Can White bring down Baxter?
Perhaps no other legislative candidate in Texas has a more compelling story to tell than Kelly White. That her tale of survival is personal and nonpolitical may also come into play as she makes her first run for office in a Republican-dominant district. As most people following the race now know, White fled from an abusive ex-husband more than 20 years ago, made a telephone call for help, and found safety in a battered women's shelter. White, now 51 and the mother of three, evolved into an activist and community leader as the executive director of Austin SafePlace, a regional shelter and resource center working against rape, sexual abuse, and domestic violence. During her 11-year leadership tenure, White grew SafePlace into a successful nonprofit business with a $9 million budget and a staff of 160.
White offers a condensed version of her personal testimony at political forums, before hitting on the reasons she's running against Todd Baxter. One afternoon, in a quiet corner away from a bustling campaign office overflowing with staff and volunteers working the phones, White summed up her decision to jump into the race this way: Baxter's poor performance record as a first-term legislator. People living in the district, she said, have grown distrustful of the legislative leadership that Baxter supports. "I'm worried about the Legislature's seeming unconcern for the issues that are important to people in Texas," she said, citing school finance and children's health-care concerns. "And I don't think [Baxter] has voted in line with the values of people in this district either ... this is really a moderate district."
Baxter, on the other hand, insists he has a better understanding of the district, because he represented a good chunk of it as a Travis Co. commissioner. His narrow victory in 1998 made him the first Republican to serve on the Commissioners Court since Reconstruction. Baxter, 36, and the rest of GOP Texas have come a long way since then, but if White's reading of the district is correct, she'll need to convince those unhappy moderates that she can break the cycle of the current leadership's partisan antics. She says her work with SafePlace and her service on several area task forces have helped shape her ability to work all sides. "I have for so many years walked across party lines to make things work," she said. "I know how to get people to the table." In the budget department, White is quick to swipe at Baxter's boast of helping to balance a $10 billion budget shortfall without raising taxes a balancing act accomplished by devastating the state's health and human services funding, particularly in the area of children's health insurance.
Even with Baxter's vulnerabilities, he has proven himself to be a powerful force in competitive races. He is a tireless campaigner from the grassroots level to the top tier of special interests. He holds endorsements from the Austin Police Association PAC and the Travis Co. Sheriff's Officers Association, as well as the lead professional organizations for hospitals and physicians, and, of course, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, ever thankful for Baxter's support of last session's tort reform legislation.
But White's supporters are a Who's Who in business and politics, including President Johnson's daughter, Luci Baines Johnson, philanthropist Ronya Kozmetsky, Liberty Bank President Eddie Safady, Downtown Austin Alliance leader Charlie Betts, and developers Dick Rathgeber and Perry Lorenz.
Betty King, Baxter's former campaign treasurer, has also thrown her support behind White. White's husband, Bill McLellan, is a former 3M executive with ties to the business and nonprofit communities, as well as among smart-growth advocates in his new position as chairman of Envision Central Texas. (On that issue, Baxter was the House sponsor of the developer-friendly HB 1204, revised in the Senate, with Baxter's blessing, to help Lowe's Home Centers Inc. overcome Austin development regulations and build a big box over the Edwards Aquifer; the matter is currently tied up in the courts.)
As an experienced fundraiser for a nonprofit, White has shown that, even as a first-time candidate, she's capable of raking in high-dollar contributions. Still Baxter raised $194,082 in the last reporting period against White's $131,263, and he has more money in the bank, with $265,282 to White's $157,211.
Both candidates are hanging their hats on commitments to work toward school finance reform, with Baxter assuring a forum of education advocates that he was just as disappointed as they were in the Legislature's inability to resolve the problem. To which White responded that the Republicans could have resolved the finance issue had they not wasted time and taxpayer dollars to carry out DeLay's re-redistricting agenda. White is campaigning on a promise to work toward establishing an independent, nonpartisan group to work on redistricting issues.
Still, with all of Baxter's DeLay-related baggage, Democratic strategist Kelly Fero has one nice thing to say about the freshman. "Todd Baxter is not as roundly disliked [as Stick]," he said. "He has an unfortunate, partisan voting record, but he's not hated. He's kind of a likeable guy." It's that voting record, Fero says, that's helping the White campaign build momentum in a district that was specifically designed to tilt Republican in 2002. Had there not been criminal indictments and redistricting matters coming into play since then, a Democrat might not have even stood a chance this time around.