After the 2018 election, when state representative Jonathan Stickland won re-election in his not-supposed-to-be-swingy district by just 1.4 percentage points, he told the Texas Tribune that it was time to turn over a new leaf. “Look, I still have my same principles,” he said. “But a lot of times, it’s the way that you talk about your principles and the way that you pursue your agenda.” He understood now that “the likability of a candidate is important. People need to be able to present a positive message to the constituents and the voters.”
This was sort of like hearing Willie Nelson say that he was going to put aside weed for a while and focus on the music. Elected in 2012, Stickland has long been the Legislature’s foremost troll, often the loudest and least effective person there. Had “Sticky”—his nickname at the Capitol—really grown up? The answer is: sorta. After six years, he passed his first bill, a measure prohibiting new red light cameras, which is nothing short of astonishing. But on the same day the first bill cleared the House, he won yet another round of national infamy for tweeting at a Baylor scientist that vaccines were “sorcery.”
Stickland seems to judge his own efficacy by just one metric: how much other people are annoyed at him. That’s made him a tragicomic figure at the Lege, where he has spent much of his time killing countless minor bills and making a general nuisance of himself on the floor, but rarely posing much of a threat to the powers-that-be. On one occasion, state representative Charlie Geren, a veteran establishment Republican, tied a string to a cookie in an attempt to lure Stickland away from the back mic.
Tales of Stickland’s hijinx are legend under the pink dome, a canon as vast as Game of Thrones. In 2015, state senator José Menéndez, a Democrat who represents San Antonio, carried a minor bill that would prohibit animal shelters in two counties from euthanizing animals if kennel space was available. Menéndez said he was inspired to do something after a constituent told him a story about her dog escaping from her backyard and being euthanized a few days later. The bill was deemed so uncontroversial that it was placed on a calendar reserved for legislation that is unlikely to be opposed or debated. Nonetheless, Stickland killed Menéndez’s measure on a technicality, saying it would force shelters to waste space on “animals that don’t have a chance.” Politicians are generally averse to being known as dog-killers.
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Then, in 2017, Stickland tried to defund the state feral hog abatement program, which pays out small bounties to reduce destructive wild hog populations. “People should start taking responsibility for their own land,” said Stickland, who represents a suburban district. In response, Representative Drew Springer proposed cutting the same amount of funding from roads and highways in Stickland’s district. Springer was “making a mockery of the system,” Stickland sputtered, amid laughter from the gallery. Springer’s proposal got 99 votes, and a fistfight between the two nearly broke out on the House floor. When Stickland offered the same proposal during this year’s budget debate, Springer’s mere appearance on the front mic to speak in opposition to it was enough to cause bipartisan cheering.
Many people in American politics think they’ve won if the other side gets mad. There are a lot of them on the political right, where many, especially young people poisoned by the internet, are obsessed with “triggering libs.” To paraphrase Dean Wormer, that’s no way to go through life. Among other things, it’s terribly boring. But getting a reaction from people is the entirety of Stickland’s political project. After becoming a national punch line for the “sorcery” comment, he continued trawling for anger. “The Lord will destroy the earth, not man-made climate change,” he tweeted, seemingly hoping to go viral again.
Last week, as state representative Erin Zweiner and another state rep were debating a bill about the regulation of combat sports such as boxing, Stickland walked up to the back mic and asked Zweiner: “Are you aware that the Second Amendment is the most feminist amendment?” Stickland’s chief of staff, who describes himself in his Twitter bio as a “MemeLord” and “monarchist,” was so proud of his man he uploaded the exchange to twitter with an emoji of crying laughter.
But the exchange wasn’t worth anybody being mad or sad or happy about. It was simply nothing, a snack with no calories, empty. It left no scratch. But one can imagine an alternative approach for Stickland. Here’s a guy who fashions himself a committed civil libertarian in a legislative body full of entrenched and hidden powers. He has proven himself willing to alienate his colleagues, to take big risks by throwing bombs. What if Stickland were to think a bit more like a dirty leftist—to think about how power works, instead of making memes?
What if, when the next hyper-lobbied telecom or other industry bill comes down, Stickland got up to the back mic and started talking about what’s really happening—naming the names of lobbyists and the “crony capitalists” the tea party used to say controls Austin? What if he went after powerful targets instead of the lost dogs of San Antonio? Stickland could push the media to cover the Lege in a deeper way and just maybe change the conversations people have about the legislature. For now, that’s a fantasy. One step at a time. Hey, he passed a bill!