Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, is in a pretty safe district for a Democrat, as these things go. In the last election against his current opponent, Jeffrey Hibbs, Dunnam pulled 60.2 percent of the vote. And with the exception of Tony Sanchez Jr., who lost by a little in this House district while losing by a lot statewide, the Democrats running for statewide office in Dunnam's district swept in 2002.
But Republicans have a special place in their hearts or maybe their gall bladders for Dunnam — their leading antagonist in the House — and they've assembled a team of people who usually don't get involved in incumbents' races to help raise money for his opponent, Jeffrey Hibbs.
The headliners at a barbecue for Hibbs next week are Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson. The host committee includes five Republican senators, each of whom served in the Texas House before winning a spot in the Senate: Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay, Kyle Janek of Houston, Steve Ogden of Bryan, Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio, and Tommy Williams of The Woodlands.
That breaks a couple of long-standing traditions: Texas legislators usually (not always, but usually) don't overtly help candidates challenging their colleagues, and legislators from the two chambers don't ordinarily get involved in challenges to incumbents in the other house. House members stay out of challenges to incumbent senators (unless they themselves are the challengers) and senators stay out of challenges to House incumbents.
Exceptions to that second "rule" are rare, but the first rule has been bent and twisted many times over the last few years and might be on its way to extinction. Republicans and Democrats have been tinkering around the edges of each other's races for years.
And they eat their own — sometimes more aggressively than they chew on partisan opponents: House Democrats punished several of their colleagues in this year's primaries for going against the group during the last regular legislative session. Democrats found and supported primary opponents for Democratic legislators —Reps. Ron Wilson of Houston and Glenn Lewis of Fort Worth, to name a couple — who openly supported Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick or who didn't go to Oklahoma to stall redistricting. Trial lawyers who traditionally back Democrats in contested races did likewise, targeting Democratic incumbents who voted for limits on liability awards in medical malpractice and other lawsuits. Republicans do it, too. They've been working for years to knock off members, like Rep. Tommy Merritt of Longview, who they think work too closely with Democrats.
With that said, it's very unusual for senators to jump into House races. Ogden and Dunnam have overlapping districts; the other senators involved are in other parts of the state. (Kip Averitt of Waco, whose district also overlaps Dunnam's, isn't listed as a Hibbs supporter on the fundraising invitation.)
Dunnam got on the Republican snit list by leading Democrats through the most partisan session in memory, and a couple of senators said privately that he'd crossed the invisible line between partisanship and obstructionism. Wentworth was more outspoken: "I think we've moved into a new area, and I hate to say that because I preferred the bipartisan environment in Austin to the environment in Washington." He said the triggers for the Republicans were the two walkouts last summer by legislative Democrats.
Patterson said he and Dunnam have been friendly but that the Democrat "has been rather partisan lately". Asked whether this would have future consequences when the Legislature comes back to work, he jokingly likened campaigning against Dunnam to dealing with other kinds of enemies: "It's kind of like terrorists — you've got nothing more to lose."
The Third Little Indian
Bill Stinson, the chief lobster for the Texas Association of Realtors for the last 12 years, has left the trade group to open his own shop. He says he will consult people running political action committees and hopes to lobby for a list of clients he's still compiling. Stinson, a former real estate agent who once served as TAR's elected, non-staff president, said he thinks the timing was right to make a change: He wanted to have time to sign up some clients before the legislative session, and wanted the Realtors to have time to absorb the change.
TAR was one of three major trade groups that crossed swords with Gov. Rick Perry in one or both of the last two election cycles (the Texas Medical Association and the Texas Automobile Dealers Association were the other two). TAR's political action committee supported Perry in his race against Democrat Tony Sanchez in 2002, but also backed longtime Perry rival John Sharp over Republican David Dewhurst in that year's contest for lieutenant governor (as did most other Austin trade groups, most of which are now, well, reformed). TAR strongly backed Sharp over Perry four years earlier.
