During the 20 years Tom DeLay held the seat, the 22nd Congressional District outside Houston glimmered like a Republican Death Star, an impenetrable seat of power from which DeLay unleashed his noxiously partisan agenda on Texas and the country.
Since the former House majority leader imploded, brought down by his own ego and ambition, the once impregnable GOP fortress has fallen into disrepair.
After DeLay resigned from Congress under indictment, his seat was taken by Democrat Nick Lampson, ironically one of the Democrats DeLay had vanquished in his efforts to carve Texas into more GOP-friendly districts.
Far from being united in their efforts, the district’s Republicans are bickering like a bunch of Democrats. On November 8, 2007, the entire Fort Bend Republican Party leadership resigned, citing infighting between a “small group of activists” (read: neocons) and “mainstream Republicans.” As of this writing, they’re still squabbling over who’ll replace the former chairman, Gary Gillen.
The district is still considered heavily Republican; George W. Bush won it with 64 percent in 2004, so whichever GOP candidate survives the primary has a strong shot at taking the seat back from Lampson.
Into this chaos have stepped 10 brave elephants. Layover Congresswoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, who held the seat briefly while filling out DeLay’s term, is back with a vengeance. Joining her are two former mayors, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s former chief of staff, a notorious state representative, a judge, a lawyer, a random guy, and two very different military men. One of these candidates, described below, will challenge Lampson for the seat former Bush consigliere Karl Rove put at the top of his “To Conquer” list for November.
When one of her competitors, Ryan Rowley, was asked whom he wouldn’t want to win the District 22 seat, he named Shelley Sekula-Gibbs. “She kind of embarrassed us last time,” Rowley said. He was referring to the 51 days Sekula-Gibbs held the post after DeLay’s resignation. In 2006, she won a special election to finish DeLay’s term on the same day she lost the general election for the next congressional term to Lampson.
During her brief stint, things did not go smoothly for the dermatologist from Floresville.
First Sekula-Gibbs complained that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney didn’t attend her swearing-in, causing congressional eye-rolling. Eight days into her term, the staff she inherited from DeLay walked out, saying Sekula-Gibbs was disrespectful and unprofessional. Sekula-Gibbs called for a congressional investigation into the staffers’ “scrubbing” of the computers before their departure-a practice required by House rules for transition between members. That was pretty much all she had time for.
Sekula-Gibbs returns to politics this year certain that she only lost the general election to Lampson because she was a write-in candidate. “The people of the district were going to write in my name, even though it was a hard name. I knew they wanted to,” she told the Observer. “I made a commitment, right then, on the day of the election, that I would run again for that seat. I was only in Washington for seven days, but I’ve never stopped running from the time that I left Congress.”
Despite her dubious experience, Sekula-Gibbs leads the pack in fundraising, according to last quarter’s federal campaign-finance filings. Like many of her challengers, Sekula-Gibbs is running on a platform of lowering the cost of health insurance, promoting a so-called “fair tax” based on consumption, and winning the war on illegal immigrants. She vows, “I don’t want to take money from America’s seniors and give it to illegal immigrants, and I won’t.”
Sekula-Gibbs seems likely to make it to a runoff based on name recognition alone.
Barely trailing Sekula-Gibbs in the money race, Pete Olson is a favorite of the Republican establishment. He’s been endorsed by former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, for whom he was an aide, and the influential conservative Web site Redstate.com. Olson, 45, is a decorated former Navy pilot and also served as Sen. John Cornyn’s chief of staff from 2002 through 2007. If you check out the top-gun photo on his MySpace page, the man is dreamy.
Olson’s critics note his recent move back to the district, and have expressed concerns that he’s never even run for dogcatcher. His rhetoric is a little raw-in the issues portion of his Web site, he asserts, “We shouldn’t have gun battles in our neighborhoods between these [illegal immigrant] gangs and police officers being shot by criminal illegal immigrants.” He also opined in an interview with Redstate.com, “Anybody who has been paying attention, I believe, realizes that the federal government is a federal issue.”
Echoing the primary’s mantras-lower health care costs, a new tax code, and so forth-Olson also floats a few new ideas, like creating a “stay-at-home-parent GI bill,” which would let “stay-at-home parents earn credits to be used for continuing education once their children are grown or enrolled in school.” He also commits to increasing child tax credits and providing tax breaks for stay-at-home parents. How this squares with his promise to “join the Budget Hawks,” he may or may not get the chance to demonstrate.
Running third in the money race is lawyer and certified public accountant Dean Hrbacek. He was mayor of Sugar Land from 1996 to 2002 and a city councilman before that. He was also president of the Fort Bend Republican Club.
Despite his experience as a professional Republican, Hrbacek is considered slightly handicapped because he lost the Sugar Land mayor’s seat in 2002 to City Councilman David Wallace, considered a strong candidate for the District 22 seat before he declined to run. In the course of that previous campaign, a former conservative radio talk show host named Jon Matthews called Hrbacek “Mayor Osama” and “Dean Osama Hrbacek,” over which Hrbacek filed suit. Matthews is no longer on the air, having being convicted as a sex offender, so Hrbacek is probably safer this time around.
