Spreading the Campaign Wealth
Harris County Republican Party Chairman Gary Polland plans to charge GOP judicial candidates $6,000 each for a campaign effort next fall on behalf of the party ticket, but that proposal is drawing some sniper shots from political consultants who question the program's tactics and effectiveness.
Chief among the critics is Allen Blakemore, who, perhaps not coincidentally, works for conservative activist Dr. Steven Hotze, whose own election-time voting machine performs some of the same functions that Polland wants to include in his Victory 98 program. After Polland and party treasurer Paul Bettencourt summoned the candidates to a planning meeting at Irma's Restaurant earlier this month, Blakemore fired off a memo to the same group.
"Chairman Polland campaigned on a promise that he would not be constantly tapping candidates' campaigns for operating funds," stated Blakemore. "The letter you received shows that his pledge was a hollow one. Polland should live up to his campaign promise and target other investors."
Blakemore advised the judicial candidates that by giving Polland their contributions, "you will receive little or no substantial support from the Victory 98 program."
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Polland had proposed that GOP candidates with opponents contribute $6,000 each to the party. Candidates who are running unopposed, as many Republican judicial entries are this year, would be expected to cough up $2,000.
According to Blakemore, Polland told the candidates that Victory 98 would assist them through a variety of campaign tactics, including promoting them on his weekly radio program on KKTR/97.1 FM Talk, a station in which the chairman is one of the investors. Polland also proposed holding seminars to train candidates, holding town hall meetings to introduce them to the public, and conducting a ballot-by-mail program targeting the elderly.
"All of these items are either of minimal cost, duplicative of others' efforts, already funded by others, or of negligible impact," claims Blakemore. The consultant says Polland ignored requests to provide a detailed budget for his proposed expenditures, or to set up a bidding process to allow local qualified political consultants to do the work. "It's your $6,000," he advised party hopefuls. "Get some answers before you write a check."
Consultant Heidi Lange, who represents more than a dozen judicial candidates, is still waiting for a response. She concurs with Blakemore's complaints, and has advised her clients not to commit to Polland's program until he produces that promised budget.
Lange said, "$6,000 could be 25 percent of a criminal court judge candidate's budget. That's a big portion of their campaign funding, and I just want to see where it's going to be spent." Lange also contends that unopposed candidates shouldn't have to contribute anything to the party effort.
Party treasurer Bettencourt says he's not surprised by the complaints, since "to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs. We're making a new omelet, and with 75 different campaigns going on, you have a lot of cooks."
He explains the higher $6,000 price tag for participating candidates as the result of Republican success in Harris County. Because there are relatively few GOP judicial candidates facing opponents, those who do have opposition will have to pay more to shoulder the county-wide program. Bettencourt says it is only fair that unopposed candidates who benefit from the party's muscle pay $2,000 into the campaign effort.
Polland did make one concession at the meeting by promising to allow Lange, Blakemore and others to bid on political consulting work for the party program. Blakemore says that could open the way for Dr. Hotze to bid on the mail ballot program he has conducted through his own political organizations.
State District Judge Don Wittig also complained at the meeting that, because state judicial canons restrict the campaign tactics of judicial candidates, he wanted a committee of judges to work in tandem with Polland on the campaign. Wittig says he was assured that such a committee of judges would be consulted as the campaign takes shape. Bettencourt says a committee of judges has been named to review the material of Victory 98.
Two weeks after the Irma's meeting, Lange says she still hasn't received any of the requested details of Victory 98 from Polland. Until she does, Lange is advising her candidates not to sign any commitments to give money to the Polland effort. Bettencourt says he'll send out the plan shortly, and it has been delayed by the necessity to name 750 election judges and get the list over to Harris County officials this week.
Until they see the details, Polland's consultant critics are taking a wait-and-see posture.
"What we're saying is, you've got to show me a plan, show me a budget," says Blakemore. "People think he just pulled the $6,000 figure out of thin air."
Tackling Term Limits
Opponents of the city of Houston term limits have gained a new, well-funded backer. Developer Ed Wulfe, one of Mayor Lee Brown's informal advisers, has been working with several local political scientists to see if public opinion favors altering the current limit of three two-year terms for councilmembers, the city controller and mayor.
Brown and others blame the limits for increasing politicization of municipal politics. Even though candidates do not run under party labels, their term-limited municipal careers tend to force officials to embrace partisan identities if they hope to run for future state or county office.
Wulfe contends the current system should be replaced by two four-year terms, which would allow for more stability in city government and eliminate the costs of an election every two years. Wulfe is interested in getting polling data on the feasibility of pushing a public referendum to change the law. He is consulting with Rice political scientist Bob Stein and his University of Houston counterpart Dr. Richard Murray.
Discord in Whitmire Land
State Senator John Whitmire is temporarily living in his mother's house in Houston while trying to reconcile his way back from a separation and divorce suit filed by wife Becky Dalby Whitmire earlier this month in Judge Bonnie Hellums's court.
In her suit, Becky Whitmire cites personality conflict and marital discord as the reason for the couple's estrangement. She asks for the Whitmires' imposing pink brick Georgian home near Memorial Park, as well as the interior furnishings, a 1998 BMW 528 and a Mitsubishi Montero. She also wants their guest house located on ranch property in Chapel Hill, Texas. Included is a requested temporary restraining order asking that the senator be enjoined from spending any of the couple's cash assets beyond customary personal expenses.
Becky Whitmire is the daughter of state District Judge Giles Dalby of Garza County, in West Texas near Lubbock, and she is an heiress to the 16,000-acre Dalby Ranch. The couple has two teenage daughters. She's represented by attorneys Marshall Brown and Joel Nass. Their firm represented Cheryl Turner in her divorce from state Representative Sylvester Turner.
The senator says he and his wife are still trying to work out their differences through counseling, and he's hopeful a permanent split can be avoided.
The city of Houston is defending its affirmative action referendum by using outside legal representation from a law firm whose partner is a conservative Republican and former GOP congressional candidate. Brent Perry did not advocate affirmative action in his campaign. The participation of his firm, Zummo and Perry, apparently didn't help much on an ideological level, as state District Judge Sharolyn Wood, a Republican, last week threw out the results of last fall's referendum. Wood found that the language used by the city on the ballot did not represent the intent of the voters who signed a petition mandating the vote.
Wood will rule later on whether Edward Blum, the anti-affirmative action activist who sued the city, can continue to be involved in the legal effort to secure a new referendum now that he has moved from Houston to West University.
Assistant City Attorney Helen Gross, the supervising city lawyer in the case, says she has no complaints about the quality of the work done by the Zummo and Perry firm on behalf of the city. Still, one legal critic allows he'd feel a lot more confident if the city's chosen counsel actually believed in what they were defending.
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