2006 State Races
The best and worst of times
By Wells Dunbar and Amy Smith, Fri., Jan. 20, 2006
It's another election year, and the stakes couldn't be higher. (Of course, we said the same thing last season, and the one before that, and we'll be saying it to kingdom come.) The 2006 cycle carries many of the familiar themes, though with a number of value-added ingredients: There is widely held frustration over school finance, dissension in the GOP ranks, the toll road debate, ongoing efforts to blur church and state, and the prospect of a thoroughly entertaining governor's race. The edgier policy issues could turn on who wins and who loses in a slew of legislative and statewide races. Here's a sampling of some of the livelier contests taking shape for the March 7 party primaries and the general election in November.
The earliest outlook favors Gov. Rick Perry winning another term, but the upcoming special session on school finance (on the heels of two failed regular sessions and three special sessions) could provide a more accurate (and less favorable) gauge for determining Perry's political future. Meanwhile, the guv has attracted a diverse field of challengers looking to unseat him in the fall. They now include two independent candidates state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and singer/humorist/detective novelist Kinky Friedman; two Democratic ex-congressmen Chris Bell and Bob Gammage; and two novice Dem contenders middle school principal Felix Alvarado and retail manager Rashad Jafer, a pro-choice, gay-friendly Pakistani American who supports the war in Iraq. At the end of the day, though, the Big D primary contest likely boils down to a Bell-Gammage showdown. (For more on that scrimmage, see the facing page.)
In the Republican primary, Perry has all but clinched the party's nomination, thanks to Strayhorn's decision to recast herself as a Republican running as an independent. The real fun starts the day after the primary (unless there's a Dem run-off), when Strayhorn and Friedman begin the time-limited task of rounding up 45,000 petition signatures to secure spots on the November ballot. (Note to would-be signers: The secretary of state will only accept signatures of voters who did not vote in a primary or run-off election, and only the first petition you sign will count.)
The other statewide primary races look highly unremarkable at this point and unlikely to result in a changing of the major party guards at least until November.
HD 47: The GOP-engineered district in southwest Travis Co. encompassing Bee Cave, West Lake Hills, Onion Creek, Lakeway, and the Hills suffers no dearth of contestants: The 11-candidate scramble to replace Terry "Temper Tantrum" Keel's seat features a former state rep, a retired pro golfer, and an Air Force reservist back from Iraq and that's just in the Republican primary.
Texas Legislature (Travis Co. Delegation)
The Dem side for March has a comparatively paltry four candidates, including the two likely frontrunners, Jason Earle and Valinda Bolton. Earle, son of Travis Co. D.A. Ronnie Earle, says he brings his father's zeal for clean government to his campaign. A health care consultant, Earle also emphasizes affordable medical care, economic development, and everybody's current preoccupation education. While Earle's initial name recognition will help him, it's also whispered that the prominent Dem prosecutor surname might be a hindrance in this suburban district, at least in the general election. The lesser known Bolton is a Dem activist and a longtime advocate against domestic violence, having worked for several family advocacy organizations. Although Earle would appear to have the initial edge, formidable former state Rep. Glen Maxey is managing Bolton's campaign so it may get interesting. Also running are Austin attorney Royce LeMoine and Eric Beverly. With experience in the Texas Office of Rural and Community Affairs, Beverly would likely be an effective advocate for rural Texans (not District 47's long suit), while LeMoine's labor advocacy would be welcome in the House.
It's harder to gauge the likely GOP frontrunners, as the candidates are mostly trying to stand rhetorically as close as possible to the well-known Keel. Commercial real estate broker Alex Castano trumpets his business connections, and advocates spending 80% of education funds "in the classroom" (a quantum leap from Gov. Perry's already demagogic "65% solution") and "outsourcing" noninstruction jobs. He also wants to put toll roads to a public vote. Business development consultant Rich Phillips hopes to "end Robin Hood" while cutting franchise and property taxes, and to use mysterious "Educational Opportunity and Equalization Grants" (apparently code words for "vouchers") to "put power in the hands of parents." He also pipe-dreams a Texas Border Defense Corps to patrol the Mexican border. Bill Welch, who returned in 2003 from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, similarly hopes to slay the recapture system, implement "merit pay" for teachers, and yes, spend more money "in the classroom." Retired pro golfer Terry Dill wants "sound business practices" and "local control" (read "privatization" and "no recapture") for schools, and advocates slashing property taxes to 1%, with a 5% cap on increases where school funding is supposed to come from under that system, he doesn't say. Rounding out the field is Dick Reynolds, former Texas Workers Comp. Commission chair and North Dallas state rep 1973-77.
With this many candidates, a GOP run-off looks inevitable. Perhaps somebody can persuade the hawk-eyed Keel who managed to disqualify his opponents in the Court of Criminal Appeals race to review the filings in these races as well?
There are also two Libertarians running, Ronnie Gjemre and Yvonne Schick; the "L" candidate will be determined at a county party convention.
HD 50: First-term incumbent Rep. Mark Strama is unopposed in the Democratic primary. This north Travis Co. district swings both ways, electing Republican Jack Stick in 2002, before re-placing him with a Democrat two years later. At this early stage, Strama's incumbency and semi-moderate voting record give him an initial edge over any of the three GOP contenders Dell executive Jeff Fleece, retiree Mary Wheeler, or software engineer Don Zimmerman. Of the three, Zimmerman, whose campaign slogan is "Texas, Not Taxes," enters the race with the greatest name ID, but likely the least support from the GOP establishment even if he did campaign mightily for the Proposition 2 marriage ban (which HD 50 voters narrowly approved). Also a supporter of the Minuteman vigilante group, Zimmerman proposes requiring voters to show proof of U.S. citizenship. Last week, he was running xenophobic radio commercials called "Alien Alerts," blaming "illegal aliens" for rising taxes and college tuition because children of undocumented immigrants are in theory eligible for in-state tuition.
