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White, Shami spar on death penalty, gas tax in Texas Democratic governor debate
11:37 PM CST on Monday, February 8, 2010
FORT WORTH – The two main Democratic candidates for governor clashed on the death penalty, increasing the gasoline tax and halting Barnett Shale energy production Monday night in their only statewide televised debate.
Former Houston Mayor Bill White, who covets a November showdown with GOP incumbent Rick Perry, staked out more conservative positions on taxes, crime and the environment than his opponent, Houston businessman Farouk Shami.
Shami, a political newcomer, concentrated on surviving the March 2 primary. Sounding populist themes, he wooed key Democratic constituencies and cast himself as the change agent in the race.
“They want somebody with a clean record,” Shami said of disgruntled voters.
The hourlong debate was calm, with few direct exchanges and plenty of agreement between the two candidates. But it laid bare a number of disagreements between the two that hadn’t been seen before in a campaign that has seen most of the energy on the GOP side.
White opposed placing a moratorium on executions and on natural-gas drilling in urban North Texas’ shale belt, while Shami said justice and public health require both.
Shami said he supports capital punishment, “if we are 110 percent certain” of guilt. But he said recent exonerations, many based on DNA testing, require a pause so that cases can be reviewed.
“We have killed lots of innocent people in the state of Texas,” Shami said – a claim that hasn’t been definitively proven.
White, though, said a moratorium on executions would be too broad. “That would disrespect the juries and the victims,” he said.
White acknowledged the system has problems, but said it generally works pretty well. He said he rejects “one-size-fits-all” solutions in this and other parts of government.
White also managed to get in a dig at Perry on the question, criticizing the governor for reshuffling a state forensic science panel that was scheduled to hear experts on flawed arson science used to convict and execute Cameron Todd Willingham for the fire that killed his three daughters.
White is considered the front-runner in the race, and many Democrats hope he can avoid a runoff and prepare for a battle against Perry or perhaps U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison while the two go to a protracted runoff. But Shami is spending millions of his own dollars on the race, and with five little-known candidates on the Democratic ballot and low turnout expected, it’s unclear whether White can top 50 percent to avoid an extra round of his own.
On the Barnett Shale, which has sparked concern in recent weeks over emissions of benzene, a cancer-causing gas, Shami called for a halt to production.
“Human life is more precious than digging for gas or oil,” he said afterward.
Shami, criticizing air quality in Houston during White’s tenure as mayor, brought up the Barnett Shale, using the one question he was allowed to ask White.
It effectively highlighted how White won’t join him in endorsing a moratorium on the gas drilling, though it’s unclear how widespread voter concern over the issue is statewide.
White stood his ground, saying it would be “unfair to shut down operations of all operators based on what some operators do.”
On transportation, White said he would be reluctant to raise the state’s 20-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax, while Shami endorsed an 8-cent increase.
“Yes, I believe in raising the gas a little bit,” Shami said, promising one big benefit to commuters: “Forget about toll roads.”
White said he first wants to quit siphoning off gasoline tax money for nonhighway programs.
He criticized Perry’s appointees to the Texas Transportation Commission for wanting to issue more bonds, eating into road maintenance money.
Shami, who has courted Hispanic voters, criticized existing border policies as inhumane.
“Without Mexicans, you know, it’d be like a day without sunshine in our state,” Shami said.
He promised to create 100,000 new jobs within two years as governor, or he’d personally donate $10 million of his money to the state.
“As a governor, everybody will have a job,” Shami said. Training fire on White, he added: “We lost 43,000 jobs in Houston since he took over.”
White, though, suggested that Shami had overpromised.
“I do not think the governor of Texas has control over the global economy,” White said. “I do think that the governor of Texas can do what we can to prepare our workforce to take advantage of the future.”
Several people in the 40-person studio audience joined a panel of journalists in asking the candidates questions, including Elgie Clayton of Emory, who asked about Texas’ deregulation of electricity in many sections of the state.
That allowed Shami to discuss his vision of eliminating electric bills, by having homeowners install solar panels and sell their unused power to the electricity grid.
White stressed weatherization programs he championed in Houston, and decades of experience in energy that include a high federal post and running businesses.
