By the time the primaries make their way to Texas March 4, the presidential-ticket leaders will be all but decided (or will they?), but Texans still have the opportunity to weigh in on a number of important races — from local contests for sheriff, district attorney, and tax assessor-collector to United States Senator.
The March 4 polls could be among the most interesting Texas has seen in a while. There are three hotly contested statewide races on the Democratic side and one contested judicial race on the GOP ballot that should help draw voters out of their cocoons regardless of what happens between Hillary and Barack or between McCain and the other three GOP contenders.
On the Democratic side, the race to challenge John Cornyn’s U.S. Senate seat has gained the most attention. State Legislator and Lieutenant Colonel Rick Noriega (D-Houston) is the clear leader in this pack, but the race isn’t a lie-down by any means: Perennial candidate Gene Kelly of Universal City, who somehow always seems to pull in enough votes to force legitimate candidates into a runoff, is a fly in the ointment. So is Corpus Christi teacher Ray McMurrey, whose campaign has focused on negative attacks against Noriega and the Democratic Party establishment. Liken McMurrey, if you will, to one of those dogs that barks and barks while it nips at your ankles, which is what he’s been doing to Noriega, though few would argue McMurrey has drawn any serious blood from the frontrunner. Add former Republican gubernatorial candidate Rhett Smith (who is running for Senate presumably because he couldn’t get on the GOP presidential ballot) to the mix, and you have just the kind of brew that could spill over into a runoff. Either way, expect Noriega to come out on top of this fray, with McMurrey or Kelly in second.
The most nasty gag-a-buzzard race on the Democratic side is for a job that most Texans haven’t paid attention to in a decade: the Texas Supreme Court. Galveston County State District Judge
Susan Criss faces 13th District Court of Appeals Justice Linda Yañez for Place 8 on the state’s highest civil court. The fact that the Texas AFL-CIO issued a rare “dual endorsement” in this race is evidence of just how hotly contested it is. Both candidates are eminently qualified, although Yanez has more time on the judicial bench than Criss, and a previous (albeit losing) statewide run under her belt from the ill-fated 2002 “Dream Team” ticket.
Criss, the daughter of legendary former legislator Lloyd Criss, and Yañez will no doubt run a close race. Key to the outcome will likely be the Hispanic vote. Yañez, from Edinburg, could end up with a lock on the Rio Grande Valley, which would make winning more difficult for Criss. Making the race more interesting are allegations thrown back and forth — mainly on the internet — between Criss and Yañez supporters. It may not be Ann Richards versus Jim Mattox, but the race has the potential to explode before election day.
Rounding out the statewide ballot is the race for Texas Railroad Commissioner — on which, in the interest of full disclosure, this writer works as a consultant to Democrat Dale Henry. Henry, who will make his third run for the seat and his second as a Democrat, will face former San Antonio City Councilman Art Hall and Mark Thompson, a political newcomer. Henry was among the top vote-getters on the statewide Democratic ticket in 2006 and enjoys both name recognition and a wide grassroots base of support. Hall, on the other hand, has money and the backing of big names like former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros. Henry cites his experience — four decades in the oil-and-gas industry — while Hall touts his service on the San Antonio City Council and his environmental record in that job. With a third candidate in this race, look for a runoff between Hall and Henry, which will extend the race into April.
With only GOP wingnut Larry Kilgore stepping up to challenge John Cornyn for U.S. Senate, the GOP Primary is almost entirely lacking in serious statewide contests, although the debate Cornyn has agreed to with Kilgore could be among the most amusing moments in Texas political history for decades — if it ever happens.
So, for Republicans, the battle for Place 4 on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is about it when it comes to statewide races to energize the grassroots. But that could be enough. In this race, two-term incumbent Judge Paul Womack faces Dallas State District Judge Robert Francis, who is making his second run for the state’s top criminal court.
This race will be hotly contested in no small part because of the mountain of criticism that everyone from anti-death penalty groups to criminal-defense lawyers and even newspaper editorial boards have heaped upon the Court of Criminal Appeals in the last two years. Among the ammo Francis can use is a $20,500 fine levied on Womack by the Texas Ethics Commission for failing to file seven campaign-finance reports during the 2002 election cycle — something Womack blamed at the time on attention-deficit disorder.
Francis is also critical of Womack because he writes fewer signed opinions than anyone else on the court, and because he has teaching duties at the University of Texas School of Law three days a week — making him more of a part-time jurist.
Handicapping this race is a bit hard. Francis has name recognition from a prior run, but Womack seems to have the support of much of the GOP establishment. However, given the negative attention focused on the Court of Criminal Appeals, it is hard to tell if GOP support or the desire of Texas voters to finally have a high criminal court that isn’t mocked nationwide will prevail. •