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You Can't Win If You Don't Play

The Democrats were spinning hard when they announced their overall ballots on the third day of the year. Chairman Molly Beth Malcolm answered just about every question with a variation on "We are rebuilding and we are focussed on the House, the Senate and Congress." Flip the question and ask Democrats if they were happy to have a ticket without a head on it, or with a head on it that consists mainly of five political nobodies who aim to challenge the best-funded U.S. senator in the country, and they concede that, well, yes, that does sound sort of goofy.

The Democrats were spinning hard when they announced their overall ballots on the third day of the year. Chairman Molly Beth Malcolm answered just about every question with a variation on "We are rebuilding and we are focussed on the House, the Senate and Congress." Flip the question and ask Democrats if they were happy to have a ticket without a head on it, or with a head on it that consists mainly of five political nobodies who aim to challenge the best-funded U.S. senator in the country, and they concede that, well, yes, that does sound sort of goofy.

The embarrassment at the top of the Democratic ticket served to hide the fact that neither party had great luck recruiting challengers this year. The Republicans had to scratch long and hard to come up with viable opponents for Texas House incumbents. That job was made more difficult by the success of House Speaker Pete Laney's retention program; he's been working on members for months to stay, and this ballot has an extremely low number of open House seats as a result.

Republican recruiters also ran into a better understanding of redistricting than they knew existed: A lot of the potential candidates they talked to turned them down because they want to wait two years for the redistricting fights and the variable lines and the bias against freshmen to pass.

And finally, a few of the candidates who either ran last time or watched the 1998 races closely didn't buy the argument that presidential and senatorial coattails would carry them into office. It didn't work in 1998 when George W. Bush was at the top of the ticket slaughtering Democrat Garry Mauro, and they weren't convinced it would happen in 2000 with Bush running for president and Kay Bailey Hutchison seeking reelection against the five members of the Democrats' No-Name Defense. There are some rematches on the ballot, but not nearly the expected number. More to the point, some of the races that were targeted as sure or close-to-sure things in 1998 have cooled off.

Only five House members are leaving, three to seek promotions and two to get out of politics for now: John Culberson, R-Houston, who's running for Congress, Sherri Greenberg, D-Austin, and Sue Palmer, R-Fort Worth, both of whom are dropping out of politics for a while; Todd Staples, R-Palestine, who's running for Senate; and Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, who quit the House, won a Senate seat in a special election and now is running to keep it. Take those apart, with the help of several political hacks we've talked to. Culberson's seat is safely in the Republican ledger. Van de Putte's belongs to the Democrats. Staples' seat leans Republican but could go to the Democrats. Greenberg's leans Democratic but could go to the Republicans. And Palmer's should stay in the Republican column, partly because it's conservative country and partly because the Republican, Charlie Geren, is getting help from his own party and, more subtly, from some Democrats.

Only one senator is leaving office, and the race to succeed Drew Nixon, R-Carthage, in SD-3 is already well underway between Staples, Les Tarrance and Van Brookshire on the GOP side and David Fisher alone on the Democratic ticket. Either party could win that one. The other Senate race to watch is to the north, where David Cain, D-Dallas, will face one of three Republicans in defense of his SD-2 seat. Give Cain the advantage, but watch this one.

Most House members – 82 – face no opponents at all. On the other end of the building nine of the 15 senators up for reelection will run unopposed. One to watch: David McQuade Leibowitz, the trial lawyer who was going to challenge Van de Putte but hadn't lived in the district long enough, is now eligible and he's now running. That may be an expensive primary.

Pack Up the Rod and Reel

Rep. David Counts, D-Knox City, has himself a serious Republican opponent, but some Democrats have raised questions about whether Tim Blackshear is eligible to run. Blackshear resigned his job as mayor of Big Spring by filing for the HD-70 race – without knowing that the new candidacy would require him to quit. And because it wasn't clear that he had resigned the first job to seek the second, some election lawyers think he might be ineligible to run for the House. That's not all: Blackshear's entry into the race was a shock to Counts, who considered the mayor a close friend and who was apparently looking forward to an already planned fishing trip with him later this month.

