When Frederick Law Olmsted passed through Texas, in 1853, he became besotted with the majesty of the Texas legislature. “I have seen several similar bodies at the North; the Federal Congress; and the Parliament of Great Britain, in both its branches, on occasions of great moment; but none of them commanded my involuntary respect for their simple manly dignity and trustworthiness for the duties that engaged them, more than the General Assembly of Texas,” he wrote. This passage is possibly unique in the political chronicles of the state. Fairly considered, the Texas legislature is more functional than the United States Congress, and more genteel than the House of Commons. But a recurrent crop of crackpots and ideologues has fed the state’s reputation for aggressive know-nothingism and proudly retrograde politics.
I’ve lived in Texas for most of my life, and I’ve come to appreciate what the state symbolizes, both to people who live here and to those who view it from afar. Texans see themselves as a distillation of the best qualities of America: friendly, confident, hardworking, patriotic, neurosis-free. Outsiders see us as the nation’s id, a place where rambunctious and disavowed impulses run wild. Texans, it is thought, mindlessly celebrate individualism, and view government as a kind of kryptonite that weakens the entrepreneurial muscles. We’re reputed to be braggarts; careless with money and our personal lives; a little gullible, but dangerous if crossed; insecure, but obsessed with power and prestige.
Texans, however, are hardly monolithic. The state is as politically divided as the rest of the nation. One can drive across it and be in two different states at the same time: FM Texas and AM Texas. FM Texas is the silky voice of city dwellers, the kingdom of NPR. It is progressive, blue, reasonable, secular, and smug—almost like California. AM Texas speaks to the suburbs and the rural areas: Trumpland. It’s endless bluster and endless ads. Paranoia and piety are the main items on the menu.
Texas has been growing at a stupefying rate for decades. The only state with more residents is California, and the number of Texans is projected to double by 2050, to 54.4 million, almost as many people as in California and New York combined. Three Texas cities—Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio—are already among the top ten most populous in the country. The eleventh largest is Austin, the capital, where I live. For the past five years, it has been one of the fastest-growing large cities in America; it now has nearly a million people, dwarfing the college town I fell in love with almost forty years ago. Because Texas represents so much of modern America—the South, the West, the plains, the border, the Latino community, the divide between rural areas and cities—what happens here tends to disproportionately affect the rest of the nation. Illinois and New Jersey may be more corrupt, and Kansas and Louisiana more out of whack, but they don’t bear the responsibility of being the future.
I’ve always had a fascination with Texas’s outsized politics. In 2000, I wrote a play that was set in the state’s House of Representatives. The protagonist, Sonny Lamb, was a rancher from West Texas who represented House District 74, which, in real life, stretches across thirty-seven thousand square miles. (That’s larger than Indiana.) While I was doing research for the play, I met in Austin with Pete Laney, a Democrat and a cotton farmer from Hale County, who, at the time, was the speaker of the House. Laney was known as a scrupulously fair and honest leader who inspired a bipartisan spirit among the members. The grateful representatives called him Dicknose.
We sat down in the Speaker’s office, at the capitol. I explained that I was having a plot problem: my hero had introduced an ethics-reform bill, which triggered a war with the biggest lobbyist in the state. How could the lobbyist retaliate? Laney rubbed his hands together. “Well, you could put a toxic-waste dump in Sonny’s district,” he observed. “That would mess him up, right and left.”
Laney’s suggestion was inspired by an actual law that the Texas House of Representatives had passed in 1991. It allowed sewage sludge from New York City to be shipped, by train, to a little desert town in District 74, Sierra Blanca, which is eighty miles southeast of El Paso. The train became known as the Poo-Poo Choo-Choo.
“Another thing,” I said. “I’d like my lobbyist to take some legislators on a hunting trip. What would they likely be hunting?”
“Pigs,” Laney said.
“Wild pigs—they’re taking over the whole state!” Laney said. Feral pigs are a remnant of the Spanish colonization, and now we’ve got as many as three million of them, tearing up fences and pastureland and mowing down crops, even eating the seed corn out of the ground before it sprouts. They can run twenty-five miles per hour. “You ever seen one?” Laney went on. “Huge. They got these tusks out to here.”
“How do you hunt them?”
“Well, I don’t hunt ’em myself, but I got a friend who does.” He punched an intercom button on his phone. “Honey, get Sharp on the line,” he said.
In a moment, John Sharp was on the loudspeaker. The former state comptroller of public accounts, he is now the chancellor of the Texas A. & M. system. “Sharp,” Laney said, “I got a young man here wants to know how you hunt pigs.”
“Oh!” Sharp cried. “Well, we do it at night, with pistols. Everybody wearing cutoffs and tennis shoes. We’ll set the dogs loose, and when they start baying we come running. Now, the dogs will go after the pig’s nuts, so the pig will back up against a tree to protect himself. So then you just take your pistol and pop him in the eye.”
And these were progressive Democrats. More or less.
For more than a century, Texas was under Democratic rule. The state was always culturally conservative, religious, and militaristic, but a strain of pragmatism kept it from being fully swept up in racism and right-wing ideology. Economic populism, especially in the rural areas, offered a counterweight to the capitalists in the cities.
But in the nineteen-seventies the state began shifting rightward. Bill Miller, a lobbyist in Austin and a longtime student of Texas politics, dates the change to May, 1976, when Ronald Reagan beat Gerald Ford in the Texas Republican primary. “Reagan won every Texas delegate and the popular vote two to one,” Miller told me. “He smoked an incumbent Republican President and his mainstream followers with a heretofore unknown coalition of conservatives. That day lit the conservative fuse. Suddenly, they knew they had the numbers to win.” Ford went on to gain the nomination, but he lost the Presidency to Jimmy Carter—the last Democratic nominee to carry Texas.
In 1978, Bill Clements became the first Republican governor of Texas since Reconstruction. To help him reach constituents, Clements hired a young direct-mail wizard named Karl Rove, who became a central figure in Texas’s transformation from blue to red. Rove attributes the change to the growth of the suburbs and the gradual movement of the rural areas into the Republican column: “They went from being economic populists, who thought the system was rigged against them by Wall Street, to being social and conservative populists, who thought that government was the problem.”
Moderate and conservative Democratic politicians followed the voters to the Republican Party. Rick Perry, for one, served three terms in the Texas House as a Democrat, and even campaigned for Al Gore in his 1988 Presidential run, before changing parties, in 1989. In 1994, Texas elected its last statewide Democrat. “It was a complete rout of a political party,” Miller said.
While George W. Bush was governor, between 1995 and 2000, a cordial détente between the political parties prevailed. The lieutenant governor, Bob Bullock, and Speaker Laney were both Democrats, and, when Bush ran for President, they became exhibits in his argument that he would be a bipartisan leader. Like Lyndon Johnson, Bullock had a huge, battered face and an unbridled love of Texas, which allowed him to see past the barriers of party loyalties. (His legend was only enhanced by his ruinous personal life: alcoholism, cancer, chronic depression, five marriages.) At Bush’s fiftieth-birthday party, at the governor’s mansion, in July, 1996, Bullock offered a toast to the Governor as “the next President of the United States.” As far as I know, that was the first time such a statement had been made about Bush in public, and it was by the highest Democratic official in the state.
In January, 2003, the Republicans finally took over the Texas legislature, and Laney lost the speakership to Tom Craddick, an ultraconservative Republican from Midland, the oil capital. More than anyone, Craddick was responsible for securing a Republican majority in the House, through clever fund-raising and indefatigable campaigning. “There were eight other Republicans in the House when I got elected, in 1969, and two in the Senate,” Craddick told me recently. “The first time I tried to introduce a bill, they told me I couldn’t, because I was a Republican.”
When he entered the House, he was twenty-five—the youngest member. “Back then, most of the other members were retired, and they ran for office as a civic duty,” he said. Now, at seventy-three, he is the longest-serving legislator in Texas history.
Craddick is slight and white-haired, wry and friendly, with a slur in his speech and a shuffle in his step. He’s easy to miss in the crowd of vigorous young legislators, few of whom were in office when Craddick turned the House into a Republican domain. His crusade started in the late eighties, he recalled. Initially, the Party had barely any infrastructure, and so he helped to organize candidates’ campaigns, requiring them to report how many doors they had knocked on and how many mailers they had sent out.
Craddick was the first Republican speaker since 1873. With his election to the post, the coup was complete. “But it wasn’t just about winning elections,” he told me. “We had a redistricting plan.”
In the 2002 elections, fifty-six per cent of Texans who voted for a U.S. representative chose a Republican, but Democrats nevertheless held more seats in the U.S. House—seventeen seats to the Republicans’ fifteen. Craddick worked with Congressman Tom DeLay, who was then the Majority Whip, to put into motion a sweeping plan to create a permanent Republican majority in the U.S. House.
Under Craddick’s leadership, the Texas legislature began carving historical congressional districts into new fiefdoms. Taking care not to violate Supreme Court guidelines on minority representation, lawmakers jigsawed Texas into shapes that would decisively capture the state for the right.
In May, 2003, the redistricting plan came up for a vote in the Texas House. Fifty-three Democrats, sensing a lethal threat to their party, fled to Oklahoma, denying Craddick a quorum. He locked the capitol chamber, to prevent any more defections, and called out state troopers to hunt down the missing members, who became known as the Killer Ds.
In the midst of this hubbub, Pete Laney, the former speaker, flew his Piper turboprop from the Panhandle to Ardmore, Oklahoma, where he joined his Democratic colleagues at the local Holiday Inn. Someone from DeLay’s office obtained Laney’s flight plan from the Department of Homeland Security by implying that Laney’s plane was overdue to land and might have crashed or been seized by terrorists. Texas troopers and national reporters swarmed into Ardmore. The Democratic faction remained in Oklahoma for four days, until the deadline for considering new legislation had passed. The governor, Rick Perry—by then a stalwart Republican—called a special session for late June, whereupon eleven Democratic state senators decamped to New Mexico. It took two more special sessions to ram the vote through.
The redistricting had a revolutionary effect. Today, the Texas delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives includes twenty-five Republicans and eleven Democrats—a far more conservative profile than the political demography of the state. The Austin metropolitan area, the heart of the Texas left, was divvied up into six congressional districts, with city residents a minority in each. All but one of these districts are now held by Republicans. I’m currently represented by Roger Williams, a conservative automobile dealer from Weatherford, two hundred miles north of Austin. Another Republican congressman, Lamar Smith, lives in San Antonio, but his district includes—and neutralizes—the liberal area surrounding the University of Texas at Austin. Smith, a member of the Tea Party Caucus, in Washington, denies that human activity affects global warming. He heads the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which oversees NASA, the Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Lloyd Doggett is the only Democrat representing the Austin area, and his district runs along I-35, from East Austin to East San Antonio, scooping up as many Democrats as possible in one basket.
Texas’s redistricting process has since been replicated in statehouses around the country, creating congressional districts that are practically immune to challenge and giving Republicans an impregnable edge in Washington. “Texas became a model for how to get control,” Craddick told me.
In 2005, DeLay was prosecuted for money laundering and conspiracy, in connection with the illegal use of corporate funds. Craddick was also questioned, but he was never indicted. DeLay’s conviction was overturned on appeal, in 2013, but by then he had resigned from Congress and made an unexpected appearance on “Dancing with the Stars.” The show has become a pathway to redemption for disgraced Texas politicos. In 2014, Rick Perry was indicted for abusing gubernatorial power, after he threatened to defund an anti-corruption agency. He was later cleared, and he, too, celebrated his comeback on “Dancing with the Stars.” Now he heads the Department of Energy. I wonder if Ted Cruz can dance.
