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Rumors, Traps and Frivolous Lawsuits

A common explanation of cancer treatment is that they hit you for months with large doses of something fatal, and if it kills the cancer before it kills you, you're cured. That serves as a nice metaphor for presidential politics: If you survive the examination and treatment by your opponents, the media and the public, you get to live in the White House.

A common explanation of cancer treatment is that they hit you for months with large doses of something fatal, and if it kills the cancer before it kills you, you're cured. That serves as a nice metaphor for presidential politics: If you survive the examination and treatment by your opponents, the media and the public, you get to live in the White House.

Gov. George W. Bush is getting an early dose of that political treatment and is responding with a combination of pique and denial. In what was supposed to be a comfortably routine press conference to announce a new commissioner of education, he got riled at reporters asking questions about rumors of past drug use, and about new pleadings in a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by a former Texas Funeral Commission director. And he contended both lines of inquiry are improper.

Bush initially refused to answer questions about cocaine use, cutting off reporter questions before they were finished to say, essentially, that he didn't want to get into the habit of answering every rumor drummed up by his detractors.

Put aside the instant case for a moment and look at the problem generically. Bush is in a box that has become a familiar part of politics: He's asked to respond to a rumor that might or might not be true. If the question is about something voters consider horrible and the candidate's answer is Yes, he's got a political problem. If the candidate's answer is No, then the questioners and the folks prompting them move to another question, and so on. The answer to any given question might be favorable, but this is like the potato chip slogan: Nobody can eat just one. Answer once -- answer always.

Whittling Away the Question, a Few Years at a Time

And now to the instant case. Bush is being pressed on the question of whether he ever used cocaine, an inquiry that has been answered by all of the other candidates in both parties. Some of Bush's supporters say it is a legitimate question, increasing the pressure on the governor to answer.

Bush responded by stretching the answer over several days instead of getting it over with.

First, he told the Dallas Morning News that he has not used illegal drugs in the last seven years. That paper had asked whether he would be able to meet the test for White House security, which calls for no illegal drug use for seven years. The next day, he trimmed off another ten years, saying he would have passed the test during his father's presidency as well. (If you were a reporter, you'd be doing this math right now: Bush the Elder took office in early 1989, which takes Bush the Younger's seven-year "safe" period back to early 1982. Gov. Bush was 35 years old. Along that same line, your next question would be "What about during Reagan's term?")

Aside from whatever problems might arise from this particular line of questioning, Bush and the other candidates are certainly in for more. The questions will move to another subject, but the tone and tenor is unlikely to change in spite of candidate protests that the game is unfair. And the elbowing will intensify as the field narrows from a busload of prospects to one or two or three candidates.

The play on the funeral commission case is less clear. The state is being sued by a former agency director (and Texas Democratic Party treasurer) who says she was pushed out after she proposed a $445,000 fine against the nation's biggest funeral home operator. Eliza May contends her ouster followed meetings between Houston-based Service Corp. International and state officials friendly to SCI. Her lawyers have demanded that Bush testify. Bush contends the suit is frivolous and political and ought not to involve him. A hearing on that is set for the end of the month.

Death and Taxes

May's lawsuit isn't the only trouble at the Texas Funeral Commission. The Legislature rewired that agency earlier this year, and the composition of the board changes at the end of this month.

By now, you've seen the headlines about Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, the state's tax collector, sending in a "SWAT team" to take over the troubled agency at the request of the governor. And you know about the politically nasty lawsuit over that agency's regulation of SCI. You also know about Bush's contention that he's not involved and ought to be freed from the matter, that the suit itself is nonsense, that people are always suing the governor just because of his prominence, and that too much attention has already been paid to the whole mess.

Why, then, you might wonder, did the governor's office decide to ask the comptroller to send in the Marines? Good question. It turns out that all the governor's office did was pass along a request from the agency itself. And the day after Rylander's office said they would be taking over the whole show, they backed off, saying they were just there to keep things going.

