Analysis: A Houston police death and the debate over who should have guns in Texas

Texas Tribune Blue Government News

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo speaks out against bathroom bills at a press conference on the steps of the state capitol on July 25, 2017.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo speaks out against bathroom bills at a press conference on the steps of the state capitol on July 25, 2017.
Austin Price/The Texas Tribune

Editor’s note: If you’d like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey’s column, click here.

They wear their gunbelts a little tighter in Washington than in Texas.

You see that in the Texans in the U.S. Senate holding their ground on what’s known as “the boyfriend loophole” while statewide officials back home seem open to at least a conversation about some tougher gun regulation.

Don’t overstate what the locals are willing to do: Baby steps, folks. But officials like Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have hinted at things that furrow the brows of people in the National Rifle Association and other Second Amendment groups.

That response to gun violence at the state level, however slight, isn’t being matched by Texas officials at the federal level. Here in Texas, there’s talk of “red flag” laws that would allow judges to temporarily seize the guns of people deemed dangerous to themselves or others. Expanding required background checks to include person-to-person sales between strangers.

The first was an Abbott suggestion after mass shootings at Santa Fe High School and at Sutherland Springs Baptist Church. The second, a Patrick statement after mass shootings at an El Paso Walmart and at a number of locations in Odessa.

The political weathervanes in Washington haven’t recorded any such changes.

Last Saturday’s killing of Houston Police Sgt. Christopher Brewster prompted Police Chief Art Acevedo to call out U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas for their part in blocking legislation that would ban sales of guns to dating partners convicted of domestic abuse or subject to restraining orders for abuse. Such a ban exists for abusers of family members, but not for boyfriends and girlfriends.

That provision of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act has been called a poison pill by gun rights advocates. It passed in the Democrat-controlled House and stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.

“I don’t want to see their little smug faces about how much they care about law enforcement when I’m burying a sergeant because they don’t want to piss off the NRA,” Acevedo said. “Make up your minds. Whose side are you on? Gun manufacturers, the gun lobby, or the children that are getting gunned down in this country every single day?”

That angered some officers; the Houston Police Officers Union scolded Acevedo for making a political message of Brewster’s death. Cornyn and Cruz responded by saying they’re not against some restrictions. They also pointed to laws already in place they said should have kept guns out of the hands of the officer’s killer.

“I was surprised to hear the chief, who I’ve long considered a friend. He has my number, and if he had bothered to call me, I would’ve told him that we agree that convicted abusers shouldn’t be allowed to own a gun,” Cornyn said. In a phone call with reporters this week, he didn’t respond to questions about how he would vote on the boyfriend loophole.

He said it appears that Arturo Solis, the killer, shouldn’t have had a gun because of earlier convictions for family violence.

“The fact is that this killer was a criminal whom federal law already prohibited from having a gun,” Cruz said in a written statement.

Cruz won reelection last year and won’t be on the ballot for his current job again until 2024. But Cornyn is on the ballot next year, set to face the winner of a crowded Democratic primary in the general election in November.

The federal law expired almost a year ago. A new version passed the U.S. House, but is stuck in the Senate because of proposals to close the boyfriend loophole, expand the protections to transgender victims and allow U.S. citizens to be tried for domestic violence in tribal courts, and other provisions.

Even in Texas, where some leaders seem open to some changes in gun laws, the Legislature has been reluctant to increase restrictions. Abbott’s call for consideration of red flag laws, which preceded last year’s elections and this year’s legislative session, fell flat when Patrick said it wouldn’t get out of the Senate he leads.

The shootings in El Paso and Odessa occurred after the Legislature ended it’s 86th session. Lawmakers aren’t scheduled to return until January 2021 — after the 2020 elections.

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Accusations of shoddy hiring practices dog Texas State University police department

Texas Tribune Blue Government News

Texas State University campus in San Marcos.
Texas State University campus in San Marcos.
Texas State University

The former police chief at Texas State University and his top deputy were accused of hiring unqualified officers — including one who allegedly “slept with a sexual assault victim” while investigating her case — and presiding over a department marked by favoritism, low morale and high turnover, according to an internal university memo obtained by The Texas Tribune and police department correspondence.

Former Chief Jose Bañales and his chief of staff, Lt. Alex Villalobos, were also accused of overruling investigators who tried to flag problematic job applicants, according to the records.

In a separate lawsuit filed in early November, a 17-year department veteran claims he was fired for reporting “violations of law” committed by university employees, including falsification of documents by Bañales and Villalobos. The lawsuit filed by Jason Moreno claims Villalobos also “used information obtained through his law enforcement position for personal benefit of a brother” — a former Cameron County District Attorney — “who had been charged with and convicted of racketeering and bribery.” He was investigated by the university for doing so in 2013.

Bañales and Villalobos both resigned from Texas State in mid-2018, and Villalobos is now a Kyle City Council member and is running for Hays County Sheriff. He previously told the Tribune that he resigned to pursue a new professional opportunity, and he did not respond to recent requests for comment.

Bañales, who owns a consulting company, denied many of the allegations in the university memo and questioned its veracity. He said he made strides at Texas State to rehabilitate a police force that had high turnover, lax processes and poor records management when he arrived. He characterized the department veteran who’s sued as an aggrieved former employee who had fomented “deceptive” allegations against him.

“Very quickly when I got there, I found that it was a toxic environment with various factions within the department, and I did institute some more accountability in the hiring process,” Bañales said. “I would blame the leadership of the past for failing to recognize they had to formalize the process for that.

“A lot of these things happened prior to my tenure with Texas State, and we were putting things in motion to rectify some of these issues,” he said.

Bañales left the university, in part, because he felt he didn’t have final authority over new hires and personnel matters, he said. His predecessor, Ralph Meyer, said the department followed the university’s rules on hiring during his tenure and that Bañales did not.

The accusations come as Texas State is under review by federal authorities for grossly underreporting the number of rapes and other crimes on campus during Bañales’ and Villalobos’ tenure. The university — one of the largest public higher education institutions in Texas — could face steep fines for violating a federal statute that requires accurate crime reporting so students and parents can assess campus safety.

School officials are making reforms, and a new police chief was brought on last February.

In a statement, the university said the memo summarizes “unsubstantiated allegations brought forward by members of the university police department” in April 2018 — a month before Bañales resigned — and that “many of the individuals referenced in the document” are no longer employed there. Asked about Moreno’s lawsuit, the university declined to comment on pending litigation.

Texas State’s police force protects more than 38,000 students, most enrolled at the picturesque main campus in San Marcos, south of Austin. Police employees operate a nighttime ride service and offer other safety programs, but officers are also expected to respond to incidents as serious as bomb threats, homicides and active shooters. All are issued weapons.

Texas State hired Villalobos — who owned a private investigation company called Intrepid Intel Research, in Kyle — in 2007. His annual reviews at the university were overwhelmingly positive, and he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in October 2016, five months after Bañales was hired. A LinkedIn profile bearing Villalobos’ name shows he became the chief of staff around the same time.

In a 2017 email to local Hays County prosecutors, Bañales said Villalobos had received “verbal counseling” after a 2013 university investigation found he used a law enforcement search tool for personal purposes. At some point, Villalobos’ name was added to a register kept by Hays County prosecutors to flag people whose character could be questioned if they are put on the witness stand in court cases. Many prosecutors keep similar lists — often referred to as Brady lists. Bañales said he never received confirmation that Villalobos was on the local list and that the investigation happened years before he arrived.

