I really wasn't going to blog on Lisa Falkenberg's Houston Chronicle column from Friday. However, I've gotten multiple requests to comment on it, and so I'll do so.
So let's take a few moments to annotate and expand upon it
Year after year, come election time, Republican precinct chairman Greg Aydt would look around his Seabrook polling place and shake his head at all the primary voters holding political mailers full of somebody else's choices.
"I keep seeing people come in with these pay-to-play mailers and all the slates," says Aydt, who has been a precinct chairman in the area since 2002. "They simply vote down the ballot. Whatever Steve Hotze has to say, whatever Gary Polland has to say, whatever Terry Lowry has to say, they vote that way."
As an east side high school government teacher, it bothered him that many of these voters were entrusting their decisions to a few kingmakers and a paid endorsement process they might know nothing about. But as an election judge, duty-bound to remain neutral at the polls, he kept his mouth shut.
Let me let you in on a little secret here -- the thing I love most about being the precinct chair down here in Seabrook is that I get to be the election judge. I enjoy setting up the polls and running them all day on election day. Some of my fellow precinct chairs of both parties hate that job, but I look forward to it every time we head out to vote in a primary or general election. Indeed, a couple of years back I thought about giving up the position of precinct chair and kept it only because I wanted to continue to be the election judge. It is that important to me.
And yes, I cringe every time I see a voter walk into the building with one of those slates. It isn't that I necessarily disagree with the endorsements made by any of the "Big Three" slatemakers -- I often agree with them on a lot of the races, even if I do not this year. It is just that I've learned over the years about how they operate, and hate to see them go from being slatemakers (heck, I endorse my own slate every election) to kingmakers by leveraging their endorsements into a moneymaker for themselves. And when I hear stories about one of the slatemakers holding endorsement interviews with a political consultant for an opposing candidate at the table next to him, another violating election law by charging different rates for the same sort of ad, and a third telling a candidate seeking an endorsement to "talk to your treasurer", I cannot help but feel that there is a need to speak out against them in as powerful and public a manner as possible.
Then came Hotze's endorsement of embattled family court Judge Denise Pratt this year.
Pratt came under fire last year amid accusations of falsifying court orders to cover up tardy rulings. That led to the resignation of her lead clerk and an investigation by the Harris County District Attorney's Office and a grand jury, which eventually declined to indict her. Pratt later abruptly, bizarrely purged hundreds of cases in her court, apparently without proper notice to attorneys and their clients.
"She's a nice lady, personally, but she's a disaster as a judge. Yet, this pay-to-play slate has endorsed her," Aydt said. "Here is a judge who is not well-respected by the lawyers in her courtroom, not well-respected by the litigants, clearly doing a horrendous judge of running her court, but she's going to be the best candidate running?
"This is someone we need to get rid of and, yet, because of the money going to this slate, there's a chance of her being re-elected and that's really troubling."
Yeah -- I've written about Denise Pratt a couple of times. She needs to go. Read these two posts for details. And yes, I've made my endorsement in the race -- Anthony Magdaleno -- and believe he is exactly the sort of individual we need to elect, but I will endorse anyone who finds themselves in a runoff (or general election) against Pratt
Pratt has one thing going for her that may have influenced Hotze's endorsement: She hired Allen Blakemore, Hotze's own political consultant and friend, who has great sway over the doctor's picks.
"Yes, I get the last word," Blakemore told me, "but that doesn't mean he's going to endorse all my clients. He doesn't."
Yeah, but as I said -- should Blakemore even be in the room and having a voice in the process when Hotze makes endorsements? Isn't that really a conflict of interest?
The "big three" kingmakers in Harris County Republican politics have been criticized through the years for soliciting contributions or "newsletter" ad buys from candidates they endorse. Radio show host Lowry is the most blatant offender of the democratic process: He has acknowledged he runs a "for-profit business," something akin to the Houston Chronicle. Thankfully for the Chronicle, our advertising staff and editorial page editor aren't the same person.
Lack of diversity
The Pratt endorsements only contributed to Aydt's other concerns about the slates, which go beyond money. Aydt, who teaches at an overwhelmingly minority public school, has been worried by the lack of diversity in the kingmaker's slates.
"It appears when given the choice between a white candidate and a non-white candidate they always vote for a whiter shade of pale. That disturbs me greatly," he said. "I see this and think 'will many of my students, who hold values similar to mine, will they ever consider voting that way when they grow up?'"
Want to know what I'm talking about here? I suggest you read this post over at Big Jolly, which documents what I'm talking about (I'd been preparing a similar post when Dave Jennings beat me to it). And sorry that I could not resist the Procul Harum reference -- why don't we take a moment for a musical interlude.
Aydt knew he couldn't stay on the sidelines anymore. And, as a humble teacher and conservative blogger with no political prospects, he didn't really have too much to lose.
Taking a position
"I felt it was time to take a stand," he said.
But wait -- aren't I always taking a stand here at Rhymes With Right? Yeah, I am. But let's be honest -- I've long acknowledged that this is a boutique blog read by a smallish group of regulars and occasional visitors who stumble across my writing. I'm not one of the big-time bloggers, and that's fine with me. Besides, writing on my blog alone wasn't going to address the problem that I have heard so many comment upon over the last few years, and so when presented with the most obvious example of the taint introduced by these slates I decided to do something more -- something that might make a difference.
