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A Truly Fantastic Week for Political Junkies

Okay, okay, so we failed to predict that the Presidency of the United States would be decided by a smaller margin than most races for the Texas House of Representatives. Whodathunkit? The initial Florida margin of 1,784 votes would make for a nail-biter in a major county commissioner's race.

Okay, okay, so we failed to predict that the Presidency of the United States would be decided by a smaller margin than most races for the Texas House of Representatives. Whodathunkit? The initial Florida margin of 1,784 votes would make for a nail-biter in a major county commissioner's race.

The Big Kahuna comes down to the same mundane details that would come to play in the smallest conflict, like whether people punched their ballots right, or whether that guy with a duffel bag full of votes was an election thief or just a free-spirited angel of democracy, or whether the United States Postal Service was fleet-footed enough with those ballots from military voters living outside of Florida. The scale is bigger, but the mechanics are the same as in a backwoods race for Justice of the Peace.

The only bet that seemed relatively safe going into the elections was that Gov. George W. Bush would win the popular vote and that the contest for the highest office in the land would be an Electoral College race. Not one prominent pollster had Vice President Al Gore in the popular vote lead. In Texas in particular, Bush was supposed to stack up a huge lead that Gore would never overcome with his own victories in other states. Bush, in fact, got his big win in Texas, collecting 1,368,018 more votes than Gore. But the Veep racked up his own big numbers in other large states, like New York, and came out – narrowly – with more popular votes. Nationally, Gore ended up with a preliminary total of just 97,773 more votes than Bush. A fair number of candidates who won U.S. House elections on Tuesday, including 11 of the 30 from Texas, did so with fatter margins than that.

For Down-Ballot Candidates, No Help from the Top

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, second on the ballot behind Bush, increased the GOP margin over the Democrats. After dropping a huge wad of money – well over $2 million – on the state's grateful television stations, Hutchison beat Universal City attorney Gene Kelly by 2,054,439 votes.

Bush ended up with 59.3 percent of the vote in Texas; Hutchison topped him, getting 65.1 percent of the support in her race and also gathering a greater number of raw votes. Side note: Both Bush and Hutchison ran stronger, by two or three percentage points, in early voting than they did on Election Day. Bush had 63 percent of the support from early voters. Hutchison got 67.4 percent.

But after they were finished with their business at the top of the ballot, Texans renewed their reputations for party disloyalty. They switched from their overwhelming support of those two Republicans to reelect Democrats to the U.S. House in 17 of the state's 30 congressional districts, then skipped back to the GOP for statewide Texas races. They then voted to lightly retouch the Texas Senate and the Texas House with no net change in partisan makeup, leaving both legislative chambers to handle redistricting and other issues with near parity between the political parties. Incumbents did well: The state's congressional delegation won't have a single new face; the Texas Senate got only one new face in the elections, and the 150-member Texas House got only a dozen new faces, if you include members who were seated in special elections earlier in the year.

What does it mean? The Senate remains a Republican weakhold, with 16 of its 31 members coming from the GOP. It takes a 21-vote majority to really run the Senate, but the slight lean could be important when the Senate picks a presiding officer (if Bush wins and Rick Perry advances) and when they vote on their rules at the beginning of the next session. The Democrats' similarly weak hold on the House remained in place: Republicans gained a seat in Central Texas at the same time they were losing one in East Texas. The House will convene in January with 78 Democrats and 72 Republicans.

Winning by Not Losing

Some reporters had the same reaction to the Democrats' post-election spin that a dog has when you make a funny noise: They leaned their heads to the side in the international sign for "HUH?"

It was weird, but the Democrats had a point. They say they won by not losing in a year when the ballot was top-heavy with Republicans and when the GOP and its various affinity groups spent scads of money trying to knock off the Democrats in the Legislature. Give them their due: They were under attack on the legislative front, and they did hold off the attackers, leaving the GOP with little to show for the all-out effort.

