When a 75-foot oak tree snapped and fell, crippling a jogger named Greg Abbott in July 1984, he did what most Texans would do: He sued the owner of the tree. A few months later, Abbott's attorney also sued the tree-trimming company that had worked on the giant oak, and within a year, the homeowner, the tree company, their insurance companies and Abbott had agreed to an out-of-court settlement that would pay Abbott's current and future medical bills and compensate him for mental anguish and for some of the income he lost because of the accident.
Abbott, who is now a champion of tort reform running for attorney general of Texas, says he hears no disharmony between the actions he took then and the positions he's taking now. The legal remedies available to him when the accident occurred are still available now, he says. If the accident happened the same way now, he says, it would probably result in the same kind of settlement.
Abbott and a friend were taking a break from studying for their bar exams by jogging through River Oaks on a stormy Houston day. Abbott heard a loud crack, saw the trunk of the tree next to him breaking and was knocked to his feet before he could react. The falling tree totaled two cars on the curb and knocked Abbott down, breaking his back and some ribs. Abbott, who endured months of surgery and rehabilitation, was paralyzed and now gets around in a wheelchair.
Abbott hired Don Riddle, a well-regarded trial lawyer, to sue the homeowner and later the arborist on Abbott's behalf. Abbott says the tree was known to be rotting and dangerous and that the tree company was brought in because it knew about the problem—not because it was a rich target. The lawyers on the other side don't remember admitting the tree was rotten, but say there was a battle of experts on that issue. One of them, Dick Ellis, says "you don't want to go to court with the defendants shooting at each other." And the victim was extremely sympathetic: Abbott didn't do anything wrong, was a young, married uninsured attorney about to start work in a big firm and begin a lucrative career. The risk of going to court was too great, Ellis said. They worked out a deal.
The settlement wasn't filed in public records at the court and Abbott wouldn't reveal the details. Lawyers familiar with the case recalled it was a "structured annuity" meant to pay installments over several years. It did not include punitive damages, but probably did include non-economic damages—some compensation just for going through a terrible accident, the rehab that followed and the lifelong confinement to a wheelchair. Another attorney said Abbott and Riddle didn't "abuse the system" to try to get a bigger settlement, but they also didn't leave anything out.
Greg Abbott as Candidate
Abbott is running for attorney general against former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson. In his campaign literature, he calls the Democrat "a plaintiff personal injury trial lawyer" from Austin. That's red meat to a Republican voter, and Abbott has repeated it again and again in his speeches and in campaign materials. Two groups that promote tort reform have joined him in the attacks: Texans for Lawsuit Reform and the Texas Association of Business and Chambers of Commerce. Tort reform groups have also given generously to his campaigns. According to Texans for Public Justice, tort reform groups and individuals have contributed $689, 313 to Abbott's campaigns since 1997, including about 24 percent of what he's raised for the current race. Abbott sees no contradiction. He says the tort reformers don't want to cut people's ability to go to court for remedies and to seek justice—only to cut down on meaningless and frivolous suits that he says clog the courts.
It didn't show in most of the coverage, but gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez showed his teeth after Dan Morales' comments about drug money that made its way into Sanchez' Tesoro Savings and Loan. Morales regurgitated federal records and news reports that chronicled deposits from a Mexican drug ring into Tesoro and said Sanchez, as majority owner and chairman of the board, should have known about it.
Morales' sideswipes: "How can Mr. Sanchez claim to be able to keep drugs out of our schools and our communities when he cannot keep drug money out of his own business?" In the same news conference, he added this: "Texans deserve a CEO who knows what is going on during his watch. It is not a sufficient explanation for a man who wants to be governor to simply say 'I didn't know.'"
That was in the morning. At noon, Sanchez paid for barbecue for anyone in Austin who was close enough to a downtown park to catch the scent of brisket and gave a talk. He later talked to reporters, who asked for his reaction. Sanchez said he didn't know about the deposits at the time, and he stiffened when told what Morales had said about his management abilities. "I have a number of businesses that I have been quite successful at, so I don't ever think he should ever compare himself to me in management. He has never had a job outside of politics. He doesn't know what management is in the private sector. How could he criticize anybody?" He quickly settled back into what appears to have been the intended message of the day: "These are kicks from a drowning man. The polls are showing that he's plummeting and we're going to be victorious."
