HOUSTON (AP) — Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and the three fellow Republicans vying to take his post kept things largely civil during a debate Tuesday night — often struggling to find key areas of disagreement.
Dewhurst, who oversees the state Senate, bragged about helping secure nearly 50 tax cuts since taking office in 2003. He is seeking re-election after losing a 2012 U.S. Senate race to Ted Cruz.
State Sen. Dan Patrick, a tea party favorite from Houston, vowed to ram red-meat conservative proposals through the Legislature if elected, including allowing carrying guns on college campuses and expanding school choice to let parents use state funding to pull their children out of struggling, traditional public schools in favor of charters or religious and private alternatives.
Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said he wouldn't allow "environmental Nazis" to use federal and state wildlife protections to limit oil and natural gas exploration, but also stressed that he was not a single-issue candidate. Todd Staples, the state's agricultural commissioner, said he has successfully stood up for ranchers on the Texas-Mexico border whose property was in danger of being overrun by drug cartels.
"If you're looking to vote for the nicest guy up here, it's going to be a four-way split," Patrick told a crowd of about 200.
But Patrick, who Dewhurst appointed head of the powerful Senate Education Committee for this past legislative session, later took a swipe at the lieutenant governor, saying he'd used his position to choose too many Democratic committee heads.
"I'm not going to let the Democrats run the Texas Senate," Patrick said. Because of a dispersed question-answer format, Dewhurst wasn't given a chance to respond directly.
Sparks flew at a previous debate when Patrick made a similar argument. Dewhurst shot back then that Democrats didn't lead any important committees — drawing the ire of San Antonio Democratic Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who chairs a veterans affairs committee.
No major Democratic candidate has yet declared to run for lieutenant governor, but Van De Putte has been mentioned as a possible contender. If no one in the crowded Republican field wins at least 50 percent of the votes cast in the March primary, meanwhile, the top-two finishers will advance to a runoff.
Tuesday's debate was sponsored by the United Republicans of Harris County and the Texas Federation of Republican Women. Asked what was the worst mistake he'd made in office, Dewhurst said he now jokes when addressing police groups that it's "much better to talk to police officers in person than on the phone."
That drew loud laughter and was a reference to Dewhurst recently calling police in a Dallas suburb and trying to insert his influence after his niece was arrested for shoplifting. He added Tuesday: "What would you do if it's Saturday night and two relatives call you crying?"
Another laugh line came when Patterson was asked if he would support a proposal to better track so-called "dark money" political contributions statewide. He replied simply: "Yes."
A bill approved by the Legislature but vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry would have required some politically active nonprofits to disclose their major donors.
Fielding the same question, Patrick noted that releasing the names of key donors to anti-abortion groups and other organizations working on politically sensitive matters could lead to boycotts of certain businesses. He said it was especially important for interests who stand up for "pro-life, pro-family, pro-Christian values."
Staples also talked openly about religion, reminding the crowd that our rights "come from God not man" and are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
"The bigger government gets the more it infringes on those rights," Staples said, promising to stamp out "waste and inefficiencies" in every state agency, even if he has to summon their heads to his office every week.