SPRING — The crowd gathered in the church on a stormy Tuesday night was small — only about 30 people. But Jared Woodfill, the man who called them there, wasn’t worried.
“You’ve got to start by finding a core group of people in every city, across the state of Texas, and you build from that — this is just the first round,” he said. “We’ll be coming back for a second round. And they’ll bring two, three, four — or 10 — friends.”
Standing before a stained-glass triptych depicting the crucifixion of Jesus, and flanked by images of triumphant elephants and the Texas state flag, Woodfill spoke at length about his disappointment with his fellow conservatives on the state and federal level. He was clearly comfortable at The Way Church, where his brother, Matt, is pastor.
“Folks, we’ve got a problem on our hands,” said the Houston attorney, who aspires to seize the reins of the state Republican party in May. With clear majorities in the state House and Senate, and with Republicans in every statewide office, he said, “there’s absolutely no excuse why we can’t pass American law in American courts, no excuse why we can’t get rid of sanctuary cities in every Texas town, no excuse why we can’t get rid of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants and no excuse for not getting every single piece of good pro-life legislation passed.”
Woodfill, 47, knows how to shape a message, and he's got the conservative credentials to prove it. Last year, he was one of the lead architects behind the overwhelming defeat of HERO, the non-discrimination ordinance that would have protected gay and transgender Houstonians and several other classes. Woodfill helped lead the campaign painting HERO as a "bathroom ordinance," claiming it would have allowed sexual predators into women's restrooms.
Just Wednesday, he held a press conference as a lawyer representing the two anti-abortion activists recently indicted for tampering with a governmental record, after the activists released secretly recorded and heavily doctored videos taken at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Houston.
Woodfill — a former Harris County GOP chairman — failed to claim the party's top state post last year, losing to Tom Mechler after a hard-fought four-way race. But he's taken the Bible verse that inspired the Way Church's name to heart, positioning himself as a prophet in the wilderness, ready to draw Tea Partiers together to upend what he sees as stagnant Republican leadership.
The meeting Tuesday evening in Spring was the third of four initial events Woodfill is holding. His target is Tea Party voters, who make up roughly 44 percent of likely GOP primary voters, according to a recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll. And Woodfill's main target is the Republican leader Tea Partiers love to hate — Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, the San Antonio Republican they blame for thwarting a true conservative agenda in the 2015 legislative session.
“It starts at the top, with Joe Straus,” Woodfill told the Tribune.
In a statement, Straus spokesman Jason Embry said Straus wasn’t fazed by Woodfill’s arguments.
“He learned long ago not to count on the help of special interest groups who are trying to divide Republicans in order to increase their own influence,” Embry said, adding that Straus has been successful in his efforts to “build a robust, conservative Republican majority” in the House.
Woodfill's events, called “Take Back Our Party,” are co-sponsored by a long list of conservative groups including the Texas Conservative Review, Texas Right to Life, the Eagle Forum and the Texas Home School Coalition. Despite his stated goal of reaching across the party and uniting its various factions, for now he's preaching to the choir.
Featured speakers at the Tuesday event — primarily former office holders and local lobbyists — targeted everything from sanctuary cities for undocumented immigrants to climate change policy, which several attendees and speakers derided. But no issue attracted more attention, or a louder chorus of “Amens,” than abortion.
At the end of the last legislative session, lawmakers had passed only one bill addressing abortion restrictions — HB 3994, tightening the requirements for “judicial bypass,” the process by which minors can seek court approval for abortions without a parent’s consent. The bill’s loner status is a sign of a Legislature insufficiently committed to the pro-life cause, according to Elizabeth Graham, director of Texas Right to Life, who spoke at the event.
“With over 100 pro-life votes in the state House, we’ve had to fight tooth and nail to get a bill to the floor because the leadership is so obstructionist,” she told the crowd. “They make deals with the other party, so the Democrats will continue to elect very moderate Republican leadership, and part of those deals are to kill pro-life bills or anything controversial.”
Among the speakers’ most popular targets were Reps. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, and Byron Cook, R-Corsicana — both of whom, Graham said, stood in the way of bills that would have further restricted abortion. As a member of the House State Calendars Committee, Riddle voted to prevent SB 575, which would have prohibited health insurance plans sold on the Affordable Care Act’s marketplace from covering abortions, from getting a vote on the House floor. Riddle later reversed her position, but the bill never got a full vote. Cook, meanwhile, has repeatedly expressed support for exceptions to abortion restrictions in the case of “severe fetal abnormalities,” defined as conditions “incompatible with life outside the womb.”
That makes the legislators “faux-life,” added former state Rep. Steve Toth, who ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in 2014 is currently running for a seat in the U.S. Congress.
In a statement to the Tribune, Riddle contested the speakers’ claims and characterized the event as unnecessarily divisive.
“Unfortunately, some members of the GOP have forgotten Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment of the Republican Party — 'Thou shall speak no evil of a fellow Republican,'” she said in her statement.
“The intentional misrepresentation and distortions of my conservative record only empowers Satan, who is the father of deceit,” she added, citing the book of John.
Cook was unavailable for comment.
Carl Comstock, a voter from Spring who attended the event on Tuesday, said he was glad to see someone addressing divisions in the party with which he long identified.
“I would say I’m a Tea Party member rather than a Republican party member, now,” he said. “I don’t know if the Republican party can be saved.”
Woodfill, for one, is optimistic about the faction's chances.
"Are we going to sit on the sidelines, or are we going to get on the front lines?" he asked the crowd. "We believe the church will rise up."