If Gov. Greg Abbott has the slightest self-doubt, it is not evident.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus, each solidly in charge of their respective houses and representing different wings of the state’s governing party, are loudly at odds with one another on matters as basic as the budget and as provocative as the transgender bathroom bill. Pundits are tossing brickbats at the governor for being absent without leadership. Lawmakers gripe privately that he is better at accumulating political capital than spending it.
But Abbott, sitting in his Capitol office beneath painter Lajos Markos’ grim painting “Siege of the Alamo,” is the picture of calm and confidence, viewing the current crankiness under the pink dome as something of a seasonal disorder, like cedar fever, that in the coming weeks will break to reveal compromise and by Abbott’s view, another successful legislative session.
“We are precisely where we were this moment in time two years ago,” Abbott said in an interview last week with the American-Statesman. “This is more than an echo; it almost rhymes or is spot on to where we were last session.”
“But candidly, this is where we are every session,” Abbott said.
Like clockwork, Abbott said, when the chamber in which the budget bill originates — this session it is the Senate — sent its budget to the House last week, “that’s when the game really gets going.” The legislative session ends May 29.
Abbott’s equanimity might be rooted in his enviable political situation.
He is far and away the most popular politician in the state with what political scientist Daron Shaw, co-director of the University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, describes as surprisingly strong support across the GOP spectrum for so low-key a figure.
Also, unlike for Patrick and Straus, the Capitol, even during the session, isn’t Abbott’s exclusive or even primary forum.
“Remember, my job as governor is in part dealing with the legislative session, but most of my time as governor is outside the session,” said Abbott, who breezed into office in 2014, defeating Democratic former state Sen. Wendy Davis. “But even during the session, a lot of what I do takes place outside the confines of the session.”
On March 24, he was in the Oval Office meeting with President Donald Trump. On Monday, he spoke at the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute Economic Freedom Policy Summit, where he pressed his case for state pre-emption of what he has described as a nettlesome patchwork of local regulations. On Tuesday, he spoke at the Dallas Regional Chamber State of the State Conference. On Thursday, he took part in a topping-out ceremony at the Charles Schwab North Austin Campus. And on Friday, he spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Texas Department of Transportation’s U.S. 281 expansion project in San Antonio.
“I am the CEO of Texas and what I do is what people would expect a CEO would be doing,” Abbott said. “I spent a lot of time the past few weeks and past few months dealing with other CEOs — the CEO of the United States, the CEO of Canada, the CEO of Australia, the CEO of ExxonMobil. Sitting in that chair you’re in was Eric Schmidt from Google,” referring to the chairman of Google’s parent Alphabet.
“I am constantly either meeting in person with CEOs or on the phone with CEOs and, of course, the CEOs of other states,” Abbott said.
“We are talking about what CEOs talk about,” Abbott said. “Importantly, what CEOs focus on is not where we are but where we’re going and what we have to do to get there.”
In Texas, the governor’s limited power in the legislative session rests primarily with his veto, and the threat of his veto, at session’s end.
Until then, said Sherri Greenberg, a former state representative who is a professor of state and local government at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs, “this is all an inside game, this is inside ball.”
It is some combination of suasion, coaxing, threatening and negotiating, the ultimate utility of which won’t be known until all is said and done, if then, and in the meantime much in the eyes of the beholder.
“Abbott is widely seen as lacking the energy to dominate the legislative session,” said Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson. “There are questions about whether he is actually leading the Republican Party in Texas and really setting an aggressive agenda, which a lot of people think he’s not.”
But where Jillson sees inaction, Rice University political scientist Mark Jones sees a shrewd restraint.
“Abbott is avoiding getting drawn into often relatively petty or a least nonpriority intramural battles,” Jones said. “As the chief executive and the leader of the state, I think he is wisely staying above the fray in what is effectively an intramural Republican battle.”
“As a Republican governor, Abbott runs the risk of alienating a key constituency if he actively intervenes on one side or the other,” Jones said. “This is an example where the only winning move is not to play.”
As a former state Supreme Court justice, it is also in Abbott’s nature to weigh the evidence and wait and see.
“What I found interesting is the similarity between being a judge and being a governor,” Abbott said. “A judge presides over legal disputes, and, the fact of matter is, you have lawyers on each side representing different interests and 99 percent of the time those interests work themselves out and the judge never really has to get involved.”
“The same is true in the Capitol,” Abbott said. “You have legislators that will have different interests, and 99 percent of the time they will come together and work things out without the judge or the governor needing to get involved.”
Four emergency items
In his State of the State Address, Abbott named four emergency items for expedited action: reforming Child Protective Services, banning so-called sanctuary cities, joining the call for an Article V Convention of States to make changes to the U.S. Constitution that would restore state power, and ethics reform.
“It’s fascinating to see the emergency items we sent out and how quickly they got passed out of the Senate,” Abbott said. “It didn’t happen by magic.”
Patrick, with his tight rein on the Senate, gets much of the credit.
But, Abbott said, on the CPS reforms, “the things you wouldn’t see would be the way – there are two lead House sponsors — (state Reps. James) Frank (R-Wichita Falls) and Richard Raymond (D-Laredo) — and how they were over at the Governor’s Mansion and we met over the coffee table and outlined what their game plan was.”
“Those are things that happen not with the spotlight of TV cameras on, but what I just described to you is the day-in, day-out activity that we are engaged in dealing with the legislative process,” Abbott said.
“I can vouch for that,” said Raymond, who chairs the House Human Services Committee. “I will tell you that I believe because of the governor’s involvement, that we are going to make this a much better system.”’
