By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Van Zandt County's five-member commissioners court shifted for the first time this century to a Republican majority when candidates managed by Winning Strategies won three of four contested seats.
"We had a good candidate for county judge, retired out of the Air Force with name identification. It was real shocking how badly he lost," recalls James Foreman, a retired electrician and union business manager who chairs the Van Zandt County Democratic party.
The candidate, Cary Hilliard, says his campaign and that of his Republican opponent couldn't have been more different.
In this rural county of 39,000 residents, office-seekers have traditionally sold themselves one-on-one. In the words of one local pol, "You'd stay for dinner and even a TV show. We had a county clerk who'd milk the cow on the way to the door."
Hilliard campaigned door-to-door for five months, and in the last six weeks of the race spent about $6,000 for newspaper ads.
Meanwhile, Rick Lawrence, his Republican opponent, put his campaign completely in the hands of Winning Strategies, his campaign finance reports show. From July through September, for instance, he gave the company $4,900 for "Van Zandt County campaign data collection; a photo session; 500 yard signs; layout, design, and printing of political cards; "voter info data files"; and even helium for his campaign balloons.
The next month he spent another $4,000 with the company, including rental of its "phone bank office and phones." Volunteers--including a group of home-schoolers and their kids--manned Winning Strategies' phones, several locals say.
"This was the first time in the county's history that an extensive amount of polling was used," Hilliard says. "For my polls, I went down to the barber shop. People told me I was doing great."
According to several Democratic officeholders, Reese's phone operators called people who were uncommitted as many as eight or 10 times by the end of the campaign.
What troubles candidates like Hilliard is "who paid for all this? I certainly couldn't have done it on my budget. Did Mr. Leininger pay for it?"
Hilliard says he spent about $16,000 for the race, and it appears his opponent spent roughly the same amount.
Winning Strategies is surely troubling in the way its structure blurs the lines between campaign contributors and those who spend the money. Leininger's well-established habit is to contribute lavish amounts of money to political candidates of a certain stripe. Yet Winning Strategies appears in campaign finance reports as a recipient of campaign expenditures.
How much is the real value of the company's services? Are they being offered at a deep discount? When do discounted services become in-kind contributions? These specifics can only be learned by auditing Winning Strategies' books, and Reese would not as much as confirm which candidates he worked for, let alone talk about what he did for them and what it cost.
"We understand the law and obey the law. I know it's a quaint thought," Reese responds. "We are very aware of ethics commission guidelines and stay within those guidelines."
Beyond the lack of accountability, Democrats in Van Zandt County are chafed by the thought that a portion of the sales taxes they pay at, say, the Canton Wal-Mart Supercenter out on Highway 243 helped underwrite their opponents' campaigns--by way of the generous deal Reese got from the Canton board.
"It's affecting us and politicians all over the state," says Ozelle Wilcoxson, a justice of the peace in Wills Point, a little town east of Canton.
Richard Ray, the lawyer and former Democratic county judge, says the company fanned out from Canton and got involved in county judge and commissioners races elsewhere in East Texas.
"There's no way a little county organization can counter it--we didn't have the manpower," Ray says.
He says Winning Strategies' work force was mobilized behind candidates. "If you drove through the parking lot, you could see the political bumper stickers," Ray says. And the front lawn sprouted a patch of candidate signs.
From his quaint law office in a restored Victorian house near the county's Depression-era courthouse, Ray says he can't believe "we're taking money away from the poor here and giving it to these people, who don't need it. It's crazy."
His office sits just across a wide creek bed from Winning Strategies, and in between are some of the sheds and buildings of the flea market, which got its start in Canton in the 1850s when county officials auctioned stray livestock on the first Monday of the month.
"We had an old-style Democratic Party down here, very conservative," Ray says. "It's a very conservative county. This group is a totally different agenda, even for the Republicans here."
Ray, whose family has lived in Van Zandt County for "five generations on either side," says the Canton development board should have known Reese had political aims. "He's been political from the moment he got here," Ray says. "He's not being very coy about it. If [City Manager] Johnny Mallory couldn't see this is political, he's blind.
"At first I thought this was just a base for Bob," he adds, referring to Reese's expected second run for Cain's seat in the year 2000. "Then you see it mushroom into this thing that is much more far-reaching than a senatorial thing."