If one of the class acts on the ballot has to employ that type of cornball tactic to pound her name into the public's consciousness, just imagine what sort of stunts have been performed by the candidates who constitute the dregs. (That poor soul who's been lugging the cross on wheels down the shoulder of the Eastex Freeway isn't running for anything, by the way.)
The campaign of another reputable candidate, Republican county judge nominee Robert Eckels, hit on the idea of purchasing ad space on the plastic wrappers that will enclose the November 8 editions of the Chronicle and the Post when they land on subscribers' front lawns, a novel development that has journalists at both papers fuming. But, hey, nowadays the papers' plastic condoms may carry more weight with readers than the editorials. Meanwhile, the freeways around town have blossomed with the billboards of such unknown judicial contenders as Russell Austin, Mary Craft and David Jennings Willis, all trumpeting the usual soporific lines about integrity, experience and quality. Good "American" names, jutting jaws and stern visages are the sum of the visual messages being beamed down to the passing motorist/voter.
A survey conducted by Rice professor Bob Stein in 1988 concluded that voters are usually in the dark when they make their choices in the slew of judicial races on the ballot. "We asked people who they could identify. You were in single digits of people who could identify the (judicial) candidates or rate them," Stein explains. "Everyone knows who George W. Bush or Ann Richards is. If you get down the ballot, if the last name you hear is 'Susan Soussan' as you're walking into the voting booth, it will stay with you." Stein estimates that up to 17 percent of the voters who will start out on the long, long trek to the end of this year's ballot will never finish. An equal number of voters will take the easy route and punch either a straight Democratic, Republican or Libertarian ticket.
Complicating matters for voters who want to make informed choices is the proliferation of "stealth" and "wealth" candidates -- those contenders tucked down on the ballot who've managed to obscure their true philosophical colors or lack of qualifications or shady background, or those whose only base of support is their own pocketbooks. Or both.
Blinded by this blizzard of meaningless billboards and television ads, it's easy to accidentally punch a hole for the numerous nesting gobblers hidden in this mother of all ballots. And that's why we're offering discerning voters our own bipartisan guide to the turkeys on the ballot, for an election in which polls suggest that more voters than ever before are willing to just say no and pull the trigger on incumbents and political wannabes of all stripes. So saddle up for a hunting trip through the electoral woods. By the way, this is a turkey shoot with no bag limits. And lest anyone think we're advocating violence against politicians, rest assured all shots should be taken in the voting booth. Along the way, we'll also identify a few other creatures in this year's political bestiary. They may not be turkeys, but they certainly should be sampled before you swallow them whole.
Our designated "Prime Gobbler" is Judge Dean Huckabee, a Democrat who's seeking re-election to the bench of the 247th District Family Court. For years, critics have portrayed the county's family courts -- which consider divorce, child support and custody cases -- as a good ol' boy network dominated by male judges and the attorneys and court experts to whom they grant lucrative "ad litem" appointments. In a year in which voters seem ready to give the beleaguered system a much-needed infusion of fresh blood, Huckabee stands as one remaining symbol of the Old Order.
Huckabee was a leading player in Home Box Office's 1992 Lee Grant-produced "Women on Trial." The documentary probe of the county's family courts system focused on several cases involving the judge, airing the allegations of women who claimed Huckabee had awarded custody of their children to fathers suspected of abuse and that Huckabee had refused to allow key evidence to be heard in their cases. Huckabee, speaking to HBO's camera, said he could tell that a mother in the process of losing custody of her children was mentally ill because she was distraught in his court. The documentary concluded with this sobering observation: "Family court judges are not forced to account for their actions .... When judges view mothers as crazy for behaving normally in an abnormal situation, where can they turn?"
Huckabee has since sued HBO, claiming the production distorted facts and tarnished his reputation. But the litigation allowed Jim George, a hardball Austin libel lawyer representing HBO, to recently file a blistering response that paints an even more unflattering picture of the judge. According to the HBO response, "Many female litigants believe, and told defendants, that plaintiff Dean Huckabee was prejudiced in favor of fathers, and allowed a fathers' rights group to meet in his courtroom."
