Can a reporter become an elected official? I know it’s legally possible, but isn’t it some kind of crime against nature?
When WFAA-TV (Channel 8) investigative reporter Brett Shipp announced his resignation last week to run for Congress, most of the immediate comments painted him as an ingénue, a guy with a lot of name recognition from long years on Dallas TV but no basic chops in politics, no resume, no history on the mean streets of campaigning.
All true. But if you’re a reporter and you keep your eyes open, hopefully you learn a couple of things along the way. Shipp learned politics covering the Oklahoma Legislature as a young man, getting dragged by the elbow down long Capitol corridors by the late Gene Stipe, the infamous Oklahoma state senator who was longtime boss of the Little Dixie machine. If a guy like Gene Stipe drags you by the elbow, you better learn quick or you’ll wind up with a broken elbow.
Shipp knows some things. By the time I sat down with him for coffee one day after his formal announcement, he had already signed up a local political consultant. He had also lined up a national consultant in Kansas City who has experience running U.S. Senate and gubernatorial campaigns. His new campaign manager had just moved down from Boston to get things cranking.
Shipp may be a novice, but he’s no neophyte. A neophyte is the guy who wanders into politics having no idea how anything works and then figures it out the hard way, usually by getting massacred. Shipp may still get massacred, but not because he blundered in naively.
Then again, he’s up against three competitors in the Democratic primary who all have serious political experience, including previous White House connections. If he gets past them, he will face a popular and richly financed incumbent in the general election. Pete Sessions has represented the Texas 32nd U.S. House District since 2003. He ran unopposed last time.
So why am I having coffee with Shipp and not the other three Democrats? (Ha! You didn’t even ask why I wasn’t having coffee with Sessions, did you?) OK, I admit it. It’s because he’s a reporter.
I’ve always been fascinated by reporters who leave the business to do other things, mainly because I’ve never been quite sure it’s even possible. It seems like something that would require an operation.
His career as a reporter does not make him my personal favorite. I will try to meet the other candidates before the primary as well. Shipp and I are not buddies. I have lavished praise on him in the past as the city’s top journalistic sleuth, but I also have beaten up on him pretty good. School reform, mainly. But everybody hates me on that one. If I even utter those words at home, “school reform,” my dog goes into the other room.
We met at the back of Mama’s Daughter’s Diner on Irving Boulevard a few blocks from the Trinity River levee. Congressional races are a little outside my wheelhouse, so I self-consciously prepared a list of questions beforehand that I hoped would sound suitably sophisticated. Then when I had him in front of me, I blurted the only question I really cared about.
“Why are you doing this?”
He told me a funny story about being at home over a long holiday vacation:
“I had a lot of time to contemplate the new administration,” he said. “I’m on my Facebook page and reading everything. I’m becoming more and more concerned by the direction that the new administration appeared to be taking, and I would put some stuff out on my Facebook page.
“My son finally came to me and said, ‘You need to put your Facebook down.’ It was a wakeup call. It was good advice from my 23-year-old son.”
I didn’t mention it at the diner, but I had noticed some of his posts during that period. I was doing the same thing, banging away on Facebook. In fact, I had wondered about us both. Why were two seasoned journalists with access to some pretty effective media megaphones sitting up nights banging away on Facebook? What was it we thought we could accomplish, what itch did we have to scratch on Facebook that we couldn’t reach in our work?
Shipp listened to his son. “He thought I was just spending too much time fretting about the future of our country based on the incoming administration. He was right. I dialed it back,” he said.
Not too far back, apparently.
“This whole year, we have watched events unfold, the daily toxic tweets, the daily alarming rhetoric, the acrimony, and all of the chaos and the churn that is so uncomfortable," he says. "It is so unsettling to everybody I know. Everybody I know is talking about how disturbing it is to watch what’s going on in D.C. and specifically in the White House.
“It’s been the swift erosion of attitudes and the erosion of decorum and the erosion of principled politics and the erosion of democracy. And I honestly want to scream. I honestly want to scream.”
The national Democratic Party has focused on the 32nd Congressional District as a maybe, a soft spot in the red wall, because Hillary Clinton took it from Donald Trump in 2016. She won the 32nd by 48.5 percent to 46.6 percent. Sessions won it with more than 70 percent of the vote, but then again, he had no opponent.
Just over 43 percent of the people who live in the 32nd have bachelor’s degrees. The median income is $70,119, about twice the level in the very few solidly Democratic congressional districts of North Texas.
The Clinton vote last time around may look like an opportunity to Democrats, but it was also a major anomaly for Republicans. The 32nd voted for Romney over Obama by 57 percent to 41.5 percent in 2012, for McCain over Obama in 2008 by 55.3 percent to 44 percent.
So is that bad for Shipp because he’s a political newcomer, or is that good for him because he’s an anomaly? As a reality check, I finally got to my list of prepared questions and clicked through them to see how he talks on litmus issues:
“I think it’s a horrible idea. I believe in border security. In some places that means a wall, but in some places that means cyber security. In some places that means drones. In some places that means personnel.
“You just don’t say, ‘I’m going to offend an entire nation of people by putting up a wall.’ In our world, metaphorically, what does that mean, ‘I’m going to build a wall’? It reminds me of the Cold War. It reminds me of the Berlin Wall. It reminds me of separating and dividing people to make them enemies.
“I hate that idea. It makes me sad.”
I put that down as “against.”
Democratic Minnesota Sen. Al Franken
Shipp responded with the thumb-over-shoulder umpire signal that means, “Yer outta here!”
“Anybody,” he said. “You put ’em all in there. Trent Franks [Arizona Republican congressman], out of there. Roy Moore [Alabama Republican Senate candidate], sorry. Al Franken, John Conyers [Michigan Democratic congressman], out of there.
“Anybody in Congress who has mistreated women, who has a pattern of behavior that is negative or detrimental toward women or minorities or immigrants or anybody, they need to go.
“There should be a higher standard upheld in public office. It should be ethical. People should be moral. They should be honest. If two of those three are strikes, then I think I would call for their resignation."
“I am pro-choice. Period.”
Special Counsel Robert Mueller
“As a lifelong Republican, Mr. Mueller has the integrity. He has the intelligence. He has the experience. He is in charge of discovering whatever there is to be discovered. He should be able to do his job unimpeded. The results are the results.
“It would be a tragedy if there were any interference with Mueller’s capacity to fully and fairly investigate.”
I had some more questions lined up. But I looked at him. He’s 59 years old. Looks 48. I hate that about TV guys. He has won three Peabody Awards, two duPont Silver Batons and a duPont Gold Baton, making him one of the most awarded investigative reporters in television.
We talked a little about WFAA, which has gone through an ownership change and a spinoff in recent years. He said he is completing what he considers his best year ever in TV. He believes he can do with an iPhone what used to require three people and a truck. He’s making the transition and has no sour grapes to offer me.
So I forgot about my questions and asked again: Why is he doing this?
“I had a watershed moment in the last few months. I’m watching Ken Burns, The Vietnam War. It is the most profound record of an era of turmoil and presidential transgression possibly in the history of this country, and we forgot about it.”
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“I see year after year after year the number of kids dying in Vietnam go up. This lie was being told by the administration, and now it has been recorded in history. And I look at the sacrifice of these kids being slaughtered, sent into slaughter in Vietnam for an unjust, invalid war.
“And I think, wow, I have never sacrificed a day for my country. I have never given up anything for my country.”
It turns out he and I share a favorite quote about things. Usually attributed to Martin Luther King Jr., it’s this: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He said that’s why he’s doing it.
OK. But I say he’s still a reporter.