By all accounts, Michael Williams has been a dedicated member of the Republican party of Texas. He was the general counsel for the GOP party of Texas in 1994, chairman of the platform committee in 1998, and chairman of the state convention in 2000, and he was a featured speaker at the Republican National Conventions of 2004 and 2008. He was the first African-American to hold a statewide elective administrative office, serving as railroad commissioner from 1999 to 2011. Governor Rick Perry appointed Williams as the Texas education commissioner in 2012, a post he held until the end of 2015. Earlier this week, Williams tweeted: “[Thirty-five] years ago when I ‘came out’ as a Republican it never crossed my mind my party would some day worry about what bathrooms people used.”
Williams was referencing Senate Bill 3, which is primarily aimed at controlling access to bathrooms in public schools, colleges, and publicly owned buildings. It would restrict people to using the bathroom that matches the sex on their birth certificate.
The tweet prompted me to call Williams, and he discussed with me his belief the party and its politicians have lost a connection to its Republican roots. “Politicians, and I was one, and political parties are like milk. They do curdle and spoil over time.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Disclosure: My wife works at the Texas Education Agency and was the agency spokesperson during Williams’s tenure as commissioner.
R.G. Ratcliffe: When you came out as a Republican, why did you feel like it was more important to be a Republican than a Democrat?
Michael Williams: I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about that, and obviously I had peers and friends who came to a different conclusion. I realize that. But I was engaged in the question of ‘What is the best way to secure and uplift a future of black America?’ And I believe that the best way was to advance a robust, energetic economy that could provide jobs and other opportunities, and I believe that what I saw and heard in the seventies—and I still hear and see in 2017—from Republicans as opposed to what I heard then from Democrats. So the thrust of what was important to me, as a thirty-something-year-old in 1982, is what is the best atmosphere, the best environment, for the uplift of black folks. And having taken some time to think about it, I said it was that thing called low taxes and government with a small ‘g’ and the protection of individual liberty and that was the way to do it.
RGR: What defined the Republican party for you?
MW: For us it was the protection of human life and property tax reform, it was lawsuit abuse reform, it was a specific set of public policy prescriptions. Over time, you win and have success and you get into the second and third generation of that, and that’s why it’s dissipated over time. And it’s not as clear that it’s connected to where you start. I mean, think about the guys who began this process. They’re not even here any longer. The guys who forged this, they’re no longer here. And as you tend to, some of the folks who are here now don’t remember the fights of the mid-nineties I should say. They don’t remember why we did what we did—when education reform, real education reform, was a significant goal in the mid-nineties. Nobody remembers why it was important for us to develop our own state curriculum standards, to have our own assessment system align to those standards and having accountability systems align to that. Nobody remembers that anymore.
RGR: You told me political parties over time curdle and spoil, but is there something about the debate over the bathroom bill that is particularly disappointing to you?
MW: Yes, there is. Where the legislature left it was that the burden and the onus of dealing with this whole transgender issue, they were going to leave to the most vulnerable and youngest members of Texas—children. Not adults. Somebody had warned that issue, to put that burden on adults, might have adverse economic impact on Texas, I agree with that, mind you. So we’re not going to do anything about adults. What we’re going to do is put the burden on the Texans who are coming into their own and first dealing with this stuff, about who they are and how they deal with other folks, the youngest Texans, the most vulnerable Texans. Now to me, you know, if you’re going to do this stuff, you don’t put the burden on children.
I don’t know jack about being transgender, obviously. I do have transgender friends. But I can imagine, if I was having to deal with issues of just ‘Hey, what’s it like to be a boy at fourteen, fifteen, sixteen,’ and what all that means, I can imagine that they’ve got a whole bunch of other stuff that they’ve got to go through in their head and now we’ve got to make them go through some other hoops? Not the adults in Texas, the children.
Look. Ain’t no transgender boy going into the bathroom to beat up little girls. That ain’t happening. If anything, [transgender] people are the one’s that are going to get jacked up. There’s just no problem here, on our campuses, our school officials have demonstrated that they are more than capable, on a case-by-case basis, to deal with these issues, because they’ve done that. So there is no problem that requires some kind of statewide solution. Those kids aren’t posing a problem to their fellow students. Local school officials in their own way. What’s to me unsavory is that we’re putting the burden of this issue on the backs of the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society, which is children. Not the adults because, you know, I think we realize there could be a real financial consequence to this shit.
RGR: I’m just a tad younger than you, and I have a distinct memory of segregated bathrooms and segregated water fountains. I spent the early part of my career working in Georgia and Alabama and got assigned to cover a lot of white supremacist rallies, and the one phrase I kept hearing over and over again was you know, ‘We have to protect our daughters.’ And I hear a lot of similar connections in this debate. Is that justifiable?
MW: I have a mother who is still in my life, thankfully. I have a wife. I have two sisters. And I have a bunch of nieces. So yes, we want to protect the women in our lives. But the reality is, help me understand what the threat is to them. Show me evidence that some transgender woman is posing a threat to them. I’m an old prosecutor, I was a prosecutor for ten years, we’ve got laws against sexually assaulting someone. So someone will say to me, ‘But Michael, we want to prevent that person from going into the bathroom in the first place.’ If somebody is bound and determined to go to a bathroom and do harm, that person will do it. This law ain’t gonna stop it.
What we haven’t learned over the course of society is that we as society, we’re not very capable of truly preventing crime. What we can do is load up the punishment on the backend and say that if you jack up and do something stupid, then we’ll drop a load on you. I think there’s all sorts of officers who told you that [on Wednesday] when they were in Austin. This law ain’t gonna stop anybody who’s bound and determined to do something. So if you want to have enhanced penalties, for instance, that says, you know, if you go into a bathroom looking like a woman, but you’re really a man, and you go in there for the purpose of doing harm to women, then boy we’re going to enhance your penalty. That might be the right thing to do. But this ain’t.
RGR: House Speaker Joe Straus told the New Yorker that he didn’t want to help pass the bathroom bill because transgender people have a high suicide rate and did not want it on his head that he was responsible for one kid committing suicide. Do you think that’s a real concern there?
MW: I don’t know the literature, the evidence. Like I said, I have one transgender friend. And I know a little bit about her experience. I know there’s tremendous pressure on these kids when they’re young. I don’t know if that’s a humongous threat or not, I cannot imagine that it’s not. There is evidence to this, the evidence tells us they get bullied more, they get called out more than regular kids, so we know that there’s a greater challenge to and for those kids than many other children. So it would not surprise me that there’s a greater threat of suicide, I just don’t know that for a fact.
RGR: Has the Republican party curdled, as you hinted at?
MW: What happens is you get further away from why you started and then you almost forget why you’re doing what you doing. You keep pushing the envelope, you’re pushing it and pushing it. And I think now after twenty-plus years of not only being in power, we’re pushing the envelope, and having no sense that we’ll ever lose, so I just push it. We don’t have to be concerned about the public policy trade-offs, just push the envelope. I mean, Democrats haven’t ruled the statehouse since 1994, ain’t gonna win any time soon. So push it. There are no consequences to it. You don’t need to have any self-regulating controls on policy because the other team can’t do anything to stop you. You’re running downfield, heading the ball off and running however you want to. They can’t stop you.
RGR: Does that give the Democrats an opportunity?
MW: No, because they don’t have the message. You can’t do something with nothing, and they still don’t have a message. Now, the only thing they can hope for is that we get so far afield that we implode on ourselves. But they still don’t have a message. And waiting for us to do something stupid is not a message. They can’t beat us.