A group that includes Dallas lawyer Fred Baron — the chief fundraiser for the John Kerry-John Edwards ticket last year — and Marc Stanley — the incoming president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association — wants to reboot the Texas Democratic Party, infusing money and people to try to get that moribund organization running again.
Baron says the Party needs to build its voter files, its idea development and its marketing to try to return the state to two-party status. As it stands, the Party is suffering from pecuniary strangulation — it's broke — and candidates in the last couple of cycles tended to depend more on their own wits and the wits of their consultants than on the home base back in Austin. Several local Democratic groups around the state have been strong, but most candidates don't rely on the state party for much. "We have, as Democrats, a very strong message that's not being communicated very well," Baron says.
No Democrat has won a statewide race in Texas in ten years, and none has held statewide office since January 1999. The party lost control of the Texas Legislature in 2002, and that new Legislature redrew congressional districts to favor the GOP, which decisively took over the state's delegation to Washington in last year's elections.
If this was a football team, the coaches would all be saying it's a rebuilding year and there's a lot of young talent and all that. The boosters (stick with us, there's a payoff to this longwinded metaphor) would be calling for the coaches' heads. And the fallback position would be to keep the head coach and fire all of the assistants.
So it is with the TDP. Chairman Charles Soechting isn't going anywhere for now — he's an elected official and isn't up for a re-bid until next summer. But Baron and a group of consultants and financiers want to add six or seven full-timers to the Party staff in an effort, Baron says, to build infrastructure.
The so-called "Lone Star Trust" would add full-time fundraisers, an event planner, a database expert, a new executive director and press person to the staff of the party, according to a couple of folks who've heard the pitch. Baron plans to unveil the whole plan on Wednesday (August 31) for members of the State Democratic Executive Committee.
He wouldn't share specifics — saying he wants to show the party people first — but talked about problems the Texas Democrats have been having. For one thing, they can't raise enough money to remain effective. Baron's group wants to put in seed money in an attempt to become an "effective opposition party" and to someday contend for control of state government. If they can jumpstart the Party, he says, Texas Democrats who give generously to other causes and to Democrats out of state will return to funding the battles here. Baron says the group is not wed to any particular candidate or personalities, and he says the state's trial lawyers aren't controlling it.
Matt Angle, a longtime political advisor to former U.S. Rep. Martin Frost of Dallas, has been organizing the effort and talking to other Democrats about it for the last few months. He didn't immediately return our calls, but friends say he'll return to his home and business in Virginia as soon as this is either set up or rejected by Democratic Party leaders.
Some Democrats are quietly grousing about the idea, calling it an attempt by trial lawyers to take over the machine, and saying it'll return the Democrats to some of the things that made them unpopular with Texas voters in the first place. One change preceded Baron's pitch to the Democrats and has been in the works for a while. Mike Lavigne, the party's executive director, is leaving the TDP. His replacement is Ruben Hernandez, who worked with Angle and others in Frost's old organization, for former U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Beaumont, and for a group called Grassroots Democrats. He'll start in October.
A Very Short Cease-Fire
Carole Keeton Strayhorn, just a couple of days after Hurricane Katrina prompted her to suspend her political ads out of consideration for victims, broke her self-imposed radio silence to open fire on Gov. Rick Perry. While news reports were still focused on the devastation in the South, Strayhorn took time out to say Perry isn't tough enough on sexual predators. Later in the day, when he publicly signed legislation limiting government's ability to force property sales for economic development, she fired another shot, saying he'd flip-flopped after signing legislation removing obstacles for just such a deal in Tarrant County.
Her first complaint was that the state's penalties for sex offenders are too light, and that Perry didn't push to strengthen them. Her second gripe was that Perry signed legislation earlier this year that allowed a water district to use eminent domain to condemn property for economic development, just the sort of thing that wouldn't be allowed under the new limits he signed two months later.
Many of the questions that followed her pre-lunch announcement — that was the first one — concerned her promise to put politics aside while Katrina's impact was fresh (on that front, she said she'll waive penalties for out-of-state taxpayers who, because of the storm, can't file on time).
Democrat Chris Bell of Houston went the other way, suspending his online fundraising — which had an end-of-August deadline — and substituting a fundraising link for Katrina's victims, thousands of whom are seeking shelter in Texas, some in the Astrodome, some in Reunion Arena, others wherever.
