Watch the first four or five days of early voting numbers and you'll have a pretty good notion of who's playing air guitar and who's got a Stratocaster. Democrats have been hyping this moment for more than a year, arguing that a normal turnout–unlike the one in 1998–will help some Democrats win statewide office, and arguing that a new turnout–based on changing demographics–will help more of them get over the hump. Republicans have been playing a different tune, saying the state is increasingly conservative and that Democrats shouldn't assume that new voters of whatever race will automatically favor their candidates.
When the absentee vote totals start to roll in, the tale will be in volume and location. When we checked with pollsters a couple of weeks ago, they disagreed by 1.2 million votes over how many people would turn out. The low number from the pollsters we polled was 4.3 million; the high number was in the 5.5 million to 5.6 million range.
Their uncertainties don't stop there. The pollsters disagreed over whether a big turnout is good for Democrats or Republicans, and whether a small turnout was good for one party or the other one. They disagree about the composition of the votes, with some saying that minority voters will show up in about the same proportions they always do. Others, mostly Democrats, say the presence of minority candidates at the top of the ticket will boost minority turnout and help all of the Democrats on the ticket. But nobody has evidence that voters will actually do those things.
The talk a year ago, from both parties, was that voter registration drives would defy historical trends and bring as many as a million new names onto the rolls. It didn't happen. The rolls grew about as they would have been expected to grow if nobody had run any kind of special campaign. (A sidebar to that: The Texas Secretary of State's office is trying to find out why 27 of the state's 254 counties got to the end of registration with more voters signed up than in attendance. According to the Census, each area has a certain Voting Age Population, or VAP. In the counties in question, the number of registered voters is greater than or equal to the VAP. The biggest county on the list is Rockwall, which is supposed to have 32,160 people old enough to vote but has 32,506 actually registered. Nice trick.)
If turnout is big, it will be a testament to the ground wars run by the two parties and the various candidates. There was a rumor a couple of weeks ago that the Tony Sanchez campaign had rented virtually every van in Texas for the next few weeks and for Election Day. We got curious and called around and didn't have any trouble finding available vans, but that's not the point: The political hacks on both sides are twitchy about the part of the oppositions' campaigns they can't see. Ground efforts by Democrats won the Houston mayor's race last year and turned out huge votes in their primaries this year. Republican voter identification and phone-banking efforts in targeted areas of the state have turned out election surprises in state races for years.
Until now, that's been the least visible part of the elections, and the numbers coming in over the next few days will begin to show whether the Democrats or the Republicans have the better ground game this year. You'll be able to see where the votes are coming from–at least in the broadest sense–and whether overall voting is heavy or light. You'll be able to see by where the lawsuits are coming from–Republicans or Democrats–which side is having a harder time at the polls and needs to extend the fight to court. If you're still flying blind as that information comes in, you might want to get out the Yellow Pages and see whether you can still rent a van in your town.
The strangest House race in Texas is meeting our high expectations, this time with a commercial that dredges up some of the weird moments we and others have reported. Democrat John Mabry's newest commercial blasts Rep. Holt Getterman, R-Waco, with a television ad that includes the 911 emergency tape of McLennan County GOP Chairman M.A. Taylor calling for help the day Getterman tried to kick down the door to Taylor's office. "I've got a mad candidate out in the hall, screaming and threatening folks," he says over video of flashing police car lights at night. The ad reminds viewers that Getterman denied hiring a private investigator to follow a previous opponent, only to have the investigator say he'd been hired, and that Getterman mailed out an advertisement that showed him hunting with his son, only to have to acknowledge later in the Waco Tribune-Herald that he doesn't have a hunting license and hasn't had one for some time. At this time last year, most of the smart people in politics were counting that as a probable GOP seat, but it's moved steadily back into the competitive column, mainly on the basis of GOP miscues in both the primary and general elections.