The HBO response also recounts an alleged episode between Huckabee and a female lawyer to whom he offered a ride in the late 1980s. According to her story, after rejecting sexual advances from Huckabee, she was subjected to retaliation by the judge, who when she appeared in his court was "surly and sarcastic to the lawyer and punished both her and her client by holding her in contempt and resetting the case repeatedly before completing it."
The court document alleges that in February 1992 the lawyer once again appeared in Huckabee's court. "Judge Huckabee threw her out of his courtroom, stating she was not allowed to practice in his court. Huckabee advised her client to hire new counsel and would not allow the lawyer to make a bill of exceptions, and instructed the bailiff to remove her." Neither Huckabee nor the lawyer representing him in the lawsuit returned calls for comment. The suit, which now comprises seven volumes of court documents, is headed for a trial in Judge Sharolyn Wood's court later this year.
Huckabee's Republican opponent, Bonnie Crane Hellums, is endorsed by CourtWatch, a watchdog group composed of local professionals and created in response to reports of widespread abuses in the family courts, and Phrogge Simons, leader of a long-running citizen protest at the Family Law Center.
By promising to limit campaign contributions from lawyers who practice in their courts, Hellums and most other CourtWatch-backed candidates have made a pledge that goes right to the core of a problem underscored by HBO in its response to Huckabee's suit: "Some litigants believe that if they must appear in Family Law Court in Harris County, their ability to get a fair trial will depend on whether the lawyer they retain is on good terms with the judge. This image is promoted by attorneys who will brag about which judges they are in good with."
Considering that incumbents usually dominate the balloting in the Houston Bar Association's Judicial Preference Poll, Hellums also won solid support from fellow lawyers. She pulled 1,142 votes in the bar poll, to Huckabee's 1,421.
Huckabee is also quite the campaign do-it-yourselfer, reimbursing himself nearly $8,000 out of his campaign fund for expenses over the past year. And if you've ogled those funky plywood signs he's set up around town, you'd believe he built them himself.
The architect of a below-radar, church-based "stealth" write-in campaign that knocked four Democrats out of judgeships they initially thought they'd won two years ago, far-right Republican John Devine has emerged in the harsh light of day for this year's election. The solo law practitioner, with minimal court experience and a young daughter named "Genesis," is carrying his anti-abortion crusade from write-in status to the mainstream against the jurist most identified with the abortion issue, Judge Eileen O'Neill of the 190th District Civil Court.
While Devine has moderated his campaign material in appealing to the blissfully unaware, only those wanting an ayatollah on the bench and an unprotected Family Planning Clinic should knowingly consider punching his number. According to Larry Maxwell, the Christian school textbook and curriculum critic who has sued several local school districts, "When God moves, he does so with divine intelligence and divine purpose. John Devine made the decision to run against Eileen O'Neill because the Spirit of God had convicted him as a Christian, as a father and as a good citizen, that Christians cannot back up any further. Constitutional rights for Christians have been under attack long enough. It's time to fight back."
In his 1992 campaign literature, Devine attacked O'Neill's use of a temporary restraining order imposing a protective cordon around abortion clinics that were under siege by protesters in conjunction with the Republican National Convention. "Until the TRO expired, four Christians spent 19 days in jail for praying in public. Not for trespassing -- for praying," read his campaign handout. "Judge O'Neill's order was specifically drafted to set up a police state in which Christians were arrested for sharing God's word and for PRAYING!" In his current non-sectarian incarnation, Devine has limited the issues he addresses for general consumption to eliminating frivolous lawsuits and making the legal system more user-friendly. One indication that Devine hasn't changed: his campaign headquarters in north Houston are one suite down from those of the Link Letter, the monthly newsletter for far right-wingers and home-school proponents.
O'Neill clobbered Devine in the Bar Association's poll by a 7-to-1 margin. Devine also ducked a head-to-head encounter with O'Neill before the Houston Chronicle editorial board recently, a not atypical tactic for the religious right, which tends to ignore conventional media whenever possible.
