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Shuffling Inside the Senate Crab Bucket

Nobody has dropped out of the phantom race to be the next lieutenant governor of Texas -- the race that would take place if the governor is elected president and the current Lite Guv becomes Guv. Few senators will say openly how they would cast their vote in a contest for that job, so no hard count is available. And none of the active and passive contestants have tried to declare victory.

Nobody has dropped out of the phantom race to be the next lieutenant governor of Texas -- the race that would take place if the governor is elected president and the current Lite Guv becomes Guv. Few senators will say openly how they would cast their vote in a contest for that job, so no hard count is available. And none of the active and passive contestants have tried to declare victory.

Nothing precipitous has taken place. But it is safe to say that the betting has shifted in favor of Sen. David Sibley, R-Waco. A number of senators, lobbyists and political people -- from officeholders to bleacher bums -- say privately that his quest for the job is gaining momentum. He's been working at it harder than other senators have. He said better than a year ago that he wants the job if it comes open, and he's been plugging away ever since. His potential rivals include a couple who started later than he did and a couple who got in at the same time but said then and now that they wouldn't actively campaign for the job. At the moment, all of that is playing in his favor.

Before you twist off on that, read the warning label: This is not a prediction, just a peek at the tote board. George W. Bush has to win in November, pulling himself out of office and winning Rick Perry a battlefield promotion to the Governor's Mansion. The makeup of the Senate itself is uncertain, since the outcome of one East Texas election could swing the partisan balance from the Republicans to the Democrats. A year ago, the handicappers had Sen. Buster Brown, R-Lake Jackson, in the lead. He got popped by local authorities over a groping incident with a female employee and fell out of first place.

Another factor can be called the "Crab Bucket Rule." In a body like the Texas Senate, where everyone is equal, it often doesn't pay to rise too far above everyone else. The rest of the crabs will pull a climbing crab back into the bottom of the bucket rather than see that crab go free.

The stinkin' press figures in, too. Depending on the timing and the content, a story about the race can stampede senators to the side of an apparent winner. On the other hand, a story can serve as an alert to the other crabs that one of their own is at the lip of the bucket.

Sibley won't talk about vote counts, where other contenders stand, any of that. He says he's sticking to his original formula, talking about rule changes that would make the Senate more powerful at the expense of the lieutenant governor's office. If he won the job, he says, he would run for a full term as a statewide candidate in 2002, when the term originally won by Perry expires. The gossips might be with him at the moment, but he doesn't have the votes to claim the corner office in the Pink Building or he would call a press conference and end the race.

Sens. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, and Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, are still hanging back, at least for public purposes. Both of them said last summer they would be interested in the job if it came open, but added that they would not openly campaign for the post until the dominos toppled, beginning with Bush's election to the presidency. Ratliff isn't even counting votes or asking for commitments, he says. Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, is openly seeking the job. Bivins has lobbied fellow Republicans to decide the matter amongst themselves, to unite them behind a statewide candidate in 2002 so that they don't, as he puts it, "waste the incumbency" that an interim Lite Guv would have.

We talked to several survivors of Speaker's races in the House, which are vastly different but offer a couple of lessons that probably apply in the upper chamber. First, people lie, and the total number of pledges exceeds the total number of voters. Second, crystal balls are quite breakable: Nobody knows how the election will end until it actually does.

Assuming the Position

Discount, for now, any rumors you might have heard about Attorney General John Cornyn making a play for the lieutenant governor's office. He answers rumor-mongers by saying he likes his current gig and plans to remain there. Append the traditional fine print that traditionally follows such political statements: "Unless something unexpected happens."

Land Commissioner David Dewhurst has been talking to supporters around the state about running, but none seem to have any idea what office he'd seek in 2002. Others have mentioned him as a potential candidate for the number two post in the executive branch. It's early and the GOP dreamers' list is long: Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander and Railroad Commissioner Tony Garza are also on it. Nobody outside the Senate, at least on the Republican side, is showing official interest, however. That would look like they were measuring the curtains in anticipation of a Bush win.

Not much is new on the Democratic ledger for that post. The names that get mentioned regularly include John Sharp and Paul Hobby, each of whom lost races in 1998, but by narrow margins.

