Politics came to a halt in Texas on Sept. 11 but while the play has since picked up, the landscape has changed. Until at least next spring, money is likely to be tight, messages will be difficult to craft and voters are less likely to be interested in state politics than they have been in recent years. Political tactics and strategy are changing and politicians are testing the new ground.
Even before Sept. 11, the state comptroller was warning that the U.S. economy was "crawling." Since then, it’s been reeling. Politicians are looking nervously at the stock market’s fall and at the diminishing fortunes of some of their more important benefactors – the likes of the Bass Family of Fort Worth who were forced to sell $2 billion of stock recently in the Walt Disney Co. The stock had been worth $3.5 billion the day before the terrorist attack. Just as worrisome is that economic uncertainty is likely to cool giving among the rank and file donors.
A crowded starting line is putting even more pressure on available resources. All the statewide offices, including the governor’s seat, are up for grabs next year. A U.S. Senate seat is open for the first time in nearly a decade. And that’s not counting about 45 competitive races for the state house and 10 for the state senate. The uncertainty created by redistricting is adding to the tentative situation. It will be at least another month before candidates know for sure the districts in which they are running.
Voters are tuned in to Washington and not to Austin. That’s likely to continue. Candidates running for the U.S. Congress may get some ink and air time, but they too are going to have to work hard to get noticed. No one is paying attention to statewide races. Greg Abbott’s announcement for Attorney General was reported in a single paragraph on an inside page of the Austin American-Statesman.
And what’s the message? It’s hard to get voters to focus on the environment or education. Political consultants are telling candidates to be subtle and act more like statesmen than politicians. This is not the time for partisanship or attacks on opponents, they say. Voters want to hear patriotism not politics. Democratic Gubernatorial hopeful Tony Sanchez Jr., for example, made a point at a speech to Hispanic business leaders in Austin of praising George W. Bush.
Consultants are warning candidates not to do anything crass. Don’t use the tragedy for personal gain, they’re saying. Black humor often surfaces after national tragedies, usually on the Internet and via e-mails. But not this time. And consultants are cautioning politicians to stay finely tuned to the national mood and adjust their message regularly. The repetitiveness of traditional retail politics may not work for now.
Being an incumbent looks better every day. But because Republicans have been playing musical chairs, they’re giving up incumbent seats and losing a natural advantage. Only three statewide Republicans officials—Gov. Rick Perry, State Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander and Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs—are defending their seats. The demographic numbers are not in their favor but Democrats are more hopeful than they have been in at least eight years.
And with money tight and voters disengaged, avoiding a primary becomes crucial. Three days after announcing he was running for the U.S. Senate, John Cornyn had moved aggressively to secure endorsements from party regulars, and potentially discourage a primary challenger.
The challenge will be assessing just how deeply the landscape has changed and how to move with the times.
GOP Supporters Cross Party Lines for Kirk
Will Dallas’ predominantly Republican business establishment support Mayor Ron Kirk with its money, its talent and its votes when Kirk runs on the Democratic ticket (he’s setting up an exploratory committee) for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Phil Gramm?
Some establishment members will help Kirk. Carol Reed, Kirk’s close advisor and a veteran GOP consultant who cut her teeth in politics working for John Tower said GOP support is "very unusual." She cannot remember when Republicans conceded some of their own would help a Democrat. Reed points out that for years, it’s always been Democrats volunteering to help Republicans, and in turn, helping GOP fortunes rise. It’s never been the other way around.
Hard core Republicans say GOP support for Kirk would be a kick in the teeth for George W. Bush. It would give a boost to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and to Democratic efforts to retain control of the Senate. One well-placed GOP operative said most Republicans would feel concerned that their money would be put to use against the President over time. The Bush connection is a problem, said another operative who does not think Kirk will carry " carry tons of GOP money."
Rob Allyn, the Republican consultant, who has worked with Kirk on both his bids for mayor said he has never worked for a Democrat in a partisan race and won’t make an exception this time. "Ron is a terrific guy and a dear personal friend, but on this one I think I’m going to have wish him well."
