Both sides of lawsuit reform issue have mobilized quickly
Networking, grass-roots efforts come into play

The Dallas Morning News
Charles B. Camp, Legal Affairs Writer of The Dallas Morning News
April 2, 1995, Sunday, HOME FINAL EDITION

AUSTIN - In mobilizing at the last minute, individual critics of lawsuit reform have stolen a page from their adversaries' playbook.

Probably no one has worked harder in the Texas grass roots than Houston-based Texans for Lawsuit Reform, one of the two business-related groups pushing legislation in Austin.

"I've been going 14 hours a day, giving speeches about what tort reform is, why we need it, what the problem is. We're building bridges between the average Texan and his or her legislator," said Ken Hoagland, the reform group's "external constituent relations director." In other words, his job is to organize spontaneous grass-roots support for tort reform. And lately there's plenty of that.

As opponents line up in hearing rooms, so do advocates:

executives, professionals, small-business owners and leaders of civic and trade organizations. Even the rhetoric starts to blur, with some people on each side effectively presenting themselves as victims of the other.

At one early meeting, the opening parade of pro-reform witnesses ranged from an executive of A.H. Belo Corp., owner of The Dallas Morning News, to the head of a flag company. The leader of the Greater Houston Partnership, an economic development group, testified, as did the owner of a Houston wine and liquor chain, an economist and a public utility executive.

"When people get the merest ink-ling they can do something, they get energized," said Mr. Hoagland.

Richard Weekley, a Houston commercial real estate developer, created Texans for Lawsuit Reform about two years ago and helped develop the sweeping package it now is pushing as a once-and-for-all fix.

A networking plan

One secret of Texans for Lawsuit Reform's success is its well-honed networking plan. Backers include business and professional groups that have more than 150,000 members, says Mr. Hoagland. Many of those individuals agree to spread the word further - to friends, associates, customers and contacts.

Thus, at 7 a.m. in Sherman one recent day, Mr. Hoagland found himself talking to 300 people rounded up by a local doctor for coffee and a lesson on tort reform.

Early in the game, the group began running advertisements that - besides soliciting donations - invited calls to a professionally operated 800-number "phone bank." Callers get letter-writing advice, and for a time could be patched through to legislators' desks. Mr. Hoagland estimates the ads and calls generated about 11,000 Senate contacts in one recent 30-day period.

In response, a group made up mostly of trial lawyers bankrolled television, radio and print ads and its own 800 number. That effort put "thousands" of competing anti-reform telegrams on lawmakers' desks, one organizer claims.

But it's the reform group's tactics that have become an issue.

In late February, an irritated Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock sought and got an advertising moratorium, only to have it fall apart in eight days. Each side blames the other. "You can't find out a thing in a 28-second ad. It confuses the issue," Mr. Bullock said.

Also, some legislators resent the blizzard of calls, letters and faxes, he says. And he doesn't like it much, either. The battle for the hearts and minds of the public has only delayed compromise and wasted valuable legislative time, he suggests. "It seems like all we've done this session is damn torts. I'm worn out with it."

He indicates particular frustration with Mr. Weekley - at the same time that he praises him. "I'd tell him, Mr. Weekley, you're driving me nuts; quit this.' He is the most tenacious and likable man," Mr. Bullock said.

Looking both parts

Tall, lean, bespectacled and reserved, Mr. Weekley looks both parts. He's tireless, aides and friends say. In public, laughter doesn't come easily, but he exudes enthusiasm. He faithfully attends tort-reform hearings and can frequently be found huddling with aides in Capitol hallways - sometimes wearing a white lapel button bearing the number 11 to signify the reform group's 11-point agenda.

At times, witnesses criticize him by name, and in one late-night meeting, Rep. Debra Danburg, D-Houston, interrupted an anti-reform speaker to demand Mr. Weekley come in from a hallway to hear the attack. He didn't.

Mr. Bullock, without naming Mr. Weekley, complains that some reform leaders have undercut compromise efforts with a "take no prisoners, don't change this bill" attitude."

Mr. Weekley rejects such criticism, although he praises legislative leaders, including Mr. Bullock. "That's plainly not accurate. We have obviously compromised, if people would just take time to look," he said. He admits Texans for Lawsuit Reform doesn't fold easily. But that's not personal whim, he says; the group is trying to keep faith with its huge statewide constituency.

"We presented a program we felt would solve the problem. People signed up on that basis. One or two individuals can't now just give up on it," he said.

Mr. Weekley also concedes that he's not schooled in the ways of the capital. "I didn't know what to expect when I came here," he said. "But things are going great. The system is working; constituents are letting their feelings be known."

And to that extent, Mr. Weekley may be a lot like the people who have shown up to oppose him: "Dick Weekley is like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington ," said Mr. Hoagland, the reform group official "He has this idea that government is supposed to work like the civics books say. And he's going to make it do that."

Richard Weekley... Houston developer "is the most tenacious and likable man," said Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock.

© Copyright 1995 The Dallas Morning News