The Coup Against Dew

After ten years in office, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst is in an epic battle to hang on to the gavel—a four-way primary that will reveal more about Texas politics than any other race next year. Pass the popcorn.
Illustration by Ricardo Martinez

Early on the evening of August 24, a tall, rangy man wearing a black suit swaggered into a conference room on the campus of the University of Texas at Tyler. He was there to debate the merits, or lack thereof, of a curriculum system for Texas public schools known as CSCOPE. You might think that this event would have trouble drawing a crowd, especially on a night when the Cowboys were playing a preseason football game on national television. But CSCOPE is a hot topic, especially among parents whose taste in politics leans toward tea. Demonized as a leftist plot to infiltrate our schools and brainwash youngsters with cultural relativism and creeping socialism, it has become one of the red-meat issues of the inaugural days of the 2014 campaign cycle. And nobody has played the controversy to better advantage, so far, than the man in the black suit, state senator Dan Patrick. You might even say he created it. 

Patrick is the chair of the Senate Education Committee, a position conferred on him in advance of the last legislative session by the Senate’s presiding officer, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. Bestowing such a prize was Dewhurst’s clumsy way of trying to hold an enemy close, but it backfired spectacularly. Patrick used his chairmanship to win over suburban parents with sweeping reforms that will limit the number of standardized tests and to whip up hard-core conservatives with a series of hearings on CSCOPE; conveniently, this raised his profile among the two key sectors of the primary electorate that he would need in order to challenge the lieutenant governor. At Dewhurst’s lowest moment this summer, just after Wendy Davis’s dramatic filibuster had turned his chamber into a launchpad for her political career, Patrick announced he was running to replace his onetime benefactor.  

His opponent at the Tyler debate, however, was not Dewhurst. It was Thomas Ratliff, the vice chairman of the State Board of Education and one of the state’s few remaining openly moderate Republicans. Newspaper reports estimated the crowd for the verbal fisticuffs at around six hundred, evenly divided between both sides. But for Ratliff, who lives in Mount Pleasant, this was home turf. Patrick had shown the ability to assemble a constituency out of thin air, many miles from his home base. And his supporters were agitated. Whenever Patrick made a point, it seemed, someone behind me punctuated it with an “Amen!”—or, when he had just finished summarizing a pernicious CSCOPE lesson plan, “That’s anti-American!”

Patrick is trying very hard to position himself as the captain of these passionate ranks. He is co-chairman of the Legislature’s Tea Party Caucus, he has a nose for issues that will rally the troops, and like Ted Cruz and Rick Perry, he thrives in political fights that reward the brazen rightward thrust. For Dewhurst, he is a nightmare opponent, a grotesque rehash of Cruz, the man who spoiled the lieutenant governor’s well-laid plan to win a U.S. Senate seat in 2012. In that race Dewhurst began as a heavy favorite against a political unknown. He was undone partly by his own consultants, who spent oodles and oodles of dollars on negative television ads that raised Cruz’s name identification; partly by the misfortune of a redistricting fight that delayed the party primary into the summer, when insurgent candidates like Cruz tend to get more traction; and partly by his own difficulty fitting in to the political moment. Dewhurst’s trouble is that he is a mainstream conservative in a state whose Republican party is leaning more and more to the right, a situation that leaves him continually reaching for an ideological mooring. Getting issues like abortion taken up in the summer’s special sessions was supposed to help him (in a letter to Perry, he practically begged the governor to add such legislation to the call), but just ask Wendy Davis how that worked out. 

In this sense, Dewhurst is a tragic figure—a smart, decent, reasonable fellow with a genuine feel for policy, but one whose many virtues are not those that his party’s primary electorate is lately in the habit of rewarding. Patrick is not the only one who smells blood in the water. Commissioner of agriculture Todd Staples and land commissioner Jerry Patterson have also entered the race, the former with an impressive campaign fund and coif, the latter with an appealing frankness on the campaign trail. Perhaps most notable is the fact that in the modern era, no incumbent has been challenged by three current officeholders from within his own party, a scenario that speaks volumes about Dewhurst’s perceived weaknesses. 

Nonetheless, the lieutenant governor enters the race with ample money and the core of a constituency—call it the business community. Despite Dewhurst’s efforts to remake himself as something more extreme, he’s an establishment guy, and the voters he can count on are his party’s more moderate, pragmatic members. The question that has to be asked, however, is whether the Texas GOP has come to the point where such voters no longer wield any clout. Perry’s destruction of Kay Bailey Hutchison in 2010 was a pretty strong indication that power within the party had shifted further to the right. Legislative races that year and in 2012 offered more evidence of this, as did Dewhurst’s loss to Cruz. Should Patrick manage to vanquish the incumbent, the question will be definitively answered. 

And the answer will have tremendous consequences—not just for the direction of the party but also, possibly, for the future of the Texas Senate. Dewhurst, Staples, and Patterson represent the old guard (both Staples and Patterson previously served in the Senate); if any of the three were to win, the Senate would likely carry on in its present incarnation—that is, faithful to the long-established traditions and procedures of the Legislature’s upper chamber. If Patrick wins, all bets are off. 

