A Day at the Races

Outside Austin, Primary Battles Start Heating Up

David Fisher
David Fisher

That giant snoring sound you hear is coming out of local voters, at least four out of five of whom will be too busy washing their socks to come to the polls for the March 14 primaries. But though you wouldn't know it from the dreary (outside of District 48) Travis County ballot, where the hottest race is for a county court-at-law seat, there are places in this great metropolis, state, and nation where the next month's spate of down-ballot races will actually matter. Here are some to watch:


What's Doing in Central Texas

Being a bitter desert where Democratic seed can find no purchase, all of Williamson County's electoral action, save in one constable's race, will be over by March 14. Topping the local ballot is a three-way race to succeed retiring sheriff Ed Richards. Former FBI agent John Maspero is favored, but not heavily, over two of Richards' former deputies, Ricki Russell and Rick Faught, the latter of whom was fired after years of alleged incompetence and miscreance. He, of course, feels unfairly treated, and enough voters seem to agree to make a runoff likely. Maspero and Russell represent fairly divergent approaches, with Maspero calling for increased sophistication and professionalism, and Russell a return to small-town values and style.

Down ballot is another former badgeholder seeking to wash away past sins in the blood of the electoral lamb. In a big-deal story in placid Williamson County, Dennis Jaroszewski had to resign the Precinct 3 constable's seat -- representing Georgetown and points north -- in 1998 to avoid trial on charges that he used the county's computers to surf for cyberporn, among other allegations of misconduct turned up by investigators. He's running for his old job against his appointed successor, Bobby Gutierrez; one of his former lieutenants, Bill Schwettmann; a former deputy constable from another precinct, Mike Fox; and a former Lago Vista police officer, David Davis. Gutierrez is favored, but Jaroszewski, like Faught, has many fans who feel he was shabbily treated. The winner will face Florence police chief Michael Tipton, the one Democrat on that ballot, in November.

The only county commissioner to face a challenger is Georgetown's David Hays, whose opponent, Bill Gabler, a free-marketeer opposed to growth-promoting tax abatements and subsidies, is given small chance. A tumultuous five-way race for an open justice of the peace seat -- featuring three former peace officers and a former member of the state parole board -- is also attracting local interest.

The hottest race in Hays County is on the Commissioners Court in Precinct 3 (which includes Wimberley), where Republican incumbent Bill Burnett is facing primary opposition from Craig Payne, the four-term veteran Burnett replaced in 1996, and by neighborhood leader Carol Mitchell. On the Democratic side, two enviro candidates, businessman Red Tatum and green-builder Elizabeth Sumter, are squaring off.

The Dems have the Precinct 1 race (including most of San Marcos) to themselves, since no Republican filed; it pits one-term incumbent Debbie Gonzales-Ingalsbe, the first female commissioner in Hays County history, against four-term San Marcos City Council member Rick Hernandez (not to be confused with the similarly named Bastrop County sheriff) in what should be a tight contest.

Les Tarrance
Les Tarrance

Things are so torpid down in Caldwell County that nobody, in either party, filed for either the district attorney or county attorney race. The two big contests are for Precinct 1 commissioner (the eastern edge of the county, out by Dale and Prairie Lea), where 11-year veteran Morris Alexander has three Democratic primary challengers, and for sheriff, where 14-year incumbent Mike Bading has four Dem opponents. Both incumbents are favored; of all the Dems on the Caldwell ballot, Bading alone will face a Republican in November -- Chuck George, who sells propane and propane accessories. The primary is an even smaller event in Bastrop County, where there are no Republicans on the ballot at all, and where only the constables face primary opposition.


Around the State

The race everyone cares about is for the District 3 state Senate seat being vacated by conservative Republican and celebrity john Drew Nixon. (He was just looking for a church, you know.) The East Texas district stretches from the Houston suburbs into the rural hinterlands, which lays out the battle lines of the GOP primary contest.

From the sticks comes state Rep. Todd Staples of Palestine, who trumpets his 100%-voting-record honors from the Christian Coalition. From the 'burbs comes homebuilder Les Tarrance of The Woodlands, an amply funded fiscal conservative with the key endorsement of U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, also of The Woodlands. A third Republican, Van Brookshire of Coldspring, will likely push Staples and Tarrance into a runoff for what may end up being the most expensive legislative race in Texas history.

The winner will face David Fisher of Newton, the young-tyro grandson of U.S. District Judge Joe Fisher, who has graced the federal benches of the Deep East for about a billion years. This is really the only race the Texas Democratic Party cares about, having taken a powder on the entire statewide ballot, so expect to see the D's pour as much of their meager resources as they can spare into this swing district in an effort to reverse the GOP's 16-15 majority in the upper house before the 2001 redistricting battle.

The only potentially (but not very) vulnerable Democrat in the Senate, veteran David Cain of Dallas, will face one of three aspiring GOP challengers, of whom Greenville physician Bob Deuell -- "A Prescription for a Better Texas" -- seems best positioned for the challenge.

For their part, the Republicans are putting on a brave face about not only keeping the Senate but taking the House, which would require a net GOP gain of four seats. Unfortunately for the Pachyderms, 146 of the 150 House incumbents are running again, and of the four open seats, only one is currently held by a Democrat. That would be our own District 48, being vacated by Sherri Greenberg, and the chances of it swinging are not great. Not as great, in fact, as the possibility that the R's will lose the District 11 seat being vacated by Staples, who was the first Republican ever to win the district; two Dems and two GOP candidates will wrestle for that one in the primary.

