HOUSTON -- Dan Patrick knows the lead dog in a political race often gets his tail chewed up.
The state senator from Houston, who polls indicate is the leading candidate to become Texas’ next lieutenant governor, is still weathering last week’s barrage of publicity surrounding his long ago stay in a Houston psychiatric hospital. Court records circulated by one of his defeated opponents, Jerry Patterson, also showed Patrick had taken anti-depressants.
“Sadly, in the last couple of weeks, this campaign has not been about issues,” Patrick said to a group of tea party supporters in Kingwood Monday night.
A day later, he talked about an ongoing whispering campaign aimed at raising more questions about his character, his qualifications for higher office and his personal life. Patrick’s adversaries, publicly led by Patterson, have been spreading accusations and innuendoes about the senator and former talk show host, hoping reporters will take the bait and run more damaging stories even as early voters cast their ballots.
“It’s helped our campaign,” Patrick said. “I’m a real person. And real people deal with issues in life, especially when you’ve been around for a while. I crossed the 60-mark, so I’ve been around for a while. And you learn from those things. I’ve always been open about those issues.”
Patrick is the front-runner in what’s turned into a nasty Republican runoff race against incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who’s pulled off the gloves in a fight for his political life. Although he’s tried to distance himself from the revelations of Patrick’s medical records – which Patterson says he found in court documents from an old lawsuit relating to a bar fight between Patrick and a newspaper columnist – Dewhurst has caught criticism from everyone from other senators aligned with Patrick to newspapers that endorsed Dewhurst.
Patrick criticized the release of medical records as “crossing the line,” even as he touted the potential upside of publicity about his psychiatric problems.
“We have to remove this stigma from getting help sometimes,” Patrick said. “Whether you’re a veteran returning, whether it’s post-partum, whether you’ve lost a loved one, people sometimes have this down time in their life. And you can come right back out of it with help.”
Dropping last minute campaign bombshells is a time honored – or dishonored – tactic in Texas politics. In 1990, Ann Richards’ first campaign for governor was dogged by a nasty whispering campaign implying she was everything from a drunk to a drug addict, prompting reporters to ask questions at political debates in which Richards openly discussed her alcoholism. 1n 1991, State Rep. Sylvester Turner was the leading candidate in a race for Houston mayor until his campaign was sent into a tailspin by a devastating TV news story that a jury later deemed libelous.
The danger for any campaign, of course, is that voters will recoil from last minute revelations and sympathize with the candidate under attack.
“It makes me sad when they throw dirt at one another, because we’re supposed to be trying to help our country,” complained Peggy Funderburk, who cast her vote Tuesday.
Political reporters grew so accustomed to getting tips about salacious stories on the eve of elections, many news organizations used to enforce an informal blackout on damning revelations during the final days of campaigns. Now the spread of social media has undercut the old model of newspapers and broadcast stations serving as gatekeepers of campaign news. And the extended balloting window opened by early voting has altered the timeframe for political operatives dropping 11th hour bombshells.
Joe Holley, a longtime political reporter now on the editorial board of the Houston Chronicle, likens these whispering campaigns and last-minute dirt bombs to “trying to inject sort of a poison agent into the public bloodstream.”
“You don’t necessarily come out and say, ‘Hey, this guy is unqualified because of whatever.’” Holley said. “But you just inject that element of poisonous doubt. And it’s always happened. And it happens toward the end.”