Political Intelligence

The Bidness of Elections


The TAB Comes Due

It took nine months, defeats in five courts, and more than a dozen briefs, but the Texas Association of Business (TAB) and its relentless attorney, Andy Taylor, were finally forced to give up the goods. On October 20, the TAB handed over records from its controversial (and possibly illegal) mailer campaign in the 2002 elections to the Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle.

The Travis County grand jury first subpoenaed the documents on January 16. The grand jury is investigating whether the TAB broke state election laws by spending $1.9 million in secret corporate donations on a series of partisan attack ads against Democratic candidates. The mailers were part of a highly organized effort by the TAB, the Tom DeLay-spawned Texans for Republican Majority (TRM), and influential Republican lobbyists to win a large Republican majority in the Texas House . Use of corporate cash for electioneering is illegal. But Taylor contends that the TAB’s mailers were lawful because they were “issue ads” designed to educate voters. Investigating TAB and forcing it to reveal its donors, Taylor argues, violates the organization’s First Amendment right to free speech.

Taylor couldn’t find a court that would quash the subpoenas or halt the grand jury investigation. His final defeats came when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his argument. Soon after, Earle agreed to let the TAB keep its donor list secret (for now, anyway) if the business group turned over the rest of its documents. Earle’s office will now plow through the material before calling TAB president Bill Hammond and other TAB employees to testify before the grand jury.

Meanwhile, three civil suits-two against the TAB and one against TRM-filed by defeated Democrats move forward. Initially, Andy Taylor represented both the TAB and TRM in the civil suits as well. Taylor also has a lucrative contract with the state defending the DeLay-inspired congressional redistricting map. After several newspaper stories pointed out the connection between representing DeLay’s PAC in the civil suit and the House Majority Leader’s redistricting plan, Taylor quietly backed out of the TRM suit.

The In-Betweeners

Anyone looking for a new direction out of the October 25th election for chairman of the Texas Democratic Party came away disappointed. When Molly Beth Malcolm announced on September 18th that she would resign her post as chair, the leadership void in a Party struggling to reverse a decade-long decline resurfaced. Malcolm’s major accomplishment was to pay off the party’s substantial debt. Debt-free or not, Republicans still control every lever of state government. And Texas Democrats show scant evidence they are primed to regain statewide popularity anytime soon. Currently, the party’s most lucrative asset is the discount it can offer political campaigns on the price of postage. But despite the shabbiness of the prize, a number of factions battled for the party chair. The three most viable candidates who emerged to replace Malcolm were Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), Gary Mauro, and Charles Soechting.

Coleman had offered himself as an interim chair. He pledged only to serve until the June state convention, or depart even earlier, if a consensus candidate appeared. Coleman’s presence underscored the fact that most of the party’s vitality these days comes from its local elected officials and their spirited battle against Republican control. His practical suggestions centered on transforming the party apparatus into a focused, agile message machine like the Republicans have. “This is a constant campaign,” he told assembled Democrats. “It doesn’t stop.”

The representative from Houston’s Third Ward added some missing diversity to the proceedings. Although there appeared to be more minorities attending the 62-person State Democratic Executive Committee (SDEC) meeting than last year’s entire Republican state convention, party leaders failed publicly to acknowledge that Anglos are rapidly being eclipsed in Texas. There was no mention of Latinos from the podium.

The Party didn’t do much better with women. Suburban women are vital to a Democratic resurgence. Yet party officials disregarded the provision whereby the chair and vice-chair are to be of the opposite sex. (Republicans interpret their rule this way.) The only woman of the five candidates, Mary Moore, received four votes at the end of the day. Moore, who had run a disorganized race to unseat Sen. Steve Ogden (R-Bryan) in 1998, campaigned for the position of chair on a manual for county chairs she had written.

After the first round of voting, Coleman trailed a distant third. His candidacy had spoken to what many in the audience privately felt. There had to be better candidates than either of the two options: Mauro and Soechting. Satisfied he had made some inroads, Coleman took the opportunity of the second vote for a classy gesture: He released his delegates and retired from the race. Neither Moore nor the remaining candidate, labor lawyer David Van Os, followed suit.

Van Os, who received only two of sixty-two votes, had the backing of the progressive caucus. He had been the most passionate speaker. Van Os delivered plenty of red-meat attacks against the Republicans. He vowed that if elected, Republicans were “going to get chewed on ferociously.” Yet not even the SDEC thought his platform of turning over power in campaigns to them was a good idea.

