Skip to main content

A Circus with No Center Ring

It's an odd election season, with little of real interest at the top of the ballots and blossoming competition in Republican primaries. State leaders don't seem to know what to do with themselves.

It's an odd election season, with little of real interest at the top of the ballots and blossoming competition in Republican primaries. State leaders don't seem to know what to do with themselves.

Gov. Rick Perry is talking smack about Carole Keeton Strayhorn, a Republican who's running as an independent and isn't even on the ballot yet.

The Speaker of the House is watching over a mess of races where people who've helped him and people who've put rocks in his shoes are fighting off challengers. He's helping both types with endorsements, but is keeping his purse strings tied and either hasn't tried or hasn't succeeded at calling off Republicans who are financing challengers to Republican incumbents. The Lite Guv has barely showed his head as Republicans battle for three seats in the Senate he leads.

Groups that were getting all the attention a couple of years ago aren't playing. Stars Over Texas, set up to defend Republican incumbents in the House, has been dormant. The Texas Trial Lawyers PAC is sitting on some money (over $250,000 on hand a couple of weeks ago, when 30-day reports were filed), but hasn't played big yet. The Texas Partnership (Democrats) and Texas for a Republican Majority are out of business.

The Texas Parent PAC hasn't had much money go through it, at least through the latest reports. Two new Republican PACs have been busy, almost entirely because San Antonio Dr. James Leininger opened his checkbook. We've reported on his contributions to the Texas Republican Legislative Campaign Committee and its five targeted races. He's also the financial fuel behind a PAC called The Future of Texas Alliance, giving that group $100,000. The group paid Noble Strategic Partners and reported that outfit — run by Bill Noble, a GOP consultant — used the money to do work for reelections of several House members: Reps. Leo Berman, Betty Brown, Scott Campbell, Rob Eissler, Dan Flynn, Larry Phillips, and David Swinford. Another contributor to the Future committee was the All Children Matter PAC, which spent more than $100,000 on polling that was given to the Future PAC, apparently to look at voter preference in the districts of some or all of those candidates. All Children Matter reported only one contribution in more than a year — less than $5,000 from Leininger.

House Speaker Tom Craddick has $3.1 million in his campaign account, but has no opponent. He also hasn't used any of that money on behalf of House allies who find themselves under attack in the March primaries. And though we've heard some candidates and consultants kvetching about it, he doesn't appear to be on the verge of unlocking that vault.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is quiet, too, in spite of a couple of noisy Senate primaries that feature, in one case, a candidate who's been nagging Dewhurst on the radio for years. Republican Dan Patrick is leading a four-person race to replace Sen. Jon Lindsay, R-Houston. He's been regularly critical of Dewhurst on his talk radio show for a long time, and we'd have guessed, incorrectly, that Dewhurst might take the opportunity to answer.

Craddick has lent his name to several candidates facing opposition in the primaries, including several who were on the other side of some emotional votes on school finance and education. He's campaigned for Kent Grusendorf, Carter Casteel, Charlie Geren, Roy Blake Jr., and Scott Campbell, to name a few. Dewhurst has been less involved, but lent his name to a fundraiser for Grusendorf, as did Perry.

The Watch List

This isn't a list of all the primaries, and it only includes races with incumbents. Why are these here? They're serious contests, we think, according to conversations with political types in Austin and in the districts, finance reports with the Texas Ethics Commission, and not a few direct reports of jangled candidate and challenger nerve endings. Some of these appear too close to call and some will probably wash out, though we're not going to make predictions. It's the list of races that seem to be getting the most attention, for all the usual reasons.

Democrats

CD-28 — Henry Cuellar, Laredo, and Ciro Rodriguez, San Antonio. This is a bitter rematch of two former colleagues in the Texas Legislature. Rodriguez got a kick-start when Cuellar schmoozed with President Bush at the State of the Union speech. Victor Morales of Little White Truck fame is in here, too, and could be a spoiler if it's close.

SD-19 — Frank Madla and Carlos Uresti, San Antonio. Madla's first race in years is, by most accounts, tight. Uresti is challenging him on health and human service issues and says the incumbent is too close to Republicans in power. Madla appears to be stronger in the western counties — the district reaches all the way to El Paso County — but Bexar County, the population center, is a tossup.

