Political Flights of Fancy

Dem Hispanic stars collide while a resigning judge targets the county attorney

Last-minute changes in political travel plans by two candidates have some local Democrats clapping their hands with glee, while Republican counterparts are scratching their heads in puzzlement.

Just minutes before the filing deadline last week, former Texas attorney general Dan Morales made a surprise decision to run for governor instead of the U.S. Senate. That is seen by supporters of Houston's outgoing 25th District Congressman Ken Bentsen as a lane-clearing boost for his own senatorial candidacy.

Bentsen consultant Dan McClung of Campaign Strategies believes Morales's decision to get out of the Senate picture simplifies Bentsen's efforts to woo Hispanics. Their votes are expected to reach record levels in the primary because of the headlining matchup of Morales and Laredo banker Tony Sanchez.

John Devine, who tried a congressional race earlier, is now knocking at the county attorney's door.
Scott Gilbert
John Devine, who tried a congressional race earlier, is now knocking at the county attorney's door.

McClung says the move has shaken loose key Hispanic leaders who had already committed to Morales for the Senate: "If Ken does well with Hispanics in the Valley and San Antonio, it makes his statewide campaign work."

With no Hispanic in the race, Bentsen can capitalize on Latino connections from his family's deep political roots in South Texas as well as the Democratic Party prestige of his uncle Lloyd Bentsen, the former U.S. senator from Texas.

As attorney general, Morales had been tarnished by questions arising from the huge legal fees he approved for plaintiffs' lawyers representing the state against cigarette companies. McClung figures one of his motives for shifting from a federal to a state race is campaign cash. He'll be able to use more than $1 million left in his Texas attorney general campaign account to seek the governorship -- funds he could not legally spend seeking a U.S. seat.

"It would have been hard for him to raise federal money given his [tobacco litigation] problems," notes McClung. "He has that amount of money now to use in a state primary where he's very well known. Sanchez has gotta spend an awful lot of money just to catch up with that name identification that Morales sits on right now."

On the same day Morales switched races, Harris County civil court judge John Devine packed his pickup truck after unexpectedly resigning from the 190th District bench, a post he once claimed God had told him to seek. Republican Devine, a former antiabortion activist who was once arrested during protests outside Planned Parenthood clinics, has launched a new jihad for the county attorney job held by Mike Stafford.

Devine's decision has conspiracy theorists in his party working overtime trying to come up with explanations. One courthouse veteran marvels that an incumbent district judge would resign to run for a position of lesser prestige.

"It seems bizarre," says the source. "If you came and offered the county attorney job on a silver platter, there's not one other district judge who would take it."

Even if Devine beats Stafford and lawyer Don Large in the March GOP primary, he would have to face Democrat Marc Whitehead in November and wouldn't be on the county payroll till next year. That's a long time to be unemployed considering he has five young children to support.

"Everyone's wondering who's going to pay the guy to do anything," says the same source. "He has always lived paycheck to paycheck, and he doesn't have any money built up. So something's going on."

Devine's plans sparked so much interest that one sharp-eyed observer reports that the judge's pickup, sporting judge's license plates, was under surveillance as he loaded his office furnishings on the afternoon of his resignation. According to this source, a tail followed Devine to an office building at 3700 Montrose, which houses several law firms. Later, he headed out the Gulf Freeway and made another lengthy stop at the plaintiff's law firm of Williams Bailey LLP, then drove to Republican Party headquarters.

Not much really seems secret over at the courthouse these days.

Devine reportedly has told colleagues that he will temporarily work out of the law offices of Jared Ryker Woodfill. He's the conservative lawyer running for Harris County Republican Party chairman with the blessings of Gary Polland, the former chair now seeking a state senate seat.

Perhaps Devine has a few favors to collect. After all, in the last eight months Woodfill has received $88,565 in payments for mediation and ad litem fees authorized by the 190th District Court.

Devine did not return an Insider inquiry. His campaign consultant, Heidi Lange, says her man believes he can do more as county attorney than incumbent Stafford.

"He just feels that office needs a stronger person who has the experience and qualifications to make it effective, efficient and productive as it can be," says Lange, who notes that Stafford has never been elected to anything.

Stafford ran for county attorney but was beaten in the 1996 GOP primary by Mike Fleming. He endorsed Fleming in the general election, and Fleming hired Stafford as an assistant when he took office. Two years ago, Stafford also lost in the district attorney's race to eventual winner Chuck Rosenthal. When Fleming resigned as county attorney last year to join a private law firm, Harris County commissioners appointed Stafford to replace him.

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