West Side Showdown

The new political year begins with a four-way sprint for House District 48

West Side Showdown
Illustration By Doug Potter

The 2006 election cycle in Texas will be given an early test run Tuesday, Jan. 17, as voters in House District 48 go to the polls to choose a successor to Republican Rep. Todd Baxter, who resigned abruptly on Nov. 1. (Officially, Baxter stepped down to spend more time with his family; two weeks after his resignation, he was hired as a lobbyist by the Texas Cable and Telecommunications Association.)

The setting for the season premiere – a key swing district covering West Austin and western Travis Co. – should provide a useful weather vane for party strategists looking to gauge the political winds before the campaign season hits full throttle. Republicans need a victory in this race to show that they're still at the top of their game – notwithstanding the taint of Tom DeLay, Michael Scanlon, Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed ... well, you get the picture. "If they were to lose the seat it would send a bad message, that they're in retreat on some pretty important battlegrounds," says lobbyist Bill Miller, who has close ties to the Republican leadership and is supporting GOP candidate Ben Bentzin in the four-way race. "It's a district that Republicans should win, and if they don't win, there's a problem."

On the other hand, if the No. 2 party is able to reclaim the seat lost in a bitter 2002 showdown, Miller continued, "It would start the year out in a tremendous fashion for Democrats. You couldn't ask for a better start to the election year. It would be a real boost for morale."

The District 48 campaign season blew in unexpectedly early, due to Baxter's hasty retreat (trailing DeLay baggage tied to the financing of his 2002 race), immediately followed by the GOP leadership's rush to create a clear path for Bentzin (defeated in a 2002 run against District 14 state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos). Gov. Perry quickly called a special election, straddling the holidays, and it has provided little time for voters to become familiar with the candidates – but the short time span presumably boosts the chances of Bentzin to become an instant incumbent. A novice Republican challenger, Robert Reynolds, mysteriously got cold feet and pulled out of the race the day after filing. But two experienced Democrats on the ballot – educational experts Donna Howard and Kathy Rider – along with the wild-card presence of Libertarian Ben Easton, could hold Bentzin under 50%, which would throw the House race into a run-off.

And rather than wait quietly for the primaries and the November election during a nominal legislative interim, the winner in Tuesday's race will take a seat in yet another special session on school finance, which Perry is expected to convene after the March primary. "This race is about one thing and one thing only: Who will represent the community in this spring's special session on public school finance?" said Democratic strategist Kelly Fero, who is assisting the Howard campaign.

Instant Agenda

Ben Bentzin (R)<br>Supports a private school voucher program for at-risk students in low-performing schools; says his technology background would complement state and local efforts to create new jobs.
Ben Bentzin (R)
Supports a private school voucher program for at-risk students in low-performing schools; says his technology background would complement state and local efforts to create new jobs. (Photo By John Anderson)

It's uncertain whether the GOP-dominated Legislature will be able to break its cycle of failures on school finance, even with a recent state Supreme Court decision mandating property tax reform and Perry's appointment of former state Comptroller John Sharp, a Democrat, to head an interim committee charged with drawing up recommended changes to the tax system that funds public education. In a nutshell, the debate turns on the question of where to shift the tax burden once the Legislature cuts property taxes. Lawmakers deadlocked on the issue last year, with the business lobby and the GOP leadership on one side and public school advocates, Democrats, and some moderate Republicans on the other. Beyond the tax-allocation debate, the two sides hold sharp disagreements on the amount of funding actually needed to run the education system, as well as on the long-running efforts by social conservatives to add "school reform" – e.g., "accountability," budget-cutting, even a private school voucher program – into the school finance equation.

Lawmakers have until June 1 to come up with a new tax structure to fund education. In its November ruling, the court determined that the current school property tax system has effectively become a state property tax, forbidden by the Texas Constitution. Previously, a district court judge had ordered lawmakers to fix the funding system by Oct. 1, 2005, but lawmakers missed the deadline in both the regular and two special sessions. Despite that overall failure, school advocates scored at least one major victory with the bipartisan defeat of a voucher proposal.

In both the school finance issue and the voucher fight, Rep. Baxter frustrated many constituents, in a district friendly to public education, with votes that consistently demonstrated his unquestioning allegiance to House Speaker Tom Craddick and the business lobby. The high-profile debates played out in a series of razor-thin votes, making this District 48 race particularly crucial to both parties. A win for Bentzin, expected to follow the GOP leadership direction in the footsteps of his predecessor, would make Craddick a happy man.

