Texas GOP leaders reverse course, ban antisemites from party

 

By Robert Downen, The Texas Tribune

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The Republican Party of Texas’ executive committee voted Saturday to censure House Speaker Dade Phelan and passed a resolution stating that the party will not associate with antisemites — a reversal from December, when a similar measure was narrowly and controversially defeated following outcry over a major donor group’s ties to white supremacists.

The antisemitism resolution, which passed unanimously with two abstentions, came four months after The Texas Tribune reported that Jonathan Stickland, then the leader of Defend Texas Liberty, had hosted infamous white supremacist and Adolf Hitler admirer Nick Fuentes for nearly seven hours in early October.

Subsequent reporting by the Tribune uncovered other, close ties between avowed antisemites and Defend Texas Liberty, a major political action committee that two West Texas oil tycoons have used to fund far-right groups and lawmakers in the state. Defend Texas Liberty is also one of the Texas GOP’s biggest donors.

In response to the Fuentes meeting, Phelan and 60 other House Republicans called on party members to redirect any funds from Defend Texas Liberty to pro-Israel charities — demands that were initially rebuffed by some Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who later announced that he was reinvesting the $3 million he received from Defend Texas Liberty into Israeli bonds.

Nearly half of the Texas GOP’s executive committee also demanded that the party cut all ties with Stickland, Defend Texas Liberty and its auxiliary organizations until Stickland was removed and a full explanation for the Fuentes meeting was provided. Stickland was quietly removed as Defend Texas Liberty’s president in October, but is still the leader of an influential consulting firm, Pale Horse Strategies, that works with Defend Texas Liberty clients.

Defend Texas Liberty has yet to provide more details on its links to Fuentes or Fuentes associates — including the leader of Texans For Strong Borders, an anti-immigration group that continues to push lawmakers to adopt hardline border policies.

The tensions came to a head in December, when the Texas GOP’s executive committee narrowly defeated a resolution that would have banned the party from associating with antisemites, Holocaust deniers or neo-Nazis — language that some members of the executive committee argued was too vague, and could complicate the party’s relationship with donors or candidates.

The need for such a measure was also downplayed at the time by Texas GOP Chair Matt Rinaldi, who abstained from voting but argued there was no "significant" antisemitism on the right. Rinaldi is a longtime ally of Defend Texas Liberty who was seen outside of the one-story, rural Tarrant County office where Fuentes was being hosted. Rinaldi later denied meeting with Fuentes and condemned him. Last month, the Tribune also reported that, at the same time that he was attacking critics of Defend Texas Liberty over the Fuentes meeting, Rinaldi was working as an attorney for Farris Wilks, one the two West Texas oil billionaires who fund Defend Texas Liberty.

After the measure was defeated in December, Patrick also put out a lengthy statement in which he condemned the vote and said he expected it to be revisited by the Texas GOP’s executive committee at its next meeting.

The executive committee did as much on Saturday, passing a resolution that stated that the party “opposes anti-Semitism and will always oppose and not associate with individuals or groups which espouse anti-Semitism or support for attacks on Israel.”

The resolution’s language is significantly watered down compared to proposals from late last year, which specifically named Stickland and Defend Texas Liberty or sought to ban those who espouse — as well as those who “tolerate” — antisemitism, neo-Nazi beliefs or Holocaust denial. Since then, Defend Texas Liberty’s funders have spun off a new political action committee, Texans United For a Conservative Majority, that has been active in this year’s primaries.

Separately, the executive committee also voted 55-4 to censure Phelan over, among other things, his role in the impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton, his appointment of Democrats to chair House committees and for allegedly allowing a bill on border security to die in May. Phelan was not at the committee meeting.

Phelan’s spokesperson, Cait Wittman, slammed the censure on Saturday, as well as the executive committee’s previous failure to ban antisemites from the party and what she said was its delayed response to last year’s scandal involving Bryan Slaton, a Republican state representative who was expelled from the Texas House in May after getting a 19-year-old aide drunk and having sex with her.

“This is the same organization that rolled out the red carpet for a group of Neo-Nazis, refused to disassociate from anti-Semitic groups and balked at formally condemning a known sexual predator before he was ousted from the Texas House,” Wittman wrote on X. “The (executive committee) has lost its moral authority and is no longer representative of the views of the Party as a whole.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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GOP senator who voted to acquit Paxton wants Senate to consider reopening impeachment proceedings

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

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A Republican state senator who voted to acquit Ken Paxton in his impeachment trial last year wants the Senate to consider restarting proceedings now that the attorney general is no longer fighting the whistleblower claims in court that were central to the trial.

The bombshell request came in a letter Thursday from retiring state Sen. Drew Springer to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and his Senate colleagues.

“At this stage, and the point of this letter, I am asking the Senate whether there is a legal mechanism to reopen the impeachment proceedings,” Springer wrote. “Failure to at least consider this possibility runs the risk of AG Paxton making a mockery of the Texas Senate.”

Springer’s letter came days after Paxton announced he would not contest the facts of the whistleblower lawsuit in an attempt to end it without having to testify under oath. The lawsuit was filed in 2020 by a group of former top deputies who said they were improperly fired for telling federal authorities they believed Paxton was abusing his office to help a wealthy friend and donor, Nate Paul.

Paxton’s recent reversal in the whistleblower lawsuit was especially striking because one of the articles of impeachment that he was acquitted on alleged that he violated the Texas Whistleblower Act. Springer wrote that Paxton “completely changed his position in less than four months.”

A spokesperson for Patrick, who served as judge in the trial, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Paxton dismissed Springer's letter in a statement to the Tribune.

"Springer has to leave the senate because he was such a bad senator, wasn’t going to get re-elected, and needed a job," Paxton said. "Why should anyone listen to his sour grapes."

After Springer released his letter, a Democratic senator who voted to convict Paxton, Sen. Sarah Eckhardt of Austin, said on X that she supports "reopening the impeachment proceedings" in light of Paxton's latest legal maneuvering.

In his latest move to end the lawsuit, Paxton also said he would accept any judgment, potentially opening up taxpayers to more than the $3.3 million sum that was in a tentative settlement deal last year. Springer said Paxton has “essentially written a blank check” at the taxpayers’ expense and that he should have to answer questions under oath if he seeks any funding approval from the Legislature.

Despite his reversal, Paxton has not been able to wriggle out of the lawsuit in Travis County district court. As of now, he is required to sit for a deposition on Feb. 1.

Springer’s letter comes as he is freer from political consequences than most of his GOP colleagues because he is not seeking reelection. But his term is not over until January 2025, giving him a voice in the Senate for nearly another year.

Springer was one of 16 GOP senators who voted to acquit Paxton on all impeachment articles — and keep him in office — at the trial in September. Springer seemed especially conflicted with the decision after facing political threats in his solidly red district.

In the race to succeed Springer, Paxton has endorsed Carrie de Moor, a Frisco emergency room physician who surfaced as a potential challenger while the trial was still underway. Springer is backing one of de Moor’s rivals, Brent Hagenbuch, the former Denton County GOP leader. Patrick has also endorsed Hagenbuch.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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Dallas Congresswoman Jasmine Crockett is going viral—just the way she wants it

By Grace Yarrow 

The Texas Tribune

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In summer 2021, about 50 Democrats from the Texas House arrived at the nation’s capital — absconding from Austin in a plot to block Republicans from passing a bill that would impose tighter restrictions on voting access.

Buzzing with excitement, the lawmakers took their places in front of reporters, with senior members and leadership moving toward the center to field questions. But Jasmine Crockett — a freshman from Dallas — stepped away from the group to take a call. She held up her phone to film her own live interview with a TV station, the dome of the Capitol building peeking out behind her.

That interview would be one of many that Crockett would take while camped out in Washington to discuss the Democrats’ quorum break, in a move that would raise the little-known lawmaker’s profile as she became an unofficial spokesperson for the dramatic political spectacle.

“There were people in leadership from my understanding that were not a fan of a freshman being a bit of a face of some of this,” Crockett said in an interview with The Texas Tribune.

Nonetheless, she accepted as many interviews as she could fit into her schedule, carrying two phones and a laptop to handle the crush of inquiries she received.

“I did not expect the world to pay attention,” Crockett said.

But she wanted them to.

Crockett, 42, didn’t get into politics to wait her turn. While she says she may have ruffled some feathers among her caucus peers at the time, her decision to grab the spotlight catapulted her career and provided the foundation for her to run for Congress the following year.

Now a freshman in the U.S. House representing the Dallas-based 30th Congressional District, Crockett is once again finding her voice, seeking out moments to go viral and trying to make a name for herself in a deeper pool filled with bigger fish.

Her unfiltered musings and barbs while in Congress have helped her amass one of the largest social media followings in the Texas delegation, with an online audience of nearly a quarter of a million people on both X and Instagram. Her online reach is bigger than every other Texas Democrat, with the exception of Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, who has served a decade longer than Crockett has. And she's been crowdsourcing the name for a new podcast, she's considering.

Crockett got her first taste of going viral during a September hearing of the House Oversight Committee, which garnered media attention because of the Republican impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden. Crockett took aim at former President Donald Trump’s mishandling of classified documents, holding up printed photos from his indictment showing boxes of classified documents in the Mar-a-Lago bathroom.

“These are our national secrets, looks like, in the shitter to me,” Crockett said in a clip that was shared on Reddit and Tiktok. One fan edit of the moment set to music, created by a 16-year-old fan, raked in over 8 million views on TikTok.

Crockett spoke about the virality of the moment on CNN, saying younger Democrats are looking for their elected leaders to “push back” against GOP talking points. Actor Mark Hamill, of Luke Skywalker fame, reposted the video on X, supporting Crockett: “Omg is an understatement!”

U.S. Rep. Greg Casar of Austin, another freshman Democrat who sits beside Crockett in the Oversight Committee, said he often struggles to keep a straight face during Crockett’s speeches.

“She can speak so directly to people and bring humor to the table in a way that makes folks want to listen. And that's what we need right now,” Casar said.

