What's Up, Doc?

Politicians don't like sitting around while other people are getting a bunch of attention, and that's as good an explanation as any for the early dustup in the governor's race. Gov. Rick Perry and his challenger, Tony Sanchez Jr., spent the week before a runoff that doesn't directly involve them taking potshots at each other. They started in the doctor's office and got all the way to prison by mid-week.

Politicians don't like sitting around while other people are getting a bunch of attention, and that's as good an explanation as any for the early dustup in the governor's race. Gov. Rick Perry and his challenger, Tony Sanchez Jr., spent the week before a runoff that doesn't directly involve them taking potshots at each other. They started in the doctor's office and got all the way to prison by mid-week.

Four years ago, Dr. John Coppedge bucked his own trade group–the Texas Medical Association–to support Perry, then the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. TMA was with Democrat John Sharp in that contest. Perry won, George W. Bush moved to the White House, and Perry became governor in his place. Coppedge looked like a smart fellow.

Then Perry vetoed something called the Prompt Pay bill, so named because it put the touch on insurance companies and HMOs to pay doctors and hospitals within a reasonable amount of time. Coppedge pulled his name off the masthead of Texans for Lawsuit Reform after it was apparent that his colleagues in that group had urged the veto. And he told Perry that he wouldn't be active in his reelection campaign. Now he's moved out of that neutral position, abandoning Perry for Democrat Sanchez. We told you last week about Coppedge's decision to hold a fundraiser in his home for Sanchez. It turns out that he also sent a letter to every other member of TMA–around 40,000 people who have regular contact with thousands more voters–describing why he thinks Perry is a dirty, rotten scoundrel and why Sanchez is such a gem.

Asked about the turn of events by the Austin American-Statesman, Perry's campaign manager knocked Coppedge and then a day later knocked the docs. She said first that Coppedge–who supports George W. Bush and John Cornyn and Greg Abbott, among others–is no Republican if he's supporting the Laredo challenger over the incumbent. Then she predicted TMA will end up endorsing Sanchez because the trade group and the candidate have a common consultant. The GOP camp has been hard at work on a "doctors for Perry" group to counter if TMA goes with the Democrat.

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Meanwhile, Perry got some good news of his own. He's the first Republican gubernatorial candidate to win the endorsement of CLEAT, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. CLEAT claims 13,000 members from 80 affiliated groups, and historically has endorsed Democrats over Republicans. But the group has blessed some high-profile Republicans, like U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. CLEAT's honchos said their endorsement was based in part on a quote attributed to Sanchez that they read to say "Tony Sanchez wants to cut the prison budget in half and release thousands of violent predators back on Texas streets." Perry, they said, has been a reliable supporter of cops since his first election to the Texas House 17 years ago. The group was on the other side in Perry's last race, but said the fence mending that followed went well. They followed an Austin announcement with a one-day tour of East Texas touting the law enforcement support. That tour started in Longview, which is coincidentally John Coppedge's hometown.

Curious? What Sanchez actually said, as quoted in the McAllen Monitor, was this: "Instead of spending money to incarcerate people because they are not educated properly, why not spend half that and make sure that our children know how to read and do math by third grade?"

Perry's gang offers that as proof that Sanchez wants to cut prison spending in half. Sanchez's folks say the Republicans are stretching the Democrat's words out of shape and ought to knock it off. The Republicans say Sanchez should either own up to the spending cuts or admit he misspoke.

Common Friends, Different Enemies

Other counter-insurgencies are already afoot.

Next week, Perry will hook into a "Rally in the Valley" event arranged by tort reformers who want to draw attention to the problems South Texas doctors are having with lawsuits and related costs. That starts as a non-political event, with doctors taking the day off to protest the liability problems. Perry is trying to convince the state's doctors–and their patients–that lawsuits are doing them gran mal damage and that Perry is here to protect them. And also that his prompt pay veto was justified because of the lawsuits that might have ensued had he let it become law.

Perry and Sanchez have the same ally in mind, but different enemies. Perry wants to be with the doctors and against trial lawyers, so he's framed the fight as a medical problem with lawyers–who support Democrats–as the bad guys. Sanchez wants to be with the doctors, just like Perry, but with insurance companies and HMOs wearing the black hats.

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The governor is also using his state office in the fight, weighing in with a staff-produced list of proposals to "fix the medical lawsuit abuse crisis." The proposal would limit non-economic damage awards in successful lawsuits and cap fees for the lawyers who bring those lawsuits. The governor would throw medical malpractice claims into their own special courts, expand the powers of the Board of Medical Examiners, which regulates doctors, and of the State Bar of Texas, which regulates lawyers, and give legal immunity to health care providers taking care of low-income patients. It would also allow state insurance regulators to ask insurers to disclose "basic rate information" about malpractice insurance premiums. Perry's press release was followed within minutes by favorable "reactions" from the Texas Association of Business, the National Federation of Independent Business and Texans for Lawsuit Reform. At least two of those groups count insurance companies among their members.

Sanchez weighed in by saying he will support "aggressive measures" to fix medical malpractice problems, and included a letter to the president of TMA saying he plans to make it an emergency issue (eligible for faster legislative action) if he's elected. And he knocked Perry for not doing anything about medical malpractice during the last legislative session.

We have been assured that this next bit is unrelated, but it's a curiosity, especially with all of the other synchronized politicking: After the Coppedge letter to doctors made the papers, the Texas Department of Insurance popped out a press release saying 13 insurance carriers had agreed to pay fines and restitution for slow-paying health-care providers. The numbers were big enough: The fines totaled $2.8 million and the restitution amounted to $7 million. One of Perry's defenses after the veto was that insurance regulators could get the doctors their money without a new law. TDI announced a set of similar settlements last August; they expect to announce still more settlements later this month. And they say the timing of the announcement had nothing to do with the political firefight.

Every Republican's Best Friend

Time to pull out the big guns. Peter Wareing, the transplanted Houstonian who's running for Congress in a newly drawn district that goes from suburban Houston to suburban Austin, is running one last round of television ads that feature two sections featuring President George W. Bush. The message: Help Bush–vote for Wareing. Up to this point, the Bushies have asked candidates to keep him out of primary races, but the president from Texas has been popular in CD-31. His face has appeared in ads for Brad Barton, who lost in the primary, and for John Carter, who's running against Wareing in the runoff. None claimed his endorsement, but they all want the association.

Carter, meanwhile, put out a press release saying he did not get the endorsement of the Brazos County Coalition for Life. His campaign apparently sent out an email that said he had received that nod. The press release says he's pro-life and points out a couple of other endorsements, but says the email was a mistake and gives the candidate's phone number for people to call and gripe. That followed a sniper shot from the Wareing campaign headlined: "Carter claims false endorsement." Wareing, it pointed out, got the endorsement of Texas Right to Life.

Low Interest, High Unpredictability

The turnout will be low, low, low in Tuesday's runoff election. In some parts of the state, Democrats who go to the polls will get to vote for either Victor Morales or Ron Kirk, and that's it. It's tough to get people to go vote for just one candidate, and that describes the situation of almost everybody on the runoff ballots for either party. It's hard to tell how many people will vote, and even harder to figure out which ones will vote. It's a niche market, but the customers aren't as identifiable as in most niche markets. TV might work. And mail might work. But it's something of a crapshoot.

The Democrats outdrew the Republicans in March, but Democrats in runoffs are limited to the Senate race, one congressional race (U.S. Rep. Ken Bentsen's Houston district), one hotly contested state Senate race in South Texas, six races for the Texas House, and a couple of local courthouse races that show up on state ballots. Local contests that are administered locally–races for county judge and other offices–are concentrated in South Texas.

On the Republican ticket, the only statewide races involve courts. The high profile deal on that side of the ledger is the Elizabeth RayDale Wainwright contest for the Texas Supreme Court. Both are Houston judges; he's getting the support of the Republican establishment in Austin, but both candidates are running relatively cheap races and that probably makes it a tossup. There are two congressional contests on the GOP runoff ballot–one in the suburbs north of Dallas to replace U.S. Rep. Dick Armey, R-Flower Mound, and the other in a new district (an open seat) that runs from suburban Austin to suburban Houston. GOP voters will pick candidates for three seats on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, one state Senate seat, and nine candidates for Texas House. Six local courthouse races round out the GOP's runoff ticket.

