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Texas city officials say ‘serial requestors’ must be deterred, activists worry about government transparency
Monday, Jun 18, 2012, 09:40AM CST
By Mike Cronin
keepout

Two more local governments in Texas have passed laws designed to deter "serial requestors" of public records.

Corsicana and Kemah city councils earlier this month each passed ordinances that allow public officials to bill citizens for staff time that meets or exceeds 36 hours responding to public information requests during a 12-month period.

Those decisions revive a debate about the 2007 state law that enabled local government agencies to pass on such costs: Is the effect one of government efficiency or reduced government transparency?

Corsicana and Kemah city officials contend the new policies are necessary to prevent government employees from wasting valuable time rummaging for files when they should be attending to city business. But open government advocates argue that providing citizens with public information is central to a government agency’s business.

Kemah City Attorney Dick Gregg Jr. said the law passed on June 7 by the city council will thwart the two or three “serial requestors” of open records from requesting “giant volumes of things that ties up city hall in a small city.”

Those people’s actions are “costing us dough,” Gregg said. “It’s a tremendous burden. A large portion of the staff becomes responsible for finding documents instead of taking care of running the city. So taxpayers end up paying for that work rather than the cost of city governance.”

That’s a misguided concept of democracy, said Paul Watler, a partner at the Dallas law firm Jackson Walker.

“Keeping the public informed about the business of government isn’t just ancillary to public agencies,” said Watler, past president and current member of the board at the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

“Open record requests shouldn’t be looked at as something that distracts from the real work of government employees,” Watler said. “Transparency is the essence of public institutions in a democracy.”

Chuck McClanahanChuck McClanahan

That may be so, but the fact of the matter is that many broad requests do take a lot of time during the workday of Corsicana city employees, said Mayor Chuck McClanahan. Corsicana city council members passed its ordinance on June 5.

“Some of the information requests were really starting to slow down the process here,” said McClanahan, who said he believes in transparency and pointed to awards the city has won for financial transparency from the state Comptroller. “We want to be more efficient. We’re trying to be responsible with taxpayers’ money.”

Connie Standridge, the Corsicana city manager, said six people across three departments -- finance, engineering and parks -- typically handle public records requests. The city has 279 full-time employees, according to its website.

Corsicana employees spent an estimated 113 hours handling requests last year, the first year the city tracked that statistic, Standridge said. Staff has spent an estimate of 60 hours for the year to date, she said.

Local government agencies would be less burdened by requests if they would adopt technology such as document management and retrieval software, Watler said.

The new laws worry some residents, who fear they’ll be targeted as the so-called “serial requestors.”

“Now, as soon as we file requests, they’re just going to use multiple employees to use up as much time as they can” to reach the 36-hour threshold, said Blu Shields, 59, a commercial and residential builder from Texas City who does a lot work in Kemah. “Now, they can pick and choose who they charge and who they don’t.”

The ordinance enables city officials to “impede us even before we ask for records,” said Donna Holcomb, 47, a stay-at-home mom of Bacliff who used to live in Kemah. Holcomb recently asked for eight years’ worth of email records for 16 city officials and was told she could have them, but it would cost $412,000.

She said the new law gives even more power to officials such as Gregg to “give us a ludicrous estimate for the amount of time and money our record requests will cost.”

“This law is going to close up government for the people of Kemah,” she said.

Paul WatlerPaul Watler

That chilling effect is an unintended consequence of the 2007 law, said Watler, the Dallas lawyer and FOI Foundation board member who specializes in First Amendment and media law.

“It deters legitimate requestors from seeking public records,” Watler said.

The 2007 law was authored by Texas state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, who put forward the proposal after parents flooded the Austin-based Lake Travis Independent School District  and the Eanes Independent School District with thousands of open records requests, according to stories in the Austin American-Statesman and the Houston Chronicle.

Neither Wentworth nor officials with the two districts responded to multiple requests for comment.

Several local governments since have enacted policies based on the law, including Comal County in 2008 and Fort Bend County in 2010.

Comal County Judge Sherman Krause said he hasn’t heard anyone talk about the county’s toughened policy, “so I’m not sure how we would quantify” whether the law has made county governance more efficient.

But in Fort Bend County, the 36-hour-limit has not been triggered since the law was passed two years ago, Michelle Rangel, an assistant county attorney, said.

The Texas Legislature in passing the law exempted public officials and journalists, as well as tax-exempt legal services organizations. The exemption does not cover activists like Tom "Smitty" Smith, state director of Public Citizen, the national consumer advocacy organization founded by activist Ralph Nader.

Smith said the 2007 law “hinders people from finding out what’s really going in government,” because unraveling scandals often takes many public records requests over a long period of time.

“On a number of occasions we, or our allies, have been told that data we are seeking would be prohibitively expensive,” Smith said. “And we would have to trim back our data request or abandon it because we couldn’t afford to go forward.”

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Troubles swirling around Tornillo ISD superintendent echo his past
Thursday, May 31, 2012, 08:32AM CST
By Steve Miller
classroom

TORNILLO, Texas - Shortly before he left his job as superintendent of Lone Oak Independent School District in 1999, Paul Vranish and his spending habits had come under scrutiny by the state.

The Texas Education Agency had been contacted by a community member concerned about an increase in discretionary spending by the superintendant. State investigators found that because of "an oversight" Vranish had exceeded the $10,000 limit in one instance. Their report revealed that board members had been probing the daily affairs of the district, requesting credit card statements and line-item athletic expenses down to the middle school cheerleading team.

Vranish left for the top job with the Buffalo Independent School District.

Still, a pattern of rough-and-tumble politics with trustees and questions about how Vranish spent money was set. The trail of trouble, some that cannot be pinned on him or is simply allegation, has dogged the school official over the past 14 years.

In 2001, a Buffalo ISD school board member pleaded in a letter to the Texas Education Agency to step in as the relationship between the trustees and superintendent Vranish had become contentious.

The state obliged, and in early 2002, the district was placed under state oversight. 

Vranish moved on in June of that year to become superintendent of the Tornillo Independent School District, located 40 miles southeast of El Paso. He is now the target of a state investigation that alleges he spent unauthorized district money on electronics, including a cell phone and a tablet, and double billed for travel reimbursements.

Vranish declined to comment.

Employment checks are generally a given at the higher district ranks, but the very position of superintendent draws fire from someone regardless of proficiency. So a record of state involvement isn't always a sign of ineffectiveness.

Vranish’s past, though, could have informed his present. After the state investigation in Tornillo, Vranish declared in a letter he would resign in June 2013, taking with him a $276,000 payout. In an interview with Texas Watchdog in March, Vranish disputed the state’s charges.

In Lone Oak, the state inquiry in 1999 substantiated a number of allegations stemming from the citizen’s complaint. State investigators reported that while the spending limit on Vranish's expense account was $10,000, “within the past two years and due to an oversight, that limit was exceeded on one occasion."

The board responded by increasing the limit to $25,000, state investigators found. The limit was then changed to $7,500, then two months later switched back to $10,000.

