Gov. Greg Abbott says he won't impose new mask mandate despite increasing COVID-19 cases

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Gov. Greg Abbott says he will not impose another statewide mask mandate, despite COVID-19 cases being on the rise again.

"There will be no mask mandate imposed, and the reasons for that are very clear," Abbott told KPRC in Houston on Tuesday. "There are so many people who have immunities to COVID, whether it be through the vaccination, whether it be through their own exposure and their recovery from it, which would be acquired immunity."

It would be "inappropriate to require people who already have immunity to wear a mask," Abbott said.

While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks indoors in most settings, the World Health Organization is still encouraging everyone to wear masks while inside.

As the delta variant has spread, some key pandemic indicators have increased in Texas. On Sunday, the state's positivity rate — the ratio of cases to tests — went above 10% for the first time since February, a threshold that Abbott has previously identified as dangerous.

As of Sunday, 43% of Texans were fully vaccinated.

Abbott lifted the statewide mask requirement in March.

Two months later, he announced he was banning government entities — including public schools — from mandating masks. Abbott reiterated Tuesday that Texas schoolchildren will not face mask requirements as they return to school later this summer.

"Kids will not be forced by government or by schools to wear masks in school," Abbott said. "They can by parental choice wear a mask, but there will be no government mandate requiring masks."

George P. Bush outraises Attorney General Ken Paxton in primary challenge debut, though Paxton has bigger war chest

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Land Commissioner George P. Bush kicked off his attorney general campaign by outraising the incumbent, fellow Republican Ken Paxton, and another primary challenger, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman. But Paxton has more money saved up for the battle than both of his opponents.

According to campaign finance reports released Friday, Bush raised $2.3 million over the last 10 days of June, while Paxton took in $1.8 million and Guzman collected $1.1 million. The campaigns had announced those figures earlier in the week, making clear Bush would be the fundraising leader for the period.

The filings that came out Friday, though, showed Paxton with a clear cash-on-hand advantage — $6.8 million in reserves. Bush reported $2.7 million in cash on hand, while Guzman disclosed $611,000.

The GOP primary for attorney general is shaping up to be one of the hottest statewide contests of the election cycle, with Paxton facing the two opponents amid an FBI investigation into claims that he abused his office to help a wealthy donor and a long-running securities fraud indictment. He has denied wrongdoing in both cases.

Making the primary even more dramatic is the fact that former President Donald Trump has teased an endorsement in the race.

The 2022 gubernatorial race has also drawn early interest. Gov. Greg Abbott already faces at least three primary rivals, including former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas and former Texas GOP Chairman Allen West, the most recent entrant. West announced his campaign July 4, which came after the period covering by the latest filings with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Huffines announced his Abbott challenge in early May, and his campaign claimed last week that he "raised over $9.1 million since entering the race." However, his report shows that was a misleading claim — his campaign had $9.1 million in receipts, but $5 million of it came via Huffines himself. He directly loaned himself $500,000 and secured a bank loan of $4.5 million that he guaranteed.

Abbott, meanwhile, announced last week that he raked in over $18.7 million during the last 10 days of June and had $55 million cash on hand, a massive war chest even by the high fundraising standards Abbott has previously set. Huffines disclosed a cash-on-hand balance of $7.6 million.

Abbott's full report, including information on his donors, was not immediately available Friday morning.

Huffines, however, had a top contributor in his brother, Phillip Huffines, who gave $2 million.

In the GOP primary for attorney general, Paxton's top donors included the Republican Attorneys General Association and Midland oilman Douglas Scharbauer. Each donated $250,000.

Bush got some of his biggest contributions in installments of $100,000 each from Dallas oil mogul Trevor Rees-Jones, Woodlands lawyer Arnulfo Eduardo Treviño Garza and H.H. 'Tripp' Wommack Ill, the CEO of a Midland oilfield services company.

Guzman's donor list was led by Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the tort reform group that backed her quickly after she launched her bid. She got $200,000 from TLR, as well as $100,000 from its founder, Dick Weekley.

On the Democratic side of the race, the candidates include Joe Jaworski, a Galveston lawyer and former mayor of the city, and Lee Merritt, the well-known civil rights attorney from North Texas.

Jaworski raised $452,000 during the first half of the year, according to his latest TEC filing, and ended the period with a balance of $525,000. Merritt did not officially announce his campaign until Tuesday — after the period covered by the latest reports — though he has had a TEC account open since early June and reported $100,000 in donations from Real Justice PAC, a national group that mainly works to elect progressive prosecutors at the local level.


Texas Dems may walkout again during voter suppression special session: 'Everything is on the table'

Outnumbered and virtually powerless to block conservative priorities they oppose, Democrats in the Texas Legislature say they are keeping their options open as they prepare for a special session that is expected to revive the GOP elections bill they killed last month.

The line coming from Democrats across the spectrum: "Everything is on the table." That includes another walkout like the one that doomed Senate Bill 7 in the final hours of the regular legislative session when Democrats broke quorum. But this time, such a move could now imperil the pay of their staffers, since Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed the funding for the legislative branch while telling lawmakers they could restore it in the special session that starts in less than a week.

"From a caucus perspective, since we're going into the unknown, we have to keep every option open, which includes denying quorum," said Rep. Jessica González of Dallas, vice chair of the House Elections Committee. "I think a lot of folks want to see what would be in [the elections bill] before making a decision."

She said House Democrats are "trying to get a sense of where the majority of our caucus is," but that consensus is "to be determined." Similarly, Rep. Nicole Collier of Fort Worth said during a Texas Tribune event Tuesday that "right now, there has not been any type of resolution or concerted efforts."

"Everything is on the table," Collier said. "We're not going to remove any options at this point."

There are still a number of unknowns before Democrats can settle on a strategy, including what the full agenda will be for the special session, how Abbott will structure it and what the elections bill will look like. Abbott announced June 22 that the special session will begin July 8 but offered no other details, only saying the agenda would be announced before the session starts.

Democrats will also have to consider Abbott's veto of funding for the Legislature for the two-year budget cycle starting Sept. 1. That gives lawmakers an incentive to participate in the special session — or potentially sacrifice their staffers' pay. Abbott's veto was in retribution for the Democrats' walk out, but it affects more than 2,100 legislative staffers and individuals working at legislative agencies. (Abbott has acknowledged the lawmakers' salaries are protected by the state Constitution.)

Last week, Democrats and staffers sued over Abbott's veto, asking the state Supreme Court to reverse it. Abbott's office faces a Monday deadline to respond to the lawsuit.

The elections bill is unlikely to be the only proposal that Democrats will have to strategize against in the special session. In addition to vowing to bring back the voting legislation, Abbott has also said he would resurrect Republican priority proposals to crack down on "critical race theory" in Texas classrooms and punish social media companies for allegedly censoring Texans for their political views.

House Democrats sought to regroup for the coming battles during a meeting Monday at the Hotel Van Zandt in Austin. Roughly half of the 67-member caucus attended, according to three people who were present.

The head of the caucus, Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, said members "had a productive meeting, discussing our litigation challenging Gov. Abbott's unconstitutional veto of the Legislature, as well as the upcoming special session."

"House Democrats are united and prepared to fight for all Texans, especially when it comes to defending the sacred right to vote," Turner said in a statement.

SB 7, the bill that Democrats derailed in the regular session, would have put new limits on early voting hours, local voting options and mail ballots. Critics of the bill have called it an attempt at voter suppression that disproportionately affects Texans of color.

Whatever Democrats decide to do, it could only cause another temporary delay in consideration of the election bill given that they remain in the minority at the Legislature and only one Republican — Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio — has shown interest in splitting with his party.

Abbott's veto only further backed them into a corner.

Rep. Armando "Mando" Martinez of Weslaco, one of the Democrats who walked out, said in an interview Wednesday that Abbott's veto was "extremely juvenile" but that the potential loss of staff pay was "absolutely" weighing on him as July 8 nears. Still, he expressed optimism that Democrats would be able to navigate the conundrum.

"I think Democrats have always been resilient in the way that we use the rules to our benefit," Martinez said, adding that he was "very confident" that Democrats would ultimately coalesce around a strategy.

The special session also presents potentially tough choices for some Republicans, namely House Speaker Dade Phelan. After the walkout, he drew the wrath of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who charged Phelan with mismanaging the House calendar and allowing Democrats the opportunity to break quorum. Phelan has denied that.

At the same time, Phelan has said he will not resort to the most drastic of measures — locking the chambers doors and dispatching state police — if Democrats seek to abandon the chamber again. His office is nonetheless emphasizing its commitment to finishing the job on the voting legislation.

"If it takes a hundred special sessions, the Texas Legislature will pass an election integrity bill that instills further confidence in the accuracy of our elections," Phelan spokesperson Enrique Marquez said in a statement for this story.