If senators do have to pick a leader from among their own, all of that will figure in. Do they want a weak candidate who might be knocked out by one of the current statewides? A strong contender who might keep the statewides out of the race? Or would they rather just appoint a caretaker who would run things for a couple of years and promise to stay off the statewide ballot two years hence?

A last note: If efforts to strip away some power from the Lite Guv's office prevail, who would want that relatively powerless post? And do senators see anyone on the potential candidate list who might convince them a powerless lieutenant governor is a good thing?

A Do-It-Yourself National Political Pundit Kit

A lot of the information -- good, bad and ugly -- that was once available only to insiders and reporters is now out there floating around instantaneously. That means you can watch CSPAN and do your own analysis of the presidential race if you'd rather do that that listen to the pundits, or just that you can get more national political news than you're getting now. Caution: The caveat emptor rule applies in triplicate when it comes to free information; it is sometimes worth nothing.

There are a gazillion Internet sites for national politics, but a few keep turning up on the list of useful things to see, at least during this part of the season. They'll satisfy political junkies for the 11 weeks between now and Election Day, and then we can all swear off the national game and return to our homes, families and normal lives -- at least until redistricting starts in January. Some of the best:

Hotline Scoop is a free twice-daily political newsletter that'll hit the high and low points of what's going on in the presidential race and, sometimes, in other national races. It's put out by the National Journal, and you can get a look at it at hotlinescoop.com. It's the diet version of Hotline, a respected daily compendium of what's being written about politics all over the country. The bigger version is more comprehensive, but also requires a subscription and some of your money.

• Polling information on the presidential race (and on other issues as well), can be had for free in a couple of places. The Battleground 2000 polls that you see on TV and read about in the papers are available online at tarrance.com/battleground, or at voter.com. Voter.com is paying for the surveys on the presidential race, and the actual measurement and interpretation is done by Ed Goeas of the Tarrance Group, a Republican polling firm, and Celinda Lake of Lake Snell Perry Associates, a Democratic polling firm. Here's the measure of it: Both sides quote the results when they're ahead and keep quiet when they're behind. Goofy polling tends to attract attacks from the losers, but the Battleground surveys seem pretty well respected.

• Another interesting link for presidential campaign watchers is one we've mentioned here before: PortraitofAmerica.com. That polling is done by Rasmussen Research, which also has a decent track record. The advantage is that they're polling constantly, and you can watch the kind of voter tracking poll on the presidential race that usually isn't available outside the campaigns. And when it is available, it's certainly not free.

Trash Talkin'

We warned a long time ago that Texas was going to be at the bottom of the dog pile during the political season, a premise based in part on the "failed governor of a small Southern state" strategy employed in 1992 against then-Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas. It's a perennial when governors run for president, and you can find variations in most of the races of the last 25 years, starting with Georgia, California and Massachusetts, which were variously derided as polluted, backward, criminal-coddling, protest-crushing, intolerant or overly tolerant festering sores on the body politic.

The themes are set. Texas is getting whacked on the environment, with one side saying pollution is higher than in other states and the other saying the state is improving quicker than other state. Texas is getting popped for high rates of uninsured women and children, with defenders saying, again, that the numbers are better than they were. And the Democrats are knocking Bush's national education plan, skirting nationally noted improvements here, while the Bushies hit back with statistics showing how much better schools are than they were not very long ago.

It's a mess, and it's a fight for the middle. The Republicans will go with the Guv's argument. The Democrats will go with the anti-Texas argument. And the Independents... are what the fighting's for.

When Gov. George W. Bush pulled out the "Don't mess with Texas" line in his speech accepting the GOP's nomination to the presidential ticket, he inspired some spin-offs, lookalikes and copycats.

The best known is the one that went his way. A group of Texas Democrats took to a Republican office in Los Angeles to defend the governor from attacks during the Democratic convention. The group included former Texas Chief Justice John Hill (who was also spotted at the GOP convention in Philadelphia), former Dallas County Democratic Party Chairman Sandy Kress, House Appropriations Chairman Rob Junell, D-San Angelo, Sen. Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria, and former Rep. Mark Stiles, D-Beaumont. They got daily play in the press, outshining some of the GOP's other efforts to get an edgewise word into the Democrats' convention week.

