Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst spent the evening before their inauguration with the people who brung them to the dance: the religious right. Perry and Dewhurst were among those invited to speak at a “Pastor’s Policy Briefing” at the Renaissance Austin Hotel. Sponsored by a secretive organization called the Texas Restoration Project, the event drew more than 700 pastors. (Some 1,500 had signed up, but roughly half canceled because of bad weather, said Kelly Shackelford, president of the Free Market Foundation, a conservative interest group headquartered in Plano.)
Sharing the stage with Perry and Dewhurst were two Ohio politicians, Kenneth Blackwell, the state’s controversial outgoing secretary of state who lost a bid to become governor in 2006, and former congressman Bob McEwen. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee canceled due to the icy weather.
The Rev. Laurence White, a Houston minister who has a prophet’s stern demeanor, was on hand to give the opening remarks. A pastor at Our Savior Lutheran Church, White often compares the moral free fall in the United States to the behavior in Nazi Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. White was hurrying through the hotel lobby when an Observer reporter waylaid him to ask if the event was open to the press. He shot a long-suffering glance at a colleague, then boomed out indignantly, “This is not a political or a public happening.”
The Texas Restoration Project is modeled on the Ohio Restoration Project, which mobilized in 2004 to get conservative pastors and their congregations involved in the political process. Similar groups have sprung up in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania. “New groups like the restoration projects are focused on activating conservative evangelical pastors as political campaign operatives,” according to a statement released prior to the event by Austin-based watchdog group Texas Freedom Network.
White confirmed that the Texas Restoration Project was picking up the tab for the pastors’ meals and hotel rooms, a bill likely to run into the thousands of dollars. Rooms at the Arboretum’s Renaissance Austin Hotel, for example, were going for $349 plus tax on the night of the shindig. Numerous pastors were spending the night at that hotel, and others were being bussed in from six hotels in the upscale Arboretum area. The pastors wore suits and ties. Their wives were more flamboyantly dressed, carrying small handbags and wearing long chiffon skirts. The Rev. White declined to say who was funding the Restoration Project. “They’re donors who believe the Christian point of view is an important part of the political dialogue and important for our country,” he said.
Past supporters of the project have included Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim, the wealthy East Texas chicken rancher, and San Antonio’s James Leininger, the hospital-bed magnate and school-voucher zealot.
Shackelford, contacted the day after the event, said the speeches weren’t overly political. Dewhurst spoke about some of the measures he would like the Legislature to take up this session, including a bill that would require every public school employee to submit to a criminal background check. Perry, the sole gubernatorial candidate to speak at the six other project events in 2005, thanked the pastors for their support, emphasized the importance of standing up for what’s right, and asked the group to pray for him. Perry often asks people to pray for him when he talks to religious organizations.
The governor has been a great friend to conservative Christians, said the Rev. White. “Perry has been a steadfast supporter of pro-life and pro-family values,” he said.
In his inaugural speech the next day, Perry referred to the prophet Isaiah, mentioned Saint Paul, reflected on the Good Samaritan, and talked of forgiveness, redemption, grace, and God. “There is nothing so powerful as the testimony of a changed life and a redeemed soul,” he said. “Without forgiveness and compassion, there can be no redemption. And where would sinners like me be if there weren’t?”
Sotto Voce Speaker PACs
The recent Texas House speaker election turned on procedural matters of if, how, and when its members’ votes would be disclosed. This prompted speechifying over what kind of disclosure would best honor the Alamo martyrs or hew closest to scriptures in Genesis. Left unsaid was that Texas’ antiquated system for reporting speaker committee finances may blaspheme both Davy Crockett and Yahweh.
As a result of recent reforms, candidates for state office are required to provide detailed disclosures of their campaign finances. Yet the special disclosures made by candidates to be speaker—one of the state’s most powerful offices—are vastly inferior. Like most state politicians, speaker candidates file disclosures with the Texas Ethics Commission in an electronic format that is easy to publish on the Internet. Indeed, the Ethics Commission posts these reports on its Web site—except for speaker filings. The commission relegates those reports to paper files in Austin that are difficult for out-of-towners to access. An Ethics Commission attorney said state law requires the agency to post regular campaign data on the Internet, but not those of speaker committees. The agency lacks resources to go beyond its legal mandates, the attorney said.
Yet the agency also appears to be deferential to the speaker. Speaker Tom Craddick’s daughter wrote commission General Counsel Natalia Ashley on July 5, 2005, saying, “I sent the Speaker’s ethics report on Friday but did not get a reply from you. I don’t know if you are out of the office or did not receive it,” Christi Craddick wrote, “so I am sending it again.” The commission’s top lawyer then wrote to the agency’s disclosure filing director, saying, “Here is Speaker Craddick’s report that was due July 1. Christi says that she e-mailed it by the deadline so please make that the date filed.” Such accommodation suggests that if the speaker wanted his filings on the Internet, the agency would take the modest steps required to put them there.
