Texas Republicans are in a pleasant sort of mess. They control state government. Candidates who want to run for statewide office — or for office in about two-thirds of the congressional and legislative districts in Texas — have little chance of success unless they're running as Republicans.
The competition that used to exist in November, when Democrats and Republicans battled it out, has moved back to the primaries, where Republicans vs. Republicans is the order of the day. This used to be the Democrats' problem, but now that party is the back-seat driver and the GOP has the wheel.
None of that is original thinking, but it is the explanation for what's going on in San Antonio, where the state GOP is holding its convention. In a state dominated by one political party, most of the fights will take place inside that party.
If you want to climb in Texas politics right now, the GOP is the place to do it. And if you want to get a particular state office, chances are good that you'll be challenging a Republican incumbent. It ain't rocket science, but it's troublesome to people in a political party that once thrived on Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.
The new version has an addendum: "Unless that Republican is in your way."
Texas Republicans are getting their first up-close look at a serious primary race for governor. Gov. Rick Perry remains popular in his own party, but Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn has had some success kicking him and has all but said she'll run against him in 2006. Officially, Perry's folks say they haven't given 2006 a thought. And officially, Strayhorn says the only thing on her mind is being a good comptroller. U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, often mentioned as a gubernatorial candidate who could step over the rubble created by a Perry-Strayhorn war, says it's too early to say what she'll do in 2006, the year her current Senate term ends.
But they're already lining up inside the party and within the grassroots, and that's a strong undertow in San Antonio.
Internally, the party is torn — as usual — between forces loyal to the current set of officeholders and ideological players who prefer a party run from the bottom up. Thus the race for GOP chairman between Tina Benkiser of Houston and Gina Parker of Waco. It's a rematch: Benkiser, management's favorite, won the post last year when Susan Weddington resigned. But Parker, pitching herself as the grassroots candidate, has run hard for a full term. National committeewoman Denise McNamara is being challenged by Texas Eagle Forum President Cathie Adams. There's a race to replace Tim Lambert, whose term as a national committeeman is running out; it features Mark Cole of Houston against Bill Crocker of Austin.
Party platforms don't matter to anyone outside of a party's activists, with the possible exception of the activists from the other party, who use the platform to razz the opposition. That said, Texas Republicans are staring at a couple of areas where activists want to make a point.
Officially, the party is against any expansion of gambling in the state of Texas. That's been their position for some time, but Perry and others, looking for school finance money, ignored that plank when they proposed introducing slot machines at racetracks. Some Republicans want stronger emphasis and direction for their officeholders. They're also pushing for a statement on same-sex marriages. Some want to make it a crime to perform such services and to grant such marriage licenses, while an apparently smaller group wants such issues left out.
One Big Happy Family
Republicans like to talk about how they should all get along, but this isn't the first time they've had a family fight, and it's not the first time they've done it on the San Antonio River. At their convention eight years ago, conservatives raised hell about George W. Bush and Kay Bailey Hutchison, two prominent officials they thought were too moderate. They tried and failed to keep Hutchison out of their delegation to the national convention because of her position on abortion (she said then she was opposed to it, with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother).
• Gina Parker is getting an assist from Roy Moore in her challenge to Party Chairwoman Tina Benkiser. He's the judge who left the Alabama Supreme Court in a storm over a massive stone engraved with the Ten Commandments that he installed at that state's courthouse. Moore wasn't free: Parker's campaign finance statement shows a $10,000 payment for the judge's appearance.
• GOP Vice Chairman David Barton is running for reelection but told delegates he'll step aside if they elect Parker over Benkiser. You don't have to run as a ticket — Parker isn't doing so — but Benkiser and Barton are keeping up a practice started by former chair Susan Weddington, whose vice chairman was.... Barton.
• Benkiser's supporters say Parker is a trial lawyer. So do her ads, which say she's for hire in personal injury cases involving auto accidents, truck accidents, and wrongful death, and for criminal defense cases. Her website promoting her candidacy for the state party chair calls it a general law practice and also lists several businesses that she is or has been involved in. That first bit is part of what inspired Texans for Lawsuit Reform to get into the race and send mailers to GOP delegates. They think she's a front for trial lawyers who normally back Democrats.
State officials say it was unusual to hire a law firm to help draft legislation for consideration by lawmakers, and Democrats in particular are raising questions because of the $250,000 budget for that deal, the speed with which it was put together, and the fact that the firm — Lionel Sawyer & Collins of Las Vegas — works for other clients who have potential interests in Texas gaming, either because they want a piece of it or because it would create new competition.
