Old-Time Texas Politician, Verbally Quick on the Draw
Jerry Patterson is an authentic Texas politician, at a time when Texas politicians rarely act like Texas politicians. State elected officials and those trying to unseat them sue and countersue, carefully watch what they say, and are quick to apologize when they fail to do so.
And then there is Mr. Patterson, the state land commissioner and a former Marine fighter pilot who is quick-witted, loose-lipped and an opponent of anything resembling political correctness.
He has tackled issues and made comments over the years that have riled his political opponents — he upset environmentalists by referring to the plan to add the dunes sagebrush lizard to the endangered species list as “reptile dysfunction” — as well as his fellow Republicans, including those in Gov. Rick Perry’s office.
In 2009, Mr. Patterson got into a dispute with a Republican state lawmaker, Representative Wayne Christian, after Hurricane Ike destroyed Mr. Christian’s beachfront home on the Bolivar Peninsula near Galveston a year earlier. So that he and his neighbors could rebuild their houses, Mr. Christian pushed to have the properties exempted from a state law that prohibits building at the water’s edge on a public beach.
Mr. Patterson told The Houston Chronicle that the Legislature would have to impeach him if it wanted such an exemption enforced, and he had no qualms about being quoted in one of the biggest newspapers in Texas using a PG-rated expletive in reference to Mr. Christian.
After nine years as land commissioner, Mr. Patterson, 65, is running in the 2014 election for lieutenant governor, a job many consider the most influential in Austin because of its control over the Senate’s agenda. He is regarded as the underdog — prominent Republicans have expressed interest or declared themselves candidates, including Susan Combs, the state comptroller, and Todd Staples, the agriculture commissioner — but in many ways, Mr. Patterson has become the underdog of the Texas political culture as a whole.
He once broke a hand doing a cartwheel at the office. He issued a joke news release as land commissioner challenging his counterpart in New Mexico to a duel to settle a century-old land dispute between the states. (“I think I’ll just wing him,” Mr. Patterson said in the announcement.) He hates being driven around by staff members. (“We tried to stick a travel aide on him at first, just to keep up with him, and he would constantly ditch the guy,” said Jim Suydam, a spokesman.) And he advises newly elected legislators to stroll the Capitol.
“You need to go over to the Capitol and look at all those pictures on the wall,” he said. “All those people were elected and thought they were somebody, and you can walk through here and nobody knows who the hell they are. We’re all just passing through.”
At a campaign fund-raiser at an Austin bar, Mr. Patterson could have pressed the crowd for more cash, but instead he spent a good part of the evening showing off the engine of his 1951 Ford pickup truck and sharing the microphone with the country singer Gary P. Nunn on “You Never Even Called Me by My Name,” a beer in his hand and a .22-caliber, five-shot revolver in his boot.
Flipping through the campaign finance reports of high-profile Texas Republicans, one finds $2,871 catering expenses, $15,000 consulting fees and $126 floral bills. Mr. Patterson’s reports include a $5.57 meal at a Texaco station.
“I think in an era of kind of polished politicians, Jerry just comes across as completely unplugged,” said Ted Delisi, a Republican strategist who was the national field director for Mr. Perry’s presidential campaign. “He’s really not like anybody else. In a state of blunt talk, Jerry stands out as the bluntest of the blunt.”
Though his office a few blocks from the Capitol in Austin is something of a man cave — antique firearms, a mounted mule deer he shot in Hudspeth County — Mr. Patterson is not the macho type. He resembles not the 6-foot-4 Lyndon B. Johnson, but maybe his 5-foot-10 bespectacled lawyer.
For years, Mr. Patterson has carried the loaded revolver in a holster in his boot and a loaded .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol at the small of his back. Because he leads an agency with few security concerns — the General Land Office, which manages billions of dollars in state land, investments and mineral rights and is home to historic maps and documents — his reasons for arming himself daily are largely symbolic. As a state senator from the Houston area, Mr. Patterson wrote the law that gave Texans the right to carry concealed handguns.
“Am I afraid of a staff uprising?” he asked. “No, not exactly. It’s a liberty that if you don’t exercise it, it becomes quaint. I don’t care if it’s the Second Amendment or the First or the Fifth or whatever, you have to test it. Like the Occupy movement. There’s some folks with a screw loose. But I want them doing that, because they’re testing the limits.”
Because few Texas political leaders are as frank as Mr. Patterson, he has earned the respect of politicians from both parties, including Hector Uribe, the former Democratic state senator who ran against him in 2010 and whom Mr. Patterson once joked about shooting. When Mr. Perry was preparing to debate the musician and humorist Kinky Friedman, who ran for governor in 2006 (one of his slogans was “How hard could it be?”), Mr. Patterson went to the governor’s aid, relying on his own quick wit to play the role of Mr. Friedman.
Mr. Perry, Mr. Uribe and other Democrats and Republicans have split with Mr. Patterson on at least one issue, however. Last year, he sponsored a push by the Sons of Confederate Veterans for a Texas specialty license plate displaying the group’s name and logo, which features the Confederate battle flag. Mr. Perry, while running for president, said he opposed the proposed plate.
The state Department of Motor Vehicles’ governing board voted against the plates. “I think it’s a pretty clear sign he doesn’t either care what Texans think or that he is so ideologically and racially insensitive that he doesn’t have the ability to really govern a diverse state like ours,” said Matt Glazer, executive director of Progress Texas, a group that promotes liberal causes and fought against the license plate.
Mr. Patterson, whose great-grandfather served in the Confederate Army, said that the motor vehicle board had run from controversy in the name of political correctness, and that he had sponsored the plate to honor his great-grandfather and Texas history, even though others might find that history offensive. “Our history needs representation sometimes from those who want to make it fit into nice little cubes,” he said.
The day the board voted on the Confederate plate, it approved one honoring the Buffalo Soldiers, the black United States Army regiments from the late 1800s. Mr. Patterson sponsored that plate, too.