Home Invasion

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MAY 16, 2005

Home Invasion

Sugar land, texas

Beverly "B.K." Carter, grandmother and longtime editor of The Fort
Bend Star, a weekly she publishes out of a strip mall in Stafford,
Texas, holds up her a newly acquired t-shirt. It has a picture of
Tom DeLay, Carter's U.S. representative, and says, the best
congressman money can buy. She chuckles at the shirt but then
frowns at the thought of the man it depicts. "Every year he has
done things that were questionable. Imagine standing out on a golf
course in the Marianas and saying those sweat shops were an island
paradise," she says, referring to DeLay's efforts, on behalf of
lobbyist Jack Abramoff, to maintain the Mariana Islands' exemption
from U.S. labor laws. Carter, you might think, is a Democratic
loner in DeLay's district. But she's not. She is a lifelong
Republican and is currently a Republican precinct chair in Fort Bend
County, the heart of DeLay's 22nd congressional district.Other local Republican officials insist that Carter is atypical and
that the district's voters will be solidly behind DeLay if he runs
for reelection in 2006. "The district is so strongly Republican
that he is not going to lose," says Eric Thode, the chairman of the
Fort Bend County Republican Party. But Carter, while certainly
eccentric, may not prove so exceptional in her views. Indications
that a politician is using his office for personal gain can doom
even the most entrenched official, as 18-term Chicago Representative
Dan Rostenkowski discovered in 1994, when he was indicted in a
House Post Office scandal. So far, DeLay hasn't been indicted, only
admonished, but he is still facing a raft of ethical and legal
investigations in Washington and Texas stemming from his ties to
lobbyists and corporate high-rollers.

And, while DeLay's district--and particularly Fort Bend County--may
still have a majority of registered Republicans, it has quietly
become more centrist and less tolerant of his ideological excesses,
as Asians and other new groups of voters have moved in during the
last decade. DeLay can still win reelection, but he will not have
an easy time. And he could find himself in a downward spiral as he
has to devote more resources to fending off charges in Washington
while his popularity wanes at home.

DeLay's home and political base has always been in Sugar Land, the
largest town in Fort Bend County and the fastest-growing in Texas,
having exploded from a population of 4,000 in 1980 to over 70,000
today. It is also one of Texas's most prosperous towns, built
around a huge shopping mall, which opened in 1996, and walled-off
developments that are often located on or near private golf
courses. DeLay himself lives in a development right off the
Sweetwater Country Club (where former Enron executive Cliff Baxter
killed himself three years ago). Sugar Land is, its mayor David
Wallace acknowledges, a "laissez-faire capitalist heaven." It has
no public transportation or public hospital. Even its one public
golf course was plowed under to make room for a mall. Its main
source of community has been its schools and its growing
evangelical congregations. Sugar Creek Baptist Church, for
instance, fills its 2,500- capacity chapel twice every Sunday
morning.

DeLay, who was first elected to Congress in 1984, drew his initial
support from the upper-middle-class white professionals and
managers who had begun migrating to Fort Bend in search of large
houses and good schools. They applauded DeLay's opposition to
government regulation and came to identify the Republican Party
with personal success. As DeLay experienced a religious awakening
in the late '80s, he also found support in the ranks of the
Christian right, which he himself helped to organize. (Norm Mason,
an engineer who is now chairman of the Texas Christian Coalition,
said that, while they were at Sugar Creek Baptist in 1992, DeLay
recruited him to head Fort Bend's first coalition chapter.) Put
these professionals and evangelicals together with those white
working-class voters in the southeast suburbs who abandoned the
Democrats over civil rights, and you have the basis for DeLay's
two-to-one victories from 1984 through 2002.

But, while many of the engineers, scientists, and managers who live
in Sugar Land, Kingwood, and Clear Lake are registered Republicans,
they aren't party activists. And they don't like corruption in
politics any more than they do in business. Many of these voters
have turned against DeLay in the last year. A poll conducted this
month by SurveyUSA found that 51 percent of the district's
residents disapproved of the job DeLay was doing in Washington.

