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Political Hopefuls Leave the Starting Gate

Most Texas politicos came out of the Labor Day weekend in seasonally optimistic moods. This is their moment and it begins with every entrant a potential winner. And the watching is promising, too: As the gates spring open and the races start, the Republicans and Democrats are planning or fearing or predicting anything from skirmish to war in nearly a dozen-and-a-half legislative seats.

Most Texas politicos came out of the Labor Day weekend in seasonally optimistic moods. This is their moment and it begins with every entrant a potential winner. And the watching is promising, too: As the gates spring open and the races start, the Republicans and Democrats are planning or fearing or predicting anything from skirmish to war in nearly a dozen-and-a-half legislative seats.

We've been nosing around to find out what ought to be on the tout sheet. Some of what follows will probably look odd in two months. Something will turn up that isn't apparent now; like horses, some candidates run better in mud and others prefer heat and dust. Something that looks just perfect will stink in a few short weeks, and some rotten prospect will bloom. This isn't meant to predict what's what, but it'll start the conversation. Which races are moving or have the potential? Which races give the heebie-jeebies to one political camp or the other? Which ones are just fun to watch?

There are two state Senate seats in play -- one of them open and the other held by a Democrat in a conservative district. In the House, there are up to 16 fields of battle, depending on how you sort the rumors, lies, winks, candidate and district quirks, what effect you think the presidential race will have, if any, and how the leaves came to rest in your teacup on Tuesday. The betting here is that only a handful of the House races start at full tempo, with several others capable of getting interesting.

On the congressional ticket, two races in Texas are getting attention from national party and political types, and a few more are at least worth a mention. Both parties want statehouse majorities in place to draw favorable political districts next year. Texas will probably gain two congressional seats in the next reapportionment. Nationally, the GOP hopes to gain control of new seats here and elsewhere to offset gains they expect in Democratic strength in California.

A Lot of Commotion for Only a Slight Change in Balance?

The Republicans currently have a one-vote majority in the Texas Senate. The Democrats have a six-vote majority in the Texas House. Start with the fact that this is one of the most delicately balanced legislatures in the U.S. right now, and that that will probably still be true after the elections. Only the two Senate seats are really in play, and a huge win for either side in the House would still leave the minority party within a couple of handfuls of votes of the majority. Neither political party is positioned to take full control of either chamber. A Senate shift could, if Lt. Gov. Rick Perry becomes governor, determine who will be the Senate's presiding officer. But Senate process revolves around a two-thirds rule; for a faction to control the game, it has to have 21 votes. Neither party is close. A House shift, on the other hand, isn't likely to be large enough to displace Speaker Pete Laney.

The slim partisan majorities will certainly play into the redistricting fight, but so will other factors: urban v. suburban v. rural, veterans v. new members, factional duels within groups, etc. A close majority on the partisan front could crumble in the face of any of those arguments.

Turnout remains a huge unknown this year. Say the average Texas Republican voter is convinced that Gov. George W. Bush will do well in the presidential race and doesn't need help. Does that voter stay home? Does the average Democrat stay home because of the apparent hopelessness? Say the presidential race remains a nail-biter on the national level, generating interest from Texas voters whether or not Vice President Al Gore can dent Bush's chances in Texas. Does that bring Bush voters to the polls and help Republicans? Does it convince Democratic voters that they're within striking range and inspire them to vote?

State Senate: It's About East Texas, Stupid

The open Senate seat in East Texas' third district will be the hardest fought, most expensive state race of the year. The candidates are strong on both sides, the money is ready, and the stakes are high. The rest of the Senate is evenly split between the Democrats and the Republicans, and because 2001 is a redistricting year, partisans outside the state are watching.

Rep. Todd Staples, a Republican real estate man from Palestine, faces David Fisher, a lawyer from Silsbee. This is already getting the kind of attention from hacks and officeholders that normally goes to a statewide race; it's noisy enough that the winner might turn out to be the guy who does the best job of ignoring or sorting through all the free outside advice.

Republicans say they have the upper hand because of population growth in conservative parts of the 17-county district. They contend, too, that Staples has more experience and will run as an incumbent of sorts in the areas of SD-3 that overlap the House district he has held since 1995. Democrats say the GOP hold on the seat is marginal (Sen. Drew Nixon of Carthage won it by a scant 387 votes out of more than 208,057 cast in 1996); they're betting they can turn out voters who sat through previous elections that went to the other side. It's a volatile district affected by turnout peculiarities, if the GOP primary was any indication: Those players all thought they were in a close race to the end, but the actual result was embarrassingly lopsided in Staples' favor.

