The Banker vs. the Prosecutor

Tony Sanchez faces Dan Morales in a battle not quite for the ages

Dan Morales
Dan Morales (Photo By Alan Pogue)

In mid-February, the Sun City Democrats provided an uncannily symbolic moment for the Dan Morales for governor campaign. At a daylong rally organized to introduce the party's candidates to Williamson County voters, Morales spoke last, after driving up from San Antonio where he had spent the morning wooing a joint convention of the Tejano Democrats and the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats. The string of candidates had begun droning a bit after 9am, beginning with Morales' front-running opponent Tony Sanchez and running down the ballot through John Sharp, Kirk Watson, Ron Kirk, Ken Bentsen, and so forth, with an extended interlude for newly redistricted Congressman Chet Edwards (whose district now includes Sun City), and a handful of also-runners.

It had been a patient and enthusiastic crowd of several hundred "active adults" (as senior citizens are officially designated in Del Webb's marketing universe), but Sun City Dem chairman Harold Steadman had to spend much of an hour persuading his diminishing partisans to "hang on for a few more minutes" for a "real treat" still in store for them. The treat was none other than Dapper Dan -- who arrived about an hour late but with a full head of steam, and delivered what was undoubtedly the best campaign speech of the day, beginning with his declaration to "tell it like it is" as part of this "temporary, intra-party family competition" that would end March 13, with Democratic rivals burying the hatchet and gathering together in solidarity against the GOP.

Then -- after a brief recitation of his own record as a prosecutor, legislator, and attorney general -- Morales tore into brother Sanchez like a temporary red-headed stepchild, reciting all the inflammatory charges that have given the brief primary campaign its few sparks of controversy. Sanchez, Morales charged, is a not a loyal Democrat; he gave heavy financial support to George W. Bush and the national GOP ("for the Republican lawyers that fought for Bush's victory in Florida!"); Sanchez's Tesoro Savings & Loan had laundered money for drug dealers ("If he didn't know, he should have known"); Sanchez's International Bank of Commerce had opposed tighter reporting requirements on banking transactions, until after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. (This time Morales did not explicitly suggest, as he had earlier, that Sanchez and fellow bankers were "culpable" for the terrorist attacks, an overreaching charge that played badly in the press.) Morales closed in a rush, declaring the war against drugs his "top personal priority."

It was a bravura performance in the candidate's aggressively prosecutorial style, and it persuaded at least one Sun City voter to abandon the fealty to Tony Sanchez he had declared to me only minutes before ("I got to hand it to Morales, he really convinced me"). The speech seemed to justify Morales' opening gambit that he had run 10 campaigns against the party's establishment -- and won every single one. Morales received a more-than-polite ovation from the crowd that had held out for its final "treat" of the afternoon.

Nonetheless, they numbered less than half of the full house that had enthusiastically greeted Sanchez that morning. Later that day, Morales would learn that both the Tejano Democrats and Texas Coalition of Black Democrats, organizations with considerable clout in the primary, had lent their support to his chief rival.

So -- as it had since Morales' confounding declaration of his candidacy at the last possible moment -- the question asked itself: Whatever its still uncertain merits on the "issues," is the Dan Morales for governor campaign too little, and too late?

Looking for a Way to Lose

Not that Morales' adversary hasn't been giving him reasons to hope. It was always hard to evoke much populist enthusiasm for the dual premise of the Tony Sanchez campaign: a Hispanic surname and an enormous bank account. Then, after announcing his candidacy last year, Sanchez avoided the spotlight, apparently intending to walk to the nomination and only get serious when he had to go mano a mano with incumbent Gov. Rick Perry. His initial speeches were underwhelming: At the Austin press conference declaring his candidacy, Sanchez introduced his family, delivered a cramped, conservative sermon on the public schools -- calling for "better school discipline of disruptive students" -- and took no questions.

Yet Sanchez continued to accumulate the Democratic endorsements and support that would make it very difficult for any primary opponent to find breathing (or financing) room. It was frankly too early to tell very much about Tony. Even less certain were the reasons -- beyond the glaringly obvious one of money -- the Dems were so eager to embrace Sanchez in the first place, with his uncertain party pedigree and embarrassing financial backing of Bush (among Democrats-for-Morales, that's the "scandal" that really hits home). Party insiders explain Sanchez's dalliance with Dubya as a detour caused by his anger with Ann Richards over border issues -- but that's hardly sufficient reason to convert to suburban Republicanism and fund it on a national scale. It seemed as though the party had discovered a Hispanic version of Harry Truman's bad dream: a Republican to run against a Republican. One would have thought that was a loser's nightmare from which the Texas Democratic Party had been trying to awake.

