The Austin Chronicle

Who Are These Guys?

Dem primary candidates try to strike a campaign flame

By Amy Smith, February 10, 2006, News

You know the campaign climate is dismal when the political buzz on the Democratic candidates running for governor is, Zzzzzzzzz. And that's coming from the Democrats.

But with less than a month before the March 7 primary election, the two main contenders for the Democratic nomination – Chris Bell and Bob Gammage, both former U.S. congressmen – say they are undaunted by the party's skeptics who insist that one of their own can't possibly win a statewide post in Texas, much less the governor's seat, in 2006. Of course, it takes more than moxie to win elections, and neither candidate is flush with cash from the traditional Democratic bankrollers, such as big trial lawyers or wealthy donors like Waco insurance executive Bernard Rapoport and former Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes.

That's because at least for the moment, they're laying their money on Republican Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn who, after being largely ignored by the press for much of the summer and fall, switched to an independent candidacy on Jan. 2 and instantly became the new "it" girl on the campaign trail. It turns out that Strayhorn, who was a Democrat in another lifetime, had spent the latter part of her low-ebb months convincing many major Democratic donors to starve Bell and Gammage of serious cash. According to Texas Ethics Commission records, Strayhorn raised $2.4 million in the last half of 2005, picking up some of her larger contributions in December, about the time rumors popped up that she'd be going indie. So she opened the new year with $8.1 million in the bank. By contrast, Bell began 2006 with $165,444 in cash after raising more than $356,000 during the six-month reporting period. Late-comer Gammage reported raising some $67,000 since November, and had about $53,000 cash on hand in January. (A third Democratic contender, Houston retail manager Rashad Jafer, started the year on empty.)

At the moment, the conventional wisdom holds that Strayhorn is the only candidate in the governor's race with a realistic shot at knocking off GOP Gov. Rick Perry, who, despite the overall unpopularity of his administration, still leads the other candidates in fundraising (with $11.5 million in hand as of January) and in the early campaign polls. The odds on Strayhorn assume that she can pick up the required 45,540 signatures – after the primaries, from nonvoters – to gain access to the November ballot. Similarly, if independent candidate Kinky Friedman is as successful collecting signatures as he is raising money (he took in $1.5 million in the last half of 2005), voters will have the rare opportunity of choosing between five candidates for governor: Perry, Strayhorn, Friedman, Libertarian James Werner, and whichever Democrat emerges as the victor in the primary race.

Campaign staffers and supporters of Bell and Gammage would argue that their candidates are generating more excitement as the primary draws closer, and that once the nominee is decided, the media and Democratic voters will turn their attention from Strayhorn and Friedman for a closer look at the "D" candidate. Until then, though, this particular Democratic contest appears to be stuck in neutral.

Ready for Their Close-Ups

"It's not the kind of primary where you're going to have slash-and-burn attacks every day," says Bell. "But we've pointed out some differences, and there are some significant differences. I think we're much more focused on the future, and that's what this race for governor is really about." The most striking difference between the two candidates is in campaign style. Although he spent some early time as a TV reporter, on the stump Bell is essentially a policy wonk, who displays intelligence and dry wit but lacks the polished charisma to wow a crowd. By contrast, Gammage, returning to the political wars after a decade layoff (underlying Bell's coy reference to "focusing on the future") still comes across as a homespun populist at ease on the campaign trail – though younger voters may be puzzled by his instinctive reminiscences of his feisty days in the Legislature, more than 30 years ago.

Since neither campaign has the raw cash needed to reach out to statewide Democrats before the primary, the race could well become a toss-up. "First of all, nobody knows who's running," said Dean Rindy, Gammage's longtime media consultant in Austin and an unpaid consultant in his gubernatorial bid. "Neither candidate has a big media blitz, and they have gotten far less publicity than Strayhorn and Kinky because the media is infatuated with the Jesse Ventura-Arnold Schwarzenegger star power theme." Starry-eyed media or not, there's no doubt that Strayhorn and Friedman have statewide name recognition that Bell and Gammage can only hope to generate when one of them emerges from the primary. (Political novice Jafer has no name recognition at all, but could garner some numbers from Dem voters simply flummoxed at the unfamiliar list on the ballot. For the truly politically curious, Jafer does have a Web site:

So who are these guys, Bell and Gammage?

A brief introduction:

Bell, a 46-year-old lawyer from Houston, is a former TV and radio reporter, a two-term Houston City Council member, and a former U.S. congressman who served just one term before becoming a casualty of U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay's redistricting map in 2004. But in losing his re-election bid, the lame duck Bell actually elevated his political profile by subsequently filing an ethics complaint against DeLay, calling the then-powerful House majority leader the "most corrupt politician in America today." And it was in the wake of the congressional uproar that Bell began exploring the idea of running for governor.

"There were a lot of people, even within my own party, who told me that [attacking DeLay] was the wrong thing to do, that it would lead to my political ruination, and that [it] would go nowhere and simply be swept under the carpet," he said. "But four months later [DeLay] was unanimously admonished" by the House Ethics Committee. Now, more than a year later, DeLay faces money-laundering charges stemming from his role in trying to influence the 2002 Texas legislative races.

Officially, Bell jumped into the race last July, after his wife, Alison, was medically cleared following treatment for breast cancer. It is his first statewide run, but he is hardly a stranger to political campaigns – starting in 1984 when, as a young Amarillo TV reporter, he ran unsuccessfully for a state House seat. After moving to Houston in the late Eighties, Bell took up radio reporting and obtained a law degree. He ran unsuccessfully for the Houston City Council in 1995 but won a seat two years later, serving two terms before losing a run for mayor in 2001. Again, Bell bounced back. With his name still fresh on voters' minds after his mayoral defeat, he mounted another campaign effort – this time successfully – for Houston's 25th U.S. Congressional District. He served one term in the U.S. House, before DeLay's re-redistricting map drew him into a district designed to elect an African-American, and he lost in the 2004 primary to Houston Justice of the Peace Al Green.

