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2 Empower Texans staff members reprimanded after recording reveals them joking about Abbott’s wheelchair use

Abbott says Texas has ‘abundant’ capacity as more coronavirus patients are hospitalized
Abbott says Texas has ‘abundant’ capacity as more coronavirus patients are hospitalized

Two staffers for the hardline conservative group Empower Texans have been caught on an audio recording disparaging Gov. Greg Abbott with profanity and joking about his wheelchair use.

Upon the comment's surfacing Friday morning, Abbott's office and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick denounced them and Empower Texans said the staffers were "suspended from all public activities with the organization immediately."

The comments came on an unedited version of the group's podcast, Texas Scorecard Radio, featuring Empower Texans' vice president, Cary Cheshire, and general counsel, Tony McDonald. The audio was published — apparently inadvertently — Thursday. The unedited version was replaced with an edited episode later in the day.

After the show ends in the unedited version, McDonald and Cheshire laugh about references they made to Abbott that could be perceived as highlighting the fact he has used a wheelchair since being partially paralyzed in a 1984 accident.

“I feel like before there was a switch I could flip to avoid that, and I’m just so frustrated that I’ve flipped it off,” Cheshire says. “He’s such a revolting piece of s---.”

The two had been venting over Abbott's recent comments allowing local officials to order businesses to require customers to wear masks amid the coronavirus pandemic. The governor's approval of such policies came after a stretch of confusion over what exactly local officials could do to mandate regarding mask use under his statewide orders.

The sentiments by Cheshire and McDonald are not dissimilar from criticism of Abbott they have lodged publicly, though without profanity and reference to his disability. Empower Texans and some other hard-right activists have been generally critical of Abbott lately for ceding too much power to big-city Democratic leaders to fight the virus.

“It’s like, I have created this riddle for you and you have figured out how to f--- your citizens with it — ‘Great job, I’m with you,’” Cheshire says in the unedited podcast while talking about Abbott’s mask confusion. “And it’s like, you’re an awful piece of s---.”

McDonald adds that Abbott “created a shitty policy that’s vague because he wanted to avoid accountability.” As for Abbott’s eventual clarification that counties and cities can require businesses to mandate mask wearing, McDonald says, “Well, f-----’ say it, don’t clown around.”

There is a layer of irony to the situation. Empower Texans' leader, Michael Quinn Sullivan, forced House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, into retirement last year after secretly recording a meeting with Bonnen where he proposed teaming up to politically target 10 House Republicans.

Sullivan issued a statement Friday afternoon saying he was "heartbroken by the language and tone" used by Cheshire and McDonald and that he has already personally apologized to Abbott.

"Both have been suspended from all public activities with the organization immediately, and additional internal actions will be taken," Sullivan said. "Whether it was a private conversation or not is unimportant; it was wrong and unacceptable."

An Abbott spokesman denounced the comments by Cheshire and McDonald.

"It reveals a lot about an organization’s character and morals that uses profanity to mock a person in a wheelchair, and this audio is disgusting and hate-filled," Abbott spokesman John Wittman said in a statement. "It is sad to think about what else this group may be saying about people behind their backs when they think they aren’t being recorded. Regardless of this despicable tape, the Governor remains keenly focused on containing the spread of COVID-19, while also unifying the state as we celebrate Juneteenth."

Patrick also condemned the remarks, tweeting: “The hateful [Empower Texans] attack mocking Governor Abbott is outrageous, vulgar and completely unacceptable. [McDonald] and [Cheshire] are persona non grata in my book and anyone [at Empower Texans] who does not condemn this behavior.”