Political parties always have shadow groups that more or less parallel their interests. Labor lines up with Democrats, mostly. Manufacturers line up with Republicans, for some of the same reasons, most of the time. That's just an example.
With one party in control of Texas politics and government, some of the fights that used to separate the parties now occur within the Republican Party. Two races at next week's GOP state convention — one for state chairman and one for the Texas female post (one for each gender, a rule that applies to both parties) — pit trial lawyers against people who've spent the last decade trying to change the laws that make trial lawyers rich. In some cases, the trial lawyers are Republicans. But the fact that they're trial lawyers at all makes some people fidget.
GOP Chair Tina Benkiser of Houston beat Gina Parker of Waco for the top spot in the party when Susan Weddington quit the job to work for a new foundation. Now that it's time to run for a full two-year term, Parker is back, and some of the tort reform community is trying to make sure she loses.
Benkiser is closer to Gov. Rick Perry — that was apparent in the first round — and Parker, a lawyer, has been branded by opponents as a trial lawyer, which in some Republican circles is harsher than questioning someone's ancestry. Her supporters claim she's got the party's grassroots on her side; Benkiser's supporters say the incumbent will win handily.
The other contest pits two devout conservatives — Denise McNamara and Cathie Adams — in a race for a spot on the Republican National Committee. McNamara, like Benkiser, has the endorsement of Texans for Lawsuit Reform. She's also done some endorsing, signing a letter with Tim Lambert of Lubbock touting Parker over Benkiser. Lambert is the out-going male rep from Texas on the RNC, a staunch conservative, and a proponent of the idea that his party may be making too much of its opposition to trial lawyers just for being trial lawyers.
Use Houston lawyer Mark Lanier as an example. A political oxymoron of a man, he belongs to the asbestos trial bar, to the anti-abortion movement, and to the conservative wing of the GOP. He appeared on the state scene last year with his appeal to conservatives to fight tort reform changes on the grounds that they would limit the liability of doctors who perform abortions and of the clinics where that's done. Now, when he turns up, TLR and other groups pounce. That sort of outside involvement makes this year's contests different. TLR put out press releases touting that group's support (technically, the support of its affiliated political action committee) for McNamara. Later, they voted to also endorse Benkiser in her bid against Parker.
The first endorsement was based on a mailer from a group called Asbestos Free Texas. That's a group fronted by Democratic consultant Kelly Fero, who says the backers are mostly lawyers and mostly from law firms that deal with asbestos cases. He says most are from plaintiffs firms, but says the group also includes some defense firms that might ordinarily be expected to side with the tort reformers who want to limit lawsuits based on asbestos exposure.
They recently mailed out a flyer that notes the support of the Texas Eagle Forum — headed by Adams — for a proposed platform resolution that says, in part, that "every Texan deserves the right to hold a person or company who knowingly harms accountable, and that tort reform should not mean infringing on the rights of individuals and relieving corporations..." The resolution says the law should give anyone "who has been knowingly exposed to asbestos and suffered damage the freedom to access courts at will."
Look Who's in Bed
Add in another bit: The mailer was prepared by Allyn & Co., a Dallas political and media consultancy that has done work for candidates from both parties, for gambling concerns in Louisiana that don't want Texas to compete with slot machines, and for trial lawyers trying to stave off more changes to tort laws in the state. Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, is also quoted in the mailers; he authored legislation last year that he said would limit asbestos suits in a way that wasn't harmful to victims; TLR and other groups accused him of fronting for asbestos litigators in Dallas, but didn't find anyone to challenge his reelection bid this year. The firm also set up a website — www.asbestosfreetexas.com — and did some television commercials for the group.
The same firm has been working the gambling angle at the convention, too. During the special legislative session on school finance, Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, circulated an anti-gaming letter with two dozen lawmakers' signatures that was written by the Allyn firm. It said, basically, that the signers would be against the slot machines proposed by Gov. Rick Perry as a way to finance cuts in local school property taxes and to increase spending for education.
