Six weeks away from the election and most of the political conversation in Texas is about a contest that isn't even being fought in the state. You might have expected attention to turn from national stuff to local stuff by now, but local stuff isn't as interesting as the closest presidential race in the last 20 years. If you're in our business, that means you call folks to see what's happening in this race or that one, they want to talk about the presidential polls in Ohio and Florida.
Gov. George W. Bush is going to win here, according to every Democrat and Republican we've talked to or heard about. Vice President Al Gore and the Democrats are mining Texas for presidential money, but aren't wasting any of the proceeds here. Texas' 32 electoral votes are with the governor and that leaves little reason for voters of either party here to get all worked up.
There's not a crowd draw in the next race, either. U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Dallas, faces Democrat Gene Kelly of Universal City. He had $52 in the bank on his last report, and Hutchison could collect even more votes than Bush. There are a few congressional races that could draw interest, and a few legislative races that could get attention, but local doings haven't overshadowed interest in presidential politics. None of the hotly contested races has much hold on the state's five biggest metropolitan areas, with the exception of East Dallas and the suburbs north of Houston. The big population centers will need some serious prodding if they're going to turn out.
All politics is local, according to the elders. But the race that's generating the most talk in Texas isn't local in the obvious sense. Bush is expected to win Texas whether voters wake up or not.
...But It's Intensely Local for Political People
That's where there's a difference between rank-and-file voters and the rest of us. Officeholders, their aides and hacks, financial contributors and the political press see at least as much local consequence in the national race as in any of the contests closer to home. Underneath, everything about the presidential race is of local interest, because the local political landscape is at stake.
The argument from this end is that most Texas voters are watching the presidential race for the same reason they watch Super Bowl games featuring teams they've never followed. Overall interest is down, but there's still an audience. So it goes with a presidential election. Sure, the partisan mix in the state Senate is at stake, but try to get your cousin in Angleton excited about that. The only thing that might boost statewide turnout, as we've noted, is a desire among voters to take part in a close Bush-Gore race whether it's decided here or not. Beyond that, there's little for the average voter to chew on.
Junkies are sort of interested in the presidential race; after all, there's a ton of Texas money at stake in those campaign accounts. But the local angle is the succession game and not just for officeholders. What generates buzz and overshadows talk of local ballots is the speculation in the ranks. It's not about the officeholders, but about those whose fortunes are determined by what happens to the Big Folk. The subtext of the presidential contest: What does it mean for political people in Texas?
A Bush win means a big shift in the political rank-and-file; many of those people who've been obsessing about moving to Washington, D.C., might actually get to do so. That frees space on any number of smaller ladders in Texas. A loss, on the other hand, would leave all those aides, consultants and staffers right where they were in the first place, with their hopes dashed and with a new competition set up between them and everyone who, for a moment, aspired to their jobs. If local hopes are pinned on something that's happening elsewhere, that outside event is a local story.
Escapees Held Hostage
This is a snapshot of a thing in motion: The court was still in session in Polk County when we went to press. But the effort to knock 9,000 people off the voter rolls in that East Texas county attracted some strong talent, some odd arguments and might have some lasting effect.
A quick catch-up: Three people filed petitions with the county tax assessor-collector there challenging the rights of about 9,000 people to vote. The folks in question list the Escapees RV Park as their place of residence. It's a place where you can pull up your recreational vehicle after a tough trek through the Grand Canyon. You can stay for a short time, a few weeks, or even make it semi-permanent. But there are more people registered to vote there than there are places to park. They vote Republican, on average. And some Democrats would like to knock them off the rolls.
The protests were convincing enough that the tax assessor, Bid Smith, started sending letters to the voters from the Escapee park, telling them to get back to him if they were really residing in Polk County. He mailed 1,000 of those before he stopped, at the urging of state officials who say they wanted to sort things out before he mailed all 9,000 notices.
That catches you up to where we were a week ago, more or less. Since then, a state judge entered a temporary order keeping the county from firing off any more notices. Still open at our deadline were the questions of whether the rest of the voters ought to be kicked out, or whether the 1,000 who got notices should be sent a "never mind" message.
