Conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan has become one of the most powerful unelected figures at the Capitol, happily doing battle with lawmakers he says are wasting taxpayers’ money. But in his never-ending crusade to fight spending, he has trained his sights on an unlikely foe: the members of his own party.
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One steamy afternoon in September, Michael Quinn Sullivan unfolded his lanky, six-foot-four-inch frame from a rented SUV and considered the friendly facade of the Spring Creek Barbeque in the Houston suburb of Missouri City. He bounced lightly on the balls of his feet, a smile on his face. He had been here before. About 25 members of the Greater Fort Bend County Tea Party were inside, waiting to hear him speak about the Legislature, but he held no notes in his hand. After more than five years of traveling across Texas to speak at gatherings like this one—averaging two hundred speeches per year—he hardly needed them. In that time his organization, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility (TFR), had become one of the most influential advocacy groups in Austin, thanks in large measure to Sullivan’s Fiscal Responsibility Index, a scorecard he uses to grade legislators according to how well they protect the interests of taxpayers, and his Taxpayer Pledge, which has been signed by scores of lawmakers who promise not to raise taxes.
But his real power had come from places like the bedroom community he stood in now. The tea party insurgency that swept through the Republican party in 2009 had made his message a welcome one across the state, but especially in the suburbs and small cities. This was Sullivan’s Texas. At every stop on his never-ending tour, he adds new names to his email list, a database of the most energized conservative voters in Texas. He does not hesitate to call them into action when he feels legislators need a little pressure on a given issue.
The grassroots credibility that Sullivan has earned sets his organization apart from other taxpayer groups, like the older and more staid Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, which devotes much of its energy to preparing dry reports and testifying at hearings. Sullivan prefers to get his hands dirty. He loves a good fight, especially on Twitter, where his persona is a blend of gee-whiz Aggie enthusiasm (he went to A&M) and partisan sarcasm of the Bill O’Reilly variety. Last summer, after a blustery back-and-forth with state representative Trey Martinez Fischer, the chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, Sullivan—an avid jogger and cyclist—tweeted: “Been a fun day getting ‘threatened’ on Twitter by Steve Mostyn’s pudgy Austin errand boy.” Mostyn, a deep-pocketed Houston trial lawyer who funds Democratic causes and candidates, is a frequent target.
But what makes Sullivan unique is his willingness to take on the conservative establishment in Texas. Last year, AgendaWise, a spin-off organization Sullivan created in 2009, called the Texas Association of Business “a helpful tool for liberals hoping for higher taxes and more government.” Texans for Lawsuit Reform—the group that has done more than any other to crush the plaintiff’s bar and the Democratic party it has traditionally helped fund—was labeled insufficiently conservative. Bryan Eppstein, the dean of Republican political consultants, is a “grow-government lobbyist.” Then there is Steve Ogden, the former chairman of the Senate Finance Committee who rammed through a state budget in the 2011 legislative session that for the first time in at least fifty years actually reduced spending over the previous biennium. Ogden trampled the chamber’s Democratic minority in an equally unprecedented manner in the process, along with powerful lobbies like teachers and hospitals. But Ogden failed to sign the Taxpayer Pledge and declined to co-sponsor most of TFR’s legislative agenda. His grade on Sullivan’s index? An F.
Sullivan’s favorite target by far is House Speaker Joe Straus. The San Antonio Republican wrested control of the 150-member chamber from Tom Craddick in 2009 by lining up support from all of the House’s 65 Democrats plus 11 Republicans chafing against Craddick’s autocratic rule. Afterward, Straus gave coveted committee chairmanships to all of the Republicans in the gang of 11, along with a number of Democrats. This was not unusual—the Speaker typically gives the minority party at least some leadership role. But Straus’s new Republican chairs were more independent than their predecessors, and his reliance on Democratic votes made his path to power seem illegitimate to Sullivan and other conservative hard-liners. Despite their efforts, Straus managed to hold on to the gavel after the 2010 elections, even though the Republican landslide that year gave the House a supermajority of 101 Republicans and rendered the Democrats all but powerless. In both the 2010 and 2012 primaries, TFR funded candidates to run against many of Straus’s Republican lieutenants and managed to knock off several of them. In 2012 TFR underwrote a challenger in Straus’s own district, all the while keeping up a steady drumbeat of criticism online and on the conservative speaking circuit. Straus survived, but Sullivan had so poisoned the well against the Speaker that by the time the state Republican convention rolled around, his address to the delegates had to be carefully stage-managed to minimize heckling and booing.
