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England's New Flag

Rep. Kirk England of Grand Prairie is switching parties, saying he'll seek reelection as a Democrat. There hasn't been a party switch in the Texas Legislature in a decade, and it's been a long, long time since a legislator left the Republicans for the Democrats and survived the switch.

Rep. Kirk England of Grand Prairie is switching parties, saying he'll seek reelection as a Democrat. There hasn't been a party switch in the Texas Legislature in a decade, and it's been a long, long time since a legislator left the Republicans for the Democrats and survived the switch.

England was elected to the House in a special election in 2006, when Rep. Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie, resigned. England won a full term last November, running as a Republican and netting 49.2 percent of the vote. He finished just 235 votes ahead of a Democrat who ran an under-funded campaign. Election wizards from both parties thought the result might have been different if the Democrats had decided to really compete in that district last year.

During the legislative session, England often found himself with the Democrats, and he cited his dissatisfaction with House Speaker Tom Craddick in a statement issued to the press:

"In December of 2005, when I filed to run for office, I made a promise to the hardworking families in our community to fight for our public schools, fight for affordable health care and to fight for them on pocketbook issues. After one session in the House, I found that the Republican leadership in Austin had no tolerance for the values and priorities of the folks I represent.

"... I trust the voters in District 106 and I am confident that my friends and neighbors agree that doing what is right is more important than partisan politics.

"I am prepared to roll up my sleeves and work hard to be reelected in 2008. I am confident that the voters in our district want a representative who will fight for public education and the Children's Health Insurance Program, and who believes that the folks struggling to pay skyrocketing utility bills every month are more important than TXU's profits. I am committed to returning to Austin to keep the promises I made to citizens of District 106."

He was even more pointed in an interview, saying he "came to the realization that the leadership didn't have the tolerance for an independent-minded Republican." England said House committee chairmen — he wouldn't name names — had been trying to recruit Republicans to run against him next year. Nobody bit, but he said the calls made his decision a little easier.

"I haven't changed, from the time I filed to run for office in 2005. Kirk England hasn't changed one bit. [The party switch] will allow me to make the same kinds of votes without my party leadership making threats against me in my district."

He found himself at odds with "the leadership" over teacher pay raises and other education issues, and over efforts to limit rises in appraisals and local property taxes. "My dad's been a mayor for 16 years, so I get local control," he says.

He says his local supporters — with a couple of exceptions — supported his decision to switch parties. England says he voted for Ronald Reagan for president in his first election as a voter, but never has voted a straight party ticket. "I always liked [former U.S. Rep.] Marty Frost," he says. And he expects to get an opponent in the primary as well as next year's general election.

England's district is marginally Republican, but it's a thin margin. Republican statewides in the last two cycles beat Democrats by an average of 10.8 points in HD-106. There's one Republican in the House — Pat Haggerty of El Paso — in a less conservative district; there are ten Democrats in the House who represent more conservative districts than England's.

England's switch brings the partisan balance of the House to 79 Republicans and 70 Democrats. One seat, which had been held by Rep. Anna Mowery, R-Fort Worth, will be filled in a special election in November.

The last Democrat to switch was Bernard Erickson, a Cleburne Republican who jumped in 1994, prompting Arlene Wohlgemuth, who had worked on his first campaign, to run against him. She won the election — a bout so close it went to an official "contest" on the floor of the House — and beat him again (handily) in a rematch two years later, with Erickson again running as a Democrat.

House Appropriations Chairman Warren Chisum of Pampa left the Democrats for the Republicans before the 1996 elections, changing his official alignment but not his votes. He'd been siding with Republican colleagues in the House for years before changing. His last election as a Democrat and his first as a Republican had something in common: He was unopposed both times. And Rep. Billy Clemons of Groveton switched from blue to red in 1995. He'd pulled in 68.2 percent of the vote as a Democrat in 1994, but after switching, lost to Democrat Jim McReynolds of Lufkin in 1996.

