If he didn't have his hands full already, state Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, got hit with an ad campaign from a conservative third-party group called Americans for Job Security, blasting a proposal he made that would have broadened sales taxes in Texas (while cutting local school property taxes around the state). The ads don't mention the property tax cut, but say the higher sales taxes would "mean fewer jobs around here."
Merritt is running for state Senate against former Tyler Mayor Kevin Eltife, a Republican, former State Sen. Paul Sadler, D-Henderson, and three others. The candidates themselves are running positive ads and sending out non-explosive mail, but the third parties are banging the cymbals. The three men are running a dot race, according to consultants in the contest, and any two of them could break out and make it into a runoff after next Tuesday's special election to replace former Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant.
The AJS radio commercials also blast Merritt himself, saying he has only passed eight bills during his time in the Legislature and that he doesn't hold any leadership positions in the House. They include lines like "Tommy Merritt can't get anything done," and "Merritt: Stupid bills and higher taxes," but the people running them say they're not campaigning against Merritt or on behalf of others.
That group started in 1997 with money from insurance companies and others, and Dave Carney, who is also one of Gov. Rick Perry's top political consultants, runs it. Perry is siding with Eltife in this race, and two of his other consultants — ad man David Weeks and pollster Mike Baselice — are working on Eltife's campaign. One of Carney's partners in Austin — Reggie Bashur — was one of several hosts for an Eltife fundraiser in Austin, where Perry announced his endorsement of Merritt's chief Republican opponent. Carney himself isn't working on the campaign, and he says his connections to Perry, to Americans for Job Security and, indirectly, to Eltife, are coincidental.
Fodder for Prosecutors
The ads prompted Campaigns for People — a campaign finance reform group based in Austin — to complain to prosecutors about the use of corporate money to influence the election. Their complaint is that Americans for Job Security is doing the same thing that got prosecutors interested in the Texas Association of Business; corporate money is being used, in their view, to influence the outcome of an election. Not so, says Carney. He says the group is using the SD-1 race in Texas to "educate other politicians around the country" about the dangers of tax bills like the one the group is using to gore Merritt. The reasoning, according to Carney, is that politicians everywhere watch contested races and that groups like his use that attention to throw in issues they care about and that they want the other politicians to see in action. The idea, he maintains, is simply to bring attention to the policy idea. It's not explicitly against Merritt and isn't designed, Carney says, to beat him or help the other candidates.
Carney won't disclose the contributors behind AJS, but says some of them are corporations and says they've run ads in contests in 17 other states. The Travis County District Attorney got the complaint and is gathering up paper and copies of the ads and such to decide whether the complaint is worth pursuing. Their work on the other case, which also involves a political fund called Texans for a Republican Majority, or TRM-PAC, is still rolling. The grand jury hearing that case is empanelled through March, and if the DA wants to do something with these new ads, those jurists are supposedly up to speed on the laws involved.
Attacks Without Authors
All of the negative advertising in that East Texas contest is coming from third parties that most voters won't attach to any of the candidates. Texans for Lawsuit Reform has been running a high-dollar campaign attacking Sadler, a trial lawyer who is as clear an enemy as that group will ever get in a political campaign. He's just the kind of guy they rail against, and they're going all out.
One TLR mailer attacks Sadler for his votes on a law restricting absentee voting by Texans who are serving in the Armed Forces overseas. The ads say Sadler tried to deny soldiers the right to vote while they're serving — a nasty shot when troops are fighting a war. Sadler's defenders say the law that passed just requires soldiers to register in a particular way and say George W. Bush, then the governor, signed it. A TLR spokesman says the group is using a political action committee to pay for the ads, and that no corporate money is being used.
And the Texas State Teachers Association ad we described last week — defending Sadler against attacks from TLR and using video clips of Bush, Rick Perry and former Sen. Bill Ratliff saying nice things about the Democrat continues to run. Their funding, likewise, is from a state PAC that doesn't take corporate funds.
