Texas Trial, Texan Style

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison faces ethics charges in a state where politics is `a collision sport'

CHEERLEADER, law school graduate, TV reporter, businesswoman, United States senator - Kay Bailey Hutchison has been just about everything that good looks, intelligence, energy, and ambition can make a Texan.

But convicted felon? State prosecutors this week began trying to brand that dishonor on Senator Hutchison's resume just when she is standing for reelection. Her plight prompted her colleague in the Senate and the Republican Party, John McCain of Arizona, to observe that Texas politics is not just a contact sport, but a collision sport.

Wearing a business suit and unobtrusive jewelry, Hutchison looks gravely professional at her first court appearance. Her manner lacks the outrage displayed by state GOP officials, who charge that the trial is politically motivated.

A supporter with a question approaches her during a recess. ``Why did [she] ever get into....'' ``This nasty business?'' She completes his sentence in a tone suggesting that she had asked herself that very question.

Hutchison's indictments on ethics charges have already been fodder for the Democratic primary candidates vying for the right to run against her. Judge John Onion closed one avenue for damage Monday when he denied Court Television Network's request to broadcast the trial. He cited concern for a fair trial, but the risk could have been far greater for Hutchison's reelection campaign.

Seeing is believing. A jury might exonerate the senator at the end of up to eight weeks of testimony and arguments. But voters might reach a different decision after witnessing an eight-second clip of anti-Hutchison testimony in an opponent's campaign ad.

Although a Court TV representative assured Judge Onion that it would take quick legal action to force such an ad off the air, Hutchison's lawyers were skeptical. Onion sided with them.

Other preliminary maneuvers have also favored the defendant. The judge who would have heard Hutchison's case stepped aside because he had donated money to her opponent in last June's special Senate race. After taking over, Onion agreed to move the trial out of Travis County, which is dominated by liberal Democrats and is the only county in the state, Republicans claim, where a grand jury would have indicted Hutchison.

Fort Worth, by contrast, is an overgrown cow town and proud of it. The annual stock show and rodeo, which concluded the day before the trial, is still the major event here. ``A big city with a small-town attitude'' is how one resident characterized the seat of conservative Tarrant County. Little wonder, then, that Fort Worth was the defense's first choice of venue, according to Dick DeGuerin, lead defense attorney. A Hutchison aide says that a hung jury is the best outcome the prosecution can hope for.

Absent from the courtroom is Ronnie Earle, the Democratic district attorney of Travis County who originally brought the charges. An assistant district attorney who won conviction in all 80 felony cases he has tried is handling the Hutchison prosecution.

To some of her friends in the visitors gallery, the episode evokes a sense of d vu. Carolyn Rogers, who went through freshman rush with Hutchison at the University of Texas, points out that some key and peripheral players crossed paths at UT law school.

And, in her estimation, everyone is much the same: Hutchison is the popular achiever. Mr. Earle runs with the not-quite-the-right crowd and has unfulfilled ambitions. Mr. DeGuerin is tough, scrappy, and successful. Texas Monthly's Paul Burka is the same informed observer he was when he wrote for the student newspaper.

``We're all in the same roles,'' Mrs. Rogers says. ``We've just gotten older.''

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