“We in Texas are in a happy era,” Sullivan told his audience in Missouri City. “Our side is winning. All our statewide officials are Republicans. Our state Senate has been Republican for quite some time now. The Texas House has been held by Republicans now for a decade.” He paused. “So with all these wins, why does it sometimes feel like we are still not actually winning?” Take state spending, Sullivan said. “Between 1990 and 2012, it has increased over three hundred percent, while population and inflation increased only one hundred fifteen percent.” For years Sullivan and others on the right have been pursuing a constitutional amendment that would prevent the Legislature from increasing year-to-year spending for any reason other than inflation and population growth, a concept that Republican primary voters have endorsed. With a two-thirds majority in the House, he said, “you would expect they would have been able to do anything they wanted to.” Yet the bill to limit spending didn’t get a hearing until the last possible day of the 2011 session, and the committee chair didn’t even allow a vote. “Are we really winning,” Sullivan asked, “if we don’t get the kind of substantive reforms voters want?”
Sullivan’s power is all the more remarkable when you consider how little he has to work with. The tea party movement began in large part as a reaction to the federal debt. While reasonable people may differ on how grave the crisis really is and how it should best be addressed, most recognize that federal deficits are a problem. But Austin is not Washington, D.C. Sullivan likes to collect anecdotes about waste: the Texas Department of Transportation buying yellow trucks and then repainting them a different shade of yellow, high schools buying big stadium scoreboards while laying off staff, and the like. But the actual state budget numbers simply don’t support the idea that Texas has a spending problem. For decades Texas has ranked at or near the bottom in per capita spending. The purported massive increase in spending that Sullivan cites in his stump speech is in fact largely illusory. In the 2010–2011 biennium, general revenue expenditures, the portion of the budget that legislators have the most control over, was actually lower than it was ten years ago, adjusting for inflation and population growth.
There are other ways to assess relative levels of government spending, but none of them show any pattern of growth in Texas. In fact, they show the opposite. As a percentage of the state’s gross domestic product, general revenue spending has been trending downward for the past two decades—from around 4 percent in the early nineties to around 3.5 percent today. As a share of personal income, the downward trend in Texas over the same period is even more marked: from around 5.2 percent to just over 4 percent. It is true that Texans pay relatively high property and sales taxes, but this is because, unlike most states, we do not have an income tax. Only five states have a lower overall state and local tax burden, and each of them is chiefly rural. Among large, urban states, none even come close to matching Texas’s low tax burden. There is also, of course, a much more obvious problem with making the “state spending is out of control” argument at this particular moment in history. Sullivan, who is 42, was complaining to the Greater Fort Bend County Tea Party about the fiscal performance of a Legislature that had just made budget cuts of a magnitude not seen since before he was born.
“The idea that we are somehow profligate is just nonsense,” said Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business. “They are selling Texans a bill of goods.” And yet Sullivan is widely considered one of the most effective organizers in the state, and his access to leaders like Governor Rick Perry is second to none. Can you really build a grassroots movement around a premise that is fundamentally untrue? Perhaps the better question is, Why would you want to?
In late August I flew with Sullivan to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, where he had been invited to speak at an event sponsored by the founding father of the national antitax movement, Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform. The venue, which organizers named Liberty Plaza, turned out to be a parking lot located several deserted downtown blocks from the convention center. The architecture was from Halliburton’s early Mesopotamian period: enormous tents of latex-coated white canvas thrumming with the sound of huge portable air conditioners, surrounded by a chain-link fence. Norquist buzzed about in a dark suit and wire-rimmed glasses, directing the placement of tables, chairs, and microphones. A co-author of Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, Norquist has been among the most feared and effective organizers in Washington since his days as a soldier in the Reagan revolution. These days he is best known for inducing hundreds of elected officials in Washington to sign a pledge promising to fight tax increases. (Sullivan’s pledge is modeled on this one.) Every Wednesday he convenes a meeting of activists he calls the Center-Right Coalition, which he defines as everyone who once marched under Reagan’s broad banner, or would have, had they been old enough to do so. For the past ten years or so, Sullivan, with Norquist’s imprimatur, has organized regular meetings of a similar coalition in Austin. The meetings are held at the offices of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the influential think tank where Sullivan once served as vice president.
