The legislative ghost of former Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst still haunts the halls of the Texas Capitol. You can hear the chains rattle as someone whispers, Dan Patrick said he wouldn’t run against Dewhurst, and then he did. If you walk through a cool chill outside of Governor Greg Abbott’s office, you can imagine a sibilant spectral voice hissing, I could be the ghost of your election future. As the regular legislative session nears its end on Monday, Great David’s Ghost is a presence, especially in the past several days during the West Wing versus the East Wing verbal pissing match between Speaker Joe Straus and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick over transgender bathroom legislation.
With just three days left in the regular legislative session, Straus declared that he and the House will not pass legislation to limit multi-user bathroom access for transgender public school students. “It’s absurd that bathroom bills have taken on greater urgency than fixing our school finance system,” Straus said in a Friday evening news conference in the West Wing’s Speaker’s Committee Room. Across the rotunda, in the Senate Press Conference Room, Patrick responded by blaming the failure of bills to keep the Texas Medical Board alive on Straus and thus the need for a special session on bathrooms. “He laid down the gauntlet tonight,” Patrick said, as well as, “Tonight, I’m making it very clear, Governor. I want you to call us back.”
Before we proceed, let us take care of a little housekeeping first. Patrick said the House got bills to keep the medical board to the Senate too late. Those would be Senate Bills 1929 and 80 with House amendments. By a three-fifths vote, the Senate can do whatever it wants until midnight on Monday. If Patrick can’t muster the vote to keep doctors in Texas licensed to practice medicine, then he’s not the lieutenant governor we all think he is. Nope. Dan Patrick is killing that legislation to try to force a special session on bathrooms.
To really understand where we are today and the political maneuverings that go beyond the potty, we have to go back a few years and listen to Great David’s Ghost. The specter tells us that Patrick once promised not to run against Dewhurst for lieutenant governor and then did. That’s not exactly true. But the chain-rattling haunt might tell us—“at the end of the day”—Dan Patrick’s loyalties carry a caveat. They are good for the day they are uttered and subject to change.
During the 2011 legislative session, Patrick’s political obsession was on genitalia—especially that fondled by transportation safety personnel during aggressive pat-downs of airline passengers. Patrick wanted to make it a crime for a safety officer to touch private parts, but the then-Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst initially backed down after the federal government threatened to shut Texas airports if the bill passed. At the time, Dewhurst was considering a run for United States Senate. Patrick used that to ridicule him over failure of the pat-down bill in regular session. “We’ve had a good relationship, but someone who will undermine his members and someone who will not stand up to the federal government, you have to ask yourself is that the kind of person that we need in the United States Senate?” Patrick told reporters.
Straus at that time was in a similar position to where he is today: “The bill—without some serious revisions—appears to me to be nothing more than an ill-advised publicity stunt,” Straus said. A substantially toned-down version passed in special session. Does that sound familiar to anyone who watched Straus’ Friday night news conference on bathroom bills?
Eventually, Patrick and Dewhurst made up, and Patrick backed Dewhurst in his run for Senate against Ted Cruz. Along the way, Patrick said of The Dew, “There’s no way you can’t call him a conservative.” It was clear, Patrick thought Dewhurst winning the Senate seat would open the door for him to run for lieutenant governor. Dewhurst lost the Senate race, but rewarded Patrick with a committee chairmanship for the 2013 legislative session. Then Patrick’s anti-abortion legislation died on the final day in the famous Wendy Davis filibuster in no small part because Dewhurst mishandled the situation and was absent at dinner most of the evening.
Et tu, Danny? Patrick wasted little time putting a dagger into Dewhurst’s political career, declaring the need for “authentic conservative leadership” while announcing as a candidate against Dewhurst in the 2014 Republican primary. Patrick won and in January 2015 took the oath of office as the second-ranking state official, just behind Governor Abbott. I have little doubt that Patrick’s judo throw of Dewhurst has played no small part in two years of Abbott watching over his shoulder.
You say the staunchly conservative Abbott has nothing to fear? Patrick opened this legislative session with a news conference to put down rumors that he planned to run for governor. He dismissed rumors that he might run for U.S. Senate while incumbent John Cornyn was under consideration as a possible FBI director. Listen to the ghost of Dewhurst.
Here is what Patrick said about then-Attorney General Greg Abbott in 2011. “I would never want to run against him,” Patrick told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “And I told the attorney general, ‘I’m happy to be your co-pilot. As long as you believe in the things I believe, then I don’t have to be in the driver’s seat. I’m happy to push the cart.”
Take to heart the last part of that message to Abbott: “As long as you believe in the things I believe, then I don’t have to be in the driver’s seat.”
In this year’s bathroom debate, Abbott has sort of stumbled into putting Patrick into the driver’s seat. He and Patrick in 2015 both spoke out against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance in the campaign of “no men in women’s bathrooms.” Abbott also spoke out against President Obama’s transgender bathroom order for public schools. But when reporters asked him in December whether he would support a state law limiting multi-person bathrooms to gender specificity, he waffled. Abbott passed on declaring it an emergency and putting the law into the legislative mix. He also did not mention it in his state of the state address.
Then in mid-April, Abbott indicated possible support for House Bill 2899, which was not as harsh as Patrick’s Senate Bill 6, which applied to all government, college, and public school bathrooms. The House bill would have invalidated local ordinances protecting transgender bathroom access in Texas (there is only one city ordinance that does that) and it would have overturned some public school policies meant to accommodate transgender students. By that point, passage of a bathroom bill already was looking slim in Straus’ House, but now here was Abbott on the record wanting something to pass.
Then a column from Empower Texans that ran on some tea party web sites called House Bill 2899 “a weak-kneed half measure that is effectively toothless… Abbott’s actions on the matter, while weak, are a marked improvement from earlier this year.” Most of the state’s libertarian and Christian right groups had supported Patrick’s first version of the bathroom bill.
Two weeks ago the House passed a bathroom bill that applied only to public schools and only required them to accommodate students who wanted to use a single-occupancy toilet or changing room. Patrick threatened to force a special session on bathrooms and a failed bill on tax-rollback elections for cities and counties. Even two days ago, Abbott was still hoping for a compromise to avoid a special session. Conservative blogger David Jennings on Friday night wrote, “Will the Governor support Lt. Dan and the vast majority of Texas voters? Or will the Governor side with the Speaker, a man that has started to believe his own press and has made unforced errors in trying to protect the members of the House from voting on controversial issues?”
All versions of the bathroom bills still have opposition from major corporations, and it is unclear whether the NCAA would pull the 2018 Final Four basketball tournament out of San Antonio if a bathroom bill passes. The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community consider all versions discriminatory and fear they might contribute to hate crimes. The issue remains politically contentious and appears mostly aimed at the 2018 Republican primary voter–you know, the ones who might decide a contest between Abbott and Patrick.
The medical board and property tax bills alone will give Abbott cover to call a special session this summer. Will Abbott add bathrooms? If he doesn’t, will he represent authentic conservative leadership in Patrick’s mind? And remember Patrick’s promise from 2011. “I told the attorney general, ‘I’m happy to be your co-pilot. As long as you believe in the things I believe, then I don’t have to be in the driver’s seat.”