The last countywide office that I will examine in my Early Overview series is one that I would normally call the most obscure office in Harris County. That would be the office of Harris County Department of Education trustee. In my years of following local elections, I cannot recall a single instance of even being consciously aware of these races, let alone having an active interest in who was running. But this year is different, both in terms of the profile of the office and the level of interest in the races.
Before I get into that, here's a brief description of what the HCDE does, for those of you who never had any idea.
[The HCDE] is a nonprofit tax-assisted organization dedicated to the equalization of educational opportunity and to the advancement of public schools. HCDE has been serving the county's public schools for 115 years. The organization impacts the educational community through visionary leadership, shared resources and innovative programs.
So why is this year unlike other years for the HCDE elections? Two words: Michael Wolfe, whose ongoing clown show has had the HCDE in the news more in the past year than they've likely been in their previous 114 years of existence combined. Wolfe, who could give Orlando Sanchez a run for the title of Least Hardest-Working County Official, managed to get a pair of his cronies elected in the GOP primary for the two seats that are up this year, knocking off a pair of longtime trustees (including HCDE President Ray Garcia) in the process. One of those cronies is Mike Riddle, husband of State Rep. Debbie "Pit of hell" Riddle; obviously, a great fit for an elected office that administers public education funds.
In doing so, Wolfe's gambit changed the nature of these two races. The Democratic candidates - former CD07 candidate Jim Henley, who recently retired after a long career as a champion debate coach at Lamar Middle School; and special education specialist Debby Kerner - are both well qualified for the positions, but in a race against two longtime incumbents, that would have been somewhat of a wash. I would have expected that kind of race to be of less interest, lost amid the other high-profile races and largely determined by Presidential coattails. But against a couple of unqualified, hostile to education Republican hacks who owe their spots on the ballot to Michael Wolfe, that's a different story. All you need is the money to do a couple of compare-the-candidates mail pieces, with a little of Wolfe's greatest hits thrown in, and you've got a compelling case for the Democrats.
That's an optimistic scenario, but not an unrealistic one. Mentioning the Riddle name on the campaign trail ought to loosen some purse strings for Henley and Kerner, though the competition for contributions is fierce. Wolfe might cooperate by doing something silly and getting HCDE back in the news as a result. Riddle and his fellow Republican candidate Stan Stanart will get their share of love from the Republican base, but supporters of ousted trustees Garcia and Robert Peterson might not be too thrilled about voting for them. In the end, these may be the invisible races for obscure offices that they were originally destined to be, but at least they have a chance of breaking out. That's more than you could have said a year ago.
PREVIOUSLY:Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 29, 2008 to Election 2008