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What's That?

We kept hearing a question at the state Democratic convention that we haven't heard at Texas Democratic gatherings in a while: Do you think it's turning?

We kept hearing a question at the state Democratic convention that we haven't heard at Texas Democratic gatherings in a while: Do you think it's turning?

We're not proposing an answer at this point, since crystal balls are remarkably hard to swallow and digest. But the question alone marks a change in outlook for the donkeys. The national battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — and its five-week appearance in Texas earlier this year — have them wondering whether they can win some contests that have been out of reach for the last several election cycles.

Watch the races for Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals in particular. Those contests are almost entirely subject to political winds, since voters generally don't know the candidates and tend, more than in some other races, to vote for or against parties instead of individuals. With exceptions for John Tower and Bill Clements, who won at the top of the ticket before this was a Republican state, the tipoff that the state was turning from Democrats came in the middle of the ballot in the 1980s, in court races, and then at the agriculture and treasury departments in 1990, when Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison first became statewide characters.

But we digress.

It was the biggest Democratic gathering in Texas in years. The Texas GOP has one of the biggest conventions anywhere, and the Democrats usually get about half to two-thirds as many people. But the convention in Austin attracted GOP numbers — 12,000 to 14,000, depending on who's counting and who they're counting. It was comparable in size to the GOP, anyway, and that's unusual.

It started a little rough, just three days after it became completely clear that Clinton and Obama were done and that Obama had clinched. And Clinton's concession and endorsement wasn't until the last day of the convention here. Some of the delegates, particularly supporters of Clinton, started with their stingers out. The hurts weren't gone by the end of the thing, but they were on their way out.

It won't be clear until later whether a) all of the Clinton supporters will vote for Obama, and b) whether Democrats in general will turnout in November the way they did in March and, in relative terms, at the convention in Austin. It continues to be a very strange and interesting political year in Texas.

Obama Won Texas

Wondering how all that weird Democratic vote counting came out?

Texas Democrats attending the state convention liked Obama by an almost 3-to-2 ratio.

The so-called "presidential poll" at the state convention recorded 7,239 votes in all. Obama got 4,144, or 57.3 percent. Clinton got 3,088 votes, or 42.7 percent. Seven of the Democrats at the Austin Convention Center were undecided.

In delegates, that gives 14 to Obama, 11 to Clinton, from that set. If you add up all of the delegates picked by the caucus half of the Texas two-step, the score is 38 for Obama to 29 for Clinton. Clinton won 65 delegates in the primary, to Obama's 61.

That's 99 for Obama and 90 for Clinton.

They haven't finished the super delegates in Texas. As the convention began, each candidate had 14 super delegate votes. Four super delegates were undeclared, and three more were picked at the convention.

As a practical matter, the super delegates aren't as important as they were, say, a week ago. With only one candidate left — now that Clinton has endorsed Obama — they're free to vote for the last candidate standing. Or they will be, at the Democratic National Convention later this year in Denver.

And the Winner Is...

Texas Democrats reelected Boyd Richie to lead them for the next two years. Richie was challenged by his own vice chair — Roy LaVerne Brooks of Fort Worth – and by David Van Os of Fort Worth, who's run for several statewide offices over the last two decades.

In an unofficial count scratched in our notebook — Richie got 63.4 percent, Van Os got 20.7 percent, and Brooks got 15.9 percent.

Van Os said he's got the enthusiasm to improve the party. "I am tired of hearing year in and year out that this is a rebuilding year," he told the convention delegates.

He said the party needs to battle for every race on the ballot instead of targeting a race here and a race there. And he said the funding for that will come: "Money follows attitude. Money follows belief in oneself."

Brooks followed a couple of animated nominating speakers, including Charlie Urbina Jones, who ran against Richie two years ago (he finished third). Jones didn't attack Richie by name, but said that electing Brooks would mean "no more deals from the top down. The party should be ruled from the ground up."

Running for chairman cost Brooks her post as vice chair and with it, her super delegate status. She won't be in the Texas contingent at the national convention in Denver later this year. Elected in her place: Lenora Solola-Pohman of Houston. The Democrats also knocked out super delegate and former and future state Rep. Al Edwards of Houston. Sen. Royce West of Dallas won what had been Edwards' spot on the Democratic National Committee.

Perry: Republicans Have Competition Now

Gov. Rick Perry opened the GOP's state convention with a call to battle against Democrats who he said have roused themselves for a fight.

"Like it or not, the Democrats are awake now, more unified than ever, and singing a seductive siren song of change," he said. "...they're really talking about change they'll be sucking out of your pocket along with dollar bills."

