The City

Are the Republicans Blowing It at the Courthouse?

My favorite Republican “insider” was telling me for the third time in an hour that I didn’t know what I was talking about.

“You’re missing the point,” he said, wagging his half-full beer mug in my face. “Whittington doesn’t have to be Mr. Charisma to beat Sterrett. Sterrett’s in trouble. The bail bond scandal, the Parkland hospital thing, a possible bond vote for jail improvements. He’s gone.

“All John has to do is keep his mouth shut and he’s a shoo-in.”

I agreed with him that the more Whittington kept his mouth shut, the better off he would be. “But you’re missing the point,” I countered. “I’m not saying the Republicans can’t put together a good challenge for Sterrett. I’m just wondering whether Whittington’s the man to pull it off.”

What I was trying to say – what a lot of Republicans have been telling me lately – is the GOP has blown it again.

One diehard Republican – the kind of guy who goes to all the fundraisers, who canvasses for Republican candidates he doesn’t even know, who votes a straight ticket every time – put it this way: “For years we’ve been talking about taking the courthouse. Now we have the chance. For the first time in years, the judge (Sterrett) is vulnerable.

“So what do we do? We put up a guy like Whittington, a guy I’m even going to have trouble voting for. I like John, but even if he could win, I don’t know that I’d want him running the county.”

Just how John Whittington, the non-descript Republican commissioner with the shiny green suits and the burr haircut, became the Republicans’ point man in this alleged frontal attack on the courthouse is not clear, but it probably has something to do with it being “his turn.” Republicans in Dallas are very big on that.

For five years, Whittington has been the lone Republican on the five-man county commissioners court. And if he hasn’t served wisely, he has served well. Generally, he’s managed to salvage enough scraps of Democratic pork to keep the roads paved in his heavily Republican Precinct 1. And while the Republicans have more dynamic young men on the scene (State Rep. Ray Hutchison, for example), Whittington was “allowed” to run. As one observer put it, “He’d paid his dues at the courthouse, and it was his turn.”

The decision to make a run at a very entrenched Lew Sterrett was Whittington’s and Whittington’s alone. The county GOP party honchos took an “if-that’s-what-he-wants-to-do-that’s-fine-with-us” attitude about his candidacy. “It was completely my decision,” he says proudly. “No one asked me to run.” That can be taken two ways.

What is miffing a lot of Republicans about Whittington is his apparent unwillingness – or inability – to launch a tough rhetorical assault on Sterrett. “He’s brother-in-lawing with him,” says my diehard Republican. “He seems afraid to attack. What he doesn’t realize is that if he doesn’t speak up and get after Sterrett, no one’s even going to notice him. People have to be given a big reason to vote against Sterrett.”

About all Whittington will say about his opponent at this point is, “I feel that, ah, he no longer represents the majority of the people in dealing with today’s problems.” Why aren’t you slashing a little harder at Sterrett? I asked.

“I think political campaigns are too long and I personally object to nine months of criticism and complaints about your opponent. I may be wrong, but I feel the public shares this view with me.

“I do feel as the campaign progresses it will become my responsibility to be more outspoken.”

“Nice guys finish last,” says my diehard Republican.

Beyond his timidity, Whittington has deeper problems. Anyone chal-lenging a political institution like Lew Sterrett had better be armed with big money and big issues. At this point, Whittington has neither.

On the issues, Whittington is considerably less than specific or inspiring. I asked him about the bail bond scandal and to what extent he blamed Sterrett for the problem.

“Uh, let me put it this way. He’s been there for 25 years. He’s had the votes but he hasn’t done anything as far as I can see . . .”

What should he have done?

“Well, even when I was there as a commissioner, I considered calling the sheriff to come over and meet with us and the auditor so that we could give him our support and assistance in addressing the problem.” So that’s what he should have done?

“Something like that, yes.”

On the woes at Parkland Hospital: “First, you have to identify your problem. They’re losing patients and staff out there. I think we ought to appoint a task force with representatives from the commissioners court, the Parkland board, the board of trustees of the Southwest [sic] Medical Foundation and from the UT board of regents.

“These people ought to sit down and have the staff there give them, uh, let’s say, an analysis of the facts of the problem. And then, we ought to address ourselves to the problem of how to turn that around. I think the key to it is to gain the confidence of a broad group of physicians so that they’d start bringing their patients there.” Oh.

Money-wise, Whittington also has some troubles. Most agree a minimum of $50,000 is needed to make a serious run at a popular incumbent like Sterrett. With only two months to election, Whittingon has raised less than half that, saying something about “I’m very pleased with the way small contributors have come through.” Yeah, but what about the big money?

