Assessing Bill White

Two Houston bloggers duke it out over the wisdom and promise of the mayor's gubernatorial candidacy.

(Ed. note: In the run-up to Bill White's expected entrance into the governor's race on Friday, we wanted to get an insider's perspective on what sort of mayor he was, whether the hype on issues like crime and traffic is justified, what his personality and temperament tell us about the kind of candidate — and governor — he'd be, and how both Democrats and Republicans would critique his performance in purely ideological terms. We've asked two of Houston's most thoughtful political observers, Charles Kuffner, of the progressive Off the Kuff blog, and David Benzion, of the conservative Lone Star Times blog, to engage in a back-and-forth on these and other subjects via e-mail; we'll publish their exchange now through Thursday afternoon.)

 

Thursday, 12/3/2009, 2:26 p.m.

Charles,

I see. So you’re going to decline my invitation to craft attack-ads on Perry and Hutchison, leaving me forever remembered as the political hack that started throwing mud, while you exit the stage with a reputation for noble high-mindedness intact. Well played my friend, well played.

As to the thrust of your response, I absolutely believe there are many voters across the state that in recent years have voted Republican but are willing to give Bill White a serious look. In many respects that is a testament to White. I myself have acknowledged his general competence, personal decency, and reasonably successful tenure in office. As a Republican I would liked to have seen some different priorities addressed, and typical municipal issues approached in a more conservative way, but I’m not going to pretend that White has been an awful Mayor.

To those Republicans down the road who will consider voting for Bill White for Governor, my core objection is simply this — he’s on the wrong team. I’m not talking about mere partisanship; I’m talking about ideology. I believe government is a force for good when it is small. Bill White believes government is a force for good when it is big. And a White administration in Austin will put people in the bureaucracy, in state agencies, and eventually in the legislature and other statewide offices who believe government is a force for good only when it is huge. If you don’t want to find yourself arriving at a certain destination, don’t start walking down that road.

Which is not to say that Texas in general or the state GOP in particular are doing great and don’t need to change and improve. Charles, I know you are familiar with last year’s Hill Research Consultants survey, Beyond Bush: Texas Politics in an Obama Era.” (Disclosure & Reminder: As a Senior Research Analyst at HRC, I played a key role in drafting the questionnaire, interpreting results and writing the report. Opinions expressed here are mine alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of my current or former employers or clients.)

November 2008 was a particularly brutal period to be asking people about what they thought of the GOP, and while we haven’t gone back into the field to do a time-series analysis, I’m confident many of the worst numbers in that report have improved. (Thanks to the Obama/Pelosi/Reid bail-out health care dynamic I noted earlier this week.) But I’m also honest enough to admit that many of the problems for Republicans we measured in that report still remain, to a greater or lesser degree.

       * The Texas electorate remains dissatisfied with the status quo.
       * Voters don’t think the GOP is delivering government that is low-cost, in-touch, sensible, and devoted-to-the-common-good.
       * Negative perceptions of Republicans as arrogant, racist, corrupt, angry, and unwelcoming are untenable for the party’s long-term health.
       * In principle the electorate is ready to give the “right” Democrats a chance to do better.

Is Bill White one of those “right” Democrats? I expect we'll be hearing a lot in the next year about how he is.

As for Perry and Hutchison (and every GOP elected official, as well as party members, activists and conservative sympathizers), it’s our job to stay true to our principles and advance our agenda while still reaching out, connecting with and offering something to voters I like to describe as being in the “Critical Middle”—folks who value common-sense over ideology, neighborliness to partisanship, and effective solutions to the problems they confront going about their day-to-day lives.

The days of winning elections by telling voters the other guys are even worse than us are coming to a close.Too many folks are beginning to think Republicans are less-interested in governing Texas than ruling Texas. We either renew and correct our direction now, ourselves, or someday the electorate will do it for us. And with Bill White in the race for governor, “someday” may be coming soon.

Charles, I’ve enjoyed our exchange immensely as well, and am also grateful to Evan and Texas Tribune for giving us the opportunity, and all the fine work they are tyring to do here.

Be well,

Benzion

 

Thursday, 12/3/09, 6:14 a.m.

Well, David, I'm sorry (though not particularly surprised) that you didn't like my suggestions for how to pick a fight with Barack Obama. It's just that I think politicians tend to be more successful by being who they are, rather than trying to run away from it. And not to put too fine a point on it, but the surest way to send Democratic excitement about Gubernatorial Candidate Bill White back down to pre-announcement levels would be for him to do a Sister Souljah act. We've seen that show before and we know how it ends.

I'm not going to try to come up with my own attack ad on Rick Perry because I'm not a visual thinker, and it would be an exercise in futility for me. I hope it's pretty clear from all I've written here how I think the strategy for offense should be, but I'll leave the grainy photos and the ominous voice-overs to those who know what to do with them.

