Recently, Austin attorney Eric Opiela announced that he will be running to replace Todd Staples as your next Agriculture commissioner. “Who is Eric Opiela?” you might ask. He’s a twice-failed candidate for the Texas House, and a lawyer for Joe Straus.
Mr. Opiela would have Texans believe that he’s a South Texas rancher and Republican Party activist who just wants to fight big government. His record shows otherwise. In reality, Opiela works as House Speaker Joe Straus’ lawyer and lives in Austin.
So what of this “South Texas rancher” image Eric Opiela wants to portray? The reality is that he is a trust fund baby.
While he’s chosen to be an attorney as a career, his wealth comes from his management of the Rancho Grande Trust. In that capacity he controls a 2,000 acre inherited ranch called Rancho Grande near Karnes City that just so happens to sit atop the Eagle Ford Shale, a geographic formation that is yielding one of the biggest oil booms in a generation.
In fact, a look at the map of oil and gas well permits that have been granted shows the area around Rancho Grande to be awash in green and red dots representing hundreds of oil wells and gas wells. It’s pretty clear that, fat with cash from the Eagle Ford boom, Opiela is looking to spend his way into the relatively low-profile position of Agriculture Commissioner.
Already A Failed Candidate . . . Twice
In the early 2000’s, Opiela took a couple of runs at the State House. In 2002, at the age of 24, he lost his first campaign in the Republican Party primary election for House District 35, coming in second place with 989 votes behind Karnes City businessman Clark Welder. After the election, Opiela worked in Austin as a clerk for the House Urban Affairs Committee during the 78th legislature.
In 2004, Opiela left his legislative job and took another run at the District 35 primary, capturing the nomination before narrowly losing the general election to Democrat Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles—even as then-President George W. Bush went on to carry the district with 59% of the vote.
For the past several years Opiela has worked for the Republican Party of Texas and served as one of Joe Straus’ lawyers. In that capacity he’s covered for the Speaker’s misdeeds, tattled on conservative Republicans, attempted to game the system to get Joe Straus on the Republican national delegate list, and, through his incompetence, wrecked Republican redistricting efforts.
In 2008, Opiela was appointed Executive Director of the Republican Party by then-Chairman Tina Benkiser. In that capacity he is most famous for signing certain binding real estate contracts that continue to force the Texas GOP to occupy opulent offices near the Capitol that cost $20,000 a month.
That’s a quarter of a million dollars a year that could be going to Republican reelection efforts. Instead, it goes into the pockets of a downtown Austin landlord. While he was Executive Director of the party, Opiela began working for then newly elected House Speaker Joe Straus. When Benkiser resigned and conservative Texas Eagle Forum President Cathie Adams was elected as her replacement, Opiela left the party calling Adams’ changes “unnecessary” and arguing that she was going to take the party in her “own direction.”
Going After Conservatives
When Straus was seeking reelection in 2011, one of his lieutenants, Rep. Larry Phillips, threatened conservative Bryan Hughes with being redistricted out of his seat if he didn’t drop his opposition to Straus’ reelection. He was told that plans were already in the works to go after conservative Reps. Dan Flynn and Erwin Cain and that, if he didn’t cooperate, Hughes would be singled-out through the redistricting process as well.
When Hughes made these allegations, he was hauled in front of the House Ethics Committee (of which Rep. Phillips was a member). He testified under oath while Rep. Phillips was allowed to testify without swearing that he was telling the truth.
When the legal concerns regarding Rep. Phillips’ unsworn testimony came to light, it was Straus Attorney Eric Opiela who stepped forward to defend the hearing. The panel, unsurprisingly, ruled that there were too few witnesses to take action and they let the Speaker and Rep. Phillips off the hook. In the end, conservative Reps. Cain and Flynn were indeed paired, and Mr. Cain was forced to retire.
It was Attorney Eric Opiela who was advising the Straus forces as they used the redistricting process to go after conservatives, just as Hughes testified that Phillips claimed they would. (Conservative Reps. Wayne Christian and Jim Landtroop were defeated by moderates in their reelection efforts after they were each placed in districts that contained over 80% new voters.)
After his departure from working for the Republican Party of Texas, Opiela got himself elected to the State Republican Executive Committee from Senate District 21. (District 21 is sparsely populated with Republicans, regularly going for the Democratic nominee by a 70-30 margin.)
Once elected to the SREC, what did Opiela do? He used his position to inform the Speaker’s office of the actions of fellow Republicans.
