David Dewhurst – the Unlikeliest (and Oddest) Candidate
When it comes to campaigning, Labor Day weekend has become a demarcation line that every political candidate accepts and seeks to use for political advantage. Climbing up on the stump during the three-day holiday weekend–which for decades has marked the beginning of the sprint toward Election Day–is, for politicians, akin to kissing babies and trashing their opponents. It’s simply part of the candidate program, part of the tradition. And while TV advertising has diluted the importance of the Labor Day weekend, this year was no exception. Politicians all over the Lone Star State were on the stump, exhorting voters to get out the vote. On Friday night, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez spoke at a rally in Austin. On Monday, he appeared at labor-related events in Corpus Christi and Fort Worth. His opponent, incumbent Rick Perry, had events in Houston, Huntsville, Palestine, and Dallas. The nominees for U.S. Senate were similarly active. Democrat Ron Kirk had several appearances over the weekend, including one at the Harris County AFL-CIO’s endorsement rally on Sunday as well as events in El Paso, Odessa, and Amarillo. His opponent, John Cornyn, also appeared at the AFL-CIO’s rally.
John Sharp, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, had a full schedule. He was in Austin on Friday night alongside Sanchez. He was in Harris County on Sunday and in Corpus Christi and Port Arthur on Monday. Meanwhile Sharp’s opponent, David Dewhurst, the Republican nominee, was… Hmmm, where was Dewhurst?
His campaign wasn’t saying. Spokesmen for Dewhurst would only say that his next appearance would be on Tuesday, the day after Labor Day. And where would that be? They wouldn’t say. (Dewhurst reportedly spent the weekend at his 1,800-acre Snaffle Bit Ranch outside Fredericksburg.)
Dewhurst’s absences over the Labor Day weekend might have made sense if he’d been sitting on a fat lead over Sharp. He wasn’t. A mid-August poll showed Dewhurst trailing Sharp by four points. He was losing despite having outspent Sharp by nearly nine to one. By June 30, Dewhurst had spent $11.3 million to $1.3 million for Sharp. About half of Dewhurst’s money came from his own pocket. To make matters worse, Dewhurst’s already-small political base within the mainstream GOP was shrinking. In mid-August, Sharp began running radio ads recorded by strikeout king Nolan Ryan. In the ad, the retired pitcher, who’s often listed as a potential political candidate, tells voters “John Sharp is a Democrat, but one this Republican is supporting.” That same month, Sen. John Carona, a Dallas Republican, announced that he was supporting Sharp, too.
Even though he is “a dedicated Republican” Carona told Harvey Kronberg, editor of the Quorum Report, that “Sharp is the better choice. I have seen him in action and trust him to be a conservative problem-solver.”
Dewhurst’s lackluster campaign, the GOP defections to Sharp, as well as general disaffection for Dewhurst among mainstream Republicans, are among a yard-long list of items that make him the most curious, maybe even spooky –he is, after all, a former CIA operative–candidate on the November 5 ticket. Indeed, his campaign, which appears intent on hiding Dewhurst the candidate, appears to adhere to the old Cary Grant put-down: “Not to know him is to know him well.”
There is a raft of oddities about Dewhurst. For instance, when was the last time the Texas GOP’s nominee for a critically important statewide office–a candidate who’s running as an arch-conservative–was a divorced bachelor? And while Dewhurst’s personal life has tongues wagging, his political profile is even stranger. The majority of the members of the Texas Senate–with whom Dewhurst will have to work closely–don’t like him and more important, don’t trust him. The best that one prominent Republican who’ll be on the November ballot could say of Dewhurst was, “He’s weird. But he’s less weird than he used to be.”
Members of the Texas House–with whom Dewhurst will have to work–aren’t enamored with him either. “People hold him in no regard. Not high. Not low. No regard,” said one Democratic member of the house. “He’s never shown himself to be knowledgeable or assertive on any issues. He’s just inept.”