But Dallas business leaders genuinely like Ron Kirk. He’s brought home the bacon for them over the two terms he’s been mayor, successfully leading efforts to get voter approval to build the new downtown sports arena and a highway along the Trinity River near downtown. He’s now working to get voters to approve the costs of bringing the Olympics to Dallas in 2012.
"There is something very special about him that crosses all boundaries," said Reed. "I’ve never viewed him as partisan. He brings a non-partisan approach similar to George W. Bush."
According to another ranking Republican, there are a "whole lot of business people in Dallas who like him and who have a high regard for him." But he predicted that many of the big ticket Republicans will shy away. They’ll give a little to the GOP and a little to the Democrats.
A prominent Dallas Democratic businessman, known for his fundraising prowess, said he’s been surprised at Kirk’s Republican support. He said he did not think there would be so much backing, at least initially, because conventional wisdom said Bush would put a lot of pressure on his backers not to support a Democrat.
Kirk’s take on GOP support: "I will be as supportive of Bush as anybody where it’s to the benefit to the people of Texas. I’m not running as a lap dog for anybody." He declined to predict which Dallas Republicans would donate to his Senate effort or who would volunteer to be on his exploratory committee. Some prominent Republican names, he assured, will be listed.
But other Dallas Republicans aren’t hesitating. Jeff Marcus, the cable magnate, and Ray Hunt, the oilman, won’t give money, goes the thinking. Marcus’ wife has just been named ambassador to the United Nations. Hunt is a die-hard Bush supporter.
Dallas Stars and Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks, on the other hand, will likely give money to Kirk. And Democratic fundraising stalwarts Jess Hay and Cappy McGarr can be counted on. Reed believes many won’t choose sides until after the primary.
Regardless of preference, federal election laws cap donations at $1,000 per candidate per election. That means husband and wife top out at $6,000 — $1,000 each for the primary, the run-off and the general election. The limit per PAC is $5,000. When it comes time to sell a $10,000 table at the million dollar fundraiser, a Republican asked "who will sell the table?
Reed isn’t worried. Though it’ll take $12 million or more for Kirk to prevail, she said money won’t be a problem for either party’s nominee. "There will be enough attention, there will be so much coverage, that each will be able to raise the money he needs. The money will come; it always does."
• Republican Majority Whip Tom DeLay, Railroad Comissioner Tony Garza and State. Sen. Florence Shapiro have formed Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee that will help GOP state House members and also weigh in on senate and statewide races. Organizers are expected to make a formal announcement in the next week or two. They’re trying to identify the candidates they’ll support. An aside to explain DeLay’s involvement is that if the congressional redistricting case now being heard in Austin, and potential appeals, don’t go the way of the GOP, it will be up to the Texas Legislature to redraw federal lines.
• The Bob Bullock Museum in Austin was packed with Democratic Party supporters on Sept. 21 but most of the party’s sponsors, including candidates for statewide office, were no shows. Gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez Jr. took a pass as did Lt. Gov. hopeful John Sharp and Attorney General candidate Kirk Watson. The only statewide candidate on hand was Houston attorney John WorldPeace, who is running for governor. Democratic Party spokesman Mike Hailey said the party will hold another fund raiser next March. U.S. Reps Lloyd Doggett and Ken Bentsen accepted a check for more than $2 million raised by Texas firefighters for their fallen New York colleagues. The money was to be given to U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel of New York but he also sent his regrets.
• San Antonio State Representative John Longoria has drawn an opponent for the first time since his first run for the seat 10 years ago. His challenger is Raul Prado, a former San Antonio City Council member. No Republican has announced for the heavily Hispanic district. Both candidates say they expect to spend at least $100,000 on the race. Longoria is a former Bexar County Commissioner and County Judge who also had a free ride during his nine-year career in county politics. Prado, a former South San Antonio Independent School Board member, was forced out of his city council seat by term limits. He is targeting Longoria’s seat because it’s the constituency he represented on the council.