What was sacrificed in the process was any real attempt to contest the GOP on the statewide front. There were two chairs on the Texas Railroad Commission up for grabs and the usual shopping list of court seats. The Democrats left the oil regulation business to Republican incumbents Michael Williams and Charles Matthews. Each attracted opposition from the Libertarians and the Greens, and each won handily with 77.0 percent of the votes cast. With that dead-even tie on percentages, bragging rights, however slight, go to Matthews. His race was listed first, and attracted about 40,000 more voters. He ended up collecting 33,000 more votes than Williams.

The Democrats also skipped the three races for the Texas Supreme Court and didn't provide much backing to Bill Vance in his bid for presiding judge on the Court of Criminal Appeals or for William Barr, seeking another seat on that court. Both races went to the GOP with Sharon Keller winning the first and Barbara Parker Hervey winning the second, each with more than 56 percent of the vote. Republicans also won the two contested races on the State Board of Education. Cynthia Thornton won an open-seat race over Democrat Donna Howard and Libertarian Nancy Neale, and David Bradley, an incumbent, fought off a challenge from Fanniece Hawkins and Libertarian Richard Walker.

Put that Keller-Vance race down as your example when people ask about the value of newspaper endorsements. Editorials can hurt, but unless they make news, they don't help. For instance, it was notable when the Austin American-Statesman endorsed Gov. Bush for president because of that paper's history of backing Democrats. That made some news. And it hurts if a paper does a particularly harsh editorial against a candidate. But Vance pulled a hat trick, winning virtually all the endorsements available in the state. Neither side did significant advertising, so the editorials were one of the few distinctions made for voters. There was no apparent effect.

Off the Stump and Into the Map Room

The Republican Party line is that those statewide results and the sweep of other statewide offices by the GOP two years ago show that they are becoming the dominant party in the state. They continue to lose congressional and legislative challenges, they contend, only because a Democratic majority in the Legislature drew the maps in 1990. GOP partisans hope to take the Democratic tilt out of the playing field next session, but redistricting will be done by a Legislature with two houses that have nearly equal numbers of members from each party.

Republicans have argued for months that the state's population is moving in their direction and that redistricting will inevitably result in a greater number of GOP legislators. Democratic Party regulars have never completely agreed with that, and after the elections showed no partisan changes in either chamber, they were emboldened to call the day a victory for their side. In particular, Tuesday's results quiet whispered GOP challenges to House Speaker Pete Laney, the state's highest-ranking Democrat.

Republicans had control of the House at the top of their wish list this election year. Some were still working on it on Election Night, before all the results were in. Republicans who support Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, geared up as the polls closed to collect votes from House members to make him the new speaker if the races went their way. As with a similar but more famous effort two years ago, the political wave didn't come in and the surfers took their boards home until next time.

The Night Nothing Happened

The day ended without the naming of the next president. Nobody in the Texas congressional delegation quit, retired, died or got knocked off. Net change there: Zero. A Republican in the Texas Senate, Drew Nixon of Carthage, decided not to run for reelection and was replaced, after expensive and hard-fought primary and general elections, by a Republican. Net change in the Texas Senate: Zip. A freshman Democrat in the Texas House, David Lengefeld of Hamilton, was defeated by Republican Sid Miller of Stephenville. But the seat that had been held by the Republican who replaced Nixon went to Democrat Chuck Hopson. Net change in the House: Nada.

Some big election stories came from the might-have-beens. And somewhere, someone is crying over all that spilled money that resulted in so little change. Democrats were crowing about no change because they were playing defense against challengers from the Republican side. With only a few exceptions, Democrats didn't challenge Republican incumbents. Democrats can't brag of much offense, and Republicans can't boast of defensive power.

Sen. David Cain, D-Dallas, knocked off yet another well-financed Republican challenger, the third in a decade. He beat Dr. Bob Deuell of Greenville on Election Night by 11,966 votes, staving off a late strike by Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a Houston-based tort reform group that poured more than half a million dollars into the contest. Cain remained confident, but many of his supporters thought he was in trouble and predicted defeat. In the end, it wasn't a particularly close race. Cain snagged a 15,553-vote cushion in the Dallas County portion of the district and Deuell couldn't whittle it down.

Stapled.

