Dapper Dan Strikes Again

Morales Debuts his Surprise Candidacy for the AFL-CIO

The Tony Sanchez campaign almost went off the rails earlier this month at the AFL-CIO COPE convention in Austin, where union members met to vote on election endorsements, a ritual that marks the first watershed in the Democratic Party primary season. Sanchez, the hand-picked candidate of the party leadership, was rescued in the halls of the Hyatt Regency hotel in the early morning hours of January 15, while most of the 500 or so delegates to the convention slept or drank free beer in the abundant candidate-sponsored hospitality suites. With some last-minute horsetrading, Texas AFL-CIO President Joe Gunn and the Sanchez team put down an insurgency that had begun a week before, when several key regional union figures announced that they would be supporting Dan Morales for governor. Morales had stunned the party by announcing his candidacy just hours before the filing deadline. When the smoke cleared, Sanchez passed the first test of his young campaign, and the 70-year-old Gunn passed what may prove to be one of his last. Dan Morales, for his part, served notice that his renegade primary candidacy will be more than a bump in the road on Sanchez’s route to the Democratic party convention this summer.

Even in Texas elections, unions matter. Only 5 percent of the Texas workforce, about 500,000 workers, is organized, but in a primary election, where turnout can be less than a million voters, they can make a difference. Plus union members do much of the grunt work of the Democratic party: going door-to-door, putting up signs, making get-out-the-vote calls on election day. Sanchez has worked the union vote hard from day one. As a notorious Bush-backer–personal and corporate donations make Sanchez number three on Bush’s lifetime patron list (two slots behind Enron)–the multi-millionaire oilman had some serious selling to do. He met with labor early and often. He made AFL-CIO General Counsel Walter Umphrey a permanent member of his campaign team. With (until recently) no other viable candidate in the Democratic primary, the hill was not as steep as it might have been for Team Sanchez, who sold the candidate as, if not labor’s ideal man, than at least the best possible chance for the whole Democratic ticket prevailing in November. Sanchez’s well-financed campaign–he has committed to spending as much as $30 million of his own money–and his Hispanic surname should translate into high turnout for the Democrats.

Then came Morales. In the days leading up to the convention, he had told reporters that the “fix was in” and that Sanchez had “bought” the labor movement and the party nomination, prompting Gunn to retort that Morales’ last-minute candidacy, about which labor was never consulted, had done a “serious disservice” to the labor movement. After a muttered introduction from Gunn, who wore a royal blue Tony Sanchez button on his coat, Morales stepped to the podium to make his pitch to the delegates. It was quickly evident that Morales, an accomplished campaigner, was going to be a problem. He garnered a warm round of applause when he reminded the delegates of his almost 90-percent pro-labor voting record as a state legislator. He continued in a populist vein, attacking “party bosses, big contributors, and fat-cat consultants.” “The Democratic establishment went to Sanchez and said in essence ‘If you will give us $20 million, we will give you the nomination,'” he said. “Friends, I don’t believe the Democratic Party is for sale!” Big applause.

Morales is hardly a political outsider, but there is an enigmatic quality to his career. He’s a native son of San Antonio, but he’s also a Protestant, a Harvard-educated lawyer whose Spanish accent is not great. He was the first Hispanic elected to a statewide non-judicial office, yet he was also the attorney general who effectively ended affirmative action in Texas higher education, with his broad interpretation of the court’s ruling in the Hopwood case. (The case involved admissions to the UT law school, yet Morales controversially construed it to prohibit consideration of race in all public colleges, not only for admissions, but also for financial aid, retention of students, and everything else.) He let the party down in 1998 when he refused to run for re-election, then infuriated party leadership again this year by toying with a U.S. Senate run for months before abruptly switching to the governor’s race. His greatest victory as A.G., forcing the tobacco companies to settle his public-health lawsuit for $17 billion, became his biggest liability when the enormous contingency fees owed to the outside attorneys Morales employed became a political football. For the last three years, Morales has been dogged by questions raised by his successor, Republican Attorney General John Cornyn, about an allegedly fraudulent effort by Morales to cut a longtime friend into the payoff. A federal grand jury continues to investigate Cornyn’s allegations, and there has been some whispering in Austin circles that Morales’s last-minute candidacy is merely a maneuver to get the feds to back off. It’s a charge his supporters vehemently deny.