And Perry — this'll sound cynical, but isn't meant to be — was shining in the aftermath of the storm. Public emergencies mark a high point in a governor's powers and ability to help, and Perry and his staff responded by pulling all the stops. He announced the opening of the Astrodome to victims, cited a federal law that requires states to educate the homeless and then defined the displaced from Louisiana as homeless, letting their kids into Texas schools. He ordered emergency crews and other resources into storm-wracked areas. They're suspending trucking regulations to get supplies into the area, sending emergency gasoline to Florida, on the far edge of the storm, and so on.
Public disasters make for a lousy political environment, with an exception: They can elevate officeholders who are in a position to actually provide help or leadership when it's needed. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is one famous case. Within that framework, the advantage right now is Perry's, and most of the candidates are laying low.
Finding a state leader who thinks it'll take a court order to solve school finance isn't hard — try House Speaker Tom Craddick's office. And it's not because they want the courts to tell them what to do. It's because they need the courts to narrow the question — to tell them what doesn't need repair. It's a familiar problem to college sophomores taking introductory philosophy classes: First, define the question and the terms of the argument.
Almost a year ago, state District Judge John Dietz of Austin decided the current system violates the state's constitution. He said the funding system doesn't allow districts enough money to meet the standards set by the state and prevents them from providing Texas kids with adequate educations. And he ruled that the state's $1.50 cap on property tax rates has become, in effect, an illegal state property tax since most districts don't have any meaningful choice in charging taxpayers a lower rate. The state appealed, and everyone is looking now to the state Supreme Court for a final ruling on those points.
But Gov. Rick Perry and the Legislature kept trying to work out the problem while the courts were hearing the challenges to the current system. They were trying to agree on a solution before the court finished its legal diagnosis of the malady. And like their lawmaking predecessors before them, they were stumped.
It's easy to reach a political solution to school finance: Just make about 1,100 school districts happy at the same time. Unless you can give each district more money in a new system than it already gets, that's impossible. But lawmakers didn't stop at that conundrum; they simultaneously tackled another dangerous puzzle by attempting to raise state taxes to buy down local school taxes. To raise taxes, you seek a plan with more winners than losers.
One reason they can't find the answer is that they can't agree on what questions to ask. State leaders and the lawmakers looking to them for guidance had at least a half-dozen different and often competing goals. In no particular order:
• Reform schools, to make them more accountable for the money they get and to make sure as much of it as possible is used to educate kids (as opposed to feeding them, busing them, herding them, counting them, etc.). Gov. Perry followed the session by ordering part of this, saying districts ought to be using at least two-thirds of their money for classroom education by 2009.
• Lower local school property taxes and cap increases in property values to take pressure off home and other property owners.
• Give teachers and other school employees a pay raise, to bring salaries closer to the national average and to try to attract and retain the best people in education.
• Limit how much locally raised property tax money in wealthy districts has to be shared with poorer districts.
• Increase the state's share of the public education bill to 60 percent or more from its current level around 40 percent, a goal that was pursued with only temporary success by state leaders like George W. Bush and Ann Richards in the 1990s.
• Increase education spending to try to bring up student achievement, pulling more schools up to standards set by the state.
• Lower the number of districts where — in spite of share-the-wealth formulas — property wealth still means higher spending per pupil than is possible elsewhere in the state.
And there were several other issues loosely assembled under the umbrella of "school reform" that some hold dear: Start school after Labor Day and do away with some of the holidays that poke holes in the annual school calendar; move school board elections to November, which probably would make them more partisan and probably would increase voter turnout; put more technology into schools as part of what some gear-heads hope will spell an end to 30-pound backpacks and a beginning to students lugging computers that contain textbooks and other education software.
Talk to five legislators and you can probably add to the list. A court decision — with a narrow enough definition of just what's broken and must be fixed — would be handy right now. And the Legislature is apparently ready to wait for the court to do what its leaders couldn't do: Say what needs repair and what can be left for later.
While they wait for that final, unassailable court order — which could come any time — nervous state lawmakers are steeling themselves for the 2006 elections.
