Bill Ratliff, a Republican engineer who upset a Democratic incumbent 15 years ago and then became a moderate voice as his party took over the Legislature, is leaving the Senate in the middle of his term to return to Mount Pleasant, his family, and political retirement.
Ratliff was scorned by his Republican colleagues for siding with the Democrats against a GOP-generated congressional redistricting bill, but said that's not why he's leaving. He attributed his retirement to a combination of burnout and having accomplished almost everything he wanted to do. He also reminded everybody that he talked seriously about retiring after his gig as lieutenant governor ended. But the wars with some of the louder and more conservative factions of his own party had clearly begun to wear on him.
The Senate elected Ratliff interim lieutenant governor when Rick Perry left that post to become governor to replace George W. Bush, who took a job out of state. The complaints from within his own party started almost immediately when he announced his committee assignments and included the Democratic senators who elected him in positions with real clout. For instance, he named Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, to chair the Finance Committee Ratliff himself had been running.
When that legislative session came to an end, Ratliff said he would run for election to the job he'd been filling as a temp, and the people he'd incensed by accommodating the Democrats in the Senate paid him back by recruiting Greg Abbott to run against him. Ratliff dropped out with a blistering attack on the opposition, saying he wasn't willing to do the things he'd have to do to win in a Republican primary. Abbott later switched races and became attorney general, David Dewhurst became Lite Guv, and that was that.
Ratliff decided to run again, and hit the same wall again. He said early in the session that redrawing the congressional maps would make a political mess. When ten Democrats said they'd signed a letter opposing redistricting and fell one short of the votes they'd need to stop it, Ratliff added his name to the letter, making it impossible to get the needed two-thirds of the Senate to bring up a bill for consideration. Dewhurst ditched the two-thirds rule, the Democrats bolted for New Mexico, and Ratliff was virtually ignored in the Republican Caucus meetings during that impasse.
In appearances in his hometown and in the Senate Chamber in Austin, Ratliff said he'll serve until January 10, when he'll get out of the way for a successor. That sets up a special election, which means the seat will be filled late this year or early next year, without Democratic or Republican primaries.
Ratliff, possessor of a relatively rare mix of cranial content, conscience and cojones, has been one of the Senate's brightest lights almost since his arrival in 1989. Along with two other Republican senators elected about the same time — David Sibley of Waco, now a lobbyist, and Teel Bivins of Amarillo, who is expected to leave to become U.S. Ambassador to Sweden — he formed the core that ran the Senate when the last of the Democratic lions left the cage, some by choice and some because their districts grew more conservative. Few major issues ran through the upper chamber without help from one or more of those three senators.
That said, transitions are inevitable and someone whose talents aren't immediately apparent always steps up and fills the gap. People couldn't imagine a Senate without Bill Moore, or Carl Parker, or John Montford, or Ray Farabee, or Bob McFarland, or... you get the idea. Sibley joked about it after Ratliff's announcement: "I think they should go ahead and continue to meet."
Sometime between Now and May 15
Ratliff's decision to leave in mid-term sets up a special election, and the confusion over that — at least in the first day or so — was rampant. When you hear all the rules, it becomes clearer, like mud.
Gov. Rick Perry has eight days to "recognize" the resignation letter from Ratliff and to send it on to the Secretary of State, the chief elections officer. The Guv also gets to set the date of the special election and has to do so within 20 days of the recognition, and there are two roads here.
The governor can simply say there will be a special election on the next legal date for general candidate elections. The November date is past, and the February date set aside for elections isn't set up for this kind of contest (only certain things are allowed at certain times, which came about when lawmakers were trying to cut the number of elections).
The first legal date for a special election turns out to be May 15. That's a long time off, which would ordinarily be no big deal. But with Ratliff leaving officially on January 10, it leaves the district without a senator for four months. Perry has said he'll call a special session on school finance, and all indications so far have that happening sometime in April or May. Northeast Texas will want to have a senator in attendance for that.
