Texas A&M chancellor fires back at Harvard over criticism of controversial beef study

Texas Tribune News

Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp addresses the press on the findings of the report on Hurricane Harvey on Dec. 6, 2018.
Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp addresses the press on the findings of the report on Hurricane Harvey on Dec. 6, 2018.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp called out Harvard on Wednesday after some Harvard faculty alleged that Texas A&M food scientists are beholden to the beef industry.

Sharp fired back with an open letter urging Harvard University President Lawrence S. Bacow to investigate faculty who he says “mischaracterized scientific research and falsely accused Texas A&M scientists of selling out to industry interests.”

The accusations against scientists at A&M — the leading agriculture school in the nation’s largest beef-producing state — coincide with an emerging scientific dispute over the health benefits of curtailing meat consumption. And A&M is now pushing back hard in defense of its researchers.

The conflict stems from a controversial study published in September in the Annals of Internal Medicine that downplayed the risks of red meat. The study drew harsh criticism after it was revealed the lead author failed to disclose funding from an A&M program backed in part by the beef industry.

According to Sharp, Harvard faculty associated with an organization called the True Health Initiative attempted to discredit the study because they disagree with its findings.

“Several of your faculty are involved as council members or advisers of THI and collaborated with THI in their effort to discredit scientific evidence that runs contrary to their ideology,” Sharp wrote. “I can assure you that Texas A&M’s research is driven by science. Period.”

But in a recent article published to its website, THI, which describes itself as a “global coalition of world renown experts, fighting fake facts and combating false doubts to create a world free of preventable diseases,” said backlash over the beef study “spotlighted unreported funding by the meat industry” and called it “another assault on public trust in nutrition science — which perhaps was the authors’ goal all along.”

Harvard and the Truth Health Initiative did not immediately respond to requests for comment. At press time, a spokesperson for A&M said Harvard called Sharp regarding the letter, but Sharp and Bacow have yet to speak directly. A Harvard spokesperson confirmed that Sharp’s letter had been received.

Sharp also accused the Harvard faculty of using “unethical” tactics to push back against the original red meat study, such as “using automated bots to flood the email inbox” of the editor-in-chief of the journal that published it.

“Their actions are unethical, distort the results of important scientific research, and, in our opinion, are false and harmful to Texas A&M University and its faculty,” Sharp wrote.

To correct the matter, Sharp urged “a serious assessment by Harvard of its affiliation with THI and a comprehensive ethical review into any Harvard faculty involved with THI.”

“Texas A&M asks that Harvard join us for a purely scientific approach to nutrition for the sake of public health and public trust and reject the politics and unethical actions of THI that have sought to discredit science and interfere in the scientific process,” Sharp wrote.

Disclosure: The Texas A&M 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.

TribCast: The money fight for the Texas House and a very special election

Texas Tribune News

The Texas House floor on April 23, 2019.
The Texas House floor on April 23, 2019.
Juan Figueroa for The Texas Tribune

(Audio unavailable. Click here to listen on texastribune.org.)

On this week’s TribCast, Alexa talks to Matthew, Cassi and Patrick about what we learned from recent campaign finance reports, a nationally targeted special election runoff for a Texas House seat and presidential endorsements.

Obama cut women's health money in Texas for the state's targeting of Planned Parenthood. Trump just restored it.

Texas Tribune News

From left, Gov. Greg Abbott reacts as President Donald Trump speaks at a church relief center during a visit with flood survivors and volunteers of Hurricane Harvey in Houston on Sept. 2, 2017.
From left, Gov. Greg Abbott reacts as President Donald Trump speaks at a church relief center during a visit with flood survivors and volunteers of Hurricane Harvey in Houston on Sept. 2, 2017.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The federal government is restoring funding for Texas’ publicly funded women’s health programs, bringing as much as $350 million into state coffers and sending a clear message to conservative states: It’s OK to defund providers affiliated with abortion.

The Wednesday announcement from the Trump administration reverses an Obama-era decision in 2012 to cut federal women’s health funding to Texas. That came as punishment after the Texas Legislature excluded Planned Parenthood from the Healthy Texas Women program in 2011 because of the organization’s affiliation with abortion providers, though the women’s health program does not fund abortion.

“The Lone Star State is once again in partnership with the federal government to provide meaningful family planning and health services while fostering a culture of life,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a Wednesday statement.

The decision was long awaited; Texas first asked the federal government — perceived under Trump as more sympathetic to Texas’ anti-abortion crusade — to help pay for its women’s health programs in 2017.

Healthy Texas Women offers family planning and health services such as pregnancy and STD testing to low- and middle-income women. In 2018, it served approximately 173,000 people, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. State officials said the restored federal funding, approved through 2024, would allow the program to reach more than 200,000 clients per year.

The federal government will pay 90% of costs for family planning services and a little more than half of the costs for other women’s health services. State funds will cover the rest.

“With Gov. Abbott’s strong leadership, we continue making significant strides in improving access to women’s health and family planning services in Texas,” said Courtney Phillips, executive commissioner of Texas’ health and human services agency.

Women’s health advocates, who have long condemned the state’s defunding of Planned Parenthood, criticized the decision.

“This waiver is a sham process meant to condone the targeting of Planned Parenthood and other women’s health care providers without actually improving services for women,” said Stacey Pogue, a women’s health expert from the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities think tank.

Pogue said the federal funds will merely supplant money the state already spends and will not actually improve services for Texas women.

Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities 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.

Michael Bloomberg’s Texas strategy is expensive and unprecedented. Can it work?

Texas Tribune News

Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg walks through a crowd of supporters at a rally at Central Machine Works in East Austin.
Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg walks through a crowd of supporters at a rally at Central Machine Works in East Austin.
Steve Matzker for The Texas Tribune

Eric Graves isn’t your typical voter. He has cast ballots for Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and, most recently, Donald Trump. He said party isn’t as important to him as the candidate, and heading into 2020, he has a new mantra: Bloomberg or bust.

Graves, a 69-year-old insurance agent, stood toward the back of a Michael Bloomberg event at an East Austin brewery earlier this month, among a crowd that skewed elderly and white. Counting down the minutes until he was able to shake hands with the Democratic candidate, Graves said the political party had lost its way.

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders? “So far left.” Joe Biden? “He’s lost whatever he had” during the Obama era.” Pete Buttigieg? “Doesn’t have the track record.”

In Bloomberg, he sees a winning formula. “Successful businessman, a politician and he’s funding his whole thing himself,” Graves said. “He’s not asking anybody to do anything but allow him to help America. That’s what we need.”

Graves’ second choice? Trump.

Bloomberg was in Austin as part of an unconventional zag-while-they-zig electoral strategy. He’s skipping the traditional early states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — in favor of the delegate-rich Super Tuesday ones, which include Texas.

But to surpass expectations here, he’ll need to win over masses of voters with traits like Graves — disillusioned Republicans, pragmatic Democrats or something in between. The New York billionaire hopes to make inroads as one of the few presidential contenders to invest in Texas this early in the year.

And he is really investing. Bloomberg has built an unmatched ground game throughout the state, opening a Texas headquarters and 16 field offices, along with hiring a state director and three deputy state directors. Last week, Bloomberg announced plans to amass nearly 150 Texas staffers by the end of the month, and his campaign said it was “hiring daily.” Plus, he’s spending millions of his own dollars on television ads in media markets across the state.

It’s a risky bet made by an underdog with almost limitless resources — someone who’s polling in the single digits yet willing to “spend what’s needed” to stay competitive.

His unconventional approach was on full display during a daylong swing through Texas earlier this month that included public stops in San Antonio, Austin and Dallas. He acknowledged the four early primary states but downplayed their importance, arguing that investing time and resources in Texas’ 254 counties — a nod to the strategy popularized by Beto O’Rourke in 2018 — would give him an electoral advantage in the fall.

Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg addresses supporters at a rally at Central Machine Works in East Austin on Jan. 11, 2019.
Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg addresses supporters at a rally at Central Machine Works in East Austin on Jan. 11, 2019.
Steve Matzker for The Texas Tribune

A Michael Bloomberg supporter wears a pin for the democrats presidential campaign on Jan. 11, 2019.
A Michael Bloomberg supporter wears a pin for the democrats presidential campaign on Jan. 11, 2019.
Steve Matzker for The Texas Tribune

Steve Matzker for The Texas Tribune

“This is the road to November, and it’s the road to victory and it’s starting right here,” Bloomberg said in Austin to raucous applause.

By past standards, Bloomberg’s strategy for the White House should be impossible. In addition to his late start, the septuagenarian presidential candidate has joined what was once one of the most diverse Democratic fields, which has been defined, in part, by an aversion to billionaires.

But to the people showing up to his rallies, that unconventionality is part of the appeal.

Among the Austin crowd: a former O’Rourke supporter, a woman who’s known of the former mayor for nearly 25 years and a man who listed Bloomberg in his top five favorite candidates — alongside progressives like Sanders and Warren.

“He doesn’t come across as an entitled person,” said Sheila Fischthal, a retiree and former New Yorker. “He built himself up, and I think he wants the same thing for all Americans.

“He’s willing to get in and roll up his sleeves and do the work and be the leader we so desperately need right now,” she said. She sported a Bloomberg pin on her jacket and clutched his book along with one of his campaign signs.

After a community event and lunch in San Antonio, Bloomberg’s campaign bus rolled up a dirt road in Austin, blaring Alicia Keys’ “New York.” He was introduced by Judy Sheindlin, better known for her TV name: Judge Judy. He discussed how O’Rourke’s narrow loss in the 2018 U.S. Senate race proved a Democrat could win Texas.

“Unlike New Yorkers, Texans have a Democratic cry: Texas is the biggest [battleground] state,” Bloomberg said. “I agree, and I’m fighting to win your 38 electoral votes.”

Since entering the race late in November, Bloomberg has trailed the four front-runners but consistently polled in the high single digits, ahead of candidates who have been in the race for months longer. But the question remains whether he can climb higher — or whether, even with all his spending and infrastructure, he’ll fade when all eyes are on the early states he’s skipping.

In most election cycles, nominating contests were all but decided after the first four early states. (Al Gore tested the “skip the early states” strategy, which didn’t work in 1988. Bloomberg’s mayoral predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, also eschewed Iowa and New Hampshire during his short-lived presidential run in 2008.)

TKTKTKT on Jan. 11, 2019.
TKTKTKT on Jan. 11, 2019.