The report concluded that “when a board fails to stand behind its policy decision and continues frequently to change such policies, the many changes can create a perception of inconsistency and disharmony.”

The report also noted strife between the school board and Vranish, resulting in packed board meetings that one interviewee described as "out of control."

“An administrator described the board meetings as ‘one huge filled room of tension,’" the report noted.

The state mandated that both the board and Vranish attend a team-building session and undergo training to improve “interpersonal skills," parliamentary procedure and a session that focuses on the “responsibilities of board members and superintendents."

In Buffalo, state education investigators were called in late 2001, finding again a divided school board.

A letter from school board president Eddie Harcrow to the TEA asked for help:

“At this time, our board is experiencing disagreement and conflict regarding goals for, and direction to, the superintendent,” Harcrow wrote. He asked that the state appoint a “master,” or a person with wide latitude to oversee a school district that is failing to perform.

The letter came following weeks of meetings that drew a reported 200 people from the population 1,800 town.

Paul VranishPaul Vranish

A story in the Buffalo Express newspaper on Oct. 17, 2001, reported that Vranish addressed the crowd. A teacher asked about the district’s development plan, which is to be developed in accordance with state law.

“…Supt. Vranish finally admitted that the school district had no such plan and had not had the required plan for two years,” the story said.

On Jan. 2, 2002, the Buffalo Express bannered a headline, “BISD leaders ask for help.”

A TEA report stated that investigators arrived to find two board members “determined to resign.” Vranish was hired by Buffalo to “improve the budget and ‘clean house,’" the report states, and that board members agreed that the budget is repaired but Vranish and the majority of the board also agree that there was still a need to "clean house."

“Although one might be inclined to let Buffalo take care of its own problems, instruction is being affected by the turmoil,” the report said.

Harcrow said in an interview with Texas Watchdog that Vranish did a good job during his tenure in Buffalo.

“Almost anyone who runs a business or school is going to ruffle some feathers when they make changes,” Harcrow said. “What happens is that you have some personnel issues and then get local people angry when their niece doesn’t get hired or someone’s nephew doesn’t get his contract renewed.”

In Tornillo, the district is waiting on the TEA after filing a required response to the findings of its preliminary audit, which reported possible criminal activity by Vranish.

In keeping with the controversy that follows Vranish, even the response to the TEA is in dispute. The law requires the response to be approved by the entire school board.

“We were aware that we all had to agree on the response, but three of us did not approve it,” said trustee Javier Escalante, one of three foes of Vranish on the divided Tornillo school board. “I have never even seen the response, but they submitted it anyway."

Another board member, Ofelia Bosquez, was serving when Vranish was hired. Although she gave him a low hiring score in her assessment, she was unaware of state actions in Lone Oak and Buffalo.

Bosquez said that Vranish has done a “good job. … He’s very intelligent, and he keeps records."

She, too, refused to approve the response to the state’s scathing preliminary audit, for which an outside attorney was hired.

“(Vranish has) blamed us for legal fees,” Bosquez said. “But I told him that he was the instigator for these fees."

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes booted by voters in Democratic primary targeted by Houston super PAC
Wednesday, May 30, 2012, 02:43AM CST
By Steve Miller
Capitol

EL PASO, Texas - U. S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes was ousted from office Tuesday in what by all accounts was one of the hardest fought and acrimonious primaries in recent Texas history. Reyes, an eight-term incumbent Democrat, fell to Beto O’Rourke, a 39-year-old former city council member who benefitted from anti-Reyes ads from the Campaign for Primary Accountability, a conservative Super PAC based in Houston.

O’Rourke ended with 50.47 percent of the vote to Reyes’ 44.35 in the five-candidate race.

“Can you all just confirm for me that this is really happening," O'Rourke said with a wide smile, looking slightly worn from weeks of ceaseless campaigning. He was clearly taken aback by the reality and had little more to offer than the obligatory, "I want to thank all of you for making this possible."

The contest was marked by ad spotlighting by O’Rourke. One Reyes ad exposed O'Rourke's drunk driving arrest in 1998. In another, Reyes claimed O’Rourke favored a bridge between El Paso and Juarez, Mexico, that would take the homes of 5,000 families.

O’Rourke portrayed Reyes as an out-of-touch bureaucrat who put family members on his payroll, and in an ad that broke last week, exposed a virtual border fence business that hired Reyes’ children and contributed $17,000 to his campaign after Reyes advocated for the fence in Congress.

The two held their poll watching parties within blocks of each other yet the events were worlds apart. Reyes’ party was held in a ballroom on the 17th floor of the Doubletree El Paso. Starting around 7 p.m., a band played Tejano music, and the crowd drank and ate from a large buffet spread in the middle of the room. Reyes didn't make his first appearance until 10:10 p.m., walking into the ballroom holding hands with his wife, Carolina. He believed at that time that the race would go to a runoff election.

“Tonight has been a wake-up call for us here in this community,” Reyes said. “A wake-up call for us to decide are we going to let people in Houston decide who we are going to send to Congress here?"

But most of his staff and volunteers knew even then that it looked bad for their boss as they watched the results posted on the hour by the El Paso County elections department on their iPads and smartphones.

Beto O'RourkeBeto O'Rourke

O’Rourke’s party was held at a small restaurant and bar on the city’s west side, a once moribund area on the rebound. The average age was a little over 30, with plenty of boisterous drinking and smiles everywhere. Music? Good luck hearing it over the crowd noise.

O’Rourke walked through the crowd, posing for pictures and greeting patrons.

Reyes’ re-election effort was not only hurt by the accusations and exposures of the O’Rourke campaign but by the earnest campaigning of O’Rourke, who could be found everywhere. He stood by the side of the road by early voting sites with a campaign sign. He put up a table outside a music festival downtown on Saturday, handing out buttons with his face on them and black-and-white flyers that asked voters to “Punch #18 for Beto O’Rourke for Congress, May 29, 7 a.m.- 7 p.m.”

On Monday, early voter turnout was determined to be higher than that of 2010, when Reyes easily won the general election with 58 percent of the vote. But his opponent at that time was a Republican, who stood little chance in the ‘D’ dominated 16th congressional district.

In O’Rourke, he faced a youthful favorite son of El Paso. His father, a county judge, was killed when a car hit him while riding his bike. A local trail, the Pat O’Rourke Memorial Trail, is named after him. The elder O’Rourke was 58 when he died.

O’Rourke mounted a feisty social media campaign using Facebook and Twitter to inform followers of his campaigning activities. He said he was inspired by the 2008 Obama campaign’s use of social media.

Like Obama, O’Rourke presented a youthful alternative to business as usual. He supports ending the War on Drugs and easing back on policing of the Mexican border. He told voters that Reyes, 67, a Vietnam vet and former Border Patrol agent, was out of touch with today’s political climate.

Still, O’Rourke supports many of the same measures Reyes supported in Congress, including both the stimulus bill in 2009 and more recently the American Jobs Act, although he qualified the latter, which was turned back by Senate Republicans.

