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The Map to the Maps

Think of the long game instead of the short one. This election is the one that picks the people who draw the maps that corral the voters into the political districts that will elect state and federal legislators for the next ten years.

Think of the long game instead of the short one. This election is the one that picks the people who draw the maps that corral the voters into the political districts that will elect state and federal legislators for the next ten years.

At the moment, the Republicans have a distinct advantage. They could end up in the position the Democrats were in 20 years ago, with the other side eroding their numbers but with enough juice left to draw the political maps. You can argue — or let a Republican argue for you — that the Democrats held onto the Lege and Congress through the 1990s because of the redistricting maps they drew. The state was turning red; a decade that began with no Republicans in executive statewide offices ended with no Democrats in those jobs. But the numbers in the statehouse were much closer: The Republicans entered the century with a one-vote advantage in the Senate, and the Democrats held the House until the 2003 session.

That was all about the maps.

Draw them wrong, and your advantage erodes. The congressional maps drawn in Texas in 2003 have held steady; the Democrats haven't been able to chip away at the Republican majority in the delegation. That's true, with a couple of ripples, in the Texas Senate. There are 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats there (the Republicans picked up a seat when Victoria Democrat Ken Armbrister decided to move on; the Democrats got it back when Wendy Davis of Fort Worth upset Kim Brimer last year). The House map was drawn to get more seats rather than to hold them. They won 88 seats in 2002, flipping the majority and electing a Republican House Speaker. Many of those seats turned out to be hard to hold, and the numbers slid perilously close to party parity.

The House numbers were 76 to 74 in favor of the Republicans during the last session. If nothing else changed, the numbers would be 78-72 next session because of Chuck Hopson's party switch and David Farabee's decision not to seek another term. One actually loses the Democrats a seat; the other is a probability, given the way people in Farabee's district vote in races where that solidly established last name is not on the ballot in Wichita Falls.

That puts the House a little further out of reach than before. It's impossible to know what the election environment will be like in a year, when the elections roll around. But the climate now — while candidates are being recruited — favors the Republicans. The economy is bad. National lawmakers are bickering and dickering over health care reform. And there's war. All of that makes it easier to recruit people to run against Democrats, who are (at least nationally) on the ropes at the moment.

The Democrats are stirring, but haven't surfaced a well-financed team that's focused on the prize in a mapping year: The seats on the Legislative Redistricting Board. If the Legislature locks up and can't agree on maps, that board gets to decide what should happen. And at the moment, everyone on the five-member panel is a Republican: Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, House Speaker Joe Straus, Attorney General Greg Abbott, Comptroller Susan Combs, and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson.

It's a strong group, politically. Dewhurst is the wealthiest guy in state politics; he'll always have the money to try to fend off challengers. Abbott is well financed and ambitious; Houston Democrat Barbara Ann Radnofsky is challenging him. To win the speaker seat, you have to win a majority in the House, and that's where the Farabee-Hopson changes undermine the effort. The House might turn out to be Democratic when the election year is over, but that's not the way to bet.

That leaves Patterson and Combs. Some Democrats are circling, but so far, nobody has popped up with the combination of money and charisma to make it work. If they can't get the LRB, their last hope will be the courts and the Obama Administration's Justice Department, which has to sign off on the maps under the terms of the Voting Rights Act.

It ultimately goes to court (and the congressional maps could be drawn from scratch there). There's no rule that requires it, but the courts have a tendency to adjust the maps that come to them rather than starting over. If the Republicans control both legislative chambers and all of the LRB seats (and many of the federal courts, if you look), they'll have the tools to preserve their majorities in Austin for the next decade.

A Wild Card

Farouk Shami's political prospects were brighter when Bill White was just a mayor looking at a U.S. Senate race. The Houston mayor's entry into the governor's race turned Shami and everybody else into a long shot. But the Houston hair-care mogul is forging ahead with a race he says he has been considering for months and that he decided to enter back in August.

Maybe if he had jumped early, bought some ads and staked a claim, he'd be in better shape. As it stands, he's an offbeat candidate on a ballot that's full of offbeat candidates and worse, a ballot that also has a serious candidate who grabbed the attention that might have gone elsewhere.

Out of the gate, he's talking jobs and economic development, and seemed to say at an Austin appearance that he'll be opening plants or offices all over the state. It sounded a bit like he was proposing to hire everyone himself. He did say the government should give interest-free loans to businesses that hire people.

"The only way to bring taxes down is very simple: by creating new jobs and more jobs, good paying jobs and more tax payers. If we have that, we will pay less taxes."

By the way, put a garlic necklace on that rumor about Shami donating $1 million to Hank Gilbert's campaign — both campaigns say it's a flat lie. That's the sort of thing that goes around when a rich guy talks an underfinanced candidate out of a governor's race and into a race for agriculture commissioner. After Gilbert switched, he got Shami's endorsement. And he appeared at Shami's Austin event for supporters and the press, too. Gilbert might not be alone for long. Kinky Friedman is talking to his backers about getting out of the governor's race, which now has two well-financed candidates in Shami and Bill White. And he's looking at the agriculture race to which Gilbert retreated. One of Friedman's advisors — Democrat Jim Hightower — held that job for eight years. Shami and his partner, John McCall of Austin, were Friedman's big backers four years ago. Shami says he won't pick between Friedman and Gilbert if they're in the same race.

Done-bar

The State Board of Education, which recently had to swap in Gail Lowe for Don McLeroy as chairman, is in for even more turnover. SBOE member Cynthia Dunbar says that, by deciding not to run for re-election, she is fulfilling a promise to "get in, get the job done and get out."

Dunbar, who is currently teaching at evangelical Liberty University Law School in Virginia, gained a reputation as the boards most outspoken and conservative members. She played a key role in crafting language, which passed recently, mandating that the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution were taught in state science classes. She also made headlines for authoring a book, One Nation Under God, which decried, among other things, the public education system.

As Dunbar announced her departure from the race, she endorsed Brian Russell, one of her strongest supporters. Russell said of Dunbar, “I think she’s had a terrific record of achievement on the board.” He says has an advantage, though, because he has not been “a lightning rod.”

Russell will now go head to head with Rebecca Osborne in the Republican primary, the victor of which will face Democrat Judy Jennings in the general election.

— By Reeve Hamilton

The Pre-Debates

The Kay Bailey Hutchison camp has been very welcoming to fellow Republican candidate Debra Medina.

Medina’s campaign put out a press release calling out Gov. Rick Perry for avoiding debating her. According to the release, “each time we confirm, the governor cancels.”

Perry spokesman Mark Miner says that isn't so.

The Perry and Hutchison camps have both agreed to two debates — the first on Jan. 14 hosted by Dallas public broadcasting station KERA and another soon after, sponsored by Belo Corp. Medina is still waiting to hear if she will be allowed on stage.

“We welcome Debra Medina's participation in January's scheduled debate,” said Hutchison campaign manager Terry Sullivan, “and hope she will be a part of all future debates.”

This is a pretty good sign that Team Kay believes Medina pulls votes from Perry, who has been actively courting the Tea Party pool from whence Medina sprang. Another theory is that both Hutchison and Medina are running against the incumbent, and therefore Medina is drawing Hutchison votes. By supporting Medina, Hutchison can endear herself to Medina’s base.

Recent polling has had Hutchison trailing Perry by over 10 percent, with Medina pulling in mid-single digits. If most of Medina’s support is coming from would-be Perry supporters, then Hutchison has a significant amount of catching up to do before March.

Point of No Return

Keep an eye on December 30 — that's the date after which candidates can't remove their names from the party primary ballots. And it's important because it comes before the filing deadline for those contests. Candidates can always bail if they're incapacitated or if they move out of the district (or the state) they sought to represent. But they can't voluntarily back out of a race after that date. That'll stifle efforts by incumbents to hand pick their successors by backing out at the last minute and letting the friendly newcomer sign up before any other rivals have time to react. An incumbent can simply wait until the last hour of the last day to pull out, let their political heir know to sign up at the same time, and others find out too late to get into the races. They'll only be able to pull that this year if they wait until the last day to sign up — a move that could embolden challengers to pounce.

Filings

Texas Railroad Commissioner Victor Carrillo filed for reelection. Carrillo, a former Taylor County Judge, was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2003 and won election the next year. He'll have a November opponent for sure; Houston lawyer Jeff Weems filed as a Democrat last week. And lest it become an issue, the press release issued after he filed says he's fully recovered from brain surgery last month (a benign tumor was removed), and is working full-time again.

Add another candidate in HD-3, where Rep. Mark Homer, D-Paris, is the incumbent. His newest rival is Republican Holland Harper, a business owner and Iraq war vet. Homer is one of several rural Democrats the GOP hopes to unseat. He's held off challengers in what's normally a Republican district for several elections.

U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D- Waco, is going for his 11th election victory and says he'll start with over $1 million in his campaign accounts. Edwards, the highest-ranking Texan in the U.S. House, is a perennial Republican target; he's got the distinction of representing the most Republican district in Congress with a Democratic representative.

Kay Bailey Hutchison filed for governor, as did Rick Perry, as did Debra Medina. The Democrats are still working on their primary ticket, but the Republicans are set, at least for that race. Part of their pitch centers on what's happening with the competition: "On the other side, the Democrats are gearing up with Bill White’s entrance into the race," Hutchison campaign manager Terry Sullivan wrote in an email to supporters. "Rick Perry is politically a dead man walking. If for some reason he escapes the Primary with his political hide, all polling shows he will go down in flames to Bill White in the General election. Conversely, polling shows that with Kay Bailey Hutchison as the Republican nominee, Bill White won’t have a chance and Republicans will hold onto the Governor’s mansion. Clearly, the electability issue is going to now play a role in the campaign over the next three months."