Steve Matzker for The Texas Tribune

Democratic Presidental Michael Bloomberg and Judge Judy Shendlin pose for photographs at his rally at Central Machine Works in East Austin on Jan. 11, 2020.
Democratic Presidental Michael Bloomberg and Judge Judy Shendlin pose for photographs at his rally at Central Machine Works in East Austin on Jan. 11, 2020.
Steve Matzker for The Texas Tribune

Steve Matzker for The Texas Tribune

“For the most part, if they aren’t in the early states, they can’t win,” said Dave Peterson, a Whitaker-Lindgren faculty fellow in political science at Iowa State University. “Bloomberg has to bank on the first four states being a muddled mess and that different candidates win each of those states, so that there isn’t a clear leader going into Super Tuesday.”

But during a daylong swing through Texas, Bloomberg made clear that he believes his White House bid, which might’ve first been thought of as a quixotic campaign, could grow into a juggernaut.

“I am going to help turn Texas blue,” Bloomberg said. He spoke for nearly 14 minutes before indulging a few photographs and doing a sit-down television interview with Sheindlin.

“I’m traveling the country, trying to take my message directly to voters, and it’s great to be here in Austin, and thank you for coming out and for spending part of your weekend with me,” he said.

And in spite of not having a national platform in the form of the Democratic debates, his money has clearly caught the attention of his rivals. Many Democrats, including Warren and Julián Castro, were openly irritated that Bloomberg has essentially bought his way into the race. According to The New York Times, Trump was reportedly irked by Bloomberg’s suggestion he might spend $1 billion of his own fortune to help defeat the president, even if he’s is not the Democratic nominee.

But there’s also a question of whether he’s the best candidate to energize an increasingly diverse electorate and party whose most recent White House wins were led by a strong turning among people of color for a black nominee. In 2018, O’Rourke was elevated, in part, by a coalition of younger voters who turned out to the polls. Support among young voters and voters of color has been one of the biggest question marks surrounding Bloomberg’s run, experts say.

“A Bloomberg voter is likely to be older, wants to beat Trump and is concerned primarily about electability,” said Stephanie Martin, an assistant professor of political communications at Southern Methodist University.

“Primary voters are highly motivated and they pay attention, and he’s trying to get people who have been shopping for a while to think about a new product. That’s difficult,” she said.

And there are clearly some in the Democratic electorate who are skeptical of an ultra-rich candidate self-funding his campaign.

“I don’t know why anyone would run that way,” Lucas Diercouff, a former combat medic and Bernie Sanders supporter at the Austin event, said of Bloomberg’s electoral strategy. “I’m not taking him as seriously” as the other Democrats.

“I am going to help turn Texas blue,” says Democratic presidential nominee Mike Bloomberg.
“I am going to help turn Texas blue,” says Democratic presidential nominee Mike Bloomberg.
Steve Matzker for The Texas Tribune

It’s too early to know how Bloomberg has fared in Texas in particular. He wasn’t mentioned in the most recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll from early November, which found Biden leading with support of 23% of voters. Warren followed with 18%, and O’Rourke, who has since dropped out of the race, placed third, at 14%. Just 5% of Texas voters said they didn’t know whom they would support.

“I think he plays by his own rules,” said Kim West, a former O’Rourke supporter who attended Bloomberg’s Austin event as she weighs the Democratic field. “He’s a really clever guy and I’m sure the people working with him are as well, but it’s just never been done that way.”

Bloomberg, meanwhile, has expressed a clear-eyed understanding that he has his work cut out for him in the state.

Asked by a reporter whether he’s received an endorsement from any Texas official, he dodged the question and said his campaign would put out a full endorsement list “eventually.” He then talked broadly about the support he’s accumulated nationally, alongside Sheindlin’s support. (Bloomberg hasn’t publicly announced the endorsement of any Texas elected officials.)

But if it’s any consolation to the long-shot candidate, some of his biggest supporters haven’t lost hope. Asked before the event if he thought Bloomberg had a shot at winning, Graves gave a resounding “yes.”

“I don’t think anybody is going to clearly separate themselves from the masses in the first four states,” he said.

Graves smiled for a photo with Bloomberg after the candidate spoke and said that after hearing from him in person, he was looking forward to following him around the state.

“After this, I might just go with him to Waco,” Graves said, a nod to the next stop on Bloomberg’s bus tour.

Disclosure: Southern Methodist and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters 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.

Analysis: Cheating spoils the results — in baseball, and in Texas politics

Texas Tribune News

Houston Astros Dallas Keuchel (left) and Alex Bregman rode in the 2017 World Series championship parade in downtown Houston.
Houston Astros Dallas Keuchel (left) and Alex Bregman rode in the 2017 World Series championship parade in downtown Houston.
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY Sports/REUTERS

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

What if cheating in politics got as much attention as stealing catchers’ signs on the way to a World Series?

The Houston Astros — and maybe a team or two to be named later — got caught using technology to steal the signs catchers were making to pitchers. Stealing signs is a legal and time-honored form of baseball trickery, but using technology like cameras and smart watches, as the Astros did, is specifically against the rules.

It wrecked the Astros’ reputation. It put a big fat asterisk on their 2017 World Series championship. Every move they make for the next few years will be shaded by the scandal. And if you watch the sports universe, you’ll also find lots of fanatics shouting variations on “Everybody does it.”

Is there a better moment to compare and contrast sports and politics?

Those who really want to tamper, tamper with the rules. Political factions draw cleverly unfair maps of political districts. It’s the reason people already in office are so reluctant to make it easier for new voters to take part in the elections that might threaten incumbents. It’s why Texas won’t let you register to vote online, or on Election Day.

People in politics, like people in sports, constantly tinker to bend rules to their advantage. Maybe they fiddle with the amount of air in a football, as Tom Brady and the New England Patriots were accused of doing a few years ago. Or they take the fine art of stealing signs out of the hands of the cleverest players and turn things over to the techies, like Houston did.

Once the Astros were busted, the fallout was quick: Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch, the Astros’ general and field managers, can’t set foot in any professional baseball stadium — major league or minor — until after the next World Series, and they were fired immediately after the league suspended them. The team loses some draft picks and has to pay $5 million, too.

The Boston Red Sox parted with their manager, Alex Cora, after Major League Baseball’s official report came out; he was Houston’s bench coach when the cheating took place. The Red Sox are now under investigation to see whether he brought his Astros witchcraft with him. And Carlos Beltran, a former Astros player mentioned in the report for his part in the scheme, is leaving the New York Mets as a result — a rookie MLB manager out of a job before managing a single game.

Their scheme was a combination of high tech and low tech — a camera in center field, trained on the batter and catcher, sending video to a monitor in the hall by the dugout, where an Astros employee signaled batters about what was coming by banging on a trash can.

And what happened to the Astros in the 2017 season when all of this was going on? They won the World Series. Boston, with Cora in charge, won it in 2018.

They might well have won without any tricks. Don’t want to get caught here saying anything nice about the Red Sox, but the Astros team of the last few years would have been phenomenal without the hijinks.

It’s the same with politics. Elections are sloppy things. Just look at the latest school bond election in Midland, which passed by 18 votes in the Election Day count, failed by 25 votes when mail-in ballots were taken into account, flipped again on a recount that put it up by 11 votes, and then failed — finally, and by 26 votes — when a missing election box was counted.

Nothing that we know of was illicit, just sloppy. It’s a great illustration of the maxim, “Every vote counts.”

Texas history is full of instances where ballot boxes went missing, or when enough votes were found after an initial count to flip the result. Or when technology got in the way, like last year’s dust-up between the Texas secretary of state and election officials in Harris County.

History has its share of cheaters, too, with consequences bigger than the outcome of a baseball game. The courts caught Texas cheating over and over during the last decade by changing election laws to benefit one side over the other. The judges often sent the Legislature back to make revisions. But they didn’t raise the kinds of questions about the election results that sports fans are raising about the Astros’ championship.

In baseball, cheating has consequences.

Gov. Greg Abbott says Texas nonprofits helping refugees should focus on homelessness. That's not how it works.

Texas Tribune News

A mattress and a discarded sign stating, "Where will I sleep?", sit in a dumpster in downtown Austin after city crews cleaned up homeless encampments in November of 2019.
A mattress and a discarded sign stating, “Where will I sleep?”, sit in a dumpster in downtown Austin after city crews cleaned up homeless encampments in November of 2019.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott dug his heels in Tuesday in a TV interview explaining why Texas will be the only state in the nation to reject refugees seeking resettlement, saying that aid groups working with refugees should instead prioritize other Texans in need, including the state’s homeless population.

But that’s not how it works, according to nonprofit organizations responsible for resettling refugees. Representatives for those organizations said they can’t pick and choose how to spend the federal funds designated for refugees, adding that refugees don’t take resources away from other groups in need.

“I am putting my citizens first. We have challenges in the state of Texas that must be addressed by these very same nonprofit organizations,” Abbott told the hosts of the Fox News show “Fox and Friends” on Tuesday morning. “We have a growing homeless population in the state of Texas, and I refuse to allow the state of Texas to go down the same pathway of what we’ve seen in California.”

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said money for resettlement can’t be spent on homelessness or any other safety net programs.

“The federal funding that nonprofit resettlement agencies administer limits its use so it can only be spent through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program,” she said in an email. “Just as funding for the many federal programs meant to alleviate homelessness cannot be reallocated to refugee programing, resettlement funding cannot simply be reallocated to other problem areas such as homelessness – or even services for asylum seekers.”

State governors and local elected officials had until Tuesday to inform the U.S. State Department if they would opt out of the program after President Donald Trump issued an executive order on the issue in September.

In addition to addressing the homelessness issue, Abbott told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his Jan. 10 letter that Texas had been left to deal with “disproportionate migration issues resulting from a broken federal immigration system” — a reference to the record number of asylum seekers arriving at the country’s southern border.

Vignarajah said those are also separate issues. Her organization does operate respite centers in other border states, but they aren’t part of the refugee program, and federal funding isn’t used for those operations. And she said any state services that refugees receive are based on state policies alone.

“Like any other tax-paying resident of a state, refugees may be eligible for additional state benefits such as nutritional or housing assistance, but this depends on the eligibility requirements of each state, of course,” she said.

The process for asylum seekers who try to gain entry to the United States at the southern border is vastly different from that of people who apply via resettlement. Asylum seekers at the southern border are often detained at first then sent back to Mexico for months as they wait for court hearings. From there, they must prove to an immigration judge they qualify for asylum protections.

Refugees that apply for resettlement have their cases referred by U.S. embassies and the United Nations, and are referred to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services from there, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement website. In 2018, most of the refugees admitted to the United States came from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma and Ukraine, according to the National Immigration Forum.

Abbott is currently in Davos, Switzerland, and his communications office didn’t respond to a request for comment on the issue. But in a previous statement, spokesman John Wittman said, “No one seeking refugee status in the United States will be denied that status because of the Texas decision. Importantly, the decision by Texas will not prevent any refugee from coming to America. Equally important, the Texas decision doesn’t stop refugees from moving to Texas after initially settling in another state.”