Both Texas Republicans and Democrats will have to deal with more national attention than they did during the regular session. That is particularly true as voting rights battles shift even more to the states after Republicans in the U.S. Senate blocked Democrats' far-ranging elections overhaul last week. Democratic state lawmakers in Texas had tried to leverage their walkout to force a breakthrough on the federal legislation, known as the For the People Act.

Among Democrats organizing outside the Texas Capitol, there has been virtually unanimous deference to lawmakers in the special session beyond voicing support for their everything-on-the-table approach. Beto O'Rourke, who spent weeks touring the state about voting rights after the walkout, said during a recent interview that Democratic legislators "have done so much so far, and I'm confident they're gonna do whatever it takes in any special session."

"There's nothing that they shouldn't consider," said Glenn Smith, senior strategist for Progress Texas, the Austin-based Democratic group.

One question for Democrats is how much they should work with Republicans on the elections legislation, especially after they were largely cut out of negotiations over the final version of SB 7 at the end of the regular session. Those talks produced a bill that GOP negotiators later admitted was flawed, saying they made mistakes with regard to the early voting window for Sundays and a process for overturning elections.

"Building that trust back would be a hard thing," Smith said, adding that he thinks Democrats "will talk [with Republicans], but I think we'll be very weary of what they're saying."

To be clear, House Democrats were not unanimous in their decision to break quorum over SB 7, and several appeared to stay behind, including a group of border-area representatives.

One of them, Rep. Eddie Morales of Eagle Pass, said in a text message Tuesday that he "supported and will continue to support" fellow Democrats who walked out, but in his case, he felt it was best to remain on the floor with other Democrats from the border region and argue against the bill in person.

"As far as this special session goes," Morales said, "I need to visit with the rest of my colleagues and leadership to see what strategies we plan on using."

Gov. Greg Abbott says he’ll solicit individuals for donations to fund his plan for a border wall

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When Gov. Greg Abbott announced last week that Texas would build its own border wall, one of the immediate questions was who would pay for it.

Abbott has not fully detailed the plan yet, but he said in a podcast interview released Tuesday that the state will be soliciting donations from across the country to help fund the wall.

"When I do make the announcement later on this week, I will also be providing a link that you can click on and go to for everybody in the United States — really everybody in the entire world — who wants to help Texas build the border wall, there will be a place on there where they can contribute," Abbott said on the podcast, a show about Republican politics called "Ruthless."

Abbott made national headlines with his announcement Thursday in Del Rio that Texas would build its own wall at the Mexico border, though he provided no further details and said he would lay out the plan this week.

In the meantime, Abbott has faced threats of legal action and a bevy of questions about where, when and how such a wall could be constructed.

Abbott said in the podcast interview that the donations to Texas' border wall will go to a fund "overseen by the state of Texas in the governor's office." He promised "great transparency," saying "everyone will know every penny in, every penny out, but the sole purpose for those funds will be going to build the border wall."

Abbott's plan would not be the first attempt to crowdfund a border wall. There was We Build The Wall, a private fundraising effort that raised more than $25 million after originally planning to construct 3 miles of fence posts in South Texas. Last year, four people involved in We Build The Wall — including Steve Bannon, the former adviser to President Donald Trump — were charged with allegedly defrauding donors to the effort. Trump pardoned Bannon before leaving office in January.

A closer parallel to Abbott's plan may date to 2011, when the Arizona Legislature passed a law establishing a fund, complete with a fundraising website, to construct a fence along the state's border with Mexico. The fund received almost $270,000 by 2014, and a state border security advisory committee decided to give most of the sum to a county sheriff in 2015. The sheriff instead invested the money in border security technology such as GPS systems and binoculars, according to the Arizona Republic.

In a period of conflicts and crises, Gov. Greg Abbott goes all in on the border

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When former President Donald Trump endorsed Gov. Greg Abbott for reelection last week, it was a boon to a governor who, by all appearances, has been working assiduously to neutralize any problems he may have in his next Republican primary.

But one line from Trump's statement in particular may have been the sweetest victory to Abbott.

"No Governor has done more to secure the Border," Trump proclaimed.

That is because there is no issue that Abbott has been more openly focused on this year — and competition has been stiff. There has been the coronavirus pandemic, the winter weather crisis and a host of Republican priorities at the state Capitol, including the elections bill that Democrats killed last month and Abbott has promised to revive in a yet-to-be-called special session.

Abbott's intense concentration on the border reached an apex Thursday evening, when he traveled to Del Rio to make several announcements related to border security — including that Texans would soon build its own border wall. He offered no details beyond that a plan would come next week, and many questions remain about where he'd get the money, land and authority to take such a drastic action. But the context was clear: Abbott is maneuvering to establish himself as a national Republican leader on border security — and the top foil to President Joe Biden on the issue.

Politically, the focus also comes as Abbott faces an electorate persistently worried about the border, a contested 2022 primary for reelection and the lead-up to a 2024 presidential race from which he still has not removed himself from consideration.

The border security summit that Abbott held in Del Rio capped months of ramped-up activity by the governor on the border. He fought with the Biden administration in March about letting in migrants with coronavirus. He ratcheted up the state law enforcement presence on the border through an initiative known as Operation Lone Star. He asked border-area counties to provide estimates of the financial stress they are under so he can request federal reimbursement. He called for the closure of San Antonio migrant shelter over what he said were complaints of child abuse.

Earlier this month, he ordered the state to revoke licenses issued to shelters that house unaccompanied migrant kids, drawing a threat of legal action from the Biden administration.

Abbott has sharply blamed Biden every step of the way, taking him to task for doing things like pausing border wall construction and ordering a review of the Trump administration's Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the "remain in Mexico" policy, which requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until their hearings in U.S. immigration courts.

The number of people stopped by federal law enforcement at or near the border for trying to enter the country illegally has climbed sharply in the first year of Biden's term. The number reached 180,000 in May, which was the highest in more than two decades.

Democrats say Abbott is being hypocritical after not being nearly as outspoken about border problems under Trump.

"He did not seem too concerned about the border when Donald Trump was putting kids in cages and separating families and just doing the horrible things he did," said Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the state Democratic Party. "Given the great Christian man that he claims to be, he never cared one iota about the suffering that these children were going through, and that's just terrible."

In between all the border-related announcements, Abbott has become a more regular presence than ever on Fox News and other conservative outlets. After the border security summit, Abbott did an interview with Fox News host Laura Ingraham from the same stage at the Del Rio Civic Center.

In the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, conducted in mid-April, border security and immigration reigned supreme as the top concerns for Texans. Thirty-seven percent of voters picked them as the leading problems facing the state today. Among Republicans, the number was 65%, and no other issue came close. (Coronavirus got 3%.)

"It shouldn't surprise anyone that Greg Abbott is a border security hawk," said John Wittman, a former longtime spokesperson for the governor. "He ran on this in 2014 … and has continued to follow through on this."

Wittman argued Abbott was not playing politics but "being responsive to the current situation" under Biden.

Of course, Abbott's critics in both parties see it differently. Abbott primary challenger Don Huffines has been campaigning on Texas building its own border wall, and in a cheeky statement after Abbott's border security summit, Huffines thanked the governor for "joining my campaign."

"The wall should have been built years ago and the only reason Governor Abbott is now discussing it is because he's facing a primary challenge that threatens his political power," Huffines said in a statement for this story.

Allen West, the outgoing Texas GOP chairman who is considering challenging Abbott, also had a response to the governor Thursday evening. "Looking forward to Governor Abbott finishing the #borderwall for #Texas," West tweeted, sharing a video of him last month touring a border-wall section near El Paso.

Some of Abbott's critics inside his party noted that if he was serious about Texas finishing Trump's border wall, he could have supported legislation by state Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, to do so during the regular session earlier this year. The legislation, House Bill 2862, was referred to a committee in March but never got a hearing. In a Facebook post Thursday evening, Slaton urged Abbott to add the proposal to any special session agenda.

How competitive Abbott's 2022 primary will be remains to be seen, especially after Trump's endorsement. But it is hard to dispute that Abbott this year has been acting like an elected official acutely concerned with his right flank — not just due to his border security fixation, but also his embrace of hard-right legislative priorities like the permitless carry of handguns in which he had previously shown little interest.

Bryan Snyder is the chairman of the Republican Party in Maverick County, which is along the border and two counties over from where Abbott appeared for his border security summit. Snyder said the overall reaction from local Republicans to Abbott's border handling this year has been "very positive." He does not think Abbott's 2022 primary will be competitive, especially after Thursday evening.

"Honestly no, I really don't," Snyder said, "and I think this really seals the deal for him too."

