t's Not a Pretty Process, But We Have a Ballot

Even by runoff standards, this was pitiful. One in 25 registered voters actually cast a runoff ballot in Texas this year, with several counties turning in record low turnouts and local races -- as often happens in a runoff -- driving attendance. Republicans turned out 219,974 voters, or 1.9 percent of the 11.6 million Texans who carry political hunting licenses in their wallets. Democrats turned out 246,285 Texas voters -- about 2.1 percent of the total. The 4 percent turnout this year compares with a turnout percentage of 7.37 in the last presidential round in 1996.

Even by runoff standards, this was pitiful. One in 25 registered voters actually cast a runoff ballot in Texas this year, with several counties turning in record low turnouts and local races -- as often happens in a runoff -- driving attendance. Republicans turned out 219,974 voters, or 1.9 percent of the 11.6 million Texans who carry political hunting licenses in their wallets. Democrats turned out 246,285 Texas voters -- about 2.1 percent of the total. The 4 percent turnout this year compares with a turnout percentage of 7.37 in the last presidential round in 1996.

The April ballot didn't have much to catch the eye of any but the most serious citizen. Only a handful of races were decided and with local exceptions, they weren't particularly compelling battles. It's a quiet political year in some ways. Much has already been written, here and elsewhere, about the lack of statewide contests between Republicans and Democrats on the general election ballot.

Even the number of legislative races is low. The defeat of Rep. Leo Alvarado, D-San Antonio, for instance, means there will be at least a dozen new faces in the state Legislature next year. Put another way, the House and Senate have a combined turnover rate of less than seven percent, less than half the average for, say, business. (Before you touch that phone, we're including in that count members elected in special elections who haven't yet served in their current seats in a legislative session.)

At least two of those new mugs will be in the Senate: Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, won the special election to replace the late Sen. Greg Luna, who resigned shortly before his death last year; and Sen. Drew Nixon, R-Carthage, decided not to run for reelection, creating an open seat.

The House will have at least ten new residents come January. Four members lost their primaries, including Charles Jones, R-College Station, and three San Antonians: Alvarado, Republican Bill Siebert, and Democrat Juan Solis. One House member, Van de Putte, quit to take a seat in the Senate and was replaced in a special election by Mike Villareal, D-San Antonio. Republican Ronny Crownover of Denton died. Four representatives didn't seek reelection: John Culberson, R-Houston, and Todd Staples, R-Palestine, both of whom are seeking new posts, and Sherri Greenberg, D-Austin, and Sue Palmer, R-Fort Worth, both of whom are leaving politics, at least for now.

Most Legislators are Out of Electoral Danger

That leaves about one-third of the state's legislative seats in play and about two-thirds of its congressional seats at least theoretically up for grabs in the general elections in November.

What's left on the ballot in the House are 14 contested races involving incumbent Republicans and 23 contested races involving incumbent Democrats for a total of 37 battles in November (not including third parties). There will be 103 members -- 52 Republicans and 51 Democrats -- on the reelection ballot without opposition. The 10 seats that are or were open are evenly split between contested races and races that have already been decided.

In the Senate, three incumbents -- all Democrats -- have opposition on the November ballot. Eleven senators -- six Republicans, five Democrats -- are unopposed. And then there's that open seat, which will likely be the most closely followed race in Texas this year.

The state's congressional delegation finds itself in varying degrees of activity for the balance of the year. U.S. Rep. Bill Archer, R-Houston, is the only member retiring, and only eight members -- five Democrats and three Republicans -- are unopposed in November. The remaining 21, including 12 Democrats and 9 Republicans, have contests in the general elections.

Election Numbers for the Truly Addicted

Some weird things happened on Election Day, because so few voted and because the voting patterns were so unpredictable. The counties that produced the top vote numbers for the Republicans were Harris, Tarrant, Bexar, Travis, and Lubbock. Dallas was eighth, just behind Denton and just ahead of Tom Green. Four of the top five are population centers.

The counties that produced the most votes for the Democrats were more surprising: Webb, Hidalgo, El Paso, Cameron, and Bexar. Harris was sixth. Dallas was number 11, followed by Travis County. Check this out: Dallas has 1.16 million registered voters, while Jim Wells County, which came in eighth in the Democratic Party derby, has 25,384 registered voters. Dallas has neighborhoods that big. Similar oddities appeared on the other side of the ledger. Ector County (that's Odessa, if you're not from West Texas) has only 65,860 voters, but ranked sixth in the number of runoff voters.