Michael Garfield is typical of those Sugar Land Republicans who have
soured on DeLay. Garfield moved to the area in the early '90s,
when, by his own description, "there was nothing here." A
commentator and consultant on high technology, Garfield describes
himself as "not the most political person." He was, however,
unhappy with DeLay. "A per-

son in his position shouldn't be in the headlines all the time. He
should be doing his job," Garfield said. "I got Time and Newsweek,
and there were three- page stories on him. He's spending his days
flying on Air Force One, hanging out with Jack Abramoff." Bill and
Paula Via, who live in a large house with a swimming pool in a
development called the Commonwealth, share Garfield's assessment of
DeLay. "He is playing loose with those lobbyists," Paula Via said.
Bill Via, who said he was "apolitical," said, "I think [politics is]
all a farce. But some of the politicians are worse than others."

In Fort Bend politics, DeLay's woes are deepened by a growing
antagonism between religious and economic conservatives. The
Christian Coalition's Mason laments that "opportunists" are trying
to take over the Republican Party, while Thode describes the
religious right as "my wacko wing." As DeLay has become even more
outspoken in his identification with the religious right--evidenced
in his attack against the judiciary for permitting the death of
Terri Schiavo- he has prompted criticism from business
conservatives. Carter, a classic economic conservative, fears that
the religious right wants to create a "theocracy" and accuses DeLay
of having "whipped up a frenzy" over social issues while ignoring
mounting budget deficits. And Carter is not alone. A Houston
Chronicle poll this spring revealed that 68 percent of the 22nd
district's voters disapproved of government intervention in the
Schiavo case.

DeLay's 22nd district, which he designed in a 2003 redistricting
effort that aimed to net seven more Republican seats in Texas, has
also begun to change in ways that will not benefit an outspoken
Christian conservative like himself. When DeLay first won office,
the district was predominately white, with a few pockets of black
voters. Because the area's population has ballooned 18 percent
since the 2000 census, there are no dependable figures about the
district's overall composition, but both Republican and Democratic
leaders agree that, without losing its high levels of wealth and
education, it is becoming a "majority-minority" district, in which
whites are outnumbered by other ethnic groups. Latinos and blacks
moved into the district in the late '80s. And, in the '90s,
middle-class Indians, Pakistanis, Vietnamese, and Chinese
immigrants began to pour in. Two Hindu temples now vie for
attention with the Baptist megachurches.

Extrapolating from the census would put the African American
population at about 10 percent, Latinos at over 20 percent, and the
Asian population at close to 15 percent. The results in Fort Bend
County are even more dramatic. In 1980, the area's public schools,
which attract all the area's children, were 64 percent white, 16
percent black, 17 percent Latino, and 3 percent Asian. Today, they
are 29 percent white, 31 percent black, 21 percent Latino, and 19
percent Asian.

Most of the black and Latino voters are Democrats. A black Democrat,
Rodney Ellis, represents Missouri City in the state Senate, and
Latino Democrat Dora Olivo represents the same area in the House of
Representatives. But the Asian vote is more complex. The Indians
are the most Democratic. The Pakistanis used to be Republican, but,
along with other American Muslims, turned to the Democrats in the
face of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment after September 11. The
Vietnamese and Chinese were also initially Republicans, but have
become increasingly receptive to Democratic support for civil
rights. Mustafa Tameez, a highly regarded Democratic political
consultant in Houston, says, "For many of the Asians, whoever
reaches out to them gets their vote."

If you put the district's disillusioned white professionals together
with a majority of the Asians and large majorities of blacks and
Latinos, you get a coalition that could unseat DeLay and, over the
long run, perhaps, lay the basis for a Democratic resurgence in the
area. This potential was evident in two races last year. In a state
representative's district adjoining Fort Bend County and somewhat
similar to it in ethnic composition, Vietnamese businessman Hubert
Vo, running as a Democrat with the help of Tameez, pulled off an
astonishing upset over eleven-term conservative Republican Talmadge
Heflin, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations
Committee. Vo won because he mobilized the district's Asian vote,
which is about one-fifth of the electorate. Says Texas Monthly
executive editor Paul Burka, "That demographic tidal wave is headed
Tom DeLay's way."

