Control of the Texas House Rests on These Races
A True horse race
You would think the cows were running for office. The most prominent photos on the Web sites of both candidates vying in November for House District 17 aren’t of the politicians themselves, but of bovines in various poses. Agricultural issues matter in this eastern Central Texas area. The Democrat in the race is a rancher and a former staffer at the Texas Department of Agriculture. The Republican is a lawyer and rancher who, when he ran unsuccessfully two years ago, aired campaign commercials starring talking farm animals.
Both are running to replace Democrat Robby Cook, who’s retiring after 12 years in the Legislature. Cook is one of a dwindling breed in Texas politics: the white, rural Democrat. His district has been trending Republican for years. Cook managed to hang on, though his winning margins were shrinking. In 2006, despite an edge in campaign cash, he prevailed with just 50.5 percent of the vote, holding off Republican Tim Kleinschmidt by just 400 votes (out of 40,000 cast). A Libertarian candidate, who received 1,200 votes, cost Kleinschmidt the race.
Kleinschmidt has returned for a second attempt at representing the district, which encompasses Bastrop in the middle, La Grange to the south, and borders College Station to the north. Though he let horses and cows do the talking in his ads, Kleinschmidt seems made for television, with a blow-dried newscaster look. He has opposed the Trans-Texas Corridor road project in the past, and in 2006 was critical of Cook’s support of a controversial cattle-tagging law.
The Democrat in the race is Donnie Dippel of La Grange. Dippel, whose family has lived in the area since 1854, is a rancher and agricultural consultant. In photos, his round face usually wears a wide, easy grin. In the early 1990s, Dippel was an aide to a then-agricultural commissioner named Rick Perry.
While the district has been steadily tilting toward the GOP, voters here have long shown an independent streak. Perry ran 7 points below his statewide average in the district during the 2006 governor’s race. The same year, Democratic Congressman Chet Edwards raked in 69 percent of the vote in District 17.
Dippel, who easily won a contested primary in March, will need to capitalize on a huge Democratic primary turnout. Nearly 21,000 voters showed up in the primary-more than either Cook or Kleinschmidt received in the 2006 general election.
If the Democrats have any hope of recapturing a majority in the Texas House this year, they likely must retain this seat. –Dave Mann
When the Going Gets Tuffy
Mauriceville Republican Rep. Mike “Tuffy” Hamilton is shedding his nickname. The affable East Texan, who favors a Texas flag tie that dangles over his prominent belly, recently sold his namesake barbecue restaurant-Tuffy’s-and is now listed on the November ballot simply as Mike Hamilton. Shorn of his brand name, which he inherited when he bought the restaurant, Hamilton will be running for re-election on his record alone, one that his opponent, Democrat Larry Hunter of Vidor, says is unimpressive and based on following the orders of others.
“The incumbent has openly admitted he doesn’t read the bills, so I don’t understand how he knows what he’s doing up there,” says Hunter, an attorney and former mayor of Vidor who accuses Hamilton of taking his marching orders directly from Speaker Tom Craddick.
There are benefits to supporting Craddick, Hamilton counters. “[Craddick] has been very good to me. He’s appointed me as the chairman of natural resources, which is very good for this area.”
Hamilton describes himself as a “moderate Republican” who works with lawmakers of both parties on behalf of his Democratic-leaning district. House District 19 covers a working-class swath of Southeast Texas that includes chunks of the Big Thicket, the fast-growing suburbs of Beaumont, and a portion of Orange.
Hamilton points to his endorsement by four teachers’ organizations and several unions, and claims an 80-percent pro-labor rating from the AFL-CIO. (Ed Sills, communications director of the Texas AFL-CIO, says Hamilton received a 58-percent rating in 2007). In any case, Hamilton has handily fended off Democratic opponents by margins of 10 percent or more during his three election bids.
Hunter takes Hamilton to task for his 2003 vote on legislation that stripped 169,000 children from the state’s Children Health Insurance Program, a stand that ended the careers of a number of Texas pols. The incumbent has also shown favoritism within the district, Hunter charges. “He tends to favor Hardin County over Newton County and Orange County simply because there are more Republicans there,” Hunter says. Hardin County received millions in federal aid after Hurricane Rita, but Newton, also affected by the storm, received next to nothing, an imbalance Hamilton did nothing to correct, Hunter says. Hamilton denies the charge.
There’s certainly no love lost between the two candidates. “They’re going to get nasty and make up lies and do all sorts of stuff,” Hamilton says of the Hunter campaign. “I sort of expect that from them.”
A lifelong citizen of Vidor, Hunter has served as mayor, city attorney, municipal judge, general counsel for a water district, and school board trustee. He is expected to raise more money than his predecessors, and as of January he had $16,000 in the bank, including $10,000 from Beaumont trial lawyer and labor ally Walter Umphrey. By February, Hamilton was already sitting on $59,000. –Forrest Wilder
Juan to Watch
Even before he was elected in 2006, Corpus Christi Rep. Juan Garcia had been anointed a rising star of the Texas Democratic Party.
