I want to begin by telling you a story that may make me look small, but which, I believe, is instructive. In 2003 I was asked to sit on a panel to interview the three men running for mayor of Houston: Bill White, Orlando Sanchez, and Sylvester Turner. The other two members of the panel were a former political reporter for the defunct Houston Post and Dan Patrick, then as now a drive-time radio talk show host. Patrick, in his early fifties, was a very tall man with a reddish, open face, a pinched nose, and a thatch of brownish hair going white at the temples. He could not have been more polite or solicitous. Just as the program started, he turned to me and casually suggested the following: “Let me see your questions to make sure we don’t duplicate each other.” That sounded like a reasonable idea, so I handed over my list, which he scanned, nodding approvingly, and handed back with dispatch.
But when the program started, Patrick’s question to the first candidate was remarkably similar to the one I had shown him just minutes before. So was his second, to the next candidate. So was his third. In fact, Patrick, who went ahead of me each time in the rotation, replicated my questions each time, leaving me to scramble, dumbfounded, in search of new ones as I simultaneously tried to figure out what kind of person was sitting next to me.
Was it a coincidence, or had Patrick purloined my work? Was I naive or paranoid? Was this guy for real or a self-serving phony? More than four years later, I’m still not sure, but I have never forgotten that day, and I have resurrected this incident here because I think the same is-he-for-real-or-is-he-a-phony question about Dan Patrick is about to be asked by members of the Texas Senate, to which he has just been elected and as a member of which his political future will be determined. The stakes, for him, are high: If, as a freshman senator with no previous experience in public office, he can really deliver on his promises—to curtail legalized abortion, to lower property taxes, to close the border to illegal immigrants, and, most precarious, to work with his fellow senators and the Republican leadership—he has a chance to position himself to reach his presumed, if implausible, goal: to be elected governor of Texas in 2010. But if he becomes a victim of his own darker impulses—self-aggrandizement, self-immolation, a bristling hostility toward those who disagree with him—Patrick will be forever remembered as just another rookie who went to Austin with dreams of playing in the big leagues but couldn’t make the cut.
In other words, if there were a program guide to Texas’s eightieth legislative session, Dan Patrick would surely be the featured player. After three decades on the air and more than a few near-nuclear attacks on other politicians (including President George W. Bush and the Texas Republican leadership), the new state senator from Houston’s northern and western suburbs is already causing nervous breakdowns of varying size and duration among other politicians from, as he likes to say, the Red River to the Nueces River—the supposed geographical reach of his daily talk radio program, the one originating from KSEV-AM, in Houston, and also heard on Patrick-owned KVCE-AM, in Dallas (he hopes to buy a San Antonio station as well). At 56, Patrick has long been known in Houston for a demeanor that can shift in a flash from angelic to aggrieved to outraged to breathtakingly narcissistic. Now he’s bringing that road show to Austin, with the simultaneous ability (and inclination) to broadcast the sins of his colleagues to his intensely loyal band of listeners-turned-constituents.
Patrick isn’t just any rookie, of course. He won his Republican primary, as he’d predicted, with just under 70 percent of the vote against three well-seasoned politicians whose conservative credentials were never in dispute—except by him, of course. It is a measure of Patrick’s success that, almost immediately after he swept the primary, politicians, reporters, lobbyists, consultants, and just about everybody else with anything to do with Texas politics started talking about him, with trepidation and begrudging admiration, as a gubernatorial contender in four years. This with a radio station that has abysmal Arbitron ratings and, of course, without ever having served one day in public office.
More to the point, Patrick is either the Republicans’ nightmare or their savior. “Dan forces the party to face itself in a way it doesn’t want to,” Rice University political science professor Bob Stein told me. Patrick and his followers demand strict adherence to what he calls the Reagan conservative agenda, both social and economic. Hence, they stretch the fragile alliance between the genteel corporate Republicans and the edgier social conservatives to the snapping point. Even before taking office Patrick called for the institution of a “trigger bill” to instantly outlaw abortion in Texas if Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court. He jumped on the anti–illegal immigration bandwagon early and resoundingly, insisting that our border with Mexico must be secured wherever walls are needed—and all but volunteering to pick out the bricks—to prevent illegal immigrants from, he asserts, increasing crime, spreading disease, and destroying our education and health care systems.
Patrick routinely criticizes the usual Democratic targets: Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi (since the election), even Mayor Bill White (“as liberal as they come—he just does a better job of hiding it”). But he is just as vocal—if not more so—about the failings of his own party, many members of which, from Washington to Austin, he labels RINOs, as in “Republicans in name only.” “There’s a reason Perry is at thirty-six percent,” Patrick said of the governor a few weeks before the election. “The base does not feel he has led in a conservative manner.” About Bush, he has this to say: “While most Republicans support the president, they don’t understand him turning his back on the border. And why is he spending as much as the Democrats did?”
