Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez apparently likes answering questions from reporters about as much as Britney Spears likes pimples in the middle of her forehead. And any candidate likes to let things cool a bit before jumping into a hot story. And when one candidate is ducking stories, the opponent is sure to try to capitalize on that.
Put those things together and you'll understand one of the threads in the story of who'll be the next governor of Texas. Incumbent Gov. Rick Perry has been fairly accessible to the media (more so now than before Sanchez started ducking reporters), and Sanchez hasn't. When Sanchez does take questions, he doesn't take them for long and the campaign is clearly trying to keep some daylight between the Laredo businessman—who's in his first campaign for office—and the press.
Perry finds himself in the oddly beneficial position of defending the media and saying Sanchez ought to open up. That hasn't happened in a gubernatorial race in a big way since 1994, when Gov. Ann Richards was pushing George W. Bush to stop hiding from reporters.
The latest episode started when the Dallas Morning News broke a story about the IRS disallowing a tax dodge that was attempted by the Sanchez-controlled IBC bank in Laredo. The short form: IBC strung together some partnerships to shelter some of its income. The bank and its accounting firm, KPMG, thought that was permissible. The IRS said it's not. The bank has paid several million in taxes in protest while the argument run, and Sanchez got pinged for trying to avoid taxes on his bank. The official reply from the Sanchez campaign (as relayed through a spokesman): Sanchez doesn't follow the particulars of each of the bank's transactions, and didn't know about the tax deal. Also, the bank didn't break the law and such disputes are normal in business.
And as a sidebar, federal tax investigators have asked KPMG for more information about how it has advised its clients on tax shelters. That inquiry hasn't been directly tied to the IBC deals, but that hasn't stopped the Perry camp from faxing news about it to every political reporter in the state.
KTVT-TV in Dallas wanted to ask Sanchez about the tax deal. They'd had a reporter out on the road with Perry, who was doing a bus trip in North Texas and was doing long interviews as the bus rolled down the highway. The tax story gave Perry an opportunity to renew his attempts to get Sanchez to release his full, unabridged tax returns. Perry says that would show people whether the Laredo businessman's financial interests conflict with the job he's seeking.
Sanchez' aides say he's released more than is required and say anyone can look at his extensive filing of personal finances at the Texas Ethics Commission. Those were filed because of his position as a University of Texas regent, but his spokesman says Sanchez has filed more than the law requires and says any conflicts of interest he might encounter as governor are in full view in those filings.
The station understood that Sanchez would be in Longview and that there would be time for some questions from reporters, so they sent a crew. The Sanchez campaign says the East Texas event wasn't a press conference and that they didn't promise time with the candidate. The cameraman for the station tried to get close to ask some questions and was either shoved, pushed or elbowed out of the way as Sanchez went out a back way. The campaign says the photographer was belligerent and wasn't shoved. Anyhow, the station did a story on it, played tape of a Sanchez staffer promising a "media avail" and tape of Sanchez scurrying off, and Sanchez got pegged as a candidate who's ducking the press. For at least one day, that kept the details of the Morning News story in play.
(Very Little) Money Where His Mouth Is
Tom Phillips, the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, will run for reelection without accepting any new political donations. Wanna read that again? Tom Phillips, the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, will run for reelection without accepting any new political donations.
Phillips isn't recommending that anyone else on the statewide ballot try this and he isn't criticizing anyone who runs a conventionally financed campaign for the bench. He says he's making a personal protest against the way the state selects its judges. He won't take new contributions, and won't be running television or radio or direct mail ads to boost his candidacy.
Phillips says he has about $20,000 in his officeholder and campaign accounts, and will use that money to travel and talk to groups and to reporters and others. He's keeping one big contribution: A $5,000 check to his campaign from the George W. Bush gubernatorial campaign chest. But he hasn't taken any new money this year and doesn't plan to. Phillips will rely on what the political hacks call "free media." He's hoping stories in newspapers and on television will be enough to keep his name before the public, and he plans to travel around and speak and talk to editorial boards.
At the very least, Phillips' decision gives him something interesting to talk about during the campaign. Judges were, until recently, barred from talking about the things they would do if elected. The U.S. Supreme Court recently knocked down part of Minnesota's restriction on what judges can say, and Texas has a group of experts looking at that decision to see what it means here.
But that decision refreshed some of the questions that Phillips and others have been raising for years: Is it possible to maintain fairness and the appearance of fairness in the courts if judges can hear cases involving contributors? One of the opinions from the U.S. Supremes said, in effect, states that elect judges instead of appointing them or using a hybrid system will just have to get used to all of the noise that goes with elections. Phillips has been pushing for judicial reform for years, but former Gov. Bush and current Gov. Rick Perry both backed the current system.
