Run-Offs to Go

A handful of races still hang in the balance – including these hot ones

Run-Offs to Go
Illustration By Doug Potter

Depending on the outcome of a handful of run-offs now in play, the Central Texas state House delegation might look quite different come November. Herein, the Chronicle political reporters consider the most competitive local House races, as well as the CD 10 congressional race that promises also a much more lively fall campaign than anticipated just a few months ago. One additional wild card was played this week, when former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay announced he will resign rather than run for re-election. Democrats planning to "run against DeLay" this fall might have to adjust that strategy, although the resignation is unlikely to have much immediate effect on these run-offs. For your consideration, we offer our own buzz on the campaigns, and encourage voters in these districts to get out and vote. – Michael King

Jeff Fleece
Jeff Fleece

Texas House District 50: Zimmerman vs. the GOP

When Austin Republican Jack Stick lost his state House seat to Democrat Mark Strama in 2004, rumor had it that the ex-lawmaker bitterly blamed his defeat on a member of his own party – local GOP activist Don Zimmerman.

That's a rumor Zimmerman can live with (and indeed may have helped perpetuate), although in fact there were multiple reasons for Stick's narrow but bruising loss by 569 votes to Strama, now the incumbent and generally favored to win re-election this fall. Zimmerman's contribution to Stick's ouster was just one of many sideshows in the hotly contested race, but it did serve to broadcast Stick's lukewarm effort pursuing a campaign promise he made to voters in 2002 – to pass legislation that would force the resolution of a long-standing tax dispute between the city of Austin and Canyon Creek homeowners, who had been clamoring to get out from under their tax obligation to the Canyon Creek Municipal Utility District since the city annexed their subdivision in the early Nineties. By calling voters' attention to Stick's "betrayal" of Canyon Creek, Zimmerman helped Strama win the race. In turn, Strama helped negotiate a compromise between the city and the Canyon Creek homeowners.

Now, it's political payback time – in two directions – for Zimmerman, who is seeking the GOP nomination to challenge Strama for the HD 50 seat in November. Zimmerman is not exactly an insider within the Travis Co. Republican Party, and his loud criticism of Stick in 2004 (after having supported him in 2002) is expected to cost him some important votes when he squares off against Jeff Fleece in the April 11 run-off. Though a virtual unknown with no record of local party activism (and an equally spotty voting record, including a no-show in Stick's 2002 primary race), Fleece is the GOP establishment's choice in HD 50, as evidenced by his financial contributors and his hiring of GOP political consultant Ted Delisi, an adviser of choice to the state party leadership.

Fleece has also secured the endorsement of Stick himself, who in a campaign mailer calls Fleece a "decent man" with an impressive military record. As Fleece's supporters see it, what the rookie candidate lacks in name ID and party activism, he makes up for by being a West Point graduate who served as an Armor officer with the U.S. Army's 1st Calvary Division. (Neither Fleece nor Delisi returned Chronicle phone calls for this story.)

Don Zimmerman
Don Zimmerman

By liberal Travis County standards, both Fleece and Zimmerman hold extreme views on social issues, supporting school vouchers and the state's constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Zimmerman, however, is considered too much of a free-thinker, in a libertarian mode, for the party establishment's taste. To that end, Fleece's campaign is drawing on Zimmerman's opposition to the Bush administration's PATRIOT Act, among other issues, in questioning Zimmerman's loyalty to Bush and the GOP. Zimmerman is hardly what you'd call a George Bush Republican, or even a Ronald Reagan Republican for that matter. Rather, he is a Ron Paul Republican – the U.S. congressman and GOP outsider from Surfside, who ran for president on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1988.

"This has shaped up to be the perfect struggle between the Republican Party establishment – the lobby, the money, the Karl Rove kingmakers on one side, and on the other side, the Ron Paul Republicans," Zimmerman observed the other day. "We're the people who care about the Constitution, we care about principles, and we're angry about the trillions of dollars in deficit spending. It's a very clear line as to who's on which side."

HD 50, which covers most of northeast Travis Co. and a smaller swath west of I-35, is a political swing district, one of three in the county. Of the three, HD 50 is probably the most Republican-leaning, and is the only district in the county that saw passage, albeit narrowly, of the Proposition 2 marriage amendment that Texas voters approved last November. Zimmerman is credited (or blamed) for Prop. 2's squeaker victory in HD 50; he spent $13,000 of his campaign money to pay for all of the pro-Prop. 2 yard signs in the county, and campaigned mightily for its passage. "I have no doubt Don made the difference in causing Prop. 2 to be passed only in HD 50," said longtime independent Republican consultant Royal Masset, who is Zimmerman's campaign strategist.

