Lampson Walks a Fine Line at Home

Posted July 7, 2008 at 6:43pm

PEARLAND, