HD 48: Where's Ben?

Considered the favorite six months ago to capture the House District 48 seat vacated by Todd Baxter, Republican Ben Bentzin has all but disappeared from the playing field

HD 48: Where's Ben?
Photo By Jana Birchum

At a time when most political campaigns are shifting into high gear, Republican Ben Bentzin – six months ago considered the favorite to capture the state House District 48 seat vacated last fall by GOP incumbent Todd Baxter – has all but disappeared from the playing field.

By most indications, the former Dell executive closed shop on his campaign shortly after losing to Democrat Donna Howard in the Feb. 14 special runoff election to decide who would serve out the remainder of Baxter's term. Howard won handily, with 58% of the vote, and went on to represent the West/Northwest Austin district in the April special legislative session on school finance. Despite the defeat, Bentzin and the Republican Party brass vowed to press on to the general election in November. Facing no opposition in the March primary, Bentzin automatically became the party's nominee for the House seat, yet his campaign Web site hasn't been updated since he conceded the February runoff. Moreover, Bentzin's latest campaign finance report to the Texas Ethics Commission shows him with just $20.33 in his shoe box, compared to the $20,000 balance he reported eight days before the February runoff.

Rumors have Bentzin desperately looking for an escape route – perhaps with a face-saving gubernatorial appointment to a state board or commission – while Travis County Republican Party officials seek a replacement nominee to run against Howard, who now holds the advantage of incumbency. Howard's latest Ethics Commission filings reflect a campaign balance of $64,719.

Travis County Republican Party Chair Alan Sager, who was out of the country last week attending a nephew's wedding, provided a brief e-mailed response to the Chronicle, though he did not specifically address whether Bentzin has abandoned his bid for HD 48. "Mr. Bentzin is in Europe on vacation for another 10 days and I have not spoken to him since he left in late June," Sager wrote. (Serious candidates in competitive races don't ordinarily take European vacations four months out from November.) Sager was more blunt when asked his views on Howard's legislative performance thus far. "I have no doubt over the long run, if reelected, she will give Travis the usual left liberal votes, including raising taxes, killing job creation, coddling criminals, and protecting trial lawyers," Sager said. For a district theoretically drawn to favor Republicans, HD 48 voters – among the wealthiest and most educated in the county – don't necessarily share Sager's sentiment toward Democrats. Time and again, election and polling results have shown that voters in this district are more apt to vote the candidate rather than party affiliation. The Howard campaign's latest poll results of 400 likely voters not only give her a double-digit lead over Bentzin, the findings also reflect a GOP-leaning district not altogether pleased with the party leadership, from the White House to the state Capitol. The telephone survey, conducted July 11-13 by Hamilton, Beattie & Staff, a Democratic polling firm based in Washington, D.C. and Florida, turned up a 59% negative job rating for Gov. Rick Perry, and a 69% negative job performance for the Republican-controlled Legislature. President Bush, the Lone Star state's favorite son, didn't fare much better, picking up a 52% unfavorable rating from HD 48 voters.

"While voters are poised to reject Ben Bentzin for a fourth straight time," said Howard strategist Kelly Fero, "Donna is running hard to deliver her message of positive change and counter his inevitable negative attacks." Given Bentzin's lackluster effort to date, Howard may not have to run that hard. On the other hand, Bentzin's personal wealth could easily resuscitate the campaign in short order, which is why Howard hasn't planned any leisurely jaunts abroad.

If indeed Bentzin is angling for a gubernatorial appointment, Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, says he isn't aware of it. Tradition and political courtesy usually calls for the hometown senator – Barrientos, in this case – to have the final say on prospective appointees to state boards or commissions. That would mean Barrientos would be called on to give Bentzin – who ran a negative campaign against him in 2002 – a ceremonial thumbs up, or down, on a former political foe. "Nobody has talked to me about it," Barrientos said. "Ben Bentzin has not asked for advice from me or anything like that. The governor hasn't called me either." The veteran senator, who will retire at the end of the year, resisted taking a shot at his one-time opponent. "I'm going to be respectful of the process," he said.

As Tom DeLay and the Republican Party of Texas recently discovered in federal court, resigning from the ballot to make room for a replacement nominee requires more legal justification than a candidate's desire to throw in the towel.

Former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, a Republican who frequently found himself at odds with the right-leaning leadership, said he has no first-hand knowledge of Bentzin being in line for an appointment, but he suggested that such a move could raise some interesting legal questions. "I think the question, at least for the court is, is he ineligible to continue to be a candidate, or is he ineligible to be appointed to a position until he resigns from the ballot?" Ratliff said. "I would imagine that a court would have to decide that."

Taking the scenario a bit further, Ratliff said a replacement candidate would be fighting an uphill battle against Howard. "There's precious little time for a replacement to do any good," he said. Ratliff, for the record, is supporting Howard in November.

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Ben Bentzin, Donna Howard, Alan Sager, Rick Perry, President Bush, Bill Ratliff, Kelly Fero, Hamilton, Beattie & Staff, Gonzalo Barrientos, Tom DeLay

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