“Some level of stimulus was needed,” O’Rourke said recently. “But at some point you need to start trimming.”

Silvestre ReyesSilvestre Reyes

The district now loses an experienced lawmaker in Reyes, who holds a seniority rank of 132 in a town that defines people by their power. Reyes is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

Reyes also brought home the cash in the form of earmarks. He sponsored 76 pieces of legislation that brought in $88 million to his district between 2008 and 2011, records show, in the top 33rd percentile for overall amount.

Reyes repeatedly called O’Rourke a Republican, mostly because he benefitted from ads put out by the conservative PAC in Houston.

In addition to the ads, the Campaign for Primary Accountability launched an anti-Reyes portal, The Reyes Record, April 26. In the closing days of the primary race, the Campaign spent $195,000 on anti-Reyes ads.

Reyes was taking in money to the end, filing a report dated May 27 showing receipt of $7,000 from several PACs.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Ciro Rodriguez, Pete Gallego poised for runoff in Democratic primary for Texas’ congressional District 23
Wednesday, May 30, 2012, 02:29AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
voter registration

EAGLE PASS, Texas - After a round of high fives for what would have been a primary night triumph, someone let Victor Perry know the numbers were wrong. Very wrong.

Perry, who had in 2010 taken over a Democratic Party in Maverick County in complete disarray, had set a goal of bringing out 12,000 Democratic voters for Tuesday’s primary.

With a turnout like that, Perry predicted, Maverick County could help determine the winner in the congressional race in District 23 between state Rep. Pete Gallego, former U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez and newcomer John Bustamante.

A text message while he was analyzing the local return for the local cable television Channel 13 reported 12,149 voters had come out. The actual number of Democrats was actually 7,449, a little more than 25 percent of the roughly 28,000 registered voters in the county.

More than 1,000 of those voters didn’t bother to cast a vote for Congress. Rodriguez, a big favorite here, got 3,784 votes. Gallego got 2,119 and Bustamante 566.

With 99 percent of the precincts in in the 29-county, 48,000-square-mile district, Rodriguez appeared headed to a runoff with Gallego, with 46 percent of the vote to Gallego’s 41 percent. The winner will take on incumbent Republican Francisco “Quico” Canseco.

Perry stepped away from the live election show downcast and searching for answers. Maybe redistricting and the last-minute changes made to local precincts by the county commissioners. Maybe moving the primary back from March to May 29.

“It’s extremely disappointing,” Perry said, not bothering to hide his disappointment. “There is nothing we can do but go back to the drawing board and figure out what happened.”

Insurgents, including Tea Party activists who promised to clean house in Republican congressional primaries, may want to return to the drawing board, too.

Rep. Ralph Hall in District 4, Rep. Joe Barton in District 6 and Rep. Lamar Smith in District 21 scored convincing Republican primary wins despite efforts to target entrenched Republicans in Congress.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett, shunted by redistricting into a heavily Bexar County District 35, garnered more than 73 percent of the vote.

Wes Riddle, a first-time candidate in District 25, won a Tea Party victory by making his way into what looked to be a runoff with former Secretary of State Roger Williams and ahead of former Railroad Commission chairman Mike Williams.

The biggest surprise among congressional primaries was first-time candidate Beto O’Rourke’s victory over longtime Rep. Silvestre Reyes.

O’Rourke secured just over 50 percent of the vote to Reyes’ 44 percent.

In another, lesser surprise, Steve Stockman and Stephen Tackach headed to a runoff in congressional District 36, leaving a favorite, state Sen. Mike Jackson, out.

And in no surprise at all, state Rep. Marc Veasey garnered 37 percent of the vote to earn a runoff with Domingo Garcia with 25 percent in the Dallas area’s new congressional District 33.

In Eagle Pass, there were earlier in the day portents of a low voter turnout and low interest in the race for Congress.

Ricardo Daniel Jr., candidate for constable, had been out in front of the polling place at Kennedy Hall School since 8 a.m. Tuesday chatting up voters.

Maverick County TexasMaverick County, TX

For miles in either direction on Del Rio Boulevard volunteers had put up dozens of signs for the sheriff, court of appeals and Daniel’s constable races. Among them were a handful of modest, green-and-black signs promoting Rodriguez for U.S. Congress for the 23rd District. There were almost no signs for his opponents, the state representative for this city and Maverick County, Gallego, and first-time candidate Bustamante.

“Until you just brought it up, I hadn’t heard anyone say anything about that race, and I’ve been here all day,” Daniel said, sitting in a fold-out chair under a stand of big trees. “Come to think about it, that’s weird.”

Or perhaps not. Officials with the Democratic Party in this border county 150 miles southwest of San Antonio had worked for weeks urging voters to come out for the primary. Perry, the party chairman for Maverick County, said he truly believed that Maverick County could make a difference in the congressional race if their work brought people to the polls.

Perry is fond of paraphrasing Luis Gutierrez, a congressman from Illinois, whose calls for increased voter participation among Hispanics he referred to as “waking a sleeping giant.”

Just four hours before the polls closed, Perry said he was not sure he had succeeded in awakening the giant. Maverick County has 28,000 registered voters with a potential for 35,000, Perry said. Perry set a goal to bring out 12,000 of those voters today. In 2010, about 7,000 people voted in the primary.

In 11 days, 4,700 people voted, not a record but one of the highest early voting totals in years. In 2010, 3,100 people cast early ballots, Perry said. Whether or not this was a forecast, Perry said he can’t be sure.

“I tried to be very forceful in my message,” Perry said. “Voters here need to be better informed. By that I mean they need to know that if they come to vote that their vote will be counted.”

While Perry steadfastly resisted endorsing any of the candidates, it was clear he thought heavier than usual voter turnout would be a big boost to Rodriguez, the former congressman, who was beaten in 2010 by Canseco.

Rodriguez continues to have solid support in the southern node of District 29. Jose Martinez, who has spent nearly 20 years in local politics, most recently on the city council in Big Wells in neighboring Dimmit County, said he thinks people find Rodriguez more approachable than Gallego.

“I’ll tell you the difference,” Martinez, who stopped in to Maverick County Democratic headquarters, said. “With Ciro, people asked him to take care of senior citizens and veterans, and he came through. He’s always done what he said he would do.”

Ciro RodriguezCiro Rodriguez

However, neither Rodriguez nor Gallego, who was considered the favorite district-wide, spent much time or money in Maverick County, hence the absence of yard signs and billboards.

The perception is that Maverick County doesn’t get out the Democratic vote unless voters are motivated. Why spend the money? Perry said that without the money for advertising to spur interest voter turnout can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“I have to say, I haven’t really seen any of the three here in Maverick County, and that’s a shame,” Perry said. “I have tried to convey that Maverick County could be a force to be reckoned with.”

Pete GallegoPete Gallego

Money is less an issue with Gallego than his opponents. As of May 9 he had $83,387 remaining after having raised more than $656,000. Rodriguez raised $242,000 during the same period and had $61,074 left. Bustamante had just $1,546 remaining, but had raised only about $28,000.