Hays County District Attorney Wes Mau would not discuss details of his office’s list but said it is a “39.14 disclosure list,” meaning it includes more names than might appear on other prosecutors’ Brady lists.

“At some agencies, for example, if you’re on the Brady list, that means you have been caught lying or you have been convicted of a crime,” he said. The Hays County list is far broader — reflecting a wide array of infractions and other information “that could be exculpatory or mitigating,” he said. The office doesn’t disclose the information to third parties, in keeping with state policy.

Bañales was hired in 2016 after three decades at the San Antonio Police Department, where he climbed from the rank of patrol officer to assistant chief, overseeing more than 2,000 sworn officers and support staff, according to a job application he completed.

A military veteran, Texas State alumnus and graduate of the FBI National Academy at Quantico, Bañales professed his ability to balance “the social and human considerations inherent to management of a large and diverse service organization” in an October 2015 letter expressing his interest in the Texas State job.

After his first year as chief, Bañales received a laudatory performance review from his supervisor, Vice President for Student Affairs Joanne Smith, who gave him top marks for goals like recruiting and retaining “high-quality, diverse staff.” Bañales similarly touted his efforts that year to “streamline the hiring process for police officers” and told the Tribune he brought more ethnic minorities onto the force.

But the lengthy memo prepared by the university’s human resources department captures a bleaker picture of his tenure. Seven pages long, the document summarizes a “variety of concerns” raised by police employees in private meetings, from hiring “people that may be related and/or connected” to the chief, to “promoting people on the Brady list.”

The memo and other university records viewed by the Tribune identify several problematic hires, including one man who had “very poor employment history” and a “history of dishonesty and being deceitful.” Another had “multiple unauthorized personal purchases on a state issued travel credit card” and exhibited “poor police tactics … during police pursuits putting the public in danger.”

The department “became the dumping ground,” said one officer in an interview. “Everybody started knowing us as: Just go apply at Texas State because they’ll hire anybody.”

The memo said eight grievances were filed after Bañales was hired and that the department’s employee turnover rate hit 55.7%. Between November 2017 and April 2018, 10 to 15 “employee relations” meetings had also been requested, according to the memo.

Most of the employees who met with human resources criticized Bañales’ hiring practices.

In one HR meeting described in the memo, a male employee identified only as “Witness” said he was told to conduct a background check on an applicant although he had no formal training in how to do so. The applicant did not have the required 60 college credit hours and may have had an arrest history. The applicant’s former supervisor reportedly told the witness the applicant was “not rehirable here.”

But when the witness raised concerns about the applicant’s background, he was told by a supervisor to “not discuss this with anyone else” and was later directed to “re-word” his recommendation that the man not be hired. The applicant was hired.

Bañales eventually told investigators assigned to background check job applicants to stop issuing recommendations on whether prospective hires were qualified, according to the memo and interviews with more than half a dozen current and former police employees. Some members of the department were also asked to sign confidentiality agreements preventing them from talking about how new hires were vetted.

Bañales disputed parts of the memo and disagreed with the way many of his decisions were portrayed.

He said privacy agreements are commonly used to protect financial and other personal information included in most job applications, and he recalled overruling an investigator only once — for a man with “one blemish” who turned out to be a “fine officer” and had credentials the department needed.

He acknowledged he changed the vetting process so that only he or a top official — like Villalobos — could make recommendations about hires. Previously, the decisions were made by lower-level officers who he alleged were “gaming the system.” Later, he said there was no formalized hiring process at all before he joined.

Bañales said he did not remember hearing that an applicant had allegedly slept with a sexual assault victim, as the internal university memo recounted. One person with knowledge of the incident told the Tribune they recalled that the job applicant allegedly slept with a stalking victim.

Bañales also said a different hire with a possible arrest history was not charged with a criminal offense, so he couldn’t “hold that against him.”

And he dismissed other employee complaints in the memo, including that the department was riven by low morale, fear of retaliation, little transparency and preferential treatment in the hiring and internal promotion processes. “That describes the environment I walked into that I tried to change,” he said.

In its statement, Texas State cited a number of changes made since Bañales’ departure and said it is committed to providing “a safe and secure environment in which to live, learn and work.” A reform-minded police chief with experience working in university law enforcement was hired this year, and she has made a number of reforms suggested by a peer review the university requested in 2018. A summary of that peer review said the department was understaffed and “seriously deficient” in key areas like emergency management planning and operations.

The police department’s website advertises a $46,000 starting salary for officers and says prospective employees must pass a criminal background check and not have convictions more serious than a class B misdemeanor, offenses like driving while intoxicated or some criminal mischief. The department is expected to begin a three-year accreditation process in 2020 to give “the university community confidence that the department is adhering to best practices.”

University officials have blamed bad software, poor communication and previous chiefs, including Bañales — who had not worked in university police departments before — for the bungled crime statistics that landed the school in the Education Department’s crosshairs.

Bañales said administrators were “slow to respond” to his warnings, citing a PowerPoint presentation he gave administrators in 2017 about problems with crime reporting and related federal requirements.

Bañales’ former supervisor, Smith, is retiring at the end of the academic year, and the department now reports to a different vice president, Eric Algoe, who oversees finance and support services. University officials say Smith’s departure is unrelated to problems in the police department and that the change in organizational structure reflects a “best practice for university law enforcement entities.”

Texas State has not released most documents related to the incorrect crime statistics that the Tribune requested and paid for under public information laws — including any letter from the Education Department that outlines the scope of the federal review. The university said it complies with all applicable laws.

But S. Daniel Carter, a Georgia-based campus security consultant and expert on the federal crime-reporting statute called the Clery Act, said the federal government imposes the maximum financial penalty — more than $57,000 — for each violent crime that is omitted. Earlier this year, Texas State had to correct its published campus safety statistics to show there were 39 rapes in 2016 and 2017, not eight, as it had previously reported. Other categories of crime had incorrect figures as well.

Disclosure: The Texas State University System has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Governor Abbott Declares State of Disaster Due To Drought Conditions In 15 Texas Counties

Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Communication

Governor Abbott declares a state of disaster in Bandera, Blanco, Burnet, Concho, Karnes, Kendall, Kinney, Llano, Maverick, Medina, Real, Uvalde, Val Verde, Zapata, and Zavala counties because of drought.

TO ALL TO WHOM THESE PRESENTS SHALL COME:  

I, GREG ABBOTT, Governor of the State of Texas, do hereby certify that exceptional drought conditions pose a threat of imminent disaster in Bandera, Blanco, Burnet, Concho, Karnes, Kendall, Kinney, Llano, Maverick, Medina, Real, Uvalde, Val Verde, Zapata, and Zavala counties.

WHEREAS, significantly low rainfall and prolonged dry conditions continue to increase the threat of wildfire across these portions of the state; and

WHEREAS, these drought conditions pose an imminent threat to public health, property, and the economy;

THEREFORE, in accordance with the authority vested in me by Section 418.014 of the Texas Government Code, I do hereby declare a state of disaster in the previously listed counties based on the existence of such threat.

Pursuant to Section 418.017 of the code, I authorize the use of all available resources of state government and of political subdivisions that are reasonably necessary to cope with this disaster.

