Vodka Street Global Bistro and Bar in downtown San Marcos has temporarily closed its operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Taken on April 10, 2020. Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune
Many Democrats want the economy to remain closed. Some Republicans have insisted that it reopen immediately. But more than anyone else, the decision about when — and how — Texas will return to business as usual falls to Gov. Greg Abbott.
The team that is guiding him through that process features some of the most prominent and politically powerful business executives in the state, many of whom have contributed generously to the governor’s political campaign.
Its chair, James Huffines, is a former bank executive who served two stints as chair of the University of Texas System Board of Regents. Its chief operating officer, Mike Toomey, was until recently one of the state’s leading business lobbyists and is a former chief of staff to former governors Rick Perry and Bill Clements. And its ranks include multiple well-known entrepreneurs, including the owner of the Houston Rockets and the founders of Dell Technologies and Kendra Scott.
The “Governor’s Strike Force to Open Texas” is already “working around the clock” to begin opening up the state while keeping communities safe, Abbott said Friday when he announced the team of around three dozen. The task force’s next set of recommendations is expected to be reflected in an announcement the governor makes sometime next week.
“I want you to know that I’ve already begun working with this team about next steps for Texas,” Abbott said at Friday’s news conference, referring to Huffines as someone “who has successfully run businesses and knows his way around the Capitol” and calling Toomey “a proven chief operating officer who knows how to quickly deliver results.”
But the task force’s make-up has also drawn criticism from Democrats and even some local elected officials, who argue that the group lacks perspective from those who they say know their communities best.
“It was disappointing to see that it appears to me that no local elected official was invited to participate in these panels,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said in a video statement last week to the Tribune. “I think that local officials bring a very important and needed perspective to that work.”
State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, echoed a similar sentiment while on a conference call with reporters, saying that the voice of county judges and mayors “is critical” — and that it was missing from the task force conversation.
“They are our eyes and ears on the ground,” Israel said, “and most connected to what exactly needs to be done and what can be done.”
Leaders with experience in Texas politics
The task force will advise Abbott on perhaps the most difficult question facing governments across the country: How should Texas balance the need to minimize deaths from the new coronavirus with the knowledge that stay-at-home measures are causing real economic pain?
Abbott and other state leaders have expressed optimism that ordering Texans to stay at home except for essential services has helped slow the spread of the virus and kept the state's hospitals from being overrun. But many members of Abbott’s own party have urged him to allow the state to return to work as quickly as possible, even as some health leaders stress that doing so would cost lives.
The task force is comprised of a 39-member advisory group of business leaders and also features consulting members such as Attorney General Ken Paxton, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. Multiple medical experts — including state health Commissioner John Hellerstedt and Mark McClellan, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — will serve as the group’s chief medical advisers, which Abbott said Friday “will work together to develop a medical architecture to comprehensively test and trace COVID-19.”
At the helm is Huffines, a former executive of PlainsCapital Bank. Huffines, who served two stints as chair of the University of Texas System Board of Regents from 2003 to 2010, is also no stranger to the Capitol. From 1986 to 1990, he served as secretary of appointments for then-Gov. Clements. He also held roles with Perry’s administration, serving as chair of his transition team from 2000 to 2001 and co-chairing the Texas Inauguration Committee for the governor in 2003 and again in 2007.
Former colleagues on the UT System board described him as a consensus builder who worked hard to understand the operations of a complex institution and the challenges it faced.
“I would say that James is a very quiet but effective leader — that without bombast or ego, he has a great ability to analyze a problem because he does his homework very carefully,” H. Scott Caven, a former UT regent who served alongside Huffines, told the Tribune. “I am highly confident that that will be the case with [the task force]. He’s a man of great integrity, honesty and he’s respected by everyone with whom he works.”
Huffines also has two brothers who have been involved in GOP politics: former state Sen. Don Huffines, a Dallas Republican aligned with the hardline faction of the party, and Don’s twin, Phillip Huffines, who ran unsuccessfully for the Texas Senate in 2018. Don Huffines has criticized Abbott over his “disappointing” and “un-Texan” handling of the pandemic, saying the governor “has not been a leader in the coronavirus crisis.”
