There's nothing like the rare availability of a U.S. Senate seat to prove that few people in elected office are really happy with the offices they already occupy. After U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm announced that he will serve until the end of this term and then leave office, Texas turned into a political Field of Dreams. For the first 48 hours, every politico in Texas was on the phone, either checking to see about support for a promotion, or taking calls from friends who wanted support for a promotion.
Meanwhile, a fair number of the state's Republicans were trying to bring order to the riot of ambition that followed Gramm's decision to free one of the top rungs on the ladder of Texas politics. The cleanest way to do that would be to put the two most popular people in the Texas GOP at the top of their party's ticket. But that would mean running Gov. Rick Perry for the U.S. Senate and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison for the governor's office. He's not interested in a Washington job, so that's out.
The next best thing from the GOP's standpoint would be to let the governor appoint a successor. That doesn't always work–U.S. Sen. Bob Krueger, a Democrat appointed by Gov. Ann Richards, got whacked in a special election to fill Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's seat in 1993. But it does give a Party favorite a leg up on the competition. Only one person gets to run for office with the title of U.S. senator.
The attempt to keep things in order started well before Gramm announced his retirement (which is probably why word leaked out a week before he made it official). Gramm wanted U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio, to be named as his successor. He would retire early, Bonilla would get the nod from Perry, and an orderly transition would follow. That assumes that everyone else in the party would strangle their personal ambitions and leave Bonilla–who is politically unproven in the state's other 29 congressional districts–as the sole Republican nominee for U.S. Senate.
Texas Republicans want to be able to say they elected the first Hispanic to the U.S. Senate. Perry was right in step with Gramm on that point, but had a different candidate in mind: Railroad Commissioner Tony Garza. Garza, a former Cameron County Judge, was then-Gov. George W. Bush's first secretary of state and has run two statewide races (one loss, one win), and is better known. But Bonilla has been tending his fields with the Washington, D.C., wing of the GOP: He's a favorite of the national party folk. He's the chairman, for instance, of the American Dream PAC, which promotes minority candidates in the Republican Party. Gramm is one of that PAC's board members.
In the end, Perry and Gramm couldn't agree and Gramm decided not to step down in a way that would let Perry nominate his successor. The Houston Chronicle reported later that the White House was trying to broker a deal between the two, but as we went to press, there was no deal and chances for the Republicans to field a Hispanic candidate in the general election next year were slipping away. Attorney General John Cornyn's aides were preparing an announcement of his candidacy (and all the paperwork and folderol involved) and Land Commissioner David Dewhurst was trying to decide whether to run for the Senate seat he's always said he wanted or the lieutenant governor's chair he is already in the process of pursuing. Bonilla was thinking of getting in, deal or no deal.
A Bonilla candidacy would test the notion in the minds of many Republican officeholders and consultants that GOP primary voters won't elect a Hispanic who is in a field of other candidates. They simply don't have much confidence that a minority candidate can survive a primary. But U.S. Senate seats have only come open in Texas five times in the last 40 years, and politicians are ambitious by nature. It's hard to tell one politico to sit out of a big game to protect a symbolically important foe.
Who's the Fairest of Them All?
There is a distinct Washington vs. Austin stink to the Republican conversations about who might best succeed Gramm. In the Washington version, a congressman would be the best candidate. That's how things often work, particularly in smaller states. The Texas bias is toward someone with statewide chops–somebody who has already run for election in all of the state's congressional districts.
A recent poll done by Austin-based Montgomery and Associates shows U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla with more support from Republican primary voters than Railroad Commissioner Tony Garza. The congressman had the support of 13.9 percent of those voters, while Garza was the favorite of 7.3 percent. Both would have a lot of work to do. And the two guys waiting in the wings–Attorney General John Cornyn and Land Commissioner David Dewhurst–were more popular still. Cornyn had 26.6 percent support; Dewhurst had 16 percent. In a hypothetical race between Dewhurst and Bonilla, the pollsters found Dewhurst with a solid 44 percent to 24 percent lead.
