A Funny Thing Happened on the Way...

The Republican presidential primary might turn out to be a race between incoming votes for the candidates on one hand, and public and press scrutiny of U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona on the other. He hid in the sun until late in the race, protecting himself from the kind of intense attention that can kill an insurgent campaign, and the Bush folks didn't have him on their radar until he was well into the fight. They were paying attention to Steve Forbes, the spoiler four years ago. McCain is benefiting at this stage from voters' willingness to look at something fresh. He might hold up just fine when people begin to look more closely. Or, he might turn into Ross Perot, who was initially attractive to the press and the public before close attention revealed his quirks and drained his support.

The Republican presidential primary might turn out to be a race between incoming votes for the candidates on one hand, and public and press scrutiny of U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona on the other. He hid in the sun until late in the race, protecting himself from the kind of intense attention that can kill an insurgent campaign, and the Bush folks didn't have him on their radar until he was well into the fight. They were paying attention to Steve Forbes, the spoiler four years ago. McCain is benefiting at this stage from voters' willingness to look at something fresh. He might hold up just fine when people begin to look more closely. Or, he might turn into Ross Perot, who was initially attractive to the press and the public before close attention revealed his quirks and drained his support.

One real oddity of the presidential primaries is that they are so far along with so few people making the decisions. Look, for illustration, at the 1998 U.S. Census numbers. Iowa, New Hampshire and Delaware have a combined population of 4.8 million people, which is to say that, put together, they're smaller than the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area (Delaware is barely bigger than El Paso in population). Add South Carolina's 3.9 million people and Arizona's 4.8 million, and you get to a grand total of 13.5 million. If you take that combined number, it still ranks only fifth in size among the states. All of that points out the importance of timing over size. Michigan, which is sixth on your racing form, is the first really big state, with 9.9 million residents.

Public attention will focus on McCain sooner or later. If it follows form, that'll start with news stories asking, basically, whether McCain is The Real Thing and digging into his positions and history. Some Republicans worry that digging will come too late--that they'll get an unexamined candidate out of the primaries only to have him vivisected during the general campaign.

Inside the Bush camp is a need for speed. For their purposes, scrutiny delayed is scrutiny denied. That's why the Bush people opened the spigots on McCain, imploring the press to get busy and shoveling the raw materials for negative stories in the direction of reporters. It's slowly starting to catch, with stories appearing around the country on the senator's acceptance of money from the very special interests he's been decrying on the trail. There have also been several inside-out stories telling about how there haven't been many negative stories about McCain. That's how these things begin: First, there are stories about a new candidate, creating the Flavor of the Month phenomenon. Before that flavor is discarded--if it's to be discarded--there is a wave of stories about how the press is covering the flavor of the month. Only then do the stories questioning the flavor begin to appear.

The effort to turn the tone of the media's McCain coverage is paired with the retooling that puts the boot of the Texas governor on ground previously claimed by the interloper; Bush is talking about his own reforms in a race with someone positioned as a reformer and an outsider. And the two candidates, both of them card-carrying insiders, are bickering over who's more outside the system.

The odds are still with Bush, and that's part of his problem. The potential story here--the narrative that has the attention of insiders and outsiders and the press--is about the unraveling of a sure thing. It would be unusual for that to happen. It would be a campaign for the history and political science textbooks of the future, a cautionary tale for people in politics for years to come. It would be shocking to those who've watched and participated in Bush's astonishing national rise during the last 12 months, and that's why it's so interesting. Bush has to transform this, quickly, into an anecdote about McCain's valiant but inadequate insurgency instead of a tale about the collapse of a sure thing.

Reprising a Success from Five Years Ago

Back in 1994, when George W. Bush was running for governor (and the folks at the Ann Richards campaign were screaming about his kind treatment in the press), he talked famously about four things: Tort reform, Education, Welfare Reform and Juvenile Justice.

Now that he's fighting for the reform label that has been attached to McCain, Bush is going back to the well with a plea for tort reform on a national level. He wants a couple of things that became law here in 1995 and 1997, and a couple of new ones that pretty much track the desires of business groups that pushed for tort reform then and now.

