The CultureMap Interview

Texas Tribune editor talks Wendy Davis, Ted Cruz and why politics is more fun than football

Texas Tribune editor explains why politics is more fun than football

Evan Smith Texas Tribune
Texas Tribune editor and CEO Evan Smith holds forth on this weekend's Tribune Fest and more. Photo by Texas Tribune

Texas Tribune CEO and editor-in-chief Evan Smith walks quickly. As we race down the long corridor of the Tribune's new offices on the corner of Ninth Street and Congress Avenue in Austin (they've been in the building but moved up two floors in July), Smith is already talking.

By the time we settle into his corner office, with views of the Capitol so expansive you can practically see into the rotunda, Smith is discussing the Texas Tribune Festival, which runs through Sunday, (Sept. 29). I'm struggling to take notes and not appear out of breath.

Smith has an impressive pedigree, one that almost any journalist would envy, beginning with undergraduate studies at Hamilton College and a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University. Before co-founding the Texas Tribune in 2009, Smith was the editor-in-chief of Texas Monthly. During his 18-year tenure, eight of which he spent as editor, the nationally renowned magazine was nominated for 16 National Magazine Awards, winning two for general excellence.

"Texas politics is the best free entertainment in town," Smith says. "I love Texas politics like other people love college football. Other people have sports, I have this."

At the Tribune, Smith is achieving a different kind of success. The nonpartisan site, which he co-founded with venture capitalist John Thornton and veteran journalist Ross Ramsey, has quickly become the premier source for Texas politics.

It has been helped by both a partnership with the New York Times and a little event that happened this summer, when Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis filibustered an abortion bill — and the only website streaming it was the Texas Tribune.

We recently sat down with Smith to talk about that night in June, interviewing celebrities and what he will do if Davis makes that announcement onstage on Sunday.

CultureMap: You've covered Texas politics for a long time. Did anything surprise you about this last Texas legislative session?

Evan Smith: Everything surprised me. Coming out of the previous session, which had been so bad, so contentious, with a huge cut to the budget, people were gun-shy, a little bit wounded. (Heading into this session,) people wanted to see if the economy would come back enough that some of the cuts could be reinstated.

I was surprised how calm things were in the first 140. I was surprised by how, even watching the Capitol for as long as I have, by how unbelievably toxic and polarizing they were during the special sessions.

CM: Tell us about the night of Wendy Davis' filibuster. What were you doing?

ES: I've never seen — ever, ever, ever — in my entire life anything like the night of the filibuster or the morning after. I've never seen anything like the protest on the night when the vote took place in the second special (session) when they actually passed the (bill).

I was away on the day of the (vote). I was at the Aspen Institute, and I had to be in meetings all day. I snuck back to my room to watch on the livestream that we provided and look on Twitter at what was going on.

"So I'm thinking, "The message here is that tampons are dangerous but handguns aren't."

I read that (he Texas Department of Public Safety) had confiscated tampons, and I thought, "Something's wrong with me, I'm having a stroke. I can't possibly be reading these words." And, no, tampons were identified as a potential projectile that could be thrown at legislators from the gallery, and so they confiscated them.

This entire thing is about the degree to which women feel they are not being shown respect by the Legislature, and the way that the Legislature responds is by confiscating their tampons? Then I read that they're going to still permit concealed handguns to go into the Capitol.

So I'm thinking, "The message here is that tampons are dangerous but handguns aren't." And then there is the whole question of whether or not feces and urine was confiscated by the DPS (as was claimed), and I thought, "There is officially no way that this could be made up and have it be any better than reality."

CM: The Texas Tribune, especially the livestream, was instrumental in the rest of the country's being able to to clue in to what was going on. Was that planned?

ES: I'm hesitant to brag on that. We were simply there. We had the foresight to ask for permission in 2011 to be able to livestream the Capitol. By the time the filibuster rolled around and we were the only ones livestreaming, it was not because we had some brilliant idea that day. We've been doing it the whole time.

CM: Why do you think people are so drawn to Texas politics?

ES: I think the history and the myth are bigger than anything else. Everything is bigger in Texas. Even our bigness is bigger. We really put on a show.

I think that's why we've had some incredibly iconic figures. We've had three presidents from Texas in the last 50 years. We've had, I think, a disproportionately high number of national figures that have come out of Texas.

"I think people are fascinated by the drama and the chaos and the craziness [of Texas]. It's like no place else."

Texas is the reddest of the big states; what happens here does affect the national conversation. I think people are fascinated by the drama and the chaos and the craziness. It's like no place else.

CM: Why are you so drawn to Texas politics that you would make a career out of covering it?

ES: Texas politics is the best free entertainment in town. I love Texas politics like other people love college football. Other people have sports, I have this.

The reason we started the Tribune is that there are enough people who view it as we do, who see what goes on in the building as the most extraordinary thing it the world. Entertaining and fascinating and interesting and incredibly important.

CM: While hosting Texas Monthly Talks and now Overheard With Evan Smith, you've had the opportunity to interview everyone from Madeleine Albright to Fred Armisen. What's the secret to interviewing?

ES: Ninety percent of the success of an interview like that is about whether the guest is game, whether the guest is going to play or not.

I can be as prepared as a I possibly can be, I can be in a great mood, I could have a good night's sleep and I go and sit in that chair and it's a bad guest and (I know) it's going to be a bad show. And there's nothing you can do about it.

And the opposite can be true: I can be crabby, I can be hungover, I could have lost my notes, and the right guest will save the day.

CM: Do you ever get starstruck?

ES: No. (Pauses) Well, Jeff Tweedy from Wilco is someone I really admire as a fan, so most of the preparation for that show was me muttering to myself over and over, "Don't be a dork."

 "Jeff Tweedy from Wilco is someone I really admire as a fan, so most of the preparation for that show was me muttering to myself over and over, 'Don't be a dork.'"

CM: What can people expect at the Texas Tribune Festival?

ES: This year, we had an opening session Friday with [Republican U.S. Sen.] Ted Cruz, we have two closing sessions on Sunday with the Democrats of Texas, and we have Wendy Davis in our closing session. So we have Ted Cruz on the front end, Wendy Davis on the back end. Red Friday, blue Sunday. It's a truly bipartisan weekend.

We think putting people of like and, as important — or maybe more important — unlike minds in a room together and saying, "Hey, let's talk through the big issues that affect us, maybe we come out the other end with agreement on some things."

We knew we wanted to do a big ideas festival similar to the Aspen Ideas Festival or the New Yorker Festival, where we would bring together really smart people who are experts in areas that the Tribune (covers). We thought, "Let's bring together the elected officials and the policy makers, the people whose work impacts us. Let's get them in a room and talk about this stuff."

The world we live in now, people self-exile into these pods. We all walk around town with headphones in our ears to keep out the rest of the world. We curate our own Twitter feeds, we watch our preferred cable channels.

We can go through our entire lives without hearing another view that differs from the one we already have. And that may be comforting, but it's bad for democracy.

CM: On a personal level, what are you most excited about at Trib Fest?

ES: I get a real rush of adrenaline. I've said it before, but it's truly Woodstock for wonks. If you're someone who cares about this stuff, who lives in this world, this is your Super Bowl, World Series and NBA Finals all wrapped up into one. This is your weekend. So that's the part I look forward to the most — the energy.

CM: We've been waiting with bated breath for Davis to announce if she's running for governor. Do you think she's going to use the Tribune Fest to make the announcement?

ES: The god I worship is not merciful enough to allow for that.

One of three things will happen: She'll announce that she's running, she'll announce that she's not running or there will still be this so thick-you-can-cut-it tension anticipating what she's still going to do. We win either way.