Republican Senate District 5 candidate Ben Bius, who faces an uphill battle in unseating 20-year incumbent Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, likes to tell a story about getting a phone call from Odgen before the campaign ever started. Shortly before the September conversation, Ogden had announced he would not seek another term in office. Bius says Odgen called him and asked him to run. “He said, ‘Ben, I’m leaving. Twenty years is long enough. … If you’re interested in serving the state of Texas, you should get in this race.”
And so Bius ran. Then Ogden “broke his word,” he says, and got back in the race later — after another candidate, state Rep. Dan Gattis, R-Georgetown, abruptly dropped out, citing business and family obligations. “I disagreed when Ogden when he created Robin Hood [school financing], when he created the Trans-Texas Corridor and when he created the franchise tax," Bius says. "But I can forgive a man a policy difference if he keeps his word.”
Such statements irk Ogden to no end. Bius, he says, either fundamentally misunderstands the issues he cites or he’s lying about them. As for his courting of Bius to run? “He’s delusional,” Odgen says. “I can’t remember the last time he said something truthful.”
At the time of the phone call, Ogden says, he barely knew Bius, a 54-year-old real estate entrepreneur from Huntsville. Their only previous contact came when Bius asked him to help him fend off complaints about a rental contract he held with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice — a contract on which Bius had defaulted, failing to fix the air conditioning. Odgen looked into the matter, declined to help and told Bius to fix the air conditioning. When he called Bius about the race, he was returning several phone calls from him and only told him what he would tell anybody off the street: If you want the seat, you should run for it.
Indeed, the only reason Ogden re-entered the race at all, he now says, is because he couldn’t stomach the thought of Bius stepping into his shoes. “There was only one announced candidate in December, and he’s not qualified to be senator,” Ogden says. “I felt some sense of obligation to my constituency. They had no choice in the election.”
Tea Parties and the “rogue campaign”
Ogden, 59, didn’t do himself any favors by waffling on his re-election plans for SD-5, which covers a broad swath of Central Texas and includes Brazos, Burleson, Freestone, Grimes, Houston, Lee, Leon, Limestone, Madison, Milam, Robertson, Trinity, Walker and Williamson counties. But he nonetheless got back in as a heavy favorite. As the chairman of the state Senate’s powerful Finance Committee, Ogden trounces Bius in both name recognition and money, with a war chest topping $700,000 as of his most recent campaign filing, Jan. 21. Bius, who has twice run unsuccessfully for the Legislature, had raised just over $4,000 in the latest report, though he had spent more than $22,000. Bius declines to say how much of his own money he plans to spend in the race, except to characterize it as “whatever it takes.”
Ogden, though confident of re-election, nonetheless takes the threat from Bius seriously, campaigning “about as hard as I know how.” “You’ve got 400,000 registered voters in the district, and unfortunately, 60,000 at most will show up in the primary,” he says. “So anybody’s capable of getting 31,000 votes. It depends on who shows up and votes.”
Bius has a strategy to get those votes: Characterize the incumbent as a tax-and-spender and claim the narrow ideological territory to the right of Ogden, who is generally regarded as a conservative stalwart. And Bius, casting Ogden as the “special interests” candidate, is selling that message hard to the Tea Party groups that are growing like weeds in his district, hoping to capitalize on general anti-incumbent sentiment.
Bius says he’s “close to winning” on the strength of such a grassroots uprising, one he claims makes Odgen uncomfortable. Ogden’s “eyes got big” when he saw the turnout of several hundred at a Tea Party campaign forum in the district, Bius says. “We’re a rogue campaign and everybody loves it," he says. "We’re going to win with ground game.”
Ogden recognizes that Tea Party activity represents a political force, but he questions why its devotees would support Bius over him. “I’m sure by any rating service I’m one of the most conservative members of the Texas Senate, so I don't know whether a strategy of running to the right of me will work. But I don’t think so,” he says. Moreover, though some of the anti-incumbent fervor bleeds into state races, most of the Tea Party anger is directed nationally, and against Democrats. “The Tea Party represents a significant number of conservative people in my district who are generally alarmed about the direction the federal government is going, and I agree with them,” Ogden says.
Bill Lyle, president of the Tea Party in Leon County, says he's heard no particular buzz about the District 5 race and no outrage directed specifically at Ogden. “Honestly, we’re probably a whole lot less aware of the state situation than the we are of the federal, but I have heard we’re facing a $12 or $15 billion shortfall in the state,” Lyle says. “We want to get back to conservative roots and the Constitution. Whichever candidate is the most conservative, they’re going to get the vote. It’s going to boil down to who’s the most fiscally responsible and who will do the most to control the borders.”
Experience for the coming crisis
For Ogden, that coming state shortfall also was a great motivator to run for at least one more term. He’s been in the thick of budget hardball in Austin for two decades. And that’s the main reason voters should send him back for another inning, he says. Though Bius has charged that Odgen will push to raise taxes to fill the budget gap, Ogden flatly denies it. “You can’t raise taxes in a recession,” he says. Rather, he would push for a combination of spending cuts and using a portion of the state’s Rainy Day Fund, estimated at about $8 billion. “We saved it for a rainy day, and it’s raining,” he says.
As for Bius’s charge that his opponent spearheaded an increase in the franchise tax, Ogden says Bius either misunderstands or mischaracterizes the legislation. Ogden and others reformed the way the tax was collected, he says, and used it to offset the revenues lost by “the largest property tax cut anyone can remember,” when the Legislature cut the rate from $1.50 to $1. At the same time, the Legislature instituted a business tax to replace the franchise tax, which huge numbers of businesses had avoided paying through a loophole, leaving others to carry the load. The business tax only made up part of the revenue lost through the property tax cut, Ogden says. “I don’t think my opponent knows what he’s talking about,” he said.
Ogden and Bius also have sparred over the Trans-Texas Corridor, which Ogden initially supported, then opposed. The bottom line: The Legislature never appropriated any money to build it, Ogden says. And Ogden and others, responding to public criticism, passed a bill to make sure that it follows existing highway rights of way rather than going through private property.
In an apparent attempt to solidify his more-conservative-than-Ogden bona fides, Bius has made the elimination of “generational welfare” a centerpiece of his campaign. “If we begin requiring drug testing for those trying to get cash payments for welfare and require them to be citizens of the United States and Texas, it’ll go along way toward solving our social problems,” Bius says. “My momma told me, you get what you pay for. If you want drug addicts, give them money. If you want illegal immigrants, give them money.”
Ogden brushes off the idea as cynical stereotyping of the poor — and wholly unnecessary in a conservative state that already has among the nation’s stingiest public doles. “It bothers me, because it’s kind of a code word,” he says. “I’m not sure exactly what he means by it, but Texas is the least generous state when it comes to welfare. The majority of people on it are children. Another large category is people in nursing homes. Neither of these groups fit into the category of ‘generational welfare.’ … We have not incentivized anti-social behavior, but when you’re dealing with unemployed mothers with children, you have to do something. You can’t just say, ‘It’s not our problem – good luck.’”