• State Rep. Tommy Williams, the Woodlands Republican who has been in the House since 1994 has formed an exploratory committee to look into running for SD-4, the seat vacated by David Bernsen, who is running for Land Commissioner. Redistricting is making the seat more attractive to a Republican and Williams said he intends to run, as long as the new lines stay in place. He will be challenged in the primary by Michael Galloway, who Bernsen beat four years ago, and by Martin Basaldua, a Kingwood physician and vice chairman of the Higher Education Coordinating Board.
• U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, took vigorous exception to our note last week about response to a redistricting mailer he’d sent to people in his congressional district. The mailer was sent to people who are in his district now, but who would be moved to other districts under redistricting proposed by Attorney General John Cornyn and by Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff. Culberson asked those folks to write to him and to the attorney general’s office, among others. The response to the attorney general’s office, as we noted, has been extremely light. But Culberson says his office has received more than 4,800 letters, all from people who hope to remain in his district. That’s not gonna work for everyone: The Culberson district has 120,000 too many people, according to the redistricting and census gurus. He says he would easily win either district, but wants to preserve the "core" of the district, which pulls together a string of neighborhoods along Memorial Drive in Houston. He also says there’s an easy fix that would involve a swap with some of the newly drawn district for Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land. According to Culberson, that swap is okay with DeLay and wouldn’t affect anyone else.
• Four Republicans have now filed for the special election to fill the seat of the late Sen. Tom Haywood. The race now pits Craig Estes, who has been endorsed by Haywood’s widow, Pat Haywood, against Kirk Wilson, a former Denton County Judge, Douglas Jeffrey, the city attorney in Vernon, and Harry Reynolds, the former Mayor of Sherman. At least two other Republicans are looking at the race and Democrats also are likely to put up a candidate. Filing deadline is Oct. 9.
A Rerun of Dog-Eat-Dog
Bean counters at the state Comptroller’s Office say that lawmakers left only $5 million on the table when the legislative session ended this year. That’s after starting with a surplus of nearly $4 billion. With the state economy now expected to grow at no more than 3 percent a year and state revenues likely to rise by at best half that amount, fiscal watchers are warning that the next session may be a replay of the tough days of the late 80s. For now, State Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander is not expected to revise her revenue estimate because a slowdown of the economy was built into it. But Deputy Comptroller Billy Hamilton is warning that balancing the budget is likely to be tougher next year than it’s been since 1991. Hamilton adds that lawmakers and agency officials have yet to come to grips with the magnitude of the anticipated problem. The days of dog-eat-dog may be back at the Texas Legislature.
In the meantime, the effect of layoffs throughout Texas are being felt at the Workforce Commission, which is telling the state’s 400,000 employers that their unemployment taxes will go up by a tenth of one percent in January. The last tax hike was in 1995. The unemployment fund has dropped $109.7 million below its statutory floor. The increase would have been stiffer had it not been for $116 million in the now defunct Smart Job fund that the Commission can tap.
Flush with Cash that’s Out of Reach
John Cornyn has a problem most politicians can only dream about. He’s got something like $4 million in his political bank account, but he can’t use it for the race he’s in. The money is in the attorney general’s state account and can’t be easily converted to his federal run for U.S. senator. He and his lawyers and political folks are looking at options that include (among other things) sending money back to donors to the state account and asking them to give to the Senate cause under the stricter federal campaign finance rules. Cornyn could also contribute the money to other state candidates. Or—and this is something the lawyers are working on—the money might be useable in a statewide Get Out the Vote effort or a coordinated campaign on behalf of the GOP ticket. Cornyn has been through this before, but on a much smaller scale: The money he raised as a Texas Supreme Court justice wasn’t transferable to his campaign for attorney general in 1998.
