A visit to the Texas Department of Public Safety, whatever it's for, is going to suck, at least a little. Thanks to cutbacks and consolidation, there's less likely to be a DPS location nearby when you have to make your once-every-dozen-years trek to renew your driver's license or state ID card. When you do get there, unless you've been able to score one of the precious few appointments that are available online each day, you'll likely be faced with an hours-long wait, just to go through a rubber stamp process and get an ugly picture taken.
Engage Texas, a GOP-backed Super PAC with money to burn, is taking advantage of DPS visitors' predicaments.
State Rep. Chris Turner, the chairman of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, blew the whistle on Monday: Engage Texas operatives, Turner found, had set up camp at several Tarrant County DPS offices, asking those in line to sign a petition against "late-term" abortion and register to vote.
Here’s the TENT they have set up at the Hurst DL office. pic.twitter.com/zVAvaH2RNF— Chris Turner (@ChrisGTurner) August 26, 2019
"I'm surprised. I've always understood and I think most people understand that you don't conduct political business on government property," Turner says. "This is identifying, 'Is someone a conservative, is someone a Republican?' and if they are, 'We need to capture their information' and the hook to capture that information is that 'we're petitioning Congress to pass a ban on late-term abortion.'"
Turner isn't sure if Engage Texas is explicitly breaking state law. The DPS doesn't seem to think so.
After Turner sent a letter to DPS Director Steven McCraw asking him to explain the organization's policies on political speech at its offices, DPS issued the following statement:
“So long as individuals or groups do not interfere with department operations, driver license office staff are advised that individuals and groups are allowed to peacefully utilize the public spaces outside driver license offices,” the agency said. “The department does not engage in any process of granting or denying permission to individuals or groups seeking to exercise their constitutional rights.”
Engage Texas didn't respond to a request for comment from the Observer on Tuesday, but the group told the Houston Chronicle on Tuesday that it was just exercising its First Amendment rights.
“Everything that Engage Texas does is free speech,” Engage Texas spokeswoman Lucy Nashed told the Chronicle. “We reached out and made sure that we were OK to be there in their free speech zone, and again, any time we use any space such as a government property or a college campus, we secure permission before going out and we follow their specific guidelines.”
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
The Super PAC seems to be using its rights in a targeted fashion. Turner found activists in Hurst, right in the middle of Rep. Jonathan Stickland's Texas House district, and Fort Worth, in addition to receiving reports of Engage Texas workers hanging out in Carrollton and Williamson County north of Austin. North Texas, Central Texas and the Houston area are expected to be among the Texas House's biggest battlegrounds in 2020.
"That undercuts the notion that this is about voter registration," Turner says. "If it was (about voter registration), they'd be doing it all over the state ... but they appear to be focused exclusively in areas where there are competitive legislative or congressional seats."
Legislation can't be filed to stop what Engage Texas is doing until the Texas House and Senate's 2021 session. In the meantime, Turner says, he expects a bevy of groups to take advantage of DPS' hospitality.
"If this is DPS' policy, and they say it is, I think it's going to be a free-for-all out there now that this is well-known," Turner says.