Sat. Dec 3rd, 2022

AUSTIN — Last October, Republican state Rep. Lyle Larson announced he would not seek re-election to another term in the Texas House, bringing an end to a career in public service that dates back to 1991.

Larson, who joined San Antonio City Council that year and also served as a Bexar County commissioner from 1997 to 2008, has represented the northern part of the county in the state House since 2011. He is now something of an outcast among Texas Republicans, having bucked the party on several key issues in recent years and bluntly criticized state GOP leaders from Gov. Greg Abbott to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Last year, Larson was the only Republican to oppose the state’s contentious voting bill . He also pushed to expand Medicaid ; was one of four Republicans to vote against a bill banning large social media companies from blocking users based on their viewpoint; opposed GOP legislation targeting “critical race theory” ; and filed a bill that sought to carve out an exception for victims of rape and incest in Texas’ abortion ban.

IN-DEPTH: Dan Patrick’s rise from right-wing outcast to GOP shot-caller charts the shift in Texas politics

Yet Larson has continued to regularly side with Republicans, voting for the abortion ban and backing a “permitless carry” measure that allows most Texans 21 and over to carry handguns in public places without a license. Other GOP priorities that won Larson’s support last year included legislation to bar large counties from cutting law enforcement spending without voter approval and a constitutional amendment that would have expanded the charges under which judges could deny bail outright.

As Larson prepares to depart elected office, we sat down with the outgoing lawmaker to discuss his career in office, his thoughts on the midterm elections and his criticism of fellow Republicans. The interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Q: Is your retirement related to your disagreements with the Republican leadership in Austin over the party’s shift to the right?

A: No, actually, it’s much simpler than that. I laid out a bill three sessions ago on term limits. And I was advocating that you can serve no longer than 12 years. And I said it at that time, that regardless of if the bill passes or not, I’m going to step down after 12 years.

I just feel a lot of people run on the issue, term limits, but they never abide by it. And you’re only as good as your word. So, it was predetermined six years ago how long I was going to serve. And it was a great exit strategy, by the way.

Q: So it has nothing to do with the direction of the party?

A: No, you know, I’ve seen the deterioration of the policy making in the Republican Party a lot over the last 30 years. I came into the Republican Party under Ronald Reagan. And you just don’t see any of that idealism about making the state or the country great. All they can do is try to diminish certain parts of our population. They don’t inspire a unification of people.

I mean, this last session, it was a proverbial s—show, from the standpoint of taking false allegations of a voter fraud issue, and then turning it into a voter suppression bill. And I just think that’s counter to what most people would think that a democracy would want. I want to maximize the number of people voting, not minimize it. And I think those efforts are going to hurt Republicans as much as Democrats.

So yeah, it is frustrating. I think the whole partisan issue that you see in the state and nationally, you see the divisions. You don’t see a lot of leadership. They run in the primary based on what the extreme element dictates in those primaries, and then they carry that forward in the general elections, and you don’t even see an attempt to go to the middle. They just stay on the right and stay on the left, each respective party.

Somebody asked me, are you still a Republican? I’m not a part of the Republican Party today. I am a Reagan Republican. I’m not a Democrat. I think I’m probably more independent than anything else. You know, I am the same ideologically, center right. But the Republican Party is not center right. They’re far right.

Q: Do you see a centrist or center-right third party as the best way to kind of move back closer to the center?

A: I think people need to walk away from both parties. And they need to start voting independently. A lot of people talk about nonpartisan, bipartisan — I like to advocate cross-partisanship. So you cross over and pick the right person.

A good example is our lieutenant governor’s race. I mean, it’s crazy that Dan Patrick gets reelected. And the only reason he gets reelected is because the Republican Party and the Democratic Party — it’s heresy if you cross over, you say anything … derogatory about him or you won’t support him. Well, I know a lot of Republicans that aren’t supporting him. Some have come out. I mean, the guy has done more in the last eight years to tear our state apart, and I just, it’s crazy that Republicans would elect him back into office.

I think you need to have a balance of power to keep the far right from salivating at having an opportunity to pass just crazy, children-of-the-corn-type legislation that has been put in front of us. And Lieutenant Dan, you know, him and the governor don’t like each other, I think that’s well understood. I think he scares the governor … He’s never gotten along with any of the speakers that I’ve served under, [Joe] Straus, [Dennis] Bonnen or Dade [Phelan]. In fact, they’ve had verbal confrontations. And it’s just hard to believe that we can’t cross over and challenge ‘the king.’