During the lunch break, Team Sanchez was out in force, putting out fires all over the Hyatt’s large, open-air lobby. A slate of candidates must be approved by two-thirds of the delegates to get an endorsement, and there was good reason to fear the kind of meltdown that last happened in 1990, when factions representing Jim Mattox and Ann Richards fought to a stalemate and there was no labor endorsement for governor. “It’s been a full-court press for 36 hours and it’s still going strong,” said Communications Workers of America member James Willborn. “Tony was hoping for a knockout, but it’s not going to happen that way.” Willborn, who lobbied for union police officers for thirty years and has attended his share of COPE conventions, said Morales would have won the labor endorsement easily (as he has in several previous races), if he had entered the race and come to labor early. In any case, Willborn said, the excitement Morales had brought to the primary fight would be good for everyone involved. “Tony was supposed to be anointed,” he said, laughing and shaking his head, “but that’s not the union way.”

Morales is hardly the ideal candidate for labor or for progressives in general, who make up a considerable portion of primary voters. But after barely a week of campaigning, the Morales candidacy demonstrated the latent strength of the anybody-but-Sanchez contingent in the party. Their leader at the Hyatt seemed to be San Antonio labor lawyer and former Texas AFL-CIO general counsel David Van Os. Throughout the convention, Van Os could be seen huddling with delegates, low-talking about the “real” Tony Sanchez. Bundles of red notebooks–dossiers of every ugly fact about Sanchez’s career and its unfortunate intersections with the Bush clan–were tucked under his arm like samizdat tracts. “I think it would be a tragedy and a disgrace if an organization that’s supposed to represent the working class endorsed a rich oil man just because he’s got money,” Van Os said. It was not, as party leaders had charged, Morales who had split the Democrats, but those who recruited Tony Sanchez in the first place, Van Os said. “If Sanchez gets the nomination, tens of thousands of loyal Democrats will skip the governor’s race, because they won’t be able to stand the man who’s being forced on them,” he said. It might even cause further hemorrhaging of progressive Dems to the Green party, Van Os said, a prospect he did not relish.

But what about Hopwood, which, as Sanchez observed in his stump speech, “set minorities in Texas back fifty years?” And, for that matter, what about Morales’s support of the death penalty and the property rights movement, for which he took heat from liberals during his tenure as A.G.? Can Morales really lay claim to being the progressive in this race? Hopwood soured many progressives on Morales, perhaps permanently, and it has given Sanchez his single most effective campaign attack thus far. “I’ll tell you the kind of fella I don’t like,” he told the delegates. “It’s a man who uses affirmative action to climb the ladder, then pulls it up when he gets to the top.” The entire exchange on affirmative action at the convention became weirdly convoluted, as ethnicity became an issue between two Hispanic candidates. “We are one people, all Texans, all Americans, all in this together,” Morales said, after criticizing Sanchez for favoring “quotas and racial preferences.” (For the record, Sanchez spokesperson Glenn Smith said that Sanchez also opposes quotas, but feels that race must still be a consideration.)

Van Os sought to cast himself as the pragmatist in the party. “I don’t agree with Morales on Hopwood, just like I didn’t agree with Clinton on NAFTA,” he said. “But I still think Clinton was one of the best presidents we’ve ever had, and Morales was still a great A.G.” But how pragmatic is Morales’s bid? He entered the race, Van Os said, because he and other progressives went to him at the eleventh hour and encouraged him to do so. Yet most of the Democratic money in the state–a limited pool–has already been committed to Sanchez or other statewide candidates. Morales had some money left over in his campaign account from his days as attorney general, but not enough to do much beyond the primary. As the man who beat Big Tobacco, he has better name recognition than Sanchez, and perhaps could win the primary, despite the $7 million television buy that Team Sanchez made in the week following the convention. But what then? His money will be gone, and he’ll still have the federal investigation looming over his head. As Garry Mauro painfully learned, Democratic funders won’t get bet on a horse they don’t think will win.

