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Political Flights of Fancy

Last-minute changes in political travel plans by two candidates have some local Democrats clapping their hands with glee, while Republican counterparts are scratching their heads in puzzlement.

Just minutes before the filing deadline last week, former Texas attorney general Dan Morales made a surprise decision to run for governor instead of the U.S. Senate. That is seen by supporters of Houston's outgoing 25th District Congressman Ken Bentsen as a lane-clearing boost for his own senatorial candidacy.

Bentsen consultant Dan McClung of Campaign Strategies believes Morales's decision to get out of the Senate picture simplifies Bentsen's efforts to woo Hispanics. Their votes are expected to reach record levels in the primary because of the headlining matchup of Morales and Laredo banker Tony Sanchez.

McClung says the move has shaken loose key Hispanic leaders who had already committed to Morales for the Senate: "If Ken does well with Hispanics in the Valley and San Antonio, it makes his statewide campaign work."

With no Hispanic in the race, Bentsen can capitalize on Latino connections from his family's deep political roots in South Texas as well as the Democratic Party prestige of his uncle Lloyd Bentsen, the former U.S. senator from Texas.

As attorney general, Morales had been tarnished by questions arising from the huge legal fees he approved for plaintiffs' lawyers representing the state against cigarette companies. McClung figures one of his motives for shifting from a federal to a state race is campaign cash. He'll be able to use more than $1 million left in his Texas attorney general campaign account to seek the governorship -- funds he could not legally spend seeking a U.S. seat.

"It would have been hard for him to raise federal money given his [tobacco litigation] problems," notes McClung. "He has that amount of money now to use in a state primary where he's very well known. Sanchez has gotta spend an awful lot of money just to catch up with that name identification that Morales sits on right now."

On the same day Morales switched races, Harris County civil court judge John Devine packed his pickup truck after unexpectedly resigning from the 190th District bench, a post he once claimed God had told him to seek. Republican Devine, a former antiabortion activist who was once arrested during protests outside Planned Parenthood clinics, has launched a new jihad for the county attorney job held by Mike Stafford.

Devine's decision has conspiracy theorists in his party working overtime trying to come up with explanations. One courthouse veteran marvels that an incumbent district judge would resign to run for a position of lesser prestige.

"It seems bizarre," says the source. "If you came and offered the county attorney job on a silver platter, there's not one other district judge who would take it."

Even if Devine beats Stafford and lawyer Don Large in the March GOP primary, he would have to face Democrat Marc Whitehead in November and wouldn't be on the county payroll till next year. That's a long time to be unemployed considering he has five young children to support.

"Everyone's wondering who's going to pay the guy to do anything," says the same source. "He has always lived paycheck to paycheck, and he doesn't have any money built up. So something's going on."

Devine's plans sparked so much interest that one sharp-eyed observer reports that the judge's pickup, sporting judge's license plates, was under surveillance as he loaded his office furnishings on the afternoon of his resignation. According to this source, a tail followed Devine to an office building at 3700 Montrose, which houses several law firms. Later, he headed out the Gulf Freeway and made another lengthy stop at the plaintiff's law firm of Williams Bailey LLP, then drove to Republican Party headquarters.

Not much really seems secret over at the courthouse these days.

Devine reportedly has told colleagues that he will temporarily work out of the law offices of Jared Ryker Woodfill. He's the conservative lawyer running for Harris County Republican Party chairman with the blessings of Gary Polland, the former chair now seeking a state senate seat.

Perhaps Devine has a few favors to collect. After all, in the last eight months Woodfill has received $88,565 in payments for mediation and ad litem fees authorized by the 190th District Court.

Devine did not return an Insider inquiry. His campaign consultant, Heidi Lange, says her man believes he can do more as county attorney than incumbent Stafford.

"He just feels that office needs a stronger person who has the experience and qualifications to make it effective, efficient and productive as it can be," says Lange, who notes that Stafford has never been elected to anything.

Stafford ran for county attorney but was beaten in the 1996 GOP primary by Mike Fleming. He endorsed Fleming in the general election, and Fleming hired Stafford as an assistant when he took office. Two years ago, Stafford also lost in the district attorney's race to eventual winner Chuck Rosenthal. When Fleming resigned as county attorney last year to join a private law firm, Harris County commissioners appointed Stafford to replace him.

Devine was reportedly angry after Fleming and Stafford authored a legal opinion against the Metropolitan Transit Authority holding an area-wide light rail referendum. As a judge, Devine issued an order stopping the rail project, but the Texas Supreme Court overturned his ruling and the Main Street rail construction went forward.

Stafford consultant Allen Blakemore says Devine has been on an erratic political course for several years.

"The guy's been all over the map. He ran for Congress once before. It was widely rumored he was considering three different races, and twice during the year rumors circulated he was leaving imminently to join a law firm. All this says one thing: not that John Devine wants to be county attorney, but that he wants not to be a judge anymore."

Blakemore doubts that Devine will be able to use his network of evangelical Christian supporters to mount an effective campaign.

"I feel very comfortable about this race, mostly because so much of the support is already pledged and committed," notes the consultant. "Devine is going to have to go to people and ask them to go back on commitments they're already made…It'll happen some, but not enough."

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Stafford should have no problems raising a sizable campaign war chest. Last spring, four influential supporters who do business with the county (see The Insider, "Some Very Special Friends," March 15) wrote off $100,000 in campaign loans they made to him for the district attorney race. Stafford is also backed by westside County Commissioner Steve Radack.

When Devine cleaned out his chambers last week, he also packed a veritable gallery of patriotic and religious-themed art valued at more than $17,000 that had adorned the walls of the 190th courtroom for years. Much of it had been purchased with money from the judge's campaign account.

When The Insider dropped in for a walk-through, gone was the $1,235 bronze of a sultry blind justice, which formerly occupied a pedestal in the front of the court. Likewise departed was a portrait of the founding fathers in prayerful poses, paintings of stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, and a selection of Revolutionary War battle flags. Inexplicably left behind over the jury box was one banner depicting an eagle, and a print of "The Lawyer's Prayer" by Thomas More.

Venturing deeper into the judge's vacated, disorderly chambers, The Insider came face-to-face with a lonely red "Vote for Devine" sign pinned to a wall-- and the discovery that the good judge was apparently a fan, or at least a reader. Stuffed in a trash can next to his emptied desk were three different back issues of the Houston Press.

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