AUSTIN (AP) _ He carries a gun in his boot, likes the smell of burning diesel and observes "Confederate Heroes Day" like a religious obligation. He will ask — but never beg — for your vote, answer ridicule with scorn and dress down whiny liberals with a smile on his face.
So go ahead, critics, make Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson's day: Recruit an opponent, elect a new land commissioner or have him impeached. But don't count on him to yield. One. Inch.
"Over my dead body," the Republican wrote to General Land Office staffers last year when it was suggested he could use government condemnation powers to provide access to the storied Christmas Mountains in West Texas.
"Never trust them," he says of the "lying" reporters who cover him. Even average citizens can expect Patterson's wrath should they criticize his stewardship of publicly owned lands.
"You, sir, are the one that doesn't get it," Patterson wrote to one citizen who was angry over a controversial plan to sell off the Christmas Mountains to private interests. "In your narrow minded view only the 'government' can do what's right … you are more inclined to have an open mouth than an open mind. I can detect you are a typical partisan."
The heated exchange was included in a batch of Patterson's e-mail records, given to the Star-Telegram after a lengthy battle that tested provisions of the Texas public information act. The Texas attorney general ordered Patterson to hand over most of them. Taken together, they offer a glimpse into the inner workings of perhaps the most colorful — and combative — Texan in statewide office today.
"I think he probably intimidates a lot of people," said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who served with Patterson in the state Senate and considers him a friend. "He just goes at it full speed and full throttle, and if you get in his way you're probably going to get bruised."
Born in 1946, Patterson grew up in southeast Houston, where he and his buddies roamed the neighborhood with BB guns while his father worked in a nearby chemical plant. His mother juggled the duties of housewife and real estate agent.
"Proving once again that I grew up weird, when I was a kid I enjoyed it when we were driving behind a Houston bus — loved the smell of diesel fumes," Patterson recently confessed in an e-mail to supporters of a program that helps governmental entities switch their fleets to clean-burning natural gas. "That might explain my thought processes as an adult."
In the 1960s, while many young Americans were protesting the Vietnam War and marching for civil rights, Patterson was a student at Texas A&M University, where he earned a degree in history in 1969.
"We were all going into the armed forces," he recalled. "We didn't have much respect for those that were burning our flags, and that hasn't changed much."
Patterson later joined the Marines and ended up in Vietnam during the last six months of the war in 1973. His love of history and a long family tradition of military service strongly influence Patterson's staunchly conservative political views. He can trace his military heritage to the Civil War, when his great-grandfather, Cpl. James Monroe Cole, served in the Confederate Army. His father flew a B-24 Liberator in World War II, and his adult son, Travis, has pulled two tours of duty as a chopper pilot in Iraq.
In 1990, Patterson lost his first bid for a state Senate seat. Instead of conceding on election night, he announced he would run again two years later. Thanks to new district lines that favored Republicans, Patterson defeated Sen. Chet Brooks, D-Pasadena, in 1992.
Patterson was a strong advocate of term limits back then, and he made Brooks — at the time the longest-serving member of the state Senate — a poster boy for the idea. Patterson has since changed his mind about setting limits on how long politicians can serve.
"If you're an advocate of term limits, you're saying that voters are too stupid to make the right choice," Patterson said.
Brooks, who never returned to state elective office, laughed out loud when told that Patterson no longer supported term limits, but he said he is not bitter. After Brooks' 1992 defeat, Patterson showed up at a post-election fundraiser aimed at helping the Democrat retire his campaign debts, Brooks recalled.
During his six years in the Senate, Patterson abolished the law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets and helped modernize home-equity lending practices in Texas. But his claim to fame was his sponsorship of the bill that gave Texans the right to carry concealed weapons. Besides giving him hero status among the Second Amendment crowd, Patterson's fierce advocacy of the gun-toting public has colored the way he sees his job as chief steward of millions of acres of state land.
Patterson has insisted, for example, that the federal parks system drop its ban on firearms to even become eligible to purchase the Christmas Mountains, donated to the state years ago by a land conservation group.
"Should I transfer 9,300 acres to an agency that ignores the Bill of Rights?" Patterson says. "I don't think so."
The proposal to sell off the Christmas Mountains sparked a huge public controversy, and thousands wrote Patterson urging him to keep it in government hands. Patterson said any private owner would have to promise never to develop the property — and he unloaded on what he saw as an often "clueless" public.
"With your eloquence I'm not sure I would want you on my side," Patterson wrote to one angry critic. "I encourage you to vote against me, and to find an opponent and work very hard to get them elected." Some Texans who had stumbled upon Patterson's e-mail address seemed shocked to get a snarky reply from the land commissioner himself.
"State employees would probably be fired for such a rude response," wrote one Texan who corresponded with him. "You may want to work on improving your ability to inform people without insulting them." If he appears a bit prickly about criticism from the public, it pales in comparison to his battles with the press — whom he blames for leaving Texans woefully uninformed.
Patterson, who often comments on Internet blogs about his agency, admits "uninformed" criticism both galls and entertains him. But he said it doesn't keep him up at night.
"Many would describe me as kooky, but I don't really care," he said. "If the voters disagree with what I'm doing, there's the next election, or there's impeachment. I do what I think is right, and I don't concern myself with public opinion."
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.