The Legislature restructured the agency, and at the beginning of next month, Gov. Bush will name a completely new board to run the commission. The current lame duck board has neither the time nor the inclination to find and approve a new executive director, since that's probably best left to the next set of commissioners. To compound things, more than half of the staff positions at the tiny agency are also open and need to be filled. So the chairman of the commission, Fort Worth mortician Dick McNeil, asked the governor's office for stopgap help to keep the agency running until a new board is in place to pick up the pieces, put them back together and start all over again.

A Story That Keeps Coming Back to Life

Bush's office passed that along to Rylander, apparently hoping everything would remain relatively quiet. But next thing you know -- ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom! -- it was a headline announcing the SWAT team from the comptroller's office.

Within hours, news organizations were asking Rylander's office for interviews about what all was wrong at the funeral agency, about rumors that the SCI case was either going to be on the fast track or stowed forever in an obscure government warehouse, about whether the comptroller was going to be tough on the industry, and about whether Rylander herself had received any campaign contributions from SCI and its employees (Yes, according to aides: $3,000 since 1998). In other words, the whole thing put new life into a story that Bush and his folks would like to let die.

Now that the ink has dried, it turns out to be more like what McNeil asked for in the first place. Rylander sent in one of her top execs, Mike Regan, who'll keep the smaller agency going and will make sure ongoing business gets done. But he's not authorized -- and this is spelled out in a second letter from McNeil to Rylander -- to delve into "decisions on license revocation, in investigations, administrative penalties or other matters of regulation." That gets Regan and his boss out of actions on and questions about the SCI case.

That's not the only thing breathing life into the funeral case, however. And Bush's repeated assertion that the case is frivolous had nothing to do with the comptroller.

His lawyers are trying to quash a request from May's lawyers that the governor testify in the case. He has said he knows nothing about it and hasn't talked to anyone about it. He even filed an affidavit to that effect. But Johnnie B. Rogers, one of SCI's lawyers, told Newsweek that the governor had stuck his head into a meeting attended by company head Robert Waltrip and Bush aides and said "Hey, Bobby, are those people still messing with you?" May's lawyers say that's proof Bush knew something about the case -- for instance, that Waltrip was having a problem with the commission in the first place -- and that he should be deposed. Bush says he doesn't remember the conversation's details.

The Undeclared 31-Candidate Campaign

The lieutenant governor's race continues to percolate, with Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown, R-Lake Jackson, telling fellow senators they should keep their powder dry, and friends of Sen. Mike Moncrief, D-Fort Worth, telling folks that, if it's possible to elect a Democrat for the job, Moncrief shouldn't be counted out of the race.

As usual, this is at the height of presumption, since it requires Gov. George W. Bush to survive 17 months of national politics and find himself in the White House. But that doesn't appear to be slowing anyone down. Should Bush move up, so would current Lt. Gov. Rick Perry. The Senate would elect Perry's successor, and my, how the speculative gears are turning. We can't name the author, cause he/she/it would get whacked, but one Senate staffer says the race forces every senator to do something that's just not in their makeup: Vote to advance a colleague.

Brown has never said, exactly, that he's in the race. He's never said he hates the idea, either, but he says there will be plenty of time to worry about this after the November 2000 elections and before the start of the regular legislative session in January 2001.

That's in contrast with the view of Sen. David Sibley, R-Waco, who in a letter to two other prospects said the Senate should go ahead and work on succession now, so state business won't get derailed by a 60-day lieutenant governor's race in that November to January window. That puts Sibley out front and allows him to collect ideas and talk openly with other senators about their wishes, but it also recalls a Western aphorism: The pioneer is the guy with the arrow in his back.

Sens. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, and Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, have previously said they are interested in the job if it comes open, but say they're not openly campaigning for it. Ratliff, in fact, has written to colleagues to say that the Senate should wait and see what happens to Bush and Perry.

