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PUC Chair resigns

The body count increases.

The chairwoman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, the agency that regulates the state’s electric, telecommunication, and water and sewer utilities, resigned Monday, according to a resignation letter provided to the Texas Tribune.

The Gov. Greg Abbott-appointed commission came under public criticism in the aftermath of Texas’ power crisis that left millions of people in the dark for days and claimed the lives of dozens.

On Monday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for PUC chairwoman DeAnn Walker and Electric Reliability Council of Texas CEO Bill Magness to resign.

[…]

Lawmakers began to call on the commissioners to resign Thursday after hearing testimony from Walker, who took little responsibility for the crisis during the house and senate committee hearings on the power outages. Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, wrote on Twitter that he has “zero confidence” in her after the Thursday hearings and that she “must” resign.

Walker came under fire during questioning for not doing more to prevent the crisis from occurring. Lawmakers probed how much information she had on whether the state’s power system could withstand winter storms, and questioned why she didn’t raise concerns about the possibility of outages sooner.

Walker, during her testimony to lawmakers last week, largely deflected blame to ERCOT and Magness, who testified in front of state senators on Thursday before Walker did.

“You know, there’s a lot of things Bill said about our authority over them that I simply disagree that that’s how it’s actually playing out in real life,” Walker told lawmakers.

But lawmakers countered that she leads the regulatory agency with the oversight of the power sector: “When you say you don’t have authority,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, “I’ve got you down as a pretty powerful person.”

Walker said the commission has “not been given legal authority by the Legislature to require winter weatherization,” a primary concern after the power crisis was precipitated by power plants tripping offline. Many power generators are not built to withstand extreme cold weather temperatures in Texas.

Walker deflected blame to ERCOT, the entity her agency oversees, and added of winterization: “It costs a lot of money.”

In her resignation letter to Gov. Abbott, Walker said she was resigning because she believed it to be in the best interest of the state. She also pushed back on criticisms that she did not take responsibility for the outages.

“I testified last Thursday in the Senate and House and accepted my role in the situation,” Walker wrote.

She went on to call on others, including the Railroad Commission, ERCOT, the Legislature, gas companies, electric generators and other industry players to “come forward” to acknowledge how their actions contributed to the power crisis — all of them, she wrote, “had responsibility to foresee what could have happened and failed to take the necessary steps for the past 10 years to address issues that each of them could have addressed.”

See here for why we all needed more focus on the PUC and its all-Greg-Abbott-appointed board. I didn’t write about Walker’s testimony before the Senate, but the reaction was swift and unsurprising. I’m not going to defend De Ann Walker, but all this is a little precious given the warning the state got 10 years ago and the Legisnature’s steadfast refusal to take any action in response. It’s right for the Lege to call out ERCOT and the PUC and hold them accountable for their failures, but who’s going to do the same to the Lege and Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and the Railroad Commission? That’s on us, and if we’re not still paying attention next year when we get the chance to exert that authority, we’ll let them get away with it again. The Chron has more.

Why is Greg Abbott doing so little to help Texas recover from the freeze?

If this Politico story doesn’t make you mad, then either you’re a Greg Abbott shill or you really need to check your priors.

Assessing the effectiveness of disaster response is a famously fraught political game. What looks like a master class in bureaucratic crisis management from inside an emergency operations center can seem laughably insufficient to the people bundled in blankets outside an overwhelmed food bank. But all sorts of Texans, from shivering private citizens to frustrated public officials, say that Texas’ state leaders failed them.

In the face of a monstrous storm Abbott’s response was tepid, at best. He didn’t deploy the National Guard in any sizable numbers before, during or after the storm. There are no state aid facilities handing out water or food. In his Feb. 13 letter to Biden, Abbott asked for direct financial assistance and help with emergency services. Normally, governors, including Abbott, request military help, money for local governments and hazard mitigation to make sure properties are habitable, and even social services. But not not this time. His request was comparatively minuscule. His office in Austin did not respond to a request for comment.

The storm revealed an uncomfortable power-play between GOP leaders in Austin and their mostly Democratic counterparts in the state’s big cities. In Texas, examples of local autonomy routinely run afoul of a governor who jealously guards his prerogatives to override everything from plastic bag bans to mandatory mask orders. But when the cities are in crisis, the sense is that it’s their problem to sort out, not his. Millions of Texans have nearly frozen in the dark and have been on a boil-water notice, without running water in days.

“The state government must provide emergency assistance to repair water infrastructure, or we risk millions being without water for a week,” Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and housing secretary, pleaded on Twitter. Abbott “failed to prepare for this storm, was too slow to respond, and now blames everyone but himself for this mess.”

[…]

In his Feb. 13 letter to Biden, it was what the governor didn’t ask for that stuck out. He asked for no military help with logistics or aid distribution. He didn’t ask for disaster unemployment insurance, money for local governments, not even hazard mitigation for damaged homes, not even food or water. He asked for no military assistance. Abbott asked only for direct financial assistance for individuals and help keeping emergency services going until the storm passed.

In sharp contrast, Abbott asked for and got massive federal help before Hurricane Harvey even came ashore in August 2017. At his request, FEMA pre-positioned people and supplies, linking up with the Texas Emergency Management Agency, bringing in over 1 million meals, 3 million bottles of water, blankets and cots, and providing medical services to more than 5,000 Texans. The federal government even brought in 210,000 pounds of hay for livestock, according to FEMA’s 2017 after-action report. The Air Force flew 30 missions, mostly ferrying supplies. Abbott activated all 30,000 members of the Texas National Guard. But none of that happened this time.

Abbott was in a different political situation. On the one hand there was a Democratic president in office, not his old ally Donald Trump. On the other hand, Abbott’s biggest threat, as he prepares to run for reelection in 2022 and possibly the presidency in 2024, isn’t to his left but to his right. Florida transplant Allen West chairs the Texas GOP and is even calling for secession.

“My sense is that Abbott is calibrating his relationship with a Democratic president,” said James Henson, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. Despite the human toll, Abbott, say, doesn’t want ads in 2022 portraying him as hat-in-hand to Biden. “The Republicans just want to do the bare essential here, and they don’t want to do too much. Plus, Abbott doesn’t want this storm to be the focus of another news cycle.”

“Federal assistance is needed to lessen the threat of disaster, save lives, and protect property, public health and safety,” he wrote to Biden without mentioning the long tail of the storm, prolonged lack of water, and the likelihood of continuing financial turmoil about how to pay bills as simple as essential as next month’s rent. And potentially worse: the rising specter of hunger in the poor parts of San Antonio and all of South Texas.

With little help from the state, the aid task has fallen on the local government, private citizens and local charities. Bexar County here was one of dozens forced to issue boil-water notices. Now, the city is still distributing water bottles for 14 days straight. Firefighters and fire department cadets loaded 31 pallets in cars at the parking lot of Our Lady of the Lake University on Sunday, Feb. 21.

“We still have lots of people without water,” said the firefighter in charge, who would only identify herself as Bertha. “As long as I’ve been alive, I’ve seen nothing like this.”

[…]

So, FEMA has shipped generators, for example, but there is little need for them now that the power is back on. The usual National Guard and active military response is almost completely absent. At FEMA’s direction, the Air Force has been ferrying water from Joint Base Charleston, S.C. and Joint Base Travis, Calif., aboard C-17s to Texas, according to military officials. Marines in Fort Worth and Army troops here in San Antonio have handed out water on the order of local commanders. But that’s it. That’s all the military help there is.

Asked if the lack of military help, which was out in force during Ike and Harvey before, wasn’t coming because the governor hadn’t asked, a Defense Department official sheepishly responded: “I didn’t want to say that but yes. Usually, the governor asks for help.”

Critics of the governor see Abbott’s political ambitions at play. He is running for reelection and said to be eyeballing a presidential run. And so, the less he asks of the federal government the more he can claim in 2022 or 2024, that he doesn’t ask Washington for help. He can’t seem beholden to Washington, pressed from his right by hard-liners West, or his powerful right-wing lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick.

“Abbott doesn’t want to be seen with both hands out to the government,” said Henson, at the University of Texas. “If Republicans can get away with doing the bare minimum, they can have their cake and eat it, too.”

Absolutely infuriating. I didn’t know any of this before I read this story, and as much as I can’t stand Greg Abbott, it had never occurred to me that he wouldn’t ask the feds for all the help he could get. I still can’t quite fathom it. However angry you are at Greg Abbott, you need to be angrier, and you need to make sure everyone you know is angry at him. This cannot stand.

Biden starts with decent approval numbers in Texas

Keep it up.

President Joe Biden

President Joe Biden, who today is making his first visit to Texas since his January inauguration, starts his term with about the same numbers of voters giving him good and bad marks for job performance, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Among registered Texas voters, 45% approve of the job he’s doing and 44% disapprove. Those results include 30% who said they strongly approve of his performance and 39% who strongly disapprove. The partisan lines are strong: 80% of Republicans disapprove, while 89% of Democrats approve.

“Election season always hardens partisan attitudes. That didn’t end with the election,” said James Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “I don’t know that we ever got out of election mode.”

Biden’s grades for responding to COVID-19 are better, with 49% approving what he’s doing and 36% saying they disapprove. That’s an improvement over his predecessor: In the October 2020 UT/TT Poll, 45% of voters approved Donald Trump’s coronavirus response, while 48% did not — including 43% who disapproved strongly.

“He’s starting out, in a Republican state, with fairly respectable numbers,” Daron Shaw, a government professor at UT-Austin and co-director of the poll, said of Biden.

The assessment of Gov. Greg Abbott’s COVID-19 response has improved a bit since October. In both polls, 44% said the governor is doing a good job, and the number who giving him bad marks has fallen 5 percentage points, to 41% from 46%. Public approval for Abbott’s handling of the pandemic peaked at the beginning; in the April 2020 UT/TT Poll, 56% of Texas voters approved of his responses and 29% disapproved.

[…]

The governor’s numbers held steady, with 46% of Texas voters giving him an approving job review and 39% giving him a disapproving one. In October, his results were 47% – 40% — virtually the same.

The same was true for [Sen. Ted] Cruz: 45% positive and 43% negative in this poll, compared to 46% – 42% in October.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn got positive marks from 32% of voters, and negative marks from 42% — a more negative showing than either Cruz or Abbott. In October, right before he was reelected, Cornyn’s job performance was rated positively by 39% and negatively by the same percentage.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s job review was flat: 37% of voters say he’s doing a good job and 36% saying they disapprove of his work. The state’s newest legislative leader, House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, elevated to that post by his peers just a few weeks ago, still hasn’t made an impression on most Texas voters; 60% said either that they have a neutral or no assessment of how he’s doing his job, while 22% gave him positive grades and 18% were negative.

As the story notes, the poll was in the field during the freeze week, almost entirely before Ted Cruz’s excellent adventure in Cancun. It’s likely his numbers would have dipped if the poll had been done a week later. It’s possible the same is true for Abbott, though that’s harder to say for sure. Even a modest decline for him would still be decent, and this is where I remind you again that his UH Hobby School poll numbers were not in fact bad.

There is one person of interest whose numbers are not noted, but we do have them in this story.

Texas voters are almost evenly split on the question of whether Donald Trump should be allowed to mount a comeback, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Asked whether “Trump took actions as president that justify preventing him from holding future elected office,” 45% said he did and 48% said he did not. Not surprisingly, 84% of voters who identified themselves as Democrats say he did, and 81% of Republican voters say he didn’t. Among independent voters, 38% said barring Trump would be justified, and 47% said it would not be justified.

“Almost all of the Democrats say he should be barred, along with 13% of Republicans,” said Daron Shaw, co-director of the poll and a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

[…]

Trump is viewed about as favorably now in the state as he was in the UT/TT Poll in October 2020, right before the election: 46% of Texas voters view him favorably and 46% have an unfavorable opinion of the former president. In October, his favorable/unfavorable numbers were 49%-46%. And Trump remains in better light than he did right before his election four years ago. In an October 2016 UT/TT Poll, 31% of Texans had a positive opinion of him while 58% had a negative one.

“He has completely consolidated his Republican base in Texas,” Shaw said.

Well, he lost three points of favorability while his unfavorable rating remained the same. He’s a net zero, while Biden is a net plus one on his approval ratings. It could be worse, that’s all I can say. Note that we’re comparing “favorable/unfavorable” to “approve/disapprove” here, which isn’t quite the same thing but will have to do for these purposes.

The traveling Paxtons

Seriously?

Ski bunny

While millions of Texans languished in their homes last week without heat, many of them racking up astronomical electricity bills, the state official in charge of consumer protection left to take an out-of-state trip.

According to a campaign spokesman, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton left the state during the middle of the power outage crisis to meet with a fellow attorney general in Utah for a “previously planned meeting.” Hs wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, was also on the trip, reported the Dallas Morning News, which first broke the story.

The revelation marks the third instance of a Texas public official leaving the state during the disaster that affected nearly every one of the state’s 254 counties.

[…]

Ken Paxton spokesman Ian Prior said that Paxton met with Utah AG Sean Reyes to discuss several matters, including their multi-state antitrust lawsuit against Google.

Reyes’ spokesman Richard Piatt confirmed that Paxton was in Salt Lake City for meetings on Wednesday and Friday, and had “lengthy discussions” on the Google case.

Prior said Paxton also attended a demonstration of Utah’s law enforcement scenario simulator, which includes a wide variety of situations law enforcement must deal with and is used for training. He said Paxton is considering the program for Texas. Reyes said that meeting would have taken place in the suburb of Murray, about a 15-minute drive away.

“While there, AG Paxton had a number of meetings with the Utah Attorney General over the course of several days,” Prior said. “I cannot further share additional details or the specific reasons on the need for the meeting concerning Google as it involves an ongoing investigation.”

Prior did not respond to questions about the timing of the Paxton’s trip, why the trip was not postponed or whether taxpayers funded the trip.

I’ll bet he didn’t. Not likely to be any good answers to those questions. Oh, and did we mention that Mrs. Paxton, a/k/a State Sen. Angela Paxton, was also there?

On the day of Paxton’s Wednesday meeting, the state’s electrical grid operator reported 2.7 million households in Texas remained without power. Water infrastructure in many cities was also being strained. By Thursday, nearly half the state had had its water disrupted in some way. Many lost running water altogether, while others were issued boil-water notices.

“AG Paxton did lose power, but did not leave Texas until after power had returned to most of the state, including his own home,” Prior said in a statement.

Follow up questions about whether the attorney general was back in Texas on Monday were not answered.

A spokesperson for Angela Paxton confirmed that she was also on the trip, which she said “included meetings that benefit her efforts to promote human dignity and support law enforcement.”

While away, Ken Paxton’s office did send a handful of advisories about his office’s plans to investigate the Electric Reliability Council of Texas — the state’s grid operator — “and other entities that grossly mishandled this week’s extreme winter weather.”

“We will get to the bottom of this power failure and I will tirelessly pursue justice for Texans,” he said in a press release Friday. The release made no mention of his whereabouts.

