In a couple of weeks, we face an election as confused as it is crucial. Right now, in this country, no one wants to talk politics, and the whole situation is messier and even more nauseating than usual. Politicians are running as "businessman" rather than "politician" and you can't blame them. In Texas, the election is probably going to be devastating. George Bush's coattails are likely to sweep a lot of incompetents into office, and where the state faces some pretty clear-cut choices, the people are going to vote against their own best interests. We're not even going to go into the Clinton factor, because so far we have been able to keep this page pure of that overexposed farce.

The Chronicle claims to be independent, but more often than not we endorse Democrats. Given our ideology, this should be no surprise. And though third party candidates sometimes offer good ideas, they all too often seem to be confused about what they are running for, more interested in comprehensive ideological changes than the niceties of the particular office for which they are running.

We think this is an election filled with some easy choices as well as some more complicated ones, but given the rightward drift of this once more independent state, we are not optimistic about the outcome. Starting with last issue's coverage of Lloyd Doggett, and continuing with this issue through the next couple, we will offer extensive coverage on the current state of city, county, and state politics -- the major concerns and the likely developments. The Bush victory looming like a tidal wave, the national confusion, and the ongoing personality change of Texas politics aside, there are many clear-cut issues this election, and it should not be taken for granted. You, the voter, are the major player in this; exercise your rights. Below are our endorsements in the state races being contested Nov. 3; we'll offer our endorsements in the local races next week. Meanwhile, remember that early voting starts this Saturday.

Governor: Garry Mauro

The polls have buried him; the pundits have written his obit. He's been slammed all over town for the Hog Farm and Triangle debacles, slagged for his personal style, and even his kid's godfatherendorsed his opponent. Worst of all, Texas voters, used to seeing their governor as merely a figurehead, seem more than happy to let George W. keep the seat warm for a couple more years before his coronation as the next Texan President.

Amid all this political inevitability, there's just one incongruous, yet inescapable fact.

Garry Mauro would clearly make a better governor than George W. Bush. And were he elected, you would feel the difference over the next four years -- in your air, in your water, in your schools, in your health care, and yes, probably in your pocketbook as well.

What? Can a Texas governor really make that much of a difference? Yes, on certain issues, (s)he can; and moreover, Bush, despite his placid, do-nothing persona, already has. Here's how:

  • The Clean Air Act: Bush has stonewalled enforcement of this federal act, contrived to exempt inefficient industrial polluters, and generally fought all attempts to identify and regulate air quality problems. Mauro says he'd reverse these policies, and since these are regulatory, not legislative, issues, they're in his direct purview.
  • Water pollution and Superfund cleanup: Bush has been foot-dragging here, as well; with gobs of federal money available to clean up toxic waste sites and groundwater contamination, Bush has slashed requests for both cleaning up known sites and identifying new ones. This, too, is a policy issue under the direct control of the governor and his appointees.
  • Education: Mauro would need to muster the legislature here, for sure, since the budget is not something the governor can control directly, but at least he has a specific, feasible plan, focused on basic educational values: quality teachers and smaller class sizes. Bush is touting a policy as well, but note that of his "$3.6 billion in newfunding for education," $2 billion is actually property tax relief which goes almost exclusively to wealthy landowners, and most of the rest is focused on teaching and enforcing the high-profile, but only marginally valuable, TAAS tests.
  • Health care reform: This, too, is largely a legislative initiative, but then again, Bush had chances in each of the last two legislatures to sign "Patient Protection" legislation into law, and he vetoed one bill and refused to sign the other. Mauro promises to push HMO reform through the Lege again, and to bring it to fruition this time.

Those are just a few of the differences; there are many more. Somehow, however, Mauro has never been able to turn the debate away from his 30-point deficit in the polls. That's a pity. This state deserves better.

Lieutenant Governor: John Sharp

Sharp represents the best of the so-called New Democrats -- he's pragmatic, but visionary in his own temperate way. His tenure as Comptroller of Public Accounts has been marked by brainstorms that improved the efficiency and effectiveness of government programs, from the Texas Tomorrow Fund (which allows parents to secure today's prices for their kids' future college education), to the Lone Star Card (an ATM-type card replacing the old paper food stamp system), to the Texas Performance Review (a performance audit of state government). Though he's kept a chilly distance from the electorally challenged Mauro campaign, Sharp is still a Democrat; the major issue that separates him from Rick Perry proves it. Public education is the last ideological battleground among the centrist Republicrats who are gaining power nationwide, and Sharp has distinguished himself by opposing the siphoning of money from public schools through the use of vouchers.