What I am going to do is reiterate a couple of my main themes, with an assist from some other folks. As you may know, since his announcement before Thanksgiving that he was considering this race, Bill White has asked people to give him feedback to help him make up his mind. Here's one of the responses I saw:

I normally wouldn't offer opinions on such a matter but do have some thoughts to share. They are likely not new to you. I recognize that you have leadership qualities and integrity that are rare in government these days and they should be put to the highest and best use available. Having said that I will add that I am a life long Republican (depresssed) and am not eager to add to the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate. However, I consider you to be a better candidate than any likely contenders. It will be far easier for people of my like to support you as a gubernatorial candidate at this time. Good luck with your choice.

See, I'd always wondered what White's plan to win a special election Senate runoff would be. Because a Senate race, especially a stand-alone one, would inevitably be as much about Barack Obama and his agenda in Congress as it would be about the candidates, and while I disagree with you about how the 2010 elections here may play out, I do agree that this would not be a winning hand to play. But being Governor isn't about Obama, though I'm sure Team Perry will try to make it be. It's about Texas, and because of that I do believe that people will consider voting in a way they wouldn't for Obama's 61st Senator.

And since we all know the plural of "anecdote" is "data", here's one more quote, taken from the blog of my colleague, who spent Thanksgiving weekend in Houston with a couple of "reliable Republican voting family members":


The conversation broke along a few lines but suffice it to say that these two reliable Republican voters are more than willing to give their mayor a serious look at governor if he’s running against Perry.  (And they’re not impressed with Sen. Hutchison so far either).  Their main reason for voting against Perry in 2010 is that they think he’s been governor too long, and it’s time for someone else.

[...]

But it was the response I got when I asked them, how he’s been as mayor?  Both of them said that he’s been a really good mayor, and that he’s gotten a lot of good things done.  It’s been a long time since I’ve heard Republicans say such nice things about an elected Democrat in Texas.

Rick Perry has been Governor too long, it's time for someone else, and Bill White is the man for the job. Pretty decent elevator pitch, if you ask me. Even a visually-oriented underachiever like me could probably make a passable 30-second spot out of that. I don't know how this campaign will unfold, and I don't know how these Republicans will feel about Bill White after Rick Perry takes his best shot, but I do know that he's got a great story to tell, that he'll have the resources and the plan to tell it effectively, and that Rick Perry doesn't want this election to be about him. I think White can take it from there.

With that, I'm going to sign off on this project, which has been a pleasure to participate in; I am grateful to Evan Smith and the Trib folks for giving me the space, and to you for being such a good sparring partner. I started this, and you get to finish it, so I'll turn it over to you for the last word. I'll be making my plans to be at the Hilton Americas downtown tomorrow at noon to hear the word about the campaign from the man himself. Thanks very much, and have a great weekend.

Charles

 

Wednesday, 12/2/2009, 5:53 p.m.

Charles,

Can this blog-marriage be saved?

Try as we might, ideology always seems to come between us. We agree White could benefit by picking a high-profile fight with (and clearly distancing himself from) Obama and a Democratic Congress, but the fights you want him to pick involve the failure of government to spend enough money or let enough foreigners in to take our jobs. (Not necessarily debating the merits of the issues you mention, just the politics.) I don’t think this agenda is going to get White where you want him to go, but that’s not surprising: You’re a liberal, I’m a conservative! It would be odd indeed if we agreed on many issues.

Rather than thrash around debating issues that transcend White and we’ll never agree on anyway, I’m going to shift the conversation toward the Republican Party of Texas web-attack ad on White released earlier today.

“Aha!” say the Netroots bloggers and commenters. “If they’re already attacking White before he even enters the race, they must be really frightened of his campaign and the threat he’d pose in a general election! Ha Ha! Hee Hee!”

Well, fair-enough. Bill White is a serious man, with some serious money, who runs well-executed campaigns, is reasonably popular and fairly well-known across one of the state’s major population centers, and has a portfolio most voters (who still know nothing about him) will consider legitimate and worthy of consideration.

But I don’t chortle in your lattes too hard just yet. The fact is that by getting out front of a White announcement, the criticisms in this ad become part of the storyline. Not only will the attacks likely get a free-day to play (tomorrow), it is likely their substance will be mentioned (if only in passing, at the end of articles or reports) on Friday, when White is expected to announce.

From what I can tell, the spot was produced on someone’s desktop at TX-GOP HQ, and I don’t think they’re paying cash dollar bills to air it on actual TV. So that’s a pretty cheap and easy way to inject the questions of whether or not White is a deficit and debt overseeing, illegal-immigrant and crime coddling, ObamaCare and gay-marriage supporting, Cap-and-Trade job-killing, tax-raising, gun-grabbing liberal into the public arena.

I do have one stylistic bone to pick. The ad’s text follows a cadence, asking a question and then following up with a statement. (e.g., “Like sanctuary cities? Bill White’s Houston is one. Favor gay marriage? Bill White’s for it.”) But the statements often come after the issue has faded off the screen. Attention spans can be short, and observers’ senses dull. What “one” or “it” are you referring to? Punch harder. Go back and make sure the toxic position is always on the screen at the same time as his name. (i.e., “Bill White’s Houston is a sanctuary city. Bill White is for gay marriage.”) Other than that though, good job.

