The education of Briscoe Cain: On the schooling of Jonathan Stickland 3.0.


(An image passed around by members of the Texas House after the confrontation between Reps. John Zerwas and Briscoe Cain during the budget debate last week.)


Good morning Austin:

Briscoe Cain is a great name. Just a classic Texas name.

The Education of Briscoe Cain sounds like a John Ford Western.

John Wayne might have played the strong, silent Briscoe Cain.

Or maybe John Wayne was the one doing the educatin’ and Briscoe Cain, played by Jeffrey Hunter, was the one with some learnin’ to do.

Either way, there is no showdown that this Briscoe Cain is not prepared for. No shootout where Briscoe Cain doesn’t reach for his gun second, but hit his mark first.

That’s Briscoe Cain.

Except that isn’t how it went in Thursday-into-Friday’s marathon House budget debate when the real, live Briscoe Cain, a freshman Republican from Deer Park in Harris County, ended up in an epic confrontation with Dr. John Zerwas, who, as the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was really the founder of the feast that was the 16-hour debate.

Cain is 32, a father of three boys, but he looks a decade younger. In the long-term, this will stand him in very good stead. But in the meantime, he looks like a precocious high school student who won a Lion’s Club  essay contest and with it, an all-expense-paid trip to Austin where he gets to be an honorary legislator of the day but somehow, that day happens to have been last Thursday and, in a fantasy run amok, our own Alex Keaton …

ends up in a startling one-on-one with the revered and beloved Dr. Alex Stone in the person of Dr. John Zerwas.

You can watch it here, and then we will break it down.

Here is a frame-by-frame, Zapruder accounting of the full encounter, which extends a little longer than the video.

CAIN: Members, this amendment seeks to get rid of what I’ve nicknamed kind of the advisory death panel. In 2015 the Palliative Care Interdisciplinary Advisory Council was established by HB 1874. An amendment to HB 1874 called for patient advocates  to be appointed to the panel to ensure adequate representation of patient concerns. The panel is required to issue a report biennially, and to date has issued one report.

When the program was started, an initial earmark thorough a rider allocated $142,000 and $135,000 for Fiscal Years ’16 and ’17 to establish the system through the HHS system support funds. Since the program is new and not eligible for sunset review, depending on the program needs and the broader needs of HHS, earmarks should not be assumed for a new, untested program.

Zerwas enters the frame right here, moving in on Cain and giving him what in Latin might be called morem pellis hispidus distentione nervorum. The hairy eyeball.

CAIN: To the point, although a patient advocate category was established for the council with the goal of ensuring that the needs of patients and their advocates were adequately addressed, no one in the state-maintained list of patient advocates has been appointed.

CAIN: Really, no one. No one’s been appointed. The list is on-line.

Tony Tinderholt, a tea party representative from Arlington, has moved into the frame, casting a protective eye on his young ally.

CAIN: Instead now the council is severely imbalanced,  consisting now almost entirely of medical professionals and few if any speaking for the patients.

This truly is a blue ribbon committee for the death panel commission. And we don’t need it.

OK, Cain has thrown down the gauntlet Zerwas is back in the frame, staring at Tinderholt.

CAIN: Move adoption.

The camera shifts to the back mic where Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat, speaks up.

Collier: Will the gentleman yield for a question?

COLLIER: I was just reading over your amendment and I want to understand how much money is allocated for border security right now. Are you aware?

What? Huh?

This is Cain looking at his paperwork to see if there is some instruction there on how to answer a colleague who has just asked a totally irrelevant question.

CAIN: Um, I’m not sure. We’re on page 176. This has nothing to do with border security.

Is Collier engaging in standard-issue freshman hazing of Cain?

Or is it just a stall to give Zerwas a moment to get from the front to back mic.

Voila. There he is.

COLLIER: I’m going to yield to Dr. Zerwas so he can ask you a few more questions.

And so it begins in earnest. Note, Tinderholt and Matt Rinaldi, another Cain ally from Irving, have positioned themselves behind Zerwas in the camera frame and where Cain can see them.

Zerwas: Mr. Cain, you made a passing comment at the end of your layout, regarding a death panel. Did I hear you say that correctly?

CAIN: Absolutely sir.

ZERWAS: Would you please describe for me what a death panel is?