Texas has always had a burlesque side to its politics. The columnist Molly Ivins made a national reputation as a humor writer by lampooning the people we elect to office. One of my favorites in this category was Mike Martin, a state representative from Longview. In 1981, someone shotgunned the trailer he lived in during his months in Austin. Martin was inside, and was slightly injured. He declared that the shooting was in reprisal for an investigation he was pursuing involving a satanic cult. Later, his cousin admitted that he had fired the weapon at Martin’s behest, ostensibly to gain Martin sympathy votes. (Martin was running for reëlection.) Martin fled Austin, but, as Ivins noted, the police “tracked him to earth at his momma’s house, where he was found hiding in the stereo cabinet.” She added, “He always did want to be the Speaker.”
Ivins, who died in 2007, would have loved writing about Mary Lou Bruner, a seventy-year-old retired schoolteacher from Mineola, who last year ran as a Republican for an open seat on the Texas State Board of Education—a frequent battleground of the culture wars. Because ten per cent of American public-school students live in Texas, the state exerts a great influence on the textbook-publishing industry. During her campaign, Bruner posted on Facebook that Barack Obama had worked as a male prostitute in his twenties. “That is how he paid for his drugs,” she reasoned. Bruner went on to assert that climate change is a “ridiculous hoax,” and that dinosaurs are extinct because the ones on Noah’s Ark were too young to reproduce. Somehow, she made it to a runoff, which she then lost.
In March, 2016, a man named Robert Morrow was elected the Republican Party chairman of Travis County, which contains Austin. Like many reporters in Texas, I received wild e-mails from Morrow for several years. He once claimed that George H. W. Bush was “a seriously addicted homosexual pedophile” who was also involved in a C.I.A. drug-smuggling ring with the Clintons. In 2011, Morrow took out a full-page ad in a local newspaper:
HAVE YOU EVER HAD SEX WITH RICK PERRY?
Are you a stripper, an escort, or just a “young hottie” impressed by an arrogant, entitled governor of Texas?
Nothing came of the ad, which, Morrow said, was designed to expose Perry as “a Christian-buzzwords-spouting, ‘family values’ hypocrite and fraud.”
Morrow, a fifty-three-year-old Princeton graduate with an M.B.A. from the University of Texas, describes himself as an independent investor. In 2015, he wrote a book with Roger Stone, the political operative and occasional adviser to Donald Trump, called “The Clintons’ War on Women.” The Austin American-Statesman noted that it appeared “to be serving as a playbook for Trump” in his attacks on Hillary Clinton. (Upon its publication, Trump tweeted, “The latest book on Hillary—Wow, a really tough one!”) Mainstream Party officials were mortified when Morrow won the Travis County election, with fifty-six per cent of the vote. They promised to “explore every single option that exists” to remove him from office. Morrow responded, “They can go fuck themselves.” In June, he tweeted, “Top priority for Travis GOP: beautiful Big Titty women!!”
Texas Republicans were having an unhappy time of it in 2016. Rick Perry, who retired from the governorship the previous year, was K.O.’d early in the Presidential primaries, and Senator Ted Cruz, probably the most unpopular politician in Washington, was eventually overmatched by Trump. Compounding the embarrassment, Morrow announced that he was running for President himself. This turned out to be against the rules for the Travis County chairman. At a meeting held in August, the Party deposed him. Morrow, who was present at the meeting, wearing a floppy motley-fool hat, did not object.
That month, Trump campaigned in Austin, and Morrow, who had not endorsed a candidate besides himself, protested his party’s nominee by carrying a giant red sign that said “TRUMP IS A CHILD RAPIST.”
Roger Stone, who was present at Trump’s campaign event, claimed that he had the police escort his co-author away from the rally. To add to the insult, Stone tweeted that Morrow was a “Clinton quisling.”
The Texas capitol, constructed of red granite, was completed in 1888. The state was destitute then, and paid for the building with three million acres of public land in the Panhandle—about the size of Connecticut. At the time, the capitol was said to be the seventh-largest building in the world, and, as one would expect, it is somewhat taller than its uncle in Washington, D.C. During the summer in Austin, nighthawks swirl around the crowning statue on the dome: the Goddess of Liberty, holding aloft a golden star.
The legislature meets every other year for a hundred and forty days, reflecting the state’s native aversion to government. The sessions begin on the second Tuesday in January and end around Memorial Day. The legislature’s only mandated task is to produce a two-year balanced budget. In the 2015 session, the state budget worked out to about a hundred billion dollars per year. This year, a drop in the price of oil and a rise in population augured substantial cutbacks and a struggle to meet the health and safety needs of citizens.
When I visited the capitol in January, a group of high-school girls stood on a terrazzo mosaic in the middle of the rotunda. In the center was the seal of the Republic of Texas, a lone star wreathed in branches of olive and live oak. “It’s two hundred and eighteen feet from this star to the one above,” a guide told them, gesturing to its mate, on the ceiling of the dome. “You could fit the Statue of Liberty in here.”
On the walls of the rotunda hang portraits of our former governors. When the current governor, the staunchly conservative Greg Abbott, leaves office, his portrait will go where Rick Perry’s is now, and those of all the previous forty-seven governors will take one step to the left. When a portrait arrives at the end of the circle on the ground floor, it moves to the wall of the floor above, and then higher and higher and further into obscurity.
The next portrait that will ascend from the lobby is that of W. Lee (Pappy) O’Daniel. In some respects, O’Daniel, a Democrat, was a precursor of Donald Trump. When he successfully ran for governor, in 1938, he was a political naïf who had never cast a ballot, and he wasn’t even eligible to vote in that election, because he hadn’t paid his poll tax. He passed himself off as a rube, but he was a savvy operator. He had become famous as the host of a radio show in which he performed with his band, the Light Crust Doughboys. Radio was his Twitter. His only real platform was to stir things up. When his opponents staged a rally, hundreds would attend, but O’Daniel’s speeches attracted tens of thousands. In his first race, he defeated eleven contenders, without a runoff.
As governor, he reneged on promises he had made to abolish the death penalty, block the sales tax, and raise pensions. He was a scaremonger, railing against “Communistic labor-leader racketeers” and politically controlled newspapers. He was terribly ineffectual but such a compelling showman that, in 1941, voters sent him to the U.S. Senate over a young man named Lyndon Johnson—the only election Johnson ever lost. The portrait of O’Daniel in the rotunda shows a handsome, full-faced man with slicked-back hair and a “Who, me?” look in his eye.
Next to him is O’Daniel’s calmer successor, Coke Stevenson, and the bon vivant Beauford Jester, who, according to legend, died in the arms of his mistress, on the midnight sleeper to Houston.
Of all the governors on the rotunda walls, Ann Richards, who served from 1991 to 1995, was the most memorable, at least in my lifetime. She had stark-white hair that was swept and sprayed into a blinding pompadour—Molly Ivins called it “hard hair”—and a switchblade sense of humor that was honed on the primitive male chauvinism she had grown up with. She became a national figure when, as the state treasurer, she gave the keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. “Poor George,” she said of the Republican nominee, George H. W. Bush. “He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” She wasn’t nice, but she had a wonderful smile, and batted her icy-blue eyes as she stuck the knife in.
Her rise to governor, as a recovered alcoholic and a divorced mother of four, was a near-miracle. Her wealthy Republican opponent—the West Texas rancher and oilman Clayton Williams, Jr.—had a double-digit lead in the polls when the general election began. He blew that lead with a series of character-revealing gaffes. He told reporters that inclement weather was like rape: “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.” He had to fight off persistent rumors that he had invited his ranch hands and clients to join in “honey hunts,” which involved scattering prostitutes on his property like Easter eggs. Then, at a forum in Dallas, he met Richards, who stuck out her hand and said, “Hello, Claytie.” He declined the gesture, violating the cowboy code that is deeply ingrained in every Texan. In that instant, he lost the election.
Illustration by Barry Blitt
Richards wore designer suits but picked her teeth, and she cleaned her fingernails with a Swiss Army knife. She always seemed a little surprised to find herself in the seat of power, but she cherished the comedy of the play she was cast in. Ivins once told me that, after the A.C.L.U. filed suit against a manger scene in the capitol, she called Governor Richards and asked, “Annie, is it really necessary to remove the crèche?”
“I’m afraid so,” Richards replied. “And it’s a shame, because it’s about the only time we ever had three wise men in the capitol.”
Richards had the most amazing drawl—devastatingly comic, but with a cut-the-crap edge to it. She was a flirt, and she loved dirty jokes and risqué stories. Once, we both took part in a fund-raiser at the Four Seasons in Austin, and the writer Kinky Friedman—who is also the lead singer of Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys—seized the opportunity to tell a story about going to the beach with a family friend, who wore a swimsuit that was so tight it squeezed one of his balls into view. It’s not that funny when I tell it, but Governor Richards laughed so hard that she could barely stay in her chair.
Texas has a reputation for being super-religious, but there has always been a tolerance for the sexual misdemeanors of elected officials. Charlie Wilson, the U.S. representative from the Second District, in East Texas, one of the most conservative parts of the state, was a drunk, a drug user, and the most energetic playboy on Capitol Hill, who enjoyed lounging in hot tubs with showgirls and cocaine. He was elected to twelve terms.
Texans’ tolerance for sexual liberty didn’t extend to Richards, however. She surrounded herself with a coterie of very powerful women, which led to countless innuendos about her sexual orientation. She complained to a lobbyist I know, “I could be fucking Charlie Wilson on Sam Houston’s bed, and they’d still call me a lesbian.” After one term, Richards was defeated by George W. Bush, marking the end of the Democratic Party as a force of any consequence in the state.
Texans are notorious for loving guns, but when I was young it was illegal for residents to carry weapons outside their home or vehicle. In 1991, George Hennard, a thirty-five-year-old unemployed man, drove his Ford pickup through the plate-glass window of the Luby’s cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, where some eighty people were having lunch. At first, everyone thought that it was a freakish accident. Then Hennard shot a customer. “Is it worth it, Texas?” he cried. “This is payback day.”
Suzanna Hupp, a chiropractor, was having lunch with her parents. “My father and I got down on the floor and put the table up in front of us,” she later testified before Congress. She reached for her purse, where she kept her revolver, then realized that she had left her gun in her car, fearing that she might lose her chiropractor’s license if she were caught carrying a concealed weapon.
Her father confronted the shooter, but he was shot. Hupp told her mother that they needed to make a break for it, then climbed out a rear window. When she looked back, she realized that her mother had gone to comfort her dying husband. Hennard put a bullet in her mother’s head. He shot fifty people, killing twenty-three of them before killing himself. It’s the fourth-deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
“I’m not really mad at the guy who did this,” Hupp told lawmakers in Washington. “That’s like being mad at a rabid dog.” She continued, “I’m mad at my legislators for legislating me out of the right to protect myself and my family.” In 1996, Hupp was elected to the Texas House of Representatives, and she subsequently passed a law that allowed concealed weapons to be carried.
Since then, it’s also become legal to carry guns openly. I’ve yet to see anyone in public strapping a sidearm, but the law is tremendously popular. Especially among Texas politicians, there’s a locker-room lust for weaponry that belies noble-sounding proclamations about self-protection and Second Amendment rights. In 2010, Governor Perry boasted of killing with a single shot a coyote that was menacing his daughter’s Labrador. Perry was jogging at the time, but naturally he was packing heat: a .380 Ruger. The gun’s manufacturer promptly issued a Coyote Special edition of the gun, which comes in a box labelled “FOR SALE TO TEXANS ONLY.”
An eccentric feature of Texas’s new gun laws is that people entering the state capitol can skip the long lines of tourists waiting to pass through metal detectors if they show guards a license-to-carry permit. In other words, the people most likely to bring weapons into the building aren’t scanned at all. Many of the people who breeze through are lawmakers and staffers who tote concealed weapons into offices or onto the floor of the legislature. But some lobbyists and reporters have also obtained gun licenses, just to skirt the lines. I recently got one myself.
