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
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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Governor's Race
3:28 pm
Mon January 20, 2014

Wendy Davis Responds to Discrepancies in Her Biography

Senator Davis on the State Senate floor during her June 25th filibuster
Filipa Rodrigues for KUT

State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, has issued a statement responding to an article released over the weekend that points to inconsistencies in her accounting of her life story.

The article, written by Wayne Slater of The Dallas Morning News, pointed to a couple of details from the story Davis has used during her campaign for Governor: specifically, that Davis was not a divorced mother at 19, but instead 21. Slater also highlights that while Davis initially paid her way through college, her second husband helped pay for her final years at Texas Christian University and Harvard Law School.

Conservatives have jumped on the story, calling Davis a liar. Talk show host Rush Limbaugh called her a "genuine head case" on his program today, saying she had "made stuff up" and would have been "really poor and destitute were it not for a man" – a reference to her second husband, lawyer Jeff Davis.

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Austin
7:00 am
Tue January 14, 2014

Starting Next Week, HD 50 Voters Head to the Polls for Special Election

The HD 50 special election will head to early voting next Tues., with Mike VanDeWalle taking on Celia Israel
Photo by KUT News

Democrat Celia Israel and Republican Mike VanDeWalle emerged as the leaders in a four person race in November. VanDeWalle leads the pack with about 39 percent of the vote. On election night, he said the win was driven by energy from Republicans who want a change after nine years of Democrat Mark Strama.

“Yes I think there’s been a pent up excitement waiting to happen," VanDeWalle told KUT. "And I think we’re seeing it now.” 

But the concern for VanDeWalle’s campaign is that the November victory could be his ceiling—the remaining 61 percent of voters picked one of the three Democrats in the race. With Israel getting the majority of that support, the long-time Democratic activist and real estate agent knows a special election runoff brings its own set of problems for her.

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Politics
3:40 pm
Fri January 10, 2014

In Austin, Cruz Calls Obama Actions "Dangerous and Terrifying"

Sen. Ted Cruz (R) says Democrats are to blame for last government shutdown, and can control whether it happens again.
Ben Philpott/KUT

Texas Senator Ted Cruz was in Austin today speaking at the Texas Public Policy Foundation's annual policy orientation. He spent his time attacking what he sees as a disregard for federal laws by President Obama.

Senator Cruz’s speech to lawmakers, policy wonks and grassroots activists gave several examples of the President using executive authority to supersede federal laws. Pointing specifically to immigration reform, marijuana prosecutions and the Affordable Care Act.

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Sports
6:58 pm
Sat December 14, 2013

Mack Brown Leaving UT Longhorns After Bowl Game

Mack Brown celebrates winning the 2005 national championship over the University of Southern California.
Jim Sigmon UT Athletics

Texas Longhorn’s Football Coach Mack Brown is leaving the team after 16 years.

In an email released Saturday night, Brown said the Longhorn job was the best in the country and that he wants to team to get back to the top of college football.

"I sincerely want it to get back to the top and that's why I am stepping down after the bowl game. I hope with some new energy, we can get this thing rolling again," Brown said.

UT-Austin president Bill Powers and new athletic director Steve Patterson heaped praise on Brown in the release.  Patterson said Brown was a, "...tremendous coach, mentor, leader and ambassador for our university and our student-athletes." While Powers simple said, "Mack is just the best and he will be missed."

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CPRIT
12:12 pm
Fri December 6, 2013

Former Executive at CPRIT, Texas' Cancer Agency, Indicted

Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg announces the indictment of former CPRIT executive Jerald Cobbs.

A Travis County grand jury has indicted Jerald Cobbs, a former executive with the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), in connection with an $11 million grant the agency approved without putting it through required reviews.

The charge of securing execution of a document by deception carries a potential jail sentence of five to 99 years or life, and a fine of up to $10,000.

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Agenda Texas
9:28 am
Wed November 20, 2013

Under the Microscope: How Feasible is Greg Abbott's DNA Protection Plan?

Attorney General Greg Abbott lists DNA protections as a top priority for his campaign.
Veronica Zaragovia, KUT News

The closer we get to next year's March  primaries, the faster the campaign promises fly. Republican gubernatorial frontrunner Greg Abbott recently made a splash by releasing an extensive list of items he says he’ll push for once elected.

One proposal in particular stood out a bit: safeguarding your DNA.

The proposal is a part of Abbott’s “We The People” plan. It also includes things like gun rights, campaign ethics and blocking the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. But DNA is item number one.

 

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Agenda Texas
11:48 am
Mon November 18, 2013

How Do Texas Republicans' Gun Policies Compare with Public Opinion?

Gun rights are front and center in the 2014 GOP primary election.
KUT News

Several races in the 2014 GOP primary appear promising for advocates of expanding gun rights in Texas.

Top Republican candidates are making sure primary voters know they’re opposed to any gun control efforts at the federal level – with some even proposing ways to loosen current Texas law.

Attorney General Greg Abbott has included a couple of gun-related proposals as part of a major policy paper released by his gubernatorial campaign. As spelled out in his “We the People” plan, Abbott would allow Texans to openly carry handguns and allow guns to be brought on college campuses.

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