Friday, January 9, 2015

Making lawyers the bad guys | Last Word

It must have seemed like a good idea to Walter Martinez, the former one-term state legislator and city councilman who last held office two decades ago.

He had decided to mount a political comeback by running for mayoral candidate Mike Villarreal’s legislative seat and he needed a catchy issue to overcome Diego Bernal, the frontrunner who had resigned from City Council to make the race.

He would, of course, fight for economic development and better schools, but every politician fights for economic development and better schools.

What else?

Well, Martinez decided, he would boldly call for the Bexar County Appraisal Board and director to be elected, not appointed.

Now there’s a hot issue, for you.

You can tell by the turnout in recent elections that the citizens are clamoring for more politicians to litter their mailboxes.

Finally, it appears, Martinez came up with a surefire idea.

“No money from lawyers!” he trumpeted in mailers.

On one mailer he ran an unflattering black-and-white picture of Bernal, with an all-caps label under it: “LAWYER.”

“Do we need another lawyer in the Texas Legislature?” he asked.

What’s more, the slogan would dovetail nicely with the barrage of mailings by Texans for Lawsuit Reform opposing the candidacy of Trey Martinez-Fischer for state Senate on the same ballot.

And, finally, the tactic cost Martinez little since as an underdog he wasn’t likely to get huge amounts of campaign cash from lawyers.

The tactic has a history in Bexar County.

District Judge Johnny Gabriel Jr., a little-known lawyer, used it as a campaign pledge to get elected to a district bench in 1992.

Gabriel, however, had a couple of advantages.

One is that it is especially unseemly for judges to take large amounts of money from lawyers who will be appearing before them in courtrooms.

The taint on contributions to legislators by lawyers is not so bothersome.

Perhaps more importantly, Gabriel didn’t need money from lawyers because his father – liquor store magnate Johnny Gabriel Sr. – promised to bankroll his campaign.

What’s more, Gabriel Sr. converted his extensive fleet of delivery vans into rolling campaign ads complete with the slogan, “Won’t take money from lawyers!”

Gabriel Sr. was a doting father who, he told me, “just wants his son to have a decent life.”

It worked brilliantly through four campaigns.

Judge Gabriel would get contributions from his father or liquor industry friends of his father, and the delivery vans would be converted to campaign billboards every four years.

But shortly after being re-elected in November 2004, Judge Gabriel sent out a letter to hundreds of lawyers saying he could no longer follow his ban on their contributions.

Having won for the fourth time with that promise to the voters, the promise was no longer viable.

The result was astounding.

In the second half of 2004, which included the actual campaign and election, Gabriel collected just under $70,000.

In the first half of 2005, with the next election nearly four years away, he raked in just under $170,000 -- $100,000 more!

The vast majority of it was from lawyers and law firms, many of whom gave more than $1,000.

These lawyers chose not to wait until the next election year.

They might be in Judge Gabriel’s court numerous times before that.

The voters forgave him, or they forgot.

Judge Gabriel still presides over the 131st District Court, and many lawyers consider him to be a good judge, one who listens to arguments and tries to rule according to the law.

The gambit didn’t work out so well for Walter Martinez, though.

He finished fourth out of six candidates.

Perhaps in tort-reformed Texas, lawyers aren’t the bogeymen they used to be.

No comments: