By James Barragán, The Texas Tribune
“Exposed as a hypocrite, Bryan Slaton’s Texas House downfall could complicate GOP fight against “groomers”” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
In public, former state Rep. Bryan Slaton was a conservative champion unafraid to ruffle feathers and pick fights, even with Republicans he deemed insufficiently conservative.
A self-described “bold and brave Christian-Conservative” who’d worked as a youth pastor, Slaton featured a picture of his wife and infant son on his campaign website. On social media, he railed against “groomers,” saying their efforts to sexualize minors needed to be stopped.
Away from the public eye, however, the Royse City Republican fell far short of the morally upright life he sold to voters — a guise ripped away by a scathing 16-page report that detailed his inappropriate sexual conduct with a 19-year-old legislative aide who worked in his Capitol office.
Slaton invited the woman to his Austin apartment late on a Friday night and poured her enough alcoholic drinks that she felt dizzy and had double vision, leading to unprotected sex, after which the woman reportedly purchased emergency contraceptives against a potential pregnancy, the report by a House investigative committee found.
Slaton resigned Monday and was expelled from the House by a unanimous vote Tuesday, but his hypocrisy has cast a harsher light on Republican-led efforts to crack down on supposedly grooming-related activities, including drag performances, gender-affirming care for transgender minors and classroom discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity.
LGBTQ advocates are pointing to Slaton to redirect attacks back on the GOP, saying conservative Republicans were so busy policing drag artists and transgender Texans that they missed abuse — and so-called “grooming behavior” — by one of their own.
Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, said those who voted to expel Slaton should also oppose legislation he supported that would ban transgender adolescents from receiving puberty blockers and hormone therapy, on which the House is scheduled to vote on Friday.
“It’s no surprise that the man obsessed with children’s bodies — especially transgender kids — is a predator,” González said in a statement. “The courage to stop a predator has to extend to opposing his crusade to fixate the entire state on children’s genitals. He’s been calling my community ‘perverts’ and ‘groomers’ for years — when it turns out he should’ve invested in a good mirror.”
Slaton’s downfall is taking time and energy away from Republican priorities, said Derek Ryan, a GOP political consultant.
“Now, members are going to have to start all of their conversations on these issues discussing [Slaton] as opposed to the issues they actually want to discuss,” Ryan said.
“They’ve got to discuss Rep. Slaton and what he was involved in, and the next questions are going to be, ‘Are there other Republicans out there saying the same things and having similar behavior behind the scenes?’” Ryan said.
Ryan said social media commentators are painting Slaton as the “real groomer” whose actions are what Republicans should really be focused on stopping.
The criticism comes at an inopportune time for conservatives and Republican leaders who face looming deadlines for the passage of bills in the legislative session’s closing weeks. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, has criticized the House for moving too slowly on conservative priorities that have already been passed by the Senate.
“This is all time that is coming off the clock when the House could be passing conservative legislation,” Ryan said.
Ryan also criticized Slaton’s delayed decision to resign, calling it a disservice to his constituents, who will now go without representation until the regular session ends on Memorial Day.
“He’s choosing himself over his district and his constituents by not resigning,” Ryan said.
Slaton has remained silent on the matter since early April, when The Texas Tribune reported he was being investigated for an inappropriate sexual relationship with an aide, though his lawyer dismissed the allegations as “outrageous claims.”
In his resignation letter Monday, Slaton did not mention the scandal, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.
But the report detailed the shock felt by several within the conservative movement after learning of Slaton’s conduct. A legislative staffer for another state representative was said to be “very emotional about it because everyone really looked up to” Slaton.
Shock waves extended beyond the Capitol. Donnie Wisenbaker, chair of the Hopkins County Republican Party in Slaton’s district, said Slaton’s actions fell short of the morals the party claims to represent and could impact how people view the GOP.
“It’s disappointing, but that’s why we don’t need to put men on pedestals, because all of us sin,” Wisenbaker said in an interview. “It’s heartbreaking that this has happened. I hate it for the girl’s family, his family; I hate it for the girl.”
In a statement, the Hopkins County party said that even though Slaton had done “much good work” at the Capitol, it could not “condone conduct unbecoming” of a state representative.
Slaton’s fellow lawmakers, recognizing the damage the allegations could do to conservative causes, urged Slaton to resign within days after word of the inappropriate conduct began to buzz across the Capitol.
By April 5, four days after Slaton’s sexual encounter with his aide, “the entire Freedom Caucus,” a group that includes some of the most conservative lawmakers in the House, had learned of it, the report said.
An unidentified state representative confronted Slaton about the allegations on April 3, later telling him it was “bad for everyone” and asking him to resign, the report said. When Slaton asked the representative to support him and to keep their discussions private, the representative reported Slaton’s actions to the committee. He was one of four unnamed state representatives who asked the committee to investigate Slaton, according to the report.
Fear of political blowback was shared by many members of the State Republican Executive Committee, a 62-member group of activists who help set the party’s agenda. On Sunday night, more than half of the group called for Slaton’s resignation.
Fernando Treviño Jr., a member of the executive committee who called on Slaton to resign, said on social media that Slaton’s actions were “inexcusable and an embarrassment to the party, the House, and constituents of HD2.”
Slaton, a frequent thorn in the side of Republican House leaders who he criticized as too moderate, did not have many allies in the chamber. But even the few staunch conservatives who shared his political ideology began putting him at arm’s length well before the report was released.
Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University, said conservatives’ efforts to distance themselves from Slaton were understandable.
“You would view it as the height of hypocrisy for someone who has campaigned as well as authored legislation supporting traditional Christian values to not come close to living by those values,” he said. “For true conservatives who talk the talk but also walk the walk, it’s also an embarrassment because it undercuts everything they’re trying to achieve when someone they thought shared their values betrays those values so openly and brazenly.”
Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Tickets are on sale now for the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, happening in downtown Austin on Sept. 21-23. Get your TribFest tickets by May 31 and save big!
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/05/10/bryan-slaton-groomer-backlash-legislatur/.
The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.