Perry has no complaints about Gallego’s service to the county during his 11 terms representing House District 74. He has been active in the House on criminal justice, ethics and public education issues.

Still, Perry said he finds Gallego “distant.”

Rodriguez made clear to the people of Maverick County that he was willing to work to win back the seat, Juanita Martinez, a volunteer whose shirt carried Maverick County Democrats embroidery, said.

But, Perry said, even supporters wondered if Rodriguez would be the strongest Democrat to win back the 23rd District after having once lost to Canseco.

In the shade in front of Kennedy Hall School, no one could say whether voters of Maverick County had spent much time considering which candidate was more electable.

“It’s been very slow all day,” Daniel said. “The sheriff’s race, people are talking about. Ciro and Pete? I haven’t heard their names come up.”

Editor's Note: This story was updated with new vote totals.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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In new District 35, Austin’s Lloyd Doggett aims to hold back San Antonio challengers
Monday, May 28, 2012, 10:03AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
sign

For the past decade, Republicans have not allowed U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett to take anything for granted.

The arcane and complicated legal battle over congressional redistricting in 2003 forced Doggett to move into another district after five terms. In two elections while the fight made its way through the courts, Doggett beat Republican challengers by vote totals of more than 67 percent.

In 2010, when Republicans were upsetting incumbent Democrats and retaking control of Congress, Doggett beat back an aggressive challenger, winning by the slimmest majority since he first ran for federal office.

Doggett has again decided to move, with a considerable push from Republican legislative mapmakers, to a newly created District 35, setting up a Democratic primary that pits his longtime Austin and Travis County base against a Latino majority in San Antonio and Bexar County.

Doggett, 65, is facing two challengers from San Antonio, Sylvia Romo, 69, Bexar County Tax Assessor-Collector, and Maria Luisa Alvarado, 55, a U.S. Air Force veteran and candidate for lieutenant governor in 2006.

The nine-term congressman has responded with some of the hardest campaigning of his career and almost $3 million in cash to spend on television ads carpet bombing the I-35 corridor of the district.

“He’s been through this before,” Lydia Camarillo, vice president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in San Antonio says. “Lloyd Doggett has never been accused of being complacent. He’s come out and worked. He’s been to every event you can think of in San Antonio. He wants to win.”

The difference this time is not that District 35 was drawn to be more conservative. The winner of the Democratic primary is expected to be a heavy favorite in November against the winner of a three-person Republican primary, a candidate each from the Libertarian and Green parties and an independent.

The district is now heavily made up of Democrats who have no investment in Doggett. The legal challenge to the congressional map drawn by the Legislature, turned back by the Supreme Court, pivoted on the desire to give a growing Hispanic population in Texas commensurate electoral power.

The success of what Hispanic voting advocates say was a flawed redistricting compromise will be tested in District 35, Steve Bickerstaff, an election and redistricting expert at the University of Texas School of Law, says.

“Doggett’s district (old District 25) was not made up of predominantly minority voters,” Bickerstaff says. “That has changed considerably in the 35th.”

Romo believes these newly empowered Latino voters are ready to make a change. Romo insists she is running not as a Latino but as a professional who happens to be Latina. Nonetheless, she says voters in the district recognize a cultural gulf between Doggett and them.

Lloyd DoggettLloyd Doggett

“What I’m hearing from voters is he (Doggett) doesn’t represent the new district,” she says. “I’m hearing them say, ‘It’s our time now.’”

Romo says she has spent a lot of her campaign time in Austin and thinks Democrats there may be suffering from Doggett fatigue. Whether or not that is true, a week before the May 29 primary, Diane Holloway, staff reporter and blogger for the Travis County Democratic Party, posted on her Facebook page, “Is this really the best we can do? Turnout for the Democratic Primary in politically hip Travis County is currently at 1.63 percent. That's no good. We MUST do better.”

From what she has seen, Camarillo thinks voter interest should be high among Hispanics. She isn’t sure how much either Romo or Alvarado will benefit from the increase.

Romo knew going in she would be taking on Doggett’s long incumbency. Her relatively late December start cost her in donor support, she says.

Doggett has through May 9 listed with the Federal Election Commission $1.1 million in money spent. Romo spent $60,800 during that same period and has just $20,021 on hand. Alvarado, who says she has made little attempt to raise funds, has spent $5,093 and has $896 in cash.

You can view FEC donor figures for every candidate running for Congress in Texas by clicking here.

Sylvia RomoSylvia Romo

“You can’t begin to compare my money versus his money. He’s buying all these ads. Yes, I’d like to be on TV more, but I am a known commodity here in Bexar County,” Romo says.

A district of working and middle class families would benefit from a congresswoman who has been a CPA for 31 years and whose profession involves balancing a budget, Romo says.

After serving two terms in the Texas House, Romo ran for and in 1996 became the first Latina elected tax assessor-collector in Bexar County.

Her knowledge of the tax code would help identify and close loopholes for special interest groups and to identify and protect those few tax benefits available to the middle class, Romo says.

“I will be the watchdog for financial matters,” Romo says.

Alvarado, too, has heard from voters in Bexar and Travis counties that Doggett’s core Austin constituency looks, works and lives differently than the majority in the new district. “I call them class issues,” Alvarado says. “It isn’t my goal to define the district that way (by race). I don’t hear that, and I don’t ever bring it up.”

Those class issues most important to Alvarado are job creation and serving a significant population of  veterans who work in and have retired from military service. If elected, Alvarado proposes an inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Claims of all kinds for veterans are not handled in a timely enough way, she says.

Maria AlvaradoMaria Luisa Alvarado

Alvarado’s support for term limits (although she says she isn’t sure what that limit should be) is consistent with her idea of true public service from someone elected to Congress.

“Incumbency shouldn’t be some guarantee, and I really believe that money shouldn’t have an impact on elections,” she says. “Real democracy doesn’t work that way.”

Alvarado’s definition is far removed from Doggett’s democratic reality: that of a resourceful, close-quarters puncher who knows how to raise a lot of money and knows how to deploy it.

Doggett has survived because of, not in spite of, his being the chief, unabashed liberal tormentor of the state’s Republican leadership.

The Doggett campaign did not respond to several e-mail requests made by Texas Watchdog for an interview with Doggett or a spokesman.

During Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign for president, Doggett drew national attention to a regular stream of criticism that made it appear the two were running against one another for some office.

“Doggett is simply embracing a confrontational political style that is the hallmark of his career,” Politico said in August. “An unapologetic liberal, Doggett loves to paint himself as a defiant, stick-in-the-eye of Republicans who dominate the conservative state but who (have) not yet managed to oust him from office.”

Doggett was at his most defiant poking an amendment to a $10 billion teacher hiring and retention bill in the face of Perry. Mightily piqued at how the Texas Legislature spent $3.2 billion in stimulus funding for schools in 2009, Doggett convinced a Democratic-controlled Congress to include an amendment for Texas - and only Texas - dictating the conditions of spending the state’s share of the funding.

