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Suiting Up Early

Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn won't get a cakewalk in 2008, but neither will the Democrat who faces him a year from November.

Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn won't get a cakewalk in 2008, but neither will the Democrat who faces him a year from November.

State Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston, will file papers starting his candidacy next week (they're calling this "exploratory," but don't follow the "maybe he will" with a "maybe he won't").

Noriega will be the second Democrat in the race and the poorest one. San Antonio lawyer Mikal Watts jumped into the race by looking at Cornyn's accounts, seeing $3.8 million there, and writing a personal check to match it.

Noriega can't self-finance, but he's betting on support from fellow legislators, on his military record in an election environment dominated by the war in Iraq, and on the strength of an Hispanic surname in a Democratic primary.

Promoted heavily by Texas bloggers for the last several weeks, Noriega is touting a letter signed by 49 fellow Democrats in the Texas House urging him to run and pledging their support for his campaign. His story includes a stint in Afghanistan — his wife subbed for him in the House while he was gone — that he hopes will capture voters' attention. He'll start his fundraising after he files next week and has hired political consultant James Aldrete and fundraiser Yaël Ouzillo to get things going. (Christian Archer is running Watts' campaign.)

He says he'll talk a lot about what he sees as a failure of leadership at the state and national level, "a difference between those that have walked the walk vs. people who read things and form opinions." He says it'll be a year-long job review on Cornyn and a job interview for him.

He has to get out of the primary first, though. The sharpest distinction so far between the primary opponents is on abortion; Watts opposes it except in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is in danger. Noriega says he wants to reduce the number of teen and unwanted pregnancies, but adds, "I don't believe it's in the government's lane to tell women what they can and can't do, when it comes to their health."

He calls Cornyn "a rubber stamp for this administration," and says, "the only time he's disagreed with them is when they've tried to work in a bipartisan way, like on immigration."

The Name Thing

Texas Democrats' fascination with Hispanic names on the statewide ballot took flight when Victor Morales came out of nowhere in 1996 and won a Democratic primary for U.S. Senate over two sitting congressmen — John Bryant and Jim Chapman — and Houston lawyer John Odam.

They all had more money Morales, but he had a little white truck that caught the media's attention and an Hispanic surname in a primary where a growing number of voters were Hispanic. It was also the last name of the well-known and then-popular attorney general, Dan Morales, but that often gets left out of the storytelling.

Consultants for Rick Noriega say Hispanics account for 42 percent of the Democratic primary vote. Combine that with Houston — Noriega's base — and they see a way to overtake Mikal Watts' financial advantage.

It's a hit-and-miss idea. In addition to the Morales story from 1996, there are other bits of recent lore. The idea of a rising Hispanic tide in Texas politics provided the rationale for the Tony Sanchez campaign for governor in 2002. He had money, too, and easily won the primary, but he got smoked in the general election.

The most recent field test was done last year, when a soft-spoken educator named Maria Luisa Alvarado won the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor in spite of a budget that wouldn't have covered one Saturday night pizza tab for a high school football team. There were three candidates in that Democratic primary, including two Hispanics. None of them were well-known in any meaningful way, but if you're buying this theory, here's the tidbit you want: Alvarado got 41.5 percent in the first round; Benjamin Grant got 36.1 percent, and Adrian De Leon got 22.4 percent. In the runoff, Alvarado got 57.6 percent.

But it's not always potent in Democratic primaries, and political hacks still argue about whether it helps or hurts a candidate in a general election, or has no effect. State Rep. Pete Patterson beat Ernesto De Leon in the 1998 primary for agriculture commissioner. Morales made it into a runoff for Senate again in 2002, but lost that round to former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk. De Leon lost again, to Tom Ramsay, in 2002.

Last year's primary example, Alvarado, got only 37.4 percent in the general election, a result mirrored by two Anglo male Democrats in the two races that followed hers on the ballot. And in a couple of statewide races in 2004 where the candidates weren't well known, surname apparently fell far behind party as a measure of how a candidate might do. Victor Carrillo, a Republican, got 55.5 percent in his first race for Texas Railroad Commission against a Democrat named Bob Scarborough. An Hispanic Democrat running for a spot on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, J.R. Molina, got 42.1 percent while losing to an Anglo Republican, Michael Keasler.

