Primary Election Notes

Scuttlebutt from the election trail


Race for the Dem Dollars

In the race for dollars, Democratic guv hopeful Chris Bell far outpaced top rival Bob Gammage in the final month before the primary, reporting contributions of $259,569 in his eight-day financial report filed Monday with the Texas Ethics Commission. Bell reported $305,640 in campaign expenditures, and cash on hand totalling $98,721. After campaigning for nearly a year without gaining much traction statewide, Bell began stumping more aggressively once Gammage entered the race late last year. While both are former U.S. representatives, Gammage's name i.d. – he's also a former state Supreme Court justice and ex-legislator – had been expected to help him compensate for his late arrival on the campaign trail. Even with the lion's share of newspaper endorsements and campaign dollars going to Bell, many Democratic operatives still believe that the populist Gammage would have the better chance in the general election. But Gammage enters the home stretch of a major campaign with just $23,648 in the bank, after pulling in $58,209 between Jan. 27 and Feb. 25. His largest contributions were $3,000 from Houston oil and gas analyst George Littell, $2,000 from El Paso attorney James Scherr, and $2,000 from Texana PAC II. Bell's donors included Fort Worth criminal defense lawyer Robert Patton, Houston personal injury lawyer Thomas Pirtle, and the Good Government Fund, who gave $25,000 apiece. On Tuesday, Gammage added another endorsement to his long list of supporters – Travis Co. Sheriff Greg Hamilton. "We need a fighter who is strong enough to do what is right," Hamilton said. "That's Bob Gammage." – Amy Smith


Kinky's petition drive kickoff looms

It's countdown time for the start of Kinky Friedman's petition drive, which will begin, promptly, at midnight on March 8. Until then, Friedman will be rocketing up and down the state for a string of campaign appearances – including one in Austin, tonight (Thursday), from 5-7pm at Mother Egan's on West Sixth. On primary night, March 7, Friedman will hold court at the Star Bar on West Sixth (around 10pm, he says) before heading to the Capitol for a petition drive kick-off rally. For more info, go to www.kinkyfriedman.com. – Jordan Smith


Anybody's Guess in Dist. 47

Jason Earle and Valinda Bolton – the two front runners vying for the Democratic nomination in House District 47 – entered the final stretch of the primary this week as political pundits were still trying to gauge possible outcomes in a four-way race that's too close to call. "Neither candidate has been particularly efficient in getting their message to voters," said political consultant David Butts, a close ally of Earle's father, Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle. "So given the absence of any kind of information, voters gravitate to what they know. And in this case, they're going to know that he's an Earle and she's a woman." Indeed, the words "My name is Earle" carry instant name-recognition in these parts. Not only is daddy Ronnie the long-serving county prosecutor, sister Elisabeth is a county court-at-law judge. But while the youthful Earle was considered a clear leader early in the primary (which also includes Eric Beverly and Royce LeMoine), Bolton has gained considerable momentum in the wake of Democrat Donna Howard's win in HD 48. "Women candidates have proven time and again to have an edge in Democrat primaries against Anglo males," Butts said. Still, campaign observers believe Bolton's current TV ad carries two very different messages – one against domestic violence and another blasting the GOP's definition of "family values" – that could confuse voters more than anything. Earle's campaign, meanwhile, was expected to send out a batch of "positive" campaign mailers this week. Both candidates have enlisted the aide of seasoned Democratic operatives – Kelly Fero, who helped guide Howard's campaign to victory, is helping Earle, while former state representative Glen Maxey is working for Bolton. – A.S.


Flying With Only a Right Wing in Dist. 50

Here's a strange observation: Of the three Republicans seeking the House District 50 seat in northern Travis Co., Don Zimmerman is the one who seems the most – how shall we put this? – normal. And we're talking about an extreme bunch here: hopefuls who are unabashedly anti-tax, anti-gay marriage, pro-voucher, pro-guns, and what have you. In a political swing district, no less.

One of the three will face Democratic Rep. Mark Strama in November. But first, GOP voters must choose between Zimmerman, a software engineer and a self-described "Ron Paul Republican," Jeff Fleece, a clean-cut Dell manager who won the Statesman's endorsement and is the favorite of the GOP establishment; and Mary Wheeler, a retired Travis Co. employee and a veteran of the civil rights era who switched to the GOP during the Reagan era. As of early this month, neither Fleece nor Wheeler had done much in the way of fundraising, but we'll likely see Fleece's reports fleshed out with more cash if he wins the primary.

Zimmerman has the best-financed and most sophisticated campaign operation, helped by loans from anti-rail pal James Skaggs and Libertarian blues man Jimmie Vaughan. Plus, Zimmerman's tireless get-out-the-vote effort in November helped give HD 50 the distinction of being the only House district in the county to pass, however narrowly, the Prop. 2 amendment banning same-sex marriage. His work on that score earned him the endorsement of the House leader of the religious right – Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, who carried the Prop. 2 bill in the Legislature. But Zimmerman's sharp shift to the right has put him at odds with his Libertarian friends, including one of his biggest supporters early on – Wes Benedict, chairman of the Travis Co. Libertarian Party. "Don Zimmerman asked for my support claiming to be a libertarian-leaning Republican," Benedict recalled. "However, Zimmerman's primary issues have been anti-immigrant and anti-gay marriage, in direct conflict with the Libertarian Party platform." If – and that's a big if – Zimmerman wins the primary and returns to his strictly anti-tax agenda, the candidate could just manage to "neutralize the Libertarian factor," Benedict said. – A.S.