Gammage, 67, is a former U.S. congressman and state Supreme Court justice with a record in Texas politics stretching back several decades. Most recently, he was the Texas chair of the "Draft Wesley Clark" effort in 2004. (The retired general and former presidential candidate returned the favor last month by endorsing Gammage for governor.) Now living in Llano, the Houston native got his start in the Texas House in the early Seventies, when influence-peddlers had the run of the Capitol – sound familiar? – but the willing pawns-in-charge were all Democrats. Gammage was among a bipartisan band of reform-minded House members – known, because of their number, as the "Dirty 30" – who raised enough hell to touch off a full-scale criminal investigation into state leaders' role in the legendary Sharpstown banking scandal. The probe led to the criminal conviction of House Speaker Gus Mutscher and the election defeat of several other lawmakers. Not even Barnes, then the young and promising lieutenant governor and now a Strayhorn supporter, could survive the campaign taint of the scandal. (One marker of how things have changed: Then counted among the rebellious Dirty 30 was current House Speaker Tom Craddick.)

It was on this legacy of reform that Gammage entered the governor's race, drawing on current outrage over the lobbying scandals in Washington and the criminal indictments of DeLay and company in Texas. "What we confronted at that time was a very corrupt system of government ... that allowed the special interests to run rampant in the halls of the Capitol and run roughshod over the public interest," Gammage said. "Now we're right back where we started from, only worse."

Some question whether Gammage helped or hurt his campaign by riding into the race as a Seventies throwback, along with two other Dirty 30 veterans – former Reps. Ben Z. Grant, a candidate for lieutenant governor, and Fred Head, who's running for comptroller. Last month, the silver-haired trio made a Dirty 30 reunion tour across Texas, starting in Gammage's old Sugar Land stomping ground, now home to DeLay. The three closed out the week at a press conference in Austin. Still riding on the high of their whirlwind stump, the men were tired but exuberant. "I've been in the race for two weeks," a beaming Grant told reporters, "and I'm out of brochures and out of clean socks."

Where's the Dem Bench?

Just to be clear, the Dirty 30-minus-27 aren't running as a slate, ã la the Dream Team of 2002. And Gammage has more recently started putting less emphasis on the past. "He will have trouble explaining to people what the relevance of his service in the 1970s is to the problems of today," said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at SMU. "People want to know about public education, and school funding, and health care. [They] scratch their heads when Gammage starts talking about the Sharpstown scandals."

Jillson's sense is that Bell's relative youth and early entry into the race give him a leg up in the primary, on the premise that he'll attract younger voters and pro-choice women (when Gammage announced, he was briefly attacked by abortion-rights veterans who remember bitterly his congressional votes against federally-funded abortions for poor women). "If Gammage were to win the Democratic nomination," Jillson said, "it would suggest to me that the Democratic Party is still pretty much at sea. Hearkening back to the 1970s – to a good man, but a man who's been out of politics for a decade – suggests how thin the Democratic bench is."

But those Austin insiders, on the other hand, who make their livings analyzing poll data and crunching election numbers give Gammage a clear edge. Gammage, they say, has statewide campaign experience and drives a sharper message that appeals to populist and progressive voters. He also offers a refreshing break from what Rindy refers to as the "wishy-washy compromising Democratic Party establishment type."

For example, Gammage delivers a strong anti-war, anti-Bush pitch to voters, and explains his return to politics as motivated primarily by the dishonesty and incompetence of the Bush administration. Speaking to a group of Democratic activists last week in Austin, Gammage earned his loudest applause with his attacks on Bush, beginning with the administration rationalizations for the invasion of Iraq and steadily working his way down to the state Capitol: "Bush is wrong, Perry is wrong, Dewhurst is wrong, Craddick is wrong. ... We have a corrupt, incompetent leadership in this state."

Rindy lays out a scenario that has his man winning the primary and replacing Strayhorn as the favorite to beat Perry. "Right now Carole Strayhorn is the candidate of Democratic despair. But when Democratic hopes rise, she falls," he said. "And when she starts falling – if she starts falling – it will be pretty precipitous." Strayhorn may be the Democrats' choice now, he said, but she and Friedman both will fade from voters' minds once the primary victor starts grabbing millions of dollars worth of press coverage. "Mark my words," Rindy said. "The Democratic base will come together when there is one candidate. And when that candidate is as strong as Gammage, we'll have an excellent chance."

Speaking last week to Democracy for Texas, Gammage referred to Strayhorn as his latest political gift of "dumb luck," because he believes her presence on the ballot will inevitably generate a lot of Republican ticket-splitters. "Once they vote for Strayhorn," he said, "they don't go back to straight-ticket voting down the ballot. And that means, whether we win the governor's race outright or not, we start to pick up swing races all the way across the state."

Democratic strategist Kelly Fero agrees: "Either way, with [Strayhorn and Friedman] or just one of them on the ballot, a lot of ticket-splitters will be created. That's good news for Democrats down ballot because it will break, or at least weaken a little, the Republican lockstep on straight-ticket voting." As the hopeful pundits see it, should Democrats manage to pick up some seats in the House, they'll have Carole and Kinky to thank for their good fortune. And should the presence of five candidates on the ballot prevent one from dominating, who knows if the surviving Dem might garner enough late-season momentum to make the final outcome interesting? end story

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