- Jonathan Tilove American-Statesman Staff
At the midpoint of this summer’s special legislative session, the political narrative seems clear. We are poised for a potentially ugly showdown in the final two weeks.
On one side are Gov. Greg Abbott, who called the special session and laid out its 20-point conservative agenda, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, whose Senate, in a furious burst of lawmaking last week, made quick work of passing 18 of those 20 items.
On the other side is Speaker Joe Straus, whose House is threatening to slow the session’s momentum and scuttle any chance of passing the full slate, including a transgender bathroom bill — divisive, yet popular among social conservatives.
It’s a stark and compelling storyline, and may prove true.
But it is not the whole truth. For that, Texans need to get to know the likes of Rep. Tom Oliverson, who was chosen by his Republican colleagues as the GOP freshman of the year, is admired by both Patrick and Straus, and welcomed the governor’s special session call.
“The vast, vast majority of those issues were issues that I understood very well, and I was sad we didn’t get them done during the regular session,” said Oliverson, from suburban Houston.
“I would like an opportunity to consider 20 for 20,” Oliverson said during a two-hour interview in his Capitol office last week. “I’m not sure 20 for 20 would pass, but I would at least like the opportunity to debate them all.”
And yet, confounding the preconceived battle lines, Oliverson also trusts Straus and the ways of the House, even if that means the Legislature falls short of achieving many of the objectives he shares.
“I don’t think he inserts himself into the process personally as much as he could as speaker,” Oliverson said of Straus, a San Antonio Republican who in January was unanimously elected by the members of the House to a fifth term as speaker and has said he intends to seek an unprecedented sixth term in 2019.
“It’s just not a process that’s designed to pass things,” he said. “Statistically speaking, the legislative process is pretty efficient at destroying bills. It’s not so good at passing them.”
“At the end of the day, I believe the speaker will do what he believes is the will of the House,” Oliverson said. “If it’s an issue that the majority, clearly a majority, of the members are interested in, then I think it has a good chance of making it to the floor.”
Friday afternoon, in what was intended as a show of strength, the governor sent out a succession of emails identifying supporters in the House for each of his special session agenda items. But most lacked majority support. Some lacked support from even a majority of Republicans.
Oliverson is Patrick’s representative in the House.
They live next door to each other in Cypress, on the northwest edge of Houston — “across the fence, driveway to driveway,” Patrick said. (Patrick recently told Oliverson he was moving to nearby Montgomery County. The lieutenant governor’s new representative will be Republican Cecil Bell of Magnolia.)
Patrick and Oliverson got to know each other when Oliverson approached then-state Sen. Patrick in 2013 to talk politics and back him in his 2014 primary campaign for lieutenant governor.
“I had a good feeling that I knew who he was and what kind of lieutenant governor he was going to be, so he had my support,” Oliverson said.
“I think he’s been a good lieutenant governor.”
The special session was necessitated by a breakdown in relations between Patrick and Straus, and it’s fair to say that Patrick is convinced that Straus and his deputies are determined to undermine much of the special session agenda that didn’t pass the House during the regular session.
“It’s pretty remarkable to get 18 bills out in a week, literally in a week from the (governor’s) proclamation,” Patrick told the American-Statesman. Senators logged long days, churning through bills in committee hearings last weekend, then debating and approving those bills — largely on party-line votes — Monday through Wednesday.
“Now it’s up to the House,” he said. “They have plenty of time to do the work if, as Gov. Abbott said, they have the will. It’s not about the time; it’s about the will. We had the will over in the Senate.”
“It’s really up to one man,” Patrick said.
And, Patrick said of Straus, “Joe is on an island.”
“He does not represent the majority of Republicans. He doesn’t represent the majority of his membership,” Patrick said. “He’s really out of step with the governor and myself and the people of Texas.”
But, Patrick said, “as long as he has a coalition government, as long as he holds 55 Democrats and 21 Republicans, he can stay on that island as long as he decides.”
‘I respect both of them’
Patrick said he told Oliverson: “Early on, when Straus finds out you’re my neighbor, I said you’re probably in the doghouse from day one. And I kind of laughed, but I said, ‘You have to be your own man. We’re friends, and we share conservative values, but you have to be your own man; you have to represent this district.’ ”
Oliverson recited Patrick’s advice, and he has heeded it.
“I respect both of them,” Oliverson said. “They’re kind of in different positions.”
“The speaker gets a lot of criticism because he’s not able to move things as quickly,” Oliverson said. But, he said, Senate Republicans are more united ideologically.
“The House is made up of many different groups of people,” Oliverson said. “I think the House is very reflective of the people of Texas. It sort of shows the diversity we have in the state, and I have yet to meet a House member who isn’t up here doing his or her level best to represent the people of his district.”
