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Analysis: In Texas politics, breaking out is hard to do

If Texas oil and gas and self-driving cars don't command voters' attention, what will? Andrew White, a Democrat running for governor, is trying to find out.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew White announces his plan to add one million Texan jobs at Impact Hub in Austin on April 3, 2018.

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It’s hard for a political first-timer to get attention. Just ask Andrew White.

Maybe you’ve never heard of him. In fact — based on recent polls, and in spite of the fact that he’s currently in a runoff for the state Democratic Party’s nomination for governor — you almost certainly haven’t heard of him.

That seems true of Gov. Greg Abbott. You might think the Republican governor is waiting to see which Democrat — White or former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez — will be the nominee to challenge him in November. But Abbott has skipped right over the outcome of the May runoff election, tweeting about a contest against Valdez. White himself was the first to reply, calling the governor’s tweet a sign that Abbott would prefer Valdez as a November opponent.

Earlier this week, White announced a plan he said would create 1 million jobs in Texas over the next five years. It won a small flurry of headlines and then melted into the stream of other diversions on the Internet. The merits of the plan aside (more on that in a second), the idea of announcing big ideas in an election cycle is to get a lot of attention. On those terms, this one hasn’t worked.

And Valdez herself has so far stiff-armed White’s calls for a debate. She was first in the March primary and has a bit of an advantage with an important slice of the electorate. White, while he’s the son of a former governor, hasn’t been on the ballot before. Valdez, who won four elections for Dallas County sheriff, has had her name on the ballot and, from time to time, her face and voice on TV.

Dallas isn’t all of Texas, but it’s better than nothing. Eight percent of the voters live there and have presumably had four chances to consider Valdez. In a race with a statewide figure, that would be slim pickings — one reason that big-city mayors have had a hard time climbing the ladder to Austin. But in a race with unknown and underfunded candidates like White, every iota of notability counts. Valdez finished first in the primary but short of the percentage needed for an outright win. She got 42.9 percent of the votes. White was second, with 27.4 percent.

She hasn’t been willing, so far, to risk any of that edge by sitting for a debate in front of a live or virtual crowd of voters. Front-runners regularly hide from the risks of debate mistakes by simply refusing, limiting the number of or controlling the timing of debates.

They eventually hold their noses and take an hour or so of questions, but they try to do it at times when the audience — and the exposure — is small.

Which brings us to White’s economic plan — anchored by the idea that Texans would prefer to burn Texas fuel in their vehicles. He’d have the state’s gas stations post signs showing how much of their oil originated in the state, creating jobs for people in the oil and gas industry. He would encourage the federal government to do the same thing, boosting the use of Texas petroleum products. White said he would use revenue from that, along with $1 billion from the state’s so-called Rainy Day Fund, to build a mass transit system made up of self-driving cars.

The proposal is an instance of a politician who thinks like an entrepreneur, White told a group of reporters in a co-working space in Austin.

It’s a proposal designed to get people talking and thinking, not just about the proposal itself but about the visionary thinker behind it.

Perhaps it will grow, as some things do in this bustling information age, like a virus. It hasn’t yet done so.

White, like any candidate in an election year, is hoping his bid will catch on soon. Voters will pick the winner on May 22 — a date that gave candidates 11 weeks to claw their way into favor with more than half the Democratic voters in Texas.

Four of those weeks — wait, nearly five of them — are already gone. Time flies when you’re trying to get attention.

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