One winter day at the capitol, early in the 2017 session, I was bypassing the metal detectors when Governor Abbott rushed by in his wheelchair. At fifty-nine, he is an energetic man; his aides were racing across the rotunda to keep up with him. Abbott was a track star in high school—he is said to have never lost a race—but in 1984 a tree fell on him while he was jogging through the wealthy enclave of River Oaks, in Houston, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. He had just graduated from law school and had no health insurance. Fortunately, he won a nine-million-dollar judgment against the homeowner whose tree had fallen and the company that had inspected the tree and failed to recommend its removal. Later, Abbott, as a member of the Texas Supreme Court, and then as attorney general, supported measures that capped pain-and-suffering damages in medical-malpractice cases at two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
Abbott’s overarching issue is fending off the malevolent influence of California, which is widely seen as Texas’s political antithesis: it is more regulated and highly taxed, whereas Texas is relatively unfettered, with one of the lowest tax burdens in the country. Every statewide officeholder in California is a Democrat; in Texas, none are. Nevertheless, in 2015, Abbott declared, “Texas is being California-ized, and you may not even be noticing it.” He went on, “This is being done at the city level, with bag bans, fracking bans, tree-cutting bans. We’re forming a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model.” He warned that the “Texas miracle” could become a “California nightmare.”
The obsession with California puzzles me. I play the keyboards in a blues band, and our drummer has a sticker on his kit saying “Stop Californication of Texas Music.” The mayor of Austin, Steve Adler, is a Democrat, but he recently warned that, if our city stays on its current path, “we’ll end up like San Francisco,” with out-of-control housing costs. The newspapers often feature gloating stories about the number of Californians fleeing to Texas (eight per day to Austin alone), as an indication of the vast superiority of the Texas way of life.
Although Abbott has a lower national profile than his predecessors Rick Perry and George W. Bush, he clearly has similar ambitions. In January, when the legislative session began, he latched on to a proposal, already adopted by ten other states, to call a constitutional convention aimed at reining in the power of the federal government. Abbott rebranded it as the Texas Plan. It would require the federal government to balance its budget, as Texas does, and would prohibit federal agencies—such as the E.P.A. and the Department of Labor—from issuing regulations that override state laws. As Texas’s attorney general, from 2002 to 2015, Abbott was on the losing end of many lawsuits that he filed on behalf of the state against the U.S. government—he objected to the Affordable Care Act, and to many federal environmental controls. Under the Texas Plan, the U.S. Supreme Court would need a supermajority of seven Justices to strike down a state law. Abbott designated the Texas Plan an emergency item, and it quickly passed the legislature and was signed into law, worrying mainstream Republican lawmakers in Washington, who fear that, in the current political climate, such efforts could lead to a runaway assault on federal authority.
Another emergency item on the Governor’s list for the 2017 session was ethics reform, but many legislators saw the move as hypocritical. Lyle Larson, a centrist Republican state representative from San Antonio, told me, “Some of the most egregious violations are in the governor’s office. It’s well known that pay-for-play has been going on in that office for years. For you to be on the Parks and Wildlife board, for instance, or to be a regent at the university, you have to make significant contributions”—to Abbott’s campaign fund. “That’s not in the Governor’s bill.” (Abbott’s press secretary, John Wittman, said, “Governor Abbott selects and appoints individuals he believes are the most qualified and capable of bringing excellence to the organizations in which they serve. Any suggestion to the contrary is absurd.”) Little came of Abbott’s ethics-reform attempt.
For all of Abbott’s initiatives, the legislature’s agenda is dominated by Dan Patrick, an evangelical Christian and a former radio talk-show host from Houston, who has been the lieutenant governor since 2014. In Texas, the lieutenant governor is also the president of the Senate, and, because the Senate currently has a Republican majority, Patrick has total control over it. He appoints bills to specific committees, and no legislation comes onto the floor without his say-so. He is unquestionably the most important political figure in the state.
During his radio days, Patrick developed a knack for self-promotion; he once got a vasectomy on the air. (He now owns a radio station in Houston.) Clever and relentless, Patrick brought with him to Austin the AM Texas platform of anti-abortion absolutism and hostility to same-sex marriage and undocumented immigrants. He was first elected to the Senate in 2006, running as an outsider. “It was as if Rush Limbaugh were running,” Bill Miller, the lobbyist, told me. Patrick crushed three well-known candidates in the Republican primary, and won the general election with nearly seventy per cent of the vote.
Since Patrick became lieutenant governor, one of his signature accomplishments has been the passage of the open-carry gun law; he also successfully pushed to legalize the carrying of concealed weapons on public-college campuses. During the 2016 Presidential race, he deftly pivoted from supporting Ted Cruz to becoming Donald Trump’s campaign chair in Texas. Evan Smith, the co-founder of the Texas Tribune, an online journal dedicated to state politics, told me, “Dan Patrick is the most conservative person ever elected to statewide office in the history of Texas.” (Patrick himself declined to speak to The New Yorker.)
Patrick has driven his chamber in a far more radical direction. Even Democratic senators are loath to cross him. In this year’s session, Patrick worked on lowering property taxes and addressing some obscure matters, such as hailstorm-lawsuit reform. But the heart of his agenda was legislation that spoke to the religious right, such as a bill that would provide vouchers for homeschooling and private-school tuition, and a “sermon safeguard” bill, which would prevent state and local officials from issuing subpoenas to members of the clergy or compelling them to testify. He also worked to toughen the state’s voter-I.D. law. Patrick’s legislative agenda, if passed in its entirety, would bend Texas farther in the direction of the affluent and, above all, would fortify the political strength of white evangelicals who feel threatened by the increasing number of minorities and by changing social mores.
Patrick’s extremism is often countered by Joe Straus, the speaker of the House, a centrist, business-oriented conservative from San Antonio. Whereas the lieutenant governor is elected by the voters of the state, the speaker is chosen by the members. That makes a crucial difference in the way that Patrick and Straus govern. “Dan Patrick rules by fear,” Representative Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat, told me. “Joe Straus rules by consensus.”
The 2017 session in Austin proved to be a bruising example of raw politics waged by two talented people, Straus and Patrick, who fervently believe in their causes. The story in Texas both reflects and influences the national scene. At a time when Democratic voices have been sidelined—“We’re lost in the wilderness,” Wu told me—the key struggle is within the increasingly conservative Republican Party, between those who primarily align with business interests and those who are preoccupied with abortion, gay marriage, immigration, religion, and gun rights.
Politicians seldom pay a price for the damage that their legislation may do in the name of popular causes, such as declaring war or slashing taxes at the expense of vital social programs. In 2011, Governor Perry vetoed a bill that would have banned texting while driving, saying that it was “a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults.” Texas is always above the national average in the number of highway fatalities. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, more than four hundred Texans are killed every year in crashes related to distracted driving, often because they are texting.
To my surprise, the sponsor of the bill that Perry vetoed was Tom Craddick, the ultraconservative former speaker. This year, he put the measure forward again, for the fourth time. He compares it to Texas’s seat-belt law, which, he notes, “is very unpopular” in his district. “But they say that ninety-five per cent of the people obey the law.”
On March 29, 2017, in the middle of the legislative session, a welder named Jody Kuchler called the sheriff’s offices in Uvalde County and Real County to say that a white truck was driving recklessly down a two-lane highway, swerving all over the road. Kuchler, who was following the truck, told the cops, “He’s going to hit somebody head on or he’s going to kill his own damn self.” He then watched helplessly as the truck rammed into a bus carrying members of the First Baptist Church of New Braunfels. Thirteen people were killed. The driver of the truck was twenty-year-old Jack Dillon Young, who was largely unhurt. “He said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I was texting,’ ” Kuchler told reporters. “I said, ‘Son, do you know what you just did?’ ” (Young also had Ambien and other medications in his system.) The accident was one of many that might have been prevented had Governor Perry signed the 2011 texting bill into law.
That year, the Republican state legislature turned its attention instead to defunding women’s-health programs. “This is a war on birth control and abortions,” Representative Wayne Christian, a Tea Party stalwart from East Texas, admitted. “That’s what family planning is supposed to be about.”
The long-term goal of cultural conservatives is to cut off access to abortion in Texas, to end state subsidies for birth control, and to gut state funding for Planned Parenthood—which, in 2011, served sixty per cent of the health needs of low-income women in the state. The legislators slashed the family-planning budget from $111.5 million to $37.9 million. Eighty-two family-planning clinics subsequently shut down.
Texas has the highest rate of uninsured people in the nation, and, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, about seventeen per cent of Texan women and girls live in poverty. After the family-planning budget was cut, there was a disproportionate rise in births covered by Medicaid, because so many women no longer had access to birth control. By defunding Planned Parenthood, the legislature also blocked many women from getting scans for breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
In May, 2011, Governor Perry, who was gearing up for his first Presidential race, signed a bill requiring all women seeking an abortion to have a sonogram at least twenty-four hours before the procedure. Carol Alvarado, a Democratic state representative from Houston, pointed out on the House floor that, for a woman who is eight to ten weeks pregnant, such a law would necessitate a “transvaginal sonogram.” She then displayed the required instrument to the discomfited lawmakers: a white plastic wand resembling an elongated pistol, which would be inserted into the woman’s vagina. “Government intrusion at its best,” she observed.
Nonetheless, the bill passed in the House, 107–42. When the Senate approved the bill, Dan Patrick, then a state senator, declared, “This is a great day for Texas. This is a great day for women’s health.”
Between 2010 and 2014, the proportion of women who died in childbirth in Texas doubled, from 18.6 per hundred thousand live births to 35.8—the worst in the nation and higher than the rate in many developing countries. These figures represent six hundred dead women.
Researchers say that it’s not entirely understood what accounts for the rise in maternal mortality in Texas, because the rate was already rising before the 2011 laws went into effect. Obesity, heart disease, drug overdoses, and a lack of health insurance—all serious problems in the state—play a role. Nevertheless, a report in the September, 2016, issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology noted, “In the absence of war, natural disaster, or severe economic upheaval, the doubling of a mortality rate within a two year period in a state with almost 400,000 annual births seems unlikely.”
The mystery might be cleared up if Governor Abbott released records about how these women died. In 2011, when he was attorney general, he issued an opinion stating that information about the deceased would be withheld, supposedly to prevent fraud.
Dan Patrick, Rick Perry, and other Texas lawmakers who have called their bills a victory for women’s health have shown no compassion for the women who have suffered, and perhaps died, because of them. Their legislation has been equally heartless toward children. A fifth of the uninsured children in the U.S. are in Texas. In 2004, the Texas Education Agency lowered the percentage of children who can be enrolled in special-education classes from thirteen per cent (about the national average) to eight and a half per cent (the lowest in the country). According to the Houston Chronicle, tens of thousands of children have been denied the education they need because of this arbitrary limit.
In 2015, a federal judge, Janis Graham Jack, ruled that, in Texas, foster children “almost uniformly leave State custody more damaged than when they entered.” The state, she said, was violating the children’s constitutional rights by exposing them to an unreasonable risk of harm. Judge Jack declared that state oversight agencies had adopted an attitude of “deliberate indifference” toward the plight of the children in their care, even in the face of repeated abuse and, sometimes, homicide. “Rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm,” she added.
Governor Abbott promised to overhaul the child-welfare system, but things have only worsened. In the 2016 fiscal year, at least two hundred children in Texas died of maltreatment, compared with a hundred and seventy-three the previous year, and those figures don’t include more than a hundred other deaths that are still being investigated. Child Protective Services, the state unit charged with investigating cases of abuse, is in chaos. Nevertheless, Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, appealed Judge Jack’s decision to appoint a special master to oversee the state’s foster-care system, claiming that it would amount to a “federal takeover.”
