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Big-game hunters 

What if the Illinois Republican Party had been able to knock off Barack Obama in 1998, the first time he sought reelection to the state senate? How many political headaches would it have spared the party down the line?

That question comes to mind when considering the case of Texas Representative Juan Garcia (D-Corpus Christi), a friend and former Harvard Law School classmate of Obama’s. Granted, it may look like a stretch to compare a freshman state legislator with a man favored to win the presidency of the United States in two weeks, but Garcia’s sterling, almost-too-good-to-be-true
résumé invites the comparison.

A graduate of Harvard Law and the Kennedy School of Government; a Naval commander who served in Kosovo and the Persian Gulf; a former White House Fellow; a young (42), handsome, eloquent, family man, who in 2006 became the first Latino elected to the legislature from the overwhelmingly Republican District 32. Garcia is the kind of politician who would appear to be limited only by the scope of his own ambition.

A central chess piece in the Democratic Party’s ongoing Take Back Texas push, Garcia faces a GOP eager to send him back to private life in Corpus Christi, before his career momentum proves unstoppable.

For the November 4 election, Republican leaders recruited Todd Hunter, a former four-term legislator from the Coastal Bend region. A conservative Democrat when he last sought elective office more than a decade ago, Hunter quickly became an insurance-company lobbyist after he left the lege, a fact which has become the central focus of this year’s District 32 race. Much like Garcia’s insurgent campaign against GOP incumbent Gene Seaman, this election has become a heated debate about the meaning of political ethics and accountability.

“Sixteen days after Todd Hunter took off his legislative pin, he became a lobbyist for insurance companies,” says Christian Archer, a consultant for the Garcia campaign, as well as an adviser to San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger. “District 32 pays the highest homeowners-insurance rates of any district in the state, and the state of Texas pays the highest of any state in the country.”

Under the state’s current system, the governor appoints the Texas insurance commissioner, but Garcia wants to transform the position into a statewide elected office. “That way, at least real people have a chance to elect somebody who will represent them rather than the insurance companies,” Archer says. “Because right now, the people in District 32 pay higher homeowners-insurance rates and windstorm-insurance rates than the people of Louisiana pay, and they’re the ones that got wiped out by Katrina.”

Garcia’s political emergence has found him frequently intersecting with key players in San Antonio. Henry Cisneros enthusiastically campaigned for him in 2006 (Archer has described Garcia as a new-model Cisneros), and earlier this month Garcia came to SA for a fundraiser that drew the support of deep-pocket business players such as H-E-B chairman Charles Butt and Red McCombs. Butt has contributed $100,000 this year to Garcia’s campaign, in addition to a $10,000 contribution in 2007.

Steve Ray, Hunter’s chief campaign strategist, concedes that Garcia is an affable, engaging character, but describes him as a legislator out of sync with his constituency. Calling him a classic, big-spending liberal, Ray says Garcia “would fit right in if he were representing Austin, but he’s not right for District 32.”

The Hunter campaign has leaned on the central tenet of the Karl Rove campaign philosophy, which dictates that you attack your opponent on an issue that’s your own apparent weakness, because it puts them on the defensive and deflects attention away from your candidate’s liabilities.

Aware that Hunter’s history as a lobbyist could be toxic in a year when voters can barely contain their rage over corporate greed, his supporters have consistently raised questions about Garcia’s fundraising methods. In May, a GOP direct mailing accused Garcia of keeping money (approximately $17,000) from an indicted law-firm operator named Mauricio Celis. Garcia swiftly responded by calling a press conference and announcing that several months earlier, his campaign had donated the money to the Center for the Intrepid at San Antonio’s Brooke Army Medical Center. Nueces County Republican Party Chairman Mike Bertuzzi shot back that Garcia should have given the money to an organization in his own district.

Hunter strategists love to call attention to the fact that in 2006 Garcia received more than $47,000 from the law firm of Mikal Watts (whose own U.S. Senate campaign was derailed by a connection to Celis), but conveniently ignore the $85,000 they’ve received this year from Houston businessman (and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth benefactor) Bob Perry. Overall, the Garcia campaign has hauled in more than $750,000 this year, while Hunter has raised nearly $500,000. Going into the campaign’s final month, Garcia had $100,000 more than Hunter, a crucial difference that can be attributed solely to Butt’s

The ethics gamesmanship has resulted in some pretty surreal debate exchanges between Garcia and Hunter. At one debate, Hunter defended his reluctance to release his income-tax returns by saying: “I’ll produce mine if he’ll produce his military records and his legislative account records.” Garcia said he’d be glad to release his military record, and casually asked Hunter: “Do you have a military record?” Hunter grumbled: “You know I don’t.”

At an October 1 debate in Portland, Texas, Hunter sarcastically asked, “Why is `Garcia` afraid of lobbyists?” Hunter went on to argue that lobbyists do many good things, a statement which might be technically accurate but is unlikely to make him look like the voice of modern populism. Garcia, a softspoken man who chooses his words carefully, responded with a rare swagger. Citing his deployments in the Persian Gulf and Kosovo and his 14 years of active-duty service in the Navy, he said: “I ain’t afraid of any lobbyists, and in 36 days, I’m getting ready to kick one’s butt.”

Like his old classmate Obama, Garcia taps into voter fatigue with partisanship, often saying that, like Obama, he wants to get beyond the red-state/blue-state divide and “talk purple.” His strongest legislative efforts have essentially been nonpartisan. He fulfilled a campaign promise to pass a law requiring legislators’ votes to be recorded and available for review online. He also authored a bill that would force state legislators to wait at least two years from their last day in office before becoming registered lobbyists.

Garcia representatives estimate that Hunter has made more than a million dollars from insurance companies, with the bulk of it coming from the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, but Hunter’s unwillingness to open up his tax records has left them guessing at the exact figures.

“There’s this interesting conflict Hunter is stuck in,” Archer says. “His law firm never registered to be a lobbying law firm. In other words, he got paid directly. So we don’t actually know how much he’s made. If he’ll just turn over his taxes, the people will be able to know how much he made loybbying against them.”

Polls have varied wildly, and stirred some controversy of their own, but Archer says he believes that Garcia will win by “two to four points.” If, for the second time in two years, Garcia defeats a high-profile Republican boasting years of legislative experience, his position as a rising star in Texas politics will probably be secure.

“Releasing the military records was really an insult, but we did it, and there’s not a blemish,” Archer says. “I hate to say it, but this guy is like a freaking Boy Scout. There are two admirals that call Juan the best naval officer in the United States Navy. It’s literally that glowing.”

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