U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison hasn't yet said what she's running for next year, but there might be a hint in the hiring.
She's bringing Terry Sullivan, who most recently managed the successful campaign of U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, to Texas as her campaign manager. And she signed Scott Howell's Dallas firm, which does media work for campaigns, to do her commercials. In the past, David Weeks of Austin has been the adman, but he has always done commercial work for Gov. Rick Perry. If Hutchison runs for reelection next year, that wouldn't really be a conflict, but if she runs for governor against Perry, she'd need someone new.
Howell has a hot hand right now. His winning Senate candidates last year included John Thune, who knocked off Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Jim Talent of Missouri, DeMint and Norm Coleman of Minnesota. The firm did ads last year for the Bush-Cheney reelection, too. The firm brags on its website that it wins 80 percent of its races.
The firm has worked all over the country, and in some Texas races, but has only light experience in statewide races here. In 2002, they did a commercial in the Texas Attorney General's race that promoted Republican Greg Abbott as a law enforcement friend and kicked Democrat Kirk Watson as a trial lawyer while stopping short of asking people to support one or the other. The client was the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, which has claimed it was doing issue ads and thus doesn't have to report where it got its money. Watson has sued over that — the case is meandering through the federal courts somewhere — and claims the LEAA spent upwards of $1 million in the last 10 days of the campaign to help defeat him in that race. The group still hasn't reported its contribution amounts or donors, or how much it spent or on what. Howell and his firm produce the ads but aren't among those being sued.
The folks in Hutchison's camp say the two new faces don't mean they've made any decisions. Her Senate term is up next year, and they'd be gearing up for a campaign whether she was sizing up the governor's race or not. For the record, she's not saying what she'll do; Hutchison has consistently said she'll make a decision when the legislative session is over and she can see what the playing field looks like.
Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch
We left one out! Add Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, to that list of possible candidates for Texas agriculture commissioner. We just flat left him off the list the last time we wrote about this. Hilderbran has been tapping around that contest for months; at the state GOP convention last summer, he had glossy flyers in circulation promoting the idea and listing Ernie Angelo of Midland as his campaign treasurer. Hilderbran has more money on hand at the moment than all but one of his opponents, which would mark a good start as the contest to replace Ag Commissioner Susan Combs heats up after the legislative session.
Before you get him fully suited up for farming and ranching, though, keep an eye on Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio. If Kay Bailey Hutchison doesn't seek reelection next year, Bonilla wants to run for her spot in the U.S. Senate. And if his seat in the House opens up, Hilderbran is among the best-known politicos in that district. He's not making the sorts of public noises that Bonilla has been making, but Hilderbran has expressed interest in running for Congress in years past.
Rep. Mary Denny says now that she had no idea she was messing with gunpowder when she filed legislation to bring the state into local political investigations.
As it's written, the Aubrey Republican's bill would force local prosecutors to wait until after the Texas Ethics Commission had investigated a criminal complaint, and a negative answer from the TEC would keep the district and county attorneys out of a case.
That's not what Denny says she wants to do. She wants someone with a complaint about a local election — anything from campaign finance violations to fraud — to be allowed to report to the local prosecutors and/or the state agency so they don't get sandbagged by district attorneys who'd rather leave politics alone.
As she explains it, she patterned the legislation on environmental laws that require certain complaints to clear the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality before local prosecutors can proceed. What she wanted was an alternative place for locals to complain. Denny says local prosecutors often put election cases on hold until after the elections are over, and said the Ethics Commission would have only 45 days to turn a case around after a complaint is filed. Prosecutors could proceed without the state, but state reports would be allowed into evidence; a blessing from the state could be used as a defense if local prosecutors or grand juries decided to pursue charges.
Ethics reformers and Democrats with eyes on the Travis County Courthouse say Denny's bill would be an obstacle for future investigations like the one going on now in Austin. That inquiry started more than two years ago, after aggressive Republican efforts to take control of the Texas House in the 2002 elections. Prosecutors and a string of grand juries are looking to see whether campaigns and third party groups illegally coordinated their activities and whether corporate money was illegally used on behalf of some candidate's campaigns. Three individuals and eight corporate donors were indicted in the case last year; three of those corporations signed agreements to cooperate with the investigation and to go forth and sin no more, and indictments against them were dropped.
The Texas Ethics Commission is comprised of four Republicans and four Democrats and appears to be designed to get vapor lock on tough partisan questions. As Denny's bill is worded now, a stalemate there or a negative report on what might otherwise be worth investigation could stymie future investigations like the one going on now. Some lawmakers, critical of District Attorney Ronnie Earle's record, think that would be a good thing. But Earle's office — unlike every other prosecutor in Texas — has jurisdiction over state elections and officials, and watchdog groups fear lawmakers are trying to declaw him.