Troy Greisen, director of World Relief North Texas, said the public should be better informed about the refugee program, and Abbott’s office should not conflate several issues.

“This is a much smaller segment of our population that we would be receiving, as far as refugees,” he said. “We’re not talking about people coming across the border. We’re talking about people seeking refuge from persecution. They have already been received by the U.S. They’ve been vetted, they’ve been screened and accepted. It’s just a mater of where they get resettled in the U.S.”

Russell A. Smith, the CEO of Refugee Services of Texas, said he agrees with Abbott that homeless people, asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups need more attention. But taking care of one group, he said, doesn’t mean excluding all others.

“The basic premise that there are multiple populations in need, I agree with,” he said. “The issue I have is the notion that helping one population takes away with helping the other, that it’s an either/or type of proposition.”

Abbott’s decision earlier this month made him the first and only governor to opt out of the resettlement program. To date, more than 40 state leaders, including several Republicans, had opted in. Last week, a federal judge halted Trump’s executive order. An appeal is expected, but Greisen said his organization and others are moving forward with resettlement, although it’s unclear how many refugees have selected Texas as their destination so far.

Michael Bloomberg’s Texas strategy is expensive and unprecedented. Can it work?

Texas Tribune News

Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg walks through a crowd of supporters at a rally at Central Machine Works in East Austin.
Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg walks through a crowd of supporters at a rally at Central Machine Works in East Austin.
Steve Matzker for The Texas Tribune

Eric Graves isn’t your typical voter. He has cast ballots for Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and, most recently, Donald Trump. He said party isn’t as important to him as the candidate, and heading into 2020, he has a new mantra: Bloomberg or bust.

Graves, a 69-year-old insurance agent, stood toward the back of a Michael Bloomberg event at an East Austin brewery earlier this month, among a crowd that skewed elderly and white. Counting down the minutes until he was able to shake hands with the Democratic candidate, Graves said the political party had lost its way.

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders? “So far left.” Joe Biden? “He’s lost whatever he had” during the Obama era.” Pete Buttigieg? “Doesn’t have the track record.”

In Bloomberg, he sees a winning formula. “Successful businessman, a politician and he’s funding his whole thing himself,” Graves said. “He’s not asking anybody to do anything but allow him to help America. That’s what we need.”

Graves’ second choice? Trump.

Bloomberg was in Austin as part of an unconventional zag-while-they-zig electoral strategy. He’s skipping the traditional early states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — in favor of the delegate-rich Super Tuesday ones, which include Texas.

But to surpass expectations here, he’ll need to win over masses of voters with traits like Graves — disillusioned Republicans, pragmatic Democrats or something in between. The New York billionaire hopes to make inroads as one of the few presidential contenders to invest in Texas this early in the year.

And he is really investing. Bloomberg has built an unmatched ground game throughout the state, opening a Texas headquarters and 16 field offices, along with hiring a state director and three deputy state directors. Last week, Bloomberg announced plans to amass nearly 150 Texas staffers by the end of the month, and his campaign said it was “hiring daily.” Plus, he’s spending millions of his own dollars on television ads in media markets across the state.

It’s a risky bet made by an underdog with almost limitless resources — someone who’s polling in the single digits yet willing to “spend what’s needed” to stay competitive.

His unconventional approach was on full display during a daylong swing through Texas earlier this month that included public stops in San Antonio, Austin and Dallas. He acknowledged the four early primary states but downplayed their importance, arguing that investing time and resources in Texas’ 254 counties — a nod to the strategy popularized by Beto O’Rourke in 2018 — would give him an electoral advantage in the fall.

Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg addresses supporters at a rally at Central Machine Works in East Austin on Jan. 11, 2019.
Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg addresses supporters at a rally at Central Machine Works in East Austin on Jan. 11, 2019.
Steve Matzker for The Texas Tribune

A Michael Bloomberg supporter wears a pin for the democrats presidential campaign on Jan. 11, 2019.
A Michael Bloomberg supporter wears a pin for the democrats presidential campaign on Jan. 11, 2019.
Steve Matzker for The Texas Tribune

Steve Matzker for The Texas Tribune

“This is the road to November, and it’s the road to victory and it’s starting right here,” Bloomberg said in Austin to raucous applause.

By past standards, Bloomberg’s strategy for the White House should be impossible. In addition to his late start, the septuagenarian presidential candidate has joined what was once one of the most diverse Democratic fields, which has been defined, in part, by an aversion to billionaires.

But to the people showing up to his rallies, that unconventionality is part of the appeal.

Among the Austin crowd: a former O’Rourke supporter, a woman who’s known of the former mayor for nearly 25 years and a man who listed Bloomberg in his top five favorite candidates — alongside progressives like Sanders and Warren.

“He doesn’t come across as an entitled person,” said Sheila Fischthal, a retiree and former New Yorker. “He built himself up, and I think he wants the same thing for all Americans.

“He’s willing to get in and roll up his sleeves and do the work and be the leader we so desperately need right now,” she said. She sported a Bloomberg pin on her jacket and clutched his book along with one of his campaign signs.

After a community event and lunch in San Antonio, Bloomberg’s campaign bus rolled up a dirt road in Austin, blaring Alicia Keys’ “New York.” He was introduced by Judy Sheindlin, better known for her TV name: Judge Judy. He discussed how O’Rourke’s narrow loss in the 2018 U.S. Senate race proved a Democrat could win Texas.

“Unlike New Yorkers, Texans have a Democratic cry: Texas is the biggest [battleground] state,” Bloomberg said. “I agree, and I’m fighting to win your 38 electoral votes.”

Since entering the race late in November, Bloomberg has trailed the four front-runners but consistently polled in the high single digits, ahead of candidates who have been in the race for months longer. But the question remains whether he can climb higher — or whether, even with all his spending and infrastructure, he’ll fade when all eyes are on the early states he’s skipping.

In most election cycles, nominating contests were all but decided after the first four early states. (Al Gore tested the “skip the early states” strategy, which didn’t work in 1988. Rudy Giuliani, Bloomberg’s mayoral predecessor, also eschewed Iowa and New Hampshire during his short-lived presidential run in 2008.)

TKTKTKT on Jan. 11, 2019.
TKTKTKT on Jan. 11, 2019.

Steve Matzker for The Texas Tribune

Democratic Presidental Michael Bloomberg and Judge Judy Shendlin pose for photographs at his rally at Central Machine Works in East Austin on Jan. 11, 2020.
Democratic Presidental Michael Bloomberg and Judge Judy Shendlin pose for photographs at his rally at Central Machine Works in East Austin on Jan. 11, 2020.
Steve Matzker for The Texas Tribune

Steve Matzker for The Texas Tribune

“For the most part, if they aren’t in the early states, they can’t win,” said Dave Peterson, a Whitaker-Lindgren faculty fellow in political science at Iowa State University. “Bloomberg has to bank on the first four states being a muddled mess and that different candidates win each of those states, so that there isn’t a clear leader going into Super Tuesday.”

But during a daylong swing through Texas, Bloomberg made clear that he believes his White House bid, which might’ve first been thought of as a quixotic campaign, could grow into a juggernaut.

“I am going to help turn Texas blue,” Bloomberg said. He spoke for nearly 14 minutes before indulging a few photographs and doing a sit-down television interview with Sheindlin.

“I’m traveling the country, trying to take my message directly to voters, and it’s great to be here in Austin, and thank you for coming out and for spending part of your weekend with me,” he said.

And in spite of not having a national platform in the form of the Democratic debates, his money has clearly caught the attention of his rivals. Many Democrats, including Warren and Julián Castro, were openly irritated that Bloomberg has essentially bought his way into the race. According to The New York Times, Trump was reportedly irked by Bloomberg’s suggestion he might spend $1 billion of his own fortune to help defeat the president, even if he’s is not the Democratic nominee.

But there’s also a question of whether he’s the best candidate to energize an increasingly diverse electorate and party whose most recent White House wins were led by a strong turning among people of color for a black nominee. In 2018, O’Rourke was elevated, in part, by a coalition of younger voters who turned out to the polls. Support among young voters and voters of color has been one of the biggest question marks surrounding Bloomberg’s run, experts say.

“A Bloomberg voter is likely to be older, wants to beat Trump and is concerned primarily about electability,” said Stephanie Martin, an assistant professor of political communications at Southern Methodist University.

“Primary voters are highly motivated and they pay attention, and he’s trying to get people who have been shopping for a while to think about a new product. That’s difficult,” she said.

And there are clearly some in the Democratic electorate who are skeptical of an ultra-rich candidate self-funding his campaign.

“I don’t know why anyone would run that way,” Lucas Diercouff, a former combat medic and Bernie Sanders supporter at the Austin event, said of Bloomberg’s electoral strategy. “I’m not taking him as seriously” as the other Democrats.

“I am going to help turn Texas blue,” says Democratic presidential nominee Mike Bloomberg.
“I am going to help turn Texas blue,” says Democratic presidential nominee Mike Bloomberg.
Steve Matzker for The Texas Tribune

It’s too early to know how Bloomberg has fared in Texas in particular. He wasn’t mentioned in the most recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll from early November, which found Biden leading with support of 23% of voters. Warren followed with 18%, and O’Rourke, who has since dropped out of the race, placed third, at 14%. Just 5% of Texas voters said they didn’t know whom they would support.

“I think he plays by his own rules,” said Kim West, a former O’Rourke supporter who attended Bloomberg’s Austin event as she weighs the Democratic field. “He’s a really clever guy and I’m sure the people working with him are as well, but it’s just never been done that way.”

Bloomberg, meanwhile, has expressed a clear-eyed understanding that he has his work cut out for him in the state.

Asked by a reporter whether he’s received an endorsement from any Texas official, he dodged the question and said his campaign would put out a full endorsement list “eventually.” He then talked broadly about the support he’s accumulated nationally, alongside Sheindlin’s support. (Bloomberg hasn’t publicly announced the endorsement of any Texas elected officials.)

But if it’s any consolation to the long-shot candidate, some of his biggest supporters haven’t lost hope. Asked before the event if he thought Bloomberg had a shot at winning, Graves gave a resounding “yes.”

“I don’t think anybody is going to clearly separate themselves from the masses in the first four states,” he said.

Graves smiled for a photo with Bloomberg after the candidate spoke and said that after hearing from him in person, he was looking forward to following him around the state.

“After this, I might just go with him to Waco,” Graves said, a nod to the next stop on Bloomberg’s bus tour.

Disclosure: Southern Methodist and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters 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.

