Senate District 17: The Hot Seat
Fri August 22, 2008 10:19 am

To say that the race to fill the Houston-area state Senate seat being vacated by Kyle Janek has heated up is an understatement. Melted down is more like it. Most readers know the lineup: four candidates, three of them Republicans (Austen Furse, who served in the Bush 41 White House in the area of domestic policy planning; Joan Huffman, a former state district judge; and Grant Harpold, an attorney and GOP precinct chair) and a lone but formidable Democrat: Chris Bell, the former congressman and 2006 gubernatorial nominee. Rumors continue to circulate that another Democrat may enter the race, perhaps with Republican funding, with the intention of dividing the Democratic vote and forcing Bell into a runoff.

Governor Perry set the special election for November 4, the same day as the general election but on a separate ballot. Some believe this format may benefit Republicans because new voters, presumably Obamamaniacs, may vote for president and forego the special election entirely. Bell hopes that his advantage in name ID will allow him to pile up enough votes on election day to avoid a runoff; if not, the two candidates who receive the most votes will meet in a runoff.

The real heat in this race is generated by what amounts to a Republican primary between Furse and Huffman for the right to take on Bell in a runoff. Janek has aroused some resentment by trying to handpick his successor. First he embraced former Houston oiler and TV commentator Spencer Tillman, only to find at the last minute that Tillman did not live in the district. Then he turned to Furse. This was too much for Jim Hotze, a former SREC member for District 17, who wrote a long article detailing Janek's maneuvers for the Texas Conservative Review, an online newsletter edited by Gary Polland, whom Janek defeated to win his Senate seat. I have included a few of Jim Hotze's comments; for the full article click here:

* The former Republican Senator for SD 17, Kyle Janek, resigned from office in the middle of a 4 year term to become a lobbyist. This means that there will be a special election for the seat in November. Janek, who wants to cash in on his contacts and experience, raises major concerns with the way he has orchestrated his resignation and his attempt to hand pick a successor who will be his man in the Senate.

* ... I think Janek was deceptive when he asked voters to elect him to another 4 year term when he knew he was resigning. My father taught me that I could not quit in the middle of a commitment. I believe that this is a breach of trust.

* ... I have a problem with the fact that Janek was not candid with many of us when he was questioned about his potential resignation during the last few months. When several of his constituents asked if he was planning to resign, he responded with a number of cover stories while he was executing his move. This behavior can be termed disingenuous and borderline deceitful.

* Janek sold his home in West University in May of 2007, which immediately raised questions regarding his tenure in Office. His first cover story was that he was going to move to another home in the district where his boys would have a larger yard. He told the reporter that story even though he had already purchased a home in Austin. The story changed at a precinct chair dinner in the Grotto in Houston on September 13, 2007 when he told several precinct chairs from the district that he was moving his family to Austin, but wasn’t resigning his Senate seat. He said he would keep a home in Galveston, so he could maintain the required residency.

* At this point, Mr. Janek made a 180 degree turn and had to retract his cover story. He now claimed that having the election in a short time frame would not allow many of the candidates who were interested in the race the time they needed to get into the race. In reality, this translates as – “[Janek's consultant Allen] Blakemore and I need some time to find another candidate for us to endorse and fund so we will have influence with the next SD 17 Senator.”

* The winner of the 1st "SD17 Idol" competition was Austen Furse. He is supported by some of the "powers that be" in the Party establishment and Mr. Janek has committed to use the over $300,000 left in his political account against any Republican competitors. By trying to hand pick his replacement so he would have a friendly vote in the Texas Senate, I believe Mr. Janek has put this seat at extreme peril in the next election.

* I do not necessarily fault Austen Furse for this strategy. Others are also interested in representing SD 17. I congratulate my fellow precinct chair Grant Harpold for his interest in the position and there are other good candidates like former District Judge Joan Huffman and State Representative Charlie Howard who have expressed interest in the race.

* In addition, Allen Blakemore is in the business of making money as a consultant who represents successful candidates. He makes no bones about it and wants to add another office holder to his stable. My main problem is with Mr. Janek, who should not have tried to "play a game" and deceive the voters who trusted him.

* ... I am not ready to "Make Nice." I am "mad as hell" and tired of being manipulated by the GOP Establishment. The voters and conservative activists in Senatorial District 17 deserve the truth from their elected officials and they should be able to expect that the elected official to serve out the term they have asked to be elected to, regardless of the financial gain they may be able to gain by resigning.