Denny says flat out that if her bill does that now, it will be fixed to do what she says she wanted in the first place.
The Ethical Culture Society
Watch for legislation from Reps. Todd Smith, R-Euless, and Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, that chews into the same material those prosecutors have been working on, with the aim of making some of what happened in 2002 illegal in future elections.
They've looked at several provisions, including a time limit on issue advertising, tighter definitions of what constitutes illegal coordination of campaigns and third parties, tighter rules on how money donated by corporations and unions can be spent, and limits on what kinds of political action committees can accept corporate and union donations.
One notion would prohibit so-called issue and advocacy advertising during the last month or two leading up to an election. The walls between those ads and plain old "my opponent's a schmo and I'm a pro" ads have become paper-thin. It's not unusual to see advocacy spots that remain legally but not practically distinguishable from normal campaign ads. It's legal in those spots to say one candidate is an idiot and the other is a genius and to end with "be careful when you make your decision." With a 30- to 60-day period before each election cleared of those spots, the advocates would be able to get their views out without electioneering. Federal law has a similar limit in place now, but it applies only to broadcast commercials. Some activists here want to extend such a ban to direct mail and to phone bank operations.
In a strange twist, that can be spun as a defense mechanism for incumbents. Issue ads usually revolve around the stands taken by a particular officeholder — as attacks on incumbents. Legislators — incumbents themselves — might see limits on those ads as prudent defenses against what they might face in future elections.
The corporate and union limits pushed by groups like Campaigns for People would restrict contributions to affiliated political action committees and would limit expenditures of those monies to a tight list of non-political items, like light bills and rent and desks. Current law has been read in some campaigns as allowing those funds to be spent on choosing which voters should be approached, on polling to decide which candidates to support and the like. Corporations and unions wouldn't be allowed to give to PACs without direct ties to the donor. With their proposed restrictions, the Intergallactic Garbanzos Corp. could give money to CHICKPEA-PAC, but that corporation couldn't give to an independent committee like Texans for Uniform Lawn Care. The change is directed at complaints that companies and labor unions shuffle money around in a variety of PACs to disguise their influence and the amounts they're spending to try to help particular campaigns.
Heflin Throws in the Towel
Hours after seeing a report siding against his election challenge, former Rep. Talmadge Heflin, R-Houston, finally conceded the November election, but hinted strongly that he's not through with political office.
The report issued bright and early Monday morning by Rep. Will Hartnett, R-Dallas, said Democrat Hubert Vo beat Heflin by at least 10 votes but less than 20. That report would have passed along to a committee and then to the full House, but Heflin's hopes hinged on a finding that either he won outright or that the outcome couldn't be determined.
Hartnett's report made it clear that he thought the outcome, while razor thin, was clear. Hartnett, appointed by House Speaker Tom Craddick to sort out the results of the election, filed a report which was intended for a committee for hearings and then, finally, for the full House for a vote. Heflin, defeated by the Democratic challenger in November, appealed the results to the House.
Hartnett concluded his 48-page report, in part, with this:
"This was a very close election decided by only a handful of votes out of more than 41,357 cast. After months of discovery, the detailed review of the voter files of 259 persons, and hours of examination and analysis of voter files by the parties and the master, it is the opinion of the master that Contestant has failed to meet his burden of proof. The master concludes that Representative Vo retains his seat by not less than 10 votes and not more than 20 votes, depending on the impact of the five votes that may still be counted.
"Although there was no evidence of voter fraud generated by or for any candidate in this race, serious questions remain regarding the fraudulent 'deportation' of a significant number of Nigerian American voter registrations from District 149 and several other districts into District 137.
"Representative Heflin, a 22-year veteran of the Texas House, and Representative Vo, a freshman member, have conducted themselves during this contest in compliance with the highest standards of this House. The master applauds both of them and their counsel for their cooperation and diligence during the difficult course of this contest."
A few hours later, Heflin and his attorney, Andy Taylor, appeared at a hastily called press conference to give up their challenge. Both had said after the election that clear evidence of fraud would put Heflin back in the House; after Hartnett's hearings, they decided not to press forward. To prevail, a challenger has to convince the House that the person declared the winner on Election Day didn't actually win. The House would then declare a new winner — that's quite rare, in addition to being politically hazardous — or to order a new election. They've done that just once in the last four decades.
A full copy of Hartnett's report, in Adobe Acrobat format, is available at www.texasweekly.com/documents/ HeflinVsVo_HarnettReport.pdf .
The open Republican seat in the Texas House will remain in Republican hands. Joe Straus III is on his way to Austin to represent HD-121, one of the state's most Republican House districts. In fact, he's already in office, sworn in just five days after he won a special election. Rep. Elizabeth Ames Jones, R-San Antonio, won in November but didn't take the oath of office when lawmakers convened; she's Gov. Rick Perry's pick for an open spot on the Texas Railroad Commission.
