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A TRUE HORSE RACE DISTRICT 17 H7You would think the cows were running for office. The most prominent photos on the Web sites of both candidates vying in November for House District 17 aren’t of the politicians themselves, but of bovines in various poses. Agricultural issues matter in this eastern Central Texas area. The Democrat in the race is a rancher and a former staffer at the Texas Department of Agriculture. The Republican is a lawyer and rancher who, when he ran unsuccessfully two years ago, aired campaign commercials starring talking farm animals. Both are running to replace Democrat Robby Cook, who’s retiring after 12 years in the Legislature. Cook is one of a dwindling breed in Texas politics: the white, rural Democrat. His district has been trending Republican for years. Cook managed to hang on, though his winning margins were shrinking. In 2006, despite an edge in campaign cash, he prevailed with just 50.5 percent of the vote, holding off Republican Tim Kleinschmidt who received 1,200 votes, cost Kleinschmidt the race. Kleinschmidt has returned for a second attempt at representing the district, which encompasses Bastrop in the middle, La Grange to the south, and borders College Station to the north. Though he let horses and cows do the talking in his ads, Kleinschmidt seems made for television, with a blow-dried newscaster look. He has opposed the Trans-Texas Corridor road project in the past, and in 2006 was critical of Cook’s support of a controversial cattle-tagging law. The Democrat in the race is Donnie Dippel of La Grange. Dippel, whose family has lived in the area since 1854, is a rancher and agricultural consultant. In photos, his round face usually wears a wide, easy grin. In the early 1990s, Dippel was an aide to a then-agricultural commissioner named Rick Perry. While the district has been steadily tilting toward the GOP, voters here have long shown an independent streak. Perry ran 7 points below his statewide average in the district during the 2006 governor’s race. The same year, Democratic Congressman Chet Edwards raked in 69 percent of the vote in District 17. Dippel, who easily won a contested primary in March, will need to capitalize on a huge Democratic primary turnout. Nearly 21,000 voters showed up in the primarymore than either Cook or Kleinschmidt received in the 2006 general election. If the Democrats have any hope of recapturing a majority in the Texas House this year, they likely must retain this seat. Dave Mann WHEN THE GOING GETS TUFFY DISTRICT 19 L6Mauriceville Republican Rep. Mike “Tully” Hamilton is shedding his nickname. The affable East Texan, who favors a Texas flag tie that dangles over his prominent belly, recently sold his namesake barbecue restaurantTuffy’sand is now listed on the November ballot simply as Mike Hamilton. Shorn of his brand name, which he inherited when he bought the restaurant, Hamilton will be running for re-election on his record alone, one that his opponent, Democrat Larry Hunter of Vidor, says is unimpressive and based on following the orders of others. “The incumbent has openly admitted he doesn’t read the bills, so I don’t understand how he knows what he’s doing up there says Hunter, an attorney and former mayor of Vidor who accuses Hamilton of taking his marching orders directly from Speaker Tom Craddick. There are benefits to supporting Craddick, Hamilton counters. “[Craddick] has been very good to me. He’s appointed me as the chairman of natural resources, which is very good for this area:’ Hamilton describes himself as a “moderate Republican” who works with lawmakers of both parties on behalf of his Democratic-leaning district. House District 19 covers a working-class swath of Southeast Texas that includes chunks of the Big Thicket, the fast-growing suburbs of Beaumont, and a portion of Orange. Hamilton points to his endorsement by four teachers’ organizations and several unions, and claims an 80-percent pro-labor rating from the AFL-CIO. \(Ed Sills, communications director of the Texas AFL-CIO, says Hamilton received a 58-percent Democratic opponents by margins of 10 percent or more during his three election bids. Hunter takes Hamilton to task for his 2003 vote on legislation that stripped 169,000 children from the state’s Children Health Insurance Program, a stand that ended the careers of a number of Texas pols. The incumbent has also shown favoritism within the district, Hunter charges. “He tends to favor Hardin County over Newton County and Orange County simply because there are more Republicans there,” Hunter says. Hardin County received millions in federal aid after Hurricane Rita, but Newton, also affected by the storm, received next to nothing, an imbalance Hamilton did nothing to correct, Hunter says. Hamilton denies the charge. There’s certainly no love lost between the two candidates. “They’re going to get nasty and make up lies and do all sorts of MAY 30, 2008 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 13