Carole the Chameleon

After four surnames and three party labels, will the real Carole Strayhorn please stand up?

Carole Keeton Strayhorn, photo by Tim Reel

At a luncheon hosted by the NAACP, independent candidate for governor Carole Strayhorn sat to the right of the podium. Not all the way to the right, though. It was the sort of event where there is a speaker to introduce the keynote speaker, and another speaker to introduce the introductory speaker. Through it all, the state comptroller was the perfect guest, fixing her alert gaze on whoever happened to be at the microphone, nodding, looking grave or delighted as the moment demanded, and taking notes on a little pad. Strayhorn is a pro. And she should be. She’s been a guest at political luncheons for 34 years.

When her turn came, Strayhorn gave the same speech she always gives—toll roads, schools, shaking Austin up—but with all the energy of a first time. On the hustings, Strayhorn typically unleashes a machine-gunfire stream of slogans, insults, and catchy program titles that sometimes makes her seem a bit like Yosemite Sam in a pants suit. Her audience broke into applause again and again, and gave her three standing ovations, the longest when she promised to scale back the importance of the TAKS test. “I would rather spend the money educating our kids now than imprisoning them later,” she said.

Democratic candidate Chris Bell made much the same point to the same crowd later in the day. He received applause, too, but the crowd’s reception of Strayhorn seemed a shade warmer, with NAACP President Gary Bledsoe calling Strayhorn a lifelong friend and detailing how as state comptroller she had worked for the interests of minorities.

Strayhorn will need the support of traditionally left-leaning institutions like the NAACP if she wants to capture enough votes to pull ahead of Bell and fellow independent Kinky Friedman in the race against incumbent Gov. Rick Perry. Some polls in early October gave her second place in the race, but some put her lower. None gave her a broad enough margin to scoop Perry, even with his approval at a meager 30-something percent of the electorate and dropping. When Strayhorn left the Republican Party early this year to run as an independent, she shut herself off from the party infrastructure of yard signs and get-out-the-vote drives. Still, she has the free media access of her public office, and plenty of well-shod backers. She has managed to cobble together a coalition of supporters–farmers and environmentalists opposing Perry’s planned Trans-Texas Corridor, suburban PTA moms upset with Perry’s handling of school finances, teachers’ unions, and–possibly–NAACP members. She’s also taken in campaign cash from major trial lawyers who have historically backed Democrats.

Earlier in the election season, Strayhorn looked like a clear alternative to Perry, but during the dog days of summer her campaign seemed to run out of steam. Initially, at least, a number of Democratic deep pockets were also in her camp. Former Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes and Laredo multimillionaire Tony Sanchez, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for governor in 2002, each made contributions of $250,000 to her campaign last spring. Barnes has continued to support the campaign financially. Sanchez has not. Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price made a splash earlier this month when he switched his endorsement from Strayhorn to Bell. Price told the Dallas Morning News that Strayhorn’s campaign was stagnant. He said he now believes Bell has a better chance of winning. “I’ve been real disappointed in her,” Price said. “She needs to come out swinging. She needs to run the way she’s run in the past.” Even so, as one of her top strategists, a former Democratic operative, puts it, “The way it stands right now, I’d trust a well-funded, grass-roots organization over the Democratic Party any day.”

Last December certain members of the Texas Democratic old guard commissioned a private poll with a single question: Was it possible to elect a Democratic governor of Texas in 2006? The answer was, unequivocally, no. For this same group, electing Anybody But Perry was a do-or-die mission. So they looked around, and they hit on Carole Strayhorn.

Strayhorn is a smart, aggressive campaigner, they reasoned. Her years in public office have given her name recognition—though not always the same name. And she has been positioning herself to run for years, waging a public feud with Perry over schools, health care, budgets, property taxes, and more or less anything else the governor has attempted. Her recent stint as a Republican was more good than bad in a state where more than half of the electorate self-identifies as “conservative.” Strayhorn’s second election to the comptroller’s office, in 2002, gave her the largest raw number of votes of any Republican candidate for any office. At the same time, her vocal and persistent opposition to Perry—so eminently opposable, and so badly in need of opponents—not only put her in the spotlight, but made her appear appealingly sane to a wider swath of voters.

This time last year, polls gave Strayhorn nearly 25 percent of the vote–substantially short of Perry’s 35 percent, but healthily ahead of Friedman and Bell. Then in late July, Strayhorn lost a widely covered public court battle over whether she could put “Grandma” (as in, “One Tough”) beside her name on the ballot. It looked silly to most people. Her public changes of heart—and name, and office, and political party—have made her an easy target for accusations she is a turncoat, a flip-flopper, and a crass political opportunist who will do anything to get elected.

