Meet the people who know Texas politics

The newspaper columnists of the Lone Star state

AUSTIN, TX—When you think about newspaper columnists and the central role they’ve played in covering American politics, you wind up reaching into the past for a sort of golden era of analysis and influence: Joseph Alsop, Bill Safire, Jimmy Breslin, George Will. They could shape a debate by slicing into it—and maybe a politician or two—with a straight razor. In Texas, you might want to reach back to before January 31, 2007, when the late, great Molly Ivins passed away.

Over time the power of the columnist has faded. In an era of 24/7 news, blogs, and social media, they’ve been somewhat muffled, just another opinion afloat on a sea of them. That’s conventional wisdom, anyway.

And yet maybe they are worth a second look. The columnist can be a great resource for following politics and policy for one simple reason: Experience. Newspapers tend to entrust political columns to seasoned journalists. They have usually been around long enough to recognize a politician’s true ambition or subtly rambling fabrication. Good ones can tell compelling stories woven with analysis and, depending upon their style, even their own political bias.

Texas, it turns out, has a fairly large array of columnists who handle the serious business of politics and policy, as well as a range of quality. One very good one is Peggy Fikac of The Houston Chronicle, whose work also appears in sister Hearst paper, The San Antonio Express-News. Also the Austin bureau chief of the Chronicle, Fikac is prolific, handles a slew of subjects—as of late, everything from Gov. Rick Perry’s ambitions to the nuances of Medicaid expansion and family planning policy—with a rare mixture of voice, wit, and a lot of reporting.

Fikac has an eye for irony but conveys, too, the reality behind the rhetoric. Even as Perry has grandstanded on refusing to expand Medicaid in Texas, Fikac has noticed what others have missed: Politicians in the legislature are laying the groundwork for a compromise that could allow Perry to have his cake and eat it, too, while ultimately allowing the expansion of Medicaid in Texas, even as it is called something other than “Medicaid expansion.” “The term itself is an explosive that makes compromise difficult,” Fikac wrote recently, “because so many Republicans have spent so much time badmouthing the federal health care law, and so many GOP primary voters may not understand if they try to make it work.” (Fikac’s colleague in Houston, Lisa Falkenberg, a metro columnist, has a wider portfolio and tackles it with the experience she gained in Austin, and also with a lot of wit, often throwing a different light on a picture that is otherwise all the same.)

Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka not only writes longform pieces for the magazine but a blog, too. Burka is one of two unofficial deans of the Texas political press, and on occasion can seem to buy into the conservative conventional wisdom. A cover story he wrote about so-called education reform seemed rather unquestioning on the agenda behind it, and its impact on academic independence, particularly at the University of Texas at Austin. But his Burkablog adroitly reads the tea leaves on gambling (not going to happen), nails Perry’s recent speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (“rambling”), and says that Perry’s intransigence over Medicaid expansion is proof positive of “how Perry’s ideological blinders have damaged this state for thirteen years.” Not exactly pulling any punches there.

The columnists at The Dallas Morning News are pretty sophisticated, befitting a large metropolitan paper, though they don’t exactly startle or surprise. Carl Leubsdorf, formerly the Washington bureau chief, writes in the establishment voice of a longtime Beltway observer—which, of course, he is. Leubsdorf was the Morning News’ DC bureau chief from 1981 to 2008. At this point, a Washington columnist has the temptation to run with the story of the day. But Leubsdorf has a sharp eye for subject selection and wields a pretty critical keyboard. Of Jeb Bush on immigration he wrote: “What Pete Wilson did for California, Jeb Bush would apparently like to do to the rest of the country.” Remembering a political figure that has faded for so many in memory—that gift of experience—led Leubsdorf to recall that Wilson, a Republican, so alienated Hispanics that he inadvertently helped turn California solidly Democratic.

The smaller papers in San Angelo, New Braunfels, Abilene, and elsewhere rely on Dave McNeely, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman and the other unofficial Texas dean (as well as a friend and contemporary of Molly Ivins).