Pursuant to Section 418.016 of the code, any regulatory statute prescribing the procedures for conduct of state business or any order or rule of a state agency that would in any way prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action in coping with this disaster shall be suspended upon written approval of the Office of the Governor. However, to the extent that the enforcement of any state statute or administrative rule regarding contracting or procurement would impede any state agency’s emergency response that is necessary to protect life or property threatened by this declared disaster, I hereby authorize the suspension of such statutes and rules for the duration of this declared disaster.

In accordance with the statutory requirements, copies of this proclamation shall be filed with the applicable authorities.

IN TESTIMONY WHEREOF, I have hereunto signed my name and have officially caused the Seal of State to be affixed at my office in the City of Austin, Texas, this the 12th day of December, 2019. 

Governor Greg Abbott

Read the proclamation 

PRESS RELEASE: Natural Resources: More Mussels, More Questions

Texas Comptroller

Contact:
Chris Bryan
Kevin Lyons
Email Us

512-463-4070
Comptroller.Texas.Gov

1-800-531-5441
ext. 3-4070
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

December 12, 2019 

Natural Resources: More Mussels, More Questions

(AUSTIN) — In the debut edition of its Natural Resources newsletter, the Texas Comptroller’s office reveals the discovery of rare, state-protected freshwater mussels within the jurisdiction of the Lower Neches Valley Authority in southeast Texas. The discovery of Louisiana pigtoes and Texas heelsplitters in new portions of the Neches River drainage area could affect reviews of the species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). 

This issue of the newsletter also explores an ongoing initiative in Matagorda Bay, nestled along the sprawling Texas coastline, where Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi researchers are gathering information on several species of endangered and threatened sea turtles and birds and the habitats that support them. In addition, the issue highlights species with pending federal listing decisions the Texas kangaroo rat in North Texas and the western chicken turtle in East Texas. 

The Natural Resources newsletter will be updated periodically with news and features on imperiled, threatened and endangered species across Texas. Since 2009, the Texas Legislature has directed the Comptroller’s office to take a leadership role in protecting the state’s natural resources while avoiding needless restrictions on economic growth. The Comptroller’s natural resources program funds research at state universities to inform Endangered Species Act (ESA) decisions and help communities and stakeholders develop voluntary conservation programs. 

“The latest partnership among local stakeholders, scientists and federal regulators in Southeast Texas exemplifies the natural resources program’s ongoing efforts to identify objective, science-based solutions to our state’s conservation challenges,” Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar said. “It’s important to continue this collaboration so that future decisions, which could have tremendous and far-reaching impacts on the Texas economy, can be based on accurate science. 

Earlier this year, research funded by the Comptroller’s office and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department led FWS to determine that two Texas mussels should be removed from the list of candidate species under the federal ESA. 

Go to the Comptroller’s website to read the latest Natural Resources newsletter.

 

Governor Abbott Delivers Keynote Address At Dallas Regional Chamber’s State Of The State Luncheon

Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Communication

The Governor updated the chamber on the successes of the 86th Legislative Session and highlighted the significant economic growth achieved throughout the Dallas region.

Governor Greg Abbott today attended and delivered the keynote address at the Dallas Regional Chamber’s State of the State Luncheon. The Governor updated the chamber on the successes of the 86th Legislative Session—including transformative property tax and school finance reforms—and highlighted the significant economic growth achieved throughout the Dallas region. 

“The Texas economy is booming thanks in part to organizations like the Dallas Regional Chamber that continue to bring more investments and more jobs to the Lone Star State,” said Governor Abbott. “Working together, we will strengthen our commitment to economic excellence and perpetuate Texas’ legacy as a place of unrivaled opportunity and prosperity.”   

The Dallas Regional Chamber serves as the voice of business and the champion of economic development and growth in the Dallas Region. The chamber works with member companies and regional partners to strengthen the Dallas business community by advocating for pro-growth public policies, improving the educational system, attracting talented workers from around the world, and enhancing the quality of life for all. The Dallas Regional Chamber is supported by roughly 3,000 businesses and organizations across twelve counties, and its members represent nearly 600,000 area employees.

PRESS RELEASE: Comptroller Glenn Hegar Distributes $821 Million in Monthly Sales Tax Revenue to Local Governments

Texas Comptroller

Contact:
Chris Bryan
Kevin Lyons
Email Us

512-463-4070
Comptroller.Texas.Gov

1-800-531-5441
ext. 3-4070
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

December 11, 2019

Comptroller Glenn Hegar Distributes $821 Million in Monthly Sales Tax Revenue to Local Governments

(AUSTIN) — Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced today he will send cities, counties, transit systems and special purpose taxing districts $820.5 million in local sales tax allocations for December, 7.8 percent more than in December 2018. These allocations are based on sales made in October by businesses that report tax monthly.

LOCAL SALES TAX ALLOCATIONS (Dec. 2019)
Recipient Dec. 2019
Allocations
Change from
Dec. 2018
Year-to-date
Change
Cities  
$523.9M 7.3% 4.7%
Transit Systems $181.9M 8.0% 4.4%
Counties $50.8M 4.8% 4.9%
Special Purpose Taxing Districts $64.0M 14.4% 11.6%
Total $820.5M 7.8% 5.1%

For details on December sales tax allocations to individual cities, counties, transit systems and special purpose districts, visit the Comptroller’s Monthly Sales Tax Allocation Comparison Summary Reports.

Governor Abbott Appoints Eight To Texas Workforce Investment Council

Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Communication

The Council engages in a collaborative, systematic view of workforce development programs throughout the state and provides for planning, evaluation, research, and other functions related to 19 workforce programs.

Governor Greg Abbott has appointed Jesse Cecil Gatewood, Michael Hinojosa, Ed.D., John Martin, and Richard “Rick” Rhodes to the Texas Workforce Investment Council for terms set to expire September 1, 2023. Additionally, the Governor has appointed Brandon Willis and reappointed Mark Dunn, Tom Halbouty, and Richard Rhodes, Ph.D. for terms set to expire on September 1, 2025. The Council engages in a collaborative, systematic view of workforce development programs throughout the state and provides for planning, evaluation, research, and other functions related to 19 workforce programs.

Jesse Cecil Gatewood of Corpus Christi is business manager and financial secretary for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 278. He volunteers with Court Appointed Special Advocates of the Coastal Bend (CASA). He is former chairman of the Apprenticeship and Training Association of Texas and a board member of the Coastal Community and Teachers Credit Union. Gatewood is also chairman of the Public Relations Committee for Workforce of the Coastal Bend.

Michael Hinojosa, Ed.D. of Dallas is Superintendent of Schools for the Dallas Independent School District. He is a member of the North Texas Commission Board of Directors and The Council of the Great City Schools Executive Committee. Hinojosa received a Bachelor of Science in Education from Texas Tech University, a Master of Education from the University of North Texas, and a Doctor of Education degree from The University of Texas at Austin.

John Martin of San Antonio is training director for the South Texas Electrical Joint Apprenticeship & Training Committee. He is a member of the National Electrical Training Directors Association, secretary-treasurer of the State Apprenticeship and Training Association of Texas, and a former board member of the Durham and the North Carolina Workforce Development Board. Martin is a Master Electrician licensed by the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR).

