Meet the Candidates to Lead the Republican Party of Texas
The following story originally appeared on The Quorum Report.
In a development that’s been brewing for months and was first reported Monday night by Quorum Report, three political leaders from around the state have now announced they’re running to succeed Republican Party of Texas Chairman Steve Munisteri when he steps down. Munisteri, who has done an admirable job of calming the waters after the tumultuous tenures of former RPT Chairs Cathie Adams and Tina Benkiser, has said he would like to honor the request of Attorney General Greg Abbott to stay in place until The Legislature wraps up its regular session next year. But Munisteri could leave as soon as December. “We’ll see how I feel after the elections,” he said.
One of Munisteri’s main messages to the party faithful over the years has been that they must do a better job of outreach to women and minorities. Among other things, the chairman has become known for his colorful presentations to Republican groups about demographic shifts and the corresponding implications for the party’s fortunes. When Battleground Texas entered the scene with promises of making this a competitive state, Munisteri’s smart answer has been that Texas is already a battleground, it’s just that Republicans are winning the battle. After all, demographics represent opportunity, not destiny. The race to replace Munisteri will prove critical to the long-term health of the majority party in this state.
Significantly, it was Munisteri’s inclusive message and outreach that inspired state officeholders to come together and retire the party’s long-festering debt caused by Benkiser and Adams. Most contributors profoundly disagreed with party chairs picking sides in primaries.
During an SREC meeting this past weekend, Dallas County Republican Party Chairman Wade Emmert, former Harris County GOP Chairman Jared Woodfill, and RPT Treasurer Tom Mechler all announced they’re running to take the reins from Munisteri when he gives them up. They have competing visions for how to approach a leadership role and, while they may be well-known in their respective communities, they have not ascended to statewide prominence.
Woodfill is a conservative flamethrower; relying mainly on social issues to whip up the base and stay in office for over a decade. Woodfill was GOP Chairman the entire time I worked in the Houston media market. Six terms. Quite an accomplishment.
That was before a revolt this spring in Houston led by Republican Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. Emmett and business leaders like Dick Weekley, George Strake and John O’Neil contributed more than $300,000 to Woodfill’s successor, Paul Simpson, who is just now starting to find his way as the new local chairman. If that sounds to you like a lot of money for a local chairman’s race, you’re right. Many observers said they’d never seen a race for county chair quite like it. Simpson has said he didn’t have any big ideological differences with Woodfill. “This is about the functionality of the party and winning elections,” Simpson said.
Criticism over Woodfill’s use of social issues as a wedge grew more intense from within his own local party after 2008 when Democrats proved they could be competitive in Houston. In that year, the Democrats finally won some races at the countywide level on the coattails of President Obama, who won Harris County then and again in 2012. If Texas is a battleground, Harris County is ground zero.
Even out of office, Woodfill has continued his war on Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s recently passed Equal Rights Ordinance, which opponents say is a “sexual predator ordinance” because – they argue – it will embolden people who want to attack women in public restrooms. Supporters point out that there’s been no rise in those kinds of crimes in cities that have adopted similar protections for people of all sexual orientations. Woodfill, along with folks like conservative activist Steve Hotze, has led the charge to challenge the protections at both the ballot box and in the courtroom. The issue is set for a trial next year.
Dallas Chairman Emmert has approached social issues much differently. For example, he found a largely receptive audience on his DFW radio show earlier this year when he said the GOP was wrong to exclude gay Republicans from operating a booth at its convention in Ft. Worth. If you’re trying to grow a party, excluding people who want to be Republicans makes no sense, Emmert argued.
Chairman Munisteri came out against the anti-gay language that was adopted by his party in its platform after delegates voted to support discredited “reparative therapy.” “I just make the point for anybody that thinks that may be the possibility: Do they think they can take a straight person to a psychiatrist and turn them gay?” Munisteri said on Texas Public Radio.
Contrast that with Woodfill’s ongoing battle against gay rights in Houston.
Emmert said “I think we have an opportunity to add a new generation of voters to the Republican Party.” The state party has never had a chairman under 50 years old, “much less one who understands and regularly uses technology,” Emmert said. “I am old enough to be an accomplished leader and young enough to relate to the next generation.”
The dark horse in the race may well be Mechler, the state party’s treasurer. For six months back in 2010, Mechler was running for chairman as the alternative to the style of archconservative Chair Cathie Adams. He ended up supporting Munisteri in the race. Mechler, of Amarillo, is a consultant to oil and gas producers, has been a member of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, and was a GOP chair of two West Texas counties.
I watched closely as Mechler, when he was chairman of the Platform Committee, masterfully maneuvered at the 2014 state convention to put a reasonable immigration plank on the floor. It included support for a robust guest worker program. It was, however, defeated by the delegates on the floor in favor of a platform plank that gutted that support for a guest worker program. By then, “guest worker” had become just as loaded a term as “comprehensive immigration reform” and was decried as “amnesty.”
“This is not a job I pursue lightly recognizing the significant sacrifice involved with this responsibility,” Mechler said. “This country is in the middle of a cultural war and the Republican Party is at the forefront of that battle. I believe I have the skills and experience to lead that fight.”
These are just the candidates we know of now. Munisteri on Monday night was quick to point out that the announcements by these three may, of course, spark interest from other potential candidates who may also step into the fray. “You never know,” he said.
Copyright September 17, 2014, Harvey Kronberg, www.quorumreport.com, All rights are reserved. Reprinted with permission.