The Republican Powers That Be in Austin and elsewhere have been treating the SD-2 race immediately to the north like a hobby, alternating between enthusiasm and abandonment. They're now enthusiastic, convinced they can beat Sen. David Cain, D-Dallas, with Dr. Robert Deuell of Greenville. They're betting, as they have for the last three election cycles, that Cain is vulnerable in what is really a GOP district. Cain proponents went to bed on Election Night 1994 convinced he was a civilian again, but he escaped and hasn't done as poorly since then. His last two challengers turned out to have what you might call exploitable political flaws; Cain got to them before they got to him and has tenaciously held the seat. Deuell is a fresh candidate, though, and the Republicans would like some insurance in case the SD-3 race goes against them. They'll pour money into Deuell's effort and try once again to take the district.

Texas House: Same Geography, Different Races

East Texas is also the scene of some of the warmest House races, many of them in areas that overlap those two Senate races. That'll mean some sharing of organization and some coordinated campaigning. If you watch closely, it'll tell you where the money is. If your favorite candidate in SD-3 is ignoring your favorite House candidate by avoiding joint appearances and the like, chances are the House candidate is on the outs. The bigwigs will stick with the Senate candidates no matter what; if they're fair-weather friends, the House candidates will be the ones who feel it.

Start in the north. Rep. Betty Brown, a first-term Republican from Terrell, is getting a challenge in HD-4 from Charles Elliot, a former member of the State Democratic Executive Committee and a retired political science professor at East Texas State University. He's better connected that the average tenderfoot and some Democrats think he could pull a surprise. The Republicans aren't convinced, but they're watching. The next one's a flip, with Democrats unpanicked and Republicans licking their chops: Rep. Bob Glaze, D-Gilmer, faces former Rep. Bill Hollowell of Grand Saline.

Nearby is HD-9, currently held by Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center. He's high on the Democratic target list; they think Joe Evans, until this year the Nacogdoches County sheriff, has a good shot at knocking him off even though the incumbent won handily last time. Republicans went on early alert and Christian is ahead in the money game, but this one goes on the hot list.

So does HD-11, the spot left open by Staples' Senate run. Paul Woodard, a Republican Palestine banker, beat a better-financed candidate in the primary; Democrat Chuck Hopson, a Jacksonville pharmacist, beat an Austin favorite in his primary. Both candidates share political consultants with their respective Senate candidates, tangling the race with the SD-3 contest. It's highly competitive.

House Targets in the Southeast and Coast

Rep. Dan Ellis, D-Livingston, beat Ben Bius of Huntsville by 793 votes two years ago, and Bius is back to see if that margin narrows. HD-18 is one of a handful of races where the GOP is betting on sheer growth. They contend that people are moving in, that those people are conservative, and that that will make the difference. Full boil.

Also on the list in that area, though at a lower temperature, is a rematch between Rep. Zeb Zbranek, D-Winnie, and Eddie Shauberger, a Republican from Liberty in HD-20. Zbranek won by 3,500 votes last time. Shauberger suffered some hits two years ago, but has more local support now.

Put the next one, in HD-21, on the hot list. Rep. Alan Ritter, D-Nederland, faces Mary Jane Avery of Beaumont. He won by 2,200 votes over a different opponent two years ago. But Avery is a better candidate and has a decent Rolodex: She was a member of the State Republican Executive Committee and, like Elliot in HD-4, has more experience than most newbies. She'll also have money. One other element is that Sen. David Bernsen, D-Beaumont, helped drive up Democratic turnout two years ago, helping Ritter and others. He's not on the ballot this year.

You'll get mixed reactions on the Galveston races if you talk to the same Republicans we hit: They're interested in HD-23, the seat held by Democrat Rep. Patricia Gray, but she won last time against a well-financed opponent, and there's a faction in the GOP that is arguing loudly to hold down the number of targeted races. They aimed at 22 last time, and some would like to keep it to a more carefully chosen half-dozen or so races this year. If Jeff Harrison, a League City banker, shows some movement, official Republican interest might turn his way. The Democrats say Gray should be safe. The GOP is even less confident about knocking off Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston in HD-24. But if the momentum moves for Republicans this year, John Hart, the Republican, could get some help.