Few–very few–high-profile Republicans have endorsed him. His stint at the General Land Office has been almost wholly without distinction. In 2000, he had a very public feud with a fellow Republican, Comptroller Carol Keeton Rylander, over about $1 million in taxes he owed the state on luxury items he imported from other countries. His personal style is aloof and off-putting. His public speaking style is so stiff and joyless he makes George W. Bush look like William Jennings Bryan. The Texas Association of Business and Chambers of Commerce, a Republican redoubt since Moses was a boy, has endorsed Sharp, not Dewhurst. The TAB endorsed every other statewide Republican nominee. Despite frequent sightings of Dewhurst with young leggy, blonde women, the candidate is dogged by rumors that he’s homosexual. And then there are insiders like one veteran of the General Land Office who swore to me that Dewhurst rarely appears in the office and when he does, he’s usually wearing makeup.
The plain truth is that Dewhurst’s only qualifications for lieutenant governor are his good looks, good hair, straight teeth, a close association with the extreme right wing of the Republican party–oh–and a personal fortune estimated at $200 million or so.
And a handsome rascal he is. A recent–and very peculiar–story in Texas Monthly described the 57-year-old Dewhurst this way: “He is a large, strikingly handsome man, six feet five inches tall, and has the lean, muscled body of someone thirty years younger–the product of frequent weight lifting at Powerhouse Gym in downtown Austin. His hair ranges from dark brown to gray in such perfect gradations that it can appear air-brushed, even from five feet away. His elevated cheekbones, flawlessly translucent pink skin, and faintly retroussé nose make him appear more cinematic than aristocratic, as though he might have been one of Sue Ellen’s lovers from the old prime-time soap opera Dallas.”
Aspects of his run for the most powerful office in Texas reek of amateur hour. In a time in which the Internet has become a critical conduit to voters, Dewhurst is embarrassing himself. Daviddewhurst.com, a domain name that the candidate should have secured long before he announced his first run for office, is owned by a spoof site that makes fun of Dewhurst’s own incredibly thin web site (dewhurst.org) and contains a bunch of silly images, including one of Dewhurst as Pinocchio with a growing nose.
There was no reason for daviddewhurst.com to have ever fallen into the hands of a bunch of Democratic pranksters in the first place. In 2000, Rep. Tommy Merritt, a maverick Republican from Longview, became irritated after the Free Enterprise Political Action Committee, (FreePac) the right-wing PAC controlled by Dallasite Richard Ford, began looking for candidates to run against him. During the 1990s, Dewhurst was one of FreePAC’s biggest donors, giving the group more than $84,000. Dewhurst’s last contribution to the group was in 1999, but he is still associated with the group, which endorsed him earlier this year. In any case, after FreePAC made a run at him, Merritt decided to seek a bit of revenge. So he obtained the domain names daviddewhurst.com, daviddewhurst.net, and daviddewhurst.org. As originally reported by Texas Weekly in its May 15, 2000 issue, Dewhurst was more than a little annoyed by Merritt’s gamesmanship. He and Merritt had a sit-down and according to sources close to the matter, Merritt later agreed to give the domain names back to Dewhurst. But for some reason, the energy baron didn’t immediately lock up the names, which expire every year unless they are reserved for longer periods. That oversight allowed daviddewhurst.com to fall into the hands of the pranksters.
While Dewhurst’s past Internet stumbles are remarkable, he’s still generously providing more Internet bullets to the wags at the Sharp campaign. Sharp’s web site has a direct link to a page operated by one of Dewhurst’s companies, Falcon Seaboard Ranches. The ranch page (http://www.falconseaboardranches.com/Broodmares.asp) has a picture of the perfectly-coiffed Dewhurst, who’s wearing ranch clothes and carrying a saddle, walking toward the camera. The Sharp site pokes fun at the Republican with a headline that asks “Dewhurst to abandon politics for modeling career?”
The Web site embarrassments follow on the heels of last November’s pratfall. That month, Dewhurst’s campaign ran a four-page ad in Texas Monthly, touting his experience as a budget cutter and expert in security matters due to his position as chairman of the state’s task force on homeland security. The ad, which cost $74,196, proclaimed that when it comes to protecting the Lone Star State, David Dewhurst will be there, manning the barricades. There was only one problem with the four-page spread: it featured a photo of a snappy soldier standing in front of the American flag…while wearing a German general’s uniform. Oops.
