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Trial Heat

Texas Democrats are doing a tag-team routine on Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth, excoriating him for filing a lawsuit to knock Wendy Davis off the ballot and asking the courts to rule against him — and quickly. The courts have answered that request; they set a hearing for July 22.

Texas Democrats are doing a tag-team routine on Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth, excoriating him for filing a lawsuit to knock Wendy Davis off the ballot and asking the courts to rule against him — and quickly. The courts have answered that request; they set a hearing for July 22.

His suit, filed late last week, asks the courts to disqualify her because of overlaps in her term on the Fort Worth city council and the legislative term she seeks.

She started it with a press conference/rally in front of the Tarrant County Courthouse, saying she's asked the courts to give Brimer's challenge a quick hearing so she can get back to campaigning (links to her legal filing, and her letter to Brimer's lawyers).

Annie's List — a political action committee that backs Democratic women running for state office — called on Brimer to "stop bullying" their favorite in the race.

Boyd Richie, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party sent a statement, calling the lawsuit "frivolous" and "a cowardly stunt."

Brimer's timing was, from the other point of view, clever: His lawyers sued Davis on the eve of the long July 4th weekend, when most humans aren't paying attention to this sort of political news. And instead of filing in January, before the primaries and before the political season was fully engaged, they filed in mid-summer. If they're unsuccessful, most people won't notice. If they're successful, Fort Worth Democrats will have a hard time finding a formidable candidate on short notice, and won't have much time to put another campaign together.

Davis' side says the lawsuit is without merit — another judge recently tossed a similar complaint against former Midland City Councilman Bill Dingus, who's running against House Speaker Tom Craddick. They just want to get it into court and get it out of the way.

Nip and Tuck

It doesn't look like the two-step primary that upset so many Texas Democrats will get an extreme makeover anytime soon. But some smaller changes are under discussion.

The Texas Democratic Party began a series of hearings on the hybrid primary/caucus system — the first in a series of public meetings about the state party's odd presidential selection process. The only real changes talked about in what otherwise amounted to a long history lesson: holding the caucus the day after the primary and improving elections with an electronic system.

"People new to the process didn't have the institutional knowledge and history to know how the process worked," said TDP Chairman Boyd Richie in his testimonial. "It really works when people understand it."

Sen. Royce West of Dallas is running the committee; he and a group of other elected officials will hear complaints and suggestions about how the party chooses its delegates. After the close presidential voting in March, Democrats in various counties and Senate districts felt the delegate selection was unfair (Hillary Clinton won the primary and Barack Obama won the caucuses, and when it was all completed last month, he got more Texas delegates than she did). Some hearings were held before the state convention to work out kinks, and there is still a pending lawsuit by the League of United Latin American Citizens against the party. So far, it's not clear whether the Democrats will keep two-stepping, and many think the system just needs a few minor touch-ups.

"I'm not advocating the elimination of the two-step," said Richie. "I'm trying to explore ways to make it more participatory."

That's one of the big complaints about the system — that it excludes voters who have to go home to their kids, work a night shift, or whatever. Under current rules, the caucuses start on Election Night, after the polls close.

"We need to do away with caucuses," said Lupe Sosa, a 67-year-old voter who, along with about 15 other fired-up Democrats, showed up an hour before the meeting to have her say with the press. "Many people couldn't come to the caucus after the primary... they have another job to go to, or are sick and elderly like me." (Sosa said she had knee-replacement surgery right before the primary, and couldn't be on her feet all night at the caucus.)

According to Richie, some have suggested moving the primary to a Friday and having the caucus the following Saturday morning. There was also talk of holding caucuses on a Saturday, but only as meetings to discuss party issues, not to select delegates. A catch: The Texas Secretary of State reimburses counties only when they rent a facility for the primary. Holding those meetings somewhere else on another day could force local Democrats in each county or district to pay for the user of those halls.

Money's an issue for other reasons, too. Upgrading to an electronic system could help things run more smoothly on primary night, Richie said, but it would cost an estimated $2 million. (West interjected: That would have amounted to less than $1 per voter in the last primary, where more than two million Democrats cast ballots.)

Turnout might not amount to such a high number in the next Democratic primary — or even in the general election this November. Sen. Eddie Lucio (SD-38), one of the committee members, said he knows some of his constituents became fairly disillusioned with the process.

