Texas GOP meets to elect a leader; will censuring Cornyn be on agenda?

June 09, 2018
Chip Somodevilla
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, could be censured at the convention. CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES

In her campaign to lead Texas Republicans, Cindy Asche has cast the current state party chairman, James Dickey, as an untrustworthy character dating back to his partnership in a hedge fund that lost the Art Institute of Chicago $20 million in 2001.

The episode landed Dickey and his fund on the front page of The Wall Street Journal as a “cautionary tale” and in the sights of the Securities and Exchange Commission. In a 2006 final judgment, Dickey agreed, without admitting guilt, to pay $35,000 in “disgorgement” — legalese for ill-gotten gains.

“I think perpetrating a financial fraud that is documented in court records would cause anyone to question whether or not they would want to invest with that person, and … I think it’s terrible that somebody like that would put themselves out there to represent our party,” Asche, a nurse from Frisco, told the American-Statesman.

Though the case was hardly a secret at the time, it was news in the Texas political world when Asche unearthed it in April, leaving Dickey, who now operates a small Austin insurance company, to wrestle with how to publicly respond without violating his signed agreement not to contest the allegations in the SEC complaint against him.

But by the end of a May 24 Harris County/Fort Bend County Republican forum, the last of several in their race for state party leader, Dickey was ready to vent.

“We’ve done a lot of these, and if I’ve heard it twice, I’ve heard it 287 times, a claim toward integrity,” Dickey said. “It’s ironic that we’ve got a candidate for Republican Party chair who is trying to claim that government claims against one of us are all valid. Has anyone paid attention to, I don’t know, the FBI lately, or what’s happening to the attorney general, or what’s happening to our president?”

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Starting Monday, more than 10,000 Texas Republicans will descend on San Antonio for what the party likes to call the “largest political gathering in the free world,” an audience of grass-roots activists more likely attuned to what Dickey did in January, when he cast a decisive vote in the State Republican Executive Committee to censure Republican House Speaker Joe Straus for obstructing the party’s conservative legislative agenda, than any trouble Dickey may have had with federal financial regulators a dozen years ago.

“This is politics. They are going to bring up anything they can bring up,” said Ray Myers, a Dickey loyalist who heads the Kaufman County Tea Party.

“James is going to win. He’s run a total grass-roots campaign. He’s not establishment. Everything he’s promised he would do, he’s done,” Myers said Wednesday. “You can knock me over with a feather if he loses this race.”

But for Myers, the drama this week may have less to do with the race for chairman, which he considers a foregone conclusion, than with whether Texas Republicans build on their executive committee’s censure of Straus — itself a signal moment in party history — with a potentially more stunning censure by the full convention of three North Texas Republican members of Congress — U.S. Reps. Kay Granger of Fort Worth, Kenny Marchant of Coppell and Michael Burgess of Lewisville — and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, the most powerful Texan in Washington. All four were censured, mostly for omnibus budget votes, at a Tarrant County GOP meeting in March.

“I’ll tell you what. Out of the whole bunch, probably Cornyn deserves to be censured more than anybody,” Myers said. Cornyn “votes with the Democrats and he undercuts President (Donald) Trump. He’s not as bad as (Arizona U.S. Sen.) John McCain, but in Texas, we view him pretty bad, down on the ladder.

“That’s going to be wonderful if they censure him,” Myers said. “That’s going to be a sight to behold.”

The criticisms come even though, according to the statistical site FiveThirtyEight, Cornyn is tied for the second-highest Trump support score in the Senate (97.3 percent), Trump signed the bills Cornyn is being criticized for supporting, those spending measures included Hurricane Harvey relief and money for Trump’s border wall, and Cornyn is the No. 2 Republican in the Senate and a potential future majority leader.

Under a provision called Rule 44, enacted at the last biennial convention, a censure requires a two-thirds vote by the party executive committee but only a simple majority at the full convention.

With that threshold, Myers said that if the Cornyn censure gets to the floor, “he’s done, he’s cooked, he’s a goose.”

“I am concerned that rule is being weaponized and there are not specific guidelines for when we can use it,” said Asche, who opposed the Straus censure, not because she shares his politics, but because of the negative message she felt it sent to those who repeatedly elected him (both in his district and, as speaker, in the House), and to donors. (On the other hand, since Dickey became chairman, the anti-Straus groups Empower Texans and Texas Right to Life together gave the state party $175,000.)

“I understand why conservatives were not pleased with Speaker Straus, and I understand that they they felt like he blocked conservative legislation. I totally get that. I am as conservative as they are,” Asche said. “But in my background, in the medical field, we have a rule that says, first, do no harm. And Straus had already announced that he was no longer running. The censure accomplished nothing.”

“They’re not looking at the slippery slope we’re going down, which is: You know what? Tomorrow it could be your guy,” Asche said.

Of any potential changes to Rule 44, Dickey said, “as chairman it would be entirely inappropriate for me to try to sway the outcome of the deliberations of the committee or of the body.”

