First Reading returns, bids Dew adieu, goads Villalba and Rinaldi to talk trash

Good afternoon Austin:

Forgive me readers for I have sinned. It has been 51 days since my last First Reading.

Before that, I had only posted a couple of times since summer.

But a new session of the Texas Legislature commences next week, and it is time for me to return to my daily responsibilities.

I had sought to postpone resuming this obligation until the last possible moment, because I have grown accustomed to the sweet luxury of sleep, and because I knew that once I started again, I would not truly rest until sine die, or, based on the experience of my first session two years ago, well beyond.

But when the opportunity presented itself yesterday to join my colleague Chuck Lindell for a last interview with David Dewhurst as lieutenant governor, I realized the time had arrived. (And yes, I am aware First Reading is supposed to begin, “Good morning Austin,” not “Good afternoon Austin,” but we still have a few days before official Opening Day and I have chosen to  implement a phased withdrawal from sleep.)

Here from Chuck’s story in today’s Statesman:

Almost out of office but not ready to give up on public life, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Tuesday that he expects to write a book, launch a political advocacy group and travel overseas to assess the geopolitical climate, with his first trip set for next week in Israel.

“I’m not riding off into the sunset — ever,” he said from his Capitol office.

“I am spending more time with my family. And while I’m reinvigorating my oil and gas company, which I have been away from a lot of the last 12 years, I am going to be doing things in the public sector with different business groups to provide a voice of common sense on what this state needs to be doing,” Dewhurst said.

And while declining to rule out a future political campaign, Dewhurst didn’t sound itching to rejoin the fight, at least for now.

“I don’t see, today, a race — but a year or so in politics is a long time,” he said.

 Adieu to Dew(photo by Jay Janner)

David Dewhurst has been a touchstone of my tenure in Texas.

When I applied for the job I now hold, I was told that among my responsibilities would be to resume First Reading, which had been created and written with great success by my predecessor, Jason Embry, who had left the Statesman in the spring of 2012 to become the spokesman for House Speaker Joe Straus. In order to prove that I could do it, as part of the application process I had to do a mock First Reading for July 31, 2012, the day of the Republican Senate runoff election in which Ted Cruz upended David Dewhurst.

I did well enough, apparently, starting work in December 2012.

Almost exactly two years ago, on January 4, 2013, as I was preparing to relaunch First Reading, I met the lieutenant governor for the first time, joining Mike Ward, who covered Dewhurst  and the Senate for the Statesman but has since moved to the Houston Chronicle, for a pre-session interview with the lieutenant governor.

Ward’s story began:

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Friday he is “101 percent running for reelection,” ending speculation on his political future after losing a bruising U.S. Senate campaign last summer to tea-party GOP conservative Ted Cruz.

In an interview with the American-Statesman, Dewhurst said “there is no question about it,” when asked whether he will seek reelection in 2014. He has served as Texas’ No. 2 statewide office holder since 2003, the longest-serving lieutenant governor since Democrat Bill Hobby, who served from 1973 until 1991.

Both Dewhurst and Hobby are from Houston.

“I’m really excited about putting in place a legacy for the state to remain number one … for decades to come,” he said. “I’ll be doing things over the next six months to make sure that I win re-election.”

At the time, that interview with Dewhurst brought to mind The King’s Speech, the 2010 movie about the struggle of King George VI, on assuming the British throne on the brink of World War II, to overcome a debilitating stutter in order to properly steady and rouse his people. Dewhurst had both the regal bearing, and, it seemed evident, in his occasional hesitation and deliberation in speaking, the remnants of a childhood stutter.

Only later would I learn that Dewhurst grew up in modest circumstances after his father, a heroic flier during World War II, was killed by a drunk driver when Dewhurst was three, a traumatic event that left him, at first, unable to speak at all, and then later, hobbled by a terrible stammer.

The two years since that first interview have not been kind to Dewhurst. His humbling loss to Cruz was echoed by his humiliating loss to Sen. Dan Patrick.

He opened yesterday’s interview, “I’m obviously disappointed with the election results.”

