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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.

George P. Bush 'seriously considering' challenge to Ken Paxton for Texas AG

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush said Thursday he is "seriously considering" running for attorney general in 2022 — and detailed how he would challenge the incumbent, embattled fellow Republican Ken Paxton.

"There have been some serious allegations levied against the current attorney general," Bush said in an interview with Dallas radio host Mark Davis. "Personally I think that the top law enforcement official in Texas needs to be above reproach."

Bush, the grandson of former President George H.W. Bush and nephew for President George W. Bush, went on to say a Paxton challenge would not be centered on "conservative credentials" but how the incumbent has run his office. "I think character matters and integrity matters," Bush said.

The land commissioner, currently in his second term, has for months kept open the possibility of running for another statewide office in 2022 — including attorney general — but his remarks Thursday offered the starkest indication yet that he is focused on Paxton. Bush did not give a timeline for a decision on the race beyond saying he is currently focused on the legislation session and will visit with voters afterward. The session ends May 31.

Paxton has repeatedly said he plans to seek a third term next year despite a series of new and old scandals. Last year, seven of Paxton's top aides accused him of accepting bribes and abusing his office to assist a wealthy donor. Those aides were subsequently fired or resigned, and it has since come out that the FBI was investigating the claims against him. And for almost his entire time as attorney general, he has been under indictment on state securities fraud charges.

"Attorney General Paxton is focused on keeping the Texas border secure, holding the Biden Administration accountable, and taking on Big Tech," Paxton campaign spokesperson Ian Prior said in a statement responding to Bush's interview. "It is unfortunate, but not surprising, to see 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."

Democrats view Texas congressional special election with a mix of optimism and caution after disappointing 2020

Democrats running to replace the late U.S. Rep. Ron Wright, R-Arlington, believe they can flip the seat in an unpredictable off-year special election. But Democrats at large are not as sure — or willing to say it out loud.

That is becoming clear as campaigning ramps up for the May 1 contest, when 23 candidates — including 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats — will be on the ballot in Texas' 6th Congressional District. With so many contenders, the race is likely to go to a mid-summer runoff, and Democrats involved hope they can secure a second-round spot on their way to turning the district blue.

While Democrats have cause for optimism — the district has rapidly trended blue in recent presidential election results — some are urging caution. They are mindful of a few factors, not the least of which is a 2020 election cycle in which high Democratic expectations culminated in deep disappointment throughout the ballot.

"We're not counting our chickens before they hatch and we're gonna work to earn every vote," said Abhi Rahman, a Texas Democratic strategist who previously worked for the state party. "This is not a bellwether. This is the first of many battles that will eventually lead to Texas turning blue."

With just under a month until early voting begins, national Democrats are showing few outward signs that they are ready to engage in the race, even as candidates and their supporters press the case that the district is flippable. They point out that Trump carried the district by only 3 percentage points in November after winning it by 12 points in 2016. Mitt Romney carried the district by 17 points in 2012.

"It absolutely is a competitive race," said Stephen Daniel, the 2020 Democratic nominee for the seat, who opted against running in the special election. He added he thinks that national Democrats need "to get involved because I think the more resources you have to get out there and help you reach these voters can only help."

On the flip side, Wright, who died in February weeks after testing positive for the coronavirus, won the seat when it was open in 2018 by 8 points and by 9 points in 2020. Both times the seat was a target of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, though the designation came late in the cycle and the group did not spend significant money in either election.

And while Trump carried the district by only 3 points in November, every other statewide Republican candidate, including U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, won it by more comfortable margins ranging from 6 to 8 points.

Whether to engage could be an especially difficult decision for the DCCC, which made a show of going on offense in Texas last cycle, opening an office in Austin early on and building a target list that grew to include 10 Republican-held districts, including Wright's. They ended up flipping none of them.

Asked for comment for this story, a DCCC spokesperson pointed to comments that the committee's chairman, Sean Patrick Maloney, made to The Washington Post in mid-February. Asked if the DCCC would compete in the special election, Maloney said the committee was "looking at it" but that Democratic members were currently focused on helping constituents recover from the deadly winter storm that had just battered the state at the time.

Democrats make up 10 candidates in the 23-way race. The more prominent Democratic candidates include Jana Lynne Sanchez, the party's 2018 nominee for the seat; Lydia Bean, the Democratic challenger last year to state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth; and Shawn Lassiter, an education nonprofit leader from Fort Worth.

EMILY's List, the powerful national group that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, is in touch with the Democratic women running in the special election and watching the race closely but currently has no plans to endorse, spokesperson Kristen Hernandez said. The organization backed Sanchez when she was the nominee in 2018 but is often more cautious about taking sides when multiple Democratic women are running in a primary or special election.

It is still somewhat early relative to the special election timeline — the filing deadline was March 3 — but at least two Republican contenders are already running TV ads, and some Democrats worry they could get locked out of the runoff if the national party does not start paying closer attention.

Lassiter, in a statement for this story, said Democrats cannot "sit on the sidelines and watch the failed leadership of the Republicans be a disservice to our communities."

"Texas' 6th is eager to elect someone who represents our growing diversity and who has the political courage to serve the people," Lassiter said. "With the right candidate and with Democratic investment, we can flip this district and win."

Lassiter is one of at least two Black Democrats running, one other being Mansfield pastor Patrick Moses. Twenty-seven percent of 2020 Democratic primary voters in the district were African American, according to the Lassiter campaign's analysis. Thirty-three percent were Black in the lower-turnout 2018 primary.

Lassiter is not the only candidate contemplating a potential all-GOP runoff. A recent polling memo provided to another Democratic campaign warned that a Democratic lockout is a "real danger."

Kelly Blackburn, chairwoman of the Ellis County Democratic Party, said she thinks "some people will start coalescing toward or one or two [Democratic candidates] by April, but we'll see." As for investment in the race by national Democrats, she said she "would welcome it, and I'm sure the candidates would as well."

"If we really wanna fight for it, I think we need more money — and big money," Blackburn said.

The Republican side is headlined by veteran GOP activist Susan Wright, Ron Wright's widow. Some of her most serious-looking GOP competitors include state Rep. Jake Ellzey of Waxahachie and Brian Harrison, the former chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Donald Trump; and Sery Kim, another former Trump administration official. One wild card is Dan Rodimer, the former professional wrestler who ran for Congress last year in Nevada and scrambled to file last-minute for the Texas special election.

Some of the Democrats are already finding convenient foils in the GOP field. Bean has repeatedly called out Rodimer on social media and sent fundraising emails targeting Harrison at length, deriding him as "Bootlicker Brian." (He has taken encouragement from the attacks.)

For now, though, the Democrats may have to focus on differences among themselves if they want to advance to an anticipated runoff against a Republican.

During one of their first major forums last week, the Democratic field was largely harmonious. Sanchez and Bean leaned heavily on their previous campaign experience to argue they were best positioned to turn out Democrats for the special election. Sanchez also brought up a sore subject for Democrats last election cycle.

"I think we saw from 2020, where down-ballot was extremely disappointing, despite all of our efforts, that what was missing was the door-knocking, and you can't substitute TV for door-knocking — so it's very important to me that we continue that," Sanchez said, adding that she had already hired two field staffers and her campaign is "going to be door-knocking every day and I will be out there as well."

"You may remember that just four months ago, I ran for the Texas House here in Tarrant County and we had one of the strongest field programs in the whole state of Texas," said Bean, who also touts that she raised over $1 million in her November challenge to Krause, who won by 9 points.

Bean got one of the first major endorsements among Democratic candidates last week, unveiling the support of the Tarrant County AFL-CIO. Sanchez, meanwhile, launched with $100,000 raised and a list of 10 endorsements from across the district, and she has led the Democratic field in the two private surveys of the race that have surfaced so far, though large shares of respondents were undecided in each.

National Republicans are dismissive of Democratic ambitions in the district. In a statement for this story, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, Torunn Sinclair, said Democrats "should be talking less about their laughable prospects in Texas' 6th Congressional District and spending more time fixing the border crisis they've created."

Still, some of the GOP candidates are not discounting how competitive it could be for Democrats, if only because it reinforces their campaign strategies. After Ellzey launched his campaign, he emailed supporters that he was running because he heard from people in the district that they "don't want liberals taking away our voice in Congress."

"I think the Democrats could flip this seat," Harrison said in an interview, putting an emphasis on "could."

"They're gonna throw everything at it, and that's why the Republicans absolutely have to rally for the strongest possible candidate in the field," Harrison added, pitching himself as the only contender with "deep roots in the district, small-business experience here and a track record of going to Washington" and making

After House stalls on readjusting electricity prices, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick urges Gov. Greg Abbott to use emergency powers

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Thursday pleaded for Gov. Greg Abbott to take executive action on reversing billions of dollars in charges for wholesale electricity during last month's deadly winter storm after the Texas House adjourned for the week without taking up the issue.

"The governor of Texas is a very powerful person," Patrick said at a Capitol news conference, ramping up his dayslong campaign to get Abbott to intervene. "He can do anything he wants."

After the Senate moved at a breakneck pace Monday to pass Senate Bill 2142, electricity repricing legislation prompted by the storm, the House indicated that it would not take action on the proposal. The lower chamber instead stressed it planned to take a more deliberative approach. And, while the bill was referred to a House committee Thursday morning, the House gaveled out until Monday afternoon.

The bill would have forced the state's energy grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, to reverse roughly $4.2 billion in charges after an independent market monitor found ERCOT artificially inflated prices and overbilled energy companies by $16 billion. And included in the legislation was a March 20 deadline for the Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT, to take action to reverse such charges.

Patrick on Thursday said Abbott could, using his emergency powers, order the commission to tell ERCOT to either correct the charges or that such charges were under investigation, which the lieutenant governor said would extend the deadline.

"The House said they wanted more time — that would give them more time," Patrick said.

Patrick told reporters he met "at length" Thursday with House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, and they had a "good discussion." Referring to House members, Patrick said he thought the Senate was "able to get there faster than they were" — passing an electricity repricing bill — "because we can move quickly" by suspending the rules in the Senate.

After the Senate passed the repricing legislation, Phelan had expressed skepticism toward reversing such charges, saying in a statement that doing so "based on disagreement with PUC and ERCOT's management decisions is an extraordinary government intervention into the free market." Phelan also said there had been "no error" in the operator's pricing, contrasting himself with Patrick, who has repeatedly referred to those billions of dollars in charges as a mistake.

Despite Patrick's pleas, Abbott had still not clearly taken sides in the debate as of Thursday evening. In response to Patrick's news conference, an Abbott spokesperson issued a statement that did not address Patrick's latest requests of the governor but reiterated the emergency items that Abbott announced after the storm, including "inaccurate and excessive charges." The statement also pointed to movement in the House on Abbott's emergency items, noting that a lower-chamber committee was expected to vote Thursday night on multiple proposals related to the power grid.

The House State Affairs Committee did just that on Thursday, passing a slate of bills that would address the power grid's vulnerabilities and change the governance structure of ERCOT, among other things. But lawmakers admitted those bills were still works in progress. And none of them addressed the ERCOT billing dispute.

While statements suggest Abbott is more aligned with the House, he still has not shot down the Senate bill and avoided explicitly endorsing either chamber's strategy. Asked Wednesday whether he agreed with the House or Senate's approach to electricity repricing, Abbott said he had "already made multiple comments about that."

It was not entirely clear which prior comments Abbott was referring to, but on Monday, as the Senate was preparing to rush through SB 2142, Abbott seemed to urge a more deliberative approach — and one left up to the Legislature.

Texas is currently under multiple disaster declarations, including one that Abbott issued Feb. 12 in response to the winter storm. For over a year, the state has also been under a disaster declaration due to the coronavirus pandemic — and Abbott has taken heat from some in his own party over how he has wielded his emergency powers during that time.

The winter weather last month caused failures in every type of power source, creating an electricity crisis during which nearly 4.5 million Texas homes and businesses were without power. For days, ERCOT charged the maximum amount allowed for wholesale electricity — $9,000 per megawatt-hour — in order to incentivize generators to send power to the grid.

It's still not clear how much the current billing dispute will impact average Texans. At least some of the additional costs incurred by retail electric providers would likely be passed on to customers through rate increases. But the impact varies by company — and those that sent power to the grid while rates were inflated stand to lose money if ERCOT reprices.

Abbott said the Legislature needed to investigate the issue and "weed through all these complexities," specifically whether repricing was in conflict with two sections of the Texas Constitution.

On Wednesday, though, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion that said the PUC has "complete authority" to reprice and downplayed the same exact constitutional issues that Abbott brought up.

"A court would likely find that such corrective action by the Public Utility Commission" would not conflict with the state constitution "provided that such regulatory action furthers a compelling public interest," Paxton wrote in the nonbinding opinion, which Patrick requested two days earlier.

Patrick also scored a win Tuesday night, when Abbott announced the resignation of Arthur D'Andrea, who had recently been tapped by the governor to serve as chair of the commission. The governor said he had asked for D'Andrea's resignation, which is effective upon the appointment of a successor. Abbott said he would name D'Andrea's replacement "in the coming days" — an appointment that, if made during the 2021 legislative session, will need to be confirmed by the Patrick-led Senate.

Abbott, whose office had defended D'Andrea on Friday, did not provide a reason for why he had requested D'Andrea's resignation. But the news came hours after Texas Monthly published a story Tuesday saying D'Andrea had told out-of-state investors on a call he would work to throw "the weight of the commission" behind stopping calls for repricing.

At a news conference in Dallas the next day, Abbott did not offer much new detail when asked why he had wanted D'Andrea to step down.

"We want to make sure that we are going to show the vision to our fellow Texans that we are charting a new and fresh course for the Public Utility Commission, and the action that I made is one of many steps that will be taken to achieve those goals," Abbott said.

Despite the House's difference in approach, which includes a package of proposals the House State Affairs Committee was considering Thursday, some lawmakers in the chamber indicated this week they would have at least liked to have a conversation about repricing.

While the House was in session Wednesday, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, asked Phelan whether the House could assemble as a committee of the whole the next day to consider SB 2142. Phelan said he would not recognize Martinez Fischer for such a motion.

And, asked at Thursday's news conference whether he had spoken with House members sympathetic to his position on repricing, Patrick said, "Yes, I'll leave it at that."

Disclosure: Texas Monthly 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.


Greg Abbott urged to reverse billions in Texas electrical bills: ‘He can do anything he wants’

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Thursday pleaded for Gov. Greg Abbott to take executive action on reversing billions of dollars in charges for wholesale electricity during last month's deadly winter storm after the Texas House adjourned for the week without taking up the issue.

"The governor of Texas is a very powerful person," Patrick said at a Capitol news conference, ramping up his dayslong campaign to get Abbott to intervene. "He can do anything he wants."

After the Senate moved at a breakneck pace Monday to pass Senate Bill 2142, electricity repricing legislation prompted by the storm, the House indicated that it would not take action on the proposal. The lower chamber instead stressed it planned to take a more deliberative approach. And, while the bill was referred to a House committee Thursday morning, the House gaveled out until Monday afternoon.

The bill would have forced the state's energy grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, to reverse roughly $4.2 billion in charges after an independent market monitor found ERCOT artificially inflated prices and overbilled energy companies by $16 billion. And included in the legislation was a March 20 deadline for the Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT, to take action to reverse such charges.

Patrick on Thursday said Abbott could, using his emergency powers, order the commission to tell ERCOT to either correct the charges or that such charges were under investigation, which the lieutenant governor said would extend the deadline.

"The House said they wanted more time -- that would give them more time," Patrick said.

Patrick told reporters he met "at length" Thursday with House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, and they had a "good discussion." Referring to House members, Patrick said he thought the Senate was "able to get there faster than they were" — passing an electricity repricing bill — "because we can move quickly" by suspending the rules in the Senate.

After the Senate passed the repricing legislation, Phelan had expressed skepticism toward reversing such charges, saying in a statement that doing so "based on disagreement with PUC and ERCOT's management decisions is an extraordinary government intervention into the free market." Phelan also said there had been "no error" in the operator's pricing, contrasting himself with Patrick, who has repeatedly referred to those billions of dollars in charges as a mistake.

Despite Patrick's pleas, Abbott had still not clearly taken sides in the debate as of Thursday afternoon, and a spokesperson for the governor did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Asked Wednesday whether he agreed with the House or Senate's approach to electricity repricing, Abbott said he had "already made multiple comments about that."

It was not entirely clear which prior comments Abbott was referring to, but on Monday, as the Senate was preparing to rush through SB 2142, Abbott seemed to urge a more deliberative approach.

The winter weather last month caused failures in every type of power source, creating an electricity crisis during which nearly 4.5 million Texas homes and businesses were without power. For days, ERCOT charged the maximum amount allowed for wholesale electricity — $9,000 per megawatt-hour — in order to incentivize generators to send power to the grid.

It's still not clear how much the current billing dispute will impact average Texans. At least some of the additional costs incurred by retail electric providers would likely be passed on to customers through rate increases. But the impact varies by company — and those that sent power to the grid while rates were inflated stand to lose money if ERCOT reprices.

Abbott said the Legislature needed to investigate the issue and "weed through all these complexities," specifically whether repricing was in conflict with two sections of the Texas Constitution.

On Wednesday, though, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion that said the PUC has "complete authority" to reprice and downplayed the same exact constitutional issues that Abbott brought up.

"A court would likely find that such corrective action by the Public Utility Commission" would not conflict with the state constitution "provided that such regulatory action furthers a compelling public interest," Paxton wrote in the nonbinding opinion, which Patrick requested two days earlier.

Patrick also scored a win Tuesday night, when Abbott announced the resignation of Arthur D'Andrea, who had recently been tapped by the governor to serve as chair of the commission. The governor said he had asked for D'Andrea's resignation, which is effective upon the appointment of a successor. Abbott said he would name D'Andrea's replacement "in the coming days" — an appointment that, if made during the 2021 legislative session, will need to be confirmed by the Patrick-led Senate.

Abbott, whose office had defended D'Andrea on Friday, did not provide a reason for why he had requested D'Andrea's resignation. But the news came hours after Texas Monthly published a story Tuesday saying D'Andrea had told out-of-state investors on a call he would work to throw "the weight of the commission" behind stopping calls for repricing.

At a news conference in Dallas the next day, Abbott did not offer much new detail when asked why he had wanted D'Andrea to step down.

"We want to make sure that we are going to show the vision to our fellow Texans that we are charting a new and fresh course for the Public Utility Commission, and the action that I made is one of many steps that will be taken to achieve those goals," Abbott said.

Disclosure: Texas Monthly 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.


Matthew McConaughey is flirting with a run for governor. But his politics remain a mystery.

The Austin-based actor Matthew McConaughey is again making headlines for flirting with a run for Texas governor — and this time he says he is serious about the possibility.

Belying the hubbub, though, is something activists have increasingly buzzed about: Little is known about McConaughey's politics, or at least his partisanship.

State voting records show he hasn't voted in a Texas primary election since at least 2012, which could give some inkling as to which party he supports. He has not made any campaign contributions. And he has declined to say whether he would run as a Democrat, a Republican or something else.

There, of course, could be appeal in the lack of political background, and McConaughey has spoken openly about being disillusioned with the current state of politics, suggesting last year that it is a "broken business." He also has criticized the excesses of both the left and the right, and encouraged an "aggressively centric" mindset.

But for partisans looking to suss out McConaughey's true leanings as the 2022 election cycle gets underway, there is not much to go off. That is especially true for Democrats, who are eager to challenge GOP Gov. Greg Abbott over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and winter weather crisis but lack a deep bench beyond Beto O'Rourke.

McConaughey has voted twice in Texas since 2012 — in the 2018 and 2020 general elections, according to his latest voter history file with the secretary of state's office. He voted early both times — in person in 2018 and by mail ballot in 2020. His registration in Travis County goes back to Nov. 25, 2012, and does not preclude the possibility that he was previously registered in Texas and fell off the voter rolls.

When it comes to campaign contributions, there is no record of him giving at the state or federal levels.

He did not say much about the latest election — though he made headlines afterward, when he criticized the "illiberal left" for taking an arrogant view toward the "other 50%." He suggested that view led some in Hollywood — a strongly Democratic constituency — to deny Donald Trump's win in 2016, and now some Republicans were denying Trump's reelection loss because "they've been fed fake news."

McConaughey has been fielding questions about running for governor while promoting his memoir, "Greenlights," which published in October. In the book, McConaughey did include a handful of glimpses at the politics he was around growing up. Early on in the memoir, McConaughey said he came "from a long line of rule breakers," describing them as "outlaw libertarians who vote red down the line because they believe it'll keep fewer outlaws from trespassin on their territory."

But he steered clear of discussing politics — recent presidents and elections, for example — or including details about his personal political views.

A publicist for McConaughey did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

McConaughey's' recently released book is not the only thing keeping him in the public spotlight these days. He is organizing a virtual benefit concert for Texans affected by last month's deadly winter storm, set to be broadcast Sunday on his YouTube channel.

McConaughey initially sparked rumors he could run for governor last year when he left open the possibility in a November interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. But a day later, after his Hewitt interview received wide media coverage, McConaughey seemed to dial back the speculation about a gubernatorial bid, telling late-night TV host Stephen Colbert that he has "no plans to do that right now."

But McConaughey ramped up speculation once again last week, when he said in a podcast interview that running for governor is a "true consideration." He followed it up with an interview with NBC News' Al Roker, from the lawn of Texas Capitol, in which he reiterated he was thinking about a bid.

Some interviewers have specifically asked McConaughey if he would run as a Democrat or a Republican — or something else — and he has not played ball. Questioned Thursday about his partisan affiliation if he runs for governor, he told the Austin American-Statesman he has not "gotten that far yet." In an interview published the same day by the Longview News-Journal — McConaughey partly grew up in the East Texas city — he also shrugged off a question about partisanship.

"I think, going in, to think Democrat or Republican or one of the other, is small thinking now and even becoming unconstitutional because you're supposed to serve the American people or the people of your state," McConaughey said.

Independent bids for governor are not unheard of in Texas. In 2006, former Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and songwriter and humorist Kinky Friedman both ran as independents. They finished third and fourth in the race behind Republican Rick Perry and Democrat Chris Bell, but combined to bring in more than 30% of the vote.

So far, the biggest question hanging over the 2022 gubernatorial race involves a Democrat: O'Rourke, the former 2020 presidential candidate, El Paso congressman and 2018 U.S. Senate nominee. O'Rourke has said he is considering challenging Abbott, while offering harsh criticism of the governor's responses to the pandemic and winter storm.

The McConaughey-O'Rourke relationship is one of growing fascination in political circles, if only because they are by far the two most recognizable names being discussed as potential gubernatorial candidates.

McConaughey was photographed posing with O'Rourke and two other people while O'Rourke was running for U.S. Senate. As early voting was underway in that race, he tweeted a video of himself in line at a polling place, encouraging people to get out and vote. And about a year later, McConaughey crossed paths with O'Rourke at a 2019 benefit concert for the victims of the El Paso Walmart massacre.

Then again, McConaughey has also teamed up with Republicans, albeit on causes that similarly are not overtly political. In 2018, he appeared alongside Attorney General Ken Paxton in a public service announcement about ending human trafficking. More recently, he lent his voice to another PSA, this one released by Abbott's office, that urged Texans to stay home if they could as the pandemic escalated in the state last spring.

When it comes to more politically sensitive issues, McConaughey has treaded carefully. Take, for example, the push to "defund the police" last year after the death of George Floyd, the black Minnesota man who was killed after being pinned down by an officer. Asked about Austin's response to the "defund the police" movement, McConaughey told podcast host Joe Rogan in October that it's "almost like it should've been renamed because 'defund the police' does not sound anything like there's been money reallocated to different areas." He said the community and police "need to get back together" and better understand the unique challenges each face. And on police specifically, he said there are "a few of these bad apples [that] need to be removed, but we need to make sure we're training them better."

He ultimately landed on a skeptical position, saying his "first gut instinct [about defunding the police] was I don't see how that repairs the relationship between the community and the police force."

"We'll see how it works, but I'm more for saying, OK, instead of taking away your money and your funds, which you can use to train better and work on the relationship of what your job is and what you expect and what communities expect from you — I'd rather have done that than pull money from 'em," McConaughey said.

In the same interview, McConaughey offered a more direct position on another hot-button issue — gun control — saying it is "too easy to get a gun sometimes, that there should be that background check."

Cassi Pollock contributed reporting.

Top Texas elected official's 2021 priorities: Pandemic, power grid and Star Spangled Banner Protection Act

Patrick said in a statement that he is "confident these priorities address issues that are critical to Texans at this time" and that some of them changed in recent days due to the storm, which left millions of Texans without power. After his top priority — the must-pass budget — Patrick listed his priorities as reforming the state's electrical grid operator, as well as "power grid stability."

Patrick's specific plans for such items remain unclear, however. Almost all of his priority bills have not been filed yet, and the list he released refers to the issues in general terms.

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View the full list of Dan Patrick's priorities here.
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The priorities echo much of the agenda that Gov. Greg Abbott laid out in his State of the State speech earlier this month, including his emergency items like expanding broadband access and punishing local governments that "defund the police." Fourth on the list is a cause that Patrick himself prioritized recently — a "Star Spangled Banner Protection Act" that would require the national anthem to be played at all events that get public funding.

However, besides the fresh focus on the electrical grid, perhaps the most notable takeaway from Patrick's agenda is how far it goes in pushing several hot-button social conservative issues. Patrick's eighth and ninth priorities have to do with abortion — a "heartbeat bill" that would ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, as well as an "abortion ban trigger" that would automatically ban the practice if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Abbott said he wanted to further restrict abortion in his State of the State speech but did not mention those two proposals specifically.

Abortion is not the only politically contentious topic on Patrick's list. As his 29th priority, Patrick put "Fair Sports for Women & Girls," an apparent reference to proposals that would ban transgender girls and women who attend public schools from playing on single-sex sports teams designated for girls and women. He also included three items related to gun rights: "Protect Second Amendment Businesses," "Stop Corporate Gun Boycotts," and "Second Amendment Protections for Travelers." It was not immediately clear what specifically those three bills would entail.

Coming in at 10th is another proposal that was left unmentioned in Abbott's speech despite popularity with the GOP base: banning taxpayer-funded lobbying. That is considered one of the big pieces of leftover business for conservatives after the 2019 session.

While the new state House speaker, Dade Phelan, has been a proponent of outlawing taxpayer-funded lobbying, it remains to be seen how receptive the lower chamber will be to the rest of Patrick's agenda. The House, especially under previous Speaker Joe Straus, has a history of slowing — or stopping — at least some of Patrick's most controversial ideas. Phelan has not released a similar list of priorities.

To be sure, though, Patrick's list covers all five emergency items that Abbott designated in his State of the State speech, when the governor vowed to use this session to aid Texas' recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. Patrick said in a statement that he backs Abbott's priorities "as well as other legislation to make sure the Texas economy continues to come back stronger than ever following the pandemic."

Patrick's priorities drew the swiftest pushback from abortion rights advocates. Dyana Limon-Mercado, executive director of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, said Patrick was elevating the wrong issues, especially after the winter storm.

"Just when we think state leaders can't go any lower, Dan Patrick throws out this list—nothing more than a political stunt and a weak attempt to save face with his base, while Texans still need essential health care and critical community support," Limon-Mercado said in a statement.

For Patrick, the priority list marks something of an end to a relatively quiet start to the session for the typically outspoken lieutenant governor. He has increased his public profile in recent days, including by announcing his plan for the national anthem legislation after a report that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban decided to stop playing the song during home games this season.

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood 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 at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/02/23/dan-patrick-2021-priorities/.

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 staffer fired after attending Capitol riot and harassing restaurant workers over 'Pizzagate '

The Republican Party of Texas has fired a staffer after learning about a series of social media posts he made, including one that places him in a crowd of people steps outside the U.S. Capitol last month on the same day that a mob of former President Donald Trump's supporters stormed the building.

The staffer, field organizer Kevin Whitt, has also published video of himself arguing with an employee of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria over the "Pizzagate" conspiracy theory and has defended the Proud Boys, the far-right nationalist group.

Less than two hours after The Texas Tribune contacted the Texas GOP about Whitt on Monday afternoon, the party said it had fired him.

"Information has come to light of some troubling video of one of our former employees," party spokesperson Luke Twombly said in a statement to the Tribune. "Due to this footage, we terminated our relationship."

In an interview after the firing, Whitt told the Tribune that the party was "canceling conservatives, obviously." He said he never got any indication his job was in jeopardy until the party emailed him Monday afternoon to tell him he was fired.

Whitt was hired Nov. 30, 2020, as a field organizer, Twombly said. He is best known as an activist who talks about his experience leaving behind his life as a drag queen to become deeply religious and advocate on social conservative issues.

On Jan. 7, the day after the Capitol siege, Whitt posted a video on Instagram showing a crowd of people a short distance outside a Capitol entrance, alarms going off in the background. While Whitt is not shown in the video, he can be heard speaking behind the camera.

"This is the door of the Capitol," Whitt says. "I'm trying to move as close as I can."

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The caption of the video says, "Say Her Name, Ashli Babbit!! RIP Patriot." Babbit was the California woman who police fatally shot as she tried to climb through a broken window during the riot.

Whitt told the Tribune that he did not enter the Capitol and was not trying to. He had been in town to attend the rally that Trump spoke at earlier that day, but Whitt said he decided not to attend when he saw how early he would have had to arrive and instead stayed at his hotel and slept in. When he woke up, he said, he saw the news of the escalating situation at the Capitol and headed over to see what was happening. Whitt said the crowd outside the entrance where he was recording was getting rowdy, so "I stepped outside and got out of it."

"I was being nosy," Whitt said.

Whitt was not the only Texas Republican who traveled to the nation's capital that day to protest the certification of Trump's defeat in the Electoral College. Attorney General Ken Paxton spoke before Trump at the same rally, and state Rep. Kyle Biedermann of Fredericksburg has said he "peacefully marched" to the Capitol.

Another video on Whitt's social media accounts, dated mid-December, shows him confronting a woman inside the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C., which has been at the center of the debunked Pizzagate conspiracy theory. The conspiracy theory, which emerged ahead of the 2016 election, claims that Democratic elites are running a child sex-trafficking ring out of the pizzeria. The restaurant and its employees have been repeatedly harassed and threatened by people who believe the conspiracy theory. In 2017, a man was sentenced to four years in prison after firing an AR-15 rifle while searching inside the restaurant.

