You have to give Chris Bell credit for perseverance. After losing high-profile races in consecutive elections, many politicians would call it quits. But Bell has jumped back into the game. He’s trying to capture an open seat in the Texas Senate-if he can overcome three Republican candidates and a Democrat who appears to be a GOP plant.
Bell, a lawyer and former Houston City Council member, lost his seat in Congress in 2004 after Tom DeLay’s redistricting plan altered his district. In 2006, Bell gamely ran for governor in a four-way race against incumbent Republican Rick Perry and independents Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman. With the GOP firmly in control of Texas, it would have been difficult for any Democrat to win the governor’s race in 2006, even without independent candidates drawing away campaign money and votes from Bell. Still, he ran a spirited race and ultimately finished second, losing to Perry by 10 points. After the race, he returned to practicing law in Houston. His political career appeared finished.
But this summer, an opportunity appeared. State Sen. Kyle Janek, a Houston Republican, resigned his seat in the Legislature’s upper chamber and in short order became a lobbyist. Perry set a special election for November 4, the same day as the general election, and a host of candidates leaped at the chance. (Special elections are notorious free-for-alls.)
Bell was the first Democrat to announce his candidacy. He says he has a great feeling about this race. He believes not only that he can finish first in the four-way race on November 4 but that he has a chance to win more than 50 percent, which would give him the seat outright and preclude a runoff. That would be quite a feat. The district still leans Republican-roughly 56 percent of the district’s voters usually side with the GOP-although, like many suburban areas around the state, Senate District 17 is trending Democratic. The bizarrely shaped district encompasses suburbs west of Houston, then wraps around the city’s southern edge like a hammock and swings east to include Beaumont.
Bell’s run for statewide office two years ago has helped him in this race. His campaign says that Bell’s name is known by 75 percent of the district’s voters. That’s by far the highest name ID in the field.
The two top Republican candidates are Austen Furse, who once worked in George H.W. Bush’s administration as a policy aide, and Joan Huffman, a former state district judge. The conventional wisdom is that Huffman and Furse are battling to join Bell in a runoff.
One late, surprise entrant into the race was Democrat Stephanie Simmons. The Bell campaign wasn’t sure who she was or where she came from. Rumors began circulating that Simmons was actually a stalking-horse candidate, planted in the race by the GOP to split the Democratic vote and prevent Bell from winning the 50 percent needed on Election Day to avoid a runoff. It’s worth noting that Simmons, according to campaign finance records, has received more than $40,000 from Republican-leaning contributors. That includes $30,000 from Ron Wilson, the former Democratic state rep with close ties to Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick. She’s also received $10,000 from Jeff Sandefer, an energy executive and board member of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, and $2,500 from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which usually favors Republicans.
Not every political contributor has a marquee name like Bob Perry, of Houston-based Perry Homes, who has given millions to Republican politicians. Or an endless supply of cash, as from AT&T Inc.’s political action committee. Some donors are small, regional players with targeted agendas. In recent election years, uranium mining companies in South Texas have ramped up their giving to politicians as both the trade in uranium and citizen protests over contaminated groundwater have boomed. Over the past year, principals of four major mining outfits-Uranium Resources Inc., Uranium Energy Corp., MesteÃ±a Uranium LLC, and Energy Metals Corp.-have collectively given at least $31,000 to elected officials and candidates. The lion’s share went to Democrats, who dominate in South Texas.
One recent uranium favorite is South Padre Island Democratic city councilman and dentist Tara Rios Ybarra, who knocked off state Rep. Juan Escobar, a Kingsville Democrat, in the March primary. Escobar, a mild-tempered backbencher, led a successful effort to kill a mining-friendly provision in a bill that would have limited citizen input on uranium mining permits. Though Rios Ybarra won’t face a Republican opponent in November, mining interests have plied her with $6,000 since her primary win, including $3,000 from URI, which controls three large mines in Rios Ybarra’s district. She also took $1,000 from Hugo Berlanga, a former Democratic lawmaker from Corpus Christi and now a lobbyist for two of the companies. “I believe that the reason they made contributions is because of my stance listening to both sides,” Rios Ybarra said. “I promise nothing other than to listen.”
Citizens in Kleberg County claim URI poisoned their groundwater and has failed to clean up the mess. “It’s too late for us; they can’t restore our water,” said Ann Ewing, whose family lives near the company’s Garcia Hill mine. Ewing is a member of a new statewide organization, the Alliance of Texans for Uranium Research and Action, which hopes to convince the Texas Legislature to declare a moratorium on new mining permits until better regulations are in place. But Ewing is missing an ally.
“Losing Rep. Escobar was disastrous for South Texas,” Ewing said.