We wrote a couple of weeks ago that Texans for Lawsuit Reform were holding a meeting to talk about their future, including the idea of converting TLR into a national group. That didn't find a warm welcome with the audience, according to participants we've contacted. But they could always reconsider in light of Bush's new push.

Among the items on the governor's fairly long wish list are limits on discovery in federal lawsuits, limits on "excessive fees" in cases where private lawyers represent cities or states (as in the state's tobacco lawsuit), and a so-called "Fair settlement" rule. That last one, not in the law in Texas, is on TLR's list of Things to Seek in next year's session. It would increase pressure to take settlements in lawsuits by increasing the risk of turning down settlement offers. If a defendant makes an offer that is rejected, and the court awards the plaintiff less money than the offer, the plaintiff would have to pay the defendant's court costs. If it went the other way (at least in the TLR version), the plaintiff would have to pay the defendant's costs. TLR will likewise push for limits on what lawyers can earn in future suits like the tobacco suit, and also wants to cut into the growth in class-action suits.

Related subject: When tort reform rolled through the Legislature in 1995, then-Rep. Mark Stiles, D-Beaumont, jumped in with legislation requiring insurance regulators to cut rates each year to make sure insurance companies passed along the savings they said they were going to get from cutting back on lawsuits. That legislative directive expires this year, but could be reinstated next session.

Setting the Texas Lineup in South Carolina

Texas politicos have been watching Bush carefully, plotting their moves largely on the assumption that he will be in the White House a year from now. But Bush's problems have pumped fresh air into speculation about what would happen in Texas if he were to lose the race for the White House.

It might be like the scene in the old Westerns where all the doors and windows slam as a gunslinger walks slowly down the dusty street. It would put the stops on the quiet but persistent race for lieutenant governor and change the calculations of those who want to live in the Governor's Mansion. Instead of ascending to the middle offices in the Pink Building, current Lt. Gov. Rick Perry would be presiding over the Senate in a redistricting year. He would also be looking over his shoulder at U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who has indicated she probably wouldn't challenge a Republican governor but might be interested in an open governor's seat. The working presumption there is that Bush wouldn't run for a third term, leaving Perry and/or Hutchison and/or others to fight for the Republican nomination. An open seat is a more attractive target for the Democrats, too, if they can field and finance a viable gubernatorial candidate.

Likewise, the race for Lite Guv would have a different set of players. If Perry moves up, it's a race among the senators, at least at first. They would elect a presiding officer from among their colleagues, and that senator could then run statewide for the seat in 2002. That's not a slam-dunk deal by any means, but for ambitious senators, it beats the alternative, which is the possibility of an open seat in 2002. That election will probably draw the interest of one or more Republican statewide officials. Any senator who is interested would be in better shape if he or she could run as an incumbent.

No Such Thing As Too Much Information

Things don't go well when elected officials discover new things about the inside activities of their offices from people on the outside. That's some of the reason why Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander and her chief of staff, John Colyandro, parted ways.

Colyandro, who worked for Rylander in her previous post at the Railroad Commission, returned a year ago as her top assistant. His departure was abruptly announced after a series of embarrassingly public miscues. Rylander's much-touted e-Texas task force was going to meet privately instead of in the open. That's the way the previous comptroller, John Sharp, did his Texas Performance Review, but that was a staff-level operation and this involves high-profile folks from the public and private sectors. She reversed course, and the meetings are now open. Then, the Austin American-Statesman broke the news of what the comptroller was promising in return for private contributions to e-Texas. That list included holding meetings on the premises of companies that gave $50,000, placement of company logos and such on e-Texas stationary and the web site, and so on. Rylander reversed that, though the agency is still accepting contributions. That effort, however, has stagnated: The agency got two donations totaling $11,000 when the campaign started, and none since.

Nobody put the direct blame for any of those misadventures on Colyandro. The official story is that he and Rylander had "management differences" and he will continue to advise her after he leaves the agency a month from now. He says he is leaving to pursue other opportunities, and says now is the best time to do so. But the implications were relatively clear: Rylander was finding out about things like the fundraising package after those things were already out the door, and hearing about too many internal management decisions after they were implemented.

