Note: This story originally appeared in The Quorum Report. Join us there for daily coverage of Texas politics and government.
Texas House Speaker Joe Straus has suggested Gov. Greg Abbott should articulate a clear position on one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s top priorities for the legislative session: Restrictions on bathroom access based on gender. “The governor’s opinion on this can make a big difference,” Straus said diplomatically during a speech at the Texas Association of Business conference in Austin.
The silence out of the Central Office has been deafening as some social conservatives line up on one side of the issue and business leaders, now with the encouragement of the House’s presiding officer, speak out against it by pointing to potentially huge economic damage including tens of thousands of lost jobs.
Abbott’s top priority for the session is a Convention of States to amend the United States Constitution, a push that could put him at odds with some conservatives and Patrick on restrooms. Some hardline conservatives have argued that if a convention of states is convened, liberal states might seek to inject protections for transgender people into the nation’s founding document. Abbott says that will not happen. Only his ideas for altering the Constitution stand a chance, naturally.
This is not another story about whether Patrick is going to challenge Abbott or run against Sen. Ted Cruz. Enough of that.
Instead, this is about Patrick finding a way to dance with one of the ones who brung him even after the political landscape has changed and the national moment for the bathroom issue seems to have passed.
For a time following the close of the last legislative session, Patrick lost the confidence of archconservative Steve Hotze, a major contributor who spent heavily against Texas House incumbents in the 2016 GOP primary. Hotze was also highly disappointed the Texas Senate under Patrick’s leadership did not pass a bill to outlaw the use of tax dollars when marriage licenses are issued to same-sex couples. Hotze holds significant sway with a large portion of Republican primary voters in Harris County, home to roughly one fifth of the state’s electorate.
After the anti-gay bill failed in the House in 2015, Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, tried to resurrect it in the Senate only to have it blocked even under the new three-fifths rule adopted at Patrick’s insistence. Remember, scrapping the two-thirds rule was supposed to clear the decks for “conservative legislation.”
When Patrick unveiled the details of Senate Bill 6, his “Texas Privacy Act,” he cited the fact that voters in Houston – a Democratic stronghold – rejected protections for transgender people in public restrooms when they nixed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, in 2015.
HERO failed for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was then-Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s subpoenas of pastors – a move that angered African-American leaders and split the Democratic coalition – and the successful framing of the ordinance by Patrick, Hotze, and others as a “bathroom bill” to allow “men in women’s restrooms!”
HERO, however, was not primarily focused on restroom access for transgender people.
Emily DePrang wrote for Quorum Report on the day of the vote:
Many mainstream media outlets forget that HERO was law from May 2014, when the Houston City Council passed it, through September 2015, when a petition and court case sent it to the referendum being decided today. During that period, well over half the discrimination complaints the city received were about race.
Houston, one of the most racially diverse metro areas in the nation, needs a fast, cheap, legal way to discourage discrimination. Austin, Dallas, and El Paso have one. Houston had one. But now it may not.
That’s because social conservatives managed to make Prop One all about transgender people, one of the few boogeymen it’s still okay to invoke as a stand-in for groups that it’s become less acceptable to openly hate and fear.
So, after helping kill an ordinance that had created an efficient way for minorities to lodge complaints of racial discrimination with the city, Patrick invoked Martin Luther King Jr. in his new effort to prevent cities from being allowed to pass such ordinances. “Martin Luther King said our lives begin to end the day we become silent on things that matter,” Patrick said of the reason he is going to battle this scourge across Texas.
It is not the first time the issue has been tested statewide with diehard Republicans.
About a year ago, Patrick was happy to speak at the event in Houston where former Harris County GOP Chairman Jared Woodfill was officially announced as challenger to Republican Party of Texas Chairman Tom Mechler.
At that same event, Hotze railed against the leadership of the Texas House and said marriage equality would lead to legalization of pedophilia. The statement seemed to be discomforting to many of the roughly 300 Republicans who shared a hotel ballroom with Patrick and Hotze that evening. The CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, Bob Harvey, was called “pro-homosexual” and the Harris County Republican Party Executive Committee was slammed because its members did not pass a resolution against HERO.
The cornerstone of Woodfill’s campaign for Texas GOP Chairman was keeping men out of women’s restrooms. For months, Woodfill with the backing of Hotze sought to make nearly the entire contest about the argument that “Men don’t belong in women’s bathrooms!” At the state party convention, the pair accused Chairman Mechler of being involved in the “disgusting homosexual agenda.”
That first attempt at campaigning on restroom access as a statewide issue – even among delegates to the Republican Party of Texas Convention – went over like a lead balloon. Woodfill conceded the race. There was no floor vote by the delegates.
After that defeat, Woodfill took over the day-to-day operations of Hotze’s Conservative Republicans of Texas PAC, a group that spent roughly $1 million opposing Texas House leadership and other House incumbents in the 2016 primaries. The group’s beneficiaries included the challengers to Chairmen Byron Cook and Charlie Geren as well as Speaker Straus himself.
When all 150 members of the House voted for Straus on the opening day of the session, not even Chairman Tim Dunn’s Empower Texans harshly criticized those who voted to keep the current leadership. The group has grumbled a bit, of course, but who is seething at Texas House Republicans?
Hotze and Woodfill.
“The coronation of Joe Straus as Speaker of the Texas House by a unanimous vote was nothing less than a full surrender on day one from those who had given us their word that they would never support Straus,” Woodfill wrote. “This capitulation and compromise mentality in the Texas House is exactly why the RINOs and Democrats run the house and have killed much of the Republican agenda found in the Republican Party of Texas platform. Joe Straus will remain Speaker until Texans say enough is enough.”
With the “bathroom bill” and his help defeating HERO, Lt. Gov. Patrick has already won back the confidence of Hotze and Woodfill. When asked by QR for the Conservative Republicans of Texas’ take on the details of SB 6, Woodfill was pleased.
“It is consistent with our goal of keeping men out of women’s bathrooms, showers, and locker rooms,” Woodfill said. “It stops ordinances like those we fought in Houston and Plano.”
The full story can be found in The Quorum Report. Copyright 2017, Harvey Kronberg. All rights are reserved. For inside information on Texas politics and government and to sign up for real-time updates, go here.