Political contests shouldn’t be about personalities, but rather focused on policy outcomes; we are talking about the business and future of Texas, after all. Ironically, the first business of the House of this 82nd Legislature might be more about the people than the principles driving the politics.
In House District 48, a suburban Austin seat considered reliably Democratic in recent years, the incumbent Donna Howard won re-election by the skin of her teeth — barely a dozen votes. The tsunami that swamped the Democratic Party in Texas lapped not against her feet, but left her gasping for political breath. To make matters worse, there have been acknowledged problems with the way overseas ballots were counted, potentially disenfranchising voters for her Republican opponent, former NFL stand-out Dan Neil.
Mr. Neil has appealed the election results to the Texas House. This is where it gets interesting, session-wise.
The Republican challenger is a strong conservative. He was a board member of GOPAC, a Republican fundraising entity that targeted seats held by Democrats. And that was going on when newly elected Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) was making good on his promise not to oppose any Democrat for re-election.
So there sits Rep. Howard, one of the few (49!) Democrats remaining in the 150-member House. She and her party desperately want her to keep the seat. Her party, by the way, is now mostly funded by mega-wealthy liberal trial lawyers. The most influential of them is Houston’s Steve Mostyn. He lost millions supporting Democrats in the 2010 election cycle, but has millions and millions more to spend in the years ahead.
Mr. Mostyn is also the incoming president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association. He and his crowd do not want to lose yet another seat. Yes, 49 is bad, but 48 is worse.
On the one hand, Mr. Straus just went through a historic public speaker’s race in which he had to promise and pledge to lead the body as a conservative. But Mr. Straus’ original political power base was primarily made up of Democrats; the plot thickens.
Conservatives like Dan Neil: he’s young, good looking, well-spoken, and a committed conservative. Having him seated by the House would make a lot of conservatives very happy, putting extra right-thinking icing on a super-majority cake.
But Mr. Straus also has Mr. Mostyn breathing down his neck. Mr. Mostyn, part-owner of what might be though of as Texas Democrats Inc., happens to also be the employer of Mr. Straus’ first chief of staff, former Democratic legislator Clyde Alexander. Mr. Mostyn is also the attorney for Mr. Straus’ current chief of staff, Denise Davis, in a lawsuit to which she is a party.
Let’s go back to that Dan Neil v Donna Howard election contest in the House. The process goes like this. After an election contest was filed, a “master of discovery” was named. This “master” reviews the facts and makes a recommendation to a special committee about the course of action the House should take, if any. That committee has something like three choices: 1, reject the master’s review and recommendation, ending the contest; 2, accept both and pass the matter on to the full House for a vote; or 3, re-state the facts, come to a different conclusion, and refer the matter on.
While the master of discovery has been at work, the committee was named last week. The chairman? State Rep. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi) who took $35,000 from Mr. Mostyn and a Mostyn colleague. The committee’s vice chairman is State Rep. Craig Eiland (D-Galveston), a Mostyn co-counsel — essentially a business associate.
To say Mr. Straus’ committee looks unfriendly to Mr. Neil and the GOP’s growth position might be an understatement. If the committee finds for incumbent Dem Donna Howard, conservatives might see it as a sign the speaker is caving to the demands of his historical power base, now the also-ran party. If they find for Mr. Neil, the conservatives who reelected Speaker Straus are happy but Mr. Mostyn is mad — very mad — with not inconsequential weight to throw around.
On the first legislative play from scrimmage this Session, Mr. Straus is caught in the middle of a coming clash of political personalities. It’s set to be a very interesting session, indeed.