I’m sure you’re aware that I have a very low opinion of the Paxtons, as I do of Ted Cruz and all the other malfunctioning members of our Republican state government who have no call to service. But even I would have expected them to have slightly better political instincts than this. State Rep. Chris Turner speaks for me:

I don’t begrudge people a certain amount of business travel, but come on. This very easily could have been done remotely, and let’s not forget we are still in a pandemic, which makes any kind of air travel highly questionable at this time. And all of that is before the refusal to answer questions about the specifics of this little jaunt. What is wrong with these people? The Current has more.

Have Texas Republicans finally damaged themselves?

Some of them have. How much remains to be seen.

The brutal winter storm that turned Texas roads to ice, burst pipes across the state and left millions of residents shivering and without power has also damaged the reputations of three of the state’s leading Republicans.

Sen. Ted Cruz was discovered to have slipped off to Mexico on Wednesday night, only to announce his return when he was caught in the act. Gov. Greg Abbott came under fire over his leadership and misleading claims about the causes of the power outages. And former Gov. Rick Perry suggested Texans preferred power failures to federal regulation, a callous note in a moment of widespread suffering.

It’s more than just a public relations crisis for the three politicians. The storm has also battered the swaggering, Texas brand of free-market governance that’s central to the state’s political identity on the national stage.

“Texans are angry and they have every right to be. Failed power, water and communications surely took some lives,” JoAnn Fleming, a Texas conservative activist and executive director of a group called Grassroots America, said in a text message exchange with POLITICO.

“The Texas electric grid is not secure,” said Fleming, pointing out that lawmakers “have been talking about shoring up/protecting the Texas electric grid for THREE legislative sessions (6 yrs),” but “every session special energy interests kill the bills with Republicans in charge … Our politicians spend too much time listening to monied lobbyists & political consultants. Not enough time actually listening to real people.”

[…]

Democrats sought to heighten the contrast between Cruz and his 2018 Senate opponent, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, by pointing out that the senator went to Cancun and tweeted about the death of radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh while his former rival stayed in El Paso and tried to marshal his social media followers to help fellow Texans.

“It’s extremely important in governing and politics to be seen doing things,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas Republican strategist. “It’s important to be seen leading.”

Steinhauser said Abbott established himself as a leader in previous crises but took longer after the storm because he “had to find his footing. At first, he probably didn’t think the blackouts would last as long as they did.”

We’re at peak bad news for these guys – and now you can add State Rep. Gary Gates to that list – but who knows how long it will last. It’s also hard to take anything JoAnn Fleming says seriously, as she’s one of the major wingnut power brokers in North Texas. It’s one thing for someone like her to be mad at these guys, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to vote for a Democrat against them.

And that’s ultimately what this comes down to. Greg Abbott doesn’t have an opponent yet (though hold on, we’ll get back to that in a minute), Ted Cruz isn’t on any ballot until 2024, and Rick Perry is a Dancing with the Stars has-been. If there’s anger at them for their words and deeds and lack of action, that’s great, but it only goes so far. What if anything will this be channeled into?

One possible vehicle until such time as there’s a candidate running against Greg Abbott is President Biden. He’s done all the Presidential things to help Texas recover, and he’s coming for a visit next week, both of which have the chance to make people like him a little bit more. This is an opportunity for him as an example of good leadership, and also for future legislative proposals. If that translates into better approval/favorability numbers for Biden in Texas, that should help the Democratic slate next year. The longer the national GOP remains in disarray as well, the better.

The leadership example, if it can stand as a contrast to what Abbott et al have been doing, can serve as the baseline argument in 2022 and beyond for change in our state government.

What happened over the last four or five days, as the state became the subject of national and international pity and head-shaking, could undo years of economic development promotion, corporate relocation work and tourism campaigns.

It makes it a lot easier on the competition. Who wants to go to a failed state? Sure, there is no income tax. But we’re rationing gas, turning off electricity for millions of households and boiling water so it doesn’t poison us. Austin even closed a hospital and moved the patients when they couldn’t rely on heat or water.

In a hospital.

The light regulation here has been a key part of the business pitch. But the dark side was showing this week in the failures of our basic infrastructure.

Electricity here is cheaper than many other places, and it works, most of the time. But at some point, the corners we cut to keep electricity prices low turn into reliability problems. The cost-cutting shows up in the quality of the product. And the product, when it comes to infrastructure, is critical to the quality of life and the economy.

It’s a great state with a faltering state government. The political people running things too often worry more about their popularity than about their work. Too many of them are better at politics than they are at governing. And governing is the only real reason any of the rest of us have any interest in them.

Putting that another way:

Fixing ERCOT will require actual governance, as opposed to performative governance, and that is something the state’s leadership has struggled with of late. Rather than address the challenges associated with rapid growth, the state’s elected leaders have preferred to focus on various lib-owning initiatives such as the menace of transgender athletes, whether or not NBA games feature the national anthem, and—in a triumph of a certain brand of contemporary “conservatism”—legislating how local municipalities can allocate their own funds.

I’m anxious to see how our governor, in particular, will respond to this crisis, because I have never witnessed a more cowardly politician. When Abbott faces a challenge—and he has faced several in the past year alone—you can always depend on him to take the shape of water, forever finding the path of least resistance. I have no idea why the man became a politician, as I can discern no animating motive behind his acts beyond just staying in office.

During the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken the lives of 41,000 Texans so far, the governor first delegated as much responsibility—and political risk—as possible to the state’s mayors and county judges. When those same local officials decided that things like mask mandates and restaurant closures might be good ideas, which became unpopular with the governor’s donors, he overruled them. But when deaths spiked, Abbot decided that—surprise!—local leaders had retained the power to enforce mask mandates all along and that it was their fault for not solving his coronavirus riddle.

I am anxious to see how the governor weasels his way out of responsibility for what happens next. I wouldn’t want to be Texas’s new speaker of the House, Dade Phelan, to whom the governor will likely attempt to shift all the blame.

This is an opportunity for someone to say “It doesn’t have to be like this” and maybe get heard in a way that’s been nigh-impossible for Texas Democrats in recent years, Beto in 2018 semi-excepted. Even if the main effect is to make normal Republican voters less excited about supporting their team in 2022, that helps too.

But first we need someone to step up and make that argument. We know Beto is thinking about it, and at last report, Julian Castro was not inclined to run. But that Politico story also has this tidbit:

“Whether it’s Abbott’s failed response or Cruz’s abandoning of our state, we shouldn’t put people in charge of government who don’t believe in government. They fail us every time,” said former federal Housing Secretary Julián Castro, a Democrat who’s considering a bid against Abbott or Cruz.

Emphasis mine. Who knows what that means, or how it’s sourced. I mean, despite that earlier story about Castro, he’s a potential candidate until he’s not. Who even knows if Ted Cruz will run for re-election in 2024 – we all know he wants to run for President again, however ridiculous that may sound now – so considering a bid against Abbott is the only one that makes sense. I’d like to hear him say those words himself before I believe it, but I feel duty-bound to note that paragraph. We can hope from there.

When the going gets tough, Ted Cruz gets going

All the way to Cancun. Smell ya later, suckers!

At least he was wearing a mask

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was feeling the heat Thursday as photos circulated online showing the Texas Republican traveling to Cancún while millions in his home state were left in the cold without power and water, reeling from a major winter weather disaster.

The senator, who was spotted on a Wednesday flight, said in a statement that his family lost heat and power like many, and with school out for the week, his daughters asked to go.

“Wanting to be a good dad, I flew down with them last night and am flying back this afternoon,” Cruz said.

It was unclear whether the quick return was originally planned, but it wasn’t quick enough for many regardless. By Thursday morning, the trip had already sparked renewed calls for Cruz’s resignation — six weeks into 2021, the senator with 2024 presidential ambitions has also been the focus of scorn over his objections to certifying Joe Biden’s electoral victory, an effort his campaign used to raise money that also led to calls for his resignation and an ethics complaint from Senate Democrats.

Cruz was also called out earlier this week for having mocked California’s rolling blackouts in 2020.

“I got no defense,” Cruz tweeted in response. “A blizzard strikes Texas & our state shuts down. Not good. Stay safe!”

Political experts in Texas, however, don’t expect all this bad PR to stick. Even after the insurrection at the Capitol, Cruz consistently ranks among the most popular Republicans in the state. He was second only to Donald Trump in a University of Houston poll released last month, easily weathering the outrage from the Capitol attack.

“While he may be one of the most disliked politicians in Texas, he is also one of the most well liked — and his base is not going to budge, even under these circumstances,” said Renée Cross, senior director at UH’s Hobby School of Public Affairs, which conducted the poll.

Republican political operatives, however, were shaking their heads at the Cancún trip, even as they questioned what Cruz realistically could have done about the crisis in Texas that he couldn’t also do remotely.

Derek Ryan, a Republican political consultant in Texas, predicted the photos will haunt the senator for some time.

“‘Whether he can help or not, in 2024 the ads will be, ‘While you and your family froze, Cruz fled to Mexico,’” Ryan tweeted. “Perception is reality.”

“You need to be seen as engaged, you need to be seen as active in your community, helping out,” Brendan Steinhauser, a GOP strategist in Texas, said.

“He is a senator, so what can he actually do right now? Most of what they can do is make calls, send emails, make statements … He could argue a lot of those things, I can do from my phone, from virtually anywhere,” Steinhauser said. “But he decided to come back home… he sees this is a perception problem.”

Let’s be clear about a couple of things:

1. Speaking as a dad, I get the desire to make life better for your kids, in whatever circumstance. I thought about packing us all up and going somewhere this week – where, I had no idea – because it did suck to be in a cold, dark house with nothing to do. I don’t actually blame him for that desire, but using the kids as a shield for his own questionable decision, that’s a coward’s move. You made the decision to fly to Cancun, as opposed to driving to a hotel or sleeping over with a friend who had power, or just toughing it out and commiserating the the millions of other Texans in the same boat. Own it.

2. Nobody cuts Ted Cruz any slack because Ted Cruz has earned his reputation as one of the biggest jerks in America. He’s always among the first in line to kick someone else when they’re down – see the tweets about California, or about Austin Mayor Steve Adler and his trip to Cabo a few months ago, which was noted later in the story – so people line up to do the same when he stumbles. He’s also been especially critical of politicians he doesn’t like who dare to take vacations, which again brings up the hypocrisy angle. Ultimately, Ted Cruz gets extended the same grace he extends to everyone else, which is to say none at all. It’s the purest application of the Golden Rule that ever existed.

3. Honestly, what did he think was going to happen here? He’s not only one of the most hated people in the country, he’s also one of the most recognizable. The odds of him travelling to Cancun and back without being noticed were exactly zero. Hell, even his supposed friends are adding to the feeding frenzy (more here).

4. Oh, and did we mention the pandemic that’s still going on? Ted Cruz and his family taking an international flight was a bad idea even without the “constituents freezing in the dark” optics. Go back to the story and review what Cruz said about Steve Adler. It’s almost as if that was completely cynical, because the rules only apply to other people, not to Ted Cruz.

5. I get that the people who love Ted Cruz really love Ted Cruz, but no one’s approval ratings are set in stone. Donald Trump’s approval ratings are now lower than they ever were during his reign of terror, and his sycophants are as zealous as they come. The thing about an event like this is that it doesn’t actually have anything to do with politics or a bill or some other argument that Republicans are having with Democrats. It’s about Ted Cruz doing something that looks to be deeply selfish and indifferent to anyone else. Some number of people who like him will like him less as a result of this. Maybe that’s not a big number, and maybe some of them eventually forgive him. Maybe even those who are done with him will never vote for the next Democrat that runs against him. My point is that with someone this evenly polarizing, it doesn’t take much to tilt the balance that currently favors him in this state. He had an awfully close election last time, though to be fair he was running in a tough year for Republicans. It wouldn’t have taken much to alter the outcome.

6. And he had a HPD escort when he arrived statewide. What a guy.

Anyway. The next time Ted Cruz will be on a ballot is a long time from now. The attack ads will write themselves, but who knows what might transpire between now and then to make us all hate Ted Cruz in a different way. In the meantime, please enjoy the voluminous Twitter snark at Ted Cruz’s expense. Politics is fleeting, but sincere mockery is forever.

UPDATE: Some more Twitter venom for Cruz.

Are people leaving the Republican Party?

Some people are, in at least some states, if you go by voter registration data.

In the days after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, the phone lines and websites of local election officials across the country were jumping: Tens of thousands of Republicans were calling or logging on to switch their party affiliations.

In California, more than 33,000 registered Republicans left the party during the three weeks after the Washington riot. In Pennsylvania, more than 12,000 voters left the G.O.P. in the past month, and more than 10,000 Republicans changed their registration in Arizona.

An analysis of January voting records by The New York Times found that nearly 140,000 Republicans had quit the party in 25 states that had readily available data (19 states do not have registration by party). Voting experts said the data indicated a stronger-than-usual flight from a political party after a presidential election, as well as the potential start of a damaging period for G.O.P. registrations as voters recoil from the Capitol violence and its fallout.

[…]

The biggest spikes in Republicans leaving the party came in the days after Jan. 6, especially in California, where there were 1,020 Republican changes on Jan. 5 — and then 3,243 on Jan. 7. In Arizona, there were 233 Republican changes in the first five days of January, and 3,317 in the next week. Most of the Republicans in these states and others switched to unaffiliated status.

Voter rolls often change after presidential elections, when registrations sometimes shift toward the winner’s party or people update their old affiliations to correspond to their current party preferences, often at a department of motor vehicles. Other states remove inactive voters, deceased voters or those who moved out of state from all parties, and lump those people together with voters who changed their own registrations. Of the 25 states surveyed by The Times, Nevada, Kansas, Utah and Oklahoma had combined such voter list maintenance with registration changes, so their overall totals would not be limited to changes that voters made themselves. Other states may have done so, as well, but did not indicate in their public data.

Among Democrats, 79,000 have left the party since early January.

But the tumult at the Capitol, and the historic unpopularity of former President Donald J. Trump, have made for an intensely fluid period in American politics. Many Republicans denounced the pro-Trump forces that rioted on Jan. 6, and 10 Republican House members voted to impeach Mr. Trump. Sizable numbers of Republicans now say they support key elements of President Biden’s stimulus package; typically, the opposing party is wary if not hostile toward the major policy priorities of a new president.

“Since this is such a highly unusual activity, it probably is indicative of a larger undercurrent that’s happening, where there are other people who are likewise thinking that they no longer feel like they’re part of the Republican Party, but they just haven’t contacted election officials to tell them that they might change their party registration,” said Michael P. McDonald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida. “So this is probably a tip of an iceberg.”

But, he cautioned, it could also be the vocal “never Trump” reality simply coming into focus as Republicans finally took the step of changing their registration, even though they hadn’t supported the president and his party since 2016.

A more detailed case against this thesis is made by G. Elliott Morris, who notes that voter registration is not the same as voter behavior – in states where people register by party, they don’t necessarily vote that way – and that at least some of these former Republicans have changed their affiliation because the establishment GOP didn’t support Trump enough following the election and the insurrection. In other words, some number of these folks aren’t any more likely to vote for a Democrat. Finally, the total numbers here are really small in terms of overall voter registration, well less than one percent. In other words, what we have here looks more like a drip than a stream.