(Amidst all the talk of Sanchez buying the nomination, it would have seemed a likely time for Morales to pick up the campaign finance reform banner. There are no limits to campaign contributions in most state campaigns; nor, for that matter, is there much control over how the money can be spent. In any case, Morales didn’t mention the issue, perhaps because he has been financing his legal defense out of his campaign funds for the last three years.)

For the party’s more pragmatic thinkers, it’s hard to beat Sanchez as a candidate. He may or may not beat the Republican incumbent, Rick Perry, but his big spending on television will help out his fellow Dems above and below him on the ballot. In fact, party insiders say, his candidacy was a deciding factor in whether or not the Dems would field candidates for many statewide races. Recall that just two years ago, most Rs ran unopposed in statewide races because the Dems simply felt they could not be competitive. Keeping a low profile at the COPE convention was the man waiting in the wings to lead state Democrats, John Sharp. It was Sharp who helped organize the search that found Tony Sanchez, and he stands to gain the most from it. Four years ago, he narrowly lost the lieutenant governor’s race to Rick Perry, despite having George Bush at the top of the ticket. This year Sharp is running against incumbent Land Commissioner David Dewhurst–a relative political novice and a real right-winger–and there is no Bush at the top of the ticket. Because of Sanchez’s money, the Dems have a real chance at winning this most important statewide race, as well as several others.

Thus there was a palpable sense of relief when the delegates delivered the hoped-for anti-climax: Sanchez won the voice vote, with what was obviously a comfortable margin. Ironically, the real loser may have been former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk. Kirk, Dallas’s first black mayor, is battling Houston Congressmen Ken Bentsen (nephew of Lloyd) for the only other seriously contested party nomination, the nod for U.S. Senate. Kirk was the favorite heading into the convention, having already lined up commitments from several unions in the preceding weeks, along with the endorsement of Joe Gunn. (It didn’t help Bentsen’s case that he was one of the few Democratic Congressmen to vote for President Bush’s fast-track trade negotiating authority bill, a key union issue that Republicans won by one vote.) But on the last night of the convention, a group of Sanchez/Kirk backers reportedly agreed to switch to Bentsen, in order to secure for Sanchez several large pro-Benstsen Houston-area unions that were threatening to go to Morales. The resulting compromise produced a rare dual endorsement for Bentsen and Kirk, and, of course, a win for Sanchez. (Kirk, who calls himself a “raging pragmatist,” never actually repudiated fast-track, incidentally.) Gunn called it a victory for civil rights, and he has a point: Thirty years ago, who would have predicted that the Texas AFL-CIO would have endorsed a ticket headed by a Hispanic and an African American?

If this was a preview of what we can expect to see in the primary–Sanchez bashing Perry while Morales attacks Sanchez–it’s good news for the Perry campaign. Sanchez is not likely to agree to Morales’s call for a half-dozen debates (“duking it out on live TV” as he put it), but he has agreed to at least two, and it will be a tall order for the political novice, whose speaking and politicking skills still need some polishing. But the primary fight may be good news in a round-about way for labor, too. Just prior to the COPE convention, Sanchez made an appearance at a political convention held in Austin by AFSCME, the public employees union. Speaking just days after Morales announced his candidacy, an unusually invigorated Sanchez promised them the moon.

AFSCME organizer Larry Blanchard, who spends a lot of time organizing correctional officers, was ready to hear some good news, and he liked what Sanchez had to say. Shivering in the chilly morning shadows outside the Hyatt’s entrance, he went over the election issues that matter to his members: The state prison system is still operating with a 3000-officer shortage; the turnover rate is hovering around 22 percent, and the much-vaunted officer recruitment drive is not panning out, he said. Blanchard just returned from the training academy in Beeville, where TDCJ was expecting an incoming class of 230 recruits. Only about 100 showed up. Blanchard isn’t expecting to get collective bargaining for public employees next session, just some little things would be nice; a bill offering arbitration for C.O.’s with job complaints and exit interviews for those who quit, for example. That measure made it through both houses with little opposition last session. Perry showed not the slightest interest in the bill, Blanchard said, until he vetoed it. A Democrat, any Democrat, in the governor’s office means a seat for labor at the governor’s table and a chance for Blanchard and company to come in out of the cold.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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