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The Other Hurricane

Former state Comptroller John Sharp, who'd been informally exploring a run for governor, won't run next year. Instead, he'll head a blue ribbon committee for Gov. Rick Perry, looking for a better tax system for the state. 

Former state Comptroller John Sharp, who'd been informally exploring a run for governor, won't run next year. Instead, he'll head a blue ribbon committee for Gov. Rick Perry, looking for a better tax system for the state. 

"He has given me what I consider probably my very last chance to do something historic for the state of Texas," Sharp said. "...It's safe to say there's not going to be any politics whatsoever, probably ever, after this."

Perry didn't name anybody else to the panel, but plans to do so in a couple of weeks. Sharp's group will work on state taxes and not on school finance. But Perry said it's too early to know whether there will be a special session on school finance before the tax panel has done its work. The Texas Supreme Court is wrapping up work on its decision in the latest court case on that subject, according to Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, and lawmakers could come back any time after that to work on the subject that has stumped them for two years. 

But the business of the tax panel was almost secondary to the truce between Sharp and Perry. The two men were pals at Texas A&M University, graduating in the early 1970s and eventually convincing voters to send them to Austin.

Sharp won a House seat in 1978, running as a Democrat from Victoria. He moved to the Senate in 1982, and then won a spot on the Texas Railroad Commission in 1986. He won races for comptroller in 1990 and 1994, then lost in his 1998 and 2002 efforts at lieutenant governor.

Perry started later and went higher, winning a House seat in 1984 as a Democrat from Haskell. He switched parties during his third term and ran for agriculture commissioner in 1990 (beating incumbent Democrat Jim Hightower in an upset). He won reelection in 1994, and he and Sharp collided in that 1998 race for Lite Guv. Perry won the 2002 governor's race after succeeding George W. Bush in 2001.

After losing to Perry, Sharp joined a tax consulting firm — Dallas-based Ryan & Co. — and made another run for Lite Guv in 2002, when Perry was running for a full term as governor. Sharp lost to another Republican, David Dewhurst, and by a bigger margin than his first run.

For all the shock waves it sent across the political, lobby and government bubble in Austin, Perry's Sharp announcement fell in the middle of the news run-up to Hurricane Rita, and if you'd been out of town for a couple of days, you could've missed it. Perry didn't announce the deal in a press release, either from the governor's office or from his political office. None of the groups that ordinarily follow his announcements with faxed and emailed "atta-boys" to the press did anything, either. And there weren't any welcoming words from House Speaker Tom Craddick or Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who've been tinkering unsuccessfully with school finance for well over a year.

But the quiet probably won't last. Sharp is already lining up speaking engagements to talk about state tax reform and lower property taxes, and said in his appearance with Perry that he expects the committee to travel around the state holding hearings. Both men all but killed talk of an income tax as a solution to state finances. "I would check the weather in the lower extremities before we would look at that," Sharp said. Both men ducked other specifics about what the panel might produce.

Sharp let his clients and others know about the assignment in an email shortly after it was announced to the press, telling them Perry wants him to find a solution not only to the state's tax problems, but also to school finance. "I realize it is a tough issue, but it is one I believe has a solution. Had I chose to run for office again, it would have been to solve this problem," he wrote. "The tax system and school funding is too important a problem for me to say no, and I hope you understand and will give me your blessings."

The top execs at Ryan & Co. are among the biggest financial backers to the current comptroller, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who is challenging Perry for the Republican nomination for governor next year.

Many of those execs have contributed individually to Strayhorn's campaign, but they've also given through the Ryan & Company Texas PAC, a political action committee that has spent most of its money over the last couple of years supporting Strayhorn, giving $308,500 between September 2003 and this past summer. Sharp hasn't given directly to Strayhorn, but contributed $14,423 to the company PAC during that same period.

And the firm is almost certain to be a subject of argument during the coming gubernatorial primary campaign. A recent State Auditor's report detailed campaign contributions to Strayhorn from tax consulting firms that also do business with the comptroller's office. They didn't accuse anyone of any wrongdoing, but laid out the information in a way that makes it easy for Perry and other political opponents of Strayhorn to draw conclusions for the benefit of voters. Ryan & Co. led the list of contributors.

