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Waiting Out the Florida Hostage Crisis

The occupants of the domed Pink Building on the hill in downtown Austin were supposed to be out of the business of election politics and into the business of government during the week after the election. They were supposed to know whether the big shots should switch offices or whether the Senate should shut down the mostly underground 18-month-old race for lieutenant governor.

The occupants of the domed Pink Building on the hill in downtown Austin were supposed to be out of the business of election politics and into the business of government during the week after the election. They were supposed to know whether the big shots should switch offices or whether the Senate should shut down the mostly underground 18-month-old race for lieutenant governor.

Instead, they're looking at their watches, and watching cable television news. Texas drums its fingers while Florida recounts, sues, and holds the rest of the country hostage.

The legislative train was on the normal track after the elections. The opening days for bill filings brought about 300 legislative proposals of both the fresh and stale varieties. Lawmakers and interest groups held press conferences to try to position their issues as the principle chores of the Legislature that will meet in January. People started wearing ties. The shark tank in the Capitol extension -- the hole in the middle that architects call an inverted rotunda -- was full of smokers and people trying to get cell phone signals. The cafeteria, empty during the interim, was bustling.

The political train remained in the station, stalled until everyone knows whether George W. Bush or Rick Perry will be the state's governor when the session starts. If it's Bush, the Senate can drop the race for Lite Guv and the state's top politicos can start making their calculations for the 2002 election cycle. If it's Perry, the Senate gets to pick a new presiding officer and Republican staffers at all levels can start scooting up and down the career ladder as they find out who goes to Washington, D.C., who stays behind, and who gets to do which of the left-behind jobs.

Contenders for lieutenant governor have one foot on the gas and one on the brake. The contestants are at that stage when their local papers have risen to the possibility of a new lieutenant governor. Several -- Amarillo, Brazosport, San Antonio, Tyler, and Waco -- have run admiring stories on how well that office would fit their local senator. As we went to press last week, Senate Democrats were putting together a statement declaring they were not going to show their preferences in the speculative race for lieutenant governor until they had met with all of the candidates. That came as something of a surprise to some of the candidates who thought they already had declarations of support from some of those Democrats, but there you have it: Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, said each of the Democrats in the Senate agreed to "remain uncommitted" until after those interviews.

He also hinted strongly that at least some members of the group are working to stick together as a bloc in favor of Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown, R-Lake Jackson, or Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio. The election of Republican Todd Staples, R-Palestine, to the seat being vacated by Sen. Drew Nixon, R-Carthage, preserved the GOP majority and hurt the bid of the most oft-mentioned Democrat -- Ken Armbrister of Victoria. His plea for the support of the caucus has so far come up short.

If they stick together, Democrats will probably lean to a Republican who doesn't plan to run for a full term as lieutenant governor in the 2002 elections. Brown, embarrassed by a sexual harassment charge and public apology a year ago, has run statewide before. But he has said he won't run statewide again, which boosts his chances with Democrats. Wentworth has said he would run in 2002 only if it looked like he had a good chance of winning a full term. Sens. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, and David Sibley, R-Waco, have each said they would seek a full term if the Senate put them in the corner office. Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, has said he would like the job if the Senate wants him to do it, but hasn't campaigned as openly or as hard as some of the others.

Prepare for a Fast Ride After the Long Wait

If Bush finally does win the presidential election, the rest of the puzzle should fall into place rapidly. Perry has spent weeks putting together a transition plan in case he gets promoted. Senators have speculated about the various possibilities for the corner office until they're blue in the face.

The Democrats, as noted, have said they'll hold back until they've talked to all the candidates. The Republicans were caucusing without knowing the Florida result, and with more candidates in their ranks, will have a harder time forming up behind one candidate. It's not impossible, just harder.

Senators are still talking about whether they have to vote publicly or can vote by secret ballot. They also don't agree on what their choice should do two years from now. Some think the GOP's best chance of holding onto the office is in electing a presiding officer who will then run as an incumbent in 2002. That wouldn't be good news to outsiders, like Land Commissioner David Dewhurst or Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, both of whom are often mentioned as future Lite Guv candidates.

