The 3 Worst North Texas Legislators

Fallon, Stickland, and Tinderholt are ready to entertain us in Austin.

At or about noon on January 13, the 84th Texas Legislature was scheduled to convene. I am writing this column more than a month before that occasion. Luckily for me, it’s easy to predict just what the assembled politicians, most of whom are marionettes for various PACs and lobbyists, will do and say during their 140 days (plus special sessions) of legislative play-acting.

This year, the nature of the bills filed pre-session promises ensuing hilarity. Topics for discussion will swing from strengthening open-carry laws to outlawing texting while driving to approving same-sex marriages to marijuana legalization to housing prisoners in tents. Each of these could be its own sitcom plotline, guaranteed to generate cringe- and guffaw-worthy pronouncements from our legislators.

True, there are still a few statewide politicians who can deal with controversial issues in a smart way. Joe Straus, the Republican speaker of the House from San Antonio, is one. Praising his intelligence and temperament, Texas Monthly said of Straus: “It is one of the great ironies of Texas politics that at a moment when the House chamber is a roiling cauldron of Tea Partiers, ultraconservatives, and clueless freshmen … the body has as its leader one of the more genteel and thoughtful speakers in recent memory.”

But you know what I say to that? BO-RING! I don’t want “genteel and thoughtful.” I want the roiling cauldron. I want slapstick. I want people who have the depth of a teacup saucer interpreting Scripture and writing laws.

Who will I be watching, then? I talked to a wide array of Lege experts—lobbyists, journalists, and (mostly Republican) politicians—to narrow my choices. I controlled for distance (the closer to Dallas, the better) and past history. And I’ve come up with a group who I think will prove to be North Texas’ three stooges of this session.

First runner-up was Scott Turner, the Tea Party-backed, cowboy hat-wearing former NFL player who made what promises to be a disastrous challenge to Straus for the position of speaker. But he never really said anything overtly ridiculous himself (other than suggesting he could win). “He’s good-looking, a great speaker, and he does what the Tea Partiers tell him to do,” says one Austin insider. “He is what he is.”

“Is what he is” is not what anyone I spoke to said about Pat Fallon, a Republican from Frisco who represents District 106. Fallon is smart and charismatic, with a biting sense of humor. He falls into the hard-core Christian conservative wing of the Tea Party, those who champion values legislation as much or more than financial prudence. 

I don’t want “genteel and thoughtful.” I want people who have the depth of a teacup saucer interpreting Scripture and writing laws.

Fair enough. But Fallon has a lawyerlike relationship with the truth. First, he loves to claim that he was a member of the 1988 Notre Dame national championship football team. He has even brought out his former coach, Lou Holtz, to speak on his behalf. And this is technically true, as he was one of nearly 120 people listed on the team’s “championship roster,” and he did play at least one play in a varsity game during his career. But Fallon was never a first-team player. He was one of several receivers listed on the team’s reserve squad. Fallon played under Holtz in the same way I, while a Dallas Morning News sports section intern, wrote alongside Blackie Sherrod.

This “technically true” pattern was repeated when Fallon, then on the Frisco City Council, decided to run for statewide office in 2012. He needed to move from Collin County to Denton County to do so, but his new home wasn’t completed in time. He rented a place in Denton County in which the Fallon family supposedly lived during the election. Except that when the election judge at their polling place asked Fallon’s wife to verify her address, she reportedly said, “I don’t know where that address is, and I’ve never lived at that address.” 

But the funniest bit of fudgery from Fallon comes from his appropriation of an old joke he claims really happened to his family. The joke: a know-it-all tells a young child that whales have small throats and can’t swallow humans. The child asks, What about Jonah? The know-it-all says, nope, didn’t happen. Child says she will ask Jonah when she gets to heaven. “What if he’s in hell?” the grown-up asks. Child: “Then you can ask him.” Zing! Funny! Except Fallon has said in speeches that this really happened to his 5-year-old son, and his son really responded in this way. Which I can’t prove didn’t happen, in the same way I can’t prove that when your spouse called you immature, you didn’t really respond, “Get out of my fort.” But I’m skeptical.

You can see Fallon make this claim on YouTube in his speech at the dedication of Prestwick STEM Academy in The Colony. This is ironic, since the naming of this school—Fallon suggested the name of a fallen veteran, which the naming committee rejected—led to his jihad against Little Elm ISD, where he backed a slate of trustees who ran off several top staffers in the district, including the superintendent. “He’s vindictive, and he’ll say anything to get what he wants,” says a former supporter. “But I think he’s too busy fighting battles here to do any real damage in Austin.”

Not so Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a Republican from Bedford who represents District 92. His battles take place in the loony dreamscape of his fevered imagination. Texas Monthly summed up Stickland’s freshman year thusly: “[He] spent too much time at the back mike going off half-cocked, railing against enemies, real and imagined.” Here are other ways Stickland was described to me by various Austin-watchers: “The right-wing of all right-wingers.” “He’s a neophyte who really didn’t know what he was doing.” “He was pretty much just furniture.”

But as with Curly—he was the lovable but clumsiest of the Stooges—people want to like him. Okay, sure, his positions can be maddening. He’s a high school dropout who education PACs say has a poor record on public school funding (e.g., he voted against a taxpayer-funded school breakfast program). But Stickland seems to have gotten so far out over his skis that folks feel sorry for him. “With Sticky, I actually hope he gets better, gets some wisdom,” says one education lobbyist. “Sometimes that happens.”

No one has any such hopes of sensible moderation for freshman Tony Tinderholt, a Republican from Arlington who represents District 94. Tinderholt is arguably the angriest, most obstinate politician North Texas has yet produced, all before he was even sworn in. His campaign garnered national attention for his rambling 20-minute talk to a “9/12” group in which he advocated sending troops to the border. As recapped by the Texas Observer: “Tinderholt, seeming to channel Travis Bickle, wandered in and out of lucidity as he prophesied that ‘people were going to die’ on the border and that’s ‘the only thing that’s going to stop the invasion of our country.’ ”  

Tinderholt, on his fourth wife (this one a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader), has city of Arlington officials very worried because of his extremism and temper. In fact, some longtime Republicans in Arlington politics publicly backed Tinderholt’s Democratic opponent. Tinderholt is a fierce open-carry advocate who recently yelled at Arlington city council members during a meeting in which safety regulations for open-carry demonstrations were discussed. He has told open-carry advocates that he will get legislation passed that they want, regardless of police opposition. Supporters say he’s told them to call his office if they feel the police are harassing them. As the Observer concluded, “He’s the closest Texas voters are going to get to achieving their long-held dream of electing a gun.”

Which would be funny if it weren’t so scary and depressing. The only way to enjoy the impending antics of these stooges is to do what we did when we were children. Don’t actually think about how much it would hurt someone to grab his nose with pliers and pull him across a room. Turn off your brain and suspend your disbelief, people. The show is about to start.

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