With Labor Day behind us and the finish line on the horizon, at least a dozen Texas House races should be handicapped as serious contests. Mark another nine or so as contests that could turn if conditions change significantly or if an incumbent slips or underestimates the problem.
Two-thirds of the hot races have incumbents from the GOP majority. In theory, voters could make serious alterations in the Texas House on Election Day. Say it this way: It's not likely, it's not impossible.
• In HD-1, Republican H.E. "Pete" Snow of Texarkana is running against Democrat Stephen Frost of Atlanta in a contest to replace Rep. Barry Telford, D-DeKalb. You have to like the names, if nothing else, but both parties are seriously working the contest. It overlaps the hot congressional race between U.S. Rep. Max Sandlin, D-Marshall, and Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler.
• Republicans and honest Democrats thought HD-5 was in safe GOP hands until the last two weeks before replacement deadlines. The Democrat in the race moved, freeing the party chairs in the four counties there to put Dr. Bob Glaze on the ballot. Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, unseated Glaze two years ago. It's a marginally Republican district, but Glaze is well known and well financed. This wasn't on our list a month ago, but now it's one of the hot contests.
• Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, gave up a shot at reelection to run for Congress. He lost to Gohmert, and now HD-9 will be represented by someone from Nacogdoches: Either Roy Blake Jr., the former mayor and the namesake of a former state senator, or Robin Moore, a Democrat who lost to Christian two years ago (by about 10 percentage points) and decided to take another shot.
• In HD-19, freshman Rep. Mike "Tuffy" Hamilton, R-Mauriceville, is being challenged by Rex Peveto, a Democrat whose father, Wayne Peveto, was the force behind legislation two decades ago that outlawed the state property tax. That's an anti-tax credential, but it also is on the potential chopping block since state lawmakers need money — maybe from a state property tax — to fix school finance and lower local property levies.
• The last two races in HD-45 have been tight as the bark on a tree. The first went to Republican Rep. Rick Green of Dripping Springs after a recount that featured a preview of Florida's hanging chad problems. The second went to Patrick Rose, a Democrat who later stuck with his party on redistricting and who crossed the trial lawyers who back his party with his votes on liability award limits in lawsuits. The Republican this time around is Alan Askew.
• HD-48 is in Austin and is held by freshman Rep. Todd Baxter, a Republican attorney who knocked off an incumbent Democrat two years ago. Democrat Kelly White, who ran a shelter for abused women and children before getting into this, is trying to win it back for the Democrats.
• HD-50 is also in Austin, also features a freshman Republican attorney — Jack Stick. Democrat Mark Strama, a former Senate aide who did a couple of Internet startups, has put together a well-organized challenge and the experts think this could be one of the tightest races this year.
• Rep. John Mabry, D-Waco, isn't supposed to be a member of the Texas House and probably wouldn't be if his opponent two years ago hadn't melted down in one of the weirdest campaigns of the last decade. But Holt Getterman isn't here to kick around anymore, and Charles "Doc" Anderson, vanquished by Getterman two years ago, is the GOP nominee in HD-56 this time. It's a solidly Republican district; Mabry's chances could get a boost from the overlapping congressional race featuring another Waco Democrat, Chet Edwards.
• Rep. David Farabee, D-Wichita Falls, might be the last Democrat to hold his seat in HD-69 as it's currently configured, but he's from a well-regarded and well-known family and that helps. The Republican challenger is Shirley Craft, also from Wichita Falls. It's a serious race.
• Texas Democrats have had Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie, in their sights for a while, and if you ask them to pick three races they really want to win, HD-106 is always on their list. Allen is the chairman of the House Corrections Committee, and they want to hang some leadership pelts. He's already taken a couple of dings — the Fort Worth Star-Telegram wrote about his state staff working on private business on private computers but in his state office. The Democrat in the race is Katy Hubener, an environmental activist and consultant who is making her first race.
• HD-117 is a sort of mirror image of the Waco seat that went to Mabry. Rep. Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, was the lucky duck in this one two years ago, winning with an Anglo name in a Democratic district where the majority of voters are Hispanic. This time, he's facing David McQuade Liebowitz, a trial lawyer who lost a Senate race to Democrat Leticia Van de Putte a few years ago. That contest cost him the support of some San Antonio Democrats, but he's capable of spending a lot of personal money and the trial lawyers in Austin have this on their priorities list. That could work for Mercer, if you think about it, and neither candidate has whatever edge a Spanish surname would bring.
