Cat Parks paves own path as Texas GOP vice chair under bombastic Allen West

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Cat Parks, Republican Party of Texas vice chair, stood for the Pledge of Allegiance last month before speaking to The Woodlands Republican Women’s Club. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

Four years ago, the chair of the Republican Party in Hamilton County, a rural county about an hour west of Waco, was getting ready to retire. Around that time, Cat Parks’ husband was sitting on the porch of his ranch one evening, drinking whiskey with a neighbor, when the neighbor asked if he knew anyone up for the job.

“If you could get Cat to do it, she’s the one,” he replied, as she tells it.

Before long, Parks was being sworn in as the next chair of the Hamilton County GOP — and within a few years, she was taking over as vice chair of the state party, a swift rise in a world of Texas GOP politics that tends to reward players with much longer resumes inside the party. Now Parks is turning heads again as she paves her own path at the state party under Allen West, the bombastic former Florida congressman who has alienated some fellow Republicans with his sharp-elbowed leadership as chair.

“She came out of nowhere,” said Bunni Pounds, a veteran party activist who worked with Parks when she chaired the Texas GOP’s Candidate Recruitment Task Force last election cycle.

Pounds and others who have worked with Parks praised her as organized, efficient and goal-oriented, a reassuring force in the volatile West era. She can be hard-charging, they say, but takes a less confrontational approach than West and appears more focused on the nuts and bolts of the party, including building a younger and more diverse GOP.

Pounds said Parks “gives people comfort that someone is looking over the party as their primary focus, and she is very focused on the party and not distracted.”

While the state party chair and vice chair are elected independently from one another every even-numbered year at the state convention, they tend to be more political allies than adversaries. The moments of daylight between Parks and West have been small but significant: The day after West made comments flirting with Texas secession, Parks said that “now is not the time to turn our back on our amazing union.” Later in December, she congratulated the Republican winner of a hard-fought state Senate special election after West pointedly declined to give him kudos.

And last month, in a more bold move, she issued a long statement urging Republicans to think more broadly than the party’s eight legislative priorities, which feature several hot-button socially conservative issues and which West was using as a rallying cry as the session was getting underway.

In an interview with The Texas Tribune, Parks noted she was elected separately from West and ran on her own platform that resonated with delegates. She was elected, she said, “because I’m known for identifying difficulties, improving the situation and moving forward with a solution.”

“It’s very clear that Chairman West and I have a very different style,” Parks said, adding that she sees no problem with that. “We should be the party of diversity. We should be the big-tent party. Our messages are gonna reach different ears.”

A West spokesperson, in a statement for this story, said the chair was focused on passing the legislative priorities and that he “has proven he will lead from the front and has lived a life of service, sacrifice and commitment to God and Country.”

A fast rise in the Texas GOP

To be sure, Parks was not entirely new to politics when she became chair of the Hamilton County party. A horse trainer who owns property with her husband in both Hamilton County and New Mexico, she previously led the Santa Fe Horse Coalition, a grassroots group of more than 800 members that fought a proposed rewrite of the county’s land development code.

Parks’ husband, Dr. John Parks, also has his own political connection: He was briefly married in the 1960s to Kay Bailey Hutchison, who would later serve as a Texas U.S. senator.

Before leading the Hamilton County GOP, Cat Parks said, she considered herself a conservative Republican but found particular excitement in Trump’s election, citing his outreach to “the forgotten Americans.” Trump, she said, “resonated with me certainly in a way that [John] McCain and [Mitt] Romney had not.”

Cat Parks, Republican Party of Texas Vice-Chair, poses for a portrait after speaking to The Woodlands Republican Women’s Club at Landry’s Seafood in The Woodlands on Feb. 10, 2021.
“We should be the party of diversity. We should be the big-tent party,” says Republican Party of Texas vice chair Cat Parks. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

Despite her political awareness, Parks had not gotten formally involved with the party. She likes to say her first Republican meeting in Texas was in 2017 — and it was the one where she was appointed county chair.

