The Austin Chronicle

U.S. Senate: Sharp on Sharp

By Lee Nichols, June 5, 2009, News

Former state Comptroller John Sharp made his pitch for his U.S. Senate candidacy to a group of local Democratic activists last week and got some surprising resistance – but not from anyone questioning his fitness for the office. Instead, it came from admirers. "You know more about state government than anybody that I know of," one audience member at the Central Texas Democratic Forum's monthly Downtown luncheon said. "Why do you want to go to [D.C.] when we need you here in the state government?"

"I think that's where the biggest problems are," a flattered Sharp said. "These problems here in state government, any fool can figure them out. They've proven that for the last several years. They are obvious; you just have the wrong people voting on them."

Sharp is running for the seat currently held by 15-year Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison – possibly in a special election after she vacates the seat for her expected gubernatorial challenge to Rick Perry and if not, then in 2010.

When he did get the audience to focus on the office for which he's actually running, Sharp fired figurative shotgun blasts at his major Dem opponent, Houston Mayor Bill White. "We have to have a United States senator that believes in rebuilding the Demo­cratic Party," said Sharp. "Now it is one thing, and I have certainly participated in this, to say, 'Hey, I'm going to work with Republicans to make sure good things happen.' ... It is another thing to host a fundraiser for Tom DeLay, while he has a Republican opponent."

Sharp said he found out about White's DeLay connections through the Capitol Annex blog of Democratic operative Vince Leibo­witz, although "hosting" isn't quite how Leibowitz put it – instead he reported White was "headlining" a private DeLay fundraiser. Either way, White denies both versions, and in response, he pointed us to an Austin Ameri­can-Statesman interview in which he said, "I did not raise funds for Tom DeLay, but what I did do, and what I have done, is when members of Congress from the Houston area have invited me to a function – and this has been people in both parties – then often I show up as a matter of respect, because it's important that the city of Houston have a good relationship with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle."

Sharp also gave practical reasons for Dems to back him – by, interestingly enough, pointing to his last two electoral defeats. In his two runs for lieutenant governor, he narrowly lost to Rick Perry (50% to 48.2%) and then to David Dewhurst (52% to 46%). "In a special election, independents rule," Sharp said. "They make the difference if they go en masse in one place. The reason that I was within one point [well, two, actually] of Rick Perry in 1998 is that I got 92 percent of the independent vote. The same thing happened to a lesser extent in 2002." He said he no longer had polling data to back up that assertion, but it's believable. In those same elections, other Democrats didn't fare nearly as well: In 1998, then-Gov. George W. Bush thoroughly pounded Garry Mauro 68%-31%; four years later, Gov. Perry topped Tony Sanchez 58%-40%; and in the race for Sen­ate, John Cor­nyn beat Ron Kirk 55%-43%.

On the issues, audience members asked him about health care and about abortion. On the former, he pointed the finger at insurance companies. "Who do you pay for your health care?" Sharp asked. "You pay somebody that is trying to keep you from getting treatment. ... [That's the] reason that you wind up with single-payer systems in all of the industrialized countries of the world except one." Sharp never explicitly stated his support for single-payer, instead deflecting it to Obama, who has rejected it: "Unless the president changes his mind, we're never going to get a single-payer system. Maybe what we need to do is change the function of what insurance companies are about." He suggested that a system that incentivizes preventive testing on a regular basis might be the answer.

On abortion, he acknowledged his long history of considering himself pro-life and his Catholic beliefs but struck a conciliatory tone, recalling his relationship with the very pro-choice former Gov. Ann Richards, who offered him an appointment to the Senate in 1993 when Lloyd Bentsen stepped down to join the Clinton administration. (He declined.) "I believe what my church teaches, personally," said Sharp. But: "Do I believe that you should throw away Roe v. Wade in its entirety? No. ... Ann would never have offered me this job years ago to begin with if that had been the case. But I do have my personal opinions about it. If you want somebody to 100 percent do away with all state laws that have to do with abortion, and that's your issue and that's all you care about, then I'm probably the wrong guy."

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