Devine has received $4,800 in contributions from a committee called "The Friends of John Devine," which apparently failed to file a legally required report itemizing the sources of the cash. Committee treasurer Michael Monahan did not return a phone call from the Press. One public figure who's on record backing Devine is congressional candidate Eugene Fontenot, who contributed $200 to Devine in February. Meanwhile, Devine has shelled out $1,200 in fees to the Link Letter and $120 to the John Birch Society, a blast from the past which, yes, is apparently still functional.
Devine, of course, isn't the only candidate grounded in the religious right -- just the most obvious. The most prominent of the "stealth" candidates is, of course, Dr. Eugene Fontenot, the Republican nominee in the 25th Congressional District, whose big-bucks campaign against Democrat Ken Bentsen Jr. has been scripted right down to the candidate's hand gestures. Fontenot, a wealthy investor who owns part of Cypress-Fairbanks Hospital, has already forked over more than $2 million of his own money on a campaign to win a seat in a south Houston district where he didn't live and had no record prior to launching his candidacy. His only noticeable previous political involvement was as a financial angel and board member of Dr. Steve Hotze's Citizens for American Restoration, which, among other things, believes that property taxes are forbidden by biblical scripture. But Fontenot doesn't mention that in his campaign.
Another Hotze-backed candidate who has promoted his churchgoing is Gary Elkins, the Republican nominee in state House District 135. Elkins was the first clear winner among local stealth candidates, taking the GOP nomination in the party's spring primary over moderate opponent Pat Curran. Now, the only opposition Elkins faces in the rock-solid Republican district, which encompasses a portion of the West Houston-Villages area, is from Libertarian Graham Bass.
Elkins' business, Personal Rental Corporation, which buys consumer items for "quick cash" and then rents them back to the former owners, was sued for "loan sharking" by the attorney general's office, which claimed customers had to pay exorbitant interest rates. A jury found the arrangements did not violate state credit regulations, and Elkins sued the attorney general for defamation. He also sued Curran for pointing out the suit, and she, in turn, sued Elkins (both suits were dropped). Elkins was distinguished by being possibly the only candidate in this year's primary with his own lobbyist for his business: former House Speaker Billy Clayton.
If the Republican tide reaches "sweep" proportions in Harris County, shoo-in Elkins will have lots of company of the stealth variety. But don't think all the candidates who wear their religion on their sleeves are to be found on the Republican side of the ballot. Check out Bob Moore, the Democratic nominee for Place 1 on the 14th Court of Appeals, who's touting himself as a "Christian Democrat." Advertising his candidacy in the latest Link Letter, Moore proclaims that "being in public service is significant only as it would relate to God's plan for my life as His disciple." Well, at least Moore -- who's opposed by Republican Harvey Hudson -- is honest about being in it for himself. But pity Poor Mr. Moore. He apparently isn't a good enough Christian to merit the endorsement of the far right. Although the Link Letter published an ad for Moore, publisher Terry Lowry added a damning statement in an adjacent box: "While interviewing Mr. Moore, he stated he is pro-life but upholds the Democratic platform of choice and even though he considers abortion to be murder, he will not impose his views on others." Picky, picky. (Lowry pulled the same number on two other candidates, taking their money and then countering their Link Letter ads with quotes from the Houston Press to the effect that the candidates had accepted unholy Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus endorsements.)
And heads up for Steve Stockman, the Republican making his third bid for Democrat Jack Brook's seat representing the 9th Congressional District. Stockman, who emanates from the Hotze wing of the GOP and has a documented history of misrepresenting his background, managed to hold Brooks to under 54 percent of the vote two years ago, when his campaign efforts included a fundraising appearance by Oliver North. A piece of living statuary after four decades in Congress, Brooks is a prime target for anti-incumbent fallout this year, especially after he was caught larding President Clinton's crime bill with pork for Lamar University in his hometown of Beaumont. But there would be something worse than his continued presence in Congress: Steve Stockman.
There are other contenders who, while not solely identified with the religious right, have gone above and beyond the call of duty in courting its favor. One is Debbie Mantooth, the Republican nominee for the 180th District Criminal Court. An assistant district attorney, Mantooth has been an editorial contributor to the Link Letter, whose publisher has nicknamed her "The Iron Maiden." Mantooth draws staunch support from her coworkers in the district attorney's office, as well as a $100 contribution from her boyfriend, Don Stricklin, Johnny Holmes' first assistant. She is running against Democrat Susan Spruce, a bar poll winner endorsed by both daily papers.