There were a few stars present at the Liberty Plaza meeting, like Ralph Reed and Phyllis Schlafly, but for the most part it was a tent full of Michael Quinn Sullivans. Norquist introduced each of his acolytes and gave them two minutes to update the group on their work, chiding them if they moved a little too slowly. (“When I say you’re on deck,” he instructed, “move to the second mike.”) Sullivan, who talks fast as a matter of course, finished his report with time to spare. In a nutshell: (1) most Republican House members have signed his Taxpayer Pledge; (2) bad legislative leadership is slowing progress; and (3) since 2007, 31 of the worst Republicans in the Texas Legislature have been defeated. “Excellent, Michael,” Norquist said.
“Texas is one of a series of states where people have become Republicans because the Republican party is winning,” Norquist told me during a quiet moment at the event. “But they brought with them some of their older ideas: ‘Oh, it’s okay to raise taxes and give money to your friends,’ and ‘It’s okay for government to play charity.’ ” Norquist frowned and shook his head. “Reagan turned the party into a party of principle, not a party whose goal is to just win elections.” To Norquist, Reagan’s vision had become corrupted, and a great purging was under way across the country. Sullivan’s efforts in Texas offered a model for other states: a think tank providing the intellectual ammunition and a closely aligned “taxpayer group” that goes out and helps win elections, Norquist said. “Every state needs somebody like Michael.”
If Sullivan is the Grover Norquist of Texas, he came to prominence by a very different route than his Harvard-educated mentor, who grew up the son of a corporate executive. Sullivan gets his height from his father, Steve, who was a six-foot-seven-inch, 275-pound center for the University of North Texas football team. Although the New York Jets drafted him, in 1972, Steve Sullivan decided to keep his young family—Michael was two—in Texas, and he became a high school football coach instead. Michael developed a dim view of football, as his father moved the family from one town to another “like an itinerant priest in some pagan religion,” as Michael put it, looking for the next opening. Michael preferred track and the Boy Scouts and, later, the marching band. As the tall kid in class, he was handed a sousaphone—the marching tuba. When he was a senior at Sherman High School, in 1988, Michael won an essay contest sponsored by the local newspaper to celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. He persuaded the principal to let him organize an event at the school. “My mother was absolutely convinced that the character of Alex Keaton was modeled after me,” he said, referring to the conservative teenager in the eighties sitcom Family Ties.
Sullivan got an appointment to the Air Force Academy, but bad eyesight forced him to settle for Texas A&M and the Corps of Cadets. (Sullivan also wears barely noticeable hearing aids.) He was an English major, a surprising choice for someone who spent much of his time drilling with the Army ROTC, and he wrote for the campus paper. After graduation, he landed a job with the Denison Herald, which was followed by a stint at a paper in Brazosport. Around this time he began using his middle name, Quinn; an editor told him there were a lot of Michael Sullivans in the world and he needed his byline to stand out if he wanted to be noticed.
Michael Quinn Sullivan did want to be noticed. He was confident and ambitious enough to contact the conservative intellectual Bill Murchison, who hired him in 1994 to write for a small journal called Texas Republic. It was a time of great ferment in the Republican party, and Sullivan wrote profiles about a new wave of conservative talk-radio hosts beating the bushes in support of Gingrich and Norquist’s Contract With America. Sullivan was researching where the ideas in the contract came from when he stumbled across the name Ron Paul, who had once represented the Brazosport area in Congress and ran for president as a Libertarian, in 1988. Paul had been out of office for ten years, but Sullivan discovered that many of Gingrich and Norquist’s initiatives were borrowed from Paul’s work in the late seventies and early eighties.
Sullivan called him up, and two years later, when Paul decided to run again for Congress, he hired Sullivan to be his press secretary. “I didn’t think he’d actually win,” Sullivan recalled. But Paul was an outstanding retail politician, and Sullivan discovered his own knack for organizing. It was early in the Internet era, and Sullivan personally coded a simple website for the campaign. Paul won, and Sullivan found himself moving to Washington.
