Why a tempest in the tea pot matters

Usually, voters have to wait until new officials are sworn in to start feeling disappointed by their elected officials. However, the Texas House is off to a fast start with a nasty battle over the speakership. People will divide up and blame different sides for the fight and its tone. However, it’s clear that Texans should be embarrassed by at least one side in this nasty fight. Here we are just days after the Republicans’ huge victory at the polls, and the fighting is already looking like an episode of Real Housewives.

What happened?

The roots of the fight go back to the ousting of Speaker Tom Craddick before the 2009 session and his replacement by Joe Straus. The battle began anew during the Texas Republican convention in June of 2010 when David Barton, a former vice chairman of the state party  called for language in the platform calling for the removal of Republican speaker Joe Straus because many social conservatives him considered too liberal. From June through early November, Republicans were too busy thrashing Democrats to be bothered with internal squabbles. Now, with the Democrats safely vanquished, Republican found time to turn their energies toward each other.

So, how has this battle unfolded (so far)?

Shortly after the election a coalition of conservative interest group leaders released a letter calling for the ousting of Straus. They felt he didn’t meet their definition of conservatism. While some of the fight is being taken up by new people brought into the GOP by the Tea Party movement, some Republicans believe that the battle is being directed by colleagues who have been in office for years.

Representative Leo Berman turned up the heat in the debate with some inflammatory language in an “open letter to the Speaker” that began by quoting Lincoln’s saying that, “You can fool all of the people some of the time; some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” Berman goes on to accuse the Speaker of being a traitor to Republican causes  and closes with a call for member of the House to reject Strauss.

Don’t compromise yours by voting with Straus and writing fictitious statements about the service he provided.  It was a farce!  My military career forced me to detest those who would compromise their integrity for personal gain.  You all know what I mean!

Sid Miller responded to Berman’s letter with a more measured response that explained: “While I have a great deal of respect for your service to our nation and our state, I don’t respect your name calling. I am disappointed in your vicious attacks against our Republicans brothers and sisters.”

On November 10, Bryan Hughes (Mineola) publicly withdrew his previous pledge to Straus. In his letter Hughes claimed that a member of the Speaker’s leadership team said that redistricting would be used to punish members that failed to support Speaker Straus.  Hughes went on to make a dramatic claim:

More specifically, this member told me that maps were already being drawn to get rid of  Representative-Elect Erwin Cain (R-Sulphur Springs) and Representative Dan Flynn (R-Van), because they were not on the Speaker’s list of supporters.

Straus quickly denied the allegations he called on Hughes to name the person who allegedly made the threat. He went on to assert:  “I did not and would never authorize, allow, or condone linking redistricting in any way with the Speaker’s race, and anyone who knows me knows better than to give that assertion any credence.” Hughes provided the name to Strauss who turned the to Representative Chuck Hopson who chairs the General Investigating committee of the Texas House.

On the same day, Warren Chisum (Pampa) issued a press release in support of his candidacy for speaker that and urged Straus to release members of House from their written pledges to support him. (This seemed somewhat pointless given that Hughes had just withdrawn his pledge to support Straus.)

Straus responded by asking Chisum, “Have you no shame?”  Straus went on to level his own accusations: “The calls, emails and letters threatening Republicans with future primary opposition if they support my candidacy have clearly not been generated by me, or my supporters.”

On November 11, Ken Paxton officially announced his entry into the race for speaker.

On November 12, eighteen House chairs released a letter affirming their support for Straus. “We have found him to be a staunch fiscal conservative in the model of President Reagan, whom he once served in Washington.” Obviously, dropping Reagan’s name into the debate is intended to send a clear message.

Sometime over the November 13-14 weekend, the House Republican Caucus Executive Committee decided to conduct a “straw poll” among Republican members of the Texas House about their choice for Speaker.

Things have quiet down for the moment. Stories in the Amarillo Globe-News, Houston Chronicle, and New York Times recount parts of the story from a variety of perspectives.

Does this matter?

On one hand, this is a tempest in the tea pot. Most Texans don’t care about what goes on inside the Legislature and are more concerned about what comes out of it. It’s like a lot of issues that the media likes to dwell on. It sounds like the most important event ever… until the next event.

So, this fight will do little to change citizens’ view the Texas Legislature. And, that’s exactly the problem. The Legislature has a bad reputation and this would have been a good opportunity to change that. Instead, 2010 has become an opportunity to reinforce the image of the Texas legislature as a bunch of clowns.

