Nice Guy, Wrong Color

How Ken Bentsen got run over by a rainbow

When Houston Congressman Ken Bentsen decided to run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Phil "Enron" Gramm last fall, he immediately raised the hackles of Democratic officials across the state. They were already in the process of designing a color-coordinated state ticket to balance on the party's tripod of liberal and moderate whites, Hispanics and African-Americans.

In the grand scheme of things, millionaire banker-businessman Tony Sanchez would provide the brown and the bucks in the governor's contest. Former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk would add the black and the charisma in the Senate race, and ex-comptroller John Sharp would provide the white and the political machine in the fight for lieutenant governor. In a state where only 34 percent of registered voters call themselves Republican and 31 percent Democrats, the idea was that the dream team would goose turnout at the polls, appeal to independents and lead its people out of Big Bend or whatever wilderness the party's been sojourning in for the last decade.

In this carefully calculated formula, Bentsen's intrusion was about as welcome as that of Victor Morales, the lone ranger schoolteacher from North Texas. His pickup-truck-and-spare-change campaign had already gone up against Gramm once, and Morales felt he deserved another shot. Party leadership didn't need or want an extra Anglo or a flaky Hispanic muddling the mix. Ron Kirk was what the political doctor had ordered.

Primary colors: Bentsen was not what the party doctors ordered.
Deron Neblett
Primary colors: Bentsen was not what the party doctors ordered.

Equally noxious to the ticket masters was the surprise crash landing of former Texas attorney general Dan Morales in the governor's contest, though his entrance was belatedly recognized as a blessing. It gave neophyte candidate Sanchez an excuse to spend millions on identity-establishing television ads. That would prepare him for the coming battle with Rick Perry, the lieutenant governor who rose to the top when George W. Bush moved to the White House.

On Election Night last week, a still-hopeful Bentsen stood in front of the cameras with wife Tamra at Treebeards on Market Square and predicted the uncounted Harris County vote would revive his slumping percentages and confound the party movers and shakers. It never happened, largely because Harris County blacks gave Kirk enough support to leapfrog Bentsen into the runoff with Morales. While Kirk took nearly 30 percent of the vote in Houston, the congressman got only 17 percent of the total in Dallas County.

"Gotta give Kirk some credit," observes Dr. Richard Murray, director of the University of Houston Center for Public Policy. "He mopped up in his home ballpark, and Bentsen did just okay down here. We have a lot of black voters, and at the end of the day, they moved toward Kirk."

Recent history might have warned Bentsen of this electoral cul-de-sac. His predecessor, Mike Andrews, got the itch to run for the U.S. Senate in 1994. He too got squeezed out of the primary runoff battle between Dallas investor Richard Fisher and former attorney general Jim Mattox. Andrews is now a big-bucks Washington lobbyist. Bentsen is expected to return to his Houston banking and finance career.

Bentsen made the same mistake as Andrews in thinking that congressional terms had given him a statewide profile. They hadn't, and the party's organizational tilt toward Kirk gave him the funds to outspend Bentsen two to one. While Kirk ads ran on Houston television, Bentsen was a non-presence in Dallas.

"They didn't expect to do this with anything other than television and money," says Bentsen consultant Dan McClung of Campaign Strategies. "And Kirk had most of the Democratic apparatus that gives money behind him."

The only remaining primary hurdle for the Democrats' rainbow ticket is iconoclast Victor Morales, who narrowly led Kirk into the runoff. The Tony Sanchez campaign, awash in its candidate's millions, is expected to throw its support behind Kirk.

While Sanchez strategist Glenn Smith says no decision has been made to intervene, the candidate's operatives in Houston's Hispanic community are already preparing for the tricky task of going to bat for a black candidate against a Latino. Consultant Marc Campos, who had the same mission for Mayor Lee Brown against Orlando Sanchez in last fall's mayoral race, expects elected Hispanic officials to line up with Kirk and take some heat.

"They're going to come after us again for not supporting the Hispanic," figures Campos. "But when you got guys like [former San Antonio mayor and HUD Secretary] Henry Cisneros who are heavy into the Kirk campaign, that's going to help us."

Democrats believe the real help will come in November, when most African-American votes for Kirk will likely appear on ballots marked for Sanchez and Sharp.

The Ties That Bind

Whatever critics may say about state Senator John Whitmire, no one's ever accused him of a shortage of gall. Six years after a controversial $80,000 consulting contract with the Harris County Adult Probation Department made Whitmire the target of a probe by the district attorney's office, the senator has hired the ousted probation director to serve on his staff in Austin. Larance Coleman will be paid $4,000 a month, a little less than the fee his agency was paying Whitmire back in 1995.

In 1997, a grand jury indicted Coleman for perjury in civil litigation regarding the construction of the county's Baker Street facility and the alleged misuse of millions of county dollars. A judicial panel overseeing his agency fired Coleman. A visiting judge later dismissed the indictment, finding that the statute of limitations had expired, and Coleman disappeared into the private sector. Now he's back as the senator's criminal justice adviser.

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