After the elections, the Perry camp had all three groups in the crosshairs because of the candidates their PACs and/or leaders had supported. Gene Fondren retired from TADA after bringing in a Perry aide as heir apparent (a deal that fell through when the dealers picked association veteran Bill Walters over Robert Howden to replace Fondren). The doctors and their high-profile head lobbyist, Kim Ross, parted ways after the elections in an effort to send the political lightning bolts to ground. TMA added some lobbyists friendly to the winners of the election cycle, and moved on. The relationship between the car dealers and the governor remain strained, in part because of their rough handling of Howden.
Of the three, the Realtors resisted the pressure to change for the longest time; in fact, it's not at all clear that Stinson left because of any problems with the management in the Pink Building (take the lack of clarity as a plus for TAR). Stinson, who grew the association's PAC to a nearly $2 million operation, leaves with a $1.3 million balance there. The trade group has not yet named a replacement.
It Tolls for Us
We fumbled a story last week and this item exists to patch the mess we made and write this the way we should have done the first time. First off, Rep. Jack Stick, R-Austin, is a member of the regional transportation authority in Austin, and that group of officials did approve a bunch of toll roads around the area. But Stick, along with several other elected officials, voted against the toll roads.
Now the complicated part. There's a highway extension in that House district that is slated to be a toll road, and a local controversy — also in the district — about the neighborhoods that will be affected. Short form: Up to 35,000 people could find themselves paying 50 cents every time they want to use the 1/2-mile part of the extension that separates their homes from the end of the current highway. They're steamed.
Stick says the die was cast on that road before he was in office, but he and other officials are still working on it and there's some chance the neighborhoods will get a break. That's no guarantee, but it's a possibility, and the state is showing signs it might fix this thing for those residents.
Democrat Mark Strama, who's challenging Stick in the November elections, fired off a letter urging Gov. Rick Perry to do something about it, which is what prompted us to write about it. Perry is taking Stick's side, in a sideways kind of way: His office replied to Strama, noting that Strama lives in Stick's district and letting him know that Stick and Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, are already working on the issue and thanking him for the letter. Just to be helpful, the governor's office included office numbers for the senator and for Strama's opponent, directing him to them for further help.
As for the toll roads in the regional plan, keep watching. They're as unpopular as Brussels Sprouts, and the issue is rearing its head in other parts of the state, like Houston.
Budgeting on the Fly
Legislative budgeteers aren't going along with Gov. Rick Perry's push to spend $18 million in taxpayer money to cover fees on teacher health benefits. The Teacher Retirement System wanted teachers to pay the administrative fees on their health reimbursement accounts. The fees will cost each educator $42 a year, or $18 million total. Perry suggested paying it out of other state funds, but the Legislative Budget Board, which is having its year-end meeting on Monday, didn't put that on the agenda.
There's a back story: House Speaker Tom Craddick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst didn't want to do what the governor wanted to do. He announced it anyhow, and they decided not to put it on the LBB agenda. There's a policy issue behind the snag: The HRAs are not universally loved, and lawmakers want to see if there's a way out of the contract. Teacher groups are in the middle; as we reported last week, they were happy to have the money come from someone other than teachers, but questioned why anyone was paying anything at all. This isn't over, and with teachers in the middle, it's not gonna be quiet. In fact, those groups are already pressing lawmakers to fix it for them. But the budgeteers are not messing with it on Monday.
Some lawmakers were also irked that the governor announced plans to move $561 million into various health and human services programs, but Perry is on firmer ground here. He doesn't have the legal power to appropriate money, but this money was already appropriated — on a contingent basis — and the governor has a say in how it's spent. His aides say the House and Senate budgeteers had a right to help plan the moves, but that the governor can approve it himself. The legislative types tell a different story, saying their approval is needed. Anyway, that item made it onto the LBB's agenda.
The money will be used to restore Medicaid coverage for pregnant women, to address growing CHIP and Medicaid caseloads, and to keep other programs at current levels. It'll fill in about half of what now looks like a $600 million deficit in the Medicaid program — the other half will have to be covered later, when lawmakers return for a regular session in January. Another $53 million will go to reimburse doctors and hospitals for Medicaid work.