That might be weird, but the state hires outside lawyers, on average, every weekday of the year. In fiscal year 2003, for instance, Attorney General Greg Abbott's office approved contracts for 273 outside law firms, according to the agency's records. The listed reasons for the contracts varied: bond counsel, charitable matters, collection, FCC rules & regulations, general counsel, federal taxes, environmental law, estate law, fiduciary counsel, health law, immigration law, intellectual property, managed health care, special litigation, real estate law, public school law, and transactions.
A few contracts didn't specify dollar amounts. The amounts allowed (which would presumably be equal to or greater than the amounts actually paid) ranged from as little as $1,000 — for a lawyer collecting money for the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation — to $2.2 million paid to Houston-based Fulbright & Jaworski for intellectual property work at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
Most of the firms hired by the state were hired to work for public colleges and universities, but the list includes redistricting lawyers hired to help draw new maps and defend them in court, and lawyers hired for $1.1 million to work with the Texas Transportation Commission and the Texas Education Agency on unspecified "general counsel" matters.
With only narrow exceptions, state agencies and universities have to have permission from the attorney general before they can hire outside attorneys, and the comptroller has to have a signoff from the AG before she can cut checks for those lawyers.
Though the money for the Las Vegas lawyers came out of the Texas Lottery Commission, the comptroller paid the $176,743 bill only after approval from Abbott. His office initially approved spending up to $250,000 on the firm, but the state ended up spending only the lower amount.
Membership Has Its Privileges
You can't get married in the Texas House chamber, unless, apparently, you're a member of the Texas House. Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, married his wife Dawn on the last Saturday of the special legislative session with a string quartet in the balcony and about 200 friends and family members on the floor of the House to join the celebration.
The House wasn't working that day. The wedding came a day after the Senate threw in the towel and two days before legislators called an official close to the session.
Bohac, elected for the first time in 2002, said he got the idea at the last state Republican convention, in Dallas. He and his then-fiancé told Tom and Nadine Craddick of their plans to get married, and Mrs. Craddick suggested a place, Bohac said. "She told us, 'You've got to get married on the House floor,'" he said. He went on to win election the next November, part of a wave of freshmen Republicans who then turned around and elected Craddick the first GOP Speaker of the House in modern Texas history.
Bohac said the wedding date was set long before anyone knew there would be a special session on school finance going on, and said he just got lucky the House wasn't trying to do business that day. Former Speaker Pete Laney didn't allow weddings on the floor, but his predecessor, Gib Lewis, let one of his aides marry a state employee (named Cowboy, believe it or not) on the speaker's dais during a momentary recess in House business. And there are scattered tales of members being married in either the House or Senate chamber over the years. It's unusual — not unprecedented.
For Bohac, the House waived a $20-an-hour room fee it sometimes charges outside groups to use the chamber. Weddings aren't allowed, but groups like the Texas Silver-Haired Legislature and Boy's State and Girl's State are allowed to use the room for certain kinds of events. Bohac was charged $270.67 for three people from the House media office who came to work that Saturday to run the sound equipment, videotape his wedding, and burn that tape onto keepsake DVDs.
Bohac introduced his wife to the House the following Monday, standing at the front mike and asking her to stand in the gallery and be recognized. Because of the session and the GOP convention and all that, they delayed their honeymoon. They'll go to Mexico to celebrate later this month.
Tort Reformers & Trial Lawyers Lobby the Delegates
During the last legislative session, Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, was trying to pass legislation that would limit lawsuits over asbestos exposure. He didn't have enough votes, partly because Republican Sen. John Carona of Dallas had his own legislation that limited those suits in a different way.
This is like counting angels on the head of a pin, but suffice to say Janek's bill had the support of the Texas Asbestos Consumers Coalition, and that Carona's was the flavor preferred by lawyers who specialize in asbestos cases, usually on behalf of people who say they've been harmed by the stuff.
Those same lawyers — through a group called Asbestos Free Texas — are backing a Republican Party platform plank that would put the party on their side. Its highest-profile advocate is Cathie Adams, the head of the Texas Eagle Forum. And now the other asbestos group has its own plank, pushed by Janek, and they're warning delegates off the Adams version. It says the other version is backed by "a handful of wealthy asbestos plaintiff lawyers." It also calls them liberal and greedy, and says the Janek version is "strongly supported by Gov. Rick Perry." The head of the business group is Robert Howden, a former Perry aide who's now lobbying.
• Texas Watch, an Austin-based group that regularly does battle with insurance companies, has started a petition drive to get insurance rates rolled back. The group says legislation that was supposed to lower those rates passed a year ago. While there are some signs that rates are stabilizing, the group says the companies got a windfall by waiting so long to put the lid on premiums. They contend those companies have collected $370 million in "excessive premiums" since Texas regulators started sitting on them last August. The petition is an online deal, at www.FixTexasInsurance.com.
