in Houston, Texas

High wattage: Trial lawyer Mikal Watts funds Democrats' resurgence

Monday, Nov 17, 2008, 10:55AM CST
By Matt Pulle
Three weeks before Election Day, San Antonio trial attorney Mikal Watts studied a private poll that placed Democratic state Senate candidate Wendy Davis in a surprisingly tight race with the GOP incumbent. Davis had been asking Watts for money for weeks -- calling him again and again, actually -- but only now was he ready to support her campaign. Of course, he wasn't just giving her enough cash to cover a few extra yard signs. He wrote her a check for $25,000.

Over the final stretch of a fiercely battled election, Davis used a series of slick TV commercials to overwhelm Tarrant County Republican Kenneth "Kim" Brimer. The spots, some of which aired during prime time on CNN, portrayed Brimer as crooked, out-of-touch, lazy and, in at least one spot, a really bad dresser.On Election Day, Davis eked out a close victory over Brimer, pulling off one of the biggest upsets in Texas.

"Some people give a little bit of money to a lot of people; my philosophy is you need to give people the lift they need to take on entrenched Republicans or incumbents," Watts (pictured above left) tells Texas Watchdog. “I try to get involved in fewer races in large increments. You want to make a difference."

With Texas Democrats still savoring another impressive election, gaining three House seats and nearly running the table in Dallas and Harris counties, Watts is doing just that.

After the death of Dallas trial attorney Fred Baron, no other donor can match Watts' largesse: Since 2000, Watts and his law firm have donated $4.5 million to state candidates -- nearly all of them Democrats -- as well as left-leaning PACs and campaigns, like Texans for Insurance Reform. In 2008 alone, Watts' law firm has given over half a million dollars to the Democratic Party and its candidates.

Of course, you can't bankroll a party without inviting controversy, if not outright disdain.

To some, Watts is just another slimy trial attorney looking to rent candidates to unravel tort reform.

But to others, particularly those on the receiving end of his generosity, Watts is a visionary who uses his personal fortune and keen political instincts to boost a surging Democratic party.

“It’s clear to me that Mr. Watts has gone above and beyond to make certain that our elected officials work for the people and not large special interests," says Hector Nieto, a spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party. "I think it would be disappointing for Republicans to criticize one of our donors when it’s clear that their benefactors are doing the same exact thing they accuse us of doing.”

Throwing his hat (and his checkbook) into the ring

Unlike many of Texas' high-profile donors, from homebuilder Bob Perry to the late Fred Baron, Watts harbors political ambitions of his own. Last year, the UT grad announced he was running for John Cornyn's U.S. Senate seat, pitting him against state Rep. Rick Noriega in the Democratic primary. It could have been an intriguing contest: A multi-millionaire attorney who had never held elected office taking on an entrenched Democrat.

But before the 40-year-old political neophyte could make much of an impression, he found himself mired in an embarrassing scandal. Last September, the Senate candidate had to explain an old letter he wrote where he tried to pressure an opposing counsel to accept a $60 million settlement in an automobile accident case. In his correspondence, Watts bragged he would prevail in an appeal because his law firm helped finance the campaigns of judges on the state's 13th Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi.

"This court is comprised of six justices, all of whom are good Democrats," Watts wrote in the letter. "The Chief Justice, Hon. Rogelio Valdez, was recently elected with our firm's heavy support, and is a man who believes in the sanctity of jury verdicts."

Along with boasting about his legal prowess, the balding, baby-faced Watts then proceeds to list other judges on the court that his law firm supported, including justices Nelda Rodriguez and Linda Yanez. In an interview with The Houston Chronicle, which broke the story, Watts didn't exactly argue a good case for himself.

"It was in response to the garbage we hear from defense lawyers every day," Watts said.

What he was trying to convey in his letter, he clumsily explained to The Chronicle, was that the Texas Supreme Court wouldn't hear the case if he won it on the appellate level. Why does that matter? Watts explained that the lawyers he takes on typically will boast in their own right, saying, "It doesn't matter what a jury is going to do because we've got nine angry Republicans on the Texas Supreme Court who will take away whatever a jury does."

In other words, Watts seems to be saying that if he was bragging about rigging the system, it was only to give the other guys a taste of their own medicine.

Of course, that's not much of an argument, and the fall-out from the trial attorney's correspondence was swift and severe. Burnt Orange Report, the veritable Bible for Texas Democrats, excoriated the Senate candidate, painting the high-profile Democratic financier as just another unscrupulous attorney.

The way Mikal Watts practices law, blogger Texas Nate wrote, "it's the same way he campaigns for public office -- he throws money around and makes sure everyone knows he throws money around."

After throwing $3.8 million of his own money into his Senate bid, Watts would later drop out of the race, citing the excuse of many a political loser before him: He wanted to spend more time with his family. Watts told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times he'd consider another run in 10 years when his children were grown.

Watts' letter was not the first time he tweaked the ethical boundaries of his profession. In 2005, a federal judge censured him for failing to tell Ford Motor Co. that his client died during settlement talks. Watts has made a good chunk of his millions suing the automotive giant and Firestone over SUV rollovers.

