Abbott Announces Key Staff Changes, Looks Ahead to 2019

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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced several changes to his senior staff, following the 85th legislative session. The announcement of his senior adviser and policy director wasn’t without some controversy.

Abbott called the changes “probably the worst kept secret in Austin, Texas.”

He said this announcement was delayed because the current team worked “around the clock to respond to Hurricane Harvey.”

“For the new team, our immediate focus will remain the same as it has been it in my current team, and that is to continue the recovery and rebuilding process following Hurricane Harvey,” Abbott said. “But, as we go forward there are also some big ideas that I plan to tackle in the upcoming session. This team will play a pivotal role in spearheading those efforts.”

John Colyandro, who helped run Abbott’s campaigns for attorney general in 2002 and governor in 2014, will be brought on as senior advisor and policy director.

“John was the primary author of my bicentennial blueprint that advanced conservative ideas for the future of Texas,” he said.

In response to Colyandro’s appointment, the Texas Democratic Party issued a statement, calling the conservative a “crook” for alleged money laundering and mail fraud.

“One would hope that with 28 million Texans, Abbott could pick someone for his inner circle without a criminal record,” read part of a statement from Texas Democratic Party Deputy Executive Director Manny Garcia.

“It only takes a few minutes on google to learn John Colyandro is a scam artist. Either Governor Abbott is so inept he can’t run a background check or he simply enjoys the pleasant company of crooks,” Garcia continued. “Indicted Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton is hoping for the latter.”

Other changes in Abbott’s administration include Abbott’s longtime adviser and current chief of staff Daniel Hodge, who is leaving for the private sector next month. Luis Saenz, who previously served in Abbott’s administration, will replace him. Saenz is the founder of Saenz Public Affairs, served former Gov Rick Perry, and was chief of staff for Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. He has also worked as an aide to former U.S. Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and Phil Gramm, as well as former Congressman Henry Bonilla.

Saenz has, “an intuitive feel for anyone and everyone connected with the Capitol,” Abbott said.

Reed Clay, who Abbott said was handling the majority of the state’s response to Harvey, will move to the newly-created role of Chief Operating Officer.

The governor described him as a “key adviser in my administration for nearly a decade,” having served with Abbott since Abbott’s time as Texas Attorney General.

Former state lawmaker Tommy Williams was announced as the governor’s senior advisor for fiscal affairs.

Williams served six years in the Texas House, before moving to the Senate for a decade. He currently works as Vice-Chancellor for Federal and State Relations for the Texas A&M System.

“Tommy brings a substantial experience on finance and budget, and infrastructure issues,” Abbott said, adding that Williams will also “help us tackle significant fiscal issues arising from Harvey.”

The governor’s new budget director, Sarah Hicks, also serves in the Texas A&M University System. A legislative aide to former State Senator Steve Ogden, Hicks has been “deeply involved in budget and finance in the Texas Capitol for more than a decade,” Abbott said.

Abbott’s new legislative director, Walter Fisher, is a Texas political veteran.

“If you don’t know Walter Fisher, you don’t know Texas politics,” Abbott said of the former state senate parliamentarian. “He knows the rules better than the people who wrote the rules.”

Peggy Venable, senior visiting fellow for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, will become Abbott’s appointments director. She served in the administrations of President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush.

“We will draw upon her wealth of knowledge of both policy and people as we shape Texas agencies and elected positions,” the governor said.

Abbott’s budget director Steven Albright will shift to a role as senior advisor for state operations.

“In his expanded role, he will coordinate with state agencies to advise me on agency operations as well as to ensure that my policy initiatives are achieved,” the governor said of Albright.

Current communications director Matt Hirsch will keep his title, adding deputy chief of staff to his resume.

Hirsch “increasingly advised on policy decision-making,” the governor mentioned.

The staffing changes will take effect on Oct. 1, 2017.

After announcing the staffing promotions and hires, Abbott took brief questions from the press. When asked if he was comfortable with where President Donald Trump stands on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), and if he even knows where Trump stands on that immigration program, Abbott responded, “no.”

The governor said the state, and nation, face challenges with immigration.

“I think one thing that most Texans agree with, and that is that we need to secure the border,” he said. “We need to have a better immigration system, and I think the president is working to achieve both of those.”

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