It’s easy to accuse a candidate who has run through four surnames and three party labels of lacking a certain stick-to-itiveness. Here’s the crib notes version of Strayhorn’s 34-year climb up the ladder of Texas politics: Strayhorn was born Carole Keeton, daughter of University of Texas former law school dean and political activist Page Keeton. As Carole McClellan, she was elected to the Austin School Board in 1972. In 1997, after serving not quite a year as board president, she resigned to run for mayor. She was the first female mayor in Austin and the first to serve three consecutive terms. Just months before her third term ended, she resigned to serve on the state Board of Insurance. In 1986 she dumped both the insurance board and the Democratic Party to run against longtime Democratic Congressman Jake Pickle, and lost. In 1994, as Carole Keeton Rylander, she was elected to the Texas Railroad Commission. While still in office, she entered and won the 1998 race for state comptroller. In 2002, she was re-elected to the office by a landslide.

Fellow school board member Gus Garcia, who also went on to become mayor of Austin, remembers Strayhorn as a “tremendously focused, tremendously hardworking” board member. “She was successful at anything she did,” he says. “She knew what the issues were and how to negotiate the political process.” He always assumed she’d advance in politics. Strayhorn and Garcia’s time on the school board coincided with a Supreme Court decision that forced Austin to integrate its schools. Garcia remembers Strayhorn as a devoted advocate of civil rights. “She was very faithful with the Hispanic and African-American communities,” Garcia says. She was also instrumental in pushing the Austin school district to provide sports facilities for female athletes equal to those male athletes enjoyed.

Strayhorn ran for mayor as the liberal challenger to conservative Austin attorney Jack McCreary. In office, Garcia says, Strayhorn grew close to the business community. Tom Smith, founder of public interest nonprofit Public Citizen, agrees. “She was never one to say no when the Chamber of Commerce asked her to dance,” Smith says. In 1979, Smith worked to persuade Strayhorn not to support the South Texas Nuclear Project. Opposing measures on the ballot that year proposed to end Austin’s involvement with the nuke on the one hand, or continue the city’s support of the project by issuing $215.8 million in bonds. Austin’s business community favored the project, and so, ultimately, did Strayhorn. Three days after the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, an unbowed Strayhorn took out a full-page ad in the Austin American-Statesman urging voters to approve the bonds, and they did.

Smith opposed Strayhorn on the nuke, but sided with her when, as railroad commissioner, she presented an energy plan to the Legislature that called for a higher percentage of the state’s energy to come from renewable and sustainable sources—a plan that was roundly ignored. As comptroller, Smith said Strayhorn has consulted with Public Citizen several times on how to handle tricky ethical issues arising in her agency. “Her question has never been, ‘How do I keep this from looking bad,’ but always, ‘What is the right thing to do?'” Smith says. “To me that is the mark of a person with high ethical standards. She is very smart, very aggressive. She asks the right questions. Even though she doesn’t always do what we would like her to do, you have the feeling that the neurons are firing.”

Smith hastens to say he doesn’t endorse Strayhorn or any other candidate. But Garcia says he, along with his family, friends, and anyone else he can persuade, will vote for her. “I’ve known her a long time, and I believe that she is motivated to bring good government to people,” he says. But even Garcia arguably doesn’t like Strayhorn as much as he dislikes the governor we’ve got. “The issue fundamentally is Rick Perry,” Garcia says. “Perry doesn’t stand for what I stand for, and when I look around for someone else, I think of Carole. I think she’s someone who can win for us.”

Like Democrat challenger Chris Bell, Strayhorn has embraced the education issue. The two have nearly identical platforms. They are against high-stakes educational testing. They want a pay raise for teachers. Each has a plan to make higher education more affordable. Yet teachers’ unions, historically in lockstep with the Democratic Party, have turned out almost universally for Strayhorn. She has the endorsement of the Texas Federation of Teachers and the Texas State Teachers Association, the two largest educators’ unions in the state. The president and vice president of Austin’s education union, Education Austin, appeared in one of Strayhorn’s recent TV spots. For the union leaders at TFT and TSTA, it all came down to the odds. “We like Chris Bell,” says TSTA President Donna New Haschke. “We like his platform. It’s an electability issue. We think Strayhorn can win, and we’re putting everything we have behind her.”

