It is 11:03 a.m. and the press conference is about to begin.
Sam Houston, the famously named but mostly unknown Democrat running for Texas attorney general, shoots a nervous glance toward the door, then looks down at his phone.
Houston aide Jacob Torres and a couple labor activists are here. A campaign videographer is poised to begin filming. Visual props — posters raising ethical doubts about his GOP rival — perfectly straddle the podium.
There’s just one thing missing: the news media.
Only a reporter from The Texas Tribune, tagging along with Houston for the day, has come to the downtown Austin Club to watch the Democratic nominee announce that he’s releasing his tax returns, and call on his stealthy opponent, Republican state Sen. Ken Paxton, to do the same.
“Here’s where we’re at today and this is why I called a press conference,” Houston says, as if a bank of cameras were recording his every move. “I think it’s time for Ken Paxton to answer questions.”
Houston might as well call on his opponent to go streaking down Congress Avenue.
Ever since he admitted violating the Texas Securities Act by referring investment clients to a business associate without registering as the law requires, Paxton has kept a decidedly low public profile. He does almost no mainstream media interviews, won’t talk about a debate and has staged few public campaign events that the media has been invited to cover.
In a two-party state, Paxton’s scrape with the Texas Securities Board might turn the race for the powerful post into a nail-biter. But in Texas, where Republicans haven’t lost a statewide race in 20 years, Paxton effectively won when he trounced state Rep. Dan Branch, the Dallas Republican who had the misfortune of being considered the more moderate candidate in a primary dominated by the far right. In their runoff election, Branch pounded Paxton over the same alleged ethical lapses Houston has now latched onto, without visible effect.
Now it’s Houston’s turn, and the hill is arguably steeper than it was for Branch, who outspent Paxton and still lost by a 2-to-1 margin. Houston had less than $150,000 in the bank at last count, not enough to run a single statewide TV ad. Many donors won’t even take his calls.
That has left Houston little choice but to campaign, as he puts it, “the old-fashioned way” — on the cheap, and largely from the front seat of his tan Toyota Prius, which he and Torres drive around Texas in search of any group that will have him, or any newspaper that will interview him.
“If he won’t engage me, I have to engage the media,” Houston says to the nearly empty conference room at the Austin Club, before departing to a local TV interview. “We’ll get the message out every way and we’ll keep plugging. I will not stop spreading this message.”
Boiled down, here’s that message: Paxton is a fatally flawed candidate for attorney general — considered to be the state’s chief law enforcement officer — because he has admitted breaking securities law and has the threat of criminal prosecution hanging over his head if elected.
“This is someone who will be compromised, who will not be able to adequately enforce the laws,” Houston says. “It’s heads we lose, tails we lose if he’s elected.”
The claim — derided as liberal fantasy by Paxton’s campaign — is based on the Republican candidate’s admission in May that he violated the Texas Securities Act when he acted as an investment adviser representative and solicited clients for an investment firm without registering with the State Securities Board.
Paxton paid a $1,000 fine, got an official reprimand and was ordered to tell any prospective clients that he’s getting paid for the referrals. In at least one instance investigated by the Tribune, a legal client Paxton solicited on behalf of an investment adviser had no idea the senator was getting paid for the referrals, according to court documents.
Since the civil order was issued, Paxton has faced a criminal complaint, filed at the Travis County district attorney's office by a liberal group, that Democrats say could live on past the November election. That’s because Section 29 of the act says that any investment adviser representative who solicits clients without being registered “shall be deemed guilty of a felony of the third degree.”
The DA's office, saying it doesn't want to improperly sway an election, has said it will take a look at the criminal complaint after voters have their say in November.
In the meantime, Paxton spokesman Anthony Holm says the specter of Paxton's potential prosecution is the creation of liberal critics desperate to turn around an election they appear certain to lose. The State Securities Board investigated the matter, found that Paxton made an error and assessed a civil penalty, he said.
Holm also noted that the criminal complaint was lodged by Texans for Public Justice, a liberal watchdog group that has gone after high-profile Republicans such as Gov. Rick Perry and former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Perry, of course, is under indictment now. DeLay was ultimately exonerated when his convictions on money laundering charges were overturned on appeal.
“This matter was fully resolved six months ago,” Holm said. “Everybody understands it's an administrative error. Our desperate Democratic opponent is grasping at anything he can because he’s losing by 20 points. He knows it. We know it. It’s done.”
Don’t tell that to Houston.
A few minutes after the press conference concluded at the Austin Club last Wednesday, Houston loaded his posters into the back of the Prius and headed to his next appointment — the studios of Austin’s Time Warner Cable, where anchor Paul Brown ushered him into the studio for an interview.
After some introductory pleasantries, Brown cut to the chase: How do you run a race against someone who has all but dropped out of public sight?
“We and many others in the media have invited him to speak, and he’s declined for a variety of reasons,” Brown said. “Has it been a frustration for you? Is it difficult to get traction when your opponent is almost not even acknowledging that you’re around?’’
Houston doesn’t let on that it bothers him, saying that the “secretive manner” in which Paxton has been running his campaign should be offensive to voters above all.
“The way you run the race is the way you’d run the office,” he said.
But during the next stop of the journey — the editorial board of the Waco Tribune-Herald — the wear and tear of unattended campaign events, potential donors who won’t pick up the phone and an opponent who won’t give him the time of day poured out into the open.
