Election 2008


‘Texas Justice’ Judge Larry Joe May Ride into Congress

October 24, 2008 03:55 PM
by Erin Harris
Larry Joe Doherty, former judge on the TV series Texas Justice, runs in the 10th Congressional District against Republican incumbent Michael McCaul.

A New Cowboy in Town: Larry Joe Doherty Rides into Congress

It’s happened before: celebrities waning out of the television spotlight to take seats in Congress. “Crazy Cooter” from The Dukes of Hazzard made his move to represent Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives. Love Boat’s Fred Grandy took a seat for Iowa. Even Sonny Bono served as a congressman, representing California in the mid-’90s.

Today, Judge Larry Joe Doherty from the TV series Texas Justice is playing his hand. Doherty, listed on the National Committee for an Effective Congress’s (NCEC) Candidate Center as an “attorney, TV actor, singer, and poet,” is running against two-term incumbent Rep. Michael McCaul in Texas’ 10th District.

Consisting of Austin and Houston suburbs, the district is traditionally Republican, with 61 percent of the population favoring President George W. Bush in the 2004 elections. This year, however, the tide seems to be turning, with Doherty closing up the gap on McCaul just days before voters hit the polls.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, eager to grab the seat from the Republican incumbent, has buoyed the former TV star’s campaign with funding and other support. News reports predict that Doherty’s celebrity status, well-funded campaign, and a surge in Democrats’ confidence, particularly in Austin, from the Obama rallies may be enough to win him the seat he is seeking.

Meanwhile, McCaul refuses to acknowledge his challenger, whose antics he feels will turn the election into a “media circus.”

Background: Celebrity transitions; Texas Justice TV

This isn’t the first time a television star has leapt from the small screen to Capitol Hill. Among the most famous, Fred Grandy jumped ship from his role as Gopher on Love Boat to serve in Congress representing Iowa. There’s little doubt that Sonny Bono’s fame as a national icon helped him win a House seat from California in 1994. And Ben Jones, who played Cooter the mechanic on The Dukes of Hazzard from 1979 to 1985, was elected to serve two terms in Congress from Georgia’s Fourth District.

According to Jones, name recognition is everything in politics: “When people go down and look at the ballot, if they know one name and they don’t know another, they’ll vote for the one they know,” he told USA Today.

The transition can work in reverse too, as demonstrated by Jerry Springer, who served two terms as mayor of Cincinnati in the 1970s before hosting The Jerry Springer Show. In 2003, Springer considered leveraging his celebrity status to move back into the political sphere, but ultimately decided not to run for Congress, saying that he could not break through the “clutter” of his trashy talk show: “As long as I’m doing that show, my message, no matter how sincere and no matter how heartfelt, does not get through to the people I need to reach.”

Still, the ease with which past TV stars have slid into Congressional seats presents a challenge for U.S. Representative Michael McCaul, as his opponent has starred on the popular courtroom program Texas Justice, which ran from 2001 to 2005. The show, which opens with Larry Joe riding horseback in a cowboy hat amid a montage of Texas imagery, focuses on minor cases that deal with no more than $5,000. Virginia Heffernan of Slate highlights Texas Justice’s “folksy” overtones, made apparent when the bailiff instructs the courtroom, “Y’all rise,” upon Judge Doherty’s arrival.

Key Players: Judge Larry Joe Doherty, Rep. Michael McCaul

Larry Joe Doherty
Before earning fame for his clichéd role as a Texas judge on TV, Doherty practiced law in Houston for 31 years. A partner at the Doherty & Wagner law firm, he focused mainly on legal malpractice suits. He also served as a member of the Texas Wildlife Association. Before the premiere of Texas Justice, Doherty told the Houston Business Journal, “I’m going to try to dispense broad justice. It’s not going to be harsh or hostile.”

Today he is running on a platform of energy independence, affordable healthcare for the working class and withdrawal from Iraq. Doherty’s campaign Web site also highlights accessible higher education and creating a more sustainable environment as top priorities once he is elected to office.
Michael McCaul
Republican Michael McCaul is currently serving his second term in the U.S. House of Representatives for the 10th District of Texas. His earlier roles include Chief of Terrorism and National Security in the U.S. Attorney’s office, federal prosecutor, and Texas Deputy Attorney General. McCaul’s campaign emphasizes tightening border control, increased medical and financial support for veterans and protecting America from terrorist attacks by equipping troops abroad with the best equipment and intelligence teams.

Reactions: Doherty gets Red to Blue support; McCaul keeps quiet

On Oct. 14, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added Larry Joe to its Red to Blue Program, an initiative designed to replace Republicans in Congress with Democrats. The program not only delivers more publicity to Doherty, but will also provide additional financial and strategic aid to the Democratic candidate.

Politicker TX tracks the pulse of the heated Doherty-McCaul race. In the third quarter, it reported that McCaul raised more than twice as much in campaign funding as Doherty did. However, the Austin American Statesman endorsed the former Texas Justice star, saying that, despite his “rather eccentric personality and unusual way of speaking, his agenda would be a good fit for Austin.” The Statesman added that McCaul’s low profile and his previous support of the Bush administration may cost him voters.

McCaul has refused to debate his colorful opponent, saying “I’m not into making a big spectacle out of this thing, a media circus.”

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