Physicians, Alliance Members Seek Political Office
Legislative Affairs Feature – March 2012
Tex Med. 2012;108(3):35-37.
By Ken Ortolon
When the Texas Legislature convenes next January, there could be more members of the family of medicine in the ranks of lawmakers than ever before.
Texas Medical Association Political Action Committee (TEXPAC) officials say a record number of physicians and TMA Alliance members are running for state House and Senate seats. At least 10 physicians and alliance members are running for reelection, trying to move up from the House to the Senate, or seeking legislative office for the first time.
TEXPAC Board of Directors Chair Joe Todd, MD, of Fort Worth, says many of those candidates are well positioned to win.
"I think we have a good chance of getting these folks elected," said Dr. Todd, an orthopedic surgeon whose wife, Susan, is among the first-time candidates. "They have the support of the physicians in their community. Most of them also have been quite involved in community activities and have a lot of support from the nonmedical people in their communities. They've been able to raise money, and they're all out actively campaigning and working hard. So I think that portends well for them getting elected."
TEXPAC endorsed eight of the 10, and Dr. Todd says they should run strong campaigns this year.
In addition, U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, MD (R-Texas), currently has no opposition and appears headed for reelection.
The Redistricting Effect?
TEXPAC officials say it is unclear why so many physicians and alliance members chose to run this year, but redistricting likely played a large role.
Redistricting traditionally produces a large number of open seats as some incumbents find themselves drawn into districts that are either favorable to moving up to higher office. Others find themselves suddenly living in an unfavorable district where their reelection chances are greatly diminished, and they ultimately decide to retire.
"There's always significant turnover as a result of redistricting because the maps change," said Friendswood neurosurgeon Greg Bonnen, MD, who is seeking the House District 24 seat being vacated by Rep. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood).
Dr. Todd agrees redistricting could be a factor, but efforts by TMA, the TMA Alliance, and TEXPAC to raise awareness among physicians and their spouses about the importance of being politically active also were significant.
Susan Todd is running for the House District 97 seat being vacated by Rep. Mark Shelton, MD (R-Fort Worth), who is running for Senate District 10. She says the large number of candidates from organized medicine "may be the dividends that are paying off" from those efforts.
Alliance member Sonal Bhuchar, who is running for the House District 26 seat in the Houston area, says she learned legislative advocacy "through the alliance when we first helped work at the very grassroots level on tort reform in 2003 in Fort Bend County. And I learned more about legislative advocacy through the alliance when we first started First Tuesdays at the Capitol."
The highly effective First Tuesdays program, co-conducted by the TMA Alliance and TEXPAC, has seen thousands of physicians, medical students, and alliance members swarm the Texas Capitol on the first Tuesday of every month during legislative sessions to lobby lawmakers on behalf of medicine's issues.
Dr. Todd says future prospects of practicing medicine are unsettled at best, and many physicians have decided that they prefer to quit griping and get up and do something about it.
"That something is fighting to enter public service to ensure their patients' and physician colleagues' viewpoints are heard at the negotiating tables in Washington and Austin," he said. "I commend them."
"A lot of physicians are waking up to the idea that it's really important that we be at the table because every day decisions are made in Washington and Austin that affect medical practice," Representative Shelton added.
Seizing the Opportunity
Representative Shelton says his decision to run for the Senate District 10 seat after two terms in the House was "an opportunity of redistricting."
"With the redistricting process, the doors just opened because of what I've done in the House and also because of the location of my current House district," he said.
Ms. Todd, a former TMA Alliance and American Medical Association Alliance president, says she was strongly encouraged to seek the House District 97 seat after Representative Shelton announced he would run for the Senate. She sees the race as an opportunity to build on her TMA Alliance legislative advocacy efforts.
"I've been involved in advocacy for a good many years, and I've learned the valuable lesson that being involved does make a difference," she said. "And I think legislative advocacy is one of the most important tools we have as citizens to help structure laws of Texas. It's a good thing when you get involved and you do see that it makes a difference."
She never expected to run for office, "but the right opportunity came up at the right time in my life."
Dr. Bonnen, brother of state Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), also has a long history of political involvement through TMA and TEXPAC. He first considered running for the House while in medical school but put off his political ambitions while establishing his medical practice and raising a family.
Now, he says, the time was right and an open seat presented itself.
"I had this early interest in politics but was not so interested that I was willing to commit and make that my sole focus in my professional life," he said. "I love medicine, I love what I do, and I didn't want to give that up. But, because we have a citizen legislature, I now have an opportunity to serve and yet be able to continue to do what I really love doing as a doctor."