As Mantooth herself wrote in her Link Letter cover essay in May: "A famous person once said 'the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.' A more modern day version might be, 'The price of good government is taking the time to educate yourself and vote.'"
And to that we say, "Amen."
Politically Radioactive Turkey
Like Jon and Toni Lindsay, other dedicated political couples are keeping it in the family this year. Jim Barr, the Republican incumbent who occupies the bench in the 337th District Criminal Court, isn't up for re-election, but his wife, Jeanine Barr, is running for the 182nd District Criminal Court seat. But for fun political couples no pairing can top Judge Sharolyn Wood of the 127th Civil District Court and Judge Mike Wood of County Probate Court No. 2, also known as "Mama Bear" and "Baby Bear" around the county courthouse. Mama Bear isn't on the ballot this year, but her spouse is pawing for votes for the first time in a general election.
Mike Wood has the distinction of being, without doubt, the most "political" judge in Harris County. The Svengali behind the rise of Betsy Lake as Republican county chairman, for years Wood had a highly lucrative gig as the court-appointed attorney of choice for a number of Republican jurists. He was named to his judicial post by the Republican majority on the Commissioners Court, although he had no previous probate experience. His ascension to the bench has only whetted his appetite for politics, it seems. Wood has spearheaded the GOP's "joint campaign" of judicial candidates, but early on he ticked off some his colleagues by omitting them from an invitation list for an organizing meeting he had booked at the Commissioners Court conference room. The session later had to be moved because the government space proved inappropriate for partisan activities. Wood also attempted to get friends in the Bar Association to squelch a move to put his Democratic challenger, Martha Failing, on the group's probate committee board. He was not successful.
A Turkey Called "Tex"
Thumping his Bible would actually be an improvement for H.J. "Tex" Lezar, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, who's running perhaps the most substance-free campaign for a statewide office in recent memory. And that's an accomplishment.
But what would you do if you were challenging against popular Democrat Bob Bullock, who has drawn the backing of wealthy Republicans around the state (such as Enron's Ken Lay) and the tacit support of eight Republican state senators? Tex -- whose Christian name is actually the more prosaic Harold -- has chosen to run against a more unpopular foe, President Clinton. Early in his campaign Lezar aired radio ads slamming Clinton that didn't even mention Bullock by name -- ads Lezar dubbed the "Whitewater News." More recently, his TV commercials have portrayed Bullock as Clinton's right-hand man in Texas, although we can't remember the lieutenant governor being that closely associated with the president. Lezar, whose claim to fame is his tenure as a speechwriter for the Nixon White House during its glory days from 1971-74, unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination for attorney general in 1990. Back then, his Republican opponent, state Senator J.E. "Buster" Brown, opined that Lezar will "learn that you don't panic and take bizarre positions to get name recognition because you're going to be labeled with those positions and stuck with them." Maybe he overestimated Lezar's learning curve.
Lezar has at least one prominent backer, Kenneth Starr, the second Whitewater independent counsel, who gave him $1,000 and, presumably, did not contribute to the "Whitewater News."
A Gobbler Named Garry
A little lower on the statewide ballot is Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro, soiled by allegations of personal use of his office on behalf of Clinton's presidential campaign and questionable business dealings that helped contribute to his personal bankruptcy. Mauro couldn't snag an expected appointment in the Clinton Administration in 1993, alongside the likes of now-departed Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy or Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, under investigation for those "support" payments to ex-girlfriend Linda Medlar. If Mauro doesn't rate a Clinton appointment, does he really rate another one by Texas voters? Republican challenger Marta Greytok, a former Public Utilities Commission member with an anti-consumer record, has her drawbacks, but how much damage can you do as land commissioner, anyway?