The big Senate race of the year was immediately to the south, where Nixon's resignation set up a contest between Rep. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, and David Fisher, a Silsbee lawyer. Both were well financed from the outset, although Fisher's money supply shrunk in mid- to late-October, after polling showed the race slipping away. The financial part of the contest could be described, more or less accurately, as a contest between business and tort reformers on one side, and trial lawyers and unions on the other. Both sets of backers were nervous to the end.

TLR, mentioned above, provided much of the money and hand-wringing in the race, at one point dispatching their Austin lobbyist and their pollster, in the company of Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, to talk to Staples without interference from his main consultant on the race, Bryan Eppstein of Fort Worth. One irony is that Staples, with Eppstein on board, whipped that team's candidate, Les Tarrance of The Woodlands, in the GOP primary by a 70-20 margin. He won the general election by a wide margin, too, gathering 60.6 percent of the vote to Fisher's 39.6 percent and notching up another landslide.

Fisher had similar noise problems. His general consultant, Rindy/Miller/Bates of Austin, dropped off the team in October over differences in the way the campaign should be run. In place of that outfit was Austin-based Shipley & Associates, which was advising the campaign on a daily basis both before and after the general consultant bailed out.

Senate District 3 is a Republican district, and Staples predictably won in the heavily Republican areas. But he won without them, if you map it out. Even if you throw out the results in Montgomery County, where Staples won by more than 26,000 votes, Smith County, where he added 5,395, and Anderson, his home county, where he won by 2,862, he still would have beat Fisher.

Even Polk County, site of the Rainbow's End RV Park, didn't make a difference in the race. Staples won by 4,103 votes, but you could throw that out with the three big wins listed above and he would still have beat Fisher. Efforts by Democrats to knock members of that RV park off the ballot – since they live on the road most of the time and declare their residence in Livingston even if they're rarely there – were unsuccessful. But they stirred voters, and more than 6,000 absentee ballots came in from people who claimed the park as home. The fight over those voters spurred speculation that the election could hinge on whether they were knocked off the rolls or remained registered and got excited. The first possibility was supposed to help Republicans; the second, Democrats.

Much Ado About Polk County

Polk County didn't get Ben Bius over the top, either. The Republican from Huntsville came back for a rematch with Rep. Dan Ellis, D-Livingston, in a race that jumped into the close-contest category because of the fight over the RV voters. Heavy voting from the RV-ers was supposed to take Bius to the Texas House. But Democrats pulled enough votes together to survive a loss there, and by the time all the votes were counted – well after Gore had won and then not won and then Bush had won and then not won – Ellis was declared the victor. Ellis narrowly beat Bius in Polk County – his home county – two years ago, one of only a handful of Democrats to win there. The presidential contest boosted overall turnout, as did growth in the county in general and in the RV precinct in particular, but Ellis out-performed other Democrats in that county by five or six percentage points and held his loss to 835 votes. Bius lost in his own home of Walker County by 708 votes. Ellis wins in San Jacinto County (452 votes) and Tyler County (844 votes) were enough to prevail.

Odd result number two was in HD-11, where pharmacist Chuck Hopson beat banker Paul Woodard Jr. in a race for the open seat vacated when Staples decided to run for Senate. Hopson, a Democrat, won with 53 percent of the vote while Staples, a Republican whose Senate race overlaps two of the four counties in the House district, was winning big. There was some ticket-splitting in Anderson County, where Hopson out-performed his fellow Democrat by seven percentage points. Splitting was even stronger in Cherokee County – Fisher got 41 percent while Hopson got 58 percent.

One other open seat was hotly contested. Austin Democrat Ann Kitchen easily defeated Republican attorney Jill Warren, 59-37, in the race to replace Sherri Greenberg, also a Democrat.

The Democrats lost one of the two Central Texas races where they have been on defense for several years. Rep. David Lengefeld, D-Hamilton, lost to rancher and school board member Sid Miller of Stephenville by a surprisingly large margin, 54-45 percent. That's been a "barely" district for several years, with Lengefeld and his predecessor, Allen Place, barely fending off GOP challengers. Miller was the one Republican gain in the House.

