"AstroTurf" Tea Parties and Pay-to-Play Endorsements - Who can you trust with your vote?
Does your mailbox look like mine? Overflowing with ads from candidates for the primary election? Stuffed with slates from various groups and organizations? Now then, are you ready to vote? Now you must walk through the gauntlet of poll workers handing out even more ads from candidates and slates of endorsements. You want to vote for the right candidate. But how do you know who to trust?
Trying to figure out who to vote for in down ballot races can be very difficult. There are organizations that do a good job of interviewing candidates and have a true desire to find the candidates that best reflect their organization's values. There are also groups that have made a personal financial and political power enterprise out of the elections process - the so called "Pay-to-Play" slates. There are also "AstroTurf" groups. These are groups that want you to believe they are a true grass roots organization, but in reality they are a made-up group of people with a political agenda who want you to support their candidates.
Currently, in Montgomery County, there is a good example of this. Voters at the polls are being confronted by "volunteers" of a group allegedly called "The Original Tea Party of Montgomery County". They are passing out a slate of candidates attempting to look like grass roots volunteers for these candidates. A simple Google search reveals there is no trace of any such organization.
Steve Hotze’s Conservative Republicans of Texas slate and ROBO calls in Montgomery County has also created quite a stir prompting a press release from the Montgomery County Republican Party Chairman, Dr. Wally Wilkerson. The Republican Headquarters in Conroe and the County Elections Administrator’s office had to field complaints about a mailing that included an application for a ballot by mail and a Republican Primary election sample ballot that had been marked to show candidates favored by Hotze’s group (discussed in more detail below under “Pay-to-Play” Slates).
Chairman Wilkerson issued a statement sharply criticizing the mailing stating that the majority of the candidates were not interviewed by Hotze or any representative of the committee and voters were misled to believe that the Montgomery County Republican Party was responsible for the mailing. The Montgomery County Party’s Bylaws prohibit endorsement of any candidates in primary races. Moreover, if someone does a Google Search for a Montgomery County Sample Ballot, the first item to appear is the following which could make someone think that the ballot is from the Montgomery County Elections Administrator:
Click Here To Download A Printable Copy Of This Sample Ballot You Can Take With You When Voting”.
In Harris County, we have slates of candidates showing up in mailboxes from Terry Lowry's Link Letter, Steve Hotze's Conservative Republicans of Harris County and former Harris County Republican Party Chairman, Gary Polland's Texas Conservative Review. These are what many are calling the "Pay-to-Play" slates. In these publications, candidates are asked to either buy ads in the publication or make contributions to their PAC. In the Link Letter, ads run as much as $10,000-15,000 each. Count the ads in the "Link Letter" and see how that ads up quickly.
David Jennings, in Big Jolly Politics, takes an extremely critical view of Lowry's religious stand in politics saying, "...the Link Letter this year is a hate filled rag that puts all Republicans in a negative light." He takes the Link Letter apart page by page in its content and what some might say, religious bigotry with Lowry's attack on Mormonism and the apparent Republican Presidential Nominee.
Clearly Lowry portrays himself as a deeply religious man and his Link Letter is aimed at conservative and religious Republicans. The Link Letter prominently contains articles from such religious notables as Franklin Graham, Dr. James Dobson, Phyliss Schlafly of the Eagle Forum and other similar figures. While I would never question another person's faith, I do have to ask, when does religion cross over from being about love to spewing hate filled bigotry? And, when does pursuing religious values cross over from being a noble calling to an exploitative personal commercial enterprise? Some might say that line was crossed well before the $750,000 dollars in revenue collected by Lowry (according to my sources). A fair question of personal gain remains unanswered. Unlike the candidates, Lowry's personal earnings from this venture does not have to be publicly reported. Certainly, $750,000 is not spent on printing and mailing his Pay-to-Play slate. And that's just in Harris County. Lowry has expanded his commercial and political enterprise into ten other counties.
Perhaps personal gain is why you see endorsements in a conservative Republican-targeted Link Letter of a candidate who ran in the last election as a DEMOCRAT, or of other candidates who have extremely questionalble Republican credentials. One case in point - Lowry's endorsement of Harris County Precinct 3 Constable Candidate, William Norwood. Norwood, it seems, received a five day suspension for insubordination, making violent threats and being AWOL (absent without leave) while working for the Harris County Sheriff's Department. He then hopes to surf in on the Obama wave, running for Constable in the 2008 Democrat primary. Now, low and behold, he is trying to surf in on what he believes will be a 2012 Republican wave and is running for the same office as a REPUBLICAN. So, how does Norwood get this endorsement over a well-qualified, proven Republican like David Cruzan? I guess money talks and ... well, you get the point...
