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Weird, Spooky, and Rich

David Dewhurst runs for very lite guv

By Robert Bryce, Fri., Oct. 18, 2002

David Dewhurst
David Dewhurst
Illustration By Doug Potter

From a distance, David Dewhurst and Tony Sanchez have a lot in common. Both are multimillionaire political neophytes who are pumping tens of millions of dollars of their own money into their campaigns. Both made fortunes in the energy business. Both lust for power: Sanchez for the governor's office, Dewhurst for the lieutenant governor's job. Plus, both are weak stump speakers who desperately need the backing of their respective parties.

That's where the similarities end. Sanchez has the staunch backing of his fellow Democrats on the Nov. 5 ballot. Meanwhile, Dewhurst's fellow Republicans treat him as though he were Bill Clinton's half-brother. Indeed, the best that one prominent Republican who's on the November ballot could say of Dewhurst was, "He's weird. But he's less weird than he used to be." Two prominent Republicans, Nolan Ryan and Sen. John Carona of Dallas, are supporting Dewhurst's Democratic opponent, John Sharp. Ryan is even doing TV ads endorsing Sharp. It's common Capitol scuttlebutt that the majority of the members of the Texas Senate -- including a raft of Republicans with whom Dewhurst would have to work closely -- don't like Dewhurst and don't trust him.

The GOP defections to Sharp, the general disaffection for Dewhurst among mainstream Republicans, even his marital status (he's a divorced bachelor) are among a yard-long list of items that make him the oddest mainstream candidate to run for high political office in many years. In 2000, he had a very public feud with Republican Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander over about $1 million in taxes he owed the state on personal luxury items he imported from other countries. His personal style is aloof and off-putting, and his speaking style so stiff and joyless he makes George W. Bush look like William Jennings Bryan. The Texas Association of Business -- a Republican redoubt since Moses was a baby -- has endorsed Sharp. The T.A.B. endorsed every other statewide Republican nominee.

The plain truth is that Dewhurst's only qualifications for lieutenant governor are his good looks, good hair, straight teeth, a close association with the extreme right wing of the Republican party -- oh -- and a personal fortune estimated at $200 million or so.

Several aspects of his run for the most powerful office in Texas reek of amateur hour. In a time in which the Internet has become a critical conduit to voters, Dewhurst is embarrassing himself. Daviddewhurst.com, a domain name that the candidate should have secured long before he announced his first run for office, is owned by a spoof site that makes fun of Dewhurst's own incredibly thin Web site (Dewhurst.org) and contains a bunch of silly images, including one of Dewhurst as Pinocchio with a growing nose. For some reason, the energy baron's campaign didn't think to lock up its likely domain names. That oversight allowed Daviddewhurst.com to fall into the hands of the pranksters.

The Web site embarrassments followed on the heels of last November's notorious advertising pratfall. Dewhurst's campaign ran a four-page ad in Texas Monthly, which cost $74,196, touting his experience as a budget cutter and expert in security matters due to his position as chairman of the state's task force on homeland security. The ad featured a snazzy military officer standing before an American flag -- and wearing the uniform of a German general.

Oops.

When it comes to running a campaign, Dewhurst is more out of place than a toy poodle at a raccoon hunt. But while his quirks and missteps are legion, his personal history suggests he just might be able to overcome them all to become the next lieutenant governor.


Who Is This Guy?

The 57-year-old Dewhurst was born and raised in Houston, attended the University of Arizona, then enlisted in the Air Force. In 1971 Dewhurst went to work for the Central Intelligence Agency in Bolivia, where he was assigned, he says, to "monitor certain terrorist and other foreign targets." Dewhurst trades on and revels in his image as a former cloak-and-dagger operative for the CIA during a time when the Bolivian government was in crisis -- and he simultaneously deflects all questions about the substance of his work there. A federal biography of Dewhurst identifies him as a former CIA "clandestine service officer." During Dewhurst's tenure in the country, Bolivian President Juan José Torres was overthrown by Gen. Hugo Banzer in a bloody coup -- reportedly supported by operatives from the U.S. Air Force who, in concert with the CIA, provided Banzer's forces with communications equipment. Citing confidentiality requirements, Dewhurst has repeatedly refused to say whether he had any role in those activities. But he parlayed that dubious experience into his current appointment as head of Texas Homeland Security -- reportedly Gov. Rick Perry's reward to Dewhurst for deferring to Attorney General John Cornyn in the race to replace retiring Sen. Phil Gramm.

