Jonathan Stickland Eats His Words In Tough Primary
His primary stomping ground was the fantasy football site FFtoday.com, where he plied fellow members with tales from his day job as a pest control technician, exchanged tips on financial and romantic matters and jockeyed for status as the site’s most longstanding user.
The 32 year-old lawmaker’s more than 3,000 postings over a 14-year period offer a rare glimpse at the unscrubbed online life of a political candidate before he took office. They have, unsurprisingly, become a big headache for the Bedford Republican.
Stickland, a Tea Party favorite who is facing a stiff primary fight to serve a third term in the Texas House, easily won re-election in 2014, despite a strong challenger with a background on a local school board.
His current opponent is Scott Fisher, a pastor with a long history of involvement in state and local politics, who has styled himself as a conservative who can be effective in Austin. Fisher, the chairman of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department and a former member of the Texas Ethics Commission, has received the unusual endorsement of former Gov. Rick Perry.
Fisher's campaign, which first unearthed Stickland's postings and provided them in full to The Texas Tribune, has used the lawmaker’s extensive online history to question his integrity.
“His comments are ranging from obscene racist comments to obscene sexual comments,” Fisher said. "I think if the voters of this district had known these things about Jonathan when he ran the first time, they wouldn’t have elected him. They are very offensive statements. How many times do you have to say 'I’m sorry,' 'I’m sorry,' 'I’m sorry?'"
Stickland has already offered one apology for telling a fellow fantasy football site member that “rape is non existent in marriage, take what you want my friend!” in response to a 2008 request for sex advice on the forum.
In a statement after December news reports about the post, Stickland said that he did not “feel that way today.”
“I can only repent and ask for forgiveness from the people it offended and hurt,” he said. “Rape is serious and should never be joked about the way that I did regardless of my age.”
Following the media attention, the comments were removed from the site, though his profile remains.
The controversy over Stickland's online history has put a lawmaker more accustomed to lobbing attacks himself — often on what he sees as the ideological hypocrisy of Republican colleagues — in an unusually defensive spot.
In the postings reviewed by the Tribune, all but a handful made in years before Stickland first ran for office in 2012, it’s hard not to see parallels between the state representative known for antagonizing members of his own party and the online persona who relished trolling fellow forum users.
He mostly comes off as a blustering younger brother, eager for any attention that may come his way.
Stickland turned to the forum to announce his first ever political donation to a presidential candidate — former U.S. Rep Ron Paul in 2008 — and after he signed the papers for a new house. Despite a largely indifferent reception, he provided dogged updates on his campaign for the Texas House in a series of 2012 posts that culminated in a gleeful broadcast of his victory. He also occasionally appeared to defend his political record, including in 2014 when a few users posted negative media stories.
“So the liberal media hates me, shocker!” he said.
But many postings also contrast with the image he has cultivated as an unrelenting champion for conservative family values. Some contain unsavory racial references — as in one 2008 posting when he vented about a call from a dissatisfied customer he calls a “DFA,” or “dumb focking Asian.”
In another post from the same year, he related a detailed story about three women who approached him in a parking lot when he was eating lunch in his car. Apparently believing he might be an undercover cop, he says they told him to “either do what your going to do or lay out the terms."
“The leader at one point turned back around and kind of "shimmied" her sensational knockers back at me and turned back around,” he said “Im sitting there bewildered as I stare endlessly at the thong half naked wimmens that just approached me.”
What, he asks, should he do?
“They expect me to turn them in or create a "arrangment"?”
In another 2008 plea for advice, Stickland said he was faced with a possible drug test at work after having smoked marijuana a few weeks before. After some ridicule from fellow users, he responded again.
“No one is going to sit here and tell me as a respectable successfull business man with a good job and nice things that taking a few (glorious) rips from a blunt 2-3 times a year makes me a loser,” he said.
In an interview with the Tribune, Stickland expressed deep regret for the content of the postings.
"I wish I could take back those comments. They are not indicative of the way that I feel today, and I am sincerely sorry for my mistakes," he said.
He said he, and others, turned to the forum as a source of amusement during the workday — and that many of the scenarios presented for discussion were designed to provoke and contained little truth. But he emphasized he was not trying to diminish the damage they may have caused.
“I’ve been a different person for a very long time, and it has been difficult to look back at how careless I was on the fantasy forum. And it’s been very difficult for my family,” said Stickland, who is married with two daughters and now works as a consultant in the oil and gas industry.
So far, Stickland’s biggest backers do not appear swayed by the revelations of his past online activity, arguing that the postings are from a time in his life he has left behind.
Julie McCarty — president and founder of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party who initially recruited Stickland to run for office — has continued to throw her efforts behind his re-election campaign.
“Jonathan has a rock-solid record leaving Fisher with nothing to run on so he's dragging up stuff from Stickland's past,” she said in a statement to the Tribune in December. “From what I've gauged, nothing has changed in Jonathan's popularity with the people.”
She has also criticized Fisher for “attacking a brother in Christ for his past sins.”
Fisher said his opponent’s history of online behavior was fair game. It helps explain a number of “pretty bizarre votes” the legislator has taken since winning his seat in 2012, he said, pointing to Stickland's opposition to measures that would extend the statute of limitation for rape charges, make revenge porn illegal and ban e-cigarettes on public school campuses.
“I’ve never questioned his Christian faith, I’ve just simply put out there that these are some things that are pretty shocking for someone to have said,” Fisher said. “To some degree there is a very misogynistic underpinning that defines Jonathan, and it’s evidenced not only in his online activity but in his votes in the Texas House.”
Asked about the votes, Stickland called the implication that comments he made years ago on a fantasy football forum amounted to policy positions “ludicrous.”
“I take great pride in knowing that I can defend and explain every vote I’ve taken in the Legislature,” he said. “I have always stood for personal liberty and the Constitution, and sometimes that has meant taking tough votes on politically charged issues.”