Hous­ton Repub­li­cans dis­agree, mir­ror state of GOP pol­i­tics

Houston Chronicle - - FROM THE COVER - By Mike Ward mike.ward@chron.com

SAN AN­TO­NIO — Jack Rains re­mem­bers when Democrats in some Hous­ton neigh­bor­hoods sicced their dogs on him as he cam­paigned in the 1960s for Repub­li­cans, a party that was less than in­signif­i­cant.

“We’d have to drive down the street with the back doors open on my old Chevy, as we went door to door, be­cause peo­ple would turn out their dogs on us,” the 80-year-old re­tired busi­ness ex­ec­u­tive re­called Wed­nes­day, back when he was a law stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Hous­ton. “‘It’s a Repub­li­can. Let out the dogs,’ we’d hear them say. ”

Nowa­days, in the city where the state Repub­li­can Party started com­ing of age with the elec­tion of Ge­orge H.W. Bush to Congress in 1966, it’s more likely that the folks turn­ing out the dogs on Repub­li­cans will be other Repub­li­cans, in a city that has be­come Ground Zero in the civil war be­tween GOP fac­tions in the Lone Star State.

Rains was there at the be­gin­ning, a one­time Demo­crat who cam­paigned for Bush, ran top Repub­li­can cam­paigns, served as sec­re­tary of state and even ran for gov­er­nor as a Repub­li­can. For him, the public spar­ring be­tween the GOP fac­tions in Hous­ton is “just evo­lu­tion” as the state party con­tin­ues its dom­i­na­tion of state pol­i­tics.

“Look at the Democrats in Texas in the 1950s. The con­ser­va­tives and the lib­er­als in the party didn’t agree on a num­ber of things. It’s no dif­fer­ent now,” he said. “Repub­li­cans all gen­er­ally stand for the same prin­ci­ples, but they dis­agree on some is­sues.”

Dis­pute over taxes

In Har­ris County, those dis­agree­ments are le­gion.

Repub­li­can County Judge Ed Em­mett has com­plained loudly about state Repub­li­can lead­ers’ moves that would limit the abil­ity of county, city and school dis­tricts to raise prop­erty taxes to keep up with growth and lo­cal needs. His com­ments echo other lo­cal Repub­li­can of­fice­hold­ers across the state, giv­ing them res­o­nance in Austin, much to the cha­grin of Gov. Greg Ab­bott and Lt. Gov. Dan Pa­trick, who have sup­ported lim­its on tax-hikes.

“Har­ris County has low taxes and ex­em­plary fi­nan­cial rat­ings, but some state of­fi­cials want more re­stric­tions on our abil­ity to meet the needs of our res­i­dents,” Em­mett said in his state of the county speech last fall. “Those same state lead­ers have shifted the public school tax bur­den more and more from the state onto lo­cal school dis­tricts. Then, in an ef­fort to stir up vot­ers, they have at­tacked coun­ties and other lo­cal gov­ern­ments, all while of­fer­ing no real so­lu­tions.”

Party in­sid­ers trace some of the cur­rent county bat­tle lines be­tween mod­er­ates and con­ser­va­tives to a decade ago when Em­mett, a for­mer law­maker and mod­er­ate, suc­ceeded Robert Eck­els as county judge, a move that riled con­ser­va­tives. Others say the ri­val­ries go back much fur­ther, and have lit­tle to do with Em­mett, in a city where ri­val­ries have been a cog in wheels of govern­ment as far back as any­one can re­mem­ber.

Be­cause of that, Hous­ton was long known as the place that came to the Leg­is­la­ture to re­solve lo­cal political is­sues, over­ride lo­cally passed or­di­nances or de­cide hot-potato is­sues.

More re­cently, the dis­agree­ments be­tween Repub­li­cans have played out pub­licly in bick­er­ing be­tween county GOP party lead­ers, tea party fac­tions, mod­er­ates and con­ser­va­tives. The is­sues have in­cluded re­peal­ing the Hous­ton equal-rights or­di­nance, the con­tro­ver­sial bath­room bill, the poli­cies of Repub­li­can Pres­i­dent Trump among other is­sues.

Bat­tle in West U

In re­cent months, the fight be­tween GOP mod­er­ates and con­ser­va­tives played out pub­licly in Hous­ton’s up­scale West Univer­sity Place, where Ab­bott en­dorsed a GOP chal­lenger to state Rep. Sarah Davis, a fel­low Repub­li­can first elected eight years ago. Ab­bott por­trayed Davis as a lib­eral Demo­crat mas­querad­ing as a Repub­li­can.

“This is a fight for the very fu­ture of both the Repub­li­can Party and the state of Texas,” Ab­bott told the crowd that turned out to sup­port at­tor­ney Su­sanna Dokupil, a GOP chal­lengers he en­dorsed break­ing a long tra­di­tion of gov­er­nors sup­port­ing in­cum­bents from their own party.

Davis shrugged off the gov­er­nor’s crit­i­cism: “I rep­re­sent the peo­ple here. I do not rep­re­sent Greg Ab­bott.”

When pri­mary vot­ing ended, Davis won — leav­ing the con­ser­va­tive gov­er­nor 1-2 in his ef­fort to un­seat her and two other in­cum­bent Repub­li­cans.

“That shows Repub­li­cans in this district can think for them­selves, and will vote their con­science,” said Bea Dennis, 49, a long­time res­i­dent of West Univer­sity Park and, like Rains, a Repub­li­can for even longer. “We don’t need a lit­mus test for be­ing a Repub­li­can. We should re­spect each others’ voices.”

Davis Bon­trager, a 44-year-old tea party ac­tivist who lives in western Har­ris County, says while dif­fer­ences of opin­ion are ex­pected, “we ei­ther have a party that has prin­ci­ples and stands for them, or we have an ‘I’m-OK-you’re-OK cof­fee club.’ That’s not what the Repub­li­can party is sup­posed to be.”

Rains ac­knowl­edges that he has oc­ca­sion­ally voted for Democrats he knows and sup­ports, but he thinks there should room in the Texas GOP for di­verse view­points as the party grows. As for Democrats, who once upon a time bick­ered like Repub­li­cans do to­day, he laughs.

“I’ve been ex­pect­ing this blue wave that the me­dia keeps talk­ing about,” Rains said, not­ing that Texas is still a solidly red state. “My an­kles haven’t got­ten wet yet.”

Har­ris County Judge Ed Em­mett has com­plained about state in­ter­fer­ence.

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