Retiring Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock will take some of the office's mythic stature with him when he goes, and the Texas Senate is expected to recognize this by curtailing the powers of the office (especially those dealing with the appointment of committee members and chairs) accordingly. But it's the state constitution that gives the Lt. Gov. the chairmanship of the Legislative Budget Board, a power the Senate can't touch. Though little known, the budget-writing LBB is a powerful, bipartisan outfit which Sharp is a natural choice to lead; he was, after all, the state's chief revenue estimator and tax collector for eight years. Even the conservative Farm Bureau has endorsed Sharp over his GOP opponent, sitting Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry. Sharp is the better man for this job, and for a certain higher one that fate -- or the political ambitions of Governor George W. Bush -- might hand him.

Attorney General: Jim Mattox

Mattox was the best attorney general this state has had in the last 20 years. He may be the junkyard dog of politics, but his junkyard belonged to the voter, not the power elite, to the consumer, not the big monied interests, and to the state, not to politics. He hired the best attorneys in the state to concentrate on the People's issues. Rather than ducking controversy, he sought the truth. The current attorney general's office is a pale imitation of Mattox's.

His opponent, John Cornyn, is obviously running for something other than Attorney General, because what he's campaigning on is that he wants to be tough on crime and keep drugs away from kids. These are admirable goals, but not really in any way the province of the AG's office. Either Cornyn is confused, or he's shamelessly lying to and manipulating the electorate. If he has no respect for you as voters, can you imagine, if he won, how he would treat you as citizens?

Comptroller: Paul Hobby

We could say that anyone would be a better choice than Carole Keeton Rylander, but that would be too easy. We endorse Paul Hobby because he clearly is the better of the two candidates. Thankfully, Hobby holds a track record that goes beyond his family's fortune and fame in Texas politics. While this is his first bid for an elected office, Hobby is no stranger to government service. He was Gov. Ann Richards' appointed chair of the Texas General Services Commission, where he worked to increase the number of contracts granted to minority vendors and dedicated himself to turning the little-known GSC into an agency more accessible to the public. Hobby also has earned praise as a federal prosecutor and as Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock's chief of staff. He has also demonstrated his business and management acumen in the private sector, which should serve him well as comptroller. While Rylander has a much longer history of running for -- and winning -- powerful seats in public office, our former mayor unfortunately has a record of quitting jobs prematurely to move on to higher political ground. Ambition and drive are one thing, but Rylander's party-switching (she's a former liberal Democrat) and job-hopping smell more like self-aggrandizement than commitment and dedication to the public she is supposed to serve. Lucky for all of us, Rylander drew a strong opponent in this race. Hobby has our vote.

General Land Office Commissioner: Richard Raymond

This race exhibits all your classic elements of Democrat-Republican polarization. Despite the fact that both the Raymond and David Dewhurst camps have perpetuated a mud-soaked festival of personal attacks, a lot more is at stake than whether Raymond learned his Spanish from his grandmother and Dewhurst from his time as a CIA operative in a shady coup of the Bolivian government. Land Commission policy touches everything from environmental protection to public schools and veterans' assistance. Raymond, the Democrat, favors free public beaches and stricter regulation of the oil and gas industry, and opposes school vouchers. Republican Dewhurst, a multi-millionaire who made his fortune in the oil and gas industry, masks his industry-friendly politics as concern for the rights of private landowners, and backs school vouchers. If those issues weren't enough to sway us to Raymond, simple qualifications would. While Dewhurst's credentials for the job essentially amount to his indisputable ability to make a lot of money off of Texas land, Raymond's decade of government experience, first as assistant to Land Commissioner Garry Mauro and for the past five years as the state representative from Benevides, make him the clear choice.

Commissioner of Agriculture:
L.P. "Pete" Patterson

Pete Patterson still works on the same East Texas farm where he grew up. He has been a member of the state Legislature for 21 years, and has served on the House Agriculture and Livestock committee during his tenure, chairing the committee for the past four terms. While there, he has carried the banner for rural Texas and as agriculture commissioner will continue to work to promote all areas of Texas agriculture. Patterson wants to level the playing field for Texas producers -- particularly smaller producers and their employees. He wants to enact regulatory standards for organic and imported goods, and a safe food policy to guarantee that food imported into Texas meets the same standards of purity and safety as food produced in the U.S. This can only be good news to consumers as well as farmers and ranchers of all sizes. As Texas farmers are reeling from this summer's drought, it is also important to note Patterson's pledge to lobby for the repeal of the Republican-driven "Freedom to Farm'' Act of 1996 that removed government production controls and subsidies that used to kick in when crop prices dropped. The ag commissioner's post is not merely a stepping stone to higher office for Patterson. This is where his passion and his expertise lie. With his legislative experience and understanding of agricultural issues, Patterson gets our support.