On the other hand, the public now has a very low opinion of the Republican Party and a significantly more favorable view of the Democratic Party. Republicans also have issues with corporate donors, which may be a drag on them at least through 2022. And while President Biden’s current approval ratings are extremely polarized, I note that he’s basically the inverse of Trump with independents, getting 60% of approval there where Trump had 40% at this same point in their presidencies. Who knows where any of this will go from here, but right now, you’d rather be on Team Biden than on his opposition.

None of this applies directly to Texas, since of course we don’t register by party. We measure affiliation by primary voting, so we will have much more limited data until whenever we get to have primaries in 2022. That said, the forthcoming special election in CD06, to fill the seat left vacant by the passing of Rep. Ron Wright, may provide a yardstick as well. Trump carried the district in 2020 by a 51-48 margin, basically the same margin by which Ted Cruz carried it in 2018. Rep. Wright won by a more comfortable 53-44, and Trump won it 54-42 in 2016. A Democratic win in what I presume would be a June runoff would surely be a big deal, while a Republican victory would be seen as evidence that nothing much has changed. It’s super early and we have no candidates yet, so hold onto your hot takes for now.

Who believes in the myth of voter fraud?

Republicans do. Next question.

A new University of Houston survey reveals the stark partisan divide among Texans on the issue of voter fraud in the November election.

The survey found that 87 percent of Democrats believe there was no widespread fraud, while 83 percent of Republicans believe there was — despite the lack of evidence to indicate that it occurred. Overall, 55 percent of Texans believed there was no widespread fraud.

“While a sizable number of Texans believe that voter fraud occurred last November, a majority of Texans don’t agree,” said Kirk P. Watson, founding dean of the university’s Hobby School of Public Affairs and a former Democratic state senator. “We can and should build on that foundation of trust in our elections through education and potential reforms that protect election integrity without resulting in voter suppression.”

[…]

“Even though there have been multiple audits, recounts and dozens of court cases dismissed, many Republicans insist the election was compromised,” said Renée Cross, senior director of the Hobby School.

The same survey also found that most Texans, or 83 percent, opposed the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol led by supporters of former President Donald Trump who believed the election was stolen. Thirty-two percent of Republicans, 15 percent of independents and 8 percent of Democrats supported the events, however.

See here and here for previous blogging about this four-pack of polls. The press release for this survey is here and the full data set is here. There’s not a whole lot to add to this part of the discussion. It’s true that these Republicans are just believing the lies that their leaders have been repeatedly feeding them, and it’s hard to blame someone for being brainwashed. It’s also true that the facts are out there in abundance, that even Trump’s legal teams did not make any specific claims of fraud in their many lawsuits because they had to limit themselves to factual evidence, and that nothing is stopping anyone from learning the very simple and basic truth for themselves. I will welcome anyone who can find their way back to objective reality into the fold, but I will not forget where they had been before.

Not mentioned in this story are the questions the pollsters asked about favorability ratings for numerous politicians. Here’s a sample of the interesting ones, with the “very” and “somewhat” responses for each combined:

Greg Abbott – 39 favorable, 40 unfavorable
Dan Patrick – 27 favorable, 35 unfavorable

Joe Biden – 41 favorable, 42 unfavorable
Kamala Harris – 39 favorable, 43 unfavorable
Donald Trump – 39 favorable, 51 unfavorable

Ted Cruz – 38 favorable, 47 unfavorable
John Cornyn – 23 favorable, 44 unfavorable
Beto O’Rourke – 35 favorable, 41 unfavorable
Julian Castro – 29 favorable, 28 unfavorable

They also asked about Joaquin Castro, Dan Crenshaw, and Dade Phelan, but I’m skipping them because not enough people had an opinion to make it worthwhile. They did not ask about Ken Paxton, which I wish they had done.

Overall, that’s a better look for Dems, especially Beto, than that Data for Progress poll. Joe Biden’s number is all right – if you notice, basically no one has a net favorable total – Trump’s is terrible, and Dan Patrick and Ted Cruz are more negative than Beto. I have no idea how someone like John Cornyn can be in statewide elected office for that long and have so many people have a neutral opinion or not enough information to have an opinion about him (15% neither fav nor unfav, 18% not enough info). There’s a lot of room in most of these (Trump excepted) for opinion to swing, and it will be very interesting to see how this looks in six months or a year, when (hopefully!) things are better both economically and pandemically. And as always, this is just one poll so don’t read more into it than that.

That poll about Ted Cruz resigning

It’s not really that great, to be honest.

Not Ted Cruz

Former President Trump’s popularity in deep-red Texas is underwater following the mob attack by his supporters of the Capitol, according to a poll from the progressive group Data For Progress commissioned for MoveOn.org.

The poll found that at least 51 percent of likely voters in Texas said they had at least a “somewhat” unfavorable view of the former president following the events of Jan. 6, with 42 percent saying their view of Trump was “very unfavorable.”

Forty-nine percent of likely voters had unfavorable views of President Biden, while 42 percent of likely voters had unfavorable views of former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

The poll also found that 36 percent of GOP voters in the state would support barring Trump from running for office again, possibly the most significant break from the former president among his base registered by polling so far.

The poll data is here. I couldn’t find a blog post or press release on the Data for Progress website about this, just their tweet that linked to the data file. The poll is of 751 “likely voters” (remember, DFP uses web panels for their polls), and this is what I mean by “not that great”:

Q: Do you have a favorable or unfavorable view of Ted Cruz? Favorable 49%, unfavorable 42%
Q: Do you have a favorable or unfavorable view of Beto O’Rourke? Favorable 33%, unfavorable 46%
Q: Do you have a favorable or unfavorable view of Donald Trump? Favorable 48%, unfavorable 51%
Q: Do you have a favorable or unfavorable view of Joe Biden? Favorable 48%, unfavorable 49%

They had separate responses for “very” and “somewhat” favorable and unfavorable, and I combined the two for the numbers above. The Biden number isn’t bad, the Trump number is okay, the Beto and Cruz numbers are lousy. I would have liked to have seen a question about Greg Abbott, but given the above he probably would have done pretty well, and I would have been unhappy about that, so maybe it’s just as well. Beto’s “Favorable” number is likely dragged down a bit by having 21% of Democrats respond “Haven’t heard enough to say”, but even that is not great, since you’d like to think that likely-voting Dems would be sufficiently informed about him. (This may also have been the option chosen by Dems who were more or less neutral and didn’t want to round up or round down.) Only seven percent of Republicans gave a similar response about Cruz.

After that there was a question about supporting or opposing “former President Donald Trump from holding elected office in the future”, which referenced Trump’s efforts to overturn the election and his role in inciting the Capitol riot (49-44 support). They asked a couple of similarly-worded questions about Cruz, then concluded with a simple “Do you think that Senator Ted Cruz should resign?”, which went 51-49 for Yes. Neither of these things will happen so this is more slogan than data, but there you have it. It is what it is, but I don’t think it amounts to much. The Texas Signal has more.

Why isn’t COVID an emergency item?

Ask Greg Abbott.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday unveiled a legislative agenda centered on the state’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and a series of more politically charged issues such as police funding and “election integrity.”

In his biennial State of the State speech, Abbott declared Texas is “brimming with promise” as it emerges from the pandemic and seeks to return to economic dominance. He pledged “hard-working Texans are at the forefront of our agenda this legislative session as we build a healthier, safer, freer and more prosperous state.”

Abbott designated five emergency items, or items that the Legislature can vote on within the first 60 day of the session, which began Jan. 12. Those items were expanding broadband internet access, punishing local governments that “defund the police” as he defines it, changing the bail system, ensuring what he described as “election integrity” and providing civil liability protections for businesses that were open during the pandemic.

Abbott also asked lawmakers to pass laws that would strengthen civics education in Texas classrooms, further restrict abortion and make Texas a “Second Amendment sanctuary state.” On issues stemming from the pandemic, Abbott called for legislation to permanently expand telemedicine and to prevent “any government entity from shutting down religious activities in Texas.” And Abbott briefly touched on the debate among some in his own party over how aggressively he has wielded his executive powers to respond to the coronavirus.

“I will continue working with the Legislature to find ways to navigate a pandemic while also allowing businesses to remain open,” Abbott said.

Abbott gave the address from Visionary Fiber Technologies in Lockhart, eschewing the traditional setting of a joint legislative session inside the House chamber as lawmakers continue to worry about gathering en masse during the pandemic.

Democrats pushed back on Abbott’s speech by accusing him of giving an overly rosy view of the state’s coronavirus response. Calling Abbott the “worst Governor in modern Texas history,” the state Democratic Party chairman, Gilberto Hinojosa, said in a statement that Abbott “buries his head in the sand and pretends like nothing is happening.”

[…]

When it came to legislative priorities, Abbott was noticeably light on details in some cases. On election security, Abbott did not say what he was looking for beyond instilling “trust and confidence in the outcome of our elections.” Texas already has some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country, though the state’s Republicans are newly focused on the issue after fighting efforts by Democrats to make it easier to vote ahead of the November election due to the pandemic.

I’ll get to the voting stuff in a minute. It is true, as Ross Ramsey noted, that the declaration of something as an “emergency item” just means that a bill relating to it can be passed earlier in the legislative session than non-emergency items. One can certainly argue that the key challenges now are vaccinations, containing the spread of the virus, keeping hospitals running, and other things like that, which don’t require a new law being passed. One can also argue that at the State of the State Address, it would be nice for the Governor to actually focus a bit on this year-long pandemic and the effect it has had, beyond some rah-rah cheerleading, and what he as Governor is doing and will do and will tell the Legislature to do about it. I’m pretty sure the average voter doesn’t understand the nuances of “emergency items”, but rather would think of them in terms of what is of the greatest importance. Don’t you think COVID response and COVID vaccinations belong in that category? I’m just saying.

As for “election security”, putting aside all the bragging that Republicans in Texas have done about how well they did in this past election that they now claim was unacceptably insecure, it’s not clear what they would do about it. What I know is that I would campaign on the opposite message, that what we really need to do is make it as easy and convenient for everyone to vote as possible, which starts with making it easier to register and to cast a ballot by mail. I’m happy to have that argument all the way through next November and beyond. The Current and the Texas Signal have more.

UH Hobby School poll: Popular things are popular

That’t the main takeaway here.

More than two-thirds of Texans support raising some new taxes and using the state’s rainy day fund to patch budget shortfalls from the pandemic, according to a new survey by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs.

The survey, conducted online earlier this month, comes as lawmakers are back in Austin to consider a raft of new bills, many of them centered on the health crisis and other recent events, including protests over police brutality and the November election.

In addition to overwhelming support for new taxes on e-cigarettes and vaping products, respondents also heavily favor closing loopholes that allow large companies to lower their property taxes, raising the franchise tax on large businesses and legalizing casino gambling and marijuana, which would generate new tax revenue.

Just over 80 percent of respondents oppose a universal state income tax, but a majority, 62 percent, support taxing income on those earning more than $1 million a year.

[…]

In election reforms, two thirds of Texans support online voter registration and universal mail-in voting, according to the poll. The state currently does not have widespread online voter registration and limits mail-in voting to those over 65 or living with a disability. Texas is considered to have the most restrictive voting process in the country.

Another big issue this year will be redistricting, in which lawmakers redraw the state’s political boundaries for the next ten years. The process is currently controlled by Republicans, who hold majorities in both state legislative chambers. According to the poll, however, 70 percent of respondents support turning the process over to an independent commission, as is done in some other states including California.

Separately, 72 percent of respondents support criminal justice reforms spurred by the killing last summer of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The George Floyd Act, as it’s known, includes changes such as prohibiting chokeholds and limiting police immunity from civil lawsuits. While it is widely supported, fewer than half of Republican respondents favor the legislation.

And with the state’s uninsured rate ballooning further, 69 percent of respondents support expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

There are multiple polls being conducted under this umbrella, and you can find executive summaries and links to poll data here. The legislative issues poll data is here, and the media release is here, while the state budget poll data is here and the media release is here.

There are a couple of caveats to apply to this set of results. One is that this is a poll of adults, not registered voters. I’ve talked many times about the schism between what polls say are popular policies and what people actually vote for, and that is a key distinction to keep in mind. Two, likely related to item one, is that the composition of this sample is 31% Democrat, 27% Republican, 30% Independent, 8% Unsure, and 4% Other. I think we can make some guesses about where the non-voters are. Three, there are some serious partisan splits on questions like no-excuses mail voting, online voter registration, and the independent redistricting commission, with Dems vastly more in support than Republicans. Finally, some of these questions have a high “Don’t know” response to them (33% for the redistricting commission, for example), but the topline numbers being reported in the story are the recalculated percentages after the “don’t know” respondents are removed. These are some pretty big qualifiers, and you should very much keep them in mind.

That doesn’t mean this kind of poll has no value, just that it needs to be kept in perspective. As Grits notes, the poll wording on some complex issues like criminal justice reform is quite precise, so at least the people who did respond had a clear idea of what they were supporting or opposing, unlike the vaguely-worded Texas 2036 poll. And of course popular ideas can be a way to bring out less-likely voters, if one can get one’s message out in adequate fashion. Medicaid expansion and marijuana legalization both scored pretty well, with a lesser partisan split than the election-related questions. That’s good news for my suggested 2022 platform, but also a reminder that the other side gets to express an opinion and to influence the outcome. Being popular only goes so far.

Ted Cruz, meet the Lincoln Project

No shortage of material here.

Not Ted Cruz

The Lincoln Project co-founder Rick Wilson said that now that former President Trump is out of office, he intends to turn the super PAC’s attention to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

Wilson told the Texas politics-focused podcast “Y’all-itics” the group would target Cruz over his support of a Republican challenge to the certification of President Biden’s victory earlier this month.

“We all know Ted Cruz is sort of a political force of nature. He is what he is. You either hate him or you hate him,” Wilson said. “And he is a guy who went so far over the edge, not just to appease Donald Trump and Trump’s base, but because he felt like [Sen.] Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) had gotten out ahead of him on it.”

Hawley, who, like Cruz, is seen as a possible 2024 GOP contender, was the first to announce he would challenge the results of the election. A number of Republicans signed on to the challenge, but some of them dropped their objections after a mob of pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol. Cruz and Hawley continued their challenge.

Wilson called the effort “overtly seditious” and suggested the group would target other participants in the effort as well, saying “for as much as everyone sort of cordially hates Ted Cruz, this also about the fact there is a caucus of these guys right now.”

“These guys have realized that this was a very, very bad move legally, politically, morally, constitutionally and so that’s why they are in a position right now where they are not out beating their chest and saying ‘I am the alpha male in inheritor to the MAGA fortunes,’ ” he added.

Wilson went on to predict that the intraparty dispute over Trump’s continued role in the Republican party would lead to the emergence of a third party, adding “I think the traditional Republican, economic, social and fiscal conservatism is basically dead.”

A link to the podcast episode in question is here. It’s only about 25 minutes, and it’s hosted by a couple of reporters for WFAA in Dallas. (They tried and failed to get a response from Cruz, and have invited him on when he’s willing to talk to them.) The strategy in the short term is to cut off as much of Cruz’s corporate funding as possible, and to further isolate him in the Senate. I think what we’re all looking forward to is a barrage of take-no-prisoners anti-Cruz ads, for which there is ample raw material. 2024, the next time Cruz would be on the ballot, whether for Senate or President, is a long way off, and nothing is less certain in politics than that kind of long-range plan. But for now at least it’s out there.