Expect Morales to keep poking at Sanchez in search of similar reactions. Tesoro is long gone, but Sanchez and his family are the largest holders of International Bank of Commerce stock. Morales returned with another bank shot a few days later, kicking the Laredo businessman for lobbying against a regulation that would force bankers to ask international customers a series of questions about the money being deposited in their banks. Sanchez was against the legislation until September 11 changed everyone's temperature on the subject of international money laundering. Morales went over the top, actually saying that the 9-11 attacks would have been more difficult to finance had the banking provision been in law. Sanchez had an easier time with that one, saying he was "saddened by Mr. Morales' shameless and hysterical ravings." He said he was concerned about privacy before the attacks, but later concluded "that the war on terror required some trade-offs."
Sanchez' spin had a bit of foreshadowing in it. If Morales doesn't have much money to compete on television, and if Sanchez can keep campaigning at his astonishing January rate (the campaign spent $6.07 million last month!), Sanchez will probably never have to bash Morales in those ads. If you go negative in a campaign, you can't help but get splashed; if Sanchez never has to publicly slap his opponent, he won't get dirty.
Oddly enough, that could be good for the other Morales on the ticket. Conventional wisdom is that Victor Morales, who's running for U.S. Senate, has been benefiting from Dan Morales' high name identification and visibility. Some analysts think that voter confusion, if it exists, might work in the other direction: Victor, they speculate, might be diminished by an attack on Dan.
Most of the polling we've seen on the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate has Victor Morales in front of that pack, with Ken Bentsen and Ron Kirk in a dot race for the second spot. Make that the runoff spot, since none of those polls show Morales far enough ahead to take it in the first heat.
The latest set of numbers is from Austin-based Montgomery & Associates, which has Morales in front with 26.7 percent of the vote, Bentsen next with 18.5 percent and Kirk on his heels with 16.6 percent. The other candidates in that race measured up thusly in Montgomery's survey: Gene Kelly, 2.6 percent; Ed Cunningham, 1.6 percent; everybody else, 0.3 percent; undecided, 31.3 percent; and refused to say, 2.5 percent. Montgomery called 1,002 Democratic primary voters during the second week of February. The margin of error is ±3 percent.
Great Minds Work Alike
Word that Gov. Rick Perry was going to goose the big property insurance companies leaked out the week before he was ready to go. And that gave the Democrats time to throw something together. Perry announced on Tuesday that he was asking Attorney General John Cornyn to look into the combination of rising rates and less comprehensive coverage by home insurers. He said he wants the three biggest companies in that business—Allstate, Farmers and State Farm—to straighten up. If they don't, he says, the state might just regulate them. An insurance industry group said the investigation is welcome, because it'll prove, they say, that they've been getting hammered financially.
Tony Sanchez did a drive-by policy statement the day before Perry's press conference, throwing into his speech a line about insurance premiums in Texas and his feeling that the state should govern the rates of the home insurers (most of that business is in so-called "Lloyds companies" that aren't regulated and don't have to stay within the range of prices set by the state for regulated companies). But when he was asked about his plans after the speech, Sanchez had nothing to say. A day later, his campaign issued a press release with more detail. And they started a new commercial on television that says he'll "stop insurance companies from sticking homeowners with massive premium hikes."
Sanchez quoted the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, saying the average Texas family pays $879 a year for home insurance. The national average for the same insurance, he said, is $481 annually. Perry's looking at the same numbers, and at similar tales: Sen. Mike Jackson, R-LaPorte, took the podium when Perry was finished and held up the letter from Farmers, telling him that his insurance would be canceled because the company is shrinking its coverage in Texas.
Does Texas Need a Flag-Turning Law?
