LIVINGSTON – This sleepy little East Texas town of 5,000 or so seems like an unlikely battleground for a furious electoral power struggle between entrenched forces at the state capitol in Austin. But the 2012 Republican primary has featured the strangest of political bedfellows engaged in two-fisted combat that calls to mind 19th-century Chicago newspaperman Finley Peter Dunne’s observation that “politics ain’t beanbag.”
The Texas Legislature’s 2011 redistricting created a new District 19 that has two incumbents fighting against each other for their political lives in a race where the combined campaign spending will easily exceed a million dollars. That’s a lot of money for two conservative Republicans in a mostly rural East Texas district, but the stakes are high.
Rep. Mike “Tuffy” Hamilton is a five-term incumbent whose tenure in the House included a term as chairman of the Natural Resources Committee. He is opposed by Rep. James White, a freshmen representative who ousted long-time Rep. Jim McReynolds in 2010 with strong Tea Party support. McReynolds was not particularly unpopular, but 2010 was a bad year to be a Democrat in East Texas
The new district covers a lot of territory from Livingston to the Sabine River state boundary with Louisiana including Polk, Tyler, Jasper, Hardin, and Newton counties. White’s previous district included only Tyler County from this list – not to be confused with the city of Tyler, which is in Smith County. Woodville is the county seat of Tyler County. Before this round of redistricting, White represented House District 12 (made up of San Jacinto, Trinity, Angelina and Tyler counties) and Hamilton District 19 (made up of Hardin, Orange and Newton counties).
Although he had been seen as a reliable GOP conservative throughput his tenure in the House, Hamilton made some enemies in the last session. Before redistricting, his district included parts of Orange County devastated by Hurricane Ike including hard-hit Bridge City. By standing up for the storm-ravaged residents there against the Texas Windstorm Insurance Agency, Tuffy made enemies among elements in other parts of the state who wanted to deny them the TWIA coverage they deserved – and had paid for. As a result, Texans for Lawsuit Reform and its financial backers are coming after Tuffy.
The heavy artillery has been flying in this race with both sides suffering wounds in the process. White struck first, blasting Hamilton in a series of hard-hitting television and radio ads for tax liens of $601.92 and $2,657.91, and a civil penalty levied against Hamilton for ethics violations involving failure to properly account for a campaign credit card.
This air war was financed from the campaign war chest White assembled thanks to large contributions from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, and homebuilders Bob Perry and David Weekly, among many others, all prominent supporters of Gov. Rick Perry, who has also endorsed White in the GOP primary.
Hamilton, who has the support of House Speaker – and Perry rival – Robert Straus, struck back with spots featuring damaging revelations about White’s tenure as a high school teacher in Livingston. Documents obtained from the Livingston ISD and released to the media show White left his job as a teacher at Livingston High School in 2007 after repeated complaints of inappropriate sexual discussions in class.
Livingston ISD public information officer Gregg Faith confirmed the authenticity of the documents on White released to the media by Hamilton which include an August 2006 memo from Livingston High School officials to White that outlined student and parent complaints about sexually oriented examples that he used as illustrations of a point.
White is quoted as saying to his class, “What’s more intimate ... Sharing your credit scores or having sexual intercourse?” And “girls are used as a utility for guys.” And “After a man and woman have sex ... then their undergarments are mixed together in the same washing machine.” The memo also said White attempted to make, “some sort of economic point by using the comparison of bodily fluids being swapped during sexual relations.”
The memo served as a written warning to White to cease such inappropriate references and that “disregarding this directive may lead to administrative action.” White signed the memo to acknowledge its receipt.
In February 2007, White was investigated for using “an example of sodomy for (his) history class as well as profanity in the classroom,” according to school documents. He was placed on administrative leave and ordered not to come to the campus. He resigned in July, five months later.
White branded the allegations “malicious, untrue gossip” and “a desperate lie” and said, “I was offered a contract to continue teaching in Livingston ISD following the 2006-2007 school year and accepted, resigning only after I was offered a teaching position in Woodville ISD, which was much closer to my residence.”
Faith told The Examiner that White “was not asked to leave (by the district).” Faith characterized the totality of the documents released in simple terms.
“We warned him; he apologized and later left for a new job,” said Faith. The Livingston ISD had initially refused to release the White documents, claiming it was a personnel matter and thus exempt from open records requests.
“This was uncharted territory for us, but the attorney general said we had to release (the documents) – so we did,” said Faith.
In Livingston – where the incidents involving White took place – the controversy has attracted little attention. A random survey of early voters at the Polk County Courthouse failed to turn up any who had heard of the allegations. Since neither White or Hamilton had previously represented Polk County, voters had to be prompted to remember how they had voted in the race.
Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Perry planned to travel to Lumberton on May 24 to endorse White. A group of Republican elected officials in Hardin County responded to news of that upcoming visit to announce their endorsement of Hamilton.
These revelations could have impact that reverberates far beyond the two candidates involved. Texas Monthly political guru Paul Burka commented on the situation this week on his widely read Burka Blog.
“The first obvious point to make is that somebody failed to vet White,” he wrote. “The question that should be asked of every candidate for office is, ‘Have you ever done something that could cause you a problem if it becomes public?’ In the White campaign, who did the vetting? Some consultant’s head ought to roll.”
He continued in another vein.
“The second obvious point to make is that the fleas are going to land on somebody. As of now, the number one candidate is Rick Perry, who endorsed White. Perry made a big show of going around the state and bestowing endorsements. That’s all well and good if you know what you’re doing, but if something goes wrong, the fleas start to circle. Perry is going to be asked if he stands by his endorsement, or if he is going to walk it back. The fleas are going to land on Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR) too. As I wrote in a post yesterday, TLR is playing a dangerous game. They are ‘all in’ against veteran legislators, and if something were to go wrong, they’re going to be in big trouble. Well, something has gone very wrong, and they’re about to be in big trouble.”