Indie Candidate Seeks Indie Judiciary

Lockhart attorney Bill McNeal has announced that he will run as an independent candidate for the Texas Supreme Court Place 6 seat, currently occupied by Nathan Hecht. McNeal, who graduated from UT Law in 1964 and is certified in civil trial and personal injury trial law, says he decided to run as an independent because he believes that party politics should play no role in judicial elections. He points out that two former Texas high court judges – including, notably, former Chief Justice Tom Phillips – have called for an end to partisan selection of judges. Instead, he says, victors in Texas' judicial races – especially at the statewide level – tend to be "the judges that get all the money and all the TV coverage. That's not the way we should elect judges." To make his point, McNeal has pledged to spend no more than $500 on his campaign and is refusing to accept campaign contributions. Instead, McNeal (whose main opponent, Hecht, has already raised nearly $300,000) will use his Web site – www.billmcnealforjustice.com – to get the word out about his campaign and is encouraging voters to contact him, either by e-mail at billmcnealforjustice@earthlink.net, or at 800/299-4534, to talk about his positions and/or to ask questions about his candidacy.

In order to get on the ballot, McNeal will have 60 days – beginning March 8, the day after the primary – to collect at least 45,450 valid signatures from registered voters, none of whom voted in the Republican primary race; because no Democrat is running for the Place 6 seat, Dem primary voters are legally allowed to sign McNeal's petition. McNeal says he is "serious about this campaign and would like to be elected" to the bench. He hopes that, at the very least, his candidacy will help further the debate about independent politics and about an independently elected judiciary. – J.S.


Aleshire Backs Sonleitner

Although it may surprise those who know how much the two used to "fuss and fight" during Travis Co. Commissioners Court meetings, former Travis Co. Judge Bill Aleshire says he is "wholeheartedly" in support of Precinct 2 Commissioner Karen Sonleitner's re-election bid, saying that she's the sort of "moderate person" who "really does have the combination of heart and mind" necessary to do the job." Aleshire adds that he thinks Sonleitner opponent Sarah Eckhardt is a fine candidate but that she simply isn't as good a choice as the incumbent.

In all, Aleshire says he thinks the entire Pct. 2 match-up is really about Sonleitner's effective block last year of a proposal to privatize the county's delinquent tax collections floated by former Travis Co. Attorney Ken Oden's current law-firm employer, Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson. Aleshire says he suspects that Oden was instrumental in convincing Eckhardt – a former assistant county attorney – to run in order to teach Sonleitner – and all other Travis Co. pols – not to mess with the Linebarger army. Indeed, when the proposal came before commissioners last year, Sonleitner was the only one to balk, and, in effect, put the kibosh on the whole deal. (See, "Linebarger to County: Have We Got a Deal for You," April 29, 2005.) "What this campaign is all about," says Aleshire, "is to knock off Sonleitner." He suggests that Sonleitner's block of the Linebarger deal is a "good example of Karen's skill as a commissioner."

For her part, Eckhardt says Oden did talk to her about running against Sonleitner but that she told him she agreed that privatizing the county's delinquent tax collections is a "bad idea." "We do a great job at the county and have a ridiculously high collection rate. It's a no-brainer," she says. "Ken [Oden] has been encouraging, but I told him that if that's what he wants out of this election, he isn't going to get it." At press time, Oden had not returned a call requesting comment.

Still, Aleshire says he wonders if anyone besides Sonleitner would have the tenacity to block that kind of measure again – especially if the message from the politically powerful is clear. "If not the purpose [of supporting Eckhardt's candidacy], then certainly the effect if Karen is beaten is the message that if you oppose Linebarger, they'll go after you, and will find a candidate to do it." – J.S.


Leaning Toward Gomez – Heavily

Zzzzzz. Zzzzzz. Zzzzzz. The race for Precinct 4 county commissioner is a real snoozer, and the lopsided list of endorsements for the two candidates vying to represent southeast Travis County on the commissioners court reflects this contest's overall level of competitive tension. Here are the organizations backing incumbent Margaret Gómez: Austin Central Labor Council, Travis Co. Sheriff's Law Enforcement Association, Travis Co. Sheriff's Officers Association, Black Austin Democrats, South Austin Tejano Democrats, Stonewall Democrats, Austin Lesbian/Gay Political Caucus, Austin Firefighters Association, Southwest Austin Democrats, Mexican American Democrats, South Austin Democrats, West Austin Democrats, Central Austin Democrats, University Democrats, and Austin Sierra Club, The Austin Chronicle, and Austin American-Statesman. And these are the groups endorsing challenger and current Travis Co. Deputy Constable Yolanda Montemayor: People for Efficient Transportation PAC and Amalgamated Transit Union-Local 1091.

As one of Montemayor's supporters noted in a recent letter to the Chronicle, our endorsement of Gómez for the race is also lopsided – it's mostly about her, only ending with "a short sentence about the opponent, Yolanda Montemayor's lack of familiarity with county government." Our response: It's a lopsided race. – Cheryl Smith


*Oops! The following correction ran in the March 10, 2006 issue: In last week's "Primary Election Notes," the [Austin] Central Labor Union and the Austin Central Labor Council were both listed as endorsers of Margaret Gomez in the Precinct 4 county commissioner race. Only Austin Central Labor Council should have been listed, however, as there is no [Austin] Central Labor Union. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

elections, Kinky Friedman, election, petition drive, governor, Jason Earle, Ronnie Earle, Valinda Bolton, Kelly Fero, David Butts, Glen Maxey, Elisabeth Earle, Don Zimmerman, Jimmie Vaughan, Mary Wheeler, Jeff Fleece, Wes Benedict, Mark Strama, Michael Dell, Precinct 4 county commissioner

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