CAIN: Mr. Zerwas, respectfully, if you ask me a question please allow me to answer it before asking me a second one.

ZERWAS: Explain to me what a death panel is, Mr. Cain if we can just start with that question.

CAIN: Yes, Mr. Zerwas, a death panel is whereby a group of individuals unrelated to the person in the hospital decide whether or not that person will live or die, making decision for a person in place of their own, or their family.

ZERWAS: Have you ever understood really what palliative care is? Can you tell me what the definition of that is?

CAIN: Mr. Zerwas, being in your profession I am sure you could inform this body better than I could.

ZERWAS: I’m asking you because it’s your amendment. Tell me what you think it is.

CAIN: Mr. Zerwas, the purpose of this has to do with a panel for palliative care, which my understanding of it is essentially a blue ribbon committee that looks at death panels, sir.

ZERWAS: So you’re unaware of the fact that a report has been generated on his subject. Is that correct?

CAIN: That’s a fair statement, Mr. Zerwas.

ZERWAS: And are you aware that there’s actually, I believe, a sunset on this particular committee, so once they do their work, it’s over.

Are you unaware of that?

CAIN: I’m unaware.

ZERWAS: OK. Do you have an understanding of what end-of-life circumstances are and the role of palliative care in terms of end of life. I will tell you, there are many of us here who can attest that and to the importance of that and the role that palliative care plays in that.

Are you aware of that?

Note that Zerwas lost Cindy, his childhood sweetheart and wife of 35 years in August 2013, 18 months after she was diagnosed with brain cancer.

From Peggy Fikac in the San Antonio Express-News: House Appropriations chair shows mettle in budget debate

There’s a backstory, as many of Zerwas’ House colleagues know. He lost both of his parents and his first wife, Cindy, to cancer in 2012 and 2013.

That approximately 15-month period “was an incredibly difficult time for me and my family with the loss of loved ones to cancer,” said Zerwas.

“But one of the really silver linings that come out of all that is something you discover, or are a part of, that makes you realize that even in those final days of life, there are things that can really just help make that journey and transition easier,” he said. “Palliative care is one of those things.”

Note also that Charlie Geren of Fort Worth, like Zerwas a top Straus lieutenant, and Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat, are now lined up behind Zerwas, backing him up.

CAIN: Mr. Zerwas, would you like to ask me a question about this panel?

ZERWAS: The panel is dealing with palliative care. Are you not aware of what that does?


ZERWAS: OK. Do you have an understanding of what end of life circumstances are and the role of palliative care? I will tell you there are many of us here who can attest to that and the importance of that and the role that palliative care plays in that. Are you aware of that?

CAIN: Mr. Zerwas, would you like to ask me a question about this panel?

ZERWAS: The panel is dealing with palliative care. Are you not aware of what that does. You’re characterizing it as a death panel. And so I think that is one of the most mischaracterizations I have heard in over ten years of my serving in this House. So if you want to go up and characterize something in such an offensive way, I would hope that you would have a little better understanding of what you’re talking about.

Note the approach of Stickland.

CAIN: Dr. Zerwas, how should I define a committee of individuals deciding the life of another?

ZERWAS: No, I think you have totally mischaracterized that. I think what you have is the intent by the panel to create a greater awareness about an emerging discipline that deals with palliative care. And I will tell you, you could probably ask 50, 60, 70, 100 members in this House who have had somebody in their family with a serious illness who has dealt with this particular issue, and there is simply an effort to bring greater awareness around palliative care.

Stickland is now in close proximity to Cain, presumably telling him to back off, to abort the mission.

CAIN: I recognize that you know about this and I don’t. My apologies.

CAIN: Move adoption.

REP. KYLE KACAL of College Station, presiding as the chair: The chair recognize Rep. Davis in opposition.

SARAH DAVIS: Move to table.

KACAL: The chair recognizes Rep. Cain to close.

CAIN: I don’t need to close.

KACAL: Rep. Cain sends up an amendment. Rep. Davis moves to table.

A little bit of time passes in silence.

KACAL: The amendment is withdrawn.

OK. That’s it.

Let’s pause here to listen to The Band play one of the most beautifully mournful ballads of all time  – The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down –  which is about Virgil Caine, not Briscoe Cain – but works pretty well with only a little rewriting.

