Gramm's Best Friend

Gramm's Got What Morales Needs: Money, Answers

Gaining a seat in the world's most exclusive millionaire's club -- the U.S. Senate -- has never been easy. But it's particularly difficult if you are an underfunded political novice. Just ask Victor Morales. As the Texas Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, Morales, a high school teacher from Mesquite, has overcome a panoply of obstacles. He's also made plenty of mistakes. And with just a few days before the election, Morales continues to trail Sen. Phil Gramm by a large margin.

Gramm, the Republican incumbent, continues to spend heavily on ads attacking Morales. Since July, Gramm has been running radio and television ads denouncing Morales' left-leaning positions on issues like affirmative action. And the GOP continues to hound Morales about his wife's failure to pay back a student loan. GOP loyalists have been following Morales at campaign stops with members of what they call the "deadbeat patrol." (Morales and his wife have arranged to repay the loan.)

Morales said early on that he wouldn't go negative about Gramm, a tactic that while laudable, seems almost quaint. After all, Gramm is vulnerable on a number of fronts. He was humiliated in his run for the GOP presidential nomination, spending $28.7 million in one of the most spectacularly awful presidential bids since another Texan, John Connally, decided to run for the White House in 1980. While campaigning for the presidency, Gramm missed a series of important votes in the Senate, including the vote on the 1996 Farm Bill. And there are the continuing allegations about Gramm's financial dealings and his ties to characters who made huge illegal profits from the savings and loan crisis.

Morales, whose grass-roots, low-budget campaign cast him as a representative for the Little Guy, has had the kind of media attention that most candidates would kill for. His picture was on the front page of The New York Times and earlier this month, he was the subject of a profile in the paper's Sunday magazine. He's been on numerous talk shows, including the Today show. But Morales hasn't been able to capitalize on all that free press with ads of his own. And he's only getting a little help from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) . The DSCC announced last Thursday that it will give Morales between $100,000 and $200,000. The group could have given him $1.6 million. A DSCC spokesman told The Austin Chronicle last week that their polls showed Morales within 10 points of Gramm. Even if that's the case, the DSCC gift seems to indicate a lack of belief that Morales can beat Gramm.

Hispanic voters hold the key to Morales' success or failure. He spent two days last week campaigning along the border and he clearly understands the political importance of Hispanics. "If my voters turn out, it's a piece of cake," Morales told the Chronicle last May.

But lately, Morales has been sounding less hopeful. Instead, he has been telling audiences that he doesn't need the job, that he won't be disappointed if he loses and that he will be happy to go back to his wife and children. "I don't need this job like Phil does," he told the local daily.

That's probably a good thing. Because Gramm -- as usual -- is running like he wants to win. Morales has been running like he's just happy to be in the race. And he has hurt his bid by making numerous mistakes. He called U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla "a coconut" and he admitted in off-the-cuff remarks that he has had impure thoughts about some of the high school girls in his classes. In September, Morales made a tactical blunder by refusing to debate Gramm. Morales insisted on a date in October. The problem was, Morales was (and is) trailing badly in the polls. He needed the debate. Gramm didn't. So Gramm simply refused to accommodate Morales. The two ended up appearing on Dallas public television for one hour interviews. The result: Morales has not had an opportunity to challenge the incumbent face to face.

And Morales can't beat his opponent with his organization. Unlike Gramm, who can rely on the Texas GOP to help him organize campaign committees in the major markets, the Texas Democratic Party has done little to help Morales. One prominent Democratic operative from Austin says that he offered to help organize Morales' supporters in Austin. He later got a call from a Morales supporter asking if he would be a "pit boss," a term usually reserved for casino employees. And could he, asked the Morales supporter, get five people to donate $5 to Morales' campaign? The operative declined.

But all of those problems pale in comparison to Morales' biggest weakness: money. According to an AP story published last week, Gramm has lots of what he has called the politician's best friend: "ready money." Gramm has raised
$2.3 million this year while Morales has raised just $632,000. Gramm, who had a hefty war chest in the bank at the beginning of the year, has already spent $4.6 million this year. Morales has spent only $300,000, but he will have enough money to buy TV time before the election.

On the stump, Gramm has stayed with two major themes: crime and taxes. During a speech in Austin to the Texas Reform Party, Gramm also advocated making federal prisoners work for their keep. And he often invokes his mother, who, he says, lives in a house with bars on the windows. Gramm says he wants to change the situation so that the "criminals will have bars on their windows."

Gramm, who frequently repeats his claim that he was "conservative before conservative was cool" also trumpets his conservative stand on abortion, the need for a balanced budget, a strong defense and federal troops on the Mexican border.

While Gramm touts his stance on issues, Morales has been running primarily on a platform of "I'm not Phil Gramm." At a speech at Huston-Tillotson College this summer, Morales was asked what his three most important campaign issues were; he answered, "education, education, education." The reason for his support of education, he said, was that it lies at the root of the problems with crime, welfare, and other social ills. When it comes to other issues, however, Morales doesn't have many answers. That approach was kind of cute when he was first making a name for himself campaigning by the seat of his pants across the state in his now-famous white pickup. But now that the weeks have turned into months, that naiveté has lost its appeal. Not only is he still without a lot of answers, it's also apparent that he hasn't tried very hard to learn what the questions are. "But I'm pure of heart," he says in defense of his ignorance, "and you can't take that away from me."

The other two candidates in the race for U.S. senate are John Huff, M.D., and Michael E. Bird. Huff, an ophthalmologist from Sugarland who is the Natural Law candidate, says he's "not running against Phil Gramm or Victor Morales, I'm running with them for a seat." But having spent just $2,000 on his campaign, Huff admits he doesn't have much of a chance. "We are hoping to win," says Huff. "We know for certain we will spread the message about a grassroots party and a party that doesn't have any commitments to any PACs. It's a voter's party." (See the Chronicle's story on the Natural Law party on page 24.)

Bird, a legal assistant from San Antonio who is running as a Libertarian, has spent less than $500 on his campaign. "A lot of my campaign has to do with word-of-mouth," says Bird. But having spent so little, can he win? "I'd better, for America's sake," he said. Asked what he'd do if elected, Bird said he would "introduce a bill making it illegal for legislators to use deceptive language." He adds that the difference between him and Gramm and Morales is that "they want to take your money and I want to give it back." You can view the Libertarian Party's platform at http://www.lp.org.

Pure of heart or not, Morales' campaign has changed Texas politics. He has proven that a fresh face can occasionally break through the ranks to challenge the status quo. But it also appears that Morales' 15 minutes of fame are just about up. And barring a miracle or a huge turnout by Hispanic voters, he will soon be back in his classroom at Poteet High School. n

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