In North Texas, schism deepens between GOP moderates and 'skewed' hard-liners

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Lee Jenkins (left) and Diane Andrews (right) of North Texas traveled to the Capitol Jan. 6 but said they didn't go inside.
Lee Jenkins, left, and Diane Andrews of Texas traveled to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, but said they didn't go inside. (Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

Mayor George Fuller is troubled by what he sees and hears in this conservative Dallas suburb.

Battles with liberals are enduring and predictable, but what worries Fuller is the deepening rancor between Republican moderates and far-right conservatives over what America should look, sound and feel like. Inspired by nativist fervor and fed by Donald Trump's rage, the Republican Party here encompasses anti-vaccination protesters, QAnon conspiracy theorists and those whose mistrust of President Biden only hardens as he reverses his predecessor's policies.

“It’s just not the party I recognize anymore,” said Fuller, 58, a moderate Republican whose Trump-supporter siblings no longer speak to him. “We are at a place where families are torn apart by political ideologies that are so skewed and out of whack.”

What is evident across this county — where in the 1970s the oilmen-rancher TV drama "Dallas" was filmed — is that extremism has gone mainstream in certain pockets of America. Hard-line sentiments that would have been whispered only years ago are now spoken unabashed. That worries Alonzo Tutson, a Black Independent, who said right-wing radicals here are everyday people who say "howdy to you at soccer practice. They just blend right in."

Texas was home to three dozen of the 377 alleged insurrectionists arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, tied with Pennsylvania for the most of any state, according to a study by terrorism experts at the University of Chicago. Of Texans charged, 20 live in half a dozen rapidly diversifying blue counties around Houston and Dallas, including several in McKinney’s Collin County.

The study found that Texas’ rioters were older, more professional and had fewer ties to radical groups than past far-right conservatives. All came from counties that had lost white populations in recent years. Collin County's white population has declined at a rate of 4.3% since 2015. The study’s authors cited increased fear among conservative whites that they would be overtaken by minorities in a “Great Replacement.”

“Now that Biden’s in office, a lot of people look to Texas as the counterpoint,” Paul Chabot, 47, a former San Bernardino reserve sheriff’s deputy, said last week at McKinney Coffee Co. He described the area as, “Living how America used to be.”

Stonebridge Ranch in McKinney — where Chabot’s relocation company helps resettle Californians, many of them conservatives — was designed in 1988 by the same architects who designed Woodbridge in Irvine in 1975.

The county's historic homes and expansive developments hum with a conservative extremism propelled by fear, disillusionment and social media that trade less on facts than on evoking tribalism.

McKinney, Texas
"It's just not the party I recognize anymore," says McKinney Mayor George Fuller, a moderate Republican. He added: "We are either going to destroy ourselves from within or have a reset." (Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

When Black Lives Matter protests took place in the summer in Dallas, about 30 miles south, McKinney remained calm. But a City Council meeting turned raucous when some of the city’s roughly 200,000 residents successfully opposed the idea of removing a Confederate statue from the town square. Other Collin County officials also blocked a proposal to move or better explain a statue of the city and county's namesake, Collin McKinney, a slaveholder with Black descendants.

In November, residents petitioned and voted to recall the city's only Black council member, La'Shadion Shemwell, after the Los Angeles native read a "Proclamation for a Black State of Emergency" during a council meeting. Shemwell, whose district was majority minority, filed a federal lawsuit in an unsuccessful attempted to stop the recall, saying it would "dilute the voting strength of Black and Latino voters in McKinney."

After the Capitol insurrection, some Black residents spotted white neighbors — including those in law enforcement — in videos and photos of the riot posted online.

“They're just common, everyday people. You would never know they were holding these grudges or have this sentiment [of] 'They’re taking over, this element moving into Collin County,'" Tutson said of some right-wing residents' view of people of color.

On March 14, a 26 year-old Black man, Marvin Scott, died at the county jail in McKinney after being restrained by several sheriff’s deputies in what the coroner ruled was a homicide. The deputies were fired, but no one has been charged in connection with the killing.

Local conservatives have focused instead on opposing pandemic mask mandates, business shutdowns and vaccines. They rallied around state proposals to allow permit-less gun ownership, expand voting restrictions and ban teaching critical race theory in schools.

“I firmly believe that D.C. was just a test run,” Tutson said. “They are willing to take this to the more local levels, and you’re going to start seeing these same results of what happened in D.C. in various cities, your county seats all throughout the U.S.”

Mayor Fuller, who supported pandemic restrictions and avoided taking a public position on Trump, has felt the sting of Republican far-right conservatives. He was tricked into attending a mask-burning party during his reelection campaign this spring. Last month, his wife was targeted by conservative opponents on Facebook with a photo purporting to show her flipping the bird (she was making a peace sign).

Diane Andrews, with her son, husband, and friend Lee Jenkins, right.
Diane Andrews, left, lives in Plano, Texas, with her son and husband. At right is her friend Lee Jenkins. (Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

Fuller said the municipal election this month, which pitted a slate of pro-Trump Republican challengers against moderates, became a test on the party's future: “We are either going to destroy ourselves from within or have a reset.”