And leading up to the elections in 2004, Rep. Robby Cook of Eagle Lake thought hard about leaving the Democrats for the Republicans — it went right to the eve of an announcement — then decided not to run for reelection, then reconsidered and won reelection as a Democrat. He won again last year, again as a Democrat.

Hill Won't Run Again

Rep. Fred Hill, R-Richardson, won't seek another term next year.

He says he decided not to see an 11th term, that he's thought about leaving the Legislature before, and that his decision was influenced by the timing of the sale of his company this summer. He's run it for more than three decades and is ready to retire.

Hill, chairman of the House Local Government Ways & Means Committee, is a key member of the House on property taxes — he's opposed to state-imposed caps on local government revenues. City and county officials around the state credit him, among others, for fending off property tax appraisal and tax rate caps. "I was effective in keeping some things from happening that I didn't want to see happen," he said.

The news broke in The Dallas Morning News' editorial blog, in a posting made while their writer was still on the phone with Hill. In an interview with us just a few minutes later, he said he was surprised at how fast word spread: "I guess I'm a little naive about how these things work."

Hill was an early supporter of House Speaker Tom Craddick, but left Craddick's side during the latest legislative session and joined members calling for a new speaker. For a time, he was touted as a possible "interim speaker" who could serve between a Craddick departure and the election of a new speaker in January 2009. That plot fell apart in the last days of the session.

Hill says he still admires Craddick and likes him personally, but thinks Craddick has put members in too many tight spots and that it's time for a change in management.

He hopes someone will continue the fight against what he calls "the irrational attention on the part of some of my colleagues in the Republican Party to put restrictions on local government," which he sees as antithetical to GOP philosophy. "I just don't understand it. I'm a Republican. I've never voted for a Democrat. This is about local control, and Republicans have always been for that.

"It sounds great to say we're going to put caps on appraisals, or on rates... but when you analyze the impact, you see that it's not a great idea," he says. "But that message is not getting to the governor and not getting to the speaker.

"It doesn't make any sense to me. Texas is pretty well run when it comes to local government," Hill says.

He also mentions transportation as an issue that tempted him to stay around for a while. "We need to resolve that problem now, so that it won't be a horrendous problem in 20 years," he says.

Hill says he won't pick a favorite for his replacement — Jim Shepherd, a Richardson City Council member and former school board trustee, has been mentioned. So has Angie Chen Button, a Texas Instruments marketing manager who's also a board member with Dallas Area Rapid Transit. And while he thinks HD-112 is a Republican district, he thinks it could be competitive in the general election. "It's a Republican district, but in this day and age when the Republicans are having all of these problems, anything could happen."

And Delisi Won't Run Again

Rep. Dianne White Delisi, R-Temple, says she won't seek reelection after her current term — her ninth — ends in January 2009.

She says nothing in particular triggered her decision — she "just felt this is the right time" for her to leave. "I've come to the conclusion that it's impossible to leave a clean desk... that time just doesn't come in politics."

Delisi was elected in 1990 — the same year voters put Ann Richards and Kay Bailey Hutchison into statewide elected positions.

She's been a strong supporter of House Speaker Tom Craddick, and says she delivered the news to him shortly before announcing her decision not to seek another term. In his administration, she was chairman of the House Committee on Public Health. She'd been on the Appropriations Committee — for a while as vice chair — under his predecessor, Democrat Pete Laney. Asked about her proudest moments, she mentioned her years on the budget, Medicaid reform legislation, and the creation of the Texas Trauma System.

She didn't mention either House leader in her exit statement, but mentioned there and in an interview that she put a high value on the "spirit of collegiality" in the Legislature.

Delisi doesn't have her next gig in mind; she says she's working on her requests for interim committee charges and doesn't know what she'll do when the term's up. She won't back a replacement candidate in the Republican primary next year, but says she'll support the winner of that primary in November.

Delisi, who got 66.4 percent of the vote in last year's election, is confident a Republican will replace her. The Texas Weekly Index on that district is 33.4 in favor of the GOP: That's the number of percentage points separating the average statewide Republican candidate from the average Democratic opponent in the last two elections.

