The Man in the White Hat
Larry Joe Doherty rides into the battle for CD 10
By Lee Nichols, Fri., Oct. 3, 2008
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
The strategy was supposed to solidify power for Tom DeLay. It was supposed to create safe seats for the GOP. It was supposed to establish a Republican congressional majority: a permanent Republican majority.
Now, here we are five years down the road fro m Tom DeLay's infamous re-redistricting of Texas. DeLay is gone from Congress, disgraced. Nationally, voters swept the Republican "permanence" away in 2006. Even DeLay's seat is now held by a Democrat, one of the very politicians whose career he tried to end.
And here in Austin, another of those supposedly safe seats is under serious threat.
That's the optimistic hope of Texas Democrats, anyway. They want to win back the 10th Congressional District of Texas. Just one election cycle ago, such a goal was at best a pipe dream. In a district drawn for the specific purpose of electing a Republican, DeLay's handpicked choice, incumbent Rep. Michael McCaul, appeared settled into a lifetime seat on Capitol Hill.
Now, into town comes riding a hero: a champion in a white hat, with guns blazing and saddle bags full of money. He's ready to run the outlaw out of town and dispense some Texas justice. ...
It's Judge Larry Joe.
Sorry about that. I briefly slipped into a Western movie dream, with a touch of daytime TV courtroom, as conceived by Democratic chairmen Boyd Richie and Howard Dean.
Overwrought melodrama aside, however, the race for Texas' 10th appears to be more than a fantasy. For the first time since DeLay radically reshaped the district's boundaries in 2003, two-term Rep. McCaul appears to have a serious challenger who has Democrats excited. His name is Larry Joe Doherty. He's not actually a judge – although he played one on TV – nor is he a gunslinger. But he is a boots-wearing, Texas-drawling trial lawyer who has the financial resources and apparent political savvy missing from previous Democratic contenders for this seat. He's not in this race to make a statement or be a martyr. He's in it to win it. And when you talk to him, it's easy to believe he just might.
Money and Staff
Doherty actually has a campaign office, in a strip mall in Northwest Austin, with an actual, paid staff. Inside, experienced campaign professionals and consultants are producing slick mailers, doing opposition research, raising funds, conducting polls, and doing the other work essential for a serious congressional campaign. "Well, duh," you might say, but it's a big step up from the previous two CD 10 Democratic challengers, Ted Ankrum and Lorenzo Sadun, political novices who fought their hearts out on shoestring budgets with volunteers.
Those polls put confidence in Doherty's voice. "Our polling shows that 45 percent of the people in the district say they're Republican," Doherty says; "41 percent say they're Democrat. And 14 percent are 'persuadables,' or independent voters. But 69 percent of them, regardless of party affiliation, say this country is heading in the wrong direction. And on those issues that we tested on, the two polls track very closely – people want to see a cleanup in Congress. That is a fundamental baseline."
Another thing that puts some swagger in any candidate is campaign cash. Doherty kick-started his campaign last year with $100,000 from his own pocket, but since then, he's actually matched McCaul in donations received. That doesn't mean he's in the clear in the money battle – McCaul, the son-in-law of Clear Channel Communications Board Chairman Lowry Mays, is the 11th-richest member of Congress (fifth-richest in the House), worth $24 million, and can tap a huge cash reserve if he decides he needs it. Indeed, just in the past year, Clear Channel has been McCaul's biggest single contributor, giving $26,000. Still, the playing field is more level than ever – Doherty's legal and television careers have brought him a smaller personal fortune, somewhere between $4 million and $8 million.
"I married for love, not for money," Doherty jokes. Asked how he's managed to fundraise so successfully, he says: "My diligent, daily routine with a professional finance director and a system that works is the difference [from Ankrum and Sadun]. Because I'm not sure that it's substance. I would like to flatter my own ego by saying, 'Obviously, the candidate is the magnet that draws the money, and I'm the better candidate,' but I can't really say that. The system of fundraising that's been implemented by [finance director] Jim Cunningham simply works. To me, that's counterintuitive to a career that's spent on being more concerned about substance than form, but here in fundraising, the disciplined approach to calling, soliciting, and calling back; mailing; pursuing the object diligently works."
By now, good Austin liberals are yelling: "Fundraising? I don't care about the money. Where does Doherty stand on the issues?!?" We'll get to that – but first, let's back up a minute.
How We Got Here
If you've moved to Austin recently – and there are quite a few of you – you may need a history lesson. Perhaps you don't know the sordid history of Texas' 10th or the name Michael McCaul, but if you follow politics at all, you surely know the name Tom "the Hammer" DeLay.
