Saturday, October 6, 2012

Mellower Sadler still has bite in U.S. Senate bid

Austin-American Statesman
Sept. 30, 2012
by Chuck Lindell

It’s been 10 years since Paul Sadler was an intense, industrious and sometimes intimidating presence in the Texas House, and some of his rough edges have worn smooth in the time outside politics.

But a calmer, more contemplative 57-year-old Sadler still has a bite, and the Democrat isn’t shy about lobbing verbal grenades at his better funded, better known opponent in the race for U.S. Senate, Republican Ted Cruz, a candidate he dismisses as a neophyte with a radical agenda.

“I think (Cruz) is an ambitious young man who decided to start at the top instead of work his way up. I think he needs experience, not only life experience but governmental experience,” Sadler said. “He had the tea party angry mob in the Republican primary, but that’s not Texas; that’s not who we are. I hope not. God, I hope not.”

Hampered by anemic fundraising, Sadler’s best opportunity to pummel Cruz — and reintroduce himself to Texas voters — will be Tuesday night’s televised debate, the first of two between the major-party candidates vying to replace U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican who is retiring after 19 years in the upper house.

Sadler said he will strive to portray Cruz, 41, a former top appellate lawyer in the attorney general’s office, as too extreme to appeal to moderate Republicans and independent voters.

“If the public will tune in, they will see for the first time a debate on the issues, because in all the (primary-season debates) with the Republicans, they all stood up and did a ‘me too.’ Whether it was immigration, women’s health, education — they all just said the same thing,” he said.

Sadler has zeroed in on Cruz’s support for a fence along the Mexican border, his opposition to the Affordable Care Act and his call to abolish several federal agencies, including the Education Department, which Sadler said would endanger student loans.

“The border fence is the silliest thing. People on the border will tell you that it’s not a good idea,” Sadler said, adding that any discussion should begin by acknowledging that immigration plays a role in making the border region one of the “great economic engines” of Texas.

“Border cities are some of the safest in our state. I do recognize and understand there is drug cartel activity across the border, that there are issues of undocumented workers coming back and forth, but that is not the central issue of that region,” Sadler said. “Let’s stop this stupid rhetoric. Texans hear the horror stories, and they don’t hear the truth. It’s hurting our state, and if our political leaders don’t recognize it, then the public won’t recognize it.”

Cruz declined to respond to Sadler’s criticisms. But he has said in the past that illegal immigration is a law enforcement and security crisis that requires a comprehensive response, including securing the border and tripling the Border Patrol. He has also said closing the Education Department would return more money to Texas without threatening student loans.

Sadler, who lives in Henderson in East Texas with his wife, Sherri, graduated from Baylor University Law School in 1979. Though he still has several asbestos lawsuits pending on behalf of workers, his legal practice has focused more on regulatory matters over the past five years while he served as executive director of the Wind Coalition, a nonprofit industry group that pushes for wind power in Texas and seven nearby states.

Sadler left the wind power job to run for office, but his Senate bid got off to a rocky start last spring when he was forced into a runoff by Grady Yarbrough, a retired teacher who didn’t campaign much.
The unexpected difficulty forced Sadler to burn through most of the almost $140,000 he had raised by mid-July, leaving him far behind Cruz, who still had almost $1.5 million on hand after spending $7.6 million to defeat Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the GOP runoff.

The funding disparity — worsened because many of Texas’ top Democratic donors have given to more competitive out-of-state races — has left Sadler with campaign credibility issues, particularly in a state with a solid Republican voting majority.

The first question from the media and from voters, Sadler said, is: “Can you win? The first one is disbelief, and I hate that because it’s been the narrative from the beginning, and it’s a self-fulfilling narrative.”

Behind the skepticism, however, Sadler hears a second message. Many voters want to believe in him, he said.

“That conversation generally starts this way: ‘I cannot vote for Cruz because he’s too extreme. But tell me you can win.’ I say I can win if you guys vote for me,” Sadler said.

Sadler served 12 years in the Texas House beginning in 1991. Four years later, he was named chairman of the Public Education Committee, thrusting him into the center of many of the era’s most divisive controversies.

In his first session as chairman, Sadler teamed with Republican Sen. Bill Ratliff to rewrite the education code, deregulating school districts to better emphasize local authority. He later pushed through a plan to raise teacher salaries while cutting property taxes and helped create state-funded teacher health insurance.

Then-House Speaker Pete Laney, a Democrat, came to rely on Sadler to pass “the most important, most demanding, most difficult issue on the Legislature’s agenda,” as Texas Monthly put it while naming Sadler to its list of 10 Best Legislators for a fourth consecutive time in 2001. Sadler usually won or came closer to success than expected, the magazine concluded.

Laney, who called Sadler “a very intense, very focused individual,” said he leaned on him because “he was effective in what he did. He didn’t socialize a lot like some of the members did. Everything he did was business.”

Sadler built a reputation for running over opponents, particularly lobbyists or witnesses testifying against one of his bills, and for brinkmanship — waiting until late in the session to move essential bills as a way of limiting amendments or other changes. But it was a fight outside the Capitol that persuaded Sadler to end his House career.

A 2001 car accident left his 10-year-old son, Sam, with a critical head injury and doubts that the youngest of his five children would live. Sam is now in college, but helping his child through years of physical therapy to learn to walk and talk again made two lasting changes in Sadler.

First, he said, the experience dispelled much of the arrogance he admits to accumulating while he held power and influence. But it also brought an intense focus on what’s important in life.

“When you are stripped bare to the choice of whether your child will live or die, will talk or not, nothing in your life is the same,” he said. “I passed legislation for kids with disabilities, for their inclusion in the classroom, but when it’s your child who cannot lift his chin off his chest, then you realize that maybe you didn’t understand.

“It’s why I’m frustrated with people who are so flippant with our safety-net programs. To hold them in such disdain, as people on the right tend to do, shows a real lack of compassion,” Sadler said. “It’s pretty hard to understand.”

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