Texas politics remain heavily influenced by the disgraced Bush dynasty. The family’s connections to both the Chinese Communist Party and the political persecution of a popular statewide official raises concerns about their level of influence.
This is thanks in no small part to Gov. Greg Abbott, whose political appointments have favored the powerful family, which suggests an administration biased towards the establishment.
“The Bush era in Texas ends today,” declared defense attorney Tony Buzbee in his closing argument during the impeachment trial of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. “They can go back to Maine.”
A day later, the Texas Senate acquitted Paxton.
The Texas House’s impeachment process leading up to the trial were widely criticized and generated grassroots anger. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) himself strongly condemned the House, and in particular Speaker of the House Dade Phelan (R–Beaumont), for its shoddy and biased process.
However, important information surfaced during the subsequent trial in the Senate.
First, former Texas Land Commissioner and candidate for attorney general George P. Bush reactivated his law license the same day Paxton was slammed with allegations of illegal behavior by certain staff members.
Second, staff members who reported Paxton to the FBI were represented by attorney Johnny Sutton, who is a partner with the Ashcroft law firm. The firm’s namesake is John Ashcroft, the U.S. Attorney General under former President George W. Bush. Also, as reported by the Dallas Express, Sutton was George W. Bush’s criminal justice policy director when he was the governor of Texas. During Bush’s presidency, Sutton “led one of the largest and busiest United States Attorney’s Offices in the nation.”
During the Senate trial, it was revealed that for the three years Sutton represented Paxton’s accusers but had not been billed. This revelation caused Paxton defense attorney Mitch Little to mention the phrase “there are no coincidences in Austin.”
There was still another Bush connection.
Paxton’s accusers, who reported him to the FBI with no evidence, trusted Abbott enough to go to his office on the same day they met with the feds. During a cross examination of Ryan Vassar, the former deputy attorney general, he admitted he had a “to do list.” The third item on the list was to discuss their plans with Luis Saenz, who at the time served as Abbott’s chief of staff. According to the Austin-American Statesman, Saenz had previously been appointed to the U.S. Department of State by former President George H.W. Bush.
Texas Scorecard asked Gov. Abbott’s current chief of staff, Gardner Pate, if this meeting with Saenz actually took place, and if it did, what was discussed and whether the governor was aware. No response was received before publication.
Gov. Greg Abbott remained silent before, throughout, and after the Paxton impeachment trial.
This was not the only troublesome matter in which Saenz was found. In 2022, he was involved in a conflict between the Office of the Governor and Jaime Masters, the former Commissioner of the Texas Dept. of Family and Protective Services. Abbott’s Appointment Director Peggy Venable, who previously worked in the George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan administrations, also showed up in this. Masters was fired in late November 2022. Saenz left his job as Abbott’s chief of staff in December. Venable still has her job.
Former President George W. Bush timed his run for governor in 1994 perfectly with the ascendancy of the GOP to dominance of Texas politics. Ever since, the family and its operators have been enmeshed in the political fabric of the Lone Star State.
In 2019, former Texas Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen shared a group photo of himself with George W. Bush and four other former Texas House Speakers: Republicans Joe Straus, Tom Craddick, Dennis Bonnen and Democrat Pete Laney. Craddick still serves as the State Representative for Midland. Straus and Bonnen were the only ones who did not serve as Speaker during Bush’s time as governor. However, Straus did work in former President George H.W. Bush’s first presidential run, and then in the U.S. Dept. of Commerce during his presidency.
In April 2018, Bonnen was photographed with former Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush and Texas Game Warden Scott Jennings.
These relationships extend even into the federal government. In July 2002, then Vice President Dick Cheney spoke at a luncheon for then Texas Attorney General John Cornyn. “The President and I need John Cornyn working with us every day on our priorities for the country – winning the war on terror, protecting the homeland, and extending the reach of prosperity into as many lives as possible,” Cheney said. Bush’s relationship with Cornyn extended all the way back to 1996, when Bush consultant Karl Rove helped Cornyn in his reelection campaign for the Texas Supreme Court. Rove later recruited Cornyn to run for the state attorney general’s office.
In January 2007, the Houston Chronicle reported that “President Bush has few friends in Congress as fervent and loyal as U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.” The Intercept, a left-wing publication, wrote that “Once in Washington, Cornyn took his marching orders from the Bush administration, voting with the president 96 percent of the time in his first four years, more than any other senator.”
This close relationship continues today. In April 2021, Cornyn shared a photo of him and Bush together.
