Robby Cook III, one of several conservative Democrats living in GOP-targeted statehouse districts, was on the verge of a party switch when he decided late last week not to run for reelection. The Eagle Lake farmer, who's been a House member since 1997, is clearly conflicted about his partisan affiliations at the moment. He says he's out of sync with his own party's liberals, but also didn't like what the GOP's congressional redistricting maps do to rural Texas.
Several Republican honchos — apparently including the governor — had planned to be on hand for Cook's party-switch announcement. He'll hold fire for now, but says he loves public service and doesn't want to put a permanent seal on his decision. He might be back someday.
Cook is one of several House Democrats from conservative districts who got caught in this year's partisan crossfire. Republicans targeted a number of incumbents in last year's elections, and while they won a handy majority in the House, with 88 of 150 seats, they didn't knock off everyone on their list.
Those Democrats might not have attracted attention in this round, but for congressional redistricting. It split lawmakers along partisan and geographic lines and put rural Anglo Democrats, in particular, in a bind. The congressional maps were as hard on rural Texas as the census numbers: People are moving to the suburbs and the political power is moving with them. On that score, the rural Democrats were safe voting against the new maps.
But standing on the partisan ground was rougher work. Most of the legislators in this category represent conservative districts where people voted for George W. Bush and Rick Perry and John Cornyn. They wouldn't be in target districts if they were safe voting against Republicans. And when the House Democrats bolted for Ardmore, the Republicans had ammunition. The Robby Cooks of the state were stuck between protecting their districts and honoring the politics of the people who live in those districts. Retiring might have been the easiest way to head it off.
Had Cook made a switch, he might still have had trouble. He'd have been running in a Republican primary for the first time, and any opponent could step forward with a line about Ardmore and take the Republican voters right out of the newcomer's hand. Party-switching is tricky work, and Republicans, with their easy majority in the House, don't have the same incentives to take care of their converts as they did when every new vote was dear. But in his case, they have a shot at what they wanted: It's a swing district, and there is no incumbent Democrat in their way.
Cook wasn't alone in the fish barrel, and the shooting isn't over. Other Democrats who went to Ardmore and who live in districts where Republicans are numerous include Dan Ellis of Livingston, David Farabee of Wichita Falls, Mark Homer of Paris, Chuck Hopson of Jacksonville, Pete Laney of Hale Center, John Mabry of Waco, Jim McReynolds of Lufkin, Allan Ritter of Nederland, Patrick Rose of Dripping Springs, and Barry Telford of DeKalb. Telford has already said he won't run again — although he and others in that district think the Democrats have a good chance of keeping it. Hopson removed himself from the fire by declaring he'll seek reelection as a Democrat. Laney, a former speaker of the House, is probably safe as long as he wants the seat.
The rest will almost certainly have Republican opponents and many of them have listened to overtures of party-switching since the regular legislative session ended. The Republicans have some good examples to show them, starting with a governor who was a Democrat until 14 years ago and a comptroller who switched in the mid-1980s.
The Next Big Thing
Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, is kicking tires and calling supporters about a run for the Texas Senate, but he says he's "focusing on the reelection race to the House" and hasn't made a final call on the Senate seat left open by the resignation of Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant. Former Tyler Mayor Kevin Eltife is already running full-speed, and former Rep. Paul Sadler, D-Henderson, said last week he plans to be on the special election ballot. Merritt says he's waiting to see what kind of support he would have, and when the election will be held.
Gov. Rick Perry has the leeway to set a date anytime between Christmas and the first week of February, or he can wait and let the election fall on the next appropriate uniform election date. For this sort of election, that's on May 15. Chances are that he'll want to fill the seat before an expected special session in April, but don't bet the whole farm. Perry and his aides might be watching likely votes from the Senate candidates on other issues — like limits on asbestos lawsuits, say — and if it looks like a new senator could tip those other issues, there might be cause for an earlier or a later election.