This battle is over the claim to ownership of the 2010 election victory and largely some old-fashioned muscle flexing. Every election is followed by a phase of crediting claiming as everyone tries to make the victory their own. Scholars understand that elections are decided by broad factors such as the economy and tossing around labels like “liberal” and “conservative” mean very little to voters concerned about the state of the economy or the conduct of a war. Voters care about results and legislators would be wise to spend more time focusing on getting their job done and less time on imposing purity tests associated with ambiguous labels.

The Legislature needs to learn handle its business better. Texas has had unruly behavior before. Bob Bullock generated plenty of political storms. However, he eventually gave up the bottle and settled down. Exactly what the current fighters need to give up has yet to be determined.


Ending the straight ticket office

The Denton Record Chronicle has reported  Senator Jeff Wentworth (San Antonio) has filed a bill (SB-139) that would remove the option of straight ticket voting from Texas ballots. Wentworth’s argument is simple. No one party has all the answers and voters should look at the person, not the party.

If people want to vote for every Republican or Democrat on the ballot, that is their privilege as free Americans. What I want them to do is look at the name. If 35 other states can do it with no incident, I believe we can do it in Texas.

Wentworth’s bill is important in light of a recent news reports that straight-ticket voting was the highest in a decade. Results from the state’s largest counties indicate that 57.7% of Texans used the straight ticket option.

Wentworth is exactly right when that both parties nominate candidates they’re embarrassed to have running under their label. It’s odd to me that a state full of people who claim to be independent and suspicious of politicians would demonstrate so much blind faith a political institution.

A boring story

The truth is often boring. Rumors and innuendo are much more interesting. So, I feel compelled to note the boring demise of a potentially fun story.

Earlier this year, a blogger broke the story that Rick Perry’s campaign had spent $78.26 for a business meeting at “La Te Da” in Key West, Florida. What makes the story potentially so much fun is that “La Te Da” was labeled as a “well-known destination for gay travelers with a popular cabaret that features drag show acts.”  Now, you have to admit that it is pretty funny to picture Perry’s campaign staff sitting down to discuss the advancement of social conservatism while a man dressed as Cher performs on stage.

However, the Austin American Statesman debunked the story by revealing that “Cabaret La Te Da” is part of a hotel complex (The Hotel at La Te Da) with a variety of venues and that Anita Perry was lunching in the much more typical restaurant frequented by tourists and local families.

So, the truth here is no damn fun. The real story is not the kind of story that gets repeated over and over on blogs and talk radio until the misperception is so deeply embedded that the truth is drowned out. Maybe some people will learn a lesson about relying on angry, opinion-driven media.

Probably not.

We now return you to your regular programing.

Spending by statewide candidates

Texans for Public Justice have just posted their summary of spending by statewide candidates in the 2010 general election. If you click on the name of the candidate in the list, you get a list of all of that candidates itemized contributions reported to the Texas Ethics Commission.

One really bad idea for Texas higher education

Tonight’s “daily buzz” in the Quorum Report includes the news that Representative Fred Brown (R-College Station) has pre-filed legislation (HB 104) to consolidate the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the Texas Education Agency. This would bring higher education under the control of the elected State Board of Education.

The first problem with this is that the current organizational chart of TEA is already complicated enough. You might remember that in between the various stories about the politicization of public school curriculum, the SBOE has also had a scandal associated with the handling of investments. The SBOE is already handling too broad of a range of issues. Tasking them with higher education issues is not going to help this part-time board do their job in an effective manner.

Second, not everyone considers Texas public schools wildly successful. (I think the criticisms are greatly overstated.) The state’s record at creating, imposing, and  then discarding standardized testing schemes for the state’s children doesn’t inspire confidence. The best parts of Texas’ public schools are the teachers and most parents consider the test (and the manipulation of their scores by TEA) to be more trouble than they’re worth. People come from all over the world to attend college in America. Giving politicians more control over our universities isn’t going to make them more appealing to anyone.

Third, the whole effort is seriously misguided. Brown claims, “There would be one agency and one commission of education to deal with K-16 issues.” Such a reorganization would help pushing public schools and higher education into a “K-16” mode. Texas public schools already have a problem with “social promotion” and the state’s universities are already feeling pressure to accept and graduate any student who shows up. College needs to be more than 13th – 16th grades.  Also, combining two agencies doesn’t make their work go away and Brown’s proposal would likely just end up putting the same number of workers under the same heading. In the process, it will probably lower standards in higher education. Texas universities shouldn’t be an extension of Texas public schools. Our universities should attract students from across the country and then prepare them for success anywhere in the country and the world.

