Texas Democrat Tony Sanchez broke the suspense about whether a wealthy guy would run a normal campaign for governor. The answer is no, and the evidence is on television. With six long months to go before the general election–some states haven't even had their primaries yet–Sanchez loosed a blitz of advertising aimed, at least initially, at convincing voters he's a good guy.
That could be replaced soon with commercials knocking the incumbent, Republican Gov. Rick Perry. The first ad takes only a light jab, and most people won't notice it. It features Sanchez talking, praising former Gov. George W. Bush and former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, saying they reached across party lines "to get things done for Texas." Bush is the most popular pol in the state, and if people keep talking about Bullock like this, the late politico might get to Heaven after all. The jab in the commercial follows the line about political parties: "Some say it doesn't work that way. Maybe that's true today, but we're going to change that."
The Democrat's campaign won't say how often the ad is running, or how many weeks of TV time they've purchased, but Republican media consultants checked around and say Sanchez will be on the tube for the next four weeks and at the rate of about $1 million per week. And the Democrat's aides hint that the tone could change.
That could leave Perry with a decision to make. If and when Sanchez' ads take on a negative tone, the standard response from Perry would be to put up ads of his own. That's the "Never let an attack go unanswered" rule. But Sanchez has deeper pockets than Perry and could squeeze the incumbent financially. Money Perry spends now is money that he can't spend in the fall, closer to the election. If he doesn't answer an attack, there is the risk that the attack will stick. If he does answer, there's the risk that he won't have the money to close the campaign the way he had planned.
At best, early spending by Sanchez is neutral for Perry. Maybe it does the challenger no good, either because the messages aren't effective with voters or because–with six months to go between now and Election Day–voters have other things to do. Or maybe Perry can raise enough money to match, and the candidates spend more time on screen, making the owners of television stations wealthier.
Off the air, Sanchez has had a couple of misfires that could cost him as the campaign goes on. He filled out a survey that said he was in favor of casino gambling–or at least for letting Texas voters decide the issue. Then his campaign said the survey was filled out wrong and that Sanchez isn't for casinos. Then the Dallas Morning News broke a story about how a branch of the bank controlled by Sanchez and his family has lent money to the Kickapoo tribe in Eagle Pass for development and operation of their casino there. Whoops.
A couple of days later, Sanchez called for an investigation of whether Perry's appointees to the state's Public Utility Commission set unfairly high utility rates and whether their past ties to Enron had something to do with that. He reiterated his call for a merger of the PUC with the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas production in the state. In doing so, he set himself up for a series of pesky questions from reporters: How much did Sanchez benefit from rising fuel prices that are a component of those high utility bills? Did he know one of the commissioners he questioned–Bret Perlman–was appointed by George W. Bush and not by Perry and did he still have a problem with him? Did he know that the price manipulations that have plagued California are unlikely here because the regulations are different?
Sanchez said his own profits in natural gas don't have anything to do with the point he was trying to make, and said he was too far down the economic line from the commission to have benefited from their decisions on utility rates. He said Perlman, who formerly worked for a consulting firm that, in turn, did some work for Enron, ought to be investigated. And he said Max Yzaguirre, a former Enron Mexico president who left that job shortly before he took the PUC appointment, should have recused himself from the votes on the utility companies' rates. Perry received a contribution from Enron honcho Ken Lay uncomfortably close to the date when Yzaguirre was appointed. As for the regulations and whether the regulators could reach the increases in fuel costs even if they had wanted to, Sanchez repeated his call for an investigation and said that would all come out.
Finally, he said he would want the merged commission to be made up of elected officials. But he was asked if he would have any conflict–since he made his initial money in oil and gas and it's still part of his empire–if he had to appoint commissioners if someone resigned or left. He didn't see a problem there. All in all, it was a short, weird and fitful press conference.
But guess what? It didn't really matter. Most of the TV reports had high rates, Enron, and Perry in the same sentence, and all of that will get some reinforcement when people get their first summer utility bills. Sanchez also got some room because a legislative committee held hearings on the high rates on the same day and partly overshadowed the details of his own press conference. At the end of it, Sanchez scored a partial hit in spite of himself.