NOT SO LONG AGO, the office of lieutenant governor was regarded as the most powerful in Texas. As president of the Senate, the lite guv holds the key to all legislation in that chamber—not only does he award committee assignments and chairmanships, but he controls the floor. Senators cannot even bring up a bill unless they are first recognized by him. A dominant lieutenant governor can all but take over the Capitol. In the modern era of Texas politics, there have been two such leaders. One was Bob Bullock, a legendary curmudgeon who served from 1991 to 1999. Bullock was a hard-driving, tough-as-leather politician who smoked incessantly, even after losing one lung to cancer. He was Texan to his toenails and totally devoted to the state and to the Senate, and he expected senators to reflect his devotion. The other commanding lieutenant governor in recent years was Bullock’s predecessor, Bill Hobby, who served from 1973 to 1991. Hobby was the embodiment of the state’s business establishment; his father had been governor, and his family owned the Houston Post, the city’s longtime morning newspaper, and a TV station. Like Bullock’s, Hobby’s devotion to the state and the Senate was unshakable.

Unfortunately for David Dewhurst, he has not approached the stature of a Bullock or a Hobby during his ten years of service. In part this is because of who has been in the Governor’s Mansion. Perry’s long governorship has given him unprecedented control over state agencies and departments, making him the strongest chief executive Texas has ever had and diminishing some of the lite guv’s traditional authority. Dewhurst earned high marks from senators in his inaugural session, in 2003, which produced a major tort reform bill and a substantial property-tax cut that helped resolve a school finance crisis, but in subsequent years he has had some rocky times. 

At heart Dewhurst is a wonk who loves to tinker with complicated issues like Medicaid. “I have spent more time probably than any elected official in modern history on free-market solutions to our health care systems,” he told me during a recent interview. I don’t doubt it. Rarely does a presiding officer dig into the weeds, but Dewhurst loves the weeds. He can talk for hours about the fine-grain details of public policy, and as a successful businessman, he has a pragmatic, results-based approach, as seen in his efforts to fix problems in the areas of transportation and water infrastructure. He was instrumental in securing $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund this past session to put toward water projects, and the (somewhat nerdy) way he described the effort to me is instructive: “If the Water Development Board works the way I expect it to, we are going to have most of that two billion employed in shorter-term projects. It can be taken out immediately when they finish construction by the capital markets, and we can reemploy it, because it’s a revolving fund. Our goal is to create 8.3 million acre-feet over the next fifty years—that’s 1.66 million per decade—but we actually want to double that in the first decade since we are short on water now.” 

But the stories people tell about Dewhurst are not about his intelligence or his dedication to Texas, because—fairly or unfairly—his lack of natural political skills overshadows everything else. As a politician, he’s all thumbs. (Anyone who doubts this need only listen to the recording that recently surfaced of Dewhurst personally telephoning the Allen Police Department in August to inquire, in an awkward and vaguely threatening way, about his nephew’s wife, who had been picked up for shoplifting.) He is both too honest and not honest enough. He fails the Lyndon B. Johnson test of being able to walk into a room and know at once who is for him and who is against him. 

All of which makes him, like Hutchison, a somewhat imperfect representative of moderate Republicanism. Of course, he would deny outright that he even is such a representative. During our interview he assured me time and again that he was “one of the most conservative people in this race,” and he does have a solid right-wing record when it comes to hot-button issues like abortion and taxes. Still, there is little evidence that he is truly sympathetic with the hard-right positions of Cruz or Patrick. He’s too practical for that. One only wishes that he would trumpet this admirable quality a little more, that he would take a cue from his colleague on the other side of the rotunda, House Speaker Joe Straus, another pragmatic, old-school Republican who, despite the roiling tea party fervor within his chamber, has managed to remain a fundamentally moderate figure. There is, however, one monumental difference between the two: Straus simply has to win his district to survive. Dewhurst has to win statewide. 

TWO OF DEWHURST'S CHALLENGERS, Staples and Patterson, already know how to do that. The former is likely to be the incumbent’s greater concern. Staples began his political career on the Palestine city council, served three terms in the House and two more in the Senate (where he was chair of the Republican caucus), and has been running the Department of Agriculture since 2007. Staples’s current position provides him with a ready-made constituency of rural Texans and a ready-made issue: border security. He has opted to go all in on this, writing a book on the subject titled Broken Borders, Broken Promises and launching a website called Protect Your Texas Border. 

“I didn’t go looking for this issue,” Staples told me recently. “If you’re a landowner, you cannot use your own land [because of disruption caused by immigration]. That’s why I developed a six-point immigration plan that didn’t include amnesty, that started with border security, and I did that long before the Republicans got beat in the national elections and were looking for ways to reinvent themselves. I’ve taken budget savings that I’ve made at the Department of Agriculture and helped fund low-cost technology that’s had phenomenal results. A few hundred cameras resulted in thirteen thousand apprehensions and thirty-one tons in narcotics that have been confiscated.” 