Elizabeth Warren backs Eliz Markowitz in battleground Texas House race

Texas Tribune News

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren (left) and Eliz Markowitz, Democratic candidate for Texas House District 28.
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren (left) and Eliz Markowitz, Democratic candidate for Texas House District 28.
Bob Daemmrich: Warren | Social media: Markowitz

Elizabeth Warren is the latest Democratic presidential candidate to endorse Eliz Markowitz in the nationally targeted race for Texas House District 28.

“I’m joining Democrats across Texas and the country who are jumping all in for Eliz, because I know she’s the fighter we need to put real change on the agenda for all Texans,” the Massachusetts U.S. senator said in a statement. “As an educator and advocate, Eliz has shown up for her community time and again. The people of Fort Bend County and the 28th District deserve a woman like Eliz in the House.”

Markowitz, a Katy educator, faces Republican businessman Gary Gates in the Jan. 28 special election runoff to fill the seat of former Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond. Early voting began Tuesday and goes through Friday.

Democrats are pushing to flip the traditionally red seat as they head toward November with hopes of capturing the House, where they are effectively nine seats away from the majority.

Warren is at least the third White House contender to weigh in for Markowitz. Michael Bloomberg visited the district in late December to stump with Markowitz, and Joe Biden endorsed her earlier this month.

Meanwhile, Beto O’Rourke has made the race his top political priority since ending his presidential campaign in November, camping out in the district for days at a time. Another Texan who previously ran for president, Julián Castro, was in the district Saturday to campaign for Markowitz.

Warren reveals more endorsements from former Castro, O’Rourke supporters

Texas Tribune News

Presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts, takes the stage at a campaign town hall meeting in Grimes, Iowa on Monday.
Presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts, takes the stage at a campaign town hall meeting in Grimes, Iowa on Monday.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The battle for former supporters of Julián Castro and Beto O’Rourke is continuing apace as Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren unveils a fresh round of endorsements from Texas lawmakers.

In announcement first shared with The Texas Tribune, Warren’s campaign unveiled the support of four legislators who represent O’Rourke’s native El Paso: Sen. José Rodríguez; Reps. Art Fierro and Mary González; and House Speaker Pro Tem Joe Moody. All four previously supported Castro or O’Rourke, and some, like Moody, were initial O’Rourke supporters who switched over to Castro after O’Rourke ended his campaign in November.

“I’m proud to endorse Elizabeth Warren for President because she has a proven track record as a fighter for working families and a champion for LGBTQ+ equality,” González, who chairs the House LGBT Caucus, said in statement. “I know she’ll make big, structural change to deliver real progress to people in Texas and across the country.”

The latest announcement comes as Warren keeps increasing her focus on the state ahead of Super Tuesday, or March 3. The rush for support within the state opened up after the departures of both Texans in the race — and Castro’s decision to back Warren shortly after he dropped out earlier this month. Since then, Warren and Joe Biden have been trading endorsement rollouts. In one case, the former vice president released a list of new Texas endorsements the day after Castro endorsed Warren.

While the former vice president has easily maintained the most congressional endorsements in Texas, Warren is catching up to him among state lawmakers. She now has the support of seven members of the Legislature to his 11.

Biden has been the poll leader ahead of the Texas primary, though Warren’s campaign was the earliest to build a formal organization here. Former New York City Michael Bloomberg is also making a serious push for the state, recently announcing a presence here larger than that of any other Democratic contender.

Meet the Texas-based church security business training worshippers to fight back in mass shootings

Texas Tribune News

A member of a church security team fires at a target at a shooting range in Krugerville. Various church security teams are training for active shooter situations with the National Organization of Church Security and Safety Management.
A member of a church security team fires at a target at a shooting range in Krugerville. Various church security teams are training for active shooter situations with the National Organization of Church Security and Safety Management.
Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune

KRUGERVILLE — Liberty Hill resident T.J. Wagner yelled commands at his friend James Johnson in an empty classroom at a building in North Texas earlier this month: “Face the wall! Feet apart! Hands behind your back!”

Within seconds, Wagner handcuffed Johnson, leading him out of the room with one hand gripping the metal cuffs and the other squeezing his right bicep to guide him out. Then, the two switched places and it was Johnson’s turn to detain his buddy.

The pair were among a group of several men from across the state who enrolled in a training program this month where they practiced combat moves, learned how to apprehend suspects and shot firearms.

But they weren’t training for law enforcement.They’re just men who are worried about their churches.

They’re preparing for the worst-case scenario, one where their congregations are the target of a mass shooting — something that was almost unthinkable a few years ago but has happened twice in Texas in the past three years.

In November 2017, a gunman opened fire inside First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, killing 26 people and injuring 20 more. And last month, days after Christmas, a shooter attacked the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, killing two people and injuring one before being fatally shot by Jack Wilson, an Army veteran and head of the church’s volunteer security team.

A few days before he left for the training seminar, Wagner said a few friends asked him, “Do you think you need security at church?”

A couple days later, the shooting at White Settlement church happened, and one of those friends later told him he was right to attend.

“We’re seeing lots of other churches that had not thought about this are putting together security teams,” said Wagner, a member of Life Church in Leander, an interdenominational house of worship. “It’s a terrible thing that we have to do that, that you have to think about it, but it’s been proven over and over again, that it’s possible it could happen. So be proactive.”

Security training

Chuck Chadwick, the founder and president of the National Organization for Church Security and Safety Management, has been in the church security business for about 18 years, encouraging parishioners and worshippers to take their safety into their own hands. He’s experienced a spike in interest in recent weeks, following the White Settlement shooting, that mirrors the same interest his business got after Sutherland Springs.

In a one-story building in Krugerville, a city about an hour and a half north of Dallas, located next to a State Farm office and gun shop, attendees go through the same state-certification training as private security guards. Except at the end, instead of being paid to protect an office building, the participants will be volunteers protecting their flocks.

Members of church security teams from across Texas gathered in Krugerville, near Denton, to get certified in church security and trained for an active shooter situation by the National Organization of Church Security and Safety Management Jan. 11, 2020.
Members of church security teams from across Texas gathered in Krugerville, near Denton, to get certified in church security and trained for an active shooter situation by the National Organization of Church Security and Safety Management Jan. 11, 2020.
Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson

Members of church security teams from across Texas gathered in Krugerville, near Denton, to get certified in church security and trained for an active shooter situation by the National Organization of Church Security and Safety Management Jan. 11, 2020.
Members of church security teams from across Texas gathered in Krugerville, near Denton, to get certified in church security and trained for an active shooter situation by the National Organization of Church Security and Safety Management Jan. 11, 2020.
Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson

Leslie Borham-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune

Churches pay about $800 to fully certify and train each person through Chadwick’s school. The Chadwicks’ full program costs $620 and state licensing runs about $180.

In the classroom, Will Chadwick, Chuck’s son and the class instructor, described attack scenarios to a group of participants who attended in early January. He gave advice on what to do — but also, legally, what not to do.

Draw the assailant away from where children might be, he said.

Use words as your first line of defense.

Don’t handcuff an attacker to something and just walk away.

Throughout the training, Will Chadwick peppered the men with verbal pop quizzes to prepare them for the 100-question state exam that would come at the end of the program.

The second half of the training was more hands on. Will Chadwick, who typically spoke in a calm voice, barked his commands at the men.

He demonstrated hand-to-hand combat techniques and the proper way to strike a police baton.

Members of churches from across Texas gathered in Krugerville, near Denton, to get certified in church security and trained for an active shooter situation by the National Organization of Church Security and Safety Management. | by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune
Members of churches from across Texas gathered in Krugerville, near Denton, to get certified in church security and trained for an active shooter situation by the National Organization of Church Security and Safety Management. | by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune
Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune

Participants also shot a variety of handguns and shotguns as part of their certification at the company’s outdoor gun range.

The Chadwicks’ training prepares participants for violent attacks, but they said it would also come in handy for more common situations, like church parking lot thefts.

Many of the participants in the January class had enrolled before the shooting at White Settlement.

“It’s surreal that you’re coming in here and you’re training for what you hope never happens. And then the very next day, it happens,” said Jimmy Bills, a former Marine who lives in East Texas and attends Oasis Church of Round Rock. Bills was dressed in all black with a “Don’t tread on me” hat.

The average participant who attended the training was a man with former military or law enforcement experience.

“I’d rather have me doing it than somebody I don’t know,” said Larry Graves, a 65-year-old father of eight kids and Army veteran who traveled from Arlington.

A new calling

Chuck Chadwick, 65, got his start in private security, working about 20 years at a high-end auction house based in Dallas, protecting fine art, gold coins and luxury goods.

But after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York, he felt a calling.

In 2002, he went on to develop a security program for two megachurches in Texas and became their director of security.

Four years later, he started the National Organization for Church Security and Safety Management which has turned into a family business. Chuck Chadwick serves as president; his wife Marian is vice president and over logistics; and his son Will is the primary instructor and trainer.

“I saw there was a real need for a low-cost alternative to private security for churches,” Chuck Chadwick said.

His organization is one of a handful of Texas-based organizations that do security training specifically for churches. The Chadwick family business only works with “Judeo-Christian” organizations, Chuck Chadwick said.

At the time Chuck Chadwick started his church security business, there had been at least two mass shootings of churches in Texas. In 1980, a gunman killed five people at The First Baptist Church in Daingerfield. In 1999, a gunman killed eight people, including himself, at the Wedgwood Baptist Church in Forth Worth.

Chuck Chadwick estimates that his business has certified about 500 licensed church security guards at almost 100 churches, mostly in Texas.

Though inquiries about the training program surge following news of mass shootings, only a fraction of people actually follow through, Chuck Chadwick said.

“We call it emotional inertia. Everybody gets all excited about it, you know, ‘We gotta do something, we gotta do something,” Chadwick said, “but then nothing happens at their church and they figure, ‘I guess we’re okay.'”

This time could be different, Chadwick said. Because there was video of the shooting, the visual may stick with them much longer, he said.

State law

A video of the shooting in White Settlement shows a number of congregants drew their gun at the shooter, but it was Wilson, head of the church’s volunteer security team, who killed the shooter with one shot. Regarded as a hero by many, Wilson was awarded the first Governor’s Medal of Courage last week.

Had Wilson not intervened, the shooting “could have been so much worse,” said Frank Pomeroy, the pastor of the Sutherland Springs church and a state Senate candidate.

Pomeroy’s 14-year-old daughter was killed during the 2017 shooting, but the pastor stands firmly against increasing gun restrictions.

“We are God’s protectors, and to do so we need to be trained and we need to be armed with the capability to protect our sheep,” Pomeroy said.

Gyl Switzer, executive director of Texas Gun Sense, said people celebrating Wilson were diminishing a tragedy where lives were lost.

“The system has failed when we’ve got guns and churches and when some people are celebrating [there were only] three dead people,” Switzer said. “How is three dead people not a failure?”

