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Texas primaries narrow crowded fields in U.S. House races

Valdez, White face off in Democratic governor’s primary; Cruz, O’Rourke in U.S. Senate race

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

AUSTIN — Texas primary voters have narrowed crowded fields vying for 11 open or potentially competitive U.S. House seats and the U.S. Senate, while the Democratic race for governor is heading to a May runoff to pick a nominee for an uphill climb against Republican Governor Greg Abbott.

And while Democrats have high hopes of riding a wave of enthusiasm to put a dent into the GOP’s 25-to-11 advantage in the Texas U.S. House delegation, more than 530,000 more voters chose the Republican over the Democratic ballot in the March 6 primaries, although that was a better showing by Democrats than in the last midterm primary in 2014.

O’Rourke

Cruz

In the U.S. Senate race, as expected, Republican incumbent Ted Cruz and Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke both easily won their primaries, setting up a November race likely to draw national attention. O’Rourke took 62 percent, and Cruz, 85 percent.

In the governor’s race, Abbott, seeking a second term, won outright with 90 percent of the vote. The Democratic runoff will be between former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez and Andrew White, a Houston investment banker and son of the late former Governor Mark White. Valdez had a strong lead in the race, 43 percent to 27 percent, over White.

George P. Bush

Republican incumbents also won in six other statewide races, including Land Commissioner George P. Bush, son of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who took 58 percent of the vote to beat back three challengers.

In the U.S. House races, Democrats’ top targets in November are three GOP incumbents who represent districts Hillary Clinton won in 2016:  John Culberson in the 7th District in Houston; Pete Sessions in the 32nd District in Dallas; and William Hurd, who represents the 23rd District in West Texas stretching from the suburbs of San Antonio over to El Paso. All three easily won their primaries.

In the 7th District, the two Democrats who qualified for the runoff are Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a Houston lawyer, and Laura Moser, a journalist who carried the endorsement of Our Revolution, a liberal group that sprang from Bernie Sanders’ failed presidential campaign.

This race heated up when Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of House Democrats, intervened by publishing opposition research critical of Moser because of fears she won’t be competitive against Culberson in November. However, she used the DCCC’s memo to raise money and made it past five other Democrats into the runoff with Fletcher.

In the 32nd District, Collin Allred, an attorney and former player for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, topped the Democratic primary with 39 percent and will face Lillian Salerno, who served as a deputy undersecretary on the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the Obama administration, who got into the runoff with 18 percent.

In the 23rd District, Gina Oritz Jones, an Iraq war veteran from San Antonio who worked as a U.S. trade representative, led the race with 42 percent and will face Rick Trevino, a high school teacher from San Antonio who served as a Sanders delegate in 2016. The majority Latino 23rd District, where Hurd is seeking a third term, is a perennial swing seat that changed hands in 2010, 2012 and 2014.

In addition to the races that Democrats are targeting, there are also eight other open seats in Texas that drew crowded primaries:

House Ethics Committee expands probe into Texas U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold

Committee looking into whether Farenthold lied, used government resources in his political campaigns

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

WASHINGTON (CFP) — The House Ethics Committee is investigating whether U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas used government resources in his congressional campaigns and lied to the committee during an ongoing investigation into sexual harassment claims by a former staffer.

Meanwhile, CNN is reporting that a former staffer has told House investigators that she was pressured to perform campaign-related tasks during regular work hours in Farenthold’s congressional office, activity that is not allowed under House rules.

U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas

The latest charges are likely to increase pressure on Farenthold, who has already announced that he won’t seek re-election in 2018 after revelations that he used $84,000 of government money to settle a lawsuit by a former staffer who alleged that she was fired after complaining about sexually suggestive comments made to her by the congressman and another male staffer.

In a December 21 news release, the chair and ranking member of the House Ethics Committee — U.S. Reps. Susan Brooks, R-Indiana, and Ted Deutch, D-Florida — announced that their probe of Farenthold had expanded from the original sexual harassment allegations to include allegations that staff resources may have been used on his campaigns, that he or “any person acting on his behalf” may have required staff members to work on his campaigns, and that he “may have made false statements or omissions in testimony to the committee.”