Dropouts and Challengers
State Rep. Bob Griggs, R-North Richland Hills, has decided to pack it in after all. He put off retirement plans to run in the first place and has been openly talking about hanging up his running shoes after the current term. Now he's announced it: The former school superintendent, who irked some Republicans with his independence from management on education and other issues, will serve out this term in HD-91 and leave. Pat Carlson, who chairs the Tarrant County GOP, has already said she'll run; she and her husband are building a new house in the district (they live outside the district now). Add two more to the mix: Kelly Hancock, a trustee in Birdville ISD, and Charles Scoma, the former mayor of North Richland Hills. Both are Republicans. It's remarkably red territory: No Democrat won that district at the state or county level in the 2002 elections.
And state Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp, R-Lampasas, says she won't run for reelection in HD-54 at the end of this term. She's not ruling out future public service, but said in a written announcement she'll "continue to serve the public interest in a private capacity." She also said she hopes she'll get a shot at solving school finance before her current term ends, alluding to a possible special session after the Texas Supreme Court rules. Hupp is skipping out two years before her retirement improves. Lawmakers vest in their retirement after eight years in office and can start drawing checks when they're 60 years old. If they serve 12 years, the checks start coming when they're 50 years old. Hupp will have served 10 years in the House at the end of this term. HD-54 is GOP turf; all but one of the statewide Republicans — Attorney General Greg Abbott — did slightly better in the district than they did overall in 2002.
Two Houston Republicans — Reps. Peggy Hamric and Joe Nixon — are giving up their reelection chances to seek promotion tot he Senate. The two will be in a GOP primary (along with City Councilman Mark Ellis, and maybe Ben Streusand, who lost a congressional race last year) to replace Sen. Jon Lindsay, R-Houston, who is retiring after this term.
Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, is leaving the House to run for the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin.
Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, is plotting a challenge to U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo. Former state and U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, is also in the hunt for that spot, which he lost to Cuellar two years ago.
Rep. Jim Solis, D-Harlingen, told the Brownsville Herald in early August that the current term will be his last. He's been in office for 12 years. Eddie Lucio III, son of the state senator, is thinking about running for that seat.
Rep. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, wants to run for Sen. Frank Madla's spot. Madla, D-San Antonio, plans to seek reelection, but Solis told the San Antonio Express-News he'll give up his current spot for the challenge.
A Family Fight in Fort Bend County
Steve Brown, a lobbyist and former legislative staffer, says he'll challenge Rep. Dora Olivo, D-Rosenberg, in HD-27.
She didn't have an opponent last year. Olivo won her 2002 reelection, with 63 percent of the votes over Mark Rubal. In 2000, she beat Republican Lester Phipps in the general election, getting 64 percent of the votes, after smothering Samuel Gonzalez in the Democratic primary, where Olivo collected 88 percent of the votes.
It's a safely Democratic district, if you look at the results of statewide races, although the congressional district with the biggest overlap belongs to U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land (he squeaked in Olivo territory by six votes on his way to an overall 64 percent win in 2002). The best performance by a statewide Republican candidate came in the comptroller's race, where Carole Keeton Strayhorn (last name Rylander at that time) beat Democrat Marty Akins by 110 votes on her way to a statewide win. Sen. Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria — whose district partly overlaps the House district — lost in his section of HD-27 to Phipps, who moved up the ballot in 2002. Though he lost in the district, Armbrister handily beat Phipps elsewhere.
Blacks and Hispanics together make up about 65 percent of the district, according to the 2000 Census. Brown is African-American; Olivo is Hispanic. Brown worked for several Houston Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Sen. Rodney Ellis, and Rep. Sylvester Turner, before signing on with the Texas Medical Association as a lobbyist. He's now with the American Heart Association and plans to stay with that organization as he moves from Austin to the district to run against Olivo.
Brown says he is aware of rumors that former Rep. Ron Wilson, D-Houston, and House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, are trying to recruit friendly Democrats to run against unfriendly ones, but says he hasn't talked to either of them and says people in the district urged him into the race. He says he'll push economic development and education. Craddick, meanwhile, says through an aide that those rumors are false: He's not working against any incumbent House members — Republican or Democrat — and doesn't plan to do so, says Alexis DeLee, his spokeswoman.
Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson dispatched his agency's oil spill team to New Orleans, along with seven boats, ten trucks, a bird rehabilitation trailer, a mobile command post, cash advances (it's hard to cash a check out there right now), and permission to carry pistols and rifles. Patterson says he expects a little flack for that last bit, but says several of the employees have handgun permits, and says they'll report to Coast Guard officers, who — according to Patterson — think the rifles are a good idea. "It's dangerous out there," Patterson says. Guns aside, it's the first time the oil spillers have been sent out of state in anything beyond advisory roles, he says.
• Molly Beth Malcolm, the former chairwoman of the Texas Democratic Party (and so far the only female to hold that job) endorsed Chris Bell's run for governor, lauding the former congressman from Houston for his official ethics complaints about U.S. Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land. She fired a shot of sorts at members of her party who've moved to the middle as the state has become more Republican, suggesting that's not the way to win: "Chris is not now and never will be Republican-lite. He will not hide behind closed doors to avoid espousing democratic values."
• We told you last week about MAV-PAC — the group of almost a dozen George W. Bush supporters who've formed a political action committee to support Texas candidates. Since then, they've announced their first contributions will go to Gov. Rick Perry. The mavericks were people who collected at least $50,000 but less than $100,000 for Bush's reelection bid. Eleven of them who live in Texas (and a half dozen newbies) formed the state PAC and hope to raise $100,000 during the 2006 election cycle. They've got a website with more info about the group: www.maverickpac.com.
• Punch up that Internet browser, type www.rickperryforgovernor.com, and it takes you to.... www.carolestrayhorn.com. What would seem to be a Perry site is registered to one Jeremy Richie of Austin. The Strayhorn folks say they're not affiliated (although they seemed to appreciate the plug). Perry's folks crabbed, noting that www.rickperry2006.com is also taken and also redirects traffic to the comptroller. Their headline: "Strayhorn Supporters Using Governor Perry’s Good Name to Get Attention."
• Robert Sanchez, a Republican who teaches high school in San Antonio's Northside ISD, says he'll run for Congress against U.S. Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, D-San Antonio. His campaign is online: www.sanchezforcongress.com.
• Houston lawyer Al Flores says he'll run for the statehouse in HD-143, left open when Rep. Joe Moreno, D-Houston, died in a highway accident earlier this year. Moreno beat him in a primary in 2002, and Flores raised a local stink by flirting with the Republican Party. Local GOP officials told the Houston Chronicle they thought he was on their side, and Flores voted in the Republican primary in 2004. But he told the paper he's still a Democrat. That's a special election, set for November 8, and Flores is the fourth Democrat to join the race. The list includes Charles George, a corrections officer; Ana Hernandez, an attorney; and Laura Salinas, a leasing administrator.
• Rep. Peggy Hamric, R-Houston, picked up several Houston and Harris County endorsements for her Senate race (she's vying to replace Jon Lindsay, R-Houston, who's retiring). The endorsement list includes Reps. Martha Wong and Beverly Woolley, County Commissioner Jerry Eversole, County Attorney Mike Stafford, Sheriff Tommy Thomas, and Constables Glen Cheek and Ron Hickman.
Meanwhile, Rep. Joe Nixon, who's also running, picked his help for that Senate race. He hired Jason Smith to manage the campaign, and signed general consultant Allen Blakemore, fundraisers Elizabeth Blakemore and Kate Doner, pollster Mike Baselice, ad guy Steve Sandler and press guy Jim McGrath. They even named a Dallas fundraiser for the Houston race: Alison McIntosh.
• Kathy Rider, a former Austin ISD trustee and board president, is joining the increasingly crowded Democratic primary in HD-48, where the winner will challenge Rep. Todd Baxter, R-Austin. Donna Howard, who was on the Eanes ISD board, and Andy Brown, a lawyer, are also in the hunt.
• Former U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, D-Dallas, is off to Massachusetts to take a teaching gig at Harvard University's Institute of Politics. He'll be what's called a "resident fellow," and plans to continue with his other job as a commentator for Fox News.
• Gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell hired Scott Gale of Washington, D.C., to do his fundraising for the rest of the campaign.
DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS: Our item on the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife last week failed to mention that the agency published notice of a proposed sale of land in the Texas Register before the story broke in the papers. And although it was mentioned in the agency's press release, the Sauceda ranch buildings were not to have been included in the proposed sale of some of the land in the Big Bend Park. The P&W board voted the sale down, unanimously. As for our mistakes, we are sorry, sorry, sorry.
