The Man Who Wasn't There
By Michael King, Fri., Aug. 31, 2001
"It creates a perception," said Morris Overstreet. "And in politics, a perception can become a reality." A former Court of Criminal Appeals judge, Overstreet is the president of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats, which held its quarterly meeting at the downtown Marriott last weekend. The "perception" Overstreet referred to is the Recurring Absence on the part of Tony Sanchez, the almost-declared and de facto front-running Democratic candidate for governor. Sanchez was a no-show at last Saturday's candidate forum sponsored by the Black Democrats, during which declared gubernatorial candidates Marty Akins and John WorldPeace and lieutenant governor candidates John Sharp and Gil Coronado spent the morning answering questions from African-American journalists Tommy Wyatt of the Villager and Akwasi Evans of Nokoa.
Apologizing on behalf of Sanchez, Austin State Rep. Dawnna Dukes announced that the Laredo businessman (who briefly visited the convention Friday and, Dukes said, "takes the coalition very seriously") had a longstanding prior commitment. Dukes did not mention that Sanchez's prior commitment reportedly involved meeting with a group of South Texas sheriffs -- that's not the sort of schedule conflict a candidate wants to advertise in front of a group of black political officials and activists.
Certainly it's still very early for next spring's primary, and one could readily argue that if none of the candidates were yet showing their faces, the voters would hardly notice. But Akins and WorldPeace did not miss the opportunity to point out that thus far, Sanchez the Favorite is doing a passable imitation of the Invisible Man. Akins noted that "we all have to set priorities," adding that for Sanchez, the forum was obviously not high on his list. WorldPeace agreed, then claimed that he is "the only Democrat running for governor" -- a lightly poisoned arrow shot toward Former Friends of Republicans Akins and Sanchez.
The forum didn't get much saucier than that. After a few exchanges, an unasked question hovered in the air: "Is there anything on which any of you disagree?" Soon enough they found some things: Sharp and WorldPeace both support "standardized testing" for schoolchildren (acknowledging that the tests need to better designed), while Akins denounced statewide TAAS tests as educational boondoggles wasting money better spent on pay and benefits for teachers. Coronado described the racially biased TAAS as an example of "good intentions producing bad results." Only WorldPeace (whose Houston legal practice includes some criminal work) opposed state compensation for prisoners found to be wrongfully convicted, recommending instead state-supported public defenders.
With slight differences in emphasis, all the candidates spoke against racial profiling and the execution of the mentally ill, the retarded, or juveniles. Likewise, each man declared his stalwart support for education, jobs, and health care. Mindful of the audience, each candidate promised that their campaign staffs would reflect the "diversity" of Texas. On redistricting, all described the current GOP-dominated Legislative Redistricting Board plan as unfair. WorldPeace argued that only "empowering the people" would solve the problem, while Sharp suggested considering San Antonio Sen. Jeff Wentworth's proposal for a nonpartisan redistricting board. (Though Sharp warned of a looming $5-$8 billion state deficit, afterward neither he nor Akins would commit either to a state income tax or any specific restructuring of the tax system.) Any surprises?
WorldPeace (who changed his name from Kenneth Wolter following a 1988 divorce) is not as loopy as you might first guess, although he has a rookie's habit of shouting into the microphone and reiterated his much-criticized belief that "a Hispanic can't win because the white people will vote for Perry." Early on he pointed out that while he believes in peace, he is "not a pacifist" -- unfortunately confirming the dismaying notion that in Texas, a lawyer, a banker, or a sheriff can run for anything, but nonviolence remains a very tough sell. WorldPeace also described his telephone-based campaign, which will use automated technology to make 200,000 statewide calls a day; every voter will be called at least three times. He did not say whether that was a promise or a threat.
Former Comptroller Sharp oozed a bit too much quiet (but undoubtedly justified) confidence, while Gil ("I'm not a politician") Coronado was very down-to-earth and likable, but often vague. Akins still seems not quite ready for prime time: He shies at pointed questions and appears unfamiliar with health care and education laws he should already know. (Tuesday afternoon, following a report in The Dallas Morning News that Akins was considering withdrawing to run for another statewide race, the candidate released a statement denying "the story of my demise," and concluding, "I am Marty Akins and I am running for Governor of Texas.")
As for Tony Sanchez? Morris Overstreet noted that while there is still time for Sanchez to dispel the negative "perception" of "always making excuses," the almost-candidate had missed yet another chance to educate voters about his views. "He can't educate if he isn't here," concluded Overstreet bluntly.
The whole occasion called to mind a doleful bit of doggerel by Hughes Mearns -- with Sanchez auditioning for the role of a leading man increasingly in danger of missing his cue:
As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn't there.
He wasn't there again today.
I wish, I wish he'd stay away.
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