Recently I heard someone from outside of Williamson County refer to the current political situation in the county by saying, “what you have, more than likely, is a Republican political machine“. A political machine is defined as:
..an unofficial system of a political organization based on patronage, the spoils system, “behind-the-scenes” control, and longstanding political ties within the structure of a representative democracy.
That same person also stated that those on the commissioners court are probably friends and work in concert with each other. These comments were made by someone not necessarily familiar with the nuances of Williamson County’s political machine, but political machines in general.
The comments were made in reference to combating the status quo – one-party, unaccountable government – in Williamson County. The only thing to quibble with in the statement may be regarding how friendly the commissioners actually are with each other. The final assessment was that the only way to break up the machine is to get at least one Democrat elected to the court so someone can get in there and find out what’s really going on.
That Williamson County has a GOP political machine of patronage, a spoils system, that is unaccountable to the people it was elected to govern is undeniable. Going back to the GOP takeover of the county in the ’90′s and heading into the new century, the patronage and spoils start to show up and a pattern begins to develop – no-bid contracts that greatly benefit business/corporations, to the detriment of taxpayers, sanctioned by the machine’s five member GOP commissioners court. (See current debacles the landfill contract, courthouse remodel, animal shelter, and T. Don Hutto). An ethically challenged bunch [.PDF] to be sure.
The exploits of former Commissioner’s Frankie Limmer and Mike Heiligenstein are the template. As this August 2003 AusChron article points out, Money for Nothing. Limmer, along with then County Attorney Gene Taylor we’re basically given carte blanche to negotiate contracts by then County Judge John Doerfler:
According to County Judge Doerfler, Taylor and Limmer were in charge — and presumably, protecting the interests of county taxpayers. Although the judge’s signature appears on both the contracts and on all of the payment invoices FT Woods has submitted to the county, Doerfler says he’s never thoroughly read the contracts in question. “We [on the Commissioners Court] look through [the contracts] briefly, but not thoroughly, and we take [Taylor's and Limmer's] word for it that it’s the best deal for the county,” he said of the Juvenile Justice Center contracts. And he admits that he has never read — not even “briefly” — the contract for the Special Events Center. “No … I’ve not,” he said. “I’ll admit, I’ve not.”
Doerfler says he “can’t answer” any questions about why or how FT Woods ended up with such a rich compensation package, but, he says, “as far as I was concerned” they were both “good deals” for county taxpayers. When pressed, Doerfler now says, “There are things in [the contract] that I know about now that I thought the county attorney would’ve caught.”
County Attorney Taylor agreed that he and Limmer were in charge of awarding and negotiating the contracts but said he couldn’t answer questions about specific provisions. Taylor said only that he “can’t answer” because “I don’t know.” But Taylor still insists that county taxpayers have gotten a good deal for their money.
As for Heiligentstein well he went on from the commissioners court to the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA), who’s responsible for building the 183-A toll road. It’s been reported that his personal finances have caused some suspicious dealings:
Official bankruptcy affidavit records show that Mike Heiligenstein, now CTRMA executive director, owed James Mills & Mike Robinson in the Heiligenstein bankruptcy. Then as Williamson County Commissioner, Heiligenstein appointed Mills & Robinson as CTRMA board members. As CTRMA board members, Mills & Robinson hired Heiligenstein as Executive Director of the CTRMA.
Those are just two examples of what’s been going on in this county since the GOP took it over. That most of the voters in Williamson County acknowledge this fact is another matter entirely. Most Republicans in Williamson County I’ve interacted with still believe, naively, that their votes count in the primary. It’s part of the conservative psyche that just wants someone to tell them everything is going to be OK, “Daddy will take care of you”. No matter how bad the people they elect act, they assume wrongly, like Judge Doerfler, that the politicians they elect are acting in the people’s best interest and not lining their own pockets.
This corrupt machine includes, not only the commissioners court but elected officials like John Carter, Dan Gattis, Jr., and Mike Krusee. The aforementioned Mike Heliegenstein, along with convicted felon Pete Peters, and Robert Tesch, all of toll road/CTRMA fame. It also, more than likely includes, a rogue’s gallery of Mayors, Chamber of Commerce members, Economic Development Corporation members, and many “behind the scenes” actors like pastors, business owners, bankers, wealthy contributors, media owners, writers and editors. It’s quite a cozy little insider’s game and they don’t need the people, much less any Democrats getting elected, and messing up their system. They don’t want anyone messing with what they consider their deserved/rightful positions of political patronage.
And the machine just keeps chugging along. The Williamson County GOP should be congratulated for accomplishing what they set out to do; successfully taking over all levers of power in the county. Thereby creating a circle of perpetual power for themselves, and those that bankroll their campaigns. They now have free reign of a government that’s unaccountable to those it governs and helps out only those that help elect the machine’s representatives.
But the machine can only go on so long before the people get fed up, realize that the government is not working for them, and start looking for change. That’s what is occurring now. The people see toll roads being built that they know to be a scam, which only benefit the machine – developers and former elected officials. They see a government that mocks the people and is most times deaf to their concerns, no matter how justified – see contracting issues above. They see a government skirting the law for it’s own benefit and when challenged scoffing at, and going after those that call them to account. Those are just a few, and surely there are many, many more.
Along with voters getting fed up with unaccountable and non-responsive government, adding to the machine’s demise will be signs that it’s starting to crack from the inside out. Insiders fighting amongst themselves is a sign that the machine is beginning come apart; power grabs, radical v. moderate schisms, personality clashes, king-making, someone jumping ahead of someone else who’s patiently waited their turn, etc.. There are at least two internal battles going on in the open right now. One is the Birkman/Bradley fight with Gary Griffin, which prompted the entry of Griffin’s millionaire primary opponent, who’s been endorsed by Birkman’s husband. Also Birkman has a primary opponent, a former RRL General Manager. Another sign may be the inability of a viable “machine” candidate to be found to take Rep. Krusee’s place in the legislature. HD-52 going Democratic will certainly cause even more infighting and blaming.
From many responses received at EOW there’s a large number of citizens that have been devoured, chewed up and spit out, by the Williamson County GOP machine and want to see it end. There are many in the county that just want a government that will respond to the people’s wishes instead of those of greedy special interests. The county government’s default position on most issues is on the side of business and crony first, and the people be damned. Again, think about former County Commissioner Frankie Limmer’s treatment plant and the landfill contract. In these deals, the county tried to hide the details from the public. It wasn’t until these shady deals saw the light of day that they were able to be changed. The projects were to benefit either an elected official and/or those that bankroll their campaigns.
EOW’s hope is that as Williamson County continues to grow it will also mature out of this childish government we now have. A change is inevitable, it’s just a matter of how long it will take. What a mature county might look like:
- Where a landfill planned along with those that live in the community it will inhabit, not being planned behind closed doors for the benefit of campaign donors.
- Where corrupt politicians are expelled from office and not reelected and rewarded after their term in office.
- Elections with Democrats and Republicans running in each race on the ballot.
- Where politicians actually have to debate the issues and let the people decide instead of impressing the few who have bags of money.
It’s possible, but not probable, if we’re silent and stay on the sidelines. If Williamson County voters keep electing and reelecting Republicans – especially Republicans like these – that are bent on enriching themselves and those that pay for their campaigns, and expect a different outcome…well you know how the saying goes.