A confession to start: the first time I sat down with David Dewhurst, I felt as if I was going to end up taxidermied.
This was back in 2009. My old boss Chris Lockwood, then the United States editor for the London-based Economist, had come to Texas for a tour. As the Southwest correspondent for that magazine at the time, I had been deputized to arrange his meetings over the course of several days in Austin. Our appointment with Rick Perry was an exercise in soft power on the governor’s part, an hour-long charm offensive. He disarmed the British visitor’s question about Texas secession with a joke and a slap on the back, and he showed me a picture of some puppies that he had just posted on his Twitter account. As we left I reflected on the governor’s underrated political skills: he had, I felt, played us like a couple of fiddles.
The meeting with the lieutenant governor was a far more formal affair. After waiting for about an hour, we were ushered into an antechamber to wait some more. On a sideboard was a silver tray with an untouched selection of meats and cheeses rolled up like cigarillos. In the background, classical music played softly. When Dewhurst finally appeared, he cut an imposing figure. At six feet five inches, he towered over us. His suit was elegant, befitting the millionaire that he is. His hair was precisely combed. His posture was as crisp as it must have been when he served in the Air Force, and he showed us some photos and trophies from his days as a rodeo champion. By the time we took our seats at the long conference table, I had already been thoroughly intimidated, and our questions were beside the point, because Dewhurst had already prepared his answers, delivered in a smooth but halting baritone. He reminded us that, under the Texas constitution, the lieutenant governor is unusually powerful, a fact I was very aware of. I don’t know about Chris, but I was a nervous wreck.
The next few years were not kind to him. When he had announced that he would run for the United States Senate in 2012, it was widely assumed that he would win. He was the candidate of the Republican establishment in a state where the Republican establishment had won every major office for almost two decades. And yet Dewhurst faced a scenario that none of his cohort had. After years of business as usual, the conservative grassroots had taken notice of a talented upstart named Ted Cruz, a former state solicitor general who had cut his teeth debating. The campaign was high profile and ferocious, and Dewhurst eventually lost the primary runoff. Adding insult to injury was that many Republicans, rather than crediting Cruz for his remarkable accomplishment, laid the blame at Dewhurst’s door for a poor campaign and for being, well, himself.
During the 2013 legislative session, I covered the Senate for Texas Monthly with my colleague Sonia Smith. The lieutenant governor, aided by a few new hires in the communications office, was apparently determined to present a softer side. When Sonia and I showed up for an interview, the classical music was gone, and Dewhurst gamely hustled us into his office, where he showed us how to throw a lasso. I have the pictures to prove it.
Over the course of the session, I saw that Dewhurst has his flaws: he can be awkward, overly formal, and come across as diffident. But those flaws have been mirrored in his virtues: he has been serious, gracious, and determined to protect his senators, even when they don’t deserve it. I had all this in mind in September, several months after he had lost his reelection bid to state senator Dan Patrick, when I went for my final interview with him as lieutenant governor.
ERICA GRIEDER: Looking back at the past twelve years, what’s your big-picture summary?
DAVID DEWHURST: I ran for lieutenant governor in 2002 because I looked at Texas and, being an entrepreneur, I said, “We can do better than we’re doing right now.” Texas’s economy was okay, but it wasn’t great. Today, it’s the twelfth-largest economy in the world. If we were a separate country, we would have just surpassed Australia. Isn’t that amazing? And we’re closing in on Canada. I was introduced at an event by a Frenchman who said, “We’re glad Governor Dewhurst is going to start doing some other things because we don’t want the Texas economy eclipsing the French economy.”
EG: That would hurt their feelings.
DD: That could hurt their feelings. [Laughs.] But, Erica, every morning as I got up and drank my coffee for the last twelve years, I thought of one or all of the following: My primary responsibility is to protect the safety of Texans, all 26.4 million of them, and their liberties and their freedoms. The second big area is to protect the health of Texans. The third is to make sure that when Texans graduate from high school or college, there are jobs. So I have worked hard to help create the most jobs of any state, right here in Texas. And to achieve that, over the years I’ve tried to champion improving public education and higher education, so that we have a skilled and trained workforce.