Meanwhile, Toomey has been an operator in Austin since 1983, when he was sworn in as a Republican Houston-area state representative. During his third term as a House member, Toomey left the Legislature to become chief of staff to then-Gov. Clements. After his stint in the governor’s office, Toomey became a lobbyist, working for various clients. He quickly earned a reputation as an effective advocate, before joining the governor’s office for a second time to serve as chief of staff to Perry from 2002 to 2004.
More recently, Toomey has maintained an impressive list of lobby clients, including the powerful tort reform group Texans for Lawsuit Reform, AT&T, the health insurance company Cigna and Cintra, a Spanish company that oversees several of the state’s toll roads.
Toomey has been criticized over the years over his back-and-forth between the lobby and state government, often fielding accusations of “crony capitalism.” That criticism crested in 2007, when Perry issued an executive order to require girls be vaccinated against HPV as a preventative to cervical cancer. At the time, the only available vaccine for the virus was made by Merck, a pharmaceutical company represented in Texas by Toomey until last week, according to records with the Texas Ethics Commission.
That criticism resurfaced Friday when his appointment was announced, though Toomey had since deregistered as a lobbyist and stopped representing all clients earlier in the week, according to an Abbott spokesperson and TEC records.
“Abbott Picks Corrupt Influence Peddler as Chief Operating Officer,” read the subject line of an email from the Democratic-aligned Lone Star Project, before calling on Toomey to either “immediately withdraw” from the position or “be replaced” since “he is the poster child for corporate cronyism.”
“Toomey has no experience building a business, creating jobs or stimulating anyone’s economic well-being except his own,” the email read. “His position as staff director on Abbott’s committee is an insult to the honorable business men and women who have agreed to serve.”
Other longtime politicos say Toomey’s connections and knowledge of state government make him the right person for the task force job.
“Mike Toomey is battle tested — he’s exactly the type of person you want in this role at this time,” Deirdre Delisi, a former top adviser and chief of staff to Perry, told the Tribune. “He knows how government works. He knows the players. And he gets stuff done. In a crisis, you want your best people on the playing field.”
Of the 41 task force members, including Huffines and Toomey, 27 have donated to Abbott’s campaign since January 2015. Those 27 members have contributed just over $6 million — including in-kind donations — combined, according to a Tribune analysis of finance reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission.
Drayton McLane, chair of the McLane Group and former owner of the Houston Astros, has given Abbott’s campaign about $1 million since 2015. Dallas real estate developer Ross Perot Jr. has donated roughly $955,000 to the campaign over the same time period. Dallas businessman Robert Rowling and Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta have contributed about $752,000 and $550,000, respectively, since 2015.
The task force’s two leaders — Huffines and Toomey — have not donated nearly as much, records show. Huffines has contributed $1,000 to Abbott’s campaign since 2015. And Toomey has donated $10,000.
Others, such as Kendra Scott and Michael Dell, founders of Kendra Scott jewelry and Dell Technologies, respectively, have not contributed to Abbott’s campaign, according to TEC records.
Abbott has faced criticism over the donor history of his task force, and some have suggested that the lack of diversity on it prevents the perspectives from lower income and minority communities in the state from being considered.
Asked about it during a Tuesday news conference, Abbott said that the members advising him from the medical perspective are “doctors, not donors” and that his team’s “health care approach to all communities is going to be based upon both data and doctors.”
“That said, I am concerned about a disproportionate impact of those who either contract or suffer severe consequences from COVID-19 who are representatives of minority communities,” Abbott said, noting that his office — including his chief of staff, who “happens to be a Hispanic” — is working with members of the Legislature to “study and evaluate the impact and what can be done about that.”
Carla Astudillo, Ross Ramsey and Juan Pablo Garnham contributed to this report.
Disclosure: James Huffines, the University of Texas System, Steve Adler, PlainsCapital Bank, Scott Caven, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, AT&T, Cintra, Deirdre Delisi, Drayton McLane, Ross Perot Jr., Robert Rowling, Michael Dell and Dell Technologies have been financial supporters 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.