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June 2nd, 2005:

Combs and Staples make their moves

Man, KBH’s much-awaited announcement is still more than two weeks away, and dominoes are falling already. We’ll start with Ag Commish Susan Combs, who has formally announced that she’s running for Comptroller.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs officially opened her campaign for state comptroller today without waiting for incumbent Carole Keeton Strayhorn to make her next move.

Strayhorn has been eyeing a run for governor in next year’s elections. Combs and Stayhorn are Republicans, as is Gov. Rick Perry, who plans to seek re-election.

Combs, a former state legislator before her 1998 election as agriculture commissioner, said she expects an open seat for the comptroller’s office next year based on her previous discussions with Strayhorn.

“She has been aware that I was running for this office,” Combs said. “I’m in the race to stay. I’m in the race to win.”

Strayhorn would not speculate on her political plans.

[…]

Strayhorn remains coy about her own political future.

“The people of Texas are asking her to run for governor, and she is listening,” [Strayhorn spokesman Mark] Sanders said.

As is the case with the KBH and CKS Governor speculation, Combs-for-Comptroller has been talked about for months, so this is no surprise. Combs outpolled everybody (even Rick Perry) except Strayhorn in 2002, so she’ll be a heavy favorite to win. More to the point, this will force CKS’ hand to an extent, since Combs would also be a good favorite to win a primary battle between the two women. One scenario I’ve heard is Strayhorn running for Lt. Gov. in the event David Dewhurst makes a break for the Senate. Assuming she survived a primary there, Strayhorn could make a pretty compelling case for crossover support by continuing to run against, and promising to continue to be a counterweight against, Rick Perry.

Domino Number Two is State Sen. Todd Staples, who has announced his intent to replace Combs.

Subsequent to Combs’ announcement, state Sen. Todd Staples, R- Palestine, declared his intent to run for agriculture commissioner.

Staples has an agricultural economics degree from Texas A&M. He is rancher and real estate appraiser.

Staples has served in the House and was recently elected to a second term in the Senate. He is a former mayor pro tempore of Palestine.

Staples has his GOP bonafides in order, as he was a leader in the redistricting legislation of 2003 and the Senate sponsor of the Double Secret Illegal anti-gay marriage HJR6 this session. He’s picked up the endorsement of State Rep. David Swinford, who had previously been rumored to be interested in the Ag Commish job. And last but certainly not least, he has very good hair.

Staples’ candidacy would leave his Senate seat open, which is a fairly rare commodity. His district is pretty solidly Republican, but an open seat is an open seat. Max Sandlin isn’t doing much these days; maybe someone should give him a call and make a pitch about Senate District 3.

Thanks to Karl-T for the heads-up. More of this is sure to come soon, including (one hopes) some Democratic announcements for these offices. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: The Chron runs down various candidate possibilities.

RIP, George Mikan

George Mikan, the original dominating big man of the NBA, who led the then-Minneapolis Lakers to five titles in six years, died today just shy of his 81st birthday.

A superstar decades before the term existed, Mikan was the first big man to dominate the sport. No one before had seen a 6-foot-10 player with his agility, competitiveness and skill.

When the Minneapolis Lakers came to New York in December, 1949, the marquee at Madison Square Garden read “Geo. Mikan vs. the Knicks.”

“He literally carried the league,” Boston Celtics great Bob Cousy said. “He gave us recognition and acceptance when we were at the bottom of the totem pole in professional sports. He transcended the game. People came to see him as much as they came to see the game.”

College basketball instituted the goaltending rule because of him, and the NBA doubled the width of the free throw lane. Slowdown tactics used against him — his 1950 Lakers lost 19-18 to the Fort Wayne Pistons in the lowest-scoring game in NBA history — eventually led to the 24-second shot clock.

[…]

A statue of Mikan taking his trademark hook shot was dedicated at the Target Center in Minneapolis in April 2001 at halftime of a Timberwolves-Lakers game.

“We were in hiatus a long time, the old-timers,” Mikan said at the time. “They forgot about us. They don’t go back to our NBA days.”

