Sunday, May 14, 2006

Texas: Parties agree - independent candidates mess up the deal

Dems and GOP agree: the fewer opponents, the better

By CLAY ROBISON Houston Chronicle May 12, 2006 -- GRANDMA and the guy in the black hat, that irrepressible pair of gubernatorial wannabes, have been known to grumble about the hurdles on their road to the November ballot. And so have some of their supporters.
No one, however, should be surprised, since Republicans and Democrats write the rules for ballot access, and the last thing they want is more competition.
Carole Keeton Strayhorn, the comptroller and self-styled tough grandparent, and Kinky Friedman, the entertainer with more one-liners than ideas, could have had it even tougher, had political creativity not been restrained by the courts and an institutional sense that barbarism is a no-no.
Imagine the spectacle had the two independents been required to run and complete a marathan — barefoot and with broken glass strewn liberally across the finish line.
Or, imagine the pair balancing stacks of petitions on their heads, delivering them to the secretary of state by bicycle, hands tied behind their backs.
Compared to those scenarios, the task of gathering 45,540 signatures apiece from registered voters who didn't participate in either the Republican or Democratic primaries or runoffs — and didn't sign someone else's petition — was a walk in the park on a mild, low-humidity day.
Strayhorn and Friedman both completed the task within the two-month window provided by state law and delivered the petitions (by motor vehicle) to the secretary of state, who could take another two months checking their validity.
Each candidate turned in thousands of extra signatures, a necessary precaution because many likely will be struck as invalid.
Republican Gov. Rick Perry and his Democratic challenger, Chris Bell, didn't have to go to the trouble and expense of hiring petition gatherers because the two major party nominees are automatically put on the November ballot.
Each, however, had to win a party primary, although Perry had only nominal opposition.
Secretary of State Roger Williams, who is now poring over the petitions, is Perry's top political appointee, and Strayhorn already has unsuccessfully sued him, suggesting he plans to unfairly drag out his count to torpedo her campaign fund-raising.
Williams denies any political intent. But election laws, which predate Perry and Williams, are designed to prevent or discourage independents and third-party candidates from running for office, in Texas as well as other states.
Democrats and Republicans regularly spill each other's blood over many issues, but lawmakers from both parties generally agree on one thing: the fewer opponents, the better.
The two-party tradition dates back to the earliest years of the United States. Third parties periodically have appeared for a variety of reasons — often as protest movements — but have soon faded or seen their issues adopted by one of the major parties.
A few independents and third party candidates have been elected governor in other states, including former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura in Minnesota a few years ago. But no independent has won the top office in Texas since Sam Houston in 1859.
La Raza Unida won some local offices in South Texas and threatened to become a statewide force in the 1970s but faded after Hispanics became more influential in the Democratic Party. Not too many years later, the Religious Right became a political force, not by forming a separate party but by taking over the Republican Party, at least in Texas and some other states.
A major factor against independents and third party candidates is the general moderation of most American "voters." If more of them would actually vote, maybe our Republican and Democratic elected officials would be forced to practice more moderation as well, and independents would be even less appealing.
Friedman is a novelty who likely will fade soon, and Strayhorn is less an independent than an opportunist.
She began political life as a Democrat, when Democrats were in charge in Texas, and became a Republican after the GOP started rising. She is an "independent" now only because she knew she couldn't beat Perry in the Republican primary.
Next year, if Perry has his way, she will be retired, with lots of time for her grandkids. That's the gentle version of the governor's vision. Another version would be less charitable ... and probably illegal.
Robison is chief of the Chronicle's Austin Bureau. ( link


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