From the standpoint of Democrats, you can argue it flat or round. Former Comptroller John Sharp, who lost to Perry two years ago, and Houston Democrat Paul Hobby, who lost to Rylander, have both been mentioned as potential candidates. One argument is that either of them -- or whoever else might make the race -- would rather run in 2002 against someone who's now in the Senate and who has never run for statewide office and doesn't have a statewide fundraising or support base than against a Dewhurst or Rylander or a candidate like that. A countervailing argument is that it's always better to face a non-incumbent than an incumbent, even if the incumbent is new to statewide politics. And an incumbent lieutenant governor -- even a rookie -- has a powerful position from which to raise money. All of this would be idle speculation except for the fact that these ifs and ands are part of the conversation among senators who are trying to decide how they'll vote if Bush wins in Florida.

Notes: Sen. Drew Nixon, R-Carthage, went hunting instead of attending the GOP Caucus meeting. An aide said he didn't see the point, since the presidential race was still being counted. At least two others were hunting Bush votes in Florida... Also: The Senate president pro tempore, Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, will call senators together for a vote on a presiding officer if they're not already in session. If, for some reason, the Senate doesn't vote until the Legislature convenes, Nixon will be replaced by Todd Staples, the newest member, and the pro tempore will be Chris Harris, R-Arlington.

A Final Note on the Escapees

The Rainbow's End RV Park in Polk County didn't live up to the hype.

It was supposed to weigh heavily in a state House race and possibly in a state Senate race, but some of the same election wizards who made those predictions say the actual result was a dud. The issue, you'll remember, was whether more than 9,000 people who claim the RV park as their residence would be allowed to vote in the county on Election Day. Democrats argued that the RV-ers, who tend to vote Republican, don't really live in the county and shouldn't be allowed to vote there. Three voters from the county went to court to try to knock those folks off the voter roles; in the end, the courts let them vote. Republicans jumped to capitalize on that, urging the mobile Texans to vote.

But their turnout wasn't all that impressive, in spite of the commotion. In-person voting, which was expected to be light, was indeed light: only 327 people voted in the two boxes that include the RV park. Republicans (and some Democrats) had predicted that well over 6,000 of the "Escapees" who are members of the RV club would vote from the road. They didn't. In fact, early voting from those two boxes came in just under 5,000, and wasn't enough to make a difference in the state races. Todd Staples handily won his Senate race and the 4,201-vote margin he grabbed in Polk County was not an essential part of the win. Rep. Dan Ellis, D-Livingston, lost the county in his race against Ben Bius. But Bius, who lost in that county two years ago, didn't get enough votes to overcome his deficits in other parts of the district, including his home in Walker County. While Ellis was losing the Escapee boxes by 2,833 votes, he won the rest of Polk County by 1,998 votes. He beat Bius in the other three counties in the district and that was that.

More Numbers Than Sesame Street

Former Rep. Bill Hollowell is asking for a recount after losing to Rep. Bob Glaze, D-Gilmer, in northeast Texas' HD-5. Hollowell, a Republican who used to hold that seat, came up 2,080 votes short on Election Night. He lost in Smith and in Upshur counties while winning in Van Zandt. That's a lot of votes to make up. Only 40,912 votes were cast in the entire race, and Hollowell, who attracted 47.5 percent, will have to prove that 1 of every 40 votes was counted wrong. (That wasn't the closest legislative race, by the way. That distinction goes to HD-18, where Rep. Dan Ellis, D-Livingston, beat Republican Ben Bius by 1,169 votes.) Hollowell's recount request is the only one in a legislative race, so far. Candidates in two races for district attorney have asked the Secretary of State for recounts, but a week after the elections, that was the entire statewide (read: Not Local) list.

It's tough to flip the end result in a recount, although the overall numbers almost invariably change in the process. And while it's bizarre to get a recount in the top race on the ballot, it's unprecedented. It's been a while, but there were recounts in at least two U.S. Senate races in Texas in the last couple of decades -- the 1978 race between Republican John Tower and Democrat Bob Krueger, and the 1984 Democratic primary, which began as a three-way contest between Krueger, Kent Hance (now a Republican) and Lloyd Doggett (now a congressman). Doggett won a runoff, then lost to Republican Phil Gramm, who's been in the U.S. Senate ever since.

