Before he ran for the Texas Legislature, Jeff Cason prayed to God for guidance. When he finally decided to run, he put his fate in God’s hands.
If so, God dropped him.
Cason, a Republican from Bedford, was elected. But once he got sworn in, he didn’t make many friends. He was astounded at the coziness and immediately rebelled against the House culture.
In his very first vote to pick a new House speaker, he defied everyone and voted against the eventual winner, Dade Phelan, a Republican from Beaumont. The vote was 143-2. His defiance stuck out like an extended middle finger. He’d pay for this crime.
For his act of rebellion, Cason was effectively ruined. There’d be no second term. When redistricting took place, Cason, 68, a retired businessman, lost his district. The powers that be got their revenge. They changed the boundaries on his Hurst-Euless-Bedford-area district from a sure-thing Republican seat to a majority Democratic district. Cason isn’t running again.
This story is what it looks like when Republicans eat their own. It’s a warning to anyone with an independent mind to stay away from the Texas Legislature.
“It’s a club,” Cason said. “You’ve got to kiss the ring. You have to fall in line.”
And if you don’t, here’s what happens.
The first time Cason joined the Republican caucus for a private meeting to pick a Republican as speaker, he was in awe. “I’m the new guy, and it’s wow. All of a sudden I’m surrounded by all this power,” he said.
It was power he would defy.
The consensus choice among both Republicans and Democrats was Phelan. But before he could vote for him, Cason wanted a promise. He didn’t want Phelan to appoint any Democrats to be chairs of House committees. He wrote a letter to Phelan, but Phelan never answered.
As one of the most conservative members of the House, Cason was aghast that Democrats, although the minority, would get appointed to chair powerful committees. He asked, what’s the point of having a strong majority Republican House if you’re going to share power with the other party? Even though they didn’t dominate, Democrats running committees could kill Republican bills. But the powers that be were anxious to put up a united front. A “no” vote on the speaker job blocks that.
“My constituents asked me not to empower someone like Dade who will appoint Democrats to powerful committees,” he explained.
Word got out before the vote that Cason was, in legislator lingo, going to “red light” the speaker on the electronic voting board. A group of veterans took Cason out in the hallway and gave him the equivalent of a political waterboarding.
They cursed at him and called him names, he says. One member explained, “You’re going to regret this. Please, just reconsider. Don’t do this.”
He did it.
It didn’t go unnoticed. “You get the feeling everyone in the gallery and on the floor is looking at you.”
How could they not? In his first vote, the freshman was like a kamikaze pilot. Crash and burn.
‘Vote your district’
Cason was correct in his fears. He was appointed to two committees, and both were chaired by Democrats. Indeed, House Democratic leader Chris Turner of Grand Prairie was appointed by the speaker to lead the powerful House Business & Industry Committee. Giving the Democratic leader that kind of power is not the norm.
Cason asked for a meeting with the speaker: “I felt the need to meet with him and share my heart.”
They talked for a half-hour in the speaker’s office.
“Mr. Speaker, I just want to come down and share my position.”
“Look,” the speaker said, according to Cason, “I told you guys all along to ‘vote your district.’ I get it. Honestly, it’s no big deal. No problem.”
But apparently it was.
The speaker did not respond to The Watchdog’s inquiry.
Seen but not heard
In the House, there’s a front microphone near the speaker’s rostrum where lawmakers explain their bills. In the back, there’s a microphone for members to ask questions and raise challenges.
By tradition, rookies like Cason are not supposed to use the back mic. Freshmen are to be seen but not heard.
“Stay away from the back mic,” he was warned.
He didn’t. He liked to talk. Who is this new guy?
Snubs all around
Every session, Gov. Greg Abbott hosts a gathering for new lawmakers. Guess who didn’t get invited to the 2021 event?
Lobbyists showed up at Cason’s office, not so much to influence his vote but to let him know why they hadn’t given him donations.
“One of them was honest enough to tell me, ‘You know, you weren’t supposed to win. You’re not supposed to be here.’”
If angering the speaker’s allies wasn’t enough, Cason infuriated many of his House colleagues with his repeated calls for “record votes.”
A record vote comes when a single member asks for it. Then everyone is forced to vote yes or no on a bill. That leaves a trail that can be used against an incumbent in an election. Whenever possible, lawmakers prefer uncounted vocal votes — aye or nay. Cason said a vocal vote prevents the rest of us from knowing how our representatives vote.
“You’re endangering members,” he was warned. “You’re upsetting people.”
Every 10 years, the Legislature changes district boundaries. Cason said the word was out: Don’t put anything in writing. Lawmakers expect a lawsuit and don’t want to offer easy evidence.
It took Cason a while to realize it, but nobody wanted to talk to him about his district. In retrospect, it seems everyone knew he was about to get hosed — everybody but him.
“There were whispers and comments,” he recalled. “I started putting two and two together. Why isn’t anyone talking to me?”
“These guys are masters,” he added. “They have perfected the art of leaving no fingerprints on anything.”
When he saw proposed boundaries for his home district, “I was shocked.”
His district, previously 53% Republican, was switched to 61% Democrat. No way he could win reelection.
The reaction in the House to his fate? “Everyone was like ‘whoa.’”
He walked over to see House redistricting chair Todd Hunter, Republican of Corpus Christi.
“Todd, I thought we were friends,” he said.
“Well, we are,” came the reply.
“You sure as heck fooled me by the way you guys broke it off on my backside. Friends wouldn’t do that to friends.”
Hunter didn’t respond to my inquiry.
Cason proposed an amendment that would save his seat. In a vote, only 16 members supported him.
He is resigned to his fate.
“That’s the problem with government,” he said. “Most people want a career, along with power and authority to benefit them personally — whether it’s a law firm, whether it’s their company, whether it’s a friend’s company, or whatever.”
He added, “Nothing is done by accident. Everything is choreographed and designed on purpose. ... But it’s not a swamp. A swamp has an ecosystem. It’s a sewer.”
Cason has 11 months remaining on his one and only term.
“I’ve been burned at the stake,” he said, before correcting himself. “Actually, I’ve been voted off the island by my own team.”
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