For her online followers, Crockett provides gleeful narration about the unfolding drama within the majority party, such as her updates on X about “SPEAKERGATE,” the fallout from the ousting of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Recently, she’s chronicled on X the expulsion of New York Republican George Santos, who was booted from the House following a searing ethics report detailing misuses of campaign funds. “Maybe a cat fight if Santos spills tea during debate, today,” Crockett posted before the expulsion vote.

Her posts — often interspersed with popcorn or eyeball emojis — are told as though she’s recapping an episode of reality television to a friend: “Welcome to preschool … I mean our prestigious congress (darn autocorrect).”

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland, the ranking member on the House Oversight Committee, said that Crockett’s unique voice has proved to be an effective communication tool and that her expertise as an attorney is often on display.

He described her style as a combination of a lawyer’s “sharp analysis and lucid exposition” and a “Texan’s folksy and intimate manner.”

“Always a fighter”

Gwen Crockett said her daughter was a sharp-witted speaker from a young age.

In high school, Crockett participated in speech competitions. While in a production of “Little Shop of Horrors” at Rhodes College, a professor took notice of Crockett’s talent for public speaking and invited her to participate in a mock trial organization, where she first found her legal voice.

“I think that's when it hit her that she wanted to become a lawyer,” Gwen Crockett said.

While at Rhodes College, Crockett was one of only 18 Black students and received threatening, anonymous racist mail.

“That was the first time that I felt helpless and felt targeted as a Black person,” she said. Crockett was paired with a Black female lawyer to help investigate who was sending the threats in the mail. Crockett now calls that lawyer her “saving grace” and another factor in her decision to pursue a legal career.

Jasmine Crockett studied at the Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law and the University of Houston Law Center. After law school, she moved to Texarkana to be a public defender and later opened her own civil rights and criminal defense law firm.

She said her time representing thousands of Texans in court has given her firsthand experience with inequities in the justice system. Adam Bazaldua, a Dallas City Council member, said Crockett is “always a fighter for the most vulnerable.”

Crockett represented thousands of Texans’ cases and handled high-profile lawsuits involving police brutality and other cases involving racial injustice. In 2020, as she campaigned for a seat in the state House, she took on the cases of protesters arrested in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Activist Rachel Gonzales wrote Crockett’s phone number on her stomach when she protested an incident of police brutality in Texas outside the state Capitol in Austin.

“I knew that she would be the first person to show up and fight if needed,” Gonzales said.

During those protests, Crockett consistently posted information for constituents on social media, according to her former chief of staff, Karrol Rimal. Receiving hundreds of calls, Crockett organized other attorneys to help advocate for protesters.

“She never loses sight of the people,” Rimal said.

Crockett was elected to the Texas House in 2020, quickly becoming an outspoken figure in the Legislature. During her first legislative session, she filed 75 solo bills and co-authored another 110, three of which became law.

“Many freshmen, they just kind of sit there. They don't say a whole lot because they're trying to learn,” said former Texas Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont. “But for her, the learning curve was very short. I mean, she jumped right in.”

Those who worked with Crockett pointed to the quorum break trip as her breakout moment.

“I think there was maybe some jealousy. She got a lot of national attention. She really was a lightning rod,” said state Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, who sat next to Crockett in the state House.

Although the Democrats were ultimately unable to stop the Republican elections bill from becoming law, they boosted the national conversation around voter disenfranchisement.

Crockett touted her leadership in the quorum break when she campaigned for the U.S. House in 2022.

She now represents the seat that recently deceased Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson had held since 1993. After announcing her retirement, Johnson quickly encouraged Crockett to run.

Crockett said she hoped to carry forward Johnson's legacy.

"Around 9 am, my predecessor, who hand picked me to succeed her, passed away and all of a sudden, like many of my plans this year, my plan to end on a high note, came crashing down," Crockett said in a post last Sunday on X where she also said she had just done a media hit on MSNBC. "I appreciate the calls and texts and just pray that she’s resting easy. When I’m feeling a lil lost, I’ll always lean in and see if I can hear your voice, Congresswoman."

“Pragmatic progressive”

Being outspoken and online naturally makes way for comparisons to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a third-term representative who has attained near-celebrity status as the face of the progressive movement.

But Crockett, unlike Casar of Austin, is not a member of the “Squad,” a well-known group of congressional progressives who regularly garner national media attention and GOP condemnation.

Crockett draws a strong line between herself and those progressives. She says her “pragmatic progressive” policy goals make her more willing to work with the business community, in situations where members of the Squad may be less willing to compromise.

But Crockett said she and Ocasio-Cortez have a common goal of using social media to meet constituents “where they are.”

“I think some of us younger members are trying to better educate voters,” Crockett said.

Though she routinely tussles with the GOP — she called them “assholes” in a September interview and again in December — Crockett also says she knows the importance of finding common ground with colleagues across the aisle.

She’s found an unlikely ally in Republican Sen. John Cornyn, who Crockett calls her “best partner” in the Senate. The senior senator has promoted the STRIP Act, a bicameral and bipartisan bill that decriminalizes fentanyl testing strips. The bill is still awaiting committee action.

Cornyn said it was a “no-brainer” to collaborate with Crockett on legislation he said would benefit Texans.

“I think she's been very approachable,” Cornyn said. “It's not easy to get things done or bills passed in either of the two houses, especially if you don't have a dance partner. So I offered to be her dance partner.”

Crockett introduced the companion legislation in the House with Rep. Lance Gooden of Terrell, who Crockett said is a trusted colleague and a dear friend.

“We argue and fight each time we are together, but we also hug and laugh equally as often,” Gooden said in a statement.

Crockett is running for reelection, and has drawn two primary challengers, Jarred Davis and Jrmar “JJ” Jefferson. But she said she has no intentions to stay in Congress long term.

She’ll spend the coming months campaigning both for herself and working to clinch a Democratic majority in the House due to her role as the caucus leadership representative from the freshman class, a fundraising position and an honor bestowed onto her by her freshman colleagues. She’s the first Black woman in that position, which she said adds even more pressure.

“I have to make sure this opportunity and door stays open for those that come behind me. Leadership in the Democratic caucus is about money. It's a money game,” Crockett said.

Olivia Julianna, a 21-year-old Texan with over a million followers on social media, said Crockett’s rhetoric appeals to young people on social media, in contrast with other politicians’ “jargony” or “unattainable” speech.

The Gen Z political activist said Crockett regularly “steals the show” in Congress.

“That's why people respect her so much, because she says what a lot of people are thinking, but they don't have the platform to say,” Julianna said.

Disclosure: The University of Houston 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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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From RaTmasTer to kingmaker: How Jonathan Stickland trolled his way to Texas GOP power

By Robert Downen 

The Texas Tribune

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Before his unlikely rise to becoming one of Texas' most influential conservative powerbrokers, Jonathan Stickland was RaTTy — short for “RaTmasTer,” the moniker by which he’d torment his many online friends and enemies.

He was barely a teenager when he first started lurking on fantasy football and online gaming forums, dipping his adolescent toe into the internet’s hate-filled, primordial soup. By the mid-2000s — and after dropping out of high school, briefly following a girlfriend to Illinois and moving back to North Texas to smoke weed and work in pest control — Stickland had gained minor infamy for his vicious insults and provocations.

“The entire scene was pretty toxic back then,” said Adam Whitmer, who started playing Warcraft games with Stickland under the name “MaDrAv” two decades ago. “Racial, homophobic and xenophobic slurs were the insults of the era. However, we tended to either instigate it or take it too far. Our team's reputation was only surpassed by RaTTy's individual reputation.”

Stickland was in his 20s and struggling financially, with a new baby and a young wife. He was a troll. But instead of growing out of it, as many do, Stickland would go on to make a career of it — one that would later put him on the map in Texas politics and eventually help ignite a civil war between the Texas GOP’s far-right and more moderate wings.

Stickland served four antagonizing terms in the Texas House, passing just one bill but garnering constant headlines for his stunts and behavior. His antics only endeared him to Texas’ Tea Party movement and its ultrarich funders, who by then had coalesced around an intense hatred of government and the “gum-it-up-at-all-costs” approach to legislating that Stickland helped normalize among broad swaths of today’s Republican Party.

By the time he announced his retirement from the Legislature in 2019, Stickland was a folk hero among the state’s grassroots conservatives, and quickly parlayed his acclaim into a job leading a prolific political action committee, Defend Texas Liberty, that has sought to purge the Texas GOP of moderates and push the party toward more hardline anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-immigration stances.

With Stickland at the helm, Defend Texas Liberty has unapologetically courted controversy, elevating a stable of far-right activists while doling out $3 million to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick before he presided over the impeachment trial of their longtime ally, Attorney General Ken Paxton. In the wake of Paxton’s acquittal, Stickland vowed scorched-earth primary campaigns against House Speaker Dade Phelan and other Republicans, and prepared to cleanse the party of anyone not in lockstep with his hardline, far-right vision.

“You and your band of RINOs are now on notice,” Stickland tweeted at Phelan amid Paxton’s acquittal in September. “You will be held accountable for this entire sham. We will never stop.”

Stickland was still gearing up for retribution three weeks later, when The Texas Tribune reported that he had hosted notorious white supremacist and antisemitic internet provocateur Nick Fuentes at his office for nearly seven hours — a major scandal that rapidly escalated Republican infighting, raised concerns about the party’s proximity to neo-Nazis, led to new revelations about racist trolls in Stickland’s orbit and prompted unsuccessful attempts to drive him from the party.

Four months later, neither Stickland nor his group has explained the meeting with Fuentes. Stickland declined multiple interview requests and did not respond to a detailed list of questions for this story.

On the forums that Stickland once trolled, though, the reaction was feigned shock. Whitmer — who’d followed Stickland’s meteoric rise to power — said he was similarly unsurprised where life took his old Warcraft teammate.

“Once I saw how he acted and carried himself, how he spoke, the waves he caused, I knew that was just the adult version of RaTTy,” Whitmer said. “He may have grown up, but he never really changed.”

