January 1, 2019

Make My Day

Conservative Lawmaker No Longer Lock after Last-Second Pivot
to Local Race that Has Sharp-Shooting Savior as Holiday Surprise

MIKE HAILEY

A primary foe's newfound celebrity status as a gunfighter in the religious arena could have a Republican state lawmaker second-guessing about an eleventh-hour bid for local office in a race that he entered as a heavy betting favorite before an overnight relegation this week to underdog.

But there will be no turning back for State Rep. Mike Lang as he enters the new year as a victim of freakish circumstances that could ruin his campaign for Hood County commissioner in a GOP primary fight that might be Jack Wilson's to lose in the wake of his heroics in a church shooting in the Fort Worth area this week.

A former law enforcement officer with tea party ties as the Texas Freedom Caucus chairman, Lang has to be shaking his head in disbelief after a last-minute decision that ended an on-again, off-again re-election race in early December when he shifted his sights to the local post on the final day for filing for the Texas primary elections in 2020.

But Lang had no way to know that he'd be running against the new Dirty Harry with Wilson's vault from relative obscurity to instant stardom with the shot that killed a man who'd opened fire on the congregation at the West Freeway Church of Christ in the Tarrant County suburb of White Settlement on Sunday.

While the spotlight will be focussed on state and federal fights in the nation's most critical battleground, the competition for the commissioners court in the relatively rural county on the outskirts of Cowtown will be one of the most intriguing races to watch in Texas this year as a consequence of a singular event that no one could have envisioned in their wildest imaginations.

The first-round battle that pits Lang against Wilson and two other Republicans is loaded with Hollywood script potential, unforeseen star value and symbolic significance in the aftermath of a tragedy that shifted the commmissioners contest to a very different playing field in a matter of seconds.

Wilson had been a member of the church's security team when the shooter who police have identified as Keith Thomas Kinnunen whipped out a shotgun that he'd modified with a pistol grip and shot a fellow volunteer and a deacon who'd been preparing to pass a communion tray. Wilson presumably saved countless lives when he drew a handgun that he'd had beside his hip and shot Kinnunen to death.

Wilson may not have had a prayer as a candidate after Lang's belated emergence in the local competition as a two-term legislator who'd have access to a treasure cove of campaign cash in an area where his wife Katie Lang also is an elected official in her job as the Hood County clerk.

Lang the lawmaker will be gunning now for a spot in a runoff with Wilson in Hood County where the sharp-shooting church savior is reaping free attention that could be worth more than all of the money that Farris Wilks and Dan Wilks are willing to shell out on a primary contest at the local level as the Freedom Caucus chief's campaign financiers in two House races.

But Wilson might be in position to win the nomination outright without the need for overtime thanks exclusively to his new persona as a guardian angel in the local race that has Republicans Jacque Gordon and Terry Stamper as round one rivals as well.

Wilson hadn't been drawing Clint Eastwood character comparisons when he launched the local bid as a political nobody outside of his home base. But Wilson seems clairvoyant in hindsight as a result of the campaign slogan "Your Vote is on Target" that he'd been pitching before the gun battle at the suburban worship service.

Wilson appeared initially to be a longshot at best in a political fight with a state representative who's married to an elected official who's been a rock star on the hard right since she refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that sanctioned same-sex wedlock several years ago.

But guns have surpassed gays in terms of political sizzle among staunch conservatives who've been the heart of Lang's base of support since he gave up a longtime position as a justice of the peace so he could run in an open House District 60 race in 2016.

Lang defeated a pair of primary opponents who'd had substantial support from the business establishment in his first two House races in a heavily Republican district where he was unopposed in the 2016 and 2018 general elections.

But Lang appeared to have lost some of the luster that he'd enjoyed in tea party ranks after taking over early this year as the leader of the Texas Freedom Caucus that rallied behind new GOP Speaker Dennis Bonnen after clashing with House leaders throughout its inaugural session he'd teamed up with a dozen fellow conservatives to form as charter members during the 2017 regular session.

Some hardline Republicans felt like Lang and other Freedom Caucus members had sold out when they joined the bipartisan Bonnen team that led a successful push for record spending on public schools during the regular session last year when the conservative agenda collapsed.

Lang appeared to be safe nonetheless as a Wilks brothers ally in HD 60 before announcing at the end of the 2019 session that he wouldn't be a candidate for re-election in 2020. But Lang reversed course and filed in November to seek another term in the Legislature's lower chamber before switching to the local contest when he dropped out of the HD 60 race on the day of the filing deadline last month.

The timing of Lang's switch to the commissioners court contest a week before Farris Wilks' son-in-law Jon Francis filed to run for the HD 60 seat in an extended enrollment period left the impression that the lawmaker's maneuvering had been orchestrated by his biggest contributors as a way to minimize the competition for the House.

But Lang's indecision prompted three other Republicans - Mineral Wells Mayor Christopher Perricone, Graford veterinarian Glenn Rogers and Ganbury attorney and Kellye SoRelle of Granbury - to enter the HD 60 competition before Francis emerged as a candidate.

Mike Hailey's column appears on a regular basis in Capitol Inside

CONSIDER THE SOURCE

Mike Hailey presents state politics with a personal touch. He's the only Texas Capitol journalist who's been to the dark side and back - having worked for two major newspaper bureaus before signing on as press secretary for Bob Bullock - the most powerful and legendary political leader of his time in the state. Hailey's Comment, which is published in Capitol Inside on a regular basis, is a direct reflection of that experience.

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10-15-19: Ex-Dem Friends

10-14-19: Tape Day

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09-19-19: Gun Checks Or Else

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09-11-19: Texas Quest

08-26-19: Reckon Day Delay

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08-06-19: Hail Mary

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07-19-19: Cash Vacuums

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