The handsome, soft-spoken Garcia’s credentials are impressive: educated at UCLA and Harvard, Naval aviator with service in Kosovo and the Persian Gulf, White House Fellow, Harvard roommate of Barack Obama. Still, Garcia’s victory two years ago in District 32, a strongly Republican area north of Corpus Christi, was narrow-he defeated scandal-plagued Gene Seaman by fewer than 800 votes.
Now he faces a formidable opponent in Todd Hunter, a Democrat-turned-Republican who served four terms as a state representative from the district in the 1990s. Texas Republicans, especially Speaker Tom Craddick, are angling to unseat Garcia before his career takes off. Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams has already campaigned in the district for Hunter. Gov. Rick Perry has cut a video endorsing Hunter, and cash from sources tied to Craddick will likely flow to the fight.
“That’s a lot of ammunition against a freshman rep,” Garcia says. “I think in a strange, ironic way, that says we’re making a difference.”
Garcia may be flattered by his enemies, but Bob Bezdek, a political science professor at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, says the freshman faces an uphill battle: “I’m going to say the same thing I said two years ago. The numbers certainly do not favor [Garcia].”
The district typically votes for Republicans over Democrats by a 2-1 margin, Bezdek notes. Moreover, Bezdek believes Hunter to be a less flawed candidate than Seaman, who took heat for using campaign funds to pay “rent” on a waterfront condo his wife owns in Austin.
Garcia, however, thinks his position is stronger than it was two years ago, with higher name recognition and a record to run on. One legislative accomplishment he can point to is an open-government measure requiring that certain legislative votes be recorded and published. Next session, Garcia plans to push for further ethics reform.
And candidate Hunter, Garcia believes, has an exploitable weakness: his history as a corporate lobbyist and attorney. Over the decade since he left office, Hunter has represented and defended a bevy of insurance companies, refineries, and construction interests.
“This isn’t a case of going through the revolving door,” Garcia says. “It’s a case of being stuck in the revolving door.”
Hunter, meanwhile, emphasizes his experience in office. On his law firm’s Web site, he flaunts his role in passing tort reform and making Texas A&M-Corpus Christi a four-year college. Hunter did not return repeated calls seeking comment on his candidacy.
Hunter may also have to answer to voters for switching parties prior to the election. But Gov. Rick Perry has an explanation: “Like me, [Hunter] started as a Democrat, and like me he’s always been a conservative,” Perry says in the endorsement video posted on Hunter’s Web site.
Even if Garcia doesn’t make it back to the statehouse, he may still have a political future in the White House. Though Garcia says he has no plans to leave the Coastal Bend, a call to duty from President Obama would be quite the consolation prize. –Forrest Wilder
MODERATION IS EVERYTHING
DISTRICT 47 is one of those up-for-grabs suburban districts that will determine which party controls Texas in years to come.
It encompasses a fast-growing population on the edge of an urban area-Austin, in this case-that has historically been Republican, but is now shifting Democratic. It includes wealthy neighborhoods in southwestern Austin and booming suburban communities that not long ago were farmland. Valinda Bolton won the seat back for Democrats in 2006 by a margin of 50 percent to 45 percent (a Libertarian claimed 4 percent).
Bolton says her task this election is slightly easier. Having won in 2006, she doesn’t have to work so hard to convince potential donors that a Democrat can win. And two years ago, she slogged through a primary, a runoff, and a general election. This time Bolton has the luxury of focusing on just the fall campaign.
Bolton says the district has become increasingly Democratic. An active Democratic club has sprung up in Circle C, the wealthy West Austin neighborhood that was once solidly GOP. Chris Bell carried the district in the 2006 gubernatorial election with 38 percent. More than 22,000 new voters registered in the district in 2008 alone-Bolton believes many of them are likely Democrats.
Donna Keel, the Republican challenger, says the district is actually still Republican, though just barely; she claims that GOP voters account for 50.5 percent. “It’s about as evenly split as it gets,” she says. Keel is running to reclaim the seat not only for the GOP but for her family. Her brother-in-law, Republican Terry Keel, held the seat for five terms before stepping down in 2006. (He is now the House parliamentarian for Speaker Tom Craddick.) Keel is planning a tough, ideological campaign against Bolton. She plans to focus on two GOP mainstays: government efficiency and voter ID.
Keel left the comptroller’s office in January after three years as a government auditor, sifting through local budgets in search of savings and efficiencies. She says she could do the same in the Legislature.
Keel has yet to file a campaign finance report. She held an Austin fundraiser with Gov. Rick Perry in mid-May. Bolton reported $15,700 in her campaign account in January, the last month for which data are available.
In a hint of the likely tone of her fall campaign, Keel says Bolton ran as a moderate, but has “voted like a liberal.” Asked for specifics, Keel names Bolton’s votes against several GOP-backed bills, including last session’s voter ID legislation. She accuses Bolton of being out of step with the moderate district.
