AUSTIN — The anti-lockdown protests in Dallas and Frisco have their roots in dissatisfaction with stay-at-home orders, but also reflect a longtime internecine fight among Texas Republicans over how far right is far enough.
The organizers of “Open Texas,” the host of both protests, have ties to a political group known for challenging the conservative bona fides of fellow Republicans and include a former Collin County commissioner, two previous political candidates and an ex-aide to Attorney General Ken Paxton. Among the protests’ supporters are stalwarts of hardline conservative politics for whom Gov. Greg Abbott’s approach to the coronavirus crisis is too restrictive and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins’ is unspeakable.
Open Texas was created to oppose government orders telling businesses to stay closed and residents to remain at home due to the coronavirus outbreak. The group held a rally this week at Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas and plans another in Frisco on Saturday.
Similar demonstrations, which took place over the past week in Michigan, Wisconsin and Washington, DC, were aligned with national conservative groups and backed by President Donald Trump, who supported their rallies on social media. But while the Texas group shares their opposition to COVID-19 lockdown measures, its founder said their efforts are homegrown.
“This is a Texas effort. We’re not aligned with anyone at this time,” small business owner Grant Bynum, 54, told The Dallas Morning News. “This has been entirely grassroots.”
Anti-lockdown groups like Open Texas have criticized leaders from both parties, but put particular pressure on Republican officeholders with the power to undo stay-at-home measures. Their playbook is familiar in hardline conservative activist circles here in Texas, who have long sought to push elected officials further to the right. This divide, over how to respond to the virus, is even evident now among top GOP leaders, with the governor and lieutenant governor trading veiled barbs over the pandemic response.
Bynum said he and a few others founded Open Texas on April 14.
“Our reason for starting this is many of us are business owners and we also believe in God,” Bynum said. “We believe the measures to close down Texas have been extreme and have harmed us.”
Within its first 24 hours, Open Texas had 1,000 members on Facebook, Bynum said. It now boasts nearly 40,000 members. On its Facebook page, the group is calling for Texas to be reopened by the end of April and says those most vulnerable to the virus can be protected “without sacrificing our entire state economy.”
“Join this group if you want to take peaceful, prayerful action to open Texas businesses,” the group’s description reads. “May God guide our efforts as we submit them humbly to Him in Jesus name.”
Open Texas espouses a “no conspiracy theory posts” policy and Bynum added the group was not aligned with the organizers of an April 18 rally at the Texas State Capitol. InfoWars, a far-right conspiracy theory website based in Austin, and its hosts Alex Jones and Owen Shroyer heavily promoted that rally.
“We don’t allow crazies. This is not that kind of protest,” Bynum said, calling the Austin event’s affiliation with InfoWars “troubling.” Still, Bynum said there were individuals and causes represented there which Open Texas backs: “We supported a lot of the efforts of the people who were there.”
According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, at least 561 Texans have died due to complications from COVID-19 and at least 22,000 have been infected. In Dallas County, over 2,800 people been confirmed as having contracted the virus and 77 have died.
“That’s much much lower than the original predictions of Clay Jenkins,” Bynum said, referring to the Democratic county judge, who is providing daily updates on the virus’ spread. “That’s led to these extreme lockdowns.”
Dallas became the first major county in Texas to institute a stay-at-home order on March 23. This week, the city council extended its disaster declaration until May 12, but has not yet decided whether the stay-at-home order will remain in place through that date. Meanwhile, Abbott said he will begin easing statewide restrictions in early May and is expected to announce a more detailed plan Monday.
Bynum described himself as a “big supporter” of the governor, but said the two-term Republican is moving too slowly to reopen the state. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the state’s second highest officeholder, also has indirectly criticized Abbott’s response to the virus.
“I’m thankful that we are now, Tucker, finally beginning to open up Texas and other states because it’s been long overdue,” Patrick, a Republican, told Fox News host Tucker Carlson on Monday. “There are more important things than living, and that’s saving this country for my children and my grandchildren and saving this country for all of us.”
Abbott has sidestepped questions about the apparent rift between the state’s top two leaders, but said this week he was playing “the long game” in his response to the virus.
“There’s some people who want to be real impulsive and think about ‘let’s just focus on tomorrow,’” Abbott told Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty. “I’m focusing on the next year…as opposed to rushing the gates and having everybody getting sick and having to close businesses down again.”
