The Paul Sadler Interview
As the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate prepares for his final debate against Ted Cruz, he discusses why he thinks he can win, the state of the Democratic party, and what the word "troll" really means.
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Ted Cruz and Paul Sadler are scheduled to meet October 19 in Dallas for their second and final debate in their race to replace Kay Bailey Hutchison as U.S. senator. In the October issue, Jake Silverstein interviewed Cruz about the campaign and his views. Earlier this week, Brian D. Sweany sat down with Sadler, who served in the Texas House from 1991 to 2003 and was named to Texas Monthly’s Best Legislators list four sessions in a row. After losing a special election for state senate in 2004, Sadler has worked as an attorney in Henderson and has served as the executive director of the Wind Coalition, a non-profit that encourages the development of wind power.
It has been nearly a decade since you last ran for office. How has the political environment changed since you served in the Legislature? Austin is obviously a different arena than Washington, D.C.
Washington has always been this way, as far as I can remember. I went to Washington several times at the request of different parties to talk about education reform. I used to always say I felt like I needed to take a shower after I left, because it was so partisan that I just really hated it. But I also thought I might like to go back to politics if and when my children reach the right age and my life was in the right place. We certainly had a more bipartisan agenda when I was here in the nineties. That is a reflection of the characters of the individuals involved. You can go down the list, in the state senate you had Bill Ratliff, Teel Bivins, and David Sibley. You had people who were very solution oriented members of the Senate. In the House you had people like myself, Toby Goodman and Rob Junell. These were people who carried weight whenever they spoke and they were much more interested in solving our problems rather than playing political games. So, yes the atmosphere has changed, there is a culture of fear here that I had never experienced before in Texas.
You think a culture of fear has gripped the Lege since you left?
Maybe I was naïve back then—I don’t think so—but now there is certainly a culture of fear for the people who work downtown or participate in the process. When I have one of the wealthiest men in the state tell me that he agrees with me and would like to support me, but he’s afraid it would damage his foundation for political reasons, that’s pretty frightening. I never thought I would see that day in Texas where people would be openly concerned that their business or personal interests would be threatened because of their political views. That’s about as un-American as it gets. Ultimately, you change the culture in Washington only one way, and it’s one election at a time, with the character of the people you send.
You said earlier that if your children got to a certain point in their life you might be interested in making a race like this. What were your motivations not only to get back into politics but also to run for the U.S. Senate?
Honestly, watching Congress and the way they’ve conducted themselves. Like most Americans, I feel disgusted when we see people make decisions based on party politics rather than a solution that is best for the country. Let’s take the current tax debate, for example. You’re seeing policies run by both campaigns that I disagree with. Both campaigns have put together a tax policy that benefits their constituency and translates into votes. They are not putting forward a plan that solves the problem. The notion that you will somehow build a new economy from the top down has never worked. The notion that you are going to build an economy from the middle out is naïve at best in my opinion. The truth is we need to build an economy going forward with all of us, when we all move forward and the payment of a national debt is not the responsibility of one group of Americans versus another. The national debt is all of our responsibility. When 9/11 happened it was an attack against all of America, not part of America. When we sent our sons and daughters to fight for us, we didn’t ask some of America to go, we went whole hog. So now we have to pay for it. And to suggest that one group of Americans pay for it is divisive, and it hurts us as a country.
When I was asked by Governor Bush and Speaker Pete Laney to review our tax system, we used to laugh because everyone would stand up and say, “Tax that guy, not me.” But all of us have a united responsibility to deal with it. And so a tax policy that’s driven just to cut taxes for the wealthy seems to me to be divisive. And a tax policy that says just tax the wealthy is also very divisive. We all owe our share. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to pay down the national debt. We have to pay for the two wars we entered into. And that has to be a united effort. I know that’s not a popular position to take. I know that if you go out and poll it, you’re not going to find that to be good. But it’s the truth. And I think down in our gut, we all know it to be true.
