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Defying Political Gravity

After the 2002 elections, it was obvious to every political wonk with a spreadsheet and a lick of sense that Reps. John Mabry, D-Waco, and Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, were in trouble. They appeared to be downright pre-cooked: Mabry won in Republican territory when his opponent imploded; Mercer won in Democratic territory when his opponent was indicted. The conventional wisdom was (and this is not over yet) that the two politicos would soon be giving up their spots to the rightful owners from the opposing parties. But they're both alive and each has a chance at winning a sophomore legislative term. Their opponents have run sloppy campaigns, they've run good ones, and in Mabry's case, the environment is under the influence of a hotly disputed congressional race.

After the 2002 elections, it was obvious to every political wonk with a spreadsheet and a lick of sense that Reps. John Mabry, D-Waco, and Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, were in trouble. They appeared to be downright pre-cooked: Mabry won in Republican territory when his opponent imploded; Mercer won in Democratic territory when his opponent was indicted. The conventional wisdom was (and this is not over yet) that the two politicos would soon be giving up their spots to the rightful owners from the opposing parties. But they're both alive and each has a chance at winning a sophomore legislative term. Their opponents have run sloppy campaigns, they've run good ones, and in Mabry's case, the environment is under the influence of a hotly disputed congressional race.

Charles "Doc" Anderson, the Waco Republican challenging Mabry, was caught flat-footed by attacks on his acceptance (he says it was a goof, since corrected) of a corporate check for his campaign. Mabry's campaign has tried, with some success, to connect Anderson to the folks who pushed congressional redistricting last year. That might or might not be a big deal where you live, but in Waco, redistricting set up a stressful congressional race that has a Republican county resisting a Republican candidate partly on the basis of geography.

U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, is being challenged by state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson. We've talked to pollsters in both parties and while they differ some on the overall standings in that congressional race, each says Edwards is stomping Wohlgemuth in and around Waco. Wohlgemuth appears to have drawn the toughest challenge of any of the five Republicans trying to knock off incumbent Democratic congressmen in Texas, and the Waco component is helping Mabry.

On paper, the district is to a Democrat what a mockingbird is to a worm. Threatening. The average statewide Republican candidate got 67.1 percent of the vote there in 2002. Rick Perry hit the 71 percent mark against Tony Sanchez Jr. in the statehouse district. But Edwards edged Republican Ramsey Farley, and Mabry edged Holt Getterman. Both are looking for a repeat that would give Republican President George W. Bush two more years of what he's got now: Democratic representation for his homestead in both the U.S. and Texas capitols. That wasn't what the mapmakers intended.

Mercer is running a well-planned race against David McQuade Leibowitz, a Democratic trial lawyer who appears less organized, less focused and possibly out-matched. Leibowitz ran against state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, when she won that spot in the Senate. He lost. Feelings were hurt, alliances were rearranged, and he's not getting the full, unbridled support that might have gone to another Democrat challenging Mercer. The district, as we've noted before, is solidly Democratic: Mercer got 59 percent of the vote against Democrat Raul Prado, but that was attributed to Prado's legal troubles. John Cornyn, a San Antonio judge who rose to the Texas Supreme Court before running for U.S. Senate, won statewide but lost in Mercer's district. The average statewide Democrat won 52.4 percent of the vote. That's not insurmountable for a Republican, but it's discouraging. Mercer wasn't expected to repeat, but he just might.

Leibowitz, slow to react to Mercer mail drops that raised questions about unpaid property tax bills and about campaign finance fines, is pushing the Republican to join him in calling for restoration of cuts made to the Children's Health Insurance Program. That's a cookie-cutter complaint being raised by Democrats in several challenge races around the state. Mercer, like most legislators, voted for the cuts. It's a real issue in some districts, but Leibowitz may have waited too long to raise it.

The Pre-Spin Cycle

You might not have picked this one looking at a map of House districts in Texas, but every serious conversation about Texas elections this year turns eventually to HD-149, where House Appropriations Committee Chairman Talmadge Heflin, R-Houston, is fending off a most difficult challenge.

Democrats say their polling shows Heflin and Hubert Vo, the challenger, within a couple of points of each other. Republicans we talked to don't agree with that, but also hedge by saying there's not a good way to poll a district so laden with apartments and new voters.

