Conservative state-level political action committee Empower Texans has taken a handful of swipes at Lewisville over the past months, highlighted by two stories about Mayor Rudy Durham and a letter suggesting that Lewisville ISD board president Angie Cox is breaking the law. While most of what’s been published is technically true, much of it is misleading.
The first thing to understand is that even though it is presented as a grassroots organization, Empower Texans is funded by a small handful of people. According to Feb. 5 filings from the Texas Ethics Commission, $953,000 of its contributions during that period — the overwhelming majority of its $954,815 in total contributions — came from just three people.
Local politicians tend not to appreciate it.
“Empower Texans is a carpetbagger with a mailing list and a PO box,” Lewisville City Council member TJ Gilmore said. “They stand for a radical and destructive set of policies that undermine government closest to the people with the money of eight millionaires.”
This money includes $150,000 from Tim Dunn, the Midland, Texas natural gas billionaire who enlisted Michael Quinn Sullivan, who has an address in Lewisville, to launch Empower Texans in 2006. According to Texas Tribune data, Dunn has spent thousands on the PAC in every two-year period since, peaking with donations of $2.5 million during the 2013-14 period.
Sullivan is the president and CEO of Empower Texans, and has been since it formed. After interviewing with Metroplex bureau chief Ross Kecseg, The Lewisville Texan Journal sent multiple emails to him and communications director Morgan Williamson in an attempt to get in touch with Sullivan, but received no further response.
Empower Texans made national headlines in the past weeks when it sent letters en masse to Texas teachers asking them to “blow the whistle” on their school districts for allegedly using school resources to support liberal candidates in upcoming elections. This was met by a wave of pushback from teachers. LISD’s own Ramona Lowe called the letter “profoundly irritating.”
“The letter was written with dog whistle words and outright accuses school districts of wasting money and breaking the law by encouraging people to vote,” she said. “I’ve taught in four districts in two states during my career and have never been told how to vote. The idea that supporting and funding public education is somehow a ‘liberal’ plot is just another way to deflect the blame from where it belongs.”
This effort backfired when teachers across the state took to Twitter with the “Blowing the whistle” hashtag, tagging Empower Texans and outlining something exceptional a colleague had done.
Hey #EmpowerTexas #blowingthewhistle on countless LISD teachers & students who labored for hours & spent their own $ to assure that the least fortunate across Lewisville ISD received new wrapped Christmas gifts to fulfill wish lists and bring Xmas joy to more than 1100 children!
— Jay Thatcher (@JayJaythatcher) February 16, 2018
Soon after this letter was sent out, Texas attorney general Ken Paxton sent a cease-and-desist letter to three ISDs, including Lewisville, legally making the same allegations — that LISD is using taxpayer money to support specific political candidates. The ISD has been openly defiant of the Texas legislature on several issues. Cox said that the district had not endorsed any candidate or specific legislation and that it would continue to promote voting in its district.
This was followed by a letter from Empower Texans that some voters received last night, Feb. 20, written by Sullivan with a subject line reading, “Is school board president Angie Cox breaking the law?”
The letter says in salacious, partisan language that LISD is actively encouraging Democrats to vote in the Republican primary, which is not true. The Lewisville Texan Journal will have more on this aspect of the story as it develops.
Cox responded the morning of the 22nd via a Facebook post. She was critical of the PAC’s choice to use its money this way.
“Those letters were distributed across the State of Texas with modifications only to the board president and school district name,” she said. “I can’t imagine the cost of that mailer, but what a shame they are using their vast resources sending slanderous mailers devoid of truth instead of seeking ways to do good.”
The PAC’s website, in which it is described as a non-profit service organization, has also recently posted articles about the Denton County Transportation Authority and Lewisville mayor Rudy Durham. The articles criticize Durham for serving both as mayor and Denton County’s chief appraiser, citing it as a conflict of interest.
The articles do not accuse Durham of any wrongdoing, and neither did Kecseg, though he said the potential existed for Durham to increase the appraisal value of Lewisville properties and then benefit as mayor from the increased revenue without actually raising taxes.
“The taxing entities have an interest in the appraisal values going up,” he said. “That’s what the taxing entities like to have happen, though I can’t speak for him personally.”
One of Kecseg’s articles describes State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), vice chair of the intergovernmental relations committee, singling Durham out for this conflict and saying he would seek to make holding both positions illegal next session. Bettencourt’s communications director, Robert Flanagan, said that while this is in the works, Bettencourt doesn’t see it as a major priority.