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Gov. Bush, Sen. McCain and Mr. Jones

Will voters in California buy another George W. Bush transformation, or will John McCain be more persuasive with his drumbeat about things like the Texas governor's appearance at Bob Jones University in South Carolina? McCain got a win in Michigan while pounding Bush for intolerance, a charge that temporarily stuck in spite of Bush's reputation here as a Republican who can attract more than the GOP's traditional share of votes from Hispanics, African-Americans and women.

Will voters in California buy another George W. Bush transformation, or will John McCain be more persuasive with his drumbeat about things like the Texas governor's appearance at Bob Jones University in South Carolina? McCain got a win in Michigan while pounding Bush for intolerance, a charge that temporarily stuck in spite of Bush's reputation here as a Republican who can attract more than the GOP's traditional share of votes from Hispanics, African-Americans and women.

There's no reason to expect a change from McCain, and it's not a bad strategy for the coming primaries, if he can keep it working. California voters, who'll register their views on March 7, are already acclimatized to intolerance both real and perceived. Look in the rearview mirror: While Bush was winning two of every five Hispanic votes in Texas in 1998, California Republicans were taking hits for bashing immigrants and driving political wedges into racial issues there. The Golden State could be fertile ground for the negative pitch McCain initiated in Michigan with his unsigned anti-Catholic slap at Bush, which noted that Bush appeared at a school well known for its anti-Catholic views and then didn't scold his sponsors. Bush's strongest blasts at those views began only after the Michigan loss.

If the Bush gang solves the puzzle, the coming primaries could provide a venue for a return to the approach Bush started with--a general-election type appeal to a wide group of voters instead of a pitch directed narrowly at Republicans to the exclusion of everybody else. He can't get to the White House if he keeps more weight on his conservative leg and less on his compassionate leg; balance got him his following in the first place. McCain's successes have come from the voters Bush is shutting out.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. And that's in a newsletter about Texas politics for what reason?

The Republican candidates have no reason to blow a lot of money in Texas, since there is little doubt Bush will win here. Bad headlines created elsewhere won't be overcome by a flurry of commercial messages from the candidates, meaning the campaigns won't as fully control the stream of information to voters. People who haven't made up their minds will be carried by momentum created elsewhere. This raises a boodle of questions that won't be answered reliably until March 14. To wit:

• Will Texas Hispanics stick with the governor if they're still hearing about his sashay to the right two weeks from now? Does the California result from the previous week affect voters here? Does the suggestion of an anti-Catholic association stick?

• Do Texas voters react positively or negatively to what happens in California, New York and other states? Do the messages pitched in those places synchronize with what's been said here?

• Veterans elsewhere haven't broken in McCain's direction in the way you might expect in a race between a Vietnam veteran and someone who remained stateside in the Air National Guard. Texas has huge pockets of veterans; what will they do?

• Will Texas Democrats stay in their own primary or will they jump over to the GOP side of the aisle to try to embarrass Bush? Do Democratic and Independent voters truly make mischief in large numbers by hopping the partisan fence, as the Bush folks suggested while trying to explain their losses in Michigan and New Hampshire? Or are they more careful with their votes, bailing on their own party only in response to something different, as the McCain troops claim?

• Texas is the one place where analysts will be able to compare and contrast new exit polling information with previous results. Will Bush's support show any gains or losses of support from groups inside and outside the GOP?

Barely Neutral

Texas GOP chairman Susan Weddington isn't really supposed to endorse candidates, at least not as the head of the party. She can and does give her personal endorsement from time to time. And there are loopholes that allow her to endorse candidates even with the chairman hat on. She took advantage of one such loophole to endorse some judicial candidates (more on that later) and used another to argue that "it would be irresponsible for me not to speak out" about McCain's efforts to attract Democrats and Independents into the GOP primaries here and elsewhere.

She's running with the idea, posited by the Bush campaign, that McCain is winning only because of political trespassers who show up and vote in Republican primaries in states that, like Texas, leave the door open for such mischief by holding primaries open to all voters.