Nearly a year after the judge’s ruling, Child Protective Services acknowledged that caseworkers had not even visited more than forty-seven hundred children at high risk of abuse or severe neglect. Hundreds of children have been sleeping in hotels or emergency shelters, or on air mattresses in government offices, because the state has nowhere else to put them. Hundreds of caseworkers have quit, complaining that they were overworked, demoralized, poorly paid, and often placed in dangerous situations. Union leaders have said that higher pay would help attract more applicants to the job, which offers a starting salary of thirty-seven thousand dollars, but state officials countered with a plan to lower the educational requirements for caseworkers. During the 2017 legislative session, while bills addressing the child-welfare crisis were being considered, a teen-age girl who was being housed in a state office building fled in the middle of the night. She was hit by a van and killed.
Fed up with the callous treatment of women and children, Jessica Farrar, a liberal state representative from Houston, filed House Bill 4260, the Man’s Right to Know Act. It satirically employed the kind of patronizing, “we’re doing this for your own good” language that characterizes the many bills directed at abortion and women’s health—for instance, requiring a sonogram and a rectal exam before prescribing Viagra. Then, there was this:
Sec. 173.010. FINES RELATED TO MASTURBATORY EMISSIONS. Masturbatory emissions created in health or medical facilities will be stored for the purposes of conception for a current or future wife.
(a) Emissions outside of a woman’s vagina, or created outside of a health or medical facility, will be charged a $100 civil penalty for each emission, and will be considered an act against an unborn child, and failing to preserve the sanctity of life.
The bill never made it to the House floor.
Lobbyists got their name because they stand in the lobby. When I returned to the capitol on February 7th, about fifty of them, almost all dark-suited men, stood outside the Senate chamber, forming a mosh pit for any legislator who might appear. Although they seem like supplicants, lobbyists actually write much of the legislation and corral the votes.
Bill Miller has been working in the lobby for three decades. When he first arrived, he noticed that all the political leaders had animal heads mounted on their walls. Miller had a papier-mâché sea-lion head made up for his office. “Wow, you killed a sea lion?” an impressed legislator asked. “Yeah,” Miller said. “With a surfboard.”
Inside the chamber, a crucial debate was under way about Senate Bill 4, known as the sanctuary-cities bill. One of Governor Abbott’s priorities, it essentially required Texas officials to join the Trump Administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants. There are about a million such immigrants in Dallas and Houston alone.
A few days earlier, four hundred and fifty people had lined up to testify before the State Affairs Committee in protest of S.B. 4, which they saw as a discriminatory measure. The line snaked around the rotunda floor and up to the second level. The hearing lasted more than sixteen hours, and broke up well after midnight. The police chiefs of Austin and San Antonio testified that S.B. 4 would harm their ability to work with immigrant communities. A young woman spoke about attempting suicide after her father was deported. In the end, the bill passed out of committee, 7–2, on partisan lines.
In 2016, Sally Hernandez, a political novice of Anglo descent, was elected sheriff of Travis County, having promoted Austin as a “sanctuary city.” Federal immigration authorities often ask local law-enforcement officials to put a “detainer” on people in their custody—that is, to hold off on releasing them until their citizenship status can be verified—but Hernandez declared that she would honor such requests only in cases in which individuals were charged with a violent crime. Otherwise, people who posted bond would be released.
Illustration by Barry Blitt
It was as if Hernandez had opened the door to a ravenous mob of flesh-eating zombies. Perhaps she didn’t fully appreciate how suspiciously Travis County is viewed by the Republican establishment—which, increasingly, is the Tea Party establishment. Governor Abbott abruptly cut off $1.5 million in state grants to the county. He went on Bill O’Reilly’s show and said of S.B. 4, “Today, we introduced legislation that will put the hammer down on Travis County as well as any sanctuary-city policy in the state of Texas.”
O’Reilly said of Sheriff Hernandez, “I don’t understand her motivation.”
“She is doing it to pander to the ideology of the left, just like what you see in California,” Abbott responded.
S.B. 4 was loaded up with punitive amendments, all of which were endorsed by the entirely white Republican majority. (Of the thirty-one members of the Texas Senate, only eleven are Democrats; seven are Latino.) Under one amendment, Sheriff Hernandez—whom Abbott began calling Sanctuary Sally—could be jailed for up to a year if she refused to grant a detainer.
On the Senate floor, Brian Birdwell, a Republican from Granbury, southwest of Fort Worth, rose to speak in favor of the bill. Birdwell is a retired Army colonel who was badly burned in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. He has undergone thirty-nine operations and numerous skin grafts. He said that he was worried about “a culture of insubordination” emerging in Texas, adding that the next step would be outright insurrection. “What you tolerate today you’ll endorse tomorrow, and subsidize the day after.”
Juan (Chuy) Hinojosa, a Democratic senator from the fertile South Texas region known as the Valley, spoke against the bill. “I agree one hundred per cent that we as a nation have the right to define our borders,” he said. But the bill, he warned, could become an excuse for the wholesale expulsion of undocumented immigrants who had committed no crimes. “I was deported when I was five,” he said. He and his father were American citizens, but his mother was undocumented. She was picking tomatoes in Hidalgo County, which abuts Mexico, when the Border Patrol arrived. “They put us in a paddy wagon, and we didn’t even have time to notify my father,” he later told me. “We lived in Mexico for a year while my father was looking for us.”
Hinojosa tried to find a middle ground during the debate. “Our biggest problem, when we talk about border security, it is politicized right away,” he said. He called Sheriff Hernandez naïve and inexperienced. “She talked about honoring detainers only in cases of violent crime, but suppose you’ve got somebody who smuggled in a hundred kilos of cocaine? If you got caught committing a burglary—hell, yeah, you ought to be detained.”
Hernandez defended herself in an op-ed: “Tasking our community police forces with the job of federal immigration agents creates a strain, which is why the detainer policy on nonviolent criminals is optional.”
Meanwhile, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began a national dragnet that ostensibly targeted undocumented criminals and violent offenders. Undocumented bystanders were also picked up. Fifty-one people were seized in Austin, fewer than half of whom were criminals—a lower proportion than in any other city in the country—leading residents to believe that the city had been singled out.
In an open letter, Mayor Adler said, “These raids are sowing distrust, not just with ICE but even with local law enforcement, and that makes our community less safe.”
Many Mexican-Americans in Texas support stricter enforcement of immigration laws. “As long as there is no profiling of Hispanics, we understand the process,” Hinojosa told me. “Since 9/11, the whole culture has changed.” Under current practice, however, undocumented migrants crossing from Mexico often simply surrender to the Border Patrol; they are then given a court date, a year or two in the future. Hinojosa said that it makes no sense to allow undocumented people into the country, let them go wherever they want, and then conduct raids to root them out. “It’s a real broken system,” he said.
In session after session, the Texas legislature has sought to impose strict rules on voter identification, with the putative goal of preventing election fraud. A 2011 law required voters to present a U.S. passport, a military identification card, a state driver’s license, a concealed-weapon permit, or a Texas election identification certificate. The same law excluded federal and state government I.D.s, as well as student I.D.s, from being used at polling stations. In 2014, a federal judge, Nelva Gonzales Ramos, in the Southern District of Texas, struck down the law, calling it “an unconstitutional poll tax.” Texas appealed, but the appeal was rejected, in part because there was no actual evidence of voter fraud. (The Supreme Court refused to hear the case.) The appeals court sent the case back to Judge Ramos, asking her to determine if the law was intentionally discriminatory. If Ramos said yes, it could trigger federal monitoring of the state’s election laws under the Voting Rights Act.
The question of voter fraud became a national issue after the 2016 Presidential election. Gregg Phillips, a former official of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, gave Trump the false idea that he would have won the popular vote if illegal votes were discounted. Phillips, the founder of a group called VoteStand, tweeted that three million unqualified voters had cast ballots in the election. He refused to provide proof, though he told CNN that he had developed “algorithms” that could determine citizenship status. Trump soon demanded a widespread investigation into voter fraud.
In February, 2017, while Judge Ramos was still considering the Texas voter-I.D. law, a resident of a Fort Worth suburb was found to have voted illegally: Rosa Maria Ortega, a thirty-seven-year-old mother of four with a seventh-grade education. She had lived in the U.S. since she was an infant, and was a legal resident, entitled to serve in the military and required to pay taxes. She assumed that she could also vote, and had done so previously, in 2012 and 2014. The local prosecutor decided to make an example of her, and she was sentenced to eight years in prison. When she gets out, she may be deported to Mexico. I suppose it’s an irony that she is a Republican, and voted for Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, who has made voter fraud a signature issue.
In April, Judge Ramos issued her opinion: the Texas voter-I.D. law was intentionally designed to discriminate against minorities. Almost simultaneously, a panel of federal judges in San Antonio ruled that three of the state’s thirty-six U.S. congressional districts were illegally drawn in order to disempower minorities.
Evan Smith, of the Texas Tribune, has closely followed thirteen legislative sessions. He noted that, even as Dan Patrick and his Republican allies slashed government services, they allocated eight hundred million dollars for border security. “White people are scared of change, believing that what they have is being taken away from them by people they consider unworthy,” he told me. “But all they’re doing is poking a bear with a stick. In 2004, the Anglo population in Texas became a minority. The last majority-Anglo high-school class in Texas graduated in 2014. There will never be another. The reality is, it’s all over for the Anglos.”
Texas leads the nation in Latino population growth. Latinos account for more than half the 2.7 million new Texans since 2010. Every Democrat in Texas believes that, if Latinos voted at the same rate in Texas as they do in California, the state would already be blue. “The difference between Texas and California is the labor movement,” Garnet Coleman, a Houston member of the Texas House, told me. In the nineteen-sixties, Cesar Chavez began organizing the California farmworkers into a union; that kind of movement didn’t happen in Texas, a right-to-work state. “Labor unions create a culture of voting and political participation,” Coleman observed. In Texas politics, he says, “everything is about race—it’s veiled as public policy, but it encourages people to believe that their tax dollars are going to support lazy black and brown people.” Political views have become more entrenched because of redistricting, and yet the demographic majority in Texas is far more progressive than its representatives. Coleman predicts a showdown: “This is a battle about the future of the country, based on a new majority, and we have to have this out.”
The most contentious item on Dan Patrick’s list of priorities for the 2017 session was the “bathroom bill,” S.B. 6, which would bar transgender people in public schools and government buildings from using rest-room or locker-room facilities that did not correspond to the sex listed on their birth certificates. It would also overturn any local antidiscrimination ordinances that permit transgender citizens to choose which bathroom to use.
In 2016, a similar bill was signed into law in North Carolina. In response, musicians such as Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam cancelled concerts in the state, and sporting associations, including the N.B.A. and the N.C.A.A., dropped plans to hold events there. Governor Pat McCrory, who supported the law, lost his bid for reëlection, in part because of the national outcry. Dan Patrick contends that his bill will have no economic effect on the state of Texas, and that the only people opposed to it are journalists and “the secular left.” At a prayer rally on the capitol steps, in February, he declared, “They don’t want prayer in public schools, they’re not pro-life, they see nothing wrong with boys and girls showering together in the tenth grade, or a man being in a women’s bathroom.” Attorney General Paxton, who was also present, added, “This is a spiritual war.”
The bathroom bill was drafted after the superintendent of schools in Fort Worth announced, in April, 2016, that transgender students could henceforth use the rest room or the locker room that corresponded to their gender identity. This was in accordance with federal guidelines. The superintendent additionally instructed teachers and administrators to refer to students as “scholars,” rather than as “boys and girls.” At the rally, Patrick called for his resignation, suggesting that this sort of policy would represent “the end of public education” and ignite a mass revolt by parents. “I believe it is the biggest issue facing families and schools in America since prayer was taken out of public school,” he concluded.
The business community in Texas fiercely opposed S.B. 6, and produced a report suggesting that its passage could cost the state up to eight and a half billion dollars. (PolitiFact determined that this figure was hyperbolic.) A month after the Texas legislature began the 2017 session, the Super Bowl was held in Houston, and the National Football League intimated that, were S.B. 6 to pass, the championship might not be held in Texas again. Governor Abbott, who had been keeping his head down as the legislature debated the issue, told the N.F.L. to mind its own business.
