An old saying: One's an accident, two is a coincidence, and three is a trend. The biggest of the missiles aimed at U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, missed when a congressional panel decided to admonish him in a letter instead of doing something more severe. But they didn't dismiss serious campaign finance charges, choosing instead to put those on hold while prosecutors and grand jurors in Travis County, Texas are still working.
DeLay and his allies hailed the admonition as a victory. U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio, said in a statement that he was pleased the House Ethics Committee had "dismissed the case against Tom DeLay." But that's not exactly what they did. Some of their work is still pending.
In a letter to the majority leader, and in a long memo for the official record, the committee spanked DeLay for raising money at a golf tournament for energy execs at a time when the House was considering legislation affecting the businesses of the people being hit up for donations.
They slapped his hand for asking the Federal Aviation Commission to find an airplane owned by state Rep. Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, when Republicans in Texas were trying to find the Democrats who left Austin to block consideration of a congressional redistricting bill. Some Republicans thought Laney was using his plane to help Democrats escape the state. The Ethics Committee said DeLay's call to the FAA "raises serious concerns under House standards of conduct that preclude use of governmental resources for a political undertaking." They didn't find the plane that night, and most of the fleeing Democrats were on buses to Oklahoma.
They didn't dismiss the allegation at the center of the campaign finance scandal in Texas. From their memo: "Count II alleges that Representative DeLay used TRMPAC, the Texans for a Republican Majority PAC, to 'funnel' corporate funds to Texas state campaigns in 2002 in violation of provisions of the Texas election code. Our recommendation is that action on this count be deferred... pending further action both in the cases that were initiated by the recent TRMPAC-related indictments in state court in Texas and in the District Attorney’s continuing investigation of TRMPAC’s activities in 2002." Later, they added: "If the Committee concurs that action on Count II should be deferred, Committee staff will monitor the Travis County proceedings. When circumstances arise indicating that the deferral should end, the Chairman and Ranking Minority Member will make appropriate recommendations for action on Count II to the Committee."
U.S. Rep. Chris Bell, D-Houston, made the original complaint, and said the memo makes it appear that DeLay is a target of the Austin investigation. DeLay has said repeatedly that he's not a target.
If you can't sleep, you can read the whole bit online, at www.house.gov/ethics/DeLay_Cover. htm. The contents there include the letter to DeLay outlining the results, the memo, and the attached exhibits the committee was looking at while they considered the allegations.
In the last part of their letter, the committee appeared to be irked at giving DeLay his second spanking in a week and his fourth overall. "In view of the number of instances to date in which the Committee has found it necessary to comment on conduct in which you have engaged, it is clearly necessary for you to temper your future actions to assure that you are in full compliance at all times with the applicable House Rules and standards of conduct. We remind you that the House Code of Official Conduct provides the Committee with authority 'to deal with any given act or accumulation of acts which, in the judgment of the committee, are severe enough to reflect discredit on the Congress.'"
Several good government groups, from the left and from the right, followed the ethics committee action with calls for DeLay to step down. He's got nothing like that on his mind, however, and told reporters in Washington that he'd been exonerated and will forge ahead.
The Christian Science Monitor caught the whole fuss in a couple of lines, noting that these things have a way of dampening support for a leader, but admitting in the same story that DeLay's Americans for a Republican Majority PAC, or ARMPAC, has raised $3.2 million this year and contributed to "at least" 88 House candidates around the country.
Richard Morrison, the Democrat who is challenging DeLay, is still trying to get traction on the issue in the district, but apparently doesn't have the advertising budget to help voters soak up the information. In statehouse races, several candidates stepped up their calls on Republican opponents who got money from Texans for a Republican Majority two years ago, calling the money illegal donations and demanding it be returned. None of the Republicans, to our knowledge, has done so.
On the Tube
Candidates are getting pretty creative about this new business of "approving this message" that's required in their commercials by federal election laws. We listened to a mess of spots with this in mind and can generalize. On negative ads, they're fast: "I'm so-and-so and I approve this message."