After we wrote about Sibley's open campaign last week, we got calls from a couple of Moncrief friends who suggested he should be in the list of possibles. Their logic: He's from an urban base and would be able to muster the support and the money to run statewide if the other senators temporarily put him in the top spot.

The Next Race is Even Tougher

Should any of this take place, each senator who wants the job would have to face the same question: Could they muster the support to win a statewide race?

Each of them is a relative stranger to voters in 30 of the 31 Senate districts in Texas, and would have to depend on friends and contacts to build a statewide organization that could reach new voters. They'd each have to mount -- for the first time -- a statewide fundraising organization.

Whether you assume that the Republicans will hang onto the Senate, or that the Democrats will win it back, a presiding officer elected by the rest of the Senate would likely face opposition in the next election cycle, two years down the road, in both the primary and general elections.

Republicans hold all the statewide offices at the moment, and it's not a big leap to assume that one of those statewide officeholders would like to move up the food chain and become lieutenant governor. Each of them has already put together a statewide organization. Each has the power of incumbency, which translates into name recognition, fundraising prowess and organization. Each has been through this sort of thing before. None has an obvious political reason to fear a run against a senator who is unknown to most voters.

It's not an easy road for a Democrat, either, even though they wouldn't have to start against incumbent statewide officeholders. They could face future opposition from a Paul Hobby or a John Sharp in a primary, followed by a strong Republican in the general election.

We can argue this round or flat, but if you're appraising this with an eye on both the first race -- among the senators -- and the second race -- among the statewides -- then Sibley's early entry makes some sense. The argument is that he (or anyone else starting early) will have the advantage of building relationships now that could help later in a statewide contest.

Exploring Becomes a Fad

Rep. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, makes it official, but that doesn't mean he's a candidate. He filed papers saying a political committee has been formed for his "exploratory" look at the SD 3 seat currently held by Republican Sen. Drew Nixon of Carthage. Nixon hasn't decided whether to seek reelection. And Staples says he will make his own decision about whether to go ahead with the race sometime around Labor Day.

Republicans want to hang on to that seat, since they have only a one-vote majority in the Senate. And some of them are openly concerned that Nixon is vulnerable to challenge, particularly if he gets out of the GOP primary and moves on to the general election.

But some of them are also concerned about Staples' seat if he decides to give it up and go for the Senate. Staples holds a House seat in what is widely considered -- by Republicans and Democrats alike -- to be a Democratic district. The Democrats aren't confident they could win the district back if Staples stays, but like their chances if he's not in the hunt.

Staples has a ready answer, saying there are at least three Republicans willing, ready and able to run for his spot should he try to move up. Paul Woodard, a member of school board in Palestine, Kenneth Durrett, a Taco Bell franchisee who is now on the Jacksonville city council, and Chuck Hopson, a Jacksonville pharmacist, have each expressed interest in that race.

Railroad Notes & Rumor Knock-downs

No surprise here, but Charles Matthews is making his bid for reelection official. He's hoping to be the first Republican ever elected to a second full term at the Texas Railroad Commission... Michael Williams, also on the Railroad Commission, also seeking reelection, turns out to be friends with U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Oklahoma. Chances are good that Watts will headline a Williams fundraiser sometime later this year... Rep. Bill Carter, R-Fort Worth, is happy where he is and has no intention of running for Texas Railroad Commission. Moreover, he doesn't know where that rumor got its legs.

• Maybe it's the water in Fort Worth or something. A rumor that Rep. Sue Palmer, R-Fort Worth, is leaving is not only old, it's wrong. She considered calling it quits back in April when business and personal duties were piling up. Since then, she has sold her business, Lucky Lady Oil (that sale closes next month) and says she plans to run for reelection to the House.