Bolton also describes the district as “moderate.” But she lists a different set of issues that voters care about: increased resources for public schools, more accountability in government, and “the role the government has in caring for our most vulnerable.”
The race may hinge on which candidate has the better read on voters’ concerns. –Dave Mann
Williamson County’s Blue Period?
Travis County has been trending an ever-deeper shade of blue. In the past four years, Democrats picked up three formerly Republican House seats. Is Austin’s conservative law-and-order neighbor to the north, Williamson County, now headed in the same direction?
Democrat Diana Maldonado will soon find out. She’s pursuing the District 52 seat of state Rep. Mike Krusee, the Round Rock Republican who eked out a narrow victory in 2006 against an underfunded and relatively unknown Democratic opponent. Krusee, who is set to retire after 16 years, had a tumultuous final session. In May, he stood alone as the House voted 139-1 to approve a moratorium on his pet project: new toll roads. Then, in the session’s waning hours, Krusee delivered an inspired jeremiad against Speaker Tom Craddick, invoking Ronald Reagan and Thomas Jefferson. More recently, Krusee was arrested for driving his BMW drunk in Williamson County, jeopardizing his chance at a coveted appointment to the powerful Texas Transportation Commission.
As much as Maldonado would like to run against Krusee, her opponent is conservative Bryan Daniel of Georgetown, a vice president and member of the board of Agricultural Workers Mutual Auto Insurance. Boosted by cash from agricultural interests, Daniel fended off three Republican challengers in the primary. He’s a standard-issue, establishment GOPer: pro-life, pro-business, anti-tax, etc., who looks his clean-cut part as a suburban dad and businessman. Daniel honed his political chops in D.C. as a staffer for Lubbock Republican Congressman Larry Combest. Upon moving back to Texas in 2001, he became the Texas state director of rural development for the U.S Department of Agriculture. Daniel says he has “a lifelong affinity for folks who work the land to provide us with food.”
While Daniel serves up the usual boilerplate about low taxes and the virtues of the private sector, he wisely parts company with Krusee on the Trans-Texas Corridor. He says he’s opposed to foreign ownership of highways and believes “the jury is still out” on the three toll roads now open in Williamson County.
“I just don’t think we should toll roads that have already been paid for with tax dollars,” he says.
Still, Maldonado will try to lump Daniel with Krusee. “The last thing Williamson County families need right now is another foot soldier for the out-of-touch extremists in the Legislature,” she said in an e-mailed statement to the Observer.
Maldonado, former Round Rock ISD trustee and president and a government efficiency expert with the Texas Comptroller’s Office, is playing up her skill at bringing together citizens of different political stripes under a banner of sensible transportation policy and better public schools. (Full disclosure: Several members of the Texas Democracy Foundation, which publishes the Observer, have contributed to Maldonado’s campaign.)
Maldonado promises not to be a Democratic supporter of Craddick. “We need to get away from the cronyism and the bullying that has gone on for a while,” she says of the speaker’s rule. Empower Texans, a PAC with ties to Craddick, endorsed Daniel in the primary and has spent about $1,100 on his behalf.
As in many other suburban parts of the state, Democrats in Williamson County appear to be ascendant, bolstered by shifting demographics and newly energized by the presidential race. In Williamson County, about 50,000 people voted in the Democratic primary this March, compared with 8,100 four years ago. If Maldonado can harness those winds of change, she may well join just six other Hispanic women-out of 150 members-in the Texas House. –Forrest Wilder
Can Moody Swing El Paso?
Like Democrats statewide, Joe Moody hopes energized voters turning out for November’s presidential election will give him the margin of victory in El Paso’s District 78 race. If primary turnout is any indication, Moody might get his wish, swinging the district Democratic for the first time in 20 years. Twice as many voters cast ballots for Moody and his Democratic opponent in the March 4 primary as for both Republican candidates combined. “We’ve recruited so many new people since the primary,” Moody says. “It’s really benefited our campaign.”
Texas Democrats have branded District 78 the “most Democratic Republican district in Texas,” but the bid to reclaim District 78 won’t come cheap. Moody’s Republican opponent, Dee Margo, an El Paso businessman, has wealthy friends who give big, including perennial Republican donors like Bob Perry and Woody Hunt. Political heavyweights including House Speaker Tom Craddick and Gov. Rick Perry, who contributed $10,000 to Margo, are also in his corner.
Some question whether Moody, a 27-year-old assistant district attorney and son of longtime El Paso District Judge Bill Moody, has the experience-or the judgment-to win a House seat.