Some Republicans worry about losing a seat in Congress if Bonilla moves up or out of his House seat. The seat he's leaving behind isn't a Republican seat. While he was beating Isidro Garza Jr. in last year's elections (by a margin of 59 percent to 39 percent), Republican Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander was losing to Democrat Paul Hobby in that congressional district, 54 percent to 46 percent. She went on to win in other parts of the state and prevail, but the omens aren't great for Republicans in the 23rd congressional district if Bonilla's not the incumbent.
A similar poll of Democratic voters done by the same firm showed former Attorney General Dan Morales as the favorite among Democrats who are seriously considering a run at U.S. Senate. Morales said after Gramm's announcement that he'll officially kick off his campaign in mid-fall. He hasn't hired consultants and hasn't opened an office or filed the necessary campaign papers that would allow him to raise and spend money on a campaign. But he said he has located office space for the campaign in San Antonio and will do the other things soon. Former UT football player Ed Cunningham is the only Democrat who is actually in the race so far. Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk is still considering a run and has been encouraged by national Democratic Party officials. Spike that rumor about U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, running for the Gramm seat. He'll run for reelection next year. His Houston colleague, U.S. Rep. Ken Bentsen, put out a statement saying he'll consider a run.
Few Politicos Want What They Already Have
Dewhurst is leaving his current post, even if he remains in the Lite Guv race. A slate of candidates was already lining up for that. If Cornyn moves to the Senate race, the lottery winner is Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, who has already raised almost $900,000 (less than one percent of it from his fellow trial lawyers) and would no longer be staring at a formidable incumbent. The Republicans interested in the job could include former Supreme Court Justice Greg Abbott. He's running for lieutenant governor and says that's where he'll remain. But if Dewhurst stays in that race and Cornyn moves to the U.S. Senate, Abbott's supporters in the Party will be pushing him to move into the attorney general's race. Garza, if he's not running for U.S. Senate, might also consider that race.
Supreme Court Justice Harriet O'Neill says she's been getting calls from people who want her to run for attorney general if there's an opening in that job. Put her name on the list of people who might possibly, perhaps, maybe get into the race. But she says she won't even speculate about it until she knows what Cornyn is going to do. The pitch for O'Neill is that the GOP would compete better against Watson with something other than an Anglo male, unless that Anglo male is the incumbent. That's a sideswipe at Abbott, an Anglo male who's not an incumbent.
In Other News... A Governor's Race
Since Phil Gramm was elected to Congress 23 years ago, he's been pegged as a media hound. The longstanding joke is that the most dangerous place to stand in Washington, D.C., is between Gramm and a television camera. He kept his rep with his resignation speech, and the fellow standing on dangerous ground was one A.R. "Tony" Sanchez Jr., the Laredo oilman who's running for governor. Sanchez ended a 13-month gubernatorial prep regimen by officially announcing his bid for the job.
Gramm, who's had a little experience upstaging other politicians, was on the East Coast and on national television at exactly the same time, tearfully announcing that this will be his last term. It's not that Sanchez was at the center of his thoughts or anything, but he was quitting anyhow, and why not step on the birth announcement of a major Democratic campaign as you write your own obit?
That wasn't the first misstep in the Sanchez announcement. The campaign tried to orchestrate the rollout by doing interviews with reporters for TV stations and for daily newspapers. Those first conversations with Sanchez were embargoed–the campaign's idea was that everyone would be able to run the stuff at the same time, more or less, during the Labor Day weekend. But some outlets were given permission to jump the gun. Others said they never heard anyone mention an embargo. The result was that one paper ran the interview before the weekend started. The others stuffed it inside other stories or, in the case of the Dallas Morning News, ran nothing at all. And the television folks who weren't favored with permission to jump the embargo were unhappy, too.