Phillips was unopposed in the March GOP primary. In November, he'll face Democrat Richard Baker and Libertarian Clifford William.
Find the Folks in the White Hats
Sherry Boyles, a Democrat challenging Republican Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, says the commission should back off its hard-line position on a program that requires well operators to carry bonds that would pay for spills and for failure to clean up the sites of wells that stop operating. She supports the bonding program, she says, but thinks the commission in general and Williams in particular should give smaller operators a grace period before they start cutting them off for not having bonds on their wells.
Boyles says some of the smaller operators need more leeway and more time to comply with the bonding rules, and says state law allows a three-year period for that. And she appeared at a press conference with three operators who said some of their wells might have to shut down because of the bonding program. Boyles says she only invited two of the operators, both of whom apparently have clean records at the commission. But the third speaker, Melvin Hassel, who operates Morton Valley Oil & Gas, Inc., appears to be a better example for Williams than for Boyles. His company, according to Railroad Commission records, has had 66 wells cut off by regulators since 1993.
The other two apparently didn't have any problems until the new regulations kicked in. Williams says the law and the regulations in place already take care of small operators and says there isn't any need for a change. The Texas Land and Mineral Owners Association backs him on that, saying the current regulations keep operators from abandoning wells and leaving them for landowners and others to clean up. Boyles says she supports bonding but also says the state ought to stop severing wells and start allowing the three-year grace period for operators. She also says the RRC is making it too hard for operators to get a "good guy" exemption from the bonding requirements.
The Committee Will See You Now
Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen, nominated more than a year ago for a spot on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by President George W. Bush, will probably get a hearing from a Senate committee within the next several days.
That's a national story. Owen is one of the conservatives on the all-Republican Texas high court, and a band of court-watchers, women's groups and consumer activists are doing whatever they can to block her lifetime appointment to the federal appellate bench.
Owen's opponents say she is an activist judge who isn't in line with Bush's preference for judges who limit their duties to interpretation of the law. And they take particular issue with her rulings on employee rights, sexual harassment, public information and environmental and consumer issues. Several members of the coalition that's formed against her are there because of her apparent opposition to abortion and to pro-choice laws. They're also criticizing her for taking $8,600 in campaign contributions from Enron and people associated with that company in 1993 and 1994; in the years since, six cases involving that company came to the attention of the court.
The groups, including Texans for Public Justice, the Texas Abortion Rights Action League, the NAACP, Planned Parenthood, and the AFL-CIO, among others, are on their way to Washington to try to win senators over to their side. Republicans say it's possible to get Owen a spot on the court, but say they'll have to fly through heavy artillery to get her there. Her Senate hearings were stalled for more than a year while other judicial appointments moved ahead.
In her defense, a number of Republican and conservative groups started pulling together on the one-year anniversary of her appointment to the court to try to get the Senate moving toward approval. She's got the support of both of the Texans in the U.S. Senate. Republican John Cornyn, a former justice who's now running for Senate, says he would vote for her if he was in position to do so; the Democrat in that race, Ron Kirk, says he wouldn't.
Margin of Error
Republicans are squawking about a flaw they see in the University of Houston poll we wrote about a week ago. The proportion of Democrats to Republicans is wrong, they say, by as many as nine percentage points.
The most noise predictably came from the John Cornyn campaign, which was probably put in the worst light if the poll is right. The poll had Cornyn trailing Democrat Ron Kirk by eight percentage points, and running behind in each of the state's biggest metropolitan areas.
If the Republicans are right in saying that Republicans should start with a base vote that's six percentage points ahead of the Democrats, then the candidates are actually running neck and neck. Cornyn's folks, just for the record, contend their candidate is tied with Kirk.
Richard Murray, the pollster-in-chief at the University of Houston's Center for Public Policy, says the people included in the political poll identified themselves as either belonging to the parties or leaning toward them in these numbers: 41 percent Democratic and 40 percent Republican. That's not what the electorate looked like from 1994 to 2000, but he says Democrats have a better ticket and might pull more votes this time. The political questions in the poll were piggybacked onto a poll about health issues, and only people who identified themselves as registered voters were included. Murray says the samples weren't adjusted, as they might have been for a pure political poll, and says it wasn't meant to predict the outcome of the races in any case.
One of the items in the survey still sticks out: Cornyn, according to the UH poll, isn't pulling the same percentage of the Republican vote that Rick Perry is getting in the other high-profile race on the ballot. Where 70 percent of Republicans are with the governor (to 11 percent for Democrat Tony Sanchez), Cornyn is getting about 50 percent of the GOP vote (to Kirk's 17 percent).