While the candidate's work on the marriage front earned him the endorsement of several statewide conservative groups, the local religious right crowd is largely backing Fleece. Zimmerman is pretty chapped about that, given all the work he did on Prop. 2. Then again, he's never really gotten along with the party's religious zealots, who claim a fair amount of precinct chairs across the county. Fleece "did nothing for Prop. 2 and he's their candidate of choice," Zimmerman said. "So I think that should tell you something about the religious right."

Zimmerman's supporters admit that his free-wheeling activism could be his political undoing on April 11. As Masset notes, "If Don is known for 10 issues and the voter disagrees with just one – such as Don's questioning of the PATRIOT Act – and Jeff is known as a nice guy who went to West Point, Don will probably lose that vote," he said.

Fleece's advantage is that he has no record for voters to judge. "Fleece has no baggage and can say whatever the polls tell him to say," notes Masset. Still, he is quick to point to the irony of someone like Fleece, with no record of party participation, questioning Zimmerman's Republican credentials. "Fleece attacking Zimmerman over party loyalty is like a son killing his father and wanting sympathy for being an orphan," Masset said.

Travis Co. Republican Chair Alan Sager says he isn't taking sides in the race, but it's safe to assume that he doesn't support Zimmerman, who actively campaigned against Sager's 2002 bid for county chair and has opposed him on other issues. "I guess I poisoned the well there," Zimmerman acknowledges. Sager is only willing to speak about the importance of seeing the GOP recapture the HD 50 seat – not an easy task by any stretch. Strama has the support and financial backing of both grassroots Democrats and Capitol insiders. But Sager points to some factors that could lead to Strama's defeat. "Among other things, Prop. 2 passed in District 50 and he was against it," Sager said. "He is far too liberal for this district, and while he wants to create the aura of working with everyone, on big issues he does not support what the majority of voters in [HD 50] want."

While the party establishment may argue that Fleece would have the best chance of turning Strama out of office in November, Masset can just as readily enumerate the reasons why Zimmerman is the only candidate who can do the job. "Fortunately," he said, "the fewer voters who will participate in the run-off will be more likely to appreciate a proven activist and not another candidate chosen by the establishment. If HD 50 voters want someone who will vote with them and not be lapdogs of the lobby, they will vote for Don." Masset said he turns down a fair number of candidates who want to run against incumbent Democrats. But Zimmerman, he added, "will actually be more in his element going against Strama, where you have real philosophical differences. Fleece will be unable to articulate philosophical differences with Strama, and Strama will crush him." – Amy Smith

Republican Bill Welch
Republican Bill Welch (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Texas House District 47: Looking for a wedge

Republican Alex Castano
Republican Alex Castano

Whatever momentum Valinda Bolton and Jason Earle enjoyed going into the Democratic primary in state House District 47 may have waned going into next week's run-off. At least that's the buzz among some Dem observers, who privately fret that neither candidate has yet cultivated a sufficient base of support to ensure a Democratic victory in November.

Of course, the pessimism is a tad premature; much of the Dems' November fate depends on the outcome of the Republican run-off, where Bill Welch and Alex Castano are vying for their party's nomination to succeed incumbent GOP Rep. Terry Keel – who's in a run-off himself, against GOP incumbent Charles Holcomb for a seat on the 3rd Court of Appeals. Welch and Castano are waging a much more acrimonious contest than their Democratic counterparts. The political battle grew more divisively personal last week as court documents, delivered anonymously to the Chronicle and Statesman, revealed Castano's personal financial problems – he was sued by credit card companies in 2004, and lost judgments, after falling behind on more than $35,000 in debt. The disclosure not only embarrassed Castano – who says he is repaying the debt – it also undermined his tough campaign talk about the need for state budget discipline.

Democrat Valinda Bolton
Democrat Valinda Bolton (Photo By John Anderson)

Castano's campaign immediately blamed Welch's campaign for digging up and disseminating the court documents the day before the two were scheduled to appear together for a Statesman-sponsored debate. Welch denied the claims but used the opportunity to blast his opponent's "irresponsible" fiscal conduct, while Castano reportedly "held back tears" in attributing the debt to desperate attempts to support his family.

As is often the case between Republican opponents, the contest between Welch and Castano comes down to the question of which candidate stands further to the right on social issues. On that score, Castano is way out in front, but Welch, who ran as a moderate for this seat in 1992 (narrowly losing to Susan Combs), has since acquired more conservative views on abortion rights and other hot-button topics. (Inevitably, Castano accuses Welch of "flip-flopping" on abortion.)

