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By Sean Pendergast
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A Shrub Grows in the Huntingdon
As Democrats scorch their own earth
Former mayor Bob Lanier hand-delivered his re-election endorsement to Texas Governor -- and undeclared presidential candidate -- George W. Bush last week in a style all his own. Stripping off a trademark sweater like the one he wore for good effect in television campaign ads in his first mayoral bid, seven years ago, the six-foot-four Lanier handed it to the much smaller guv as a good-luck token.
Bush dutifully doffed his coat and struggled into the blue sleeveless garment, but it didn't quite fit -- just like the usually reliable Democrat Lanier's endorsement of a Republican for whom he had shown little affinity when Bush beat Lanier's favorite, Ann Richards, four years ago. But the governor's status as a phenomenally popular politician with only nuisance opposition in Democratic Land Commissioner Garry Mauro -- and Bush's potential to help or hurt the city in the next legislative session -- is fast making party solidarity an outmoded concept for a number of top Democrats.
Democratic ticket-topper Mauro, down by 53 points in early polls, may be the weakest candidate for governor offered to voters this century. So for the outgunned party, the buzzwords of the moment are peace, love and nonpartisanship. Typical is Democratic comptroller candidate Paul Hobby's nonideological campaign pitch: "Ultimately, parties don't solve problems, people do."
Bush's sky-high popularity has Lanier, Democratic hopeful for lieutenant governor John Sharp and the retiring incumbent, Bob Bullock, all paying obeisance to the "Shrub," the Dems' former derogatory description of the son of President George. That, in turn, has fueled a series of media reports about mass Democratic defections from Mauro's faltering bid for governor.
Of course, Mauro doesn't see it quite that way. After early summer campaigning, some of it with visiting President Bill Clinton, First Lady Hillary and Vice President Al Gore, Mauro admits the latest Bush endorsements have slowed his momentum and left him in a sour mood.
"That's just bullshit," snapped Mauro during a cell phone conversation as he drove back to Austin after a morning of block-walking in withering San Antonio heat. "One hundred Democratic officials, out of 3,300 statewide, and one guy on the statewide ticket [endorsing Bush] doesn't mean they're running away from me, it means they're running away from being Democrats." Mauro bravely dismisses the loss of a few big-name Texas Democrats, claiming their defection will be more than outweighed by future Texas campaign forays on his behalf by the president and vice president.
In Lanier's case, the Bush endorsement signals a selective retreat. The former mayor diplomatically asked Bush's permission to answer a reporter's query at the endorsement press conference at the Huntingdon, Lanier's high-rise home. The former mayor then went on to declare his support for Sharp over Agricultural Commissioner Rick Perry, and to endorse comptroller candidate and Houstonian Hobby over Railroad Commissioner Carol Keeton Rylander. Bush, by contrast, issued a brusque "no" when asked if, in the interest of this newfound nonpartisanship, he planned to endorse any Democratic candidates.
"I could see where Lanier supporting Bush and then making a strong statement for Hobby and Sharp is a positive development for the Sharp and Hobby campaigns," says Democratic state Senator John Whitmire, looking for a shred of good news in the endorsement. "It might be more favorable for Sharp than if Lanier had decided to be quiet about the governor's race. He is providing leadership and an example of splitting his ticket."
In the background at the Huntingdon love fest beamed Mark McKinnon, the Austin-based media consultant who engineered the event for his new boss -- and first major Republican client -- Bush. McKinnon helped prepare Lanier for prime time in 1991, and he's joined the Bush campaign to help craft the governor into a viable presidential candidate with crossover appeal. Appropriately, McKinnon also seems like a new man. He has trimmed his hair to GOP respectability and shed a lot of weight (he now runs marathons) since his days as a good-timing, cigar-smoking shepherd for the Democratic flock. Now he's trying to herd the sheep into the Bush congregation.
Along for the show -- and perhaps some attendant media and political exposure -- was an unlikely gaggle of pols and players. They included GOP County Commissioner Steve Radack and his attorney-wife, Sherry, who is running for district judge against one of the few Democrats still breathing on the bench, Kathy Stone. County Attorney Mike Fleming, a Republican, loitered stiffly about with nothing much to do, as did Jimmie Schindewolf, former Lanier public works director and current Sports Authority consultant.
In preparing for the endorsement, Lanier ran several pet political concerns past Bush during preliminary meetings. One was the possibility that GOP legislators might rally behind legislation to reverse the annexation of Kingwood that Lanier had consummated over the protests of unhappy residents in his final year as mayor. Asked whether he got Bush to commit to a hands-off position on the matter as a condition for the endorsement, the former mayor indicated the governor expected their talks, as with Bush's other Democratic allies, to remain confidential.