Flotsam & Jetsam
• Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, is chairing the GOP convention. She's the leading opponent of gambling in the state Senate, and promised during the special session this year that she would filibuster if Gov. Rick Perry's slot machine proposal made it to the floor for Senate consideration.
• Some of the Democrats running for the U.S. House in Texas are offering "Play Nice" agreements to their opponents, the kind of double-bladed deals that either result in bad manners charges on the front end or a "he hit me first" charge later on. An offer from U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Abilene, to U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, suggests the two eschew political help from outside groups, and it's similar to an agreement signed earlier by U.S. Reps. Martin Frost, D-Dallas, and Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, who are also paired up on Election Day. Maybe they'll work in real like they appear to work on paper. It's dangerous not to sign, since that allows the guy doing the offering to say the refuser is reliant on outside help and nasty advertising from third parties. Signing isn't as dangerous, but opens a door for later arguments about who agreed not to kick and scratch and then went ahead and did it. We can't find a political consultant who'll say such a thing will turn an election or attract real attention from voters, but apparently the Democrats think they're onto something.
• They didn't put an exact number on it, but Louis Gohmert's campaign says the fundraising visit by Vice President Dick Cheney brought in "more than $250,000." Gohmert, a Republican, is running against U.S. Rep. Max Sandlin, D-Marshall. Meanwhile, Sandlin is accusing the Republican of lying about Sandlin's voting record on partial birth abortions, saying he voted to outlaw that procedure on several different occasions. Gohmert said otherwise when commenting on a federal judge's ruling that the ban on that procedure is unconstitutional.
• Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright will do a political drive-by for U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, D-Dallas. He's having a fundraiser June 14; she's the headline act. Separately, Frost picked up an endorsement from the Dallas Police Officer's PAC, which bills itself as a nonpartisan organization representing 2,500 cops in that city.
• The U.S. Supreme Court, without saying whether it intends to hear the case, asked the state to respond to legal complaints from Democrats, who say the state had no compelling reason to take up redistricting last year. That particular homework assignment is due at the end of the month. And U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, a rare Anglo Democrats who survived redistricting, is trying to pass legislation that would prevent states from drawing new districts more than once per decennial census.
• Sky Sudderth, the district attorney for Brown and Mills Counties, agreed to quit that job rather than face prosecution on charges of altering records and perjury. Republican Michael Murray, one of his assistants, had already filed for the job and won the Republican primary. He might get the job early; Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, told local reporters that he was asked about Murray by Gov. Rick Perry's staff and says he recommended giving Murray the appointment. That would last until the elections in November.
• Even publishers write, apparently. George Phenix, co-founder and publisher of Texas Weekly, was a TV reporter working in Dallas in November 1963. He's part of a quartet of journalists who've written a book about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and, in particular, about how that event was covered. The book, When the News Went Live: Dallas 1963, is about one of the first national stories covered minute-by-minute, too fast for print media to handle. In addition to Phenix, who filmed Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, the writers are Bob Huffaker, Bill Mercer, and Wes Wise. Huffaker and Mercer are journalists-turned-professors, and Wise is a former Dallas mayor. Both Mercer and Wise spent most of their careers — the assassination aside — covering sports. The book comes out later this year; you can pre-order it on Amazon.
The Dating Game
Trying to figure out when to take that summer vacation and narrow the odds of being swamped by another special session? Our condolences. But here are some dates that might (and very well might not) have something to do with when a second session is called. If it's called at all.
Early in the spring, advisors to Gov. Rick Perry were telling us they'd rather not have special sessions on school finance during the summer, and for two reasons. They angered lawmakers in both parties last year by stomping on their vacations while trying to get new congressional redistricting plans. Second, they wanted to work on the issue during the school year, the better to avoid a tidal wave of teachers pouncing on legislators. That's over: School's out until mid-August in most districts.
The state GOP's convention ends on Saturday, and House Speaker Tom Craddick will start an out-of-country vacation as the gavel falls. Also, the House and Senate panels set up to work on the things that didn't work during the special session — they're trying to find that consensus thingee — haven't started their meetings. Those will begin over the next two weeks. Texas Democrats start their convention in Houston June 17. Cross off at least the next three weeks.
July 26 is the first day of the Democratic Party's national convention in Boston. That might not make any difference to Texas Republicans, but it'll take Texas Democrats out of state in the biggest numbers seen since last year, when a couple of busloads went to Oklahoma.
August 9 is, at this writing, the start date for the trial challenging the school finance formulas in Texas. The judge has indicated he'll rule quickly, but the trial itself could take a couple of weeks. Several lawmakers have told us they don't want to be second-guessing a judge who's holding a trial while they're working (and many have said publicly and privately that they'd rather wait for the courts anyhow. That would give them some guidance on the direction of school finance — heck, it might even be legal now — and would give them reasons to act and judicial rulings to blame if they had to make unpopular decisions to fix things.