Four candidates — two Republicans, a Democrat and an Independent — ran in the replacement race. Straus got 9,255 votes (63.6%) to win without a runoff. Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Rose Spector, a Democrat, got 4,707 votes (32.3%). Paul Silber, who served a term in the Lege 30 years ago as a Democrat, ran as an independent and got 401 votes (2.8%). And Glen Starnes, who withdrew from the race and threw his support to Straus but not in time to get off the ballot, got 192 votes. Straus was the management favorite, winning endorsements from Jones and from Perry, among others. He's an investor from a family well known in the horse racing business; his father, Joe Straus Jr., helped start up the Retama track in Selma, just north of San Antonio, and is the chairman of Retama Park.
With that, the Texas House has 87 Republicans and 63 Democrats in its membership.
Roll Your Own News
If you have something to say but can't scratch up the bucks to buy your own newspaper or radio or TV station, you can blog (it's short for web log, a continually updated website on whatever is of interest to its author). And some of the bloggers sprouting in Texas are looking at state politics and government, generating new sources of information, gossip, political maneuvering; i.e., everything you used to hear in the traditional media and at the bar or coffee shop after work. Several Texas bloggers have been working the political beat for two or three years, and a batch started, more or less, with the beginning of the current legislative session. Several of the national political blogs are working as businesses, supporting their writers (handsomely, in a couple of cases) and opening a new channel in political media. The Texas blogs don't have the same traffic levels, but they're attracting wider audiences. We did a quick and incomplete survey. Drop us a note if we left out a good one.
Eileen Smith, a former journalist turned legislative budgeteer turned blogger, has started a regular riff on state government at www.inthepinktexas.com with the subtitle "Politics on the Lege of Reason." It's nonpartisan, focused on the Legislature and personalities. Smith worked for House Appropriations and then the American Heart Association after writing for a couple of publications, and hopes the blog becomes a full-time, full-pay job. She kicked it off, officially, this week.
Not everyone in the citizen/journalism racket is signing his or her work. That's got an advantage and a disadvantage: On the one hand, you don't become a target because of what you're writing. A lobbyist who wanted to tell true stories about the state Legislature, for instance, could do so on a blog without ruining his or her day job. On the other hand, blogs depend in part on running commentary from readers, and sources don't talk to people they don't trust and if you don't know who you're talking to, what's to trust? If you're saying something sharp, and it's a risky thing to say, it's best to know who's listening.
Two new blogs are doing politics the anonymous way. One, called www.pinkdome.com , leans to the left and has some attitude. It's entertaining, so far. And there's yet another blog about Texas government and politics, this one by another anonymous writer who has chosen the name imasuit. That narrows it down to lobbyists, officeholders and people who've been to Men's Wearhouse. The site, called "Inside the Texas Capitol," is more policy-oriented in tone than Pink Dome; the address is www.texascapitol.blogspot.com .
Several of the political blogs in Texas (we're ignoring the folks from Texas who write mainly about national stuff, the better to focus on state politics) have been around for a while and have developed regular audiences. Charles Kuffner of Houston writes at www.offthekuff.com , and another Houstonian, Greg Wythe, has been at it for a while on his site, www.gregsopinion.com . The blogger at Grits for Breakfast identifies himself as Scott Henson, and says he does "research and writing jobs for a wide variety of clients, from politicians to attorneys to non-profits to government agencies." He's at www.gritsforbreakfast.blogspot.com . The Burnt Orange Report ( www.burntorangereport.com ), based in Austin, was started by a group of students at the University of Texas. They're Democrats, and three of the four honchos are still in school.
Some are paid, and some haven't gone pro. Kuffner, for instance, takes no money and runs no ads. When he started, he thought he'd write more about sports, but his interests led him to concentrate on politics. Grits has no ads, nor does Texas Capitol. Burnt Orange runs ads, and there are a couple on Wythe's site. Kuffner and Wythe and the guys at Burnt Orange joined up during the last elections to do a "Texas Tuesdays" blog that interviewed House candidates in more detail than any other local media.
And several blogs around the state are designed, apparently, to work in cyberspace in the same way activists work in real space; to pester enemies and build support for some cause or another. Most of the ones we're aware of reside on the left side of the ledger (holler if you know of others, especially on the conservative side): www.takebacktexas.com is a straight Democratic site; www.savetexasreps.com was started by Democrats trying to raise money during the congressional redistricting fight and has remained active; www.drivedemocracy.org , another Democratic blog, started with funding from www.MoveOn.org , the national bunch that itself got going during the presidential campaigns.
