The Magazine

Sorry, Charlie

West Texas Democrats are becoming an endangered species.

Oct 11, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 05 • By BETH HENARY
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Abilene, TX

CHARLIE STENHOLM prides himself on his independence, on his record of voting his rural district and Christian values rather than simply following the party line. This record has helped the conservative Democrat stay in office for 13 terms, even as Texas has turned sharply Republican over the same period of time.

But this Election Day, Stenholm may finally have to concede the importance of party affiliation. When the state legislature--at the insistence of U.S. House majority leader Tom DeLay--redrew congressional lines to bump most white Texas Democrats from office, Stenholm's home turf of Abilene was squeezed into freshman Republican Randy Neugebauer's District 19. The population center of the new, 27-county District 19 is Lubbock, where Neugebauer lives and once served on the city council. In an added blow for Stenholm, his family farm was placed in a separate district.

The new 19th District votes about 70 percent Republican for statewide offices, and in 2000 it picked President Bush by 75 percent. For his 2002 reelection to District 17, which was nearly as pro-Bush, Stenholm mustered 51 percent against his Republican and Libertarian challengers.

Stenholm is well known in West Texas beyond the boundaries of his old district, and he has long enjoyed crossover support. Many Republicans whisper that they appreciate his standing for rural interests, while others are publicly against ejecting the veteran congressman.

"Charlie has always attracted Republicans in the voting booth and we do not expect that to change," says Stenholm communications director Jodi Zweifler.

Stenholm's strategy is to run on his social conservatism and his dedication to West Texas. In a move designed to bolster his reelection, the Democratic Caucus appointed him to the Armed Services Committee in September. There is an Air Force base in Abilene.

Stenholm touts a Congressional Quarterly study that found he voted against his party's majority more than all but one other member, and he criticizes his opponent for routinely backing the Republican leadership.

Neugebauer says he does not check others' votes before he casts his and insists that his record of voting with the House leadership simply means he's conservative. His support for drug reimportation from Canada, he says, demonstrates his willingness to disagree with party leaders.

In an effort to minimize crossover voting, the Neugebauer camp is trying to associate Stenholm with Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

"[Politics] is a team sport," Neugebauer says. "Bush, Cheney, and Neugebauer are on the same team. Kerry, Edwards, and Stenholm are on a different team."

Stenholm's campaign has repeatedly stated he is not involved in the presidential race, and no high-profile Democrats have made the trek to West Texas. (Vice President Dick Cheney and House Speaker Dennis Hastert have raised money for Neugebauer.) Stenholm has even run a television commercial showing him shaking hands with Bush, and is disregarding a Rebulican National Committee letter demanding it be taken off the air.

Neugebauer says that though he likes and respects Stenholm, Stenholm's decision to stay with a leftward-moving party makes the November 2 choice clear for conservative West Texas.

"He's had many opportunities over the years to switch, and he's chosen to be a Democrat," Neugebauer says. "The true conservative Democrats have switched."

A conservative Democrat from northeast Texas, Ralph Hall, switched parties earlier this year, virtually securing another term.

Still, at the annual POW-MIA Recognition Day in Lubbock on September 18, Stenholm reiterated his support for the president in the war on terrorism. He also quoted former President Bush, the veterans-advocacy group Rolling Thunder (which has endorsed President Bush), and the Book of Joshua to the small crowd.

As wrenching as it is to try to knock off a beloved political icon, Randy Neugebauer is no stranger to hard-fought contests. Last year, the professional land developer pushed his way to the front of a 17-candidate field in a special election to replace retiring House Agriculture Committee chairman Larry Combest. He was sworn in six months behind his fellow freshmen.

"We were not looking for this race," Dana Neugebauer, the congressman's wife, confides at a recent campaign stop at a UPS hub in Abilene. The Neugebauers have been on the campaign trail for nearly two years.

The congressman wasted no time in telling UPS workers where he and Stenholm differ.

"I'm a small-government, small-tax guy," said Neugebauer, who has voted for permanently ditching the marriage and death taxes, and for keeping the child tax credit. He also spoke of a more "competitive America" that could come about via lawsuit reform and a lower corporate income tax.

In Stenholm's book, deficit reduction comes before permanent tax cuts. Earlier this year, the Blue Dog Coalition of conservative Democrats--Stenholm is the group's co-chair for policy--proposed extending, but only for one year, the $1,000 child tax credit, marriage penalty relief, and the higher income threshold for the 10 percent income tax rate, all part of Bush's 2001 tax cuts. To pay for it, the Blue Dogs recommended ending certain tax shelters and extending customs user fees.

District 19's difficulty in deciding between these two candidates surfaced recently in statements by leaders of AGFUND, the Farm Bureau's political division, after it endorsed Neugebauer. AGFUND supported Neugebauer in his first election but has been a consistent Stenholm backer, too. Both candidates support farm subsidies and have worked to bring federal projects and funds to West Texas. Stenholm is ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee.

"Agriculture has been put in an awkward situation because of redistricting," Lubbock County Farm Bureau president Alan West told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. "[Stenholm] has spent 25 years being a voice for agriculture, and we have nothing but the utmost respect for him. . . . This whole process has been ugly for us and ugly for West Texas."

Not all of Stenholm's traditional supporters have abandoned him. Several members of Republicans for Stenholm, a group of civic leaders in Abilene, recently signed a letter to Republican voters that began: "We're Republicans. We support President Bush. We support our troops. We support Abilene. And we support our Congressman, Charlie Stenholm."

Steve Stovall, who is heading up the effort to convince Republicans to vote for Stenholm, says it's wrong to put a faithful advocate out to pasture, even if he is a Democrat.

"I wish he would have switched parties a long time ago," Stovall says. "But I respect his decision not to do so."

"The Republican leadership didn't have the best interest of West Texas in mind," Stovall says of Texas's redistricting. "A vote for Neugebauer is an affirmation that redistricting was a good thing. If you're going to try to get rid of a Democrat, why would you replace one that's with you most of the time?"

Neugebauer reports a steady eight-point advantage, but if any Democrat can lure Texans across party lines, it's Charlie Stenholm.

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