by Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune.
Like his predecessor Allen West, new Texas GOP Chairman Matt Rinaldi has gained the label of a brash conservative firebrand. After all, he is best known for the time he called federal immigration authorities on protesters inside the Capitol, leading to a raucous scene and alleged threats of violence from all sides.
After losing his reelection to the House in 2018, he continued to draw attention for his criticism of Gov. Greg Abbott’s coronavirus response, which also earned West’s ire.
So when Rinaldi won the race to replace West last month, many inside and outside the party suspected he would follow closely in the footsteps of his predecessor, whose tumultuous tenure was riven with infighting and ended when he confirmed everyone’s suspicions and launched a primary challenge to Abbott.
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But a month and half into the job, Rinaldi is getting kudos from Republicans that include those who were the most ardent critics of West.
“I have been able to rest a little bit more easily as of late,” said Morgan Cisneros Graham, vice president of the board of the Texas Republican Initiative, which formed in March as intraparty frustrations with West were reaching a boiling point.
Rinaldi is not a clean break from the West era, according to state party insiders. But he is showing more genuine interest in honing the core functions of the party, like fundraising, and working with its governing body, the State Republican Executive Committee, all while avoiding the kind of internecine strife that characterized West’s time.
“He’s gonna advocate for the grassroots, but he’s gonna do it in a more careful and strategic way that doesn’t unnecessarily burn bridges,” said Rolando Garcia, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee from Houston who had supported Rinaldi’s main opponent for chair, David Covey.
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Plus, unlike West, no one thinks Rinaldi is positioning for higher office, something he confirmed when he pledged to run for a full term as chair next year.
It was not exactly expected to go like this. Rinaldi was most closely aligned with West in the election to succeed him, including as a fellow critic of Abbott’s pandemic response. Last fall, Rinaldi said he was “very proud of” West “for protecting the GOP brand from a Governor adopting the policy views of [California Gov. Gavin Newsom] on shutdowns and mask mandates.”
Also, Rinaldi’s reputation in the House preceded him. He was part of the trouble-making Freedom Caucus in 2017 when it orchestrated a “Mother’s Day Massacre” of bills to rebel against House leadership, earning bipartisan scorn.
In an interview, Rinaldi said he is still “the same person I was when I was in the Legislature.” But, he argued, lawmakers at the Capitol have to work well with those they disagree with, and he has approached his new job similarly.
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“I want to have a relationship with any Republican in the state of Texas,” Rinaldi said. “There’s no Texas Republican in any race that I don’t want to have a relationship with. I might not agree with them all the time, but I definitely want to have a relationship with them because that’s my job and I’m here to do my job.”
What about Gov. Greg Abbott, who has effectively ignored the state party ever since West took over? Rinaldi said it is “probably on me” to reach out to the governor and he plans to do so soon — a posture strikingly different from that of West.
Of course, not everyone is pleased with Rinaldi, especially outside the party. Democrats still fume about his call to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2017, in which he reported people protesting a bill that banned sanctuary cities in the state and that opponents worried could lead to racial profiling.
Lately, Democrats have been eager to make Republicans answer for Rinaldi and his trail of statements going against public health guidance related to the coronavirus pandemic. Among the exhibits is a late 2020 tweet saying “masks are dumb” and a more recent tweet, after he was elected chair, claiming that “masking children increases the spread of Covid in schools.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, citing numerous studies that indicate that mask wearing reduces COVID-19 transmission, recommends universal “indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.”
“Rinaldi continues to amplify dangerous rhetoric and to spread misinformation when it comes to the Covid-19 pandemic,” state Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement for this story. “The consequences of his words are putting children, teachers, nurses, and communities at risk. He, along with his Republican colleagues, have declared a war on public health.”
Rinaldi, Hinojosa added, “is no better than” West.
Rinaldi won the chairmanship in a July 11 election conducted by the State Republican Executive Committee, the 64-member governing body of the party. He won on the first ballot, getting 34 votes — one more than needed to secure an outright victory. He faced three opponents, and the runner-up, with 21 votes, was
David Covey, president of Texas Republican County Chairmen’s Association.
Rinaldi did not overtly embrace West in his campaign. But he talked about continuing West’s crusade for the party’s legislative priorities, and some of Covey’s supporters made clear they were coalescing behind him because they wanted to turn the page on West’s tenure.
One of the first things Rinaldi did as chair was drop his endorsement of Don Huffines, one of Abbott’s primary challengers. The morning after Rinaldi’s election, Huffines publicly invited the new chair to withdraw his endorsement, saying he wanted “to remove any excuses for Texans not fully uniting behind Matt.” Rinaldi promptly obliged.
Also in his first days as chair, Rinaldi visited with his former competitors in the chair race, including Covey and Chad Wilbanks, who had been an outspoken West critic. Wilbanks, a former executive director of the party, said Rinaldi came by his office and expressed a desire to work with Wilbanks and learn from him.
“I actually think Matt is doing all the right things in his first month of being chairman,” Wilbanks said, pointing to Rinaldi’s focus on fundraising, interest in growing the party “without alienating” fellow Republicans and how he has been “very involved” in convention preparations.
