Kissing Off a Kingmaker

In District 7, is the real conservative behind door No. 1 or door No. 2?

It was the summons so many Harris County GOP runoff candidates have come to dread. Shortly after coming in first in a packed field in the Republican primary for the Seventh Congressional District, state Representative John Culberson got a call. Religious right organizer Dr. Steven Hotze was inviting him to an audience at the health and wellness physician's Tanglewood home the following evening.

Hotze had endorsed Cathy McConn in the general election, and she did not make the runoff that now pits Culberson against Peter Wareingto inherit the Silk Stocking district seat held by retiring Congressman Bill Archer. Hotze, whose Conservative Republicans of Harris County endorsement is most potent in low-turnout runoffs, was ostensibly shopping for a new candidate. In such circumstances, candidates traditionally make the pilgrimage to kiss the good doctor's ring and provide cash offerings on the altars of his political action committees.

Since Culberson has been a long-term presence on the county's conservative political scene, and Wareing was a Democratic primary voter until 1996, you'd think the social conservative vote would be a gimme for the 14-year veteran of the Texas House. But after the election, two defeated candidates, McConn and fellow candidate Mark Brewer, endorsed Wareing. His well-funded campaign immediately hit the airwaves with a scathing barrage of factually questionable ads attacking Culberson for allegedly voting for tax increases in the state Legislature. In that situation, many candidates would have pleaded for Hotze's support.

Culberson had another strategy in mind. Rather than make the trek to Tanglewood as a supplicant, he arrived in force with no intention of begging for an endorsement.

As backup for the showdown, he brought along his campaign braintrust, including consultant Kindra Hefner, organization director Merle Carlson and treasurer Mike Boylan. Culberson describes the trio as "my trusted friends and advisers who I wanted to be with me."

From the Hotze perspective, Carlson's inclusion in the entourage was particularly inflammatory. Within in the local GOP, she is one of the leading critics of Hotze's controversial fund-raising tactics, which provoked a grand jury probe last year into links between his endorsements and candidate contributions to his organizations. After weighing the evidence, the grand jury took no action.

"Why would you come to somebody's house and bring their enemy," asks one of the participants. "Carlson's the right-hand lieutenant to Betsy Lake. That's like bringing Lake to a meeting at Hotze's home." (For those unschooled in the history of the local GOP civil war, moderate Lake is the former county Republican chair who engaged in a decade-long war with Hotze for control of the party. She's now a Culberson campaign volunteer.)

When the candidate's delegation arrived at 7 p.m., they joined a group that included Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt, who had been invited as an informal party peacemaker. Hotze lieutenant Allen Blakemore was also present. According to several witnesses, Hotze opened the discussion with a direct question to the candidate: "Do you want my support?"

After a long pause, Culberson says, he parried with his own question. "I asked what did that entail. I wanted to have a conversation about all the various aspects of what makes up his decision-making process in making an endorsement, and how is his endorsement distributed, and what does that involve and entail? He didn't want to discuss that." Other witnesses claim Culberson's response was much more nebulous, consisting of bromides such as, "I'm seeking support from all factions of the party."

Hotze tried again. "John, this is not a trick question. Do you want my endorsement?"

When Culberson repeated his initial response, Bettencourt tried his hand at mediation. "John, it's really easy," a participant quotes him as saying. "It's like a yes-or-no thing. Do you want Hotze's support?" Culberson still refused to give a definitive answer.

Finally Hotze laid out his bottom line. "I'm going to put out a slate," he told Culberson. "It's going to have two names on it: Peter Wareing and John Culberson. One of the names is going to be circled. Whose name do you want me to circle?"

According to a Hotze source, Culberson's only substantive response was, "Why would you endorse Peter?"

Hotze apparently took that as an insinuation that Wareing was purchasing Hotze's support. Glancing at Carlson, Hotze declared, "Despite rumors to the contrary, my endorsement cannot be bought." At that point, ten minutes after their arrival, the meeting broke up. Hotze showed his guests the door, leaving several of the participants mystified by the course of the discussion.

"The only supposition I can give you is John didn't want the endorsement," puzzles one witness. "So why was he there?"

A week after the meeting, Hotze endorsed Wareing.

"The meeting Steve had with John was not what led him to support Peter," insists Hotze consultant Blakemore, who points to "Peter Wareing's straightforward stand and position and public utterances on pro-family conservative issues, the life issue among them." In campaign statements, Wareing has supported a hard-line position, granting one exception justifying abortion: the life of the mother. Culberson favors two others as well, rape and incest.

"There is no vote, there is no issue, there is no principle on which Dr. Hotze or Cathy McConn or Mark Brewer can point to in my legislative history that would demonstrate I am anything less than a stainless-steel conservative," retorts Culberson. "Yet they've endorsed someone who's been a registered Democrat until March 1996 and voted for [Congresswoman] Sheila Jackson Lee and [former Texas governor] Ann Richards. It's inexplicable to the conservative voters of west Houston."

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