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Moore, received four votes at the end of the day. Moore, who had run a disorganized race 1998, campaigned for the position of chair on a manual for county chairs she had written. After the first round of voting, Coleman trailed a distant third. His candidacy had spoken to what many in the audience privately felt. There had to be better candidates than either of the two options: Mauro and Soechting. Satisfied he had made some inroads, Coleman took the opportunity of the second vote for a classy gesture: He released his delegates and retired from the race. Neither Moore nor the remaining candidate, labor lawyer David Van Os, followed suit. Van Os, who received only two of sixty-two votes, had the backing of the progressive caucus. He had been the most passionate speaker. Van Os delivered plenty of red-meat attacks against the Republicans. He vowed that if elected, Republicans were “going to get chewed on ferociously!’ Yet not even the SDEC thought his platform of turning over power in campaigns to it was a good idea. By the end of the day, Saturday’s vote had become a referendum on Gary Mauro’s leadership in the party. Mauro, a former land commissioner, lined up an impressive list of endorsements and touted his statewide victories. Nobody in the room needed to be reminded of his losing gubernatorial bid against George W. Bush. Mauro promised SDEC members he would bring money to the party even as wealthy trial lawyers lined up against him. While organized labor did not formally endorse any of the candidates, unofficially it threw its weight behind Soechting. Mauro engendered such antipathy from some party leaders that he felt compelled to address it in his pre-vote speech. Before calling for unity, he listed a number of party factionstrial lawyer, elected official, labor, and even one called “Anybody but Mauro,” he said. In the end, Mauro fell short on the second ballot. Upon learning the outcome, he appeared to storm out of the hotel. So much for unity. The winner, Charles Soechting, was the party’s legal council and a Hays county chair. Soechting is a former DPS officer and a trial lawyer by trade who works with John O’Quinn, the state’s lead attorney in the $17.3 billion tobacco lawsuit. Yet trial lawyers were rumored to be divided on the candidate. Soechting’s speeches had sharp soundbites attacking Bush but offered mostly tired slo gans in place of new ideas. Still, his tenure will be judged on organizational acuity, not rhetoric. To say Soechting has a short window to make an impression is an understatement. Almost immediately after the election, speculation began about his replacement come the June state convention. Soechhting has vowed to run for a full two year term at that time. Mauro pledged he would also run again and other names are mentioned including former state attorney general Jim Mattox. “We have a party firmly planted in cement,” said Stan Merriman of the Progressive Caucus after the vote. The question of who can break the concrete remains unanswered. The good folks at the Texas Department of Transportation haven’t always been judicious with the state’s money. In fact, the agency’s knack for slipping sweetheart deals into public works projects is downright legendary in state government circles. Given that history, some state lawmakers are understandably skeptical of a suspicious-looking provision tucked into the sprawling government reorganization bill that the Lege recently passed. It seems TxDOT wants a new headquarters for its Houston district office. The agency has already secured a large swath of state-owned land right across the street from its current main Houston location. One would think all TxDOT needs now are some blueprints, a contractor, and, presto, it’s got a headquarters. But instead of doing that, TxDOT convinced the Lege to authorize a deal that looks rather Enron-esque. Under Article 19 of the government re-org bill, TxDOT will lease state land to a private company, which will design and construct the TxDOT headquarters and then lease the building back to TxDOT. If that seems like a sweet gig for a wellconnected private firm, agency officials say there’s a perfectly good explanation. TxDOT spokesperson Mark Cross says the agency doesn’t have the money to pay for the headquarters up front. He notes TxDOT’s annual budget for construction and upkeep of its buildings is $53 million. The agency estimates a new Houston headquarters will cost between $32 million and $35 million. That would take too big a chunk out of TxDOT’s annual budget, Cross says. So the agency decided to bring in a private company in order to spread the costs out over a longer period. It plans to lease the headquarters for $2.8 million each year. Some House members are questioning the deal. “It doesn’t look very cost-effective to do something like that,” says Rep. if TxDOT leases the building for $2.8 million a yeardepending on the length of the contract, which TxDOT hasn’t calculated yetthe project could easily become much more expensive than if TxDOT constructed the headquarters itself. McReynolds, who served on the House Appropriations Committee until last session, says he’d never heard of a state agency paying for a project this way. Cross conceded that TxDOT has never used a maneuver like this before, but adds, “We don’t have to totally rebuild a district office complex very often!’ TxDOT will send out a request for bids in the next two or three months. By then, it should become clear whether this arrangement is legitimate or a sweetheart deal in the finest TxDOT tradition. PIERCING THE DOJ VEIL When it comes to reviewing the Texas congressional redistricting map for its lawfulness, Democrats question whether John Ashcroft’s Justice Department can be impartial. The Dems note that in the Civil Rights Division of DOJ, where voting rights issues are reviewed, Ashcroft has removed at least two career attorneys in favor of fellow conservative ideologues. Shortly after the Texas map arrived for a determination on whether it should be precleared as compliant with the Voting Rights Act, two officials recused themselves without an official explanation. The more conspiracyminded among the Democrats sees the recusal as a Justice Department dodge to appear impartial while clearing the way for more ideological eyes. As further proof, the Dems offer Robert Berman’s visit to Lite Guv David Dewhurst’s conference room. Berman happens to be deputy chief of the voting rights division over at Justice. And his visit happened to come during the third special session on redistricting. DOJ officials insist that Berman was at the Capitol for an unrelated event. The DOJ’s position is that no department representative has been to Texas, officially or unofficially, to talk about congressional redistricting. A DOJ spokesman could not comment on whether Berman would be involved in the process of pre-clearing the Texas map. 11/7/03THE TEXAS OBSERVER 13