Skip to main content

A Very Expensive Footnote

Democrat Mikal Watts — having spent $947,505 "exploring" a run for the U.S. Senate — decided not to run after all. That removes one serious opponent for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, but the Texas Republican will still face opposition a year from now — probably state Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston.

Democrat Mikal Watts — having spent $947,505 "exploring" a run for the U.S. Senate — decided not to run after all. That removes one serious opponent for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, but the Texas Republican will still face opposition a year from now — probably state Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston.

Watts, a San Antonio trial lawyer, contributed and lent millions to his own campaign and looked just like a serious candidate. But in the end cited family concerns and said he's out of contention. He offered to send money back to donors who put $1.6 million into his effort.

In a statement, he said his children need him at home, and said he'll support the Democratic nominee in the race against Cornyn.

"The reasons for creating my exploratory committee still exist. As I have criss-crossed the state and met and talked with tens of thousands of good Texans, it is evident how much the people of Texas want and need a Senator who will fight every day for their interests and not the special interests," he said. "We need to elect a new Senator in Texas and I will personally do everything possible to support the Democratic nominee."

What does Watts' decision mean? Well...

• To his family: It means more time with Pops. Though leaving politics to "spend more time with the family" has become such a well-worn cliché over the years that it's a bit tough to swallow, Watts' team and supporters say it's actually true.

"I know it doesn't make good copy, it just makes for a good dad," says Kelly Fero, a Democratic strategist who spoke with Watts before he made his decision. "There's just nothing else to it."

Watts' spokeswoman Kim Devlin says her candidate didn't feel like he could devote enough time to his kids (ages 9, 11 and 13) and to run the kind of campaign he wanted.

"Mikal does not do things halfway," Devlin says.

• To his reputation: Both say the decision had nothing to do with the negative press Watts had been getting lately.

Watts accepted $4,600 in campaign donations from Mauricio Celis, who cops say tried to take a naked woman into custody while he was wearing a bathrobe and flashing a sheriff's badge. More potentially damning (in a legal sense), Celis is also being accused by South Texas lawyer Thomas Henry on TV adds of falsely portraying himself as an attorney. Watts' law firm and Celis have done business in the past, and Celis' troubles threaten to splash everyone within range.

And there was a letter Watts wrote in 2001, where he boasted that his law firm had made "heavy" donations to the 13th Court of Appeals, that recently surfaced in a Houston Chronicle story.

"He didn't get into this blindly," Fero says. "He knew what would be thrown at him."

• To his financial supporters: Watts has raised about $9.3 million, according to the Federal Election Commission, with about $1.1 million of that coming from donors other than the candidate himself (He loaned himself $5.6 million and contributed $2.1 million to his campaign, according to the FEC). That pile of cash now has a couple of different ways it could be spent. Watts could spend it on charity, give it to other politicians, or hold onto it for a while. Or he could return it to the people who gave it to him in the first place. He just can't spend it on personal use, at least while it's in the federal account. Devlin says no decisions have currently been made but she thinks that contributors who ask for refunds will get them.

• To his pocketbook: Watts, a trial lawyer from Corpus Christi who now lives in San Antonio, has spent almost a million dollars on his campaign according to campaign records.

• To his staff: Devlin says Watts campaign was at full speed and was pretty much completely staffed. She says the 15-20 campaign workers will spend the next few days closing down shop before moving on to other things.

• To the Democratic primary: Noriega benefits from not having to face Watts, whose large personal fortune would have taxed Noriega's modest campaign treasure chest in a primary, Fero says. But he's not out of the woods yet, Fero and others warn. There are still two and a half months before the filing deadline for the primary, and it's not too late to mount a serious campaign. That said, there aren't any candidates sticking up their heads yet.

Emil Reichstadt, a Dallas-area lawyer, who bowed out of the race about two months ago, says he has no intention of changing his mind. "This one belongs to Mr. Noriega," Reichstadt says.

And, Fero continues, there always the money issue. Cornyn's last campaign financial disclosure put him at $6.6 million in cash. Noriega's only got about half a million.

Last, a noisy and hotly contested primary might have boosted turnout (though it runs higher in presidential years anyhow). The Senate race won't be a draw now.

• To the current office holder: A cheaper race, potentially. Had Watts run and prevailed in a Democratic primary, Republican Cornyn would have certainly faced a well-financed challenge. That's still a possibility, but not a certainty: Noriega can't write his campaign the sorts of checks Watts has been writing for his exploration.