* All of us must look critically at the qualifications of candidates to replace Mr. Janek and support someone who has both conservative credentials and a good chance of winning in November. We cannot allow ourselves to be defeated because the manipulative tactics of someone who is concerned with personal gains over philosophy.

Readers will, of course, recognize the author's last name. Jim Hotze is a brother of the well known Republican activist Dr. Steven Hotze, who, as it happens, is supporting Austin Furse, and whose remarks on the race appear below. Jim Hotze told me that he has not made an endorsement. He said he believes that Janek, whom he regards as a friend, tried to be "too clever by half" and that the backlash will benefit Ms. Huffman, whom he expects to make the runoff. I was told early in the campaign that the Furse camp would attack Ms. Huffman for her participation in what will be portrayed as lenient plea bargains for sex offenders. Meanwhile, Steve Hotze has unleashed his fury at Huffman on another issue, gambling [I am indebted to "Houston Politics," the Houston Chronicle's political blog, as the source of Steven Hotze's comments and the response by State Representative Dennis Bonnen in an e-mail to Brazoria County GOP Chairwoman Yvonne Dewey]. Dr. Hotze's comments first:

Recently, there have been a series of letters sent by individuals who have scurrilously attacked Senator Janek and Austen Furse. These attacks may undermine our chances to keep the SD 17 seat Republican. It is my intention to set the record straight by providing you with the following verifiable facts about this race.

(1) One of the most ardent supporters for Joan Huffman is Robert Miller, lobbyist for Landry's Restaurants, as disclosed on the Texas Ethics Commission Website. Miller is lobbying for Landry's owner, Tillman Fertita, who wants gambling expanded in Texas and brought to Galveston. Miller served as CEO of METRO and was the man who pushed through the Main Street Light Rail line.

(2) According to Joan Huffman's campaign finance report, she raised almost half of her money from a single $100,000 contribution from Herbert Graham. If you Google Mr. Graham, the first thing you see is his bio on the Texas Horse Racing Museum and Hall Of Fame website. Here is a line from that: "Herbert Graham worked extensively with the late Pinkie Ruden to get pari-mutual racing passed and was one of the original 10 to invest $10,000 to start pari-mutual racing in Texas. Herb has been long active in various horse racing associations and active politically on the state and national levels." Mr. Graham also owns the Graham Central Station chain of nightclubs.

(3) It is important to follow the money. Approximately 60% of Joan Huffman's contributions are tied DIRECTLY to gambling, liquor, and nightclubs. This does not include the $500,000 loan Joan Huffman and her husband Keith Lawyer made to her campaign. Since Joan is a homemaker, it is reasonable to assume that $500,000 comes from the profits her husband Keith Lawyer makes from his nightclubs

(4) It also seems reasonable to assume that the $160,000 from outside gambling, liquor and nightclub interests, and the $500,000 in personal loans financed by liquor and nightclub profits, may cause Joan Huffman to look favorably upon legislation promoting gambling, liquor and nightclub interests in the Texas Senate, if not promote them outright. It does not seem that the gambling and night club interests would finance the Huffman campaign if they thought that she would oppose them.

(5) Some of Huffman's supporters have written that "Joan is the only person able to stand up to Senator John Whitmire on crime." That is an interesting comment because Joan Huffman and her husband Keith Lawyer are personal friends of Senator Whitmire. Not only has John Whitmire been a guest on several occasions to Joan and Keith's ranch, but Joan and her husband Keith have been guests in John Whitmire's seats at Astro's games - the same seats John Whitmire is under Ethics Commission Investigation for buying with campaign funds.

Joan's first Republican endorsement came from Representative Dennis Bonnen, who not only supports gambling, but has repeatedly filed bills to expand gambling in Texas. Dennis Bonnen is also sponsoring a fundraiser in Austin on August 26, 2008 to raise money from the Austin liquor, gambling and union lobbyists for Huffman.

You can tell a lot about a person and her political philosophy by looking at the persons who support them. It appears that Joan Huffman has shown her true colors by seeking the support of those who push gambling, like her $100,000 contributor Herbert Graham, and by taking over $600,000 in nightclub money to finance her campaign, as well as taking campaign advice from Robert Miller, who makes over $1 million every year lobbying for liquor, gambling and other "business" interests. Also, on top of the $10,500 Joan and her husband Keith Lawyer gave to John Whitmire, they gave money to other Democrats like Senator Eddie Lucio and to the failed Lt. Governor campaign of Democrat John Sharp.