Signs of the Times
There's a billboard at one of Waco's busiest intersections that uses an old Getterman quote; he told the Dallas Morning News a decade ago that "I wouldn't go to Waco if I didn't have to." Mabry has that one posted where everyone can see it, along with his own quote: "Vote for John Mabry. He's always liked Waco." Billboard wars are well underway elsewhere in the state. In Amarillo, the sign tells passers-by that Quackenbush Endorses Swinford. That's the real Swinford, and it's a real Quackenbush. But it's Bill Q. and not Jesse Q. who's endorsing the Rep. David Swinford, R-Dumas. Jesse Quackenbush is running against Swinford, and Bill, who's not related and not running for office, is the one on the sign. That recalls an ad going around in CD-5, the open-seat congressional district that starts in Dallas County and runs east and south. Ron Chapman, the radio DJ, endorsed Republican Jeb Hensarling over the Democrat in that race, former judge Ron Chapman, who is not a DJ.
Serious as a Heart Attack
Mike Hendrix says he didn't have a heart attack, but the twenty-something Republican consultant found out the hard way that he has a hereditary problem called Atril Fibrillation and that stress makes it worse. Basically, your heart starts going 170 thumps per minute and you have to report immediately to a hospital. Naturally, after a week there, he returned to work on his political consulting business, which is handling a bunch of races including the low-stress contest for state Senate between Dr. Bob Deuell of Greenville and Sen. David Cain, D-Dallas, and the House race between Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell, and Democrat Mike Head of Athens. Those are both close races. Brown is getting a late financial boost from Austin and elsewhere after polling showed the race could go either way; her campaign manager, former legislator Ben Campbell, acknowledged some help had arrived, but wouldn't say how much.
In the other race, Deuell is getting pinged now for a five-year-old letter to the editor of his local paper that detailed some of the shortcomings of the Social Security program. Deuell says people who "are willing and disciplined enough" could put the money to better uses and says someone who bought life and disability insurance and a private pension would get more bang for their buck. The letter went on to say that people should be responsible for their own and their families' welfare, including "providing for retirement and early retirement."
In a recent mailer, he called protection of Social Security "one of my highest priorities," and that's prompted some elders in that district to call him a liar. They didn't ask him why he's talking about it in the first place: Social Security is a federal issue and the Texas Legislature doesn't have any say over how it works. This isn't the first round of the fight, either. Cain attacked Deuell for the same letter to the editor two years ago. Expect a similar mailer in the race this time.
What is it with Central Texas prosecutors and elections? First, federal prosecutors indicted a couple of San Antonio city council members, a couple of lawyers, and added that they were just getting started. They let the mayor and several members of the council know a grand jury would appreciate their input next month. None of the city folks are on the ballot, but some of them are close to people on the ballot and the indictments sent a shiver through the political ranks (There was a parallel shiver elsewhere, as city councils and school boards and county commissions took quiet looks at their own contracts with debt-collection law firms and other outfits, just making sure things were minty fresh).
And now, Travis County Attorney Ken Oden has admitted to the Austin American-Statesman that he's been investigating a couple of state legislators who lobby state agencies when they're not legislating. Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio and Rep. Rick Green, R-Dripping Springs, are being questioned about whether they went overboard in their efforts to help a client avoid regulation by the Texas Department of Health. The two were working for Metabolife International; Oden's question is whether they ran afoul of a law that spells out just what sorts of things a legislator–working in his or her private sector job–can ask a state agency to do. Both men told the paper they did nothing wrong and Oden hasn't filed any charges. They're all talking and part of the conversation apparently hinges on whether a lawmaker has to restrict agency lobbying to open meetings or whether they can work behind closed doors like other lobsters. The issue they were working on at TDH went the other way; in spite of whatever they did or didn't do, Wentworth says, the agency's board took the staff recommendation over what the lawmaker/lobbyists were proposing.
Both men lobbied state agencies before they were in the Legislature and continued to do so after they were elected. Both now say they won't lobby agencies anymore. Green hasn't done any state agency lobbying for a year and doesn't plan to take it back up; he's no longer with the San Antonio firm that did the work. Wentworth put out a written statement saying he "will no longer represent any client before a state agency as a private lawyer." He added that lobbying state agencies was not a significant part of his business anyway. He also said he'd work on clarifying the law so that lawmakers and prosecutors will see the rules in the same way. Oden, meanwhile, is looking through other lawmakers' disclosure filings to see whether anyone else might be in the same pot.