The rout suffered by Republicans last November is, for Patrick, not a cause for mourning but another chance to say “I told you so”—something he’s been doing for almost a year. “People wanted to deliver a message to the Republican leadership that we are off the conservative track and we need to get back on track,” he says in an eminently reasonable but insistent tone on the radio, virtually every day. Government, he tells his audience, “is not listening to the people. You. People don’t feel like anyone in Austin or Washington is really listening to them. They don’t see anyone trying anymore on the GOP agenda.”
If you live on the left side of the political spectrum, where Democrats had no success for six years prior to November 7, Patrick’s plaints may sound like grousing from an alternate universe. But within Republican circles, he is the angry id, calling in the far right’s note, unbowed and unafraid. In earlier incarnations, he painted himself blue to support the late Houston Oilers (when he was a crazy sportscaster), had a vasectomy on the air (when he was a crazy radio reporter), and left a trail of bitter creditors after an ignominious bankruptcy (when he was a crazy restaurant and bar owner). More recently, he created such a ruckus at a Capitol hearing (as a crazy talk show host) that a state trooper was called in to keep order. Nowadays, he whips his determined band of admirers—mostly older, white, underemployed or semi-retired males who not only generate angry e-mails but work their precincts and actually vote—into frenzies that, party regulars fear, could split the Republicans and loosen their grip on power in Texas.
Let Patrick’s critics call him a self-promoter (“He believes that being the arsonist and the fireman in the same body is a good thing,” one said) or a total fraud (“Dan is a man perfectly at home with his phoniness. He embraces it. It is built into his DNA”) or, more commonly, a demagogue masquerading behind his born-again beliefs. Patrick revels in the martyr’s role. “I’m the ten-point buck,” he told me, proudly. “Everyone wants to hang me on the wall.”
“It doesn’t matter who got elected governor,” says Jim McGrath, a Republican consultant who represented one of the candidates Patrick plastered. “Dan Patrick going to the Senate is the most interesting story in Texas politics today.”
Picture, if you will, David Dewhurst. Tall, assiduously groomed, rich, well mannered, infatuated with consensus and control, and dead set on being elected governor in 2010. Now picture Dan Patrick. Tall, assiduously groomed, rich—but not so well mannered, infatuated with controversy and chaos, and with his own eye on the Governor’s Mansion, using his radio program as a launching pad (sort of like Rush for Governor, if Rush weren’t addicted to painkillers). The upcoming conflict is a perfect setup for what psychiatrists call the “death struggle,” in which two people become locked in a contest to destroy in each other what they cannot stand in themselves, in this case with all conflict staged for public benefit on the Senate floor.
For instance, Patrick will come to the Senate passionate about lowering the cap on increases in property appraisals. He wants the rate at which home appraisals can increase annually slashed from the current 10 percent to 3 percent. Who stands in his way? The lieutenant governor, who, as the Senate’s presiding officer, will determine Patrick’s committee assignments, the fate of his bills, and even whether he is formally recognized to speak. So what happens now? In order to get what he wants, does Patrick make nice with Dewhurst, whom he has regularly attacked on the air as a faux conservative? How can he explain that turnaround to his base? And what about Dewhurst? Does he relegate Patrick to the backbench, burying him on committees like Intergovernmental Relations or Agriculture? Won’t that just rile the right wing he needs to win the Republican primary and prompt Patrick to play the martyr on the air? Or does Dewhurst get other senators to do his dirty work by proxy? (“He’s not getting anything out of my committee” at least one of them has already asserted of Patrick.)
Patrick’s success or failure also hinges on the clubby nature of the Senate, an exclusive group of 31 members who treasure their rites and rituals with the solemnity and seriousness of the Vatican. Rule number one, of course, is that freshmen senators are seen and not heard. That will be hard, if not impossible, for Patrick to adhere to; in the past, he has shown no inclination for go-along, get-along politics. Patrick has also been highly critical of the fundamental procedure by which the Senate operates; known as the two-thirds rule, it is a tradition in which the regular order for considering bills is routinely ignored, and instead a senator wishing to pass a bill must ask his colleagues to suspend the rules to allow his bill to be heard out of order. This requires a two-thirds vote, or 21 of the 31 senators. Thus, 11 of the 31 can block legislation by voting against suspending the rules, in which case the bill dies without the public’s knowing how senators would have voted. Senators who can’t build coalitions can’t succeed either way.
