Few people have accused Jerry Patterson of being namby-pamby, and certainly not Jean Sharp.
“I grew up in the same neighborhood in Southeast Houston as he did, and he’s the same kind of Texan as me — a straight shooter, no BS,” Sharp, a 65-year-old grandmother, said outside a September candidate forum in Clear Lake, where she waited to greet her onetime neighbor, wearing a National Rifle Association ball cap. “He tells it like it is. He’s no fancy politician.”
That no-holds-barred persona includes posing with firearms to highlight his pro-gun stance as Texas’ “first defender of the Second Amendment,” stunts that Patterson’s opponents have decried as political grandstanding that makes Texas the brunt of jokes on late-night TV shows. It also includes blasting environmentalists and federal officials as “leftists … with reptile dysfunction” for moving to protect a West Texas lizard. And it includes criticizing fellow Republicans for leaning too far to the right, when his critics say he courts the fringe as a caricature of reactionary Texas.
Patterson, 67, relishes being straight spoken. As Texas land commissioner for the past decade, the ex-Marine combat pilot is one of three Republicans who are trying to unseat GOP Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a March primary election. The other candidates are state Sen. Dan Patrick and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples
“I hate political correctness,” Patterson said with a smile. “Political leadership is not about sucking up to people. I’m not afraid of taking a position. It’s a constitutional right to be offended, and, if I offend someone, I’m helping them exercise their constitutional rights.”
By most accounts, Patterson is a dark horse in the heated race — a wild card who admittedly ranks toward the bottom in polls and in fundraising, but who confidently predicts he will end up in a runoff. While his opponents have characterized him as a political loose cannon, prospective voters ranging from tea party activists to Republican women’s groups to gun clubs have cheered his speeches about protecting personal liberties, opposing abortions and “Obamacare,” and criticizing the failure of current federal immigration policies.
They also seem to like his unique fundraising pitch: a bullet “signed by Jerry.”
“I think I represent the values of most Texans,” he said.
In a race where all the candidates are scrambling to be seen as the most conservative, and not the career politicians that they all are, Patterson pitches himself as different, a “Larry the Cable Guy” kind of leader who worries about whether Austin has become “Washington West,” a Texas version of the nation’s capital of political bickering — even though he’s been in Austin as long as most of the rest of them.
In some respects, though, the conservative pitches of all four are much the same — strong on Second Amendment gun rights, border security, tax reform, property rights and smaller government while stressing that the federal government’s power needs to be reined in. Patterson differs slightly on immigration reforms, advocating policies that he says best serve Texas instead of deporting all undocumented workers. “The first illegal immigrants in Texas were folks who had names like mine,” he said. “My opponents are playing to the lowest common denominator. I’m looking to solve problems, not just talk about them.”
To most Texans, though, Patterson is perhaps best known as Mr. Gun Rights, the author of the state’s concealed handgun law when he was a state senator in the 1995, an outspoken advocate for veterans and the public official who successfully took on environmentalists and the federal government over endangered sea turtles and lizards to fight federal efforts to limit oil and gas exploration.
Born in Houston a year after World War II ended, the son of a truck driver and a homemaker, the boy named for his father Jerry and grandfather Emmett grew up in the working-class suburbs of Southeast Houston, then a stronghold for unions and Democrats. As a boy, he recalls wanting to be a military pilot like this father and grandfather — and not wanting to be called “Pat,” as his dad and grandpa were.
“I thought Pat was too sissy, too feminine,” he said. “Just ‘Jerry’ was what I wanted.”
By high school, Patterson was a swim team star, specializing in the breaststroke and sprint freestyle. He was popular, driving a used 1957 two-door Ford Fairlane that he bought for $250.
Heading to Texas A&M University, Patterson was accepted into the Corps of Cadets with plans for a career in the Marines after graduation. He decided on a history major “after I got into chemistry and physics and decided I better do something I’m interested in and good at.”
History proved to be the ticket. History was in his family tree.
“As long as I can remember, I wanted to be in the Marines — rough and tough and hard to bluff,” he recalled. “My great-grandfather was in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. My grandfather was a Navy biplane pilot during World War I and served in the Army during World War II. My father was a pilot in the Pacific during World War II. I was a Marine fighter pilot in Vietnam. My son flies Marine attack helicopters.
“Five generations of wartime military service. We’re very proud of that,” said Patterson, who retired as a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1993.
Twice married and divorced, and soon to be married again, Patterson has four children, including a daughter who worked for a time as a human rights attorney in Kosovo, and twins who are in elementary school.
Having once worked for the 1970 campaign of Houston Democratic lawmaker Bob Gammage, Patterson by the 1980s was a Ronald Reagan Republican. In 1984, he ran against Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Andrews — and lost.
“It was probably a very serious lapse of judgment, since I’m the only politician in my family,” he said. “But I thought I was a pretty good public speaker, as long as I just told people where I stood. I didn’t want to be like all the other candidates.”
In a surprise upset in 1992, Patterson defeated state Sen. Chet Brooks, the longest serving senator, and won a Senate seat representing the Houston suburbs where he grew up. “He was part of the first wave of Republicans who eventually took the Legislature to a Republican majority,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
His first attempt to legalize concealed handguns in Texas was vetoed by Gov. Ann Richards, a Democrat. Two years later, Gov. George W. Bush signed Patterson’s bill into law — giving Patterson statewide name recognition that spurred him to run for land commissioner in 1998. Dewhurst defeated him in a primary, but he ran again and won four years later, when Dewhurst moved up to the state’s No. 2 office.
His tenure as land commissioner has been marked by increased investment income for school funds, improved benefits for veterans, an adamant defense of Texas’ coastline and beaches, protection of the Alamo and support for continued oil and gas production on state lands that helps pay the bills for all the rest.
Now, Patterson wants to replace Dewhurst again, a race in which his unvarnished approach sets him apart from the other candidates.
“Texas is lacking leadership, and David is part of that problem, because he’s too focused on being liked and too fearful of making decisions that might offend someone,” he said. “We need somebody presiding over the Senate who’s a little bit like (the late Democratic lieutenant governor) Bob Bullock, someone who can lead, take on tough issues, make tough decisions, get things done.”
This is the first of four American-Statesman profiles on Republican lieutenant governor candidates.
PATTERSON ON PATTERSON
On his first gun: “It was a bolt-action, .22 rifle that my Uncle Burton gave to me when I was 10. The first time I used it I shot a squirrel in East Texas, along the Sabine River.”
On a secret about his unsuccessful race for Congress: “I was flying from Dallas to Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls while I was running. The flight was marked ‘VIP escort.’ They told me a congressman was on board. When we landed, there was a red carpet and two bird colonels waiting there, and I said, ‘Who’s the congressman?’ and I was told, ‘You are.’ It was supposed to be a joke on me. So I got out and shook everybody’s hands, and I just told them, ‘On the way in, I noticed we need to get that runway extended, and I’ll work to get it in the next appropriations bill,’ and they thanked me, and they gave us a car, and we got out of there. To this day, I’ll bet they still think I was a congressman.”
On what he’s afraid of: “Sharks. When I was a kid fishing at Galveston, a shark scared the hell out of us. I still remember that.”
On the politicians he admires: “(Gov.) Dan Moody back in the 1920s. He single-handedly took out the KKK. And (Democratic Gov.) Allan Shivers who endorsed (Republican) Dwight Eisenhower for president in 1952 and put the state’s interest ahead of political interests on the tidelands issue. They weren’t afraid of taking a politically risky position if it was right for Texas.”
On what he wants to be remembered for: “That I was a guy who was always straight with people, not telling them just what they wanted to hear.”