Richard “Rick” Rhodes of Austin is retired, having previously worked in senior state government positions with the Texas Department of Agriculture and the Office of the Texas Governor. He is a member of the Texas Economic Development Council, and previously volunteered as an elder at The Lakeway Church and Hill Country Bible Church, and as a deacon at First Baptist Church of Sweetwater. Rhodes received a Bachelor of Business Administration from The University of Texas at Austin.

Brandon Willis of Beaumont is the public affairs agent for the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 450 chapter in Dayton. He participates in the Houston Business Roundtable, and he volunteers as a youth sports coach for the Lumberton Little Dribblers. Willis received a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Lamar University.

Mark Dunn of Lufkin is president of Dunn’s Construction, LLC. He is active in the Rotary Club of Lufkin and the Region I Water Development Board, and serves as a volunteer pilot for Pilots for Patients. Dunn received a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Technology from Sam Houston State University. He was first appointed to the Texas Workforce Investment Council in 2011, and currently serves as chairman.

Tom Halbouty of Southlake currently serves as an advisor to Builders Venture Capital, where he reviews technology innovation and related investments. He serves on the Cockrell School of Engineering Board of Advisors at The University of Texas at Austin. Prior to retirement, he was responsible for technology, innovation and business consulting for a large energy Company. He also vice-chaired Energistics, a global standards board for the energy sector. He also advised on national competitive issues with the Council on Competitiveness based in Washington, D.C. Halbouty received a Bachelor of Business Administration in Accounting from the University of Houston and a Masters of Business Administration from the University of Dallas. Tom was first appointed to the Workforce Investment Council in 2013. 

Richard Rhodes, Ph.D. of Austin is president and chief executive officer of the Austin Community College District. He served as past chair of the Board for American Youthworks, as well as serving on the boards of local Chambers of Commerce.  He is also a member of the board of the Boy Scouts of America, Capitol Area Council. Rhodes received a Bachelor of Business Administration in Accounting and a Master of Arts in Educational Management and Development from New Mexico State University. Additionally, he received doctorate through the Community College Leadership Program at The University of Texas at Austin. He was first appointed to the Workforce Investment Council in 2013.

Analysis: The Texas Senate will be a quiet zone in a noisy, important election year

Texas Tribune Blue Government News

Only one Republican in the Texas Senate — Pete Flores of Pleasanton — is in immediate political peril next year.
Only one Republican in the Texas Senate — Pete Flores of Pleasanton — is in immediate political peril next year.
Juan Figueroa/The Texas Tribune

Editor’s note: If you’d like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey’s column, click here.

A quick takeaway from the deadline of candidate filings: The Texas Senate is going to be the calmest spot in the state’s electoral ocean in 2020.

Republicans hold the majority in that chamber, and not one of them will face an opponent in next year’s GOP primary.

It’s hard to say whether that’s an exhibition of discipline on the party’s part or a lack of ambition among potential challengers.

It might be a sign of relative tranquility, when you get down to it. Republicans aren’t in serious danger of losing their Senate majority. And the incumbents in that party are closely bound to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a former state senator who wields as much control over his senators as anyone since Bob Bullock.

Patrick doesn’t appear likely to encourage Republican opponents for any GOP incumbents on the 2020 ballot.

There will be at least one new senator, with José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, not seeking another term. Only one Democrat, state Rep. César Blanco, signed up to run for that seat. He would have to be counted as the favorite to replace him in that reliably Democratic district.

Only one Republican — Pete Flores of Pleasanton — is in immediate political peril next year. He won a special election a little more than a year ago in Senate District 19, a 17-county district that includes a large chunk of Bexar County and San Antonio. That chunk accounts for more than half of the district’s population.

Until Flores snuck up and took it away, Democrats had a relatively firm hold on the territory; they’ll fight to take it back, and Flores will try to prove that his victory last year wasn’t a fluke. It’s a swing district, and the outcome could depend on what happens above the state Senate race on the ballot — up there where presidents and U.S. senators and members of Congress joust.

But the election is not going to change the Senate in a significant way. In its current configuration, the Senate has 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats. It’ll take a change in more than one seat to make any difference, and flipping four spots to the minority party would require serious magic.

Anyway, the focus of national, state and local pols in the state is on the Texas House, where a nine-seat change would turn a Republican House into a Democratic one. That would change the bargaining on everything from the state budget to education.

And, of greater interest to the political class, the redrawing of the state’s political districts.

That’s why the national Democrats are interested in the little ol’ Texas House of Representatives: Winning a majority would improve their chance of a less punishing political map for the U.S. House delegation.

They are playing the same game Republican Tom DeLay pulled off in 2003, turning enough seats in a Texas congressional map to change the odds in his party’s favor in Washington.

What the Democrats hope to do would require two long shots.

First, they would have to win a majority in the Texas House. They won 12 seats in 2018, but retaining some of those will require strong defense. And if that works, they’ll still have to add nine more.

Second, the Democrats probably won’t get a map they like from a divided Legislature, but with control of the House, they could block any legislative map, throwing the final artwork to a panel of three federal judges — a so-far unnamed panel that might, possibly, be less inclined to draw a strongly Republican map than the Legislature.

That best-case scenario for Democrats isn’t great, in other words, but it’s better than the worst case: a congressional map devised by a Republican House and Senate and signed by a Republican governor.

Flipping the Senate is too hard and too unlikely, and everybody is leaving it alone. The show — and the real work, for both sides — is in the House.

Maybe state senators — from both parties — will get bored and help out.

Related News

Governor Abbott Appoints Nine To Trinity River Authority Board Of Directors

Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Communication

The authority oversees development and conservation of surface water resources of the Trinity River Basin.

Governor Greg Abbott has reappointed Henry Borbolla, III, Tom Fordyce, David Leonard, Amirali “Amir” Rupani, and Dwayne Somerville and appointed Lewis McMahan, Cole Camp, and Brenda Walker to the Trinity River Authority Board of Directors for terms set to expire on March 15, 2025. Additionally, the Governor appointed Lisa Hembry for a term set to expire on March 15, 2023. The authority oversees development and conservation of surface water resources of the Trinity River Basin.

Henry Borbolla, III of Fort Worth is senior vice president of Ciera Bank. He is a board member of Catholic Charities Fort Worth, Downtown Fort Worth, Inc., Baylor Scott & White All Saints Foundation, DFW International Airport, and Historic Fort Worth, Inc. Additionally, he is a member of Rotary Club of Fort Worth and the Fort Worth Stock Show Syndicate. Borbolla received a Bachelor of Business Administration in Marketing from Texas Christian University.

Tom Fordyce of Huntsville is a rancher, cow/calf operator, and hay producer. He previously served as a Commissioner for the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. Prior to that, he was the Director of Agribusiness and Land Minerals for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Most notably, Fordyce served in the United States Marines as a Vietnam Era Sniper with the 1st Battalion 26th from 1966 – 1968, and medically retired in March of 1968 due to combat injuries. He currently serves as a board member for the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Lone Survivor Foundation, Walker County Fair Association, and Unlocking Doors Foundation. Fordyce received a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture from Sam Houston State University.

David Leonard of Liberty is co-owner of Liberty-Dayton Chrysler. He is president of Liberty Lions Club, a member of Liberty Chamber of Commerce, Knights of Columbus and Liberty Young Farmers. Leonard attended Lee College.