Patrick has attacked the two-thirds rule on the air, claiming that senators hide behind it to avoid casting controversial votes. Not coincidentally, this was the fate of the attempt in 2003 to lower appraisal caps. Dewhurst told him in an on-air interview that supporters of lowering the cap didn’t have even 10 votes, much less the 21 necessary to bring the legislation to the floor. Patrick asked Dewhurst for the names of the senators who did not want to debate the bill, but Dewhurst demurred, saying he didn’t have a list, and Patrick’s pet issue disappeared without senators’ going on record for or against. He has attacked Dewhurst and the other senators who opposed him on the air ever since.
In other words, Patrick has no intention of sitting idly by while legislation he cares about gets gutted, and his preemptive strike on the two-thirds rule was a shot across the bow. “The thing Austin hasn’t figured out about me is that I don’t care. I don’t care about committee assignments. I don’t care about getting my name on a bill. Austin doesn’t really have anything I want. That gives me great freedom.” But, he added, speaking of everyone and no one in particular in the Senate, “I’m not going to sit on my hands [as a freshman] just because that’s the way it’s always been.”
The best way to understand Dan Patrick is to listen to his radio show. He broadcasts from his studio in a nondescript high-rise off Interstate 10 every weekday afternoon from four to six , and the theme—the aggrieved, overlooked Republican right—pretty much remains the same, though the specifics might jump from the border to the failures of the Republicans to some weird riff on Bill, Hillary, and Viagra (don’t ask). It’s an odd amalgamation of Rush Limbaugh, Joel Osteen’s televised testimonials (Patrick once worked for him), Cranks Anonymous, and A Prairie Home Companion, where the ads sometimes clash hilariously with the content of the programming: A commercial for Gringo’s Tex-Mex restaurant—“Gringos, secure your Tex-Mex craving!”—follows calls demanding immediate deportation for illegal immigrants. Patrick off the air is no different from Patrick on the air; he’s rhetorical, theatrical, and hyperbolic, no matter where he is. Face-to-face, this makes him a difficult person to connect with.
Hence the contradiction that is Patrick: He loves getting paid to sit alone in a darkened room, wearing a thousand-mile stare, talking. And talking. He almost never stumbles, mumbles, or pauses to organize his thoughts. It’s stream of consciousness, and you can’t help but wonder if with all that talk he isn’t really trying to inspire, soothe, and defend himself. Yet he desperately needs the companionship and validation of his listeners. As one political consultant explained it: “Dan wants to mind-meld. Dan wants to become your metaphysical partner.” In fact, Patrick told me he is thinking about writing a book about loneliness. “I think it is one of the biggest topics in people’s lives,” he said.
Like all political talk shows, his is more about preaching to the choir than inspiring debate that might actually lead to consensus. Dissenters, if they magically sneak past Patrick’s screener, are accused on the air of being plants for the opposition or are simply cut off. You step into his world; he doesn’t step into yours.
On one particular day, around the time of the November election, Patrick began his show by telling a story: Senator John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who is the dean of the Senate, had launched an “unprovoked attack” on him at a recent fundraiser. According to Patrick, Whitmire had told the crowd that the Senate would have to stand up to demagogues this session and mentioned Patrick by name. Patrick responded typically: He made Whitmire the subject of his show that day.
Patrick didn’t raise his voice. Instead, he employed an injured, resigned tone, the kind people use when they say that nothing’s wrong but want everyone to know they don’t really mean it. Whitmire’s attack, he said, “was on me and you. Because when I’m attacked, you’re attacked. It’s not an attack on me, it’s an attack on you.” Before long he was turning Whitmire’s influence and seniority into a negative: “Apparently he’s one of those old-line politicians who is afraid of change … There are going to be a handful of people up there who are trying to deny your voice by denying me … If they want to force us to the outside, I know how to navigate from the outside. This type of behavior for Senator Whitmire is just unacceptable.” Patrick went up another octave before alluding to one of his heroes, the Jefferson Smith character played by Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: “Call it what you want, Senator Whitmire. I’m going to stand my ground!”
Even though it might have been time for a commercial break for the Pine Box or Hearing Aids of Texas, Patrick wasn’t done. “You the people are going to know what’s going on in your house. The Capitol is your house. They can beat me up, they can try to tarnish me”—here Patrick paused dramatically—“I forgive ’em all.” Then he jumped back into the fray: “They need to understand that business as usual in Austin is over. So, Senator Whitmire, I forgive you—but how ’bout returning my phone call?” (Whitmire admitted that he hasn’t been in a hurry to call him back. Patrick counters that Whitmire is “one senator” who hasn’t welcomed him to the Senate.) “And you know,” Patrick said, with a wistful chuckle, “look, I’m not mad with John. It’s … sad.” His emotions changed with each missive. Happy: “This is why the radio station gives us great leverage, folks! We have a platform. We have a seat at the table! The drawbridge has been lowered, Senator Whitmire, and thousands of people are coming to Austin!” Slowly, more reasoned: “I’m just going to be above it.” Righteous: “[Whitmire] doesn’t want you all to have a voice in Austin. He wants to be king.”