Since I’ve spent most of this post repeating scurrilous attacks on Bill White, and thereby sullying the honorable, non-partisan pixels of The Texas Tribune, it seems only fair to invite you to do the same, in reverse.

So, if you were somehow magically given an open-source video-editing program and your very own YouTube account, what kind of attack-ad would you cobble together in an afternoon to take-on Rick Perry or Kay Bailey Hutchison? Stick with the “Big Pretender” theme or use a different, more appropriate song?

The gloves are coming off Kuffner; IT’S GO TIME.

Best,

Benzion

 

Wednesday, 12/2/09, 11:13 a.m.

David,

I think your advice to pick a fight with the Obama administration is actually really good. Done right, it can both burnish his "independent" credentials as well as make him look good to the Democratic base; believe me when I say there is plenty of room for criticism that will resonate with the party faithful. Since I've probably already annoyed the White campaign by telling them how to do their business, I'll take the next step and tell them how I'd go about doing this as well. They can thank me later.

1. Comprehensive immigration reform is the biggest and most obvious target. Everyone knows that the system is broken, and the failures at the federal level have a direct impact on state and local governments. Obviously, Texas is interested in border security, but there's much more to it than just that, and while talking tough on the border may sound good to some folks, a lot of them won't be voting for Bill White anyway, while a lot of the folks who ought to vote for him will find too much tough talk to be a turnoff. Push the feds on the issue of H-1B visas, for which there is more demand than supply, and which Texas with its large technical and medical research industries would really like to see working better. Really, a huge chunk of the immigration issue is a matter of demand far outstripping supply, and any solution that won't need to be revisited again in a few years needs to take that into account. White should use those consensus-building skills and get the key players from business (the Texas Association of Business supports comprehensive immigration reform), law enforcement, and the Latino community together to support some basic principles of what CIR should look like.

2. Speaking of security, an issue that has never gotten the attention it deserves is port security. What has the federal government done, and what is it now doing, to ensure that proper inspections are being done on the cargo that passes through our seaports, including the Port of Houston? What is being done to ensure these enticing targets for terrorists and smugglers are kept safe and secure?

3. If we want to talk stimulus, a lot of people believe that cities got shortchanged in the stimulus package. Every city has all kinds of infrastructure needs that aren't being met. I'm talking unsexy things like drainage, flood abatement - every year, candidates for office in Houston talk about putting more money into these things, but it's hard to come by - bridge maintenance, road resurfacing, and so on. Some money from the federal government to address these needs would be a sound investment as well as a job creator. Along similar lines, pushing the so-called cash for caulkers idea to subsidize weatherization would be a good idea as well.

4. Finally, as we know, the state of Texas is looking to invest in high speed rail. We also know that the greater Houston area is talking about commuter rail lines. And of course, the city of Houston is (finally!) starting to build the extensions to its light rail line. Other cities - Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Austin, in particular - have rail projects of one kind or another in the works. One thing all these projects have in common is difficulty getting federal funding for them. It's way easier to get money for highways than it is to get money for rail projects, and that difference is a reflection of federal policy as implemented by the respective agencies. Given the investment Texas is making in rail, I at least would like to see candidate White pushing the federal government to make it easier to do so.

There are surely other things one could focus on, but these are the first to come to my mind. I would think that one or two items on which to have a public spat with the Obama administration would suffice, and if I had to pick just one it would be the first one I listed above. Is this what you had in mind?

Cheers,

Charles

 

Wednesday, 12/2/09, 7:34 a.m.

Charles,

How would I advise Bill White to run his race for Governor? Thought you’d never ask.

First, an important caveat — as someone who works professionally in politics, it isn’t appropriate (or wise, from a career perspective) for me to pontificate publicly about how best to go after either Perry or Hutchison. I’ll let you have all the fun there.

But I’ll go ahead and offer my “advice” for White, knowing full well that he and his team are very capable of running their own race, and will probably reject much of what I have to say anyway. Maybe I’ll even purposely throw in a couple of really stupid ideas—a bit of double-secret reverse-psychology to undermine his efforts from within, or at least prevent my accidentally helping his cause too much. If you disagree with anything that follows, that’s what I’m doing.

I’ll start by agreeing with you that White’s 2003 mayoral campaign themes would give him a solid foundation for a 2010 gubernatorial run. As mentioned before, at the time I closely examined his framing and rhetoric in that race—the political “archetype” he presented to voters—which can be outlined as follows:

(1) “Bill White is an ‘Experienced Manager’ with a proven track-record managing large organizations, and a successful business man in his own right.”

(2) “Bill White is an ‘Expert Fixer’ who skips complaining about problems and just focuses his skills and temperament on finding solutions.”