Rep. Robby Cook III, D-Eagle Lake, won easily two years ago. Don't put him on your endangered species list, but the Republicans have high hopes for -- read that to say they'll probably send money to -- Phil Stephenson, an accountant and pro baseball scout from Wharton.

Two more for the "maybe" list: Rep. Ignacio Salinas Jr., D-San Diego, faces Darrell Brownlow in HD-44. At least one Republican affinity group is high on this one, and they might pump in some cash to make it interesting. That said, that's a solidly Democratic district and makes an odd target. And in Houston, Rep. Ken Yarbrough, a perennial target of the GOP, faces Victoria Frayser. It's not at the top of the GOP agenda, but it could move up if Frayser makes some headway.

House Incumbents Along the Vegetation Line

Pull out a map and draw a wide area from about the midpoint on the Red River down to the Hill Country. That strip through the middle of the state has been a battleground for most of the decade and it's the site this year of two of the races at the top of the GOP's hit list.

If the Republicans have a top target, it's Rep. Bob Turner, D-Voss. He's in conservative HD-73. On paper, the Republicans believe, a second-grader could see that the Democrats shouldn't win. Turner, however, has held it for ten years and keeps defying the theoretical odds. The Democrats think he'll do it again. He faces Steve Fryar, son of a successful businessman from Brown County, and that's what the GOP thinks will turn the trick: Brown County is the population center, more or less, of the sprawling district. The theory is that a local boy will out-poll the incumbent there and win the race.

HD-59 is held by first-term Rep. David Lengefeld, D-Hamilton. Lengefeld won the election for an open seat two years ago after Rep. Allen Place, D-Gatesville, retired. Place nearly lost two years before that, but Lengefeld won comfortably. The GOP recruited a new candidate for this year -- Sid Miller of Stephenville -- and he's one of the candidates they'll back heavily. The elders on the GOP side say he's one of their best challengers ever, and they're downright excited. This one starts at a boil.

On the watch list: Rep. Rick Hardcastle, R-Vernon, is on the Democrat's target list. He was first elected in 1998, taking HD-68 from a Democrat. Their candidate is Betty Furr Ritchie, a teacher. Republicans are watching, but not setting off alarms. Democrats claim it's a sleeper.

One More in Texas, Three in Washington

The last of the hot spots in the Texas Legislature is in what has been a reliably Democratic district in the People's Republic of Austin. Rep. Sherri Greenberg, D-Austin, isn't seeking reelection, and Democrat Ann Kitchen and Republican Jill Warren are vying for the HD-48 job. Both are lawyers, which isn't the curse in Austin it might be elsewhere. The district includes a chunk of Democratic central Austin and a chunk of more conservative -- possibly even Republican -- suburban Travis County. It's marginally Democratic, but it's not impossible for the Republicans. The Democrats have a well-respected street machine in the district for getting out votes, but Republicans are building detailed local target lists for the first time and have one at least one high-profile local race there. Top it off with rumors of a big push for the GOP from U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in Travis County.

We saved congressional races for last, mainly because we've mentioned them previously. In CD-5, U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, faces a well-financed challenge from Democrat Regina Montoya Coggins. On the surface, it's all his. A good chunk of the district is to the east of Dallas County and the conventional wisdom is that the eastern part of the district will be tough on a Republican female with a Hispanic name. But both sides are taking this seriously, partly because they're not buying the conventional wisdom (Democrats, who have an ambitious Get-Out-The-Vote program for the race) or because she's raised an astonishing amount of money for a challenger (Republicans, who otherwise weren't inclined to think Sessions would have a hard time). Hot race.

Also on the national Republican and Democratic targets: U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Surfside, faces a rematch with Loy Sneary in CD-14. Paul has more money, in part because he has a national fundraising base that's unusual for a member of Congress who's not in the leadership. He sported a Libertarian label for a while, still pulls support from check-writers of that persuasion. But Sneary is also well funded and this could be interesting.

A couple of other races merit mention. U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, has a feistier-than-expected challenger in Curtis Clinesmith, a Denton lawyer. Clinesmith wasn't on the official party radar, but was raising money at a decent clip at the midyear point and could get some outside help if he shows some results. Put it on the watch list. In CD-1, U.S. Rep. Max Sandlin, D-Marshall, drew a challenge from actor Noble Willingham that got a lot of early attention that has since cooled some. He was in a movie called "The Corndog Man" that may prove to be a better cinematic achievement than a political one.