Then came Jan. 2, when the self-exiled Morales, after indicating for weeks that he would probably run for the U.S. Senate, abruptly announced he was filing for governor instead. Democratic insiders, already perplexed at how to resolve the growing logjam in the Senate race, were suddenly faced with an unexpected challenge to their newly Favorite Hispanic Son -- from the man who had formerly occupied that position all by his lonesome. Morales may yet surprise everybody and pull off a historic upset. But if he doesn't manage that, he's already accomplished an equally difficult prestidigitation: turning Tony Sanchez into a Democrat.

In the wake of Morales' announcement, after a brief muddle of consultants and confusion, Sanchez responded by summoning his most important ally: ready money, and lots of it. Faced with Morales' long public record and greater name identification, Sanchez began spending a reported $1 million a week, mostly for highly polished television ads that emphasize his interest in elementary education. "We were going to do this anyway," said Sanchez spokeswoman Michelle Kucera. "The entry of Morales into the race simply means we begin 60 days earlier."

The ads apparently worked. After trailing Morales in very early polls, Sanchez quickly surged past him. Though the race is hardly over, polls from around the state of likely Democratic voters have steadily shown the Sanchez numbers improving -- and campaign insiders say internal numbers "trend" even better. Morales countered that the published polls show he's right where he needs to be: "Sanchez has been running for more than a year, and I've been running for less than two months, and we're essentially dead even." But the prevailing winds are with Sanchez, says one longtime Democratic consultant isn't working for either campaign. "I really do not have a horse in this race," the consultant told me, "but as a practical matter, I don't see how Morales can derail Sanchez. Sanchez's resources include television, his own paid organization, institutional endorsements, field organization. ... I don't think Morales has a silver bullet."

Tony Sanchez
Tony Sanchez (Photo By John Anderson)

At one time, Morales had $1.2 million in leftover campaign funds from his AG days, money that he could spend on a state race but not on a Senate campaign (a reason often cited for his last-minute switch). But he had already spent nearly $500,000 of that on criminal attorneys preparing a defense against possible federal charges connected to the unseemly aftermath of the successful state tobacco litigation, led by his office (see "Dan Morales v. Harry Potter," p.30). The accountants say a million dollars should be enough to buy one week of statewide TV ads at the end of the race -- but Morales doesn't have a million dollars. Even in a short campaign, Sanchez's deep pockets appear overwhelming, said the same consultant: "If he can avoid some really big gaffe, he's got the money to run a straightforward, cautious campaign."

That analysis, shared by several observers, always comes with the same caveat: "That's not to say Sanchez can't find a way to screw things up." Indeed, Morales may have found a wedge or two late in February, when the heretofore sure-footed Sanchez camp stumbled. First they called off the protracted, ritualized negotiations over how-many-debates -- thereby giving Morales a couple of good days of free media, as the state's big dailies ran their "this is bad for the democratic process" editorials. Three days later, Sanchez reversed himself, agreeing to the debates held last Friday, March 1. The waffling rebounded against Sanchez, and gave credence to Morales' charge that Sanchez is afraid to take him on (see "Tony and Dan Go Mano a ... Hand?," below).

Almost simultaneously, after Morales said the state might have to consider new taxes to pay for education (ruling out only an income tax), Sanchez announced he was "taking any new taxes off the table" -- reversing his earlier position, that it would be irresponsible for a prospective governor to tie his own hands in advance. A day later Sanchez tacked yet again -- saying he wouldn't rule out tax changes, but would "scrub the budget" first.

The reversals suggested that Sanchez still doesn't know, or hasn't decided, his own positions -- and is definitely unaccustomed to reporters turning his every utterance into the next day's lead. Yet when all the dust settled, he and Morales were in virtually the same place on the tax issue -- suspiciously close to the position of former Gov. Bush, whose $1 billion property tax cut in 1999 in fact initiated the budget crisis the state now faces.

Dueling Barbecues

In strictly political terms, the brief primary campaign has at least confirmed what we already knew: Sanchez is an earnest political novice with enough money to overcome many mistakes, and Morales is a seasoned campaigner hamstrung by his isolation and lack of institutional and financial support within the party.

