Conservative activists helped elect Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Now some say there’s a disconnect.
A group of hardline grassroots activists has called on Patrick to be more outspoken on party priorities and worries that lines of communication appear to no longer be there.
In 2014, Dan Patrick’s mission to unseat the lieutenant governor of Texas brought him to Mike Openshaw’s dining room table in Plano, where the bright-eyed state senator hoped to convince several conservative activists in attendance that day to endorse him.
The North Texas Tea Party would not end up settling on a candidate, but Openshaw, a co-founder of the group, said he was already sold. He volunteered for the campaign and even served on an advisory committee for the candidate ahead of Patrick’s landslide victory in November.
The relationship continued to grow from there. Soon after the election, Patrick appointed Openshaw to a spot on the first-ever Grassroots Advisory Board, a group of 20 hand-picked activists from across the state who advised the freshly minted lieutenant governor on public policy. And although the board and the North Texas Tea Party were both long gone by the time the lieutenant governor ran for reelection in 2018, Openshaw again found himself supporting Patrick’s campaign.
But last spring, things seemed to change. As some hardline conservative activists were starting to criticize GOP leaders for turning “purple” during the 2019 legislative session, Openshaw recalled walking into Patrick’s office at the Capitol to ask for a meeting, at the lieutenant governor’s convenience, to discuss what Openshaw could do to help push the conservative agenda.
He said his request was denied.
“They said, ‘He’s booked up — solid,” Openshaw told The Texas Tribune during an interview. (Patrick’s office, for its part, said it had no record of Openshaw ever requesting a meeting).
Openshaw, along with a group of other hardline grassroots activists, have for years enjoyed close relationships with state leaders, particularly Patrick, who has often branded himself as one of the most conservative lieutenant governors in Texas history.
But lately, a disconnect between Patrick and some of the state’s most outspoken and well-known activists has come on display — and once-open lines of communication appear to hardly be there anymore.
Who is to blame is a matter of debate. Various Republicans, from those in elected office to even fellow activists, view those outspoken critics, who they say only represent a sliver of the GOP voting population, as the problem. Those Republicans say the group has burned through its goodwill with state leaders, most of whom, they suggest, have decided that such a crowd can never be appeased.
“I don’t think some grassroots activists understand that making progress sometimes is evolutionary — not revolutionary,” said Jerry Patterson, a former land commissioner of Texas. “They expect home runs and won’t take doubles or triples.”
Meanwhile, some activists, many who view it as their job to hold officials accountable, say Republican leaders have reneged on some of their most important promises and are retreating from the right flank of the party in an attempt to prevent Democrats from gaining ground in 2020.
“It all went back to what happened in the November 2018 election,” said JoAnn Fleming, who heads Grassroots America — We the People. “We had some people who won by smaller margins than they wanted to. And so, in my blunt way of talking, I said the loudest sound I heard … was the sound of spines crumbling.”
The Grassroots Advisory Board
Few grassroots conservative leaders have had more access to state leaders than Fleming. After retiring as a Smith County commissioner in 2008, she became executive director of the Tyler-based Grassroots America. From there, she became known as one of the state’s most influential Tea Party leaders, a reputation she built with her commanding presence and zero-tolerance policy for unprincipled officials as she moderated debates for statewide office, shot out emails to followers and chaired various coalitions.
At one point, Grassroots America’s endorsements were considered to be some of the most coveted in GOP primaries throughout the state. Patrick, a former talk radio host whose outspokenness as a state senator made him a favorite of activists like Fleming at the time, proudly announced the news when his campaign secured an endorsement from the group in 2014.
But Fleming’s knack for making headlines has also at times landed her — and those associated with her — in political hot water.
In one of his first moves as lieutenant governor in 2015, Patrick announced he was forming the Grassroots Advisory Board and appointed Fleming to chair the 20-person committee. Members of the board worked closely with Patrick’s office, weighing in on email chains and participating on conference calls with the lieutenant governor and his staff about policy during the legislative session.
The board was a second and, arguably, larger seat at the table for Fleming. As a state senator, Patrick had created the Tea Party Caucus and advisory committee, an entity that had enabled certain activists like Fleming to meet with state lawmakers face to face inside a Senate conference room on a regular basis.
Fleming chaired both the grassroots board and advisory committee at one point, and the former was under her leadership when it took a step that would mark one of the first signs of a larger disconnect with leaders like Patrick.
In April 2015, amid growing tensions at the Legislature, members of the board blasted Gov. Greg Abbott’s priority legislation aimed at improving early education in the state. In a letter, board members called the plans a “threat to parental rights” and compared the legislation to practices in “socialistic countries.” Patrick said he did not see the letter before it was sent, but the damage had already been done. The committee was disbanded months later.
Almost five years later, Fleming said she stands by the letter she signed on to. Activists on the board, she said, had made clear to Patrick they were there to advise him — not do his bidding.
