The Ultimate Losers

When I show up one minute late for my interview with Barbara Ann Radnofsky, the Democratic candidate for attorney general is already in full battle cry. She is enthusiastically explaining to the Observer’s managing editor—in the sharp, emphatic tones of a former Houston attorney known for her relentlessness—the legal logic behind her proposed $18 billion lawsuit against Wall Street for damages to Texas citizens caused by the “negligence-induced Great Recession.”

Suing Wall Street has become the populist centerpiece of Radnofsky’s campaign. As with the tobacco companies, she argues, the Goldman Sachses of the world have harmed Texans in a variety of ways, and we should be compensated. It’s a compelling argument. Certainly it’s worth bringing up during a statewide campaign. Just as it’s worth debating Radnofsky’s opinion that Texas’ franchise margin tax is unconstitutional, or that Arizona’s notorious immigration law—which Attorney Gen. Greg Abbott is defending—amounts to “racial profiling.” Just as it’s worth hearing Radnofsky’s case that when Texans voted to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage, they actually, in a “huge mistake,” banned all marriage in the process.

“There’s no reason to not call it as I see it on issues,” Radnofsky says. “It is very freeing to have the knowledge that you just take the positions you want, you put yourself out there.”

There’s a hitch to that “freedom,” of course: It comes with being a long-shot candidate. You might remember Radnofsky as the sacrificial Democrat chosen to tilt at Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s mega-million dollar windmill in 2006. (Then again, you might not.) Radnofsky did everything she could to sink her teeth into Hutchison’s leg and never let go. But the Democrat could manage just 36 percent of the vote. And now she’s running against the richest Republican of this election year, two-term Attorney Gen. Greg Abbott, who’s got more campaign funds in the bank than either Rick Perry or Bill White (or God, perhaps, but I’ll have to fact-check that and get back to you).

Abbott, smooth and silver-tongued and highly ambitious, is best known for his headline-grabbing lawsuits on behalf of right-wing causes. He’s currently defending Arizona’s anti-immigration law in a amicus brief, while suing the EPA for trying to impose environmental regulation on Texas and suing the federal government over health-care reform. If the Tea Party wants a lawsuit, it seems, Abbott—whom Radnofsky calls “Governor Perry’s consiglieri ”—will file one. Abbott is running a campaign that has almost nothing to do with the job that a Texas attorney general is supposed to do—no more than Perry’s anti-Obama campaign has to do with being governor of Texas. The attorney general has positioned himself, as he said in mid-August in an address to the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, as a warrior against a “federal government with limitless powers.”

Meanwhile, in relative obscurity, Radnofsky is running the way a challenger should: Letting it all hang out and hoping something sticks. She’s highlighting what an attorney general is actually supposed to do on behalf of Texans—and showing how the current one is falling short. Among other things, she wants to stop with the frivolous lawsuits against the federal government and use the attorney general’s powers to defend consumers against “out-of-control insurance and electric rates.”

That’s another issue worth raising. But good luck, when you’re running against a seemingly invincible opponent, getting anyone to listen. For every 500 news stories (not to mention blog posts) about the governor’s race, you’d be hard-pressed to find one about the attorney general’s race. Or just about any other statewide race, aside from the mud-slinging Agriculture Commissioner contest. Nobody is paying attention.

It’s one of the saddest ironies of contemporary campaigns: The candidates with something to say are the ones we rarely hear. When the media fall into the “electability” trap, focusing only on candidates who are “legitimate” according to conventional wisdom, we rob ourselves of one of the primary purposes of political campaigns: debating and imagining fresh solutions to our problems. We obsess over “competitive races” where bold ideas are typically few and far between, as candidates fight it out for voters in the mythical middle. In the process, we ensure that campaigns are covered, more and more, as sporting events. If the “score” isn’t close, everybody tunes out.

Long-shot candidates like Radnofsky are not the ultimate losers in this game. We are.

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Published at 6:39 pm CST