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A Flock of Buzzards

Texas Democrats are having their moment in the political desert. Hope is thin. Provisions are slight. The opposition is strong. Heroes have not appeared.

Texas Democrats are having their moment in the political desert. Hope is thin. Provisions are slight. The opposition is strong. Heroes have not appeared.

The optimists among them say things can't get any worse, and so must get better. And an unusual number of people in the ranks have mentioned 1982, the year the Republicans were crossing this field. That was the last big Democratic sweep in Texas, when all but one of the statewide offices went to the donkeys and the elephants held only the U.S. Senate post occupied by John Tower.

Texas Republicans hold every statewide office and the Texas Legislature. If you want to argue about complete control of the political universe in the Lone Star State, you'll be talking about county offices around the state, the difference a seat or two makes in the state Senate, and the makeup of the Texas congressional delegation. Democrats still outnumber Republicans at the local level, and while the GOP has been making inroads, the state's biggest counties have become growth areas for the Democrats. Dallas and Harris, considered safe Republican territory a few years ago, are now competitive, for instance. The mayors of the largest cities in the state are Democrats.

That's important, Democrats will tell you, because local offices are the farm teams for state offices, the spots where potential contenders in future state races are training.

The state Senate remains a vote or two shy of GOP domination. With its rule requiring approval from two-thirds of the senators to get business done, the upper chamber empowers numerical minorities. The flight of 11 Democrats to Albuquerque last summer is an extreme example, but the two-thirds rule gives Senate Democrats a lever their party can find nowhere else in state government.

And then there's the congressional delegation. Democrats controlled the Legislature and drew the maps in 1990, and as a result held a majority in the congressional delegation long after their party's power diminished in other elections in the state. Now that Republicans have drawn the maps, five Democratic incumbents are fighting to hang on in districts designed to eliminate them.

Those five – U.S. Reps. Chet Edwards of Waco, Martin Frost of Dallas, Nick Lampson of Beaumont, Max Sandlin of Marshall, and Charlie Stenholm of Abilene – are all in trouble. But they've got something other Texas Democrats don't have: Outside money.

While local Democrats generally can't match Republicans in the finance department, federal officeholders can work the levers of incumbency and of national politics to offset the drought at home. National Democrats don't want the Republicans in the U.S. House to get any stronger, and they've got an interest in holding those Texas seats. Lobsters and others with business in Congress give because some of those Texans are tenured, and thus powerful in a system that rewards time on task. And federal finance laws that limit contribution levels also limit the influence of big political spenders. That forces candidates in both parties to seek broader support, and it lowers the risks of being seen as in the pocket of a particular benefactor or set of benefactors.

A plain old Democrat seeking state office, on the other hand, has to figure out where to get the money. They can run rich candidates – as the GOP did at first, breaking the Democratic lock on the governor's mansion with oilman Bill Clements' money. But they have to finance others so they can elect their equivalents of early GOP breakthroughs like Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison, who took some risks and busted 1990's Democratic sweep, winning races for agriculture commissioner and treasurer. As the buzzards circle overhead, that's what some Democrats are working on.

Things are Different Now

Two years ago, Texas Democrats were running from national Democrats, but now the national folks are slated to be the stars at the state convention. U.S. Sen. John Edwards, who's still in the hunt for the number two job on the national ticket, will be the convention's keynote speaker. And U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who is still running for president on the Democratic ticket, is talking to delegates on Saturday. Former cabinet member and San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros will speak as a surrogate for U.S. Sen. John Kerry, who has all but accepted the Democratic nomination for president.

Democrats did some creative dentistry a few years ago and removed from their state platform the teeth that can bite candidates later. Where the state GOP puts out a detailed document, state Democrats issue a more general thing that's easier for candidates to swallow (most GOP candidates, for statewide office in particular, put some daylight between themselves and the state party platform). Democrats have plenty of weird stuff going on, but they don't write it down in exactly the same way.