For years, Texas churches were hindered from organizing volunteer security. They either had to pay for private security guards, or seek special permission from the state, an exemption that came with a $400 price tag.

That changed when a new law went in effect in September 2017.

Former state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, said he was inspired to submit a bill to the Legislature after discovering that though existing law had allowed congregants with licenses to carry firearms into churches, they weren’t allowed to organize into a volunteer security teams without paying the state.

Rinaldi’s bill went into affect a month before the mass shooting of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.

“There’s no doubt that what the law did was legalize what was done at White Settlement Church in forming a security team. Without the bill that passed in 2017, those individuals would not have been able to form a security team and then who knows what could have happened,” Rinaldi said.

Big bucks — and a big donor — fuel Allen West's bid for Texas GOP chair

Texas Tribune News

Former U.S. Rep. Allen West is vying to unseat Texas GOP Chairman James Dickey.
Former U.S. Rep. Allen West is vying to unseat Texas GOP Chairman James Dickey.
Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

For months, the race for Texas GOP chair has been in full swing, with incumbent James Dickey and his high-profile challenger, Allen West, appearing at a slew of at times feisty forums.

But it was not until last week that the two had to disclose their campaign finances for the first time — and West’s report brought something of a bombshell: Not only did the former Florida congressman raise nearly half a million dollars — a large amount for such an election — but $250,000 of it came from a single person. That person: Richard Uihlein, the conservative megadonor and shipping supplies magnate from Illinois.

In recent election cycles, the reclusive Uihlein and his wife Liz have become known for bankrolling insurgent conservative candidates across the country, sometimes serving as their primary patrons. Richard Uihlein gave $37.7 million to outside spending groups during the 2018 cycle, making him the fourth biggest donor to such entities and putting him in the ranks of people like Sheldon Adelson and Michael Bloomberg, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

For now, it is not entirely clear why Uihlein has taken such an interest in the race to lead the Texas GOP — a job that entails keeping it well-funded and organized ahead of a crucial November election for state Republicans. West’s campaign did not respond to questions for this story, and Uihlein himself has not responded to a message left with his Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin-based company, Uline.

Uihlein helped West post a staggering fundraising advantage over Dickey, who raised $18,000 over the same six-month period — or 4% of West’s $490,000 raised. Dickey spent $12,000; West $227,000. And Dickey has $6,000 cash on hand; West has $283,000.

Dickey’s supporters argue that his focus has been on raising money for the state party and positioning it strongly for the 2020 election, not financing his reelection campaign. They also have criticized West’s spending as wasteful, pointing to expenses like a $424 payment to a limo service for a ride from the Buc-ee’s gas station in Madisonville to Garland, a roughly two-and-a-half-hour drive.

West has made his fundraising chops part of his pitch to chair the state party, often noting the big bucks he was able to raise as a congressman who built a national following. Some of Uihlein’s Florida-based relatives were donors to West’s campaigns there.

The election for Texas GOP chair will be decided by delegates to the state party convention, which is set for mid-May in Houston.

Dickey, the former chairman of the Travis County party, is not unfamiliar with hard-fought chair races. He first ascended to the position in 2017 by a margin of one vote on the State Republican Executive Committee, and he won reelection the next year after a long and nasty fight on the convention floor. His challenger that time, Cindy Asche, was also well-funded, having loaned herself almost $200,000.

But West’s money may pose Dickey’s most serious threat yet, in no small part due to Uihlein’s generosity — which is not always limited to a single six-figure check if his giving history is any indication. West’s strong fundraising has helped allow him to already air TV ads — an unusual move in a state party chair race normally characterized by more direct delegate outreach, let alone months before delegates make their decision.

West is currently in the middle of a $40,000-plus buy on cable TV in the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston areas, according to ad-tracking sources. West is airing both 30- and 60-second commercials as part of the roughly six-week buy.

West’s campaign has not confirmed details about the buy or provided the ads that it’s airing, but there are several 30- and 60-second spots posted on his Facebook page. In the commercials, West encourages Republicans to register to vote in time for the March 3 primary, among other things. None of the ads explicitly pitch his candidacy for Texas GOP chair, though he directs viewers to his campaign website at the end.

Uihlein is not a prolific donor at the state level in Texas — his only other significant contribution in recent years was $10,000 to Greg Abbott while the governor was running for reelection in 2018. But Uihlein is no stranger to some of the state’s federal officeholders — most notably U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who has benefitted from Uihlein’s largesse through multiple election cycles. Most recently, Uihlein gave $450,000 to Texans Are, a super PAC that supported Cruz’s reelection last year.

Of course, Dickey has his own relationships with big donors as state party chair. One of them, Kathaleen Wall, is paying his first-of-its-kind $150,000 salary through the 2020 convention.

That is when thousands of delegates will get to decide whether to keep Dickey as chair or go with West several months out from a high-stakes election. During a forum Saturday in Tyler, Dickey raised that timeline while touting the party’s growth under his leadership, saying it is “absolutely critical that five months before the election … we do not try to change courses and try to mess up what has instead been an excellent team-building over a couple years.”

In his closing statement, West suggested Texas Republicans should think bigger, particularly when it comes to fundraising.

“I applaud the chairman for raising three to four million dollars, but let me tell you something,” West said. “I remember being a congressman and coming to Dallas to raise money for my congressional race back in Florida. The state of Texas should have 10 to 15 million dollars in its coffers for the Republican Party.”

Trump names U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe to advisory and advocacy role during impeachment trial

Texas Tribune News

U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, speaks during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C. in December.
U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, speaks during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C. in December.
Andrew Harrer/Pool via REUTERS

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump formally designated U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe, a Heath Republican, on Monday as one of several U.S. House members to serve on his “impeachment team.”

The group will not be on par with the president’s appointed legal defense team, but instead serve in advisory and television advocacy roles, per NBC News. CNN reported that these designees will likely not speak on the Senate floor.

That the president would elevate Ratcliffe to this post is unsurprising. A former prosecutor, Ratcliffe is one of the Trump’s fiercest defenders in the U.S. House, particularly amid impeachment hearings in the lower chamber. As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, colleagues often deferred their time to Ratcliffe.

Ratcliffe joins several other Trump allies in this capacity: U.S. House Reps. Doug Collins of Georgia; Mike Johnson of Louisiana; Jim Jordan of Ohio; Debbie Lesko of Arizona; Mark Meadows of North Carolina; and Elise Stefanik and Lee Zeldin of New York.

Last week, House Democrats selected U.S. Rep. Sylvia R. Garcia, D-Houston, to serve as a House impeachment manager. She is expected to play a supporting role in the prosecution of Trump in the Senate trial, which will consume Congress in the coming days. Former Baylor President and Clinton-era independent counsel Ken Starr will serve on Trump’s legal defense team.

Trump previously appointed Ratcliffe to the post of director of national intelligence, but Ratcliffe withdrew his name from consideration.

In Houston congressional district, Republicans see a chance to boost party diversity and reflip a seat

Texas Tribune News

Lizzie Pannill Fletcher at her election night party in 2018. She is a top target for Republicans in 2020.
Lizzie Pannill Fletcher at her election night party in 2018. She is a top target for Republicans in 2020.
Pu Ying Huang for The Texas Tribune

For a party frequently hammered for a lack of member diversity, the GOP has high hopes for West Houston.

It is there, along the Interstate 10 corridor, that the national party has elevated two candidates who could make progress toward countering its image. Veteran Wesley Hunt and former Bellaire Mayor Cindy Siegel are pitted against each other as the top-two fundraising Republicans amid a crowded field vying to take on U.S. Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, who is widely viewed as the most vulnerable Democratic House member in the state.

The area, which is both suburban and urban and home to some of the wealthiest political donors in the country, is the closest thing Texas will have to a bellwether congressional district in 2020. Across the board, Republicans point to the seat as their best shot at a Texas offensive pick up next year, and the race could do much to unwind the damage of a disastrous 2018 for Harris County Republicans.

And who Houston Republicans choose to nominate here could help make up for the loss of incumbents who were female or people of color in the last several cycles. Otherwise an all-white male U.S. House Republican delegation from Texas is plausible scenario after 2020, thanks to retirements and current primary challenges.

“The 7th is a good example of the challenge Republicans have across the country,” said Nathan Gonzales, a national political analyst at Inside Elections. “Some of their best challengers are in some of the toughest districts.”

Texas’ 7th Congressional District was held by Republican John Culberson for nearly two decades — and for most of those years it wasn’t seriously contested. Democrats targeted it in 2018 after Hillary Clinton narrowly won it two years earlier.

Fletcher was a neophyte candidate in 2018 who abruptly found herself in a nationalized ideological dogfight of a Democratic primary. She worked the Houston speaking circuit, stayed on message, earned national establishment support and eventually, handily won the runoff.

She rode the 2018 Democratic wave that fall into office, ousting Culberson. Most political observers anticipated a photo-finish in the race, but Fletcher’s margin of victory — 5 percentage points — surpassed expectations. Republican leaders are eager to select a strong candidate for 2020 who can prove the loss was a one-time fluke.

“We’ve got a good chance because we’ve got great candidates,” said Genevieve Carter, the spokeswoman for the Harris County Republican Party. “As a party, we’re only as good as our candidates We’re fortunate in that sense.”

Hunt, an African American, grew up in Houston. After graduating from West Point, he served in the Iraq War. He’s had a pair of standout fundraising quarters since he announced his candidacy last spring. He has benefited financially and in credibility from the support of top national Republicans, including most of House Republican leadership, members of the Texas GOP delegation — including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and from top donors, like Richard Weekley and John Nau III.

The latest fundraising reports will not be available until the end of the month, but Hunt raised so much money by the fall — nearly $1 million — that he is the sole candidate running television ads in the district seven weeks out from the primary, in what a Democratic source tracking media buys described as a small but steady ad campaign on cable.

“We have been very disciplined for the last nine months, and it is hard work,” Hunt said of his progress. “We make sure that we are the candidate that outworks everyone.”

Siegel, on the other hand, has comparatively struggled in fundraising. As of October, she raised about $330,000 and that sum included substantial self-funding. Her expected strength is her longtime network of local allies she has cultivated over the years while serving as mayor and in various other official and party roles. Her website boasts hundreds of local endorsements.

At least one local Republican operative cautioned against writing off Siegel. This person, who declined to speak on the record because of local sensitivities of picking sides, pointed out that Culberson pulled off an upset in his 2000 primary when he defeated a well-financed favored candidate of the chamber of commerce set.

“I have, of all the candidates, the most experience, the breadth and depth of experience and ties to the district,” she said. “I’m the only candidate who’s been an elected official.”

Siegel and Hunt are not the only two Republicans in the race.

