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New Texas GOP chair starts tenure with big platform push

The Texas Republican Party's platform – a 26-page document covering the party's official positions on everything from tax reform to bathroom regulations – is being touted more boldly by the the party's new chairman.

Texas Republicans study the proposed party platform as the debate plays out in Dallas on May 13, 2016.

Back in March, James Dickey, then the chairman of the Travis County Republican Party, showed up at the state Capitol to testify in support of House Bill 1911 — a proposal known as constitutional carry, or the ability to carry firearms without a license. It was a top legislative priority for the state GOP, and Dickey brought a message tailored for the Republicans on the House panel considering it: Don't forget the platform.  

"The plank which said we should have constitutional carry scored a 95 percent approval rate, outscoring over 80 percent of the other planks in the option," Dickey said, referring to the party platform — a 26-page document outlining the party's positions that is approved by delegates to its biennial conventions. Constitutional carry, Dickey added, "is something very clearly wanted by the most active members of the Republican Party in Texas."

The bill never made it to the House floor, but a couple months later, Dickey ascended to the top of the state Republican Party — a perch he is now using to wield the same platform more aggressively, especially under the pink dome. It's become an early hallmark of his tenure, which is unfolding in the run-up to a special session expected to re-ignite many intra-party debates. 

"I think he wants to try to utilize the party infrastructure to push for the ideas, not just simply elect Republicans," said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist steeped in Travis County and statewide politics.

Could that lead to Dickey ruffling feathers at the Capitol? 

"I hope so," Steinhauser replied, "and I think so."

Even before Gov. Greg Abbott announced earlier this month a special session beginning on July 18, Dickey sought to put a new emphasis on the platform. A day before the announcement, Dickey and most of the State Republican Executive Committee sent Abbott a letter asking him to use a potential special session to address the party's incomplete legislative priorities. 

Dickey claimed victory after Abbott announced the special session and its agenda, noting that half the items matched up with platform planks. They included Abbott's calls for property tax reform, school choice for special needs students and a so-called "bathroom bill" that would regulate which restroom transgender Texans can use.

Days later, Dickey sent letters to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, asking them to identify members in their chambers who could "take point" on the 10 items. 

Now, the party is organizing teams of activists to focus on 15 issues during the special session, including the 10 that relate to platform planks.

The flurry of platform-related activity is not by accident. In an interview, Dickey said he saw delegates working hard on the platform at the last convention, and it was "such a wasted opportunity ... in that we weren't clearly, publicly showing them that we took all that effort seriously, and I wanted to fix that."

“I absolutely felt like this was something people were looking for, but I’m also a marketing and business guy with a customer service background," Dickey said, describing the platform as a way to both unify and grow the party. "In business, the easiest way to get extra customers is to show you care about your current customers and listen to what they ask for.”

Dickey's predecessor, Tom Mechler, was far from absent at the Capitol but was viewed as less willing to push the platform in legislative debates — a disinclination that sparked some criticism as he prepared to step down. His tenure nonetheless saw some notable developments in the party's platform process: The 2016 convention was the first time delegates voted on the platform plank by plank, and it was the first time they included legislative priorities in the document. 

Mechler "was engaged a lot with us," said Mike McCloskey, an SREC member from Cedar Park who serves on the legislative committee that is responsible for seeing the priorities through at the Capitol. For Dickey, the platform is "an area that is obviously important to him, and he has placed an emphasis on that," added McCloskey, who supported Dickey's opponent, Rick Figueroa, in the chairman's race earlier this month. 

It remains to be seen how GOP lawmakers are receiving the platform push. In an email to supporters Saturday, Dickey said Patrick had responded to his letter, promising the Senate is "ready to take action." The party has "received multiple calls and emails from legislators who are willing to take point on Republican platform planks and put those bills in motion," Dickey wrote.

The likeliest source of resistance is in the House, where leaders have shown no signs of backing down from their opposition to a number of the plank-related items. In just the latest example, state Rep. Dan Huberty, the Houston Republican who chairs the House Public Education Committee, said Sunday that school choice — Plank No. 147 — remains a nonstarter in the lower chamber. 

For those watching Dickey's early days as chairman, such resistance raises the question of how willing he'll be to call out lawmakers who do not hew to the platform. In the interview, the new party leader presented himself as a "very much a glass-half-full guy," saying he is aiming for "meaningful progress toward" the plank-related items and not demanding absolute loyalty.

"I would not expect anyone to know them all, much less than support" them all, Dickey said. "On the other hand, I would be gravely disappointed if anyone was a current Republican officeholder and could not find a few in there that they could not wholeheartedly support."

While the platform has long included planks supported by the vast majority of Republicans, such as opposing a state income tax, there are other sections that are more controversial. The latest version urges support for a "return to the precious metal standard for the United States dollar" and describes homosexuality as a "chosen behavior that is contrary to the fundamental unchanging truths that has been ordained by God in the Bible."

But Dickey is far from the first party chairman to grapple with how to best utilize the platform.

"There are debates on the platform and there are heated divisions, but I think it’s more a question of representing the conservative philosophy, which we tried and which was consistent with the platform," said Tom Pauken, who led the state party in the 1990s. "I don’t think it makes sense to get into every detail of platform because conservatives have differences."

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Politics Republican Party Of Texas