One of the things you and your opponent, Ted Cruz, have in common is that you both want to pay down the debt and you both want to balance the budget. You’ve said that both sides have tax policies that benefit themselves and their constituents, so what would be the steps that you think the country should take?
Well, Ted has no plan. He doesn’t. His plan is to slash spending and to, quote, “grow the economy.” Well how’s that working for you? Every intelligent, informed person that’s looked at this problem has said, from Simpson-Bowles to Senator Tom Coburn, the Tea Party Senator from Oklahoma, that you first have to rein in our deficit, doing that over a period of five years or so. It’s not something that we can easily do overnight, not while we’re committed in Afghanistan. But cut spending to the point where we at least achieve a balance in the annual budget. No one has suggested that outside of the campaign trail. And that’s where we have a disconnect. We tell the public one thing when we campaign, and then after the campaign, we try to fess up.
The famous line by Mario Cuomo, “We campaign in poetry, but we govern in prose.”
I’ve never been that way. I’m not comfortable with it, and I don’t believe in it. Tell people up front what you see and what you expect, and they’ll either accept it or not. The truth is that every person who’s informed and has looked at this has said you have to cut spending and you have to balance the budget. You have to count on some growth in the economy, but you’re going to have to raise revenue to pay down the national debt. The numbers are just too big. You would have a $2.3 trillion revenue source if you eliminated every aspect of government there is. If you cut every single thing out, you’d still take eight years to pay it down. It’s not going to work. It’s as if you owed a million at the bank and you had $20,000 of income. You’re going to have to find additional income.
Where would be the appropriate places, do you think?
The easiest thing to do is start looking at the Bush tax cuts. I mean we cut taxes at a time we were running a deficit. We were committed to two engagements overseas, two wars. When you cut taxes during a deficit, you’re raising spending. You’re creating a bigger deficit. We cut taxes in Texas when we ran a surplus. They cut taxes when they ran a deficit. That exacerbates the problem, and that’s what Mr. Romney, Mr. Ryan, and Mr. Cruz are suggesting. Go ahead and cut taxes more while we’re running a deficit, and somehow we’re going to get out of this hole? It’s not working, it hasn’t worked, it will not work.
Will that message resonate with Texas voters? I’m sure it has been pointed out to you that no Democrat has won statewide office since 1994.
Only every single day since I filed for the race.
So how do you position yourself in a state that is now overwhelmingly Republican?
I don’t position myself; I just tell people the truth as I see it. There’s no magic wand for this. I mean, you know, I guess there are people who’ve tried to run for office, and I’d suggest my opponent is one of them, that cast themselves in terms that they think will appeal to certain voters. Most of the time, you make a decision early on that you’re going to tell people the truth, what you believe, or you’re going to be a marketing scheme. I’m not interested in being a marketing scheme, because I don’t think it solves our problems. And so yeah, I could stand up and say, we’re just going to grow this economy and get out of our national debt. But I’d be lying just like everybody else. Now, is your question, “Will the people of Texas respect someone who tells them the truth and vote for him?” I have no idea. But I know who I am.
So do you see your campaign as about something other than winning?
No, it’s all about winning. You don’t run a campaign because you want to lose. But I do believe that the people of Texas and the people of America want and expect someone to tell them the truth. We know deep down that we don’t get rid of $16 trillion worth of debt without paying more money. And we act astonished when people continually lie to us. It’s like someone saying I’m going to cut taxes but broaden the base. Okay, when you cut taxes and broaden the base, you’re raising taxes on someone.
Your campaign is touting your experience in the Legislature, particularly your expertise on public education and taxes. When you were working with Governor Bush during the 1997 session as the chairman of the select committee on state revenue and public school finance, you insisted that all funding options should be studied but even though you were getting pressure to not even investigate the possibility of a state income tax. How do you plan to draw on that experience? You’ve pointed out that Mr. Cruz has never held elected office, and in the first debate, you said to him, “The bottom line is you know that I know you don’t know enough about government.”