The Democrats shot back at them (keeping the press interested, by the way) calling them a mix of Bush appointees (Hill), businessmen who could benefit from a Bush win (Kress, an attorney, and Stiles, a state contractor), and ambitious brown-nosers (Junell and Armbrister). They said they were defending their home turf and the state's favorite-son candidate. In any case, they had the effect they sought, leavening the Texas-bashing in L.A. by calling fouls when the state's environment, insurance, budget or other attributes were knocked by Democrats.

Are They Bashing or Making a Fix-up List?

The Democrats responded to all of that by saying that they weren't bashing Texas, but were suggesting improvements and goals for their beloved home state. The Texas GOP its own self got involved in the back-and-forth, saying pretty much what you would expect: "The Democrats are proving that they will say anything to get Al Gore elected -- even insult 20 million Texans."

And there were non-affiliates of the parties in the game, too, and some trash talk amongst the trash talkers. The Proud of Texas Committee (there's a competition over that name, which we'll come back to) is a group of public interest types who have put up a web site and a list of people who can be called to answer questions about any claims made in the presidential race. They aren't exactly right-wingers, but several respected groups are on the list. The web site is TexasTruth.com. Here's a touch of, well, something: The Texas Truth site uses a typeface very similar to the one used for the cover of Texas Monthly magazine. That magazine's publisher, Michael Levy, is one of a handful of folks who started the other "Proud of Texas Committee." The first group is a registered non-profit and says the second group is using the name "without authorization." Group 1 says group 2 is "made up of a bunch of corporate lobbyists." And so on.

The conventions were merely launch pads for the various defenders and detractors. The thumping of the state will continue through the election -- 77 days from the date at the top of his edition.

Dot-Com Politics and Fundraising Notes

The demise of living.com, an Austin-based Internet retailer that sold furniture and other goods for the home, could have political repercussions. The founder of that company, Andrew Busey, is the primary financial force behind NetPAC, a political action committee that was formed last year to give the dot-community a voice in Texas politics. He had promised $250,000 to the group.

As of the midyear campaign finance reports, he had not yet written a check to the group (nor had some others who pledged). NetPAC's founder, Rep. Rick Green, R-Dripping Springs, said when he announced the formation of the PAC that it had $500,000 lined up, but that included pledges from Busey and others. With less than three months left before the elections, the PAC's clout might be limited. Green said this week that for a load of reasons -- fundraising, organizing, etc. -- the political action committee won't be a real factor until the 2002 election cycle.

• Shane Phelps, who quit the attorney general's office to take another crack at knocking off Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, is doing a fundraiser built around the movie Shane. "Phelps was named for the heroic good guy," an announcement says.

• Read this one for the wisecrack. A friend of House candidate Paul Woodard faxed -- with notes scribbled in the margin -- a copy of Chuck Hopson's latest notice for a gathering. Hopson, a pharmacist, will be the honoree at a fish fry in Buffalo (that's in East Texas, folks) being put on by several other pharmacists from the area. The wisecrack? "Drug profits at work." The two candidates are running for the HD-11 seat currently held by Rep. Todd Staples, R-Palestine. Staples is running for state Senate against David Fisher, a Democrat from Silsbee.

• We got our feet tangled last week between general consultants and the consultants they've hired in East Texas, so here's another go. Woodard's campaign is being run by Bill Tryon, an Austin consultant who works under the company name Nutek Communications. The Fort Worth-based Eppstein Group is also working on that race, but Tryon's the lead dog.

In Staples' overlapping Senate campaign, Eppstein is the lead dog, but Nutek is also in the mix. Tryon ran a couple of high-profile primary races for State Board of Education candidates, Dan Montgomery and Cynthia Thornton, and also was the general consultant for Bill Callegari, who won the Republican primary to replace Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston.

