Travis County’s James Dickey was elected Saturday to lead the Texas Republican Party, defeating Rick Figueroa on a 32-31 vote of the State Republican Executive Committee.
Dickey succeeded Tom Mechler, whose sudden resignation two weeks ago left it to the statewide Republican Party leadership in the nation’s largest red state to pick his successor in a previously scheduled meeting at Austin’s Wyndham Garden Hotel.
“I am deeply humbled,” Dickey said, adding that he was only disappointed by the divisions revealed by the razor-thin margin.
For Dickey, chairman of the Travis County GOP, the victory was a stunning success for a campaign that was thrown together and executed in less than two weeks, quickly piling up endorsements from conservative activist groups.
Dickey’s victory signaled the strength of grass-roots tea party leaders, who felt Mechler was insufficiently aggressive in pushing the state party’s platform at the Capitol. Texas Right to Life also backed Dickey.
Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, all up for re-election in 2018, steered clear of any involvement in the party choice.
Saturday’s victory was an impressive comeback for Dickey, who had been defeated for re-election in the 2016 Republican primary by Robert Morrow, an eccentric political gadfly who wore a jester hat during his brief tenure before Dickey reclaimed Travis County’s chairmanship.
Morrow was wearing his trademark hat again at the Saturday meeting. Although Morrow had earlier announced his own candidacy for state party chair, his name wasn’t placed in nomination Saturday.
“We took that lemon and made some serious lemonade,” Dickey said at a Friday night forum before the members of the committee — one man and one woman from each of the state’s 31 senatorial districts — describing how he reclaimed and restored the county party after the Morrow debacle.
Vice Chairman Amy Clark also participated in the secret-ballot vote.
Rick Figueroa, Mechler’s choice for party chairman, would have been the first Latino to lead the Texas Republican Party.
Figueroa — who grew up in public housing in Bay City, the youngest child of a single mother who worked in a hospital kitchen — is now a wealth management executive in Houston. He is a prominent supporter of President Donald Trump, serving on Trump’s National Hispanic Advisory Committee during the campaign and now on Trump’s National Coalition of Hispanic Leaders.
Figueroa supporters pointed out that Dickey had been part of the “free the delegates” effort to block Trump’s nomination at the Republican National Convention in July.
But Dickey stressed that he fell in line as soon as Trump was nominated, saying he has been a vigorous voice for conservative ideals in every manner of media — not just Fox News — in the lion’s den of deep blue Austin, including taking the conservative line on immigration at the PBS station located at the University of Texas.
At a forum for the two candidates Thursday night in Round Rock, Dickey said he is all in with Trump.
“The bottom line is I’ve never been so glad to be wrong in my life,” he said. “President Trump has turned out great.”
Mechler, an oil and gas man from Amarillo, succeeded Steve Munisteri as party chairman in 2015. Mechler was re-elected chairman for a full term at the 2016 Republican State Convention.
After Saturday’s vote, Mechler said he was “shocked and disappointed” with the result.
The next state convention in June 2018 will decide whether to ratify Saturday’s choice or select someone else as chairman.
Figueroa said he had no intention of challenging Dickey for chairman in 2018.
“It’s not who I am,” he said.
Ultimately, Mechler couldn’t impose his choice on an executive committee that was divided down the middle between what are described, broadly speaking, as establishment and tea party wings.
Mechler’s abrupt resignation two weeks before the executive committee’s meeting might have been intended to improve Figueroa’s chances, but it didn’t work, and there was some resentment on the committee that the chairman was trying to force his choice on them.
Mechler had been grooming Figueroa for the job with some high-profile assignments, but to some Republican old hands, Figueroa seemed to be an ambitious newcomer who hadn’t yet paid his dues. Figueroa ran and lost a bid for a Republican national committee seat, challenging Robin Armstrong, at last year’s Republican State Convention.
In nominating Figueroa, Rhonda Lacy of Midland called on her fellow party leaders to “step outside the box” and back someone who, like Trump and Cruz, was seeking to be a big-impact player without climbing the political ladder step by step.
Of Dickey, Austin political consultant Matt Mackowiak said, “He overcame a lot, including the opposition of the immediate past chairman, and he won because he earned support from all sectors of the party.”
Mackowiak, the party executive vice chairman, is a likely candidate to succeed Dickey as the Travis County chairman — as is former Austin City Council Member Don Zimmerman and perhaps others.
Abbott congratulated Dickey and thanked Figueroa.
“Thanks to our State Republican Executive Committee and grass-roots members across the state, Texas is fortunate to have one of the strongest Republican parties in the country, and I look forward to working with James to keep it that way,” Abbott said.