Attorney General Greg Abbott sued on behalf of the state and won.

“After months of waiting, Texas schools will finally receive their $830 million share of education funds that were unnecessarily delayed in Washington, D.C.,” Abbott said in a statement at the time. “We are grateful that the new Congress remedied Congressman Doggett’s attempt to discriminate against his own State—and its school children.”

Doggett regularly takes on the Republican House majority, particularly on entitlement  and education budget cutting. He is an outspoken member of the House Budget and Ways and Means committees and the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Human Resources.

Earlier this month, Doggett assailed a plan to trim back the Social Services Block Grant Program.

“I think this whole bill is misnamed,” Doggett told colleagues. “It’s not reconciliation—it’s WRECKonciliation because it will wreck one life after another whether it’s preventive health care or whether it’s Jenny and the food she relies on through the Meals on Wheels program. I think we should reject the wreck and adopt the motion.”

This pugnaciousness plays particularly well in Austin where the Republican ascension in the state has been endured like a locust plague. The San Antonio Express-News was sufficiently charmed to endorse Doggett over the hometown candidates.

“While Doggett's abrasive style has made him a GOP target,” the Express-News editorial board wrote. “his experience and seniority are assets that far outweigh the attributes of his Democratic opponents.”

What is left for the primary to decide is whether or not Doggett’s liberal message is interpreted as college town elitism or working class populism and whether or not Hispanic voters want their Democratic message delivered by someone who is not Hispanic.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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El Paso Democratic primary race looks to be a photo finish
Monday, May 28, 2012, 09:48AM CST
By Steve Miller
elpaso

El Paso, Texas – U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a political upstart who had never served in a state office, took his office 16 years ago after an entrenched Democratic opponent retired rather than fight a newcomer in a runoff election.

Today, Reyes calls that 1996 episode his toughest political fight.

On Tuesday, Reyes will defend his eight-term incumbency against a challenger who has never held state office in a Democratic primary election.

When the similarities between his contest in 1996 and the upcoming primary are pointed out, Reyes notes what he considers the big difference: “I was a Democrat.”

In one conversation, Reyes never strays far from pushing his view that challenger Beto O’Rourke, a former El Paso city council member, is “a Republican masquerading as a Democrat.”

“I see this as a Democratic versus Republican election,” Reyes said. He also claims the 39-year-old O’Rourke is a wealthy 1 percenter using Super PAC money and that the $174,000 a year salary received by U.S. reps, including himself, is a middle-class wage.

Given that, Reyes and his team anticipated a battle when he ran his first campaign ad during the February Super Bowl.

“We expected it because this guy challenging me is very wealthy, his father-in-law is very wealthy and the approval rating for Congress overall is low,” Reyes said. “And we found that he is both wealthy and unscrupulous.”

The Democratic primary here is heading toward a photo finish on Tuesday, when Reyes will know the results of the toughest political battle of his life. Other than the one, he said, that got him here in the first place, after serving for 26 years with the U.S. Border Patrol.

The winner will go to Washington in this Democratic-dominated region.

What has been a contest of issues has evolved – or dissolved  into an ad war attack.

Reyes called attention to O’Rourke’s drunk-driving charge 14 years ago in one ad.  In another, Reyes claims O’Rourke wants to take away Social Security.

O’Rourke admits to the DUI, and says he completed the allotted program for such offenses. As far as Social Security, O’Rourke said, “we actually need to save it because we aren’t going to be able to meet demand.”

He suggests raising the income cap on paying FICA.

O’Rourke came back with a 30-second spot that notes Reyes advocated in Congress for a $200 million virtual border fence, and that the deal came in as a no-bid contract with the contractor, IMC, Inc., hiring all three of Reyes’ kids.

Reyes admitted to a local newspaper that IMC hired two of the kids.

And as far as the Super PAC backing, it’s a matter that O’Rourke says he can’t control; the Campaign for Primary Accountability, a political action committee based in Houston, has spent $195,000 this month on ads targeting Reyes.

The battle has a generational component as well. At 67 years old, Reyes is one of 254 of the Boomer generation in Congress, the largest of the age demographic. He is a law and order Vietnam vet with an associate’s degree in criminal justice.

At 39, the Gen X O’Rourke touts drug war reform and an end to the ongoing talk of security on the Mexican border.

“Border security is not a problem, O’Rourke said, jabbing at one of his opponent’s pet causes. “Zero terrorists have passed through the southern border. And no amount of border patrol will solve our drug demand problem.”

The gap is illustrated in a number of ways.

In downtown El Paso, a sign proclaiming that “Reyes Works” sits in the window of an immigration and criminal defense law firm. In the window of a tiny diner next to the firm, a sign supporting “Beto for Congress” jams the space along with a poster for an upcoming Snoop Dogg show and flyers for gigs at a local bar.

And there’s the social media reliance.

On Friday morning O’Rourke has posted an invite on his Facebook page: “Beto is NOW at VISTA HILLS SHOPPING CENTER, located at 1840 Lee Trevino! He will be there until 1pm! Stop by during your lunch, say hello, and cast your vote!”

There he stood on the median, white shirt and khakis, a loose-tie version of the Beltway uniform, holding a campaign sign and waving at cars.

At the Facebook page of Reyes there is a photo of the congressman with two uniformed gentlemen.

Without saying so, it also declares, ‘the Establishment supports me.’

Reyes looks the gentleman, the elder statesman. He’s at the polls, doing door knocks – by Tuesday he said he will have hit 33,000 homes.

But on Facebook, no invite to an event in a shopping center parking lot.

“I’m a moderate Democrat,” Reyes said. He ticks off his accomplishments: the money for veterans, his vote for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, his work in the expansion of Fort Bliss, one of three military installations in the district.

Then it’s back to O’Rourke.

“If he by some quirk were to get elected, it would put [the Affordable Care Act] in danger,” Reyes said.

That might look good in an ad.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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In sprawling Texas swing district, three Democrats vie for right to challenge Rep. Francisco ‘Quico’ Canseco
Thursday, May 24, 2012, 08:55AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
U.S. Capitol

Maverick County might just be the key to who wins the Democratic primary between John Bustamante, state Rep. Pete Gallego and former congressman Ciro Rodriguez in mammoth congressional District 23.

Gallego is the favorite. He has raised and spent at least two-and-a-half times as much money as Rodriguez, his chief rival. Gallego has secured most of the coveted endorsements, including that of Rodriguez and Bustamante’s hometown newspaper, the San Antonio Express-News.

But in Eagle Pass, the seat of Maverick County, 260 miles from Gallego’s home in Alpine, Gallego’s name and face are not as well known as Rodriguez’. Democrats here still think redistricting was responsible for Rodriguez losing his seat in Congress after two terms in 2010 to the current incumbent, Republican Rep. Francisco “Quico” Canseco.

This poor county where 95 percent of the 55,000 people are Hispanic has a reputation for defying the stereotype of an apathetic Hispanic electorate and sending voters to the polls when an investment in time and money produces a competitive race, Lydia Camarillo says.