Sorting out that Unexpected Handshake 

Chris Bell of Houston, who's been actively campaigning and trying to raise money for a run for the Democratic nomination for governor, is now relieved of the biggest obstacle: John Sharp isn't running. Felix Alvarado, a Fort Worth teacher who says he'll run, hasn't been pushing as hard as Bell, but gets the same sort of boost in not having to share votes with a rival who has already run statewide.

Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who's hoping Democrats and moderates vote in the Republican primary, ought to be happy as well. Sharp won't be on the opposite side of the ballot trying to get some of those same people to vote in the Democratic primary. That's one less experienced candidate who's competing to be the alternative to the incumbent. On the other hand, Sharp works for a tax firm that is one of Strayhorn's biggest supporters, and she might see him as joining with her enemy.

Writer and musician Kinky Friedman, running as an independent, has one less big name on the list of competitors. Independents get on the ballot by collecting signatures from registered voters who don't vote in primaries. This situation could certainly change, but there's a chance right now that Democrats won't be treated to much excitement on the statewide ballot in the March primaries. Bigger races increase turnout; quiet ones don't. Sharp's exit might lower the number of Democrats voting in March, increasing the number available to sign Friedman's petitions. After that, Friedman's chances improve if he's seen by voters as the best alternative to Perry, assuming they're looking for alternatives at that point in this election drill. But that depends on the primary results, and on whether a Democratic candidate can seriously challenge Perry in next year's general election.

Gov. Rick Perry gets rid of the only remaining candidate whose poll numbers seriously rivaled his own. Most handicappers would say at this point that the Democrats are at a serious disadvantage in a statewide race in Texas. But Perry has been wobbly — particularly before his widely praised efforts to help Hurricane Katrina evacuees — and it doesn't do him any good to have a relatively well-known Democrat available as an alternative. Sharp didn't endorse Perry for reelection, but conservative Democrats will take his assistance as a cue, another bonus for the Guv.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who beat Sharp in the 2002 election, didn't say anything publicly. But he and Sharp never patched things up after fighting for the state job, and Dewhurst has to be wondering whether he and his rival can work together on school finance.

For House Speaker Tom Craddick, it's a wash. He and Sharp haven't been direct rivals though they're from different parties. They served together when Sharp was in the House. And it's possible that the tax committee will actually produce something lawmakers can stomach. That's something Craddick and Dewhurst and Perry haven't been able to do.

What about the man in the middle? Sharp has lost his last two statewide races, and it's very difficult for a Democrat to raise enough money for a serious campaign; just look at Bell's campaign finance reports. Sharp's numbers in some polls were better than other Democrats, and in some surveys even rival Perry's numbers. Losing a third big race would probably put the last nail in Sharp's political coffin, and the absence of solid financing increases that risk. Since leaving office eight years ago, he's been financially successful. The firm that employs him, Ryan & Co., has chosen to oppose Perry in the governor's race against Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. This new deal puts Sharp on Perry's side, effectively covering the other side of the bet. He's probably giving up his political future, but the business move seems to make sense.

The Real Hurricane

Someone we know in Carole Keeton Strayhorn's camp was muttering the other day about Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and their effect on state politics and, in particular, the way they've burnished the governor's reputation: "Thank God it's not February."

Perry and most other candidates shut down their fundraising machines — at least the part that involves parties and receptions — when people began streaming out of Louisiana. Rita's presence in the Gulf and its wobbly and threatening path to the shoreline kept most political embargos in place. Strayhorn pulled down her radio ads as Rita approached land. Kinky Friedman unveiled an ad that'll go up on the Internet. That has the advantage of not appearing between storm stories on the normal electronic media where these things normally appear.

Unless there's a screw-up, the emergency management stuff puts Perry in front of the cameras looking gubernatorial, and every day of it disposes of a little more of the stink that school finance left. It's dicey to talk about it right now (more for them than for us), but it'll be a surprise if some of the footage being shot right now doesn't make it into political ads early next year.

The Texas folks also had the advantage of Louisiana going first. Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. In this case, though, the big goofs have so far been on the other side of the state line. The Federal Emergency Management Agency made landfall in Texas a full two days before Rita. State officials knew in Katrina's wake that they needed to take care of people in hospitals and nursing homes and to bus out people too poor to get out alone. One glitch was unforeseen: Traffic jams on northbound and westbound highways that stretched for miles and miles and miles.

