Austin at Large: A Tale of Two Gregs
While Abbott loses his marbles, Casar and other urban progressives band together
Psst. Wanna know a secret? Not many people seem to realize this, but Gov. Greg Abbott is really bad at his job. Like, the worst ... Just kidding! Lots of people know this now, as the nation watched the 87th Texas Legislature end up in a ditch filled with brambles and foul wing-nut flop sweat and stuff that died in the big freeze. Yes, the session did make Texas more ready for the Rapture with no abortions and unlimited firearms, which makes some conservatives happy, but even Republicans couldn't disguise their frustration and disgust with the Lege's outcomes, its clumsy handling of the ruling party's own agenda, and the endless petty drama and bad juju between the GOP's own most important players. And everyone knows that, despite their end-of-game walkout, it's not the Democrats' fault that lawmakers will get dragged back to Austin for a special session (either before, or alongside, the bloodbath of redistricting) to handle the "priorities" that fell off the table.
While everyone learns at some point in their Texan journey that the state's governor is not given much formal power, both of Abbott's Republican predecessors, who ran the place for 20 years between them, did many things to ensure they had the informal power to be able to shape the state's agenda. You know, like a leader – with the inevitable presidential aspirations that attend to the top dog in the Great State – is supposed to do. Abbott, who served in high places in state government for all those years, was thought to have obviously learned by example and to have the proper leadership profile to seamlessly execute the same sort of performance. How wrong we were.
Instead, Governor Loveless has for six years now shown that he's not a nice guy, he's not very good at hiring and managing people, he doesn't have any knack for building relationships and alliances to help him achieve whatever his goals are, he's thin-skinned and easily threatened and/or manipulated by others in his party who should be on his side, and he doesn't have any apparent interest in getting involved in the work of running the state, including solving the kind of workplace spats and crossed wires that bedeviled the 87th Lege. Despite their many shortcomings, neither George W. Bush nor Rick Perry would have let some of the last few months' toxic spills get as bad as they did, or found themselves at session's end making bitter threats on Twitter to cut people's pay and mixing it up with Wendy Davis, whom he ran against seven years ago. I'm sure he'll soon find out who stole the strawberries from his icebox.
But We Can Have Nice Things
Given all this, it's no wonder that when Abbott had the opportunity to rule by decree after COVID-19 created an emergency and a disaster, he went hard with it, enough to alienate much of his own party, some because they're addled morons poisoned by MAGA and QAnon, others because they believe in limited government like Republicans used to, and still others – though this group does kinda keep its views secret – because he's mishandled his powers so badly and flailed so transparently under the slightest political pressure. That's of course a reason for Democrats to dislike him as well, but what to do about it?
After the massive letdown of the Texas Democrats' 2020 election performance, the relative power within the party, and also within the state, has shifted away from the GOP ruling regime and its exurban MAGA base and into the big cities and their ever-bluer suburbs. It's also no mystery why many of Abbott's highest-octane demands during the session were for bills that punished cities and counties for doing things he didn't like but that their own constituents obviously do. And thus the state's largest cities and counties now have to comply with ad hoc formulas, pulled out of the Fox News noise machine without any input from people who know how to govern (of all parties), that dictate how much they must spend on police, how little they can raise in taxes, what they can and mostly can't do to make life better for their unhoused poor, and what they cannot at all do to help their citizens exercise their reproductive rights or be free of unmanageable gun violence. The list would be even longer, covering local bail and jail policies, paid sick leave ordinances and labor standards for construction workers, and a bunch else, but Abbott did not know how to use his power as the leader of his party to make those things happen. Good for us.
The people who Abbott is trying to stop, with such intermittent success, are of course local leaders like Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and County Attorney Christian Menefee, our own district and county attorneys José Garza and Delia Garza, and leftist leaders on city councils all over the state, in the mold of our own Greg Casar. He, last week, amid the falling debris and failing power plays of the Lege's dead end, brought many of these souls together to launch Our Future Texas, a politically active nonprofit – 501(c)(4), for those who know – to back up elected officials like him in cities and counties across the state, both during campaign cycles and as they advocate for big policy changes like de-policing and criminal justice reform, immigrant protection, housing and mobility justice, or relief for low-income Texans who Abbott does not appear to know exist. "Our strongest response to what's happening in this terrible legislative session," he said, "is to show how it's really done by making progressive change at the local level."