Bathrooms have been an issue in Texas before. At my first Willie Nelson concert, in Austin, in the nineteen-eighties, I was in the men’s room when a dozen women barged in and laid siege to the stalls. It was actually a rather jolly moment. There were similar episodes at other Texas events, and, in 1993, Governor Ann Richards signed a “potty parity” bill, which mandated that, in new sports and entertainment facilities, there be two toilets in women’s rest rooms for every one in the men’s.
The debate over S.B. 6 was a much grimmer matter. Although a dozen other states have similar bills pending, Patrick’s legislation embodied the meanness and the intolerance that many Americans associate with Texas. In Austin, the bill was being sold as a way to protect women against sexual predators who might pose as transgender—a problem that scarcely exists. Laws already on the books protect women from being accosted or spied on. The sponsors of the bill claimed that S.B. 6 was not meant to discriminate against transgender Texans, although the law would do just that. The only remedy for trans people would be to change their birth certificates, a costly and time-consuming process. The bill proposed fining schools and state agencies up to ten thousand five hundred dollars per day for violations. Even in the Texas Senate, there were doubts about the need for such a bill. “How are they going to enforce it?” Chuy Hinojosa asked me. “Would a woman have to raise her dress?”
As S.B. 6 made its way through the legislature, I noticed a new sign outside a bathroom in the Austin airport. It said “ALL GENDERS.”
On March 2nd, I returned to the capitol to have lunch with the speaker of the House, Joe Straus. It was the hundred-and-eighty-first anniversary of the day that Texas became independent of Mexico, and the beginning of the “high holy days” among Texas historians. The climax comes on March 6th, the anniversary of the fall of the Alamo, where, in 1836, some two hundred and fifty “Texians” gathered to block the advance of the Mexican forces.
The capitol rotunda was filled with schoolchildren wearing frontier bonnets and Davy Crockett coonskin hats, getting ready to perform Marty Robbins’s song “Ballad of the Alamo.” Kids from the Texas School for the Deaf would sign as the other children sang. Four retirees representing Buffalo Soldiers—the black cavalrymen who made their mark in the Indian Wars—had come to present the state colors. A tall man wearing a top hat paced about, preparing to recite the letter that William Barret Travis, the lawyer who led the Texian forces at the Alamo, wrote during the battle. (“I shall never surrender or retreat,” he declared, in one of the most famous passages in Texas history. “Victory or death.”)
On the House floor, resolutions were offered to honor the “sacrifice of the heroes of the Alamo” and to commend notable citizens. A member proposed that the breakfast taco become the official state breakfast item.
I met Straus in his office. He switched on a closed-circuit TV to watch a press conference by a new group of a dozen cultural conservatives, the Texas Freedom Caucus, which is led by Matt Schaefer, a state representative from Tyler, in East Texas. The group, which models itself on the similarly named body of far-right House Republicans in Washington, had formed, in part, because the term “Tea Party” had lost its meaning—in Texas, at least—as nearly every Republican in the legislature claimed to be unimpeachably conservative. What distinguished this group was that the members were all vociferously anti-Straus. The declared mission of the group is to “amplify the voice of liberty-minded grassroots Texans who want bold action to protect life, strengthen families, defend the Bill of Rights, restrain government, and revitalize personal and economic freedoms in Texas.”
As he watched the conference, Straus shot me a weary look.
We moved to the dining room, which had Audubon bird prints on the wall. “The thing that concerns me is the near-total loss of influence of the business community, which allows really bad ideas like the bathroom bill to fill the void,” Straus said, as we sat down to plates of delicious crab cakes. “C.E.O.s have stopped coming to the capitol to engage directly,” he continued. “They now work only through lobbyists.”
Straus comes from a longtime Republican family in San Antonio. One of his ancestors founded the L. Frank Saddlery Company, which made saddles, harnesses, and whips. Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders stopped in San Antonio in 1898 to equip themselves with L. Frank gear on their way to fight in the Spanish-American War. The company’s slogan was “The horse—next to woman, God’s greatest gift to man.”
When Joe Straus is not in Austin, he is an executive in the insurance and investment business. He entered that industry after a spell in Washington, where his wife, Julie Brink, worked in the Reagan White House and on George H. W. Bush’s 1988 Presidential campaign. During that period, Straus served in the Commerce Department.
He is trim and dapper, like an account executive on “Mad Men,” and is the most prominent Jewish politician in Texas history. In campaigns, his opponents have mentioned his religion, to little effect. This is his fifth term as speaker, which ties the record. It’s a surprise to many observers that the laconic and even-tempered Straus has persevered. Evan Smith told me, “All the things they said about him—‘He’d show up at a gunfight with a butter knife,’ ‘He can’t make a fist’—they were all wrong. Joe Straus is so much tougher than he appears.”
His speakership has focussed on providing the workforce and the infrastructure that Texas businesses need, by protecting public education, building roads, establishing more top-tier universities, and expanding job training. Perhaps his biggest victory was in 2013: in the middle of a devastating drought, he ushered through a two-billion-dollar revolving loan fund for state water projects.
With each session, Straus has watched the Republican Party drift farther away from the “compassionate conservatism” of the Governor Bush era and become increasingly dominated by Christian ideologues, such as Patrick, for whom economic issues are secondary. Although Democrats and non-Tea Party Republicans alike see Straus as a brake on the controversial cultural agenda being pushed by Abbott and Patrick, he worries that his supporters have unreasonable expectations. “I can only do so much to keep the focus on fiscal issues and away from the divisive stuff,” he told me. “A few loud and fanatical people occasionally unsettle the majority of Republicans, who are really mainstream.”
Unlike Patrick, who decides which bills come to the floor in the Senate, Straus has to exercise influence by artfully appointing committee members, who can dull the fangs of fearsome bills (or let them languish until there’s no time to consider them). Sometimes he thinks that his moderation, along with the relative centrism of the Texas House, is being used as a foil for the Senate radicals. “The confidence that people seem to have in the House to serve as a stopper only enables the Senate to run hotter than it ever has before,” he said.
Straus believed that most Republicans in the House didn’t want to vote for the bathroom bill, but, like their conservative colleagues in Washington, they worried about being challenged from the right in primaries. “If it gets to the floor, it could be a close vote,” Straus observed. “I can’t imagine anyone really wanting to follow North Carolina’s example, but I can’t guarantee that’s not going to happen.” Meanwhile, he was pressing his own legislative agenda, which included securing additional funds for public schools, improving Child Protective Services, and devoting more resources to mental health—even though the state budget had been hit because of the fall in oil and gas revenues.
Before the session began, Straus spoke out against the bathroom bill. “I’ve become more blunt than ever,” he told me. He frequently urges business leaders to remain firm in their opposition to such legislation. “I try to be diplomatic but clear—that if you give in on the bathroom bill to preserve a tax break, there’s another equally awful idea right behind it.”
As the bathroom bill was moving through the Texas legislature, Mack Beggs, a seventeen-year-old transgender high-school student from Euless, Texas, won the girls’ state wrestling championship, in the hundred-and-ten-pound weight class. He had been taking testosterone supplements as he transitioned to male, and he had won fifty-six matches in a row. Although he wants to wrestle boys—“because I’m a guy,” he told ESPN—the University Interscholastic League, which oversees the athletic programs in Texas public schools, recently adopted a rule that requires wrestling opponents to have the same sex listed on their birth certificates.
In February, the Trump Administration withdrew the protections that President Obama had instituted for transgender students in public schools. On March 6th, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case of a transgender student from Virginia, Gavin Grimm, who had sued to be allowed to use the boys’ bathroom at school. That left the issue up to individual states, at least for now.
Dan Patrick said that the Texas bill would be a model for the rest of the nation. On March 7th, the bill had its first public hearing before the State Affairs Committee. Transgender Texans, along with their families, came to the capitol to speak, as did preachers, business leaders, and moral crusaders of all types. More than four hundred people signed up to testify at the hearing. The bill’s author, Senator Lois Kolkhorst, a Republican from Brenham, said that it was designed to “find the balance of privacy, decency, respect, and dignity, to protect women, children, and all people.”
Dana Hodges, the state director of a right-wing Christian organization called Concerned Women for America, was the first to testify in favor of the bill. She cast the issue as a matter of women’s safety. “I myself was the victim of being videotaped by a hidden camera placed in a women’s bathroom stall by a man,” she said, her voice trembling. She held up a plastic coat hook that, she said, was embedded with the kind of miniature camera that had been used to spy on her. Under questioning, she acknowledged that a non-transgender man had hidden the camera inside her stall, and that he had been punished under existing laws. Kolkhorst also conceded that she knew of no crimes committed in Texas bathrooms which had been attributed to transgender people. But her intent, she said, was to prevent nefarious people from taking advantage of inclusive bathroom policies. (Crimes against transgender people, meanwhile, are routine; according to Texas Monthly, a quarter of all transgender Texans have been physically assaulted.)
Dan Forest, the lieutenant governor of North Carolina and a strong advocate of that state’s bathroom bill, came to Austin to testify that no businesses had actually left his state because of the bill, and that its economy had been hurt by “less than one tenth of one per cent of North Carolina’s annual G.D.P.” (The Associated Press, after examining public records and interviewing business leaders who said that they had cancelled projects because of the bill, estimated that North Carolina would lose nearly four billion dollars over a dozen years.) On March 30th, the North Carolina legislators, assailed on many fronts, partially repealed their bill.
In Austin, the vast majority of witnesses spoke against the bathroom bill. One of them was Colt Keo-Meier, a transgender psychologist, who is currently enrolled in medical school at the University of Texas at Galveston. He wore a white lab coat, and a stethoscope around his neck. He said, “If you pass this bill, my gender identity will be further invalidated, as I will not be able to continue attending medical school in the state of Texas. I would not be able to enter the men’s rooms legally.” Keo-Meier, who has a full beard, added, “Look at me—I would not be able to enter the women’s rest rooms safely.” Concerns about voyeurism, he argued, were misplaced: “I used the women’s rest room for twenty-three years, and I used the men’s rest room for ten years. I have not once seen any genitalia.”
A woman in a short-sleeved black dress identified herself as Jess Herbst, the mayor of New Hope, a tiny town north of Dallas, in a firmly Republican section of the state. A few weeks earlier, Mayor Herbst had written to her constituents to tell them that she was taking hormone-replacement therapy and transitioning to female. She had received overwhelming support, she told the committee. “I just want to be able to use the women’s room and not have someone ask me at the door for my papers,” she said.
The testimony continued until nearly five in the morning. The committee voted to support the bill, 8–1.
On the evening of April 6th, I went to the capitol to watch the legislature struggle to fulfill its mandatory duty to pass a budget. House members had been at it all day, and, yet again, the discussion would go on until the early morning. The air-conditioning was merciless; one of the members showed me the long johns poking out from under his shirt cuffs. I saw 5-Hour Energy shots arrayed on some desks.
Desperation suffuses the chamber on Budget Night—the last stand for bills that have not been funded. The trick is that, in order to get the money for your legislation, you have to take it from somewhere else. The members were on guard, lest their own bills be raided. More than four hundred amendments to the budget were awaiting their turn. One baffling amendment—offered by Valoree Swanson, a freshman Freedom Caucus member from a suburb of Houston—would prevent state funds from being used to renovate bathrooms in order to “allow or enable a man to enter a women’s restroom facility.”
There are some extraordinary people in the House. Senfronia Thompson is a seventy-eight-year-old former teacher from Houston. Known as Ms. T., she is in her twentieth term, and is one of the few Democrats with real power: she chairs the Local and Consent Calendars Committee, one of the gateways many bills must pass through in order to reach the floor. Unlike a lot of other state legislatures, the Texas legislature still follows a tradition of awarding important posts to members of the minority party. This is true even in Dan Patrick’s Senate.