And they've got their own controversies. One surfaced this week, after party officials asked state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, to talk at the convention. He's local, he's a Democrat, he's a great speaker, and he's too close to the Republican management in the House for some of his fellow Democratic lawmakers, who note that he was not among the 51 House members who left Austin to stall redistricting. Some Democrats you might expect to see won't be there; aides to U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, D-Dallas, say he'll skip Houston in favor of campaigning for reelection in Dallas.

Squeeze Play

State agencies, squeezed last year by legislators who wanted to close a budget gap without a tax bill, are being asked to cut their budgets again as the state starts writing a new budget. Top state officials want the budget requests set at 95 percent of current spending levels. Agency heads who thought they could let out their belts a little bit are being asked to suck it up and spend less.

What's more, they're not getting the same room for growth they've been allowed in previous tight budget years. Where previous budget requests were supposed to include room for increased enrollments and imprisonments and payrolls, those things aren't included in the call for budgets this year. It's the first step in a long process, but it's an early signal that lawmakers want a tight rein on spending over the next couple of years.

In a biennial "policy letter" from the top budgeteers for the Legislature and the governor, the agencies are being asked to hold general revenue spending at 5 percent less than what was actually spent in the 2004 fiscal year (we're now in it) and what's budgeted for FY 2005. Those numbers will show up, agency by agency, in legislative appropriations requests prepared by the agencies this summer. The Legislative Budget Board will roll those into one document, with some massaging, that will be the starting place when legislators meet to write a new budget in January.

Agencies can ask for more money, but have to put it in a list of "exceptional items" appended to their baseline budget requests. They're also being asked to show which of those items would be required to get the agencies back to 100 percent of their current spending levels.

And some increases are allowed. The agencies can include any money needed to satisfy current law, to meet requirements for a "constitutional school finance system", to pay existing debts, or to maintain caseloads for "federal entitlement services."

In the policy letters sent two years ago and four years ago to the agencies, budgeteers at the LBB and the governor's office asked agencies to hold the line on their budgets rather than cut them. And they said the agencies could add in money for several items that weren't included in this year's list: increased public and higher education enrollments, operation of adult and juvenile prisons, and adjustments to state employee benefits for changes in payroll. Agencies were allowed to take their current budgets, adjust for increases or decreases in client loads, then add on a wish list of things they wanted to fund if lawmakers had the money. This time, they'll be allowed to ask for 95 percent of what they now get, and everything else will go on the wish list.

The Prosecutor Always Rings Twice

A Texas congressman charged the head of the state's congressional delegation with several ethics transgressions, breaking a long-standing truce that had kept Democrats and Republicans in Congress from filing charges against each other. And the leader of the Texas Democratic contingent in Washington is now the subject of a campaign finance investigation triggered by a complaint from a Republican state senator.

There's a great moment in one of the James Bond movies where Bond confronts the bad guy – an arms dealer – with a detailed list of the evildoer's transgressions. The fellow pauses, squints at Bond, and then explains it all away: "Lies, spread by my competitors."

It didn't work in the movie, but it's a standard line in politics, and everybody with a foot caught in these ethics investigations and allegations has it ready when reporters stick out their tape recorders.

In the newest case on the docket, Travis County prosecutors are investigating U.S. Rep. Martin Frost's Lone Star fund after a Republican state senator complained the fund used corporate money to help Democratic candidates for the state Legislature during the last two election cycles.

District Attorney Ronnie Earle wrote Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, a letter saying he's launched an inquiry into the fund's spending and "will notify you of our findings as soon as we have concluded the investigation." Late last month, Deuell wrote to Earle complaining Frost used corporate money in his Lone Star Fund to support Texas candidates. That's just like the charges against Texans for a Republican Majority PAC, which is accused of funneling corporate money into campaigns for state lawmakers on the other side of the partisan chasm. TRMPAC is associated with U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land.

Deuell looked at Lone Star Fund records on the IRS website, and gave an example in his letter to Earle, detailing a period when contributions from individuals fell short of contributions to Texas candidates. Some of the money given to those candidates, he deduced, would have to have come from corporate donors. The Texas Partnership PAC, started by former House Speaker Pete Laney and a handful of Democratic lawmakers, was one of the beneficiaries during that period (July-September 2000), as was Laney himself. One of the biggest contributions in the period Deuell studied was for $20,000, to then-Sen. David Cain, D-Dallas. Cain, the incumbent, lost that election to Deuell.

