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Larson and Abbott put aside their intra-party feud

April 10, 2019

We always hear that political feuds are not personal. They’re just theatrics; part of the game.

In May 2016, for example, Ted Cruz called Donald Trump a “pathological liar,” “utterly amoral,” “a serial philanderer” and “a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen.”

Five months later, Cruz was phone-banking for Trump — cold-calling strangers and trying to convince them that the future of this country depended on them casting a vote for that very same “pathological liar” he had warned us about.

Either Cruz was putting on a show in May or putting on a show in October. Maybe both.

Nonetheless, the recent clash between Gov. Greg Abbott and San Antonio state Rep. Lyle Larson felt serious — a political feud so rancorous it had spilled over into personal resentment. And that’s why it was striking to see these two Texas Republicans smiling — no, more like beaming — and shaking hands with each other on the floor of the Texas House last Wednesday.

In a Facebook post accompanying the image of last week’s encounter, Larson wrote this: “The figurative expression ‘burying the hatchet’ originated from American Indian tradition. Hatchets were buried by the chiefs of tribes when they came to a peace agreement.

“Had a great conversation with Governor Abbott on the House floor today.”

This public display of camaraderie from Larson and Abbott came on the most eventful day of this year’s legislative session, with the House passing, in a near-unanimous vote, a major revamp of the state’s school funding system.

Larson’s post put the punctuation mark on a truce that has quietly developed between the two former adversaries.

That truce would have seemed unlikely a year ago, when Abbott was doing everything in his power to bounce Larson from the Legislature.

The conflict had been brewing since the beginning of the 2017 legislative session, when Larson filed House Bill 3305. That legislation took direct aim at the way Abbott handles the appointment process.

Larson had grown increasingly uncomfortable with Abbott’s tendency to reward his big-money campaign donors with appointments to major commissions and boards.

“Current gubernatorial appointees have donated more than $8.6 million combined to the governor’s campaigns since January 2000, and one in four appointees are campaign contributors,” Larson wrote in a July 2017 op-ed. “More than 70 of Gov. Abbott’s appointees have donated $2,500 or more to his campaign since 2013.”

Attempting to end what he called “the most egregious ethics problem facing our state government,” Larson proposed that anyone contributing more than $2,500 to the governor’s campaign should be prohibited from receiving a gubernatorial appointment for the rest of that calendar year.

It seemed like a reasonable, fairly modest way of curtailing pay-to-play shenanigans.

Abbott objected, however, and he made it real personal, real fast. The governor vetoed five bills passed that session by Larson and shot down a budget provision funding a brackish desalination study prized by the San Antonio lawmaker, a water expert who currently chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources.

Larson called the governor out for this pettiness in the aforementioned op-ed. A few months later, Abbott endorsed Larson’s little-known Republican primary opponent, Chris Fails, then-mayor of Hollywood Park.

Abbott sunk nearly $136,000 of his own campaign funds into Fails’ coffers.

He put out a campaign video for Fails, derisively branding Larson — a hard-core fiscal conservative who has called for the elimination of the federal income tax — “Liberal Lyle.”

Abbott appeared with Fails at a San Antonio rally. He stated, in a KTSA interview, that Larson “has been a repeat failure in carrying forward the agenda of the Republican Party.” He needlessly divided San Antonio Republicans.

Ultimately, Abbott’s retribution effort fell flat. Fails lived up to his last name, dropping the March 2018 primary to Larson by nearly 19 percentage points.

Abbott experienced a similar failure that night in his bid to unseat another Republican critic, Houston-area Rep. Sarah Davis, who easily disposed of her Abbott-endorsed primary challenger, Susanna Dokupil. Davis has shared Larson’s concerns about the ethics behind Abbott’s appointments.

Whether or not he learned anything from last year’s counterproductive, divisive tactics, Abbott is demonstrating a new-found willingness to put aside old grudges.

At the very least, it seems unlikely that Abbott would choose to waste more of his political capital next year to undermine Larson in another primary race. That’s a battle he’ll never win.

@gilgamesh470

Gilbert Garcia is a columnist covering the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | ggarcia@express-news.net | Twitter: @gilgamesh470