Gov. Abbott’s base comes with gloves and masks off

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Texas’ progressive populist Jim Hightower once said, “the only thing in the middle of the road are yellow lines and dead armadillos.” It’s a fate Governor Abbott would like to avoid as he tries to balance reopening the state between the advice of public health officials and the demands of grassroots conservatives. 

Texas was one of the last states to enact a statewide order to stay-at-home. Abbott initially left local officials to make the tough decisions like shutting down non-essential businesses and canceling South by Southwest and the Houston Rodeo. Then on March 31 with support from the Texas Hospital Association and the Texas Nurses Association, Abbott issued an executive order with criminal penalties for violations. As tensions between local officials and the state inevitably grew more partisan, Abbott’s will to enforce his own order became politically untenable. State and local Republican officials were openly defying him by going to salons, writing chest-thumping letters demanding he open the state faster, and outright refusing to prosecute businesses who defy his order. 

Texas Scorecard, a publication by the conservative think tank Empower Texans, compiled a list of calls from conservative lawmakers who demanded Abbott accelerate the reopening of the state. They ranged from rage tweets in ALL CAPS to more considerate letters, but all pushed Abbott to charge ahead of his planned phases that were informed by the Texas Department of State Health Services and the Center for Disease Control.

Abbott didn’t put up a fight, instead, he changed his order to remove penalties, and joined the pushback against local orders insisting that wearing face masks in public was optional. On Monday, Abbott held a news conference to announce the expansion of restaurant capacity from 25 percent to 50 percent and layout the timeline for the initial opening of bars, bowling alleys, youth camps, and other non-essential businesses. The full list of guidelines can be viewed at www.gov.texas.gov/opentexas.

Abbott’s actions to loosen restrictions were simply not enough for those who have made a career of casting government as a liberty-loathing boogeyman. Conservative ire, synthesized by Texas Scorecard, is now focusing on the power of the governor insisting that, “Texas has been ruled by the edicts from Gov. Greg Abbott’s office” which, “has essentially become an absolute executive.“ Right-wing standard-bearer and proprietor of Empower Texans, Michael Quinn Sullivan, penned a diatribe against what he viewed as excessive use of executive authority by the governor stating in part:

“Consider this: A month ago, rather than appointing a phony ‘strike force‘ made up of donors and lobbyists, Gov. Greg Abbott could have called a special legislative session of the constitutional force elected by the citizenry. You know, the legislature – the House and Senate. The legislature could have then passed real laws related to pandemic powers, and set real plans in motion for opening Texas. But he didn’t.”

Ironically, I likewise wrote a criticism on the lack of a special legislative session, albeit with a different goal of providing relief for struggling individuals, businesses and local governments. 

Democratic legislators have not stood silently by but have called for bipartisan efforts to reopen the economy safely while enlisting the support of local and public health officials. 

In an op-ed that ran in the Austin American-Statesman on April 24, Rep. Celia Israel reminded readers that, “the crisis we face today knows no party and does not target red voters or blue voters.” She also expressed her own disappointment in the governor’s strike force for excluding the voices of local health department experts, mayors or county judges, especially since, “the last several legislative sessions were built around using our local leaders as a political foil.” 

She ended with an olive branch and a bit of advice for the governor. “We have amazing talent in every area of this now-urban state and they would welcome the opportunity to help,” Israel said. “We all love this state and want to do our part as we begin to heal.”

It’s important that as Abbott drifts back into the right lane, he makes a conservative case for following official safety guidelines. Because while the road to healing runs against the political headwinds, flouting social distancing and mask recommendations must not be seen as acts of patriotism.

Photo: U.S. Department of Homeland Security/ Wikimedia Commons

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