Heflin says he's taking the race "very seriously" but is confident he'll win. He says at one point that it's a lot like his previous races, which he won easily, then says, "If I did nothing, I'd probably lose... we're working it because I think it's necessary to work."

He's lived in the same place since 1969 and says the challenge is to keep meeting new people who live in an area of Houston with a lot of starter homes and high turnover in the population. The other side's version of that is that Heflin isn't as well known in his district as he ought to be. It's Republican on paper. Anglos are in the minority. And there are questions about the political cohesiveness of the Asian community that might or might not unite behind Vo. Money is lopsided in Heflin's favor, although some Republicans complained he was slow to start. He's got a fundraiser next week at the home of Houston beer exec John Nau, with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay as the celebrity draw.

It's not a finely focused contest at this point, and Heflin says voters are interested mostly in the normal stuff: education (but not Robin Hood), mobility in Houston, health care. Democrats expect some other issues to drive it: Cuts in the Children's Health Insurance Program, and a heavily publicized custody battle that featured Heflin and his wife on one side, and a Black woman who was their housemaid, and the mother of the child, on the other. Heflin says the issue hasn't arisen yet.

Both parties are watching carefully, and the consultants who work this stuff have this race at or near the tops of their lists. Texas Democrats haven't increased their numbers in the House in decades. They started with 100 percent of the seats and the Republicans slowly worked at that number until the GOP, two years ago, finally grabbed control of the lower chamber, elected a Speaker, and got all the good parking spaces at the Capitol.

That flips the offensive and defensive positions of the two parties, and they each count differently now. Republicans want to hold their position, solidify it where possible, and protect their members. If they keep control, that's victory. For the Democrats, any win is a PR victory. They're in the minority and most expect to stay there for a while, so they're just looking for some trophies.

They got one in March, sinking one of their own for siding with the new Republican management. Rep. Ron Wilson, D-Houston, was chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee that'll probably have a central role in any school finance legislation that requires new money.

• House candidate Eric Opiela, R-Karnes City, got fundraising help earlier this year from House Speaker Tom Craddick and now he's getting an assist from Gov. Rick Perry. Opiela, the Republican candidate in HD-35, is running against Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles, D-Alice, for the spot that currently belongs to Rep. Gabi Canales, D-Alice, who lost to Toureilles in the Democratic primary in March. That's a week after Perry's own Austin fundraiser. More than half of the registered voters have Hispanic surnames, as do both of the candidates. That's a solidly Democratic district; only two statewide officials — Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Susan Combs — beat their Democratic opponents in that district in the 2002 elections. But Perry got 48 percent of the vote two years ago. That was below his statewide result, but was a relatively strong South Texas result. Democrat Tony Sanchez Jr. of Laredo ran up bigger numbers in other legislative districts in that part of the state.

• State Rep. Jack Stick, R-Austin, ducked a debate before an Austin Rotary Club, but his opponent, Democrat Mark Strama, showed up. Stick's aides told the organizers he'd be there (starting five weeks before the debate and continuing through the morning of the event itself), but showed up at show time to say Stick would be a no-show. They got Strama to talk about voter turnout.

Flip-Flop

Trying a little ju-jitsu, Democrat Martin Frost of Dallas is siding with George W. Bush in a commercial that tries to paint Republican Pete Sessions into a corner with Ted Kennedy. The Frost spot shows footage of Sessions saying security at airports is too tight, using as an example Kennedy's complaints of being stopped several times at his home airport in Boston. It pops up a picture of Sessions next to a picture of Kennedy as the announcer scolds: "Sessions said 'No' to President Bush on air safety because Ted Kennedy was delayed? Protect America. Say No to Pete Sessions."

In another spot, Frost allies himself with other Republicans in Congress — Kay Bailey Hutchison, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and Sen. John McCain — as voting for a post-9/11 transportation safety bill that Sessions voted against. Sessions, as the ad tells it, was one of nine members of Congress to vote against the measure. His campaign said last week he wanted to make sure airport inspectors didn't have to be unionized; Frost's camp countered by saying the bill had no provisions requiring union workers. The ad is the second from the Democrat that features photographs of the World Trade Center as the second airliner was about to hit it three years ago.

Sessions is up with commercials featuring former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who says Sessions is on the Homeland Security committee in Congress and: "Pete Sessions is a national leader working to keep us all safe — and anyone who tells you differently is just not telling you the truth."

And the Republican's campaign issues statements from Hutchison and from U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, both of them knocking Frost's use of the "hurtful" and "painful" 9/11 images in his ads.

• A Dallas Morning News poll shows a six-point gap between Sessions and Frost. Though the Democrat was behind in the poll, his campaign tries to spin it as a win. They say the paper under-polled Hispanics who'll vote for Frost.

• U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Beaumont, touts a campaign poll that he says has him "in a statistical dead heat" with Republican Ted Poe of Houston.

• U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, picks up endorsements from the mayors of Burleson, Cleburne, and Cross Timber. All three are in Johnson County, the place Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson, calls home. While he was doing that, she got a visit and an endorsement from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, there to offset the Texas Farm Bureau's endorsement of Edwards. Another tidbit from central Texas: Edwards touts a poll from his team that has him leading the Republican by ten percentage points. One more: Wohlgemuth gets some assistance in the form of a pilot project on water quality in the Leon-Bosque watershed, announced by Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Waco residents will tell you the dairy farms upstream pollute their water and they blame Wohlgemuth and other legislators for the trouble; the water quality project is designed to pinpoint problems with stuff in the water when it's first detected.

There for the Cake But Not the Icing

The federal McCain-Feingold campaign finance law makes for weird disclaimers in Texas state races where federal officeholders are involved. An example: Invitations to a fundraiser for state Rep. Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, said U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Dallas, would be the headliner. But they ask for more money from donors than she's allowed to request, then back out in the small print. The suggested contribution levels start at $100 for "A Very Special Friend" to $5,000 and up for "Hero I" designation for the contributor. For $1,000 or more, contributors could get their pictures snapped with Hutchison. The disclaimer (similar to invites featuring other feds, like House Majority Leader Tom DeLay): "Senator Hutchison is not soliciting contributions in excess of $2,000 from individuals and $5000 from PACs, nor is she soliciting from corporations or labor unions."

• Gov. Rick Perry is not on the ballot this year, but he's busy raising money anyhow. Invitations to his Austin funder have contribution levels up to $50,000 for "Lone Star Gold." It drops through Silver at $25,000, Patrons at $10,000, Sponsors at $5,000. Those givers get to go to a private reception for 30 minutes before dinner. Less to give? "$1,000 per person to general reception," the invite says.

Christmas in October

Congress moved quicker than we thought it would, approving sales tax deductions for Texas and a handful of other states as part of a vote-attracting package of tax breaks and cuts and exemptions. It's on its way to President George W. Bush. If it becomes law as expected, the legislation would allow taxpayers in eight states with no income taxes to deduct sales taxes on their federal income tax returns.

It's temporary and it won't help most Texans, but those who itemize on their federal tax returns will see the return of a deduction that disappeared with Ronald Reagan's tax reforms. Everyone is trying to carry the victory flag around the track, but U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Dallas, apparently led the pack on this issue.

While officials in Washington, D.C., were pushing it, state officials working on public school finance joined in the chorus to remove one of the disadvantage of sales taxes: They're not deductible under current law, while state income and property taxes are. (That affects several states, including Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Tennessee, Washington and Wyoming.) Democrats and others who wanted to block sales tax increases were making some headway with that argument, blocking proposed sales tax increases that might have used to offset drops in property taxes.

Less than 23 percent of Texans itemize their deductions, and itemizers would be the only people who could take advantage of the sales tax deductions. Those families would get an average break of $408 next year, according to numbers cranked by the Texas Comptroller's staff. The estimate had been lower until Congress made a change.

The law passed Monday would let taxpayers deduct the larger of two numbers: A federal government estimate of sales taxes paid each year by people in their income group, or the amount they actually paid as shown by their sales tax receipts. That second option would be a pain in the keister unless you bought something big, like a car. That big-ticket deduction is what led the comptroller's office to raise the estimate of average savings to $408 from $320 per itemizing family.