The incoming storm kept politics off the front pages — Sharp's entrance was back on the metro and city pages — but Perry stayed out front. In the political ledgers, that's a win for Perry. That makes three important wins in as many months for a governor who was in pretty rough condition this summer. U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, his most dangerous potential rival, decided not to run for governor. Sharp, Moriarty to Perry's Holmes, folded. And the storms flooded out questions about Perry's leadership that arose during the school finance fights.

Hurricane Rita (and maybe some lingering effects of Hurricane Katrina) convinced two of the state's large education groups not to go to Houston this weekend for a convention. The Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas Association of School Administrators were set to meet at the George R. Brown Convention Center but decided to reschedule that for later.

That could have been interesting timing in more ways than one: The Texas Supreme Court (according to its chief justice) has decided the school finance case and is readying its decision for public consumption. They usually announce rulings on Fridays. The court is deciding an appeal of a lower court ruling that set an October 1 deadline for a remedy to the state's school finance system. State District Judge John Dietz ruled that the current system is unconstitutional. 

The Legislative Budget Board meeting that was set for this week got delayed yet again, this time because Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick wanted to wait out Hurricane Katrina (Rita perked up after the announcement). They were planning to direct some unspent money to some unmet needs, but decided to wait and see what it'll cost the state to take care of evacuees from New Orleans and elsewhere. They also sent letters to the Texas Education Agency, telling that outfit to go ahead and pay textbook publishers $295 million they're owed.

And finally, here's a note from the TEA to school districts that closed because of Hurricane Rita, or that miss school days because they were serving as shelters for Hurricane Katrina victims. They don't have to make up those lost days.

Come and Take It 

Kinky Friedman's first advertising is up, but not on TV or radio -- he's relying on its entertainment value to get people to drive viewers to his website. You can view it at www.kinkyfriedman.com/kinkytoon.

Campaign folk say the ad won't go up on regular media — and that the campaign probably won't mess with that until "maybe this time next year" according to Dean Barkley, who's running the show. Their model is a "JibJab" commercial spoof that ran during the 2004 presidential race, becoming an Internet phenomenon and a model for "viral advertising." It depends more on people passing it around than on people sitting in front of their TV sets and happening to see it.

Friedman's two-minute spot includes a fair amount of campaign messaging — some biographical material and swipes at issues like teacher pay, leadership, candidates who run by saying they love babies and Jesus and speaking Spanish and tax cuts to sway voters. "I love Texas," says one candidate in the cartoon. "I love Texas... en español," says the other. One's response: "I love babies and Jesus." Other's: "I love tax cuts and Jesus."

And it mixes it with the one-liners and visual jokes and cartoons to keep viewers interested enough to pass it on. It's got crosses and menorahs, and a towel snap at Mississippi that includes an astronaut. "I don't think Kinky is the type of person who weighs the risk of who he offends," Barkley said. "... He doesn't like the politicization of Jesus."

Barkley said they're working on more of the same sort of commercials and said they might come in with another one in about a month.

Heavy Metal

Reboot the old Texas Association of Manufacturers. Lobbyists for companies in the manufacturing industries like oil, high tech, chemical, airplane, and timber are talking about reviving that trade group.

The gripe of those big manufacturers — sometimes called the heavy metal lobby — is that their influence in other groups, like the Texas Association of Business and the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, is diluted. Their particular problem is with TAB, which doesn't lobby on some issues of interest to them because their interests don't parallel those of other businesses in the group.

Their two pet peeves are in energy matters — they spend large chunks of their money powering their manufacturing plants — and on state taxation. Electric companies have different rates for different types of consumers, and what's good for a big manufacturer might not coincide with what's good for a retailer. That's true in tax policy, too, where relief for homeowners and small businesses from property taxes, for instance, might be financed with increases on bigger businesses.

Lobbyists who've been talking about this say the tax bills considered by legislators this year pushed the industries to seriously talk about re-forming the association. They hope to have a "council" in place for the next special session, if there is one, on school finance. If that works, they'll probably formalize it and hang up shingles and hire full-time staff.