Some suspect Abbott is looking beyond even 2022 with his intense focus on the border — and to a potential presidential campaign two years later. On Friday morning, the League of United Latin American Citizens issued a statement in which its president, Domingo Garcia, accused Abbott of "using refugee children as political piñatas to cynically launch his run for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination."

Hinojosa said Abbott was politicizing "things that he feels will help him be in a better position to run for president."

In an interview last week, Abbott continued to keep a 2024 campaign on the table. He said he was still prioritizing issues from the regular legislative session and would only be focused on 2022 when he starts campaigning again — but did not rule out a presidential campaign after that when given the opportunity to do so.

Kamala Harris to host White House meeting with Texas Democrats who blocked voting bill

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Vice President Kamala Harris is hosting a meeting next week at the White House with Democratic state lawmakers who killed Texas Republicans' priority elections bill in the regular session.

The meeting will take place Wednesday, according to a statement from Harris spokesperson Symone Sanders. The White House did not immediately share which lawmakers would attend, but the House Democratic Caucus tweeted a list of 10 legislators who it said would be there.

Democrats in the Texas House staged a walkout late last month that doomed the legislation, Senate Bill 7, that would have brought sweeping changes to the voting process in Texas. Gov. Greg Abbott has vowed to bring it back in a yet-to-be-called special session.

SB 7 had caught the attention of President Joe Biden, who issued a statement the day before the walkout that denounced the legislation as "part of an assault on democracy." The bill included provisions to limit early voting hours, curb local voting options and further tighten vote-by-mail rules.

According to the House Democratic Caucus, the lawmakers who will attend the meeting include Reps. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, Nicole Collier of Fort Worth, Rafael Anchia of Dallas, Jessica González of Dallas, Senfronia Thompson of Houston, Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio and Gina Hinojosa of Austin, as well as Sens. Carol Alvarado of Houston, Royce West of Dallas and Beverly Powell of Burleson.

Since the walkout, the Democrats have used the national spotlight to urge passage of federal voting rights legislation. Martinez Fischer reiterated that in a statement on the news of the meeting with Harris.

"We are deeply appreciative that Vice President Harris understands what is at stake and is leading the way to protect our democracy," Martinez Fischer said. "We are honored to stand with her, Congressional Democrats, and the entire Biden Administration."

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush announces run for attorney general against Ken Paxton

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Land Commissioner George P. Bush announced Wednesday that he is running for attorney general, challenging fellow Republican Ken Paxton with a sharp focus on Paxton's legal troubles.

"Enough is enough, Ken," Bush said during a campaign kickoff at a downtown Austin bar. "You've brought way too much scandal and too little integrity to this office. And as a career politician for 20 years, it's time for you to go."

The 2022 matchup could be the marquee statewide primary of this election cycle, and former President Donald Trump already looms large. He said in a statement last week that he would issue an endorsement in the race — and do so "in the not-so-distant future." Bush told reporters after his announcement that he has asked Trump for his endorsement.

Both Bush and Paxton have histories with Trump. Bush — son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — was the only prominent member of his famous political family to support Trump in 2016, and Trump has praised him as the only Bush "that got it right." Paxton has positioned himself as one of the most pro-Trump attorneys general — especially after the November election, when Paxton led an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging Trump's reelection loss in four battleground states.

Paxton's campaign responded to Bush's launch by touting the attorney general as the "tip of the spear in protecting President Trump's America First principles."

Paxton has been under indictment on securities fraud charges for most of the time since he took office in 2015. More recently, he has come under investigation by the FBI over allegations from former senior aides that he abused his office to help a wealthy donor. He has denied wrongdoing in both cases.

On Tuesday, Paxton asked a state appeals court to dismiss a whistleblower lawsuit brought by the former aides. His lawyers argue that under state law, a whistleblower must believe someone has violated the law, but the aides only reported that "they expected laws might be violated."

"We need an attorney general stacking up mugshots of hardened criminals," Bush said, "not an attorney general that's stacking up mugshots of himself."

Paxton's campaign did not address the legal issues in its statement on Bush's announcement. The statement from Paxton campaign spokesperson Ian Prior said Texans "know Attorney General Paxton's rock-solid conservative record."

"Voters will also remember how General Paxton lead the effort to shut down Backpage, one of the largest human trafficking sites in the world, and even Mr. Bush publicly acknowledges there is no more conservative fighter than Attorney General Ken Paxton," Prior said, an apparent reference to Bush previously saying that he does not intend to challenge Paxton on conservative credentials but his integrity.

During his speech to supporters, Bush warned that Democrats are eager to face Paxton in November because they see him as "our weak link."

"They know that if he is our nominee again, they will have their first statewide elected office in close to 30 years," Bush said.

At least one Democrat, Joe Jaworski, has already launched a campaign for attorney general. Jaworski is a Galveston attorney and former mayor of the city. Lee Merritt, the nationally recognized civil rights lawyer from North Texas, has said he plans to challenge Paxton but has not specified which primary he would run in.

Despite the long-running indictment, Paxton faced no primary opposition for a second term 2018. He ended up having a closer-than-expected race in the general election, when the Democratic nominee, Justin Nelson, campaigned heavily on Paxton's legal troubles and finished within 4 percentage points of him.

Bush was first elected land commissioner in 2014 and won a second term four years later. He's received considerable pushback over his office's restoration project of the Alamo, the historical site in San Antonio that the General Land Office oversees.

In 2018, dissatisfaction with Bush's management of the Alamo project fueled three primary challengers to the land commissioner, most notably his predecessor, Jerry Patterson. Trump endorsed Bush in that primary, and he went on to win with 58% of the vote.

In recent weeks, Bush has taken heat in his job after his office gave Houston and Harris County $0 of the $1 billion available in the latest round of federal relief funding related to Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Under bipartisan criticism, Bush said last week he was asking the federal government to send $750 million directly to Harris County.

The Bush-Paxton matchup has the potential to splinter top Texas Republicans, or at least put them in an awkward position. The last time one statewide official challenged another in Texas was in 2006, when Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn unsuccessfully ran as an independent against GOP Gov. Rick Perry.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn has already indicated he will not get involved in the Bush-Paxton primary, and in an interview with The Texas Tribune on Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott said he was not focusing on 2022 campaigns yet — but did offer praise for Paxton.

"I think everybody knows that I've had a very effective working relationship with the attorney general," Abbott said, adding that Paxton has been a "big help" to the governor's office. "I think he's done a very effective job in fights that we are waging together."

Democrats' defeat of Texas voting bill adds an asterisk to Republicans’ 'most conservative' legislative session

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Before Sunday, some Texas Republicans were declaring this legislative session the most conservative in the state's recent history.

They had notched long-sought breakthroughs expanding gun rights and restricting abortion, and while some argued even more could have been done, few disputed they had ample achievements to tout.

But a massive asterisk fell upon the session for Republicans late Sunday night, when House Democrats broke quorum and killed Senate Bill 7, a GOP priority bill to tighten election laws in the state, which opponents say would have restricted voting rights, particularly for people of color and the elderly and disabled. That move left several other bills that were pending final approval dead on the final day lawmakers could pass legislation, including a bill identified as a priority by Gov. Greg Abbott that would have made it harder for people arrested to bond out of jail without cash.

"Texans shouldn't have to pay the consequences of these members' actions -- or in this case, inaction -- especially at a time when a majority of Texans have exhibited clear and express support for making our elections stronger and more secure," House Speaker Dade Phelan said in a statement.

The Democrats celebrated their victory on Sunday, but that could be short-lived. Republicans are now staring down a guaranteed special session to get the job done on SB 7 — and potentially a host of other issues that could further escalate intraparty tensions.

Democratic leaders said they know Republicans will try to bring the issue back in a special session and are preparing to fight it back again.

"We're outnumbered. There's no doubt about it. Republicans are in the majority," said Rep. Chris Turner, chair of the House Democratic Caucus. "Democrats are going to continue to use every tool in our toolbox to slow them down, to fight them, to stop them. What that looks like weeks or months down the road, I can't predict at this point, but we're going to fight with everything we've got."

SB 7 had been a top priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Abbott, who named "election integrity" one of his five initial emergency items earlier this year. After the House gaveled out for the night, Patrick didn't hold back in comments from the Senate dais, criticizing the lower chamber for taking days off near the end of the legislative session as bill-killing deadlines approached.

"I can't even blame it on the other party for walking out," said Patrick, a Republican. "They got an opportunity to walk out because of the deadline."

Revisiting the topic a short time later, Patrick, who's been increasingly at odds with Phelan as the session wound down, said the "clock ran out on the House because it was managed poorly. That's the bottom line."

Phelan, a fourth term state representative from Beaumont, is in his first session as House speaker.

