Andrew Wheat

A Family Affair

It ain’t me, It ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son.—Creedence Clearwater Revival

Ten years after state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville) graduated from county government to the Legislature, his 27-year-old son is poised to join the House. Barring the unforeseen, Eddie Lucio III—who graduated from UT Law School just last year—will be elected to the House in November. Thereafter, these two Eddie Lucios will monopolize the political representation of the more than 130,000 residents of Cameron County in both chambers of the Legislature. The last simultaneous instance of such father-son political control that the Texas Legislative Reference Library could find dates to the Great Depression.

A phenomenon occurring with the frequency of Halley’s Comet deserves its own neologism. We’ll call this one a Luciopoly. If Halley’s Comet orbits the sun, the son in a Luciopoly gravitates toward his father’s fundraising pull. Money helped deliver the younger Eddie Lucio’s victory in the crowded March Democratic primary race to replace retiring Rep. Jim Solis of Harlingen. The more than $200,000 that the younger Lucio mobilized for the primary was four times that of his closest competitor. Despite this financial supremacy, Lucio narrowly averted a primary runoff with Solis-backed candidate David Gonzales, winning 51 percent of the vote.

“Sen. Lucio was twisting, bending, and breaking arms to get people to support his son,” Solis said. “I had lobbyists tell me they wanted to help [Gonzales], but the senator was pressuring them.”

Gonzales said that “Obviously name recognition helped a lot. But I think money was the single biggest factor.”

“I have never put any pressure on anyone to contribute to me or my son’s campaign!” Sen. Lucio wrote to the Observer in an enthusiastic response peppered with exclamation marks. He added that his son’s opponents “couldn’t raise very much money in Austin, so they blamed me for their inability to do so!”

Similarly downplaying his father’s role in his campaign, the younger Lucio said, “All I ask is to be given a chance.”

Winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to winning office in heavily Hispanic and Democratic House District 38. Yet even post-primary political waters paranormally parted ahead of the young Lucio. Republican nominee Luis Cavazos quietly dropped out of the race in June, citing “unexpected changes in business commitments.” Then the last man standing between Lucio and the House, Libertarian Jim Fuller, died of congestive heart failure in August. (The Libertarians then nominated Linda McNally as Fuller’s replacement.)

Sen. Lucio, who chairs the International Relations and Trade Committee, possesses the power to pave a yellow-brick road for his namesake if he chooses. Re-elected without opposition to a four-year term in 2004, he has no distracting campaign of his own this year. Yet Sen. Lucio has raised more than $100,000 in campaign funds this cycle. As one gauge of the elder Lucio’s influence on his son’s campaign, the Observer analyzed how much money the Lucios received from donors who contributed to both el padre and el hijo this cycle. The younger Lucio, who amassed the larger war chest, got 38 percent of his total from donors who also gave to his dad. Meanwhile, 64 percent of Sen. Lucio’s money came from donors who gave to his kid.

Few people would be surprised that two Democratic candidates trolling the same waters around Cameron County tapped many of the same donors. Yet this common-sense explanation fails on two counts. First, only a minuscule share of Lucio crossover money came from the Rio Grande Valley. Second, few of the leading dual donors to the Lucio family are particularly Democratic. In fact, the corporate lobby supplied almost all of this money.

The younger Lucio acknowledged that he received major support from lobby interests outside the Valley. “As a first-time candidate I have no history personally,” he said. If someone wanted to make a legal contribution to his campaign, he said, he could not afford to refuse. “No one has ever asked me to take a stand on issues,” he added.

By far the largest joint contributors to the two Lucios are Texas’ largest PAC, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, and the state’s No. 1 individual donor, homebuilder Bob Perry. While TLR and Perry occasionally give to Democrats, these huge donors overwhelmingly fund Texas’ GOP machine. “Many Democrats in the Valley have noticed that the senator always sides with the Republican agenda,” Solis said. “My response has always been, ‘Follow the money.'”

Asked what interest such donors had in his campaign, the younger Lucio speculated that they were impressed by his accessibility. “Rep. Solis never had an open-door policy with these groups,” he said. Once in the House, the young Lucio said he will vote the interests of his “indigent district.”

Even donors who just gave to the younger Lucio are a mixed bag. They include such stalwarts of the ailing Democratic Party as the Texas Trial Lawyers Association and Texas State Teachers Association. But they also include the HillCo lobby firm’s political action committee (which got most of its money from Bob Perry) and even Tom DeLay’s lobbyist brother, Randy—a longtime lobbyist for the Brownsville Navigation District.

In trying to build a new bridge into Mexico, this navigation district has awarded millions of dollars in contracts to Dannenbaum Engineering Corp., which has been a major client of Sen. Lucio’s public relations firm. In 2004 the Brownsville Herald exposed the conflicts that arose when Sen. Lucio represented such private clients before local governments that depend on the senator’s public office to help secure state funds. Sen. Lucio responded by pledging to discontinue this consulting—at least temporarily. An official in nearby Willacy County complained in July that Sen. Lucio lobbied him on behalf of some of his old clients who are pursuing private prison contracts there. [See “For One Politician, Prison’s a Good Thing” page 10]

While the younger Lucio is following his father into politics, is he also emulating the senator’s private business practices? A year ago Austin-based law firm Minter Joseph & Thornhill hired the younger Lucio to open a Brownsville office for its land-use and municipal government affairs practice. When the larger Clark Thomas & Winters of Austin acquired the firm this year, it trumpeted the Brownsville practice of this recent law-school graduate as a major prize of its acquisition. If the younger Lucio enters the House in January, his law practice looks like it could pose the kinds of local government conflicts that have ensnared Sen. Lucio. While the younger Lucio said that most of his work involves routine real estate transactions, he said he also sometimes may need to represent clients before local zoning commissions.

Given the potential conflicts that such work could pose for a lawmaker, the Observer solicited advice for this young politician from his father. “I would, absolutely, encourage him to avoid any conflicts of interest in his private (business) work!” Sen. Lucio wrote. “He would have to evaluate his business affairs very closely!”

Yet the younger Lucio said he does not foresee any conflicts between his private practice and his House duties. Though ethical issues can arise when lawmakers represent private clients before state entities, the younger Lucio said, “There are no ethical issues in going before a local government.”

Is this young politician in need of paternal advice? Or has he been getting it all along?

Award-winning Observer columnist Andrew Wheat is research director of Texans for Public Justice.

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Published at 12:00 am CST