Amirali “Amir” Rupani of Dallas is president and chief executive officer of Texas Prince Properties, Inc. He is a board member for Southern Methodist University Crain Foundation and member of the Pakistan Society of North Texas Board of Trustees. He former member of The Dallas Foundation Board of Governors, past chairman of the Greater Dallas Asian American Chamber of Commerce, and former board member of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth, and the Regional Transportation Council of Government Affairs. Rupani attended City College of Karachi in Karachi, Pakistan.

Dwayne Somerville of Mexia is manager of Woodson Lumber. He is a former member of Texas Manufactured Housing Association and the Texas Christmas Tree Growers Association and a former board member of the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce. Somerville attended Kilgore College.

Lewis McMahan of Dallas is retired from a 37 year career at Texas Instruments working in the worldwide facilities/environmental health and safety organization. He served as its leader from 1998 until his retirement in December 2005. He is a member of the Texas Instruments Foundation Board and the Southern Methodist University (SMU) Lyle School of Engineering Advisory Board. He previously served on the Texas Water Development Board, Texas Instruments Alumni Association, Dallas Museum of Art, and The United Way of Metropolitan Dallas. McMahan received a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from SMU. 

Cole Camp of Arlington is a senior environmental specialist for Pioneer Natural Resources USA, Inc. He previously was a gubernatorial appointee to the Red River Authority, member of the Panhandle Water Planning Group, board member for Amarillo Opportunity School, and a participant with Amarillo ISD iLead program and the Randall County Sheriff Citizens Academy. Camp received a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Brenda Walker of Palestine is an Area Manager for Oncor Electric Delivery. She is a board member of Tri-County Meals on Wheels, Leon County Economic Development Association, Cartmell Communities Inc., and the Leon County Local Emergency Planning Committee and serves as chair of the Real Estate committee of the City of Palestine. She is a past district governor for Rotary International and currently serves as chair of the Rotary Club of Palestine Satellite Evening Club and Rotary District 5910 Youth Exchange Treasurer. Walker received a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration from Dallas Baptist University.  

Lisa Hembry of Dallas is the manager of March Forth Communications. She is a board member of Executive Women of Dallas, Archives of Women of the Southwest – Southern Methodist University (SMU), Texas Capital Bank – CDC Advisory Board, and Town & Gown Club – SMU. She is a former member of Texas Association of Realtors, Texas County Treasurer’s Association, and the Dallas Arboretum & Botanical Society and Literacy Texas. Hembry received a Bachelor of Science in Political Science from SMU.

State Rep. Mike Lang opts against reelection for second time

Texas Tribune Blue Government News

State Rep. Mike Lang, R-Granbury, listens in during the House Select Committee on Mass Violence Prevention & Community Safety hearing on Sept. 17, 2019.
State Rep. Mike Lang, R-Granbury, listens in during the House Select Committee on Mass Violence Prevention & Community Safety hearing on Sept. 17, 2019.
Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

State Rep. Mike Lang, R-Granbury, is apparently not running for reelection — again.

With minutes to spare before the deadline, Lang filed Monday evening for Hood County commissioner, according to county GOP Chairman David Fischer. Lang did not immediately respond to a request for comment but retweeted a House colleague who wished him luck in the race for county commissioner.

It has been a whirlwind fall for Lang, who initially announced in September that he would not seek reelection and instead run for county commissioner. However, he reversed that decision days later.

Lang was facing two primary challengers for his safely Republican seat, Glenn Rogers and Kelly SoRelle. Both had filed by the Monday evening deadline. A third Republican, Mineral Wells Mayor Christopher Perricone, told The Texas Tribune on Monday evening that he had also filed to run for the seat earlier in the afternoon at party headquarters in Austin.

Lang has until Tuesday evening to withdraw from the state House race so that his name does not appear on the ballot.

Cassi Pollock contributed reporting.

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Analysis: In a leaked memo, a peek at Texas GOP’s concerns

Texas Tribune Blue Government News

President Donald Trump exits Air Force One at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
President Donald Trump exits Air Force One at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

Editor’s note: If you’d like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey’s column, click here.

The initial Republican and Democratic players for the 2020 elections will be on record at the end of this last day of candidate filing: Which races have candidates, which candidates look strong and weak, what does the political battlefield look like?

Republicans still hold the big offices and majorities in the congressional and legislative delegations, which means they’ll be defending what they’ve got while Democrats are trying to take it away. That merits another look at a Republican Party of Texas memo that leaked right before Thanksgiving.

The memo, first reported by The Dallas Morning News’ James Barragán, says a lot of things that wouldn’t have been surprising coming from sources other than inside the Texas GOP. Things about a disruptive president, Democratic gains in the Legislature, efforts to diversify the Republican Party and the problem of getting people to the polls — and to the bottom of their ballots when they vote.

But it is a map of sorts, showing some of the concerns of the party that has dominated state politics for more than two decades.

It’s all spelled out in the memo, which was described after it became public as a draft, an unofficial document, a set of talking points — everything but a game plan. That’s the caveat.

Whatever you want to call it, here’s what it said.

Texas Republicans are worried about the legislative seats they’ve lost recently.

They’re apprehensive about the effects Donald Trump might have on voters and on the candidates below him on the ballot, “given the polarizing nature of the president.”

They’re also thinking about how to get voters to keep voting after the first race or two in the first general election since the state got rid of straight-ticket voting.

And they want to counter the idea — “the narrative driven by the Democrats” — that the GOP isn’t diverse. It wasn’t connected to the memo, but the alacrity of the response last week when state Rep. Rick Miller, R-Sugar Land, said some of his opponents were running because they are Asians in a place with a lot of Asian voters, illustrated the concern. Local party officials disowned Miller quickly, the governor withdrew his endorsement, and Miller apologized and dropped out of his reelection race within a day.

The memo listed a dozen state House Democrats the Republicans hope to defeat in 2020. Since the Democrats took a dozen seats from the GOP in 2018, it’s not hard to figure out which ones the Republicans would like to have back in their column.

Of those 12 new incumbent Democrats on the list, eight beat Republicans in the general election and four won elections in which Republican incumbents had stepped aside or had lost their own primaries.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s barely political science. The best time to challenge incumbent officeholders is in their first reelection attempt — before they’ve built a record of success and broad supporter and donor bases.

It’s not a surprise that the Republicans are going after those Democrats, trying to win their seats back. The Democrats will be trying to defend those fresh incumbents and build on their wins, saying openly — and who knows, maybe in memos of their own — that nine additional members would give them a majority in the Texas House for the first time since 2002.

Getting rid of straight-ticket voting, which all but a handful of states have already done, was a Republican initiative in the 2017 legislative session. It might save some GOP candidates in counties where Democrats win at the top of the ballot. But ending it is causing some heartburn in both parties.

The plans laid out in the memo are conventional pre-election stuff. Raise money. Build websites attacking opponents. Figure out how to counter what the other party is saying. Find some voters and get them to the polls, and to the bottom of the ballots — with an eye out for those “never-Trumpers” who might not show up, hurting the ticket.

Nothing surprising. It was just weird to see it written down and leaked before a big election year.