Even before Sunday night, Patrick and like-minded House Republicans were laying the groundwork to argue the session was not as conservative as it could have been. After three of his priorities died in the House last week, Patrick called for a special session to revive the proposals, including one that would ban transgender student athletes from playing on teams that correspond with their gender identity.

No Republican leader is now in more of a squeeze than Abbott, who on Saturday tweeted that the "most conservative legislative session in a generation is wrapping up." He will have to decide when to hold a special session and what all to put on the agenda to appease his right flank, just as the statewide primary season is beginning to heat up for the 2022 elections. Abbott expressed disappointment that both the sweeping voting bill and bail reform, two of his priorities for the session, had failed to get legislative approval.

"It is deeply disappointing and concerning for Texans that neither will reach my desk. Ensuring the integrity of our elections and reforming a broken bail system remain emergencies in Texas," Abbott said in a statement. "They will be added to the special session agenda."

Abbott did not say if he would call lawmakers back for a special session before a planned session in the fall to handle the state's decennial redrawing of political maps. But he said lawmakers would be expected to have worked out the details to both of those items by the time they arrived for a special session.

The House Republican Caucus, which had fueled the billing of this session as the "most conservative" the chamber has seen, said in a statement that it is "fully committed to taking all necessary steps to deliver on election integrity and bail reform." Most House Republicans who spoke out Sunday night echoed that sentiment, denouncing Democrats as obstructionists and expressing perseverance for the special session. "Ready to get back to work," tweeted Rep. Briscoe Cain of Deer Park, the House sponsor of SB 7.

But not all House Republicans were as willing to overlook their mishaps. Reps. Bryan Slaton of Royse City and Jeff Cason of Bedford, who regularly test GOP leadership, noted that Republicans had months to pass such an election bill in the House and waited until the last possible day, despite it being well-known that the minority party was dead set against the legislation.

"Democrats can only kill a bill that Republican leadership lets them kill," Slaton wrote on Facebook.

Democrats said at a news conference Sunday night at Mt. Zion Fellowship Hall in Austin that they had prepared to use procedural tactics to kill Senate Bill 7 by running out the clock until midnight, the deadline to accept bills worked out in conference committees. More than 30 Democrats were prepared with questions and points of order to delay the bill's discussion.

But when they were not allowed to ask questions on the floor or use the delay tactics they had prepared, Democrats resorted to the last tool they had left: breaking quorum.

The tactic is a legislative last resort and has been used rarely in recent memory, most notably in 2003 when Democrats in both chambers left the state to delay votes on redrawing political maps. The Democrats ultimately returned to the Legislature and, after three special sessions called by then-Gov. Rick Perry, passed the redrawn political maps, which cemented GOP dominance in the state.

On Sunday night, Democratic leaders got wind that Republican lawmakers had gathered the necessary 25 signatures to end debate on a bill and call for a vote.

At 10:35 p.m., Turner, the Democratic caucus chair, sent a text to other Democrats to take the keys to their voting machines and discreetly leave the chamber, and then, the building.

About 10 minutes later, when the House called for a vote on a procedural matter to excuse an absence for Rep. Joe Moody, D- El Paso, lawmakers confirmed that they no longer had a quorum to conduct business.

"We were determined. We know how to talk for a long time when we need to. That's what we were doing and it was working," Turner said at the news conference. "They were prepared to cut us off and try to silence us. We were not going to let them do that. And that's why Democrats used the last tool available to us, we denied them the quorum."

Democratic lawmakers said they had been frustrated by a session in which GOP leaders had pushed through controversial legislation on social issues. Republicans pushed through permitless carry of handguns, a near-total ban on abortion, penalties for cities that cut police budgets, a proposal targeting the teaching of critical race theory — even a Patrick priority to require that professional sports teams with state government contracts play the national anthem at the start of every game.

"Why is there so much legislation that's arguably hateful coming to the floor?" Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, told The Texas Tribune. "I've been here four sessions. I've never experienced a session where so many hateful bills have come to the floor. They always have been at the back of the line."

Romero said he was also upset by the lack of decorum in the House. Republicans, he said, jeered at Democratic lawmakers and had threatened to call for votes repeatedly throughout the session while the minority party was trying to use legislative procedures to stall on legislation their constituents opposed.

"I don't blame that on Dade Phelan, but on his lieutenants," Romero said. "They're not secretive about it. They're so disrespectful. And it has been so disrespectful all year long."

Turner also deflected blame from Phelan and pointed it squarely at Abbott.

"I hold Greg Abbott responsible. He's the governor of the state of Texas," he said. "He set in motion this entire process by demanding a vote suppression bill come to his desk. And why is he doing that? He's doing that because [of] the 'big lie.' Because Donald Trump has set this fever upon the Republican Party that the election was stolen."

Before Sunday, the mood among Republicans was general satisfaction with the session — and among Democrats, downright disgust. The laundry list of conservative priorities at times overshadowed the dual crises that lawmakers were confronted with toward the beginning of the session: the coronavirus pandemic and February winter storm that left millions of Texans without power.

"It's been a strong session for business, a strong session for pro-life, it's going to end up a good session for public education, and we had a good budget," said Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, who has served in the Texas House since 1999. "All in all, there's some things I wish we'd gotten done, but there always is."

Rep. Ann Johnson of Houston, the only Democrat to flip a House seat last year, had a decisively different take in an interview Friday.

"This has been one of the hardest sessions, and it's felt painful for me," Johnson said. "When I talk to my older colleagues, they say this is the worst it's ever been. And so when you look at what we've seen happen, with Democrats being run over on social issues — and social issues that I don't believe the majority of Texans agree with — it's been gut-wrenching."

By Monday morning, Johnson had one less thing to worry about for now.

"I was proud to stand up for our democracy today," she said in a statement, "and walk out to kill SB 7 with my colleagues."

The trouble with Texas

The 2021 Texas legislative session is heading into its final weekend fraught with uncertainty and tension between the two chambers that could lead to a special session.

After three of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's priorities effectively died Tuesday night in the House, the Senate presiding officer called for a special session to pass them, jolting the final several days of a session that was already on track to be the most conservative in recent memory. The last day of the session is Monday, and procedural deadlines have been increasingly cutting off opportunities to hash out key issues.

In some ways, it is a familiar story from past sessions: Tensions between the two chambers are peaking, and Patrick is putting pressure on Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session for unfinished business on conservative priorities. Patrick got his way in 2017, forcing a special session in an ultimately failed push to pass legislation to regulate bathroom use by transgender people.

Patrick specifically wants a June special session — prior to the special session that Abbott is widely expected to call this fall to address redistricting and COVID-19 relief funds. Abbott indicated Wednesday he was not immediately on board with Patrick's demand, and he put a finer point on his resistance Thursday afternoon during an unrelated news conference in Fort Worth.

“That's pretty goofy because everybody knows there's only one person with the authority to call a special session, and that's the governor," Abbott said of Patrick's push for a special session, adding that those agitating for a special session should be careful what they wish for.

During special sessions, lawmakers are only allowed to consider legislation on subjects selected by the governor. Abbott said that if he initiates a special session, he would not load up the agenda with multiple items for lawmakers to address at once but would “go one item at a time."

“So if anyone tries to hold hostage this legislative session to force a special session," Abbott said, “that person will be putting their members, in the Senate or the House, potentially into a special session for another two years because I'm gonna make sure that we get things passed, not just open up some debating society."

Patrick appeared caught off-guard by Abbott's “goofy" comment later Thursday, asking a TV interviewer multiple times if the governor had really said it. Patrick went on to say it was “not goofy" to request a special session, arguing it was the only option left to him at this point in the session, despite Abbott's insistence that there is still time to salvage the three items.

Also in TV interviews Thursday afternoon, Patrick denied that the Senate was purposely sitting on legislation to trigger a special session. Speculation ramped up around that possibility overnight when the Senate missed a deadline to consider a seemingly must-pass bill to extend the life of state agencies.

“I support the governor but I'm pointing out that, and clearly he's the person that can call it, only person, but I have a right and so does everyone else to ask him to call it and that's what I'm doing," Patrick told Spectrum News in Austin. “And there was a reference about holding hostage, I'm not holding anything hostage."

At the Fort Worth news conference, Abbott insisted he “strongly" supports the three incomplete priorities that prompted Patrick's call for a special session: Punishing social media companies for "censoring" Texans based on their political viewpoints, outlawing transgender students from playing on sports teams based on their gender identity and banning taxpayer-funded lobbying. The issues cap a session that has already seen a slew of long-sought wins for conservative activists, including permitless carry of handguns and a “heartbeat" bill that could ban abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

Despite the high-stakes staredown with Patrick, Abbott downplayed any perceived disunity among the state's leaders, saying the back and forth was to be expected in the final days of a session.

“If the leaders in the Legislature will stop fighting with each other and start working together," Abbott said in Fort Worth, “we can get all of this across the finish line."

