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The Trouble with Becky

The "Rebecca" flap at the Texas Railroad Commission is giving outsiders a rationale for campaigns against RRC Chairman Michael Williams and giving insiders a reason to fund those campaigns.

The "Rebecca" flap at the Texas Railroad Commission is giving outsiders a rationale for campaigns against RRC Chairman Michael Williams and giving insiders a reason to fund those campaigns.

Rebecca is how the Oilies pronounce the acronym RBCA. That, in turn, stands for Risk-Based Corrective Action. That was a proposal that sought to prescribe in detail what to do in all kinds of oil spills to make sure everything that's supposed to get cleaned up actually does get cleaned up.

The proposal filled a 260-page manual that was assembled, according to one account, by a dozen RRC staffers and a couple of consultants. Those consultants, hired under a $45,000 contract that doubled over the course of the project, also helped develop computer software that would have been used by well operators to figure out what needed to happen in case of a spill.

The proposal was the brainchild of Commissioner Tony Garza. Several of the RRC's larger regulated companies were involved in the development, but when independents and others got wind of it, they blew their stacks. They were encouraged to do so in a letter from Commissioner Charles Matthews, but they were mad enough on their own, both because they'd been left out of the process and because they didn't like the proposal. For instance, one provision required operators to get landowners in the loop on oil spills, even when the landowners didn't own the mineral rights on the wells. That's a hot issue that the commission has previously left for the Legislature to solve.

The independents filled the mailboxes at the commission, and Williams decided the mess was too big to fix by holding a public comment period at the end. So, he switched over to Matthews' side. When Garza made a motion to extend the comment period in anticipation of a future vote on the proposal, neither Williams nor Matthews moved to second it. That killed Rebecca.

But it didn't clean up the political spill. Most newspapers went with Garza and against the other two, saying the proposal's death is evidence that the regulators are listening too closely to the people they regulate. Williams and Matthews say they thought the proposal was unwieldy. Both say they aren't really clear on what Garza was trying to fix. In calendar year 2000, Williams says, there were 722 spills in the state, including 71 in so-called "sensitive" areas. They were all cleaned up. What's more, he says, there's no evidence that spill cleanup rules already in place are inadequate.

For Garza, there are a couple of sand traps. The rule obviously riled the people who generally provide the financial support for RRC campaigns, so that's a burned bridge. Second, he left his most consistent ally out on the ledge. Williams is the only commissioner up for election next year, and the Rebecca mess gives opponents an issue that's easy to explain to someone not familiar or interested in the arcana of oil and gas regulation. Williams says he can defend his environmental record, but says he'll need to bolster it to stave off opponents in next year's races. One idea: About half of last year's spills came from leaking oil tanks, and Williams wants to see if those leaks can be stopped before they occur instead of concentrating efforts on spilled oil. "If we do nothing in the next 15 months, or even by January, we'll get an opponent... The Democrats will run someone in any case," he says.

Williams had some problems with the proposal, but says his biggest problem was with the process that left out some stakeholders and ran for too long before he and Matthews were fully aware of what the staff was working on. And there's a loose string there: The staff never sought a vote from the commission approving those contracts. In a similar case at the Public Utility Commission a few years ago, that left the staff folks personally liable to pay the contractors.

Does Railroad Deserve the Death Penalty?

The Rebecca flap is part of the reason former Sen. Hector Uribe's name has emerged as a potential candidate for the commission. Uribe ran for the job against Carole Keeton Rylander in 1996. His name was recently included in a Montgomery & Associates poll of potential candidates for RRC, and that helped resurface the rumors, too (Uribe was in a virtual tie with Sherry Boyles, a former executive director of the Texas Democratic Party who heads the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault). Uribe isn't saying no, but he's not spending much time on it, either. He compares his position to that of a guy on a beach with a boat waiting for a tide. "Also, there are no paddles," he jokes.

Then he talks about a rationale for running, which makes it evident that he's given this some thought. And he starts with the death of the RBCA proposal under industry pressure. "I think Tony Garza is exactly right when he says it doesn't reflect well on the autonomy of the commission."