Block the Vote

Former state Sen. Drew Nixon, R-Carthage, was indicted on misdemeanor official oppression charges by a grand jury that said he illegally worked to keep two candidates for a water board off the ballot.

The Panola County grand jury's indictment says Nixon, working as the elections administrator for the Panola County Freshwater Supply District #1, refused to accept ballot applications from Dickie Jacks and Jon Kunkel, two former members of the water board who wanted to seek election.

Nixon, reached by phone, said the two wanted to run for positions that weren't on the ballot. The current board, he said, had changed its at-large elections to single-member district elections and the two men were seeking positions that weren't on the ballot in the 2006 election cycle. "I got caught in between two boards," he said. I support the single-member districts, though... we got a minority on the board for the first time after those came in."

Nixon went to the local sheriff's office to "surrender" after the indictments were issued; by afternoon, however, he was back in his office. He characterized the indictments as the result of a dispute over the change in the election process, and said he never thought of himself as the elections administrator: "We have served as their accounting firm."

There's another version. Attorney General Greg Abbott announced the two-count indictment, saying it began with an investigation by his office (Panola County District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson said his office "didn't have anything to do with it" and said Will Tatum, an attorney with the state, took the case to the grand jury). In the AG's telling of it, Nixon initially refused to take the ballot applications even though he was advised to take them by the Texas Secretary of State. Nixon and the AG agree that Nixon told the candidates they lived in the wrong precincts to be on the ballot. But the AG's office says Nixon ran out the clock on the two candidates, essentially protecting the board members he worked for by blocking their challengers' attempts to get on the ballot.

Nixon also says the election issue has gone to federal court and said the court has issued a bench decision in favor of the single member districts. State lawyers say that doesn't affect their case against the former senator.

He's charged with Class A misdemeanors, which carry penalties of up to a year in jail and up to $4,000 in fines. And he said he'll enter an innocent plea at the proper time.

Nixon gave up the seat in the 2000 elections, deciding not to run after a self-inflicted scandal: He propositioned a hooker who turned out to be a police officer and served his jail time on weekends when he wasn't working in the Senate. Awkward. He decided not to make the next election — Todd Staples, now the state's agriculture commissioner, replaced him — and he's been out of the state limelight since.

No, Thanks

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza won't be on the Texas ballot in 2010, and you could read his statement to say he won't get back into politics at all.

He's been mentioned in speculation here and elsewhere as a possible candidate for governor or U.S. Senate. He's even fueled some of it. But he's not running this time.

Garza, a former Cameron County Judge, Texas Secretary of State and Railroad Commissioner, could self-finance a race this time out. He married a billionaire heiress to a beer fortune — María Asunción Arambúruzabála — and the two have made coy references about his seeking office when his gig as ambassador is over.

His decision not to run, he said in a statement, was spurred by another round of stories about the possibility. "Why this statement now?" he said. "I have read the stories and known for some time that seeking the nomination in 2010 was not something I was going to do. I would prefer not to have that sort of speculation detracting in any way from the important work that is still to be done here in Mexico."

And he hinted that he'd like to get involved in public service again, but maybe not in politics: "Over the course of the past 20 years, I have seen many people whose names have never appeared on a ballot — and yet, they have served our state and their communities with a decency and quiet dignity that I admire. This is what I would like to do when my tenure as Ambassador is complete: be one of those Texans who stand outside the political arena but who continue to serve and make a positive difference in people's lives."

It's hard to run for governor if you're not standing in the political arena.

Hall Monitors

Gene Christensen's website says he "may" run for Congress, but his campaign manager says that's out of date and that his guy will be in the contest even if the incumbent — U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Rockwall — runs for reelection.

Christensen is president of a NASCAR truck team — Green Light Racing — and lives in Celina, in Collin County. He's the second Republican to show interest in a challenge. Former Frisco Mayor Kathi Seei said in April that she's in, Hall or no Hall.

The rap against the incumbent isn't his voting record; there's some prospective grave dancing at work. Hall's been in the U.S. House since 1980 (he also did ten years in the Texas Senate) and turned 84 earlier this year. Hall was a Democrat for years but switched after redistricting and won his last two elections as a Republican. He got 64.4 percent in November with both a Democrat and a Libertarian in the hunt. More to the point, two Republicans challenged him in the 2006 primary, and Hall got 77.2 percent of the vote. He went on to get 68.2 percent in the general election, with opponents from both the Libertarian and Democratic parties.

