Thumpins and Near-Thumpins

The Color of Money

In 1997, Dallas businessman Marcos Rodriguez founded the American Dream Political Action Committee with a social purpose–helping elect Republicans of color. Two years later, Rodriguez passed control of the PAC to one of the GOP’s most visible minority officeholders, Congressman Henry Bonilla of San Antonio.

So how many ethnic minority candidates received American Dream money during the 2006 election cycle? Only one, PAC director Bonilla, who got $20,000, according to federal campaign finance reports filed as of October 30.

PAC treasurer Cindy Barberio Payne didn’t return a call seeking comment. Bonilla still faces Democrat Ciro Rodriguez in a December 12 runoff for congressional District 23.

Most of the PAC’s money went to provide critical support for a downtrodden group of candidates that truly needed all the help it could get—white Republicans.

Few groups of politicians endured more oppression during the past two years than the poor white folks in the GOP, what with bribery scandals, the Mark Foley congressional page scandal, the indictments and departures of Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas and Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, and that big vote drain—the Iraq war. At the end of October, all of the American Dream PAC’s $58,000 in federal contributions had gone to 13 Republicans, 12 of them Anglos, according to the latest filings with the Federal Election Commission.

In U.S. House races, the American Dream PAC helped lift endangered Republicans Deborah Pryce in Ohio ($5,000) and John Doolittle in California ($5,000), and supported nine other white Republicans, including Austin’s Mike McCaul and Lubbock’s Randy Neugebauer. The PAC backed one Senate candidate—Florida’s Katherine Harris (yes, that Katherine Harris).

Still, the American Dream’s efforts couldn’t keep endangered Anglo Republicans from losing both houses of Congress and falling into the, um, minority.

And 2006 wasn’t the first time the PAC has strayed from its dream.

In 2003, the committee’s then-treasurer, Lydia Percival Meuret, pleaded guilty in federal court to embezzling nearly $120,000 in PAC funds between 1999 and 2003. As for the money that wasn’t embezzled, little found its way to minority Republican candidates. In 2004, a front-page Washington Post story detailed how the American Dream PAC had spent only 9 percent of its $547,000 on minority candidates in the previous two election cycles. The rest had gone to distinctly non-minority Republicans, to DeLay’s legal defense fund, to corporate PACs and to powerful Washington law firms.

Reap What You Sow

Gov. Rick Perry may have carried the state on Election Day, but he got a thumpin’ in the rural, North Texas county where he grew up. In Haskell County, 518 voters backed Perry, while 1,174 did not. (Democrat Chris Bell won the county with 553 votes. Carole Keeton Strayhorn drew 465, the Kinkster collected 150, and Libertarian candidate James Werner picked up six.)

It’s the second time Perry has failed to carry his home county in a statewide race. The first was in 1997, when he was running against Democrat John Sharp for the lieutenant governor’s slot.

Haskell County voters feel “Pretty Ricky” has lost touch with his rural roots. Farmers and ranchers are particularly incensed about the governor’s complicity in helping disgraced former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay push through the statewide congressional redistricting plan.

That plan cost U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm, a conservative Democrat and longtime ally of area farmers and ranchers, his seat in 2004. Stenholm’s 25 years of seniority would have come in handy now that Democrats have retaken the U.S. House.

The unusually crowded gubernatorial field afforded Perry another term, but he doesn’t yet seem to have come to terms with the nation’s tilt toward the center, or the fact that more Texans voted against him than for him. At a recent Southern Baptists of Texas Convention in Austin, Perry sounded the same old culture-war themes. “One of the great myths of our time is that we can’t legislate morality,” he said. “If you can’t legislate morality, you can’t allow prayer in school nor prohibit it. If you can’t legislate morality, you can neither recognize gay marriage nor prohibit it. It’s a ridiculous notion to say you can’t legislate morality. I say you can’t not legislate morality.” Those lines, echoing previous Perry speeches, drew the well-heeled Baptists to their feet. Though some religious conservatives are urging a retreat from the public square, Perry warned that such a strategy would be a mistake. “The greatest threat is the danger of indifference,” he said. “We must speak the truth, and we must act decisively in the public square.”

TXU Gets Punk’d

It isn’t every day that a Republican state senator publicly beats up on a top-tier CEO and friend of the governor. But such was the case on November 9, when Sen. Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay put TXU Corp. boss John Wilder on trial. Fraser wanted to know why electricity deregulation is pushing utility profits up but not bringing customer rates down.

