In the midst of the still-unspooling crisis, it turned out that Attorney General Ken Paxton, under felony indictment, had jetted off to Utah. A state senator had taken a private jet to Florida. And, of course, Sen. Ted Cruz had been caught red-handed slinking off to Cancun with his family.
The wags at El Arroyo, a legendary Tex-Mex dive in downtown Austin, updated their daily street sign commentary: “If you’re cold, just Cruz to Mexico.” Yet rage was building. People had begun to die: in their homes, in their stranded vehicles, inside idling cars in their garages. Galveston ordered a meat refrigeration truck for the dead.
Abbott didn’t even bother to call his big-city mayors.
“I have not talked to the governor at any time during this crisis, but we’re pushing forward.” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told MSNBC on Friday, Feb. 19. “The White House has reached out to me several times, and we’ve had those communications.”
This might not surprise students of Texas politics. After all, years ago, Abbott had declared a kind of war on his cities. He didn’t like them regulating business where the state hadn’t.
At first, he battled them over environmental laws like banning plastic grocery bags, which blew everywhere in the Texas wind. He fought with them over natural-gas fracking inside city limits, which tended to set off earthquakes. Then came the pandemic. He refused to let them impose mask-wearing mandates, shut down local economies or even limit restaurant services, whether capacity or hours. He excluded mayors from briefings on the pandemic. A self-described small government constitutionalist, he was really a new breed: a big government Republican, claiming to defend limited government while expanding state power if it meant protecting business interests.
So, this time, the cities’ own response was erratic. Dallas told downtown buildings to cut back on power use. Yet in Houston and Austin soaring downtown skyscrapers were lit up even as people shivered in the dark elsewhere. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, whose jurisdiction includes Houston, called the light show “maddening.”
Catching wind that utilities were sending people $16,000 bills, an angry Ron Nirenberg, the mayor of San Antonio vowed in his daily briefing: “There will be hell to pay.”
In his Feb. 13 letter to Biden, it was what the governor didn’t ask for that stuck out. He asked for no military help with logistics or aid distribution. He didn’t ask for disaster unemployment insurance, money for local governments, not even hazard mitigation for damaged homes, not even food or water. He asked for no military assistance. Abbott asked only for direct financial assistance for individuals and help keeping emergency services going until the storm passed.
In sharp contrast, Abbott asked for and got massive federal help before Hurricane Harvey even came ashore in August 2017. At his request, FEMA pre-positioned people and supplies, linking up with the Texas Emergency Management Agency, bringing in over 1 million meals, 3 million bottles of water, blankets and cots, and providing medical services to more than 5,000 Texans. The federal government even brought in 210,000 pounds of hay for livestock, according to FEMA’s 2017 after-action report. The Air Force flew 30 missions, mostly ferrying supplies. Abbott activated all 30,000 members of the Texas National Guard. But none of that happened this time.
Abbott was in a different political situation. On the one hand there was a Democratic president in office, not his old ally Donald Trump. On the other hand, Abbott’s biggest threat, as he prepares to run for reelection in 2022 and possibly the presidency in 2024, isn’t to his left but to his right. Florida transplant Allen West chairs the Texas GOP and is even calling for secession.
“My sense is that Abbott is calibrating his relationship with a Democratic president,” said James Henson, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. Despite the human toll, Abbott, say, doesn’t want ads in 2022 portraying him as hat-in-hand to Biden. “The Republicans just want to do the bare essential here, and they don’t want to do too much. Plus, Abbott doesn’t want this storm to be the focus of another news cycle.”