The Magazine

The Gerrymander That Didn't Work

George W. Bush's congressman is a Democrat.

Nov 6, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 08 • By BETH HENARY WATSON
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Cleburne, Texas

CONGRESSMAN Chet Edwards wasn't supposed to be at this debate, a forum at Cleburne High School that drew more than 200 on a drizzly mid-October Sunday.

Back on former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's watch in 2003, state Republican lawmakers scripted Edwards's exit from Congress, when they redrew congressional boundaries so as to retire five Democrats from the Texas delegation. In November 2004, four of those Democrats--Charlie Stenholm, Martin Frost, Max Sandlin, and Nick Lampson (now a contender for DeLay's old seat)--fell by decisive margins. Edwards survived.

That year, the GOP and groups like the Club for Growth spent heavily on Edwards's opponent, 10-year Republican state representative Arlene Wohlgemuth, whose state district lay in the northern portion of the newly drawn District 17. But the effort failed: Edwards won reelection 51 percent to 47 percent, a near-copy of his spread against a Republican two years earlier when he repre sented District 11.

This November, Republican hopes lie in Iraq war veteran Van Taylor, a political neophyte who's playing up his military service, as well as his traditional values, which he says make him more representative of the district than Edwards.

Born to Midland oil money, Taylor no doubt had many options after he graduated from Harvard in 1995. But he enlisted in the Marines, leading a reconnaissance platoon, then working as an intelligence officer. While still in the Marine Reserve, he earned his MBA from Harvard Business School--a degree he shares with Edwards--then took a tour of duty in Iraq. In actions that led to the Navy Commendation Medal with "V" for Valor, Capt. Taylor led a platoon that rescued 31 wounded soldiers under hostile fire and participated in the rescue of POW Jessica Lynch.

Taylor, who is 34, is 20 years Edwards's junior. He moved into District 17 from Dallas last summer, to the town of West--about 15 miles north of Waco, which Edwards calls home when he's not in Washington--in McLennan County. Taylor operates an investment company, Van-Anne. His other work experience includes brief stints with the real estate giant Trammel Crow and the management consultancy McKinsey & Company.

Edwards relentlessly attacks Taylor for his shallow roots in the 17th, which snakes southeast more than 150 miles from Fort Worth's southern suburbs to Houston's outer reaches.

Even Republican political obser vers say the outsider label should have been expected. "It's not one of those suburban districts that you can just move into," says Royal Masset, a longtime Republican strategist and former political director of the state GOP. "Waco especially is very insular. They know who the new people are."

Taylor says he feels he's neutralized that criticism by noting Edwards has moved multiple times to run for office.

The Taylor camp insists the strong support for Republicans generally in this stretch of small towns and medium-sized cities means there are potential votes behind most doors they knock on. After all, President Bush, who votes in District 17 at his Prairie Chapel Ranch near Crawford, received nearly 70 percent support in the district in 2004. Vice President Dick Cheney and House Speaker Dennis Hastert have visited Texas to drum up support and local dollars for Taylor.

"People are going to vote their values," Taylor says. "I think some people would say Edwards is out of step." In Cleburne, Taylor harps on what he says are five major philosophical differences between Edwards and himself. One concerns taxes.

"If you want higher taxes, please vote for my opponent," he tells the audience in this working-class community of about 30,000. He calls the abstruse tax code an "inexcusable burden" on businesses.

Edwards has voted against all of Bush's major tax cuts and scores Ds and Fs with the National Taxpayers Union. Necessary components of a good tax cut, according to Edwards, are that it be "fiscally responsible" and "fair to average working families."

In 2005 Edwards and 41 other House Democrats voted for the Death Tax Repeal Permanency Act, a bill that has foundered in the Senate. Edwards has also supported permanently extending the marriage penalty relief in Bush's 2001 tax cuts, and he counts at least 70 times he has voted to cut taxes. He is "very hesitant," though, to pledge to back every tax cut, calling it "morally wrong" to saddle future generations with America's $8.5 trillion national debt.

Taylor also boasts of his more conservative stances on cutting government spending, family values, illegal immigration, and Second Amendment rights. Where he runs into PR trouble, as Edwards and supportive editorial boards have noted, is in the details.