I want to begin by telling you a story that may make me look small, but which, I believe, is instructive. In 2003 I was asked to sit on a panel to interview the three men running for mayor of Houston: Bill White, Orlando Sanchez, and Sylvester Turner. The other two members of the panel were a former political reporter for the defunct Houston Post and Dan Patrick, then as now a drive-time radio talk show host. Patrick, in his early fifties, was a very tall man with a reddish, open face, a pinched nose, and a thatch of brownish hair going white at the temples. He could not have been more polite or solicitous. Just as the program started, he turned to me and casually suggested the following: “Let me see your questions to make sure we don’t duplicate each other.” That sounded like a reasonable idea, so I handed over my list, which he scanned, nodding approvingly, and handed back with dispatch.
But when the program started, Patrick’s question to the first candidate was remarkably similar to the one I had shown him just minutes before. So was his second, to the next candidate. So was his third. In fact, Patrick, who went ahead of me each time in the rotation, replicated my questions each time, leaving me to scramble, dumbfounded, in search of new ones as I simultaneously tried to figure out what kind of person was sitting next to me.
Was it a coincidence, or had Patrick purloined my work? Was I naive or paranoid? Was this guy for real or a self-serving phony? More than four years later, I’m still not sure, but I have never forgotten that day, and I have resurrected this incident here because I think the same is-he-for-real-or-is-he-a-phony question about Dan Patrick is about to be asked by members of the Texas Senate, to which he has just been elected and as a member of which his political future will be determined. The stakes, for him, are high: If, as a freshman senator with no previous experience in public office, he can really deliver on his promises—to curtail legalized abortion, to lower property taxes, to close the border to illegal immigrants, and, most precarious, to work with his fellow senators and the Republican leadership—he has a chance to position himself to reach his presumed, if implausible, goal: to be elected governor of Texas in 2010. But if he becomes a victim of his own darker impulses—self-aggrandizement, self-immolation, a bristling hostility toward those who disagree with him—Patrick will be forever remembered as just another rookie who went to Austin with dreams of playing in the big leagues but couldn’t make the cut.
In other words, if there were a program guide to Texas’s eightieth legislative session, Dan Patrick would surely be the featured player. After three decades on the air and more than a few near-nuclear attacks on other politicians (including President George W. Bush and the Texas Republican leadership), the new state senator from Houston’s northern and western suburbs is already causing nervous breakdowns of varying size and duration among other politicians from, as he likes to say, the Red River to the Nueces River—the supposed geographical reach of his daily talk radio program, the one originating from KSEV-AM, in Houston, and also heard on Patrick-owned KVCE-AM, in Dallas (he hopes to buy a San Antonio station as well). At 56, Patrick has long been known in Houston for a demeanor that can shift in a flash from angelic to aggrieved to outraged to breathtakingly narcissistic. Now he’s bringing that road show to Austin, with the simultaneous ability (and inclination) to broadcast the sins of his colleagues to his intensely loyal band of listeners-turned-constituents.
Patrick isn’t just any rookie, of course. He won his Republican primary, as he’d predicted, with just under 70 percent of the vote against three well-seasoned politicians whose conservative credentials were never in dispute—except by him, of course. It is a measure of Patrick’s success that, almost immediately after he swept the primary, politicians, reporters, lobbyists, consultants, and just about everybody else with anything to do with Texas politics started talking about him, with trepidation and begrudging admiration, as a gubernatorial contender in four years. This with a radio station that has abysmal Arbitron ratings and, of course, without ever having served one day in public office.
More to the point, Patrick is either the Republicans’ nightmare or their savior. “Dan forces the party to face itself in a way it doesn’t want to,” Rice University political science professor Bob Stein told me. Patrick and his followers demand strict adherence to what he calls the Reagan conservative agenda, both social and economic. Hence, they stretch the fragile alliance between the genteel corporate Republicans and the edgier social conservatives to the snapping point. Even before taking office Patrick called for the institution of a “trigger bill” to instantly outlaw abortion in Texas if Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court. He jumped on the anti—illegal immigration bandwagon early and resoundingly, insisting that our border with Mexico must be secured wherever walls are needed—and all but volunteering to pick out the bricks—to prevent illegal immigrants from, he asserts, increasing crime, spreading disease, and destroying our education and health care systems.
Patrick routinely criticizes the usual Democratic targets: Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi (since the election), even Mayor Bill White (“as liberal as they come—he just does a better job of hiding it”). But he is just as vocal—if not more so—about the failings of his own party, many members of which, from Washington to Austin, he labels RINOs, as in “Republicans in name only.” “There’s a reason Perry is at thirty-six percent,” Patrick said of the governor a few weeks before the election. “The base does not feel he has led in a conservative manner.” About Bush, he has this to say: “While most Republicans support the president, they don’t understand him turning