On January 23, 2013, the Texas Senate took up a minor administrative matter that would prove to be surprisingly consequential. The issue at hand had been dangling for several years. The 2010 census had captured a changing Texas: the state was younger, more urban, and less Anglo than it had been in 2000, and it had grown by about four million people. While demographers and economists and sociologists mulled how these trends would shape Texas’s future, politicians prepared for battle. For them, the census had an immediate implication: it was time for another round of redistricting. Or another few rounds, really. The Republican-controlled Legislature had produced a new set of electoral maps during the 2011 session, but Democratic groups challenged them as discriminatory. Not until 2012, after several rounds of legal wrangling, did federal judges approve the new maps.
The result was that the men and women elected to the Lege in 2012 represented new districts. And at the beginning of the next regular session, in January 2013, the Senate had to wrap up one last bit of business related to the redistricting. Senate terms are four years long, but the state constitution requires that elections for Senate seats be staggered. Half of the senators serving in the 2013 session would be assigned a four-year term; the others would get a special two-year term.
The matter was handled with Victorian gravitas and Elizabethan technology. John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston who is the longest-serving member in the chamber, laid out a resolution explaining the process. The secretary of the Senate, Patsy Spaw, would produce 31 slips of paper, numbered from 1 to 31. She would place each piece of paper in a capsule and place each capsule in a separate envelope. She would then place the envelopes in a bowl. Five senators, appointed by lieutenant governor David Dewhurst, would supervise these preparations. Then Spaw would summon the senators, in alphabetical order, to pick a number. Those who drew odd numbers would have a four-year term. The others would have to run again in 2014, regardless of whether they had just slogged through an election in 2012.
For the senators with aspirations for higher office, the drawing was nerve-racking. Texas’s leadership had been largely unchanged for more than a decade. Rick Perry became governor in 2000, after George W. Bush was elected president. Dewhurst was elected in 2002, as was Greg Abbott, the attorney general. In January 2013, though, it looked as if Perry was preparing to move on. If so, the domino effect would create opportunities all the way down the ballot in 2014. Glenn Hegar, a Republican from Katy, left the dais with a smile. He was considering a run for comptroller, and his draw of a four-year term meant that he could do so without giving up his Senate seat. Wendy Davis, a Democrat from Fort Worth, folded her slip of paper precisely and walked back to her desk with a coolly blank expression as Spaw announced the verdict: a two-year term. She had just been reelected in November, in the Senate’s closest and most expensive contest of the year, and had been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor. She would have to choose a race in 2014, and neither option was a sure thing.
For once, few people were paying attention to Dan Patrick, a Republican from Houston, as he approached the dais. Since his first session in the Senate, in 2007, he had made an outsized impression. A talk-radio host by background, Patrick had brought drama to the normally staid Senate; during that first session, he left the chamber rather than listen to an imam give the day’s opening invocation. He filed a bill proposing to give women $500 to choose adoption rather than abortion. He turned up one morning with a million dollars in bundled bills, which he displayed on a table outside his office to illustrate the point that a million dollars in the state budget is a lot of money.
That first session showed what kind of senator Patrick would be: independent, energetic, outspoken, and full of contradictions. In response to qualms about the abortion-alternative bill making it seem as if women would be paid to have babies, for example, he scoffed, “I seriously doubt any woman would get pregnant, carry the child for nine months, and give birth for the equivalent of one week’s pay at McDonald’s.”
By 2013 Patrick had amassed more experience and power than anyone would have predicted ten years earlier, when he was just a Houston shock jock, perhaps best known for having undergone a vasectomy during a live broadcast. Like Hegar and Davis, he was considered a potential candidate for statewide office in 2014. In particular, he was thought to be interested in his boss’s job—the lieutenant governor’s office is arguably the most powerful in the state. In practice, Perry was a strong governor, but constitutionally the office is a relatively weak one. The governor can veto bills, call the Legislature into special session, and make appointments. The lieutenant governor runs the Senate by controlling which legislation makes it to the floor. Several, like Bill Hobby and Bob Bullock, used the office to essentially run Texas.