Even though they're getting a boost from third parties, the candidates are spending sacks of money. In the latest report, Sadler reported spending $557,888 and Eltife spent $434,293. Merritt, by contrast, spent only $63,790. Sadler's big donors included some of the biggest trial lawyer firms in the state, while Eltife's included some of their biggest foes in homebuilding and other businesses.
Preparing for a Runoff
Sadler is the only Democrat running in SD-1, and he's got to get a certain percentage of the vote in the first round to be considered viable in the second round. Just what that magic number is depends on which consultant you're talking to. Republicans, and a fair number of Democrats, say he needs to finish in the mid- to upper-40s and at a minimum, above 40 percent of the vote. His own folks say they'll be happy as long as he's in the runoff and gets more than 30 percent. Most of the handicappers in the race think Sadler will make the runoff against one of the two well-financed Republicans, but they — this includes people from both sides of the fence — also continue to describe SD-1 as a three-way race between Sadler, Eltife and Merritt.
In a regular runoff, each candidate tries to keep what they've got and get enough of what's left to reach 50 percent. In a runoff in SD-1, Sadler will be trying to get votes from people who already voted for a Republican in the first round in order to reach 50 percent. That'll be easier for the other guy — whether it's Eltife or Merritt — because they'll have something in common with those unattached voters. On a partisan basis, Sadler won't.
If the pool of voters is the same in the first heat and in the runoff, he'll have to attract voters on some other basis, like geographic preference or on the basis of some particular issue that would convince someone to go with the Democrat now that their favorite Republican is out of the running.
The pool of voters could change, though, with more people voting in the runoff than in this first round. Grizzled veteran types say that happened when Jim Chapman ran for Congress the first time, and when Richard Anderson ran his first race for state Senate. New voters could come from either party, and would open some other possibilities.
Texas officeholders and candidates now have to report how much cash they've got, in addition to donations and spending, and here's a quick list of the first pile of results: Gov. Rick Perry, $3.3 million; Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, $411,974; House Speaker Tom Craddick, $1.97 million; Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, $2.7 million; Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs, $407,574; Railroad Commissioner Victor Carrillo, $502,000.
We're not spilling anybody's polling beans (we would if we had them, though), but don't be surprised to see a surprisingly good performance from Elaine King Miller. It's a Republican district, and Miller, who is Black, is the only minority and the only female on a special election ballot packed with white men from the Republican Party. She's running no paid advertising and no serious version of a modern Senate campaign. But there's at least an outside chance you'll see her in the next round.
Party affiliations are listed on special election ballots, and although it's a Republican district, it's still got a few Democrats in it. Miller is the only Democrat on the ballot. Democratic candidates got trounced in statewide elections in the district in 2002, but most managed to get one-fourth or more of the votes even while they were losing. On the high end, Democrat John Sharp got 47,664 votes, or 32.8 percent, against Republican David Dewhurst in the lieutenant governor's race, and on the low end, Marty Akins got 27,713 votes, or 19.2 percent, against Republican Carole Keeton Strayhorn (then running as Rylander) in the race for comptroller of public accounts.
The special election for Senate has four candidates running well-financed campaigns, and anybody who can pull 25 percent of the vote will be in the hunt for a spot in a runoff election. Miller isn't spending any money, but if the Democratic voters show up and vote against the Republicans, she'll do better than some of the fancy-pants consultants expect. If she pulls a significant number of votes, the beneficiary could be former Amarillo Mayor Kel Seliger. If he and Miller made a runoff, he'd be the only Republican running in a strongly Republican district. If he and one of the Republicans from the southern end of the district were in the runoff, Panhandle Democrats who showed up would probably stick with the local guy against someone from Midland or Odessa.
Now that you've heard the lark, here's the conventional wisdom: Voters don't show up in special elections unless they're showing support for a candidate, and Democrats don't have any particular reason to get off the sofa for this one. There are no other issues or races on the ballot, so they don't have a motivation. In that interpretation, the Democrat won't get many votes, and Midland or Odessa will elect a candidate for a runoff against the Panhandle's guy.
