If You Can't Stand the Heat ...
The Hottest Legislative Race in the Region Is About to Get Hotter
October arrived and Austin had heard nary a peep from the campaigns of the only contested state legislative race in the city. Democrat Ann Kitchen and Republican Jill Warren are running for the House seat vacated by Democrat Sheri Greenberg, and the silence is bad news for the Republicans, who face an uphill battle in District 48 -- a north-to-south swath that covers traditional Democratic enclaves in progressive West Austin, and liberal and Hispanic neighborhoods in South Austin.
A bumpier road to the polls might at least give Warren some hope that Kitchen would trip and stumble. Or it might provide more visibility, a better chance for Warren to latch on to the "Texas Proud" movement that has everyone grinning about the prospect of one of our boys making it to the White House. So the Warren camp took the first step, throwing a little trash in the road last week in an attempt to attack Kitchen's ethics.
Warren is a high tech lawyer and marathon runner who surfaced from a pack of five Republicans in the primary and looked forward to statewide support from her party. And conventional wisdom suggests that the party should get behind Warren. The GOP needs to pick up only three seats to control the Texas House. And this one was occupied by Republican Terral Smith throughout the Eighties, which suggests that there is a block of Republicans in the district. Warren hoped to unite them with "undecided independents" -- including newcomers to Austin who might not relate to Kitchen, a product of the Austin green movement and a major player in the Save Our Springs Coalition. This is not to suggest that Kitchen would be easy to defeat. Backed by a well-organized campaign run by the darlings of local Democratic politics -- David Butts, Dean Rindy, Todd Main, and Kitchen's husband Mark Yznaga -- she had dispatched Mandy Dealey by an almost three-to-one margin in the Democratic primary. The same team is still with Kitchen, though Warren's backers are betting that they're irrelevant in a race with a moderate Republican.
But a careful look at legislative electoral politics suggests that while the Republican Party is not sitting this race out, it might be content to wait until 2002 before putting too much money and effort into District 48. In 2001, redistricting will radically change the political landscape, most certainly in the GOP's favor. With too many people stacked in Republican Terry Keel's District 47 in western Travis County, it's a safe bet that 70,000 of Keel's largely Republican constituents will be shifted into District 48. So the 2002 race would be a serious challenge for even an incumbent Democrat. With that in mind, Republicans may not be taking the current race too seriously, even as they go through the motions of supporting Warren. After all, many local GOP leaders might be considering running for the seat after redistricting, so why should they take on a Republican incumbent in 2002 when they can march in with a new support base and proclaim, "It's time for a change." The redistricting dilemma might lead one to wonder whether Warren is plodding ahead each day thinking, "Name identity," with a future election her real goal.
Warren says that's not her plan. "I'm intent on winning this race," she says, denying the suggestion that this campaign is a prelude to a future run. Even if that were her intention, Warren would need a respectable finish this November. Butts says his candidate, Kitchen, is significantly ahead in the polls, though he wouldn't provide numbers. Warren's consultant, Hans Klingler, insists that this is an "extremely close race." But regardless of the posturing, both camps realize Warren is the underdog.
And what do underdogs do to win? Create a stir.
Butts says his only real concern is a deluge of money pouring into the Warren campaign after the Oct. 10 deadline for reporting campaign filings. (Reports filed after Oct. 10 must be in eight days before the election.) Currently, Warren leads the fundraising race, having brought in a total of $237,445, with a large amount from Republican Party sources or PACs, including $45,000 from the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Kitchen has raised $136,496, with $4,000 from the Education Austin PAC and $3,000 from the Texas State Teachers Association.
New money from statewide Republicans could fuel negative television attack ads that would amplify the minor assaults Kitchen has seen aimed at her in recent weeks. She claims the Warren camp is behind a story in the online news site, Texas Weekly, which outlines her husband's large tax debt -- which he has paid in full -- from a failed Austin restaurant. Another piece, in the right-wing tabloid Texas Review, questions Kitchen's role in persuading the Sierra Club to endorse Daryl Slusher over Bruce Todd in the 1994 mayoral race. Kitchen was listed as a supporter of Slusher, and, according to the club's bylaws, shouldn't have been voting to endorse him. Lastly, Warren claims that Kitchen lied on an employment application when she claimed that she holds a B.A. in social work, and has been listing it on her résumé ever since. In fact, while the degree Kitchen received from UT in 1977 lists her major as psychology, she had completed 42 course hours and 480 hours of field work -- earning a "concentration" in social work before the university offered it as a major.
All in all, this is fairly trivial stuff, even in the eyes of many Republicans. But to Kitchen, the incidents portend a much larger negative campaign that will begin some time between today and election day.
