With $2 million given this year, Houston couple has secured position at summit of Democratic donors
HOUSTON — Texas conservatives will forever hold a special place in their hearts for 2003. Republicans took control of the Legislature that year, cut state spending and restricted jury awards in lawsuits.
But 2003 made Steve Mostyn angry. The Houston trial lawyer looked at how the new regime approached state government and saw children losing statefunded health insurance, college tuition increasing and, yes, barriers at the courthouse.
“It burned a hole in me pretty deep,” Mostyn said.
Mostyn has responded in the years since by giving money to Democratic candidates. And giving and giving. In the past couple of election cycles, Mostyn (pronounced MOSS-tin) and his wife, Amber Anderson Mostyn, have become perhaps the most important donors in the Texas Democratic Party.
Already this year, the couple and their law firm have contrib- uted more than $2 million to candidates and political groups, mostly to Democrats. The Mostyns, both 39, have quickly joined a handful of Democratic donors, usually trial lawyers, who can step into a legislative race and match business interests on the Republican side dollar-for-dollar.
This year, for the first time, they are heavily engaged in the governor’s race as well. Mostyn said he has put more than $1 million into a new political action committee named Back to Basics, which has pestered Gov. Rick Perry with two television ads in the past month.
The Mostyns gave more than $500,000 to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White or the Democratic Governors Association, a national group helping White, and Anderson Mostyn will soon launch a group that she says will back candidates based on their support for public education.
Their heavy involvement
does little to dispel the notion that, as Republican state House Speaker Joe Straus told the San Antonio Express-News last year, “the Democrats are wholly owned by the trial lawyers.” After all, the couple met while volunteering for the Texas Trial Lawyers Association during a legislative session, and Mostyn is the group’s incoming president.
He knows the stigma is out there, but he thinks it’s overrated. For instance, Republican Lance Gooden took tens of thousands of dollars from trial lawyers in his primary challenge to East Texas Rep. Betty Brown this year, and Brown’s allies made sure voters knew about it. But Gooden won anyway.
As Anderson Mostyn said, “We are who we are.”
“The reason I’m a trial lawyer is I believe in individual access to courts and that the little guy should get a fair shake against an insurance company or a big corporation. That’s what being a Democrat is about for me, is lifting all boats. It’s really all tied together.”
The couple say that recent Democratic wins in places such as Round Rock and Mesquite show that the party can compete in traditionally Republican areas if candidates have enough money to paint a contrast between the parties.
Mostyn’s political influence comes from his success in the courtroom. He doesn’t come from money. He grew up in the East Texas town of Whitehouse, and he was the first in his family to get a college degree.
It wasn’t long after he graduated from South Texas College of Law that he saw the other lawyers in his firm were going home well before he did. So he struck out on his own and found success by representing people who wanted to sue their insurance companies, such as those who had mold or foundation problems in their houses or who were denied coverage by their health carriers.
When Hurricane Rita hit the Texas coast in 2005, Mostyn and his firm quickly stepped in to represent homeowners who believed their insurance companies had shortchanged them. It was a natural fit, Mostyn said, because his work on mold and foundation cases was similar.
Word spread quickly that Mostyn was becoming the go-to lawyer for hurricane cases, and he eventually worked on 1,200 Rita claims. In case after case, Mostyn argued that insurance companies had underpaid property owners for their damage. And because he took on so many cases at once, insurance companies could not just litigate a few homeowners until they ran out of time or money, he said.
“We have a pretty good working relationship with all the major carriers now,” Mostyn, a burly former football player wearing boots and jeans, said in an interview at his office near Houston’s Galleria. “I mean, they know. I tell them they cheated the people, and they don’t say, ‘OK,’ but they say, ‘How much did I cheat them?’”
Mostyn’s extensive work on hurricane cases continued when Ike hit Texas in September 2008. Last week, he announced a $189 million proposed settlement with the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association for 2,400 Galveston County property owners whose homes were destroyed by Ike. The association, also known as TWIA, is the insurer of last resort for homeowners in coastal areas most vulnerable to hurricanes.
Houston trial lawyer Kurt Arnold worked with Mostyn on a case against an SUV manufacturer whose seats were severely overheating in vehicles modified for people with paralysis. Because of his paralysis, one client did not know how hot the seat was until he could smell his skin burning.
“Steve is totally relentless,” Arnold said. “Every day, every night was a new e-mail, a new motion; he had discovered some sort of document that had led him to a new trail of documents. I’ve never seen a large auto manufacturer roll over and say uncle like that.”
Mostyn’s drive can irritate those on the other side of the table.
TWIA General Manager Jim Oliver complained in a December letter to a legislative oversight panel that Mostyn had demanded more than $86 million in legal fees for 315 cases it filed against the association, not including economic and punitive damages.
“These demands came almost always at the very beginning of the lawsuits, with no explanation as to how attorneys’ fees could possibly be so high, so fast,” Oliver said, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Mostyn responded that Oliver was trying to distract attention from the association’s poor conduct.
Mostyn has shown the same tenacity in politics as in the courthouse. Whereas Dallas trial lawyer Fred Baron, who died in 2008, contributed millions to the party to rebuild its infrastructure, Mostyn said he is more focused on individual campaigns.
Mostyn doesn’t just sit in Houston and write checks. Candidates generally approach him for money. Before he contributes, he or his wife will meet with them, usually on the candidate’s home turf.
“If you see my name or Amber’s name on a contribution, we’ve had the conversation,” Mostyn said. “And it’s a conversation of, ‘Tell me you’re going to run a professional campaign, tell me what your plan is, tell me who your consultants are, tell me where you stand on some issues like education and insurance, and tell me who you think your district is.’”
He cringed at the notion that he’s an enforcer of party purity. But he has repeatedly contributed to candidates who somehow strayed from the Democratic leadership.
For example, in 2006 he gave about $70,000 to Brian Thompson in his unsuccessful bid to oust Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, in the Democratic primary. Dukes’ support of then-Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, angered Mostyn, and he said she wasn’t voting her district. He has more patience with Democrats who come from moderate districts.
Mostyn, who keeps an office in Austin during the legislative session, doesn’t dispute that he is heavily involved in lawyer-related issues through his role with the trial lawyers’ association. But he speaks at length about issues that have little to do with lawsuit reform, and he said his personal contributions are separate from his work with the trial lawyers. For example, while many trial lawyers supported the re-election of GOP Sen. Kim Brimer in 2008, the Mostyns supported Democrat Wendy Davis, who defeated Brimer.
Besides, his personal stake in the legislative process now goes beyond legal issues. Mostyn has part ownership of Lone Star Park, a horseracing track in Grand Prairie, and he says that expanded gambling at tracks is needed to keep the racing industry alive in Texas.
Mostyn said he won’t stop giving money to lawmakers whom he otherwise supports just because they oppose gambling. And, he said, he isn’t planning to run for anything himself.
“I think I have a much better impact on trying to get some of the reforms we want by making money and being able to fund some candidates to get their message out,” he said.
Amber Anderson Mostyn and Steve Mostyn are top donors to Texas Democrats, able to match business interests on the Republican side dollar-for-dollar. The couple has put more than $1 million into a new political action committee named Back to Basics.
Steve Mostyn grew up in the East Texas town of Whitehouse, lives in Houston and keeps an office in Austin during the legislative session.