Democrat Jason Earle
Democrat Jason Earle (Photo By John Anderson)

"A bitter Republican primary like this one just makes clear how out of touch both of their candidates are with the issues that really matter in the general election," said political consultant Mark Nathan, a consultant for the Earle campaign. He says voters in this southwest Travis Co. district are less concerned about emotional wedge issues than they are about nuts-and-bolts issues like school finance and property taxes: "November voters want to support an independent candidate who understands the problems that people face in the real world and has a plan to do something about them."

Convincing voters that a Democrat is better equipped to deal with the Real World could be challenging. For one, HD 47 voters don't have the same distaste for incumbent Keel as voters in neighboring HD 48 had for Republican Todd Baxter, who resigned his seat late last year. In light of the sound rejection they gave his heir apparent, Ben Bentzin, in electing Democrat Donna Howard to serve out the remainder of Baxter's term, it's a reasonable bet that HD 48 voters would likely have turned Baxter out as well. But in Keel's district, the Republican nominee isn't carrying quite so much negative baggage.

In that broader respect, Bolton's advantage over Earle in the run-off could be that she, like Howard, is part of a nationwide trend of white Democratic women waging successful campaigns. In the short term, Bolton has also proved the more polished campaigner. "Valinda is moving to a place," said her consultant Glen Maxey, "where voters will see that she's not only the better candidate in the run-off, but she'll be the better candidate in November."

While Earle's campaign staff acknowledges that their rookie candidate, the son of District Attorney Ronnie Earle, was inexperienced coming in, they say he's shown dramatic improvement on the stump. "Jason has done a much better job over the last few months of communicating his vision for reform at the Capitol," said Nathan, "and I think that holds him in good stead for the general election. He's an independent-minded guy and he knows what he wants to do if he gets elected." More than anything, though, Earle's supporters believe Earle is more capable of raising the kind of money required to run a successful campaign against either Welch or Castano.

And Democrats readily acknowledge that Welch would present a greater threat than Castano, whose views would likely be seen as too extreme for a district that voted against the Prop. 2 marriage amendment. Welch leads going into the run-off, but Castano has garnered the support of many party leaders, including Gov. Rick Perry, who could benefit by having a Hispanic Republican in the House. – Amy Smith

Paul Foreman
Paul Foreman (Photo By John Anderson)

U.S. House, District 10: Running against Bush

Tom DeLay's re-redistricting in 2004 introduced a new congressman to Travis County – previously split between Republican Lamar Smith to the west and Democrat Lloyd Doggett to the east. DeLay destroyed Doggett's old, solidly Dem Congressional District 10 and created a new CD 10, running from Central Austin north to Pflugerville and then sprawling east through rural oil fields and farmland to northwest Harris Co. GOP primary voters picked Michael McCaul, an in-law heir to the Clear Channel media empire fortune, and the November general election was such a foregone conclusion that no Democrat even bothered to file in the primary.

This year, four Dems took up the daunting task of climbing the Republican mountain that is CD 10, and March's primary winnowed them down to two – Austin poet/publisher Paul Foreman and retired civil service professional and Navy veteran Ted Ankrum of Cypress. They go into the run-off neck and neck, Ankrum's 36.7% of the vote barely edging Foreman's 35.8% in the first round. Here's a snapshot of the two men who believe they can foil DeLay and turn this conservative district blue.

Both candidates are running as much against the apparently-defrocked DeLay and President George W. Bush as against McCaul. Indeed, a centerpiece of Foreman's campaign pitch is getting Bush impeached. Attacking Bush's defense of illegally wiretapping American citizens, Foreman told an Austin audience, "This is worse than Nixon saying 'I'm not a crook.' This is saying, 'I'm a crook and I'm proud of it.' We can beat this guy."

Ankrum is a little less direct in singling out Bush by name, but the first thing one sees on his campaign Web site is a story of his tragic experiences in Vietnam and his determination not to repeat that war's "huge mistake." Other parts of the site criticize the Bush administration for "cherry pick[ing]" information and smearing those who question the war. And he says that McCaul has "vot[ed] with Tom DeLay 95% of the time" and shows "total loyalty to the Party Line," including votes against veterans care and against giving reserve families the same benefits as enlisted families.

Going after Bush and DeLay may be the stronger tack, hints Ankrum, because CD 10's constituents may not be sure who McCaul is: "He has been really remarkably absent from his district over the past year. It's only in the last two or three months that anybody's even seen him in the district. ... Nobody knows him. Every time I run into people in the district, they either dislike him or they don't know him."

Ted Ankrum
Ted Ankrum (Photo By Roxanne Jo Mitchell)

"I'll beat him not just by tying him to Tom DeLay and his gerrymandering, but by tying him to George W. Bush, because the Clear Channel fortune is what gave George Bush his first fortune," Foreman says, referring to the business loans that helped Bush buy into the Texas Rangers and establish a profile in Texas after several failed business ventures. "McCaul is just their lackey. He's got this spot because they're the power behind George W. Bush. George W.'s sinking ratings are going to pull McCaul down."