In his own reelection contest, DeLay faced Democrat Richard
Morrison. Morrison had only recently moved into the district, had
no prior experience as a candidate and little of the politician's
charm, was outspent almost five to one by DeLay, didn't really get
his campaign off the ground until the last month, and ran well to
DeLay's left. But Morrison held DeLay to only 55 percent- -his
lowest total ever--while garnering 41 percent himself.

Republican officials insist that Morrison got the baseline vote that
any Democrat running against DeLay would get in the new 2004
district. "I would run my dog and he would get that much," Thode
says. But, in 2002, DeLay defeated Democrat Tom Riley by 60 to 38
percent in the Fort Bend County part of the district. DeLay
potentially strengthened his hand in that county after 2002 by
moving 45,000 black voters to Al Green's majority black 9th district
in Houston. But he did much worse--winning only 53 to 42
percent--in 2004. Morrison didn't get a baseline vote in November
2004. He captured part of what could have been a much larger
disaffected vote, prompted by the growing unease of the region's
professionals with DeLay's performance in Congress.

Whether Democrats can defeat DeLay will depend partly on their
funding a credible candidate to run against him--one who will not
scare away the district's registered Republican majority. Says
Leonard Scarcella, a conservative Democrat who has been mayor of
Stafford since 1969: "Someone needs to park himself to the right,
and take everything to the left of that. You don't have to convince
anyone on the left. You have to convince voters that you can
represent conservative values on religion and fiscal stability."

Several potential Democratic challengers have begun to emerge.
Former Representative Nick Lampson has already announced his
candidacy. Lampson, who was a victim last year of DeLay's
redistricting schemes, used to represent the Galveston County
area--including the Johnson Space Center--that is now part of
DeLay's district. While known as a defender of labor unions, his
record on social issues is moderate to conservative--a Catholic, he
voted to restrict partial-birth abortions and founded a
congressional caucus for missing and exploited children. And, while
he has proved less than inspiring as a campaigner, his low-key,
modest approach might provide a favorable contrast with DeLay's
fervid histrionics. And Lampson understands the district's
politics. He says, "It's my hope that--instead of talking about who
is farthest to the left, and who is in a red state, and who is in a
blue state--we can talk about the United States."

Another potential contender is Gordon Quan, a China-born Houston
immigration lawyer who was elected to the Houston City Council in
2000 and who has formed an exploratory committee to consider a
challenge to DeLay. Quan is counting on Asian money and votes. Says
Quan, "Seventy-five to 80 percent would vote for me even though
they may be nominal Republicans." But Quan has also some notable
disadvantages as a candidate. He doesn't have Lampson's stature as a
former representative, and he would inevitably come off as an
outsider and a political novice in comparison with DeLay. And he
may be too liberal for the district. Speaking in his office with a
view of a public park below, Quan described his "issues" as
homelessness, affordable housing, and the welfare of senior
citizens. But only 2 percent of the 22nd's residents are on public
assistance, and, among Texas's congressional districts, it has the
third-lowest number of people on Social Security.

So far, the smart money is on Lampson. One Texas political
consultant, who, because of client ties to DeLay, didn't want to be
quoted by name, called Lampson "the ideal candidate." "He is
someone of substance. He is the antithesis of DeLay." Political
consultant and TV commentator Paul Begala, who grew up in Stafford
and still knows the area well, also thinks Lampson is "the best of
the lot." But, like Scarcella, Begala worries about a Democrat
beating DeLay where Republicans still outnumber Democrats.
Lampson's campaign slogan, Begala advises, should be, "I'm a
conservative, not a crook."

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