And if Craddick is happy, chances are good that public school advocates will not be. The Parent PAC, a pro-public-ed committee that grew out of a reaction against the Legislature's abysmal school performance last year, is keeping a close eye on this 48 race. "There were many tie votes in the Texas House in 2005 on critical education bills, so a new Austin legislator could be the tiebreaker," said Carolyn Boyle, a co-founder of the group. "We need a lawmaker who will consistently be on the side of public school parents and PTA leaders. Austin's new leader should have the courage to stand with parents and not succumb to pressure by power brokers promoting ideological education agendas."

In that vein, Democrats point to Bentzin's ties to right-wing voucher proponent James Leininger and big industry lobbyists, such as Mike Toomey, Dan Shelley, and Buddy Jones, who co-hosted a fundraiser for Bentzin in December. State Rep. Phil King served as the event's "special honorary guest" – and for good reason. King, R-Weatherford, chairs the powerful House Committee on Regulated Industries and is one of Craddick's most trusted lieutenants. (Baxter also held a seat on the committee before joining the lobby group.) Additionally, Statesman writer Laylan Copelin reported Jan. 8 that Bentzin hired Tom DeLay associate and criminal co-defendant John Colyandro to produce his campaign mailers in his 2002 senate race, paying him indirectly through a contract with the company that printed the material.

But Miller, the longtime Austin political consultant, insists that his friend Bentzin is nobody's tool. "Bentzin's hard to categorize," he said. "He's really his own man."
Donna Howard (D)<br>Favors a broad-based business tax to generate revenue for education and opposes a state-funded voucher program; says the state should work toward capturing its share of federal dollars to cover health care costs.
Donna Howard (D)
Favors a broad-based business tax to generate revenue for education and opposes a state-funded voucher program; says the state should work toward capturing its share of federal dollars to cover health care costs.

All four candidates say their professional and community experience make them best qualified for a grueling job that comes with long hours and measly pay (although, as Baxter just demonstrated, the possibility of an eventual windfall). The winner of the special election will serve out the remainder of Baxter's term, through the end of the year. To hold the seat into the next biennium, the victor will still need to win the March primary (with Bentzin and Easton running unopposed, and a third candidate, Andy Brown, joining the Democratic fray). Then it's on to the general election in November.

Following the (School) Money

Bentzin, 40, is a former Dell executive and a wealthy philanthropist active in civic and charitable endeavors. He runs a private equity firm, Boxcar Holdings, and until recently served as the CEO of the World Congress on Information Technology, which will convene in Austin in May. In 2002, he waged an unsuccessful run against Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, in a $1 million campaign that turned ugly at its close with Bentzin's resort to a TV ad that featured police video footage of the veteran senator's DWI arrest earlier that year. Despite Bentzin's loss across Senate District 14 amid sharp criticism over the ad, the rookie candidate was the overwhelming favorite within District 48, where he clobbered Barrientos 58% to 42%. But Democrats insist that times have changed dramatically since the GOP swept the 2002 legislative races, and specifically that voters in this generally moderate district have grown wary of the Legislature's sharp turn to the right – and with it, the virtual extinction of Anglo Democratic women in the House and Senate. "If Donna Howard or Kathy Rider win or place a strong second," says Fero, "it will signal a continuing trend toward pulling Texas politics back to the mainstream middle."

Bentzin is positioning himself as one of those moderates – who also happens to favor state-funded private school vouchers under certain circumstances, such as providing new opportunities for special-needs kids in low-performing schools. (Bentzin did not respond to several requests for interviews.) Howard and Rider both oppose voucher programs outright, as siphoning funding from public schools. Easton, a former school teacher who made two unsuccessful House bids in Houston, favors a grand libertarian plan that would phase out public education altogether in favor of complete privatization.

Bentzin's campaign platform promises to work toward a "significant reduction" in property taxes, offset by spreading the burden of public education more broadly – though he has not yet directly addressed the touchy issues of business taxes vs. sales taxes. Bentzin also supports more local control for school districts, as well as accountability standards that would carry reward incentives.