The Sanchez announcement, on the other hand, went better than some were expecting. The candidate didn't appear to be nervous about his first appearance before the banks of cameras and the reporter scrums. And he didn't commit any real errors in the first day of exposure. He's now traveling the state in a series of regional tours, and staffers say he'll be rolling out positions on this and that for the rest of the year.
Sanchez Won't Quit UT
UT Regent Don Evans didn't quit that panel while he was busy with the Bush presidential campaign, and Sanchez won't quit his post as a regent while he's running for governor. So sayeth the Sanchez campaign in response to a call for his resignation by the Young Conservatives of Texas. That group contends the businessman's bid for governor will conflict with his duties as a regent, and that it might make other state officials mad. A press release from the group says it's important for the board to get along with the governor and others and says the Sanchez candidacy just might get him sideways with the incumbent, Rick Perry. Aides to Sanchez cite the Evans case. He was deeply involved in George W. Bush's campaign for president, but remained a regent until January. YCT, they note dryly, didn't call for his hide.
Vernon "Max" Arrell, the executive director of the Texas Rehabilitation Commission, has resigned from that $104,000 a year job. But on October 1, he plans to go back on the payroll at the same pay and in the same post. The difference? Sitting out for a month qualifies him to begin collecting his state retirement even though he will also be collecting a state salary.
That's the brainchild of Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander. A few years ago, the state passed a law to limit employees' ability to double-dip, requiring them to stay out of the jobs they were quitting for several months and then cutting into the amount of work they could do on their return to state government. Before the new law took effect September 1, state employees had to sit out for nine months within a fiscal year. Now there's no layout period. Arrell officially retired on the last day of the 2001 fiscal year and will go back on the books in the second month of the new year.
The legislation that made that possible included an official finding that said it would cause no significant fiscal impact on the state treasury.
Follow the Bouncing Senators
Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, is changing districts. He lives in and represents SD-10 now, but much of what used to belong to him would move elsewhere under the Legislative Redistricting Board's map of political turf. He'll run in SD-9.
That is currently the political property of Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, but she was similarly cut up and has decided to run in SD-12. She's actually the one who started the shifts, saying she was angry when her district was rearranged and angrier still when she found out that her home was suddenly going to be a different part of the political map than her daughter's school, her husband's office and her mother's nursing home.
Her family's haunts are in the district represented by Sen. Mike Moncrief, D-Fort Worth. He has talked about moving into the district that is now occupied by Harris. All of the swapping is presumably contingent on the courts sticking with the LRB plans or something close to them. If altogether new maps are put into place, all bets are off–there could easily be more shuffling later.
If everything holds, the squeezed candidate is Dee Kelly Jr., son of the prominent lawyer and a Republican who was gunning for Moncrief in the newly drawn district. The map changes were done, in large measure, to create a district for him. He and Nelson had the same consultant–Fort Worth-based Eppstein Group–and that gang will stick with Nelson, the tenured client, now that she's in the race. Eppstein is also the consultant for Harris, the other Republican in the mix.
And there could be some other decisions that affect the Tarrant County ballot. Moncrief, whose Senate district was redrawn to make a Republican win all but certain, has also been calling around the state to see what kind of support he would get if he ran for a spot on the Texas Railroad Commission. Officially, he says he's keeping his options open, looking at reelection in his own district, in Harris' district, and at "statewide opportunities." He says it's too early to jump into the Senate swapfest, since the courts have yet to consider what he thinks is an illegal political map of Senate districts.
Rounding it Out: Land, Railroad, and Agriculture
Sen. David Bernsen, D-Beaumont, is telling political supporters that he'll be a candidate for land commissioner and not for reelection next year. His advisors think the Senate race would be a tough one, but think–at least when they're within our hearing range–that he could win. Even so, they think he's got a shot at running the General Land Office and will announce, apparently, within the week. Ray Madrigal of Corpus Christi has said he'll be in that race on the Democratic side. On the GOP end, former Sen. Jerry Patterson, who lost in 1998, is running against Rep. Kenn George, R-Dallas.
