COMMENTARY: W. GARDNER SELBY
Selby: Watch for tort reform group this fallTLR ran 400 percent ahead of 2006 fund balance at end of June and may be more of a force than ever.
By W. Gardner Selby
Thursday, August 07, 2008
Greg Abbott, who might run for lieutenant governor in 2010, continues to hold more campaign cash than any other state-level officeholder.
The state attorney general had $8 million at the end of June, outpacing the No. 2 leader with loot, state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who had $3.4 million.
Of late, though, I'm intrigued by a group that had "only" $2.7 million at the end of June.
Texans for Lawsuit Reform's political committee trailed committees for the Texas Association of Realtors, which reported an astonishing $10.4 million in hand.
But TLR's balance was up 400 percent — yes, 400 — from the same time two years ago when, much like now, political players mulled which candidates deserved general-election help.
Compared with two years ago, the tort-reform group showed more fundraising momentum entering July than any other group or candidate in the state's top 20 in cash on hand.
Not bad for the Capitol powerhouse, which supports limits on civil lawsuits and damages. But it's potentially scary for legislative candidates facing TLR-enriched opponents.
TLR's punch, helped along in the past year by six individuals giving at least $250,000 each, could prove lethal if operatives find creative ways to spend money at a time when most voters will be pounded by the spectacle of the presidential race.
Still, even Republican consultants wonder if the group's stop-the-lawsuits message works with voters as well as it once did.
A leader of the group, which claims 16,000 individual supporters in more than 1,200 trades or professions, gave no indication that the fundraising pace signals changes in how it will help candidates. That help can include polling and mail stressing lawsuit reform.
Richard Trabulsi of Houston, chairman of TLR's political committee, said he guesses that after November's election, "it's not going to look like we've raised and spent an extra amount compared to previous years. But if we do, I'm fine with that."
In an era when the group seems to have won more changes in law than it's lost — including leashes on lawsuits, caps on malpractice awards and a changed method of handling asbestos-related litigation — Trabulsi said most legislators seem open to the cause, with only five of 31 state senators and 35 of 150 House members unlikely to give TLR a fair shake.
To be fair, trial lawyers — who've called limits on court access "tort deform"— remind that TLR doesn't always prevail; a plan to reorganize Texas courts from top to bottom pushed by TLR, for instance, died in the 2007 legislative session.
And Texans for Public Justice, a nonpartisan group that bird-dogs TLR, found a cloud in the group backing 95 winning candidates in 2006; 71 percent of its $3.8 million in donations flowed to 30 losers.
This spring, TLR spread about $1 million among dozens of legislative candidates, including a few Democrats such as Reps. Mark Strama of Austin and Patrick Rose of Dripping Springs.
Maybe TLR's fundraising burst means little. After all, business interests have warred with trial lawyer interests for eons; there are deep pockets on both sides.
Case study: Tara Rios Ybarra, a South Texas dentist, upset Rep. Juan Escobar of Kingsville in the March Democratic primary. Outspending Escobar, she fielded about $100,000 from the lawsuit reform group, money that helped her buy TV time.
Rios Ybarra, who has a Libertarian opponent in November, said she wants a fair civil justice system but is not beholden to TLR.
"My allegiance is to the people of (the district) and the citizens of Texas," she said.
Escobar, whose campaign took in nearly $30,000 from two trial lawyer groups, said: "I wanted to represent people by not being influenced by anything. That's not the way it works in Washington or Austin. It's about the money."
Trabulsi said there never comes a time when an advocacy group has too much money or stroke.
"Not if you believe in the free market of ideas," he said. "I believe in free markets in economics and in politics. We make our case on the merits."