With Gov. Rick Perry riding off into the sunset next year, and maybe running for president in 2016, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is running for governor of the Lone Star State. Abbott is arguably the second most popular Republican in Texas (behind Sen. Ted Cruz), he’s armed with a $22 million war chest, has assembled a staff full of seasoned professionals, and he’s an inspirational stump speaker. As a lawyer Abbott is formidable, and as a Republican he is among the 29 statewide elected officials who have maintained and expanded the GOP’s dominance. Whether Democrat state Sen. Wendy Davis runs for governor or not, whether Battleground Texas ever reaches its goals or not, Greg Abbott has to be the odds-on favorite to succeed Perry.
But as the primary gets going, Abbott does have challengers: former Texas Republican Party Chairman Tom Pauken, and former Univision TV personality Miriam Martinez. Pauken realizes that he is a heavy underdog to Abbott, and will try to carve out space on the right to address what he sees as shortfalls in Abbott’s record. Martinez is a self-described moderate who supports “comprehensive immigration reform,” relatively unknown outside the Rio Grande Valley, but well known within that Democrat-dominated area of the state and in Spanish-language media.
Tom Pauken’s resume stacks up strong against anyone else who has ever run for or been elected governor of Texas. The 69-year-old Victoria native cut his political teeth working on Sen. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign. He was elected national chairman of the College Republicans the following year, and then he went off to war. Pauken wasn’t drafted into the US Army. As a supporter of the Vietnam war, he felt that it was his duty to enlist and fight. So he did, serving in military intelligence in Vietnam in 1969, and was among the veterans whom many on the left mistreated upon returning from the war.
In the early 1970s, Pauken went on to work in the Nixon and then the Reagan White Houses, and during the latter he headed a federal agency. Once back in Texas has been involved in venture capital and politics. He most recently served as the chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission, a position to which he was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry.
While Pauken headed ACTION during the Reagan years, an agency which was re-badged Americorps under President Bill Clinton, he saw how the federal government was funding Alinsky-ite programs nationwide. So he led a successful effort to defund that program. Clinton and especially Obama have put funding such programs back on the front-burner through the 2009 stimulus and Obamacare, but Pauken’s effort during the Reagan years shows that he isn’t the kind of official who goes to Washington, becomes a part of it, and fights to expand his personal power at the expense of the taxpayer.
He was out of politics for a few years, but came back in at a pivotal moment in Texas’ history.
“I got back involved, in terms of state politics, in 1994, when I saw a Republican Party that had become a top-down party that had gotten away from our conservative principles, too much influence of the political consultants,” Pauken told me when we met for a half hour in downtown Austin last week. He says he decided to run for state chairman of what was still the minority party even though he was outfunded by the incumbent. He won, and at the same time the Texas GOP flipped the state to Republican control at the top. George W. Bush ousted Gov. Ann Richards despite her national fan base in the media and the Democrat elites. Despite the Texas House coming close to tipping back to the Democrats circa 2006 and 2008, the Republicans have never really looked back. From 1994 forward, Republicans have built and built, winning all statewide offices, taking the majority of both houses in the legislature, and in the last few years becoming the majority party across local offices as well. Mitt Romney defeated President Obama by more than 15 points in Texas in 2012, and Romney wasn’t even most Texas Republicans’ first choice to head the party’s ticket.
In a conservative state like Texas, and contrary to what Battleground Texas thinks, Texas is conservative, there’s only one place to run in a statewide Republican primary: to the right. But running to the right of the pro-life, pro-gun, anti-Washington Abbott is going to be tough. There’s very little air over there and Abbott means to keep it that way.
But Pauken sees openings.
Pauken cited a Western Civilization program developed by Professor Rob Koons at the University of Texas. That program won praise from all over, even from the New York Times, but leftist professors killed it. Pauken says Gov. Perry could have made a call or two and saved the program, but did not, so Pauken took it upon himself to call Chancellor Kent Hance at Texas Tech University. Koons’ lauded Western Civ program has survived at Tech, over the objections of some leftist professors there.
“But that’s leadership,” Pauken says.
“I see the folks in Austin, the sound bites are there, the publicity gimmicks, it’s easy to say you’re against Obamacare, or you’re for the Second Amendment, you’re pro-life, we’re all that,” Pauken says. “But what are we doing in terms of real leadership to advance, here in Texas, the principles of our philosophy?”
To that question, some in Austin are likely to point to Texas’ gaudy economic record. It’s at the top of the heap in every list of best states for business, to buy a home, and near the top on several regarding overall quality of life. Its tax burden remains low despite mandates from Washington. They might also point to the sheer number of businesses and families relocating to Texas every year.
Pauken sees a similar lack of leadership on the state’s notorious school finance system. Under current mandates, public schools are funded by local property taxes but richer districts have to help fund poorer districts. The system has earned the name “Robin Hood” because it takes $1.1 billion from the richest 374 districts, and gives it to the poorer districts.
“That’s the principle of the French Revolution, not the American Revolution,” Pauken says, adding that he fought it when Gov. Ann Richards tried to impose it. School funding has been a thorn in Texas politics for decades.
Pauken says that as attorney general, Abbott could have fought Robin Hood, but didn’t. He says he has a better way to fund the poorer districts without Robin Hood’s system that harms local control. He says as governor he would eliminate Robin Hood altogether in favor of a different funding system.
“I would say, get rid of the $1.1 billion statewide property tax, which is what I think it is, and replace it with a slight increase in the sales tax, which would be one quarter of one percent, and then everybody is paying for it, not just taking from some districts and giving it to others. I believe local property taxes should stay local.”
He also chided current leadership’s effectiveness on border security. He says that rather than “depending on Janet Napolitano” to secure Texas’ border with Mexico, he would take $15 million from the state’s emerging technology fund and apply that money to border security to do two things: Enhance border security technology, and build up a “major intelligence unit” that would address the cartels and gangs that operate across the border.
“My opponent has been attorney general for 10 years. He’s done zero on this issue,” Pauken said. “Now he’s suddenly talking about it as though he’s going to do something as governor, why didn’t he do something as attorney general?”
This only the beginning of the war of words that’s sure to follow. Pauken brought up the state’s running battles with the Obama Environmental Protection Agency and over the state’s voter ID law as examples where he would handle things differently than Abbott. He says he would bring in a “conservatism of the heart” that takes into account the fact that a university degree isn’t for everyone, and vocational education has a vital role to play. He warns that if the Texas GOP remains a “top-down party of elites” as he sees it now, the Democrats could deliver a “nasty surprise” within five years.