Twenty years ago, Clayton Williams Jr. demonstrated the difference between someone trained in business and someone trained in politics. Talking to a small group of reporters about a looming budget shortfall and the hefty price tags on programs he wanted to start, he was asked what remedies he'd be willing to consider.
He answered like a businessman, saying he wouldn't rule anything out until he'd had a chance to look at the problem and consider the alternatives. Even an income tax?
"If the drug crisis has increased as much in the next five [years] as it has the last five, we might have to do it," Williams said at the time. "But I'm not saying I'm for it — I'm not. I'm not for that."
One of his Republican primary opponents, Kent Hance, won the race to smack Williams in the forehead for that one ("It is hard to believe that Mr. Williams, who wants to be the standard-bearer of the Texas GOP, has not just left the door open to an income tax but has completely removed the hinges"). Within hours, Williams was just as opposed to the income tax as Hance was, promising that if elected he would, "veto any, every and all attempts to pass a state income tax." It turned out not to matter. Williams won the primary (over three serious opponents and three minor ones, and without a runoff), but he wasn't through talking about taxes. Ann Richards had been hounding him to release his tax returns. Williams refused to do it. She sent a big truck to his campaign headquarters and offered to cart the documents to the press. He refused.
On his final campaign swing before the 1990 general election, it came up again. Asked if he'd always paid his taxes, he said he had, except in 1986, when his losses in the oil patch offset the taxes he owed.
That's all Richards needed to finish him off. That night at a Houston union hall, she got off a line in time for Saturday's newspapers in that pre-internet age: "Clayton Williams didn't pay any taxes in 1986 Did you?"
That brings us to 2010, and Bill White. The former Houston mayor, asked by the Texas Tribune's Evan Smith whether he would rule out tax increases in the face of looming budget shortfall, declined. His opponent, Republican Gov. Rick Perry, pounced — attacking just like Hance and Richards and countless others before them. Perry himself wasn't doing the talking, but his campaign issued a demand for White's income taxes and said he had opened the door for higher taxes should he win in November.
This is as much about how the race for governor will be run as it is about taxes. Perry's is relying on an established argument and traditional voter expectations. One ally put it this way: "You have to do a few things when you run for office in Texas. You have to debate. You have to release your tax returns. And you have to say you won't raise taxes." White's trying to change the way the argument goes.
"What I did when running for mayor of Houston is I never committed to whether I would raise or lower taxes. I would say the same thing, that I've got to look under the hood and see how the economy is at the time, and make sure that we're able, that the revenues equal the expenses, and that I would do everything possible in order to maintain fiscal discipline on the revenue side. Period. ... I did not commit to do it because until you look under the hood and see what you can do and what the state of the economy is and what the tradeoff is, you shouldn't be making that decision. That decision shouldn't be made on the basis of a sound bite or a political ploy. It should be made on what you need in order to accomplish your goals."
Asked if he knew he was supplying ammunition to the enemy, White shrugged. "They'll mislead people anyway."
The reply from the Perry camp arrived a couple of hours later. In the words of spokesman Mark Miner: "Bill White has a tax problem – he won't rule out raising taxes for Texans and refuses to release his own tax returns. His opposition to transparency raises questions about what he is afraid of and what he is hiding regarding his own personal fortune and how he may have profited during his six years as Houston's mayor."
Down the Road
The primaries are over. Some runoffs still lie ahead. But some political eyes are already focused on the November races for federal and state legislative seats. Some of the targets: Thibaut, Maldonado, Harper-Brown, Bohac, Bolton, Homer, Kent, Turner, Miklos, Edwards. Waco's a wildcard.
Just one congressional race is likely to attract money and attention from outside the state. There's not much to watch in the state Senate. And the number of state House seats in the target zone is skinny — fewer than a dozen. It's a low-stakes election, as such things go. It still matters, and the local races involve local issues of great importance to some voters. But in the greater scheme of things, the Texas races for Congress and the state Legislature seem unlikely to shake the balance of power in Washington and Austin.
