April 17, 2020

Abbott Names Huffines as Virus Strike Force Boss
after Ex-Senator Who's Brother Blasted Governor

Governor Issues New Coronavirus Orders

Abbott Unveils Plan for Gradual Reopening

House Democrat Leader Blasts Testing Lack

By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

Governor Greg Abbott's selection of veteran Texas political player James Huffines as the chairman of a new coronavirus strike force appears to be a smooth move that could head off a potential Republican primary clash in 2022 with the new appointee's brother.

Abbott announced on Friday that he'd chosen Huffines to head a group of marquee business, medical, academic and political leaders who will develop a strategy for a deliberate reopening of a Texas economy that the virus has decimated with the public's health and safety as the overriding priority. The governor has chosen powerful Austin lobbyist and former state legislator Mike Toomey to serve as the task force's chief operating officer.

Huffines - the chief executive for PlainsCapital Bank in central and south Texas - is a former University of Texas System board of regents chairman whose father was a Dallas car dealer and major Republican donor in the Lone Star State when the GOP was still the minority party here.

But the appointment of the Austin banker as the virus strike force boss with Toomey as a full-time strategist and coordinator is loaded with political significance at a time when the governor has been under increasing fire from hard-line conservatives with former Texas Senate Republican Don Huffines as one of the most ferocious critics.

Huffines the ex-legislator sharply denounced Abbott's handling of the COVID-19 crisis earlier this week when he accused the governor of destroying the Texas economy by essentially allowing local leaders who he branded as socialist liberals to call the shots in the early stages of the outbreak here last month.

The harsh appraisal that Huffines aired in a guest column for newspapers sparked speculation on the possible gubernatorial bid in two years when Abbott would be on the ballot again if he decides to seek a third term as the state's top leader.

Don Huffines, a wealthy Dallas developer, had been elected to the Legislature's upper chamber with strong tea party support in 2014 before losing to Democratic State Senator Nathan Johnson in the general election two years ago. The ex-senator had contended earlier this year that Abbott had rejected his calls for an investigation into potential fraud in the 2018 vote despite evidence that he claimed to have uncovered.

The tapping of the former senator's older brother as the coronavirus task force chief could have the effect of a pre-emptive strike against a potential challenge from the younger Huffines.

James Huffines has been associated more with the business establishment that Abbott expects to have a major voice on how and when the economy can be brought back to life with hopes to get the process under way in May if testing indicates that people can go back to work without a significant risk of falling ill and possibly dying.

James Huffines and Toomey have a history of working closely together since the late 1980s when they were high-level officials on Bill Clements' staff when he was serving a second term as the state's first Republican governor in more than a century. Toomey was Clements' chief of staff at the time while Huffines served as the appointments director.

Toomey had represented a Houston district in the Texas House for five years before signing on with Clements. Toomey also worked as the chief of staff in the governor's office for Republican Rick Perry a dozen years after Clements left office. Perry appointed Huffines to the UT board that he was chairing when he doubled as John McCain's point person in Texas when he'd been the GOP nominee for president in 2008.

Huffines received glowing accolades for steady leadership on the governing board for the largest public university system in the state.


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