“Wonderful catching up with my friend President Bush at George W. Bush Presidential Center about immigration reform & border security, and his new book – Out of Many, One,” Cornyn posted on Facebook.
Cornyn joined in attacking Ken Paxton, saying the allegations against him were “deeply disturbing.” He continued, “I don’t think the public had full knowledge of all the facts and circumstances that have been now charged and which are now being the subject of the trial … They will have that information, along with the members of the (Texas) Senate, by the time this trial is over.”
The Bush dynasty’s proximity to the weaponization of state government against Paxton raises questions about their influence in Texas politics, how deeply enmeshed they are with Abbott’s team.
Ties That Bind
The connection between Bushworld and Abbott appears to go back to Abbott’s first day in in the governor’s office.
In April 2015, then Land Commissioner George P. Bush published a press release announcing he and Gov. Abbott “joined forces” at the Texas Capitol in support of charter schools. Roughly a year later, Abbott and Bush came into conflict over the latter’s handling of a lawsuit over historical items at the Alamo. Abbott’s first chief of staff, Daniel Hodge, wrote a blistering memo in June 2016 criticizing Bush.
Long-term, that doesn’t appear to have hurt ties between the two camps. As previously reported by Texas Scorecard, Hodge in 2021 was ranked as the highest-paid lobbyist in Texas. His second highest-paid client at the time was Academic Partnerships LLC. The man behind that company is Beaumont businessman Randy Best—a major donor to the Bush family dynasty. Best’s for-profit education program soared to success once George W. Bush became president and crafted the early-learning initiative Reading First, which was tailored to literacy programs like Best’s. While many argue the program didn’t hold up to long-term academic scrutiny, that was no longer Best’s problem.
After Hodge, Abbott hired Bush-tied Luis Saenz as COS. Then in November 2022, Abbott hired Gardner Pate to replace Saenz. Pate had previously served as deputy chief of staff. Before then, he had worked on Abbott’s campaign for attorney general, and served as Bush-tied Dennis Bonnen’s Director of Policy and General Counsel during his time as Speaker of the Texas House.
These connections work outside to wider circles surrounding Abbott.
The Bush School
In October 2017, Sarah Hicks was hired as Abbott’s Budget Director, then later took on the role of Director of Budget and Policy. In December 2022, she was promoted to Senior Advisor and Budget Director. Hicks got her Master of Public Service Administration from Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service.
The Bush family still has ties to this school aside from being its name sake. Neil Bush, the third son of George H.W. Bush, serves on the Bush School’s advisory board. He is also the founder of the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations, an organization that pushes for closer ties with China. Texas Scorecard previously reported on the Bush Foundation’s and the Bush family’s ties to the CCP.
Such connections are concerning considering the Bush School apparently opens doors for jobs in state government.
Starting in 2018, Abbott picked Texas A&M’s 2009 graduate Bobby Janecka to be his policy advisor. Janecka had obtained a master’s degree in international affairs from the Bush School. In October 2019, Abbott appointed him to a commissioner seat on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Janecka pointed to the Bush School as opening doors for him, and at the time of his appointment to TCEQ, he said the institution remains an influence on him. “I still keep in touch with Bush School professors and look to them for guidance and advice.”
In December 2019, Abbott appointed Wes Hambrick as Director of the Office of State-Federal Relations. Hambrick had previously served for Bush-ally U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R). Hambrick’s LinkedIn profile shows his most recent position in the Senate was Legislative Correspondent and Acting Legislative Assistant. In December 2022, Abbott announced that Hambrick will continue on in his appointed role.
Abbott made another Bush-connected appointment in 2019, though this one came more from Bushworld’s orbit rather than having personally served for a Bush.
In October 2019, Abbott appointed Adriana Cruz as the Office of the Governor’s Executive Director of the Economic Development and Tourism Division. Her LinkedIn profile reports she’s still there. Before this, Cruz had been the Austin Chamber of Commerce’s (ACC) Vice President of Global Corporate Recruitment, from May 2006 to May 2013.
Here is where the Bush connection is established. The 2022 Chairman of the ACC Board is Fred W. Heldenfels IV. For more than ten years, he’s served on ACC’s board and executive committee. “In 1995, when former President George W. Bush was Governor of Texas, he appointed Heldenfels to serve on the Coastal Coordination Council, and in 2010, Governor Rick Perry called him to serve as Chairman of the Texas Higher Education Board which Heldenfels was a board member of from 2006-2013,” his bio on the ACC website states.