HD 48: With Donna Howard's surprisingly strong showing in Tuesday's special election (see p.18), Democrats are hopeful not only that Howard can defeat Republican Ben Bentzin in the run-off, but that this race reflects a statewide trend that will run until November. Bentzin and other deep Republican pockets have something else in mind.
HD 46, HD 49, HD 51: Incumbents Eddie Rodriguez, Elliott Naishtat, and Dawnna Dukes all Democrats in a still-blue county should be re-elected handily.
SD 7: "Chuck Norris doesn't read books. He stares them down until he gets the information he needs." Yes, the latest Internet meme, originating at www.4q.cc/chuck ("facts" about Chuck Norris e.g., "Chuck Norris does not sleep. He waits.") has made it to West Houston's state Senate GOP primary (incumbent Jon Lindsay is retiring). Norris his ass-kicking self has endorsed his "friend," rabble-rousing radio talk show host Dan Patrick, a "strong, committed, conservative Christian" in the District 7 race (the MP3 of Norris' endorsement on Patrick's site is priceless). Opposing Patrick is the House corporate water carrier on tort reform, Rep. Joe Nixon, a state rep since 1994. The two camps are trading florid insults, with Patrick questioning Nixon's fundraising numbers, and Nixon castigating Patrick's charges as "the Chronicles of Nonsense" (zing!). Thus far staying above the mud-slinging fray, but on the ballot nonetheless, are fellow Houston Rep. Peggy Hamric (a less polarizing figure than either Nixon or Patrick) and former Houston City Council Member Mark Ellis. With that many current and former officeholders on the ballot, a runoff appears likely. The lone contender on the Dem ballot getting a pass until a November steam-rolling in the heavily GOP district is local bail bondsman F. Michael Kubosh.
Voters beware "the chief export of Chuck Norris is pain."
SD 19: Is Sen. Frank Madla enough of a Democrat for his own district? That's the question raised again and again in this vast stretch of Dem territory that runs from San Antonio to El Paso. San Antonio Rep. Carlos Uresti has mounted an aggressive campaign to unseat the senator, first elected in 1993. In a rare move for a Senatorial colleague, El Paso Sen. Eliot Shapleigh snubbed Madla last week with his endorsement of Uresti. Rarer still is that Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is campaigning for Madla in a Democratic primary, no less. That should tell you something about the bizarre qualities of "bipartisan" Texas politics.
Other House Races: If you relish watching intra-party bloodlettings, look no further then the Republican primary, where many too many to name here GOP incumbents have been targeted for replacement. The twist here is that the challenges hail from two opposing camps: one that champions public education, and another that aims at undermining it. Conservative operatives have recruited candidates to run against some of the despised "RINOs" (Republican in Name Only) who joined Democrats last spring to help defeat legislation on private-school vouchers. Outspoken pro-education Reps. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth and Carter Casteel of New Braunfels are among those who have drawn voucher-friendly GOP opponents Chris Hatley and Colby Brown in Geren's race, and Nathan Macias in Casteel's.
The real show-stoppers, though, are the handful of Texas Parent PAC GOP recruits, two of whom are rapidly gaining traction in their undeniably uphill quests to unseat two ranking House leaders: Education Committee Chair Kent Grusendorf (the bane of educators), and House State Affairs Chair David Swinford. Grusendorf is trying to fend off Diane Patrick, a former member of the Arlington school board and the state Board of Education, while out in the Panhandle, Swinford is facing Amarillo school board member Anette Carlisle, despite efforts to keep her off the ballot. To do so, party Chairwoman Tina Benkiser tried to apply a constitutional provision that prohibits a person in a "lucrative office" from running for the Legislature. It took the state Supreme Court to set Benkiser straight, holding that any reimbursements Carlisle received as a school board member just don't add up to "lucrative." Parent PAC co-founder Carolyn Boyle couldn't be happier with her group's new recruits. "From all the polling that we've seen, education is the No. 1 issue for voters," Boyle said. "People are looking for good, smart, responsive leaders who aren't driven by ideology, and who will listen to their constituents back home."
The two SBOE seats that include Travis County (both held by Republicans) are up for grabs, and here as elsewhere, the state GOP resembles a self-cleaning oven set on "blast furnace" in order to scour nonbelievers from the ranks. Moderate GOP incumbent Dan Montgomery of Fredericksburg, whose District 5 includes south Travis and much of the Hill Country, faces a hard-right challenge, while retiring member Cynthia Thornton (District 10, north Travis, Williamson, east to Burleson County, just shy of College Station*) leaves a brawl in her wake.
State Board of Education
Challenging Montgomery is former San Antonio state Rep. Ken Mercer (narrowly defeated by Democrat David Livingston in 2004). Touting his "real Conservative Texas Family Values," he's won the endorsement of Cathie Adams from the just-this-side-of-lunatic-fringe Texas Eagle Forum (sample headline on TEF's Web site: "Feds: Mexican military crosses into U.S. 216 times"). Also in the race is physicist Mark Loewe.
Over in Place 10, Cynthia Dunbar has been coronated by the far right, also earning Adams' endorsement for her "conservative pro-family education philosophy." Businessman and Army vet Tony Dale is also vying for the seat, as is Libertarian Martin Thomen.
*Oops! The following correction ran in our January 27, 2006 issue: In last week's "2006 State Races," the boundaries of State Board of Education District 10 were described as going from Austin "east to College Station." Actually, District 10 only goes east to Burleson County, just shy of College Station.