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Testing the Teflon

The national press, in particular the political press corps from the city of Washington, D.C., thinks the Texas press has left a lot of food on the table when it comes to Gov. George W. Bush. There's been talk, as the saying goes, the gist of which is that the local folks have been very easy on the state's chief executive and that it will take the heat of a national race to cook out the truth.

The national press, in particular the political press corps from the city of Washington, D.C., thinks the Texas press has left a lot of food on the table when it comes to Gov. George W. Bush. There's been talk, as the saying goes, the gist of which is that the local folks have been very easy on the state's chief executive and that it will take the heat of a national race to cook out the truth.

That might be right, and it might not. But it's not too hard to figure out how the idea evolved. In fact, Bush has had a good ride. He has some of the same Teflon properties that used to amaze critics of former President Ronald Reagan. He has good relationships with some of the reporters in the Texas press corps, and negative stories that do come up from time to time don't seem to last very long.

The part about the Texas press corps being easy is on the verge of being a story in and of itself. The other presidential campaigns are selling the idea, to some extent, and it plays to the hubris of the reporters hearing the spin ("Those Texas pipsqueaks couldn't do it, but you're so brave and strong and..."). Two things rise from this: First, the continuous stream of national reporters coming to Texas will probably quicken in the next few months, as reporters and others scrounge for goodies missed by the locals. And there will be a run of stories -- some of them already in the works -- on whether the local press has done its job with regard to the governor.

It might be that, in the end, the Texas press just stunk up the joint and that's that. But consider another angle. First and most importantly, Bush has been operating in a political environment that is the envy of officeholders everywhere: He has no opposition, at least not of the kind that hammers and hammers day after day. The Democratic Party largely gave him a bye after then Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and House Speaker Pete Laney, both Democrats, put out the "Hands Off" signs. That's even better than no opposition; it's a protection racket. The two legislative leaders got most of what they wanted without interference, and Bush didn't have to play dodge-ball for four years.

In some ways, that's the most significant difference for the governor as he goes forward. He hasn't faced the level of competition he's facing now, and that's a real test.

Waiting for Mistakes

Which leads to another parlor game popular with Bush rivals: waiting for him to pop a cork. Ann Richards relied on him to mess up and he didn't, blowing part of the former governor's reelection strategy in 1994. His presidential opponents and some of the media are waiting for the same thing.

We're going to press before the governor has been through a single debate, but it's safe to say debating isn't his game. That in and of itself won't kill him and waiting for him isn't necessarily a good strategy. Debates are like baseball games: Most people don't watch the entire proceedings, but don't mind sitting down for a couple of minutes after the game to watch the highlights. And if a player has a pretty good game without hitting a homer or committing a boneheaded error, he won't be on the highlight reel. Only the people who like to sit through the whole deal get to see the nuances and grimaces and smirks and such, but the general public doesn't see anything out of the ordinary.

That's the rule for candidates who are a little out of their element in debates: Be ordinary, banal, boring, bland. In 1990, the three Republicans running against Clayton Williams Jr. were sure he would make a mess in their gubernatorial debates. He stayed in the middle of the road, and the stories the next day -- to the extent they were about him at all -- were about the fact that he didn't make the mess everyone thought he would make. No news at all is better than bad news.

Name Your Successor on the Enclosed Card

The Dallas-based Free PAC hit a speed bump, sending a letter to a state representative the group would like to replace, asking him for help in finding a suitable challenger. In the form letter addressed to Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, the group says it needs help recruiting a "qualified conservative candidate for state representative." The letter goes on: "This letter is sent to you because you are a proven civic leader who has voted in several recent primaries. You live in a district that has strong Texas values and votes for conservatives. Yet your state representative, Tommy Merritt, has received only a 58 percent rating on conservative issues according to our respected analysis of critical votes. This is a failing grade." The letter goes on to ask for suggested opponents and for contributions.