(3) “Bill White is a ‘Transcender’ who, because he’s neither a wild-eyed liberal nor a callous right-winger, can ‘reject the blame game.’”

(4) “Bill White is a ‘Good Government Reformer’ who listens to others and builds consensus, operating his administration with integrity, in a practical and transparent manner.”

(5) “Bill White is a ‘Progressively Mainstream’ man of humble origins who has not lost touch with the bedrock values and lessons he was taught growing up.”

In essence, Bill White is an Anglo Barack Obama (even the ears!), except the former has an actual track-record of private and public-sector success.

I joke, but it really is startling to look back and realize how many of Obama's 2008 themes White was sounding in 2003. Republican observers would do well to acknowledge there is something there, there.

As for campaigning statewide by pointing out his accomplishments according to these standards, I’d suggest he focus on “Experienced Manager” (Katrina/Ike response), “Transcender” (trot out his Republican-fans to testify) and “Progressively Mainstream” (keep pushing the boring, low-key guy who talks calmly as dreamy New Age music slowly “bongs” in the background).

But hey — you (and he, and his advisors) already knew all that. Here comes my “go for broke” advice that’s either a brilliant key to victory or a cunning monkey-wrench designed to blow up his entire campaign: Bill White needs to pick a big, ugly, high-profile fight with the Obama administration and/or Congress.

Ideally this would have already happened, several months ago, to look less calculating and offer more space and time to heal bruised feelings among the base and national donors in the aftermath. But while the timing isn’t perfect, it’s still not too late. Pick a fight, any fight, on some sort of meddling federal policy regarding illegal immigration, or idiotic red-tape attached to stimulus funds, or (best of all) any idea or proposal emanating from Washington, D.C., that would eventually impose a higher tax burden on folks back in Texas.

Raise Holy Hell. Chain himself to the front-gates of the White House, sandwiched in-between John Culberson and Ted Poe. Demand all drivers of Metro light-rail cars vigorously slam into any federal bureaucrat spotted crossing their path. Just have something you can credibly take to a statewide electorate and demonstrate that you may be a Democrat, but you’re not one of the liberal, out-of-control Democrats like we’re stuck with now in
Washington, D.C.; in fact, you’ve got the battle-scars to prove you can stand-up to them and take them on … so now that I’ve reassured you of that, here’s what I want to do to make Texas even better than it already is …

No need to thank me, Kuff. I’m a giver.

Best,

Benzion

 

Tuesday, 12/1/2009, 5:22 p.m.

David,

Bill White has plenty of smart people working for him who don't need my advice, but if I were to presume to give them some anyway, it would be to follow the basic formula that got him elected Mayor in 2003, when he started out as an unknown against two other guys who had nearly been elected Mayor before. That would be to emphasize to voters that he's the one who is focused on dealing with the pocketbook issues that affect Texans — jobs, education, tuition, utility and insurance rates, transportation, and so on — while the other guy seems to be more interested in finding someone - anyone! — to blame for his own shortcomings. I suppose one could try to make the case that Nancy Pelosi is responsible for your windstorm insurance bill being as high as it is. But voters might wonder why the guy who's been in office since 2001 hasn't done anything before now to fix it.

It's interesting, we started out this discussion agreeing that what most voters want is leadership and results and don't care that much about the partisan stuff, and in your previous email you conclude that what they really want is the Republican agenda. And hey, maybe you're right. We keep on electing Republicans to run the state, so who am I to argue? But given that Republicans have had complete control since 2003, then it stands to reason that whatever problems we've got, and I presume you'd agree we have some, are problems that either they created or that they haven't done enough to fix.

So that would be my advice. Rick Perry can talk about Obama, Reid, and Pelosi if he wants to. That'll fire up the people whose votes are already decided. Bill White can talk about jobs, education, insurance, transportation, and how to make them work better for the people of Texas as he did in Houston, and we'll see how he does among those whose votes aren't predetermined.

(By the way, since I've mentioned transportation twice, we know that TxDOT is running out of money for new projects, thanks in large part to the insufficiency of the state's gas tax. Republican State Sen. John Carona has been pushing an increase to the gas tax of up to ten cents. Rick Perry is kinda sorta on board with the idea of an increase, though a much smaller one; I have my doubts this support will survive the opposition of his masters. This strikes me as the kind of thing you might want a consensus-builder to work on, if you think that being able to build new roads in the future is worth doing. I can't and don't speak for the White campaign, so please attribute this to me and not to him. But I think he'll be open to thoughtful discussion and pragmatic problem solving on this, rather than dogma.)

