When Ron Paul made a run for the GOP presidential nomination two years ago he was considered a horse too dark to run by most in the party mainstream. This year, though, he’s apparently not conservative enough for some activists in District 14. Tea Partier Gerald Wall and two other candidates hope to unseat the man who just won the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
The mood in the Katy High School auditorium was vastly different from the CPAC meeting at the Washington Marriott a few days earlier. Ron Paulers filled the back third of the room, but the rest of the audience appeared noncommittal. Harris County resident Alan Miller says he came to evaluate all four candidates.
“A debate like this you get a feeling of who you could vote for, not who you will vote for,” Miller says.
Paul, the long-time GOP incumbent, is taking his challengers seriously. While his three competitors grouse at his absence from three other debates earlier in the week when he was at CPAC, his presence acknowledged the Tea Party as a political force, at least in 2010. An email sent out by Paul’s campaign Friday warned of an “anti-incumbent, anti-Washington sentiment” that could pull the rug out from under him, according to Fox News.
“If we do not fight back, they may be successful,” the email reads.
In his opening statements, Paul took aim at the Washington establishment, painting himself as the people’s man on the inside. Cheers and whoops accompany him as he gives a quick political autobiography with Tea Party references thrown in for good measure. When candidate Tim Graney suggests in his opening statement that it’s time for new blood in Washington the back third boos him like a silent movie villain. Finally, all eyes are on Gerald Wall, the conservative uber alles.
A tall, 54-year old former minister with a serious Southern drawl, Wall likes to drive his points home by pounding things with his fists: the closest table, a chair or a knee. Today is no exception.
His twang magnified by the sound system, he launches headfirst into a laundry list of issues starting with that old Tea Party chestnut, term limits. Cheers. Immigration reform. More cheers. Terrorists back to Gitmo. Support for Israel. Down with radical environmentalists. Up with simpler taxes. Between rounds of applause Wall builds to a rhetorical crescendo:
“Smaller, less intrusive government, (pound) free markets and a strong national defense. That’s the mandate of a limited federal government and that’s where we should be focusing our attention in this next election.” You’d better believe that gets some cheers. Gerald Wall is preaching to the choir. A few of the Ron Paulers even wave their campaign signs in a confused show of support.
Paul, breaking from a neutral forward stare, leans back a bit in his chair to get a better look at Wall.
At the core of Wall’s argument is the idea that Paul’s libertarian leanings fall too far afield of the conservative mandate he considers central to the movement. Flag desecration is a particularly sore spot.
“I believe desecrating the flag is the same as spitting on our nation,” Walls says the night before as he pounds a nearby table with his fist. Old Glory is one of the many sticking points that prompted a run against Paul. In 2006, Paul’s vote against a bill to make flag desecration illegal tipped the contest in favor of the mostly Democratic nays.
Wall’s campaign is centered on hardcore Reganomics and “God, family and country, in that order.” Having poured over Paul’s voting record, Wall is well-versed on exactly which points he and the incumbent disagree. There are a lot of them.
Aside from abortion and military funding (Wall is ex-Army), one of the biggest attacks he’s leveled at Paul is the incumbent’s absence from the district to pursue other goals, including the presidency. While Wall sparred with the other two candidates at three debates earlier in the week, he says, Paul was nowhere to be found.
Paul dismisses claims that he is absent as “political talk,” saying his staff has done lists of “hundreds and hundreds of appointments and meetings and gatherings, and there’s just nothing to those charges.”
Wall’s biggest issue is one of principles versus pragmatism. Paul, he says, has a habit of inserting earmarks into a bill he knows will pass and then voting against it.
“He slides this stuff in there,” Wall says with another thump to the table. “That’s what got us where we are.” (Thump, pound.)
Asked about the incongruity Paul says he thinks the system is wrong, but, “What I do is I always forward a request from a constituent. If a city asks for some of their money back I feel like I’m their representative and that’s my job … But I don’t endorse the system. They shouldn’t have taken the money from us in the first place.”
Paul says he voted against a bill to spend $686 billion with a few billion for flood relief, but adds, “On the principle of earmarks, the point I made there is Congress should earmark everything. It’s their responsibility to say how the money should be spent because if you vote against an earmark the executive branch spends the money.”
When Paul brings this up in the debate Wall quickly signals to the emcee he’d like to use one of his 30-second responses.
“Let me point out something,” he says, pointing to Paul. “That’s the kind of politics that got us in the problem we’re in. We need (thud) to quit (thud) spending (thud).”
Boos from the back. Interested looks from a few people in the closer seats.
“You can boo all you want but you know it’s true,” Wall fires back. “We’ve got to stop the spending. You cannot go out there and stick this earmark money in a bill and then go to the House floor and vote against it. It’s got to stop. That’s not how we do it out here in the real world.”
No boos from the back. Loud cheers from the front.
During the event Paul holds up the Tea Party as a saving grace for the country. But this invocation raises his rivals’ hackles. Wall and the others have taken steps to avoid the impression that they’re heirs apparent to the populist movement. Wall says he is wary of appearing as if he is riding on Tea Party coattails. Graney says he had to step down from his leadership position as one of the Katy Tea Party Patriots before he could legitimately declare his candidacy.
“They want to choose a candidate, they don’t want the candidate to choose them,” Graney says.
The hour-long debate is a showcase for the rambling, sometimes contradictory agenda of the Tea Party, its libertarian streak well represented in the crowd.
But the applause for Wall and his fellow challengers is a potent reminder: the outsiders of yesteryear may be the insiders of today.