HD-42 — Richard Raymond and three challengers, Laredo. Three Democrats got into this race when Raymond decided to run for Congress, but they wouldn't leave when he abandoned the federal contest and came back. Former Webb County Judge Mercurio Martinez appears to be the lead challenger in both name ID and money raised.

HD-76 — Norma Chavez v. Marty Reyes, El Paso. Chavez, a Democratic committee chair in a Republican House, was an activist first and knows how to get voters worked up. Reyes, an Ysleta ISD trustee, is sister-in-law to U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso.

HD-110 — Jesse Jones and Barbara Mallory Caraway, Dallas. Jones has had only one primary opponent in the last dozen years, and Caraway is a former city council member well known (for better and for worse) in the district. It's on our list of sleepers.

HD-140 — Kevin Bailey and John Reyes, Houston. Bailey, who chairs the General Investigating and Ethics Committee in the House, has a potential demographic problem; he's running against a guy with a well-known political name in a district that's predominantly Hispanic. Reyes is kin to Ben Reyes, a former legislator and city council member.

HD-146 — Al Edwards and two challengers, Houston. Edwards, a relatively early Democratic supporter of House Speaker Tom Craddick, is another chairman in the Republican House and has a target painted on his back because of it. Al Bennett and Boris Miles are on the ballot against him in a district marked by very low turnout.

Republicans

CD-22 — Tom DeLay, Sugar Land, and three challengers. The former House Majority Leader is on everybody's endangered species list, but he'll have more money to fuel his defense and most eyes are on the general election, where former U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson will be waiting, rather than the primary.

HD-4 — Rep. Betty Brown, Terrell, and Wade Gent, Forney. Her term limits pledge — which was actually in a race she lost two years before getting her seat in the House — has run out. Gent, a lawyer with offices in Fort Worth, is the son of a well-known Kaufman County Judge. And he's making an issue of her school finance and tax votes.

HD-6 — Leo Berman and Gus Ramirez, Tyler. Berman also pledged to limit his time in Austin and is now renegotiating that deal with voters. Ramirez, a restaurant owner, is a former Tyler city council member and Smith County commissioner.

HD-7 — Tommy Merritt and Mark Williams, Longview. Merritt is a perennial target of social conservatives in the GOP. He lost a special election race for state Senate, but has beat back challengers for his House spot. He's one of five candidates targeted by Dr. James Leininger, a Republican financier and school voucher advocate from San Antonio; more than 90 percent of Williams' money has come from a group that is, in turn, almost entirely funded by Leininger.

HD-9 — Roy Blake Jr., Nacogdoches, and Wayne Christian, Center. Another race targeted by Leininger's Texas Republican Legislative Campaign Committee. Blake's father was a state senator and the name ID probably helped him win two years ago, when Christian gave up the spot for an unsuccessful congressional bid. Leininger's money is actually an issue in the race, and Blake has an endorsement from Craddick and is getting help from the likes of state Sen. Todd Staples, Ag Commissioner Susan Combs and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who's cutting radio spots on his behalf.

HD-62 — Larry Phillips, Sherman, and Charlie Williams, Van Alstyne. Phillips' challenger is a former teacher, school board member, principal, coach... guess what the subject of the election is.

HD-72 — Scott Campbell, San Angelo, is trying to fend off Drew Darby and Kevin Housley. The incumbent provided challengers with some issues to talk about — a traffic stop and an incident at a massage parlor (his allies spun that into "day spa" in no time at all), but Craddick has visited and lent his support.

HD-73 — Carter Casteel, New Braunfels, and Nathan Macias, Bulverde. Casteel has turned Leininger's support for Macias into the main issue in the race and has ardently pursued and paraded support from Craddick, Patterson, Combs, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and others to defend her seat. She was one of the ringleaders in shooting vouchers down during 2005. If she wins, it's a sign that you can buck management and thrive. If she loses, it'll be a sign that bucking management is hazardous to political health.

HD-78 — Pat Haggerty and Lorraine O'Donnell, El Paso. The incumbent is one of three Haggerty brothers on the ballot, and he's generally more controversial with Republicans outside El Paso than those within. But some prominent El Pasoans are backing O'Donnell and Haggerty's in a tough contest.

