The truth is, the next two elections — the runoffs next week and the specials on May 8 — are more micro than macro. They matter to the people involved and to the constituencies being served, but in the larger scheme, there's not a lot at stake. The results don't immediately translate into major changes in Congress, the statehouse or the courts.
Both parties are watching the GOP runoff for Texas Supreme Court. The legal establishment is rooting against Rick Green and in favor of Debra Lehrmann. Democrats, who haven't had a judge on that court (or anyone in statewide office) since 1998, are hoping Green's the candidate. Green has a lot of support from grassroots Republicans and some antipathy from the establishment in the party, but everyone in politics is watching. The Democratic angle is that Green won't be the sort of candidate general election voters want to see and that this spot and the open seat on the Texas Railroad Commission, where David Porter unseated Victor Carrillo, are their best chances to get back into statewide office. But Texas voters have elected all sorts of people to office in general and to the court in particular. When people like Steve Mansfield and Steven Smith are elected to either of the state's high courts, the regulars there mutter "It's only one of nine," and go on about their business. Neither Green nor Lehrmann has the treasury to run a full-blown statewide campaign, and voters generally don't pay these races much attention.
One seat on the State Board of Education is up for grabs, pitting Brian Russell, a favorite of the social conservatives, against Marsha Farney, a career educator, in a GOP runoff. It's been a relatively low-profile race, but it offers voters a chance to meddle in the politics of the state school board, a body so reliably weird it should be listed in state tour guides.
Three incumbent House members — Fred Brown, R-Bryan, Norma Chavez, D-El Paso, and Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock — are all in runoffs. That's never a good sign for an incumbent and any or all of them could lose on Tuesday. That'd be locally important, and a big deal to the candidates themselves, but it wouldn't be a big rock in the pond politically; control of the House isn't at stake.
Three more races for open seats have been noisy and relatively expensive, but won't change the overall map however they turn out. Mabrie Jackson and Van Taylor are in a GOP runoff for Rep. Brian McCall's seat in Plano and the winner will be the only major party candidate in the November election. McCall is for Jackson. Two other Collin County representatives are for Taylor. The bottom line is that there'll be a Republican in the seat either way. In the other, Dr. Susan Curling and Dan Huberty vie for Joe Crabb's seat. Same formula, except that there's a Democrat on the ballot in November. The general election could change the partisan math in the House, but the runoff won't do it. The last is in Lubbock, where Carl Isett is retiring and has selected John Frullo as his successor. Mark Griffin, a former Texas Tech regent, is in the way and finished well ahead in round one. All of those guys are Republicans.
Everything else on the runoff ballot involves candidates who want bouts with incumbents in November. The congressional ballot has seven of those runoffs, including relatively loud ones in CD-17, where Waco Democrat Chet Edwards is the incumbent, and in CD-23, where San Antonio Democrat Ciro Rodriguez sits. The statehouse has three of those — the two loudest in suburban Austin — and the question is less about who wins than about how the challenges set up in November. We'll know that next Tuesday night.
Some things, we won't know until May 8. And in one case, that's only the beginning of it. Easy one first. In HD-100, Terri Hodge quit the House after pleading guilty to federal charges that grew out of a City Hall corruption investigation. Eric Johnson, who already won the primary (and has no Republican opponent in November) was the only candidate to file. He's effectively won both the special election and the general election and can rest easy. Jackson and Taylor — fighting now for the McCall seat in the runoff — will both be on the ballot again next month, when the rest of McCall's term is at stake.
The interesting race, though, is in central Texas, where Kip Averitt, R-Waco, resigned from his seat and set up a special that includes Averitt's vanquished challenger, Averitt's former boss, a 9/11 victim-turned-speaker, and a professor running as a Democrat. In order, that would be Darren Yancy, R-Burleson; David Sibley, R-Waco; Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury; and Gayle Avant, D-Waco. Averitt, without campaigning in the primary, crushed Yancy. Averitt was once chief of staff to then-Sen. Sibley. Birdwell is a retired Army officer who considered a House race against Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, two years ago. There was a question then about whether he had lived in the state for at least two years — a requirement for House members. Senators are required to live in the state for five years. Sibley questioned whether Birdwell has done so — he appears to have been registered to vote and to fish (as a resident) in Virginia less than five years ago — but state election officials decided not to get involved in that question. That leaves Birdwell on the ballot, and the question hanging: If he's on the ballot, could someone sue and knock him off? It's a strange setup. The ten county chairs in that district would get to pick a new nominee for the November ballot when Averitt, as expected, refuses the nomination he won in March. Doubts over residency requirements might or might not play with voters. But they could turn the heads of party people who themselves oversee elections. Birdwell's volley: That Sibley is a lobbyist (true) who's given to Democrats in the House and Senate (yup). That could play with the chairs, too.