Several rumors chased Colyandro's announcement. He was not, as rumored, fired over contract issues. The comptroller nixed one e-Texas contract, to Republican fundraiser Lisa Pollard, before any money was doled out. Agency officials said it duplicated work that was already being done by the staff. They add that Pollard will still do some work for the agency, but is contributing her time instead of charging for it. There was not, as rumored, a him-or-us ultimatum from other management types at the agency. Rylander and Colyandro just decided it was time for a change.

Memorial Markers; a Confederacy of Attorneys General

Money from the old Confederate Pension Program was used to build some of the buildings in the state Capitol Complex. That was allowed by a constitutional amendment approved by Texas voters in 1954. The first building built with those funds was the Texas Supreme Court building, which was then dedicated to Confederate soldiers from Texas. That amendment also allowed funding for Confederate memorials, but didn't require those markers to remain in place. There are a couple of twists there, too. One faction wants all signs of the Confederacy stricken from places of honor. Another faction says only the battle flag of the south should be taken from those places and left for museum or other historical displays. In practical terms, that would be the difference between pulling the flag of the southern states (George Washington on a horse) and the Rebel flag. And there's a faction, too, that wants the whole issue left alone and the flags and signs now in place left in place.

• In a country that has an Association of Associations, it should come as no surprise that a new group has formed, a subset of the trade group for state attorneys general, that is called the Republican Attorney General Association, or RAGA. One of the founders is John Cornyn, the Texas AG. He's one of the 12 Republicans elected to be his state's top lawyer. Governors appoint seven and the other 31 are Democrats. RAGA is affiliated with the Republican National Committee, seeks to get more GOP AGs, and is raising money in units ranging from $5,000 (which gets you the directory, a newsletter and an invitation to one of their meetings) all the way up to $25,000 (which gets you meetings with the RAGA members and other goodies). The founders say they started the group as a counterpoint to the National Association of Attorneys General and its emphasis on "lawsuits that seek to promote public policy changes via the courthouse." The next meeting is in Austin next month.

Just Good Clean Fun

Harold Gunn, a Republican candidate challenging Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, for a seat in the Texas House, wrote and starred in a video production featuring nearly naked women painting with their bodies, running through residential neighborhoods, pouring motor oil over themselves and dancing in strip clubs wearing only g-strings.

Contacted about the video after a copy of it fell into our hands, he was flabbergasted that anyone would think it was anything but "harmless, silly, hopefully comedic nudity. Wow!" Gunn, a Houston broadcaster, advertising and public relations consultant, says he and a group of others made the tape in about 1983 for someone who wanted to try to market the show for cable television. He and another man play broadcasters acting as if they were announcing a sporting event. They introduce women who are supposed to have won various contests--the body painter is presented as having won an arts competition, for instance--who are being brought together for "The Great Texas Showoff."

He insists the program is clean and doesn't cross the line into the illicit, saying at one point that it would be rated PG-13 and at another that "there is no way that can be construed as anything other than a soft R (rating)." He points out that there is no cursing and no sex. "Is it immoral?" he asks. "No. Is it dishonest? No. Is it illegal? No. A big deal? No." And he says if his opponent or anyone else wants to try to make a porn case out of it, "Then they should be ready to come to court and bring a lunch."

He says the show was a one-time deal and wasn't aware of whether it had ever been aired or sold. He was never contacted for a follow-up, he adds.

Gunn says he's running for the Texas House because he thinks he would be a better representative than Elkins. He says the incumbent has only done one town hall meeting during his entire tenure in the House. He says that he, unlike Elkins, doesn't have any particular axes to grind.

Take Two of These and Call on March 14

We can rejoin the battle in House District 121 right about where we left it last week. The challenger, Republican Elizabeth Ames Jones, says she did not mean to imply that the incumbent, Rep. Bill Siebert, R-San Antonio, is a registered lobbyist for Humana Inc. She's not calling off the attack, however. Jones says, in effect, that Siebert voted for bills that directly affected the company while he was on its payroll. She's talking about votes against the Patient Protection Act in 1997 (it passed the Legislature, Gov. Bush vetoed it) and against the so-called union doctor bill last year (Siebert says he's against unions and collective bargaining and says the vote had nothing to do with Humana). Jones stops short of calling it a crime, but says Siebert's votes don't pass the smell test.