The second road allows the governor to declare the election an emergency. There's no criteria for it — if he says it's an emergency, it is one. If he calls it an emergency, he has to set an election date on either a Tuesday or a Saturday that falls between 36 and 50 days away. By our sloppy count, that puts the earliest possible election on Saturday, December 27, and the latest on Tuesday, February 3 (assuming he makes his declarations and decisions on the last possible dates). Actual mileage may vary after the lawyers mess with it, but that puts you in the ballpark.
The Field and the Players
Gregg, Smith, Bowie and Harrison counties have the biggest populations in the district (Smith is split, with 60 percent of the population in Senate District 1). The district votes Republican, on average, in statewide elections. In a close contest often used to rate these things, Carole Keeton Strayhorn beat Democrat Paul Hobby in the 1998 comptroller's race, getting 52.1 percent of the vote. But as Ratliff pointed out in his exit interview, the local officials in the district's counties are Democrats. He and others consider it a tossup district, at least on partisan lines, and that's probably the way to bet.
Intangibles: The special election won't be Bush-dependent, since that election isn't on the same day. Give the Democrats a point. But special elections are usually low-turnout affairs, and Republican voters are generally more willing to show up when there's only one thing on the ballot. Score one for the Republicans. It's not a big television market for political ads, since candidates have to buy commercials on overlapping cable networks. Still, it'll be expensive. Score a point for direct mail houses.
Former state Rep. Paul Sadler of Henderson, a Democrat, will definitely be running for the job, and could benefit from a pack of Republicans splitting up their supporters' votes. Rep. Mark Homer, D-Paris, and former Rep. Tom Ramsay, D-Mount Vernon, are looking, too, however. If they get in, it could work the other way for a Republican. But the potential Republican field is even more crowded.
Republican Kevin Eltife, the former mayor of Tyler, is definitely in the hunt, and has hired Bill Tryon to manage the campaign, pollster Mike Baselice and media consultant David Weeks to work on it. Baselice and Weeks are regulars on Gov. Rick Perry's campaigns, which gives Eltife a little extra polish. Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, is considering the race but that hasn't gelled into a Yes or a No at this point. Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, is saying publicly that it's Ratliff's day in the sun and that he's considering a contest, but he's told people privately he'll probably run.
Ratliff said he won't name a favorite, on the assumption that voters don't like it when politicians name their own successors. He's got ties to most of them. He and Sadler did school finance together. Eltife has waited patiently for Ratliff to finish up; he didn't run, for instance, when Ratliff dropped out of the lieutenant governor's race and decided to run for reelection instead.
Congressional Battlefields, Plan B
Candidates and consultants are absorbed in the possibilities that arise from redrawing congressional districts in Texas, and in who would run for what and how the new districts lay out politically and all that jazz. But suppose the haggle over congressional redistricting ends — permanently or temporarily — with candidates running under the current political maps. It could happen. The judges who'll end up with this thing (ignoring appeals for a moment) could say the new maps drawn by the Legislature are legal and should be used for the 2004 elections. They could say they're mostly legal, make some changes on their own, and put those maps into effect. Or they could say the new maps are illegal and should be tossed or that the changes needed to make the new maps legal will take too long to be in place in time for the 2004 elections. That last bit, or some variation cooked up in court, could leave the maps for the Texas congressional delegation unscathed for two more years. It wouldn't necessarily leave the delegation unscratched, though.
You might have heard that George W. Bush will be on the November ballot next year, and his presence will have some effect on the next races on the ballot. With no Senate seat on the ticket, the local congressional contests follow the presidential one. Bush hasn't shown any electoral weakness in Texas, so you have to assume his voters will turn out. If you are a Republican working on a congressional race, you'll be relying on the president's coattails. If you're a Democrat, you'll be depending on ticket-splitters to get your favorite to the finish line.
Most of the brush fires will be where they were two years ago, but not all of them. To wit:
• U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, won in a special election earlier this year (U.S. Rep. Larry Combest quit), but should expect a rematch from Michael Conaway of Midland. Neugebauer's special election win was skinny, and past results in other races suggest a Republican from the south end of the district could win a primary against someone from Lubbock. Under the new maps, the two men would be in different districts, but each gets a race whatever the judges decide.