Three candidates – Howard, Rider, and lawyer Andy Brown (residency requirements disqualified him from the special election) – have filed to run in the Democratic primary. But the outcome of Tuesday's election could see two of the hopefuls bowing out of the race before March, thus freeing up fundraising dollars and support for a single candidate. (Although the Dem candidates say they have a "gentlemen's agreement" for the primary, each gave the Chronicle a different interpretation of the terms – so it's still in flux.)

Kathy Rider (D)<br>Supports closing business franchise tax loopholes and raising tobacco and alcohol taxes to replenish education funding; opposes state-funded voucher program; says she'll work toward improvements in state's mental health system.
Kathy Rider (D)
Supports closing business franchise tax loopholes and raising tobacco and alcohol taxes to replenish education funding; opposes state-funded voucher program; says she'll work toward improvements in state's mental health system. (Photo By John Anderson)

Howard, 54, is a registered nurse by training, but has become a public education activist as a former member of the Eanes school board and co-founder of the Texas Education Crisis Coalition, a grassroots group formed in 2003 to raise awareness of school funding issues. She has lost two bids for the State Board of Education, where conservatives now hold the majority. On school finance, Howard advocates applying a moderate, broad-based business tax to help shore up education funding. "If you have a broad-based business tax, even at a low rate, you can generate sufficient revenue – not only to significantly reduce property taxes, but also to bring in additional revenue," she said. "This would provide the opportunity for economic growth and bring a certain amount of fiscal capacity and stability to a system that, right now, is unwieldy because it is so overly dependent on property taxes and sales taxes." She says most people she's talked to in the business community said they would support an across-the-board business tax. "Most people want to pay their fair share as long as there's a level playing field, as well as accountability."

Rider, 60, is a clinical social worker, with the longest record on education issues. In 1992, she jumped from the Parent-Teachers Association to the Austin school board, where she put in 10 years of unpaid service – eight as president – during some of the district's most turbulent times, including a test-tampering scandal. During her tenure, she developed a reputation as a hands-on leader (or a micromanager, some would argue) who wasn't afraid to ask tough questions of district staff.

Rider had considered running for the House seat in 2004, but said she scratched that idea in deference to Democrat Kelly White, who lost to Baxter by a mere 147 votes. For whatever reasons, Rider wasn't willing to step aside for Howard, who appears to enter the race with a currently higher profile. (White is serving as Howard's treasurer, although she, too, had considered running in the special election.) Rider's supporters, on the other hand, believe her past name ID and her AISD school board experience make her likely to be a surprising dark horse in the race.

One reason the public education system is in trouble, Rider says, is that the current school tax structure is not indexed to inflation, nor does it include provisions for student enrollment increases and other costs. "I see school finance as a crisis that nobody anticipated," she said of the increasingly creaky system, designed in the early Nineties. Rider advocates closing the business franchise tax loophole and instituting a business activity tax. She also supports raising "sin taxes" on cigarettes and alcohol, which she said would net the state an additional $3 billion.

Assuming state lawmakers will be able to move some kind of a school finance package out of the Legislature this time around – primarily aimed at reducing property taxes and moving them elsewhere – there's no guarantee at all that it will also include sufficient funding for schools, or provide for adequate pay raises for teachers, or that it won't include a private school voucher program. The only thing certain are the same old players, save for two newcomers: recently elected Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, replacing the late Joe Moreno in District 143, and whoever is finally the winner of the District 48 race. But it'll be Tuesday, possibly even February in the event of a run-off, before the weather vane points us in one direction or the other. end story

District 48 Special Election

Election date: Tuesday, Jan. 17

Ben Easton (L)<br> Advocates limiting all facets of government, including the gradual elimination of the state's public school system.
Ben Easton (L)
Advocates limiting all facets of government, including the gradual elimination of the state's public school system. (Photo By John Anderson)

Ben Bentzin (R)

Donna Howard (D)

Ben Easton (L)

Kathy Rider (D)

This race will go into a run-off if no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote.

This is a special election to fill the unexpired term through this year only, including an anticipated special legislative session this spring.

There will still be March party primaries, and a November general election, to fill the seat for 2007-08.

For more election info see the Chronicle endorsements.

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Texas Legislature, Ben Bentzin, Kathy Rider, Donna Howard, Ben Easton, Rick Perry, Tom Craddick, Parent PAC, Carolyn Boyle, Kelly Fero, Bill Miller, Mike Toomey, Dan Shelley, Phil King, Buddy Jones, Todd Baxter, Committee on Regulated Industries, Joe Moreno, Ana Hernandez, Kelly White

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