DALLAS – In their last debate before the runoff election, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Texas Sen. Dan Patrick spent 45 minutes in a gloves-off, heated exchange at a roundtable event hosted by WFAA-TV.
In recent weeks, the campaigns have turned from policy issues to personal attacks. Both men vying for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor have aired negative television ads statewide.
The Wednesday debate, unlike others, was more intimate, in which candidates sat at a table together but did not have strict time limits for their answers.
With three weeks until the election, David Dewhurst appeared more animated, while Dan Patrick stayed on the attack. Both engaged each other within minutes of the debate beginning.
The debate began with Patrick calling out Dewhurst for using a photo of him without a shirt at a charity event as part of an attack ad. Patrick explained that the photo was from a charity auction in which he promised to auction the "shirt off his back" to raise funds for the charity.
Dewhurst said his campaign made "a mistake" in using the photo, he called to apologize to the executive director of the charity, and his campaign pulled the ad, but Patrick said Dewhurst allowed the ad to run for a week after Dewhurst knew the photo was misleading.
"The ad was perfectly true," Dewhurst said. "But you see, you have a reputation that's well-deserved. Every time you get caught doing something, what you do, Dan, is you play a victim. We apologized for using the photograph, I called for the executive director and left my cell phone and she never called me back [...] What you're trying to do is hide the facts. The facts on the ad are you did have a personal bankruptcy. I've never had a personal bankruptcy."
If elected, Patrick said he favors passing even more restrictive abortion laws.
"This is a myth that Planned Parenthood has anything to do with women's health. Why are they closing [abortion] clinics if they're making money [by] providing women's health [care]? They're closing clinics because they make all their money taking the lives of babies," Patrick said. "I would like to see Roe v. Wade be gone. I believe that one day, this nation is going to look back - as this nation looks back on slavery from the 1800s and says, 'What were they thinking then?' - they're going to look back and say, 'What were those people thinking after Roe v. Wade passed for 40 or 50 years that babies' lives were taken?'"
Dewhurst has endorsements from some of the largest pro-life groups in the state.
"Before I became lieutenant governor, only one pro-life bill in the history of the state of Texas had ever passed out of the legislature -- one," Dewhurst said. "That was in 1999 when then-Lieutenant Governor Perry was [in office.] Since I became lieutenant governor, we've had a tsunami of bills. Each session, I have worked to protect the life of the unborn and improve women's health."
Dewhurst bragged that sending more state troopers and assets to the border, under his watch, is paying off. The incumbent was asked if sealing the border would undo the "Texas miracle" economy but cutting off the labor force.
"That labor can still come to Texas, but we want it to come legally," Dewhurst responded. "We don't want it to come as illegal immigration, which along with that, comes dangerous drugs -- which are killing Texans, which comes human trafficking -- which is awful, and transnational gangs."
But Patrick said Dewhurst's efforts to secure the border have not worked. He said he would increase funding for the border, but would not specify by how much.
"I don't think it's a miracle that when you come to Texas in the back of an 18-wheeler and suffocate," Patrick said. "I don't think it's a miracle that when a woman who comes to this country is raped as part of the bounty to get here. I don't think it's a miracle to come to Texas and live in the shadows. We need an illegal immigration policy in our country. Not until Texas secures the border to the best of our ability will Washington act."
Candidates also discussed immigration and what should happen to the estimated $2.6-billion surplus forecast by the state comptroller.
"It's really interesting what's going on here. It's called a lack of leadership," Patrick said. "And the finance committee is the most important committee we have. Well, right now I don't know what we'll do with the money. You know why? We haven't had a finance committee since August of 2013. The chairman of finance, Sen. Tommy Williams, resigned in October or November of last year. The lieutenant governor has yet to appoint a chairman of finance."
Patrick said one of the main things he would focus on was lowering Texans' property taxes and said there were three ways to do it. He said the state needs to either reduce the appraisal cap, have a rollback rate so that county and city governments can't continue to get double inflation, or finally, as the property value goes up, increase the tax rate.
Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst said his focus was getting that money back to the taxpayers and argued for reducing the appraisal cap.
"In 2006 and 2007, I was involved with the largest tax cut in the history of the state of Texas, because what we did is we cut your property taxes by cutting your local school property taxes by a third, from $1.50 down to $1," Dewhurst said. "So the state of Texas lifted off your shoulders $7 billion a year of your local school property taxes. The problem is that immediately, the school districts started raising their rates and we saw appraisal creep. So what I want to do is change state law, make our county appraisal districts elected versus appointed and I want to drive down the appraisal cap on homeowners from 10 percent down to five, or four, or three percent."
Dewhurst found himself on the defensive for leaving the floor last year during a debate and going to a restaurant. Patrick said that shows questionable judgment.
"In the middle of the debate on pro-life, when we were fighting off 25 amendments, the lieutenant governor left and went to [the steakhouse,] and last week in the debate when I asked, he said it was an administrative activity," Patrick said. "I don't know what that was, but I do know the facts are this: h came back and told the press he didn't eat, he told them he was meeting with his political consultant, and I, as lieutenant governor, would not go to McDonald's and get a Happy Meal in the middle of a pro-life debate. It's about leadership."
Patrick also said Dewhurst wasn't present for about a third of the last legislative session. Dewhurst vehemently disagreed.
"That is really nuts," the lieutenant governor said. "All you have to do is take a look at the senate journal, you'll see me there every day, working hard. You see, some of us have important work to do. I have to go and I have to try and get the bills ready to pass. [...] What you're trying to do is to hide the fact that we passed the bill. What I did was, I left for a half an hour I had some chicken, and I went right back to the session."
The two men differ on equal pay. Dewhurst reiterated his stance that if another equal pay bill has the votes to get out of committee, that he would allow a floor vote.
"Equal pay for equal work," Dewhurst said. "And that's one of the reasons [...] Texas is doing so well. Because we've had strong, conservative leadership in Gov. Perry and myself moving the state forward."
Patrick said he would not let a measure like that get to the floor, if elected.
"One of the reasons Texas does so well is because of the risk takers and entrepreneurs we have in Texas to grow business and create jobs because we don't want to have heavy-handed regulations," Patrick said. "Look, women deserve equal pay, and if they're doing a better job than the guy they're working next to, they deserve more. But it's not up to government."
The runoff election is May 27.
The entire debate will be broadcast in its entirety at 7 p.m. Wednesday on WFAA Channel 8.3, which is available free over the air with an antenna and on Time Warner Cable channel 372 and Charter Cable Channel 102.
The debate will also air Sunday morning during an expanded "Inside Texas Politics."