Filling the Shoes

Where are Texas politics headed? Right, where you’d think.

August 1997By Comments

The 1998 campaign for governor of Texas began where its likely winner may end up—on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. But the place wasn’t the White House, and the prospective candidate wasn’t George W. Bush. On a warm day in late June the elegant Willard hotel complex, with its beaux-arts tower and office suites, was home to a reception for Garry Mauro, land commissioner of Texas, possible Democratic challenger to Bush, and recently published autobiographer. On a tent-covered private balcony outside the local law offices of Houston-based Vinson and Elkins, Mauro signed copies of his book, Beaches, Bureaucrats, and Big Oil, while visitors, including Bill Clinton and Al Gore, enjoyed a panorama of Washington’s most famous landmarks. The book-signing party was followed by a fundraising dinner (among the guests: Hillary Rodham Clinton) that reportedly brought in $200,000 for Mauro.

Clinton and Gore didn’t come to the Willard only out of friendship for Mauro. The 1998 election in Texas will be a national event that could go a long way in determining whether Bush can eventually fill the presidential shoes once worn by his father. The governor, of course, is a heavy favorite to win reelection. But Mauro, if he decides to enter the race, would have aims in addition to the long-shot chance of winning. As a veteran Democratic and Clinton operative, he would be trying to inflict scars that will make Bush a less attractive presidential candidate in the year 2000.

More than presidential politics will be at stake next year in Texas, however. The election season has been transformed by the unexpected decision of Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock to call it quits and the subsequent scramble for advancement of lower-ranking officeholders. The stakes are huge. With Bush showing no drop-off in popularity from the failure of his proposal to reduce school property taxes and shift some to business, Texas Republicans will be going for the kill: control of every statewide elected office and both houses of the Legislature. The Democrats will make their stand with a strong lineup: State comptroller John Sharp is seeking to replace Bullock; incumbent attorney general Dan Morales is running for his third term; and Houston lawyer Paul Hobby, following in the footsteps of a grandfather who was governor and a father who was lieutenant governor, is going for the comptroller’s job. What the party lacks is a credible challenger to Bush. (Mauro, while devoting much of his book to his laudable efforts to clean up the coastal environment, owns up to filing for personal bankruptcy, committing minor ethics violations, and being investigated—and eventually cleared—by the FBI.) Surveying the situation, Democratic political consultant George Shipley said, “We need somebody who is well liked, cares about education, and wants to tax the rich. Hey, let’s nominate George W. Bush.”

Here are the questions that the pros will be asking as the campaign season approaches—and some answers.

Is Bush running for president? Of course. To be precise, he’s not not-running. “There’s interest there. I readily concede that,” he told me in an interview after the session. “There’s a lot of interest, evidently—a guy’s running first in the polls without trying really.” Maybe, I suggested, they think it’s your father. Bush leaned forward. “No,” he said emphatically. “They don’t think it’s my father. Bob Teeter [President Bush’s onetime pollster] checked it on his own, and they know it’s me.” When I asked Bush how he will answer the question that did so much damage to California governor Pete Wilson’s presidential bid—whether he would give up his state office to run for president, to which Wilson unwisely answered no—Bush corrected my question: “It will be, Do you pledge to Texans that you won’t run for president in the year 2000? And there will be so many hands up we’ll have to hold a lottery to see who gets to ask it.” Okay, I said, I’ll ask it. His response: “I will have an answer at the appropriate time.” Oh, well. I tried.

Is Bush well situated to make the race? Yes and no. He has all the credentials: looks, a likable personality, star quality, fundraising ability, intelligence, the ability to lead, a talent for one-on-one political salesmanship, and a good record in office, though not as good as he had hoped for. So what’s the problem? Bush’s greatest asset—his name—also happens to be his greatest liability. George Bush the elder broke his pledge of “Read my lips: No new taxes,” and elements of the Republican right will never forgive or forget. “I have all of Dad’s enemies and half his friends,” the governor has been known to lament. Now, after the battle over property-tax relief, the sins of the father are being imputed to the son. “Why is it that whenever somebody named Bush gets a 70 percent approval rating, they want to raise taxes?” was a wisecrack heard around the Capitol. Bush’s plan actually called for a $1 billion excess of tax cuts over increases, but that didn’t stop the Wall Street Journal, National Review, and the state chairman of Bush’s own party, Tom Pauken, from taking shots at him. A Houston taxpayers’ advocate, in a release headed “Read My Lips Part Two,” said that Bush broke his anti—income tax pledge to her by supporting a franchise tax on partnerships. Taxes aren’t the only area of suspected apostasy: Donna Ballard, the fringe-right conservative on the State Board of Education, wrote an op-ed piece in the Houston Chronicle in early July blasting the governor for supporting curriculum standards she opposed. “Contrary to his campaign promises,” she wrote, “he has embraced the education establishment.” The danger for Bush is that these accusations, while trivial in themselves, may gain weight in the aggregate and become the conventional wisdom among hard-line conservatives.