The Scales of Justice
It's hard to get a read on the Republican runoff for an open seat on the Texas Supreme Court. Since March 2nd, Debra Lehrmann has raised almost $280,000 and picked up endorsements from five former Supreme Court justices, the Texas Medical Association, and Texans for Lawsuit Reform. Rick Green's campaign kitty — packing about $80,000 — holds considerably less, but those are mainly smaller donations in the $5 to $50 range, which means he could have more supporters. And though he's earned the ire of the Republican legal establishment, he has a motivated base of social conservatives gunning for him, carried over from his time in the Legislature and from one of his current enterprises — speaking for WallBuilders.
One thing's for sure: a win for Green will gin speculation about Democrat Jim Sharp's chance to become the first donkey on the court since Rose Spector was defeated in 1998. That's because Green's checkered background — those ethical lapses, that late-night infomercial, that public altercation with Patrick Rose — coupled with his unabashed assurance that because of his background in the Legislature, "you'll know how I'm going to vote" makes many appellate practitioners uneasy.
But whether that discomfort will be enough to break the GOP hegemony on Texas' civil court of last resort is another question. And a look back to 1987, when Tom Phillips became the first Republican elected to what was then a deep blue court shows even Green's past might not provide enough momentum to propel Sharp to victory.
In the midst of Phillip's campaign against Ted Robertson, the court received national media attention for its bad behavior— two justices had pending ethics charges brought against them for too-cozy relationships with members of the State Bar, it had just decided not to hear the Pennzoil v. Texaco case in which a lower court handed down a record-breaking punitive damages verdict.
"There was widespread unpopularity with the court substantively with its decisions and procedurally among lawyers, who thought that some of their cases were a grab, that it was reaching out to make decisions it wanted to make rather than the ideal fact pattern," says Phillips, who has endorsed Lehrmann in the race.
Implications of corruption prompted a 60 Minutes segment on the court called "Justice for Sale" and a New York Times editorial to decry Texas justice as "reminiscent of what passes for justice in small countries run by colonels in mirrored sunglasses." And even then, Phillips said he was still trailing behind his opponent ten days out before the election.
He thinks the Democrats trying to leapfrog the Republicans this year would have an even harder time than he did. The atmosphere surrounding a possible Sharp/Green race would be "worlds different," he says: "There's no national attention, no state officials mad at the court, no calls for impeachment of the justices."
According to former Plano City Councilwoman Mabrie Jackson's campaign, two-year olds are crying in House District 66. According to a new mailer, it's because "Because they have lived in Plano longer than Moving Van Taylor." It also knocks Taylor for having "moved his voter registration to four different counties over a seven-year period." Jackson and Taylor are competing in the GOP runoff to replace former Rep. Brian McCall, R-Plano. No Democrat has filed, so it's more than likely that one of them will occupy the seat.
Taylor isn't taking Jackson's criticisms lying down. This week, he announced the endorsements of Reps. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, and Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker. "This is the first time we have ever joined together to send a letter on behalf of a candidate for the legislature, but the stakes are very high for conservatives," they wrote. "We need help to fight to protect taxpayers against big spending schemes of the liberals and special interests. For these reasons we strongly support Van Taylor."
Because the filing deadline came this week — before the April 13 runoff — both Taylor and Jackson put their names in as candidates in the May 8 special election to replace McCall. Taylor released a statement advocating that the runoff winner run unopposed in the special. "Plano voters are experiencing election fatigue, making it even more important that we unite as a party after next Tuesday so the nominee can get to work for Plano rather than continuing to campaign for what would be a seven month term," he said in a statement. That just means the loser would agree not to campaign, or to campaign for his or her former opponent; the runoff results will come in too late for the candidates to take their names off the ballot.
The Week in the Rearview Mirror
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Bill White ventured a jab at Republican incumbent Gov. Rick Perry this week over his calculation of the state's dropout rate, which by White's reckoning, Perry has placed at 10 percent. In a release, White said, "About 3 in 10 Texas high school students do not graduate from high school or get a GED within 4 years." Perry spokesman Mark Miner countered, "The percent of students who enter high school and eventually earn a diploma or equivalent, or who remain in pursuit of a diploma or equivalent, is 90 percent." The Texas Tribune's Brian Thevenot looked at the stats and concluded, "Both statements are technically correct — yet neither is exactly true, according to the most reliable dropout figures. Both lack context and ignoring other readily available data. Ultimately, however, White's figure may be the closest to reality." Now: Is it a difference that makes a difference to voters?
Much of that got lost in the exhaust of a simultaneous news emission from Perry's campaign. Perry spent $225,000 from his political account to sponsor Corpus Christi native Bobby Labonte's Chevrolet Impala in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway April 18. In the meantime, the #71 "Texans for Rick Perry" car is touring the state, generating enough free media to make that price look like one of the best TV ad buys of the year.