The funny patterns translated into unexpected results. For example, Democratic Party leaders asked their voters to turn away Gene Kelly, the Universal City lawyer and perennial candidate. He won, and if you look, he won in South Texas and lost in some of the state's big urban counties. He lost big in a couple of them. But those heavy turnouts in the Valley and along the rest of the border wiped out the wins chalked up for Charles Gandy in places like Dallas and Tarrant and Travis counties. Another odd note from that race: Bexar County was almost a draw in the race, while Harris and Galveston went heavily for Kelly. East Texas? They liked the guy with the dancer's name. Go figure.

How about these numbers? In 107 of the state's 254 counties, Democrats drew fewer than 100 people to the polls; Republicans were under that bar in 169 counties. Republicans drew 10 percent or more of the registered voters in two counties. The Democrats did that in 45 counties.

That distribution pattern carried over to another set of numbers: The top ten counties for the Republicans produced 144,911 votes, and the top ten for the Democrats produced 105,330. At least in the runoff, the Democrats had a broader, but thinner base, getting votes from more counties, but fewer per county than their Republican counterparts. We'll end it with this statistic, provided by the GOP: Republicans outnumbered Democrats in the March primaries even though Democrats had more voters in 153 of the state's 254 counties.

Good Omens or Just Good Spin?

Democrats in East Texas have taken to boasting about the fact that their primaries produced more votes than the Republicans, at a time when the Republicans were cranking up better numbers than Democrats on a statewide basis. Carry that over to the GOP for a comment and you get a "Pfffftttt!" in return. That's fun to fiddle with, but it probably doesn't mean anything. At the least, you have to adopt that stock market proviso: Past successes are no guarantee of future results.

The Republican's version is that Democrats have always outvoted them in primaries, even when Republicans went on to win the general elections. For illustration, the GOP number buffs say Democrats out-polled Republicans in Senate District 3 by more than 46,000 votes in 1996, only to lose the general election (to Drew Nixon, R-Carthage), in November. The margin was narrower this year, but Democrats outdid the Republicans by 8,000 votes. The same thing happened in HD-09 in those years, and Wayne Christian, a Republican from Center, won the 1996 November contest.

Finally, the GOP analysts point to HD-11, currently held by Rep. Todd Staples, which followed the same design. Staples is now running for Nixon's seat. There is an open contest for his spot. And Christian faces what Democrats claim will be a tough challenge. In all three primaries this year, Democrats out-polled Republicans if you add up the votes. Democrats, who are on offense in those races, call the turnout numbers a sign that they're in the hunt; Republicans, who are trying to defend those seats in East Texas, say history leans their way.

Money Isn't Everything & Other Runoff Tales

Give this much to money and television and well-financed grassroots: They can drive up turnout, even when they don't guarantee victory. The race to succeed U.S. Rep. Bill Archer, R-Houston, drew 49,983 people to the polls in Houston to choose between state Rep. John Culberson and businessman Peter Wareing. They chose Culberson by a 3-2 margin in that raucous primary runoff. The turnout also drove up numbers in the HD-130 race to succeed Culberson, where Bill Callegari won 54.3 percent of the 10,611 votes cast over Aubrey Thoede.

Two other GOP races for Congress drew only 12,000 and 3,600 voters, respectively. In the CD-11 race in Central Texas, Ramsey Farley beat Rodney Geer handily; in the Dallas-area CD-24 race, James "Bryndan" Wright beat Bill Payne, also easily. Farley will face U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, in November; Wright will face U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, D-Dallas. It's fair to say that the Houston seat is in a Republican stronghold and that the other two are in congressional districts held by Democrats, but that doesn't completely account for the huge turnout difference.

Statehouse races went the same way: Busy in Houston, lackluster elsewhere. Only 2,545 voters showed up to pick Jill Warren over Scott Loras in the HD-48 primary in Austin; 2,834 came to the San Antonio race between Rep. Leo Alvarado, D-San Antonio, and Trey Martinez Fischer. Heck, only 7,482 people showed up to help Dr. Bob Deuell beat Richard Harvey in Senate District 2, which is more heavily populated than a House district (that's the fifth time Harvey has lost a race for that seat).