A few words from Rep. Filemon Vela

Worth your consideration.

Rep. Filemon Vela

U.S. Rep. Filemón Vela sees his new leadership role in the Democrats’ national campaign arm as being “the voice of caution, reason and taking the middle ground” as the party seeks to hold power through the 2022 midterms and beyond.

The Brownsville Democrat, who on Thursday was elected vice chair of the Democratic National Committee through 2025, said Democrats have a lot of work to do in Texas — especially in areas of South Texas, including his own district, where he says the party’s messaging on energy and guns cost them ground in November.

Vela will be one of four vice chairs helping to guide Democrats’ campaign efforts in 2022 and 2024. He said the party needs to figure out better ways of talking about those issues to keep from backsliding further in a state Democrats have long hoped to flip. The party is getting hammered by more effective Republican messaging, he said.

In the final weeks of the election, the Texas GOP raised alarms about Joe Biden’s plan to phase out fossil fuels in a state where 162,000 people were directly employed in oil drilling and related services.

“Clearly the DNC has work to do in Texas,” Vela said in an interview with Hearst Newspapers. “You can’t just tell people like that — we’re going to take your jobs away — and think they’re going to vote for you. If we’re serious about climate change and job creation, we have to be able to tell those individuals and those families, you know what, we’ve got alternatives.”

[…]

Vela said he doesn’t expect Biden’s moves so far to have the dire effects for Texans that Republicans are claiming. But it’s an area where Democrats need to do a better job explaining what they’re doing.

“There are jobs in the energy industry that are not necessarily oil and gas — whether it be solar, wind, electrical, whatever — that is going to make your life better,” Vela said. “You won’t have to leave your family for two or three weeks, you won’t have to bust your ass waking up at 3 in the morning and working until late at night. And you’re going to make more money in a safer and more efficient environment.

“We don’t have that message,” he said. “That’s the puzzle.”

The same is true for guns, Vela said.

“Those of us who grew up in South Texas, we grew up with our grandfathers and fathers and uncles and cousins and friends hunting and fishing. If the Democratic message is going to suggest that you’re not going to be able to do that, we’re going to continue to lose a lot of these voters,” he said.

But, he said, Democrats aren’t trying to actually do that as they seek stricter background checks and other measures meant to stop mass shootings.

“Clearly Republican messaging on the subject is not being countered — we’re not countering that message appropriately.”

Rep. Vela has direct reasons to be concerned about this, as his CD34 shifted strongly towards Trump in 2020, though he himself still won by a comfortable margin. That may make him a redistricting target, though it may also be the case that the Republicans overestimate their strength in that part of the state. But I think he’s right about what happened in 2020, and he’s in a long line of people who have been complaining for years about Democrats’ lack of messaging and engagement in South Texas. As a DNC Vice Chair, he’s now in a position to do something about it.

The “Resign, Ted” caucus

They’re not going to get what they’re asking for, but they can still get something.

Not Ted Cruz

More than 70 Texas organizations are calling for the resignations of Sen. Ted Cruz, Attorney General Ken Paxton and the 16 Texas representatives who voted on Jan. 6 against certifying election results that formalized President Joe Biden’s win.

The grassroots coalition is led by civic engagement group Indivisible TX Lege and includes organizations determined to hold Texas’ elected officials accountable for their role in inspiring and encouraging the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former president Donald Trump. More than 850 individuals have also signed a letter in support of the effort to expel the Texas officials.

“They have made a mockery of democracy by embracing the fascist rhetoric of a far-right figurehead with a far-right movement behind him,” the group’s statement reads. “They have suppressed votes while lying about the nature of our election system, sullying our elections while opposing their legally legitimate losses. They have proven themselves entirely unfit for office. They must resign.”

[…]

Many Houston-area groups are among the coalition, including Black Lives Matter Houston, CAIR Houston, Harris County Young Democrats, FIEL Houston, Say Her Name HTX and Sunrise Houston. Texas House Reps. Ron Reynolds and Vikki Goodwin also signed on as supporters of the call for resignations.

“They were perpetuating a fraud,” Reynolds said. “They knew the electoral process was sound, it had already been vetted, it had already been validated, and they were simply attempting to overthrow the will of the American people.”

Candice Matthews of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats said the situation goes “beyond politics.”

“This is about the foundation of our democracy,” she said. “If we sanction these traitors to go back to work and normalize this behavior, we will never get past what happened on Jan. 6.”

All this is correct, but let’s keep some perspective here. The large majority of these organizations are Democratic or Dem-aligned. The chances that Cruz or Paxton or any of those members of Congress will listen to a word they say are less than the chances that I will be named the next head coach of the Texans. I guarantee, there are already fundraising emails in the works about how the radical left is attacking them for their bold and principled stance in favor of election integrity. Don’t expect any sudden vacancies, is what I’m saying.

All these organizations are smart enough to know this, of course. The goal here isn’t resignations, because that’s not going to happen, but to rebrand these politicians and make their seditious actions stick with them. Can they make Cruz and Paxton et al toxic to mainstream corporate America and dry up their fundraising? Can they change how they are covered and portrayed by the media, so that their anti-democratic activity front and center in any story that includes them? Can they help drive this narrative so that less-engaged voters are aware of it, and are aware of the need for them to take action in the next elections? Even if it’s just helping them know that Ted Cruz spends more time Twitter fighting than doing anything to make their lives better? These things are more achievable. That’s the way to think about it, and to think about what you can do to help. There have to be consequences for what they did. This is a part of that, and we all have a role to play in it.

State Capitol closed again

At least through Inauguration Day, which is to say Wednesday.

The Texas Department of Public Safety abruptly announced the closure of the state Capitol Friday evening after uncovering new intelligence that intensified security concerns and prompted the agency to ramp up security further.

The closure affects the building and the Capitol grounds, which only reopened to the public this month after being closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic and damage that officials said protestors did to state property during protests in May and June.

The closure begins Saturday and continues through Wednesday.

In a statement, DPS Director Col. Steve McCraw said that “the Texas Department of Public Safety is aware of armed protests planned at the Texas State Capitol and violent extremists who may seek to exploit constitutionally protected events. As a result, DPS has deployed additional personnel and resources to the Capitol and are working closely with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Austin Police Department to monitor events and to enforce the rule of law.”

Authorities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia were bracing Friday for what law enforcement said could be violent protests this weekend through Wednesday’s inauguration of Joe Biden. The caution stems from intelligence gained after the deadly pro-Donald Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Earlier this week, McCraw told state senators that authorities are monitoring multiple sects that could threaten Capitol security in coming days but stressed that the agency stood ready to neutralize any possible attack.

He said the groups have different political ideologies with 200 to 600 members each, according to three senators who attended the briefings. The senators did not want to comment publicly because DPS deemed the information confidential and said that releasing it could jeopardize safety.

McCraw said officials have ample troopers and other officers to respond should one of the groups travel to Austin to protest or riot. Their bigger concern, however, is that if the groups consolidate and mobilize together, that would pose a greater risk and prompt officials to call in reinforcements, the senators said.

We all know what this is about. I just hope it turns out to be a lot more talk than action. But whatever happens or doesn’t happen between now and January 20, the long-term threat isn’t going away and needs to be taken very seriously. The Chron has more.

Why would he condemn something he supported?

We know who and what Ken Paxton is.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton is the only state attorney general to decline to join letters over the past week condemning the Capitol riot.

In a Jan. 12 letter, 50 state and territorial attorneys general who belong to the National Association of Attorneys General denounced the “lawless violence.” The three remaining state attorneys general not included in that letter wrote their own Wednesday, leaving Paxton as the only holdout.

Paxton is a staunch Trump supporter who co-chaired the re-election group Lawyers for Trump. He spoke at the “Save America” rally at the Capitol in the hours prior to the riot last week, telling the crowds “we will not quit fighting” to overturn the election results. Neither Paxton’s office nor his campaign spokesman responded to requests for comment.

“The events of January 6 represent a direct, physical challenge to the rule of law and our democratic republic itself,” the Jan. 12 letter read. “Together, we will continue to do our part to repair the damage done to institutions and build a more perfect union. As Americans, and those charged with enforcing the law, we must come together to condemn lawless violence, making clear that such actions will not be allowed to go unchecked.”

In a separate letter Wednesday, the attorneys general of Indiana, Montana and Louisiana wrote: “In all forms and all instances, violent acts carried out in the name of political ideology have no place in any of our United States.”

To be fair, you can’t expect a serial lawbreaker to venerate the rule of law. It just gets in his way. Also, that “rally” he was at was organized in part by people who also helped organize the storming of the Capitol. Like I said, why would he condemn something he supports?

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story, which contains this bit of tangential business at the end:

On Wednesday, Paxton’s office was also hit with the loss of one of its top staffers.

Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins is leaving the agency, the Associated Press reported Wednesday. The exit comes in the wake of a scandal at the agency, and also Paxton’s controversial lawsuit at the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to overturn the election results, which Hawkins — the agency’s appellate expert — did not sign onto. Hawkins has not answered questions about his decision to leave or why his name did not appear on the case.

Perhaps some day we’ll hear that story. In the meantime, chalk this up as another example of Ken Paxton being bad at his job.

You can’t escape your culpability, Ted

The stench will be on you forever, Ted.

Not Ted Cruz

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz has sharpened his criticism of President Donald Trump, saying the president’s rhetoric “certainly contributed to the violence that occurred” as Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol on Wednesday.

But the Texas Republican — who led an effort in the Senate to delay certifying Trump’s loss — is showing no signs of contrition amid growing calls for his resignation as many blame him for stoking the post-election strife that culminated with the attack on the Capitol.

Cruz objected to Arizona’s electoral votes less than an hour before demonstrators breached the building, pointing to “unprecedented” — and unproven — allegations of voter fraud. Even some of Cruz’s Republican colleagues said he should have been working to dispel those allegations, rather than airing them in Congress.

Asked in an interview with Hearst Newspapers on Friday whether he believes there was widespread fraud in the election, Cruz responded: “I don’t know if there was sufficient fraud to alter the outcome, I have never said that there was. What I said was there were serious allegations of fraud, and those allegations need to be examined carefully.”

In objecting to Arizona’s results, Cruz was pushing for an “emergency audit,” which he argues could have provided the final say Trump supporters needed. His objection was initially supported by 10 other senators, though two changed their minds after the riot.

“It would have been a much better solution, it would have helped bring this country together, it would have helped heal the divisions we have in this country and help reestablish trust in our democratic system,” Cruz said. “What I was working to do is find a way to reestablish widespread trust in the system.”

Critics accuse Cruz of doing the opposite by ignoring the fact that Trump’s claims had been thrown out of dozens of courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. They call his objection a craven attempt to appeal to Trump supporters and raise money for his own presidential bid.

[…]

Texas political experts and operatives say the blowback Cruz is facing now is unlikely to last as long as some expect.

“I’m not sure the criticism of some of his fellow Republicans, elites, or certainly Democrats, really make that much difference in the medium and long term,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “The only thing that’s ever really diluted the support of Republican voters in Texas for Cruz was when he was crosswise with Trump, and he knows that — and we’re seeing evidence he knows that.”

Cruz’s approval rating among Republicans in Texas hit its lowest point — 55 percent — in June 2016, at the height of his primary battle with Trump, Henson said. By October 2018 it had risen back to 86 percent and Henson said it hasn’t wavered much since.

“I think that as far as the voters go, the people who decide primary elections in Texas and elect Republicans in Texas … many of them are sticking with President Trump still and sticking with Ted Cruz still,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a GOP strategist in Texas.

Steinhauser, who is an outspoken critic of Trump but a supporter of Cruz, said in his conversations with family, friends and other Republicans in Texas over the last 48 hours, “there are still just a huge number of people who are just backing up Donald Trump’s line on this.”

Still, Steinhauser said, it’s significant that criticism of Trump is growing among Republicans, including Cruz.

“Everybody in Texas, whether it’s going to get my car fixed today, they’re talking about it. Going to get a drink with a friend last night, they’re talking about it,” Steinhauser said. “It’s not arguing about the ExIm Bank. Real people in Houston, Texas, are talking about this today.

“He probably does feel like he needs to explain himself.”

I think the thing about Cruz, and the reason why he is so widely despised, is that for as smart as he supposedly is, he treats everyone else like we’re stupid. It’s not just that he lies, it’s that he clearly doesn’t think anyone can see through his transparent bullshit. Maybe his approval rating among Republicans hasn’t moved much from the 86% he had in October of 2018, but that was right before he came very close to losing. That doesn’t seem like a solid place to be, if you ask me.

In the meantime, we know he’s not going to resign or be expelled, but we can enjoy the clamor for those things to happen.

Well, someone needs to make a motion for that to happen, I assume, so…

There’s not one but two Chron editorials calling on Cruz to resign – the second one also calls out Ken Paxton and the sixteen Texas members of Congress who supported the challenge to the electoral votes. Neither that nor the expulsion are going to happen, of course, but we can dream for a minute. And we can work like hell to make this happen, too.

“I think they should be just flat beaten the next time they run,” Biden said, when asked if Cruz and another Republican senator, Josh Hawley of Missouri, ought to step down. “I think the American public has a real good clear look at who they are. They’re part of the big lie, the big lie.”

From your lips to God’s ears, Mr. President. Please note the best thing you can do to help is have a great term and clean up the ginormous mess that Trump left behind, with Ted Cruz’s help. The better off we all are in four years’ time, the better the odds that Ted Cruz will become a private citizen again.

What to do about Ted and Kenny?

You wouldn’t think it would be possible for Ted Cruz to become more loathesome, but if you think that you seriously underestimate him.

Not Ted Cruz

Two nights before the Electoral College certification in Congress, Ted Cruz was in vintage form.

The junior U.S. senator from Texas was calling in to a friendly conservative radio host — Mark Levin — and setting up Wednesday’s vote to be the kind of intraparty line in the sand that has powered his political rise.

By then, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had made clear that he opposed objections to certifying Joe Biden’s election as the next president. But Cruz and 10 other GOP senators announced they would still object unless Congress agreed to an “emergency audit” of the presidential election results.

Cruz told Levin that there were some conservatives “who in good conscience” disagree with his view of Congress’ role in certifying the presidential election results, and that he had talked to them and did not fault them. On the other hand, Cruz said, there were “some Republicans who are not conservatives but who are piously and self-righteously preening” when it comes to the issue.

In spearheading the group of objectors, Cruz arguably upstaged U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, who announced his plan to object three days earlier — and, like Cruz, is considered a potential 2024 presidential contender.

But on Wednesday, what Cruz might have thought was a savvy political play took an alarming turn: Supporters of President Donald Trump stormed and ransacked the U.S. Capitol while lawmakers were considering Cruz’s objection. Three people suffered medical emergencies during the siege and died; their deaths were in addition to another woman who was shot by a Capitol police officer.

Cruz denounced the violence but incurred a fierce backlash from critics in both parties, who said his drive to question the election results — and appease the president and his supporters ahead of a possible 2024 run — helped fan the flames of anger among Trump supporters. Prominent Texas Democrats called for him to resign. Many others suggested he’d played an inciting role in one of the darkest days in modern American history.

