EL PASO — Gov. Greg Abbott said Thursday that “mistakes were made” in his fundraising letter that used alarmist language in calling to “DEFEND” the Texas border and was dated one day before a deadly shooting that targeted Hispanics in El Paso.
Speaking to reporters ahead of the second meeting of the newly formed Texas Safety Commission, Abbott said he talked to members of the El Paso legislative delegation about the mailer and “emphasized the importance of making sure that rhetoric will not be used in any dangerous way.”
“I did get the chance to visit with the El Paso delegation and help them understand that mistakes were made and course correction has been made,” he said. “We will make sure that we work collaboratively in unification. I had the opportunity to visit with [the El Paso delegation] for about an hour to fully discuss the issue.”
In his short remarks, Abbott didn’t address the specific language of the letter, what mistakes were made or what course correction has been made on his end. His comments come nearly a week after The Texas Tribune first reported on the letter, which cautioned of supposed political implications that could come with unchecked illegal immigration.
“The national Democrat machine has made no secret of the fact that it hopes to ‘turn Texas blue.’ If they can do it in California, they can do it in Texas — if we let them,” Abbott wrote in the fundraising appeal.
The governor signed off with another pointed warning: “Unless you and I want liberals to succeed in their plan to transform Texas — and our entire country — through illegal immigration, this is a message we MUST send.”
Members of the El Paso legislative delegation were not immediately available for comment on Abbott’s remarks about the letter, but before Thursday’s meeting, a handful told the Tribune that they were ready to leave any ill will in the past, put politics aside, and focus on healing and rebuilding their community.
“I think our community is healing, and I think those kinds of comments are hurtful and our delegation acknowledged that publicly,” said state Rep. César Blanco, a Democrat whose district encompasses the Walmart where the shooting took place. “We need to move forward and make sure we do the business of the state. … That’s paramount, and that’s what we’ll be focused on.”
The Texas Democratic Party, meanwhile, demanded the governor apologize for his “racist fundraising mailer” and “answer questions about ending his racist rhetoric immediately.”
“The first step in solving a problem is admitting we have one. In that respect, this Texas Safety Commission meeting is a step in the right direction,” Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said in a statement. “However, let’s be clear: Governor Abbott and the Republican Party’s white supremacist rhetoric, like that seen in Abbott’s fundraising mailer the day before the El Paso shooting, continues to be a major part of the problem.”
Twenty-two people were killed and more than two dozen were wounded in the El Paso shooting. The gunman, whom Abbott previously called an “enraged killer,” was arrested and charged with capital murder.
In a manifesto published just before the shooting, the man railed against a “Hispanic invasion of Texas” and told authorities he was targeting “Mexicans” when he surrendered. After the discovery of the manifesto, federal authorities began investigating the shooting as an act of domestic terrorism.
Before asking reporters to leave the room where the commission was slated to meet, Abbott decried what happened in El Paso as “racist hate.”
“The killer in El Paso definitely was a racist, and he was intent on acting out on his racism,” he said. “If you look at his manifesto, you will see time and time again his target was Texas — the Texas culture, the Hispanic community and blended communities.
“Some of the victims of this horrific crime are blended communities. My family is blended communities. My wife is the first Hispanic first lady in Texas. Her family came from Mexico. We need to address this attack on who we are as Texans.”
After Abbott’s initial remarks, the commission — which included Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, state law enforcement and federal security officials and others — met behind closed doors for more than five hours. The governor later described the gathering as “very long and productive.”
Unlike last week’s meeting in Austin, the first half of Thursday’s meeting focused on community healing and included survivors and members of some of the victims’ families.
One of those invited survivors was Chris Grant, who tried to distract the gunman by throwing soda bottles at him and was later shot near his ribcage. Grant told reporters that at first he was disappointed Abbott wasn’t calling lawmakers back for a special session to address gun violence. But, he said, the governor explained during the meeting that a special session is “a long process,” one of the reasons he wasn’t calling lawmakers back.
“I think maybe we should get in that long process,” Grant said, quickly noting he harbors no animosity toward the governor. “He said it’s a sprint, not a marathon. I honestly think we should start training for that marathon.”
And speaking again with members of the press at the conclusion of the meeting, Abbott ticked off a list of items discussed by the commission. They ranged from proposals more palatable to the GOP base — like training workers in stores like Walmart, improving online safety for students and ramping up counseling for students in the El Paso area — to more politically sensitive topics like banning assault weapons.
The governor previously said he plans to issue a report with recommendations after the meetings. His newly minted Domestic Terrorism Task Force is slated to meet Friday afternoon in Austin.
“The thing we need most right now is more time,” Abbott said. “There are so many issues to address, so many issues to wrestle with [and] so many problems to be solved. We want to make sure that working together, we achieve meaningful, lasting, tangible results for the people of El Paso and for the entire state.”
Members of the El Paso legislative delegation, all of whom are Democrats, said they felt empowered after the hourslong meeting. State Rep. Lina Ortega told reporters after the meeting that Abbott expressed openness to hosting another get-together, if necessary, but that he also said he wanted to “move quickly.”
And similar to last week’s meeting in Austin, lawmakers said they felt as if no solution — even one like politically precarious red flag laws, which let judges temporarily seize someone's guns if he or she is deemed an imminent threat — should be off the table.
“We would definitely love to see another roundtable,” said state Rep. Mary González, D-Clint. “There were moving conversations on protective gun laws, and there’s still a lot to unpack in that area.”
But right now, she said, “the El Paso delegation has been strong and centered on El Paso healing.”
Members of the gun control group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, who were not invited to Thursday’s discussion, made clear they want more stringent gun laws. Prior to Thursday’s meeting, El Paso-area volunteers for the group told The Texas Tribune they hoped lawmakers would, at the very least, pledge to vote on “serious gun laws.”
“If they’re not going to change gun laws, we’re going to change our representatives,” said Jody Casey, co-leader of the El Paso chapter.
On the other side of the political spectrum, a small group of Second Amendment rights supporters held a press conference where they railed against stricter gun control laws — advocating instead for better mental health care and supporting civic organizations, like churches, that they said help promote mental, emotional, spiritual and social health.
“Red flag laws don’t work like they often say they do. The murderer who came to El Paso had no felony records,” said James Peinado, El Paso leader for Open Carry Texas. “Politicians want to offer up that they did something by passing a law, when in fact the solution really comes from the community.”
But Abbott made clear early Thursday he didn’t plan to take guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens.
“We had a robust discussion last time, and we will continue that discussion where we talk about strategies where we can ensure that we can keep guns out of the hands of deranged killers,” he said, “while at the same time making sure we protect Second Amendment rights.”
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