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Texas Legislature 2019

Analysis: A Texas senator’s reputation, in a word

What began as a lieutenant governor's unusual admonishment of a state senator has turned into something else: a smear campaign.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (right) swears in state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, as president pro tempore of the Senate on opening…

Texas Legislature 2019

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What began as a political spanking has become a smear campaign.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, in an interview with The Dallas Morning News, expanded on his reasons for taking a committee chairmanship from state Sen. Kel Seliger, implying that Seliger has a pattern of bad behavior and “has lost the confidence of other senators.”

This isn’t the first time Patrick felt the need to have the last word in a disciplinary moment. State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, was accused last year of sexting a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. An inconclusive investigation didn’t prove Schwertner had done anything wrong, but he agreed to step down from his committee chairmanship, he said, to spend time on other issues.

That made for a tidy political ending: Schwertner was out of the way, and Patrick and the other 30 senators were free from having to pass judgment on him. Patrick felt the need anyway, however, saying in a news release: “My discussions with individual senators are private, but with the release of this letter, I can confirm that Sen. Schwertner’s request is consistent with what I was already planning for the upcoming session.”

It’s a once-rare but increasingly normal thing: The lieutenant governor of Texas going out of his way to shame a senator of his own party at a time when he needs all the Republican help he can get. The normal course of things in the tradition-bound Texas Senate would have been to demote Seliger and move on to other business without saying anything more. But a defrocked senator is a dangerous one, and Patrick wasn't done.

Patrick’s Seliger campaign started with an odd choice of words in describing just what the senator had done to set off the Lite Guv. The short history here:

Patrick made his session committee assignments, making Seliger chairman of the Agriculture Committee and taking away his spots on Finance, Education and Higher Education, where he had been chairman. Seliger said the takeaways were retribution for opposing Patrick on a couple of the lieutenant governor’s pet issues in 2017.

A Patrick adviser, Sherry Sylvester, replied: “If Sen. Seliger believes serving as chair of the Agriculture Committee — a critical committee for West Texas and all of rural Texas — is beneath him, he should let us know and the lieutenant governor will appoint someone else.”

Seliger’s reply in a radio interview was the crowning blow. “It was extremely snide and really unbecoming for a member of the staff, the lieutenant governor’s or my staff,” Seliger said. “I didn’t say anything of the sort, and that assertion is disingenuous, and I have a recommendation for Miss Sylvester and her lips and my back end.”

Patrick, taking away Seliger’s chairmanship, characterized that barnyard talk as a “lewd comment ... that has shocked everyone” — a characterization that raised the stakes and introduced #metoo overtones into a heated political fight.

In his interview with the Morning News’ Lauren McGaughy, Patrick doubled down on that theme and detailed a number of allegations about Seliger’s behavior.

“When one person has lost the confidence of other senators and is disruptive, then I have to address that,” Patrick told the paper. “Last night, a number of senators and myself held hands and prayed for him because we don’t like that this has happened.”

“I’m sorry that it’s come to this, but he left me no choice.”

Seliger, who has described this as a straight-up political fight, is at a disadvantage here. Sure, he’s been a mayor and a state senator and is used to political back-and-forth, whether that comes in heated floor debate, city council chambers, or an animated conversation about potholes or zoning in Aisle 5 at United Supermarkets in Amarillo.

Patrick, on the other hand, was also a state senator and is now in his second term as the state’s lieutenant governor — a post he initially won after a primary race against three elected statewide officials. He’s also taken argument to the professional level, having come to politics after a career in talk radio in Houston.

Most people engaged in debate with him end up losing, somehow; he lands his punches even when he doesn’t win the day.

This time, he seems to be out to wreck a political opponent’s reputation, ignoring a critical difference between “lewd” and “crude.” From the unabridged edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language:

  • crude: 1. in a raw or unprepared state; unrefined: crude oil. 2. lacking in intellectual subtlety, perceptivity, etc.; rudimentary; undeveloped. 3. lacking finish, polish, property arrangement, or completeness: a crude summary. 4. lacking culture, refinement, tact, etc: a crude person, crude behavior. 5. undisguised; blunt; bare: a crude answer. 6. Archaic. unripe, not mature.
  • lewd: 1. inclined to, characterized by, or inciting to lust or lechery. 2. obscene or indecent, as language, songs, etc. 3. Obs. a. low or vulgar. b. base or vile, esp. of a person. c. bad, worthless, or poor, esp. of a thing.

The political differences are easier to parse. Crudeness is rude and inappropriate and is, perhaps unfortunately, a regular feature of Texas politics; lewdness is creepy and disqualifying and has more to do with sex.

The Schwertner allegations were lewd. What Seliger said was crude. And what Patrick is playing at is anything but shrewd.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and Sherry Sylvester have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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