The district is a tossup, according to Ratliff and others who've looked at it. Democrats dominate local offices, but district voters chose statewide Republicans in every race in the 2002 elections. Democratic primaries draw much bigger crowds than GOP primaries in the district — almost twice as many voters go see the donkeys instead of the elephants. That's attributable in large part to those local contests. But the voters on Election Day have hopscotched between Republicans they like and Democrats they like for years. Geography is important, too. Tyler and Longview have a long-standing sibling rivalry, and a runoff could hinge on whether the rest of the district wants to vote for a Tyler candidate from either party.
The regular primaries for statehouse seats will be held on March 2, and filing for those races will end in the first week of January. If Perry were to set the special election date before the end of the calendar year, Merritt could run for Senate before he has to make the call on whether to seek reelection to the House. If he lost in the first round, he could turn around and run for his House seat. If the special election is after the filing for regular elections is done, Merritt could run for Senate and the House concurrently.
Sidebar: Political consultant Bryan Eppstein of Fort Worth says his firm won't be working for either Eltife or Merritt in the Senate race, because both men have been clients and he doesn't want to use what he's learned as either man's consultant against them in a contest. If one drops out, all bets are off, but Eppstein says he won't work the race as long as both men are in it. He will work on Merritt's reelection bid to the House, however, and Eppstein says both of the Republicans have agreed to add the firm to the consulting ranks if only one of them makes it into a runoff.
Add Robert Benton of San Angelo to the list of possible candidates for the new congressional seat that stretches from West Texas into the Hill Country. He's a native who left to go to school and to be a New York lawyer before coming back almost two years ago to work for U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Abilene. The new district was drawn to favor a Midland Republican, but about four-fifths of its population is carved out of Stenholm's existing district, and Benton worked that territory for his boss through the last election cycle.
• The Texas Christian Coalition is exhorting its members to become precinct chairs, the better to influence elections from the grassroots level, which is, after all, how this stuff is designed to work. They make an unusual pitch, though, telling members "your Jerusalem is your voting precinct" and the model for action is what the disciples did on the evangelism front. That lesson? "Start with your home base." They proceed to tell them how to file, to make sure a "committed conservative pro-life Christian" is in every contest, and to report back once they've got candidates.
DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS: The Texas Supreme Court Justice mentioned here last week doesn't spell her name the way we spelled it. She spells it Harriet O'Neill. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
Speculation that Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, will be getting a federal gig has prompted yet another gubernatorial appointee to give up his post to prepare for a Senate race.
President George W. Bush is expected to nominate Bivins to be the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden. That hasn't happened yet, but the feds have been around the Capitol and other haunts to do the background check on Bivins that would precede the appointment.
Now, Bob Barnes of Odessa is resigning from the Texas Motor Vehicle Commission — he's the chairman — to get ready for the Senate run should the ambassadorship come through and prompt Bivins to resign. Barnes, a restaurateur, wants to try to win the district from the South. The numbers appear to favor Amarillo and the Panhandle over Midland-Odessa and the Permian Basin, but anything can happen in a special election. If the Swedish gig comes through, former Amarillo Mayor Kel Seliger has also said he'd be interested in the race. He recently gave up his appointment to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to get ready for the contingency.
Timing could make this easy or difficult for other candidates. State House members — current and former — in Bivins' district might be interested. Bivins is up for reelection himself next year. If he were to win a nomination before the filing deadline, he'd have to decide whether to drop out of the statehouse or to wait for U.S. Senate confirmation first. It's possible that there would be a regular election for an open SD-31 seat in March. It's also possible that Bivins will keep running until the federal posting is a certainty. That could allow current House members to run in a no-risk special election, giving up their current jobs only if voters give them the promotion.
