Politics & Government

3 candidates from Fort Worth face different futures

Voters wrote drastically different futures for the three Fort Worth candidates who were on the 2014 statewide ballot.

For one, the sky is the limit: George P. Bush is already being talked about as a contender for governor or even president after winning his first campaign, for Texas land commissioner.

For another, Tuesday ended with a crash, but there may be a rebound in the future. Right now, the question for Wendy Davis is, “What’s next?” But she isn’t answering … yet.

And for the third, there’s still a place in the history books, though it may be little more than a footnote. Long-serving Court of Criminal Appeals Justice Larry Meyers made headlines last year when he left the Republican Party, but his first race as a Democrat ended in a double-digit defeat.

Still, the Fort Worth jurist says he’s not ready to give up.

Next up for Davis?

After a devastating finale to a campaign that once brimmed with optimism, does Davis have a future in Texas politics?

Immediately after a 20-point blowout by Gov.-elect Greg Abbott, the likelihood that the fallen Democratic star could muster another statewide bid in a field dominated by Republicans seemed remote at best.

But many expect the outgoing state senator from Fort Worth to stay in the public eye, possibly as an appointee in the Obama administration or as an outspoken advocate for causes she championed on the campaign trail.

“She’s not going away,” said former Tarrant County Democratic Chairman Steve Maxwell. “She’s too important to the party and too important to the people who backed her.”

After a tearful concession speech Tuesday night, Davis stayed out of public view and, as of late Friday, she was declining interview requests. Maxwell said that “even Wendy Davis probably doesn’t know absolutely certainly what she’s going to do.”

Davis’ defeat amid a Republican wave that swept through Texas and much of the nation came just over a year after she entered the race on a surge of star power after her June 2013 filibuster against a bill restricting abortions.

She was an underdog from the outset and consistently trailed in the polls, but the results were far worse than expected and crushed Texas Democrats’ hopes of planting the seeds of a comeback.

In the months before the election, analysts generally agreed that Davis could build a platform for the future — even if she lost — by staying below the nearly 13-point spread separating Gov. Rick Perry from Democrat Bill White in the 2010 race.

Instead, Davis’ loss was the worst Democratic defeat since 1998, when Gov. George W. Bush beat Garry Mauro 68 percent to 31 percent.

Postelection critiques also faulted decisions made by the campaign team and its vote-getting ally, Battleground Texas. The Texas Tribune found that the campaign was troubled by “failed tactics, unmet goals and muddled messages,” including a decision to run an ad featuring an empty wheelchair — Abbott has used a wheelchair since a 1984 running accident — that even liberals said went too far.

Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said the vote margin “was a very serious loss” that raises doubts about Davis’ ability to rebound as a candidate.

She could get an appointed position from the Obama administration, such as a judicial post, Jillson said, “but I don’t see Wendy Davis running for statewide office in Texas because I think she proved she was a fairly weak campaigner.”

Texas Republican Party Chairman Steve Munisteri called the defeat “a shellacking.”

“Her window … is not completely shut, but it’s pretty close to being shut,” he said.

In running for governor, Davis opted against seeking re-election to her Tarrant County Senate seat, which she will vacate in January.

The next batch of statewide races is in 2018, but Republicans who won office this year are widely expected to seek another term, so Davis may not have a realistic opportunity. U.S. Sen Ted Cruz will be up for re-election in 2018, but he is also a prospective contender in the 2016 presidential race.

Several experts suggested that Davis could be a prospect for mid- to high-level posts in the final two years of the Obama administration. If Hillary Clinton plunges into the presidential race, as widely expected, Davis could be tapped for a role in the campaign and, if Clinton wins, a job in the administration.

State Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said he expects Davis to focus on getting much-needed rest after spending 18-hour days on the campaign.

“She was a great candidate, but her voters just stayed home,” Hinojosa said, predicting that Davis has “a great future as a public servant.”

Sky’s the limit for Bush

With a famous name and what admirers describe as a tireless work ethic, George P. Bush is poised to follow a long line of famous elders into government service when he takes the helm of the Texas General Land Office.

The 38-year-old Fort Worth attorney and asset manager stormed through his first political race and scored an overwhelming victory. He will take office as land commissioner in January as part of a new crop of Republican statewide officials led by Abbott.

Even before Bush officially became a candidate, the presidential nephew and grandson’s interest in a less-than-flashy post like land commissioner was seen as the beginning of a trajectory that could lead to runs for governor, even president.

But the man Bush will replace — Commissioner Jerry Patterson — said it’s a gross miscalculation to think that Bush plans to use the land office as a mere whistle-stop on the way to bigger things.

“He has the potential to be a pretty damn fine commissioner,” said Patterson, a former state senator who lost his bid for lieutenant governor this year.

He said Bush came to him more than a year ago to signal his plan to run for the post if Patterson didn’t. Since then, Patterson said, the two have met over dinner to discuss the agency, and Bush’s campaign staff has visited the office repeatedly for briefings.

“I would be very surprised if he’s not running for re-election in four years,” said Patterson, who describes his successor as “bright” and “unpretentious.”

The land office, in a cluster of agencies near the State Capitol, oversees 13 million acres that generate money for public education through energy and mineral leases. It also has a host of other responsibilities, including fighting erosion on public beaches, battling oil spills in the Gulf and running the nearly 70-year-old Texas Veterans Land Board, which provides low-interest loans for millions of veterans. A previous land commissioner, Bascom Giles, served three years in prison after a scandal resulting from abuses of the veterans land program in the 1950s.

