Election 2006

Chris Bell goes on a snipe hunt, and other campaign news

Chris Bell has Rick Perry in his sights, but the polls disagree on whether he can bag him.
Chris Bell has Rick Perry in his sights, but the polls disagree on whether he can bag him. (Photo By Jana Birchum)


Doves Safe From Bullseye Bell

Standing in a West Texas field of sunflowers and wild daisies, Chris Bell raised his shotgun, fixed the crosshairs on a dove winging across the evening sky, and squeezed the trigger. Whoops! "I'm the anti-Dick Cheney," Bell quipped after realizing the shotgun he had borrowed from hunting guide Tony Timmons was locked in the safety position. "Safety first," said Bell, his voice tinged with disappointment and sarcasm.

Bell's outdoor adventure in Fort Davis on Sunday contrasted sharply with Cheney's "friendly fire" hunting mishap earlier this year, which landed hunting partner and Austin lawyer Harry Whittington in the hospital. Bell's pride may have been wounded by his no-shot, but at least nobody got hurt – except for that flying target that Bell had hoped to bag. "I got your back!" Timmons laughed, after firing the single shot that downed the dove. Timmons tromped across the field through the tall grass and returned with the dead bird in hand. A reporter stuck his audio recorder under the dove's bill. "Any comment?" he asked.

In Texas, high-profile political campaigns typically demand a hunting trip for Democrats eager to prove their pro-gun chops. "I'm certainly not trying to be anything I'm not," Bell said, explaining that his trip to Timmons' ranch was meant to highlight his campaign promise to protect hunting and fishing habitats, while building a bond between environmentalists and the ranchers who provide hunting opportunities on their land. "Sportsmen are some of the best conservationists you're going to find anywhere in the state of Texas," he said. As Timmons pointed out, "We don't make it off of oil and gas. We make it off the land." Bell said he'd like to see passage of a constitutional amendment to ensure Texans' rights to clean air and water and reasonable access to natural resources. State Rep. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, introduced such a bill in the 2005 session, but it never reached the House floor for a vote. – Amy Smith


(Percentage) Points of Disagreement

In the weird political science department, a Wall Street Journal/Zogby poll released this week in the governor's race shows Democrat Chris Bell within a five-point spitting range of presumed winner Gov. Rick Perry, who hobbled into first with 30.7%, while a Rasmussen poll puts independent Carole Keeton Strayhorn in second place but still 11 points behind Perry's dismal 33% rating.

The disparate poll results are confusing at best, but the secret is in the sauce. Zogby's main ingredient is an Internet-based survey of volunteer participants, while Rasmussen crunches its numbers the old-fashioned way – telephone interviews of likely voters. That's what the Strayhorn campaign calls a "scientific poll." Perry's camp, meanwhile, is putting its marbles in its own polling, which consistently shows the gov as the most popular governor ever.

The latest surveys were conducted before Perry and Strayhorn each used some of their millions in contributions to launch their respective TV ad campaigns. Friedman put his TV ad in rotation this week. The Bell campaign expects to hit the airwaves sooner than anticipated, thanks to a recent fundraising surge touched off by a couple of wealthy trial lawyers – Fred Baron of Dallas and Fred Hagans of Houston – who defected from the Strayhorn campaign. And another moneyed attorney, Harold Nix – one of the Big Five tobacco lawyers for the state – just handed the Bell campaign a $250,000 check, according to campaign manager Jason Stanford.

The only thing certain about this week's polls and others before it is that Perry is still as unpopular as ever. What's uncertain is which of his three leading rivals is in the best position to beat him. Those who follow Texas politics closely still believe Kinky Friedman will fade in time. But they've been saying that for at least a year. "I have been surprised that Kinky rose as far as he has, essentially being in a dead heat with both Bell and Strayhorn," said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at SMU. "But I do think as we get closer to election time that voters will get over the amusement factor with Kinky."

While it's true that Perry's negatives are high, Jillson believes he remains unbeatable, courtesy of his four opponents. "That's really his security blanket," he said of the crowded field. "In a normal election, with an incumbent below 50%, it's generally a signal that an incumbent is ready to be swapped out because voters are not terribly satisfied." But there's nothing normal about this particular race. The campaigns of Bell, Strayhorn, and Friedman each believe their candidate is best poised to consolidate voter dissatisfaction and capture a plurality in the winner-take-all race. On that score, Bell's challenge is to try to reclaim the Democratic voters aligned with one of the two indies. "All Democrats need to do is pull their base together, and we'll get the 37% it takes to beat him," said Bell spokesman Stanford. Bell's message in a nutshell: "Don't waste your vote in this election. Stand up and be counted."