Dewhurst left the agency and returned to Texas just in time to catch the wave created by the oil and gas boom of the early Eighties. He made -- and quickly lost -- a fortune during the bust that inevitably follows every oil boom. But with his new company, Falcon Seaboard, Dewhurst began investing in oil and gas properties and was able to borrow enough money to build several co-generation power plants, at the time the latest thing in the gas and utility industries. By the early Nineties, he was one of the most eligible bachelors in Houston. In 1995, he married Tammy Jo Hopkins, a model 18 years his junior. A former Miss Teen USA, Tammy Dewhurst was soon named one of Houston's best-dressed women, and she and her new husband began conspicuously consuming as only Houstonians can. They bought a 13,000-square-foot mansion in River Oaks and became regulars at all the high-profile society events. There was a condo in Santa Fe, another house in Austin's ritzy Pemberton Heights neighborhood, and of course the ranch near Fredericksburg.

Falcon Seaboard got into the ranch business in a big way. In addition to the Fredericksburg ranch, the company owns a 42,723-acre ranch near Sonora, a 3,000-acre ranch in Colorado, and another in Nebraska. The ranches enable Dewhurst to feed his avocation, team roping.

David and Tammy were glamorous, rich, and overflowing with vacation options, but the marital happiness lasted only a few years. Following a July 1999 automobile accident in Gillespie County, Tammy pled no contest to a charge of driving while intoxicated, was fined $1,200, and ordered to serve one year of probation and do community service. Dewhurst announced his wife would "give up drinking and enroll herself in a clinic full time," but within a year, Tammy and David were divorced.

Dewhurst's business life, meanwhile, became astoundingly successful. In 1996, CalEnergy Company bought three gas-fired power plants from Falcon Seaboard for $226 million. With his fortune secure, Dewhurst began donating large sums of money to GOP causes. Between 1994 and 1997, Dewhurst gave George W. Bush $105,000. Since 1990, he's given more than half a million dollars to the Republican Party and Republican candidates. But before long, the GOP underwriter was toying with the idea of running for office -- or more precisely, spending for office -- himself. In 1997 Dewhurst took the plunge, declaring his candidacy for land commissioner. In the 1998 race featuring George W. Bush and Garry Mauro at the top of the ballot, Dewhurst spent $8 million -- half from his own pocket -- to overwhelm (57%-40%) state Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Benavides.

He's spent the last four years at the General Land Office, managing state lands, coastal beach and erosion programs, and the veterans' home loan program. Commissioner Dewhurst hasn't made any big mistakes, nor has he particularly distinguished himself. His campaign touts his budget cuts -- the actual amount is in dispute -- but he accomplished those cuts by unceremoniously firing many of the GLO's most experienced employees, undermining the agency's ability to audit oil and gas royalties owed to the state for education. He helped get $15 million out of the Legislature to combat beach erosion -- but he's also worked to undermine the state's Open Beaches Act.

Since 1959, by law the state's beaches belong to all Texans in perpetuity, making it the only state with no private beaches. Beachfront houses or structures that end up "seaward of the vegetation line as a result of natural processes" are subject to legal condemnation and removal. Rather than insisting on enforcement against the most egregious cases of homeowners encroaching on public beaches after the massive erosion caused by Tropical Storm Frances in 1998, Dewhurst punted and referred every case he could find -- all 107 of them -- to Attorney General John Cornyn. Dewhurst then publicly called for a reconsideration of the Open Beaches Act -- proposing to undermine the act by compensating private land owners whose beach houses (most often inevitably) end up on the public's land.

"The coastal erosion issues are worse now due to [September's] Tropical Storm Fay, but Dewhurst hasn't done anything about it," charges Ellis Pickett, chairman of the Texas chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, a national organization that promotes beach access and coastal conservation. "Had the state been better about enforcing the act after Frances, it wouldn't be as bad as it is now."

