House Races Steal Show In Nation's First Primary
By Marc Birtel, CQ Staff Writer
The marquee races in the March 10 Texas primary are not at the top of the ballot but in the middle, where a handful of congressional contests are making the nation's first primary state one of the year's most interesting and competitive.
There is little suspense in the statewide races. Neither Senate seat is on the ballot this year, and GOP Gov. George W. Bush is leading his Democratic challenger, state land commissioner Garry Mauro, by more than 40 points in some polls.
Bush's popularity and $13 million campaign fund made the race almost untenable for the Democrats, some of whose prospective champions dropped out and endorsed the incumbent.
The congressional waters have traditionally been placid in Texas, where many incumbents became accustomed to running unopposed. But that tradition was shattered in 1996, when nine new members were elected after a rash of retirements and the departure of three incumbents in the primary (Democrats John Bryant and Jim Chapman were denied in their bids for the Senate; Greg Laughlin lost after switching to the GOP).
The 1998 cycle has just one incumbent retiring, Democrat Henry B. Gonzalez, the dean of the delegation. One-third of the other incumbents face no serious threat in November. But several of the first-term members will have to fight to hang on.
The state's biggest primary free-for-all is in the 20th District, where Gonzalez, the top Democrat on the House Banking Committee, is calling his 18th term his last. Gonzalez's health deteriorated visibly last year as a result of a heart condition, and he has not cast a vote on the House floor since July. The 81-year-old lawmaker issued a statement in September declaring, "I plan only to complete this session."
Most people interpreted the statement to mean he would resign by the end of 1997. But Gonzalez has not resigned, and his uncertain status has created confusion.
This has been hard on Gonzalez's son Charles, who has received his father's endorsement to inherit the seat. The younger Gonzalez, a former state district judge, admitted that his father has kept him in the dark about resigning, and has stood him up at some of his campaign events. On the campaign trail, Gonzalez touts his judicial service, but also displays an explicit desire to continue his father's tradition in Congress by "building a future that honors the past."
Six other Democrats have filed: state Rep. Christine Hernandez; former San Antonio City Councilwoman Maria Antonietta Berriozabal; former House Banking Committee aide Armando Falcon; former Bexar County Democratic Party Chairman Walter Martinez; Balcones Heights City Councilman Steve Walker; and physician Richard Garcia.
The meaningful test in this majority-Hispanic district will be in the primary and the likely April 14 runoff. The district is heavily Democratic: President Clinton scored a 24-point victory in the district in 1996.
Raising money has not been a problem for some of the leading candidates. Hernandez, who was endorsed by Democratic former Gov. Ann Richards, had raised more than $175,000 at the end of 1997. Both Gonzalez and Falcon had raised more than $100,000 at that time.
Berriozabal raised only $36,000 but rides high in polls thanks to name recognition from an unsuccessful 1991 mayoral bid. All the candidates are feverishly raising money, but some local observers discount its importance in the 20th. They say block-walking, phone banks and personal appearances by candidates do as much to build the name recognition needed in this inner-city district.
"Politics in Bexar [San Antonio] County is truly grass-roots," said Virginia Stowitts, a political scientist at Palo Alto College. "Media is not a big deal here."
Nonetheless, Hernandez, whose state House district takes in only a small portion of the 20th, says she needs television to help introduce her to the full district. Gonzalez and Falcon have both indicated they will do televi sion spots as well.
Who Has Paul?
Democrats have set their sights on unseating Republican Ron Paul in the 14th District, which takes in a large portion of rural southeastern Texas. Paul, who had served in the House before (1976-77; 1979-85) is perhaps best known for becoming the Libertarian Party nominee for president in 1988 (he received less than 1 percent nationally).
"The 14th District is our No. 1 challenge race in the state of Texas," said Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Paul has built a record on stringent interpretation of the Constitution, introducing legislation, for example, to withdraw the United States from the United Nations. Paul has also attracted attention by casting some very lonely votes. He even spoke out against honoring Mother Teresa with a Congressional Gold Medal, arguing that the $30,000 expense to taxpayers was " . . . neither constitutional nor in the spirit of Mother Teresa."
Paul defeated party-switching incumbent Laughlin in a low-turnout primary runoff election in 1996, after a second-place finish in the primary. Paul then eclipsed Democrat Charles "Lefty" Morris by 3 percentage points, but only after spending nearly $2 million.
Four Democrats have filed against Paul: former Matagorda County Judge Loy Sneary, car dealer Tom Reed, education professor Margaret Dunn and former congressional aide Roger Elliott.
Sneary, a self-described conservative Democrat, touts his experience as a rice farmer and cattle rancher. He says Paul's anti-government stance has left people without adequate representation in Washington. The Texas Farm Bureau has endorsed Sneary and ranked Paul's record on agricultural issues second-to-worst in the delegation.
Touting himself as the only Texas-born candidate in the race, Reed says he can draw from his experience as a small businessman, along with his activities serving in local economic development projects, and his appointment to the White House Conference on Small Business to bring together a coalition of the traditional Democratic constituency as well as more business-oriented voters. He already has the endorsement of the AFL-CIO, which spent heavily against Paul in 1996.
Sneary has taken a lead in the money race, with more than $175,000 in the bank as of Dec. 31, including $87,450 in loans Sneary made to his campaign. Reed had about $33,000 in the bank, while the other two candidates had $2,500 or less on hand at the end of the year.
No Stockman Return
Republicans want revenge against freshman Nick Lampson, who in 1996 seized the 9th District from one-term Rep. Steve Stockman. A staunch and sometimes controversial conservative, Stockman had stunned the Texas political establishment in 1994 by upsetting veteran Democrat Jack Brooks, then chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Stockman is not seeking revenge personally, however, running instead for the Texas Railroad Commission. The 9th has more registered Democrats than Republicans, and even Rep. John Linder, R-Ga., chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, has called it "one of the more Democratic districts."
Nonetheless, four Republicans -- police officer Onzelo Markum; insurance executive Tom Cottar; lumber executive Adonn Slone and retired welder Don Beagle -- have filed.
Markum was not yet a Republican when he relocated to Texas from Queens seven years ago. He argues that his relative youth at age 36, combined with his law enforcement experience and service on the statewide law enforcement commission (where he serves as a gubernatorial appointee), give him the standing he needs to defeat Lampson. Markum, who says race is "a non-issue," would be the first black Texas Republican in Congress.
Cottar describes himself as the most conservative candidate in the race. The 20-year party activist sayshe shares many views with Stockman but has more experience. Cottar, 53, charges that "corrupt union bosses" helped Lampson win in 1996 by bringing busloads of people from Louisiana to vote illegally.
Slone, 60, describes himself as a "non-politician" who had a 20-year military career and is now president of the Lumbermen's Association of Texas. He says the people of the 9th District want less government intervention in their lives.
The Texas races that promise to be hard fought in the fall include veteran Democrat Charles W. Stenholm's rematch in the 17th with dentist Rudy Izzard, a former city councilman of San Angelo. Freshman Republican Pete Sessions is expected to face a tough challenge in the 5th from Victor Morales, the 1996 Senate nominee who did better than expected against incumbent Republican Phil Gramm. However, Morales must first get past businessman William A. Foster III, who also sought the Democratic nomination in this district in 1996.
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