She quickly caught the attention of Republicans outside the small county of less than 10,000 people. In September 2018, she was elected to the board of the Texas Republican County Chairmen’s Association, serving as a regional director overseeing 24 counties in Central Texas, including major population centers like Travis County, home to Austin.

Parks attended her first state party convention that year and drew inspiration from one speaker in particular: state Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, the first Hispanic woman to win statewide office in Texas. Parks said she was impressed with Guzman’s tales of opportunity, hard work and family — and how she conveyed “so much class and so much dignity.”

“It was hearing her speech that told me I had a place here in this party and that I wanted to be a part of this,” Parks said.

The 2018 election was tough on Texas Republicans, with Beto O’Rourke giving U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz a surprisingly close race and Democrats exceeding expectations down-ballot. Heading into the next election cycle, the state GOP chair at the time, James Dickey, wanted to get the party back to basics, namely voter registration and candidate recruitment. For the latter task, he turned to Parks, picking her to chair the new Candidate Recruitment Task Force.

Dickey had already gotten to know Parks as a county chair — and one who had quickly embraced her responsibilities, becoming ubiquitous at GOP events and asking “really hard questions,” as Dickey tells it. At one point in 2018, he said, Parks reached out to him about some concerns she was hearing about the state party and wanted to meet.

Dickey was on a tour of West Texas at the time, but Parks did not mind — she drove hours to see him outside Cisco, where they huddled at a diner and hashed out the issues. Her diligence and determination would come to mind again when he was weighing who should lead the recruitment task force.

“I felt like that was exactly the kind of person that we would need for this,” Dickey said.

On the task force, Parks said she wanted a “bottom-up-structured organization,” so she found regional directors who could lead subcommittees to identify candidates who best represented their areas. The task force ended up recruiting the “highest number of women, minorities and people under the age of 40 in Republican Party of Texas history,” she said.

To train candidates, Parks sought out The Leadership Institute, a nonprofit that offers guidance to aspiring conservative political leaders. She said she helped organize more than 30 schools across the state that reached more than 1,500 Republicans who were interested in running for office or otherwise contributing to campaigns.

Dickey was thrilled, and in March 2020, the state party gave Parks its Steve Munisteri Award, named after the former chair and meant for the “volunteer who made the greatest impact on the Republican Party of Texas.”

Claiming victory 

Parks decided several weeks out from the 2020 convention that she would run for vice chair, challenging incumbent Alma Perez Jackson. The race turned out to be largely undramatic and overshadowed by the chair contest, in which West took on Dickey. Also stealing attention was the convention itself, a technical fiasco that the party decided to have virtually after weeks of trying to make it happen in person during the coronavirus pandemic.

One area where Jackson and Parks split was on a perennial debate within the state party: whether to give a convention booth to the Log Cabin Republicans. Jackson had opposed letting the LGBT group have a booth, citing the party platform plank on “traditional marriage,” while Parks was more open-minded, saying at one forum, “I welcome all coalitions. If they are Republicans, we need them.”

One of Parks’ early supporters for vice chair was David Covey, the Orange County GOP chair whom she met through the Texas Republican County Chairmen’s Association. Covey said he had never met Jackson as vice chair.

“It was easy to get behind Cat because she was communicating, and I knew I would at least have good communication with her if she won,” Covey said.

Parks also got the endorsement of Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who would go on to align himself with West in criticizing GOP Gov. Greg Abbott’s pandemic leadership.

Both West and Parks won their elections in early morning votes at the convention. West carried 22 of the 31 state Senate district caucuses; Parks had a closer race, winning 16.

She claimed victory in a statement just before 10 that morning, congratulating West and saying she “look[s] forward to working with you and supporting you.”

“Doing the work” 

West wasted little time making a name for himself at the state party. He criticized some of Abbott’s pandemic decisions, including by joining a lawsuit challenging Abbott’s extension of the early voting period for the November election and speaking at an “open Texas” protest outside the Governor’s Mansion in October.