Because the show belongs to Patrick, he can say whatever he wants. The former sportscaster is obsessed with statistics, however debatable (“more illegal aliens in federal prisons than murderers, kidnappers, and rapists combined … more abortions performed in this state annually than students graduating from Houston high schools”). The callers serve as a Greek chorus of conservative grievances. Almost all these listeners speak in the kind of flinty Texas accent you don’t hear much in Houston anymore, unless practiced by trial lawyers giving closing arguments before a jury of people with flinty Texas accents.
Patrick is also exceedingly gifted at spin. He’s long tried to attract African Americans to his program. “I’ve always said that when black Americans start voting for two parties, that’s when black Americans will have real power,” he told me. “As long as they vote as a bloc, the Democrats will take them for granted and the Republicans will ignore them.” He swaddles his border baiting in concern for Hispanic Americans. Thus, he will say on the radio, “We are going to be overrun by the masses coming here. By 2050 we could have over one hundred million people with no sense of our history, no sense of our culture, no sense of our language … Your property taxes will never go down as long as a fourteen-year-old can show up at the schoolhouse and we pay … And that student is destined to drop out anyway.” But then he adds, “I do not want to see racism raise its ugly head in America again. If we do not solve this [border] problem, there will be resentment in America.”
All of this is aimed at a narrow audience. Patrick told me his listeners are 65 percent male and 35 percent female, with the ages of the men spanning from forty to sixty, while almost all the women are over fifty. Ninety percent of them are white. “Minorities don’t listen to talk radio. Young women under forty aren’t listening,” he told me. “The nature of the audience tends to be conservative and Republican.” Then he shrugged, as if to say that his content was, then, a no-brainer.
“The typical Dan supporters are the ones wearing the crazy buttons and hats that blink on and off at political conventions,” a GOP consultant explained. “Sophisticated Republicans take their votes but don’t embrace them. Dan embraces them. He touches the lepers.” In the process, Patrick has reenergized and reengaged the base and, not coincidentally, created a constituency for himself. When an elected official charged that Patrick had only 60,000 listeners, his political consultant and chief of staff, Court Koenning, replied, “If that’s true, fifty-eight thousand of them vote in the primaries.”
A lot of people with Dan Patrick’s history might have decided that running for public office was not a good idea. “Dan’s had a lot of failures” was the way one political consultant put it delicately. Public brawls, acrimonious lawsuits, and angry creditors punctuate his life story. But what the Republican establishment doesn’t understand or chooses to ignore is that the dark days of Patrick’s life make him more, not less, appealing to his constituents.
In his office, Patrick keeps a worn flannel shirt draped over a chair. It belonged to his father, and he keeps it there as a reminder, he says, of his father’s goodness. Charles Goeb was an ex-Marine who distributed the Baltimore Sun to carriers and worked his way up to circulation manager. “He couldn’t go any farther because he didn’t have a college education,” Patrick, who would later change his name from Goeb, told me regretfully. (“I never liked the sound of Goeb,” he said.) Dan’s mother, Jean, was a bookkeeper who never made it to college either. There wasn’t a lot of money; Dannie Goeb’s childhood home, in the late fifties and early sixties, was in a blue-collar part of East Baltimore. Patrick often tears up or gets a quiver in his voice when he talks about his father, who died in 2002. He remembers his sticking up for people in the neighborhood who had less; once the elder Goeb called on a state representative when he couldn’t solve a problem himself. “I realize that I’m the guy people look up to, but in my family, I’m the least of any of them,” Patrick told me. There are lines to read between here; an idealized father, a family limited by economics and education. It’s not really surprising that Patrick, who was very bright, grew up with great ambition and a thin skin, along with an unpredictable rage toward those in authority, particularly those who would challenge him.
At twelve he was selling newspapers on the streets of the city, a job that allowed him to discover and hone a gift for persuasion. He worked his way through the University of Maryland–Baltimore County selling advertising time on a local radio station and working as a disc jockey, becoming the first member of his family to graduate from college. Patrick always knew his calling: He dreamed of hosting a game show or The Tonight Show, and in 1977 he finally talked his way into a sportscaster-weatherman job at a small television station in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He moved on to bigger jobs in Washington, D.C., and then Houston, as a sportscaster at KHOU. By then Patrick was married to Janet Lea (a brief first marriage to a high school sweetheart ended in divorce) and had become a father. The couple have two children—a son, Ryan, who is a Harris County prosecutor, and a daughter, Shane, who is headed to nursing school.