“I plan to go after that in the next couple months before the election,” Whittington says, blithely. But many think he may be too late to get the big bucks. And if Whittington does not have money to buy TV and radio time – lots of it – his chances are slim to none against a well-known name like Sterrett.

Because Sterrett will have money – as much as he wants. Not that he needs much. After 25 years of public life, Sterrett doesn’t really need to spend money building his profile in a campaign. “People will pull the lever by his name before they realize what they’ve done,” says one Democrat who’s worked in a few Sterrett campaigns. “The man’s not just a candidate. He’s an institution – like Republic bank or something.”

To boot, Sterrett has the considerable coattails of incumbent Democratic Governor Dolph Briscoe to latch onto; Whittington, on the other hand, can expect little or no help from GOP gubernatorial candidate Jim Granberry. (Indeed, many feel Briscoe is so popular he may well carry Dallas County this fall. That hasn’t happened since the days of John Connally.)

So Whittington starts with two strikes against him. To have a fighting chance, he not only needs to sell voters on himself, he must give people a good reason for voting against a man who’s been judge of this county as long as most of us can remember.

That’s going to be hard, not simply because Whittington lacks money and moxie, but because even while on the commissioners court, Whit-tington rarely fought the judge. As much as he might want voters to see him as an alternative to Sterrett, the fact remains that a good portion of the time, he voted with Sterrett.

“That is a problem,” he admits. “But I would only ask that you remember the times I voted against him.” Like what?

“Well, for example, I opposed the judge on making Texas Stadium a wet area.” Big deal, says my diehard Republican.

In fairness, Whittington’s consistent support of the Sterrett administration while on the commissioners court was a matter of sheer political survival. Whittington had to mind his P’s and Q’s and stay with Ster-rett much of the time to insure that the judge wouldn’t cut off appropriations and such for his precinct.

But instead of making some political hay out of his underdog status on the court, Whittington continues to play Mr. Nice Guy.

“Whittington’s so nice he probably won’t even vote for himself,” says a longtime operative in courthouse politics. “I don’t think he really thinks he can win.”

I posed the question to Whittington. “I’d say my chances are about 50-50,” he shot back without blinking. “I’m either right or I’m wrong and that comes out to 50-50.”

What hurts most, according to many Republicans on the inside, is that 1974 may be the last chance the GOP will have to make inroads at the courthouse for many years. Word has it Sterrett’s game plan once he’s re-elected is to retire in mid-term and hand the mantle to Democratic commissioner Roy Orr. (A vacancy in the judge’s chair in mid-term would be filled by a vote of the commissioners court. Unquestionably, if Sterrett did retire, he would have the votes to railroad Orr in.)

Once Orr is in, the Democrats can expect to retain their hold on the courthouse perhaps for another quarter century.

What’s In A Name?

Well, you can’t win ’em all. Take the Dallas area campaign for Re-publican gubernatorial hopeful Jim Granberry. Three fund raising functions were held for Granberry this past summer, each inviting GOP supporters by Mailgram.

The first invitation was fine until it exhorted invitees to come meet candidate “Jim Gramberry.” The second invitation got Granberry’s name straight, but captioned Dallas Granberry campaign head Fred Zeder’s name “Frank Zeder.”

An invitation to a third affair corrected the error in Zeder’s first name, but spelled his last name “Veder.”

Said one Republican, “I guess this is going to continue to happen until we get to know each other better.”

Sometimes Justice

Not that anybody would accuse city traffic courts of being a place where justice is meted out, but the case of Dallas school board trustee Robert Medrano is ridiculous.

One day this summer our City Hall observer happened by the municipal court of Judge Berlaind Brashear and spied Medrano sitting inside awaiting trial. One by one, several other offenders proclaimed their innocence, and after hearing testimony from arresting officers, Judge Brashear routinely found the defendants guilty. Such is the wellestablished routine in Brashear’s court, apparently, unless you’re a school board trustee.

An arresting officer testified that he stopped Medrano late one night for speeding and running a red light. Two traffic citations were issued. Medrano stepped before the court, questioned the arresting officer, and later took the stand himself, not bothering to deny the charges.

Instead of the usual, “I find you guilty of . . .” routine, Brashear leaned forward and said, “Come here, Robert.” Medrano did, and what he got was a bit of leniency few people in traffic court enjoy. Brashear sent Medrano to traffic school which means the tickets were dismissed. And heaven knows, Medrano needs that driver education. In less than four years, Medrano has been convicted seven times for speeding, once for running a red light, once for disregarding a flashing yellow light and has been involved in two accidents.


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