“Even when you look at the Republican caucus, it gets divided, rural vs. urban vs. suburban, big schools vs. little schools, agriculture vs. industrial, property tax rich vs. property tax poor,” he said. “There are all these different alliances and factions.”
Among a dozen measures Oliverson wrote that were passed, including local bills and amendments, was a bipartisan effort to combat nursing home ballot fraud by creating a new process for collecting those ballots.
“One of the attributes that works up here is the ability to be nice to everybody but not sort of fake or false, but to be legitimately kind and honest, but friendly,” he said.
“Dr. Oliverson has quickly earned members’ respect because he’s serious about solving the state’s problems,” Straus said. “He’s here to get things done, and he represents his community well, which is the most important part of the job.”
Straus is a favorite target not only of Patrick, but of conservative activists, as well as a handful of House Republicans who have threatened to seek to replace him as speaker if he moves to derail the governor’s agenda.
“I think that the process is meant to be more deliberative in the House because there is more diversity in House. We are all over the place,” Oliverson said. “I tend to be a pretty conservative thinker ideologically … pretty far to the right. But I respect the process, and I respect the people that I work with, and I think that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
Unlike Patrick in the Senate, Straus did not attempt to impose an agenda on the House.
“What the speaker holds almost sacred is the process, not the issues,” said Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. “Now, he has strong feelings, as we know, about certain things but he’s largely reflective of the House. He’s not way out there on his own by any means, but he’s not afraid to stand there by himself and defend the position of the House. He’s perfectly willing to take ownership of that.”
Oliverson isn’t a member of the Freedom Caucus, the self-styled band of a dozen of the most conservative House members who look to Patrick, not Straus, as their leader.
But he is ardently anti-abortion. An anesthesiologist, he believes in vaccines, but, a home-schooler, he also believes that parents should have the choice of whether to vaccinate their children.
He supports a version of the bathroom bill, endorsed by Abbott, that would strip away the ability of cities, schools, and other local entities to adopt or enforce nondiscrimination protections for transgender people.
“I didn’t think it was about telling school districts what to do with their bathrooms,” he said. “I thought this was about not allowing political subdivisions to go off and create their own civil rights policy. That has to come from the state. That has to be a constitutionally specified thing.”
Straus has been outspoken about such legislation, calling it discriminatory to transgender people and destructive to the state’s reputation, business climate and economy.
According to the tally released Friday by Abbott’s office, 50 of 95 House Republicans support the bill. No Democrats were on the list. During the regular session, the equivalent legislation had 79 co-sponsors in the House.
On July 17, the day before the session began, Abbott warned lawmakers that he would be publicly keeping score of who was with him and against him on his agenda.
“That he would scorecard members of the Legislature is one of the most juvenile things I’ve ever heard come out of the governor’s office,” Zerwas said. “I mean, that’s just below the dignity of the office.”
On Monday, Abbott met with about 50 members of the Texas Conservative Coalition, the Legislature’s conservative caucus, urging them to add their names to bills on his agenda by week’s end.
“I know that some of my colleagues don’t like the idea — they feel like he’s not overtly threatening to show up in their primaries and campaign against them, but he’s hinting around — ‘You’ve got until Friday to decide if you’re with me or against me,’ ” said Oliverson, who is a member of the coalition but didn’t attend the Monday meeting.
After working mostly behind the scenes during the regular session, Abbott has been campaigning for his agenda, calling in to multiple talk radio programs, appearing on TV news shows across the state and issuing press releases with quotations from conservative interest groups under headlines proclaiming growing support for his agenda.
He has tied his “20 for 20” slogan to his re-election bid, launched days before the start of the special session.
Some of the issues — extending a task force to study Texas’ high rate of maternal mortality, cracking down on mail-in voter fraud, imposing further restrictions on abortion — are not controversial among most Republicans.
But others — spending state money for private school tuition, prohibiting collection of union dues through payroll deduction for some public employees, and eliminating local tree ordinances and bans on cellphone use while driving — have proved less popular in the House.
“The tree one I’m not 100 percent sure of,” said Oliverson, who works in The Woodlands, whose tough restrictions on tree-cutting Sen. Brandon Creighton got exempted from the Senate bill.
“He’s gotten himself in kind of an interesting spot,” Oliverson said of Abbott. “That’s high-stakes poker. … It cuts both ways.”
If he doesn’t muster the support of 76 members — a House majority — for any of his initiatives, Oliverson said, “You just handed the speaker a carte blanche pass to say, ‘We don’t have to bring this issue up.’ ”