Dems for Lite Gov: The D.A., the Organizer, and the Deli Man
In this race, everyone has low name recognition across Texas
There are some names that no one expects to see back in politics. In 2003, Austin deli owner Marc Katz went from potential frontrunner in the mayoral race to a distant third. Four years later, Texas AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson stepped down after four decades of union activism. In 2008, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle followed her into an expected quiet retirement after a similar duration of public service. Now all three are on the Democratic primary ballot, aiming to take on their real target in November's general election: two-term Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
Unlike his embattled boss Gov. Rick Perry, Dewhurst faces no primary challenger. Independently wealthy, he turned a decisive 52% to 46% victory over Democrat John Sharp in 2002 into a 58% to 37% devastation of Maria Luisa Alvarado (sister to current Dem gubernatorial hopeful Felix) in 2006. Yet there are very real questions about whether he really wanted to run for a third term. He was broadly considered to be a frontrunner to replace Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison when she retired from the U.S. Senate. But just as her decision to run for governor has been a thorn in Perry's side, her announcement that she would not quit her current office until an undeclared date after the primary threw any plans for GOP succession into chaos.
For the Democrats, this primary is in some ways a facsimile of their 2006 experience. Alvarado had no track record of public office, but the social issues researcher and Air Force veteran held mainstream Democratic views that attracted primary voters. Her leading opponent, Benjamin Z. Grant, was a veteran state legislator who then spent 22 years on the bench. This time around, Chavez-Thompson comes with a combination of labor organizing experience and, as a three-time electoral delegate and a two-time vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, powerful Democratic party credentials – but no experience in the Lege. Earle is this year's Grant: a two-term state rep before spending 32 years as Travis County D.A. That leaves Katz in the unenviable position of being this year's Adrian De Leon, the truck-stop owner and political ingenue who limped into third place – a comparison reinforced when Katz kicked off his campaign by trying to file in the wrong office in the wrong building, two months before filing opened, then turned in late his latest campaign finance reports.
Explaining to the Chronicle bluntly why he had been drawn out of retirement, Earle said: "Texas has become a two-tier society, with more and more people at the bottom and fewer and fewer people at the top and in the middle. That's a recipe for disaster." While his history would seemingly position him well for a shot at attorney general, Earle argued that he felt he could do the most good forming policy through the lieutenant governor's deciding vote in the state Senate. He argued that as a budget aide to Gov. John Connally, an ex-state rep, and the prosecutor (as Travis County D.A.) for the Legislature, "I have a vast knowledge of the intricacies of state government, and I bring that basic management ability to the position."
In contrast, Chavez-Thompson comes with a big vision of fixing access to education to rebuild working-class jobs. She accepts her role as a legislative outsider and says: "I'm going to value the opinion of every single one of those senators. We may come from different parties, but I think and I hope that every single one of them will certainly bring with them an approach that they want Texas to be a little better." Beyond introducing that new agenda to the Legislature, she admitted she was still working on the mechanics of turning it into workable policy: "I'm going to have to depend on the Senate to help us ... build a system that is fair to all Texans."
The really bad news for all three candidates is that, even among Democratic primary voters, few people know who any of them are. In a poll conducted Feb. 3-6 for the Texas Credit Union League, 49% of respondents were undecided. Fewer than one in three even had an opinion of Earle or Chavez-Thompson, and that dropped to one in eight for Katz. Yet it's not much better for Dewhurst: Even after eight years in office, 42% of likely Republican primary voters had no opinion about him.
There is one other spot of hope for this year's Democrats. In 2006, Dewhurst was broadly regarded as a reasoned voice under the Dome. After two acrimonious and hyperpartisan sessions in which he was sometimes perceived as having less authority on the floor than Republican Finance Committee Chair Steve Ogden, that low name recognition pool could become a winning voting bloc come November.