It's almost impossible to read election results into early turnout numbers, but it's possible to tell whether various efforts to excite voters are working. The trouble is seeing past the political spinners who are trying to get their voters worked up while putting voters on the other side to sleep.
If you believe the Tony Sanchez campaign and the rest of the Democrats, then the voter turnouts in the first few days in Hidalgo and Bexar and Travis counties are the first sign that Democratic voters are up and at 'em, ready for the fight they missed four years ago. Ground warriors in Dallas and Houston say the early voting is strong in minority precincts that are critical to a Democratic win.
If you believe Gov. Rick Perry's campaign and the rest of the Republicans, then the big early turnouts in Montgomery and Collin and Williamson counties are the initial clues that suburban Republicans are coming out strongly enough to fend off the challengers.
At first blush, it looks like neither set of spinners was completely right. Voters appear to be interested (or at least anxious to get this out of the way), which is more than some political types had predicted. Look at the geography of early voting: You can't see that either side is more excited than normal, but you also can't find much evidence that any segment of voters is disengaged.
Democrats who said they would overwhelm Republicans with demographic changes and a good, old-fashioned Get Out the Vote effort appear from the early voting numbers to have been exaggerating. Republicans who said the attempt to attract voters with a "Dream Team" ticket would fall flat appear to have been overconfident. It's early yet, but it looks competitive out there.
Democrats are getting votes in some of the places where they were unusually weak four years ago. Republicans were worried about the absence of George W. Bush, their political Elvis, on the ballot, but they're getting decent voter activity without him.
Election Day will be here soon enough, and the current hype from both sides is designed to encourage one set of voters while discouraging the other. Republicans would like to have Democrats believe that the much-talked-about minority turnout is a myth cooked up by consultants out to gouge a novice millionaire. Democrats want to pop the other side's favorite line by showing that Texas is not so much a Republican state as a state infatuated with Bush.
In the first four days of early voting, 169,657 Texans had gone to the polls (or mailed in their ballots) in the state's top 15 counties. That compares with 93,436 in the first four days four years ago, when a lackluster governor's race was at the top of the ticket. That's an 81 percent increase, and a small part of it can be attributed to growth, but only a small part: voter registration in the 15 largest counties is up 9.7 percent over that four-year period. The current number is a drop from two years ago, but presidential election years have bigger turnouts, so the comparison isn't that meaningful.
Voting over that first four-day period was up in almost every county on the top 15 list. What's missing, if you're trying to get a read on the elections, is a geographic pattern that favors one party or another. (Daily results are on the Internet at www.sos.state.tx.us.) The spinners on both sides have it easy, in a way, because the results are cloudy enough to favor almost any argument.
Some things will remain cloudy until Election Day. Are people voting early because they're energized, or because they want to get it over with? Are the people who are voting now new voters or are they "steals" from the total that normally votes on Election Day? Put another way: Does this mean more people are voting or that more people are voting early? Wait two weeks and see.
Video highlight films—maybe they ought to be called blooper reels—are starting to show up in last-minute political ads. We wrote last week about the 911 tape being used in a commercial in a Waco House race. Now, police videos of traffic stops and arrests have become political fodder.
Republican Ben Bentzin, a Dellionaire (that's the Austin term for somebody who made a mint at Dell Computer), is running a commercial featuring video of Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, flunking a field sobriety test and getting arrested for drunk driving. And Democrat Tony Sanchez has two commercials on TV that show Gov. Rick Perry getting cranky with a highway trooper who stopped the governor's driver for speeding down a Central Texas road.
Bentzin originally said he wouldn't use Barrientos' DWI arrest in the campaign. The incumbent made a public apology at the time and lost his drivers' license (though he applied for, and received, an occupation license that let him do to and from work). And the videotape shot by the built-in camera in the arresting officer's car ran over and over on local television news.
