Grandma vs. Cowboy

Can Strayhorn lasso Perry? Maybe the Lege will tell.

Austin Rep. Elliott Naishtat gets cozy with Gov. Rick Perry at the opening of the special session.
Austin Rep. Elliott Naishtat gets cozy with Gov. Rick Perry at the opening of the special session. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Resplendent in a navy blue windbreaker, dark slacks, and sensible shoes, state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn finally and officially opened her campaign against Gov. Rick ("Drugstore Cowboy") Perry last Saturday, armed with a well-worn cache of one-liners and more ominously with her incumbent opponent's ongoing record of failure on school finance reform. Get used to her opening salvo, for you'll certainly hear it again: "I am not a weak leadin', ethics ignorin', pointin' the finger at everyone blamin', special session callin', public school slashin', slush fund spendin', toll road buildin', special interest panderin', rainy day fund raidin', fee increasin', no property tax cuttin', promise breakin', do-nothin' Rick Perry phony conservative."

It's a trademark rhetorical opening, but she will undoubtedly need more than that. Despite her enviable success in general elections, Strayhorn remains something of an outsider in the Republican Party, and she faces long odds in the GOP primary. But she also enjoys a good row. She told her sun-baked supporters – including teachers, kids, anti-toll roaders, quarter-horse owners, and gray-haired ladies – that she was ready for what promises to be a brutal, knock-down campaign fight. "I have never been the darling of the insiders," she said. "I run with the people. I will take this debate to the people of Texas, any time, any place, anywhere."

Under a bright, broiling sun, Strayhorn positioned herself as the logical alternative to a "do-nothin' governor." Earlier, Perry had announced he would call a special session on school finance – nicely timing his press conference to precede Strayhorn's rally, as each sought to upstage the other during the weekend news cycle. The two media events followed U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's surprise announcement the day before, closing the book on speculation that she would challenge Perry for the gubernatorial nomination; instead, she'll seek re-election to the U.S. Senate.

But in the battle over headlines, the late U.S. Rep. Jake Pickle had his very last laugh. The 91-year-old local political powerhouse died Saturday morning, and the Sunday Statesman devoted the lion's share of the front section to his legacy, crowding Strayhorn and Perry into a two-column news hole, with Perry's special session grabbing the dominant headline. Carole's got an uphill fight.

Planet Lege

As it happens, Strayhorn, a former Democrat, once waged an unsuccessful bid against Pickle – in 1986, her first campaign as a newly converted Republican. Nearly 20 years later, before Strayhorn took the stage to announce her candidacy, supporters honored the former congressman in a moment of silence. "I am saddened that we lost a great giant," Strayhorn said later.

Back in the land of ordinary mortals, the self-anointed "one tough grandma" pounced on Perry's decision to reconvene the Legislature, reminding folks of the number of sessions that Perry let pass without moving an education package through the Lege. "For three regular sessions ... and four special sessions, the one and only education plan Gov. Perry has put before the people of Texas would have ..." – and here she ticked off a litany of gloomy scenarios, ranging from causing a $10 billion deficit to "partnering" with sexually oriented businesses to finance public education. She blasted Perry's risky veto of the state's $35 billion education budget to force lawmakers back to the table, which left school officials dumbstruck over the prospect of a delayed start date for schools.

And she took the governor to task for calling a special session without so much as a plan.

Who's on Trial?

Perhaps he was listening – when the session opened Tuesday, Perry had a plan. The governor laid out a proposal that would cut property taxes (always his priority) by $7 billion, boost school funding by $5 billion, and raise teachers salaries by $1,500. To do so, Perry calls for increasing the homestead exemption from $15,000 to $22,500. To pay for that on the consumer end, Perry's plan would raise the sales tax to 6.95 cents on the dollar, add $1 to the cigarette tax, and expand the sales tax base to include cosmetic surgeries, auto repairs, and computer repairs. The proposal would close the franchise tax loopholes without the pain of a new business tax, and would make another attempt to lower appraisal and revenue caps – proposals that drew loud objections from local officials in the regular session, and ultimately failed.

Judging by the reactions from lawmakers and teachers groups, no one was bowled over by Perry's plan. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst was lukewarm but commended Perry on his effort. House Democratic leaders said they appreciated Perry's outline but hoped that the leadership would also consider the Dems' alternative, which would raise the homestead exemption to $45,000. Finally, the Texas Federation of Teachers asked when the governor might be putting out a plan with actual details – where the devil is always lurking. In the meantime, the House adjourned this week, at the request of the Travis Co. delegation, in observance of Pickle's passing.

As of late Tuesday, Strayhorn had not offered an opinion of Perry's proposal, but Perry's campaign quickly weighed in on Strayhorn's candidacy. Its response not only linked Strayhorn to trial lawyers – that was predictable – but it also managed, in a single sentence, to couple both with Democratic powerbroker Ben Barnes and former CBS News anchor Dan Rather. Surely Bill and Hillary can't be far behind.

With Perry determined to make bedfellows of Strayhorn and trial lawyers – a potential funding source for her campaign – trial lawyers are preparing to throw a few counterpunches. "We've allowed them to demonize us, and that's just wrong," said San Angelo attorney Guy Choate, president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association. He said he expects Strayhorn to develop a diverse base of contributors, including trial lawyers. (Strayhorn will also draw support from horse and race track owners, as she supports slot machines at race tracks.) "The fact is," Choate went on, "trial lawyers contribute to Perry, too, but [Perry's lawyer supporters] represent the polluters, and insurance companies, and pharmaceutical companies that don't want to pay their taxes. I'd put my clients up against those type of clients any time." end story

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Carole Keeton StrayhornRick PerryJake Pickle, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Rick Perry, Guy Choate, Texas Trial Lawyers Association, Dan Rather, Ben Barnes, Jake Pickle, Kay Bailey Hutchsion, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Texas Federation of Teachers

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