August 30 is the first day of the Republican Party's national convention in New York City. Texas Republicans, including the people currently in charge of the state, will want to be there, and doing that would take them out of action for a week.
That puts us at the start of the election cycle, and several Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature will be busy. A special session at that point would eliminate fears of a teacher tidal wave, but it would leave some lawmakers stuck between school finance ideas that work in Austin and voters at home who'll pass judgment in November. Depending on what state leaders want lawmakers to do on school finance, that could be either a help or a hindrance. Either way, it's an issue.
Political People and Their Moves
The Republicans and the Democrats get all of the attention — and most of the votes — but the Libertarian Party is on the ballot, too. And after a national convention that actually held some suspense for delegates, Michael Badnarik, a computer programmer and teacher from Austin, became that party's nominee for President of the United States. The party's nominee for vice president is Richard Campagna, of Iowa City, Iowa...
The regents at the University of Texas named James Huffines to chair that group. The Austin banker and investor, an experienced player in Republican politics, replaces Charles Miller of Houston, who gave up the chairmanship earlier this year and will leave that board as soon as his replacement is named...
Deaths: Tony Korioth, a former legislator and labor lawyer best known for winning the "one man, one vote" case that forced Texas lawmakers to draw legislative districts on the basis of population and for a suit that extended workers' compensation coverage to farm hands, after complications from surgery. He was 71...
Horace Ben Houston Jr., who represented Dallas in the state House for three terms as a Democrat and one as a Republican before losing a general election race for Lite Guv in 1964. He was 83...
Martha Harris Dewhurst Nevins Wing, mother of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, after a lengthy illness. She was 84.
Quotes of the Week
Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, putting some daylight between himself and the law firm hired by state leaders to write slot machine legislation for Gov. Rick Perry's school finance plan: "Until they testified before the House Select Committee I was unfamiliar with the law firm and its attorneys which were retained by the AG's office. I played no role in the decision to retain any law firm."
Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, quoted in the Brownsville Herald on odds for success in another special session: "Unless there is a constitutional gun to our head from a court or a united business and education community, we will not be able to do what we need to do on these issues."
Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, quoted in the Tyler Morning Telegraph: "Experience has shown that the needy and the poor have the most involvement with slot machines. And our state's needy would have to lose $2.5 billion a year for our schools to gain the $800 million needed. When our poor and needy lose that kind of money, they'll fall back on the county for health care."
Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, telling The [Brazosport] Facts what it would take to get a school finance fix: "The governor is going to have to prove to us that he's interested in finding consensus. His attitude was the only plan that was worth considering was his."
Republican consultant Royal Masset, telling the San Antonio Express-News how he hopes intra-party competition will play out: "They all will be positive. ... It's almost like a church gathering," he said. "You just don't have ministers chew each other up or accuse each other of blasphemy."
Chris Barron, national political director of the Log Cabin Republicans, quoted in the Austin American-Statesman on a proposed ban on same-sex marriages in the Texas GOP platform: "I find it hard to imagine many people wake up in the morning anywhere in Texas and say, 'I sure do hope it ends up being a felony to perform same-sex ceremonies in Texas.'"
Charlie Cook, editor of The Cook Political Report, quoted in The New York Times on U.S. Senate races in the South: "I think the Democrats are going to end up winning a few of these races. The president will certainly win in the South, but he's not going to be the asset for other Republican candidates that you might normally expect."
Analyst Stuart Rothenberg in the same report: "The Democrats' problem is that when these races really engage in the fall, issues like guns and gay marriage and taxes are going to become the focus, not restlessness over George Bush's leadership. It's going to be much more George Bush, a conservative Texas Republican, versus John Kerry, a liberal Massachusetts Democrat, and even those Republicans who may be restless now are going to come home."
Crawford Mayor Robert Campbell, telling the Dallas Morning News he's endorsing John Kerry over his town's most famous resident: "I have the right to vote for who I want to be president. If some people around here don't like it, they can vote for someone else for mayor."
Dan Lambe, director of Texas Watch, a self-styled insurance consumer group, quoted in the Austin American-Statesman: "Texans were promised lower insurance rates. I don't think any Texas homeowner will be happy if the only benefit is that rates are stabilized at the highest rates in the history of the state and probably the nation."
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, disagreeing with a court ruling striking down a federal ban on so-called "partial birth abortions": "I’m committed to continue building a culture that respects and protects every human life, from conception to natural death."
Wiccan Bryan Lankford, in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram story on how state tax collectors decide what's a religion and what's not: "People still lose their jobs because bosses find out they're Wiccan. People still try to take their kids away from them. But we're as much a religion as anybody else."
Texas Weekly: Volume 21, Issue 1, 7 June 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.