With a wireless microphone attached to his striped tie, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick was striding across the stage at a Texas Public Policy Foundation event in Austin, describing a legislative agenda that ranged from pushing a bill to limit access to gender-specific bathrooms to efforts to limit property tax increases by capping local government spending. Sitting in the audience, listening intently, was Kristin Tassin, a long-time Republican and president of the Fort Bend ISD school board. When Patrick got to the part of his speech where he talked about public schools and his private school voucher plan of special needs children, he suddenly said something that was like a slap in the face to Tassin. “We’re having a bit of a battle with educrats,” Patrick said. “That’s not teachers. That’s not even principals or good superintendents. It’s educrats who have forgotten that it should be about the kids and not about the adults.”
Leaving the meeting angry, Tassin stormed up to her hotel room and dashed off an open letter to Patrick for the Houston Chronicle, declaring that she was a mother of three children in public schools, an elected official, and—“contrary to what you may believe”—she and people like her are not “educrats.” She blasted Patrick for a school finance system that favors the state Legislature over local taxpayers. Tassin said she and her husband have been advocates for mainstreaming special needs children, because one of their daughters was born with Down syndrome. Patrick’s proposal was for a private school voucher program for special needs children. Tassin said most private schools do not accept special needs children, and the ones that do accept only that population so that the children do not receive a mainstream education. “As a parent of a child with a disability, I am frustrated when I hear start leaders use my child as an excuse to support school vouchers,” Tassin wrote. As lieutenant governor, Patrick is the presiding officer of the state Senate, and Tassin told him, “I’ll see you in Austin.”
A year later, that may become more true than Patrick would have imagined. Tassin is now running for a seat in the state Senate, and she is just one candidate in a growing coalition of education and business groups that want to roll back the social conservative agenda of Patrick and Governor Greg Abbott. And recognizing the ineffectiveness of the Texas Democratic Party, they are concentrating their efforts on the upcoming March Republican primaries instead of betting on candidates in the general election. “There is a perfect storm brewing, and it goes a lot deeper than just a vouchers vote,” Tassin told me. “What really led me to step into this race is I really see this past session as an indicator of failed leadership and, often, particularly in the Senate.”
This is, at best, a loose coalition. Some by law are restricted to urging people to vote based on certain issues, while others are gathering money to put behind candidates who will clip Patrick’s dominance in the Senate. If they just pick up a few seats, Patrick will no longer be able to steamroll controversial bathroom bills and school voucher bills through the Senate, because he will lack the procedural votes needed to bring the legislation to the floor for debate.
For Patrick, it’s not so much that they are conspiring against him as much as it is like the old saying, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.” Unlike the organization of the Democratic Party, this loose coalition does not demand issue purity, but it is trying to get support for candidates who support a broad agenda for growing the state’s economy, creating real property tax reform, and adequately financing public education.
On the business side, the North Texas Advocacy Coalition is a group of businesses and Chambers of Commerce that are merely urging their members and employees to vote in the upcoming primaries. Members of the coalition include, American Airlines, AT&T, BNSF Railway, Fidelity Investments and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “During the last session, we saw the true power that our region’s stakeholders can wield when we all work together for a common cause,” James D. Spaniolo, president and CEO of the North Texas Commission, said in a news release announcing the affiliated coalition. “Our goal for the coalition is to keep Texas, and North Texas, business friendly, to support our municipalities and higher education institutions, and to ensure that the businesses that have moved here in the past several years feel welcomed.”
Patrick’s bathroom bill was seen by many businesses across Texas as harmful to the state’s economic climate because it appeared to discriminate against transgender people. That likely was going to lead to economic boycotts of Texas as well as make it difficult to recruit and retain younger employees for the state’s growing businesses. The North Texas Commission opposed any bill that would “damage Texas’s reputation as a ‘business friendly’ state.”
One of the main groups that fought against the bathroom bill was the Texas Association of Business, and its political committee currently is evaluating which candidates to support in the primaries. “You’re seeing more and more business leaders engaged in this election—this time in the primaries in particular—than you probably ever had,” TAB President Chris Wallace told me. He said the leaders are motivated because “we had such a divisive time” during the 2017 legislative sessions.
Most of the TAB endorsements will be made over the next several weeks, but the group already has endorsed state Representative Cindy Burkett in her Republican primary challenge to incumbent Senator Bob Hall. In the TAB scorecard for pro-business votes, Hall sat at 53 percent and Burkett was at 94 percent, even though she supported the “sanctuary cities” legislation that TAB opposed. Hall voted in favor of the bathroom bill, but it never came up for a vote in the House. Because Burkett also carried legislation adding restrictions to abortion last year, she probably would not gain much support among Democrats. But as an advocate of public education, she already is opposed by the Texas Home School Coalition.
