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Party of One

As a crowd rushed the stage in the American Bank Center in Corpus Christi waving signs with his name, Bill White began his speech to the Texas Democratic Party State Convention. "Rick Perry is in it for Rick Perry," the gubernatorial nominee declared. Playing against type — the wooden, spreadsheet-loving wonk that has often characterized his public persona — an invigorated White lit into Perry with relish, describing his opponent's alleged disregard for the "the public interest."

As a crowd rushed the stage in the American Bank Center in Corpus Christi waving signs with his name, Bill White began his speech to the Texas Democratic Party State Convention. "Rick Perry is in it for Rick Perry," the gubernatorial nominee declared. Playing against type — the wooden, spreadsheet-loving wonk that has often characterized his public persona — an invigorated White lit into Perry with relish, describing his opponent's alleged disregard for the "the public interest."

Afterwards, Perry spokesman Mark Miner called it "one of the most negative speeches by a nominee for Texas governor in modern history." In other words, it was exactly what the delegates at the convention hall, frustrated with years of GOP dominance, wanted to hear.

"Rick Perry complaining about an opponent's negative tone is like a rooster complaining that all the crowing is making too much noise," says Democratic strategist Harold Cook. He believes that all the speakers at the convention delivered. "But I'll bet you," he adds, "that when all those delegates go home, they're going to be talking for weeks about Bill White."

The reason: White's speech reflected a new, bare-knuckled direction his campaign has taken of late, with repeated attacks seeking to cast Perry as a lazy and entitled career politician. That's a clear break from a sleepy image that sparked Perry's Miner to mockingly hand out NoDoz to reporters before White's speech. The delegates, most of them seeing him in person for the first time, got White 2.0. "He brought it right to Rick Perry, speaking Rick Perry's language, and showed that he can go toe-to-toe with a Perry-style campaign," says Cook. "Everybody got very excited, because I don't know that there were that many delegates who expected that kind of Bill White to show up."

White balks at the idea that there has been a tonal shift in his campaign, saying he's been contrasting himself with Perry from the start. That's all well and good, but the delegates and the other candidates heard something new in his convention speech on Friday. And, even if it is as negative as Miner claims, they Democrats like it, and they're running with it.

Of course, White wasn't the only candidate at the convention — and the question facing the party is whether he's the only one of consequence, or if he's the leader of a legitimate statewide ticket capable of leading the party out of the wilderness and back to power. White, trailing in most polls against the longest-serving governor in Texas history, no doubt faces a dogfight in simply getting himself elected, much less others running their own uphill campaigns. Speaking during daylight hours on Saturday, the day after White's speech, other Democrats seeking statewide office shared in little of the hoopla that attended the gubernatorial nominee. Though their remarks may more easily fade from memory, the candidates and their party try to brush off notions that White is the lone star among a field of also-rans.

"We know there's more name ID at the top of the ticket, but we're going to be supporting all of our nominees over the next few months and making sure Texans get to know our whole ticket." says TDP spokeswoman Kirsten Gray of a statewide slate that includes a former mayor in White, a union leader in lieutenant governor nominee Linda Chavez-Thompson, a former state legislator, two lawyers and a farmer.

Chavez-Thompson, an unapologetic liberal, believes the party's path to power lies in boosting the Hispanic vote in South Texas, where she says she's barnstorming on behalf of the entire ticket. "I've got to personally, single-handedly look at ways that we can pull that 38 percent Hispanic voter turnout to 43 or 45 percent. If we can get 43 percent, we've got Texas." If anyone doubts her importance to the party's fate, she shares no such misgivings. To hear her tell it, the reason Democrats have failed to capitalize on the oft-cited sleeping giant of the Hispanic vote lies is a simple personnel problem. "They need a messenger like me," she says.

Jeff Weems, the nominee for railroad commissioner, seems less taken with the all-for-one, one-for-all approach and the notion that either White or Chavez-Thompson can pull the entire ticket into office. He's hoping to lure a big showing among the voters frustrated with the current state of the oil and gas industry around the Barnett Shale in North Texas. He views himself as one of the more conservative candidates — and he's running a race that's entirely his own. "If Bill White's strong, does that help me? Absolutely," he says. "Do I want him to do well? Yes, I do. If there's a way I can help him, I'll do it. But the truth of the matter is, I have to run my own race the best way I know how."