Perry started with a promise to rebuild the Governor's Mansion that burned to a ruin at the beginning of the week, apparently a work of arson. He bragged on the state's prosperity and said the credit belongs to government restraint while he's been in office.

He said the state has a budget surplus "on the north side of $10 billion" and said that should go back to taxpayers in the form of rebates, or property tax cuts, or business or sales tax cuts. And he renewed his call for a cap on state spending that's indexed to the state's growth.

Perry said the state should require voters to show photo identification before they can vote, an idea generally favored by Republicans and generally opposed by Democrats. "... If you were at the Democratic convention last week, you would have had to present your ID to get your credentials," he said, to rising applause.

Perry called for border security without talking directly about immigration — that's been his tack for some time.

And then he told the crowd the national GOP has "lost its way", a line that prompted some delegates to stand and clap. "I must admit that I am troubled by the divisiveness that is damaging our national party from the ground up and the top down," he said. "I won't sugarcoat it: at the national level, our party has lost its way. The lack of fiscal discipline has been disheartening to all of us who know that it is the bedrock of the Republican Party. But we need to stick together and remember who our opponent is."

That's where he took into the Democrats, without naming them. He closed that section with an endorsement of the presumptive nominee: "We need to make sure to send a genuine warrior to the White House by electing John McCain to be the next president of the United States."

Survey Says

A new poll has U.S. Sen. John Cornyn up by 17 points on challenger Rick Noriega.

The Rasmussen Reports survey has the incumbent Republican at 52 percent and the Democratic challenger at 35 percent.

The takeaway for Cornyn: It's the first public poll that gives him a reelect number above 50 percent.

And the takeaway for Noriega: He's never run statewide but has 35 percent of Texas with him, while Cornyn, who's run statewide several times (Texas Supreme Court, attorney general, Senate) is hovering around 50 percent.

The same pollster had the two four points apart a month ago. Neither has done any advertising or generated much in the way of headlines, so it's hard to say what moved the needle.

In their write-up, the Rasmussen folks say Cornyn is viewed unfavorably by 31 percent of Texans; Noriega by 39 percent. Cornyn is viewed positively by 56 percent; Noriega by 43 percent. The pollster says voters don't have firm opinions about either candidate.

What do they think about other incumbents? According to Rasmussen, Gov. Rick Perry is viewed favorably by 34 percent and unfavorably by 27 percent; President George W. Bush favorably by 40 percent and unfavorably by 40 percent.

The company surveyed 500 votes by phone on June 2. The margin of error is +/- 4 percent.

And Another One

We recently cited part of a poll that offers hope to Democrat Chris Bell should he decide to run for state Senate in SD-17. And we've got our dirty little mitts on the rest of it.

The survey, done by Austin-based Opinion Analysts for Texans for Insurance Reform (that's a Democratic pollster working a satellite group of the Texas trial lawyers, so you know the codes), says the district leans Republican. It says Bell has higher favorable rankings than state Sen. Kyle Janek, who resigned from the seat last week. And it says Bell is ahead in an initial horse-race matchup with one of the Republicans in the race (a second wasn't tested, apparently).

Meanwhile, that Republican — Austen Furse — now has endorsements from former RNC member Tim Lambert of Lubbock and from Steve Hotze, a conservative activist in Houston.

Bell, who ran for governor and lost two years ago, got 40 percent to Furse's 26.5 percent in that initial poll. That's largely name ID at this point; Furse has never run for office. But it's giving the Democrats the idea that Bell would be competitive, if he decides to run.

He told us at the Democratic convention this weekend that he's "still thinking about it."

Spanked

A Houston appeals court tossed out the lawsuit challenging the way the state's GOP convention is run, and ordered the filers to pay the Party's lawyers.

The court didn't get to the merits of the lawsuit, but agreed with a lower court that said "the trial court had no jurisdiction to issue the requested injunctive relief."

They can still sue, but they'll have to go to a different court. And the misfire unhinges this year's challenge: The suit was filed last week and went through three courts on the way to this result. And the convention is now underway, so if any changes ultimately come out of any of the legal wrangle, they'll affect the 2010 convention.

Here's a copy of the ruling.

Political Notes

The fight over the split system for picking Texas Democratic delegates didn't get settled at their convention; that's been delegated to a committee that'll make recommendations to the next convention two years from now. But they talked about it. Opponents of the current system papered the convention with signs like one that said: "End the Texas Two-Step. Count 'ALL' Voters Equally. Primary System Only!"

