To nobody’s surprise, John Sharp has begun asserting himself in his new role as the Harvey recovery czar, demonstrating why Gov. Greg Abbott chose him by delivering blunt talk about insurance companies, Houston developers, temporarily skirting environmental regulations and relying on undocumented workers to help in the cleanup — all in ways the governor can’t or won’t.
So, for example, in a public conversation last week with Texas Tribune co-founder and CEO Evan Smith at the Austin Club, Sharp said Abbott was suspending any and every rule and regulation, such as burn bans, that would impede the recovery.
And when asked about the negative environmental consequences, the Texas A&M University System chancellor acknowledged that while burning debris is not good for the air, “when you’re ass-deep in alligators, it’s hard to think about draining the swamp.”
“There are things that are going to be done that are probably not environmentally sensitive, but we are going to get people back in their houses,” Sharp said.
Asked by Smith whether much of the recovery work might be “on the backs of undocumented labor,” even as their status is increasingly tenuous, Sharp replied, “We’re not checking papers when we’re asking people to haul stuff out.”
“Is that just your position,” Smith asked, or is that also the position of the state and federal government?
“We ain’t checking anything — papers, driver’s licenses,” Sharp said. “Just get the stuff off the curb.”
Sharp said one lesson of Harvey is that “some developers had too much power in Houston” and will have to be told where they may no longer build.
“We’re going to have to say that,” Sharp said.
Sharp was also particularly critical of the insurance industry, saying Texans will have to be treated better than disaster victims elsewhere to prove that insurers are, as their ads say, a “good neighbor” and that Texans are in “good hands” with them.
“The first money in a disaster has to come from insurance companies, but what is happening too many times in this state … was insurance agents saying, ‘Well, let’s see how much you get from FEMA,’ or ‘Let’s see how much money you get from the state,’ ” Sharp said.
“You know, that’s bullshit,” he said. “That’s not where the money is supposed to come from. The first money is supposed to come from them.
“I have hired a survey company to go in from one end of the coast to the other and see just how extensive this is, and when we find out how extensive it is, we are going to let you know,” Sharp said.
Smith asked if the governor and the state’s other elected leaders share his critical eye toward insurance company behavior.
“I don’t know,” Sharp said.
So, Smith said, this is just Sharp freelancing?
“Yeah,” he replied.
Sharp, a former Democratic state comptroller, said he wasn’t sure why Abbott chose him to lead the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas, except that he knows a lot of people from his long years in state government and politics.
“I think he wanted somebody with experience dealing with legislative and public officials, been through the politics of it a bit,” Sharp said. “Not that I’ve ever been really successful in politics, but at least I knew some of them.”
After serving two terms as comptroller, Sharp ran for lieutenant governor in 1998, losing to Rick Perry, his former classmate at Texas A&M, by 2 percentage points. Four years later, he ran again and lost to David Dewhurst by 6 percentage points.
Sharp said Abbott didn’t ask him to chair the commission so much as tell him he was going to do it.
The only question was whether he could keep his day job running the A&M System, and the governor said he could.
“He said, ‘You probably only spend eight to 10 hours a day on that, right? Well, you’ve got 14 more,’” Sharp said.
One advantage he has, Sharp said, is, “I’m not running for anything.”
“I don’t give a damn what anybody except nine people at A&M think of me,” he said, referring to the A&M System Board of Regents, which in August voted to extend his tenure, which began in 2011, into 2023.
“And some days not even that,” Smith said.
“As long as I’ve got five,” Sharp said.
Abbott’s appointment of Sharp, and Sharp’s effusive praise for Abbott’s performance since Harvey hit, have obvious political advantages for a governor up for re-election in 2018.
As he has done in the past, Sharp on Friday extolled Abbott’s virtues in handling the crisis, saying that in addition to stripping away regulatory impediments, Abbott negotiated a better deal for Texas with federal officials than is the norm, including getting FEMA to agree to pay 90 percent of the cost of debris removal and other eligible expenses instead of the usual 75 percent.
Sharp’s appearance Friday came at the end of a week in which the governor and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner publicly feuded over Turner’s call for a special session of the Legislature to tap the state’s $10 billion rainy day fund to help Houston pay insurance costs and its 10 percent share of debris removal. The governor and other state officials had said that, while rainy day money will undoubtedly be used eventually, appropriated funds can be moved around without a special session and then replenished when the Legislature reconvenes in January 2019.
In his initial response to Turner at a Tuesday news conference on the Harvey recovery in Austin, Abbott was dismissive of Turner’s request, and the Houston Chronicle editorialized that the governor’s response to the mayor was equivalent to President Gerald Ford’s negative response to a federal bailout of New York City in 1975, which the New York Daily News memorialized in a headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”
Sharp rejected that view.
“He takes this hurricane personally,” Sharp said, adding that Abbott is always the smartest, most knowledgeable person in the room.
“The guy that answers all the questions is Abbott,” Sharp said. “Well, that ain’t supposed to be like that. He’s not even supposed to be in the room. He’s supposed to leave us alone. It’s a little bit intimidating.”
By midafternoon Friday, Abbott and Turner had patched things up, with Abbott at Houston City Hall delivering a check for $50 million of the $100 million in the state disaster recovery fund, which is under the governor’s control.
Sharp, who had originally planned to return to College Station from Austin on Friday but rerouted at the last minute to Houston, was there for the moment of reconciliation, the biggest political bump since he became head of the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas.
Aside from some frayed nerves, Sharp said, Texas and Texans have performed superbly in response to Harvey.
“The good part about this is it sure showed the world that Texans are a different breed of cat,” Sharp said.
“We probably have the best disaster recovery operation that exists in the United States,” he said. “I think the other states would agree.”