The statement did not give any details to indicate why the probe had expanded.

In response to the Ethics Committee’s statement, Farenthold’s office released a statement to Texas and national media noting that he had previously been cleared of sexual harassment charges by the Office of Congressional Ethics and pledging his full cooperation with the committee’s expanded probe.

CNN reported that former Farenthold staffer Elizabeth Peace told Ethics Committee lawyers that she was pressured to work on Farenthold’s 2016 campaign during regular office hours in her Capitol office, using House-issued computers and her work e-mail account. The network cited a source familiar with Peace’s conversation with the lawyers; she refused comment to CNN, although she did acknowledge talking to committee staff.

Under House rules, congressional staffers are only allowed to work on campaigns on their own time, and they are not allowed to use House resources, such as office space, computers, or email accounts,, to do political work.

In  2014, Farenthold’s former communications director, Lauren Greene, sued for gender discrimination, sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment, alleging that she was fired after complaining about sexually suggestive comments made to her by the congressman and another male staffer. The Office of Congressional Ethics investigated and cleared Farenthold, and he reached a mediated out-of-court settlement with Greene in 2015.

The revelation that $84,000 in taxpayer dollars had been used to pay Greene’s settlement in early December led Farenthold to abandon his 2018 re-election campaign in Texas’s 27th District, which sprawls across the Gulf Coast between Corpus Christi and Houston.

In a statement posted to Facebook on December 14, Farenthold insisted that the sexual harassment charges made against him by Greene were false, but he conceded that a lax management style in his Washington office created a “decidedly unprofessional” work environment — a  situation he blamed on his lack of political experience after being elected in 2010.

“I had no idea how to run a congressional office and, as a result, I allowed a workplace culture to take root in my office that was too permissive and decidedly unprofessional,” Fahrenthold said. “It accommodated destructive gossip, offhand comments, off-color jokes and behavior that in general that was less than professional.”

“And I allowed the personal stress of the job to manifest itself in angry outbursts and, too often, a failure to treat people with the respect that they deserved,” he said. “Clearly, that was wrong. It is not how I was raised, it’s not who I am, and for that situation, I am profoundly sorry,” he said.

Texas U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold won’t run in 2018 after questions about harassment settlement with employee

Farenthold denies wrongdoing but blames political inexperience for allowing “unprofessional” work environment

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

WASHINGTON (CFP) — U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas has announced he won’t seek re-election in 2018 in the wake of revelations about his use of taxpayer dollars to settle a sexual harassment claim made by a former employee, which he said has become a “political distraction.”

U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas

In a statement posted to Facebook on December 14, Farenthold insisted that the sexual harassment charges made against him by his former communications director, Lauren Greene, are false, but he conceded that his lax management style in his Washington office created a “decidedly unprofessional” work environment — a  situation he blamed on his lack of political experience after being elected in 2010.

“I had no idea how to run a congressional office and, as a result, I allowed a workplace culture to take root in my office that was too permissive and decidedly unprofessional,” Fahrenthold said. “It accommodated destructive gossip, offhand comments, off-color jokes and behavior that in general that was less than professional.”

“And I allowed the personal stress of the job to manifest itself in angry outbursts and, too often, a failure to treat people with the respect that they deserved,” he said. “Clearly, that was wrong. It is not how I was raised, it’s not who I am, and for that situation, I am profoundly sorry,” he said.

In  2014, Greene, sued Farenthold for gender discrimination, sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment, alleging that she was fired after complaining about sexually suggestive comments made to her by the congressman and another male staffer. The Office of Congressional Ethics investigated and cleared Farenthold, and he reached a mediated out-of-court settlement with Greene in 2015.

Farenthold’s decision not to seek re-election came two weeks after after Politico reported that the $84,000 paid to settle that case came from the Office of Compliance, a federal agency that handles sexual harassment complaints by congressional staffers. The congressman then announced that he would take out a personal loan to reimburse the government for the settlement.

In his Facebook video, Farenthold said he planned to make “meaningful changes” in the operation of his congressional office.