By the end of the day, Saturday’s vote had become a referendum on Gary Mauro’s leadership in the party. Mauro, a former land commissioner, lined up an impressive list of endorsements and touted his statewide victories. Nobody in the room needed to be reminded of his losing gubernatorial bid against George W. Bush. Mauro promised SDEC members he would bring money to the party even as wealthy trial lawyers lined up against him. While organized labor did not formally endorse any of the candidates, unofficially it threw its weight behind Soechting. Mauro engendered such antipathy from some party leaders that he felt compelled to address it in his pre-vote speech. Before calling for unity, he listed a number of party factionstrial lawyer, elected official, labor, and even one called “Anybody but Mauro,” he said. In the end, Mauro fell short on the second ballot. Upon learning the outcome, he appeared to storm out of the hotel. So much for unity.

The winner, Charles Soechting, was the party’s legal council and a Hays county chair. Soechting is a former DPS officer and a trial lawyer by trade who works with John O’Quinn, the state’s lead attorney in the $17.3 billion tobacco lawsuit. Yet trial lawyers were rumored to be divided on the candidate. Soechting’s speeches had sharp soundbites attacking Bush but offered mostly tired slogans in place of new ideas. Still, his tenure will be judged on organizational acuity not rhetoric.

To say Soechting has a short window to make an impression is an understatement. Almost immediately after the election, speculation began about his replacement come the June state convention. Soechhting has vowed to run for a full two year term at that time. Mauro pledged he would also run again and other names are mentioned including former state attorney general Jim Mattox. “We have a party firmly planted in cement,” said Stan Merriman of the Progressive Caucus after the vote. The question of who can break the concrete remains unanswered.

Connecting the (Tx)DOTs

The good folks at the Texas Department of Transportation haven’t always been judicious with the state’s money. In fact, the agency’s knack for slipping sweetheart deals into public works projects is downright legendary in state government circles. Given that history, some state lawmakers are understandably skeptical of a suspicious-looking provision tucked into the sprawling government reorganization bill that the Lege recently passed.

It seems TxDOT wants a new headquarters for its Houston district office. The agency has already secured a large swath of state-owned land right across the street from its current main Houston location. One would think all TxDOT needs now are some blueprints, a contractor, and, presto, it’s got a headquarters. But instead of doing that, TxDOT convinced the Lege to authorize a deal that looks rather Enron-esque. Under Article 19 of the government re-org bill, TxDOT will lease state land to a private company, which will design and construct the TxDOT headquarters and then lease the building back to TxDOT.

If that seems like a sweet gig for a well-connected private firm, agency officials say there’s a perfectly good explanation. TxDOT spokesperson Mark Cross says the agency doesn’t have the money to pay for the headquarters up front. He notes TxDOT’s annual budget for construction and upkeep of its buildings is $53 million. The agency estimates a new Houston headquarters will cost between $32 million and $35 million. That would take too big a chunk out of TxDOT’s annual budget, Cross says. So the agency decided to bring in a private company in order to spread the costs out over a longer period. It plans to lease the headquarters for $2.8 million each year.

Some House members are questioning the deal. “It doesn’t look very cost-effective to do something like that,” says Rep. Jim McReynolds (D-Lufkin). He notes that if TxDOT leases the building for $2.8 million a yeardepending on the length of the contract, which TxDOT hasn’t calculated yetthe project could easily become much more expensive than if TxDOT constructed the headquarters itself. McReynolds, who served on the House Appropriations Committee until last session, says he’d never heard of a state agency paying for a project this way.

Cross conceded that TxDOT has never used a maneuver like this before, but adds, “We don’t have to totally rebuild a district office complex very often.” TxDOT will send out a request for bids in the next two or three months. By then, it should become clear whether this arrangement is legitimate or a sweetheart deal in the finest TxDOT tradition.

Piercing the DOJ Veil

When it comes to reviewing the Texas congressional redistricting map for its lawfulness, Democrats question whether John Ashcroft’s Justice Department can be impartial. The Dems note that in the Civil Rights Division of DOJ, where voting rights issues are reviewed, Ashcroft has removed at least two career attorneys in favor of fellow conservative ideologues. Shortly after the Texas map arrived for a determination on whether it should be pre-cleared as compliant with the Voting Rights Act, two officials recused themselves without an official explanation. The more conspiracy-minded among the Democrats sees the recusal as a Justice Department dodge to appear impartial while clearing the way for more ideological eyes.

As further proof, the Dems offer Robert Berman’s visit to Lite Guv David Dewhurst’s conference room. Berman happens to be deputy chief of the voting rights division over at Justice. And his visit happened to come during the third special session on redistricting. DOJ officials insist that Berman was at the Capitol for an unrelated event. The DOJ’s position is that no department representative has been to Texas, officially or unofficially, to talk about congressional redistricting. A DOJ spokesman could not comment on whether Berman would be involved in the process of pre-clearing the Texas map.