The timing looks bad for TAB, which has been indicted by a Travis County grand jury on campaign finance and ethics charges related to the 2002 legislative elections. Temple-Inland's Tony Bennett and Rob Looney with the Texas Oil and Gas Association both said that wasn't the trigger — that they've been talking about the new association for some time. And Bennett said TTARA is more focused on research and doesn't lobby, so the conflicts between diverse members there don't cause the same kinds of problems. Both said Texas is one of the biggest states without such a group and that the companies involved want a unified voice on just a couple of issues.

Resign to Run

Current officeholders and appointed officials have more slack than they might think when it comes to running for state office. The constitution says you have to resign one office to run for another, and also prevents some officials from running for another office during the term of their current office, even if they've quit with time left in the term.

But the Secretary of State's election wizards say the best current set of rules can be found in a Texas Supreme Court decision and an opinion from then Attorney General Dan Morales. They read those two documents to mean that candidates who resign from their current elected or appointed jobs before they file for office will be eligible. Note the word "file" in that last sentence; the folks at SOS say announcing for office and raising money and that sort of thing don't count: It's the filing for office that trips the wire.

The AG's office has a long version of this online, with the sorts of nuances you'd expect. It's an announcement for office, for instance, if you say you're gonna run in some sort of public forum or in a press release. If you're "seriously considering" it, you're not announcing. Here's a dinger: An announcement by, say, a county official automatically loses her the county job — even if it turns out she is ineligible for the office she planned to seek.

We were prompted to ask by the number of people in official jobs who feel the need to legislate (it doesn't apply to current legislators or other elected state officeholders). Examples: Robert Nichols, who quit the Texas Transportation Commission to run for Senate; Frank Denton, an appointee to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation who's in that same contest; Bob Reeves, a member of the Sabine Compact Commissionand yes, a candidate for that same SD-3 seat; Mark Ellis, a Houston city councilman running for state Senate in SD-7; a number of school trustees around the state. You get the idea.

Afterglow 

Lawmakers went home several weeks ago after failing to work out a solution to school finance, and chances are they'll be back in a few weeks or months for another crack at it. But they're still dueling, via mail and email.  Earlier this month, Bob Griggs, R-North Richland Hills, sent a letter explaining his decision to retire and imploring other educators (he's a former school superintendent) to consider running for office and to represent public education in Austin. Grigg's letter drew a response from Rep. Bill Keffer of Dallas, a fellow Republican who was on the other side of the education reform fight. But what Griggs sees as alarming, Keffer sees as reform.

"Without exception, every member of the "established educators" fraternity who testified made his position perfectly clear: 'Send more money (usually the amount specified was $8 billion), but don't tell us how to spend it, and don't change anything we're doing' - in other words, status quo plus more money," Keffer wrote. "The position that I and the other Republican members of the committee tried to make just as clear in response was: 'Reform before revenue; the one approach we cannot and will not abide is sending more money without first drastically reforming the way we do public education in Texas.'" 

Mystery Messages and Other Political Briefs 

Somebody who wants the constitutional ban on gay marriage to pass has been putting unsigned flyers on car windows in downtown Austin. The missives contend "homosexual activists plan to bus in hundreds of people from other states a month early, in order to vote against the traditional marriage amendment." It tells readers not to "blow this off and not bother to vote."

• Gov. Rick Perry got endorsements from the Texas Association of Realtors, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and adds U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio, to the list of fellow politicos who are supporting him. Add to that list the Independent Insurance Agents of Texas

John Courage, a San Antonio Democrat who has been on the ballot several times over the last decade, says he'll run for Congress against U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio. CD-21 runs from San Antonio into Austin. Courage's website: www.courageforcongress.org.

• San Antonio lawyer Rene Barrientos, formerly of Eagle Pass, has been telling interested parties that he's planning to run for state Senate against Frank Madla, D-San Antonio, in SD-19.

Hans Dersch, who won a gold medal in swimming at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, will run for the Lege in HD-54. Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp, R-Lampasas, is giving up that spot after this term. Dersch is now a small businessman in Marble Falls, and he's running on lower property taxes, better schools and limited government. No website yet.

