Storming the Hill

Can Arlene Wohlgemuth and the Religious Right topple Congressman Chet Edwards?

When U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land) and his band of merry mapmakers performed some creative editing on the state’s congressional districts in 2003, their dream candidate was probably someone a lot like Arlene Wohlgemuth. A flight instructor from the Fort Worth exurbs, the 57-year-old Wohlgemuth has become synonymous in Texas with the Christian Right’s rise to power. During her 10 years in the Texas Legislature, she has become one of the state’s most effective politicians. Her stern glare and ardent demeanor give off a “don’t mess with me” vibe, and those who don’t heed the warning usually come to regret it. Wohlgemuth’s fierceness is matched by her ideological purity. She is what Lee Atwater once termed an extra-chromosome conservative: Wohlgemuth espouses limited government and low taxes, is strongly anti-abortion, supports English as a national language, and favors a partial privatization of Social Security. She recently told the Waco Tribune-Herald that the state’s Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is a “socialized medical program.” In short, Wohlgemuth is exactly the kind of über-conservative that DeLay and like-minded special interest groups want in the U.S. House of Representatives to forge a hard-right Republican majority.

Wohlgemuth is running for Congress in Texas’ newly formed 17th District, which runs from Bryan-College Station in the south, up through Waco, and ends in the Fort Worth suburbs. The district is so tailor-made for a Wohlgemuth candidacy that many Texas political observers assume that DeLay’s operation crafted the 17th with her in mind. For starters, it’s 64 percent Republican. With her base of support in Johnson County, 20 miles south of Fort Worth, she doesn’t need to buy many ads in the district’s most expensive media market, Dallas-Fort Worth. In addition, the highly conservative Bryan-College Station area seems ripe for Wohlgemuth.

The national significance of Wohlgemuth’s campaign is evident from the array of right-wing, special interest groups backing her candidacy. Among them, the Club for Growth has been Wohlgemuth’s biggest benefactor. Through August, the highly conservative, Washington, D.C.-based outfit had contributed nearly $500,000 to her campaign through donations and television spots on her behalf. (Grover Norquist, of Americans for Tax Reform, famously exemplified the ideological bent of special interest groups like the Club for Growth when he described his intention to make government small enough so he can “drown it in the bathtub.”) Underlining the ideological stakes at play in the 17th District, the Club for Growth has given more to Wohlgemuth than to any other U.S. House candidate in the country.

Despite those efforts, however, Wohlgemuth may well lose. The man standing in her path is Chet Edwards, the seven-term Democratic congressman from Waco. At 52, Edwards is part of a dwindling breed of politician in Texas: the socially progressive, fiscally conservative Democrat. He is pro-gun rights, pro-death penalty, pro-Iraq war. He backs the Bush energy bill, and while pro choice, he supports bans on late-term and so-called partial-birth abortions. As the state has tilted increasingly Republican in recent years, Edwards has made a habit of winning in a conservative district by convincing enough Republicans and independents that party labels are less important than who can best represent them in Congress. (In 2002, Edwards won re-election with 52 percent of the vote in a district in which more than 60 percent of voters generally favored Republicans.)

What’s different this time around is not only the caliber of Edwards’ challenger but the unfriendly new district that DeLay’s people designed for him. Edwards currently represents the Texas 11th District, which encompasses Waco and Fort Hood, home to two U.S. Army divisions and one of the largest military bases in the world. Like any good incumbent, Edwards—who sits on the House Appropriations Committee and is ranking member on the Military Construction Appropriations subcommittee—brought home the federal pork for Fort Hood, which in return bestowed on Edwards the military bona fides that helped win over conservative voters. Edwards was one of the main targets of the DeLay-inspired congressional redistricting that took aim at nine Anglo Democrats. DeLay’s new map snatched Fort Hood from Edwards, and tossed his home in Waco into the unfriendly 17th District.

Yet polls have shown Edwards slightly ahead. Edwards has raised more money than Wohlgemuth, thanks in part to hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from two of the Democratic Party’s standbys, unions and trial attorneys. He’s utilized his sharp campaigning skills to highlight the effects of Wohlgemuth’s signature health and human services reform bill, painting her as too right wing. Edwards, meanwhile, pitches himself in his usual pragmatic centrist role. Perhaps, most importantly, he’s running strong in the College Station area. The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call recently took the measure of the race and pronounced Edwards the one Democrat likely to win among the so-called Texas Five (the five remaining Democratic incumbents, out of nine originally targeted, trying to survive in DeLay’s redrawn districts).

Both sides believe more is at stake than just a central Texas House seat. Either a powerful Democrat will, for the moment, hold off the surge from the religious right or a rising Republican lawmaker will push the Congress further toward DeLay’s worldview.