Jillson's reading of the tea leaves has Bell placing second on Election Day. "It's difficult to see [Perry losing] even at this point in the race. I still expect Perry to win." But he expects Perry to remain as unpopular in his next term as he was in his last full term. "He is not a popular governor, and that should be – but probably will not be – a signal for him to reconsider some of his policy positions," he said. "I don't think you would see much difference because Texans expect relatively little from state government, and Perry delivers precisely that – very little." – Amy Smith


Watson Wheeling and Dealing

Former Mayor Kirk Watson, the likely successor to state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, can now add "banker" to his lengthy résumé. The Democratic nominee, Austin lawyer, and ex-Chamber of Commerce chair has teamed with another opportunistic sort – LCRA general manager Joe Beal – among others, to form Bastrop County Holdings Inc. The Elgin-based bank will operate under the name of Frontier Bank of Texas on recently acquired land currently occupied by an old car dealership. Another leading founder of the holdings company, former comptroller John Sharp, has left the fledgling outfit, Watson said, adding that it was Sharp who recruited him to join the venture. Other key investors include former LCRA board chair Steve Rivers and Elgin veterinarian Charles Graham. Since filing its initial papers with the secretary of state's office in 2005, the company has recruited additional Bastrop-area investors, Watson said. "Our goal is to create a community-owned bank, where Central Texans get to directly invest in their bank." Watson shrugged off any potential criticism that could grow out of his business relationship with the LCRA chief, particularly given the agency's penchant for pursuing controversial water/wastewater projects. "This is not about politics," Watson said. "This is about creating a successful business in an underserved area." – Amy Smith


Rep. Seaman in a Sticky Mess

There's no quicker way to torpedo a politico's chances than linking him to an unseemly indiscretion. Here, it's a condominium full of Seaman – Gene and Ellen Seaman, that is. House Rep. Gene Seaman, R-Corpus Christi, water-carrier for the insurance industry, is best known for trying to add insurance coverage for Viagra into an unrelated bill last session – horrifying onlookers as he delivered a turgid, innuendo-riddled speech. Well, Seaman recently pulled another boner. Last weekend it was revealed in his hometown Corpus Christi Caller-Times that Seaman had channeled more than $44,000 of campaign contributions to his wife Ellen as "rent" for an Austin condominium she owns. The payments were made to an Austin Land Company, whose only known address is the Seamans' condo at the Towers of Town Lake. Worse yet, the Caller reported Tuesday that the couple had claimed a homestead exemption on the condo – illegally, since they already claimed an exemption on their home in Corpus Christi – meaning they owe $11,000 in unpaid taxes. Seaman is up for re-election in November, facing a strong challenge from Dem Juan Garcia. – Wells Dunbar


Death in the House

State Rep. Glenda Dawson, R-Pearland, died suddenly Tuesday at the UT Medical Branch in Galveston. Dawson, 65, was seeking her third term in the Lege and had been scheduled to speak at a Republican rally Tuesday, according to news reports. Elected in 2002, Dawson was one of seven GOP candidates who received contributions that were tied to a criminal investigation leading to money laundering charges against Tom DeLay. Dawson, a kidney transplant recipient, successfully sponsored legislation in 2005 creating the state's first donor registry. Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Tom Craddick issued statements of condolences Tuesday afternoon. At press time, it was uncertain whether Perry would call a special election to fill Dawson's seat. Dr. Anthony Dinovo is the Democratic nominee for the position. – Amy Smith


Campaign Happenings

Kirk Watson's campaign for state Senate will hold a two-pronged fundraiser today (Thursday) at Zilker Park's Rock Island. The meet-and-greet for big donors – those contributing $250 on up – will run 6-7:30pm. Part II of the fundraiser kicks off at 7:45pm, with musical guests Nickel Creek and Jack Ingram playing for the $50-plus contributors.

• A town hall meeting for Round Rock voters to hear from candidates will be held Monday, Sept. 18, 6:30-8:30pm at the McConico Building Ste. 100-A, 301 W. Bagdad. Democratic CD 31 candidate Mary Beth Harrell has seized on the event to challenge incumbent Republican John Carter to just show up. Carter's office told us he will not be there. Thus far, Carter has not committed to any face-to-face debates with Harrell or Libertarian candidate Matt McAdoo and even told the Statesman that Harrell first had to "earn" the right to debate him by establishing her "credibility."

• Our friends over at Drinking Liberally – the lefty bunch of sots who gather at the Dog & Duck every Tuesday to down beers and bitch about Republicans (www.drinkingliberally.org) – inform us that Markos Moulitsas, creator of the Daily Kos blog, will be in town Thursday, Sept. 21 for a booksigning, 6pm at MonkeyWrench Books, 110 E. North Loop.

• If you want to cast a ballot in the Nov. 7 election, Oct. 10 is the deadline to register to vote. Travis Co. voters can get info at www.traviscountytax.org/goVotersRegistration.do or by calling 854-9473. Williamson Co. voters can go to wcportals.wilco.org/elections/index.html#registration or call 943-1630.

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