The debate was sponsored by the same coalition of groups that organized the first of the GOP debates: KERA, in partnership with KTVT-TV (Channel 11) and KTXA-TV (Channel 21), the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, KUVN-TV (Channel 23), the Texas Association of Broadcasters, Texas State Networks and the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
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Published: 11:17 p.m. Monday, Feb. 8, 2010
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White largely bypassed opponent Farouk Shami in a televised debate Monday night, instead attacking Gov. Rick Perry and seeking to appeal beyond his party to independents and Republicans.
Shami, meanwhile, criticized White and distanced himself from “career politicians” while making some big promises to Texans: If he’s elected, they won’t have an electric bill in 10 years, and if he doesn’t succeed in creating 100,000 jobs in two years, he’ll give the state $10 million.
“I will be the one to make the American dream a reality to all our citizens,” said Shami, 67, who was born in what was then Palestine and arrived in the United States in 1965. Shami pointed to his participation in the debate as “proof that the American dream is still alive” and likened his candidacy to that of President Barack Obama — whom he referred to as “President Barack Hussein Obama.”
“The state is ready for a brown governor called Farouk Shami,” he said.
The event was the first — and only scheduled — Democratic gubernatorial debate, giving many Texas viewers their first good look at White, a former Houston mayor, and Shami, founder of a Houston-based hair care products company. Though White was a popular mayor, he is not widely known outside of that city, and Shami has never before run for political office. Shami, who is spending millions of his own money on his campaign, has been advertising on TV for months; White recently started airing his TV ads.
White, 55, is the clear choice of Texas’ Democratic establishment, and he seemed to succeed in avoiding major blunders to derail his front-runner status. The former U.S. deputy secretary of energy and former chairman of the Texas Democratic Party said he wants to ensure that legislative sessions “are not hijacked by wedge issues” and said Perry “has brought the partisan politics of Washington to the statehouse.”
White sought to paint himself as a pragmatist who would put consensus over ideology, and in that process he made an appeal to the political center. He said there should never be injustice in the criminal justice system, but he said he supports the death penalty. He did not name any abortion restrictions that he would overturn. He did not embrace a higher gas tax, and he broadly said education and job training would be his top priorities.
At the same time, he did what he needed to do to keep Democratic voters happy, saying he opposes school vouchers and legislation requiring voters to present more identification at the polls.
He stressed that he had sought consensus as mayor of Houston, which appeared to be his way of telling Republican voters that GOP lawmakers would have plenty of seats at the table in his administration.
“I don’t think leadership means getting diverted into the so-called hot button issues that divide Texans,” White said.
Shami attacked White’s work as mayor and characterized himself as better prepared to create jobs.
“You talk about it — I do something about it,” Shami said to White. Shami also said, “People want a change — a major change.”
Shami cited job creation as the solution to a number of the state’s problems, but he did little to spell out how government could create those jobs. Shami also avoided giving direct answers to some questions, including on whether he would mandate the E-Verify system to check whether employees are eligible to work in the United States.
White said that the system is useful but that he wouldn’t create mandates on private employers.
Shami was specific on other issues, saying he supports a moratorium on the death penalty, opposes school vouchers and thinks abortion should be legal for the first two to three months of a woman’s pregnancy.
White gently pointed out some “good faith” differences between himself and Shami, saying that when it comes to finding money to pay for new roads, he wouldn’t start with raising the gas tax, though Shami has said he would raise the tax.
Shami got a question about gay marriage and said he “would not take freedom from any individual.” But though most questions were asked of both candidates, White got a pass on that one.
Both White and Shami called education a priority, with Shami saying he wants to increase teacher salaries and White saying that Texas children deserve a good education “regardless of whether there’s a refinery next door or a mansion” or a modest house.
The debate was held at the CBS 11/TXA 21 studios with a studio audience of about 40 people, some of whom asked questions of the candidates. Other candidates in the Democratic gubernatorial primary — Alma Aguado, Felix Alvarado, William Dear, Clement Glenn and Star Locke — were not invited because they did not meet debate organizers’ criteria.
The winner of the primary will face the winner of the Republican primary — involving Gov. Rick Perry, businesswoman Debra Medina and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison — in November.
At the end of the event, White asked the audience to compare Monday’s debate — which he characterized as civil — with the two previous GOP debates, which he characterized as people shouting over each other.