Analysis: Leaving Texas voters to decide what’s fact and what’s fiction

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Appearances matter in politics.

There’s a mailer going around in state Rep. Charlie Geren’s district in Fort Worth, telling Republican primary voters that Geren’s wife is a lobbyist and sharing a list of her clients along with how much they’re paying for lobby work.

It’s all true.

But the look and feel of the mailer is pure deceit. It’s on institutionally drab paper stock with plenty of officious Courier typeface and a name that seems like it might, possibly, maybe, perhaps be the name of a state agency: Texas Ethics Disclosure Board.

There is no such agency. And the look-and-feel thing is important, giving the information — true or not — a more serious tone. It’s the difference between hearing “Stop doing that!” from your sister or your mom.

Best mind your mother.

This one looks like a government notice in the sea of political mailers that are spilling out of the mailbox. It gets your attention the same way mom does: Tone of voice.

In another race, state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, has a video ad depicting a man in a confession booth, telling a priest about all of the nasty things he has said about his opponent in a political race. The man is supposed to be a stand-in for Estes’ challenger, state Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Frisco.

It’s a different turn on the old look-and-feel thing. Forget about the content and look at the setting: Booth, priest, sinner.

As with the mailer in Geren’s race, there’s a judgment in the setting. There, it’s a government agency overseeing ethics. In the Estes spot, it’s that sinner situation. Wouldn’t be there if you hadn’t done something wrong, would ya, fella?

Geren and his allies are squealing. Fallon’s allies are squealing, too.

Whether the incumbents win or lose those two races, the infractions will fade away like bad calls in sports. The losers will go home and the winners will move on to the general elections in November.

Then there are the races where the authority figures actually do weigh in — and in a way that risks some of their authority. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick endorsed Fallon over Estes. It’s odd to have the Senate’s presiding officer taking sides against an incumbent senator and nearly unprecedented to do so against an incumbent from the same party, but there it is. Fallon will be a grateful freshman if he makes it past Estes. Estes might be a human speed bump for Patrick if he survives. That’s true to some extent in another race where Patrick has weighed in; his chief political consultant is on the team of Victor Leal, one of two Republicans challenging state Sen. Kel Seliger of Amarillo. Another Republican, another prospect for future friction for Patrick.

But Gov. Greg Abbott is the real poster child for risking political chits on a down-ballot race. He’s openly challenging three Republican state representatives, paying for ads against them, and lending his name to challengers’ campaigns. But he’s been fuzzy about why these folks — Sarah Davis of West University Place, Wayne Faircloth of Galveston and Lyle Larson San Antonio — are the only three among the Legislature’s 115 Republicans to earn his electoral wrath.

Abbott, in this case, is the “mom” voice. But in his case, there could be aftershocks. Just look at the Larson race.

Larson was the author of legislation that would have barred Abbott and future Texas governors from appointing big donors — those who have contributed more than $ 2,500 — to state boards and commissions. Larson calls it “pay-for-play” and says current law allows governors to dole out plum jobs as rewards for big donations.

The pay-for-play thing is a long-accepted practice in Austin, employed by Republicans and Democrats in the Governor’s Mansion for decades before Abbott got there. But in the real world, which we’ll define here as everything outside of the 12-block area around the Texas Capitol, this one is a stinker.

Nevertheless, Abbott and his crew are now using some of the governor’s gargantuan campaign account to produce and broadcast ads critical of a sitting state lawmaker in his own party.

Here’s the punchline for today’s ethics tale: The money being spent against Larson (and Davis, and Faircloth) was raised, in some measure, from the same fat cats who are the alleged beneficiaries of the big-seats-for-fat-cats program that Larson tried to outlaw.

Gotta be careful with those appearances.

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