Turkeys at the Tee
Some candidates on this year's ballot can't distinguish business from pleasure. Take (please!) County Criminal Court No. 14's Jim Barkley, who may be a judge in fact but seems to be a shopkeeper and inveterate linkster at heart. Barkley made waves two years ago when he opened a golf accessories shop in his chambers at the county civil courts building. "I'm a golfer, and it gives me the air of being in a pro shop," he was quoted as saying at the time.
Although his business was quickly closed down, Barkley has shown a real penchant for better living through campaign fund spending. Not only did he stimulate the family business, Jubilant Cargo, with more than $5,000 in purchases last year from his campaign account, but he's also paid thousand of dollars of dues at Willowisp Country Club since 1991 with campaign money. Just takin' care of courtroom business, we guess.
Barkley would seem to be a soul mate of Precinct 4 County Commissioner Jerry Eversole, whose prodigious spending from his campaign account on greens fees, golf clothes and other amenities resulted in unresolved indictments for failing to properly maintain campaign finance records. "He doesn't have a clue," says one former associate. But he does have a putter.
Voters who'd like to tee off on either of these guys should remember that Barkley's opponent is Norma Jean Mancha, a former prosecutor, while Jim Lindeman, another former prosecutor, is challenging Eversole.
It should be noted that both of these golfin' fools are Republicans. While many Democrats can afford country club dues, most, of course, prefer midnight basketball.
Texas Lawyer labeled Court of Criminal Appeals hopeful Steve Mansfield a "stealth" candidate for distorting his legal experience, failing to disclose his previous congressional races in New Hampshire, and claiming a long legal history in Texas when in fact he was licensed to practice law in Houston just two years ago. Mansfield, who's seeking a seat on the state's highest criminal appeals court against three-term incumbent Democrat Charles Campbell, also inflated his courtroom experience from a record of a few appearances in municipal courts to handling a hundred misdemeanor and criminal cases. Mansfield didn't even come clean on his place of birth. Far from being a native Texan, he was born in Massachusetts. To his credit, Mansfield did list 42 as his correct age.
Before those revelations, Mansfield had snagged the endorsement of the Houston Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. But when conservative Republican leaders pressured him to disavow the endorsement, Mansfield asked the HGLPC to drop him from their list. It may be the first documented instance in which the state Republican leadership is on record doing a favor for a gay rights organization.
Turkey With Two Faces
Now here's a guy who's tried to keep his judicial feet planted both left and right, with a bit of tap dancing in between. David Jennings Willis, the Republican nominee for the 189th District Civil Court, took out several ads in the homophobic Link Letter totaling $400 while also asking for the Houston Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus endorsement during the same time period.
After he won the endorsement, Willis told the Press he had no plans to renounce it, à la Steve Mansfield (see above). But after the endorsement was publicized, Willis informed the HGLPC that he had indeed renounced its backing in a letter to state GOP officials. As it turned out, the HGLPC's "push cards" that it will distribute to voters at some polling locations had already been printed, but HGLPC president Terri Richardson told Willis she'd get volunteers to scratch his name off if he went through with the disavowal. At the end of the day, Willis called back to say "never mind." Maybe voters should, too.
A Turkey of a Friend
One indicator of how a candidate might perform as a judge is how he treats his best friends. By that measure, Carlos "C.C." Correa, a Democrat seeking the bench of the 232nd District Criminal Court, comes up woefully short. Correa, in an apparent effort to delay a court hearing on a lawsuit filed against him by the State Bar of Texas (a suit that could have resulted in his disbarment and rendered his candidacy moot, since he would have to be a lawyer to serve as a judge), pulled a flimflam on his good pal, state District Judge Lupe Salinas. Correa got Salinas to name him third counsel in a case that didn't need one by telling the lead attorney and Salinas that each had requested his presence, according to Salinas. That appointment gave Correa grounds to delay the court date on the State Bar's suit until after his Democratic primary contest with Eric Hagstette, a former prosecutor.