• Remember all that colorful language in the Talk magazine article on Gov. Bush? Well, that's nothing compared to what you hear if you ask Rep. Leo Alvarado Jr., D-San Antonio, about rumors that his health is not good. The rumor was that Alvarado was sick and might not be able to make a race for the seat now held by Sen. Gregory Luna, D-San Antonio. He was even supposed to be registered at M.D. Anderson in Houston. It ain't so: He's healthy.

Shirking Consumerism; Book Notes

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Dallas, won't get a bye from the Democrats next year. Doug Sandage, a legal mediator, told his hometown Houston Chronicle that he'll make that race. He's not a typical candidate. He flunked out of high school, went to military school, straightened up and went to law school at UT. He said he was selling his big house in Bellaire and moving to a smaller one in Linkwood and selling the family Suburban, because it exemplifies consumerism.

• By our count, there are now four George W. Bush books planned for the nearest bookstore. The first, written by Bill Minutaglio of the Dallas Morning News, that will come out later this year. The second, funded by the candidate or the campaign, is being written by Mickey Herskowitz, a Houston Chronicle sportswriter who has written scads of as-told-to biographies with political and sports figures. Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Molly Ivins is writing one. And now, Elizabeth Mitchell, former executive editor at George magazine, has won an advance from Hyperion Books for a tome on the rise, fall and rise of the Bush dynasty. That's due out in January.

High Tech Political Moves

The conventional wisdom is that computer czars, chipheads and other high technologists don't give a flip about politics. That's not completely true, but it is a fact that many of the people who have become important business players in computer and computer-related industries have stayed out of politics (they've been busy making all that money, after all). Now that their businesses are maturing a bit, so are their political interests. And given the amount of money high tech executives have accumulated in the last few years, their interest in politics is of great interest to politicians. That intersection of money and politics accounts for the steady pilgrimage of politicos on the federal level -- including Texas Gov. George W. Bush -- to Silicon Valley in California.

One group politicians are plugging into is Technet, a bipartisan organization of high tech executives formed a couple of years ago to work on political and policy issues of interest to those folks. TechNet works through a combination of lobbying and contributing to political campaigns.

Now, Technet is opening a Texas branch. They've hired Austin-based Public Strategies Inc. (Dale Laine, who ran Bush's gubernatorial campaign, and former IBM spokesman John Crowe, will handle the account) to work on issues, and plan a coming out party in about a month.

It's not clear what they'd like to do or see in Texas. In other venues, they've pushed for higher federal funding of research and development, permanent R&D tax breaks and, in California, for uncapping the number of charter schools that compete with public schools for students and money.

They were behind a successful effort to limit stockholder lawsuits in California (the issue that led to the formation of the group in the first place), and they have supported arcane but significant accounting rules that would benefit companies with large investments in intangible properties, such as software and patents.

It Says Radioactive Right There on the Label

You wouldn't do this, probably, if you wanted another appointment, or a set of long-stemmed roses from the state's budgeteers. But Maj. Gen. (retired) John Simek, the chairman of the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority, apparently isn't looking for bouquets.

That agency is being merged into the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission at the end of the month, and legislators say they had sent word, although not in writing, that they'd appreciate it if the board would hold off on a couple of pending issues.

Well, the board didn't. It voted earlier this month to send a check to Hudspeth County and to raise the assessment that the authority charges utilities.

The next day, Appropriations Committee Chairman Rob Junell, D-San Angelo, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, co-signed a letter to Simek saying they didn't intend for the authority to make any new assessments. And they said they'd get back to him regarding the payment to Hudspeth County. The letter was polite, but did point out that lawmakers and the governor's staff had "verbally informed" the commission to hold off on the assessments.

That apparently stuck in Simek's craw. His letter back says he got the missive from lawmakers. It says his agency sought, and didn't get, written instructions from the legislative leadership. Without that, he said, the board voted to go with its earlier decision to raise the assessment. They also hand-delivered the Hudspeth County check right after they voted.

