Primary Color: SBOE District 5

Forget about Don McLeroy vs. Thomas Ratliff. The most interesting fight for a State Board of Education seat may be in San Antonio, where well-funded lawyer-lobbyist Tim Tuggey is challenging incumbent Ken Mercer — and the big question being asked is, 'How conservative is conservative enough?'

Ken Mercer (left), Tim Tuggy (right)
Ken Mercer (left), Tim Tuggy (right)

Of all the State Board of Education races on the ballot this year, the one generating the most attention is the Republican primary battle pitting incumbent Don McLeroy, a Bryan dentist who is the board's controversial former chair, against lobbyist Thomas Ratliff, the son of former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, in a battle royale for the District 9 seat. But another hard-fought primary race has rich and influential Republicans in San Antonio buzzing.

Tim Tuggey, a lawyer-lobbyist who counts preacher John Hagee among his past clients, is challenging conservative incumbent Ken Mercer for a seat in District 5. Should Tuggey prevail, Mercer believes he’d be a voice against the conservative agenda. Democrat Rebecca Bell-Metereau, who is running in her party's primary for the seat and was endorsed this week by former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, insists that Tuggey would carry the same ultra-conservative agenda as his predecessor.

Tuggey’s challenge to Mercer has energized big-brand mainstream Republicans in San Antonio. Auto magnate Red McCombs and H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt have each sent big checks to his campaign, which has $26,000 on hand — the most of any SBOE candidate — to Mercer’s $3,500. But while Mercer’s politics are fairly transparent, Tuggey’s are more nuanced by necessity. He has to walk the fine line of being conservative enough to win the primary and moderate enough to win over independents in a general election.

Anyway, he mantains, ideology isn't the point. “We’re arguing over the family heirlooms as the house burns down,” he says of the SBOE, noting the various legislative attempts to remove the board’s power. “My job is to represent the interests locally, not to dictate back to them.”

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Indeed, Tuggey has circumvented much of the debate over the board’s more contentious decisions — evolution, math textbooks and historical figures — by focusing on a message of local control. “I want government to leave people alone. My church — never. My home — never. My school — as minimal as possible," he says. He wants the SBOE to take a step back and try to offer more options to schools rather than determining specifics of textbooks and curricula. "My whole campaign is targeted to the idea that this is where education happens," he says. “If you’re a well-performing school district, why is the [Texas Education Agency] and the state board all over your stuff?"

But that doesn’t mean he’s not a conservative. “I hold the same values Mr. Mercer does," he says. "I’m not going to let July 4th out of the textbook or December 25th, Christmas, out of the textbook. That’s not the point.”

Mercer doesn't think so. He says the accomplishments of the state board have only earned criticism from liberals, and that those "who really know what's going on applaud the fact that we’ve got real change." 

As for arguments that they've injected religion into the curriculum? Simply not true, says Mercer. The board has pushed for a return to basics, like phonics reading and memorizing timestables, and he and his colleagues have only tried to ensure that students could raise questions when they learned evolution. Religion, he says, "just is not there. That’s a lie [the five major newspapers] have perpetrated. It’s just like, who is it, Hitler? If you repeat a lie long enough it’s true?"

While Tuggey has been successful in raising money, his message that he’s a social conservative with a deregulation bent hasn’t gotten much traction because of Mercer’s attacks. Mercer, for example, has been a relentless critic of Tuggey’s lobby practice. Although he primarily worked with public utilities in the Legislature, Tuggey represented Hagee's church when the Legislature was considering a bill that would have allowed church schools to participate in sports leagues. (It failed.) Even if he steers clear of lobbying on issues involving education, there’s nothing to stop his colleagues from doing so. As the Austin American-Statesman recently noted, Tuggey’s former partner has lobbied the SBOE. Mercer can't believe that what he perceives to be a conflict of interest isn't more of an issue in the press. “That raises a red flag,” he says.

Tuggey says the conflict questions are a non-starter. He estimates that less than 10 percent of his time is spent lobbying and that as a lawyer focusing on transaction law, he’s helped design ethics systems to avoid these kind of problems. If he’s elected, he says, he will put such a system in place and pledge not to lobby the board even after his tenure is up.

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Mercer and his supporters have even gone so far as to question Tuggey's patriotism, pointing to the time his former firm represented Saudi Arabia in trade negotiations. As the American-Statesman has reported, Tuggey says the lead partner in the firm, former Republican congressman Tom Loeffler, was the one representing the Saudis, and that he, Tuggey, was in no position to keep the firm from taking the case.

Tuggey gets more defensive when it comes to Mercer’s other line of attack: his financial backing of Democratic candidates. Mercer has hammered Tuggey for his donations of $41,000 to Democrats over the last eight years — he sent out a press release in January titled, “My Opponent Filed in the Wrong Party Primary.” “There’s no doubt in my mind he’d move away from the conservatives and be a moderate,” Mercer says. “As they say in Central Texas, that dog don’t hunt.”

Tuggey says the $41,000 is only a fraction of the political donations he's made over his lifetime and that he's only made Democratic contributions foir professional reasons. “In each and every case, it’s been at a client's request to support a conservative cause,” he says.

Mercer believes his own conservative bonafides, by contrast, aren't open to question. He points to efforts by the SBOE's conservative bloc to return to phonics and more traditional methods of teaching grammar and math. "Those are battles we won, and we’re gonna keep on winning," he says.

But McCombs and others who have supported Tuggey say such ideological fights have tarnished Texas' reputation. “We’re not being fair to the kids, and we're not being fair to the state's founders,” says McCombs, who pushed Tuggey to run, citing his work on the VIA Transit Board in San Antonio.

While he’s got enough money to counter Mercer's attacks right now, it may not be enough. Notwithstanding Mercer's current deficit in fundraising, he may still get a cash infusion fom James Leininger, the doctor and conservative Christian activist who dropped $35,000 into his 2006 race — much of it just before the primary. Should Leininger choose to get involved again, he could have a major impact on this race as well.

That doesn’t mean that Tuggey’s deep-pocketed supporters couldn’t still help. “Two or three people could put up more money than that if they wanted to,” McCombs says. “If I do, I guess I’ll have to hurry.”

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