By Monday, the budgeteers are also hoping to have new numbers on enrollment in the Children's Health Insurance Program and Medicaid. Advocates for those programs say benefits have been cut and that people who were insured before are not covered now. Some CHIP advocates say the new influx of money won't be enough to add new kids to the covered group, but just enough to keep coverage where it is now. But defenders of the budget say a lot of kids who left CHIP are now covered by Medicaid. Both sides are hoping to get numbers, starting Monday, that'll tell the true story.
One more item from the governor's spending blitz will bypass the legislative budgeteers altogether: Perry found $3 million at the Texas Education Agency that can be reallocated to help teachers pay for school supplies. That skips the LBB and looks like a clean political win, if you're in the business of keeping score.
The Endorsement Game
The Texas Association of Business announced a new list of favorites (they added to the list — no changes). The group's PAC has already done a bunch of endorsing in federal and in statehouse races, and you can look at their full lists on their website, at www.txbiz.org.
For Congress, the business group is taking a straight GOP ticket in the tight races, favoring Louie Gohmert in CD-1; Ted Poe in CD-2; Arlene Wohlgemuth in CD-17; Randy Neugebauer in CD-19; and Pete Sessions in CD-32.
In the statehouse, their ticket is a little more mixed, but they've got some incumbent Democrats — like former House Speaker Pete Laney — in their crosshairs. They like Kent Sharp in that race. They prefer Charles "Doc" Anderson over Rep. John Mabry, D-Waco; Shirley Craft over Rep. David Farabee, D-Wichita Falls; and Ann Witt over Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston. In open races, they like Republicans: Pete Snow over Stephen Frost in HD-1; Terry Arnold over Abel Herrero in HD-34; and Eric Opiela over Yvonne Toureilles Gonzalez in HD-35. In their other newly announced races, the business group picked incumbents over challengers every time.
A Tale of Two Districts
Two freshmen in the Texas House, John Mabry, D-Waco, and Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, won their seats in hostile territory two years ago. Both had opponents whose personal problems overwhelmed the huge political advantages handed them by redistricting. And now both are defending for the first time, both with supporters who think they'll overcome their environments.
Look at the numbers. Mabry, running against Holt Getterman two years ago, got 51.4 percent of the vote. Other Democrats in that district didn't do so well, but Getterman's campaign came apart in an embarrassing series of pratfalls that included a 9-1-1 call from GOP headquarters, where the candidate was banging on a door hard enough to spook the staff. Mabry wasn't supposed to win, but he did.
Mercer's story is similar. He's in Democratic territory, and wasn't supposed to survive. But his opponent, Raul Prado, was in criminal legal trouble that crested just as voters were casting ballots. Mercer got 59 percent of the vote in a district drawn for the other team.
Both candidates are now incumbents, and that's worth something, but their political atmospheres are still hostile. Mabry's voters gave the average statewide candidate 67 percent of their votes two years ago. On average, Texas voters that year were 57 percent Republican in statewide races. But not one statewide Democrat won in HD-56. An interesting note, and one that Mabry's friends are touting: U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, carried the district, and he's on the ballot again this year, running against Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson. She's a Republican, but she's not local. If Edwards wins, the theory goes, Mabry ought to win, too.
Mercer's district is less hostile to the incumbent, but Republicans think he's in for a tough couple of months. Statewide Republican candidates averaged 47.6 percent of the vote in his district. Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs both won, but so did Tony Sanchez Jr. Mercer, who is Republican and Anglo, will have to win in a district that prefers Democrats and, when they're on the ballot, supports Hispanics. As with the Democrats working on the Waco race, the Republicans in San Antonio say they think Mercer can pull it off.
Standing in for the President
Though he regularly comes back to his ranch here, the President of the United States won't be campaigning in his home state. He will, however, be represented here: His surrogates and allies are busy helping Republican congressional candidates who are challenging redistricted incumbents, including the Democrat who represents Bush in Congress.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who'd be a prime beneficiary if Republicans bolster their advantage in the House, has been to Texas to help raise money. U.S. Commerce Secretary Don Evans, an old George W. Bush pal from the president's Midland days, had a Texas congressional swing on his calendar this month. And Vice President Dick Cheney has made two visits to help Republicans raise money against the Democrats. Karl Rove, the president's political advisor, canceled a trip that had been planned for Waco, saying he'd try to make it before the elections. Majority Whip Roy Blunt flew in to say nice words for Louie Gohmert in Lufkin; Gohmert, a Republican from Tyler, is running against U.S. Rep. Max Sandlin, D-Marshall.