For Patrick, there were a number of reasons to view the 2014 cycle as a now-or-never moment. Since his first election, the Republican party of Texas had moved further right—that is, it had moved in his direction. And at 63, Patrick was older than people would guess. If he wanted to be lieutenant governor, he would probably never have a better chance than in 2014. But he would have to gamble his high-profile perch in the Senate to take a swing at it. Winning would make him one of the most influential officials in Texas. Losing would effectively mean an abrupt end to his unlikely political career.
Patrick returned to his desk and leaned back in his chair, stretching out his legs and slowly drumming his fingers on his armrest. The controversial senator from Houston, in this uncharacteristically pensive posture, stared into the empty vertical space between the gallery and his colleagues on the Senate floor. His envelope had contained an unlucky capsule. He had drawn a two-year term.
True to form, Patrick would decide to roll the dice. And on November 4, 2014, he was elected lieutenant governor of Texas.
From a different perspective, Patrick’s victory had been secured months earlier, when he won the Republican nomination. His Democratic opponent, state senator Leticia Van de Putte, was deeply experienced and widely respected and had campaigned with passion. Her party too started the year with high hopes. Texas Democrats had been on the scrap heap, more or less, for twenty years, but highly publicized demographic trends seemed to favor them, and they were fielding a well-known and well-funded gubernatorial candidate in Wendy Davis. None of this mattered in the end. Davis turned out to be well-known but not well-liked. Exit polls found that Abbott had won 44 percent of Hispanic voters. Republicans once again swept the big elections, by startling margins. Patrick, like all the statewide Republican candidates, won by about twenty points.
But in September, when I went to see Patrick in Houston, he told me that he considered Van de Putte a real challenger. The night before, the two had met in Austin for their only televised debate. It had been a surprisingly lively hour. Like most of the Republicans running statewide, Patrick had seemingly adopted a general election strategy that one conservative consultant summarized as acting like a turtle: lie low, avoid public scrutiny, and don’t let the Democrats bait you, because you’ll win by double digits unless you actively screw it up. During the debate, though, Patrick had been feisty and had gone after Van de Putte as if he were the underdog.
“I mean, we’re friends,” Patrick told me. “You spend eight years working with someone, you get to know them. We just totally disagree on the issues, and I wanted to make sure there were no blurred lines.”
He had taken the debate seriously, he continued, and prepared accordingly. “You want to set the right tone. You don’t want to make any glaring mistakes. And you want to convince people to vote for you.” He sighed. “We’ve been running for fifteen months, and I don’t want to say it all came to a crescendo last night, but it was really important that we did well.”
Later, Patrick observed that of all the statewide Republican candidates, he was the only one who had faced three serious contests that year. This was true: in the primary, held in March, he had faced off against Dewhurst and two other well-positioned candidates—land commissioner Jerry Patterson and agriculture commissioner Todd Staples—and placed first, with 41 percent of the vote. He then proceeded to a runoff with Dewhurst, who had placed second, and won.
It was also true, although Patrick didn’t say it, that the lieutenant governor’s race had been unusually acrimonious. The primary had been hard fought, and tensions between the candidates were apparent. In the runoff it became explicitly personal after Patterson, who placed last in the primary, basically went on a rampage. He accused Patrick of dodging the draft. He compared him to the Louisiana demagogue Huey Long. He noted that in the eighties Patrick had hired unauthorized immigrants to work in the sports bars he owned, and that when the sports bars went under, he had filed for bankruptcy and walked away from more than $800,000 of debt. He called Patrick a liar, repeatedly, and added that he, Patterson, would never vote for a liar.
Patterson’s disdain was clearly genuine. Many conservatives quietly agreed with some of his criticisms. And Patrick’s indignation, in response, elided the fact that he has spent some time on the low road himself. The most notorious example of that came in 2012, when he was supporting Dewhurst’s bid for the Republican Senate nomination. Ted Cruz, at that point still largely unknown, had agreed to an interview on Patrick’s radio station, KSEV. The result was a contentious interview that struck many conservatives as a seriously dirty trick. Cruz held his own and went on to win the nomination, but it’s well-known that he was pretty angry about the episode.