Bentzin, the first serious challenger to Barrientos in years, said he changed his mind about the incident because Barrientos voted for increased penalties against suspects who refuse Breathalyzer tests and then refused to take such a test when he himself was pulled over. The commercial makes as small a mention of Bentzin as the law allows, but shows Barrientos trying to walk a line, trying to stand on one foot with his arms spread, and then sitting in the back seat of the squad car after his arrest. Barrientos responded with a press conference featuring dozens of loud supporters who asked Bentzin to pull the ads. He hasn't done so.
When Perry's aide got pulled over for speeding a couple of years ago, the then-lieutenant governor got out of the car and asked the trooper "Why can't you just let us get on down the road?" In one Sanchez commercial, that's referred to as "bullying" the officer. In the other, Perry's line is used several times and becomes the catch phrase for helping the governor "move on down the road."
Both ads use footage from squad car cameras, and those kinds of tapes are generally subject to the state's Open Information Act, just like the audio tape of the 911 calls in that Waco race.
Department of Youthful Indiscretions
• House candidate Nelson Balido, a San Antonio Republican, says old charges shouldn't be dragged up unless there was a conviction or a reason to think that an old incident has some bearing on how the candidate would do the job he or she is seeking. He did 200 hours of community service after a 1993 arrest on charges of illegally obtaining a drug over the telephone.
His version: He has knee trouble. A friend at the gym (Balido was a student at Texas Tech in Lubbock at the time) handed him a steroid pill for the pain. It worked. He called a doctor's office, and the nurse there gave him a prescription. But she didn't tell the doctor. The pharmacy called the doctor to double-check, he said he didn't write a prescription, and that was that. Balido says the nurse was fired, that he turned himself in, and that the case was dropped, with no conviction, after he did his community service. He says he's been forthcoming about what he calls a mistake, and says he doesn't think it's a campaign issue.
• Rife Kimler, a criminal defense attorney and the GOP challenger to Rep. Allan Ritter, D-Nederland, went to the U.S. Attorney's office and handed over some cocaine he bought at a party. According to the Beaumont Enterprise, he told prosecutors he'd intended to give it to friends, but thought better of it. They issued a warrant for his arrest on what they say is a third-degree felony.
• And then there was this exchange from the debate between Attorney General John Cornyn and Ron Kirk, the two candidates for U.S. Senate. They were asked whether they'd used illegal drugs.
Kirk, the Democrat, said, "I tried marijuana when I was in college, but I didn't like it."
Cornyn, the Republican, ducked: "I agree with President Bush that campaigns unfortunately have become kind of more like Jerry Springer than a discussion of the issues. There is a zone of privacy for youthful indiscretions and the like."
Kirk looked at him. "I wish I'd have let you answer first," he said.
J'Accuse, Part 2
We had to wait only seven days for a sequel to last week's item about Central Texas prosecutors and people on the ballot. Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed threw more gasoline on the fire at San Antonio's City Hall, announcing indictments against a group of public and private individuals in a zoning-for-hire case. That's the second bundle of charges at City Hall—federal prosecutors issued the first set several days ago—but this bundle has a direct impact on a state election.
Reed announced indictments of nine people on bribery and corruption charges, including Raul Prado, a former city councilman now running for election to the Texas House.
Reed said she's not finished with her investigation and said the grand jury that handed up the indictments will serve until the end of November and is looking at school boards now. She said her investigation is separate from the federal investigation that produced indictments against some of the same people a couple of weeks ago. And she said the timing of the indictments was keyed to a statute of limitations that was about to run out on one of the charges and not to the current election season. She called Prado the leader of the conspiracy at one point, but said the indictments weren't timed to interfere with his House bid: "I didn't create this situation," she said. "It's not my problem."