Maverick County TexasMaverick County, TX

Camarillo, who has been working the district aggressively as the vice president of the non-profit Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, says motivated voters will make it a close race between Gallego and Rodriguez in Maverick County.

Camarillo isn’t sure who benefits the most from a motivated districtwide Hispanic electorate. All three candidates are Hispanic. But with a heavy concentration of voters in and around Bexar County, Gallego will be forced to spread his money thinner and cover more ground for his votes,
she says.

“Maverick County has a record of turning out. In races where the candidates are solid on issues it becomes a question of turnout. I expect it to be close. I’d never underestimate either (Gallego and Rodriguez) candidate,” Camarillo says.

The political fate of the district, roughly 48,000 square miles spread out in all or parts of 29 counties from El Paso County to San Antonio, is inextricably tied to redistricting. Most of the land is Gallego territory. A third of the voters are in the San Antonio area.

Hispanic groups who sued to challenge the redrawing of the state’s congressional districts by the Legislature repeatedly used District 23 as an example of how Hispanic voters were shortchanged by Republican hubris.

Even after the challenge made it to the Supreme Court, and back to the state of Texas, the litigants were dissatisfied with a district with a population that was more than 55 percent Hispanic but a tossup between Republicans and Democrats.

“Districts 23 and 27 have been lost, possibly forever,” Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas State Conference of the NAACP, and Luis Roberto Vera Jr., general counsel for the League of United Latin American Citizens wrote in an editorial in March. “The plan does create a new Latino district in Dallas-Fort Worth, but only at the detriment of all other Latinos and African-Americans in Texas. We are both proud of the creation of this new Latino district, but we believe that the cost is just too high.”

By lost, the writers were referring to political party rather than ethnic background. In 2004 after a rancorous redistricting, District 23 elected Republican Henry Bonilla. In 2006 after the lines were redrawn, voters elected Rodriguez and in 2010 they went again with a Republican, Canseco.

In each case, voters elected a Hispanic representative and each by a narrow margin.

Pete GallegoPete Gallego


In 1990, Gallego became the first Hispanic to represent state House District 74. The largest House district in the state with an area of 39,000 square miles encompasses much of the west Texas portion of District 23.

Gallego has been in the House ever since. He is currently the chairman of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and a member of the State Affairs and General Investigating & Ethics committees.

Gallego, 50, has served as Democratic House leader and chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.

During his tenure, Gallego has been a reliable Democratic vote. In the last session, Gallego was outspoken on increasing funding for the state’s public schools and in opposition to the voter ID bill passed by the Legislature.

State Democratic Party leaders encouraged and supported his run for Congress. His campaign has raised more than $656,000 through May 9 and he has $83,387 remaining. This compares to Rodriguez, who raised $242,000 and has $61,074 left and Bustamante, who raised about $28,000 and has just $1,546 in his coffer.

And yet, Gallego built his reputation as a consensus builder in an overwhelmingly Republican House. If elected, Gallego would continue to work with representatives from both parties to find solutions to what seem to be intractable problems like border security, Lonny Paris, his spokesman, says.

Repeated attempts to arrange an interview with Gallego through Paris failed. In a very brief exchange, Paris said the public wants a congressman with Gallego’s temperament.

“They’re very fed up with what’s going on in Washington,” Paris says. “They want people like Rep. Gallego who can reach consensus on legislation, who can be tough, but fair.”

Ciro RodriguezCiro Rodriguez


By contrast, Rodriguez, 65, has been working the district door-to-door almost from the time the last vote in his loss to Canseco had been counted, Camarillo says. “I don’t think he ever stopped campaigning,” she says. “He wasn’t going to stay out of it.”

Often, a candidate of Rodriguez’ pedigree is a favorite in a race like this. In addition to his most recent two terms in Congress, he served as the representative of the 28th congressional district for four terms until January of 2005 after five terms in the Texas House.

Redistricting played a role in both of his losses. But given that his last loss was to the current Republican incumbent and, if anything, the new boundaries made the district a little more conservative, Democratic voters are wondering if Rodriguez is the strongest challenger to Canseco, Camarillo says.

E-mailed requests by Texas Watchdog to interview Rodriguez were not answered by his campaign officials.

According to his campaign website, Rodriguez was a supporter of stimulus money to keep American public school teachers on the job. He supported large funding increases for health care for veterans. And Rodriguez voted for appropriations to put more patrol agents on the border with Mexico.

Rodriguez voted against bailing out Wall Street, but came back to support regulatory reforms on the same industry.

Were it not for scant funding, close observers like Camarillo think a serious candidate like Bustamante could have made the Democratic primary in District 23 much more interesting.

Bustamante says eschewing big funding for his first campaign is consistent with a message he has been delivering in person in the district.

“Our representatives are not out representing people,” Bustamante said in a phone interview with Texas Watchdog. “I’ve been out in the district for the past eight months, and many of the people I’ve talked to have never even seen their representative.”

John BustamanteJohn Bustamante


Bustamante, 35, a graduate of MIT and the University of Texas School of Law, wants to make sure seniors don’t lose their major federal benefits. He’d like to see veterans get enhanced benefits.

“It doesn’t matter what your ideology, we need Medicare and Social Security for our senior citizens,” he says.

ObamaCare, he says, doesn’t need to be scrapped. It needs to be adjusted and its costs curbed. He would call for a reform of water ownership laws to protect the overall resource.

Bustamante decries funding cuts to education at all levels. He would like to create a clearer, easier path for immigrants who come to this country to become citizens. And although he isn’t sure how it might be done, Bustamante wants to get money out of politics.

“I think we can all be better working together,” Bustamante says. “This politics of the individual has gone on for at least a decade. I think a whole lot about our freedoms, but we should never lose sight of our obligation to each other and our communities.”

Bustamante’s name is a familiar one to some in the district, although Camarillo says it is likely he will not benefit from being the son of Albert Bustamante.

The elder Bustamante was a popular congressman for the 23rd District from 1985 to 1993, but in that last year he was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for racketeering and taking bribes.

“If there is institutional memory of his father it is both good and bad. It’s a wash,” Camarillo says.

It is clear from his Twitter posts that Gallego intends to spend a good part of the last days before the primary in the San Antonio area. Rodriguez and Bustamante have established their intention to work the streets hard.

Invested in and competitive? Very. Now it remains to be seen whether all the effort will motivate Hispanic voters in Maverick and 28 other counties.

“I don’t see Bustamante being in the race will force a runoff,” Camarillo says. “I think it’s a clear choice, one way or the other.”

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Tense tenor in Dallas-Fort Worth-area race for Congress
Tuesday, May 22, 2012, 10:26AM CST
By Steve Miller
House floor

FORT WORTH, Texas - The man standing in front of the Fort Worth campaign office of Domingo Garcia, a candidate for the 33rd congressional district, snapping cell phone photos was suspicious. Or was he?

It’s hardly an act of subterfuge, although a male campaign aide hurried out the office door to question the man.

