Sunday, November 12, 2006

Republicans locked down every statewide office on the ballot Tuesday almost as soon as the polls closed. Gov. Rick Perry held off four challengers with relative ease, his fellow incumbents coasted to victory, and up-and-coming Republicans won the open jobs of agriculture commissioner and state comptroller. But for Fred Baron, arguably the Texas Democratic Party's most influential donor, it was all going according to plan. Even better, actually.

Baron's rebuilding efforts already showing results

By Jason Embry
Sunday, November 12, 2006

Republicans locked down every statewide office on the ballot Tuesday almost as soon as the polls closed. Gov. Rick Perry held off four challengers with relative ease, his fellow incumbents coasted to victory, and up-and-coming Republicans won the open jobs of agriculture commissioner and state comptroller.

But for Fred Baron, arguably the Texas Democratic Party's most influential donor, it was all going according to plan. Even better, actually.

Democrats held on to all of their seats in the Texas House and gained five more. They defended their congressional seats, picked up the one last held by Tom DeLay and took control of county governments in Dallas and Hays while staying strong in Travis County.

The election returns in some ways vindicated Baron, a retired Dallas trial lawyer who over the past two years has given about $1.7 million to Democratic causes to rebuild the once-mighty party from the ground up. Though he would have loved for Democrats to capture statewide offices, he has focused on nourishing the party's roots so that it can win offices such as governor and lieutenant governor in four years.

"This is not Utah," Baron, 59, said over breakfast at Las Manitas before the election. "This is a state that has a Democratic base that's very large. The party has just over the last several years defaulted on getting people involved in the process."

His name might not be as familiar to Texans as those of GOP moneymen James Leininger, the San Antonio voucher supporter, and Bob Perry, a Houston homebuilder, but Baron is about as close as Democrats come. A report earlier this year from Texans for Public Justice, which monitors campaign spending, showed that Baron was the state's top individual donor among Democrats, although Leininger and Perry each had outspent Baron 4-1 at that point.

Still, Baron has poured about $1.7 million into the Texas Democratic Trust, which he set up last year and has largely funded by himself. The trust doled out more than $1.4 million to the state party and two like-minded organizations leading up to Tuesday's elections.

That money, along with the efforts of candidates and other political groups, put Democrats in a position to make gains this year and, party officials hope, laid the groundwork for bigger wins in the future.

"There's enough credit for everyone involved in the effort," state Democratic Party chairman Boyd Richie said. "But certainly the trust created an atmosphere where we could organize, plan and execute."

But winning statewide offices is a far cry from picking off House seats.

"Until they have credible, experienced statewide candidates, it's awfully difficult to organize a political shift in the state," Republican consultant Ray Sullivan said. "They may be able to win legislative or judicial races here and there largely on personalities or local issues in most cases, but in order to really be competitive, they need to be competitive statewide."

Sullivan said Democrats are more likely to compete for statewide jobs in 2014 instead of 2010.

Inspired by Nader

Fred Baron grew up in the Midwest and moved to Smithville in Bastrop County with his mother after she remarried when he was 15. A Ralph Nader speech in Austin one evening in 1970 inspired Baron, then a University of Texas law student, to think about how to use the law to regulate corporate conduct in ways government couldn't. He went on to set up a practice focused on protecting workers from asbestos and other hazardous materials, and his Dallas law office became one of the country's most successful asbestos firms.

A major player in Democratic presidential campaigns dating back to Bill Clinton's 1992 run, Baron stopped practicing law at the beginning of 2003 to head fundraising for John Edwards, then a U.S. senator from North Carolina eyeing the presidency. Edwards fell short but became John Kerry's running mate, and Baron coordinated efforts between the Kerry-Edwards ticket and the Democratic National Committee.

It was in the battleground state of Florida that Baron had his eureka moment that would ultimately establish his path back home in Texas.

Democratic volunteers and operatives stormed Florida in the final 120 days of the 2004 election, and Baron joined them in October. Because George W. Bush and Al Gore virtually tied there in 2000 with about 2.9 million votes apiece, Baron said, Democrats thought they could capture the state with about 400,000 additional votes. They did even better than that, picking up more than 700,000.

But the Republicans increased their 2000 total by 1 million in Florida and helped give Bush four more years in the White House. Baron realized that, while he and other Democrats dropped into Florida in the closing days, his GOP counterparts had been there since 2000, finding like-minded voters, developing a message and ultimately taking voters to the polls. During the same four years in Texas, meanwhile, Republicans had continued to dominate Democrats in fundraising, organization and candidate recruitment.