Don Sparks, Bob Barnes and Kirk Edwards continue to slug it out for the other spot on the runoff ballot, and though none has established a clear lead, Midland County has more voters than Ector County and Sparks is the only candidate from Midland. With little to differentiate the candidates, geography could tilt it his way.
Now That the Map is Drawn...
U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, D-Dallas, has decided to run in CD-32 against U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas. Frost's district got chopped up in redistricting and he basically got his pick of three bad choices. In CD-24, he'd face state Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Carrollton, in a district where statewide Republicans got an average of two-thirds of the votes in 2002. In CD-6, incumbent U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis had a district where 64.1 percent voted for the statewide Republicans, on average. Sessions' district isn't any better, on paper, with 64.3 percent of the voters, on average, voting for GOP statewides in 2002. About one-fifth of Frost's old district is in Sessions' new one, but it includes North Oak Cliff, where Frost lived and first got elected before moving to Arlington. Irony department: Sessions swapped districts two years ago, giving himself an easier ride than he was getting in a more spread-out and more partisan district on the east end of Dallas. Now that district is safely in the hands of Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas, and Sessions has to face one of the country's top Democrats for reelection.
• U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Abilene, will run in the district that includes Lubbock and not in the one that includes Midland. That means he'll face U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, in November in a district that's solidly Republican on paper. Neugebauer got into office after a special election last year, and Stenholm will be proclaiming experience and tenure while Neugebauer will be able to say he's a vote for George W. Bush. Stenholm's farm is in one district and his home is in another and he briefly sat on the fence before choosing to run in CD-19.
... The Delegation Begins its Upheaval
Midland Republican Michael Conaway might squeak in without the kind of well-funded competition his supporters feared. Conaway lost that special election to Neugebauer last year, but House Speaker Tom Craddick made a Midland district his price for pushing congressional redistricting. The district stretches into the Hill Country west of Austin and San Antonio, and there were some concerns in the Conaway camp that someone from there or from San Angelo would jump into the contest. At our deadline, only Bill Lester, a professor from Brownwood, had signed up. San Angelo candidates who'd been out kicking the tires — including a former aide to Stenholm — evidently decided not to make the race.
• As expected, Houston Democrat Chris Bell will try to hang onto his spot in Congress by moving from his now-cut-up district into a more temperate zone. Bell's running in CD-9, where he'll face Al Green, who's been a Justice of the Peace. That's an African-American district; Green is Black and Bell is White. Attorney Arlette Molina and "A" Hassan — the quotation marks are the way he signed up — are the only Republicans in that contest so far.
• Add Dot Snyder — she was expected — and Dave McIntyre of College Station — he wasn't — to the GOP ballot in CD-11. Snyder is a rancher and former Waco school board president who's been working on this for several months. McIntyre describes himself as a national strategy consultant and is so far the only candidate from the southern end of the district to get into the contest. State Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson, has that same distinction on the northern end of the district. U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, will face the winner in November.
• CD-1 had drawn four Republican hopefuls by the time we went to press, but U.S. Rep. Max Sandlin, D-Marshall, still hadn't officially picked a contest. He can run there or in CD-4, where U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall of Rockwall is running. Hall was a Democrat until the new maps came out; now he's a Republican with a primary opponent in Mike Mosher of Paris. The Republicans running in CD-1 include state Rep. Wayne Christian of Center, former judge Louis Gohmert of Tyler, Emily Matthews of San Augustine, a consultant, and Lyle Thorstenson, an ophthalmologist from Nacogdoches.