Shameless Media Promotion
Paul Stekler, the documentarian housed at the University of Texas at Austin's film school, has started a new series on Texas public affairs that'll air weekly while the Texas Legislature is working. Special Session is hooked up with stations all over Texas, and you can get a schedule at www.klru.org/specialsession/ . Check local listings; these things tend to play a couple of times during the week, often with one primetime showing and a second, um, non-primetime showing. (Disclosure: While we aren't making any money on this deal, one of the talking heads is ours.) They have shows in the box titled Rick v. Kay v. Carole, Is the Media Still Relevant?, The Lobby and Lege, and Karl Rove Speaks.
A Program Note of Our Own
Our back issues are still searchable from the CURRENT ISSUE page on our website, but if you want to grab something by date, or you can remember part of the top headline, you might have better luck with annual directories which you'll now find on our LINKS page.
Political People and Their Moves
Mary Fraser, after assisting Tony Garza through his last three jobs — Texas Secretary of State, Texas Railroad Commissioner, and most recently U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, where she was his chief of staff, is returning to Austin from Mexico. She did politics before working for Garza, at the Republican Party of Texas and as an employee of one Karl Rove. No word yet on what she'll do now that she's situated back in Texas.
The House GOP Caucus elected Rep. Ruben Hope Jr., R-Conroe, to another term as its chairman. The vote totals weren't disclosed, but he beat Rep. Joe Nixon, R-Houston, who wanted to take over the top job. Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, was elected vice chairman over Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, but she ran for treasurer without opposition and will hold that post. Rep. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, was elected secretary without opposition. Those last two positions are new ones in the group.
Central Processing: Roger Williams cleared Senate approval and was sworn in as the 105th Texas Secretary of State. He replaced Geoffrey Conner... Elizabeth Ames Jones cleared the Senate Nominations Committee and the full Senate in less than a week, and she's the newest Texas Railroad Commissioner. She's the replacement for Charles Matthews.
Press Corp Moves: Gardner Selby will move to the Austin American-Statesman as chief political writer at the end of the month from the Austin bureau of the San Antonio Express-News. He's a veteran Capitol reporter who worked for the Houston Post and the Dallas Times Herald before a stint at the Texas Comptroller's office and his return to ink at the San Antonio paper.
Appointments: Gov. Rick Perry named Jarvis Hollingsworth of Missouri City the presiding officer at the Teacher Retirement System. Hollingsworth, a partner at Bracewell & Patterson, has been on the TRS board since 2002.
Perry named former judge Louis Sturns of Fort Worth to the Texas Racing Commission, which oversees gambling at dog and horse tracks in the state. He's an attorney at Mallory & Sturns now and a member of the Trinity River Authority. He was a state district judge, an appointee to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and a member of the Texas Ethics Commission.
The Guv named Ronny Congleton of Austin to the Texas Workforce Commission. He's a union appointment, a former chairman of the Teamsters Southern Grievance Committee and former president of Teamsters Local 745 in Dallas.
And Perry reappointed Michael Cooper Waters of Abilene to the Office of Rural Community Affairs. He's a consultant to the board of Hendrick Health System and a director of the First National Bank there.
Rick Roach, the Panhandle district attorney facing drug and weapons charges, agreed to a deal that drops the drug charges in exchange for his resignation and a guilty plea to the gun violations (he had two guns in his briefcase in a courtroom when he was arrested for drug possession). Roach's troubles stem from his addiction to methamphetamines. He faces up to 10 years in federal prison and up to $250,000 in fines.
Deaths: Wendell Odom, a judge whose time on the bench included 14 years at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and three years on the state's Board of Pardons and Paroles. He was 84.
Quotes of the Week
Texas Sierra Club director Ken Kramer, who's pushing lawmakers to tighten a particular set of water-saving laws, quoted by the Associated Press: "It may be hard for legislators dealing with school finance and health care to think about toilet performance issues. It's actually a critical piece of legislation."
District Judge Mark Davidson, telling the Houston Chronicle that, at $128,000 a year, judges don't make enough: "It sounds like a lot of money, and it is. But any of us can resign the bench and instantly double our income."
Rep. Ruben Hope, R-Conroe, asked if he's interested in running for the Texas Senate if Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, decides to run for Texas Agriculture Commissioner: "Why would I want to trade one $600-a-month job representing one-third of one county for another $600-a-month job representing 17 counties, when I would have to raise $300,000 to $400,000 to get there?"
U.S. District Judge James Nowlin of Austin, ruling in favor of abortion foes who protested against a clinic near a school in Waco, quoted in the Waco Tribune-Herald: "So it appears that the good people of Waco really are just trying to protect themselves and their children after all. And the First Amendment looks no worse for wear to boot. As for the plaintiffs, well, there is a great big world out there filled with scores of non-school zone abortion clinics. If that doesn't have all the makings for a fine family summer vacation, well then..."
Texas Weekly: Volume 21, Issue 33, 14 February 2005. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2005 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.