Not Enough Hate in East Texas?

An East Texas Republican comes under fire for making nice with black legislators.

Not Enough Hate in East Texas?
Illustration By Doug Potter

The fallout continues from the Republican-drafted state redistricting plan -- and not all of it consists of Democratic political casualties. In early December, The Dallas Morning News reported that Texas House hopeful Curt Hinshaw, running for the GOP nomination in District 7, had criticized the incumbent -- fellow Longview Republican Rep. Tommy Merritt -- because Merritt, as Hinshaw put it, "was endorsed by the Black [Legislative] Caucus as the best Republican representative." On a page of Hinshaw's Web site (www.hinshaw2002.com) called "The Tommy Files" (a dirty-deeds list of Merritt's three-session legislative record), the Black Caucus item was the second of 14 listed. Letter "E" is Hinshaw's (incorrect) assertion that "Merritt co-authored the hate crimes bill." Merritt is not among the several dozen reps listed as authors or co-authors of the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, sponsored last session by Houston Democrat Senfronia Thompson and eventually signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry.

In 1999, the Caucus had honored Merritt with its G.J. Sutton Award (named after the first black official to serve in Bexar County) for his bipartisan consensus-building on legislation such as the prior version of the Byrd Act -- which failed to pass the Senate after then-Gov. Bush privately objected to the inclusion of sexual preference among the citizen categories protected against hate crimes. This year, Thompson and Sen. Rodney Ellis again carried the bill, which finally passed over stiff opposition, especially in the Senate. Merritt was instrumental in the bill's House passage, co-authoring an amendment that changed its wording from "sexual orientation" to "sexual preference." Although some Republicans who participated in crafting the legislation eventually voted against the Act, 14 supported it after the adoption of the amendment. "We should be commended for getting 'orientation' removed," Merritt says.

But the change did not mollify all the bill's opponents, who continue to charge that hate crimes laws give "special protection" to gays and lesbians. "I certainly did not agree with [Perry's] decision on that issue," Hinshaw told the Longview News-Journal. A lawyer and Gregg County Young Republican whose platform endorses family values, welfare reform, limited government and taxation, and mandatory minimums for first-time drug offenders, Hinshaw said his criticism of Merritt was not a slander against the Black Legislative Caucus, but was based upon differences in political ideology. Hinshaw said the Caucus award "links Merritt with lawmakers whose basic philosophy holds people in poverty while claiming to help them," although he added, "I don't know what all of the members of the [Caucus] believe."

Among black legislators, Hinshaw's comments inspired outrage. The 14 legislators who belong to the Black Legislative Caucus (including Austin Rep. Dawnna Dukes) are all urban Democrats, but their mission statement does not officially require liberalism or even Democratic Party membership. "I'm shocked, him being a lawyer, that he had not done his study to the extent that he would assess a group before knowing anything about them," said Senfronia Thompson. "That is not a lawyer's technique." Fellow Caucus member Terri Hodge, D-Dallas, echoed Thompson's criticisms. "Apparently, being effective is a political liability for Tommy Merritt," she said. "Not only is [Hinshaw's] attack a thinly veiled attempt at race-baiting, but the comment shows a lot of ignorance." Thompson said when nominating potential recipients for the Sutton award, Caucus members consider "statesmanlike qualities." "The difference between a politician and a statesman," Thompson said, "is that a politician asks, 'If I vote for this bill, will I get elected next time?' A statesman asks, 'If I vote for this bill, will I be voting for something that is right, just, and fair?'"

Merritt told the Chronicle he was honored to receive the award, considering "how prestigious that award is, and how it was derived. [Caucus members'] feelings must be hurt when someone attacks the award they've presented."

The Hinshaw/Merritt flap is a special case of the larger battle between hard-right and moderate Republicans for control of the party, also exemplified by Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff's opposition to the maps finally adopted by his Republican colleagues on the Legislative Redistricting Board. In the GOP, Merritt is regarded as a maverick: He maintains friendly political relationships with prominent Democrats and occasionally criticizes "the Republican spin." Asked if he has ever considered switching parties, however, his East Texas drawl turns earnest. "Oh, nooo," he said. "I'm a loyal Republican. I guess some people confuse moderate conservatives with liberals." Merritt receives high praise among business groups in their annual legislative reports, although more ideologically conservative groups, such as the Young Conservatives of Texas and FreePAC, give him lukewarm ratings. And the widespread rumor is that current party leadership would not be broken-hearted if Hinshaw's electoral challenge is successful.

Last week Hinshaw told the Chronicle his criticisms of Merritt have been "blown out of proportion." He said he never meant to promote intolerance, but reiterated his belief that the Black Legislative Caucus doesn't give the Sutton award to conservative Republicans. He believes Merritt doesn't adequately represent what he says are his constituents' increasingly conservative values. "It's one thing to work with Democrats to get things accomplished, but it's another thing to sell out to them. That's what the party is fighting against."

In the eyes of the hard right, Merritt's real betrayal may have been during the redistricting battle on the House. He offered his own map, initially accepted by the Lege, which many Republicans saw as threatening to their chances to take over the House. Said Hinshaw, "That was the straw that broke the camel's back." Merritt later withdrew his redistricting proposal at the request of GOP caucus chair, Kenny Marchant, but stands by its intentions. "My plan protected rural Texas," he said. "The stealth plan took away a rural seat and gave it to urban Harris County." It also retained senior members, would have given Republicans 86 to 88 seats, and paired powerful Appropriations Chairman Rob Junell (who recently announced his retirement) with another Democratic chairman. "That was pretty bold," Merritt said.

At press time, Hinshaw's "Tommy Files" continued to read that Merritt "was honored by the Black Caucus, an extremely liberal organization." That demerit holds steady at No. 2 -- before any mention of redistricting, untoward friendships with Democrats, or other putative political sins.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Curt Hinshaw, Tommy Merritt, Longview, Black Legislative Caucus, The Tommy files, James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, Senfronia Thompson, Rick Perry, G.J. Sutton Award, Rodney Ellis, Gregg County, Dawnna Dukes, Terri Hodge, Bill Ratliff, Legislative Redistricting Board, You

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