In February, the El Paso Times printed a story about Moody’s blog, wherein the candidate deliberated on whether to stay in El Paso or leave town to pursue a music career in Ohio. The blog included photos of Moody posing with rocker friends and giving the camera the finger. There was also a photo of a toilet full of vomit. Moody was quick to let the Times know it wasn’t his vomit-whew! But he was also honest about his struggle to decide whether to expand his horizons somewhere else before making the decision to run. “I am a young man; I’m going to do things a 50-year-old man might not do … it doesn’t mean I don’t have the qualifications, the local knowledge, the passion,” he told the Times. The blog was pulled shortly after the article ran.
Other campaign watchers called Moody naÃ¯ve when he challenged his opponent to cap campaign contributions and conform to federal campaign finance rules. No doubt Moody heard Margo chuckling from the other side of the district. Margo declined, saying he doesn’t care to curb his contributors’ ability to express political preferences through their pocketbooks. “I’m concerned about limiting freedom of speech and about the other candidate taking outside contributions,” Margo says.
As of April 30, Moody had raised $40,000. Margo spent at least $380,000 beating longtime Republican incumbent Pat Haggerty in the primary, and says he’s prepared to raise as much as it takes to defeat Moody. In a matter of days, Moody reversed his contribution-cap commitment. “I’m not going to walk into this fight with one arm tied behind my back,” he says now. –Melissa del Bosque
High Stakes in Big Country
For freshman Democratic Rep. Joe Heflin, the defining moment of the 80th Texas Legislature could be measured precisely: 129-8. That was the surprisingly lopsided House vote for a Heflin-authored amendment to strip private school vouchers from the state budget. It was a bold move that challenged the agenda of two heavies, Speaker Tom Craddick and voucher booster James Leininger, the San Antonio hospital bed magnate who has contributed millions to Texas pols. “I had hoped to get 90 votes,” Heflin says. “I was really shocked.”
Not bad for a mild-mannered, white-haired West Texan who won his race by a mere 217 votes-the closest House contest in the state in 2006-against a better-funded opponent.
Heflin emphasizes his ability to build consensus on core issues of child welfare, public education, and rural health care. “My agenda is not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda; it’s a House District 85 agenda,” he says.
Still, he is a Democrat-albeit a conservative one-in a sprawling, 16-county rural district west of Abilene that overwhelmingly favors Republicans. (It’s worth noting, though, that Pete Laney, the former Democratic Speaker of the House, ruled the roost from District 85 for almost 25 years.)
Heflin’s opponent, Isaac Castro, an attorney from Hamlin, is not your typical Texas Republican, either.
He was born in San Miguel, Tamaulipas, Mexico. His father-along with his mother and six of his siblings-came to Texas in 1960 through the federal Bracero Program and worked on a farm near Old Glory, about 60 miles north of Abilene. Castro and five other siblings stayed behind in Mexico for two years, until their parents could bring them. Castro says the experience makes him uniquely qualified to tackle immigration issues.
“I have real-world experience with legal immigration,” Castro says. “That’s my life-I am a legal immigrant.” He remains stridently opposed to the undocumented variety, and says the federal government has failed to stem the tide.
“Now it’s a state problem, it’s a local government problem with regards to higher costs to health care, higher costs to public education, because of people who are here illegally,” he says. Castro says he will work to authorize local law enforcement personnel to enforce federal immigration laws.
Castro, a practicing Catholic, is also against the death penalty, a stance that puts him out of step with the majority of Republicans and Democrats alike in the Legislature. Like Heflin, he’s against private school vouchers and strongly supports public education. “I’m a product of public education, so I’ve seen it from many directions-as a student, as a school board member. I have many family members who are teachers.”
But Castro is right in line with his party on voter ID, a controversial, right-wing hobby horse that civil rights advocates fear will disenfranchise minority, poor, and elderly voters. Heflin, like every other Democrat and a handful of Republicans, voted against voter ID proposals last year. In a House that could be almost evenly divided along partisan lines next year, each vote will be crucial.
Both Castro and Heflin play coy about their allegiance to Speaker Tom Craddick. Heflin says he remains uncommitted, though he voted against Craddick last session. “I was so scared,” he told the Abilene Reporter-News at the time. “I thought, ‘Is this my entire career?'” Regardless, Craddick recently appointed Heflin to a task force on property taxes and appraisal reform. For his part, Castro says he will decide once he is fully informed of the consequences of his vote.
As of January, Castro had raised only $200, and wouldn’t hazard a guess at how much he’ll ultimately need to prevail. Heflin had more than $36,000 in the bank, including sizeable contributions from sources as disparate as lobbying powerhouse HillCo Partners and the Texas Trial Lawyers Association. –Forrest Wilder
Trouble Ahead for Zed
Toward the top of any list of state House races worth watching is District 96. The incumbent, Republican Rep. Bill Zedler, is one of the most ideological and partisan members of the House. He is also one of the most reliable votes for Speaker Tom Craddick. His Web site touts his authorship of socially conservative legislation, including a bill to allow “religious viewpoints in public schools.” It also features a picture of the representative proudly bestowing an award on Rush Limbaugh, and prominently lists his membership in half a dozen GOP grassroots groups.