This year, though, Patterson’s attacks on Patrick may have backfired, especially once it was reported, in May, that Patrick had been hospitalized for mental health issues in the eighties. The story was never officially attributed to Patrick’s critics, but it surely helped corroborate the impression among certain primary voters that a conservative was being targeted unfairly by the media and by the Republican establishment.
Van de Putte never went after Patrick’s personal life or health history, but during the debate she had been sharply critical of his record and character. She had taken him to task over his refusal to release his tax returns, charged him with having a habit of saying one thing and doing another, and accused him of using “harsh rhetoric and the politics of fear” in discussing illegal immigration. The next day, in Houston, it seemed that the latter argument had scuffed Patrick’s ego. Border security and illegal immigration have been among his major concerns for years, and they had been a focus of his campaign for lieutenant governor; during the primary, for example, his website declared “Stop the illegal invasion.” He gave a more nuanced view, though, when I asked him to elaborate on the nature of the threat posed by a relatively porous border.
“We have a real threat—not a hypothetical situation—a real threat from terrorists potentially crossing the border,” he said, “and for the governor and lieutenant governor not to take that threat seriously would be dereliction of duty.” Beyond the risk of terrorism, he said, there was the danger of crime: between 2008 and 2012, some 140,000 people had been arrested in Texas who were in the state illegally. Altogether their rap sheets listed 447,000 crimes committed in Texas and elsewhere, including more than 5,000 rapes and 2,000 murders.
Still, most of the unauthorized immigrants in Texas are economic migrants. I said I was concerned that discussions about border security sometimes conflate the two groups, which is unhelpful, if only because it could dilute law enforcement efforts to protect Texans from the criminal element that does exist.
“Well, that’s why we need to have a secure border. No one should be coming across, because your point is exactly right. We can get distracted and overwhelmed.” That was one of the reasons that the state had expanded law enforcement operations this summer, he noted, in response to the influx of Central American migrants, many of them unaccompanied children, to the Rio Grande Valley sector. “But the drug cartels and potential terrorists take advantage of blending in with the crowd,” he continued. “I understand and empathize with a person south of the border who feels like they have no future unless they come to America. But you have to come here legally.” The federal government’s approach, he added, was de facto amnesty that put immigrants at risk too—some would die in the desert; some would be extorted or sexually assaulted.
“I feel like your tone here has been a little bit more gentle than it has been at times during this campaign,” I said, turning to my next question, “and I credit my questions for that.”
“Okay,” said Patrick, acknowledging the teasing comment. But then he reconsidered. “Well, let me go back, though. I hear that a lot [about my tone] and I’m going to challenge you on that.” He was affable but firm. “What I just said to you I have said for fifteen months, but the media—and I’m not criticizing you for it, because I haven’t read anything that you’ve written about me—but the media consistently doesn’t report that accurately. I’ve read over and over, ‘Well, Dan has changed his tone.’ I haven’t changed my tone one bit. I’ve had this exact message for fifteen months.”
When Van de Putte had raised the issue the night before, Patrick responded by quoting an editorial that Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, a Democratic senator from McAllen, had written about the unaccompanied children. Hinojosa had summarized the situation as “a humanitarian crisis,” presenting a number of difficulties. “People are expressing concerns about child endangerment, unsanitary conditions, and the lives of immigrant children being at risk,” Hinojosa wrote. But equally important, he continued, were the “public health risks from diseases” and the “local economic impact of quickly depleting resources” in the state.
“I read it and thought, ‘Did I write that?’” Patrick told me. “[Hinojosa] wrote that back in June, and I can tell you, I think he had real concerns. That’s my opinion. But when I read that to her”—meaning Van de Putte—“she came back and said, ‘Well, Dan Patrick has used harsh language like “diseases.” ’ Like she wasn’t even listening.”
