In Harvey's Wake

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You don’t want to call a major disaster a political boon, but Hurricane Harvey blew away some of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s distractions while coinciding with a reboot in the office he wants to hold for another four years.

The storm is now the central concern of what has often been an unfocused administration. It also shifted the spotlight away from the most prominent alternative to his leadership — Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a conservative favorite of some of the GOP’s most outspoken activists.

The special session that ended last month was, to put it gently, humbling for the governor. Abbott asked lawmakers for action on 20 issues, including several “wedge” proposals that split the public into groups of “us” and “them.” He got about half of what he sought, with notable misses on property tax caps, restroom regulations for transgender Texans and restraints on local governments.

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He and Patrick were more or less in sync. Both ended the session with sharp words and hurt feelings toward Speaker Joe Straus and the Texas House. That’s a reflection of where the wedges fell — between the business-oriented Republicans who dominate in the Legislature’s lower chamber and the social conservatives who dominate in the Senate.

Patrick himself presents a mild threat to Abbott; the lieutenant governor is popular with the GOP’s conservative activists and has been driving the Republican agenda in Austin for more than a year. Abbott’s special session agenda might as well have been written in Patrick’s office.  

The lieutenant governor is effectively the standard-bearer for those movement conservatives, just as the speaker is for the business Republicans.

The governor, who has never faced real competition in a Republican primary, has never had to plant a flag with any camp in the divided Texas GOP: He was with everybody, everybody was with him. Patrick, by accident or design, has forced the governor to cover his right flank, which is over-represented in statewide Republican primaries and is increasingly exasperated with business conservatives like Straus.

At the beginning of the year, Abbott was carefully not taking a hard position on the bathroom bill, which was supported by social conservatives and opposed by business. By the summer, he had publicly come to Patrick’s side in favor of the legislation, even adding it to the agenda of the special session that began in July.

But that was all before Harvey. Compared to one of the biggest storms and disasters in state history, the social and governmental issues that had front-page attention in the summer are small beer.

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In the grand tradition of officeholders challenged by disaster — think of George W. Bush and the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. — Abbott pulled on a work shirt embroidered with an official seal and went to work, tirelessly fronting the official efforts to save people from the immediate dangers of the storm itself and to help the state rebuild in its aftermath. He’s been in the driver’s seat since the wind and rain began, an advantageous and remarkably non-political spot for a political leader.

Harvey landed shortly after the special session ended and as the state’s new two-year budget took effect. Abbott had taken his lumps in the special session and in the regular session that started the year. Both were marked by a divided Republican majority and — as was true in Abbott’s first session in 2015 — by the governor’s difficulties getting what he wanted out of the Legislature.

Abbott is the first governor in decades without legislative experience of his own or on his official staff. Worse, it shows. Rick Perry served in the House before he won statewide office, and also had former lawmakers on his official staff for all of his 14 years in the governor’s office. So did George W. Bush and Ann Richards and Bill Clements and Mark White. 

If you want to deal with a dog, you have to learn to speak dog. And if you want to deal with a Texas Legislature, you have to think like a legislator.

A long-anticipated remake of the governor’s organization chart is ready to go, one that will bring some much-needed legislative experience into Abbott’s office. He’s also recruited Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp, a Democrat, former comptroller railroad commissioner and legislator, to oversee the state’s day-to-day recovery from Harvey.

And Abbott, who has not firmly established a signature issue or cause during his first two legislative sessions as governor, now has something big to fix.

Harvey was awful and the state’s recovery from it will take a long, long time. It’s a big job, and now it’s a focal point for a governor who often hasn’t seemed to have one. 

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The Texas Legislature's special session ended with a bang, but it wasn't the sound of the property tax bill the governor was hoping for. Will he call state lawmakers back for more? [Full story]

  • A new report says the deferrals and other fiscal tricks lawmakers used this year — and are considering in the current special session — are digging a hole legislators will have to fill when they return to write a new budget in January 2019. [Full story]

  • Measuring the progress of legislation is easy: This one passed, that one didn't. Political success in a legislative session is different: A mediocre legislative record can be a victory for all sides. [Full story]

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