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FEATURE Meet the Attack Dogs Americans for Job Security loves to get involved in Texas politics BY JAKE BERNSTEIN IFIor some it might be considered a badge of honor, it probably feels more like tire tracks. The affable East Texas Republican was run over this year by one of the nation’s most vicious campaign hit teams, a secret outfit whose reach spreads all over the American political system. It specializes in attempted assassination of political careers under the guise of issue education. Apparently, one sure way to escape the torrent of negative attacks it can bankroll is to avoid crossing George W. Bush and a select group of Texas Republicans. Merritt, who refused to comment for this story, is guilty of many sins in the house that Rove wrought. He wears a scarlet M for Moderate. His freethinking independence is a frownedupon trait in a party leadership that demands a lockstep response. In 2001, Merritt voted with Democrats on legislative redistrictingrejecting the first step in what appears to have been a long-term GOP plan to stack the Texas Legislature. During the 2002 race for speaker of the Texas Housecurrently under investigation by a Travis County grand jury Merritt was frequently mentioned as an ABC \(Anybody But on redistricting, Tommy Merritt had the temerity to vote with his district instead of following the dictates of U.S. House congressional redistricting in 2003retired, Merritt opted to run for the open Senate seat. It was largely a three-way contest. On one side was Paul Sadler, a Democratic trial lawyer and former state rep. On the other side was Kevin Eltife, a young Republican mayor from Tyler. And caught in the middle was Rep. Tommy Merritt, the owner of a small insulation contracting business. Governor Rick Perry, and more importantly, his financial network, supported Eltife over Merritt. the scene. Launched in 1997 with a million-dollar contribution from the American Insurance Association, the Virginiabased AJS claims to have 500 members. It’s impossible to know if that’s the truth since the group refuses to release a membership list or divulge how much special interest money is funneled through the organization. It does admit that it uses corporate money. It’s unclear if one person or many finance any given AJS campaign. You can’t find out without a substate elections to run so-called third-party “issue advocacy” ads, purportedly to educate voters. In the radio, television, or direct mail advertisements it sponsors, AJS doesn’t have to reveal anything about itself other than its name. Since its founding, it’s estimated the group has spent about $26 million on political races all over the nation, including $8.5 million in 2002 and $7.5 million in 2000. The way AJS President Mike Dubke explains it, the organization is just an assemblage of public interest-minded champions of free enterprise educating voters on the records of politicians who want to gouge taxpayers. As a third-party group, AJS cannot legally coordinate with candidate campaigns nor can it explicitly call for the election or defeat of a candidate. That might be seen as a campaign contribution. Instead, AJS just scours the known universe of elections in the United States, from the lowliest state board of education race to U.S. Senate campaigns, looking to make a difference. And as it combed through all the political races in the country late last year, it just happened to come across a special election in East Texas. “Basically the thrust of our organization is to advocate promarket, pro-paycheck issues across the country,” says Dubke. “In Texas, our piece concerning Tommy Merritt was right up our alley, talking about an individual who wants to raise taxes on goods and services and basically take more money out of the pockets of the average citizen.” AJS used two radio ads and a lot of airtime to mow down Merritt’s record. Dubke stands by the ads and says his group is legally bound to speak only the truth in them. Both ads used similar content but cast the message in different scenes that mimicked fellow radio listeners. In one, the listener first hears 8 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3/12/04