At the conclusion of the impeachment trial of Attorney General Ken Paxton, members of the Texas Senate, acting as jury, retired to “deliberate” on a verdict. Meanwhile, the trial’s judge, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, left the Capitol with his staff to watch Oppenheimer, the blockbuster movie about a man whose brilliance and ego lead him to create a weapon that makes him a hero to those around him—but also threatens to destroy everything he claims to value.
We go to the movies, at least in part, to see ourselves on-screen. Patrick is arguably the most powerful politician the state has produced in a quarter century: an adroit strategist, tactician, and punisher who makes Governor Greg Abbott look like the president of a small religious college. But in reshaping the state in his image, Patrick is cheapening and demeaning it.
The past year was one of crowning achievements for the lieutenant governor. Having taken almost complete control of the 31-member state Senate, over which he presides, he’s accomplished nearly everything he set out to do a decade ago, and the Republican Party of Texas has more or less rebuilt around him. His remodeling of the Senate culminated this year with the acquittal of his longtime ally Paxton, after an impeachment trial that made public overwhelming evidence that the attorney general had used the power of his office to benefit a campaign donor and personal crony. Patrick maintained the pretense of impartiality throughout the trial and then, at the end, dispelled any notion of it with a fiery speech in which he condemned the prosecution and argued that his Senate had saved the state. “We are the envy of the world,” Patrick said. “We are the America that all America used to be.”
With his political talents, Patrick could be one of the great statesmen in the history of the Legislature. Instead, he haunts Texas, unwilling to countenance any dissenting voice while remaining cartoonishly bound to an imagined past. That’s why Patrick—in the face of robust competition from Paxton and Elon Musk—is our Bum Steer of the Year.
Patrick began 2023 by reversing himself on a matter of some importance: Having previously said he would step down in 2027, at the end of twelve years as lieutenant governor, he announced that he would instead seek another term, aiming to lead the upper chamber until he is eighty. He had heard whisperings about who would replace him and quashed such speculation.
Patrick is now omnipotent in the Senate, but he came to the body from the fringe, trafficking in ideas that were not commonly accepted in Texas just a decade or two ago. His first campaigns for office were some of the most xenophobic in memory. He warned that migrants carried leprosy and sought to destroy America, that Democrats were opening the borders so that brown-skinned immigrants could outnumber and replace real Americans. He both predicted and facilitated his party’s shift on immigration and presaged Donald Trump’s border-focused 2016 campaign, later becoming Trump’s biggest supporter in Texas.
When Patrick won a state Senate seat in 2006, he was an insurgent—a fiery radio host who disdained the body to which he was elected as well as most of its traditions. He wanted to pull the chamber sharply to the right. Back then the Senate was a genteel and slow-moving institution full of folks who could be called independent thinkers or, less charitably, pompous blowhards.
Patrick told many of his colleagues that they were the handmaidens of liberals. At first they mocked him. In his freshman year, a fellow senator placed a plastic horse’s head on Patrick’s desk, riffing on a scene in The Godfather. When that didn’t chasten Patrick, members of his party tried to shun him: Bill Miller, an influential lobbyist, recalls that Patrick was a “pariah” because “he was too conservative for everybody.” But within eight years, Patrick became impossible to ignore. He understood the 3 percent of Texans who decide GOP primary elections much better than did his rivals, and he had cultivated powerful, deep-pocketed supporters, so he cruised to victory in the 2014 lieutenant governor election.
Since then Patrick has overseen a shift in the state Republican party, from a coalition of regional interests to an organization focused on the demands of tea party groups and right-wing activists. Joined by other state leaders, he has pushed for ever-increasing abortion restrictions, including a 2021 law that places legal bounties on the heads of those who assist women in getting the procedure. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled gay marriage a constitutional right in 2015, depriving the GOP of a key get-out-the-vote issue, he adopted a monomaniacal focus on transgender Texans, trying to restrict their use of bathrooms.
Patrick has also championed bills—blocked, so far, by the House—that would divert taxpayer dollars to help parents pay private-school tuition. He calls these vouchers or “education savings accounts” the “civil rights issue of our time.” By design, however, the vouchers aren’t generous enough to allow poor families to attend the best private schools.
To achieve his vision, Patrick changed the rules of the Senate in ways that empowered a smaller majority to set the agenda, and he expected its members to toe his line. Those who didn’t were summarily dispatched—written out of policy making and effectively “fired,” in the words of former Amarillo Republican senator Kel Seliger. After he challenged Patrick in 2017 on a plan to subsidize private schools, Seliger was stripped of his committee chairmanship in 2019. Kelly Hancock, a North Texas Republican, faced quicker justice when he was removed as chair of the Business and Commerce Committee after daring to support a different electricity pricing bill than Patrick after the collapse of the Texas grid in 2021. After sidelining dissidents, Patrick maneuvered to get their voters to deliver the knockout punch. Seliger’s district was gerrymandered after 2021 to favor a different republican aligned with Patrick’s billionaire backers, and the longtime senator retired.