He says in response that he's not going into the negative campaigning business and says Jones should try talking about herself instead of running him down. As for the specifics, he says he's careful to follow the rules and says there are always some conflicts "when people who work for a living serve as citizen-legislators." He lays some blame with the Texas Medical Association, which considers him an antagonist and which crossed the "friendly incumbent" line this year to endorse Jones.

Siebert has been popped in the San Antonio papers for his lobbying at City Hall; Jones says she's running because of those appearances of conflicts. Her best line: "My husband and I supported him.... I'd like to have my money back." His best line: "Of course this doesn't pass the smell test to her, because she's my opponent and she's losing."

Shameless Self-Promotion

Our email version is now a lot easier to read than it used to be, because it's done on our Internet site (www.texasweekly.com) where we can take advantage of formatting. That means it looks something like the paper version, with names in boldface, titles in bigger fonts and all that. The web site also has searchable archives of past editions of Texas Weekly. It costs more ($250 a year instead of $200 a year). It's available earlier, on Fridays instead of waiting for mail on Monday or Tuesday. You can test drive it for free for a few days, using BATMAN as the username and ROBIN as the password.

Endorsements and Other Political Miscellany

John Culberson picks up the endorsement of the Texas Society of Professional Engineers in his race for the CD-07 seat in Houston. That's U.S. Rep. Bill Archer's seat. The Houston Chronicle endorsed businessman Peter Wareing, who's never served in office, over Culberson, a long-time state representative. Wareing earns a snap of the towel from Wallace Henley, another Republican candidate in that contest, for an "urgent email request" asking him to vote for Wareing in an Internet poll on the race that was being conducted by KPRC radio. He declined.

State District Judge Jim Wallace of Houston won the Dallas Bar Poll in his race for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. That's in spite of a public admonition from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct last month. The commission spanked Wallace for trying to require attorneys in his court to join the Houston Bar Association and for having a conversation about various cellular phone models and rate plans the judge was interested in with a defendant who was in his court for stealing from his employer, a cellular phone company.

The Republicans in the Dallas County legislative delegation have thrown in with Rep. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, in the race for the SD-03 seat currently held by Sen. Drew Nixon, R-Carthage. Staples is, after all, a House member, which certainly helped. The delegation's endorsement is a counter to the nod Les Tarrance picked up from former Gov. Bill Clements of Dallas. The winner there will face David Fisher, a Democrat who lives in Silsbee, in November. That Republican race might not be decided in March. A third candidate, Van Brookshire of Coldspring, could pull enough votes in the March primary to force a runoff between Staples and Tarrance. Several handicappers of our acquaintance think the advantage in that race would belong to Tarrance, since the Republicans in his home base of Montgomery County are better organized to turn out votes in April.

The underdog in the GOP primary for Railroad Commission is advertising, but not on TV. Andy Draughn, challenging commission Chairman Michael Williams, stuck an ad in publications where Republicans might see it. Translation: Not in the big papers yet. Strictly low budget at this point.

Don't take your politics too seriously or it'll mess up the family reunion. Richard Keeton, brother of GOP Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, is holding a reception at his Houston home for Ernestine Bradley, wife of presidential candidate Bill Bradley, a Democrat.

Follow-ups

Apparently seeking to beef up the early warning system over at the governor's office, budget director Albert Hawkins sent a letter to state agencies telling them to whistle when they get preliminary reports from the State Auditor's Office. That'll cut down on surprises, and give the governor's staff a chance to get in on the front end of audit reports. The auditor typically sends out a draft to the agency being audited to give that agency a chance to respond, disagree, get cracking on a remedy or whatever. Hawkins' letter, which went to agencies that are on the SAO's 1999 audit schedule, says Gov. Bush wants his office to help with those responses and directs the agencies to phone for assistance when the auditor reports land. That letter follows a nasty audit of the Texas Department of Economic Development, which was slapped with a charge of gross fiscal mismanagement of the Smart Jobs program. Several other agencies are also fighting fiscal grass fires, as we wrote a couple of weeks back, and Hawkins apparently wants more information sooner.

