Capitol Chronicle

Government by Amateurs: Pols Play Musical Chairs -- To Their Own Accompaniment

Capitol Chronicle
Illustration By Doug Potter

In recent weeks, while most of us have been preoccupied with less pressing matters such as the somber future of the planet and the dismal state of the economy, Texas politicians have continued bravely to focus on the important things: which state offices are available and, come next November, who's going to be lucky enough (or rather, rich enough) to occupy them. As the game of political musical chairs picks up speed, the candidates' sensation seems akin to that felt by I-35 commuters as they approach the billboard announcing the current lottery jackpot: "$40 million? Dang, I'd better buy a ticket this time. ..."

So it is that Sen. Phil Gramm's announced retirement has sent the lower orders noisily fluttering like seagulls maneuvering for a more prestigious perch.

Who gets to be a U.S. Senator?

Who knows? But on that slender premise hangs a soap opera that promises to entertain Texans until -- oh, at least until spring football. Since commentators like to pretend that the great unwashed cannot hope to understand the campaigns without our avuncular perspective, consider the following to be "Capitol Chronicle"'s program-in-progress for the most prominent of the statewide races.

Senator Diñero

Phil Gramm's retirement announcement set the dominoes tumbling, as Attorney General John Cornyn -- whose most important senatorial qualification is his Central Casting platinum coiffure -- quickly declared for Gramm's seat. Gov. Rick Perry let it be known that for the good of the party, Gramm should step down and allow Perry to appoint former Secretary of State (now Railroad Commissioner) Tony Garza to the incumbency. But Gramm -- who reportedly favored San Antonio Congressman Henry Bonilla -- huffily refused, although one rumor making the rounds is that if Gramm is offered a sinecure (say, the Texas A&M presidency), he might reconsider. Former GOP Chairman Tom Pauken (who hates Cornyn) says he is trying to persuade Gramm to run again (to save the U.S. economy, I kid you not, from terrorism), but it appears Gramm's resignation will stick.

As if to confirm that news, this week Bonilla announced that "in the interests of party unity," he had decided not to run. Last week Bonilla told reporters he had "the fire in the belly" to run for senator. What he didn't have was "the money in the pocket": Along with his heavyweight GOP endorsements, Cornyn already has over $4 million in the bank, and Bonilla less than a million. Gramm's choice or not, the congressman had lost the only primary that matters.

On the Democratic side, the noisy announcement initially belonged to former AG Dan Morales, who emerged from a corporate redoubt (he had left the AG's office, remember, to "earn a living" for his instant family) to declare he was suddenly hungry for the U.S. Senate. But Morales has significant embarrassing baggage: He's not quite cleared of the more unsavory aspects of the tobacco litigation, and he pompously blocked affirmative action in higher education. So the party regulars have rallied 'round Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who can't quite run yet (he doesn't want to abandon the city's Olympic bid, he says) but who has formed a Dem-heavy "exploratory committee" to become the African-American candidate to match the Hispanic Tony Sanchez on the governor's line.

Curious questions remain: Do any of the Dems notice that Ron Kirk has long appeared to be a not-very-closeted Republican? Do they care? And is Phil Gramm capable of upending all of this tap-dancing by suddenly changing his mind? (Answers: Yes; No; Can anyone say "Giuliani"?)

Governor Maybe vs. Governor No

Now that Marty "Hail Mary" Akins has abruptly seen the light and deferred to Tycoon Tony Sanchez, the Democrats' Favorite Niño should have a clear shot at Perry. Sanchez's public presence has thus far been underwhelming, and his few carefully staged appearances have done little either to establish his base or to disturb the impression that he is either a conservative or a very conservative Democrat. The party regulars seem perfectly happy with that, the wan liberals describe him as "educable," and the grass roots are yet to be heard from.

Can Sanchez (perhaps supplemented by Kirk) indeed galvanize the Democratic base that has been avoiding the polls in droves? Maybe -- but he will have to do it with his own considerable money, as once again the national party will suck dollars from Texas in an effort to spend them in smaller (perhaps more winnable) states.

Very Lite Guv

Megabucks Land Commissioner David "River Oaks Cowboy" Dewhurst's decision to stand pat in the lieutenant governor's race, against John "It's My Turn" Sharp, should make for a very interesting contest. Sharp is relying on his experience (and the unproven Sanchez factor) to make the difference for him this time; Dewhurst has more money than God (or Sanchez?), or at least enough to saturate the state with so many TV commercials we'll never again want to see another man on horseback. But Sharp is also a much more practiced politician, and Dewhurst is just inexperienced enough perhaps to pull a Claytie Williams gaffe out of his 10-gallon hat (or his ex-CIA briefcase).

If he wouldn't be such a feckless and reactionary presiding officer (and governor-in-waiting), it would in fact be amusing to watch the Senate treat newcomer Dewhurst like a red-headed stepchild. This is clearly the key race for the immediate future of Texas politics and law, and much will be determined by the ongoing court battle over redistricting (a subject we will return to in due course).

Dewhurst is Phil Gramm (perhaps worse) with good hair. Can he buy Texas by the barrel? We'll see.

Watson, etc.

Of course the happiest local fellow over Gramm's departure is none other than our lame-duck Mayor, already flacking himself as the AG "favorite" against former Supreme Court Justice Greg Abbott. Absent Cornyn, the race is not a walkover, but it's certainly winnable, although Watson's high profile in Austin obscures what he might look like from, say, Fort Worth. Too soon to tell.

And then there's the other former mayor, the ubiquitous Carole Keeton Rylander, who is now so accustomed to telling the voters what she thinks they want to hear that, on Monday, the comptroller informed the San Antonio Express-News (apparently with a straight face) that despite the national economic crisis a recession in Texas is "unlikely." Now that's a serious border patrol.

Can Marty "Touchdown" Akins beat her? No.

But at least Rylander can't be charged with what one longtime Capitol pol muttered to me this week as he contemplated the claim-jumpers, fence-sitters, and stair-climbers that now dominate the list of statewide candidates from both parties.

"Amateurs," he said. "What a bunch of amateurs." end story

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Statewide elections, Phil Gramm, John Cornyn, Rick Perry, Tony Garza, Henry Bonilla, Tom Pauken, Dan Morales, Ron Kirk, Tony Sanchez, Marty Akins, David Dewhurst, Greg Abbott, Kirk Watson, Carole Keeton Rylander

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