A Coming-Out Party for the Democratic Gubernatorial Candidates

Going into tonight’s statewide TV/radio debate between the leading Democratic primary candidates for governor, the line was that former Houston Mayor Bill White would play things cautiously, while businessman Farouk Shami would be spoiling for a fight. That’s not exactly the way things played out, though. Both candidates took full advantage of the opportunity to introduce themselves to an electorate that’s been focused til now mainly on the GOP race. Shami proved himself an earnest if eccentric novelty act, no real threat to the frontrunner. And White, for his part, lived up to his advance billing as a serious, carefully spoken centrist–a business-oriented Democrat who could have a lot of appeal to Texas moderates and independents in the general election.

Produced by KERA in partnership with CBS 11 and TXA 21, the live, hour-long debate at the CBS/TXA studios in Fort Worth was for the most part a gentlemanly affair, with little of the hard-punching acrimony that marked the two previous Republican debates.

Shami, a self-made guy who was born in Palestine and still speaks with a thick Middle Eastern accent, is running in a nutshell on his success creating jobs as a Houston hair-products magnate. “When I’m governor, everyone’s going to go to work,” he declared tonight. But beyond vowing to create more “green” employment in the solar energy field, he never really said exactly how he’d accomplish this. His mantra: “The governor is the CEO, the leader, the team builder, he increases revenue. … And I’ve been a CEO.”

White, on the other hand, backed up his positions with great specificity, pounding home his business experience–he’s been involved in energy, construction, and real estate over the years–and his three terms as a popular and generally successful big-city mayor. 

In Houston, for example, he increased access to affordable health care, White said. He cut taxes and improved the city’s bond rating.  And he implemented a system to weed out undocumented workers, he said (though he’d be loathe to force the state to mandate the same).

The two candidates did have their differences. Shami called for a moratorium on the death penalty, for instance, saying, “We have killed lots of innocent people in the state of Texas.” White ripped Gov. Rick Perry over his handling of the Todd Willingham case but disagreed on the need for a moratorium, contending that one would dishonor victims and juries. “By and large,” he said, “this is a just system.” 

The two also clashed over natural gas, Shami advocating a drilling moratorium because of excessive benzene levels found at some wells. “Human life is more precious than digging for gas and oil,” he said during a post-debate news conference. Again White disagreed, saying he’d prefer to strictly enforce the rules on the books: “We will go after particular sources, but not condemn an entire vital industry.”

Going into tonight’s dust-up, a recent Rasmussen Report showed White losing to all three Republican candidates: to Kay Bailey Hutchison by 15 points, to Rick Perry by nine, and (even) to Debra Medina, by three. It will be interesting to see how those results might change, now that many voters statewide have had their first real look at the former mayor.

With the tea-party movement seemingly on the rise, are Texans looking for a sober, come-let-us-reason-together type? Houston “City Hall was acrimonious before I was mayor,” White said tonight. “I know how to bring people together, to treat every view with respect. We can find common ground.”

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