Saturday, March 04, 2006

The calm before the storm

No fist-shaking, no debates, no divisive TV or radio -- will voters snooze through primaries?

Central Texas voters foresee Strayhorn as only realistic alternative to Gov. Perry

Saturday, March 04, 2006

By W. Gardner Selby
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

Grab-your-armrests governor campaigns have historically come down to clangorous TV and radio ads, clashing roadside signs and, occasionally, difference-making debates.

This year? Nothing of the kind so far, leaving in question whether voters will skip Tuesday's primaries, which are missing dramatic statewide contests.

Central Texans quizzed this week sounded ready to look past the primaries, especially if Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman collect sufficient voter signatures after the primaries to reach the November ballot as independents.

Voters generally view GOP Gov. Rick Perry (pitted against three token opponents on Tuesday) as an adequate leader — albeit one who has struggled on education finance — facing unexciting Democratic challengers.

"He has done average," said Kenneth "KC" Willis, of Austin, a GOP voter crediting Perry with keeping the state economically attractive.

Roger Myers, of Llano, said, "Everybody can make improvements, but he's OK."

Democratic candidates Chris Bell, Bob Gammage and Rashad Jafer have made little impression, the sampling suggests, as if their efforts have occurred out of sight and sound.

To be fair, Jafer hasn't campaigned widely, and Bell counts on Harris County (which generated nearly 1 in 10 votes in the 2002 Democratic primary,) as his base.

Gammage has concentrated his closing stops on South Texas and El Paso, Democratic bastions where combative local races could spur turnout.

Turnout in gubernatorial primaries has not proved impressive in recent years, falling from nearly 30 percent of voters in 1990 — when both major parties had hard-fought primaries — to 11 percent in 1998 before edging to 13 percent four years ago, when Democrats Tony Sanchez and Dan Morales waged high-profile campaigns.

Secretary of State Roger Williams projected Friday that about 13 percent of Texas 12.7 million registered voters will again turn out for this year's primary. The projection was based on factors including previous turnout, registration figures and early voting trends.

"Our voter turnout is consistent with 2002 levels," Williams said. "However, the levels are still too low."

Voters this week said they'll tune in if Friedman and Strayhorn make the race.

"It's going to be a crazy race," said Amanda Milani, of Leander, a bookstore employee skipping the primaries. She said neither Bell nor Gammage has gotten word out on substantial platforms. "It's going to be wild."

First stop: Austin

The unscientific attempt to gauge voters started near Bell's Austin office, t west of the University of Texas, and ended some 75 miles west near Gammage's home in Llano (his campaign staff works virtually, without a headquarters).

Barry Smith, of Kyle, a retired state worker, stopped near Bell's office and predicted that Perry will win another term. "He hasn't done enough wrong."

Yet Smith said he won't vote in the primary and might sign a petition enabling Strayhorn to qualify. Perry hasn't given teachers a fair shake, he said.

State employee Lynn Belton, of Austin, paused outside a supermarket to say she'll vote in the GOP primary. Belton called Perry's performance since succeeding George W. Bush in 2000 "not particularly remarkable. I don't think he's done anything poorly either" outside of calling several failed special legislative sessions on education finance.

Belton said she might favor Strayhorn in the fall because the self-styled "one tough grandma" seems less likely to put her future over what's best for Texas. Perry "might have higher ambitions," she said. "He's got the sexy movie-star looks."

Accountant Stephen Fox, of Leander, described himself as usually an early voter. But he's uncertain whether to vote in a primary or to sit tight and consider Strayhorn.

Zacharias Johnson, 21, a senior at Huston-Tillotson University, said he'll vote, maybe for Bell, who's spoken on campus. Johnson said Perry should visit or "at least make an appearance" at the university.

Down the road

A half-hour drive west on Texas 71 inside Opie's Barbecue in Spicewood, Willis followed up on his "average" grade for Perry by questioning Strayhorn's presentation of herself as an outsider to Capitol shenanigans. "She's right in there with the rest of them, asses to elbows, playing politics," he said.

David Johnson, his lunch companion, hailed Perry's cheerleading on economic development and drawing more jobs to the state. He hopes the governor and legislators will create a plan slashing school property taxes. Perry has promised another special session after the primaries. A Gammage sign was stuck in a yard on East Main Street in Llano, but the candidate's nearby front yard was absent advertisement.

Downtown, Lee Duncan said he voted early for Bell. Duncan, 78, a barber for more than half a century, might vote for Friedman in the fall. Perry "is a very poor governor," Duncan said. "I rate him very low," for failing on school finance and catering to donors' interests."

Leah Stewart, toting her 13-month-old, Elisabeth, voted early in Llano. She eeny-miney-mo'd among three challengers to Perry, whom she says has inappropriately taken credit for an economy steered by Bush.

She'll ponder Strayhorn after the primaries. "I don't know if she has all the answers, but she thinks she does."; 445-3644

© 2005 Austin American-Statesman: