For Texas Governor, Hard Right Turn Followed a Careful Rise

AUSTIN – Governor Greg Abbott surprised some of his employees when he arrived at his office this fall with plans for a new pandemic decree: a ban on mandatory vaccinations by private employers in Texas.

The decision was a blatant departure for the two-year governor, an encroachment on business decisions that Mr. Abbott had long resisted – and he had resisted only two months earlier. “Private companies do not need a government to run their business,” a spokeswoman said at the time.

His turnaround drew criticism from large Texas corporate groups, companies like American Airlines, and a powerful actor in local Republican politics, Texans for Lawsuit Reform. It also caused frustration among some of the governor’s staff.

Those who have known Mr Abbott and watched his rise – from attorney to court judge, to attorney general, and ultimately to governor – were stunned by his sudden agreement with the most vocal Republican party activists.

But as a governor with a keen sense of the political winds, his ban on vaccination mandates in a state where Republican supremacy remains intact was in keeping with his fondness for the reading of the moment. And right now, even in business-minded Texas, corporate interests are out and cultural concerns are in.

He oversees an audit of 2020 results in four major counties in Texas, a state won by former President Donald J. Trump with more than 5 points. He called for and signed legal restrictions on transgender athletes after showing content four years earlier to see toilet restrictions on transgender Texans fail in the face of corporate opposition. He went from a mask mandate last year to a ban on such orders this spring.

His shift to the right will be put to the test next year as he takes on his best-known and best-funded Democratic challenger to date, Beto O’Rourke, who announced his run late last month. Their competition begs the question of how far a Texas governor can go and still hold their own against a rising tide of Democrats in the state’s largest cities and suburbs.

The election is also an important test of Mr. Abbott’s strength on the national stage, where he is frequently mentioned alongside potential non-Trump presidential candidates like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, even when his aides insist he isn’t interested. His attacks on Mr O’Rourke have doubled as attacks on President Biden.

Today, Mr. Abbott is torn between the balanced conservative approach he enjoyed in Texas business circles and an intense focus on victory in the evolving Republican Party, as evidenced by interviews with many current and former advisers and more than two emerges dozen of friends, former colleagues, elected officials and political strategists.

His ban on the vaccination mandate was insufficient for the ultraconservatives, who called for a special session of the legislature to codify his order. At the same time, companies and hospitals have largely pushed existing or planned vaccination regulations, and the state has done little, if at all, to enforce the ban, industry groups said.

When Mr. Abbott ran for governor for the first time in 2014, he presented himself from a more moderate side to the Democratic representative Wendy Davis. An advertisement in Spanish showed his wife, Cecilia, the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants. Another made him roll over a map in his wheelchair – he’s been paralyzed from the waist down since an accident in 1984 – to show companies leaving California for Texas.

But while Republicans have increased their hold in the state government, Mr. Abbott has seen the challenges posed by his party’s lively base. This year, Mr. Abbott teamed up with the red-hot Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick in what is perhaps the most conservative legislature in Texas history.

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He even did so with a war chest of nearly $ 60 million and early support from Mr Trump, who often calls the governor on his cell phone. (Mr Trump did this to push for the 2020 audit.)

He has maintained his confidence in offering guidance to other Republican governors, particularly those recently elected. When the pandemic broke out, Mr Abbott organized weekly calls among them to discuss the policy, and he led them to defy the Biden administration and create a separate, state-run approach to criminal justice for migrants.

And his aggressive attacks on Mr Biden across the border have earned him regular appearances on Fox News.

“Greg is an extremely far-right conservative, which still comes as a shock to me,” said Pearson Grimes, a partner in the law firm Mr. Abbott worked in the 1980s after a falling tree paralyzed him from the waist down. Mr. Grimes helped the future governor find an attorney for his lawsuit over the accident.

“When I knew him a long time ago,” said Mr. Grimes, “I never imagined that this would be his policy.”