In 2006, Zedler faced a weak Democratic candidate, yet won re-election with 52 percent, a margin of slightly more than 3,000 votes. In March, 16,300 more Democrats than Republicans in the district voted in the primary. Democrats argue that heightened interest in a presidential year and shifting demographics in southeastern Tarrant County favor them. In challenger Chris Turner, they have a stronger-than-usual candidate to test the theory.
Turner has spent most of his professional life involved in government and political campaigns. He promises a well-organized grassroots campaign. Unlike most novice candidates, he knows what that entails. Until recently, Turner served as district director for Waco Democratic Congressman Chet Edwards. Despite inhabiting an ostensibly Republican district, Edwards has managed to beat back well-funded Republican challengers time and again.
“People who came out to vote in the Democratic presidential primary want change and have an interest in seeing our government on the state and the national level take a different course,” says Turner.
Turner contrasts himself with his opponent on public education, children’s health insurance, tuition deregulation, and utility rates. “Zedler wants to take money out of public schools for private school vouchers,” he says. “Texas has the highest percentage of uninsured kids. It’s absolutely unconscionable, and yet the Lege cut 200,000 kids off CHIP.”
Zedler declined three requests for comment. An Arlington-based consultant working with the Zedler campaign, Craig Murphy, says the presidential contest will boost turnout for his candidate as well: “I think it’s a little naÃ¯ve to think that just Democrats are going to turn out.”
The candidates combined could end up spending close to $1 million on the race. The Republican machine has already geared up for Zedler. His contributors constitute a who’s-who of Republican moneymen, including school voucher stalwart James Leininger, oil-turned-water mogul T. Boone Pickens, and radioactive waste magnate Harold Simmons. Gov. Rick Perry has also donated $10,000.
Turner’s fundraising goal is in the $400,000 range, he says. “We just need to raise enough to be competitive.”
He hopes that a grassroots campaign, a message of change, and demographics will do the rest. –Jake Bernstein
The last time a Democrat held a legislative seat in District 101, the year was 1983, and The Big Chill was wowing moviegoers. “There hasn’t been a Democratic challenger in Mesquite for a long time,” Robert Miklos admits. This year is different.
Miklos, a former chief prosecutor in Dallas, may have a viable shot at a once unassailable seat. As evidence of his opportunity, party politicos point to Judge Bill Moody’s 2006 race for the Texas Supreme Court. Moody-the biggest vote-getter on the Democratic ticket that year-garnered 48.8 percent of the ballot in District 101.
Miklos knows his chances are hitched to money. In his most recent Texas Ethics Commission filing, in January, the candidate reported just over $18,000 in hand. “I do think it will be an expensive race, and I am in the fundraising process right now,” he tells the Observer. Miklos’ Republican opponent, Mike Anderson, the former mayor of Mesquite, raised more than $113,000 to contest the Republican primary, and spent just about all of it beating incumbent Rep. Thomas Latham. Anderson did not respond to three calls from the Observer.
The mudslinging March primary between Latham and Anderson isn’t likely to hurt Miklos’ chances, either. Latham accused Anderson of poaching another candidate’s campaign content, and the two engaged in personal attacks throughout. “I don’t want to speculate on whether Republicans will come out to vote this election,” Miklos says, “but some Republican voters have told me they were turned off by the negative attacks during the primary.”
District 101 voters may be more interested in economic reality than name-calling, Miklos suspects. “People are experiencing a lot of foreclosures and rising utility rates and gas prices,” he says. “They are feeling the pinch in their spending and having to make difficult choices.”
Miklos will likely find his toughest challenge in the city of Mesquite, where Anderson served as mayor for 10 years before resigning to run for District 101’s House seat. Mesquite is the largest city in the district and ranks as Dallas County’s No. 1 municipality for Republican voter turnout, based on recent primary stats.
Nevertheless, Anderson’s 4,103 votes amounted to only a quarter of primary turnout, says Miklos, who believes overwhelming interest in Democratic presidential candidates will draw record numbers of Democratic voters to the polls in November, just as it did in March.
“During the primary we had 15,000 voters, more than double the Republican primary voters in the district. We had a stunning show of Democratic activism,” Miklos says.
The bitter Republican primary and that energized Democratic base might just give Democrats a stake in the future of a district where they’ve been on the outside looking in for many a year. –Melissa del Bosque
Tough Times for Tony Goolsby
Few Republican incumbents in the Texas House face a tougher re-election fight than Tony Goolsby. He’s already endured close elections in 2004 and 2006 against underfunded opponents. His district in northern Dallas County is trending Democratic. To top it all off, controversy seems to dog the 19-year incumbent.
