Guv's Race Shuffle

White's in, Gilbert's out ... and Shami's rich!

Houston Mayor Bill White, on the gubernatorial campaign stump Dec. 6 at Scholz Garten
Houston Mayor Bill White, on the gubernatorial campaign stump Dec. 6 at Scholz Garten (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Republican Gov. Rick Perry may have been the first gubernatorial hopeful to file his paperwork for the 2010 election, but the Democratic primary dominated the weekend news cycle as Houston Mayor Bill White switched his aspirations from the U.S. Sen­ate to the governor's race.

The buzz preceded White's Friday, Dec. 4, midday announcement – either he would stay in the Senate race, meaning a brutal primary with former Comptroller John Sharp when and if Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison finally stepped down, or he would move to the governor's race, becoming the default favorite to face the GOP nominee next November. Indeed, speculation had been rife about a switch since well before former Ambassador Tom Schieffer withdrew from the Democratic governor primary and implored White to take his place. Laying out his candidacy as a consensus-builder and taking some implicit potshots at Perry, White said: "I don't have the polish of career politicians. But as a businessman and mayor, I know how to be accountable for results, not just rhetoric."

As White got in, Democrat and rancher Hank Gilbert announced he was pulling out of that race to mount his second challenge to Republican Agriculture Com­mis­sioner Todd Staples. It was the announcement that many Gilbert supporters had hoped for. Back in September, Gilbert had said he only filed for governor because he "got to looking at the candidates on both sides, and nobody just really stood out." When Schieffer first stepped aside, seemingly leaving political newcomer and hair-care tycoon Farouk Shami as the temporary front-runner, Gilbert said he would take his campaign to "an honorable conclusion," and he used the same phrase to explain this new shift. While he claimed that "no outside factors have influenced my decision," he also said that "there are now two people seeking the support of Democrats who can continue this fight to victory and allow me to return to the race for agriculture commissioner."

What surprised many observers was Gil­bert's decision to endorse Shami over White. While arguing that "the ideas and people I fought for are the same ideas and people Farouk will fight for," Gilbert added a personal component, saying White "gave me his word" that he wasn't going to switch to the governor's race. The endorsement also signaled a reversal of Gilbert's earlier position that Sha­mi is just another proponent of the misguided "government as business" approach (that criticism, along with the entirety of Gilbert's opposition research website the Scoop, was gone by Sunday). Shami's response? He said he was "deeply honored" by Gilbert's endorsement and announced the opening of four regional campaign offices – shortly after firing four of his senior campaign staffers.

Gilbert's withdrawal leaves another big question mark, this time over the candidacy of novelist Kinky Friedman. Having run for guv as an independent in 2006, only to be widely condemned as a spoiler for Democrat Chris Bell, his plan to run as a Dem in 2010 has seemingly stalled. Early this week, Friedman was hanging fire; his campaign announced that, while there is no firm decision on his plans, he wants to meet with both White and Shami soon.

Gilbert's endorsement was immediately seized by Republicans as showing splits in Democratic lines and drew criticism from some Democratic activists, but it did nothing to stop other Dems from rallying behind White. By midday Saturday, the entire Travis County legislative delegation was officially endorsing White, as were all the members of the Austin City Council. ("A 7-0 vote. That's the way I like it," joked Mayor Lee Lef­fing­well.) Democrats say they're confident that having the Houston mayor and former state party chair topping the ticket next November will make life easier down-ballot; Travis County Demo­cratic Party Chair Andy Brown explained White's appeal: "great ideas, great organization, and a lot of experience."

White's shift also drew national attention. Calling the announcement "a game changer," Democratic Governors Association Finance Chair Jack Markell, governor of Delaware, praised White's job-creation record and said his candidacy "creates a potential pick-up opportunity for our party." Even GOP rival Hutchison has accepted that this changes the landscape. Filing against Perry in Austin on Dec. 7 on a platform of tougher immigration enforcement, reforming the Texas Department of Trans­port­ation, and permanently canceling the Trans-Texas Corridor, she told reporters, "We will be pursuing an election against Bill White after I win the nomination." Of course, that strategy depends on getting past both Perry and the latest dark-horse Republican contender: secessionist and tea partier Debra Medina, whose campaign proclaimed that her filing meant that "Texans are one step closer to freedom!"

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state politics, Rick Perry, Bill White, Hank Gilbert, Farouk Shami, Kay Bailey Hutchison, elections

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