MIA: Dan Patrick

Editorial Board, Houston Chronicle

Texas LegislatureDan Patrick’s unbridled tongue over the years has been known to alarm and irritate colleagues and cohorts, not to mention the typical Texas voter, who’s unlikely to be an absolute political zealot, the Houston state senator’s core constituency.

Now that Patrick is a heavy favorite in his first statewide race, for the powerful position of lieutenant governor, his handlers have hit upon a new strategy for the typically outspoken candidate: Keep the man corraled until after the election.

“At this time the senator does not plan to meet with editorial boards,” his communications director wrote the Chronicle last week. And in a news story, (“Where’s Patrick? Hiding in plain sight on the trail? Page A1, Sept. 12), the Chronicle’s Austin bureau detailed how the 64-year-old Republican candidate has gone MIA. He does not release a schedule of his appearances and limits meetings to sympathetic audiences.

Patrick’s strategy, as his handlers see it, is akin to the mighty Texas Aggies running out the clock against the boys from North Louisiana Barber College (go Clippers!) They refuse to acknowledge two distinct differences: Politics ain’t beanbag (as the saying goes) or football, and the Democratic candidate, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, is a worthy opponent.

Even though Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994, Van de Putte has something to say, and that makes Patrick and his handlers skittish.

“Democrats are not a dying breed in Texas,” a candidate told us a few weeks ago. “But Democratic voters are.” That means that if you’re a Republican, the strategy is: Keep your head down (and your mouth shut, in Patrick’s case) and you’ll win. The Texas GOP views the general election as a road bump, knowing that the bulk of voters continue to be older, whiter suburbanites who lean red.

Patrick’s refusal to meet with editorial boards around the state isn’t an insult to newspapers. It’s an insult to the people of Texas. They deserve to know where both candidates stand on the issues. They deserve to see both candidates in action, in whatever forum available. That’s what a campaign is all about.

Some 27 million people are proud to call themselves Texans. Patrick and every person who pays a filing fee owes them the dignity of talking about their capacity to lead – in campaign appearances before general audiences, in editorial boards, debates, town-hall meetings.

This isn’t a new concept, by the way. Senatorial candidates Lincoln and Douglas long ago engaged in a series of hours-long debates before rapt audiences. In Texas in the early 1900s, as LBJ biographer Robert Caro tells the story, young Sam Rayburn and his opponent would drive from town to town in the same buggy, stopping in all the little North Texas towns and speechifying on town squares about who was the best man to serve in the Texas Legislature.

Now, as in years past, Texans deserve to know a candidate’s platform. When it comes to the voluble state senator from Houston, they need to know whether he’s been consistent, or whether he’s changed his mind on various issues. If so, they need to know why.

They need to know in order to avoid mistakes. We’ve made them before. We elected Ma Ferguson as governor, and she promptly allowed her husband, a disgraced former governor, to do the governing. We elected a “bad” Don Yarbrough to the state Supreme Court, believing he was the “good” Don Yarborough (notice the spelling), a progressive who never won statewide office. And not so long ago, we had Texans voting for someone named Gene Kelly. Apparently they liked the name, even though he had no political experience and, as far as we know, never sang in the rain.

Texans should be governed by politicians who believe in open government and transparency. Ensuring that is a key job of the lieutenant governor. Can we really trust a man to be transparent when he speaks only to his friends, to like-minded admirers or elite business organizations?

Patrick’s elusive approach to campaigning reminds us of the opposite, a judicial candidate who, when she finished meeting with the Chronicle editorial board, thanked the gathering for the “privilege” of engaging in a discussion of her pending duties and responsibilities as a judge. “It would be an honor to serve,” she said after an hour-long, occasionally impassioned discussion with her opponent sitting at the same table.

That concept – “service is a privilege” – seems to be a foreign one as far as Patrick is concerned. But we can always hope. We’re still more than a month out from Election Day. Patrick still has a chance to show he respects a participatory democracy. He still has a chance to let the voters know whether he, too, believes that serving the people is a privilege.

Otherwise, we can only conclude that he’s scared – scared of his fellow Texans and his opponent, scared of that unbridled tongue of his.

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