Bush is the son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Columba Bush, a Mexican-born philanthropist; the grandson of former President George H.W. Bush; and the nephew of former President George W. Bush. Besides his famous pedigree, George P. Bush is seen as one of his party’s young Latino leaders and an emissary to Hispanic voters, a fast-growing constituency that has often been skeptical of GOP policies.

“George P. Bush in many respects is a symbol of what’s going on with Hispanics in the United States,” Fort Worth political consultant Juan Hernandez said. “We are conservative, we are passionate, we are wanting true change.”

In 2009, Bush, Hernandez and South Texas Latino leader George Antuna founded Hispanic Republicans of Texas to groom, finance and help elect more Latinos. Hernandez’s son, J.R. Hernandez, is communications director for Bush’s campaign.

Bush underscored his outreach to fellow Hispanics by traveling to the heavily Latino Rio Grande Valley nine times during the primary. He also emphasized young people and college students, hosting campaign events at 22 campuses.

J.R. Hernandez said Bush logged 15,000 miles on his bus tours, making 54 stops in 24 counties in a meet-and-greet style of campaigning that was waged without accompanying television ads.

“It was all about retail politics and shoe leather,” J.R. Hernandez said. “We ran the campaign like he was running a school board race.”

Although Bush was always the front-runner, the wall-to-wall campaign strategy presumably augmented an Election Day victory that saw him place first among statewide candidates, both in the percentage and the number of votes. He defeated Democrat John Cook, a former El Paso mayor, 60.65 percent to 35.33 percent, a 25-point margin. And he tallied 31,000 more total votes than Abbott did in defeating Davis.

Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak said he believes Bush wants to remain land commissioner for at least eight years and develop a successful record before contemplating another political move.

In the meantime, the other party will pay close attention, said Democratic consultant Glenn Smith, director of the Progress Texas PAC. “Because he’s named Bush, people are going to be saying, ‘What’s the next higher office he’s going to hold?’ But nothing’s guaranteed,” Smith said.

Meyers isn’t done

Meyers, who two decades ago became the first Republican elected to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, knew he was taking a political gamble when he switched parties last year to run as a Democrat for the Texas Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, he discovered firsthand the long odds bedeviling Democrats in red-state Texas. He lost by nearly 24 points.

In a telephone interview that constituted his first extensive explanation for his party switch in December, the long-serving judge said he intends to make another run for the Supreme Court or to seek re-election to the state’s highest criminal court in the next statewide elections, in 2016.

Whichever route he takes, Meyers said, he will do it as a Democrat.

When Meyers switched parties, he became one of a kind in Texas politics, a Democratic statewide officeholder. Until that point, Democrats had not held statewide office since 1998.

Moreover, since Meyers will remain on the criminal appeals court until at least January 2017, Democrats can claim one statewide officeholder despite their devastating losses Tuesday.

Meyers, who will turn 67 on Nov. 29, was seeking the Supreme Court seat held by Justice Jeff Brown, whom Perry appointed to fill an unexpired term in October 2013. Election returns from the secretary of state’s office showed Brown with 60.31 percent of the vote to 36.50 percent for Meyers. Libertarian Mark Ash had 3.18 percent.

“I’m going to give it one more shot running as a Democrat for the Supreme Court if the Democrats want me to,” Meyers told the Star-Telegram. “I’m definitely staying a Democrat.”

Another option, Meyers said, would be to seek another six-year term on the criminal appeals court. But he said his first choice would be the Supreme Court, the state’s highest civil appeals court, which resolves far-reaching state issues, including school finance.

“Right now, I’d prefer to run again for the Supreme Court,” he said. “I think my criminal and constitutional expertise would come in very handy on that court.”

Meyers acknowledged that the political climate tilts heavily Republican, but, he added, “Maybe things will get turned around in 2016. We’ll see.”

Although Meyers said he doesn’t know which Supreme Court seat he would seek, his interest in another bid raises the possibility of a Fort Worth-centric battle with Justice Debra Lehrmann, a former state district judge in Fort Worth whose term will be up in 2016. Lehrmann joined the Supreme Court in 2010.

Meyers, who was considered a moderate Republican, said he switched parties after recognizing that he was a likely target for Tea Party activists, who have ousted moderate incumbents and replaced them with more conservative candidates in Republican primaries.

“When the Tea Party took over the Republican Party, it was just like a corporate takeover,” Meyers said. “People in the previous company don’t fit into the plans of the new one.”

By 2010, Meyers said, “I could see that I was too moderate and progressive … that I was not going to fit into the Tea Party philosophy.”

Meyers also acknowledged that he angered some Republicans by threatening a primary challenge against the court’s presiding judge, Sharon Keller, implying that Keller had been in the court’s top post too long. At one point, he said, he was “getting threats” for considering a run against Keller.

As a Democrat, Meyers has attacked a top Republican initiative by filing a lawsuit over a voter ID requirement passed by the Legislature in 2011. Meyers said the law — which requires voters to show photo ID — is “unconstitutional” and “an affront to every voter in the state of Texas.”

Democrats approached Meyers in late 2011 about a party switch, he said, but he declined at the time, saying he felt better positioned to effect change in the judicial process as a Republican.

But in December — on the last day of filing for the 2014 election — Meyers dropped a bombshell by announcing his plan to run as a Democrat for the Supreme Court.

Meyers, a grandfather who lives with his wife in the TCU area, is the state’s second-longest-serving appeals justice, with a total of 26 years of service. He was on the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth for nearly four years and has been on the Court of Criminal Appeals for 22.

“I’ve really enjoyed it,” he said. “It’s a great experience.”

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