Political Intelligence

The Means Behind the Scenes


Dawnna Dukes It Out

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, a seven-term incumbent, may have one of the toughest and costliest primaries this election. Dukes reckons she’ll need about $350,000 to beat her Democratic opponent Brian Thompson, a political newcomer, in her East Austin district. Why so much money to beat a political newbie, you ask? The cost of supporting Speaker Tom Craddick draws some serious political blowback. Thompson, a 27-year-old lawyer, says he was encouraged by people in District 46 to run against Dukes. “To be honest I was approached, and I had already heard grumbling in the district about the representative,” he says. “Her support of Craddick has left a bad taste in their mouths.”

Dukes, 44, says she would rather be helping other Democrats beat Republicans than battle Thompson. “Campaigns have become way too expensive, but it is a necessity when you are up against an opponent,” she says. Thompson says Dukes is fielding big money from Craddick heavy hitters such as Bob Perry, who partially bankrolled the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads and is a key supporter of Republican leaders in Texas. “I think it’s sad when a seven-term Democrat has to depend on money from Republican ideologues,” Thompson says.

Asked about Thompson’s claim, Dukes counters that she will only talk about her campaign contributors off the record. “I was born in this district, and he has only lived there for 13 months,” she says of her opponent. When it comes to money, it’s difficult to decipher how Dukes operates. She lists her occupation as “private consultant,” and her personal financial statements required from all officeholders are mostly blank. In 2006, the Texas Ethics Commission hit her with a $600 administrative penalty for an inadequate campaign report. Recently, she pledged to correct reports on campaign and office spending since 2000, including seven years worth of credit card expenditures she failed to disclose. Yet given her alliance with Craddick, it won’t be difficult for her to raise that $350,000. Thompson says he has raised $25,000 from individuals in District 46 and will counter her advantage with block-walking and a strong message. “We fully expect her to be well funded by Republican activists and lobbyists who want Craddick to stay in power,” says Thompson. “People in District 46 are smart enough to know where the money comes from.”

Talking Primary Blues

The Man From Talk Radio, freshman state Sen. Dan Patrick, is trying to convince Republican primary voters in House District 130, in the northwestern ‘burbs of Houston, to toss their incumbent and put his guy in. Patrick knows a little about Republican primaries. In 2006, he bested three opponents by stoking his large Houston radio audience with populist appeals to shake up Austin and the Republican establishment. Now, after a 2007 legislative session in which his major accomplishment was getting “In God We Trust” permanently displayed in the Senate chamber, Patrick is looking for “more help in Austin,” as he puts it.

Rep. Corbin Van Arsdale has represented District 130, which includes Tomball and Cy Fair and lies within Patrick’s senatorial district, for six years without a serious challenger. His opponent is Allen Fletcher, a former Houston cop and CEO of Resource Protection Management, a Pinehurst-based security company that has profited in the post-9/11 homeland security era. Fletcher’s outfit sells surveillance cameras and alarm systems to a surprising number of Houston-area school districts and local governments, and also offers security services for corporations fearful of terrorism, kidnappings, and organized crime. Fletcher did not return several calls for comment, but he describes himself on his Web site as “a Tomball businessman, community activist, Christian, devoted husband and loving father.”

On a daily basis, Van Arsdale says, Patrick and his fellow talk-show hosts flood the airwaves with tales of Van Arsdale doing the “Austin shuffle,” failing to vote with his district on taxation, illegal immigration, and government spending. (Fletcher’s against all three.) “I’m not just running against Allen Fletcher,” Van Arsdale says. “I’m running against an entire radio station.”

The senator declined to comment, opting instead to make a campaign consultant available. “You might call it a continuation of our revolution for change,” goes part of one of Patrick’s pitches for Fletcher posted on his campaign Web site. Some revolution. Despite the name evoking minor Dutch nobility, Van Arsdale is a pretty standard, what-you-see-is-what-you-get conservative Republican. He’s for lower taxes and against illegal immigration, for tort reform and against abortion. Van Arsdale happily touted to the Observer his ranking by the Heritage Alliance, a conservative organization, as one of the most conservative members of the Legislature. Van Arsdale suspects that Patrick has it out for him because he backed one of Patrick’s primary opponents in 2006.

“I think the votes [Fletcher] pulls are from people who believe whatever Dan tells them instead of looking at what the real story is,” Van Arsdale says.