Weddington is not advocating closed Republican primaries, which would allow admittance only to those voters who had previously registered as Republicans. She says that would be a knee-jerk reaction to a current problem and doesn't seem convinced there's an ongoing problem with outsiders sneaking into the GOP's elections. Closed primaries might help maintain purity for both parties, but they might put a damper on newcomers and both parties are attempting to grow. She argues instead that people "ought to respect the process" and let Republicans choose their own candidates while Democrats choose theirs. She thinks that if only Republicans went to the primaries, Bush would whack McCain with his arm tied behind his back.

And while she says she will vote for McCain if he's the candidate come November, she also says his strategy of pulling Independents and Democrats to the primary voting booths could hurt later in the year. "He's saying, 'I don't want you to come over for a lifetime. I just want you to come over for one night." Her fear: Bush is losing primaries even when he gets most of the bona fide Republican votes. McCain is winning because of Independents and Democrats who, she and others contend, will be voting for Democrats come November. If McCain wins, it would be dispiriting to the very Republicans he needs to energize in order to win in November.

And that's where we get to her conclusion that McCain would be "disastrous" in the general election and that it would be irresponsible for her to sit it out without pointing out the problem. "John McCain is a great war hero of the past," she says. "Even war heroes can lose their way."

A Glimpse at the Machine

On the day Michigan voters were messing up the Bush comeback, the back-and-forth between the campaigns concerned the dueling negative phone banks that were in high gear on behalf of the candidates. Pat Robertson did one on Bush's behalf that was neither praised nor decried by the governor; McCain's folks later confessed they had created the phone bank operation that tried to raise voter concerns about Bush.

The Bush publicity machine kicked into high gear, generating quickie statements of disgust from governors who support the Texas governor. Each was headlined the same way, announcing "Governor (fill in name here) Expresses Outrage Over McCain Campaign Phone Calls Suggesting Governor Bush is Anti-Catholic." Several were from governors who are themselves Catholic, like the governor's brother Jeb Bush of Florida, Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, John Engler of Michigan, Frank Keating of Oklahoma, and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin. They added three U.S. senators, all Catholics, and topped it all off with a statement from Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan, who said he was offended even though he hasn't chosen sides in the race.

Little in those statements made the next day's news, but the deluge was effective: All but one of the "outrage" missives hit reporters' fax machines and email accounts by 1 p.m., giving them plenty of airtime on television and radio and the Internet while the polls were still open.

Party-Switchers Not Wanted

State GOP leaders are concerned about some of the newcomers on their primary ballot. They're generally thrilled to welcome party switchers, but they're also questioning the motives of some of the new folks in the neighborhood. On the other hand, they are welcoming some newcomers appointed by Gov. Bush even when local Republicans are holding their noses.

Party honcho Susan Weddington held a press conference a couple of days before the start of early voting to show her support for Texas Supreme Justices Al Gonzales and Nathan Hecht, who are running for new terms on that high court. Hecht has been through this before, having served on this and various other benches for 16 years. Gonzales, appointed by Gov. Bush, is in his first race for a term on the court, and he's nervous. He's not well known (most judges are not well known). He confesses to some jitters over what Republican primary voters might do when choosing between his clearly Hispanic name and that of his opponent, Houston attorney Rod Gorman. The three officials say that Gorman, and Hecht's opponent, Houston attorney Valorie Davenport, aren't true-blue Republicans.

Gorman and Davenport went off like hand grenades when they heard about the press conference. Gorman said it is "unethical, improper and offensive" for the party chief running the primary to get involved in the race, even if she's doing a personal endorsement and not an endorsement by the party itself. Gorman ran for the state Legislature twice (in 1970 and 1976) as a Democrat, but says that's because there was little chance of getting elected as a Republican in those days. He's since been politically inactive, but says he got into the race because he thinks Gonzales' experience as a lawyer is too limited to justify his appointment to the state's highest court.

Gonzales was muted in his criticism of Gorman, saying he didn't know much about him and saying he thought Gorman should campaign more actively to show voters their choices. He did say Gorman has the right to run if he wants to, then left the microphone to Weddington, who did most of the punching for him and Hecht.

