The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Where is Greg Abbott?’ Anger grows at Texas governor in deadly storm’s wake

Buildings with power are lit in the distance from an area without power in Austin on Wednesday. (Sergio Flores/for The Washington Post)

It was clear by Tuesday afternoon that Texas was in a full-blown crisis — and Gov. Greg Abbott (R) had largely been out of sight.

More than 4 million households did not have power amid dangerously low temperatures, and an increasing number did not have heat or running water. Some families were burning furniture to stay warm, grocery stores were emptying, and people were dying. In the freezing darkness, many desperate Texans felt they were left to fend for themselves.

Abbott emerged that evening for a series of television interviews. In short, curt sentences, he told Texans in the Lubbock and Houston areas that he had issued an emergency order and called for an immediate legislative investigation of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the electrical grid. He angrily accused the council of not having a backup power supply and not sharing information with Texans, “even with the governor of Texas.”

Then he went on Fox News.

“This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” Abbott said, looking more relaxed as he chatted with host Sean Hannity, falsely blaming his state’s problems on environmental policies pushed by liberals.

This deadly disaster is one in a series that Abbott has faced in his six years as governor: Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which resulted in the deaths of 68 people, at least six major mass shootings that left more than 70 people dead and a pandemic that has killed 42,000 in the state. Now, at least 32 people have died in Texas because of this storm.

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In each crisis, Abbott often carefully studied the situation — and its political ramifications — before taking action, usually demanding future legislative changes that may never happen. He is known to deliver different messages to the various constituencies in his state, all while trying to build a national profile as a conservative leader.

In the past, this approach seems to have worked and many Texans have instead focused on economic gains the state has made under Abbott’s leadership. Over his tenure, an estimated 3 million people have moved to Texas, many lured to metro areas by plentiful jobs, minimal taxes and large, affordable homes. Abbott has often pitched his state as the conservative alternative to California. One of his fundraising appeals: “Don’t California my Texas.”

Abbott is relatively popular in his state, compared with other governors, but in the past year his approval rating in polls has been lower than it was earlier in his tenure. A University of Houston poll released early this month, before the winter storm, found that 39 percent approved of the job done by Abbott, down from the high 40s and 50s in earlier years.

Critics have charged that the Abbott administration’s response to the storm has at times resembled the government failures after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. As of Sunday, more than 14 million Texans were under orders to boil their water before drinking it or did not have water. Across the state, neighbors lined up at municipal spigots for water, melted snow to flush their toilets, and lined up for food at poorly stocked grocery stores.

The anger was palpable, with petitions circulating online demanding the resignations of Abbott and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who briefly escaped the cold by flying to Cancún. Citizens across the state posted angry memes on social media about the governor, crafting basketball-sized snowballs they wanted to aim at him and superimposing “Where is Greg Abbott?” over a hellscape.

Freezing temperatures and power outages hurt Texas’s most vulnerable yet again

Officials from Texas spoke about conditions in the state on Feb. 20, what went wrong, and how residents can cope with fallout from a historic winter storm. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Critics have charged that Abbott and his administration failed to take the storm’s threat seriously or issue sufficient emergency warnings throughout — with meteorologists giving ample warning of a serious storm that could bring record cold, cause power demand to spike, and threaten electrical infrastructure more than a week in advance. Texas Republicans have been accused of neglecting winterization upgrades recommended to the electrical grid more than a decade ago.

“He hasn’t done anything,” said Conor Kenny, a Democrat who is a former planning commission chairman in Austin. “All he has done is call for an investigation into his own administration.”

Abbott’s staff declined to make him available for an interview and did not respond to a list of questions.

Some longtime Abbott supporters are worried that this crisis could politically hurt the governor, who is up for reelection next year. Several prominent Democrats are eyeing the race, and a group of liberal activists — some of whom worked on former congressman Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign — started a political action committee last year called the Beat Abbott PAC.

“Short term, I am absolutely certain that the governor’s popularity will suffer as a result of this,” said Bill Hammond, a Republican lobbyist and former head of the Texas Association of Business. “He is the head of state government at this time . . . and it’s just like the quarterback, the blame and the credit go to the quarterback.”

But Hammond said he expects Abbott will quickly rebound, as he has before. Abbott can make reforming the power grid a defining goal and will be well-positioned to be reelected to a third term, he said.

“He was upset as anyone could be about this,” Hammond said. “Our [political competitors] will use this against us, no question about it, but we have plenty of time before next winter and then we will come out of this stronger.”

Pandemic 'comeback'

Two weeks before freezing temperatures swept across Texas, Abbott delivered his annual State of the State address, reflecting on the hardships of the past year but promising that “normalcy is returning to Texas.”

“To say the pandemic is a challenge is an understatement, but to say that it has been a reversal of who we are as Texans is a misstatement,” said Abbott, 63, a former attorney general and state Supreme Court judge who was appointed by then-Gov. George W. Bush. “Texas remains the economic engine of America. The land of unmatched opportunity. Our comeback is already materializing.”