Barbara Ann Radnofsky, who is running for attorney general, says that candidates should fan out, helping each other when able but largely filling in the gaps that others in the party haven't hit. "Do people expect us to appear together like little boys clumping around a soccer ball?" she asks. Citing advice from the late former state Attorney General and U.S. Rep. Jim Mattox, she said: "You don't go everywhere where everybody else is." Though the candidates may not be clumping, she says, they are keeping quietly in touch behind the scenes. As an example, she says, she called White about a week before unveiling her "Sue Wall Street" initiative, a push to get incumbent Attorney General Greg Abbott to do exactly that. She called "as a courtesy, and so that he'd know, and because he's really smart," she says. "[White] called right back and we had a long talk. My calls are always returned by the statewide candidates, and I have all their cell phone numbers."

Just prior to the convention, the Perry campaign circulated an article from Capitol Inside, a political newsletter, reporting that Radnofsky's campaign and the campaign of agriculture commissioner nominee Hank Gilbert were unhappy that their candidates were denied primetime Friday night slots. Gray maintains that the convention followed the traditional order. Ultimately, it never blossomed into much of an issue — if it ever was at all. Radnofsky says she doesn't know where the story came from. "It didn't come from us," she says, conveying complete disinterest in her speaking time. Gilbert spokesman Vince Leibowitz said what complaints there were didn't reveal any disunity on the ticket. "It just would have been nice to have the down-ballot candidates speak earlier," he says.

To the chagrin of the press corps, not only did that conflict fail to boil, neither of the other more promising potential convention pressure points — the race for party chairman and the debate over the unique hybrid primary process known as the "Texas Two-Step" — produced much friction, either. The current system and chairman were approved in strong majorities. Coming out of such a smooth convention — cited by many attendees as the most unified in recent memory — Radnofsky, who was able to get her initiative inserted into the official party platform, is filled with a newfound confidence. "Now, I'm feeling pretty good about being the AG," she says. Citing an outlier poll showing White and Perry tied at 43 percent, she reckons, "If Bill White can win, I can win."

"I don't think you are going to find anyone who says anything other than the state convention was a big net gain for Democratic nominees," says Cook, acknowledging that it only played to a small subset of party insiders. "Still," he says, "I'd say our innermost concentric circle is happy as clams."

The swell of positive energy actually began about two weeks prior to the convention when the Democratic activists crashed a Perry campaign press conference — complete with a chicken suit, symbolic of Perry's alleged debate dodging, that later made a convention cameo. "The White campaign began sharpening their knives," Cook says. Mix that with U.S. Rep Joe Barton's apology to BP, allegations of unethical conduct by Republican state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown and rancor at the Republican's state convention and Cook says, "Yeah, there's going to be some harmony."

How to Spook an Elephant

Not everyone is willing to admit it, but having a Libertarian on the ballot tends to favor the Democrat in a close race, taking a few percentage points away from Republican candidates and allowing Democrats to squeak by. And that party's November slate could give an edge to Democrats in more than a dozen races.

Having a thumb on the scale helps. Need an illustration? Look at the fight the Democrats and the Republicans are having over whether to allow Green Party candidates onto the Texas ballot. The Greens — who tend to pull hard-left votes from Democrats and throw tight races to Republicans — can't get on without enough signatures on petitions, so Republican lobbyist Mike Toomey, Gov. Rick Perry's former chief of staff, paid someone to get that done. The Democrats are in court saying the ultimate efforts were illegally financed with corporate money and asking that the petitions be tossed and the Greens kept out (Libertarians are on the ballot because they got enough support in the previous elections to avoid the petition process).

It's impossible to know just which races will be close in November. But more than a dozen House races that are on the target lists of either the Republicans or the Democrats have Libertarians in them. Republicans have set their sites on state Reps. Mark Homer of Paris, Donna Howard of Austin, Diana Maldonado of Round Rock, Joe Moody of El Paso, Joe Heflin of Crosbyton, Chris Turner of Burleson, Allen Vaught of Dallas, Ellen Cohen of Houston, and Hubert Vo of Houston, among others. Democrats are gunning for state Reps. Tim Kleinschmidt of Lexington, Charles "Doc" Anderson of Waco, Linda Harper-Brown of Irving, Joe Driver of Garland, Dwayne Bohac of Houston, and Ken Legler of Pasadena. That's not the entire target list for either party, but those are the races that could be close — and that have Libertarians on the ballot. Libertarian candidates signed up for the two Texas congressional seats on the GOP's national target list, those held by U.S. Reps. Chet Edwards of Waco and Ciro Rodriguez of San Antonio. And they've got statewide candidates all lined up, too.

"In a year like this, I would do anything I could to make it a one-person race," says Todd Olsen, a consultant working with Associated Republicans of Texas, a political action committee trying to preserve and increase GOP majorities in the statehouse. "If I could get the Libertarian to drop out and support me, I'd do it. The Green? I'd do it."