In the video, Whitt asks the woman how she feels about working "in a restaurant that is known for pedophilia." The woman asks Whitt to leave, and he says she can call the cops and that he will not leave.

Whitt then shouts into the restaurant: "Y'all are abusing children. You are pedophiles. Do not eat here. All of y'all should leave. They are serving up dead kids. This place is known ... for a restaurant that is sex trafficking children."

Whitt told the Tribune that he "100% believe[s] that Pizzagate is real." Before the video began, Whitt said he had been dining with friends at the restaurant and was heading to the bathroom, recording artwork on the walls and got into a confrontation with the woman about whether he was allowed to record.

Both the videos from the Capitol riot and the pizzeria disappeared from Whitt's social media accounts after the Tribune contacted him about them.

In other social media posts, Whitt has aligned himself with the Proud Boys, some of whose members have been charged with federal crimes such as conspiracy, civil disorder and assaulting an officer in the Capitol riot. In a mid-December Facebook post, Whitt called the Proud Boys an "amazing" group of men and said there may be a "few bad apples that do dumb stuff," but that was to be expected when people organize themselves.

Under the leadership of chairman Allen West, who was elected last summer, the state party has had to answer for perceived connections to the fringes of the Trump-era GOP. Its slogan, "We are the storm," uses language commonly used by followers of the QAnon conspiracy movement. West has said the slogan is drawn from an unattributed quote that he likes and denied any QAnon influence.

The QAnon movement adheres to an unfounded theory that a mysterious government official named "Q" is exposing a plot against Trump by "deep-state" actors involving satanism and child sex trafficking. Some believers have been accused of plotting or carrying out violent crimes, including killing a New York mob boss.

Whitt spoke at a "We Are The Storm" rally on Dec. 5 in Dallas that the state party had promoted on social media. Speakers appeared in front of a podium that had the state party's seal on it.

Disclosure: Facebook 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.

GOP governor says 'election integrity' will be a top priority for Texas legislature

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday unveiled a legislative agenda centered on the state's recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and a series of more politically charged issues such as police funding and "election integrity."

In his biennial State of the State speech, Abbott declared Texas is "brimming with promise" as it emerges from the pandemic and seeks to return to economic dominance. He pledged "hard-working Texans are at the forefront of our agenda this legislative session as we build a healthier, safer, freer and more prosperous state."

Abbott designated five emergency items, or items that the Legislature can vote on within the first 60 day of the session, which began Jan. 12. Those items were expanding broadband internet access, punishing local governments that "defund the police" as he defines it, changing the bail system, ensuring what he described as "election integrity" and providing civil liability protections for businesses that were open during the pandemic.

Abbott also asked lawmakers to pass laws that would strengthen civics education in Texas classrooms, further restrict abortion and make Texas a "Second Amendment sanctuary state." On issues stemming from the pandemic, Abbott called for legislation to permanently expand telemedicine and to prevent "any government entity from shutting down religious activities in Texas." And Abbott briefly touched on the debate among some in his own party over how aggressively he has wielded his executive powers to respond to the coronavirus.

"I will continue working with the Legislature to find ways to navigate a pandemic while also allowing businesses to remain open," Abbott said.

Abbott gave the address from Visionary Fiber Technologies in Lockhart, eschewing the traditional setting of a joint legislative session inside the House chamber as lawmakers continue to worry about gathering en masse during the pandemic.

Democrats pushed back on Abbott's speech by accusing him of giving an overly rosy view of the state's coronavirus response. Calling Abbott the "worst Governor in modern Texas history," the state Democratic Party chairman, Gilberto Hinojosa, said in a statement that Abbott "buries his head in the sand and pretends like nothing is happening."

While the state's coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths are decreasing after record highs in January, they still remain very high relative to other points in the pandemic.

This will be Abbott's last session before he is up for reelection in 2022, and he alluded to one potential Democratic challenger for a third term: Beto O'Rourke, the former El Paso congressman. Abbott said gun rights are "under attack" and noted politicians have said, "Heck yes, the government is coming to get your guns" — a paraphrase of O'Rourke's 2019 statement embracing a mandatory buyback program for assault weapons.

The session is also coming at the start of a new Democratic presidential administration in Washington, D.C. While Abbott and other top Texas Republicans have made clear they plan to vigorously challenge President Joe Biden's policies, the governor made only one allusion to Biden in his speech, saying that "because of the federal government's open border policies, Texas must fortify its efforts to secure our border."

When it came to legislative priorities, Abbott was noticeably light on details in some cases. On election security, Abbott did not say what he was looking for beyond instilling "trust and confidence in the outcome of our elections." Texas already has some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country, though the state's Republicans are newly focused on the issue after fighting efforts by Democrats to make it easier to vote ahead of the November election due to the pandemic.

Abbott's prioritization of election security comes three months following a November election after which top Texas Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Attorney General Ken Paxton, played central roles in fueling former President Donald Trump's baseless claims of widespread fraud. Those conspiracies led to a violent siege on the U.S. Capitol the day Congress met to certify the results last month. Abbott was among the Republicans who did not immediately recognize Biden's victory after major news outlets declared him the winner, and he was later supportive of Paxton's unsuccessful lawsuit challenging the results in four battleground states.

Abbott did not mention any particular proposal to penalize local governments that cut police funding, though he has previously pitched ideas like freezing property tax revenues for cities that do so. Abbott has focused almost all of his ire on Austin, whose City Council voted last year to cut its police department budget and redirect some of the money to social services. Austin officials did so after the death of George Floyd, a Black man, re-energized a movement against police brutality against Black Americans. It also followed Austin officers' fatal shooting of Mike Ramos, an unarmed Black and Latino man.

In Texas Democrats' video response to Abbott's speech, Candice Matthews of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats said lawmakers instead need to address inequities in law enforcement's treatment of communities of color.

"Our communities should not have to live with trauma and fear of wondering if they, or their families or their neighbors will be the next to die from police brutality," Matthews said in the video. "We demand that every single racist policy be uprooted."

Shortly after railing against the "defund the police" movement in his speech, Abbott said the state still "cannot ignore the need to improve policing" and called for better "tools and training" for cops. But he did not make reforming police behavior or accountability an emergency item like he did with police funding.