In 2006, The Dallas Morning News reported that Goolsby, a 74-year-old insurance salesman, was a major buyer of prisoner-made furniture sold to legislators at a discount. He defended the practice at the time, telling the newspaper, “We’re all born the same way, but we’re not equal. Everybody gets perks.” When a ghost worker scandal surfaced involving part-time legislative staff who earn full-time benefits, Speaker Tom Craddick asked Goolsby, who is chairman of House Administration, to investigate. The Dallas representative, it turns out, had his own ghost employees.
Yet the most severe and potentially damaging controversy involves the ’06 election. Just weeks before Election Day that year, the county Republican Party filed a complaint with the district attorney alleging that Goolsby’s Democratic opponent, Harriet Miller, had committed voter fraud two years earlier. (The complaint was spurious, and nothing ever came of the allegation.) The complaint led to a local TV news story that Miller was under “investigation,” and almost immediately mailers appeared in the district alleging that Miller was under inquiry for voter fraud. Simultaneously, houses in the district’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods received mail warning that “A national political group suspected of voter fraud is currently working in your neighborhood trying to bring people to the polls on election day. Do not be a victim of voter fraud-it could result in jail time for you.” Subtle it wasn’t.
The mailer, clearly aimed at suppressing the vote, was sent anonymously (a violation of state election law), so it’s hard to know who was responsible. Some Democratic activists suspect Goolsby or supporters, but there’s no proof. (Goolsby didn’t respond to two interview requests.) After the election, Miller filed a libel suit against Goolsby and the county GOP, claiming she was defamed. The case will likely go to trial later this year and may turn into a public relations nightmare for Goolsby.
His opponent this time is Democrat Carol Kent. She’s a first-time candidate who will likely make education a central issue in the campaign. Kent has held nine different positions in the Richardson school district, including, most recently, school board member. Unlike some of Goolsby’s past opponents, Kent is deeply rooted in the district. (Kent did not return calls for comment.)
Goolsby will likely have a financial advantage. He reported more than $400,000 in his campaign account in January. Kent hasn’t filed a campaign finance report yet (her first one is due in July). Unless Kent can match her opponent’s financial edge, Goolsby will be able to buy more advertising in the expensive Dallas media market. He may need every penny. –Dave Mann
Vaught to the Front
In 2006, Allen Vaught pulled off the year’s biggest election upset in Texas. He was a first-time candidate, an unknown Democrat with little experience in Lone Star politics. He edged out then-state Rep. Bill Keffer-a rising Texas Republican star-in a GOP-leaning Dallas district. Keffer had started to make a name for himself as an ideologically pure conservative who railed against the leaders of his own party for profligate spending. The Republican grassroots loved him. Then Vaught bounced him from office. It was a stunner.
Now, two years later, Keffer is back for a rematch. Only now the roles are flipped: Vaught is the favorite.
Vaught narrowly won by 50 to 47 percent in 2006 (a Libertarian candidate received 3 percent). This time around, he likely will benefit from the energy of the Democratic presidential primary race. More than 20,000 people voted for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in Vaught’s district in the March primary. That’s 5,000 more votes than Keffer received in the 2006 general election. Vaught now has a reliable list of likely Democratic voters to target in the fall. (About 8,000 Republicans voted in the GOP primary.)
Vaught is a plainspoken environmental and worker-rights attorney. He was captain of a U.S. Army Reserve unit in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. During his first six months there, he worked to rebuild Fallujah and later served in the Sadr City area of Baghdad. His high-profile Iraq service brought him no lack of media attention; he’s appeared on “Nightline” three times. And Vaught has a bit part in an upcoming Iraq war movie called The Green Zone, starring Matt Damon, scheduled for release later this year. Vaught looks like a soldier from central casting. He has a broad face, a square jaw, and perfectly parted hair.
Keffer doesn’t have the glamour, but he’s an experienced campaigner. He didn’t respond to three calls seeking an interview, but Keffer has said many times that Texas government spends too much. On his campaign Web site, he boasts of helping to balance the budget in 2003 without raising taxes. The 2003 budget, which cut deeply into social service programs, was his “most significant accomplishment … that is the kind of responsible government this district and our state deserve,” according to the site. Keffer also opposed the 2005 expansion of the business tax and voted against the 2005 state budget because it grew state spending by a “whopping 19 percent.”
Dallas is one of the state’s most expensive markets, and the race will be pricey. It could cost more than $400,000 per candidate. Vaught won’t detail his fundraising target or his donors yet. He reported $76,500 in his campaign account in January. Keffer will be better funded than most challengers. In January, he reported more than $111,000 in his account.
“Bill’s a nice guy,” Vaught says. But he believes the northeast Dallas district is shifting away from Keffer politically. Voters may find Keffer’s views a little extreme, he believes. “Frankly, I thought they would run someone more moderate against me.” –Dave Mann
A First, Whoever Wins
For nearly 20 years, a droll and dry-humored balding white man represented this district on the northern lip of Dallas County in the Legislature. That’s about to change. The race to replace him features two Asian-American women vying for the same legislative seat-a first in Texas.