Deuell ended the letter with a challenge to Earle: "You have been quoted as saying that: 'My job is to prosecute felonies. Texas law makes it a felony for corporations and labor unions to contribute to campaigns.' I believe it is imperative that you investigate this matter." Now, three weeks later, Earle has agreed with him, saying he opened his investigation "shortly after" getting the senator's letter. Click here for a full copy of the exchange.

Frost, a Dallas Democrat, says the charges from are politically motivated and said he's got lawyers cooperating with Earle to prove he played fair. In a written statement, he said his PAC kept separate accounts for corporate and non-corporate contributions, and didn't mix any of the corporate money into the Texas races. He contends the Deuell complaint is based on a short period of time and didn't include the cash on hand at the beginning, an omission that resulted in a wrong answer. And he says the two funds – corporate and non-corporate – were merged only for purposes of filings with the IRS, which is where Deuell apparently got his information.

Like DeLay before him, Frost blamed politics for the allegations against him: "The complaint file by Sen. Deuell clearly was a smokescreen put up by the Republicans to divert attention away from the investigation into Tom DeLay's activities."

Frost is paired with U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, in a reelection battle on a field drawn to favor the Republican. In pushing the allegations against TRMPAC, Democrats have maintained that the efforts by TRMPAC and others resulted in the Republican majority that redrew the congressional maps that have imperiled Frost and a number of other Texas Democratic incumbents in Congress. The Frost camp now complains the Republicans – with Deuell in front – are trying to tilt the elections by prompting an investigation of his campaign finance efforts.

The Seven-Year Itch

In a complaint filed with the House Committee on Standards and Ethics – a filing that breaks an unwritten, seven-year-old truce – U.S. Rep. Chris Bell, D-Houston, accused U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, of promising official action in return for political contributions, laundering corporate contributions through the Republican National Committee in an attempt to clean the money for use in Texas legislative races, and using his office to try to chase down Texas Democrats who fled Austin a year ago to block a vote on a Republican-tilted congressional redistricting map.

The complaint was first reported by the Houston Chronicle, and DeLay labeled it as a partisan affair with no basis in law. "Evidently, [Bell] is very bitter about losing the primary and he is using the ethics committee to express his bitterness and I think it is an unfortunate thing. I have never liked the politics of personal destruction," DeLay told reporters in Washington.

The congressional maps, as you know, finally passed, and Bell was one of the Texas Democrats whose career in congress ended as a result. The maps were approved by a Republican Legislature elected in 2002, largely as the result of intense Republican efforts to take the state House away from the Democrats. A DeLay-affiliated political action committee was at the financial center of that effort, and has been accused of using corporate money illegally in those races.

Bell, a former Houston city councilman serving his first term in Congress, lost the Democratic primary in a district drawn to favor an African-American candidate over an Anglo. Former Justice of the Peace Al Green beat Bell by a 2-to-1 margin in the CD-9 race and will face Republican Arlette Molina in November. Anything can happen in an election, but that's a solidly Democratic district. The GOP primary drew 5,968 voters; the Democratic primary in that district drew 27,133 voters.

Familiar Allegations in a New Setting

In his complaint, Bell contends DeLay solicited contributions from Westar, a Kansas company, for Texas for a Republican Majority PAC, or TRMPAC, a political action committee set up to try to win a GOP majority in the Texas Legislature. And, Bell contends, DeLay did that "in return for legislative assistance on the energy bill." If that's so, Bell adds, it's a violation of law and of House rules. In a footnote, the complaint contends DeLay went to bat legislatively for Bacardi USA and its political action committee after Bacardi contributed to him and to TRMPAC.

