The Austin Chronicle

Election 2006: Key Texas Races

By Amy Smith and Jordan Smith, November 10, 2006, News

A Governor for All Texans ... Except the Heathens

Gov. Rick Perry delivered his victory speech Tuesday in a stuffed-to-the-gills hotel ballroom the size of an orange crate.

That's what it felt like, anyway. Given that the majority of Texas voters wanted someone other than Perry in the state's top spot, the governor's campaign staff may have strategically staked out the room with the tightest squeeze in which to celebrate the boss' underwhelming yet unmistakable win. Perry beat his lead challenger, Democrat Chris Bell, by about nine percentage points.

Indie hopeful Carole Keeton Strayhorn – the candidate whom many Democratic leaders had picked early on as their best hope of beating Perry – finished the hard-fought battle with a disappointing 18%. Her loss could come to represent one of the most foolish financial mistakes Texas Democratic investors have ever made in a statewide race. The former Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-indie Grandma has had a long, successful political run in local and state politics. But for whatever reasons, she never managed to get her groove on in this gubernatorial bid. In a similarly spectacular flameout, the curtains closed on Kinky Friedman's colorful act with 12% of the vote. Libertarian James Werner hung in there with the same single percentage point he held in the polls throughout the campaign.

Both Strayhorn and Bell telephoned Perry to concede the race before Perry bounded onto a makeshift stage at the Omni Hotel shortly after 10pm. Perry publicly thanked Bell and Strayhorn for their "heartfelt concessions," which topped off a very long, expensive, and entertaining contest. "Whether you call yourself a Democrat, a Republican, or whatever, for the next four years I will be your governor," Perry told the crowd. He was flanked on stage by First Lady Anita Perry, his children, and the full lineup of statewide Republican victors. Comptroller-elect Susan Combs (Strayhorn's successor-in-waiting) towered over everyone except Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Perry said he was "deeply humbled" by voters' decision to return him to office for what will be a record-setting tenure for Texas governors.

The governor tried to strike a moderate tone as he promised to reach out to folks of all political stripes and socioeconomic backgrounds. His talk contrasted sharply with his rhetoric on the campaign trail, just a few days after he took a hard-right turn when he said he agreed with a conservative pastor's comments that non-Christians would go straight to hell if they didn't accept Jesus as their Lord God and Savior. Or something like that. Perry later clarified that remark with a softer, kinder Christian view of the world.

Despite his loss, Democrat Bell woke on Wednesday feeling "surprisingly good." The former Houston congressman said his defeat Tuesday was nothing like the gut punch he took in 2004, when he lost his U.S. House seat to Tom DeLay's redistricting antics. Bell acknowledged that it's easier to lose a race as the underfunded underdog. "I'm disappointed, but I knew going in that it was going to be tough with this crowded a field," he said. "If hindsight were 20-20, I wish that, after it was clear that Carole was not going to win the primary [as a Republican running against Perry], that Democrats who were supporting her had decided to come back home [to the Democratic nominee]," he said.

Democratic strategist Kelly Fero, who was not involved in the governor's race, faulted Democratic leaders for not putting more resources into Bell's campaign. "Bell became a very good candidate by the end," Fero said, "but it was too little too late to overcome the foolish decision by the party establishment to turn its back on him."

Some pundits argue that Bell would have lost to Perry with or without the crowded field. "I think we would have won," Bell insists. For now, Bell says, he will remain active in party politics. "I really resent it when [candidates] talk about their great passion for the state, and then they lose and disappear," he said. "I plan to stay involved. But my plan now is to spend time with my family and figure out what I'm going to do in the private sector and get some financial footing." As for the possibility of another political run, Bell would only say, "Never say never." – Amy Smith

Dems Win Small Gains at Lege, but It's Still a Red State

When the final votes were tallied late Wednesday afternoon, state Democrats claimed five pickups and suffered no losses. In House District 32, Corpus Christi Democrat Juan Garcia weathered a 20-hour cliff-hanger vote count that put him on top by 602 votes, ending GOP incumbent Gene Seaman's sorry tenure. Garcia's ability to reach across partisan lines served him well in the campaign, said strategist Kelly Fero, who helped the first-time candidate oust Seaman. Seaman himself also helped Garcia. "Juan benefited from an especially clueless opponent who had ethics problems during an election cycle in which corruption was a top concern on voters' minds," Fero said.

