April 17, 2020
Abbott Taps Powerful Lobbyist to Run War Room
as Texas Coronavirus Czar with States Empowered
Governor Issues New Coronavirus Orders
Abbott Unveils Plan for Gradual Reopening
House Democrat Leader Blasts Testing Lack
By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor
A former state lawmaker who'd played a major role in the Republicans' rise to the pinnacle of power in Texas has been enlisted for the lead part in an effort that could make or break the ruling party here for years to come as the new field general for Governor Greg Abbott in the fight to survive the coronavirus.
Austin attorney Mike Toomey has taken a leave of absence from a highly-lucrative lobby practice to serve as the chief operating officer for a new Texas strike force that Abbott has assembled for a coordinated plan of attack in a state that's relied more on helter-skelter scrambling since the virus emerged here more than a month ago and accelerated rapidly.
The Republican governor announced Toomey's hiring at a news conference on Friday in conjunction with the formation of the new group of political and business and medical experts that James Huffines will chair.
Abbott also issued new executive orders that emphasize the safety as the public health as the state's number one priority with the creation of the task force that includes a marquee list of business leaders, medical experts, academic officials and a quartet of GOP statewide leaders including Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Comptroller Glenn Hegar.
Abbott hopes to begin a gradual reopening of the Texas economy in May but stressed that it will be contingent on an expansion of testing to determine who can safely returning to work without spreading the coronavirus if they have been infected without apparent symptoms. The governor will elaborate on the details of an economic resurgence plan on April 27. But Abbott said that schools will not be allowed to open again this spring.
The timing of Toomey's emergence in the escalated Texas initiative could be ideal in the wake of President Donald Trump's decision on Thursday to let the states decide how to defend themselves against the COVID-19 surge with an eye on reopenings when governors working in tandem with local leaders determine that the spread is on downward trajectories. That's a significant change from the previous goal of flattening coronavirus curves that would have led to removals of restrictions on businesses even if the case and death counts were still going up.
Toomey - the unofficial ringleader for the Republicans in the Texas House when Democrats controlled the chamber in the 1980s - is arguably a smart choice for the unprecedented position in light of excellent relations that he has with a business establishment as one of the most powerful lobbyists in the state for most of the past three decades.
Businesses will have a critical part in the shaping of a state game plan with their future riding on an eventual resurrection of the economy that could be decimated more than it already has been if Texas rushes into a reopening against the advice of medical and scientific experts who Trump had ignored for more than a month.
Toomey brings a wealth of institutional knowledge and vast experience to a job that know one has ever held before or even imagined as the new coronavirus czar in Texas. Toomey will be on his third tour of duty for a Texas governor - having worked as the chief of staff for Bill Clements in the late 1980s and Rick Perry in the early stages of a record-breaking 14-stint.
Toomey's long and close relationship with Perry could strengthen the state's communications with a White House that will be offering guidance despite Trump's new promise not to interfere with governors who are wielding extraordinary powers in the coronavirus era. Perry - a former Toomey House colleague - served as the first energy secretary in the Trump cabinet and appeared to have a good relationship with the president when he resigned late last year.
Toomey will always be associated with the GOP in light of his background and key role in efforts that culminated in the capturing of a Texas House majority in 2002. But Toomey has put the partisan past behind throughout the past decade while forging alliances with Democrats and Republicans alike as a necessary prerequisite for his professional endeavors as a public advocate.
Toomey, who co-founded the Texas Lobby Group with former House Democrat Bill Messer, has contributed more than $100,000 to Abbott in campaigns for governor and attorney general in the past 20 years. But Toomey has also donated to a long list of Democrats with contributions to San Antonio State Reps. Roland Gutierrez and Trey Martinez Fischer and State Rep. Cesar Blanco of El Paso in 2019. Gutierrez and Blanco are running for promotions to the Texas Senate this fall. Toomey even donated to the national Democratic fundraising organization ActBlue in the past two years.
While Trump is still hoping for an initial jump-start in early May, the federal guidelines that he announced in the dramatic capitulation to the states suggest that Americans are in for the long-haul in the battle against a novel disease that had culminated in more than 17,000 positive tests and 439 deaths by late Friday morning.