Good morning Austin:
Below is a Facebook post Sunday from Julie McCarty, head of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party. That’s McCarty and me and photographer Ralph Barrera in the House Gallery Thursday morning.
Earlier in the week a group of us went to the Capitol, and as usual we began our visit by praying in the House gallery. A reporter met me there to interview me, and his photographer shot a bunch of pictures of our group in prayer (which he apologized for but I thought was pretty cool because I WANT folks statewide to see where our strength and direction come from!). I don’t know if or when his article will come out, but one thing he said to me really made me think, and then today’s sermon at First Baptist Grapevine solidified it for me. The reporter said to me, “So it sounds like you are disappointed in the session, yet you don’t seem discouraged.” It caught me off-guard because discouragement never crossed my mind! I told him God calls us to the work – I’m not quitting until He quits! In the sermon today, Pastor Doug talked about dream killers — tools of the devil — who try to knock us off course. We may not understand the obstacles in our path to what God has called us to do, but we don’t have to. God shows us the “why” usually at the end. And we’re just gettin’ started.
In the two-and-a-half years since I came to Texas, the role of the tea party, especially as manifested in the election of Ted Cruz to the Senate and Dan Patrick as lieutenant governor, has been the most compelling political story.
One of the first stories I wrote on my arrival was about the impending arrival in Austin of a very large new freshman class of legislators. I focused on two incoming new state representatives – Jonathan Stickland and Jason Villalba.
State Rep.-elect Jonathan Stickland is 29. He left high school early and got a GED. He had never held or run for office before. His local elected officialdom was virtually unanimous in its preference for his Republican primary opponent. If he has a charisma it’s in his super-ordinariness. And he doesn’t even have the “r” in his last name that everyone assumes is supposed to be there.
And there, in brief, are the keys to Stickland’s stunning success. Every strike against him, he marvels, turned out to be an advantage in what turned out to be a crushing, 20-point primary victory. Each provided a way for people to remember and identify with him. He just had to own it, live it, be it.
Now, Stickland is one of the reasons why the new Texas House, when it convenes Tuesday for its biennial session, will be swollen with freshman – 43 in all. Together with 24 sophomores, the new and the near-new will make up close to half the 150 members of the House.
Stickland was “discovered” by Julie McCarty, president of the board of the NE Tarrant Tea Party, who was especially impressed with the way he confronted U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Flower Mound, at a town hall meeting after Burgess voted in 2011 to raise the debt limit.
“Jonathan was so well spoken, and it wasn’t just that he had good points to make. They were so well-thought out and easy to understand,” said McCarty. “It was truly the voice of the people.”
“Honestly, I never considered running until I got an email from Julie McCarty at 11:45 at night, sitting in front of my home computer eating a bowl of ice cream,” recalled Stickland. “My wife was leaning over me and started laughing. Then she said, ‘Crap, you might be able to do that.’”
(This is the photo I took of Jonathan Stickland on our first encounter.)
Well, as we all now know, Jonathan Stickland turned out to be a tea party prodigy, and I have always found Julie McCarty to be accessible, responsive and, as per her Facebook post above, perpetually upbeat in a realm in which negativity can easily take hold.
I have also found her very interesting because she remains at once a political outsider – essentially a political amateur, as opposed to a professional – and a political force to be reckoned with.
If there was any doubt about that, it was settled for me as I was preparing to go meet McCarty in the House Gallery Thursday morning. I was listening to the Texas Tribune live stream of Evan Smith’s conversation assessing the Senate session with state Sens. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills; Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham; and José Rodríguez, D-El Paso.
A little better than a half hour into the discussion, Smith said to Hancock:
You all had the numbers to do anything you wanted, right, and you changed the rules at the beginning so that you all could really do anything you wanted, yet you didn’t get same-sex marriage legislation passed, in the end in-state tuition for undocumented students is not going to be overturned as the law of the state of Texas, the bill to deny insurance coverage for abortion …. that’s ultimately not going to be the law of the state. Can you go back home to the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party, one of the tea party strongholds of the state, and look Julie McCarty in the eye and say, “This was a good session for grassroots conservatives?”
“Yes,” Hancock said. “I don’t go back home and focus on one group. This was a good session for Texans. That’s who I represent.”
When I saw McCarty an hour later, I related the exchange and she was naturally delighted that, “can you look Julie McCarty in the eye,” was now a kind of litmus test for grassroots conservative credibility.
“You just made my day,” McCarty said. “That’s awesome. I want him to have to think if he is going to have to do that.”