• Railroad Commission Chairman Michael Williams, a Bush appointee who's up for reelection to his first full term on that panel, says he expects to try to stay where he is. Williams, a Republican attorney, had been mentioned as a possible candidate for attorney general, should John Cornyn jump into the U.S. Senate race. He says he won't go, regardless of Cornyn's plans.
The rumor that former Railroad Commissioner Jim Nugent will run a comeback campaign is flat wrong, according to Nugent himself. That notion floated up after the flap over oil spill rules at the RRC, but it isn't so. This, however, is: Democrat Sherry Boyles is definitely running for the commission against Williams, a Republican. She's been sniffing at the job for several months and will make a formal announcement next month, but has signed consultants: James Aldrete as general campaign consultant, Jason Stanford for research and Gerry Tyson to handle field.
• Republican Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs has called around to let supporters know she's interested in the lieutenant governor's office if the chips fall in just the right order. But when we asked her about it, she said she has nothing to announce. She did tell us what job she'd like, now that everyone in politics is dreaming: "Empress of the Universe."
The Crazy Aunt in the Attic
Remember Ross Perot's phrase about the problems nobody wanted to talk about? Well, on the state level, school finance and taxes come pretty close to being an embarrassing relative. And the state's legislative leaders have appointed a group to start talking things out.
Some local school districts in Texas have complained–sued, even–about the state's cap on local property tax rates. But there's a flip to that argument that muddies what might first look like a good political answer. If you're against capping those rates, and if you're dealing with taxpayers, it's not going to be too hard to blame you if the caps are removed and taxes go up. If you leave the rates capped, you hold taxes down, but some school districts are already starting to make cuts, blaming state politicos and the school finance system in the process.
An Austin judge recently tossed out a case that said the finance system is unconstitutional, partly because he wasn't convinced that enough districts are taxing at the highest rate against their will. But more districts hit the wall every year and the issue could come to a head during the next legislative session. That's part of the reason Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff and House Speaker Pete Laney named a special committee to disassemble and reassemble the school finance system (the other was to keep the issue out of the way during the legislative session earlier this year).
That committee will be co-chaired by the education chairmen in the House and Senate, Rep. Paul Sadler, D-Henderson, and Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo. They'll be joined by Sens. Steve Ogden, R-R-College Station, Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, and Royce West, D-Dallas, and by Reps. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, and Todd Smith, R-Euless. The public members: former Sen. Kent Caperton, former State Board of Education member Will Davis, Craig Foster of the Equity Center, former ambassador Lyndon Olson, former Rep. Mark Stiles and attorney David Thompson.
The group's charge is to do a soup-to-nuts review of the state's school finance formulas and how the tax system plugs into it. Ratliff and Laney want a report by November 15, 2002 (that's after the election). There was talk of a "conservative alternative" to the study, but that's either been fixed or was wrong in the first place. The Texas Conservative Coalition's research arm will do a study of the state budget, including school finance, but that's not intended to be a competing report.
Rep. Joe Crabb, R-Humble, says he won't be taking a job with the county attorney's office (he'd been talking with them) and will be seeking reelection. There's a question as to whether he can do both. That's pending, but he says he wants to come back to Austin and doesn't want to take the risk that the other job would be a disqualifier. He'll have opposition. Michael Sullivan, who ran against Crabb before, says he'll be in the contest. He says he's the only candidate in the race who actually lives in the newly drawn district, and says Crabb has only passed seven bills since he took office ten years ago. Sullivan's Internet site is at www.SullivanCampaign.com.
• Rep. Clyde Alexander, D-Athens, is telling supporters he might move to Corsicana if the new redistricting maps hold. He's paired with Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell, in the proposed maps and the Corsicana seat would be easier to defend.
• Texas elects 30 of the 435 people in Congress. Next year, the state's share will increase to 32 because population growth here has tilted the scales that much in our direction. But it could have been more: A University of Wisconsin statistician says the Texas delegation would have grown to 33 if the federal government had allowed sampled Census numbers to be used instead of just the hard counts. Ohio was the beneficiary; that state would have been the probable loser had Texas obtained the extra seat samplers say the state deserved. You can have a look at it and fiddle with the results Margo Anderson's website at the school: www.uwm.edu/~margo.
