Friday, September 23, 2011

TX-SEN: A Look Inside the Mind of Tom Leppert

Originally published in Red Racing Horses.

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Wednesday, PublicPolicyPolling released new numbers on the Texas Senate race. The biggest headline was unsurprising- all three leading contenders for the nomination lead likely Democratic nominee Ricardo Sanchez in the general election by solid margins (the poll also tested Democrat and former Rep. Chet Edwards; he is more formidable but unlikely to run). However, more important is name recognition. As Tom Jensen explains,
None of these candidates, with the exception of Dewhurst, are particularly well known at this point. Even Dewhurst is known to only 60% of voters and they break down 28% favorable and 32% unfavorable, unimpressive numbers that suggest he isn't exactly a juggernaut.  None of the other folks we tested hit even 40% name recognition- Edwards is known to 38% of voters, Leppert to 32%, Sanchez to 31%, and Cruz to only 29%.
The anonymity of the candidates has several implications: it means there's plenty of room for someone else to get into the race and it also means that the race is pretty fluid
What does this mean for the race? Any candidate can surge to the top of the pack. Tom Leppert is looking to be that candidate.

The Jobs Plan

Checking out his campaign website, it is clear that Tom Leppert wants you to know that he is a job creator.  "Jobs, jobs, jobs," has become a mantra of every candidate and their brother. However, Tom Leppert is doing it with a twist. Deriding the culture of "seven-second sound bites" in politics, he has released a thorough and comprehensive jobs plan that covers every topic vaguely relevant to the economy. Among, but not limited to, other highlights:
  • Repeal the Davis-Bacon Act
  • Pass a National Right to Work Act
  • Abolish death and gift taxes
  • Institute zero-based budgeting
  • Audit the Federal Reserve
  • Oppose Agenda 21 of the UN
  • Institute sunset laws
  • Establish biennial funding
In other words, Leppert has a policy on practically any problem you can think of. And, if you think of something that the campaign has not yet addressed, he is more than happy to go on the record.

Isn't this a bit dangerous? He is very specific on entitlement reform in his plan. For comparison, Rick Perry has been actively discussing Social Security during recent debates, and his poll numbers may be coming down from the sky in response. Leppert is unfazed.

"We were told the idea of first coming up with a plan that is really detailed and comprehensive, that that was the wrong thing to do," he said during a recent interview. "In politics you know you shouldn’t write anything down. Question that I would ask is, with politicians that have done that, where has it gotten us? The reality is, we live by seven second sound bites and we turn away from issues because we don’t want to talk about it. That doesn't address any of the issues that we've got in this nation."

There is a school of thought in politics that being straightforward to the electorate is the path to victory; we most recently saw that in Tim Pawlenty and his "time for truth." However, Tim Pawlenty dropped out, for lack of traction in the race. Another presidential candidate infamous for having a lack of restraint when answering questions is former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson; his campaign is struggling to register in opinion polls. However, Leppert will not back down.

"We need different people and a different approach. People deserve to know where you stand and what you're doing. And I think people, at least today, are in support of having an adult to talk to them and not have somebody continue to play games with them."

Still, Leppert is not a completely unconventional candidate. 

The War Chest 

The Leppert campaign, to follow through on its thorough jobs plan, has to win an election. In populous Texas, that takes a lot of money.

The Leppert campaign raised $1.1 million during the first quarter and $750,000 during the second. Leppert himself has already contributed $2 million of his own money to the campaign. What should we expect moving forward?

"We're going to continue to push forward in the way that we have done." No specific fundraising goal disclosed. "We have, again, not including the Lieutenant Governor, but everyone else, a 3:1 or 4:1 [cash] advantage."

As of June 30th the campaign had $3.4 million cash on hand. Lt. Governor Dewhurst, who only recently officially entered the race, has not released fundraising numbers. Ted Cruz has almost $1.6 million cash on hand, and Elizabeth Ames Jones trails much further behind. One wildcard is Rep. Michael McCaul, the wealthiest Congressman in the country who is considering his own bid. He has a safe seat in Congress, but if he seeks a promotion all of the calculus in the fundraising war is thrown off by a second candidate with the ability to self-fund.

The Base

Tom Leppert's first and only elected office was his term as Mayor of Dallas, and capitalizing on that is a big part of the campaign's victory calculus.

Unlike the other candidates, Leppert is building from a specific geographic base. It is this fact which bolsters his fundraising (a former business executive himself, many in Dallas' business community support the Leppert campaign) and turns up numerous endorsements in the DFW metroplex. It also provides a handy boon to his name recognition. Voters in north Texas know his name from his tenure as Mayor of the largest city in the region, giving him a natural edge in an area filled with primary voters.