If the Texan in the White House signs the bill, federal taxpayers in his home state would send a total of about $974 million less to the IRS next year, according to the comptroller's numbers (the earlier estimate, before the changes allowing taxpayers to use real receipts, was $740 million). The state's tax agency also estimated some economic impacts from the break: 21,798 new jobs, an increase in state sales tax income of about $49.7 million (Texans will be spending some of the money they save), and an increase of $1.2 billion in state gross product, including $819 million in new investment. They posted a brief analysis on their website, at www.window.state.tx.us/comptrol/ ajca2004/.

The Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities analyzed this sales tax issue earlier this year and pointed out that only 22.6 percent of Texans itemize on their federal tax returns. Those would be the only beneficiaries during the two tax years covered by the bill (if signed, it would expire two years from now). By their reckoning, that means the average Texas household -- 77.4 percent of them -- would get no tax break at all.

Because the itemizers make more money than the non-itemizers -- that's why they itemize -- the CPPP's analysis is that the tax break, like the sales tax itself, is regressive. They cite a study from the comptroller's office that showed a family making $26,800 a year pays 4.2 percent of their annual income in sales taxes; a family with an income of $126,300 per year pays 1.1 percent. Their stuff, like the comptroller's, is online, at www.cppp.org/products/PP215.html.

A counter-theory, advanced by the comptroller and others, is that a smaller percentage of Texans itemize because they have less incentive than taxpayers in other states, where about a third of taxpayers itemize. This bill, they argue, might be just the medicine to get them to sharpen their pencils. That would reduce, but not eliminate, the lopsidedness of the tax break.

Was That Shalt or Shalt Not?

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case challenging the Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol, and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott plans to argue the case himself. The high court merged a Texas case with another and will decide whether the monuments violate constitutional provisions against government endorsement of a particular religion. In the Texas case, the lower courts said the monument isn't a constitutional abuse. Thomas Van Orden, the Austin lawyer who filed the case, appealed to the Supremes after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the monument is okay. Other federal courts have said such monuments are out of place.

There's a nice swat at Austin in that 5th Court opinion. Noting that the commandments had, at the time, been in place for 42 years, the court said it was worth mentioning that nobody had objected before: "This quiescence is remarkable for Travis County, the seat of state government and the home of the University of Texas, whose campus is a stone's throw away from the Capitol grounds. This court is well aware that Travis County is not lacking in persons willing and able to seek judicial relief from perceived interferences with constitutional rights."

The Ongoing Crisis

Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn wants Gov. Rick Perry to make a legislative emergency of reforming the state's foster care program and to create a special group to work on problems in the state's family and protective services programs. Declaring an emergency would free lawmakers to pass legislation on the subject during the first 60 days of the regular session that begins in January.

Strayhorn, whose office has no legislative authority, wants them to pass her version of reform. She sent a copy of a legislative draft — that's a bill, in larval form — to Perry and to legislators for their consideration. It's patterned on the recommendations in a special report on foster children released by her agency earlier this year. Perry is already banging the drum, not necessarily in response to the comptroller's report this summer. After news reports of deaths and abuses of kids and the elderly who state workers had known about and failed to protect, Perry ordered the Health and Human Services Commission to investigate, to get more caseworkers and to try to close holes in the state's safety net.

Flotsam & Jetsam

Watched pots don't boil, but we watch them anyway: State District Judge John Dietz has not yet issued a detailed ruling on school finance, and so the appeals of that order haven't started bubbling. And on the redistricting front, the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet decided whether to hear the case that started with mid-decade congressional redistricting in Texas. Though the new lines drawn last year in special session are being used, the appeals started by Texas Democrats are still alive. We don't have any idea when the court will jump, or not jump, but the lawyers who watch this stuff say such decisions are made in Friday conferences and announced early the next week.

• Can't remember that judge's name, or which one in that other contest was the crazy one? The League of Women Voters has put out their guide to the candidates on the Texas ballot, and it's available on their website at www.lwvtexas.org. Once you're there, click on Voter Info. It gives you a quick take on each candidate in a contested race for state office.

