Run off for District 17 Senate seat to be held Tuesday

By Marilyn Tennissen | Dec 15, 2008

Joan Huffman (R)

Voters in six Southeast Texas counties shouldn't put their voter registration cards away just yet, as who will represent them in Austin in the state Senate has still not been decided.

Tuesday, Dec. 16, is the runoff election for Texas Senate District 17, which includes portions of Jefferson, Harris, Brazoria, Fort Bend and Galveston counties. In the November election, neither the Democratic nor Republican candidate succeeded in receiving more than 50 percent of the votes, which created the need for the Tuesday runoff.

In the general election, Democrat Chris Bell received 38 percent of the votes in the district compared to Republican Joan Huffman's 26 percent.

The two candidates have continued to spend large amounts of campaign funds for advertising since November, with Huffman's campaign shelling out around $1.8 million and Bell about $1.3 million.

Huffman's backing has largely come from tort reform advocates, while Bell's donations have come from trial lawyers and labor unions, according to Texas Ethics Commission records.

Texans For Lawsuit Reform, which helped persuade the Legislature to tighten limits on damages plaintiffs can win in lawsuits against home builders, physicians, manufacturers and other defendants, recently brought its total contributions to Huffman to about $162,000, according to state records.

TLR founder Richard Weekley and brother David Weekley each gave Huffman, a former judge, at least $100,000, as did Houston Texans owner Bob McNair. TLR supporter Bob Perry, of Perry Homes, and his wife, Doylene, gave Huffman a total of $125,000.

Personal injury trial lawyers make up half of contributors to Chris Bell's campaign for State Senate District 17, according to a TLR press release.

Bell's "8 Day" report, released Thursday, Dec. 11, revealed an additional $449,533 in contributions from personal injury trial lawyers and trial lawyer front groups. The group says trial lawyers have given Bell a total $984,154 in the SD 17 race so far – fully half of all his contributions.

"Chris Bell is an enemy of lawsuit reform who will work for the lawsuit industry if he is elected to the Texas Legislature. Voters in Senate District 17 should make sure that doesn't happen," said Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC Director Justin Unruh.

Bell received hundreds of direct contributions from trial lawyers including $100,000 from Mikal Watts, a personal injury trial lawyer who was exposed last year for bragging that he could influence South Texas trial judges and the appeals court because of his large campaign contributions.

Texans for Insurance Reform, a trial lawyer group that has received 97 percent of its contributions from trial lawyers in 2008, gave Bell an additional $268,373 during this reporting period, bringing their total contributions to him for the SD 17 race to $631,494.

Six-figure contributors to Texans for Insurance Reform include "Tobacco Five" attorneys John Eddie William, Walter Umphrey and Harold Nix. Bell also received $38,874 from the Texas Democratic Party, which received 87 percent of its contributions from personal injury trial lawyers this year.

In November, Jefferson County gave its support to Bell, who received a 57 percent majority of votes in the county.

Early voting for the Dec. 16 runoff election was held Dec. 8 – 12.
Turnout for early voting was light in Jefferson County with 1,362 votes cast. Most of those early votes came from south Jefferson County, with 1,152 votes cast at two Port Arthur early voting locations. Only 25 early votes came from the Jefferson County Courthouse in downtown Beaumont.

About the candidates

Huffman graduated from Louisiana State University and then moved to Houston where she went to work as a secretary in the Harris County District Attorneys Office.

While working she went to law school at night at the South Texas College of Law. After earning her law degree, she became a prosecutor for the Harris County DA.

In 1998, she was elected as judge of the 183rd Criminal District Court in Houston. She has not held public office since 2005.

Bell was born in Abilene and grew up in Dallas. He received a degree in journalism from the University of Texas and worked in radio and television for several years.

In 1992, Bell graduated from the South Texas College of Law in Houston and began a litigation practice. He was elected to Houston City Council in 1997 and passed campaign finance and ethics reform bills on the Ethics Committee.

In November 2002 he was elected to Congress. He lost his bid for reelection after 2003 redistricting. Bell filed an ethics complaint against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, in June 2004.

Janek held the District 17 seat from 2003 until June 2, 2008, when he resigned. Gov. Perry called a special election to coincide with the regular Nov. 4 general election.

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