Ben Philpott

Senior Reporter, State Politics and Policy

Ben Philpott covers politics and policy for KUT. He has been covering state politics and dozens of other topics for the station since 2002. He's been recognized for outstanding radio journalism by the Radio and Television News Directors Association, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated, the Texas Associated Press Broadcasters and has been named Radio Journalist of the Year by the Houston Press club three times.

Before moving to Texas, he worked in public radio in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Ala., and at several television stations in Alabama and Tennessee. Born in New York City and raised in Chattanooga, Tenn., Philpott graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in broadcast journalism.

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Politics
7:54 am
Wed April 9, 2014

Immigration, Gay Marriage and the Expanding Definition of Civil Rights

David Boies and Ted Olson talk about marriage equality at LBJ Civil Rights Summit.
LBJ Presidential Library at the University of Texas

When the Civil Rights Act was signed into law nearly 50 years ago, its main focus was on the treatment of the country's black population. But over the years, other groups have slipped under the act’s umbrella of protection. As the LBJ Library’s Civil Rights Summit opened in Austin Tuesday, it began with a discussion of how two groups are hoping those protections will extend to them.

The opening panel at the summit dove right into one of the two civil rights issues dominating the American political and legal landscape: same-sex marriage.

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Politics
8:09 am
Tue April 8, 2014

Four Presidents Will Be in Austin for the LBJ Civil Rights Summit

Four U.S. Presidents are heading to Austin for the Civil Rights Summit.
LBJ Presidential Library at the University of Texas

Four U.S. Presidents headline a three-day summit in Austin this week, kicking off a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Life before the act can sometimes seem foreign to those of us who came after the landmark legislation was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Organizers say that alone is a great reason to hold a summit.

"Of course it's appropriate to look back. I mean, I myself am a child of the segregated South. So I grew up in that world and I know in ways that our students really don't, what things were like before this legislation,"  LBJ School of Public Affairs Dean Robert Hutchings says.

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Politics
5:00 am
Thu March 27, 2014

Tax Cut Promises Lead Campaigns, But May Be Hard to Fulfill

With tax revenues up, the call for tax cuts is getting louder.
Todd Wiseman & Mikhail Popov, Texas Tribune

Several Texas Republican candidates are pushing the idea of cutting taxes in the 2015 legislative session. That includes cutting property taxes and the state’s business tax.

The State of Texas has been flush with cash the last two years. There was a nearly $9 billion dollar surplus in 2013. With another $2.6 billion dollar surplus reported for 2014.

"Our current trends suggest that we're going to do even better than that with the continued health of the oil and gas industry," says Dale Craymer, president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association. "The prospects for next session look very good on the money front and I think that's going to give the Legislature a number of options." 

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Lt. Governor Race
8:41 am
Mon March 24, 2014

Immigration Rhetoric in Lt. Gov Race Disappoints Some Hispanic Republicans

In a commercial, Lt. Gov candidate Dan Patrick touts his opposition to in-state tuition at Texas universities for qualifying undocumented children.
YouTube

Before the March primary, a handful of Hispanic Republican leaders questioned the tone on immigration among some GOP candidates – especially statements from State Sen. Dan Patrick, who’s running for Lieutenant Governor.

This year's Republican primary has been an exercise in running to the right of everyone else on the ballot. In the race for Lieutenant Governor, candidates began pushing further and further rightward when talking about border security. 

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2014 Texas Elections
4:47 pm
Tue March 18, 2014

An Interview With Controversial Conservative Michael Quinn Sullivan

Michael Quinn Sulivan and Empower Texans handed out hundreds of thousands of dollars during 2014 state primaries.
Texas Tribune

Candidates backed by the most conservative wing of the Texas Republican Party were the big winners in March's state primaries. Support from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and local Tea Party groups have gotten much of the credit for those wins. But support from a conservative policy group called Empower Texans also helped carry the day.

The group's leader, Michael Quinn Sullivan, has taken some heat for what's been called his efforts to purify the GOP, working to get rid of Republicans he says aren’t sufficiently conservative.

Sullivan stopped by KUT to speak with Ben Philpott about what would be different in a Legislature run by his kind of Republicans.

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SXSW 2014
5:17 pm
Sat March 15, 2014

Rapper Tyler, the Creator Arrested on Riot Charge

Tyler, the Creator performing at the Primavera Sound Festival in 2011.
flickr.com/mistressf

Police have arrested a rapper who performed at South by Southwest after officials say he encouraged a crowd to push through doors keeping them out of an already overcrowded venue.

Tyler Okonma, who performs as Tyler, the Creator, was arrested and charged with “Riot - Class A misdemeanor." Police released a video of Okonma telling fans outside of his show Thursday at the Scoot Inn to push past security personnel that were keeping them out of the venue.

Politics
10:12 am
Tue March 11, 2014

Texas Tea Party Taking Power Back From Conservative Business Groups

Sen Dan Patrick (R-Houston) lead the Tea Party charge on Primary night.
Bob Daemmrich, Texas Tribune

Last week’s GOP primary showed the continued strength of the Tea Party in Texas. But it also showed a weakening of another stalwart Republican demographic: the businessperson.