He says flatly that the commission should be abolished, with environmental duties shipped to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, transportation issues moved to the Texas Department of Transportation, and oil and gas regulation moved to the appointed Public Utility Commission. Uribe says the RRC is like a court that serves only trial lawyers, and says dismantling it would get erase the worst conflicts. It would also save a bunch of money. Legislation that would merge the agency into other offices has been filed in each of the last several sessions and hasn't gone anywhere. But a political contest with the RBCA demise as a potential issue could change that.

The environmental and conflict-of-interest issues might or might not linger on the policy front—the agency might be able to work things out—but they could have traction in a political contest.

A Rookie, Going Long

Ed Cunningham says he got the idea of running for political office from former Comptroller John Sharp. But he says Sharp—a business associate in something called www.allprotraining.com— urged him to start at the state level and not to start his political career by challenging U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm.

But Cunningham, a former UT football player who now works as an agent for professional athletes, says his natural fundraising base is national, so he picked a race that's of some interest outside of Texas. Cunningham has already hired political consultant Jeff Crosby to help in the campaign and says he's within a week of hiring Dean Rindy of Austin to handle commercials and such.

He's got a fundraiser on board, and says he'll spend the first weeks of the campaign trying to put together the financing for a statewide race. Cunningham doesn't think he would have much success raising money from what he called "traditional outlets." More likely, he'll be going wherever there's a group of professional athletes to try to finance the effort.

Cunningham was an offensive lineman for the Longhorns. He was named team captain and MVP before a short-lived career in the pros. He went to law school at Texas Tech, worked in litigation for a while and then became a sports agent when a former teammate asked for help negotiating his contract. Cunningham, who lives in Austin, was raised in the Panhandle town of Fritsch.

Cunningham didn't lay out a platform, but said most people don't have an advocate in Washington, D.C., and said he wants that role. He said he'll support the Democratic ticket after the primaries but said he's not running in parallel with other candidates; he's not part of a team with Sharp or former UT quarterback Marty Akins or anyone else (Akins, by the way, is older and wasn't a Cunningham teammate). He estimates the primary race will cost up to $2 million, and that a general election campaign against Gramm would cost $10 million to $15 million.

Along the way, he might give wings to a new name for the people whose votes he's after: He refers to residents of the state as Texan-Americans.

Hey, Judge, Look Over Here

Attorney General John Cornyn says he tried to design his congressional redistricting map as the starting point for whichever state district judge ends up deciding what map should be used in the next elections. That's the main reason that none of the state's 30 members of Congress are paired to run against one another. Some of them would have a tough time with reelection, but they're not paired.

The two open seats on the map ended up in Central Texas and on the southeastern corner of the state. That first placement was more or less expected; most of the early speculation was that the second new seat would be in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

On Cornyn's map (he and his staff prefer to call it the State map, since he's the lawyer for the government), the first open seat would take in a chunk of Austin along with suburbs and exurbs to the southwest and north of the city. That plot stretches from Guadalupe County on the south, through Hays and Travis counties, to Williamson County on the north. It's a rapid-growth area. The other takes in Chambers County and chunks of Jefferson, Galveston and Harris counties. By the numbers, both are Anglo Republican districts.

Cornyn says the map creates eight districts dominated by Hispanics of voting age, three by Blacks and one district where the two minority groups together form a majority. Through the lens of the federal Voting Rights Act, he contends, his map is superior to those proposed by the House and Senate redistricting folks. He's hoping that and the strategy of not presenting a hive of paired and angry U.S. Representatives will make his map the best starting point for a state district judge. Seven different maps were filed in time for the court deadlines, and as long as there's nothing wacky going on, a judge has the discretion to start wherever the judge wants to start.

The current congressional delegation has 13 Republicans and 17 Democrats in it. Cornyn's map has 20 solidly Republican districts and 6 solidly Democratic districts. By "solidly," we mean that at least 55 percent of the voters in the new district voted with the party getting the credit. One district on Cornyn's map is more than 50 percent Republican but less than 55 percent; five of the Democratic districts fall into that marginal territory.