District 112, which borders Collin County and includes parts of Richardson and Garland, is increasingly diverse. Minorities compose 35 percent of the district, according to the last census. The fast-growing Asian-American community accounts for at least 12 percent.
Though the area has grown more Democratic in recent years, the GOP likely still has the edge here. The Republican nominee is Angie Chen Button, a marketing manager at Texas Instruments. She won the GOP primary over right-wing former Garland City Councilman Randy Dunning. Button was the more moderate choice. She has even given money to Democratic candidates in Dallas. Born in China, Button, 55, came to the U.S. on a student visa to earn a master’s degree from the University of Texas at Dallas.
Dallas attorney Sandra VuLe, 38, is the Democratic candidate. VuLe was 6 years old in 1975 when her family fled to the United States as refugees from the Vietnam War. In a phone interview, VuLe’s enthusiasm is almost palpable. Asked why she decided to run-and raise the minimum $300,000 she expects to need for the campaign-VuLe says she’s living the “American Dream,” and wants to ensure others have that chance.
Her top issue is public education. “I came here as a refugee, and not having any money, everything was dependent on public education,” VuLe says. She wants to give teachers a pay raise and opposes private school vouchers. That could be a flash point in the race against Button, who’s expressed support for vouchers in the past. (Button didn’t return two calls seeking comment.) VuLe is the first female Vietnamese-American ever to run for the Texas Legislature. If she wins, she says she would be the first Vietnamese-American woman ever elected to a state legislature in the United States.
That would be quite a change from state Rep. Fred Hill, the 68-year-old Republican moderate who’s represented the district since 1989. (Hill is retiring after a session in which he actively tried to unseat Republican Speaker Tom Craddick.) “Now their choices are two Asian-American women,” VuLe says. “I think that’s wonderful.” Whoever wins will be the only Asian-American woman in the 150-member Texas House. –Dave Mann
What a difference two years can make. In 2006, Democrat Kristi Thibaut ran in Southwest Houston’s District 133 a House seat long held by Republicans. A novice, Thibaut started late, executed a poorly conceived campaign strategy, and failed to raise enough money. She lost to Jim Murphy, board chairman of Houston Community College, in an election that drew fewer than 21,000 voters.
“Last cycle it was so incredibly difficult to get anyone interested,” Thibaut says now.
Not so this year.
This time around, Houston is the epicenter of Democratic efforts statewide. A massive, coordinated campaign is in motion to turn Harris County Democratic and replicate what happened in Dallas in 2006. Independent organizations are working to register and turn out Democrats in the district. Thibaut has become a self-described “ferocious” fundraiser. She has been endorsed by an influential group of Democratic donors called Third Thursday, for the day of the month they meet. She also won a financial commitment from Annie’s List, a group that donates to pro-choice, female candidates. (Several Observer board members have contributed to the group.)
Thibaut anticipates tapping the wave of enthusiasm
building around the presidential election. Younger voters and African Americans came out in record numbers in her district to support Sen. Barack Obama in the primary. Thibaut vows to reach out to those Democratic voters, many of whom are new to the process. Two years ago, her advisers encouraged a massive outreach to potential voters in apartments, which populate the district. That effort was largely wasted on
unlikely voters. This time, Thibaut vows to microtarget apartments for likely voters and concentrate more on
The campaign will not be without challenges. Thibaut’s opponent, state Rep. Jim Murphy, has a reputation for providing solid constituent services and an easygoing demeanor, according to those who know him. (Murphy didn’t respond to three calls for comment.)
Thibaut will also be in the midst of a life-changing event as she campaigns. The 44-year-old professional fundraiser is pregnant with her first child, a boy, due in June. She realizes that campaigning with an infant won’t always be easy, but says her husband, Mark, an oil and gas professional, is behind her 100 percent. If anything, she says, the pregnancy has made her more passionate about changing the direction of the state, and sharpened her interest in issues like public education and crime prevention.
“Things come into focus when you are a first-time parent,” she says. –Jake Bernstein
Son of a Preacher Man
Democratic candidate Joel Redmond likes to preach the gospel, whether he’s selling salvation in the Baptist prison ministry he founded, or proselytizing the joys of home ownership as a mortgage broker in Pasadena. “I’ve worked in District 144 for the past 14 years in the mortgage lending business with more than 2,000 families as they’ve purchased homes,” Redmond says. “They are solid, working-class people who want to make sure their interests are looked out for, and not the interests of Austin.”
When Rep. Robert Talton abandoned District 144 to pursue his failed bid for Congress, Democrats saw their chance to win this historically Republican seat. Redmond-a conservative Democrat in a conservative district whose father is a longtime pastor at Pasadena’s First Baptist Church-may be the first viable Democratic candidate in the district in decades. As in a much-noted recent midterm special election in Mississippi’s 1st Congressional District, where a conservative Democrat triumphed in a previously Republican stronghold, political prognosticators think Redmond has the pedigree to win and that 2008 may be the year to do it.