Those charged in connection with the Jan. 6 riot include lawyers, retirees, tech executives and veterans; among them was McKinney resident Kevin Sam Blakely, 55, who did not respond to requests for comment. Others included Jenna Ryan, 50, of nearby Frisco, who flew to Washington in a private plane with two fellow Realtors who live in the area. She also did not respond to requests for comment.

All now face federal charges in connection with the riot after Ryan posted photos on social media of herself inside the Capitol. Ryan declined to comment last week via email, but said she will after her case is resolved.

Other Collin County residents attended the rally but were not charged and remained unapologetic.

“It was the most historic event we’ve ever done,” Diane Andrews, 50, said as she sat on her patio in nearby Plano last week showing off photos and video of herself outside the doors of the Capitol, posing with broken windows and the so-called Q Shaman in his horned hat.

Diane Andrews, her husband and her friend at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6
Diane Andrews, center, stands with her husband at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. At right is her friend Lee Jenkins, also from Texas. (Diane Andrews)

Andrews and her friend Lee Jenkins, a hairstylist, said they joined the crowd “storming the Capitol” but insisted most protesters were peaceful and didn't deserve to be charged. The women said they had considered entering the building too, but decided not to because they feared the tear gas would aggravate Jenkins' asthma.

After they returned to Texas, Jenkins’ Twitter account was removed. FBI agents interviewed Andrews at her home several times, she said. Neither woman was charged.

Photos Andrews had posted online were circulated. Although Jenkins — whose business had just reopened after the pandemic lockdown — lost some liberal clients, she said she gained conservative ones, as did Andrews, who works as a dominatrix.

As Andrews' son and dog played nearby, the women explained that they are “middle right,” not far right.

“We’re insurrectionists?” Andrews said, and laughed.

They watch Fox News' Tucker Carlson and follow conservative Telegram online channels. They believe aspects of QAnon theory, including that the government has been infiltrated by pedophiles, and bridle at it being called a conspiracy: “It’s no longer a conspiracy theory when I can show you facts,” Jenkins said, wearing a “Jesus Matters” T-shirt, a nod to conservative opponents of Black Lives Matter, which Andrews dismissed as “Marxist.” The pair draw their information from online reports and controversial documentaries such as "Vaxxed."

Andrews doesn’t wear masks or observe social distancing, and switched her 8-year-old son to private school after public schools eliminated in-person classes. The women say they are not anti-vaccine — Andrews vaccinated all three of her children as babies — but say they oppose COVID vaccines, which they consider untested. They recently attended a conservative anti-vaccine conference in Tulsa, Okla., whose headliners included Trump supporters such as attorney Lin Wood and My Pillow Chief Executive Mike Lindell.

They said they appreciate North Texas’ growing diversity and resent being labeled racist for opposing Black Lives Matter and supporting restrictions on immigration.

“When you let these people flood our borders, that’s our tax dollars” paying for public services, said Jenkins who, like Andrews, owns her home. “Once you’re a homeowner and you really see those taxes, it changes you.”

That sentiment and deeper conservative beliefs are shared by many, including Zach Barrett, president of the Collin County Conservative Republicans. The 42-year-old sales rep said that as Black Lives Matter protests spread during the past year, he worried about riots in Collin County.

“It could happen anywhere, especially in the suburbs of a major city. People who think they’re shielded from that are naive,” he said, noting Dallas is just a half-hour drive away and, “There’s no wall to stop people from coming up.”

Barrett worries about Biden reversing Trump immigration policies that he said have protected Texas at a time when thousands of migrant children are being housed at the Dallas Convention Center and other federal shelters across the country.

“How many people around Dallas-Fort Worth would be willing to take those children on and say, 'You can come live with me'?” he said. “If we dropped off a few migrant kids and said, ‘They’re going to eat your food, lounge on your couch and sleep in your bed for the next few years,’ they would never do it. It’s not racist. It’s just common sense and logic.”

Stan Penn, owner of The Celt Irish Pub
Stan Penn, owner of The Celt Irish Pub in McKinney, Texas, has withdrawn from a City Council runoff. (Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

Such issues played into McKinney's municipal elections on May 1, which drew historic turnout. If it was a referendum on extremism, as Mayor Fuller suggested, extremism mostly lost. Fuller was reelected by a wide margin. Most of the candidates who attacked him were defeated, except for Stan Penn, a Trump supporter who forced his moderate opponent for City Council into a runoff but then quit last week, citing the nastiness of the race.

“I’ve been accused of wanting people to die to line my pockets. I’ve been told, ‘I hope you get COVID and you die,’” Penn said as he sat last week in The Celt, an Irish pub he opened in downtown McKinney after retiring as a bank president.

Penn, 60, described himself as a “center-right, chamber of commerce Republican,” but said friends stopped talking to him during the election. Others boycotted his business and told him to leave town.

“It’s all tribalism, and it’s a cancer on our country. It’s destroying us,” he said of the infighting among conservatives that’s proliferated online.

Fuller agreed. He said the acrimony of the campaign marred his victory and split his family, including at least one sibling who is a QAnon believer. The bitterness in his family, in his state, is resonating nationally. That troubles him.

“I’m thoroughly concerned for our country,” he said. “We’re on a self-destructive path.”

For the record:
5:38 PM, May. 10, 2021: An earlier version of this article said a police officer running for McKinney City Council had a conversation with Alonzo Tutson about being at the Capitol on Jan. 6. The officer disputes that account and says he was not at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.