Thompson once told me that, when she was a girl, African-Americans were not welcome in the capitol. Now she is the longest-serving woman and black person in Texas legislative history. Among her many accomplishments is a hate-crimes act, passed in 2001, that includes protections for homosexuals. She has also fought against racial profiling and passed measures to help low-income Texans pay their utility bills.
Armando Martinez, a forty-one-year-old Democratic member from the Valley, is a firefighter and a paramedic. He showed up on the first day of the session with a bandage on his head; on New Year’s Eve, he’d been hit by a stray celebratory bullet. Martinez filed a bill to prohibit the “reckless discharge of a firearm.”
Dr. John Zerwas, a Republican anesthesiologist from Richmond, Texas, is the chair of the Appropriations Committee. A business conservative in the Straus mold, he is deeply respected in the legislature, and Straus selected him to craft the House version of the budget. The main difference between the House’s budget and the Senate’s was that Zerwas proposed dipping into the Rainy Day Fund. The fund, which is amassed largely from oil and gas taxes, is designated for emergencies. It is projected to grow to twelve billion dollars by 2019, which is more than the annual budget of a dozen other states. Patrick maintains that the fund should not be used for “ongoing expenses,” but Zerwas wanted to take two and a half billion dollars out of the pot, in part to finance health care and public schools—Joe Straus priorities.
An incident in the afternoon had suggested how the budget fight would play out. A freshman member, Briscoe Cain, presented an amendment to shut down an advisory panel on palliative care. Normally, freshmen keep quiet, but Cain is an assertive member of the insurgent Freedom Caucus. Thirty-two years old, he is proudly bratty, like Matthew Broderick in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” “This amendment seeks to get rid of what I’ve kind of nicknamed the ‘advisory death panel,’ ” Cain said, using a term for end-of-life counselling that is popular among the far right.
Soon afterward, Zerwas came to the microphone and stood there, giving Cain what Jonathan Tilove, in his blog for the Austin American-Statesman, jokingly called the morem pellis hispidus distentione nervorum: the hairy eyeball.
It’s fascinating to watch the choreography of the members when deep political chords are struck. The Freedom Caucus members gathered with Cain at a microphone in the front of the chamber; the traditional Republicans, along with some Democrats, stood beside Zerwas at a microphone in the rear. It was the Texas version of the Montagues versus the Capulets.
“Would you please describe for me what a death panel is?” the mighty chairman of appropriations demanded.
“A death panel is whereby a group of individuals unrelated to the person in the hospital decide whether or not that person should live or die,” Cain replied.
“Have you ever understood, really, what palliative care is?” Zerwas asked.
“Mr. Zerwas, being in your profession, I am sure you could inform this body better than I could,” Cain replied.
The old warhorses in the House knew, if Cain did not, that Zerwas had lost his first wife to brain cancer. He wore a ring on his right hand in her memory. Zerwas said, “You could probably ask fifty, sixty, seventy, a hundred members in this House who have had somebody with a serious illness who has dealt with this particular issue.”
Zerwas forced Cain, several times, to admit having made false or uninformed statements. “You know about this, and I don’t,” Cain finally said. “My apologies.” The amendment was withdrawn.
Cain later saved face when he offered an amendment that would block the Texas Department of Criminal Justice from paying for a “sex reassignment or gender transitioning” operation—something that has never actually happened. Cain’s battle cry: “Don’t California my Texas!”
I caught the eye of Pat Fallon, a Republican member from Frisco, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He lives in a wealthy, intensely conservative bedroom community that was all cow pasture when I was growing up nearby. Many young legislators, like Fallon, are not originally from Texas. I asked him how he came to live in the state. He said that, after playing football for Notre Dame, he joined the Air Force, and was stationed in Texas. “They asked me my state of residence, and I said, ‘Massachusetts.’ The payroll officer informed me that Massachusetts has a 5.6-per-cent income tax, but there’s no income tax in Texas. So I said, ‘I’m a Texan!’ ”
This term was his third. So far, he’s best known for co-authoring a bill, in 2013, that reasserted the right of students and employees at public schools to say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays.”
“Have you got an amendment?” I asked Fallon.
“Yeah, it’s No. 152, in which we defund the portion of the Travis County Public Integrity Unit’s investigation of insurance fraud and motor-vehicle tax fraud.” The unit has been under attack for years, because it also addresses crimes committed by state officials. Of course, anything attacking Austin—a spore of the California fungus that is destroying America—is popular.
“Who would do the investigating, then?” I asked.
“The attorney general,” Fallon responded.
Ken Paxton, I reminded Fallon, was under indictment for securities fraud. (He has pleaded not guilty.)
“I would prefer it not be that way,” Fallon said. “But he hasn’t been convicted.”
Fallon ranks high on the conservative “report cards,” compiled by watchdog groups, by which modern right-wing legislators live and die. One of the most feared is the Fiscal Responsibility Index, a powerful weapon against less than ultra-radical Republicans. It is produced by Empower Texans, a group led by Michael Quinn Sullivan, who is known by his initials, M.Q.S. Some members pronounce it “Mucus.”
Sullivan is tall and friendly. He likes to talk about the Boy Scouts (he was an Eagle Scout), the Aggies (he was in the A. & M. Corps of Cadets), and his three children. A right-wing zealot, he is sometimes described as the most powerful non-elected political figure in Texas. Several years ago, Sullivan and I had lunch, and he told me, “I’m not there to get a seat at the table. I’m there to get rid of the table.” In other words, he wants to destroy the government.
Empower Texans is funded largely by a reclusive Midland oilman named Tim Dunn, an evangelical Christian who hopes to create in Texas an example of small government that could be replicated by other states and countries. Even people who hate Dunn’s politics consider him the most effective moneyman in the state. He has steadily pushed Republican lawmakers farther right, eliminating the kind of middle-ground figures who support Joe Straus. Dunn has made it a mission to bring down the Speaker.
While Fallon and I were talking, Jonathan Stickland approached the front microphone. Stickland, a member of the Freedom Caucus, is generously supported by Empower Texans. He is a former pest-control technician from Bedford, near Arlington, who now calls himself an oil and gas consultant. Stickland is plump, with an imposing beard, narrow-set brown eyes, and an occasional broad smile revealing beautiful teeth. He made news in the 2015 session by posting a sign outside his office:
Stickland’s amendment was to defund the state’s feral-hog-abatement program, which kills thousands of the rampaging beasts each year. Stickland called the program ridiculous and a waste of money. “It has not worked, and it never will work!” he declared, infuriating rural lawmakers, who consider wild pigs a nearly existential menace. They converged on Stickland from all sides. Everything came to a dead stop.
A brass rail circumscribes the chamber; only members, pages, and clerks can go inside. I was hovering around the rail, and Speaker Straus came over to say hello. He seemed totally at ease: smiling, hands in his pockets. He said, “I guess all the hogs are going to move to Arlington”—which is partly in Stickland’s district. Straus was in no hurry to impose order. He looked at the scrum of lawmakers around Stickland. “Just think,” he said. “These are the people responsible for spending two hundred and eighteen billion dollars.”
At the rear microphone stood Drew Springer, a Republican from North Texas, whose district—twice the size of Maryland—is copiously supplied with wild pigs. He proposed attaching an amendment to Stickland’s amendment. It would cut nine hundred thousand dollars in funds for roads and highways—the same amount as the hog-abatement program—but only in Stickland’s home town. The measure passed, with undisguised enthusiasm. Stickland pulled his amendment down, but then charged toward Springer. They met in the middle of the chamber, nose to nose. Stickland is known to carry a concealed weapon, so I was a little worried. But other members separated the men, and Straus reluctantly gavelled the House to order.
I left before the budget was passed, long after my bedtime. By dawn, it was clear that Dan Patrick and the Tea Party had suffered one defeat after another in Joe Straus’s House. Earlier in the session, Patrick had demanded an up-or-down vote on subsidizing tuition for private schools, and it was crushed, 103–44. A proposal to “zero out” money for the Texas Commission on the Arts was brushed aside.
Governor Abbott’s “enterprise fund,” which he used to lure businesses to the state, would be emptied, and its budget of forty-three million dollars would be dispersed between Child Protective Services and therapy for disabled children. Paxton, the attorney general, would lose more than twenty million dollars from his budget for lawsuits; that money would be redirected to foster-care programs. None of these changes had become law yet—they had to be ratified by the Senate first.
The exhausted Democrats and Republicans made a deal: the Democrats agreed to provide only nominal opposition to the defunding of Planned Parenthood, which was going to happen in any case; in return, the bathroom amendment was pulled from consideration. Other controversial amendments were placed in Article 11 of the budget, a kind of wish list of things to be debated in the future. Legislators call Article 11 “the graveyard.” But in the Texas legislature the dead have been known to walk.
Illustration by Barry Blitt
The relationship between the capitol and the city of Austin is antagonistic. The city has long been known as a blue dot in a red state. It sees itself as standing apart from the vulgar political culture of the rest of Texas, like Rome surrounded by the Goths. Republican politicians bridle at the disdain. “It’s great to be out of the People’s Republic of Austin,” Governor Abbott declared recently, at a Republican dinner in Bell County. “Once you cross the Travis County line, it starts smelling different. And you know what that fragrance is? Freedom. It’s the smell of freedom that does not exist in Austin, Texas.”
This tirade was apparently triggered by a local ordinance that requires a permit to cut down a “heritage tree”—one whose trunk diameter exceeds nineteen inches. When Abbott was attorney general and living in Austin, he was infuriated when he had to compensate the city before cutting down a pecan tree that stood in the way of his future swimming pool.
Many residents of Austin don’t mind its image as a lonely liberal outpost. I’m part of a group that puts up statues in Austin, and our most recent work was a bronze replica of Willie Nelson. At Nelson’s request, it was unveiled, in 2012, on April 20th—National Marijuana Day. He stood in front of his giant likeness and sang “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”
On the Sunday after Trump was elected President, about a hundred and fifty people gathered on the capitol steps and marched down Congress Avenue. A small group of Trump supporters was staging a counter-protest. According to news reports, one man was especially conspicuous: Joseph Weidknecht, a laid-off sheet-metal worker, who is six feet six and weighs three hundred and fifty pounds. He was wearing a “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” cap and carried a sign that said “PROUD TO BE DEPLORABLE”—a reference to Hillary Clinton’s derogatory remark about Trump supporters. A number of the anti-Trump marchers, some wearing Guy Fawkes masks, ripped the sign out of his hands, grabbed his hat, and tried to set his shirt on fire. “I can handle myself in a brawl,” Weidknecht later told the Austin American-Statesman. “But when they brought out the lighters I was genuinely scared for my life.”
A small woman wearing a hijab forced herself between Weidknecht and the people assaulting him. She was Amina Amdeen, a nineteen-year-old student at the university, who had immigrated to the U.S. from Iraq when she was ten. “She stood there like a mountain, trying to stop the violence,” Weidknecht said. The police arrested six of the protesters.
“I do not stand for what he stands for,” Amdeen remarked. “But I know his fears and concerns are valid. I love this country so much, and I don’t like what I see coming.”
In February, two weeks after the Trump Administration began its attempts to block Muslims from entering the U.S., anti-immigrant posters started appearing outside buildings at the University of Texas at Austin. “IMAGINE A MUSLIM-FREE AMERICA,” one said. Around this time, a mosque was firebombed in Victoria, two hours southeast of Austin. Sid Miller, the state’s agricultural commissioner, told the BBC that he worried about America becoming a Muslim country. (Muslims account for about one per cent of the U.S. population.) He previously advocated dropping nuclear bombs on the Muslim world.
My wife, Roberta, has a close friend, a writer, who is married to a professor. They are Jewish, and they have a “BLACK LIVES MATTER” sign in their yard. As the sanctuary-cities bill, S.B. 4, was being debated in the capitol, an unsigned letter was left at their front door. It threatened the lives of their children, by name. “Is this Austin?” Roberta cried.
