The Tyler Loop interview: Representative Matt Schaefer, House District 6

Courtesy Matt Schaefer

With one month to go before this November’s midterm elections (the deadline to register to vote is Tuesday, October 9), The Tyler Loop is reaching out to candidates running selected major Texas races who aim to represent Tyler and Smith County at the local, regional, or statewide level.

This week we’re talking with State Representative Matt Schaefer. Schaefer, a Republican who has represented Texas House District 6 since 2013, ran unopposed in 2016 and captured nearly 90 percent of the vote against a Libertarian opponent in 2014. This year, he has a challenger in Neal Katz, the Tyler rabbi who is running as an independent candidate.

Chairman of the Texas Freedom Caucus, Schaefer’s legislative interests tend toward the ultra-conservative, including restricting abortion access in cases of severe fetal abnormality. Last year, he successfully amended SB4, the sanctuary cities bill, with a provision aimed at officials who might try to prevent law enforcement officers from asking people they detain or arrest about their immigration status. Under Schaefer’s amendment, a local police chief could lose their job for telling their officers not to do that. He was named one of Texas Monthly‘s best legislators in 2017—a “controversial pick,” the editors put it—for employing “savvy legislative strategy” that killed dozens of bills on the House floor to help force a special-session vote on the bathroom bill, which Schaefer supported.

Our conversation has been edited for clarity, context, and length.

While we were arranging this conversation, you mentioned that you had a question about our interview with Neal Katz, your opponent in this November’s election for House District 6.

In your interview, you referred to the “show me your papers” amendment [referring to Schaefer’s amendment to SB4]. What do you mean by that?

That term became the widely used vernacular shorthand for describing your amendment, and later the bill in general.

Well, I think that was a one-sided description. And it’s propaganda. It was designed to scare people. It’s false on its face. There was nothing in the bill that changed current law about the authority that police officers have to inquire about a person’s immigration status once they had been lawfully detained.

Why did you introduce this amendment?

Because we had, for instance, the sheriff of Travis County telling their officers that you can no longer ask these questions [even] if you feel that you need to as part of a criminal investigation. They were releasing criminals onto the streets. When immigration officials would come to them and they had someone incarcerated, and they said to the state official or the local official, ‘Please hold this person, here’s the federal detainer,’ the sheriff in Travis County was saying ‘No, we’re not going to honor that. We’re going to let that person out on the street.’

Was it more about controlling what departments in places like Travis County can and can’t do, as opposed to what happens here in Tyler?

It’s all connected. You’ve got gang members out on the streets in Travis County. They get on the highways, and they come here. It was beginning to happen in more and more places. So you can’t just say that there’s somehow an imaginary wall that no one’s going to go past when they leave Travis County. It affected public safety throughout the state.

[Editor’s note: a 2018 study from the right-leaning Cato Institute shows that undocumented immigrants in Texas are arrested and convicted for violent crimes at lower rates than native-born citizens. “Some violent crime is committed by illegal immigrants,” Schaefer said in a follow-up statement. “The percentage is not the point.”]

Here in Tyler, local law enforcement officers told me they were worried that your amendment would make it harder to do their jobs—that it would have a chilling effect on their relationships with the local Latino community. Tyler is 25 percent Latino. Did you have a strong base of support for your amendment here in our district?

I did. It’s overwhelming. And you can see polls that show it’s even bipartisan.

Now, part of it was the miscommunication through the media. From the questions you have asked me and from the questions you posed to Neal Katz, you have a fundamental lack of understanding of what the law is and what my bill did. And that’s part of the problem, is that they picked up this “show me your papers” propaganda, and that’s all the media said, and everybody started believing it. And it’s just not true. In fact, this bill put protections for witnesses and crime victims into law that was never there before, for people who don’t have legal status.

I’d like to hear more about your base of support for your amendment here in Tyler.

I’ve had overwhelmingly positive response to my amendment. You want to name names about local law enforcement? I mean, I talk to all of them. We talked about what the bill did and didn’t do. The City of Tyler police department, not long after it came out, said, ‘We’re not gonna change anything about what [we] do.’ And so whatever concerns there might have been, I don’t think it’s been proven out. I have certainly not heard any complaints from law enforcement of late. None.

You’ve represented East Texas through House District 6 since 2013. How have you directly improved the daily lives of East Texans in that time?

I think public education is something that everybody cares about. I was the author of the law that allowed public schools across the state to begin hiring people with subject-matter expertise to teach career and technology courses. The problem was that, for instance, in Chapel Hill, they had an auto shop program for many years in the high school. The man that was teaching it was going to retire, and they couldn’t find someone to replace him. Well, it wasn’t because there weren’t men in the community who could teach auto shop. [The problem was that] nobody had a teaching certificate, this piece of paper from the government saying, you’re the only one that can teach auto shop.