Cornyn says part of the reason for the Republican tilt is the Voting Rights Act. Creating minority districts has the effect of packing Democrats, leaving fewer to spread out among remaining Anglo Democrats. Protecting those minority districts, he says, makes his map more favorable to Republicans than other maps, like those offered by Rep. Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock and Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio. Another way to put it: The maps prepared by the legislators spread out Democratic votes more, but at the expense of minority districts.

It's clear from talking to him that the attorney general is trying to look at this through a judge's eyes. They don't want to see unnecessary pairs. They don't want a politically lopsided map. They don't want to be reversed by a higher court. And, he says, a state district judge will be less likely than a federal judge to get out the computer and start drawing political maps. That last bit is because the state judges are under the deadline gun and because the drawing of maps is so complicated.

Cornyn also let slip another piece of strategy. The federal courts won't take over redistricting until after the state courts are done. The U.S. Department of Justice has to pre-approve the plans after they come out of state court. The AG could argue that the federal courts shouldn't touch the maps or the lawsuits until after the DOJ has ruled on whatever comes out of the state courts. That could have a great effect on the deadlines faced by various judges in the process.

If the courts agree that Justice should go first, they'll have less time to draw maps themselves. The filing deadline for candidates (which can be changed by the courts) is in the first week of January and primaries come two months later. If they buy the opposite argument—that they should run their case in parallel with Justice Department consideration instead of waiting—they'll have more time to draw their own lines. If a lawyer likes the map that comes out of state court, that lawyer might be better off with the first argument. Hate the map? Ask the federal judge to start drawing immediately.

Come, Let Us Reason Together

Austin Mayor Kirk Watson is starting his campaign for attorney general with a letter to each member of the Texas House and Senate. He wants to hear their "thoughts and ideas on how the Texas Attorney General's office can better serve you and your constituents."

In the letter, Watson, a Democrat, talks about "setting aside labels" like Republican or Democrat or rural or urban. He casts his experience as a trial lawyer (he's been to court on both the plaintiff and defendant sides) as working to "defend Texans and enforce the law." He writes a little bit about nice things that have been said about him and about Austin by business publications. And he closes with a mild bit of rhetoric about the AG protecting Texas families and being even-handed.

The letter, sent to everyone in the Legislature, hits at a time when Cornyn stock is trading at a relative low in the Pink Building. Democrats are angry with him about redistricting, as are a fair number of Republicans, particularly in the Texas Senate. At the least, Watson's letter is a needle pricking the AG; at worst, it'll draw out some support or some dirt on the incumbent.

• While we're on the subject, Watson has hired Susan Harry to raise money for his campaign. She was most recently with the Texas Freedom Network.

Would Prison Guards Vote for the Old Boss?

Wayne Scott, the former head honcho at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, says he probably won't run for a seat in the Texas House, but he admits he was thinking about it. "The only reason that might have some credence is if that's an open seat." It's not an open seat, at least under the plans approved by the Legislative Redistricting Board. His home in Huntsville—that's in Walker County—was added to the district held by Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham.

The two have talked and by both accounts, Scott said he will not run against her. Kolkhorst says she is definitely running for reelection. That leaves Scott an opening to run only if another legislative map prevails, although his pledge not to run against an incumbent would presumably keep him out of a race with anyone else who happens to get a district with Huntsville in it.

For now, Scott will concentrate on his new job at the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. He was just appointed by Gov. Rick Perry and is apparently on his way to becoming the chairman of that board. We assumed from the makeup of the district and the places where we heard the rumors that Scott would run, if he runs, as a Republican. But the former prison chief ducked when asked about his party affiliation: "I think I'll keep that information to myself right now."

• Lobbyist James Mathis is pulling down his shingle, filing his last lobby report, and going to campaign land. He'll be the campaign manager for lieutenant governor candidate John Sharp. The former controller had brought Hilbert Ocañas aboard for that, but Ocañas still has a business of his own to run. He'll be the campaign chairman. Sharp, who went through three managers during his 1998 campaign, hired Mathis through January of next year. Mathis says he plans to run the show through the initial fundraising stage leading up to the March primaries.

