Welcome to the first edition of our 50-part series, The Worst Politicians In America. We’re taking a road trip through every state in the country, with one central goal: to find the skeeziest, most corrupt, nasty, worthless pieces of political refuse that have washed up on our collective shore.
Every two weeks, we’re going to highlight a different state, so that by the end, you’ll have a full panorama of the trash pile that is American democracy from coast to coast. If you have ideas for bad politicians we should be focusing on, you can send us names by filling out our Google form—and you can submit the form as many times as you want, so don’t worry about narrowing down your list.
Today, we’re kicking our tour off in Texas. It’s a state known for many things—barbecue, the Alamo, Aleks and Sam—but one of Texas’ leading exports is its awful, awful politicians. You already know about the big hitters—it is likely not possible to be a more prominently hated person than Ted Cruz—so we’re going to focus on some of the lesser-known players who help make Texas politics suck, day in and day out. Let’s get to it!
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R)
Bettencourt has been a slimy wheeler-dealer in a variety of posts. He’s also been a pathological enemy of the notion that people should be able to freely exercise their right to vote. While serving as the voter registrar in Harris County in the late 2000s, Bettencourt became notorious for doing whatever he could to restrict the franchise. He was ahead of the trend! Now that he’s in the state legislature, Bettencourt is leading the charge to suppress the vote on a statewide level; he was the chief author of seven so-called “election integrity” measures that Republicans are trying to push through this year.
State Rep. Kyle Biedermann (R)
According to the Texas House website, “when Kyle isn’t serving the citizens of House District 73 you can find him at Biedermann’s ACE Hardware in Fredericksburg, TX.” If you catch him on the right day, of course, you might even see him dressed up as “Gay Hitler,” which is what he went as for Halloween in 2016. More recently, we also know that Biedermann was NOT at the Ace Hardware in Fredericksburg on January 6, 2021, because instead he was caught on video on the steps of the Capitol building shortly before it was besieged by rabid Trump supporters. Since his brief brush with sedition, though, Biedermann has gotten back to the daily grind of serving his constituents, for example by introducing a bill into the Texas State legislature calling for a statewide referendum to let Texans vote to secede from the Union. As we know from history, only extremely good politicians have done this and it has always worked out well for them. Stay winning, Rep. Biederman
State Rep. Briscoe Cain (R)
Cain has a name like a tough-guy Texas ranger, and the politics of a wormy twerp who brags about fighting to “ensure that traditional Christian values are restored and strengthened.” He’s widely considered the most conservative lawmaker in the Texas House, which is a major accomplishment requiring a sincere commitment. He’s also been named the worst legislator in the state, and once called state funding for palliative care a “death panel” until it was explained to him — on the House floor — what palliative care actually was. Most recently, Cain flexed his legislative know-how by absolutely mangling a hearing on HB 6, Texas’ latest voter suppression bill, accidentally forcing debate on the measure to end early after he called a recess without announcing how long it would last. Despite it all, Cain is perhaps most well known as the guy who got suspended from Twitter for telling then-Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke that his “AR is ready for you,” which is pretty fucked up considering he once crashed the State Democratic Convention and flashed a piece before getting kicked out.
State Rep. Jeff Leach (R)
There’s actually something comforting about Jeff Leach being exactly as evil as his Marvel movie villain looks would have you believe. In 2017—bullish on Trump’s victory and the ascent of the right-wing fever swamp—Leach, who represents the conservative Dallas suburb Plano, helped form a state counterpart to the House Freedom Caucus, which presided over the charmingly named “Mother’s Day Massacre,” where the caucus killed 100 bills by exploiting procedural rules.
By 2018—and after a tougher than expected re-election campaign—he dramatically announced his departure from the Freedom Caucus. He’s since set his sights on deranged anti-choice legislation, including an outrageous bill that could jail doctors who don’t provide medical care for babies born alive after a failed abortion (itself a very rare occurrence). But in a transparently face-saving move, he helped quash another bill that would have left women who receive abortions (and the doctors who perform them) eligible for the death penalty. Nowadays, when he’s not slobbering up to Texas’ demonic governor, he’s your typical evangelical “cancel culture” crusader, reportedly trying to get a community college professor fired for criticizing Mike Pence on Twitter. High probability this is a guy we’ll have to put up with for a long time.
Travis County GOP Chair Matt Mackowiak (R)
Like many of the people on this list, Mackowiak is a generally ghoulish person with a hefty resume — stints in the 2000s working under Kay Bailey Hutchison and Asa Hutchinson — who seems hellbent on trying to make the lives of marginalized people, specifically unhoused people, significantly worse. Elected as Travis County GOP chair in 2017, Mackowiak has spent almost two years now trying to undo Austin’s 2019 ordinance that reversed its previous camping bans. Now, the organizing group and PAC he co-founded to fulfill this mission have gotten a proposition to criminalize unhoused people into an Austin special election for this May.