Politically, it was a high-stakes distillation of GOP tactics in the era of Trump.

“His challenge of the Electoral College votes helps him among core Trump supporters but risks further damaging his political standing among rank-and-file Republicans like moderates and suburban swing voters who have traditionally formed a stable winning coalition for Republicans in Texas and nationally,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, who added, “Siding with Trump is risky.”

Few people can pull of smarm and condescension at such a high level, but Cruz makes it look easy. The political environment was very favorable to Democrats in 2018 in large part because of anger against Donald Trump – and, it would seem, his absence on the ballot – and that went even further in the Senate race, where Cruz and his extreme unlikability took it the extra mile. Maybe a better politician, or at least someone who more closely resembles a normal human being, could get that to simmer down over time, but Cruz never misses a beat. He’s cast his lot with the Trumper deplorables, and maybe that’s his best bet to get an edge in the 2024 GOP presidential primary. All I know is, the more people who are sick of his shit, the better. Whether he runs for President or Senate or both in 2024 (remember that legally, he can do that in Texas), I expect we’ll be able to drum up some enthusiasm against him.

Having said all that, I’m unfortunately quite ambivalent about any effort to get him expelled from the Senate. I’ve no doubt that plenty of his Republican colleagues in the Senate also despise him, but voting to boot him out, which will take a non-trivial number of Republicans to happen, is a heavy lift. Just the act of putting a partisan target on his back like that will force some of them to defend him, and that’s the last thing we want to do. Chuck Schumer takes over as Senate Majority Leader on January 22, two days into the Biden administration. There’s a ton of vital stuff that needs to happen right away, from COVID relief to voting rights and much more, and the last thing we’re going to need is a sideshow. And look, as much as I’d love to see Cruz get the heave-ho, even if it did happen Greg Abbott would get to appoint his replacement, who almost by definition will be able to work better with his Republican mates. Where’s the upside in that? Let him stay where he’s mostly going to be ineffective and might help keep his caucus divided.

Now, Ken Paxton, on the other hand…

Best mugshot ever

On Wednesday morning, Ken Paxton stood in front of a roaring crowd, reminding a sea of President Donald Trump’s supporters that the president “is a fighter” and his backers must be, too.

“We’re here. We will not quit fighting,” he said, slamming Republican officials in Georgia who have stood by President-elect Joe Biden’s victory there. “We are Texans, we are Americans, and we’re not quitting.”

But by the evening — after members of the crowd he had invited to Washington, D.C., stirred up with false claims about election fraud, resorted to violence, smashing windows and scaling walls to breach the nation’s Capitol in a mob that forced members of Congress to flee and left at least one woman dead — he had claimed they were not his ilk at all.

“These are not Trump supporters,” he falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook, citing incorrect reports that the pro-Trump mob that invaded the Capitol had been infiltrated by liberal antifa activists.

[…]

On Thursday, Grand Prairie state Rep. Chris Turner, chair of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, called for an investigation into Paxton’s role in Wednesday’s riot, leaving the door open to curbing the power of his office, restricting its budget, even censure and impeachment.

“From filing a fraudulent lawsuit that fueled unhinged conspiracy theories about a free and fair election, to egging on the crowd of insurrectionists in Washington, D.C., Paxton has played a major role in creating the national crisis that culminated with the first breach of our nation’s capital since the War of 1812,” Turner said. “Even today, Paxton has used social media to spread lies about yesterday’s acts of violence and insurrection.”

In December, Paxton’s support for Trump took the form of a widely panned, and ultimately rejected, lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to toss the election results in four battleground states that had handed the White House to Joe Biden. The lawsuit leaned on discredited claims of election fraud in the battleground states.

Paxton finds himself in a precarious political position, even before Wednesday’s disastrous events. Since October, he has been embroiled in a scandal after eight of his top aides in the attorney general’s office told authorities they believed he was breaking the law by doing a series of favors for a political donor.

Texas Republicans — many of whom stayed quiet for the past five years as Paxton battled felony securities fraud charges — came forward to express their disapproval. Some fellow conservatives, including his former top aide U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, have called for his resignation. An FBI investigation into Paxton’s conduct is reportedly moving ahead full-throttle, and in the meantime, the fresh criminal allegations are poised to impose tens of millions of dollars in costs to his constituents: Texas taxpayers.

Paxton has been in hot water before, and often escaped it only to climb higher politically, galvanizing support from the Republican party’s right flank. He alienated some with a long shot run for Texas House speaker, then got elected to the state Senate. He has characterized long-running felony securities fraud charges as a political witch hunt, much as Trump did in Washington.

Still, Paxton may have fewer defenders now than ever before.

At a low point in his rollercoaster political career, Paxton is betting on the Trump base to bring him back up the hill, lending the legitimacy of office to debunked claims that have motivated violence.

Here, I think the calculus is a little different. Opposing Paxton’s need for need for millions of dollars in attorneys’ fees should be easy enough, and will provide a test as to whether his wings can get clipped a bit. I don’t expect much more than that, for the same reason I don’t expect even the biggest Cruz-hating Republicans in the Senate to support a motion to expel him, but we can certainly make him more toxic, and harder for his buddies to defend. Paxton had the second-worst showing in 2018, right behind Ted Cruz, and I think it’s fair to say that patience is a little thin for him. Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and the rest have to consider the possibility that Paxton and his FBI investigation – even if Trump swoops in with a pardon – will be a burden on them in 2022. I’m sure they believe they’ll be re-elected anyway, but who needs the headache?

What they do about it is less clear. They could support a primary challenger – more likely, they’d just not get in a challenger’s way – or they could just avoid talking about Paxton as much as possible. Or they can just grit their teeth and stand by their man. I’m not listing the “quietly push him to not run for re-election” option, because I think it’s pretty clear that’s not going to work. So what we need to do is help keep the spotlight on our felonious and insurrectionist AG. There’s a petition to sign that calls for his resignation or impeachment, if you’re the petition-signing type. But mostly, just make sure everyone that you know also knows what a terrible person he is. We’re going to have to throw him out the old-fashioned way, so we’d better get to work on it.

So is anyone going to try to collect Dan Patrick’s reward money?

Here’s a nice little research paper for you:

On November 10, 2020, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick put out a press release stating, in relevant part, “[S]tarting today [I] will pay up to $1 million to incentivize, encourage and reward people to come forward and report voter fraud. . . . Anyone who provides information that leads to an arrest and final conviction of voter fraud will be paid a minimum of $25,000.” This concise Article analyzes whether Patrick’s statement constitutes an offer that contractually obligates him to pay in the event someone accepts by completing the requested action. Additionally, the potential existence of a campaign finance violation is considered.

[…]

Conclusion

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s press release likely constitutes an offer that would contractually obligate him to pay if someone accepts by completing the requested action. While a short tweet alone is likely not enough to constitute a contractual offer for a $25,000 reward, 28 Patrick’s press release probably is. Given the details provided, Patrick’s position as Lieutenant Governor, and the absence of any indication of it being a joke, a reasonable person would likely assume that completing the requested performance would entitle him to the stated payment.

Patrick should not only be concerned about a potential obligation to pay out the promised reward money but also the potentiality of a campaign finance violation. His press release announcing the award explicitly refers to supporting Trump in his efforts to identify voter fraud.29 And it is likely the case that Trump views such accusations of voter fraud favorably.30

You should download and read the whole thing, it’s short and sufficiently non-technical. My takeaway from this is that someone, perhaps on behalf of Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, should pursue this in court. There’s some merit to the claim that Patrick’s ridiculous offer meets the definition of a contract, and if nothing else it will make him spend time and money defending himself while keeping his dumb business in the news. I can think of worse things to do in 2021. Thanks to commenter Wolfgang for unearthing this little gem.

No consensus on partisan judicial elections

Even the Texas Commission on Judicial Selection can’t agree.

There’s always been room for disagreement on the question of how to select judges in Texas. That won’t change in recommendations by the Lone Star State’s latest commission looking at the issue.

With a report to the Texas Legislature coming due this month, the Texas Commission on Judicial Selection met on Friday to vote on the recommendations it would include for Texas lawmakers to consider. The commission members’ votes were split down the middle when they were asked if Texas should stop electing judges as Republicans or Democrats and switch to a method where a commission initially appoints judges, who then run in retention elections. But the members found more agreement with smaller reforms, such as increasing the minimum qualifications to be a judge or further regulating how judges can use money in their campaigns.

When the final report comes out, it will say that Texas should not continue with partisan judicial elections. But that decision was highly divisive, with an 8-7 vote.

Most of the “no” votes came from Texas senators and representatives—both Republicans and Democrats—who serve on the commission. If their view is similar to their colleagues in the Texas Legislature, the recommendation has a slim-to-none chance of passing the lawmaking body.

“Constituents have relayed to me they do not want to have their rights taken away from them on judges they want to serve on these benches,” said Rep. Ina Minjarez, D-San Antonio.

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, said he would not take away Texans’ constitutional rights.

“I’m going to be voting to stay with the current method of partisan selection, but I’m encouraging us to increase qualifications on the judges,” he said.

Considering that a majority of the commission did vote to recommend eliminating partisan judge races, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said she would not sign off on the commission’s report, and did not want her name associated with it, unless the report clearly explained her disagreement.

“We’re going to set forth exactly what the vote was, so everyone knows what they are agreeing to and what they are not,” replied commission Chairman David Beck, a partner in Beck Redden in Houston who added that Huffman could write a separate statement in the report about her viewpoint.

Another divisive vote asked if the commission should recommend that Texas create a judicial selection commission that would initially appoint judges to the bench, and then they would run in retention elections to keep their seats. The commission was tied on the idea by a 7-7 vote, with one member abstaining. Again, it was the legislator-members of the commission who said no.

See here and here for the background. You know how I feel about this, and I said quite a bit of it in those two posts, so I’ll leave it at that. The Commission‘s report is due today, so we’ll see what they have to say. They did find more agreement on questions of mandating more experience for judicial candidates and for further regulating campaign contributions for judicial races. As a philosophical matter, I’m fine with those ideas, though of course the details will matter. The bottom line here seems to be that there’s zero appetite in the Legislature to make fundamental changes to our judicial election system. As I’ve said many times, until someone actually comes up with a viable alternate system that addresses the actual complaints people have with the current system without introducing other problems, this is how it should be.

UPDATE: Here’s a Trib story about this.

Abbott appoints another statewide judge

From before the holidays:

Judge Michael Keasler

Jesse McClure, a trial judge on a criminal court in Houston, will join the state’s highest court for criminal matters in the new year.

Gov. Greg Abbott appointed McClure, a Republican, to the Court of Criminal Appeals, where he will fill a seat being vacated by Judge Michael Keasler. Keasler, 78, is departing Dec. 31 under Texas’ mandatory retirement law for judges.

McClure was appointed to his current bench by Abbott in November 2019 but lost his reelection bid to Democrat Te’iva Bell last month in an election that saw Democrats sweep Harris County.

Previously, McClure worked as a prosecutor for the Texas Department of Insurance, as an attorney with the Department of Homeland Security and as an assistant district attorney in Tarrant County. He will serve the remainder of Keasler’s term, which lasts through the end of 2022, and then plans to seek reelection.

[…]

A Texas law that requires judges to retire within a few years of turning 75 forced Keasler to step down partway through his six-year term.

In Keasler’s case, the law caused a fair bit of confusion.

Last year, two Democrats pursued the nomination to run for Keasler’s seat, expecting an election, rather than an appointment, in a misunderstanding that even the Texas secretary of state’s office did not escape. Ultimately, given that Keasler served through the end of the year, the seat fell to Abbott to fill, not the voters.

Keasler said that did not influence his decision to serve through the end of the year.

“I know I’m in the fourth quarter, there’s no question about that, I just hope I’m not at the two-minute warning just yet,” he joked.

See here for the background on that confusion. I guess “within a few years of turning 75” does leave some room for interpretation. McClure was Abbott’s second appointment to a statewide bench in the last three months, following the well-timed resignation of now-former Supreme Court Justice Paul Green. For all the biennial debate we have about electing judges versus some other system for naming them, we sure do have a lot of judges on the Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals who got there initially via gubernatorial appointment. Such selections come with no requirement for Senate confirmation, and in nearly every case the newbie judge gets two full years on the bench before having to face the voters. We can as always debate the merits of the system we have, but we should be honest about the way that system actually works.

The proper level of seriousness

Meet John Fetterman (if you haven’t already), Lt. Governor of Pennsylvania and America’s foremost Dan Patrick troll.

John Fetterman

All John Fetterman wants for Christmas is the $3 million he says Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick owes him.

The Democratic lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania has been trolling his Republican counterpart for weeks to collect on the $1 million Patrick offered in November for evidence of fraud in the Nov. 3 election. Three supporters of President Donald Trump have now been charged in separate voter fraud schemes in Pennsylvania. Fetterman says they should all count for bounty purposes.

The most recent charges came this week — against the second Pennsylvania man to be accused of casting a ballot for Trump in the name of his deceased mother.

“We hit the jackpot with this last one,” Fetterman said. “There are three documented cases — three.”

“All I want for Christmas is my handsome reward from Dan Patrick,” Fetterman tweeted on Dec. 18 with a Christmas tree and pleading face emoji. Fetterman says he’ll donate the proceeds to food banks in the form of gift cards to Sheetz and Wawa, competing Pennsylvania convenience stores with die-hard followings.

Patrick has responded to Fetterman just once, in a tweet in November that read: “Faith in the electoral process is a serious issue. Transparency is critical. PA Dems brought this on themselves w/ last minute changes to election laws and counting ballots behind closed doors. Respond to the reports. Answer the questions. Stop the snide put-downs and #getserious”

Fetterman says he is serious — about debunking the false allegations being thrown at his state. He has taken the lead in Pennsylvania pushing back on bogus claims of voter fraud circulated by Trump and his allies. Patrick — honorary chairman of Trump’s campaign in Texas — and his million-dollar reward are helping to disprove those claims, Fetterman says.

“While it’s undoubtedly and undeniably hilarious these cases involved Trump voters and their dead mothers, it’s irrelevant because it documents how truly rare voter fraud is and how impossible it is to truly pull it off,” Fetterman said.

Fetterman has spent the last six weeks hounding Patrick, who he says is “just such a Trump simp, it’s just pathetic.”

“The thing that’s so especially galling is that people like him were smearing our state when we actually had an impeccable election,” Fetterman said. “They keep trying to malign and smear the quality work done by both sides — we’ve got way more Republican counties than Democratic counties. He’s smearing Republicans and Democrats alike when he impugns the electoral integrity.”

“If you’re going to smear my state, then you need to pay up, because we delivered what you asked for,” he said.

I trust you recall the Dan Patrick “one million dollars for voter fraud” challenge. Of course it was a ridiculous stunt by a shameless publicity whore – anyone else remember the time then-Sen. Dan Patrick, in his first term, brought a million dollars in actual cash to a press conference he’d called because he wanted to make sure everyone understood how much money that was? – and I doubt he gave it much thought beyond approving the media release, but I suspect Fetterman’s response caught him flat-footed. The prune-faced responses from Patrick and his press secretary would suggest they had no planned answer for anyone who took his “challenge” seriously. As such, he’s been thoroughly owned by someone who played the game at a much higher level than he did.

