Texas Redistricting
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Redistricting Carves out a Tight Race

By Kristen Mack and Justin Gest
Published August 29th 2004 in Houston Chronicle

A Houston-area congressional race with roots in last year's bitter redistricting battle is emerging as one of the state's most competitive, with a Democratic U.S. representative trying to win in a district drawn to defeat him.

U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Beaumont, one of the Democratic incumbents targeted in the Republican redistricting effort, faces a tough challenge from Republican Ted Poe, who became nationally known for creative sentencing during two decades as a Houston felony court judge.

"For the casual outside viewer, this is a Republican district. And it's a Republican year," said Rice University political scientist Bob Stein. "But this is a much closer race than people realize."

Amy Walters, editor of the Cook Political Report, which analyzes races, said Lampson is forcing this race toward local issues such as flood control and pressuring Poe to address those issues. "Lampson could win by detaching himself from the national party label and running as an independent moderate," she said.

Poe is campaigning partly on his record from his 22 years on the Houston bench.

He has several factors working in his favor ó name recognition, a reputation in Houston and a district created to elect him or someone like him ó but he can't rely on those alone to win, analysts said.

Lampson acknowledged he was initially apprehensive about running in the district, which extends from Beaumont to northwest Harris County. Fifty-six percent of that is territory in Harris County that he does not represent now.

"It was intended for me not to win. But I got my confidence back," Lampson said. "Fund-raising is a key indicator of whether people truly support you, whether they want to invest in you."

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to Congress, is concentrating on Lampson and four other races in the state where Democratic incumbents are vulnerable because of the redistricting plan passed by the state's Republican-dominated Legislature last year.

Poe has received support from national GOP stars, including Vice President Dick Cheney, U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Sugar Land and House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, who have headlined fund-raisers on his behalf. Lampson has raised $1.5 million to Poe's $725,000, according to the latest campaign finance reports compiled by the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics.

Advantage of incumbency

Lampson also enjoys the advantage of incumbency, as well as its disadvantages.

Though he has a substantial track record on issues that are important to the district, including transportation and flood control, the time he spends in Washington takes away from the hand shaking he could be doing in Texas.

With Congress in summer recess, Lampson has spent all of August in Texas, and he plans to spend every weekend in his district until the Nov. 2 election.

On a recent trip to Barrett Station in northeast Harris County, Lampson happened upon people during their Saturday morning routines ó cutting grass, taking out garbage. It's a welcoming place where people wave to passers-by and come to the door with coffee in hand.

It also is a part of the new district where Lampson needs to introduce himself.

"This is truly cherry picking," Lampson said. "This particular neighborhood is clearly Democratic. I don't have to take a lot of time explaining my positions, once I tell them I'm a Democrat."

But the residents weren't all that way. At least a couple of conservatives challenged him.

On that same Saturday, Poe ventured into Beaumont, stopping by a weekend cleanup at Church in the Pines in Jefferson County ó Lampson's home and political stronghold.

But Poe spent little time trying to win undecided voters or convert Democrats, concentrating instead on the congregation that was almost entirely in his corner even before his visit. The members offered him a warm welcome but few new votes.

Candidates' strategies

Calvin Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said Poe may need to be more aggressive in pursuing independents, even in the Republican district. "Poe can't afford to phone in the race and go through the motions," Jillson said.

Lampson is touting his congressional record. He sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the House Science Committee. He is the ranking member of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee. And he says he helped bring $100 million in transportation money back to the area in the past eight years.

Lampson also is a founder of the congressional caucus on missing and exploited children and sponsored legislation creating the national Amber Alert.

"If I've done a decent job, I believe the citizens ought to let me go back," Lampson said.

Poe dismisses the idea that Lampson is in a better position to push local issues or draw federal funding to Southeast Texas.

"If federal funds are available for the district, I'll make sure we get them," Poe said. "The people in the 2nd District need more than pure pork-barrel funding. They need a leader."

Poe says the nation should consider a flat income tax, under which all taxpayers would pay the same percentage of their income with fewer loopholes or deductions; and a consumption tax, which would replace some revenue lost to reduced income taxes with higher sales taxes on all products, except necessities such as food or medicine.

In line with the White House, Poe supports making the president's tax cuts permanent and is a supporter of the state of Israel and foreign policy. He opposes blanket amnesty for illegal immigrants and opposes abortion, except when necessary to save a mother's life.

Gay marriage stance

He supports a constitutional amendment that would define marriage strictly as a union between a man and a woman, "if that's what was necessary to preserve the sanctity of this union."

Lampson supports civil unions for same-sex couples. He also backs the No Child Left Behind Act for public school accountability, although he says it needs to be fully funded. He voted for the war in Iraq but now questions that decision.

"I supported the president at the time," he said. "That's when we had a different opinion of what was going on."

Rather than emphasizing a particular set of issues, Poe spoke broadly in an interview about his character and values. His Web site emphasizes his judicial background.

"My sense of Ted Poe is that he needs to recognize the difference between being an idiosyncratic judge, attracting the limelight at little to no cost and presenting himself as a credible candidate," said SMU's Jillson.

Reason for confidence

Poe has reason for confidence. He trounced five other candidates to take 61 percent of the Republican primary vote in March. But he dismisses suggestions that he is complacent.

"The day I resigned from the bench, this became my full-time occupation ó campaigning for this job, working seven days a week," he said. "We have a grass-roots campaign. We have been walking neighborhoods on both sides of the district each week and meeting people. We are taking no vote for granted. Our campaign is right on course."