A Wide Selection of Red Meat
The ballot-tinkering that's been underway in Republican primaries for the last few elections is in full flower. The GOP has added non-binding initiatives to its ballot a few times, partly to get a sense of where people stand but mainly to draw people to the polls in what might otherwise be low-attendance election. The State Republican Executive Committee will decide in the first week of December whether to add a ballot measure to the March ticket.
They tabled one supporting limits on property tax increases in September, but it could come back up. There are variations, but the general idea is a call for a cap on annual increases in appraisals of residential properties. In some versions, business properties are included and in some versions they're not. The cap is usually at five percent, but some proposals (this was an issue during the regular legislative session earlier this year) have it at seven percent.
The SREC got a first peek at the issue in September, but put off consideration until next week. Party officials in Austin say they don't know what else might come up, because nobody's asked them to help put a resolution together. Property taxes aren't the only item being discussed: Galveston County's commissioners passed a resolution declaiming unfunded mandates from the state government, and there could be an attempt to let all Republicans — and Democrats, too — comment on that.
Texas counties are riled about changes in state programs — health care insurance is an example — that leave few people covered by the state and put greater responsibility on the counties. County hospitals, for instance, have to take indigent patients whether those people are covered or not. When the state cuts coverage, the costs shift to the counties (as well as to other hospitals where indigents are treated). The counties want the state to knock it off, and local Republicans in some parts of the state are talking about bringing that issue to a wider audience.
SREC members don't have to ask permission, or give anybody a warning that they're going to propose ballot measures, and any hot issue could come up as a suggestion, from civil unions for gay and lesbian couples to tuition deregulation. Hide and watch.
Republican political consultants tell us that the ballot measures don't do much but make base voters happy; they don't drive turnout and they're not really taken to heart by candidates. But they do make the newspapers and, sometimes, TV, signaling other voters about GOP stands on issues.
The Easy Way and the Hard Way
Add Houston to the growing list of school districts suing the state over its school finance system. Dallas joined the suit earlier; most of the state's largest districts have agreed to go to court. That won't go to trial, at the earliest, before next summer, but many of the school districts signing up have said they're doing so to show the Legislature they're serious about the problems they've got paying for education under the system now in place.
The state puts in about 40 cents of every dollar spent on public education, and local districts — funded mainly by property taxes — have to pick up the rest. They're bumping their heads on the tax ceiling the state put in place, and now are looking to the courts for a solution.
Lawmakers plan to meet in April in a special session (which Gov. Rick Perry has said he'll call when the solutions are more or less clear) to try to patch or replace the current system. They're waiting on a study that's supposed to show what it actually costs to educate a Texas student and simultaneously fishing for a package of taxes, fees and other revenue producers that would pay for whatever solution they select. That array of choices runs from big solutions, like replacing the roughly $15 billion spent locally with state funds — to little ones, like increasing state funding by $2 billion to $3 billion to temporarily stave off the crisis developing in the current finance system.
The schools want be ready if they don't like what happens next spring — either because nothing gets enacted or because what gets enacted doesn't solve their problems. The lawsuits keep the heat on lawmakers, but not as much as you might think. The Texas Legislature has "solved" school finance several times before, and never because of the threat of a lawsuit. The repairs have always resulted after the lawsuits had been won and the courts were threatening to act if the Legislature didn't do so.
Teachers, Fast Food, Dropouts, and Report Cards
The State Board of Education will get a crack at the new teacher certification rules approved by the State Board for Educator Certification. The rules have alarmed teacher groups because they allow uncertified teachers in classrooms for up to two years before a decision is made on who to keep and who to cull; teacher organizations think the bar should be set higher. Proponents of the rules say the standards are high enough at the beginning and along the way to make sure children aren't shorted, but the teacher groups don't buy it. The SBOE has 90 days to look this over.
• Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs' enforcement of health food standards caught the attention of the Young Conservatives of Texas, a mostly campus-based group of rock-ribbed folks who think the Republican state official overstepped her authority by banning candy bars and other Foods of Minimal Nutritional Value. Combs has done a keynote speech for the group's state convention, but no matter: They're trying to get an official opinion on her authority in this area from Attorney General Greg Abbott, also a Republican. They say food in vending machines and sodas and other junk passed from student to student are outside of her legal reach.