Most broadcasters succeed by smoothing their rough edges. Patrick quickly distinguished himself as a media madman; he excelled in a town where the competition included whorehouse-busting eccentric Marvin Zindler. He was a newsroom prima donna, but he also possessed remarkable talents, not the least of which was the ability to speak off the cuff indefinitely, without a teleprompter, which earned him the nickname the Silver-tongued Devil. Patrick also knew how to turn his need for attention into ratings gold: Besides painting himself blue in support of the Oilers, he did sportscasts wearing an oversized cowboy hat, rising out of a casket, and wearing a tuxedo and breaking into song. By 1983 he was the second-most-popular TV personality in Houston. Success, however, did not bring happiness. Sensing that there was more to life than reading sports scores every night, Patrick decided to change careers.
Houston was awash in oil money, and with several investors, Patrick opened Dan and Nick’s Sportsmarket, one of the first sports bars in the U.S. Located in tony Rice Village, the combination bar and restaurant was all polished brass and fine woods, full of local jocks and celebrities, TVs tuned constantly to sporting events. (Too constantly: The NFL would sue Patrick and five other bar owners in 1987 for showing blacked-out games.) For a while the business thrived, largely on the strength of Patrick’s personality, but he soon fell prey to the same financial lunacy that infected so many Houstonians in the early eighties. He bought another bar and restaurant, and then another, expanding, finally, to five. Then the oil bust hit, and in short order the man who had made $100,000 as a sportscaster closed four of his businesses, declared bankruptcy, and watched his annual income plummet to $10,000. At the age of 36, he was broke and bitter.
Trouble continued to plague him when he was assaulted at the bar by another local celebrity, an irascible, aptly named Houston Post gossip columnist, Paul Harasim. Harasim was charged with assault, and Patrick sued both the Post and Harasim for libel, claiming his reputation had been damaged by the fracas. (The man who would later champion tort reform sought $400,000 in actual damages and $1.2 million in punitive damages.) In the criminal trial, Patrick solidified his reputation as an overly emotional crackpot. “Are you in balance today?” Harasim’s lawyer, Richard “Racehorse” Haynes, asked him on the witness stand, and Patrick promptly turned red-faced and started screaming at him. The jury found Harasim not guilty. Patrick’s libel suit was dismissed with prejudice in 1993.
To make money, he bought a daily four-hour block of time at a small radio station in Tomball. Ever resourceful, Patrick built a studio in his surviving bar and started a sports talk show, selling ads to make ends meet. At first he had to recruit customers to call in from the pay phone. Eventually he got a break: The shareholders of the station were suing the owner, a Tomball podiatrist, and the station was in danger of going dark. Patrick cut a deal: He persuaded the doctor to sell the station for the price of the remaining debt owed. At the same time, he talked the shareholders into dropping the lawsuit in exchange for 50 percent of his earnings. Patrick began to run the place in 1988. Six months later, an unknown conservative New York talk show host contacted him about getting on the air; two bigger local stations had already turned him down. Patrick needed voices to fill long hours of empty airtime, and so he decided to put on Rush Limbaugh. It was a business decision, not a political one—Patrick had no thought of running for office then—but the show was a hit, and so was KSEV.
Around this time, it began to dawn on Patrick that he was not a happy man. His lawyers were suing him for more than $1,000 in unpaid legal fees (which Patrick attributes to a misunderstanding), he had filed for bankruptcy, and his former partners were suing him as well. He had always been a churchgoer, but he would later say that he was living by “Dan’s rules instead of God’s rules.” Patrick calls this period his “preseason as a Christian” (“Even though I lost sight of God, he never lost sight of me. He didn’t cut me from his team!”).
In 1992 Patrick became a member of Ed Young’s Second Baptist Church, the venue of choice for Houston’s business-oriented, upwardly mobile evangelicals. As with so many other things in his life, Patrick threw himself obsessively into his walk with Christ, becoming an active participant in Bible study (not so obsessively, however, that he could keep himself out of hot water. In 1993 he drew ire and a front-page story in the Post when he labeled Connie Chung’s program Eye to Eye as “Slanted Eye to Eye”). In 1994 Patrick attended a television-and-radio convention in Las Vegas, during which he got an offer to sell KSEV and KPRC, a Houston station he had bought a year earlier. Immediately afterward, Patrick jumped in a cab and asked to be taken to the Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer, a church he had visited previously, which, this being Vegas, happened to be near the Tropicana, a casino. It was there, Patrick says, that he repented his sins and was, finally, saved. “I felt like a new person after that encounter with God,” he would later write in The Second Most Important Book You Will Ever Read: A Personal Challenge to Read the Bible, which was published in 2002. “I had an awesome sense that God had been preparing me for the opportunity.” A combination self-help book and mea culpa, it could easily double, in its selective illumination, as a campaign biography. Patrick believes that all the miracles that have transpired in his life—a happy family, substantial wealth, a successful career—spring from the moment he stopped “believing in God” and began “believing God.” At one point, he even thought he heard God’s voice, speaking to him directly. His family started calling him Bible Boy.
