U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison told a gaggle of reporters this summer that she'd be announcing her political plans early next summer, and aides say nothing has changed since then. The question, of course, is whether she'll run for reelection, run for governor, or give up show biz. None of that is new, and it's no longer news that political people without much to watch in state elections this year are obsessing on that question. But that obsessing, along with worries over the financing of schools and the financing of political campaigns, is producing some weird and interesting ideas about politics in Texas over the next 18 months, through a legislative session and into the 2006 primaries. To wit:
• School finance is pushing Gov. Rick Perry into a corner. Timing is against him, because the Texas Supreme Court doesn't have the case yet and could easily take a year to hold hearings, read a pile of arguments and then work out something that's acceptable to at least five justices. In political terms, that's the same as taking the bullets out of the gun pointed at the Legislature's head. Without such incentives, lawmakers have historically been unwilling to pass big tax bills or make big spending cuts that might awaken voters. I
t's not just timing, either: Before and after state District Judge John Dietz said the system is afoul of the law, Perry said he thinks the Supreme Court will overturn Dietz's decision. From a legislative standpoint, that's another reason not to do anything dramatic.
• An early entry into the governor's race, if that's what she wants to do, would carry some risk for Hutchison, but could also increase Perry's problems. Start with the knockdown: Hutchison's political folk say this supposition is bunk. That hasn't stopped the musing, though.
If Hutchison decides to announce a run for governor anytime between mid-December and the end of the legislative session, she will be the only officeholder in the race who can raise money during the first half of 2005. State law bars legislators and statewide officials from political fundraising while the Legislature is in session, and tacks an extra month on that ban before the session, and enough time to get gubernatorial vetoes out of the way on the back end. Hutchison, who's a federal official, isn't covered by the ban, and neither are political donors. She would have to take care not to trip the wires laid out in the new federal campaign finance laws, but she would be the only candidate dragging the sack.
Early entry would also compound Perry's problems, because opponents could play him as a lame duck and tell squishy allies of the governor to hold their ammunition until after the GOP primary in 2006.
• A late Hutchison entry into the gubernatorial scrap could leave Carole Keeton Strayhorn on point, with Hutchison waiting in the wings to scoop up the proceeds. It's like a heist movie where gangsters pull off a daring and dangerous robbery only to be robbed in turn by other, bigger gangsters who take no risk but get away with all the loot. Strayhorn has been blasting Perry since shortly after he won election in late 2002. Her bet, apparently, is that voters will get sick of what they've got, freeing her to walk in as the fresh alternative. If it worked, it wouldn't be the first time in politics, or even in Texas politics. But Strayhorn's risk is that she's damaged in the fight she started and that Hutchison or someone else could walk out with the jewels.
Some Perry advisors will say Hutchison can't raise the money to make a race with Perry. What's in her federal account can't be used, directly, and could be tough to convert. The Hutchison people say they're not worried about it, and oddly enough, they don't seem to be worried. Maybe it's spin, but then again. And someone close to Strayhorn puts it into this perspective: If supporters think Perry is politically weak and could lose, they'll put their money on the candidate they think is on top.
Look at this array of numbers as if you wanted to mess with the status quo in the Texas GOP: 1990, 10.32%; 1994, 6.16%; 1998, 5.35%; and 2002, 5.09%.
Those are the turnout percentages for the last four Republican gubernatorial primaries, and they show what happens when there's a contest. In 1990, the GOP had a four-way battle featuring (in the order they finished) Clayton Williams Jr., Kent Hance, Tom Luce, and Jack Rains. Three minor candidates pulled less than 2,400 votes each. In 1994 and 1998, George W. Bush was the only major candidate at the top of the state ticket (don't call — we know federal races go first, and also that they don't usually drive the turnout), and in 2002, Rick Perry was all alone in March.
The contested GOP primary in that cluster drew about twice as many voters as the plain old GOP primaries. From another angle: When the Texas GOP doesn't have an incumbent in a race for governor, they pile in and vote (they also show up in droves when they've got a Texan on the national ballot in a contested race, but that's another story).
