The following article first appeared in Lone Star Report. I am publishing it with the permission of Will Lutz. This is his take on the Todd Smith-Jeff Cason Republican primary battle race and the involvement of Citizen Leader PAC. * * * * What started as a local race between Rep. Todd Smith (R-Euless) and Jeff Cason took on a new tone when Texans for Lawsuit Reform founder Dick Weekley and fellow TLR donors Leo Linbeck III and Harlan and Trammell Crow funded the Citizen Leader PAC, which launched attacks on Smith via the web, mailers, and phone calls. Much larger now than Smith’s political future are these questions: Do Republicans want independent legislators who think, or will Texas government become a private fiefdom for the benefit of a handful of feudal lords? And is the tort reform movement about creating a fair balance between individuals and corporations in the legal system, or is it succumbing to special interests? Here’s the obvious question: why isn’t TLR attacking Smith directly? After all, Smith is an attorney who has done some plaintiff work, and he has disagreed with TLR sometimes. Despite his profession and concerns about parts of the bill, Smith voted for TLR’s signature legislation — an omnibus civil justice reform bill that included caps on non-economic medical malpractice damages. So instead of attacking a legislator who voted for tort reform directly, TLR’s founder uses the Citizen Leader PAC instead. The website the PAC created tries to attack Smith on several issues including immigration, abortion, taxes, and voter ID. But this is disingenuous, as there are other Republicans with far worse records on these issues who aren’t getting attacked. Here’s a big reason why the attack on Smith looks fishy: Smith played a critical role in the unraveling of an outrageous abuse of the public trust — the Texas Residential Construction Commission. Largely at the behest of homebuilder Bob Perry (who, with his wife, donated $25,000 to Cason and $5,000 to Smith in this race), the Legislature created a new agency [in 2003–pb] to referee home construction defect disputes and imposed a tax on new homes. But the bill’s fine print knocked out the state’s Deceptive Trade Practice Act and all implied warranties, replacing them with rules drawn up by a stacked commission, whose membership included Perry’s general counsel. (Smith voted against the builder’s bill.) Responding to constituent concerns, Smith asked then-Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn to investigate. Her report documented the one-sided nature of the agency and its dispute resolution process, and that began a chain of events that led to the agency’s abolition by the Legislature. In other words, Smith blew the whistle on an unfair gravy train for homebuilders, and these attacks have the appearance of revenge politics. This isn’t the first time TLR’s brass has pulled a stunt like this. In 2006, a new relatively new group called Texans for Texas unveiled a “Texas Shark Watch” project, launching personal attacks on any Republican with perceived links to the plaintiff’s bar, including staunch conservative Reps. Charlie Howard, Robert Talton, and Bryan Hughes. TLR tried to distance itself from Shark Watch. But TLR’s Form 990, filed with the Internal Revenue Service, showed a large check from TLR to Texans for Texas in 2006, when its Shark Watch project was attacking these fine conservative public servants. There was a time when Texas had a real need for tort reform. Some of the legislation TLR helped pass had positive effects. A lot of its stated goals are laudable. But sometimes it seems like TLR takes an overzealous view of the civil litigation system. Not every lawsuit is an abusive one. Not all class actions are wrongful. In short, there are legitimate and reasonable uses of the civil justice system. TLR served a valuable purpose, but it shouldn’t run the state. Several times in the past decade, Republicans hurt themselves politically by voting against their districts to satisfy the whims of a few GOP contributors. And look at what happened when major GOP donors took out Rep. Pat Haggerty (R-El Paso) in the primary. The seat went to a Democrat. Smith isn’t perfect, nor does he have a 100 percent conservative voting record. One could fairly argue the Voter ID issue was mishandled. Some of the attacks on that website are legitimate topics for debate. But some of the attacks on the website – particularly on abortion and immigration – distort Smith’s record, seem hypocritical, or take quotes from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram out of context. Smith works hard. During the 1990s, Karl Rove didn’t want Republicans asking questions about the state’s education accountability system or whether it benefits kids. But Smith wisely asked the tough questions. He was the only Republican on the Public Education Committee who attended a Lone Star Foundation conference exposing the political failure to provide higher standards and honest accountability in public schools. Cason may be a perfectly decent person. But Tarrant County voters now have reason to ask whether he will exhibit the same work ethic and independence as the incumbent. And all Republicans need to ask whether they will tolerate unfair attacks by outside groups with questionable motives. Perhaps the real lesson behind this incident is the need for a way to refocus GOP primary debates on the issues and find ways to broaden both the debate and power structure within the Texas GOP. * * * * I have previously expressed my concerns about Citizen Leader PAC. I suggested that it was a way for Dick Weekley, one of the founders of the PAC, to exercise his influence without dirtying TLR’s skirts. Lutz suggests the same thing when he writes, “So instead of attacking a legislator who voted for tort reform directly, TLR’s founder uses the Citizen Leader PAC instead.” Lutz further suggests that Weekley is taking aim at Smith because Smith opposed the creation and operation of the Texas Residential Construction Commission. Weekley, of course, is not just a tort reformer; he has also been involved in his brother’s homebuilding business, which enjoyed the protections TRCC provided to builders before its long-overdue demise in the Sunset process. Lutz hit the bull’s eye when he asked this question: Do Republicans want independent legislators who think, or will Texas government become a private fiefdom for the benefit of a handful of feudal lords? Citizen Leader PAC has left no doubt about which side it is on.
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