HD-83 — Delwin Jones, Van Wilson, and Frank Morrison, Lubbock. Jones is number four on Leininger's list, if you're counting by district number. His big sin with a lot of Republicans is that he supported a Democrat from the district next door, House Speaker Pete Laney. Wilson is a developer who's hooked up to the San Antonio pipeline; Morrison is a former council member. Jones, like some others similarly situated, is running against his challenger's chief supporter.

HD-87 — David Swinford, Dumas, and Anette Carlisle, Amarillo. Swinford, chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, is one of several candidates targeted by the new Texas Parent PAC, started by education activists who don't like the direction the Lege has taken on school finance and education issues. But that's not the big issue in the race; the big deal is Swinford's ill-fated attempt to get Carlisle knocked off the ballot for being on the Amarillo school board.

HD-94 — Kent Grusendorf and Dianne Patrick, Arlington. If efforts to knock him off are successful, Grusendorf will be this year's Talmadge Heflin. Heflin, the House Appropriations Chairman and a close Craddick ally, lost narrowly in a true upset in 2004 (he's signed up for a rematch) after leading the Legislature through a bloody budget fight. Grusendorf pushed the education reforms that divided folks sharply into Yups and Nopes, and the Texas Parent PAC helped recruit Patrick to challenge him. Like Grusendorf, she's a former member of the State Board of Education, and she's also a trustee in the Arlington ISD. It is a close race.

HD-97 — Anna Mowery, Fort Worth, and Robert Aaron Higgins, Benbrook. Another sleeper that's on our radar but not, frankly, on most others. Higgins isn't running a rich campaign, but he's got more money than you see from average file-em-and-forget-em candidates.

HD-99 — Charlie Geren, Chris Hatley and Colby Brown, Fort Worth. If Carter Casteel was Batman last year, Geren was Robin, standing with her to rout Grusendorf and Craddick on vouchers with Leininger reportedly in the lobby behind the House chamber cadging votes. The doctor from San Antonio is, through TRLCC, Hatley's biggest supporter. Bob Perry, the Houston homebuilder who's regularly on Republican balance sheets, is contributing to Hatley, too.

Do You Still Call Them Voters If They Don't Vote?

Early voting is underway, but if you don't make it to the polls, you'll be among the vast majority of registered voters in Texas. Neither of the state's political parties has turned out more than 10 percent of the registered voters since 1994, when 11.5 percent showed up for the Democratic primary.

In 1990 and 1992, when the primaries featured interesting, high profile and competitive races, both parties broke that mark. (The Republicans had four major gubernatorial candidates in 1990 and the Democrats had three; new political maps and a noisy presidential race marked the 1992 season.) Since then, the combined primary turnout for the two major parties has remained — with one exception — under 15 percent of the full turnout. As a rough rule of thumb, turnout in Texas triples in November when compared to the party primaries, but the numbers expand and contract with voter interest. In 2004, a presidential election year, 7.4 million Texans voted in November, but only 1.5 million bothered with the primaries. That's about a 1:5 ratio. In 2002, general election turnout was lower and primary turnout was higher; the March number was 36 percent of the November number.

Turnout History Chart

 

Voters will see only two races of real interest at the statewide level in March. On the Democratic side, Chris Bell and Bob Gammage are after the nomination. And on the Republican side, former Supreme Court Justice Steve Smith, who knocked off a Rick Perry appointee to get on the bench the first time, is out to do it again. Don Willett, Perry's appointee, is trying to win a term in his own right.

The absence of high-profile fights is potentially good news for independent candidates like Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman, who need the signatures of registered voters who skip primaries. Voting for either party in March takes voters off the list of those eligible to support independents; if the numbers this year are like those in, say, 1998 — a gubernatorial election year without much excitement at the tops of primary ballots — the pool of potential petition signers will include 75 to 80 percent of the people who do care enough to vote in November. If you only count Texans who vote in November but not in March, that pool has 2.5 million to 3 million voters. Look at the difference between the number of people who play in March and the number of people who are registered — you're talking about 9.5 million to 10 million who'd be eligible to sign a petition. The two each need about 45,540 valid signatures to win a place on the ballot.

Four Out of Five Lawyers

The State Bar of Texas polled its members to see what the people who know most about judicial candidates think. The results include unhappy surprises for a couple of incumbents.