Yet politically speaking, Dewhurst's history at the GLO is essentially immaterial -- his race against Sharp will be decided on his ability to project his image. Dewhurst's ads flog his image as a "conservative who does what he says" while blasting Sharp for being a "liberal" and for supporting Democratic presidential candidates Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and Bill Bradley. Dewhurst's ability to raise his name identification and motivate his targeted voters -- middle-class Anglo men -- will determine whether or not he wins.

David Dewhurst
David Dewhurst


Can He Win?

Of course he can. One recent poll showed Dewhurst leading Sharp by nine points, although other polls have the race much closer, with Sharp ahead in some -- confirming at least that polls are not elections. Texas has become (at least temporarily) a Republican state, and like Tony Sanchez, Dewhurst can use his personal fortune to buy any last-minute mail, TV, or radio he may need. (According to their tax returns, between 1998 and 2000 Dewhurst had personal income of $25.3 million, while Sharp's totaled $784,400.)

So far, Dewhurst has either given or lent his campaign $14.5 million. And he'll likely provide millions more before the campaign is over.

Dewhurst's Lite Guv campaign has two prongs: saturation television ads and grassroots campaigning. His early TV ads have featured Dewhurst the team roper as politician, astride a horse, dirt flying, as he and a fellow cowboy lasso beef on the hoof. He has ads attacking Sharp as a big-spending liberal and education spots (he's in favor of it) in heavy rotation. His best spot talks about how his family faced hard times when he was younger. "Dad died when I was three. Yet thanks to Texas teachers, I received a good -- no, a great -- education. ... Some people just talk about education. But for me, I know that improving education means opportunity for all."

His small-town-stumping strategy is similar to the one he used effectively in 1998, when he took a 107-city bus tour and was rewarded at the polls -- the only nonjudicial statewide candidate to garner more votes than Dewhurst was George W. Bush. That name, significantly, won't be on the ballot this year. This summer Dewhurst took another Texas bus tour, to 67 small towns and cities, courting the rural and suburban vote. That kind of setting plays to his strength, says John Lyle, a Houston lawyer who has known Dewhurst since he was a teenager. "One on one," Dewhurst is "as good a salesman as I've ever known in my life," says Lyle.

Although often at odds with the GOP establishment, Dewhurst has the backing of the hard right wing. He's received big contributions from a host of perennial conservative funders, including Dallas businessman Kenny Trout ($75,000), Dallas oil man Albert Huddleston ($50,000), Dallas computer magnates Sam and Charles Wyly ($32,500), and East Texas poultry magnate Lonnie "Bo" Pilgrim ($25,000). He's won the endorsements of dozens of small-town officials, many of them Democrats. He also has the strong backing of "FreePAC," which mailed out brochures of a gay couple kissing during the primary campaigns, targeting Republican legislators who failed to defeat a bill protecting gays and lesbians from hate crimes.

Acting Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff -- who will keep his Senate seat and remains one of the body's most respected members -- supported by 22 other Republicans, denounced the FreePAC mailing as "hate mail and political pornography." Dewhurst (who has donated to FreePAC) responded tepidly, saying only that the brochure was "unacceptable."

The only notable endorsements Dewhurst has won so far are ones from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the Texas Oil and Gas PAC and the Texas Restaurant Association PAC. By comparison, Sharp has been endorsed by most of the state's major business groups, including the Texas Medical Association, Texas Association of Realtors, Independent Bankers Association, Texas Civil Justice League, Farm Bureau, and Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. Those endorsements happened, says one former Republican member of the Senate, because the groups know and trust Sharp. "[Dewhurst has] been a statewide official for four years, and he's still an outsider in Austin," says the official. "He never went to the Austin Club. He didn't make friends with the lobby. He's weird shy. He just hasn't been in the mix."


Can He Govern?

That's the $20 million question -- for Dewhurst will probably spend that much in his assault on the Capitol. Yet if he's elected, his inexperience and lack of political savvy may end up costing the state dearly.

In the 2003 session, legislators will grapple with the biggest budget shortfall in recent memory -- $5-10 billion, perhaps more -- just to fund existing programs over the next biennium. Dewhurst's handlers insist he's such a savvy businessman that he can cut $5 billion from the state budget before breakfast. And he's also pledged -- like virtually every statewide candidate -- to balance the budget without raising taxes. Fat chance.