• The Texas Municipal League is giving the state's senior senator its "Distinguished Congressional Service Award" late this month, pulling Kay Bailey Hutchison to their convention in Corpus Christi to accept and talk. Several state legislators also made their hit list: Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, and Reps. Toby Goodman, R-Arlington, and Vilma Luna, D-Corpus Christi.

• Think normal civilians might want to see campaign finance reports? Texas Impact and Campaigns for People are trying to get voters to come to meetings at places that have wireless Internet access, sticking them in front of computers and showing them how to get around the Texas Ethics Commission's website to see where candidates are getting all that dough. As they put it in their promotional materials, "Texans will discover the sorry state of Texas' campaign finance system."

Political People and Their Moves

Tony Proffitt, a lobbyist, flack and political Mr. Fixit who worked for a cast of characters ranging from former U.S. Rep. J.J. "Jake" Pickle to former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, has been diagnosed with "adeno cell carcinoma" a relatively rare form of cancer that started, probably, in one of his organs and spread from there. The treatment options are limited, and Proffitt, who's also battled diabetes for years, has gone home for rest and time with family and a small group of friends. They're limiting calls and visits. He'll be 62 next Wednesday...

Dale Laine is opening a communications and lobby shop. He was at Austin-based Public Strategies for six years, after stints with George W. Bush, Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison, and wants to try a startup...

Former Round Rock Mayor Robert Stluka Jr. joins the Winstead Consulting Group as a lobbyist. He used to manage TEXPAC, the political action committee affiliated with the Texas Medical Association...

Jennifer Harris changed gears to take a communications posting with the state's Health and Human Services Commission. Her previous gig was with the Texas Secretary of State's office...

Shelton Green, former chief of staff to Rep. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, goes to the Texas Association of Business to specialize in health care issues. He's the replacement for Richard Evans, who left TAB to become a freelance lobbyist...

Steve Bonner left the offices of Rep. Brian McCall, R-Plano, to join the lobby team at Texas Instruments. He'll be based in Dallas, with frequent forays to the capital...

Births: Shannon Janek and Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, had their third child, a boy named Luke. He weighs 6'6" and he and mom are healthy, according to the senator's aides...

A few hours later, María Elena Ramón and Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, had their first, Nicolás Miguel. He weighed in at 7'7" and he and his mom are fine.

Quotes of the Week

Thomas Chapmond, outgoing head of the state's protective services agency, telling state senators he knew agency caseworkers were dangerously overloaded two years ago, but didn't dare ask lawmakers for money to hire more investigators, quoted by the Associated Press: "I didn't think I could politically come down here and do it... It does not surprise me that we have come to the point we have today, and I've testified to this. This crisis wasn't a matter of if, it was when, in my opinion."

Democratic legislative candidate David Leibowitz (who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley) after GOP Rep. Ken Mercer accused him of moving into the district just to run for office, in the San Antonio Express-News: "This is where I grew up. If you took my home that I grew up in and placed it in any neighborhood in South San Antonio, it would be the poorest home in the neighborhood."

Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, quoted in The New York Times on why he's after Republicans more often than Democrats these days: "We prosecute abuses of power, and you have to have power to abuse it."

Rev. Jerry Falwell, speaking at a Baptist church in Austin, quoted in the Austin American-Statesman: "There's a revival sweeping our land. Our people are getting saved... They're getting registered to vote, and they're voting Christian."

U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, quoted in The Daily Texan on why it took so long to get a sales tax deduction through Congress: "Every time you have a situation where it's eight states wanting something that 42 other states don't really care about, it's going to be difficult."

Mark Tapscott of the Heritage Foundation, quoted in a Washington Post story about efforts to prevent Sinclair Broadcasting from ordering its 62 TV stations to air a documentary critical of Sen. John Kerry before Election Day: "Why are we even thinking about limiting what a media organization can publish? There are lots of things in the world that are unfair."

Gustaf Johnson, a customer at Emo's nightclub in Austin, telling The New York Times why he attended a strip show that required voter registration instead of a cover charge: "Yeah, I was going to register, but it was two birds with one stone. I'm for the whole burlesque thing."

Aspiring skater Melissa Garland, quoted in the Austin American-Statesman: "Ever since I was little, I wanted to grow up to be a Texas Roller Girl or an astronomer."


Texas Weekly: Volume 21, Issue 18, 18 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.


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