Cornyn says a GOP primary, if he has one, will cost around $6 million. He expects a general election race to cost even more, but didn’t put a number to it for us. He believes the Republican candidate will have plenty of outside help because of the narrow GOP margin in the U.S. Senate and because it’s important to the White House to have a win in the home state during the mid-term elections next year. He’s hoping that will translate into endorsements and perhaps appearances on the campaign trail from President Bush and members of his cabinet. He says his role in the state’s redistricting won’t be an issue in the campaign (others say a bad turn in the courts could splash back on Cornyn, who headed the Legislative Redistricting Board).
School District ally eyes new job
State District Judge F. Scott McCown, who has presided over seven public education suits over the last 12 years, is one of more than 80 candidates to apply for the job of executive director of the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services. McCown, whose term is up in 2004, said he has heard 1,500 cases involving more than 3,000 abused children over the last decade but the agency job would extend his reach and allow him to help thousands more. McCown has been a solid supporter of poor school districts.
Candidate Web Sites: Winners and Sinners
Candidate web sites – how good are they? We surfed the net to find out and bring you some reviews. Candidate web sites are mostly for voters already leaning toward the candidate, said web guru Nathan Wilcox at Public Strategies. Their best use, said Max Fose, partner at Integrated Web Strategy in Washington, D.C. and the man behind the Sen. John McCain for President web site, is spurring supporters to action – giving money, for example.
The e-mail component is critical, said Fose. Collecting names and addresses allows a campaign to prompt interested voters to go to the web site to take suggested actions. High interactivity between the campaign and supporters is the real goal. A good web site will continuously keep supporters engaged. A site ought to be clever, said Wilcox, clever enough to attract attention. Some candidates will put up several web sites, one to tell about their candidate, others to lampoon opponents. When they’re really humming, sites offer video, allow visitors to screen campaign commercials or watch news clips. Because web sites have been the underdog’s medium, it’s the underdogs – McCain and former presidential candidate Bill Bradley, for example – who’ve pushed the envelope. Some 2002 web sites are up; others aren’t up yet.
Rick Perry. B. The incumbent Texas Governor asks for your e-mail address on the homepage but giving a contribution is tougher. You’ve got to click through to another screen only to find an address to send a check. The site provides the usual background, plus links to Perry’s official site with information on his tenure as governor. There’s no calls to action. Design is pleasing but not inspiring.
Tony Sanchez Jr. B-. The Democratic challenger for governor makes you click to a second page to provide your e-mail address. But it allows you to type in your comments. There’s no avenue for giving a contribution and no call to action. Design is pedestrian though being able to read the site in English or Spanish is a nice touch.
John WorldPeace. C-. The Democratic challenger for governor displays a flood of articles, speeches other materials. You can read his Declaration of World Interdependence or a saying by Mahatma Ghandi. Giving a donation is easy; click the MasterCard icon and a screen pops up allowing you to provide name, address and card number. But there’s no mechanism for collecting e-mail names save a link to WorldPeace at AOL. Overall design is very clunky.
John Cornyn. C. The Texas attorney general and GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate has what amounts to a placeholder but it does contain key elements – a place to contribute on-line and to volunteer. The volunteering serves to capture e-mail addresses. Cornyn’s bio is there with a three-paragraph statement declaring his candidacy, but nothing else. Look is pedestrian.
Ed Cunningham. C-. The former UT-Austin football star and Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate has posted a bullet-point resume and recitation of his positions. Articles about him and the race are there too. Photos of campaign aides add little. There’s a contribution button to push which leads to an address to send money by snail mail but no specific request to provide an e-mail address directly through the site.
John Sharp. C-. The former state comptroller running for Lt. Governor has posted an extensive list of donors as well as his speech declaring his candidacy. But there’s no way to provide your e-mail address or register to help. If you want to give money, you’ve got to download a form and send it with a check via snail mail. The look is pedestrian. No calls to action listed.