A challenge in the adjacent district, where Rep. Bob Turner, D-Voss, has been in office since 1991, fell short. Republican Steve Fryar of Brownwood won three counties, but lost the rest, including his home in Brown County. Turner ended up with 54.5 percent of the votes and another term.

In other races closely watched by the parties, financiers and other combatants:

• Rep. Ignacio Salinas Jr., D-San Diego, got 55 percent of the vote against a well-financed Republican challenger, Darrell Brownlow. Some local Democrats sided with the challenger.

• Rep. Robby Cook III, D-Eagle Lake, held off a challenge from Phil Stephenson, a Wharton accountant, by a two-to-one margin.

• Rep. Bob Glaze, D-Gilmer, challenged by former Rep. Bill Hollowell, got as good a scare on Election Night as any winner in the House: He won by only 2,080 votes.

• Rep. Allan Ritter, D-Nederland, comfortably beat Republican Mary Jane Avery, though she had plenty of money and Republicans suspected that his win two years ago came because of overlap with another race. If that was true then, it's not now: He got 56 percent of the vote. In another race in that part of the state, Rep. Zeb Zbranek, D-Winnie, held off Eddie Shauberger in a rematch, 54-45.

• Rep. Wayne Christian, D-Center, was one of only a few Republicans challenged by the Democrats, and won handily. He beat former Nacogdoches Sheriff Joe Evans, pulling in 55.4 percent of the vote. On that same list, Rep. Rick Hardcastle, R-Wichita Falls, beat Betty Furr Richie, with 58 percent of the vote, and Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell, beat Charles Elliott, a Democrat who is a retired political science prof at East Texas State University. She got 63.8 percent of the vote.

Turn on the Lite (Guv wannabes)

Here's a flat assertion that's stood the test of time (so far): As soon as someone has full command of 16 votes in the Senate, regardless of the status of the presidential race, you'll know who has the votes to be the next lieutenant governor. They'll blurt it out. They were still in the gathering stage at our deadline, with active contestants including Republican Sens. Teel Bivins, J.E. "Buster" Brown, Bill Ratliff, David Sibley, and Jeff Wentworth, and Democrat Ken Armbrister.

Sibley has been most active and is trying to collect votes, as are Wentworth and Bivins. Ratliff, though he's still not asking for votes, was calling around and talking to members about the job. Brown and Armbrister are positioned to take votes from the other party's members, so that Brown's supporters are calling him a Republican who Democrats would be comfortable with. Armbrister's backers say he's a Democrat who could attract Republicans.

One wild card is Sen. Drew Nixon, R-Carthage, a lame duck who once said he might vote for Frank Madla, a San Antonio Democrat who hasn't been visibly active in the race. Timing is another, related, wild card. None of this happens unless Gov. Bush is elected president. Lt. Gov. Perry wouldn't succeed him until he resigns, and the timing of that resignation could affect things. If he quit quickly, Nixon would be able to vote and his replacement, Todd Staples, would not. He won't be sworn in until January, when Nixon's term is over. If Bush waits, Staples votes.

At the deadline for our print edition, the Democrats were caucusing, in part because some Democrats in the Senate want to find out how many of those 15 members will stick with a bloc vote. When they got out, they hadn't agreed on a candidate, but had agreed that all 15 of them would "remain uncommitted until after all interested candidates have been interviewed by the Caucus." The Republicans were scheduled to meet in a week, on November 16, to see what's happening on their side.

A Small Budget Problem

Some budgeteers say the state is on the verge of bursting through the constitutional spending cap that prevents Texas politicians and bureaucrats from spending certain funds faster than the state economy is growing. The law has more holes than a 90-pound block of Swiss cheese, but the basic rule is that the state can't spend non-dedicated general revenue funds faster than the economy grows. At the beginning of each budget session, lawmakers look at the economic chicken bones and tea leaves, pull a number out of the clear blue sky and set the cap. Then they write the budget in a way that ensures they won't hit it.

But this time, sales tax revenues are coming in faster than expected. Lottery revenues, dedicated by statute to education spending, are below expectations. The state is using non-dedicated money to cover the lottery shortfalls in education. That's half the deal. The other half is that several agencies – prisons, health, mental health, and so on – have budget problems that will probably force lawmakers to pass an emergency spending bill in the $700 million and up range. That, according to some number-crunchers, will be enough to push spending over the cap.

All of the above has caused some brow-furrowing, but Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, says he's not worried about it and others shouldn't, either. The state has the money to cover its needs. Lawmakers didn't appropriate more than the cap; they're just spending more than the cap. He contends that that's a large enough gap to run through. One hitch he is thinking about: Spending levels set now could affect the amount the state is allowed to spend in the next budget, since what's happening now will be the basis the next time the state sets the cap.

Political People and Their Moves, Short Form

Ron Hinkle, the legislative liaison at the Public Utility Commission, is leaving that post to try his hand at freelance lobbying. Because of the tightest restrictions on employees of any Texas agency, he's jumping before talking to anyone, so there's not a client list at the moment. PUC-ers aren't allowed to talk to people they regulate about outside employment... Amy Kelley, the clerk on the Senate Nominations Committee, has jumped to the private sector as a legal assistant at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld. She'll work with that firm's lobbyists.

Education Reform Revisited

Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, put together an education caucus of members and non-members after the last legislative session, hoping to come up with a list of things that might help advance such education reforms as accountability. The stated purpose was to come up with ideas that would enhance education reforms already in place. It was specifically designed to leave recent reforms in place. One last thing: The group is staying away from vouchers and school choice issues.

They've got a list, tentatively, that they'll present to the public in a week or so. Grusendorf says the group kicked around ideas until they found things they could agree upon; they've got a pile of compromises they hope will attract wide support, all aimed at keeping the state's accountability system and improving on it.

A lot of the recommendations have to do with teachers and how to recruit them, reward them and retain them. The economy is a problem, since people with teaching qualifications can make more money in other occupations. So the group is suggesting new ways to let "non-traditional teachers" – people from other professions – into the business. They'll propose a mentoring program encouraging older and more experienced teachers to take new teachers under their wings.

They'll propose additional ratings for schools, status reports for parents on educators and on schools, and bonuses for campuses that perform well and for people who sign on as new teachers. The group also is pitching for databases that will eventually show how public school students in Texas perform once they're in college; feedback from that kind of system could be used to tweak public school programs so that future students do better in college. And they're talking about a "Texas math initiative," a program followed by an exam to build students' math proficiency.

The whole schmear would cost about $140 million, but Grusendorf expects it to go through several iterations before it's completed.

Voters Break One Record, Leave Another Untarnished

Voter turnout in Texas, unofficially, was 6,394,764. That's more votes than ever before, but at 51.7 percent, it's a lower percentage turnout than the record in 1992, when President George W. Bush was on the ballot and 74 percent voted. Secretary of State Elton Bomer had predicted 1.2 million more voters than actually showed up, but the numbers were more in line with the 1996 turnout.

Quotes of the Week

President Bill Clinton, on the election results: "The American people have now spoken, but it's going to take a little while to determine exactly what they said."

Gov. George W. Bush, on the phone with Al Gore after the networks pulled their second Florida projections: "Let me make sure I understand. You're calling me back to retract your concession?"

Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, on the exit-polling flap: "It is irresponsible journalism. This rush to judgment is dangerous and it leads to inaccuracies... it depresses turnout and undermines the integrity of elections."

Campaign finance expert Larry Mankinson of the Center for Responsive Politics, on this election cycle: "The dollars are just rolling in. There's a whole generation of children of political consultants that is going to the finest Ivy League schools because of this election."

Glenn Smith, a Democrat and former political consultant to Ann Richards and others, on the elections: "Democrats in Austin can't lose. If Bush wins, it's adios, chumps, they're all going to Washington. If Gore wins, it's a great day for the nation."

Clinton, on his own status as a lame duck: "I've got another 10 weeks to quack."

Former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, who now, among other things, teaches political science: "Best definition of politics I give my students: In politics, there are no right answers only a continuing flow of compromises among groups resulting in a changing cloudy and ambiguous series of public decisions where appetite and ambition compete openly with knowledge and wisdom. That's all it is."


Texas Weekly:Volume 17, Issue 20, 13 November 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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