Q: Do you personally plan to vote for Dan Patrick’s opponent, Democrat Mike Collier?

A: You know, I’m not gonna vote for Dan Patrick. And I’m gonna make a decision on Mike Collier. I’ve met Mike Collier. But I can’t support [Patrick]. … Nobody in their right mind would vote for Dan Patrick.

I mean, the issues I’ve had with him are, first of all, dealing with public education. Earlier in the summer, he was talking about [private school] vouchers and openly supporting vouchers, basically advocating defunding schools in rural areas, while the state only pays about 46 percent of [the funding share] for our K-12 schools. And now he wants to diminish that even more, because of a far-right-wing dog whistle.

I think he’s created more division along ethnic and gender lines [than anyone] in our state’s history. I mean, if you look at the attacks on individuals, he’s inspired nothing. … I think he’s an awful person, and I could never support him, and I hope everybody either does not vote for him, or votes for his opponent.

Editor’s note: In 2019, Patrick supported House Bill 3, which pumped about $6.5 billion of new spending into public education. The bill raised the state’s share of public education funding from 38 percent to 45 percent, lawmakers said at the time. Earlier this year, Patrick said “We can support school choice and, at the same time, create the best public education system in America. These issues are not in conflict with each other.”

Patrick’s chief strategist, Allen Blakemore, responded to Larson’s comments with a statement: “Rep. Larson’s personal attack on Lt. Gov. Patrick is outrageous. The facts are clear. Lt. Gov. Patrick is viewed by almost everyone as the most effective lieutenant governor in history. That is why virtually every business association and law enforcement organization has endorsed him for reelection. He knows how to bring members together.

“Under his leadership the last four state budgets have passed with only one dissenting vote, three passed unanimously. That is quite an accomplishment and underscores how he respects the members, and how they respect him. It’s sad that Mr. Larson feels compelled to spew his bitter rant as his last statement before leaving office.”

Q: Earlier this year, were you surprised by the outcome when you backed a candidate in the Republican primary for your district, Adam Blanchard, who didn’t make the runoff?

A: I was. I mean, Adam clearly was the best candidate.

The gentleman that ended up winning [former Bexar County Republican Party chair Mark Dorazio] is the far right. I mean, he’s out there as far right as you can get. He’s the one that tried to censure Joe Straus . He’ll get zero done, won’t get any bills passed. The speaker endorsed his opponent. So, you’re just gonna have an ineffective, bomb-throwing, far-right candidate. Anything he said and did in the primary indicates that he will be an Empower Texans patsy, and he’ll do whatever they ask him to do.

Editor’s note: Dorazio said he plans to focus on border security, property tax relief and “keeping the federal government out of the lives and businesses of everyday Texans.” He vowed to work with “whoever helps me achieve real results” on those issues.

I am disappointed that Rep. Larson would say something like that,” Dorazio said. “I was also the chairman of the Bexar County Republican Party and was selected by my fellow precinct chairmen to serve in this capacity, largely due to being a consensus maker and a leader who could bring various sides together.”

Q: Do you feel like you were able to achieve what you set out to accomplish as a city council member, a county commissioner and in the House?

A: The city was the best place to serve. You know, 95 percent of the operational issues that people have are at the local level. It’s the utilities, electricity, water, it’s the police and fire, it’s the zoning. It’s all the daily issues — all of that stuff is city and county government. Much more rewarding, because you can fix issues, pick up the phone and start working towards a solution. So I really enjoyed it.

When I got on at the state level, it was all water — long-term strategic water issues. We’re already in the process of seeing some significant changes towards what our long term plans are in desalination and storage, better coordination between the different regions in the state.

It was rewarding from the standpoint of helping people. Actually, the politics was the worst part of it. The policy was the best part of it, to try and create tactical and strategic positions, on all three levels, of trying to make things just a little bit better for for this generation and the next.

Q: Anything you’d do differently looking back?

A: No doubts, no regrets. It is what it is.

I think my outspokenness got some bills unnecessarily killed in the Senate and the governor’s mansion. … But yeah, I think the way the environment is, especially in the Texas Senate, that if you don’t kiss the ring, then there’s going to be a vindictive response. And I just don’t do well kissing people’s ass. That’s just not a part of my deal.

I’m not going to do that. Just lay it out, work with the good people that want to work. And there’s a lot of good people in government, in both parties, and I was very fortunate to work with them. And there are a few bad, too.

So, no regrets. Everything worked out the way it should.

jasper.scherer@chron.com



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