State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R- Deer Park, has a knack for stirring things up and drawing attention to himself, a quality that all elected officials possess to a certain degree.
Last year, he raised a stink about potential financial problems at Crosby ISD, and he was right on target. There was extensive financial malfeasance, and the public had every right to know what happened. He should be applauded for calling out the school board.
He should also be thanked for setting up a state legislative committee hearing in Deer Park. This committee investigated the ITC fire and state regulation of the petro-chemical industry in our area.
However, last week’s flap in Goose Creek CISD is nothing more than manufactured outrage. Yes, the Donald Trump assignment was stupid, and the teacher should have known better, but the teacher was appropriately disciplined by the school district.
I hate to get into political minutiae, but Cain’s exploitation of the issue can be traced to the notorious issue of partisan gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering is the drawing of a legislative district to the advantage one party or the other. Cain’s district 128 is drawn very carefully to elect a Republican. It includes conservative areas from Deer Park, Baytown, and Crosby, but it excludes areas of old Baytown that are more likely to vote Democratic.
The Democrats in old Baytown are represented by Mary Ann Perez in District 144. Her district runs from Baytown all the way into heavily Democratic and Hispanic communities in east Houston, and it carefully bypasses more conservative voters in Pasadena and Deer Park.
When state legislative districts are this heavily skewed to one political party, the primary election becomes the most important election. In Cain’s district, winning the Republican primary practically guarantees victory in the general election.
Sure enough, Cain ran uncontested in the 2018 general election.
Cain knows this, so he has every incentive to fire up a very small group of conservative voters who regularly participate in the primary and runoff primary elections.
For proof, look no further than the 2016 Republican runoff primary election. Cain defeated Wayne Smith, a solid conservative, by a mere 23 votes, but only 6,000 voters even participated in the runoff.
Cain has to keep those 6,000 voters happy, so he has to find issues like the school assignment to rally the troops. If he fails to maintain a certain level of outrage, he might get challenged in the primary by someone even more conservative than him.
Looking back at the 2017 legislative session, Cain devoted a lot of his rhetoric to issues like transgender bathrooms and sanctuary cities for illegal immigrants. Both of these issues serve as dog whistles for his primary voters.
In 2019, we see a well-choreographed replay of Cain’s 2017 strategy.
The March 31 edition of The Baytown Sun did a very nice job laying out the 2019 legislative priorities of our local senators and representatives. Most of our local members introduced bills to deal with local issues like transportation, flooding, and recovery from Hurricane Harvey, but Cain has chosen to focus on boilerplate issues like abortion and voter identification laws.
Cain will easily win re-election in 2020, most likely in an uncontested general election, but in 2021, the Legislature must redraw all 150 legislative districts. If Cain’s district pulls in more Democratic neighborhoods, he will probably change his tune.
He will have to talk about dull issues like education, transportation and flooding.
Steve Showalter is a government professor at Lee College in Baytown.