Politics, Race and Republican Leaders’ Sorry Response to COVID-19 in Texas

While many local leaders in the state’s largest cities and counties acted swiftly to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Texas early on, the reactions of state Republican leaders to the crisis was much slower. Then after belatedly issuing a shelter-at-home order and closing nonessential businesses, Gov. Abbott and other Republican leaders have apparently decided that enforcement shouldn’t inconvenience their own political base — and Texans of color apparently don’t count for much there.

As the Dallas Morning News reports, Gov. Abbott gave local officials the authority to enforce his public health orders through jail time and fines. The newspaper found enforcement was particularly high in counties along the border. In mid-April, for example, two Latina residents of Laredo were arrested for offering hair and beauty services in their homes.

Republican leaders had little to say about that enforcement for weeks — that is, until a white salon owner in Dallas defiantly kept her shop open and was sentenced to jail for contempt of court. Then Gov. Abbott indignantly announced that jail time would no longer be a penalty. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick even offered to pay the salon owner’s fine.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo saw what was going on:

“The elephant in the room is it wasn’t until a blonde-haired Caucasian woman got involved that the interests of our political leaders were piqued. You can’t have it both ways. [Abbott] issued the order to try to follow the science. But the second there’s a little bit of pushback, he tries to distance himself from his own order. I don’t think so.”

As we now know, far-right groups turned the Dallas salon owner’s defiance into a PR stunt, drawing attention to what they claim is overreach by local officials trying to protect their constituents during a pandemic. Even before that, Texas businessman and major Republican donor Tim Dunn wrote an open letter demanding that elected officials prioritize the economy over public health. His screed called efforts to stop the spread of the virus an attempt to “advance tyranny” and “steer the country toward socialism.” And this: “Many citizens who lost employment are now incentivized to remain on welfare.” The sneering contempt for working people is astonishing, especially when you recall the billions of tax dollars that have been showered on corporations during the crisis.

So not surprisingly, the governor is now denouncing Democratic leaders in the state’s largest cities and counties for enforcing his own order. Attorney General Ken Paxton has threatened legal action against those cities for other common-sense measures, like calling on people to wear masks when in public. And bowing to his core evangelical base, Paxton even insists that churches must be exempt from public health orders barring large gatherings during the pandemic.

Republican leaders have made it clear that, as far as they’re concerned, we’re really not all in this together after all. If you’re a major donor and part of their political base, they have your back. They will pander and race to defend you even when you defy their own public health orders. The rest of us, including Texans of color, are left behind.

Remember that when you go the polls. Elections matter.