Here's an oddity: Sanchez said the state's Office of Public Utility Counsel should investigate whether utilities are overcharging and, by extension, whether the state's public utility commissioners tilted the tables to benefit their former employers and clients. The head of OPUC? Suzi Ray McClellan. Her mother-in-law is Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, a Republican.
U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio, says the GOP is starting a voter drive aimed largely at minority voters and says the Republicans will be able to sign up 400,000 new voters before now and the November elections. And, he says the exit polls you've been seeing for the last few years are dead wrong–that George W. Bush actually got 60 percent of the Hispanic vote in Texas in 2000 and that the standard estimates of 30 percent to 40 percent are hogwash.
Bonilla will head the GOP's Victory 2002 campaign this year, trying to ride herd on a pack of candidates who have so far remained pretty independent of one another. They were all there, though, for the kickoff at a metal casting plant in East Austin, a heavily Hispanic and relatively poor part of the Capital City. The cast included all of the non-judicial statewide candidates on the GOP ballot, along with Supreme Court candidates Wallace Jefferson and Steven Wayne Smith.
The new "non-traditional" voters, Bonilla says, will come from areas where there are already large numbers of Republican voters and also swing voters. That seems contradictory to his comments about focusing on minority voters–but part of the idea is that some minority voters have moved into the suburbs and traditionally Republican areas as they have become more prosperous.
Part of the pitch is based on demographics: Minority voting populations in Texas, particularly Hispanic populations, are increasing. That's where the votes will be, increasingly, in the future. But there's something else. Republicans in Texas are about to see for the first time in years how they do without Bush on the ticket. He's proven to be popular with both Anglo and Hispanic voters in the state. The question, for both parties, is whether that means Texas is strongly Republican or just strongly Bush. At that level of the game, it doesn't matter who's right–Bonilla or the pollsters–about how many Hispanic voters pulled the lever for Bush.
Doctors Re-Live Their Bellyache
When trade groups split their tickets, everything gets messy. Look, for instance at what's going on with the Texas Medical Association, its political action committee and the candidates for governor and attorney general. TMA's political action committee–TEXPAC–endorsed Democrat Tony Sanchez in the governor's race and Republican Greg Abbott in the AG race. That puts Rick Perry and Kirk Watson in the same shoes. They've both put together groups of doctors who favor them. Perry's assertion that only 20 percent of the state's doctors are represented by the PAC (80 percent are in TMA itself) is designed to take some shine off the group's endorsement of Sanchez. But it helps Kirk by removing some of the shine Abbott counts on.
Now there's more noise. Perry sent $200,000 to the Texas Board of Medical Examiners to help the agency do investigations of doctors who have been accused of medical malpractice. That came out of a $4.5 million fund the Legislature puts in the hands of the governor to cover unexpected expenses at state agencies. According to Perry's staff, the backlog of cases at BME includes 31 malpractice cases that are more than two years old. He also wants them to get cracking on 150 complaints before the agency so they can wrap up those cases within the next 15 months.
That has the potential for two more opportunities for crosstalk. First, the results of those investigations are often the basis for lawsuits against the doctors being investigated, and Perry's political office is promoting a package of tort reform proposals that would limit medical malpractice lawsuits and awards in those lawsuits. Second, the money falls short of fixing one of the agency's biggest problems: Doctors accused of wrongdoing by the agency often bring more resources to the fight, hiring experienced lawyers and spending more on their own cases than the agency spends on several cases. At the same time, Perry's press for more investigations fits with what the Texas Association of Business has been arguing: Insurance rates on medical malpractice will fall if the bad apples are flushed out of the medical community.
Meanwhile, Abbott is preparing a letter to doctors, which comes on the heels of a letter to medical folks from Watson. Abbott won the endorsement of the TMA's political action committee, but Watson's letter–mentioned here last week–was headlined "Physicians for Watson" and had the John Hancocks of a couple of TMA honchos at the bottom.