Prado's indictment should be a boost to Republican Ken Mercer, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee and the only other candidate in the race for the open HD-117 seat. Don Jones, one of Mercer's campaign aides, said rumors and news reports of the investigation were already having an impact in the race. "It was already leaning our way, but I think this will go a long way..." he said. The candidates were running about even in the money race; Prado has raised and spent more over the last year, but Mercer appeared to have more money available when the candidates last reported their finances earlier this month. The San Antonio Express-News took at look at both candidates and opted out, telling readers it couldn't make a recommendation.
Every tight House race figures right into the race for Speaker of the House, and this is a tight race. For those of you keeping score at home, the indictments could take a vote away from Democrat Pete Laney and add a vote for a Republican—apparently Rep. Tom Craddick of Midland. Prado is with the Democrat, and Mercer's with the Republican.
Addendum: The folks at Texans for Public Justice say they filed their complaints against legislator/lobbyists to Travis County Attorney Ken Oden last November, and didn't have anything to do with the timing of public reports that Rep. Rick Green, R-Dripping Springs, and Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, were being investigated by Oden's staff. Green, who is in a tough battle for reelection, raised questions here about the timing last week and blamed TPJ. They say they had nothing to do with the publicity. Green, meantime, is also answering complaints to the Texas Ethics Commission about whether he correctly reported both his campaign and finances there.
Redistricting is Over, But Who Won?
Attorney General John Cornyn is still fighting with the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus over legal fees awarded to that group's redistricting lawyers. The federal three-judge panel that finally approved the state's redistricting plans told Cornyn to pay MALC's lawyers more than $600,000 for their work arguing about the boundaries of a handful of districts where Hispanics are in the majority. Their arguments prevailed in four of the five districts in question, according to legislators, and the courts have said twice that they were a "prevailing party" and ought to be reimbursed by the state.
But Cornyn's staff is appealing again. The state says that MALC wasn't really a prevailing party and isn't entitled to legal fees. The interest continues to toll on that account, increasing the amount at stake. And lawyers for MALC say the appeal will add $40,000 to $50,000 to their bill. They brought the issue up again just two weeks before the election in which Cornyn is asking voters for a promotion to U.S. Senate, but said they did so only because it was the deadline for the state's appeal. They asked Cornyn not to appeal, but the state filed its papers and the matter will remain in court.
Republican Jerry Patterson is touting some poll numbers in his quest for land commissioner that might make another candidate nervous. His pollsters talked to 600 people last weekend—after early voting was underway. The good news for Patterson is that the pollster said he's leading Democrat David Bernsen by 10 points. The bad news? He and Bernsen are running second and third in the race behind Undecided. Patterson says he got 36 percent of the vote, that Bernsen got 26 percent, and that undecided got 38 percent of the vote in that poll.
• Rep. Ron Lewis, D-Mauriceville, crossed over and endorsed Mike "Tuffy" Hamilton in the race for Lewis' place in the Legislature. Hamilton is in a tight contest with Democrat Paul Clayton. Lewis, who didn't seek reelection, said he respects both of them but decided to throw in with the Republican.
• The Republican Party of Texas has stepped in where judicial persons cannot tread, buying television ads urging people in Sherman and thereabouts to vote for Ron Clark for state representative. Clark's on his way to a federal judgeship, having been appointed by the president and approved by the Senate. But he's on the ballot, and if he wins, it'll force a special election to replace him. That would allow the Republicans to have a candidate on the ballot who is also eligible and able to serve in the Texas House. If he loses, they get a Democrat, Donnie Jarvis.
• The good government types are putting the Luddite label on 168 candidates and 66 political action committees that raised $7.8 million without disclosing it electronically. They're not completely to blame, according to Texans for Public Justice: The law is. Candidates who spend less than $20,000 a year don't have to file electronically, and filers who say they don't use computers to keep their finance records aren't required to file electronically. Their report (online at www.tpj.org) says 131 of the candidates who filed only on paper were running for legislative offices, 20 were running for judicial jobs, and 15 were running for the State Board of Education.
