The Magazine

Defrosting Texas

Tom DeLay's redistricting may do in a 13-term Democrat.

Jul 5, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 41 • By BETH HENARY
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TEXAS REPUBLICANS wanted to accomplish several things last year, when they began redrawing the state's congressional districts. They wanted to increase the number of safe Republican seats to give them a majority. And they wanted to take revenge on, among others, 13-term Democrat Martin Frost. This they did by divvying up his shoo-in, 61 percent Democratic district. Now Frost is challenging incumbent Republican Pete Sessions for the newly redrawn District 32.

Knocking off the wily former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman would be especially gratifying for Republicans. Frost was the chief architect behind the 1990s redistricting, which kept gains in Congress scarce for the Texas GOP in that decade. This came to a stop only when Republicans captured both houses of the Texas legislature in 2002.

Early renderings of last year's redistricting map were kinder to Frost and other senior Democrats. But after Democratic state representatives and senators ran, respectively, for the Oklahoma and New Mexico borders to try to avoid the special redistricting sessions, Republicans made sure Frost would be short on chances to continue his career in Congress.

Frost has faced few formidable opponents in the past, but two of them are consulting with the Sessions campaign: home builder Ed Harrison and management consultant Shawn Terry. In addition, Sessions has inherited a phalanx of Republican workers anxious to depose Frost.

"He's somebody who creates a visceral, angry response," Sessions campaign manager Chris Homan says. "He's one of the classic, bomb-throwing Democrats of this generation."

Already, tempers have flared. Frost campaign manager Jess Fassler told the Dallas Morning News that Republicans, led by House majority leader Tom DeLay, had picked the wrong Democrat to mess with. They had put "Sessions's head on the guillotine, and we're ready to pull the lever." Sessions's people objected. Homan called on Frost to "remove his campaign manager from any position of responsibility and help Mr. Fassler seek therapy."

Frost and Sessions hold similarly hawkish positions on national security and defense. In 2002 Frost was the only Democrat on the Select Committee on Homeland Security to vote in favor of the new Department of Homeland Security. He also supported both U.S.-led wars against Saddam Hussein.

The Sessions campaign believes, however, that Frost is going to have a tough time selling his anti-tax-cut record to the entrepreneurs in District 32. For the fall session of the 108th Congress, the National Taxpayers Union gave Frost an F and a 19 percent rating. Sessions got a B+ and a 70 percent rating for his votes on taxes.

In the spring, Frost made what Sessions's campaign calls a cynical attempt to improve his fiscal record. Like Sessions, Frost voted to make Bush's ten percent bracket permanent, to end the marriage penalty for good, and to help protect middle-income earners from paying more under the alternative minimum tax. Sessions personally carried the low-bracket bill in the House--leading Frost to charge that the GOP leadership had assigned him the work to buttress his reelection bid. At the same time, the Sessions campaign happily emphasizes Frost's hypocrisy in voting to make permanent tax cuts he opposed the first time around.

"The conversion he tried to make in that two-week period didn't stick," Homan says in this war of campaign spokesmen, pointing out that days after his pro-tax-cut votes, Frost did not support making the child tax credit permanent.

Another big issue of the campaign is pork. Frost "has a long career, and in that time you are going to do work that is going to benefit your city or home area," Homan says. "He didn't take lightly the task before him in bringing home the bacon."

Homan says Sessions will work to keep money in local communities, not tax people heavily, then return the money at pennies on the dollar. "Let's not make people have to go to Washington and kiss the ring and make sure they know who their sugar daddy was," he says. Called for a reaction to this characterization of his boss, Fassler said simply that Homan's comment was "nonsensical."

Sessions also accuses Frost of being ashamed of his party affiliation now that the area he aims to represent is 65 percent Republican. "Frost sent out three mailers and never once called himself a Democrat," Sessions says. "The Democrats are ashamed to call themselves Democrats."

The Frost campaign shot back that Sessions, too, released an informational mail piece in which he was not identified as Republican. Frost does not shy away from his party of choice, Fassler says, though he prefers to be thought of as an "independent thinker."

So what chance does a Democrat with a long and substantive career have in the 32nd district? Along with two small wealthy cities near Dallas and some middle-class suburbs, the district includes a minority section of Dallas that Frost has long represented. The district is "certainly winnable," Fassler says. "It's a very diverse district that's 50 percent minority." Actually, the total of black, Hispanic, and Asian voters comes to 45 percent. Frost's old, heavily Democratic district was 60 percent minority.

As to the nonminority sections, says Fassler, "There's a lot of voters here who have not been given a [Democratic] alternative in a lot of years." And Frost has been receiving support. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright visited last week for a $175,000 fundraiser, and though Frost does not expect to be as well financed as Sessions, his campaign reports being ahead of the pace needed to reach its goal of $3 million. Local fire and police associations have already tossed their oomph behind Frost.

But neither endorsements nor money make solid Republicans vote Democrat, and Sessions's organization thinks the sheer chemistry of District 32 makes him hard to beat. Most of the high-turnout precincts with large numbers of voters are Republican strongholds, notes Sessions's campaign manager Homan.

Any victory scenario Frost can come up with is "cold-fusion physics," says Homan. "He needs all his 'ifs' to work out. And then he needs us to sit back and do nothing."

Beth Henary is a freelance editor and writer in Austin, Texas.