Updated

Local DA race another example of partisan politics becoming more common in courthouse elections

By CRAIG KAPITAN

Eagle Staff Writer

A debate between Brazos County District Attorney Bill Turner and his challenger in the November election, Patrick Meece, is scheduled to air at 6 p.m. Thursday on NBC.

The hour-long forum will be moderated by Donnis Baggett, publisher and editor of The Eagle, and shown on KMAY-23, which is cable channel 6.

It is not open to the public.

“The set will be closed in order to prevent potential disruptions, such as cheerleading or heckling,” Baggett said. “We want the candidates to be able to focus entirely on the substance of the debate.”

Turner, a Democrat, has held the top prosecutor spot for more than 20 years. Republican Meece, a former one-term justice of the peace, is a civil attorney.

The election is Nov. 2.

How many Brazos County residents vote straight-ticket? Officials said there’s no way to tell for certain.

Brazos County Clerk Karen McQueen said it is not a state requirement to report the results in that manner.

Ann McGeehan, director of elections for the Secretary of State’s Office, suggested checking with state officials from both parties. Neither the Republican Party of Texas nor the Texas Democrats knew of any accurate straight-ticket voting numbers at the county level. Local party officials said they also do not keep track of straight ticket voting.

An idea of how many people vote straight ticket can be captured by reviewing individual races, but McQueen said the county only kept figures from the 2002 governor’s race.

That year, 4,748 Brazos County residents voted straightticket Republican in the county judge’s race, while 2,392 pulled a straight Democrat ticket.

In both races, there were crossover votes where a person punched straight ticket and then voted for a candidate from the other party: 84 Republicans and 159 Democrats did so that year.

McGeehan said crossover voting started decades ago and allows a person to punch straight ticket for Republican, Democrat or independent, but then allows a person to vote for a candidate or candidates in another party.

“You can’t, however, go in and punch Republican or Democrat, then go vote for both candidates in the same race — it’s one vote per candidate, obviously,” she said, adding that many voters think straight-ticket always means just that, when actually a voter can override the system if interested in one or more candidates from a different party.

Eagle Staff Report

Sitting prominently on the front counter at Patrick Meece’s law office in past weeks has been an elephant-shaped water sprinkler filled with flowers and transformed into a table ornament for a recent campaign event.

The Republican Party mascot is a theme the candidate for district attorney has been embracing lately in signs and advertising as he faces longtime incumbent Bill Turner — one of a few Democrats left in local office.

In contrast, Turner’s campaign paraphernalia virtually has no indication of his party affiliation. That, too, is on purpose, Turner said, repeating his campaign mantra that politics and party affiliation have no place in the Brazos County District Attorney’s Office — “just hard work.”

As one of the most intense local races of the year reaches the final month of campaigning, the two continue to disagree on even the basics of the office — such as whether party affiliation affects the role of a district attorney.

It’s a common disagreement.

“I think it’s important our local leaders have an allegiance to their party,” said local Republican Party Chairman David Kent, explaining that he’s been encouraging residents to vote straight-ticket in what he expects to be a very close race. “Good Republicans don’t vote for Democrats because our philosophy is different.”

Despite having tried to recruit Turner to the Republican Party himself in past years, Kent said he has been surprised by all the crossover support the incumbent has received.

“If you’re an Aggie, you yell for the Aggies — not the Longhorns,” he explained. “They are good Republicans. They just have a different philosophy on this race and have taken a different path.”

Regardless, Meece’s party affiliation should be an advantage during the race, Kent and Meece have said, predicting that the area’s loyalty to President Bush will inspire even more straight-ticket voters than usual.

Turner, however, has spent much of his campaign courting those crossover Republican voters — a strategy supported by a local Democratic Party that realizes its ranks are outnumbered. The straight-ticket voter is one of his greatest fears about the race, Turner has said.

“Bill has operated his office in a very nonpartisan sort of way,” said Democratic Party Chairman Chuck Wiggins, a semiretired political science professor at Texas A&M University. “[But] I’m sure there are some new students who don’t know the background of courthouse politics, and they’ll be encouraged to vote straight-ticket.”

Among the Republicans who have supported Turner financially are every local district judge, county court-at-law judge and justice of the peace, with the exception of 272nd District Judge Rick Davis and Justice of the Peace Margaret Meece, the challenger’s wife. Sheriff Chris Kirk, a Republican, also has donated to Turner’s campaign.

Meece said he has chosen not to focus on endorsements.

“The fact that I’m a conservative — not a liberal Democrat — yes, it will make a difference,” Meece said recently.