Abbott's letter is a response that makes a reference to the Watson letter, saying it "may have misled you into believing that Kirk is supported by the Texas Medical Association." It lists plusses and minuses of the two candidates, managing to refer to Watson twice as a liberal and to say that he has sued doctors while Abbott has "defended medical care providers." It also says, "physicians and patients are squeezed between a vice of harassing medical malpractice claims and healthcare plans that fail to properly pay claims." Abbott's letter is signed by five doctors and one doctor's wife, each of them either a current or former mucky-muck in the TMA/TEXPAC hierarchy.
Oh, and here's something else to look forward to: Abbott's letter encourages doctors to distribute campaign cards in the rooms where patients wait and read old copies of People magazine.
Stand By Your Man
U.S. Senate candidate John Cornyn is trying to goad his opponent, Ron Kirk, into supporting Republican Priscilla Owen's appointment to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Owen, who's on the Texas Supreme Court, has been on the hook for a year since President Bush nominated her; Cornyn and other Republicans are protesting because the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate won't give all of the nominees a hearing (11 were nominated, and the Senate agreed to let three of those become federal judges). That's part of the general line from Cornyn that he'll back Bush and Kirk won't. He got some help from the White House on that point: Bush told WFAA-TV in Dallas that he likes Kirk but that the Democrat wouldn't be a help to him.
Don't You Dare Call Them Austin Insiders
The business community banded together to get Dale Wainwright through the primaries (after a failure to rally probably cost them in the primary between Elizabeth Ray and Xavier Rodriguez). And they did something similar in the general election four years ago: A few weeks before that election, Republicans feared former Attorney General Jim Mattox, a Democrat, was leading in the race against Republican John Cornyn. The business types got together with the money types and did a full-court press and on Election Day, Cornyn was the winner. (He got 54.3 percent in that race, which was less than the average statewide Republican got, but better than his nearest neighbors on the ballot. Cornyn followed Rick Perry, who beat John Sharp by only 68,731 votes, and was followed in turn by Carole Keeton Rylander, who beat Paul Hobby by only 20,233 votes. The average statewide (non-judicial) Republican–a group that included runaway winners George W. Bush, David Dewhurst, Susan Combs and Tony Garza–got 56.1 percent in 1998.)
That's all preface to this: Some of those same business groups will meet in the next few days to start a similar effort on behalf of former Supreme Court Justice Greg Abbott, who's running for attorney general against former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson. Hacks on both sides think that race–like a handful of others on the top half of the ballot–could be a very tight one.
Trade groups that have endorsed Abbott, including the Texas Association of Business, Texas Medical Association, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the Texas Civil Justice League and the Texas Association of Realtors, are getting together to talk strategy with the campaign before the going gets tough. The groups aren't on the same side in several other races–governor, lite governor and land commissioner–but most are in the same boat on the AG's race.
All Those Who Oppose Education Please Step Forward
One week in Texas politics, two higher education plans, with another on the hopper.
Gov. Perry was the first on the scene with a plan to give $20 million to colleges that recruit and help attract first generation college students–those whose parents didn't attend college. He said federal money could be used, keeping him out of gnarly questions about spending money when the state's purse is empty. Perry also proposed a zero-interest loan program for college students that would use money made available by restructuring the existing Hinson-Hazelwood program. Democrat Tony Sanchez, a regent at the University of Texas, says he'll unveil his plan next week.
Next up was Comptroller Rylander who wants to start a $150 million program that would cover tuition, fees and books for the first two years of college for any Texas high school grad who enrolls in college within 16 months of their high school graduation. She said the costs would "be easily covered" by using a small portion of the state's lottery money. She's also the chief budgeteer who has said the state will start the next budget with a $5 billion difference between what's available and what lawmakers want to spend. She didn't offer a plan to replace the lottery money that would be used for the new program.