He cites TRMPAC's widely reported transfer of $190,000 raised from corporations to the Republican National Committee, which then turned around and made $190,000 in contributions to seven candidates for the Texas House of Representatives. The RNC money that came back to Texas didn't have the corporation label, and we legal for use here. The TRMPAC money, had it gone directly to Texas candidates, would have violated the state's ban on corporate contributions to political campaigns. Various people involved in those transactions have denied any wrongdoing, saying the identical amounts were coincidental.

Bell also contends DeLay "may have improperly used his office" when he urged federal officials to try to locate the Texas Democrats who denied a legislative quorum by driving to Oklahoma. In the first hours after they disappeared – before Republicans knew where they had gone – federal aviation officials were asked to look for a plane belonging to former House Speaker Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, which the Republicans suspected was being used to shuttle Democrats out of the state.

The Ethics panel apparently has two weeks to decide whether to take this up, and then about a month to start its own investigation. Much of this has been under investigation for months by Travis County prosecutors who want to know whether efforts to elect a GOP majority in the Texas House crossed the line between hardball politics and crime. Click here for a full copy of Bell's complaint – along with other materials he sent with it.

Political People in Kinder, Gentler Venues

Karen Lundquist, the executive director of the Texas Ethics Commission for the last 18 months and the agency's general counsel for several years before that, is leaving for the University of Texas System. Lundquist, who worked at the Texas Legislative Counsel as a bill-drafter and ethics expert before joining TEC in 1995, will be working in both of those areas. She'll be working in the general counsel's office, analyzing legislation and advising officials there on ethics.

Lundquist took over at the Ethics Commission in December 2002 after Tom Harrison left the agency. Harrison is now a commissioner there and thus will have a vote on Lundquist's successor. Unlike Harrison, Lundquist won't be followed by her general counsel; she said Sarah Woelk told her she won't be applying for the executive director job. The commissioners, who got the word from Lundquist this week, haven't started their search for a replacement. She said she'll stick around for the commission's mid-July meeting, take a weekend off, and move to UT.

• Dick Reynolds, after almost three years as executive director at the Texas Workers Compensation Commission, is retiring. For the third time. The former state rep left the state insurance commission – then a three-member affair – in 1993 and said he was done. Then he became a commissioner at TWCC, a position he gave up in 1998.

• Insert your own joke about hanging judges: The portraits of former Texas Supreme Court Justices Al Gonzales and John Cornyn are now on the wall over at the state courts building. Gonzalez, now counsel to the president, served for two years; Cornyn, now the state's junior U.S. senator, was there for six years before he ran for attorney general.

Flotsam & Jetsam

They stopped short of an endorsement, but the president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Phil Boyer, stopped for a campaign visit to state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson. Wohlgemuth, who's running for congress, is a pilot, and Boyer said she'd be the 22nd member of AOPA serving in the House and Senate if she wins.

• U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Abilene, put out a memo showing he's in Republican territory, a place where George W. Bush is more popular than John Kerry. No surprises there. But his pollsters also say he's better known than the Republican in the race, U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, and remains popular. They like him, and he's well known, and they're Republicans. It doesn't predict the outcome, at least in the public version that was shown to us.

• Nobody won the big prize, but the Texas Lottery paid out $3.4 million in the last round on Wednesday night. The jackpot that nobody won made headlines, but 25 people each won just under $10,000 for picking five of six numbers correctly. Smaller prizes made up the rest.

• Special session talk continues, but with no sign of a deal. Some senators are pushing for an expanded business tax that would pay for drops in property taxes, with sales taxes on top of that to pay for any new educational improvements lawmakers conjure. Some business groups don't like the idea because they'd be paying a dollar in new taxes to save less than 60 cents in property taxes (their share of property taxes is between 55 and 58 cents). Add to that the governor, who is getting more and more emphatic in his opposition to any "broad-based business tax." So far, snake eyes.

• After short-sheeting textbooks in the public education budget last year, state leaders have "borrowed" some money from other programs to pay for books in time for the school year that begins in August. Gov. Rick Perry and legislative leaders pulled together $63 million to pay for those books, and that money will be paid back to the accounts where it was borrowed when the next budget is written. Still in question is the longer-term funding for those books. The production cycle that puts a history book in front of an inattentive eighth-grader (we're joking, and you can put the phone back down) lasts for several years. What the budget-writers did last year, if it's not made up, will affect book production for several cycles.

