- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2001

DALLAS Tired of the Republicans' near domination the past decade, Texas Democrats are looking with anticipation to a political novice becoming their candidate for governor next year.

Austin is rife with rumor that respected Laredo businessman Tony Sanchez Jr. will accept the challenge. Mr. Sanchez has formed an exploratory committee to test the waters and begin raising campaign funds. Insiders claim it will be at least six months before he announces his plans.

Mr. Sanchez, 58, is a hugely successful banker, gas producer and venture capitalist who is reportedly worth more than $600 million. Though he has usually funded Democratic candidates and causes, he and his various political action committees funneled more than $300,000 to George W. Bush's last two successful campaigns.

Mr. Sanchez has refused numerous requests for interviews. But he continues to meet with Democratic advisers at his 6,000-acre ranch located 45 miles outside of Laredo including a well-publicized visit on Inauguration Day from former San Antonio mayor and Clinton administration Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros.

Mr. Cisneros said he offered his help if Mr. Sanchez decides to make the race.

He said he was not given "a direct answer" as to Mr. Sanchez's willingness to enter the fray but said he was hopeful.

Mr. Sanchez was named to the University of Texas Board of Regents four years ago by Gov. Bush and is a former member of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission. He has never run for public office.

Some Republicans seem fearful of Mr. Sanchez becoming a candidate not only because he would be expected to draw heavily from the state's burgeoning Hispanic voter pool, but also because the entrepreneur is said to be entertaining the thought of spending his own money.

One report in the Dallas Morning News last week quoted some who are privy to Mr. Sanchez's plans as saying he would spend from $10 million to $30 million of his own money and seek $10 million to $15 million more from contributors.

But would this make him a shoo-in?

Not so, said Texas GOP chief Susan Weddington. "There are enough issues with some of his history, he may turn out to be more of an albatross to Democrats than their savior," she told reporters without elaborating.

Kelly Fero, Austin political consultant and Mr. Sanchez's spokesman, says the Sanchez campaign, if it materializes, "will be a different kind of campaign."

He said Mr. Sanchez "obviously wouldn't be running because he needs a job" and told Austin reporters, "If he runs, he's going to be running on a kind of crusade to set the course for the state."

John Sharp, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in 1998, claims he first mentioned the idea of running to Mr. Sanchez in 1999 and that the Laredo businessman replied, "You're crazy."

Mr. Sharp is expected to run for lieutenant governor again next year. He was defeated by a narrow margin by Rick Perry, who now is Texas governor.

"[Republicans] are already digging into Mr. Sanchez's business background," said Frank Bascom, a Houston private investigator, "but from what I know of the guy, he's squeaky clean. He does a load of charitable work and goes to church more often than some of the priests."

Mr. Sanchez, who is married, has four children. He has a law degree from St. Mary's University (San Antonio) and has been very active in the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund as a national council member.

His main thrust, claim some who have worked with him, is to improve education. President Bush made the issue one of his main concerns in gubernatorial campaigns and his successful presidential bid.

Mr. Sharp said Mr. Sanchez had expressed the belief that the success of all is dependent on a good education, and that is why he is so interested in trying to better the state's educational systems.

He and his family are the largest stockholders in International Bancshares Corp., a large bank holding company and the founder of Sanchez Oil & Gas Corp., one of Texas largest natural gas producers. He also has vast holdings in technology firms.

The would-be candidate has refused interviews.

Mr. Perry, who moved up to the governorship when Mr. Bush became president, faces a possible challenge from Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who has expressed some interest in running for governor.

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