The deal for the radio stations made Patrick a rich man. Clear Channel bought an 80 percent interest in both KSEV and KPRC for $26.8 million. Patrick was allowed to stay on, and he continued to air the issue-oriented show he had been doing since 1992. However, his on-air enthusiasm for Christianity and conservative politics made Clear Channel uncomfortable. Asked to limit both topics, Patrick resisted for years, and in 2000 he resigned. He worked briefly as station manager for Joel Osteen, who was then running his late father’s TV ministry, before he got the news that his old station KSEV was being sold to a California company, Liberman Broadcasting. Liberman offered him an arrangement that allowed Patrick to return to the airwaves and grow richer by the minute: He could lease airtime while keeping much of the advertising revenue for himself and his partners. It was a great deal for Patrick.
Right away, Patrick picked up where he had left off, haranguing local establishment figures (such as Ken Lay) for their love of expensive sports stadiums paid for by taxpayers and what he called “the toy train” that now runs from downtown to Reliant Stadium. Soon he was also proving himself an expert at new media: He exhorted his audience to bury his targets in e-mails and contribute to his blog (now called the Lone-Star Times, it was initially called Chronically Biased and contained attacks on the Houston Chronicle, which Patrick urged his listeners to boycott in 2004 for what he considered its liberalism). In short, Dan Patrick had made himself into Houston’s version of the tar baby.
A watershed moment occurred in March 2003, when Austin first noticed Patrick. He recounts this story frequently, putting himself, as he often does, in the role of savior when, as he tells it, he stood up to the lobby-corrupted government in the Capitol and demanded that he and his supporters be heard on the issue of appraisal caps. In 1997 the Legislature had passed a law that property appraisals couldn’t rise more than 10 percent in a given year. To Patrick the cap was too high; by his calculations, if the values continued to rise at that rate, working people would soon be priced out of their homes. He wanted the increases capped at 3 percent per year. When a hearing on the measure was scheduled in the House of Representatives, Patrick brought several busloads of angry supporters to Austin.
There they encountered Fred Hill, of Richardson, a crusty Republican who was the chairman of the House Committee on Local Government Ways and Means and a mainstream conservative. Hill believed that lowering appraisal caps would unfairly punish the poor and would eventually so starve municipalities that a state income tax would be necessary. Dropping the caps to 3 percent, he believed, could create in Texas the municipal ills that had devastated California in the wake of Proposition 13. “What you’re doing is giving a tax break to people in upscale homes,” he told me. The burden would fall on apartment dwellers, small-business owners, and middle-class home-owners. “We will become like California,” Hill continued. “Local communities cannot raise the revenue they need because of all the restrictions put on them.” Patrick, he believes, practices “bumper sticker politics.”
Another group was present that day, about sixty elderly and handicapped people eager to testify about two other bills; Patrick’s crowd was notified upon arrival that they would have to wait in the audience. Patrick would later claim that his people were kept waiting on purpose and that other witnesses, who opposed lowering the caps (including paid lobbyists), were called to testify about the caps before his supporters were allowed to speak. After two and a half more hours, Patrick began screaming furiously at state representative Glenn Hegar, of Houston, swearing that he would make sure Hegar was not reelected; Hill says—and Patrick denies—that Patrick later told him that he could elect or defeat anyone in Harris County. (Not only was Hegar reelected, but this year he, like Patrick, won election to the Senate.) Knowing that Patrick had a tendency to grandstand, Hill had earlier asked that a state trooper be present for the hearing. When the trooper took his only break of the afternoon, Patrick began screaming that Hill “should be ashamed to call himself a Republican” while his supporters keened in the background. The trooper returned and Patrick and his group walked out, but he subsequently returned and testified for almost half an hour.
To this day Patrick frames the story as he does many others: Thanks to his efforts, the people were not silenced. Few days have passed since then without an enemy-of-all-true-conservatives mention of Hill by Patrick on the air. (Patrick purchased a radio station in Dallas in fall 2006; Hill’s constituents can now get the word locally.) In turn, Hill’s office is regularly flooded with hate mail. “Patrick demonizes everybody who disagrees with him,” Hill said. “My problem is that I cannot respond to all the people he has misled. I don’t have a radio station.” Patrick has also suggested since that blowup that if Dewhurst doesn’t move to the right, his chances of becoming the next governor of Texas will be doomed.