Republican Larry Gonzales, challenging Maldonado in Williamson County, was a political consultant for years before becoming a legislative candidate. He's not willing to concede that Charles McCoy, a Libertarian, is a gift to the incumbent. "There are so many variables," he says. "I think it's really hard to cast a generalization over... I just tell candidates, 'Keep your head down and keep going."

Corbin Casteel is a Republican political consultant, too, but he's not on the ballot. He's got no doubt about how a Libertarian affects his candidates — they drain votes. "Of course they do," he says. He's helping Republican Jason Isaac of Dripping Springs, who's challenging Democratic incumbent Patrick Rose for a seat sin the Texas House. And though they haven't made a public splash about it yet, the Libertarian in that race, Tom Gleinser, decided not to run after two unsuccessful tries. He's endorsing Isaac, according to his website. "The only purpose my being a candidate has served is to help get a Democrat elected State Representative to the 45th district of Texas," he says on his Web site. "That is bad for the State and bad for the country... I have therefore taken the necessary steps to withdraw from being a candidate for office." And he closes his message by endorsing Isaac. That makes it a two-man race.

This has been going on for years, but it's heated up in recent election cycles, which featured a number of very close contests — contests where Libertarians had deciding influence. In the 2004 elections, Austin Democrat Mark Strama won a closely contested race against Republican Jack Stick, getting only 48.6 of the vote but winning, in part, because Libertarian Greg Knowles got 3.7 percent and denied Stick another term in the House. Democrats, who lost several races in that and previous cycles by close margins, took note.

"In a race where you win by less than a percent, everything matters," Strama says now. It didn't hurt to have Knowles on the ballot that year, but everything else mattered, too. You have to bring a race close enough to win, and then hope everything goes right. "Each variable is necessary, but not sufficient," he says. If he had another close race, would he rather have a Libertarian there as a buffer or not? "Probably so," Strama concedes. "But I would never consider myself sophisticated enough to orchestrate it."

Republicans stand accused of trying to engineer Green alternatives to Democrats on the ballot. But after the Strama race, the Democrats did a pretty good job of exploiting the Libertarian alternative to the Republicans. In state House races in 2006, Chuck Hopson — then a Democrat — got 51 percent and won reelection to the Texas House; Libertarian Paul "Blue" Story pulled almost three percent, leaving only 46 percent for Republican Larry Durrett. Austin Democrat Valinda Bolton just topped a majority in her race with Republican Bill Welch, while Libertarian Yvonne Schick was pulling 4.2 percent of the vote.

Those were closer to 50 percent than the winners might have wanted to be, but still over the magic line. In other House races, the winner got home with less than half the votes. Libertarians got the rest, allowing the winners to take office with something less than majority support.

That year, Robby Cook, D-Eagle Lake, beat Republican Kleinschmidt by 415 votes out of 40,148 cast, winning reelection in 2006 with 49 percent of the vote. Libertarian Rod Gibbs had 1,283 votes, or more than three percent. Other Democrats won with under 50 percent, thanks to Libertarians, including Corpus Christi's Juan Garcia, Joe Heflin of Crosbyton, Paula Hightower of Arlington, and Joe Farias of San Antonio.

The 2008 election cycle had some similar results — not always losses for the Republicans, but closer races than they wanted or expected. Democrat Wendy Davis unseated veteran state Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth. Hopson won his House seat again, barely, pulling less than 50 percent. Lenard Nelson was back in that Corpus Christi House race, but the Libertarian didn't win enough votes to keep the district in Garcia's hands and Republican Todd Hunter made it over the 50 percent mark. State Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, won reelection with a margin of less than two dozen votes out of almost 41,000 cast. At least two Democrats — Kristi Thibaut and Allen Vaught — won with skinny margins, barely over 50 percent. A Libertarian in Vaught's race gave him a little insurance. Thibaut, who won by about 500 votes, could probably have slept easier with a Libertarian in her race.

"I've run with a Libertarian on the ballot, and won, and I've run without a Libertarian on the ballot, and won," Bolton says. There were rumors that the Republicans talked a Libertarian out of her 2008 race. She won anyhow (and they're going after her again, blaming her win on a surge of support for Barack Obama that won't be there for her this year). Do Libertarians have any effect? "I've thought about it. A lot. I don't honestly know," Bolston says. "I understand what the conventional wisdom is, and I understand that there are people out there who don't feel comfortable in either party."

Frames: Competence v. Sovereignty

If Gov. Rick Perry wanted more evidence of Washington encroachment on states rights, he got it when the Environmental Protection Agency rejected Texas' air-pollution permitting regime for large industrial plants.