Some suspect what’s really going on is that Patrick is building a Houston political machine that will come in handy when-or if-he decides to run for governor.

Watch your Back

Tom Craddick’s name won’t appear on the ballot, but the Republican primary in Fort Worth’s Texas House District 99 is all about him.

The incumbent, Rep. Charlie Geren, a gravel-voiced restaurant owner known for his directness, is one of the House’s more independent Republicans. He has clashed for years with Craddick, the three-term House speaker. At the end of last session, Geren joined a handful of Republicans who tried to oust Craddick from the speaker’s chair. The mud salesman from Midland has a long memory, and the man can nurture a grudge like few others. Moreover, Craddick needs more friendly Republicans elected to the House if he hopes to win another term as speaker at the beginning of the 2009 session. So it wasn’t surprising that Geren drew a primary opponent or that the election will be largely a referendum on Craddick.

The challenger is Fort Worth optometrist Tom Annunziato. No evidence has emerged that Craddick or his allies recruited Annunziato for the race, and Geren says he doesn’t know if the speaker was involved. But political observers in Austin who have watched Craddick operate over the years have their suspicions. Annunziato didn’t respond to interview requests from the Observer.

Annunziato’s last campaign finance report was an impressive sight: The challenger reported raising more than $178,000 through the end of December and had $147,933 in the bank at the end of 2007. The large majority of Annunziato’s money came from optometrists-seemingly every eye doctor in the state has contributed, including more than $78,000 from the Texas Optometric PAC. (Annunziato was once president of the Texas Optometric Association.)

Geren isn’t short on money, either. He’s got $160,617 on hand, and he’s beaten well-funded challengers before. In 2006, he won re-election despite a primary opponent who had received more than $800,000 from James Leininger, the wealthy school voucher proponent and Craddick ally. Geren says Leininger told him he would stay out of Geren’s race this time around. “I take Dr. Leininger as a man of his word,” Geren said. “I don’t believe Dr. Leininger’s going to be in my race.”

That doesn’t mean other campaign funders and political action committees loyal to Craddick won’t back Annunziato. In 2006, Geren saw money from Craddick allies flow to his opponent in the weeks just before the primary.

Unlike two years ago, Geren is openly criticizing the speaker during the campaign. He recently mailed a campaign flier to voters touting his opposition to Craddick. “I think we need a new Republican speaker,” Geren told the Observer. “Under Speaker Craddick’s leadership, we’ve gone from 88 to 79 Republican seats. I think it’s time we had different leadership, though I believe it needs to be Republican leadership.”

Methodists To the Madness

In this era of Christian fundamentalism, the voices of religious moderates and progressives often seem lost amid the incessant amens and hallelujahs from the religious right. But people of faith concerned with social justice haven’t gone away.

At the 20th annual United Methodist Women Legislative Event, held at a downtown Austin hotel in late January, women from all over the state gathered to discuss how to restore the notion of the common good and social justice to Texas politics.

The Methodist women didn’t look like a fiery crowd. Many were white-haired and came dressed in prim pantsuits. Yet during question-and-answer sessions, they showed a passion for change. In policy sessions, they learned the intricacies of the political process while brainstorming ways to make education, the environment, and health care top priorities again. Texas Impact, an interfaith organization that marries progressive religious values with political action, hosted the event.

At a dinner on the conference’s second night, the women heard from campaign strategist and former Bush aide Matthew Dowd, and campaign finance reformer Fred Lewis. Dowd described the current zeitgeist. “Nearly every major institution in this county, the American public, the people of Texas, have lost faith in them,” he said. That loss of faith, he said, has “disconnected us from each other. We don’t feel part of a community. We don’t know where to turn.”

Lewis reminded the audience that they are drawn together by community and a faith in the common good. “Right now in this country, we don’t have a problem of too much community. We have individualism run amuck,” he said.

Many of the legislative seminars focused on how children fare in Texas. It ain’t good. You probably know some of the grim stats. Josette Saxton, with the nonprofit Texans Care for Children, told the crowd that Texas is especially stingy with early childhood development resources. Children’s brains develop mostly by age 3, yet public investment for toddlers is scant. Daycare workers earn a small hourly wage; the job requires only high school equivalency and eight hours of training. If we’re serious about building community, Saxton said, we must invest in young children.

The Methodist women will carry that message back to legislative districts across the state. The group pledged to make 450 visits to lawmakers before November.