• Rep. Talmadge Heflin, R-Houston, is at the top of the Democratic hit list, but Republicans are aware of that and will mount a strong defense. Heflin, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, would be quite a trophy. The Democrat in HD-149 is Hubert Vo, a businessman of Vietnamese descent.
Heflin's plusses: He's been around, knows the district, the numbers in the last election favored Republicans over Democrats, he has the ability to raise a boodle of money, and will be capable of running a big ol' juggernaut campaign.
Vo's: The district's demographics are in his favor (37% Anglo, 20.5% Black, 22.9% Hispanic, 20% Other; read "other" as "Asian), he's well-financed, and Heflin didn't perform as well as the average Republican candidate in the district two years ago. Still to be seen:
Heflin and his wife recently tried and failed to win custody of the Black child of a woman who had been living with them, and got a lot of unwanted media attention in the process. Heflin testified during the custody hearings that, "We all know the terrible problem that Black male children have growing up into manhood without being in prison."
It's hard to say how that will play, or whether it's an issue Vo will raise, but it's surely something to watch between now and when the voting begins.
Maybe and Maybe Not
Incumbents look relatively safe in nine races, but could get caught by events or if they nod off.
• HD-3, Rep. Mark Homer, D-Paris, and challenger Kirby Hollingsworth, R-Mount Vernon.
• HD-11, Rep. Chuck Hopson, D-Jacksonville faces teacher Mike Albert, R-Troup.
• HD-12, where Rep. Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin, faces former Rep. Billy Clemons, R-Groveton.
• HD-18, Rep. Dan Ellis, D-Livingston, against John Otto, R-Dayton.
• HD-34, an open race pitting Democrat and attorney Abel Herrero against Republican and businessman Terry Arnold. The best way to describe this is to say Republicans we talked to think it's a sleeper; the Democrats we talked to think those Republicans are koo-koo for Cocoa Puffs.
• That's a fair description of the argument in the adjacent HD-35, where the Republican is Eric Opiela, an attorney and rancher from Karnes City who's been to Austin for a Tom Craddick-hosted fundraiser — and the Democrat is Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles, an attorney from Alice.
• Here's a Democratic fever dream: HD-59, where Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, is being challenged by Rodney Nauert, a Copperas Cove Democrat who owns an auto parts store.
• Two adjacent Houston races are on the party wish lists. In HD-134, Republican Rep. Martha Wong faces Democrat Jim Dougherty. The Democrats have hopes and the Republicans can't see why.
• In HD-135, the hope and incredulity are flipped. Rep. Scott Hochberg, the Democrat, wasn't supposed to survive redistricting, but he did, and consolidated the win. His opponent is Ann Witt.
Meet the New Boss
Gov. Rick Perry appointed Deirdre Delisi to be his chief of staff, replacing Mike Toomey, who ended weeks of speculation by announcing his departure last week. Toomey's already outta there, headed back to the private sector and the freedom to lobby everybody but the governor for the next year. Delisi, who'd been Toomey's Number Two and who also ran Perry's gubernatorial campaign in 2002, has the title as you read this and is already in the second-highest box on the org chart.
She's not the first female to hold the job, but at 32, is the youngest in memory. Delisi graduated from Duke University and got a grad degree at Stanford University. She's worked for Perry since 1997 and before that worked for Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mt. Pleasant. Her mother-in-law, Dianne White Delisi, is a Republican state rep from Temple; her husband, Ted Delisi, is a political consultant.
Delisi is Perry's fourth chief of staff since he became governor in early 2001. Toomey was preceded by Barry McBee and Mike McKinney. Her title last week was senior deputy chief of staff. Nobody is getting that label, but Jay Kimbrough got a promotion to deputy chief of staff, joining Phil Wilson, who already had (and will retain) that same title.
Still to come: Perry hasn't announced a new legislative liaison to replace Patricia Shipton, who's leaving for private sector pastures. Former Sen. Dan Shelley, who had the job under Gov. George W. Bush, heads the rumor list for replacements. At the moment, he's a self-employed lobbyist.
