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Published: Sunday, 4/24/2005

Back in Texas, DeLay is still the man to beat

BY CRAIG DONEGAN
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

SEGUIN, Texas - In the wake of redistricting after the 2000 census, Texas' 22nd U.S. Congressional District looks like a mangled prehistoric fish, square-jawed and pug-nosed, struggling toward the Gulf of Mexico, a well-heeled chunk of Houston riding on its back.

It is an fitting symbol for the district's pugnacious congressman, U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who is embattled on nearly every side. Yet in this staunchly Republican district, even his detractors have a hard time imagining his defeat.

"This is a solid Republican district," says Beverly Carter, editor of the Fort Bend County Star. Many here "would vote for Hitler before they'd vote for a Democrat."

Ms. Carter endorsed Mr. DeLay's Democratic opponent, Richard Morrison, in the 2004 general election, but she says that her move, like other disappointed Republicans, was "away from DeLay not toward the Democratic Party."

Mr. Morrison and Ms. Carter agree that the publicity surrounding Mr. DeLay's fund-raising activities and his far-flung travels have not taken hold among district voters. Payments of $500,000 to his wife have, however, and both contend that this issue could become Mr. DeLay's Achilles' heel.

"Texas is a community property state," says Mr. Morrison, "so any payments he's making to his wife, he's making to himself." People in the district understand this, he says, and they don't like it.

Eric Thode, Fort Bend County Republican Party chairman, is not convinced the issue has traction, but he concedes that it, more than the others, has caused people to stop and think.

"This [issue] hasn't been fleshed out yet," he says, "but when it is people will understand these were not tax dollars and [his wife] was not working for his congressional office."

When constituents understand this, says Mr. Thode, and when they understand that many in the House and Senate hire family members to work on their political campaigns, the issue will go away.

First elected to Congress in 1984, Mr. DeLay has received no fewer than 60 percent of the vote in any general election until 2004 when he won 55 percent against 41 percent for Democratic opponent Mr. Morrison. The remaining votes went to a Green Party candidate, also named Morrison, and an independent who lost to Mr. DeLay in the Republican primary.

Mr. Morrison, the Democrat, says that Mr. DeLay's long absences from the district have alienated Mr. DeLay from his constituents. While DeLay was gone, says Mr. Morrison, the conservative and normally Republican Asian community's 80/20 PAC decided to endorse Mr. Morrison over Mr. DeLay.

"These are small-business owners who are concerned about civil rights associated with the Patriot Act," he says.

The 22nd District has the largest Asian population of any in Texas. The county (Fort Bend) that has anchored the district's politics for years is the most ethnically diverse in the state. Districtwide, the population is 60 percent Anglo, 10 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic, and 8 percent Asian. Except for small pockets of poverty, it is filled with white-collar suburban commuter communities where the median income is $62,678.

Despite this economic homogeneity, Morrison says that the political makeup of the district has begun to change, with more people leaning toward Democratic candidates such as himself. "We have Democratic leaners who will lean away from you if you don't go out and work them; so we're working them pretty hard."

Ms. Carter predicts that if the current brouhaha surrounding Mr. DeLay dies down before the next election, then his re-election is almost certain. Mr. Thode says this leaves only one way that Mr. DeLay can be defeated in 2006 - by a stronger Republican challenger in the primary.

Implicitly, Ms. Carter concedes the point: "If a Republican [challenger] came along with ideas that are a little more fiscally conservative [than Mr. Morrison's], I would probably support them," she says, "but I wouldn't support a clone of DeLay."

Craig Donegan was a staff member for Texas congressman/U.S. senator/ambassador Bob Krueger's 1984 U.S. Senate campaign and was a reporter for the Congressional Quarterly's CQ Researcher and the San Antonio Express-News. He now lives in South Texas where he operates a commercial insurance firm.



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