Redmond says he’ll conduct a grassroots campaign this summer, collecting contributions from residents and putting shoe leather to sidewalks. “I spent five years walking door to door building a mortgage business,” he says. “I’m no stranger to knocking on doors and shaking hands.”
Republican candidate Ken Legler, meanwhile, endured a bruising primary race to earn his spot on the ballot. Legler admits he expects a tough race, but says District 144 is solidly supportive of “… what the Republican Party stands for: limited growth of government and people who take responsibility for themselves.”
Other pressing constituent concerns, Legler says, are “the cost of illegal immigration for the hospital district and school district, and high increases in tax appraisals.”
Redmond acknowledges that his Republican opponent could out-fund him 2-to-1, but he’s undaunted. By early May, Redmond says, he had raised more than $50,000. Legler had raised $60,451.91-and spent $41,803.65-as of March 31. Almost half of Legler’s contributions came from the GOP megadonor, Houston homebuilder Bob Perry.
Redmond says he and Legler differ in their fundraising philosophies. “I am raising small amounts from hundreds and hundreds of people in the district, while he is raising large chunks of money out-of-district from special interest groups,” Redmond says. “I know it takes money to get the message out there, but elections are won by votes, not by money.”
It’s an interesting theory, to be put to a stern test in November. –Melissa del Bosque
Vietnamese-American Democrat Hubert Vo surprised some pundits when he unseated Republican stalwart Talmadge Heflin in House District 149 in 2004. Then Vo was re-elected in 2006 with 54 percent of the vote. His latest bid has him fighting not just Republican opponent Greg Meyers, a Houston Independent School District board member, but also a recent spate of poor press in which his hometown Houston Chronicle examined Vo’s “slum properties.” Meyers, who has publicized the stories on his Web site, has clearly been relishing Vo’s bad news.
Vo says he’s ordered contractors to fix problems in his residential rental units as soon as possible. “I take it very seriously,” he says of the Chronicle’s allegations. Vo says the properties were in bad shape when he bought them and that some tenants failed to maintain their units or report problems. “It was portrayed as not a decent place to live and at below minimum standards, and I don’t agree with that,” Vo says, adding that he sponsors health fairs for his tenants at least once a year.
District 149 has a diverse and growing immigrant population that helped put Vo in the House of Representatives. Meyers is banking on Republican donors statewide to take back the seat. Republican sugar daddy Bob Perry has already contributed $10,000 to his candidate’s campaign chest. (Meyers did not return phone calls from the Observer.)
Vo had raised $100,000 by May, and expects he’ll need at least $400,000 to win. He says he’ll start knocking on voters’ doors this summer. He also has little doubt that the vanquished Heflin-who held the seat for 20 years before losing it to Vo and is now executive director of the state Republican Party-will work diligently to help Meyers.
The first Vietnamese-American to serve in the Texas House, Vo has a compelling rags-to-riches story that appeals to the growing immigrant voting base in his district. At age 19, he escaped his homeland during the fall of Saigon and worked his way into the Houston community as a busboy, cook, and steelworker, among other jobs.
In an election season awash with an energized Democratic voting base, Vo’s incumbency may offer the advantage, but even if he does repair his properties, his reputation may need work as well. –Melissa del Bosque
While we have tried to be comprehensive, there are bound to be competitive races we’ve missed. If there’s a contest you think should be on the Observer’s radar, we always welcome your comments. Please e-mail them to [email protected].
In the meantime, here are a few other contests that might yet surprise. Texas suburbs and urban areas are increasingly voting Democratic. The corollary to this trend is that rural areas are becoming more Republican. This could spell trouble for the so-called WD-40s: incumbent, rural white Democrats over 40. With this in mind, attention must be paid to the races of Paris Democratic Rep. Mark Homer and Jacksonville Democratic Rep. Chuck Hopson. By January, Homer had raised more than $130,000 to fend off former Franklin County GOP chairman Kirby Hollingsworth. That race is already getting nasty. Brian Walker, a lawyer from Marshall, is challenging Hopson.
Fort Worth Democratic state Rep. Dan Barrett might well be the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent of 2008. Barrett won a special-election shocker last year in what was considered a strong GOP district. Now he has to hold on to the prize in a runoff rematch against Mark Shelton. In the Dallas area, Republican Rep. Linda Harper-Brown is a right-wing ideologue in a district in transition. If her Democratic challenger, former Irving City Councilman Bob Romano, can raise enough money, he might be able to make this a contest. Meanwhile, Republican Rep. Dan Branch has been mentioned as a rising GOP star. The condos in downtown Dallas in the southern part of his district are making this a more competitive seat, but Branch’s opponent, Emil Reichstadt, will still have to vault past a formidable GOP turnout machine in Highland Park. In ever-blue Austin, Democratic Rep. Donna Howard in District 48 seems safe, but her opponent, Leander school board member Pam Waggoner, will likely be well funded.