Timberwolves star and 2004 MVP Kevin Garnett knew of Mikan, though.

“When I think about George Mikan, I skip all the Wilt Chamberlains and Kareem Abdul-Jabbars and I call him the ‘The Original Big Man,”‘ Garnett said. “Without George Mikan, there would be no up-and-unders, no jump hooks, and there would be no label of the big man.”

[…]

Mikan coached the Lakers for part of the 1957-58 season, and was commissioner of the American Basketball Association in 1967, introducing the 3-point line and the distinctive red, white and blue ball.

In terms of dominance and elevating his sport in the public eye, Mikan was to the NBA as Babe Ruth was to Major League Baseball. Rest in peace, George Mikan.

Congrats to Byron

Congratulations to Byron LaMasters, founding father of the Burnt Orange Report, for graduating college and landing a job. I know I’m not alone in saying that I’ll miss his voice on BOR (he’ll still post occasionally), but he’s leaving the place in good hands, so have no fear. Austin’s loss is Fort Worth’s gain. Knock ’em dead, Byron!

Courage in CD21?

Matt reports a rumor from the 21nd Congressional District.

The buzz is that John Courage may challenge Lamar Smith again. Courage is a San Antonio teacher and former challenger to Smith in 2002. In 2002 Smith received 73% of the vote and raised over $700,000 compared to Courage’s 25% and a little over $150,000. Some view this as a long shot seat, and I couldn’t disagree more.

Last year Rhett Smith garnered 35% of the vote and was only 6,000 votes away from winning Austin. This is a candidate that was originally running for President and after his loss decided to run for the Mayor of San Antonio.

I agree with Matt’s assessment of CD21. I think it’s within reach, and I know there’s talk about making it a target next year. Rhett Smith is a perennial office-seeker, and served as little more than a placeholder on the 2004 ballot. Lamar Smith essentially ran unopposed, and he got a relatively paltry 61.5% of the vote while nearly losing the Travis County portion of his district. A real candidate, with a reason to vote for him or her plus a decent bankroll, can make a race of this.

Is John Courage that candidate? He’s affiliated with a good-government group called Citizens for Ethical Government – San Antonio, which should fit nicely into any campaign narrative he’d be likely to take against DeLay lapdog Smith. A little Googling around suggests to me that he ran a fairly decent campaign in mostly hostile territory against an incumbent who had no shame about exploiting 9/11 for his own crass purposes. The Secretary of State district report on CD21 in 2002 had the statewide split at 29.2D/70.8R, implying Courage underperformed slightly in 2002 (the 2004 split was 36.2/63.8, meaning Smith underperformed last year). So in short, I don’t know for certain. But what I’ve read about him so far I’ve liked, so if John Courage goes for a rematch in 2006, I’ll be happy to support him. We’ll see what happens.

The judicial pay raise flap

There’s apparently some lingering bad blood from the past legislative session between State Rep. Terry Keel and State Sens. Robert Duncan and Rodney Ellis. Duncan was championing a bill to give a raise in pay to state judges, while Keel was trying to pass a bill to change the system in which indigent defendants in capital murder cases get court-appointed attorneys. Keel claims that Duncan and Ellis promised to support his bill in the Senate in return for Keel’s support of the pay raise bill in the House, but then reneged after Ellis claimed Keel’s bill would lower standards for defense attorneys enacted in 2001. Duncan and Ellis deny the charge.

There’s coverage of the story here, here, and here. Rick Casey had a column yesterday which reported Keel’s claim that Texas State Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson threatened to help recruit opponents for himself and Ellis as a result of this squabble (Ellis says Jefferson said no such thing to him). One presumes Jefferson would have been referring to a primary challenger for Keel, unless he has more power in the Democratic Party that I’d have thought.

I’m kind of amazed that something as non-ideological as this would generate such heat, but I suppose that’s the nature of the end of the session. Speaking as the son of a former judge, though, I’m sorry to see that the pay raise, which would have been the first in six years, died in this battle. Judges make a good living, but after six years of inflation almost any non-CEO salary can feel a little squeezed. It’s tough having your compensation depend entirely on factors outside your control, and as Sen. Duncan said, it’s sure to make private practice a lot more tempting to the more talented jurists. It’s not clear to me from these stories how this was supposed to be paid for, but now it doesn’t matter. Maybe next session, whenever that is.

