Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick talks about school restroom policy
Donald Trump was not the only story at the center of Texas politics in 2016.
It may have been the offseason for the Texas Legislature, but there were still ample attention-grabbing storylines in Austin and elsewhere. From Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s turns in the national spotlight to Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s shenanigans on social media, it was anything but a dull year for elected officials in the Lone Star State.
Here are five stories that marked 2016 in Texas politics:
1. Dan Patrick’s focus on social issues
Patrick, never one to shy from the spotlight, took an aggressive stance on a number of hot-button issues in 2016 that earned him national attention. Those same issues are poised to play starring roles in the upcoming legislative session, for which Patrick has already laid out 25 priorities.
First came Patrick’s clash with Fort Worth Independent School District Superintendent Ken Scribner — and later the Obama administration — over guidelines directing schools to let students use the restroom that corresponds with their gender identity. In Austin, the issue is far from settled, with Patrick pushing for a so-called “bathroom bill” to require people to use the restroom that matches their birth gender.
Then came Patrick’s push for more support for police after a shooting in Dallas that left five officers dead and seven injured. The rampage led to a nationally televised town hall where Patrick had a tense nine-minute exchange with President Barack Obama over whether Obama had been properly supportive of law enforcement. Patrick later rolled out a legislative proposal to better protect first responders that includes the state buying rifle-resistant vests for nearly 60,000 patrol officers.
2. Greg Abbott’s convention of states
Gov. Greg Abbott kicked off the year by announcing his support for a bold idea: a convention of states to amend the U.S. Constitution. Decrying an overreaching federal government, Abbott proposed nine amendments to give more power back to the states, a longtime rallying cry of Texas Republicans.
Abbott ratcheted up his crusade over the summer, releasing a book focused in part on the issue and crisscrossing Texas to promote it. The tour fueled speculation that Abbott has his sights set on higher office, though he said the timing made no sense if he were eyeing a White House run.
Abbott has renewed the push in recent weeks, saying a convention of states is still needed even after the unexpected election of a Republican president. Lawmakers in both chambers of the Legislature have filed resolutions calling for a convention of states, and Patrick has named the issue a priority for the upcoming session.
3. State legislative races
When it came to this year’s elections in Texas, no race could compete for the spotlight with the battle for the White House. But farther down the ballot, there were still some noteworthy developments, even if they did not drastically change the partisan makeup under the pink dome.
In the March 1 primaries and subsequent runoffs, six Republican members of the Texas House lost their bids for re-election, including two committee chairmen. Fredericksburg hardware store owner Kyle Biedermann is set to replace state Rep. Doug Miller of New Braunfels, while Deer Park attorney Briscoe Cain captured Baytown state Rep. Wayne Smith’s seat.
In the general election, Democrats flipped four House seats in urban swing districts, unseating Republican state Reps. Gilbert Peña of Pasadena, John Lujan of San Antonio, Rick Galindo of San Antonio and Ken Sheets of Dallas.
The only changes in the Senate came in the 1st and 24th districts, where Republican Sens. Kevin Eltife of Tyler and Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay are retiring. Both are being replaced by fellow Republicans — Eltife by state Rep. Bryan Hughes of Mineola and Fraser by Austin eye surgeon Dawn Buckingham.
4. Ken Paxton’s legal troubles
It was a year of ups and downs for Attorney General Ken Paxton, who found himself fighting fraud charges in multiple venues. Paxton is accused of misleading investors in a company from before his time as attorney general. In 2015, a Collin County grand jury indicted him on criminal securities fraud charges. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission brought similar civil allegations against him in April.
A federal judge dismissed the SEC case in October, giving Paxton his first major victory since the legal saga began. But two weeks later, the SEC amended its allegations against Paxton, ensuring that the federal case will not be going away anytime soon.
The situation is bleaker for Paxton in the original state case. Texas’ highest criminal court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, declined in October to take up a request by Paxton’s lawyers to have the charges thrown out. That put Paxton, the state’s top lawman, on the awkward path of preparing for a criminal trial as early as this spring.
5. Sid Miller’s headlines
Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller never seemed far from the headlines in 2016. He gained instant notoriety in March when the Houston Chronicle reported that he had received a controversial painkilling treatment known as a “Jesus Shot” while on a taxpayer-funded trip to Oklahoma. The revelation sparked an investigation by the state Department of Public Safety, which ultimately declined to pursue charges.
Miller also continued to court controversy on social media, a recurring theme of his time in office. The flap that got the vocal Trump supporter in the most trouble: a tweet calling Democrat Hillary Clinton the c-word. Miller blamed the tweet, which appeared days before the election and was then quickly deleted, on a careless staffer — but not before incurring a bipartisan wave of criticism, including a rare rebuke from Abbott for a fellow Republican.
As the year wound down, Miller also found himself at the center of the post-election discussion over “fake news,” which has frequently found a home on his Facebook page. His defense? “I’m not a news organization.”