Every Thursday, we publish Bull Session, a roundup of the political odds and ends of the week, penning them all into one overstuffed corral.

This week, the World Health Organization officially declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a pandemic, signifying that the spread of the coronavirus has become both far-reaching and severe. Like the canceling of SXSW, the NBA suspending its season, and Tom Hanks getting sick, it’s an alarm bell for everyone to start taking this virus deadly seriously. But really, there was one dark omen we should have heeded days ago: the moment we started hailing Ted Cruz as the voice of reason. 

The Texas senator became the unlikely canary in America’s cramped, unsanitary coal mine after placing himself in voluntary self-quarantine. In late February, Cruz had come into contact with an unidentified man at the Conservative Political Action Conference who later tested positive for the coronavirus. Cruz wrote in a statement that his exposure was limited to “a brief conversation and a handshake” and that he wasn’t exhibiting any symptoms. But self-quarantine was a common-sense gesture that was remarkable largely for its rationality in comparison with so many of Cruz’s colleagues. After all, guys like Florida congressman Matt Gaetz—who also eventually entered self-quarantine—were wearing gas masks on the House floor, joking about how the coronavirus is stealing their publicity, and suggesting that you can kill the virus by getting hammered. So merely staying home from work was enough to have the New York Times laud you as a “public health hero.”   

Thankfully, it seems that Cruz is feeling fine—hale and hardy enough to record a new episode of his Verdict podcast (quarantined in his living room), and still capable of propagating bad-faith takes with admirable stamina. This week’s episode found Cruz and cohost Michael Knowles marveling at what they believe to be the media’s “glee” over coronavirus. Cruz even accuses journalists and liberal politicians of openly “rooting” for its spread and the attendant economic collapse, because they believe it will hurt Donald Trump. (“Is this a ‘pandemic’ or a ‘Dem panic’?” Knowles quips, in what has to be the fastest known example of a quote aging poorly.) 

They also chortle over the media’s “outrage” whenever conservatives, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, say that COVID-19 was first detected in Wuhan, China, mock-amazed that some have deemed it “racist to observe the origin of the virus.” Of course, they ignore what Pompeo et al. are really doing by calling it the Wuhan virus: stoking xenophobic rhetoric that only serves to politicize the disease—something Cruz is ostensibly against. Cruz even plays directly into those stereotypes by joking about Donald Trump “serving bat soup,” a delightful riff on a damaging and thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory.

Finally, Cruz blames “communist China’s longstanding policy of state propaganda” for suppressing information about this disease and for downplaying the numbers of infected that “could be much much worse” than we’ve been told. In the same lusty breath, he praises the response from Donald Trump. This is the same man who reportedly ordered that coronavirus meetings be classified from the public, has said openly that he didn’t want to let sick people off a cruise ship for fear of inflating “the numbers,” and has publicly derided the entire global pandemic as a Democratic “hoax.” We suppose the good news is that Cruz is able to hold so many contradictory viewpoints without collapsing under a total brain fog, which confirms he’s still feeling like his old self. 


Louie Gohmert Doesn’t See the Need for a Little Ol’ Quarantine

Cruz’s decision to isolate himself was made out of an “abundance of caution,” a resource that is renewable, so it’s understandable why Louie Gohmert doesn’t like it. Like Cruz, the Texas congressman was among those who interacted with the infected CPAC attendee. But, echoing his maverick stance on issues like declaring lynching a hate crime, Gohmert opted to break with both his colleagues and common decency and go right back to work. According to Gohmert, he discussed it over the phone with a physician from the Centers for Disease Control. And while that doctor never actually examined him, they apparently decided it’d be fine for him to return, so long as he remembered to “observe proper hygiene protocols.” More prudent types might have limited all nonessential interactions—at least during the virus’s fourteen-day incubation period. But Gohmert was spotted leading tour groups around the Capitol, including one with dozens of kids, because no science is gonna tell Louie Gohmert what’s what.