• The Republican race for CD-10, which runs from Houston to Austin, will be crowded for the next two months. Signed up with one day to run before the deadline: John Devine, a Tomball attorney; Pat Elliott of Brenham, a retired airline pilot who now is a bison rancher; sports consultant John Kelley of Houston; attorney Michael McCaul of Austin, who quit the U.S. Attorney's office to make this race; attorney and rancher Dave Phillips of Cypress; and Ben Streusand, a businessman from Spring. Streusand has already spent $350,000, which apparently triggers an exception to campaign finance laws that raises the individual donor limits for the other candidates in the race. Expect to see that in the fundraising letters from others in the race.
Bikers & Appointments of the Future
Shirley Neeley, the highly regarded superintendent of the Galena Park school district, is the state's new Commissioner of Education. Since taking over in 1995, Neeley turned the district into one of the best in the state, based on test scores and peer comparisons. It's the largest district in the state with an "exemplary" rating. She's an accountability fanatic who told principals to get their schools out of the low-performing range in three years or lose their jobs; no schools in her district have that ranking anymore...
Public Utility Commission chairman Rebecca Klein is resigning to move to Washington, D.C., where her husband works in the Bush Administration. Perry hasn't named a replacement to that post. Klein is the third departure in as many years and that agency is up for Sunset Commission review this year.
A Friendly Wager
If Texas voters open the doors for video lottery terminals — VLTs, for short — the three Indian tribes with reservations here would be allowed to open their own VLT operations. That's the way the federal law works on these things: If the state allows it, the tribes can run their own shows. But the tribes — the Tiguas in El Paso, the Kickapoos in Eagle Pass, and the Alabama Coushattas in East Texas — could crank up their own machines. The money gambled there would go to the tribes and not to the state, so Gov. Rick Perry sent his chief of staff, Mike Toomey, to open talks with the three tribes late last year. No telling what'll happen, but the state is trying to sell the three tribes on an agreement that would give the state some of the money from Indian gaming if voters approve.
The pitch, in essence: The state will make a run at a constitutional amendment allowing VLTs, but only if the tribes will agree that the state would get some of the money from VLTs operated by the Indians. Everybody gets something, and the Indian games don't steal customers from the state machines, and vice-versa. A thousand caveats: This is in the early stages; nobody's agreed even to the general idea; all they're doing is talking; etc., etc., etc.
One sticking point in the talks: There is a legal distinction between a compact between the state and a sovereign nation — the tribes are so described in federal law — and a contract between the two. And the lawyers are looking to see which would be easiest to execute while the political advisors to the governor are looking at which would be easier to deny. Compacts, by some accounts, have to be signed by the governor his own self. Contracts don't. A governor who wants a little bit of space between himself and gambling might want someone else to sign.
Along those same lines: Governors, you'll remember, don't sign constitutional amendments. Those are passed by the House and Senate and sent straight to voters. It would be possible, in other words, to make a major addition to gambling in Texas — even with side agreements with the tribes — without a direct fingerprint on the guy whose office is engineering the deal. That's important to some of the people who vote in Republican primaries, and that's why the political advisors are talking.
Gov. Rick Perry opened a can of sauerkraut when he told reporters that public school finance should be a zero-sum game with no new money going into the system. After a weekend of hearing about it, he "clarified" his position and said he meant no new money should be poured into the system without being tied in some way to improvements in public school education. That was enough to lower the volume of the grumbling without stamping it out altogether. Perry allowed for growth in enrollment; that's an increase in spending that's tied to body counts and not to excellence, and he wasn't talking about that when he talked about limits on new spending. But he left out a big chunk of change — as much as $2.5 billion per biennium, if you include local costs along with state costs.
School finance fixes usually include a "hold harmless" provision that says, basically, no school district will actually lose money when the formulas are changed by the Legislature. That's always there because it's the only way to win the votes of the lawmakers whose districts would lose money if subsidies to their poor districts were cut off. The hold harmless deals fill those holes and give the lawmakers one less reason to vote against a change. Estimates of the cost range from about $800 million a year — that's the state's share alone — to about $1.3 billion annually, which includes local costs. It's an example of new money not now in the system, not related to performance of the schools, which would probably be added to the tab to get a school finance bill through the Lege.