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Governor Abbott Names Chair And Appoints Three To Texas Commission On Law Enforcement

Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Communication

The commission establishes and enforces standards to ensure that the people of Texas are served by highly trained and ethical law enforcement, corrections, and telecommunications personnel.

Governor Greg Abbott has appointed Mike Griffis and reappointed Patricia G. Burruss and Jason Hester to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement for terms set to expire on August 30, 2025. Additionally, Governor Abbott named Chief Kim Lemaux chair of the commission. The commission establishes and enforces standards to ensure that the people of Texas are served by highly trained and ethical law enforcement, corrections, and telecommunications personnel.

Mike Griffis of Odessa is the Ector County Sheriff with 30 years of law enforcement experience. He is a member of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, National Sheriffs’ Association, and the Big Bend Area Law Enforcement Officers Association. He is an advisory board member for the Salvation Army, board member of the Ector County Child Services Board and Project LifeSaver, and a member of the Odessa Rotary Club. Griffs graduated from Permian High School and the Odessa College Law Enforcement Academy.

Patricia G. Burruss of Dallas is an attorney in private practice. She is a member of the Texas Bar Association, New Mexico Bar Association, Federal Bar of the Northern District of Texas and Southern District of Texas, and the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. Burruss received a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Business Administration from The University of Texas – Pan American and a Juris Doctor degree from Oklahoma City University School of Law.

Jason Hester of Lago Vista is an Assistant Chief with the Texas Department of Public Safety. He is a member of the Texas DPS Officers Association, International Association of Chiefs of Police, Texas Sheriffs’ Association, Texas Police Chiefs Association, and the Texas Police Association.  Jason received an associate’s degree in criminal justice from Howard College, Bachelor and Master of Criminal Justice from Tarleton State University, and is a graduate from the FBI National Academy.

Kim Lemaux of Arlington is the Chief of Police for The University of Texas at Arlington with over 35 years serving in law enforcement. She is a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Texas Police Chiefs Association, and North Texas Police Chiefs Association. Lemaux received a Bachelor of Business Administration from The University of Texas at Arlington and a master’s degree in security management from American Public University. 

In Case You Missed It: The Texas Economy — Holiday Edition! 🎄

Texas Comptroller

   
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT …
It’s the Texas Holiday Economy, Y’all!
 

  Pecan Pie
Fiscal Notes’ Line Items recently spotlighted the holiday economy in Texas and the festive tinkling of coins changing hands for everything from fruitcakes to Christmas trees and pecans to train rides.

Texas has a lot of festive fun to choose from this season. Getting out to celebrate end-of-year holiday festivities is not only a great way to get in the holiday spirit — it also contributes to the economies of Texas communities and our state as a whole. For some businesses and localities, the support received from seasonal income is felt all year.

And while Santa and his reindeer might not need occupational licenses to get the job done this holiday season, plenty of other working Texans do. If you missed Fiscal Notes‘ take on occupational licensing in Texas, you may want to check it out now. Despite the Lone Star State’s reputation for business friendliness, some of Texas’ licensing requirements have been seen as unnecessarily burdensome, leading the Legislature to abolish many license types and ease requirements for others.

 

Governor Abbott Names President And Appoints Four To Red River Authority of Texas Board of Directors

Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Communication

The Red River Authority provides for the control, conservation and development of the watershed and water of the Red River and its Texas tributaries.

Governor Greg Abbott has reappointed Zackary “Zack” Smith and Stephen Thornhill and appointed Mary Lou Bradley to the Red River Authority of Texas Board of Directors for terms set to expire on August 11, 2025. Additionally, the Governor appointed Jerry Dan Davis for a term set to expire on August 11, 2023 and named Todd Boykin president of the board. The Red River Authority provides for the control, conservation and development of the watershed and water of the Red River and its Texas tributaries.

Zackary “Zack” Smith of Canyon is general manager of Rabern. He is president of Texas Scottish Rite Hospital-Emi’s Colorful Future Foundation, volunteer with Boy Scouts Golden Spread Council, and a member of Hereford Lions Club and the American Rental Association. In addition, he is the vice-president of the Deaf Smith Chamber of Commerce and a former member of the Class of 2018 Amarillo Chamber of Commerce Top 20 Under 40 Business Professionals. Smith received a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture Development from West Texas A&M University.

Stephen Thornhill of Denison is a financial advisor with the Schweizer-Thornhill Wealth Management Group and is president of Thornhill Oil & Gas, Inc. He holds the Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor(Sm) professional designation at Wells Fargo Advisors in Sherman, Texas, as well as the Series 7, 31, 63, and 65 licenses along with an insurance and variable annuity license. He is a member of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, past president and a current member of the Petroleum Engineers Club of Dallas, secondary committee advisor for Southwestern Engineering Scholarship Fund, and a Deacon at Parkside Baptist Church. Thornhill received a Bachelor of Science in Geology and Environmental Studies and a Master of Science in Geology from Baylor University.

Mary Lou Bradley of Childress is president of Bradley 3 Management Corporation. She is a member of Texas Cattle Feeders Association, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, and the American Angus Association. Bradley received a Bachelor of Business Administration in Accounting from Midwestern State University.

Jerry Dan Davis of Wellington is an owner and operator of a farm and ranch operation located in Collingsworth, Childress, and Hall counties. He formerly served on the Wellington ISD School Board, Collingsworth County Library Board, Panhandle Peanut Growers Association, Farmers Co-Op Gin Board, and the Collingsworth County Agricultural Advisory Board. Davis received a bachelor’s degree in general agriculture from West Texas A&M University.

Todd Boykin of Amarillo is a partner in the law firm of Burdett Morgan Williamson & Boykin, LLP. He is a member of the State Bar of Texas and is board certified in Commercial and Residential Real Estate Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. Boykin received a Bachelor of Arts from Texas Tech University and a Juris Doctor degree from Baylor University School of Law.

Analysis: A changing political climate in Fort Bend County and a politically fatal blunder

Texas Tribune Blue Government News

State Rep. Rick Miller called his remarks “insensitive and inexcusable” and said he won’t seek a fifth term in the Texas House.
State Rep. Rick Miller called his remarks “insensitive and inexcusable” and said he won’t seek a fifth term in the Texas House.
Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

Editor’s note: If you’d like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey’s column, click here.

Rick Miller is hardly the first Texas legislator to make a racist remark. The news here is that he was roundly and quickly abandoned by elected Republican leaders who usually disappear into their lairs when words like Miller’s are spoken.

In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Miller assessed two of his Republican primary opponents in racial terms: “He’s a Korean,” he said of Jacey Jetton, a former county GOP chairman. “He has decided because, because he is an Asian that my district might need an Asian to win. And that’s kind of racist in my mind, but anyway, that’s not necessary, at least not yet.”

Leonard Chan “jumped in probably for the same reason,” Miller told the paper. “I don’t know, I never met the guy. I have no idea who he is. He has not been around Republican channels at all, but he’s an Asian.”

Gov. Greg Abbott revoked his endorsement of Miller in response, an exception to the governor’s stated intention to back any and all Republican lawmakers seeking reelection. Linda Howell, the current Fort Bend GOP chair, said Miller should consider getting out of the way to “allow a candidate that fully embraces and respects diversity in candidates and office holders to fill this important seat.” Miller announced a change of plans soon after, calling his remarks “insensitive and inexcusable” and saying he won’t seek a fifth term in the Texas House.