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White-Knuckled Ticket-Toppers

Austin trade groups and establishment Republicans are nervous about the Supreme Court race. They tend to be on the business end of the tort wars, and Ray has received a pile of contributions from trial lawyers. They're worried that she'll be the weaker candidate of the two in the general election, mainly because of heavy use of campaign credit cards and cash for things that appear, at first look, to be non-political. Lots of meals, for instance. Ray's camp says there is a reasonable explanation for every penny. Another source of anxiety: Wainwright is an African-American judge, and there's some fear that Democrats will get another boost out of the Republicans' failure to get most of their minority candidates out of the primaries. GOP consultants are circulating a bit of research that shows males doing poorly against females in Republican primaries, especially for judgeships. That's an advantage to Ray, but also offers a defense against Democratic claims that the GOP primary is an exclusive club.

Kirk and Morales picked up the pace at the end, with Morales stumbling over a voucher comment he made on a radio show and both candidates lashing out. Kirk employed Henry Cisneros on a tour through the Valley, where high turnout should help Morales. Put another way: Morales did well in the counties where runoffs are concentrated, and Kirk has to hold down his opponent's totals while producing his own successes elsewhere, notably in Dallas, Harris and Travis counties. Kirk is closing with more money at his disposal, but Morales still has an ability to connect with voters after two unsuccessful campaigns to go to Washington, D.C.

Kirk ended the primary election with outstanding loans totaling $200,000. He had a pile of cash in the bank at the same time. But the held-over debt allowed him to take contributions after the primary and apply them to the pre-primary period. (Federal campaign finance laws allow a candidate to accept $1,000 from a contributor for a primary, $1,000 for a runoff, and $1,000 for the general election. Kirk aides say the loan was taken out for cash flow purposes and not to manipulate the contribution periods. They say the post-primary contributions applied to the earlier period only amounted to about $15,000. Related: We scribbled earlier about a note in Kirk's fundraising materials that said donors may give up to $3,000. The campaign argued that the line was for informational reasons and not solicitation, but they've changed it, nonetheless. It now says the limit is $2,000.

The Autopsy Might Produce a Solution

Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff's proposal for a state property tax that would replace most local school property taxes was probably dead before he left the hearing where he introduced it, but he started a conversation that will continue through next year's legislative session.

Ratliff proposed a $1.40 state tax on every $100 in property. That would be combined with other state monies to pay the basic costs of education in every public school district in Texas. School districts would be allowed to add another $.10 to the tax for "local enrichment." And they would be able to add another $.30 to pay for bonds and other debts used to build and maintain buildings. (Those last two levies would be subject to local voter approval). Ratliff also said lawmakers ought to consider adding a little more to the $1.40 so that the state could pay the costs of teacher health insurance, which is now paid with a combination of state and local funds.

Without that optional part, he said his plan would raise about the same amount of money for schools as is now being spent. It would end or at least obscure some of the problems with the current system, which has wealthier school districts bellowing about the amount of locally raised money being sent to poorer school districts. It also has a huge advantage over the current structure, because it would allow the state to fund new programs–something they do almost every year–without forcing them to make the current education formulas even more complicated to comply with the constitution.

Establishing the Causes of Death

Ratliff's plan runs into a number of political problems. It would require a constitutional amendment and Texans would have to be convinced to create a state tax while partially killing the tax it replaces. It would put the Legislature in the position of raising and lowering school tax rates. Lawmakers don't want the honor. It would leave a number of districts–a small, but loud number–with less money than they currently get. And it would leave a larger number of districts with the same amount of money for schools, but with a higher tax rate than they're paying now.

It would get rid of optional homestead exemptions on school taxes that are offered in some of the state's biggest school districts. Ratliff considered a business property tax separate from the residential property tax, but said it would create strange problems: Some of the richest districts in the state would be among the poorest if their business property was pulled out of the tax base. He didn't want to walk through that field of land mines. And it would put the state–probably the comptroller–in the position of proving that property in disparate parts of the state is valued the same way.