Political People and Their Moves

Bill Noble, communications director for Gov. Rick Perry, is leaving the government office to work on politics for the rest of the year; he's been dispatched to the Victory 2004 campaign that will be helping Republican office-seekers in November...

Separately, Texas Republican Party spokesman Ted Royer is leaving the GOP to work for Perry, a move that will reunite him with Robert Black, who was once Royer's boss at the GOP. Royer will work with Eric Bearse, who writes many of the words that come out of the governor's mouth...

Susan McClure Johnson will head the "office of the ombudsman" for the state's Health and Human Services Commission. That'll be complaint central, handling consumer relations and rights, mediation, dispute resolution and stuff like that. Johnson, who'll start July 1, has worked at the Texas Department of Human Services, the Department of Transportation, in the governor's office and for the Department of Community Affairs...

The Texas Supreme Court's new rules attorney is Lisa Bowlin Hobbs, a former briefing attorney for then-Justice James Baker who's been working more recently at Vinson & Elkins. She also interned with Justice Nathan Hecht, who'll be her supervisor at the court. Hobbs will replace Chris Griesel, who left the court to become deputy parliamentarian for the Texas House...

Matt Canedy leaves Sen. Jon Lindsay, R-Houston, for the University of North Carolina, where he'll work on a doctorate in health policy. He already has a degree from UT's LBJ School of Public Affairs, and worked for Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, and for the Legislative Budget Board. Lindsay hasn't hired a new legislative assistant...

Deaths: Chris Semos, a Dallas Democrat who served in the Texas House and as a Dallas County commissioner for a combined 28 years, after a long illness. His district office phone number rang at The Torch, his family's restaurant in Oak Cliff, and they'd sometimes put you off until a rush of diners left. He was 68.

Quotes of the Week

Ron Reagan at his father's funeral: "Dad was also a deeply, unabashedly religious man. But he never made the fatal mistake of so many politicians, wearing his faith on his sleeve to gain political advantage. True, after he was shot and nearly killed early in his presidency, he came to believe that God had spared him in order that he might do good. But he accepted that as a responsibility, not a mandate. And there is a profound difference."

Gov. Rick Perry explaining why he told a Highland Park group that school finance lawsuits against the state wouldn't prevail: "I made a statement of fact. I know these individuals. I appointed five of them. I helped one get elected. They are jurists who are pure in their approach in deciding fact. They don't legislate from the bench. The Supreme Court – the make-up of the Supreme Court – is very different than it was a decade ago. I would be surprised for them to rule in a way that would give a victory to those who say let's take our chances with the court."

Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, telling the San Antonio Express-News that lawmakers are talking about business taxes in spite of the governor's resistance: "It's the committee's purview to come up with the best approach we can, and at the end of that, I guess it'll be up to the governor to see whether he can support it or not. Obviously, his office will be in the mix, but we've got to come up with a plan."

Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, talking in the Tyler Morning Telegraph about prospects for another session on school finance: "The rumor mill says there will be another special session called after July 4. And that makes sense. The court case is scheduled for August 9, and I don't think it would be healthy for two branches of government to be reviewing the issue at the same time."

Former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, rallying Democrats by spoofing GOP efforts to fix school finance, quoted in the Austin Chronicle: "I just wish they'd put a tax on 'dumb' and get it over with."

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, responding to economic studies on the folly of trying to lure biotech firms as anchors for economic development, in the Associated Press: ''It's always good to have skeptics, but I like to be on the dreaming side. It's a lot more fun on the dreaming side of the road."

Current Austin Mayor Will Wynn, at the ceremony unveiling the Texas quarter, quoted in the Houston Chronicle: "Thank God we're not one of those little square states."

Texas Weekly: Volume 21, Issue 3, 21 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@ For news, email ramsey@, or call (512) 288-6598.

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