In 2003, the then-U.S. House Majority Leader decided he was unhappy with the fact that, despite being the solidly conservative state that produced George W. Bush's presidency, Texas' congressional delegation leaned Democrat by a 17-15 count. He tackled this perceived inconsistency with a powerful act of chutzpah: He strong-armed the new Republican majority in the Texas Legislature into executing an unprecedented mid-decade redistricting. Ignoring two centuries of American tradition dictating that redrawing of political boundaries should occur just once every decade, after each U.S. census, he convinced his fellow Republicans to scrap the maps approved only two years earlier and personally prepared new ones drawn to favor the GOP. After a bitter political and parliamentary battle that saw Democrats twice flee the state to prevent a quorum, the maps were finally approved, and in 2004, Republicans took a 21-11 edge in the delegation.
Austin and its Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett were particular targets of DeLay. At the time, District 10 comprised only the bulk of Travis County, unifying almost all of Austin under one representative. The seat had a long history of institutional liberalism – Doggett's immediate predecessors in the seat were no less than Lyndon Johnson, Homer Thornberry, and Jake Pickle. DeLay wanted Doggett and other white Democrats out of Congress, and he carved the city up into three districts. One was a radically redrawn District 10 that now stretches from West Lake Hills through Northwest Austin (including the exclusive, gated neighborhood where McCaul lives) and Pflugerville, all the way to the suburbs of Houston. Doggett survived by moving to and winning District 25, which now reached from the Rio Grande Valley into Austin, but District 10 turned hard GOP. The 2004 Republican primary featured eight candidates trying to out-right-wing one another while on the Democratic side, no one bothered to file.
From the GOP stew emerged former federal prosecutor McCaul, and he won 79% of the vote, crushing Libertarian Robert Fritsche and write-in Democrat Lorenzo Sadun. In 2006, Democrats actually got a candidate on the ballot, but political amateur Ted Ankrum – with a budget of only $65,000 – never really had a chance. Even so, in a year that saw the Republicans become the minority party in Congress, Ankrum's 40% of the vote – and McCaul's relatively weak 55% – raised eyebrows as, perhaps, a sign of things to come. (Libertarian Michael Badnarik took 4.3%.) As the Bush administration and the national GOP continued to lose popular support, and DeLay exited Congress under indictment for alleged violations of Texas campaign finance laws, the stage was set for a real challenge to McCaul.
Enter Doherty. He made his living and fortune as a Houston trial lawyer specializing in legal malpractice – in short, he's a lawyer who sues other lawyers. He says he became a pioneer in the field after feeling guilty when he had to turn away a potential client who he was certain had received poor legal representation. When he asked his employer at the time if the firm could sue another lawyer, the request was rejected because "we'll get a bad reputation." After about a quarter-century in that field, he decided he wasn't going to save the world one lawyer at a time and took a colorful career detour into television as "Judge Larry Joe" on the Texas Justice series, a Judge Wapner-style daytime courtroom show. (For a more complete biography, see "Capturing the Dragon," Nov. 9, 2007.)
Doherty moved last year from his Washington County ranch to Austin, knowing he'd have to get to know this end of the district to win the Democratic nomination. It paid off, as he handily defeated native Austinite Dan Grant, also an impressive candidate, in the primary. Now, he says his professional campaign machinery is "on track to peak on Nov. 4."
A Clean House and Planet
Congressman McCaul has been, just as Tom DeLay hoped, a firm GOP vote during his almost four years in office. (After intially agreeing to an interview, a McCaul spokesman said Tuesday the congressman declined to talk because the Chronicle had not "treated [McCaul] fairly.") In Congress, he's been a staunch supporter of the Bush administration and his party. Seeing little reason to reach across the aisle from his heretofore safe seat, he has, according to The Washington Post, voted with a majority of his Republican colleagues 94% of the time, a figure that Doherty loves to stress on the campaign trail.
McCaul has tried to project himself as a friend of the environment, sponsoring bills encouraging green practices in public schools and promoting what he calls an "all of the above approach" to energy, including support for renewables. But he is held in low esteem by environmentalist groups such as the League of Conservation Voters, which grades his voting record, on 50 major votes, as only 8% pro-environment. And Doherty emphasizes another figure, the $107,000 in campaign contributions McCaul has received from "Big Oil" – citing campaign finance watchdog Center for Responsive Politics' (www.opensecrets.org ) monitoring of McCaul's contributions from the oil and gas industry (a total since updated to $117,684).