The newest members of the Red Over White Squad are Barbara Canales-Black and Ramsey Farley. Both have put out campaign stuff with the right half of the state flag upside down. It's supposed to be white on top and red on the bottom. Farley is running in the Republican primary in the CD-11 district now represented by U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco. His goof shows up on the large format signs he's posted around the district. Canales-Black, who's running for the state Sen. seat left open by Carlos Truan's decision not to run again, has already patched her mistake. For the first few days that her television ads were running, she had a partially flipped flag as part of the logo (which includes a stretched version of the flag) featured in her television ads. The logo on her letterhead is correct and the TV ads have now been fixed, too.
Canales-Black's half-minute spots are running through Election Day in both Corpus Christi and the Valley. She's in a four-way Democratic primary race with most of the attention centered on her and Rep. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa of McAllen. The latest battle? Her husband's support for Republican officeholders. Paul Black gave $5,000 to Gov. Rick Perry and gave $250 and $100, respectively, to Land Commissioner David Dewhurst and Railroad Commissioner Charles Matthews before that.
An aide to Black says she and her husband gave $31,750 to Democrats while they were giving that $5,350 to Republicans. And their Democratic contribution list includes a $10,000 check to Tony Sanchez written less than three months after the check to Perry, $2,500 to David Bernsen, who's trying to win the seat Dewhurst is giving up, $2,000 to U.S. Senate candidate Ken Bentsen (the maximum allowed for couples) and $1,000 each to John Sharp and Kirk Watson. They gave to Perry, Dewhurst and Matthews because all three deal with South Texas issues in general, and energy issues in particular.
There is also a Paul and Barbara Black Foundation that has something in its charter that gives some Democrats the heebie-jeebies, because it sounds like something a Republican would write. It says the foundation is meant to "operate in a manner that is consistent with Judeo-Christian principles, and consistent with protecting and enhancing the rights of private property, free enterprise and minimizing the role of government in the affairs of men." The foundation was set up to give to charities, and isn't political, the campaign says.
What's So Funny?
Remember the bit about the Democrats' spoof of the GOP website and Enron? That's the website that got started by some of the same people who operate gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez's Internet presence and it's apparently got someone's goat.
It's on the Internet at www.EnronOwnsTheGOP.com, and the Republican Party of Texas apparently doesn't think it's that amusing. One of their lawyers—Jonathan Snare of the firm of Loeffler Jonas & Tuggey—sent a letter to the owner of the site, Kelly Fero, telling him that the elephant with the Texas tattoo on it (that's our language and not the lawyer's) is a registered trademark and that the spoof website is misusing it. The Democrat's version of the elephant has the Enron "E" logo planted in place of the Texas outline.
Snare's letter says the look of the website is copied from the official GOP site (www.TexasGOP.org) and that "the public is likely to be deceived into believing that your website, including your appropriation of the RPT's trademark protected symbol, is sponsored by or affiliated with the RPT." He demands that they "cease and desist using the website," and threatens to sue if they don't.
The Democrats say they don't plan to pull down the site or make any changes. In fact, they've posted Snare's letter online with fresh jabs at the Republicans and at Gov. Rick Perry.
Injured in a Different Kind of Battle
Kenn George, who's running against Jerry Patterson in the GOP primary for land commissioner, has pulled a photo of a Purple Heart off of his website after complaints from adversaries who pointed out that it's not supposed to be used that way and that he didn't win the medal in the first place. And George sideswiped current Land Commissioner David Dewhurst in the process of pulling down the photo. Dewhurst got zinged earlier in the season for running an ad that had a German air force officer in it (unbeknownst to Dewhurst). In his case, George told the San Antonio Express-News that his pickle might have been worse: "The one thing I do know, it was not a German purple heart."
No Comps for Voters
Democratic Senate candidate Ed Cunningham got sent to the principal's office for stepping on a foul line most people aren't even aware of. The first part of this is—at least we hope it is—well known: It's illegal to pay somebody to vote a certain way in Texas. And it's illegal to charge someone to vote.
Here's the part that's less well known: The Texas Secretary of State's office say it's also illegal to offer anything of value to someone who simply registers to vote.
Cunningham got a letter instead of a spanking. The election wizards at SOS apparently read the Dallas Morning News, which reported that Cunningham was encouraging people to register to vote by giving away two Super Bowl tickets in a drawing that was only open to newly registered voters.