"We need real help from the state, not more politics or finger-wagging," Austin Mayor Steve Adler said in response. "State interference with local government is not the answer."

While Abbott did not go too in depth on some topics, he prescribed a specific piece of legislation when it came to bail reform: the Damon Allen Act. The proposal, which Abbott unsuccessfully pushed last session, is named after a slain state trooper. The suspect in Allen's death was out on bond. Bail reform efforts often aim to stop cash bail practices that hold people in jail before they are convicted solely because they are poor, but Abbott said last week his bill would focus instead on keeping "dangerous criminals off the streets."

On abortion — another area where Texas already has some of the toughest laws in the country — Abbott specified that he wanted to "make explicit what should be obvious: No unborn child should be targeted for abortion on the basis on race, sex or disability." Similar legislation filed last session would have barred later-term abortions even in the case of severe fetal abnormalities, which critics refer to as "discriminatory abortions."

In between the red meat, Abbott continued to paint an optimistic view of the state's slow and staggered economic recovery from COVID-19.

"The pandemic has shed a harsh light on many ways our state failed to prepare for disaster," officials with labor group Texas AFL-CIO said in a statement. "If you are worried about when you will receive a vaccine in this state, you heard nothing. If you are a teacher looking for assurances that schools will be made safe, you heard nothing. If you have waited for months to receive unemployment insurance benefits after losing a job through no fault of your own, you heard nothing."

Democrats focused heavily on Abbott's pandemic handling in a response to his speech that aired immediately afterward. Among the speakers was Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor, U.S. housing secretary and 2020 presidential candidate. The Democratic response also included Oscar Leeser, the new El Paso mayor who lost both his mom and brother to COVID-19 last year.

Karen Brooks Harper, Jolie McCullough and Shannon Najmabadi contributed reporting.

Disclosure: Steve Adler is a former Texas Tribune board chairman and has been a financial supporter of the 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.

Texas GOP staffer fired after insurrection claims state party is 'canceling conservatives': report

The Republican Party of Texas has fired a staffer after learning about a series of social media posts he made, including one that places him in a crowd of people steps outside the U.S. Capitol last month on the same day that a mob of former President Donald Trump's supporters stormed the building.

The staffer, field organizer Kevin Whitt, has also published video of himself arguing with an employee of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria over the "Pizzagate" conspiracy theory and has defended the Proud Boys, the far-right nationalist group.

Less than two hours after The Texas Tribune contacted the Texas GOP about Whitt on Monday afternoon, the party said it had fired him.

"Information has come to light of some troubling video of one of our former employees," party spokesperson Luke Twombly said in a statement to the Tribune. "Due to this footage, we terminated our relationship."

In an interview after the firing, Whitt told the Tribune that the party was "canceling conservatives, obviously." He said he never got any indication his job was in jeopardy until the party emailed him Monday afternoon to tell him he was fired.

Whitt was hired Nov. 30, 2020, as a field organizer, Twombly said. He is best known as an activist who talks about his experience leaving behind his life as a drag queen to become deeply religious and advocate on social conservative issues.

On Jan. 7, the day after the Capitol siege, Whitt posted a video on Instagram showing a crowd of people a short distance outside a Capitol entrance, alarms going off in the background. While Whitt is not shown in the video, he can be heard speaking behind the camera.

"This is the door of the Capitol," Whitt says. "I'm trying to move as close as I can."

Whitt told the Tribune that he did not enter the Capitol and was not trying to. He had been in town to attend the rally that Trump spoke at earlier that day, but Whitt said he decided not to attend when he saw how early he would have had to arrive and instead stayed at his hotel and slept in. When he woke up, he said, he saw the news of the escalating situation at the Capitol and headed over to see what was happening. Whitt said the crowd outside the entrance where he was recording was getting rowdy, so "I stepped outside and got out of it."

"I was being nosy," Whitt said.

Whitt was not the only Texas Republican who traveled to the nation's capital that day to protest the certification of Trump's defeat in the Electoral College. Attorney General Ken Paxton spoke before Trump at the same rally, and state Rep. Kyle Biedermann of Fredericksburg has said he "peacefully marched" to the Capitol.

Another video on his Whitt's social media accounts, dated mid-December, shows him confronting a woman inside the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C., which has been at the center of the debunked Pizzagate conspiracy theory. The conspiracy theory, which emerged ahead of the 2016 election, claims that Democratic elites are running a child sex-trafficking ring out of the pizzeria. The restaurant and its employees have been repeatedly harassed and threatened by people who believe the conspiracy theory. In 2017, a man was sentenced to four years in prison after firing an AR-15 rifle while searching inside the restaurant.

In the video, Whitt asks the woman how she feels about working "in a restaurant that is known for pedophilia." The woman asks Whitt to leave, and he says she can call the cops and that he will not leave.

Whitt then shouts into the restaurant: "Y'all are abusing children. You are pedophiles. Do not eat here. All of y'all should leave. They are serving up dead kids. This place is known ... for a restaurant that is sex trafficking children."

Whitt told the Tribune that he "100% believe[s] that Pizzagate is real." Before the video began, Whitt said he had been dining with friends at the restaurant and was heading to the bathroom, recording artwork on the walls and got into a confrontation with the woman about whether he was allowed to record.

Both the videos from the Capitol riot and the pizzeria disappeared from Whitt's social media accounts after the Tribune contacted him about them.

In other social media posts, Whitt has aligned himself with the Proud Boys, some of whose members have been charged with federal crimes such as conspiracy, civil disorder and assaulting an officer in the Capitol riot. In a mid-December Facebook post, Whitt called the Proud Boys an "amazing" group of men and said there may be a "few bad apples that do dumb stuff," but that was to be expected when people organize themselves.

Under the leadership of chairman Allen West, who was elected last summer, the state party has had to answer for perceived connections to the fringes of the Trump-era GOP. Its slogan, "We are the storm," uses language commonly used by followers of the QAnon conspiracy movement. West has said the slogan is drawn from an unattributed quote that he likes and denied any QAnon influence.

The QAnon movement adheres to an unfounded theory that a mysterious government official named "Q" is exposing a plot against Trump by "deep-state" actors involving satanism and child sex trafficking. Some believers have been accused of plotting or carrying out violent crimes, including killing a New York mob boss.