• This probably won't come up again for a while, but if you're interested, the Democratic Party platform is online here.

• With the GOP convention just a couple of days off, former RNC member Tim Lambert endorsed a challenger to Texas GOP Chair Tina Benkiser. Lambert said in an email to supporters that he'll back Paul Perry of Ellis County. And then he did the introduction when it came time for Perry to introduce himself at the GOP convention.

• A group of Republicans started a new political action committee aiming "to rebuild conservative Republican dominance in the Texas House." The Growth Opportunity & Prosperity PAC (GOP-PAC), started by Gina Parker Ford of Belton, a well-known Republican activist, and others, will be involved in 25 House races with "grassroots support and financial backing." They've just started and the balances in the accounts aren't available. Others in that effort: Chris Davis, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee, and Margie Ford, a Dallas Republican.

• After the Democratic convention was over, Texas Labor moved from the Clinton to the Obama stable. Texas AFL-CIO chief Becky Moeller said she expects the national affiliate to do the same, but she "personally and independently" decided to ask Democrats to rally around the senator from Illinois.

Brian Walker, the Republican challenging state Rep. Chuck Hopson, D-Jacksonville, in HD-11, picked up an endorsement from former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese.

Taxpayers Say the Darndest Things

The state's newest revenue generator — the business margins tax — is due on Monday and the state's officeholders will find out then how people really feel about it and whether the new creation is a fiscal and political win or loss.

It got barely a whimper when Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst mentioned it in his talk at the state GOP convention, but Comptroller Susan Combs has logged 90,500 calls on the new levy. And they had responded to 4,391 pieces of mail when we asked earlier in the week.

Some of the mail was addressed directly to Combs and we asked to see it. Some excerpts, with punctuation intact:

• "I hope you and all of your Texas Attorneys that profit from this satanic act sleep well at night!"

• "I wish to express my opinion that the Comptroller's implementation of the new franchise tax system has been abysmal at best. I see no reason why the forms were issued so late."

• "You have made a May 15th due date impossible for tax practitioners by not releasing your franchise forms on time." [Combs postponed the due date to June 15.]

• "I go to the download section, either to file online or print the forms and file, and the screen changes and then goes blank, yet it says done. No forms, nothing. How in the _____ are we supposed to file these _____ reports." [The blanks are in the original email.]

• "A $10.7 or $15 billion surplus is entirely sufficient reason to postpone collection of the business tax until that monster can be killed."

• "I have been preparing tax returns for forty plus years. I have been a C.P.A. in public practice for thirty six plus years. The legislation which resulted in what we have come to know as the Texas Margin Tax is disastrous... Because of the complacency of Texas taxpayers I can only fantasize about a taxpayer's revolt as a result of such Legislative and Administrative lunacy."

Dewhurst's swat at the tax got a lukewarm response on the first day of the GOP convention — delegates were much more engaged when House Speaker Tom Craddick lit into property appraisals. And the author of the tax, former Comptroller John Sharp, a Democrat, says most of the anger over the new business tax is related to the Legislature's failure to cap appraisal increases that eat up property tax cuts. Those cuts, remember, were supposed to offset the increases in the business tax. Sharp, who lost races to Dewhurst and to Rick Perry, jokes that he's flattered Dewhurst is blaming the tax on him, though: "I appreciate it. I'm always appreciative when someone is bringing me back into the game."

Dewhurst isn't alone. Bill Keffer, whose brother Jim Keffer carried the tax bill in the House, says the state is flush with money and that it's unnecessary and ought to be spiked. One of his arguments is that businesses that aren't making money shouldn't have to pay the tax. But Sharp and others say putting income into the mix would make the tax unconstitutional. The state's taboo on personal income taxes might be triggered if lawyers and other professionals paid the margins tax.

Unblazing a Trail

The state's highway department will follow existing roads, mostly, for I-69, and will try to do that on other pieces of the governor's Trans Texas Corridor in the future.

After public hearings that drew big crowds and legendary ire from opponents, the agency said its new plan for I-69 is to follow U.S. Highways 77 and 281 in the Valley, State Highway 44 and U.S. 59 through the Coastal Bend and U.S. 59 and 84 in East Texas. That's assuming federal officials approve the plans submitted by the Texas Department of Transportation.

This is a new tack for TXDOT, which has raised its profile and not a little political heat with its highway planning and construction in the last few years. The agency said it got 28,000 comments on the routing plans. The Transportation Commission now wants to build roads, when possible, where roads already exist, and this is the first big project out of the chute. And they're apparently promising not to put tolls on lanes that now exist — just on new ones (it's not clear just how that would work).