Hinojosa had, in fact, gone on to say that although Mexico’s health care infrastructure is relatively strong, the same is not true in Central America and that immigrants from those countries often carry “invisible” diseases. He cited tuberculosis, measles, and hepatitis as particular concerns. But Patrick himself, I noted, had made similar claims. In 2006 he was quoted in the Texas Observer warning that unauthorized immigrants may carry “Third World diseases” such as polio and leprosy. I added that I thought both he and Hinojosa were overstating the risks: a Texan is more likely to get leprosy from an armadillo than an immigrant, and although measles has recently reappeared in the state, it’s the result of people declining to vaccinate their kids.
“Right,” said Patrick. “But, Erica, I didn’t bring this up. In 2006 I was quoting a Centers for Disease Control report. And in this race, I’ve never brought it up—except when I was asked.” He continued, sounding indignant. “And the media would report it as ‘Well, Dan Patrick’s talking about diseases!’ They were really talking about something I said in 2006. And they never said, ‘Well, Dan said that eight years ago, and he was quoting the CDC, which is a nonpartisan group in Atlanta,’ as you know.”
Things had changed, Patrick added, since the Ellis Island days. Back then, any immigrant who was sick on arrival was summarily sent back—and yet now his opponents and the media were giving him a hard time for even suggesting that global immigration might present some public health considerations. “So tell me,” he said. “I think you owe it to me in this interview to tell me—you say I’ve changed my tone. Tell me where I have not been consistent on this issue.”
“You also said that you think ISIS is crossing the border,” I responded.
“I said that they’re threatening to cross the border,” Patrick countered, correctly. During the debate, he had said that “ISIS threatens us today,” and a few days later, his campaign would release an ad saying that ISIS was “threatening” to cross the border. However, there is no evidence that such a threat exists, and the suggestion had struck me as unlikely.
“Why would they do that?” I asked. “That would be so inefficient.”
“I don’t know, Erica,” he said loftily. “Can you guarantee the people of Texas that ISIS is not going to cross the border?” Then he added, less loftily, “What do you mean—inefficient?” I argued back. “Why would you leave a conflict zone in Syria, travel across the world, and try to enter the United States via Mexico? Especially when a lot of ISIS supporters are British nationals and could just fly to JFK?”
“Maybe,” said Patrick. “Maybe they can, maybe they can’t. I’m not going to debate—Erica, you are too smart to take the position of ‘We don’t have to worry about ISIS.’ To say that would be naive.”
“I wouldn’t put it that way,” I said.
“So what’s your suggestion? Just let people in? The terrorists and the drug cartels aren’t interested in coming across legally,” Patrick said. “And that’s my point. If you secure the border to the best of your ability and create this legal pathway for people to come here to work—exactly what you’re saying—the honest people will do that. But you’re always going to have the drug cartels and potential terrorists wanting to cross the border.”
Patrick continued. “To say, as the president of the United States or the governor or lieutenant governor of Texas, ‘You know, they can come here legally, we don’t have to worry about them crossing the southern border—’ ”
He let the comment hang in the air. I had the sense that he wanted me to reflect on how serious he was, or possibly to reproach myself for being so cavalier. Instead, I reflected on Patrick’s peculiar talent for getting distracted, and the problems that that might cause him. He has the capacity to do good things for Texas. During his years in the Senate he’s proved himself to be hardworking, passionate, and willing to fight for ideas he cares about. For that matter, I could understand why he would be sensitive and defensive. Over the years he has been dismissed and derided to a greater degree than most officeholders and often, in my view, unfairly.
On the other hand, politics is a rough business. Egos get bruised. Patrick himself had thrown plenty of elbows. On that day in September, he had every reason to feel good about his professional trajectory. Within months he would be in a position to do influential work on the many serious issues that he is concerned about. And yet he had just derailed an interview to debate a mildly pointed but reasonable observation.
