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Baylor Cody Bradford (18) on the mound in the second inning Sunday against Cornell.

Texas governor stockpiles cash but not for the usual reason

AUSTIN — As governor of Texas, Republican Greg Abbott doesn’t flash the White House ambitions of his predecessors or their big personalities. But in just five years he has quietly built his own distinction: taking in more cash from donors than any governor in U.S. history.

Few others even come close. Since first running in 2013, Abbott has accepted more than $120 million in political contributions, an Associated Press review of campaign filings shows. He has been showered with big-donor money on a scale that is prohibited in most states and far beyond limits for members of Congress — more than 200 times receiving contributions of $100,000 or more.

The only others in his league would be former Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker and New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who since their first successful runs in 2010 raised $119 million and $111 million respectively, according to the National Institute on Money in Politics. But they needed years more to get there.

For most politicians, raising big money is about two things: fueling higher pursuits or turning back competition. But as Abbott begins a second term in Texas, he is a governor who doesn’t seem to have either.

“The sizes of the checks he asks for, his relentlessness — he never stops fundraising,” said George Seay, who was the Texas finance chair for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s first presidential run in 2012. “It’s a machine probably not duplicated, if at all, around the rest of the country.”

His style isn’t a soft touch. “If someone might be expecting a $50,000 ask, he’ll ask for $250,000,” Seay said.

But Abbott, a 61-year-old former state attorney general and judge, makes no indication that the money has purpose beyond a desire to stay put. Though presidential speculation comes with the territory of being Texas governor, Abbott has consistently dismissed suggestions that he might follow the path of George W. Bush and Perry.

Critics have suggested that money is just Abbott’s way of quantifying power, and that he collects it from those who want appointments or influence over policy.

“Abbott stockpiling that money is just a reflection of a one-party state that seems to protect the donor class in Texas,” said Craig McDonald, executive director of the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice. “It says more about how the system works and is bigger than Greg Abbott himself.”

An Abbott spokesman denied selling access, saying donations are never factored into decision-making. Last year, Abbott’s campaign returned a $10,000 check to a West Texas developer, George McMahan, after he told a local television station, “You make a large donation to the governor, and in turn you are eligible for appointment” to a university governing board.

Unlike the swaggering figures who preceded him, Abbott has remade the job with a lower profile — a style that has stocked criticism of sometimes being too detached. He has likened himself to a CEO and wears the buttoned-down look. His politics are conventional hard right, of late pushing immigration crackdowns and border security surges.

Most remarkable, though, is how Abbott has become almost a party unto himself. Fortified by his donors, he was able to spend more than $2 million last year targeting a few GOP lawmakers who crossed him and to help ideological allies threatened by a minor Democratic resurgence in Texas. He could spare it: that was more money alone than what Abbott’s Democratic opponent, Lupe Valdez, raised in her own feeble campaign.

During the 2018 midterm election, party leaders say Republican Sen. Ted Cruz had a field staff of 18 for the political fight of his life against Democrat Beto O’Rourke. By comparison, Abbott financed a machine of about 200 for his own lopsided campaign and other races he wanted to influence.

“There’s no sense in being governor unless you have a legislature supportive of your ideas,” said Dave Carney, Abbott’s longtime political adviser.

If Abbott simply wants to be governor for life, it’s a possibility in a state with no term limits. Perry held the job for a record 14 years, a stretch that allows a governor to amass power by gradually stocking the state’s powerful state boards and agencies entirely with his own appointees. Already, Carney said, Abbott is looking ahead to a third term in 2022.

For a politician seeking money, Texas is nirvana. It is among only about a dozen states that allow unlimited contributions from individuals, unlike most states where donations are capped at four or five figures.

Abbott’s million-dollar donors include Dallas pipeline magnate Kelcy Warren, who was appointed to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, and West Texas oilman Syed Javaid Anwar, who sits on the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Other donors are executives whose businesses have state contracts, and in at least one case, receive subsidies straight from Abbott’s office. Race promoter Robert Epstein, whose Circuit of the Americas track in Austin has received more than $150 million from an events fund controlled by the governor, donated $50,000 after Abbott won re-election. The contribution came months after Epstein learned he was being denied additional funds this year because of missing paperwork. Epstein declined comment about his donation.

Houston businessman Stuart Stedman, who since 2013 has given Abbott more than $500,000 and was appointed chairman of Texas’ higher education board, said in an email, “My financial support speaks for itself in describing my opinion of Governor Abbott.”

Abbott spokesman John Wittman said contributions are never considered in the appointment process.

“Proof of that is that more than 70 percent of Gov. Abbott’s appointees have never contributed to him and less than one percent of the Governor’s donors have been appointed to positions of service. To suggest otherwise would be false and a disservice to the character and quality of the individuals who are appointed to selflessly serve the state without compensation,” Wittman said in a statement.

The AP tally only includes Abbott’s fundraising since he formally launched his run for governor in July 2013. The comparison to Cuomo does not include Cuomo’s earlier failed run in 2002, when he raised more than $13 million.