Will Bush move to the right in his 1998 campaign for reelection? Move? On most social issues he’s already there. Bush’s moderate image comes from his style rather than his substance. Bush is not an exclusionary politician; he is not anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti—welfare recipient, or pro English-only. Nor is he inclined to be confrontational toward Democrats, an attitude that sets him apart from many younger Republicans in Congress—and in the Texas Legislature. But his ideological stance is wholly compatible with the Christian Coalition’s. Criticism of the sixties counterculture is a staple of his speeches. He is for faith-based participation in publicly funded welfare programs, an idea that some would consider an incursion on the separation of church and state. He recently named as head of the state health department Dr. Reyn Archer, who, as a federal health administrator during the eighties, implemented a controversial pro-life gag rule. (It prohibited counselors paid with federal funds from giving advice about abortions to pregnant women.) Bush’s 1995 education-reform package gave parents more authority over education and the state less. Christian Coalition founder Ralph Reed is a longtime Bush friend and has visited him in the Governor’s Mansion; when Reed announced plans in April to set up shop as a political consultant, rumors immediately began circulating that Bush would be a client in 2000.

Which party enters 1998 in better position? That’s easy—the Republicans do. In 1974 GOP candidates for contested statewide offices won just 29 percent of the votes cast in those races; last year the Republicans’ share was 56 percent. Republicans are still gaining in every section of the state, including South Texas. Since 1988, GOP candidates have gone from getting a minority share of the votes to a majority in the onetime Democratic strongholds of East Texas and Central Texas.

The Democrats have been overwhelmed by waves of new Republican voters. GOP consultant Karl Rove has compiled a chart of the 25 counties with the greatest percentage increase in voter registration since 1970. Travis is the sole urban county on the list. Only two South Texas counties, Zapata and Maverick, show up—bad news for the Democrats. A few are in rural areas. The rest, 17 counties in all, are suburban. In 3 of the counties (Collin, north of Dallas; Fort Bend, west of Houston; and Rockwall, east of Dallas), the increase in voter registration since 1970 has been more than 1,000 percent, or tenfold.

Suburbs are graveyards for Democrats. When Ann Richards defeated Clayton Williams in 1990, she won more than 40 percent of the major-party votes in Collin County. Four years later, when she ran against George W. Bush, she improved her Collin County total by 6,000 votes—but her percentage dropped to 34 percent. Of the increase in turnout, Bush won four out of every five votes. This outcome was repeated in the statewide numbers. Richards in 1994 won around 90,000 more votes than she got in defeating Williams. But Bush polled more than half a million more votes than Claytie did.

How do the down-ballot races shape up? In the race for “lite guv,” as the number two position is called around the Capitol, Sharp’s likely Republican opponent is a former A&M squadronmate, agriculture commissioner Rick Perry. The chance to become governor the easy way, if Bush wins the presidency and vacates his old job, could entice others into the Republican primary—most notably Houston investor David Dewhurst, who is capable of funding his own campaign. This race will be crucial to Bush if he does run for president; he won’t want a Democrat waiting in the wings to succeed him. Sharp has the better record: He has come up with numerous money-saving ideas that have been embraced by the Legislature; he developed the anti-welfare fraud Lone Star card, and he started the Texas Tomorrow program, which allows parents to invest for their children’s college tuition. Perry’s office has nowhere near the visibility as Sharp’s. But Perry is a much better TV candidate. The Republicans’ big advantage lies in the lite guv’s position directly under governor on the ballot. Bush, who beat Richards by 300,000 votes, could easily win by a million votes this time. A net of half a million voters—one out of every nine or ten—would have to switch to the Democratic column for Sharp to win. Sharp will try to pitch his appeal to independent voters who want divided government, but the edge goes to Perry.

The attorney general’s race shapes up as a serious problem for Republicans. Dan Morales doesn’t get high marks from Capitol insiders, but his public image is unflawed. He is aggressive (he sued the tobacco companies) and independent (his strict interpretation of the anti—affirmative action Hopwood decision enraged minorities). Meanwhile, the Republicans are in a quandary. His probable opponent is Tom Pauken, the former state party chairman and a divisive force who could cut off Bush’s coattails. The Bush crowd would like to see state supreme court justice John Cornyn get in the race, but Pauken has a base and name identification, and Cornyn doesn’t. Edge to Morales.

No love is lost between the two Republican railroad commissioners, Carole Keeton Rylander and Barry Williamson, who are considering running against Hobby for comptroller. The winner of the GOP primary may have a hard time wooing the supporters of the loser. To make matters worse for Republicans, their nominee will be situated directly below Pauken on the ballot, which is not the place to be. Bush will have to have mighty long coattails to reach this far. Edge to Hobby.

What about those coattails? The Democrats’ dilemma is whether to challenge Bush or let him have what amounts to a bye. One theory is that a kamikaze Mauro race might help national Democrats in 2000, but it would hurt Texas Democrats in 1998 by stirring up Bush to spend money and effort that would benefit the entire ticket. Mauro has only to look back to his first race, in 1982, for a parallel. Republicans challenged U.S. senator Lloyd Bentsen and Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby, who mounted a unified campaign that swept Republican governor Bill Clements out of office and elected left-of-center Democrats, including Mauro, to down-ballot offices. The other argument is that it is better to keep Bush occupied with his own race instead of campaigning for other Republicans. The possibility remains that Mauro will decide to run for reelection, and that a dark horse (Secretary of the Navy John Dalton’s name has come up) might run against Bush. The Democrats had better get it right. If they can’t win some races with this ticket, they can’t win, period.

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