You can't run for a state office if the term of the office you are seeking overlaps with the term you are serving in a "lucrative" office at the state or county or city level. Any pay at all, whether it's a dollar or a fat salary, is considered lucrative: Lucre is lucre. Big Spring's mayor makes a relatively dinky salary plus expenses.  Blackshear's term runs through May 2001, clearly overlapping with a legislative term that will begin in January 2001. That, by itself, doesn't necessarily disqualify him.

This issue has come up before – in a case involving now-Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, who was then a House member running for the upper chamber – and the courts said then that resigning from the first office clears a candidate to run for the second office, whether or not the terms overlap. But that doesn't necessarily requalify Blackshear, who intended when he was filing to continue to keep his city job. After he filed, Big Spring's city secretary told him about another constitutional provision that says, basically, that your term in a municipal office ends when you declare your candidacy or file to run for a state office. That clearly takes Blackshear out of the mayor's post, no matter what happens to his House candidacy. And what happens to that is the open question.

It all comes down to the issue of timing. The Republicans say Blackshear stopped being the mayor of Big Spring the minute he handed over the money and the application to run for the Texas House, and that there was never any conflict. Democrats who brought up the question in the first place say he should have resigned and then filed, making it clear that he was eligible to challenge Counts.

Read it like a Republican, and you have an eligible candidate positioned to mount a genuine challenge to Counts. Read it like a Democrat, and you've got a guy who lost his city job, is ineligible to run for the House and who lost a fishing buddy in the process. He would, however, be eligible to run in an upcoming special election to pick a new mayor for Big Spring.

If a fix is needed, the first stop will be at GOP headquarters. If they agreed with the Democrats – they emphatically don't – they could declare the candidate ineligible and plug another candidate into that spot on the ballot. They could set up a friendly lawsuit, questioning Blackshear's eligibility and allowing him to take that to the courts to get an answer. Or they could sit back and wait for the Democrats to make an official complaint, which could be done almost anytime before House members are sworn in 12 months from now, after the November elections.

The Loudest Senate Race

The Texas Medical Association's political action committee, TEXPAC, poured some gasoline on the fire in SD-3, which was already burning pretty well. That influential and wealthy group is endorsing Les Tarrance over Rep. Todd Staples, R-Palestine. Staples didn't vote with the docs on a couple of pieces of legislation they really, really wanted, and the Tarrance endorsement is the result. It didn't hurt that he put on a good show when he met with the board, but they were predisposed in his favor. Inside baseball: TMA's pollster is Bryan Eppstein, who's also running the Staples campaign.

Staples replied to the endorsement announcement with endorsements from 45 of the 47 doctors that he says live in his home county. But TMA has has 36,000 doctors, and TEXPAC has more money.

The Cartoons Begin

The Republicans, who by most accounts targeted too many races in 1998, have a narrower list this time, and could make some headway. It will at least be interesting. The Counts race, mentioned elsewhere, is one to watch. In another, former Rep. Bill Hollowell jumped to the Republicans and is taking on his successor, Rep. Bob Glaze, D-Gilmer, in HD-5. Rep. Robby Cook, D-Eagle Lake, ended up with a primary opponent and a Republican primary on the other side of the ballot, so that could be competitive. As just about everyone expected, the biggest crowd gathered in the race to replace Rep. Sherri Greenberg, D-Austin. That drew two Democrats and seven Republicans. Republicans are also touting Steve Fryer, a GOP businessman from Brownwood who is challenging Rep. Bob Turner, D-Voss, and say two or three other races could be in play. They need four to win a House majority.

While most political noggins are fixed on whether the Republicans have the gunpowder to take over the Texas House, there are a couple of races where the Democrats think they might be able to win seats currently held by the GOP. Joe Evans, the Democrat challenging Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, in HD-9, is the sheriff in Nacogdoches County and one of the Democratic Party's best hopes at knocking off a Republican in the House. He was a state trooper for 16 years and has easily survived a couple of Republican challenges to his current position. Just for sport, watch Charles Elliot, who's been a member of the state Democratic Executive Committee and a political science prof at East Texas State University for years. He's challenging Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell.

HD-54 Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp, R-Lampasas, draws a repeater in Democrat Don Armstrong, a former school board and city council member from Killeen who lost by almost 2,000 votes in 1998 (or over 8 percentage points), and who has to first survive a primary against James McCutcheon. Hupp's buddies have been worried about her evening radio talk show and the dangers of tapes floating around that could be harmful. Nothing specific – but radio is radio.