For instance, he said, his stance against abortion would make him more apt than Turner to prosecute someone for two murders if a pregnant woman was killed. He declined to give further examples of ways the office might be different due to party affiliation.

But a state law instituted in 2003 already states an unborn child is considered an individual when it comes to capital murder charges, Turner said, adding that he would prosecute accordingly. He refused to give his own stance regarding abortion, explaining that it’s important for residents to have trust in his objectivity.

“Just like a referee would not pick sides in a game he is about to call, a prosecutor should not take sides in a social debate in which he might be called upon to enforce the law on either or both sides,” he explained.

However, Turner said his record does reflect a tough stance on murder convictions, including 13 death penalty sentences. He likened his position to that of any other law enforcement entity. People don’t care what a police officer’s political affiliation is, so long as he or she can respond to the problem effectively, he said.

“A prosecutor’s role is to enforce the law,” he said. “We take an oath to do that. I don’t see that there’s any room to be either liberal or conservative in how you approach that work. You simply enforce the law.”

What the experts say

While arguments such as Turner’s certainly are prominent, “one might say that’s a bit naive,” said professor Robert Stein, who teaches social science at Rice University.

“The realistic view is these are partisan offices, and people achieve them to reach career goals,” he said, pointing out that U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s previous job was Texas attorney general. Before that, he served as a district judge in San Antonio and sat on the Texas Supreme Court.

According to polls, there does seem to be overwhelming support for nonpartisan elections for judges, Stein said. Between 30 and 40 percent of states already have such elections, he said.

“But they don’t see the elected office of a district attorney the same way they see the courts,” he said. “You’re not going to be seeing people viewing judges and prosecutors in the same light.”

The level of support for nonpartisan district attorney and attorney general elections is similar to that of nonpartisan elections of legislators, Stein said.

Differences between Republican and Democrat attorneys general might include issues such as enforcing laws against same-sex marriage or, as was the recent case in Florida, a decision on whether to keep a person on life support alive. As for more local offices, he pointed to Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle — a Democrat — pushing to prosecute aides of Republican Congressman Tom DeLay of Sugar Land.

“If that’s not partisan, you live on a different planet,” Stein said.

The public’s perception of the role party politics plays in law-related offices has been changing since the late 1990s, explained Dagmar Hamilton, a professor of law and politics at the University of Texas.

The idea that party affiliation is important for such roles has grown across the country — especially in the four years since the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to step in and decide who would be the next president, she said.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen the process become as partisan as it has become,” she said, explaining that the perception started with high-level judge elections in Texas and has since saturated down to the local level.

“As a lawyer and a political scientist, I think it’s horrible,” she said. “Law, in it’s best sense, should not be partisan. I don’t think that’s unduly idealistic.”

While the argument might have some bearing on the state Supreme Court, the focus locally should be on who can do the best job, she said.

“The law is basically clear,” she said earlier this month while on vacation in Philadelphia, where she said she dined with a federal judge appointed during the Reagan administration. “You have some discretion, but you ought not be doing it in a partisan manner.”

A former attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, Hamilton said she has voted for both parties when it comes to law-related offices.

But focusing on party affiliation can be an effective way to oust a longtime incumbent, she said. If a challenger can point to instances that seem to be motivated by partisan politics, it could make a big difference in an election, she said.

“That’s the easier route to take,” she said. “It’s harder to look at his or her record.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Max Sherman, a fellow professor at the University of Texas who serves as chair of state and local government in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. He also served as a Democratic state senator in the 1970s and as special counsel to the governor in the 1980s.

“Historically, most local offices in most cities were basically nonpartisan,” he said. “We really had, at the local level, a pretty strong sentiment it ought not be political.”

While district attorney candidates might have carried the partisan label in the past, their office was considered similar to that of a police chief position, he said.

But as times have changed and the state has shifted allegiance to Republicans, many Democrats in such positions have switched parties just to get re-elected, he said.

Often, Stein said, when a longtime incumbent is in an area that no longer supports his or her party, it’s not coincidence that person has stayed in office so long.

Despite party affiliation, the incumbent’s values are probably pretty similar to the community’s, Stein said.

“My guess is his positions aren’t that much different than his Republican opponent’s,” he said of Turner, qualifying that he knows nothing about the local race.

That’s the ticket

While there is a history of Republicans unseating longtime Democrats in Brazos County — Meece’s last elected position, justice of the peace, was taken from 20-year incumbent Carolyn Hensarling in 1998 — it’s also not unheard of for a longtime Democrat to walk away victorious.