Gov. Rick Perry is getting a rare shot at a Trifecta on the Texas Supreme Court. With the resignation — effective just Labor Day — of Chief Justice Tom Phillips, and the elevation to the federal bench — confirmed by the U.S. Senate just after Labor Day — of Justice Michael Schneider, the governor gets to name the head of the court and add two new members to the ranks.
The last governor to name a chief justice was Bill Clements; he picked Phillips in 1987. Perry has had an extraordinary run since taking office in 2001, appointing several judges after a period of relative stability on the state's highest civil court. The governor appointed Scott Brister late last year. Schneider was a Perry pick for the Texas court about this time two years ago. He named Wallace Jefferson to the court in 2001, and Jefferson won election to the court the next year.
When this round is over, Perry will have put four of the nine justices on the court, including the chief justice. He helped beat another one, aiding in the GOP primary defeat of Stephen Wayne Smith earlier this year. Smith's offense was beating a Perry appointee, Xavier Rodriguez, in the GOP primary in 2002. The governor's gang recruited Judge Paul Green of Houston, who beat Smith last March. Only three justices on the court predate Perry's time in the Governor's Mansion: Nathan Hecht, who joined the court in 1989; Priscilla Owen, who came on board in 1995, and Harriett O'Neill, who took office in 1999.
Jefferson is apparently on Perry's short list for chief justice. Brister, who is on the November ballot, has told friends he doesn't want to turn around and run again for election as chief justice. Owen is still a prospect for a federal appointment if George W. Bush wins reelection (her appointment to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stalled in the U.S. Senate when Republicans couldn't attract enough votes from Democrats to confirm her nomination).
Hecht, with both the tenure and the intellectual chops to lead the court, brings no political bonus to the conversation; with a chance to name the first minority or woman to the middle seat on the nine-member court, Perry has a chance at making some news and doing what Democrats have always talked about and never accomplished. Hecht might be a solid choice with conservatives, but wouldn't win the governor any political points he hasn't already won.
Aides to the governor say there is no official short list, and offer no hints as to when Perry will announce his appointments to the court.
Moonlighting as Public Officials
Lawmakers who are also lawyers got a surprising warning during the last legislative session from attorney and state Rep. Steve Wolens, D-Dallas, who rose to tell them that a vote on the tort reform bill — the legislation limiting damages in medical liability and other cases — could get them in trouble at work.
He was referring to an appeals court decision that held the Dallas-based Jenkens & Gilchrist firm liable for a vote that Irving Councilman Harry Joe — one of their lawyers — made as a council member against one of their clients. Joe voted in favor of a moratorium on buildings that shut down a project pursued by one of the firm's clients (Joe wasn't the attorney, but one of his partners was on the case). The client sued, saying the firm should have given him notice before the vote and about the conflict of interest.
A lower court agreed, but the justices on the Texas Supreme Court ruled like the lawyers at Jenkens (and elsewhere) were hoping they'd rule: Legislative immunity protects lawyers who, as lawmakers, vote against the interests of the clients they serve in their full-time jobs.
It Doesn't Hurt If You Laugh
While the court was making the lawyer/lawmaker class happy with that, it was making scribblers happy with another opinion. The court said Denton County District Attorney Bruce Isaacks and Juvenile Court Judge Darlene Whitten were not libeled by the Dallas Observer, overturning a lower court's ruling against the alternative weekly.
The paper ran a satirical piece in 1999 that said Denton County had jailed a six-year-old for a book report about "cannibalism, fanaticism, and disorderly conduct" in Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are. It included a fake quote from Judge Whitten, directed at the fictional first grader: "It's time for you to grow up, young lady, and it's time for us to stop treating kids like children." Isaacks was also "quoted" in the fictional account. The officials said their reputations were wrecked with readers who believed the story.
In real life, Whitten had jailed a 13-year-old from Ponder for making terroristic threats because he fulfilled a class assignment to write a scary story by writing one about a kid shooting a teacher and two students (the Supreme Court noted that he got a 100, plus extra credit for reading it aloud to the class). The principal at the school read the tale freaked out, called the sheriff, and Whitten ordered the student to jail for ten days. She later lowered it to five, and Isaacks declined to prosecute. The people at the Observer were apparently inspired by the true story and decided to satirize the incident.