Two of the Republican lawmakers Abbott targeted unsuccessfully for defeat in 2018 had one thing in common: both challenged him over not adding ethics reforms to a list of emergency legislative items. Their proposals included a ban on raising money during special sessions and not allowing appointees to donate more than $2,500.

Seay, the Republican fundraiser in Dallas, said Abbott seems to exemplify a type of Texas politician who comes to the state capital intending to settle in.

“This is what they do,” he said.

editor's pick
SpaceX nighttime test fees pay for park upgrades in McGregor
 Mike Copeland  / 

Rocket testing at SpaceX in McGregor creates a rumble felt miles away in North Waco, sometimes rattling windows and nerves after the sun goes down.

But it may not be an error, or even a stretch, to suggest baseball fans in the community west of Waco are tempted to stand and cheer when the rumble starts later than city leaders would prefer. Truth is, when Falcon rockets are put through their paces between 9 and 11 p.m., the city receives payments from the California-based rocket company now aiming for Mars.

This “hush” money for five years has profited a special fund to support youth baseball in McGregor, so designated by the McGregor City Council. About $440,000 later, the city christened Launch Pad Park, whose name reflects a tip of the cap to SpaceX, not a moon shot by a star player.

The McGregor Economic Development Corp. pledged $75,000 toward the cause, giving the community a $515,000 pot. Launch Pad Park, which will be dedicated during ceremonies April 13, was previously called Bluebonnet Park after the longtime Bluebonnet Ordnance Plant, a U.S. Navy weapons depot that spread over about 9,600 acres.

That land now belongs to the city, and about half is leased to SpaceX.

Other defense and aerospace-related users have called McGregor home, including Rocketdyne. As Bonnie Mullens, longtime McGregor resident and publisher and associate editor for the McGregor Mirror newspaper put it, “We’re used to hearing booms out here. We’ve kind of gotten used to it.”

“We thought the rocket theme was appropriate,” City Manager Kevin Evans said of the fresh park name. “This is the first significant expenditure from our special park fund. The lighting project was very necessary. The old lights had been in place for 30 years and were no longer serviceable. These lights are LED and cost half what the old ones did to operate and require very little maintenance.”

Staff photo — Jerry Larson 

Isaiah Garza, 6, plays at Launch Pad Park in McGregor, formerly known as Bluebonnet Park, after the U.S. Navy’s Bluebonnet Ordinance Plant that once operated nearby. A dedication ceremony for the updated park will be held April 13.

The lights are almost identical to those at Howard J. Lamade Stadium in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, home to the Little League World Series.

“We think they are the best in the state of Texas,” McGregor Youth Baseball and Softball President Charlie Williams said. “Turn on the old ones, and they sounded like an 18-wheeler trying to crank up.”

Other improvements include creation of handicap parking at the three-field complex and tweaking of the playing surfaces, Williams said.

“Dirt work cost $10,000 per field,” he said.

The program Williams oversees accommodates children from T-ball age to high school. He estimated 200 to 300 young people participate, in a city with about 5,000 residents.

“In a community this size, I think that’s impressive,” Williams said.

He said volunteers make youth baseball and softball work in McGregor.

Donated labor and money made the concession stands larger and helped expand the menu.

“We’re set up like a real restaurant,” Williams said with pride. “We have a new ice machine, a new fryer, new condiment trays that keep the contents cold. We undergo checks by the county health department.”

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

McGregor has updated and renamed Bluebonnet Park as Launch Pad Park using money SpaceX pays when it tests rocket engines between 9 and 11 p.m.

In recent years, the league also installed covered batting cages and built a climate-controlled safe haven for umpiring crews.

“It’s important they have a place to get away from everything, away from the public, especially if they’re involved in a contest that gets heated,” Williams said. “I umpired high school baseball for years, so I know.”

The cherry on top is the lighting installed by the city, he said.

“They are so sophisticated, really amazing,” he said. “You can turn them on and off with a phone, and they create a beautiful glow.”

Williams said improved facilities may mean McGregor gets the chance to host more tournaments, bolstering the local economy. He hopes the program grows to the point community leaders see fit to build a fourth field.

Evans said he would prefer not to say the city imposes fines on SpaceX, which employs between 400 and 500 in McGregor and makes international headlines with its supply trips to the International Space Station, the eccentricities of founder Elon Musk, the hauling of satellites into orbit for commercial customers and governments, and its plans for human space travel.

“It’s not a violation, really,” Evans said in an email message. “It is a fee that they pay when they test after 9 p.m. until 11 p.m.”

He said the frequency of late-night testing varies. If local SpaceX engineers and technicians are preparing for a major launch, the pace quickens.

“I would say they have to test during those times probably less than once a month on average,” Evans said. “On a calendar year basis, the first time is $10,000, the second is $15,000, and all additional that year are $25,000.”

