Ah, shucks, fellas: reset the “Weeks Since a Texas Politician Self-Immolated” counter back to zero. We didn’t even make it to three this time. On November 15, Democratic state representative Poncho Nevárez of Eagle Pass turned himself in after dropping a cocaine-filled envelope with his office letterhead on it at an Austin airport. On Tuesday, Republican state representative Rick Miller of Sugar Land dropped off a present of his own on the doorstep of the Houston Chronicle, when he was asked to characterize his two challengers in the upcoming GOP primary:
He summed up one of his opponents like this: “He’s a Korean,” said Miller, describing Jacey Jetton, a former chairman of the Fort Bend GOP. “He has decided because, because he is an Asian that my district might need an Asian to win. And that’s kind of racist in my mind, but anyway, that’s not necessary, at least not yet.”
A second Republican primary candidate, Houston Fire Department analyst Leonard Chan, “jumped in probably for the same reason,” said Miller, 74, during an interview with Hearst Newspapers. “I don’t know, I never met the guy. I have no idea who he is. He has not been around Republican channels at all, but he’s an Asian.”
There’s a lot to unpack here, and we didn’t get much time to do it. The Chronicle story started to circulate on Tuesday morning. By early afternoon, Governor Greg Abbott had rescinded his endorsement of Miller, and by late afternoon Miller announced he wouldn’t be running for reelection.
A bit of context: Fort Bend County, which Miller represents, is one of the most interesting political battlegrounds in the country, a place where you can watch Texas change in real time at a block-by-block level. It’s been that way for a long time. Way back in 1968, Fort Bend narrowly broke for Richard Nixon, the only county in the area besides Harris County to do so. It got redder and redder over the next half-century. But the county also got richer and more diverse as Houston sprawled, and it became, like Houston itself, a kaleidoscope of races, ethnicities, religions, and classes. According to some measures, it’s the most diverse county in America.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton won Fort Bend, the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so since 1964, and in 2018 Beto O’Rourke won the county and Democrats won control of the commissioners court. Fort Bend is in the crosshairs again in 2020. The Republican collapse there has several factors, but one of them has certainly been the growing political power of the county’s Asian American communities. (Of course, it’s silly to group Chinese and Vietnamese and Korean and Indian Americans under a single label, as Miller did.)
As Fort Bend’s newer residents have started to demonstrate more political influence, the response from some, including elements of the local Republican establishment, has been tone-deaf or off-putting, like when Congressman Pete Olson called his 2018 Democratic opponent, Sri Kulkarni, an “Indo-American carpetbagger.” At times, the reaction has been outright thuggish, as in the case of people threatening and confronting hijab-wearing women in public places.
Miller had a pretty good reputation at the Lege, and to his credit he offered what seemed to be a sincere apology. Chan tweeted his appreciation that Miller had called him personally to make amends. Still, the comments were undeniably ugly for at least a few reasons. First, he made clear he didn’t see Jetton or Chan as individuals with their own records and résumés, but instead as members of an undifferentiated race of “Asians.” (Chan quipped that he was running “because I’m a Rice alumnus, and there’s only one Texas Lege member from Rice.”)
Second, there’s the “at least not yet,” as in it’s “not yet” necessary to run an Asian candidate to win in Fort Bend. In accusing Chan and Jetton of engaging in identity politics, he revealed that he thinks that way. It sounds uncomfortably like a way of saying “white power has not yet run its course in Fort Bend.” Indeed, his interest in the job at all had seemed to be flagging lately—in August he put himself up for a position running the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
More simply, though, Miller seemed to be complaining about the mere fact of nonwhite political influence. And that’s especially repugnant, because as Democratic state representative Gene Wu pointed out in a thread on Twitter, Miller’s district was drawn in the first place to dilute Asian American political power. Miller was made secure in his district by a racist method, and now that it has started to fail, he condemns it as racism.
What’s interesting about Miller’s bad day is how quickly GOP officials rounded on him. A comment like this may not have made much smoke in 2010, or 2014, when the party was less interested in winning new voters. But now the GOP is serious about presenting a more diverse face this year, as a leaked strategy document showed in November. That’s a great idea. But it’s hard to turn a party around on a dime. Miller shows that the response of the party’s ranks to the new plan could be—well, unpredictable. Old dog, new tricks, all that.
Fort Bend, over the next year, could also prove unpredictable. Olson, who represents a big chunk of Fort Bend, is stepping down. Three of the four state House districts are held by Republicans in a county that’s about 21 percent black, 25 percent Hispanic, and 21 percent Asian. Miller won reelection by just five percentage points. He’s now leaving, and his seat will be a top Democratic target. Neighboring Republican state representative John Zerwas won reelection by a comfortable ten points, but then he resigned suddenly. His most likely GOP replacement is weighed down by some unsavory personal history, though his Democratic opponent performed poorly in a recent special election. The county’s third state representative, Phil Stephenson, looks safer, having won reelection by thirteen points.
This was supposed to be a period of preparation before the party gets ready to contest the general election next year. But there have been a lot of brushfires since the spring, of which Miller is the latest. They put this one out quickly.