Whatever the court decides, this is a curious fight. It attracted Republicans to a voting fight that is normally the territory of Democrats. It pushed some Democrats into an argument that sounds vaguely disingenuous. And it gave several campaigns a reason to gulp and cough. [The ruling, which came in too late for our print edition, allows the county to send out the rest of the notices. Voters will have a chance to send them back in to register for the election, but the ruling will likely result in fewer registered voters in Polk County.]
A Legal and Political Talent Show
Now that they've digested things a bit, look at the talent this thing attracted.
Officially, the state of Texas is in court against Smith, the tax assessor who started striking voters.
Randall "Buck" Wood of Austin, who's made a good part of his living on voting lawsuits, got involved on behalf of the people who challenged the rolls. Those folks also have a Dallas lawyer to represent them in court. Oddly, they went to Baron and Budd, a Dallas firm that specializes in asbestos and so-called "toxic tort" cases and doesn't have much reputation for voting issues.
But their lawyer has some connections to the district. Kevin McHargue worked in the Pink Building while he was in law school, for then-Sen. Jim Turner, D-Crockett. Turner is now a U.S. Congressman, and Polk County is in his congressional district. And Turner also has some political consultants in common with David Fisher. The Austin firm of Emery Young has been active in that part of the state, working on voter turnout and identification. That firm's name appears on the lists of questionable voters that were presented to Smith.
Andy Taylor, the first assistant to Attorney General John Cornyn, handled the other side of the case his own self, without sending a junior officer into combat. Not on the state side, but in a sympathetic position, was Larry York, an Austin attorney who helped on Cornyn's transition into office and who represented Texans for Lawsuit Reform in legislative negotiations a few years ago. He was there this time on behalf of some of the residents of the RV park who actually live there and whose names were included on the lists of people who should be struck.
This one has ten loads of details to sort, but here's what's at stake. Polk County votes for Democrats in most down-ballot races. It votes for Republicans at the top of the ballot. In 1998, the county voted strongly for George W. Bush, then started splitting tickets. Democrats John Sharp and Paul Hobby won there, as did Republicans Cornyn, David Dewhurst and Susan Combs. U.S. Rep. Turner lost narrowly in the county. State Rep. Dan Ellis, D-Livingston, won. But if you take out the RV park, according to knowledgeable local and state politicos, the Republican strength would nearly vanish. That would be bad news for two candidates in particular: Todd Staples, who's running for Senate against Fisher, and Ben Bius, who's up against Ellis. The court ruling could decide their races.
Deafening Silence in a Couple of Hot Races
Texans for Lawsuit Reform is sticking with Republicans in open seats, but endorsed a couple of Democrats who hold seats on the GOP's wish list. The tort reform group is at least temporarily staying out of a couple of races on that same list, however. And they're not signed up in one of the races everyone is starting to watch: TLR has not jumped into the SD-2 race, where Sen. David Cain, D-Dallas, faces a challenge from Dr. Bob Deuell, a Greenville Republican.
Cain has fended off Republican challenges for several years in that district, but Republican groups have been touting the race this year and hint broadly that they'll pour in some money. The question du jour is whether TLR will weigh in, either with an endorsement or money or both. They last contributed to Cain in 1996, when they donated $10,000 to his campaign.
TLR endorsed Republican Jill Warren over Ann Kitchen in HD-48, not surprising since the Democrat is one of the few in the state who took a contribution directly from the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, which serves as Professor Moriarty to TLR's Sherlock Holmes. Warren got a check from one of the most prominent trial lawyers in the U.S., Joe Jamail of Houston, but said he's an old family friend. Apparently, TLR was unfazed.
The group tapped Paul Woodard in another prominent open seat race, the HD-11 contest between him and Democrat Chuck Hopson. They're running for the seat now held by Rep. Todd Staples, TLR's pick in the only open seat Senate race in the state. The other candidate, David Fisher, is a lawyer. In his version, he's a defense lawyer; in Staples' version, he's a trial lawyer.