Sheriff: 2 bodies recovered from Texas plane crash site

ANAHUAC — A southeast Texas sheriff said Sunday that two bodies have been recovered at the site where a Boeing 767 cargo plane crashed into a coastal bay. All three people aboard the Flight 3591 died, according to the plane’s owner.

Crews continued to search for the third body at Trinity Bay, about 35 miles east of Houston, Chambers County Sheriff Brian Hawthorne said at a Sunday afternoon news conference with officials from the National Transportation Safety Board and the FBI.

The plane’s owner, Atlas Air, issued a statement Sunday confirming the deaths, adding that its “primary focus is working to provide the families of those affected with care and support.” Atlas was operating the flight for Amazon when it crashed Saturday afternoon near the small town of Anahuac.

NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said security video from a jail about a mile away from the crash site showed the plane heading toward the ground nose first. Sumwalt added that air traffic controllers reported rain in the area, and that the plane did not send out a distress call before the wreck.

Civilian volunteers in small boats helped search part of the bay, but Hawthorne told the Associated Press before the news conference that the volunteers will no longer be used.

Jason Campbell was among the civilian boaters who checked the debris on Saturday. What the boaters found was grim.

“Pieces of bodies, nothing bigger than ... you know,” Campbell told KHOU-TV . “It’s obvious it’s human pieces but nothing bigger than you can hold in your hands.”

Sumwalt said that finding the flight recorders remains a high priority for searchers.

The jumbo jet had departed from Miami and was likely moments from landing at Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston when it crashed. FBI Special Agent in Charge Perrye Turner asked that anyone with debris on their property contact authorities.

Dave Clark, senior vice president of Worldwide Operations at Amazon, said: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the flight crew, their families and friends along with the entire team at Atlas Air during this terrible tragedy. We appreciate the first responders who worked urgently to provide support.”

Rep. Schiff warns of subpoenas, lawsuit over Mueller report

WASHINGTON — A top House Democrat threatened on Sunday to call special counsel Robert Mueller to Capitol Hill, subpoena documents and sue the Trump administration if the full report on Mueller’s Russia investigation is not made public.

Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said his committee will keep close watch on new Attorney General William Barr to see if he were “to try to bury any part of this report.” Schiff, D-Calif., also pledged to “take it to court if necessary.”

He said anything less than complete disclosure would leave Barr, who now oversees the investigation, with “a tarnished legacy.”

Schiff’s comments come as Democrats have made it clear that they are ready for an aggressive, public fight with the Justice Department if they are not satisfied with the level of access they have to Mueller’s findings.

Mueller is showing signs of wrapping up his nearly 2-year-old investigation into possible coordination between Trump associates and Russia’s efforts to sway the 2016 election. The report isn’t expected to be delivered to the Justice Department this coming week.

Barr has said he wants to release as much information as he can. But during his confirmation hearing last month, Barr made clear that he will decide what the public sees, and that any report will be in his words, not Mueller’s.

Schiff, in a television interview, suggested that anything short of Mueller’s full report would not satisfy Democrats. He pointed to a public interest in seeing some of the underlying evidence, such as information gathered from searches conducted on longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, a former Trump campaign chairman.

With Democrats taking control of the House in January and Schiff now the committee chairman, he has undertaken his own investigation. That means re-examining issues covered by a now-closed GOP probe that concluded there was no evidence Trump’s campaign conspired with Russia. Schiff has said the committee also will pursue new matters, including whether foreign governments have leverage over Trump, his relatives or associates.

Some Democrats are pointing to documents that Justice Department officials provided to Congress in the wake of the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails, as well as information that Republicans demanded as part of their own inquiries.

Schiff said he told department officials after they released information related to the Clinton investigation that “this was a new precedent they were setting and they were going to have to live by this precedent whether it was a Congress controlled by the Democrats or Republicans.”

Beyond that, however, is “the intense public need to know here, which I think overrides any other consideration,” he said.

Democrats could use Mueller’s findings as the basis of impeachment proceedings. In a letter Friday, Democrats warned against withholding information on Trump on the basis of department opinions that the president can’t be indicted.

“We are going to get to the bottom of this,” Schiff said. “If the president is serious about all of his claims of exoneration, then he should welcome the publication of this report.”

Many Republicans have also argued that the full report should be released, though most have stopped short of saying it should be subpoenaed.

“We need to get the facts out there, get this behind us in a way that people thought that anybody that should have been talked to was talked to any question that should have been asked, was asked,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

But asked if he thought there could be a subpoena, Blunt, R-Mo., said, “I don’t know that you can.”

The Senate committee also has been investigating whether Trump’s campaign conspired with Russia. Blunt suggested a conclusion in that probe might wait until after Mueller’s report.

“We’d like to have frankly a little more access to the Mueller investigation before we come to a final conclusion,” Blunt said. “His report will help us write our final report. We’ve given Mueller full access to all of our interviews all of our investigation. We haven’t had that reciprocated and so we’ll soon find out what else is out there that we might not know about.”

Schiff appeared on ABC’s “This Week,” and Blunt was on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”