Almost two decades ago, at the dawn of the era of Republican political dominance in Harris County, a civil war broke out in our local party between the groups that had traditionally dominated the party and new activists, many of whom had become involved in politics primarily to promote socially conservative issues. Over these years, this battle led to a contest for political control of our primaries, and then to a vacuum of leadership within our local party, which spawned the slate mailers that now dominate our primary process. Although little actually remains of the civil war, because there are so few conservatives or Republicans left who are not (to one degree or another) socially conservative, the slate mailers live on, and appear to dictate who will eventually win the local primary.
When this all started, many of the new activists had been energized and mobilized by Pat Robertson’s Presidential campaign of 1988, and the groups that formed in the wake of that campaign. Nationally, those groups included the Christian Coalition, and locally, the short-lived Nehemiah Project that allegedly was coordinated through Second Baptist Church. Although the new local activists were scattered throughout Harris County, the largest concentration seemed to live in the growing communities north of I-10, which are now part of State Senate Districts 4 and 7. One of the leaders of this movement locally was Dr. Steven Hotze, whose family has been at the vanguard of socially conservative causes for decades. Dr. Hotze formed Conservative Republicans of Harris County and Conservative Republicans of Texas. Dr. Hotze’s Conservative Republicans of Harris County created one of, if not the first of the local slate mailers of this era.
What was considered to be the “establishment” of that time created their own organization, United Republicans of Harris County. One of the chief activities of that group, which continues to this day, was to interview and assess each candidate in the local GOP primary, make an endorsement based on that process, and prepare its own slate mailer.
Over the years, two additional for-profit slate mailers emerged locally in the GOP primary, while many other independent organizations and publications published their endorsements in the form of slates—some were mailed to voters, and others were simply published in magazines, newsletters, and the Internet. Before I go into more detail about this history and the current players, I want to discuss “slate mailers” generally.
“Slate mailers” are endorsement slates in party primaries, and in the general election, which are typically published by individuals or organizations that are not affiliated with a political party. The mailers present their endorsements in a form that looks like a primary ballot with check marks or an “x” by the name of the candidate being endorsed. These slate cards are made so that they can be torn away from an absentee ballot request form or larger mailer, and be used by a voter at the polls. Given the form and timing of these mailers, and the names of the organizations behind them, they often appear to have an official blessing of a party, which they do not have. Though some states (e.g., California) have regulated these mailers with stiff disclosure requirements, other attempts to prohibit them, including specific attempts in California and Indiana, have been struck-down by the courts, because these mailers are considered to be a protected form of political speech under the First Amendment.
There are two general types of mailers: those that are sent by non-profit groups; and those that are essentially for-profit advertisements paid for by the endorsed candidates. These latter mailers have become a scourge on primaries throughout the country. For-profit mailers are primarily effective in down-ballot, local and judicial races, and they proliferate for four reasons:
- down-ballot candidates have a difficult time building the name identification and raising the funds needed to run and win a race, and voters too often lack interest in those specific races;
- the person or organization behind the mailer has amassed a larger mailing list than any of these candidates usually can obtain on their own;
- the cost of advertising in the mailer is cheaper for these candidates than creating and mailing their own mailer; and
- the appearance on a slate makes it easier for the voters to reference when voting, and makes it more likely that they will vote in the down-ballot races.
Therefore, these for-profit advertisements, with removable slate cards, provide down-ballot candidates with a real, cost-effective service—but at a real expensive cost to the integrity of the system. Remember, that these mailers are simply advertisements—advertisements that pay for the dissemination of one person’s or one organization’s opinion of the candidates. Moreover, because the advertisement fees normally exceed the costs incurred to produce and mail the slate mailer, the purveyor often makes a good living just by telling the public what his personal opinion is. Because of the completeness and appearance of these mailers, most voters don’t understand that they are not official evaluations from the local party, but instead, are paid-for propaganda from one person or organization intended to influence the outcome of the primary.
So, let’s look at the current situation in the GOP primaries in Harris County. As we do so, please remember, that neither our county party, nor our state party endorses candidates in our primaries, and none of these mailers speak for the party.
The most effective slate mailer in our primary is the for-profit advertisement called The Link Letter. It is printed with red, white and blue colors and black print, in the form of a multi-page political newsletter, and it contains at least two 8 ½” by 11” faux sample ballots with check marks by the names of the endorsed candidates, either of which can be torn out and kept for use when voting. The purveyor of this slate mailer is Terry Lowry, who has a local radio program on a small AM station. Terry is a Republican precinct chair of a precinct north of I-10 in State Senate District 7. Terry is a well-known associate of Mark Lanier, who (like Jared Woodfill) is a prominent plaintiff’s personal injury attorney in Houston. Terry charges the candidates for advertisements, and virtually all of the advertisers are candidates who have received his endorsements on the enclosed tear-away ballot. Terry’s primary income comes from advertising revenue from The Link Letter and his radio activities. Terry has the most extensive mailing list of the other local slate mailers, and his endorsed candidates have experienced an over 90% success rate in recent primary elections.
