The Editorial Board recommends voters back Beto O’Rourke in the Texas governor’s race. In the eight years that Abbott has occupied the office of governor, his fellow Texans have watched him…

Gun Rights

Not many years ago, a newly elected Texas governor told cheering supporters, “You voted for hope over fear, for unity over division, for the majesty of what Texas is and what it can be. As Texans, the bonds we share transcend our differences.”

The fact that it’s almost impossible today to imagine Gov. Greg Abbott sincerely repeating the words he uttered on that November night in 2014 reflects what his Democratic challenger calls “the darkness that has descended on Texas.”

None of us who loves this state — its beauty, vastness, and lore, its drive and potential, its diversity of people and sense of place, its swagger and audacity — wants to see it descend into something siloed, cynical and small.

Yet, in the eight years that Abbott has occupied the office of governor, his fellow Texans have watched him transmogrify from a shrewd yet reasonable statesman into a rigid and reflexively ideological politician as he accommodates the Republican Party’s inexorable lurch to the far-right fringes. We have watched him grow more sneeringly dismissive of his political opponents in the Legislature and more domineering in his attempts to dictate the local of affairs of the state’s increasingly blue urban areas. He’s become more beholden to former President Donald Trump’s hopelessly beguiled MAGA faithful.

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We’ve watched an erstwhile moderate Republican, a politician in the Reagan-Bush mold (we thought), with an inspiring personal story of overcoming a tragic injury to ascend to the highest office in Texas government, expend more time and energy concocting political stunts and signing on to cultural-issue antagonisms rather than taking seriously the challenges that affect the state as a whole. In conjunction with his GOP cohorts, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and disgraced Attorney General Ken Paxton, Abbott’s disdainful approach to governance has come to epitomize the Ugly Texan. No wonder some of our fellow Americans encourage us to follow through on our absurd threats of secession.

A statewide officeholder since 1996, Abbott is asking Texas voters to keep him in office another four years. The question is, why? What, for the good of Texas, does he hope to accomplish in another term that he hasn’t accomplished in the previous two?

Challenger Beto O'Rourke sits down with the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board to discuss his candidacy for Texas Governor.

Challenger Beto O’Rourke sits down with the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board to discuss his candidacy for Texas Governor.

Sharon Steinmann

We can think of two reasons why he’s running, both self-serving: One, he’s eager to continue his bow to entrenched political power in this state. He’s happy to serve the deep-well source of his campaign largesse and content to exercise power for power’s sake. Two, he’s positioning himself — like his Florida counterpart — to run for president if Trump doesn’t.

Now that voters have a credible choice in Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, we implore them to set aside party allegiance and assess the governor on his actual performance. They need to remember shivering, for example, when under Abbott’s watch Winter Storm Uri in 2021 caused more damage to an ill-prepared Texas than any other state. Several hundred of our fellow Texans died; thousands suffered through days without water and power. Businesses were shuttered. In Uri’s aftermath, Abbott did the barest minimum, if that, to ensure energy reliability in the future.

He did make sure that the gas and pipeline companies made multi-billion-dollar profits. Those companies included Energy Transfer Partners LLP, richer to the tune of $2.4 billion as a result of the storm. Have we mentioned that Abbott’s pal Kelcy Warren, chairman of Energy Transfer Partners, donated $1 million to Abbott not long after the blackout? The billionaire Dallas businessman knows a good investment when he sees it.

Abbott has occupied the governor’s office for nearly a decade; his party has enjoyed near total control for nearly three decades. Why does this large, wealthy state — a state with a huge budget surplus when lawmakers return to Austin in January — still have the 12th-highest poverty rate among the 50 states? Does it matter to the governor that Texas also has the lowest rate of insurance coverage in the country?

Had he accepted Medicaid expansion as part of the Affordable Care Act, more than a million additional Texans would not be forced to postpone a medical exam until danger looms or wait until a loved one is seriously ill before having to rush to a hospital emergency room for care. If Abbott cared, they would have access to health insurance. The state itself would gain access to an estimated $5.4 billion annually in federal funds. Abbott the ideologue has stood firm.

He’s stood firm on other issues, as well — issues that are akin to scriptural as far as his base is concerned, even though most Texans disagree. We’re talking, for example, about supporting sensible measures to keep guns out of the wrong hands. Despite the horror of what has happened in Uvalde and other Texas communities — more mass shootings than in any other state — a governor cowed by the National Rifle Association has resisted.

Instead of dealing with real issues, including children who continue to be abused and neglected in the state’s foster care system, Abbott and his execrable attorney general are determined to torment transgender youth and their families. They prefer sifting through school libraries looking for “pornography,” enacting the harshest anti-abortion measure in the country and working to make sure that only the “right people” vote. Speaking of voting and the 2020 election deniers who dominate his party, we’re reminded that Abbott was beating the vote-fraud drum years ago as attorney general. He was about as successful at uncovering the “epidemic” of vote fraud as Trump and friends have been.