Davenport says she's new to the party, but hasn't accepted the GOP's labeling of her as a "stealth Democrat." She says she's voted in a few Democratic primaries but splits her general election ticket, voting for some Republicans and some Democrats. She describes herself as a conservative Democrat or a moderate Republican--"two sides of the same coin"--and says one reason she decided to run in the GOP primary was Hecht's large campaign war chest. She figured she would have a better chance against him financially in a ten-week primary race than in a ten-month general election race.

Davenport also says she made several attempts to contact both Weddington and Harris County GOP head Gary Polland and never got her calls returned.

Party-Switchers Wanted

On the local level, there are at least two judicial races that have Republicans worked up, but for a different reason. In races in Houston and in Fort Worth, local GOP officials are trying to buck appointments made by Gov. Bush in favor of candidates they say are more conservative.

State District Judge Martha Hill Jamison of Houston ran for a judgeship as a Democrat in 1994. She got knocked around that year by Democrats who were upset when her father, former Texas Supreme Court Justice, Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate John Hill, helped with the reform movement that eventually led to an all-GOP Supreme Court. Last spring, she switched parties in an event announced at a local GOP gathering, and was later appointed to an open seat by Gov. Bush. Now she's in a four-way race, and support from local Republican groups is split.

On Fort Worth's 2nd Court of Appeals, Bush appointee Anne Gardner is catching some arrows from inside the party (including opposition from most of her area's Republican state legislators), in part because she was named to a spot on the bench that some local power brokers wanted someone else to get. Now she's in a two-way primary defending a contribution to then-Gov. Ann Richards in 1994 by pointing to numerous contributions to other Republicans, including several members of the current Texas Supreme Court. Austin Republicans have been quiet about both of those judges.

Unseating One of the Regulars

The unofficial Committee to Replace Dr. Bob Offutt on the State Board of Education now bears endorsements from GOP Sens. Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay, Bill Ratliff of Mount Pleasant and David Sibley of Waco, each of whom prefers Dan Montgomery of Fredericksburg to the incumbent. Sibley lives in the district. Fraser's Senate district overlaps 10 counties of the district. And Ratliff has been skirmishing with Offutt ever since the senator co-wrote a sweeping education bill five years ago. Offutt, a San Antonio dentist who's long been at odds with Gov. Bush, made himself a full-fledged target of the governor's allies by traveling to Iowa and New Hampshire on behalf of the Steve Forbes campaign for president. The revenge-seeking anti-Offutt folks say they're raising money at a quick clip, but SBOE races are notoriously low profile. The question: Will voters even notice the fight?

A Parallel Universe with its Own Interim Committees

The Republican Caucus in the Texas House, mindful of the overarching respect and admiration Texans have for the U.S. Congress--ahem--will try for the first time to come up with its own legislative agenda for the next session. Rep. Ken Marchant, R-Carrollton, the chairman of the group, says Texans know what the Republicans are against, but not enough about what they favor. Coming up with a legislative package is a response to that, and his group has assembled a slew of committees, each of which will meet three or four times and produce a handful of bills for the next legislative session. This also marks a Republican effort to figure out how things work. They expect to be in the majority in the Legislature soon--if not this year, then after redistricting. They want to have some people trained before they take over, addressing the fear of some GOP legislators that the party could gain control of the House before they're ready to run the joint.

To maul a perfectly respectable cliche: The dog is learning how to drive in case it catches the bus.

The gain is that Republicans who don't have leadership positions in the House will get at least some experience from heading the caucus committees. They'll have a package to push next session.

The risk is that everything the Republicans come up with could get marked as a partisan issue and that the lines between members of the two major parties could become more sharply drawn in daily affairs of the House. Even issues that have Democratic support could get pushed into the partisan end of the field. That would lessen chances for a bill's passage, because of the twin prospects--well established in Washington, D.C., but new to the natives here--of marking something as GOP turf in the first place, and claiming any credit, in advance, for its passage later.