The GOP has a platform plank opposing gambling, but party officials have remained quiet about it since the issue came up in legislative form. Lambert and long-time gaming opponent Weston Ware held a press conference — arranged by Allyn & Co. — opposing the slot machine proposal in general and in particular (they were against giving the licenses to racetracks without competitive bids, questioned the state's ability to quickly install and regulate the number of machines that would be required to raise the amount of money the governor wants to raise, and said the tracks don't have the expertise to manage the casinos that would result).
That winds back into the battle over the GOP chairmanship in a backhanded way, putting Benkiser between a platform that deplores gambling and an incumbent Republican governor who's trying to win legislative support for it. In comparison, Parker, with Lambert's endorsement and no GOP establishment ties to protect, has it easy.
If you want to be paranoid about it — and we're not saying that's an unreasonable position — you can see the trial lawyers behind the curtains trying to exploit fissures in the Texas Republican Party. And if you're opposed to the trial lawyers, as TLR is, that justifies getting into what would normally be an intramural fight of little import to anyone outside the GOP. They contend Adams is lined up with "personal injury plaintiffs lawyers who consistently fund the opponents of the GOP."
Lambert admits the alliances are weird, but says in the case of gambling that he's happy to join opponents without worrying about their motivations. And where some see tort fights behind the races, he sees what he calls the GOP establishment and the GOP grassroots, particularly in the race for chairman. TLR is backing the establishment favorite, he says: "This isn't about tort reform."
No Fire Under the Back Burner
Immediately isn't necessarily right away. The committees named to come up with a remedy to the state's school finance problem didn't get together right away and won't. They'll start meeting in the second and third weeks of June, killing at least one of the rumors about when a fifth special session might be held.
Chances of a quick turnaround and a fix before Independence Day now seem more remote. Political conventions of the national sort make July and August dates problematic, as does the plan for a court hearing on school finance August 9. We don't have any better idea than you do about when this'll happen, but we pass this along: Legislators are talking about how to get a constitutional amendment on the January ballot with a September special session.
And there's this: Constitutional amendment votes don't have to be on uniform election dates. Gov. Rick Perry said a couple of weeks ago that lawmakers would have to act by the end of August to get on the November ballot. But a September session, for instance, could put something on the ballot in December. And so on. You're now free to unfasten your seat belt and speculate throughout the cabin.
This Retirement Stuff is Really Popular
John Keel, head of the Legislative Budget Board for the last ten years, announced his retirement and said he'll leave the agency at the end of June. Keel, who took the job on April Fools Day 1994, said in a letter to legislative leaders that, as of this month, he qualifies for state retirement (and for a retirement bonus created by the Legislature to encourage long-term state workers to move on).
The LBB compiles and develops budget proposals each year that form the basis for the Legislature's budget work. It's second only to the comptroller's office in state government's financial hierarchy, and often acts at a foil to that executive branch outfit and its frequent head-butting contests with state lawmakers over the state's finances. It's also where lawmakers go for the fiscal notes that can make or doom legislation by estimating how much money an idea will cost, or how much money a tax or fee will bring in.
LBB also watches over agency spending once a budget is in place, and it recently added performance reviews to its bag of tricks. Legislators upset with Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn decided to take those biennial reviews away from her office and moved them to LBB. Performance reviews of public schools moved along to LBB, too, adding to the agency's powers and responsibilities.
On his way out, Keel offered high praise for the LBB staff and encouraged lawmakers to hang on to them. He also noted that he's the second Keel to hold the LBB reins — the first was Thomas Keel, his uncle — out of only four directors the agency has had. "Commitment to public service is the Keel legacy!" he wrote.
