HOUSTON — A law school classmate of our governor once insisted to me that Greg Abbott was more dangerous than his predecessor Rick Perry because he was smart. I would say that the events of the last few months lend considerable support to the first part of the sentence.
Maybe you heard that Mr. Abbott tested positive for the coronavirus? One day before the news broke, he appeared at a crowded campaign event, maskless, shaking hands and posing for pictures. It was nice of him to let us know that he was feeling fine after getting the kind of care President Donald Trump received when he tested positive — those nifty monoclonal antibodies and all. Yet for years, Mr. Abbott has denied federal funds toward a state expansion of Medicaid, which could help many Texans get access to health care (and, polls show, has the support of a majority of residents).
Mr. Abbott’s announcement also took place against a battle over mask mandates for school districts in several Texas cities — my own, Houston, among them, as well as Dallas, Austin and San Antonio. The governor and his attorney general, Ken Paxton, banned mask mandates, but local leaders were defiant, and on Thursday night, the Texas State Supreme Court came down on the side of school districts trying to fight a spike in cases involving children.
Simultaneously, new census data shows how population shifts over the past decade in Texas, like other Sun Belt states, will strengthen big cities and their suburbs.
This fascinating coincidence made me wonder how far we are from open rebellion among many Texans. Mr. Abbott is reportedly setting the stage for a potential presidential run in 2024, but first, next year, he has to win election to a third term.
In his statement on the mask-mandate ban, he said the state should rely on “personal responsibility.” I agree with him. In the past few weeks, the dangers to Texans — most acutely from the Delta variant of the coronavirus — have increased exponentially under his leadership. He has made it abundantly clear, in his mishandling of recent calamities, that voters should exercise “personal responsibility” and find a better person to run their state.
I’m reminded of an old posting in magnetic letters outside the Austin restaurant and local institution El Arroyo. A photo of the message made the rounds again on Twitter in response to the outrage many citizens felt with news of the governor’s illness. “Well, well, well,” it read, “if it isn’t the consequences of my own actions.”
Mr. Abbott and his Republicans won’t go away without a fight — or tilting voting laws in their favor as much as possible (Democrats and Republicans are evenly split in the state on approval of the governor, but Democrats have grown increasingly unhappy with the governor’s handling of the pandemic, with now over 80 percent expressing disapproval, up from 59 percent in April 2020). Republicans can and probably will also stymie future efforts to make for a fair fight, thus keeping themselves in office unless a moderate Republican or any kind of Democrat can pull off a miracle.
With the return of some Democratic state lawmakers from their quorum-denying self-exile, Republicans in the Texas House will surely pass a sweeping voting bill that would undo last year’s expansion of ballot access during the pandemic in places like Houston as well as empower partisan poll watchers.
Even so, the refusal of Democratic House members to roll over and play dead was performative in the best sense. Their protest made international news, which means that some people here might also realize that Republicans are bound and determined to take certain rights away.
There is also residual anger over the big freeze of February 2021, a reminder of which comes in the form of a monthly gas bill. Recent investigations — by The Texas Observer and The Texas Tribune — show just how many of the energy companies profited from soaring gas prices while ordinary Texans were shivering in their boots. The reports also raise the question of whether a gusher of campaign contributions (so far Mr. Abbott’s campaign alone received around $4.6 million) was a form of gratitude for what was seen as favorable treatment by the governor and some lawmakers.
And then, yes, there is the pandemic.
At about 46 percent, Texas — the nation’s second-largest state by population — has a relatively low vaccination rate. Some hospital I.C.U.s are overflowing with new Covid cases just as public schools are opening. Huzzahs to the elected officials in the state’s most populous cities and counties for fighting back in defiance of the governor.
These fights reflect the one that has been going on since Mr. Abbott took office: the war between the conservatives in the statehouse, supported by rural voters and some wealthy Republican donors, and the more liberal leadership in the cities and metro areas that reflect the will of much of their more diverse voters.
The new census figures show that the growth in Texas since 2010 is in the cities — fully 87 percent of new residents have opted for life in our biggest metropolitan areas, while rural communities remain stagnant, according to Steven Pedigo, director of the Urban Lab at the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs in a CNN report. Our four biggest cities now account for 68 percent of the state’s population, up from 64 percent in 2010.
It is possible to hope — because it always springs eternal — that what we are seeing is not just a series of isolated battles but the beginning of a sustained backlash, at least among energized Democrats, against the Republican bullies. That includes but is not limited to Mr. Abbott, who seems to have focused on his own political fortunes while telling a majority of Texans that they can just go hang.
Mimi Swartz (@mimiswartz) is an executive editor at Texas Monthly.
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