The chairman of the organization, Richard Ford, groans about the goof that sent the letter directly to Merritt, though he expected the lawmaker to get his hands on it sooner or later. But he says he's getting some response from that district and from a handful of others where similar letters were sent. Merritt was the only Republican on the group's hit list; the rest are Democrats in conservative districts. Free PAC's rating system, Ford says, is based on 64 record votes taken during the last legislative session. Each lawmaker is scored, and then all of them are ranked. By the group's reckoning, Rep. Talmadge Heflin, R-Houston, was the most conservative member of the Texas House last session, with a 93 percent rating, followed closely by Reps. Joe Crabb, R-Atascocita, and Ronny Crownover, R-Denton, both with 89 percent ratings. Three Central Texas Democrats -- Reps. Glen Maxey of Austin, Arthur Reyna and Carlos Uresti of San Antonio -- got the lowest ratings, at 3 percent.

Merritt was rated more conservative than seven other Republicans, but he was a particular burr in the saddle of conservatives during the session, a distinction highlighted when he appeared at a press conference called by Senate Democrats who were clubbing Gov. George W. Bush for his position against hate crimes legislation. Merritt was the lone Republican in the room. He also drew a barb -- in the form of a letter from GOP chair Susan Weddington -- for a proposal that would have prevented railroad commissioners from running for higher office. He said he was tired of people using those jobs as launch pads for higher political orbits. All three commissioners are Republicans, however. And two are minorities, which prompted Weddington to write that Merritt's proposal would have given Democrats a shot at Republicans for creating barriers for minorities in the party.

Free PAC fired one bullet at Merritt during the session, buying an ad in his local paper that criticized him for being the only Republican who wasn't signed on as a co-sponsor of a parental notice bill. The embarrassment of the misdirected letter aside, Ford says he's anxious to find a recruit who'll go after Merritt. It's not personal, he says; his group just wants to put someone more conservative in that and at least three other seats.

The group's ratings are posted on the Internet at http://www.freepac.com.

Is That Your Final Answer?

This is a perennial, but it often throws officeholders into bouts of temporary insanity: Texans don't have a clue, for the most part, who represents them (much less who's the big cheese in Chechnya). The Texas Poll run by the Scripps Howard Data Center asked 1,000 folks who their elected officials are. The answers were pretty normal as these things go, but disconcerting to those whose lives are wrapped up in what's going on in Washington and Austin. Only 15 percent could identify Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, 9 percent could identify Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, 7 percent could name Attorney General John Cornyn. The rest of the state officeholders were basically off the radar screen: House Speaker Pete Laney, Secretary of State Elton Bomer, Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs and Land Commissioner David Dewhurst. The two U.S. senators, Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison, were recognizable to about one in four voters, and as you might expect, Gov. George W. Bush was best known of all. That said, 15 percent of the people in Texas couldn't identify the chief executive.

Campaigns, Rumors of Campaigns

Make it two on the official roster to replace Rep. Sherri Greenberg, D-Austin, who's retiring. Mandy Dealey, a Democrat, says she will definitely be in the race. She's the second on that side: Ann Kitchen has already announced. Several others from both parties are still kicking tires. Dealey had a campaign moment informed by the mistakes of others: After some reports that she had earned a graduate degree from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT, she sent out a disclaimer saying she'd finished the course work but not the paper. No degree. No false resume claims. Dealey's husband, Larry Speck, is the former head of the architecture school at UT. He recently resigned in protest after the architects designing a new art museum quit in a disagreement with some of the UT Regents.

• Don't call it abandonment, and don't call it opposition. Rep. Charles Jones, R-College Station, got through his first election last year with some help from Texans for Lawsuit Reform. From that group's standpoint, the choice last time (between Jones and Democrat Teddy Boehm) was pretty clear. Now that he's a sophomore, Jones has a challenge, and TLR will still support him. But the thrill is gone: The group has another friend in that HD 13 race in Lois Kolkhorst, a Republican from Brenham. They'll still support Jones, the group says, but they won't do anything to hurt the challenger.

• LaGrange Mayor David Noak says he's no longer looking at a run for the Texas House, but will aim at a Fayette County commission seat instead. Noak had been pondering a challenge of Rep. Robert "Robby" Cook III, D-Eagle Lake, but says he doesn't think the time is right. He won't finger them, but does admit that Republicans from outside the district had tried to recruit him for the race.

• After briefly considering a congressional bid, Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp, R-Lampasas, has decided to run for a third term in the House. She looked at the seat now occupied by U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, but decided not to hop.

