Monday, October 18, 2004

State Rep. Talmadge Heflin, chairman of the Texas House Appropriations Committee, raised more than a quarter million dollars this summer, more than any other Republican or Democratic candidate involved in a contested House race.

Incumbents enjoy ready flow of funds

By JANET ELLIOTT, Houston Chronicle
October 18, 2004

AUSTIN - State Rep. Talmadge Heflin, chairman of the Texas House Appropriations Committee, raised more than a quarter million dollars this summer, more than any other Republican or Democratic candidate involved in a contested House race.

The Houston Republican, who was first elected to the House in 1982, is one of the most powerful lawmakers at the Capitol because he holds the purse strings on the state's $118 billion biennial budget.

So when Heflin stepped up his quest for campaign donations this past summer in his race against Democrat Hubert Vo, he tapped a ready source of cash from political action committees and lobbyists representing nearly every type of business in Texas.

From chiropractors to cable companies, plumbers to pilots, Heflin received donations from more than 100 different PACs as he raised $270,151 from July 1 to Sept. 23. Vo raised less than $20,000 in that same period.

Money from PACs and law firms accounted for nearly half of the total Heflin reported in his latest filing with the Texas Ethics Commission.

"Powerful chairmen like that have the ability to attract money and that money keeps them safe," said Craig McDonald, head of a group that tracks political donations. "Those people that need access to him can be assured that he will be there. It's a cycle."

McDonald's group, Texans for Public Justice, last year issued an extensive report on money in 2002 Texas elections. It found that Austin — home to the lobby — accounted for 59 percent of money raised in statewide and legislative races.

According to the report, House candidates raised just 24 percent of their money within the districts that they represent.

PACs collect money from employees and affiliated individuals for donations to candidates. Though corporate donations are illegal in Texas, corporate PACs are allowed to give directly to candidates.

Heflin said he agrees that his status as a veteran lawmaker who chairs the most powerful committee in the House helps with fund raising.

"It would be foolish to deny that," he said. "Generally, the kind of folks who fund these races tend to go with who they think the winners are going to be."

Heflin said he plans to raise $500,000, more than he's ever spent on a race. Heflin said his races keep getting more expensive, noting that he spent only $19,000 when he initially ran for the House.

"It's a fact that the Democratic Party put a target on my race to win," Heflin said. "That's the reason I felt like we had to run a very aggressive campaign."

In the three-month period, Vo raised only $18,163 with the largest donation being $10,000 from Albert Huddleston, a Dallas oilman who has been shopping his plan for revising the state's school finance and tax systems to lawmakers.

But Vo, who put $87,500 of his own money into his campaign earlier in the year, said he's not discouraged. In recent weeks, he has had a fund-raiser hosted by a board member of Planned Parenthood of Houston and Southeast Texas.

Vo said John Sharp, a former state comptroller and a leading Democrat, is planning an event. In his earlier campaign finance reports, Vo reported a number of contributions from Vietnamese Americans.

"Whatever it takes to run a professional and grass-roots campaign, we will do so," said Vo, a real estate investor and developer. "I'm willing to put my own money in."

The race between Heflin and Vo has been billed as tight largely because of the demographics of District 149, which includes parts of Alief, West Houston and Katy.

There are 62 matchups statewide between Republican and Democratic candidates for seats in the 150-member House of Representatives. Libertarian Party candidates are on the ballot in a number of races.

Republican and Democratic candidates are facing off in nine of 25 House districts in Harris County this year. Only Heflin's district and two others in southwest Houston are considered competitive because the 2001 redistricting.

There are no contested Texas Senate races in the Houston area involving the two major political parties.

Rep. Scott Hochberg, a Houston Democrat who has served in the House since 1993, raised $59,435. His Republican opponent in District 137, Ann Witt, reported $92,290 in donations.

Hochberg's biggest donation was $8,500 worth of polling by Texans for Insurance Reform, a PAC funded by personal injury lawyers.

Witt received $40,000 from Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, which works to limit lawsuit damages. Witt did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Another Houston area House candidate Jim Dougherty said it's been "very hard as a challenger" trying to tap into the political money that almost always flows to incumbents.

"It's sort of amazing to me how the political action committees, if they're forthright about it, will tell me they only give money to incumbents," said Dougherty, a Democrat running against incumbent Martha Wong for District 134.

Dougherty, a lawyer and accountant, raised $23,214 compared to $53,879 reported by Wong. While Wong had contributions from political action committees representing apartment owners, gun owners and hospitals, Dougherty's main support came from the River Oaks Area Democratic Women.

The district includes Montrose, River Oaks, Meyerland, West University Place and Bellaire.

Less than one-fourth of the donations Wong collected during the summer came from PACs. She said she is having a harder time raising money this year than she did for her initial race in 2002, although she has $163,523 on hand from prior fund raising.

Wong, the only Asian-American serving in the House, has received financial support from Asian communities in Dallas and Austin.