Alvarado got 39.6 percent of the vote while losing his runoff against Fischer. Statistically, that's about what he got in the March primary, when he pulled 41.9 percent in a four-way race. Voters began turning against him in last year's special election for the Senate (won by Leticia Van de Putte) and never came back home. Fischer's in, since no Republicans are running. Warren will face Democrat Ann Kitchen in November and Deuell will face Sen. David Cain, D-Dallas, in the general election.

Department of Mean Campaign Stunts: Loras, a candidate in the HD-48 Republican primary, took some hits for comparing demons and aliens in his writings on a Christian site on the Internet. On Election Day, someone pasted pictures of aliens on his campaign signs.

Wake Up and Vote

Tell most people this story and their first guess is that it was a dirty trick instead of a mistake. But the Houston Chronicle reports that about 2,200 residents of CD-7 were awakened at about midnight on the Monday before the elections by an automated phone call asking them to vote for Wareing and against Culberson. Wareing's folks quickly went on an apology program, saying their vendor's calling machines had run amok, but the damage was done. It wasn't enough to account for the whole margin, however: Culberson won by 9,953 votes.

Here's where some of the rest came from: Wareing's team ran full-page ads in the Chronicle trying to dynamite Culberson for voting in Democratic primaries 24 years ago. The ad called Culberson a liar. It ran while Culberson was hammering Wareing for running a negative campaign, and it probably reinforced his shots at Wareing for helping Democrats in more recent elections. The ads probably ended up hurting the attacker more than the attacked.

Before we leave the race, consider the case of Wareing political advisorDenis Calabrese. The final reports on spending aren't in yet, but Wareing was already at the $2 million mark in March and stayed on Houston television through most of the four weeks of the runoff. Culberson spent a mere fraction of that amount on his way to victory. Calabrese was also the consultant in the previous record-holder for expensive congressional losses in Houston: He coached Dr. Gene Fontenot, who spent $1.3 million losing a primary to U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, in 1996.

The Wareing campaign didn't have an exclusive on phones going berserk (or consultants blowing their assignments). Tom Davis, a former Tarrant County GOP chairman who ran for tax assessor-collector, ran a phone bank that featured taped calls from U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis. That was a local race, but at least two of the calls went to Republican voters in Austin, 200 miles away.

Political Hit Men, Political Hits

Two candidates for the State Board of Education suffered political assassinations this year. One of the gunmen in that successful effort was Bill Tryon, who ran the campaigns for Dan Montgomery (who knocked Dr. Bob Offutt off the board) and for Cynthia Thornton (who beat Bob Schoolfield in the primary for an open seat). Tryon was also behind the Callegari win in Houston.

The other shooter there was no consultant at all, but Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant. He and a conservative faction on that board have been warring over the direction of education policy in the state; Ratliff decided to put his money where his mouth is. He had help with Offutt, who offended supporters of George W. Bush by actively campaigning for Steve Forbes and against the governor. Several officeholders jumped into that one, and a passel of operatives quietly donated time and effort to that contest. But Ratliff took a bigger risk on the Thornton race, and didn't get the assists he'd enjoyed in the other contest. Most of the GOP establishment stayed away, in part because Schoolfield was well-financed and looked hard to beat. A few folks from the House joined in, though, including Reps. Kim Brimer, R-Arlington, Brian McCall, R-Plano, Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, and Tommy Merritt, R-Longview. All four had been targets of conservatives within the Republican Party, and apparently, they wanted some payback. Thornton won by 306 votes out of 21,004 cast.

The political team that got beat like a circus monkey in the March primaries came out of the April runoffs looking like P.T. Barnum, but still faces some trouble resulting from their early losses. The guys who coached Les Tarrance to a highly visible and humiliatingly large loss last month won three of their four races in the runoffs, including a couple that most of the wise guys in Austin were betting would go the other way. Jim Arnold and Hans Klingler were on the winning side in the Farley-Geer race in CD-11, the Warren-Loras race in HD-48, and the Deuell-Harvey race in SD-02.

Their Tarrance hangover probably isn't over, though. Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, says he's revisiting his decision to hire Arnold to run his race. Tarrance lost to Todd Staples, who seeks to win a Senate seat that geographically overlaps Christian's district. Christian says he's worried about Arnold's relationships with Staples and his consultant, Bryan Eppstein. He says he might stand pat, or might add somebody to the team who gets along better, in Christian's view, with the Senate campaign.

Déjà vu in East Texas

David Fisher has been waiting quietly for the Republicans to finish their primary and spit out a winner for the general election contest in Senate District 3. Now that that's over and Rep. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, is the GOP nominee, Fisher stuck his toe in the water, asking for debates. Maybe he didn't notice during the GOP contest, but these are shark-infested waters.

