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What Ails the Texas Democrats?

While the delegates to the state convention in Houston were busy in caucuses and buying buttons and listening to speeches, a small group of Democratic legislators, aides, consultants, and political hacks met privately with the University of Houston's Richard Murray, who talked them through an 11-page memo on what's wrong with the Party and what he thinks they should do about it.

While the delegates to the state convention in Houston were busy in caucuses and buying buttons and listening to speeches, a small group of Democratic legislators, aides, consultants, and political hacks met privately with the University of Houston's Richard Murray, who talked them through an 11-page memo on what's wrong with the Party and what he thinks they should do about it.

Murray, a respected pollster, says Texas Democrats, unlike the state's Republicans, lack ideas. Among other things, he thinks they should open a think tank to work on that, and to do more polling to get a feel for what Texans want. And they should start a better voter identification program to locate potential Democratic voters and to turn them out for elections.

He also used a fair amount of the memo talking about things that haven't worked, like waiting for demographics to change in favor of the donkeys, relying on strong national tickets to attract Texans to the party (it worked for Republicans when Ronald Reagan attracted Texas Democrats to the elephant field), waiting on individual campaigns to boost the rest of the ticket, or waiting for people to reject bad ideas from the Republicans in droves. He was critical of "tried and true" methods of getting votes, pushing Internet and other technologies over traditional door-to-door efforts.

You might like it or hate it, but it's provocative, and that may have been his aim. Click here for a copy.

Shoot the Messengers

According to Henry Cisneros, the former Housing and Urban Development head and San Antonio mayor, Texas Democrats have the right message, but don't have the right kind of candidates.

Tony Sanchez Jr. was roaming the convention at the same time Cisneros was talking, and sat in on part of Murray's session, which obliquely criticized the foundation of Sanchez's 2002 campaign. Cisneros wasn't critical of anyone in particular, and might not have even been thinking of Sanchez, but he told reporters there's nothing wrong with Texas Democrats or with what they stand for. Asked why, if that was so, they're not winning elections, he blamed demographic shifts in the early and mid-1990s, the charisma of George W. Bush and other GOP candidates, and then said his party might not have the "right personalities" to offer Texas voters right now.

"We've gone through a period of population change in Texas, with the suburbs, the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs and Houston growing, people coming from other places," Cisneros said. "We had an extraordinarily charismatic period in which George Bush was governor and was able to sort of cross over and that was important."

The GOP still has an advantage there, he said. "They've got some good, strong candidates now, people like Kay Bailey Hutchison, who are very attractive."

"But I don't think it's message [that has resulted in Democratic losses]," Cisneros said. "It may be that we just don't have the personalities at this moment in time."

Cisneros, who had just finished jazzing up a crowd at a caucus of Hispanic Democrats (and who encouraged and supported the Sanchez run two years ago), was asked if he was that sort of personality. "I'm not a candidate," he said. "I'm here as a surrogate for Sen. [John] Kerry."

Texas Democratic Party Chairman Charles Soechting, asked about Cisneros' comments, disagreed with the bit about personalities, saying the party is in a rebuilding stage and will have "plenty of good people" in the 2006 election cycle that fills most statewide offices.

Not Yet Running for Governor. Really.

With little hard evidence to back up the claim, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn accused Gov. Rick Perry of pushing state auditors to look into correlations between her campaign contributions and the tax settlements her agency has reached with businesses in Texas.

The auditors are allowed to look at tax stuff because of a law passed in the third special session last fall — the same law, pushed by Perry and others, which took performance reviews of public school districts and state agencies away from the comptroller and gave them to a legislative agency.

Aides to Perry say the auditors don't work for him, but for the Legislature, and a spokesman said Perry himself wasn't even aware the auditor was doing an investigation. That spokesman, asked whether anyone on the governor's staff knew, said he didn't know. In any case, they say this isn't their deal and that they think it's downright weird for Strayhorn to talk about links between her contributions and her decisions. Her version: There are no links and that's why the audits are clean.