That's a no-no, and Cunningham got a letter telling him they admired his efforts to get people involved, but that he'd best knock it off, since it could be a violation of federal law.
One Last Item for the Oops List
Comptroller candidate Marty Akins was originally running for governor of Texas, and his website at www.MartyAkins.com had a list of letters from supporters. That's being revised, but someone apparently cut loose with a "search and replace" button on the computer. The new letters still knock Tony Sanchez, who was originally Akins' opponent, and one letter says Akins is the "the kind of Democrat I want to see in the Texas Comptroller's mansion." Akins, for the record, is now running unopposed in the primaries; he'll face Republican Carole Keeton Rylander in the November elections. The winner gets the office and a parking space close to the building, but no house.
Endorsement of the Week
Supreme Court Justice Xavier Rodriguez had a note up on his website (www.X-rodCampaign.com) that said he had been endorsed by President George W. Bush. His opponent's campaign manager, David Rogers, started calling around and telling campaigns he was working on a story about for the Austin Review, a newspaper of conservative opinion pieces, about candidates claiming endorsements they didn't have. Well, the Rodriguez campaign pulled down the president's name and got in touch with the White House. The result? Bad news for the challenger. Bush is now firmly endorsing Rodriguez. Rogers actually has been published by that paper before, and he really is the campaign manager for Steven Wayne Smith. Smith was also his lawyer: Rogers was one of the lesser-known plaintiffs in the Hopwood case against the University of Texas and its law school's admissions policies.
• Dueling Endorsements in the GOP land commissioner race: Kenn George of Dallas gets a hug from former state GOP chairman Tom Pauken. He already had Chet Upham, another former chairman of the state party. Jerry Patterson, who's running against George, says he got a political embrace from Denise McNamera of Dallas, one of the state's two members of the Republican National Committee. The other, Tim Lambert, endorsed Patterson a while back.
• Republican John Cayce, seeking a spot on the Texas Supreme Court, has changed horses. With just a few weeks to go in the GOP primary, he dropped Austin political consultant Jim Arnold in favor of Rob Allyn & Co. of Dallas. Aides say he's worked with Allyn before. Separately, the Texas Society of Professional Engineers endorsed Cayce in that race.
• Attorney general candidate Greg Abbott picked up endorsements from several groups in the last week or so: the Texas Association of Realtors, the Texas Apartment Association, the Consulting Engineers Council of Texas and the Associated Builders and Contractors of North Texas. Meanwhile, his opponent started a website at www.KirkWatson.org and became an honorary colonel in the Austin Police Department.
• David Dewhurst, who has lost most endorsements from Austin-based trade organizations to Democrat John Sharp, got the seal of approval from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, one of the state's two large tort reform groups. But the other, the Texas Civil Justice League, endorsed Sharp. TCJL also endorsed Gov. Rick Perry and attorney general candidate Greg Abbott. In races for the state supreme court, the group endorsed Chief Justice Tom Phillips for reelection, along with appointees Xavier Rodriguez and Wallace Jefferson. In the open seat on that court, the group tapped Mike Schnieder. All of those judicial candidates are Republicans.
• Gov. Rick Perry got a nod from the Teamsters Union that could turn into an endorsement down the line. That union likes his transportation plans, and said so in a press conference at the Governor's Mansion. That was state business, but Perry's folks are hopeful the union will stick with their guy during the election season. The Texas AFL-CIO didn't endorse any Republicans. Perry also got an endorsement from the Texas Municipal Police Association. In the process, the group slapped Tony Sanchez, saying he wants to halve the state's prison budget.
Employers Weren't the Only Ones Going Nekkid
We wrote last week that 35 percent of the employers in the state don't carry workers compensation insurance. Fortunately for us, that's true. But there's more to it than that. It's also true that more than half of those employers do carry other forms of insurance designed to cover workers hurt on the job. That group of "non-subscribers" represents about 114,000 firms, and about 56 percent of them do carry some kind of insurance for workers hurt while working. And they say that those companies employ about 80 percent of the workers in that group, meaning 1.1 million of the 1.4 million workers who aren't covered by workers comp insurance are, in fact, covered by other plans.