With roughly 100 days left before Texans start voting, the Democrats' coordinated campaign—where politicking beneficial to all of the statewide and down-ballot races is planned and executed—had to go looking for a new director. Lisa Turner, who had the job, narrowly lost a vote of confidence from the statewide campaigns. Turner is from out of state, which was a strike against her, but she won some attention during the primaries. At the time, she was running field operations for U.S. Senate candidate Ron Kirk; Kirk won a runoff against Victor Morales, and turnout was higher in several critical counties in the runoff than in the primary election.
Most of the players zipped their lips about what happened to Turner, but we got a peek at the fault lines: Campaign managers for Ron Kirk, John Sharp and Kirk Watson wanted Turner to stay, while aides to Tony Sanchez and the rest of the top Democrats voted for a change. As we hit our deadline, the Democrats tapped Rosa Walker, who's been an organizer and political guru at the Texas AFL-CIO, to run that campaign. They say she's been involved in some of the planning and strategery and should be up to speed quickly.
Man Bites Dog
Texans for Lawsuit Reform isn't 100 percent pure Republican at the top of the ticket after all. For only the second time in its history, the tort reform group endorsed a Democrat over a Republican in a statewide race. TLR likes Margaret Mirabal, a Democrat who's running for Texas Supreme Court, more than the Republican in that contest: Steven Wayne Smith. Smith was more popular with Republican primary voters than with the GOP establishment in March: The voters liked him, while the establishment was backing Justice Xavier Rodriguez, a Rick Perry appointee to the court.
Smith is best known as one of the lawyers on the Hopwood case that overturned the use of race as a factor in admissions to the University of Texas law school. Mirabal is a justice on the state's 1st Court of Appeals in Houston.
TLR touts itself as a bipartisan group, but it leans to the GOP in its endorsements. The group broke form in 1994, when Democrat Raul Gonzalez, then a member of the Texas Supreme Court, was running against Rene Haas in a bare-knuckled Democratic primary. He won that and went on to win the general election over a libertarian. And then in 1998, TLR endorsed Democratic Justice Rose Spector against Republican Harriet O'Neill—a spokesman says that's the only time TLR has sided with a Democrat against a Republican in a statewide contest. O'Neill, who remains on the court, won.
TLR has been one of the biggest contributors to Rep. David Counts, if not the biggest. The group's political action committee poured $21,500 into his campaigns since 1994. But this year, they've endorsed Rep. Rick Hardcastle against Counts. That's the only pairing of two incumbent legislators left on the ballot. Hardcastle is a Republican from Vernon and most of the voters in the new district were in his turf before redistricting. Counts, a Democrat from Knox City, says he's always voted with TLR and is mystified by their endorsement. It makes him wonder, he says, if the group isn't just a Republican front.
But the tort reformers pull out a list of seven or eight votes where they were on one side and he was on the other. TLR's folks say Counts was with them on several votes, but that the No votes were too important to them to overlook. Hardcastle, who hasn't been in the House as long as Counts, helped the group in 1995 by testifying before the Legislature as a private citizen, and he's voted with them since he got in. Footnote: When Hardcastle ran against Rep. Charles Finnell, D-Holliday, TLR stuck with Finnell.
Teachers and Jocks
Texans for Lawsuit Reform is ordinarily found on the right, but there are groups that occupy the opposite seat on the political seesaw. The Texas Federation of Teachers never, ever endorses Republicans in statewide races (not that we or they could remember, anyhow). But that group has broken precedent to support Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander. Rylander is a former schoolteacher (and a former Democrat) who is up for reelection this year. The Democrat in the race, Marty Akins, has touted his ties to education—both of his parents were teachers and his dad was also a coach—but the TFT is going with Rylander this year. That teacher union is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, but it's bucking the front office: The Texas AFL-CIO endorsed Akins in that race earlier this year. There's no rule that says affiliated unions have to stick to the main endorsement, but normally, they do so.
Akins hasn't done any television advertising or a lot of mail or anything, but he's got an ad in the newest issue of Dave Campbell's Texas Football. Campbell's annual glossy magazine is a must-read for the more intense high school and college football fans in Texas, and Akins bought an ad touting his race for state comptroller. It's got a picture of him now and an older one from his days as quarterback at the University of Texas, says "I'm back in the game" and asks the reader to "become an armchair quarterback" for his campaign.
Flotsam & Jetsam
On Wednesday, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Ron Kirk will be in New York City raising money with former President Bill Clinton as the headline attraction. Two days later, Republican U.S. Senate candidate John Cornyn will be in Houston raising money with current Vice President Dick Cheney as the headline attraction.
• Rep. Kino Flores, D-Mission, has a new gig representing for money one of the cities he represents in the statehouse as an elected official. The Edinburg Daily Review reported that the City of McAllen will pay him $35,000 to look over its franchise agreements with various utilities and to look for ways to save the city money on those deals and on any new ones it enters into.