“I AM A LEGEND”

Stickland was born in Plano in 1983 and raised in the Southern Baptist tradition. At 14, he began visiting online fantasy football boards, quickly adapting to the casual misogyny, homophobia and racism that were often characteristic of early forum culture.

Throughout the 2000s, Stickland was a bombastic and committed member of the forums, using his more than 3,300 posts to troll his detractors and regale his fellow fantasy footballers with demeaning stories about “dumb focking Asians” and “half naked wimmens” with “sensational knockers” or, in one instance, give a play-by-play of his panicked attempt to pass a drug test for a job via an over-the-counter detox drink that gave him a blue tongue and “bunghole in disarray.”

In Warcraft circles, he was a persistent antagonist, said Whitmer, who provided a link to one 2006 outburst in which Stickland appears to tell his “homosexual,” “euro trash” and “terrorist” opponents to slit their wrists before adding his signature sign-off: “I AM A LEGEND.”

“That was Jonathan,” Whitmer said. “Everyone knew that if you played RaTTy, you were in for a barrage of insults.”

Meanwhile, on the fantasy football forums, Stickland continued to provide his online compatriots with mundane life updates that showed a different side of him: That of a new husband and father, struggling to save money for the down payment on a modest home while making two-hour, roundtrip drives between his pest control job and the apartment he shared with his new wife, infant child and dog. It was a rough stretch, but Stickland seemed content.

“I do enjoy it quite a bit,” he said of his job in September 2007, before then advising other fantasy football users on how to combat pest infestations or use fox urine to scare away skunks.

Then, in December 2007, Stickland tumbled down a fateful rabbit hole. “I decided yesterday after some research and watching some clips on YouTube that I am now voting for Ron Paul 08! Just in case anyone gives a shiat,” he wrote about the Republican congressman from Texas who had previously run for president as a Libertarian.

Two days later, Stickland was back to his old habits, bragging about infiltrating an unsuspecting forum of insect hobbyists, where he posted a link to Lemon Party, a graphic porn website that was a favorite of 2000-era internet trolls.

A few weeks later, Stickland returned to the forums to announce that he had given his first political donation — to Paul — and volunteered to canvas for his presidential campaign. Stickland was hooked by Paul’s promises to, in Stickland’s words, “abolish the IRS,” “build a fence and shoot anyone who crosses it,” “end abortion rights'' and “limit government by cutting almost every single board we could name.”

As Paul’s longshot bid faltered in the months after, Stickland grew increasingly angry about the two-party system that he believed existed only to protect establishment politicians and encroach on civil liberties.

“We will not hand you the White House when you attempt to shove ###### down my throat in the form of a John McCain,” he wrote in one heated, February 2008 argument with a fellow fantasy footballer. “Piss off and give me my party back.”

His rage only grew over the next two years, as was clear from his occasional, all-caps rants about government surveillance or his warnings of a coming apocalypse for which Americans must prepare to defend themselves.

Then, in 2011, Stickland attended a town hall in Tarrant County with U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, and, in a move that would change his life, decided to confront the Republican congressman over his recent vote to raise the debt limit. Also in the crowd that day was Julie McCarty, then-leader of Tarrant County’s nascent Tea Party. A few days after, Stickland later recalled, he was eating a midnight bowl of ice cream when he received an email from McCarty, asking if he’d consider running for office.

“My wife was leaning over me and started laughing,” he later told the Austin American-Statesman. “Then she said, ‘Crap, you might be able to do that.’”

Stickland prayed on it, agreed to throw his hat in the ring and started knocking on more than 7,000 doors — losing 50 pounds along the way. Backed by McCarty and other Tea Party-aligned groups, he cruised to victory in the Republican primary and then trounced his opponent, a Libertarian Party candidate, in the 2012 general election for Texas House District 92.

Even he was surprised by his fast rise, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he had never imagined “writing bills and amendments and all that stuff,” and was "watching quite a bit of video to see what a state representative actually does.”

He was 29, and headed to Austin with a promise to leave with the chamber’s most conservative voting record.

Bridge builder, bomb thrower

In the first weeks of the 2013 session, Stickland cast himself as a bridge builder, unwavering in his opposition to abortion or government expansion but still committed to bipartisanship. He collaborated with liberal, pro-abortion rights Sen. Wendy Davis on legislation to increase excused absences for schoolchildren with military parents; and in an interview at the time, he said Rep. Mary González — an El Paso Democrat and the House’s first openly-LGBTQ+ woman — was one of his “best friends.”

“I'm trying not to get too wrapped up in some of the political stuff,” Stickland said on his first day as a lawmaker. "Right now, I'm just focused on making a lot of friends, trying not to make any enemies, and talking to people about my legislative agenda and building coalitions."

In a recent interview, González acknowledged she was once friendly with Stickland, and that the two bonded as young newcomers to the statehouse. A decade later, she sees their relationship much differently.

“He capitalized on bipartisanship back then, but now attacks anyone who works towards bipartisanship,” she said.

As he reached across the aisle, Stickland also quickly showed his conservative bona fides, proving unafraid to critique veteran Republican lawmakers, including House Speaker Joe Straus. Stickland proposed legislation to give state tax breaks to “religiously-based businesses,” including Hobby Lobby, that faced fines for not providing contraception to workers under the Affordable Care Act. He joined dozens of GOP lawmakers in demanding that the Boy Scouts of America uphold its ban on gay members. He slammed his fellow Republican lawmakers as hypocrites after they sought a new law that’d allow them, but not everyday citizens, to carry handguns into hospitals, churches and bars. To the applause of civil liberty groups, Stickland successfully pushed for an amendment that tightened law enforcement’s access to private citizens’ emails.

And he hired as his chief of staff Tony McDonald, a recent University of Texas at Austin graduate who’d spent his college career trolling campus liberals with stunts such as an “affirmative action bake sale” that charged white students more for goods. Stickland stuck with McDonald amid criticism for blog posts in which he called for “literacy tests” for Black Obama voters, among other posts that were criticized as racist or homophobic, but described by McDonald as “hilariously awesome conservative things.”

By the end of his first session, Stickland had delivered on his promise to be the chamber’s most conservative member. He’d carved out his reputation as a sterling libertarian, eager to kill anything that didn’t align with the “liberty factory” that he nicknamed his office.

And, perhaps more importantly, he decided he preferred bomb-throwing to bridge-building.

"I didn't come down here to make a ton of friends,” Stickland said as the 2013 session winded down. “I came down here to fight for what I believe in.”

Big money

The next year, Stickland again cruised to reelection despite strong opposition from the state’s largest law enforcement groups, one of which labeled him “one of the worst state representatives in Texas history” over his opposition to a ban on the sale of the hallucinogen salvia, and to a bill that would have made it a misdemeanor for an adult to “knowingly cause physical contact with a child that a reasonable person would regard as offensive and sexual in nature.”

He returned to Austin in 2015 ready to outrage and battle. That session, Stickland was the lone vote opposed to a bill that made “revenge porn” a felony. He was removed from a committee meeting and later investigated by the Texas Rangers for listing witnesses who were not in Austin as supporters of his bill to ban red light cameras. When Planned Parenthood supporters rallied at the Capitol and tried to lobby lawmakers against cuts to a program that provided free breast and cervical cancer screenings to low-income women, Stickland hung a sign outside his office that proclaimed him a “FORMER FETUS.” And, to the ire of both sides of the aisle, he used the House floor to grandstand and prod lawmakers, later pushing video clips of those exchanges out to his social media followers.

In 2016, Stickland again won reelection, despite some of his past catching up to him. During the campaign, his opponent, local pastor Scott Fisher, unearthed some of Stickland’s old forum posts — including one in which the 25-year-old Stickland said “rape is non existent in marriage.” Fisher’s campaign also sought to link Stickland’s comments to his votes against expanding the rights of sexual assault survivors, which Stickland called “ludicrous.”

Stickland apologized for the posts, saying he had “been a different person for a very long time” and that it was “difficult to look back at how careless I was on the fantasy forums.”

The scandal did not shake his support among the grassroots and McCarty, who criticized Fisher for “attacking a brother in Christ for his past sins.”

By then, Stickland had already cemented his standing among grassroots conservatives, said Zachary Maxwell, who met Stickland around 2014 while working on the campaign of Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville.

“He was seen as a uniter — somebody who’d been in the trenches for a long time, who knew the ins and outs and could aggregate information and donations,” recalled Maxwell, who later worked for Rep. Mike Lang, the then-leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “I don’t think all that was true, but he certainly made people believe that.”

One of Stickland’s appeals, Maxwell said, was his mastery of “moneybombs” in which a handful of megadonors would match — or sometimes triple — the amount of money donated by smaller donors in one-day fundraising blitzes. The strategy helped Stickland raise gobs of money while touting himself as a grassroots, small-donor-supported outsider, Maxwell said.

Take, for example, an Oct. 14, 2016, “moneybomb” for Stickland: Ahead of the fundraiser, Stickland promoted the one-day drive by posting videos of him arguing against an ethics reform bill in the House that had been opposed by megadonors and dark money groups during the previous legislative session. After the 24-hour "moneybomb" ended, Stickland touted on Facebook that his campaign had raised $299,000 from 367 donors — no doubt an impressive haul, but less so upon closer examination. Campaign finance disclosures from that day show that roughly two-thirds of the funds came from just five ultrarich businessmen and conservative donors, led by Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks — the two West Texas oil billionaires who now fund Defend Texas Liberty.

Dunn, Wilks and the other three donors were at the time bankrolling a different political action committee, Empower Texans, that by 2015 had emerged as a major force in the Texas Legislature, donating millions of dollars to ultraconservative candidates — including Paxton as he successfully ran for attorney general — and pressing lawmakers to attack House leadership, namely then-Speaker Straus, from the right.

