Capturing the Dragon

Two Dem challengers contend for CD 10

Capturing the Dragon
Illustration by Doug Potter

How badly are things going for the Republican Party these days? Consider this: In Texas' Congressional District 10, two Democrats are seriously trying to unseat incumbent Republican Rep. Michael McCaul.

You remember District 10 – in fact, you might live in it. Once upon a time, it was the district of Lyndon Johnson, Jake Pickle, and Lloyd Doggett, but in 2003 it was completely reshaped by Tom DeLay's infamous gerrymandering to effectively disenfranchise Austinites. Rather than encompassing the eastern half of Travis County, its shape now resembles St. George's dragon: its head in West Lake Hills, neck running through northeast Travis County, and the rest sprawling across rural Central Texas all the way to Houston's northwestern suburbs.

The district's design was so clever – and so devastatingly Republican – that in the first election of its new configuration (2004), no Democrat was even willing to file for the primary. (In stark contrast, in the GOP primary, eight candidates tried to out-right-wing one another.) University of Texas mathematics professor Lorenzo Sadun eventually filed as a write-in, but McCaul crushed him – in fact, without his name actually on the ballot, Sadun's 6% of the vote didn't even challenge the Libertarian candidate.

But then came 2006, as George W. Bush's war on Iraq continued to deteriorate and Demo­crats were swept into congressional power. District 10 wasn't part of that changing of the guard, but the local effects were obvious: McCaul dropped from 79% of the vote to 55%. That's still a pretty solid win, but it's less impressive when you consider the challenger: Ted Ankrum, a retired political novice who entered the race almost reluctantly and received no help from the national or state parties.

That – and the now almost-complete implosion of the Bush administration – is why Dan Grant and Larry Joe Doherty actually believe they can beat McCaul next year. And unlike Ankrum, they are taking up the fight with real enthusiasm.

"I'm doing everything I can to run a well-run, professional, modern campaign," says Grant. "That means I'm fundraising relentlessly. I'm spending several hours a day on the phone fundraising. I've been holding fundraisers, as well." Just last week, Grant had his first major television buy.

"It is quite telling that McCaul, a man who is extremely wealthy, still wound up having the lowest re-election percentage of any [of the 19] incumbent Republican congressman in the state," says Grant. (Indeed, McCaul garnered the lowest margin of victory of any Texas incumbent of either party.) "He had 55 percent of the vote. What is even more striking, this was up against Ankrum, a man who had $65,000 for his entire campaign. The average campaign for a competitive district is going to cost a minimum of a million dollars. Ankrum was able to pull that off for a fraction of that. It shows you what the baseline support for a Democrat is in this district to begin with."

Doherty means business, as well. A trial lawyer and former television star, he's earnest enough about the campaign that, of the quarter of a million dollars he's raised thus far, he was willing to pull $100,000 of it from his own pocket. "I'm tired of being in a position to do something about it and being part of the noise of complaint, so I decided to become a part of the solution," says Doherty. "I can, and I can win it, so I'm going to do it."

So just who are these guys who believe they can undo Tom DeLay's handiwork?


Diplomat vs. TV Judge

Daniel Scott Grant is an almost lifelong Austinite who graduated from McCallum High School. He interned in the very office he hopes to hold, serving Jake Pickle during his senior year at McCallum, and then studied foreign service at Georgetown University followed by a master's in government administration and public policy at the London School of Eco­nom­ics. "And then I embarked upon a career generally over the last 10 years of being overseas, [in tasks] which seemed to be dedicated toward terrifying my friends and family."

At 23 years old, he became an election observer in Bosnia, followed by similar stints in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and, most recently, Iraq, as deputy director of the expatriate voting program, responsible for registering eligible voters in major American cities. Mixed in there was "the most dangerous one ever," when he worked as a foreign policy adviser for the John Kerry presidential campaign.

"I was in Iraq for 18 months before coming [home], and my experience there was what made me decide to come back to run. In short, I went to Iraq as a civilian to try and do what I could to change how things were going over there and bring about some sort of peace, and it wasn't enough. And so I decided to come back to the source of policy and change it here and in Washington." He is now 33 and single.