Political People and Their Moves
Jim Hine is the new commissioner of the Texas Department of Human Services, replacing Eric Bost, who took an appointment in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which runs the food stamp program). Hine had been the chief at the state's protective and regulatory services agency... Texas Ranger Captain C.J. Havrda is taking over that elite state police unit. He's been running the Rangers' San Antonio office since 1993. Havrda, who's been with the Department of Public Safety for 30 years, will replace Bruce Casteel as head of the Rangers... Stephen Rosales, an aide to the late Bob Bullock for years and then a top-level aide to Attorney General John Cornyn, has signed on with Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, as his legislative assistant... On the Docket: Juanita Yvette Lozano, the aide to George W. Bush media guy Mark McKinnon who stole the candidate's debate tapes and tried to ship them over to the Al Gore camp. Federal Judge Sam Sparks lectured her and then gave her the maximum penalties for mail fraud and perjury, fining her $3,000 and sending her to jail for a year... Former Texas prison chief James "Andy" Collins and Canadian businessman Yank Barry will be sentenced in mid-November on convictions that arose from a kickback scheme where Collins' prison system bought a food product, Vitapro, from Barry's company. They're planning appeals. The maximum possible penalties: 70 years in prison and $2 million in fines... Adopted: Kathryn Bailey Hutchison, to be known as Bailey, by the U.S. Sen. for whom she is named and by Dallas bond lawyer Ray Hutchison. Bailey is four months old. Mom is 58. Dad is 68... Appointments: Gov. Rick Perry named Molly Meredith Francis of Coppell to the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas. She replaces John Roach Sr., who retired from that post. Francis is currently a state district judge... Deaths: Olivero "O.P." Carrillo, a South Texas powerhouse and state district judge impeached by the Texas Senate in 1976 for abusing his position. He was 77.
Quotes of the Week
U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, upending Texas politics again: "I will not seek re-election to the U.S. Senate. At the end of this term, I will end my period of public service. I have spent two thirds of my adult life in the service of Texas and America, and I have loved every minute of it."
Democratic Lite Guv candidate John Sharp, telling the San Antonio Express-News why he believed the rumors that Gramm would leave: "The reason it's believable to Aggies like me is that if someone was offered a choice between being U.S. president, a senator, or chancellor or president of Texas A&M, any self-respecting Aggie would choose being chancellor or president."
Democrat A.R. "Tony" Sanchez Jr., announcing his candidacy for governor: "I am not running to be first in anything. I am running to make sure Texas is first in everything." And in an interview with The New York Times: "Issues are important, but they are not as important as the fact that this is an opportunity to vote for one of your own."
Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly in a recent column against amnesty for illegal immigrants: "Isn't California's energy crisis really because of the large increase in its illegal population during a decade when no new power plants were built? California now has about 4 million illegal aliens, so it's no wonder that existing sources of power are not adequate."
Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Michael Williams, saying he won't seek a different office: "Voters want us to get a couple of semesters on our report cards before we ask for a promotion."
Land Commission candidate Jerry Patterson on a recent poll of GOP primary voters: "It's clear that undecided is winning this race. If undecided makes the runoff, I'm going to endorse him."
Former Vice President Al Gore, on his change in lifestyle: "They let other cars on the road when I drive; that takes considerably more time," he said. "And what's this with commercial air travel?"
Sen. Gramm, in a Dallas Morning News article about anger from the opposition that some Republicans call them the Democrat Party instead of their real name, Democratic Party: "I willing to call them anything. Whatever they want to be called–Sweetheart, Darlin', the Great American Party–I don't know. I'm easy. We know who they are, whatever you call them. A rose is still a rose."
Texas Weekly: Volume 18, Issue 11, 10 September 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. For news, email email@example.com, or call (512) 288-6598.