• Neugebauer's opponent in the new maps is in a GOP target district on the old maps, but U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm, R-Abilene, finished 6,514 votes ahead of Rob Beckham last year. With Bush on the ballot, the Republicans could get a boost, and without Stenholm's incumbency, it's GOP territory. Beckham was looking until the map changed, and could come back for a rematch.
• U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, won by about that same margin, beating Republican Ramsey Farley by 6,442 votes last year. It's the same math, basically, and the same calculation for a challenger: Will Bush's popularity offset a Democratic congressman's incumbency in a district that votes with GOP candidates in most other races? Dot Snyder, a former school board president from Waco, is running against Edwards in the new map (if she wins a GOP primary against state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson) and could as easily challenge him — without that primary fight — on the existing map.
• The third winner with about that same margin was U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio, who held off Democrat Henry Cuellar by 6,586 votes last year. The existing district is a tough one for Bonilla; Texas Republicans split Webb County in the new map to reduce his risk from Laredo-based challengers like Cuellar. If the existing map is used, the Democrats would probably need a new candidate. Cuellar decided to challenge U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, under the new maps, giving Bonilla a boost while angering fellow Democrats. Those Democrats probably won't be there to help him if he ends up in a district with Bonilla instead.
• U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall, D-Rockwall, has easily survived Republican challengers in spite of his voters' proclivities in other races: They're Republicans, but they vote for Hall. He hasn't said whether he'll run again, and some chin-scratchers say he won't do it because he's 80 years old. Two years ago, they said he wouldn't do it because he was 78 years old. If he quits, it's a race; if not, it's not.
Most Democrats on the GOP's target list would be relatively safe if the existing map is used instead of the new one: Chris Bell of Houston, Lloyd Doggett of Austin, Martin Frost of Dallas, Gene Green of Houston, Nick Lampson of Beaumont, Max Sandlin of Marshall, and Jim Turner of Crockett.
Men (and Women) in Black
Scott Brister, the chief justice of the state's 14th Court of Appeals, is getting a promotion to the Texas Supreme Court. He's Gov. Rick Perry's choice to replace Craig Enoch, who resigned from the court earlier this year and returned to practicing law.
Brister, who's from Houston, was first made a judge by then-Gov. Bill Clements, who appointed him to a state district court. He won three elections in that post, then won election to the First Court of Appeals (which, like the 14th, is in Harris County) in 2000. Less than a year later, Perry appointed him to be chief justice of the 14th, and now the governor is tapping him for an open spot on the state's highest civil court. Brister's addition means five of the nine justices on that court are relatively new; one has less than three years there and three more have joined the court within the last 14 months.
Enoch's term expires next year, so Brister and whoever else is running for that will be trying to get a full term on the court. That'll be one of three seats on the ballot. Justice Harriett O'Neill's term is up next year, as is Stephen Smith's. Smith, who joined the court a year ago after defeating Perry appointee Xavier Rodriguez, already has a primary opponent, but no Democratic candidates have surfaced for any of those contests.
Related: One of the judges interviewed for that appointment and the election campaign next year was Jan Patterson, a justice on the state's Third Court of Appeals. She's a Democrat, and rumors had her switching parties as part of the conversation about sitting on the court. She's planning to run for reelection as a Democrat: "I have been encouraged to run for both courts in both parties," she says.
Teaching a Dog to Bark More
Texas statewide and legislative candidates spent $195 million on their campaigns last year and Texas for Public Justice has put out a report analyzing the contributions and the contributors. There is a 50-page report on their website (www.tpj.org), but here are a few highlights: $68 million of the total came out of the pockets of candidates (including $57 million from gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez); half of the rest came from 382 donors (almost $160,000 each, on average); Senate candidates raised less than a third of their money in their own districts and House candidates raised less than a quarter of their money at home; and $30 million, or about 15 percent of all the money raised, was raised by late train efforts that followed the elections.