The head of the budget board is chosen by the LBB, a panel of lawmakers, the speaker of the House and the lieutenant governor. Some people who've been mentioned as possible replacements, in no particular order and without checking to see if they'd really want it: Mike Morrissey, Gov. Rick Perry's budget guy; Don Green, the budget guy for Speaker Tom Craddick; John Opperman, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's budgeteer; John O'Brien, Keel's deputy director; Dale Craymer, now with the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association; and Billy Hamilton, the state's deputy comptroller. The winner, if you want to call it that, will be at the helm for the agency's first performance reviews, a new budget that's not all that rosy, and for school finance, if and when lawmakers take it on.
David Cleavinger, a farmer from Wildorado, is mulling a run for Texas Agriculture Commission, the first Democrat whose name has crossed our threshold. Cleavinger, who's on the board at Texas Rural Communities and is a former chairman of the Texas Wheat Producers Association. He says it's too early to decide, but says several people have talked to him about it (and some of them called us) and says he's considering it. He's in no hurry: He says he's got a wheat crop to harvest and nothing in sight that would force him to say he's definitely in or out of the contest.
If he does get in, he says it'll partly be an effort to get new blood into Democratic politics, and mainly because he doesn't think rural Texas has as strong a voice as it should have in state politics. Cleavinger says redistricting — he contends it was particularly hard on rural parts of the state — is an example of what he's talking about.
If you're keeping score, add Cleavinger to a list that includes state Rep. David Swinford, R-Dumas (about 50 miles north and 20 miles east of Wildorado), who says he's definitely running, and Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, who says he's looking at it. Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, has also been mentioned: He recently said it's too early to be thinking about the race. The talk hit high gear when Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs said she's decided to leave that post and run for Comptroller of Public Accounts in 2006. She thinks that'll be an open seat race, with Carole Keeton Strayhorn moving on to run for something else.
Broke, and Broken
Thomas Chapmond, who took over the state's protective services agency two-and-a-half years ago, has decided to retire when he's eligible next fall. And Jason Cooke, whose purview includes Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, announced he'll leave the Health and Human Services Commission on June 11.
Chapmond's agency has been in hot grease for several weeks, following reports of abuse and neglect at adult care facilities in El Paso and a scathing special report from the comptroller that detailed substandard conditions and care at youth facilities in Texas.
He was named in late 2001 to head what was then the Department of Protective Services, later merged into HHSC and renamed the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. He started as a caseworker after college and worked his way up to head the 7,000-employee agency that regulates and investigates abuse and neglect of children, the elderly and disabled; foster care; adoption; and child care in the state. Chapmond told the San Antonio Express-News that he had intended to remain through Summer 2005. He told the paper he hadn't been forced out, but decided that now is a better time to leave.
The report from Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Forgotten Children, detailed conditions at "therapeutic" youth camps and other facilities for foster children and prompted the agency to tighten up its controls over those facilities, to increase oversight, and to raise standards for use of psychotropic drugs on foster kids. Then news broke on huge problems with adult protective services in El Paso, when a judge there issued a report deploring conditions for abused elders and raising questions about the state agencies level of care and diligence in those cases. Gov. Rick Perry ordered systemic reform.
Chapmond's boss HHS Commissioner Albert Hawkins, started an investigation and found a third of the protective services investigations were "insufficient," that mental illness went unaddressed almost half the time in cases that required it, that 30 percent of cases ended with uncompleted "service plans" for the clients; and that protective service people in El Paso often didn't step up contact with clients in severe cases of abuse or neglect. Hawkins now has the agency looking at other parts of the state to find out if abused adults also go wanting elsewhere. He's adding staff in El Paso, increasing training, moving a guardianship program out of FPS to eliminate conflicts of interest between that and agency investigations. Gov. Perry ordered a final report on that mess by November 1.