The great irony of this is that the relentless efforts by clowns like Patrick and Ken Paxton – and Greg Abbott before Paxton – to find and prove “voter fraud” on anything grander than a “dude who tried to cast a ballot for his dead mother” level is the best proof anyone could offer of the lack of same. I call this a “Bigfoot hunt” because the parallel is so clear – after decades of Bigfoot hunter tromping around the woods and forests without a single bone, footprint, pelt, or piece of scat to offer as proof of existence, what reasonable person could conclude anything other than there ain’t no such thing? We have literally tons of evidence of creatures that lived hundreds of millions of years ago, but not even one lousy sample of Bigfoot DNA. We have millions of dedicated “voter fraud” hunters, and they can’t come up with anything better than the Fetterman-supplied dude in Forty Fort impersonating his dead mother. You tell me what it means.

You’d think with all that voter fraud out there, they could actually find some

So much effort, so little to show for it.

Best mugshot ever

The Texas Attorney General’s office this year almost doubled the amount of time it spent looking into and working on voter fraud cases in 2018 — more than 22,000 staff hours — yet resolved just 16 prosecutions, half as many as in 2018, records show.

All 16 cases involved Harris County residents who gave false addresses on their voter registration forms. None of them received any jail time.

Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has made the hunt for voter fraud a top priority of his office, between January and October gave the election integrity unit access to eight additional law enforcement sergeants on top of the nine already assigned to it, and doubled the number of prosecutors to four, according to records obtained from the agency by nonprofit government watchdog American Oversight and shared with Hearst Newspapers.

In its 15 years of its existence, the unit has prosecuted a few dozen cases in which offenders received jail time, none of them involving widespread fraud.

[…]

The low number of prosecutions resolved this year in contrast with the hours worked shines light on a core disagreement between Paxton and voting rights advocates: Is the low prosecution rate a cause or effect? Does it signify that few cases exist or that more resources are needed to find the cases presumed to be lurking undetected?

Paxton did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but in a taped interview with the conservative-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation in September, he explained why he believes the number of cases does not represent the scope of the issue.

“It just takes a lot of effort to take it through the entire process. So you’re never going to see thousands of cases coming out of an office that has three prosecutors, and we probably have more than most states,” Paxton said. “It’s limited to what we can do, but we try to send the message with what we do and the fact that we’re investigating well over 100 cases right now, that we take this seriously, and we’re going to do our best. You may be the unfortunate one we catch.”

University of Texas election law professor Joseph Fishkin said there could be another explanation.

“This is not the only voter fraud effort to pour in a lot of resources and end up with a relatively small number of cases found,” Fishkin said, referring to the Trump Administration’s voting integrity commission, which disbanded in 2018 after finding no evidence of widespread voter fraud. “Finding very few defendants, even if they can charge some with multiple offenses, is consistent with the possibility that there just isn’t that much fraud to prosecute.”

It’s also possible that Paxton, like Greg Abbott before him, is just really incompetent at his job, which in this case would provide counter-evidence to the belief that it takes a crook to catch a crook.

Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program, said investing in a program that has not uncovered widespread fraud speaks to Paxton’s priorities.

“How many resources are they going to spend to try to put political wins on the board?” Pérez said. “No one is saying that there’s never mistakes or that fraud never happens. People are saying it’s extraordinarily rare; study after study demonstrates that that’s the case.”

Pérez added that the attorney general’s office tends to try to make examples out of voters who made mistakes and isn’t finding the organized election fraud that Paxton claims to be guarding against.

For example, Crystal Mason is a 45-year-old Fort Worth woman who was sentenced to five years in prison for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 presidential election — one that was never counted — while on supervised release for a federal conviction. She has said she did not know she was ineligible to vote. At the end of November, her lawyers filed a petition to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to review her case and acquit her of the illegal voting charge.

“Crystal Mason got more time than that ‘affluenza’ kid,” she said, referring to a Texas man who got no jail time after claiming in court that his wealthy upbringing clouded his sense of right and wrong during his trial for killing four people while driving drunk. “It’s really hard to say who you’re protecting people from.”

He’s trying to protect Republicans from the scourge of Democratic voting. That much is clear.

Look, in a sense this is all just hunting for Bigfoot. The fact that we’ve spent all this time and money trying to find Bigfoot without ever finding any evidence of Bigfoot doesn’t mean that Bigfoot doesn’t exist, it just means we’re not looking hard enough. Alternately, one can claim that all this time and money being spent on Bigfoot hunting is the only thing that’s keeping us safe from rampaging Bigfoot massacres, because if we weren’t out there so publicly hunting for Bigfoot, then Bigfoot would get all emboldened and run amok in the community. And we wouldn’t want to send the message that we’re soft on Bigfoot, now would we?

“Of course I didn’t say the thing that I totally said”

“You just weren’t supposed to understand it.”

Texas Republican Party Chairman Allen West said Monday he was not advocating secession from the United States in his response on Friday to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to refuse to take up a Texas-led lawsuit to overturn election results in four battleground states.

After the Supreme Court rejected the Texas case, West released a statement to the public expressing his frustration with the decision. But he included one line that caught national attention.

“Perhaps law-abiding states should bond together and form a union of states that will abide by the Constitution,” West said.

But West said that was never a call for Texas to leave the Union like it did in 1861. In a message to Republicans on Monday, he said he’s still unsure why people think his statement meant he wanted Texas to secede.

“I am still trying to find where I said anything about ‘secession,’” West said.

Truly, it’s our fault for having sufficient reading comprehension skills.

Meanwhile

Texas Republicans on Monday couldn’t resist making one last futile stand for President Donald Trump even during what normally should have been a mundane and routine meeting certifying he had won the Lone Star State.

After 38 designated supporters of President Donald Trump cast all of Texas’ Electoral College votes, they went off script and crafted a nonbinding resolution calling on state legislatures in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin to change their pick from President-elect Joe Biden to Trump in an attempt to erase the Democrat’s win.

The resolution, which doubled down on Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s long-shot effort last week to undermine Biden’s win, also condemned the U.S. Supreme Court for “a lack of action.”

All of them need a snack and their nap pad. It’s just so, so sad.

The life and times of Ken Paxton

This long Trib story is basically a biography of Ken Paxton, with a focus on his ethical and legal travails since 2014. Most of what’s in here you already know, but if you need a refresher or you know someone who wants to get up to speed on the saga, this would be an excellent starting point. I’m going to highlight a couple of bits, mostly from the end, to illustrate where we are now.

Best mugshot ever

Although Democrats continue to make major hay of the [2015 securities fraud] charges, Paxton maintained enough support from conservatives to stay in office. Supporters compared his case to that of former Gov. Rick Perry, whose team spun the former governor’s indictment for abuse of power as a political hit job, and whose case was eventually dismissed.

With the securities fraud accusations, conservatives didn’t necessarily think Paxton was blameless — but he looked “sloppy” more than anything else, conservative political consultant Luke Macias said.

“The past accusations were more like Democrats trying to impeach Trump,” Macias said. This time is different, he said: The allegations are more serious, and they’re coming from attorneys respected on the right for their legal abilities and their conservative credentials.

[…]

Federal authorities have declined to say whether they are investigating Paxton, and the Texas Rangers said they referred complaints against Paxton to the FBI. But legal experts say it’s all but certain federal authorities are vetting the accusations against Paxton.

It would be “highly unusual” for federal authorities not to investigate, given the seriousness of the allegations and the presumed credibility of the accusers, said Edward Loya, a Dallas attorney and former prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice who handled public corruption investigations.

“That is a serious claim made by law enforcement professionals who, we expect, understand the gravity of such an accusation,” Loya said. He added that it’s unlikely any major developments would become public about the investigation for several months.

We may grind our teeth at Luke Macias’ words, but we must recognize that having a Jeff Mateer call Ken Paxton a crook is going to be taken more seriously by Republicans than having any Democrat call Paxton a crook. And yes, I know, it was a grand jury in Collin County that returned the indictments, but don’t let the facts get in the way of the story. Also, we need to be patient, because it will be a long time before we know for sure if this is a real thing that is going somewhere or just a lot of smoke that was never a fire.

Now, Paxton sits at the head of an agency that is hemorrhaging senior staff even as its workload — a slew of election-related lawsuits, thousands of child support cases, an argument at the U.S. Supreme Court — remains heavy and urgent.

In addition to the eight whistleblowers, Paxton has lost Ben Williams, who had worked with the attorney general since his days in the Legislature and ran Paxton’s campaign for House speaker and state Senate. Williams resigned just days after the allegations were made public. Katherine Cary, the agency’s chief of staff, was already set to retire this fall. Marc Rylander, a longtime Paxton ally and the agency’s former communications director, left in September. And Simpson, who headed the agency’s human resources department during the debacle, retired at the end of October.

At a senior staff meeting last month, before the whistleblowers had left or been fired, Darren McCarty, a former senior aide, asked Paxton whether the agency would stop bashing them in statements to the media. There was no response.

In an Oct. 16 letter to the Legislature, Paxton insisted that the agency was forging ahead full bore — a characterization some current and former agency staff members consider far rosier than the truth.

Some attorneys in litigation-heavy divisions of the agency fear his reputation will hurt their credibility in court.

“Any action taken by the AG’s office under General Paxton is suspect,” said Shane Phelps, who was a senior deputy at the agency under former attorneys general Cornyn and Dan Morales. The agency has to keep litigating its thousands of cases, on everything from child support to the death penalty, but now judges will “be on the lookout for any indication that it’s being handled irregularly, in any way that is coming from the top and for all the wrong reasons.”

“It has damaged the credibility and the ability of the AG’s office to further the interest of the state of Texas in court,” Phelps said, and “given all sorts of ammunition for anybody opposing the AG’s office in court to start talking about these things.”

“Something needs to happen,” Phelps said. “It sounds like he’s getting pretty brazen.”

I’d say Ken Paxton been pretty brazen for some time now, but I take his point. As for the current functional capacity of the AG’s office, on the one hand I’m happy to have our eventual Democratic candidate beat Paxton over the head about how his own actions have severely shackled the agency. But on the other hand, given that this AG’s office almost never does something I approve of, I’m not exactly heartbroken by this turn of events. May he stay limited in his ability to cause damage until such time as he is ejected from that office. Reform Austin has more.

(Note: This story came out one day before the four whistleblowers filed their lawsuit against Paxton. I had figured I could wait to publish this till the weekend, since it wasn’t breaking news or anything. Life comes at you fast.)

Keep fighting, fellas

Primal scream time.

Two of Texas’ top Republicans took part [last] Saturday in a protest of Gov. Greg Abbott’s coronavirus restrictions outside the Governor’s Mansion, a striking display of intraparty defiance three days before early voting begins for a momentous November election.

The “Free Texas” rally featured speeches from Texas GOP Chair Allen West and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, both of whom invoked the governor critically. At one point, Miller turned toward the mansion with a message for Abbott.

“Quite frankly, governor, your cure is worse than the disease,” Miller said.

West, who took over the party in July and has been an open critic of some of Abbott’s coronavirus decisions, read a resolution that the State Republican Executive Committee passed last month. The resolution tells Abbott: “No Exceptions, No Delays….Open Texas NOW.”

“We call upon the governor to do what is right by the people of the great state of Texas so that Texas can continue to be a leader,” West added. “And if the governor did not get this resolution, I’m gonna leave it right here, at the gates of the Governor’s Mansion.”

The protest drew at least 200 people, a virtually maskless crowd, to a parking lot steps away from the Governor’s Mansion in downtown Austin. After hearing from a lineup of speakers that also included state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, the group marched on the streets and sidewalks surrounding the mansion, chanting, “Open Texas now!”

The audience was filled with signs expressing disgust at Abbott’s decisions to institute a statewide mask mandate and shut down certain businesses throughout the pandemic. One sign called Abbott the “#1 Job Killer in Texas,” while another called to “IMPEACH ABBOTT THE RHINO.”

I’ve been sitting on this for a few days in part because there’s so damn much other news that I’ve not been able to fit it in, and in part because it’s hard to add anything to “IMPEACH ABBOTT THE RHINO”. But we carry on.

West’s criticism of Abbott’s pandemic decisions has fueled speculation that he could run against the governor in 2022. As West prepared to start speaking at the rally, there were a couple chants of “West for governor!” which he sought to brush off, saying, “Oh, stop it, stop it, stop it.” Then there was another chant that drew cheers, prompting West to shake his head lightheartedly.

“Paid political announcement by a bunch of knuckleheads,” he said jokingly.

The idea of a carpetbagger like Allen West being a serious primary challenger to Greg Abbott is bizarre, to say the least, but we live in strange times. I do at this point believe someone will challenge Abbott in the primary, but who that might be and how seriously it will be taken remains unclear. Maybe this was Sid Miller’s audition for the job – he’s dumb enough to think he can do it, and clownish enough to appeal anyone who might think Allen West is some kind of savior. There’s plenty of room for this to get dumber, of that I’m certain. Dan Patrick as ever is the wild card, and likely the one Republican than Abbott actually fears. I don’t have any predictions – even if I did, it would be ridiculous to make them this far in advance – but I sure am interested in seeing how this plays out. We have a super consequential legislative session coming up, with redistricting and coronavirus and executive power and who knows what else that will dominate. How much does this kind of dissension affect Republican plans, or can they pull it together enough to support the things they all are supposed to like? Would a Dem Speaker remind them all of their real opponent? I don’t know, but these are the things I’ll be thinking about.

On executive power and the role of the Legislature

Just a few thoughts from recent events relating to Greg Abbott, COVID-19, vote access and suppression, local control, all those Hotze lawsuits, and so forth.

1. I think most of us would agree that however we assess Greg Abbott’s performance in response to the COVID pandemic, we need to have a conversation about the extent of the Governor’s executive powers and the role that the Legislature should have when laws are being amended or suspended on the fly in response to crisis situations. The lack of any input from the Legislature in all these COVID actions, from mask and shutdown orders and the subsequent reopening orders to expanding and contracting early voting and voting by mail, is a direct result of the system we have where the Legislature only meets once every other year, unless called into session by the Governor. All Abbott needs to do to keep the Lege at arm’s length is to not call a special session, which has been his response numerous times going back to the Hurricane Harvey aftermath. It may be time to admit that our quaint little system of “citizen legislators” who leave the farm every other year to handle The People’s Business in Austin just doesn’t work in the 21st century. If we don’t want Greg Abbott or any other Governor to be the sole authority on these matters, then we need to have a Lege that meets more often, and to have a Lege that meets more often means we need to accept the idea of legislating as a profession and adjust the compensation accordingly. I recognize that this is a thing that will almost certainly never happen, but I’m putting it on the table because we’re kidding ourselves otherwise.