If you're sorting through the possibilities for a gubernatorial race in 2006, the numbers hold a question: When more Republicans show up to vote, what kind of Republicans are they? Conventional wisdom is that the most conservative part of the Republican Party shows up all the time, and that the moderates are foul-weather voters who don't show when the sun's out and everything is nice and smooth; they like battles. The current incumbent is unquestionably popular in Republican primaries: He's conservative and so are they. But if the turnout in the primary is doubled, and the conservative vote diluted, is that still Rick Perry's crowd?
Deposit, No Return
Finding a Texas Republican who's mad at former Lt. Gov. and House Speaker Ben Barnes is easy. Barnes, after all, revived the story about how George W. Bush got into the Texas Air National Guard, and though he didn't add anything substantial to the tale he told four years ago, he did put new wind in the sails. Folks in the Rick Perry wing of the GOP spotted an opportunity. They started pestering people who walk around with recorders and notepads to ask Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn if she's planning to give back any of the contributions she received from Barnes and his family. Those contributions, at last look, totaled about $35,000, and her answer is nope. She says she loves the prez and is a Republican and also counts Barnes as a bud and that's that.
She's not the only Republican beneficiary of the Barnes family checkbooks. Attorney General Greg Abbott's filings with the Texas Ethics Commission show a $5,000 contribution from Barnes on December 4, 2002, right after Abbott beat Democrat Kirk Watson in the race for AG. Others in the GOP have been working on him to give up the cash and he's remained quiet about it for a couple of weeks. But when we called, the AG decided to bail on Barnes. This from the mouth of Jason Johnson, the AG's chief of staff: "We just can't in good conscience put it back in his pocket, so we made a $5,000 contribution to the Republican Party of Texas." Now the GOP has to decide what to do with it.
Listening to the Supremes
We're stunned at the number of smart people who didn't know the Texas congressional redistricting case is still alive, but they're numerous and they're out there. Expect news on this in a matter of minutes or hours or days: The lawyers for the state and against it are waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to say whether it'll take the Texas case or not. Whatever they do, voting in the first elections under the new lines will commence in about two weeks.
• While those lawyers bite their fingernails and fret, others are waiting for state District Judge John Dietz to present a detailed ruling on school finance. He said he'd do so in the vicinity of October 1. Attorney General Greg Abbott plans to appeal directly to the Texas Supreme Court to speed things up, but some of the lawyers in that case expect an appeal to take at least six months and probably longer. The court could move faster if it pleases, but don't bet any real money on a final ruling from the Supremes before the end of next year's regular legislative session.
A new grand jury is getting started in Austin, but it takes these things a while to get rolling — they have to be brought up to date on everything that's been done before so they can decide what to do next. In terms of this year's elections, the investigation into Republican machinations in 2002 is over. Coming up in a week: Initial hearings for the three people and eight companies indicted September 21.
Some of the lawyers there have told reporters and others that it could easily be a year before anything goes to trial. And a lawyer for John Colyandro told his local paper, the Austin American-Statesman, that they might try for a change of venue to a county that's not so hostile to Republicans.
That was part of the conversation a decade ago, when U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison was indicted (later acquitted when prosecutors, undone by a judge's ruling against them, conceded). Austin isn't nearly the liberal bastion it was, but the argument still holds, and Colyandro's lawyers (as well as the lawyers for co-defendants James Ellis and Warren RoBold) do have some gunpowder available.
In 2002, Democrat Ron Kirk easily beat John Cornyn in Travis County, but the Republican went on to the Senate with an easy statewide victory. Democrat Tony Sanchez was swamped in the statewide election, but in Travis County beat Rick Perry by 213 votes of more than 220,000 cast. The county voted against several statewide Republicans who won two years ago: Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Attorney General Greg Abbott, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, four justices of the Texas Supreme Court and three judges on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Former Austin Mayor Carole Keeton Strayhorn won her hometown, and Susan Combs, who represented part of the county when she was a legislator, squeaked by, as did Tom Phillips, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court.
It's changing, but the numbers in Travis County still favor Democrats in elections where the majority of the state's voters prefer the Republicans.