Gohmert did tell those tour groups he wouldn’t be shaking anyone’s hands—all while braying at them from his open mouth, at his normal Gohmertian volume, in an enclosed room. Still, Gohmert probably just knows in his ever-reliable gut that this whole pandemic isn’t such a big deal. In fact, all those people coughing are just expelling carbon dioxide, which will only warm the planet up and create more plants. Yay, plants!


Cloud Descends on California

Meanwhile, Gohmert’s fellow Texas congressman Michael Cloud took his own science skepticism straight to the source. During a House Oversight committee meeting, Cloud attempted to get Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to agree that the media was “instigating overreaction,” asking Fauci to help Americans “appropriately set their gauge” by comparing the coronavirus to past “health situations” like SARS or H1N1. Fauci happily obliged, telling the representative that the coronavirus is “ten times more lethal than the seasonal flu,” while the flu, in turn, is far more lethal than H1N1. All told, it was an instructive moment, albeit probably not the one Cloud had intended. 


But while Cloud’s embarrassing attempt to “gotcha” one of the nation’s foremost health experts about a pandemic could actually end up rallying some people against him come November, have you considered that his opponent … is from California? It’s true! Cloud’s Democratic challenger, Ricardo de la Fuente, is only now set to become a resident of District 27, months after filing for election there from his home state—where he simultaneously ran for Congress and lost. As the Dallas Morning News reports, running for office seems to be “a family pastime” for the De La Fuente clan, with multiple congressional and even presidential campaigns to their name. But Ricardo De La Fuente’s Democratic primary win, taking 61 percent of the vote, marks their first victory. And while his competitor, Charlie Jackson, has said he would take legal action to “get De La Fuente kicked off the ballot and kicked out of the state of Texas,” he can’t under the current party rules about residency, which allow De La Fuente to run even if he’s only now planning to move to Victoria County to begin campaigning.

This leaves it to Cloud to appropriately set everyone’s gauge on just how to respond to this impending Californian threat. “News flash: My opponent is from CALIFORNIA,” Cloud wrote in a message to his constituents. He added, “We can’t let someone from CALIFORNIA push their liberal agenda in Congress,” before concluding, “Together we will say – DON’T CALIFORNIA MY TEXAS.” It’s certainly smart branding, invoking the meme that’s become a rallying cry from conservatives and Etsy artists alike, and referring to “CALIFORNIA” in terrifying all-caps, as though the very name is a disease. And if that’s not enough for Cloud to defeat De La Fuente, hopefully he can just fall back on having one of the most egregiously gerrymandered districts in the state.


And for Rodney Ellis’s Next Trick…

Former Texas state senator Rodney Ellis ran unopposed in his 2016 election to Harris County Commissioners Court Precinct 1, but he faces a challenger this year in Judge Maria T. Jackson. The contest seems to have opened Ellis up to new scrutiny. Recently, Ellis became the subject of a small, brewing controversy surrounding the discovery of more than 1,200 pieces of African artwork in a Harris County warehouse. As the Houston Chronicle reported, it’s unclear where they came from or where they were meant to end up, although we do know the cost of storing and securing them is being footed by the taxpayers. Ellis’s office says “paperwork delays” are behind the mystery, claiming the commissioner was trying to work out an agreement with a business called African Art Global to display a dozen statues in public buildings. How those dozen statues became more than a thousand artworks, locked up in a repurposed shed, remains an open question—as does whether this constitutes a mere bureaucratic screw-up, or a full-blown scandal perpetrated by Ellis, a known private collector of African art.

In the meantime, as Houston Chronicle reporter Zach Despart noted this week, Ellis, potentially mad with power, has also requested the county’s permission to accept another strange gift from one Jennifer Ransom: a flying squirrel, one valued at $200.

The filing notes that the flying squirrel is intended for the Harris County Precinct One Environmental Education Program, at which this squirrel will presumably educate kids on just how it came to score $200, and maybe how they can, too. And although this wouldn’t seem to be that controversial, several of the comments beneath Despart’s tweet illustrate the growing stigma around Ellis as a “crook.” Hopefully that squirrel doesn’t also end up spawning some new strain of deadly virus. As we’ve seen, that could really hurt his reelection chances.