Andy Smith, a communications manager at Texas Instruments, will run as a Democrat in HD-107 against Rep. Bill Keffer, R-Dallas. Smith's platform includes lowering local property taxes and reforming legislative and lobby ethics laws. If elected, Smith would be the only openly gay member of the Texas House. His website: www.electandysmith.com.

• Austin attorney Hugh Brady thought about running for the House (in HD-48, now held by Rep. Todd Baxter, R-Austin) but has decided against it. It would have been crowded: Three other Democrats are already in, including Andy Brown, Donna Howard, and Kathy Rider.

• The Texas Farm Bureau is holding a campaign seminar for "candidates, their spouses, and others involved or interested in campaigns" in Austin on October 25-26. They try to cover the basics and don't care which party you're in. There's more info on their website, at www.txfb.org.

• The Texas Lyceum has put together a statewide conference on education. That's in Fort Worth on October 7 (convenient for people going to a football game in Dallas that weekend) and it's titled "The Texas High School Diploma: What is it worth?" More here: www.texaslyceum.org.

Department of Corrections: In a recent item on Alex Castano, a Republican in the HD-47 contest, we had him home-schooling his kids. That was true until this year, when he and his wife enrolled the five oldest (of seven total) in an elementary school in Austin... An item on TRMPAC indictments said the group had routed money to the Texas Republican Party; it should have said to an arm of the national GOP. Sorry, sorry, sorry. 

Political People and Their Moves 

Gov. Rick Perry appointed Rolando Olvera Jr. to wear the robes in the 138th Judicial District Court in Cameron and Willacy Counties. Olvera, a member of the Texas Lottery Commission, is a name partner in a Brownsville law firm. He'll replace Robert Garza, who's leaving the court to return to private practice. Olvera's a Republican and a previous Perry appointee to the bench. He was appointed to a court spot in 2001 but lost it in the 2002 elections. He'll be defending the new spot next year, and the Democrats already have a candidate putting a campaign together.

John Hildreth, who has chaired the board of the Center for Public Policy Priorities since 1992, is stepping aside; Joe Rubio, a Catholic deacon and vice president of Catholic Charities in Houston, will take that spot. And CPPP is adding a new board member: Catherine Mosbacher of Houston, who served on the board of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services as an appointee of Govs. George W. Bush and Rick Perry.

John Pitts Sr. is leaving the Akin Gump law firm to hang out his own shingle doing law and lobbying. He's also signed on as a consultant to Washington, D.C.-based Arnold & Porter. His twin — Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie — is the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Brett Findley is the new chief of staff to Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano. He's worked on policy issues there for almost three years and gets the spot opened when Luke Bellsnyder left state employment for the lobby.

Marisa Martin leaves the offices of Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, to become associate director of the Scott & White Center of Health Policy. 

Quotes of the Week 

John Sharp, accepting an appointment from his former rival, Gov. Rick Perry: "I'm not very good at politics anyway... If I were good, I would be appointing him."

Former Wilmer-Hutchins ISD trustee Joan Bonner telling The Dallas Morning News that district officials who misspent federal money should be held to account: "I don't care if they have to sell a kidney, they need to pay this money back. We know they don't have a heart or a brain, but a kidney might be usable."

The quote from writer Armistead Maupin that got a line of coffee cups pulled from a coffee shop at Baylor University: "My only regret about being gay is that I repressed it for so long. I surrendered my youth to the people I feared when I could have been out there loving someone. Don't make that mistake yourself. Life's too damn short."

Trazanna Moreno, telling the Associated Press about turning back after getting stuck trying to leave Houston for Dallas to avoid Hurricane Rita: "We ended up going six miles in two hours and 45 minutes. It could be that if we ended up stranded in the middle of nowhere that we'd be in a worse position in a car dealing with hurricane-force winds than we would in our house."

Laura Stromberg, spokeswoman for Kinky Friedman, asked by the Austin American-Statesman about another campaign's objection to Friedman's spoofs of candidates who invoke religion: "We're all a little too uptight. Jesus Christ, get over it."


Texas Weekly: Volume 22, Issue 15, 26 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 info@texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@texasweekly.com, or call (512) 288-6598.

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