"The reason I'm here is I've been on an all-out crusade for many years to increase voter participation," Lucio said. "The most frequent question asked of me by the press is, 'Based on the concern of our hybrid system, are your Democratic Hispanic voters going to participate in November?' Well, I hope so."

Many of the voters who joined Sosa before the meeting were Hillary Clinton supporters who were upset that the popular vote didn't match the delegate selection. They think Texas should just hold a pure primary without a caucus.

Others don't see the need for an overhaul.

"I have a very high opinion of it," said Ken Molberg, a longtime Democratic activist, a judicial candidate, and a member of West's panel. "I was there at its genesis. Of course, it needs some changes, but the goal of this process has worked."

That goal, he said, is to keep the process from being a "good ol' boy system."

"A lot of people who have strong opinions perhaps don't understand the origin and it's purpose," Molberg said. "This is a tool created to ensure that new blood comes into the process and insiders don't control it."

Although this first meeting was open to the public, only those invited by the party could talk. The party says four or five more meetings, during which the public is welcome to address the committee, will be held throughout the state over the next few months.

— by Karie Meltzer

Jump!

Texas doctors were mad enough to withdraw their endorsement of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, but his flipped vote on Medicare reimbursement rates wasn't enough — at least immediately — to get them to give it back.

Cornyn (and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison) voted against the docs on a Democrat-backed Medicare bill that included provisions to block a 10.6 percent rate cut. TEXPAC — the political action committee affiliated with the Texas Medical Association, held a quick meeting and yanked their endorsement of the junior senator. Now, two weeks later, the U.S. Senate passed legislation with the provision the doctors wanted in the first place.

That prompted this line — a big flip-flop itself — in a press release from TMA: "Texas physicians want to commend the courage and wisdom of both U.S. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn who voted for their constituents – our patients – today." A line from the TEXPAC press release following the earlier vote: "The Texas Medical Association Political Action Committee (TEXPAC) is outraged that you made the decision to follow the direction of the Bush Administration and voted to protect health insurance companies at the expense of America’s seniors, those with disabilities, and military families."

Officials with TMA said the TEXPAC board isn't scheduled to meet again until September; if they change their endorsement status in the Senate race, it'll likely happen then.

Settlement Talk

State Rep. Hubert Vo was sued for problems at his Houston apartment complexes years before the Houston Chronicle investigation in April exposed run-down conditions at the properties.

His Republican challenger, Greg Meyers, offers that as proof that Vo has a history of problems as a landlord and undercuts the incumbent's claim that problems in his properties were fixed as soon as he knew of them. Meyers said it's hypocritical for Vo to say he's working in the Legislature to improve voters' lives while allowing his tenants to live in bad conditions.

"You can't claim to be for quality-of-life on the west side of town and run apartments like these on the east side of town," Meyers said.

The lawsuits highlight tenant problems that surfaced long before the troubles covered by the Chronicle and cited by city inspectors (broken balcony railings and electrical problems, for example), a list that, according to Vo's campaign, was addressed immediately.

But there were earlier concerns.

In 2001, Vo settled with tenant Juan Rodriguez for an undisclosed sum of money. According to the lawsuit, Rodriguez was changing a light bulb when he found water in the glass globe cover. The globe broke and the water, heated by the bulb, spilled on his face, neck and shoulders, severely burning him.

The tenant in the apartment above Rodriguez had asked management to fix a leak in his air-conditioning unit on four separate occasions before Rodriguez was burned, according to the lawsuit.

Vo settled another case in February 2007. This one started in 2004 when security guards working for his Capewood Apartments detained tenant Victor Arias, threw him to the pavement and handcuffed him, according to the lawsuit. The guard hit his wife in the face when she tried to help.

The next day, the guards stopped Arias' vehicle and tried to arrest him, but instead Harris County sheriff's deputies admonished the guards for attempting to file false charges, according to the lawsuit.

Karen Loper, Vo's spokeswoman, said he wouldn't be available for an interview. Instead, she released a statement: "Rep. Vo has had hundreds of satisfied residents in his apartment units over many years and to take two lawsuits and allege that it shows a "pattern of neglect" is typical of the low road taken by his opponent."

The Meyers campaign is publicizing the Rodriguez and Arias lawsuits, as well as a third involving Wall Street Square Apartments, a complex Vo now owns. Tenant Alecia Alexander settled with Vo in 2003. She had sued him for what she said was a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act. She complained that she had backed-up sewage, feces in the bedroom and rodents in the apartment. After she filed complaints, the complex tried to evict her in August 2000.

Alexander, who is African-American, asked to be relocated to other units, but management said none were available. However, she frequently witnessed other tenants who were not African-American being relocated, the lawsuit said.

Loper said Vo doesn't deny being the owner when the first two lawsuits were settled. But she said Vo bought the Wall Street Square Apartments in October 2000, two months after Alexander filed her complaints with management. "Simply stated, he was not the owner at the time of the problems," she said in a written statement.

— by Elizabeth Pierson Hernandez

Blowin' in the Wind

By sheer force of wallet, Democrat Michael Skelly is mounting a robust challenge to incumbent Republican John Culberson in a Houston congressional district that by history and appearance should be a GOP stronghold.

The CD-7 seat hasn't gone blue in more than four decades, when George H.W. Bush won it in 1966. Culberson beat Democrat Jim Henley in 2006 by more than 20 points, and the district has a Texas Weekly Index of 27.7 in favor of the GOP. (Our rule of thumb is that Democrats can be competitive in districts with Republican TWIs of 17 or less.)

However, impressive fundraising by the independently wealthy Skelly has caught the attention of many political experts and pundits. The most recent Federal Election Commission reports, good through March 31, show Skelly with $666,505 cash on hand, compared to Culberson's $270,726. (Skelly's raised about $850,000 so far, compared to $589,000 for Culberson.)

Both campaigns say second-quarter fundraising was healthy, but neither was ready to release estimates. The next FEC reports, covering April, May and June, come out in mid-July.

"The race was thought of as a long shot. Now it's the most competitive House race in Texas," according to Skelly aide Dylan Loewe, who says his boss "is also committed to making sizeable contribution to the campaign himself."

Texas GOP spokesperson Hans Klingler isn't convinced, calling a CD-7 coup "a pipe dream of the Democrats."

He says the buzz around CD-7 is a Democratic attempt "meant to divert attention away from CD-22," a neighboring district where Klingler predicts that GOP challenger Pete Olson will defeat incumbent Nick Lampson.

A third-party April survey by Ralph Brodie of IVR Polling showed Culberson well ahead of Skelly, 57 percent to 39 percent. That wasn't much different from a poll done for Skelly's campaign in December 2007 (and released in February), showing Culberson up 52 percent to 33 percent.

But Texas Democratic Party spokesperson Hector Nieto says the Blue Team has "a strong, coordinated effort at the county level" in Harris.

"You'll start seeing the lead that Congressman Culberson has starting to slip away," he says.

Skelly's money, excitement among national Democrats and a shifting political scene in Houston means Culberson isn't assuming anything.

"The quickest way to lose an election is to take winning for granted," the four-term incumbent says. Culberson expects to be "heavily outspent." But, he adds, "They don't count dollar bills on election night."

He's been spending time in Houston doing "blocking and tackling" — raising money, growing grassroots and reminding residents of projects he's brought to the district. Culberson is most proud of the Katy Freeway project, which he says will be completed "in record time," before the November elections.

"The bottom line for me with voters is I have proven that John Culberson keeps his word," he says.

Not surprisingly, energy policies form the cornerstones of both campaigns.

Culberson touts his plan to expand domestic drilling for natural gas and oil (including shale oil) and to build more coal-fired and nuclear power plants to meet short-term demand. In the mid-range, he wants to invest in sources of alternative energy like wind and solar, though he "strenuously opposes subsidies."

Culberson, who's nuts about nanotechnology, says advances in nano will "make the country truly energy independent in the long term."

Talking about energy is comfortable territory for Skelly, a former wind power executive, says Loewe.

"The most important thing for people to understand about Michael Skelly is that he is a successful wind energy businessman who understands wind energy policy," Loewe says.

Like Culberson, Skelly is in favor of increasing the domestic production of natural gas and oil. That's a "security issue," says Loewe.

Skelly promotes federal investment in alternative energy sources, like wind, to supply long-term solutions to America's needs.

When asked about the difficulty of challenging a wind energy expert on energy policy, Culberson brusquely characterized wind power as "a small piece of the puzzle, and heavily subsidized at that."