You ask me if it would have been better for Bill White to have run in a different year. As I said before, I think if times continue to be tough, the prevailing sentiment will be more "throw the bums out" than anything else, and as all the bums in statewide office are Republicans, that works to White's advantage. As such, it's not at all clear to me that the environment will be hostile to White next year. If I had to pick a previous year for him to have run in, I'd probably go with 2006. I know some people who think he should have run then, in fact. Having Strayhorn and Kinky on the ballot to siphon off some Republican votes would certainly have helped. I seem to recall the Lone Star Times endorsing a certain Jewish cowboy for Governor then; the link I had to that post is now non-functional, but I noted it here. One might argue that their independent candidacies couldn't have existed without the Democratic establishment support that went to them, especially Strayhorn, in a misguided attempt to knock off Perry by alternate means, but this is my hypothetical and I'll stick with what we had.

So there you have it. Ignore the national stuff — it's not like the national trends had much effect here in 2006 or 2008, after all — and focus on Texas and how to make it a better place for more people. That's my advice, and it's worth at least twice as much as what they're paying me for it. And while we're at it, my advice to Rick Perry would be to do what I expect him to do anyway, and what you seem to think he will (and should) do, which is to do the reverse and make the race about those bad ol' Washington bureaucrats and how only Rick Perry can save us from them. Now I'll ask you: How would you advise Bill White to run his race?

Cheers,

Charles

 

Tuesday, 12/1/2009, 11:11 a.m.

Charles,

Well, we agree that pocketbook issues will matter most. At that point, however, analysis breaks down around ideological lines. While I don’t think either of us want to run down the rabbit trail too far, I think it is fair to say that...

       1. Charles Kuffner, a proud liberal, believes better public schools, lower insurance rates, wider access to health-care (especially for kids), extended unemployment insurance, and effectively delivered food-stamps are key to our economic recovery;

       2. David Benzion, a proud conservative, believes lower taxes, an even friendlier climate for entrepreneurs, genuine fiscal constraint, real prioritization and efficiencies in government services, and most importantly — fundamental and significant property tax relief for
homeowners — are the keys to our economic recovery.

       3. Kuffner is wrong and Benzion is right.

Don’t get me wrong: I care about all the issues you mention, and I suspect most Texans — if money were free and all other problems solved — would want to advance (or could at least tolerate) the policy agenda you describe. But when I look out across the Texas electorate, I see lots of voters who consider themselves under siege.

For every ex-worker collecting unemployment who wants and needs the dole extended, there are many more current workers clinging to the job they have who will resent and resist government actions that make it harder for their employers to keep their jobs viable (i.e., by increasing the burden of unemployment taxes).

For every advocate of greater funding for public education, there are countless more citizens who already feel they are paying far-too high property taxes for a system that is under-performing, and whose problems lie in bureaucracy and a lack of accountability, not a shortage of funds.

Ultimately though, I think many Texans (and by November 2010, an even greater proportion of the electorate) think of themselves as under siege from Washington D.C. — from the Democrats in Washington, D.C. Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid have managed to do more in 11 months to (a) unify Republicans; (b) revitalize exhausted and dispirited conservatives; and most importantly, (b) remind moderates and independents why they used to loath Democrats so much, and why Republicans, for all their faults, might not be so bad (or at least might be necessary after all) than I ever could have hoped for or imagined.

This, I expect, is going to be this dynamic that proves fatal to White’s bid, regardless whether he is up against Perry or Hutchison. Put simply, in 2010 White will be playing for the wrong team. In a "perfect" world (for him), the last gubernatorial election would have been held in 2008 (to benefit from Obama's coattails) or 2007 (to capitalize on voters' need to register widespread disgust with the GOP). But the election was held in 2006, before the Democrat-friendly water boiled. And the next chance will come around in 2010, after the '08 Democrat-friendly tsunami already rolls back out to sea.

Yes, both Houston mayoral candidates are essentially running to continue the White years, and if White could run again he'd probably win again. But that's for mayor, and as noted earlier, most folks judge their mayor in terms of simple technocratic competence.

I suspect a majority of Texas voters will cast a ballot in 2010 based on who they think will best be able to keep the "ship" of Texas from being sunk by Hurricane Obama, and that framework is not friendly to Bill White, or in fairness, any Democrat. If you want to address it, I'm curious how you'd advise a White gubernatorial campaign to distinguish himself from the unpopularity of his fellow Democrats in Washington, D.C.

Apologies for the multiple, mixed, aquatic metaphors throughout this response.

Benzion

 

Tuesday, 12/1/2009, 7:40 a.m.

David,

All right, if I'm the one that needs to answer the question about what folks will be thinking about when they vote in 2010, I will.

Simply put, it will be pocketbook issues. I certainly hope that the economy is growing like gangbusters next year, but even if it is, that doesn't mean Texas will be a beneficiary of that. Just as we were initially shielded from the downturn, in part by high energy prices, it would not surprise me if we lag the recovery as well. We've got all the ingredients for it — poor education achievement, high insurance rates, low access to health care, all of which will contribute to keeping those who go into the hole down for the count. We do very little to mitigate these problems. We could have made unemployment insurance available to more people, but as we know, our Governor quite famously turned his nose up at it. We can't deliver food stamps on time to those who need them, thanks in large part to the disastrous scheme to privatize the Health and Human Services Commission. We took away health insurance for thousands of children back in 2003, the last time the state budget was in trouble, and we haven't given it back to most of them.

If that's the case, then who do you want to get us out of this mess? The guy who was in charge when we got into it, or someone else? Governor Perry has been running his campaign based on Texas doing better than the rest of the country in the economy. Now our unemployment rate is way up and state revenues are way down, and all of a sudden that doesn't sound so good any more. What's he going to do when he doesn't have a "Washington insider" to run against? Well, okay, I know what he's going to do: He's going to go all negative, all the time. I guess that's what you have to do when you don't have anything else to run on.

The thing about the 2010 political environment is that it's not just going to be tough for Democrats nationally, it's going to be tough for incumbents everywhere. What else do you do when everything stinks? You throw the bums out. Note, though, that when there isn't a bum to throw out, as was the case in the Presidential election of 2008, candidates still try to run against him. The one who is most credibly viewed as a change tends to win. In the case of the Houston mayoral election of 2009, though, that's not what the candidates have been doing. For the most part, they've tried to position themselves as the best one to build on what Mayor White has accomplished. When candidates try to emulate an outgoing incumbent in an environment that otherwise screams for change, that says a lot.

It's never easy to fire an incumbent, even when times are tough. People still want to know they're not trading down. The city of Houston is doing well enough that neither of the candidates running to replace Mayor White want to do anything all that much different. Again, in this environment, that's an amazingly strong statement. If they were allowed to do so, the voters in Houston would happily re-elect Mayor White again. How successful do you think a "stay the course" message would be for Rick Perry? (Yes, I know, technically he could still lose the primary. Good luck finding someone to take that bet.)

I realize I've gotten a bit off the track of evaluating Mayor White's term in office, but this contrast between him and Governor Perry — I daresay we both expect Perry to be the GOP nominee at this point — will be dominant in the race between them. White leaves behind a city that's in good shape, and he carries little baggage. Perry presides over a state that's headed into some very rough waters, and everywhere you look there's controversy. His hand-picked ombudsman for the troubled Texas Youth Commission just resigned after being indicted on felony charges, for crying out loud. If this were a blind taste test, it would be a rout. It's not, of course, and Governor Perry will do everything he can to distract us from his record while tearing down Mayor White's. He has to, because he can't win otherwise.

So, then, back at you. What do you think this election will be about, and how do you see it being run?

Cheers,

Charles

 

Tuesday, 12/1/09, 6:10 a.m.

Charles,

I was reporting and blogging at the Astrodome after Katrina, and witnessed first hand how Mayor White — along with Republican Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, as well as a corps of highly-trained County and City professionals — responded impressively in its immediate aftermath. White certainly deserves credit for the important — shared — role he played in that effort.

I’m not so sure he wants to travel to Dallas and San Antonio — let alone the Piney Woods of East Texas or the Panhandle — and defend his record as it concerns the management of our guests from New Orleans in years since. But if he does, I’m confident both Hutchison’s and Perry’s media teams will be happy to oblige.

White’s agitation on chemical-plant emissions is nice enough, and certainly endears him to liberals predisposed to voting for the Democrat anyway, no matter what. But lots of folks “on the ground” in these areas view it as political grandstanding that threatens jobs, and you can be certain the petrochemical industry (and their PACs) have been reminded who is on their side — and what is likely to come — should White win.

I’ve already acknowledged that White appears to be a genuinely ethical and decent man. On an administration-wide level, it’s difficult to know if the lack of reported “scandal” is due to everyone everywhere behaving themselves or to the presence of a lame, barely motivated and deeply under-funded local media culture. The effect has been the same, though — unless you are under FBI investigation, using law enforcement personnel for questionable surveillance purposes, spend your days (and campaign funds) hanging out at Starbucks or sending racist and sexist emails on your taxpayer-funded computer, over the past several years in Houston it doesn’t seem to count as a scandal. If only every Harris County Republican official could have met that same standard. So again, kudos to White.

Downtown Houston may now be a nicer place to hang out in if you live in the Heights (as you do). But my NW Harris Co. neighbors much prefer to recreate in The Woodlands. I realize the “Truman Show”-esque Market Street is painfully bourgeois compared to the smart-growth urban-hipsterism of Discovery Green, but in these sorts of matters I believe people vote with their feet (and tires). Is downtown nicer after White? Sure. But I don’t see how it’s undergone such fundamental transformation so as to qualify as “bold and courageous leadership.”

Which brings us to the municipal pension funds. Readers would do well do dive into the extensive coverage of this issue provided by the fine folks at blogHouston, as well as many others. Suffice it to say, I think most objective observers would agree that White’s accomplishment on this issue — which admittedly he inherited, and is difficult to solve — has been to simply kick the can down the road, and not very far at that.

Utlimately, thoiugh, I’m a big believer that the electorate cares about more than what a candidate has accomplished in the past. Voters try to pick someone they think can solve the problems they are facing at that very moment, or the ones they expect to face just down the road. So I’ll throw it back at you: In November 2010, what issues, anxeties and problems do you think will be dominating the minds of Texas voters? And once identified, why do you think they’ll think Bill White is the answer to their concerns?

Best,

Benzion

 

Monday, 11/30/09, 12:18 p.m.

David,

I do agree that voters want and will reward bold leadership. So here are a few examples of such that Bill White has shown.

* First and foremost were his actions during Hurricane Katrina, when the city of Houston took in thousands of evacuees from New Orleans, many of whom have since resettled here. I think we're all familiar with the basic story of White's actions at this time, for which he received many well-earned plaudits, but that recent Texas Monthly story is still available online if anyone needs a refresher.

* White has been aggressive in going after chemical plants whose emissions foul Houston's air. This is really something that the TCEQ should be doing, but they have not shown any inclination to do so. White has found creative ways to try to force the plants to comply with the law, including a threat to contest their permits.

* In the first months of his tenure, White was faced with the challenge of the city's pension obligations, which were (and still are, to a lesser extent) a long-term threat to the city's finances. He got a charter amendment on the ballot to make some needed changes, and got it passed.

* Something that I don't think he gets enough credit for is just how utterly scandal-free his administration has been. How often do you see that in a big city Mayor's office, especially one as powerful as Houston's? I consider this to be leadership by example.

* The continued transformation of Houston's downtown into a destination that's not just for the business day. Discovery Green, the park that started out as a couple of empty square blocks near the George R. Brown Convention Center, is a great example of this. It was Mayor White's vision that made it happen.

I'm sure there are other examples, but these are the ones that come to my mind. I will say, there are places where I wish he had been bolder. I have a hard time believing that there will be as many light rail lines in Houston when the next Mayor is sworn in as there were when White was, which is to say just one. I realize that the wheels of federal bureaucracy grind slowly, but I feel as if there were more White could have done to get construction on the other lines that were approved in 2004 started. I hope the next Mayor will pick up that ball and run with it.

To get back to the matter of consensus building for a moment, I think the first obstacle that one must overcome if one is trying to get people to agree on a solution to a problem is that people must first agree that there is in fact a problem that needs to be solved. It's hard to get buy-in for your ten point plan if half the people in the room think things are just fine as they are right now, thank you very much. Same thing if half the people think that the biggest problem we face is unrelated to, or at odds with, the biggest issue that the other half thinks we face. I suspect we both have a pretty good idea about what kind of issues the Bill White for Governor campaign would highlight - access to health care, college tuition, insurance and utility rates, school finance, and so on. All of these are priorities I share. I'd be curious to know what issues, if any, that the state faces that you'd really like to see a Governor Bill White try to solve. By the same token, what do you think he ought to stay the heck away from if he wants to have any hope for getting stuff done? Is there a consensus we can reach, or will our discussion serve as a ridiculously early preview of the 2011 legislative session?

Best,

Charles

 

Monday, 11/30/09, 9:14 a.m.

Good morning, Charles.

You are trying to figure out whether Bill White is better suited to serve as Texas’ next Governor or U.S. Senator. As a Republican and conservative, my answer to that question is, “None of the above.”

I will readily concede Bill White’s many fine qualities. He is competent. That may seem like faint praise to some, but in the aftermath of the previous [Lee Brown] administration, Houston voters—including many Republicans and conservatives—still cherish the simple pleasure of believing their city is governed by someone not wholly in over his head.

Bill White is also, by all impressions and reputation, a decent man. Well-intentioned, public-spirited, honorable in his personal life, and as humble as anyone in politics can reasonably be expected to be. Again, let us not fail to appreciate small miracles.

I’ll even grant that he is, as you note, a “consensus-builder.” When he first ran for office I had occasion to closely examine White’s campaign materials (website, press-releases, commercials, public statements) and a central, often-emphasized theme was his supposed focus on solving problems and not complaining or exchanging blame; on (groan) uniting, not dividing; on pursuing a centrist, reasonable approach to governance that transcends petty partisanship.

I expect these same themes will play a key role in any future campaign, and in fairness don’t know that any of his actions while mayor brazenly contradict that political archetype. Yet to me, all of this is largely beside the point.

First, there is the (fairly legitimate) cliché that “there is no Republican or Democratic way to collect the garbage.” The fact is that much of White’s portfolio has involved municipal-management issues that might be performed better (or worse) from a technocratic perspective, but don’t really have a partisan component. He has been non-partisan in an arena that doesn’t much require it. Both Austin and D.C. present a very different set of incentives, whatever White’s (or Obama’s, of Dubya’s) actual goals or stated intentions in this regard.

And no one should be fooled. At his core, and for most of his adult life, Bill White has been and remains a partisan—as befits a trial lawyer, a former chairman of the state party, a major power-broker and fundraiser in national Democratic circles, a former Clinton
administration official, and … well, a liberal. There’s nothing “wrong” with that, in a Seinfeldian sense, but let’s not lose sight of it either.

