since the end of the session, traveling across the state several times.” The first fruit of those travels is a “major initiative on ports” that he and Straus will include in their interim charges to legislators.

He made no mention of the guy he’s not running against in 2018. He’s discovered he can control a chunk of the state’s agenda without changing titles.

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