Ms. Bhuchar, wife of Sugar Land pediatrician Subodh K. Bhuchar, MD, sees her race as an opportunity to make a bigger difference on two issues she is passionate about – education and health care. She previously served two terms on the Fort Bend Independent School District Board of Trustees.
Through her experience advocating before the legislature on public education and health care as a school board president and TMA Alliance member, "I realized that if we needed to make a difference in the two key areas that make up 75 percent of the state budget, I would be able to bring to the table some very intense, hands-on experience."
The Medical Prognosis
TEXPAC officials say the outlook for physicians and alliance candidates appears promising. However, some of these races still could be in flux because of court challenges to the legislatively drawn redistricting maps. The final candidate lineup won't be known until the courts have made a final determination and an additional candidate filing period is completed.
The state's primary elections, originally scheduled for March, already have been postponed until April and could be pushed back to June or later if the courts don't act soon.
Three of medicine's incumbents are seeking reelection, including Sen. Bob Deuell, MD (R-Greenville) and Reps. Susan King (R-Abilene) and John Zerwas, MD (R-Richmond). Dr. Todd says all three should be in a good position to win.
Senator Deuell drew a primary challenge from a Tea Party candidate, who political analysts say is a long shot to upset the incumbent. The winner of that primary currently faces no Democratic opposition.
David Reynolds, TMA's director of political education, says Representative King, wife of Abilene otolaryngologist Austin King, MD, likely will face only a Libertarian challenger, if any. And Representative Zerwas currently is unopposed.
In addition to Representative Shelton, Rep. Charles Schwertner, MD (R-Georgetown), also wants to move up to the Senate. He's running for the open Senate District 5 seat being vacated by Sen. Steve Ogden (R-Bryan) who retired after more than 20 years of service.
Representative Schwertner's GOP primary opponent has lost the three previous times he's run for state office. Mr. Reynolds says the district is predominantly a Williamson County and Brazos County seat, which should bode well for Representative Schwertner.
Dr. Todd says Dr. Shelton also has a solid shot at winning his race, although defeating an incumbent is never easy and it is still unclear if he will have a primary opponent as well.
For his part, Representative Shelton is confident he will win, regardless of which district map is used. Currently, there are two maps in play – one drawn by the legislature and one drawn by federal court judges in San Antonio. The U.S. Supreme Court threw out the judges' map and ordered them to redraw it and consider legislative intent.
Ms. Todd faces a primary challenge from a candidate she describes as a "Washington, D.C., lobbyist."
Ms. Bhuchar faces three other candidates in her House District 26 Republican primary. That seat was left open when Rep. Charlie Howard (R-Sugar Land) decided not to run for reelection, although Representative Howard had not yet announced his retirement when Ms. Bhuchar decided to run.
Mr. Reynolds says Ms. Bhuchar has considerable name identification from serving six years on the local school board and has a lot of physician and alliance support in the district and the region.
Dr. Bonnen also faces a primary opponent in a district that Mr. Reynolds says will be represented by the winner of the GOP primary.
The Friendly Incumbent
Two other physician candidates also are running for legislative seats this year, but they have jumped into primary races against candidates that TEXPAC considers "friendly incumbents."
Donna Campbell, MD, of New Braunfels, is running against state Sen. Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio) in Senate District 25, while Stuart Spitzer, MD, of Kaufman, is challenging Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Terrell) in House District 4.
"If a physician or alliance member makes the decision to run against one of our friendly incumbents, we have to stay with our friendly incumbent," Dr. Todd said.
Ken Ortolon can be reached by telephone at (800) 880-1300, ext. 1392, or (512) 370-1392; by fax at (512) 370-1629; or by email.
The Texas Medical Association Political Action Committee (TEXPAC) is a bipartisan political action committee of TMA and affiliated with the American Medical Association Political Action Committee (AMPAC) for congressional contribution purposes only. Its goal is to support and elect pro-medicine candidates on both the federal and state level. Voluntary contributions by individuals to TEXPAC should be written on personal checks. Funds attributed to individuals or professional association (PAs) that would exceed legal contribution limits will be placed in the TEXPAC administrative account to support political education activities. Contributions are not limited to the suggested amounts. TEXPAC will not favor or disadvantage anyone based on the amounts or failure to make contributions. Contributions are subject to the prohibitions and limitations of the Federal Election Campaign Act.
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