• Rep. Bill Siebert, R-San Antonio, has hired Austin consultant John Doner to run his campaign and handle media; Bryan Eppstein of Fort Worth will do polling. Siebert stirred up the interest of potential competitors by lobbying at City Hall while he was a sitting legislator. He survived the flap downtown, but now faces a challenge from Elizabeth Ames Jones.

• Heard the months-old rumor that Rep. John Shields, R-San Antonio, might challenge Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, in next year's elections? Add this to the mix: Wentworth's November fundraiser drew a who's who of San Antonio business people, including car dealer Red McCombs and his wife, Charline McCombs. Shields is their son-in-law.

• Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, says he began the month of December with "almost $500,000 in the bank". So far, he has no opponents for reelection.

• He's not making any commitments for the long-term, but U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, plans to run for reelection to a third term. Back in the beginning of his time in Congress, he indicated that six years would probably be his limit. He's now telling his local paper, the El Paso Times, that they didn't hear him right -- that he actually said a good representative would wear out fairly quickly.

• Add Austin lawyer John Boston to the race for Court of Criminal Appeals. He'll challenge incumbent Judge Steve Mansfield. Boston has done contract work as a hearing officer for several state agencies and is a former director of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyer's Association. Houston attorney Jim Wallace and Corpus Christi lawyer Tom Greenwell have also announced plans to run.

• The Texas Democratic Party's website got a facelift. It's at http://www.txdemocrats.org. Both that and the GOP's website, at http://www.texasgop.org, include calendars. And both promise to be jumping-off spots for various campaigns as those come online. So far, the pickings are slim on those candidate jumps, but it should pick up and more campaigns start up. The Democrats have a launch spot set up -- the only sites so far are for Bill Bradley and Al Gore -- and the Republicans say they'll put together a set of links to campaigns after the primaries in March.

• Your calendar should indicate that it's time to chirp or get off the perch: Candidates for state office have to file by January 3 at 6 p.m. with the political party of their choice.

A Promising Poll and a Voluntary Mea Culpa

Houston businessman Peter Wareing is touting a poll that shows him running neck-and-neck with Rep. John Culberson in the race to succeed U.S. Rep. Bill Archer, R-Houston in CD 7. The poll, done for Wareing by Baselice & Associates of Austin, was completed the week before Thanksgiving. The 400 respondents had Culberson in the lead with 21 percent and Wareing second with 17 percent (within the 4.9 percent margin of error). They were trailed by Cathy McConn, with 8 percent, Mark Brewer with 5 percent and the other candidates all at 4 percent or less. The most significant number might be 45 percent. That's the undecided group that the seven candidates in the race will be fighting over.

An earlier poll done for Culberson -- back in September -- had the state rep in the lead with 21 percent and everyone else fighting for the little pieces. But it also had a large undecided group, at 61 percent. As you might expect, the spin from Wareing is that Culberson is sitting still while Wareing catches up and everybody else lags. That might turn out to be right. It's also true that the block walking and town hall meetings have been going for a while, but the media war -- mail, radio and TV -- has not really started. So far, it's been about grassroots and money.

This is one of the few races that will be over, for all practical purposes, after the primaries (and runoffs). It's a squarely Republican district with several well-funded candidates in a very, very expensive media market. Wareing says he has raised $870,000 so far; two other candidates in the race, Brewer and Ron Kapche, had each loaned their campaigns more than half that amount by the time the mid-year reports came out in July. The next fundraising reports will be out next month.

Wareing says that the candidates sound alike at times, pushing for lower taxes (he's personally in favor of a national sales tax), smaller government, and better defense. That could prove confusing.

Wareing is also doing some self-inoculation, volunteering reasons for supporting Democrats in a couple of past elections. His version? He gave money to Democrat Richard Fisher in 1994 to help knock off former Attorney General Jim Mattox in the Democratic primary, then supported Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison in the general election. And he supported U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee that same year because, he says, he and a group of other business people decided to help her beat then-Rep. Craig Washington, a former state senator who then held that congressional seat.