Since the primary there has been a lot of speculation about how Patrick will shape the Senate—and some concern over whether the Senate will lose its standing as the more tempered chamber. But a review of the record shows that Patrick has been talking about mainstream Republican issues—property taxes, border security, education reform—all along, and despite campaigning as the “true” conservative in the race, he may not be as extreme as he seems. On fiscal issues, for example, Patrick positioned himself to Dewhurst’s right: he voted against the budget bill in 2013 and was summarily endorsed by Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, the right-wing group helmed by Michael Quinn Sullivan. But in fact, at various times Patrick has proposed a number of things that would necessarily expand government spending: paying teachers more, creating incentives for math and science teachers, paying for school employees to receive gun safety training, sponsoring more residency slots for doctors, providing more funding for children’s health care, figuring out a long-term financing stream for the water plan, and supporting a protracted National Guard presence on the border. And although he voted against the final version of the budget bill in 2013, he had voted for earlier iterations—including the Senate version that was larger than the one ultimately sent back by the House.
At the time, his vote had seemed like a political gambit. Patrick could work on the budget for most of the session and then end up voting against it to score points. The budget would easily pass anyway. But when asked, he said that his opposition was his way of protesting specific discrepancies. “There were a lot of different things in the bill that changed at the very last second that, let’s just say, surprised me in conference,” he said, meaning the conference committee process, in which a small group of representatives and senators meet to hash out lingering disagreements. He declined to elaborate on the record, but at no point did he say that he voted against the budget because it was too large.
Meanwhile, Patrick has consistently called for lower taxes, specifically lower property taxes, and he was breezy when I asked him which areas of government spending should be cut to make up for it. “Remember, we don’t have a statewide property tax. We don’t collect that money. So it’s the local governments that would have to adjust.” Taken together, Patrick’s stated goals are mathematically dubious, but they don’t suggest a scorched-earth approach to government. Unlike some conservatives, he comes across as someone who’s actually interested in public service.
If Patrick’s wonkish side has been underreported, it’s partly his own fault. He isn’t the first tea party–type Republican to have won high office in Texas by attacking the party establishment. Cruz beat him to it in 2012—as did Perry, arguably, in his 2010 primary against Kay Bailey Hutchison. But Perry was already the incumbent governor at that point, and Cruz had served as Abbott’s solicitor general. Patrick is the first of the top-tier antiestablishment Republicans who actually is an outsider.
He campaigned as such in 2006 and has maintained that stance as a senator. There was a slight swing in 2012, when he backed Dewhurst, and the next year, when, as chair of public education, he shepherded several major reform bills through the Senate and saw them pass with bipartisan support. But even in 2013 Patrick found time to pick a few fights. He authored and passed a bill that dismantled CSCOPE, a public-school curriculum used primarily in rural districts; Thomas Ratliff, a moderate Republican who serves on the State Board of Education, described Patrick’s actions as “twenty-first-century book burning.” In April he attempted to recall a bill authored by Republican senator Kel Seliger that sought to require greater disclosure of “dark money” campaign contributions; Seliger was annoyed, especially because Patrick had voted for the bill just a few hours before. His last-minute vote against the budget was met with exasperation by Tommy Williams, the chair of the Finance Committee. By the time Patrick announced his campaign for lieutenant governor, he again seemed like an outsider.
But just as Patrick is anti-establishment, the Republican establishment sometimes seems anti-Patrick. He’s not particularly close with any other statewide Republicans. He’s never been popular with moderate, business-focused Republicans. The Texas Association of Business and Texans for Lawsuit Reform, for example, both endorsed Dewhurst in the primary rather than Patrick. TLR did switch its endorsement in the runoff, but that was seen as realpolitik—might as well make friends with the next lieutenant governor—rather than a real change of heart.
Even Patrick’s standing among conservatives is more tenuous than one might think. In 2010 he announced that he would start a tea party caucus in the Legislature, but he is not a product of that movement or of the overlapping “liberty” movement inspired by Ron Paul, and his opposition to Cruz offended many grassroots leaders. Since 2012 Patrick has managed to get a second hearing from some of these conservatives. JoAnn Fleming, the executive director of Grassroots America We the People, told me that she is initially skeptical of all politicians but that Patrick had come across as committed and principled in meetings with her group. They had disagreements, she said, but he was someone she could work with. “I’ve never found him to be disingenuous.” And he won many critical endorsements from conservative groups in this year’s primary. Cruz, however, is still the dominant figure among Texas’s tea party Republicans, and Patrick’s ties to that crowd remain strained.