A prominent former U.S. senator waded into the GOP runoff that decides who will go up against U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, in the fall. Bill Flores received a nod from Phil Gramm in his race against Rob Curnock. Gramm and Edwards go way back — the former taught the latter economics at Texas A&M, and the former student put his former professor through the toughest political race of his career (that is, of the races Gramm won). Edwards attributed Gramm's interest in the contest to a "sad vendetta for nearly beating him in 1978" and said it was "really unseemly and beneath the dignity of the office he once held."
Texas oil companies are doing some meddling on a national scale. Two of them are funding a ballot initiative that challenges California's groundbreaking climate legislation requiring that state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent through 2020. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had choice words (in The New York Times) for Tesoro and Valero, the Texas firms leading the charge: "I think that the California people are outraged about the fact that Texas oil companies, Texas oil companies, are coming to California and trying to change laws and policies in California. I mean, it's outrageous."
Five more states — Indiana, North Dakota, Mississippi, Nevada and Arizona — joined Texas and 12 other states challenging the constitutionality of the recently passed health care reform bill. Attorney General Greg Abbott said, "The addition of five new states to our bipartisan legal challenge reflects broad, nationwide concern about the constitutionality of this sweeping and unprecedented federal legislation."
Small business advocates gathered at the Texas Capitol to express concern over recently passed federal health care reform. "It's bad for Texas, it's bad for Texas employers and it's especially bad for Texas employees," said Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business. He joined Pete Havel, a representative from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in concerns that the fines levied on small businesses that don't pay federally mandated healthcare premiums would be bad for jobs. Laura Stromberg, a spokeswoman for the National Federation of Independent Business, said her organization's members had expressed a sense it would be easier to pay the fine than the premiums. A health care reform supporter, state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said, "Without health care reform, we would see fewer small businesses created.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives kicked off the West Texas/New Mexico leg of its "Don't Lie For the Other Guy" campaign. The initiative is aimed at deterring straw purchases of firearms and was initiated due to the heightened violence occurring along El Paso's border with Ciudad Juárez, said ATF Special Agent in Charge Robert Champion. Gun advocates are concerned, however, that gun-crime statistics cited by Mexican authorities are skewed to deflect some blame to the U.S.
Political People and Their Moves
Lilly Ruiz, a longtime aide to Rep. Norma Chavez, D-El Paso, apparently left Chavez's campaign with just days to go, out of frustration over the boss' remarks about the sexuality of her opponent, Naomi Gonzalez.
Gov. Rick Perry reappointed former San Antonio Mayor Bill Thornton as chair to the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority... And he appointed Harlingen resident David Allex, the owner of Allex International Properties, to chair to the Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority.
You're right: That IS Carole Keeton Strayhorn listed as the contact for the new "Austinites for Action," a group calling for a public vote on plans being made by the capital city's municipal utility company. This is where the former comptroller and gubernatorial candidate came in; she was mayor of Austin when its investment of nuclear power was a hot issue.
Deaths: E.O. "Coots" Matthews died of natural causes at his home in Humble on Wednesday. Matthews was a founding partner of Boots & Coots, a company known for putting oil well fires. He was 86... Diana Sue Brown, better known as Susie, a messenger in the Texas Senate for 27 years, after a bout with cancer. She was 52.
Quotes of the Week
Dallas County's district attorney talking about his own power at the polls, in The Texas Tribune: "It's a religious experience to vote for Craig Watkins."
Rep. Norma Chavez, D-El Paso, baiting opponent Naomi Gonzalez, in the El Paso Times: "I have accepted my biker community. She needs to accept her gay community."
Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, at a House Public Safety Committee hearing on the Texas Forensic Science Commission, quoted in the Texas Tribune: "You were doing your duty, and then all of a sudden John Bradley says, 'I can't answer any questions and we can't move forward for almost a whole year because we didn't have our ducks in a row.'"
Former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm on the GOP's shot at a majority, quoted in the Waco Tribune-Herald: "I don't think we can win back the House without beating Chet Edwards."
Gov. Rick Perry, on his expectation of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's support in the general election, quoted in the Houston Chronicle: "We're on the team. We just had an intramural scrimmage, and we got that over with."
Texas State Rifle Association Legislative Director Alice Tripp, on her concerns over the Mexican government's claim that most weapons used in that country come from Texas, in The Texas Tribune: The TSRA is "the association of law-abiding people who are simply trying desperately to not have their rights stripped away as kind of a token to a foreign government that is historically dysfunctional and corrupt."
Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond on the legality of the federal health care reform: "If Ken Lay were alive today, he would say, 'What have they done?'"
Connecticut banker Jon Byron in The New York Times, on personal technology: "I don't need any more devices. I already have six phone numbers and enough things to plug in at night."
Contributors: Julian Aguilar, Reeve Hamilton, and Morgan Smith
Texas Weekly: Volume 27, Issue 14, 12 April 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.