Abbott and Patrick traded comments as lawmakers Thursday afternoon sent Abbott a roughly $248 billion spending plan for the state for the next two years, which is the only legislation constitutionally required to pass during a regular session.

But the comments between the two also came after tensions had been simmering inside each chamber for days. Last Thursday, the House stopped work for the week out of frustration that the Senate wasn't passing enough of its priority bills.

Patrick hardly concealed his disdain for the House in remarks to the senators from the dais on Wednesday night, speaking hours after his special session demand.

"As you all know, the House was not here Friday," Patrick said. “The House was not here Saturday. The House has already quit for today. So we're working hard, we're passing bills— they weren't here for two days in the last five. They're gone now. They killed key bills of yours last night, because they weren't here."

The Senate ended up working hours past midnight Wednesday.

As the senators worked, House Speaker Dade Phelan attempted to enter the chamber to watch proceedings but was denied entry because he did not have a wristband proving he had tested negative for the coronavirus, as Quorum Report first reported. Members, staff and the general public have been required to have a negative COVID-19 test before entering the chamber floor or gallery as part of the Senate's pandemic protocols that have been in place throughout session.

Phelan “ is always welcome in the TxSenate and was not denied entry [tonight]," the lieutenant governor's office tweeted early Thursday morning. “Messengers offered to get him a wristband, but the Speaker declined and left."

In a jab at the Senate later that morning, Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican and top lieutenant of the speaker, rattled off statistics comparing the number of House bills and Senate bills the two chambers have taken action on in a series of questions from the chamber's back microphone.

Is it true, Burrows asked Phelan, that “less than 50% of the House bills that we sent over were passed by the Senate, are you aware of that?"

“The chair is not advised," the speaker replied.

“By comparison," Burrows said, “of those bills considered and passed, is it true that we passed 75% of the Senate bills sent over to us?"

“75% is a lot of Senate bills and sounds accurate, Mr. Burrows," Phelan said.

Burrows' line of questioning seemed to reflect the frustration felt by some House members such as Rep. James White, a Hillister Republican, who told the Tribune on Thursday that the Senate had not yet acted on three of his legislative priorities for the session.

White, who chairs the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, said his committee “did not delay one damn Senate bill" this session.

“Tension is good sometimes," White said. “We're all working hard, and I'm proud of the work my committee did."

Other House members were not afraid to take shots at the Senate on Thursday, including Rep. Lyle Larson, a San Antonio Republican.

“The GOP senate bashing the GOP house last night for not working late," Larson tweeted, referring to Patrick's comments made in the Senate the night before. “DP Ego .. ugh."

House Democrats had been most focused on killing Senate Bill 29, which would require transgender student athletes to play on sports teams based on their sex assigned at birth instead of their gender identity. Waving blue and pink transgender pride flags, Democrats celebrated when the midnight deadline to pass the bill came before a vote had been held.

In a radio interview the next morning, one Senate Republican vowed that the issue of transgender student athletes would remain front and center.

“It's not going away," Sen. Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills said, speaking minutes before Patrick issued his call for a special session. “You can delay this, but this is not going away."

Abbott has not been outspoken about bills targeting transgender youth this session, though he said during a Fox News appearance last month that he would sign a bill like SB 29.

Like in 2017, Abbott again finds himself facing intraparty pressure to call a special session ahead of a reelection year. This time, though, Abbott is facing more opposition from his right: He has already drawn a primary challenger in former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas, and Texas GOP Chairman Allen West and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller have not ruled out bids against Abbott.

Huffines said Wednesday he backed “calls for an imminent special session," while West voiced support for a special session as long as it addresses the state party's legislative priorities. One of those priorities is abolishing taxpayer-funded lobbying.

Miller, meanwhile, said in an email to supporters Wednesday that a special session to pass Patrick's three unfinished priorities “now looks likely."

Reese Oxner contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/05/27/texas-legislature-special-session/.

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

Bill legalizing permitless carry of handguns in Texas on brink of passage after compromise reached

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A bill to allow the permitless carrying of handguns in Texas is on the brink of reaching Gov. Greg Abbott's desk after the state House and Senate reached a compromise on the bill.

The author of the legislation, Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, announced the deal in a statement Friday afternoon, and the Senate sponsor, Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, issued a subsequent statement also acknowledging an agreement. Just before midnight on Sunday, the House approved the deal in an 82-62 vote. The Senate is expected to approve the new version soon.

"By working together, the House and Senate will send Gov. Abbott the strongest Second Amendment legislation in Texas history, and protect the right of law-abiding Texans to carry a handgun as they exercise their God-given right to self-defense and the defense of their families," Schaefer said.

Abbott has said he would sign into law a "constitutional carry" proposal. Schaefer's House Bill 1927 would eliminate the requirement for Texas residents to obtain a license to carry handguns if they're not barred by state or federal law from possessing a gun.

The text of the compromise was released Sunday. It keeps intact a number of changes that the Senate made to the House bill to assuage concerns from the law enforcement community, including striking a provision that would have barred cops from questioning someone based only on their possession of a handgun. The compromise version also preserves a Senate amendment beefing up the criminal penalty for a felon caught carrying to a second-degree felony with a minimum of five years in prison. Other Senate changes that survived was a requirement that the Texas Department of Public Safety offer a free online course on gun safety.

Once the Senate approves the agreed-upon version, it will head to Abbott's desk. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in a statement that the HB 1927 compromise "will become eligible for a final vote early next week." Abbott has said he will sign the bill.

Permitless carry, long sought by gun rights activists, saw a breakthrough in April when the House passed HB 1927. Patrick initially said the Senate did not have the votes for it, but he created a new committee, referred HB 1927 to it and got it to the floor, where it passed earlier this month.

Before approving the bill, though, the Senate tacked on several amendments to address concerns by law enforcement groups that have historically opposed permitless carry. Those amendments at first alarmed some supporters of the proposal, with Schaefer saying he was "very concerned" they could lead to procedural issues in the lower chamber.

While Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, raised a procedural objection — known as a point of order — against HB 1927 when it returned to the House, he ended up withdrawing it, and the House proceeded to initiate a conference committee to work out the differences between the two chambers. Turner raised the objection again before Sunday night's vote, but again withdrew it.

Then Democrats gave emotional speeches denouncing the bill, noting that this was the first legislative session since the deadly mass shootings in El Paso and Odessa.

"This is our first session since those tragedies, and this is our response," Turner said. :A bill to allow permit less carry. A bill to say you don't have to have any training to carry a handgun in the state of Texas. And I can't imagine a worse slap in the face to all those people who have advocated, to the victims and to the family of those victims."

Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, described meeting with families of victims in the aftermath of the shooting. Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin, described losing her father to gun violence.

Schaefer, meanwhile, argued that the bill was about defending the gun rights of Texans.

"The simple truth is that those that intend evil, those who are criminals, don't care what we do in this building," he said. "They haven't in the past and they won't in the future. We are charged with defending the freedoms that are owed to Texans and guaranteed by the Constitution."

Patrick said Friday the bill "includes the thinking of national gun rights advocates and many in Texas law enforcement and affirms our commitment to protect the rights of gun owners and the safety of those in law enforcement."

Patrick also used the statement to ding those who were skeptical that the legislation would reach the finish line. Texas GOP Chair Allen West had accused the Senate of attaching "poison-pill amendments," which Patrick and his advisers denied, and West was questioning Patrick's commitment to the cause as recently as Thursday.

"Those who said HB 1927 would never pass and who perpetuated stories of a 'poison pill' and other conspiracies willfully misled many Second Amendment supporters in Texas," Patrick said. "They also underestimated how hard members of the House and Senate were working to pass this bill."

George P. Bush wants to challenge beleaguered Texas AG Ken Paxton -- but can he keep Trump out of it?

Land Commissioner George P. Bush is sending strong signals that he's preparing to launch a primary challenge against Attorney General Ken Paxton, hoping it can center on Paxton's legal troubles and how he has run his office.

But can Bush keep former President Donald Trump out of it — both figuratively and literally?

It is one of the most glaring questions as the foundation is laid for what could be Texas' marquee statewide primary next year. Both men have been Trump supporters, but Bush has a unique history with the former president as the most prominent member of the Bush political dynasty to embrace Trump. And in recent months, Paxton has grown only more overt in his affiliation with the former president, making him an inevitable topic in Paxton's reelection bid.

Bush has insisted there is "no separation" between him and Paxton when it comes to supporting Trump. But even some of Bush's supporters concede that, fair or not, Bush would have to contend with running with a last name that still evokes strong emotions among Trump backers.