But Strayhorn says the auditors have twice been leashed in when they were about to give her agency a clean bill of health. Last October, they handed over a draft audit that was clean, but they pulled it within days and said they wouldn't be issuing a final copy after all. (Strayhorn, after reporters asked for copies of the draft audit, asked Attorney General Greg Abbott for an open records opinion on whether she can share. That's pending.)

She said the auditors were on the verge of finishing a second audit just weeks ago, but pulled back and then asked for more tax records. She took that to mean they'd been told to get back to work to find something more damning. She accused Perry of using the auditors to do political opposition work for his campaign.

Strayhorn also said she's not worried about the outcomes of the audits themselves, and suggested doing similar audits of other statewide officials, starting with Perry and a look at his decisions, vetoes, appointments and bills signed as compared with campaign contributions.

The comptroller, asked again whether she is running for governor in 2006, ducked the question and said there's time for that talk later. But look back a few paragraphs at that line about "opposition research." As another reporter pointed out, that's research you do in a political race.

A Bump at the Starting Gate

One co-founder of Annie's List — former state Rep. Ann Kitchen, D-Austin — quit the group's board in a quiet dispute over the direction of that relatively new political action committee. She says she'll remain in the organization, but it'll be run by Sherry Boyles, a Democrat who lost the 2002 race for Railroad Commission to Michael Williams before joining with Kitchen to start Annie's List.

The two women started the group to raise money and support for female, pro-choice, Democratic candidates for state office. It's loosely affiliated with Emily's List, a national organization that does the same thing in federal and gubernatorial races around the country. They had some success in the Democratic primaries — four of five candidates prevailed — and will back four in November.

Inside the group, however, they had some turf battles. A three-member executive committee ran the place, with a steering committee made up mainly of donors choosing which candidates to support. That's changed: Two members of that three-member board — the third was Kitchen — voted Kitchen out. And a new set of bylaws takes some of the juice away from the steering committee (some members quit as a result). Boyles, the paid director of the group, consolidated control and says mildly that the group had some startup issues that are now resolved. Kitchen said in her resignation letter to the steering committee that she wanted that group to have more control, but told us she thinks the organization will be successful and that she'll keep contributing. Meanwhile, the group continues to raise money, pulling in $100,000 so far for an October event to support those four Texas House races.

"Any Other Lawful Purpose"

Because of those four little words, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison can't use her gobs of political cash to run for governor of Texas. The new federal campaign finance law — called McCain-Feingold most of the time — bars transferring money that was raised for a federal political race into a state account for use in a state race. That's a break with long-standing tradition. Politicians here and elsewhere have been using their federal accounts for state races for eons. And it's raised questions over the years, too, about whether they were using their positions as members of powerful committees in Washington to goad lobbyists and other donors to help them in their local contests.

Hutchison has more money in the till than all but six other federal candidates, including the two guys running for president this year and Al Gore, who ran last time. She had $6.5 million in the bank at the end of March, and the assumption in political circles was that the balance put her that much further ahead in a potential contest for governor in 2006. Hutchison hasn't said she'll challenge Gov. Rick Perry, but instead of saying no has said she'll decide what to do in future elections a year from now. Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn is also positioned to run for governor. Though she's been a lot more direct than Hutchison, Strayhorn has also stopped short of saying she'll run.

The federal law allows campaign money to be used for three things: officeholder expenses, charity and contributions to a national, state or local political party committee. It used to allow a fourth use — "any other lawful purpose" — but that was taken out. The issue came up in comments when the law was being written, so it was at least considered then, but Congress left it out and the FEC's interpreters say that apparently kills transfers from federal political accounts to state accounts. "Without [that phrase], there is no statutory basis on which the Commission can allow such previously unexceptional practices as ... using such funds to run for state office (where permitted by state law)." Though they said it might have been the result of a legislative drafting error, if the law's not changed, the commissioners wrote in an advisory opinion, "our hands are tied."

