Sometimes the mask slips.
Yesterday I attended a panel at the Texas Tribune Festival, an annual gathering of politicos and media figures in Austin, where both audience and speakers tend to be disproportionately leftist. At times, the festival can feel like political entertainment for the left, with panelists and Democratic elected officials tossing out witty insults of President Trump and Texas GOP leaders, usually to uproarious laughter.
For some officials, it’s a chance to relax in front of a friendly audience and speak frankly about their political opponents. Sometimes they get carried away. Yesterday, one did.
At a panel on leftist activism in cities, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt was railing against the Texas legislature, complaining about how the state is constantly thwarting municipal policy. The Republicans running state government, she said, just want to stop whatever good things the cities are doing—whether it’s plastic bag bans, fracking bans, even local tree ordinances!
Then she said, “Governor Abbott hates trees because one fell on him.” The crowd laughed.
As all Texans know, Abbott was paralyzed from the waist down at age 26 when a tree fell on him while he was jogging on a windy day in Houston in 1984. He has used a wheelchair ever since. For an elected official to make fun of this, especially on a panel about civic activism, is appalling and offensive.
I immediately tweeted what Eckhardt had said.
At #TribFest19 panel on progressive activism, @JudgeEckhardt, talking about #txlege overriding local ordinances like Austin’s tree ordinance, says Gov. Abbott “hates trees because one fell on him.” The crowd laughs.
— John Daniel Davidson (@johnddavidson) September 27, 2019
Hours later, I noticed that my tweet had caught the attention of a few Republican lawmakers, who were understandably offended by the remark and called on Eckhardt to apologize. An editor at the Texas Tribune emailed me to ask if I had a recording, which I didn’t, but I said I had tweeted what Eckhardt said verbatim, and that the entire room heard what I heard.
Presumably, the Tribune then contacted Eckhardt for a comment, which prompted her to release a statement apologizing for the remark, which she called “disagreeable.”
Today I made a mistake and I sincerely apologize to @GregAbbott_TX. I have personally reached out to the Governor to apologize because my comment was inappropriate and wrong. pic.twitter.com/rgOEM9EQd6
— Judge Sarah Eckhardt (@JudgeEckhardt) September 28, 2019
That evening, the Tribune ran a story on Eckhardt’s apology. I strongly suspect that if I hadn’t tweeted her comment that there would have been no public pushback, no apology, and no news story.
In other words, was Eckhardt sorry she said what she said, or just sorry she got caught? Did she make fun of the governor’s disability because she thought she was among friends and could speak freely? Because she thought everyone in the room would be cool with it?
That’s certainly how it seemed. A few minutes before she made her crack, Eckhardt was talking about all the great things leftist city and county governments do to make life better for people, and she said, “I’m somewhat preaching to the choir at a Tribfest audience.”
In other words, she thought she could let the mask slip for a minute, tell the crowd how she really feels about the governor, maybe have a laugh at his expense. After all, just because he’s paralyzed doesn’t mean he’s not the enemy, right? And because he’s the enemy, we don’t need to be decent or respectful or civil, do we? We can mock him in ways we would never mock a Democrat, can’t we?
This entire sorry episode is a microcosm of American politics today. All that matters is what side you’re on, and if you’re on the wrong side, everything about you is fair game—even a disability. This kind of crude tribalism encourages and enables bigotry, which is really the only word to describe Eckhardt’s behavior.