Elsewhere, McCaul has a hard-line conservative record. He voted against expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program; in favor of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (as did, unfortunately, enough Democrats to carry it), which allows warrantless wiretapping of U.S. citizens; against the repeal of tax cuts to oil companies and for the extension of the Bush tax cuts; against allowing the government to negotiate with drug manufacturers for volume pricing on behalf of Medicare recipients; and against raising the minimum wage. Having campaigned originally on his credentials as a federal prosecutor, including a stint as counterterrorism chief in the Texas branch of the U.S. Attorney's Office, he has steadfastly supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq. And if that weren't enough, next month a McCaul fundraiser in San Antonio will be headlined by none other than Rush Limbaugh.
Among McCaul's few breaks with the GOP: Last year, insisting with a few House colleagues that there is a third way between partisan extremes, he voted to implement the remaining recommendations of the 9/11 Commission; and in 2005, he supported a ban on cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of detainees held by U.S. forces.
Overall, it's a record that gives Doherty plenty of rhetorical ammunition when speaking to voters who may have soured on Republican rule. "The current administration is sustained ineptitude," Doherty says. "Michael McCaul is a career politician. He's a professional yes-man."
Asked to list his congressional priorities, Doherty responds without hesitation: "End the war." And he's not afraid to criticize fellow Democrats already in Congress for their failure to do so in their year and a half in the majority. "Stop the money," he says. "We've got enough money to bring [the troops] home. Bring them home. ... In 2006, the public sent the message: 'End the war.' You're fixing to see it again in 2008, because Congress didn't get the message straight and didn't act on it straight. The public is still not in favor of this war. They want it ended. You may see some incumbent Democrats pay the penalty for it. I think Hillary has already paid the penalty. She might not have been in second place had she voted differently on the war in the first place.
"You don't have to sell that message. The public's fed up with this war. They're still fed up with this war." Even though the media has focused on economic issues of late, Doherty says: "I don't really think the economic hemorrhage ever totally eclipses 4,000 deaths and [30,000] to 40,000 maimed or hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis. We have to face the fact, and Greenspan was the first to blow the whistle on this; we're in that war for oil. We've killed children for oil."
Austin Democrats, who trend deep blue, shouldn't worry that they're settling for a conservative DINO (Dem in Name Only). Though Doherty is a self-described "Second Amendment Democrat" and has conceded some ground to the Republicans' "Drill Here, Drill Now!" campaign ("We need drillin' but not spillin'," he quips), he jokes that the only "conservative" thing he's ever done is to turn his ranch into a wildlife conservation area. He goes on to dismiss Republican arguments that a rash of drilling would bring sudden price relief at the pump and says he's committed to "reversing 200 years of using the earth to develop our resources by focusing instead on the prudent use of our resources to keep the planet clean. We need to clean House, and then clean the planet. The House being the U.S. House."
Doherty also supports single-payer, universal health care – something that other Texas Democrats, notably U.S. Senate candidate Rick Noriega, decline to do. Increasingly, he sounds like an old-style Texas populist. Responding to the recent and growing list of finance industry bailouts, he wants to re-regulate financial markets. "Re-regulation ... will put the economy back on track, with an emphasis on fairness. Obviously, the free-market economy that the Republicans have foisted upon us is not working. The unregulated capitalism that is the engine of that enterprise is no more interested in democracy than it is in any other form of government. It's only interested in greed: Winner take all. The strongest survive. It's in that bundle of economic fairness that we've got to re-establish the democratic principles, because our country should operate better than a Third World dictatorship."
One of Doherty's most radical proposals is also tech-savvy: He says that any lobbyists who wish to meet with him will have to do so not hidden away in an exclusive D.C. club but in front of a webcam. "Transparency!" he exclaims. "That's what we want, isn't it? Let's quit talking about it and do it." Wouldn't this basically guarantee that he would never meet a lobbyist, ever? "I don't think that's a necessary conclusion. It's just that if the lobbyist wants to lobby me, they're going to have to realize the people I represent will have an equal opportunity to see what they're saying. They shouldn't be afraid to tell the truth. No one should be. And if they're [going] to come into my office and lie to me, I don't want them in my office. That might be a great filtering device."
Winning the Barbell
Are Democratic hopes for CD 10 realistic? After all, this is a district gerrymandered specifically to elect a Republican. But then, so was DeLay's own District 22 – now held by Democrat Nick Lampson, one of the Dem incumbents DeLay targeted to begin with.