On positive and neutral stuff, though, they're incorporating the federally required bit into their tag lines. The incumbent U.S. Rep. from Lubbock has a commercial that compares his positions with his version of the positions of U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Abilene, and ends with: "I'm Randy Neugebauer. I'm very different from my opponent and that's a message I'm proud to approve." In another, he starts with it: "I approve this message, but I don't approve of what my opponent's doing."
A few more, taken from ads on candidate's websites:
"I'm Chet Edwards, and I approve this message because there's so much at stake."
"I'm Martin Frost and I approved this ad because saving new jobs was important to Texas."
"I'm Pete Sessions and I approved this message because America has to stay a step ahead."
Neugebauer is running ads prominently featuring President George W. Bush in a photo walking around the White House with the congressman, and with Vice President Dick Cheney, who came to the district to help the Republican raise money for his race against Stenholm.
Frost, D-Dallas, pushes the envelope with an ad that features mournful bagpipe music under black-and-white photos of the burning World Trade Center towers before they fell. One shot shows a plane about to hit the second tower. Another was taken from street level a moment after that second plane hit. The copy: "When President Bush created the Transportation Security Administration, Pete Sessions said no. When Sen. Hutchison worked for more air marshals and reinforced cockpit doors, Sessions said no. When Congress voted for professional baggage screeners, Pete Sessions said no. Even after 9/11, Sessions says air security is, quote, too tight. Protect America. Say no to Pete Sessions."
Sessions put up an answering spot, saying he voted for non-union baggage handlers and not against baggage handlers. "That's Washington," he says in the ad, dismissing the Frost attack. He left the other elements of it alone. Frost replied that the bill Sessions voted against didn't require union workers, and that most other Republicans, including the senior senator from Texas, voted for it.
The Republican has his own terrorism ad on the air, featuring a stock photo of an airliner in flight over ominous low chords on a piano, while an announcer says "One shoulder-fired missile in the hands of a terrorist. Unspeakable horror. Shattered lives. President Bush wants to make it tougher for these weapons to get into the wrong hands. He turned to Congressman Pete Sessions..." Where Frost's ad shows the results of an attack, Sessions' spot raises the possibility and leaves the rest to imagination, following the airplane photo with shots of Bush and then of Sessions.
Making Her Presence Known
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn campaigned until he was blue in the face two years ago, and has been relatively quiet this year. But U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has been actively raising money on behalf of a mess of candidates running for positions from the statehouse to Congress.
Some we've heard about: She's doing a fundraiser in Waco for Charles "Doc" Anderson, a Republican trying to unseat Rep. John Mabry, D-Waco. That's a Republican district on paper, but warriors on both sides think it's tight, with U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards of Waco trying to fend off a challenge from Republican state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth of Burleson.
The Democrats are hoping Mabry will benefit from Edwards' coattails in Waco, and he's had enough money on hand to run television ads starting a couple of weeks ago. The Republicans are pushing Anderson for a seat that slipped out of their reach two years ago. The invites to the Hutchison funder ask for up to $2,500 on Anderson's behalf.
Hutchison is also dragging the sack for Rep. Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, whose district is the parallel universe's version of Mabry's. It's held by an Anglo Republican but was drawn for a Hispanic Democrat. Mercer, like Mabry, upset the conventional wisdom two years ago and is playing defense, against a Democratic lawyer named David Leibowitz. As with Mabry, his side thinks he might win against the odds: He's running a stronger campaign, so far, than the Democrat, and Leibowitz has spent lots of time answering Mercer attacks that he'd rather have used playing offense. Leibowitz has some personal wealth; Hutchison is coming in (to Austin, not San Antonio) to raise money in suggested chunks of up to $5,000 to offset that.
And she's also lending her name to the money-raising efforts of Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Carrollton, who's giving up a chance at reelection to the state Legislature to run for Congress. Marchant should win that race, given the way the district is drawn, but he doesn't have a clean shot: Democrat Gary Page and libertarian James Lawrence are also on the ballot.