Reactions, Cautious and Not
Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, is the former first assistant to Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, and is also the treasurer of a political action committee called Stars Over Texas. That PAC, essentially a mirror of a PAC set up years ago by Democrats, raises money to protect incumbent Republicans in the House who face challengers. Until the grand jury issued its indictments, the PAC was taking corporate money. No more. Keel returned corporate money that had already come in, saying he wasn't admitting any guilt but didn't want to saddle candidates with questions about where their money came from. The PAC will wait to see what Keel's old boss thinks is legal.
• House Speaker Tom Craddick is waiving the statute of limitations, saying he did nothing wrong and doesn't want a deadline pushing prosecutors toward indictments. Misdemeanors can't be chased down after two years, and the prosecutors figured the beginning of November was, more or less, their deadline to act. The deal with Craddick removes the pressure to make a case against Craddick in the next 30 days, if there's a case to be made at all.
• Tom DeLay is not from Austin and doesn't do much of his political work there (except in redistricting years), but he'll be dragging the sack in the state capital next week, figuratively thumbing his nose at the prosecutors who've been investigating his efforts two years ago. The U.S. House's majority leader is raising money for his reelection campaign against Democrat Richard Morrison, and it'll be his first visit since a Travis County grand jury indicted three associates who ran the Texans for a Republican Majority PAC in 2002.
DeLay established that PAC and served on its board; it was formed to get a GOP majority in the Texas House. The efforts paid off, and the newly Republican Legislature redrew the state's congressional districts in an effort to flip control of the congressional delegation to their party. That's working, too, but the final results are a month away, when voters will decide the fates of Democratic incumbents in five Texas congressional districts.
DeLay, R-Sugar Land, is facing a spirited challenge from Morrison, but the Democrat needs a miracle; he's running against an entrenched and well-financed incumbent in a district drawn for the current officeholder.
The Civil War
John Colyandro, one of the political consultants indicted by a grand jury looking into campaign finance, now faces a civil suit filed by two Democrats who lost in 2002. Kirk Watson, the former Austin mayor who lost the race for attorney general to Republican Greg Abbott, and Mike Head, an East Texas Democrat who lost his race for a House seat to Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell, sued Colyandro, the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, and "Undisclosed Corporate Contributor John Does" and "John Doe Conspirators" behind that group. The suit says the unnamed conspirators raised money from the unnamed corporations to spend — illegally — to help defeat Watson and Head.
One direct mail advertisement attacked Head's occupation as a criminal defense lawyer saying he "is on the side of convicted baby killers and murderers" and emphasizing the line "Should criminal lawyers be giving the opportunity to write Texas laws?"
A television commercial paid for by LEAA slapped Watson and boosted Abbott, but without using words like "vote for" or "vote against." The copy: "Personal injury lawyers like Kirk Watson have made millions suing doctors, hospitals, and small businesses, hurting families and driving up the cost of health care. A respected Supreme Court justice, Greg Abbott is different. Greg Abbott believes in common sense lawsuit reform and Greg Abbott supports the swift and aggressive prosecution of sexual predators and child pornographers who prey on our children. Greg Abbott has a plan for Texas. To learn more, log on now."
The lawsuit accuses the group of using undisclosed corporate contributions to try to help Republican candidates and defeat Democrats, and alleges Colyandro coordinated that spending with the campaigns that benefited.
With a Fresh Example to Cite, Reformers Hit TV
For all the noise it makes, Campaigns for People is a small organization. The group, formed several years ago to try to push some changes in how campaigns are financed here, is running its first television ad (CFP paid for it, but its done under the name of CleanUpTexasPolitics.com, which is a coalition of several organizations). It's a small TV buy, as these things go, running mostly on cable, mostly during Hardball and The Daily Show, and only in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. It's nonpartisan, though you can forgive the Republicans for taking personally the timing: The ads began when indictments were issued by a Travis County grand jury looking into campaign finance and looking mainly on the Republican side of the ledger.
The ad shows an unidentified man puffing on a stogie and writing a $50,000 check. "What the big money boys call a contribution might be a year's worth of wages to you or me. Every one of these checks costs us a little bit of our freedom, and now, indictments... We need stronger laws and the will to enforce them. That's not partisan, that's just plain old patriotic," the announcer says.