• House Speaker Tom Craddick wants House members to poke and prod the methods used to measure dropouts from Texas public schools. He doesn't believe the numbers coming out of the current system (which said about 20,000 Texas public school students in grades 7 through 12 dropped out last year). That'll be done by a subcommittee of House Public Education, chaired by Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston. Their mission is to oversee the startup and operation of a new tracking system that tracks students and measures results from individual schools, districts and so on. They're also supposed to report on ways to improve graduation rates.
• The Texas Education Agency has posted the test scores and other data from the 2002-03 school year on its website (www.tea.state.TX.us/perfreport/aeis/2003/index.html) that show info from the state level down to the campus level on standardized tests taken by students.
Working the Umpires
The Democrats on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee fired off a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft asking him to keep his political appointees off the team that's doing a federal civil rights legal review of new congressional maps for Texas. The only Texas signature on the letter is from U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, who is on that committee.
The Justice Department is in the last weeks of its review of the maps (the deadline falls in the second week of December), and they might finish even as a federal panel takes up the lawsuits that followed the Legislature's approval of the new plans. Pre-clearance would put Texas Republicans one step closer to turning over the last stronghold of Texas Democrats. The congressional delegation has 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans; Republicans have all the statewide offices and majorities in both houses of the Texas Legislature.
The letter to Ashcroft pleads that DOJ's work should be "devoid of the barest hint of partisanship" and contends the map would dilute the voting strength of 3.6 million minorities in Texas. And it goes on to complain that redistricting reviews done by Ashcroft's staff in other states came up short, in the estimation of the Democrats. They knock the DOJ's August decision to clear the Senate's plan to abandon its the two-thirds rule during consideration of redistricting.
And they say the DOJ has abandoned a tradition of putting redistricting reviews under the control of a "career" attorney instead of letting political appointees handle it.
The redistricting case goes to trial before three federal judges in two weeks; some of the issues in the letter will get hashed out there. And DOJ might rule the maps aren't legal. A ruling either way would help the winners, but the federal lawyers don't make the final call: That belongs to the judges.
Flotsam & Jetsam
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst named Sens. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, and Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, to the Legislative Budget Board, which makes budget decisions when the full Legislature isn't in session (in normal years, that's most of the time). He also named Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, to the Legislative Audit Committee; Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, to the Texas Judicial Council; Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco to the Texas Water Advisory Council; and Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, to the Task Force on Indigent Defense.
• Gov. Rick Perry made another staff move, hiring Bill Noble as a senior advisor. Noble is a Californian who worked for USAA insurance and AAA Texas before joining a PR firm doing business with SBC. He also was the lead dog on the GOP's Victory 2002 sled, which campaigned for the whole Republican ticket, topped by John Cornyn and Perry. He'll move from San Antonio to Austin to help with communications, talk to groups around the state on the Guv's behalf and other chores.
• Keep watching Nate Crain if you're interested in internal GOP politics. He told us a couple of weeks ago that he's interested in keeping his job as Dallas County Republican Party chairman, and downplayed the possibility he'd run for state GOP chairman. But he's still calling around and talking to people, and friends and supporters say he's still interested in the state gig. Tina Benkiser was just elected to the post by the State Republican Executive Committee, but she got a stub term that ends at the state party convention early next summer. Benkiser has said she'll run for a full term then; it could be a contested race.
• CLEAT, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, named Lt. Gov. Dewhurst its "crime fighter of the year," citing his help with legislation that lets cops take blood samples from suspected drunk drivers involved in accidents that cause injuries.