By comparison, the state's Medicaid and CHIP efforts seem almost smooth. But HHSC is battling deficits currently estimated at $600 million, primarily in Medicaid, and that'll dominate early budget talks when the Legislature meets next year. State HHS officials estimated how many people they'd be serving and how much money it would cost for lawmakers a year ago. But legislative budgeteers didn't like the answers they got, and HHS officials obliged them by lowering the estimates. At the time, they lowered their caseload and cost estimates, giving up more than $500 million they said they wouldn't need after all. Several lawmakers have pointed out that the hole in the budget starts at about that size, with add-ons for higher drug use rates (the legal kind) and costs. HHSC officials are still working to get hard numbers for lawmakers, but the current envelope-back number is $600 million.
Cooke, the agency's associate commissioner for Medicaid and CHIP is, like Chapmond, both highly regarded and in the hot box: He helped put CHIP together and got more than 300,000 kids on the insurance rolls within a relatively short period. But budget and program cuts ordered by lawmakers looking for savings in a consolidation of the state's biggest HHS agencies have produced drops in the number of kids eligible for the program, and forced cuts in staffing at the agency. Cooke, who survived some recent head rolling in the mid-level of the agency, announced his resignation Wednesday and said he'd be around in an advisory capacity for two more weeks.
Hawkins said Dave Balland, who works with HHSC's inspector general, will take Cook's job on an interim basis. Hawkins said the agency will begin a national search for a replacement for Chapmond, who got his job two years ago after a similar effort.
Home, Sweet Home
Redistricting prompted U.S. Rep. Martin Frost to sell his house in Arlington and to move to a condo he owns in the North Oak Cliff section of Dallas. Frost claimed a residence in that part of Dallas until his district was redrawn two years ago; he bought a house in Arlington and called that home. Now that he's running under a new set of lines, he sent out an announcement asking reporters to change him from D-Arlington back to D-Dallas, where he still owns a property.
His opponent, U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, switched two years ago from a district that represented part of Dallas and points East to one with a northwestern Dallas County center of gravity, but remained in the same house, a 3,200-square-foot house near White Rock Lake (details are from Dallas County property records). That house is close to the new district, but not close enough to let Sessions or his family vote for his reelection — their man in Washington, D.C., is U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas, who took over in CD-5 when Sessions decided he'd rather represent the smaller district next door. Frost's new spot is a 736-square-foot condo that he's owned for years. What he and his wife Kathryn gave up in Tarrant County, according to property records there, was more like Sessions' place: a 3,570-square-foot home near Riverside Golf Club.
Nosy? County appraisers say Sessions' house is worth $421,590. Frost's condo is on the property rolls for $51,550, and his Tarrant County house was worth $345,500, according to property appraisal records there.
Flotsam & Jetsam
U.S. Sen. John Edwards will speak at the Texas Democratic Party convention in Houston in two weeks, and they actually want him there. The last time the state Democrats met, in El Paso, gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez Jr. and lite gubernatorial candidate John Sharp kept national Democrats out of town — forcing Party officials to un-invite people who had already promised to be there. They didn't want the association with the nationals then. Now, with Edwards still in the running for the second spot on the national ballot — and without a ballot full of candidates nervous about the negative power of national Democrats in Texas — prominent speaking gigs are available.
Texas Republicans aren't announcing anything of the kind — though they're pointing out gleefully that Edwards is a trial lawyer and that Dallas trial lawyer Fred Baron is heading up fundraising for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. Two years ago, First Lady Laura Bush spoke to the Republicans; things like that are announced at the last minute when they happen at all, for scheduling and security reasons. The speakers to watch in San Antonio when the Republicans gather are Gov. Rick Perry and the two women often touted as potential rivals for his job in 2006: U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn.
• U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, asked the 4th Court of Appeals to have a look at his election contest against fellow Democrat Henry Cuellar of Laredo. At this point in the counting and recounting, Cuellar is the winner of the Democratic nomination. Rodriguez contends something fishy happened in two of the district's counties to turn the election Cuellar's way. So far, he's losing.
• BIPAC endorsed U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Abilene, over U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, in the November elections. The Business Industry PAC mostly sticks with Republicans, but Stenholm has been a good vote for them and they're sticking with him. The group took care not to say thing nasty about the opponent.