Blame Saddam Hussein for Williams' Opponent

It sounds strange, but the very abridged version of this story is that a group of Texas oilpatch types, angry at predatory pricing from oil barons in the Middle East, tried to get the government to do something about it and were frustrated at every turn. The group, which calls itself the Committee to Save Domestic Oil, would have backed John Bell of Kermit (the "give 'em hell, John Bell" of the oil severance tax fight earlier this year), but he decided not to jump in. Now they're behind Andy Draughn, an Austin oilman who will challenge Michael Williams in the GOP primary.

One of the backers is Frank Cahoon, who's been working on the oil deal for a while. Cahoon, who at one point in the mid-1960s was the only Republican member of the Texas House (though he was not the first Republican elected after reconstruction, he says), is from Midland. So is Williams. And Cahoon says he doesn't have any problem with Williams or with Gov. George W. Bush, a personal friend of the commissioner and the man who appointed him. He likes them both. But, Cahoon says, Williams doesn't have oil industry experience and Draughn does.

Williams won't be unarmed in the race. He'll have a fundraiser next week headlined by First Lady Laura Bush, another in February headlined by former President George Bush, and another, also in February, headlined by Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating.

He's not the only Texas Railroad Commissioner bringing stars to Austin to raise money. Charles Matthews, who's seeking a second term, doesn't yet have an opponent. But his fundraiser this week will feature U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison as the special guest. She's particularly popular in the oilpatch after fighting on the industry's side in a federal royalties battle.

Serna Indicted

A Travis County grand jury indicted former Rep. Gilbert Serna, D-El Paso, on charges he gave pay raises to people who worked for him in the House and then skimmed some of the increases for himself. The grand jury handed down three separate indictments with a total of 15 counts, including aggravated theft by a public servant, aggravated securing execution of a document by deception and theft by a public servant.

One indictment lists 20 monthly checks paid to a House employee, saying Serna signed the pay raise forms that went to the state comptroller's office with the intention of getting some of the money himself. The aggregate value of one such scheme, according to the indictment, was between $1,500 and $20,000. Another three such setups fell in that same range, while another listed in the indictment was for between $20,000 and $100,000.

The third indictment accuses Serna of directing a state warrant covering a month's pay to an employee of a private business called the Casa Blanca Hall and Patio Garden.

Serna couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

Doing the Job Nobody Wanted to Do; Other News Briefs

It's probably meaningless, but it's interesting: Three of the five people on the panel investigating the bonfire accident at Texas A&M University are also long-standing members of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, one of the groups that pushed for and got sweeping tort reform legislation passed in 1995.

Their most important affiliation, however, is probably their non-affiliation: None of the five is an Aggie, a move made to remove the chance that a loyalist might put the school's interest in front of the facts. The group, which is just getting started, is headed by Leo Linbeck Jr., a well-respected construction executive from Houston. It'll include Hugh Robinson, a former Army general who's been in business in Dallas for several years, William Tucker, former chancellor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Veronica Kastrin Callaghan, an executive in her family's real estate company, and Allan Shivers Jr. of Austin, chairman of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and son of the late former governor. Shivers, Robinson and Linbeck have all been associated with TLR, the first two as board members, and Linbeck as chairman. The school has told reporters that the panel's work could be complete by the end of March.

Should any of the families of the young people killed or injured when the bonfire toppled decided to sue the state, that panel won't have anything to do with it. To go to court, they'd have to have a "sue the state" resolution passed by the Legislature, giving them permission to sue. That would probably be relatively easy to obtain. But to collect any money they might be awarded as a result of such a lawsuit, they would have to come back to the Legislature to ask lawmakers to include money in the state budget to pay the settlement. That is often more difficult.

• They've talked, they've written letters and now they're going to hold hearings. U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is the latest Texas politico to write to Mexican government officials to try to stop the travelers' bonds that country is imposing. The bonds, ranging from $400 to $800, would be posted by people traveling from the U.S. into the Mexican interior. That's inspired letters and queries and mild protests from state and federal officials alike, including Hutchison. Now, she says, she'll call hearings on the issue after the first of the year. The new policy took effect at the beginning of this month. Mexican officials say they're trying to gain control over a busy trade in stolen vehicles, but opponents contend the new policy will cut into trade along the Border.

