July 06, 2006
More on Luna

First, as Phillip has documented, Vilma Luna's resignation turns this from an uncontested incumbent race to a two-party open seat contest. Good for democracy, not so good for the Democrats, though despite my concern I'd still mark whoever their chosen one is as a fairly solid favorite. Needless to say, though, that's still less than 100%.

According to Paul Burka, the hot rumor is that Luna is going to become a lobbyist, most likely for HillCo Partners. (I heard this independently from another source as well, for what it's worth.) And, as he notes here, Luna's exit strategy is a major screw-you to her soon-to-be-former Democratic colleagues.

By resigning her seat, Luna allows both parties to name candidates to run in the general election. Had she announced that she was moving out of her district (say, to take a lobbying job in Austin), she would have been ineligible to serve -- as was Tom DeLay after his recent "move" from Sugarland to Virginia, which is currently the subject of a federal lawsuit. If Luna had become ineligible, the Democrats still could have named a replacement, but the Republicans would have out of luck. Her choice of exit lines gave the Republicans a huge gift. Was Luna was doing one last good turn for Tom Craddick before heading out the revolving door?

All indications point to "yes". I hope Luna's gonna make herself some money out of this, because she sure isn't going to make any friends this way.

Eddie highlights a possible contender for Luna's seat, while Vince has an overview and some linkage. Meanwhile, CapInside has a longer take on the district and Luna's departure. Click the More link to read it. And stay tuned, this is far from over.

UPDATE: Coverage from the Corpus Christi Caller-Times is here and here.

A Texas House battle that no one had expected erupted Monday when powerful State Rep. Vilma Luna of Corpus Christi sent shock waves through political circles from the Gulf Coast to Austin with an announcement that she's leaving the Texas House at the end of the month.

Two high-profile Democrats wasted no time throwing their names in the ring of contenders for the House District 33 seat while some local forces touted the need for a replacement with a pro-business background and moderate reputation like Luna had developed as one of the two highest-ranking members of the minority party on the lower chamber's leadership team.

Former Nueces County Democratic Chairman Solomon Ortiz Jr. appears to have the inside track going into an abbreviated contest that's expected to be settled at the grassroots level when precinct chairs pick someone to take Luna's place as the party's nominee in the general election for the seat that she's held for the past 11 years. As the son of U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz Sr., who's represented the area in Congress for 24 years, the former county party boss will have a well-entrenched political machine behind his state House campaign.

But Ortiz will face major competition from Danny Noyola Sr. - an activist who appears to have the support of a faction that backed Barbara Canales-Black in a bitter fight against State Senator Juan Hinojosa of McAllen for an open seat in the upper chamber four years ago. Noyola, whose son is a member of the State Democratic Executive Committee, has been in the news in recent weeks as a veteran educator who was forced out of job as principal of Corpus Christi Miller High School and reassigned as vice-principal at Moody High School in a controversial school board decision late last month. The elder Noyola, a former superintendent in the West Oso school district, already has the support of former Texas House member Hugo Berlanga in a bid for the state House that he's expected to make.

Some Corpus Christi political players are promoting the possibility of a bid by local business owner Nelda Martinez for the seat that will open up when Luna steps down officially on July 31. Martinez put an end to former lawmaker Jaime Capelo's state House career when she captured 36 percent of the 2004 Democratic primary vote to force a runoff that she eventually lost to State Rep. Able Herrero in his initial campaign for the HD 34 seat.

Martinez raised a substantial sum of money for the House race two years ago when business interests that back tort reform legislation switched their support to her after Capelo was eliminated in the first round of the race. But Herrero had more support from the Democratic base and won the runoff with 55 percent of the vote. It's unclear at this point if Martinez would be able to qualify as a resident of HD 33 in time to qualify as a candidate for the race.

Unlike two other House districts that are located in Nueces County, HD 33 is contained exclusively within the Corpus Christi city limits and covers the heart of the South Texas coastal town. While President George W. Bush carried the district with 54 percent of the 2004 vote, the Democratic Party's statewide candidates on average had the support of 52 percent of the voters there in the general election that year. Democrats don't appear to be concerned the odds of losing HD 33 in a possible special election before the November vote. But a special election would be the GOP's only chance of wrestling HD 33 away from Democrats in light of the fact that Republicans fielded no one to challenge Luna this year.