Political Briefs

They telegraphed their punch, but now it's here: U.S. Reps. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, and Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, won endorsements from the National Federation of Independent Business. They were left out in an earlier round. Brady is unopposed in his reelection bid, but Thornberry has the contest noted above... We don't use anonymous stuff in Quotes of the Week, but if we did, we'd have used this from a Republican in a relatively lofty place: "If Bush had coattails, there would be 90 Republicans in the Texas House"... Rep. Todd Staples blunts anti-union attacks with news that his dad was the union president for Local 90 of the Glass Bottle-Blowers Union for Glass Containers Corp... Rick and Anita Perry are the hosts and Pete and Nelda Laney are the honorary co-chairs of a "Texas Conference for Women," on Oct. 10 in Austin. That'll address "issues facing women today." The list of speakers includes Condoleezza Rice, foreign affairs advisor to George W. Bush; Charlotte Beers, chairman of J. Walter Thompson company, Christine Haubegger, publisher of Latina magazine, and Pat Mitchell, president and CEO of the Public Broadcasting System. Look at www.txconferenceforwomen.org for more info.

Law Enforcement or State Employees?

The push for a permanent pay raise for correction officers in the Texas prison system takes another turn with a push from union guards for a new classification system that would define the prison folk as law enforcement personnel instead of as state employees. The theory is that they have more interests in common with the first group than with the second. There are a couple of twists and turns in this. The proposal made by guards who belong to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is in line, financially, with what the prison system has requested; the new pay scale syncs with the budget proposed by the administration.

As a former presidential candidate would say, here's the beauty part: The AFSCME plan puts the prison workers in the so-called "Salary Schedule C." That bit of bureaucratic magic means lawmakers could raise prison pay without being forced to ripple the same raises to all government employees.

The genesis for that was in last session's compromise. Guards asked for more money, as did state employees. Budgeteers combined the requests, installed a $100-a-month raise for everyone and went home. Earlier this year, when turnover and tensions in the prisons peaked, lawmakers did an emergency raise for the corrections employees, giving some of them additional raises of $139 a month.

That's a temporary fix that expires a year from now, and the guards are putting up their own proposal for consideration with other permanent fixes. On the bottom end, their plan would increase pay to $20,592 from the current $18,924. Officers with more than eight years on the job would earn $36,660, up from $28,380. Pay at the top, for experienced majors, would jump to $46,404 from $35,100.

Flotsam and Jetsam

We noted a week back that state agencies have stacked up more than $6 billion in budget requests, which relates not only to the item above but to the following: Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander says, officially this time, that the state ended the fiscal year a few days ago with $1.45 billion more than she estimated at the end of last session. That means, roughly speaking, that revenues are ahead of spending by that amount. It means that something like that amount could be available for new spending when the Legislature talks about the next budget. The quick-and-dirty trick is to double that amount and use it as a guesstimate for what will be available at the end of the two-year budget cycle. That's about $3 billion. Subtract the $610 million that lawmakers have already agreed to spend over and above the budget amounts. Rank the pleas for more spending on teachers, prisons, state employees, schools, and your favorite program.

• Auditors at the Texas Department of Health turned up some alleged Medicaid fraud on the part of three drug companies, turned it over to Attorney General John Cornyn, and now it's a lawsuit. The state contends Dey, Inc; Roxane Laboratories, Inc.; and Warrick Pharmaceuticals Corp. overcharged the state's Medicaid program for prescription drugs by inflating their bills to the state. If the state prevails, that $20 million-plus overcharge will turn into refunds and penalties over $79 million.

• This got ignored when it came out, but it's worth mentioning for people who like closure in their lives. The last snap of the towel on the Texas-bashing front came from the Democrats, who dredged up a mess of George W. Bush material from 1994, when he was bashing then-Gov. Ann Richards' performance. Cry apples and oranges if you're on the other side: Most of what he said then bashed the government of the state and its programs. Most of what he's getting kicked for nationally is the state of the state and the people in it, with emphasis on what government did or didn't do to cause it.

