Politics 2004Week of March 22


The first round in the rancorous two-year reapportionment bout in Texas ended when the Supreme Court refused to overturn a lower-court ruling upholding a plan that should give Republicans 22 of the 32 seats in the Lone Star State’s U.S. House delegation. The second round ended two weeks ago, when Texas primary voters chose candidates in new districts that Democrats and Republicans alike agree should raise the odds on Republicans’ retaining their majority in the House this fall.

As expected, two different pairs of incumbent U.S. representatives will square off: In the newly carved 32nd District (Greater Dallas), conservative Republican four-term Rep. Pete Sessions (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 99%) will meet 26-year Rep. Martin Frost (lifetime ACU rating: 16%), past chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in a classic left-right confrontation. In the new 19th District (Lubbock), freshman Republican Rep. Randy Neugebauer is taking on “Blue Dog” Democratic Rep. Charles Stenholm, a 26-year incumbent whose former 17th District was merged in the 19th. The Republican lawmakers are the early favorites in both districts.

In three other districts, redistricting made three hitherto untouchable Democratic congressmen now at least even money to go down to Republican challengers: In the 1st (Texarkana) four-term Democrat Max Sandlin (lifetime ACU rating: 33%) will meet one of two Republicans following the April run-off–either former District Judge Louis Gohmert or John Graves, the ’02 GOP nominee in the neighboring 4th District–the New York Times has already written about the contest. In the 9th between former District Judge Ted Poe–who rolled up a majority of the Republican primary vote over two opponents–and Democratic Rep. Nick Lampson (lifetime ACU rating: 19%), calling it one of the hot House races in the nation. Finally, in the reapportioned 17th District (Fort Hood-Fort Worth-College Station), Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards (lifetime ACU rating: 26%) has to run in unfamiliar territory against the eventual winner of the Republican run-off–State Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth of Johnson County or Dot Snyder, president of the Waco Independent School District.

A generation ago–even 10 years ago–the scenario of Republicans’ having run-offs for any office and Democratic lawmakers scrambling to find turf in which to run again would have been unthinkable. But with all statewide offices and a majority of both houses of the state legislature in GOP hands (as of this past year) and George W. Bush in the White House, Texas politics have changed dramatically. When the Austin-based 10th District held by Lyndon B. Johnson from 1937-48 and held for the last decade by liberal Democrat Lloyd Doggett was transformed into a sprawling, GOP-heavy district, Doggett chose to seek re-election in the new neighboring 25th District. Running in a district that is half-Latino and stretches from Austin to the Mexican border, the Anglo congressman nonetheless defeated District Judge Leticia Hinojosa in the primary by a handsome margin.

Fellow Democratic Rep. Chris Bell was not so fortunate. Choosing to seek a second term in his 9th District (Houston) after redistricting made it more than 71% black and Latino, Bell went down to defeat by more than a 2-to-1 margin to former state NAACP President Al Green, who is black.

The other Democratic House incumbent who faced a stiff renomination challenge was four-termer Ciro Rodriguez, whose 28th District was redrawn to include Zapata, Laredo, Guadalupe, and parts of San Antonio. Rodriguez apparently staved off a strong primary challenge from Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who served as secretary of state under Bush when he was governor and who two years ago ran a close race against Republican Rep. Henry Bonilla in the neighboring district. Although Rodriguez claimed victory, a recount seemed certain.

Three other districts are now viewed as securely Republican and in two of them, the Republicans long presumed the probable nominees easily won their primaries: former local school board member and Bush family friend Mike Conaway in the new 11th District (Midland) and former Carrollton Mayor Kenny Marchant in the new 24th (Fort Worth, Dallas, Denton).

That leaves the reconstituted 10th, which now stretches from the northeast part of Travis County (Austin) well into the Harris County suburbs. To no one’s surprise, eight Republicans competed for nomination. The top vote-getter was stalwart conservative mortgage banker Ben Streusand, with 28% of the vote. Given his strong base in Harris County and solid following on the right, Streusand is a strong favorite in the run-off next month over runner-up (24%) Mike McCall, a former assistant U.S. attorney and the son-in-law of the owner of the Clear Channel radio empire.


There were only two real contests in Illinois last week, both for U.S. Senate nominations. With GOP Sen. Peter Fitzgerald retiring after one term, Democrats chose as their nominee State Sen. Barack Obama, son of a Kenyan father and American mother and the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. With much of the media hailing his rags-to-riches background and with solid backing from liberal intellectuals and fellow blacks, the 41-year-old Obama topped a seven-candidate field with 52% of the vote. The top runners-up were State Comptroller Dan Hynes (candidate of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s organization) and investment banker Blair Hull (who spent an estimated $29 million of his own money on the race).

Although the general election is eight months away, liberal pundits have already been touting Obama as a Senate star, pointing out that he is a University of Chicago lecturer, just like the late Sen. (1948-66) Paul Douglas (D.-Ill.). But Obama will first have to overcome Chicago businessman Jim Ryan, who won the four-candidate Republican primary with 36% of the vote. Despite media focus on his stormy 1999 divorce from former Star Trek:Voyager beauty Jeri Ryan, the industrialist candidate won in part because of spending $4.7 million of his own money on the race and having a well-organized effort under campaign manager Jason Miller, who has orchestrated winning campaigns for Republican Representatives Ric Keller (Fla.) and Darrell Issa (Calif.).


Although he died of a heart attack on January 5, the sudden passing of Harold (Tex) Lezar at age 55 was still being talked about by his fellow Texas conservatives as they went to the polls two weeks ago. Although it was George W. Bush who won the governorship in 1994 and made possible the present Republican Party domination of the Lone Star State, most Texas conservatives agree that losing lieutenant governor running mate Lezar was a key player who helped give the modern GOP its decidedly right-of-center agenda and ideas. Like close friend and fellow Reagan Administration alumnus Bill Bennett, Lezar was more attuned to formulating and selling ideas than running for office.

A graduate of Yale and the University of Texas Law School, the young Lezar rose swiftly as an aide to President Nixon and special counsel to the Texas secretary of state. As assistant U.S. attorney general for legal policy–a key spot during the Reagan years–Lezar oversaw perhaps the most enduring legacy of the 40th President, the naming of federal judges to be given lifetime appointments.

As president of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation in the 1990s, Lezar assembled a sweeping manifesto entitled Making Government Work: A Conservative Agenda for the States. Among the concepts addressed in the work were school choice begun on a local level, 40 hours of weekly public service for able-bodied welfare and food stamp recipients, greater punishment in prison and less recreation, and initiative and referendum on any proposed tax increases and term limits. Most of the issues Lezar delineated were championed by Bush as governor and by the Republican state legislators. In later years, Lezar chaired the Washington, D.C.-based Empower America founded by friends Bennett and Jack Kemp.

Judge Patrick Higginbotham of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson were just two of the hundreds of mourners who bid Lezar farewell. In Higginbotham’s words, “He combined an outstanding ability to write and an incisive appreciation of complicated issues of politics and public affairs.”