Rinaldi also met with Cat Parks, the party vice chair who had increasingly clashed with West. In his final days as chair, West attacked Parks as a “cancer” — she is a cancer survivor — and “delusional and apparently deranged” amid an email dispute about a party committee project.
During their meeting, according to both sides, Rinaldi said he wanted to let Parks focus on what she cares about the most, she provided her interests and they agreed on letting her spearhead those efforts. They include candidate recruitment, voter registration and election-day operations, like finding election judges. In the interview, Rinaldi praised Parks as a hard worker who is passionate about the party and said they “haven’t really had a disagreement yet.”
“I think we’re in a much better position than we were three, six, nine, months ago in terms of the skill that Matt brings to the table administratively and the legal insight he provides,” Parks said.
Rinaldi began the job as the first special legislative session was getting underway — and less than 24 hours before House Democrats fled the state in protest of the GOP elections bill. That provided an early opportunity to align with fellow Republicans on a common cause, and he said he “tried to coordinate messaging as much as possible.”
At the same time, Rinaldi did not fall entirely in line. He pressed for House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, to revoke the committee chairmanships of quorum-busting Democrats, something Phelan said at the time he did not have the power to do.
Rinaldi received a somewhat unlikely ally in his push to punish the Democrats: Abbott, who also voiced support for stripping them of their committee leadership posts.
But Rinaldi has otherwise kept pressure on Abbott in pursuit of one of the party’s eight legislative priorities, “children and gender modification.” At the start of the second special session, the party said the issue was “notably absent” from Abbott’s agenda and Rinaldi asked him to place it on the agenda. Abbott has not heeded the call yet, but around the same time, he successfully sought to get the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to declare some gender-affirming surgeries that are rarely used on chidren as child abuse and treat it as such.
The continued focus on legislative priorities is especially important for West allies, one of whom, Jill Glover, chairs the party’s Legislative Priorities Committee. She said in an email that West “reminded us of our principles as he demonstrated that we must be bold and vocal if we want to keep our” constitutional freedoms.
“Our new Chairman, Matt Rinaldi, while perhaps differing in style, believes in those same principles and is building upon the foundation laid by Lt. Col. West,” Glover said.
It is unclear how strong of a relationship Rinaldi can build with the Legislature, where West had very few allies. While Rinaldi served there from 2015-2019 and has cited that time as an asset to be chair, he was one of the more hardline Republican members, a founding member of the Freedom Caucus. Rinaldi speaks of his House tenure in a different light, saying he “had a productive style of working with people even when I disagreed with them.”
The House Republican Caucus did not respond to a request for comment on its hopes for Rinaldi’s chairmanship.
Whether Rinaldi can rebuild the state party’s relationship with Abbott is also an open question. Abbott was conspicuously absent from the parade of statewide officials who publicly congratulated Rinaldi on his election as chair, and his office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Unlike West, though, Rinaldi is striking a cordial tone toward the governor. After Abbott signed an executive order banning mask mandates earlier this month, Rinaldi sent out an email asking party supporters to sign a card thanking Abbott. In the interview, Rinaldi confirmed he has not heard from Abbott yet but suggested there was no ill will.
“To be honest, it’s probably on me to outreach to him and I do intend to do so,” Rinaldi said.
For Rinaldi, though, the ultimate measure of his success may be fundraising, which he campaigned on as his No. 1 priority. He is assembling a new fundraising committee and has a specific mission: raising more large and corporate donations so that the party “can spend the small-dollar donations that we’re currently using to fund the operations and use that where it’s supposed to be used” — campaigns, Rinaldi said.
Rinaldi brushed off concerns that West left the party in rough financial shape, saying the organization is “doing fine financially.” It has several months in reserve, he said, and it is taking in enough money to cover fixed expenses.
“You have a self-subsisting organization where you just wish the financial structure was a little bit better, and I think that’s a good place to start,” Rinaldi said.
Fundraising for the statewide convention is also a Rinaldi priority. He said it is “important that we get that up and running early,” and that the party is aiming to hold the gathering in June in Houston, pending a final contract. SREC members confirm Rinaldi is taking a keen interest in the convention behind the scenes.
Having a smooth convention may be of more importance than usual after the botched convention last year, which was beset with technical problems after it went virtual at the last minute due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Of course, it’s “extremely early,” said Covey, Rinaldi’s former opponent, who noted the three big things Rinaldi will have to deliver on is fundraising, legislative priorities and the convention. Still, Covey had a positive review of Rinaldi’s opening weeks, saying he has put together a “first-class team who has high potential to succeed.”
For the party’s top staff role — executive director — Rinaldi chose John Beckmeyer, a longtime party activist and former SREC member with over two decades of experience in corporate management. His wife is Teresa Beckmeyer, a former executive director of the Freedom Caucus in the House.
“[Rinaldi’s] communication and coordination with the SREC is 10 times better than his predecessor,” Covey said. “I am cautiously optimistic.”
These days, Cisneros Graham and her group are spending less time at war with the party chair. Rinaldi even retweeted the group earlier this month when it celebrated a state Supreme Court ruling that temporarily blocked two school districts from instituting mask mandates in defiance of Abbott.
TRI chairman Mark McCaig said he was pleased with Rinaldi so far.
“As long as Chairman Rinaldi keeps his focus on building our party and beating Democrats at the ballot box,” McCaig said, “he will have my support.”