“That [fight] actually created Dan,” said his friend Paul Bettencourt, the Harris County tax assessor. “That was the crucible. Dan had no idea Fred Hill would martyr his group.” Sometime after that, Patrick started thinking seriously about running for office.
Some of Patrick’s followers had previously suggested that he should run, but he’d always demurred. “I just didn’t feel at peace about it,” he said. “I got serious about my faith in the mid-nineties, and I know intuitively if I’m supposed to be doing something.” By the time Jon Lindsay decided in 2005 to retire as the senator representing the Seventh District, most of which lies outside the Houston city limits, Patrick was a lot more at peace about running. He had a district he thought he could win—these people were his listeners. Though Patrick owned a house in Montgomery County, he proceeded to buy a condo in the district and started planning his campaign.
With Lindsay out of the picture, three candidates in addition to Patrick filed for the seat. Two were current House leaders and committee chairs: Peggy Hamric, a moderate known for grassroots organizing, and Joe Nixon, the presumed front-runner, who had the complete backing of the high-dollar tort-reform crowd after passing its pet bill in 2003. The third entry was Mark Ellis, a well-regarded city councilman. In other words, it was a race that might have looked unwinnable to a political novice, especially someone with Patrick’s controversial persona.
Patrick didn’t see it that way. “I knew the district,” he told me. “I looked at the three candidates, and I felt we needed change.” He also did polling that showed he had an astonishing 91 percent name identification—“higher than the governor’s,” Patrick told me. And 95 percent had no idea who Joe Nixon was. “My competition,” Patrick said, “was one-dimensional. I’m multidimensional.” Patrick had expected to be forced into a runoff, but his polling showed he’d win so easily that his campaign consultant urged one of the candidates to stop wasting money and get out of the race.
Patrick began meeting with all 120 precinct chairs in the district, setting up coffees and promising that he would involve them in the political process—and attend to their needs—like never before. “My opponents had never talked to them,” Patrick told me, shaking his head at their “arrogance.” And, of course, he was on the air every day until he formally announced his candidacy on December 29, 2005.
“We saw as the race went on that we could not start a conversation with these people,” someone from Nixon’s campaign told me about the voters in the Seventh District. “Dan was their guy. They’d had him in their homes …We were like jackasses in a hailstorm. We had to stand there and take it.” Even though Patrick wasn’t supposed to be on the radio—he put his son, Ryan, in charge after he began running in earnest—Patrick would call in occasionally for remote chats, taking the opportunity, for instance, to label Nixon a RINO (with no regard for reality; in fact, Nixon had been a standard-bearer for the conservative agenda—on tort reform, lower taxes, you name it—since first getting elected in 1994). “His opponents did not comprehend the dynamics of talk radio, the media, and the Internet” is the way Dave Walden, a longtime Houston political operative, put it. And neither Nixon nor Hamric chose to go negative against Patrick, believing that each would need Patrick’s support in the runoff.
What runoff? When, at a debate, Nixon brought up evidence that Patrick had dual homesteads—how can we expect you to handle our taxes when you can’t manage your own?—Patrick spun the situation into a heartbreaking tale of his mother-in-law’s death from cancer. Nixon was booed; Patrick was cheered. “Dan went straight past the question to the core emotional thread,” said a member of Nixon’s campaign. Patrick’s devotees drove into the district from all over the county to volunteer; the opposition didn’t have a chance in the sign war. A Republican who did not want his name used told me: “This whole group in Harris County—they reminded me of Dallas in 1963. They are that nutty and that mean.”
The Houston business establishment saw the barbarians at the gates. A group of them paid a consultant to come up with opposition research, and he discovered that Liberman Broadcasting, the owner of KSEV and a $5,000 contributor to Patrick, was predominantly a chain of Spanish-language stations and was so pro-immigrant that it had put up billboards all over Southern California with messages like “Welcome to Los Angeles, Mexico” and even sponsored a game show (¡Gana la Verde!) in which winners received sessions with an immigration lawyer to help them get a green card. Patrick, in contrast, had spent much of the past year and more exhorting his listeners to pressure politicians to secure the border. Patrick, it seemed, might be vulnerable to his own favorite charge of hypocrisy. But it was too late to lob the grenade; polls showed him with a huge lead. On primary election day, Patrick soared to victory without a runoff—and Austin shuddered.