In the early days of the pandemic, Abbott quickly shut down the state but then was one of the first governors to reopen. He attempted to thread the needle between health concerns and potential economic devastation — and between conservative activists and liberals, small-business owners and public health officials. But as the pandemic worsened, many hospitals reached near capacity and deaths mounted.

Abbott acknowledged in his speech the lives lost — but also celebrated that 2 million Texans survived after being infected, along with recent economic gains. He noted that the state has added jobs for eight months in a row and 64,000 new jobs in December alone.

The state’s population has dramatically grown since Abbott took office — before the pandemic it was gaining 1,000 residents each day — but its infrastructure often hasn’t kept up with the growth, leaders and analysts say.

The Texas grid got crushed because its operators didn’t see the need to prepare for cold weather

Harry LaRosiliere, the Republican mayor of Plano in fast-growing Collin County near Dallas, said the power and water shortages are exposing how too many Texas politicians failed to invest in the everyday needs of residents, such as highways, schools and public utility projects. A few years ago, LaRosiliere said, a major company decided not to relocate to Plano because it worried that Texas would eventually run out of water.

Instead of making investments to keep up with population growth, LaRosiliere said politicians in Austin are too often focused on divisive social issues like setting rules on which bathrooms transgender individuals can use and expanding gun rights.

“What are your priorities?” he asked. “Are your priorities to provide the infrastructure and the components that create this ‘Texas magic’ as they call it? Or is it just to allow the growth to outstrip your ability to respond to it, and effectively kill the golden goose?”

Democratic gains

With the state’s changing demographics has come a political evolution, and Democrats now lead most of the state’s largest cities and urban counties — and often clash with Abbott over how best to protect their constituents.

Perhaps the starkest contrast to Abbott’s leadership is Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a 30-year-old liberal who is the top-ranked official in the county that is home to Houston. She has questioned him on MSNBC, while he has questioned her on Fox News.

As Abbott pushed to reopen the state early during the pandemic, Hidalgo urged her 4.7 million constituents to stay home. As Republicans advocated for restrictions on voting to prevent fraud, Hidalgo found creative ways to increase access. Since the storm hit last weekend, Hidalgo has been filming video updates, tweeting emergency information, and doing media interviews in English and Spanish.

“This was a man-made disaster that has cut lives short,” Hidalgo tweeted Friday. “When the dust settles, people deserve answers and accountability.”

Matt Mackowiak, chairman of the Travis County Republican Party, said that although Abbott should have done more to communicate with Texans in the early hours of the crisis, he expects they remain comforted that Abbott is in charge, citing his judicial temperament and reputation for scrutinizing briefing books and legislative reports. Abbott is known for his empathy amid tragedy, having been paralyzed in his 20s after a tree fell on him as he was jogging.

“He just doesn’t make the kind of mistakes that you see someone like Trump make,” Mackowiak said. “He’s pretty risk adverse. He’s really careful. He doesn’t take cheap shots. He doesn’t play to the cheap seats.”

Abbott could face a difficult reelection campaign next year, analysts say. O’Rourke has said that he’s thinking about running and has thrown himself into responding to this storm, organizing a phone bank to make welfare checks, collecting money and driving cases of bottled water to Austin, where Abbott resides.

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Those close to Abbott say the governor was alarmed by Democratic gains during the 2018 election, when they picked up 14 statehouse seats, flipped two congressional districts and came close to defeating Cruz. Abbott, meanwhile, easily won reelection.

Despite worries that Texas could flip blue in the 2020 presidential election, former president Donald Trump won the state by a nearly 6 percentage point margin, and Republicans did not suffer any major losses in the statehouse or Congress.

Abbott wasn’t on the ballot, but he raised millions of dollars for GOP incumbents while fashioning a campaign message that accused Democrats of wanting to cut funding for local police departments.

The Arctic chill of 2021 will probably loom large in next year’s gubernatorial race, analysts say.

“There’s 100 percent chance this will end up on a Democratic ad in 2022,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, “and in 2024 if he runs for president.”

After those Tuesday night television interviews, Abbott’s attention to the evolving crisis seemed to sharpen and intensify. He started doing daily news conferences and cited numbers without referring to his yellow legal pad, while his office issued a flurry of news releases.

He continued to point blame at the state’s power grid operator and called for the legislature to fund the winterizing upgrades, likely to cost billions. He appeared to finally take command — five days in.

“What happened this week to our fellow Texans is absolutely unacceptable and can never be replicated again,” Abbott said Thursday, dressed in a dark blue emergency management shirt emblazoned with “Greg Abbott Governor.”

On Saturday, he called an emergency meeting to grapple with a fresh controversy — citizens of his state whose power stayed on during the storm were suddenly socked with hefty electric bills, some from variable-rate plans that charged thousands of dollars for a few days of power as wholesale energy prices soared.

Craig Murphy, a Republican strategist who has worked for Abbott, said the governor’s economic record will continue to insulate him from major political fallout, especially if he takes the lead in resolving the problems revealed by the storm

“What Texas has become famous for,” he said, “is quick recoveries.”

Andrew Freedman, Paulina Firozi and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.