Opposing Counsel

County attorney candidate Mike Fleming brands his opponent a traffic-court jockey. Sylvia Garcia labels him a special-interest pawn. You be the judge.

Garcia has repeatedly charged that Fleming was recruited by special interests to run for the County Attorney's Office, a claim Fleming scoffs at. According to several Republican political consultants, the truth lies somewhere in between. Fleming independently decided to run for the office last December, while the county GOP establishment looked elsewhere for an acceptable candidate. Prospects cultivated for the role included former state rep Ashley Smith, Vinson & Elkins attorney Margaret Wilson, district Judge William "Bill" Bell and even retiring Congressman Jack Fields.

None of those prospects appealed to Radack, Eversole or Steven Hotze, a powerful crusader against abortion and the gay lifestyle. After the filing deadline, and confronted with the candidacy of moderate Mickey Lawrence, Radack and Hotze settled on Fleming. During the primary, Radack alone contributed nearly $6,000 in campaign services, and Radack and Eversole each forked over another $5000 in cash. Meanwhile, Fleming forwarded $5,000 from his treasury to a political action committee controlled by Hotze. (He says that he has not forwarded any money to Hotze during the general election.)

Asked about Hotze, Fleming says simply that he accepts the doctor's endorsement as one of many in a wide spectrum of political support. Fleming also claims he would not let his own anti-abortion views influence his enforcement of legal protections for abortion clinics, or intrude on issues involving separation of church and state.

Sylvia Garcia is the candidate who offers few surprises, a veteran Democrat who managed the city courts while getting along with two different mayoral administrations. Fleming is more of a wild card: It's hard to believe his claim that he can take money and support from players who would benefit from a subservient county attorney, but still maintain the office's independence.

Cathy Sisk, a longtime Democrat and the head of Driscoll's environmental division, believes that Fleming can maintain that independence, and she isn't alarmed by his Republican backers on Commissioners Court. "Curiously enough, when you get down to issues, some of the Republicans might end up agreeing with you more than they disagree with you. Radack and Eversole have been the two biggest supporters on the Court for environmental regulation and initiatives."

But Fleming's support from the religious right is another matter. "The Hotze endorsement -- yeah, that gives me pause," says Sisk. "I get the impression Hotze's not the kind of person that allows you to agree to disagree. And the idea of pushing the Christian agenda to make it an integral part of government -- yeah, I've got a problem with that."

Having worked with Fleming, Sisk doesn't believe he's a stealth candidate either for Radack or the religious right. "He would have had to totally hide his nature from me for several years. And I just don't think that's possible."

Vince Ryan, who now works for the Calame Linebarger tax-collection firm, sees the mechanics of the campaign differently. "It's especially tough to say no to your friends," comments Ryan. Commissioner Radack is not the kind of power player whose help comes without strings attached, adds Ryan, who questions whether Fleming can take the money of the big downtown firms now, then fight the commissioners to maintain the power of his office later. "Any time [the commissioners] don't like the opinion of the County Attorney's Office, they'll go find some attorney to represent them. During the toll-road litigation, Vinson & Elkins and Fulbright & Jaworski were paid over a million dollars by the county." Ryan notes that Vinson & Elkins and Fulbright are two of Fleming's largest financial supporters.

Voters will have to decide whether it's wise to go with Fleming when the candidate clearly owes substantial political debts to Radack, the official who increasingly dominates Commissioners Court. (In mid-October, Radack pushed through a stealth tax increase that left County Judge Robert Eckels looking like a figurehead.) Fleming promises that his decisions in office would be shaped by his respect for the law rather than his conservative ideology or the desires of his supporters. He points out that in his tenure at the County Attorney's Office, he's done what he was asked to do regardless of his political beliefs. But then again, he's never been the boss, either.

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