2. A somewhat less foundation-shifting response would be to pass laws that mandate an expiration date on all emergency-response executive orders, which can only be renewed with the approval of the legislature. Put in a provision that allows the Lege to convene and vote on such things remotely, which bypasses the need for a special session and also allows for the Lege to operate in the context of a pandemic or other condition that would prevent them from meeting in person at the Capitol. Another possibility, which need not be mutually exclusive, is to mandate some conditions under which a special session must be called, say after an emergency declaration that has lasted for a certain duration or has resulted in some set of actions on the Governor’s part. It is within the Lege’s power to force itself into this conversation.

3. I would argue that when the Lege takes up the Disaster Act, or whatever other response it makes to review and revise executive authority in the wake of a declared disaster, it should clarify what kind of actions the Governor can take. Specifically, any action by the Governor must be taken in the service of containing, mitigating, or recovering from the disaster in question. As I said before, in the context of early voting and voting by mail, extending early voting and expanding vote by mail and allowing for mail ballots to be dropped off during early voting all served the purpose of mitigating the spread of coronavirus, but limiting the number of mail ballot dropoff locations did not, in the same way that limiting the number of food distribution locations following a hurricane would not count as hurricane/flood relief. I say that should make Abbott’s order illegal under the Disaster Act, and whatever the courts ultimately rule about that, the law should be changed to reflect that viewpoint.

4. The law could also be amended to limit litigation that would contravene this goal of mitigating the declared disaster. What is the law here for, and why should we let some cranks make technical (and let’s face it, mostly ridiculous) arguments that would worsen the disaster for some number of people?

5. If the Republican Party still had some affinity for local control, instead of putting all its chips on limiting what local officials they don’t like are allowed to do, then codifying the powers of county officials in response to a disaster might be worthwhile. I have some sympathy for Abbott’s stated impulse to not put a burden on smaller rural counties when it’s the more heavily populated ones that needed shutdown orders, but that sympathy only extends to the limit of what Abbott was willing to let the county judges of those more populated places do. I want to be careful here because a wacko county judge like the guy in Montgomery could easily have a negative effect on his neighbors like Harris if granted too much discretion, but I think if we stick to the mantra of everything needing to be in the service of mitigating and recovering from the disaster in order to be legal and valid, we can work this out.

6. Some of what I’m talking about here will split along partisan lines, but not all of it will. Clearly, there is some appetite among Republicans to limit executive power, though not in a way that I would endorse, but that is not universal. It’s clear from the Paxton brief in response to the latest Hotze mandamus that our AG at least believes in a strong executive, and I believe that feeling extends to other Republicans. Democrats can likely drive some of this discussion, especially if they are a majority in the House, but they will want to be careful as well, lest they wind up clipping the wings of (say) Governor Julian Castro in 2023. This is a multi-dimensional problem, that’s all I’m saying.

(Oh, and any Republican coalition in favor of a strong executive will of course evaporate the minute there is a Democratic Governor. I mean, obviously.)

I’m sure there are other aspects to this that I am not thinking of. My point is that this is a topic the Lege can and should take up, even if any bill they pass is likely to run into a veto. I just wanted to lay out what I think the parameters of the discussion are, or at least what I’d like them to be. Who knows what actually will happen – the election will shape it in some ways – but I hope this serves as a starting point for us to think about.

Here, have a Paxton scandal roundup

At first I couldn’t decide if I wanted to put the juiciest bit up front or at the end. I decided to put it at the end, to hold your interest throughout.

From the Trib, life and business tries to go on at the AG’s office.

Best mugshot ever

It had already been a difficult fall for the Texas attorney general’s office.

The sprawling agency, which employs some 4,000 people in more than 100 offices across Texas, has for months had to contend with the added challenges of the coronavirus, many staff members working from home and others deployed as legal backup to Gov. Greg Abbott in coronavirus-related lawsuits on everything from abortion rights to business closures.

Communications director Marc Rylander departed more than a month ago, and Nick Moutos, an assistant attorney general, lost his job at the agency in early September after revelations that he had shared racist rhetoric and QAnon conspiracy theories on social media. Meanwhile, top state attorneys are juggling a handful of fast-moving election-related lawsuits — When will early voting begin? Will Texas ballots allow for straight-ticket voting? — and gearing up for a Nov. 10 argument before the U.S. Supreme Court, the culmination of a yearslong effort to strike down the Affordable Care Act.

But things hit a fever pitch this weekend as seven of the agency’s most senior staff members accused their boss, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, of crimes including bribery and abuse of office, as the Austin-American Statesman and KVUE-TV first reported Saturday night. One of the whistleblowers, Jeff Mateer, abruptly resigned his position as Paxton’s top aide Friday after telling a human resources administrator at the agency that he and other aides “have a good faith belief that the attorney general is violating federal and/or state law including prohibitions related to improper influence, abuse of office, bribery and other potential criminal offenses.”

But Paxton, who has pledged to forge ahead as attorney general, pointed the finger back at the seven aides.

“Despite the effort by rogue employees and their false allegations I will continue to seek justice in Texas and will not be resigning,” Paxton said.

Now, agency staff will have to juggle coordinating child support payments, open-records requests and major court dates under the cloud of fresh allegations against their boss, without Mateer, and with an internal battle quietly raging between Paxton and many of the most senior aides who remain.

Yes, so many distractions they must deal with as they work so hard to take away your health care and restrict your access to the ballot box. I don’t know how they manage to do it all.

A spokesperson for the agency, Kayleigh Date, said Saturday that the top aides made the allegations against Paxton “to impede an ongoing investigation into criminal wrongdoing by public officials including employees of this office.”

And she seemed to suggest that state officials hope to investigate or even prosecute the whistleblowers.

“Making false claims is a very serious matter and we plan to investigate this to the fullest extent of the law,” Date added.

Date declined to provide any further details about the investigation or how the agency will run amid the chaos. She also did not respond to questions about how many of the seven remain employed at the agency.

For his part, Paxton worked Monday to signal business as usual, appointing Brent Webster, a former assistant criminal district attorney in Williamson County, to replace Mateer in the critical role of first assistant attorney general.

Paxton also had lunch at an Austin barbecue restaurant with Bill Miller, a friend and longtime lobbyist, who said Paxton was surprised and puzzled by the allegations and maintains that he has not done anything wrong.

Miller said Paxton hadn’t heard from law enforcement or retained an attorney on the matter and pointed out that the aides leveling accusations against Paxton have yet to publicly show evidence: “There’s a lotta smoke; where’s the fire?”

Paxton doesn’t understand where the claims came from, and “he isn’t going anywhere,” Miller said, but is committed to forging ahead with the agency’s work with Webster as the new first assistant.

Yes, it would be nice to know what if anything is happening with these accusations. As per usual custom, there won’t be any comment from the FBI or US Attorney’s office, so unless someone leaks to the press, or until people with badges and search warrants show up at the office, all we can do is wait and speculate. I hate to say it, but there may not be much news on this for awhile.

The Chron goes into the politics and gets some detail on one of the more alarming charges.

Texas political analyst Mark Jones of Rice University, who has studied the felony case that has been hanging over Paxton for five years now, said these allegations are different.

“This isn’t an accusation that comes completely out of left field regarding a public servant who has an unblemished track record,” Jones said. “This is someone, from when he arrived in the state House, moved to the state Senate, moved to the office of the attorney general, has had a trail of questionable ethical behavior.”

Jones added: “We’re talking about the chief law enforcement official in the second-largest state in the country.”

Most state Republicans, watching as Paxton has weathered such allegations in the past, have backed him or stayed silent over the years. This time likely will be different, Jones said.

Hearst Newspapers reported Sunday that Houston lawyer Brandon Cammack, whom Paxton hired as a special prosecutor, issued grand jury subpoenas last week targeting “adversaries” of Paul, according to a senior attorney general’s office official. There were 37 subpoenas that targeted actions of federal authorities in an August 2019 raid of Paul’s home and offices, the Austin American-Statesman reported Monday.

One of the signatories on the letter accusing Paxton, deputy attorney general for criminal justice J. Mark Penley, filed a motion in state District Court in Austin to halt the subpoenas. The motion to quash them was granted Friday, records show.

Many questions remain about the nature of the alleged bribery and how Cammack came to work for the office in a move that has been opposed by half of Paxton’s executive staff.

Paxton has not responded to questions about any contract the office had with Cammack, when he was hired, how much he is being paid or any other details.

Hearst Newspapers has filed open records requests for records of payments to Cammack as well as any agreement the office had with him.

This right here is what I want to know more about, and it won’t be dependent on any loose lips or federal action. Let’s get those records and see what they tell us.

The Chron also has a timeline of Paxton’s malfeasance and pettifoggery. The MontBlanc pen episode is probably my favorite of them. The Trib reminds us that AGs in Texas often go on to run for other things, though not always with success. I don’t see much of a future in higher office for Paxton, but he went from the House to the Senate to the AG’s office pretty quickly, so it’s not like it couldn’t happen.

And finally, the bit you’ve been waiting for, from Law.com:

Appointed prosecutors who have been pursuing felony securities fraud charges against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for five years are researching new allegations that Paxton committed crimes in office.

If Paxton gets charged with new crimes, the prosecutors would seek to revoke his bond.

[…]

“We’re making contact with the individuals involved to determine what exactly happened and what evidence exists that suggests he was involved in misconduct,” said Kent Schaffer, one of the appointed prosecutors in Paxton’s pending case.

If Paxton does get charged with new criminal offenses, the prosecutors in his current felony case would file a motion to revoke Paxton’s bond, explained Schaffer, partner in Schaffer & Carter in Houston.

“When you’re under indictment in a felony case and you’re on bond, if you get a new violation, then your bond can be revoked and you can be held without bond,” he noted. “I’m not saying it’s going to happen. So far, we don’t have any evidence. He is not charged in a new case.”

Also, if Paxton eventually goes to trial in the securities fraud case, and he were also charged for crimes related to the new allegations, then Schaffer said the prosecutors would tell the jury about the new alleged crimes during the sentencing phase of the trial in order to argue for a harsher sentence.

Now, this could all be many months off, if it happens at all, but still. Enjoy the thought for a moment. You deserve it.

Chip Roy calls on Paxton to resign

Interesting.

Best mugshot ever

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, a former top aide to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, called on his former boss to resign from his post after top members of Paxton’s staff said the attorney general should be investigated for multiple crimes, including bribery.

“For the good of the people of Texas and the extraordinary public servants who serve at the Office of the Attorney General, Attorney General Ken Paxton must resign,” he said in a statement. “The allegations of bribery, abuse of office, and other charges levied against him by at least 7 senior leaders of the Office of the Attorney General are more than troubling on the merits.”

“But, any grace for him to resolve differences and demonstrate if the allegations are false was eliminated by his choice instead to attack the very people entrusted, by him, to lead the office – some of whom I know well and whose character are beyond reproach.”

Roy called the office of the attorney general “too critical to the state and her people to leave in chaos.”

“The Attorney General deserves his days in court, but the people of Texas deserve a fully functioning AG’s office,” he added.

Roy served as Paxton’s initial first assistant attorney general during Paxton’s first term, but resigned upon Paxton’s request in a major shake-up of senior staff in 2015. He was elected to Congress as a Republican in 2018.

See here and here for the background. I have some speculation about this, but before I get to that let me answer a question here that was raised in the comments to the previous post. If Paxton does resign, Greg Abbott will appoint a new AG. That person will serve until the next election, which in this case is the 2022 election, when Paxton’s term would be up. Had this all happened earlier – if, say, Paxton had stepped down in January, for example – then Abbott’s appointed AG would have been on the ballot this November as well, in the same way that there’s an election for Harris County Clerk to replace Diane Trautman. Because of the timing here, if Paxton does resign then whoever is appointed in his place will serve out the rest of his term.

Now then. Chip Roy, a former top lieutenant to Paxton, is the first prominent Republican to call for him to resign; as noted before, Abbott and Dan Patrick both issued very milquetoast “wait and see” statements in that Chron story. What might be the reason for this? Three possibilities I can think of:

1. It’s a principled move by someone who has seen enough evidence of wrongdoing and believes in the office enough to want to protect it. Yes, I know, my eyes are rolling as well, but we wouldn’t be in this position if it hadn’t been for the principled action of multiple people who are – or were, anyway – closely aligned with Paxton. I think very little of Chip Roy, but he didn’t have to put out a statement at all, or if he did he could have followed in Abbott and Partick’s extremely timid footsteps. I’m about to give two much more cynical reasons for this, but even if one or both of these other reasons are true, the fact remains that Chip Roy didn’t have to do this, and will almost certainly suffer some blowback for it. Give credit where credit is due.

2. Locked in a tight race for his Congressional seat, in a year where Donald Trump is doing his best to wreck Republican political careers around the country, the last thing Chip Roy needs is for people to think of him as a onetime head honcho for the consistently corrupt Ken Paxton. Getting out ahead of that mushroom cloud of scandal and putting as much distance between himself and Paxton is just Survival 101.

3. Did I mention that part about Greg Abbott appointing a replacement AG if Paxton does step down? And that part about Chip Roy maybe losing his re-election? Now who would be a better and more obvious choice to step in for Ken Paxton than a former Top Man in the office who was the first Republican to call on him to resign, thus giving him the cred he’ll need to clean up after Paxton’s mess and restore some faith in the Attorney General? Don’t tell me Chip Roy isn’t keeping his options open.

By the way, Ken Paxton says he ain’t resigning, but that’s what you’d expect him to say, and it’s what he says now, when we have very little information about these allegations. Let’s see what happens when we all learn more.

Anyway. Speaking of appointments, Paxton has named a replacement for his departed First Assistant AG, Jeff Mateer. Good luck with that, dude. I may need to seriously rewrite this entry if more Paxton news breaks this afternoon, but in the meantime you can read this Texas Signal story that recaps what we know so far. Catch up if you need to, I have a feeling there’s a lot more to come. The Chron, Texas Monthly, and Reform Austin have more.

UPDATE: The Chron editorial board joins the “Paxton should resign” bandwagon.

When Republicans fight

Such a sight to see.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s most exasperating allies sure chose an awkward time to act up.

In the face of a momentous election, with an array of issues that includes the pandemic, the recession, climate change, racial justice, law enforcement and the next appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, the chairman of the Texas GOP and a gang of lawmakers and activists have instead picked a fight with Abbott, who isn’t even on the ballot, over his response to the pandemic.

On the surface, they’re asking the courts to tell the governor that adding six more days of early voting to the calendar was outside of his powers. Abbott made the move under emergency powers he has claimed during the pandemic — the same powers he has used at various times to shut down schools, limit crowd sizes and limit how many customers businesses can serve at a time, or in some cases, to close businesses altogether.

The timing is connected to the Nov. 3 general election; even with the arguments over emergency powers, opponents of the governor’s action would be expected to grab for a remedy before early voting starts on Oct. 13. One might say the same about other lawsuits challenging the governor’s orders — that they’re tied not to politics, but to current events. Bar owners want to open their bars, for instance, and are not in the financial condition or the mood to stay closed until after the elections just to make the current set of incumbents look good.

What’s unusual is to see so many prominent Republican names on the top of a lawsuit against the Republican governor of Texas this close to an election.

In a gentler time, that might be called unseemly or distracting. Speaking ill of another Republican was considered out of bounds for a while there. Those days are over. What’s happening in Texas illustrates how the pandemic, the economy and other issues have shaken political norms.