The Texas Farm Bureau — a loud opponent of Perry's TTC — praised the announcement. Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, wasn't as convinced about the new direction. He pointed out that what he called a "politically timed" announcement followed a critical report on TXDOT by the state's Sunset Advisory Commission. "I greatly appreciate the fact that they are attempting to address this long simmering problem," he said, "but it would be shortsighted to look at this announcement as anything more than a foundation for the host of further reforms that must be instituted by the department."

Details of those plans are online at keeptexasmoving.com

Still Digging

The Texas Tomorrow Fund started operating in the red in the 2001 fiscal year and the hole is getting deeper. That fund was set up to let Texans lock in university tuition and fees before their kids were old enough for college.

When the Legislature deregulated tuition in 2003, the state stopped selling new contracts and has never opened them back up. But the people who got in before then got a deal, and you can measure it by the size of the program's deficit. This year, that's $164.6 million, according to the annual report for that program, up $54.3 million from the year before.

The people who bought contracts have a rock-solid deal, but since voters decided to put the state's full faith and credit behind the program, taxpayers are on the hook for the difference between the costs of college and the investments in the fund.

Error Correction

Six years after he killed it as an unnecessary piece of bureaucracy and a legislative bottleneck, House Speaker Tom Craddick is recreating the House Office of Bill Analysis.

Details are scarce, but that outfit was set up by former Speaker Pete Laney to scrub bills and bill analyses so there'd be fewer procedural killings on the House floor.

Mistakes in those documents enable enemies of a bill to knock it out of contention for hours, days, weeks, or — at the ends of sessions — for a couple of years. A couple of House committees got famous in the last few years — Regulated Industries probably got the most attention — for stumbling on those sorts of errors.

With the new office, blame for any mistakes would move back to the leadership.

Political People and Their Moves

Texas Secretary of State Phil Wilson announced he'll leave that job July 6 for unspecified work in the private sector. Wilson was a top aide to Gov. Rick Perry before he took the SOS job almost exactly a year ago. Just a bit after that announcement, Dallas-based Luminant said it had hired Wilson to take charge of public affairs. That company is one of the spinoffs from TXU; it's in the wholesale electricity business and is one of several companies talking seriously about building new nuclear plants in Texas.

More electricity: Charles Patton leaves his post at the top of AEP Texas for an SVP spot overseeing regulatory and public policy at American Electric Power, the parent company. Pablo Vegas, who's been with the company since 2005, will replace Patton. All of that was keyed to the retirement of Tom Hagen, who worked at AEP and at its predecessor in Austin before moving up the food chain to Ohio. He'll be replaced by Venita McCellon-Allen, now the coo at Southwestern Electric Power Co.

The Teacher Retirement System of Texas hired an outside PR firm to talk to its members and the public. The trustees at TRS told the staff it's okay to open negotiations with GCI Group. That outfit has also done public relations work for UT Austin and the Lower Colorado River Authority.

Department of Corrections: We squib-kicked someone's name last week — the single worst mistake you can make in print or in pixels — and should have written an item this way: Albert Betts, the commissioner of workers' compensation at the Texas Department of Insurance, is retiring in August. He's been in that job since 2005 and was the agency's chief of staff before that. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

Quotes of the Week

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, supported Clinton. She told the assembled Democrats that's over now: "Everybody who's been in a relationship knows you eventually make up... and as my husband Pete says, 'oh, the makeup sex is really good.'"

U.S. Senate candidate Rick Noriega, talking to reporters: "People just aren't buying what they other side's selling anymore."

Noriega, after criticizing U.S. Sen. John Cornyn acceptance of PAC money, asked if he'd refuse those kinds of contributions: "I'm not at that point right now where drug companies are going to write me a check."

Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, appealing for unity: "All of us who supported Hillary need to come back and get on board."

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston: "I used to speed, but look at the price of gas. I used to speed. Not any more."

Rep. Kirk England of Grand Prairie, who was elected two years ago as a Republican but switched to the Democrats last year: "I was with a party that had zero tolerance for people who wanted to represent their districts."

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine: "Thanks a lot. Tom DeLay's a Virginia resident now. We really appreciate that."

Democratic Party Chairman Boyd Richie, on signs that some Clinton supporters are reluctant to support Obama: "Hillary Clinton's not going to vote for John McCain. She's going to vote for Barack Obama."


Texas Weekly: Volume 25, Issue 24, 16 June 2008. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2008 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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