During a private dinner in early 2005, Baron explained what he saw in Florida to Howard Dean, the newly elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Dean told him most state parties lacked money and organization, and he encouraged Baron to restructure and revive the party in Texas.

Finding opportunities

Baron reached out in spring 2005 to Washington political consultant Matt Angle, a longtime aide to former U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, a Dallas Democrat who had just lost his race for re-election in a newly drawn district. Baron sent Angle to talk to Democratic volunteers, operatives and officeholders about how a reworked party should look.

Angle found that the state party had been a vehicle for whoever Texas' alpha Democrat was, Baron said. Angle advised Baron to help the state party hire more employees and upgrade its voter history records so it could help candidates, no matter who was in office. They also talked about the need for an independent research group that could help candidates, so they put money into the fledgling Texas Progress Council, and they decided to send money to the House Democratic Campaign Committee because they believed the party could quickly increase its ranks in the Texas House.

Baron began talking to major Democratic donors in Texas about helping him out. It didn't go so well.

"I got a lot of healthy skepticism from people who said, 'I don't think you can get this accomplished,' " Baron said. "So I thought to myself, 'You know what? They may well be right. And rather than put at risk everybody else's money, let me see if I can just do this myself.' "

Signs of a turnaround began appearing in 2004. The underfunded state party picked up one seat in the state House, in the process defeating the powerful GOP chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and a few Democrats who were close allies of Republican leaders lost their primaries.

"The party wasn't in shambles," said Mike Lavigne, who left the state party as chief of staff in 2005. "The party was broke."

That's where Baron's money came in. In early 2005, he set up the Texas Democratic Trust to distribute his money, which has helped the state party boost its political staff from three people to 11 (including several former Frost aides and four field workers paid for by the national party). The party hired someone to help with Spanish language media, expanded its voter history files and launched a vote-by-mail campaign for older Texans.

The state party gave $7,500 to Valinda Bolton of Austin, who captured the last state House seat in Travis County held by a Republican. Bolton also got $14,500 from the House Democratic Campaign Committee, which has received about $450,000 from Baron's Texas Democratic Trust in the past two years.

The Democratic Trust did not give money directly to statewide candidates, though Baron gave gubernatorial nominee Chris Bell $25,000. The $25,000 was significant, but one of Bell's major problems was a lack of money, and the amount pales in comparison to what Baron gave to other causes.

In light of the gains made in the state House and the national mood, as well as the fact that Gov. Rick Perry got just 39 percent of the vote in a crowded field, some Democrats wonder whether the party should have done more to directly help Bell.

"There's no question there was an opportunity wasted here," Lavigne said. "Bell proved himself to be a tremendous candidate, and most of the Democratic establishment was late to the party."

But Bell campaign manager Jason Stanford said Bell won Dallas County because Baron paid for an effort there to push straight-ticket voting.

"It's impossible to complain about someone 'only' giving $25,000 or so to a long shot challenger," Stanford said. "But it would be idiocy to complain about someone who has found a piece of the puzzle to winning statewide. Chris Bell carried Dallas County by 4 percent in part because of the great work Fred Baron did."

Baron's trust and the state party pooled money with local candidates and groups in Dallas to push straight-ticket voting and find Democrats who might not vote without a little prodding.

No wish to hold office

Republicans have long attacked Democrats in Texas for their ties to trial lawyers, a charge that is likely to endure with Baron providing so much of the party's money. His wife, Lisa Blue, also is a trial lawyer.

"Karl Rove became what he is today by defining and successfully running candidates against plaintiffs' lawyers and their hand-picked candidates," said Sullivan, the Republican consultant.

The trial lawyer smear irks Baron, who says he has no personal financial interest in the Democrats' success. "I'm not reliant on the Texas government for anything whatsoever, nor ever will I be. And I have made it very clear that I'm not looking to run for public office myself."

In fact, Baron is gearing up for another Edwards presidential campaign, should Edwards decide to run. Baron said he'll continue over the next couple of years to pour money into the Democratic Trust, and he expects other large donors to join him. He touts the young operatives working at the party and the other groups he helps fund, and he's encouraged by a party e-mail list that has grown from about 3,000 to 55,000. Those people, Baron hopes, could become the small donors that the party will need to sustain itself.

"It's great to have large donors," he said. "But the party really needs to be funded and run by real Democrats who give $10 a month. That's the name of the game. And I think we can put the party into that position much quicker than I thought."; 445-3654