To avoid Patrick’s wrath, most formerly free-thinking senators either retired from office or bowed to the lieutenant governor’s priorities. Senate votes now go the way Patrick says they go, without exception. Miller says his job as a lobbyist has changed: the first question he gets when approaching senators on a bill is not what they stand to gain from it but how Patrick feels about the matter. “It’s hard to say legislators are intuitive,” said Miller, “but I think the Senate has learned to be intuitive about where Patrick is.”
Perhaps bored of vanquishing powerless Democrats, the ever-combative Patrick found new enemies to bully this year: other Republicans. He waged war on Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, calling him “revolting, repulsive and repugnant.” He has called for the Speaker’s resignation, to no effect.
Which brings us to the Paxton impeachment trial. Patrick did not have a vote on Paxton’s fate: his role, as judge, was to appear as evenhanded in his words as possible. In his deeds? Not so much. His first act as he began presiding over a trial about public corruption was to accept what amounted to a bribe—one that’s considered legal under ethics rules in Texas but is shady all the same. The amount was $3 million, considerably more than the value of the home renovation that Paxton allegedly accepted from a real estate developer in exchange for what several of Paxton’s aides described as legal favors.
In the old days, politicians were bribed in wads of bills. (Or checks, like the ones chicken magnate Lonnie Pilgrim passed out on the floor of the Texas Senate in 1989.) In this more decorous era, the lieutenant governor—who, by the way, isn’t up for reelection until 2026—took money in the form of a $1 million campaign contribution and $2 million in campaign loans. Both flowed through the political action committee Defend Texas Liberty, which is funded by Paxton’s most generous oil-billionaire backers, Farris Wilks and Tim Dunn, the latter of whom famously told a Jewish House Speaker that only Christians should hold leadership positions in the Legislature. The loan could be “forgiven”—say, if Paxton’s friends were happy with the result of the Senate impeachment trial. If not, they could demand repayment. When it emerged after the trial that one of Defend Texas Liberty’s leaders had hosted a meeting with the neo-Nazi Nick Fuentes, Phelan pressured Patrick to donate the money he’d received from the PAC to charity. He instead used it to buy Israeli bonds, meaning he might make money on the deal: one of the most cheerfully shameless dodges in Texas politics in recent memory.
Taking money from Paxton’s biggest supporters on the eve of Paxton’s trial sent a clear signal to Patrick’s band of underlings in the Senate regarding what he expected them to do as jurors. Paxton was acquitted, with only two Republicans, including Hancock, voting to convict him on some charges.
After the votes, as if casting off a great weight, Patrick ripped into House Republicans in a heated speech that put the lie to his pretensions of impartiality. The impeachment “should never have happened,” he said, and he would seek to change the state constitution to make sure it couldn’t happen again. He was reassuring Paxton’s supporters: Yes, the fix was in all along. It had been for years.
Patrick wants to save his vision of Texas because that’s the Texas that saved him. He grew up Dannie Goeb in Baltimore, attended college there, and then lived the itinerant life of a TV broadcaster, landing in Houston in 1979. In Texas, he opened a sports bar and eventually became a shock-jock radio host. He was painted blue on air by Houston Oilers cheerleaders and live-broadcast his vasectomy. He went bankrupt. He struggled with his mental health. But Texas kept giving him second chances, as it had so many before him. In time he made a fortune, he discovered his calling, and he found Jesus, at a church behind the Tropicana casino in Las Vegas, where he was attending a broadcasters convention. He included all the lessons he’d learned in his 2002 self-help book, The Second Most Important Book You Will Ever Read: A Personal Challenge to Read the Bible.
But though Patrick has prospered here and has lived here for nearly a half century, he still does not fully understand Texas. He knows what the small group of Republican primary voters who elected him want: endless culture war. He knows how to role-play a version of a Texan, posing in his campaign ads with a brush jacket and an old pickup truck. But Texas contains multitudes. This place is too wild and weird to fit in Patrick’s narrow and exclusionary ideological vision. His failure to see Texas is a pitiable thing. But the tragedy of Dan Patrick is that he’s very good at the job he has created for himself. He’s succeeding in making the state more like his fantasy.
This article originally appeared in the January 2024 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Bum Steers of the Year.” Subscribe today.