Don't Put It in Writing
Wed September 5, 2007 8:36 am

In the journalism business, there's a saying that some stories "write themselves"--that the situation is so clear, and so egregious, that all the writer has to do is describe what happened. Such is R.G. Ratcliffe's story in today's Chronicle about Mikal Watts's boasting about his influence with the justices on 13th Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi in an effort to force a settlement of a lawsuit. Here's the lead:

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mikal Watts of San Antonio once tried to pressure a legal opponent into a $60 million personal injury lawsuit settlement by claiming he would have an advantage on appeal because of his firm's "heavy" campaign financial support to an appellate court's justices, "all of whom are good Democrats."

Watts told Ratcliffe that he wrote the letter noting his contributions (more than $80,000 to the six appellate justices) because defense lawyers always tell trial lawyers they cannot win their cases ultimately because the Texas Supreme Court consists of all Republican justices. I believe this to be true because a lawyer friend of mine told me about an oil and gas case he had tried in South Texas. All the evidence favored his client, the plaintiff, and all the defendants had settled except one, a big West Texas operator. Why wouldn't they settle? "We're not afraid of lawsuits," an employee of the operator told my friend's clients. "You'll win in the trial court, but we own the Supreme Court." The difference with Mikal Watts is that he was dumb enough, or egotistical enough, or both, to put it in writing.

If Watts wins the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate to face incumbent John Cornyn, a longtime adversary of the plaintiffs' bar, this episode is sure to end up as a thirty-second spot. That too will write itself--something about a Senate candidate who thinks that politicians can be bought. I asked a source sympathetic to Cornyn if the senator's camp had leaked the letter. The answer was no, but they apparently knew of its existence. "It's unfortunate it came out one year too early," I was told.

I haven't written much about this race, either the primary, in which Watts will face state representative Rick Noriega, or the general election, but here's the conventional wisdom:

The primary: Noriega has a great personal story; the question is whether he can raise enough money to get it out to the electorate. Watts has oodles of money, but no compelling personal narrative. The question is whether money or an Hispanic surname is the greater asset in a Democratic primary. Does the name "Victor Morales" mean anything to you? It meant something to congressmen John Bryant and Jim Chapman, who lost the 1996 Senate primary to the unknown schoolteacher, and the Hispanic vote means more in the Democratic primary today than it did then.

The general election: None of the candidates is that well known. Cornyn is the favorite but not an overwhelming one. Most national surveys rate the race as "Republican favored"--one step short of "strong Republican, " one step ahead of "leans Republican." If Watts wins the primary, his background as a trial lawyer will hurt him, but Cornyn will carry a lot of the baggage that has piled up during Bush's second term. Watts will have enough money to focus the race on Cornyn's record. Noriega has the better shot to beat Cornyn--if he can raise the money.

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