Grudge matches: Former Rep. Sergio Munoz is challenging Rep. Kino Flores, D-Mission. Former member Nancy Moffat wants her seat back, too, and is running against Vicki Truitt, R-Keller.

Republicans brag that 26 Democrats joined their party during 1999, and that three more signed up on filing day. Most of that is happening at the county level, but Democrats still have the majority on the commissioners courts in 197 of the state's 254 counties.

Up In Smoke, Open and Online Government

An update on tobacco lawsuit money: The state got $93.1 million less from the tobacco companies than it originally expected, largely because of a drop in tobacco consumption (which figures, along with inflation and tobacco industry profits, into the settlement formula). More money could come in later, when final numbers are available on those three variables. For now, the state took 90 percent of the money it has in the budget. The state expected $326.3 million and got $293.6 million for itself, and expected $605.1 million and got only $544.6 million for counties and hospital districts and others. That 10 percent deduction isn't final; the state and the companies agreed to put this much in the bank now and gather up the leavings in a few weeks.

• Open meetings are not required when public officials and appointees meet and talk without the power to make decisions. Those are advisory panels, or working groups, or whatever, but they don't have to post their meetings or let the public attend. That's why Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander decided last year that meetings of her e-Texas group would be closed. But since we wrote about that last month, the big papers have piled on and Rylander says she'll post the meetings and let the public in, if they want in. Another instance of the same loophole popped up at the end of the year, and Attorney General John Cornyn – in answer to a query from Rep. Debra Danburg, D-Houston – says an intergovernmental group that meets to talk about property tax collections and foreclosures doesn't have to open its doors. That bunch, which includes lawyers from the city, the county and the school district, can delay the foreclosures of properties at the request of any member. Cornyn says they don't have to post their meetings and don't have to let anyone in.

Congressional Highlights and Notes

U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, might get an opponent he didn't particularly want in his CD-11 reelection bid. After changing his mind a couple of times, Rodney Geer of Temple, who works in his family's highway contracting business, decided to seek the GOP nomination. That'll be a three-way, against Ramsey Farley, a retired engineer who resigned from the Temple school board to make the race, and Rob Curnock, who owns a business in Waco. Some local Republicans think the family name and money would make Geer a good challenger to Edwards if he can get out of the primary.

U.S. Rep. Bill Archer, R-Houston, is retiring, and there's a heavily populated race (nine Republicans and one Democrat) to replace him. William "Reyn" Archer III, who heads the Texas Department of Health, considered the race for a bit and then pulled his name out. Well, he pulled himself out, but his name apparently stayed: Surprise candidate William Archer jumped into the contest on filing day. This new Archer, an attorney, is no relation to the congressman and the TDH commissioner.

Congressional Democrats, as we've noted, have targeted two Texas races and the money is starting to percolate. Campaign finance reports are due at mid-month for the last six months of last year, and Regina Montoya Coggins, challenging U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, in CD-5, will report ending the year with $440,000 cash on hand. Loy Sneary, who's in a rematch with U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Clute, will show about $290,000 in the bank at year-end.

Those are both on the top ten list with national Democrats, although most of the analyses we've seen still give the edge in the races to the Republicans. GOP strategists aren't ignoring the challengers, but they're not losing any beauty rest. They contend their guys are safe and have the insurance of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Dallas, above them on the ballot and, if all goes well for him in March, Gov. George W. Bush in the presidential slot above that.

Coggins has a primary race to win before she gets a crack at the incumbent, and that first race has some ugly potential: Gary Harrison, the other Democrat, apparently went through a nasty divorce and a bankruptcy and made life easier for Coggins' opposition researchers.