That trims the options available to Hutchison, or to others who want to get out of Washington and come home to Texas (or who, because of redistricting, have to come home). They can launder the money through a party operation, which could then run issue ads that, while not explicit, benefit the politico/contributor. That has a built-in political risk. They could give it to a non-tax outfit for use in "educational" ads that, while not explicit, would benefit the contributor/politico. Risky again, especially if you're paying attention to Travis County prosecutors.

Or they could send the money back to donors with a letter asking those donors to re-route the money to a state account. That's legal, and Hutchison did something similar when she returned money she'd raised as state treasurer and asked people to give to her campaign for U.S. Senate. The other U.S. senator from Texas, John Cornyn, did a refund-and-request dance when he left the Texas Supreme Court to run for state attorney general. Court candidates, unlike other Texas candidates, have contribution limits, and restrictions on converting money to other accounts.

There's one more angle to consider while we're here. Hutchison and Perry and Strayhorn have some contributors in common. Those very uncomfortable people can currently buy a little time by telling Rick and Kay and Carole that they didn't give anybody any money to compete with each other: The money for Rick was for the governor's race, and Kay's was for Senate, and Carole's was for comptroller. As long as all three are considered candidates for the same office, any new contributions will make the donors look like they're picking sides in the 2006 primary. If Hutchison has to go back to donors for money, they'll have to decide whether giving her money is worth the whining they'd likely hear from their other two friends.

Put it like this: If Hutchison can use the federal money for the state race — still possible, if Congress is willing to change the law in the next few months — she can wait until the last minute to declare her intentions. If she has to raise money for a state race from scratch, or by asking donors to ricochet the dollars to the state account, she'll have to move earlier and show her political hand.

First in Line?

The budget exercise now underway in the Pink Building could free money for public education, at the cost of other government services, and it could unlock — temporarily — a pot of money for the school finance mess.

If state lawmakers really did cut general revenue spending by 5 percent, as they've asked agencies to do in initial outlines for the next budget, they'd save $3 billion. That money could be used for public education (though public education cuts would provide some of it). That's not the main reason the budgeteers asked the agencies to go through the exercise, but it could provide some funding for public school finance, even if that issue is addressed this summer.

Lawmakers could let the schools, in effect, come to the trough ahead of the other animals. The rest of the state agencies would then be in the position of lining up for what's left, without having spending needs as sympathetic as the education of Texas children. That's a particular concern to advocates for health and human services, who think that area was short-sheeted in the current budget (and as a result of predicted savings from reorganization).

Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, says lawmakers asked the agencies to bring in the 95 percent budgets so they could see what's actually required by current law, as opposed to what the agencies want to do for the next two years. You'll remember that the agencies, in a letter from budget officers for the governor and the Legislature, were asked to draw up preliminary two-year spending plans based on 95 percent of this year's spending and next year's budget. That's in contrast to the regular orders, to draw up plans based on 100 percent. The agencies can list what they need, but only in the form of "exceptional items" that can be added back in — or not — by budgeteers.

Asked whether the money saved that way could be put into education this summer, Ogden said it was "possible," but also said that's not why the cuts were proposed. This setup, he said, will give lawmakers more power over spending, by lowering what the agencies get and letting legislators choose what to add instead of letting the agencies themselves do that.

If, as others have suggested, education gets to the new money first, the other agencies would, in effect, be forced to compete for what's left, or to convince lawmakers that spending in their areas is attractive enough to justify a tax hike.

This is Not a Political Signal of Any Kind

Becky Armendariz Klein, the Republican candidate for Congress in CD-25, lists a prominent state agency head — Albert Hawkins of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission — as one of the state officials who have endorsed her over U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin. State agency types usually don't play politics, at least overtly, and Hawkins says that, in spite of the way he's listed along with his title, "obviously, I'm not endorsing her in my capacity as executive commissioner."