In Sunday’s Statesman I wrote about how the fondest tea party hopes had been foiled in the session. The argument essentially tracked the tea party/Michael Quinn Sullivan complaint that the House under Speaker Joe Straus had checked tea party influence being exerted by Patrick’s election to lead an increasingly conservative Senate. That was the essence of every weekly MQS conference call.
The story – Confounding expectations, in the 84th session, the center-right held – began as follows:
On Thursday, in the enveloping twilight of the 84th session of the Texas Legislature, Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, a second-term Republican from Southlake who arrived in Austin last session as the tactical genius behind a torrent of Tarrant County tea party victories, looked over all that the session had accomplished and saw that it was good.
“We got a lot of stuff done,” Capriglione said. “From a conservative perspective we did everything from open carry, campus carry to E-Verify and the border. From a more traditional Republican perspective, we funded schools at a higher rate, we took care of transportation, we took care of all the big infrastructure issues, and we cut taxes on top of that.”
After winning re-election, Capriglione stunned a November meeting of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party, telling them he would be voting for Joe Straus for House speaker, and not tea party challenger Rep. Scott Turner of Frisco — who ended up with only 19 votes.
With that act of apostasy, Capriglione cast aside the role of dissident to become part of an overwhelming bipartisan majority in a House that has served as an effective counterweight to newly elected Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s assertive rightward leadership in the Senate and provided the ballast the new governor, Greg Abbott, needed to pursue a less ideological agenda, free of entangling wedge issues.
On Thursday, with a few days left in the session, I asked McCarty what she hoped might still be accomplished.
We’re looking at open carry, campus carry, trying to do what we can to salvage the bones that they might throw to us. There’s not a lot that’s been accomplished this session that we’re happy about and they’re going to have to do something so that they can campaign as conservatives. Right? It’s going to be election season and if they’ve got nothing to campaign on what are they going to do, so they’ve got to throw us something. So we’ll see what we can salvage.
“I think we knew from the git-go it was going to be a tough session,” McCarty said, saying she got her first sign that this session was not going to be what she hoped it would be at a pre-inaugural gala dinner in Austin with a joint guest list put together by Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick. There were only four tea party couples at the dinner, she said, all Patrick invitees.
It was the first time that it really impacted me that true conservatives are in the minority and so, I came into the session with a completely different perspective, that instead of being frustrated that we have this near supermajority of Republicans in the House and we should get all this done, it doesn’t matter if they’re putting Republican by their name because they are not conservatives. So my expectations were lowered. Now they didn’t even meet my low expectations.”
It’s like we have two different things going on because you can look at the Senate and be so excited but we have this balance of the House that does nothing but disappoint, so it’s been a lot more emotional this time. It’s what was expected but it was a lot more emotional because it was a roller coaster of excited versus being stepped on.
Half of the people, they’re uneducated, so when the Senate passes something they think, “Oh, it’s done, Texas is so conservative, we did this and this and this,” and then I’ll tell them, “Oh no, we don’t have open carry, oh no we don’t have a better budget, we don’t have anything,” and they’re like, they’ll send me headlines, “Senate passes such and such,” and they don’t understand it, they don’t know how it works and how they have to keep fighting. so, we’ll keep educating.
She said Thursday’s trip to Austin it was her fifth lobby visit of the session – “not nearly as many as I expected and I regret that in a big way.”
First time we came down in a big group it was amazing watching the folks on the floor see us, and I’m talking about the good guys, the guys all tea parties believe are on our side, but they’re not working together this session. There’s no unity amongst them this session, and then they see us, sitting in the gallery and they’re all from different groups around North Texas, and all of a sudden they’re talking and … just that day we watched bad bills get killed, and we’re texting, and we’re like, “Matt, how come you haven’t signed on to this?”
“Gio, how come …,” Of course Gio ignores us every time. But we were here and right before our eyes we watched how we were making a difference. And so we’ve come once a week since then.
That’s why I regret not being here more. It’s like when you’re speeding down the road and you see a cop, you slow down. We want to be that cop.
McCarty said she was “not happy” with Gov. Abbott.
The only thing he actually fought for is pre-K, and everybody knows we’re not happy with the pre-K. For the life of me I can’t figure out why that’s the one he decided to use his political clout on, but he did.
He had so much potential and he wasted it
Perry always disappointed me in the same way. Perry was much more conservative than he laid down the law and he could have and probably wanted to do more and his advisers I think held him back. I thought Abbott would actually be stronger than Perry and Abbott is weaker than Perry. So Perry wasn’t all that but Abbott is weaker.”