Hotze is not shy about telling endorsed candidates, in public, to make certain their family and friends get their "contributions" into his PAC so he can send out his mailer...
According to Ed Hubbard, "...the perception among many candidates (is) that Conservative Republicans of Harris County amounts to little more than a rubber-stamp for Blakemore’s clients". Blakemore is a Republican political consultant in Harris County that not only represents individual Republican political candidates but is also paid to promote Hotze’s Conservative Republicans of Harris County and Conservative Republicans of Texas. Through these efforts, Hotze’s influence has expanded from Harris County throughout Texas. And, personal revenue of political consultants, or payments made from political consultants to individuals, do not have to be reported to the Texas Ethics Commission; thus, any personal financial gain from the “founders” of these slates, and slates such as the The Texas Conservative View, are not disclosed.
Polland catches a lot of flack from people about his pay-to-play system as well. However, I will say this for Polland, he makes his endorsements early on and then seeks money from those candidates to pay for the cost of distribution of his magazine. I might also note, his magazine contains the kind of political analysis you might expect from a former chair of the Harris County Republican Party. I would say this is a slightly more ethical pay-to-play system, but still troublesome.
And then there are some PAC's, like The Texas Conservative View (I wonder if ABC Television's liberal talk show, The View, has looked at them for a potential trademark violation?) which claims "No candidate is asked to donate for an endorsement" but has asked its candidates for money. Still another Pay-to-Play slate... This slate is tied to a political consultant whose candidates are endorsed in the slate mailer. The address listed after the name of the campaign Treasurer is even the consultant's home address. The representation in the mailer is that the six self-appointed women decision makers are "Harris County Conservatives with the Right View." One of these women, Robin Lennon, Co-founder of a local Tea Party places on her Tea Party website the warning not to “Don’t Trust Those Pay to Play Voter Guides!” but is involved in The Texas Conservative View's candidate-funded mailer.
So... What do we, as voters, do? How can we figure out who to vote for? Of course, the best answer is to do your own research. But, as that is impractical for most voters, I suggest finding organizations that do the research from an unbiased position and who do not take money from the candidates. In Montgomery County, the Texas Patriots PAC has put together a slate of candidates that match the values of their organization and voters. They back up this slate with a thorough explanation of the reasons for the endorsements. Recently, they backed a slate of candidates in The Woodlands Township election. They were very successful in turning out the vote and because of this success, the "AstroTurf" group has shown up at the polls to try and block their effectiveness.
In Harris County, Saddle Up Texas has spent a great deal of time this year evaluating candidates and produced a slate of candidates. This is the group, associated with Republicans and Tea Party groups, who support Constitutionally-limited government. The Houston Realty Business Coalition has also put together a slate without taking any money from candidates and has also strongly denounced Pay-to-Play slates on its website and in its mailer. Many voters are carrying this slate to the polls to guide their voting efforts. United Republicans of Harris County has a large group of Republicans who have been active since 1992 who spend a great deal of time doing an unbiased series of interviews to determine the best candidates. Quoting the URHC website, "Our hands on process of interviewing candidates in person and providing them with questionnaires regarding their qualifications makes us unique to the political process. We are the ONLY such organization in Harris County that has continually and consistently provided a venue for candidates to be considered fairly based on merit, qualifications, and participation in the Republican Party." One candidate who had earned their endorsement volunteered to contribute to the cost of mailing after receiving the endorsement and was told that it was URHC's very strong policy to NEVER take money from candidates.
What about your area? Do you have questionable endorsement slates that should be exposed? If these Pay-to-Play slates come to your part of Texas, will you follow the lead of Montgommery County and stop them? It is important to do your own research on candidates. Carefully check out any group making slates of endorsements to figure out if they are taking candidate money or if one particular political consultant's candidates are being promoted.
Many Tea Party groups are already starting to put candidates on notice saying any participation in Pay-to-Play slates in future elections will result in non-consideration by their Tea Party for endorsements and support. Whatever your thoughts, this is an issue for future discussion. Is there a better way?