The state's lawyers (at least those who answered the poll) like four of the Texas Supreme Court incumbents on the ballot over their challengers. But the latest addition to the court — Rick Perry appointee Don Willett — came in behind Democrat Bill Moody of El Paso in the bar's tally. The good news for Willett is that the lawyers liked him better than the other Republican in the race, former Justice Steve Smith.

In the race for presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the attorneys like Sharon Keller. Tom Price, who's on that court and challenging Keller for the middle seat, finished third behind J.R. Molina, the Democrat who'll face the GOP nominee.

One hot race for that court wasn't included in the poll because the list of candidates wasn't ready when the lawyers were listing their preferences. State Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, is running against two judges — incumbent Charles Holcomb and trial judge Robert Francis — for a spot on the court. Keel knocked them both off the ballot for irregularities in their applications, but the Texas Supreme Court let them back on after a hearing.

The lawyers weighed in on races for various courts of appeal around the state. The poll is nonscientific; lawyers decide for themselves whether to play, and in some cases, they don't know the judges involved any better than anyone else. The results came from 7,739 attorneys surveyed online and 7,021 who did it on paper. You can see full results at www.texasbar.com/pollresults.

On Deck

Don't throw out your old crayons just yet. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments next week (March 1) on congressional districts drawn by Texas legislators, and the pile of briefs in that case would fill your average SUV.

If you're inclined to pore through the papers, the law school at Ohio State University is keeping up with the filings: www.moritzlaw.osu.edu/electionlaw/litigation/henderson.php.

The people challenging the political maps (several suits were combined for the appeals) say the Texas map is unconstitutionally political, that it violates the federal Voting Rights Act provisions that make each vote count equally, and that the Legislature shouldn't be allowed to revise legislative districts in mid-decade.

The first complaint was addressed in a Pennsylvania case where eight of the justices split evenly and the ninth said the Pennsylvania map was legal. That justice — Kennedy — left the door open for the Texas case, saying it would be possible to draw a map so politically biased it would be unconstitutional. The two other arguments are related. Legislatures have to redo political lines every decade, when the feds produce a new census. They aren't required to do it any other time, raising the question of whether they're allowed to do it any other time. If they are allowed, Democrats in Texas say another census should have been done first. Drawing political lines with old census numbers means fast-growing areas won't get their due in the new maps, and that slow- and no-growth areas will get more than their share. That, they argue, violates the "one-person, one-vote" provisions of federal law.

The state's position is easy: The plans are constitutional, just as lower appellate courts have said. Nothing untoward happened in the making of the maps, by the state's reckoning.

The court usually issues rulings in late June and early July, so Texas politicians ought to get their answer sometime after a special session on school finance, sometime before the general elections, and while most Texans are more concerned with summer pursuits. Some possible outcomes (with no probability attached):

• The court upholds the congressional lines and everybody goes home. Congressional elections proceed. A win for Republicans, who are trying to maintain control of Congress in President George W. Bush's final mid-term elections.

• The court rules that mid-decade redistricting is unconstitutional. Put the old map, drawn after the 2000 census (by a federal court, no less), in place and reopen the elections already underway. A win for Democrats, both in Texas and in Washington; reverting to the old configuration could replace four to six Texas Republicans with Democrats.

• The court rules that mid-decade is okay, but not without a census to ensure equal representation. Reset the lines and decide whether to do a census and a remap. A temporary loss for Republicans, but with permission for a do-over.

• The court rules that the Texas case was too motivated by politics. This one, at best, would confuse all of the animals in the political zoo. Pennsylvania's map-making was legal, and if Texas redistricting isn't, then the court will be describing, in some way, that Republicans could still draw a map so long as they're a little more like Pennsylvania (in a legal sense) and a little less Texan. This is fuzzy territory, and it's also what made some legal scholars squint at the Pennsylvania case. Remember the court's decision on porn, when they said "you know it when you see it?" The same sort of standard, without the titillation, applies here. The Texas case gives the court an opportunity to clarify the confusion, if they can muster five votes for a definition.

Political Notes

Chris Bell got the endorsement of four of the state's biggest newspapers: Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio. And he picked up the endorsement of former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk.

Not all was sweetness and light, though: Bell was more than a week late with the personal financial statement candidates are required to file with the state. That blunder left him open to a shot from his Democratic primary opponent, Bob Gammage, whose campaign took the opportunity to question Bell's bona fides on campaign ethics. Bell counters with an endorsement from Richard Morrison, who challenged Tom DeLay in 2004. Morrison defended Bell, who filed the original ethics complaints against DeLay in Congress, and blasted Gammage for the criticism.