As it turned out, the maneuver was unnecessary, since a jury ruled in favor of Correa in the lawsuit. All it did was help tar Salinas' hopes for appointment by the Clinton administration to a federal judgeship. Harris County grand juries have been probing both Correa's and Salinas' campaign fund reports and recently returned two perjury indictments against Salinas. But it's hard to see how Correa's reports could land him in trouble, since he ponyed up most of the cash himself. A classic example of a candidate whose sole support is his own bank account, Correa loaned his campaign $31,430 from February through June of this year. He got only $835 in other contributions during the same period. Correa got equally minimal outside support in the bar poll, trailing his Republican opponent, prosecutor Mary Lou Keel, by a 3-to-1 margin.
The Turkey Who Won't Die
Bonnie Fitch just keeps knocking on the judicial door, even though voters rejected her three previous attempts to win a judgeship. Her latest effort is as the Democratic nominee for the 295th District Civil Court seat. With an abysmal bar poll rating (Houston lawyers went against her 4-to-1) and low estimations from Democratic Party activists who've rued her presence on the ballot in the past, Fitch has set herself up for another probable loss, this time to Republican Tracy Elizabeth Christopher. Maybe Fitch should consider following in some small footsteps by running for Sheila Jackson Lee's soon-to-be-vacant seat on Houston City Council. That job proved Lee's salvation after several failed attempts to win judicial posts.
In the roughly same category as Fitch with roughly the same prospects is Charles "Ernie" Hill, the Democratic challenger against Republican incumbent David West for the 269th District Civil Court bench. While other Democrats listed their qualifications in a Democratic Party broadside headlined "Know More," Hill's slogan would appear to be "Know Less," at least judging by the blurb he offered for the campaign piece: "My experience as a trial lawyer enables me to understand pressures and concerns of litigants, the need for uncompromised impartiality."
Turkeys of a Feather
Texas Lawyer's investigation of Harris County's civil court-at-law judges is good reason for voters to un-elect incumbents Ed Landry, Carolyn Day Hobson and Charles Coussons.
The publication's exhaustive comparison of the relationship between special commissioners appointed by the judges to appraise property for state purchase and the campaign contributions the commissioners made to those judges exposed a well-greased buddy system. As reporter Mark Ballard wrote, "Doing little or no work for unusually large fees, Harris County's special commissioners have cost Texas taxpayers an extra $50 million in land acquisition costs since mid-1988."
Landry, who likes to chow down at Mandola's on his campaign account tab, twice appointed the owner of that restaurant a special commissioner. Asked why she repeatedly hired her hairdresser as a special commissioner, Hobson told the Press, "She's now deceased. And I tell you what, I knew she had a bad heart, and I'm proud and pleased I made the last six years of a person's life on this earth happy!" That's the happiness that only taxpayers' money can buy.
If you believe what lawyers say about other lawyers, then believe the worst about Hobson. She took the biggest drubbing of any incumbent judge in the bar poll, losing to Republican challenger Lynn Bradshaw-Hull by a 2-to-1 margin in the sampling of local legal practitioners. Coussons, meanwhile, faces Republican Cynthia Crowe, who made a respectable showing in the bar poll, while Landry was a 4-to-1 winner over the GOP foe Gene Chambers.
With self-immolating U.S. Representative Craig Washington of Houston's 18th District having flamed out, the most liberal congressional district in the South now will elect a shoo-in Democrat who in no way measures up to Barbara Jordan or Mickey Leland, previous holders of the seat. That would be Sheila Jackson Lee, a City Council rhetorician known more for blow-and-go tactics than substantive lawmaking. Democrat Lee can be expected to coast to victory (barring an act of God) over three opponents, including the GOP's Jerry Burley, who'll find that running as a black Republican in a predominantly black district is still a steep uphill trek.
On the other side of the political fence, expect U.S. Representative Tom DeLay
to barely break a sweat in being elected (barring a bipartisan act of God) to another term representing the 22nd District. Having hitched his wagon to Newt Gingrich's apparently rising star, DeLay is so confident of victory he can afford to dole out his campaign money to other Republican congressional candidates as part of his effort to be chosen as Republican House Whip. The recent Houston Chronicle revelation that DeLay badgered NASA to consider a contract bid by an air conditioning company whose principals had contributed generously to his campaign unfortunately won't make much difference in his heavily Republican district. DeLay does have two opponents, including Democrat Scott Douglas Cunningham.
But some turkeys just can't be felled.