The Waiting Game

According to the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, more than 40,000 families signed up on charter school waiting lists across the state last year, mostly in big cities with ailing public school systems.

This increase in demand, they claim, argues for expanding charter schools — public schools freed from most state and regulations. These schools currently serve just two percent of state students. TPPF published a similar study a year ago that put the prior-year number at nearly 17,000. The waiting lists grew even as the state added charter schools, boosting enrollment from nearly 114,000 to 128,000.

The demand is concentrated in Houston, Dallas, the Rio Grande Valley and Austin and their surrounding regions, which include high-poverty areas — more likely to have both an entrenched charter school community and failing traditional public schools that parents might seek to escape. Only about 3,000 families signed up on waiting lists outside those areas.

Linda Bridges, president of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, warns against interpreting Top's data as a measure of charter school quality. She says it is a signal of the diminished quality of nearby traditional public schools. “When you look at charter vs. public, and charter expansion, you need to be looking at the quality of them before you look at more quantity,” she said. According to Bridges, other research suggests charter school student attrition is higher than at regular public schools, in part because charters have more freedom to expel students or counsel them out.

Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has pledged to keep pushing to raise or abolish the current state cap on the number of charters, which is currently set at 215. Though, the cap is so full of loopholes that it is unlikely to prevent charter school expansion.

Patrick attempted to kill the cap in the 2009 legislative session with SB 1830. "We had the votes in the House," he said. "But one or two members who don't like charters killed it."

— By Brian Thevenot

Drip, Drip, Drip

You won't see the Senate's interim charges all at once this year — they're coming out in a trickle, like the 12 days of Christmas. This'll get more press for the senators and for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and lets them release the committee charges that are finished while they work out details on the rest. These are the reports lawmakers pull together in anticipation of the next legislative session; they often become blueprints for legislation. House Speaker Joe Straus released his list — all at once, like old times — a couple of weeks ago. So far, Dewhurst has loosed assignments on veterans and military personnel, on the state's water planning, and on economic development and job training.

Still Growing

State government employed the equivalent of 150,023 people in fiscal 2009 — up about 3.3 percent from the previous year, according to the State Auditor's Office. State colleges and universities can brag even bigger numbers: 154,505 FTEs, up 2.8 percent over the previous year and up 28.4 percent over the last ten years, according to the report. (FTEs are full-time equivalents and not the number of employed humans. For instance, two part-timers who, together, work 40 hours a week, would count as one FTE.) Overall, the state workforce has grown 12.9 percent over the last ten years, according to SAO, most of it attributable to the growth in higher education. If you take the colleges and universities out, the government's about the same size (in employment terms) as it was ten years go; it's up a grand total of 0.5 percent.

Quotes of the Week

Conroe Mayor Webb Milder, talking about texting bans with the Conroe Courier: "It's probably a subject that will wind up crossing our paths. Sooner or later, things come to our attention, like smoking or bad dogs."

Bob Lucky, a former Bell Labs engineer, quoted in The New York Times on why the dangers of drivers with cell phones went unaddressed for so long: "If you're an engineer, you don't want to outlaw the great technology you've been working on. If you're a marketing person, you don't want to outlaw the thing you've been trying to sell. If you're a CEO, you don't want to outlaw the thing that's been making a lot of money."

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson on whether African-Americans should consider becoming Republicans: "I say they should consider it because you want to have influence and not just in your own little corner of the world. If there are principles in any party, Republican or Democrat, that you think you could help further, that are good for the nation, then why not?"

Houston mayoral candidate Anise Parker, who has faced criticism for her sexual orientation in the Houston Chronicle: "I am not running to be a role model, I am running to be mayor of Houston."

Mat Harris of Bystreet, talking about personalized online video ads his firm did for Gov. Rick Perry: "If you say someone's name, you can stop their brain."

Lucille Drain to the Wise County Messenger on her decision last month to resign from the Newark (Texas) City Council where she got the distinction, at age 96, of being the oldest elected official in the state: "I don't think the city can be run by computers."

David Dewhurst, to the Austin American Statesman, on his concern for balancing budgets in 2011 and 2013: "Maybe it's because of the 29 statewide elected officials, I'm the only traditional businessperson elected, and I learned the hard way before I ever came here as land commissioner that you better look out for the dry days."

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson's personals-style political ad: "DWM, DIVORCED WHITE MALE WITH KIDS, 63, REPUBLICAN LAND COMMISSIONER SEEKS DEMOCRAT OPPONENT FOR 11 MONTH RELATIONSHIP."

Texas Monthly on choosing Tom DeLay as its 2010 Bum Steer of the Year: "Needless to say, any doubts we had were completely obliterated by the first close-up shot of the DeLay buttocks awkwardly shaking from side to side like two elderly lap dogs fighting under a blanket."


Texas Weekly: Volume 26, Issue 47, 14 December 2009. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2009 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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