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Dunnam on Trial

The trial-lawyer-as-epithet strategy, a perennial favorite of Texans Republicans, is playing big in the effort to oust longtime Democratic House member Jim Dunnam, D-Waco.

State Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, at a press conference in 2009.

The trial-lawyer-as-epithet strategy, a perennial favorite of Texans Republicans, is playing big in the effort to oust longtime Democratic House member Jim Dunnam, D-Waco.

Before the most recent campaign-finance filing deadline on Sept. 23, Capitol insiders could have dismissed Dunnam’s race against Republican Marva Beck as merely a nuisance race designed to keep the seven-term incumbent occupied — and less able to stump for more vulnerable colleagues. A Houston native and current president of the Texas branch of the Research Conservation and Development Program, Beck raised a measly $7,700 for her campaign in the first six months of the year.

But an infusion of about $60,000 in in-kind contributions from the Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, $55,000 from the Associated Republicans of Texas Campaign Fund and $35,000 from Trevor D. Rees-Jones, the president and chief executive officer of Dallas-based Chief Oil and Gas, have made Beck an unexpectedly viable foe in a year several predict could be a bad year for Texas Democrats.

“Jim Dunnam is a personal injury trial lawyer, and he puts the TTLA [Texas Trial Lawyers Association] agenda first,” says Sherry Sylvester, the spokeswoman for the Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC. Sylvester chides the lawmaker, a former chair of the House Democratic Caucus, for being “the man who has most destroyed the civility of the Texas Legislature” by spearheading both the infamous chubbing strategy against the Voter ID bill in 2009 and the walkout over redistricting in 2003. (Sylvester insists that TLR's financial support is also available to Democrats who favor lawsuit reform.)

Beck was campaigning in rural Texas and could not be reached for comment, but her campaign spokesman, Reb Wayne, insists she's had a strong chance of winning, before her recent surge in financial backing. Part of the reason is the political leanings of the district, Wayne says. Sen. John McCain carried House District 57 district in the 2008 general election, and U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison had easy victories there in what Wayne calls “not great years for the GOP.”

Wayne says the liberal-trial-lawyer name-calling is less an attack than a simple matter of fact. “If you look at [Dunnam's] scores from Texas for Fiscal Responsibility and his scores from the Texas Association of Business, they’ve given him failing grades,” he says. 

Dunnam, who says he takes every opponent seriously, doesn’t seem to sweat the trial lawyer label. “I am a lawyer. I am a trial lawyer,” he says, noting that lawyering has run in his family for many years, and a fact that's not exactly breaking news to voters in his district.

Dunnam outraised Beck by more than $21,000 the first six months of the year and had more cash on hand as of the last filing period, which began in July and ended Sept. 23. As of that date, Dunnam had about $103,700 in the ban compared with $88,100 for his opponent. He says he's unfazed by Beck’s recently fattened coffers. “Our budget will not be meaningfully different whether they spend $1 or half a million dollars, like they say they are doing,” he says. “I don’t take for granted anything about my constituents. I had planned on running a full race regardless of the type of financial support my opponent gets.”

There is also a Libertarian Party candidate on the ballot, Derek Johnson, who, according to his campaign finance filings, hasn't raised or spent any money on his campaign. The presence of a Libertarian can sometimes help a Democrat in tight races by siphoning Republican votes.

Dunnam also dismisses the notion that Beck’s campaign limits the time he can spend supporting his Democratic colleagues. “I never have personally managed any member or candidate’s race, so the notion that I am somehow distracted from the statewide strategic efforts is just wrong,” he says. “My law calendar has more to do with that than anything. TLR money is irrelevant.”

If anything, he says, it's supplied him with fresh energy to rally his troops. "They've done a good job in giving me a little extra motivation to go and do everything I can to turn out Democrats." 

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