"It's very unfortunate to him because George P. Bush is his own man," said Eric Mahroum, Trump's deputy state director during the 2016 campaign in Texas — and an early supporter of Bush challenging Paxton. "I try to educate the base … that no, he was so supportive and helped us. He was willing to do whatever to get us across the finish line in 2016."

Mahroum said his respect for Bush "just went to another level" when he came out in support of Trump in the summer of 2016 and urged Texas Republicans to unify behind the nominee. Mahroum suggested it took Paxton longer to "come out vocally" for Trump back then.

Paxton's campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story. But it has not entirely ignored Bush, dinging him last month as a "potential opponent more interested with the narrative being set by the liberal media than on the real and important issues facing Texas families and small businesses."

That came after Bush said he is "seriously considering" challenging Paxton, saying that "the top law enforcement official in Texas needs to be above reproach." Paxton has been indicted on state securities fraud charges for most of the time since he took office in 2015, and more recently, he reportedly came under FBI investigation over allegations from former top deputies that he abused his office to help a wealthy donor. Paxton has denied wrongdoing in both cases.Bush has invited supporters to "campaign kick-off rally" June 2 in Austin. An invitation obtained by The Texas Tribune does not specify the office that Bush is running for but bills him as the "next generation of conservative leadership."Bush and Paxton were both beneficiaries of Trump endorsements when they ran for reelection in 2018, and Bush promoted Trump's endorsement heavily as he fended off three primary challengers. Bush also had the support of Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., who was set to headline a fundraiser for Bush's reelection campaign but called it off amid persistent criticism of the Trump presidency from Bush's dad, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.A Trump spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on whether the former president would take sides in a Bush-Paxton primary. Donald Trump Jr. is personally close with Paxton, though he currently has no plans to get involved in a potential primary battle, according to a source familiar with his thinking.

It remains to be seen how much support Paxton would have even from fellow top Texas Republicans in a competitive primary. He caused a stir earlier this month after The New York Times published a story in which he said he did not think Gov. Greg Abbott supported him for reelection, so he did not support him. Paxton quickly said he did indeed back Abbott for another term, but the damage was done.

"Unlike Ken, I actually support Gov. Abbott and I think that he has done a heck of a lot more for the state of Texas than Ken ever will," Bush said in a radio interview Wednesday.

On Thursday, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn declined to give Paxton a vote of confidence for reelection. Asked if he supported Abbott for another term, as well as other statewide officials up for reelection next year, including Paxton, Cornyn told reporters: "My personal relationship with Gov. Abbott is such that I will support his reelection. Beyond that, I'm really not interested in getting involved in primaries."

Paxton could at least count on the support of the Republican Attorneys General Association, which he previously chaired. RAGA spokesman Johnny Koremenos noted in a statement for this story that the group "has a long history of supporting incumbent Republican AGs." Last year, RAGA stood by Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill as he faced three intraparty challengers amid a groping scandal that caused him to lose his law license. Hill was ultimately defeated in a state GOP convention.

The Bush 'that got it right'

Bush was a supporter of — and surrogate for — his dad when Jeb Bush famously clashed with Trump in the 2016 primary. The two traded bitter attacks, and Trump did not spare other members of the Bush family, blaming George W. Bush for 9/11 and the lead-up to the Iraq War.

Like his dad, Bush did not endorse Trump once he became the presumptive GOP nominee in May 2016, and he declined to attend the Republican National Convention that summer. He said in an Associated Press interview at the time that Trump "has the ability to win us over if he clarifies many of his remarks and he demonstrates that he has humility and that he doesn't besmirch peoples' character as the motivating factor for why he's running for office."

But as the chairman of the Texas GOP's 2016 Victory effort — responsible for ensuring Republicans won up and down the ballot that November — Bush had a choice to make. So during a meeting with state Republican activists in early August, shortly after the convention, Bush threw his support behind Trump, acknowledging it was a "bitter pill to swallow" for "Team Bush" but urging Texas Republicans to unify to defeat Hillary Clinton.

"I didn't create controversy," George P. Bush said in a post-election TV interview. "My family understands my position."

In the ensuing months, his family members continued to draw attention for their resistance to Trump. The two former presidents in the family — the late George H.W. Bush, who was Bush's grandfather, and George W. Bush, who is Bush's uncle — notably declined to endorse Trump in 2016. But the land commissioner did not look back and emerged as a reliable booster of Trump in office.

After Trump endorsed Bush for reelection in 2018, helping him win a four-way primary with 58% of the vote, the former president continued to revel in Bush's unique status in his family. During an August 2019 visit to Texas, Trump brought Bush onstage and said he was the "only Bush that likes me" and the one "that got it right."

"I like him," Trump said. "He's going far. He's going places."

In June 2020, when word got out that George W. Bush did not plan to support Trump for a second term — and that Jeb Bush was unsure of how he would vote — George P. Bush made sure to separate himself.

"I endorsed President Trump in the 2016 election cycle and plan to do so again in 2020," George P. Bush said in a statement.

Notably, Bush stayed out of the fray after Trump lost reelection and spent weeks falsely claiming the election was stolen — claims that coincided with Paxton's lawsuit in December challenging Trump's defeat in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Once Joe Biden was sworn in, though, Bush swiftly issued a statement congratulating him and vowing to be part of the "loyal opposition."

Most recently, Bush aligned himself with the Trump-fueled effort to remove U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming from House GOP leadership. Cheney voted to impeach Trump earlier this year and has continued to speak out about her belief that the GOP needs to move on from the former president.

Speaking on the radio minutes after news of Cheney's ouster broke, Bush called it a "good thing."

"Instead of training fire on the president, she really should've been training fire on Biden and that agenda, and … I think that that's what you want out of your leadership," Bush said, "and unfortunately … she didn't rise to the challenge."

Cheney is the daughter of Dick Cheney, who served as vice president when George W. Bush was president.

Bush's allies say he may never be able to fully distance himself from the anti-Trump brand that his family cultivated. But they express confidence that voters will see he has navigated the past several years as his own man.

"Oh, there's always gonna be that, but … my respect for George P. is because of George P.," said Adrienne Peña-Garza, the chairwoman of the Hidalgo County GOP, who is personally supportive of Bush running against Paxton. "No disrespect to his family — I really appreciate how he as a young man has built his own career. He's a man of service to the community, and I think people will see that and believe that. So I don't believe he'll have a hard time at all [navigating the Trump dynamic]."

Paxton and Trump

Like Bush, Paxton did not immediately embrace Trump after backing someone else in the 2016 primary — Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in this case. Paxton attended the 2016 national convention, though, and declared his support for Trump there, saying he planned to "support him, vote for him, tell everybody to vote for him."

After Trump got into the White House, Paxton emerged as one of the most pro-Trump attorneys general in the county, most notably leading the lawsuit to fully repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Paxton hugged Trump even closer in his final weeks in office, though. He spearheaded a lawsuit challenging the 2020 election results in four battleground states, which the U.S. Supreme Court eventually declined to hear. He spoke at the pro-Trump rally that preceded the deadly U.S. Capitol riot in January. And in late February, he hit the golf course with Trump at the former president's Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.

There was even speculation that Paxton could be included in Trump's final raft of pardons before he left office.

Paxton's legal woes are undoubtedly fueling the movement to take him out in the primary. Another early backer of Bush's likely challenge to Paxton — Manny Ramirez, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers' Association — said Paxton has been a "good partner to law enforcement" but that the attorney general "needs to be unquestionably qualified and able to do the job without distractions."

As for voters concerned with how supportive Bush and Paxton have been of Trump, Ramirez said, "it's just picking between Option 1A and Option 1B."

Top political aide to Texas GOP agriculture official arrested for alleged hemp license scheme

The top political consultant to Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller was arrested Thursday on allegations that he participated in a scheme to solicit money and campaign contributions for state hemp licenses issued by Miller's Texas Department of Agriculture.

The consultant, Todd Smith, ultimately took $55,000 as part of the scheme, an arrest warrant affidavit obtained by The Texas Tribune says. Smith and others involved in the scheme are alleged in the warrant to have solicited a total of $150,000 to guarantee a license, including a $25,000 upfront cost for a survey that they said was required to get a license in Texas. Some of the money would also go toward funding unnamed political campaigns, according to the affidavit.

This article was originally published at The Texas Tribune

The affidavit alleges that Smith committed third-degree felony theft.

"Todd Smith created by words and his conduct, a false impression of fact that affected the judgment of others in the transactions to obtain a hemp license and/or conduct a survey that was never attempted by Todd Smith," the affidavit says.

The allegations were investigated by the Texas Rangers' Public Integrity Unit, which is responsible for looking into claims of public corruption.

Smith was arrested Thursday and booked into Travis County jail at 9:23 p.m., according to Kristen Dark, a spokesperson for the county sheriff's office. Smith was released at 2:59 a.m. Friday on a personal recognizance bond. Bail was set at $10,000.