Border Skirmish

Look for hot and heavy campaigning down in South Texas in the next six months as Mikal Watts and state Rep. Rick Noriega duke it out for the right to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in November 2008.

Combined with border counties, South Texas will make up anywhere from 30 to 35 percent of the Democratic vote, says University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray. There are more voters in the primaries in those deep blue areas, Murray says, because there's usually no serious Republican threat in November, making the March primaries the de facto election for most offices.

And South Texas's importance is not just due to its disproportionate voter turnout, says Democratic strategist Kelly Fero, veteran of a dozen statewide campaigns. He says the rapidly growing, predominately Hispanic area symbolizes Texas' future.

"To win statewide without Hidalgo County is not a victory that represents the future," says Fero, referring to the Valley's most populous county. Hidalgo contributed the second-highest number of voters in the 2006 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate (Bexar County was first, followed by Hidalgo, El Paso, Harris, Dallas, and Webb; six of the top ten are along the Mexican border or are part of South Texas).

Both Democratic campaigns claim the Rio Grande Valley as rightfully theirs.

The area is predominately Hispanic, working class and, according to James Aldrete, a spokesman for Noriega, has a history of "[sending] its sons and daughters off to war." Noriega, a Hispanic and a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard who served in Afghanistan, has a personal story that is more in line with the area's voters than Watts, an Anglo lawyer from Corpus Christi who now lives in San Antonio, Aldrete says.

"I just don't see a scenario where we don't win Hidalgo County," Aldrete says.

Not so fast, says the Watts' camp. Unlike Noriega, Watts is a familiar face in the Valley, having done business there for several years. And he's put in some time getting to know the area's voters, holding 20 to 25 events there since June.

"[Watts] is not going to concede any square inch of terrain in any region in Texas and most especially in south Texas," says Kim Devlin, a spokeswoman for his campaign.

Many political observers believe that — all other things being equal — a Latino candidate will beat a non-Latino in South Texas. But, they add, there's a lot more to picking up South Texas votes than having a Hispanic last name.

Just ask Leticia Hinojosa, a judge from McAllen who lost to U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, in the 2004 Democratic primary. Doggett handily beat Hinojosa in the overall race, losing only in Starr and Jim Hogg counties, and nudging ahead of Hinojosa by 64 votes in Hidalgo, her home county. Guess who managed Doggett's campaign? Christian Archer, Watt's current campaign boss.

Watts has already had some early success in Hidalgo County, picking up a slew of endorsements from prominent officeholders in Hidalgo county like state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, and Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas.

Political endorsements are usually as valuable as Enron stock. But a the tip of the hat to Watts from heavy hitters like Hinojosa and Salinas could actually mean something in the Valley and could effectively counter Noriega's ethnic advantage, says political scientist Jerry Polinard of the University of Texas-Pan American. Especially if those endorsements translate to "boots on the ground" in terms of volunteers for Watts' campaign, Polinard adds.

Those endorsing Watts say it was difficult to choose between the two candidates, but feel that Watts is a better candidate to represent their constituents.

"[Watts] is more adapted, philosophically speaking, to this community," Peña said, contending that Watts' anti-abortion stance plays better than Noriega's pro-choice position with the more socially conservative voters in South Texas.

And then there's the money factor. Senate races aren't cheap, and supporters of Watts say the lawyer, who has already pumped millions of dollars into his own campaign, has the resources to take on the incumbent Cornyn in a state the size of Texas. As of the end of June, Cornyn had $5.3 in cash for his upcoming campaign to Watts' $4.9 million. Watts has since raised his personal contribution to $7.5 million.

Texas has more than 20 media markets, and money is critical in a statewide race. "Unfortunately, that is the reality," Salinas says. "You have to take that into consideration."

Noriega has not yet said how much he's raised, but has joined the battle for South Texas. He gained the support earlier this month of officials in Cameron County, which is next to Hidalgo and has sent about half as many voters to Democratic primaries in recent Senate races. Aldrete didn't say how much Noriega has raised (those numbers will be released at the end of this month), but did emphasize that his guy's personal story and concern for the average voter will wind up carrying the day, regardless of Watts' money and endorsements.

