May 22, 2019

Lois Kolkhorst, Rising Star in the Texas GOP, Won’t Back Down

Reporting Texas

Lois Kolkhorst appears on the floor of the Texas State Senate in Austin, Texas. Photo courtesy of Lois Kolkhorst.

This story also appeared in the Victoria Advocate.

State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, a Republican from Brenham, knew that politics could be rough and tumble, but she didn’t imagine that a bill she authored would provoke death threats.

Kolkhorst authored the most divisive bill of the 2017 legislative session — the so-called “bathroom bill.” The measure would have prevented transgender people from using bathrooms in public schools and buildings that match their gender identity. Kolkhorst said the bill was intended to protect women from inappropriate behavior by men in bathrooms. Critics said the bill was an attempt to marginalize transgender people. The measure led to death threats, Kolkhorst said.

“It’s not fun to have death threats, and the tolerant left is not so tolerant, let me say,” Kolkhorst said during an interview in February in her Capitol office.

Kolkhorst declined to state the number of  threats she received but said they resulted in a short-term Texas Department of Public Safety security detail. A department spokesperson declined comment.

The bathroom legislation earned Kolkhorst praise among a subset of staunch socially conservative Republicans — a group that dominates GOP primary elections in the state — but in the end, a coalition of Democrats and business-minded Republicans prevented the measure from becoming law.

Despite the brouhaha over the bathroom bill, Kolkhorst has not backed down during the session that began in January. In March, she filed the Texas Born-Alive Infant Protection Act, which would impose up to a decade of prison time and a $100,000 fine on doctors who failed to treat babies “born alive” during failed abortions. Opponents say the legislation is unnecessary — there have been zero such cases since the state started tracking abortion complications in 2013 — and would stigmatize doctors who perform abortions.

Authoring hot-button socially conservative legislation has cemented Kolkhorst’s relationship with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who named her the chair of the Health and Human Services Committee in January, giving her considerable power over health-related legislation — including abortion measures — and has established Kolkhorst as a leading voice in the socially conservative block of the Republican party in Texas.

With a weak Texas Democratic party — Republicans have swept every statewide election since 1994 — political scientists say the state’s most important political divide in the Legislature is between business-minded and social conservatives. Kolkhorst, who is quick to tout her fiscally conservative, pro-business bona fides, is working to appeal to both blocs and therefore may be well positioned for a run for statewide office in the future.

Brenham born and bred

Lois Kolkhorst. Photo courtesy of Lois Kolkhorst.

Born in Brenham in 1964, Kolkhorst attended Brenham High School and graduated from Texas Christian University with a degree in advertising and public relations in 1988. She also played on the TCU golf team.

A successful business owner — she and her husband own Kolkhorst Petroleum, a fuel distribution company — Kolkhorst also served as president and CEO of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce and Brenham’s Economic Development Foundation before being elected to the Texas House in 2000. She said her business experience provided an economic window from which to view politics.

“I just saw that … the region really needed good representation,” Kolkhorst said on why she ran for office. “I love the area that I’ve grown up in.”

Kolkhorst served seven terms representing House District 13. In a 2014 special election, she won a seat in the Texas Senate. Her district, Senate District 18, includes Victoria and stretches from Corpus Christi north to near Bryan.

“I think when she moved to the Senate she adopted a more conservative persona,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “She became a little less pragmatic … and that was a combination of both a shift in her policy positions as well as the need to toe the line in the Dan Patrick Senate.” (Patrick, who as lieutenant governor leads the state’s top chamber, is a former conservative radio talk show host and one of the most socially conservative figures in state politics.)

A mother of two, Kolkhorst is one of the few women to have given birth while serving in the Texas Legislature. Her daughter, Lois Kate, a sophomore at TCU, was 2 years old when Kolkhorst ran for the House, and her son, Jake, was born during her time in the House.

Her family makes a sacrifice for her to serve, Kolkhorst said.

“(My family) knows for 140 days every other year is pretty tough,” she said. “But when I go home on the weekends, I’m fully engaged.” (In Texas, the Legislature meets every other year for 140 days.)

Kolkhorst said her constituents understand the importance of family and have been gracious when she can’t be at an event because she’s watching Lois Kate cheer at a TCU football game or one of Jake’s high school sporting events.

“I’ve been known to finish the work here (at the Texas Capitol), get in the car, drive home, coach a Little Dribbles (basketball) game, and drive back that night because the next day was a big hearing,” Kolkhorst said.

Comptroller Glenn Hegar, who represented the mainly rural district before Kolkhorst, said she works as hard as any politician in the state.

