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The billionaire Wilks family bankrolls one of its own in run for Texas house

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Jon Francis, left, and Glenn Rogers are among the four Republicans running for the open seat in Texas House District 60. Via social media

On the sparse flatlands between Fort Worth and Abilene lies Cisco, home to a billionaire family of staunch conservatives that has thrown its weight around in Texas Republican politics for years.

From this small Texas town, the Wilkses — brothers Farris and Dan and their extensive families — have doled out millions supporting candidates and causes that reflect their hardline political ideology anchored in faith, freedom and guns.

This year there is a new wrinkle: One of the family’s own is running for office.

Jon Francis, 51, son-in-law of Farris and JoAnn Wilks, is one of four Republicans jockeying for the Texas House District 60 seat being vacated by state Rep. Mike Lang, a past beneficiary of the Wilks' funding who opted not to run for reelection and has not endorsed a preferred successor.

The largely rural seat is solidly Republican, and the battle lines emerging are not unusual. Francis and Glenn Rogers are seen as front-runners in the four-way race. The former brands himself as the staunch conservative choice; the latter casts himself as the less hardline candidate.

Francis married JoAnn and Farris Wilks’ daughter roughly 25 years ago and works at Wilks Development, a real estate development and investment company. Although Francis has never held office, he has worked behind the scenes in the family’s political efforts. Rogers, 64, a rancher and veterinarian, has served as president of the Palo Pinto County Farm Bureau and as a school board member.

Rogers entered the race in September after Lang initially announced his retirement to run for county commissioner. Lang reversed course days later — only to decide in December he would not run for reelection to the House after all. Lang’s 11th-hour decision triggered a candidate filing extension, and Francis jumped into the race.

“I want to make sure that our district has an actual solid conservative that's willing to go and fight for our values," Francis said at a candidate forum at the end of January. "That is the reason I decided to make this run. ... Our values are worth fighting for."

The race has not gone without its dramatic moments. And the question looming over it all is whether Rogers can overcome the Wilks family’s network — and checkbook.

“I guess they don’t have a better way to spend that money”

Farris Wilks, a pastor in Eastland County, and his younger brother, Dan, who have 17 children between them, hit it big in the 2000s during the state’s fracking boom. Overnight, it seemed, the families went from living in double-wide trailers to having billions.

They started cutting checks, pumping millions into certain Texas Republican circles, and backing various hardline conservative candidates and causes that fit their political ideology. The family, along with fellow conservative mega-donor Tim Dunn of Midland, has given generously to groups like Empower Texans and Texas Right to Life, organizations that issue scorecards ranking elected officials on their “fiscal responsibility” or “pro-life” records. The groups also often wade into GOP primaries to support candidates they deem sufficiently conservative.

This year, the Wilkses and Dunn are focusing heavily on contributing directly to their favored candidates. Farris Wilks, for example, has spent big in the race to replace retiring state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a Bedford Republican closely linked to the family. He has also contributed tens of thousands of dollars to a primary challenger to state Rep. Dan Flynn, a Canton Republican who has often received flack from his right for being too moderate.

One House member, state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, has fended off challenges from candidates with Wilks and Empower Texans funding before and thinks the family is “determined to buy a seat” at the Legislature.

“I guess they don’t have a better way to spend that money,” Geren told The Texas Tribune. “If I were that wealthy, I’d sure be finding something better to do with my money.”

“Votes are not for sale in this district”

Since joining the race in mid-December, Francis has raised more than $600,000, mostly from JoAnn and Farris Wilks, who each contributed $250,000. A sizable chunk of his other contributions came from donors with the last name Wilks, donors who work at a company named Wilks or both, according to a Texas Tribune analysis of campaign finance reports.

The generosity of the Wilks political machine has drawn criticism, particularly from Rogers, who calls it troubling that there is a “lack of transparency to the average voter of the source of Francis’ money.”

“Francis and the Wilks [family] are willing to spend and say anything to win, even though they may not say it directly,” Rogers told the Tribune last week, referring to the Wilkses’ connections with groups like Empower Texans. “I entered this campaign with no illusions of the financial capabilities of the Wilks [family]. Votes are not for sale in this district.”

But Francis, in interviews and at candidate forums, has waved away suggestions that his family is attempting to buy an election, casting himself as the “outsider” who has received more than 500 individual contributions.

“I made a decision early on at the very beginning of the campaign that I’m not accepting a penny from [political action committees], professional interests and lobbyists — I refuse to have my hands tied,” Francis told the Tribune in an interview last week. “Unfortunately, the Austin lobby has made their choice, and it is not me.”