There is also a connection between the ACC and the Chinese Communist Party that occurred during Heldenfels’ tenure. An ACC board member from September 2020 to January 2023 was Fang Fang, who sits on the board of advisors of the Bush-China Foundation.
Heldenfels previously served as the chairman of Texas A&M’s political action committee. His biography also shows an indirect connection to alleged pushers of the Paxton impeachment. He is board treasurer for Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which has been accused of being among those behind the impeachment. TLR has flatly denied this.
Adriana Cruz has stayed in Bushworld’s orbit for some time. From June 2013 to December 2019, she was president of the Greater San Marcos Partnership. A 2020 biography stated that car sales magnate Chuck Nash, “a longtime backer of the campaigns of both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush,” was a board member of the partnership. A 2017 Corridor News article reported he was a board member at the time, placing his time during Cruz’ tenure as president. Nash is not currently listed on the board of directors.
Cruz was also a featured speaker at the 2017 Texas-Mexico Summit, an event hosted in Austin by the Asociacion de Empresarios Mexicanos Austin. The keynote speaker was Land Commissioner George P. Bush.
COVID Strike Force
In the year when Sars-CoV-2, otherwise known as the Chinese coronavirus or COVID-19, swept the planet, Abbott turned to Bushworld when forming his April 2020 Open Texas Strike Force. He appointed Don Evans, chair of the President George W. Bush Foundation, to the Special Advisory Council. He also appointed Adriana Cruz.
Another appointee to this force was former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner and U.S. Medicaid and Medicare Administrator Dr. Mark McClellan. In September 2002, President George W. Bush nominated him to the FDA position, and later nominated him to the latter position.
Abbott’s strike force faded into irrelevance after he issued a statewide mask mandate. In March 2021, he rescinded most state COVID mandates, and did so without mentioning the strike force. That same month, Dr. McClellan criticized Abbott for his reopening procedures.
Despite the passage of time, one can still find denizens in Abbott’s staff and appointments plucked from Bushworld.
In December 2020, Abbott picked Mark Miner and Steve Munisteri as his senior advisors.
Miner was an appointee in President George H.W. Bush’s administration. His LinkedIn profile states he also worked as communications director for Gov. Rick Perry, and then from December 2020 to November 2021 for Texans for Greg Abbott. As of November 2022, Miner is now Corporate Communications Director for ERCOT, the troubled agency that manages Texas’ power grid.
Munisteri had worked in the Trump Administration, but he had previously worked to have the Texas Republican Party cozy up to the Bush’s when he was party chairman (2010-2015). In August 2012, Munisteri proclaimed that George P. Bush would be the party’s Deputy Finance Chairman. “The entire leadership of the RPT is very excited that George P. Bush has agreed to join,” Munisteri stated. “His joining the RPT team will be a great assistance to us in expanding our donor base which in turn will provide the party with additional resources to support our candidates and build the party’s infrastructure.” That same month, when asked how Texas Republicans viewed the Bush’s, Munisteri replied “Respect.”
The trend of Bush-tied Abbott appointees continues into the present.
In December 2021, Abbott picked Adriana Cruz and Jennifer Harris for the Broadband Office Board of Advisors. Their terms there were set to end February 1, 2023. Harris received her masters from Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service.
Far more recently, in October 2023, Abbott appointed Darren L. James to chair the Texas Board of Architectural Examiners. James is the board president of non-profit Fair Park First, named after Fair Park in Dallas, which the organization manages. Fair Park is also the venue of the State Fair of Texas. In March 2021, the non-profit joined with George W. Bush and his wife Laura in a campaign to improve the location. Both are still listed as honorary chairs of Fair Park First.
James is also president of KAI Enterprises, “a multi-state design and construction services firm.” The Associated General Contractors of America in 2021 gave the company a “Diversity & Inclusion Excellence Award in the Mid-Size Contractor Category.” Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) has been exposed as a woke ideology that promotes division and hate.
Despite none of them currently serving in elected political office, the Bush dynasty remains very influential in Texas state politics. It is similar to the pipeline of coaches in the NFL that flow from New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick. Their presence is keenly felt in the Abbott administration. While at times it appears that Abbott and Bushworld have differed, it does not appear those differences have been terminal.
Both Abbott and the Bush dynasty’s proximity to the corrupt impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton raise questions about the legitimacy of continuing to use Bush allies to staff state government positions. Bushworld’s connections to the Chinese Communist Party also raise concerns.
In part two, Texas Scorecard will examine questionable appointments Abbott has made during his governorship.