—by Alan Suderman

A New Record

Three African-American officeholders will be seeking re-election in statewide races for the first time in the state's history. And they're all Republicans.

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, Supreme Court Justice Dale Wainwright, and Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, say they are hoping to bring some of the state's African-American voters — who have traditionally given their votes and support by a huge margin to Democrats — over to the GOP.

"We see ourselves... turning a corner that may have not been turned before by Republican candidates and elected officials," Williams says. He says his party's values sync up with those of the African-American community. "There are a number of areas where there is a natural fit between the conservative values of the African-American community and the conservative values of the Republican Party."

The Republicans say they're challenging the assumption that minority voters in general — and Black voters in particular — are Democrats. That's how the voting generally goes, but the Democrats, they say, aren't recognizing that support when they assemble their ballots. That's not entirely so — the Democrats ran a diverse "Dream Team" ticket in 1998 and failed to knock out the GOP in any statewide race. But the GOP ticket this time, assuming all three incumbents go unchallenged or win their March primaries, is unprecedented in modern Texas politics.

Williams was appointed to the Railroad Commission in 1998 by then-Gov. George W. Bush (who managed Williams' failed bid for county attorney several years earlier) and was elected in 2000 and re-elected to a full six-year term in 2002. Jefferson was appointed to the court by Gov. Rick Perry in 2001 and named Chief Justice by the governor in 2004. He and Wainwright — also appointed in 2001 by Perry — were elected in 2002.

Republican pollster Mike Baselice says there's been a slight increase (though still within the margin of error) in African-American voters punching ballots for the GOP in general elections of 1998, 2002 and 2006. He says that having well-qualified candidates like Jefferson, Wainwright and Williams is a good way to reach the state's African-American voters and start bringing in more of their votes.

"If you are going to start turning some votes from voter subgroups who have historically not voted with your party, than you're going to have start putting up candidates who voters can say, 'Hey, that's someone like me,'" Baselice says.

State GOP spokesman Hans Klingler says his party has overlooked African-American voters in the past but is now working to change that. He says the GOP is currently doing a better job at putting people of all color in places of leadership than the state Democratic Party is.

"We've just done a better job at it," Klingler says.

Texas Democratic Party spokeswoman Amber Moon says that's just "laughable," and adds that the Texas GOP has "gone to great lengths to keep African Americans from the polls."

"It doesn't matter what color your skin is," Moon says, "if you are part of the failed Republican leadership of George Bush, Rick Perry and [House Speaker] Tom Craddick, then you aren't good for Texas."

Republicans hold all of the 29 statewide offices in Texas. That group includes three Blacks, two Hispanics, and 24 Anglos. The Legislature is dominated by the GOP, too, but nearly all of the statehouse Republicans are Anglos.

But Williams counters that "it's a given" that the Democratic Party has taken Black voters for granted. "They have and they have for some period of time," he says.

Democrat Ron Kirk, the former first Black mayor of Dallas and U.S. Senate candidate, says his party is "hands down" viewed more favorably by the Black community because it supports issues, like justice and insuring children, that have been neglected by the GOP. He adds that Republican Party's politics haven't benefited people of color simply by having three Black statewide office holders.

"At the end of the day, the impact of the parties on our culture is more than just numeric," Kirk says. "We have moved beyond judging intent on color."

—by Alan Suderman

Political Notes

Hey, folks, there's an election underway out there! You wouldn't know it from the vote totals.

In the state's 15 largest counties, only 9,947 people voted on the first day of early voting. That is, according to your Secretary of State, a turnout of 0.16 percent. After three days, those big Texas counties were up to 12,610 votes, out of 7.8 million registered voters. It'll get better, but don't make any bets. Only two counties — Harris and Dallas — got more than 1,000 people out on the first day. It's slow going. There are 16 amendments on the statewide ballot, including $9.75 billion in proposed bonds for cancer, roads, water, education and construction. And there are assorted goodies on local ballots — Fort Worth has a special House election, other spots have bond issues, etc.

• Political action committees spent $99 million in Texas in 2006, according to a new report from Texans for Public Justice. That outfit says 1,132 PACs played in that cycle. By their reckoning, business PACs spent $57 million, and  "ideological and single-issue" PACs spent $37 million. And labor PACs spent $5.1 million by their calculations.

• Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, will have a genuine musical attraction at his late November funder; Asleep at the Wheel will play at Corsicana's Palace Theatre for that event.

• Officially: Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land, will seek reelection. If he's successful, that'll be his eighth term.

Carol Alvarado, who's running to succeed Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston, in the Texas House (HD-145), starts with about a quarter-million dollars on hand. That's money in the campaign account built for her city council campaigns, and her advisors say it converts without penalty to a state race.

• This'll tense you up. Check out Rep. Dianne White Delisi's public service announcement promoting flu shots and tell us you can be a still as she can, even if you're just watching.

Where There's Smoke

Candidates can't file for office yet, but they have to file campaign treasurer reports when they start raising money. Early signs of politics, as reported to the Texas Ethics Commission:

John Alaniz of Temple filed papers for HD-55, where Rep. Dianne White Delisi is retiring.

Jesse Gore joins the potential challengers to Rep. Buddy West, R-Odessa, in HD-81.

Rep. Joe Farias, D-San Antonio, will face Donny "Don" Green next year in HD-118.

Michael "Mike" Smith in HD-19, where Rep. Mike "Tuffy" Hamilton, R-Mauriceville, is the incumbent.

Lee Jackson, HD-96, where Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, is the incumbent. Jackson, a Republican, heads the Fort Worth Police Officers Association.

As expected, San Antonio City Councilman Roland Gutierrez filed campaign treasurer papers in anticipation of a run for Rep. Robert Puente's seat in HD-119.

And Sam Houston will run for the Texas Supreme Court against incumbent Justice Dale Wainwright in Place 7.

Jon Cole, a former denizen of the Pink Building, will be running in HD-67, where Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, is the incumbent. Cole's also a Republican.

Undoing a Veto

State leaders agreed to pump $154 million into the state's community colleges, averting a funding crisis sparked by a gubernatorial veto four months ago.

Gov. Rick Perry vetoed that amount from the state budget in June. His beef is that the schools were using state money to pay for benefits for community college employees who aren't paid with state funds. The governor and his budgeteers don't think the state should pay for the icing when they don't pay for the cake: The state, in their view, should pay for benefits only for those community college folks (and there are some) who are paid with state money.

The community colleges contended they were surprised by that position. Perry's folks say they've been making the point for some time. There's some truth on both sides. Perry was there, but wasn't complaining loudly enough to get the attention of House and Senate budget writers.

The uproar that followed got a quick response at the capitol, where the Guv and lawmakers started working to patch the hole so they wouldn't be on the hook for higher tuition and property taxes needed to make up the shortfalls at the colleges.

The schools weren't in immediate financial trouble, but some were making noises about higher fees and taxes. Those won't be needed now, and the agreement announced by Perry, House Speaker Tom Craddick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst hinges on the schools showing they didn't already increase prices more than they would have without the veto.

The three state leaders will also appoint a committee to study community college funding.

Bottom line: The schools will get the money they thought they were getting before the vetoes, and agreed not to boost tuition and fees on the Legislature's account. They agreed not to spend the state money on bennies for locally funded workers, but the deal leaves them room to move money around in a way that makes their budgets work out.

Half a Loaf

The group that sued to stop the Texas Association of Counties from lobbying lawmakers got half a win in Williamson County. State District Judge Ken Anderson ruled the group can't use tax money for that purpose.

But he also agreed with lawyers for TAC, who argued that the group can't be prevented from lobbying as long as the lobbying isn't paid for with tax money.

If the group collects no dues, there's no regulation. If it does (and it has in the past) it has to segregate taxpayer-funded dues from its other monies, and those other monies have to be used for any lobbying done by the group. TAC does have other sources of income: investments, licensing fees, educational seminars, and the like.

Anderson also made a distinction between lobbying and advocacy on one hand, and providing information to the Legislature, on the other. That second bit's legal no matter who's paying for it. As for lobbying, he included direct contact and indirect — like telling counties how to persuade lawmakers and issuing press releases advocating a particular position on legislation. That's a no-no, at least with dues dough. And the ruling doesn't apply to individual counties, he said.

One more thing: The counties owe $25,945.80 in legal fees to the people who sued: Peggy Venable, Janice Brauner, and Judith Morris.

They weren't satisfied, and are considering an appeal to try to close off the use of other money paid to TAC by counties for insurance and other services. "Unfortunately, this is only a partial victory as the Texas Association of Counties has found a way to circumvent the law and continue to lobby using our money against taxpayer interests," Venable said in a press release.