Stickland was Empower Texans' man in the House: During his first two years as a legislator, he received just $3,700 from the group and its funders. That number climbed to nearly $200,000 between 2013 and 2014. And from 2016 through 2018, they gave Stickland more than $850,000 — compared to $508,000 from all other donors combined. By the end of his career, Empower Texans and its main financiers gave Stickland $1.15 million — nearly half of the total contributions he received over his time as a lawmaker.

Maxwell, who later worked for Empower Texans, recalled a shift in Stickland as his ties to the group deepened. Both publicly and behind the scenes, Maxwell said, Stickland became a “total nuisance,” far more concerned with garnering outrage and annoying fellow legislators than he was with helping grassroots conservatives.

“At some point he realized this is a game,” Maxwell said. “He found that there was money in it as long as you keep your head down and beat the drum.”

In 2019, Stickland passed his very first bill — a ban on red light cameras — and soon after announced that he would not seek reelection, saying that he had "determined it is not in the Lord's will."

"Instead," he told supporters in an email, "I intend to dedicate more time to my family, my church, and my business."

Defend Texas Liberty

His retirement from the Legislature came at a pivotal moment for the state’s ultraconservative movement, which by then had been plagued by infighting and minor scandals. In 2019, McCarty was heavily criticized for Facebook posts in which she said she could "certainly understand" the motives of the racist gunman who murdered 22 people at an El Paso Walmart that year. Her group rebranded as the True Texas Project around the same time, and continues to work closely with Stickland.

In 2020, McDonald — the former Stickland chief of staff who went on to work for Empower Texans — was roundly criticized after the accidental release of unedited podcast audio in which he and Empower Texans vice president Cary Cheshire mocked Gov. Greg Abbott’s use of a wheelchair. Both were suspended. Not long after, Empower Texans was officially dissolved and its media website, Texas Scorecard, was spun off into a separate entity.

In March 2020, Defend Texas Liberty was registered with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Since then, Defend Texas Liberty and Stickland have functioned as the north star in a constellation of groups, movements and political offices that have received tens of millions of dollars from Dunn and Wilks, two West Texas oil tycoons who were key funders of Empower Texans. In 2022, Stickland also founded a consulting firm, Pale Horse Strategies, which has since received more than $830,000 from Defend Texas Liberty.

With Stickland at the helm, the state’s far right has vowed scorched-earth campaigns against those in the Texas GOP who they claim are RINOs — including sterling conservatives and one-time allies who’ve publicly defied Defend Texas Liberty, such as Reps. Briscoe Cain and Jeff Leach.

Chief among their enemies has been House Speaker Dade Phelan, who Stickland and his allies have perpetually accused of working with Democrats to hurt fellow Republicans. At the same time that he’s lobbed such accusations, Stickland has done exactly that — repeatedly trying to enlist a 20-year-old abortion rights activist, Olivia Julianna, to “collab” or amplify attacks against Phelan to her more than 1 million followers on various social media platforms.

“Thought we might both be able to appreciate Phelan stinks,” Stickland wrote in a message to Julianna along with a link to a video that claimed the speaker was drunk while presiding over House business in May.

“Get bent,” she replied, according to screenshots of direct messages she provided the Tribune.

Meanwhile, Stickland has continued to place a preeminence on outrage and trolling: He still works closely with McDonald; and gave a bonus to Shelby Griesinger, the current Defend Texas Liberty treasurer who has shared QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theories, after some of her social media posts were criticized as racist.

“Anytime progressive leftists are losing their minds I know you’ve done well,” Stickland wrote in an email to Griesinger, a screenshot of which she included on her TikTok. “Keep kicking the hornets next… Your Christmas bonus just got bigger.”

Stickland was similarly pleased after Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, posted a series of openly antisemitic screeds on X in 2022 that ended with him promising to go “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE.”

“The left is freaking out, will overreact, and make things worse. Thankful for those 'challenging authority,' by asking questions,” Stickland wrote in a post the same day that tagged Ye and Elon Musk, who at the time was being criticized for X's failure to combat skyrocketing antisemitism.

Stickland's behavior continued through the end of last year: He and his allies recruited Kyle Rittenhouse, the gunman who fatally shot two Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020, to work for Pale Horse Strategies; hired two far-right activists with documented histories of antisemitic and white nationalist views; controversially partnered with a shadowy company that pays Gen Z influencers to do undisclosed political marketing; and supported anti-immigration activists who sent fortune cookies to lawmakers amid debate over a bill to ban Chinese dual citizens from owning property in Texas and, in December, sent mailers to voters in Phelan’s district that shamed him for associating with Muslims.

The tactics have consistently been criticized by fellow conservatives, who say that Stickland and his allies care far less about advancing conservative policy than they do creating chaos and bringing in “yes men” such as Bryan Slaton, the former Royse City representative who was removed from the House last year after getting a 19-year-old aide drunk and having sex with her.

“They do not want people that are actually effective,” said Sheena Rodriguez, founder of Alliance for a Safe Texas, which advocates for stronger border security. “The people that they put forward all look the same. They all sound the same. They're all nuts. They're not serious people.”

Rodgriguez first got involved with the state’s grassroots movement around 2020, when she attended a training held by True Texas Project. She eventually spun off her own group and, in late 2021, said she was recruited by Defend Texas Liberty to endorse Don Huffines, the former state senator and businessman who was challenging Abbott in the Republican primary. Rodriguez said she initially planned to endorse Huffines’ hardline anti-immigration campaign, but decided to stay neutral. Not long after, she said, she received a phone call from someone in the Defend Texas Liberty orbit, who told her that she’d been branded as “uncontrollable” by Stickland.

A few months later, she said, she was in the exhibit hall at the Texas GOP convention when she stumbled upon a booth with promotional materials and talking points that were noticeably similar to her group’s. Confused, Rodriguez said she introduced herself to the young, bearded man there, who identified himself as Chris Russo, founder of a new organization called Texans For Strong Borders.

“‘Who is funding this?’” she recalled asking Russo. “He was like, ‘The same people behind” Empower Texans.

Russo did not respond to a request for comment.

"RATMSTR"

On a sunny Friday morning a year and a half after that Texas GOP convention, Russo steered his pickup truck into the parking lot of Pale Horse Strategies’ remote Tarrant County office. His passenger seat was empty; in the back seat, a scandalous passenger: Nick Fuentes.

[Leader of anti-immigration group Texans for Strong Borders also runs anonymous, hate-filled social media accounts]

By then, six years had passed since Fuentes attended the deadly “Unite the Right” rally at which tiki torch-waving neo-Nazis and fascists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one and leaving several counterprotesters maimed and bloodied. Soon after, Fuentes dropped out of Boston University to focus full time on his racist YouTube show, intermixing his antisemitic screeds with irony and humor that quickly drew a large following of young, far-right hatemongers united by their disdain for women and Jews.

Mirroring the Defend Texas Liberty playbook, Fuentes soon focused his energy on those within the GOP, hoping to pull the party and mainstream acceptability further to his views by attacking others from the right.

The strategy was “a hostile takeover of the Republican Party,” to quote Laura Loomer, a prominent white nationalist conspiracy theorist and Fuentes collaborator who Stickland praised in December.

When Fuentes arrived in Texas in October, he was greeted by old friends and young followers embedded in the Defend Texas Liberty orbit. Among them: Russo, who ran anonymous, bigoted social media accounts as his group helped push anti-immigration policies that were adopted by Texas lawmakers last year; and Ella Maulding, a die-hard Fuentes fan who'd recently parlayed her far-right online celebrity into a job coordinating social media for Pale Horse clients.

There, at the Pale Horse offices, Maulding stood in the parking lot making videos for Texans For Strong Borders while Rittenhouse and others unloaded furniture from a U-Haul and Fuentes and Russo sat inside. Later in the day, Stickland emerged from the building’s side door and climbed into his truck. His hair was grown long and and beard disheveled — preparation for an upcoming role as the Jewish narrator in a local play depicting the life of Jesus Christ — and Stickland was almost unrecognizable as he steered past a car with a reporter inside.

The truck’s license plate left no doubt who was driving.

“RATMSTR,” it read.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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Former Rep. Mayra Flores accused of cribbing others’ pictures of Mexican food as her own cooking

By Robert Downen 

The Texas Tribune

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

In a bizarre micro-scandal that some have dubbed “GrubGate,” a former GOP congresswoman who is running for her old seat in South Texas is being accused of routinely stealing photos of Mexican food from other social media accounts and passing them off as her own cooking.

Earlier this week, Mayra Flores, the first Mexican-born woman to serve in Congress, posted a photo on social media that she described as “gorditas de masa" with the caption, “the Ranch life with family is the best.”

Soon after, a user on X, formerly known as Twitter, pointed out that that the image was previously posted on a Facebook page, “Visit Guyana,” in March 2022. Others said that the food in the photo was not gorditas de masa. That prompted the conservative website Current Revolt to dig further into Flores’ social media accounts, where they found numerous other posts in which Flores used others’ photos of campfire cooking or homemade tortillas to illustrate her own idyllic life on a ranch.

“As a proud Latina who knows how to cook, homemade Mexican food tastes better from a gas stove,” she wrote alongside one photo of eggs and tortillas on what appears to be a wood-burning stove. The photo was initially posted on Facebook in 2021 by a Spanish-language magazine.

The Tribune separately reviewed Flores’ Instagram and found at least two such instances in the last year, including one post from July in which she shared a photo of meat and tortillas on a grill with the caption, “Joe Biden is not invited to the carne asada” in both English and Spanish. A reverse image search found that the exact photo was posted a year prior by a Facebook page for tourism in Tamaulipas — the state in Mexico where Flores was born.

In another post, she praised the “simple things in life” like a “good breakfast” alongside a photo that was first published two years ago by a Mexican food photographer.

In a text message on Wednesday, Flores said it wasn’t her “intention to mislead.”

“The photo simply reminded me of my upbringing in Mexico and childhood,” she said. “I deleted the tweet to clear up any confusion. I actually spend my Christmas at ranch with my In-Laws. Happy New Year!”