Rogers, for his part, has raised more than $160,000 since entering the race. His largest contribution to date was a fraction of the Wilks’ half-million — $30,000 from the Texas Farm Bureau Friends of Agriculture Fund.

The other two candidates in the race — Christopher Perricone, who was ousted as Mineral Wells mayor last week, and Granbury attorney Kellye SoRelle — have raised considerably smaller amounts; SoRelle told the Tribune that, money aside, she is the candidate “with experience, who is merely trying to serve the people.” And Perricone said he thinks voters should cast a ballot for the "candidate that shares your ideals and ... that can best persuade others in Austin to join them in the fight to keep our freedoms!"

“I don’t own a white flag”

While both Francis and Rogers say they are running as conservatives, a healthy amount of daylight exists between the two. Francis has dubbed himself as an unwavering, uncompromising conservative who wants to represent voters in the district and fight for their values. Rogers has suggested he would be willing to give a little to get a little — if it would help rural Texans.

At a recent candidate forum, Francis dismissed the idea that lawmakers need merely have a seat at the table to impact the legislative process by negotiating and compromising.

“I have a strong belief that one man can make a huge difference,” he said. “I want to let you know that I don’t have a white flag, I don’t own a white flag and I won’t raise a white flag.”

Rogers countered that "incremental, positive change is much better than no change" at all.

“We’ve seen issues where extremists have a position that is so far to the right or to the left that there is no chance that it is going to get passed,” Rogers said. “You hold to your values — no question about that — but you also have to govern.”

The different approaches have elicited backing from different crowds. Francis touts endorsements from figures like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — who has benefited heavily from the Wilks family’s wallet — while Rogers has announced support from Republicans like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. (Rogers’ path first crossed with Perry’s, the candidate said, in 1984 when Perry was running for state representative in the district. “We’ve kept up with one another over the years,” Rogers told the Tribune, “and we share that Aggie bond.”)

“Disrespect for the process”

The race has not been without theatrics. At the end of January, Rogers stumbled on a conservative hardline when he declared he was against a ban on “taxpayer-funded lobbying.”

The practice of local entities like cities and counties using taxpayer funds to send lobbyists to the Legislature to plead their cases on legislation is a target of Republicans, who tried unsuccessfully to ban it in 2019 and will all but certainly try again in 2021 when state lawmakers reconvene at the Capitol.

An edited video of Rogers stating his position — “I want you to know that I am against the ban on taxpayer-funded lobbying. You heard that right” — made the rounds and ruffled feathers among the Empower Texans crowd.

A few days later, Rogers issued a statement saying he had “spent a lot of time listening to people talk about” the issue and seemed to shift his position slightly, noting that “strict parameters and limitations on tax dollars being used for lobbying” should be in place.

In an interview last week, Rogers acknowledged that his position has come full circle, and he now would support a ban on taxpayer-funded lobbying.

“Everything that I look at will be put under the lens of: How does it affect the small, rural communities in my district?” Rogers said. “If I get additional information after talking to people like Rick Perry who explain their concerns, then I’m OK modifying my position if I think that’s what my district wants.”

Rogers has also faced criticism from SoRelle, another candidate in the race, over what she describes as his “disrespect for the process, as well as his lack of decency to show up at the forums to answer to the citizens, [which] truly makes me question his integrity.”

One forum caused a larger than usual dust-up after Rogers dropped out just hours before it was set to start, arguing that the moderator’s ties to the Wilks crowd appeared biased and were unfair to his candidacy.

A couple of hours before the event began, Rogers called Robin Hayes, the chair of the Eastland County GOP, which organized the forum. Hayes told the Tribune that Rogers “raised his voice” at her during that phone call and eventually calmed down after she explained that questions had been collected from voters via email, text and Facebook — not written by the moderator.

Hayes said the tense exchange that day crystallized her decision on whom she plans to vote for, though she declined to say. Asked about the phone call, Rogers told the Tribune his interaction with Hayes was “stern but cordial” before questioning whether Hayes was loyal to Francis all along since she attends a church pastored by a member of the Wilks family.

But Rogers' decision to drop out of an event he felt was rigged against him underscored how just the perception of the Wilks family’s political reach has influenced the race.

SoRelle said she has little sympathy for Rogers’ complaints about the Wilks influence.

“I knew entering this race that the Wilks family money would be in play,” she said. “Anyone complaining about that at this point either didn’t do their homework or is merely posturing.”

Carla Astudillo contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The Texas Farm Bureau has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.