Taking Aim

With the 79th barely over, would-be officeholders jockey for position

Brace yourself. We're now entering the final stretch of uncertainty over whether Gov. Rick Perry will call a special session on school finance and property tax relief. The suspense – if you could call it that – was heightened last week with optimistic reports from the governor's office that the pace of negotiations had "quickened substantially" between Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and House Speaker Tom Craddick. But the sudden uptick can probably be attributed to quick reflexes more than anything else. The day before, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison caused a media stir with her call for the governor to get his act together on school finance. That Hutchison, a possible Perry challenger in 2006, used a national event – the swearing-in ceremony of Priscilla Owen to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals – to do her prodding must have riled Perry to no end.

State Rep. and House Public Education Chair Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, immediately rose to Perry's defense, retorting that perhaps the senator would like to come up with a "coherent" school finance proposal of her own.

This week, Perry reportedly told a Bexar County Republican crowd that he would call a special session in late June. In any case, the Texas Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the school finance case July 6. The state is appealing last year's district court ruling that the state's method of funding public education is unconstitutional. The lower court gave lawmakers until October to fix the problem, which means they have to craft a whole new tax system. But GOP leaders are at an impasse over how to accomplish the tax overhaul without biting the hand that feeds them – i.e. the business lobby – at a time when their political campaigns are gearing up for the 2006 election cycle.

The sticky wicket for Perry and the rest of the bunch is that they were betting on a successful session on school finance to carry them through the campaign season. It was evident even before the session got under way that the governor would seek out the evangelical vote in '06, but with the taint of school finance on his record, Perry has taken pandering to new levels of embarrassment (see "Beyond City Limits," p.19).

Making Austin a Darker Blue

The Democrats are as tickled as ever over the Legislature's dismal performance and the prospect of reclaiming some seats in the House. "The message that mainstream Texans took from this failed legislative session is that Republicans don't know how to govern and aren't particularly interested in learning," said state party strategist Kelly Fero. "That opens a unique opportunity for Democrats, moderate Republicans, Libertarians, and other independents because this Capitol crowd in power now simply isn't getting the job done."

The Dems have targeted a slew of House Republicans for removal. They got an unexpected boost last week from Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, who announced that he would step down to seek an appellate court bench – either on the state Criminal Court of Appeals or the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals. Democrats had already been weighing their chances of beating Keel in this semiswing Southwest Austin district that John Sharp and Kirk Watson, both "D's," carried in their respective 2002 runs for lieutenant governor and attorney general. Before Keel's surprise announcement, the only possible Dem candidate on the radar was Gregg Knaupe, but this was before he placed third in a City Council race in which he was expected to advance to a run-off. Knaupe is still a potential hopeful for the Democratic nomination.

Other Democrats mentioned as possibilities include Jason Earle, son of Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle. But party leaders are expected to pressure him to stay out of the race to avoid politicizing (more than it already is) his father's criminal investigation into the GOP campaign finance scandal of 2002. Meanwhile, Mike Hailey of the online newsletter Capitol Inside, reported Monday that another son of a prominent politician – local attorney J. Pete Laney – is also considering a run, following in the footsteps of his father, House Speaker and current Rep. Pete Laney, D-Hale Center. On the GOP side, the prospects include Bill Welch, who in 1992 narrowly lost the GOP nomination for the seat to former Rep. (and now Ag Commissioner) Susan Combs. Another name bandied about is – hold on to your bus ticket – Capital Metro detractor Gerald Daugherty, who already represents a chunk of the district as a Travis Co. commissioner. But word is that Daugherty is enjoying his post too much to leave the county (where the pay is much better, thank you).

Taking Back Texas

We've already reported on the vulnerabilities of Austin GOP Rep. Todd Baxter, so we'll move on to Harris Co., where Republican Reps. Martha Wong, Joe Nixon, and everybody's favorite, Robert Talton, are all expected to face serious "D" competition in '06. (Faux Democrat Al Edwards will also have to compete for his party's nomination over Houston businessman Borris Miles.) First up on the list is Wong, whose top "D" challenger in District 134 is Ellen Cohen, president and CEO of the Houston Area Women's Center, a domestic violence and rape crisis agency. The Democratic nominee in this race is expected to have an outpouring of support from Wong's unhappy gay and lesbian constituency in Montrose – as well as the statewide gay rights lobby – who vowed early in the session to seek the incumbent's ouster next year. In District 133, Nixon could face Democrat Robert Pham, and Talton, the little old man from Pasadena, is expected to draw opposition from Janette Sexton, the only Democrat to announce so far in District 144.

There are more incumbents as well, but we'll be hearing more from those races soon enough. Here's just a quick rundown of Republican House members considered vulnerable in '06: Victoria Rep. Geanie Morrison, Dallas Rep. Bill Keffer (not to be confused with the Jim Keffer of Eastland), and Lubbock Rep. Carl Isett. It's hard to believe that the "D's" have even tagged House Transportation Chair Mike Krusee of Round Rock and rising star Georgetown Rep. Dan Gattis for Democratic challenges, but there you have it. end story

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Texas Legislature, Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, Tom Craddick, Priscilla Owen, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Terry Keel, Gregg Knaupe, Mike Hailey, J. Pete Laney, Pete Laney, Jason Earle, Ronnie Earle, Martha Wong, Joe Nixon, Robert Talton, Al Edwards, Borris Miles, Ellen Cohen, Houston Area Women's Center

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