And he told The Dallas Morning News several weeks ago that he's healthy and raring to go: "I ran a mile and a half at 5:45 this morning. I run almost every morning. I do about 45 to 50 sit-ups every night."

De-Hyphenated

Troy Berman says he gets more questions about the hyphen than anything else right now. His boss is Shelley Sekula Gibbs, the former and would-be U.S. Rep. from CD-22.

She's dropped the hyphen, since it wasn't on the voting machines when she lost a write-in campaign for Congress last year. We chased it after someone pointed out the change, and you'll find her both hyphenated and not hyphenated on her own website. Officially, it's out.

With that out of the way, Berman goes on to talk about the contest. His candidate is the only Republican officially in — several others are looking at it — and she's locked up some big-time support. Her list: Bob Perry, President, Perry Homes; Don Jordan, CEO, Jordan Capital Management, Past Chairman, Reliant Energy; John Hamilton, Founder & CEO, Option 1 Realty; John O’Neill, Partner, Howrey LLP and author of Unfit for Command; Mike Richards, Former Texas Senator; Partner, Richards-Odem & Company; James "Jim" Baker, Chairman and President of Baker Communications and Sales Training America, Inc.; Clymer Wright, Founder, Citizens for Term Limits, Texas Finance Chairman, Ronald Reagan for President; Dan Wallrath, Founder, Wallrath Custom Homes; Trini Mendenhall Sosa, Co-Founder, Fiesta Mart; Michael C. Barrett, Partner, Barrett Burke Wilson Castle Daffin & Frappier, L.L.P., CEO, NDEx Entities; Erle Nye, Chairman Emeritus, TXU Corp; Jim Dannenbaum, President and CEO, Dannenbaum Engineering Corporation; Thomas Parr, Orthopedic Surgeon; Jack Calvin, President, Navasota Builders; and Wayne McDonnell, Director, Post Oak Bank.

Flotsam & Jetsam

A recent rule change at the Texas Lottery gives gambling opponents the heebie-jeebies. Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, wants Attorney General Greg Abbott to weigh in. Last year, she asked him about an "electronic pull-tab bingo" amendment that failed in the Legislature, and he answered that it was probably unconstitutional. The Lottery Commission's new rule allows pull-tab bingo in a way that she says would involve "the same substantive concept" as the unconstitutional amendment, and she goes on to say she believes it would allow the state to do by rule what that amendment would have done by law. So, she's asking: Can the lottery do that?

• The changes in the Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, have already started, if you squint. The Legislature dropped (in most cases) a 90-day wait before someone becomes eligible for that insurance. And since the law takes effect on September 1, kids signing up now won't have to wait the full 90 days. The state's Health and Human Services Commission will extend coverage to 12 months for families that sign up this month and next. Other changes in the pipeline (assuming the feds keep their end of the program going): kids in the program have to renew their coverage annually instead of every six months; the asset limits on families double, allowed vehicle values for their families rise, and families are allowed to deduct child care expenses from income when qualifying their kids for the program. Legislators say those changes will allow about 127,000 more kids to qualify for CHIP.

• The Texas Supreme Court unanimously ruled against a woman who sued her pastor for disclosing her private confessions about an extramarital romance to the entire congregation. The nine justices said they had no legal right to jump into a church's internal affairs and overruled a lower appeals court. That lower court said Pastor C.L. "Buddy" Westbrook had been acting as a marital counselor and not as a pastor when he talked with Peggy Penley. And that court said she had the right to sue him for spilling the beans. The Supremes went the other way, saying the U.S. Constitution protects the church from outside interference.

Inside Man

Terry Keel isn't a temp anymore.

The former state rep, who filled in as House Parliamentarian during the turbulent final days of the legislative session, now has that title and job fulltime. He replaced Denise Davis, who resigned the post in a dispute over Speaker Tom Craddick's ruling that he didn't have to recognize a motion challenging his position and didn't have to honor an appeal of that ruling. As an advisor to Craddick, the new state employee was one of the authors of that ruling.

Keel, a former prosecutor and Travis County Sheriff, served five terms in the House before an unsuccessful bid for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

He's been practicing law since the election; Craddick aides say he'll be allowed to do some outside legal work, and when we asked, said Keel won't have to tell Craddick or anyone else who he's representing outside while he's got the state job (That's pretty normal for lawyers, and pretty weird for parliamentarians and other state workers, who need to avoid conflicts and appearances of conflicts).

