Once upon a time, in the waning days of Democratic rule in Texas, a major warning sign of the party’s decline was when conservatives came to believe their party had drifted so far left that it no longer represented the state’s mainstream. When these conservatives eventually switched parties, the catchphrase was: I’m not leaving the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me.

This year, I’ve heard from more than one fiscal conservative — a Ronald Reagan or a George W. Bush Republican — that their party has moved so far right that they feel shunned like liberals. As one Republican consultant lamented to me about the hard right, “They probably think I’m a RINO.” For those who don’t know, that means Republican in Name Only.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates how far to the right the evangelical tea party agenda has pushed the Legislature than the fact Bill Hammond stood up at a news conference today with Democrats and human rights activists to oppose a proposed religious freedom constitutional amendment that could be used to discriminate against gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual people.

Hammond, chief executive officer of the Texas Association of Business, is no liberal. Nor is Hammond a RINO. Not by any stretch of the imagination. He is a staunch conservative with the credentials to prove it.

Before entering politics, Hammond owned a business, Dallas Tent and Awning Company. As a member of the Texas House in the 1980s, Hammond made it to Texas Monthly’s list of Ten Best legislators by ushering the Texas Education Agency sunset bill through the House, angering teachers along the way. “The first name of every geography teacher in Texas is ‘Coach,’” he said. Hammond voted to create the Rainy Day Fund and voted against the $5.7 billion tax increase of 1987 that balanced the budget.

As chairman of Governor George W. Bush’s Texas Workforce Commission, Hammond pushed a welfare-to-work agenda, sometimes with an enthusiasm that brought criticism for being too harsh. One year, just before Christmas, Hammond sent out notices that cash benefits would be cut immediately for parents on welfare who did not attend “work orientation” classes. “The way business was done in the past, people received something for nothing. We have to break that chain,” Hammond told my former colleague Polly Ross Hughes. “We owe them nothing less than to shock them into the fact that the rules have changed.”

And probably few people in the state are more responsible for turning the Legislature Republican than Bill Hammond. As president of the Texas Association of Business in 2002, his team put together a $2 million direct mail campaign that helped win 18 House and one Senate seats for the Republicans – giving the party a Texas legislative majority for the first time in 130 years. That effort earned Hammond a criminal investigation by former Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle and a brief stay in jail before the case was dismissed. But Hammond and his association was successful in pushing the Legislature to pass a major tort reform bill and balanced budgets without tax increases.

So, here a decade later, Bill Hammond should have been the one unlike the others as he stood against anti-gay legislation along with Democrats and human rights activists. He wasn’t, however, because the business community represented by the Texas Association of Business has turned against a social agenda that has embarrassed Indiana and Arkansas in recent weeks. “Bill Hammond doesn’t stand up here because he loves Democrats,” teased Representative Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, to a burst of laughter in the Speaker’s Committee Room. “Bill Hammond stands up here because he loves his members, and his members want high quality, talented employees.”

With companies such as AT&T, American Airlines, Apple, Dell, Chevron, BP, and Shell now offering same-sex partner benefits, it is easy to see why Hammond and the Texas Association of Business oppose the religious freedom law and other perceived anti-gay measures. “These amendments are bad for business. They’re bad for Texas. They would devastate economic development, tourism and the convention business,” Hammond said. “Major corporations across the board oppose this legislation. They would not want to come to Texas or expand in Texas. Conventions, the Super Bowl, the Final Four, all those things would be at risk in Texas if this was to become part of the constitution.”

The news conference was the second time in 24 hours that the TAB had stood against the hard right agenda. The previous day, representatives of the TAB testified against anti-immigration bills such as sanctions against “sanctuary cities” and efforts to repeal the granting of in-state college tuition rates to undocumented children who have graduated from Texas high schools.

The TAB under Hammond’s leadership is not just looking at these Republican social issues, though. The group is also pushing for additional highway construction funding and public school accountability. “We’re looking for good public policy across the board. We look at what is good for Texas, and the politics be damned,” Hammond told me. “In terms of the majority of Republicans in the Legislature on the issues you first mentioned (anti-gay and anti-immigrant legislation), we respectfully disagree.”

It’s not that Bill Hammond has changed and moved to the left. It is the Republican makeup of the Legislature’s members has moved to the right, to a narrow tea party agenda, away from the business community. As the liberal Democrats did in their party, the right-wing Republicans are alienating the party’s mainstream conservatives. I’m not going to predict a defection such as the one that afflicted the Democrats, but for years the business Republicans ignored the social conservative Republicans because their agenda rarely threatened to become reality in the Legislature and did little to endanger the state’s business climate. A struggle between the Republican right and the Republican middle is growing.

As for Bill Hammond, he is one of those people who covet success for the state over personal popularity. As Paul Burka described Hammond in 1989: “At heart, he remains a maverick with a strong streak of cynicism. The irrationality of the political process frustrates him, especially in his own party; he describes the group of earnest Republicans who hover at the back microphone to champion right-wing causes as “the furrowed-brow club.” He will always be the kind of member whose personality endears him to a few good members but alienates him from the masses.”

(Photo: Bill Hammond/By Marjorie Kamys)