Then there’s Patterson, probably the least well-known of the four candidates. The agency that he heads, the General Land Office, is one of the more obscure outposts of state government. It administers state-owned lands and endowment funds, including the Permanent School Fund, an endowment for Texas public schools, and a similar fund for the University of Texas and Texas A&M. Patterson and Dewhurst share a common origin in their political careers. They ran against each other for land commissioner in 1998. Dewhurst won. As Patterson tells it, Dewhurst outspent him ten to one and got a bare 51.2 percent of the vote. “He appeared one time with me, together, and never did it again,” Patterson recalled. Patterson got a lobbying job and waited for the next election. This time he beat Dallas state representative Kenn George in the Republican primary, 56–43; his opponent in the general election, whom he defeated easily, was David Bernsen, a Democratic state senator from southeast Texas. 

“I liked Bernsen a lot,” Patterson told me. “We don’t have people like we used to have in politics anymore. I mean, just look at the emergence of Dan Patrick. They don’t know anything about Texas. . . . I’m aware of where we came from. [Former governor Allan] Shivers is a hero of mine. As a Democratic governor, he endorsed the Republican candidate for president [Dwight D. Eisenhower] in 1952 and 1956, when Texas was an overwhelmingly Democratic state. Texas governor Dan Moody is another. He took on the Klan. The people who are running for office today don’t even know about that stuff. They don’t know where we came from.” 

No one will misunderstand where Patterson came from. A Vietnam veteran and zealous supporter of gun rights, he is banking on these two constituencies to fuel his run. His appeal to such voters is simple: he is blunt, he is tough, and he is one of them. While in the Senate, from 1993 to 1999, Patterson authored the legislation making it legal to carry a concealed handgun, which he himself does at all times, usually in his boot. A video he released in late August takes both Patrick and Dewhurst to task for their inaction in stopping the “mob” that descended on the Senate chamber during the Wendy Davis filibuster. One gets the feeling that if Patterson had been present on the floor, there might be a few bullet holes in that old Italian Renaissance ceiling.

In fact, for all the talk about issues like abortion, education, taxes, and immigration, the most important outcome of the race could be the fate of the rules that govern the Senate, which are themselves as genteel as the chamber’s historic architecture. By far the more clubby of the Capitol’s two bodies, the Senate plays the grown-up role in the legislative process. Senators tend to serve longer than House members, building deep relationships that can be the source of thoughtful and productive lawmaking. The rules of the Senate help encourage this, and foremost among these is the so-called two-thirds rule. 

Here’s how it works: At the beginning of every session, a nondescript bill is placed at the top of the calendar. It is called a blocker bill, because as long as it sits there, it blocks action on all subsequent bills. To take up one of those subsequent bills, the lieutenant governor has to call upon a senator to move to suspend the rules and bring up a bill out of order. This motion requires a two-thirds vote. The intention is that the blocker bill itself will never pass but will simply force two thirds of the senators to agree before any other bill gets heard. This contrivance gives the lieutenant governor control of the calendar and empowers the minority party members to forge alliances with the majority.

Patrick has been an opponent of the two-thirds rule since he first set his sights on becoming a senator, and if he were to become the lite guv, he could try to eliminate the rule and govern through a partisan caucus or a calendars committee. (Despite repeated requests, Patrick declined to comment for this story.) If he were to be successful, the Senate majority would be able to steamroll the minority and pass its agenda unhindered. Nothing less than the future of the Senate, then, is at stake.

THE CONVENTIONAL VIEW of the race is that despite Dewhurst’s advantages, he is highly vulnerable. Down-ballot races are about getting your message out, and with his ability to self-fund, Dewhurst will have the biggest megaphone. But a four-way primary could easily result in a runoff, in which he would struggle, just as he did in the delayed primary against Cruz. His performance in that race also indicates that his constituency may not have the influence it once did. Dewhurst is still haunted by his loss to Cruz. When I interviewed him, I asked if he had taken any lessons from his defeat. “I made a mistake by not going with my instincts,” he told me. “I knew our polling was wrong. I knew our message was wrong. I knew we ought to be out in the grass roots. [My consultants] argued with me.” This year will be different, the new Dewhurst team vows. “We’re going to crisscross the state and talk to every grassroots group we can,” one staffer told me. “Just him, one on one with them—take questions and give an answer.”

But the “crisscross the state” plan works only if Dewhurst can connect with the grassroots folks. Everything depends on how he performs. At his best he can be good company. At his worst he can be as stiff as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. “I am looking forward to this,” he insisted. He also sounded a note that was determined and slightly less cheerful: “Hopefully, it works out just the way we are planning it. And that is that at the end of the day, politically and figuratively, we have a couple of dead bodies in the back of my pickup truck. And we go on down the road.”

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