But he sees himself as a victim not so much of the voter’s wrath as a troubling indifference on the part of the vast mass of the Texas electorate that doesn’t bother to vote.

If you asked me about my frustrations, or what I’m disappointed I didn’t accomplish, I would tell you doing a better job in being able to communicate what state government is doing – good, bad, areas that need improvement – to voters to get them more energized. Again when you only have 13, 14, 15 percent of voters vote in the primary. In the recent Nov. 4 election when you have only whatever it was, 33, 34, 35 percent of the voters vote. In the runoff, when you have only seven percent of Republican and Democrat registered voters vote, something’s wrong. Particularly when you look at what’s happening in the world.

In Afghanistan this spring, with the Taliban trying to kill them, 46 percent of  registered voters in Afghanistan voted, 46 percent. In South Africa, with demonstrations, 73 percent voted this spring.  In India this spring, with a billion people population, many of whom had to walk hours to the polling locations, 63 percent voted this spring. So I think we need to employ whatever means we can, and I’m a conservative Republican, but at the end of the day we need more people involved in the process because right now too  many are complacent. They don’t thin they need to vote. They think Texas is doing well. Yes,  but we need people involved for tomorrow. Too many people are apathetic, disconnected. I remind high school students and college students, when they demonstrate apathy, to ask Al Gore if every vote counts. What was the number – 537 votes that would have elected Al  Gore over George W. Bush? … Shockingly small.

Asked yesterday if there were things that, looking back at his tenure as lieutenant governor, he felt that he had gotten completely right, he replied:

I am constantly surprised by how little most people know me. Those who know me know me to be pretty down to earth – change `pretty’ to `very’ – to be very down to earth and I think humble, and in that vein I’m not sure that I’ve ever gotten it 100 percent perfect. I’m not sure in light of the human condition, I’m not sure that that’s possible. But we have gotten a lot generally right.

He mentioned some examples, including enacting medical malpractice reform, enacting one of the toughest versions of Jessica’s Law in the nation, enhancing penalties for sexual assault on children, enacting what he described as inventive solutions to problems involving mold and asbestos.

He characterized his leadership style as “entrepreneurial” and consensus-driven.

He has found, he said, “If it’s not a political wedge issue, if you appeal to the higher angels of each individual and you have a focus on what’s in the best interests of 27 million Texans, you can get more accomplished than if you don’t.”

There are other leadership styles, he said.

“There is the elitist style made famous by Barack Obama with only a small circle of close advisers.”

Or, he said, “I’ve seen a dictatorial style in which people will in essence say, `I talked to God this morning and this is what we ought to do.’ I don’t think those styles are as effective as trying to get people to buy in on a concept and an idea.”

Dewhurst said that in the last dozen years he and the members of the Senate have created a “muscle memory” of how to balance investment and tax cuts in a way that continues to grow the economy in fat times and lean. But, he acknowledged, the Senate that convenes next week will be a very different place.

“I think this is the largest turnover I’ve experienced.”

Toward the end of interview, Dewhurst returned to his frustration with the state of politics in Texas, and his own inability to better communicate who he is.

The only other surprise that I have, in addition to my disappointment that historically so few Texans vote, is that I obviously didn’t do a good job of reaching out and sharing with Texans who David Dewhurst is, because, although there are quite a few people who spent time, been here  in our office, gotten to know me –  I’ve tried to get to know so many different Texans and I’m a better man, a better person for the experience – but today with the passing of the filter of newspapers, most people get their information straight from the candidates in social media, and so it’s become who can shout the loudest and say the magic words which get people to,  that trigger emotions among targeted audiences rather than who may be doing the best job for the  majority of Texans. It’s who can dominate the message – mainly social media – with words that will incite, agitate. 


 That’s the mistake I think that some of our conservative groups fall into. They don’t realize that they’re being influenced by fund-raising special interests that are looking for valuable candidates where they and their groups can make the most money.

“Anyone come to mind?” Chuck asked the lieutenant governor.

“Do I look particularly tired or stupid today?” Dewhurst replied.