When it comes to running a campaign and understanding how to manage his political image, Dewhurst is more out of place than a toy poodle at a raccoon hunt. But while his quirks and missteps are legion, his personal history suggests he might just be able to overcome them and become the next lieutenant governor.
SO WHO IS THIS GUY?
Ever since he was a teenager, David Henry Dewhurst III has wanted to be rich. Perhaps that is due to his modest upbringing. His father, a bomber pilot in World War II, was killed in an accident shortly after the war when Dewhurst was barely out of diapers. Born in Houston on August 18, 1945, he went on to Lamar High in Houston and then to the University of Arizona. He did a stint in the Air Force, then in 1971, began working for the Central Intelligence Agency in Bolivia, where he was told, he says, to “monitor certain terrorist and other foreign targets.”
Dewhurst appears to revel in his image as a cloak-and-dagger operative for the CIA at a time when the Bolivian government was in crisis. An official biography of Dewhurst that accompanied a 1996 federal commission report on the CIA identified the Texas energy baron as a former “clandestine service officer” with the agency. In 1971, during Dewhurst’s tenure in the country, Bolivian President Juan Jose Torres was overthrown in a bloody coup by Hugo Banzer. Banzer was reportedly backed in the coup by operatives from the U.S. Air Force who, in concert with the CIA, provided Banzer’s rebels with communications equipment. Dewhurst has repeatedly refused to say whether he had any role in those activities.
Shortly after he quit the CIA, Dewhurst came back to Texas, just in time to catch the wave created by the surging oil and gas business of the early 1980s. He made–and quickly lost–a fortune during the bust that inevitably follows every oil boom. But with his new company, Falcon Seaboard, Dewhurst began investing in oil and gas properties and land. More importantly, he was able to borrow enough money to build several power plants. By the early ’90s, he was one of the most eligible bachelors in Houston. In 1995, he married a model, Tammy Jo Hopkins, who was 18 years his junior. “She was a knockout, a trophy woman,” says one source who knows Dewhurst well. A former Miss Teen USA, Tammy Dewhurst was soon named one of Houston’s best dressed women and she and her new husband were spending money like it had no end. One source says the couple’s credit card bills often reached $50,000 per month. They bought a 13,000-square-foot mansion on Lazy Lane, the most exclusive street in the most expensive neighborhood–River Oaks–in all of Houston. They became regulars at all the high-profile society events, including soirees for the ballet, the opera, and other charities. There was a condo in Santa Fe, another house in the ritzy Pemberton Heights neighborhood in Austin as well as the ranch near Fredericksburg.
Dewhurst made other acquisitions. Falcon Seaboard got into the ranch business in a big way. In addition to the Fredericksburg ranch, the company owns a 42,723-acre ranch near Sonora, a 3,000-acre ranch in Colorado and another ranch in Nebraska. All of the sites are focused on breeding and producing top quality quarter horses and cattle. The horses allow Dewhurst to feed his avocation, team roping.
And while David and Tammy Dewhurst were glamorous, rich and filled to overflowing with vacation options, the happiness that came with the acquisitions didn’t last.
In early July of 1999, Tammy Dewhurst was driving in Gillespie County when her 1995 Mercedes crossed the center stripe and was broadsided by a car traveling in the opposite direction. Dewhurst was flown to University Hospital in San Antonio, treated and released. (The occupants of the other car, an elderly married couple, were not seriously injured.) Immediately after the accident, Mrs. Dewhurst refused to take a breathalizer test. A few months later, she pled no contest to a charge of driving while intoxicated, was fined $1,200, and ordered to serve one year of probation and do community service. In a statement issued after the arrest, David Dewhurst said the incident was a “wakeup call” and that his wife would “give up drinking and enroll herself in a clinic full time.”
Less than a year after the crash, Tammy filed for divorce in Houston and the split was finalized a short time later. (Since their divorce, Tammy Dewhurst has again begun making the rounds of Houston’s social scene. She recently bought a condo at the Huntingdon, the ritzy high-rise in River Oaks that is the home of infamous Enron miscreant Ken Lay and his wife Linda.)
