“Good thing we’ve still got politics in Texas — finest form of free entertainment ever invented.” -Molly Ivins
From now until Oct. 29, we’ll be enlightening you on competitive races throughout Texas. Check in daily to “Backyard Brawls” for updates.
Rose vs. Isaac
Duel of the Young White Guys
If you don’t look too closely, it’s hard to tell the difference between the two candidates hoping to represent this fast-developing swath of the Texas Hill Country southwest of Austin. Both are 30-something white guys from Hays County who are pitching themselves as centrists.
Democrat incumbent Patrick Rose is a lawyer in San Marcos, though his real business is politics. He’s served in the Legislature since 2002, when the fresh-faced Princeton University grad returned home to upset Bible-quoting, vitamin-pitchman Rick Green. Now seeking his fifth term in the Texas House, Rose chairs the Human Resources Committee. His relentless centrism—he’s been endorsed by the Sierra Club and the normally GOP-leaning Texans for Lawsuit Reform and National Rifle Association—has led to talk that he might one day run for statewide office.
But first he must deal with Republican Jason Isaac, a 38-year-old businessman turned fist-time candidate. Isaac is the most qualified challenger Rose has faced in his four reelection bids, and the race figures to be tight. Isaac is running on a platform of lowering property taxes and cutting state spending. He also wants to ensure more public education funding finds its way into classrooms. That presumably means Isaac actually believes in public education, which, on the current spectrum of the Texas GOP, makes him a relative moderate.
Both candidates are well-funded, though Isaac has received an alarming amount of his money from a single source. Robert Seale, an executive with Austin-based Q2 Software, has loaned Isaac’s campaign $350,000 at 1 percent interest—which nearly equals the rest of Isaac’s fund-raising combined. This is unusual. Candidates often take loans from their personal bank accounts, not from others. Seale is a San Marcos neighbor of Isaac, according to the Hays Free Press. So perhaps he’s just being neighborly. Or maybe he wants something in return should Isaac secure a seat in the Legislature.
Driver vs. Dorris
When state Rep. Joe Driver got caught in an ethics scandal back in August, you could almost hear the Democrats of House District 113 clinking glasses and toasting themselves. The scandal looked pretty bad. Driver had been “double dipping” on expenses—letting his campaign pay for a trip and then asking the state to reimburse him personally for the same thing.
Turns out, voters in Garland don’t care all that much about ethics violations.
Driver, whose previous claim to fame was a bill requiring Texas universities to allow firearms on campuses, stuck to his guns. His website still includes the rather ironic slogan: “Do you believe that government must tighten its belt just like we do at home? Joe Driver does.” The site’s “Issues” section is a rather sparse affair, simply listing vague ideas with similarly awkward implications—”Restore our American values: Yes,” Government corruption: No.”
Of course, his opponent Jamie Dorris hasn’t made the strongest of cases for herself. A young human resources consultant, her main qualifications seem to be her parents’ work in nursing and law enforcement. Her site lets you follow the investigation around Driver, but the last entry was back in September. The attacks aren’t exactly sticking.
The numbers show just how bleak things have gotten for Dorris. Driver has outspent her. A lot. More than ten times over to be exact—$305,000 to her $26,000. After all, what’s a little ethics flap when you’ve the money to defend yourself?
Bolton vs. Workman
House District 47 looks like your typical suburban battleground, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the race for state representative has taken on a Desperate Housewives plotline.
In one of the competitive races in the suburbs of Austin, Paul Workman, the Republican challenger, put up a doctored photograph of his opponent, state Rep. Valinda Bolton, that included a fake picture of Pres. Barack Obama in the background. But not to worry about misperceptions—the campaign has a small addendum underneath the photo. “Because Ms. Bolton and President Obama are so closely aligned, we have taken the liberty to add Obama’s picture in this photograph.”
The negativity between the candidates was briefly on hold when Workman announced he had prostate cancer. Bolton’s campaign was sympathetic—as sympathetic as anyone can be in a public press release—and Workman said the prognosis was good and he would continue the campaign. Then it was back to the task-at-hand.
Mostly, the candidates focus on a the issue nearest and dearest to suburban hearts: traffic gridlock. On Democratic state Rep. Valinda Bolton’s site, traffic is the first issue listed, while challenger Paul Workman puts it second only to property taxes. While Bolton offers some cost-saving techniques, both candidates promise there’s a way to get more money for roads, though not so surprisingly, neither plan is big on details for getting those funds.
Otherwise the race has taken on a personal tone. Bolton offers a commentary with each issue position—”I’ve done a little substitute teaching myself”—one heading reads and “You’’d think that getting a traffic light installed would be simple—it’s not!” Workman, on the other hand, wants voters to know that he’s “picked up a shovel and moved dirt alongside my employees.”
These candidates are locked in what appears to be a dead heat. Bolton won the district in 2006 and held on to it 2008, both good years to be a Democrat. This year’s not so friendly to the blue-clad. Workman is running as a conservative with bi-partisan bonafides, flaunting $1500 in political donations he’s given to Democrats. While the candidates are in fundraising a dead-heat, Workman has a clear advantage in cash on hand, with $95,084 to Bolton’s $34,071. That should be enough for both candidates to Photoshop a multitude of embarrassing photos before Election Day.
Miklos vs. Burkett
Battle of the Bland
In Mesquite’s House District 101, it’s the battle of the bland. Both Republican challenger Cindy Burkett and first-term Democrat Robert Miklos exude squeaky-clean suburban wholesomeness. Burkett, co-owner of five Subway restaurants and former aide to state Sen. Bob Deuell, boasts on her website that her “family is just like yours” (that is, if you’ve been married for 34 years to your high school sweetheart). Miklos is a former Boy Scout, former prosecutor and PTA member.
Each candidate is trying to expose the dark side of the other. The attacks are pretty lame. Miklos is channeling Tipper Gore, castigating Burkett because her husband owns stock in an independent hip-hop label. Burkett, meanwhile, huffs that Miklos’ votes are tainted because he works for a large law firm that has clients who do business with the state.
If you’re looking for actual policy proposals on Burkett’s grammatically-challenged website you can fuggedaboutit. However, you will be relieved to learn that “Cindy believes that life is precious and will defend it.”
In truth, the lady seems to be more interested in running against the scepter of socialism.
“Frankly, if you ask Cindy, America is getting ‘way too European’,” her website states, apropos of nothing. We didn’t ask, but let’s hear more anyway. On the health-care reform bill: “Cindy will fight it, and she will vote to prevent Obamacare from affecting Texans.”
Perhaps it’s more instructive to follow the money. So far this year, Burkett is the favored candidate of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a powerful special interest group that favors limiting lawsuits. Miklos’ funding comes from traditional Democratic sources: labor unions, bi-partisan corporate PACs, and wealthy donors like Container Store co-founder Cecilia Boone.
Turner vs. Zedler
The Goofball Race
Remember Bill Zedler? Neither do we. Apparently he was in the Legislature for three terms (2003-2008) representing Arlington before Democrat Chris Turner bumped him off in 2008. Zedler is perhaps most fondly remembered for his pre-Lege work crusading to keep Hooters and its “very salacious sexual atmosphere ” out of Arlington. During his last term, Texas Monthly labeled Zedler a “goofball” and wrote of his legislative career that he “contributes nothing except to provide occasional comic relief, mainly by laughing uncontrollably when others make fun of him.”
Zedler must be a glutton for punishment, because he now wants his seat back from Turner.
Turner, a former political operative for embattled Congressman Chet Edwards, could use a little of his opponent’s goofy sense of humor. In a video posted online, Turner is seen awkwardly confronting Zedler at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon. Turner asks Zedler to stop attacking his wife, Democratic campaign consultant Lisa Turner, over her consulting work for “liberal special interest groups” like the Texas Democratic Trust.
Turner would rather voters focus on the biggest news Zedler has ever generated: The revelation, courtesy of the Texas Tribune, that he used his legislative privileges to obtain confidential medical board records on five doctors, two of whom are campaign contributors. Zedler claims his experience as a medical equipment salesman qualified him to determine whether the doctors were wrongly investigated by the medical board for violations such as injecting a patient with natural gas and jet fuel. On the other hand, Arlington still tilts Republican. And Zedler is a Republican. So there’s that.
Pierson vS. Nash
Race to the Middle
The Republican challenger for District 93, Barbara Nash, is more likely to attend a tea party with crumpets and Earl Grey than the angry shouting spectacles that propelled others onto the ballot. She eked out a victory by 111 votes in the primary against Republican “Toxic” Bill Burch despite his supporters’ exhortations to “knock the snot out of the liberal/Republican machine.” The Texas GOP is no doubt relieved by Nash’s victory because District 93, which ranges from Arlington to Mansfield, takes its tea with milk, honey and moderation. Located east of Fort Worth, the district is growing and becoming increasingly Democratic.
District 93 is on the GOP wish list. It was a red district until 2006, when Pierson, a businesswoman, won a tight race against longtime Republican State Rep. Toby Goodman. Democratic incumbent Paula Pierson has a reputation as a hardworking candidate who block-walks and doesn’t take her seat for granted. She runs her own health business and is a doting grandmother. In her spare time she co-founded a nonprofit to prevent child abuse. Not bad for a “liberal Socialist Democrat,” as Burch was fond of calling her.
Nash is no slouch, either. She spent several years on the Arlington City Council with Pierson. She served on the Arlington school board. She served with just about every Republican group in her region. But she’s running against a tough candidate in a district leaning blue. Judging from her bruising Republican primary race, many GOP voters in the district believe she’s as liberal as the incumbent. Pierson may not sweep the polls this year with 57 percent, as she did in 2008 when she was riding high on the Obama turnout. But it’s likely she’ll hang onto her job.
—Melissa del Bosque
Cain vs. Homer
Race to the Past
Turns out you don’t need a time machine to look into the past. Just travel up to House District 3 in East Texas, where one middle-aged, white Democrat defends his seat against a middle-aged, white Republican in a place that hasn’t changed much since we joined the Union. Politicos have a macabre obsession with this perennially super-competitive race. Never mind that it’s like watching television reruns.
Each election season, an ambitious Republican decides to challenge state Rep. Mark Homer, a conservative Democrat from Paris who represents one of the most Republican districts held by a Democrat. This year the challenger is Erwin Cain, whose name sounds like something out of the 19th century. Expect to hear ominous voices say this is the year to take out Homer. The district favors Republicans in statewide and national races by more than 20 percent. Cain has $100,000 more than Homer on hand. He has the obligatory attractive kids with perfect teeth. His website has captions like “Family Man” and “Church”—in case voters weren’t getting that this guy is really goddamn wholesome.
Homer has a Cher-like resilience—he’s the political version of those cockroaches that survived when a meteor killed the dinosaurs. Though conservative, white Democrats over 40—collectively known as the WD-40s—have lost to Republicans across the state, Homer has hung on since he first won in 1999. He’s won as a local businessman who owns 18 Sonic drive-ins, and he’s established himself beyond the Democratic label. He’s proved himself to be up for a challenge, but he’s never been challenged by a competitor this serious in a year this tough for Democrats. Expect to be up late on election night if you want to see who wins.
Moody vs. Margo
Race for the West
Even Republicans are starting to wish Dee Margo would latch onto a hobby other than running for public office. This will be his third bid for state office, yet he’s failed to inject his 2010 campaign for state representative with any new ideas since the last go round. But with wealthy donors such as real estate tycoon Woody Hunt and developer Bob Perry in his corner, he’s hard to dismiss. This election cycle, he’s ontrack to outspend Democratic incumbent Joe Moody again by 2-to-1 in the race for El Paso’s House District 78.
In solidly Democratic El Paso, District 78 is the closest thing there is to a Republican seat. Margo, a wealthy insurance executive, wants it badly. He spent nearly $1 million in the 2008 campaign for the seat, but ended up with 45 percent of the vote. Margo blames the loss on the historic Democratic turnout for President Barack Obama. This time, he’s banking on Obama backlash. It will take more than low turnout to tip the race in his favor, though. Moody, a 28-year-old lawyer, has solid name recognition in El Paso. He didn’t muck up his first term in the Legislature. And it doesn’t hurt that his father Bill Moody, a well-liked state district judge, will be on the ballot running for Texas Supreme Court.
Margo also ran unsuccessfully against former El Paso Sen. Eliot Shapleigh in 2006. If he doesn’t win this time, he might consider taking up windmill-tilting instead.
—Melissa del Bosque
Carter vs. Kent
Race to the Bottom
The race between Republican lawyer Stefani Carter and Democratic educator Carol Kent to see who will represent northern Dallas County in the Texas House—and earn the princely annual sum of $7,200— began as your typical, name-calling, mudslinging, gutter-level campaign. Then it went downhill.
Kent, the Democrat, is seeking a second term. Hard to say why, given how little she did with the first term. Kent’s website doesn’t bother with policy positions save for a list of six bullet-pointed three-word phrases such as “strengthening public education” and “lowering utility rates.” Carter at least has an “Issues” section on her site, though it reads like an eighth-grade term paper. The section on crime (headline: “Tough on Crime—Yes”) asserts, “The reality is that most of the crimes we fear are committed by a very small group of very bad people. We need to find them, capture them and throw them in jail—for good.”
Without policies to debate, the campaigns resorted first to name-calling. A conservative group labeled Kent a “Dirty Double-Dippin’ Democrat” for supposedly double-billing state expenses (which Kent didn’t). A liberal group accused Carter of plagiarizing Obama because three phrases in her stump speech sounded vaguely like the president’s.
Lately the race has grown downright weird. Each campaign accused the other of stalking, with Carter staffers twice calling 9-1-1 after spotting “suspect vehicles” near their cars, according to The Dallas Morning News. The accusations aren’t likely to subside. Both campaigns have hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s unfortunate news for the state of public discourse and Dallas County’s emergency dispatchers, not to mention the voters.