Besides which, I’m not certain I share your assumption (correct me if I’m wrong) that what the 2010 statewide electorate in Texas is going to want, in either Austin or D.C., is “consensus-building.” I agree that most folks are disgusted by what they perceive to be petty or “pointless” partisanship. And to the disappointment of grassroots voters on both sides of the political spectrum, most Texans wake up in the morning hoping for a government guided by “common sense,” not “ideology” (either liberal or conservative).

But more than that, my sense is that voters have a deep and profound craving for principled, bold, courageous leadership.

Do you agree? And if I’m correct, can you think of any actions White has taken while mayor that demonstrate such?

Benzion

 

Sunday, 11/29/09, 3:12 p.m.

Dear David,

There's a lot to talk about, and I'm going to start by getting into one of the reasons why I think the job of Governor would suit Bill White much better than that of Senator. One universally acknowledged trait of Mayor White's has been his ability to build consensus on City Council for whatever it is he wants to implement. He works behind the scenes, he addresses people's concerns, and he gets buy-in before he proceeds.

It's been that way from the beginning. His commitment to building consensus has been cited repeatedly by Council members and candidates as a strength he has. As you know, I have conducted interviews with Council candidates, including incumbents running for re-election, in recent election cycles. All of them speak highly of Mayor White, and of their desire to work with him. Incumbent Council members Anne Clutterbuck and Mike Sullivan, in fact, said it was the chance to work with Mayor White that made them want to run for Council in the first place. As both Clutterbuck and Sullivan are Republicans, I think that says a lot about how White has operated as Mayor.

Which gets me back to the reason why White for Governor makes more sense to me than White for Senator. Our state government certainly has its share of partisanship — in sessions past, that was mostly in the House; this year it was mostly in the Senate. But Austin is a garden party compared to what we've seen in Washington this year. The national Republican Party has made the calculation that its best bet for regaining ground in Congress is through absolute, unqualified obstruction. Polling evidence suggests this may well be a successful strategy for them. As such, the concept of being able to "reach across the aisle" is little more than a pundit's cliche, used by those who still think there are liberal Northern Republicans and Southern "boll weevil" Democrats. White's talents as a consensus-builder would be wasted in this environment, where the person you're trying to make a deal with believes that his best course of action politically is to vote against whatever you bring to the floor anyway. There's still a place for this in Austin, though, and as a Governor who might not have any fellow Democrats in statewide office and who may have two Republican-majority legislative chambers, it's the sort of challenge for which White is well suited.

(Of course, the Democrats have had as much trouble with some members of their own delegation as they've had with the Republicans. So perhaps I'm selling White's potential for success in the Senate short. That requires one to believe that a freshman could make progress where Harry Reid and Dick Durbin have failed. Possible, I guess, but I suspect that's beyond the scope of this discussion.)

Which doesn't mean he'd succeed, of course. If you'd asked me a year ago, I'd have been optimistic about Barack Obama's ability to get consensus on at least some of his legislative agenda. I don't know what the political calculus would be if White won, and I don't know what agendas anyone else may have. But I do know that to whatever extent the Governor can influence the legislative process, Bill White would work hard to get people on board with his ideas.

Anyway, I've rambled long enough. What's your take on this?

Best,

Charles

 

------------------

The participants:

Born and raised in New York, Charles Kuffner got to Texas as fast as he could by enrolling at Trinity University in 1984. After graduating with a degree in math, he came to Houston where he was briefly a graduate student at Rice. Since then, he was worked in the IT industry, where he is currently a BlackBerry administrator with a large company. For more than ten years he has been a resident of the Heights, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. Charles has blogged at Off the Kuff since 2002, and online at the Houston Chronicle since 2006. His is the longest continuously published progressive political blog in Texas, and one of the first anywhere to focus primarily on state and local politics. He has won the Houston Press “Best Political Blog” award three times, and was named by Texas Monthly as one of 35 Texans who will shape the future. He is the Vice Chair of the Texas Progressive Alliance, and currently serves as the Chair of the TexBlog PAC, which raised $70,000 in 2008 to support four winning candidates for the Texas State House.

David Benzion is the founding editor and now publisher of LoneStarTimes.com, a group blog whose conservative Texas perspective on politics, pop-culture and current events has been cited by the Houston Chronicle, Austin American-Statesman, Dallas Morning News, Governing Magazine and The Hotline, as well as by leading figures across the Blogosphere. Benzion is a former executive producer and host with Houston’s opinion-leading conservative talk-radio station, AM 700 KSEV. As a Senior Research Analyst with public-opinion polling firm Hill Research Consultants, he has provided strategic guidance to Republican candidates in senatorial, congressional, gubernatorial and state-house campaigns, as well as to ballot initiative committees, corporate, trade association and public affairs clients. (Opinions expressed by Benzion are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of his current or former employers or clients.)

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.