New Ways to Poll, to Raffle, and to Trip Up the Other Guy

This next item is from our Bureau of Creative Polling. A company called Buycostumes.com predicts George W. Bush would beat Al Gore by 10 points if the elections were held now. They're basing that on sales of Halloween masks. They claim that masks of the candidates have successfully predicted the outcomes of elections since 1980. Bush is winning that contest, but not the overall competition: Richard Nixon remains the most popular political mask.

• Sometimes, during a campaign, the good fortune rains down upon you. Regina Montoya Coggins says in her campaign newsletter than she won a Domino's Pizza gift certificate in a raffle from homeowners' association in the 5th congressional district, where she's running as a Democrat. No big whoop there, but for the guy who drew the winning ticket: U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas. He's the incumbent she's trying to knock out of office.

• Late-breaking political news: The Bush campaign put out word that the governor will agree to three debates with Gore and that Dick Cheney has agreed to two debates with Joe Lieberman. No times, places, dates or ground rules have been set, so this little news item could turn into a pumpkin at midnight. The timing of the announcement itself might be as important as the news: The Bushies put it out a few hours before Gore's final-night speech at the Democratic National Convention.

Thanks Again, But the Answer is Still 'No'

The latest salvo in the war between the Free Market Foundation, FREEPAC, and Texas House Democrats comes from Rep. Dan Lengefeld, D-Hamilton. He sent a generic answer earlier this summer when he was asked by the foundation to fill out a questionnaire for the group. That first letter said, basically, that he didn't like to do yes/no surveys because they offered no chance for discussion. The group sent him a second questionnaire. They noted that it was a second request, put a deadline on it, and wrote, "your opponent has responded" on the form letter.

They got the same answer the second time, but in a more detailed and colorful form. Gavin Massingill, Lengefeld's campaign manager, wrote to Kelly Shackleford, the president of the foundation, that his boss didn't need "an out-of-town organization to communicate Rep. Lengefeld's message to his friends, neighbors and constituents." He went on to say that the foundation's past acts were another reason that Lengefeld wouldn't answer, noted the group's support of public school vouchers, which Massingill said "would destroy the lifeblood of our small rural communities", that the group opposes incumbent legislators, that the group supported Lengefeld's opponent last time, and that Shackeford is deeply involved in Republican Party politics. He ended by suggesting the foundation should open its books so that people can see who's behind the group.

Buzzards with Nothing to Eat

Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, says he's not among the buzzards circling Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant. Ratliff has given off a couple of signals that apparently encouraged wannabes. There is a persistent rumor that he's under consideration for the job of chancellor of the University of Texas System. Every time that gets knocked down, it gets back up for another round. And there is Ratliff's intriguing take on his own political future. He says he's "not going to be here forever." That's prompted some tire kicking by House members (Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, has told some people he's interested) and county officials in his Northeast Texas district. Merritt says he's not in on that, but reserves the right to change his mind later. Ratliff isn't going beyond his cryptic statement. He'll decide later whether to brush the political vultures off. Until then, he can sit back and note who they are.

Why People Don't Understand Lawyers; Keeping Count

After a testy exchange of letters over the settlement between Aetna Insurance and Attorney General John Cornyn, Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, sent Cornyn a letter congratulating the AG on a settlement with a different insurance company. In his letter on the Aetna deal, Eiland said Cornyn exceeded his authority and went from lawyering to legislating. Cornyn shot back a letter defending the settlement, and that tussle will be the subject of an interim legislative hearing in a couple of weeks. But on the heels of that, Eiland sent Cornyn a letter complimenting the AG's settlement of a lawsuit against Allstate Insurance over the amounts the insurer pays people when their cars get crunched. Eiland liked that one: "... For whatever it is worth, I would like to congratulate you and your staff on what appears to be a fair and responsible agreement..."

• Cornyn got caught flat-footed when he was asked, at a gathering of Hispanic community leaders in Houston, how many of the 629 lawyers at his agency were minorities. All he could muster, according to the Houston Chronicle, was "I wish I knew off the top of my head." Apparently, the episode hit a nerve, because when he got back, Cornyn got the comptroller's office to run the numbers. The result: 76.8 percent of the lawyers are Anglo, 13.8 percent are Hispanic, 6.9 percent are Black, and 1.8 percent are of Asian origin. Of the total, 45.6 percent are female.

