Harris County Republican Party: The curse of the slate mailers

Ed Hubbard

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.

Comments

  1. E. Walker says

    Good article. However, I LOL at one thing you wrote. Jared Woodfill is indeed a plaintiff, personal injury lawyer. However, a prominent one, he is not. He couldn’t hold Mark Lanier’s jockstrap.

  2. says

    Amen, Ed. This is a story that needed to be told years ago. These slate mailers have made the Repbublican voters nothing but mindless sheep. Please say it again and again.

  3. Carls Bad says

    Didn’t you Ed Hubbard get endorsed by these very slates when you were running for the Court of Appeals four years ago? Aren’t you bitter because they didn’t endorse you over Jared two years ago?

    I have it on personal authority that Terry–for example–turned down several sizable 20k checks that would have helped GOTV because the candidate was just not the right one for the job.\

    I think Ed needs to focus on growing the party rather than eating our own.

  4. says

    Actually, Carls Bad, I was endorsed by and paid for advertising in two of the slate mailers in the 2008 primary–that experience is what led me to educate myself about how this process has developed over the last two decades. I was approached to advertise again during the 2009-2010 primary season in two of the mailers before endorsements were announced, but refused–I was not bitter, I just didn’t want to participate in that process again.

    There have been a number of stories over the years from Terry, and from others, about his turning down checks, and about him getting candidates (or their supporters) in bidding wars and then keeping both checks. Regardless of the truth of any of these stories, the mere fact that we are discussing these stories, and the type of power they imply, shows how warped this system has become.

    These advertising mailers don’t grow the party, they simply pervert the primary process.

  5. says

    Ed, it’s sad to see how the voters of Harris are being scammed. I am relatively new to this block, but it’s very easy to see, and smell, what’s being heaped upon Harris County voters. I don’t know Jared or any of these people personally, so I will stick to the facts. Houston and Harris County are firmly under control of the Democrats. That leads me to one conclusion: Our “Leaders” are doing a lousy job. The only solution is to pick them off, one by one, and replace them with people we can trust. Not an easy task, but it must be done.

  6. says

    Thank you for your input, Ed. Hotze is also involved in Galveston County. He endorsed a less than conservative judicial candidate, Wayne Mallia who had been a Democrat for over ten years and recently switched parties to keep his job. He runs a STEP Program (Sanctions Toward Effective Probation) which allows him to give felon probationers a slap on the wrist for violations and a few days local jail time and puts them back on the streets saying the state jails are over crowded (as recently as March 28, there were 828 empty beds in the state prison system per TDCJ).

    Several other races were equally bad picks including CD 14, US Senator, HD 23 and HD 24. Too bad some of the really great grass roots candidates don’t have the fundiing available to counteract this assault on the Political Process.

  7. Refounder says

    Conservative Republicans of Harris County and Conservative Republicans of Texas are one and the same. I had to laugh at their mailer which had the wrong date as well as the endorsement of incumbents who have gotten us in trouble here in Texas with an unbalanced budget, tricks and sleight of hand legislative action as well as the now infamous 82nd Super Majority of Conservatives failing in conservative issues. *unless the lobbyist donated”
    Today, Steve Hotze posted on his facebook wall a blogpost from TexasGop that suggests the reason why Sanctuary cities legislation as well as EVerify were not passed was because Arizona is now having problems with their similar legislation. If anyone has read that opinion piece and has insight, please post.
    All I am seeing is social moderates who are only social as long as their bank accounts are lined on the backs of the illegal workers they employ.
    so much for compassionate conservatism.

  8. says

    I’ve known Dr. Hotze for over 25 years, Terry Lowry and Gary Polland for well over 15 years, and I think the brouhaha is fueled in large part by sour grapes from people who didn’t get the endorsements. What they are doing on a large scale is what I have done for twenty years on a small scale. Getting informed, getting involved, and getting the word out. Commissioner Radack is not mentioned in the article, but he is one of the vocal critics of the others, as well as a person who sends out an endorsement list himself (as well as possibly removing signs of candidates he doesn’t like).

    I think that Gary Polland lost much of his credibility in the last two years with his endorsements of Kay Bailey Hutchison for governor in 2010 and Annise Porker in 2011. Regardless of any personal or financial motivation he may have had for these endorsements, there is no way either of them could be considered “the most conservative candidate” in their race. Does that make Gary a bad person? Not any more than it would Barbara Bush, who also endorsed Hutchison and Porker.