Another pickup came in Travis County, with Valinda Bolton topping GOP hopeful Bill Welch to succeed outgoing Republican Rep. Terry Keel. Travis' shift toward a totally blue legislative delegation actually started early this year, with voters electing Democrat Donna Howard to succeed former GOP Rep. Todd Baxter in HD 48 (and actually giving the D's six pickups).

The talk of the town in every House district Wednesday centered on the possibility of a Republican House coup attempt to oust Tom Craddick from the Speaker's seat. Craddick has already fired a warning shot to try to avert such a maneuver. He released a post-election list of 109 members who have promised themselves to Craddick. The list includes several Democrats, including Austin's own Dawnna Dukes and Dripping Springs' Patrick Rose. But anything can happen between now and January. That Democrats, who are still in the minority, are longing to cast their vote for a Republican replacement tells you just how bad things are under the autocratic Craddick. "It doesn't even matter if [the prospective replacement] is a conservative," said one Democratic representative, who did not want to be identified (or he'll have hell to pay if Craddick stays on as speaker). "We just want someone who will give everyone a seat at the table, like [former Speaker] Pete Laney did."

Will the Democrats' victories force the GOP leadership – Craddick, Gov. Rick Perry, and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst – to take on a more inclusive style of governing? That depends on your perspective. "What matters isn't so much the partisan breakdown at the Capitol," said Democratic consultant Kelly Fero. "What matters is the breakdown of extreme partisanship at the Capitol. It will force the leadership to moderate itself."

Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, points to the Democratic returns in the statewide races and offers a less optimistic assessment. "I do not expect to see much of a shift to moderate ground in Austin," he said. "Tuesday night's results show that voters do not consider the Democrats plausible, and so the Republicans can govern as they wish." – A.S.

The Kinkster's Farewell: Leave Me Alone!

Long after the race for governor had concluded – and well after the 10pm news – a bevy of growling satellite trucks still surrounded Scholz Garten, site of indie gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman's E-night festivities. Judging from the lingering media attention, one might assume that Friedman had actually pulled out a longshot victory and was headed to the Mansion. That wasn't the case – and in retrospect, the outcome seems fortunate.

For Friedman, who secured less than 13% of the vote in the five-way race for governor, the night was apparently over before it began. According to campaign sources, as soon as early-vote totals were posted, Friedman – apparently surprised by the results – turned sullen, preferring to isolate himself as much as possible from the very folks who'd voted for him, as well as from those who worked for him. Later, he refused to talk to reporters at all, and, in general, radiated a haughty, self-absorbed hostility. As the night ended, Kinky was finally prodded sufficiently to address the gathered crowd of staffers, supporters, and reporters, as the news that a paltry 39% of the vote had earned Gov. Rick Perry another four years in office. In what may go down as the least funny quip of his campaign, a visibly bitter Friedman refused to concede his defeat and instead said he'd consider forming a "shadow government."

And that was it: Kinky Friedman, "The Guv," was no more. Indeed, as the "party" dwindled, Friedman had, in spirit, attitude, and action, left the building. He wasn't at all interested in talking, and when I pursued him, seeking comment, he asked only if I'd "been drinking" or was "on drugs."

Unfortunately I was sober, and thus remember the entire episode. After a few minutes, I approached Friedman again, hoping to get some sort of comment. Just weeks ago, he was lambasting the business-as-usual politics and was promising to bring something fresh to state government. When I told him I merely wanted a minute to talk about the race, he said that "everyone" present wanted to talk to him and that I was attempting to "monopolize" his time, taking him away from friends – then he asked again if I was "sure" I wasn't "on something" or "drunk."

Why would he say that? Because, in trying to talk with him about the election – on election night – he said that I wasn't being "thoughtful" about how he was "feeling." Then, abruptly pulling on his trademark black hat and turning to speak dismissively over his left shoulder, Friedman said he'd be more than happy to talk about "all of this" in a couple of weeks.

Note to Kinky: Nov. 7 is E-day and, thus, the time to talk about the election; Nov. 21, two days before Thanksgiving Day, is traditionally a time to talk about whether there should be marshmallows on the sweet potatoes.

What was most distressing about Friedman's loss was his attitude: his lack of grace, his taking-my-ball-and-leaving-the-playground E-night grumpiness. In effect, he negated every political message he'd supposedly sought to voice, specifically that the political arena is an expansive place where the young, the disenfranchised, or the otherwise politically disinterested voter might actually find a candidate to believe in. In the end, all Kinky had to say was that his loss was "probably a good thing" because he thinks he'll be "happier" having not won. Indeed – another four years of Perry notwithstanding – it's likely Texans will be happier, too. – Jordan Smith

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