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District Runoff for Gonzalez Seat Could End With Favored Son

By Marc Birtel, CQ Staff Writer

(CQ, April 4) -- Only a tiny fraction of Texas' registered voters are expected to go to the polls for the state's five congressional runoff elections on April 14, a forecast based on the most sparsely attended statewide primary in 30 years.

Those low estimates make candidates such as Charles Gonzalez very nervous.

Gonzalez, a former state district judge, emerged as the leader in a seven-way, open seat contest to succeed his father, 36-year veteran Democratic Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez, who is retiring. Although he bested the second-place finisher, former San Antonio City Councilwoman Maria Antonietta Berriozabal, by 22 points in the March 10 primary, Gonzalez still fell short of a majority, forcing a tough runoff.

And the runoff is where the seat likely will be decided in this heavily Democratic and predominantly Hispanic district. The winner will face Republican James Walker, who has little chance of prevailing in the general election.

Although he remains favored in the race, Gonzalez has had to restart his campaign financially from ground zero. He estimates that he spent about $200,000 through the primary and acknowledged he did not have much cash remaining.

"We spent almost all of our money the first time around," he said, referring to all the candidates. "It would have been crazy not to." He said the runoff will cost him an additional $150,000.

Berriozabal is not as well-financed as Gonzalez, but has developed an effective grass-roots organization that clearly produced on primary day.

Much of her strategy remains the same: recruiting more than 800 volunteers to spread her liberal message across San Antonio's diverse neighborhoods. Also carrying Berriozabal into the runoff over some well-financed competitors was her high name recognition from her unsuccessful 1991 bid for mayor.

But Gonzalez might have the ultimate trump card in the contest: His last name. Both candidates say that the 81-year-old ailing congressman, who endorsed his son in the primary, remains highly regarded in the 20th District.

Although the older Gonzalez has been unable to stump for his son, the candidate has evoked his family ties at every possible turn. From his campaign signs ("Gonzalez, Congress") to his television ads (in which he talks to an image of his father), Gonzalez has promised voters that he will continue his father's work in Congress.

"It's the Henry B. legacy that is going to win it for Charlie," said David Duke, a political scientist at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio.

Berriozabal has tried to counter Gonzalez's advantage by touting her 10-year record on the city council, and faulting the younger Gonzalez for his lack of a political record.

14th District Face-off

Democrats also will be choosing a nominee to face GOP Rep. Ron Paul in the 14th District. Paul, a former Libertarian who has become known for casting lonely votes against widely popular bipartisan legislation, remains the Democrats' top target in Texas this year.

Former county judge and rice farmer Loy Sneary emerged from the four-way primary as the leader, garnering 40 percent of the vote. Car dealer Tom Reed edged education professor Margaret Dunn for the second runoff slot with 27 percent of the vote.

Both candidates have raised considerable sums, with Reed spending more than $143,000 in the primary as of Feb. 18. Sneary has a comparable amount on hand -- $156,686 --but seems to be conserving his resources for Paul, who has $318,612 for his re-election bid.

Sneary's strategy in the runoff is to win over voters in 10 of the district's 22 counties, who will be heading to the polls primarily for local contests.

"Being a county judge for five years, I know that many folks are more concerned about local races than who their congressman is," Sneary said.

Other Runoffs

In the 9th District, insurance executive Tom Cottar emerged ahead of lumber executive Adonn Slone in the four-way primary to face freshman Democrat Nick Lampson in the fall. Both candidates have agreed to work together after the runoff for an acknowledged uphill battle.

Former Houston City Councilwoman Beverley Clark switched parties this year to vie for the GOP nomination against incumbent Democrat Ken Bentsen in the 25th District. Clark finished second in a three-way contest to physician John M. Sanchez, who came within 3 percentage points of the majority threshold to avoid a runoff. Sanchez calls himself "the true Republican in the race." Also in the San Antonio area, 1996 Democratic nominee Charles Urbina Jones will face psychology professor Joseph P. Sullivan for the right to challenge GOP Rep. Henry Bonilla in the 23rd District.

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.
In CQ News This Week

Saturday April 4, 1998

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On the Hill And At Home, GOP Is Torn By Internal Strife
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Decision In Paula Jones Case Leaves Starr Determined, Congress Uneasy
District Runoff For Gonzalez Seat Could End With Favored Son


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