The tort reformers say they'll back Republican Reps. Betty Brown of Terrell, Wayne Christian of Center, and Rick Hardcastle of Vernon. They're all on the Democrat's hit list, and the first two are at the top of it. TLR is also backing some targeted Democrats, including Reps. Bob Turner of Voss and Robby Cook III of Eagle Lake. Turner is at the top of the GOP hit list.
Three races that could be close aren't on the tout list, at least not now. The group hasn't endorsed Rep. Alan Ritter, D-Nederland, but will probably stay out of that race since he hasn't done anything they consider hostile. Reps. Dan Ellis, D-Livingston, and David Lengefeld, D-Hamilton, are also missing from the endorsement lists. Those two freshmen aren't on TLR's list of friends.
Smoking Prose and a Finance Follow-up
Louis Dubose, former editor of the Texas Observer and now a political writer at the Austin Chronicle, has signed a deal to write a book on the Texas tobacco settlement. The Observer is a liberal paper, and Dubose is the co-author, with Molly Ivins, of Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush. He won't start work on the tobacco book until after the November elections, but the Republicans are already spinning, saying he clearly can't be fair about the subject. For his part, Dubose says it's an interesting story with bigger-than-life characters, including Bush, Attorney General John Cornyn and his predecessor Dan Morales, five extremely rich trial lawyers who split the money from the case, and any number of other interesting players. And Dubose has a secret the Republicans might not suspect: A Bush victory in November would probably boost sales of both books, he says
• Rewind to last week, when we wrote about Lt. Gov. Rick Perry and Allied Domecq Spirits and Wine USA PAC. They gave Perry $4,000 in March and were listed as a sponsor for his Austin funder earlier this month. Questions came up because one of the company's former executives is in legal trouble -- he's been indicted and is in Spain at last word. But Perry's folks checked around, and decided Michael Domecq's problems don't taint the contribution. Domecq, the executive in question, didn't contribute to the PAC and hasn't been on the company payroll for a couple of years. Perry's folks, after they exhaled in relief, said they'd keep the dough.
This Week's Hot Senate Rumors, Debunked
We got a little missive (or missile, if you prefer) detailing a legislative junket down to the flight numbers and the hotel accommodations. But the anonymous writer got the naughty bits wrong.
Sen. David Sibley, R-Waco, did take three colleagues to New York to talk to officials with AT&T, one of the companies that often has business with the Texas Senate Economic Development Committee. The quartet, which included Sens. Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria, Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, and Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, also played golf. They went and saw The Lion King on Broadway. They ate the kind of fancy food that makes cardiologists glower.
What they didn't do, they say, was travel on a lobby or corporate tab.
Sibley, who's running openly to succeed Lt. Gov. Rick Perry if George W. Bush wins and Perry gets promoted, picked up the check for the trek, aides say. AT&T set up some meetings for the legislators, but Sibley paid for planes, meals, hotels, tickets and fees.
• While the debunking squad is on patrol, kick aside the rumor, if you've heard it, that Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, is endorsing a Republican against Rep. Jim Solis, D-Harlingen. Lucio didn't go so far as to say he is endorsing Solis, but says he has not endorsed the Republican in the race -- Chris Hughston of Los Fresnos -- and doesn't intend to.
He did take the opportunity, however, to say that he has "a long memory" and recalls Solis' help for Miguel Wise, who was Lucio's opponent in the 1994 Democratic primary (Wise is now a House member). But Lucio says he's not working against Solis.
This features the if-only crowd vs. the but-for crowd. The Bush campaign sent out an email to supporters and others that compares 2000 to 1960, saying that if just 40,829 more people had showed up to vote, Richard Nixon would have beat John Kennedy in that year's presidential race.
By their count, one more vote per precinct in Illinois, and three per precinct in Missouri and New Jersey would have tossed the election to the GOP. Separately, the Democrats make the same argument. But instead of saying "If only" those people had voted, they say Kennedy would have lost "but for" the fact that more Democrats showed up at the polls on that Election Day 40 years ago.
Both parties are spooked by the same pieces of conventional wisdom. One, this presidential race is tight as the bark on a tree, with most polls showing the two tickets within the margin of error. And two, voters don't seem particularly enthused and many political hacks around the country are predicting low voter turnouts. That's why you see all the "every vote counts" arguments.