Challenging the HMOs
Consumers Union dug through more than 250 appeals Texans have made when they were denied health insurance coverage by their HMOs and the group came to the conclusion that it's worth the time to protest. The consumers who ask for an independent review win about 55 percent of the time, and they win 70 percent of the time when they appeal mental health cases. That last bit might be an indication of how skittish insurers are about paying for that kind of treatment. People don't ask for the relatively new reviews very often. But a few types of complaints dominated during the first year: length of time allowed in the hospital, substance abuse treatment, mental illness, surgical treatment for obesity and disagreements over prescription drugs. The consumer organization put the whole report online at www.ConsumersUnion.org/health/iro/review_exe.htm.
Crossing the Friendly Incumbent Line
The Texas Medical Association's political action committee picked Todd Baxter over Ann Kitchen in an Austin race for state representative. Kitchen replaced Sherri Greenberg in the Texas House two years ago, but her district was changed dramatically in redistricting, when the Republican-controlled Legislative Redistricting Board decided to put her and Reps. Elliott Naishtat and Glen Maxey in the same district. Maxey decided not to seek another term and Kitchen rented an apartment in a different, open district to avoid a primary against Naishtat. Baxter is a Republican Travis County Commissioner and a former aide to Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio.
The new HD-48, where the two are running, is marginally Democratic if you go by the results of the 1998 elections. But it's not a dramatic tilt: Voters in the district went for Republicans in statewide races, on average. Look at the closest race–the one for comptroller–and they voted for Democrat Paul Hobby of Houston over Republican Carole Keeton Rylander, a local who used to be mayor of Austin. (Most statewide Republican candidates that year won with percentages in the mid- to high-50s. Rylander fell almost 17,000 votes shy of 50 percent and beat Hobby by half a percentage point. A Libertarian, Alex Monchak, got the remaining 1.4 percent of the state's votes.)
Sometimes you can't win for trying. The David Bernsen campaign doesn't like seeing their candidate referred to as a trial lawyer and prefers the term "insurance defense counsel." He does practice his profession in courtrooms during events commonly known as trials, but he's not a plaintiff's trial lawyer. We didn't use the word "plaintiff," but the slight remains. Noted. They also object to our characterization of any native difference that might exist between Bernsen and the Texas Farm Bureau, which endorsed him, noting that the Farm Bureau is, among other things, in the insurance business that Bernsen often defends. Noted. The folks at the Farm Bureau, meantime, say our characterization of them as "more insurance company than agricultural concern" was off the mark–especially since the endorsements were made by AGFUND. That's the bureau's political action committee, and farmers and ranchers dominate its board. Insurance and trial lawyer issues, they say, didn't come up during their discussions of the race for land commissioner between Bernsen and Republican Jerry Patterson. AGFUND endorsed Bernsen over Patterson. They've endorsed Bernsen every time he's run for state office; they've endorsed whoever was running against Patterson ever since he, as a senator, sponsored a home equity lending bill they opposed.
Flotsam & Jetsam
The state got an award. Gov. Rick Perry announced it in a press release. Lt. Gov. candidate John Sharp, who's not in office at the moment, claimed credit. The award, which brings $29.8 million from the federal treasury to the state treasury, is a bonus from the federal Food Stamp program. The state's accuracy rate is 96.27 percent, meaning the state gives the right amount of money to the right person that much of the time. Texas is the only big state that made the mark, and it's done so for four years running. What's Sharp's claim? That it's the result of the state's switch to a credit-card-type system that cuts the number of errors. That wasn't one of the reasons listed.
• If you see B.E.S.T. on a campaign finance report, somebody's thirsty. The weird name is a new boutique election consultancy and stands for Beverage Elections Specialists of Texas. Dallas political consultant Tim Reeves started it and has brought cups to lips in four places around the state. He's also working on campaigns, including the attempt to reelect his old boss, Sen. David Cain, D-Mesquite.
