The most malignant and reviled Republicans in Texas is retiring in 2020, which is good news in and of itself. The even better news is that we have a chance to flip his seat blue.
I mentioned him briefly a few newsletters ago, but I really want to give district 92’s Rep. Jonathan Stickland’s record of neanderthal, hateful politics its proper humiliation and exposure, because it’s part of a much larger problem that still threatens millions of people and democracy in general.
Stickland himself is best known for killing countless bills in the legislature, voting against public education and public health, and boorish persona (the guy even voted against declaring June Veteran Suicide and PTSD Awareness Month). His Facebook page is a swirling cesspool of smug, far-right “jokes” and conspiracies, the sort of stuff that should get someone a place on a government watchlist, not a government salary. Here are a few “highlights” on different issues.
Vaccines, which he calls “sorcery”:
I’ll leave it there; they only get grimier. The point is that it would feel so, so glorious to flip this guy’s district blue, especially given the backstory of what actually is happening here. Jonathan Stickland is a loud, ignorant jerk, but his exit from the legislature won’t solve anything, because he has little control over his actual agenda.
The 35-year-old Stickland is really a tool of a corrupt right-wing special interest group called Empower Texans. It’s an astroturf “organization” run by a handful of oil and gas CEOs preaching Tea Party economics and extremist social views. Its leaders found Stickland, then a pest control technician, screaming about property taxes at a Northeast Tarrant Tea Party meeting, and decided he’d make a useful idiot. They financed his campaign for the legislature, and with no Democratic opposition in 2012, he won easily.
Stickland then listed his occupation as an “oil and gas consultant,” and his company, Stickland Consultants LLC, has no website and is registered to his home. Curious, right?
Steve Riddell, an IT business professional and Stickland’s 2018 Democratic opponent, tipped us off to the curious facts of Stickland’s “business” venture, all of which check out. Riddell is running again in 2020 after coming just two points shy of unseating Stickland. He isn’t sad to see the loudmouth Republican go, but Riddell is no less concerned about his would-be successor, Jeff Cason, who is also endorsed by Empower Texans.
“It doesn’t really matter who the warm body is, the pulse that they have in the seat is,” Riddell says. “He’s just going to do everything that [Empower Texans] say.”
The shadowy, far-right lobbying outfit is at the center of several major scandals right now in Texas, triggering a GOP civil war of sorts as Democrats are on the ascendency.
Riddell’s candidacy is a perfect contrast to what Empower Texans and their tools are trying to destroy with obstinent no votes, destroyed bills, and unhinged rants.
“Public education is the thing that I’m most passionate about because I’m a product of public education and my kids are in public schools here in the district,” he says. “I believe in investing in the future, and that’s what public education is. I mean, there’s nothing better in our society than moving somebody from a position of poverty into a place where they can be successful. It’s a great equalizer.”
Back in 2017, Texas Republicans in the State House passed a decent public education bill (Empower Texans lawmakers voted against it, of course) but it was subsequently loaded with poison pills by Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, dooming it in the State Senate. As that was happening, Riddell says, his son was up for his Boy Scouts’ Citizenship in the Community merit badge. He was asked the difference between a citizen and a good citizen, and the answer his son gave did more than earn him a patch.
“His answer was that a citizen is just somebody that lives in a place and pays their taxes and obeys the law, does the minimum,” Riddell recalls. “A good citizen is somebody who extends themselves and who does stuff that they don’t have to do that benefits the community and maybe even doesn’t even benefit themselves, but it’s something they feel compelled to do to help.”
They weren’t actually related, but the confluence of the poisoned education bill and his son’s answer about stepping up and fighting for one’s beliefs made it feel like the universe was sending him a message.
In his first campaign, Riddell went from long shot to near-victory by knocking on lots of doors, listening to his neighbors, and eschewing overt partisanship for problem-solving. I’ll readily admit to preferring when candidates push progressive policy and messaging, but in traditionally red suburbs, that sometimes requires reframing Democrats as practical problem-solvers, focused on issues more than party politics.
“The district is not tremendously Democratic-leaning, there were just a whole lot of people here in this neighborhood that had felt like their voices have been ignored for so long,” he says of his 2018 race. “The voter participation level was so small. The extremists win whenever regular people don’t show up to vote. That’s how we were able to move the needle so far, by appealing to everyone.”
That will continue to be his message in 2020, against a new opponent controlled by the same forces. Texas did pass a big education bill this year, spurred by Democrats picking up some seats in 2018 to take the State House within striking distance, but as Riddell points out, the funding only lasts a limited time and is tied to revenues that are not sustainable.
As a Democrat, he has a novel suggestion: Force big corporations in Texas to actually pay their taxes, then use the money to fund education and other necessary programs. Right now that isn’t happening because of a Republican law called the Equal and Uniform provision, which allows businesses to sue to lower their taxes. Riddell wants to eliminate that law, which will provide a big boost to government revenues, and use them to focus on issues that actually matter to people.
That hasn’t been happening in Texas, where Republican lawmakers have become obsessed with far-right social issues and bigoted bathroom bills.
“I think the Democrats have been surging in part because of demographics, because there have been a lot of people moving to the states outside of it,” Riddell says. “But I think it’s in large part that our legislators have gotten way too fringey, that they’re listening to very noisy but very small constituent groups and legislating for those people. I think there’s a whole lot of people that have noticed that. In a representative democracy, the average constituent voters should be calling the shots, but we’re not. The big businesses are calling the shots. The corporations are calling the shots. And we get whatever gets left behind afterward.”
In 2020, Riddell is focused on making sure that working Texans are brought back to the forefront.