GOP Jitters

While a party chair guards his rear, Vision America makes judges nervous

Harris County Republicans may reach the apogee of their power in 2002, but the vibes within local GOP circles are strangely troubled. With virtually no Democratic incumbents to go gunning for in next year's judicial and county races, consultants are sharpening their knives -- or bolstering their officeholders' defenses -- in anticipation of some serious political cannibalism in the upcoming GOP primary.

Republican County Chairman Gary Polland may or may not be running for a fourth term at the party helm, but he's a bit sensitive about other folks eyeing his job, at least those who don't have his permission.

Meanwhile, the rising profile of a nonprofit, nondenominational religious group called Vision America has some Harris County judges on guard. The group is led by conservative Pearland First Baptist Church Minister Rick Scarborough, and millionaire plaintiff's lawyer Mark Lanier is an influential board member. The fear by some judges is that with westside Christian conservative kingmaker Dr. Steven Hotze taking a low profile after last year's DWI arrest, a new arbiter of judicial purity has arrived.

When a party subordinate got too ambitious, Gary Polland fired him.
When a party subordinate got too ambitious, Gary Polland fired him.

The jockeying for position in the Harris County GOP already has claimed one casualty.

So touchy is Polland about his uncertain political future that when several party officials tired of waiting for his decision and began preparing campaigns for the chairmanship last May, Polland demanded that they cease campaign activities at party events. Through intermediaries, Polland also asked them to sign a loyalty oath pledging fealty to Chairman Gary and promising to drop out if he runs again.

Since winning the chairmanship in 1996, criminal defense attorney Polland has used the clout of the office to cash in big on appointments in the courtrooms of GOP jurists he helps re-elect. Polland is awaiting the outcome of state legislative redistricting to decide whether to run for one of several state Senate seats or the chairmanship of the state party. In the meantime, he intends to keep the campaign for the local chairmanship from starting until he decides his course of action.

Jared Woodfill, the party's general counsel, and treasurer Paul Simpson began distributing their campaign literature for the chairman post last May. That triggered a flurry of phone calls, letters and e-mails that ended with Simpson's ouster.

"I got fired," explains attorney Simpson, who as general counsel to the party had stood by Polland through a controversy last year involving a letter from Republican county chairs pressuring an appeals court judge to change his stance on overturning the state sodomy law. Polland had instructed Simpson to draft the letter, but it was never officially sent to appellate Justice John Anderson. An investigation by the district attorney ultimately found no wrongdoing.

According to Simpson, the bad blood between him and Polland began at the May meeting of the county GOP executive committee, when he distributed campaign literature plus a list of a hundred Republicans supporting him for chairman. Simpson says he acted after Woodfill already had begun mailing out campaign letters to Republican activists.

"Gary apparently went ballistic after that," says Simpson. In a series of e-mails, party parliamentarian Clint Moore relayed Polland's request that Simpson and Woodfill refrain from campaigning at party functions -- and sign a letter guaranteeing they would not run if he sought re-election.

Simpson then sent a letter to Polland telling him, "It is unreasonable to ask others to suspend or risk their efforts while you indefinitely contemplate your political future. Your demands have divided a number of dedicated and thoughtful Republicans."

Polland replied with a missive accusing Simpson of leaking confidential party information to area newspapers, a charge Simpson denies. Polland also criticized the treasurer for not carrying out his duties, including supervising the filing of Texas Ethics Commission reports. Ironically, some of those filings concern an ethics commission inquiry against Polland for routing confidential contributions from his chairman's account to groups opposing the construction of the downtown basketball arena. Polland has yet to reveal the identities of those donors.

In late June Polland officially dropped the ax with a letter notifying Simpson he had been replaced as party treasurer by Larry Hicks. Woodfill, a confidant of the chairman and heir apparent, remains as general counsel.

Asked whether Polland was trying to handpick his successor if he decides not to run for re-election, Simpson relied, "You can probably infer that."

On the judicial battlefront, attorney Mark Lanier set tongues a-wagging two weeks ago when he told a Vision America fund-raising crowd at a Galleria hotel that bad jurists needed to be removed from office. The event was attended by many GOP civil courts jurists, including one whom Lanier is already working to get off the bench.

Judge Patricia Hancock previously overturned a $2.3 million judgment Lanier had won for his clients against a manufacturing company owned by the Hotze family. According to several GOP sources, Lanier is using his new conservative clout to recruit an opponent for Hancock's 113th District Court in the primary next spring. Lanier did not return an Insider call for comment.

Contacted at the Vision America office, Pastor Scarborough denied that his organization plans to be a force in the upcoming political wars.

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