The Kingdom and the Power

Money may be the root of all evil, but it's fueled Steven Hotze's rise from a fringe player on the religious right to kingmaker in the local Republican Party. Now he's trying to stretch his influence further afield.

Hotze's man was an Austin minister, Sam Hoerster. When Denman realized she didn't have the votes to win, she withdrew from the contest and a moderate from Houston, George Strake, beat Hoerster by better than 3,000 votes.

Jones shakes her head.
"It's not lying with these people. It's not breaking your word. It's revelation!"

The defeat of the Straight Slate in 1985 ended only the first chapter in Steven Hotze's political career. Hotze concentrated on building his medical practice, turning his focus to allergies and moving his offices from the North Freeway location to a suite of offices in Katy. But by the early nineties, he was once again building political vehicles to further his views. He helped found the Citizens for American Restoration in 1992, and began constructing the money web that has made his political operation so potent.

How Hotze gets that money is a point of increasing controversy within Republican circles. A caustic, well-researched -- and anonymous -- mailout produced by moderate Republicans recently called attention to the interplay between the Committee for a Well Qualified Judiciary, a downtown PAC run by Crain, Caton & James attorney Frank Harmon III, the husband of U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon, and a trio of PACs under the control of Hotze and his political lieutenants.

Harmon's PAC collected more than $100,000 in contributions from dozens of incumbents and challengers this spring, then quickly disgorged it into Hotze's Harris County Conservative Republicans and Citizens for American Restoration. In 1994, Harmon's PAC performed the same role, though on a much smaller scale. While Harmon and Hotze consultant Allen Blakemore characterize the complicated money trail as an innocuous fundraising device, others see it as a laundromat to funnel dollars from moderates into the hands of the religious right.

Tall, thin and talkative, Harmon seems ill-suited as a political partner for Hotze. He is not particularly religious and claims he does not attend church. A friend, however, describes him as "probably more conservative than Hotze." The alliance between the two provides Hotze with the cash to run his political program and Harmon the ability to deliver a guaranteed pool of conservative votes to candidates and incumbents. Some county insiders also believe, rightly or wrongly, that contributing to Hotze through Harmon's PAC helps win Hotze's endorsement and protects GOP incumbents from facing Hotze-sponsored ultra-conservatives in future primaries. (Hotze has indicated to intimates that three Republican judges elected in the 1994 GOP landslide, Werner Voight, Jim Wallace and Lon Harper, are so incompetent he will find more conservative candidates to run against them in the 1998 GOP primary.)

This spring, Harmon's PAC received $15,000 contributions each from the campaigns of Michael Fleming and his ally, Commissioner Steve Radack. Commissioner Jerry Eversole also kicked in $5,000. That money was then packaged along with $70,000 in other contributions and given by Harmon's PAC to Citizens for American Restoration and Harris County Conservative Republicans.

"They don't want to be associated with Hotze's name, but they want his political help," says one consultant of the donors to Harmon's PAC. Harmon, naturally, has a different take on his political marriage with Hotze. He characterizes the partnership as a joint effort to elect the best, most conservative Republicans possible. Since judicial candidates are prohibited from taking positions on issues that may come before their courts, Hotze, according to Harmon, does not question them in detail on their positions on such issues as abortion or gay rights.

The lawyer attributes Hotze's clout not to his command of a classic political machine, but rather to his standing among conservatives.

"Conservative Republicans have a lot of respect for his opinions," says Harmon, "and if Steve says 'Candidate A' is the most conservative, best qualified candidate, I think a lot of people who know Steve and know what he's been doing for years will accept his judgment on that." The Committee for a Well Qualified Judiciary does not issue its own endorsements, and Harmon says if it did he doubts it would have anywhere near the impact of Hotze's mailouts.

In shunting candidate contributions from his PAC to Hotze, Harmon claims he's actually functioning as an agent of party harmony. "I think some people had a concern, especially if they are in an elected position, that they don't want to publicly be supporting one wing of the party." Of course, says Harmon, anybody who checks campaign filings would figure out what was going on.

Radack indicates he was well aware of where his $15,000 was going when he gave it to Harmon's PAC, and he sees no downside in being identified with the doctor. As to why he didn't give it directly to Hotze, Radack offers the murky reply, "I wasn't absolutely sure that's where Harmon would spend it all."

Likewise, state District Judge Scott Link wasn't especially concerned when told his $10,000 to Harmon's PAC wound up in the Citizens for American Restoration account. "The fact that he funneled it on, if in fact it occurred, that does not surprise me," says Link. "I contribute money to various activities of folks that are interested in helping the Republican Party, and those are just two." Link points out that he has independently contributed to Hotze's PACs, so he obviously isn't afraid of being publicly linked with Hotze.

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