And both parties are running intensive email campaigns to get people to register to vote and then to turn out. That's an old idea, but the first large-scale use of the Internet in a GOTV campaign.
Separate, but in the same vein: The Houston Chronicle is running full-page public service ads telling people they'll lose their right to vote in large print and reminding them, in smaller print after the shock sinks in, to register by October 10.
• Attorney General John Cornyn popped out an "Internet Bureau" with an $863,000 grant from the governor's office to specialize in online and high-tech crime. It'll have a staff of 10 people, including attorneys and investigators, and will be headed by Reid Wittliff, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Dallas. The kickoff included the filing of lawsuits against a couple of companies that allegedly ran illegal pyramid schemes on the net; the crimes are old, but the technology is new.
• Brown University says Texas is ahead of other states, believe it or not, in use of the Internet by government. Researchers looked at 27 things on their checklist, compared what they found in the 50 states, and did a ranking. The good news is that Texas came in first. The bad news is that the state had a score of 51 out of a possible 100. You can see the entire report at Inside Politics.
Cussing, Spinning and Other News
Bush's remarks about New York Times reporter Adam Clymer are old news, and apparently weren't that big a deal when they were in the papers and on television every day. The Vanishing Voter poll being done by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard found that 52 percent of Americans heard about the comments. Of those, 86 percent remembered Bush as the candidate who made them and 70 percent said he had made a profane statement. Only 18 percent of them said it affected their opinion of the governor, with 7 percent saying they thought more of him and 11 claiming to think less of him.
• Ouch: Karen Hughes got busted for her enthusiastic spin after the boss appeared on Oprah Winfrey's show. Bush did fine, but according to ABC News, Hughes came into the press room after the show and said the campaign was getting congratulatory calls from supporters all over the country. The problem? Only Chicago viewers see the show live; the rest of the country saw it after Hughes made note of the "overwhelmingly positive" response in other cities.
• Following the fires in East Texas? Don't look for federal help. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, reiterated its position against declaring an extreme fire emergency, as requested by Gov. Bush, in 195 Texas counties. Not all of those have fires, but they're all at risk, according to state officials. The federal folks say the dangers here "do not appear to be a substantial threat to people, homes and property." State officials were hoping for the emergency declarations, but FEMA says its grant program is probably sufficient to take care of what's needed here. The difference is that the state won't be fully reimbursed for what it costs to control the fires. But if the fires get worse, the feds say the reimbursement amounts will rise.
• Random financial note: The Texas Lottery's recent boomlet might be a sign of good things to come, but the immediate past is still cloudy. The lottery brought in net revenue of $889 million in Fiscal Year 2000. That's $133 million short of what the number-crunchers had estimated it would bring in, and that number, in turn, was lower than what the numbers game brought in the previous year. Lotto aficionados have their fingers crossed that the new and higher odds will increase jackpots, thus increasing player interest and sales, thus increasing state revenues, and thus erasing the scowls on budgeteers at the state Capitol.
The "Other" CHIP
The children of state employees aren't eligible for the Children's Health Insurance Program, aka CHIP. That's the program that provides health insurance for kids who don't qualify for Medicaid but whose family incomes are less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
As it turns out, the state set up a separate program, called the State Kids Insurance Program, or SKIP, that subsidizes health insurance for children of state employees who otherwise meet the CHIP requirements. For instance, a state employee with a family of four with an annual income of $34,100 or less would qualify. CHIP enrollment now exceeds 100,000. The preliminary numbers show SKIP has signed up 6,026 children from the families of 2,768 state employees.
It's probably not enough people to cause budget pain, but the state doesn't have a handle on how many kids could end up on the SKIP rolls. Since they don't keep track of family incomes of state employees (they don't know what the spouses earn and don't always know how many children are in the families) state officials say they don't have good estimates of how many people qualify for SKIP.