• Land commissioner candidate Jerry Patterson is starting a group that's two-thirds Democratic and one-third Republican to support him on the Texas coast. The Coastal Texans for Patterson consists of three Galveston County Commissioners who are writing to their fellow commissioners along the Gulf Coast in support of his campaign. The three—Democrats Eddie Janek (father of Rep. Kyle Janek, a Houston Republican) and Eddie Barr, and Republican Ken Clark—were all in office when Patterson was the state senator for the county.

Eddie Shauberger, who runs a home health care company in Liberty, is gearing up for another run at the Texas House. Shauberger has lost in two previous bids for that job, but is hoping redistricting will break the clouds. If the new political maps hold, he's in HD-18; the incumbent there is Rep. Dan Ellis, D-Livingston. Shauberger's earlier runs were against Rep. Zeb Zbranek, D-Winnie, in what is now HD-20. Zbranek is in a new district under current proposals; thus, the new matchup.

Interested in Every Race But the Big One

The Republican Majority Council that made its debut this month is emphatically not a front group for any candidates for Speaker of the House. We mentioned last week that the group's fundraising pitch bore some resemblance to a strategy being pursued by Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland. But the vow there is no affiliation with him or anyone else. In fact, the chair of the group, Rep. Dianne Delisi, R-Temple, says she talked to House members before they joined to make sure that none of the charter members are running for, or are interested in running for speaker themselves. She wants to keep that kind of noise out of the RMC. For one thing, PACs can't contribute to or get involved in races for speaker, she says. That's apparently a felony.

Delisi says the group will try to raise and spend $500,000 between now and April. Their aim is to recruit conservative Republican House members, especially in 20 or so open seats they think Republicans can win. They won't support candidates against incumbent Republicans, but will support Republicans in contested primaries for open seats. And Delisi says the group will consider support for GOP candidates against Democratic House incumbents in some races. After the primaries in March and the runoffs in April, she expects the group to fold up its tent and make way for the Texas GOP's House 2002 PAC, which will support candidates through the general election cycle.

Delisi's group lost one of its charter members. Rep. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, says he was willing to sign on when he thought the group was raising money in support of Republican incumbents. He was willing to support Republicans running for open seats. But he doesn't want to pick sides in GOP primary races, and says he doesn't want to take part in races against incumbent Democrats. He's not trashing the group or anything, but says he'd rather stay out of family fights like those. His name has been pulled off the letterhead.

Political Notes

As soon as we say this, we'll get corrected, but here goes: The first House Democrat to drop out of the running is freshman Rep. Mike Villareal, D-San Antonio. He suffered the fate of a new member in a county that's losing one seat—he's paired in more than one redistricting map. Villareal, who ran a stealthy door-to-door campaign to get into the House in the first place, is telling supporters he wants to run against Paul Elizondo, a venerated Bexar County commissioner.

Kirk Wilson hasn't filed for the November special election in SD-30 yet, but plans to, according to his political consultant, Joe Counter. Wilson is a former Denton County Judge and lives in both the current district and the new one that was drawn by the Legislative Redistricting Board. The special election is to replace Sen. Tom Haywood, R-Wichita Falls, who died earlier this summer. Several candidates who were interested in the contest have hesitated because their chances aren't the same in the special election, held under current lines, and the regular election next year, under new ones. Wilson's not one of those; Counter says Wilson is "100 percent in the race." Craig Estes, a Wichita Falls businessman and Republican, is the only candidate officially in the running.

Corbin Van Arsdale, another former UT athlete (he was a pitcher) who's gone on to practice law, will run for what looks to be an open seat in the Texas House. He's looking at HD-130, a very, very Republican district in the LRB's configuration, and says the only thing that would keep him out is a redrawing of the maps that leaves the district with an incumbent. He doesn't want to challenge anybody. Van Arsdale was among the casualties when Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, moved on to Congress; that seat went instead to Rep. Bill Callegari. Sue Walden has signed on as Van Arsdale's fundraiser. He hasn't hired other consultants yet. A last note: He's already claiming the endorsement of the Houston Contractors Association.