Justice Wallace Jefferson, writing for a unanimous court, made a distinction between harm and humor, saying in effect that the public officials should grow thicker skin: "... evidence of intent to ridicule is not evidence of actual malice. Rather, actual malice concerns the defendant’s attitude toward the truth, not toward the plaintiff... Elected public officials, like Isaacks and Whitten, must become enured to the slings and arrows of public life."
The decision includes a footnote expanding on the idea that in any satire, someone will take the spoof seriously. It's a great footnote, based on reporting by Wired magazine, and it's a slow news week, so we'll give you the whole bit:
"For example, earlier this year, the Beijing Evening News, in a story written by Huang Ke, reported that Congress was threatening to bolt Washington, D.C. unless it got a new, modern Capitol building, complete with retractable roof... Unfortunately, Ke's source for this information was The Onion, the satirical publication that bills itself as 'America's Finest News Source.'... The Evening News later apologized but blamed The Onion, writing that '[s]ome small American newspapers frequently fabricate offbeat news to trick people into noticing them with the aim of making money.' According to Carol Kolb, Onion editor, "People every single day think The Onion stories are real." One piece, called "Al-Qaida Allegedly Engaging in Telemarketing," prompted the Branch County, Michigan sheriff's department to issue an urgent press release warning of the purported practice. In a similar vein, an article entitled "Chinese Woman Gives Birth to Septuplets: Has One Week to Choose" provoked prayer vigils on behalf of the six babies who would be rejected. Additionally, Deborah Norville reported on MSNBC that more than half of all exercise done in the United States happens in TV infomercials for workout machines, a "statistic" obtained from an Onion article."
Candidates who fall off the ballot between now and Election Day can't be replaced, and the final list of contenders is online at www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/ voter/2004candsxs.shtml. Two House races changed in the last week. Democrat Bob Glaze, a former House member, will be challenging the guy who unseated him two years ago: Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola. And Democrat Jim Stauber from Liberty Hill has signed on to run against Rep. Dan Gattis, R-Georgetown, replacing Lee Stewart on the ballot. Glaze is replacing Mark Breding, who moved his legal residence to Tyler, which is outside the district. That's an automatic disqualifier and opened a spot on the ballot for the Gilmer chiropractor.
While we're on ballots, this bit is official: Ralph Nader is a certified write-in candidate, which means they'll count his votes if he gets any. But as we said previously, he won't be listed on the ballot in Texas and the courts are satisfied, for now, with the rules in place to qualify independent candidates. Nader, you'll recall, missed the deadline and then had too few qualified signatures on his petitions.
Those are the most important deadlines, but not the last ones. Write-in candidates can withdraw their names from consideration until September 17. Election officials can start mailing voting ballots as early as September 18 (people are already sending in requests for those mail-in ballots to county clerks and have to have those requests in the hands of election officials by October 26). Inspection of voting machines — until the last few years, a game strictly for insiders and other election nerds — starts October 3. Early voting starts October 18 and ends October 29. Election Day is November 2.
Flotsam & Jetsam
• For a good, solid, scientific, and thoroughly depressing read on traffic in your part of the state (or on other spots in the U.S.), the Texas Transportation Institution's Mobility Report is out. TTI, headquartered at Texas A&M University, says traffic trends over the last 20 years are going just as you might have feared: Backwards. Traffic has been growing faster than road capacity, and it can be measured and costed, by city and by state. You can download the report or check out the numbers for a particular city on their website at http://mobility.tamu.edu/ums/.
• Texans for Public Justice has again released the lobby's favorite annual report, with a new title this year: "Austin's Oldest Profession, Texas' Top Lobby Clients & Those Who Service Them." It's available online, at www.tpj.org, with a searchable database to go alongside the watchdog group's write-up. They cite numbers showing Texas has the second-biggest statehouse lobby in the U.S., with at least $137.4 million spent on 2003 contracts. California spending was $191 million. The $137 million includes meals and other stuff; the contracts themselves were worth at least $132 million and as much as $276 million.
As usual, the fly in the soup is the state's reporting law. Lobbyists and the interests that hire them don't have to disclose exact contract amounts, just the ranges for those contract values. By industry, the biggest spenders in Texas were energy/natural resources concerns, followed by "ideological/single issue," then health, and then miscellaneous business.