Hrbacek is, predictably, obsessed with taxes. He compulsively touts his record as mayor, particularly the part about cutting property taxes by 33 percent. Asked about his first legislative priority, Hrbacek replied, “Well, the tax code.” Hrbacek is also obsessed with metaphors. “We’ve got an Internal Revenue code that basically developed and generated in 1939, in a 1954 tax system. There were modifications in 1986. I say the engine was rebuilt. Every year it gets different parts and things added on to it, and here we are in 2007. We’re driving a ’39 Chevy per se tax system, and we wonder why it’s not working.”
He adds, “I think we need to bring the government into the 21st century. One of the simple ways of highlighting it is, in a day where we have debit cards and iPods and the Internet, we still have a government that’s working with a quill pen and a typewriter.” Asked what that means, he said he wants to re-evaluate every federal government program and eliminate the ones that aren’t working. Like? “We have FEMA,” he said. “I think it’s very clear when you saw what happened in New Orleans, we have a system that wasn’t functioning.” That might mean Hrbacek wants to eliminate FEMA. It’s hard to tell for sure without an illustrative metaphor.
“I’m a conservative, and I’m not ashamed of it,” Robert Talton told the Observer. Having no shame is exactly what the former state representative is known for. As recently as March of last year, the 67-year-old Pasadena resident was making news with his famously punctilious points of order, which he uses to slow down or derail legislation he doesn’t like. When a bill to restore funding for child health care caught his eagle eye during the 2007 session, Talton discovered that the word “family” was missing from one spot in the bill and sent it back to be fixed. He growled that he hoped the bill would never come back. “I believe in limited government,” he said. “I think people ought to pay for [health insurance] themselves.”
Other candidates are falling over themselves to promise lower health insurance costs. Not Talton. His Web site highlights illegal immigration and national security. Conspicuously, gay bashing is not on his agenda. (Talton won fame in 2005 for sponsoring a bill that would have prevented gays and lesbians from being foster parents. He compared them to pedophiles and child abusers.)
Talton has been hailed as a hero by conservative groups such as Vision America, the Texas Eagle Forum, and the Young Conservatives of Texas, and in 2007 was voted one of the best legislators and most effective legislators of Texas by Capitol Inside newsletter. (He was named one of the 10 worst legislators by Texas Monthly in 2003, but who’s counting?) Talton also wants voters to know that unlike his challengers, he is ranked an A-plus by the National Rifle Association. “I’m the only A-plus in the race,” he said. “That means I carry.”
But the conservative’s conservative seems to be slipping from his position as an early favorite. He raised a third of what Hrbacek did last quarter.
Businessman John Manlove quit his position as mayor of Pasadena to run for the District 22 seat. The 54-year-old native son bills himself as the candidate to bring change to Washington, but his platform is almost indistinguishable from his competitors’ (illegal immigrants, health care, smaller government, check, check, check). Manlove does bring a little personal color to the field. Not content to be a deacon like Bob Talton, Manlove has been a missionary to Central and South America, and “served God as a pastor, Sunday school teacher and music leader.” The music leader part harks back to Manlove’s first gig. Before he was a mayor, a pastor, and “the love behind the multimillion-dollar business, John Manlove Marketing and Communications,” he was (drum roll) a rock musician. Manlove worked his way through the University of Houston playing guitar for a cover band called Fox River. He still gigs with a 13-piece band for political fundraisers, which he describes as “historic.” He’s also dabbled in writing, authoring the book, How to Market Your Church and Get Results.
If that title strikes you as deaf to irony, try this quote: “I think one thing that hasn’t been dealt with a lot is the energy policy,” Manlove told the Observer. “We as a country do not have a clear energy policy. I think we have more oil here, and should make it conducive to do more drilling and exploration. We also have a lot of gas as an energy source, and there are ways to use coal in an efficient way.”
Family Court Judge Jim Squier stepped down after 20 years on the bench to enter the race. The lifetime Harris County resident has been recognized repeatedly for his service by the Houston Bar Foundation, the Houston Police Officers’ Union, and others. Like Olson, he’s been tagged a carpetbagger for moving from Cypress, which is outside District 22, to Richmond, which is in it, to run.
He’s also not the most polished campaigner. In his gentle, ambling way he told the Observer, “I once climbed the water tower by Hobby Airport and hung a Goldwater banner from it. Goldwater was advocating privatization of the mail back in the 1960s, and people with a good idea sometimes get ridiculed. Well, it’s still a good idea. Make it run like a business. What they can do is, every time they need more money, they can up the price of stamps. What is it now, 41 or 43 cents? It’s either 41 or 43.”
Squier differs from his competitors in other, less doddering ways. He’s not a member of the NRA. Squier’s energy plan includes alternative, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. Perhaps most surprisingly, asked what issue he’d like to see get more attention, Squier said, “I think our teachers are underpaid and unappreciated. … Teaching is a very honorable profession. Some of the most influential people in our lives are teachers. And it’s hard to support a family on just a teacher’s salary. Teachers have to have often two jobs and sometimes three jobs.”