When it comes time to make hard decisions on the budget, Dewhurst's legislative inexperience could well make him wholly ineffective as lieutenant governor. The job demands well-honed political skills, more diplomacy than just about any other in state government, and good working relationships with a universe of local and statewide officials in order to clarify and set the Senate's agenda. Dewhurst may be able to rope a calf, but he hasn't shown the skills necessary to ride herd on 31 senators.

And that job will be doubly or triply hard given the enmity Dewhurst acquired during the redistricting fight last fall.

As land commissioner, Dewhurst is by law one of five members of the Legislative Redistricting Board, which meets once a decade to re-draw the state's legislative districts. During last year's sessions, several Republican senators met with Dewhurst and were led to believe that he would follow their recommendations in voting to re-draw the districts. According to several sources close to the matter, Dewhurst reneged on his pledge, and in the words of Ratliff, several members "went ballistic." Dewhurst lost a critical opportunity to gain the trust of the senators. "In the Senate, your word is everything," says Ratliff, and in the wake of the redistricting fight, Dewhurst's word ain't worth dirt. Two Republican senators -- Jane Nelson of Flower Mound and Chris Harris of Fort Worth -- had to sell their homes and move in order to stay within the boundaries of their newly drawn districts. Nelson was reportedly outraged. "I've never seen Jane so mad. She remained mad for months and months," said Republican Sen. Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio.

Other Republican senators displeased with Dewhurst included Robert Duncan of Lubbock, Teel Bivins of Amarillo, and Florence Shapiro of Addison. The lack of trust between Dewhurst and the members, combined with his apparent indifference to correcting his mistake, will likely make him a marked man. Some Senate sources say that nearly half the Republicans would probably rather strangle Dewhurst than work with him. "There are a lot of people looking forward to screwing with Dewhurst if he wins," says one prominent Democratic House member. "You are going to have to stand in line to pop him."

With no legislative experience, Dewhurst's learning curve on procedures could be steep and difficult. His immediate predecessors in the lieutenant governor's seat have all been far more experienced. Gov. Rick Perry, who preceded Ratliff, served in the Texas House, as did Bob Bullock before a long stint as comptroller. Before Bullock came Bill Hobby, who, before his election as lieutenant governor, served as Senate parliamentarian.

Compared to John Sharp, Dewhurst is the rawest of rookies. Sharp served in both the House and Senate, on the Railroad Commission, and as comptroller. Austin Democratic Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos calls Sharp "hands down, the better candidate in terms of experience. It's black and white." Barrientos says if Dewhurst is elected, the Senate may simply decide to "take the gavel away from him." In that case, the Senate would almost surely rely solely on its long-standing tradition of the two-thirds majority: If a senator can get 21 votes to bring a measure to the floor, he can run with it. With that two-thirds mechanism in place and Ratliff working as the de facto majority leader of the Senate, Dewhurst would likely be relegated to dangling his lasso at his Fredericksburg ranch.

How will Dewhurst address the challenges? What are his priorities? The answers to those questions are not forthcoming. Dewhurst's campaign refused to let me interview their candidate, nor would they even bother to provide a position paper describing Dewhurst's stands on state issues. His campaign ads say he'll address insurance and education. Dewhurst's solution to the homeowner insurance crisis is to limit damages against insurance companies, offering the same solution for medical malpractice insurance. In education, Dewhurst favors what his handlers call a "limited" school voucher program. He also supports more financial aid for college students, including no-interest student loans -- a portion of the loan could be forgiven if recipients graduate in four years.

But whatever agenda Dewhurst proposes will undoubtedly be hampered by his damaged relationships and utter lack of political skills. Nevertheless, one prominent former senator says he's going to vote for Dewhurst for one simple reason: He wants to watch the fireworks. "I'd like to see him win because it'll be a good show," said the former senator. "He will succeed greatly or fail miserably."

The smart money is betting on the latter.


A version of this story previously appeared in The Texas Observer. Bryce is a former Chronicle staff writer and the author of the just-published Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego, and the Death of Enron (PublicAffairs).

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