Fisher suggested he and Staples hold 17 debates, one in each county in the district, so voters could get to know them. His letter wasn't all peaches and ice cream, but it wasn't hardball: He suggested dates, places and rules. And he gave Staples an April 15 deadline to respond and said the two should meet on the Anderson County Courthouse steps on May 1 to hold a drawing to determine the order they'll visit the counties. If Staples doesn't respond, he says, he'll hold the drawing himself.

Staples responded two ways. On paper, he gave Fisher the same 'Nyah, nyah' that seemed to so unnerve the Les Tarrance campaign in the GOP primary. His news release responding to the letter (both campaigns seem to be using reporters for their postal carriers on this one) manages to call Fisher a trial lawyer from Beaumont at least a dozen times and questions whether he's really a resident of East Texas. Seriously, Staples' campaign manager says they'll hold plenty of debates, but won't start until August and would prefer to let third parties set them up and handle the details.

Fisher answers the new to East Texas charge by saying that, with the exception of college and law school and the day of his birth in Austin, he's always lived within 40 miles of the Sabine River in East Texas. The carpet-bagging charge is a photocopy from the Staples campaign against Tarrance. Fisher has been in East Texas for years, but moved from Beaumont to Silsbee, where he lives now, in September 1997. His Beaumont law firm has an office in the smaller town.

The Grass Isn't Always Greener

Trade places with Attorney General John Cornyn for a minute and see how much you like the last week. Your predecessor as attorney general files a lawsuit against Aetna and other health insurance providers that your staff and most other folks say you will surely lose if you go to court.

So, you settle, and announce it in the state's two biggest cities, calling it a significant deal that gets the insurance bidness to stop a bunch of onerous stuff that they'd rather keep on doing. You get points from Consumers Union, which says this settlement could help patients seeking access to medical care under insurance constraints. But another group, Texans for Public Justice, knocks you for settling and gets some traction in the Dallas Morning News. That paper raises questions about the potential for conflicts of interest since the insurance company might have been a contributor to a political group for you and other attorneys general and a new group you've formed within the GOP. Then, people who worked on the last piece of HMO and insurance legislation over in the Pink Building crab, quietly and off the record, that a large chunk of the settlement is already in law by statute or rule.

There are a couple of things in the settlement that firm up existing law, including a provision that is supposed to keep the insurers from paying bonuses to doctors when the bonuses might encourage the docs to provide less in the way of needed treatment. The company is creating an ombudsman's office for complaints, and is freeing doctors with only a few Aetna patients from being reimbursed under so-called "capitated rates" instead of fee-for-service rates. Doctors groups want fee-for-service pay for all medical treatment. Some doctors say privately that they hoped Cornyn would get that from Aetna, but they'll have to try another venue. Cornyn's folks call the settlement a "landmark" and say Texans will be protected from insurance-inspired bad medicine in ways they were not previously protected. And the insurer -- in full-page newspaper ads -- lauds the settlement as the beginning of better relations between it, doctors, and patients.

If you sort it out and read between the lines a bit, Cornyn got an honorable exit from the Aetna suit. At least two other states that are in similar talks -- New York and Connecticut -- said they'll push for more than Texas got. Cornyn aides say they'll push to get similar settlements from other insurers.

Or maybe you'd rather swap jobs for a day with Railroad Commissioner Tony Garza, whose proposal to cut off a dormant well program at the Texas Railroad Commission swamped him and his staff for a week and then died for lack of a second from either of his fellow commissioners.

Garza is after unplugged oil and gas wells, and says the W-1X program at the agency is being abused by a small number of producers in a way that ends up leaving the state with the tab for plugging some wells. He says 83 percent of the wells plugged using public funds in the Oilfield Cleanup Fund had been in the W-1X program. He thinks the well owners should be paying for the plugging. The industry blew its stack, as much over his speed (he proposed the policy days before bringing it up) as the content. Another objection was that Garza's plans didn't leave room for appeals; he says that's incorrect. He says well owners who currently get automatic extensions to keep their non-producing wells unplugged would have to go through hearings to keep them open, but could keep them open. When Garza brought it up, the other commissioners went mute on him.

Garza's plan might still be revived. The commission sent it to a regulatory reform committee for consideration and they'll report back in 45 days.