Asked to specify which of the photos she was referring to, Flores suggested that the Tribune focus on “the border crisis.”

She also changed her handle on X amid the criticism and has been blocking people on social media throughout Tuesday and Wednesday who have accused her of falsely passing the photos of cooking off as her own.

“The George Santos of the [Rio Grande Valley],” wrote the campaign for U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, who Flores is currently challenging.

Flores is running to retake the South Texas seat that she initially won in a June 2022 special election. Her win was seen by the GOP as a sign of momentum among heavily Hispanic voters there. But redistricting made the seat more favorable for Democrats in the November election, and Flores lost to Gonzalez.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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How Gov. Greg Abbott lost a yearlong fight to create school vouchers

By Patrick Svitek, Zach Despart, and Brian Lopez, The Texas Tribune

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Sharing the stage at the Brazos Christian School gymnasium in Bryan, Rep. John Raney rose from his seat next to Gov. Greg Abbott during a pro-school voucher rally and lavished praise on the governor’s education agenda.

“Gov. Abbott understands the value of a good education and the importance of giving parents control over their children’s education,” Raney said at the March event, adding that the governor “spent nearly every night” helping his daughter do her homework and that the first lady is a former teacher and principal.

Then, Abbott took to his lectern and reciprocated his admiration for Raney, saying the College Station Republican “represents Brazos County extraordinarily well.”

It seemed like a good sign for Abbott, who was in the midst of barnstorming the state to rally support for school vouchers in Texas. In previous legislative sessions, Raney had signaled in test votes that he was against any measure to use public dollars for students to attend private schools — like the one he was speaking at that night.

But 254 days — and four excruciating special sessions — later, Raney would lead the effort on the House floor to defeat the very proposal that brought the men together that evening. The so-called “Raney amendment” to strike vouchers out of an education omnibus bill in November was the final knell for Abbott’s 18-month crusade for school vouchers.

It also meant that public schools would not receive the $7.6 billion boost that Abbott had made conditional on the approval of vouchers.

The typically cautious governor has poured more political capital into vouchers than anything else in his eight years in office. He campaigned for reelection last year on the proposal, declared it a top legislative priority and played hardball — using teacher raises and public school funding increases as negotiating chips, vetoing bills by the GOP holdouts and threatening primary challenges to get his way.

He picked an ambitious fight, given the House’s historic resistance to school vouchers, but he thought the ground was ripe for a breakthrough.

Yet after a year of negotiations, threats and politicking, Abbott ended 2023 vexed by a bloc of 21 Republican holdouts who prevented a bill from reaching his desk. It wasn’t particularly close for Abbott, despite the fact that he routinely projected false optimism throughout the year.

Raney later said he introduced Abbott at the pro-voucher event because it is customary when the governor visits a lawmaker’s district. But the perceived betrayal by Raney — and other House Republicans who joined with Democrats to kill the education subsidy — has set Abbott on a warpath in the March primary, determined to install more lawmakers who will vote his way.

The Texas Tribune interviewed more than a dozen people, including lawmakers, staffers, lobbyists and others involved in voucher negotiations this year. Almost all of them declined to speak on the record because they were not authorized to discuss the private negotiations or because they feared political consequences.

According to their accounts, Abbott primarily failed because of his refusal to compromise on a universal program, open to every Texas student — instead of a more pared-down program for disadvantaged students. That was a line that the rural GOP holdouts could not be convinced to cross. Abbott also underestimated just how much those opponents considered their voucher opposition as a political article of faith, hardened by years of campaigning on it. And as his negotiating tactics grew more heavy-handed, he ossified some of the intraparty opposition.

"This is an issue, for the people who voted against a voucher, they are going to be against a voucher no matter what you do to it," said Will Holleman, senior director of government relations at Raise Your Hand Texas, a pro-public education advocacy group. These members, Holleman added, have a “muscle memory you’re not going to get away from.”

One House Republican close to the negotiations said Abbott was “a little overly optimistic.”

“A lot of House members — certainly rural Republican House members — would have suggested that he miscalculated,” the member said.

A hopeful spring

Abbott had been something of a fair-weather school voucher proponent before 2022, but as he ran for a third term, he saw the ground shifting. The COVID-19 pandemic had soured parents on public schools, and Republicans nationwide were seizing opportunities to become the party of “parental rights” after decades of Democrats owning education as an issue.

Abbott himself was also eyeing a larger national profile — potentially a 2024 presidential run — and was routinely being compared to Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, where school vouchers with universal eligibility became law in March.

In Texas, the Senate, which had passed a voucher bill in 2017, could be relied on to deliver again. But Abbott knew he had his work cut out for him in the House, since a large majority of House Republicans in 2021 opposed vouchers in a symbolic vote. Many of those voucher opponents represented rural districts and were otherwise considered allies whom he had previously endorsed.

Abbott knew he needed to show them that their constituents also wanted vouchers.

“I think he went into this completely eyes wide open, completely aware of the battle,” said Mandy Drogin, a veteran voucher activist who works at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the influential conservative think tank in Austin.

Starting in late January, Abbott and Drogin crisscrossed the state hosting nearly a dozen “Parent Empowerment Nights” at private schools in lawmakers’ backyards, pitching vouchers in the form of education savings accounts for every child in Texas. The state would deposit taxpayer funds in the accounts, and parents could use the money to cover private school costs, including tuition and books.

Drogin was impressed by Abbott’s persistence at the events. At Grace Community School in Tyler, a storm was moving in and they were told they had to end their rally early, Drogin said, but Abbott refused.

“He was not worried about getting home that night,” she said, “and he stayed in that gym and met every single parent to hear their story.”

Abbott invited the anti-voucher Republicans to join him at events in their districts. That put those members in a tough position. Do they attend and be seen as supportive of Abbott’s crusade, or do they snub the governor entirely?

Rep. Hugh Shine, R-Temple, appeared at one of Abbott’s earliest Parent Empowerment Nights, and like Raney, ultimately voted to thwart the governor’s priority.

Back at the Capitol, Abbott met individually with over 50 House Republicans during the regular session and discussed school vouchers. His schedule shows it was a wide range of members, from the pro-voucher faithful to at least 10 of the 21 Republicans who ultimately voted for the voucher-killing amendment, like Raney and Shine.

In those meetings, Abbott made clear how important the issue was to him personally.

Rep. Cody Harris, a Palestine Republican who had run for election as an anti-voucher Republican, told Abbott he remained “extremely skeptical” of vouchers in their meeting, even after introducing Abbott at a Parent Empowerment Night in his district. He would later flip in support of vouchers.

The first major gauge of Abbott’s influence arrived in April as the House considered the budget. It had become a biennial tradition for Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, to propose an amendment that prohibited any funding for voucher programs. It was seen as a symbolic vote because the amendment did not make it into the final budget, but this time, it took on new meaning amid Abbott’s push.

Abbott’s chief of staff, Gardner Pate, and legislative affairs director, Shayne Woodard, spent the days before that vote feeling out House Republicans. Abbott himself paid a rare visit to the House floor two days before. If you’re still undecided on the policy, they told members, vote present.

Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, chair of the House Public Education Committee, delivered a similar plea on the floor. The amendment to ban vouchers passed 86-52, with 11 members registered as “present not voting,” including Harris.

Abbott’s staff was pleased. It was progress. In 2021, the amendment passed 115-29, with 49 Republicans voting to ban vouchers in the test vote. This time, only 24 Republicans took that same stand.

Anti-voucher advocates had mixed emotions. They won, but the governor’s lobbying blitz and the shifting numbers suggested the amendment would not be the usual nail in the coffin.

A voucher bill never reached the House floor during the regular session, but in its final weeks there was some hope.

In early May, key negotiators were closing in on a bill that had Abbott’s blessing. Buckley, a convert who opposed vouchers in 2021, tried to call a snap committee meeting to advance legislation, but state Rep. Ernest Bailes, a Republican from Shepherd and outspoken voucher opponent, stood up and rallied the House to deny the panel permission to meet.

The procedural attack worked, and it showed perhaps for the first time that the anti-voucher GOP faction was unafraid to fight back against Abbott.

In response, Buckley devised a scaled-back bill, but Abbott threatened to veto it on the eve of a committee hearing. The problem? It limited eligibility to students with disabilities or those who attended an F-rated campus.

It was far short of the governor’s demand for a universal program, a sticking point that would only intensify in the coming months.

The summer slump

By the end of the regular session, Abbott’s voucher push was overshadowed by the House’s impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton. Vouchers fell to the back burner again as Abbott called a first — and then second — special session to address property tax relief.

From Abbott’s perspective, the voucher battle would resume in late fall.

Abbott continued to remind lawmakers he was serious. As he went on a bill-vetoing spree to try to force a property-tax deal out of the two chambers, he also vetoed at least a dozen bills with the reasoning that they could wait until “after education freedom is passed.”

Anti-voucher Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, was among those who had a bill vetoed, but he only dug in. He told a Republican group back home that he would continue voting against vouchers, and while he was willing to listen to Abbott’s pitch, he did not take kindly to threats.

Pressure was also increasing on House Speaker Dade Phelan, himself a Republican from a rural district, who had kept his distance from Abbott’s voucher push. Going into 2023, he knew the votes probably were not there, and saw little incentive to take the lead on a proposal that fractured his GOP majority.

That is not to say he was uninterested in ending the yearlong standoff. When he had a rare meeting with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the final days of the regular session, he suggested the Senate add vouchers to a public school funding bill that was still pending in the upper chamber. The Senate obliged, but the bill died in final inter-chamber negotiations.

Phelan tried something new when members were called back for the first special session, appointing a select committee to consider vouchers and other education issues. Its 15 members included some of the most firm opponents of vouchers in either party, leaving the impression that if a proposal could make it through the committee, it could pass the full House.

Asked about the prospects of vouchers in August, Phelan continued to hedge, saying it would come down to “members voting their districts.”

“There’s always hope,” he said, “but no guarantee.”