• The problem with access to health care, according to the Texas Association of Business, is that the state's minimum standards for policies are too high, and that malpractice awards for non-economic damages are too high. The trade group did a report on the subject, and you can find it online at www.txbiz.org.
They cite statistics from the National Academy of Sciences that say 26 percent of Texans are uninsured. By their reckoning, 75 percent of Texans without health insurance are full-time workers (or their dependents) and that 56 percent live in homes with household incomes above $75,000The group wants the state to allow exemptions to state standards for coverage to make cheaper policies available for companies that can't afford what's out there now.
• The Texas Farm Bureau's political action committee — AGFUND — has started up a website to raise money and show people who the PAC is backing. It's at www.txfbagfund.org. They have an interesting twist you don't see very often: Click on the name of anyone they've endorsed and it gives you some information about the candidate, a link to the candidate's website and — the unusual bit — an explanation for the group's endorsement of that particular candidate.
Political People and Their Moves
Texas Supreme Court Justice Michael Schneider is leaving for the federal bench; the U.S. Senate confirmed his nomination to replace John Hannah Jr., the late federal district judge from East Texas. Schneider didn't get tangled in the bad blood between the White House and the Senate; his nomination went through rapidly and only one senator — Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa — voted against him...
Jeff Fisher is the new political director at the Republican Party of Texas, replacing Chad Wilbanks, and completing a turnover of top staff that began with the election of Tina Benkiser as chairwoman of the party last year. Fisher has been Van Zandt County Judge for four years and was a political consultant and conservative activist before that as executive director of the Texas Christian Coalition and as stat director of the American Family Association...
Andy Brown leaves the Austin office of Baker Botts to run the reelection campaign of U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin. Before becoming a lawyer, he was executive director of the 21st Century Democrats, a group aimed at attracting young people to that side of the political spectrum...
Kristie Zamrazil is escaping the media but at a price — now she'll be dealing with lawmakers. Zamrazil is moving from communications at the state's Health and Human Services Commission to the legislative office. Sharon Carter heads that office but has new duties working on integrated eligibility...
Michelle Wittenburg, general counsel to House Speaker Tom Craddick, is leaving state employment for a job with the law firm started by former congressman and Texas Railroad Commissioner Kent Hance. She did stints with Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, and with former Sens. J.E. "Buster" Brown, and Bill Sims before signing up with Hance, Scarborough, Wright, Ginsberg & Brusilow...
Tammy Dowe, a former denizen of the Pink Building who heads government relations for the Greater Houston Partnership, is leaving that outfit for a similar title with CITGO, which is now headquartered in Houston. The Partnership hasn't named a replacement.
Quotes of the Week
Vice President Dick Cheney in Des Moines, quoted by the Associated Press: "It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we'll get hit again and we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States, and that we'll fall back into the pre-9/11 mind-set, if you will, that in fact these terrorist attacks are just criminal acts and that we're not really at war."
Former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes — now a top John Kerry supporter, quoted by The New York Times on helping George W. Bush and others find spots in the Texas Air National Guard: "I'm not particularly proud of what I did. While I understand why parents wanted to shield their sons from danger, I abused my position of power by helping only those who knew me or had access to me."
House Speaker Tom Craddick of Midland, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about the president as a young man: "He was real loose. He was single and had a good time. He wasn't a good dresser."
President George W. Bush, at the GOP convention: "You may have noticed I have a few flaws, too. People sometimes have to correct my English — I knew I had a problem when Arnold Schwarzenegger started doing it. Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger, which in Texas is called 'walking'. Now and then I come across as a little too blunt — and for that we can all thank the white-haired lady sitting right up there."
Former First Lady Barbara Bush, after her granddaughters joked at the GOP convention that she's not quite hip, in The Dallas Morning News: "What is Sex in the City? Same as in the country, isn't it?"
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, on schools going to court to change school finance, quoted in the San Antonio Express-News: "We've lost our minds. What's the judge supposed to do? Pass a tax bill? It's not good. It's as unpredictable as a hurricane."
Aviation consultant Michael Boyd, quoted in The Dallas Morning News on the state of air safety three years after 9/11: "We've accomplished almost nothing. We have hired a lot of nice people in white shirts to look for pointy objects."
Texas Weekly: Volume 21, Issue 13, 13 September 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.