I worked with the superintendent at Chapel Hill, Donni Cook, and others. It took us two sessions, but we wrote the law that changed it for the entire state. [It allows] a local school board to say, if a career and technology teacher has subject-matter expertise, but does not have a teaching certificate, if the school board takes a vote and says, ‘We’re gonna hire this person,’ then they can do so. You just have to a have a criminal background check and some classroom management training, and work under the supervision of the principal and superintendent. It has worked wonders across the state. Literally hundreds of teachers have been hired under this new program, all across the state of Texas.

It’s happened even here. Tyler independent school district hired someone to teach auto shop from one of the local body shops here in town. And that has had an impact on a lot of people. Restoring vocational training has been one of my passions, and we’ve had some success on that. That’s one example.

What’s another example of legislation that you’ve worked on that directly impacts the lives of East Texans?

Last session, in the budget process, I passed a multimillion-dollar amendment on the House budget that allowed community colleges to have a stronger negotiation position at the Senate. My amendment added millions of dollars of funding to the community college formula. It allowed us to come out of the negotiation with the Senate with a much stronger funding. That was just last session.

On the Second Amendment, we had a problem with licensed handgun owners. If you inadvertently walked into a business and you didn’t see the 30-ought-06 sign, and you hadn’t done anything wrong other than continue to have a concealed weapon, you could go to jail for a year and lose your license for the rest of your life. It was a harsh punishment for something that was catching people, you know, in places like an airport, where you normally carry and forgot that it was in your attaché case. It was just an innocent mistake. So we reformed that so it was a Class C [misdemeanor] and does not affect your lifetime ability to possess a weapon. 

On the abortion issue, I have done a lot of work on that. I’ve had great success on modernizing the abortion reporting process in the state of Texas, where, you know, tens of thousands of babies are being killed. In the modern era, we were still using paper forms from the abortion clinics that were sent into the agency sometimes 12, 13 months after the fact. We modernized that, giving us better data and understanding.

I’ve also been involved in stopping more regulations, more intrusions into people’s lives. I’ve supported criminal justice reforms, where I’ve worked with Democrat colleagues on these issues. You know, the liberty-minded wing in the Republican party is much more open to criminal-justice reform than some of the other establishment Republicans have been. Areas like civil asset forfeiture—I have been a leader in the Texas House on that. I don’t think you should be able to keep someone’s assets without even charging with them with a crime. And I think that if you’re an innocent party in that, or in anything, you should not have the burden to prove that you’re innocent.

We have a big speaker’s race in the House coming up. Are you putting your hat in the ring for the speakership?

No. Absolutely not. It’s not something that I believe I should do, and it’s not something that I feel called to do. There are able people who are stepping forward, or perhaps even will step forward. I’m comfortable that we’re going to have a good speaker.

And, my wife would shoot me [laughs].

What are you looking for in this next round of leadership?

I want someone who ideologically is conservative. That includes believing in protecting babies in the womb, believes in limited government, and the Bill of Rights. [Someone] who will allow conservative legislation to get to the floor and let me represent my district. That’s about it.

Rep. Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches has announced he’s running for speaker. Clardy has been involved with several pieces of legislation directly benefiting Tyler, from the pharmacy school at U.T. Tyler to legislation that helps Tyler hospitals get access to more federal Medicaid funding. Clardy doesn’t represent Tyler. Help our readers understand why he’s been so involved here.

I think it goes to the tension that I’ve had with Speaker Straus. But I would say everything that you have just mentioned, none of that was done by any one individual member. There were times that I needed to use my relationship with the lieutenant governor to get access when others couldn’t. As you know, there’s a lot of tension between Dan Patrick and Joe Straus. And Dan Patrick has been more conservative. And so, when you have the two competing leaders of the chambers, it takes a team effort to get things done at a local level.  I don’t know anybody in the Texas legislature that gets anything done all by themselves.

What’s happening in Austin that you wish more Tylerites would pay attention to?

Right now, we have a historic situation with the speaker. It’s the first time since 1993 that there’s an open race for speaker.

You want to talk about being effective in Austin? Let’s say that Neal Katz was to get elected. He will not only not have a seat at the table for that, he will not even be in the same room when that decision’s made, because we have a Republican-controlled government right now, like it or not. Republicans are going to meet in December to choose their nominee for speaker. He won’t even be invited to that meeting.

So how can you say that you’re going to effectively represent your constituents when you can’t even have a seat in the room?  And throughout [the] session, the Republican caucus meets to determine major policy movement. He’s going to be excluded from a seat at the table on virtually every major policy decision that will happen in the next House of Representatives. He won’t even be in the room to hear the conversations.