The federal regulatory agency said the state's current system allows companies to skirt requirements under the Clean Air Act because it permits them to report only total emissions, not pollution from each individual unit of their facilities. Perry shot back immediately, saying the EPA's decision was "irresponsible and heavy-handed" and that it threatened "Texas families, their jobs and cost of living."

Bill White framed it differently, using EPA's intervention to tweak Perry's record as governor: "Instead of solving a problem that he was alerted to by the Bush administration, Perry created a confrontation with the EPA in order to write new chapter in his book about the federal government. His failure is bad for Texas businesses. I guarantee that as governor, I'll bring permitting authority back to Texas where it belongs."

Perry first banged the war drums against the EPA before the primaries, when he denounced its plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. In February, Perry announced the state would join in a lawsuit against the agency's ruling that greenhouse gases endanger human health, a move that paved the way for their regulation under the Clean Air Act.

In early June, Attorney General Greg Abbott filed a second suit against the EPA, which grants the state authority to regulate air quality, regarding the agency's similar March decision to disapprove its qualified facilities program, which did not require certain companies to come under review when they applied to modify their existing permits. At that time, Abbott said the EPA's move ""not only imposes significant uncertainty on entities that employ thousands of Texans, but it threatens the livelihood of their employees."

Dolph Briscoe, 1923-2010

Former Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe Jr. died Sunday after a long illness. He was 87. Briscoe was governor for six years, starting in 1973, and lost a reelection bid in 1978 to fellow Democrat John Hill, who went on to lose to Republican Bill Clements.

Briscoe, a South Texas rancher and banker who called Uvalde home, was among the richest Texans and became a noted philanthropist in his later years. The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin blossomed with a donation from the former officeholder.

He was a state legislator from 1949 to 1957 (an early advocate of the farm-to-market roads that now crisscross the state) and left politics to run the family's massive ranching business. He ran for governor in 1972 in the wake of the Sharpstown scandal that turned over a record number of seats in the state Legislature, and won reelection in 1974 — the first governor elected to a four-year term in what was historically a two-year office (and the last one to serve a two-year term). He signed the Texas Open Records Act into law, giving the public easier access to the inner workings of government, and the press plenty of material on the doings of public officials.

Here's his official bio at the Center that bears his name. According to that write-up, his political mentors included Vice President John Nance Garner (of Uvalde), President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Texas and U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn, and Texas Gov. Ross Sterling, the last one a pal of his dad's and the founder of the Humble Oil Co.

The Week in the Rearview Mirror

Democrats love the two-step. At their convention in Corpus Christi, they chose to keep the "prima-caucus" process in the selection of presidential delegates, in spite of opposition to the system raised after the 2008 primary. Party delegates voted overwhelmingly to keep the combination of primary and caucus, though with modifications.

• After two deadline extensions, the Texas Lottery Commission is finally in position to accept bids for its lucrative operator's contract. The bidding process was slowed by controversy when the consultants writing the bid request were revealed to have business dealings with one of the applicants — current lottery contractor GTECH. The commission subsequently removed the consultant, Gartner Inc., from the process, replacing it with a new company, Battelle, which will review the applications for compliance. Three companies are in the running for the ten-year contract.

• School districts will have to pony up for scheduled raises for teachers even while they're scraping their budgets. It's the law — Attorney General Greg Abbott issued a legal opinion sought by the Texas Education Agency to clarify what would be required after the Legislature mandated certain increases in its last session. The bottom line is school districts are still on the hook for increases in salary based on experience, and must abide by salary schedules that were in place during the 2008-09 school year.

• Finger pointing continues in the debate over Green Party candidate names appearing on November's ballot. Democrats questioned the legality of the funding used to collect the necessary signatures to allow the Greens to field candidates. Lawsuits ensued, and state district Judge John Dietz ruled that violations of election law were sufficient to bar the Green Party's candidates. Green Party officials appealed to the Texas Supreme Court. There, the argument continued over the alleged corporate funding of signature collection.

• Texas got crosswise with the federal government on a new front this week, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture notified lawmakers that the state would be fined $3.96 million related to errors in the administration of food stamps. The state's rates of over and underpayments exceeded the national average for the second year in a row, and the error rates of benefit determination were also a factor. State health officials blamed an overburdened system that they claimed was caused by a surge in activity after Hurricane Ike struck in September 2008. They plan to appeal the decision.