"The question's frankly astonishing. If you're not aware, wind is responsible for less than five percent of all the electricity in Texas. It's very small," he says. "It has no impact on reducing the price of gasoline. I support wind energy, but it doesn't have anything to do with reducing the price of gas or electricity."

— by Patrick Brendel

Crazy Ants & Other Miscellany

The Texas GOP held a contest for best bumper sticker for this election year and ended up with a line that was, in some form, in almost everybody's convention speech this year: "Obama for Change; that's all you'll have left in your pockets."

• Come for politics — or food — or how about a show? U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, is doing a fundraiser at a Highland Park restaurant followed by a screening of a new summer movie — "Batman: The Dark Knight" — at a nearby theater.

Austin Furse lost two of Houston's biggest Republican donors — Bob Perry and John Nau — but he picked up an endorsement from radio host Ann Coulter for his bid for state Senate. Furse wants to replace Sen. Kyle Janek, who resigned earlier this year.

• The TexBlog PAC — that's a group of bloggers on the left — endorsed Sherrie Matula, who's challenging Rep. John Davis, R-Houston, in HD-129. That endorsement comes with a $5,000 check.

• Zogby International has put all of their polling into an online electoral map that'll change as new numbers come in between now and the November elections. At the moment, that particular polling outfit has the electoral vote going to Barack Obama; in their current listings, Republican John McCain has solid leads in states with 160 electoral votes. Obama's got leads in states with 273, and 105 more votes are available in states listed as too close to call. If you give all of the undecided votes to McCain, he'd still fall short. According to Zogby. At this time.

• Got crazy ants? The Texas Department of Agriculture got federal approval for a chemical — fipronil — that kills the little boogers. The ants hit Houston this year and have populations of up to 50 million ants per acre.

Political People and Their Moves

Karen Hughes, the former senior advisor to President George W. Bush, is joining Burson-Marsteller as global vice chair and will work out of the firm's Austin office. She'll report to another former political advisor, Mark Penn, who left the Hillary Clinton campaign before the end of the primaries earlier this year.

Guy Bailey is the sole finalist for president of Texas Tech University in Lubbock. He's a former provost at the University of Texas-San Antonio and currently the chancellor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His degrees are in English and linguistics.

Kathy Ward is giving up her gig as chairwoman of Collin County's Republican Party; she's been appointed to fill an open spot on the Collin County Commissioner's Court and will run for a full term there in November.

Move Jay Root from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where he's been the Austin Bureau chief for almost 12 years, to the Associated Press, where he'll be in a new position they're calling "government watchdog reporter." He'll stay in Austin. That's the Fort Worth paper's second high-profile departure in less than a month. R.A. "Jake" Dyer was one of about 150 people laid off by the paper in a cost-cutting move.

After a year on a U.S. Navy intelligence assignment in Baghdad, former reporter and political press agent James Bernsen is on his way back to Austin. He says he'll restart his public relations business in time for the rest of the election cycle and the coming legislative session.

Ron Lehman, who's been the employer rep at the Texas Workforce Commission for the last ten years, is resigning. He was with IBM Corp. when then-Gov. George W. Bush appointed him in 1998.

Houston businessman Charles McMahen is the newest addition to the Sunset Advisory Commission, named to the post by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. He's replacing Michael Stevens, who died in May.

Gov. Rick Perry has been appointing people again, naming:

Sharon Barnes, who works for Dow Chemical Co. in Port Arthur; Leon Leach, an exec at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston; Ronald Luke, head of Research & Planning Consultants in Austin; and Jose Adan Trevino, a retired pharmacist from Bellaire, to the Health and Human Services Council.

Michael Bernoski of Cedar Park, president of Natella Investment Corp.; Mirella Garcia, a financial rep with the Premier Wealth Group of El Paso; Frank McCamant of Austin, business development manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority; Pam Rollins, an associate prof at the University of Texas at Dallas; and Stephanie Sokolosky, a research assistant at Texas Tech University, to the Texas Council on Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders. McCamant will be the presiding officer.

Devora Mitchell of Kermit to the Manufactured Housing Board. Mitchell is CEO and president of the Winkler County Credit Union.