On the other side, Kitchen has only attacked Warren on one questionable statement, saying the Republican misrepresents herself in campaign literature that reads, "I'm currently participating in an Interim House Committee on Public School Finance." Technically, Warren is an ex-officio member of a House Republican Caucus Task Force on Public School Finance, which is not one of the official interim committees charged with developing policy issues. But Democrats this reporter talked to didn't think it was a particularly egregious offense.
While neither candidate faced much negative campaigning in the primary, Warren's opponent Scott Loras essentially accused her of being a Democrat. Warren, who worked for Democratic State Sen. John Montford and once voted for a "friend" running for judge in a Democratic primary in Houston, has turned the accusation to her advantage in the general election. Like Gov. Bush, she has positioned herself as a champion of bipartisan cooperation.
If there is a singular issue that divides the two candidates, it is reproductive rights. And while a woman's right to choose an abortion is the issue that separates them, Warren downplays its significance. "I'm pro-life, but it's not an issue in my campaign," she says -- which is probably the best position an anti-abortion rights candidate can take in a general election in Travis County.
The Dividing Line: Abortion
While Kitchen hasn't made her pro-choice position central to her campaign, she does use the issue to rally her supporters and distance herself from Warren. "She filled out her right-to-life questionnaire that she would repeal Roe vs. Wade," says Kitchen. Mayor Kirk Watson praised Kitchen's pro-choice position in a speech he made at a fundraiser he hosted for her at his house in September. And Kitchen warns that abortion is a relevant issue in a legislative race. "Every session," she said, "the lawmakers deal with legislation that attempts to whittle away a woman's right to choose." To prove the point, she refers to a law that passed last session, which requires parental notification for a women under 17 to get an abortion -- unless a judge grants a waiver. Warren defends the parental notification law, which was carried by Republican legislators in 1999. She says it's basically an issue of "parental rights" rather than an attempt to limit abortion. "I think abortion should be rare," she says, echoing the governor's statements on the subject. Making it rare requires education and programs to encourage teens and even adults to avoid unwanted pregnancies and to consider alternatives to abortions, she adds.
Warren came out hard against light rail in the primary in the spring, telling the Chronicle, "I don't think the people will ride it." It was clearly an awkward position for a candidate aligned with the high tech community, which is aggressively backing light rail. So Warren left the position behind when she moved from the primary -- where all her opponents opposed light rail -- to the general election, where she faces an opponent who backs it. She now says she supports light rail, and that her mind was changed when she became aware of Capital Metro's commitment to fund road expenditures. "I just want it to be a balanced approach," she says.
Off the Track
Kitchen promotes "a transportation with choices for people," and has been more consistent on light rail. "I've been out front supporting light rail from the beginning," she says. The District 48 seat is important to Austin transportation because it includes a seat on the Policy Advisory Committee for the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, a body that essentially decides which transportation projects will be considered for federal and state funding.
Warren backs extensive new road and highway construction in suburban areas, including extensions to south MoPac, Highway 290 West, State Highway 45, and an "efficient east-west corridor." Kitchen says whatever road expansion is considered needs to have minimal impact on the environment, and particularly: "I want to make sure we don't hurt the neighborhoods." Kitchen claims that Warren's specific mention of an "east-west" corridor should be a warning to people who live in neighborhoods along Koenig Lane (RR 2222), which has long been targeted by advocates of another major crosstown route.
Warren says Austin's neglect of suburban planning is evident and is one reason for the contentious debates over development and the environment. She feels that the days of Austin-bashing in the Legislature, particularly related to the city's efforts to regulate its growth, are nearing an end. ("We've gone a long way toward mending those fences," Kitchen agrees.) Warren argues that she is in a better position to play a role in resolving conflicts between developers and environmentalists when they are played out in the Legislature. She has stated that the Save Our Springs ordinance had a good purpose, but that the purpose has been abused. She has also referred to the Save Our Springs Coalition as an "extremist group that has controlled Austin politics for the past 20 years."
Protecting and Planning
Kitchen, an original SOS Steering Committee member who has long supported the ordinance, says she understands the need for a balanced and flexible approach to protecting the environment. She is quick to point out, however, that one of Warren's biggest contributors is Stratus Properties -- a spinoff of FM Properties, the developers of Barton Creek Properties and one of the forces behind the Legislature's attacks on Austin's right to regulate its growth -- which culminated in legislation undermining the SOS ordinance and city water-quality regulations. As of July, Stratus had given Warren $10,000 in campaign contributions; but Warren consultant Hans Klinger doesn't consider that a problem. "I think that there are many contributions from a wide range of folks," says Klinger. "When you get in the business of accepting contributions from one group and not another, what are you doing? My position is Ann Kitchen is going to take a bunch of trial lawyer money. Will she do what they want? She would argue probably not. ... [Stratus Properties] have children and families in the district too."