If Patrick is aligned with any of the Republican coalition’s factions, it’s the religious right. He has described himself numerous times as “Christian first, conservative second, and Republican third,” and he has passed several pieces of legislation that reflect his religious beliefs, most prominently the 2011 bill that requires women seeking an abortion to undergo a sonogram.
In addition, Patrick has extensive ties to Steven Hotze, an evangelical physician from Houston who has poured buckets of money into Republican campaigns over the years. Hotze’s influence on Texas politics has been muted compared with that of other major donors. But as a physician whose business empire includes a compounding pharmacy, he has expressed an interest in the way in which doctors and pharmacies are regulated and overseen. Hotze also cares about issues such as gay rights, and he may expect Patrick, as a fellow Christian conservative, to be sympathetic to those concerns.
In a 2012 interview, I asked Patrick about his priorities for the upcoming session. He cited a couple of his old standbys and seemed most excited to get a crack at education reform and school choice. He didn’t mention any social issues, and when I asked, he said he was done with them. He had accomplished what he wanted on that front, he explained, and he ticked off his three signature social achievements: the sonogram law, a bill that added the words “In God We Trust” above the dais in the Senate, and a measure adding the words “Under God” to the state pledge. Still, while campaigning for lieutenant governor, Patrick had been explicit about his faith and taken hard-line positions on issues such as gay marriage and abortion.
So in September, when a source mentioned that several people from Patrick’s circle had congregated at a steakhouse in Austin to talk about a new project called the Contract for Texas, a sort of purity pledge for socially conservative legislators, it didn’t seem out of the blue. But I was surprised a few days later when I asked Patrick about the Contract for Texas.
“I don’t know anything about it,” he said.
I looked at Patrick. He was politely unruffled. Then I looked across the table at his campaign strategist, Allen Blakemore, who is also the strategist for Hotze’s PAC Conservative Republicans of Texas. He had been sitting quietly across the table since the interview began and had just turned red as he gulped half a glass of iced tea.
“You know about it, right?” I asked Blakemore.
“Uh,” Blakemore said. “The best, best thing to do would be to talk to the person who’s working on it—Dr. Hotze.”
I replied that I had reached out to Hotze but had received no response. Blakemore wouldn’t say anything else. “This is Dan’s interview,” he said, pointing at Patrick, who was looking at us curiously.
“You’re not involved in that?” I asked Patrick.
“I don’t even know what it is,” he said.
I took a moment to consider this. Blakemore had just confirmed, to me and to his boss, that Hotze was working on a shadowy new legislative project that neither he nor Blakemore had bothered to discuss with the next lieutenant governor of Texas, despite the fact that Blakemore is Patrick’s strategist, Hotze is a major donor, and the project in question would probably get nowhere in the Legislature without serious support from the leadership.
Patrick broke the silence. “I’m aware that there’s something called a Contract for Texas. I have no idea what it says. I haven’t even had time to read it. No one’s talked to me about it.”
I asked the same question I had asked him in 2012, whether he expected any socially conservative priorities to come up.
“I think we’ll continue to improve women’s health and also save innocent lives. But I think we’ve done a very good job in that over the years,” said Patrick. “There will always be social issues. End-of-life issues are probably one thing that hasn’t been resolved.” And that was that.
“But my priorities are going to be very clear,” he continued, brightening. “Fund law enforcement with sufficient dollars to secure the border to the best of our ability, and that would mean keeping the National Guard there for the long term. Secondly, lower people’s property taxes. Third, find options for parents who have children in failing schools. We have six hundred and fifty-one campuses that the state calls ‘failures.’ It is unconscionable for the state to force parents to send their children to those schools. We can’t expect a student to succeed if we insist he or she go to a failing school.”