First, a disclaimer: The results don't prove anything definitive. One election does not a trend make. And it's not hard to find people who say the state's business leaders still have a large role in Republican Party politics.

"I think the business community hasn't lost its voice," Rice University Political Science department chair Mark Jones says. "But its influence is much less then it was say 10 years ago."

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Politics
11:56 am
Tue March 4, 2014

On Farms, School Lunches & Gas Pumps, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Weighs In

The Agriculture Commissioner focuses on much more than cows and crops.
KUT News

When Texans – mostly farmers and ranchers – sat down to write the state constitution in the 1800's, they didn’t see the need for an elected Agriculture Commissioner.

That oversight was quickly remedied.

Texas agriculture, crops and cattle are known across the country and around the world. Its "Go Texan" campaign can be seen in grocery stores and TV ads across the state: Why buy vegetables from California, when you can pick from that (noticeably labeled) batch from Texas?

But the office does more than sell the product. It also helps farmers and ranchers successfully grow it. 

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Politics
2:29 pm
Mon March 3, 2014

The Main Thing People Think Texas' Attorney General Does (But Really Doesn't)

The state's attorney has many roles in the Attorney General's office.
flickr.com/safari_vacation

Texas' current Attorney General, Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott, has his own memorable description for his job.

"My job description has been simplified over the past four years," Abbott said during a speech in April. "Because what I do is I go into the office, I sue the federal government and then I go home."

Abbott was purposely oversimplifying what his office does, but defending the state's laws is a key element.

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Politics
2:01 pm
Mon March 3, 2014

Texas Comptroller, the State Bureaucrat Who Can Grind Budgets to a Halt

How much money the state spends can be dictated by the Texas Comptroller.
flickr.com/amagill

The Texas Legislature writes the state budget. The Governor signs it into law. But with a single action the Texas Comptroller can kill the entire appropriations process.

But before we get to that. let's start with the real burning issue: How do you pronounce it?

"No that's the argument right, is do you pronounce it controller or comptroller," UT Law School professor Hugh Brady says.

OK. Pronunciation aside, what does the office do?

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Texas
1:21 pm
Mon March 3, 2014

Whoever Wins in November, Texas Gets a Weaker Governor. Here's Why.

The Texas Governor's Mansion in 2012, restored after a 2008 fire ruled arson. Its next inhabitant inherits a vastly different landscape than that of Gov. Rick Perry.
KUT News

1876. It was a time of rebirth in Texas. Or maybe more precisely – time to get rid of those Reconstruction-era carpetbaggers.

"When the North sent folks down to Texas to govern as governors, Texans felt like these king-like people came down from the North and ran roughshod," says Sherri Greenberg with the LBJ School of Public Affairs. "So Texans wrote the Texas Constitution, this very populist document with as much power as possible vested in the people and at the lowest, most local, level of government."

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Politics
11:36 am
Mon March 3, 2014

The Surprising Role of Land Commissioner, Launch Pad of Texas Politics

This 1849 map of Texas was compiled from land office records – and is currently available for sale on the land office's website.

The state of Texas owns a bunch of land. That's because, in case you didn't know, we used to be our own country and joined the United States without the need for a land grant from the Feds.

All that land needs someone – and an office – to look after it.

"I think the Land Office describes the duties of the Land Commissioner pretty well," says the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Bill Peacock. "It's basically to take care of the public lands of the state of Texas that don't belong to a specific agency or universities or things like that." 

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Texas Politics
3:47 pm
Fri February 28, 2014

A Brief History of Texas' Most Powerful Political Office: Lt. Governor

The Bullock Texas State History Museum. Bullock helped build the office of Lieutenant Governor into a political powerhouse.
Credit Teresa Vieira for KUT News

When I moved to Austin in 2002, one of the first things I did to acclimate myself to Texas was visit the Bullock Texas State History Museum

I remember standing on the second floor, staring at the statue of the man whose name was chiseled onto the side of the building. Then I started to read his history on the plaque at the base of the statue to see just how long he'd been Governor or U.S. Senator.

That's when I discovered Bob Bullock had only been Lieutenant Governor.

"Lieutenant Governor is basically the Vice President of the United States," University of Texas School of Law professor Hugh Brady says.

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Politics
10:29 am
Thu February 27, 2014

Brown, Eckhardt Duke it Out in Dem Primary for Travis Co. Judge

Sarah Eckhardt and Andy Brown have begun their final push to next week's election.
Credit facebook.com/saraheckhardtaustin, facebook.com/andybrowntx

The retirement of longtime Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe has led to a spirited battle in the Democratic primary to pick his replacement. 

One way to view the race is as a battle between connections and experience. Andy Brown has the connections as leader of the Travis County Democratic Party for the last few years. He's participated in multiple campaigns and raised a bunch of money for local Democratic candidates – so maybe it's no surprise that he's backed by a slew of elected officials.