But Openshaw, the Plano activist who was also a member of the board, acknowledged that the pre-K letter likely had some impact on where things now stand with Patrick. Nothing, Openshaw said, “should have been released without [Patrick] seeing it first.”
The fumble did not mean that Patrick and certain state activists were no longer on the same page. In 2017, when the Legislature gaveled in again, the lieutenant governor declared he was laser focused on a measure to regulate which restrooms transgender people in Texas could use — a proposal that, though it never became law, was championed fiercely by some of those activists.
“They decided they just didn’t need to talk to the grassroots”
Things changed in 2019. Patrick and other Republicans — fresh off of a wake-up call election that involved Patrick’s margin of victory shrinking from nearly 20 percentage points in 2014 to just under 5 in 2018 — decided to focus the Legislature on items that lawmakers from seemingly every political stripe agreed needed reforming.
Instead of pushing the “bathroom bill” and other social issues, state leaders rallied both GOP-led chambers to pass overhauls to the state’s property tax and school finance systems. Activists like Fleming sounded the alarms, saying such a pivot effectively meant that Republicans had turned “purple.”
“They decided they just didn’t need to talk to the grassroots,” Fleming said, “that we were supposed to just trust them.”
Patrick’s office defended the lieutenant governor’s record and pointed to the conservative priorities that had passed under his leadership — perhaps most notably reforms to the state’s property tax system, an item Patrick had championed for years.
“As a leading voice for Texas conservatives, Lt. Gov. Patrick is proud to have passed historic property tax reforms this past session, a conservative priority for more than a decade,” said Sherry Sylvester, a senior adviser to Patrick, in a statement to the Tribune. “Since he's been Lt. Governor he has been successful in passing 76 of 80 of his conservative priorities.”
The disconnect continued to worsen after the Legislature gaveled out in June. Dennis Bonnen, the first-term Republican House speaker, was embroiled in a scandal largely of his own making, giving activists like Fleming plenty of fodder to call on other state leaders to demand his resignation. And Patrick stated support for mandatory background checks in person-to-person gun sales, sparking a firestorm among the activist crowd.
Patrick set off perhaps the most public exchange after describing the legislative session as “winning the Super Bowl” and, soon after, saying “that’s for them to answer” when asked about dissatisfied activists.
That did not sit well with Fleming. Patrick and other GOP leaders, Fleming wrote on the hardline conservative website Texas Scorecard days later, no longer valued “the grassroots or the values they claimed when running for office.”
“For those who cannot seem to grasp the reason behind our discontent,” Fleming wrote, lawmakers had “AGAIN — failed to pass spending limits on state government,” which she said “is on an unsustainable spending spree.” She called it “shameful” that lawmakers had “failed to advance legislation to save the life of pre-born babies." And she said the Legislature “AGAIN — failed to stop the use of tax dollars to fund lobbyists hired by local governments to fight pro-taxpayer reforms,” saying such inaction “helps drown out the voice of the people — the unheard little guys.”
The exchange was a good warmup for what came next: The Lone Star Agenda. Fleming and roughly 275 others signed on to what was billed later that summer as “a common sense plan to unite all Texans.” The list of signees was a who’s who among the state’s conservative activists. People like Julie McCarty, head of the recently renamed True Texas Project; Cathie Adams, former chair of the Texas GOP; and Teresa Beckmeyer with Gun Owners of America-Texas had signed on to the pledge, as had the board of directors for Young Conservatives of Texas.
The platform — with priorities like “increase protections for unborn Texans,” “protect Texas monuments” and “protect the rights of Texans to bear arms” — was pitched as a call on Republicans to “inspire, excite and ignite the base” ahead of the 2020 elections. And on Sept. 12, over a dozen supporters of the platform sent a letter to Abbott asking him to convene a special legislative session to take up their issues.
“Republicans are not united,” read the letter, which was also sent to Patrick. “Texans are hungry for bold colors, not pale pastels.”
The response was mostly silence. Fleming said that neither Abbott’s nor Patrick’s office answered the letter, though both acknowledged to her they had received it. (Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story; Abbott, noted Fleming, “has not had the kind of grassroots relationships” that figures like Patrick have had.)
Regardless, Fleming said, “sometimes a reply would serve you well.”
Instead, Patrick sent a public email to his supporters with his thoughts on the activists’ grievances.
“Some grassroots leaders have said that conservative lawmakers haven't been listening to them,” he wrote in a Nov. 11 email with the subject line “Why We Must Unite In 2020 (or everything you wanted to know about the 2019 session, and more).” Those activists, Patrick acknowledged, “were key to my campaign victories in 2014 and 2018, and I'm very thankful for that, but I just disagree with them on this.”
