Texas politicos aren’t asking whether El Paso state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh is planning a campaign for statewide office. They’re asking which office he’s eyeing. But perhaps the better question is, does it even matter?
Shapleigh said last month he would not run for reelection to the Texas Senate. He hasn’t revealed his statewide ambitions, but his public and private remarks leave little doubt the longtime El Paso legislator is seriously considering a gubernatorial bid.
Yet even Shapleigh’s friends and fellow Democrats agree that effort would be a long, long shot. “If he were to run for governor on the Democratic side, he would run probably just to make a point about [Gov. Rick] Perry’s statements,” said state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.
Just weeks ago, Shapleigh released a booklet titled “Getting out of Grover’s Tub.” It was essentially a Festivus-style airing of the grievances against Republican leadership in Texas. GOP policies that keep taxes low and reduce public services have resulted in a sicker, poorer, less educated and dirtier Texas, according to Shapleigh’s tome. “Is this the Texas we want for our children? Isn’t it time to put Texas back on track? ... Let’s restore to our democracy the central idea of government of, by and for people,” he wrote.
Then, on Oct. 16, Shapleigh announced, “While other public service may lie ahead, I will not run for the Texas Senate in 2010.” Shapleigh’s staff has said he won’t share his future plans until after Thanksgiving.
In recent conversations, though, Shapleigh has targeted Perry, lambasting him for accepting campaign money from payday lenders that prey on the poor and for championing unsuccessful border security strategies. And in an e-mailed response to the Tribune for this story, Shapleigh mentioned Perry by name six times in five paragraphs. "Perry's done the bidding of billionaires so long, that he has kept that secret from the people," he said. "Instead, Perry has cut taxes for the wealthy few, and shifted them to you. That's a debate Texas needs to hear."
He didn't say whether he intended to be part of that debate.
Campaign for what?
The list of factors that figure against a successful statewide bid for Shapleigh starts with the letter behind his name on the ballot. Texas hasn't put a Democrat in a statewide office since 1994. And even though Democrats have recently swept local offices in Dallas and Harris counties and made gains in the Texas House, the state went to Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008. He got more than 55 percent of the vote, compared to 43 percent who voted for Barack Obama.
Next up on the list of Shapleigh's problems is location, location, location. “A candidate [from El Paso], no matter how good — and Shapleigh would be a great candidate — begins with that disadvantage,” said Democratic consultant Kelly Fero. Shapleigh would start with a smaller voting base, a meager campaign funding base and a home that is 600 miles west of the state’s population center. And history is not on his side: No candidate from El Paso has won statewide election. Ever.
The list of obstacles for Shapleigh also includes his advocacy of a state personal income tax. For years, he has told audiences across Texas that a graduated income tax would be the best way to pay for public education. The current tax structure, which relies on sales and property taxes, takes a bigger toll on the poor than the wealthy, he argues. “He has other disadvantages that have to do with his ideology, which — while courageous and probably visionary — are not ingredients in the short-term for a winning statewide political race,” Fero said.
Meanwhile, Shapleigh’s habit of needling Republicans for trying to require voters to present photo identification and for cracking down on immigrants might not play so well with a statewide audience. “He is pretty much black-and-white on his principles ... And he’s liberal, which is not easy to elect here in the state of Texas, which is right of center,” Hinojosa said.
"He’s smart and passionate and has the skills to be governor," state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, said of Shapleigh. Van de Putte, who has also been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor, recently had a conversation with him over a glass of wine in San Antonio. She said she wouldn’t be “totally surprised” if Shapleigh ran for governor, but she didn’t get the impression that was his plan. “It’s a different skill set to run a campaign statewide,” she said. “What I told him was he just needed to look at everything that was happening in his life and what he really, really wanted to do.”
He may not have high odds against the Republican gubernatorial nominee next November, but Fero said if Shapleigh decided to run for governor, he just might have a shot at the Democratic nomination in a weak field of candidates. Democratic contenders include unsuccessful 2006 candidate Kinky Friedman, who ran then as an Independent; former Ambassador Tom Schieffer, a George W. Bush appointee; East Texas rancher and unsuccessful 2006 Agriculture Commissioner candidate Hank Gilbert, and Houston hair product magnate Farouk Shami, a political novice.
In other words, Shapleigh's chances of winning might not be any worse than the others. “It’s a primary waiting for a heavyweight,” Fero said. “I don’t know that Eliot Shapleigh would qualify as heavyweight, but he would certainly be competitive with everybody else who’s in."