“I owe that to everyone — my constituents, my family, and this institution,” he said.

Farenthold, 55, was elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010 to represent the 27th District, which sprawls across the Texas Gulf Coast between Corpus Christi and Houston. He was already facing a 2018 primary challenge from Michael Cloud, the Republican chairman in Victoria County. After the Politico story was published, Bech Bruun resigned from his post as chairman of the Texas Water Development Board to enter the GOP race.

Farenthold is the eighth member of Texas’s 36-member congressional delegation to forego re-election in 2018, joining Republicans Joe Barton, Ted Poe, Sam Johnson, Jeb Hensarling and Lamar Smith and Democrats Beto O’Rourke and Gene Green.

All except O’Rourke are leaving Congress; he is running for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican Ted Cruz.

Texas U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold promises to repay taxpayer money used to settle sexual harassment suit

Report: Former spokeswoman who accused Farenthold of creating a hostile work environment received $84,000

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (CFP) — U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas says he will take out a personal loan to repay $84,000 in taxpayer dollars used to settle a claim with a former staffer who sued him for sexual harassment, even though he continues to deny the underlying allegations and insists he only used tax dollars because he was required to do so.

U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas

“I want to be clear that I didn’t do anything wrong, but I also don’t want the taxpayers to be on the hook for this,” Farenthold told Corpus Christi TV station KRIS.

In  2014, Farenthold’s former communications director, Lauren Greene, sued him for gender discrimination, sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment, alleging that she was fired after complaining about sexually suggestive comments made to her by the congressman and another male staffer.

The Office of Congressional Ethics cleared Farenthold, and he reached a mediated out-of-court settlement with Greene in 2015. He was re-elected in 2016 after the charges and the settlement had been publicly disclosed.

However, the settlement came under renewed scrutiny after Politico reported on December 1 that the money paid to Greene came from the Office of Compliance, a federal agency that handles sexual harassment complaints by congressional staffers.

Farenthold had initially issued a statement saying he couldn’t comment on the settlement because of a confidentiality agreement, but he later told KRIS that he believed he was required to pay Greene with Office of Compliance money, although he now says he will “hand a check” to House Speaker Paul Ryan to reimburse the government.

Farenthold, 55, was elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010 to represent the 27th District, which sprawls across the Texas Gulf Coast between Corpus Christi and Houston. OpenSecrets.org, which tracks the financial assets of members of Congress based on their financial disclosure reports, estimated Farenthold’s net worth at $6 million in 2016.

The revelations about Farenthold have been an unwelcome distraction for House Republicans, who have been pressing for the resignation of Democratic U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan for settling a sexual harassment lawsuit with money taken out of his House office budget.

Even before the details surrounding the details of Farenthold’s settlement came to light, he was already being challenged in the GOP primary by Michael Cloud, the Republican chairman in Victoria County. After the Politico story was published, Bech Bruun, chairman of the Texas Water Development Board, told the Texas Tribune that he was also considering challenging Farenthold and that “it is a sad day when an elected official uses taxpayer money to settle a claim of sexual harassment.”

Texas’s unusually early March primary means that the filing deadline for party primaries is December 11. In addition, the 27th is one of three Texas U.S. House districts struck down in March by a panel of federal judges for improper gerrymandering of Latino voters, which could result in changes being made to the district before next year’s congressional elections.

Texas U.S. Rep. Joe Barton announces retirement from Congress amid flap over nude photos

Barton’s departure sets up competitive race for GOP-held seat in metro Dallas

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

DALLAS (CFP) — Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, the dean of the Texas House delegation, has announced he will not seek re-election in 2018, a week after acknowledging that he exchanged a nude photograph of himself with a woman with whom he was having a consensual extramarital relationship — a photo which wound up on social media.

U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas

Barton, 68, who has served in Congress since 1985, told the Dallas Morning News that “there are enough people who lost faith in me that it’s time to step aside.” He said that while he still thinks he could win re-election in the 6th District, “it would be a nasty campaign, a difficult campaign for my family.”