During campaign events, Morales is visibly aware that anything he says from the podium, or in conversation with reporters, can become a "policy statement" in the next day's headlines. So he long ago learned to answer even specific questions with excerpts of his stump speech. Asked directly, for example -- after he repeatedly insisted that Sanchez "should have known" about drug money being laundered through his S&L -- whether he thinks Tony Sanchez is corrupt, he said only, "The question is not what I think about that. What's important is to allow the voters to make that determination."

Sanchez, by contrast, seems less calculated -- his critics would say less prepared. His proud reiteration that he is a "businessman, not a professional politician" is therefore a double-edged sword. He appears to be genuinely learning about statewide issues, and how to campaign, as he goes -- perhaps a virtue in a leader, but a potential liability in the heat of a race. At Sun City, for example, he promised that under his administration senior citizens "will no longer have to choose between buying food or medicine." Asked afterward what it would cost to address the prescription drug issue in Texas, he shrugged and said, "I don't know -- but we've got to do something."

In early February, the Sanchez campaign threw a lunchtime barbecue at Austin's Wooldridge Park. As it happened, the same day Morales, having seen the new polls showing Sanchez gaining strength, abandoned a just-made pledge not to run a "negative" campaign and came out swinging with the Tesoro S&L charges. Several hundred partisans heard Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, Sanchez's designated hitman of the day, attack Morales as "without shame."

Sanchez said nothing from the podium about his opponent. He emphasized his plans for education, focusing in particular on finding new resources, true accountability rather than just mandated testing, and reducing class size -- saying that his administration would bring down the student-teacher ratio to a workable level. "A teacher cannot successfully teach students to read," Sanchez said, "in a class that has just too many students." It was a brief but effective speech, and it contrasted sharply with his earlier Bush-like references to "classroom discipline." The oil tycoon, banker, and former Bush Pioneer had begun to sound like a Democrat -- and perhaps more importantly, like a man with an eye on real government policy. In response to a reporter's question, he said of Morales only that the attacks were "the kicks of a drowning man."

A week later, Morales held his own barbecue of sorts, this time for a brace of reporters summoned to the Iron Works on Cesar Chavez for the launching of the candidate's "Take It to the Streets" bus tour. (If there were ever a politician unlikely to take anything "to the streets," it is Dapper Dan.) Morales was ostensibly going to announce his "education policy initiatives." Instead, he showed up with his wife Christi at his side, and after making a passing acknowledgement of the major state issues -- public education, public health -- he announced that his "top priority" upon election would be to appoint a commission to address the needs of "Texas' women and children," with a special focus on reducing domestic violence and child abuse, "which have reached epidemic proportions in Texas." Although he did not ask her to speak, that apparently explained Christi's presence -- Morales referred vaguely to the "issues of domestic abuse and child support" that Christi "had experienced" in her life (before 1997, when she met and married Dan, occasioning his temporary detour from politics). There was no further explanation, and Morales seemed also to have already forgotten that in Sun City just two days before he had declared his "top personal priority" to be the war on drugs.

Even by the standards of a primary campaign already airily high on the symbology scale, it was a disorienting moment. It was as though Morales had decided that morning that the previous week's themes had been on the charts too long, and it was time to play a different record -- and pitch to a new audience, perhaps the Swing Suburban Female Voters. A Women and Children Commission would be just the thing; and if the issue didn't have legs (as it didn't seem to, a week later), well, play something else. The platter that continues to catch the most consistent airtime remains, "The Prosecutor's Case Against Tony Sanchez," so that is destined for heavy rotation.

Sanchez, meanwhile, has constructed himself as the businessman-as-amateur-politician, determined to "make Texas fairer" by appealing to the pragmatic, problem-solving voters in the Democratic audience. We know we need better health care, better schools, better insurance, so let's just roll up our sleeves and get to work -- with a series of sensible, mainstream solutions that are doable, may well improve things a little bit, and certainly won't cost too much money. If we're lucky, maybe we can set aside a little nest egg for the future.

The Prosecutor vs. the Banker. Both entirely necessary social figures, and despite the highly inflammatory rhetoric of the campaign, likely to meet courteously on Main Street in any small Texas town, exchange pleasantries, and go on their businesslike ways. Yet thus far the Democratic primary campaign has too often put me in mind of a remark by Ralph Nader when he passed through Austin recently, and was once again asked by a reporter whether he thought that in his disdain for the two major parties, he was neglecting the differences between Democrats and Republicans. "Everybody always asks that me that question," he responded amicably, "and I answer it as best as I can, that of course there are differences." Nader paused and then added, "But they never ask the more important question: Are they different enough?"

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