This effort alone is enough to land Mackowiak on the list. But perhaps the icing on this cruel cake is the bullshittery he pulled in February when a storm left hundreds of thousands of Texans without electricity and unhoused people outside in below-freezing temperatures. On the fifth day of the freeze, days before Ted Cruz touched down in Cancún, Mackowiak posted a message to his public Facebook page, along with his phone number: “If you want to go to Miami on private charter from Austin tomorrow, text me ASAP. Splitting up cost.” Mackowiak didn’t end up going to Miami and said he was just passing along the information for a client. But when reporter Austin Sanders shared the post on Twitter, Mackowiak told him to “go fuck himself.” Charming!
Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller (R)
Miller is the kind of politician we’ve come to know all too well in the last decade or so—a cartoonish, deeply committed conservative who might be laughable (sorry, but just look at him) if he wasn’t in a position of power and influence. As a member of the Texas House of Representatives he authored House Bill 15, which requires women to have a sonogram before having an abortion, as well as legislation allowing hunters to shoot feral hogs and coyotes. He supports Confederate groups, routinely shares conspiracy theories and abhorrent racist jokes on Facebook, has a disturbing obsession with Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar as well as fried foods, barbecue scales, and sugar (the man granted amnesty to cupcakes), and has a long history of gross misuse of taxpayer money. He also loves to scream about the war on Christmas, naturally. The Houston Chronicle literally has an entire slideshow documenting his various controversies, and even that isn’t close to exhaustive.
Miller also tried to sue Texas Gov. Greg Abbott last year to stop an order that extended early voting for the November election as a coronavirus safety measure, and he was a vocal opponent of masks and business lockdowns throughout the pandemic. There’s been some speculation that Miller is mounting a possible run for governor in 2022, which, if true, would mean that an already hellish race could be well on its way to fully bursting into flames.
Attorney General Ken Paxton and State Sen. Angela Paxton (R)
Awww, we have a husband-and-wife duo! Ken Paxton is the better-know of the two, a man whose far-right fanaticism is only outstripped by his spectacular (alleged) corruption. But we can’t sleep on Angela, who is also, you guessed it, a corrupt fanatic! The duo has really been on a roll lately. Both of them appeared at the Jan. 6 rally at the Capitol in D.C., with Ken actually addressing the crowd before it stormed the building (he later said that the rioters were antifa, natch). And then, just a few weeks later, they skipped town to Utah while the state was literally freezing itself to death. Couple goals!
Speaker of the House Dade Phelan (R)
First things first: Dade Phelan looks like a thumb. And just like thumbs, Phelan is opposable—to voting rights specifically. (Work with us here.) Phelan was elected as Texas House Speaker late last year. One of his first moves upon taking up the post in January? You guessed it: handing out crucial committee chair assignments to steadfast enemies of voting rights, including the aforementioned Briscoe Cain, who is chairing the elections committee. (Cain went to Philadelphia to try to help Donald Trump steal the election there, so he’s a perfect choice.) Now, Texas Republicans are busy crafting their own voter suppression legislation and gearing up to gerrymander their districts even more. Thanks Dale!
State Rep. Matt Schaefer (R)
Even by the standards of ALEC’s Weird Uncles caucus, Matt Schaefer is a true believer in the conservative culture war. For example: In August 2019, Schaefer did a Twitter thread about how he would bravely stand against gun control in a state where Republicans have controlled the instruments of state government for decades. Instead, he advocated for praying, “discipline in the home,” and expanding access to handguns. He waited to do this exactly one day after his state saw its second mass shooting in less than a month.
There are hundreds of guys like Schaefer—anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ, anti-labor, pro-giving every man, woman, and child a Beretta—with offices throughout the country’s state capitol buildings. But it’s worth remembering that even though these people might be a bit more anonymous than the House Freedom Caucus or the nation’s unhinged lieutenant governors, they are arguably the biggest advocates for the reactionary project in America. And by and large, they’re succeeding.
Texas GOP Chair Allen West (R)
You may remember West as the Florida Tea Party freak who served for one term in Congress about a decade ago. Well, now he’s in Texas, and he’s the head of the state Republican Party!
West has wasted no time since being elected to the post in July, attacking Gov. Greg Abbott for instituting even the mildest of COVID restrictions, refusing to admit that Joe Biden was legitimately elected president, and kiiiind of tossing out the idea that some states should secede from the union if the 2020 election results weren’t overturned. Just this past week, he was given a hero’s welcome on the far-right social network Gab. Cool.
Wow, we feel unclean after that trip! Where will our tour take us next? Stay tuned….
Images, in order: Houston Public Media; Gage Skidmore; JoeBach44, Wikimedia Commons; LBJ Library; LBJ Library; U.S. Department of Agriculture; Ken Paxton; Texans for Dade; Matt for Texas; Gage Skidmore.
All images remixed by Samantha Grasso