West called state Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, a “Republican political traitor” for courting House members from both parties in his successful bid to become speaker. And after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a Texas-led lawsuit challenging the presidential election results in four battleground states, West signed off on a statement by suggesting that “perhaps law-abiding states should bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the constitution.”

State GOP Chairman Allen West speaks to protestors gathered at the Governor’s Mansion to protest Gov. Abbott’s executive orders closing businesses and mandating masks.
State GOP Chair Allen West speaks to protesters gathered at the Governor’s Mansion to protest Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders closing businesses and mandating masks during the pandemic. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

Among party insiders, Parks had drawn some attention for pushing back on West’s flirtation with secession and then, later in December, for congratulating then-state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, on his election to the Texas Senate. Springer had won a hard-fought special election runoff against fellow Republican Shelley Luther, the Dallas salon owner who defied coronavirus orders. Pressed to congratulate Springer, the party tweeted that West “doesn’t need to offer his congratulations since Texas Democrats beat him to it,” showing a Facebook post from a Democratic activist in the Senate district celebrating Springer’s win.

About five hours later, Parks tweeted congratulations to Springer, saying, “When Republicans win, Texans win. Time … for someone to step up and Lead Right.”

Parks’ boldest move in this vein, though, came Jan. 21, when she issued a lengthy statement about the party’s legislative priorities, which include “election integrity,” abolition of abortion and supporting constitutional carry, or the unlicensed carry of firearms. The session had gotten underway days earlier, and West was ramping up his crusade for the priorities, holding a rally outside the Capitol the weekend before lawmakers returned to Austin, for example.

In the statement, Parks argued there were plenty of issues important to Texas voters that were not reflected in the priorities, such as law and order, property taxes and freedom of speech.

“By narrowly focusing on Texas GOP Legislative Priorities as the singular indicator of legislative success, we lose the opportunity to address the real-time concerns of Texans,” Parks said.

In response, West defended his advocacy for the priorities without directly addressing Parks.

Asked if she is aligned with West on conservative ideology and principles, Parks invoked former President Ronald Reagan’s maxim that the “person who agrees with you 80% of the time is a friend and an ally, not a 20% traitor.” She said she was certain she and West agreed on at least 80% of issues.

“We both believe in good conservative principles,” she said. “You know, we just have different styles of how to accomplish those things.”

Cat Parks, Republican Party of Texas Vice-Chair, right, eats lunch before speaking to The Woodlands Republican Women’s Club at Landry’s Seafood in The Woodlands on Feb. 10, 2021.
Cat Parks eats lunch with The Woodlands Republican Women’s Club. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

That difference in style already has some Texas GOP observers buzzing about Parks’ political prospects, especially among those who have been displeased with the direction of the party under West.

J.T. Edwards, a former member of the State Republican Executive Committee, said he considers Parks the “future of the Republican Party of Texas.” West, he said, is “all about Allen West and red meat,” while Parks is “more about the issues facing the Republican electorate day to day.”

West and his supporters say he is delivering on a mandate for bold conservative leadership from delegates to the convention, who both elected him overwhelmingly and picked the party’s eight legislative priorities. In the statement for this story, the West spokesperson, Luke Twombly, reiterated those priorities are West’s focus right now.

“His objective is a strong constitutional conservative Republican Party that preserves Liberty, freedom, growth, opportunity, and prosperity for Texas,” Twombly said in a written statement.

Meanwhile, Parks is moving forward with ambitious plans for her role. She wants the party to focus more on youth outreach, and she said she is looking at creating an internship program as well as a “youth conservative camp.” She has brought on board a policy director, Scott MacNaughton, as well as a communications director and intern. She said she is “building out an entire volunteer team.”

Parks does not see herself running for office one day, but while discussing her involvement in the party over the past few years, she noted that “none of this has been by design.”

“I don’t really believe in waiting your time,” Parks said. “I believe in being prepared. I believe in doing the work, but I don’t need to wait for someone to give me permission to make a difference, and neither should anyone else.”

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