The Record

Leppert is framing himself as more of a serious policy-maker than a politician of the moment; think of something like a Texan Mitch Daniels and you would be headed in the right direction.

Comparing Leppert to the Indiana Governor is a good way to look at his record. He won a contested race for Mayor of Dallas in 2007 after a successful career in business. Leppert then addressed some basic, nonpartisan issues. After years of talk, Leppert increased the size of the Dallas police force by 20%, in turn producing staggering drops in crime, by offsetting the cost with a reciprocal cut in the number of civilian employees. He privatized the zoo to cut costs to the budget. However, the candidate cites intangibles as the primary success of his time as Mayor.

"When I walked in Dallas was known as a dysfunctional government, and now that is no longer the case," Leppert said. "People actually worked together, we got things done...we got people to work together on the key issues and I think we made a real difference. And people looked at the government in a different way, and looked at it as someone who knew that it was their money, not as the government's money... and I think they were more confident in it."

At the same time, some conservatives have attacked his time as Mayor. One common attack is a 1% tax increase passed at the start of his administration. 

"I think everybody in Dallas understands where I stand on taxes, and they understand that nobody fought as hard, made as clear of arguments and more importantly, put a budget in place that didn't need tax increases," Leppert said. "Everybody in Dallas knows how hard I fought. When I walked in the people of Dallas were told they were going to get a 6% increase on their taxes because of a bond program that was passed before I got there."

Subsequent budgets relied on spending cuts, rather than tax increases, to balance the books. Either way, Leppert looks at his time in office holistically.

"When I first walked into Dallas, the question was 'How do you get anything done in Dallas?' When I left, the question was, 'What else can we do?'"

The Rest of the Field

The field has settled since my first article on this race. The four prominent candidates left in the field are Tom Leppert, Elizabeth Ames Jones, Ted Cruz and David Dewhurst.

Jones, a Railroad Commissioner, is having significant difficulty fundraising; it is unclear how long she can last with much of the race to be determined in expensive advertising wars. 

Ted Cruz's fundraising is stronger. He quickly consolidated support from a handful of prominent conservative Senators and activist outfits (Jim DeMint, Club for Growth, and FreedomWorks all support his campaign). Like Leppert and Jones he is largely unknown by the primary electorate, but his early positioning is strong.

Leppert does not directly comment about Cruz when asked about the candidate. Instead, he cited his cash advantage and North Texas base as his strengths as a candidate.

"When we get one-on-one with anybody, I will take those odds any day of the week," Leppert said. "Where we stand there's a very very very very very very [yes, the exact number was six] good chance of being in the runoff."

The candidates are focusing on the runoff, not victory outright. With four strong candidates in the race and potentially a fifth on the horizon, the voters' allegiances will be split many ways. Like the other candidates, Leppert is primarily focusing his fire on Dewhurst. Everybody knows Dewhurst has the strongest name recognition, solid fundraising on his own accord, and the ability to self-fund when it comes time to take to the airwaves.  In this regard, Cruz and Leppert are running very similar campaigns: both are focusing on building a name for themselves to make it into a runoff with the Lieutenant Governor and contrast their own records with his. Expect lots of accusations of "He's a career politician!" to head Dewhurst's way.

Fired Up 

How can Tom Leppert stand out from this crowded field?

"A lot of people, they're standing up and saying, 'This is the guy who actually did what he said what he was going to do,' which you usually don't see. And somebody that understands business, ran businesses, actually creates jobs, and with that we'll go out in the media and make sure we get out in the media with that message across the state."

That sounds nice, and Leppert is eminently reasonable whenever you speak with him. However, I can't help but recall another part of our interview.

Wedged near the end of his jobs plan is a note about strengthening disclosure requirements for candidates and elected officials. As Mayor of Dallas, Leppert pushed a major ethics reform bill through city council. What prompted the interest in transparency, a topic that hardly ever gets play beyond a quick sound bite?

"Because I think they are the right issues. You have the politicians in Washington telling you we have these disclosure requirements. I filled one out; they're meaningless!" Exasperated, Leppert asked, "How can people have confidence with what's happening in Washington if you continue to play that game?"

When I attended a Tea Party forum in Clear Lake in August, a couple of friends with me hardly noticed Leppert. He gave solid answers that hit all of the right bases, but they hadn't felt a spark. That wasn't the case here; Leppert, in his answer, betrayed a passion and intensity that sometimes goes unseen. For all of the talk of bases and fundraising, politics is ultimately a job of persuasion. With serious ideas and a bit of passion, Leppert is poised to make a mark in this race.

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