The Texas Tribune Festival Brings Star Power to Politics
TribFest resumes in person in Downtown Austin Sept. 22-24
If politics is show business for ugly people (h/t Paul Begala), then the Texas Tribune Festival is its ACL Fest. But it's really more like homecoming weekend, where everybody who needs just one more reason to come to Austin and call it "work" flocks into town, assesses the state of our tacos and barbecue, and marvels at how Texas manages to make itself relevant to every election cycle. You kinda need to take it in live, is what we're saying; after two virtual years that went pretty well but were just not the same, the festival is back in Downtown Austin Sept. 22-24. The last day includes the Open Congress street takeover (see below), but the entire event is worth the cost, especially for students, for whom it's only $50. (General admission is $269, with a discount for supporters of The Texas Tribune.)
When TribFest first started to roll out its 2022 speakers and programs a few months back, one could be forgiven for not being awestruck, as a lot of the ordinary panels are fixtures – legislative previews, deep dives into issues like health care or justice reform or immigration, interviews with the candidates in even-numbered years, the meat and potatoes of this kind of ideas event and a useful endeavor for people who do Texas politics for a living. Then everything changed! What seemed like a juiceless election cycle, made neutral by redistricting that sought to freeze the current partisan splits for the next decade and left no seats in play, is now all up in the air because of the Dobbs decision, the massacre in Uvalde, the revival of Joe Biden's fortunes and the decline in gas prices, and the realization that the entire state of Texas is in a severe climate and housing crisis, which have all made coming to Austin in September before the midterms an opportunity to learn something new.
The Texas Tribune, which is free to read and only charges for this one event all year, is well-connected now in the ideas-fest circuit (TribFest happens after The Atlantic's festival and before The New Yorker's) and can safely hold its closing keynote slot open long enough for it to be filled by Liz Cheney, who will be back in prime time four days later at the next Jan. 6 hearing, after a whole new stupid but also frightening Apesh*t scandal has engulfed the political world. There are still virtual offerings, such as Thursday broadcast sessions (available on demand throughout the weekend) with America's favorite kindly old doctor Anthony Fauci, White House press secretary once-removed Jen Psaki, former Planned Parenthood leader and First Daughter of Texas Cecile Richards, and New York Mayor Eric Adams. The live festival hub is the Omni at Brazos and Eighth, with programming also taking place at the two churches next to it (St. David's and Central Presbyterian), the Capital Factory offices (also at the Omni), and various locations at the Capitol end of Congress Avenue. Here are some of the places where we'll be:
• Two programs on Friday featuring state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso – one is a session on how a pro-life state should change how it views capital punishment (also featuring Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, and moderated by the Marshall Project's Keri Blakinger); the other is a sure-to-make-news session with Moody and the other two members of the Texas House committee investigating Uvalde, Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, and former Supreme Court Justice (and unsuccessful attorney general candidate) Eva Guzman. The panel will discuss "what they know and how they know it"; will Texas Dept. of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw still have a job by then? (There's also a Saturday morning session of El Pasoans focusing on how communities recover from mass shootings.)
• One of our favorite topics, Texas' booming and bluing suburbs, will get worked over Friday by a panel moderated by our friend Steven Pedigo, director of the LBJ Urban Lab at UT-Austin. Often, panels like this are just filled with politicians from the areas in question, but this one has actual land use, public finance, and planning experts as well as politicos, so that'll be fun.
• And this one on Saturday probably needs no elaboration: "Mississippi Today Presents: Mississippi Is the Future of Texas."
• This one probably doesn't either: "Waterloo Sunset: Is Austin Becoming Less Like Itself?" Mayor Steve Adler, County Judge Andy Brown, state Rep. Sheryl Cole, and County Attorney Delia Garza (the last two also former mayors pro tem) have thoughts!
• If you have any interest in the intersecting domains of faith and public life, you'll want to check out the one-on-one with theologian Russell Moore, recently on the outs with the extremely troubled Southern Baptist Convention, interviewed by New York Times religion correspondent Ruth Graham.
• Here's a switch: Why don't we ask some Black Texans if they think little white kids are being indoctrinated into poisonous wokeness by critical race theory in the schools? Capital B, a news site focusing on Black issues, convenes a Saturday afternoon panel to examine what Black Texas educators, parents, and policymakers have to say.
• And sure, Liz Cheney. She's still pretty awful, but she has a more credible claim at becoming a third-party candidate in 2024 than does Andrew Yang. Will she announce she's running? How much of the session will be devoted to trying to get her to commit to a 2024 campaign? Stay tuned.
See the full program at festival-platform.texastribune.org/agenda.
Open Congress Takes TribFest to the Streets
Ticketed admission to the 2022 Texas Tribune Festival is pretty affordable for an ideas festival of national caliber – $269 for general admission, less if you're a Tribune member, and a lot less if you're a student or educator. But if that's still more than you want to devote to hearing Ted Cruz's hot takes and Cancun travel tips, you can still get face-to-face with Texas' political powers and rising stars for naught more than the price of shoe leather.
The free Open Congress sessions on Saturday, Sept. 24, will take over a series of tents on Congress Avenue between Seventh and 11th streets, near the festival's main venues (the street will be closed, so plan your travels accordingly). The program begins with a discussion on the future of Texas' power grid (9am, Texas Monthly Tent) featuring energy executives from Vistra, Jupiter Power, and Hunt Energy Network, if you're worried about a repeat of 2021's Winter Storm Uri.
A session on bail reform (10:45am, Arnold Ventures Tent) has speakers including Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht. Police chiefs from Austin, Houston, and San Antonio discuss their approach to "Keeping the Peace" (12:45pm, Arnold Ventures Tent). Criminal justice investigative reporter (and ex-felon) Keri Blakinger of the Marshall Project discusses her memoir Corrections in Ink and media coverage of the subject (2:30pm, Arnold Ventures Tent).
A host of congressional candidates in November's elections will also speak, including Republicans Wesley Hunt and Morgan Lutrell of Houston and Monica De La Cruz of McAllen, and Democrats Greg Casar of Austin and Jasmine Crockett of Dallas (Republicans, 11am, and Democrats, 12:30pm; Punchbowl News Tent). Other than De La Cruz's tight race against Democrat Michelle Vallejo for the purplish 15th District, all are expected to win easily. U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and former Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, will also discuss whether it's still possible to govern from the center (12:45pm, Texas Monthly Tent).
Also on the schedule are one-on-one interviews with U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff, D-Calif. (9:30am, Punchbowl News Tent), and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy (2:45pm, Curative Tent). If you'd like to hear some non-politicos express their own version of the Open Congress vibe, you can catch Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett (2:15pm, Lonestar Tent) and Saturday Night Live's Alex Moffat (3:45pm, Lonestar Tent) in the afternoon. More details online at festival-platform.texastribune.org/agenda. – Claire Stevens