In 1999 he left Paul and went to work for the Media Research Center, a nonprofit media watchdog organization in Washington. (The ubiquitous “I Don’t Believe the Liberal Media” bumper stickers are produced by the center.) For the first time, Sullivan was introduced to the wider world of conservative thought in the nation’s capital, dominated then, as now, by think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. In 2001 he got an offer to come back to Texas to work for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which in those days was a small San Antonio–based group. In 2003 a new president, Brooke Rollins, moved the TPPF to Austin, named Sullivan her vice president, and began expanding its fund-raising base and hiring more staff. That same year, Republicans took control of the Texas House, solidifying their power over state government. The TPPF’s ideas about tax reform, privatization of government services, and deregulation of industry were suddenly in great demand, and it soon became the most influential policy shop in the state.
In 2006 one of the TPPF’s board members, an independent oil executive from Midland named Tim Dunn, hired Sullivan away from the foundation to head a new nonprofit called Empower Texans. Dunn objected to a major change in tax policy then under consideration in the Legislature. Lawmakers were under pressure from the state Supreme Court, which had ruled that the school finance system had become a de facto statewide property tax and therefore violated the Texas constitution. The state’s Republican leadership, meanwhile, wanted desperately to provide property tax relief to homeowners. They proposed to roll back property taxes and replace them with a new tax on businesses called the gross margins tax. Dunn objected to the swap on principle; business taxes, in his estimation, were merely hidden taxes on consumers, since companies invariably raise prices or lower wages when their taxes go up. Working under the name Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, Sullivan took the issue directly to the people, building opposition through a campaign that included radio ads and direct mail.
Though they were unable to derail the new margins tax, Dunn and Sullivan decided to keep TFR alive and to broaden the focus. Sullivan began pushing to make the state budget more transparent to taxpayers. “Elected officials told me nobody cared about that,” Sullivan recalled, but when he delivered thousands of signed postcards to members’ offices, they changed their tune. Sullivan formed a political action committee—funded chiefly by Dunn and two longtime TPPF supporters, San Antonio’s Jim Leininger and Houston’s Bob Perry—and began getting involved in the 2008 election cycle. Borrowing a page from Norquist, Sullivan began pressing legislators to sign a taxpayer pledge and kept careful track on his website of who signed and who didn’t.
Boosted by the new anti-incumbent sentiment spreading across the state, Sullivan targeted Straus’s Republican lieutenants in 2010, managing to knock off two of his committee chairs. When the Legislature convened, Sullivan and other conservative leaders wrote to the entire Republican caucus, urging them to support a new Speaker. But the opposition never coalesced around a single candidate, and in the end Straus got all but fifteen Republican votes. It was a major defeat for Sullivan and his allies: the Republican caucus was undeniably a more conservative group—and now big enough to almost completely marginalize Democratic opposition—and yet the vast majority of House Republicans still preferred Straus.
The Speaker had survived, but the state itself was facing fiscal disaster. The new margins tax had not performed the way legislators had predicted, and the Great Recession, while blunted somewhat in Texas because of a healthy oil and gas sector, had nevertheless brought plummeting tax revenues across the board. The budget shortfall was an unprecedented $27 billion. There was some good news: the state’s Rainy Day Fund, pumped up by oil and gas revenues, was expected to grow to $9.4 billion. Still, the state would have to either find new revenue or make huge cuts in public education or health care, the two items that make up the lion’s share of the state budget. Bill Hammond and others recommended using at least a portion of the Rainy Day Fund to soften cuts to public education, and Senate budget leaders seemed to agree.
Where others saw a crisis, Governor Perry, already gearing up for the 2012 presidential primary, saw an opportunity. He announced early in the session that he expected lawmakers to bring him a 2012–2013 budget that balanced without tapping the Rainy Day Fund. Sullivan became his de facto enforcer. He declared that any vote to use the Rainy Day Fund would count against members on his scorecard, and he kept up a relentless barrage of tweets, blog posts, and email blasts calling on members to balance the budget through spending cuts alone. Straus let the Republican supermajority in the House run wild, and they passed a budget with cuts so deep that even some tea party freshmen were privately worried.