Interestingly, the attorney for Ford was largely complimentary of the trial attorney's work, telling the Caller-Times, "Watts is among the best."

Watts' approach to giving

Much like Fred Baron, who continued to bankroll Democratic candidates even after he got caught up in John Edwards' sex scandal, Watts didn't retreat to an undisclosed location after his own bout of bad publicity. He continued to write checks. Among the recipients of his generosity was the Texas Democratic Party, which received a whopping $250,000 from the attorney.

In a brief interview with Texas Watchdog, Watts was affable and engaging even as we could hear him bellying up to a noisy bar and ordering a beer. He jokes that while he didn't donate money to every single Democrat, "it certainly felt that way." In fact, Watts is more judicious with his money than he initially lets on.

First, Watts says he prefers to give money to challengers over incumbents. Once you're in elected office, he says, you should be able to raise money on your own, although he makes exceptions if a Republican is making a strong challenge. Then, Watts works with political consultant Christian Archer to vet candidates, while looking at the most up-to-date polling numbers.

Watts is no hopeless idealist. He only wants to donate money if that could tilt an election. When you look at his contributions, he usually hands out cash in large amounts -- $6,000 here, $17,000 there -- to only a select group of candidates. As he sees it, it doesn't make much sense to spread the wealth. Instead, he wants to propel challengers to victory in the tight races.

So with Wendy Davis, who had been receiving statewide media attention and was clearly giving Brimer fits, he opened up his wallet. Considering that the former Fort Worth city council member beat Brimer by only 7,000 votes after a flurry of last-minute attack ads, Watts' support could have been the difference. But with state Senate candidate Joe Jaworski, who was trying to unseat Republican incumbent Mike Jackson, the donor kept his checkbook closed.

"One of the guys I liked the most this cycle was Joe Jaworski," Watts says. "Super smart, diligent. But before you put money in a race like that you need to see that it's going to happen, and the polls said it wasn’t."

Watts and other trial attorneys' intentions attacked

Watts isn't the only plaintiff's attorney with a fat checkbook.

Walter Umphrey is the the managing partner at Provost Umphrey, a firm that specializes in asbestos and personal injury cases with offices in Beaumont and Tyler. Umphrey has donated at least $130,000 to Democratic candidates in 2008, including $100,000 to state Senate candidate Chris Bell, who is now in a run-off with Republican Joan Huffman.

Like many trial lawyers, Umphrey has a knack for self-parody. On his firm's Web site, he talks about balancing "justice for the working man." He adds, "Someone has to do it, and that's my business."

And apparently business is good. According to the Jefferson County Appraisal District, Umphrey owns two lots at the Southeast Texas Regional Airport worth nearly $900,000.

Although Texas Republicans have traditionally outspend their Democratic adversaries the GOP attempts to put the spotlight on trial attorney donors like Watts and Umphrey whenever it can. To the GOP, which is heavily funded by developers, along with corporate and insurance interests, trial attorneys are single-issue donors: They want to gut initiatives like Proposition 12, the 2003 constitutional amendment voters approved to cap damages like pain and suffering in medical lawsuits.

But Watts scoffs at criticism that he merely gives money in the hopes of unraveling tort reform.

“If that were true, I wouldn’t have given money to people who voted for it, " he says. "I’m a Democrat, and I support Democrats -- I think Democrats are better for this country and this state."

Democratic state Rep. Richard Raymond, who received $10,000 from Watts last month and has filed to run for the House speaker post, says he's hardly been a reliable vote for trial attorneys. It was only until the House passed legislation paving the way for Proposition 12 that he took their side.

I voted for every tort reform bill that came before me for ten years but Prop 12 was too extreme," he says. “They took the popularity of doctors and used that as a tool to help insurance companies make more money.”

But Sherry Sylvester, with Texans for Lawsuit Reform, says the battle over how Texans litigate is ongoing. Last year, she says lawmakers introduced 394 pieces of legislation that would have weakened tort reforms or made it easier to sue. That's why trial attorneys like Watts flooded the coffers of Democratic candidates in the final weeks before Nov. 4. According to a report from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, "personal injury trial lawyers" accounted for an astounding 97 percent of the Democratic Party's campaign contributions in the critical last weeks of the election season, as reported eight days prior to Election Day.

But Hector Nieto with the Texas Democratic Party says that the group's figure merely takes a short-term look. Over the first eight months of 2008, he says that Democrats have raised money from 14,000 people making an average donation of only $86. Besides, it's not like the GOP doesn't have their own cast of rich guys angling to dispatch friendly candidates to Austin. Now the Democrats have donors like Watts who can even the score.

“If you visit with him, you figure out that he is a very smart guy, his intellect is through the stratosphere," Raymond says. "But he doesn’t act that way. He’s very easy-going.”

Maybe more so after the elections.

(Photo: Mikal Watts, courtesy of Watts Law Firm.)

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