For a politician four weeks before an election, news of an investigation is bad news. Green, who's in a close race with newcomer Patrick Rose, is particularly vulnerable to late hits. He's careful not to swat Oden, but says he blames a group called Texans for Public Justice for the timing of the inquiry. Oden told reporters that group's complaint got him started. Green says the same group filed suit against him right before the primary election and says, "anyone with a calendar can figure out what they're trying to do." He's hoping it doesn't affect the race, but says it's already part of the political discussion in his district and says it could backfire on his opponent if Rose plays it up.
Some Elbowing Under the Basket
Rep. Brian McCall, R-Plano, is raising the volume a notch in his campaign for Speaker of the House, sending a letter to colleagues that contrasts his candidacy with that of "the current Republican frontrunner," Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland. McCall's letter doesn't mention Craddick–or current Speaker Pete Laney, a Democrat–by name, but goes through a list of differences he sees between him and Craddick and urges members to vote for him if Republicans get to elect a speaker next session. Among other things, he says he prefers consensus to partisanship and isn't indebted to "big funders, members of Congress or party operatives who have made calls or implied consequences to those unpledged to my candidacy." And he says he's never "given a wink and a nod to those little groups who would through rumor and misrepresentation seek to defame any member of the Legislature."
We Interrupt this Election with a Little Policy
The budget keeps popping up in spite of the fact that none of the campaigns want to talk about the specifics of what they'd cut or what they'd tax or how they'd get out of the budget jam facing the Legislature next year. This time, it's the Children's Health Insurance Program, which came into being, in Texas, anyway, in George W. Bush's last session as governor in 1999, and which now insures about 508,000 kids. Simply put, Texas started its program about two years later than it could have. That left some federal money on the table (the feds pay well over half the costs of the program if states agree to pay the balance), and in the case of Texas, it's about $285 million.
Here's where the teams break, at least initially. It would take over $100 million in state spending to snag that federal money, if that federal money were available. At the moment, it's not. The federal CHIP law says the money left on the table by any of the states goes back into the pot, where other states can get to it. U.S. Rep. Ken Bentsen, D-Houston, introduced legislation to preserve Texas' shot at that money, but Congress is on its way to a break, and Bentsen is a lame duck, having given up his seat for an unsuccessful shot at the U.S. Senate. Even if that effort is successful (and it could be, since 25 states, including Texas, left $1.2 billion on the table and might want it back), there will be a battle on the home front. To get the money, Texas would have to spend money. But the state is in a budget crunch, and while some Democrats want to expand the program and get the money, Republicans on the other end of the spectrum want to put the existing CHIP on a diet to avoid a tax bill.
Attracting that All-Important Couch Potato Vote
The ad war in the lieutenant governor's race is about to get uglier. Republican David Dewhurst has been running negative ads for several weeks, accusing Democrat John Sharp of proposing higher taxes and fees and such. Sharp has been running positive spots, including a new one touting his plan to use lottery money to send Texas high schoolers to college. But Dewhurst stepped up the attack on the eve of early voting, accusing Sharp, a former state comptroller, of taking confidential tax information with him when he left that job and became a tax consultant four years ago. That'll push Sharp into negative territory–he's already answering it with a "shame on you" ad–and it's likely to continue. The Republicans followed with a complaint to the Texas Ethics Commission, accusing Sharp of violating the revolving door law by becoming an equity partner in a firm that lobbies his old agency.
• Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander's new ad zips right past the state's economic problems to pitch a longer and broader holiday from sales taxes each summer. She wants to add some items to the list of things on the state's tax-free back-to-school list, and she wants to make that sales tax respite longer than it is now. That's immensely popular, and, at $46 million over three years, relatively cheap. But the state is way short of money and the Legislature might not be in the mood to give up that much revenue. Rylander's new ad says she rolled out the program in place now and wants to expand it: That commercial is running statewide.
• Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, a Republican up for reelection, will do a small amount of television advertising in that contest, but it won't be statewide. Aides say his commercials will run in four or five of the state's television markets, including Houston. Williams has a fundraising letter on the streets–presumably to help pay for those commercials–that takes its swipes both at his opponent and at the Democratic "dream team" ticket. He writes that he's facing Democrat Sherry Boyles, the only female on the Democratic ticket, and that he's worried about the "avalanche of spending" by the Sanchez campaign and what it might do for her effort. It ends with a photocopy of an article that ran in USA Today about the dream team ticket. On it is a Post-it note that says, "Let's give them a different story to write on Election Day."
• Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs will buy some TV time within the week to bolster her reelection bid. She's running against Rep. Tom Ramsay, D-Mount Vernon. He's not doing television, but came up with a late hit to attract free press coverage, accusing her of awarding supporters with grants from her department's Go Texan program. She says it ain't so.
Flotsam & Jetsam
The Texas Ethics Commission has piled up $20,500 in fines against Criminal Court of Appeals Judge Paul Womack for failing to make legally required finance reports to the state. He told the Dallas Morning News that "it wasn't my first priority" and said he thought the amount of the fines would be negotiated down to a smaller amount. The ethics folks turned the case over to Attorney General John Cornyn for collection. Womack told the paper he didn't really have much in the way of campaign finance to report; the ethics commission is also looking for required reports on his personal finances. Womack, a Republican, is up for reelection and has opposition: Democrat Pat Montgomery of San Antonio wants to take his place on the state's highest criminal court. He didn't file his report on time, either, according to the TEC. But the first infraction is only a $100 fine.
• The finger pointing over campaign finance infractions is in full swing, but the fines are small for these things and so far, few such gaffes have become turning points in campaigns. But the list of grievances includes one from Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, who says his opponent–Republican Ben Bentzin–didn't properly report a $100,000 loan he made to his campaign. Bentzin reported it in one part of the report but not in another, and Barrientos deemed that worthy of a press release and a complaint to the Texas Ethics Commission. Another Austin candidate, Democrat James Sylvester, missed filing his personal financial reports and was late on another campaign report; he owes $900 in fines and blamed a former employee.
• Campaigns for People, a nonprofit that is agitating for campaign finance reforms, says a "loophole" in state law delays Internet posting of campaign fundraising and spending reports in the top five contests on the ballot. A week after the reports were due at the ethics commission, they still hadn't been posted online. Why? Because you can't post anyone's reports in a race until all of them have filed their reports. In each of those top five races, at least one of the third-party candidates didn't file on time, and so all of the reports were held. They're available if you're in Austin, if you go to the Capitol complex, and if nobody in line already has their mitts on the report you're looking for. The campaign reformers say that law ought to be changed.
• Local television stations around the country are ignoring these elections, according to the Alliance for Better Campaigns, a Washington, D.C.-based group that, like the group above, is agitating for changes in the way elections are financed. That first part might not merit a study, but study it they did, and there are some tidbits of note. More than half of the newscasts they watched had no campaign coverage at all. Those that did ran stories that averaged 70 to 90 seconds in length. Less than 20 percent of those featured a candidate talking, and when the candidate got to talk, their sound bite lasted for an average of 9.5 seconds.
• Nobody, apparently including Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, wants to be the bearer of bad news. Every month, the comptroller's office puts out a report on sales tax receipts. Through August, those reports always included a comparison to previous periods. But that part of the press releases has disappeared. If you want to find out how sales taxes are doing (they're down), you can still get the numbers on the comptroller's website, at www.Window.state.tx.us.
• Unanswered fire: Democrat Marty Akins, who's running against Rylander, is challenging her to debate him "at any time and any place" before the election. She hasn't answered yet, and no debates are set. Part of that is that he waited until the end of the game to throw down the challenge. His letter is dated October 11.
• There will be two Senate debates after all, and one of them came together so late that this announcement might not reach you in time. Democrat Ron Kirk and Republican John Cornyn will debate in Houston on Friday, October 18. We mention it here for Internet readers and for folks in places where the TV stations plan to replay the thing. If you miss it, the candidates will meet again on Wednesday, October 23, on a television set near you. The gubernatorial candidates, as well as the contestants for Lite Guv and attorney general, will be on the next night.