I’ve gone on a number of crusades to protect children’s health and protect children against sexual predators. In 2004 I read an article in the Dallas Morning News about how during a two-and-a-half-year period, some five hundred children under the age of eighteen had died throughout the state, more than a quarter of whom were seen regularly by Child Protective Services personnel—and I went on, you might say, a tirade. I wanted to know how it was possible—what was going on with CPS. To make a long story short, what came out of that was Senate Bill 6, by Senator Jane Nelson, which we worked on hand in glove. It invested almost a quarter of a billion dollars into changing the structure of Child Protective Services and Adult Protective Services to better protect our children and seniors.
EG: You helped pass Jessica’s Law in Texas in 2007—named after a girl from Florida who was abducted, raped, and murdered—which strengthened penalties for crimes committed against children.
DD: I once had to preside over an execution that still gives me sleepless nights, thinking about the fact pattern. In fact, the crime was so bad I wouldn’t let any of the ladies in my office see the execution book. After we passed Jessica’s Law, I talked with district attorneys and child advocacy centers, and they said that the legislation has permitted them to put a lot of bad people in prison. For the first time in Texas history, we have a law that stipulates that in cases of a super-aggravated sexual assault on a minor under fourteen years of age, the minimum prison term is 25 years. If someone does something to a child, I have no mercy on them. No mercy.
EG: You’ve also been an advocate for increased border security.
DD: I believe that ultimately we need to address the people who are here in the United States through some form of documentation that is not a pathway to citizenship and is not amnesty. But we have to secure the border. I tried to get the federal government to do their job. The federal government has a constitutional duty to secure our borders. The Border Patrol is made up of many fine men and women, but it’s undermanned—I should say understaffed—and undergunned. We’ve got close to 35,000 police officers with guns in New York City, but only 21,000 Border Patrol officers working along a 2,000-mile southern border, a 4,000-mile northern border, a 1,500-mile border between Alaska and Canada, all of Puerto Rico, and nearly 350 ports of entry.
Finally, in 2006, I became convinced the federal government was never going to do their constitutional job—and you may disagree with me, but I believe that when an administration or Congress fails to do their constitutional duty, then it’s incumbent on the states to take that duty and do it themselves. And that’s what we’re doing today.
Since 2007 I’ve appropriated—in general revenue, not in federal spending—more than $800 million toward this. We have aircraft, helicopters, and armor-plated gunboats, each with infrared to see through clouds and foggy situations. We’ve got Rangers and Department of Public Safety officers in the brush. We ran a surge, Operation Strong Safety, in September and October 2013, and in early December 2013 I called on Governor Perry and Speaker Straus to support me in a 24/7, 365-day-a-year surge. On June 18 they agreed, and on June 23 we kicked off a surge by a thousand members of our DPS, and several days later, we started the process of adding up to a thousand members of the Texas National Guard. There are a number of things like that that I’ve been able to do over the years, and that’s rewarding in a job that doesn’t pay anything, you know?
EG: You mentioned the state of the economy when you first became lieutenant governor. How have you approached job creation?
DD: I always find this remarkable: I’m the only lifelong businessman currently elected statewide. So I know what to look for when I’m going to make an investment: predictability. Every businessman or -woman wants to have a predictable situation where the rules don’t change midstream, and I’ve tried to create that here in Texas. You can put a gun to my head, but I’m not going to raise taxes. We’ve lived within our means. It was tough in 2011—tough, tough. It was one of my least favorite sessions ever, because we were coming out of a recession and we had to cut $14 billion out of our spending.
I looked back at the number of taxes we’ve cut, and it’s a long list: 54 individual tax cuts over twelve years, totaling almost $16 billion. That’s predictability, consistency, to a Texas businessman or -woman—or someone from New York or California as they look at Texas. We try to keep a light regulatory hand for the same reason.
Five to seven thousand bills are introduced each year. We’re careful in passing, to the extent we can, only the good bills. I can’t remember the exact figure, but probably 98 percent of all the bills passed in the Senate while I have been in office have been passed 31–0. Though no one believes you can be a statesman and be effective, I’m here to tell you, you can be a statesman and you can be effective. Ronald Reagan used to say, “What do you call someone that you agree with eighty percent of the time? A friend.” I might amend that today and say, “Unless you’re a Republican.” Some people think you are suspect if you don’t agree with them 100 percent of the time, and that’s unfortunate. A very wise, wise man once said—and I think it’s true—he said, “If you can’t compromise on an issue without compromising any of your core values and beliefs, you shouldn’t be in business.”