In contrast, Austen Furse has been endorsed by . . . conservatives and conservative organizations [Furse touts an endorsement by Ann Coulter on his web site]. Austen has been a financial contributor to numerous conservative organizations, such as C.L.O.U.T., Texans for Lawsuit Reform, Associated Republicans of Texas, as well as to various stalwart conservatives like Representative Debbie Riddle and State Board of Education Member Terri Leo....

Dennis Bonnen fired back in his e-mail to chairwoman Dewey:

Thank you for visiting with me about Dr. Hotze's slanderous email. It is interesting that Dr. Hotze begins his attack piece by bemoaning recent attacks against Kyle Janek and Austin Furse, III because these attacks may undermine our chances to keep the SD17 seat Republican. If Dr. Hotze is concerned that these attacks may undermine Republican efforts, then why launch untrue allegations about me and the leading Republican candidate, former Judge Joan Huffman?

The truth is Dr. Hotze is a direct surrogate for Furse's campaign. Furse's candidacy is floundering by any measure. He has watched from the sidelines as his largest contributors [reportedly John Nau and Bob Perry--pb] and several grassroots conservatives have abandoned his campaign to support Huffman. As the August heat and desperation set in, it appears that the Furse campaign decided to launch an attack on me and Huffman as a last ditch effort to gain some semblance of momentum. The problem for Furse is that no amount of attacks will change the fact that most observers, including myself, believe that Furse is unlikely to defeat Chris Bell this fall.

First, Furse recklessly attacks Huffman for being supported by "union lobbyists." For you and me, Yvonne, that would be Sheriff Wagner and his deputies or Chief Hromadka and his officers. I myself, have never met a candidate, who wouldn't be proud of the support of the thousands of
law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line to protect Kim and the boys.

Second, Furse would have us believe that a contribution to a candidate or offer of support indicates total agreement between candidate and supporter. If this is true, then we are left to assume that Furse's wife's contribution to Obama and participation in the Democrat Primary indicates her support of Obama's policies and the Democrat Party Platform. Should we assume that Furse's wife extends this influence to Furse himself?

The truth is these and other lazy assumptions/accusations are rarely true and only act to undermine the credibility of all conservative campaigns. Former Judge Huffman is no more responsible for her
husband's political contributions than Furse is responsible for his wife's. Huffman is an honorable conservative who has pledged to run a positive campaign on the issues and to seek positive change. The entire process will be better served if Furse would dispense with destructive and baseless negative attacks. His actions thus far do not provide much hope.

Finally, I have spoken with former Judge Huffman regarding gambling. Former Judge Huffman is unequivocally opposed to gambling and the expansion of gambling and will not vote to expand gambling under any circumstance as our state senator.

The truth is that the top lobbyist advocating expanded gambling in Texas is Mike Toomey of the Texas Lobby Group, who represents Sam Houston Race Park and Charles Hurwitz. The Texas Lobby Group recently hosted a lobby fundraiser in Austin for Furse and contributed $2,500 to Furse's campaign. Would it surprise you to know that the Special Guest at the fundraiser was former Sen. Kyle Janek? Would it surprise you to know that Janek has told people that he will be lobbying next session, and that he will be officing with Mike Toomey?

I regret that the Furse campaign has launched this negative attack. The only beneficiary is Chris Bell and the Democrats. Nevertheless, I did feel compelled to set the record straight and again thank you for the opportunity.

This race-within-a-race between Furse and Huffman is very much to Bell's advantage. The result could be that the embittered supporters of whichever R does not make the runoff will not return to the polls. Yet, Bell by no means is a sure bet to win. If he is forced into a runoff, his chances diminish substantially. Remember what happened to San Antonio Republican congressman Henry Bonilla in 06. On Election Day he ran in a special election in a new court-ordered district and came within a fraction of a percentage point of winning a majority. But he fell just short, the Democrats swept the national elections, and Ciro Rodriguez beat Bonilla in the runoff as demoralized R's stayed home. That scenario could repeat itself in the 17th district if Obama loses. In fact, this race is a very large gamble for Bell. State senator is a great job--oodles of influence, short hours, and great rainmaking opportunities for a lawyer like Bell)--but his longterm goal has always been statewide office. Bell would likely be a candidate for U.S. Senate after Kay Bailey Hutchison resigns her seat, or he might focus on a major statewide office in 2010 (light guv, AG). His loss to Perry in the 2006 governor's race was a "good" loss, but a loss in this race would be a step backwards.

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