Texas Politics

Riding sanctuary success, Tea Party-aligned caucus still loud and proud

Two Tarrant County members of the Texas House Freedom Caucus — Reps. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth (left), and Bill Zedler, R-Arlington — discuss legislative issues on the sidelines of the House chamber. The caucus was created to advance a conservative agenda in the Legislature, often challenging the leadership of House Speaker Joe Straus.
Two Tarrant County members of the Texas House Freedom Caucus — Reps. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth (left), and Bill Zedler, R-Arlington — discuss legislative issues on the sidelines of the House chamber. The caucus was created to advance a conservative agenda in the Legislature, often challenging the leadership of House Speaker Joe Straus. Special to the Star-Telegram

Emboldened by their influence on a “sanctuary cities” bill now awaiting Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature, members of the Tea Party-aligned House Freedom Caucus are planning a final insurgent push through the remaining three weeks of the Texas Legislature in an attempt to salvage caucus priorities that remain stalled in the House.

“Stay tuned,” asserts Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, vice chairman of the 12-member all-Republican caucus that also includes three other Tarrant County members: Reps. Matt Krause of Fort Worth, Tony Tinderholt of Arlington and Jonathan Stickland of Bedford.

Since forming as a group in mid-February to fight for the grassroots principles of dozens of Texas Tea Party organizations, caucus members have become known for highly vocal and confrontational tactics to challenge House Speaker Joe Straus and other mainstream Republicans.

When the 150-member Republican-led House voted to approve a $218 billion two-year state budget in early April, for example, all 12 caucus members were among the 18 no votes, registering their dissent in protest of a proposed $2.5 billion drawdown of the state’s Rainy Day Fund. Caucus members also frequently challenge the leadership through defiant remarks from the chamber’s back microphone.

While some mainstream members, at least privately, dismiss them as ineffective troublemakers, caucus members left their mark on one of the biggest issues of the session just over a week ago with successful amendments to toughen SB4, the so-called “sanctuary cities” bill designed to ban permissive immigration policies.

‘Carries a lot of weight’

Under an amendment by Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, the caucus chairman, local law enforcement officers would be permitted to question people about their immigration status during a lawful detention such as a traffic stop, despite criticism that the practice would lead to racial profiling. Another amendment by caucus member Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, would create a civil procedure to remove elected or appointed officials who violate the act’s provisions.

The Senate’s acceptance of the toughened House version sent the bill to Abbott, who is certain to sign the measure, possibly early this week. The governor made passage of Sanctuary Cities legislation, which proponents have been seeking through four legislative sessions, one of his top “emergency” priorities. It would go into effect Sept. 1.

“It’s one of the most important bills that we’re going to pass this session, and we had tremendous influence over that bill,” said Rinaldi. “We essentially wrote the effective provisions of the bill, and passed our amendments and made it stronger. When we only number 12 people out of a 150-person body, I think that’s pretty strong, and that carries a lot of weight.”

But even with their success on SB4, caucus members face other challenges in the countdown to the Legislature’s May 29 adjournment as they mount a renewed offensive behind Tea Party-backed priorities that have gained little momentum this session.

Of about 25 bills designated as caucus priorities, many of which are sponsored by members outside the group, most are still languishing in committees.

The caucus’ legislative agenda is drawn from the Texas Republican Platform and includes anti-abortion measures, property tax reform, upholding traditional marriage between a man and a woman, protecting the Rainy Day Fund, preserving religious freedoms, and defending Second Amendment safeguards on the right to bear arms.

“Pro-life” initiatives to restrict or ban abortions, including one by Tinderholt, have gained little traction this session, although Krause co-authored a successful amendment during the budget debate to provide $20 million for the state’s Alternatives to Abortion program that provides counseling to low-income pregnant women.

‘Created some friction’

In the remaining weeks of the session, caucus members will likely use tactics typically employed by outnumbered forces in a legislative chamber, such as trying to tack their priorities onto other bills through amendments.

The strategy will likely continue the in-your-face style that Stickland and several other caucus members have employed throughout the session.

“I’m way more concerned with keeping my promise to constituents than making a bunch of friends down here in Austin,” said Stickland, widely regarded as one of the more controversial members of the caucus. “I have a lot of personal relationships here on this floor, and I think people underestimate that part, but I am a fence post that doesn’t move on policy stuff.”

Reaction to the caucus by other members can range from anger to irritation to indifference, depending on the issue and the perspective.

“I don’t pay much attention to them,” said Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, chairman of the House Administration Committee, and a top member of Straus’ leadership team.

Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, chairman of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee who calls himself a Reagan-style Republican, describes caucus members as “very bright” and hard-working but added that the group’s tactics have sometimes “created some friction where it wasn’t necessary for friction to be.”

Schaefer and other members said they formed the caucus to help grassroots groups across the the state, primarily Tea Party organizations, have more control over the direction of conservative priorities inside the Legislature.

“I think it helps us be more focused,” Schaefer said. “I think it helps sharpen each other — as they say, iron sharpens iron — and it gives us a way to help focus the energy of the grassroots.”

‘Voices of the grassroots’

Other members of the caucus are Reps. Matt Shaheen of Plano, Jeff Leach of Plano, Kyle Biedermann of Fredericksburg, Briscoe Cain of Deer Park, Mike Lang of Granbury and Valoree Swanson of Spring.

Officially called the Texas Freedom Caucus, the group bears an almost identical name to that the Freedom Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives that embraces a Tea Party-style agenda at the national level. A similar group in the Texas Senate known as the “Liberty 8”, which includes State Sen. Konni Burton of Colleyville, also champions Tea Party-related grassroots causes.

In separate interviews, Tarrant County members of the Freedom Caucus used similar language to outline the group’s objectives in bolstering the voice of the grassroots and standing up for conservative principles embraced by the Texas Republican Party. “The caucus has had quite a few successes,” said Tinderholt, who serves as the group’s secretary-treasurer.

JoAnn Fleming of Tyler, executive director of Grassroots America, said the Freedom Caucus is linked to more than 25-30 Tea Party groups and plans strategy through weekly conference calls between caucus members and Tea Party leaders. “They are very much interactive with the Texas grassroots,” she said.

Dana Hodges, of Orange, director of Concerned Women for America, says she makes the five-hour drive from her home in far southeast Texas to the state capitol at least once each week to monitor legislation and meet with members of the caucus.

“They hear the voices of the grassroots, which is valuable to us.”