Politics 2002Week of December 2


The first retirement from the next Congress has already been announced: Larry Combest, ten-term Republican House member from the Lubbock-Midland district of Texas, will resign his seat effective May 31, thus paving the way for the second House by-election of 2003. (The first will be held in Hawaii in January to fill the vacancy caused by the September death of veteran Democratic Rep. Patsy Mink.)

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Combest (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 96%) and wife Sharon cited “personal reasons” for the surprise announcement. Most local pundits and pols believe this was a reference to the death of his father earlier this year and of his 34-year-old daughter in 1999. She left a daughter, the congressman’s only grandchild. In any event, most congressional observers believe that after shepherding the huge, budget-busting $73.7-billion 10-year farm bill through the House this year, Combest is all but guaranteed a lucrative job in the private sector-even though he must observe the ethics rule requiring he wait a year before lobbying on Capitol Hill.

Political circles in the Lone Star State’s 19th District are already buzzing with talk about Combest’s successor. Almost immediately, speculation on the right centered on Republican National Committeeman Tim Lambert, a leader in the national home school movement. Lambert is best known for introducing at a 1998 meeting of the RNC an amendment that would have stopped party funds from going to candidates who do not support a ban on partial-birth abortion. But Lubbock resident Lambert told me he “was not interested in Congress at all” and, with term limits ending his RNC tenure in ’04, said he was concentrating much of his energy on the homeschool cause.

State Sen. Robert L. Duncan, whose district covers a substantial part of the 19th District, would appear to be another natural for the Republican nomination to succeed Combest. But Duncan has signaled he will not run for Congress, in large part because he enjoys serving in the legislature, especially now that Republicans rule both houses.

With Lambert and Duncan out of the running, the favorite among conservative activists appears to be State Rep. Carl Isett of Lubbock. The 45-year-old Isett, as Lambert noted, “is conservative on issues across the board, strongly pro-life, and a homeschool dad.”

After failing to mount a strong challenge to Combest in nearly all his campaigns after the first, area Democrats now feel they might actually have a chance of winning if they nominate a right-of-center candidate. The most-talked-of prospect is State Rep. Pete Laney of Hale Center, whose record ten years as speaker of the Texas house were ended earlier this month by the Republicans’ historic takeover. The 59-year-old Laney has indicated he is at least considering the race.

Another Democratic possibility is former Lubbock Mayor David Langston, once an aide to the district’s revered Democratic Rep. (1934-78) George Mahan, a longtime chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

The tactic of selecting a conservative Democrat has worked for the party before. When Mahan retired in 1978, Democrats nominated State Sen. Kent Hance, whose positions differed little from those of most Republicans and who went on to defeat a magnetic, better-funded GOP opponent. His name was George W. Bush.


Siegelman Says No: What was shaping up as the most extended battle over a governorship since three Georgia Democrats claimed the office in 1946-with even talk of a statehouse seizure by force-has finally ended in Alabama. Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman, counted out by just over 3,000 votes and denied a recount by a strict reading of the election statutes by Republican Atty. Gen. Bill Pryor, had initially refused to concede and vowed a court fight over the results. But he finally decided that such a course of action “would hurt Alabama” and congratulated Republican Gov.-elect Bob Riley.

Last Word from the West: Even though about 167,000 out of more than 600,000 absentee and provisional ballots remained to be counted, conservative Republican State Sen. Tom McClintock last week conceded defeat in the race for state controller of California. The 47-year-old McClintock had been the GOP’s last hope of avoiding a shut-out in the contests for statewide constitutional offices, trailing Democratic nominee and former e-Bay vice president Steven Westly by about 26,000 votes out of more than 6 million cast (or four-tenths of one percent of the vote). Although he gained slightly in the absentee ballot count, Ventura County lawmaker McClintock said he could not gain enough to overcome Westly and thus conceded. The last time one party controlled all constitutional offices in California was in 1946, when then-Gov. Earl Warren led Republicans to a landslide sweep.

Footnote: One ray of hope for California Republicans came from the legislative races. For all the conclusions of the so-called experts that the map of state legislative districts crafted by Democratic State Senate President John Burton was a total incumbents’ protection plan, Republicans actually made a net gain of at least two assembly seats-a third is still up for grabs-and one state senate seat.


The oldest and longest-serving judge at any level in California-and, quite possibly, in America-died on October 27 at age 87. But Justice Mildred Loree Lillie of the California Court of Appeals, who served on the municipal and later the state bench beginning in 1947, was better known for something else: how close she came to being the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court a decade before Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed.

A graduate of the University of California (Berkeley) and its law school, Lillie went to work for the city attorney of Alameda in 1938 and three years later became an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California. Following a brief stint in private practice, she was tapped to be a municipal court judge in Los Angeles in 1947. Two years later, she was named to the Superior Court in Los Angeles County and, in 1958, Republican Gov. Goodwin Knight appointed registered Democrat Lillie an associate justice of the State Court of Appeals.

“Mildred was a Democrat, all right, but a true Jeffersonian Democrat,” once recalled William P. Clark, a top aide to Gov. Ronald Reagan and later a Reagan appointee to the California Supreme Court. After coming to Sacramento in 1967, Reagan, Clark, and U.S. Attorney General-to-be Edwin Meese became fast fans of the justice for her strict constructionist rulings-notably on “law and order” issues-and, when President Nixon had to fill two vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971, Gov. Reagan vigorously promoted Lillie.

Nixon’s private interview with Lillie (whom he insisted on calling “Mrs. Falcone,” although she never used the name of husband A. V. Falcone) went well and, along with her opinions, the President was reportedly intrigued with the fact that Democratic Gov. Edmund (Pat) Brown had refused to elevate her on the state bench because of her conservative decisions.

Following published reports that Nixon had decided to appoint Lillie and Little Rock (Ark.) municipal bond lawyer Herschel Friday to the two openings on the high court, a story was leaked from the American Bar Association that the ABA’s Committee on the Federal Judiciary had tied 6 to 6 on whether to support Friday and voted 11 to 1 that Lillie was “unqualified.” Many White House and Justice Department officials suspected that the ABA’s vote on Lillie had less to do with her legal credentials than with her strong identification as Reagan’s candidate.

But, because less than two years earlier he had seen two Supreme Court nominees rejected by the Senate, Nixon chose not to start what were likely to be more confirmation battles. He instead named to the two vacancies former ABA President Lewis F. Powell and the man who had been escorting Lillie around to appointments in Washington, Assistant U.S. Atty. Gen. William H. Rehnquist, now the chief justice.

Justice Lillie’s name briefly resurfaced as a prospective Supreme Court justice in 1981, when President Reagan was ready to honor his campaign promise to put a woman on the highest court. But her age (67 at the time) worked against her, since Reagan and his advisers believed justices should have at least 20 years to serve. Recalling Lillie, Ed Meese told me she “was a fine jurist, an outstanding person, and an outstanding example for women lawyers of her time.”