    The only time I have heard of people thinking a slate was “official” was when Bob Pelfrey came out with his Harris County GOP PAC with a picture of then party chair Polland on it. As a precinct chair, I see a lot of people coming in to the polls with the link letter or Hotze mailer. I never ask them about them, but I would imagine that they have read the articles included in the Link Letter or the blurb about homosexual activism in the Hotze mailer and decided to vote for the people endorsed therein.

    The county party website (harriscountygop.com) does provide email, telephone, facebook and website links to all candidates that have provided them. That is a good starting point for research into all the candidates. Groups like the Downtown Houston Pachyderm Club give voters the chance to hear and question the candidates as well. The party website now also identifies the endorsements of individual precinct chairs on their website.

    as to some of the comments above:

    Joe – welcome to Houston. The demographics are totally different between the city and the county. City is predominantly dem, county is almost totally GOP. County was carried by Obama in ’08 and Bill White in ’10, but there are only two offices held by Dems county wide other than judicial benches. Those will probably be replaced in November.

    Larry – if you don’t like the picks, make your own list and send it out. I don’t fault Mallia for switching parties. I was told back when we were turning the courthouse in Houston to the GOP that we should ask good judges and other office holders to switch parties. I approached several about doing just that. I don’t think we should penalize them when they do. If there are empty “beds” in TDC it is because some of the judges in Texas have realized that putting folks in TDC for technical violations is not always cost effective.

    Refounder – the failing of the 82nd legislature is because of the weakness of Speaker Strauss and Lt Gov Dewhurst. Both of them need to be replaced.

  9. says

    I personally have had dealings with most of the mentioned endorsers mentioned. Right up front, I admit I have benefited from the present endorser system, but I have also been the victim of it. This year in my race for re-election as Tax Assessor-Collector I received the endorsement of the United Republicans for the very first time. Hotze has endorsed me twice and my opponent twice. This year has endorsed my opponent, a Blakemore client, after endorsing me in 2010. Apparently, Hotze only endorses me when he wants to defeat my opponent, not because he wants to see me win. Terry Lowry has also endorsed me twice and my opponent twice. He endorsed my opponent this year, after endorseing me in 2010, supposedly because he was angry at me for not making a promised phone call to him, but who really knows why. I can tell you in recent years I have not recognized a consistent pattern to Hotze’s endorsement selections, maybe other than they are Blakemore clients; Lowry is in a world of his own. Their claims that that my opponent this year is more conservative and/or more qualified than me, are pure nonsense. My opponent doesn’t have a more conservative record than me and he certainly doesn’t have any educational background or work experience to even make him qualified to serve, much less more qualified. This just leaves one conclusion, it’s all about ego, money or power, otherwise know as politics.

  10. Refounder says

    Mr. Zakes

    It isn’t “sour grapes” as you put it for lack of a candidate being endorsed that is causing the uproar. It’s the cronyism that plays a role. Blakemore’s address was on the slate mailer that was sent out by Dr. Hotze. Pay to play.
    If a candidate is to be endorsed, then let them earn it without having their consultants pay for the endorsement. It’s just wrong. It misleads the voters and allows the cronyism in DC and Austin to continue.

    As for the fault of the Super-majority failing. I agree with you. Straus and Dewhurst. They need to go. So heres a little information on the slate mailer endorsements you might need to know.

    Randy Weber (endorsed and Blakemore client) voted for Straus
    John Davis (endorsed) voted for Straus
    Ryan Sitton (endorsed and Blakemore client)
    Joe Straus (endorsed)
    David Dewhurst (endorsed)

    so while the slate mailers by Hotze may be, in your eyes, acceptable form of practice. You kind of contradicted yourself by stating the Straus and Dewhurst must go and the failure of the 82nd legislative session was their fault.
    Hotze and the Blakemore thugs have once again supported Straus and Dewhurst and the money is ‘a flowin.

  11. Dst133 says

    @tom zakes

    If you’ve known Hotze for 25 years, you should ask him why his organization just sent out a slimy hit piece against Ann Witt, a longtime conservative who is challenging Jim Murphy.

    Ann has thorough documentation for the major conflict of interest and apparent kickbacks Murphy has been getting through his position at Westchase District. Instead of debating this evidence and explaining how somehow Murphy’s actions are in the best interest of voters, the mailer simply calls her a desperate liar and a loser. (a pretty good liar, apparently, because she must have went to a lot of trouble to fake all those documents.)

    Since attacking a fellow staunch conservative with no basis doesn’t seem like a reasonable action for the “Conservative Republicans of Harris County”, it seems logical that they are being “persuaded” to do so in some manner. Ask your buddy about it.