— Alan Suderman

Pensions, Birthdays, and Paychecks

If the media are the gatekeepers of information, then the key master is Attorney General Greg Abbott, who has emerged as an advocate for open government while defining what constitutes "public information" in Texas.

He's filed briefs in support of the media in two major lawsuits — one the press lost, one that's pending — and is drafting an opinion on which financial information should be included (and which should not be included) in the comptroller's new online database of state agency spending.

The first lawsuit started in June 2003, when the Houston Municipal Employee Pensions System refused to release the salaries of system employees to KTRK-TV reporter Wayne Dolcefino, claiming the information was exempt from the Public Information Act.

Taking up for the TV station, Assistant AG Brenda Loudermilk argued that the Act only excludes disclosure of the pensions of state employees. HMEPS's attorney Bob Shannon contends that exemption language also covers the pay of pension system employees.

A Travis County district court agreed with Loudermilk and the TV station, but that ruling was overturned by the 6th Court of Appeals in Texarkana. That court sided with Shannon and HMEPS.

Loudermilk argued, in a petition for review to the Texas Supreme Court, that "HMEPS's interpretation is illogical." But the court denied that in 2006 and finalized its decision in April.

According to Loudermilk, if that interpretation stands, every pension agency in the state could enjoy exemption from the Public Information Act on employee-related items like reprimands, timesheets, phone records, e-mails, and agency memorabilia... "if they included the names of employees."

If you stretch it, Dallas attorney Paul Watler says, the pension exemption could conceivably include every single individual participating in the state pension plan.

"It could have a real daisy-chain effect, and pretty soon no information would be released," he says, characterizing the court rulings as "not consistent with the letter or spirit of the law."

Watler says the Legislature should look at closing the pension loophole in 2009.

The second lawsuit is ongoing and pits The Dallas Morning News against the comptroller in a suit that was already underway when Susan Combs took over that agency in January. In November 2005, the comptroller excised state employees' birthdates in a copy of the state employee payroll database sent to the newspaper, citing the risk of identity theft.

Then-Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn requested an opinion from Abbott. He sided with the newspaper, so she took him to court in Travis County.

Loudermilk again represented the AG, this time teaming up with Watler, who represented the newspaper. Maureen Powers, an attorney representing the comptroller, wrote in a motion "that today there exist 'special circumstances' which argue against releasing date of birth information."

But the District Court agreed with the AG and the paper. The comptroller appealed, and the case — heard by Austin's 3rd Court of Appeals earlier this month, is pending.

Watler declined a chance to comment on the case-in-progress, but Austin attorney Joel White, who's been watching, says, "The only correct interpretation is that birthdays are public. The reason is the Act doesn't say they're private."

A few things the law isn't so clear on, though, form the subjects of a July 19 opinion request from the Comptroller to the Attorney General.

Combs wants clarifications on HB 3430, a piece of legislation she backed that puts a database of state expenditures online.

She asks:

1) Are net salary amounts paid to public employees public?

2) If so, should the Comptroller withhold information marked as protected by other agencies?

3) Is payee county address information of public employees public?

4) If so, should the Comptroller withhold information marked as protected by other agencies?

Abbott's opinion isn't due until January. It could come out sooner, though: Katherine "Missy" Minter Cary, the chief of Abbott's general counsel division, says the opinion is being drafted right now.

Watler says he's not aware of anyone asking about net salary before, and he's not sure how much additional insight net salary, in lieu of gross salary, would provide to the public.

Cary said the addresses of certain individuals — like judges, police officers and stalking victims — are already off-limits, but further distinctions will have to be made in Abbott's opinion.

Until then, everyone's just going to have to wait.

— Patrick Brendel

Fan Club

The 65,000 people in the music-loving throng at Austin's Zilker Park last weekend got bright sunshine, high humidity, and some possibly illegal fans to wave in their hot, sweaty faces.

The fans — these are the kind used for hot weather, and the kind that bought tickets to see the 120 bands assembled for the Austin City Limits Music Festival — were promoting passage of a cancer research bond package in November.