Simek closes by saying the lawmakers might want to check with the Health Department: "If you feel strongly that the process set out in the law for billing fees should not be followed, you should call the [Health Department] to discuss the matter."

He ends with a zinger: "I personally feel my duty and obligation was to follow the rules and regulations in place, not just those I wanted to, or that others desired."

Legislative aides say there's nothing they can do about the impact check to Hudspeth County, and it was probably going to go through anyway. They're putting a hold on the assessments, and the plan at the moment is to wait until the low-level authority has been folded into TNRCC.

Political People and Their Moves

Jim Nelson, an Odessa lawyer, former Ector County school board member, past president of the Texas Association of School Boards and a George W. Bush appointee to chair the Texas Educator Certification Board, is the new honcho at the Texas Education Agency. He'll start sometime after Labor Day, when current Commissioner Mike Moses departs for a new job at Texas Tech. Though he's been up to his elbows in education issues for several years as an elected and appointed official, Nelson is the first commissioner in 50 years who is not a professional educator... The Austin office of the San Antonio Express-News is losing bureau chief Laura Tolley, who is jumping over to Public Strategies Inc. to do public relations and media consulting... Andrea Cowan, who headed the Texas Performance Review at the state comptroller's office, moves to the Yellow Pages, at least figuratively speaking: She's opened a consulting shop and starts with a contract to reengineer a private sector concern in Dallas... Kristen Warren leaves her staff post at the Legislative Study Group (a caucus for liberal and progressive Texas House members) to become executive director of the Texas League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group... J.R. Gonzales of Austin will chair the Texas Association of Mexican American Chambers of Commerce. Gonzales publishes a magazine, Hispanic Impact, and owns an advertising and public relations firm. The group also said Dr. Ray Leal, formerly an assistant professor at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, will be its new president. Leal, who is also a conflict resolution consultant and a Webb County rancher, replaces Joe Morin, who's been TAMACC's president since 1984, when the group began... Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, used to be a House member, and the Texas Free Enterprise PAC thinks he improved both the House and the Senate by leaving one and joining the other. That outfit's measure of effectiveness lists Duncan as an improvement over his predecessor (and former boss) Sen. John Montford, who now heads Texas Tech University. And it lists Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, as an improvement over his predecessor: Duncan.

Quotes of the Week

Gov. George W. Bush, interrupting a reporter's question about rumors of cocaine use: "Somebody floats a rumor and it causes you to ask a question, and that's the game in American politics and I refuse to play it. That is a game, and you just fell for the trap. And I refuse to play."

Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, dropping out of the presidential race: "There's a powerful force in this country to nominate George W. Bush. I'm not interested in spending the next six months running down George Bush and arguing with the news media about taking me seriously."

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, as quoted by the San Antonio Express-News on her future plans should our current governor make it to the White House: "I'm not interested in running for governor...The likelihood is I'm going to serve my term in the Senate. But I'm not going to say I won't run for governor... I didn't close the door, but I really didn't mean to open it."

Newly appointed Texas Education Commissioner Jim Nelson, on whether he would support a school voucher program: "I would have to think long and hard, but I don't think it's something the commissioner of education is going to have to spend a lot of time worrying about. I'm not going to be the commissioner of voucher schools -- I'm going to be the commissioner of public schools."

Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, speaking for a small and fidgeting group of officials who joined Bush for a press conference on education, as the questions turned from state policy issues to national political matters: "Governor? Can we leave?"

Tony Fabelo, director of the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council, on the concealed handgun law: "In Texas, people have carried guns for a century. Now they just carry guns with a license."

Twelve-year-old Tyrus Shivers, on his first day as a page in the Alabama House of Representatives: "I heard one man asking another how to vote, and I saw people pushing each others' voting buttons. Everybody screamed. Nobody listened. If they went to my school, the teacher would tell them to sit down and shut up."

Texas Weekly: Volume 16, Issue 8, 23 August 1999. Copyright 1999 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited.

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