"I've been endorsed by Congressman [Lloyd] Doggett, by Jim Hightower, by every single Democratic elected official who's endorsed in this race," Brown says. "I've been endorsed by the labor union that represents county employees, the one that represents teachers."

On the other side is former Travis County Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, who's running on her experience.

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Politics
5:49 pm
Wed February 19, 2014

Why Did Jerry Patterson Hire a Private Eye to Snoop on Dan Patrick? Two Words: Opposition Research

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and state Sen. Dan Patrick, who are both running in the 2014 Republican primary for lieutenant governor
Marjorie Kamys Cotera/Texas Tribune

State Senator and Republican Lieutenant Governor candidate Dan Patrick may have taken a political hit this week, when a story broke accusing him of employing an undocumented worker in the 1980s. 

The story was reported by The Dallas Morning News and KTRK Houston ABC, but the two got wind of the story when another Lt. Governor candidate, Jerry Patterson, gave them the information - which he hired a private decective to gather .

It's called opposition research. And it's an age-old political tactic that often provides ammunition to candidates trying to gain the upper-hand against an opponent.

His mother may not like to hear this, but Jason Stanford is an opposition researcher.

"Oh God, yes, my mom tells people I'm a used car dealer," Stanford jokes.

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Politics
9:02 am
Wed February 5, 2014

Abbott Releases Comprehensive Border Security Plan

Gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott wants to increase security funding across a wide range of programs.
Gage Skidmore, Texas Tribune

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, the presumptive GOP nominee for governor, laid out an extensive security and safety plan Tuesday in Dallas as part of his campaign.

In his speech, Abbott called it the Keep Texans Safe plan. It includes more enforcement of human trafficking laws, and a call to follow Georgia's lead in creating a program to help people who have been rescued from human trafficking rings.

"I want Texas to adopt a comprehensive care plan to provide victim services for sexually exploited minors," Abbott said.

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Politics
6:00 am
Tue February 4, 2014

Name Calling Defines Early Days of Texas Governor's Race

Sen. Wendy Davis and Attorney General Greg Abbott could be tied to name calling, whether they agree or not.
Marjorie Kamys Cotera & Bob Daemmrich via Texas Tribune

There’s been just a bit of name calling in the Texas Governor’s race – with much of it coming from conservatives and Greg Abbott supporters  directed at Wendy Davis. But what’s the role of the candidate to respond to those kind of attacks?

Name calling isn't really anything new in political campaigns. Even if the candidates don't necessary approve of the language. So if it's expected, maybe the real question isn't whether or not it should happen in the first place, but how a campaign should respond.

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Politics
12:28 am
Wed January 29, 2014

Democrat Celia Israel Wins HD 50 Runoff

Celia Israel taking celebratory pictures with supporters Tuesday night in Austin.
Ben Philpott, KUT News

Voters in northeast Travis County have a new state representative. Democrat Celia Israel won last night’s special election runoff to fill out the remainder of former state Rep Mark Strama’s term.

Israel, a Democratic activist, had finished 2nd in the November special election. But while she lost by about 8 percentage points to Republican Mike VanDeWalle, the three Democrats running in that election took nearly 60 percent of the vote combined. And as the votes came in last night, once again 60 percent of the district picked a Democrat.

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Politics
4:13 pm
Tue January 28, 2014

Few Differences, Plenty of Attacks at GOP Lt. Governor's Debate

Clockwise, the four GOP Candidates for Lt. Gov.: incumbent David Dewhurst, Agricultural Commissioner Todd Staples; Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson; and state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston.
Bob Daemmrich, Texas Tribune

The four Republican candidates for Texas Lieutenant Governor met last night in a debate broadcast across the state. And, as it’s been through the months leading up to the March primaries, the hour-long event showed few differences among the candidates when it came to policy. But that didn’t stop them from attacking each other throughout the night.

As a three-term incumbent, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst has been the main punching bag of his three challengers throughout the campaign. With each highlighting what they consider missteps by Dewhurst as reason to give someone else a chance at the job.

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GOP Primary
6:00 am
Mon January 27, 2014

Heading into Texas Primary, Stockman Challenge to Cornyn Barely a Blip

The election battle between Rep. Stockman and Sen. Cornyn never amounted to much.
Gage Skidmore/Texas Tribune

The Tea Party revolution in Texas has led several unknown, outsider candidates to election victory over the last few years, like Texas’ junior senator, Ted Cruz. Many expected the state’s senior senator, John Cornyn, to face a serious Tea Party challenge in the March primary. But with less than two months to go, it doesn’t look like there’s much of a challenge for the two-term senator.

There are seven people running against John Cornyn in the Republican primary. So it’s not like nobody wants him out of office. But it wasn’t until the very last day before the December filing deadline that anyone with any kind of political clout threw their name in the ring. That’s when Congressman Steve Stockman signed up to be the Tea Party champion to take on Cornyn.  

Instantly, political journalists in Texas and across the country got interested in the race.

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