Maria Espinoza is nationally known through her work in the Remembrance Project, a nonprofit in Houston that advocates for victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. The organization was closely tied to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

She challenged Culberson in 2016, garnering 18% of the vote. This time around, she has the support of Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Republican donor Foster Friess.

Laique Rehman, an oil and gas commodities trader, energy consultant Kyle Preston and Jim Noteware, a venture capitalist, round out the rest of the GOP field.

If no candidate secures a majority of the primary vote, the top two candidates will advance to a May runoff. With a field this large, it will be nearly impossible for any candidate to put the race to bed on March 3.

As for race and gender, neither Hunt nor Siegel wanted to be identified with “identity politics.”

“The Republican Party has got to … promote, support, encourage strong, Republican, conservative women to run for office nationally, as well as the state, if we are going to remain a majority party,” Siegel said. “And that’s not identity politics. That’s fact.”

She further argued she will be able to bring back independent and Republican women who turned on Culberson in 2018, specifically in Bellaire.

“To beat Lizzie Fletcher, and that’s why my people asked me to run, it’s going to take a conservative, Republican woman,” she said. “That given, I’ve never believed and never said, ‘Vote for me because I’m a woman.'”

Hunt expressed reluctance to bring race into the campaign.

“The good thing about being a Republican is we tend not to play identity politics, right?” he said. “That’s really what the other party does and it’s a very divisive issue, in my opinion.”

He said the feedback from the voters is they will not factor those issues when they go to the polls.

“I understand diversity is needed in our party, but what I’ve also discovered is people just want a really good candidate, regardless of how you look, regardless of your gender and people don’t vote for somebody because of the way they look, or they don’t vote for somebody just because they’re a woman,” he said. “They respond to someone’s values, and I think that’s a big part of the reason why I’ve been successful.”

Both Hunt and Siegel earned last summer the “Young Gun” designation from the House Republican campaign arm, a signal of preferred candidates to national GOP donors. And both candidates avoided attacking each other in interviews.

Still, there is tension.

Siegel seized in recent days on comments Hunt made in a public forum conceding that the last time he voted in a presidential primary was in 2008, when he cast his ballot on the Democratic side. He explained both in the forum and to The Texas Tribune that the move was part of “Operation Chaos,” a Rush Limbaugh-led campaign for Republicans to upend the Democratic presidential nomination fight that year.

In recent days, the Hunt camp returned fire, framing Siegel as “a career politician” in a Facebook ad.

And Siegel is clearly frustrated that national forces lined up behind Hunt, including the man who would most likely be her leader if she makes it to Congress: U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

“I don’t like it. Quite frankly, I think it’s a slap in the face of every grassroots activist,” Siegel said. “For decades, I have gone to Republican women’s events, and I have heard Republican elected officials who are men say they got there because Republican women are the boots on the ground, and I have the most experience with business, Republican credentials and just being a local leader.”

“Where does a California congressman think that he can put his finger on the scale and tell CD-7 how they should vote?” she said, recounting her daughter’s reaction to her explaining McCarthy’s involvement in the race.

Either way, both candidates at this point in the primary are far more eager to criticize Fletcher than fellow Republicans. Both went after Fletcher’s December vote to impeach Trump and are telegraphing that they will try make oil and gas and Fletcher’s vote for Nancy Pelosi as House speaker central fronts in the general election campaign against her.

“She’s got a voting record now. … She hasn’t been independent, she voted for impeachment,” Siegel said.

“People are tired of Lizzie Fletcher,” said Hunt, a sentiment with which Siegel concurred. They also indicated they will try to get to the right of her on energy issues, a potent point given the oil and gas industry is Houston’s economic driver.

But while Fletcher is vulnerable, she is far from doomed.

Since she’s taken office, some Houston Republicans — old school, Bush-acolyte types — concede she’s an on-the-ground presence and a force to be reckoned with for whoever the Republicans nominate.

That assessment is, in part, thanks to her fundraising. She is the top Democratic fundraiser in the Texas delegation and only lags behind Crenshaw among U.S. House members from Texas. And while the Republican primary is expected to drag on into a runoff in May, Fletcher can watch from the sidelines while banking her money for the coming general election television ad wars.

Because of those factors, non-partisan campaign handicappers at Inside Elections rate the 7th Congressional District as “Lean Democratic.”

“She is formidable, as evidenced by nobody on the Democratic side running against her,” said Jason Westin, a rival from her 2018 primary fight who has donated to her campaign this time around. “She’s done an excellent job … and I think she’s been checking boxes and basically doing what she said she was going to do, which is what got her elected over an incumbent the first time.”

And there’s an urgency in GOP circles that if they are to defeat Fletcher, it must be this cycle. Incumbents are traditionally at their weakest during their first term.

But also, the next cycle will take place after redistricting. Even if Republicans hold the map-drawing power in the state Legislature, it will be difficult to shore up the 7th District into their favor this time around. Any attempt to draw nearby Republican voters into the district could risk destabilizing the other Republican-held districts in the Houston metropolitan area.

In the here and now, members of both parties privately acknowledge that for all the fundraising, campaigning and strategizing, the 7th Congressional district is likely to be the Texas seat most susceptible to national winds.

After all, it is Trump who is most credited with pushing this district into the Democratic column. In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried the district by 21 percentage points. But in 2016, Trump lost the district by one percentage point, giving Democrats the impetus to compete in West Houston.

How impeachment plays — and whether it is even is on voters’ minds next fall — in Houston and nationally is one of the biggest unknowns of the 2020 cycle. Similarly, local Democrats anxiously await their presidential nominee, with some anxiety that an ad campaign tying their candidates to a would-be presidential standard-bearer who has endorsed the Green New Deal could do serious damage to Harris County Democrats, Fletcher included.

At the root of this race, though, is a bigger question about the political state of Texas.

This district, possibly more than any other in the state, has served as the heart of modern Texas Republicanism. Cruz is a constituent and past Congressional occupants include the late President George H.W. Bush and retired House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer. When Culberson won his first race in 2000, it was by a 50 percentage point margin.

The question about the district — and Texas — is, was 2018 a Beto O’Rourke-induced anomaly or an indicator of how quickly the ground is moving toward the Democratic Party?

“This election will give us another data point as to whether the suburbs are truly moving away from Republicans or if 2018 was an aberration,” said Gonzales, the political analyst.

Analysis: Voters elect Texas' judges. The state might take that power — but it's risky.

Texas Tribune News

The Texas Supreme Court.
The Texas Supreme Court.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

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

There are any number of ways to pick good judges, bad judges and those not-quite-rare-enough WTF judges, and none of those selection methods is foolproof.

Texas elects judges, relying on voters to sort through pages and pages of ballot undergrowth, figuring out which candidates are fit to put on the judicial robes. The record is mixed. In a normal election, candidates in the races at the top — for president, for governor and the like — are usually well known to voters. That recognition doesn’t often travel far down the ballot, and judges are elected largely on the basis of political party and whether they have melodious names. It’s a grab bag, evidenced whenever a party sweep clears a courthouse full of incumbents, as happened in Harris County in 2018. That was a party rout, replacing the best and the worst Republican judges with the best and the worst Democratic challengers.

The federal government uses appointment, relying on presidents to pick judges and on the U.S. Senate to confirm the qualified ones, sorting legal wizards from rotten eggs. The voters in this case have more information about the candidates, but the partisan nature of the exercise is obvious to anyone who has followed a U.S. Supreme Court appointment and confirmation.

Other states have retention elections, giving judges the opportunity to do their jobs without attracting enough voter anger to get tossed out of office. As in states like Texas, where judges are elected like everyone else, that’s subject to outside influence by political donors and interest groups hoping to influence the direction of the courts, if not the outcomes of specific cases. Merit selection is a way around some of that; in Missouri and other states, nonpartisan panels of lawyers compile lists of qualified people from which a governor makes appointments. Voters then have periodic chances to vote judges they don’t like out of office.

Good judges support all of these systems, and good judges hate all of them. Judicial selection by any method is subjective, and someone who looks like a good pick might turn out to be a terror in a black robe.

And putting judges on the ballot is popular with voters, even though some judges think it’s unseemly to join political parties, to raise money from people who might have interests before the courts or from lawyers who practice before those judges, and to stump for votes and support like other politicians. That voter support is what Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick recently cited when expressing doubts about calls for reform. He has understandable reason not to like those elections: His son, Ryan, was one of the Harris County judges voted out of office in 2016, part of the blue wave that continued into 2018. Across the state, that 2018 election put 400 new judges into office.

Meanwhile, an appointed state panel is talking about judicial selection again — this happens from time to time in Texas — trying to find a better way. It has some support from Gov. Greg Abbott, a former judge who moved over to the executive branch years ago, and is trying to find an alternative to the partisan elections Texas employs to pick its jurists.

Judges aren’t supposed to pre-judge cases; they’re supposed to hear the facts, read the law and rule accordingly, and without infusing their personal ideas and biases. At the very least, they’re supposed to appear to be acting that way. It’s laudable, but it keeps voters and senators from knowing exactly what’s going to happen when they make someone a judge.

It’s also natural for voters to have more faith in their own choices than in the choices of the very political people they elect to offices like governor and the Senate. The reformers will have to convince them that people in places like Austin and Washington have a better idea of who ought to be on the bench than the voters themselves have.

That’s a hard sale to make. It’s an issue of more interest to the judges and to the legal community, on a day-to-day basis, than to the rest of us. What’s more, it’s potentially risky for a legislator to cross the voters that way without some very clear signal that the voters want to make the change, to give up the power to choose judges. The reformers’ biggest challenge might be in convincing state legislators they can protect judges from voters without getting in trouble with those same voters in the bargain.

"The farmers are sticking with Trump": President Trump touts new trade deal during Austin speech

Texas Tribune News

President Donald Trump gestures to the audience at the American Farm Bureau Federation's Annual Convention and Trade Show in Austin on Sunday.
President Donald Trump gestures to the audience at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Annual Convention and Trade Show in Austin on Sunday.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

President Donald Trump touted the recent passage of a new North American trade deal as he spoke to thousands of farmers and ranchers Sunday at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s convention in Austin.

The president’s 14th visit to Texas since he took office came days after Congress passed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement — and the U.S. Senate opened his impeachment trial.

“I’m thrilled to be back in this incredible state of Texas,” Trump said at the start of his hour-long speech. “This is where people are known for being tough and strong and hardworking, loyal, fiercely patriotic, just like America’s incredible farmers.”

The new trade agreement, negotiated by Trump, was heralded as a win for farmers and ranchers in Texas, which has more ports of entry than any other state in the U.S.

“It’s being prepared now, beautifully prepared,” Trump said of the legislation, which he is expected to sign this week. “Everyone wants to come back to America.”

