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After 2020 faceplant, Texas Democrats shift their policy and tone on oil, border, police reform


Gone are the days when, after the death of George Floyd, Democratic candidates up and down the ballot in Texas called for removing officers’ qualified immunity protections and other reforms to crack down on police brutality. Now, even the most progressive Democrats make little mention of these issues on the stump or on their campaign websites.

Meanwhile, a number of Texas Democrats are placing newfound emphasis on their support for oil and gas — a key issue in statewide races, where about one in seven votes will likely come from industry-heavy Harris County, and in the battleground regions of majority-Hispanic South Texas, an area rich in oil jobs that votes reliably blue but swung to the right in 2020.

The shift comes just two years after a handful of Democrats in the 2020 U.S. Senate primary — including the party’s eventual nominee, MJ Hegar — swore off taking money from oil and gas executives in a clear signal of their attitude toward the industry.

This year, with much of the country on edge over the prospect of a recession, statewide polls have found that Texans care most about kitchen-table issues like inflation, crime, taxes and health care. Democratic candidates running for county, state and federal office have responded, for the most part, by scaling back calls for transformational policies that gained momentum in 2018 and 2020, when Democrats across the country lurched to the left under a wave of progressive energy.

Their platforms this year still contain the usual commitments to property tax reform and expanding Medicaid, but also newer issues backed by broad political support, like shoring up the power grid and legalizing marijuana.

And they are running full tilt from President Joe Biden’s least popular policies, particularly on immigration, as they try to overcome brutal national conditions in an uphill battle to break their statewide losing streak.

At the top of the ballot, Democratic nominee for governor Beto O’Rourke is being called out almost weekly for flip-flops by Gov. Greg Abbott, who says O’Rourke’s positions on border security, energy, police reform and other issues bear little resemblance to the more liberal stances he took as a candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

During a presidential debate in Houston, O’Rourke famously called for a mandatory buyback of AR-15 and AK-47 rifles — then in February this year appeared to walk back that stance, telling a crowd in East Texas he’s “not interested in taking anything from anyone.”

Abbott’s team has warned that O’Rourke “showed voters his true face” while running for president.

The governor’s campaign spokesman, Mark Miner, hammered O’Rourke after his more recent gun comment for “trying to reinvent himself by misleading Texans on his support for confiscating guns from law-abiding citizens.” Abbott has largely dropped the gun critique since the Uvalde elementary school shooting in May, however, while O’Rourke has refocused his campaign on the issue.

Matt Angle, a longtime Texas Democratic strategist, said many of the progressive policies Democrats are now eschewing — like going full-speed ahead to tackle climate change or dramatically expanding the country’s health care system — came to light as Democrats tried to outdo one another while courting progressive voters in the 2018 and 2020 primaries.

In the March primaries, Democrats had far fewer internal battles, largely a result of last year’s Republican-led redistricting that eliminated most of Texas’ competitive districts, Angle argued. The lack of internecine warfare has allowed Democrats to focus instead on their GOP foes and, in an attempt to energize their base, the raft of conservative state laws passed last year banning abortion and overhauling voting laws.

“We didn’t have a real active primary for governor or for any of the statewide offices,” Angle said. “And so, you’ve allowed Democrats just to talk, from the beginning through the middle and I think through the end, more about a failed Republican leadership.”

Changing border rhetoric

O’Rourke, who famously declined to attack U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz until the end of their 2018 Senate battle, has taken the opposite approach in his bid to unseat Abbott, letting the barbs fly from the start. He’s tried to confront one of his party’s most politically fraught issues — immigration — in part by attacking Abbott’s signature border initiative, Operation Lone Star.

The $4 billion program has surged thousands of state police and National Guard members to the border to apprehend migrants suspected of entering the country illegally and, in some cases, arrest them on state trespassing charges.

Rochelle Garza, the Democratic nominee for attorney general, has also zeroed in on Operation Lone Star, arguing it violates the Constitution and vowing on her campaign website to “put a stop to” the border mission.

Yet O’Rourke, despite his citiques, would not end Operation Lone Star altogether if elected governor, his campaign spokesman Chris Evans said. While O’Rourke would end Abbott’s involuntary deployment of National Guard members to the border, Evans said the candidate supports certain aspects of the operation, such as ‘”providing resources to border communities.”

Under Operation Lone Star, cities and counties have received millions of dollars in state grant funding to “enhance border security operations.”

Abbott, meanwhile, has defended his border operation as a necessary counter to Biden’s policies. The governor has focused mostly on federal immigration policy during the campaign, accusing O’Rourke of flip-flopping on his stance regarding Title 42, a Trump-era public health order that allows immigration authorities during a pandemic to expel migrants from the country before they can apply for asylum.

Despite facing pressure from within his party to end the policy, Biden continued it for more than a year. He then announced in April he would lift the order, but a federal judge has blocked the move.

O’Rourke has long criticized Title 42 as “cynical.” He called for an end to the policy in April, arguing it has produced a spike in migrants repeatedly attempting to cross the border, thus inflating the numbers reported by federal authorities. He also said the Biden administration, in its attempt to end the program, had “failed to communicate with border communities what they’re going to do to address the change in policy and to make sure that border communities are not left footing the bill.”

Focus on jobs

As with his approach to immigration, O’Rourke and other Democrats are walking a tightrope on energy policy.

As a presidential candidate three years ago, O’Rourke unveiled a $5 trillion climate plan that called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and no more drilling leases on federal lands. Now running for governor, he says on his campaign website that he’ll “add to our hundreds of thousands of oil and gas jobs” by following a labor-supported “clean energy jobs plan, which aims to create 1.1 million high-paying jobs over the next 25 years.”

The plan refers to a report released last year by a group of energy experts and labor unions that looks at the jobs that could be created during a transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. The new jobs would come from expanding Texas’ wind, solar and geothermal energy capacity, building high-speed rail and other areas outside of oil and gas.

The report also states that “the burden of any energy transition should not be borne by workers and communities” in the fossil fuel industry, a stance O’Rourke has emphasized on the campaign trail. Those workers, the report states, should receive “wage and benefits support” and training programs that “lead to jobs that pay family sustaining wages.”

Miner, the Abbott campaign spokesman, has said that despite O’Rourke’s vows to protect oil jobs, he’s “long supported policies that would destroy the oil and gas industry in Texas,” pointing to the stances he took while running for president.

Some progressives are taking an approach similar to O’Rourke’s. In her bid for a competitive congressional seat in South Texas, Democrat Michelle Vallejo is calling for a federal jobs guarantee program to ensure a “just transition” for fossil fuel workers as the energy industry transitions to renewables. Vallejo, one of the Texas Democratic candidates this cycle who has stuck with progressive policies popularized in 2018 and 2020, also supports a Medicare for All single-payer system and programs to provide free college tuition.

Her message on energy policy differs from that of U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, who are each running in competitive districts that border Vallejo’s. Representing areas where many residents depend on oil and gas jobs, Cuellar and Gonzalez have touted their support for the oil industry and early last year urged Biden to reconsider his ban on new oil and gas leases on federal lands.

Mike Siegel, a former congressional candidate who backed the Green New Deal climate policy during an unsuccessful run for a Houston-area seat in 2020, says talking up jobs in renewable energy is a smart way to tackle climate change without threatening the livelihoods of oil and gas workers.

“The Green New Deal, as a framework, doesn’t work for Texas, because it leads with these ideas of taking down fossil fuel extraction and production. And so it leads with the idea of taking away hundreds of thousands of really good paying jobs, instead of leading with creating green jobs,” Siegel said. “And that’s, I think, what Beto really gets.”

jasper.scherer@chron.com



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