At the beginning of 2010, a critical political action committee in Texas Democratic politics reported a campaign finance balance of $453.46. That turns out to be a non-surprising condition for the checking account at the Texas Democratic Trust. The PAC, run by Washington, D.C.-based consultant Matt Angle, has raised $10.4 million since its first report with the Texas Ethics Commission in 2005. It has spent, well, all but $453.46 of that.
The money is a lifeline for a number of key Democratic institutions in Texas. The trust is a critical source of funding for the Texas Democratic Party; the Texas Progress Council, which does research and messaging work for progressives; and the House Democratic Campaign Committee, an outfit noted for its success in getting Democrats elected to House seats that were designed for Republicans.
It's also in what might be its last year. The trust's lofty goal when it got started in 2004 was to put Democrats in Texas back in a competitive position by 2010, to win a majority in the Texas House, to make Democrats competitive in statewide races and to get into position to influence political redistricting in 2011.
"You have to win it back," Angle says. "You can't just sit back and wait for it to come back to you."
Democrats are closer to a majority in the Texas House than they've been since Republicans took control in 2002 (largely attributable to the HDCC). They have a contender for governor in Bill White, but he leads a ticket that's got holes in it. The Democrats, for instance, didn't field a candidate for comptroller. That's the state's chief financial officer and also the holder of one of five seats on the Legislative Redistricting Board, which draws political maps if the Legislature itself fails to do so.
It's a mixed bag. But Texas Democrats were in such lousy shape in 2004 that it all looks like an improvement. "The purpose of the trust is pretty straightforward. After 2004, Democrats were at a low point — the infrastructure was broken," Angle says.
The successes, such as they are, have helped the groups he hoped to help, like the party itself. "If you take a look at the amount of money [the TDP was] raising then and the amount they're raising now, they're raising more than they were."
"Our statewide outlook has not gotten any better," says Mike Lavigne, who was the party's spokesman when the trust was formed. He's a skeptic. "We're facing a very hard redistricting year and still have no one on the LRB."
Lavigne says some of the successes attributed to the trust were going to happen anyhow. He admits the PAC has raised a bunch of money and helped bulk up other organizations. But he wonders about the lasting impact. "This was going to make the party self-sustaining and give us a lot of infrastructure. ... There's no hiding the fact that [Angle] is the de facto state party right now."
It's true, to some extent, that Angle and the late Fred Baron, a nationally known trial lawyer from Dallas and the financier behind the trust, basically privatized the functions of the Texas Democratic Party and left the party itself financially dependent — at least for a time — on the trust.
Since 2005, the trust gave $4 million to the party, $1.2 million to the HDCC, $916,991 to the Texas Progress Council and $600,000 to the First Tuesday Group. It gave most of the rest to consultants. Angle's firm got $1.5 million over that five-year period. Austin political adviser Ed Martin was paid $284,598; data-whisperer Randy Dukes was paid $266,216; the Fort Worth-based Turner Group got $247,755; Jane Hamilton of Dallas got $183,000; $116,594 went to Opinion Analysts of Austin for polling and data work. Others got smaller amounts. The trust also has a say in who gets hired, and stays hired, at many of the organizations it funds. Angle has as much control as most political bosses in other states.
"He's pretty heavy-handed," says an Austin Democrat who actually likes Angle and doesn't want his name attached to his quotes. "He's done remarkably well, but he has rubbed some people the wrong way."
One argument is that the Democrats, with no one in high office since 1998, don't have any natural party leaders. Someone from outside had to step up. "Parties were regarded as the enemy by Democratic insiders and consultants, and it was identified with the left," says Glenn Smith, a Democratic insider and consultant himself. "The only infrastructure was in a big campaign or a coordinated campaign, but that wasn't really infrastructure — it didn't stay around" after the campaign.
It's hard to separate legitimate criticism from envy. People in Texas politics talk about crab bucket behavior — about how a crab that's on its way out of a bucket will often be pulled back down by the crabs below. Rise up in politics and the same thing happens: Other pols pull you down. Rise up in political consulting and the other crabs will pull you down and call the press.
Texas politics is full of people who like and who don't like Angle, a former adviser to then-U.S. Rep. Martin Frost who has headed the trust from the beginning. He pulled in consultants and others he knew from the Frost days. People who like him say he had his team together. People who don't say he's used the trust to keep his cronies employed.
"The trust contracts with a number of consultants who are committed to our mission," Angle says. "Those working with the trust do not have conflicts with candidate clients, unlike Republicans who vend services back to themselves. We needed to harness talent and give those who helped us some assurance that they would be retained and not have to worry about being compensated for the next month."
The trust doesn't give money directly to candidates, either. But it does do polling that's of use to them and funds development of the voter database — it's called the Voter File by operatives in both parties — that candidates use to target the folks who can elect them to office. And Angle and the other consultants in his stable babysit in ways large and small, mediating internal fights, assisting with polling and research and messaging and the like.
"We've all worked directly with candidates," says Ed Martin, a former executive director of the party who gets a monthly retainer from the trust. "I've done research, a lot of message work, working on polling every cycle, a whole lot of targeting work. ... These are things the campaigns would have to have been doing themselves."
A refrain from the detractors: Why, if they're building infrastructure, doesn't the trust put that consulting juice in a permanent entity, like the Democratic Party itself? It does, to some extent, by funding the Progress Council and the HDCC. But a significant part of the consulting is done under the trust's own auspices and control. The questions ahead: Will the things the trust put in place continue to function if it disappears after the next elections? Was it infrastructure that lasts, or just a good ride through three election cycles? And will the crabs in the Democratic budget settle down and stop trying to knock each other down?
"The little things can haunt you down the road," Smith says, remembering 20-year-old feuds between Republican consultants John Weaver and Karl Rove that started in Texas party politics and reverberate today in national campaigns. "These things are dangerous in politics."