In April, S.B. 4 progressed to the House. Among Republicans who vote in Texas primaries, the hottest issue is immigration. Many state legislators who otherwise might not support the bill seemed intimidated by the political environment, and it was apparent that Straus and his team had no battle plan. Meanwhile, Patrick’s counterparts, frustrated by their losses in the budget battles, began adding amendments to make S.B. 4 even tougher. Matt Schaefer, of the Freedom Caucus, amended the bill to allow police officers to question a suspect’s immigration status—a “show me your papers” provision. Law-enforcement authorities in Texas’s major cities had loudly opposed such an idea, saying that it would make immigrants less likely to report crimes. Art Acevedo, Houston’s police chief, said that the number of Hispanics reporting rape in his city was already down forty-three per cent—apparently a result of Trump’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants. Schaefer’s amendment was similar to a 2010 Arizona law that had been partly struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“This is something that Texans in our district have been asking for,” Schaefer said. “This is good policy.”
Gene Wu, the Democratic House member from Houston, who was born in China, spoke against the bill, tearfully comparing it to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the country’s first major anti-immigration law. “This topic is painful for me, because I’m an immigrant,” he said. “My parents are immigrants. I represent a district filled with immigrants.” As he spoke, supportive Democrats surrounded him. “Some are here as refugees. Some are here as citizens. Some are here without papers. But they are all my people.”
For Wu, the sanctuary-cities bill was the natural culmination of the “bigoted, racist mentality” that has emerged in Texas, which he calls the epicenter of the Tea Party. “Trump is simply the most visible manifestation of that mentality,” he told me. “It’s been percolating up in the Republican Party for the past decade.”
Another Democratic lawmaker, Ana Hernandez, of Houston, recalled coming to this country as a child: “I remember the constant fear my family lived with each day, the fear my parents experienced each day, as their two little girls went to school, not knowing if there would be an immigration raid that day.”
Behind the scenes, the Republican and Democratic caucuses met for hours, trying to find a way to dodge Schaefer’s amendment. “The Republicans came to us and said, ‘Some of us are going to have a hard time voting against it,’ ” Wu told me. Knowing that the law would inevitably be challenged in court, Republicans offered to shelve the amendment if the Democrats made some minor concessions. But the Democrats took too long to agree on terms, and the Republicans withdrew the offer.
After sixteen hours of emotional debate, the House passed S.B. 4 with the “show me your papers” amendment. A week later, Governor Abbott signed it into law, on Facebook Live. “Citizens expect law-enforcement officers to enforce the law,” he said. “Citizens deserve lawbreakers to face legal consequences.”
As usual, the Texas legislature passed anti-abortion bills. One bans the safest and most common procedure for second-trimester abortions: dilation and evacuation. Supporters of the legislation call this a “dismemberment abortion.” The law also requires health-care facilities to bury or cremate aborted fetuses.
In addition, the legislature passed several bills to reform the agencies overseeing abused and endangered children—one of Governor Abbott’s priorities. In the first seven months of the state’s fiscal year, the number of foster children spending two or more consecutive nights in hotels or government office buildings had risen to three hundred and fourteen. The new legislation gave raises to the underpaid caseworkers, but in some ways it was yet another anti-government measure. The bill partially stripped the state of responsibility for its wards, handing them off to contractors. Abbott said that Janis Graham Jack, the federal judge who had ruled that Texas’s foster-care system violated children’s rights, should dismiss the case before her, because the new legislation “completely transforms the system in ways that will make it better.” Child-welfare advocates have criticized the new legislation, saying that private groups may not have the expertise to take over case-management duties, particularly when dealing with troubled children. “I expect the Texas Child Protective Services and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to strive for, achieve, and to accomplish No. 1 ranking status in the United States of America,” Abbott said, as he signed the legislation.
On April 6th, the hog-abatement funds were approved, despite Jonathan Stickland’s attempts at sabotage. And a new law allowed the hunting of wild pigs from hot-air balloons. “We’ve got a problem here, and we are willing to fix it,” Mark Keough, a Republican from the Woodlands, told the Texas Observer. “We have that Western, swashbuckling, cowboying type of way to deal with things.” Texans already could legally shoot pigs from helicopters—even with machine guns—but who knew that it was ever against the law to shoot pigs from balloons?
Speaker Straus continued to sideline the bathroom bill. He remained certain that most Republicans in the House didn’t really favor the measure, though they also didn’t want to be seen as opposing it. He asked Governor Abbott to stand with him against the measure. Abbott is better known as a business conservative, like Straus, than as a cultural conservative, like Patrick, but he showed little interest in choosing a side, because he was bound to create enemies in either case. Finally, Abbott blandly stated that he favored a bill “to protect privacy in bathrooms.” He signalled that a bill then headed for a committee hearing in the House, H.B. 2899, was a “thoughtful proposal.” Although it would not mandate bathroom use based on biological sex, H.B. 2899 would impede the enforcement of local nondiscrimination ordinances, and it would not stop businesses or lawmakers from imposing bathroom bans in the future.
On May 21st, the House began debating the measure. Once again, hours of anguished testimony ensued. Half a dozen female members wandered into the men’s bathroom just off the House floor. “We’re feeling like making trouble today,” one of the women, Gina Hinojosa, a Democrat from Austin, told reporters. “It’s that kind of mood.”
Shortly before dawn, the House committee members retired without a vote, effectively killing the measure. At the last minute, several lawmakers had asserted their conservative bona fides by signing on as co-sponsors of the doomed legislation. It was the most desirable outcome imaginable.
There were still eight days left in the session.
One of the major forces behind the bathroom bill, and a big supporter of Dan Patrick, was Steve Hotze, a Houston physician and a longtime ultraconservative kingmaker. Starting in the mid-nineties, he made a fortune from alternative hormone-replacement therapies and the sale of controversial supplements, such as colloidal silver, which he recommends for treating colds and the flu, and for promoting pet health. Colloidal silver can cause argyria, in which a patient’s skin permanently turns the color of a blue jay.
In 1986, Hotze signed the manifesto of an evangelical Christian group called the Coalition on Revival, which endorses the idea that “the ultimate cause of all disease, deformity, disability, and death is the sin of Adam and Eve.” As for government: “We deny that any final authority outside the Bible (e.g., reason, experience, majority opinion, elite opinion, nature, etc.) ought to be accepted as the standard of government for any individual, group, or jurisdiction.”
In the aughts, Hotze hosted a show on the talk-radio station that Patrick now owns in Houston. He recently released a couple of songs—perhaps they should be called lamentations—such as “God Fearing Texans Stop Obamacare”:
What would Sam Houston do?
What would Davy Crockett do?
I know what I’m going to do.
I’m going to fight Obamacare,
I’m going to defeat Obamacare.
Hotze’s main cause is attacking homosexuals, or “homofascists,” as he calls them. “The homosexual political movement will force churches, schools, businesses, and individuals to accept, to affirm, and even celebrate those who participate in anal sex,” he has said. Sodomy, he went on, “will be mandated to be taught to the children in the schools at an early age, starting in kindergarten.” It goes without saying that homosexuals “want to make Texas a clone of California.”
In 2014, Dan Patrick ran for lieutenant governor, and Hotze became one of his chief fund-raisers. In a video endorsement, he stood next to Patrick and said, “Dan Patrick’s leadership will keep Texas the most conservative state in the country.” Patrick added, “The Democrats understand that, if they can take Texas, we will never have a Republican in the White House again. They will control the country. There’s not another Texas to move to, folks. This is it.”
Patrick was referring to the fact that, as Texas’s liberal cities have burgeoned, the state has grown markedly less red. All of its major urban areas except Fort Worth are Democratic and have been for decades. Dallas went for Obama in both elections. In Houston, America’s most diverse city, the country’s first openly lesbian big-city mayor was succeeded by the city’s second black mayor. (Harris County, however, which encompasses Houston, has Republican judges in the courthouse.) San Antonio has always been a progressive stronghold, though it often votes Republican in statewide races. In the 2016 election, Trump garnered fifty-two per cent of the vote in Texas, compared with sixty-five per cent in neighboring Oklahoma. Texas is more purple than many Americans realize, and that’s what keeps conservatives in the state on edge.
Hotze runs a political-action committee called Conservative Republicans of Texas. He also maintains the group’s Web site, and on May 16th he wrote of the bathroom bill, “There are Texas legislators . . . who would allow perverted men and boys, who sexually fantasize that they are women, to enter women’s and girls’ bathrooms, showers and locker rooms.” He implored his readers to pray with him:
In the Name of Jesus, I prophesy and declare: May all the individuals serving in the state legislature, and their staff, who support, promote and practice sodomy and other perverted, sexually deviant lifestyles, who support the killing of unborn babies, and who hate God’s Law and God’s Word, receive just retribution from God for their evil actions. . . . May they be consumed, collapse, rot and be blown away as dust from their current positions because of their wicked works, thoughts and deeds.
In an e-mail, Patrick’s office described Hotze as a “longtime supporter,” but added, “The Lieutenant Governor does not agree with everything that any of his supporters say or do.” Straus told me, “Steve Hotze exists on the fringes. Mainstream Republicans don’t take him seriously.” Hotze, meanwhile, has been campaigning to have Straus removed as speaker.
On May 20th, Tom Mechler, the chairman of the state Republican Party, resigned, citing personal reasons. He issued a letter pleading for party unity. “A party that is fractured by anger and backbiting is a party that will not succeed,” he said. He also warned that the Republican Party had failed to attract voters outside the white demographic, and was therefore destined for electoral oblivion. “If we do not continue to make efforts to engage in the diverse communities across Texas, our state will turn blue,” he warned. He urged the next chairman to reshape the Party in the image of modern Texas.
Soon after Mechler’s resignation, Rob Morrow—the former Travis County Republican Party chairman with the motley-fool hat—announced his candidacy for the statewide position. His priorities had not changed since he had been drummed out of office. In a statement for the press, he declared, “I like big titties. I am a proponent of boobyliciousness. In the past several years I have shared on social media the pics of over 500 extremely hot, busty women.” He concluded by saying, “I am for having bikini contests at the Alamo every 4th of July. Case closed.”
The twelve members of the Texas Freedom Caucus were furious at Straus and his allies for impeding their legislation, which included yet more bills targeting abortion, and measures that would further loosen gun laws and roll back property taxes. They decided to get revenge, with what became known as the Mother’s Day Massacre.
Bills that are not considered controversial are often placed before the House for a pro-forma vote. In May, a hundred and twenty-one such proposals, known as consent bills, were awaiting approval. However, if five or more members object to a consent bill, it must go through the normal legislative process, and be scheduled for discussion on the House floor. This year, the clock for such discussions ran out at midnight on May 11th—the Thursday before Mother’s Day weekend. Hours before midnight, the Freedom Caucus objected to the entire slate of consent bills, making it impossible for them to be heard this session. The doomed consent bills included two that addressed the sharp rise in maternal mortality in Texas. Shawn Thierry, a Democrat from Houston, begged Freedom Caucus members to spare her bill, which would have commissioned a study that focussed on low-income black mothers. She argued that the bill was pro-life, because mothers who died in childbirth had carried their babies to term. Although the Freedom Caucus members agreed with her on this point, they refused her request, adding that it wasn’t personal. “It was like a drive-by shooting,” Thierry later said.
Next the Freedom Caucus chewed up time in leisurely debate, proposing amendments and making objections to bills already under consideration. The House was brought to a standstill. An hour passed as they debated inconsequential amendments to a bill on industrial-workforce training. (The minority Democrats had perfected such tactics in the past.)
Time was running out to consider any of the other scheduled legislation. Drew Springer, the representative from North Texas who killed Stickland’s anti-hog-abatement amendment, pleaded for H.B. 810, which would fund experimental stem-cell treatments. He spoke on behalf of his wife, who is in a wheelchair. Such treatments “might give somebody like my wife a chance to walk,” he said, between sobs. “I’d trade every one of my bills I’ve passed, every single one, to get the chance to hear H.B. 810.” The Freedom Caucus gave in on this one, and it passed.