“My comments were not made with malice nor do they reflect who I am or who I strive to be,” he said in a statement. “I want to publicly apologize to Jacey, Leonard and my constituents and friends who have put their trust in me through the years. I do not want to be a distraction for my party or my constituents, and therefore I have decided not to seek re-election.”

Give him this: You don’t often see public apologies, either from politicians or celebrities, as straightforward as Miller’s. He screwed up and said he was sorry. That’s rare.

By the next day, Comptroller Glenn Hegar, a Republican who represented Fort Bend County as a legislator, and state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, who represents it now, had endorsed Jetton, one of the three Republicans who were set to challenge Miller in the March primary.

That has to be a new land-speed record for Texas Republicans.

What happened to Miller this week was unusual because of the strong GOP backlash. There was nothing like it when U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, a Republican from the same county, called his 2018 Democratic opponent, Sri Kulkarni, a “liberal, liberal, liberal Indo-American who’s a carpetbagger.”

Only House Speaker Joe Straus spoke up when then-state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, called on federal immigration authorities to round up “sanctuary cities” legislation protesters in the House gallery in 2017. “There’s no excuse for members making insensitive and disparaging remarks on the floor of the Texas House,” Straus said at the time.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller (no relation to Rick Miller) didn’t lose the public support of other Republican officials with a Twitter message comparing Syrian refugees to rattlesnakes in 2015 — a year after he won that statewide office.

Lisa Luby Ryan didn’t hear from the endorsement police last year when she told an audience at a Dallas forum that her son “had been robbed by three black thugs, with 9 mm guns to his head, asking for his money.” In fact, after she beat state Rep. Jason Villalba in the Republican primary, Abbott endorsed her. She lost the general election to Democrat John Turner.

And party leaders remained quiet when then-state Rep. Betty Brown of Terrell, during a 2009 legislative hearing on voter identification, suggested Asians should change their names to make identification easier. “Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese — I understand it’s a rather difficult language — do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?” Brown said.

Texas politics are changing as quickly as the state’s demographics — and the consequences of words like Miller’s are changing with them. In his home of Fort Bend County, only a very sound sleeper could miss those changes. It has become one of the most diverse counties in the U.S.; 178 languages are spoken by the families with children in the Fort Bend schools. And the politics have shifted, as well: An electorate that was reliably Republican at the beginning of the decade now often puts Democrats in office.

Democrat K.P. George beat Republican County Judge Robert Hebert in the 2018 election, knocking out an incumbent who had served for four terms. Hebert said at the time he wasn’t surprised by the result because the political shift was already well underway before the election. And George wasn’t a newcomer to the ballot. He’d been the president of the Fort Bend ISD board and had been watching the same changes Hebert was.

Miller’s own elections got closer over the years. He first won in 2012, with 63% to Vy Nguyen’s 37% — a snapshot of both the partisan and demographic status of the district at that moment. Miller won by almost 40 percentage points in 2014. Two years later, his advantage was trimmed to 15.7 percentage points. And in a 2018 rematch against Sarah DeMerchant, his 2016 opponent, Miller’s margin was whittled to 4.8 percentage points.

DeMarchant is one of four Democrats planning a 2020 campaign, along with three Republicans, including the two Miller insulted in his comments to the Houston Chronicle.

It’s not a sure bet that the next state representative from House District 26 will be a Republican. Beto O’Rourke beat Ted Cruz there in 2018. Trump won, but by less than his statewide average, in 2016.

The culture is changing rapidly. So are the politics.

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Appointees claim Gov. Greg Abbott ousted them from board for voting to sanction judge who refused to perform gay marriages: report

Texas Tribune Blue Government News

Gov. Greg Abbott during the Texas Fallen Heroes Memorial Ceremony on May 25, 2019
Gov. Greg Abbott during the Texas Fallen Heroes Memorial Ceremony on May 25, 2019
Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

Two former members of the state’s disciplinary board for judges claim they were ousted by Gov. Greg Abbott for initially voting to sanction a Waco judge who refused to officiate same-sex weddings, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Abbott appointed Amy Suhl, a retired technology executive, and Maricela Alvarado, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, to the commission in June 2018 for a term that was set to expire in 2023. But in a highly unusual move, the governor’s office ultimately excluded them from a list of appointees seeking confirmation from the Texas Senate, effectively axing them from the agency.

The appointees told the Chronicle the governor’s office claimed he had “decided to go in a different direction,” but they believe they were ousted because they had voted to penalize Judge Dianne Hensley, who has publicly stated that she officiates heterosexual marriages but not homosexual ones. Earlier this week, the commission announced it had voted to publicly warn Hensley — one of the lightest punishments the agency has available to it. The commission has the power to suspend judges.

Suhl shared with the Chronicle secret recordings of her interactions with Abbott’s staff, who were heard encouraging her to prioritize the governor’s viewpoint.

John Wittman, Abbott’s spokesman, said only that “All appointment decisions are made based solely on merit.”

Neither Suhl nor Alvarado immediately returned messages from the Tribune.

The case against Hensely dragged on for more than two years, an unusually long time for the agency, which is supposed to be independent from political influence.

It’s not clear how the governor’s office would have learned which members of the commission had voted to sanction Hensley before the resolution became public this month. Preliminary votes by the disciplinary board are confidential, including the actual vote tally, as well as the identities of the commissioners who voted each way.

Suhl and Alvarado took a preliminary, unofficial vote to sanction Hensley in late 2018, they told the Chronicle. But in its final vote in October 2019 — without Suhl and Alvarado — the board handed down just a warning.

Years ago, after declining to hear a case on spousal benefits for same-sex couples, the Texas Supreme Court reversed course amid pressure from GOP leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott. The court ultimately threw out a lower court ruling that had extended spousal benefits to same-sex couples.

The commission, which meets several times a year, is composed of gubernatorial appointees, judges appointed by members of the Texas Supreme Court, and two lawyers appointed by the State Bar of Texas.

Democrats condemned the governor.

“Governor Abbott’s appointees swear an oath to serve the people of Texas, not to parrot the Governor’s views,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, chair of the House Democratic Caucus. “Governor Abbott’s apparent decision to rescind appointments because his appointees were unwilling to condone a judge engaging in official acts of discrimination is a sad relic from another era.”

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Governor Abbott Names Chair And Appoints Turner And DeFina To Texas Council on Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders

Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Communication

The council facilitates the coordination of state services for victims of Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders.

Governor Greg Abbott has appointed Angela Turner and reappointed Laura DeFina, M.D. to the Texas Council on Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders for terms set to expire on August 31, 2025. Additionally, the Governor named Marc Diamond, M.D. chair of the council. The council facilitates the coordination of state services for victims of Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders.

Angela Turner of Normangee is an 8th Grade Science Teacher at Texas Virtual Academy Hallsville. She is a member of the National Science Teachers Association, Texas Association of Biology Teachers, and Texas Retired Teachers Association. She previously served as the secretary and treasurer of the Normangee Public Library. Turner received a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture Education from Sam Houston State University and a Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction from Texas A&M University.

