Tom DeLay to Todd Baxter

Top 10 state stories

Here comes the guv!
Here comes the guv! (Illustration By Doug Potter)

1) Tomstown, Act II: Back by popular demand, U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay crowns this category's Top 10 billing for the second consecutive year. This time around, he's a fallen ex-U.S. House majority leader facing a felony money-laundering charge – delivered by arch-nemesis Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle – for DeLay's role in the 2002 corporate fundraising scandal. In a subplot, a civil trial judge ruled that DeLay's fundraising creature – Texans for a Republican Majority – broke the law in its quest to elect a GOP-controlled Legislature. For all his swagger, the recent decisions on preliminary motions don't bode well for DeLay's game plan for a speedy trial and joyful return to his leadership post.

2) School Finance Follies: After one regular and two special sessions – the latter withering into adjournment with barely a notice – the Legislature has yet to come up with a new finance system that will fund the public schools adequately and efficiently (that is, constitutionally). The effort was probably doomed at the outset, when Gov. Perry declared his own priority to be reducing property taxes – without a hint of where else to find school funding. Late last year, a devastating district court decision by Austin Judge John Dietz put the state leaders on the defensive, but this November (after much delay) the U.S. Supreme Court bailed them out again – ruling that while school funding is barely adequate, the de facto state property tax will have to go. See you at this spring's not-so-special session (or two, or three).

Katrina relief had Gov. Perry looking like a saint, and set Strayhorn's campaign back on its heels.
photo by Bob Daemmrich

3) What the Winds Delivered: When Katrina struck Louisiana, the Lone Star State responded with remarkable generosity and poise, accepting several hundred-thousand evacuees with an efficiency that hardly seemed possible, and even Gov. Perry showed an unexpected resourcefulness under pressure – it helped, of course, that when he calls D.C., the White House actually answers. The Rita story was less costly, but more complex and unanticipated – the highways out of Houston became a futuristic gridlock right out of a Godard disaster film. The human and political aftershocks of both storms are not yet entirely visible – and certain to keep sounding along the whole Southern Crescent.

4) Marriage Saved!: Texans gave the institution of wedge issues – that is, heterosexual marriage – an overwhelming thumbs-up with 76% of the vote, while Travis County voters – God bless 'em – just said no to that nonsense. Since the November election, we've hardly heard a peep about the horrors of homosexual coupling – yet. With the ban on same-sex marriages now engraved in the Texas Bill of Rights (ironic, eh?), we can expect Gov. Rick Perry – head cheerleader for the Prop. 2 campaign – to keep milkin' this politically useful exercise in gay-bashing through November.

5) GOP Cage Match – Rick vs. Carole: When Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn kicked off her gubernatorial campaign under a blazing sun last August, we settled in for a good wrassle between One Tough Grandma and the man she calls the Drugstore Cowboy – otherwise known as Gov. Rick Perry. But then Hurricane Katrina struck (see above), and Perry rose to the occasion by flinging open Texas' doors to our Louisiana neighbors in need. That demonstration of compassion and leadership effectively took the wind out of Strayhorn's sails – and her campaign has floundered ever since. On Monday, Strayhorn announced she would instead run as an independent, setting the stage for a free-for-all lasting until November.

6) Here Comes the Guv!: Texans demoralized at the prospect of Rick vs. Carole vs. a horde of Democratic wannabes have been energized by the prospect of candidate Richard "Kinky" Friedman, riding into town on a cigar and a bag full of hoary one-liners, under the campaign slogan "How hard could it be?" If he can get on the ballot – a big "if" in a state with such restrictive ballot laws – he could be surprising. He's campaigning hard, getting plenty of state and national ink, and early polling has him in striking distance of the traditional pols – on whom he's hoping to pull a Jesse Ventura-style upset.

7) Answer the Question, Dubya!: If Harriet Beecher Stowe was (according to Abe Lincoln) the little lady who started a big war, perhaps Cindy Sheehan will be the heroic mother who ends the latest one. Until Sheehan camped out at President Bush's Crawford ranch (and passed through Austin on her way to D.C.), a mass public anti-war movement seemed just out of reach. When she stood her ground, defying both hawkish Republicans and waffling Democrats, the balance of popular opinion shifted, and has since become an avalanche. Now the pols are scrambling to stake out "pragmatic" positions, and the popular pressure to bring the troops home builds. Go Cindy Go!

8) Vouchers Vanquished: The night they drove old cronyism down was one of the Lege's finest hours. In a rare display of bipartisanship, House Republicans broke ranks to kill a private school voucher proposal that threatened to siphon millions of dollars from public schools. Such boldness was especially inspiring, given the imperial presence of GOP bankroller and voucher tycoon James Leininger – who would periodically summon wafflers to his back room for arm-twisting. As the debate moved into its fifth hour, not even House Speaker Tom Craddick's series of tie-breaking votes could save vouchers, and the measure went down with both a whimper and a threat of turning up again, like a bad penny.

9) Adios, Gonzalo: After 30 years of legislative service, Austin state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos announced his retirement, effective at the end of the current term (which means he'll fight at least one more battle over public school finance). Barrientos has been a groundbreaker in Mexican-American politics, and he battled for the schools, the teachers, state employees, and for environmental protection in Central Texas. He was among the leaders of the Senate's re-redistricting fight against Tom DeLay, fleeing with his colleagues to New Mexico. That battle is not quite finished, and whatever he does for an encore, the People's Senator will be in the thick of the next campaign.

10) Todd Turns Tail: The abrupt resignation of state Rep. Todd Baxter, R-Austin, confirmed what Democrats had been saying for the past year – that the sophomore's limp voting record (especially on education), his contribution ties to Tom DeLay, and the swing demographics of District 48 combined to make an '06 Dem recapture of the seat a real possibility. Determined to derail that ambition, Republican Party chiefs booted the vulnerable Baxter (softly, into the telecom lobby) and tapped millionaire candidate Ben Bentzin in his stead. The governor called a quick special election to fill the seat – presumably to throw Democrats into a circular firing squad, to give Bentzin the edge in the Jan. 17 special, and thereby grant him incumbency for either the March primaries or the November general.

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