So he did. A couple of weeks ago, Aydt began circulating language for a proposed party resolution condemning the pay-to-play practice. He says he got a good response from friends and quickly amassed co-sponsors.
Then, Tuesday night, he presented a resolution at the Harris County Republican Party Executive Committee meeting. The language specifically states that the party condemns the practice of pay-to-play endorsements, "in which supposedly independent individuals, groups, or organizations request, solicit or require any fee, payment, or contribution as a condition of making or publicizing said endorsement."
I wrote the first draft of the resolution in about an hour on Saturday, February 1, based upon things that had been in my heart for some time. It included support for Voter ID and a much more elaborate conflict of interest clause -- the latter was rewritten and the former dropped. It also did not include any suggestion of posting the resolution or communicating it to candidates. Those changes all came as a response to emails from fellow precinct chairs and a few other activists. Frankly, those editorial suggestions strengthened the resolution, though in retrospect I wish I had left out the clause about giving voters anything of value in return for casting a ballot -- it was a reference to issues elsewhere in the state and prosecutions that are being conducted, not a Harris County problem. So let me say that yes, I am the author of the resolution, but I had assistance and assistants who have been overlooked by others, just as Adams, Franklin, Sherman, and Livingston are overlooked when talking about the Declaration of Independence.
Some folks weren't happy. David Jennings, of the BigJolly Politics blog, had a great play-by-play of the inside baseball and parliamentary parlor tricks some employed to stop the resolution. There were early requests to adjourn, random demands for quorum calls, apparent attempts to get people to leave and break quorum.
A rousing success
After a long night, the resolution passed overwhelmingly.
Aydt said he was "absolutely flying."
"I'll be honest, I had an adrenaline rush that night so high, I literally didn't fall into bed until 2:15 and got up at 5:15," Aydt said.
Again, I direct you to Dave over at BJP for the story. That was all after the Lowry filibuster early in the evening that raised more questions in my mind than were answered about the precinct chair recruitment program that he was paid to conduct.
Just how much impact will the resolution have? It's hard to say. Everyone I spoke with who has been beating the ever-louder drum against the pay-to-play system seemed encouraged.
Threatening a lawsuit
"I thought it was wonderful, a good first start," veteran state Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, said. "Even if it doesn't stop them, the more attention we give it to the public, the more opportunity they have to be informed, intelligent voters."
When I reached Lowry on his cellphone, he claimed he was in a meeting. Then he took my number, saying "when I call you back, I'll be recording, I'll do an introduction, and I'll air this on my show Monday. Thanks."
He didn't call back. But late Thursday night, someone slipped me a letter from Lowry's attorney, Ken Shortreed, to Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill. It threatens to sue if the resolution is officially posted, arguing the language is a "broad attack without any benefit to it," that appears to restrict constitutional freedoms.
Yeah, Lowry had his lawyer send a letter threatening a frivolous lawsuit based upon the notion that a non-governmental actor was violating his freedom of speech by engaging in its own freedom of speech to criticize in general terms the sort of stuff he has been doing for years and which nowhere named him. Got a guilty conscience, you old Pharisee? Worried that your days of being a moneychanger in the Temple are threatened?
Polland said the resolution wouldn't affect him because his endorsements have never been "quid pro quo." The attorney says he backs the best candidates, period, and he doesn't make money off of it: "It's a labor of love."
Blakemore said the resolution wouldn't change a thing for Hotze: "We're certainly not pay-to-play. Never have been." He insisted Hotze asks for money to fund his mailer only after he's decided whom to endorse. That's a claim some have disputed. Harless, for one, says that after interviewing with Hotze several years ago, she was asked for a contribution before she knew if she'd get the endorsement.
They say their endorsements are not for sale. I've had candidates in congressional, statewide, legislative, county, and judicial elections tell me different. I hope this resolution gives some of them courage to tell those stories publicly. If they want the space, I'm more than willing to give them a guest post -- heck, I'll offer the same to the slatemakers, in the interest of fairness.
And Karen Townsend over at Pondering Penguin notes that the attacks on those opposed to the pay to play slates has already begun -- if you are a current or former officeholder or candidate who has ever sought an endorsement, you are just a sour grapes hypocrite, they say. See why this resolution had to come from someone like me, a school teacher and blogger who has absolutely no political ambition beyond precinct chair?
Aydt said Blakemore and the rest "may be surprised" at the effect of the resolution, adding he's gotten interest from party leaders across the state: "I think you're going to find there's a hunger for this sort of stuff on the state level.
"My great hope is that we reach the point with this that the candidates in Harris County don't feel the need that they have to give money to these people in order to get an endorsement."
Republicans believe in clean elections -- we always have. Here's hoping that this is a first step towards cleaning up the dirt in our own house. I've personally gotten one negative bit of feedback about all of this resolution and most of it had less to do with substance than process. And then there are the phone calls and messages from other precinct chairs, activists, candidates, elected officials, county party chairmen and others. The push to reduce the influence of the pay to play slates is not over, both in Harris County and the state of Texas as a whole.
Oh, I'd like to say two other things.
First, my thanks to Lisa Falkenberg for the kindness in her words in her column and her patience as we communicated through a couple of phone calls on a particularly hectic day.
Second, thanks to Todd Spoth who was dispatched to take a photo very late in the afternoon -- it may be the single best picture taken of me in years, and I am ever so appreciative of that.
And let me respectfully acknowledge that the copyright of the column and photo belong to The Hearst Corporation/Houston Chronicle.