Donna Howard will be sworn in on March 2 — that's Texas Independence Day for you new folks. The Austin Democrat's win in what had been a Republican seat makes the partisan numbers in the House 85-64 in favor of the Republicans. The 150th spot belonged to Republican Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie, who resigned. He'll be replaced in a special election next week. Howard plans to start with a meeting that'll bring the six superintendents in her district together with Democrat John Sharp, who's been working on an increase in state business taxes and other taxes to pay for cuts in local school property taxes. Howard complained during her campaign that the state is paying only 36 percent of the costs of its public school system. Sharp's exercise — ordered up by Gov. Rick Perry — would change that if the Legislature is willing to approved $6 billion in new taxes to pay for the local cuts.

• A mailer attacking Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, features on one side a partial view of a math test. Written over the problems there is a big red "F" with a circle around it. Mark Williams, the challenger, is attacking Merritt's voting record, and you're welcome to grade that as you please, but the answers on the math test in the picture are 100 percent correct.

Department of Corrections: We squib-kicked a reference to the John TowerBob Krueger race for U.S. Senate last week. It took place in 1978. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

Political People and Their Moves

Ector County District Attorney John Smith is putting on the robes; Gov. Rick Perry appointed him to the 161st District Court in Odessa.

Perry named three new trustees to the Texas County and District Retirement System that oversees pension and other benefits for local governments. Nueces County Commissioner H.C. "Chuck" Cazalas of Corpus Christi, Dallas County Treasurer Lisa Hembry, and Brazos County Tax Collector and Chief Appraiser Gerald "Buddy" Winn of Bryan will join that board.

The Guv named Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Elizabeth Ames Jones to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.

Former U.S. Rep. Pete Geren of Fort Worth won Senate confirmation to be Under Secretary of the Army — the highest civilian job under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Carol Dinkins won Senate confirmation to chair the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, created on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. She's an attorney with Vinson & Elkins in Houston.

George Scott Christian signed on as a partner with the Cantey & Hanger law firm, but will keep the public affairs business he took over from his dad. The law firm is starting up a public and regulatory law section; Christian will head that.

Hilda Bustos is leaving the San Antonio Water System, or SAWS, after eight years to be the new assistant manager of external affairs at Toyota.

We told you the Associated Republicans of Texas hadn't named a new executive director to replace Norm Newton, but we left out a bit. Pat Sweeney Robbins will take the interim job.

After five years in Washington, D.C., Laura Lawlor is back in Austin and has hung out a consulting shingle. She was a legislative aide who worked on policy for then-Gov. George W. Bush and went federal when he did, most recently as deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She's planning to work on state and federal issues.

Carole Barusch is leaving AARP's Texas office — she's the communications director — for a community development job with the City of Austin.

Deaths: Bill Tryon Jr., the sort of political consultant who gives you hope for others in that business, after a three-year battle with cancer. He was 42. Tryon once fired a candidate/client who lied to him about personal problems that later turned up in the campaign, and he started a consultancy in 1999 that never lost a race.

Quotes of the Week

Mickey Blum, a pollster for The Dallas Morning News, on what she's finding in surveys on the Texas governor's race: "You have Democrats nobody ever heard of, a Republican incumbent getting only a third of the vote, weird independents doing about as well as Democrats. I guess it's Texas being Texas."

Kinky Freidman, in the Dallas Business Journal: "I'm not going to meet any lobbyists when I'm governor, following (former Minnesota Gov.) Jesse Ventura's lead... Because every time a bell rings, another lobbyist gets his wings. And I'm going to stop that."

Democratic House candidate Tom Malin, quoted in The Dallas Morning News about public revelations that he once worked as a prostitute: "I don't regret my past, nor do I wish to shut the door on my past. I think anyone who has made mistakes in their lives can be a viable member of community and society."

Private investigator Tony Cordova of McAllen, in a San Antonio Express-News story about $46,000 owed him by former U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio: "I just want to get paid."


Texas Weekly: Volume 22, Issue 34, 27 February 2006. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2006 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.

The Texas Tribune Member Drive Fall 2021 banner

Support public-service journalism that’s always free to read.

Yes, I'll donate today