EG: It strikes me that in a number of the situations you might describe as tough, your fellow Republicans have been the culprit. The deep budget cuts of 2011, for example, were necessitated by the comptroller, Susan Combs, who severely underestimated the amount of revenue the state would have available for the 2012–2013 fiscal biennium. In the 2013 session, calls to cut spending came from several right-wing outfits that sounded the alarm about a supposed spike in state spending.
DD: I honestly don’t think that the constraints have come from the Republicans in spending. We’ve been facing a strong headwind the last twelve years. When I came in, in 2003, the winds may not have been gale force, but they were pretty strong in our face. We had a revenue shortfall of some $5 billion, later forecasted at $10 billion, so we immediately had to figure out how we could balance our budget without raising taxes—and we still increased funding for public ed, even in that situation. We didn’t cut a dime out of higher ed, which most of higher education thought, if memory serves, was no small feat. By April 2007, we were sitting on a $7 billion surplus, which Governor Perry wanted to send back as a tax refund. Unfortunately, all the reading I was doing had me convinced we were facing an imminent national recession, and unfortunately, I was right. But saving that money permitted us to balance our budget in 2009 and put us in a position where we were okay in 2009. Between the surplus and a few stimulus dollars that were distributed to the state, we were in adequate shape. But in 2011 there was a collective decision that we were looking at anywhere from a $10 billion to a $25 billion revenue shortfall and that there were programs that could be cut.
We didn’t actually cut the amount of money going into public ed. We changed the formula, which had called for $5.4 billion more going in. We actually slightly increased the amount of general revenue going into the permanent school fund, but not by as much as others wanted. And we tried to make that up in 2013, when the Democrats and Republicans came together and agreed on $3.4 billion of new money going in. So I’m not sure that it was such an argument about cuts. What it is really about is investment. For some reason, some people are worried that investment means spending money you don’t need to. And that’s not the way a businessman or -woman looks at it. There’s good investment and bad investment, admittedly, and you never want to make a bad investment, but you’re not going to grow your company without good investment. You’re not going to grow the state without good investment.
Over lunch one day Michael Dell told me that he had moved one of his software engineering branches to Silicon Valley rather than keeping it in the Austin area because he wasn’t sure whether he could recruit enough engineers here in Texas. Now, that’s terrible. By gosh. Shame on us. I’ve been trying to fix that problem ever since he happened to mention it to me.
EG: Does the business approach translate well to government work?
DD: On February 11, 2008, I had a meeting that in some ways changed my whole outlook on state government. Any rose-colored glasses I had were taken off by the leadership then at the Texas Department of Transportation. I said, “You’re calling for eighty-six billion dollars to be spent on highways. Where are we going to spend it? How are you going to solve the traffic problem?” Silence. I said, “All right, here’s what I want you to do: I want you to come back at nine o’clock tomorrow morning, and I want to see your one hundred most-congested road segments. We’ve got discrete road segments that are congested. So show me where those are and what that totals, and I’ll work with you—I’ll roll my sleeves up, I’ll work with you to solve that. How much is that?” Silence. [Grins.]
You would have loved it. I said, “Oh no, no.” [Laughs.] I said, “You don’t mean to tell me you never thought about doing this?” Silence. I said, “Yes or no: Do you have a list of the one hundred most-congested road segments in the state? Yes or no? Five, four, three, two, one.” By the end of the countdown, the TxDOT officials had still not answered. I said, “You’re gonna solve this problem. I’m going to keep bringing you in here weekly until you come in here with a list. I want the one hundred most-congested. I want the second hundred most-congested. All right? And we’re gonna solve this problem.” It took ’em six months, but they came up with a list. We’ve almost worked our way through the first hundred. Now we’re working our way through other segments.
EG: Having studied the budget closely, then, for the past twelve years, are there any areas where you think there’s room to cut, or notable inefficiencies that haven’t been addressed?
DD: I’d make news if I said no, but . . . [Pauses.] There are always things to look at. I’ve always looked at the budget as a dynamic document and as a reflection of our priorities. As our priorities change, our funding should change accordingly. In my twelve years here, we’ve kept our state spending 11.5 percent below inflation and population growth, meaning if you like lean spending and a conservative government, it doesn’t get any better. I’m not aware of priorities that the voters want us to change. They still want us to protect ’em by shutting down as much of the border as we humanly can. They want their neighborhoods to be safe. They want good highways so they can get their goods to market and get home at a decent time. They want a good environment. They want good public schools for their kids. They want to be able to send their kids to college—if they want their kids to go to college—at schools that they can afford. They want to stay healthy, and for people that can’t help themselves and need help through the Medicaid system, they want access to care and good hospitals. So those are all priorities that I’ve constantly worked on over the years.