Kitchen says she wants to carry on Greenberg's role of defending Austin in the Legislature. She was quick to come out in January of last year with a statement against Longhorn Pipeline's proposal to pump gasoline through an aging pipeline that runs through South Austin residential neighborhoods. And she developed a plan for better notification, tougher decision-making criteria, and better monitoring policies for future pipeline proposals. Warren also advocates moving the pipeline, saying it isn't necessary to run toxic or dangerous substances through residential neighborhoods.
Under the current system of education finance, Austin is in a unique position. It is a district with a combination of high property wealth and a large number of children from families whose parents' earnings fall below the median earnings line. Because of its high property values, the Austin Independent School District loses millions of dollars each year under Chapter 41 of the education finance law. The funding transfer -- designed to provide equity between wealthy and poor districts -- hits Austin hard because AISD is, in a sense, both wealthy and poor. "More than half the AISD kids are eligible for free lunch programs," Kitchen points out. Both she and Warren promise to fight to keep every dollar possible in Austin, and agree that the "Robin Hood" plan was never intended to penalize districts in Austin's situation. "These are factors that the Legislature didn't intend to harm children with," Warren says. She says "tinkering" with the funding formulas without changing the concept is likely the best solution. One promising idea supported by AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione and both candidates involves moving the social security tax AISD pays for its teachers out of the district's assets column.
Rich School, Poor School
Both candidates support higher pay for teachers, though Kitchen has an edge in this category, as Democrats in the lege pushed for a $6,000 teacher pay raise last session, while Republicans fought for a smaller increase and settled on $3,000. Kitchen also advocates a statewide system or insurance pool to ensure that all teachers have health insurance, which is more costly for smaller districts. Kitchen is endorsed by the major teacher associations.
Warren advocates privately funded after-school centers. She is the co-chair of Aspiring Youth of Texas, which funds after-school centers for at-risk youth throughout the state. Warren says the centers she would like to see established will also curtail juvenile crime, which peaks during the after-school hours before parents are home. "I think it's something that a lot of schools could benefit from," she says, "and we don't need to take money out of the state coffers."
Kitchen feels most at home working on children's health care. She was involved in health care litigation when she served as an assistant attorney general. Recently, as an employee at Pricewaterhouse Coopers Health Care Regulatory Group, she has been involved in work on the Children's Health Insurance Project (CHIP). CHIP is a federal state program that provides low-cost health insurance for children of parents who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to afford health insurance. Kitchen credits Democratic legislators with passing a more generous and comprehensive version of CHIP. "Legislation from the Republicans would have left 200,000 children out in the cold," she says of the version of the program promoted by the governor last year. Kitchen also wants to improve the application process for government-supported health benefits, in a state that historically has made applying for healthcare a burden to applicants. "State agencies have made a lot of progress, but there's still work to be done to make health care accessible," she says.
Health, Drugs, and Insurance
Warren claims that Kitchen's close relationship to health care companies will make it more difficult for her to make hard decisions that benefit consumers. Yet, like Kitchen, and unlike many other Republicans, Warren emphasizes the need to enroll more children in CHIP and Medicaid programs -- by both promoting the programs and making enrollment and benefits applications easier. Both candidates support legislation that would allow greater physician choice with HMOs and stricter privacy laws for personal health records. And joining the national rush to help seniors, both candidates give major play to reducing the cost of prescription drugs for elderly Americans.
Prisons at or near capacity is another issue that has come into focus since the primary elections. Kitchen maintains that some of the strain could be reduced by ensuring that people with mental illnesses receive proper treatment instead of placing them in jail cells or juvenile detention facilities. "Mental illness is a health issue," she says. "We need to find services for these people so they can avoid prison." Texas' distinction as leading the nation in executions also has made the death penalty a controversial issue, and Kitchen has taken a strong position. "I support a moratorium," she says. "We better make sure that what we're doing is fair." DNA testing is one piece of the puzzle that needs to be worked into a system for death penalty review, she says. She also believes that the mentally ill and mentally retarded should not be executed.
Prisons and Pardons
Warren, who grew up watching the prison system at close range in Huntsville, says funding new prisons is a tough call. "We're always going to need to fund our prisons at the appropriate level to lock up criminals," she says. And she supports the death penalty, because "it's what our society has included as appropriate." But she adds, "I want to take a hard look at DNA testing ... if we have DNA testing that can exonerate someone, I think we should give them a shot at that ... There's no reason to execute anyone without using all the technology that's available."
In the end, though, these two candidates are running as much against time as they are against each other. Democrats hope that Kitchen will win by a landslide and help solidify her position as an incumbent -- and the party's position in Travis County -- as they await the inevitable redrawing of legislative districts along lines that will benefit Republicans. Republicans are biding their time, hoping that Warren can pull off what now would have to be an upset, but confident for the future, regardless of her success. And the smart money says that before November 7 arrives, this race is going to get ugly.