Vouchers get a vote

During a call with pastors previewing the third special session — when vouchers were set to take the center stage — Abbott shared a glimpse of optimism: "The votes seem to be lining up."

But he also offered a warning for House Republicans: They could choose “the easy way” — getting a bill to his desk — or “the hard way” — facing his wrath in the primaries.

Behind the scenes, Abbott’s office was attempting a reset with the House. Who did they need to negotiate with to get a deal? Phelan’s office pointed them to Buckley and two of the speaker’s lieutenants — Reps. Will Metcalf and Greg Bonnen — plus Rep. Ken King of Canadian.

Metcalf and Bonnen had previously signaled support for vouchers in test votes, but King stood out. About a year earlier, he vowed voucher bills would be “dead on arrival.”

Despite his past rhetoric, King was seen as open to a compromise on vouchers, in exchange for more money for schools. But he eventually voted for the Raney amendment.

Those members relayed their discussions with the governor’s office to another group of House Republicans that included additional holdouts.

Amid the negotiations, Abbott’s office held firm on a few aspects of the proposal. They wanted to cap enrollment in the program based on available funding, not number of students, and they balked at requests to add a sunset, which would have required legislative approval to renew it periodically. Either idea would just mean more high-stakes wrangling with lawmakers in the coming years.

As talks continued, Abbott kept up his statewide tour, telling parents in San Antonio that "too many" House Republicans were claiming they were not hearing from their voters about the issue.

Rep. Glenn Rogers, R-Graford, was firmly opposed throughout the year but nonetheless asked his staff to analyze constituent correspondence during the third and fourth special sessions. Eighty-eight percent were against vouchers, he said.

Abbott, meanwhile, was exuding increasing confidence that a deal was nigh. Three days into the third special session, he declared at a pro-voucher conference in Austin that the House was “on the 1-yard-line.” But when Buckley filed his legislation a week later, Abbott rejected it, saying it was inconsistent with their negotiations. Abbott called Phelan and told him as much in a blunt call.

The negotiators went back to the drawing board and came up with a proposal Abbott could support. It paired vouchers with even more money for public schools.

But there was a problem. Abbott had pledged to consider items like teacher bonuses only after the Legislature approved vouchers. School funding and raises were not included on the special session call so legislators were prohibited from considering them.

Then, as the end of the third special session was nearing, Abbott curiously declared victory, issuing a statement saying he had “reached an agreement” with Phelan on school choice for Texas families. The statement surprised Phelan, who considered the only deal to be to expand the call, according to a source familiar with his thinking. He knew it was the only way for vouchers to have even a fighting chance at that point.

The issue was left dangling as the third session ended.

By the start of the fourth special session, House leadership knew it needed to get a bill to the floor, no matter its chances. It would be a tough vote for some members, but the alternative was endless special sessions — potentially closer to the primary — and the House was already struggling to maintain quorum.

Buckley introduced a voucher bill paired with bonuses for teachers and increased per-student spending on public schools, a $7.6 billion sweetener intended to entice the holdouts. It was sent to the House select committee, which held a hearing and voted it out along party lines, including with anti-voucher Republicans voting for it.

For the first time in recent history, a voucher bill was headed to the House floor.

It was not long after the committee vote that any momentum was dampened. The anti-voucher Republicans had only voted for it in committee because they wanted to get it to the floor, and they knew there would be an amendment to remove the voucher program.

Abbott promised to veto the bill and keep calling special sessions if that happened. But after months of roller coaster negotiations and increasing political threats, the anti-voucher Republicans were ready to call his bluff.

By this point, some involved in the debate questioned whether Abbott still believed he could get a bill to his desk — or if he was just looking for a floor vote that could crystallize battle lines for the primary. The day before the bill was set to reach the floor, Abbott’s top political adviser, Dave Carney, sent out a playful tweet asking if others had noticed that the “quality of new candidates in TX [is] higher then normal?”

To carry the voucher-killing amendment, GOP holdouts settled on Raney, who had already announced he was not seeking reelection. Knowing he had to give his fellow Republicans a case they could make to primary voters, he told them he believed in his heart that “using taxpayer dollars to fund an entitlement program is not conservative.”

The amendment passed 84-63, with 21 Republicans in favor — almost the same bloc of opposition that existed earlier in the year (75 votes was the threshold for passage).

The House went into recess and dozens of members piled into the back hall to debate their next steps. Should they still pass the bill without the voucher program? Billions of dollars in public education funding were still at stake, after all. After a somewhat chaotic debate, they decided not to, realizing that sending Abbott a bill he had already threatened to veto would only inflame the situation further.

About an hour after the House adjourned that day, Abbott gathered in his office with roughly a dozen pro-voucher House Republicans, including members of House leadership. The mood was somber, and a frustrated Abbott wanted to know what the game plan was. Buckley and others in attendance promised to work around the clock to salvage the bill in the coming days.

But what was clear to most everyone in the room was that the 21 holdouts were not moving. It was time to go home and let primary voters weigh in.

Abbott’s dealbreaker

The ending was somewhat surprising to voucher supporters. Some expected the House to pass the bill with vouchers stripped out, sending it to the Senate, which would have added it back in. Then both chambers would have hashed out a final compromise which may have included some version of vouchers.

“What we had been told was that, look, ‘These guys need to show that they're fighting,’” said Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands.

But for the rural Republicans at the frontlines of the voucher battle, Abbott’s insistence on universal eligibility doomed the effort from the start.

“It was just a bridge too far,” said one House Republican close to the negotiations.

Abbott had repeatedly said in public that he wanted to give “every parent” the opportunity to find the best education for their child. Some Republicans thought it was just a bargaining position.

They were wrong. Abbott and other school choice advocates considered the concept of “parental rights” to be absolute — subject to “no imaginary boundary,” as Drogin put it in an interview.

Furthermore, they were confident they could successfully push for it in this political environment. That was crystallized during one committee hearing when Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, asked Scott Jensen, a national pro-voucher lobbyist, if he could support a program whose eligibility was limited to “only poor kids.”

“We used to, in states all across the country, when that was the best we could do for kids in the state,” Jensen replied. “But now we have found there is building public support all across the country for these programs to be broad-based.”

When it came to the politics of vouchers, the holdouts also had a lot to think about. Many of them previously campaigned against vouchers — proudly so in some cases — and it was hard to consider reversing themselves.

Abbott’s campaign commissioned polling in 21 Republican districts and presented it to members, trying to emphasize how popular the policy was back home. Abbott himself constantly cited how nearly 90% of primary voters statewide approved a pro-voucher ballot proposition in 2022.

Holdouts were skeptical of the polling language and found their personal experience with constituents more convincing.

Abbott got at least one House Republican to square his past opposition with the new political landscape. Harris, the Palestine Republican, acknowledged in a statement after the Raney amendment vote that he was first elected in 2018 as “the anti-voucher candidate.” But he ultimately became moved by the stories he heard in the House Public Education Committee of parents desperate for new schooling options for their kids.

“For those who say that you cannot support both public education and school choice, we will have to agree to disagree,” Harris wrote. “I hope you will continue to vote for me, but if you don’t, that’s OK.”

Despite such conversions, voucher opponents never felt a sea change between the regular session and the final vote. But they knew Abbott was pulling out all the stops, so they remained vigilant.

Every Democrat present eventually voted for the Raney amendment, but that was not always guaranteed.

Rumors were spreading that Abbott was courting several Democrats — perhaps as a negotiating tactic to build pressure on GOP holdouts — and the House Democratic Caucus was especially watchful of at least a couple of its members. Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins of San Antonio, the founder of a San Antonio charter school, had publicly urged fellow Democrats to be open to compromise if vouchers were inevitable.

The Democratic caucus chair, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio, had tapped two colleagues from Austin, Reps. Gina Hinojosa — his former rival for caucus chair — and James Talarico, to help lead their voucher opposition.

The caucus went all-out to consistently message against vouchers, but when it came time for the Raney amendment, they laid low. In a memo the day before the vote, caucus leaders asked members to “allow our Republican colleagues to conduct this debate amongst themselves.”

The rural Republicans were staring down a tough vote, the caucus reasoned, and the best path to defeating vouchers was avoiding the appearance of a Democratic-led fight.

Primary season

While Abbott has held open the possibility he could call a fifth special session to push through vouchers, he has more recently turned his attention to replacing the holdouts. As of Thursday, he had endorsed six primary challengers to House Republicans who voted for the voucher-killing amendment.

Abbott has zeroed in on the voucher issue so much that he is backing primary challengers who have politically opposed him in the past. For example, he has backed Rogers’ opponent, Mike Olcott, who donated nearly $30,000 to multiple Abbott primary challengers in 2022.

“I’ve supported the governor on every single legislative priority … except this one,” Rogers said. “He’s always supported me until this came along, and all of a sudden he’s supporting somebody who is an enemy. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Abbott faces several political headwinds. House Republicans are mindful that the last time he significantly meddled in their primaries in 2018, only one out of the three Abbott-backed challengers prevailed. And this time, he has to contend with sometimes dueling endorsements from Paxton, who cares much more about unseating the Republicans who voted to impeach him.

“I am just gonna say it,” Michelle Smith, Paxton’s longtime political aide, posted recently on social media. “I support school choice, but in this primary season, the only issue for me, is did you vote to illegally impeach [Paxton]?”

Republicans involved in the primaries acknowledge that vouchers may poll well but say the support lacks intensity. A poll released Tuesday by the University of Texas at Austin found Republicans overwhelmingly supported voucher programs but ranked “border security” or “immigration” as the top issues facing Texas by a wide margin.

But Abbott and his allies believe they are in a new political moment — and holdouts are whistling past the graveyard. They have looked to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who helped unseat several anti-voucher Republicans last year to make way for the state’s new voucher program.

As for Raney, Abbott will not get a chance to unseat the retiring lawmaker. But he has already endorsed the GOP frontrunner to replace Raney, Paul Dyson, saying he is confident Dyson will “expand school choice for all Texas families once and for all.”

