TODD SPOTH, Photographer
Greg Aydt, a precinct chairman in Seabrook, hopes to encourage more GOP leaders to stop “pay-to-play” mailers.
Year after year, come election time, Republican precinct chairman Greg Aydt would look around his Seabrook polling place and shake his head at all the primary voters holding political mailers full of somebody else’s choices.
“I keep seeing people come in with these pay-to-play mailers and all the slates,” says Aydt, who has been a precinct chairman in the area since 2002. “They simply vote down the ballot. Whatever Steve Hotze has to say, whatever Gary Polland has to say, whatever Terry Lowry has to say, they vote that way.”
As an east side high school government teacher, it bothered him that many of these voters were entrusting their decisions to a few kingmakers and a paid endorsement process they might know nothing about. But as an election judge, duty-bound to remain neutral at the polls, he kept his mouth shut.
Then came Hotze’s endorsement of embattled family court Judge Denise Pratt this year.
Pratt came under fire last year amid accusations of falsifying court orders to cover up tardy rulings. That led to the resignation of her lead clerk and an investigation by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and a grand jury, which eventually declined to indict her. Pratt later abruptly, bizarrely purged hundreds of cases in her court, apparently without proper notice to attorneys and their clients.
“She’s a nice lady, personally, but she’s a disaster as a judge. Yet, this pay-to-play slate has endorsed her,” Aydt said. “Here is a judge who is not well-respected by the lawyers in her courtroom, not well-respected by the litigants, clearly doing a horrendous judge of running her court, but she’s going to be the best candidate running?
“This is someone we need to get rid of and, yet, because of the money going to this slate, there’s a chance of her being re-elected and that’s really troubling.”
Pratt has one thing going for her that may have influenced Hotze’s endorsement: She hired Allen Blakemore, Hotze’s own political consultant and friend, who has great sway over the doctor’s picks.
“Yes, I get the last word,” Blakemore told me, “but that doesn’t mean he’s going to endorse all my clients. He doesn’t.”
The “big three” kingmakers in Harris County Republican politics have been criticized through the years for soliciting contributions or “newsletter” ad buys from candidates they endorse. Radio show host Lowry is the most blatant offender of the democratic process: He has acknowledged he runs a “for-profit business,” something akin to the Houston Chronicle. Thankfully for the Chronicle, our advertising staff and editorial page editor aren’t the same person.
Lack of diversity
The Pratt endorsements only contributed to Aydt’s other concerns about the slates, which go beyond money. Aydt, who teaches at an overwhelmingly minority public school, has been worried by the lack of diversity in the kingmaker’s slates.
“It appears when given the choice between a white candidate and a non-white candidate they always vote for a whiter shade of pale. That disturbs me greatly,” he said. “I see this and think ‘will many of my students, who hold values similar to mine, will they ever consider voting that way when they grow up?'”
Aydt knew he couldn’t stay on the sidelines anymore. And, as a humble teacher and conservative blogger with no political prospects, he didn’t really have too much lose.
Taking a position
“I felt it was time to take a stand,” he said.
So he did. A couple of weeks ago, Aydt began circulating language for a proposed party resolution condemning the pay-to-play practice. He says he got a good response from friends and quickly amassed co-sponsors.
Then, Tuesday night, he presented a resolution at the Harris County Republican Party Executive Committee meeting. The language specifically states that the party condemns the practice of pay-to-play endorsements, “in which supposedly independent individuals, groups, or organizations request, solicit or require any fee, payment, or contribution as a condition of making or publicizing said endorsement.”
Some folks weren’t happy. David Jennings, of the BigJolly Politics blog, had a great play-by-play of the inside baseball and parliamentary parlor tricks some employed to stop the resolution. There were early requests to adjourn, random demands for quorum calls, apparent attempts to get people to leave and break quorum.
A rousing success
After a long night, the resolution passed overwhelmingly.
Aydt said he was “absolutely flying.”
“I’ll be honest, I had an adrenaline rush that night so high, I literally didn’t fall into bed until 2:15 and got up at 5:15,” Aydt said.
Just how much impact will the resolution have? It’s hard to say. Everyone I spoke with who has been beating the ever-louder drum against the pay-to-play system seemed encouraged.
Threatening a lawsuit
“I thought it was wonderful, a good first start,” veteran state Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, said. “Even if it doesn’t stop them, the more attention we give it to the public, the more opportunity they have to be informed, intelligent voters.”
When I reached Lowry on his cellphone, he claimed he was in a meeting. Then he took my number, saying “when I call you back, I’ll be recording, I’ll do an introduction, and I’ll air this on my show Monday. Thanks.”
He didn’t call back. But late Thursday night, someone slipped me a letter from Lowry’s attorney, Ken Shortreed, to Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill. It threatens to sue if the resolution is officially posted, arguing the language is a “broad attack without any benefit to it,” that appears to restrict constitutional freedoms.
Polland said the resolution wouldn’t affect him because his endorsements have never been “quid pro quo.” The attorney says he backs the best candidates, period, and he doesn’t make money off of it: “It’s a labor of love.”
Blakemore said the resolution wouldn’t change a thing for Hotze: “We’re certainly not pay-to-play. Never have been.” He insisted Hotze asks for money to fund his mailer only after he’s decided whom to endorse. That’s a claim some have disputed. Harless, for one, says that after interviewing with Hotze several years ago, she was asked for a contribution before she knew if she’d get the endorsement.
Aydt said Blakemore and the rest “may be surprised” at the effect of the resolution, adding he’s gotten interest from party leaders across the state: “I think you’re going to find there’s a hunger for this sort of stuff on the state level.
“My great hope is that we reach the point with this that the candidates in Harris County don’t feel the need that they have to give money to these people in order to get an endorsement.”