A look at the numbers raises almost as many questions as answers. Since 2003, a sea change has occurred that DeLay never envisioned given the "permanent Republican majority" rhetoric of the time. First, the George W. Bush regime has turned out to be a full-blown political disaster – who would have predicted, when war fever was at its highest pitch, that five years later Bush's approval ratings would have sagged to under 30% nationally and even down to 41% here in his home state? Or that the dispirited Democrats would produce not one but two presidential candidates capable of whipping fervor for change into record turnout totals? Or that Democrats – a party that doesn't hold a single statewide elected office in the Lone Star State – would be within five seats of retaking the Texas House?
All of these factors give Democrats reason for optimism. Even the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which wouldn't have given it a passing mention two years ago, added this seat to its "Emerging Races" list, which might encourage some Dems to send money Doherty's way.
The standard Democratic line is this: Despite CD 10 being specifically crafted to keep him in Washington, McCaul attracted only 55% of the vote in 2004 against Ted Ankrum, who had no experience and even less money. At least on the surface, the current threat to McCaul is more formidable: Doherty, a charismatic country boy bordering on a Texas stereotype, in combination with political savvy, personal wealth, and strong fundraising ability. With public distaste for the Republicans even higher than in 2006, voter registration up, and the Obama candidacy driving more voters to the D side of the ticket, the tide would seem to be against the incumbent.
That's one way to look at it. Here's another: Given that public sentiment had swung solidly against the Republicans in 2006 – enough that they could be swept from power in Congress – perhaps that 55% is about as low as Dems can hope to drag McCaul. And let's be frank: No matter the circumstances, any objective observer would regard his 15% margin against Ankrum as a butt-whipping.
History is a confusing guide. Texas Dems make much of the fact that their 2008 primary turnout was about double that of the GOP's – but that quietly ignores the fact that the presidential race, the major driver of turnout, was all but settled on the Republican side. Comparisons of this year's primary to McCaul's previous general elections also provide limited illumination: Doherty and Dan Grant combined for 85,049 votes, a primary total that looks good compared to McCaul's 97,726 general election votes in 2006. But then, 2006 was a nonpresidential year, when turnout is lower. The 2004 numbers are hardly more helpful: with no Democrat actually on the ballot, McCaul took 182,113 votes, and Dem write-in Sadun placed third behind the Libertarian candidate.
Where will the votes be in 2008? In population terms, the district is often described as a barbell: The bulk of the voters are at either end. In 2006, Travis County produced 42% of the votes (74,352 ballots), followed by Harris at 37% (65,514). The other six counties split the remaining 36,889. Ankrum won Travis easily and barely took Bastrop; the rest went to McCaul. One might assume that a Democrat would take Travis for granted and focus his energies on persuading Harris County and the rural areas to turn blue. Doherty says he's doing exactly the opposite.
"The Democrat planet in this district is centered in Austin," Doherty says. "I would be concerned that taking Austin for granted would be a good way to lose the election. We are going to do well with the organization in the rural counties, but they only make up 20 percent of the overall population. ... There's been no cake sale, no charity auction, no fireman's fundraising benefit too small for 'Judge Larry Joe' in the last seven years to volunteer to emcee." (As if to confirm that dedication – or obsession – Doherty has even turned up on Austin cable access TV as a guest on The Trailer Park Show.) "Consequently, I've established a relationship in the rural communities that transcends my coming to Austin," he continues. "My hardest work has been introducing myself to Democrats in Austin, because part of Tom DeLay's scheme was to make it easy for Austin to control who would be the candidate. And if they go for the homegrown tomato, they lose the rest of the barbell and the handle.
"Bear in mind, I've lived in Harris County, until I moved to Washington County, for nearly 50 years. My television show was the first nationally syndicated show ever produced in Houston. I don't need to introduce myself to the people of Harris County like I needed to introduce myself to the voters in Travis County."
Perhaps he's right. McCaul's 2006 support here in Travis was not insubstantial. The district includes Pflugerville, West Austin, and West Lake Hills, areas where some precincts lean heavily Republican, and 29% of McCaul's total votes came from our supposedly solid-blue county. Perhaps there are votes to be mined here from disaffected Republicans and independents.
One possible advantage for Doherty is the "Obama effect" – although the Illinois senator has little hope of actually winning Texas, the wave of new voters he's expected to bring out (especially in urban counties such as Harris and Travis) could lift Doherty's boat. But Doherty says he won't be relying on that. "An Obama tsunami is not needed to win this election. I have not tailored my campaign to need the coattails of a presidential success. And logically, politically, constitutionally, you shouldn't. This is an independent seat."
Larry Joe Doherty gives the impression that he's left nothing to chance and that he's planned his campaign down to the last detail and the last precinct. Nonetheless, out of courtesy, I wish him luck as we end our interview. "If the Republicans just keep doing what they're doing," he grins, "we won't need any luck."
Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.