The group spent about $20,000 on the commercial, which asks people to go to its website and contribute money to keep it running. Late in the week, they didn't have a count and couldn't tell us what'll happen next to the ad. But they do say they're working on legislators of all parties to take this opportunity to tighten up the state's laws and to beef up the agency that enforces them. Fred Lewis, who started the advocacy group and still heads it, told reporters that the Texas Ethics Commission, as it's currently empowered and operated, is "toothless, gum-less, and completely ineffective."
• Given the choice, would most Texans side with the Democratic Party, or with Sears, Roebuck, and Cracker Barrel? Party chairman Charles Soechting wrote to directors of the eight corporations indicted in Travis County's campaign finance probe, threatening boycotts if they put corporate money into future political efforts in Texas. "Please understand that the millions of potential voters I speak for are ready to hold you accountable if we do not receive immediate assurances that your days of making illegal corporate contributions to Texas campaigns are over," he wrote.
Report Cards and Miscellany
The good news is that student scores at 39 percent of the schools in the state were good enough to get their schools one of the two top ratings from the Texas Education Agency. The bad news: The numbers are down from two years ago, when kids were taking a different standardized test. Educators say the new test is tougher and that's why the ratings dropped, but that's an easier comment to make when the room isn't full of angry parents. The number of top-rated schools dropped to 517 from 1,918 two years ago, when a different test was in use.
Nineteen districts and 517 campuses got an "exemplary" rating; 374 districts and 2,531 campuses were rated "recognized"; 715 districts and 3,585 campuses were "acceptable"; and 26 districts and 102 campuses were "academically unacceptable." Want a look at a particular school or district? Get thee to www.tea.state.tx.us/perfreport/ account.
• The Texas Farm Bureau's political action committee — AGFUND —endorsed Scott Brister and Paul Green for Texas Supreme Court. Both are Republicans. Gov. Rick Perry appointed Brister, who's seeking election to the court for the first time, and helped recruit Green, who knocked off Republican incumbent Steven Wayne Smith in the GOP primary last March. Brister faces Democrat David Van Os of San Antonio in November; Green has no opponent, and will take office as soon as Smith's term ends. The farm group also endorsed Mike Keasler for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest criminal court. He's got a challenger: Democrat J.R. Molina of Fort Worth.
• Nearly 150,000 kids have left the Children's Health Insurance Program in Texas, and that's caused no end of consternation for the program's advocates. While some are hollering, Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, is taking a different tack: He got the Houston Area Urban League and the billboard division of Clear Channel to co-sponsor an advertising campaign urging people in Houston to enroll in CHIP. The billboards, some in English, some in Spanish, feature a picture of Ellis and a half-dozen kids next to some ad copy that includes a 1-800 number and the slogan "Enroll your child today."
• Workplace fatalities in Texas rose 17.7 percent last year, according to the Texas Workers' Compensation Commission, while they were rising about 1 percent nationally. There were 491 such deaths in Texas in 2003, up from 417 the year before. Note: 2002 was a good year, with the lowest number of workplace deaths in a decade.
• Democrats aren't the only people smacking their opponents on campaign finance. Rep. Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, is mailing ads that detail a series of complaints and sanctions against his opponent, Democrat David Leibowitz, from the Texas Ethics Commission. The ad says the Democrat didn't account for $1.1 million in loans, that he was sanctioned by TEC seven times, and that that the agency sent enforcement referrals five times to the attorney general. That follows a mailer scolding the Democrat for late and unpaid business taxes. Leibowitz hit back with a trick several Democrats are using this cycle, demanding that Mercer give away the money he got from Texans for a Republican Majority PAC. TRMPAC is one of the groups under investigation by an Austin grand jury, and three political consultants have been indicted in connection with their work for TRMPAC. Mercer got some money from the group, and Leibowitz says he should give it up.
• U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, D-Dallas, uninvited folk singer Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary) from a fundraiser after U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, called Yarrow a convicted child molester. Frost has been touting his support of Amber laws that increase penalties for crimes against children, and the dissonance was loud. Yarrow was convicted 34 years ago of making illegal moves on a 14-year-old girl. President Jimmy Carter pardoned him, but that's law, and this is politics.