Open Texas plans to go forward with its upcoming Frisco rally regardless of Abbott’s timeline for easing restrictions.
“Until everything is open, we’re not going to let up,” Bynum said. Abbott’s staff did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Michelle Smith, a former aide to both Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, is organizing the protest, Bynum said. A longtime Paxton supporter, Smith worked in the Office of the Attorney General as a senior aide, on the Paxtons’ campaigns and, more recently, as the district director for Sen. Paxton. She also attended several of the attorney general’s court appearances over the years. Paxton was indicted on fraud charges in 2015. He has pleaded not guilty but has yet to stand trial.
Smith no longer works for either Ken or Angela Paxton, his campaign confirmed.
“America has had numerous outbreaks of highly infectious diseases such as polio, tuberculosis, Hong Kong flu, SARS, and swine flu — diseases that have brought crippling disabilities for many and even millions of deaths. Yet government did not shut down the economy, schools, or religious services,” Smith posted on the Open Texas Facebook page, promoting the Dallas rally.
About 100 people turned out for that protest in Dealey Plaza. Some wore masks. Others eschewed the safety measure for signs that read, “I get it, you’re afraid, I’m not, let me work” and “Jenkins & Abbott killed us, not COVID-19.”
Lisa Luby Ryan, who ran for the Texas House of Representatives in 2018, headlined the event.
“Tyrants are using this health crisis to seize control over every aspect of our lives in their agenda to fundamentally transform America,” Smith wrote on Facebook. “It’s time that we stand up for our unalienable rights. It’s time to stop local tyrants from massive government reach and subjugating us. What gives Judge Clay Jenkins the authority to dictate where and when we travel or how many of us can gather together?”
According to its Facebook page, Open Texas’ admins also include one former elected official, a couple of political hopefuls and a handful of other activists.
Eric Hall ran for Frisco City Council in 2016. Kathy Partridge Ward previously served on the Collin County Commissioners Court and as a county GOP chair. Jim Pikl, an attorney with Scheef & Stone, ran two judicial races in the last several years.
Empower Texans, a political advocacy group known for challenging fellow Republicans seen as not conservative enough, supported both Pikl and Ryan in their bids for elected office. The group’s political action committee gave Pikl a total of $25,000 in his two campaigns and supported Ryan, who defeated incumbent GOP Rep. Jason Villalba for his Dallas-area Texas House seat in 2018, to the tune of $30,000.
Both Pikl and Ryan ultimately lost their elections.
Morgan McComb, whom Empower Texas describes as a “Republican activist,” is also listed as an admin on the group’s Facebook page, as are Dallas real estate agent Nicole Arenas and Joanie Pikl, Jim Pikl’s wife.
Pikl is now representing a McKinney man who sued Mayor George Fuller over his city’s coronavirus policies. Fuller questioned the group’s motives if it’s aligned with Pikl.
“I have no idea who the [other organizers] are, but Jim Pikl, specifically, has been extremely abrasive, condescending, and very outspoken that any and everyone who believes that this [coronavirus] is an issue is a fool,” Fuller told The News. “To me that should tell people how much validity there is in the cause of the protest.”
Earlier this month, Pikl tweeted, “The COVID19 hoax was started by Proctor and Gamble to start an emergency purchasing war to clean out their inventories,” according to NBC-DFW 5 News. Pikl later said he was being sarcastic, the station reported.
Fuller, whose 19-year-old daughter contracted COVID-19, said he’s remained on the same page with top Republican officials.
“I have no issue about people protesting peacefully. That’s their right. But I do think we need to follow the guidelines that have been handed down by the medical experts that our president and our governor have been listening to,” Fuller said. “At the same time, I certainly understand the desire to get back to work.”
Pikl did not respond to a call for comment Thursday.
When asked which elected officials have responded well to the pandemic, Bynum mentioned GOP Rep. Kyle Biedermann of Fredericksburg, a member of the hardline conservative coalition the Texas Freedom Caucus. He urged him and other politicians to come to the Open Texas Rally in Frisco on Saturday, where he expects 200 to 500 attendees.
“We need elected officials to take a stand for their constituents and not fear political implications,” Bynum said. “We think it’s going to be the largest rally that’s been held this year in Texas.”
Austin bureau chief Robert T. Garrett contributed to this report.