Meanwhile, Over in the Federal Sandbox

Remember that web site that won the ire of the Bush campaign for spoofing on the governor? Well, if they need money for legal bills, they'll get some of it from the Rutherford Institute, the same outfit that helped finance Paula Jones in her battle with Bill Clinton, according to The Wall Street Journal. The Bush campaign filed a complaint last year against Zack Exley, saying in essence that he should be regulated as a campaign site, meeting reporting requirements and the like. This gave rise to a notorious Bush quote – "There ought to be limits to freedom" – that Exley has emblazoned on t-shirts, posted in audio form on his web site and is now proposing to put in radio commercials that would run before the primaries in South Carolina. He's been soliciting money for that from visitors to his site, and claims to have raised $7,000 in pledges. The site is at

• The Harvard pollsters studying voter interest in the elections contends that, in spite of other polls you've seen, nearly three in four voters haven't made up their minds about the presidential race. It's not a completely fair poll, because the question was loaded: "Which candidate do you support at this time, or haven't you picked a candidate yet?" That produced a result of Undecided, 74 percent; Bush, 13 percent; Al Gore, 6 percent; John McCain, 3 percent; and Bill Bradley, 2 percent.

• Nobody else is on the same planet with Bush when it comes to fundraising – his campaign was hovering around the $67 million mark at the end of the year – but he's not raising as much on the Internet as some of his competitors. The insurgents, Bradley and McCain, have been more successful with Internet fundraising than the establishment candidates, Bush and Gore, according to PoliticsOnline, an Internet-based political consulting company. Bradley raised $1.2 million on line through the end of the year; McCain finished at $1 million; Gore at $910,000 and Bush at $180,000. Overall, the nearest to Bush was Gore, with $29 million, followed by Bradley, with $27 million.

Funny Meeting You Here

Right before his staff's Christmas party, Lt. Gov. Rick Perry hauled in several of the senators involved – directly and indirectly – in the race to succeed him if Gov. George W. Bush wins the presidential race. The meeting came on the heels of news reports that implied a conflict of interest between Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, and his son, a lobbyist for a postal meter company that was after a state contract, and after folks from a second local county GOP in the district of Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown, R-Lake Jackson, voted to ask him to resign. That's all water under the bridge, but there have been shadowing rumors about other contestants and Perry decided it was time to suggest a cease-fire. He's staying out of the race, but he also knows that a cut-up Senate would be a mess.

So he called them in to suggest that they settle down and stop hacking each other to pieces. There's still a chance that Bush will lose the presidential race, after all. That would leave Perry where he is now. If the senators continue to sprout scandals at the current pace, they would have a year's worth of bad feelings stored up and no fancy office as the prize for their efforts. Throw redistricting in that mix, too. If Bush wins and Perry moves up, he could still have a Senate potentially at war with itself, a weak governor's office in his own hand, and a powerful speaker on the West end of the Capitol chuckling at the mess. He's not playing, but he's got a direct interest.

This didn't happen: Sen. Drew Nixon, R-Carthage, did not switch parties and run for the Texas Railroad Commission as a Democrat, though he did consider it. Nixon had raised the possibility of a run for Railroad last year, but hadn't mentioned a party switch. He says now that he wasn't serious; that the whole thing was a speculative conversation over a football game he watched with Rep. Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin. Others say an actual deal was proposed, which would have had the Democrats welcoming him in return for his vote in next year's Lite Guv race, if there is one. In that version, Nixon's consideration was serious enough to get him a firm "no" from Democratic higher-ups. He says there was never a deal proposed, either. When he was finished working out all of the scenarios, he decided to stay home, not seek reelection, and stick to his accounting business.

The episode did pique our curiosity, however, so we looked into the vote-swapping end of the deal. Perry would become governor as soon as Bush left office, whether the governor resigns on his birthday (we made that up) or waited until he was elected president, if that's what happens. In any case, Bush leaves and Perry ascends. If that happens before a new Senate is sworn in next January, Nixon gets to vote. He, or anybody else who wants to broker their vote, could help elect a Democrat as Perry's replacement, and that person would serve until the end of the term.

But you can't stick the Senate with an undesirable that easily. The first piece of business next January is Senate approval of a new set of rules. If the incoming Senate is faced with a presiding officer dumped on them by the outgoing Senate, they can simply strip the Perry replacement of any power and run the show from the floor with a President pro tempore. The Nixon proposition, whether real or not, would have been an empty deal for the Democrats.

Filings are Done, and Where is that Opposition Research?

