Greg Abbott Is Texas’s Most Powerful Governor Ever. That’s Bad for Working People.
Texas governor Greg Abbott has forever changed the state’s politics. To undo the damage he has caused, we can’t rely on top-down initiatives. We need a working-class alternative.
After an unsuccessful presidential and senate run, Beto O’Rourke lost the race for Texas governor to Greg Abbott. Despite O’Rourke’s national profile, record-breaking fundraising, Texas’s unpopular abortion decision, and the horrors of the Uvalde shooting, he barely outperformed Democrat Lupe Valdez’s failed 2018 bid for governor. Texas Democrats have been making the argument for years that the state’s changing demographics and a GOP that blatantly governs in the interests of a minority of Texans will inevitably deliver the state to the Democratic Party. But for now, that remains a distant dream.
Abbott will be Texas’s second-longest-serving governor, behind only his predecessor Rick Perry, who was governor for fourteen years. The office he holds is more potent than ever, thanks to decades of GOP dominance and Abbott’s willingness to push the limits of the Texas Constitution. Abbott has forever changed Texas politics. To undo the damage he has caused, we can’t rely on top-down initiatives — we need a working-class alternative.
Abbott’s overreach is nowhere more evident than in his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Abbott fashioned himself as the anti-lockdown governor, but continues to issue a disaster proclamation in response to COVID-19 that grants him emergency powers. Citing the pandemic, Abbott has ordered Texas Department of Public Safety agents to stop vehicles suspected of transporting migrants. His Operation Lone Star, the disastrous and wasteful border mobilization of Texas’s National Guard which now includes the busing of migrants out of Texas, has been subsidized by federal pandemic relief funding. You’d be hard-pressed in Texas to find many remaining traces of the COVID-19 era, save for Abbott’s continued militarization of the border.
Texas is traditionally a weak-governor state, with most of the power constitutionally resting in the legislature. But in recent decades, the power has shifted dramatically toward the governor. For example, Texas governors don’t have a cabinet: the equivalent boards and commissions are appointed on a staggered basis, and the governor can’t fire them — an arrangement that was set up to limit the power of Texas’s central government. But Texas Democrats haven’t won statewide office since 1994, and with Republican control of the state this check on the centralization of power has weakened.
Abbott inherited a bureaucracy comprised of conservative loyalists from his predecessor Rick Perry, and has expanded it. Many of the people in Texas’s bureaucracy owe their careers to Abbott, and he hasn’t hesitated to call in favors. In 2018, Abbott expanded his powers, mandating that state agencies submit any rule changes to him before making them public — a huge step in taking more of an active role in these agencies. Throughout his political career, Abbott has thrived in the gray areas of the law.
This matters for working-class Texans just hoping to keep the lights on. After Texas’s casino-style electrical grid failed in 2021, there was significant demand to reform the system. In the interest of protecting big moneymaking opportunities, the energy industry filled Abbott’s pockets with $4.6 million after the 2021 session. The critical flaws with Texas’s electrical system remain unaddressed. Abbott has taken an active role in the state electrical grid operator ERCOT’s search for a new CEO despite having no legal justification for doing so, and he has taken control of ERCOT’s public statements. One source told the Texas Tribune that when it comes to ERCOT, Abbott “has total veto power.”
Outside of his domination of state agencies, Abbott exercises enormous control over the Texas Legislature, which was intended to be the real seat of power in the Texas government. He uses his veto liberally, not just to prevent policy outcomes he dislikes but also to punish members who cross him. A recent Texas Monthly profile of the governor was unable to secure interviews with those politically close to Abbott due to their “fear of reprisals.”
All told, Abbott is the most powerful governor in Texas’s history — and that has huge consequences for working people.
Government by the Few
Republican domination of Texas politics is frightening when we consider just how unpopular much of the GOP platform is with ordinary Texans. Only 15 percent of Texans think that abortion should be completely outlawed. While Beto may be out of step with Texans on gun policy, 59 percent of Texans oppose permitless carry, and even the police in Texas lobbied hard against it. Despite all of this, the Texas GOP remains secure in their advocacy of extreme policies, and the Democratic Party seems out of ideas for how to unseat them.
For years, the Democratic Party line on Texas has been “Texas isn’t a red state, it’s a nonvoting state.” While it’s true that Texas turnout is low, it doesn’t follow that a Democratic electoral coup is just around the corner. Disillusionment with the Democrats is a huge factor in low voter turnout. One former Obama supporter–turned–nonvoter told Texas Monthly, “I just believe that none of the candidates offer anything and actually go through with it.”
Building a working-class movement in Texas requires not only taking on the Right, but also beating many working-class Texans’ pessimism, which is understandable after decades of having been promised so much and receiving so little.
The GOP has made an effort to make inroads with black and Latino voters. Latinos now make up the largest group in Texas, and while Democrats still win the majority of their votes, it won’t take many pickups for the GOP to cement its hold on Texas. While Texas’s historically weak and politically timid Democratic Party deserves much of the blame, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has shown little interest in investing in long-standing Democratic strongholds in South Texas. It’s bad now, but it can get worse.
On a more positive note, Texas will send Bernie-endorsed and pro-worker Greg Casar to Congress, grassroots progressive movements in Texas continue to grow, and Ground Game Texas won marijuana decriminalization in five cities. But progressive forces, while making headway, are still subordinate to the moderate Democratic Party status quo — and the status quo is not going to cut it.
Texas has a proud tradition of working-class movements. To loosen the grip of the GOP, we have to reclaim that history. We need to build working-class movements that can stand on their own feet and deliver victories for working-class Texans. Hoping that GOP overreach will inspire nonvoting Texans to show up is a failed and disastrous strategy. We need to give people something to fight for.