EG: Those were not priorities in this year’s rounds of primaries and runoffs, though.
DD: Well, the border question has been a priority in a lot of Republican primaries. There’s been some talk about public education and higher education. But keep in mind, a lot of the debates and the events, at least in the Republican primary and the Republican runoff, were run by different political organizations—tea party groups, different Republican groups—and what was talked about was generally what the people sponsoring that event wanted to talk about. It wasn’t necessarily what the candidates wanted to talk about. That’s why the flavor was so conservative.
EG: Are you feeling optimistic about the next ten years for Texas?
DD: I’m always optimistic. I’m optimistic to a fault. It’s one of my strengths and one of my weaknesses. I think Texans are such good people that they’re going to rise to any challenge. I don’t have that confidence in the other 49 states and Washington, but I do have that confidence in Texas. It’s been said that the Legislature is a great teacher. I’ve learned a lot of patience. I’ve learned a lot of consensus-building. Because I respect everyone here. They all got elected. They’re all loved by their constituents and/or their families, and they all have their point of view. I may disagree with them in certain areas, but I respect ’em, you know? And if you have that attitude, and you realize that everybody has something good to contribute—that even though the final product is going to be a Republican, conservative bill, everybody has things they can offer to improve it—then that buy-in will produce a better product, I think.
EG: I’m touched by your optimism. Maybe it’s a lack of patience on my part, but it just seems very gracious of you to take that view of it.
DD: The election was then, today is now. I’ll tell you what I am worried about. Some of my Democrat friends tell me that the reason the Democratic National Committee is active in Texas is because Texas has such a low voter turnout. The total turnout in the runoff was 7.01 percent of all registered voters, and that 7.01 percent included Democrats and Republicans. By contrast, 39 percent of voters in Afghanistan voted in that country’s elections this year, as did 73 percent of the voters in South Africa and 66 percent of the voters in India.
Now, I realize we’re talking about big elections versus a runoff, but normally in Texas your Republican primary and your runoff decide most if not all of your statewide elected officials. That’s certainly been true in recent years. We’ve set ourselves up to where only a small, organized minority votes. And I’m not talking about the tea party; I happen to believe in virtually all, if not all, the principles of the tea party. But we’ve got to get more people to realize that their vote counts.
I may have to—as soon as I’ve earned back some of the dollars it cost me to serve as lieutenant governor—I may have to devote myself to trying to remind people how important it is to vote. I don’t think any of us in public life has any problem having the voters decide, but when nobody turns up, that’s an ominous shadow over Texas.
EG: What will cause people to turn out?
DD: Excitement over candidates. Feeling that their vote counts. You know, what I find effective with teenagers is this: “Okay, in 2000, how many votes did Al Gore lose the election by to George Bush?” And people guess “five hundred thousand” or “two million.” I say, “No, no, no, no, no, no! It’s less than six hundred!” Remember Dade County?
EG: I remember.
DD: If Al Gore had picked up another six hundred votes, we would have had a completely different history from January 2001 through January 2009. Fascinating! Scary!
I think democracy only works if you have the people involved. People need to vote. They need to care enough to just do a little bit of research and to just kind of listen and find out what the differences between the candidates are. Otherwise, you could have a small group of crazy Democrats who could hijack an election just as easily as the opposite. The people need to be involved. I’m serving for the people of Texas, and it doesn’t really hurt my feelings, but it makes me sad when they don’t vote.
EG: Well, you should be optimistic, then, about the DNC’s being here, because maybe they’ll try to create some more-competitive elections.
DD: That’s right.
EG: Which would be good for both parties.
DD: That’s right! You’re 100 percent right. I totally agree with you.
EG: Okay. So then, can I ask you about Dan Patrick?
DD:[Laughs.] No, no. [Pauses.] But I am working as hard as I can on making sure that a good base budget that conservatives will like will be presented to the Senate and the House in January. I want the transition to be as seamless as possible. I wish Dan Patrick the best, and I want him to do well, because if he does, then that means the senators have done well and the state’s done well. My only advice to Dan would be, “Remember, it’s not you: it’s the senators. If the senators do well, you will do well.” That’s always been my guiding principle.