“She’s the type that she would literally roll up her sleeves and work really hard on issues to try to find solutions,” Hegar said. “There’s not someone out there that has greater passion and drive than she does.”

Lois Kolkhorst. Photo courtesy of Lois Kolkhorst.

Contentious bills

Sitting in her office in February under two stuffed and mounted deer heads — Kolkhorst is an avid hunter — she said she looked forward to moving on from red-hot socially conservative measures such as the bathroom bill to focus on reforming the state’s labyrinthine system for funding public schools, reducing property taxes and making sure Texas is prepared to deal with the next natural disaster.

Kolkhorst, whose district was hammered by Hurricane Harvey, has authored many bills this session pertaining to these topics. The bills are navigating committees in both chambers, and some still have a chance to make it to the governor’s desk to become law.

But then, in March, Kolkhorst waded back into the culture wars when she sponsored Senate Bill 23, the Texas Born-Alive Infant Protection Act. During the press conference where she unveiled the bill, Kolkhorst said: “Any baby born alive in Texas is going to be respected as a human being and protected from harm under the law.”

There is already a federal law, passed in 2002, which extends legal protections to babies born after failed abortion attempts.

Sam Robles, advocacy director at Progress Texas, a left-leaning non-profit organization, said SB 23 is unnecessary and is a thinly veiled attempt to rile up far-right voters.

“It is simply a means to advance a false narrative being pushed nationally to target groups like Planned Parenthood and other abortion care providers,” Robles said.

Kolkhorst emphasized the measure is merely about saving lives.

Rice University political scientist Jones said the bill is a politically safe piece of legislation for Republicans to pass.

“It allows them to demonstrate to the pro-life advocates that they’re still working on their behalf, that they’re still fighting the good fight, without alienating really anyone other than diehard Democrats and pro-choice advocates who were never going to vote Republican anyway,” Jones said.

SB 23 has passed the Senate, and the House has passed its version of the bill, meaning the legislation is likely to become law.

Texas Right to Life is an anti-abortion group that frequently testifies before Kolkhorst’s committee. Rebecca Parma, a legislative associate with the organization, said Kolkhorst displays grace and kindness to the people who come before her committee.

“Working with her has been great for us, just having a strong pro-life Republican woman who chairs a really important committee and is willing to carry legislation that we feel is really important for Texas,” Parma said.

Fiscal conservatism

Despite championing socially conservative legislation during the last two legislative sessions, Kolkhorst said she is first and foremost a fiscal conservative.

Her reluctance to spend taxpayer money was on full display during a February meeting with superintendents and principals in her Capitol office. The school officials wanted to know if she would support one of the biggest issues of the session: a proposed $5,000 teacher pay raise.

Retaining the most qualified and experienced teachers is extremely important, Kolkhorst told them, but she was wary of the cost. (In the end, Kolkhorst voted for the measure.)

“I’m very frugal with the money,” Kolkhorst said in an interview. “There are many good ideas out there, and there’s many worthy projects, and people are worthy, but you have to be careful with the people’s money.”

After the superintendents left her office, Kolkhorst welcomed in several city officials from her hometown. They caught up on Brenham’s efforts to rebuild after Hurricane Harvey, the state of its public schools and new businesses that had come to town.

Brenham City Manager James Fisher, one of the visitors, said in an interview after the meeting that Kolkhorst is an “asset and blessing” for his community.

“Sen. Kolkhorst was one of the first people that reached out and came in and met with me and welcomed me to the city and offered her assistance in any way that I needed or that the city needed,” Fisher said. “People (in Brenham) want to see people succeed, they want to see the community do well … and Sen. Kolkhorst is of that fabric as well. She’s an amazing lady.”

Looking forward

Kolkhorst said that while she was asked by supporters in her district to run for statewide office in 2018, she’s happy in the Senate and will run again in 2020.

“I enjoy the Senate, and I like the legislative branch,” Kolkhorst said. “So I don’t see any plans in the future to run statewide. I like being closer to home in the district. And I think you can be very effective doing that rather than running statewide.”

But Kolkhorst is positioning herself well — siding with Patrick on his priority legislation, chairing a powerful Senate committee and appealing to a broad base of Republican primary voters.

Jones said the Republican Party of Texas should be looking to Kolkhorst when thinking about replacements for Gov. Greg Abbott, Patrick or U.S. Senator John Cornyn.

“I think when the Republican Party is thinking about a face for the future, Lois Kolkhorst is one of the people that the party is, or at least should be looking at,” Jones said. “If you look at the Republican bench in terms of who is in the Senate, arguably Kolkhorst is the best candidate that Republicans have there.”

This story was produced as part of a joint venture with Reporting Texas, an online publication at the University of Texas-Austin’s School of Journalism.