Patrick said he had done everything he could as head of the Senate. The upper chamber, he noted, passed all but one of the priorities listed in the Lone Star Agenda — “and set a record for passing Republican party platform issues,” per his office. The reason those measures had not made it to Abbott’s desk, Patrick said, was because there was not enough support in the House.
Patrick then said he did not have the power to call lawmakers back for a special session — and that any emails from activists demanding he publicly ask Abbott, the only official with jurisdiction to do so, to convene one “would not be appropriate” since that “is not how strong working relationships in any profession operate.” (For some, the explanation rang hollow, given how Patrick had said during the 2017 Legislature that he would ask Abbott “to call us back again and again and again” to pass the bathroom bill and property tax relief legislation because “people elect us to come here and get the job done.”)
“How come you didn’t do your job?”
Fleming is aware of the criticisms people often levy against her. But “the hammer is not the first tool” she reaches for, she said — and if it hurts an elected officials’ feelings when she challenges them in public, “that is only after I’ve tried to talk to them behind the scenes.”
Patrick, said Fleming, had reached out to her “a few times” since the Legislature gaveled out. “He said he wanted to meet with me,” she said, “and my response was that he needed to meet with all the leaders — not just with me.”
Still, Fleming’s hard-charging approach has, over the years, irritated operators at the Legislature, most of whom paint her as someone who would never be satisfied even if every measure she championed passed.
“Some of these folks are never happy,” said Patterson, the former land commissioner who also ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2014.
Fleming does not buy that. Republicans, she said, have had “trifecta control” over the Capitol since 2003, holding the governor’s office and healthy majorities in the House and the Senate.
“I think it’s a reasonable expectation for any Joe and Jane on Anywhere Street,” she said, “to ask [lawmakers], ‘How come you didn’t do your job?’”
But not every activist echoes the sentiments shared by Fleming and Openshaw — including some who served on Patrick’s advisory committee.
Robin Lennon, for example, leads the Kingwood Tea Party, which recently hosted an event with the lieutenant governor. Her husband, Jim Lennon, who is also involved with the group, said nobody has done more than Patrick to empower the grassroots in Texas — but that, as his roles changed, it is natural he would evolve in the way he interacted with the crowd.
“He started out as the conservative radio guy,” Jim Lennon told the Tribune. “Then he became the lone conservative state senator in 2007, and his constituency was Tea Party conservatives. [Now, as lieutenant governor], he’s gotta work with all the senators — not just the Republican senators — and he’s gotta get along with all the Republicans across the state.”
At the state party level, some characterize the differences in the GOP as a family that, in some cases, has more in common than it has different.
“You’ve got your bohemian kid, you’ve got your crazy uncle and whatever,” said Summer Wise, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee. “Maybe we get into the weeds about differences — but in the end, we all have in mind pretty much the same vision.”
And James Dickey, the chair of the state party who has faced criticism recently from his right, emphasized it’s more about keeping Republicans focused on victory in November, not hung up on intraparty differences.
“I’ve seen elected officials come and go, and I’ve seen activists come and go,” Dickey told the Tribune, adding that the state party is “both more effective and more organized than ever to ensure that everyday Texans” benefit from policies spearheaded by Republicans.
“Everybody … is subject to recall”
The activists, however, suggest GOP leaders shouldn’t be so confident. While Patrick and Abbott won’t be on the ballot this year, the electoral results could have major implications for both their careers. After the 2018 elections produced the closest statewide margins in years, Democrats are energized about their chances in 2020, with flipping control of the state House ahead of a once-in-a-decade redistricting cycle at the top of the party’s mind.
Fleming, for her part, said Grassroots America is less motivated to endorse Republicans in the Legislature whom it has previously backed, given how the 2019 session panned out.
“If you think we’re gonna be eager to go all out and endorse you just because you have a Democrat opponent, you might need to think again,” she said. “An endorsement is not a lifelong commitment. I’ve been married to the same man for 40 years — everybody else is subject to recall.”
Openshaw said Republicans “will feel it” this cycle as activists are less eager to block-walk, staff phone banks and do other volunteer work that’s vital to campaigns. He did that work himself for over 50 years but announced last year he would retire from it, stating he was tired of volunteering for Republicans who had campaigned on certain promises but hardly delivered on them.
“Why do I want to put in that many free hours for a guy who’s going to last two sessions, max?” he asked. “Almost 100% of [elected officials] convert — it’s just a matter of how long it takes them.”
For now, though, it’s unclear what’s next for the disgruntled activist crowd. In mid-December, roughly 20 lawmakers and activists, including Fleming, met in Waco to ask the question on everyone’s mind: How could they get more people back on their side?
Fleming told the Tribune she wouldn’t speak of the meeting — “I made a promise not to talk about it,” she said — but she did emphasize a confidence in her crowd holding its line heading into 2020.
“I don’t think the grassroots are going anywhere,” Fleming said. “And if you don’t like it, well — you’ll just have to get over it.”
Emma Platoff contributed to this report.
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