Political People and Their Moves
Outbound Texas Supreme Court Justice Xavier Rodriguez answers rumors of a Washington, D.C., appointment by saying that he wants to keep his family (wife, two young daughters) in this part of the country right now. Rodriguez, who lost a Republican primary contest to Steven Wayne Smith, had been mentioned as a potential general counsel for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He also got mentioned in a much more public way; in a debate with Democrat Tony Sanchez, Gov. Rick Perry said he would appoint Rodriguez again if another opening appears on the state's Supreme Court. There's no opening at the moment... Consumers Union is sending a new soldier into the utility wars. Tim Morstad, who had worked on environmental policy for Public Citizen in Austin, is moving to CU to work on utility issues; he sort of replaces Janie Briesemeister, who remains at the consumer organization but is spending her time on a national project on utility deregulation and oversight... Amy Collier, who handled media matters for Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, is leaving the Pink Building to become communications director for the Texas Federation of Teachers... Andrew Blifford moves from the Public Utility Commission, where he worked as a legislative liaison, to the Pink Building, where he'll be legislative director to Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie... Suing, and in an unrelated development, recovering: Former Texas Lottery honcho Linda Cloud. Cloud is suing four aides to Gov. Perry, including chief of staff Mike McKinney and spokespersons Gene Acuña, Ray Sullivan and Kathy Walt. That libel suit says Perry's aides encouraged her to lie about sexual harassment charges against former lottery commissioner Walter Criner and that they then lied about the investigation of those charges and the fallout that resulted. Cloud resigned after a legislative committee questioned her about the Criner episode, putting her on the spot and forcing her to admit she'd lied to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about who knew what and when they knew it. Separately, Cloud found out she had a blood clot in her brain, and was hospitalized for that... Gov. Perry appointed Douglas Land of Dallas to the 5th Court of Appeals there. Land, an attorney, replaces Justice Sue LaGarde, who retired... The Guv appointed Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, to chair the Texas Water Advisory Council, a spot left open by the resignation of GOP Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown.
Quotes of the Week
Jason Burke, campaign manager for Henry Cuellar, a Democrat running against U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio, without any help from his hometown's most powerful elected official, quoted in the Dallas Morning News: "I'm not sure why everyone focuses on Sen. [Judith] Zaffirini. It's not like she's the all-powerful Oz who controls 40,000 votes. She chooses to not support this campaign. But that didn't stop every other office holder in Webb County from endorsing Cuellar."
Frank Nuss, a retired engineer in Weatherford, telling the Dallas Morning News how he likes his choices in the race for governor: "It's the dirtiest damn race I've seen. But it's not going to keep me from voting for the less obnoxious one. As of today, it's hard to say which one that is."
Land Commissioner David Dewhurst, a Republican running for Lite Guv, telling the San Antonio Express-News that he can help Gov. Rick Perry "do a better job as governor" if he's elected: "It was a tactical mistake for him not to be as engaged in the 2001 session. You're not going to have 82 vetoes with Dewhurst as lieutenant governor–won't happen."
Former Gov. Ann Richards, telling the San Antonio Express-News that the polling of Rick Perry and Tony Sanchez is faulty: "This election is going to be determined by the level of enthusiasm of the Hispanic vote... There is an ingredient of enthusiasm that is very difficult to measure by the presence of an Hispanic name on the ballot. We all know it has an impact, but we don’t know by how much."
Ray Sullivan, a spokesman for Rick Perry, explaining his boss' "innocent" joke about Tony Sanchez' height to the Houston Chronicle: "We recognize first and foremost that height does not matter in the governor's race and there is nothing that Mr. Sanchez or anybody else can do about it."
Former political consultant Monte Williams, quoted in a Dallas Morning News story on some of the unusual expenses–pizza, confetti, and more than 900-plus employees–that showed up on the latest spending report from the Tony Sanchez campaign: "It's not a campaign–it's a cruise ship."
Texas Weekly: Volume 19, Issue 17, 21 October 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.