Political Intelligence

Bacio Della Morte?

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, but if you’re former Congressman Ciro Rodriguez, it can be worth $52,000 in much-needed campaign contributions.

Rodriguez is trying to regain his seat in Congress from Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo) in the March 7 Democratic primary. But his campaign seemed to be slumping in January—Cuellar had raised four times more money than Rodriguez. That is, until “the hug”—the tender embrace between President Bush and Cuellar while the president was glad-handing in the U.S. House chamber following his January 31 State of the Union address. A photograph of the hug—in which Bush grabbed Cuellar’s face two-handed, á la Michael Corleone’s embrace of Fredo in the Godfather: Part II—has circulated on the Internet and reinvigorated Rodriguez’s campaign. In the week after the hug, Rodriguez’s campaign office received $52,500 in contributions, spokesman Oscar Sanchez said. That represented a quarter of the amount Rodriguez had raised in the campaign so far.

Rodriguez served in Congress from 1997 to 2004. On primary night in 2004, he narrowly led Cuellar in a redrawn district that stretches from San Marcos to Laredo. Cuellar, a former secretary of state, successfully challenged the election in court. After a months-long legal drama and numerous recounts, Cuellar bested Rodriguez by 58 votes.

In his first term, Cuellar has been one of the most conservative Democrats in the House. For evidence of his conservatism, look no further than his voting record. Or just ask the Eagle Forum. The right-wing advocacy group says Cuellar supported its values on 57 percent of his votes in 2005. In contrast, Rodriguez’s score with the Eagle Forum in 2003 was 8 percent. The two candidates also stood at opposite ends of the abortion issue, with Cuellar earning a 0 percent rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America in 2005, according to Project Vote Smart, a nonpartisan D.C. research group. (Rodriguez scored 100 percent in 2003.) But none of those issues elicited as much criticism from the left as Cuellar’s pivotal May 2005 vote for the Central American Free Trade Agreement—NAFTA’s little cousin. Organized labor was none too pleased. Cuellar distinguished himself as the only CAFTA-supporting Democrat on the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Not to miss an opportunity, Rodriguez’s people said their boss would have stood with the caucus against CAFTA. Cuellar’s campaign didn’t return calls for comment.

Rodriguez still lags behind Cuellar in fundraising and may not have enough cash to adequately get his message out about Cuellar’s conservatism, but it doesn’t hurt to have an embrace from the president help make the case for you. “The kiss just gave it another jump start,” Sanchez said of the campaign’s fundraising effort. “Well, it was a hug, but we call it a kiss.” He hopes that, in South Texas, it amounts to a kiss of death.

Matt Wuerker Cartoon

Dem Other Guys

Ever since Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn decided in early January to forgo a Republican primary race against Gov. Rick Perry, next month’s gubernatorial primary has lost that certain je ne sais quoi. Texas political junkies now must hold out until the general election for a red-hot statewide race. But there is another primary for governor out there—on the Democratic side. While the political chattering class has responded with a collective yawn—because the corpse of Sam Houston probably has a better shot at winning the governor’s mansion this year than any current Democrat—the two serious candidates, Chris Bell of Houston and Bob Gammage of Llano, are dutifully campaigning. And they’re earning some plaudits.

Bell is a former Houston congressman who lost his seat after one term when Rep. Tom DeLay jiggered with his district in the 2003 redistricting fiasco. In 2004, Bell filed an ethics complaint against DeLay that briefly jolted the moribund U.S. House ethics committee into action for the first time in seven years. Bell jumped into the governor’s race early; he’s been running for more than a year now. An attorney by trade, Bell had hoped to tap into one of the Democratic Party’s most reliable pools of money—trial lawyers. But the money hasn’t exactly been rolling in. Bell has received only about $87,000 from trial attorneys since last July, according to campaign finance reports. Trial lawyers are reportedly saving much of their money not for Bell or Gammage, but for Strayhorn, who they believe has the best chance to oust Perry.

Still, Bell’s campaign has met with some success. He received glowing endorsements from both the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Dallas Morning News. Both editorial boards complimented Bell’s serious and detailed public education proposals. He wants to bring in more money for education with a widespread tax on business and to end the obsession with high-stakes standardized tests.

Gammage, a former Texas Supreme Court justice and Congressman, came late to the race last fall. His campaign rhetoric has been full of populist gumption—”The truth is Perry and Strayhorn play leading roles in the scandalous GOP contributions-for-favors scheme. If we really want to clean up Texas government, we can’t fire the CEO of Texas Corruption Inc. just to promote its CFO,” he said in one statement—but contains less policy than Bell’s.

The outlook is bleak for whoever wins on March 7. The Democratic nominee will have to scrounge for anti-Perry votes in the general election against Strayhorn and a certain cigar-toting author-musician. A February statewide poll by the Rasmussen polling outfit found support for the Democratic nominee at just 13 to 18 percent in a general election match-up versus about 40 percent for Perry, 30 percent for Strayhorn, and 9 percent for Kinky.

Perry for Prez?

“People have been speculating about Rick Perry for 20 years,” said Kathy Walt, the governor’s press secretary. Walt was standing in the back of the Omni Shoreham Hotel ballroom in Washington, D.C., where Perry had just delivered a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference. A reporter had asked whether the rumors?promoted by everyone from the Austin-American Statesman to Grover Norquist—that Perry could be a presidential candidate were true. Even as she offered her non-denial denial, Walt practically levitated with pleasure at the question.