A bill that's in this package will, by its very presence there, be marked as a Republican initiative, which could give pause to some Democrats who might otherwise want to jump on as co-sponsors. And if and when it passes, there's the risk for Democrats that the Republicans would then claim all the credit. If the idea works, both in creating a package of legislation and in getting it passed into law, there's a chance the Democrats will do the same thing in the future (some Republicans argue that the current agenda is set by the Democrats and that the GOP Caucus is simply following that lead) so that each session would start with a set of bills from this party and another from that one.

That doesn't automatically make things more partisan--plenty of middle ground is available--but it certainly raises the possibility of more party-line voting and maneuvering.

Marchant says some of what could become sharp edges have been removed: Issues that are particularly controversial will probably be avoided and he carefully avoided creation of a committee structure that would parallel the one already in place in the House, for fear it would look, well, competitive. And he hopes they can cook up a package of bills that will get bipartisan support.

Marchant named all of the committee members a couple of weeks ago, putting people on the committees they said they would be most interested in. This spring, the caucus will do some polling to find out what voters want from the Legislature. The 17 panels will meet, kick things around, and the legislative package should be ready to go in November.

Political Tidbits and Briefs

Remember NetPac, the high-tech group started by Rep. Rick Green, R-Dripping Springs, to get some of the state's dot-coms involved in politics? The group is now playing for the first time, giving endorsements and money to a handful of legislators who are in contested races. That list includes three Republican House members: Dennis Bonnen of Angleton, Brian McCall of Plano and Bill Siebert of San Antonio. Of the three, Siebert is probably in the noisiest race; his hometown paper, the San Antonio Express News, endorsed his opponent, Elizabeth Ames Jones, in an editorial remarkable for its strong wording. One Democrat, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, got the group's nod.

• Railroad Commission Chairman Michael Williams picks up a two-fer from the top dogs at the Republican Party of Texas, getting the personal endorsements of Susan Weddington and David Barton, the chairman and vice chairman of the state party. Williams, who's in a primary fight with Austin oilman Andy Draughn, was the general counsel at the party and worked with both of the endorsers before Gov. Bush appointed him to be an oil regulator.

John Holmes Jr., the retiring Harris County District Attorney, said he wouldn't endorse in the race to replace him, but would probably tell people how he's voting. Here's the quote he gave his assistant DA to use in political ads: "Chuck Rosenthal, different mustache, same principles."

• Remember the rough week Attorney General John Cornyn had? He runs child support in the state, a job guaranteed to bring in a regular tide of stomach acids in the form of bad news. There is always something wrong with that program, and there's always a suffering family available to talk about it. But it's also one of the easier pops for good news: This week, the AG got to whack a deadbeat dad who owed $29,545 in back child support. Now if they can just get the mix right...

• The company that advised the winners of last year's arena election in San Antonio, Public Strategies Inc., is telling Houston business promoters that a similar effort in the state's biggest city would cost $4 million to $5 million (the San Antonio deal had a $3 million price tag). There's no deal yet: Right now, the business community is gulping over the prospect of raising that much cash.

Broken Tax Breaks, Miscellany

The property tax folks in Austin have stirred things up with a new twist that has some businesses dismayed enough to go to court. They are wiping out a tax break given to for-profit businesses that are on public lands. This starts as an Austin issue, since that's the city with the most publicly owned land in it, but appraisers and businesses in Houston, Dallas and elsewhere are paying close attention. Businesses that sit on leased public land have previously been able to reap the benefits of their landlords' tax-exempt status; they were treated as leaseholds. Under the new ruling, those businesses--everything from hotels to office buildings to grocery stores--would have to pay property taxes. Here's a safe prediction: This one will spend time winding through the courts.

• Distantly related to that idea: Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, says he'll enter the next session with a bill requiring guarantees from companies that receive tax breaks for economic development. He wants them to prove up the benefits to subsidies or tax incentives by entering into agreements with the taxing authorities when their deals begin and settling up later.

• Follow-up: The Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse has sent out the notices telling providers just how much less money they'll have this year. The agency expected to have a certain amount of money for services, then found out its estimates were off the mark. They had to lower the promised spending amounts, keeping services at last year's levels instead of increasing them. They balanced the cuts so that each region of the state would stay level with last year's spending.