• Hate to be snarky, but this is funny: Call the David Dewhurst campaign at a time when they're busy on other phone lines, and you'll find yourself in a voicemail system. It gives you the option of going to an employee directory, which then asks you to dial in the first three letters of the name of the person you're trying to reach. It works for almost everyone we tried, but if you dial D-E-W or D-A-V, you get the same message: No such listing.
Political People and Their Moves
Dallas lawyer Betsy Whitaker won the election to be president-elect of the State Bar of Texas, a result that will make her the president of that group about a year from now... Kelly Fero moves from the Democrats' coordinated campaign, such as it was, to the John Sharp for Lite Guv campaign. He'll work full-time there, but says he'll be working with other candidates on specific projects. Fero worked for Sharp in the 1998 race, and for the comptroller's office while Sharp was there... Appointments: Gov. Rick Perry tapped Houston lawyer Ken Wise for the high chair at the 152nd District Court there. That announcement had an odd note: Wise was on the Texas A&M Intercollegiate Rodeo Team when he was in school. S. Grant Dorfman, also a Houston lawyer, is the governor's choice to take over the 129th District Court. Harvey Brown resigned from the first court; Patrick Mizell is leaving the second one. While we're on the judicial prowl, Perry also named Evelyn Keyes to replace Davie Wilson on the 1st Court of Appeals, which is in Houston... The Guv's appointment of former Amarillo Mayor Kel Seliger to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission is official, and Perry also named John Steen, a San Antonio lawyer who is already on that three-member board, to chair it... Perry named Lynn Elliott, a Navasota oilman, to the board of the Brazos River Authority... Add former Houston METRO flak (and Houston Post alum) Julie Gilbert to the Locke Liddell & Sapp lobby and public affairs gaggle. She'll be based in Houston, but will spend time in Austin, too... Public Strategies adds a couple of new managing directors: Darryll Grubbs, who worked on child support enforcement in the private sector, for the attorney general, and who preceded all of that with general work in the Pink Building, and Terry McDevitt, who worked in marketing for Time Inc.
Quotes of the Week
Democrat Tony Sanchez, in the midst of blaming his opponent for higher utility prices based on higher fuel costs, when a reporter asked him whether his own income from natural gas prices rose along with those rates: "The prices went up, and the prices went down."
Two-term Austin City Councilwoman Beverly Griffith, bowing out of a runoff after 66 percent of the voters chose other candidates: " My only regret in withdrawing is that I will not have the opportunity to set the record straight in the run-off and respond to the constant barrage of half-truths and misrepresentations in the attacks by my opponent. In order to win in the run-off, I know that I would need to immediately 'go negative' and I am not willing to run that kind of campaign."
Crowley City Council candidate Beau Yarborough, quoted in The Dallas Morning News after the discovery of uncounted votes changed him from an apparent loser into an apparent winner: "We won't be officially happy until Thursday. Right now, we're unofficially happy."
The U.S. Department of Justice, putting forth a new policy in briefs filed with the U.S. Supreme Court: "The current position of the United States... is that the second amendment more broadly protects the rights of individuals, including persons who are not members of any militia or engaged in active military service or training, to possess their own firearms, subject to reasonable restrictions designed to prevent possession by unfit persons or to restrict the possession of types of firearms that are particularly suited to criminal misuse."
Political consultant Mark McKinnon, a Democrat who worked on President George W. Bush's campaign, explaining his contributions to three statewide Democrats to the Austin American-Statesman: "If there's one thing this administration would understand, it's personal friendship and loyalty. This isn't about politics–it's about blood." McKinnon, a day later, in the Washington Post: "... in retrospect, I think it was a mistake because it sent the wrong signal. Because people associate me with the president, they could read that the wrong way." Republican National Committee spokeswoman Mindy Tucker, on the McKinnon flap, also in the Post: "I'm from Texas, so it doesn't strike me as strange as it does everybody else."
Former Veep Dan Quayle explaining, on Hardball, the difference between the Israeli-Palestinian and the war on terrorism: "How many Palestinians were on those airplanes on September 9? None."
Texas Weekly: Volume 18, Issue 44, 13 May 2002. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2002 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.