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Lieutenant governors almost never interrogate witnesses at public hearings. It’s not that it’s illegal, just that that sort of showboating is not done. That’s the business of senators and representatives. A lieutenant governor grabbing the mic is the legislative equivalent of a parent taking over a student’s science fair project.
But there was Dan Patrick late Thursday afternoon, taking a chair — and a mic — to question the state’s last remaining Public Utility Commissioner about the PUC’s failure to do what Patrick and 28 state senators had demanded in a letter the day before.
That performance was not only about last month’s electricity blackouts during a freeze that lasted nearly a week. It was also another swipe at Patrick’s superior, Gov. Greg Abbott, who appointed Arthur D’Andrea, along with two other commissioners who already resigned under pressure from Patrick.
“You serve at the pleasure of the governor,” Patrick said to D’Andrea at one point. He was admonishing the commissioner for not retroactively reducing energy prices incurred during the storm. D’Andrea, a lawyer, said it would be illegal to do so, noting that put him in an awkward position because Patrick and 28 senators have said he should go back and “correct” those charges.
Patrick wanted to know what he would do if the governor asked him to change the numbers, and D’Andrea said Abbott has never asked him to do something he thinks is illegal. In fact, the governor is in a position to make that request, but not to order it. Governors appoint commissioners, who are then confirmed by the Senate. But the governor can’t fire them; they’re not his employees.
After the freeze, Patrick said the head of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas should go, along with Abbott’s three appointees at the PUC. All but D’Andrea are now gone, evidence that the lieutenant governor has taken some control of the situation.
That’s a political move, whether that was his aim or not. Patrick is exerting his powers at the expense of the governor, a member of the same party — albeit of a different wing of the GOP — who has been both an ally and an adversary since the two men were elected to their current posts in 2014.
Two years ago, Abbott, Patrick and then-House Speaker Dennis Bonnen legislated in unison, pushing through an overhaul of public school financing and significant changes to local property taxes. Two years before that, Patrick was pushing what became known as “the bathroom bill” — an attempt to regulate bathroom use and keep transgender Texans from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity.
In the resulting whirlwind of culture politics, then-Speaker Joe Straus and the House blocked the legislation while Abbott played both sides, publicly voicing support for the bill and adding it to the agenda of a special legislative session while privately assuring concerned business leaders that it wouldn’t become law.
The polar vortex that descended on the state last month opened new differences between the state’s top two elected officials. And it has reinvigorated speculation about Patrick’s intentions for the 2022 elections.
He wouldn’t be the first name mentioned, or even the first name in the past week. Abbott has said he wants to run for reelection. Patrick has knocked down rumors of a gubernatorial race several times, and has also said he wants to run for another term as lieutenant governor.
Political folk are getting restive. George P. Bush, the state’s land commissioner, has said he’s considering a race for attorney general, regardless of what Attorney General Ken Paxton decides to do in 2022. The mere possibility of openings in either of the top two offices is tantalizing music to the ears of statewide candidates lower on the political ladder, like Comptroller Glenn Hegar, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick. Allen West, chair of the Republican Party of Texas, has been mentioned as an Abbott rival.
Throw in the new wild cards, like actor Matthew McConaughey, who was asked about the governor speculation on NBC’s “Today” show. “It’s a very honorable consideration. So am I considering that? Sure,” he said. Or Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who told The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith, when asked, that she’s focused on doing her job right now. Some might read that as a placeholder, with an emphasis on the word she didn’t say: No. Pressed on that question, she told Smith she’s focused on reelection to her current job. And there are persistent murmurs about former U.S. Rep. and erstwhile candidate Beto O’Rourke.
Expect more of this kind of talk over the next few months. The political calendar starts with an election. The elected people go to City Hall, or Austin, or Washington, to do the jobs they were elected to do. Voters and donors watch what happens before deciding, in the next election, whether those politicians deserve more time, or should be stopped in their tracks.
If everything stays on schedule — a question because of delayed census numbers used for drawing political districts — people who want to run in 2022 will file their papers in nine months.
Right now, voters are in that “watching” time, and the potential contestants are starting to audition for our attention and favor.