Back in the day, before Gov. Rick Perry’s 14-year tenure tilted the state’s power structure out of historical balance, Texas’ lieutenant governor was widely considered the state’s most powerful political figure. Only the speaker of the Texas House, and certainly not the constitutionally weak governor, could approach the influence the lieutenant governor, as leader of the state Senate, held over Texas government.
Never mind whether we will see the likes of Bob Bullock and Bill Hobby again. In the contest for lieutenant governor between Democratic state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio and Republican state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston, the question voters should ask is whether they want a Texas Senate capable of governing, or a Senate that risks devolving into Washington-style gridlock. We favor a functional Senate and urge voters to support Van de Putte.
Elected to the Texas House in 1990 and the Texas Senate in 1999, Van de Putte, 59, a pharmacist by training, possesses a deep knowledge of state government and owns a successful legislative record. Throughout her political career, she has fought for public and higher education, women’s health care, equal pay for women and programs to help veterans and military families. She’s widely respected and liked by her colleagues.
As a candidate for lieutenant governor, she has called for funding all-day pre-kindergarten and reducing standardized testing. She supports the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. And as the daughter of a Latino family that has been in Texas for generations, Van de Putte has a perspective on immigration and border security that is grounded in reality and possibility, not divisive rhetoric like Patrick’s.
Granted, Van de Putte, if elected, will be called on to lead a conservative Texas Senate disinclined to follow a Democrat, but her career has been distinguished by an ability to work with senators on all sides of a debate. We’re confident she can forge coalitions and find common paths forward to meet the state’s education, health care, infrastructure and other priorities and needs.
Where Van de Putte knows how to reach across the aisle, the confrontational Patrick, 64, shows more interest in using his conservative majority to dominate, bully and ram through legislation than in seeking bipartisan consensus. If elected, he says he plans to limit the number of Democrats who chair committees in the Senate and will try to repeal the chamber’s so-called two-thirds rule, a move that will be guaranteed to get next year’s session off to a contentious start.
The two-thirds tradition requires 21 votes — two-thirds of the Texas Senate’s 31 members — to bring a bill to the floor for a vote. Like the tradition of assigning members of the minority party to chair committees, the two-thirds rule is designed to temper political passions and pull senators toward moderation and consensus. It emphasizes the importance of the institution over the individual.
But for Patrick, a radio talk-show host and tea party conservative, ideological purity trumps tradition, and institutions are suspect. We’re not alone in fearing he will turn the state Senate into a Texas version of the dysfunctional U.S. Senate.
Patrick refused to meet with us both before the Republican Party primary in March and again ahead of the general election next month. But his record is well-established. He wants to lower property taxes by raising sales taxes. He opposes the expansion of Medicaid. He wants to expand the number of charter schools, though charters, as a whole, perform worse than traditional public schools. In 2013, he voted against restoring $3.4 billion in school spending that had been cut in 2011.
Exploiting social issues and using them as political wedges is Patrick’s métier — abortion, gun rights and especially immigration. Texas Republicans such as gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott who hope to win greater support from Hispanic voters — and who understand that doing so is essential to the party maintaining power — might find Patrick an impediment.
Barring any electoral surprises, Patrick almost certainly will be Texas’ next lieutenant governor. Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994, and the Texas Lyceum Poll, a nonpartisan survey released Oct. 1, showed Patrick running 14 points ahead of Van de Putte among likely Texas voters.
If the election unfolds as expected, we only can hope that once the seat is his, Patrick will realize that the rigidly ideological don’t govern authentically, they govern poorly, and for the state’s sake, he will know when to bend.
Also running for lieutenant governor: Libertarian Robert Butler, owner of a marketing agency in Round Rock, and Green Party candidate Chandrakantha Courtney, a Houston singer, composer and teacher of Indian music.
Early voting for the Nov. 4 elections begins Oct. 20. Next week, ahead of early voting’s arrival, Viewpoints will run the American-Statesman’s Editorial Board’s recommendations in the most anticipated races. The schedule:
Sunday: We say yea or nay to Proposition 1, Austin’s $1 billion light rail and roads ballot measure.
Monday-Friday: We let you know which of the 70 candidates vying for 10 City Council positions we support.
Oct. 18: Greg Abbott for Texas governor, or Wendy Davis? Stay tuned.
Oct. 19: There are eight Austin mayoral candidates. We endorse one.
To view our previous endorsements and to find other election coverage, please go to statesman.com/elections.