• The new guy at the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, Jay Kimbrough, has a new policy that requires employees to stick to a standard of integrity and to report violations among their fellow employees. We're not sure exactly what this is aimed at, but we'll pass along one guess made by a number-cruncher we know. Early on, when the current fiscal problems at the agency first surfaced (pre-Kimbrough), there was some evidence that some of TCADA's people knew there was a problem long before they reported it to the budgeteers in the Legislature. There was even an allegation that the agency kept a set of finance numbers for internal use and another for outside consumption. That might or might not be a reason for the new rules, but they would cover it.

Political People and Their Moves

When the musical chairs game is over at the General Services Commission, the guy in the big seat is expected to be Jim Muse, who until recently sat second chair at the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. Before that gig, Muse was an aide to then-Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry, who went on to become Lite Gov. Muse's hiring isn't yet official; the GSC board is scheduled to vote on February 16. Carl Mullen, the deputy director at GSC who has been filing the top job since June, left the agency at the end of January to pursue other opportunities... Sherry Boyles, the executive director of the Texas Democratic Party since July, is outta there, but not for six weeks. She told the party she'll get through the primaries (not including runoffs) before packing up and moving on. No replacement names yet. Former Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, isn't in or out of the race, if there is one, for the chairman post currently held by Molly Beth Malcolm. "If the party leaders want to make a change, I'd be happy to sit and talk about it," he says. Boyles worked on his campaign for General Land Office in 1998... She did what? Lara Laneri, an aide to Sen. Mike Moncrief, D-Fort Worth, is moving over to the Texas Association of Business and Chambers of Commerce to work on healthcare issues for that outfit. She replaces Richard Evans, who is forming a new association of Preferred Provider Organizations, better known in the alphabet soup of insurance as PPOs. The state chamber is still on the market for a PAC director. Micaela Isler, who had been directing what's known as BACPAC, has moved to a job with Household International Inc. in Washington, D.C. Laneri is also entitled to a blush: She and John Keel, director of the Legislative Budget Board, are getting married... Dr. Wendy Gramm has been elected chairman of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. William McMinn of Houston, the outgoing chairman, will remain on the board as vice-chair... Michael Lyttle moves from the Texas Dental Association to the Texas Restaurant Association. TDA's Keith Wilson also left the trade group... Twenty years with Southwestern Bell ended seven years ago (with a three-year no-compete clause) for Hector Gutierrez. Now that he's free from that contract provision and lobbying after a one-year stint as legislative liaison for Lt. Gov. Perry, he's back on phones. But this time, Gutierrez is working for AT&T... Celeste Hubert, who worked on Attorney General John Cornyn's political campaign and then at the AG's office, is leaving to be campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. She's a North Carolina native who worked on campaigns for both of that state's current U.S. senators.

Quotes of the Week

Presidential aspirant George W. Bush, on how he's reacting to the political busted lip he got in New Hampshire: "You haven't seen the Barbara Bush in me yet."

James Langdon Jr., who's been helping Gov. Bush raise money in Washington, D.C., on reactions to the New Hampshire loss: "People have been asking 'Where are we on the spending?' There's a decent amount of that kind of discussion. You can't get beat like that and not have this happen."

William Lee, a 23-year-old South Carolina construction worker interviewed by The New York Times about the presidential candidate from Texas: "Oh! You mean it's George Bush's son who is running this time? It's not President Bush again? Is that right?

Republican Charles Holcomb, a candidate for a seat on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, on a promise that might be impossible to break: "I find it ironic that I had to sign a pledge saying I wouldn't spend more than $2 million."

Senate Finance Chairman Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, on a state survey that concludes school taxes either froze or rose in most Texas districts after the Legislature tried to cut taxes: "We sent the money to local school districts and if they didn't use it to lower taxes, then they at least presumably used it to pay down debt or increase the quality of the teacher corps or maintain facilities."

U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, on the so-called marriage penalty in the tax code: "My wife thinks it's penalty enough to be married to me. Uncle Sam doesn't need to pile on."

Llano County Sheriff Nathan Garrett, on why he switched parties: "I gave the Democrats seven years and feel like I should give the Republicans equal time."


Texas Weekly: Volume 16, Issue 31, 14 February 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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