In the Senate, most Republicans agreed that tapping at least part of the Rainy Day Fund was the responsible thing to do, but they wanted Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst to provide some political cover. At first it seemed that Dewhurst supported the idea, but later, under pressure from Perry, he changed his mind. In late April a weary and discouraged Steve Ogden announced to the press that the Senate was at a stalemate. Never before, he said, had the pressure of “outside groups” made the budget writing process so difficult. There was little doubt which group was foremost in his mind.
By the 2012 election season, most of the major Republican donors were behind Straus, but TFR kept up the onslaught—with a wrinkle. The group shifted most of its campaign spending from its PAC—where donors’ names must be disclosed—to the nonprofit itself. Texans for Fiscal Responsibility is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, which means it can spend money in elections, and because of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, it can do so without identifying its donors. In 2012 TFR spent hundreds of thousands of dollars going after Straus and his allies and was instrumental in defeating five committee chairs, including Keller Republican Vicki Truitt. Sullivan hammered Truitt for supporting a local option gas tax, which allowed voters to raise money for local transportation projects if they chose to increase their own taxes. But Sullivan’s problem with her was never about policy, Truitt said. “It’s about power,” she said. “They decided to pick off people who stand up to them and replace them with people they can control.”
Truitt and another Straus ally, Representative Jim Keffer, filed a pair of ethics complaints against Sullivan in April, alleging that he acted as a lobbyist without registering as one and that he failed to properly report campaign expenditures, but neither is likely to result in any serious sanctions.
Very few elected officials have been willing to challenge Sullivan publicly. “Anybody who stands up to these people will be hounded relentlessly,” one consultant said. Even Straus, after years of fending off attacks, seemed reluctant to criticize Sullivan. “As Speaker of the House, I have tried to include all the members in the process, and because of that, I’m going to have detractors,” he told me. “The members work very hard to represent their constituents and do what they think is best, and I don’t find it acceptable when someone distorts their records in order to intimidate them. The Texas House is clearly a conservative body, and anyone who says otherwise either isn’t paying attention or is intentionally trying to distort what’s happening here for their own purposes.”
On Election Day I flew to Midland to visit with Tim Dunn in his nicely appointed corner office at CrownQuest, the oil company he co-founded and still operates. It was mid-afternoon, and Dunn was feeling good about Mitt Romney’s chances. “I think the polls are wrong, and I think he will win big,” he said. Having confidence in your predictions is what running an independent oil exploration company is all about, but Dunn, who is 57, is nothing like the blustery Clayton Williams stereotype of a wealthy West Texas oilman. Dunn is more like Ross Perot, albeit a taller, more refined version. Like Perot, with his famous charts and graphs, Dunn shares an unfailing faith that reason and common sense, given a fair hearing, will carry the day. And, like Perot, Dunn has a powerful will and immense confidence in his own abilities. He homeschooled his six kids for a time and then helped organize a Christian school for them to attend. He helped write the curriculum, which focuses heavily on the classics of the Western canon, beginning with the Bible and the ancient Greeks.
Dunn launched Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, he told me, because he believed that citizens were not getting the kind of accurate information they needed to be informed participants in the democratic process. I had brought some charts and graphs of my own, and we spent half an hour or so talking about the public-spending figures in Sullivan’s stump speech. There were some problems with the math. Adding the growth in inflation between 1990 and 2012 (77 percent) to the population growth (55 percent) gives you 132, which, as Sullivan likes to point out, is a much smaller number than 300, the percentage growth in state spending over that period. Sullivan’s numbers, though he misquoted them a bit in Missouri City, come from a February 2012 report from the TPPF. The problem is that simply adding the percentage growth in population and inflation does not allow for the compounding effect one figure has on the other. (To accommodate a population increase of 55 percent and an inflation increase of 77 percent, a budget would have to grow by 174 percent, not 132 percent.) And it doesn’t tell you how much public spending grew during that 22-year period, after adjusting for inflation and population growth. The answer is 63 percent. That may seem like a lot, but there is some cherry-picking going on here. In the early nineties, the Legislature was forced by court order to significantly increase spending on both prison construction and public education. There has not been a significant tax increase since that time. If, instead of a 22-year span, you just look at the past 20 years—as the Legislative Budget Board, which includes the leadership from the House and Senate, did in its most recent report—you see a much more modest increase of roughly 15 percent from the 1992–1993 biennium to the current 2012–2013 biennium. Of course, the recession-ravaged 2012–2013 budget is something of an anomaly. But comparing the baseline with the 2010–2011 budget reveals an increase of only 35 percent.