Virgil Briscoe Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville Stickland train
‘Till Stoneman’s Straus’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again
In the winter spring of ‘65, ’17, we were hungry, just barely alive a meme.
By May the tenth April 7, Richmond Austin had fell, a it’s a time I remember, oh so well
The night they drove old Dixie Briscoe down, and the bells were ringin’
The night they drove old Dixie Briscoe down, and the people were singin’
They went, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na

But, if you thought Briscoe Cain was daunted by this experience, well, you don’t know Briscoe Cain.

Where a lesser man might have spent the rest of the last week’s debate marathon underneath his desk in the fetal position, that very same day, actually the wee hours of Friday morning, Freshman Cain was back at the front mic.


So Rep. Joe Moody, an El Paso Democrat, offered an amendment to ban spending on any elective surgeries for prisoners, without singling out trans-gender individuals. Cain accepted it and it passed.



(Joe Moody was wearing his Tupac tie for the contentious budget debate.)


As the marathon session ended and the members headed home for the night I caught Cain and Stickland as they were leaving the chamber.

Ror all practical purposes, the approval of the budget was a great triumph for House Speaker Joe Straus and his leadership team, beginning with Zerwas.

For the hard-core tea party resistance it was, in the estimation of U.S. Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, at night’s end, “a bloodbath … but a good day for democracy.”

The tea party stalwarts were mocked.

But Stickland and Cain were unfazed.

What did they make of what just transpired?

Stickland:  Same old same old. There were, in my opinion quite a few more blatant maneuvers by the leadership team against myself. I’ve never seen some of the lines that were crossed to be crossed, that was interesting. As far as everything else, par for the course.

Cain: It seems one set of rules apply to some and another set of rules apply to others.

Why vote against the budget?

Stickland: Spends too much money. Not interested in raiding the rainy day fund, and priorities are not what we think they should be.

How did  Stickland and Cain end up desk-mates on the floor?

Stickland: I needed to train him in the art of politics, and I needed someone to read the bills for me.

Cain: That’s not the real answer. When you are part of a small minority in the House of Representatives, you’ve got to stick together. It’s a small group so you have to have friends.

Do you feel defeated?

Stickland: It was a winning night from the point of view that voters get to see where legislators stand on the issues. You saw a lot of contrast. You got to see the difference between a conservative’s voting record on the issues and one of the establishment members.

I”m not sure even a lot of the members know what they voted on today in many case. So I think there are going to be a lot of disappointed voters back home when they see some of the things that so-called Republican voted for.

It was Cain who, during his campaign successfully sued the Texas Ethics Commission to strike down a law barring the use of footage produced by the Legislature, including, for example, the archived footage of the live stream of yesterday’s session, in political ads and social media.

From David Saleh Rauf in the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News last May.

AUSTIN – A Harris County state district judge ruled Tuesday that a state law barring the use of audio and video produced by the Legislature in political ads likely is unconstitutional, blocking enforcement of a two-decade-old ban that critics said was aimed at protecting incumbents from election challengers.

A tea party House candidate challenging one of Speaker Joe Straus’ lieutenants in a runoff sued the Texas Ethics Commission to strike down the law that prohibits the use of audio and video from the floor of the House and Senate, along with committee hearings, in political ads.

 State District Judge Brent Gamble granted a temporary injunction requested by Briscoe Cain, a Harris County lawyer in a May 24 runoff with state Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown.

Cain wants to use footage in his campaign ads of Smith from the House floor during the 2013 and 2015 legislative sessions. According to a court filing, Cain is planning to use the taxpayer-funded footage of Smith in ads on social media websites.

Cain didn’t end up using any of the House videos in his successful campaign against incumbent Wayne Smith.

“We didn’t need it,” he said.

Cain defeated Smith in the runoff by 23 votes.

I asked Cain whether he expects scenes from the budget debate just ended to end up in political ads and on social media?

Cain: A lot of them will end up on the internet.

Did anything surprise him about the budget debate.

Cain: The amount of power that would cause people to pull down their amendments without even letting anybody vote on them. So, tonight was also a show of courage.

I asked Stickland why he looked so much wearier than Briscoe.

Stickland: Hes a young whippersnapper. I’m an old fart now.

But Stickland is still the original – sui generis –  or perhaps, considering the role that feral hogs played in the budget drama  – sooey generis. He is the Super Fly in the ointment.