Wohlgemuth demonstrated her tenacity in her very first state House race in 1994. She won by just 22 votes, and wasn’t assured victory until she overcame three months of recounts and procedural wrangling. Republicans were still the minority party then in the Texas House, and she made a name for herself as a grenade-thrower at the chamber’s back microphone. At the end of the 1997 session, she became irate when her cherished bill requiring parental notification for teenage abortions perished on a procedural motion. In retaliation, Wohlgemuth pulled a parliamentary maneuver that scuttled the House’s entire schedule of bills, an unprecedented move in the Texas House. It became known as the Memorial Day Massacre.

Gradually, Wohlgemuth refined her political skills with a measure of policy expertise. In particular, she made herself into a policy wonk on the state’s complex health and human services delivery system. “As complicated as these issues are, she really did go out and learn them and learn them enough to advance her position,” says state Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), another of the House’s experts on health and for years Wohlgemuth’s foil on HHS issues. “I respect people who are good at what they do, and she’s good at what she does. I just disagree with her. But you don’t underestimate Arlene Wohlgemuth.”

In 2003, with the GOP finally in power in the Texas House, Wohlgemuth wrote and passed the 300-page House Bill 2292. On the campaign trail, she describes the legislation as “the largest government reform bill that has ever been passed in our state.” It condenses 12 state health and human services agencies into five mega-agencies. Wohlgemuth touts the law as an example of her conservative philosophies. HB 2292, she says, streamlines bureaucratic overhead and eliminates waste. It will save the state roughly $1 billion. But as progressive legislators like Coleman have pointed out, about $600 million of the savings in HB 2292 arise from deep service cuts to numerous government programs, including Medicaid and CHIP. The CHIP cuts in particular have become a politically sensitive issue. Since HB 2292 went into effect in September 2003, 151,000 children have been kicked off the popular program, according to state figures. Now HB 2292, which seemed a boon to Wohlgemuth’s candidacy, threatens to sink it.

That’s due mostly to Edwards’ skill as a campaigner. He has more than 20 years experience between his seven terms in the House and eight years before that in the state Senate. On the stump, his speeches are informal talks, peppered with the “you knows,” and “let me tell ya’s” of an expert politico. Edwards has a rare knack for condensing complex policy issues into a single declarative sentence. CHIP and Medicaid policy aren’t exactly the stuff of crackling political oratory. Not a speech goes by, however, in which Edwards doesn’t rip Wohlgemuth’s HB 2292 for cutting 151,000 children from CHIP. After reeling off a series of grim statistics, he usually pauses and says with a hint of anger, “She didn’t cut overhead; she cut kids.”

The Edwards campaign is running a devastating television ad featuring Jamie Jones, a single mother whose husband died tragically several years ago. Jones cannot afford private health insurance, and her 3-year-old lost CHIP coverage as a direct result of policy changes in Wohlgemuth’s bill.

“Arlene’s strength is also her weakness,” Edwards says in an interview. “Her strength is that she’s grounded in the far right of the Republican Party.” In Edwards’ formulation, this grants Wohlgemuth impassioned support from about 35 to 40 percent of the electorate. “That’s a weakness, as well, because it allows us to scoop up moderate Republican voters as well as independents” who are put off by Wohlgemuth’s hard-line ideology. If there’s anything Chet Edwards has learned how to do in politics, it’s appeal to moderately conservative voters.

Both campaigns hope to capture those moderate Republicans in the Bryan-College Station area. Wohlgemuth expects to win at least 60 percent of the vote in Johnson County. Edwards plans to duplicate that margin in the Waco area. That makes the Bryan-College Station region largely decisive. Brazos County is conservative country and would seem to favor Wohlgemuth. Edwards, however, boasts Aggie connections (he graduated from Texas A&M, and worked for longtime Congressman Olin “Tiger” Teague). And the advantages of his incumbency—he has steered lots of federal funding to Texas A&M through his seat on the House Appropriations Committee—may pull him through.

If Wolhgemuth had any lingering illusions about how tough a campaigner Edwards is, they likely vanished at a debate at Hill College on a warm Monday in late September. Hill College is located in the tiny burg of Hillsboro, which resides in Hill County, all of which are misnomers given the flatness of the surrounding ranch land. In the calculus of the campaign, it’s contested territory. Hillsboro sits 40 miles north of Edwards’ home in Waco and 50 miles southeast of Wohlgemuth’s base. All of which makes the debate important. The election is just six weeks off. It’s unlikely either candidate will get back to Hillsboro in that time. The debate is probably the candidates’ last, best chance to win over the voters here. The high school-like auditorium is filled with roughly 300 potential voters: workers on their lunch break, retirees, and Hill College students.