Yet even that figure is not what it seems. The LBB adjusts for inflation using the consumer price index, a measure of the cost of a “market basket” of goods and services bought by the average family. But consumers and governments don’t necessarily buy the same things—governments spend an awful lot on items like health insurance premiums, for example, the cost of which has risen much faster than prices on average over the past twenty years. (Most consumers, on the other hand, have their premiums paid largely by their employers or the government, if they have insurance at all.) Health care is such a huge part of the state budget—roughly 30 percent—that escalating costs in that sector have a disproportionate impact on state spending, one that is not reflected in the LBB’s inflation-adjusted figures. That’s not the only caveat to that 35 percent figure. In 2007 the Legislature took some of the burden of funding schools off local school districts—which is to say, off property-tax payers—and began collecting the new margins tax and a higher cigarette tax to compensate. On paper that looks like an increase in state spending on public education beginning in 2008, but really it was just a shift in spending from one level of government to another. In fact, if you strip out these types of dedicated funds along with federal funds, which are allocated according to formulas over which the Legislature has little control, you get a much clearer picture of just how thrifty the state of Texas really is. General revenue spending fell 4 percent between 2000 and 2011.
Dunn appeared genuinely flummoxed when I presented him with the stark contrast between the picture drawn by Sullivan’s stump speech and the LBB’s numbers. “Can I keep these charts?” he asked. “I want to make sure the information we are putting out is accurate.” Then he said, “So what is the argument? That we’ve been good stewards so far, so now it’s time to raise taxes?” As Dunn sees it, the fight within the Republican party is between taxpayers and business interests, which see government as a trough at which to feed. In other words, it’s not just Mitt Romney’s freeloading 47 percent that is driving us to ruin—it’s also the Bill Hammonds of the world. “When I hired Michael, I told him, ‘I don’t want you to get a seat at the table, I want you to get rid of the table,’ ” he said.
Dunn seemed proud of his status as an outsider—someone who was above the venal and corrupting fray in Austin—but also perhaps a bit frustrated by it. He returned again and again in our discussion to the same caricature of the conservative establishment’s discomfort with his agitating: “We know what we are doing, so shut up and let us make the decisions for you.” That seems to be his takeaway from his one and only meeting with Joe Straus, which took place at the Speaker’s invitation just before the 2011 session. As Dunn recalls it, Straus sought to reassure him that the two were not at odds over their basic policy objectives. Dunn replied that he wanted new committee chairs for the coming session. “So he didn’t change the committee chairs,” he said, matter-of-factly. “And many of those committee chairs are not coming back.”
Ronald Reagan’s favorite dictum—“Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican”—was a motto created for another time, when Republicans were wandering in the wilderness, far from the halls of power. It is decidedly less useful if you are an insurgent fighting an establishment that already hews to the same general philosophy you do. The game now is a question of degrees: Who is more conservative than whom? It can lead to some strange political theater, as it did when Ted Cruz, during his U.S. Senate primary campaign against Dewhurst, made an appearance on state senator Dan Patrick’s radio program. Cruz, the tea party favorite, had labeled Dewhurst a moderate. It was something that Patrick, who prides himself on being the Senate’s most conservative member, had, from time to time, done himself. Yet when Cruz had the temerity to question the record of the Senate itself, Patrick took exception, and a somewhat surreal on-air argument ensued over whether or not the Texas Legislature was a conservative body. This is the problem with intra-party warfare: somebody has to be the bad guy. You can’t play cowboys and Indians if nobody ever wants to be an Indian.
In our interviews, Sullivan seemed to sense how absurd some of the rhetoric of the moment may appear to an outside observer. Strident as he is online and on the stump, in conversation he projects clear-eyed pragmatism. I could not get him to say, for example, that former Senate finance chair Steve Ogden was a liberal, or even that he had been a failure last session, despite the F Sullivan gave him on his scorecard. “We have always said that people should use more than just our index to judge elected officials,” he said. He scoffed when I asked him if he thought President Obama was really a socialist. Given the opportunity, he tends to steer the conversation away from politics and toward policy. He spoke knowledgeably about the growing opposition among grassroots conservatives to high-stakes school testing—once a cause célèbre among Republicans close to George W. Bush. And he seemed ambivalent about the upcoming push for school vouchers, which allow public funds to be spent on private schools, a long-held dream in certain conservative circles.