Disclosure: Raise Your Hand Texas, Texas Public Policy Foundation and 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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Ken Paxton and aides ordered to answer questions under oath in whistleblower case

By Patrick Svitek 

The Texas Tribune

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A Travis County district judge has ordered Attorney General Ken Paxton and three top aides to sit for depositions in the 3-year-old whistleblower lawsuit against him.

At a hearing Wednesday in Austin, Judge Jan Soifer granted the whistleblowers’ motion to compel the depositions of Paxton; Brent Webster, the first assistant attorney general; Lesley French Henneke, chief of staff at the agency; and Michelle Smith, Paxton’s longtime political aide.

Paxton himself was coincidentally served earlier in the day at a restaurant in Austin, according to a whistleblower lawyer, Tom Nesbitt.

“In this case, I believe the plaintiffs have shown good cause that these four people have unique and superior knowledge of discoverable information,” Soifer said from the bench, adding that the four people were “not just figureheads” but people who knew about issues “at the heart” of the case.

The whistleblowers asked the court last month to force Paxton and his aides to sit for depositions. They said their filing was a last resort after they could not reach an agreement with lawyers for the Office of the Attorney General.

It remains to be seen if Paxton’s side will further fight the depositions. His office’s attorney, Bill Helfand, declined to comment to reporters as he left the courthouse.

“They lost badly,” Nesbitt told reporters after the hearing. “I don’t put anything past Ken Paxton. There’s no limit to the amount of taxpayer money he will spend to hide from accountability, so I’m sure they’ll try some kind of appeal.”

The whistleblowers are four former top deputies — Blake Brickman, Ryan Vassar, David Maxwell and Mark Penley — who sued Paxton in 2020, arguing he improperly fired them after they reported him to the FBI. They alleged he was abusing his office to help a wealthy friend and donor, Nate Paul.

They came close to settling with Paxton for $3.3 million in February, but the Texas House balked at using taxpayer dollars for the figure and decided to investigate the underlying claims. That triggered Paxton’s impeachment by the House in May. The Senate acquitted him after a trial in September.

The whistleblowers sought to restart their lawsuit after the impeachment verdict, and the Texas Supreme Court cleared the way for them to do so. But Paxton’s office quickly fought the revived lawsuit in Travis County, suing the whistleblowers in neighboring Burnet County to block it.

Paxton’s lawyers lost in Burnet County and have since abandoned that lawsuit.

Soifer ruled against Paxton’s side earlier in the hearing, rejecting their motion to enforce the tentative settlement agreement. It had been their latest effort to effectively shut down the case in Travis County by arguing it was already settled.

They have made that argument despite the Legislature still not approving the $3.3 million, one of the provisions of the agreement.

“It says [it] in plain English,” Soifer said.

When it came to the depositions, Nesbitt argued Paxton’s testimony was especially relevant. His office has publicly said Paxton is the “decision-maker” for the hiring and firing of employees.

“Ken Paxton made these decisions,” Nesbitt said, telling Soifer that it is virtually unheard of for someone to argue in an employment case that the “decision-maker … somehow doesn’t have special knowledge, doesn’t have unique knowledge.”

Helfand argued the four people were protected by the apex doctrine, a legal doctrine that seeks to protect high-level executives from overzealous litigants. Helfand told Soifer she should order the whistleblowers to seek depositions from other people first, and if those do not yield the information they want, they could then address the question of deposing Paxton and the three aides.

Helfand appeared to anticipate an unfavorable ruling and proactively asked Soifer that if she were to order the depositions, they should be “severely limited” in time and scope. He also said he would want to depose the plaintiffs first because they carry the burden of proof in the case.

Soifer appeared to reject both requests in her ruling, saying she would allow the depositions by the whistleblowers first and was “not inclined to put any limitations on these depositions.”

The timing of the depositions remains to be seen. After the ruling, Helfand asked the judge if the depositions could wait until after the third week of January, citing personal scheduling conflicts. Nesbitt said their side was OK with that.

As for Paxton's deposition, Nesbitt said it was a coincidence that he was served on the same day of the hearing.

"We’ve been trying to find him for a long time," Nesbitt said. I mean, the dude hides. ... And so we finally found him. We got a tip that he was going to be at a restaurant at a particular time."

Nesbitt did not name the restaurant where Paxton was served. He said Paxton was having "some kind of little holiday lunch" when it happened.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Ken Paxton and aides ordered to answer questions under oath in whistleblower case

By Patrick Svitek 

The Texas Tribune

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

A Travis County district judge has ordered Attorney General Ken Paxton and three top aides to sit for depositions in the 3-year-old whistleblower lawsuit against him.

At a hearing Wednesday in Austin, Judge Jan Soifer granted the whistleblowers’ motion to compel the depositions of Paxton; Brent Webster, the first assistant attorney general; Lesley French Henneke, chief of staff at the agency; and Michelle Smith, Paxton’s longtime political aide.

Paxton himself was coincidentally served earlier in the day at a restaurant in Austin, according to a whistleblower lawyer, Tom Nesbitt.

“In this case, I believe the plaintiffs have shown good cause that these four people have unique and superior knowledge of discoverable information,” Soifer said from the bench, adding that the four people were “not just figureheads” but people who knew about issues “at the heart” of the case.

The whistleblowers asked the court last month to force Paxton and his aides to sit for depositions. They said their filing was a last resort after they could not reach an agreement with lawyers for the Office of the Attorney General.

It remains to be seen if Paxton’s side will further fight the depositions. His office’s attorney, Bill Helfand, declined to comment to reporters as he left the courthouse.

“They lost badly,” Nesbitt told reporters after the hearing. “I don’t put anything past Ken Paxton. There’s no limit to the amount of taxpayer money he will spend to hide from accountability, so I’m sure they’ll try some kind of appeal.”

The whistleblowers are four former top deputies — Blake Brickman, Ryan Vassar, David Maxwell and Mark Penley — who sued Paxton in 2020, arguing he improperly fired them after they reported him to the FBI. They alleged he was abusing his office to help a wealthy friend and donor, Nate Paul.

They came close to settling with Paxton for $3.3 million in February, but the Texas House balked at using taxpayer dollars for the figure and decided to investigate the underlying claims. That triggered Paxton’s impeachment by the House in May. The Senate acquitted him after a trial in September.

The whistleblowers sought to restart their lawsuit after the impeachment verdict, and the Texas Supreme Court cleared the way for them to do so. But Paxton’s office quickly fought the revived lawsuit in Travis County, suing the whistleblowers in neighboring Burnet County to block it.

Paxton’s lawyers lost in Burnet County and have since abandoned that lawsuit.

Soifer ruled against Paxton’s side earlier in the hearing, rejecting their motion to enforce the tentative settlement agreement. It had been their latest effort to effectively shut down the case in Travis County by arguing it was already settled.

They have made that argument despite the Legislature still not approving the $3.3 million, one of the provisions of the agreement.

“It says [it] in plain English,” Soifer said.

When it came to the depositions, Nesbitt argued Paxton’s testimony was especially relevant. His office has publicly said Paxton is the “decision-maker” for the hiring and firing of employees.

“Ken Paxton made these decisions,” Nesbitt said, telling Soifer that it is virtually unheard of for someone to argue in an employment case that the “decision-maker … somehow doesn’t have special knowledge, doesn’t have unique knowledge.”

Helfand argued the four people were protected by the apex doctrine, a legal doctrine that seeks to protect high-level executives from overzealous litigants. Helfand told Soifer she should order the whistleblowers to seek depositions from other people first, and if those do not yield the information they want, they could then address the question of deposing Paxton and the three aides.

Helfand appeared to anticipate an unfavorable ruling and proactively asked Soifer that if she were to order the depositions, they should be “severely limited” in time and scope. He also said he would want to depose the plaintiffs first because they carry the burden of proof in the case.

Soifer appeared to reject both requests in her ruling, saying she would allow the depositions by the whistleblowers first and was “not inclined to put any limitations on these depositions.”

The timing of the depositions remains to be seen. After the ruling, Helfand asked the judge if the depositions could wait until after the third week of January, citing personal scheduling conflicts. Nesbitt said their side was OK with that.

As for Paxton's deposition, Nesbitt said it was a coincidence that he was served on the same day of the hearing.

"We’ve been trying to find him for a long time," Nesbitt said. I mean, the dude hides. ... And so we finally found him. We got a tip that he was going to be at a restaurant at a particular time."

Nesbitt did not name the restaurant where Paxton was served. He said Paxton was having "some kind of little holiday lunch" when it happened.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas GOP executive committee rejects proposed ban on associating with Nazi sympathizers

By Robert Downen 

The Texas Tribune

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Two months after a prominent conservative activist and fundraiser was caught hosting white supremacist Nick Fuentes, leaders of the Republican Party of Texas have voted against barring the party from associating with known Nazi sympathizers and Holocaust deniers.

In a 32-29 vote on Saturday, members of the Texas GOP’s executive committee stripped a pro-Israel resolution of a clause that would have included the ban. In a separate move that stunned some members, roughly half of the board also tried to prevent a record of their vote from being kept.

In rejecting the proposed ban, the executive committee's majority delivered a serious blow to a faction of members that has called for the party to confront its ties to groups that have recently employed or associated with outspoken white supremacists and extremists.

In October, The Texas Tribune published photos of Fuentes, an avowed admirer of Adolf Hitler who has called for a “holy war” against Jews, entering and leaving the offices of Pale Horse Strategies, a consulting firm for far-right candidates and movements.

Pale Horse Strategies is owned by Jonathan Stickland, a former state representative and at the time the leader of a political action committee, Defend Texas Liberty, that two West Texas oil billionaires have used to fund right-wing movements, candidates and politicians in the state — including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Matt Rinaldi, chairman of the Texas GOP, was also seen entering the Pale Horse offices while Fuentes was inside for nearly 7 hours. He denied participating, however, saying he was visiting with someone else at the time and didn’t know Fuentes was there.

