Point Austin: The Abbott and GOP Project Is an Exercise in Brute Political Cynicism

Fear-mongering about the border is just the tip of the iceberg (Photo by Steve Hillebrand, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

From 2005-2020, now-retired Austin Chronicle News Editor Michael King wrote about city and state politics from a progressive perspective in his weekly column, “Point Austin.” We’re pleased to bring back his column whenever he’s inspired to tackle the state we’re in.

The recent pardoning of murderer Daniel Perry concluded an extraordinary episode of cynical hypocrisy from the professed Party of Law and Order, headed in Texas by Gov. Greg Abbott. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, appointed by the governor as the state’s last refuge of scoundrels, is traditionally a rubber-stamp committee slavishly devoted to capital punishment. The board almost never meets in person, instead communicating by fax in a structural evasion of open meetings laws, so the members cannot be called to account for whatever “discussions” might ensue over a particular death penalty case. The superficial process (described at length here by Brant Bingamon early last year) is designed to give the governor whatever recommendation he desires in a fashion that avoids public scrutiny or any questions that might be raised by some impertinent reporter or legal challenger.

And almost always, what the governor wants is a confirmation of intended execution. The death penalty is the most political of punishments, because it confirms the arbitrary power of the state – the governor’s power – over life and death, even while it pretends to require his theoretical deference to his political appointees on the Board.

So it was in the case of Daniel Perry, tried and convicted murderer of Garrett Foster. Perry not only murdered Foster in front of dozens of witnesses, the evidence reflected that he had fantasized about killing Black Lives Matter protesters and apparently acted on that intention. Nevertheless, within hours of his 2023 conviction by a Travis County jury the governor vowed to pardon Perry, and in due course the Board “recommended” that he do so. What else could Abbott do? His board had reviewed the file, concluded that Abbott knew better than the jury, and issued the recommendation that Abbott immediately accepted. So the wheels of justice turn, to punish those who offend the ruling order, but to exonerate those, like Perry, who act in concert with that order. The ultimate message appears to be (as in the Wisconsin case of Kyle Rittenhouse): Murder is permissible, as long as the murderer chooses the right victim.

The Game Show on the Border

Perhaps even more cynical than the Perry pardon has been Abbott’s ongoing performance on the Mexican border, where thousands of people fleeing poverty and violence are being used as pawns in a vicious game of national politics. Whether it’s a wall, bullets, or razor wire, the political target of all these demonstrations of force is not even the people directly affected, who are simply migrating in desperate hopes of a better life. The actual target is the U.S. public, corralled into a vicious media circle of fear and frenzy over human migration (which in fact is both a sign of and a contributor to the health of the U.S. economy).

One vivid indicator of the political cynicism involved is the strenuous attempts of other Republican politicians to get in on the P.R. jolt provided by anti-immigrant hysteria. Green with obvious envy that Abbott has a border and they don’t, they offer to send their own National Guard troops. As of early March, more than a dozen states ruled by GOP governors had sent troops to Texas to address a “crisis” that is most directly experienced by people who have traveled hundreds of miles in hopes that they will eventually find new lives and safety from criminal violence. Presumably, South Dakotans have more serious things to worry about, but dog-killing Gov. Kristi Noem knows better: She said any attempt by the federal government to interfere with her troop deployment might trigger “war.”

Teach Your Children Well?

All this brutal political grandstanding is scurrilous enough. But an even broader expression of the cynical Republican approach to public policy has been the party’s ongoing assault on public education. Based on the outcome of the recent GOP primaries, Abbott has been celebrating the presumed House votes he will require to impose a “voucher” system on public schools. The voucher program would in fact create a major transfer of public money to for-profit, mostly religious charter schools, accomplished via grants almost entirely to parents of children already attending those schools. For astute readers, that should ring an historical bell: It’s the latest variation of “white flight” academies created in response to Sixties-era desegregation.

Siphoning tax dollars to private schools is bad enough, but Abbott has also explicitly tied any increase in public school funding to approval of vouchers, in the sort of extortion that one associates with organized crime. But then, doing the bidding of a few crackpot billionaire religious fanatics is effectively a criminal enterprise that will also undermine the education of the vast majority of Texas students who will continue to attend still underfunded public schools. (About 300,000 Texas children attend private schools; more than 5 million or nearly 95% attend public schools, and will be helped not at all by vouchers.)

A majority of Texas counties have no private schools at all, and are culturally enmeshed with their public school system – that’s why so many Republican House members primaried by Abbott opposed vouchers, and why it’s at least possible that a few of the quislings he supported might either be defeated in November or else waver in their commitment to vouchers. It was bitterly comical to watch those primary campaigns fought not on unpopular vouchers, but on immigration – that is, which GOP candidate could convince voters he or she most intensely despised immigrants.

“They want to destroy public education and sell it to the highest bidder,” Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, AISD’s employees union, told me. “The governor doesn’t give a damn about kids and their education. He’s holding public school funding hostage against vouchers.” Zarifis says there’s a slight hope that a few of those new GOP candidates, who ran their campaigns by fear-mongering the border, might pull away on vouchers. Perhaps a better hope is that the Democrats might have more success this fall because of Republican extremism on education and other issues, most prominently reproductive rights. Flipping at least a few House seats might make it much more difficult for Abbott to impose his agenda at the Capitol.

“The data shows opportunities,” says Austin Democratic Rep. Gina Hinojosa. “Texas progressives have been putting in the work without outside help [from the national party], and our hearts have been broken too many times. The challenge is to take fear and turn it into action.”

In sum, Abbott and his Republican Party believe that a majority of Texans support pardoning willful murderers, hatred of immigrants, and abandoning the constitutionally mandated education of the next generation. The GOP will continue those exercises in political cynicism until Texas voters finally decide they’ve had enough.