The USMCA deal was the last major piece of legislation the Senate addressed ahead of Trump’s impeachment trial, where Democratic Rep. Sylvia Garcia of Houston will help prosecute the case against him — and Texas’ Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz are expected to fervently defend him. Former Baylor University President Kenneth Starr, well known for investigating former President Bill Clinton, has joined Trump’s impeachment defense team.

“We’re achieving what no administration has ever achieved before,” Trump said. “And what do I get for it? I get impeached!”

“But that’s OK the farmers are sticking with Trump,” he added.

The Texas Democratic Party countered many of those notions.

“Trump’s trade wars, broken promises, and economic policies have failed farmers, time and time again,” Bill Brannon, the party’s senior rural advisor, said in a statement. “Under the Trump Administration, farm bankruptcies have substantially risen and hardworking families continue to get left behind. Trump’s brazen disregard for them and their interests is yet another example of his disregard for people who work for a living. Texas farmers will be the reason why Trump loses Texas in 2020.”

Trump also spoke briefly on immigration and border security. He said the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, one of his top campaign promises, is being built “at a very rapid pace.”

“We want them [people] to come legally, and we want them to help the farmers,” Trump said. “Just so you understand, I want them coming to help the farmers.”

Outside the Austin Convention Center, demonstrators gathered to both support and protest Trump’s visit. Supporters waved Trump-Pence campaign flags while protestors held signs denouncing animal products, including one that mimicked Trump saying, “Dead animals fund my campaign.”

When the President’s motorcade arrived at the convention center, demonstrators chanted dueling messages: “Lock him up” versus “Four more years.”

Josh Watson, a vegetable farmer from North Carolina who attended Trump’s speech, acknowledged that many farmers — himself included — have struggled financially in the years since Trump took office. He compared waiting for the new USMCA deal to getting hair waxed.

“It’s gonna hurt,” Watson said. “It’s gonna look bad for a little while. But eventually, it’s gonna be really nice.”

Watson said Trump was hardly his first-choice candidate in 2016, but said he “can’t deny” that Trump’s presidency has improved the economy. Now, nearly four years later, he proudly dons a “Make Farming Great Again” hat.

Stephanie Mackey, a soybean farmer from Kentucky, saw Trump speak at the Farm Bureau conventions in 2017 and 2018. This year, she brought her kids and one of her kids’ friends.

Mackey said her soybean prices hit “rock bottom” during the U.S. trade war with China, but she’s hopeful the U.S.-China trade deal that Trump signed last week will help farmers bounce back.

“When you go to the market or try to get your contracts and the prices are just rock bottom, you’re just like, “Come on, there’s gotta be something they can do,’” Mackey said. “And Trump got it done.”

Trump during his speech acknowledged the hard times farmers have faced as a result of his policies, but promised “the best days for Americans and the best days for farmers and ranchers are yet to come.”

“Thank you very much to the farmers and ranchers for staying with me and for saying, ‘the President is right,” Trump said. ‘“Yes, it’s tough right now, but the president is doing the right thing.”’

Trump also told the crowd that Texas will remain in Republican hands in November, despite many political experts saying it looks more purple than it has in years.

In recalling the 2016 election, when he won Texas by 9 percentage points, Trump was optimistic Sunday about his chances in the Lone Star State this year — thanks in part to the Texas officials who back him.

“I remember the 2016 election, and the fake news … said Trump is gonna have a hard time winning Texas,” Trump said. “And I said, why am I going to have a hard time in Texas? And I remember [Texas Agriculture Commissioner] Sid Miller … sitting there with his hat on. And he said, ‘I don’t know about you, and I don’t know where you’re getting this information about a close race in Texas, but there’s going to be nothing close about this race in Texas. Trump is going to win this race by so much you won’t believe it.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”

A ballot box found weeks after Election Day has flipped a $569 million school bond vote in Midland

Texas Tribune News

Midland officials found in a missing box from the November 2019 election containing over 800 ballots.
Midland officials found in a missing box from the November 2019 election containing over 800 ballots.
NewsWest 9 screenshot

After much flip-flopping, a $569 million Midland ISD school bond election failed Friday by 26 votes now that county workers have taken into account ballots found in a missing box located weeks after Election Day.

The local election had drawn the attention of the Texas secretary of state’s office and some lawmakers due to the numerous twists and turns. On election night, Midland voters watching the polls initially believed the bond passed by 18 votes because of the results posted on Midland County’s election website. But a week after the posting, officials clarified to reporters that the election night tally didn’t include mail-in votes. Once those numbers were taken into account, officials believed the bond failed by 25 votes, according to Deborah Land, elections administrator for the Midland County Elections Office.

We Choose Our Future, a specific-purpose political action committee in favor of the bond, quickly called for a recount. That recount, which wrapped up before the county found the missing box, flipped the results back again. With county officials believing that the bond had passed by 11 votes, the result of the manual recount was canvassed — or made official — Nov. 15, when it was signed by County Judge Terry Johnson.

It turns out the confusion still wasn’t over.

County officials found the missing box in early December. Taking into account those 836 votes, plus one stray ticket found separately from the box that had also been misplaced, the results flipped again. The new version of final results, which Land said should finally lay the issue to rest, was 11,800 votes in favor of the bond and 11,826 against. The result means that Midland ISD will not receive the authority to build two new high schools.

For those scoring at home, the bond passed, then failed, then passed and then failed again. Political groups on both sides of the bond vote will now ask the Midland County judge to cement the most recent results so all sides can “go forward,” Land said.

“Though this is not the result that supporters of the 2019 school bond worked for, it was what we expected and were prepared for,” We Choose Our Future, the group in favor of the bond, wrote in a statement on Facebook. “Today’s exercise was an opportunity to build trust in the process for future elections and bring closure to this election so that the work on another bond plan can begin.”

Texas Southern University regents link president's ouster to alleged admissions improprieties

Texas Tribune News

Texas Southern University President Austin Lane is on paid administrative leave.
Texas Southern University President Austin Lane is on paid administrative leave.
Social media

After placing President Austin Lane on administrative leave last week with no explanation, the Texas Southern University Board of Regents released a statement today that seemingly connects his removal with previously disclosed problems with the admissions process.

The board’s Jan. 17 statement does not directly tie Lane to the alleged improprieties — for which one employee has already been fired — nor did it clearly state why Lane was placed on leave.

But the statement says regents told Lane in October that the board, along with the chief internal auditor and board counsel, had contacted local authorities after confirming admissions related improprieties. The statement goes on to say that the auditor, an investigator and legal counsel interviewed Lane and other university executives. Lane was questioned a second time by the auditor and a special board employment counsel.

Regents also met with the auditor, independent counsel and third-party investigators for about seven hours before placing him on leave Jan. 10.

“As the investigation continues, we urge everyone in our TSU community to comply with University policies and internal audit and litigation risk management protocols; and we will continue to cooperate with the independent investigations by law enforcement,” the statement says. “We thank the TSU community for its patience while we balance the competing interests of respect for ongoing internal investigations and external criminal investigations with the desire to provide additional context for our recent Board action.”

University officials have turned information about the admissions improprieties over to local authorities and the board has launched a comprehensive review. Chief Financial Officer Kenneth Huewitt has served as acting president since last Friday.

Lane could not immediately be reached for comment. But he previously told Houston television station KPRC 2 that he hasn’t “done anything” and expects “to be reinstated immediately or paid out for the remainder of my contract for breach of contract.”

There have signs of possible strife between the board and university administrators for months.

At a meeting in October 2019, two regents suggested school officials were withholding information from the board or providing misleading figures.

“There have been instances where communication is sometimes slow, sometimes inappropriate and sometimes non existent,” said Regent Hasan Mack at the October meeting. “The material components of what is going on at the university on the ground is something that the board has a right to know and if you stop us from doing our jobs, we’ll stop you from doing yours.”

Regent Wesley Terrell agreed.

“I do think that any time that we make requests for information we should get them in a timely fashion, not after we’ve taken our votes and can’t necessarily do anything about it when material information has been omitted,” he said. “I, sometimes even afterwards having gotten additional information, thought the information provided to us was a bit misleading. Which, that clearly should not happen.”

Regent Derrick Mitchell said regents should go through the president to get information from staff, and cautioned the board against putting itself in a position where the university’s accrediting agency would look at them as micromanagers.

“We talk to him [the president] about whatever it is that you’re trying to get and then we don’t have to have a rant in public about what you’re not getting or that you’re not happy about what staff’s not doing,” Mitchell said.

Texan Ken Starr joins Donald Trump’s impeachment defense team

Texas Tribune News

Ken Starr's investigation into former President Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct, culminating with the Starr Report, led to Clinton's impeachment.
Ken Starr’s investigation into former President Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct, culminating with the Starr Report, led to Clinton’s impeachment.
Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

Disgraced former Baylor University President Kenneth Starr, best known for his role investigating Bill Clinton, has been added to President Donald Trump’s legal defense team for the impeachment trial, according to media reports.

Starr’s investigation into Clinton’s sexual misconduct, culminating with the Starr Report, led to Clinton’s impeachment. Starr also previously served as a federal judge for the District of Columbia Circuit in the 1980s. Under President George H.W. Bush, he served as U.S. solicitor general, arguing cases before the Supreme Court.

Starr was named the 14th president of Baylor University in Waco in 2010 and chancellor in 2013. After the mishandling of campus sexual assault allegations, he was ousted as president in 2016 and resigned as chancellor and law professor shortly after, cutting all ties with the university.

The sexual assault scandal began after a Baylor football player, Sam Ukwuachu, was convicted of rape. (In July, an appeals court reversed the decision and ordered a new trial for the second time in two years.) Testimony during the trial revealed that although Baylor investigated the allegations against Ukwuachu, it failed to take any punitive action. Soon after the conviction, female students made a wave of additional sexual assault allegations. An investigation by an outside law firm retained by the university found a pervasive mishandling of sexual assault cases.

During one of many resulting Title IX suits against Baylor, lawyers alleged that Starr and other university officials helped a student they knew to be accused of sexual harassment. The university eventually settled with several of the accusers.

Starr will join Robert Wray, who also served as independent counsel during the Clinton impeachment proceedings, and Harvard Law School professor and defense attorney Alan Dershowitz, who is known for his representation of controversial figures like O.J. Simpson and Jeffrey Epstein.

Also added to the team was former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who was hired by the White House to handle impeachment communications in November. In 2013, a political action committee for Bondi’s reelection received a $25,000 donation from the Donald J. Trump Foundation. Shortly after, Bondi announced she wouldn’t investigate fraud claims against Trump University.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone and Trump’s personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, will head the team.

These appointments come days after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia of Houston will be one of seven Democrats to prosecute the impeachment case in the Senate.