Sullivan’s personal politics are a little hard to pin down. “He’s not really a Republican,” Vicki Truitt told me darkly. “He’s a Libertarian. They are infiltrating the Republican party.” Sullivan’s Twitter profile includes a shortened version of the motto used by the Ludwig von Mises Institute, a libertarian think tank: “Tu ne cede malis sed contra audentior ito,” which is from Virgil’s Aeneid and means, “Do not give in to evil but proceed ever more boldly against it.” But Sullivan campaigned in Iowa last year for Governor Perry, not for Ron Paul, and he seemed at pains to distance himself from that period in his career. “I left before the cult of personality developed,” he said of Paul’s striking popularity among young people. In all the conversations I had with Sullivan, he never once brought up Ayn Rand or Friedrich Hayek or any of the other big thinkers from the libertarian canon.
He does, however, frequently plug a book called The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki, who writes a business column for the New Yorker. Surowiecki’s book made a splash in 2004 with a counterintuitive argument that masses of people working together on a single problem are more likely to find successful solutions than they are to devolve into misguided groupthink. “Just a wonderful book about how ordinary people are often smarter than the experts,” he told me.
The idea’s appeal to a populist like Sullivan is clear enough, but after I checked the book out from the library, it was hard to come away with the impression that Sullivan and I had read the same volume. Not all crowds are “wise,” Surowiecki argues, only those who are characterized by “diversity of opinion” and “independence,” by which he means crowds wherein “people’s opinions are not determined by the opinions of those around them.” It’s a strange mantra for someone like Sullivan, who has dedicated the past five years of his life to purging the Republican party of unorthodox thinkers. If it calls to mind anything from Texas politics, it sounds much more like Straus’s defense of how he handles the “crowd” in the Texas House.
The Republican party’s disappointing showing nationally on Election Day had some pundits wondering if the tea party insurgency had already hit its high-water mark, and if Norquist’s hold over the party was doing more harm than good. Things looked a little different here in Texas. “Ask David Dewhurst if the tea party is done,” Sullivan told me. “Ask Vicki Truitt.” An East Texas Republican named Bryan Hughes has announced that he will challenge Straus for the Speaker’s chair when the Eighty-third Legislature convenes, on January 8. Sullivan has endorsed Hughes, who got an A+ on TFR’s most recent scorecard. If Straus prevails, the battle lines will be largely the same as they were in the 2011 session. Last spring, Sullivan appeared beside Governor Perry at a press conference where the governor signed a new incarnation of the Taxpayer Pledge called the Texas Budget Compact, which called for new constitutional spending limits and preserving the Rainy Day Fund. Perry has devoted a special page of his website to the compact, which prominently features a video testimonial from Sullivan. Straus refused to sign, but Dewhurst, desperate to shore up his conservative bona fides in his primary battle with Cruz, quickly acquiesced. In November, chastened by his resounding loss, he announced that any budget passed out of his chamber in the coming session would limit new spending to the rate of growth in inflation and population only. Sullivan is now calling for a drastic reduction in property taxes, perhaps, as the TPPF advocates, in exchange for a much higher sales tax.
One of Sullivan’s favorite pejoratives is “establishment.” I asked him once what that word meant to him. “Someone who’s in power, someone who’s in charge, the person with the big cool title who the guys in the lobby invite to the cocktail parties,” he said. Having Governor Perry at your cocktail party is nice, but it doesn’t really compare with having your picture prominently displayed on his official website. I asked Sullivan if he was worried that the organization he had built was in danger of being co-opted—if he was becoming, in effect, part of the establishment himself. He didn’t see it that way. Tea party activists, he pointed out, have taken over the Republican party in many precincts. “Maybe they are the ones doing the co-opting,” he said. When I pointed out that politicians like Perry and Patrick had a lot to gain from their association with him, he smiled. And then he said, “Or you could say we would be more likely to take advantage of them.”