A Shrub Grows in the Huntingdon
As Democrats scorch their own earth
Former mayor Bob Lanier hand-delivered his re-election endorsement to Texas Governor -- and undeclared presidential candidate -- George W. Bush last week in a style all his own. Stripping off a trademark sweater like the one he wore for good effect in television campaign ads in his first mayoral bid, seven years ago, the six-foot-four Lanier handed it to the much smaller guv as a good-luck token.
Bush dutifully doffed his coat and struggled into the blue sleeveless garment, but it didn't quite fit -- just like the usually reliable Democrat Lanier's endorsement of a Republican for whom he had shown little affinity when Bush beat Lanier's favorite, Ann Richards, four years ago. But the governor's status as a phenomenally popular politician with only nuisance opposition in Democratic Land Commissioner Garry Mauro -- and Bush's potential to help or hurt the city in the next legislative session -- is fast making party solidarity an outmoded concept for a number of top Democrats.
Democratic ticket-topper Mauro, down by 53 points in early polls, may be the weakest candidate for governor offered to voters this century. So for the outgunned party, the buzzwords of the moment are peace, love and nonpartisanship. Typical is Democratic comptroller candidate Paul Hobby's nonideological campaign pitch: "Ultimately, parties don't solve problems, people do."
Bush's sky-high popularity has Lanier, Democratic hopeful for lieutenant governor John Sharp and the retiring incumbent, Bob Bullock, all paying obeisance to the "Shrub," the Dems' former derogatory description of the son of President George. That, in turn, has fueled a series of media reports about mass Democratic defections from Mauro's faltering bid for governor.
Of course, Mauro doesn't see it quite that way. After early summer campaigning, some of it with visiting President Bill Clinton, First Lady Hillary and Vice President Al Gore, Mauro admits the latest Bush endorsements have slowed his momentum and left him in a sour mood.
"That's just bullshit," snapped Mauro during a cell phone conversation as he drove back to Austin after a morning of block-walking in withering San Antonio heat. "One hundred Democratic officials, out of 3,300 statewide, and one guy on the statewide ticket [endorsing Bush] doesn't mean they're running away from me, it means they're running away from being Democrats." Mauro bravely dismisses the loss of a few big-name Texas Democrats, claiming their defection will be more than outweighed by future Texas campaign forays on his behalf by the president and vice president.
In Lanier's case, the Bush endorsement signals a selective retreat. The former mayor diplomatically asked Bush's permission to answer a reporter's query at the endorsement press conference at the Huntingdon, Lanier's high-rise home. The former mayor then went on to declare his support for Sharp over Agricultural Commissioner Rick Perry, and to endorse comptroller candidate and Houstonian Hobby over Railroad Commissioner Carol Keeton Rylander. Bush, by contrast, issued a brusque "no" when asked if, in the interest of this newfound nonpartisanship, he planned to endorse any Democratic candidates.
"I could see where Lanier supporting Bush and then making a strong statement for Hobby and Sharp is a positive development for the Sharp and Hobby campaigns," says Democratic state Senator John Whitmire, looking for a shred of good news in the endorsement. "It might be more favorable for Sharp than if Lanier had decided to be quiet about the governor's race. He is providing leadership and an example of splitting his ticket."
In the background at the Huntingdon love fest beamed Mark McKinnon, the Austin-based media consultant who engineered the event for his new boss -- and first major Republican client -- Bush. McKinnon helped prepare Lanier for prime time in 1991, and he's joined the Bush campaign to help craft the governor into a viable presidential candidate with crossover appeal. Appropriately, McKinnon also seems like a new man. He has trimmed his hair to GOP respectability and shed a lot of weight (he now runs marathons) since his days as a good-timing, cigar-smoking shepherd for the Democratic flock. Now he's trying to herd the sheep into the Bush congregation.