Railroad Commission: No Endorsement

The Texas Railroad Commission has become the governmental equivalent of the commissioner of baseball. Just as baseball commissioner Bud Selig can't or won't prevent his fellow team owners from doing exactly what they want, so too does the Railroad Commission do the bidding of its owners. Maybe it's a bad analogy, but the Railroad Commission can no longer claim to be a vital agency of state government. Instead, it has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the trucking, oil, and gas industries. We are not endorsing a candidate in this race because there's no reason to. The Railroad Commission is an anachronism. It has an important place in Texas political history, but has now become almost irrelevant, merely a stepping stone for politicians eager to run for higher office. And because commissioners can actively seek contributions from the companies they regulate, they can accumulate substantial war chests while plotting their next campaign. (For Exhibit A, see Carole Keeton Rylander.)

Even the name of the Railroad Commission is misleading. Ever since the Staggers Act was passed by Congress in 1980, states have had virtually no authority to regulate railroads. Instead, almost all regulation is done at the federal level. A few years ago, the state got rid of the Treasurer's Office and transferred its duties to other agencies. It's time to make a similar move with the Railroad Commission.

Supreme Court Justice, Place 1: Mike Westergren

Westergren, a Democrat, has built a reputation as a common sense jurist. He has served since 1984 as a district judge in Corpus Christi, where he won high marks for his professional handling of the high-profile Selena murder trial. He has shown a commitment to high ethics by signing the Fair Campaign Practices Pledge, which strictly limits special interest campaign contributions, and he is supported by major campaign reform groups. He is our choice, as well.

Supreme Court, Place 2: Rose Spector

Spector, the first woman ever elected to the Texas Supreme Court, brings a much-needed moderate voice to the ultraconservative court. One of only two Democrats on the court, the Place 2 incumbent is often the target of business, professional, and tort reform interests who consider her the court's "liberal" voice. But despite these attacks, Spector has served with distinction, and has developed a reputation for fairness and independence.

Supreme Court, Place 3: David Van Os

Van Os, an attorney who has spent 22 years working in all levels of the legal system, is our choice for Place 3. The Austin Democrat wants to take the power of the Texas Supreme Court away from giant corporations and give it back to the people. Van Os built his reputation as a strong labor lawyer, looking out for the little guy. Too often the current majority seems to be guarding only the interests of the wealthy and big business. Van Os will bring a long overlooked populist voice to the bench.

Supreme Court Justice, Place 4: Deborah Hankinson

This Republican appointee to the state's highest court has proven to be a refreshing addition to a predominantly conservative panel. Gov. Bush appointed Hankinson, a Dallas native, to the court in October 1997 to fill the unexpired term of John Cornyn, who resigned to run for attorney general. Since then, Hankinson has proven to be an independent thinker on the court, not a lapdog for the right. A former special education teacher, Hankinson served on the Fifth District Court of Appeals in Dallas, first as an appointee, then as an elected justice. While on the appeals court she earned a reputation as a fair and forward-thinking justice. She has earned an equally stellar reputation on the Supreme Court. She deserves to stay where she is.

Criminal Appeals Court, Place 1: Charlie Baird

Charles F. (Charlie) Baird has served on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals since 1990, and is a highly respected and qualified jurist who brings leadership and balance to the court. The most senior member on the bench, this Democrat has authored more than 750 opinions, and has been the highest-rated statewide judge in judicial bar polls. Add to that the disturbing fact that his opponent, District Judge Mike Keasler, recently had to apologize for making racial comments in notes during a jury selection process -- obviously unacceptable behavior for someone seeking to sit on the court that decides death penalty cases, which are notoriously racially charged. Baird's solid reputation make him the obvious choice for Place 1.

Criminal Appeals Court, Place 2: Winston Cochran

As a criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor, Cochran, of Harris County, would bring broad-based expertise to the court. While his Republican opponent, Cheryl Johnson, also has an impressive criminal law background, we believe Democrat Cochran is the best candidate.

Criminal Appeals Court, Place 3: Lawrence "Larry" Meyers

This race is fairly cut and dried. Meyers, the GOP incumbent, is running for another term against Libertarian Larry S. Perry. Meyers, first elected to the court in 1992, has done a good job by most accounts, and is well liked by attorneys on both sides of the political fence.

Next week: The local races.

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