To endorse Strayhorn, though, teachers had to swallow her past support for public school vouchers. As recently as 1998, Strayhorn embraced vouchers and accepted $950,000 from the driving force of Texas’ voucher movement, James Leininger. These days, Strayhorn is soft-pedaling her support for vouchers and playing up her fealty to public schools. Teachers’ unions are willing to buy it. “We grilled her on it, and she was unequivocal that vouchers were off the table,” Haschke says.

Vouchers are not the only issue that Strayhorn has supported, then turned around and used to lash Perry in her speeches. Strayhorn has blasted Perry and his administration unmercifully for cuts to the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which tossed nearly a quarter million children from low-income families off the state insurance rolls. CHIP is such a hot-button issue that Republicans have quietly smeared Strayhorn for her involvement. None other than former state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth told the Houston Chronicle in June that Strayhorn was “very helpful” in passing the cuts. Strayhorn’s people protest that the cuts she proposed were limited and temporary.

To hear Strayhorn talk about Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor, you’d think she had a lifelong grudge against toll roads. Yet in 2001, the comptroller’s office released a report in which Strayhorn supported toll roads. “Building highways through toll financing, rather than pay-as-you-go financing, dramatically speeds the time it takes to complete a given project,” she wrote. But Strayhorn can’t say enough bad things about Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor, which she calls a “$184 billion boondoggle.” Strayhorn has won the support of the Blacklands Coalition, an organization of farmers and others who oppose the corridor because they say it would seize farmland, build in environmentally sensitive areas, and drive down local economies by allowing travelers to skate past and around small towns at top speed.

It’s enough to make you wonder if she’s less concerned with good policy than with walloping her opponent at every turn. That’s what the Bell camp thinks, anyway. “We’re talking about someone who literally will say anything to get elected,” says Chris Bell spokesman Heather Gunther.

Strayhorn has repeatedly accused Perry of doing favors for his biggest campaign contributors and the lobbyists who work for them. Opponents can and do make similar accusations against her. Since taking office, Strayhorn has received more than $2 million from law firms with business before the comptroller’s office; those firms have received more than $461 million in favorable tax decisions.

In 2005, the state auditor released a report showing 3,656 favorable tax settlements within one year of related Strayhorn contributions. The state audit report levels no accusations against Strayhorn, but recommends that elected officials be barred from accepting contributions from entities with business before their offices. Perry’s camp calls the audit proof of corruption. “Every time Carole Strayhorn gets caught with her hand in the cookie jar, she first denies that it’s her hand, then she denies the existence of a cookie jar, and finally she attacks you for being against cookies,” says Perry spokesman Robert Black.

The comptroller’s office has given her a terrific vantage point from which to criticize Perry’s every turn, an opportunity she has seldom let pass. Strayhorn lambasted the governor for ratifying an unbalanced state budget during a $10 billion shortfall in 2004. She attacked his messy handling of school finance, which she says failed to provide enough money for schools while leaving taxpayers without the property tax relief Perry promised. She’s criticized everything from proposed sales-tax increases to an inadequate state foster care-system and failure to institute minimum life sentences for sex offenders. Some in the Bell campaign joke that they should count Strayhorn as an independent expenditure for all the work she does against the governor.

It’s easy to criticize Perry, and Texas progressives have been grateful to have someone in high-level office willing to do it. Unfortunately, it’s easier to criticize than to improve. Strayhorn touts what she calls “Strayhorn Solutions” on education, health care, and border security. In broadest outlines, they are the sanest kind of fiscally conservative rhetoric—it’s cheaper to educate than to imprison, cheaper to insure our children than to treat them in the emergency rooms when they are gravely ill—but beyond that there is little that is a threat to the status quo. Like every other candidate, she supports a state-run video lottery as a source of revenue for public schools, and would add to that $1 of additional tax on cigarettes. Most economists warn that sin taxes are a poor source of long-term funding, since for every dollar extra the
sin costs, a certa
n number of people will just stop sinning. Like most conservatives, she seems convinced that cutting wasteful spending in schools will account for the rest of the money required.

Lacking dramatic, coherent solutions to the problems she has been decrying for the last five years, Strayhorn is left pitching herself to two different constituencies: the anti-Perry faction that rallies around negative attacks on Perry, and women and moderates who constitute a softer “grandma” faction. With 30 days until the election, Strayhorn had raised almost $14 million in campaign funds and had $5 million left to spend. That money will allow her to fill the public airwaves with both versions of herself through Election Day.

Emily Pyle is a writer living in Austin.

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