Bentzin's Tangled Web of Backers

An elite crew of critters helped bankroll Bentzin's unsuccessful, half-million dollar District 48 campaign

Ben Bentzin
Ben Bentzin
Photo By John Anderson

Republican Ben Bentzin's loss to Democrat Donna Howard last week carried a high price – not only for the GOP leadership that tried to engineer his victory in the House District 48 race, but for the party's elite group of donors who helped bankroll Bentzin's half-million dollar campaign.

As it happens, many of the high rollers and power brokers who played a role in the GOP's legislative sweep of 2002 (along with tort reform, redistricting, and persistent efforts to pass school voucher legislation and expand gaming interests in Texas) had hoped to further their run of good luck with Bentzin, a wealthy former Dell executive. Bentzin outdistanced Howard by a long shot in fundraising, collecting more than $555,000 since last fall to Howard's $240,000. But he couldn't muster the votes to beat Howard in either the Jan. 17 special election or the Feb. 14 run-off.

Howard, who fills the unexpired term of former GOP Rep. Todd Baxter, will represent the district in a special session on school finance this spring. She'll face Bentzin again in the November election to determine the District 48 representative for a two-year term. Until then, expect the Democrats to make plenty of hay out of Bentzin's financial ties to pro-voucher and pro-gaming donors. Bentzin had previously told the Statesman that he wouldn't accept money from gambling advocates, but a fair number of his lobby contributors represent clients with gaming interests. Some of these lobbyists and other influential donors are listed below:

Texans for Lawsuit Reform, $36,000: This tort reform PAC bankrolled many of the same GOP candidates backed by Tom DeLay's Texans for a Republican Majority in the 2002 election. Several of TLR's major underwriters also contributed generously to Bentzin.

Bob Perry, $50,000: This Houston homebuilder is the largest single political donor in Texas, with Republican candidates getting the lion's share of contributions. Perry was the top TLR contributor in 2002; his money and influence helped create the anti-consumer Texas Residential Construction Commission.

James Leininger, $20,000: The San Antonio millionaire and voucher proponent is making his biggest pro-voucher mark yet this year in a quest to unseat GOP incumbents who joined Democrats to defeat his voucher bill in 2005.

HillCo PAC, $15,000: Austin's lobby powerhouse founded by Neal "Buddy" Jones and Bill Miller, who was part of House Speaker Tom Craddick's transition team in 2002.

Bill Messer, $500: Lobbyist and Craddick friend; clients include TLR and the Texas Greyhound Association.

Mike Toomey, $1,000: Lobbyist who helped engineer the GOP House sweep in 2002; clients include TLR and slot-machine proponents Big City Capital LLC and Sam Houston Race Park.

Louis Beecherl, $5,000: Dallas oil and gas tycoon and Bush pioneer who gives generously to pro-voucher candidates and was a top TRMPAC donor in 2002; serves on the board of Putting Children First, a pro-voucher PAC.

Harold Simmons, $6,000: Corporate raider, Dallas billionaire, and Republican fundraiser with controlling interests in Contran Corp. and Valhi Inc., holding companies that each contributed $10,000 to DeLay's legal defense fund. Simmons kicked in $10,000 as well. Simmons' Waste Control Specialists owns nuclear waste dumps in West Texas.

Timothy Timmerman, $1,000: Part-owner of Austin Jockey Club, which last year lost an effort to build a race track on Timmerman's property in Pflugerville.

James Mansour, $500: Voucher proponent and chairman of Grande Communications; board member and founding chair of CEO America, a pro-voucher nonprofit group.

William McMinn, $5,000: Founder of the Sterling Group of Houston and a leading contributor to pro-voucher candidates. He is a board member of Putting Children First and serves on the Texas Tax Reform Commission.

Robert Rowling, $10,000: Irving oil and gas billionaire, UT regent, and owner of TRT Holdings Inc., an investment company that controls the Omni hotel chain; serves on the Texas Tax Reform Commission.

Lowry Mays, $1,000: Founder of Clear Channel Communications and a major GOP contributor.

R. Steven Hicks, $2,500: Austin investor who made it rich in the radio broadcasting industry; Bush pioneer.

Sources: Texas Ethics Commission, Texans for Public Justice, Public Citizen

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