Such a case happened with Brazos County Tax-Assessor Collector Buddy Winn, an incumbent who successfully ran as a Democrat against Republican Art King in 2000.

There were about 17,600 straight-ticket Republican votes and 5,400 straight-ticket Democrats during that election, Winn recalled. Statistics on straight-ticket voting trends are not permanently kept by the Secretary of State’s Office or County Clerk’s Office.

“That means I was in that race about 12,500 votes behind,” Winn said. But he focused on his track record and was able to win — albeit narrowly.

Party politics shouldn’t have any bearing on a position like his or Turner’s, he said. But regardless, Winn switched to the GOP in 2003, citing a gradual realization that his views as a conservative Democrat were no longer in line with the party’s.

Having been unchallenged over the past 20 years, Turner said he hadn’t really put a lot of thought into his party affiliation until recently. But having thought about it as he contemplated running again, he decided it would be disingenuous to tell people he was Republican even if he feels it has nothing to do with his job, he said.

Turner grew up in a working-class family, and when his mother died while he was attending college, it was Social Security payments and grants that helped keep him on track to becoming what he is today, he said. He always will associate the assistance he got then with his own party, he said.

At the ballot box, however, Turner tends to vote his conscience regardless of party affiliation, he said. A public example of that was in 1990, when the district attorney garnered headlines by crossing party lines to support Republican challenger J.D. Langley for the 85th District Court judge seat. Langley won that race against longtime Democratic incumbent Tom McDonald.

Despite Turner’s unwillingness to switch out a “D” for an “R” on his ballot listing, it doesn’t mean local Republicans haven’t tried to sway him to take the easier route.

Kent, the county’s Republican chair, has asked Turner to switch parties, describing him in the past as someone who does a good job but would do “a better job as a Republican.”

The party would find someone to run against Turner if he didn’t join, Kent said at the time of Winn’s switch-over. However, Meece filed for the race on his own without being recruited by the Republican Party, the candidate recently said.

“I’m not saying Bill Turner hasn’t done a good job,” Kent added last month. “But I think Patrick Meece has the background to do it, and maybe it’s time for a change.”

Among the local Republicans who strongly disagree with Kent on the issue is attorney Chris Kling, a self-described staunch Bush supporter who previously served as vice chairman for the Brazos County Republican Party.

“I understand the strengths of partisan politics and why we need party politics,” he said. “But at this time, with these candidates, party politics have no role to play.”

Like other Turner supporters, he said, he is worried about the impact straight-ticket voters will have on the race.

“The straight-party Republican vote is Patrick Meece’s best friend,” he said. “That’s his best chance to win the race.

“You have an attractive ticket on the top. The straight-party Republican voter is voting for the top of the ticket — not all the way down.”

But people who do vote that way “don’t recognize the ripple effect it will have throughout the rest of the ballot,” he said.

A popular presumption, he said, is that there is a large pool of Republican students at A&M willing to pull the straight-ticket lever. If more than 20,000 students have signed up in past weeks, then Meece — along with fellow Republican candidate Arlene Wohlgemuth — has a fighting chance, he predicted.

But such a push to register A&M students hasn’t been made in several election cycles, he said. For example, in the late 1980s, more than 2,000 residents cast a ballot at the Memorial Student Center on campus. During the last election the turnout was probably less than 500, he said.

According to the Brazos County Voter Registration Office, about 30,000 voter applications have been sent out in the past 90 days — at least 10,000 of which were included in newcomer packets for A&M freshmen.

Since the March 9 primary, about 8,200 new voters have been signed up in the nine precincts known for having heavy student populations, Kristeen Roe of the Voter Registration Office said late last month.

However, the office was getting buried in upwards of 3,000 new applications a week from various locations, she said.

The deadline to register for the Nov. 2 election was last Monday.

Despite the fears of Turner and his camp, Meece downplayed the idea that straight-ticket voters will be his salvation on Election Day. It helped him some in 1998 but not a lot, he said. This time around he suspects those who might normally vote straight-ticket already will be persuaded to crossover for Wohlgemuth’s Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, he said.

To counteract that, he said, he plans to continue focusing on Turner’s record while in office.

“He’s got a record — nobody knows it,” Meece said, referring to Turner’s management of the office. He also described the way Turner handles cases as “liberal” but did not provide specific examples.

Turner said he challenges his opponent to “point to any way we’ve run the District Attorney’s Office that fits the definitions of his label.”

“To me it seems to be attaching labels with no substance,” he said.

• Craig Kapitan’s e-mail address is ckapitan@theeagle.com.

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