Of Cornyn, Dickey said, “I am very excited to welcome Sen. Cornyn and the rest of our amazing elected Republicans to our convention in San Antonio. It’s going to be a great event, and their presence there will help make it so. Sen. Cornyn has been a meaningful supporter of the party and the convention, and we’re looking forward to having him there.”

Cornyn’s office had no comment on the censure movement.

Shifting allegiances

There are no neat ideological corners in the race.

“I don’t think there are many people who are more conservative than I am,” said Asche, who is the president of the Republican Women of North Texas and, an evangelical Christian, the chaplain for the Texas Federation of Republican Women. She is an advisory board member for First Liberty Institute and an endowment member of the National Rifle Association.

Asche grew up in Austin. Her father, Bill Crocker, is an Austin attorney who served for many years as the Republican national committeeman from Texas and as general counsel to the Republican National Committee.

She is also the choice of Tom Mechler, the Amarillo oil and gas consultant who preceded Dickey as state party chairman.

Dickey succeeded Rosemary Edwards as the Travis County Republican Party chairman in 2014, but in March 2016, he was upset by Robert Morrow, a conspiracy theorist who routinely tweeted vulgarities and, after his election, proclaimed at public events that Trump was a child rapist.

It was a humiliating loss.

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At the 2016 Republican State Convention, Dickey was elected a Cruz delegate to the Republican National Convention, and then, with the demise of the Cruz campaign, he became a leader in Texas in the last-ditch effort to “free the delegates” in the hopes of denying Trump the nomination.

“You’ve seen the news stories, the polls, the video clips, and the embarrassing tweets. It’s now clear that Donald Trump does not share our conservative values and will lose to Hillary Clinton in a landslide that will debilitate the Republican Party for a generation,” Dickey and three other Texas delegates wrote their fellow Texas delegates to the Cleveland convention in early July.

The letter included a P.S.: “We are well aware of the potential for strong-arm tactics by the Trump campaign and the well- publicized bullying and violence of Trump partisans. If you choose to support this effort, we will not release your name to the media without your permission.”

Mechler has sent a mailer to all convention delegates with the full text of the letter, under the headline, “James Dickey: Working to Divide the Republican Party.”

Dickey reclaimed the chairmanship of the Travis County Republican Party in September 2016, defeating Austin political consultant Brendan Steinhauser after answering affirmatively that he would be voting for Trump for president, an answer that Steinhauser said he could not give.

Nine months later, running against Rick Figueroa of Brenham for the state party chairmanship, Dickey sought to put his 2016 “free the delegate” activities in a more pro-Trump light.

“By the time I got to the convention, I wanted whoever our nominee was to have the boost that they would have from a completely voluntary, non top-down vote, and I was completely convinced by then that, given the primary results, completely unbound, the delegates would vote for Trump because who would want to go home and face the wrath of voters?” Dickey said.

Cornyn censure?

For Travis County GOP Chairman Matt Mackowiak, who said he is probably going to delay an endorsement until after the convention starts, Dickey has acquitted himself well in his year as chairman, and the attacks on his character are missing their mark.

“It seems to me that when you have a campaign where one side is going very hard negative in a personal way, ultimately that choice is made because they believe it’s the only choice they have,” Mackowiak said. “I have not seen those arguments getting very much traction with the grass roots.”

It hasn’t budged Jeremy Blosser, an executive committee member who came out of the Ron Paul movement and emerged as Mechler’s bête noire on the executive committee.

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“I wrote Rule 44,” Blosser said. “I am interested in seeing some shots across the bow for the worst offenders. It makes the rest of them start paying attention to their constituents or find another line of work.”

At that Tarrant County meeting on March 24, it was local activist Joel Starnes and some allies who put together censure resolutions against Cornyn and the three members of Congress, including, in Cornyn’s case, this whereas:

“WHEREAS, US Senator John Cornyn within the course and scope of his duties as the US Senator voted in favor of HR244 — Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017 — funded the baby organ harvesters at Planned Parenthood, sanctuary cities that harbor murderers and rapists from federal immigration enforcement, nearly $3.1 billion for refugee resettlement, an increase in the cap on migrant workers under the H-2B visa program, 99 percent of the EPA’s budget was protected, and Dodd-Frank regulations survived. Support of this bill is in direct violation of Republican Party Principles 2, 8 and 9.”

Principle 2 is, “The sanctity of innocent human life, created in the image of God, should be protected from fertilization to natural death.”

Principle 8 is, “Americans having the right to be safe in their homes, on their streets, and in their communities; and the unalienable right to defend themselves.”

Principle 9 is, “A free enterprise society unencumbered by government interference or subsidies.”

The censure passed the Tarrant Convention by a vote of 115-6. The censures of the three members of Congress passed by similar margins. In each case, the full state convention was asked to concur in the resolutions and “impose any sanctions, penalties or punishments available.”

The censure resolutions will be evaluated by the convention’s Platform and Resolutions Committee, which will determine whether to send them to the floor with a positive recommendation. But even if they don’t, Mark Ramsey, chairman of the committee, said a minority of the committee could get it a floor vote with a minority report.

None of these are matters in which Dickey would play a role.

“I trust the body to do the right thing,” he told the Statesman on Friday.