No.  And Dewhurst had already said enough to demonstrate why he is so fundamentally out of step with today’s movement conservatives. It is a brave or foolhardy man of the right who speaks in defense of the “filter of newspapers.”

The Statesman’s Tim Eaton had a very funny story at the end of the last year.

It began:

Some of the owners of units in a residential and office tower near the Capitol are worried that their new neighbors will be throwing raging parties in the swanky condominium they are buying from outgoing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Dewhurst has listed unit 1003, his two-bedroom condo in the Westgate Tower, for more than $1 million. Two high-dollar independent lobbyists — Mindy Ellmer and Sabrina Brown — have joined with Karen Johnson Rove, the wife of political strategist Karl Rove, to purchase the Dewhurst property. Closing is expected next month.

But, Eaton wrote, the condo board’s fears seemed unlikely to be realized. He explained:

The condominium’s listing price is $1.15 million, but it hardly looks like a party pad. The decor could be described as “Texas ornate” and might be well-suited for a wealthy cowboy or a pearl-clad grandmother sipping a midday highball. Real estate listing photos show leather couches, a dark wood armoire, a saddle, a grandfather clock, plaid wallpaper, plates displayed on shelves, black-and-white baby pictures (possibly of Dewhurst) and bronze Western statues.

It is a lovely image of a time unhurried by such things as Facebook and Twitter with their preposterous, juvenile names – a now sepia image of a midday highball, a grandfather clock. All that is missing is a fat daily newspaper in the prime of its media hegemony.


Go to your corners and come out fighting

Here, courtesy Facebook, is the bill for tonight’s 7 p.m. main event:

Matt Rinaldi vs. Jason Villalba on the Texas Speakers’ Race

As you likely know, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus is being challenged by Rep. Scott Turner.

On Wednesday, January 7th, Rep. Matt Rinaldi and Rep. Jason Villalba will square off over the question of who should lead the Texas House during the 2015 Session.

Rep. Rinaldi will be arguing for Scott Turner, while Rep. Villalba will be arguing for Joe Straus.

The debate will be moderated by Mark Davis of 660 AM The Answer.

Come out and join us at SMU for a lively and informative debate.

Southern Methodist University
Hughes-Trigg Student Center
3140 Dyer
Dallas, Texas 75275

I just found out the debate will be live streamed here. But, not knowing that, I decided late yesterday, that  my best course of action was to try to bait Villalba and Rinaldi into some trash talking in advance. I was not particularly successful, but here’s what I got.

Here’s a text from Villalba, who I got to know pretty well during his freshman term in the House. He is 43 and from Dallas.

Regular folks know there is no speaker’s race. Only the Teas care about this debate. I’m doing it more to dispel all the disinformation than to engage them on the `race.’ With all due respect, Rep. Turner has 15 votes tops. I’ll do my talking on the field of play. Hope you can get a recording. Should be entertaining.

A couple of hours later Rinaldi called. I had not talked to him before. He is 39 and from Irving. A tea party leader he had won a narrow and signal victory in the Republican primary over Bennett Ratliff, the son of former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff. Ratliff, in his one term in the House, had established a reputation as the kind of consummate, practical Republican lawmaker that Villalba – and such mainstream voices as Texas Monthly – admire, but that the tea party revile.

Offered the opportunity to talk trash about Villalba, Rinaldi laughed and said, “He’s a very able opponent and I think he’s going to do a great job.”

What is at issue in the contest for speaker, Rinaldi said is “whether or not we want a House that brings issues to the floor that the Republican Party campaigns on and won an overwhelming majority campaigning on. That’s really the issue.”

Rinaldi said he thought there were strong parallels between the challenge to Speaker John Boehner in D.C. and to Speaker Joe Straus in Austin.

“There are important issues like life, the Second Amendment, limited government, and the disconnect between issues you talk about in the campaign and then don’t really do anything about,” once elected, he said.

That has been a favorite theme of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has beseeched his Republican colleagues in Washington since November, to “do what you promised” to do in the campaign.

