SAN ANTONIO — Will the Alamo be George P. Bush’s Waterloo?
Controversy over the Texas Land Commissioner’s plans to “Re-imagine” the state’s most famous landmark has attracted three primary election opponents and put Bush on the hot seat for a bipartisan grilling by the Senate Finance Committee last week.
The upcoming campaign and Bush’s vision for the Alamo are grabbing headlines. The Texas Observer rates it one of the top political stories to watch in 2018.
“It’s an internecine conflict about George P.’s management of the Alamo, which is itself one of the weirdest stories in state politics in many years. This one’s gonna be an absolute mess,” the Observer predicted.
The latest and most formidable challenger, former three-term land commissioner Jerry Patterson, came out swinging at Bush and his $450 million Alamo project.
“I’ve watched the Land Office mismanage the rollout of the Alamo restoration and I’ve watched them hide the ball by refusing to answer open records requests,” Patterson told the Austin American-Statesman.
Bush must win a majority of votes in the four-way GOP primary to avoid a runoff. Two Democrats are vying to take on the winner in the fall.
The Bush brand, and a prodigious campaign war chest, may be sufficient to keep Republican Party leaders out of the fray. The State Republican Executive Committee backed off earlier criticism when it jettisoned a critical Alamo ballot proposition in favor of one on toll roads.
But Bush had a deer-in-the-headlights look when he faced legislators’ questions about a lack of transparency at his General Land Office (GLO).
At one point, he assured senators that Attorney General Ken Paxton supported his assertion that an Alamo non-profit working with the General Land Office was not subject to Texas open-government laws.
Bush was incorrect. A May 29 letter ruling from Paxton’s office stated that the Alamo Complex Management, operating on behalf of Bush’s GLO, is covered by the laws. Bush was directed to fulfill media requests for meeting minutes. Debate continues over the extent of compliance by the agency.
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said Bush’s recent practice of “making minutes and some documents available is not the same as complying with the open-records laws.”
Bush suggested that the Legislature, not he, set the rules for disclosure. Watson was unmoved. Nothing in the law prevented the land commissioner from opening records of the state-owned Alamo to public inspection, the senator said.
Afterward, Bush said he would “discuss” the finance panel’s calls for transparency with his non-profit boards.
Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said the committee would be watching.
Bush campaign manager and political director Ash Wright told the Texas Monthly that his boss “is proud of his conservative record. And he is working hard to produce even more conservative victories at the GLO.”
But an unseemly pay-for-play gambit blew up on Bush when The Texas Monitor reported that Wright set a $250,000 donation as a pre-condition to obtain a seat on one of Bush’s Alamo boards.
What Bush knew about the $250,000 buy-in is not known, but neither Bush nor Wright disputed The Texas Monitor story.
Bush tamped down early criticism of his re-imagined Alamo when he backed away from plans to encase the San Antonio site with plexiglass walls. He also promised to “honor” the 1836 battle that put the Alamo on the map.
Yet heritage groups of varying political stripes find Bush’s vision for rooftop restaurants in state-purchased buildings across Alamo Plaza distasteful. They hate the idea of removing the Cenotaph monument from the grounds.
Public response at hearings on the Alamo master plan has been decidedly negative. Skeptics complain that the land commissioner’s vow to “retake the battlefield” smacks of a Disneyland-style scheme to line the pockets of developers, some of whom are Bush campaign contributors.
Bush’s General Land Office this week hired a St. Louis consulting firm to lead a statewide outreach effort to address “cares and concerns” about the project. A Philadelphia consultancy is leading the design phase.
The hometown San Antonio Express-News has Bush’s back. A recent editorial worried that the Legislature might try to “micromanage” the Alamo and that the project could become a “gotcha issue” in the 2018 campaign.
Touted as a public-private venture, the $450 million Alamo makeover has relied almost entirely on state and local tax dollars so far. The Legislature earmarked $100 million, tapping the state’s Rainy Day Fund to round out the appropriation. The city of San Antonio committed $38 million.
Miguel Sauzo, one of two Democrats running for land commissioner, said, “It’s unclear who’s in charge [of the Alamo]. Is it the state agency or is it a non-profit group? We don’t know because communication and transparency hasn’t been the foundation of the approach by GLO leadership. This reflects a lack of managerial skill and judgment.”
“Texans should be proud and excited about the process to revitalize the Alamo. Instead, all we have are questions and uncertainty that are creating tension,” Sauzo, an Austin-based energy attorney, told The Texas Monitor.
Rick Range, a former schoolteacher and firefighter, accused Bush of ignoring preservationists and taxpayers alike.
“From day one, this has been a behind-the-scenes, top-down boondoggle with no transparency. The GLO has poisoned the well in regard to the restoration plan in its current form.”
“Bush claims to be a ‘conservative,’ but his first actions as land commissioner removed the Daughters of the Republic of Texas as stewards of the Alamo. What kind of conservative would take Alamo oversight away from Texas women at the DRT, and give it to the state?” he asked.
Range, a former schoolteacher, called the $450 million price tag “obscene.”
“In no way is that conservative,” he said.
Democrat Tex Morgan of San Antonio and Republican Davey Edwards of Decatur are also running for Land Commissioner. Neither could be reached for comment.
Kenric Ward is a veteran journalist whose work has appeared at Fox News, Houston Chronicle, Washington Times, Washington Examiner, TownHall, Roll Call, and Human Events. An editor and reporter at three Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers, Ward was Virginia bureau chief for Watchdog.org before relocating to Texas.