The Texas Tribune reported this week on an investigation into whether data at the Texas Cancer Registry had been hacked. State health officials were notified of the possible breach in early May and contacted the FBI. The threat that the information was being held for ransom appears to be a hoax, but lawmakers and privacy advocates were concerned about future episodes of hacking the personal information contained in state databases. The state is in the process of planning for digital record-keeping and exchange of Texas medical records.

• It's all over but the counting: This week was the deadline for collecting (and spending and borrowing) political money to be reported at mid-year — an early sign of the relative strength of this campaign or that one. A strong showing on their mid-year report can give them the appearance of momentum and strength. Or the lack of it.

• Hurricane Alex missed. Residents watched the first named storm of the year approach the coast and ran through the annual pre-storm drill of plywood, water and batteries. The oil spill provided a bizarre twist to the conversation, as speculation mounted about the possible effect of strong winds and surging waters on the great pool of oil. Coastal residents will be watching for signs that the oil has been disturbed by the up to ninety mile per hour winds.

Political People and Their Moves

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst named his "select committee on redistricting" and put Amarillo Republican Kel Seliger in the chair. Seliger's region is expected to be among the hardest hit on the political maps because of low population growth. The panel has seven Republicans, including Seliger, and four Democrats, including the vice chairman, Mario Gallegos of Houston. The rest: John Carona, R-Dallas; Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler; Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls; Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen; Joan Huffman, R-Houston; Dan Patrick, R-Houston; Royce West, D-Dallas; Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands; and Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.

David Porter, the Midland Republican who upended Railroad Commissioner Victor Carrillo in the primary, won the endorsement of railroad commissioner and fellow Midlander Michael Williams.

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, reappointed Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, and Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, to the Business Tax Advisory Committee. He named Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, to the Texas State Council for Interstate Adult Offender Supervision. It is a six-year post.

Gov. Rick Perry appointed Betty Wu Adams of Austin to the OneStar Foundation. And the Guv named Danny Vines of Lufkin to the Bioenergy Policy Council.

Elizabeth Brock joins CenterPoint as director of state relations; she was previously head of legislative affairs at Reliant Energy.

Ahmad Goree, after three years with Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, is leaving state government for a job with the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Quotes of the Week

Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Katherine Youngblood Glass, on whether same-sex unions should be permitted, to the Texas Tribune: "In America, if two same-sex people want to enter into an agreement as to property distribution, inheritance, hospital visitation ... then they have the right to do that and it should be respected and it really doesn't matter if you call it marriage or not, they have an agreement."

Democratic political consultant Harold Cook, on the last minute political fundraising rush before the June 30 filing deadline for campaign finance reports, quoted in the Texas Tribune: "It's the day the rich guys don't answer their phones and political folks don't open their e-mails."

Gov. Rick Perry, reacting to the Environmental Protection Agency's disapproval of Texas' air-permitting program: "Texas will continue to fight this federal takeover of a successful state program, enacted under Gov. Ann Richards and operated in full under President Clinton, which has cleaned Texas' air at the same time it contributed to the nation's strongest economy.

State finance wizard Billy Hamilton, quoted in The Dallas Morning News: "The problem Texas is going to have is really a testament to how conservative and fiscally prudent it has been over the past decade. It's like you trained yourself to run in a triathlon. You've got all the fat and everything off. And now you're confronting this problem, which is an economically based problem. People are saying, 'Well, you just need to drop another 10 or 15 pounds and everything will be fine.' The problem is, you already dropped the 10 or 15 pounds. This is not an inefficiently run government and it's going to be hard."

Former candidate for governor Farouk Shami on fulfilling his campaign pledge to open factories around Texas: "I'm not a politician, I'm a businessman. I keep my word."

Environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn, to the Dallas Observer on Mayor Tom Leppert's efforts to get the Trinity toll road project exempted from federal environmental reviews: "This frankly is the exact same problem we have in the Gulf of Mexico right now, just on a little different scale."

Dolph Briscoe, Jr. who served as Texas governor from 1972 to 1978 and died on Sunday, articulating his political philosophy, quoted in the New York Times: "The necessity of fiscal responsibility in all levels of government is second only to world peace in our survival."

Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, telling The Dallas Morning News she's stopped driving a car owned by a state contractor that employs her husband even though she says she did nothing wrong or unethical: "My constituents are more important than the cars."

Democratic nominee for Land Commissioner Hector Uribe, after successfully performing CPR on a collapsed jogger: "I'm all for Texas turning blue, but not like this."

Contributors: Julian Aguilar, Reeve Hamilton, Ceryta Holm, and Morgan Smith

Texas Weekly: Volume 27, Issue 26, 5 July 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 biz@texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@texasweekly.com, or call (512) 716-8611.

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