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Trump target or not, Burton has carved unorthodox path in Senate

Sen. Konni Burton's Senate career has been marked by a willingness to go her own way.

New Texas Sen. Konni Burton, c, stands with other incoming Senators during the swearing-in ceremony at the Texas Capitol Jan. 13, 2015.

When President Donald Trump offered Tuesday to "destroy" the career of a Texas state senator, it was not entirely clear to whom he was referring. But it was more clear that the complaint that started it all, lodged by Rockwall County Sheriff Harold Eavenson, had to do with a legislative effort to reform civil asset forfeiture — an effort championed in the Senate by Konni Burton.

The episode with Trump did not just draw national attention to one of Burton's priorities this session. It also reminded many that the Colleyville Republican, a former Tea Party activist who made an upstart bid for the Senate in 2014, has since carved an unorthodox path through the upper chamber, confounding even her critics' expectations. 

She's aware of the perception. 

"While some people may think it perhaps looks like I'm all over the place on issues ... it's very consistent," Burton said in an interview Thursday. "Personal liberty, limited government, free-market principles — everything is based on those three principles." 

A longtime friend of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — he has already lent his name to her re-election efforts — Burton spent a considerable part of the interim working to get him elected president. But she now finds herself among the U.S. senator's home-state loyalists who are grappling with the new world order that is President Donald Trump and his supporters — including Cruz.

Ask Burton about Trump nowadays, and she says she approaches him like any other Republican elected official. 

"I don’t like it when people espouse one thing and do another," she said. "So as long as Trump is ... doing things that are aligned with conservative principles, I’m happy. When he’s not, I’m not." 

Her posture toward Trump will likely become more of a focus in 2018, when she is up for re-election in the Senate's only swing district. But Democrats, well aware she does not see eye to eye with some members of her own party, also see opportunity in some of her unwavering stances, including against economic incentive funds, which some conservatives view as corporate welfare.

"We've certainly, for quite some time, seen Konni Burton hasn't had the best interests of the entire Fort Worth community at heart," said Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. Burton and the city's business community, Garcia added, "certainly haven't been best friends." 

Burton clearly found Trump on the opposite side of an issue Tuesday, when he fielded Eavenson's complaint about a male state senator pushing to reform civil asset forfeiture, the process by which law enforcement officers take property from someone without always charging them with a crime. Proponents say it is necessary to combat crime, while critics say it could lead to civil rights abuses.

Eavenson told Trump the state senator had introduced legislation that would require a conviction before law enforcement can receive that forfeiture money. The president's response Tuesday: "Who’s the state senator? Want to give his name? We’ll destroy his career."

Reform advocates, including Burton, were thrilled with the attention Trump heaped on their cause, even if it came in the form of an apparent threat against an anonymous state lawmaker. Yet the episode also shined light on the unusual alliances that have fueled reform efforts — namely between liberals and conservatives with libertarian leanings like Burton. 

"This is not a partisan issue," said state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, a longtime reform advocate who is a co-author on Burton's Senate Bill 380. "This is a property rights, civil liberties, issue, and we’re looking at it in terms of the Constitution, in terms of the abuses that have taken place and then the policing for profit that is driving the abuses. And there are different ways to try to reform the system, and we’ve done that slowly but surely."

Burton came to the Legislature in 2015 after winning the election to replace Wendy Davis, whom Democrats recruited to run for governor in 2014 following her famous anti-abortion filibuster. Burton arrived for for her first day at the Legislature intent on signaling a new era in the district, wearing boots emblazoned with the message "Stand for Life." 

Early on, she made clear she was willing to stand out, especially for a freshman. She voted against some of Gov. Greg Abbott's first appointments to the University of Texas Board of Regents. Her office instituted a policy that turned away lobbyists representing taxpayer-supported clients.

And she staked out decisively contrary positions on two issues important to Abbott and other GOP leaders: his pre-K program and economic incentive funds, both of which include a government role that makes some conservatives uneasy. Both are also set to factor prominently into the current session after Abbott used his State of the State speech to call for full funding of the pre-K program and one of the incentive funds, The Texas Enterprise Fund. 

Burton said she is candid and direct with GOP leaders about legislation. 

"She is who she says she is," said Trayce Bradford, president of the Texas Eagle Forum, a conservative group. "You don't have any games with Konni Burton. I appreciate that."

In the weeks leading up to her second session, Burton drew perhaps the most attention for her Senate Bill 242, which would require schools to share all knowledge about students if parents ask. The legislation is a response to guidelines that Fort Worth Independent School District issued last year that initially would have let teachers withhold information about a student's gender identity from parents, according to Burton. Critics say the bill could erode trust between educators and students, potentially forcing teacher to out pupils who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Burton has been noticeably quieter about Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's push to pass legislation that aims to address the heart of the Fort Worth ISD controversy on a statewide level. She is one of five Republican senators — there are 20 total — who have not signed on to Senate Bill 6, which would require transgender people to use bathrooms in public schools, government buildings and public universities based on "biological sex." It would also pre-empt local ordinances that allow transgender people to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity. 

Asked where she stands on Senate Bill 6, which Patrick has titled the Texas Privacy Act, Burton did not say whether she supports or opposes the legislation but said she is glad lawmakers have taken up the issue. 

"I am in full support of a privacy act," Burton said. "I think this is something that absolutely we need to be dealing with at the state level. This is not something that should be dealt with at lower levels of government. I am very, very happy that we are dealing with it."

Regardless of how the 85h legislative session plays out, Burton is already in Democrats' crosshairs for 2018, when she is up for re-election in a district that includes parts of Fort Worth — the site of the state party's convention that year. Garcia called Senate District 10 a "top target" for the state party in 2018.

"There is no doubt it is going to be a battle," said Burton, who added that she plans to highlight "areas where many on the left agree with me, as do many on the right" — including civil asset forfeiture reform. 

Deborah Peoples, who chairs the Tarrant County Democratic Party, said three people, including some local lawyers, have already "indicated a serious interest" in challenging Burton, and the party is meeting with them soon. Asked about Burton's measured approach to Trump — whom Texas Democrats hope will help sink GOP incumbents in 2018 — Peoples brushed off the idea Burton has insulated herself.

"Realistically, we know it's still predominantly a two-party system," Peoples said, "and it's either Republican or Democrat."

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Politics State government 85th Legislative Session Konni Burton Texas Legislature Texas Senate