The second most effective slate mailer, and probably the most effective mailer in primary run-off elections, is Dr. Hotze’s Conservative Republicans of Harris County. One of the reasons this mailer is so effective is it is first sent out as a tear-away attachment to absentee ballot request forms to senior citizens. Because so many local Republican voters are over the age of 65, this tactic is extremely effective to influence how these voters fill out their ballots in down-ballot races. Dr. Hotze is close to a handful of political consultants, most notably Blakemore & Associates. Although Dr. Hotze does not take money for advertising, there is a strong correlation between the candidates he chooses to interview and ultimately endorse, and those who have hired one of the consultants with whom he is close—and this correlation is understood by the candidates. In fact, Alan Blakemore is said to often be present during Dr. Hotze’s interviews of candidates who are running against Blakemore’s candidates. Though Dr. Hotze has been known to endorse candidates who are not represented by Blakemore, or one of the other close consultants, the rarity of such endorsements underscores the perception among many candidates that Conservative Republicans of Harris County amounts to little more than a rubber-stamp for Blakemore’s clients.
The third most effective slate mailer is the for-profit advertisement entitled Texas Conservative Review, which is produced by former HCRP Chair and local attorney, Gary Polland. Unfortunately, the problems with this slate mailer are so numerous and notorious, that it has quickly become the local poster child for what is perceived to be a private “pay for play” system in our primaries. These problems include, but certainly not limited to
- improperly using the name of the Republican Party, along with the word “official” in the title of his mailer;
- taking $40,000 for advertising from Mayor Parker, and then endorsing her as the conservative candidate for Mayor; and
- seeking and obtaining nearly $400,000 in recent income from court appointments from judges he endorsed.
Moreover, if reports from candidates are correct, Polland’s approach to the for-profit endorsement racket seems to have infected another organization, POLICE, Inc., which is run by a close Polland associate, and is reported to now charge candidates for advertising costs associated with its slate mailer.
Before I get to the other slates, I need to briefly discuss the role of one radio station in all of this—KSEV, AM 700. The presence of effective local conservative radio forums in the Houston area is wonderful, and KSEV has provided our candidates with an effective vehicle for getting radio advertising to a conservative base. However, the control of the station by a sitting, and very ambitious State Senator casts a long shadow of out-sized influence over our local party and its primary. When he, or one of the other celebrity politicians on that station, steps into a race either during commentary on a show, or as a voice-over in an ad, more than just a politician’s endorsement is involved—it creates an advertising revenue stream for the Senator. The problem created by this blurring of political influence with personal income is hard to distinguish from the problem created by the for-profit slate mailers. Though the ownership of a clearly political radio station by a very political State Senator is not illegal, it can’t be separated from the entire context of the private “pay for play” culture that now exists in our local primary.
Finally, let’s look at the rest of the slate endorsements, and how they are disseminated. As I wrote earlier, there are organizations that conduct independent interviews or reviews of the candidates in the GOP primary, and then publish and mail their endorsements in slates. These organizations include the Houston Realty Business Coalition, The C Club of Houston, United Republicans of Harris County, Heritage Alliance, Raging Elephants.org, several right-to-life organizations, and several Tea Party groups. One or two of these organizations in the past have asked for donations from the endorsed candidates, after the endorsements were announced, to cover some of their mailing expenses, but they are not for-profit advertisers. Additionally, publications that have endorsed in our primary in the past include the Jewish Herald Voice and the Katy Christian Magazine, as well as the notorious Houston Chronicle. It is my understanding that more independent groups may mail and/or publish slates of endorsements in this election cycle. If you know of organizations that I did not name, please send me a comment and identify the organization.
So, in the end, how does a primary voter make sense of all of this? Here is my suggestion—do your homework. First, as I said in an earlier post, don’t base your vote on one of the for-profit slate mailers or radio programs, or on the slate mailer that is skewed toward one consultant’s clients. If you don’t throw those away or ignore them, just use them as a comparison as you do your homework. Instead, go to the websites of the local party to determine who the candidates are, go to the candidates’ websites, and then go to the websites of the organizations who have independently reviewed the candidates. After you have done all of this, and you’ve evaluated both the candidates and the endorsers, make your own list to use at the polling place.
In the meantime, I hope to soon have set up one website, or link to a site, where you can find all of this information—links to websites of candidates, independent organizations and independent publications—sort of a one-stop-shop to make this process as easy as possible. I believe that this is a service the HCRP should have been providing for years, but somebody needs to fill this vacuum to diminish the power of the “pay for play” system, so I guess I’ll start.
Finally, remember that there is no shortcut to being an effective citizen. We’ve tried to find shortcuts for too long by relying on the paid-for advertisers and consultants. It’s time to stop this practice and educate ourselves—and to re-take control of our political system.