Legislators interested in saving money should consider asking universities to do less paperwork in the name of “accountability.” Universities have been forced to hire more administrators and reassign teaching faculty in order to deal with the rising tangle of red tape coming out of Austin. The state’s experiment with “accountability” produced no real progress and has only repeated and distorted the professional and other accreditation processes already in place. Texas universities should go back to working with the private businesses that hire our graduates and quit being asked to focus on the demands of Austin bureaucrats.

I’m sure that Representative Brown set out to save a few dollars. However, I think he’ll find that the cost of those saving those few dollars will be too high to justify the devaluation of Texas diplomas. Reform is needed in higher education. Shuffling the office space of the bureaucracy is not the answer.

Rick Perry’s star turn

Rick Perry has now been elected to his final term as governor. If he serves out all of his new term, his time in governor’s office will span from December 21, 2000 to January 2015.  You can add another decade to his full-time government service before that since he had been elected Agriculture Commissioner in 1990 before being elected Lt. Governor in 1998. Fourteen years in the Governor’s office as part of almost quarter century in state-wide office will certainly be enough for him, especially for an increasingly anti-government politician. Asking for another term as governor seems unlikely.

Perry’s new book and book tour reveals a clear interest in national politics. He has often denied interest in running for the presidency but been more coy about the vice presidency. Whatever his goals, it is clear that Perry is focusing on national issues and national politics beyond simply blaming the Obama administration for everything.Rick Perry on the Today Show

There are several reasons why Perry isn’t likely to win up in the White House:

  1. The Texas connections is not going to catapult him to the top of the presidential field  for several reasons. First, most Americans aren’t looking to Texas for leadership after George W. Bush. Yes, a few people have put up a “miss me yet?” signs out, but those are protests against Obama and George W. Bush’s disapproval rate is high. Bush might deserve more credit than he is given, but McCain ran away from him for a reason.

    Also, we (Texans) need to accept something: Texas charm isn’t always so charming to everyone. Texas style isn’t always in style. Perry can put away his boots, but he’s really not Rick Perry without some of that Texas style.

    In any case, the Republican Party has little need for a Texan on their ticket. If the GOP needs a Texan as a vice presidential candidate to carry Texas in 2012, they’ve got much bigger problems. Texas is one of the nation’s most solidly Republican states and the political advantages of having some candidate from that state are minimal. The same is true for pretty much all of the south. Perry’s contribution to a Republican ticket would have to be all Rick Perry and no geography.

    Rick Perry calling for secession

    Perry's talk of secession wasn't well received outside of Texas

  2. Perry’s personal appeal may not be that strong. Perry has now peaked at winning 55% of the vote. However, he did so in a heavily Republican state in one of the best years for the party in decades. Also note that he finished at least 5% behind almost every other Republican state-wide candidate. (The only exception was Republican David Porter whose candidacy for Texas Railroad Commission was considered weak after he defeated incumbent Victor Carrillo in the primary, leaving some to question whether primary voters were voting against a Hispanic last name. Carrillo called Porter a “unknown, no-campaign, no-qualification CPA” and plenty of independent observers thought his resume wasn’t well suited for the position. Porter only polled 4.5% better than Perry.) Straight-ticket voting was high in 2010 and carried many Republicans to victory, with straight-ticket Republican votes totaling 40% in some areas. The GOP field was strong, but Perry trailed it. Texans reelected Perry, but they’re just not that into him.

    According to exit polling, Perry carried the vote of 81% of conservatives in Texas (as well as 36% of moderates at 13% of liberals). Much of the conservative base regards Perry with some suspicion. While he won their vote, their enthusiasm is often muted. Perry did well enough to win, but he failed to completely lock down his base or reach out to moderates. The Republicans will be looking for more from their national candidates.
  3. Perry’s policy resume is a little thin. Perry’s main claim to fame is keeping taxes low, balancing the budget, and bringing jobs to Texas. However, much of the credit for low taxes goes to the Legislature and Perry’s skill at crafting tax packages hasn’t been great. The franchise tax is underperforming and that’s contributing to the state’s large budget shortfall. Tough decisions are going to have to be made in Texas. If Perry had any popular solutions for the state’s budge woes, we would have heard about them during the campaign. Perry can’t credibly claim to trim fat from a state agencies his appointees have been running for a decade and any unpopular programs would have been cut in earlier financial crunches.