Uranium money has also cropped up in what’s probably the hottest House race in the state: the Corpus Christi-area contest between incumbent Democrat Juan Garcia and Republican challenger Todd Hunter. URI and MesteÃ±a each gave Hunter $2,500, and Garcia nada. That’s not much in a race that has already topped $1 million in total spending, but the companies have something even better: an inside man.
Hunter’s campaign co-chair, Berlanga, is a registered lobbyist for URI and Energy Metals. In 2005, URI granted Berlanga 50,000 stock options. (The Hunter campaign did not respond to two requests for comment.)
Like Hunter, Berlanga is a former state representative, though Berlanga served as a Democrat. And like Hunter, he went straight into the lobby after leaving public office. Cozy.
Texas is not like other states. In many other states-and nationally-Supreme Court justices are appointed to serve until they resign, are impeached, or keel over from sheer decrepitude. In Texas, potential Supreme Court justices are elected, meaning they have to run campaigns-often highly partisan campaigns-to reach the bench. The campaigns tend to be expensive; the three incumbent Republican justices raised a combined $1.585 million for their current runs.
Where does the money come from?
A recent report by the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice revealed that, on average, 65 percent of donations to the re-election campaigns of the three Republican justices came from “courtroom contributors” with cases recently tried before the court. (Researchers “ignored contributions linked to cases in which the recipient judge did not participate,” the report said.) TPJ found that 40 percent of the total cases tried involved one or more campaign contributors.
“There is just something viscerally wrong with the idea of justices taking money from the people who are trying cases before them,” said Andrew Wheat, TPJ research director.
Texas Supreme Court voting records are not public information-and the court has exempted itself from open-records requests-so Wheat emphasized that it isn’t possible to say whether contributions bought any kind of quid pro quo. But in a 2001 report titled “Pay to Play,” TPJ found that the more money appellants had given the court, the higher their odds were of having their cases heard. While the court accepted an average of 11 percent of all the appeals it received, “it accepted a remarkable 56 percent of the appeals filed by its top contributors, who gave the justices at least $250,000,” the report said.
The “Pay to Play” report said justices were four times more likely to accept an appeal filed by a campaign contributor than one filed by a noncontributor, and 10 times more likely to accept petitions filed by contributors of more than $250,000 than petitions filed by noncontributors.
“Most people you talk to seem resigned to the fact that the legislative and executive branches are, to some extent, on the take,” Wheat said. “But tell them that Supreme Court justices are, and they’re shocked.
“In other states,” he added, “they call that a bribe.”
Lisa Crabtree-a Dallas mother of 10, with number 11 on the way-won’t send her kids to public school, in part because she can’t stomach the thought of their learning about evolution. Home schooling her brood, however, has become increasingly expensive and complex. So this year, Crabtree enrolled her school-age children in the Texas Virtual Academy at Southwest, an online charter school funded by taxpayers. The school provides Crabtree and other parents with a free computer, an out-of-the-box curriculum, online support and-best of all-the option of skipping lessons on evolution.
“Since I am a committed Christian, I do not believe in evolution and really don’t want my children taught this false doctrine,” Crabtree wrote in an e-mail to the Observer. “If my kids were in a regular brick-and-mortar public school system, they would be getting a full dose of evolution, with no one there to tell them that what they are hearing is a lie from hell.”
The virtual academy seems to have attracted other families eager to dodge Darwin. Of the six academy parents the Observer could reach, three said they either skipped the lessons on evolution or presented them to their children as falsehoods.
Staci Salazar described her family as “evangelical Christian.” She wrote: “[W]e are comfortable with them learning about what the other theories are simply because they have been rooted in the truth and knowledge will become their weapon in defense of creation.”
Dan Quinn, spokesman for the liberal watchdog Texas Freedom Network, said the group takes the position that parents have the right to teach their children anything they please. But he’s troubled by the role of K12 Inc., a publicly held, homeschooling business cofounded by Bill Bennett, the conservative former education secretary, that sells curricula to virtual schools, including the Texas Virtual Academy. Though the state of Texas requires that each student “knows the theory of biological evolution,” K12 makes plain on its Web site that it considers the theory optional.
“K12 sells its curriculum to a taxpayer-funded public school and then tells users to just ignore parts of the curriculum they don’t like or agree with,” Quinn said. “So the company promotes educational malpractice for profit, and taxpayers pay for it.”
The Texas Education Agency seems unconcerned. In August, Commissioner Robert Scott elected to double the virtual school’s enrollment from 750 to 1,500 students, despite objections from dozens of school districts concerned that defections would hurt their finances.
TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said the virtual academy is no different from any other public school in that parents may shield their children from objectionable material. They should do so, however, with the understanding that they could be tested on the material later, she added.