Lawyer Cynthia Dunbar, 43, filed her candidacy on the last possible day, surprising many because she’s running against Hrbacek, whose endorsement was key to her success in a 2006 run for the state Board of Education. Hrbacek is the candidate most expected to be hurt by Dunbar’s presence since they appeal to the same far-right voters.
Dunbar, who home schools her two children, believes she won her seat representing District 10 on the state Board of Education because she supports teaching intelligent design in science classrooms. Dunbar also advocates the state board taking more authority in choosing textbooks to avoid “liberal bias.” “Every candidate likes to feel that they have gotten the mandate on the issues,” she told the Associated Press. “My positions are the ones my district supports.”
Her platform for Congress remains unknown because she couldn’t be reached for comment.
Brian Klock, a 50-year-old commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve and one-time financial adviser, was spurred to run by the war in Iraq. He’s running on the premise that the country needs “leaders instead of politicians” and touts his experience in counterterrorism operations, although, he said, “A lot of that, I can’t talk about.” Klock said the key to winning the war would be taking charge of Iraq’s educational system. “You can’t make them love America,” he told the Observer, “but you can make [their education] more balanced.” Klock is also concerned with the treatment of Iraq veterans, particularly those with traumatic brain injuries. “I have a deep feeling about taking care of these guys,” he said. “I want to hire some of those guys to work as my staffers, as many as I could, to get them on their feet and let them feel involved.”
Like the other candidates, Klock promises to institute a fair tax and solve the problem of illegal immigration, to which he brings a unique perspective. The immigration issue “is not racial at all. My gr
ndfather ran a banana plantation in Nicaragua and marrie
a half-American, half-Hispanic woman. So I know about reculturalization.”
To signify his solidarity with American forces fighting the Global War on Terror, Klock has vowed to eat only MREs (Meals Ready to Eat, the standard military ration) until the March 4 primary.
Ryan Rowley, a 44-year-old computer professional and NASA contractor, explains on his Web site what drew him to join the crowded field. “While praying it was laid on my heart to run … I was to run for office 2008. … So I put my 1st generic bumper sticker order in December 2006 and after more prayer and looking at what positions that I could run for it was decided in January 2007 that I was best suited for U.S. Congress, Texas District 22.” He admits that he had his reservations about the public life. “In my mind I was thinking things like, ‘I must have got the wrong mail’ and, ‘why me, please take this cup away.’ Face it I represent everything that the Liberals and Liberal Media hate. I am a Christian, Conservative, Caucasian, Republican who is (sic) prior service military and a patriot. They are going to make up all kinds of stuff and distort things about me and my family.”
Fortunately, we in the Liberal Media don’t have to. Asked the softball question, what did you want to be when you were a kid, Rowley told the Observer, “A nuclear physicist. I was very influenced by Einstein and Oppenheimer.” He also offered the Bush-esque observation, “Liberal indoctrination is very proliferated in the public school system,” while discussing how public school has gone “overboard on sex education” and has been “saying things [like evolution] are facts when they’re actually theories.”
Rowley’s first priority would be to secure the border. Like the other candidates, he wants to reform the tax code, though his plan is more specific. “I’m looking at a hybrid form,” he said, “that has a flat tax which is fair to everyone and goes into the general fund, and you have a smaller national sales tax that [Congress] can’t spend. It first goes to fix Social Security, then reduce the deficit, then any overflow goes back to the states.
Clear Lake native Kevin Bazzy, 33, is also an intelligence officer active in the Army Reserve. But be brings to the race something much more attention-grabbing than eating MREs: bipartisanship. “You cannot go to Congress without the expectation that you’re going to have to be bipartisan,” Bazzy told the Observer. “All the issues I talk about-immigration, government spending, or national defense-are issues that affect Libertarians, Republicans, Democrats, the rich, poor, fat, skinny, black, and white. It doesn’t matter. I think those are issues on which we can reach across the aisle and say, ‘We all have a common goal here.’ As a freshman congressman, if you get to Washington and you’re not willing to budge an inch, I don’t understand what you think you’re going to get done.”
Bazzy’s platform includes illegal immigration, but he’s critical of other candidates’ approaches: “People want to say, ‘Put a fence up; that solves everything.’ But there’s more to immigration than that. It’s easy to say, ‘Amnesty is not an option; we need to deport everyone.’ But how are you going to find those people? How are you going to deport them, and what is it going to cost? We have to go deeper than that.”
Bazzy sees his youth and lack of political experience as advantages. “Lawyers are very well represented in Congress,” he said. “Millionaires are very well represented. And I’m neither one. I’m not a professional politician, and I’ve never run for public office. … I don’t have millions of dollars to spend on campaign ads, but I can go door to door, and that’s what people want. People want to be able to see a candidate, shake his hand, and ask him a question face to face. That’s what I bring to this race.”
Emily DePrang is a writer from Pearland, Texas.