• We're gonna try this one more time, even though we are suffering from serious snakebites on it: In last week's item correcting the previous week's item on the various Confederate symbols, we let loose with an idiotic typographical mistake that resulted in an unprecedented reference to the Confederate SEAT. Holy blues and grays, Batman! We meant SEAL. Confederate SEAL. That is all.

Political People and Their Moves

Scotch that rumor, if you heard it, that Texas Supreme Court Justice Greg Abbott is looking at a run for the comptroller's office if the chips all fall right. He's neither a yes nor a no. For now, the Houston Republican says only that he's doing his job and not killing off any options. And he points out that this is a precarious time to be making decisions about who fits where on the political food chain in Texas... Andy Homer has signed on to do government relations work for the Texas Public Employees Association. He worked in the Texas Senate for several years, and most recently worked at Austin-based Public Strategies, Inc... The Texas office of the American Cancer Society signed Sarah Shipman to be its grassroots coordinator. She was previously on the staff of U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Mercedes... Chris Cook returns to the Comptroller's office after four years at the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services to be Manager of the Competitive Strategies group... Lindsey Dingmore is moving from the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association to Cross Timbers Oil in Fort Worth. He's leaving town, but will continue to work the Legislature (as well as six others) for that company... Fined: Three political action committees run by Houston activist Steven Hotze, for campaign finance violations. The Texas Ethics Commission hit the Conservative Republicans of Harris County with a $5,000 fine, an agency record, and slapped fins of $1,400 and $500, respectively, on the Citizens for American Restoration and the Houston Republican Forum... Endorsements: The Texas League of Conservation Voters endorsed a slate of House candidates that includes Rep. Charles Jones of Bryan as the only Republican. Twelve Democrats got the group's nod, including a dual endorsement in the HD-48 race to replace Rep. Sherri Greenberg, D-Austin. The group said either Democrat would suit them in that primary. In the only other open seat on the list, the group endorsed JoAl Cannon Sheridan in the Democrat primary for HD-11. That's the seat currently held by Rep. Todd Staples, R-Palestine... Loy Sneary, challenging U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Surfside in CD-14, won a nod from the Texas Farm Bureau's political action committee.

Quotes of the Week

Texas Republican Party Chairman Susan Weddington, on John McCain's strategy in the primaries, which she thinks is a disaster: "HWhen he says 'My home is the Republican Party', I don't question that for a minute. I just think, in his eagerness, he may become a home wrecker."

Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, commenting on the $1 million spent by the George W. Bush campaign on television advertising in Arizona before a 60-36 loss to McCain: ''You want to play in every state and show that you're a national candidate, but obviously a sitting senator's home state is not a place you want to invest many resources."

Former GOP national chairman Rich Bond, criticizing Gov. Bush for courting the party's right wing in South Carolina: "When George wants to be persuasive, from a conservative point of view, he talks about changing people's hearts, but when there came an opportunity to ask conservatives to change their hearts, he didn't take it at Bob Jones."

Art Cory, head of the Travis Central Appraisal District, describing why he's taking away a tax break that had been given to private businesses operating on public lands: "The first test is: Is this land being used for a public purpose? This is publicly owned land not being used for a public purpose."

Texas Death Row inmate Calvin Burdine, on the thought of being set free because the Attorney General's office missed a federal court deadline in his case: "All I want to do is go out that gate, hug my mama, get a cigarette and go about my business. And I don't even smoke, but I want to because I've been told I couldn't have one."

Darwin Mitchell, who heads a volunteer fire department in East Texas, on Robbie Knievel's motorcycle jump over a train in Mitchell's hometown: "At first I thought 'This can't be in Palestine, Texas. We just don't have events like this. This is too good to be true."

UT Arlington professor Don McConnell, who says he hasn't received a traffic ticket in 30 years: "I got pulled over on I-20 for suspicious behavior. I was driving the speed limit."

Texas Weekly: Volume 16, Issue 33, 28 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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