For comparison, the AG cites numbers from the State Bar of Texas on the racial and gender mix of all of the state's lawyers. According to the AG, 88.5 percent of the state's lawyers are Anglo, 5.8 percent are Hispanic, 3.6 percent are Black, and 1.1 percent are Asian American. Female lawyers make up 27.3 percent of the total in Texas.

Political People and Their Moves

Tracy King Wurzel, who was in this space last week quitting her post as one of Land Commissioner David Dewhurst's top aides, is signing on to become an upper-level advisor to Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander. She'll have the title of "Special Assistant for Policy and Legislative Affairs" which means, among other things, that she'll be the agency's legislative liaison. Her move prompted two waves of conversation. The first was about her pay level (she'll make $106,710; the previous legislative liaison, who didn't share the policy title, made $79,872). The second was about the change itself. Wurzel follows political advisor/spokesman Mark Sanders, who earlier bailed on Dewhurst in favor of Rylander... The Texas Association of Realtors is adding Daniel Gonzalez to its lobbying ranks. Up to now, he worked for Rep. Tony Goolsby, R-Dallas... Jennifer Chapman is leaving the upper chamber for the lower one, moving from Sen. David Bernsen's office to House Speaker Pete Laney's, where she'll work on policy issues... Laura (with a 'U') Tolley starts a new job next month as the Page One editor at the San Antonio Express-News. She was the Austin bureau chief before taking a job at Austin-based Public Strategies about a year ago. The new job will have her at the Mother Ship in San Antonio instead of the Capitol... Aetna lobbyist Russ Keene is leaving that Texas post for international consulting. He'll work for Kissinger McLarty Associates on Latin American energy issues, among other things. The insurer hasn't picked a replacement... Freed from prison, but not from politics: Roy Wayne Criner, serving time for sexual assault, was pardoned by Gov. George W. Bush after DNA evidence raised doubts about his guilt. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had turned down his appeal, and that decision could be a political issue. The author, Judge Sharon Keller, a Dallas Republican, is running for presiding judge of that court; her opponent, Democrat Bill Vance of Waco, says her ruling to keep Criner in prison hurt the court's reputation.

Quotes of the Week

Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Democratic nominee for Vice President, at a campaign rally in California: "I've been waiting for a week to say this line and I can't control myself any more: In this election, will you help me win this one for the Tipper?"

Jay Kaiman, director of the Anti-Defamation League's regional office in Atlanta, on Lieberman's chances: "His biggest problem here won't be that he's Jewish. It's that he's a Northerner."

Lenora Fulani, a Marxist who was helping a former Republican get the nomination of the Reform Party, on the candidate she had been trying to assist: "I think he blew it. Bright man that he is, I don't think Pat Buchanan can spell 'democracy.'"

Rep. Rob Junell, D-San Angelo, in an interview with his hometown paper about his support for Republican Gov. George W. Bush and whether that foreshadows a future political move: "I don't think switching parties would necessarily solve any problems for me."

Professional Democrat Liz Carpenter of Austin, on Bush's slogan: "I think 'compassionate conservative' is about as inconsistent as 'virgin hooker.'"

Ann McGeehan of the Texas Secretary of State's office, telling The Dallas Morning News what's wrong with casting ballots by mail: "In the polling place, you have a lot of measures in place to protect the integrity of the ballot. But voting at home has none of those safeguards."

Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, on how his job compares to that of the Austin ISD superintendent: "Whenever I get to feeling sorry for myself and no matter what I'm whining about, I get up in the morning and look in the mirror and think, 'Well, at least you're not Pat Forgione."

Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, telling local property owners in Houston what she thinks of claims that she is to blame for some rising property values: "My office has nothing to do with local property taxes. I didn't not seek my office to become a skirt that local officials can hide behind."

Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, lodging a minor complaint about a recent visit to the British Isles: "The two hardest things I've had to learn to do are working in the Texas House and driving on the left-hand side of the road in Scotland."


Texas Weekly, Volume 17, Issue 8, 21 August 2000. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2000 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (800) 611-4980 or email biz@texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@texasweekly.com, or call (512) 288-6598.


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