HOUSTON — For more than a decade, President Bush's claim of a Texas hotel as his official residence has been the butt of snide jokes and mocking comic strips, but Democrats made it clear Sunday that they plan to make it a campaign issue and that they will try to paint the President as a tax dodger.
The vehicle they used to get their message across was a bus tour of the Bush residence at the Houstonian Hotel, a swing by a vacant lot owned by the President and a quick press conference by a disgruntled neighbor who said that the arrangement was a sham.
The tour guide was Jim Hightower, the former Texas agriculture commissioner noted for his liberal credentials and acidic tongue. He described the ride around town as "the rolling thunder Texas bushwhacker bus tour."
"The message is plain and straightforward," Hightower said. "We want you to see with your very own eyes the residence of the President."
Humorous coating aside, the bottom line of the message was that Bush--by claiming residency in a state with no income tax--had saved himself an estimated $224,000 that would have gone into the coffers of the state of Maine--the locale of his 26-room oceanside mansion.
Joining Hightower in his attack on Bush was George A. Christie, executive director of the Maine People's Alliance, an organization that has been campaigning to make the President pay Maine taxes. The impetus for the challenge was an article that appeared in Money magazine last January and contained a detailed description of how Bush had at different times claimed both Maine and Texas addresses, apparently to avoid paying taxes.
Christie said Bush tried to claim that Maine was the family's principal residence after the sale of their Houston home in 1981 for a profit of $596,101. But the Internal Revenue Service ruled against Bush, forcing him to pay more than $170,000 in capital gains taxes.
In 1985, Bush signed an affidavit claiming that Houston was his permanent home and that he intended to return to the city at the end of his term of office and build a single-family residence on a lot at 9 West Oak Lane South. The affidavit was part of a settlement of a lawsuit challenging Bush's right to vote in Texas.
Christie said that, despite the affidavit, it was clear that Bush does not live here and spends very little time here.
"I have two things in common with the President," Christie said. "One, I own a home in Maine. Two, it is the only home I own."
The response from the White House in the past on this subject has been to dismiss it out of hand. White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater calls the recurring questions of residency a "farce. His official residence is in Texas. He represented it in Congress. He spent his adult life there."
In the 1988 presidential race, Texas Democrats tried to point up the tenuousness of the Bush position by renting the suite where the President stays at the Houstonian and throwing a "bologna buffet."
"Texans know what a home is and what a hotel room is," Austin Democrat Ty Fain said at the time.
During the course of the afternoon tour, the bus, which had to be brought in from Louisiana because the Republicans had rented every vehicle for miles around, stopped at the gates of the Houstonian, where picketers sported banners that said "George Bush. Read My Lips. Pay Your Taxes."
The tour moved from there to the home of Cherry Hershberger, a Republican-turned-Democrat who would be a nearby neighbor of the Bushes if, in fact, they built a home at 9 West Oak Lane South, a 33-foot-by-160-foot lot. Brought in for the occasion were 40,000-plus applications for Texas residency, generated by a mocking Doonesbury cartoon about Bush's claimed home.
Among them was an application from Darren Shinn, who sent his from a cell at the Lancaster County, Va., Correctional Center. Another was from Ben Refort of Minneapolis, who wrote: "Here's hoping I'm not too late" on the application.
Hershberger herself said that she had been a strong Bush supporter in 1988 but had gradually changed her attitude as the economic slide continued.
"He's just not able to provide the country what it needs now," she said of Bush.
The final stop was the lot, which contains seven trees and is roughly the size of two tennis courts.
Hightower castigated Bush for spending three days in Texas in 1991 and still claiming the state as a legal residence. "The overall message is that the rich are different," he said. "He passes through Texas to bypass Maine taxes."