• Lobsters in 41 states spent $889 million working on legislators, according to the Center for Public Integrity, which tracks this stuff. In 40 states in the previous year, lobby spending hit $820 million. They had a hard time getting a straight year-to-year comparison because of different state reporting requirements. But they came up with this: 37 states have reporting requirements that are similar from year-to-year, and in 29 of those states, spending rose. Texas had an increase of more than 30 percent from 2002 to 2003, but you have to remember there was no legislative session in 2002. The whole report is online at www.publicintegrity.org.
Political People and Their Moves
Tony Alvarado, the executive director of the State Bar of Texas for the last nine years, is resigning in the middle of next month. Alvarado, who had a law practice in Laredo before taking over at the Bar, says he got the agency through its Sunset review and wants to move on to something new. The new officers there take over next month, and his departure will put them in position to pick a new boss...
Former Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, won Senate confirmation to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Sweden and that's on its way back to President George W. Bush for the last step. Here's a new bit: In a congratulatory announcement, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said Sweden is currently looking at Texas as a site for a new U.S. consulate office...
Speaking of Bivins, Adam Haynes is moving over to the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association, better known as TIPRO. Haynes worked for Bivins and remained in the Amarillo Senate office long enough to help freshman Sen. Kel Seliger through a first special session before leaving for the awl bidness. He replaces Martin Fleming, the TIPRO lobbyist who became the head honcho when Scott Anderson left...
Appointments: Gov. Rick Perry named Gloria "Gogi" Dickson of San Antonio to the Texas Youth Commission — the state prison system for juvenile criminals. She owns an education consulting company...
Perry named Todd Barth of Houston to the School Land Board. He's a lawyer and the president of Bowers Properties, an investment firm...
And he put Larry Jackson, a Temple homebuilder, on the Texas Military Facilities Commission, which builds and keeps up the buildings used by the Texas National Guard...
Deaths: Mary Alice Davis, who distinguished herself with a career-long demonstration on how to write and commit journalism during turns as a reporter for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times and then as an editorialist for the Austin American-Statesman, of cancer. She was 59.
Quotes of the Week
John Feehery, a spokesman for U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, quoted in the Washington Post: "It's extremely difficult to govern when you control all three branches of government."
Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey quoted in Salon on the path his fellow Republicans have taken in Washington: "We're letting the political hacks overrule the policy wonks in this town."
Smith County Commissioner Frank Sawyer, quoted in the Tyler Morning Telegraph on a vote to freeze county property taxes for the elderly: "I'm going to vote affirmative. But the lesson here is that it's time for the younger people to participate and to vote more. Someone is going to have to pay the difference here, and it's the younger people. That's the penalty of not voting."
Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, asked by the Dallas Morning News whether he'd make another run for U.S. Senate if Kay Bailey Hutchison decides not to seek reelection in 2006: "No, not me. I'm going to be on the golf course."
Jesse Ancira Jr., general counsel to Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, in a letter granting a tax exemption to a Unitarian church days after the agency denied it because that denomination doesn't require belief in a supreme being: "After reviewing the submitted application... it is my opinion that the Red River Unitarian Universalist Church is an organization created for religious purposes..."
Krista Tippett, founder of the public radio program Speaking of Faith, on what happens when religious issues come through political filters, quoted in the Columbia Journalism Review: "It's totally alien to religion — the conservative-liberal divide. It's not a religious divide. It's a political divide that religious people have squeezed themselves into, and they have gotten smaller for it. And our public life is diminished for it."
J. Gary Hart, an Austin lawyer who represented Kelsey Patterson, on Gov. Rick Perry's decision to overrule a clemency recommendation based on Patterson's mental illness and put the killer to death: "He seems to be admitting that the only way we can deal with someone like this in Texas is to take them out back and shoot them."
Texas Weekly: Volume 20, Issue 48, 31 May 2004. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2004 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.