Also among the slain consent bills was H.B. 3302, a sunset safety-net bill. It had been crafted to preserve important state agencies that would otherwise be phased out under an automatic review policy, which takes place every twelve years. One of the agencies up for review was the state medical board. If the medical board expired, there would be no agency to license doctors in Texas. It wasn’t clear if Freedom Caucus members had realized the far-reaching consequences of killing H.B. 3302.
Dan Patrick, however, recognized that an important lever had been handed to him. The only way to avoid the consequences of H.B. 3302’s failing to pass was for a similar bill to be passed in the Senate—which had a later deadline—and then sent back to the House. On the Monday after Mother’s Day, Speaker Straus wrote a letter to Patrick, urging the Senate to pass such a bill—along with the budget—so that the legislature could avoid a special session. In response, Patrick privately sent him specific terms for a deal. The House had to pass the bathroom bill and another item on Patrick’s agenda—a bill that capped local property taxes. In return, the Senate would agree to pass its own version of the sunset safety-net bill, as well as the budget and several other items, including one championed by Straus, which dealt with school-finance reform. Public schools in Texas are financed through property taxes, along with federal and state funds. Over the years, the state’s contribution per student has diminished, with property taxes making up the difference. To restore the balance, Straus wanted to allocate one and a half billion state dollars to the public schools.
The Senate had added an amendment to the school-finance-reform bill, however, which amounted to what Straus called a “poison pill”: a provision for vouchers for private schools. The House had already rejected this idea, but Patrick felt that Texas schools had enough money. In an op-ed published in early June, he noted that total education spending, including universities, was already the largest item in the budget—“about fifty-two per cent of all state dollars.” He added, “It is disingenuous to suggest that we are, somehow, holding back funding that we could spend on schools.” (Education spending, as a percentage of the Texas budget, is lower than it has been in at least twenty years.)
By now, the ill will between the two men had spilled over into the chambers they led. Lyle Larson, the San Antonio Republican, who is close to Straus, accused the Senate of “taking hostages” when it promised to pass certain House bills only if the House voted for Patrick’s priorities. “I’ve got six,” Larson cried. “How many other bills were held hostage by the Texas Senate?”
A roar went up in the House, which only grew when Harold Dutton, a Houston Democrat, took to the front microphone. “When the Senate won’t respect us, they need to expect us,” he said. “I don’t know if they can see us. But would you have them open the door so they can hear us?” The House doors were flung open, as the frustrated representatives bayed like wolves at the Senate chamber, across the capitol.
Governor Abbott had warned Speaker Straus that he would demand action on the bathroom bill—even if he had to call a special session. With Straus’s blessing, a compromise was crafted by Chris Paddie, a Republican representative from Marshall, in northeast Texas. It was styled as an amendment to a bill on school safety, and would affect grade schools and high schools but not universities or government buildings. It affirmed the right of all students to use the bathroom with “privacy, dignity, and safety”—language that strongly echoed Patrick’s scaremongering about potential transgender predators. But it did not explicitly bar students from using particular bathrooms.
Across Texas, school districts and chambers of commerce seemed resigned to accept the amendment. In Straus’s opinion, it codified a reasonable practice that many schools had already adopted. Still, there was fierce opposition in the House from Democrats who saw it as appeasement. Representative Rafael Anchia, of Dallas, reminded the other members that, since they had begun debating the bathroom issue, in January, ten transgender people had been violently killed in the U.S. He read their names aloud.
The amendment passed the House, but Patrick wasn’t satisfied. He said that it didn’t “appear to do much.” Time was running out. Straus declared that Patrick could take Paddie’s amendment or leave it. “For many of us—and especially for me—this was a compromise,” Straus told reporters. “As far as I’m concerned, it was enough. We will go no further. This is the right thing to do in order to protect our economy from billions of dollars in losses and more importantly to protect the safety of some very vulnerable young Texans.” It was “absurd,” he said, that passing a bathroom bill had taken on more urgency than fixing the school-finance system.
Patrick did not relent. He said of Straus, “Instead of siding with the people of Texas—and, as a Republican, siding with Republicans of Texas—he has decided to support the policies of Barack Obama, who said, ‘I want boys and girls in every shower in every school in the country.’ ” (Obama never said this.) Patrick then added a remark aimed directly at Abbott: “Tonight, I’m making it very clear, Governor. I want you to call us back on your own time.” The two chambers succeeded in passing a budget, but a special session seemed inevitable.
Abbott clearly hated the position he had been thrust into. A special session devoted almost entirely to the bathroom bill, he knew, would focus even more unwanted national attention on Texas. Only the governor can call a special session, and though he can nominally set the agenda, special sessions can get out of hand. There was no guarantee that Abbott would get the outcome he hoped for.
On May 27th, the C.E.O.s of fourteen companies with a significant presence in Texas, including Apple, Amazon, Cisco, Google, and I.B.M., sent Abbott a letter. “We are gravely concerned that any such legislation would deeply tarnish Texas’ reputation as open and friendly to businesses and families,” it said. The bill would harm the companies’ ability to recruit talent to the state, they asserted, adding, “Discrimination is wrong and it has no place in Texas.”
Around this time, reporters caught up with Abbott at a gun range, where he signed a law lowering the cost of gun licenses. He then shot a few rounds at a target sheet, which he proudly displayed to the reporters. (The Texas press has generally been very kind to him.) This was the day after Montana elected a U.S. representative, in a special election, who had body-slammed a reporter, sending him to the hospital. This was the same season in which Trump had declared the press the enemy. Abbott held up his bullet-riddled target and said, “I’m gonna carry this around in case I see any reporters.”
On the Friday before the end of the session, Straus told me, Patrick sent two emissaries from the Senate to visit him at his office. (Patrick’s spokeswoman says that this is “not accurate.”) One of the senators carried an envelope that apparently contained the language of a bathroom bill that Patrick would accept. The senator, whose name Straus would not disclose, was a lawyer, and told Straus that the language had been carefully crafted to insure that the bill would override any local antidiscrimination ordinances. The senator started to open the envelope, but Straus said not to bother. “I’m not a lawyer, but I am a Texan,” he said. “I’m disgusted by all this. Tell the lieutenant governor I don’t want the suicide of a single Texan on my hands.”
During the regular legislative session, more than sixty-six hundred bills were filed, and more than twelve hundred were passed into law. The session was widely seen as being dictated by Dan Patrick, but many of the signature items that he had supported—school vouchers, property-tax rollbacks, and the bathroom bill—failed to pass.
The major cities in Texas recently joined in a lawsuit against S.B. 4—the sanctuary-cities bill—saying that it will lead to racial profiling, and that regulating immigration is a power reserved for the federal government. The U.S. Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, announced that the Justice Department would help defend S.B. 4. “President Trump has made a commitment to keep America safe,” he said. “Texas has admirably followed his lead by mandating statewide coöperation with federal immigration laws that require the removal of illegal aliens who have committed crimes.”
One of the bills that Governor Abbott signed into law allows faith-based adoption groups to reject applicants whose sexual orientation is counter to their beliefs. In response to the law, California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, banned state employees from travelling to Texas at taxpayers’ expense. Dan Patrick jumped at the chance to taunt California. “Of course, California does have a reason to be angry at Texas,” he said. “Thousands of folks fled California’s high taxes and liberal attitudes to come to Texas in 2015.”
The session concluded this year on Memorial Day, and so fallen soldiers were honored. Legislators said goodbye to colleagues with whom they had endured a hundred and forty of the most intense days of their lives.
Meanwhile, buses began arriving at the capitol. Hundreds of protesters, some from distant states, burst through the doors, filling all four levels of the rotunda and spilling into the House gallery. They unfurled banners (“SEE YOU IN COURT!”) and chanted, “S.B. 4 has got to go!” One of the protest organizers, Stephanie Gharakhanian, explained to reporters, “We wanted to make sure we gave them the sendoff they deserve.”
A few of the Democrats in the chamber looked up at the chanting protesters and began to applaud. State troopers cleared the gallery and broke up the protest, but by that time some of the Republicans on the floor had taken offense. Matt Rinaldi, a member of the Freedom Caucus from Dallas County, who is sometimes rated the most conservative member of the House, later told Fox Business Network that he noticed several banners bearing the message “I AM UNDOCUMENTED AND HERE TO STAY.” He called ICE, and then bragged to his Hispanic colleagues about it.
A shoving match broke out on the House floor. Curses flew. Afterward, Rinaldi posted on Facebook that Poncho Nevárez, a Democrat from the border town of Eagle Pass, had threatened his life. “Poncho told me he would ‘get me on the way to my car,’ ” Rinaldi wrote, adding that he made it clear that “I would shoot him in self-defense.”
The next day, the capitol was subdued. In the House chamber, docents were again leading school tours. In the rotunda, a high-school orchestra was playing a piece for woodwinds. I went up to the second floor, where the acoustics were better. The orchestra was from Kountze, a little East Texas town that had the distinction, in 1991, of electing America’s first Muslim mayor. The musicians were arrayed in the center of the rotunda, atop the seals of the republic and the five nations of which Texas had once been part: Spain, France, Mexico, the United States, and the Confederacy. I was moved by the thought that the long and bloody history of Texas had arrived at this moment, with small-town kids bringing the many voices of the state into harmony.
Speaker Straus was waiting in his chambers, seated on the couch in his shirtsleeves, under a painting of Hereford cattle. He looked far more relaxed than I thought was warranted, given that Governor Abbott was poised to call a special session that would likely focus on Patrick’s must-pass bills. But Straus seemed satisfied. He boasted that the priorities of the House—his priorities—had mostly been accomplished. “We did the Child Protective Services reforms, adding fourteen hundred new caseworkers,” he said. “We made tremendous progress on mental-health reforms and funding.” Texas’s decrepit hospitals were going to be upgraded. A health-care plan for retired teachers had been saved. Enormous cuts to higher education had been averted. “These were issues a little bit under the radar, because they’re not sensational, but they’re issues that are going to make a big difference in Texas lives,” Straus said. “What we didn’t achieve was to begin fixing the school-finance system, which everybody knows is a disaster.”
Straus said that some schools in districts that had been strongly affected by the downturn in the oil and gas economy might have to be closed. “We had a plan to bridge that,” he noted. “Unfortunately, the Senate had other priorities.” He attributed the failure to Patrick’s “fixation on vouchers.”
I asked Straus about the clash between business and cultural conservatives. He quoted William H. Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, who described the forthcoming Civil War as “an irrepressible conflict.” The prejudices unleashed by the election of Donald Trump had poured kerosene on the already volatile world of Texas politics. Straus, referring to the bathroom bill, said, “We came very close this session to passing a sweepingly discriminatory policy. It would have sent a very negative message around the country.”
“That’s still possible, right?” I asked. Couldn’t Abbott put forward his own bill in the special session and threaten to veto any amendments?
Straus agreed, but noted, “The legislature is not obligated to act upon his agenda items within the thirty-day period. And the Governor would have the option to call as many thirty-day sessions as he would like.”
“So the bill could stay in committee and not get voted out?”
The session was the most fractious in memory, and the bad feelings stirred up in the capitol will linger long after the lawmakers return home. Immigrant communities are fearful, lawmakers are vengeful, and hatemongers feel entitled to spread their message. And the bitter battle among Texas Republicans isn’t over. Governor Abbott called a special session, to reconvene on July 18th, and set forth a list of twenty items that he said required action. Most of them could have been passed in the regular session; none of them were a priority for him before the session began. In addition to the bathroom bill, his list of demands included education vouchers, caps on state and local spending, and new abortion restrictions. He also asked for a thousand-dollar raise for public-school teachers, which the local school boards—not the state—would likely have to pay for. “I expect legislators to return with a calm demeanor, and with a firm commitment to make Texas even better,” he said. Straus was not intimidated. He told me, “We’re under no obligation to pass anything.” ♦