In Harvey response, Gov. Greg Abbott finds a hospitable spotlight
Weeks after his first special session ended on a sour note, Gov. Greg Abbott has drawn largely positive reviews for his role as Texas' crisis-commander-in-chief amid the lead up to and aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
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Just three weeks ago, Gov. Greg Abbott was making the rounds in the media, faulting state House Republican leaders for the failure of half his agenda in a summer special session and planting the seeds for a bruising 2018 primary season.
Then Harvey hit.
The hurricane, which made landfall as a Category 4 storm on Aug. 25 near Corpus Christi, has cast a decisively new kind of spotlight on Abbott after a summer of political battles under the pink dome — that of Texas' crisis-commander-in-chief. By all appearances, Abbott is embracing the role, using the trappings of his office to project the image of a governor in charge during a potentially unprecedented crisis — and winning positive reviews in the process.
That was on full display Thursday, when Abbott held a news conference at the state Capitol to unveil a the newly formed Governor's Commission to Rebuild Texas. Abbott named John Sharp, the chancellor of Texas A&M University, to lead the commission, elevating a longtime moderate Democrat to effectively serve as Texas' Harvey recovery czar.
Speaking with reporters after the news conference, Sharp said he was "minding my own business" when Abbott called him roughly a week ago to discuss the new job.
Did Sharp have any hesitation in accepting the job, a likely years-long commitment?
"I don't think he asked," Sharp said of Abbott.
That no-nonsense assertiveness is among the reasons Abbott has won plaudits for his leading role in the Harvey response. There was an early dustup with Houston officials over whether the city should evacuate, but since then, Abbott's received generally high marks for being measured, engaged and visible.
"Abbott has performed flawlessly in the wake of what appears to be the worst natural disaster in U.S. history," said Ray Sullivan, a former chief of staff to ex-Gov. Rick Perry. "It really is not as easy as it looks. He struck the exact right balance of being very visible, very much in command, and someone offering comfort and support for the victims of the storm."
Officials who have worked with Abbott in Harvey's aftermath have been particularly struck by how hands-on the governor has been. State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, a Brenham Republican whose district was directly in Harvey's path when it made landfall, recalled in an interview how she recently texted Abbott's chief of staff and immediately got a call back — from the governor himself.
"He's 24/7," said Nim Kidd, Texas' top emergency management official. "I like to think I'm a 24/7 guy. He's up before I am, and I think he's awake while I'm trying to get rest. He's always present."
Abbott's been particularly visible at the State Operations Center, where he's made near-daily appearances for briefings and news conferences since the storm struck. He even created a video offering words of encouragement to members of the night shift, which goes from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., Kidd said.
Abbott has also basked in praise from President Donald Trump, who has visited Texas twice since the storm struck — each time with Abbott by his side throughout the trip. Trump has taken to calling Abbott by his first name, and during the president's trip to Houston on Saturday, he delivered a seemingly endless stream of compliments to Abbott.
"The cameras are blazing, I have to say it," the optics-obsessed Trump said, addressing a crowd of volunteers at a Pearland church. "You have a great, great governor."
Abbott's time in the post-Harvey spotlight has not been without a few less flattering moments, though. His suggestion before the storm that Houstonians should consider evacuating riled some leaders there who had been urging residents to stay put. Abbott's message "was a mistake, there's no way around it," Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a fellow Republican, said at the time.
Then there were the explosions at a Crosby chemical plant following the storm, which have renewed a debate over safety and transparency in Texas' petrochemical industry. In 2014, when Abbott was attorney general, he ruled that the state no longer has to give citizens data about dangerous chemical locations — the same kind of information the company that operates the Crosby plant declined to provide after the explosions began.
Some Democrats have pounced on Abbott in the wake of the explosions for the 2014 ruling, which was a big issue in the governor's race that year. "Harvey Cleanup Hampered by Abbott’s Chemical Negligence," read one news release issued Thursday by the Lone Star Project, a Democratic political research group.
Democrats have yet to find a serious candidate to run next year against Abbott, who is sitting on a massive $41 million war chest. Before Harvey, Abbott had made clear he planned to devote some of his time in the 2018 election cycle to helping legislative incumbents who were supportive of his special session agenda, potentially getting involved in primaries.
In Abbott's world, the Harvey response has been an all-hands-on-deck effort, putting on hold what was expected to be a transition to campaign mode after the special session that ended in mid-August. Staffers who were thought to be stepping away from the office are sticking around for the time being to see through the storm response.
Abbott's has shown little tolerance for some of the more politically charged issues that have arisen in Harvey's wake. Asked at a news conference last week if he was worried politics would get in the way of Congress passing Harvey aid, Abbott offered a two-word response: "I don't." And on Thursday, Abbott swatted away a question from a reporter asking him to square his vocal aversion to some local regulations — a major theme of the special session — with the storm response in Houston.
"I think it's pretty clear that tree ordinances don't have anything to do with what happened" with Harvey, Abbott said at the news conference with Sharp.
To many, the launch of Sharp's commission Thursday morning marked the beginning of a second, much longer stage of the Harvey recovery. In a way, the new chapter provides bigger challenges for a governor, Sullivan and others agreed, pointing to undertaking of a longer-term aid package in Congress, the short- and middle-term impact on the Texas economy and the growing impatience of displaced citizens. There are also thorny questions of whether the state's largest city should restrict or temper development in some areas to reduce future flooding events.
Also on the horizon is increased debate over what kind of financial assistance the state can provide. The Legislature is not scheduled to meet again until 2019. Abbott has said the storm will not require his calling a special session but some lawmakers have raised the possibility of doing so so in order to tap some of the roughly $10 billion in the state's savings account, officially called the Texas Economic Stabilization Fund but better known as the Rainy Day Fund.
On Tuesday, Abbott expressed openness to dipping into the Rainy Day Fund — only once the state completes an assessment of the storm's impact and what other funding sources can be used to address it.
"As it concerns needing to tap into the ESF, the right approach is for us to take in all the information that we need to gather, to find out what the needs are, what needs are not yet satisfied, to what extent does the governor’s disaster fund provide resources to cover that and if we’re short, then consider the necessity to tap into the ESF," Abbott told reporters while visiting Wharton to meet with local official about the Harvey response. "But you don’t dip into it without knowing exactly what your needs are, so we need to first determine what your needs are."
Officials like Kolhorst say they have faith in Abbott to make the right decision when the time comes.
"For now I think it's a wise decision to realize what the impact is, what the federal government is going to and not going to pay for," Kolkhorst said. As for any final decisions, she added, "I'm going to leave that up to him."
Disclosure: Texas A&M University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.
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