Laura DeFina, M.D. of Richardson is the president, CEO, and Chief Science Officer at The Cooper Institute. She served honorably in the United States Army for 11 years. She is a member of the North Texas Commission Board of Directors, John Paul II High School Board of Directors, American Heart Association, and the American College of Physicians. DeFina attended Northwestern University and received a Doctor of Medicine from George Washington University School of Medicine. She completed an Internal Medicine Residency and Medical Oncology Fellowship at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Marc Diamond, M.D. of Dallas is the founding director of the Center for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases at UT Southwestern Medical Center. He is a member of the Society for Neuroscience, American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and the American Neurological Association. Diamond received a Bachelor of Arts in History from Princeton University and a Doctor of Medicine from the University of California San Francisco.

Governor Abbott Reappoints Sawyer To Commission On State Emergency Communications

Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Communication

The commission is charged with administering the state 9-1-1 service program and the statewide poison control program.

Governor Greg Abbott has reappointed Clinton Sawyer to the Commission on State Emergency Communications for a term set to expire on September 1, 2025. The commission is charged with administering the state 9-1-1 service program and the statewide poison control program.

Clinton Sawyer of Amherst is the Mayor of the City of Amherst and is an agent for Texas Farm Bureau Insurance. He is a board member of the South Plains Association of Governments.  Sawyer received an Associate in Applied Science degree in Computer Information Systems from South Plains College and a Master Marketer Program Certificate from the Texas A&M University System.

Governor Abbott Reappoints Gravley To North Texas Tollway Authority Board Of Directors

Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Communication

Governor Greg Abbott has reappointed Lynn Gravley to the North Texas Tollway Authority Board of Directors for a term that will expire on August 31, 2021.

Governor Greg Abbott has reappointed Lynn Gravley to the North Texas Tollway Authority Board of Directors for a term that will expire on August 31, 2021. The nine-member board, which includes one gubernatorial appointee, governs and oversees the operations of the tollway authority that serves Collin, Dallas, Denton, and Tarrant counties.

Lynn Gravley of Gunter is president and CEO of NT Logistics, Inc. He is a member of the University of North Texas College of Business Logistics Department Board of Advisors and the Transportation Intermediaries Association Board of Directors. He is also chairman of the Highway Logistics Conference for the Transportation Intermediaries Association. Additionally, he is a former member of the Gunter ISD Board of Trustees, the Gunter ISD Foundation Board of Directors, and the Christian Care Centers Board of Directors. Gravley received a Bachelor of Arts from North Texas State University.

State Rep. Rick Miller drops reelection bid after saying opponents were challenging him because they’re Asian

Texas Tribune Blue Government News

State Rep. Rick Miller, R-Sugar Land, speaks with colleagues on the House floor during the House School Finance plan deliberations on April 3, 2019.
State Rep. Rick Miller, R-Sugar Land, speaks with colleagues on the House floor during the House School Finance plan deliberations on April 3, 2019.
Emree Weaver/The Texas Tribune

State Rep. Rick Miller, R-Sugar Land, is no longer running for reelection after he sparked a firestorm for saying he was facing primary challengers because they are “Asian.”

“During a recent interview with the Houston Chronicle I made some statements that were insensitive and inexcusable,” Miller said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “In trying to make a point about the campaign I used a poor choice of words that are not indicative of my character or heart.”

“I do not want to be a distraction for my party or my constituents, and therefore I have decided not to seek re-election,” he continued.

In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Miller said that two of his Republican opponents — former Fort Bend GOP Chairman Jacey Jetton and Houston Fire Department analyst Leonard Chan — likely joined the race because they’re Asian in a district with a sizable Asian population.

“He’s a Korean. He has decided because, because he is an Asian that my district might need an Asian to win. And that’s kind of racist in my mind, but anyway, that’s not necessary, at least not yet,” Miller said of Jetton.

The backlash was swift earlier Tuesday as Gov. Greg Abbott pulled his endorsement of Miller and the Fort Bend county GOP chair asked him to consider dropping out.

Chan “jumped in probably for the same reason,” Miller told the Chronicle. “I don’t know, I never met the guy. I have no idea who he is. He has not been around Republican channels at all, but he’s an Asian.”

In a statement earlier Tuesday, Abbott spokesman John Wittman said Miller’s comments were “inappropriate and out of touch with the values of the Republican Party.”

“In light of Rep. Miller’s comments, the governor is withdrawing his endorsement,” Wittman told the Tribune.

Abbott endorsed Miller for another term on Oct. 15, calling him a “strong, principled conservative who has represented the people of Fort Bend County with integrity.” The governor has backed all but a few House Republicans for reelection at this point. By late Tuesday morning, a page featuring Abbott’s endorsement of Miller had disappeared from the governor’s campaign website.

In addition to Abbott, Fort Bend County GOP Chairwoman Linda Howell denounced Miller’s comments. She also asked him to “strongly consider” ending his reelection campaign so he could make way for a “candidate that fully embraces and respects diversity in candidates and office holders.”

Miller’s district includes most of Fort Bend County, one of America’s most ethnically diverse counties: 20% of its residents are Asian, 20% are black, 24% are Hispanic and 34% are white. Hillary Clinton won the county decisively in 2016. According to the latest Census estimates, the citizen voting-age population for Asian residents in Miller’s district grew from 22% in 2010 to 24% in 2015.

In separate interviews, both Chan and Jetton said they were disappointed by Miller’s comments.

“I’ve stood by why I’m running and I’ve never run as an Asian or a Korean or anything other than another conservative Texan wanting to do good for the state,” Jetton said. “I don’t know where he decided to come up with these comments, but it’s unfortunate.”

Chan, who previously interned for NATO Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchinson and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, said he was “caught off guard” by Miller’s comments.

“It’s about qualifications, merit and ideas,” Chan said. “You shouldn’t treat each demographic group as a group to try and capture at the ballot box.”

Both Chan and Jetton said Tuesday morning that Miller hadn’t reached out to apologize for his remarks. But in a statement, Miller said that he’s dedicated his life to public service and “improving the lives” of others.

“My comments were not made with malice nor do they reflect who I am or who I strive to be,” he said. “I want to publicly apologize to Jacey, Leonard and my constituents and friends who have put their trust in me through the years.”

Miller’s comments could hurt Republicans, who are often critical of so-called identity politics, said Anthony Nguyen, the president of the Texas Asian Republican Assembly.

“Usually that’s something that Democrats say. ‘Oh, vote for me because I’m a woman. Vote for me because I’m black. Vote for me because I’m some identity that they subscribe,’” Nguyen said.

“Conservatives typically don’t like to do that, but if that’s how [Miller is] seeing it, then I guess everybody has their own opinions,” he said.

Miller hasn’t faced a primary challenger since 2012, but faced three challenges this year from Chan, Jetton and insurance agent Matt Morgan.

Democrats are also targeting the seat after Miller won reelection last year by nearly 5 points and Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic U.S. Senate nominee, carried it by 2 points. Four Democrats have filed for the seat in 2020: Lawrence Allen Jr., a member of the State Board of Education; L. Sarah DeMerchant, the 2018 nominee against Miller; Rish Oberoi, a development consultant; and Suleman Lalani, a physician.

“Texas Republicans again are showing off their true colors,” said Abhi Rahman, a spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party. “From Dennis Bonnen to Rick Miller to the dirty tricks seen in the leaked Texas GOP playbook, voters are getting a firsthand look at what Texas Republicans look like behind closed doors and out in the open.”

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