Marty Akins. B+. The Marble Falls attorney running for comptroller has it all on his site. He collects e-mail addresses, asks voters to fill out a short form describing who they are, what they’re interested in. Punch the MasterCard or Visa icons and you can donate money over the site. Views on issues are available as is a short biography. Importantly, a list of action items is included, including inviting supporters to put out yard signs, serve on the various committees or sponsor a fundraiser. The site is in both English and Spanish and offers musical accompaniment.
Political People and Their Moves
Jim Moore, a former Houston television reporter and most recently director of the Austin office of Burson-Marsteller, has joined Tony Sanchez Jr.’s gubernatorial campaign as its director. Moore and Glenn Smith will jointly manage the campaign... Public Strategies, the Austin public affairs and lobby shop, continues to expand. Its most recent hire is Peter Zandan as managing director of its national public affairs division. Zandan was a high profile entrepreneur during Austin’s high-tech boom and co-founder of the annual Austin 360 Summit… LBJ Library Director Harry Middleton, who was scheduled to retire this month, has decided to stay put until the end of the year. His replacement, Betty Sue Flowers, a University of Texas English professor, takes over early next year. Middleton’s farewell festivities, postponed after the Sept. 11 terrorism attack, are scheduled for Nov. 28… Michael Quinn Sullivan, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, is the new director of media and government relations at the conservative San Antonio-based Texas Public Policy Foundation… The Texas Association of School Boards chose Canutillo Independent School District Administrator Charles Hart as its Superintendent of the Year… Appointments: Gov. Rick Perry appointed four new members of Texas Board of Public Accountancy. They are Marcela Donadio, a senior partner with Ernst & Young in Houston; Carlos Madrid, a San Antonio homebuilder; Catherine Rodewald, a Hunt Consolidated executive from Frisco; and Melanie Thompson, a Canyon Lake CPA…Perry also picked six members of the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. Michael Jones, a Tyler attorney; C. Kent Conine, owner of Conine Residential Group of Frisco; Shadrick Bogany, a Missouri City real estate broker; Vidal Gonzalez, president of the Del Rio National Bank, Norberto Salinas, major of Mission; and Elizabeth Anderson, vice president of Science Applications of Dallas… The three new University of North Texas regents are Marjorie Craft, a De Soto business consultant and past president of the university’s Exes; Burle Pettit of Lubbock, editor emeritus of the Lubbock Avalanche Journal; and Plano builder John Robert "Bobby" Ray… Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, an Austin family practice physician, was tapped to head the Texas Department of Health. He replaces Dr. William "Reyn" Archer, who resigned after making controversial statements about women and minorities... President George W. Bush nominated McAllen attorney Randy Crane to a federal judgeship being created in South Texas… Stepping down: Phil Hardberger, Chief Justice of the 4th Court of Appeals in San Antonio, won’t run for reelection. His term ends in December 2002.
Quotes of the Week
Democratic Lt. Gov. candidate John Sharp speaking to supporters in San Antonio: "If we treated our kids like we treat our oil wells, we’d be in great shape."
Texas Transportation Commissioner Ric Williamson in a speech to the Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council suggesting that with heightened airport security, Texas dust off its high-speed train proposal: "People will be thinking, ‘If I have to wait two hours at the airport why not drive?’ It’s a clear need. I told the governor this would be an easy sell."
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, the Surfside Republican who is known among Congressional colleagues as Dr. No, telling Texas Monthly that the United States has become "a police state that is absolutely out of control…We have 83,000 federal officials carrying guns. Every regulation that is made, every federal law that is written, is done with the idea that there is a gun waiting right there to enforce it. If you don’t pay your taxes, or follow the regulation, or use your land exactly as they tell you to, if you cut down a tree you’re not supposed to, or fill in a ditch, a gun will come and take your money, take your land, or put you in jail."
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, opposing the Congressional bailout of airlines: "Unfortunately, this legislation does nothing to enhance airplane security for the flying public, nothing to protect the hard-working airline employees who will lose their jobs and nothing to require multimillionaire airline executives to share the sacrifice being borne by their employees and the nation’s taxpayers."
Texas Weekly: Volume 18, Issue 14, 1 October 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.