‘They want to destroy the public school system’: CNN documents influence of powerful billionaires on Texas politics

As previously reported in RA News, a CNN special, “Deep in the Pockets of Texas”, aired Sunday night and showed the enormous influence wielded by two very powerful billionaires on the Texas Republican Party – and how their control shifts Texas from a business-friendly state to a more extreme Christian nationalist state.

A deeper dive into the documentary reveals a scheme to irreparably damage the state’s public school system in order to pave the way for public funding of Christian education. Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks made their fortunes in the oil and gas industry. They have now put those dollars to work establishing a GOP stranglehold on the state, pushing Texas far to the right.

Wilks is a pastor at the church his father founded, the 7th Day Assembly of Yahweh. Dunn preaches at the church in West Texas that his family attends, the Midland Bible Church. Their intense religious fervor informs their ideology and significant political contributions.

A few Republican officials were prepared to speak out publicly in defiance of the billionaires. Retired state senator Kel Seliger of Amarillo says their control over Republican officials has made Austin feel more like the Kremlin in recent years.

“It’s a Russian-style oligarchy, pure and simple,” Seliger said. “Really, really wealthy people who are willing to spend a lot of money to get politics done the way they want it – and they get it…”

In 2004, Dunn contributed $500 to Seliger’s senatorial campaign. “I met him in my first campaign,” Seliger said, “and we talked, and I told him that I would be open-minded about what was his only problem in 2004, which was taking public money and give it to private schools.”

While Seliger had an extremely conservative voting record in Austin, he eventually broke with the billionaires over private school vouchers. It was heresy for Dunn and Wilks and the billionaires funded the main opponents against Seliger afterwards. “It’s the law of the jungle now in Texas,” Seliger said. “The majority of Senate Republicans dance to whatever tune Tim Dunn wants to play.”

Former Republican Senator Bob Deuell was even more blunt about the Christian school curriculum: “They want to destroy the public school system as we know it.”

Deuell further claimed that his fellow lawmakers would keep a close eye on the scorecards kept by political action committees controlled by wealthy tycoons. Lawmakers were often reluctant to vote against Wilks or Dunn’s wishes because billionaires would run against them if they challenged them in important votes, and the good guys were one of those key issues. Deuell called these lawmakers “scorecard voters.”

The “Fiscal Responsibility Index” is one of the scorecards funded by Dunn, but seems like a misleading title given the far-right social agenda that Dunn piggybacks on fiscal conservatism.

“If you don’t show up well on the scoreboard, you’re going to have a lot of money spent on you,” Seliger said.

The main far-right opponents wouldn’t necessarily need to win for Wilks and Dunn to win. “They dragged all the moderate candidates to the hard right not to lose,” said Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy.

“I don’t think ordinary Texans are as conservative as their elected officials,” Kennedy added. “The reason Texas moved to the right is because the money is there.”

Defend Texas Liberty, a political action committee they fund, paid more than $3 million to former state senator Don Huffines, who challenged Gov. Greg Abbott in the 2022 Republican primary. Huffines only won 12% of the vote, but Abbott went right and took many of the positions Huffines espoused, including strong opposition to transgender rights, private school vouchers, and support for the rollout of members of the National Guard at the US-Mexico border.

“They really believe that God has given them a mandate to dominate society,” said Dorothy Burton, one of their former theological allies. “The goal is to destroy, tear down public education and rebuild it,” Burton added, “and rebuild it the way God intended education to be.”

Wilks and Dunn’s attacks on public schools, including accusations of so-called “critical race theory,” are part of their agenda to undermine trust in public education, according to political experts interviewed by the Texas Observer.

“For people to be receptive to radical change in public education, there must be clear issues with public education that are hurting students and parents,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at the University of Houston. “Having pushed these narratives, a generation of Wilks and Dunn-funded spokespersons in state and local positions may present private religious schools as ‘a better way.’

The duo have outsized influence in Texas thanks to lax campaign laws. Texas is one of 10 states that allow individuals to make unlimited contributions to political candidates in the state, giving Dunn and Wilks more influence than they would have in a more regulated state. Former Senator Seliger perhaps summed it up best: “You” either belong or you don’t belong. Maybe these scorecards could prove useful for more centered Texans, after all.

Jeremy S. McLain