Down-ballot recounts are more common. Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson, unseated Rep. Bernard Erickson in 1994, but spent $142,000 in a contest over an election that had cost her only $82,000. She won by 139 on Election Day, a number that was reduced to 118 in the official canvass. That eventually got chopped down to 22 votes after a recount and an official election contest in the House. In a rematch two years, later, Wohlgemuth beat Erickson by 3,123 votes.

Sometimes, though, a recount is worth the fight: Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs won a seat in the Texas House in 1992 after prevailing in a recount and legal tussle against one of her five Republican primary opponents, Bill Welch. She lost the runoff by 22 votes, sued to open a box that wasn't counted, won by seven votes and then prevailed when he sued alleging Democrats had crossed over to vote in the GOP runoff. He was right about that, but wrong in assuming they'd all voted for Combs. She won the split and went on to win the general election.

Rep. Rick Green, R-Dripping Springs, got elected to the Texas House two years ago when Hays County officials decided to count indentations or dimples on punch card ballots where voters didn't push hard enough to knock out the chads -- the little pieces of paper that are supposed to fall out when voters punch holes in a ballot using a stylus. Green initially lost that election to incumbent Democrat Alec Rhodes by less than two dozen votes. But he demanded a recount. Election judges decided to count bumps on ballots, as well as partially punched holes (the "hanging chads" of Florida fame), and Green won by 36 votes.

Hollowell's recount -- if he goes ahead with it -- would only partly rely on punch card ballots. Of the three counties in that House district, only Smith uses them. And the prospects for a turnaround there are not great, since Glaze won almost 65 percent of the 11,120 votes cast there.

Smith is one of 14 Texas counties using punch card ballots, according to the Secretary of State's office. That makes it sound like a marginal voting method here, but wait: The 14 counties include Harris, El Paso, Collin, Jefferson, Brazoria, and some smaller jurisdictions. Add it up and about 27 percent of the state's voters do their work using punch cards. Harris County, we're told, is jumping to a new system next year. Electronic balloting got a number of tests this cycle, but only one county -- Upton in West Texas -- stuck exclusively to an electronic system, according to the SOS.

Bragging Rights, Second Verse

Texas Democrats were crowing after the elections because, as they put it, they hadn't lost any ground in the Texas congressional delegation or in the statehouse.

Their first take was that they'd scored a victory by holding their own in a year when George W. Bush was at the top of the ballot. But the headline on their later press releases sounded like something crafted by the GOP: "Democrats Put the Brakes on Republicans After Quarter Century of GOP Gains in Texas Legislative and Congressional Races."

A week after the biennial election dust-up, the GOP jumped past the state results, mostly, to point to 119 local and county races where Republicans replaced Democrats on Election Day. They contend that the GOP spent only half what the Democrats spent, which is true if you only count Party spending on both sides and don't add in money spent by groups like the Associated Republicans of Texas on one hand and on the other, the Texas Partnership, a PAC that defends incumbent House Democrats.

The partisans who want to help write the first draft of the history of this election have more at stake than just pride and counting coups and all that: The partisan mix of the Legislature is about as close to a draw as possible and both sides would like to turn their condition into an advantage.

Republicans say they're gaining and that the statewide officers on the Legislative Redistricting Board are in a position to "fix" any lines the Democrats in the House and Senate manage to slip past the Republicans in the House and Senate. The Democrats say they're not dead yet, what with their marginal control of the House and the Republican's one-vote margin in the Senate.

The latest version from the GOP is that they're actually gaining on the Democrats in spite of a draw on the congressional and legislative levels. They've got lot of numbers, too.

• The number of Texans voting in Republican primaries is growing and the number voting in Democrat primaries is dropping. (Side note: About the same number of Texans voted in the 2000 primaries as voted in the 1976 primaries, in spite of population growth; the number of voters checking out of the game at that level is growing faster than either party's numbers.)

• Though there were no gains in state and federal races this year, the number of Republican representatives in the Texas House rose from 16 in 1975 to 35 in 1981 to 57 in 1991 to 72 now. The number of Republican senators at those same points: 3 in 1975, 7 in 1981, 8 in 1991, and 16 now. In the congressional delegation, Republicans started in 1975 with 2 and now have 13. On the county level, they say they had only 53 in 1975 and have risen to 1,227 this year.