Smith did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Friday morning.

The affidavit says Smith used another person as a middle man between himself and those interested in getting licenses. The affidavit does not provide much information about the middle man other than that he was "introduced to Todd Smith by a friend in August 2019."

The affidavit includes the account of one man who wanted to get involved in the hemp industry and met the middle man at a social gathering in August 2019. The affidavit says the middle man told the license-seeker that he was "working directly with senior leadership at the TDA" and that he "needed $150,000.00 in cash, with some of the money going toward campaign contributions, in order to receive the 'guaranteed' hemp license."

The license-seeking man agreed to the deal, setting off a chain of events that included a November 2019 visit to Austin where he handed the middle man $30,000 cash in a car outside El Mercado, a Mexican restaurant in downtown Austin near the TDA offices, according to the affidavit. Williams went through an alley to take the money to the TDA headquarters before returning to the car and collecting Vinson for a scheduled meeting at the offices.

The affidavit says the license-seeker learned later that month that he was not guaranteed a license, despite the scheme that had been proposed to him. He reached Smith via phone, who "denied any knowledge but did admit to receiving a $5,000.00 gift from" the middle man, according to the allegations.

The hemp licenses were opened as a result of House Bill 1325, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law in 2019 and allowed the state's farmers to legally grow industrial hemp. Hemp is a cousin of the marijuana plant that contains low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive element in marijuana known as THC.

Smith has previously been under scrutiny for blurring campaign and official lines. The Austin American-Statesman reported in 2018 that Smith told a San Antonio businessman he could get a TDA appointment if he donated to Miller's campaign — then Smith asked the businessman for a $29,000 personal loan.

Years earlier, Miller created four new assistant commissioner positions and gave one of them to Smith's wife, Kellie Housewright-Smith. The positions had annual salaries exceeding $180,000, making them among the highest-paid employees at the TDA.

Special election to replace US Rep. Ron Wright remains highly competitive in final hours, as Donald Trump looms large

When the lineup was set March 3 for Saturday's special election to replace the late U.S. Rep. Ron Wright, R-Arlington, there was some hope the 23-candidate field would eventually give way to a much more manageable race.

While that has happened to an extent — some of the major-party candidates have separated themselves from the pack — the race remains highly competitive in its final hours, and two major questions loom that have both Democrats and Republicans on edge.

Will former President Donald Trump's late endorsement of Wright's widow, Susan Wright, be enough to secure her a decisive berth in an anticipated runoff? And will Democrats, who believe they have a shot at flipping the district, be able to get one of their candidates in that overtime round?

"I am afraid of a lockout," said U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus PAC that has endorsed one of the top Democratic candidates, Jana Lynne Sanchez. "There's nothing much we can do about it except make sure we run the best race possible."

Gallego said he was nonetheless confident that Sanchez, the 2018 nominee for the seat, would be the Democrat who makes the runoff, citing her experience of putting the district in play previously and her focus on health care.

On the Republican side, there are similarly high expectations for Susan Wright, who entered the contest looking formidable but has been unable to emerge as a clear frontrunner as other Republicans' bids have distinguished themselves. Rick Barnes, the Tarrant County GOP chairman who endorsed Susan Wright early on, said he has "always been very comfortable" with her chances throughout the race and remains so, but he acknowledged she has had to navigate a thicket of competition.

"I don't think any race is easy anymore," Barnes said. "That's just where we are in politics today. This race just grew so big. When we say it's a jungle race, it is literally a jungle race."

The race got a late jolt Friday afternoon when Susan Wright's campaign said it had reached out to law enforcement after hearing of a "criminal smear" robocall alleging that she had killed her husband. Ron Wright died in February after being hospitalized with COVID-19 and living for years with cancer. Susan Wright denounced the robocall as "illegal, immoral, and wrong."

Up until Friday afternoon, the homestretch of the race was highlighted by Trump coming to Susan Wright's rescue. He endorsed her Monday, surprising some Republicans involved in the race who thought he would stay out, at least until the runoff. And he pitched her during a tele-town hall Thursday night, invoking her late husband's legacy multiple times.

"Susan and Ron Wright have been so incredible," Trump said. "They had this incredible relationship, and unfortunately Ron passed away, and he is looking down and he is so proud of Susan because this is exactly what he would've wanted her to do."

The tele-town hall was hosted by the Club for Growth, the national anti-tax group, and Trump did little to lower expectations ahead of Saturday, saying he and the group have "never had a loss together."

Polling of the race has consistently shown Wright and Sanchez leading, though the surveys have come with all kinds of caveats. Polls have included only partial candidate lists, produced significant shares of undecided voters and shown many candidates bunched within the margin of error.

His 6th Congressional District is anchored in Tarrant County, home to Fort Worth, but also sprawls to the southeast and includes more rural Ellis and Navarro counties. It was once a Republican stronghold but has been trending blue in statewide results, going from a district that Mitt Romney won by 17 points in 2012 to one that Trump carried by 12 points in 2016 — and just 3 in 2020.

Still, Ron Wright won his races by healthy margins, including by 9 points last year, when he was a national Democratic target.

Republicans

Susan Wright has easily amassed the most institutional and elected official support among the Republican candidates. In addition to Trump, she has the endorsement of her fellow members of the State Republican Executive Committee — a rare move by the body in an intraparty contest — as well as eight members of Congress, including six from Texas.

Her path to the likely runoff, though, has been made complicated by at least two GOP rivals. One of them is Brian Harrison, an Ellis County native who was chief of staff at the Department of Health and Human Services under Trump. He has run a campaign laser-focused on his accomplishments in the Trump administration, and his self-funding capacity — he has loaned himself nearly $300,000 — has helped him run the most robust TV ad campaign of any candidate.

Perhaps Wright's biggest GOP threat, though, has been state Rep. Jake Ellzey of Waxahachie. Despite just getting elected to the Texas House in November, Ellzey jumped in the race shortly after Wright did and went on to raise more money — and build up more cash on hand — than any other candidate, Democrat or Republican, on the pre-election campaign finance report. He also brought the experience of previously running for the congressional seat in 2018, when he went to a primary runoff against Ron Wright and lost by a small margin.

The Club for Growth, the national conservative group, has for weeks been spearheading a stop-Ellzey campaign, spending over a quarter-million dollars pummeling him over, among other things, a donation he took in his 2018 race from Bill Kristol, the prominent GOP critic of Trump. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz came out against Ellzey last week, saying his candidacy "should concern Texans looking for a conservative leader." And Susan Wright's campaign eventually joined in, sending out mailers alleging he is soft on illegal immigration.

Ellzey and his endorsers, most notably former U.S. Energy Secretary and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, have pushed back on the attacks and reminded voters that the Club for Growth spent millions of dollars opposing Trump in the 2016 primary. Perry is set to campaign with Ellzey on Friday in three cities across the district.

"I'm fed up with these coastal-elite groups like the Club for Growth coming to Texas and tearing down a real American hero," Perry said in a video that Ellzey tweeted Thursday. "Let me tell you something: No one — and I mean no one — can accuse me of being a Never Trumper. I served in President Trump's Cabinet, and I fully support Jake Ellzey for Congress."

However, perhaps aware of the potential for backlash in attacking a late congressman's widow, Ellzey has not gone negative on Susan Wright, and third-party groups supporting him have done exclusively pro-Ellzey advertising.

Trump's endorsement

Trump's endorsement of Susan Wright came on the second-to-last day of early voting, after a significant share of the anticipated total vote was already cast. It left her and her allies with precious few days to capitalize on it, especially as some other Republican candidates have closely aligned themselves with Trump. Her campaign quickly printed stickers saying "ENDORSED BY TRUMP" to slap on her signs, and the Club for Growth, which endorsed her Wednesday, launched an 11th-hour radio ad highlighting the endorsement. The spot says the contest "may be a key test of Trump's continuing power in the party."

While late in the game, the endorsement was nonetheless a blow to at least two other Republicans running who have tightly hugged Trump in their campaigns. One of them is Dan Rodimer, the former pro wrestler who has been relying heavily on the fact that Trump endorsed him when he ran for Congress last year in Nevada. Rodimer has touted that he is the "only candidate [in the special election] to have ever received a Trump endorsement" — including in an unfortunately timed mailer that hit households the same day Trump backed Susan Wright.

Another candidate who has appealed relentlessly to Trump supporters is Harrison. He has the support of some former Trump Cabinet officials, boasts that he was "recruited by" the Trump administration to "to help deliver the America First Agenda" and regularly advertises with a photo of him standing alongside Trump in the Oval Office.

"I had no expectations of an endorsement" from the former president, Harrison said in an interview Wednesday. "My campaign is and has always been focused on my conservative accomplishments."