That same group is catching flack from Republicans for what the GOP calls "selective outrage." The Texans are playing off a national GOP campaign against self-described campaign watchdog groups that aren't barking about George Soros for his $5 million contributions to Democrats, or to similar efforts for the Democrats. Soros, according to the Republicans, contributes to TPJ, and they say the group should be as hard on his efforts as they are when they're on the trail of conservatives.
Halloween was Three Weeks Ago
Bob Bullock used to send out Blue Zingers — memos his aides would find on their desks when they got to work. They were sometimes blunt. His former employees describe them with a mixture of warm nostalgia and cold fear. Now Baylor University — in cahoots with Bullock veterans John Paul Moore and Susan Longley — has put out a Blue Zinger of its own. They even signed it with Bullock's name, hoping the gimmick would raise money for the late Lite Guv's archives. Those archives include all of his letters and other papers, and went to Baylor along with a bunch of his unused campaign money before he passed away. The zinger says they'll take any contribution, but suggests that for $2,500 or more, donors get their names on a wall. Above his signature is this line: "I know times are hard, but if you think you have a tough time raising money, try doing it from the state cemetery."
Flotsam & Jetsam
Texas Insurance Commissioner Jose Montemayor is telling friends and associates that he'd like to run for comptroller in the next election cycle. Montemayor, who was deputy commissioner before his current job, has never run for state office. In those same conversations, he's saying he'd like to leave his current post within the next couple of months. If the comptroller job is open, he'd be in a pack, and he'd have to defend — for better and for worse — insurance rates and practices he oversees. It's not impossible, but it's difficult for appointed regulators to win popular support. Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs says she'd consider that campaign if Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn doesn't seek reelection.
• Add Republican Austen Furse of Houston to the list of Republican candidates who might run in CD-2. That's the CD-2 on the new map, and he'd face former state district Judge Ted Poe in that primary. He's an investor; buddies describe him as "an advisor to two presidents," both named Bush.
• Former state District Judge John Devine will run for Congress in the new CD-10, which stretches from Harris County to Travis County and might be the most populated race on next year's ballot. U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, is there now, but it's drawn for Republicans and is weighted toward the eastern end of the district. Doggett will run in CD-25 if the new maps survive legal review. Devine was the judge who put the Ten Commandments on the wall in his courtroom a few years back.
• Former state District Judge Ernesto Garcia will be on the Republican ballot for justice of the Third Court of Appeals in Austin next year. He's a former federal prosecutor and claims the backing of 16 GOP county chairs in the 24-county district served by that court.
• After Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst got indigestion over it, the University of Texas System's Board of Regents slow-balled tuition increases a tad, putting most of the pain in the next school year instead of this one. Tuition deregulation was a big item on House Speaker Tom Craddick's agenda, and the Senate, after holding it off for months, went along at the end of the legislative session. When Dewhurst expressed some reservations about it a week ago, the school pulled up, but only a little: Rates go up in the spring, and again next fall. In the meantime, Dewhurst is asking a Senate committee to work on affordability issues that might result.
• The agency set up to get teachers' voices into teacher certification debates came up with a result the teacher groups don't like, and teacher groups say the State Board of Educator Certification was playing politics. The board voted 5-4 to let unaccredited teachers teach — following guidelines that are partly developed and partly under construction. But teacher unions and groups want to limit the number of non-certified teachers in classrooms.
Two of those votes came from politically connected educators. One Cecilia Phalen Abbott, is a former school administrator who is married to Attorney General Greg Abbott. The other is a fifth-grade schoolteacher named Cynthia Saenz. She's married to Assistant Secretary of State Luis Saenz, who previously worked on Gov. Rick Perry's government and campaign staffs, as well as for other Republican officeholders. Both women are educators, and both were appointed by Perry.
• Daniel Miller's quarter will come out next year. Miller, who lives in Arlington, did the winning design for a Texas quarter, and the state's turn is up. It was picked from 2,700 designs and will roll out with quarters from Florida, Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin next year.
• Ag Commissioner Combs attacked candy bars in schools, and now Gov. Perry is trying to get people to exercise. He's calling it the "Texas Round-up" (which might be unfortunate if you easily visualize the shapes of the bodies in question) and is asking city officials around the state to get people interested. Perry says health care costs related to overweight Texans run $10 billion annually. There's a 10k run/walk and a website: www.texasroundup.org.