• The Texas Department of Public Safety is sending bills to some of the people who got tickets last year, nicking them for surcharges put into law last year. People who got tickets after September 1 of last year for drunk driving, driving without a license, driving without insurance and things like that have to pay a charge every year for three years as part of their penalty. The letters just began flying out, and DPS thinks it'll collect about 30 percent of the $18 million it's chasing.
Political People and Their Moves
Longtime Austin TV news personality Dick Ellis — who did a stint with the City of Austin when Carole Keeton Strayhorn was mayor — is taking the title of communications director with the comptroller, replacing Mark Heckmann, who left a month ago. The official posting said the gig would pay $10,000 to $11,665 a month; Ellis will make the top amount. That posting also said it was a 40-hour-a-week job. Wanna bet?...
Federal Judge Ricardo Hinojosa of McAllen is a step closer to chairing the U.S. Sentencing Commission, with approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee. The commission will be sorting out federal sentencing guidelines that were jangled when a federal judge issued a ruling questioning their constitutionality. Hinojosa has been a member of that panel for more than a year and has been acting as chairman for several weeks...
Appointments: Gov. Rick Perry named W. Stacy Trotter of Odessa as judge of the 244th District Court. Ector County's GOP put Trotter on the ballot when Judge Gary Watkins died; he'll now serve until at least November, when he faces Democrat Mike Holmes...
Perry named Cynthia McCrann Wheless of Plano to the bench in the 417th District Court, which serves Collin County. She is a juvenile court referee with the county's Juvenile Board...
William Parham of Hempstead will be the acting criminal district attorney in Waller County, replacing Oliver Kitzman, who resigned that post a couple of weeks ago. Parham, one of Kitzman's assistants, is on the November ballot for a full term in that post; Sylvia Cedillo is the Democrat in the race.
Quotes of the Week
Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, telling the Austin American-Statesman why the House leadership PAC Stars Over Texas is returning corporate contributions: "I didn't decide to return the money because I had any notion that it was illegal. The sole purpose for my decision was that I didn't want my colleagues or our donors to have to answer any questions about it."
Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, in an email (obtained by the Washington Post) to Ralph Reed about closing down casinos run by an El Paso tribe that Abramoff later represented: "I wish those moronic Tiguas were smarter in their political contributions. I'd love us to get our mitts on that moolah!! Oh well, stupid folks get wiped out."
Rep. Pat Haggerty, R-El Paso, telling the El Paso Times the state should spend more of its economic development money on the Border: "Everybody wants to go to Dallas. Everybody wants to go to Houston. Everybody wants to go to San Antonio. So why should I have to lure you in with a bribe, in effect? ... If I'm going to pay you, I'm going to pay you to go to El Paso or Laredo or to an area where you've got very high unemployment."
Baltimore lawyer Brian Moffett in the Washington Post on the rise of mobile email devices: "I've been in depositions where opposing counsel will pull it out and check it. It raises issues with me, like jeez, someone thought it was important to show up to the meeting but not enough to pay attention."
Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, quoted in the Houston Chronicle on new surcharges of up to $1,000 a year for three years added to traffic fines for repeat offenders: " I think they'll be surprised. I think they'll be mad. That doesn't make it a bad idea."
Montana gubernatorial candidate Brian Schweitzer in the Great Falls Tribune on the problem of answering allegations from a push poll he thinks originated with his opponent: "He's accusing me of screwing a goat. How do I prove to you I didn't? Do I bring you every goat in Montana? He is using the lies told about me and demanding that I prove they are not true." His opponent, Bob Brown, denied commissioning that poll but said: "I'm trying to make it as easy as possible for him to clear himself... of whatever people may suspect."
Brian Short, telling the Washington Post why his father, Bob Short, decided to pack up and move his baseball team three decades ago to form the Texas Rangers: "The only fans at Washington Senators games were the politicians and the pickpockets, and you couldn't tell the difference."
TV news personality Barbara Walters, quoted in the New York Daily News: "My claim to fame, the reason for my success, is that I do not perspire and I rarely have to go to the bathroom."
Texas Weekly: Volume 21, Issue 16, 4 October 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.