"I believe still I'm going to be the next congressman from Texas because voters are enthusiastically responding to my message," Harrison added, describing his mood as "incredibly optimistic and hopeful" ahead of Saturday.

The GOP field features another former Trump administration official in Sery Kim, who worked in the Small Business Administration — and made waves in the race after declaring at a late March forum that she did not want Chinese immigrants to come to the United States. The episode caused her to lose two prominent supporters: U.S. Reps. Young Kim and Michelle Steel, both of California and the first Korean American GOP women to serve in Congress. Kim insisted she was referring to the Chinese Communist Party and subsequently sued The Texas Tribune over its coverage of the fallout.

Democrats

On the Democratic side, Sanchez is competing for a potential spot in the anticipated runoff with at least two other serious candidates: Lydia Bean, a 2020 nominee for a battleground state House district in the region, and Shawn Lassiter, an education nonprofit leader from Fort Worth. Bean has distinguished herself as the only candidate with the support of organized labor, including the Texas AFL-CIO. Lassiter, meanwhile, stood out as the top Democratic fundraiser on the pre-election finance report, which also showed she had a cash-on-hand edge over her intraparty competitors.

All the Democratic candidates see the district as primed to flip — if only one of them can make it to a runoff. Despite their optimism, national Democrats have kept the race at a distance, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — which dramatically overpromised and underdelivered last election cycle in Texas — has remained virtually silent on it.

There are nonetheless a handful of national Democratic groups involved in the race, but they are split between Sanchez and Lassiter. In addition to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus' political arm, Sanchez has the support of the Latino Victory Fund and Nuestro PAC, a super PAC started last year by former Bernie Sanders aides to turn out Latino voters. Lassiter has been endorsed by the Collective PAC, which works to elect Black candidates, and 314 Action, which boosts candidates with backgrounds in science, technology engineering and mathematics.

What little outside spending has been done on the Democratic side has mostly benefited Sanchez. Nuestro PAC was the first in, launching digital ads touting her as a "Texas tough" leader who help the state recover from the pandemic and February winter weather emergency. Then came a similarly themed TV ad campaign from Operation 147, a new super PAC focused on flipping the seats of the 147 House Republicans who voted in January to object to the 2020 election results. (Ron Wright was among them.)

Those groups believe they will get more allies if Sanchez advances to the anticipated runoff.

"I think because there's so many candidates — people of color, women, all different categories of Democrats — I think they're all waiting for the runoff and then I think you'll see a lot of groups join Nuestro PAC in trying to flip this seat," said Chuck Rocha, the PAC's founder and president.

The Democratic field has not seen as much negativity as the GOP side, but there has been tension. Bean has singled out Sanchez in a digital ad that says "even some Democrats are criticizing President Biden's infrastructure plan." The ad flashes a soundbite from a late March forum, prior to the release of the Biden plan, where Sanchez said the rumored $3 trillion price tag "sounds really massive" and expressed concern with how it would be spent. The digital ad prompted a fundraising email from Sanchez's campaign that warned one of her opponents had launched an attack that "puts the chance of any Democrat making it to a runoff in jeopardy."

Lassiter, in an interview, said it is "always a possibility" that Democrats miss out on the runoff given the massive field but that she felt her campaign was best positioned to advance. She said she believes her advantage over the other Democrats is her "point of view around equity and fighting for people in the margins and fighting for communities that have been typically left out and forgotten about."

An anti-Trump Republican

While the story of Trump's continued influence in the GOP can be told by the Republican candidates who have embraced him, it could also be told by the one who has shunned him: Michael Wood. The Marine Corps combat veteran and Arlington small business owner has run an openly anti-Trump campaign, hoping to show the party can be more than a "cult of personality."

The platform has earned Wood national attention and the support of some of the most prominent Trump critics inside the GOP, such as U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. But Wood also has been booed at at least one GOP forum and said he has "had people curse at me and tell me to get off their property" when the conversation turns to Trump during block walking. They "act as if I'm insulting their religion," Wood said.

He has been struck by the number of voters who still believe the Trump-fueled falsehood that the 2020 election was "stolen." One of them, Wood recalled, was an otherwise cordial man who predicted that in a few months, there would be a military coup and the new transitional government would order new elections to make up for 2020. "I hope that happens," Wood said the man told him.

"I just told him I'm against military coups," Wood said. "It was just a haunting moment."

Wood said he takes heart in the number of Republicans who come up to him after events and confide to him, "sometimes in hushed tones, that they're so grateful that someone is saying what they're thinking." But he acknowledges Trump remains a powerful force in his party — if a fickle one, as shown by the battle for his support in the special election.

"You could put 'America First' all over your signs and you can say MAGA at the top of your lungs all day every day," Wood said, "and it's probably not gonna mean anything."

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick says Senate currently lacks the votes to pass permitless carry of handguns

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Monday that the state Senate does not currently have the votes to pass permitless carry of handguns but that he will try to see if there is a "path" to change that.

The news from the Republican presiding officer of the Senate came days after the House approved a permitless carry bill, commonly referred to as "constitutional carry" by supporters.

"If we have the votes to pass a permitless carry bill off the Senate floor, I will move it," Patrick said in a statement. "At this point we don't have the votes on the floor to pass it. I plan to meet with law enforcement who oppose permitless carry and with the [National Rifle Association] and [Gun Owners of America] who support it to see if we can find a path that a majority of senators will vote to pass."

In most cases, Senate bills require 18 votes from the 31-member chamber to be considered on the floor. There are only 18 GOP senators, so a permitless-carry bill would need the support of every Republican in the chamber to reach the floor — or at least one Democratic vote if any Republicans defect.

On Friday afternoon, one key GOP senator, Sen. Kel Seliger of Amarillo, suggested he may not be immediately supportive of the proposal. He told The Texas Tribune that his office was still researching the issue and he tends to support "just about all" bills related to gun rights, but the "system that we have now works." He said it was too early to say whether he would block the bill from coming to the floor or vote against it if it made it to the floor.

House Bill 1927 would get rid of the requirement for Texas residents to get a license to carry handguns if they are not already prohibited by state or federal law from possessing a firearm. The House gave final approval to the legislation on Friday morning in an 87-58 vote that included seven Democrats in support of it.

Supporters of permitless carry, including gun rights groups and conservative Republicans, argued the measure simply allows Texans to exercise rights guaranteed under the Second Amendment. Many Democrats, joined by some law enforcement officers and faith leaders in opposition, instead cited the need for stricter gun safety measures following the 2019 mass shootings in El Paso and Midland-Odessa. The debate over gun laws in Texas has emerged as a top issue this session as gun violence nationwide — including a shooting in Bryan on April 8 and another in Austin on Sunday — has reignited the longstanding debates over gun control.

The passage of the bill in the House last week was a notable development since such proposals have not made it nearly as far in recent sessions. House Speaker Dade Phelan's predecessor behind the gavel, Dennis Bonnen, and his predecessor, Joe Straus, were resistant to the idea and especially chafed at the tactics of its supporters. Bonnen declared the proposal "dead" last session after a gun rights activist showed up at his Lake Jackson home to advocate for the proposal.

The Senate under Patrick is generally seen as the chamber more interested in pressing for hot-button conservative issues. But Patrick has has expressed reservations about permitless carry in the past. Ahead of the 2015 session, he said he did not think there was enough support among lawmakers or the public, a sentiment he reiterated in 2017 while citing law enforcement concerns with "anyone being able to walk down the street with a gun and they don't know if they have a permit or not."

A permitless carry bill has also been filed in the Senate this session, but it was referred to a committee over a month ago and has not received a hearing yet.

Former Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst arrested on domestic violence charge

Former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has been arrested and accused of domestic violence.

Dewhurst was arrested Tuesday evening in Dallas, according to Dallas police. He faces a misdemeanor charge of family violence.

Dewhurst was arrested after police responded to a disturbance at an address near Dallas Love Field Airport and met with a woman who said she had been assaulted by a male acquaintance, police said. Officers identified the man as Dewhurst, 75, and took him into custody.

Dewhurst was released from jail early Wednesday morning after posting a $1,000 bond, according to records from the Dallas County Sheriff's Department.

Dallas police said the Public Integrity Unit will investigate the incident.

Dewhurst was lieutenant governor from 2003-15. He unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in 2012, losing to Ted Cruz, and lost reelection as lieutenant governor in 2014 when Dan Patrick beat him in the Republican primary runoff.

Dewhurst's personal life made headlines last year, when his girlfriend was arrested twice, accused of kicking him and breaking two of his ribs in one of the cases. A grand jury decided not to indict her in connection with the first incident, according to KPRC-TV. Last week, charges were dropped in the second case, which involved the girlfriend allegedly throwing candle wax at him.

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