• Idle chatter: If you play the "if, if, then, then" game about who might run for what in 2006, add some names – U.S. Reps. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio, and Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth – to the potential U.S. Senate list. Here's how this works: If you think Hutchison might run for governor instead of running for reelection, then you're ready for the parlor game of guessing who might run for her spot in the Senate. Bonilla's name has been in circulation for several weeks and he's not doing anything to promote it or kill it. Granger is being mentioned by folks up in the Metroplex who'd like to keep a North Texan in the office.
Temporary Tax Relief, Maybe
The sales tax deduction is moving through Congress, but wait until after Election Day to get all sweaty about it. It's still not through the process, and it's still a temporary deduction, lapsing back to current law after two years unless Congress extends the benefit. The measure would let taxpayers in Texas and other non-income tax states deduct sales taxes from their federal income taxes, and it would save the average family about $310 annually, or about $26 a month.
Caveat number 1: Most Texans (like most Americans) don't itemize their tax deductions and might miss the benefit of this. They'll be able to deduct the taxes based on receipts they've kept or on tables of estimated taxes prepared by the government.
Caveat number 2: Some lawmakers think making sales taxes deductible on the federal level might make sales tax increases digestible on the state level. The federal cut might make a state increase – done, say to lower school property tax rates – easier to take. Businesses, which pay more than half the state's sales taxes, are already able to deduct those expenses from income subject to federal taxes, so their current preferences wouldn't change much. And there's a timing issue: If the federal deduction passes and taxpayers get to reap the benefits before state lawmakers come in and scoop up some of the money for school finance, the state tax increase will look that much bigger. It'd be easier, in other words, for the state to get its scoop before taxpayers start counting on the deduction themselves.
Standing Down on School Finance
With a ruling against the state in the first school finance lawsuit, Dallas investor Albert Huddleston decided to put his own suit against the finance system on ice. That suit's arguments partly overlapped those made in the "West Orange-Cove" case that just came out of trial court. With that case on its way to the appeals courts, the "Hopson" case pushed by Huddleston and others will go on standby. They were scheduled for court this month, but won't go forward unless the first case comes to pieces in the appellate courts. Meanwhile, state District Judge John Dietz is working on the detailed version of his school finance ruling. He ruled from the bench a couple of weeks ago that school finance has fallen out of compliance with the state constitution, but the devil is in the details, and the details aren't out yet. Dietz wanted to issue the ruling "around" October 1; that's unofficially changed to "soon."
For the same reasons Democrats are worried about Ralph Nader, Republicans ought to be looking at a second Texan on the presidential ballot. Count this as nothing more than a bug in your ear, but Libertarian candidates have been known to take protest votes away from Republicans in the same way that Green Party candidates take away from Democrats. Michael Badnarik isn't nearly as well known as Nader and isn't likely to get the same level of attention Nader got four years ago. But he's on the ballot in the District of Columbia and 48 states – including Texas – and a few of our more paranoid Republican contacts think he's a potential magnet for conservative protest votes. The Green Party's candidate – David Cobb – made it onto 17 state ballots, but won't be listed on the ballot in Texas. Both he and Nader are authorized write-in candidates here.
• With a week to go before early voting starts, the Texas Department of Public Safety filed a preliminary drunk-driving complaint against Rep. Scott Campbell, R-San Angelo, according to the San Angelo Standard-Times. Campbell told the paper he pulled over and called DPS himself – that he'd been drinking but wasn't stopped for drunk driving. And he told the paper he had 28 days of alcohol treatment after the July incident. He's still got a contest: his opponent is Democrat Jeri Stone.
• In the most expensive race in Texas, the candidates have the long knives out. U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, hits U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, D-Dallas, with papers showing Frost has homestead exemptions on two properties on the Dallas and Tarrant county tax rolls. That's awkward. They provide a spot on their website where voters can see the forms, signed by Frost, requesting the exemptions. The applications are four years apart, however, and Frost called it an honest mistake. He said he forgot to change the designation on his Dallas property and that he's got a lawyer finding out how much he owes because of a four month overlap in exemptions – he's guessing it's about $600.
• Department of Fortuitous Circumstances, at least for the authors: "The Hammer: God, Money, and the Rise of the Republican Congress" hit the bookstores just as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, started a heavy dose of headline and TV news appearances in the Texas media. That's not necessarily great news for the second most powerful Texan in Washington, but it caught writers Lou Dubose and Jan Reid in the middle of a tour promoting the book. Dubose, the former editor of the Texas Observer, and Reid, a writer whose work has appeared in Texas Monthly and elsewhere, put together the account of DeLay's political rise and a good explanation of the incidents that brought him and some people around him to the attention of Democrats, prosecutors and the congressional ethics cops. Dubose and Reid will join a phalanx of writers from Texas and elsewhere whose political books will be showcased at the Texas Book Festival in Austin later this month.
Flotsam & Jetsam
Voter registration is all over but the counting, which will take more than a week, apparently. The Secretary of State gets the numbers from the counties and the counties aren't finished with their bit yet. Two years ago, the state had 12.5 million registered voters on Election Day, and the SOS folks are estimating that will grow by about 400,000 this year, when the counting is done.
• Hubert Vo, the Democrat running against House Appropriations Chairman Talmadge Heflin, R-Houston, wants the University of Texas to slap down a fundraising campaign for the incumbent. The "Friends of the University of Texas System PAC" had a fundraiser for Heflin at the home of James Huffines of Austin, a Republican who's also the chairman of the UT Board of Regents.
One of the invitations went to the AFL-CIO. They made noises, the Austin American-Statesman picked up the story, and Vo called on the school to stop the fundraiser. They didn't, but Heflin got headlines all over the state to go with the money he raised.
Campaign finance reformers said the fundraiser for the head of the House's budget-writing committee smelled, but the people running the PAC – its head is former UT Chancellor Bill Cunningham – said nobody official at the school had anything to do with it. He also said the name of the PAC was wrong on the fliers; they should have said "Friends of the University," he told reporters.
• U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Beaumont, picked up the endorsement of his hometown newspaper, the Beaumont Enterprise. He's seeking reelection in a newly drawn district against former state District Judge Ted Poe. Poe's hometown paper, the Houston Chronicle, hasn't weighed in yet. The Chronicle and the Enterprise are both owned by the Hearst Corp., but don't share notes on endorsements.
• The National Rifle Association's endorsements are now posted online, and you can click on any state on their map and see who they like and who they don't. The Texas folks with that group say they've got over 250,000 members in the state; they'll each get the list for Texas candidates in the mail between now and time to vote. They don't call it a push card anymore – it's a "political preference chart." To see the online version, go to www.nrapvf.org.
• Regular folks don't do so well before the Texas Supreme Court, according to Court Watch, a watchdog/advocacy group. Their annual review, "Facing a Stacked Deck: Families at the Texas Supreme Court," concludes that in cases where business is on one side and consumers are on the other, the businesses win nearly all the time. Advocates for the judges say they calls 'em as they sees 'em and contest the group's conclusions. See for yourself. The report, along with the group's list of ten cases they particularly didn't like, is available online at www.txwfoundation.org.
• Credit where it's due: We noted a new campaign promoting the Children's Health Insurance Program without mentioning existing efforts by Harris County Judge Robert Eckels and Mayor Bill White. They've teamed up with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Clear Channel Communications to advertise CHIP on billboards in areas where there are high levels of uninsured kids. The question remaining: How much capacity for new enrollees does the program have? Changes made during the last legislative session resulted in a reduction in the program of almost 150,000 kids.
• Democrat John Mabry, a freshman state representative from Waco, sent a letter to President George W. Bush (and to us, and other reporters) asking the country's most powerful Texan to put his presidential library on the campus of Baylor University. Mabry is Bush's guy in the Texas House – Crawford is in his district – so he sent him a letter promoting Baylor's proposal for the institution.
