An already bitter Republican primary runoff for a Texas house seat has turned uglier in the final days before early voting begins as court filings from one candidate’s divorce and child custody battle take center stage.
State Rep. Doug Miller, an insurance agent from New Braunfels who has represented the Hill Country area District 73 since 2009, faces Kyle Biedermann in the May 24 runoff election.
A Fredericksburg hardware store owner who made waves earlier in his campaign after a picture emerged of him dressed as “Gay Hitler” at a 2008 charity fundraiser, Biedermann has attempted to focus the race on what he views as Miller’s insufficiently conservative record in office.
But now court documents — portions of which were published this week on the conservative news site TexasGOPvote.com — from a protracted custody battle between Biedermann and his ex-wife after their separation 16 years ago have put Biedermann back on defense.
The documents contain reports from court-appointed attorneys for the couple's children and a psychologist about Biedermann’s behavior with his four daughters, who at the time ranged in age from five to nine.
The records reveal a hard-fought divorce, with Biedermann's wife of 11 years accusing him of inappropriate interactions with the children and other emotional and physical abuse. Biedermann disputed her accusations, sometimes saying his wife was mischaracterizing innocent behavior.
At one point during the course of the divorce, a judge found that Biedermann had violated prohibitions on "degrading" his wife in the children's presence and on particular sleeping arrangements with them during a vacation to Florida. His wife received an emergency court order banning him from coming within 100 yards of his daughters. The order followed a home study conducted by attorneys appointed to represent the children that raised some questions about Biedermann's behavior but ultimately concluded both parents would be fit to have primary custody of the girls.
In the final divorce agreement the couple signed in January 2002, Biedermann's wife Avian received primary custody of the children, though he was granted visitation rights weekly and every other weekend. Biedermann continued to fight for more time with the girls over the next several years. In 2012, a judge granted the couple joint custody of their remaining two minor children.
“What people are finding out is that his campaign has been built on lies from the beginning. The court documents show that he’s nothing like he’s trying to pretend to be,” said Craig Murphy, Miller’s political consultant. “This guy does not deserve to be in the Texas Legislature, that is clear. They are going to be reworking the Child Protective Services program this year. Putting him involved in that is like putting a wolf in charge of the hen house.”
When asked about the court filings by The Texas Tribune, Biedermann said he was demanding a public apology from Miller. His campaign also provided statements from his children, ex-wife, and her divorce attorney condemning the incumbent for bringing the divorce into the campaign.
“I call upon Doug Miller to publicly apologize and to immediately end his unfounded character attacks. We have run an issue-based grassroots campaign,” he said in a statement, adding that “the 15-year-old court documents that Doug Miller is now using for his political gain in the final stretch of a desperate campaign are full of lies, hearsay and hurtful words that have zero credibility and are false.”
In the statement offered by the campaign, Biedermann’s ex-wife Avian said that in the divorce she said things “to hurt Kyle but never knew they would get out to the public.”
“Miller and his campaign have been calling, emailing and mailing thousands of voters and telling them horrible lies about my ex-husband,” she said. “The court gave my ex-husband joint custody of our children because he is a great father. For the sake of our daughters, Kyle put aside our past and maintained a positive relationship with me.”
The Tribune’s attempts to reach Avian Biedermann to confirm her statement have been unsuccessful, and the campaign did not respond to further questions from the Tribune about the divorce records.
After a string of primary losses, the Biedermann-Miller runoff is one of the last chances for anti-establishment conservatives opposing Speaker of the House Joe Straus to oust one of the San Antonio Republican’s allies.
Miller came in first in the March primary but was forced into a runoff because he won only 43 percent of the vote. Biedermann received 40 percent, and a third candidate, Chris Byrd, earned 17 percent.
Byrd, a lawyer, accountant and conservative activist from Boerne, has declined to endorse either of his former opponents in the runoff.
“For different reasons, each candidate has not left me compelled to endorse either one,” he said.
Though Byrd said he would be casting a ballot in the runoff, he said that neither Biedermann nor Miller had a track record that gave him enough confidence to make a public endorsement.
When asked later about the divorce records, Byrd said in an email that the "official file stamped court documents speak for themselves."
Biedermann and his supporters have attacked Miller, who leads the House’s Committee on Special Purpose Districts, for aiding Straus in obstructing key pieces of conservative legislation. In the primary alone, the anti-Straus political action committee Empower Texans spent $25,000 to help Biedermann secure the seat. (Empower Texans President Michael Quinn Sullivan did not respond to a request to comment for this story.)
State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a Tea Party favorite and Bedford Republican known for his vocal opposition to House leadership, has also endorsed Biedermann. In an unusual move for a sitting lawmaker, Stickland has appeared personally in the district to campaign against his colleague.
“I think Doug’s upset, but I’m upset that I even had to go down there. If Doug had been voting conservatively, then I wouldn’t be down there,” said Stickland. “It's just your classic guy goes to Austin and becomes part of the club and forgets about everybody at home.”
He called the Miller campaign's use of the divorce records "pathetic."
"It’s gutter politics, Doug knows it is," he said. "That’s why he waited to the last minute to put it out because he doesn’t want to give anyone enough time to figure it out."
Stickland also brushed off the unsuccessful attempts to defeat other Straus chairmen in the primaries. He said that the current race would be a bellwether for the upcoming legislative session.
“The Austin establishment, this is their fight,” he said. “If they can’t protect Doug then it’s going to speak volumes to the other guys that are done there following Doug’s model, which is sit down, be quiet, and good things will happen.”