The righteous is a guide to his neighbor,
But the way of the wicked leads them astray.
At a lanky six-foot-four, Michael Quinn Sullivan is hard to miss around the Capitol. And even when he’s not there, it can feel like the specter of him still is. As president and CEO of Empower Texans, he has been an organizational force among the tea party groups of Texas, feeding them misinformation about state politicians. The man is known as Mucus (a play on his initials, MQS) because he engages in yucky deceptive politics, with a win-at-any-cost philosophy. His methods, like those of the Russians who meddled in the 2016 election, foment distrust in government and diminish the desire of citizens to vote, which then primes the pump for abuse.
Sullivan’s latest political stunt is case in point. On January 28, Empower Texans, operating under the assumed name of the Texas Ethics Disclosure Board (there’s no such thing) sent postcards to voters in the Fort Worth district of Representative Charlie Geren. It read: “This notice from the Texas Ethics Disclosure Board is directed to voters in HOUSE DISTRICT 99 concerning a candidate for office who must disclose a relationship with a registered lobbyist pursuant to Tex. Gov’t Code 572.0531.” It then lists the clients of lobbyist Mindy R. Ellmer, who, it just so happens, is Geren’s wife.
The clear intent of this mailer was to mislead voters into believing that Geren had done something wrong, or at least suspect. Because Empower Texans is a 501c4 under federal tax law, it can do “political education” without disclosing its donors—also known as dark money. Sending the mailing under an assumed name was intended to make voters believe they were receiving an official government document.
If the mailing had been sent and paid for by the Empower Texans Political Action Committee, I probably wouldn’t be writing this column. That Geren is married to a lobbyist is fair game in an election. But the method and means of this criticism was characteristically deceptive. It also does not point out that Empower Texans has had a long-running battle with Geren, because he was an ally of House Speaker (and Empower Texans bugaboo) Joe Straus and, in 2013, carried legislation to require the organization to reveal the sources of its dark money.
This is the second time this year that Sullivan’s organization has attempted to undermine the election. The first was a mailing to educators asking them to blow the whistle on colleagues who helped others get to the voting booth. The Dallas Morning News reported on a resolution approved by several school boards designed to “educate and inspire Texans to exercise effective citizenship.” Empower Texans’ efforts, on the other hand, reek of teacher intimidation.
On the Texans for Public Education Facebook feed this week, Brenham ISD President Natalie Lacy Lang posted a copy of an Empower Texans letter to voters in the district claiming she is violating the law by encouraging people to vote. “Natalie Lange and Brenham ISD are actively involved in a process to encourage Democrats to vote in the Republican Primary. And they are using your tax dollars to help steal the election.” The letter is based on Brenham being among about 300 districts that approved a “Culture of Voting” resolution to teach voting as a civic responsibility. Lange responded to the letter by writing, “It is full of false accusations and lies, and I know of at least two other districts that are receiving the same letter with their board president’s name.”
Amarillo Globe-News columnist Jon Mark Beilue likened Empower Texans to the Netflix series House of Cards. “It’s a well-funded enforcement group that wants centralized power in Austin that it can control, and if they have to spread lies and distortions all over the state, well, that’s just the price of doing business,” Beilue wrote. He noted that in West Texas, the group is concentrating on rural House members who oppose private school vouchers. “They are using their typical campaign playbook—paint their guy as the conservative choice, and the other guy as basically a Democrat by distorting and taking facts out of context to make them seem soft on abortion and a patsy for big government. Their hope is enough voters are gullible and naïve to believe it all.”
Not that any of this behavior is new. In 2014, none other than Paul Burka lamented Sullivan’s rise, calling him a “Skunk at the Garden Party.” “Who’s in charge of the Republican Party?” Burka asked. “The answer could not be worse: it’s Michael Quinn Sullivan. Sullivan is the driving force behind a movement to split the party into its moderate and far-right factions.” In 2012, Burka suggested that not only would Sullivan win in a poll for the most toxic person in the Capitol, he would win hands down (and be proud of it). My, how little things have changed.
Because of their dark money, groups like Empower Texans thrive in the shadows of secrecy and misinformation, using the same kind of loopholes that allowed Russian spies to try to manipulate voters in the 2016 elections. A cockroach that dashes across a plate at a picnic only spoils a small portion of the meal, but almost everyone will throw away the entire plate of food rather than risk contamination. That is how a democracy is spoiled.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the mailer did not identify Mindy Ellmer as Geren’s wife. It lists her as Geren’s spouse. We regret the error.