The top of the ticket is another matter. The race for governor will get most of the attention, most of the money, and will determine, to a great extent, whether voters feel compelled to vote next fall. Except for the comptroller's race, every other statewide executive office has candidates from each of the major parties, and after the Libertarians hold their state convention in June, that party will have a candidate in every statewide race.
But this is about the legislative battlefield, where the Senate and Congress are more or less set and Democrats have been whittling away at GOP advantages in the House for several election cycles. U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, holds the distinction of living in the most Republican district in the U.S. that's represented by a Democrat. The Republicans have been trying to knock him off for years and will try again after their own primary runoff — between Rob Curnock and Bill Flores — on April 13. If you look at the numbers and the maps, Edwards doesn't stand a chance. Only five of the state's 32 congressional districts are more reliably Republican. He's held off all comers but will get a vigorous challenge again this time.
That's not the Waco Wildcard. State Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, decided after the filing deadline that he didn't want another term in Austin. It was too late to get off of the ballot, and he won the GOP nomination easily, with 60 percent of the vote. This week he resigned from office, which sets up a special election, probably in May, for the remainder of his term. He hasn't pulled his name off the ballot yet and might just leave it there until after the voters have chosen his replacement in May. Once Averitt's name is off the ballot, the Republican chairmen in SD-22's 10 counties will choose a replacement nominee. That doesn't have to be the person elected in May, but that person probably will have some extra stroke for just having won an election. The name to watch: David Sibley, a lobbyist and former senator who was once Averitt's boss. He'd like to come back, and has geared up but hasn't yet declared his candidacy. The wild card: Darren Yancy, who lost the GOP primary to Averitt but who has bragged he's got the backing of enough of the county chairs to win their nomination. Yancy has already said he'll run.
Things are a little more interesting in the Texas House, where Joe Straus ended the legislative session last year with a slim 76-74 majority and the need to secure his position with a few more Republicans. He won two seats before the elections. Rep. David Farabee, D-Wichita Falls, decided not to seek reelection to his spot in a district likely to replace him with a Republican. Former Wichita Falls Mayor Lanham Lyne won the GOP primary and will face Michael Smith in the general election. Straus' next bit of good news came from East Texas, when Rep. Chuck Hopson of Jacksonville decided to switch to the Republican from the Democratic Party. He won his primary, too, and the partisan balance now is 77-73. If Lyne wins, it's 78-72, a close but relatively safe margin for a speaker.
Democrats hold most of the genuinely competitive seats in the House. They've steadily reduced the number of Republicans in the House over the last three elections, from a high of 88 in 2003. But that leaves fewer pick-off opportunities, and their chance at winning a majority was better before Farabee and Hopson acted. Their best bet now is to keep the numbers in the House close enough to hinder outright Republican control. Their best remaining targets are:
Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, in HD-105. She won by fewer than two dozen votes two years ago and will face Democrat Loretta Haldenwang in November. Republicans say 2008 was a wake-up and that Harper-Brown will run a better race this time out. Democrats say it proved Republicans have a weak hold in an area with changing demographics and that it's their best chance at a pickup.
Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, HD-138. It's a Republican-leaning district, and the race has a Family Feud fragrance to it. The Democrat is Kendra Yarbrough Camarena, whose father, Ken Yarbrough, lost the seat to Bohac in 2002.
Republicans have a few more targets. Their list, more or less in order, includes:
Kristi Thibaut, D-Houston, HD-133. A rematch with Rep. Jim Murphy, the Republican who lost to Thibaut in 2008. The general idea on the Republican side is that 2008 was an Obama-driven fluke and that Murphy should be able to win it back. The Democrats see a district where demographic change has been moving their way and think this one belongs in their column.
Diana Maldonado, D-Round Rock, HD-52. The argument's pretty much the same in this race. Some Democrats in districts that used to be Republican have been challenged over and over — people like Allen Vaught of Dallas — and are battle-hardened. Maldonado and Thibaut and three others listed below are defending their spots for the first time. Maldonado will face the winner of a GOP runoff between Larry Gonzales and John Gordon.
Robert Miklos, D-Mesquite, HD-101. Another freshman, another district with changing demographics. He'll face Republican Cindy Burkett in November.