While his personal life is less than ideal, Dewhurst’s business life has been astoundingly good. His fortune was made on July 8, 1996, when CalEnergy Company bought three gas-fired power plants from Falcon Seaboard for $226 million. With his fortune secure, Dewhurst began donating large sums of money to GOP causes. Between 1994 and 1997, Dewhurst gave George W. Bush $105,000. Since 1990, he’s given more than half a million dollars to the Republican Party and to GOP candidates.
Although he’d toyed with running for office for several years, he didn’t take the plunge until 1997, when he decided to run for land commissioner. In the 1998 race, Dewhurst spent $8 million–half of it his own money–and won.
He’s spent the last four years at the General Land Office, managing state lands and coastal beach and erosion programs. It’s not a particularly difficult job and it’s not high profile. Dewhurst hasn’t made any big mistakes at the GLO nor has he particularly distinguished himself. He helped get $15 million out of the Legislature to combat beach erosion. But he’s also worked to undermine the state’s Open Beaches Act.
State law since 1959, when it was passed by then-Sen. Bob Eckhardt, the beaches act says the state’s beaches belong to the people and always will. Texas is the only coastal state in the union that doesn’t have any private beaches. The 1959 law commands that any beachfront houses or structures that end up “seaward of the vegetation line as a result of natural processes” are subject to lawsuit and removal by the state. Faced with enforcing the law against homeowners whose homes ended up on the beach after the massive erosion caused by Tropical Storm Frances in 1998, Dewhurst decided to make it someone else’s problem by throwing all the cases into Attorney General John Cornyn’s lap. Against the wishes of his staff, who wanted only to prosecute a handful of the most egregious cases, Dewhurst referred 107 cases to Cornyn and then quickly wrote an editorial saying that the state should revisit the Open Beaches Act and consider compensating private land owners whose beach houses end up on the public’s lan
l erosion issues are worse now due to [September’s] Tropical Storm Fay, but Dewhurst hasn’t done anything about it,” charges Ellis Pickett, chairman of the Texas chapter of Surfrider Foundation, a national organization that promotes beach access and coastal conservation. “Had the state been better about enforcing the act after Frances, it wouldn’t be as bad as it is now.”
While Dewhurst’s record is interesting, truth be told, Dewhurst’s history at the GLO is really immaterial. This race against Sharp is going to be won or lost based on his ability to project his image. Dewhurst’s ads pound his image as a “conservative who does what he says,” while blasting Sharp for being a “liberal” and for supporting Democratic presidential candidates Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and Bill Bradley. Dewhurst’s ability to raise his name identification and motivate his voters–middle class Anglo men–will determine whether or not he wins.
SO CAN DEWHURST WIN?
Of course he can. One poll released by Baselice & Associates in early September showed Dewhurst leading Sharp by nine points. Of course, pollsters don’t decide elections. But money certainly helps. Even though Dewhurst is trying to raise cash for his race, he can always count on his massive fortune to finance his bid for the swank second-floor office on the southeast corner of the Texas Capitol. Furthermore, he’s a Republican. And although the mainstream GOP doesn’t support him, Texas has become a Republican state. Plus, like Sanchez, Dewhurst can use his own vast fortune to purchase any last minute mail, TV, or radio he needs to make up any shortfalls in fundraising. That’s a huge advantage over Sharp. (According to their tax returns, Dewhurst had personal income of $25.3 million between 1998 and 2000. Sharp’s income during that time period totaled $784,400.)
Dewhurst’s campaign for the lieutenant governor’s job has two prongs: saturation television ads and lots of grassroots campaigning. His early TV ads have featured video of Dewhurst-the-team-roper-as-politician, astride a horse, dirt flying, as he and a fellow cowboy lasso a bit of beef on the hoof. He also has ads attacking Sharp as a big-spending liberal. In late summer, his education spots were in heavy rotation. His best spot talks about how his family faced hard times when he was younger. “Dad died when I was three. Yet thanks to Texas teachers, I received a good, no, a great, education…Some people just talk about education. But for me, I know that improving education means opportunity for all.”
His go-to-lots-of-small-towns campaign strategy is similar to the one he used effectively in 1998 when he beat Richard Raymond to win the land office job. That year, he went on a 107-city bus tour. He was rewarded at the polls. The only non-judicial statewide candidate to garner more votes than Dewhurst that year was a former baseball team owner named George W. Bush.