Abbott, who chaired few press conferences, declined requests to speak for this article. His spokeswoman, Renae Eze, described him in an email as an “unwavering conservative leader” and “defender of constitutional and fundamental rights,” a man driven by his belief in “Texas exceptionalism” and the need to protect it .

Mr. Abbott, 63, was born in the small town of Wichita Falls, Texas, northwest of Dallas and later moved to Duncanville, just south of town. His father died of a heart attack while Mr. Abbott was in high school, and his mother, who had stayed home, went to work to support him and his older brother, Gary, nicknamed Bud.

By the time he attended Vanderbilt Law School, Mr. Abbott was married after meeting his wife at the University of Texas. “He wasn’t particularly political in those years, as far as I remember,” said Fred Frost, a law student who is now ExxonMobil’s executive counsel.

It was while jogging with Mr. Frost through Houston’s affluent River Oaks neighborhood that Mr. Abbott’s life changed: an oak tree fell on him with enough force to crush a nearby Cadillac. Mr. Abbott, who was only 26 years old, instantly lost feeling in his legs.

He was determined to recover. Mr. Frost remembered watching Mr. Abbott park his maroon two-door limousine in a restaurant one evening in Houston, grab his wheelchair, jump in, and roll over to the passenger side to open the door for his wife .

Abbott secured a settlement including payments for the rest of his life, about $ 8 million so far. The settlement did not prevent Mr. Abbott from later becoming a strong advocate of personal injury limitation. And as a young attorney in Houston, he defended the city’s bus system in personal injury cases.

Since his accident, his wheelchair has been closely linked to his professional identity. As governor, aides said he was able to get in touch during tragic moments, such as after the 2019 mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso that killed 23 people, or after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 .

However, despite his personal history, Texas political watchers often complain that Mr. Abbott lacks the oversized personality of his immediate predecessors Ann Richards, George W. Bush, and Rick Perry.

“He’s conservative with a small ‘c’ – so careful,” says Robert Stein, professor of political science at Rice University.

Mr. Abbott has resisted challenges to his rights from Don Huffines, a former state senator, and Allen West, a former Florida congressman who briefly led the Texas Republican Party. While polls show that Mr Abbott is popular with Republican voters across the board, he appears to be focused on the small number that has moved away from him.

Even before his campaign began, he crossed the state to meet Republican voters and held huge telephone booths that were open only by invitation. He often blocks his daily schedule for eight hours when making calls for donations.

A first test of Mr. Abbott’s leadership came in his first year as governor, when conspiracy theories arose in conservative circles that a US military exercise known as Jade Helm 15 was in fact a secret conspiracy to take over Texas. Mr. Abbott wanted to say something.

“People had hired him on Twitter,” said a consultant. “He felt compelled to answer. For him, these are the grassroots people who are involved in the party’s politics. It is they who knock on the door for you. “

The governor eventually decided to put the Texas State Guard, part of the state’s military division, in charge of “overseeing” the operation.

For some of his helpers it was a mistake. For his democratic critics, this moment was symbolic of a governor who does not want to stand on the fringes of his party.

“Abbott is just the guy who I think is always scared of something,” said Chris Turner, the Texas Democratic leader.

Before the pandemic, Mr Abbott had managed to unite the business-minded wing of the party with its far right. But when the coronavirus hit the entire state last year, Mr Abbott experienced a critical moment. In July 2020, he issued a nationwide mask mandate, a decision-making aid he said by following his own mantra of ignoring politics and “doing the right thing”.

It was the same message that Mr. Abbott’s aide said the governor had heard from everyday Texas at events across the state for weeks.

When Mr. Abbott told his staff that he wanted to give the order, a discussion ensued, aides said. Some refused to move. After a debate among staff, Mr. Abbott decided to proceed with the order.

David Carney, his campaign advisor, said Mr Abbott wanted to protect small businesses from firing workers because President Biden’s “clumsy, incoherent” policy required vaccinations for people with 100 or more employees, due to take effect Jan. 4 Mr Abbott appealed in federal court last month.

“This has always been done by small businesses,” Carney said, not Republican primary politics.