Barton also stressed to the News that unlike a number of other politicians recently ensnared in sex scandals, his conduct was entirely consensual: “I am not guilty of sexual harassment.”

The controversy now ending Barton’s career began when a nude photo purportedly of him began circulating on Twitter, and a woman who said she had a sexual relationship with him told the Washington Post that he had threatened to contact the U.S. Capitol Police if she disseminated the photo.

The woman told the Post that she did not send the photo out on Twitter, and it remains unclear who is responsible.

After the Post story, Barton issued a statement in which he admitting having consensual sexual relationships with other women while separated from his second wife, prior to their divorce in 2015.

“Those relationships have ended. I am sorry I did not use better judgment during those days. I am sorry that I let my constituents down,” he said in the statement. Barton has also said that police are investigating the circumstances surrounding the release of the photo.

Barton’s departure creates a sudden, unexpected opening that will likely draw a crowd of aspiring congressmen, particularly on the Republican side. The 6th District takes a swath of suburbs between Dallas and Ft. Worth, plus Ellis and Navarro counties to the South.

While the district leans Republican, the tilt is not overwhelmingly so — Barton carried it with 58 percent of the vote in 2016, and Donald Trump took just 54 percent. Five Democrats are already running for the seat.

Barton, who is currently the longest-serving member of the Texas delegation, becomes the seventh Texas U.S. House member to forego re-election in 2018, joining Republicans Ted Poe, Sam Johnson, Jeb Hensarling and Lamar Smith and Democrats Beto O’Rourke and Gene Green.

All except O’Rourke are leaving Congress; he is running for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican Ted Cruz.

Texas U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling won’t seek re-election in 2018

Hensarling’s retirement announcement comes just two weeks before filing begins for 2018 primaries

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

DALLAS (CFP) — U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, the Texas Republican who chairs the powerful House Financial Services Committee, has announced he won’t seek re-election in 2018, creating a third open House race in Texas less than two weeks before filing begins for the 2018 primaries.

U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas

“Although service in Congress remains the greatest privilege of my life, I never intended to make it a lifetime commitment, and I have already stayed far longer than I had originally planned,” said Hensarling, who was first elected to Congress in 2002 to represent Texas’s 5th District. “Although I will not be running for reelection, there are 14 months left in my congressional term to continue the fight for individual liberty, free enterprise, and limited constitutional government — the causes for which I remain passionate.”

Because of GOP term limits for committee chairman, Hensarling would have lost his chairmanship in 2019 had he remained in Congress, even if Republicans held control of the chamber. He said that with the end of his chairmanship, “the time seems right for my departure.”

Hensarling’s 5th District takes in eastern Dallas County and stretches into rural areas to the east and south. Although the district has a majority-minority population, it is solidly Republican, having gone for President Trump with 63 percent of the vote in 2016; Hensarling carried 80 percent.

However, Hensarling’s retirement is likely to set off a mad scramble for his seat, thanks to Texas’s early primary schedule. Filing opens November 11 and closes December 11, and the primary will be held on March 6. The only candidate in the race at the time of Hensarling’s October 31 retirement was Democrat Dan Wood, an attorney and city councilman from Terrell.

Before being electing to Congress, Hensarling, 60, was an aide to former U.S. Senator Phil Gramm, and, like Gramm, cultivated an image as a fiscal hawk and opponent of increased government spending. In 2010, he was elected as chairman of the House Republican Conference, the fourth-ranking position in the House, a post he gave up to take the Financial Services chairmanship.

Hensarling is the third member of the Texas House delegation to forgo a re-election bid in 2016. Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke from El Paso is giving up his seat to challenge U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. GOP U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson from Dallas is retiring after 28 years in Congress.

While all three of these seats are unlikely to change hands, three Democrats are making a play for Johnson’s 3rd District seat, which Trump only carried with 55 percent of the vote.

5 Southern Republicans break ranks to oppose House Obamacare repeal

But 5 GOP lawmakers in other potential swing districts help pass new health care law

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

WASHINGTON (CFP) — Five Republican members of the U.S. House defied party leaders and President Donald Trump to oppose a bill to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a new blueprint for U.S. health care, but five other GOP lawmakers holding potentially vulnerable seats took a different tack and voted to go along with the American Health Care Act.