Instead of focusing on this rapidly growing state’s education needs or transportation or the environment, issues that concern every Texan, our governor comes up with Operation Lone Star, a billion-dollar boondoggle that takes National Guardsmen and state troopers away from their jobs and families and stations them on the border where they waste their time and our money. Instead of tackling high diabetes rates and relatively low childhood immunizations, among a host of other state health challenges, Abbott prefers spending time and money concocting a cruel “bus and dump” approach to the challenge of undocumented immigration. That’s neither responsible nor serious governance.

There’s no denying that Abbott presides over a Texas that’s doing well economically. We add nearly 4,000 new residents every week. Tesla, Oracle, Samsung and other major companies are making significant investments in this state. Those blue cities that Abbott loves to scapegoat are thriving.

The state’s successes are all the more reason we need a person of vision in the governor’s office, someone who has the ability and the inclination to take our immense advantages and make them work for the public good, and at the same time, someone who actually wants to solve long-lingering problems, such as Texas’ unfair tax burden on homeowners and the working class, and our failure to educate a skilled, homegrown workforce that Texas needs to thrive.

That vision won’t come from Greg Abbott.

Abbott is running this time against a slightly tarnished Democratic darling, a charismatic candidate trying for a third time to win a high-profile race. If he loses — which is likely in this fervid-red state — his days in the political limelight are probably over.

Despite the long odds, we believe Beto O’Rourke would make a strong governor for the people of Texas, and perhaps even more importantly, an inspiring leader. A candidate who has visited all 254 counties, who conscientiously reaches out even to Texans who reflexively spurn his party, would, we believe, be governor for all the people, not just the activist few who either fund races or faithfully vote in party primaries. Unlike his opponent, O’Rourke still believes that government can be a force for good.

Admittedly, we have questions about the 50-year-old former El Paso city councilmember and one-term congressman who introduced only three bills that became law. With no executive experience, he proposes to govern a vast, complex state of nearly 30 million people. At times during his campaign for the U.S. Senate against Ted Cruz in 2018 and his brief, quixotic campaign for the presidency two years later, he seemed to lack gravitas. (Jumping atop a barroom table lingers in the mind.)

Those reservations pale in contrast to the vision, energy and optimism O’Rourke would bring to the governor’s office. During his recent visit with the Chronicle editorial board — Abbott , as always, was invited but declined — the Democratic candidate laid out a list of priorities that, if enacted, would make the Lone Star State, not the ogre, but the envy of the nation. We Texans would have reason to brag again.

O’Rourke’s priorities, as detailed in our meeting, contained nothing Abbott could call “extreme” or indulgent of the “radical left.” The list was refreshingly light on divisive social issues and heavy on substantive reforms that many Texans of all stripes support:

  1. He would prioritize fixing the state’s energy grid, which would involve requiring energy providers to weatherize and winterize in earnest. Noting that Texans pay the sixth-highest electric bills in the nation, he aims to claw back much of the $11 billion in profit that the energy companies, in his words, “stole from us” during the winter storm.
  2. He would push for full school funding. “We’re $14,000 down per pupil from the national average,” he said, “$7,500 per teacher from the national average….” Teachers are underpaid in GOP-led rural communities particularly, he noted, while voicing his opposition to school vouchers that would drain rural schools. (The teachers and kiddos we know are also highly supportive of O’Rourke’s plan to scrap the much maligned STAAR test and replace it with something better.)
  3. He would accept Medicaid expansion to lower Texas’ uninsured rate. It’s something that every state bordering Texas, including two with Republican governors, have managed to do since the the ACA was passed in 2010. Since the federal government covers 90 percent of the cost, Texans would be getting back $10 billion in federal income taxes we’re currently losing to other states, he said, and would be adding 300,000 jobs annually. The state would net $1.2 billion in revenue, he said. Medicaid expansion “will lower property taxes,” he said, “since we’re no longer on the hook for as much uncompensated health care.”
  4. He would upgrade infrastructure, particularly in rural counties where water systems and deferred maintenance on sewage and storm drainage are critical concerns.
  5. He would guarantee “reproductive health care freedom.” Noting that 86 percent of the state disagrees with Abbott’s extreme position on abortion, he accused the governor of seeking “to serve a minority of a minority.”

O’Rourke also discussed the always-contentious border issue. “What we have today doesn’t work,” he said. “It’s the one thing we all agree on.” As governor of “the defining border state, the defining immigrant state,” he promised to work with Washington on finding solutions. And while Abbott has pushed constitutional boundaries in his border gamesmanship, O’Rourke says he’d “push the boundary” toward solutions, including using state funds to unclog immigration courts and potentially establishing a Texas-based guest worker program.

He promised to push for sensible gun-safety measures, including red-flag laws complete with due process and universal background checks to close Texas loopholes. “People, children especially — my children — want us to do something,” he said, noting that he had met recently with grieving families in Uvalde.

After eight years as governor, Abbott’s priorities are clear. If reelected, they’re not likely to change, although with a super-majority legislature, a state coffer full to overflowing, and visions of the White House influencing his every action, those priorities could very well grow more extreme and more narrowly tailored.

Abbott, content to foster anger, divisiveness and discontent among his fellow Texans, will not lift the darkness that his politicking and pandering have cast. Beto O’Rourke, earnest, impassioned and determined to make government work for all Texans, just might.

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