Edwards, clad in his Brooks Brothers catalogue combination of navy blue blazer over gray slacks, walks in alone. He sits in the front row to wait for the debate to begin, and briefly chatted up two reporters sitting nearby. In the back of the room, Wohlgemuth, wearing a lively salmon-colored power suit, huddles with her campaign aides for a last-minute prep.

The candidates make their way onto the small wooden stage. After fairly forgettable opening statements, the debate picks up with the first question from the audience about the country’s dependence on foreign oil. After extolling the virtues of President Bush’s energy bill, Edwards rips into his less-experienced opponent. “You know, in Congress, seniority makes a difference. Either of us will be one of 435 members of Congress. Don’t forget that. So seniority and committee assignments make a difference. I’m the only Texan of either party on the Energy and Water Appropriations subcommittee, a key subcommittee, that encourages energy production…. It would take Ms. Wohlgemuth until 2018 to accrue the seniority that I have.”

When she returns to the podium, Wohlgemuth responds, “I will support our president in his energy policies. More importantly, I will be supporting the chairman of energy and commerce, your representative, Joe Barton (R-Ennis). Mr. Barton has represented you well. Yet his voting record and Mr. Edwards’ voting record differ 84 percent of the time during this current session [of Congress].” This echoes one of Wohlgemuth’s main campaign themes: Chet Edwards may sound like a conservative, but he votes like a liberal. Her effort to portray Edwards as ideologically too far left for his new district has been impressive. Rarely does Edwards’ name escape Wohlgemuth’s lips without “liberal” attached. On nearly every issue, from taxes to abortion to gun rights, Wohlgemuth recalls a voting score, usually calculated by a conservative special-interest group backing her campaign, that puts Edwards in the most liberal light possible. When asked, in an interview, to name the biggest challenge facing her campaign, Wohlgemuth says, “Overcoming the liberal trial lawyer money [given to Edwards].” When asked what has surprised her thus far in the race, her response stays on-message: She hadn’t realized how liberal Edwards’ voting record really is. “Now, I know my opponent has said, ‘Well, that’s just the Republicans calling me a liberal.’ But, actually, Americans for Democratic Action, which is the oldest liberal lobbying organization in the country, rates Chet’s voting record 80 percent liberal. So it’s the liberals who are calling Mr. Edwards liberal.”

This, of course, is an old saw that Republicans have trotted out for more than two decades now. In a district this Republican, though, the “he’s too liberal” attack can be particularly potent. (Edwards responds to this on the stump with his centrist credentials: “I have worked to be a bipartisan representative for all the people in this district, not just a privileged few.”) Wohlgemuth intertwines the beware-the-hidden-liberal attacks with repeated references to the Bush-Cheney ticket. This may have special resonance in the 17th District since the president’s Crawford ranch sits right in the middle it, and whoever wins the race will represent Bush in Congress. In the 2000 presidential election, 68 percent of what would become the new District 17 favored Bush. Wohlgemuth clearly wants to tap that support. (Vice President Dick Cheney stopped through to fund-raise for Wohlgemuth in May and pledged the president would vote for her.) The lengths to which Wohlgemuth has stressed the Bush connection is clear on her campaign signs, which read: “Bush-Cheney-Wohlgemuth: A Winning Team for Texas.”

Wohlgemuth’s tethering herself so closely to a right-wing agenda, however, presents dangers, even in a conservative district. This becomes clear at the Hillsboro debate when moderator and Hill College professor Richard Capp asks, “What’s your position on school vouchers?” It’s a touchy issue for Wohlgemuth. Her support of vouchers is highly unpopular with the many rural voters in Hill County and throughout the district because many think that vouchers will scuttle their rural school districts. Wohlgemuth’s response about her efforts in the legislature to improve public education is so rambling that it would rival John Kerry at his most verbose. In two minutes, she doesn’t even mention vouchers. Edwards then rises to the podium with the appreciative grin of someone accepting a gift. He says simply, “I oppose school vouchers.” He goes on to argue that vouchers would rob money from “our already cash-strapped public schools” and to criticize Wohlgemuth for cutting the state’s share of school funding in the Lege.