Even in the rural counties of CD 10? "Even in District 10," Foreman says, pointing hopefully to Republican moderates growing disenchanted with Bush, and to people like Washington Co. Democratic Party Chair Duane Olney, who's a former Republican. Foreman says Olney and Gus Mutscher – yes, the scandal-tainted former speaker of the Texas House – are trying to take Washington Co. back for the Dems, and support him. Foreman's past as a "Berkeley radical" was preceded by a youth in Granbury, Texas, memorialized in many of his poems, and he believes he can communicate with country folks. "They're basically very conservative people, but there is outrage by what is going on in Washington. Bush is lying through his teeth."

Ankrum also knows he needs those rural counties, but knows his hopes must be heavily pinned on Austin. "Forty-one percent of the voters are in Travis, 37 percent are in Harris. I figure I'll win if the other counties break 50-50. It's doable. In a normal year it wouldn't be, but the president has given me a whole lot of help." Ankrum says he can reach people in Brenham, Giddings, and Elgin "with logic. I have to show that they've been voting against their interests and the interests of their children, and frankly, I think that the Republicans in Washington have been making my case for me."

But before they can face McCaul, Foreman and Ankrum now square off against each other. As might be expected in a district that sprawls across half of Texas, the two candidates, who live on opposite ends of CD 10, aren't real familiar with each other, so there's been little mudslinging; each candidate mainly focuses on his own virtues, and barely mentions his opponent.

Ankrum argues he's the best candidate because, after years in the Navy and work at NASA, the EPA, and as a diplomat to Australia, "I'm the person that has experience in all the things that Democrats care about, and frankly, the country cares about. I have experience in the energy business, I have experience in places that have a universal health care, I have experience in places that have a living wage, I have experience in all of the issues that we all care about." He adds that he is a reluctant – albeit completely serious – politician, who jumped in after 2004's write-in Dem, Lorenzo Sadun, declined to run again (Sadun is now supporting Ankrum). After three other Dems filed, Ankrum said, "If one of those people looked like they had a better chance of beating McCaul, I would have stepped aside. ... When I looked at them, I just didn't see anybody that had a better chance, so I stayed in."

"I'm not looking to make a career out of this," says Ankrum. "I already had a career. There's a few things I need to do and want to do. ... I'm not going to serve past the next redistricting."

Foreman says Dems should instead choose him "because I will help to impeach George Bush and I'll do it immediately. I'm already in touch with a lot of other congressmen who want to impeach him, and we'll get it done. We can't afford two more years of this turkey. The Iraq disaster will only double or quadruple if we go into Iran or Syria. ... Now, Ted will be much milder. He'll say, oh, maybe he's wrong or needs to go or something, but Congress is responsible for impeaching the president, they're the only ones that can, and that's why I'm running for the House of Representatives."

Foreman describes himself as a "Sam Rayburn Democrat" and plays up his family connections to Rayburn (his cousin was a top aide to the New Deal speaker of the House for many years). "During the Fifties, with Sam in the House, Lyndon in the Senate, and Ike in White House, our foreign policy differences stopped at the water's edge. I'll move to restore that." – Lee Nichols

Barbara Ann Radnofsky
Barbara Ann Radnofsky (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Other Names on the Ballot

The run-off ballots on both sides of the aisle are brief, but there are a couple of additional races worth noting on the Democratic side.

For U.S. senator, Houston lawyer Barbara Ann Radnofsky faces off against perennial self-appointed candidate San Antonian Gene Kelly, in a race that could determine if the state Democratic Party can inform – let alone motivate – enough voters to nominate an actual candidate against incumbent Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison.

The lieutenant governor race features two relative unknowns vying for the right to get steamrolled by incumbent David Dewhurst. Former state Rep and Texarkana Court of Appeals Judge Ben Z. Grant runs against novice candidate Maria Luisa Alvarado, an Air Force veteran and sociologist without political experience, who yet led in the initial balloting, apparently on the growing statewide strength of the Hispanic vote. With little additional campaigning (and a third contender, Adrian de Leon, out of the race), Alvarado should be heavily favored on Tuesday. – M.K.

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HD 50CD 10, Don Zimmerman, Royal Masset, Jeff Fleece, Alan Sager, Jack Stick, George Bush, Ron Paul, Ronald Reagan, Prop. 2, Mark Strama, Ted Delisi, Ted Ankrum, Paul Foreman, Lorenzo Sadun, George W. Bush, Tom DeLay, Michael McCaul, Congressional District 10, Alex Castano

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