Don't look now, but the Texas GOP, the party of budgetary teetotalers, has been piling up debt like a college kid with his first credit card. According to Federal Election Commission reports, this isn't exactly a new development. The Republican Party of Texas has ended every year in the red since 2001. But lately that amount has ballooned from a low of about $70,000 in 2003 to last year's high of $624,000. Now — a month out from the state party convention where 14,000 delegates will elect the chairman who will guide the faithful for the next two years — the latest FEC report, for the month of April, shows $556,000 in financial obligations. In contrast, the Texas Democratic Party currently carries about $49,000 in debt.
Just who's responsible for the financial state of the party has flared as a point of contention among the candidates running to be its chair, including the incumbent, Cathie Adams. Adams, who the State Republican Executive Committee chose in October to replace Tina Benkiser (who left for Gov. Rick Perry's reelection campaign), says that she has put the party's fiscal house in order. "We're in good shape and getting better," she says, "With a change of personnel and also with prioritizing our spending, we are not only living within our means but paying down the debt since I've been here."
The numbers above indicate that's true. But muttering within GOP ranks — in particular from Adams' two challengers, Steve Munisteri and Tom Mechler — holds that $556,000 isn't the full extent of what the party owes. They both accuse Adams of accounting sleight of hand to make the party's debt appear lower before the chair election and say it will likely rise again afterward.
Munisteri charges that Adams has made the debt appear to go down by transferring money out of two party accounts — which are flush — and into a third account where the party books all of its debt. Three transfers, totaling about $60,000, were made on March 31, according to FEC reports. That number is almost equivalent to the party's reduction in debt since the first of the year.
Adams says she had no knowledge of the transfers but that no effort has been made to hide debt, and that party financial "watchdogs" ensure the GOP's money is handled ethically.
Munisteri and Mechler's charges center on Adams' handling of money raised to pay for the party's upcoming convention. The event, the largest state political convention in the nation, is expected to cost about $600,000. To pay for it, the party collects $35 registration fees from delegates, individual donations, and corporate sponsorships. Adams' opponents say she is also using some portion of that money — they can't say how much — to make the debt look lower.
"You're basically taking the money from the convention, the registrations and sponsorship fees, which you can use to pay down the old debt," Munisteri says, "But then you won't have that money available when the bills come in for the convention, so the debt will swell back up again."
Adams says the claims are "a lie that they are just totally making up out of thin air" and calls them "a desperate attempt to get a toehold when [Munisteri and Mechler] must be feeling a total lack of response from the grassroots, who know my integrity because of almost three decades of working with them."
Munisteri and Mechler say they will have no access to the records of convention fundraising and spending until July, when the party must submit reports to the Texas Ethics Commission. By then, the election for party chair will be over.
Adams says she does not know the specifics of how the convention money is being raised, spent and tracked, though she says registration fees are kept in a "separate account." She also assures that experienced party financial staff was keeping a close eye on the money: "There are bills coming due in their time, and money is coming in quite well."
All involved agree the debt risks making the GOP's harangues against government deficits look like lip service. Debra Medina — who ran for state party chair in 2006 before she became the dark horse of this year's gubernatorial primary — says she'd like to see the party "live accordingly to its ideological prescription."
"We are tripping over ourselves as a party to give those people who we most desperately need on our side, who are ideologically aligned with us, a reason to not actually get out at the base and do the work that we so desperately need them to do," she says. "They are sick of politics as usual."
Medina doesn't lay the blame for the party's debt fully at the feet of the current chair, however. She blames the party's executive board — the 62-person executive committee that oversees the party — saying it "has not done its job." She makes an unflattering institutional comparison: "Ken Lay was responsible for Enron, but he had a board of directors."
Before serving as party chair, Adams was a member of that State Republican Executive Committee, having joined in 2008 while she was still the president of the Texas chapter of Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum. She says SREC members had no knowledge of the debt and no access to financial records. "No one knew, no one could have known" about the debt at the time, she says. "I had no more information than did even the chairman of the audit committee. None of us foresaw or knew or had access to more information than anyone else." (Anyone interested in the party's debt — not just anyone on the executive committee, but anyone in the world — can find the information in FEC reports, which are filed by the party monthly.)
Still, Adams says, "The fact is no one knew until I got in there and directed the staff to go through what was in the accounting office, get that in the computer, and then let's be transparent with the executive committee and absolutely let them know where we stand."
The debt is more than just an embarrassment to a party that espouses fiscal restraint. It cramps its practical operations as well — take it from Molly Beth Malcolm, who chaired the Texas Democratic Party from 1998 to 2003, struggling with debts that at one point came to $650,000. She says debt gives donors — already prone to give directly to the candidates they like instead of parties anyway — a ready excuse to avoid adding to state party's coffers.