• Last week, we noted an upcoming vote on Medicaid that would have let people renew their benefits each year without going to a state office for a face-to-face interview. That's still in the works, but it stalled unexpectedly because of concerns over a federal lawsuit. The board at the Department of Human Services, on the advice of the attorney general's office, put off what was expected to be a vote to allow telephone interviews for recertifications. The AG's office didn't want the changes to Medicaid tangled with its appeal of a federal ruling that says the state wasn't doing what it promised in other areas of the Medicaid program. The lawyers wanted to make sure the two things are distinct before DHS moves ahead, and that'll delay the simplification effort for at least a month.
Political People and Their Moves
Hector Gutierrez Jr. is teaming up with Buddy Jones and Bill Miller to form a new partnership called hg Hillco (no typo -- it's lower-case) that will be an affiliate to Hillco Partners. Gutierrez dropped his lobbying for a year to help Lt. Gov. Rick Perry when Perry was elected two years ago. He went solo after that, and the new deal gives him a support staff to build business here and in Latin America... The board of the Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund hired Robert "Sam" Tessen as executive director. He had been in charge of the Center for Rural Health Initiatives and was chosen from a list of, gulp, 200 candidates. The former director, Arnold Viramontes, has started a consulting practice in Austin... A few Senate moves for your consumption: Jennifer Moore, chief of staff to Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, is leaving for the world outside the Pink Building. Communications director Suzanne Sanders will take over as chief. Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, is losing Judith Talavera to American Electric Power (that's the Ohio company that gobbled up Central & Southwest). And Lara Wendler is leaving the Senate Redistricting Committee to go work for Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston... Kathy Miller, deputy director at the Texas Freedom Network, is leaving that post to be communications director for the Texas Council on Family Violence... Harry Middleton is retiring from the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum at UT Austin. He's been at it for 30 years, and might be best known for opening tapes of Johnson's phone conversations years earlier than scheduled for the benefit of historians and the public... There goes another government worker: Colleen Ryan is leaving Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Michael Williams to join Aperian, an Austin-based dot-com... Craig Casselberry moved his grassroots consulting shop, Quorum Direct, to Austin from Houston. He'll keep the Houston office open, but the capital is now headquarters... Honored: Texas prison chief Wayne Scott, named a distinguished alumni at Sam Houston State University, and Railroad Commissioner Charles Matthews, who is getting the "Alfred M. Zuck Public Courage Award" from the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration... Appointments: Gov. Bush named Dr. James Sweatt III to be a regent at Texas State University System, replacing Floyd Nickerson, who resigned... Deaths: Bill Malone, for years the only man in Texas paid to shoot governors. Malone was the official photographer for nine governors starting with Beauford Jester in 1947 and ending with Ann Richards in 1991. He was 76... H.C. "Pitt" Pittman, who headed the State Bar of Texas, lobbied for the auto dealers, lawyered, served on several state boards, and wrote a book on Texas politics called Inside the Third House. He was 82... Charles Williams, the Marshall Police Chief whose comments about blacks led the NAACP to call for his resignation from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards earlier this year. Williams, who had liver cancer, was 58.
Quotes of the Week
Gov. George W. Bush, on the biggest misconception about him: "Probably, I'm running on my daddy's name, that, you know, if my name were George Jones, I'd be a country and western singer."
From Charles Cook of The Cook Report, on the gender gap: "If you were going to design a party to go after female voters, it would look precisely like the Democratic Party. If you were going to design a party to go after male voters, it would look exactly like the Republican Party."
Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes, on the same subject, also talking to ABC News: "A lot of swing voters are women, and by their nature that means they're volatile."
Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, using citizens to demand more from the troubled Dallas Independent School District: "If you're unhappy with the leadership, go vote. Do something about it."
Dallas school trustee Ron Price, reacting to the mayor's speech: "You can criticize the board all you want, but none of us has been to jail and none of us has been indicted."
Film director John Waters, on political calls for change in Hollywood: "I think this is all ludicrous. You tell a kid there's something they're not allowed to see and of course they want to see it. You show me a kid who's not sneaking into R-rated movies, and I'll show you a failure in the making. The future CEO's of American are all sneaking into R-rated movies."
Texas Weekly: Volume 17, Issue 13, 25 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. For news, email email@example.com, or call (512) 288-6598.
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