The other two open House seats are safely Republican; there's no primary action on either side to succeed District 89's Sue Palmer of Fort Worth, but two R's -- carpet cleaner Aubrey Thoede and former congressional aide and UT baseball jock Corbin Van Arsdale -- are contesting to claim the District 130 seat being abandoned by Houston's John Culberson in his run for Congress. Two vulnerable Democratic incumbents, Dan Ellis of Huntsville (Dist. 18) and Robby Cook of Eagle Lake (Dist. 28), have easy passes in the primary, but both districts have contests on the GOP side.

Todd Staples
Todd Staples

Over at the Harris County District Attorney's office, which legendary D.A. John B. Holmes is leaving after 20 rough and often rocky years, things are starting to heat up again for the first time in nearly half a century. Five Republicans are jostling to fill the seat being retired by Holmes next January; like Holmes, all five support the death penalty and would continue seeking it aggressively in Harris County (whence one-third of the inmates on Texas' death row hail).

Chuck Rosenthal, who has the support of Holmes and the two D.A.'s who preceded him in office, Carol Vance and Frank Biscoe, has the edge. But two other candidates, Michael Stafford and Pat Lykos, are giving Rosenthal a run for his money (some $64,000 worth), making this the first real race for district attorney Harris County has seen in some 40 years. (Lloyd Kelley and Jim Leitner are the Republican also-rans.) The winner will face Democrat Jim Dougherty, who is running unopposed, in November. As for our men and women in Washington, all the action is in Houston's District 7, being vacated after three decades by current Ways and Means Committee chair Bill Archer. Nine Republicans are fighting for what is ultimately a free pass in this rock-solid GOP district, whose constituents include George and Barbara Bush. One of them is named Bill Archer but is unrelated to the incumbent. The four strongest contestants are Culberson; local big-deal minister Wallace Henley; Ron Kapche, the point man of Gov. Bush's welfare-reform effort; and Cathy McConn, a bigwig in the state Republican Party (she's currently the national committeewoman). She's probably the narrow favorite, but a runoff is likely.

Elsewhere in the state, despite the biennial buzz about all our vulnerable Democrats, the GOP has mostly put forth a bunch of tomato cans. The weakest D in the delegation, Charlie Stenholm of Abilene, will face either young conservative Shane Hunt or district magistrate Darrell Clements, neither a particularly fearsome opponent for a 13-term incumbent. Perhaps the most interesting GOP candidate is Michael "Fjet" Fjetrand, a fiscally conservative but environmentally progressive R taking on, of all people, Tom DeLay.


The National Landscape

All that blather about the primary season being over by March 14 is only true for the presidential race; the primary contests for key congressional and gubernatorial races stretch from now until September. The first of these is California's on March 7, which is an open primary for everything but the presidential race and thus offers a dress rehearsal for November. At the top of the ticket, Sen. Dianne Feinstein will be challenged by several strong Republicans, of whom U.S. Rep Tom Campbell, who represents much of Silicon Valley, is favored.

Taking out Feinstein, however, would be a pretty big upset, and the California GOP is more focused on holding onto four extremely vulnerable House seats -- which is a lot, since the Dems only need a net gain of six seats to retake the House. (They need the same gain to take the Senate, but that will, of course, be much harder.)

One of these is the seat being vacated by Campbell, where there are four strong Democratic primary candidates. In Los Angeles, impeachment star James Rogan will be run ragged by Democratic state Sen. Adam Schiff, and first-termer Steve Kuykendall will be vexed by the woman he replaced, millionaire Jane Harman, who left the seat in a surprisingly pathetic bid for the governorship. And in San Diego, first-termer Brian Bilbray, who won his seat with less than 50% of the vote, is being tormented by popular term-limited State Assemblywoman Susan Davis, who has already raised more money than the incumbent.

Also on March 7, voters in Ohio will choose Democratic cannon fodder for incumbent GOP Senator Mike DeWine. Of more interest is the GOP House seat in Columbus vacated by presidential non-starter John Kasich, which could also swing Democrat; two power Republicans in the Ohio statehouse are battling in the primary to keep that from happening in November.

Speaking of cannon fodder, four Democrats are doing battle in Mississippi on March 14 for the chance to be eaten by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

For sheer quantity, you can't beat the Illinois primary on March 21, where 11 Republicans are competing for their party's nod to replace retiring GOP Rep. John Edward Porter in a potential swing district north of Chicago. Three more R's -- including one who's already won the primary but lost in November, three times in a row -- are lining up for the chance to bump off Rep. Lane Smith of Rock Island, one of the House's more vulnerable Democrats. The battle for Congress then moves to Pennsylvania on April 4, where five Democrats fight for the nomination against GOP weakling Rick Santorum, and three swinging House seats -- two Democrat and one Republican -- are in play.

Oh, and there's one more Election 2000 note being sounded in March, right here in our own Cactus Cafe, where Smithereens frontman Pat Dinizio -- a declared Reform Party candidate for the Senate seat being vacated by New Jersey's Frank Lautenberg -- is scheduled to play a South by Southwest showcase. end story

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