I am very happy with the work Dan Patrick has done … I know there are other tea party leaders that – you know tea party leaders are watchdogs, so we are very, very critical of everything, and that includes Dan Patrick and, sure we can go to Dan Patrick and say, “Well, why didn’t you push harder for this?” or, “Why didn’t you do this and this and this?” But he has to answer to more than just the tea party and I can very easily cut him slack because out of any elected officials anywhere in the state of Texas, Dan Patrick has given us the loudest voice and I appreciate that and I’m not going to stab him in the back for it.
Like Stickland, McCarty said the 84th session is mostly useful because, “It’s good ammo, that’s what this session was – good ammo to clean house.”
It was at that point that I made my comment that she seemed “disgusted but not discouraged.”
“Oh, never discouraged. You saw us praying here. We get our motivation from God. We really feel like this is what we’re called to do and we have a responsibility to do it, so how can you be discouraged?
I asked what they prayed for?
“Wisdom,” McCarty said. “Letting our words be his words. That’s wisdom.
And Stickland is still the main man, right?
“Absolutely. You’re not going to get better than Jonathan,” she said. Rep. Matt “Rinaldi is really close.”
But Stickland “is so much more flamboyant. Jonathan speaks like one of us because he came from us, he speaks like one of us, and so we relate to him and he’s not afraid to say things, and Rinaldi can fight just as hard and he is brilliant, but he just doesn’t have that flavor that Jonathan offers. And I would be crushed if Jonathan lost his number one ranking.”
“I told Jonathan on the phone the other day, `I don’t care what vote you have to take, you don’t lose that first place (standing).'”
“We have different styles,” Rinaldi said yesterday.
“It’s like a football game – some people are the guys who get on the stat sheet and pass a lot of bills with their names on it. Some people are the guys how block, the power fullback who busts through the line. Some people are the coaches who are marking the x’s and o’s. Everybody has their own role. It’s how you fill that role.”
While Stickland disparaged the 84th as the “do-nothing session,” Rinaldi was less dismissive.
In the last ten years I think it’s one of the more conservative sessions. I think that has lot to do with the changes we made the last election season. I think we had a more conservative House body. I think we had a much more conservative Senate body and Senate leadership and I think that result is one of more conservative sessions in the last ten years.
We had a budget that stayed within inflation plus population growth.Iit didn’t grow the real size of government and I think tha’s always the centerpiece. Compared to other session I think we did well.
When looked at objectively on the amount of Republicans we have in each chamber and the major issues that our nation and our state are facing, now I think it’s less successful when viewed from that perspective. We missed a lot of opportunities to address huge issues that face the state such as reforming education, such as doing something to address the Supreme Court’s impending decision, which will redefine marriage as it’s existed for the last 2,000 years. I don’t think we’ve done enough to address illegal immigration, which is one of the biggest issues that Texans face right now. We put $800 million into border security, which I think was a great start, but we did nothing to address the magnets that bring illegal immigrants to the state of Texas, and I think that was a great failing as well. And there were just bills in the House that didn’t make the floor because of games that I think were played, like the abortion bill that would have prohibited insurers from insuring abortion, like the marriage bill, bills that should have been voted on, should have had a vote and just didn’t.
All that said, Rinaldi said he had a direct impact on legislation like the border security bill, open carry, and other legislation, including deregulating the barber industry in Texas.
I think after one session I’m optimistic because I think I’ve had more of an effect as a freshman than I thought I would. You have an effect in so many more ways than you dream that you could coming into this large body, and that gives you hope that you can actually change things going forward.
Does he want to do it again?
I’m absolutely going to do it again. You can’t not once you realize all the good you can do.
Rinaldi said he didn’t suffer any negative repercussions for being one of 19 members to vote against Straus for speaker.
But listening to him, I couldn’t help but wonder whether, if he returns for another session, he would still be aligning himself as a hard-core Sticklandite, or whether he might emerge as the next Capriglione.
“We’ll do our best to get rid of Gio after this session, ” McCarty said in the House Gallery Thursday. “It’s not going to be pretty …. it’s sad for all of us.”
I asked about an opponent for Capriglione. “You have somebody yet?”
“Not announced,” said McCarty, which I took to mean that she had someone, but that she was not yet ready to announce who it was.
Capriglione told me he was not worried, and, as I wrote in Sunday’s story:
He’s already framing the debate in his head.
“I’ll go to their meetings and ask how many people hate Texas, how many people think we’re on the wrong path?” Capriglione said. “I don’t hate Texas. I love Texas.”