This is all about redistricting. The spin generators at the GOP say they've done all they can with an unfair redistricting map drawn by a Democrat-dominated Legislature ten years ago. The Democrats counter by noting the GOP gains under that map, including seven seats and a majority in the Texas Senate, and an additional 15 seats in the Texas House.

Beyond the spin, it is clear that, if nothing else, some political districts are severely overpopulated and others are short of bodies. It's apparent in last week's results. What contested Senate race interested the most voters? The race between Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, and Libertarian George Meeks drew 324,424 votes. That's a trick question; Wentworth's Senate district is overpopulated with voters and is due for a downward correction during redistricting next year. The smallest draw in a contested race was in SD-15, where Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, handily beat Republican Warren Lawless. Turnout there was only 146,220.

In congressional districts, turnout ranged from a low of 114,668 in CD-29 (U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston), to a high of 330,739 (U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio).

In the Texas House, the low vote of 14,928 was in HD-104 (Rep. Domingo Garcia, D-Dallas), and the high -- 90,142 -- was in HD-47 (Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin).

What's normal? There are 12.26 million registered voters, and overall turnout was 51.7 percent. That would translate into a turnout of 213,231 in the average congressional district in Texas, 206,253 in the average state Senate district, and 42,646 in the average House district.

The Opening Guns of the 77th Legislature

It took them almost a year to put it together (we first wrote about it last January), but a group of current and former Texas lawmakers are suing a herd of cities and counties that have sued gun manufacturers. They formed a group called the Civil Liberties Defense Foundation to stop local governments all over the U.S. from suing gun makers, on the grounds that lawsuits from those cities and counties have an effect here. Specifically, they say the city/county suits have prompted gun makers to halt or restrict sales of some models, and contend that is an infringement of Texans' right to bear arms. Texas cities can't file such suits; all the jurisdictions named are outside of the state. The Texas litigants are led by Reps. Rick Green, R-Dripping Springs, and Suzanna Gratia Hupp, R-Lampasas, and by former Sen. Jerry Patterson, who now lives in Austin. They've signed up more than two dozen other Texas lawmakers as co-plaintiffs.

• The official winners of the biennial Race to File Bills Before Anyone Else: Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who got on the boards with legislation protecting the privacy of medical records, and Rep. Harryette Ehrhardt, D-Dallas, who was first in line with a bill that would create state-paid group health insurance for public school employees and retirees.

Among the other early proposals from lawmakers:

• Guarantee the right to post-conviction DNA tests.

• Prohibit schools from starting fall classes before August 21.

• Lengthen the August sales tax holiday from three days to two weeks.

• Lower the legal blood alcohol level for drivers from 0.08 to 0.06 if children are in the car.

• Ban the cloning of "an entire human being."

• Allow counties to regulate lighting that interferes with major astronomical observatories.

• Require cable television companies to broadcast severe weather warnings.

• Reduce the number of uniform state election dates.

• Outlaw open alcoholic beverage containers in vehicles.

• Create a penalty of life without parole for capital crimes.

• Allow the state to issue road bonds to be repaid from future federal highway funding.

• Make public school students recite the Pledge of Allegiance unless their parents object in writing.

• Create constitutional rights to privacy, and separately, to hunt and fish.

Hispanic Voters, Miscellany

Latino voters accounted for 15.4 percent of the total votes cast in the state, according to the William C. Velásquez Institute. That San Antonio-based organization did some polling after the elections and says Texas Latinos voted for Al Gore over George W. Bush by about a 2-to-1 margin (Bush got 34.6 percent). Bush did better that Republicans further down the ballot, the group said. In Texas congressional races, Latino voters chose Republicans only 27.4 percent of the time. Those numbers are based on exit polling of 957 voters in 32 selected precincts around the state.

• City council members who have to go to court when accused of violating the Open Meetings laws can't get reimbursed by the cities they serve until after they're found innocent of the charges, according to a recent ruling from Attorney General John Cornyn. If they're found guilty, the city can't reimburse them for legal fees, he said. That opinion also said the council members can't vote on whether their cities should pay their lawyers, or the lawyers of other city council members who face the same charges. The opinion started with a situation in Elmendorf (near San Antonio) when the mayor, four council members and the chief of police were indicted and wanted help paying the bills.

