Would you be surprised to find out the Chief of Staff for one of the most conservative governors in the nation gave money to a group dedicated to helping elect Democrats? We were.
At Transparency Texas, we routinely examine the political giving (and taking) of elected officials. And for good reason – these men and women are given enormous power. They run the 10th largest economy in the world and have vast influence over the day-to-day lives of Texans.
When it comes to private citizens, we typically examine only the giving of the top donors in the state. It’s a truism though, that we become like the people we hang around. Politicians are no exception. When Governor Greg Abbott recently replaced many members of his senior staff, we decided to take a look. What we found was shocking.
First, we found numerous and generous gifts to Gov. Abbott’s political nemesis, House Speaker Joe Straus. Yes, the same Joe Straus who called Gov. Abbott’s conservative agenda for the 2017 special session “horse manure.” The same Joe Straus who is rumored to be contemplating a switch to the Democrat party in order to challenge Gov. Abbott for the governorship. Yes, that Joe Straus. In addition, we found a donation to a Democrat, and even to ActBlue Texas – an organization dedicated to turning Texas from a red state to a blue state.
Take a look at the political giving of Gov. Abbott’s new inner circle:
Chief of Staff: Luis Saenz
Mr. Saenz is the former appointments director for Gov. Abbott and the founder of McGuireWoods Consulting’s Texas office. He has been a longtime member of the Austin crowd, having previously worked for Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Senators Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Key donations since January 2015: $1,370.20 to Texans for Greg Abbott, $1,000 to Texans for Joe Straus, $500 to ActBlue Texas, and $500 to State Representative Rolando Gutierrez.
Senior Advisor on Fiscal Affairs: Tommy Williams
Former State Senator Tommy Williams currently serves as the vice chancellor for federal and state relations for the Texas A&M University System. During his time in the Texas Senate, Mr. Williams often fell on the more liberal end of the Senate’s Republican caucus according to most third party index ratings. Interestingly, Mr. Williams still retains over $465,000 in his campaign account. While politicians are not forced to give up the money in their campaign accounts once out of office, having such a large amount sitting in the bank might raise eyebrows.
Key donations since January 2015: $10,000 to Texans for Joe Straus, $5,000 to Texans for Greg Abbott, $2,500 to Texans for Dan Patrick, and several $1,000 donations to State Senators and Representatives.
Senior Policy Advisor: John Colyandro
Mr. Colyandro is the Executive Director of Texas Conservative Coalition and Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, a state-based think tank focused on implementing conservative public policies. Mr. Colyandro formerly led Texans for a Republican Majority PAC (TRMPAC), created by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. He was indicted for accepting illegal corporate funds during his time with TRMPAC, and later pled guilty to lesser charges for which he received deferred adjudication and a fine. Mr. Colyandro previously served Gov. Abbott as a policy advisor.
Key donations since January 2015: None.
Appointments Director: Peggy Venable
Ms. Venable currently serves as a senior visiting fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based conservative think-tank. A longtime player in Texas politics, she formerly served as the Executive Director for Americans for Prosperity – Texas, and was the founder of the Red Apple Project, an initiative focused on transparency and accountability in public education.
Rounding out Gov. Abbott’s new team are Steven Albright, Reed Clay, Walter Fisher, Sarah Hicks, and Matt Hirsch. Messrs. Albright, Clay, and Hirsch all currently serve in Gov. Abbott’s office and are taking on new or expanded roles. Mr. Fisher is a former Senate Parliamentarian, while Ms. Hicks previously worked with Mr. Williams on the Senate Finance Committee and at the Texas A&M University System. None of them have given to candidates or PACs since the beginning of 2015.
In politics, more often than not, it is the unelected who hold the most power. While the elected officials – from Governor down to State Representative — can come and go, the lobbyists, bureaucrats, and staff members who make up the vast majority of the Capitol Crowd, rarely do. Although they might switch legislative offices or move out of the Capitol to become lobbyists, these individuals are usually part of the Austin bubble for life. They are the hands and feet of the politicians in power, and have far more influence than most Texans realize.
Governor Greg Abbott’s changes to his staff were effective October 1, 2017. Will they help him continue down his current conservative political path, or will they encourage him to chart a new course? Will they encourage him to work more closely with the Texas House or the Senate? Will they influence which candidates he supports in the next Republican primary?
Someone once said, “Where a man’s treasure is, there his heart is also.” Gov. Abbott’s new staff’s giving might tell us a great deal about where their heart is also.
*We asked Governor Abbott’s office for a comment concerning these donations, but as of the date of publication, we have received no reply.
Our Capitol Crowd series outlines and highlights the politicians, advocacy groups, and donors that have the biggest impact in the Austin bubble.