OPINION

Ramsey: Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the power of Us vs. Them

ROSS RAMSEY

Flip the old George W. Bush line: Dan Patrick is a divider, not a uniter.

The Texas lieutenant governor’s disregard for most of the electorate is on display again, with his tweeted declaration that he’ll protect college students: “I will not stand by and let looney Marxist UT professors poison the minds of young students with Critical Race Theory. We banned it in publicly funded K-12 and we will ban it in publicly funded higher ed. That’s why we created the Liberty Institute at UT.”

Ramsey

On Friday morning, he piled on, saying he’ll push legislation next year to revoke tenure from university professors caught teaching CRT, and will outlaw tenure for new university hires in the process. “This academic freedom argument just doesn’t work,” he said at a news conference, reacting to a group of professors who voted to fight state efforts to tell them what to teach. “Everyone is held accountable to someone.”

With a week of early voting left in this year’s party primaries, he was emphatic, self-assured and out of sync with most of the state’s voters, as he has been in past culture-war battles, like the one when he tried and failed to regulate which bathrooms transgender Texans should use.

Critical race theory and busting tenure wasn’t even the lieutenant governor’s biggest news of the week. As reported by The Texas Tribune’s Alexa Ura, Patrick’s campaign sent vote-by-mail applications to elderly voters with the wrong return address on the printed forms. Instead of sending them to local elections officials, the forms went to the Texas secretary of state’s office, which, until Patrick’s bungle became apparent, had a policy of rejecting applications sent its way.

The dividing line was in the spin, from political consultant Allen Blakemore, who suggested the campaign did it on purpose because “many Republican voters are rightly suspicious of Blue County election officials.”

Sounds a little like a Russian talking about a Ukrainian, doesn’t it?

But wait, there’s more. Taking on the other party in what is supposed to be the ultimate nonpartisan part of democracy isn’t the only way to sow division. In a profile of Patrick and his power in Texas government and politics, the Trib’s Patrick Svitek and James Barragán confirmed the lieutenant governor’s attempt to talk former Gov. Rick Perry into challenging Perry’s successor, current Gov. Greg Abbott.

Trusting Democrats is hard. So is trusting Republicans.

Polling supports Patrick’s contention that most Texans support requiring student athletes to play on sports teams that correspond to the sex listed on their birth certificates. In a June 2021 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 49% of voters said they “strongly support” that law, and another 10% “somewhat support” it. That provides some cover for a strong underlying bonus for the lite guv and his Republican colleagues: Voters in the GOP drive that support, 77% strongly and 9% somewhat. Among Democrats, 20% support it strongly, 9% somewhat.

In the wake of the unsuccessful Patrick-led push to legislate access to restrooms for transgender people, one of the lite guv’s best-known culture conflicts, Texas voters were on the other side. In an October 2017 UT/TT Poll, 51% of all voters called the issue either “not very” or “not at all” important; less than half of Republican voters rated it “very” or “somewhat” important. Patrick got it out of his Senate, but couldn’t persuade the House to ignore the majority of voters.

And when Patrick said Friday that voters are with him on teaching, he was dreaming, once again, that he was in the majority: In a February 2022 University of Texas/Texas Politics Project Poll, most voters were on the other side. “This has overwhelming support of all people in the state — all people in the state — not just one party,” he said.

That February poll found 37% of voters support “limiting the use of teaching materials that emphasize racism in the history of the U.S. by Texas public school teachers,” 50% oppose limits and 14% had no opinion. He doesn’t even have a majority in his own GOP, where 42% of voters want limits and 47% don’t.

Attribute some of his bluster to the primary season. Early voting is underway, and election day is a little more than a week away. Politicians need attention, and support. And the people who vote in primaries aren’t like most Texans: They’re partisans who feast on political red meat issues.

But for all of that, the heart of Patrick’s attack on critical race theory was that it divides people, in his words, into “victims” and “oppressors” on the basis of race.

He’s a politician who understands the power of us-and-them thinking, dividing the world into pinheaded ivory-tower professors and the rest of us, or into bad Democrats and good Republicans (or good and bad Republicans), or into the stalwart Senate and the wayward House.

Conflict and division, Patrick’s mainstays, are hard habits to kick, especially in primary season.

Ross Ramsey is co-founder and executive editor of the Texas Tribune, where this column originally appeared.