Mark Homer, D-Paris, HD-3. Homer is one of the "WD-40s" — White Democrats Over 40 — who has been hanging on for years in a district where Republicans hold sway in other elections. Hopson was part of that cohort before jumping ship last year. Erwin Cain is the Republican in this race.
Valinda Bolton, D-Austin, HD-47. Bolton's is a suburban Austin district drawn for Republicans, and hers was one of the closer races in 2008 — generally a good year for Democrats. The Republican will be the winner of the April 13 runoff between Holly Turner and Paul Workman.
Carol Kent, D-Dallas, HD-102. She knocked off Republican Tony Goolsby last year in a district that has been trending purple for a couple of election cycles. The Republican in this contest is Stefani Carter.
Chris Turner, D-Burleson, HD-96. Another rematch; Turner will face former Rep. Bill Zedler, the Republican he defeated in 2008.
You can argue about the general election list and whether some of those names belong. Other incumbents worth watching that aren't listed above: Some Democrats would add Republican Reps. Will Hartnett of Dallas in HD-114; Joe Driver of Garland in HD-113; Ken Legler in Houston's HD-144; and Tim Kleinschmidt in HD-17 in Lexington. Republicans will argue to add Democrats like U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez of San Antonio in CD-23; Rep. Joe Heflin, D-Crosbyton, in HD-85; Allen Vaught of Dallas in HD-107; and El Paso's Joe Moody in HD-78. We'll revisit this.
Kiss and Make Up, 1
Since coming in second, though close enough to make a run-off, Republican businessman Van Taylor has scored some potentially significant endorsements.
Most notable is the endorsement of third-place primary finisher Wayne Richard, who ran a feisty Tea Party-fueled grassroots effort. In a press release, Richard told his supporters, "As you know, my heart has always been focused on forwarding the conservative movement. Now we must ensure the best candidate is elected to office. Van is the best candidate in the runoff for House District 66 to ensure our conservative principles are represented in Austin, and I encourage my supporters to get behind his candidacy."
If Richard's lead is followed, this could make up significant ground for Taylor, who finished behind Plano City Councilwoman Mabrie Jackson in the first round. Though Jackson won 41 percent of the vote, the remaining 59 percent was split between Taylor and Richard 33.5 to 25.5 percent, respectively.
Taylor also picked up the runoff endorsement of Texas Right to Life PAC.
Kiss and Make Up, 2
The field of five has narrowed to two in the fight for CD-23's Republican nomination. That means it's time for the losers to pick sides.
On March 2, Will Hurd beat Francisco "Quico" Canseco by roughly 400 votes, with neither reaching 50 percent of the vote. They'll face-off on April 13 for the chance to beat the incumbent, U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, in the general election.
As of now, Hurd and Canseco have each earned the endorsements of a former opponent. The third highest vote getter, Robert Lowry, who ran a Libertarian-style campaign, endorsed Hurd, saying that the ex-CIA officer represented the "kind of new leadership we need in the U.S. House of Representatives." Hurd also earned a nod from the 2008 CD-23 Republican nominee, Lyle Larson (who was busy winning the primary for the statehouse seat being vacated by Frank Corte, San Antonio).
Canseco is the choice of Mike Kueber, a former USAA lawyer who also competed in the primary race. Kueber cited Canseco's "principled position against career politicians" — his support of term limits — as the reason for his endorsement.
Never mind the criminal intrigue in HD-127, where the runoff features former Humble school board president Dan Huberty and anesthesiologist Susan Curling. Harris County has dropped an investigation spurred by a late-hour criminal complaint involving Huberty.
In the final days of the primary campaign, political operative Susan Walden filed a criminal complaint with the Harris County District Attorney. She alleged Huberty violated conflict of interest laws during his time on the school board by voting to approve a contract with Steep Creek Media, a company that commissions ads on the sides of school buses. In the case of Humble ISD, 60 percent of the incoming money would go to the school district. But Huberty's wife volunteered as a consultant for Steep Creek Media while also working as a consultant for The Tribune, a local newspaper owned by one of Steep Creek Media's owners. Though his wife was not being paid, Huberty later signed a conflict-of-interest form acknowledging her affiliation.