“What’s going on?” he asked amiably. Once he discerned no threat, he demurred.

“I just wanted to make sure you weren’t from another campaign,” he said apologetically.

That’s the tenor of a jammed May 29 Democratic primary in North Texas, where 11 candidates are vying for a spot in Washington. With no incumbent, the newly created district has sparked a somewhat furious competition for the right to compete at the next level, the anticipated July 31 runoff between the top two vote getters. In the Democrat-heavy district, the runoff winner is expected to go to Washington.

The pair expected to make the runoff are two state representatives, one former and one sitting. Garcia, a personal injury lawyer, served in the statehouse from 1996 to 2002, while state Rep. Marc Veasey, a real estate agent, has served since 2004.

The two are playing like rivals, accusing and alleging while vowing to be the man of the people.

Marc VeaseyMarc Veasey

Veasey recently headed over to the gates of a General Motors plant in the district and called out Garcia for claiming that GM was making gas-consuming products that were “not good for America.”

Garcia responded with a letter to supporters in which he called Veasey an “errand boy” for special interests.

GM is among Veasey’s donors. Of course, Garcia’s donor list includes people working for operations that others might consider not so good for America, among them MGM-Mirage and the big-lawyer American Association for Justice. The two have pecked away at each other for months, leaving local Democrats with a disheveled appearance.

“The Democrats haven’t even formed a coalition,” said Chuck Bradley, one of two candidates on the Republican side of the 33rd district primary. “They don’t like each other at all. And they’re beating each other to death and trying to save money at the same time.”

Both candidates pointed in separate interviews to the new seat with no incumbent as the reason for the personal attacks.

The opponent bashing “is one of those things that happens,” said Veasey. “This is a new seat with a lot of people vying, and for some candidates, being able to control their temperament is tough."

Domingo GarciaDomingo Garcia

Garcia agreed, at least on the first point.

“Whenever you have an open seat with 11 candidates and no incumbent, it’s going to be a free-for-all,” he admitted.  

Veasey and Garcia are as seasoned as it gets in the new district, which weaves through Tarrant and Dallas counties like a Democratic voter-seeking missile. Some claim that the race puts Hispanic voters, for Garcia, versus black voters, for Veasey.

To that, both immediately launch into their cross-racial support. Garcia notes he attended the Thurgood Marshall School of Law and is backed by Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins, a black man.

Veasey said, “I don’t see the racial issue at all. I have a lot of Hispanic supporters, and my current [state] district is 35 percent Latino.”

The best candidate will be determined by his campaigning abilities, and so far, no one is winning. In fact it’s painfully obvious neither has D.C. experience, as they bicker over old and petty county rivalries.

And then there’s the paucity of dollars spent.

Veasey reported $104,983 on hand in his most recent filing. Among his contributors: Amber Anderson, wife of super Dem contributor Steve Mostyn; former Fort Worth Mayor Kenneth Barr; Aimee Boone, an exec with Planned Parenthood in Dallas; and Charles Butt, CEO of the H-E-B grocery chain.

Veasey’s wife, Tonya, is a former lobbyist with the Eppstein Group and is now president of Open Channels Group, a PR firm that counts among its clients the Trinity River Vision Authority.

And he already has a knack for higher office; in 2007 Veasey spent $4,738 in campaign money to redecorate his office in Austin.

Veasey has been a member of committees on pensions, elections, law enforcement, state affairs and several others in his four sessions at the statehouse.

Among his successful legislation is a measure allowing county commissioners to authorize the destruction of so-called high-emission vehicles rather than selling them and another naming a highway in his district after Martin Luther King Jr.

In the 2009 session, Veasey introduced 53 bills, 28 of them resolutions honoring an individual or group or commemorating an occasion. It was an improvement over 2006, when Veasey authored 47 bills, 46 of them resolutions.

Garcia, a personal injury lawyer, has scored some super PAC dough already, $2,500 from the American Association for Political Justice PAC. He loaned himself $300,000 for the run and reported $241,003 cash on hand in his most recent filing.

He is infamous for his temper, which was ignited recently when the Dallas Morning News announced it was recommending Veasey in the primary.

He fired off an angry email to his supporters accusing Veasey of “promoting Republican priorities.”

Garcia took Republican donations in his statehouse days, including money from billionaire Harold Simmons and the Texas Dental Association PAC, which has been a steady financial backer of Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

In the statehouse, Garcia served on criminal jurisprudence and judicial affairs committees. Among his successful legislation: A bill making it a felony to photograph a non-consenting party for a sexual purpose and a bill increasing the penalty for tampering with standardized tests from a misdemeanor to a felony.

Both candidates concur on a couple of issues that they would deal with in Washington. On earmarks, Veasey said, “It’s every congressman’s responsibility to advocate for local jobs … but there needs to be transparency in earmarks.”

Garcia was equally accepting: “If there are clear guidelines, it’s a good way to get economic development to various parts of America. “

And despite the battle of words, each will vote for the other in November if it comes down to it.

“I have always supported the Democratic nominee,” Garcia said.

"I've always voted straight Democratic ticket, and that’s what I plan to do in the fall,” Veasey said.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo from the House floor on May 17, 2012, via the Office of the Clerk to the House of Representatives.

Steep Odds, Traylor Takes on Incumbency, McCaul in Texas' 10th District
Tuesday, May 15, 2012, 09:32AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
lincoln

The difficulty of running as a conservative outsider in a state with an already conservative congressional delegation is no better explained than in the primary race in District 10.

Eddie Traylor, a retired Air Force and commercial pilot from Cedar Park who has never before run for elected office, was chosen for support from Get Out of Our House to face U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul. McCaul is seeking a fifth two-year term.

This modest non-profit group is working to root incumbents out of the U.S. House of Representatives, a mission not unlike the Houston Super Pac Campaign for Primary Accountability.

The chief difference between the two groups is money. Campaign for Primary Accountability has been credited with spending  hundreds of thousands of dollars to help insurgents to primary upsets in Ohio and most recently Pennsylvania.

Get Out of Our House has asked Campaign officials for money on behalf of Traylor. Instead, the group announced it would focus funding to help two Democrats defeat Rep. Silvestre Reyes in West Texas’ District 16 and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson in District 30 in Dallas County.

McCaul raised $885,000 in the first quarter of this year, according to the latest Federal Election Commission figures. Traylor raised $6,949 during the same period. McCaul had $362,000 on hand for that period, Traylor $1,110.

Should McCaul defeat Traylor in the May 29 primary, he should have little trouble in the general election. In 2010 McCaul won 76.3 percent of the vote to Democrat Ted Ankrum’s 22.3 percent.

Tawana Cadien, running in this year’s Democratic primary raised no money in the first quarter.
William Miller Jr., who also raised nothing in the first quarter of the year, remains in the race although he has ceded campaigning to Cadien, according to the left-leaning Burnt Orange Report.

Traylor, 64, says he understands that to mount a challenge to McCaul in a heavily conservative district running from Austin east to the suburbs of Houston voters are going to need to know his few simple positions.