And even if the hold harmless provisions are added, school districts would squawk at a change that simply kills Robin Hood, fills the poor district gaps and lets the richer districts keep the money they've been shipping to the poor districts. Their problem: That change increases the financial disparity between wealthier and poorer public schools. The poor districts would get what they have now while the rich districts would get their current budgets plus the money they've been sending to the poor. For the wealthy districts, that amounts to a boost of around $2,000 per student.
Political People and Their Moves
James Taylor, a managing director at Public Strategies and one of the original partners there, is leaving to start his own company, concentrating on Hispanic markets. Taylor is the second early player at PSI to leave in the last few weeks; Blaine Bull left at the end of the year to form his own marketing venture in Austin. Taylor has been PSI's conduit to the Mexican government and to business clients in that country...
Susan Baubach Ross is leaving the Texas Dental Association and hanging out her own shingle. Her first client? The Texas Dental Association. Ross, a former Senate staffer and freelance lobbyist, has been at TDA through the last two regular legislative sessions...
Former Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, is trading in his political running shoes for tasseled loafers: He'll be lobbying for the Ratliff Group, formed by his son, Thomas Ratliff, Ron Hinkle, and the former senator. The two younger men already have lobby clients of their own, including AT&T and Microsoft. Sen. Ratliff says he hasn't talked to any prospective clients and will see how busy he'll be by the number of people who show some interest now that he's out. "I don't expect to pound too many hallways... [His partners] will do most of the legwork, and I'll do mostly consulting."... After 25 years at the Texas Water Development Board, Leonard Olson is out of government; he's signed on with Good Company Associates, a lobbying and consulting firm...
The Texas Democratic Party's spokesman, Sean Michael Byrne, is leaving at the end of the month to go to Washington, D.C., where he hopes to go to law school and continue working in politics. Byrne got the job under the previous chairman, Molly Beth Malcolm. The new guy at the top, Charles Soechting, hasn't named a new spokesman...
Lisa Minton is the new chief of staff to Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs, replacing Lisa Woods, who moved out of state. Minton had been at the comptroller's office working for Carole Keeton Strayhorn; Combs has expressed an interest in running for comptroller if it's open, or possibly for U.S. Senate or lieutenant governor should those become available. Minton started at the comptroller's office in 1988, with a three-year break starting in 1995, when she worked for the Legislative Budget Board...
Quotes of the Week
Gov. Rick Perry, on school finance: "Do we need a bigger pie? The answer is no. I think our goal is to find a way for schools to be better, more efficient, more effective, and to give the taxpayers of the state of Texas a more balanced way to fund public schools."
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a day later in the Houston Chronicle: "If we are going to succeed in providing our children with the very best education possible and hold on to our good teachers, increasing resources and providing new money for our public schools must be combined with accountability and performance."
Perry, at a press conference a couple of days later: "I’m not convinced we need to put new dollars into school funding formulas beyond what it costs to keep up with enrollment growth. But I have not ruled out new dollars for our schools. I would like to see any new dollars that are available for education used to fund results-oriented performance incentives."
Highland Park school board president John Carpenter, in a letter to Perry quoted by the Dallas Morning News: "I invite you and your staff to come to our district to review our budget and operations. Show me where we can make additional cuts in our budget and continue to raise student achievement. I do not believe it is possible."
Dennis Kucinich, in a National Public Radio debate whose moderator pointed out that his pie chart challenging Howard Dean couldn't be seen on the radio: "Well, it's effective if Howard can see it."
U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, in a Dallas Morning News story on the relatively small number of women in Congress: "I need a wife. You know, you need somebody to do for you what the wives do for the men — help you get your things to the cleaners."
Dave McIntyre of College Station, who's running against two other Republicans for a chance to challenge U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, quoted in the Waco Tribune-Herald: "You campaign about 20 hours a day, and the other four hours, you can't sleep."
Texas Weekly: Volume 20, Issue 29, 19 January 2004. 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.