• The lawyers are still poring over it, but the University of Texas apparently can't raise one of the fees it charges students without some help from the Legislature. That's from an official opinion from Attorney General John Cornyn, who was asked if a proposed fee of up to $150 a semester per student is legal. That fee was put in place by the board of regents and not by the Legislature's budgeteers. There's some legal hash to sort out, as we say, but it looks like the regents went too far for the state's top lawyer. The fee isn't legal.
• Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, says Gov. Rick Perry should call a special session of the Legislature to deal with insurance premiums, reduced coverage and increasing lawsuits against insurers. She's on the committee that's been looking at those issues and says the Guv ought to see there is a crisis and call a session. He's already said he won't, because the Legislature needs time to figure out what it might do about the problem and because lawmakers will be in Austin in January anyhow. Thompson says that's too long to wait.
• While we were watching fireworks, the regents at University of North Texas tapped Dallas County Judge Lee Jackson to be the new chancellor for that system. Jackson, a former member of the House, would have to resign to take the post, leaving Dallas County to name a successor who would serve until January. First things first: The UNT job won't be official for another couple of weeks. Jackson, wasn't seeking reelection to the county judge spot, and has been mentioned as a candidate for several jobs—including Dallas ISD superintendent—over the last couple of years.
• Little things mean a lot, and so we offer this clarification: Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, took issue with one word—TAX—in a recent item on his proposal to extend the free lunch and breakfast program to more kids in public schools. He has said a tax on soda pop could help fund that, and said that's not the only thing under consideration. We said he was looking at other taxes; he says that ain't right. He's looking at other "funding mechanisms."
Political People & Their Moves
Greg Hartman, a self-described political hack turned policy wonk, is moving over to Public Strategies Inc. to run that company's Austin projects. Hartman has been the boss in the Austin office of MGT, a consulting firm, for six years and before that was Democrat John Sharp's top political advisor. He's also been involved in a number of other political campaigns and public projects of the sort PSI gets involved in. No word yet on his replacement at MGT, and no definite move date has been set... Art Mosley, the number two guy at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, is retiring. Mosley started at the prison system in 1984 after more than two decades in the U.S. Army... Geoffrey Neale, who gave up his post as head of the Texas Libertarian Party to grab a better seat, grabbed it: The Austin resident is now national chairman of that party... President George W. Bush nominated U.S. Magistrate Alia Moses Ludlum of Del Rio for a federal judgeship, almost a year after she was recommended for the job by U.S. Sens. Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison. These things move in mysterious ways: She was recommended at the same time David Godbey of Dallas was suggested; he's already been nominated by the president and approved by the Senate. Ludlum is a former federal prosecutor... Alan Allen retired as executive director of Sportsmen Conservationists of Texas, after 22 years in that job. No word yet on his replacement... This posting will likely be closed by the time you read this, but what the hey, it'll foreshadow an item in a future issue: Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander is looking for a "special assistant for communications" and posted the salary and requirements for the job on her website. You have to have a college degree or at least 15 years in media relations or journalism, etc., etc,. etc. The annual pay? $93,360 to $144,708.
Quotes of the Week
Tom Phillips, saying he won't accept new contributions in his bid for reelection as chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court: "I regard my announcement... not as a standard to which others can repair, but as a protest against Texas' dysfunctional method of choosing judges."
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, quoted by the Dallas Morning News telling Black reporters why U.S. Senate candidate Ron Kirk's remarks at the NAACP national convention were more moderate than some of the other speakers: "He will not win this race running a 'Soul Train' campaign."
Former lawmaker Bill Hammond, now head of the Texas Association of Business, telling the San Antonio Express News the state doesn't need new taxes to fix what appears to be a $5 billion budget problem: "That's around four percent and I don't think there is a business out there that hasn't had to, at some point in its history, cut its budget in excess of four percent."
Gov. Rick Perry, after the Fort Worth newspaper reported that he had chosen a favorite among the final five designs to go on the back of quarter-dollar coins: "I'm not advised that I... made... any type of final decision at all on the quarter." Asked if the story was wrong, he added: "They never lie in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram."
Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, a Republican, telling the Paris News that he's not ready to endorse either candidate for his job: "I just don’t know whether I will endorse either one before November. I will do what I think is best for the Senate and the long-standing traditions the body holds dear."
Parent Terri Bukowski, quoted in an Associated Press story on a local controversy over the national press converting the Crawford school cafeteria into temporary offices when the president is visiting his ranch: "I want them gone. I want them all the way gone. I don't want them there at all."
Christina Gonzales, telling the Austin American-Statesman that she intends to move out of her flooded house near the rain-soaked town of Gonzales, as soon as things dry up a little bit: "Where, I don't know. Somewhere there's no water."
This is the last issue before our annual summer break. We'll skip two issues and will return at the beginning of August.
Texas Weekly, Volume 19, Issue 5, 15 July 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.