Patrick continued to reel off the concerns he would prioritize. The dropout rate. The shortage of math and science teachers. The fact that Texas has more students graduating from medical school than residency spots available to those graduates and therefore loses a significant number of its newly minted doctors. He talked about expanding transportation funding; in addition to ending diversions from the gasoline tax, an idea that has increasing traction among conservative Republicans, he would like to dedicate a portion of the revenue from the motor-vehicle sales tax to the highway fund. He wants to put together a long-term water plan.
“And lastly,” Patrick said, “my style will be totally different than that of my predecessor’s.”
No one would disagree with that statement. But the style that served Patrick so well as a Senator may not translate to his new job.
When the Senate convenes in January, it will be an uncertain animal. Seven of the senators who served in 2013 will be gone, not including Patrick. Tommy Williams stepped down to take a job as a vice chancellor at Texas A&M, and Robert Duncan gave up his seat to become the chancellor of the Texas Tech System. Glenn Hegar won his election for comptroller, and Ken Paxton succeeded Abbott as attorney general. Two additional Republican incumbents, John Carona and Bob Deuell, were booted by primary voters. On the Democratic side, Davis, having chosen to run for governor, gave up her Senate seat; she will be replaced by a Republican, the tea party activist Konni Burton.
The incoming senators will be, for the most part, less experienced, more conservative, or both. Democrats will be the minority, but they may have the upper hand in terms of institutional knowledge and tactical expertise.
Patrick’s predecessors would probably have harnessed the opposition and put it to good use. During Dewhurst’s six sessions as lieutenant governor, for example, Republicans controlled the Senate, but Democrats had some influence. He appointed a number of them as committee chairs and sanctioned the use of the two-thirds rule—the procedural maneuver in which the senators place a “blocker bill” at the beginning of the legislative calendar, meaning that two thirds of the senators have to vote to suspend the usual order of business before bringing any other bills to the floor. Patrick, in campaigning against Dewhurst, had cited these policies as fatal evidence of the incumbent’s moderation and added that he wouldn’t be so accommodating.
When I asked him about this, he said he would at least like to replace the two-thirds rule with a less stringent standard. “The threshold of two thirds for every bill is simply too high,” he said. “It empowers the minority party. When the majority of the people elect a party, they expect that party to govern.”
Bipartisanship would persist, Patrick continued, when Democrats brought forward a bill that Republicans deemed worthy of support. “You want to be fair to the other side, even if there were only three Democrats,” he said. “But you don’t want the party that has lost overwhelmingly to then control the Senate. So I think sixty percent is right. And I would think that today if the situation were reversed.”
But there are also cases where the two-thirds rule is used as a self-binding mechanism, I pointed out. During the previous session, for example, Republicans had proposed drug testing for people seeking welfare benefits. Democrats were fiercely opposed to the idea on the basis that it would be inefficient and punitive, and they used the specter of the two-thirds rule to encourage Republicans to consider some additional testimony. The Republicans, having listened, agreed to tweak the bill to say that in cases where a parent failed the drug test, the portion of the welfare benefits intended for any children involved would be redirected to another legal guardian. Both sides agreed that this was an improvement, and the bill passed unanimously.
“But it’s just a number,” said Patrick. The blocker bills weren’t used, he explained, until the early fifties, when Texas was a one-party Democratic state. Most of the senators were Democrats, but they had plenty of disagreements and began using the two-thirds rule to help decide which bills would make it to the floor.
History points to another reason many Republicans have supported the two-thirds rule, I observed, even though it seemingly works against them. There are a number of issues that don’t divide the Lege along partisan lines; vouchers, for example, tend to pit rural and urban legislators against their colleagues from the suburbs. “Absolutely,” said Patrick, as if I had agreed with him.
As for the committees, most observers agree that Patrick would be hard-pressed to name only Republicans as chairs. By insisting on a more-partisan Senate, however, Patrick is necessarily limiting his pool of allies.
And allies are what Patrick needs. His independent ethos set him apart as a senator and helped him win the Republican nomination this year. But the lieutenant governor is supposed to lead the Senate, not light it on fire. Patrick is no longer an outsider; as of January he’ll be in the center of the room. He may still be an underdog. But he’ll have to learn some new tricks.