• While we're correcting, The Young Republicans of Texas and the Young Conservatives of Texas are different organizations. A recent item about the CD-31 race mentioned the YRT where it should have made reference to the YCT. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
Political People and Their Moves
The Texas Department of Insurance gets a new executive from the Texas Senate: Karina Casari, who has been chief of staff for Sen. David Sibley, will be the executive deputy commissioner to Jose Montemayor. Sibley retired at the beginning of the year; Casari will move nine blocks south, probably by the time you read this. TDI is up for Sunset review by the Legislature next year, and Casari will head the agency's work on that little problem... Chase Untermeyer, a former reporter, former legislator and former State Board of Education member, is now a former lobbyist for Compaq Computer Corp. Untermeyer has joined the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston as executive veep for governmental relations... Texas First Lady Anita Perry will be the "state ambassador" to the Texas Council on Family Violence, promoting that group's efforts against spouse and child abuse. The organization is a confederacy of local and statewide programs that focus on family violence... UTIMCO—the University of Texas Investment Management Co.—hired Bob Boldt of California as its new investment manager. Boldt, a UT alum and a Texan by birth, was an investment officer with the California Public Employees Retirement System. He'll replace Tom Ricks, who left UTIMCO last year... Former TV reporter Robert Riggs is leaving Hillco—the Austin-based Buddy Jones/Bill Miller production—so he can add political campaigns to his client list. The Austin guys don't want to get into that, because it creates noise on the lines with their lobby clients. Riggs is based in Dallas and also has a documentary film company on the side... Appointments: Gov. Perry put William Caudill, a Houston lawyer, on the board that'll help decide which Texas symbol to put on a quarter when it's our turn for that. Perry also named two new regents for the Texas State Technical College: car dealer Don Elliott of Wharton, Longview banker Mike Northcutt Sr. Two current members—Realtor Connie de la Garza of Harlingen and school superintendent Jerilyn Pfeifer of Abilene—won reappointment to that board.
Quotes of the Week
U.S. Senate candidate Ron Kirk, telling the Dallas Morning News he has no intention of quitting the law firm job or resigning from the corporate boards that he got after he became mayor of Dallas: "I'd be a fool. I've got a wife and two kids. There is no other person I know of that has run for public office and quit with the exception of—What's that boy's name?—Steve Forbes."
Democratic Lite Guv candidate John Sharp, assessing the state's financial condition under the Republicans, reported by the Associated Press: "All of a sudden, the state of Texas is in the worst financial shape it's ever been in. They said they were going to come in and run (the state) like a business. They just didn't tell us it was going to be Enron."
Betty Skilling, mother of former Enron honcho Jeff Skilling, quoted on the topic of the day in Newsweek: "When you are the CEO and you are on the board of directors, you are supposed to know what's going on with the rest of the company. You can't get off the hook with me there. He's going to have to beat this the best way he can."
Dallas mayor candidate Tom Dunning, interviewed by the Dallas Morning News after one of his campaign workers was accused of illegally completing and signing mail-in ballots for elderly voters: "We need to disclose all of this to whoever looks into this."
Ana Lee Sanchez, describing her father, gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez, in the McAllen Monitor: "I can remember when he used to come home from work tired, and my mom would have all of us out by the swimming pool. Although he was tired, he would go upstairs and put on his swimming suit and get in the pool with us."
Democratic gubernatorial candidate John WorldPeace, promising to harbor no grudges if Laredo bazillionaire Tony Sanchez will drop out of the governor's race: "If Tony gets out, I will give his daughter a significant position in my administration because I think she has potential."
Austin businesswoman Caroline Estes, organizer of a mass shirts-off protest to be staged on the Capitol City's 6th Street during Mardi Gras, describing the official reaction in an interview with the Associated Press: "I found Austin police to be very pro-breast."
Texas Weekly: Volume 18, Issue 32, 18 February 2002. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2002 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (800) 611-4980 or email biz@ texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@ texasweekly.com, or call (512) 288-6598.