Political Intelligence

Convention Notebook



House Speaker Pete Laney’s mood can be hard to ascertain at a glance, since his cotton farmer’s mien, at rest, usually resolves itself into a scowl. But he seemed strangely cheerful at the convention in El Paso, laughing at Paul Begala’s jokes, horsing around with Ann Richards, or purposefully striding back and forth between the Hilton and the Convention Center with his entourage in tow. Does he know something we don’t about the fall elections?

Maybe so. As everyone knows, the R’s are all but certain to gain a majority of the newly redistricted House, and, if speaker hopeful Tom Craddick has his way, they’ll finally have the votes to take Laney’s formidable gavel away from him. But will they do it? The road to the speakership for Craddick, the long serving right-wing R from Midland, has been pretty bumpy lately. First there was the FreePAC blunder, in which moderate R’s (read: Craddick enemies) were targeted by gay-baiting direct mail during the primary. Republicans, Democrats, and editorial boards across the state were thoroughly disgusted, and the trail seemed to lead to Craddick’s door.

Then there was the uprising against Craddick’s plan to force House Republicans to agree on a speaker candidate in a closed-door caucus, rather than through the usual House-wide ballot. It was generally seen as a move to forestall any R’s, especially rural members and moderates (the so-called ABC’s–Anybody But Craddick) from siding with Laney. Word around the dome is that Craddick has even enlisted big guns like Tom Delay and Phil Gramm in support of his plan. But last month twenty-three Republicans signed a letter (and it might have been more, if the whole membership had seen it) decrying the effort to impose party discipline on a House that has prided itself on bi-partisanship. It might not be Laney in the big chair when this is all over, but it might not be Craddick either. “He’s gone as far as he can go,” said one longtime observer at the convention.


When U.S. Senate candidate Ron Kirk asked to address the Hispanic Caucus, the delegates took a vote and decided he’d have to wait until they had finished electing a candidate for state party vice-chairman. By that point, the vice-chair election had dragged on intolerably and delegates were clamoring for conclusion. But another factor in the decision to make Kirk cool his heels was likely a lingering resentment from those who had supported his primary opponent Victor Morales. Many were still angered by what they viewed as a snub by the party’s hierarchy when they brushed aside the San Antonio school teacher’s second bid for the Senate in their rush to support Kirk.

“We didn’t dream the ticket, they dreamt it for us,” said Fidel “Ace” Acevedo, a leader for the Mexican American Democrats of Texas (MAD).

When Kirk finally received the green light, he bounded into a room he knew would hold one of his more skeptical audiences. Democratic Black and Hispanic mutual support is deemed crucial in the coming election, but before this year there was little precedence for it. (Last February the Tejano Democrats and the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats held the first-ever joint endorsement meeting but the group couldn’t agree on a U.S. Senate candidate.)

Kirk cut right to the point. “This is the first time that we are going to be along for the ride–that’s the dream,” he said.

“I want to make an appeal to those who supported Victor Morales,” Kirk continued. “God bless you.”

“It’s not about one candidate,” Kirk told the delegates. He then closed in Spanish with the anthem-like slogan, “Si se puede” (yes we can) and the crowd burst into genuine applause.

Putting aside the past, Acevedo looked toward the future. “My job now is to make sure that [MAD] people vote for Kirk and Sanchez,” he said.


Talk at the hospitality suite for the Stonewall Democrats, the gay and lesbian caucus, centered on the impact of the recent scandal in the Catholic Church, which some caucus members said had unfairly damaged their cause at the convention. “A lot of members have been asked questions about pedophilia,” by delegates, one caucus member said. While it is a generally accepted fact that a considerable percentage of Catholic priests are gay, there is no correlation between homosexuality and pedophilia. Which is to say, you should expect to find roughly the same proportion of pedophiles in the ten percent of the U.S. population that is gay, research has found, as you would among the ninety percent who are heterosexual.


Democratic Comptroller candidate and former UT football star Marty Akins has not gotten as much of the limelight as his supporters feel he deserves, so they must have been gratified when convention planners allowed him a full fifteen minutes for his multi-media onslaught on the delegates Saturday morning. Akins had not one but two introductions (one from a former teammate, one from his folks); three, if you count the grainy video biography, which definitely benefited by being shown before Ron Kirk’s Madison Avenue job, and not after. The sound wasn’t the greatest on Marty’s version, but at one point his junior high football coach could be heard to reminisce about “Marty’s manhood” which, according to the notes of at least one reporter, the old man reported to be Akins’ “biggest asset” or something very similar.

After the video came what sounded like two renditions of the UT fight song, but may have been one continuous playing interrupted in the middle for no apparent reason, after which Akins seized the podium like it was a tackling dummy and said, “I’m Marty Akins, and I’m back in the game.” The whole thing came to a climax with Marty tossing a genuine leather football to a couple of plants in the audience, followed by his crew loosing a slew of little plastic footballs, some of them propelled at formidable velocity, particularly considering the age of some of the delegates seated nearest the press table, and one of which is now on my desk. As Darrel Royal used to say: Outstanding effort.


Our story about John Cornyn’s high school infatuation with George Wallace (Afterword, June 7) seems to have hit a nerve. Tim Shorrock, who attended high school with Cornyn and wrote the piece, received a call from Cornyn campaign spokesman David Beckwith. He politely requested copies of Cornyn’s high school newspaper stories, which Shorrock had quoted. The campaign also called another high school classmate to confirm the story. During his farewell speech at the convention, Carlos Truan, the retiring dean of the state senate, mentioned the story as part of an extended list of reasons he is proud to be a Democrat. Truan’s speeches have been called a lot of things: unscripted, improvisational, postmodern, even, in their non-linear structure; what an honor to be included in one of his last.


In a final burst of activity before closing shop for the summer, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a slew of decisions last month, the most widely publicized of which outlawed the death penalty for mentally retarded defendants. The Court also issued a decision in a case the Observer has closely followed over the years: Weslaco attorney Jennifer Harbury’s long quest for justice following the 1992 disappearance and subsequent murder of her husband, Guatemalan guerrilla leader Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, whose nom de guerre was Comandante Everardo (see “Still Searching,” June 7). The court ruled 9-0 that Harbury had not established a claim for denial of access to the courts. In 1996 Harbury filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in Washington, D.C., against former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and other high-level Clinton administration officials, charging that had it not been for the government’s pattern and practice of lying to her about her husband’s whereabouts in a clandestine Guatemalan prison, she might have been able to go to court to save his life–by ordering the CIA to properly supervise the Guatemalan CIA assets who were torturing him. The narrow decision, written by Justice Souter, included a lengthy discussion of the right of access to courts and reverses the decision of the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which had ruled in Harbury’s favor. The case now goes back to U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly for a decision on pending non-constitutional claims.