Janet Hall of Georgetown, district manager of Sedexho Healthcare Services; Brian Ions of Lubbock, an associate prof at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center; Amy McLeod, director of food and nutrition at Woodland Heights Medical Center in Lufkin; Hawley Poinsett, president of Real Life Nutrition in Austin; and D.A. Sharpe, a retired church administrator from Aurora, to the Texas State Board of Examiners of Dieticians.

Stacy London, executive vice president at Houston Capital Mortgage; Paul Plunket, retired SVP of Oncor Electric Delivery Co. of Dallas; and Stanley Rosenberg, senior partner at Tuggey Rosenthal Pauerstein Sandoloski Agather in San Antonio, to the Finance Commission of Texas.

Robert Massengale, a Lubbock small business owner, and Richard McElreath of Amarillo to the State Pension Review Board. McElreath, a financial consultant at Wachovia Securities, is replacing Frederick "Shad" Rowe Jr. of Dallas, who left the board at the governor's request.

Gary Wood, president of Collins Financial Services of Austin, to the Texas Public Finance Authority.

Kennon Peterson is the Texas Supreme Court's new rules attorney. She clerked for Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson during the 2004-05 term and has since worked at Baker Botts. She's replacing Jody Hughes, who is moving back to the Solicitor General's office under Attorney General Greg Abbott.

New honchos at the Texas Cable Association include Robert Moel, president of Time Warner's north Texas division, as chairman, and Ray Purser of Comcast Houston as vice chairman.

Semi-related: Austin lawyer Robin Casey got an All Star-Partner Award from Women in Cable Telecommunications; she's a cofounder of the Casey, Gentz & Magness law firm.

Deputy Comptroller Martin Hubert got the Administrator of the Year award from the Texas State Agency Business Administrators' Association. Separately, Hubert named Whitney Blanton his "special counsel"; Blanton has been working for the agency's general counsel up to now.

Next month, Justin Keener will be the new veep of policy and communications at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He's been an aide to House Speaker Tom Craddick, among others, and most recently worked at Cassidy & Associates.

Quotes of the Week

Former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, quoted by The Washington Times: "We have sort of become a nation of whiners. You just hear this constant whining, complaining about a loss of competitiveness, America in decline. You've heard of mental depression; this is a mental recession."

U.S. Sen. John McCain, disowning those remarks and suggesting where Gramm would fit in a McCain Administration: "I think Sen. Gramm would be in serious consideration for ambassador of Belarus, though I'm not sure the citizens of Minsk would welcome that."

State Board of Education member David Bradley, quoted in the San Antonio Express-News on the state's rules governing Bible classes in public schools: "Local school districts kind of like the way it is now. They have flexibility. It's like sex ed... You leave it up to local communities. You give them some guidelines. You are not nearly as prescriptive as some would like you to be."

T. Boone Pickens, promoting his wind farms as a way to reduce U.S. dependence on oil, quoted in the Chicago Tribune: "You've got the largest shift of money in the history of mankind. I don't know whether it's either naive, weak, stupid or whatever, but we have drifted, drifted, drifted, where we're now importing almost 70 percent of our oil."

Judge Edith Clement of the 5th U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans, hearing a lawsuit on whether electronic voting machines used in Texas are a problem, quoted by the Associated Press: "There might be something wrong with the voters if they're not reading and following directions."

From a Travis County grand jury report decrying so-called ghost voting, where Texas House members vote for absent colleagues to make it appear they were present: "The grand jury believes an unknown, but perhaps substantial percentage, of the citizenry of this state believes the Legislature has a proclivity for passing laws for the citizens to abide by but will not even abide by its own rules, which are equivalent to laws imposed on private citizens."

Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram why the state should elect, rather than appoint, it's chief insurance regulator: "Right now Texas has some of the highest rates in the nation, and the commissioner seems more interested in justifying the high rates than finding ways to lower them."

Del Rio Mayor Efrain Valdez, quoted by the Associated Press after the city agreed to sell land for a border fence to the federal government for $1.2 million: "There's nothing here. So if you put a fence here, it really doesn't bother us."

Ed Burns, a former Baltimore cop who co-wrote The Wire, on how policymakers reacted to that TV show's depiction of the war on drugs, in The New York Times: "The irony is that you have to be somebody before anybody listens to you. I wasn't an expert when I was an expert, and now that I'm not an expert, I'm an expert. It's kind of curious."


Texas Weekly: Volume 25, Issue 28, 14 July 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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