This summer, he took another bus tour, this one to 67 small towns and cities. The rural vote is clearly the place that Dewhurst feels he can win. Staying away from big cities, where rude reporters and impertinent TV cameras are always intruding, allows Dewhurst to sell himself in smaller crowds and in one-on-one settings. That kind of setting plays to his strength, says John Lyle, a Houston lawyer who has known Dewhurst since he was a teenager. “One on one,” Dewhurst is “as good a salesman as I’ve ever known in my life,” says Lyle.
Dewhurst also has the backing of the right wing of the GOP. He’s received big contributions from a host of perennial conservative funders including Dallas businessman Kenny Trout ($75,000), Dallas oil man Albert Huddleston ($50,000), Dallas computer magnates Sam and Charles Wyly ($32,500), and East Texas poultry magnate, Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim ($25,000). Dewhurst has also won the endorsements of dozens of small town officials, many of them Democrats. His web site doesn’t list any of his key group endorsements but he clearly has the strong backing of FreePAC, which mailed out brochures earlier this year of a gay couple kissing. The brochures, which were mailed to voters in several districts represented by Republican legislators, caused a firestorm of controversy.
Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff–the Republican from Mount Pleasant who will keep his seat in the Texas Senate and remains one of the body’s most widely respected members–held a press conference in March to denounce the FreePAC mailing. Ratliff, backed by 22 other Republicans, called the mailing “hate mail and political pornography.” When asked to denounce the mailings, Dewhurst responded tepidly, saying only that the brochure was “unacceptable.”
However, in the race for endorsements, Dewhurst is getting spanked. By early September, the only notable endorsements Dewhurst had won were from Texans for Lawsuit Reform and the Texas Restaurant Association PAC. By comparison, Sharp has been endorsed by most of the big statewide interest groups including the Texas Medical Association, Texas Association of Business, Texas Association of Realtors, Independent Bankers Association, Texas Civil Justice League, Farm Bureau, and Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. Those endorsements, says one former member of the Texas Senate, (a Republican) happened because the groups know and trust Sharp. Plus, Sharp worked to gain their confidence. Dewhurst, he says, has never tried. “He’s been a statewide official for four years and he’s still an outsider in Austin,” says the official. “He never went to the Austin Club. He didn’t make friends with the lobby. He’s weird shy. He just hasn’t been in the mix.”
While Dewhurst disdains everything about Austin, and presumably the lobbyists and Democrats who live in the city, he’ll have to find a way as lieutenant governor to make everybody happy, particularly the headstrong members of the Texas Senate. Which leads to the most important issue when it comes to Dewhurst…
CAN HE GOVERN?
Ah, that’s the $20 million question. Dewhurst will probably end up spending that much in his effort to find out whether anybody actually listens to him once he moves into the Capitol. And while Dewhurst is willing to part with a king’s ransom to prove he belongs, if he’s elected, his inexperience and lack of political savvy could end up costing the state dearly.
The battle over the budget is always epic. But in the 2003 session, legislators will grapple with the biggest shortfall in recent memory, as they put together the 2004-05 budget. The state is likely to be short $10 billion–or more–in order to fund its existing programs. Dewhurst’s handlers insist that he’s such a savvy businessman that he can cut $5 billion from the state budget before breakfast. And he’s also pledged to balance the budget without raising taxes. Fat chance of that.
When it comes time to make hard decisions on the budget, Dewhurst’s inexperience in legislative matters combined with the disdain many senators have for him could well make him wholly ineffective as lieutenant governor. As his friend John Lyle points out, Dewhurst is “certainly not a politician. Perhaps that’s the most refreshing thing about him.” While that may be the case, the lieutenant governor’s job demands well-honed political skills. It requires more diplomacy than just about any other in state government. The lieutenant governor has to maintain good working relationships with a universe of local and statewide officials in order to clarify and set the Senate’s agenda. Dewhurst may be able to rope a calf around the head, but he hasn’t proven he can ride herd on a group of 31 senators. And that job will be doubly or triply hard given the enmity Dewhurst acquired during the redistricting fight last fall.