Watch for a slap at Rep. Bill Siebert, R-San Antonio, for doing some work for the Humana health care operation during the last legislative session. The Texas Medical Association broke the friendly incumbent rule on this one to support Elizabeth Ames Jones in that GOP primary, saying at the time that Siebert was on the wrong side of their issues last session. His work for Humana is apparently part of what hacked the doctors. And the winner of that primary will face one of the more interesting ballot names in November: Michael George Zapper is on the Democratic ticket.

•Rep. Clyde Alexander, D-Athens, draws a primary opponent named Buster Wayne Desselles Jr. who is campaigning as a conservative and whose literature includes a photo of him with a confederate flag draped across his lap. Deselles told his local paper that he's running as a Democrat, but "if liberal's on the left and conservative's on the right, then I'm hanging off the right hand side."

Political People and Their Moves

Former state Rep. Christine Hernandez started the year with a move to Dallas and a new job as regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She had been with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Policy Alternatives... Longtime policy wizard Jose Camacho is quitting the lieutenant governor's office to try to make some real money with a startup phone company called Valor Telecommunications. He's been a fixture on the Capitol's east end, specializing in policy issues that require a lot of untangling. He'll be gone by the first of February... The Senate's voice in the Texas House – David Holmes of the Senate Secretary's office – has left that post to work for Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio. They're still staffing. And on vaguely that same subject, Betsy Heard, who worked for Van de Putte's predecessor, the late Sen. Gregory Luna, has moved to Senate Research. Alice Breard from that office signed on with the Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs... Leah Rummel, who worked most recently in the managed care section at the Texas Department of Health, has signed on with the Texas Association of Health Plans. The section of her resume that got that group's attention lists her as the former deputy commissioner over HMOs at the Texas Department of Insurance, the job she held before scooting over to TDH... Donny Stevens, an aide to Sen. Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria, is bailing out of government to head a five-state lobby operation for AstraZeneca, a large pharmaceutical concern... New general counsel for Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander is Richard Munisteri, a Houston attorney from a family that's played in Republican politics for years. He's already on the job, replacing Steve Koebele, who left the agency last year after admitting he'd taped some conversations... Capitol reporter Stuart Eskenazi leaves Austin for his home state to work for the Seattle Times. Most recently with the Dallas Observer and the Houston Press (owned by the same outfit), he'd been a political reporter for the Austin and San Antonio papers... Appointments department: Gov. Bush named Martha Hill Jamison to the 164th District Court in Houston, officially making that an all-Republican courthouse (she replaced the last Democrat, Katie Kennedy). The Guv also tapped Anne Gardner of Fort Worth to be a justice on the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth, replacing Justice William Brigham, who resigned at the end of the year. And Bush picked Cristina "Ommy" Strauch of San Antonio to be on the board of the Department of Protective and Regulatory Services... Two of the smartest guys in Austin died during the December break. Lobbyist Dick Ingram, who knew the twists and turns of municipal law better than just about anyone, was killed in an automobile accident just before Christmas. And Tom Henderson, a human rights activist and environmental advocate who had been fighting AIDS for years even while pushing ahead on issues at the General Land Office, died during the holidays.

Quotes of the Week

Prison board chairman Allan Polunsky, a San Antonio lawyer named to that board by then-Gov. Bill Clements, in a letter to other board members on why he decided to leave: "I have never missed a board meeting in twelve years, but I missed by daughter's religious confirmation... My youngest son was in diapers when I was first appointed. He started shaving this year."

Union activist and prison guard Daniel Nagle, speaking at a Capitol rally in favor of a pay raise for corrections officers about three weeks before he was stabbed to death in a prison riot: "Someone will have to get killed before the Texas Department of Criminal Justice does anything about the shortage of staff in Texas prisons."

Gov. George W. Bush, questioning a federal ranking that put Texas among the worst states in percentage of hungry families: "I saw the report that children are going hungry. Where? You'd think the governor of the state would have heard if there are pockets of hunger in Texas."

Scotty Perry, assistant manager of the Bartlett utility department, describing his duties when the town's high school football team is playing: "The booster club bought some big lights for the storage tank and our job is to sit by the radio and, if we win, to throw those lights on, or our jobs are in jeopardy. They take it real seriously."

Texas Weekly, Volume 16, Issue 26, 10 January 2000. Copyright 2000 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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