by Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune.
Nothing like sports to break political tension, or to move it from fights over civics to fights over territorial and school loyalties.
Set aside your donkeys and your elephants for a moment. This is about Longhorns and Sooners, Aggies and Horned Frogs, Red Raiders and Bears. And it’s a raging debate all of a sudden, following news that the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma want to leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference, and that Texas A&M University, a member of the SEC, wants to keep them out.
It’s a perfect example of a fundamental rule of politics: The fighting is fiercest when the stakes are easy to understand.
And the fights that were going on when this one surfaced were more complicated.
The Texas Legislature is in special session, working on a set of Gov. Greg Abbott’s priorities that are now stuck — a back-ordered wish list waiting on a Legislature that doesn’t have enough members to meet. The issue at the center of this impasse is a complex set of restrictions on current voting laws, portrayed by Republicans as necessities for election integrity and deplored by Democrats as a fresh set of voting obstacles for people of color, people with disabilities and others.
The 50-plus Democrats who made that gridlock possible by leaving the state remain entrenched in Washington, D.C., where they are out of reach of Texas state police who’ve been ordered to bring them back to the Capitol in Austin.
They are hoping and trying — without visible effect — to get Congress to consider Democratic voting legislation that would preempt the Republican voting legislation they’re trying to derail back home. At least six of them have come down with COVID-19, which has pulled the whole group away from the voting story they want to tell.
In the meantime, the left-behind Republicans are twiddling their thumbs. With less than a couple of weeks to run, if the 30-day special legislative session runs its full course, they can’t pass laws until the House has at least 100 of its 150 members present.
And there are other story lines. COVID-19 leads the pack, as the delta variant has driven a rise in cases and hospitalizations, and a lag in vaccinations has left huge numbers of Texans vulnerable. From Feb. 8 to July 14, the pandemic killed 8,787 Texans — 99.5% of them unvaccinated.
Then there is the border wall. Abbott has taken up the banner of building a barrier between Texas and Mexico — an idea that helped Donald Trump get elected president but that never really came to fruition. The governor is squeezing to see whether that still has some political juice in it, holding press conferences, starting a fundraising effort to pay for it and priming the pump with $250 million redirected from the state’s prison budget.
As it turns out, you can completely change the channel from those subjects with two of the most compelling words in Texas politics.
Instead of knowing which party the legislators belong to, the connoisseur of this debate needs to know what schools they attended and what schools are in their legislative districts.
Your governor went to the University of Texas at Austin and then to Vanderbilt University for his law degree. Your lieutenant governor is a graduate of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, which isn’t a combatant in the current skirmish. Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan went to UT-Austin. Greg Bonnen, who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee, went to Texas A&M and got his medical degree at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. His Senate counterpart, Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, graduated from the University of North Texas, another noncombatant.
There are other players in the House and Senate and in the state government. They each have their loyalties, even when you’re not talking about Republicans and Democrats.
What difference does that make?
When the University of Texas and Texas A&M and others were looking at conference realignments almost three decades ago, state politics — and its top politicians — weighed in decisively. Gov. Ann Richards graduated from Baylor University, as did Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, who also had a degree from Texas Tech. Then-Speaker Pete Laney was a Texas Tech graduate, as was House Appropriations Chair Rob Junell of San Angelo. And Senate Finance Chair John Montford was a UT-Austin grad, but represented Lubbock — and Texas Tech — in the Legislature. Similar affiliations and loyalties echoed throughout the House and Senate.
UT and A&M got their way, and Baylor and Tech got in as part of the deal. Other schools got left behind. It’s about money, prestige, marketing, politics — and it’s not at all hard to understand.
No wonder it’s got everyone’s attention.
Disclosure: Baylor University, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University, the University of North Texas and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.