One big name is missing so far. The man who helped set up those races in the first place by helping forge a deal on redistricting a year ago — U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land — has stayed away from the battles in his home state. DeLay's office hadn't called back by press time to say whether he's got any political aid missions to Texas on his calendar.
• U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Abilene, is getting some help from Republicans who'd apparently rather have a local congressman than one with GOP credentials. They've got their own webpage — it's at www.Republicans.Stenholm.org — and they're handing out bumper stickers. Their pitch is that he's experienced and that U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, is a freshman with less power. The flyers going around are signed by a handful of local leaders: Grady Barr, Celia Davis, Gary Galbraith, and Steve Stovall.
Flotsam & Jetsam
The Stars Over Texas PAC, a political action committee set up by the Republican leadership in the Texas House, is remarkably similar to the Texas Partnership PAC that was in place when the leadership was from the other party. There are some differences, but mostly in nuance. They're both there to defend incumbents in the leadership's party from challengers, and they both use committee chairs to drag the sack and raise money for the cause. The nuance is in how they advertise. To wit: A half-dozen committee chairs — with House Speaker Tom Craddick listed as a special guest — held a fundraiser in Austin. Levels of giving were attached to levels of access. Underwriters who gave $10,000 got two tickets to attend a private reception; Benefactors, giving $5,000, got one ticket; and Patrons, Friends, and Hosts, giving $2,500, $1,000, and $500, respectively, got no tickets at all.
• Bobby Inman, the former director of the National Security Agency, deputy director of the CIA, candidate for defense secretary, and tech executive, is headlining a fundraiser for Rep. Jack Stick, R-Austin. It's at the home of congressman-to-be Michael McCaul, the Austin Republican who won the primary and who is running without Democratic opposition in November.
• In the Waco edition of this year's debate games, the Chet Edwards campaign tried to bait Arlene Wohlgemuth with a series of questions, but they got an answer that makes less of a story than they might have sought. From the congressman's camp came a fax asking whether the state rep would debate him in her hometown of Burleson, whether she'd debate in College Station next Friday, and whether her staff would meet with his staff — in front of local media — to set the rest of the debate schedule. Instead of a debate over debates, they got Yes, Yes, and Yes, at 8 a.m. at Denny's in College Station. Game over?
• New campaign issue: Democrat Robin Moore, running against Roy Blake Jr. for the seat left open by Rep. Wayne Christian's decision to run for Congress, challenges the Republican to come out against rising college tuition. The Legislature voted to deregulate tuition at state universities, freeing them to raise tuition as they see fit.
• Rep. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, got the endorsement of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, or CLEAT. Among other things, they cited his work on legislation involving pay for peace officers working on holiday weekends.
• Six Libertarian candidates for Texas congressional seats got the endorsement of Congress for Peace, a group that advocates against war and gives its blessing to anti-war candidates (they're talking about all wars and not one in particular). They are Kevin Anderson, CD-4 (Ralph Hall, R-Rockwall, is the incumbent); Stephen Schrader, CD-6 (Joe Barton, R-Ennis); Stacey Lynn Bourland, CD-9 (an open seat where Chris Bell, D-Houston, lost the primary); Jeffrey Blunt, CD-11 (a newly drawn open seat that includes Midland); Clyde Garland, CD-17 (Chet Edwards, D-Waco, is the incumbent); and Christopher Claytor, CD-27 (Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, is the incumbent). The Libertarian Party is fielding congressional candidates in all but one of the state's 32 districts this year. Texas Democrats and Texas Republicans are each skipping three of those contests.