Capp next asks about Social Security, and Edwards goes on the attack again. He notes that Wohlgemuth supports siphon
ng money from the Social Security trust fund to create p
rsonal accounts. Many independent analysts believe this partial privatization will cost the system $1 trillion. Add that, Edwards says, to the $2 trillion it will cost to make Bush’s tax cuts permanent. “Now that’s $3.3 trillion she wants to spend. She has a responsibility to tell you before the election, not after, where in the federal government would she cut the money to pay for that.” (Wohlgemuth never answers this, and Edwards refuses to let her off: “I still haven’t heard an explanation of how she’s going to pay for that $3.3 trillion,” he says a few minutes later, a phrase he repeats in his closing statement.).Edwards then pivots off Social Security to a new line of attack, “Go ask the seniors in nursing homes here in Hill County about that bill she passed [HB 2292].” He describes how the bill cut the spending money that nursing home residents received from their Social Security checks from $60 to $45 each month. He says nursing home residents in Waco now must send nurses out to buy denture cream for them. “I think we need to respect our seniors,” he says. “Supporting Social Security and opposing cuts like the one she passed is one tangible way to show that respect.” Several voters in the audience shake their heads in disgust. Wohlgemuth, who prides herself on being an advocate for nursing homes, seems startled herself.

After the debate, reporters are aflutter about Edwards’ nursing home accusation. Asked if the denture cream story could be true, Wohlgemuth shrugs, “I have no idea if that’s true or not.” Edwards’ aides not only confirm the story, but supply reporters contact information for the nursing home in Waco where it happened. In the next week, news stories in Dallas and San Antonio verify the account. It’s a sterling debate performance for Edwards, and a surprising one for anyone who’s watched Wohlgemuth debate on the floor of the Texas House.

“I’m more passionate about this race than any race I’ve ever run,” Edwards says in an interview a week after the Hillsboro debate. When the redistricting map was finalized last year, Edwards briefly considered “taking a year-long victory lap and then retiring,” he says. “But once I saw the district and analyzed it and decided we could win, then the final motivation for me was being told what she’d done in health and human services. She didn’t reform health and human services; she gutted it. My wife and I discussed it and agreed that I could not look myself in the mirror if I allowed someone to get promoted to Congress who had that record. It’s not about personal gain for my family. It’s to send a message. It’s to make the rallying cry, ‘Remember what happened to Arlene.'”

Why Edwards may have put off retirement is evident on an early October afternoon at the small west Waco home of the Whithers family. The Wohlgemuth campaign is here for a photo-op at which a special interest group called the National Tax-Limitation Committee will present Wohlgemuth with its honorary Tax Fighter Award. The Whithers are on hand to attest to how much tax cuts can help a middle-class family. Founded in 1976, the National Tax-Limitation Committee (NTLC) is based in Roseville, California. Like its ideological brethren—the National Taxpayers Union, Americans for Tax Reform, and the Club for Growth—the NTLC is a proponent of supply-side economics, the construct that extremely low tax levels and limited government will spur economic growth.

Only two reporters show up for the award ceremony in the Whithers’ pink-walled living room. A cameraman from one of Waco’s local television news stations films as NTLC President Lewis Uhler presents Wohlgemuth with a small plaque. NTLC’s accompanying press release states that, “In the 17th District of Texas, the honorary Tax Fighter Award to Arlene Wohlgemuth takes on special meaning. The reason: Wohlgemuth’s opponent, Rep. Chet Edwards, has a proven record of being an ‘enemy of the taxpayer.'” Edwards earned this distinction, the release goes on to note, because he received an ‘F’ rating from the NTLC during the last three congressional sessions. Edwards’ main offense, in Uhler’s calculation, was voting against the Bush tax cuts. On the stump, Edwards defends these votes by arguing that, given the nation’s ballooning deficit, he didn’t feel the government could afford the lost revenue. Wohlgemuth, however, rejects his reasoning. In her view, cutting taxes to nurture the economy is exactly the right way to reduce the deficit. This is textbook supply-side theory.

After the brief award ceremony, Wohlgemuth is asked why her race has attracted so much money and attention from national special interest groups like the Club for Growth and the NTLC. “Our entire state of Texas has a big role to play in this election,” Wohlgemuth says, “because we hope to increase our Republican majority to pass the president’s agenda, to pass a conservative agenda.”

Uhler puts it more bluntly. While Wohlgemuth does a television interview inside, Uhler mills about on the front lawn. He says that he’s traveled all over Texas in recent days, handing out similar tax defender awards to Republicans running against the five imperiled House Democrats. His efforts aren’t just about electing Republicans, he says, but the right kind of Republicans. He wants to enact an agenda that, even in the current GOP-controlled House, sits just beyond reach: extension of the Bush tax cuts, personal investment accounts for Social Security, a national flat tax (or a national sales tax), significant reductions in government spending. Uhler contends it all could be close at hand. “What’s at stake is an indication of the direction of the country,” Uhler says. “If you substitute a bad vote like Chet Edwards for a good vote like Arlene Wohlgemuth, that’s a swing of two votes. All we need to do is add a few more good people like Arlene Wohlgemuth, and we will have the critical mass that we need.”

Dave Mann is a former editor of the Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST