Paul Burka, the dean of Texas political writers, won't be asking questions when the Republican gubernatorial candidates debate next month. He's been banned.
"I didn’t like the idea of it," says Terry Sullivan, campaign manager for candidate Kay Bailey Hutchison. "He's got his mind made up on the race."
Texas Monthly, where Burka works as executive editor, writer, and a popular blogger, was a sponsor of the debate. When the chief sponsor — KERA-TV in Dallas — told the magazine they were welcome to send any panelist except for Burka, the magazine not only declined to substitute someone but also pulled its name off the January 14 event. Other sponsors — KERA, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, KTVT-TV in Dallas, Univision, and the Texas Association of Broadcasters, Texas State Networks and the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas — remain.
"We were dismayed at what they decided to do, and surprised, given Paul Burka's involvement in past debates," says Jake Silverstein, the magazine's editor. "We stand behind everything he does, and we consider his voice our voice on Texas politics."
Burka has been a fixture in political debates in the state since at least 1988, when he was on the panel at SMU in Dallas that grilled presidential candidates. He was one of the questioners in a debate in 1993 before Hutchison won a U.S. Senate seat in a special election; in the 1994 debate between Ann Richards and George W. Bush before Bush won that election; the Rick Perry-Tony Sanchez debate in 2002 that led to Perry's first full term as governor; and in the John Cornyn-Rick Noriega debate in 2008 before Cornyn's reelection that year. That's just a sampling: Burka's a regular fixture.
Or was, before his now four-year-old blog became popular enough to catch the attention of campaigns, and of public broadcasters.
"KERA and NPR both have policies against opinion writers" in debates, says Meg Fullwood, a spokeswoman for KERA in Dallas. She said the debate panel would consist solely of "straight reporters" and that Burka, because of some of his writings on the popular BurkaBlog — a part of the magazine's website — didn't qualify.
The debate panelists will be Shelley Kofler of KERA, Maria Corrales of Univision, Dave Montgomery of the Star-Telegram, and Doug Dunbar of KTVT.
Sullivan says Burka has written a number of snarky things that make it inappropriate for the writer to sit among Hutchison's televised inquisitors next month. A sampling:
• On the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll at the beginning of November: “The results underscore how abysmal Hutchison’s campaign has been. Her handling of her resignation, or non-resignation, from the Senate has made her look weak and indecisive. She comes across as lacking self-confidence. And lacking ideas. To make matters worse, she is down by 12 after a six-week stretch during which Perry was hammered by the media, a time during which she had a chance to gain ground. She continues to pursue a strategy of single-shot criticisms of Perry without giving any definition to her own candidacy. She is now at the same level in the polls that Perry was at the beginning of the race. The problem here is not the campaign. It’s the candidate.”
• After a Rasmussen Poll a couple of weeks later that showed Hutchison behind: "The temptation is to say that the race is over, but I’m going to resist it, because of two factors. One is that the media campaign hasn’t started yet. The other is that Hutchison may yet find a way to enlarge primary turnout, though the constant negative attacks of the two campaigns is more likely to suppress turnout.”
• After seeing her first campaign ad: “If she gets in a TV debate with Perry on Texas issues, she’d better have EMS on hand because she is going to get slaughtered... If this is the best she can do, she ought to quit the race.”
• The next week: “If there was any life to the Hutchison candidacy, it would appear in her first media spot. The spot, of course, turned out to be an utter disaster: no sign of intelligent life here.”
• And, finally, a headline from just before Thanksgiving: “One more sign that the Hutchison campaign is intellectually bankrupt.”
Burka has written opinion pieces, along with longer feature articles, for Texas Monthly for years. But those — with their much wider audiences — never set off the public broadcasters' alarms. "It was the blog... a couple of comments; in particular, one about 'EMS'," Fullwood says.
She also says the sponsors weren't prompted by any of the campaigns: "Not at all... this was all internal."
Burka says he's been writing critical things about politicians for ages. "As a magazine writer, I'm an opinion journalist, too. I've always had opinions," he says.
He and Hutchison have known each other for 40 years. She worked as chief of staff to then-Rep. Ed Harris, D-Galveston, in the 1960s, and Burka took the job when she left it to go to law school at UT. And while he's been critical of her race for governor, he also says, "she has been a very good senator."
He thinks the decision reflects badly on Hutchison and on KERA. He says he's not upset to be off-camera this time. "I'll watch the debate and I'll blog about it. That's what I do."