Whitt spoke at a "We Are The Storm" rally on Dec. 5 in Dallas that the state party had promoted on social media. Speakers appeared in front of a podium that had the state party's seal on it.

Disclosure: Facebook 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.

Greg Abbott and Beto O’Rourke spar in what could be a preview of the 2022 Texas governor’s race

Gov. Greg Abbott and Beto O'Rourke butted heads Thursday after the Democratic former El Paso congressman said he would consider challenging the Republican incumbent for Texas' top elected post in 2022.

O'Rourke said during an El Paso radio interview earlier this week that a gubernatorial bid is "something I'm going to think about." The comment began receiving wide attention after the Houston Chronicle wrote it up Thursday morning, and during an unrelated news conference hours later in Odessa, Abbott fielded a reporter's question about a potential O'Rourke challenge.

"You're talking about a person who says they want to run for governor who said, 'Heck yes,' he's gonna come and take your guns," Abbott said, referring to O'Rourke's 2019 embrace of a mandatory buyback program for assault weapons. "Heck yes, he's for open borders. Heck yes, he's for killing the energy sector and fossil fuels in the state of Texas. I don't think that's gonna sell real well."

On Thursday evening, O'Rourke responded in a string of eight tweets that took Abbott to task for various parts of his record as governor, starting with his response to the coronavirus pandemic.

"You know what doesn't 'sell well' @GregAbbott_TX?" O'Rourke said. "The fact that 36,000 Texans have died from Covid. [You] have undermined public health and local leadership at every turn, and now too many of our family, friends and neighbors are dead because of it."

O'Rourke ended by saying, "Whether or not I run, I will do everything in my power to elect a Governor who looks out for everyone, keeps Texans safe, answers to the people instead of the special interests & guarantees that we all have equal opportunity to achieve our best in life."

O'Rourke previously had not ruled out challenging Abbott, but his latest comment on 2022 is his most direct acknowledgment of a potential campaign, especially since the November election.

Abbott won reelection in 2018 by 13 points while O'Rourke came within 3 points of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. Abbott is up for a third term next year and is expected to be a formidable opponent for any challenger, with almost $40 million in his campaign war chest.

After dropping out of the 2020 presidential primary, O'Rourke turned his attention back to state politics, plunging into the fight for the Texas House majority through a new political group, Powered by People. Abbott's campaign aggressively used O'Rourke as a boogeyman in the House battle, which ended with Republicans holding on to their 83-member majority.

John Cornyn says he won't join growing number of Texas Republicans planning to object to certification of Joe Biden's win

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, announced Tuesday that he isn't planning to object to the certification of the Electoral College vote in Congress, splitting with a growing number of GOP colleagues that most notably includes the state's junior senator, Ted Cruz.

In a lengthy letter to Texans, Cornyn noted that he has supported President Donald Trump's right to challenge election results in the courts but that Trump's lawsuits have gone nowhere, and recounts in multiple states have also failed to change the outcome. Trump has continued to push baseless claims of widespread fraud in the election, including at a campaign rally Monday night in Georgia.

"As a former judge, I view this process with the same impartial, evidence-based decision-making as I did my job on the bench," wrote Cornyn, a former justice on the Texas Supreme Court. "So, unless substantial, new evidence is presented during the challenges to each state's ballots, I will not object to the certification of that stave's election results based on unproven allegations."

"Allegations alone will not suffice," Cornyn said earlier in the letter. "Evidence is required."

Cornyn's position is not much of a surprise based on comments he has made in recent weeks expressing increasing skepticism about Trump's chances of overturning his loss to the president-elect, Joe Biden. But the letter marks Cornyn's most extensive explanation of his position yet, and it comes as Texas' other senator digs in on his plan, along with 10 other GOP senators, to object to the Wednesday certification of Biden's win unless they can secure an "emergency audit" of the November results.

A source familiar with Cruz's plans, but who was unauthorized to speak on the record, said that Cruz intends to specifically object to the certification of electors from Arizona. The news was first reported Tuesday by the Washington Post. Cruz told conservative radio host Mark Levin on Monday night that he did not want to "set aside the election ... but rather to press for the appointment of an electoral commission."

In his letter, Cornyn made clear he was not a fan of Cruz's audit proposal, which Cruz has said can be done in the 10 days before the inauguration. Cornyn suggested he too supports a review of election issues but something less hasty and more deliberate, such as an "independent commission" in the vein of the Commission on Federal Election Reform. That was a private bipartisan panel that looked into problems with the 2000 and 2004 elections.

"As to timing and practicality of an emergency audit, I am much more dubious," Cornyn said. "The design of the proposed commission to conduct such an 'audit' will inevitably fail."

Cornyn and Cruz are in very different positions politically. Cornyn is coming off a reelection victory in November that secured him another six-year term in the Senate, while Cruz has an eye toward 2024, when any presidential contender will likely need to stay in the good graces of Trump and his supporters.

Trump dinged Cornyn on Tuesday afternoon, tagging him in a tweet that told the "weak and ineffective RINO section of the Republican Party" to heed his supporters' wishes for an election reversal. (RINO stands for "Republican In Name Only.") Trump also tagged two other senior Senate Republicans: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Majority Whip John Thune, who previously incurred Trump's wrath for dismissing some House Republicans' intentions to dispute the Electoral College outcome.

Nearly half of the 23 Texas Republicans in the House have promised to object to the certification. At least four announced their intentions Tuesday: Reps. Jodey Arrington of Lubbock, John Carter of Round Rock, Troy Nehls and Ron Wright of Arlington.

Carter, Nehls and Wright all represent districts that national Democrats targeted in November, though each won their races by comfortable margins. Nehls was sworn in to Congress on Sunday after winning the hard-fought fall election to replace former U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, who did not seek another term.

"You sent me to Congress to fight for President Trump and election integrity and that's exactly what I'm doing," Nehls wrote on Facebook.

The other Texas Republicans in the House who have said they will object to the certification are Reps. Louie Gohmert of Tyler, Lance Gooden of Terrell, August Pfluger of San Angelo, Randy Weber of Friendswood, Pete Sessions of Waco, Brian Babin of Woodville and Ronny Jackson, the former Trump White House doctor who represents the Panhandle.

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