    If Rick Perry goes on the national campaign trail, he’ll be doing so against candidates who don’t carry the baggage of such problems at home. Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and much of the GOP field will be free of such tough battles. It may not be fair, but these candidates will be able to say that they would trim government without cutting education, health care for kids, or whatever Texas has to give up. George W. Bush had “compassionate conservatism,” an education agenda, and a record of bipartisanship that seemed to be the style of leadership that Washington needed.
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  4. The GOP field doesn’t need a Rick Perry. Perry is an anti-Washington Republican–a category that includes pretty much every Republican. What does Rick Perry say to social conservatives that Mike Huckabee can’t say better? How does Perry appeal to business-oriented Republicans any better than Mitt Romney? How can Perry package his 25 years in office to make himself look like an outsider next to someone like Sarah Palin?

So, why is Perry on the book tour? Why do we keep hearing talk about a Perry candidacy? There are several reasons.

Some of his campaign staffers likely continue to push Perry toward the national stage because they’re invested in him and he’s their ticket to the next level. Like the agents for a fading Hollywood star or declining athlete, some of Perry’s camp have tied their fortunes to him.  I’ve been to the horse races enough to know that you don’t tear up you ticket until they’ve officially announced the winner. Perry’s staff will continue to whisper to him about the White House since that’s the only way their ticket to Washington is getting punched.

Others in the Perry camp remain too enamored with their candidate to ever see his flaws. They see him as perfect and they are simply awaiting everyone else to see that as well.

Rick Perry's Newsweek coverPerry likely understands all this. His hopes and ambitions can’t blind him to certain realities. However, Perry has other reasons to stay in the game even if he’s a long shot. The problem for Perry is that if he doesn’t do something to move ahead, people will see him as a lame duck riding off into the sunset. Once Perry acknowledges that he’s stepping off the stage, the fight for the spotlight will begin and Perry will become an increasingly marginalized figure in Texas politics. Watching the Texas political system work around him while his potential heirs to the governorship step over his body isn’t how anyone wants to spend four years in office.

By taking a star turn on the national stage, Perry may actually hold onto his political status in Texas. And, it keeps some hope for a career in national politics and positions him for a seat in the Senate, if his attention turns to Congress.

As Oscar Wilde said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

Do-it-Yourself analysis of the 2010 results

Texas governors race by counties-2010The Texas Tribune has produced two really nice features that let you do your own analysis of the 2010 election.

Using one set of maps, you can see which counties Perry carried and which counties White carried, where each candidate did best, or look at voter turnout by county. I could tell you what I thought of these results, but that would undermine the invitation to judge for yourself.

Linked to their story, “Cost Per Vote Varies by Race,” the Texas Tribune provides a data base that brings together vote counts with spending. You can see who spent the most per vote (Carol Kent spending $64.06 per vote in her losing attempt to hold House district 102) and who spent the least (Cheryl Johnson who spent less than a penny per vote in holding onto her seat on the Court of Criminal Appeals).

Of course, the overall comparisons aren’t always fair. (Sorry Justice Johnson, I suspect you rode the Republican wave and that the $1,400 you spent didn’t single-handedly charm 3.8 million Texans into voting for you.)  That’s okay because the Texas Tribune’s online tool lets you sort out winners and losers or Democrats from Republicans. My favorites were Hector Uribe (7¢ a vote) and Jerry Patterson (who spent a whopping 36¢ a vote) who squared off the race for Land Commissioner. Not only did these two guys run the most civil race in the state, they did so without squandering a tons of donors’ dollars. True, Patterson spent about a million bucks–but that’s not too bad for a state-wide race in Texas. After all, Rick Perry spent about $40 and Bill White spent almost $25 million and I don’t think Texans came away actually liking either one of those guys more.

The Texas Tribune is doing what digital media should be: giving readers tools to understand politics. And, they’re doing a great job. So, here’s a thought: Instead of giving the candidate of your choice hundreds or thousands of dollars to spend on ads that are likely to leave you feeling ashamed to have helped them, become a member of Texas Tribune and let the Tribune provide Texans with kinds of news and information that they need to make their own informed decision.