In the run-up to their first appearance together on statewide TV, the leading Democratic contenders for governor are sticking to the script: Bill White sounds like a guy prepping for a town hall meeting, while Farouk Shami is testier, spoliing for a chance to hold the frontrunner accountable.
"I want to inform the citizens of Texas," says White, the former mayor of Houston and former chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. "I found when running for mayor that it was a helpful part of leadership to let people know what your priorities are, what you have heard and what you intended to do about it. So it'll be what many call a positive presentation about the future of our state."
Shami, a rags-to-riches entrepreneur who made a fortune in hair care products, says without prompting that other Democrats have been too willing to take White at face value. "I think people need to know the candidates, the real candidates, because candidates, when they're alone, they can make claims. We can stop them and tell them, 'This is not the truth.' OK? So we need the truth and nothing but the truth, and I think that debate brings that out. So I'm excited about it."
This installment of the Texas Debates will be set in a television studio in Fort Worth. The same sponsors did the first of two GOP debates last month: KERA, in partnership with CBS 11 (KTVT-TV) and TXA 21 (KTXA-TV), the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, KUVN Univision 23, the Texas Association of Broadcasters, Texas State Networks and the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. It airs at 7 p.m.; check your local listings.
This might be your only chance to see the two candidates together, at least on television. They and four of the five other candidates running for the Democratic nomination have met in other venues — this past weekend at the Texas Capitol for a League of United Latin American Citizens forum, for instance. But the cameras have been focused on a Republican race that features the incumbent governor, a sitting U.S. senator and a GOP renegade.
Not one of the seven Democrats has run statewide before. White and Shami are well-financed and getting all of the attention, but a ballot with this many names on it increases the odds of a runoff (the other candidiates are Alma Ludivina Aguado, Felix Alvarado, Bill Dear, Clement Glenn and Star Locke). If White and Shami don't have any other reason to spend money on ads, they have to break out of the pack, hopefully by March 2.
The Democrats don't have the star power the Republicans have, so tonight's debate isn't likely to draw the same size crowd of viewers as either of the Republican debates did — Perry and Hutchison are, after all, the two best-known active politicians in the state, and Medina has an intensely passionate following. So the news value of the debate could actually outweigh the value of being on television for an hour during prime time on a Monday night. If White or Shami make news — the good kind or of the bad kind — it'll get played for a few days after.
"These days, with the advent of, you know, YouTube and the Internet, you could say that practically every appearance could be a high-stakes appearance," White says. "So I think forums are useful, but I think sometimes that their importance tends to be overdone."
Both men need to introduce themselves — Shami to virtually everyone, and White to everyone outside of Houston, where he was a popular mayor. To date, their commercials have been biographical, part of their introductions to voters. They haven't engaged each other much, although Shami's public statements are recently taking sharper aim at White and the party establishment.
"Democrats are blinded," Shami says. "They don't check records or the truth. They just say that, you know, 'You're a Democrat — I know you, you know me.' That is not the way to choose a governor to serve the state. It's 'What can I do for the country, and what can I do for the state?' It's not who I know. That's what I'm running for governor, to get rid of that kind, so I'm really looking forward to debates, and I'd like to have more debates.
Of the two, Shami probably has the most to gain by drawing a contrast with his opponent, and since he's running against a mayor, he probably has more things to criticize. They both have a lot to lose: The danger is that a first impression could be a negative one.
White's approach, like Perry's in the GOP debates, will be low-key cautious. Shami wants to spar. "I know I am the better one, and I will be ready to reform the Democrat Party and make it democratic," Shami says. "That's why the Democrat Party has been losing. They've been choosing the wrong candidates. They've been blind, and they are not choosing the guy who can beat Rick Perry. I'm the one and only. "