Political People and Their Moves

Neither confirmed nor denied, so put it on the "interesting" list: Former state Rep. Ron Wilson is on track to be the next commissioner at the Texas Department of Public Safety, filling one of three empty spots on the five-member board that oversees the state police and the Texas Rangers.

If it goes through, he'll join Ernest Angelo Jr. of Midland — a neighbor of House Speaker Tom Craddick's — and San Antonio lawyer Allan Polunsky on that board. And they'd be able to meet. With only two members, that five-slot panel can't convene until Gov. Rick Perry appoints enough people to make a quorum.

Wilson's a consultant to the state's lottery operator — Gtech — and took a break from that earlier this year to help Craddick through his parliamentary crisis at the end of the legislative session. An appointment would require Senate approval next session.

Perry named three new regents for the University of Texas System: James Dannenbaum, chair of Houston-based Dannenbaum Engineering Corp.; Paul Foster, president and CEO of Western Refining Co. of El Paso; and Printice Gary of Dallas, founder and managing partner of Carleton Residential Properties. Two of them — Dannenbaum and Gary — were on the special committee that came up with the new state business tax that comes due for the first time next year. Dannenbaum is the only alum in the group.

The governor named five Texans to the Lower Colorado River Authority Board: Brenda Adair of Blanco, vice president of Wells Fargo Bank of Austin; Steve Balas, a pharmacist from Eagle Lake who also owns Eagle Lake Drugstore; Becky Armendariz Klein of San Antonio, principal of RA Klein & Co.; Franklin Spears of Austin, an attorney with Arenson and Spears; and Bobby Steiner, a rancher from Bastrop.

Perry appointed three new regents for Texas Southern University: Samuel Lee Bryant of Austin, owner of Bryant Wealth Investment Group; Curtistene Smith McCowan of DeSoto, a retired investigator with the Federal Trade Commission, and Tracye McDaniel of Houston, COO of the Greater Houston Partnership and a member of the Texas Economic Development Corp. board. None of the three are alums of TSU.

Dr. Mark McClellan will be a visiting fellow in health policy at UT Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs. He's the son of former comptroller and gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn, and served in two high-level spots in the Bush Administration: administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and Commissioner of the Food & Drug Administration. He's also an associate prof at Stanford University in California.

Former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., D-Tennessee, is joining the faculty at UT-Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs. He'll be the school's first "Barbara Jordan Visiting Professor."

Marla Mathews joins Austin-based ROSS Communications after a stint with GCI-Read Poland. She did government time, too, working for Republicans Tony Garza and Mary Denny.

Quotes of the Week

House Speaker Tom Craddick, talking to a civic club in his hometown about challenges to his leadership, quoted by the Midland Reporter-Telegram: "The trial lawyers are a big factor. I'm the one who pushed tort reform and I'm not their favorite person. I think I'm on their dart board. The group that's really pushing to get a different speaker is the one that wants to reverse the tort laws."

Republican Rep. Jim Keffer of Eastland, a Craddick challenger, responding via the Associated Press a day later: "It's ridiculous for him to make that statement, that I or any of those that are opposing him would change tort reform as he is saying. I'm an employer and manufacturer here in Texas and I voted for tort reform during that session... it's working and working well for Texas. It's not any issue. Tom Craddick is the issue. It's the way he runs the House."

Democratic consultant Harold Cook, quoted in the Houston Chronicle on the high cost of running a U.S. Senate race here, compared with everywhere else: "I don't think there's a state in the nation where there's a smaller bang for your buck than Texas."

Austin lawyer Roy Minton, in a Houston Chronicle story speculating that Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle won't seek reelection next year: "Ronnie is always saying that he's not going to run again, and he always runs again. The fact that he says he isn't going to run again doesn't mean spit."

U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Delaware, in an interview with the Washington Post: "There's less than 1 percent of the population of Iowa that is African American. There is probably less than 4 or 5 percent that are minorities. What is in Washington? So look, it goes back to what you start off with, what you're dealing with."

Rep. Robert Talton, R-Pasadena, during a hearing on doctor regulation in Texas: "You mean to tell me that with some of these anonymous complaints, you don't even know who sent them in?"


Texas Weekly: Volume 24, Issue 19, 29 October 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.

Support public-service journalism that gets the context right

Yes, I'll donate today