Political Intelligence

Betting on Rick and Dick


Tom, Dick, and Denny

It’s hard to be a Republican congressional candidate these days—so many decisions, so many choices. It’s even harder for Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, who is running against Democrat Nick Lampson in the Texas 22nd. Sekula-Gibbs is not on the ballot in the general election and must convince voters to pick her twice. First they must check her name to fill the term from which Tom DeLay slunk away. Then, for the general election, using new electronic voting machines, they must manually write in her name. Explaining all this takes money. And with as many as 40 seats in play this November, money for a long shot is not easy to find.

Enter the vice president. Dick Cheney’s approval rating is so low that if it were a congressional page, Mark Foley would be hitting on it. But as a plutocrat himself, Cheney knows how to talk to fat cats. By early October he had raised nearly $40 million for GOP candidates this election cycle. While Cheney’s reputation is toxic for the majority of Americans, he is probably still acceptable to the GOP hardcore in Fort Bend County. So Sekula-Gibbs went for the money and invited the vice president to Houston for a fundraiser recently.

At a $500-dollar-a-head event attended by DeLay, among others, Cheney bobbed and weaved around the truth. He trumpeted GOP tax cuts but never mentioned the astronomical spending that his administration has promoted. “We believe our job is to solve big problems, not pass them along to the next generation,” said Cheney, even though that is exactly what the Bush administration has done.

Cheney also singled out the Patriot Act, illegal wiretapping, and torture as evidence that George W. Bush is serious about fighting and winning the war on terror. By the end of the night, Sekula-Gibbs had raked in as much as $200,000. Unfortunately for her, it’s still slim pickings compared to the almost $2 million Lampson has on hand.

A week after the Cheney event, Sekula-Gibbs was scheduled for more fundraising, this time with Speaker of the U.S. House Dennis Hastert. With Hastert struggling to keep his job in the wake of the Foley scandal, Sekula-Gibbs made the calculation and canceled the speaker’s visit. In this case, the money wasn’t worth it.

Gubernatorial Gamble

Betting almost all of their money on just two of the five ponies in the gubernatorial race, gambling interests already have contributed more than $1 million apiece to Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Gov. Rick Perry. Many top gambling-related donors even hedged their bets—contributing to both candidates over the course of their current four-year terms.

These $1 million campaign wagers pose greater potential liabilities for Perry, however, since he is counting on the Christian-conservative vote in November—and perhaps beyond. This race’s leading casino cheerleader, independent Kinky Friedman, has hammered away at this point on the campaign trail. “There’s only a small group of people that’s against it [casino gambling],” the Jewish cowboy said in August. “And those are Rick Perry’s base, the far religious right.” Friedman and Democrat Chris Bell reported negligible gambling contributions—though Friedman did win $45,612 from a Louisiana slot machine last year.

Perry made legalizing slot machines a centerpiece of the school-funding proposal he unveiled after a policy junket to the Bahamas in early 2004. That Caribbean cabinet included Perry’s then-Chief of Staff Mike Toomey (now a lobbyist for horse track and casino interests) and professional GOP antitax zealot Grover Norquist (now known to have been an agent of indicted federal gambling lobbyist Jack Abramoff).

The governor later foreswore gambling after his slot-machine proposal imploded in the Legislature in 2004, partly because of opposition from Christian conservatives. One Christian gambling opponent in Austin attributed the about-face to the governor’s need to placate conservative Christians if he ever is to be a national GOP political figure. “We keep telling him he’ll make a great vice president,” this source joked.

One of the largest checks Perry reported in his latest campaign report came from Gordon Graves, who has given $78,000 to Perry and $45,000 to Strayhorn. Graves once headed the precursor of GTECH Holdings Corp.—the Texas Lottery’s apparent contractor-for-life. He retired in 2003 as CEO of Austin-based slot-machine maker Multimedia Games Inc. Late last year, Graves quietly introduced a hybrid type of “eight-liner” slot machine in Texas. He is gambling that the machines will not be deemed the illegal gambling devices that they appear to be.