Even if speaker filings were put on the Internet, they still would be inferior to ordinary state campaign disclosures. Whenever a speaker committee spends more than $10, it must disclose the recipient and purpose of the expenditure—but not the amount spent. Early this year, for example, Craddick’s speaker committee reported paying a “travel” reimbursement to a company in Austin called D Consulting, LLC. Craddick did not report the value, date, or destination of the trip. Moreover, what he did report obfuscated the fact that D Consulting actually is a California-based concern of big developer John Sardino. Sardino maintains airplanes to watch over his far-flung projects—including those he has built in Central Texas with local partner Haythem Dawlett. Mega-developer Dawlett did not return a call from the Observer to explain why his company paid for travel for Speaker Craddick.
While speaker committees are required to report the amounts of the contributions that they receive, they do not report the employers or occupations of large donors—as other campaigns must. Speaker committees also are exempt from the usual obligation to report the amount of unspent cash they have left on hand. This requirement would make the reports more transparent. Craddick’s speaker committee—which has not reported any contributions in the last couple years—apparently has been spending funds it received around the time of Craddick’s 2003 speaker election. It is not clear how much remains in this war chest.
The real power behind the speaker’s throne, however, is another Christi Craddick-tied PAC called Stars Over Texas. It spent more than $1 million during the 2006 cycle supporting Craddick’s allies in the House. After Craddick himself, the largest legislative donor to this PAC was Rep. Jim Pitts, a Waxahachie Republican and the former Craddick lieutenant who recently made a last-minute bid to oust his old patron as speaker. Pitts gave $15,110 to Craddick’s Stars Over Texas in mid-2006.
Pitts’ contribution to his future rival was three times larger than all the contributions collectively received over the past two years by the official speaker committees formed by Reps. Craddick; Pitts; James McCall, a Plano Republican; and Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat. His mutiny failed, Pitts now appears to lack even the clout needed to secure a refund of this misguided contribution.
Poor TXU Corp.—in the mega-utility’s bid to build 11 highly unpopular coal-fired power plants, it finds itself nearly friendless. Though still loved by Gov. Rick Perry (it didn’t hurt that the company helped pay for his last campaign and his inauguration) and adored by Wall Street (soaring profits from high electricity rates), TXU is taking an almost daily pounding from just about everyone else. Dallas Mayor Laura Miller has corralled 35 localities into the Texas Clean Air Cities Coalition to oppose the company’s plans. A group of Dallas businessmen—including real estate tycoon Trammell Crow—is publicly calling for TXU to cease and desist. Time, then, to buy some new friends. TXU and other coal interests have enlisted the help of McDonald Public Relations Group. The Austin-based outfit specializes in the creation of instant citizen groups, and most recently helped to pass voter-approved “tort reform” in 2003.
The McDonald Group runs a recently formed, TXU-funded group called Texans for Affordable and Reliable Power. Donna McDonald, a vice president of the firm, describes TARP as a “grassroots organization of local elected officials” who “came together to support these new plants.” Membership consists of a dozen or so city officials from small towns near some of the proposed coal plants. TARP has registered three lobbyists with the Texas Ethics Commission this year, including former Democratic State Rep. Paul Sadler, who has a lobbying contract with TXU valued between $50,000 and $100,000.
Mayor Miller describes TARP as a TXU front group. “I thought it was really amusing that they would create a coalition that they’re funding and then try to pawn it off as a grassroots organization,” chuckled Miller. “Our coalition represents 7 million Texans.”
McDonald Group is also the organizing force behind the Clean Coal Technology Foundation of Texas, an industry-funded offshoot of the governor’s Clean Coal Technology Council of Texas. Perry created the Council in 2002 through an executive order and charged it with studying and “identify[ing] new, cleaner coal-fired electric generation technologies.” In 2005 the council, composed mostly of state elected officials and agency heads, delivered a report to the governor. In addition to pushing for “clean coal” as a solution to Texas’ energy needs, it recommended a “campaign in advance of new mining projects and coal-fueled electric generation … to address the [public’s] lack of current knowledge and erroneous information.” The report also noted that the council—at the urging of its Vice Chairman Clifford Miercroft (former president of the North American Coal Corp.)—had authorized the creation of a nonprofit foundation, which had paid for the report announcing its inception.
The foundation is stacked almost exclusively with reps from coal-related corporations, including power generators TXU and American Electric Power Co., as well as mining giants North American Coal Corp. and Westmoreland Coal Co. In 2005, according to IRS records, foundation members spent $220,000 on coal-related pursuits through the McDonald Group. The foundation’s latest report, “Power Outage,” lists Donna McDonald as its administrative director. The report argues that “unless the utility companies that serve Texas begin building additional capacity immediately, the rolling blackouts that shocked consumers across this state in April of 2006 could become all too commonplace.” In a recent speech in Wichita Falls, Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond used the threat of bad weather to raise a similar specter of blackouts if the TXU facilities are not built. Thanks to the good folks at the McDonald Group, expect to hear more fear-mongering and see more pro-coal “grassroots” efforts in the months to come.