If you're not tuned into the three-way GOP primary to replace retiring 10-term state Rep. Brian McCall of Plano, you'll be sorry. The race has it all: the high price of political ambition, reruns of a classic campaign ad and a bikini-clad beauty — plus a fight over ideological bonafides that's very much of the moment. Affluent and highly educated, Plano is one of the state's most reliably Republican areas; there isn't even a Democrat running for the seat in November. Yet the district and surrounding Collin County are "ground zero" for the battle between "real conservatives and the philosophically pliable," says Michael Openshaw, the North Texas Tea Party's self-styled Blog Warrior.
“It’s going to be very close to get into a runoff,” says candidate Mabrie Jackson, a former Microsoft account manager and member of the Plano City Council. “I think we’re all evenly split right now.”
In November, when McCall decided to step down, he called Jackson, who'd told him six years earlier that she'd be interested in succeeding him. But the news couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time — Jackson was just a year and a half into her first term on the Council. “Can you wait two years?” she asked.
Wayne Richard, who had been running against McCall since August, was even more surprised to hear about his retirement. Richard never intended to vie for elective office — until recently, he didn't even pay much attention to state or local politics. But in 2008, his politically charged e-mails to friends morphed into a newsletter under the auspices of a group Richard christened "The National Coalition for Defense of American Sovereignty." He enjoyed his newfound notoriety; one thing led to another, and suddenly he found himself involved with the area’s first-ever tax day Tea Party protest. Collin County Tea Party leader Diane Nusbaum saw in Richard the candidate she had been looking for to retaliate against McCall for helping to oust conservative House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, at the start of the 2009 legislative session. She temporarily left the Tea Party to run Richard’s campaign.
Rounding out the primary field is businessman and Iraq War veteran Van Taylor, who bought a house in Plano in 2007, just a mile away from his great grandfather’s farm, after a failed campaign to unseat U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco. With a battle shaping up between Jackson and Richard, Taylor says, “So many conservatives reached out to me and said, 'Van, we have to have a conservative representing Plano in the Texas House. You have to run.'” He threw his hat in on Dec. 7.
Jackson, the granddaughter of a former Port Arthur mayor, caught the political bug early in life. She's the only of the three who has served in public office and is intimately familiar with the issues Plano faces: She cites, for example, the need for more roads and a viable water plan. “She is the only candidate who has been involved in the community at all levels,” says McCall, who endorsed Jackson after she resigned her Council seat on Nov. 16. Jackson has also been endorsed by the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association, the Texas Hospital Association, the Texas State Teachers Association and The Dallas Morning News.
Of the Tea Party movement that has been less enthusiastic about her establishment-friendly candidacy, Jackson says, “For the most part, they’re great people who are just concerned about what’s going on at the national level. I share that concern, and I lose sleep over it, too. But this race is about representing Plano in Austin. It’s not about Plano in Washington."
Richard’s approach is the epitome of grassroots. Running with very little money, his campaign is almost entirely manned by energized volunteers — many of them Tea Partiers — and fueled by in-kind donations, some of the biggest coming from outside the district. “I’ve never seen so many yard signs in my whole life,” Richard says. “Nothing like this has ever happened in Collin County before.”
Richard announced his candidacy in August and began block-walking. By early February, he or someone from his campaign had knocked on the door of every registered area voter at least twice. “Opponents have come and gone,” he says, “but I think a lot of people recognize the political courage it took to get into it from the very beginning to take McCall on like that. Now we have people trying to jump in at the last minute. For us it’s been like a marathon, but for them it’s been like a sprint.”
Taylor, meanwhile, has a resume. The self-described “lifelong committed Republican” started a GOP club as an undergraduate at Harvard University. As a Marine, he gained experience with illegal immigration issues while serving on the Texas-Mexico border. He serves as state chairman of the National Defense Committee and is the North Texas vice captain of Vets for Freedom, and he touts endorsements from Young Conservatives of Texas, the Texans for Fiscal Responsibility PAC and Republican U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling. Like Richard, he has been “Tea Approved” by the North Texas Tea Party.
The candidates all have hurdles to overcome. Richard's is his bio, which doesn’t read like he grew up with a political career in his sights. For starters, there’s FUBIOV — “Forget U Buddy I’m On Vacation” — which he says was the name of a boat he owned decades ago, a name he tried to turn into a brand with “FUBIOV!” t-shirts and www.fubiov.com, a now-defunct travel website. A web video advertising the site features a girl in a bikini walking near a pool, unaware that she’s being filmed.
"If that’s the best thing they think they can come after me with," Richard says, "then to heck with 'em. I’m trying to stay above board." He claims to be an innocent bystander. “Somebody put a bikini video out there?” he asks. “I can’t control what’s out there.” But YouTube seems to think otherwise. The video was posted on the site in Jan. 2007 by “fubiov,” who claims to be a 55-year-old named Wayne. The user who posted the same video on dailymotion.com, once again using the “fubiov” moniker, also posted a video parodying Hillary Clinton. That video was produced by ICglobal.net, Richard’s advertising technology firm.
“If you elect someone who has that,” critiques Jackson, “you don’t want that to come to light later and embarrass your city. And that will be an embarrassment to our city.”
Jackson’s finding out that it might be possible to love her city so much it hurts. When she vacated her seat on the City Council, she believed it could be filled by a 10-day appointment per the city charter. It turned out that state law called for a special election, an event that set Plano back $80,000 — and that was before it ended up being pushed into a runoff. “That’s the price of democracy. We are blessed to live in a democracy where anybody can run,” she says. “I believe that my serving Plano will save the city a whole lot more money in the long run than whatever a special election costs.”
Mention the independently wealthy Taylor in Plano and the conversation will likely turn to the money he’s spent on television advertisements. The ads highlight his conservative bonafides and the military service that took him to Iraq and the Texas Border. But one of them is just a minimally tweaked rehash of an ad he ran in Waco, when he was gunning for a totally different seat. “Pictures of me in Iraq are still pictures of me in Iraq,” Taylor says. “I have the same values and the same beliefs that I’ve held for decades.”
Taylor’s latest ad, called “Only One,” points out the Taxpayer Protection Pledge he signed committing to fighting all tax increases. It claims that Taylor, the "only true conservative” in the race, is the “only one” to sign such a document. Jackson says she signed one on Dec. 17 — but votes count more than pledges do. On the morning after primary day, all that will matter is who's the "only one" left out of the runoff.