They're normal-looking political ads, with a big exception: The usual political disclaimer is missing from the text, though it appears in a version of the ads that's on the website of Livestrong: The Lance Armstrong Foundation.

"We ran those by our attorney. It's a novelty item and we're well within the lines," says Katherine McLane, communications director for the foundation. "We got the thumbs-up from our legal advisors."

The fan:

McLane wouldn't name those lawyers. But others in the business — including the head of the political action committee leading the effort to pass those bonds — say the disclaimers should have been there.

"We go over that in every single meeting," says former Comptroller John Sharp. "We end all of our [conference] calls with 'If you do anything, put a disclaimer on it.' "

McLane says the advertising effort was a big success and that the three-day music festival offered them "an opportunity to communicate to a large group of voters about Prop 15... At the end of the day, that's what matters."

The same artwork used on the fans at ACL Fest appears on the Livestrong website. But in that version, there's a disclaimer attributing it to one of three political action committees promoting the constitutional amendment. It says "Political Advertising Paid For By Texans To Cure Cancer, P.O. Box 236, Austin, Texas 78767."

Sharp, who heads that group, says they didn't have anything to do with it, and didn't pay for any of it.

"We don't know anything about it," he says. "I would have known about the fans, because I would have had to sign the check."

The artwork that appears on the fans and on the Livestrong website doesn't even appear on the Texans to Cure Cancer site.

McLane says the foundation covered the cost of the fans and that about 20,000 were distributed at the ACL Festival.

"Look, their hearts are in the right place, and they want this thing to pass and they got some bad advice," Sharp says. "They probably need to get new lawyers."

The Grass is Greener Than Reported

We ran a campaign finance chart on political action committees a few weeks ago that had a big glitch in it. We'll take the blame for the mistake — we are sorry, sorry, sorry. And we'll fix it — see below. And you'll want to know how to avoid it yourself if you're using online government records to do your own numbers.

Political action committees that file monthly reports are not included in the Cash on Hand reports you find on the Texas Ethics Commission website. Worse, it turns out that the really big money, for the most part, is in the monthly filers' reports and not in the semi-annual reports. So the PAC we had listed at the biggest on the block is actually only the fourth largest, and we heard from some folks who knew about the big dogs.

So. We asked the ethics folks for a compilation — they were helpful and quick — and here are two charts that resulted. One is a ranking of the wealthiest MPACs as of their latest reports, filed in late August and early September. The second is a mixed chart, showing the richest PACs overall, mixing the outfits that file monthly with the ones that filed in July (click on either chart to download a printable .pdf version).

You'll find our other charts in the Files section. They're still right (particularly the candidate charts), but the PAC chart only ranks the six-month filers.

Political Notes

Steve Host, a Republican from Richmond, will join the race for HD-27. That's the seat now occupied by Rep. Dora Olivo, D-Rosenberg. Host runs three businesses — an insurance agency, a mortgage company, and a coffee shop — and says small business people don't have a big enough voice in Austin.

Paula Day, a well-known Republican activist in Fort Worth and an aide (in the district office) to former Rep. Anna Mowery, R-Fort Worth, left her government job to work for Craig Goldman, one of the Republicans trying to win Mowery's job in a special election in November. She says he's an old friend, and says she'll support him, in part, because he "has agreed to support Speaker Craddick."

• Democratic Senate candidate Rick Noriega of Houston picked up endorsements from the last two chairs of the Texas Democratic Party. Molly Beth Malcolm and Charles Soechting both say they'll support him in his primary race against Mikal Watts of San Antonio. The two Democrats are fighting for a chance to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in the general election. 

• Republican Wade Gent of Forney had been mulling a rematch with Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell, and now has decided he'll do it. And at about the same time, she was announcing her intention to seek another term. Game on.

• Democratic Judge Jim Coronado says he'll run for a district court job in Austin even though Gov. Rick Perry filled it by appointing Republican Melissa Goodwin to the post. The 427th District Court is new, created in 2005 and unfilled until now. Goodwin, an Austin lawyer and a former Justice of the Peace, had also been mentioned as a possible candidate for the Lege. Coronado had his announcement on the wires within hours of Perry's announcement of the appointment.

• Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, says — officially, now — that he'll seek a second term in HD-133... Ditto Solomon Ortiz Jr., D-Corpus Christi, in HD-33... Flynn's in: Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, announced his reelection bid...

Political People and Their Moves

Barry Smitherman, who's been on the state's Public Utility Commission since 2004, will get a full term there. Gov. Rick Perry reappointed him to the commission that regulates electric and telecommunications utilities. 

Perry named Albert "Buddy" McCaig Jr. of Waller to the newly created 506th District Court that serves Grimes and Waller counties. McCaig is a private practice lawyer.

The Guv reappointed Dr. Roberta Kalafut of Abilene to the Texas Medical Board that oversees doctors and the practice of medicine. She's the owner of SpineAbilene.

Perry picked five people for the Texas State Board of Public Accountancy and named Coalter Baker, who was already on the board, to chair it. Newbies: Carlos Barrera of Brownsville, a partner in Long Chilton LLP; David King, a partner with Ernst & Young in San Antonio; Catherine Rodewald of Dallas, managing director of Prudential Mortgage Capital Co. (and a former board member); and John Steinberg of Marion, a reappointment whose day job is director of safety and security at Little Caesar of San Antonio.

House Speaker Tom Craddick appointed Jimmy Mansour of Austin to the Advisory Board of Economic Development Stakeholders, a panel affiliated with the state's economic development and tourism office. Mansour is the chairman of Grande Communications.

Former Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher has a new gig: executive director of Texas Business for Clean Air. She's a CPA, a former district judge and most recently, a lawyer with Locke Liddell & Sapp.

The governor reappointed Lisa Ivie Miller for another four years as Firefighters' Pension Commissioner. She got that call on 9/11.

Justin Keener — who worked in communications for House Speaker Tom Craddick during the legislative session — will open an Austin office for Cassidy & Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based government affairs consultancy.

Ailing: Former U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson, D-Lufkin, who is apparently on the list for a heart transplant. Wilson is 74.

Deaths: Thomas Abbott Bullock Sr. of Brenham, one of the founding partners and former chairman of CRS, the huge Houston-based architectural firm. He was the older brother of the late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, and died after a short illness. He was 84.

Quotes of the Week

Former U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Abilene, asked by the Associated Press if he's on the list of candidates for U.S. agriculture secretary: "I don't expect a call, and I would not be interested. This administration redistricted me out of my job. Why would they ask me, and why would I want it?"

Comptroller Susan Combs, quoted in the Killeen Daily Herald on her efforts to put state spending information on the Internet: "The office of the comptroller does everything. We know everything; we will find out everything."

Ed Owens, the appointed conservator of the Texas Youth Commission, telling the Austin American-Statesman he's still got that job even though he retired as a state employee at the end of August: "I come over to Austin once a week or so... I check in by phone. I'm a volunteer now... I'm helping out until I can be replaced."

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, quoted by the Associated Press saying he wouldn't try to bring the health care plan he backed as governor of Massachusetts to other states: "I wouldn't go to Texas and say, 'All Texans must have insurance. Oh, too bad there's not enough money, so you're going to have to raise taxes.'"

Former Mexican President Vicente Fox, in a forthcoming autobiography, on the 2000 elections: "At our request, the United States had sent election monitors to protect the balloting process in Mexico. But where they might have been more useful that year was in Florida."

Republican Wade Gent, who's challenging Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell, quoted in the Athens Review: "Ms. Brown is playing a game of 'Simon Says' on our nickel, and Tom Craddick is 'Simon.' Whatever Simon says, Betty Brown does."

Mark McKinnon, who worked for years as a Democratic consultant before joining George W. Bush's presidential campaign, quoted in the Austin American-Statesman on the prospect of working for Barack Obama, a Democrat: "It's one thing to rat. It's another thing to re-rat."

Texas Weekly: Volume 24, Issue 14, 24 September 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 For news, email, or call (512) 288-6598.

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