While Democratic activists have been upset with Luna in recent years as a result of her ties to the Republican House leadership, there's no denying that the Corpus Christi area will lose significant short-term clout in the lower chamber with the incumbent's early exit. After crossing party lines to support Speaker Tom Craddick in his first bid for the House's top job after the 2002 elections, Luna went from being a B-team player when her own party controlled the lower chamber to one of its most influential members as the House Appropriations Committee vice-chair for more than three years. She not only played a key role in the state budget debate but had significant sway in battle over an expanded business tax and other levies that legislators approved in a special session on school finance this spring.

Luna took some of the steam from her critics when she campaigned for the Democratic national tickert two years ago - and she's had the inherent protection that comes from being a lawyer in a firm run by Corpus Christi lawyer Mikal Watts, who's emerged in recent years as a major political contributor on the state, local and federal levels and one of the world's most successful personal injury lawyers.

The younger Ortiz, who won the county chair's post in 2002 but did not seek re-election this year, had been hinting for the past couple of years that he was seriously considering a race against Luna. Like most county chairs in political hotbeds like Corpus Christi and Nueces County, Ortiz received mixed reviews as the Democratic Party's top local official. As a state House candidate, Ortiz will hope to benefit from the name identification and immediate resources he will have as the son of a longtime congressman. But he will try to avoid inheriting baggage that his father has shouldered lately amid publicity about privately-funded worldwide travel under the auspices of his elected position and association with lobbyists such as former Congressman Tom DeLay's brother, Randy DeLay.

Luna made history as the first Hispanic woman to represent Corpus Christi in the state House after winning a special election to replace 10-year House veteran Eddie Cavazos in 1993. She overcame challenges from a Democratic primary challenger in 1994 and no trouble against Republican opponents in 1994 and 1998. Luna received two-thirds of the 2002 general election vote against Lauro Cuellar after he switched parties in the wake of a failed bid for re-election as Democratic county chair two years before that. There was speculation in 2004 that Luna might try to unseat in a primary race for Congress before she filed for re-election instead.

Luna has held sway in other South Texas House races at the same time she's enjoyed more power than other Democrats in the lower chamber in the budget panel's number two slot, as a member of the Legislative Budget Board and as an appointee to special school finance committees. She drew more anger from Democrats while helping House leaders pass a new congressional map in 2003 as a member of the Redistricting Committee.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 06, 2006 to Election 2006 | TrackBack

Any additional verification needed that Luna was a DINO?

Don't let the door hitcha where the Good Lord splitcha, Vilma.

Posted by: PDiddie on July 6, 2006 7:16 AM

I have a different take. I feel like, actually, its more responsible of Luna to do what she did. It gives her voters a fairer shot, and actually protects Democrats in Texas from being two-faced about the process (Delay = bad, Luna = good).

Yes, a Republican can now run in a district where no one had signed up, but its highly unlikely they win. The Democratic party infrastructure is just that much better in Nueces County -- between the Garcia race, Rep. Herrero, and the countless other local races down-ballot.

If anything, we might get a better feel for the positions of the Democratic replacement candidate b/c he/she must run against someone; that is to say, we might get a better feel of what we can expect from the new representation in HD 33.

Posted by: Phillip Martin on July 6, 2006 11:24 AM

The Libertarians are looking for a candidate as well. The LP organization in Nueces is brand new, but the LP state office has proved that they have some candidate recruitment chops during this election cycle.

Posted by: Robert Howard on July 6, 2006 12:42 PM

Robert - I believe the law as written specifies that parties who nominated their candidates via primary election can select a replacement under these circumstances. As the Libertarian Party does its nominating at its convention, that would seem to exclude it.

As always, I Am Not A Lawyer, so this could be wrong. I'd suggest the LP have someone who is a lawyer give them an opinion before they proceed.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on July 6, 2006 1:11 PM

We rechecked the rules this morning and Libertarians can definitely nominate. The stipulation is that all parties that can nominate candidates for state office may do so in this case. The major party advantage is that if a major party candidate withdraws leaving only non-major nominees, then the majors can renominate.

Posted by: [email protected] on July 6, 2006 2:16 PM

Rock - OK then. Good luck in finding a suitable candidate.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on July 6, 2006 3:36 PM