Eric Opiela’s name popped-up in relation to a controversial story from RedState.com that profiled a series of profane emails between members of the Speaker Straus’ staff. In them, Opiela is seen informing the Speaker’s office of the actions of a TEA party member from Tarrant County, as well as informing the Speaker’s office of the contents of private discussions between members of the SREC. In one of the emails, Opiela insults fellow SREC member Jason Moore while forwarding on one discussion from Moore about redistricting.
Not surprisingly, when Straus was battling conservative Ken Paxton for Speaker in the run-up to the 2011 legislative session, Opiela organized a group of SREC members to write a letter endorsing Straus for reelection, calling themselves “movement conservatives” and saying that they “have an ally in Joe Straus.”
Opiela’s involvement in the Republican Party working on behalf of Joe Straus isn’t limited to just forwarding emails about his colleagues’ activities. At the most recent state Republican convention in 2012, Opiela worked on behalf of Straus to circumvent the traditional process of allocating Delegates to the National Convention so that Straus could get a coveted ticket to Tampa. Traditionally there are spots available at the national convention for “statewide elected officials.” Opiela, seemingly not caring that the speaker represents just one single House district, fought to get Straus placed on the national delegate list as a “statewide elected official.” Fortunately, other party leaders would have none of Opiela’s efforts to rig the process for his boss and removed Straus from the list.
Arguably, though, the worst thing Opiela has done to the Republican Party and the conservative movement in Texas is the damage caused by his incompetent management of the 2011 redistricting process. Setting aside the ways in which Opiela allowed conservative members to be paired or drawn out of their districts, the actions of Opiela and the attorneys he worked with has caused irreparable damage to the state’s elections.
During the 2011 redistricting work, Opiela advised Straus redistricting attorneys Gerardo Interiano and Ryan Downton, and represented the interests of Congressman Lamar Smith and the Texas GOP congressional delegation (with the exception of Congressman Joe Barton).
In the litigation that has followed the adoption of maps by the Texas legislature, emails between Opiela and Interiano (in which Opiela suggested how to use racial data to draw maps) have played a very large role in allowing Democrats to paint the maps as racially discriminatory and illegal.
In an email, Opiela urges Interiano to swap Hispanics with high voter registration and turnout for Hispanics with low registration and turnout in order to increase Republican vote totals. The tactics that Opiela recommended not only appear to be discriminatory on their face, but—as an election lawyer—it was Opiela’s job to know that the courts would view them as illegal.
(Manipulating the maps along racial lines wasn’t the only thing Opiela did, either. Emails uncovered through the litigation show how Opiela worked with Downton to get special favors for Straus and U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith. In one email, he asks Downton to move precincts containing the San Antonio Country Club adjacent to SJS’s (Speaker Joe Straus’) house into Mr. Smith’s congressional district. Smith weighed in on Opiela’s request in another email, saying “Joe Straus would approve!.”)
Stepping away from the ethics of it all, Opiela’s decision to recommend these illegal tactics in print is mind-boggling. In choosing to put his recommendations in an email to be discovered by Democrats when they sued over the maps (something they were guaranteed to do), Opiela played a major role in causing the legislature’s maps to be thrown out. As a result, the 2012 primaries were delayed for months. In the decision rejecting Texas’s maps, the DC Circuit singled out Opiela’s influence over Interiano and Downton. Strikingly, the court found that testimony by Opiela and others defending his shady methods was not credible.
Recently, in the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the court threw out the scheme under the Voting Rights Act in which southern states like Texas are subjected to pre-clearance review of all election law changes by the Justice Department. The law had long been a thorn in Texas’s side because Texas is subjected to it while large swaths of the country are not.
When the decision came down, many Texas Republicans breathed a sigh of relief, assuming that the Obama Justice Department would no longer be able to hold up Texas election law changes (like our Voter ID law and our redistricting maps). But now it looks increasingly likely that Texas will be placed under pre-clearance by the Federal District Court in San Antonio (referred to as being “bailed-in” to the Voting Rights Act).
If that happens, the reason is likely to be the decisions made by Interiano and Downton, based on the advice of Eric Opiela. If this turns out to be the case, Texas Republicans will be feeling the ill effects of Opiela’s incompetence during the 2011 redistricting process for another decade to come.
As a Republican lawyer and Straus hatchet-man, Eric Opiela has proven himself to be the Democrats’ greatest ally. His is a record that screams out for mockery and derision, not for promotion.