Lone Star gets loonier

Texas Republicans endorse God, squabble, call for dismantling the federal government, await indictments and pray for Bush.

Published June 11, 2004 10:02PM (EDT)

On the first night of the Texas Republican state convention last week, there were plenty of receptions to attend. Instead, almost 200 delegates and visitors chose to file patiently into a room in the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in downtown San Antonio for the meeting of the Permanent Platform Committee. The next two and half hours would be one of their few opportunities to influence the party's ideology.

Earlier that day, the chairwoman of the Republican Party of Texas, Tina Benkiser, had proclaimed to the 11,000 or so delegates assembled for the June 3-5 convention, "This is the true grass-roots center of America." This state party, in fact, is the crucible in which Karl Rove helped craft the presidency of George W. Bush. It is the home of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land. The party has seized control of every statewide office in Texas, won majorities in both chambers in the Statehouse for the first time in more than a century, and along with ideological soul mates, captured the U.S. Congress. The grass-roots movement that provided the energy and manpower for the GOP's rise in Texas traces its origin to Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign in 1980 and then Pat Robertson's run for the presidential nomination in 1988. The televangelist's campaign birthed an overtly evangelical cadre of revolutionaries with a radical plan for a return to 19th century government, at least as they understand it.

The values and world vision of the movement today can be found enshrined in the 24-page party platform. It's a fearful, twilight looking-glass world, beset by enemies, where the purity of the culture, under constant siege, must be protected from threats both internal and external. The platform makes short work of the federal government, calling for the abolition of everything from the U.S. Department of Education to the Internal Revenue Service, along with most taxes. Aliens without proper identification are to be summarily deported. Illegal immigrants should not be granted drivers' licenses. Voter registration is to be made more difficult. "American English" is the official language of the state, and "the Party supports the termination of bilingual education programs in Texas." A plank titled "equality for all citizens" urges the repeal of hate crimes legislation. Another one states: "We oppose any criminal or civil penalties against those who oppose homosexuality out of faith, conviction, or belief in traditional values." Since the Bible is the literal truth, teachers should have the right to instruct their public school students in "creation science." The Ten Commandments are the foundation of the legal system. And lest anyone forget, "America is a Christian nation."

When asked by reporters for comment, Texas Democratic Party chairman Charles Soechting called the state GOP's platform "the longest political suicide note in modern Texas history." While Soechting flagged the Republicans' extremism, the internal fight in San Antonio over the platform's planks revealed a party still struggling to make the transition from insurgency to leadership. A lack of statewide races on the ballot this year combined with overwhelming support for President Bush, who will certainly carry the Lone Star State, has deprived the party faithful of a unifying electoral challenge. In its absence, divisions and political ambition are moving front and center.

The hot-button issues at the convention were gambling and school vouchers. Both pitted the Republican elected leadership and their financial backers squarely against much of the grass-roots. Instituting a voucher program that will be a model for the nation has been a burning priority for certain Texans.

In particular, during the 2002 election cycle, a San Antonio hospital bed magnate named James Leininger invested $624,774 mostly in GOP candidates, according to campaign watchdog Texans for Public Justice, apparently with the goal of establishing a voucher program in Texas. From 2000 to 2004, Leininger's entire family gave $2,497,250 to state candidates, which does not include the contributions of numerous companies in which he owns sizable interests. This past February, Leininger and his wife joined Texas Gov. Rick Perry and his wife along with anti-tax guru and Washington lobbyist Grover Norquist, among others, on a private cruise in the Bahamas to "talk about school finance."

A month later, the governor called the Legislature into an unscheduled special session on the subject, which fizzled because of Republican bickering. Vouchers could soon become a policy reality. Perry has declared himself open to a voucher program as part of any eventual school finance package. But many of the faithful seem to be having second thoughts -- because they see vouchers as a Trojan horse for the federal government.

Members of the convention's platform committee said they heard more heated testimony on "school choice" than on any other issue. At the meeting, numerous participants testified to their fear that if public funding in the form of vouchers finds its way into private schools, government regulation is sure to follow. "It's time to reverse the idea that Republicans are for vouchers," said one delegate, echoing many others. "Vouchers lead to more control." In the end, the sop in the platform to these complaints involved a call for a state constitutional amendment to accompany any voucher law that would ensure the government stays out of private schools.

The issue of gambling will not likely be resolved quite as easily. Signature takers wielding anti-gambling petitions greeted delegates at the entrance to the convention hall. "Please sign below and let Republican legislators know that we want them to uphold the GOP platform," the petition read. It came in response to a proposal by the governor and legislative leaders to allow 40,000 slot machines into the state as a gambit to pay for a cut in property taxes.

Gaming interests are big supporters of the Republican campaign machine in Texas, contributing $572,175 to Perry since 2000. But the party platform, as always, is unequivocal on the matter. "We oppose any further legalization, government facilitation, or financial guarantees relating to any type of gambling including casino, riverboat, slot machine, video keno, eight-liners, and other games of chance."

When Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison spoke on Saturday, the final day of the convention, some of the loudest applause came when she said, after a pause and a stern glare, "Governor Bush fought gambling in this state, and I will too." The delegates roared in approval.

The popular Hutchison is seen as the most serious challenger to Perry and his bid to become the first Texas governor in history to last more than a decade in office. (Perry served out the last two years of Bush's second term). The potential political shuffle in the 2006 gubernatorial primary was the proverbial elephant in the convention hall.

Conventional wisdom holds that Texas is so solidly Republican that whoever survives the GOP primary will ultimately gain statewide office in 2006. Comptroller Carol Keeton Strayhorn has all but declared she will run against Perry, but her bid could depend on the senator's plans. Some believe Hutchison's destiny is tied to that of George W. Bush. Under this theory, if Bush wins another term, the Democrats put Hillary Clinton on the ticket in 2008, and the GOP counters with Hutchison. If Bush loses, Hutchison returns to Texas to run against Perry. In this scenario, Hutchison frees her Senate seat for a run by current Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Strayhorn then goes for the lieutenant governor spot. But no one's counting out Perry.

As columnist and former Texas Observer editor Molly Ivins has noted, he possesses a head of hair of which all Texans can be proud. The governor, like Bush, also knows how to ingratiate himself with the state's right-wing moneymen, a mix of energy magnates, home builders and the aforementioned hospital-bed maker. Not coincidentally, these campaign contributors' legislative wish lists have been mostly fulfilled recently.

Another edge favoring Perry is his shrewd chief of staff, Mike Toomey, who's earned the moniker "Mike the Knife" for his particularly sharp brand of political maneuvering. Toomey is reportedly one of the masterminds behind Republican efforts to funnel potentially illegal corporate money into the 2002 state election, which is currently the subject of an Austin grand jury investigation that may implicate DeLay's operatives, if not DeLay himself.

It's been an especially acrimonious year in Texas politics, even by the state's high standards. There was an orgy of strong-armed GOP legislating, DeLay's redistricting crusade, and Democratic lawmakers twice fleeing to neighboring states to prevent quorums. The question in Austin is whether state Republicans, and their cousins in Washington, can figure out how to govern. If the jockeying and squabbling at the state convention is any indication, the road won't be an easy one.

By Jake Bernstein

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Jake Bernstein was a senior reporter on the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) team that broke the Panama Papers story. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Bloomberg, Mother Jones, The Guardian, ProPublica, Vice and has appeared on the BBC, NBC, CNN, PBS, and NPR.

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Dave Mann is staff writer at The Texas Observer.


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