I do know that, and he knows it. That’s why he won’t debate me. It’s funny, really. When you listen to him talk, it’s apparent that he’s memorized the policy sheets they’ve had in front of him. He doesn’t understand the reasons behind them. It’s like someone who can tell you how to parent who’s never been a parent. I can tell you how to change a diaper but do you have to change it? It’s not the same. It doesn’t mean that you can’t do the job, but to suggest that experience isn’t valuable at the level of the United States Senate is ludicrous. This is not the city council. This is the United States Senate. I would never run under those circumstances. I wouldn’t think I was qualified. As arrogant as people think I am, I’ll tell you I wouldn’t be qualified to run.
You’re looking to fill the seat left by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who held various public offices before she ran in the 1993 special election. How would you size up her career as a U.S. senator?
I think she’s had a wonderful career. I don’t agree with her on every issue, but that’s not the standard. She has been the go-to senator for Texas. When you travel around the state, and you go from border to border and every place in between, the community leaders, the city and county leaders, they will point to new projects where they worked with Senator Hutchison. Her handiwork is all over this state, and she should be very proud.
Is that the type of senator you aspire to be?
It has to be. Giving a speech is the least senatorial thing you do. It’s more about judgment and decision making. It’s about the hard work that you do in committee. It’s more about the constituent outreach in communities all across the state and understanding what’s necessary.
You mentioned that some people say you can come off as a little bit arrogant.
[Laughs] I’ll tell you that.
Well, let me read how the magazine described you in 1999: “Obstinate, autocratic, sanctimonious, uncollegial, unforthcoming, infuriating.” And that was a write-up for the Best Legislators list. Did some of that show up in your first debate with Mr. Cruz? You both took a lot of hits about the tone and how you carried yourselves. Were you pleased with what you accomplished that night?
Parts of it. I’m my biggest critic. It’s interesting that you point to that ’99 article. Because I actually called Paul Burka after that, because I think that’s the one where he compared me to Milosevic [the magazine wrote that members of the House “were already so enraged by his dictatorial rejection of their proposals that they had nicknamed him Slobodan Sadler”]. I said, “Paul, what if I compared you to Adolf Hitler?” My children have to read this. And no matter how obstinate I may have been, it doesn’t rise to that level. But what I explained to him afterward, sometimes in the legislative process you can go along, sometimes you can’t.
As for the debate, I knew that Ted was not going to answer the questions. It was a wide-open format with no time limit. I’d watched him enough to know that he will just start talking and talk and talk, and I knew I was going to have to interrupt him. I knew that I was going to have to push him on how many debates he had agreed to. I did not intend to push him on Obama, except he came out with that statement in the beginning that said that he thought the president was enacting policies to keep people jobless. And that’s such a cynical view that I couldn’t help it. If you believe that, then you may be a birther. You may believe that this man’s not a Christian. If that’s who you are, I want to know it before you get the title of United States Senator and get on national TV and embarrass us.
As you mentioned, you started that debate by attacking Mr. Cruz for agreeing to two debates instead of six. Was that a wise way to spend your time in front of a statewide audience, to start the debate by asking, “Why won’t you debate me?” Would you take that back?
Probably not, because I wish we wouldn’t have needed to have that discussion. I wish he would’ve agreed to a couple more. He turned down a high school in Houston. That’s his hometown. How do you do that? Seriously, how do you do that?
I think you both made clear distinctions between where you stand on the issues, but there were moments when the debate seemed like less of a passionate discussion about policy and instead became very personal. Is that the right direction for these debates? For example you called him a “troll,” and later followed up with “I think you lie, Ted.”
I stand by both of those statements. You know what a troll is right?
Sure, he’s big and ugly and lives under a bridge.
No, that’s not what I meant. I would’ve never used that word, except I’d been talking about it with my son. He travels with me and does Twitter, and there is a social media term called “troll.” That’s a person who just throws up arguments, throws negative stuff out, often without factual basis. And that’s what I was referring to. If you read the sentence, he assumed I was calling him the other, and I let him assume it, that’s okay.
Well, I did re-read the sentence, and you said, “But what you don’t do is do your job as a legislator worried that some troll will come along ten or twenty years later to run a campaign against you.”