• Former Texas Agriculture Commissioner-turned-speaker, radio host and print pundit Jim Hightower has fired up a new website to peddle his words and wares (books and his newsletter, The Lowdown) and to proselytize about what he calls progressive populism. It's also a link to other similar-minded sites. It's at www.jimhightower.com.

Political People and Their Moves

Gubernatorial appointments secretary Dealey Herndon has let the rest of the Guv's staff know she's leaving that post. She signed on when Rick Perry moved into the job in January and had apparently told him she would stay no longer than 12 months... Mary Jane Manford, one of Gov. Perry's most tenured advisors, is going on part-time status, which will allow her to spend less time on politics and more time on painting. She'll be attending art school. She was associate deputy commissioner of Agriculture when Perry held office there, and was director of research when he was Lite Guv... Public Strategies Inc., the Austin-based public affairs and lobby outfit, is losing Mark Rose, who came over from the Lower Colorado River Authority in December 1999 to run day-to-day operations as president and CEO. Rose says he'll soon opan a policy and lobbying shop of his own focussing on water and electric issues. PSI hasn't announced a new CEO... Dennis Speight moves from being the legislative director for Rep. Dan Ellis, D-Livingston, to being the finance director for the Texas Partnership PAC. That's the outfit set up by House Democrats to support Democratic incumbents and candidates in open races... Appointments: Gov. Perry named three new members to the board of the Texas Department of Economic Development. That group includes Hector Delgado, an El Paso attorney; Thomas "Tommy" Whaley Sr., who runs an industrial supply company in Marshall; and Macedonio "Massey" Villarreal of Missouri City. Villarreal was going to be a member of the state's General Services Commission, an appointment Perry announced several weeks ago. But Villarreal does business with the state and that was a disqualifier ... Perry named James Burnett, a Dallas attorney, to the Texas Credit Union Commission... The Guv picked Cynthia Tauss of Angleton and Tom Beard of Alpine for the General Services Commission. Tauss was on the Board of Pardons and Paroles, where former prison chief Wayne Scott has been installed; Beard gets the seat Villareal had and then gave up... Perry named Daniel Guerra of Austin to that pardons board, along with Lynn Phelan of Houston. Guerra worked in victims' services for the prison system; Phelan is a criminal justice prof at the University of Houston... Dr. Abigail Rios Barrera of San Antonio was tapped for the board of the Texas Department of Human Services. She's a former professor at UT Health Science Center in San Antonio...

Quotes of the Week

Morgan Stanley Chief Economist Stephen Roach, sharing a little doom and gloom with The New York Times: "We have gone from boom to bust faster than anytime since the oil shock. When you screech to a halt like that, it feels like getting thrown through the windshield."

Tennessee state finance commissioner C. Warren Neel on how that state's dependence on sales taxes is affecting the budget: "We are suddenly in a very precarious position. The revenues of this year's budget could fall short, and our rainy-day fund needs to be much higher. If we don't change the structure of our tax system, we are going to be at the mercy of lawsuits from people who need our services, and we'll gradually lose our ability to govern ourselves. We'll be like Alabama."

Texas AFL-CIO president Joe Gunn, in a letter blasting federal prosecutors for jailing a book writer who won't hand over her notes: "In an era when every citizen can become a publisher without having to buy presses, we must reaffirm that any American who exercises legitimate First Amendment rights should not be forced to become an investigative arm of government."

Former University of Texas Safety Lance Gunn, replaying his initial negative reaction when his former teammate Ed Cunningham unveiled plans to run for the U.S. Senate: "Phil Gramm's been doing that job since we were born."

Texas Railroad Commissioner Tony Garza, after his effort to keep oil spill rules alive died for lack of another vote: "I had no illusion that we had written the 'perfect rule,' but I feel strongly that to stifle comment and constructive discussion of RBDM so early in the process is not good for the Commission, nor for Texas. Apparently, the Commission is more comfortable 'doing nothing," than doing 'right.'"


Texas Weekly: Volume 18, Issue 9, 27 August 2001. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2001 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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