• Up and Running: Ben Streusand, a Houston Republican running for Congress in the newly drawn CD-10, already has television ads in the can. Those weren't running as we went to press, but you can peek at them at his website: www.streusandforcongress.org. That district stretches from Houston to Austin and includes the residence of U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin. If the new maps win court approval, Doggett has said he'll run in another district that's more likely to elect a Democrat.
Political People and Their Moves
Blaine Bull, who runs the national division at Austin-based Public Strategies Inc., is leaving. Bull, who joined the firm 13 years ago after working for then-U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, says he's not sure what he'll be doing next, but says he'll remain in the public affairs business. Bull's worked with Jack Martin — PSI's founder — off and on for 22 years, and everybody we talked to described this as an amicable split...
Jane Boyle, the U.S. Attorney based in Dallas, is on her way up the ladder with a nomination to a federal judgeship from President George W. Bush. She got a recommendation from the state's U.S. senators a while back, and will replace Jerry Buchmeyer (who's taking senior status) on the bench if she's confirmed by the Senate...
Gov. Rick Perry named Bob McCoy of Fort Worth to the 2nd Court of Appeals, which hears appeals from courts in a dozen north Texas counties. He's been a state District Judge since 1995 and also teaches law at Texas Wesleyan University. If he wants to keep the job, he'll have to be on the ballot next year...
Perry named four people to the Texas Workforce Investment Council, reappointing two folks and finding two new ones. John Sylvester Jr., an executive with Linbeck Construction Co. in Houston, and R. Steve Dement of Pasadena, an instructor and officer of Pipe Fitters Local No. 211 in Pasadena, will stay on that board. Richard Giles Hatfield, a retired Delta Airlines captain from Austin, and Larry Jeffus, a textbook writer and air conditioning and refrigeration contractor from Garland, are new to it...
Leslie Tate is the new acting director of TexPAC, the political action committee affiliated with the Texas Medical Association. She's been in the number two spot there and also worked for the alliance of the state's medical trade groups...
Sheri Sanders, a legislative aide to Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, is leaving the Pink Building but not going far; she'll be a policy development attorney at the Public Utility Commission...
Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips appointed Justice George Hanks Jr. of the First District Court of Appeals in Houston to the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation. He replaces Scott Brister, who was appointed to the Supreme Court last week by Gov. Perry. Brister, appointed last Friday, was already sworn in. He'll run for election to the court on next year's ballot; so far, no other candidates have popped up on the radar screen for that contest...
Ailing: Former El Paso Mayor Carlos Ramirez, has been diagnosed with an untreatable, fatal brain disease, and resigned his post as commissioner of the International Boundary and Water Commission.
Quotes of the Week
Rice University President Malcolm Gillis, on adding race and ethnicity as admission criteria, in the Houston Chronicle: "Since 1996, we have tried race-neutral means, but these alone haven't yielded the necessary level of diversity, including racial and ethnic diversity, to achieve Rice's educational goals."
Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, talking to the Longview News-Journal about political maps: "Hispanics felt totally alienated by the redistricting process. When you run a district from Brownsville to Austin that's a half-county wide, I think what they saw was that their communities of interest were just obliterated... I think the Republicans just played right into the Democrats' hands as far as trying to (cultivate) the Hispanic vote."
Lowell McCuistion, superintendent of Douglass ISD, in the Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel: "If we are going to have state mandates, the state needs to provide enough money to fund them. If it takes a lawsuit to get them back to special session to correct the problem, then that is what we need to do."
Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, telling the Amarillo Globe-News about reports he'll be appointed U.S. Ambassador to Sweden: "The rumor mill is way ahead of the fact line."
Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, in a Dallas Morning News story on amateur boxing regulation: "The sole purpose of Toughman is to watch untrained people hurt each other for entertainment. I think someone who likes that might be a little sick in the head."
Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Mission, telling the Austin American-Statesman his reaction to rumors he will switch affiliations and join the GOP: "I don't have expensive enough suits."
Texas Weekly: Volume 20, Issue 24, 1 December 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.