"It is not sexy to give to your state party, whether it be Democratic or Republican," says Malcolm, adding, "Nobody has to give to a state party. It is a function that is extremely important, but it's like anything else: If a donor is giving money they want to be sure that where they are giving their money, it's going to be put to good use."
Is This It?
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."
Experience: Negative or Positive? Discuss.
Republicans David Sibley and Brian Birdwell will meet in a runoff — date to be set by Gov. Rick Perry — for the open state Senate seat in Central Texas. Sibley led in the special election voting with 45 percent of the vote, followed by Birdwell, with 36.5 percent, Democrat Gayle Avant, with 13.3 percent, and Republican Darren Yancy, with 5.2 percent.
The winner will serve the rest of Kip Averitt's term. The Waco Republican won the March primary and then resigned his seat, meaning he's no longer a state senator even though he remains the Republican nominee for the position. If he withdraws his name before the primary, the GOP chairs from each of the ten counties in the district will choose a new nominee.
The election pitted Sibley, a former Waco mayor and state senator who's been lobbying in Austin for the last decade, against Birdwell, a survivor of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon who is now a conservative Christian motivational speaker living in Granbury. Avant will retire after the end of the current school year after a career as a political science professor at Baylor. And Yancy, a salesman who lives in Burleson, has now lost two shots at the seat. He was on the ballot against Averitt in the March primary, coming up far behind even though Averitt didn't campaign.
The winner of the special election runoff will serve until January. The winner of the general election — Averitt or a person to be named later — will run for the change to serve starting then.
Sibley won in all but three of the district's ten counties, but two of those — Hood and Johnson — turned out relatively big votes. The former senator got walloped in Hood, where Birdwell got 3,625 votes to Sibley's 819 (in percentages, that's 68 to 15, in Birdwell's favor, with the rest of the votes going to the other two candidates).
The runoff will be a turnout game, with McLennan, Hood, Ellis, and Johnson counties — where most of the votes are — playing the key. McLennan turned out the most votes in the first round and Sibley cleaned up. He also won in Ellis. But the other two big counties were Birdwell's.
But the most important play might be in the vote of the ten county chairs. They'll be encouraged by the winner of this runoff election to cast their votes with the voters of the district. But they could also each be urged to support the candidate who won in their respective county. That could be a different result. And they're not legally bound to follow any political compasses but their own.
You can see the outline of the runoff in their election night statements.
Birdwell's: "I am thrilled with the outcome of today's election. Today, the voters sent a strong message that this seat does not belong to lobbyist David Sibley and the special interests, it belongs to the people. Despite being outspent more than 4 to 1, and starting this race only eight weeks ago, we closed the gap with each passing day. Next month, voters have a clear choice between a lobbyist and a conservative citizen legislator. With the continued support of grassroots citizens, we intend to claim this seat for the people."
And Sibley's: "This was truly a team effort, and I want to thank the voters giving me the opportunity to continue my campaign to serve the people of Senate District 22. To my other two opponents, I congratulate you on hard fought campaigns. I look forward to working with you in the future. During this election, I have focused on my life-long experience of fighting for our conservative values, and my desire to continue that fight. As your state senator, I was proud to work with Gov. George W. Bush to pass major conservative reforms including the first-ever appraisal cap in Texas. As your next state senator, I will continue my efforts to curb skyrocketing appraisals and lower homeowner property taxes. I also will fight to reduce government spending, increase border security, protect our state's rights against the overreaching federal government, fight Obama care, protect private property rights and defend our conservative family values. In the coming weeks, I will continue to travel the district to meet and listen to citizens' concerns. I also will be reaching out to ask for the support of those who didn't vote for me this time, and demonstrate to them that I am the best candidate to represent our conservative values in the Texas Senate."
Border Security Starts at Home
Alan Bersin, recently appointed by President Obama as the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, started his confirmation hearings in the U.S. Senate with some fireworks. Firing off early was U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who grilled Bersin on CBPs efforts to beef up border security and the departments funding decrease to $11.2 billion next year, a 2.3 percent slide from this year.
What is the plan to increase the number of boots on the ground, border patrol, physical infrastructure and technology so that the American people can be assured that the federal government is doing everything it possibly can to secure the border? asked Cornyn.
Bersin, according to transcripts, asserted that U.S. Border Patrol has doubled in size since 2004. Cornyn said it wasnt good enough, adding the status quo in terms of manpower wasnt acceptable.
