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The Next Governor of Texas?

On the campaign trail with Greg Abbott

Apr 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 29 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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Abbott worked for a few years as a trial lawyer in Houston, but he says he became fed up with judges who came to court unprepared. “I grew increasingly frustrated as I spent a lot of my clients’ money getting very well prepared for cases, only to find that these judges were making decisions and they hadn’t even read the briefs,” he says. So he ran for a district judgeship in Harris County and won. Abbott’s reputation grew such that in 1995, Governor Bush appointed him to the Texas supreme court. The next year, Abbott won election to the seat outright and was reelected in 1998.

After returning briefly to private practice, Abbott ran successfully for attorney general in 2002, 2006, and 2010. Abbott may have started his political career as a judge, but it was in the AG’s office that he came into his own. He became known within the Texas legal community as a whip-smart conservative with an eye for talented young lawyers. One of those lawyers was Don Willett, who was Abbott’s deputy attorney general and now sits on the state supreme court. Another was an Ivy League-educated former U.S. Supreme Court law clerk named Ted Cruz, who served as Abbott’s solicitor general from 2003 to 2008.

“He brings a humility to the job each and every day,” says Cruz of his former boss. “But he’s also a man of considerable courage.” He notes Abbott’s decision—not an unpopular one in Texas—to challenge the Bush administration’s order that states revisit convictions of foreign nationals who had not been made aware of certain rights under international law. The related case, Medellín v. Texas, went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which found international law alone is not binding U.S. law.

“Greg Abbott made the decision that Texas would stand up and go to the U.S. Supreme Court and argue that President Bush’s order was unconstitutional,” Cruz says, despite the fact that Bush was “a Republican, a Texan, and a friend.”

As attorney general, Abbott had a “tremendous opportunity to play offense and advance some personal priorities,” says Don Willett. One opportunity came in the form of a lawsuit against the state over the constitutionality of a monument depicting the Ten Commandments erected on the grounds of the state capitol in Austin. The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the monument’s placement was constitutional, but the plaintiff appealed to the Supreme Court. When the Court took it up in 2005, Abbott himself argued the case—and won. The Ten Commandments case makes a regular appearance in his stump speech.

So does Abbott’s recent role as unofficial leader of the state attorneys general battle against Obamacare. In December 2009, he joined other AGs in co-signing a letter to congressional leaders raising constitutional questions about the bill before it had even been passed and signed into law. A week later, on January 5, 2010, Abbott also wrote to Texas senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn detailing the constitutional problems with the Senate bill that would eventually become Obamacare. That letter was an early public argument against the constitutionality of the individual mandate with respect to the Commerce Clause—the same argument that was affirmed when the Supreme Court ruled the mandate would have to be enforced as a tax.

Abbott’s conservative legal victories as attorney general—he boasts that he’s sued the Obama administration more than 25 times—make good talking points on the campaign trail in Texas, but they don’t quite constitute a governing agenda. His message about the future of Texas is practically indistinguishable from that of incumbent governor Rick Perry’s: low taxes, less regulation, more freedom. It’s what Perry and Abbott both call the Texas model, and there’s no question it’s working. While other states have struggled through the recession, the Lone Star State is booming. It has one of the country’s lowest unemployment rates (5.7 percent), aided in part by technological developments in resource extraction that’s shifted Texas’s energy industry into overdrive. The low-tax regime means lots of companies are relocating or expanding in Texas, including tech firms like Facebook and Dropbox. When Abbott talks about those Californians streaming across the border to Texas, he’s including plenty from Silicon Valley.

One statistic Abbott cites is that up to 1,400 people are moving to Texas every day. “That’s adding several Wacos a year, several Tylers a year, several Lubbocks a year,” says Abbott. “That’s almost incomprehensible.” And that amount of growth has side effects. Stretches of Interstate 35, which runs north to south through big urban areas like Laredo, San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas-Fort Worth, are increasingly backed up with traffic. Even in smaller cities like Edinburg, people feel the strain of outdated infrastructure. In a state where almost everything’s going right, that’s given Abbott something to actually campaign on.

“Are your roads getting crowded here in the Rio Grande Valley?” he asks the group at El Pato, who nod their heads. “Are you waiting in line longer than ever before? Well, I have an answer to that growing problem.” The answer, he says, is four to five billion dollars more toward road construction. The money will come chiefly from the state’s rainy-day fund and oil and gas royalties.

He asks them to imagine what is likely a future Abbott campaign commercial. There’s footage of a congested highway, with Texans stuck in unending traffic. “The camera pans in closer to show the bumper-to-bumper traffic, and you are moving no faster than you are right now,” he says.

Then he turns himself in his wheelchair to the side and mimes moving his wheels. “And then it shows, on the shoulder of the roadway, a guy rolling up in a wheelchair, passing all these cars, showing a guy in a wheelchair can move faster than traffic in Texas. Elect me governor and I will get Texas moving again.”

There’s more laughter, and plenty of applause. Abbott turns forward again and smiles.

Michael Warren is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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