Does your work with the Texas Freedom Caucus, which has been described as “hardline conservative,” exclude you from any rooms, or a seat at important tables? Does it hurt your ability to work with moderate Republicans or moderate Democrats?

What [the Texas Freedom Caucus] has accomplished is why I get so many calls from people running for speaker. They want to talk to me just like they want to talk to everybody else.

I have good relationships. We have policy differences, but it’s just like a football practice. We butt heads on the field and then we go grab a burger together afterwards.

I have good policies that I espouse, and I don’t like theirs a lot of times. But I talk to Democrats frequently. We all want to get stuff done down there, and the policy differences are there. But I think you will not find a member of the Texas House that thinks that you can’t approach Matt Schaefer and talk to him and have a respectful conversation. I respect my colleagues.

It was called “the Mother’s Day massacre”—the killing of dozens of bills in the last session [led by the Texas Freedom Caucus]. Did that action hurt your relationships with people who had brought forward those bills and got caught up in a much larger debate?

You’d be surprised how many members that, after that happened, said, ‘We were just waiting for you guys to do that.’ And technically, some of those bills did die, and some of those bills didn’t die.

What we did was, we stopped the process that day. We didn’t take votes on the bills. The Democratic chairwoman on that committee and others had been using [the process] to block a whole lot of Republican bills from getting to the floor. We sent a message, and that message was heard loud and clear.

One of the major themes that emerged in the last session was the tension between state and local control. Traditionally, conservatives have been advocates for local control, but in the last session, we also saw conservatives push to take local control away in terms of banning so-called sanctuary cities.

How do you think about what issues ought to be decided in Austin, versus issues that really should be handled by individual communities? Where do you draw the line?

One question I try to ask myself when I’m looking at these issues is, are people going to have more freedom or less freedom? I think those that don’t like what we were trying to do on, say, property taxes, well, they’re going, ‘Oh you’re against local control.’

But what they mean by local control is the handful of people on the city council, or the handful of people at the commissioner’s court. In that case, with the property taxes, what I mean by local control is the individual taxpayer. You can’t get more local than the individual taxpayer. That is local control. To give local taxpayers more of a say in significant property tax increases is the ultimate in local control.

Tyler is 50 percent white, 25 percent Latino, and 25 percent African American. What would black and Latino voters get if they came out to support you in November?

Somebody who’s interested in doing things that are right for everybody.

Can you say more on that?

That means more freedom. I am about more freedom for people: getting a smaller government and a bigger role for families. Bigger role for individuals, fewer regulations, more opportunity. When government has a limited role, and stays an umpire rather than a player, then the innovation and energy and creativity of individuals and families and small businesses prospers.

I think about the guy that runs his business out of the front seat of his pickup or the spot on the boat. Business interests that come to Austin want to create new rules because they’ve got secretaries and staff that are going to handle all that. The little guy, he gets pushed aside. He doesn’t even have a seat at the table, because he’s too busy trying to go to work, and feed his family, and watch a game when he can, and just keep all the bills paid. They don’t have lobbyists.

Look, those are the people I grew up around. I grew up poor around the farming and ranching community. I grew up around immigrants. I grew up around people who worked hard with their hands. And so I get that. I see what happens when government makes it harder for people to get into business.

Look at the occupational licensing work that I’ve done. Walk onto the House floor and ask, say, ‘Hey, who’s big on occupational licensing?’ And probably every one of them will point to Matt Schaefer. And you know who these crazy occupational licensing rules hurt? It hurts poor people. It hurts people that we have let out of prison, and we expect them to be good citizens now, and they can’t go get a job because there are some overly burdensome regulations.

We need to reform the criminal justice system. And where that starts, in my opinion, is letting people work. If you don’t want them back in prison, you want them working. Are you going to make it harder for them to work, or easier for them to work? That’s the question. Those things matter. Those things matter to me. That’s what gets me passionate.

Correction: a previous version of this story incorrectly identified the name of former Chapel Hill superintendent Donni Cook.

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Tasneem Raja is the Executive Editor of The Tyler Loop, a nonprofit journalism startup that explores policy, history, and demographics in Tyler, Texas. She is an award-winning journalist who has reported for NPR, The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Mother Jones, and other national outlets. A former senior editor at NPR, she launched a popular podcast exploring issues of identity and race with NPR's Code Switch team. At Mother Jones, she specialized in data visualization and led a team that built the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She's a pioneer in the field of data-driven digital storytelling, a frequent speaker on issues of digital journalism, and a die-hard fan of alt weeklies, where she got her start as a local reporter. She lives in Tyler with her husband, her stepson, and two imperious terriers.
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