• We quietly passed the deadline for deletions and additions to the state ballots, and the Secretary of State should be able to get an official version out soon. The deletions are done as we go to press, but there was, at deadline, another day for additions. None were expected, but we'll check back. Adds can only be made if a candidate was incapacitated, named to another office or if nobody else is running.

• Late breaker: Look for some East Texas endorsements in the next couple of days from the Texas Public Employees Association. They're going with Sen. David Cain, D-Dallas, and Reps. Dan Ellis, Alan Ritter and Zeb Zbranek for reelection, and with Todd Staples in the SD-3 Senate race.

Political People and Their Moves

Political consultant Jeff Fisher, who was with Winning Strategies at one time and who did some work for the Free Market Foundation, is now a candidate for county judge in Van Zandt County. The current judge announced his resignation just in time for others to get on the ballot. Fisher will run as a Republican against Cary Hilliard, a Democrat and former county commissioner... Monty Wynn leaves the House Committee on Public Education, where he was clerking, to move to the offices of Sen. David Bernsen, D-Beaumont. He'll do policy work for Bernsen... Arnold Viramontes' resignation as chief at the Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund was effective at the first of the month. He's gone out on his own, and the agency is in the final rounds of selecting a new executive director... Laugh if you must, but we've been predicting for some time that the next big petty fight in the Legislature will come from the selection of a Texas symbol to put on the back of a quarter when it's the Lone Star State's turn for that honor from the U.S. Mint. The Alamo groupies can fight with the supporters of the cotton boll and against the promoters of the star, a picture of the state and this or that skyline. Redistricting will look like a warm-up. Gov. Bush appointed the 15 people who'll recommend designs. The governor will give five designs to the Mint in June 2002. Among the appointees are Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, Rep. Bob Hunter, R-Abilene, author and historian T.R. Fehrenbach, Houston Museum of Fine Arts director Peter Marzio, El Paso artist Bob Snead, Dallas attorney Robert Estrada and a number of other history, coin and art experts. There are also two political and corporate advertising consultants, Lionel Sosa of San Antonio and David Weeks of Austin... Deaths: Austin attorney Wade Spilman, a former member of the Texas House and longtime managing partner of the McGinnis Lochridge and Kilgore law firm. He was 75.

Quotes of the Week

Gov. George W. Bush, accidentally telling everyone what he thinks privately about a particular reporter whose coverage has been bugging him: "There's Adam Clymer, major-league asshole from The New York Times." Veep candidate Richard Cheney, in reply: "Oh, yeah, he is, big time."

The closing lines of an email chasing down donors for Joe Lieberman fundraisers in Austin, sent to techies by Austin Ventures honcho John Thornton: "If you are, shall we say, unsympathetic with the cause, have a good chuckle at how hard we Yellow Dogs are having to peddle to stay in the race with George W.'s Texas juggernaut."

Pollster John Zogby, on the idea that 90 percent of Americans have made up their minds and that the outcome of the presidential race is up to a small number of undecided voters: "That's the gold. Kind of sobering isn't it? Three-quarters of a million to a million voters in 10 states."

Jesse Hibbetts of the Brazosport Chamber of Commerce, telling the Houston Chronicle why that county shouldn't be included in restrictions stemming from dirty air over Houston: "We don't think what we do affects Houston. The air and water in our county is cleaner than it's been in 40 years."

U.S. Rep. and former Fort Worth Mayor Kay Granger, expressing the local reaction to a Census Bureau proposal that would lump all of the cities in the Metroplex into the statistical "Dallas combined area": "They still act like we're a suburb of something, and we ain't nobody's stinkin' suburb."

Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, to a committee witness on the unintended consequences that sometimes arise from new legislation: "You are presupposing that laws get passed for a reason."

Rep. Glen Maxey, D-Austin, who wants the Legislature to meet now to make repairs ordered by a federal judge to the state's Medicaid program: "I was a legislative aide in this building when we had a special session to vaccinate every cow in Texas, and today we're having to stand up here and think about whether we would have a special session and move today in keeping kids from dying in Texas?"

University of Texas football Coach Mack Brown, on the other season that's getting underway: "When I got this job, I asked Coach [Darrell]Royal, 'What's the best thing about coaching football at Texas?' He said, 'There are 6 million people that really care. Then I asked him, 'What's the worst thing about coaching football at Texas?' He said, 'There are 6 million people that really care.'"


Texas Weekly: Volume 17, Issue 11, 11 September 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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