When Bedford pastor Scott Fisher announced in September that he was challenging state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, the Tea Party firebrand responded with a simple message: Bring it on.
“They want to have a go,” Stickland said of his critics. “We’re going to give it to them.”
But so far, Stickland’s been the one on his heels. Over the past few days, Fisher has aggressively raised questions about the incumbent’s integrity, following the discovery of comments Stickland made online about drugs and rape years before he took office.
In one 2001 post on a forum for marijuana users, Stickland, then 17, wrote that he was “looking for a smoke buddy” in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, preferably someone who “loved to smoke da green.” In a post the next year on another forum for pot enthusiasts, Stickland asked for help growing his own “stash” of marijuana, admitting he was “totally clueless on what to do.”
And in 2008 — years after Stickland has suggested he gave up pot — the lawmaker was spotted again online looking for help with the drug, querying members of a fantasy football forum about how to beat a work-mandated drug test. The test, he wrote, was coming a few days after he took a “few glorious rips from a blunt.”
That same year, in another post on a fantasy sports message board, Stickland responded to a user’s request for sex advice by saying, “Rape is non existent in marriage, take what you want my friend!”
Stickland did not respond to multiple requests from The Texas Tribune to comment for this story. He has not denied he authored the online posts, some of which were first provided by Fisher’s campaign to The Quorum Report.
As the posts emerged, he expressed regret for at least some of them in statements to the media. He told The Texas Observer he “severely regrets” his past comments about rape and that they did not reflect his views today.
As Stickland’s online history has been hoisted into public view, his supporters have cried foul, arguing that the posts are from a time in Stickland’s life he has long since apologized for. Fisher, who has received an unusual endorsement from former Gov. Rick Perry, insists the posts are fair game, and that they help explain Stickland’s thinking on a number of votes he has taken since winning his seat in 2012.
“Votes that didn’t make sense make more sense when you hear what he says” online, said Craig Murphy, Fisher’s political consultant.
On Thursday, for example, Fisher called on Stickland to explain why he voted against a bill during the most recent legislative session that extended the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits over some sexual assault offenses. Fisher tied the legislation, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and took effect Sept. 1, to the news of the day: comedian Bill Cosby’s arrest on sexual assault charges stemming from a 2004 accusation.
“If Stickland had his way and Cosby’s action had taken place in Texas, the victim would have no way to bring suit against Cosby because it would have been a year beyond the statute,” Fisher said in a statement.
That line of attack was also adopted Thursday by at least two other GOP challengers to Stickland’s House allies, state Reps. Matt Rinaldi of Irving and Tony Tinderholt of Arlington.
Stickland hasn’t said in recent days why he voted against House Bill 189. However, Rinaldi said many lawmakers, including those on both sides of the vote, were concerned that it was too broad, creating a “very high risk of being wrongfully accused of sexual assault.”
As to why only five lawmakers opposed the bill, Rinaldi said he suspected other legislators did not want to be seen as voting against legislation dealing with sexual assault. “People were too scared of these crazy opportunistic political attacks that are going on right now,” he added.
Fisher’s campaign has used Stickland’s marijuana posts, which surfaced Monday, to bring up the incumbent’s votes on at least two other measures. In 2013, Stickland opposed a proposed ban on the hallucinogen salvia, a measure that passed. And earlier this year, he voted in favor of allowing minors to buy e-cigarettes and letting e-cigarettes be used on public school property. The devices, billed as a way to curb tobacco abuse, can in some cases be used to smoke pot.
The campaign has also used the marijuana posts to question Stickland’s honesty. After The Quorum Report on Monday published Stickland’s request in 2002 for advice on growing his own pot, the lawmaker acknowledged to the publication what he has said before — that he “smoked marijuana in high school and my early collegiate years.” But Fisher’s campaign argues that claim is disingenuous because Stickland’s online activity suggests he used the drug as recently as 2008, when he asked about how to avoid failing a drug test.
Stickland’s supporters call Fisher’s criticism disgusting and disappointing: They’re disgusted the pastor is dredging up the controversial comments and disappointed that he is consenting to such campaign tactics.
“I am a huge fan and unwavering fan of Jonathan Stickland, and I believe that he is one of the most effective legislators in Austin, Texas,” said Cathie Adams, president of the conservative Texas Eagle Forum. “Something that happened before he was a Christian, something that happened years and years ago … and when his life was different is something of the past and not of the present.”
Julie McCarty, the head of the NE Tarrant County Tea Party, said her objection to Fisher’s attacks is not “so much a political issue as it is a spiritual one.” She said what Fisher is doing — casting judgment on his opponent for past sins — is the “number one reason” why people do not run for public office.
“Scott Fisher just single-handedly fed that fear for noble Christian men and women who might otherwise have stepped up to serve,” McCarty wrote in an email. “That ain’t the work of Jesus, my friend.”
Fisher’s campaign has no plans to let up on Stickland, who had an extensive presence online before taking office. Murphy said Stickland’s relatively muted response to the posts is telling.
“I believe the reason that Stickland is hiding from the press is because he knows that the comments he’s put online will always contradict the story he would like to tell,” Murphy said.
Jim Malewitz contributed reporting.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/01/01/stickland-rival-comes-hard-and-fast-tea-party-darl/.