• Starved for judicial news, or just a little information about who the heck will decide all those cases? The tort reformers have been busy putting together their take on the candidates. Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse put their version of all this on the web at www.tala.com.
• Put FreePAC into the figurative version of the Federal Witness Protection Program. They haven't moved, but the controversial conservative political action committee changed its name to the Heritage Alliance PAC. Since the primaries, when FreePAC's mailers backfired on some of the candidates the group supports, the money in and out of the PAC's account has been relatively meager. But some of the groups on the other side have been sending out emails noting the name change.
• The Center for Responsive Politics, which watches money on the national level, says the top 100 donors in American politics have put $1 billion into the game since the 1990 election cycle. Six of the top ten givers, and 27 of the top 100, were unions. Groups that they classified as "ideological" only accounted for five of the top 100 spots. Number 1? AFSCME, the union for public employees.
• Sometimes, it's your friends who do you in. Bill Eggers, formerly head of research for Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander and now a senior fellow at The Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, wrote a report on budget-cutting strategies for states with financial problems, and he praises a former comptroller, Democrat John Sharp, and a former governor, Ann Richards, for their work on the Texas Performance Review when Texas last faced a budget crunch a decade ago. Sharp, who's now running for Lite Guv against Republican David Dewhurst, has been touting that same effort. Dewhurst has been pooh-poohing it, saying TPR didn't amount to much. But Eggers is with Sharp, saying the program ended the budget crisis and averted the need for a state income tax.
DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS: It is true that Dewhurst's gang filed an ethics complaint against Sharp, but we had the subject of the complaint wrong in a recent item. Dewhurst complained about an ad that ran for about a day on radio with the wrong disclaimer on it. The ad said it was paid for by the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. Sharp's campaign says it was a goof, and that they corrected it as soon as they found out about it.
Brother, Can You Spare $1 Billion?
Top state officials and candidates are split on school finance, with some saying nothing major will happen during the next legislative session and others saying state funding for public education has already hit crisis levels and has to be revamped. And then there is Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee and of an interim legislative panel that's been looking for a school finance fix that is both intellectually honest and politically feasible.
Bivins told the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association that the state should put at least $1 billion more into public ed, and says he's not putting an even bigger number on the table in deference to the budget problems the state now faces (and also because he was talking to a group that's made up, in large measure, of companies that would pay the higher taxes his proposal could require).
State funding formulas will force state funding to rise by some amount to meet enrollment increases, but Bivins is talking about $1 billion in addition to that amount, and says it should be sent through the system in a way that increases the state's share of education costs and lightens the load on local property taxes.
According to Bivins and others, around 400 of the state's school districts (about 40 percent) will bump their heads on the state's $1.50 property tax limit next year. That means those districts won't be able to raise more money for education unless the state throws in some money. The state's share fluctuates with local property values, but it's now down in the range of 40 percent of what is ultimately spent on public schools. Bivins and others—from both parties—think it ought to be higher.
Food Fights and Registered Voters
Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs is going up on television with three ads, including one that features George W. Bush touting her affinity with farmers and ranchers. In the Spanish version of her ad, the candidate does her own talking, saying she's worked for economic development along the Texas-Mexico Border and worked for clean water. And there's an ad where she's talking about junk food in school lunches and overweight children and calling it "a tragedy in our school lunchrooms." She doesn't say whether she's talking about what they buy there or what they bring there (her backup materials blame the schools), but it closes with a line that's familiar there: "I'm ready for a food fight."
• Secretary of State Gwyn Shea put out the official numbers on voter registration: 12,569,738 Texans are registered to vote, or about 81 percent of those who are eligible. That's up 351,574 over the official tally in March, and it's up 204,503 from the official tally before the November 2000 elections.
The negative finger pointing in the gubernatorial race now includes canine homicide, or at least accidental death. An unnamed Houston supporter of Gov. Rick Perry sent a note to the Guv's campaign—which was then forwarded to members of the Fourth Estate—describing the sudden death of Annie, the supporter's dog.