It is a very descriptive term, because he has five or six trolls who, whenever we tweet something, go on and spew garbage. And my statement is you don’t legislate and try to solve problems worrying that some troll will come along twenty years later. And that’s what that is. But the funny thing about it is that it’s the one statement that the public seemed riled up. And afterwards, the social media was a landslide in favor of me. Do I accept the fact that sometimes you have to be harder in campaigns than others? It depends on your opponent. For example, it would’ve been a different debate with David Dewhurst.
One thing, he’s a sitting lieutenant governor, so his responses come from legislative experience. I stand by what I said earlier. You’re dealing with a young man here who has memorized a bunch of policy statements. And he’s very good at staying on those policy statements. He doesn’t understand the depth of them. And the only way to get him off of those is to shake him a little bit.
So, in your opinion, Mr. Cruz is a less credible candidate?
Yeah, I’ve said from the beginning that there were only three qualified candidates for this seat. That was David Dewhurst, Tom Leppert, and myself. We’re the only three with any kind of elected position. Unless you’ve had an extraordinary lifetime, which he has not, some level of legislative experience is a very big qualification for being a senator. I doubt if you lined up a million Texans and asked them to list the qualifications for running for Senate, I would guess that having served before would be on that list. I can guarantee that appellate arguments wouldn’t be in the top 20 reasons. People just aren’t going to say well, how many trials have you had? So you’ve got a guy who has memorized some stuff and you got to get beneath that. The format was such that it encouraged it. We were encouraged before the debate to interject ourselves with each other and into the answers. The format will be different Friday night.
We’re less than a month out from Election Day. You say you don’t get into a campaign if you don’t think you’re going to win. But there’s a long line of Democratic politicians over the past ten years who have lost in statewide races: Ron Kirk, Kirk Watson, Chris Bell, Rick Noriega, Bill White. Do you feel optimistic about your chances?
I think I can win. The latest poll numbers say that almost 30 percent of voters haven’t decided. I think every election stands on its own. The political undertones make a difference. But I don’t think you compare Bill White versus Rick Perry with Paul Sadler versus Ted Cruz. I don’t think those hold up. When we’ve polled it, I win the election when people know the issues. I’m not running so much against Ted Cruz as the belief that a Democrat can’t win. Because if the money that we spend out of state had been spent here, I would win. The issues are categorically opposed to him. This is a man who wants to abolish the departments of Education, Commerce, and Energy. Any poll you look at, education tops out at 70 percent regardless of Republican or Democrat. The idea that we’re going to abolish a cabinet position, that’s a position that’s so extreme that since 1867, when the Department of Education was formed, not a single President, Vice President, Majority Leader, or Speaker has ever proposed that we abolish it. This young man who’s never served has come to the conclusion that we don’t need it. And that somehow we’re going to flow all those dollars into local districts and everything will be okay? Without any accountability we’re just going to throw billions of dollars into local school districts and it’s going to be okay? It’s naïve beyond belief.
You were surprised when you started fundraising for this race that the money simply wasn’t there. How do you size up the Democratic party in Texas right now?
The Texas Democratic party is fine. It needs a win. The national party has made the decision to write off Texas. And it was the message conveyed by the national party to its donors that took $20 million out of the state and spent it on races all around the country. That’s devastating for our state.
But doesn’t it also suggest that people don’t believe a Democrat can win statewide? Republicans won 101 House seats in the last cycle, a supermajority. Do you really think the state party is fine despite its recent record?
Yeah, it is. We have county chairs and county offices all over the state. We have an organizational structure in place. The Texas Democratic Party has always been different than the national party. It’s more conservative, for one thing, but it’s hurting that the national party is spending the money somewhere else. If they took that $20 million and spent it inside the race, not only this race, but every race in the state would be more competitive. But at the time, they were looking at a four-term statewide office holder in Dewhurst that they thought was going to win outright. So there’s not much point in spending a lot of time worrying about it—it’s the situation I’m in. But that doesn’t mean I won’t fight, and it doesn’t mean I can’t win.