McNeely took out after Sen. Ted Cruz and Rick Perry recently, and he has a fine eye for politics, noting the impact of a recent, obscure special election for the Texas Senate that would not only provide a safe seat for the occupant but keep enough Democrats in the Senate to block legislation. And he has been among the few to note how Cruz’s Hispanic surname didn’t carry much water with Hispanic voters themselves last fall. His analysis of the Medicaid controversy was straightforward: Other Republican governors are taking the federal money and Texans would otherwise be paying taxes that simply go to other states. But it was brass-knuckle critical of Perry, saying maybe it was time for him to go. There’s not a lot of nuance with McNeely, who is also a contributor to the Nieman Watchdog project. But he gets to the point and he backs up his argument with facts.

Experience is great. But it can be a double-edged sword. The Austin American-Statesman, the capital city’s newspaper, has a very experienced journalist, Ken Herman, writing a column on politics and policy. But it is about as nuanced, witty, and analytical as a cinderblock. (It should be noted that Herman helped the Lufkin Daily News win a Pulitzer Prize in the 1970s and went on to cover George W. Bush as both governor and president. He later moved to the editorial page and then to the metro section.) A recent example? Herman wrote that Texas Republicans have put more Hispanics and African-Americans into statewide office over the last 19 years than Democrats did in the previous 100 which would, he argued, throw cold water on the idea of Texas becoming Democratic.

But: of course they have. Republicans have controlled Texas politics for the last 20 years. So unless they’re just out and out racists or really bad at politics and math, of course they’ll have a better track record over those two decades. Plus, the previous 100 years? Hispanics and African-Americans had to fight for the right to vote, let alone get elected to office for most of that century. Herman has previously—and oddly—written that perhaps threatening to withhold the right of Hispanics to vote would turn up participation. He wrote the column, particularly singling out Hispanics for not turning out for a local school board election—for which, as he noted—nobody turned out. On guns in schools, Herman has favored firearms training for students, saying flatly that it’s somehow part of teaching history and the Constitution. And Herman penned a light-hearted column questioning whether Texas needed more concealed handguns—published rather unfortunately the day before of the Newtown massacre. He apologized and called for a reasonable dialogue on guns. Later Herman wrote on the need to balance liberty and safety when it comes to guns, talking about “acceptable levels of death” and noting that the Texas Land Commissioner, Jerry Patterson, the state’s leading gun advocate, has said, “Liberty can have bad outcomes.”

Not everyone can be Molly Ivins or Bill Safire. But then, not everyone can be a Peggy Fikacs or Dave McNeely either, and they are doing valuable work in our time. When it comes to politics and policy, newspapers tend to have an experienced and intelligent analyst in their midst. And if they don’t they better get one or groom one. Newspapers are still the primary generators of original news. But people need context and perspective, not just news. And not just opinions.

Here are some free samples from the newspaper columnists of Texas:

Peggy Fikac:

Call it Gov. Gandalf vs. Gov. Goodhair—but above all, call it Rick Perry’s signature style of in-your-face politics. Gov. Perry got a publicity windfall with a relatively tiny $24,000 investment in radio ads around California, slamming the Golden State’s business climate in the wake of a recent tax increase and urging companies to come to the Lone Star State.

Paul Burka:

Rick Perry has now maneuvered himself into a position where CEOs from every major employer in the state, and their lobbyists, will be on his doorstep. The state’s hospitals, nursing homes, and health care providers are next in line. This is just another case of how Perry’s ideological blinders have damaged this state for the past thirteen years.

Dave McNeely:

Well, that didn’t take long. Or, as NBC broadcaster Andrea Mitchell put it recently, “Ted Cruz has made his mark already.” If The Cruz were a missile, there might be a plaintive call to mission control: “Houston, we have a problem.” In just six weeks, Texas’ new U.S. senator has irked just about everyone he’s encountered in Washington. Those spared simply have yet to be in the Cruz Missile’s path.

Ken Herman:

There’s nothing Texas Republicans enjoy doing more than reminding Texas Democrats that the state GOP has put more blacks and Hispanics into statewide office than the Democrats have. This chaps Democrats just like the fact that it was a Republican president (the first one) who abolished slavery and it was many Democrats (southern ones) who fought civil rights legislation.

Corrections: This initial version of this story misspelled Peggy Fikac’s name in several places. The story also misstated the day that a Ken Herman column on gun issues appeared. CJR regrets the errors.

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Richard Parker is an award-winning journalist and the author of Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America, from Pegasus Books. Follow him on Twitter @Richard85Parker. Tags: , , ,