The rejoinder at the state level, at least, would be that Legislature, in special session after Wendy Davis’ filibuster, famously enacted stringent new abortion restrictions in 2013, and that a number of gun bills, including ones to expedite the process for receiving a concealed handgun license, have been enacted under Straus’ watch.

To the extent that there are parallels between the race for speaker in D.C. and Austin (beyond the fact that Straus, like Boehner, seems to have a permanent tan, though his seems more of an old-money tan tan, while Boehner’s is more of an orange-tinged new-money or no-money QT tan), Tuesday’s results in Washington would not seem to augur well for Turner’s challenge.

Rinaldi said he would have voted for Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, or one of Boehner’s other challengers. But Gohmert only received three votes – his own and those of Rep. Randy Weber, R-Friendswood, and Jim Bridenstine, R-Oklahoma – and Boehner won the support of all but 25 House Republicans.

Here, courtesy Tea Party Network News, is a list of The 25 Heroic Patriots Who Voted Against Boehner. Their patriotism did not go unnoticed.

From today’s Hill:
Multiple House Republicans are facing apparent retribution for declining to support John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) reelection as Speaker.
One of the defectors was Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas), who says he’s already suffering retribution.
Weber, who voted for Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) for Speaker, was originally slated to be the sponsor of a noncontroversial Science, Space and Technology Committee bill that reached the House floor this week. The measure establishes a Department of Energy research program on low-dose radiation.
Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) is now the sponsor of the bill, which was introduced Tuesday.
Rinaldi said that Villalba’s assessment that Turner has no more than 15 supporters is off. Turner has at least 15 to 20 hard commitments, Rinaldi said, and it isn’t over until it’s over.
He said that 19 Republican Party county committees have passed resolutions supporting either Turner or some more conservative alternative to Straus, and that 30 of 62 members of the State Republican Executive Committee are backing Turner.
Rinaldi agreed with Villalba that the folks who will come out for tonight’s event will overwhelmingly be in his corner. Some Straus allies in Austin are rolling their eyes that Villalba is even dignifying what amounts to an anti-Straus event.
The origins of the event are a bit complicated, but suffice it to say that after Villalba and Rinaldi didn’t appear at the same time on a Dallas radio show, Villalba suggested they could go toe-to-toe at another time.
“Rep. Villalba responded by challenging me to debate in Austin in front of a bunch of lobbyists with a Democratic moderator,” said Rinaldi.
The man he described as a “Democratic moderator,” is Quorum Report’s Scott Braddock, who has experience as a moderator, but took exception to his identification as “Democratic.”
“I am an independent,” Braddock said last night, noting that his work has also appeared at Braddock said he had simply offered to be a “neutral moderator,” and that it was Villalba who suggested the Austin Club as a venue.
Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, last session’s Matt Rinaldi, even tweeted affirmation that Braddock had proved a fair moderator of his primary debate last year.
In the end, Villalba agreed to a change of venue, to Dallas, with talk radio host Mark Davis taking the place of Braddock, even though, Braddock noted that Davis, who Braddock says he knows and admires, has written in the past that Straus has got to go.
Along the way, there were also some tea party tweets suggesting that Villalba was trying to dodge a confrontation with Rinaldi.
“These folks don’t generally adhere to the truth when it comes to me,” he texted me. “They have Villalba derangement syndrome.”
Perhaps most interesting in all this, will be to watch the politics within the tea party in the coming session.
Stickland arrived in Austin two years ago determined to compile the most conservative record in the House and delivered. Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, another freshman last session, was the mastermind behind tea party electoral success in Tarrant County. But Capriglione, saying Turner simply didn’t have the numbers, is backing Straus, and there is Stickland sticking up for Scott Braddock. As David Dewhurst can attest, no matter how established you may think your conservative bona fides are, having someone to your right is a dangerous place to be in Texas Republican politic

Author: Jonathan Tilove

Jonathan Tilove is the Statesman's chief political writer. He was a Washington correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune from 2008 to 2012. Before that he covered race and immigration issues for Newhouse News Service for 18 years.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s