The general election posed no problem, as Harris County Democrats had written off the district. In fact, Patrick’s opponent, Michael Kubosh, was a Republican who registered as a Democrat simply out of disgust for his own party’s abandonment of its far right wing. He looked like a fringe candidate; heavyset, with white hair and a carefully trimmed white beard, he was sort of a Santa Claus for conservatives. After Patrick won his primary in March, Kubosh signed a waiver with the FCC freeing Patrick from giving Kubosh equal time on his station and thus allowing Patrick back on the air. The two men got on so famously that in May of 2006 Kubosh became a $580,000 investor in Patrick’s Dallas radio station. At the very least, Patrick saved a small fortune by not having a real Democratic opponent in the race. Kubosh hopes for the best when Patrick goes to Austin but knows there are pitfalls ahead. “There are lots of demons out there,” he told me. “Some of them have money in their pockets and some of them have short skirts. But I believe if Dan does the right thing, maybe in eight years he will be the governor.”
There is a lot of handicapping going on now about what will happen when Patrick actually takes office. One lobbyist spoke to the hopes of many when he predicted: “Dan is going to get repeatedly taken to the woodshed.” Not surprisingly, Patrick disagrees. He points out that he has already engaged in several meet and greets with senators and lobbyists, trying to calm their fears, and is eager and willing to work with the leadership despite his nearly constant on-air criticism. “My whole life I’ve had plenty of attention,” he told me. “As far as influence and power, that’s nothing new. And the fact that ninety percent of my money came from citizens—I don’t owe anything to anyone. I’m going there just to legislate. I’m going to be a leader.”
Maybe so. But what’s calmed legislators most is that, after branding Nixon as the candidate of special interests, Patrick proceeded to open his door to some special interests of his own. The postelection contributions to his campaign look like the Late Train Lobby Express, with those onboard including insurance companies, hospitals, police, beverage distributors, optometrists, restaurateurs, Friends of Time Warner Cable, and, of course, GOP megadonors Bob Perry and James Leininger.
Patrick will have other problems as he makes the transition from talk show host to legislator to, perhaps, gubernatorial candidate. The skill set is different—working alone versus playing well with others, something he’s never excelled at. His radio harangues against those who toil in the Capitol have raised the expectations of his supporters, and he’s led them to expect change overnight. Patrick could try to maintain his outsider status with interminable filibusters, but that will take him only so far. “It will bother Dan that he won’t be able to get things done in the Senate,” one lobbyist told me. But getting things done will require the kind of horse trading he has so often criticized. To get anything done Patrick has to work with the leadership. Meanwhile, his fans will be demanding red meat.
Which, of course, raises the question of Patrick’s ultimate goals and how he intends to achieve them. He believes that the GOP’s failure last November occurred because the party had moved too far from its conservative roots, refusing to act aggressively on illegal immigration, abortion, and reducing spending and taxes. If Patrick doesn’t see change on the issues that matter to his constituents, he says, he will try to propel himself higher up the political ladder, perhaps to the governorship. “I’m keeping my options open,” he told me. “If this party gets back on track and a good conservative emerges …” He shrugged off that scenario and then added, “If this party doesn’t get back on the conservative path, then we have to evaluate where we are.”
Clearly, he’s already done a lot of evaluating. A few weeks before the election, for instance, Rick Perry came to Houston and enlisted Patrick in an event to inspire the Republican base. (After the election, Patrick would declare that his party’s success in Harris County was all due to KSEV’s get-out-the-vote efforts. “We urged our voters to lead the state in turnout, and it appears Perry did better in Senate Seven than almost anywhere else,” he said. “So maybe Austin needs to think about embracing the conservative principles of KSEV and their listeners, because it looks like that was the only key to success on election night.”)
The venue was a small storefront in District Seven, right off busy FM 1960. The crowd was mostly bused-in schoolkids and drawn, elderly women with tight white perms and men with sagging bellies and sun-worn faces. I’d seen them before, at a barbecue for Patrick north of town; they’d come out for him in a driving rain, proud of their activism and adoring of their candidate. Most of them lived not in the enormous new McMansions spreading almost to Katy—though some did—but in the small slab houses built amid the pines thirty or forty years ago. The group reminded me in mood and appearance of an East Texas church supper in the early sixties. They didn’t evoke Ronald Reagan as much as Barry Goldwater.
In this crowd, Perry, in a crisp plaid shirt and chic color-coordinated blazer, looked as if he’d parachuted in from GQ land. “It’s a great time to be a Republican in Harris County!” he declared, pumping his fist in the air, but he couldn’t get the audience going. Listing his accomplishments—“Education! Progress! The border! Creating jobs!”—he kept looking to Patrick, who had received a rousing welcome much bigger than his own.
“Right, Dan?” Perry asked, turning once more to look at Patrick, who hung back against the wall, his arms crossed and his jaw set.
“Absolutely,” Patrick answered.