Fire destroys Oasis restaurant

The Oasis restaurant, an Austin landmark that sits on a cliff overlooking Lake Travis, burned down last night after an apparent lightning strike.

The main three-story building, with its treehouse-like decks jutting along a 450-foot cliff overlooking the lake, was badly damaged, Hudson Bend Fire Chief Bruce Watson said. About 25 of the 40 decks, the restaurant’s main entrance and a courtyard were destroyed. Damage estimates topped $1 million.

[…]

Hailed as one of Texas’ top 10 tourist attractions, the Oasis drew an average of a million customers annually from all 50 states and several other countries. [Owner Beau] Theriot said he has seen people wearing Oasis T-shirts while traveling in Mexico City, Bangkok and Paris.

The restaurant hosted weddings, receptions and countless company parties. It also featured Sunday night salsa dancing and live music. Theriot likened it to a cruise-ship atmosphere.

On a given night, nearly 2,000 customers would pack the place, with crowds outside often waiting up to a couple of hours for a table.

“The Oasis is an icon of all the fun and entertainment and joy and life on Lake Travis,” said Sherrie Hitt, one of dozens of loyal patrons who came to the lake early Wednesday to see the devastation. She stood near Mansfield Dam, peering across Lake Travis through binoculars.

Theriot had opened his first restaurant in 1973 when he was 26: the Brownstone Restaurant, which combined his love of food and antiques. He later opened his own gallery and launched Cafe Adobe in Houston’s eclectic Montrose neighborhood.

He came to Lake Travis to build a weekend home. But after watching several sunsets from the edge of a nearby cliff, he decided he should build a restaurant there. Theriot said he bought the 500-acre tract for $1.5 million in 1979 with no particular plan.

By 1982, he had completed renovation of the ramshackle ranch house, the only structure on the property. Theriot said his initial plan was to offer a simple menu of hamburgers and beer to lake visitors.

After a couple of years, he decided to expand. He began adding decks on the side of the cliff, offering more visitors a view of sunsets over the nearby hills. Soon after it opened, restaurant workers began a tradition that continued through Tuesday: the ringing of a sunset bell followed by a standing ovation.

Theriot kept adding decks and expanded the menu to include Mexican cuisine, salads and other entrees.

I’ve eaten at the Oasis a few times. I can’t say that I ever thought all that much of the food, but the view really is spectacular. There’s nothing quite like it to cap off a day at the lake. I wish Beau Theriot and his employees well as they rebuild.

When giant inflatable gorillas attack

Now this is what I call an effective bit of political theater.

LAFAYETTE — A 28-foot gorilla has begun stalking some of Louisiana’s Republican congressman, starting Tuesday by menacing U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany Jr.’s office in Lafayette’s federal courthouse.

While it wasn’t granting interviews, the bright red inflated gorilla did carry a sign stating its demand: “Don’t monkey around with my Social Security. Say no to $131,458 benefit cut.”

The mega-monkey spent part of the day camped out across from the courthouse at the behest of the Louisiana United to Protect Social Security group, which is calling for Boustany, R-Lafayette, to take a stand against the Republican thinking on reforming Social Security.

[…]

Louisiana United spokesman Ben Vaught said the inflatable represents the “800-pound gorilla” in the Social Security debate: the $131,458 that a study released by the group estimates Louisiana residents would individually lose in Social Security benefits over the course of their lifetimes under a proposal by President Bush.

Awesome. I say any opportunity to introduce a giant inflatable gorilla into the discourse should be taken. Besides, I’m pretty sure the Lege passed a resolution this session naming the gorilla the Official Giant Inflatable Animal of the State of Texas. Pretty darned good message, too.

Via Josh and Jesse Lee. And though I couldn’t think of a clever way to work it in before now, I feel this post wouldn’t be complete without a link to the Real Men of Genius salute to Mister Giant Pink Inflatable Gorilla Maker.