• Denton County District Attorney Bruce Isaacks and Juvenile Judge Darlene Whitten filed a defamation of character suit against the Dallas Observer for a purportedly satirical article that told the fictitious tale of the two throwing a six-year-old in jail for a book report on Where the Wild Things Are. Part of the trouble: Other media outlets picked up the story as true and retold it. Another part: The paper's apology was addressed to the paper's "cerebrally challenged readers."

CORRECTION: GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes is from New Jersey, not New York.

Political People and Their Moves

As noted here a couple of weeks ago, Shane Phelps is jumping into a rematch with Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle (of statewide interest because that office has the job of watching state officials and agencies). When he did that in 1996, Phelps left his job working for Attorney General Dan Morales. After a few years of private practice, he's back at the AG's office. But this time, he'll keep the state job, he says. Between his two runs at Earle, the federal courts ruled it illegal to require an employee to quit a government job just because they're challenging an incumbent in a political race. He'll keep running the criminal justice division under John Cornyn for now, but will take leave when the local race perks up, probably next summer... Jeff Kloster has signed on with the Austin office of Vinson & Elkins, which is beefing up its health law operations. Among other things, Kloster will do some lobbying on managed care and related issues. He was most recently with the Texas Association of Health Plans... The Texas Railroad Commission, under legislative orders to create an ombudsman's office to handle complaints, comments, suggestions and other inquiries, has promoted Bobby Heith to that post, which is officially called the Office of Public Assistance... Gov. Bush appointed six to the Texas Commission on the Arts: Bobbi Owen Crawford, owner of the Pass Creek exotic game ranch in Lubbock; Claudia Ladensohn of San Antonio; Rodolfo Perez Jr., a Weslaco ophthalmologist; Idelle Rabin, president of Delann's, a clothing store in Dallas (the only reappointment in the group); Mary Hardi Teeple of Austin, who heads a real estate firm; and William Wright Jr., an Abilene writer. Bush also appointed former U.S. Rep. Alan Steelman of Dallas to the Texas Growth Fund... The Texas Parent-Teacher Association named Rep. Dale Tillery, D-Dallas, its legislator of the year because of his bill on school-based clinics. They also gave state District Judge Scott McCown of Austin a lifetime membership for his work last year on child abuse issues... Former Houston Mayor Fred Hofheinz has been indicted in Louisiana, where he's been accused of making payoffs in exchange for public contracts. He and his lawyers plan a fight, and say the charges are baloney cooked up by a couple of con men... Rep. Robert Gutierrez, D-McAllen, is majority owner of Discount Oils, Lubricants and Fuels, Inc., a firm that owes more than $500,000 in back state taxes... Anice Reed, a champion of small towns who started the Texas Main Street project, died after a long fight with cancer. She was 67.

Quotes of the Week

Former cabinet official and Mayor Henry Cisneros on whether he'll return to the public stage now that he's out of office and the legal tangles that came with it: "My home is here, four blocks from here, my parents are here, my brothers and sisters are here. So when asked, and when it is not intrusive, I do want to continue to play a civic role in San Antonio. But not in an elective way."

Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, discounting criticism of Gov. George W. Bush as a lightweight: "He may not be Albert Einstein, but he is no Elmer Fudd, either."

Richard Tafel, who heads the gay group called the Log Cabin Republicans, on Gov. Bush's reluctance to meet: "Ten years ago his father met with gays in the White House. Pat Buchanan announced he's welcoming gays to support his campaign in the Reform Party. Jerry Falwell met with gays down in Lynchburg, Virginia. It's just not a big deal. We are way beyond meetings."

Land Commissioner David Dewhurst, who says he'll help landowners who've been living for decades on state-owned land they thought belonged to them, a problem that can ultimately be resolved at the election box: "My staff estimates there may be one thousand of these. I don't think we can go back to the voters with constitutional amendments one thousand times."

Aaron Karacas, who runs an online porn site, in an interview with The Dallas Morning News about the success of businesses like his in e-commerce: "The whole Internet is still sex, sex, sex. When a guy buys a computer, the first thing he types in is 'SEX.'"

Political science professor Allan Saxe, of the University of Texas at Arlington, on surveys showing Texans cannot identify the people they put in state office: "Voters aren't stupid. We are just tuned out."


Texas Weekly: Volume 16, Issue 23, 6 December 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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