The governor also got big payouts from major gambling interests that retain his lobby pal Toomey. The PAC of Maxxam Inc., which owns Sam Houston Race Park, gave $60,000 to Perry, who also took $50,000 from Big City Capital. Big City is trying to leverage public funds for a new racetrack in the Metroplex area. Fronted by Billy Bob Barnett, the founder of Billy Bob’s honky tonk, Big City has recruited Dallas real estate mogul Vance Miller ($70,000 to Perry) to help finance the scheme. Big City fielded Texas’ No. 1 gambling lobby last year, spending up to $1.4 million on 10 lobbyists.

Supremely Predictable

The Texas Supreme Court is comprised of nine industry-friendly Republicans, five of whom launched their careers as corporate defense attorneys. So we weren’t exactly shocked when the consumer advocates at Texas Watch recently calculated that the state’s high civil court ruled against consumers in 84 percent of its cases last term. In fact, given the court’s makeup, we have to wonder how did John and Jane Q. Public manage to win 16 percent of the time?

To compile its 10th annual “Supreme Court Consumer Scorecard,” Texas Watch examined all of the court’s 110 rulings from 2005 to 2006 and classified 69 as consumer cases. The Supremes sided with the little guy 11 times. Put another way, that’s 11 instances in which defendants like insurance companies or homebuilders had to pony up damages.

The Texas Watch report hints that the court suffers from massive groupthink—all nine justices agreed with each other 90 percent of the time. A few justices occasionally wander off the reservation. Yes, that means you, Harriet O’Neill. Texas Watch rated O’Neill the most consumer-friendly justice; she sided with consumers in 39 percent of her rulings. Scott Brister, Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, and newcomer Phillip Johnson tied for second at 24 percent. The worst of the worst were Nathan Hecht (12 percent) and Don Willett (11 percent). Historically speaking the 2005-2006 term, according to Texas Watch, showed an increase in anti-consumer sentiment from the previous year, when the court tossed out consumer plaintiffs at a 71 percent clip. That’s a long way from the bleeding-heart days of 2000 (52 percent anti-consumer rulings).

Alex Winslow, Texas Watch’s executive director, conceded that statistical analysis is an imperfect way to measure appellate cases involving complex legal issues. “I’m not going to suggest that consumers should win every case,” he said. “But when you see defendants winning 85 to 90 percent, that should raise red flags.” It should certainly raise red flags for any of the corporations that somehow managed to beat the odds and lose before the Texas Supreme Court—might be time for a new legal team.

Taking the Medicine

During a recent stop at Austin’s famed Scholz Garten, Howard Dean delivered some good news and bad news to a slate of Democratic candidates running for office in November: “Not everybody who came up on stage tonight is going to win. But the first thing you do, the day after the election if you don’t win, is start again, or go to work on someone else’s campaign.”

Dressed in wrinkled khakis, wrinkled shirt, and signature rolled-up sleeves, Dean looked more like a shoe salesman than a one-time presidential contender and current chair of the Democratic National Committee. In his usual blunt style, Dean hammered home the failures of the Bush administration: “Afghanistan is getting worse. Iraq has turned into a civil war. Osama bin Laden is still at large, and Iran is about to get nuclear weapons.” The Bushies are also incompetent, he added, when it comes to balancing the budget. “They borrow and spend, borrow and spend. The truth is, most people in this country don’t want to vote for Republicans. Now it’s a question of talking to them and explaining why they should be voting for us.”

Dean’s frequent visits to Texas are part of his strategy to rebuild the Democratic Party in all 50 states. Dean pointed out that he had four organizers working in Texas and had sent similar numbers of organizers to other Red states, as well. “We are going to take back Texas before we take back some of the other states we lost over the last 15 or 20 years, but it’s going to be hard work and you can’t do it without candidates,” he said. “The bad news is you can’t just talk to people in Austin. You’ve got to go outside Austin and talk to folks who didn’t vote the way we did the last time around.”

Dean said he thought that Chris Bell, the Democratic contender for governor, still had a chance of winning. “If we can get Bell to 36 percent, he wins.” When asked how he planned to do that, he responded, “It’s a classified secret.”