If elected and reelected, Traylor will not accept a third term. He would work to see term limits placed on the House and the Senate. From the moment he took office Traylor says he would trim his congressional staff to 12 from the 18 now allowed House members..

After serving in office, Traylor says he pledges never to return to Washington as a lobbyist.

“I plan to stay two terms. I won’t have the time to be timid or to be bought off,” Traylor says. “I intend to go there to be a leader. I’m absolutely confounded that there are no individuals making a difference in Congress.”

Traylor also takes issue with McCaul’s vote for the National Defense Authorization Act, in that it contains sections 1021 and 1022 giving the president broad powers to detain people in the name of fighting terrorism.

Defenders of the 10th Amendment to the Constitution take issue with with this and a variety of Homeland Security powers ceded to the chief executive following 9/11. McCaul has played key roles on the House Committee on Homeland Security, the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

“Those sections of the National Defense Authorization Act turn the Bill of Rights and the Constitution on their heads,” Traylor says.

Texas Watchdog asked for McCaul’s response to this criticism as part of a request to discuss his positions for this story. Although his spokesman, Mike Rosen received the request, he failed to respond to it, except to say that McCaul was busy.

McCaul’s voting record makes him one of the most conservative members of the House, according to the respected vote-tracking website, govtrack.us

McCaul, 50, voted against the stimulus, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and for Rep. Paul Ryan’s current House Budget bill. He opposed ObamaCare, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and for the failed balanced budget amendment this past November.

And he was among the first and most staunch House Republicans to renounce and refuse to pursue federally funded projects or earmarks for his district. McCaul and other Republicans took a pledge in 2008, objecting to projects being added to the annual appropriations bill without knowing who sponsored those projects and without being able to vote on them individually.

Last August, Roll Call reported that McCaul was the richest man in Congress, with an estimated net worth of nearly $300 million. McCaul, Roll Call says, has been the beneficiary of family money generated by Clear Channel Communications, whose chairman, Lowry Mays, is the father and whose CEO, Mark Mays, is the brother of McCaul’s wife, Linda.

 ***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of Lincoln Memorial by Fickr user Dyanna, used via the Creative Commons license.

Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes' political swipe on bridge a sign of formidable challenge?
Monday, May 14, 2012, 01:06PM CST
By Steve Miller
Juarez

With claims of a mass land grab by his opponent that would result in a glut of displaced locals, a fair political question could be posed: Is U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes getting desperate?

The Texas Democrat is facing his most formidable challenge since his 1996 election from primary challenger Beto O’Rourke, an upstart politico who married into the family of a prolific and well-heeled developer.

Reyes most recently told a gathering that O’Rourke favors an international bridge from El Paso to Juárez, Mexico, that would take the homes of up to 5,000 families.

O’Rourke countered that he had no such idea but also maintains a bridge is needed to remedy backups and bolster international trade.

The bridge has been discussed over the years although what drives the recent debate is partly politics from Reyes – he is seizing on an opportunity - and a report from the Texas Department of Transportation that supports a new bridge. Wait times to cross the border hit two hours at times, demand is growing and failure to address the need will impact the region’s economy, the June 2011 study points out.

Reyes, seeking his ninth term, sent out a mailer that claimed O’Rourke and supporters including his father-in-law, developer William Sanders, would “bulldoze entire neighborhoods” for a new international bridge.

The election dirt-tossing by Reyes angered Ted Houghton, chair of the Texas Transportation Commission, enough for Houghton to make a public comment, calling the displacing of families notion "ludicrous.

Houghton, an appointee of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, has not donated to Reyes or O’Rourke.

O’Rourke pointed out that Reyes made his accusations at a community meeting called by the Ysleta school district superintendent. Reyes’ sister-in-law, Martha Reyes, is a trustee in the district. Rep. Reyes contributed $1,000 to Martha Reyes’ 2008 campaign fund, according to a report from Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington. The timing and Yselta-Reyes connection is examined here.

The Reyes campaign did not return calls.

Reyes is among the incumbents targeted by the Houston-based super PAC Campaign for Primary Accountability, which has been turning primaries upside down with generous ad spends either supporting challengers or against entrenched powers like Reyes. CPA has received money from a group connected to William Sanders, O'Rourke's father-in-law.

Last week's historic ouster of veteran U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, by state treasurer Richard Mourdock was done with the support of the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, two D.C.-based groups that favor smaller government.

Silvestre ReyesSilvestre Reyes

The Reyes-O’Rourke District 16 contest is close; a recent poll published by the El Paso Times has it 39 to 32 percent in favor of Reyes. Early voting begins May 14 and runs through the 25. Election day is May 29.

The bridge issue in El Paso has been in discussion for years, with a separate bridge already under construction.

It bears similarity to an international bridge controversy in Michigan, where Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has been pressing to build a new bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. Snyder first tried a legislative end-around via Democrats in the statehouse, but was thwarted by his own party.

Anti-bridge factions in Detroit targeted property owners in affected sections of towns to gin up opposition by handing out fake eviction notices.

In the El Paso district, the two leading Democrats have been swatting at each other over a number of issues. Reyes at times has sounded like a big-government Republican when attacking O’Rourke in a campaign mailer for refusing to give tax breaks to businesses and suggesting he might be chummy with a Tea Party platform or two.

"Mr. O'Rourke would have sided with Tea Party extremists willing to shut down the government and put everything on the chopping block -- veterans' benefits, Social Security benefits, Medicare, Head Start, financial aid, etc.," the mailer claimed. Reyes’ campaign Web site uses a graphic in an attempt to link O’Rourke to conservative groups.

Beto O'RourkeBeto O'Rourke

O’Rourke said that while he is “certainly not a Republican,” he didn’t put himself in a narrow political category. He noted that he’s challenged the wisdom of the drug war, fought for the rights of lesbians, gays and transgendered people and supported a mass transit plan in El Paso.

“But I’m also someone who considers himself a fiscal conservative,” he said.

O’Rourke continues the primary contender favorite of using the past to project the future for his opponent.

His campaign site notes that he advocates term limits and stresses his Democratic Party bona fides. It points out that Reyes has been absent for a number of key votes.

Reyes, in fact, was missing from a Sunday event for various candidates in the region.

"Reyes has not faced a challenger like this in 16 years," said Gregory Rocha, an assistant professor of political science at University of Texas-El Paso. As a former city council member, O'Rourke's grasp of the issues is "tremendous."

Reyes' attempt to paint O'Rourke as a Republican is the biggest political slam one can deliver in the Democratic-heavy district, Rocha said, as the winner of the primary is assured to win the election. O'Rourke's bigger challenge, though, is voter turnout. He's the young candidate who needs strong support at the polls from the youth vote, which doesn't turn out in grew numbers.

"We've seen candidates do it before," Rocha said. "They'll come out."

Whether the numbers will send O'Rourke to Washington is a political guess at this point.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo "the view across the rio grande to juarez, mexico" by flickr user malingering, used via a Creative Commons license.

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