As land commissioner, Dewhurst was part of the five-member Legislative Redistricting Board, which meets once per decade to decide how the state’s legislative districts are drawn. During that battle, several Republican members of the Senate met with Dewhurst and were led to believe that Dewhurst would vote to redraw the districts according to their wishes. According to several sources close to the matter, Dewhurst reneged on his pledge, and in the words of Ratliff–several members “went ballistic.” By breaking his agreement, says Ratliff, Dewhurst lost a critical opportunity to gain the trust of the senators. “In the Senate, your word is everything,” says Ratliff, and in the wake of the redistricting fight, Dewhurst’s word ain’t worth dirt. Two members of the Senate, Jane Nelson of Flower Mound and Chris Harris of Fort Worth, had to sell their homes and move in order to stay within the boundaries of their newly drawn districts. Of all the members, Nelson was reportedly the most outraged. “I’ve never seen Jane so mad. She remained mad for months and months,” says Republican Sen. Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio.
Other Republican senators who were displeased with Dewhurst include Robert Duncan of Lubbock, Teel Bivins of Amarillo, and Florence Shapiro of Addison. The lack of trust between Dewhurst and the members, combined with his apparent indifference to correcting his mistake are likely to make him a marked man. Indeed, sources within the Senate say that nearly half of the Republican members would probably rather strangle Dewhurst than work with him on a bill.
“There are a lot of people looking forward to screwing with Dewhurst if he wins,” says one prominent Democratic member of the Texas House. “You are going to have to stand in line to pop him.”
Plus, Dewhurst is woefully underprepared for the job. Several Senate insiders say that Dewhurst was so ignorant of the Senate’s workings that individual GOP senators had to school him in some of the body’s most basic rules and procedures. With no legislative experience, his learning curve could be steep and difficult. His immediate predecessors in the lieutenant governor’s seat have all been far more experienced. Now-governor Rick Perry served in the Texas House. So did Bob Bullock, who served in the House in the late 1950s before going on to serve a long stint as comptroller. Before Bullock came Bill Hobby, who, before his election as lieutenant governor, served as parliamentarian of the Texas Senate, a post he was appointed to by then-Lt. Gov. Ben Ramsey.
Particularly when compared to Sharp, Dewhurst is the rawest of rookies. Sharp served in both the Texas House and Texas Senate. He also served at the Texas Railroad Commission and as comptroller. That wealth of experience, combined with Sharp’s natural political skills, says Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, an Austin Democrat, make him, “hands down, the better candidate in terms of experience. It’s black and white.” Barrientos says the lieutenant governor should set the agenda in the Senate. But if Dewhurst is elected, the Senate may simply decide, says Barrientos to “take the gavel away from him.” If that happens, the Senate will revert to its longstanding tradition of the two-thirds majority. If a senator can get 21 votes to bring a measure to the floor, he can run with it. With that two-thirds mechanism in place and Ratliff working as the de facto leader of the Senate, Dewhurst would likely be relegated to dangling his lasso at his ranch in Fredericksburg. The Texas Senate would simply work without him.
How will Dewhurst address the challenges? What will his priorities be? The answers to those questions are not forthcoming. Dewhurst’s campaign refused to let me interview their candidate. Nor would they bother to send a position paper showing where Dewhurst stands on the issues.
His campaign ads say that he’ll address insurance and education issues. Dewhurst’s solution to the homeowner insurance crisis, which, according to the industry, came about after several big jury awards to homeowners whose houses were hit with toxic mold, is to limit damages against insurance companies. He proposes to limit punitive damages to $300,000 in lawsuits filed by homeowners against insurance companies and in medical malpractice lawsuits filed against physicians. As for education, Dewhurst favors what his handlers call a “limited” school voucher program. He also supports more financial aid for college students, including no-interest student loans–a portion of the loan could be forgiven if recipients graduate in four years.
Whatever agenda Dewhurst tries to promote will undoubtedly be hampered by his damaged relationships and utter lack of political skills. Nevertheless, one prominent former member of the Senate says he’s going to vote for Dewhurst for one simple reason: He wants to watch the fireworks. “I’d like to see him win because it’ll be a good show,” says the former senator. “He will succeed greatly or fail miserably.”
The smart money is betting on the latter.
Robert Bryce is the author of Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego, and the Death of Enron, published earlier this month by PublicAffairs, which is part of the Perseus Books Group.