HILLSBORO – Bongs, abortion and illegal immigration are just three of the issues surfacing in one of the hottest Texas House races, which is playing out as a case study of how the far-right faction of the state Republican party seeks to oust members it deems too moderate.
The Republican primary in House District 8 pits seven-term incumbent Byron Cook, 61, a Corsicana rancher and businessman, against Thomas McNutt, a 25-year-old business owner and graduate of Texas A&M. McNutt is running to the right of the three-time chairman of the powerful House Committee on State Affairs in the March 1 primary.
Despite a barrage of attacks from Empower Texans, a conservative special-interest group that calls Cook one of House Speaker Joe Straus’ moderate allies, Cook said last week he's treating this race like all others and focusing on the positive.
“We go out and talk about the good things we’ve done and stay in communication with the folks throughout the district,” he said after an event in Hillsboro. “There is always political rhetoric, but I think I’ve worked hard and I’m always glad to articulate the positions I’ve taken.”
But Cook, who also serves on the House Calendars Committee, has managed to get in a few jabs at his young challenger, including one following the news that McNutt’s family has ties to an investment group with an interest in pot-smoking paraphernalia.
Cook told the Quorum Report it was “reprehensible” that McNutt would invest in a company that manufactures bongs and pipes, but McNutt accused Cook of blowing the investment out of proportion.
“[Three] years ago Thomas's father gifted him five [percent] ownership in a small fund investing in tech companies. Thomas is not a board member of this fund nor does he have a say in any investments made,” Luke Macias, McNutt’s campaign consultant said in a statement. “He has received no financial gain whatsoever from the interest he holds."
McNutt himself declined to be interviewed for this story, leaving Macias — a political consultant whose past and present clients read like a who's who of the Texas Tea Party — to speak for him.
What may resonate more for voters of the four-county district is the role immigration is playing in the race. In a web video released Thursday, McNutt said he differs with Cook on three main issues: “sanctuary cities,” providing in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants and driver’s permits for people in the country illegally.
Cook has been accused of stalling legislation in 2011 to ban sanctuary cities, the common term for local governments that don’t enforce immigration laws or cooperate with federal immigration authorities. When Cook accused McNutt of being out of touch with Corsicana voters after being raised in Dallas, Macias quipped that the issue was a red herring.
“The voters are more concerned with Mr. Cook's support of illegal immigration, and everyone in District 8 knows this to be a strawman argument since Thomas McNutt and his family have been pillars of this community for generations,” he said in an email.
But Cook seems equally confident that voters understand his stance on the issue and that he will work toward Gov. Greg Abbott’s goal of passing a ban on sanctuary cities in 2017. He said the State Affairs Committee passed out House bill 12, which would have penalized sanctuary cities, in 2011, but the bill didn’t pass the Texas Senate.
Cook has tried to turn the immigration attack back on McNutt, whose family is known for its fruitcakes sold at the McNutt's Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana.
Cook chided McNutt after a Dallas Morning News article stated that at least two former bakery workers were in the country illegally.
“You should be consistent in your position,” Cook said. “If you have a very strong anti-immigrant message, it’s disingenuous to hire them.”
On his website, McNutt accused the workers of committing fraud by presenting fake documents or overstaying visas that allowed them to be legally employed.
“To be perfectly clear, in order to get a job at the Collin Street Bakery, every individual must provide multiple forms of legal identification and sign documentation asserting their ability to legally work in the United States,” he said.
Cook said he sees no need to play defense, and is sticking by positions he championed during the 2015 session even if they open him up to attacks.
For instance, he said his support for driver’s permits for undocumented immigrants — which he’s careful not to call licenses – is rooted in concern for public safety.
“I want them to be run through a criminal database, I want them to have 10-point fingerprint,” he said. “I want to know where they live, and I want us to make sure they can pass a driving test in English.”
The permit wouldn’t be a valid ID for travel, voting or anything else, he said, and it would require applicants to buy insurance, solving one of the biggest gripes people have about undocumented drivers.
"It’s so important that we study these issues at depth, we shouldn’t do things just because of the politics. We should do things because of the policy,” he said.
McNutt and Cook couldn’t be farther apart on their views of Straus, the San Antonio Republican who has been elected speaker four times. While McNutt and his far-right allies liken being a member of the speaker’s leadership team to wearing an albatross, Cook sees Straus' support as a badge of honor.
“I am honored to be part of the leadership team,” Cook said.
McNutt — through Macias — isn’t pulling punches.
“Back in May, Speaker Straus was asked by the Tribune about the race and noted that he ‘definitely wouldn't be supporting Mr. McNutt,'" Macias said. “Thomas would like voters to know that the feeling is mutual.”
Competing pro-life organizations are also lending their voices to the debate. Both candidates consider themselves anti-abortion, and Cook has been called a “champion” of the movement by Texas Alliance for Life after helping advance a bill requiring sonograms before abortion through his committee in 2011. He also supported 2013’s House Bill 2, which prevented most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and required doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges to hospitals within 30 miles.
But he supported an exception to the state's abortion law that permits the practice after 20 weeks in the case of a fetal abnormality. That led Texas Right to Life, which aligns itself with far-right conservatives, to call Cook a “bully” of the pro-life movement.