Horse racing industry has donated tens of thousands of dollars to Straus
By EMILY RAMSHAW / The Dallas Morning News
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
AUSTIN — The likely next speaker of the Texas House has received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign support from the horse racing industry his family is linked to — a lobbying interest that spends millions to influence lawmakers to lift state gaming restrictions.
Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has pledged that neither his ties to the Retama Park racetrack nor his campaign contributions will play a role in his speakership, or in any gambling legislation that comes before the House. Straus, whose father helped found Retama, has a limited partnership interest in the track but is not involved in its operations.
“I’ll stay away from it completely,” Straus vowed Monday, saying that’s what he has done since entering the House in 2005. “I will not allow it to be a distraction or an issue.”
His opponents on the far right say that’s easier said than done, particularly when gambling lobbyists are pushing hard for slot machines at racetracks.
Straus, an insurance executive who has received nearly $50,000 in campaign contributions from racetrack investors, developers and breeders since 2005, would still appoint committee chairs and oversee the House calendar — both of which hold the key to getting gaming bills before the chamber.
“It’s just the nature of this arena,” said Cathie Adams, of the conservative Texas Eagle Forum. “Whoever weighs in early and strong with funding, those are the voices first heard.”
Straus’ major campaign contributors include Caterpillar dealer and San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt, San Antonio developer George Hixon and philanthropist and horse breeder Helen Groves, all horse racing investors who have donated between $7,000 and $16,000 to Mr. Straus’ campaigns.
He has also received more than $20,000 combined from alcohol distributors, including Republic Beverage distributor Alan Dreeben and the LaMantia family, which is developing racetracks in South Texas.
Straus’ largest single donor is HEB supermarket president Charles Butt, who has contributed more than $18,000 to his campaigns. A review of Straus’ state disclosure reports show an extensive stock portfolio, as well as investments in real estate, breeding farms and financial institutions.
Straus spokesman Russ Keene said the representative accepts contributions “from a wide range of individuals and companies and causes.” That said, Straus believes he has never voted on gaming issues that would benefit any of his business interests.
Straus supporters say that his integrity is unparalleled, and that his emphasis on following the will of the House — as opposed to fulfilling a personal goal — is not some passing fancy.
“His intentions and motivation are proper and right,” said Rep. Brian McCall, R-Plano, at a Monday news conference.
When Dallas Rep. Yvonne Davis, who is part of a group of investors trying to build a racetrack outside of Dallas, came before the Texas Racing Commission in October for help getting a license, Straus was one of the first to criticize her.
Straus, who owns a stake in the business that currently controls the license that Davis is seeking, told the Texas Observer he would “never appear before a government regulatory body as a sitting lawmaker to make a request such as that.”
“He has suggested he can keep his family’s interests separate from the interests of the state of Texas,” said Andrew Wheat, research director for Texans for Public Justice, which tracks the influence of money in politics. “Whether that becomes a reality remains to be seen.”
Though he’s the product of stalwart Republicans, Straus’ commitment to reaching across the aisle has spread to his family’s checkbook. The Straus family has made campaign contributions to Republicans and Democrats alike, including San Antonio Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon and Palmview Rep. Kino Flores, a key player in gambling issues.
In 2004, the family contributed $1,000 to Speaker Tom Craddick, whom Straus is now poised to succeed.
Straus “has given modest contributions to Bexar County and South Texas friends,” Keene said. “He believes the contributions his family makes are a nonissue. He has given in a bipartisan way.”
STRAUS CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS
Top five campaign contributors:
1. HEB grocery store chain CEO Charles Butt – $18,100
2. San Antonio Spurs owner and Caterpillar dealer Peter Holt – $15,500
3. Valero PAC – $15,000
4. San Antonio developer George Hixon – $13,000
5. AT&T Texas PAC – $12,000
Combined contributions from horse racing industry: $45,000
Straus' major contributors include Holt, Hixon and philanthropist and horse breeder Helen Groves, all horse racing investors who have donated between $7,000 and $16,000 to his campaigns.
Combined contributions from alcohol distributors: $20,500
Straus' contributions from alcohol distributors, includes $7,000 from Republic Beverage distributor Alan Dreeben and $5,000 from the LaMantia family, which is developing racetracks in South Texas.
SOURCE: Campaign finance reports