You have to admit it: as Texans, we are a little thin-skinned when it comes to getting our share of recognition—or to put it more bluntly, we become mighty aggrieved when we are ignored, overlooked, or just plain dissed. A psychologist might claim this response has historical roots, but it’s 2021, and we are the second-largest state in the Union. Even Elon Musk has packed his California carpetbags and headed our way.
Yet here we are, at the dawn of the Biden era, and a survey of the Washington, D.C., leadership landscape shows a serious dearth of Texans with big jobs in the new administration—especially the kind of highly visible cabinet positions we saw during the Trump years. So far, not a single Texan has been tapped for any of the fifteen cabinet jobs, other high-ranking roles that require Senate confirmation, or key White House advisory positions that don’t require Senate approval.
Sure, if you were left of center, it was cold comfort to see the likes of Rick Perry and Rex Tillerson as Energy Secretary and Secretary of State, respectively, but their presence was still a sign that we mattered. A lot. Obama had Julián Castro sitting at the table for his cabinet meetings. Highly placed political adviser Karl Rove was there, whispering in W’s ear, and James Baker was a steadying presence for both ’41 and Ronald Reagan. In between, Paul Begala was counselor to William Jefferson Clinton. So today, no matter which side of the political spectrum you occupy, you can’t help but notice that Texans hired on by this administration are, well, conspicuous by their absence.
To no one’s surprise, this situation has been a source of some rending of garments south of the Red River. I spoke to several prominent Texans who have been passed over (at least so far), and they expressed frustration mixed with hope that perhaps they will still be hired for as-yet-unfilled positions. None would speak on the record because they don’t want to spoil their chances. Also, they don’t want people to know that they were passed over. One Biden booster who was hoping for a job, any job large or small, sent me a list of administration hires last week with a frustrated note attached: “Go through the list. Is there a single Texan?” He is not alone: “At least one Texan is going to Washington,” is the way another wounded email started, referencing the daughter of a major Democratic donor joining the U.S. Department of Justice in a lower-level position. “Well, there are no people like me on the list …” was the way a loyal financial backer of the party tried to argue his way into consideration for a high-visibility job.
How could this situation have come to pass? As in so many cases, there are paranoid explanations and practical explanations, so take your pick.
Paranoid explanations center on the Texans-are-being-punished-for-their-sins narrative. As Mark McKinnon, longtime Texas politico and creator of The Circus, HBO’s ongoing political docuseries, put it: “Texas Democrats reenacted the Alamo last November. What do they expect?” The decades-old promise that this was the year Texas would turn blue did not come to pass, and there is some belief that Democrats’ inability to pull that off has resulted in a freeze-out. Similarly, some Texas operatives are still complaining that the national Democratic Party didn’t spend enough here to approach even turning the state purple. Either way, bad feelings abound.
Though there may be a grain of truth in that line of thinking, there are probably more practical matters at play. For instance, the Biden administration “had to build a functioning government on day one,” in the words of Marc Stanley, a Dallas attorney and the head of Lawyers for Biden, an arm of the Biden-Harris campaign. (Bundlers are those who raise more—often lots more—than $100,000 for their candidate of choice.) Most Biden appointees are almost the antithesis of Trump-era appointees: they are Washington mainstays with lots of experience in and a genuine passion for, well, governing. But Texas Democrats have been out of power for so long that there aren’t that many with executive experience. If there were a Democratic James Baker around, he or she would probably have already closed on a house in Kalorama or Chevy Chase. The Biden team also has a commitment to diversity by gender, race, ethnicity, and geography. “They are playing four-dimensional chess,” Stanley stressed.
Ask yourself: how many well-known Texas Democrats come close to fitting that bill? Anyone who has experience governing and would diversify the administration? The three Texans discussed the most as Biden prospects are Beto O’Rourke (yes, a white male) as well as former HUD Secretary Julián Castro and his brother, San Antonio congressman Joaquin Castro. The latter Castro brother is now busy as an impeachment manager, and the tenuous ten-vote Democratic majority in the House also makes it dicey to move him (or any other Texas congressperson) to another job. Julián, the former mayor of San Antonio and the former member of the Obama administration, would seem a more likely bet, but he was not very nice to Biden during the debates. (Neither was Vice President Kamala Harris, but she endorsed Biden in March 2020 while Julián Castro endorsed Elizabeth Warren in January and didn’t come out for Biden until June.) Castro also just joined the board of the Center for American Progress, a leading Democratic think tank in Washington, along with Stacey Abrams. Not a cabinet post, but not a bad holding position.
O’Rourke worked tirelessly for the party and endorsed Biden within a reasonable time frame (March again) but has no experience running anything larger than a congressional office. “I have not reached out to them and they have not reached out to me,” he said. (Talk of a run for governor, he said, is premature.) Hurt feelings aside, the truth is that the Democratic bench in Texas is just lousy.
If, however, you eliminate the requirement that Texas must have high-profile representation such as a cabinet post—if we can check our delicate egos at the door—there is better news to be had. The five-hundred-member transition team did boast five Texans, including Oni Blair, of LINK Houston, a former career foreign service officer, and Noel Poyo of the National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders. El Paso’s Cristóbal Alex, a civil rights attorney and president of the Latino Victory Project, will be a deputy cabinet secretary, working as a liaison between the White House and various agencies within the executive branch. Austin political consultant Emmy Ruiz now serves as Biden’s director of political strategy, and Adrian Saenz, a former special assistant to President Obama, will serve as deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. Yes, these are all more political types than policy wonks, but it’s a start.
And it’s still early. Major fundraisers such as Stanley and Houston’s Carrin Patman (currently chair of Houston’s METRO board) can be expected to play a role in the selection of federal judges and this or that U.S. attorney, and there are still plenty of ambassadorships to be handed out, along with some nifty advisory board roles. Houston’s ubiquitous Dr. Peter Hotez is still waiting by the phone, but seems likely to be tapped for some COVID-related appointment. (Andy Slavitt, a White House senior adviser on the COVID response, called Hotez called “my favorite Texan.”)
In the meantime, patience and humility seem to be the order of the day, two characteristics Texans aren’t generally known for. As Mark McKinnon told me, “Texans can swagger—and they can whine better than anybody.”