Larry Joe Doherty also has a colorful past but of a very different nature. For most of his life since the mid-1970s, he has specialized in the field of legal malpractice – yes, that means he's a lawyer who sues other lawyers. He says that when he began, suing other lawyers for incompetence or dishonesty was fairly uncommon: He was approached in 1973 by a man whom he felt had clearly been ripped off by his lawyer, but he was informed by the partners in his law firm that suing other lawyers just wasn't done, because "we'll get a bad reputation" and make other lawyers reluctant to refer business to them. "So I had to go back to my office still remembering what my torts professor had said: 'Class, remember that for every wrong there is a remedy.' And I had to tell this poor guy that there was no place that I knew of to send him and no recourse that would get him his money back. And that felt so bad that I swore if I ever got to be my own boss, I was never going to send somebody away just because the defendant was another lawyer." A year later, he began making good on that promise.

Eventually, though, realizing he wasn't going to clean up the legal profession one lawyer at a time, "I got sick of being the garbage man." He then took an even more unusual turn in the legal profession. Pseudo-courtroom TV shows such as The People's Court and Judge Judy had begun taking off, and the Fox network came up with an idea called Texas Justice. Doherty recently moved to Austin from Washington County, and to say he exudes a good-old-boy demeanor is putting it lightly – with his unmistakable East Texas drawl, no one's going to mistake him for a Yankee – and his wife's lawyer hooked him up with the producer. He was a perfect fit to become "Judge Larry Joe" – the publicity pics of him in robes and a cowboy hat, pointing a six-shooter at the camera, are priceless. Texas Justice ran through 600 episodes until 2004, when Doherty finally stepped down from the "bench." Doherty has been married to his wife, Joanne, for 38 years and has two adult children.


One Big Issue

Vastly different in backgrounds, the two men share an assessment of McCaul: that he is a Bush loyalist who puts the Republican Party above his district. They both document that by pointing to the Congressional Quarterly's "party unity" score – in 1996, on legislation that broke mainly along party lines, McCaul voted with the GOP 94% of the time.

The news package on this spring’s primaries was supposed to be even larger, but the day after I cranked out 2,200 words on the U.S. Senate race, San Antonio trial lawyer Mikal Watts abruptly ended his bid for the Democratic nomination. That apparently leaves the path clear for Houston state Rep. Rick Noriega (above) to challenge incumbent Republican John Cornyn a year from now (which is too bad – with two bald guys facing each other in primary, we could have gotten a lot of mileage out of the fact that “Noriega” is an anagram for “Rogaine”). The filing deadline is not until Jan. 2, so conceivably a rival to Noriega could appear, but no one is stepping forward thus far. Former Comptroller John Sharp’s name often comes up in such situations, but he told the <i>Chronicle</i>, “I don’t have any plans like that.” <i>– L.N.</i>
The news package on this spring’s primaries was supposed to be even larger, but the day after I cranked out 2,200 words on the U.S. Senate race, San Antonio trial lawyer Mikal Watts abruptly ended his bid for the Democratic nomination. That apparently leaves the path clear for Houston state Rep. Rick Noriega (above) to challenge incumbent Republican John Cornyn a year from now (which is too bad – with two bald guys facing each other in primary, we could have gotten a lot of mileage out of the fact that “Noriega” is an anagram for “Rogaine”). The filing deadline is not until Jan. 2, so conceivably a rival to Noriega could appear, but no one is stepping forward thus far. Former Comptroller John Sharp’s name often comes up in such situations, but he told the Chronicle, “I don’t have any plans like that.” – L.N. (Photo by John Anderson)

"The district needs something more than rubber-stamping," Grant says. "His constituent services are terrible. Most people aren't aware he's their congressman. His presence is almost nonexistent. I can't see what his [priorities] are other than reflexive support of Bush." As an intern with Pickle, "I saw up close a congressman looking out for all his constituents," regardless of their political affiliations.

"He's an RCA dog, just listening for his master's voice," echoes Doherty, comparing the incumbent congressman to the famous recording-industry image. "He was put into office to fill a slot and be controlled by others. ... When Michael McCaul was put in office, it was the result of a gerrymander. And 'gerrymander' is just another way of saying 'vote stealing.' It's a predetermined outcome for the results of an election that divides a community so that it doesn't have a legitimate say in who the representative is going to be. The representative is picked by the party bosses to fill a position. ... Now all of the people who really held the power, who pulled his strings, are gone or going to be gone."

The issues in a congressional campaign are normally myriad, but for this one, let's face it: The Iraq war overrides all the others. McCaul has consistently supported Bush on the war, although it's interesting to note that finding the word "Iraq" anywhere on his campaign website is now almost impossible.

We must leave "the same way we got started," says Doherty, "mobilization of the forces for withdrawal in an orderly fashion without waiting for somebody's artificial benchmarks to be made. Our presence exacerbates the situation. Our presence causes more death and more financial drain on an already mortgaged economy. Alan Greenspan pointed out what I thought was obvious when it got started, but everybody goes, 'Oh no, this war wasn't about oil.' Yes, it was. We withdraw our troops the same way we sent them in – we just start doing it now. There's no need for us to wait to be trapped on the rooftop in an embassy, life-flighting people out with helicopters, and take 30 years to apologize for it."