Emotions already are running high. When Hall put out a tweet that he is one of the most consistently conservative senators, a former school principal responded: “No, @SenBobHall, the reason we’re coming after you is because you side w/ Dan Patrick over the will of your constituents time and again. That’s why we’ll vote for @CindyBurkett_TX in the Mar. Primary. We’re not liberals, just ppl who want to be heard. #txed #txlege #blockvote.”
The Tassin race may create divisions in this loose coalition. She is challenging incumbent Senator Joan Huffman of Houston in the primary. Huffman gave Patrick a procedural vote he needed to bring the voucher bill to the floor, but then voted against the legislation. Huffman also voted in favor of killing dues check-offs, which allow teacher groups to collect their membership fees directly from a member-educator’s paycheck. But Huffman’s pro-business score is almost has high as Burkett’s, even though Huffman voted for the bathroom bill. Huffman also received a Best Legislator nod from Texas Monthly for helping negotiate a solution to the city of Houston’s financial problems with its police and firefighter pensions. However, the firefighters are angry over that deal and likely will work for Tassin in the primary. Huffman, though, has received an endorsement from Governor Abbott. We can’t make a prediction in that race until the endorsements come out.
One odd note is that Republicans attack Tassin for having a Democratic primary voting history. She told me that she did vote in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary as part of Operation Chaos promoted by radio host Rush Limbaugh. She said she has been attacked in the past because of confusion between her and another Kristin Tassin. The conservative web site Empower Texans chided Tassin’s campaign announcement last year by calling her an “educrat” and said Huffman “was one of the votes Patrick and conservatives could count on to move legislation through the chamber.”
Empower Texans also said it was “unable to find Tassin’s purported ‘Democratic twin.’” However, Kristin S. Tassin of Louisiana obtained her Ph.D from the University of Texas in 2014. By email, she told me, “Yes, I did vote in Democratic primaries and donate to Democratic candidates while I lived in Texas. I lived in Austin from 2005-2010.” I found her so quickly that I had to wonder whether Empower Texans even bothered to look for Tassin’s “Democratic twin” in Texas.
On the education side of the fight, the bipartisan Texas Parent PAC will endorse and finance candidates. Like TAB, it is expected to take action in the near future. Other groups, such as the Texas Parent Teacher Association and Texas Educators Vote, have more generic get-out-the-vote campaigns rather that promoting specific candidates. “Did you know that 90% of Texas elections are decided in the March primary?” asks the website of Texas Educators Vote, also noting that voters should consider “whether to support or undermine public education” and “whether to privatize education in Texas.”
One of Patrick’s lieutenants in the Senate is Republican Senator Paul Bettencourt of Houston. Bettencourt has asked Attorney General Ken Paxton to rule on whether school districts are violating state law by promising to provide rides to polling places in March and by urging employees to sign a promise to vote promoted by Texas Educators Vote whose “viewpoints espouse a political perspective on education.” Among other things, the website points potential voters to the Teach the Vote website run by the Association of Texas Professional Educators, a group that opposed Republican efforts to eliminate dues check-offs. “No group should try to stampede ISDs into spending public funds to influence voters to vote for or against a particular measure or candidate,” Bettencourt said in a news release.
The director of Texas Educators Vote, Laura Yeager, said the group is doing nothing more than trying to create civic engagement among educators. “Maybe they don’t want everyone to vote,” Yeager told me. “The pushback is riling up educators even more.”
By a small irony, Paxton’s wife is running for a state Senate seat in Collin County, and she could be expected to serve as a Patrick ally. If Paxton rules against the education groups, it might give educators a reason to vote for one of the other Republicans in the contest, for nothing else than possible spite.
At present, I find it hard to see how the loose coalition might help either Scott Milder, who is running against Patrick in the Republican primary, or the Democratic candidate Mike Collier. But Milder already has picked up one substantial endorsement, former Texas Education Commissioner Shirley (Neeley) Richardson. Richardson was former Governor Rick Perry’s commissioner from 2004-2007, and previously was the superintendent of the Galena Park ISD. “We could become a strong professional, well respected political voice to improve public school funding, the Teachers Retirement System, drive out fear in our profession, stop unfunded mandates, restore faith in our public schools through sold, data-driven facts, and so much more,” Richardson said in her endorsement statement. Milder had been her communications director in Galena Park.
Waves such as this tend to crash ashore without much effect. Patrick held the best political hand going into the 2017 legislative sessions with a solid block of Republican senatorial votes to allow him to move his agenda easily through the Legislature’s upper body. But that also made him uncompromising and dictatorial, and he demonstrated an uncanny lack of savvy in knowing when to back down. He angered educators and business, and now they are coming for him. Their loose coalition may not land like a tidal wave, but if only a few votes slip away from Patrick, his agenda will become more difficult to move—and it will expose even farther how much he squandered his power.
(Disclosure, my wife was the chief spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency during Commissioner Neeley Richardson’s tenure. My wife and I did not discuss this story.)