• File this under Things People Do to Attract Television and Newspaper Reporters: U.S. Reps. Pete Sessions and Martin Frost of Dallas escalated their sign wars this week. Sessions started it off by complaining to reporters that the Frost campaign had unleashed a barrage of signs at the school where Sessions kiddo was going for his first day. The signs weren't just at the curb; they were on playground equipment and everything else. Quite a display, but there was no proof Frost's campaign did the dirty work. When that cycled around, Frost's camp suggested the signs might have been put there by Sessions, and they unfurled a two-year-old police report — no charges attached — detailing an officer's visit with two men who were removing political signs from the roadside. One of the men was Pete Sessions, and the signs were promoting the candidacy of his opponent at the time. Sessions camp said nothing illegal happened, and there were, in fact, no charges filed and no arrests made.
Political People and Their Moves
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Dallas and U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla of San Antonio will co-chair the Republican Party's national convention. Bonilla had the same job at the 2000 convention, and in 1996, one of the co-chairs was then-Gov. George W. Bush. The convention starts on August 30; Hutchison told the Houston Chronicle she'll miss the first day because it's the first day of pre-school for her 3-year-old daughter...
Former legislator Dan Shelley is telling friends in the lobby that he'll be back in the governor's office soon, advising Gov. Rick Perry on legislative matters. Legislative liaison Patricia Shipton is leaving that shop, and said in resigning that she hasn't decided which of a number of public and private sector jobs she'll take. Shelley is being considered as her replacement, and there don't seem to be any other names in the mix, but the deal isn't inked. He had that job under then-Gov. George W. Bush before leaving to work as a freelance lobbyist...
Bill Kenyon is taking over communications at the Texas Secretary of State's office, replacing Jennifer Waisath. Kenyon last worked for Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, but he's got a long and colorful resume that includes stints with the Dallas Morning News, gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams, presidential candidate Morrie Taylor and a number of other gigs...
Anne Dunkelberg, after ten years at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, is getting a promotion to assistant director. She's a specialist in health care policy and will keep doing that, adding administrative duties that had been the province of Patrick Bressette, who is leaving CPPP for a new gig...
Laura Matz is leaving Thompson & Knight at the end of the month to join Santos Alliances, the lobby shop started by Frank Santos, where she'll concentrate on education issues. She'll also do some work with Todd Smith's firm, Impact Texas (That's Todd Smith of the lobby, not Rep. Todd Smith of Euless). Matz was at Stewart Title's Austin office for several years before joining the law firm...
Appointments: Gov. Rick Perry tapped Clifford Vacek of Simonton (west of Houston) to be the man in black in the 400th District Court in Fort Bend County. He has a private law practice and owns and operates a ranch. He was already on the November ballot, but is getting the job now because of Judge Bradley Smith's resignation to preside over a newly created "special sanctions" court...
Quotes of the Week
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, explaining on NBC's Meet the Press what he meant when he wrote that President George W. Bush can be "a little Texas cocky" but that they have a good relationship: "Yeah, I think there's something about Texas. I mean, they have a pride in their state and Texas sometimes comes through. I have a great relationship with Tom DeLay, but I think he's a little Texas cocky once in a while, too."
Austin ISD official John Moore, describing priorities in an Austin American-Statesman report on the district's new dress code and the 6,000 kids barred on the first day of school because they lacked required vaccinations: "We're just trying to get them into school, then we'll deal with how they look."
U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, finally conceding the election to Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, after his latest attempt to challenge the results was denied by the Texas Supreme Court, in an email to the Associated Press: "I don't intend to pursue any further legal action on the 2004 election."
U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Massachusetts, who publicly announced his homosexuality in 1987, quoted in The New York Times after New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey's announcement and resignation: "You can be a dysfunctional member of Congress, but not a dysfunctional governor."
David Rebovich of the Rider [University] Institute for New Jersey Politics, on his state's reputation, quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "I hate to say this, but in many ways, it's all true. We lead the nation in the number of ex-mayors now in federal prison."
American Olympic swimmer Haley Cope, in Playboy: "I'm a freak. I vote Republican, I worship Martha Stewart and I don't mind being naked."
Texas Weekly: Volume 21, Issue 10, 23 August 2003. 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.