"Having been there," says Grant, "seeing what I've seen, my assessment of the facts on the ground from having been there a year and a half – at its core, the problems in Iraq are political in nature, and the United States government and the United States Armed Forces do not have the ability to affect the outcome or alter the political objectives of the three main groups: Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd. ... Separately, from the military perspective, we do not have enough troops on the ground to superimpose our will or peace, and barring a draft, we never will. If the result is that we expose 160,000-plus troops to a lethal environment where they cannot affect the outcome, and it gains us nothing in altering the political and therefore the security situation in Iraq, then there is no benefit to us being there."

But Grant does differ a bit from Doherty regarding the withdrawal: "I would be in favor of an 80 percent withdrawal from central and southern Iraq – basically the areas where it's most dangerous. The remaining 30,000 troops, I'd move half of them to Kurdistan in the north, another 15,000 in Kuwait, and basically have them there as a deterrent to keep the war from expanding beyond its borders. Because if Iraq were, say, to rope in Saudi Arabia and Iran, that would be half of the planetary petroleum reserves. It could be catastrophic for everyone across the planet."


The Money Primary

Of course, Grant and Doherty's positions on anything may not matter if CD 10 is just too flat-out Republican to win. One indication that Democrats may actually have a shot is that, unlike earlier challengers in the redrawn district, both candidates have serious, high-profile political consultants in their hire – Kelly Fero working for Grant and James Aldrete for Doherty. Both are certainly chasing a paycheck, but consultants of their stature don't care to smudge their reputations on can't-win races.

Still, Democratic opinion is mixed on whether CD 10 is within reach. Dem consultant Jason Stanford – who managed the Chris Bell and, until recently, Mikal Watts campaigns – says, "They both qualify as long shots. Tom DeLay drew those districts to guarantee one result, and absent indictments or foot-tapping in an airport bathroom, it's going to be mighty tough to get Mike McCaul out of Congress." Stanford acknowledges the effect of Bush's free-falling popularity, but, "All of that is secondary to the money chase."

McCaul, of course, is married to the daughter of Clear Channel Communications Chairman Lowry Mays, so for him, money is never going to be an issue. National Democrats with cash to spare, Stanford says, will eye about a dozen other close races (including several 2006 victors who must defend close swing districts) before they'll even look at this race.

However, a former Dem campaign consultant, who asked to be unidentified, showed considerably more optimism. "It ain't McCaul's year, and he knows it. [Republican pollster] Reggie Bashur has given a presentation saying the Republican brand is damaged in Texas. Reggie's a damn good pollster. He is understating the case. Not only do you have Iraq; you have DeLay and Perry.

"I'm sure [McCaul] is a fine young man, but if the election is going to be held on the policies he's supported, he's in trouble. So the question becomes: Can either of these guys raise the money to give him a race? I think Larry can; I don't know that Dan can. I just don't know enough about Dan to know if he can raise the money. Dan has better Washington connections to raise money, but Larry has better Houston connections from coming out of the legal community in Houston. Larry can also, if he chooses to do it, write himself another check for $100,000.

"Fero and Aldrete are both really good hands at this. I think Fero knows how to buy the media in the district better. Aldrete's production is much better than Fero's." Perhaps most importantly, the source said, the misfortunes of the Republicans mean not as much cash is needed. "It doesn't take $2 million. Five hundred thousand could win."

Indeed, Fero himself acknowledges that Grant and Doherty both are banking on a wounded GOP. "The landscape has changed," Fero says. "The Republican Party that installed Mike McCaul, and that he has rubber-stamped since that installation is in free fall."

On the Web


Campaign Sites:

Michael McCaul: www.mccaulforcongress.com, www.house.gov/mccaul

Larry Joe Doherty: www.larryjoe.com

Dan Grant: www.dangrantforcongress.com


Blogs:

True Blue 10: www.tb10.org

The McCaul Retort (an anti-McCaul site): www.mikemccaul.com

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

CD 10, Congressional District 10, Michael McCaul, Dan Grant, Larry Joe Doherty, Kelly Fero, James Aldrete, Jeanne Meurer, Buddy Meyer, Charlie Baird, Sharon Keller, Ronnie Earle, Texas House, Tom Craddick, Amber Moon, James Leininger, Kim Brimer, Mike Krusee

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