• We promised to be low-key and not to alert the paparazzi, but White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan is getting married over the weekend to Jill Martinez, in Austin. Comptroller Strayhorn is the mother of the groom.
Political People and Their Moves
The new chair of the Texas Federation of Republican Women is Taffy Goldsmith of Dallas, who led a ticket of moderates who almost swept that group's elections and beat back a group backed by allies of Gov. Rick Perry. Goldsmith is a long-time GOP activist and is vice chair of the Dallas County Republican Party...
Danny Payne will be the new honcho at the Texas Savings and Loan Commission. He's an Austin banker and has been in the bank and thrift business for thirty years — part of it as an employee of the agency he'll now be running. He takes the job in January, the same month that a new regulation requires mortgage banking companies in the state to register with the commission...
Erin Mayton leaves the Texas Trial Lawyers Association for the American Trial Lawyers Association, where she'll be working in communications. She worked on Democrat Kirk Watson's campaign for AG last year, and is an alum of the Ann Richards operation...
Adam Goldman, who worked for George W. Bush both in the White House and in the governor's office, is returning to Austin to work for Public Strategies. He'd most recently been at the Electronics Industry Alliance in Washington, D.C...
Appointments: Jim Oberwetter, who's been the vice president over politics and government relations at Hunt Oil Co. in Dallas for years, may be on his way to Saudi Arabia. Oberwetter is George W. Bush's pick for U.S. Ambassador to that country. Oberwetter, a former press secretary to a congressman named George H.W. Bush, has been at Hunt Oil for three decades.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission gets two new board members named by Gov. Perry: John Parker of Lufkin, who heads the Trans-Texas Homes Corp. (a homebuilding company), and J. Robert Brown of El Paso, who runs Desert Eagle Distributing, a beer distributorship. Brown headed the board of regents at Texas Tech University. While he was at it, Perry named Joseph Fitzsimons of San Antonio, who was already on that board, as its presiding officer. He's a rancher and attorney...
Jay Kimbrough is moving back to the governor's office as Director of Homeland Security, coordinating state, local and federal agencies working on security issues in Texas. He's been doing essentially that at the attorney general's office. Kimbrough was previously the head of the Guv's criminal justice division, and before that, was county judge in Bee County...
Appointments, Higher Education Division: Gov. Perry reappointed Robert Shepard of Harlingen to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and made Shepard the vice chairman. He's in the insurance bidness...
Perry named John Barnhill Jr. of Brenham to the University of Texas Board of Regents. He's an exec with Blue Bell Creameries and a past president of the Texas Exes...
Bernie Francis of Carrollton and John Dudley of Comanche will join the Texas State University System Board of Regents, which oversees nine schools around the state. Francis owns and runs a couple of companies and is a former city council member. Dudley is a partner in a family ranching operation and is on the executive committee of the National Cattleman's Beef Association. Neither is an alum of the colleges in that system...
L.F. "Rick" Francis of El Paso and J. Frank Miller III of Dallas will join the Texas Tech University Board of Regents. Francis runs several companies that manage his family's investments. Miller is CEO of JPI, an apartment development company. Both went to Tech...
Quotes of the Week
Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, asked at his resignation announcement whether he had any hard feelings about the conflicts with fellow Republicans that marked the last few months of his 15 years in office: "This experience has been so wonderful, so gratifying, so exciting, so self-fulfilling that I refuse to leave on a negative note. I will not do so."
Later, asked what he thought about all the people who came to see him off: "You know, people gather at a car wreck."
Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, telling Texas Monthly about her relationships with the Guv, the Lite Guv and the Speaker: "I think that if they had me back for breakfast, I'd take a taster."
Jonah Seiger, a visiting fellow at George Washington University, telling The New York Times that groups that lose political fights sometimes find a binding experience in that: "One of the things that killed the civil rights movement was getting what they asked for."
Texas Weekly: Volume 20, Issue 23, 24 November 2003. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2003 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.