Retiring District Attorney Johnny Holmes Jr. recalls underling Chuck Rosenthal asking the casual question: Could he make it to an upcoming fund-raiser in Rosenthal's campaign for D.A.?
"Chuck, I don't do much nighttime shit," Holmes remembers telling him. Holmes said to let him know when Rosenthal set it up and he'd see if he could stop by.
Last Thursday, Holmes got the December 15 date of the event when a concerned constituent faxed his office a copy of the invitation.
In bold type -- letters as big as those for Rosenthal himself -- the invitation announced: "Johnny Holmes/Tommy Thomas invite you to a Fundraising Reception...."
They were reportedly mailed out to every Republican campaign contributor in the county. And the invitation's reply card made even more intimate use of the D.A. and sheriff names:
"Yes, Johnny & Tommy, I will attend...." It included boxes to be checked for donations ranging from "host" ($100 contribution) to "underwriter" ($1,000).
Rosenthal might be able to argue at campaign forums that he has gained new experience in Deceptive Trade Practices claims -- against himself. And Thomas and Holmes would be the complaining witnesses.
They were livid over the unauthorized use of their names. Both wondered how they could go from possible attendees of an event to the marquee hosts.
Rosenthal apologized to both. He says he has considered sending disclaimers to the invitee list.
Holmes has a stronger proposal. "I suggested the damned thing be canceled and [Rosenthal] sugarcoat it any way he can, but call it off." Holmes says that, after the invitation, an appearance by the D.A. would make it seem like he was tacitly endorsing the candidate.
While the "sorrys" from Rosenthal have soothed the D.A. and sheriff, the seeming ruse has accomplished the apparent mission of his political handler, Allen Blakemore, the operative for Christian conservative kingmaker Steven Hotze.
Contributors and possible opponents would mistakenly believe Hotze's favorite has cornered valuable endorsements from the two officials who told others they were endorsing no one. (Holmes said he would endorse only if the race came down to a qualified candidate against some "nincompoop.")
Political insiders say the mere appearance of endorsements -- however misleading -- could open the checkbooks of contributors and send other candidates to the sidelines.
"That's some of what we do in campaigns: try to squelch competition and get our candidate elected," Blakemore says. He didn't talk to the two officials personally, but Rosenthal told him they agreed to the use of their names, he says.
Rosenthal chalks up some of the problems to his own "political naÏveté" as a campaign newcomer. He and Blakemore say there could be misunderstandings over the semantics. They do not state flatly that he is being endorsed, even though the invitations have "Johnny and Tommy" themselves virtually appealing for donations.
"This is more hyperbole in marketing than deception," Rosenthal says in his defense.
With the filing deadline more than three weeks away and the party primaries months off, Holmes says it would be inappropriate for him to back any candidate. "I'm not taking a position unless or until I see who they are," he says. Holmes says it's quite possible that two qualified candidates could emerge, leaving him content to watch the race from a distance.
Thomas says he'll endorse no candidate. He points out that he will be on the ballot for re-election, and it would not be wise to get involved in other races.
Both officials did agree to let Rosenthal use brief messages from them in his campaign materials. "I gave Chuck a quote, but that's not endorsing him," Thomas says.
Blakemore will use Holmes's statement, which draws a comparison between the D.A. and Rosenthal by playing off their differing facial hair. "Different moustache -- same principles" is the Holmes statement. Thomas has a fairly stock statement that Rosenthal has been a reliable partner with law enforcement and a "trusted ally" in the war on crime. But other candidates they deem as qualified could get similar comments from Holmes and Thomas.
It's unusual for allegations of political tricks to come in what is now a one-horse race. Rosenthal's chief opponent was expected to be Ted Poe, the state criminal district judge [see "Shame, Shame, Shame," by Richard Connelly, November 11]. However, Poe announced late last month that he would not be stepping down from the bench to join the race.
Veteran defense attorney Randy Schaffer, who says he may enter the race, laughs when asked for a reaction to the Rosenthal invitation controversy. "It underscores my basic philosophy: that politics sucks," he says.
He and some other attorneys also say that Rosenthal has a good reputation as a prosecutor, but the dispute raises questions about his management abilities in his own campaign.
Schaffer says he probably would not have a political manager, but if he did, he would make sure that nothing was sent out without his specific approval. And if a consultant sent out a misleading invitation or campaign materials, "I'd have him go every place he sent them and personally pick them back up."
Rosenthal, noting that it "was probably more my fault than anybody else's," says he has no plans to dump Blakemore.
Holmes, in his classic crusty tradition, puts his position bluntly. If it had been his consultant engaging in that kind of politics, he says, "First, I'd whip his ass, and secondly, I'd fire him."
"But I'm not mad at anybody," Holmes says. "I do regret this happened. It embarrasses the shit out of all of us."
E-mail George Flynn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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