As the story notes, this is also playing out in the SD30 special election, where Shelley Luther – supported by a million dollars from one of the Empower Texans moneybags – is busy calling Abbott a “tyrant”. There’s talk of various potential primary challengers to Abbott in 2022 – see the comments to this post for a couple of names – but I don’t see any serious threat to him as yet. If Dan Patrick decides he wants a promotion, then we’ve got something. Until then, it’s all talk.

But let me float an alternate scenario by you. What if the nihilist billionaires behind Empower Texans decide that Abbott and the Republican Party have totally sold out on them, and instead of finding someone to take Abbott out in a primary, they bankroll a petition drive to put some pet wingnut on the November ballot, as an independent or the nominee of some new party they just invented? It’s crazy and almost certain to hand the Governor’s mansion over to the Democratic nominee, but no one ever said these guys were strategic geniuses. It’s been said that there are three real political parties in Texas – the Democrats, the establishment Republicans, and the far right whackadoo Republicans. This would arguably be an outgrowth of that, and in what we all hope is a post-Trump world, there may be similar splits happening elsewhere.

How likely is this? As I said, it makes no sense in the abstract. It’s nearly impossible to see a path to victory for either Abbott or the appointed anti-Abbott. It’s instructive to compare to 2006, where Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman were taking votes away from both Rick Perry and Chris Bell. Nobody who considers themselves remotely a Democrat is going to be wooed by whoever Empower Texans could vomit onto the ballot. Maybe they would consider a victory by Julian Castro or whichever Dem to be preferable to another Abbott term, in their own version of “the two parties are the same, we must burn down the duopoly to get everything we want”. Just because it makes no sense doesn’t mean it can’t happen. For now, if I had to bet, my money would be on some token but not completely obscure challenger to Abbott in the primary – think Steve Stockman against John Cornyn in 2014, something like that. But a lot can happen in a year, and if the Dems do well this November, that could add to the pressure against Abbott. Who knows? Just another bubbling plot line to keep an eye on.

More details emerge about the latest Paxton allegations

The Chron advances the ball.

Best mugshot ever

The top state officials who staged a mutiny against Attorney General Ken Paxton warned that he was using his office to benefit campaign donor Nate Paul, an embattled Austin real estate investor.

Paul, a once high-flying businessman whose offices were reportedly raided by the FBI last year, gave Paxton $25,000 ahead of the attorney general’s hard-fought re-election battle in 2018.

The No. 2 official in the attorney general’s office, First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer, put Paul at the center of allegedly illegal activities by Paxton in a text message sent Thursday. Mateer, who resigned Friday, joined six other high-ranking employees in accusing Paxton, the state’s top law enforcement officer, of abuse of office, bribery and improper influence.

“Each of the individuals on this text chain made a good faith report of violations by you to an appropriate law enforcement authority concerning your relationship and activities with Nate Paul,” Mateer wrote in the text message, which was obtained by Hearst Newspapers.

The group requested an immediate meeting with Paxton, but the attorney general said he was “out of the office” and asked them to email him with their concerns. The Austin American-Statesman, which first reported on the allegations against Paxton, published a letter the officials sent to the attorney general’s human resources office on Oct. 1.

Neither Paul nor his attorney returned calls or messages left on their voicemail.

Paxton said in a statement Sunday: “The Texas attorney general’s office was referred a case from Travis County regarding allegations of crimes relating to the FBI, other government agencies and individuals. My obligation as attorney general is to conduct an investigation upon such referral. Because employees from my office impeded the investigation and because I knew Nate Paul, I ultimately decided to hire an outside independent prosecutor to make his own independent determination. Despite the effort by rogue employees and their false allegations, the AG’s office will continue to seek justice in Texas.”

The uprising against Paxton crystallized when a special prosecutor he appointed, Houston lawyer Brandon Cammack, issued grand jury subpoenas last week targeting “adversaries” of Paul, a senior AG official told Hearst Newspapers.

The official who spoke with Hearst Newspapers said those subpoenas spurred the seven top deputies in the attorney general’s office into action. One of the signatories on the letter accusing Paxton, deputy attorney general for criminal justice J. Mark Penley, filed a motion in state district court in Austin to halt the subpoenas. The motion to “quash” them was granted on Friday, records show.

In filing the subpoenas, Cammack “represented that he was acting on behalf of the office of the Attorney General as a Special Prosecutor,” Penley’s motion said. “He is not properly authorized to act as a Special Prosecutor, and … has no authority to appear before the grand jury or issue grand jury subpoenas.”

See here for the background. The information about the special prosecutor appointed by Paxton who’s been issuing subpoenas that “target adversaries” of this Nate Paul character is what really made my hair stand on end. If there is any truth to that, then this is a massive violation of the AG’s office and I can see why his top lieutenants rebelled the way they did. Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick are quoted in the story issuing “this sounds bad but let’s wait an see” statements – which, in all honesty, is reasonable enough for now – but the pressure is going to be on them, too.

There’s more in the story about Nate Paul, who sounds like a typical “more money than brains or ethics” sort, and I’ll leave that to you to read. This is the other bit that had me going “hmmmm”:

Kent Schaffer, a special prosecutor in [the long-running financial fraud case against Paxton], said Saturday that the latest accusations, if they leads to charges, could imperil Paxton’s odds of securing any kind of deal to resolve the criminal case.

“We were trying to get this case resolved, but if this guy’s out committing crimes while he’s on bond, then it’s going to become an extremely serious matter,” Schaffer said. “I’m not saying that he has — I don’t know the specifics, (but if he has) then it’s game on.

“Maybe the people that reported him are not shooting straight, but I want to hear from both sides, if possible. We’re going to do what we can to investigate.”

Schaffer said he contacted the Texas Rangers on Saturday immediately upon hearing the news. He declined to comment on whether the agency mentioned any existing investigation on the matter.

Paxton has also been accused by his staff of accepting bribes in the past.

Those 2016 bribery allegations did not lead to charges, though they did give us all a momentary thrill. The idea that the special prosecutors in the current case against Paxton might be able to get some leverage against him from this scandal-in-the-making is also giving me a thrill. I should know better by know, but I can’t help myself.

The revelations over the weekend appeared to have shaken the agency, where Ryan Bangert, deputy first assistant attorney general and one of the seven officials who reported Paxton to the authorities, sent out a letter of reassurance to staff.

“I write to assure you that the executive team remains committed to serving you, this office and the people of Texas,” Bangert wrote. “Your work, your sacrifice, and your dedication to this office inspire us all.”

Jordan Berry, Paxton’s political adviser, said he resigned after news of the allegations broke.

Watch what the people around Paxton do. We could be in for a mass exodus. I will try to stay on top of things. The Statesman has more on Nate Paul, and there’s national coverage from Bloomberg and CNN.

Federal bribery complaint alleged against Paxton

Holy moly.

Best mugshot ever

Top aides of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton have asked federal law enforcement authorities to investigate allegations of improper influence, abuse of office, bribery and other potential crimes against the state’s top lawyer.

In a one-page letter to the state agency’s director of human resources, obtained Saturday by the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV, seven executives in the upper tiers of the office said that they are seeking the investigation into Paxton “in his official capacity as the current Attorney General of Texas.”

The Thursday letter said that each “has knowledge of facts relevant to these potential offenses and has provided statements concerning those facts to the appropriate law enforcement.”

Paxton, a 57-year-old Republican, was elected in 2014. His office said in a statement Saturday evening: “The complaint filed against Attorney General Paxton was done to impede an ongoing investigation into criminal wrongdoing by public officials including employees of this office. Making false claims is a very serious matter and we plan to investigate this to the fullest extent of the law.”

The statement did not elaborate.

The letter to human resources was signed by Paxton’s first assistant, Jeff Mateer, who resigned Friday, as well as Mateer’s deputy and deputy attorneys general overseeing divisions that include criminal investigations, civil litigation, administration and policy.

“We have a good faith belief that the attorney general is violating federal and/or state law including prohibitions related to improper influence, abuse of office, bribery and other potential criminal offenses,” the letter states.

Their decisions to report possible illegal activity involving their employer represents a stunning development in an agency that prizes loyalty, particularly from within Paxton’s inner circle. It places a renewed spotlight on Paxton, who is already under indictment for alleged securities fraud.

The complaint concluded by saying that they notified Paxton in a text message Thursday that they had reported the alleged violations to law enforcement.

The whistleblowers, who notified human resources to protect their jobs, offered no other details about the allegations and did not describe what they believe Paxton did that was illegal. Efforts to reach them were unsuccessful Saturday.

Mateer’s inclusion in the complaint letter, and his departure as Paxton’s second in command, was particularly significant, coming from a political ally who shared a conservative Christian perspective on many social and legal issues.

“Stunned” doesn’t begin to describe how I feel about this news. This is a bombshell, and it’s a question of how big it is. The fact that this accusation was made by Paxton’s staffers, including an ideological ally like Jeff Mateer, makes it all the more momentous. I cannot wait to see what happens next.

Paxton’s defense appears to be “I’m not doing illegal stuff, it’s these staffers of mine who are the bad guys”. Not sure how well that will work out, but as we do not have any details from either side as yet, it is very likely there’s more to this, and we’re just going to have to wait to see what else there is. Neither this story nor the KVUE story has a copy of the letter, so what you see here is what we’ve got. Stay tuned. See Jessica Shortall on Twitter for more.

UPDATE: Here’s the letter. Doesn’t say anything that wasn’t already quoted, but you can see who signed it. The Trib has more.

SBOE updates sex ed curriculum

All things considered, especially the past history of the State Board of Education and its shenanigans, this could have been worse. It’s not great, but the potential for disaster was monumentally high.

The Texas State Board of Education gave preliminary approval this week to a sex education policy that includes teaching middle schoolers about birth control beyond abstinence — its first attempt to revise that policy since 1997.

In jam-packed meetings held Wednesday through Friday, the 15-member Republican-dominated board came one step closer to revising minimum standards for what Texas students learn about health and sex. It is expected to take a final vote in November.

The board voted to teach seventh and eighth grade students to “analyze the effectiveness and the risks and failure rates … of barrier protection and other contraceptive methods in the prevention of STDs, STIs and pregnancy,” in addition to the importance of abstinence. Currently, learning about birth control methods beyond abstinence is only a requirement in high school, where health education is an optional course.

But the board rejected proposals to teach middle school students about the importance of consent or teach any students to define gender identity and sexual orientation.

[…]

Over the last several months, panels of educators and medical professionals formulated recommendations to overhaul the health and sex education policies.

Board members clashed on several edits to those recommendations, including whether to include explicit reference to sexual orientation and gender identity. On Thursday and Friday, Ruben Cortez, a Brownsville Democrat, unsuccessfully proposed teaching middle schoolers and high schoolers to define sexual orientation and gender identity. He said the proposals would help LGBTQ students, who studies show have a higher rate of suicide attempts in part due to discrimination.

“One of my children this summer came out to us and the fact that she had to bottle that in for years thinking that we wouldn’t accept her,” he said, getting choked up as he spoke. “It’s difficult to imagine what other students who don’t live in a tolerant house would go through if we don’t insert language like this to help our students.”

Most Republicans on the board opposed his proposal, saying they would rather not include it in the minimum standards schools are required to teach. Instead, they said, they would rather let local school districts vote to add LGBTQ issues to their own health education policies, since state law gives them that flexibility. Matt Robinson, from Friendswood, was the sole Republican who voted with Democrats to add the language Friday.

“I would like to see this left up to being a community decision,” said Pat Hardy, a Fort Worth Republican.

“I don’t think at the high school level we can afford to be cryptic with regards to our youth,” said Marisa Perez-Diaz, a Converse Democrat. “Identity exists. We need to talk about it regardless of one’s sensitivity and discomfort.”

Most Republicans also opposed Cortez’s proposals Thursday and Friday to teach middle and high school students to “explain the importance of treating all people with dignity and respect regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Instead, they approved teaching students to prevent “all forms of bullying and cyberbullying such as emotional, physical, social and sexual.” Schools can choose to include bullying as a result of sexual orientation and gender identity in those lessons, Republicans said.

On Wednesday night, board members battled over whether to teach sixth graders the definition of consent as it relates to physical intimacy and to “explain why all physical contact should be consensual.” Republicans said consent was a legally murky concept and instead prioritized students learning to be able to say no to unwanted approaches.

“In my opinion, refusal skills, personal boundaries, personal privacy covers this area at this age,” said Marty Rowley, an Amarillo Republican. “Eleven and 12 is too young in my opinion.”

I’d argue that stuff needs to be discussed from the time the kid is in preschool. Which, in a good preschool, it often is. It’s basic bodily autonomy, as in no one has the right to touch you if you don’t want them to. I don’t think it gets all that more complicated when you’re talking about touch in an explicitly sexual context. I can understand why people may be uncomfortable with that, but that’s just too bad. This was a significant missed opportunity.

Same thing with sexual orientation and gender identity. Perhaps what some people fail to understand is that the kids themselves are a lot more comfortable with that subject than many adults are. And kids who are gay or trans or nonbinary generally know who they are by middle school. We can’t choose to not engage with them on the subject. It’s alienating and insulting to them. Leaving it up to the locals may sound like a reasonable compromise, except that we know some school districts are hostile to LGBTQ students, and could not be trusted to set this material themselves. Some minimum level of standard is needed, and the SBOE whiffed on it. Basically, what was needed in both of these cases was honest, factual information, which would benefit all of the students. This change will not provide it to them, and that is a significant failure on the SBOE’s part.

The good news is the baby step away from abstinence-only education, which is a travesty with harmful repercussions. It’s not enough, but any movement in that direction is welcome. If we can take advantage of the opportunity we have this fall to elect some better members to the SBOE, maybe we can take more steps in that direction, and get on the right track with these other matters. The Chron and Reform Austin have more.

Good riddance to a bad person

We should all be thoroughly disgusted by this.

A Texas assistant attorney general sent dozens of tweets over the past several months threatening violence against progressives, spouting racist and transphobic rhetoric, casting doubt over the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic and sharing QAnon conspiracy theories. On Thursday, he lost his job with the state agency after national media reported on his social media activities.

Nick Moutos, whose racist tweets were reported Thursday morning by Media Matters, threatened Black Lives Matter protesters and has regularly referred to the organizers as “terrorists.” He called Islam a “virus” and trans people an “abomination.”

“As of today, this individual no longer works for the Office of the Attorney General,” Kayleigh Date, spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, told The Texas Tribune.

[…]

This isn’t the first time a staffer in the attorney general’s office has been in hot water over their social media presence. In 2018, the communications director for the office deleted his Twitter account after sharing tweets mocking sexual misconduct allegations brought against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. In 2017, an associate deputy attorney general resigned after a Dallas Morning News story drew attention to comments he made about #MeToo survivors.

And don’t forget Jeff “Satan’s Plan” Mateer, another hateful asshole that your tax dollars pay for. They are really not sending their best to the AG’s office. This particular jackwad has been quite prolific and not at all discreet about it on Twitter, which makes me wonder how it is that it took so long to identify him and get his ass out of there. This guy worked for the public, while having loads of contempt and revulsion for large portions of the public. That’s just not acceptable, in any form or fashion. We really, really need to do some housecleaning in 2022.