Along for the show -- and perhaps some attendant media and political exposure -- was an unlikely gaggle of pols and players. They included GOP County Commissioner Steve Radack and his attorney-wife, Sherry, who is running for district judge against one of the few Democrats still breathing on the bench, Kathy Stone. County Attorney Mike Fleming, a Republican, loitered stiffly about with nothing much to do, as did Jimmie Schindewolf, former Lanier public works director and current Sports Authority consultant.
In preparing for the endorsement, Lanier ran several pet political concerns past Bush during preliminary meetings. One was the possibility that GOP legislators might rally behind legislation to reverse the annexation of Kingwood that Lanier had consummated over the protests of unhappy residents in his final year as mayor. Asked whether he got Bush to commit to a hands-off position on the matter as a condition for the endorsement, the former mayor indicated the governor expected their talks, as with Bush's other Democratic allies, to remain confidential.
"He was talking about how comfortable he had been, sitting and having meetings with Bob Bullock and [house speaker] Pete Laney, and letting their hair down and not one time reading the results in the papers," recounts Lanier of the Bush discussion. "He was not aiming that directly at me. But I took it that's how he would like the conversation to proceed, and I've honored that."
While the rhetoric of nonpartisanship dominated the Huntingdon that day, it also seems to be coming into play in early campaigning, as the top Democrats bash each other as avidly as GOP opponents. After Sharp refused to endorse Mauro's bid for governor last week, Mauro unleashed an attack on his old Texas A&M classmate for rank insubordination. For a moment, it almost seemed that Mauro had forgotten his campaign opponent was George Bush, not John Sharp.
"This has to do with Sharp's poor values and his sense of loyalty to the Democratic party," sniped Mauro. "He didn't support Clinton in '92, he didn't support Clinton in '96, and I was surprised, I thought he had learned better."
Mauro then dredged up some shared political history with Sharp from Aggieland days. "He was head of Democrats for Nixon at A&M and he was on [Senator] Phil Gramm's staff," Mauro confided. "I mean, he's just reverting back to form." Seemingly exhilarated by his jabs at Sharp, Mauro exclaimed to The Insider: "Be sure and get that. I haven't given that to anybody else!"
Sharp and Mauro aren't the only statewide Democrats taking pot shots at each other. Former and current candidate for attorney general Jim Mattox found himself coming to Bush's defense after Mauro attacked the governor for commuting the Henry Lee Lucas death sentence. Mattox was the first candidate to publicly question the validity of the serial murderer's conviction for a Texas killing that occurred when he was believed to be elsewhere.
"I think it was a wrong position, a wrong reaction, and it probably came off the cuff, without a lot of thought given to it," says Mattox of Mauro's criticism. "I think what he basically was doing was expressing the kind of knee-jerk reaction that a lot of people had at first blush. But after thinking about it for some length, I think he knows better."
Not as of last Thursday. Noting that he can't find a date for the last time a governor gave clemency to a Texas prisoner sentenced to death, Mauro cited Bush's refusal to stop the execution of a Mexican national in violation of international treaty, or to honor the appeals of the Pope and evangelist Pat Robertson to spare pickax murderess Karla Faye Tucker. "If I was going to break a 50- or 75-year tradition of not providing clemency," says Mauro, "it wouldn't have been for a guy who is a serial murderer."
The way the statewide campaigns are developing, Mauro, Sharp and Mattox could wind up being their own worst enemies before November, while Bush coasts on toward re-election and future pursuit of the GOP presidential nomination.
"It's an unusual year," marvels Senator Whitmire, "and wearing a partisan hat, I'll be glad to see Bush run for president. I've never voted for a Republican, but I'd be willing to vote for Bush just to get him out of Texas, so the Democrats can be back in charge."
Judging from the discord between the Democratic standard-bearers, it may take a lot more than Bush's departure to put the party house back in order.
Need to let The Insider in on something? Give him a call at (713) 280-2483, fax him at (713) 280-2496 or e-mail him at email@example.com.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.