Annie died chasing a Tony Sanchez sound van that was going through a neighborhood. The owner of the dog, who wasn't named in the email, seems to claim the dog was chasing the van to defend the owner against the Democrat's campaign, which had tried to put signs in the yard and had been warned off. With the dog watching. The Sanchez worker who tried to put the signs in the yard left with Annie in full chase. She didn't catch him.
She had just returned when the next Sanchez operatives—the ones driving the sound van—showed up. Annie unfortunately caught that second vehicle, and the owner is encouraging donations to the Spay Neuter Assistance Program in Annie's name. The Sanchez campaign, according to the Perry supporter, made a donation after finding out about the accident.
Political People and Their Moves
Tom Harrison, the executive director of the Texas Ethics Commission, will leave at the end of November to become the director of legal and governmental affairs for the Texas County and District Retirement System. Harrison, who used to be director of elections for the Texas Secretary of State, went to ethics in 1995 and has overseen that agency's conversion to electronic record-keeping (though the state laws that allow that also allow some candidates to duck electronic filing). He says he'll be available to help the agency, which is going through Sunset, during the legislative session if they want the help... Former San Antonio Mayor Lila Cockrell will head a public integrity commission started by mayor Ed Garza in the wake of federal bribery indictments against a couple of city council members and notice from prosecutors that they're still investigating public officials. That came after the federal charges, but on the eve of indictments by local prosecutors...
Appointments: Gov. Rick Perry named Roy "Tony" Garcia, who lives in Tennessee Colony, to the policy board of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. It sets policy for the bigger board, which determines which convicts stay in prison and which ones get out. Garcia, a former prison warden, has been on the bigger board since May 2001... Perry named Benjamin Streusand to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission. Streusand, who lives in The Woodlands, is a mortgage banker...
President George W. Bush named former Texas A&M University President Ray Bowen to the National Science Board, the panel that oversees the National Science Foundation where Bowen once served as deputy assistant director for engineering...
Deaths: Houston businessman and philanthropist Gordon Cain, one of the biggest financiers of Republican candidates and tort reform efforts in Texas. He was 90.
Quotes of the Week
Daniel Ruiz, a Valley Interfaith member from St. Pius Catholic Church in Weslaco, quoted in the Valley Morning Star: "We feel like salmon swimming upstream when we knock on doors. People are telling us that they don’t want to go out and vote because of all the negative mud-slinging ads. But we are encouraging everyone to ignore those ads. When we got our citizenship, we were told we have a democratic system that is by the people and for the people, not for the special interest groups with money. We are staying positive."
Sen. David Cain, D-Dallas, in a Dallas Morning News story about his current reelection bid: "I only know how to run two ways—unopposed and scared."
Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, quoted in the Austin American-Statesman about a recent incident at a grocery store: "You should be able to go to the store and buy your groceries without being confronted by a naked man."
Amelia Perry, mother of the governor, telling the Austin American-Statesman how the state could raise some money: "One thing we did wrong way, way, way, way back there was, that little dollar-and-a-half we paid for poll tax didn't hurt anybody. That should be put back on. If you want to vote, you should have to pay your poll tax." Rick Perry, reacting : "I don't agree with that. I'm not going to try to second-guess my mother's mind-set."
Lame duck Rep. Paul Sadler, D-Henderson, opining, in an Austin American-Statesman story, about candidate promises to find money for schools by scrubbing the budget: "Any candidate who says that is just absolutely idiotic. But then, it's just the political thing to say."
Tom Phillips, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court and a candidate for reelection, telling the House Committee on Judicial Affairs that there are too many judges on the state's ballots: "I was at a candidate forum recently and there were more candidates than voters."
Singer Willie Nelson, in The New Yorker: "We used to have two drummers and two bass players, and it sounded great if everyone was on the same drug."
Texas Weekly: Volume 19, Issue 18, 28 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.