Vote not needed to decide many racesWatchdogs say power of incumbents is scaring away strong challengers
By GROMER JEFFERS JR. / The Dallas Morning News
Wednesday, April 14, 2004
The field for the Nov. 2 Texas House and Senate races is set, but voters may not realize that most of the winners are already decided.
At a time when Washington is sending more power and duties to the states, Republican and Democratic incumbents alike often face little opposition. The few contested primaries were settled with Tuesday's runoffs, and all but a few winners now have an easy path to Austin.
The result, watchdog groups say, is a legislative steamroller powered by incumbents whose votes on taxes, school finance, the state's budget and congressional redistricting are unchecked by voters.
"There were more competitive races in the old Soviet Politburo than there is in the Texas House and the Texas Senate," said Fred Lewis, president of an Austin-based group called Campaigns for People, which advocates for contested races.
Mr. Lewis said about 15 legislative races would be truly competitive this year. There are 150 House seats and 15 Senate seats on the ballot.
Lawmakers say that redistricting by parties in power, plus the ease with which incumbents can raise money, scares off challengers. But that doesn't make them less responsive, their advocates say.
"The competition is down, and we have more legislators in safe districts than ever before," said William Pound, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "But that doesn't mean that they won't be any less effective as a representative."
Incumbents have always had an advantage at election time. But the issue is more in focus because the federal government is giving states more responsibility and power. President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, for instance, requires accountability standards in schools and additional education spending.
In Texas, education funding is the subject of a special legislative session that will begin Tuesday in Austin, with high stakes for schools, businesses and taxpayers.
Over the last two years, the Legislature has had to address insurance reform and steep budget cuts – not to mention three special sessions to enact a partisan congressional redistricting plan.
Increasingly, states are also dealing with contentious social issues such as gambling, abortion and gay marriage.
"It's where it's at," said Austin-based Democratic strategist Kelly Fero. "Because of gridlock in Washington, it's an open field for state legislators to pursue policy."
This year, Texas Democrats hope to make the state House, which they lost in 2002, the first step to their political recovery. There will be 35 Democrats challenging Republican incumbents in November; Republicans have an 88-62 advantage.
But analysts say Democrats have a realistic shot in only a few of those races.
"There are only a handful of hotly contested races," said Ross Ramsey, editor of Texas Weekly, an Austin-based political newsletter. "There are enough races for some of them to be on the fight card, but the party in power and the philosophy of the Legislature will not change. Forget about it."
Even within parties, voters have few choices. Only one Republican Senate primary was contested, for the seat recently vacated by Teel Bivins of Amarillo. The GOP had 23 contested House races, but few were true tests for incumbents.
Texas Democrats were a little more active. They had three contested Senate races featuring well-known incumbents.
Houston's Mario Gallegos, Laredo's Judith Zaffirini and San Antonio's Leticia Van de Putte – all leaders of last year's Senate walkout to Albuquerque, N.M., that delayed congressional redistricting – cruised to primary victories.
The Democrats had 22 contested House races, including Allan Ritter's victory over former state land commissioner candidate David Bernsen in the Beaumont area and Fort Worth incumbent Glenn Lewis' stunning loss to newcomer Marc Veasey.
The upsets, though, are few and far between. And some open seats that in the past might have drawn a lot of interest didn't come close. In Dallas, only one Democrat, school board trustee Rafael Anchia, ran for the seat Democratic Rep. Steve Wolens is leaving.
Republican Rep. Kenny Marchant left his seat to run for Congress, and only one Republican –Dallas County Commissioner Jim Jackson – sought the post.
The Dallas area featured no competitive House or Senate races.
The lack of competition, some say, is based on an incumbent's ability to raise campaign cash.
According to a report prepared by Texans for Public Justice, 179 incumbent lawmakers had raised $21.2 million going into 2004.
"Incumbents have a huge fund-raising advantage," said Andrew Wheat, a researcher for the nonprofit group. "And much of the money comes from outside their districts."
He added: "If a person doesn't have to compete, they won't have to answer to their constituents. That means more power to the lobbyists and special interest groups."
Fred Lewis, the Austin activist, favors a cap on campaign donations and using a tax on lobbyists to match donations to candidates.
"Voters don't have real choices," he said. "
As for the safe seats carved out in redistricting, a judge in at least one state, Arizona, said lawmakers went too far, throwing out a legislative map on the grounds that it did not create enough competition.
"The creation of competition is the most important reform goal facing us," Mr. Lewis said.
All 150 Texas House seats and 15 of the 31 state Senate seats are up for grabs this year. But few districts saw competitive primaries. The breakdown:
• Senate: One contested primary
• House: 23 contested primaries
• Senate: Three contested primaries
• House: 22 contested primaries