The House voted largely along party lines in December to impeach Trump over allegations he used his office to pressure the Ukranian president to investigate a family member of Trump’s political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. Only the Senate has the power to remove a president with a two-thirds majority vote. It’s considered unlikely the Republican-controlled Senate would join with Democrats to remove Trump from office.

Trump is the third U.S. president to be impeached by the House. No president has ever been removed from office by the Senate.

The Senate impeachment trial began Thursday with the reading of articles of impeachment. House Democrats will begin presenting the case against Trump next Tuesday.

Analysis: A seasonal change in Texas politics, as November trumps March

Texas Tribune News

A voting sign outside Austin City Hall on Election Day in 2019.
A voting sign outside Austin City Hall on Election Day in 2019.
Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

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

Whatever happens in politics this year, however red or blue or purple Texas turns out to be, the state’s longtime emphasis on primary elections has shifted to general elections.

The trend was underway before the last election, but 2018 proved that it was possible for the Democrats, who’ve been the minority party for so long, to compete in November. Republicans can no longer regard their March primaries as the uphill part of the ride and November general elections as the downhill coast to office.

Through a parade of Democrats running for governor — Garry Mauro, Tony Sanchez Jr., Chris Bell, Bill White, Wendy Davis and Lupe Valdez — the political question in Texas so far this century has been whether even a well-financed Democrat could crack Republicans’ hold on the state. And the answer — in many cases, well before any votes had been cast — was a persistent no.

The results, at least at the top of the ballot, haven’t changed. Republicans won every single statewide race in the 2018 election. Many were closer than they’ve been in years, enough to inspire speculation among donors, activists and voters. And the down-ballot effects were pronounced, with Democrats winning two seats from the Republicans in Congress, two in the state Senate (though they lost one to the Republicans in a special election) and a dozen in the Texas House. Local Republican candidates were shellacked in the state’s most populous county (Harris) and elsewhere.

It raised the real possibility that Democrats could succeed in the November elections, where they have come up short for so long. And it moved the emphasis of both the government and its elected officials to a different constituency.

In 2019, a Texas Legislature previously attuned to the wishes of conservative Republicans on issues like “sanctuary cities,” gender and public restrooms, school choice, and various other state GOP platform planks turned its attention to public education, property taxes, and other bread-and-butter issues. That was a reflection of the 2018 election, driven by rising activism around public schools, voter frustration over some of the highest property taxes in the U.S., and widespread complaints that lawmakers had frittered away too much time and energy on 2017’s bickering about bathrooms.

Voting in the 2020 primaries starts in a month, on Feb. 18, and there are competitive contests sprinkled across the Democratic and Republican ballots. And there’s a noisy Democratic primary for president, too. But the strategic conversations in Texas — and about Texas, outside of the state — are all about November.

Strategists are serious, too, raising money on both sides, one for attack, the other for defense. The presidential race gets most of the headlines, but that’s a spectator sport in some ways. The political tribes are working on races for Congress and the Texas Legislature. The state’s congressional delegation has a Republican majority and will still have one after the elections are over. But every seat counts, and Republicans would like to reverse their 2018 losses in Dallas and Houston. Democrats are working a list of five to seven seats now held by Republicans that, in a good year, might flip.

Both parties are thinking — and talking and raising money — about the composition of the Texas Legislature that will redraw the state’s political maps after this year’s national census. In a Texas with Republicans in control of all statewide offices, the Senate and the House, those maps will favor Republicans. But if Democrats win the House — Republicans had an 83-67 majority last session — the Republicans won’t have the same advantage over congressional maps. If the Legislature can’t agree on congressional maps that the governor also likes, that issue would go to federal judges for resolution.

A Democratic majority in the House would also change the state’s leadership, replacing a Republican speaker with a Democratic one for the first time since the 2001 session.

Winning primaries is important, the only way to advance to the next round. But for the first time in years, the second — harder — race is coming in November.

New campaign finance reports help crystalize fight for state House majority

Texas Tribune News

Democrats are effectively nine seats away from the majority in the Texas House, a major prize ahead of the 2021 redistricting process.
Democrats are effectively nine seats away from the majority in the Texas House, a major prize ahead of the 2021 redistricting process.
Austin Price for The Texas Tribune

The fight for the Texas House came into focus Thursday with the release of the first major wave of campaign finance reports since the battlefield was set.

Across targeted districts, most incumbents in both parties are at least holding their own in the money race and staying ahead of potential general election challengers, some of whom have their own primaries to get through first. The latest filings, which covered the past six months in most cases, also illuminated the growing constellation of groups devoted to the House fight, which Republicans are regrouping for after the downfall of Speaker Dennis Bonnen a few months ago.

Democrats are effectively nine seats away from the majority, a major prize ahead of the 2021 redistricting process. They see as many as 22 pickup opportunities, eying seats where Republican incumbents won by less than 10 percentage points last time and where Beto O’Rourke won or came within 10 points as well.

First, though, Democrats have to protect the 12 seats they picked up in 2018. Most — but not all — of those freshman are in healthy financial shape. Reps. Ana-Maria Ramos of Richardson and Rhetta Andrews Bowers of Garland were easily out-raised by challengers Linda Koop and Will Douglas, respectively, who also have more cash on hand. Still, the Republicans have their work cut out for them; the districts held by Ramos and Bowers are considered among the more difficult for Republicans to flip back based on recent margins.

Reps. Julie Johnson of Carrollton and John Turner of Dallas were the top fundraisers among the freshmen. Johnson raised $159,000, dwarfing the haul of her late-arriving Republican challenger, Karyn Brownlee, while Turner posted a $251,000 haul, roughly $60,000 more than his GOP opponent, Luisa del Rosal, took in.

While no targeted GOP incumbent was out-raised by a single challenger, some are waiting to see who emerges as the Democratic nominee against them — and making clear that they are ready. One of the most vulnerable Republicans, Dallas Rep. Morgan Meyer, hauled in a hefty $322,000, while the three Democrats vying to take him on posted totals ranging from $27,000 to $153,000. Shawn Terry was the top fundraiser.

Then there are a few open seats where the reports added new clarity to which candidates are the most viable. Take, for example, House District 92, where three Republicans and two Democrats have lined up to replace retiring Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, a top-tier target for the blue team even before he announced his retirement last year. Democrat Jeff Whitfield had the most impressive top lines, raising $120,000; loaning himself $15,000; spending $13,000 and keeping $121,000 in reserves.

The potential general election fights are taking shape as it continues to be a relatively quiet season for primary challenges. The latest reports confirmed the lack of viable primary challengers, at least for now, as very few posted the kind of numbers that could scare incumbents. There were a couple of exceptions, though. Rep. J.D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville, has a primary challenger, Cody Johnson, who is largely self-funding and outspent Sheffield nearly 3 to 1 over the last six months while building a 4-to-1 cash-on-hand advantage. On the Democratic side, Houston Rep. Harold Dutton faces a primary opponent, City Councilman Jerry Davis, who kicked off his bid with a $140,000 transfer from his council campaign account, immediately pulling ahead of Dutton in the money race.

While most primary challengers do not appear well funded yet, Republican allies are not taking chances. Texas Forever Forward, the political action committee led by former Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, sent $5,000 each late last month to eight members with intraparty opposition.

The groups that have previously played aggressively in primary battles — PACs like Empower Texans and Texas Right to Life — had little significant financial activity, while their affiliated donors continued to keep a mostly low profile. One big exception to that: conservative megadonors Farris and Jo Ann Wilks, who contributed $500,000 of the $610,000 that their son-in-law, Jon Francis, raised in the four-way primary to succeed Granbury Rep. Mike Lang, who is not seeking reelection.

The reports also shed light on the cluster of Republican groups expected to defend the House majority — an effort that took on new urgency after Bonnen was forced to announce his retirement in late October amid scandal. Bonnen had poured $3 million of his campaign funds into a new PAC, Texas Leads, to save the majority, and his downfall has begged the question of what will happen to that money now that he is on the sidelines.

The answer: Largely nothing for now, according to the Texas Leads filing made public Thursday. The PAC’s balance remained around $3 million after it raised $105,000 over the last six months and spent $111,000, all on overhead costs such as staff salaries and office supplies.

Newer Republican PACs are trying to fill the void, making for a less centralized effort than Democrats have with the House Democratic Campaign Committee. There’s Leading Texas Forward, which some House Republicans started in early November with famed strategist Karl Rove as its treasurer. The group raised $506,000 through the end of the year, with its biggest donations — $50,000 each — coming from Reps. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth and Four Price of Amarillo.

Meanwhile, the campaign arm of the House Republican Caucus took in $298,000 during the second half of 2019. While there was a bit of overlap — Price donated to both, for example — the members who funded the caucus PAC were largely a different crowd than those who chipped in to Leading Texas Forward.

Republicans can at least rely on more established groups that are set to play major roles in state House races. Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which often backs the GOP, entered 2020 with $10.5 million cash on hand, while Associated Republicans of Texas had $1.3 million in the bank.

On the Democratic side, the House Democratic Campaign Committee is serving as the main vehicle in the battle for lower-chamber majority. It raised $291,000 in the second half of last year, and along with an affiliated fund, it doled out $105,000 to all 12 endangered freshmen, with most getting $10,000 each.

Beyond the HDCC, several other entities are bringing in six figures each to help Democrats flip the House. Late last month, San Antonio Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer transferred $350,000 from his campaign account to his One Texas PAC that he plans to use to aid in the House fight. Annie’s List, which works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, pulled in $311,000 over about the last two months. And Grand Prairie Rep. Chris Turner, the House Democratic Caucus chairman, raised $327,000 for his campaign fund over the last six months — money that he can put toward the majority battle as he runs for reelection unopposed.

A newer group, Texas House Majority PAC, formed earlier this month and did not have to disclose its fundraising this week as a result. But it has already raised $500,000, according to its treasurer, Patsy Woods Martin, the former executive director of Annie’s List — and one of over two dozen high-powered names that have signed up with the group. Without taking sides in primaries, the PAC is focusing on earlier-than-usual investment in battleground races, with plans to make all its campaign contributions by the summer.

Before Democrats can get a shot at the majority in November, though, they are focused on flipping House District 28 in a Jan. 28 special election runoff. The nationally targeted race pits Democrat Eliz Markowitz against Republican Gary Gates for the seat vacated last year by former state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond.

The latest campaign finance reports in the race followed a trend from the last filing round: Aided by significant national and statewide support, Markowitz continued to easily out-raise Gates in contributions — $244,000 to $25,000 — while he continued to make up the difference with massive self-funding. He loaned himself another $460,000 during the latest period, Oct. 27 through Dec. 31, bringing his self-funding total for the race to more than $1 million.

Disclosure: Karl Rove and Annie’s List have been financial supporters 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.