The first Election Day that I remember was in 1978, but it’s not because I followed the candidates or understood the issues. I was a first grader at Meadows Elementary, in Plano, and the election mattered to me for only one reason: my dad came to school. He served as an election judge, and I tagged along with him early that morning as he helped set up those creaky folding ballot booths in our gym. I beamed later that afternoon when my teacher, Mrs. Bolin, informed my class that my father was on campus.
A confession to start: the first time I sat down with David Dewhurst, I felt as if I was going to end up taxidermied.
This was back in 2009. My old boss Chris Lockwood, then the United States editor for the London-based Economist, had come to Texas for a tour. As the Southwest correspondent for that magazine at the time, I had been deputized to arrange his meetings over the course of several days in Austin. Our appointment with Rick Perry was an exercise in soft power on the governor’s part, an hour-long charm offensive. He disarmed the British visitor’s question about Texas secession with a joke and a slap on the back, and he showed me a picture of some puppies that he had just posted on his Twitter account. As we left I reflected on the governor’s underrated political skills: he had, I felt, played us like a couple of fiddles.
The meeting with the lieutenant governor was a far more formal affair. After waiting for about an hour, we were ushered into an antechamber to wait some more. On a sideboard was a silver tray with an untouched selection of meats and cheeses rolled up like cigarillos. In the background, classical music played softly. When Dewhurst finally appeared, he cut an imposing figure. At six feet five inches, he towered over us. His suit was elegant, befitting the millionaire that he is. His hair was precisely combed. His posture was as crisp as it must have been when he served in the Air Force, and he showed us some photos and trophies from his days as a rodeo champion. By the time we took our seats at the long conference table, I had already been thoroughly intimidated, and our questions were beside the point, because Dewhurst had already prepared his answers, delivered in a smooth but halting baritone. He reminded us that, under the Texas constitution, the lieutenant governor is unusually powerful, a fact I was very aware of. I don’t know about Chris, but I was a nervous wreck.
The next few years were not kind to him. When he had announced that he would run for the United States Senate in 2012, it was widely assumed that he would win. He was the candidate of the Republican establishment in a state where the Republican establishment had won every major office for almost two decades. And yet Dewhurst faced a scenario that none of his cohort had. After years of business as usual, the conservative grassroots had taken notice of a talented upstart named Ted Cruz, a former state solicitor general who had cut his teeth debating. The campaign was high profile and ferocious, and Dewhurst eventually lost the primary runoff. Adding insult to injury was that many Republicans, rather than crediting Cruz for his remarkable accomplishment, laid the blame at Dewhurst’s door for a poor campaign and for being, well, himself.
During the 2013 legislative session, I covered the Senate for Texas Monthly with my colleague Sonia Smith. The lieutenant governor, aided by a few new hires in the communications office, was apparently determined to present a softer side. When Sonia and I showed up for an interview, the classical music was gone, and Dewhurst gamely hustled us into his office, where he showed us how to throw a lasso. I have the pictures to prove it.
Over the course of the session, I saw that Dewhurst has his flaws: he can be awkward, overly formal, and come across as diffident. But those flaws have been mirrored in his virtues: he has been serious, gracious, and determined to protect his senators, even when they don’t deserve it. I had all this in mind in September, several months after he had lost his reelection bid to state senator Dan Patrick, when I went for my final interview with him as lieutenant governor.
ERICA GRIEDER: Looking back at the past twelve years, what’s your big-picture summary?
DAVID DEWHURST: I ran for lieutenant governor in 2002 because I looked at Texas and, being an entrepreneur, I said, “We can do better than we’re doing right now.” Texas’s economy was okay, but it wasn’t great. Today, it’s the twelfth-largest economy in the world. If we were a separate country, we would have just surpassed Australia. Isn’t that amazing? And we’re closing in on Canada. I was introduced at an event by a Frenchman who said, “We’re glad Governor Dewhurst is going to start doing some other things because we don’t want the Texas economy eclipsing the French economy.”
EG: That would hurt their feelings.
DD: That could hurt their feelings. [Laughs.] But, Erica, every morning as I got up and drank my coffee for the last twelve years, I thought of one or all of the following: My primary responsibility is to protect the safety of Texans, all 26.4 million of them, and their liberties and their freedoms. The second big area is to protect the health of Texans. The third is to make sure that when Texans graduate from high school or college, there are jobs. So I have worked hard to help create the most jobs of any state, right here in Texas. And to achieve that, over the years I’ve tried to champion improving public education and higher education, so that we have a skilled and trained workforce.
I’ve gone on a number of crusades to protect children’s health and protect children against sexual predators. In 2004 I read an article in the Dallas Morning News about how during a two-and-a-half-year period, some five hundred children under the age of eighteen had died throughout the state, more than a quarter of whom were seen regularly by Child Protective Services personnel—and I went on, you might say, a tirade. I wanted to know how it was possible—what was going on with CPS. To make a long story short, what came out of that was Senate Bill 6, by Senator Jane Nelson, which we worked on hand in glove. It invested almost a quarter of a billion dollars into changing the structure of Child Protective Services and Adult Protective Services to better protect our children and seniors.
EG: You helped pass Jessica’s Law in Texas in 2007—named after a girl from Florida who was abducted, raped, and murdered—which strengthened penalties for crimes committed against children.
DD: I once had to preside over an execution that still gives me sleepless nights, thinking about the fact pattern. In fact, the crime was so bad I wouldn’t let any of the ladies in my office see the execution book. After we passed Jessica’s Law, I talked with district attorneys and child advocacy centers, and they said that the legislation has permitted them to put a lot of bad people in prison. For the first time in Texas history, we have a law that stipulates that in cases of a super-aggravated sexual assault on a minor under fourteen years of age, the minimum prison term is 25 years. If someone does something to a child, I have no mercy on them. No mercy.
EG: You’ve also been an advocate for increased border security.
This academic year, the University of Texas at El Paso is celebrating its centennial, and Diana Natalicio, the school’s president, is marking her twenty-sixth anniversary in the school’s top job. That’s a remarkably long tenure, but even more remarkable are the changes UTEP has undergone during her administration. In 1988 the school offered one doctoral program; today it has twenty. In 1988 annual research expenditures were about $5 million; last year the number was $84 million.
I’ll admit that I didn’t pay much (i.e., any) attention to David Alameel’s campaign for the United States Senate this year.
Alternative headline: Why there is not, never was, and will not be, a race for speaker in the upcoming legislative session.
After every major election, it seems I find myself writing an obituary for the Texas Democratic party. It’s not a true obituary, I suppose, since the Democrats are not exactly dead, just comatose. This year brought a rare combination of considerable early optimism by Democrats, followed by the worst pasting yet by Republicans.
I spent much of the past few months trying to make sense of Dan Patrick, the state senator from Houston who will become Texas’s next lieutenant governor in January. The full profile, which will appear in our December issue, is online now. Here’s a representative excerpt:
Yesterday morning, President Obama made a call for Net Neutrality—something that many on the Internet have been lobbying the President to do for years. Shortly thereafter, Senator Ted Cruz weighed in with a tweet that quickly attracted a lot of attention.
School is supposed to be a place where students feel safe. Every day, parents entrust their children with school officials with the understanding that they will be secure, supported, and free from harm. But it appears that dozens of North Texas schools have thrown that sense of trust into question with some disturbing disciplinary actions.