We dont cut corners when it comes to our national security — when it comes to funding the Department of Defense, we do what it takes, Cornyn said. The American people are terribly upset — theyre scared, theyre mad, and they dont understand why we arent doing more to secure our border.
Cornyn also pressed Bersin on the use of unmanned areal drones and why of the five in operation, none are patrolling the Texas border. Bersin said, as has Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, that the Federal Aviation Administration is working toward approving the deployment of the vehicle, called the Predator drone, in West Texas.
Bersin was also grilled by committee members for failing to properly verify the employment statuses of 10 domestic workers he and his wife have employed since 1993. Mr. Bersin, while the Finance Committee was vetting your nomination, we discovered that you failed to properly complete and maintain Employment Eligibility Verification forms, or I-9s, said Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-MT. As the person responsible for securing our nations borders, your failure to follow the law in this matter is unacceptable.
Bersin said he verified that all the workers, including three of whom were college students, had valid drivers licenses and passports.
This is a little awkward. Mabrie Jackson, who pulled out of the race for state Rep. Brian McCall's unexpired term, got more votes than Van Taylor in Saturday's special election, winning 56 percent to his 44 percent, according to Collin County's election results (all three are Republicans from Plano). But she's not on her way to Austin anytime soon — at least as an elected official. Taylor won the primary election runoff last month and is on his way to serving a two-year term in the House. But McCall, who is now the chancellor of the Texas State University System, quit his House post early to take the academic job. The special was designed to fill out the rest of his term. Jackson, who lost the other election, withdrew her name, the Secretary of State called it over, and Taylor was sworn in.
It's news that Gov. Rick Perry would "highly recommend they don't send it to my desk," but a bill allowing more legal gambling in Texas wasn't going there anyhow. Gambling requires a constitutional amendment, which goes to voters if two-thirds of both houses of the Legislature approve. The governor doesn't get to touch it. He could get a crack at the enabling legislation, though. That spells out the laws if voters legalize the games in a constitutional amendment election. And what Perry told The Dallas Morning News could mark a change in position, if you're parsing like we are. He planted his flag in a State of the State speech a few years ago, saying he doesn't want the state to expand gambling beyond its current footprint. That's music to racetracks, which have established locations, or footprints, and noise to casinos, which do not. He told the paper he didn't want to get into the weeds on that.
The Week in the Rearview Mirror
The big talk around the Capitol this week centered on how to close a looming budget shortfall. At Tuesday's meeting of the Appropriations Committee, Speaker Joe Straus made it clear that new taxes are not an option to cover the expected $11 billion to $18 billion gap. Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, added that legalized gambling should be an option for lawmakers to consider. When asked about casinos by the Texas Tribune the next day, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst was less enthusiastic about the idea. Dewhurst's opinion is that budget cuts, although they may be steep, will be enough to balance the budget.
Although the number of lobbyists in the state capital continues to grow, the total amount spent on them during the 2009 session dipped to $344 million from its high of $348 million in 2007. Big contracts were in abundant supply, with the top 36 lobbyists each taking home at least $1.5 million, according to a study by Texans for Public Justice. AT&T spent the most on its team of lobbyists, while utility and petrochemical companies had more than one thousand contracts in place.
Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court prompted U.S. Sen. John Cornyn to question her qualifications. Citing her lack of judicial experience, Cornyn indicated that he might not support President Barack Obama's nominee. In explaining his support of George W. Bush's inexperienced nominee, Harriet Miers, Cornyn drew a distinction between the two by criticizing Kagan's stance against allowing military recruiters on campus when she was dean of Harvard Law School.
Offshore drilling continues to be controversial as Congress holds hearings with BP and other top executives to determine the cause of the explosion and oil spill in the Gulf. Texas officials insist they are better prepared to deal with a massive spill due to the 1991 law passed in response to the Exxon Valdez spill, as well as several local threats. The Oil Spill Prevention and Response Act created an oil spill division in the General Land Office that continually monitors offshore activity and maintains equipment along the coast that can be quickly deployed in case of a spill.
As the primary care shortage affects the state's ability to recruit doctors who will treat Medicaid and Medicare patients, Texas has fast-tracked licenses for doctors trained at medical schools around the world — legal immigrants — in disproportionate numbers. International medical school graduates are able to circumvent the lengthy process of Texas licensing by agreeing to serve poor and underinsured populations. And with health care reform adding more of these types of patients to the rolls, the demand is only expected to increase.
The San Antonio Express-News reports that residents of Matagorda County are supporting expansion of the South Texas Nuclear Power Plant. At a public comment meeting held in Bay City, government officials and local residents spoke about the need for the jobs that will be created by the proposal and endorsed the company's history in the community. Comments against expansion focused on environmental issues and criticized the contents of the draft proposal itself. The expansion is expected to be approved, and the licenses could be granted as early as 2012.
