The Good Government Lobby

David Sibley's not the first Republican lobbyist to run for elected office


Having spent over two hours and nine dollars at Iron Man 2, I figured no one else could have been as disappointing a Saturday night. But then, I failed to consider what the night was like for Darren Yancy, the candidate for Senate District 22 who’s now lost a primary to an incumbent who didn’t want the job and a special election to a lobbyist and a candidate with residency issues. That’s gotta be rough. But at least he’s got some company—this is not the first race this year where a “mainstream” Republican happens to be a lobbyist.

That’s not exactly what you’d expect if you’ve been watching the Tea Party movement grow. The anti-government, anti-establishment voices of the Republican party have been a centerpiece much media coverage, but that doesn’t seem to fit the mold for these candidates.

Saturday’s special election for Sen. Kip Averitt‘s seat ended with a run-off between 9/11 Pentagon survivor Brian Birdwell and the former seatholder (and current lobbyist) David Sibley. That left Yancy, the candidate most closely aligned with the Tea Party views on nullification, out in the cold while, with 45 percent of the vote, Sibley looks like the front runner in the runoff.

Even with the anti-establishment voices rising in the Republican party, “lobbyist” doesn’t seem to be quite the epithet it once was. Two State Board of Education primaries yielded similar candidates—the race between social conservative incumbent (and frequent parody target) Don McLeroy and lobbyist Thomas Ratliff and the race between McLeroy’s protege Ken Mercer and lawyer-lobbyist Tim Tuggey. Tuggey and Ratliff both garnered dollars and endorsements from pillars of the old Republican party, both in endorsements and dollars. In all three cases, the men have come in and announced their mainstream intentions—ostensibly in contrast to their opponents’ socially conservative agendas.

In the end, Ratliff eked out a win while Tuggey lost in a decisive fashion—largely due to Mercer’s attacks on the “lawyer-lobbyist.”

Ratliff ran on a platform of de-politicizing education, and says he found that his profession didn’t have the stigma he’d feared. “It didn’t seem to be the negative that some people thought it was,” he says now. When he would explain his job to crowds, Ratliff says they’d often say “that just tells me that you know how the process works and you know how Austin works.”

“Knowing the process” is a big part of the appeal. Most lobbyists will have good contacts and generally work with both parties at one point or another. In most cases, it’s hard to be too far to the right or left when you take on multiple clients.

But that doesn’t sound like the recent Republican party rhetoric. It’s certainly felt like most rallies and speeches have focused on changing “how things work.” Toby Marie Walker, one of the leaders of the McLennan County Tea Party Patriots (the biggest county in the Sibley-Birdwell race) says the divide between the two schools is obvious in her county.

“You still have an old guard who wants hold on to that type of business as usual,” she says, while “new Republicans are working on [changing the process.]” While the Tea Party in McLennan County does not endorse candidates, Walker says Sibley’s profession is a major obstacle for many Tea Party people.

“Once you’ve became a lobbyist in today’s political climate, it’s very hard to get people to ignore that,” she told me.

But Sibley doesn’t see it that way. In a brief conversation, he said his people were “running a mainstream Republican race” and that the lobbying had little to do with the campaign dynamic.

That dynamic Walker describes seems to be underway in this race. Birdwell, like Mercer and McLeroy, has the support of Christian conservative big-wigs like David Barton of WallBuilders and the Texas Home School Coalition. Plus, he’s got a very compelling story: he survived the 9/11 Pentagon attacks and then began Face the Fire Ministries, a faith-based charity to help burn victims. But he’s got unresolved residency issues, and more importantly, Sibley’s ability to raise big dollars, especially PAC dollars, leaves Birdwell far behind. Eight days before the election, Sibley already had almost four times what Birdwell’s cash on hand, and in the next eight days before the election, Sibley raised a whopping $35,000 compared to Birdwell’s $7,000. Cha-ching.

Ratliff, who has endorsed Sibley, argues that lobbying often brings positive results to government by providing information to legislators on complicated issues. “That’s what lobbying has turned into,” he says. “It’s no longer government to the highest bidder.”

Somehow, I doubt Birdwell will agree.