Oddments

The latest "Jane Doe" case on parental notification that went to the Texas Supreme Court had an amicus brief with it that included the signatures of 54 legislators (49 Republicans and two Democrats) who wanted to let the justices know the Legislature didn't want the law diluted by the courts... The state GOP gets swatted by some for trying to get corporate sponsors for its convention, but the Democrats say they take money from corporations for the same purposes... GOP officials in San Saba County didn't know they were supposed to hold a runoff until someone called the Secretary of State on Election Day. Voting there was open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and 22 people voted.

Political People and Their Moves

The former chairman of the Texas Republican Party, Fred Meyer, will head the Republican National Committee's Victory 2000 efforts. That puts Gov. George W. Bush's stamp on the national party apparatus. Meyer was at the helm in Texas from 1988 to 1994, when he was forced aside by social conservatives. The candidate's political director, Maria Cino, is also moving over to the RNC, as is Jeanne Johnson Phillips, a GOP fundraiser and political op who was right in the middle of Bush's gubernatorial campaigns in 1994 and 1998... Buddy Garcia, a longtime staffer of Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, is jumping over to work for Lt. Gov. Rick Perry. He'll concentrate on Border affairs. Here's a little-known fact: Perry, in spite of his years in the House and other public offices, has never been through a legislative redistricting. He hired a new attorney, Bob Pemberton, from the Texas Supreme Court, to help him wade through that legal morass... Chris Hudson moves from the Senate's Committee on Human Services, chaired by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, to her Senate office, where he'll be the new chief of staff... Susan Harry, finance director for the Texas Democratic Party, has left that post to work at the Texas Freedom Network. No replacement yet at the Party office... Appointments: Gov. Bush named William Meadows of Fort Worth and Kathleen Hartnett White of Valentine to the Texas Water Development Board. Meadows is a former mayor pro tem of Fort Worth, and replaces Charles Geren, who's running for the Texas House. White is a writer, consultant and rancher... House Speaker Pete Laney is moving Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, to the Appropriations seat formerly held by now-Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio. Rep. Mike Villareal, her successor, will be on the Economic Development and Criminal Jurisprudence panels... Nancy Seifken, Lance Lively, and John Hannah have all signed on for full-time gigs with lobbyist/spokesbot Chuck McDonald. Hannah is a longtime Democratic operative. Lively worked for Sen. David Bernsen, D-Beaumont, and Seifken worked in child support at the Attorney General's office.

Quotes of the Week

Gubernatorial aide Terral Smith, telling the Austin American-Statesman why the governor's staff is prepping George W. Bush for the legislative session that Bush hopes to spend in the White House: "We come to work every day and play like this really means something. And it might. You never know."

Texas Health Commissioner William "Reyn" Archer III, in a story in The New York Times on Gov. Bush's record on health issues: "If I were to go to a Hispanic community and say, 'Well, we need to get you into family planning,' they say, 'No, I want to be pregnant,' it doesn't work very well."

Dr. Archer, after publication: "I do not believe that Hispanics encourage teens to become pregnant. Nor do I believe that Hispanics are any less concerned about the consequences of teen pregnancy. I do believe, however, that once a teen is pregnant, Hispanic tradition creates a supportive environment for the teen and her child. I believe the rest of us can and should learn from this.

Lobbyist Ben Barnes, a former lieutenant governor and Texas House Speaker, in a speech at UT's LBJ School of Public Affairs, wherein he called for dramatic spending increases on teachers, colleges and state highways, supported in part by higher gasoline taxes: "No 20th-Century state ever became great by cutting taxes and no 21st-Century state is going to become great by cutting taxes, either."

President Bill Clinton, talking about his interview by actor Leonardo DiCaprio's for ABC News, and of the network's attempt to downplay the trouble it went through to set up the stunt: "ABC doesn't know whether Leo and I had an interview, a walk-through or a drive-by. Don't you news people ever learn? It isn't the mistake that kills you. It's the cover-up."

U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, co-sponsor (with Joe Knollenberg, R-Michigan) of a repeal of the federal low-flow toilet law, after a House committee knocked down the repeal effort by one vote: "I agree with Mr. Knollenberg when he said, 'Get the federal government out of the bathroom.' We never should have been there in the first place."

Rock star Ted Nugent, after he angered Hispanic groups by blasting U.S. residents who don't learn to speak English: "I like to think of myself as Rosa Parks with a guitar and a middle finger."


Texas Weekly: Volume 16, Issue 40, 17 April 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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