Hawkins is listed on Klein's website in a group that includes U.S. Secretary of Commerce Don Evans, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs and Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson. Both presidents Bush are there, as is Gov. Rick Perry, U.S. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn (accidentally referred to as Jim Cornyn in a recent fundraising email from the Klein campaign), and a mess of Republican state and federal legislators. Klein, a former public utility advisor to then-Gov. George W. Bush, resigned as chairman of the Public Utility Commission to run for Congress. Hawkins, who was head of budget and policy for Bush, was Klein's boss. He says now that that professional relationship is what led to his endorsement.

• DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS: U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer is a Lubbock Republican and Charlie Stenholm is an Abilene Democrat. If you saw something way different last week, just think of it as what happens when you try to write and talk on a cell phone at the same time. Also, we got the fact right and the year wrong on the Deuell-Cain contests. Dr. Bob Deuell beat Democratic Sen. David Cain in 2002 after losing to him in 2000. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

I'm Not Dead Yet!

Credit the headline to Monty Python's Flying Circus, and the sentiment to U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio. Long story short: Rodriguez lost his reelection primary bid to former state Rep. and Secretary of State Henry Cuellar of Laredo after a persistently negative (from the Rodriguez point of view) series of recounts. The trial court where the recount ended up ruled for Cuellar, but the 4th Court of Appeals in San Antonio ruled for Rodriguez. That doesn't give him a victory, but lets him go back to the trial court to make a full argument. He says he was robbed; Cuellar says the recounts produced the true result. The courts will decide who won that March election.

Even Higher Ed

There's some T-crossing and some I-dotting still to do, but Chas Semple may soon be leaving the Speaker's staff for a spot in government relations with the Texas Tech University System. Semple, who's from Midland and has worked on and off for House Speaker Tom Craddick over the years, would report to the head of that office, John Opperman. Opperman is on loan to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst — though he's still on the Tech payroll. But Semple would be leaving Craddick's office to work for the school; this is not a situation where someone on the speaker's staff would be reporting to someone on the Lite Guv's staff. It's weird, but not that weird. The job is still posted and the school is still talking to people, but it looks right now like Semple is the school's choice. Notes: Craddick's a Tech alum, and Opperman, as noted, works for Dewhurst.

Benkiser endorses Soechting

Tina Benkiser likes whupping up on Charles Soechting and wants Texas Democrats to let him keep his job as chairman. Benkiser, who chairs the Texas GOP, praised him for a list of things she said helped her side: "Spreading false rumors about the Governor and his family and refusing to apologize when caught, refusing to apologize after his spokesman called a respected Supreme Court Justice a 'Nazi', calling the Speaker of the Texas House a 'weasel' and not apologizing, orchestrating the primary defeat of several of his own Democrat House members in an unprecedented display of intra-party cannibalism, in general, making former Texas Democrat Party Chair Molly Beth Malcolm appear calm and rational." The top of the press release said it was "tongue in cheek." Soechting responded, but asked reporters to say he was laughing when he did so, and he was laughing, kind of. "The race between Tina and Gina Parker [for Republican Party chair] was about who was further to the right, and Tina usually wins those things." Soechting was unopposed.

Political Notes

• Houston lawyer Barbara Radnofsky — a medical malpractice defense wizard with Vinson & Elkins — told Texas Democratic convention delegates she's mulling a run for U.S. Senate in 2006. She dropped that in while nominating Soechting for reelection as chairman of the Democrats.

• The headliners for U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson's next fundraiser aren't from here: Loretta Sanchez and Linda Sanchez — the first sisters ever to serve in the U.S. House — are the draw for that event for the Beaumont Democrat. They're both Democrats from Southern California.

• Haven't seen this for a while: Take a look at the wording in Eric Opiela's latest fundraising pitch. You can only do this when there's one party in power. "Please join Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs and the Texas State Leadership... " Combs is apparently the only one scheduling a visit, but you get the idea. Opiela is running for the spot now held by Rep. Gabi Canales, D-Alice. Canales lost in the Democratic primary to Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles, who'll face Opiela in November. The Republican's last funder was headlined by House Speaker Tom Craddick.