Political People and Their Moves, Appointments Division
Gov. Rick Perry appointed Julie Caruthers Parsley to another term on the state's Public Utility Commission. Parsley, who used to be the state's solicitor general, started her regulatory gig in November 2002, when Perry first put her on the PUC.
The Guv named 17 people to advise him on how to use the Emerging Technology Fund, a more targeted version of the $300 million economic development fund in his office. The new fund, started by the Legislature, will total up to $200 million. Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick oversee the investments, but Perry's new panel will offer advice.
The members include Alan Abbott, an El Paso CPA and chairman of Sunland Optical Company, Inc.; Grant Billingsley of Midland is manager of public affairs for Wagner & Brown, Ltd.; Dr. C. Thomas Caskey of Houston, president and CEO of Cogene Biotech Ventures; Sada Cumber of Austin, chairman and CEO of SozoTek, Inc.; Dr. Lynda de la Vina, dean of the UT San Antonio College of Business; Phillip Drayer of Dallas, president and CEO of Kalydus Asset Advisors; Dr. Pamela Eibeck, dean of engineering at Texas Tech University in Lubbock; Clyde Higgs, president of Tech Fort Worth, a business and technology incubator; Cesar Maldonado of Harlingen, president and founder of MBM Engineering Group, LLC; Bill Morrow of San Marcos, founder of Grande Communications; David Nance of Austin, president and CEO of Introgen Therapeutics; Bernard "Bernie" Paulson, chairman of Corpus Christi Bancshares; Pike Powers of Austin, a partner with Fulbright & Jaworski; David Spenser of San Antonio, president of OnBoard Software, Inc.; Bill Sproull, president of the Richardson Chamber of Commerce and the Metroplex Technology Business Council; Dr. Johannes "Hans" Stork of Dallas, senior vice president and CTO of Texas Instruments, Inc.; and Walter Ulrich of Pearland, president and CEO of Mincron, Inc.
Perry picked Albert Betts to run the worker's compensation division at the Texas Department of Insurance. That was an agency unto itself until the Legislature folded it into TDI this year. Betts, an attorney, is currently chief of staff and senior associate commissioner of operations at the insurance agency.
The governor named three people to the board of regents at Stephen F. Austin University: Richard Boyer of The Colony, information privacy officer for Children's Medical Center Dallas; James Thompson, president and founder of Team Associates Inc., and a former city councilman in Sugar Land; and Melvin White of Pflugerville, founder of Digital Workforce Academy. All three are alumni.
Judicial Spankings: State District Judge Mary Anne Bramblett of El Paso was publicly reprimanded by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which said she changed a Mexican citizen's date of conviction so that his deportation was no longer mandatory. The commission said the falsified date was ignored by an immigration court that deported the convict, and said Bramblett's action was "inconsistent with [her] reputation in the legal community."
Quotes of the Week
Gov. Rick Perry, quoted in the Athens (Georgia) Banner-Herald on whether voters will hold officeholders responsible for gasoline prices: "I'm sure there will be some political hack somewhere that will try to blame someone for something. They always do. But by and large, the electors are smarter than that. They realize prices go up and down because of supply and demand."
Comptroller and gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn, breaking a self-imposed campaign blackout in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to criticize Gov. Rick Perry for the condition of the state's sexual predator laws: "This is not politics. This is about our children. This is about our most precious resource."
L. Laurent of Gretna, Louisiana, telling The Dallas Morning News she'll enroll her 14-year-old girl and 17-year-old boy in Dallas schools while they're stuck at Reunion Arena after Katrina: "We're going to enroll them in school here in Dallas. I don't want them running around. I want them to do something constructive."
Frank Lucco, a real estate consultant, quoted in the Houston Chronicle on rising home foreclosures: "More and more people are having problems with their jobs, a lot of people bought houses without a lot of money down, taxes are escalating, and they haven't gotten that kind of a raise. We're seeing foreclosures of houses only two, three, or four years old."
Independent gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman, quoted by the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung: "I believe musicians can better run this state than politicians. Heck, I think beauticians can better run this state than politicians."
Texas Weekly: Volume 22 Issue 12, 5 September 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. For news, email email@example.com, or call (512) 288-6598.