Texas Democratic Trust

Austin American-Statesman

Democratic group lays groundwork for House change
Operative plays key role in helping party pick up seats, oust speaker.

By Jason Embry
Tuesday, January 13, 2009

If Republican Tom Craddick ever makes a list of people to blame for the fact that his tenure as Texas House speaker officially ends today, he should include a Washington-based operative who is leading the effort to remake the Democratic Party in Texas.

Matt Angle leads the Texas Democratic Trust, which since 2005 has poured millions of dollars into efforts to increase the staff of the state party and related groups, find credible candidates and pinpoint voters who might be sympathetic to the cause. The 87-63 majority that Republicans enjoyed in the Texas House in 2005 has shrunk to 76-74.

The Democratic surge helped cripple the speakership of Craddick. Republicans loyal to Craddick were replaced by Democrats who wouldn't support him, and some of the remaining Republicans blamed the speaker for their smaller majority. A majority of Democrats followed the lead of 11 Republicans and pledged support to the GOP's Joe Straus. The formal vote on a speaker will occur shortly after the Legislature convenes at noon today.

Angle and others associated with the trust say Democratic candidates deserve the most credit for the party's gains in the House. Other organizations, such as Annie's List, which supports female candidates who favor abortion rights, played key roles. (In Central Texas, Annie's List supported the election of Diana Maldonado of Round Rock and the re-election of Valinda Bolton of Austin, for example.) But the Democratic Trust provided crucial dollars, research and ideas, especially considering that six Democrats won Republican House seats in 2006 and 2008 by fewer than 1,000 votes.

"There are a lot of people who disagree with Matt Angle," said Harold Cook, a consultant who has worked for the trust. "But I'm not sure anyone could look you in the eye and say Matt Angle doesn't know exactly what he's doing. Because he does."

Fred Baron, a Dallas trial lawyer who died in October, founded the trust and provided most of its early funding. Of the nearly $8 million that the trust raised between July 2005 and November 2008, $5 million came from Baron. Lisa Blue, Baron's widow, is committed to helping the trust "complete its mission" by donating and finding new donors, Angle said.

As director of the trust, Angle, a longtime aide to former U.S. Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, has final say over how to spend the money. The trust usually distributes it to a few key groups, such as the Texas Democratic Party, before it reaches candidates.

One of Angle's first goals was to bolster the staff of the state party. He and others also went to work on rebuilding the party's voter file, which records where voters live and how often they vote. The files were kept up to date when Democrats controlled state government, but by 2005, with no Democrats in key state jobs, the records were growing stale.

Angle and other operatives updated the 12 million records in the file with more accurate and comprehensive information. For example, they surveyed some voters on the issues, looked at their voting histories and available data about their consumer habits (whether they have hunting licenses, for instance) and tried to determine their likelihood of voting for Democrats.

"Now you can go into every precinct and communicate with the people who are most likely to be for you," Angle said. "And just as importantly, you can go to people who are undecided and talk to them about issues that might persuade them."

Trust leaders also focused squarely on state House races, instead of statewide contests, with the goal of winning a House majority by 2010.
Democrats increased their ranks by one member in 2004, so the party had momentum before the trust was launched. But those gains accelerated when Democrats picked up six seats in 2006 and netted five more by the end of 2008.

"The huge wave of trial lawyer money ridden by Democratic House candidates is by no means a new concept," said Hans Klingler, a spokesman for the state Republican Party. "What is new is the efficacy of those resources utilized by groups like the Democratic Trust.
"Republicans are going to have to acknowledge this parity of resources and redouble our grass-roots efforts.

In addition to Baron's contributions, Houston trial lawyer John Eddie Williams has given the trust $500,000, and Richard Mithoff, also from Houston, has given $180,000.

Since the number of donors has grown (19 the first 10 months of 2008, compared with three in 2005), Angle said he's confident that the trust can continue to raise amounts comparable to when Baron was alive. The next goal is to field a credible slate of candidates for statewide offices in 2010.

"It is realistic. I also believe it's a challenge," Angle said.

And he isn't done with House races.

"Our job is to have a Democratic speaker of the House," he said.




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