• Add former Rep. Tom Ramsay, D-Mount Vernon, to the list of people eyeing the post now held by Combs. She's gonna run for comptroller, and a mess of buzzards are circling. He joins Republican Reps. Harvey Hilderbran, Charlie Geren, and David Swinford in the prospects circle. Also possible: Democrat David Cleavinger of Wildorado and Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine.

Political People and Their Moves

Blandina "Bambi" Cardenas will be the new president of the University of Texas-Pan American, replacing Miguel Nevarez, who is leaving after more than two decades in that post. She's the dean of the College of Education and Human Development at UT-San Antonio...

The Texas Medical Association finishes its re-branding as a Republican shop with the addition of three folks to the internal lobby team (as opposed to the team of outside lobsters employed by that trade group). David Reynolds will run TEXPAC, the group's affiliated political action committee. He's been lobbying in Washington, D.C., but used to work for state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, on the Senate Health Committee. Greg Herzog returns to TMA after stints with the Texas Academy of Family Physicians and a couple of legislative committees, including one on school finance. And Hilary Dennis, who'd been chief of staff to Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, will, like Herzog, be an assistant to Darren Whitehurst, who now heads TMA's lobby team. TMA came out of the last statewide election cycle on the wrong side of Gov. Rick Perry and his allies and have been remaking their lobby operation since then to make amends...

John Hawkins is leaving the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission for the lobby world; he's the new VP of government relations for the Texas Hospital Association. Hawkins, who worked last session on legislation consolidating several health and human services agencies into one, is replacing Darren Whitehurst, whom you'll remember from the preceding item...

Jené Bearse is leaving the offices of Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, where she was chief of staff, to spend time at home with her new daughter. Bearse, who worked for Janek predecessor Buster Brown, has been in that office longer than the incumbent. Patricia Becker moves up into the chief job. While we're at it, Susan Sherman left that Senate shop to be a higher ed analyst at the Legislative Budget Board...

Carlos Romo, who'd been working on the Texas Fragile Family program at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, is finished with that project and on his way to law school at the University of Texas. He's not the only one leaving CPPP for campus: Chris Pieper will give up his gig as communications director to go get a doctorate in sociology, also at UT...

Appointments: Gov. Perry named Clifton Thomas Jr. of Victoria and Meg Grier of Boerne as directors at the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority. Both have their own businesses, his in the oil patch, and hers as owner of Wingscape Press...

Upstream, Perry named Stan Kubenka, Dr. Jaime Quintanilla, and Walter Schellhase, all from Kerrville, to the Upper Guadalupe River Authority River Authority. Kubenka is branch manager of INSCO Distributing. Quintanilla is a psychiatric physician at Kerrville State Hospital. And Schellhase is a retired brigadier general still active in military and veterans' affairs...

The governor named Kim Caldwell of Plano to the Texas State Board of Pharmacy. He works for Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation...

Jane Boyle is on her way to the bench; the U.S. Senate approved her nomination to be a federal district judge in Dallas, replacing retired Judge Jerry Buchmeyer. She's a former U.S. Magistrate Judge and was, briefly, U.S. attorney in North Texas.

Quotes of the Week

Shy and retiring California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, telling The New York Times what he'll be doing at the GOP national convention: "Whether I'm speaking, I'll leave that up to them. If they're smart, they'll have me obviously in prime time."

Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, at a forum on campaign finance: "If we are in an era of checkbook government, who will speak for those without a checkbook?"

Eric Bost, undersecretary in the U.S. Agriculture Department (and former head of the Texas Department of Human Services), in the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch on a rise in use of food banks: "There's a bump, but how much of that is due to people taking the easy way out? I don't know."

U.S. Rep. John Doolittle, R-California, promising retaliation (he later backed off) after U.S. Rep. Chris Bell, D-Houston, broke a seven-year freeze by filing ethics complaints against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land: "You kill my dog. I'll kill your cat." Bell, who is not returning to Congress after redistricting cost him his seat: "I don't have a cat."

Texas Weekly: Volume 21, Issue 4, 28 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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