The comptroller already has a job sort of like that. County appraisal districts send in their proposed values. The comptroller samples some of them to see what the values ought to be, and then the comptroller tells them they're either within the range or outside of it. Ratliff isn't convinced there is anything wrong with the current setup, but some wonks and even some lawmakers think the comptroller would have to be more directly responsible for property appraisals with a state property tax in place.

Ratliff said about ten times that his outline is just a suggestion to get the conversation going, and isn't detailed enough to be accurately called a proposal. And even if it's dead, it puts other politicos on the spot: If you don't like the current system, and you don't like the Ratliff idea, what would you support? Posed at the beginning of the general election season, that could be a provocative question.

Unsuited

Remember the libel lawsuit filed by Sen. Jeff Wentworth against Rep. John Shields during their Republican primary for Senate? Wentworth dropped the suit, on the grounds that "the defamatory and libelous statements on which this suit was based did not have their intended effect"–Wentworth won–and because Shields "corrected" some of the things he said about Wentworth. End of case.

A Twist at the End

A last-minute entrant into a special election to fill a Waco seat in the Texas House was financed by a candidate forced out of that race by a personal scandal. Just as that bit of drama was beginning to sink in, he found out he's not eligible to run for that seat, because his house is outside the district.

Jon Gimble, a 25-year-old student at Baylor University, filed to run in the special election against Republican Holt Getterman. The winner will be a House member until January, filling the term left open when Rep. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, resigned. Gimble paid his $600 filing fee with Walt Fair's credit card. Fair was one of Getterman's opponents in the March 12 primary and got enough votes to make a runoff. But he dropped out of that race after a video of him and a woman-not-his-wife started making the rounds and triggered a divorce petition from his wife.

Fair wasn't the only candidate with problems. Getterman, apparently believing he was being accused of distributing the video, got into an altercation with McLennan County GOP Chairman M.A. Taylor–by one account, the candidate kicked a door off its hinges. The uproar stirred by the two has Waco Republicans wondering if they're giving Democrats a chance at winning what should be a safe seat for the GOP. And now there's this fresh mess. The special election that put Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, into the Texas House also resulted in a law: If there's only one candidate in the running, election officials don't have to go to the time and trouble of holding a special election.

The special elections to install a new senator and a new state representative in the Waco area offer a prime opportunity to use the new law. Sen. David Sibley and Rep. Averitt both gave up their seats, forcing special elections on May 4 to elect successors. Averitt, who quit to run for Sibley's spot, was the only candidate to file in that race, and he was the winner in the regular primary last month. He'll get to be a senator at least until January and if he wins in November, for at least another two years beyond that (after a redistricting session, senators draw straws to find out who will serve two year terms and who will serve four-year terms; the terms are staggered until the next episode of redistricting).

Getterman filed for the special House election and it looked like that election would also be unnecessary. The Democrats in those races–Richie Renschler in the Senate race and John Mabry Jr. in the House contest–looked at the special and then announced they wouldn't file for election to the stub term, thus saving the voters some money and winning the candidates a little good will.

But on the last day of filing, Gimble, who lives in Crawford and has run for city council there, filed to run for the House seat. That would force a special election. But according to election wizards with the Texas Secretary of State, Gimble's House isn't in the existing HD-56. It's in the new district, which will be the basis for the November election, but not in the old one, which is the basis for next month's special election. He's out. One more wildcard that we know of: Write-in candidates can still be added for the special election until the end of the day on Monday. There might be an election after all.

Political Notes

Mona Taylor, campaign manager for Greg Abbott, will leave the campaign at the end of the month to have a baby. She had talked about coming back, but has decided not to try to raise a kid and a candidate at the same time. In her stead, Abbott is bringing in Buddy Barfield, a longtime Republican consultant who has worked behind the scenes for the last few cycles. Barfield won't be the campaign manager–more of a general consultant, we're told–and the campaign is still deciding whether to make any other changes as Taylor leaves and Barfield comes in. Miscellany: Those two have worked together before, by the way, on campaigns for David Dewhurst and for Clayton Williams...Taylor's will be the third baby born to women at that campaign within the last few months, and won't be the last. Another staffer is due to deliver her child a few weeks before Election Day.