The State Board of Education received a record 20,000 comments in anticipation of their vote on social studies standards next week. Most appear to be spurred by a coordinated campaign organized by the American Civil Liberties Union. Other groups speaking out on the board's recommendations for history, government and economics courses, include student, religious and teachers groups.
Remember the Alamo, say the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, as they begin their annual convention. The San Antonio Express-News reports that the Daughters have been under fire for their alleged neglect of the landmark, which has evolved into a dispute with one of its members, who is seeking documentation from the group about its preservation activities. The Attorney General's office has gotten involved, as a February request for public information has allegedly not been responded to appropriately.
Do whistleblowers always get fired? The latest example comes from the Workmen's Compensation Division of the Department of Insurance, which fired enforcement attorney Cathy Lockhart in February, when her investigations were characterized as "secret and clandestine." Those investigations and others in her department showed a pattern of abuse of the system by doctors who over-billed insurers and over-treated patients. Commissioner Rod Bordelon denied any problems and portrayed the division's actions as a normal handling of cases that merit due process.
Department of Corrections: A recent item on repair projects at state parks got the numbers wrong. The state has $44 million for fix-it work on several Texas Parks & Wildlife facilities, and another $25 million for work on the Battleship Texas. We had that all in one pot; it's not. The corrected total: $69 million.
Political People and Their Moves
Texas Supreme Court Justice Harriet O'Neill, who isn't seeking reelection to the court, also isn't finishing her term. She told Gov. Rick Perry and the other members of the court today that she will step down from the bench on June 20. O'Neill, a Republican initially elected to the court in 1998, has been a judge for 18 years. She announced last year she wouldn't seek reelection and there's been wide speculation that she would leave the court before her term ends in January. The governor gets to appoint someone to serve the rest of the term. Among the choices are the three candidates who've been nominated by the major parties: Republican Debra Lehrmann, Democrat Jim Sharp, and Libertarian William Bryan Strange III. Perry isn't bound to choose any of them, but naming, say, Lehrmann, would give her the fundraising advantages of an incumbent appellate judge.
Charles Schwertner, a Georgetown physician and Republican nominee for House District 20, has joined the Texas Conservative Coalition, the conservative caucus of the Texas Legislature.
Brent Turner's the new guy at the Senate's Veteran Affairs and Military Installations Committee. He was a policy analyst on that panel before that and has worked for committee Chair Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, since 2008.
Jennifer Waisath Harris is starting her own public affairs and PR firm after ten years in a number of public and private press shops, most recently with Austin-based ROSS Communications.
Quotes of the Week
Cory Session, brother of the wrongly convicted Timothy Cole, on why the family wants to depose officials involved in the case, as reported by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: "If there was gross misconduct, I'm sure that people will be prosecuted. But I'm just looking for some of the people who were involved to say that they are sorry. To this point, very few have done that."
Rep.-elect Naomi Gonzalez, on how some El Pasoans reacted when her opponent, state Rep. Norma Chavez, accused her at a public forum of being a "gay, lesbian woman," as reported by the Texas Tribune: "Everyone felt that it was just out of place, it was not necessary, it was Norma acting out of desperation."
Rep. Van Taylor, R-Plano, on losing the special election he had already been declared the winner of, to the Associated Press: "I was declared the winner. Game over."
Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, to the San Antonio Express-News on driving to debate his Republican colleague from Tomball on CNN — only to have her cancel: "Debbie Riddleowes me 35 bucks for gas."
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in a statement on President Barack Obama's nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court: "Ms. Kagan has spent her entire professional career in Harvard Square, Hyde Park and the DC Beltway. These are not places where one learns 'how ordinary people live.'"
Former First Lady Laura Bush on gay marriage, to Larry King: "I think there are a lot of people who have trouble coming to terms with that because they see marriage as traditionally between a man and a woman. But I also know that, you know, when couples are committed to each other and love each other, that they ought to have, I think, the same sort of rights that everyone has."
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst at The Texas Tribune's TribLive interview: "I do not want to see taxes raised, and I do not think we're going to need to raise them... You can't raise taxes during a recession."
Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, at a House Appropriations Committee meeting: "I'm going to look at every revenue enhancer that can get. And I think Texans – if you go across the border into Oklahoma and Louisiana – you're going to see Texas cars. And we need to grab that money."
Contributors: Morgan Smith, Ceryta Holm, Julian Aguilar, Reeve Hamilton
Texas Weekly: Volume 27, Issue 19, 17 May 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 email@example.com. For news, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (512) 716-8611.
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