The first thing you have to come to grips with in discussing the race for Harris County Tax Assessor is that Paul Bettencourt got almost 25,000 more votes than George W. Bush did in Harris County in 2004. No other candidate in a contested race did that; indeed, no other candidate in a contested race topped the President. Bettencourt, more than any other candidate on the ballot, was successful at getting people who otherwise voted Democratic to push the button for him.
For that reason, I believe he'll be the hardest candidate for the Democrats to knock off this year. He's already got a history of getting crossover support, which despite Harris County's long-term Republican tilt is likely going to be necessary for survival. While he's been about as visible as his colleagues in countywide executive offices, he doesn't have the baggage that Chuck Rosenthal had and Tommy Thomas has. Despite his outspokenness on various partisan issues and his position of leadership within the Harris County GOP, he has somehow managed to maintain some distance between his party identity and his elected office.
It stands to reason, then, that one of the keys for Diane Trautman if she hopes to beat him in the election is to narrow that gap. If being a Republican is a liability this year, as evidence suggests it is, then she needs to make sure the voters know he's a Republican. In particular, to make sure Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters know that Bettencourt stands against them on matters like voter ID, and that he stands with Dan Patrick on matters of taxation, which in turn means shifting the burden to those who are less well-off. If she can limit him to mostly Republican support, she can work on getting her own crossovers. At the very least, she can begin to hope that the expected Democratic wave will lift her to victory.
Trautman may be able to benefit from some synergy with other campaigns as well. David Mincberg has identified reforming the Harris County Appraisal District (HCAD) as an issue for his campaign. That will give Trautman an opportunity to note that while Bettencourt is forever complaining about appraisal increases for average homeowners, HCAD (and, to be fair, pretty much every other appraisal district in the state) does a terrible job of fairly assessing the value of commercial properties, which in turn lets them shoulder a disporportionately small share of the overall tax burden, and that this is something Bettencourt never talks about. Matters of ethics that will be and have been raised by Mincberg and the other camapaigns will dovetail nicely with her professional background. Having a coordinated campaign for the county will benefit her.
And if I were in charge of that coordinated campaign, I'd do what I could to boost Trautman's profile and ensure her campaign has the resources it needs. Not so much from a strategic viewpoint - of the races discussed so far, I expect this one to drive the discourse the least - but from a public policy perspective. Taking out Bettencourt would reap sizable rewards; it would deal a big blow to the appraisal caps movement, and would put a much friendlier face in charge of Harris County's voter rolls, one who might put more effort into registering voters than purging them. That's got to be worth some kind of investment in her candidacy. I've mentioned this in conversation with various people, but I have no idea if anything will happen along these lines.
As for Bettencourt, I presume he'll keep doing what he's always done, which among other things has consistently gotten him a decent amount of generally positive press. Of the incumbents who have been elected to their office before (Tommy Thomas and Mike Stafford are the others), he has the least baggage and the best justification for simply running on his record. I don't think I'd do anything too fancy if I were him, just keep my name out there and tout my accomplishments as often as possible. If that's going to work for anyone this year, it will work for him.
PREVIOUSLY:Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 08, 2008 to Election 2008