No worries. D.A. Pat Lykos sent a letter to Walden, Curling, and Huberty this week, stating, "After a thorough and independent investigation, I do not find sufficient evidence to substantiate any criminal charges in the matter; therefore, the investigation will be closed."
Better, but Still Sick
Good news is relative. Comptroller Susan Combs says sales tax revenue was down 8.8 percent in February, compared with the same month in 2009. That's a sorry performance, but not as sorry as the numbers in the last several reports and a sign, maybe, that the economy is improving. That's enough to encourage some, though others point to structural flaws in the tax system.
"After eight straight months of double digit declines, sales tax losses have begun to moderate," Combs announced in a press release.
Talmadge Heflin, the former House Appropriations chairman now with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, calls it a sign the economy is "stopping the curve downward and coming back up."
Dick Lavine, of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, says while the news is better, the impacts of continued revenue losses are still disastrous for local communities. "This is key to our ability to fund public services," he says.
Lavine says the ups and downs highlight the need for changes to the state's tax policy. If Texas is going to stick to a sales tax, he argues, it should tax more services than it currently does. "What we should do at least is bring [tax policy] up to date so that it reflects the 21st Century economy, which is a service economy," he says.
Heflin, who has advocated a shift away from property taxes and more reliance on sales and other consumption taxes, doesn't think that would even things out. "Any tax will have peaks and valleys," he says. " Doesn't matter what it is."
Gov. Rick Perry paid some attention to the upcoming U.S. Census early this week, appointing Texas Secretary of State Esperanza "Hope" Andrade the state's Census Ambassador. The appointment wasn't received with as much enthusiasm as Perry might have hoped; one lawmaker balked that the governor's action is a bit late.
"I trust that Hope Andrade will make the most of the limited time she has to do her job," Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, said in a prepared statement. "Texas can bring home a billion dollars more from the federal government if everyone is counted. The Governor's delay hurts our chances." Villarreal last year wrote Perry in an effort to convince the governor to establish a Complete Count Committee, and said that the governor did not respond to his request.
Perry was also criticized last month by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund — MALDEF — for not doing enough to ensure Latino communities, especially along the Texas-Mexico border, are counted accurately. MALDEF pointed to states like Florida, California and New York that, with Texas, are home to some of the country's hardest-to-count populations. Those states established Complete Count Committees early on.
Census officials estimated that in 2000, more than 370,000 Texans were not counted, which translated into a loss of about $1 billion in federal monies for schools, transportation projects and health and human services operations during the decade.
The Week in the Rearview Mirror
1. For a red state, Texas seems to be getting a little purpler. Sen. John Cornyn says Texas is only "marginally" Republican and calls Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White is "a serious candidate for governor." This, on the heels of The Cook Political Report's analysis that the governor's race is a toss-up.
2. State District Judge Kevin Fine, who made waves for ruling the death penalty unconstitutional, has now taken back the ruling. Next comes a new hearing where the defense must prove that Texas has executed innocent people and thereby violates due process. Motions are due April 12.
3. Minor earthquakes that shook North Texas were probably caused by the wastewater disposal process a company performed after retrieving natural gas, according to a study by the University of Texas and Southern Methodist University. They began seven weeks after the disposal well began operating; once the well stopped, the quakes stopped.
4. Cities in the Rio Grande Valley are reportedly witnessing a spike in home sales due to increasing violence in the Mexican border city of Reynosa. Local media outlets report that in McAllen and Brownsville, home sales by Mexican nationals have increased due to those wishing to flee the violence. The trend was also seen in El Paso in 2008 and 2009 when thousands of homicides were committed in its neighbor city, Ciudad Juarez. The recent upsurge in violence and a report from the InterAmerican Press Association alleging eight journalists have been kidnapped in Mexico over a two-week time frame Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, to ask the House Select Committee on Emergency Preparedness to discuss the situation.
5. She's lost the primary, but Kay Bailey Hutchison can't get away from the will-she-or-won't-she speculation. She told fellow Texan John Cornyn that she has yet to make a decision about whether she'll continue as the state's senior senator throughout her term, which runs almost two more years. Cornyn and Hutchison's primary opponent, Rick Perry, have both gone on record saying they'd like her to stay.
6. Democratic nominee Bill White fired the first rounds against his incumbent opponent. At a Texas Tribune breakfast, he said Perry shouldn't hog the credit for the state's relatively positive economic climate and attacked his record on education and transportation. The Perry camp was quick to respond with an attack on White's refusal to release his tax returns, saying it raised the issue of "how he may have profited from his years as Houston's mayor," and on his refusal in the interview to take a no-tax pledge.
7. Texas is fighting to maintain NASA's back-to-the-moon projects, but the state may not have the political allies it needs to support super-expensive programs. Losing the program could cost as many as 11,500 jobs in the Houston area.
8. The Aransas Project, a conservation group, filed a lawsuit against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality alleging water-use policies left endangered whooping cranes without water and starving to death, laying the groundwork for a record number of bird fatalities in the winter of 2008 and 2009.
Political People and Their Moves
Colleen McHugh of Corpus Christi became the first woman to chair the University of Texas System Board of Regents.
Gary Grief, who's been running the Texas Lottery Commission from the number two spot since October 2008, now has the title to go with that job; he's the agency's new executive director.
Rider Scott, a partner at Collin County law firm Strasburger & Price, LLP, and a former top staffer to then-Gov. Bill Clements, has been appointed the executive director of the Dallas Regional Mobility Coalition.
The Texas Border Coalition elected Del Rio Mayor Efrain Valdez its new chairman. He will serve a two-year term. Hidalgo Mayor John David Franz was elected chairman-elect.
Gov. Rick Perry appointed Denison resident John Moore the new independent ombudsman at the Texas Youth Commission for a term that will expire next February. Perry also appointed Tony Sykora to the TYC Board.
Republican political consultants Corbin Casteel and Ryan Erwin are starting their own consulting and public affairs firm; Casteel will continue to advise Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams in his bid for U.S. Senate when Kay Bailey Hutchison leaves that post.
David Porter, the Republican who knocked off Railroad Commissioner Victor Carrillo in the GOP primary, now has former Commissioner Barry Williamson as his campaign chairman. Porter, a Midland CPA, has Jeff Norwood running his campaign.
Quotes of the Week
Former state demographer Steve Murdock on the current population trends and need for social action: "If we don't change the socioeconomic factors that go with the demographic factors, it is hard to see anything but a Texas that is poorer and less competitive in the future than it is today."
Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, complaining that it took so long for Gov. Rick Perry to name Texas Secretary of State Hope Andrade the state's Census Ambassador: "Texas can bring home a billion dollars more from the federal government if everyone is counted. The governor's delay hurts our chances."
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White on why he's not worried his bluntness will give the Rick Perry campaign ammunition: "They'll mislead people anyway."
Karl Rove in his new book Courage and Consequences: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight on actually doing twenty push-ups when Secretary of State Colin Powell was frustrated with him: "It was the last time Powell ever asked me to drop and give him twenty."
Defense attorney Casey Keirnan to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about an upcoming hearing on the constitutionality of capital punishment: "It's the beginning of the end of the death penalty in Texas."
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff to the San Antonio Express-News on the local Democratic Party's ability to raise money and pay debt since the incumbent chair was ousted: "I get the feeling that no one is going to be writing checks until there is a damned good sense of where (the incoming chairman) wants to take the party. I know I won't be writing any."
Debra Lehrmann, a candidate for the Texas Supreme Court, to The Texas Tribune on her opponent, former Rep. Rick Green: "Betty Crocker may be a great cook, but that doesn't mean that she should be flying an airplane or performing surgery or sitting on the Supreme Court."
Adelina Pruneda, a San Antonio-based Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman, explaining the government's definition of "hunger strikers:" "We call them voluntary fasters."
Texas Weekly: Volume 27, Issue 10, 15 March 2010. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2010 by The Texas Tribune. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (512) 716-8600 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For news, email email@example.com, or call (512) 716-8611.