Traditionally, the CPAC conference is the place where GOP presidential candidates go to make their case to conservative Republicans or, as they call themselves, “CRs.” Walt noted that Perry was the only governor to speak at the conference. Two other possible candidates for 2008, Sen. George Allen of Virginia and Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, also spoke. Both men received better speaking slots than Perry, who addressed an initially empty ballroom at 8:30 a.m. (Rumor has it that Arizona Sen. John McCain’s invitation to the conference consisted of an offer to debate someone on an immigration panel; he declined.)

Speculation on a Perry bid for higher office, while preposterous for most people living outside the CR bubble, can only be good for the governor as he seeks reelection. For those who oppose the idea of making Perry the longest-serving governor in Texas history, such speculation should only raise the stakes. Cornered by reporters after his speech, Perry responded to the question of his future by saying, “I’ve got an election that I’m working on right now that is the most important election in my life, so what I do after that is light years away.” If Perry loses his next election, his chances for future office will all but evaporate.

Perry’s speech showed that he can talk CR with the best of them. As is absolutely essential in these settings, he mentioned Ronald Reagan frequently throughout his address. He also spoke to a growing unease among CRs with the Bush administration’s positions on immigration and the size of government. “After seeing deficits explode, spending rise to unprecedented levels, entitlement programs take control over more of our federal budget, and our border left neglected and unprotected, it seems as if conservatives won the war at the ballot box, and then let the opposition keep the land,” he said to applause.

Perry spent the bulk of his speech talking about illegal immigration and border protection. The growing Latino majority in Texas may not bode well for Perry’s political future in the state, but they may yet prove useful for any aspirations he holds for higher office.

Calling All Privatizers

They came armed with a glut of bulleted PowerPoint presentations, ready to cocktail, network, and, of course, preach the fundamentals of “integrated systems” and “strategy articulation mapping.” The representatives of the call center industry descended on the Austin Hilton in early February for the Call Center Demo & Conference to bring us—and a few thousand mid-and upper-level managers—the latest in telecommunications technology. It was the fifth straight year that the roving national conference has visited Texas. As usual, there were workshops galore, with such titles as “How to Harness the Power of the Agent” and “Turning Call Center Agents into Loyalty Makers,” that gave call center visionaries the opportunity to preach the gospel of efficiency and lay out plans for a more productive, more cost-effective future. The Demo Hall offered attendees a glimpse of this future, which is pretty much like the present, except all call centers will be outsourced to tropical beaches and a robot will be doing your job.

Call centers have recently become almost a dirty word in some circles of Texas politics. In 2003, the Legislature approved a controversial plan to allow call centers to take over the duties of many of the state’s health and human services offices. Instead of face-to-face interaction with accountable state employees, Texans applying for social services like Medicaid and food stamps will soon speak over the phone with hirelings of the private consulting firm Accenture. Some lawmakers are expressing doubts about the transfer of services because it is not saving as much money as intended.

No such negativity pierced the corridors and ballrooms of the Austin Hilton. In this modern bazaar, industry cheerleaders from companies with names like Talisma and Genticity displayed their finest products such as natural-voice technology, call-recording software, and economically underdeveloped countries. (Did you know that Guatemala is home to several luxury golf courses and a massive untapped labor force willing to answer phones for next-to-nothing wages?) But the conference was not all fun and games: delegates eventually sobered up to cast their vote for the funniest call center trade publication cartoon. The competition, as always, was fierce.

Because call centers are typically one of the first of a company’s services to be sent offshore, it’s no surprise that the industry has long been a focal point for the ongoing debate on outsourcing and privatization. This market insecurity was enough to keep some conferees grounded in the present. As one rep from a data-collecting firm uncomfortably asked a reporter, “We’re based in Texas. That’s good, right?” For someone in this business, it’s not only good, it’s an anomaly.

TCEQ Snubs El Paso

On February 8, environmental activists and politicians from Texas, Mexico, and the Mexican state of Chihuahua, came to Austin with hopes of permanently shutting down ASARCO’s El Paso copper smelter (See “Clean Up or Cover Up?”, October 8, 2004). The Arizona-based mining company’s air quality permit was up for renewal by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. After a two-week hearing in El Paso last year, state administrative law judges found that the company failed to meet the requirements for renewal, citing a poor compliance record and failure to show that the smelter would not further foul the air over El Paso, Ciudad Juárez, and southwestern New Mexico if operations resumed.

Although the commissioners didn’t give ASARCO the go-ahead just yet, to the dismay of Sen. Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso) and some 150 activists and politicos, they also didn’t deny the renewal permit. Instead they will allow the company to fix deficiencies in its application. The company will now undergo new air modeling and an on-site investigation.

After the decision was announced, several of the disappointed activists booed the commissioners and expressed concerns that if the plant fires up again, it will spew out lead, arsenic and other poisons that make their children sick.

To be precise, that means more than 7,000 tons of pollutants a year, including 6,673 tons of sulfur dioxide and 7.6 tons of lead, says Shapleigh. After the hearing, the senator walked stone-faced past the ASARCO execs, refusing a handshake. Shapleigh later said he would arm himself with new information and continue the fight.

Meanwhile, ASARCO lawyer Eric Groten praised the Commission’s ruling, but also acknowledged that the permit battle had been a frustratingly long process.

As for TCEQ, the Commission managed to save its perfect record: The state’s official environmental watchdogs have never denied an air quality renewal permit.

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Published at 12:00 am CST