Kate Huddleston, who started as a press aide to Craddick and became a policy analyst, has been appointed assistant parliamentarian, replacing Chris Griesel, who quit when Davis did.

Good Seats, One Mile High

Texas Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, will be one of the three co-chairs for next year's national Democratic Party convention in Denver.

She's the top official of the National Conference of State Legislatures and the chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, and will join two other state-level politicos in that convention co-chair position. This is Title Purgatory. There's a permanent chair, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, and then there are co-chairs, including Van de Putte, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. Franklin chairs the National Conference of Democratic Mayors, and Sebelius heads the Democratic Governors Association.

Those are actually nominations at this point, though you shouldn't hold your breath waiting for the outcome. Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean announced he'll nominate the four officials at the convention next summer.

Political People and Their Moves

Bryan Collier is the new number two guy at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He'll replace Ed Owens, who's now the conservator at the Texas Youth Commission. Collier has been with the prison system since 1985 and was most recently the director of the parole division.

Justin Furnace is the new chief of staff and legal counsel to Railroad Commissioner Victor Carrillo, replacing Kay Molina, who'll be the new general counsel at the state's Building and Procurement Commission. Furnace was most recently with the Abilene law firm of McCreary, Veselka, Bragg & Allen, and was once took an undergraduate course at Hardin-Simmons University from his new boss.

Appointments: Gov. Rick Perry named and renamed some regents to the Texas Tech University System. El Paso banker Rick Francis and Amarillo surgeon-turned-cowman Bob Stafford will remain on that panel. The new guys are John Field Scovell of Dallas and Jerry Turner of Blanco. Scovell, once a football star at Tech, is president and CEO of Woodbine Development Corp. Turner is a partner with Houston-based Vinson & Elkins. All four men are Tech alums.

The Guv named three regents for his alma mater, Texas A&M University System, including the father of a regent to the University of Texas System. J.L. Huffines, chairman of Huffines Auto Group in Dallas, is the father of James Huffines, who chairs the board of regents at UT. The elder Huffines is an A&M grad. Morris Foster of Houston, an executive with Exxon Mobil, and James Wilson of Sugar Land, chairman and CEO of an investment firm, round out Perry's list. Like Huffines, both men got their sheepskins in College Station.

Perry named Peter Holt of San Antonio — who's already on the board at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission — to be the chairman. Holt is CEO of a Caterpillar tractor dealership and one of the owners of the San Antonio Spurs.

Ooops: We put Cecilia May Moreno in Lubbock in an item last week and she's not from there. She's from Laredo. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

Quotes of the Week

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, in an interview with the Associated Press: "I'm either going to run for re-election as lieutenant governor in 2010 or run for governor. I like being lieutenant governor... But being governor presents, provides an opportunity to talk to the Texas people, to lead on a broader stage with ideas and solutions for tomorrow."

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, in a San Antonio Express-News story about the state's new "healthy marriage" law: "The thing that might be overlooked here is, Texans want lawmakers to focus on issues like good public schools, good jobs, safe streets. They don't want the government dictating how they talk to their husbands and wives and how much they exercise. It really does start to look like a nanny state or a busybody state."

Alfredo Maciel, a California tailor, quoted in The New York Times on the GOP and immigration policy: "I don't think Latinos are interested in joining the Republicans, and I don't think Republicans are interested in attracting them."

Sugar Land resident Tom Gargiulo, quoted in a Houston Chronicle about that city's new traffic camera program, which he opposes: "What are we going to do with all these cops if cameras are doing their jobs? I think we have cops to do that job, to give tickets out for red lights. Not cameras."

Texas Transportation Commissioner Ric Williamson, quoted in The Dallas Morning News after the panel voted on improvements to State Highway 121: "This has been at least a two-year odyssey, and our professionals on staff have been drug through the bad stuff at every turn. And it's often been criticism from the unseen hand or the unattributed quote. I've about had enough of that."

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, defending his support of earmarks for his district, in the Houston Chronicle: "I don't think they should take our money in the first place. But if they take it, I think we should ask for it back."


Texas Weekly: Volume 24, Issue 4, 9 July 2007. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2007 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 (512) 302-5703 or email biz@texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@texasweekly.com, or call (512) 288-6598.

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