The scene was a rare joint hearing of the House Regulated Industries Committee and the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, a meeting packed to the gills with lobbyists and industry types. That morning Wilder had shared some pretty good third-quarter news with analysts on a conference call: TXU had posted $1 billion in profit, a 77 percent increase from the year before.

At the hearing later, a visibly angry Fraser came out firing, accusing Wilder of “abusing the customers” by profiting from high electric rates when the price of natural gas, used to generate most Texas electricity, has dropped dramatically. “What’s wrong with just lowering your price to the loyal people that have stayed with you year after year after year?” Fraser asked.

“Sir, we are in business to make a profit,” parried Wilder.

Fraser, like many lawmakers, may be experiencing some last-minute jitters. Starting January 1, state government will have no remaining control over electric rates, as specified by the 1999 deregulation legislation Fraser helped author. Meanwhile, constituents are starting to complain loudly about high rates, according to both Democrats and Republicans. That’s no surprise, since prices have surged between 66 percent and 116 percent across the state since deregulation kicked off, according to Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the watchdog group Public Citizen.

“The hope was that competitive forces would cause the price to come down,” Fraser said. “But that is not what we have witnessed.” Deregulation is supposed to foster competition, but at the hearing regulators revealed for the first time that the “Big Four” utilities—TXU, Reliant Energy Inc., CPL Retail Energy, and WTU Retail Energy—have maintained an iron grip on the market and continue to serve 89.4 percent of Texas customers. “Tell us why competition is working,” Fraser challenged the industry representatives, “because if it is not working, the Legislature will then need to look for the tools to ensure that competition exists, creating choice, and lowering prices for consumers.”

Despite utility chiefs warning the pols not to mess with the free market, Rep. Sylvester Turner, a Houston Democrat, discussed the idea of legislation authorizing price controls and making it easier for cities to buy power in bulk for residents. Consumer advocates pushed for price caps, the formation of more municipally controlled utilities and electric cooperatives, and aggressively policing the market for price manipulation.

However, some Democratic legislative staffers said the hearing’s main purpose was to scold the companies into lowering their rates while the Legislature is in session. “[Legislators] made their bed, and now they don’t want to lie down in it,” said one staffer.

The Bell Almost Tolls

Though relatively new to politics, Democrat Karen Felthauser, a substitute teacher and mother of five, almost captured state House District 52. The fast-growing district comprised of Northwest Austin, most of Round Rock, a third of Georgetown, and all of Hutto and Taylor, has long been held by Republican Mike Krusee, a loyal ally of Speaker Tom Craddick.

Though political insiders considered Felthauser’s race a long shot, she spent only $16,000 and came within 2,000 votes or so of toppling Krusee, chairman of the powerful Transportation Committee. He got 18,853 votes, and she got 16,520, according to uncanvassed returns. Libertarian candidate Lillian Simmons received 1,998.

Krusee’s unexpected vulnerability apparently springs in part from the transportation bill he helped ram through the 2003 Legislature, setting the stage for a massive explosion of toll roads in Texas.

The bill will facilitate the transfer of Texas land and infrastructure, including roads and rails, to multinational corporations in the coming years.

Felthauser said she drew a lot of support from voters opposed to toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor. “I got a lot of Republican votes because of that dissatisfaction. Even in Republican precincts, people were very, very, unhappy about it,” she said.

Felthauser said the district has been trending Democrat in recent years. “I was telling people all along that this was a winnable race,” she added. “Krusee won with less than 50 percent of the vote. He would have lost if I had had the votes that went to Lillian. It’s very frustrating to see that.”

This is actually the second time that Felthauser has taken a run at Krusee’s seat. In 2004, she ran against him as a write-in candidate, and to her surprise, garnered as much as 20 percent of the vote in some precincts. She decided to make an all-out effort this year after watching the Legislature struggle with public education issues.

Endorsements came from the Texas Federation of Teachers, the Texas State Teachers Association, the AFL-CIO, the Texas State Employees Union, and the Communications Workers of America.

But despite the near-win, Felthauser said she’s not sure if she’ll run again. “I haven’t made a decision. It took an inordinate amount of time, basically all of my waking hours for the past 18 months.”

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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