Matt Rinaldi may be Stickland 2.0. Cain may be Stickland 3.0. But miniaturization is not everything.

Stickland is now in his third session, but more than ever, the deliberations of the Texas House – and much of the drama of the budget debate – appear to be a Jonathan Stickland vs. most of the rest of the Texas House of Representatives cage match.

(Jonathan Stickland’s annotated copy of the vote to strip hie hometown Bedford of transportation funding. While the amendment passed, Stickland considered all the “no” votes a strike against “tyranny” and a significant victory for him.)



I have written a lot about how Donald Trump’s campaign was informed by his immersion in the world of professional wrestling – he is in the WWE Hall of Fame.

For Stickland, all that is missing on the floor of  the Texas House are the ropes and turnbuckle.



I talked to Cain over the weekend.

I asked about the wisdom of a freshman legislator going after  funding for a Palliative Care Interdisciplinary Council, created by legislation authored by Zerwas, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and approved without opposition by both the House and the Senate.

Cain said his amendment was being scored by Texas Right to Life.

That is correct.

Votes on the following issues are eligible for scoring in Texas Right to Life’s Pro-Life Scorecard for the 85th Session:


He said he ultimately withdrew the amendment because, nothing good was going to come at the end of my time at that microphone.

CAIN: I still think the panel that I was trying to get rid of was bad.

I didn’t back down on policy.

Afterwards I had tons of people come up to me and say, `Hey that was a great amendment but you did the right thing not marching down that way. We couldn’t have voted with you. Our hands are tied. You walked into a hornet’s nest, there might have been a good reason, but we can’t vote with you buddy. We may agree with you on policy. We’re just not going down that road with you. It’s a suicide mission.”

Nothing good was going to happen. It would have caused a lot of may friends to take a vote against their own policy to avoid having their heads cut off.

Cain said Stickland did signal to him to back off at the end.

And thank God for him. If he had not, I would have marched all the way down. If you could not tell, I was willing to take it all the way.

“Jonathan Stickland trained me and others trained me, never back down it’s a sign of weakness,” Cain said. But this was an occasion when discretion was the better part of valor.

Cain said he did not back off because Zerwas is the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, but out of personal regard for him and his personal loss, which he had not been aware of.

As Stickland said when I talked to them just after the budget session ended, “We all have heart for each other on a personal level. We all love John.”

And Cain said, I backed down because it was not the right thing to do at that moment  and to keep a lot of my friends from taking a hard vote that Texas Right to Life would have scored against them in order for them to avoid upsetting Dr. Zerwas.

Cain: We withdrew out of respect for the members and Dr. Zerwas, not out of fear.

Of his amendment to end funding for gender reassignment surgery for prisoners, Cain said the compromise with Moody to end funding for all elective surgeries was that rare compromise he thought made sense and, in fact, “we got more than we wanted.”

CAIN: We were able technically to ban elective surgical abortions for women who were pregnant before going into the prison population.

I thought it was a good compromise, not because I thought I was getting something over on Moody but I could truly accomplish the same goal without using hateful language and I agree with Moody about that.

I’m not always a jerk.

Cain has legislation – HB 1004 -that would codify what he won in his lawsuit – that it is legal for candidates to use audio and visual materials produced by the Legislature, but that it won’t pass and doesn’t need to pass.

It doesn’t need to be law for it to be law. It’s already law. I don’t need to codify it.

And, he said, he is as happy if legislators remain unaware that the tapes can and will be used against them in campaigns because it means they will continue to “say dumb things just for us.”

He said he is not worried about an opponent using his confrontation with Rep. Zerwas against him. He doesn’t think it would hurt him with his constituents

Early in the session, Cain was one of three new legislators interviewed by the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith.

Cain: The only reason to be here is you like controversy.

Smith: Well success. You are going to get what you came for.

“Politics is part showmanship,” Cain told me this weekend.

“This kid’s wicked smart.” Stickland said in the wee hours of Friday morning as he headed home and Cain headed back to his office. “He’s way smarter than me, honest to God, but I’m way more politically savvy.”

“I’m like a Chihuahua,” Cain said. “I’ll chase a pit bull, it might be a bad idea for the Chihuahua, but I’ll chase him.”


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.

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