“I did a press conference today and not a whole lot of people showed up,” Houston said. “That’s my lot in life, you know.”
He talked at some length about a sparsely attended campaign event he recently put together in North Texas, where an elderly African-American woman saved him from despair by singing a gospel song for a few glorious minutes.
“We were out in Corsicana, Texas, and no one shows up. That happens to me a lot. Very few people show up at my campaign stops,’’ he said. “People started showing up in their old cars and getting out and I was kind of depressed. I don’t remember what had happened. I was tired, and the day before not many people had showed up at a fundraiser — or no one had — and so I was thinking about money, and woe is me, and this is tough, why the heck did I do this, and this is hard.”
Then suddenly, an 80-something black woman dressed to the nines and wearing a silver wig, approached him, seemingly out of nowhere, and “broke out in the most beautiful gospel music for the next maybe five minutes.”
“It’s stuff like that,” Houston said. “It lifted me up. I felt better."
Everywhere he goes, Houston, 51, gets asked about his name and whether he’s related to the hero of the Battle of San Jacinto and the former Texas governor and senator.
He is not.
Samuel A. Houston was born Samuel A. Jones. As a child, he changed his last name to Houston when his mother divorced his biological father and remarried. He grew up in Colorado City, between Midland and Abilene, and has been an attorney in Houston for 26 years.
He has never served in elective office but ran for the Texas Supreme Court in 2008, when he got 45.9 percent of the vote and earned the distinction as the best-performing statewide Democrat in years.
Houston admits his famous name gives him an entrée he wouldn’t otherwise have, and fits perfectly with the only strategy he can afford: getting “earned media,’’ which is another way of saying the kind of media you don’t have to pay for. Newspaper articles. TV shows. Editorial boards. Facebook posts. Tweets.
If it’s free, Houston generally will take it.
(Holm, the Paxton aide, joked that Houston would let reporters “watch him brush his teeth” if he thought he could score some votes off of it.)
If earned media won elections, Houston could start measuring the drapes of the attorney general’s office by now. Besides making himself available to any news outlet that will have him, Houston has won every major newspaper endorsement so far, and their condemnations of Paxton mirror his complaints on the campaign trail.
The Dallas Morning News said that the criminal complaint filed against Paxton “raises the possibility of felony charges against a sitting attorney general, the state’s chief law enforcement officer. Voters should not invite that kind of embarrassment for Texas.”
The Houston Chronicle took Paxton to task for his stealthy proclivities.
“Paxton has routinely refused to meet with journalists, political groups and media outlets to answer questions about his history of shady — and illegal — practices,” the paper said. “He has cancelled meetings with everyone from tea party groups to this newspaper, hiding from the very people he will be charged with defending.”
Even if Paxton agreed to debate Houston, or sat down with reporters once in a while, though, it isn’t at all clear that Houston would have a better shot at winning.
Houston faces strong headwinds in Texas, where being tied to the unpopular Democrat in the White House will cost him votes no matter what he does.
This becomes clear when he takes a phone call in the car from his friend Ed, a Houston doctor, shortly after leaving the offices of the Waco newspaper.
“The Dallas Morning News just endorsed us. I’m getting all the papers,” Houston says into the phone receiver. “Go vote for me. Tell all your Republican friends to go vote for me.”
There’s a pause while Ed speaks. It’s hard to make out what he’s saying from the back of the car.
“I’m not running for president!” Houston says abruptly. “I’m running for attorney general.”
After hanging up, Houston explained the guilt by association that Ed conveyed to him.
"A bunch of my friends are mad at Barack Obama,” the doctor told Houston.
Given Obama’s radioactivity in the Texas electorate, Houston was asked during the meeting in Waco why he doesn’t run away from the president as fast as he can.
Houston said he might gain a few votes on the one hand but lose some on the other, and complained that Republicans are using Obama as a whipping post even though they’re running for state jobs and not federal office.
Then, in a line that his opponent is sure to pass along to conservative supporters, Houston took it a step further.
“I voted for our president, and I never would regret a vote I’ve made,” he said. “There have been improvements in the economy. There are things he can talk about.”
After the Waco stop, campaign aide Torres pointed the Prius toward College Station, where Houston was scheduled to address a group of students belonging to the Texas Aggie Democrats.
Houston’s concern that he might find yet another empty room vanished when he learned that he would speaking at a regularly scheduled meeting of the Democratic students. That's always a better bet, particularly if pizza is served, he observed.
Still, the crowd was small enough to count exactly — 19 when he started speaking and 20 when he finished — and some of the students were learning of Paxton's ethical troubles for the first time, from Houston.
The students told him that last month Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor, showed up on campus, drawing more than 400 whoopin’ and hollering Aggies, according to local press reports.
That encouraged Houston. Even though polls show she’s losing, too, he's hoping he can ride the enthusiasm Democrats have shown for her into a major upset — of biblical proportions at this point — in the attorney general’s race.
By the time the Prius pulled into the Cielito Lindo Mexican restaurant in Waller, though, Houston's press-fleshing tendencies were on the wane. The waiters, having served their last supper with the Houston entourage, were sweeping the floors.
Asked why he didn’t tell them he was Sam Houston, the candidate laughed.
“I don’t talk to many people who know who I am,” he said.