• Oops: Contrary to what was scribbled here last week, there will, in fact, be a new face in the Texas congressional delegation: Houston Republican John Culberson won the race to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Bill Archer, R-Houston. The elections produced no partisan change in the delegation, but did produce one freshman. Culberson got 73.9 percent of the vote.

Political People and Their Moves

Press corps moves: The Wall Street Journal is closing all six of its regional editions right away, putting a mess of reporters on the streets including two from the Austin office of the Texas Journal: Janet Elliott and Russell Gold. Both were hired within the last year, Elliot from Texas Lawyer and Gold from the San Antonio Express-News. The weekly regionals were reported and edited by their own local staffs in Texas, California, Florida, New England, the Pacific Northwest, and the Southeast (separate from Florida). The Texas Journal, started in September 1993, was the oldest of the bunch. The editions published on Wednesday, November 15, were the end of the line, and made no mention of the closings... The Houston Chronicle moved Armando Villafranca from the mother ship in Houston to the Capital Bureau in Austin... U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, D-Dallas, won a second term heading the House Democratic Caucus. The retirement of U.S. Rep. Bill Archer, R-Houston, makes Frost the senior member of the Texas delegation... In spite of that retirement, Don Carlson will remain chief of staff to the congressman from Texas' 7th district. He did that job for Archer and will continue now that John Culberson, also R, also Houston, has won election to replace Archer. Carlson worked for the outgoing Ways & Means Committee chairman for 30 years... U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, has been elected chairman of the congressional Hispanic Caucus... David Reynolds moves from policy analyst to director of the Texas Senate Health Committee chaired by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. He replaces John Oates, who left for the private sector... Rep. Irma Rangel, D-Kingsville, is the first Texan to get the "Urban Hero" award from the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges... Deborah Kastrin and Joe Garcia won a $110,000 contract to lobby the Legislature for El Paso County. Kastrin is a former chief at what is now the Texas Department of Economic Development... Appointments: Gov. Bush appointed Don Chrestman, a Weatherford trial lawyer, to the 43rd District Court in Parker County. He'll replace state District Judge James Mullin, who resigned to make way for him. Chrestman ran unopposed for the seat; the retirement and appointment give him a six-week jump on the start date... The University of Texas System is taking "interim" off the front end of Chancellor R.D. "Dan" Burck's title, naming him the sole finalist for that job.

Quotes of the Week

Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson, a survivor of recounts and a former election judge: "There is never an election that goofy things don't happen... voters do strange and unusual things."

James Clayton, a Florida lawyer who represents Gov. George W. Bush, on problems with ballot security in his state's Volusia County: "No wonder people in the North think we're a bunch of bumbling idiots, because we are. From a practical standpoint, nobody has any faith in the system."

Russell Schriefer, a member of Bush's advertising team, describing election consulting: "You know, the great thing about this kind of work is that there's supposed to be certainty at the end of the day. There are very few other professions like that. I guess sports is an analogy. At the end, you know, did you win or did you lose? This is like going into double overtime."

U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, on how his party handled close election results in 1960 and 1976 and what it means this year: "Republicans have shown not once, but twice, that they will be magnanimous when it appears an election has been stolen. I hope we don't do it a third time."

U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks of Florida, ruling against a request from the Bush campaign to halt manual recounts: "I am not under the illusion that I am the last word on this, and I am rather grateful for that."

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, relating her gubernatorial intentions to the Dallas Morning News: "I'm not saying I won't run, but I'm really not looking at it. I don't want to be in the position of closing any doors. It is my intention to serve my full term, but I'm not making any other plans."

Castleberry ISD Superintendent Gary Jones, on why he supports proposals to insure the health of teachers at the state rather than the local level: "Twenty-seven years ago, when I became a math teacher, I didn't expect to spend a majority of my time dealing with health insurance."

Texas Weekly: Volume 17, Issue 21, 20 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 For news, email, or call (512) 288-6598.

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