In 1994, Ann Richards was ducking out of a seemingly endless campaign strategy meeting, but she wanted to leave us with a joke: “What do a tornado and a redneck divorce have in common?” It is possible that that I was the only one in the room who had not heard this one before, but all professed ignorance. “In the end, someone is going to lose a trailer.”
Governor Richards would have loved Trailergate. “How long does one need to live in a trailer before she’s officially poor?” is the new way to count angels on a pinhead. Richards would have eaten Wayne Slater’s Dallas Morning News Sunday story for brunch and laughed about it while cleaning her teeth with that big red toothpick she carried around with her.
But the Davis campaign took two days to get a credible counterattack together, and by then it was “Ginger, get the popcorn” time. Slater’s article blossomed into a post-modern Rorschach test: The harrumphing big feet saw it as a test of Davis’ political ability, Greg Abbott viewed it as proof of her duplicity, and his less charitable henchmen found in it proof that Davis was a gold-digger.
It was as if Gandhi had foretold Trailergate. First they ignore you, then they ask you to make coffee while the menfolk talk, then you outraise them, and then they call you a floozy on Twitter.
Ignore Trailergate. The real action for Democrats is going on in private where a tectonic power shift is taking place that could eventually move mountains on the Texas political landscape. With no competitive primary, Davis’ campaign can focus on raising money and, in tandem with Battleground Texas, building a field campaign that observers say is more swing-state than long shot. And to Jeff Rotkoff, the 34-year-old whose job it to advise mega-donors Steve and Amber Mostyn how to spend their political money, that’s exactly as it should be.
As the treasurer of the Texas Association of Consumer Lawyers PAC—a splinter group of trial lawyers who got sick of the way the Texas Trial Lawyer Association was wasting their money on salaries, lobbying, and junkets—Rotkoff is playing a new and outsized role in the upcoming primaries by choosing which races to target, which candidates to fund in those races, and how those candidates spend that money.
As a Democratic consultant, I have found myself on opposite sides from Rotkoff on several campaigns, and since TACL PAC does in-house opposition research (my specialty), it is technically a competitor of mine. Nevertheless, I welcome our new overlords.
Though this new group started as a reaction to TTLA, TACL PAC (“tackle,” not “tickle”) is best understood as the long-awaited liberal answer to Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the conservative political group that turned Texas red and made trial lawyers an endangered species. Rotkoff says TACL PAC will “look for places we can win elections” and take an “all of the above” approach in getting it done: independent expenditures, direct contributions, picking consultants, evaluating field plans, auditing campaign budgets, finding qualified staffers for campaigns, mediating disputes between consultants. No big salaries. No junkets. No lobbying.
“If you elect good people, you don’t have to spend a shit pile of money lobbying them. So our goal is to elect the right people,” said Rotkoff.
The focus in the March primaries is as much about beating the wrong people as it is electing the right ones. In El Paso, TACL PAC is targeting TLR-backed Democratic representatives Naomi Gonzalez and Marisa Marquez and supporting Mary Gonzalez for re-election. In Fort Worth, TACL PAC is backing Lon Burnham for re-election and Libby Willis over Mike Martinez in the primary for Davis senate seat because, Rotkoff says, Willis “is the person who I think gives us the best chance to hold that seat.”
Rotkoff stresses that TACL’s major donors ultimately decide which races to fund. Annie’s List, which backs pro-choice Democratic women, the House Democratic Campaign Committee and even TTLA are still at the table. But Rotkoff’s dual roles as the Mostyns’ major domo and the TACL PAC treasurer gives him a disproportionate power over Democratic rebuilding efforts in Texas. The Golden Rule will be in effect, said one local Democratic consultant: “He who has the gold makes the rules.”
“That’s the kind of stuff I get paid to do, and absolutely that ruffles feathers, and absolutely people who have controlled political dollars or influenced the expenditure of political dollars have been criticized, without naming names, for doing that kind of stuff. But it’s the nature of the job,” said Rotkoff.
The name Rotkoff is not mentioning is that of Russ Tidwell, who until he resigned in October directed TTLA’s political activities. While TTLA’s PAC money enabled many Democratic wins, many times it was in spite of Tidwell’s idiosyncrasies. Tidwell and I got crossways when I managed Chris Bell’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign and Tidwell insisted despite reason and evidence that Republican-turned-independent Carole Keeton Strayhorn was the better investment. She finished third despite raising millions from traditionally Democratic donors. In 2008, TTLA backed Republican senator Ken Brimer for re-election against then-Fort Worth City Council member Wendy Davis.
Tidwell played favorites, insisted upon outdated methods, and maintained a Nixonian list of consultants-non-grata who were not allowed to work on targeted races. Among these was the late Democratic consultant Kelly Fero. Campaigns that wanted TTLA money could not hire Fero. In his 2006 primary challenge to the late state Sen. Frank Madla, Carlos Uresti reportedly funneled Fero’s fee through a third-party so he could take Fero’s advice and TTLA’s money without angering Tidwell.
With TACL PAC, subterfuge will neither be possible nor necessary. Rotkoff and the 10 or so trial lawyers who give TACL PAC at least $1,000 a month know how to read a poll and can tell the difference between a budget written to placate donors versus the real budget used for operational decisions. And if Rotkoff is telling the truth, doing what works will be less important than doing things in one particular way.
Focusing on how campaigns win elections—and not the personal preferences of a particular PAC director—makes for lousy entertainment. For that, we have Trailergate. But thanks to Rotkoff, the Mostyns, Davis, Battleground Texas, come November, we might have something new: competitive elections.