• The Texas Republican Party has been uncharacteristically quiet about the goings-on with the Travis County grand jury, prosecutors, high and low officials from the GOP and all of that. But they do have time to read fundraising letters from Democrats. They caught a forehead-slapper in a letter from Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, to potential donors. In the copy the GOP had its mitts on, Dunnam referred donors to "key races in places like city, city, city, and city where Democrats can make serious inroads against the Republican majority..."
Political People and Their Moves
Gary Johnson has decided to retire from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, where he's been the executive director for three years. Johnson started at the Texas prison system in 1973 as a prison guard. With one brief break in service, he worked his way up to the top job by August 2001. He'll leave at the end of the calendar year...
Royce Poinsett is leaving the governor's office to become general counsel to House Speaker Tom Craddick. He'll replace Michelle Wittenburg, who left government for a private law firm. Poinsett is legal counsel to the governor's budget, planning and policy staff and was assistant general counsel and ethics advisor there. He worked in politics before that, for Karl Rove's firm and for several candidates including Kay Bailey Hutchison...
Brad Shields II, who'd been working for Rep. Todd Baxter, R-Austin, is leaving his government gig to lobby for the Texas Retailers Association. Don't be confused by the name; his dad, Brad I, is the lobbyist and education wonk...
Joel Romo is going the other way, returning to the Pink Building and to former boss Rep. Vilma Luna, D-Corpus Christi. He has been at the Texas Municipal Retirement System and will now be chief of staff...
Fred Shannon is leaving Intel to take over the regional lobby chores for Hewlett Packard. He'll remain in Austin and work on government relations here, in New Mexico and in Colorado...
Donze Lopez is leaving Martin Marietta Materials to open his own lobby shop, with his former employer coming along as the first customer. He'll remain in San Antonio, focusing on transportation business, with frequent forays to the state capital...
Pete Havel is the new exec for the southwest and south regions of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, with eight states – including this one, where he lives – to worry over. He replaces Marissa Anchia, who left to work for Texas Instruments. Political and legislative duties in the region will fall to Sara Fisher, formerly with the Austin office of the National Federation of Independent Business...
The post office in Kingsville is on its way to being named in honor of Irma Rangel, that city's groundbreaking state representative who died last year. The bill passed the U.S. House and is on its way to the other side...
Births: Luke Williamson Rollins, the first child of Texas Public Policy Foundation President Brooke Leslie Rollins and her husband Mark...
Deaths: Former Judge Sam Houston Clinton, a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals judge for three terms and an Austin lawyer before that, of complications from Alzheimer's disease. He was 81.
Quotes of the Week
U.S. Rep. Chris Bell, D-Houston, asked how House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, has maintained influence with fellow members of Congress: "One word: Money. He's raised more money than any politician in history, I believe, and by giving large amounts of money to members of the Republican conference, he basically buys their loyalty."
Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, quoted in the Houston Chronicle on the pressures facing the Texas House and Speaker Tom Craddick next session: "Bottom line, it's kind of hard to focus on public policy if you think you might be indicted tomorrow."
Gov. Rick Perry, on the deaths of Texas children whose families were on the watch list at the state's child protective services agency, in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: "I can't state any more emphatically my loss of confidence in the management. I would certainly suspect that there would be a change in management."
David Lesar, chief executive of Halliburton Co., quoted in The Dallas Morning News on the political aftertaste from former CEO Dick Cheney: "We are so inextricably linked into the campaign right now that the best thing we can do is just have November come and go."
Joseph Passarella, the director of voter services in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, in The New York Times on a surge in voter registrations: "The vote was so close four years ago, people are now thinking, hey, maybe my vote does count."
Former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyoming, quoted in a Washington Post story on the sniping in the vice presidential debate: "Heck, we're not playing powder-puff bowl here. Heck, my old man ran for Senate in 1940 and they burned his car."
Texas Weekly: Volume 21, Issue 17, 11 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.