Two of the Southern GOP no votes on May 4 came from Will Hurd of Texas and Barbara Comstock of Virginia, who both represent districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. A third lawmaker from a district Clinton carried, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, also voted no but is retiring in 2018.

Hurd

Hurd, whose district stretches across a wide swath of West Texas, issued a statement after the vote saying the plan pushed by GOP leaders “does not address the concerns of many of my constituents, including adequate protections for those with pre-existing conditions and the challenges faced by rural healthcare providers.”

Comstock

Comstock, whose district is anchored in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, said in a statement that her “goals on healthcare reform are to provide patient-centered reforms that provide better access to high quality, affordable care and cover pre-existing conditions without lifetime limits. ”

“I did not support the AHCA today because (of) the many uncertainties in achieving those goals,” she said.

The other two Republicans who voted against the bill, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Walter Jones of North Carolina, did so not out of any fear of Democratic competition but because they believe the repeal measure doesn’t go far enough.

“As recently as a year ago, Republicans argued that mandates were unconstitutional, bailouts were immoral and subsidies would bankrupt our country,” Massie said in a statement after the vote. “Today, however, the House voted for a healthcare bill that makes these objectionable measures permanent.”

Jones had earlier said the attempt by House Republican leaders to push an Obamacare bill repeal through the House on a rushed schedule was “shameful,” and he called for scrapping the bill in its entirety and starting over.

Of the 138 Southern Republicans in the House, 133 voted in favor of the AHCA. Five of those members represent districts where Democrats could conceivably use their votes for the new health care law to try to unseat them. In fact,  if any one of them had voted no, the bill — which passed by just a single vote — would have failed, which will allow Democrats to make the argument that each of them bears responsibility for its passage.

Curbelo

This group of members who supported the bill includes two of the region’s most vulnerable House Republicans, Carlos Curbelo and Brian Mast, both from Florida. Curbelo represents a district in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties that Clinton carried; Mast’s district, which includes St. Lucie, Martin and northern Palm Beach counties, has changed parties in three of the last four election cycles.

Mast

In a statement, Mast said the GOP health care plan “returns control of health care from Washington back to you and restores access to quality, affordable options that are tailored to your individual needs.” He also pushed back against Democratic criticism that a provision in the new law allowing states to waive mandates for coverage of pre-existing conditions would imperil coverage for the sickest Americans.

“This bill mandates that people cannot be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions and allocates almost $140 billion in additional funding that will subsidize coverage for people with pre-existing conditions to ensure they costs are low,” Mast said. “Those claiming otherwise are the same people who said ‘if you like your doctor, you can keep you doctor,” and they’re putting partisan politics ahead of the people in our community.”

Also voting yes were John Culberson of Texas, whose metro Houston House district was carried by Clinton; Mario Diaz-Balart, whose majority Latino district in metro Miami and southwest Florida went for Trump by less than 2 points; and Ted Budd of North Carolina, whose Greensboro-area district went for Trump by 9 points.

In a statement, Diaz-Balart conceded the AHCA was “far from perfect.” But he said the House needed to act because Obamacare “is collapsing,” leaving just one insurance provider in two of the three counties he represents.

“Knowing the people I represent could very well lose their coverage … is disturbing,” he said. “It would be irresponsible for Congress not to act in order to prevent this from happening.”

Budd also conceded in a statement that “the legislative process is a human process with all the flaws that entails. The results of that process are never perfect, and this bill isn’t either.”

“What I believe it will do is significantly reduce insurance premiums in our state, and help put the individual insurance marketplace on a more sound financial footing,” he said.

Also voting yes was Pete Sessions of Texas, whose metro Dallas district was also won by Clinton. However, Sessions, who has been in the House since 1997 and won re-election by more than 50 points in 2016, is not considered vulnerable to a Democratic challenge.

All 40 of the Democrats representing districts in the South voted against the AHCA.

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