• Travis County is joining Harris and Tarrant counties by switching to electronic voting machines. Travis uses an optical scanning system (where you pencil in the oval next to the name of the candidate or measure you support) and is famously slow for counting up the results. The county will start using electronic machines from Austin-based Hart InterCivic for early voting in this year's general election.

Political People and Their Moves

The next chancellor at Texas Tech University will be Dr. David Smith, the former head of Texas Tech's medical school and before that, of the Texas Department of Health. Smith has been acting chancellor since John Montford left the job seven months ago. He's not official yet, but he's the only candidate left on the list and the board is waiting out a 21-day period prescribed by law. One of the other names on that list was Mike Moses, a former Lubbock school superintendent and Texas Education Commissioner who did a stint in the Tech hierarchy before becoming superintendent of the Dallas ISD. Moses got a nice package to take his name out of the running: Dallas boosted his base salary to $310,000 per year... Wayne Scott, the former head of the Texas prison system, is giving up his job at the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to work for Management & Training Corp., a private firm that operates and manages prisons. Scott was appointed to the post last summer, and stayed until he tolled his 30th in state government, an important mark for those who pay attention to their state retirement benefits... Dianne Stewart is leaving the Center for Public Policy Priorities after 11 years as director there, but she's not leaving right away and isn't sure what's next. Stewart says she was looking for a change and wanted to give the center time to find a new chief. She's been in public policy and legislative arenas since 1984, and while she's figuring out what's next, the center will do a search for her replacement... Janna Burleson, after working for five senators over the last 17 years, decided to reboot; she'd been chief of staff to Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, since he took office in 1993... John Adams, who retired from the Air Force after 20 years to take a job at the Texas Supreme Court, is retiring at the end of June after 13 years as the court's chief clerk. His colleagues credit him with building the court's case-management database, initially for the court and people with cases there and now available to anyone with an Internet connection. A search for a replacement is underway... Mike Cox, the longtime spokesman at the Department of Public Safety (he was at the agency through the Luby's massacre, the Republic of Texas saga and the government's siege at Waco), has landed back in state government. Cox left DPS in late 2000 to go work for the Texas Press Association. Now he's signed on at the Texas Department of Transportation... Dallas isn't the only place where former journalists pine for the center chair at city council meetings: Retired Houston Post reporter Felton West is running for mayor of the town of Liberty Hill, just northwest of Austin. He's the reform candidate.

Quotes of the Week

Victor Morales, explaining to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he's not in favor of public funding for private schools, as he was purported to say in a radio interview: "I am against vouchers for private or religious schools. What I said, I was for vouchers for public schools. If you want to send your child to a different public school, there should be a voucher that pays that other public school."

U.S. Senate Ron Kirk, riffing on Morales' most famous prop in a radio debate: "I don't believe this is a decision that ought to be based on what you drive. It ought to be based on what drives you." Morales, quoted in the Dallas Morning News: "I want to discuss issues. But every time I do an interview, they ask me about the truck."

Deirdre Delisi, campaign manager for Gov. Rick Perry, quoted by the Austin American-Statesman after John Coppedge, a prominent East Texas doctor and former Perry supporter, endorsed Democrat Tony Sanchez in the Guv's race: "If Dr. Coppedge is supporting Mr. Sanchez, he's not a Republican."

Gov. Rick Perry, quoted in the Houston Chronicle during the flap over one of his prominent supporters switching sides because of a Perry veto that angered some doctors: "I can always have my father-in-law take care of my health care needs."

Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, after unveiling a state property tax for a special committee that's examining public school financing: "I didn't get a standing ovation."

State senator-turned-lobbyist Carl Parker, telling the Austin American-Statesman why he likes being able to contribute his own unused political funds to state officeholders: "Lobbyists who give away money are more effective than those who don't."


Texas Weekly: Volume 18, Issue 39, 8 April 2002. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2002 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (800) 611-4980 or email biz@ texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@ texasweekly.com, or call (512) 288-6598.


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