It’s the same story on sanctuary cities, Abbott said.
“Sitting right where you are was Sen. (Charles) Perry (R-Lubbock) as we — he and me — hammered out the details of the way SB 4 was going to look — what needed to be in the ban on sanctuary cities so it had real teeth in it, so it had real enforceability to it,” Abbott said. “Since then I’ve had multiple conversations with the House sponsor, Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth), so yes, those are the things that happen behind the scenes.”
Of course, Abbott also has been the public face of the effort to ban sanctuary cities, cutting off grant monies to Travis County in reprisal for Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s refusal to fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
“I acted first in my independent role as governor to defund Travis County,” Abbott said.
Has he suffered any blowback to his crackdown on Travis County in what is, after all, his hometown?
“You might expect that but I have not seen that,” Abbott said. “Wherever I go, whether to a restaurant last night with members of the public who seemed pretty pleased about the way things are going, or the Dell Match Play tournament this last weekend, where I helped hand out the trophy to the winner, everyone says the same thing — `Keep doing what you’re doing.’”
Convention of States
The governor’s muscle was evident on the Convention of States vote in the Senate, where Republicans, including state Sen. Craig Estes of Wichita Falls, who belittled and blocked the bill in the last session, overcame their misgivings about the perils of tinkering with the U.S. Constitution and fell in line.
And Abbott said, by his count, “more than half the House favors it.”
But the pertinent House committee, the Select Committee on State and Federal Power and Responsibility, is stacked with a pride of Democratic lions — Rafael Anchia and Eric Johnson of Dallas, Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, and Senfronia Thompson of Houston — and two of its five GOP members — Larry Gonzales of Round Rock and Andrew Murr of Junction — opposed such a resolution in the past.
If the governor is going to get his resolution to the House floor, he’s going to have to work it.
“I’m never afraid of work,” Abbott said.
Like the Convention of States in the House, the governor’s prized pre-K initiative — an emergency item last session — might have proved an inviting target for lawmakers intent on sending a message to the governor.
The governor won a bruising battle for the program last session, and, in his State of the State Address in January, he scolded lawmakers for not fully funding it in their preliminary budget.
“If you’re going to do this, do it right or don’t do it at all,” Abbott said. The program suffered further in the subsequent work of House and Senate budget writers.
Does the governor feel messed with?
“Not really,” he said. “I’ll tell you why.
“Look at what the House has said. Look at what the Senate has said,” Abbott said. “Neither of them said we’re not funding pre-K. The House said we’re funding pre-K, but we’re funding it in a different way. The Senate has said they were funding a pre-K program, it’s just going to be different than the governor’s program.”
“Think about how the paradigm has shifted from two years ago,” Abbott said. “We’re no longer talking about if we’re going to be advancing pre-K, it’s going to be which strategy is the best to advance pre-K, and that’s moving the state forward.”
“The reality is that there is a lot more game to be played in this process, and I think when the sun sets on the session, the young students in the state of Texas are going to be better off than they have been in the past,” Abbott said.
“Listen, here is the mathematical reality and that is when we have a session where there are budget cuts, it may not turn out that everything is funded 100 percent,” Abbott said. “I hope I get 100 percent funding for all my items, but when you’re dealing with tough budget years, it’s impossible to predict right now where the cuts will come and how they will be shared.”
Transgender bathroom bill
It is on the transgender bathroom bill that the daggers between Patrick and Straus are most fiercely drawn.
Patrick has cast Straus as “out of touch with the voters” for opposing the Senate bill that would prohibit transgender-friendly bathroom policies in public schools, universities and government buildings. Straus has characterized the legislation as a “contrived” answer to a “manufactured” problem that could, for no good purpose, undermine Texas’ extraordinary success as a magnet for job creators.
“I think I have been at least clear about the need for something to be done, the reality that there are valid concerns that need to be addressed,” Abbott said. “And I think it’s important that the governor not be a dictator saying, ‘it’s my way or the highway on this,’ that we give those who are elected the opportunity to come up with proposals that are honed by their fellow legislators and honed by their constituents.”
To some, those are weasel words. To others, Abbott’s approach is strategic.
“On the bathroom bill, he’s leaving it to its own devices, and if you leave it to its own devices, it’s going to die in the House,” Jones, the Rice University political scientist, said. “So why would it make sense for him to intervene on one side or the other?”
Yet much of the rap on Abbott’s lack of leadership seems to hinge on his refusal to be pinned down on what for him is a no-win issue.
“The things that reporters talk about are what’s important to the reporter,” Abbott said. “The thing that’s important to talk about is what every Texan is interested in, and what every Texan is interested in is what are we doing to improve our economy and create jobs. What are we going to eliminate congestion from our roads. What are we doing to make our schools better. And I am out talking to Texans every day on those issues.”
Like many of his peers, Abbott prefers to communicate directly with his constituents — unfiltered.
“We do have these new platforms where we are able to reach a lot of people,” said Abbott, who has 1 million followers on Facebook and more than 150,000 on Twitter.
Abbott was already a regular on Fox News and with Glenn Beck and on conservative talk radio. The sanctuary cities issue made him a star.
But, he said, “the most important way I can reach people and the way I enjoy the most is by going to them seeing them in person.”
“That’s why pretty much every day of the week I am on the road somewhere talking to people in some part of the state of Texas, staying in connection with them, understanding the needs of Texans and then explaining to them how we are addressing those needs,” the governor said.
And yes, Abbott said he is running for re-election next year — he has more than $34 million in his campaign account — though as of now, there isn’t a whisper of an opponent.
But he doesn’t seem particularly worried.
“I can say I’ll be prepared,” Abbott said.