Defend Texas Liberty has not publicly commented on the scandal, save for a two-sentence statement condemning those who've tried to connect the PAC to Fuentes’ “incendiary” views. Nor has the group clarified Stickland's current role at Defend Texas Liberty, which quietly updated its website in October to reflect that he is no longer its president. Tim Dunn, one of the two West Texas oil billionaires who primarily fund Defend Texas Liberty, confirmed the meeting between Fuentes and Stickland and called it a “serious blunder,” according to a statement from Patrick.

In response to the scandal — as well as subsequent reporting from the Tribune that detailed other links between Defend Texas Liberty and white supremacists — nearly half of the Texas GOP’s executive committee had called for the party to cut ties with Defend Texas Liberty and its auxiliary groups until Stickland was removed from any position of power, and a full explanation for the Fuentes meeting was given.

The proposed demands were significantly watered down ahead of the party’s quarterly meeting this weekend. Rather than calling for a break from Defend Texas Liberty, the faction proposed general language that would have barred associations with individuals or groups “known to espouse or tolerate antisemitism, pro-Nazi sympathies or Holocaust denial.”

But even that general statement was too much for the majority of the executive committee. In at-times tense debate on Saturday, members argued that words like “tolerate” or “antisemitism” were too vague or subjective. The ban, some argued, was akin to “Marxist” and “leftist” tactics, and would create guilt by association that could be problematic for the party, its leaders and candidates.

“It could put you on a slippery slope,” said committee member Dan Tully.

Rinaldi abstained from voting on the ban, but briefly argued that antisemitism is not a serious problem on the right before questioning what it would mean to "tolerate" those who espouse it. "I don't see any antisemitic, pro-Nazi or Holocaust denial movement on the right that has any significant traction whatsoever," he said.

Supporters of the ban disagreed. They noted that the language was already a compromise, didn’t specifically name any group or individual and would lend credence to resolutions in which the Texas GOP has generally condemned antisemitism and restated its support for Israel.

“To take it out sends a very disturbing message,” said Rolando Garcia, a Houston-based committee member who drafted the language. “We’re not specifying any individual or association. This is simply a statement of principle.”

Other committee members questioned how their colleagues could find words like “antisemitism” too vague, despite frequently lobbing it and other terms at their political opponents.

“I just don’t understand how people who routinely refer to others as leftists, liberals, communists, socialists and RINOs (‘Republicans in Name Only’) don’t have the discernment to define what a Nazi is,” committee member Morgan Cisneros Graham told the Tribune after the vote.

House Speaker Dade Phelan similarly condemned the vote Saturday evening, calling it “despicable.”

The Texas GOP executive committee “can’t even bring themselves to denounce neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers or cut ties with their top donor who brought them to the dance,” Phelan wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “There is a moral, anti-Semitic rot festering within the fringes of BOTH parties that must be stopped.”

For two months, Phelan and his staff have routinely and publicly sparred with some in the party – namely Rinaldi, a longtime political foe – over how to address the Fuentes scandal and extremism more broadly. After the Tribune first reported on the Fuentes meeting, Phelan called on fellow Republicans to redirect money from Defend Texas Liberty to pro-Israel charities, a request that quickly drew the ire of Patrick and others who accused Phelan of politicizing antisemitism and demanded he resign.

After subsequent reporting by the Tribune on Defend Texas Liberty's ties to white supremacists and other extreme figures, Patrick said he was "appalled" and that antisemitism is "not welcome in our party." He then announced that the he had invested the $3 million he recently received from Defend Texas Liberty in Israeli bonds.

Patrick reiterated that stance late Saturday night, calling the executive committee's vote "totally unacceptable" and saying that he is "confident" the board will reconsider the ban at its February meeting.

"This language should have been adopted – because I know that is our position as a Party," Patrick wrote on X. "I, and the overwhelming majority of Republicans in Texas, do not tolerate antisemites, and those who deny the Holocaust, praise Hitler or the Nazi regime."

Saturday’s vote is the latest sign of major disunity among the Texas GOP, which for years has dealt with simmering tensions between its far-right and more moderate, but still deeply conservative, wings. Defend Texas Liberty and its billionaire backers have been key players in that fight, funding primary challenges to incumbent Republicans who they deem insufficiently conservative, and bankrolling a sprawling network of institutions, media websites and political groups that they’ve used to incrementally pull Texas further to the right.

The party’s internecine conflict has exploded into all-out war since the impeachment and acquittal of Paxton, a crucial Defend Texas Liberty ally whose political life has been subsidized by the PAC’s billionaire funders.

After Paxton’s acquittal, Defend Texas Liberty vowed scorched-earth campaigns against those who supported the attorney general’s removal, and promised massive spending ahead of next year’s primary elections. (Before the Saturday vote, executive committee members separately approved a censure of outgoing Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, over his lead role in the investigation and impeachment of Paxton.)

News of the Fuentes meeting has only complicated Defend Texas Liberty's retribution plans, as infighting intensifies and some Republicans question whether the group and its billionaire funders should have so much sway over the state party.

Meanwhile, Defend Texas Liberty's allies and beneficiaries have tried to downplay the scandals and discredit the Tribune's reporting, claiming the Fuentes meeting was a one-off mistake or attacking critics as RINOs, in bed with Democrats to suppress true conservatives.

Ahead of Saturday’s vote, Defend Texas Liberty-backed Reps. Nate Schatzline, R-Fort Worth, and Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, briefly spoke to the executive committee.

The day prior, Sen. Bob Hall — an Edgewood Republican who has received $50,000 from Defend Texas Liberty — was also at the Austin hotel where executive committee members were meeting, and in a speech condemned attempts to cut ties with the group based on what he called “hearsay,” “fuzzy photographs” and “narratives.”

“If you want to pass a resolution, I would make it positive,” Hall said to executive committee members on Friday. “We don’t need to do our enemy’s work for them.”

Hall reiterated that stance in an interview with the Tribune, calling the Fuentes meeting a “mistake” but claiming that there was “no evidence” that Stickland or Defend Texas Liberty are antisemitic. “I've had meetings with transgenders, gays and lesbians,” Hall said. “Does that make me a transgender, gay or a lesbian?”

Asked if he was comparing gay people to white supremacists or Hitler admirers like Fuentes, Hall responded: “I’m talking about people who are political hot potatoes.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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Whistleblowers ask judge to order Ken Paxton, aides to sit for depositions

By Patrick Svitek 

The Texas Tribune

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Lawyers for the Ken Paxton whistleblowers are moving forward with their lawsuit in Travis County after another judge cleared the way, asking the Austin-based court to force the attorney general and his top aides to sit for depositions.

The whistleblower lawyers filed a motion Tuesday to compel the depositions, calling it a last resort after they could not reach an agreement with lawyers for the Office of the Attorney General.

“OAG’s effort to resist these straightforward depositions is nothing more than a continuation of OAG’s cynical effort to deny Plaintiffs their right to access to the justice system,” the whistleblower lawyers wrote.

The whistleblower lawyers specifically want to take depositions from Paxton; Brent Webster, the first assistant attorney general; Lesley French Henneke, chief of staff at the agency; and Michelle Smith, Paxton’s longtime political aide. The lawyers proposed a schedule where Paxton is deposed Dec. 12, Webster on Dec. 14, Henneke on Dec. 18 and Smith on Dec. 20.

A lawyer for Paxton’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The whistleblower lawyers filed the motion a week after a district court judge in Burnet County gave the green light for the Travis County lawsuit to continue. Lawyers for Paxton’s office had sued the whistleblowers in nearby Burnet County to try to stop their lawsuit in Travis County, arguing they were breaking the terms of a tentative settlement agreement they struck in February. While the Burnet County judge, Evan Stubbs, first agreed to temporarily halt the Travis County case, he sided with the whistleblowers at the Nov. 14 hearing and allowed the case to proceed again.

The whistleblowers — Blake Brickman, Ryan Vassar, David Maxwell and Mark Penley — sued Paxton in 2020, arguing he improperly fired them after they reported him to the FBI. They alleged he was abusing his office to help a wealthy friend and donor, Nate Paul.

The whistleblowers almost settled with Paxton for $3.3 million in February, but the Texas House balked at using taxpayer dollars for it and decided to investigate the underlying claims. That led to Paxton’s impeachment in the House in May.

The Travis County lawsuit came back to life in September after the Texas Senate acquitted Paxton in his impeachment trial, which centered on similar claims of corruption by former top deputies in his office. After the acquittal, the whistleblowers asked the Texas Supreme Court to reinstate the case and it did, sending it back to Travis County for trial.

Shortly after the whistleblowers sought to restart work on the case in Travis County — giving notice they planned to take depositions of Paxton and the three aides — Paxton’s office filed suit in Burnet County.

In their latest filing, the whistleblowers’ lawyers say the Burnet County lawsuit was just the latest delay tactic by Paxton’s side in the 3-year-old case. The lawyers asked the Travis County court to compel the depositions so that the whistleblowers “may at long last pursue justice.”

If the whistleblowers’ motion is granted, it would be the first time Paxton would be required to answer questions under oath related to the allegations of bribery and corruption made against him. Paxton did not take the stand in his Senate trial in September.

While the Burnet County judge, Stubbs, allowed the Travis County case to restart last week, the more recent lawsuit in his court remains pending. Stubbs set a Dec. 14 hearing on a motion by the whistleblowers to change the venue to Travis County.

With the Travis County case revived, the whistleblowers have also asked for the court to assign it to a single judge. Their lawyers made the request in a filing last week, citing the “unusual characteristics” and “high-profile facts” involved.

Paxton's side has not made any recent filings in the Travis County case other than to submit a copy of the tentative settlement agreement. Lawyers for Paxton's office have been arguing that the case is already effectively resolved and that any further litigation goes against that.

The whistleblower lawyers made clear to the Travis County court in a second filing Tuesday that they strongly disagree. They noted the settlement depends on a number of things that still have not happened, including legislative approval of the $3.3 million.

"This case is not settled," the filing said, "and as the third anniversary of its filing has recently passed, the time has come to prepare the case for trial."

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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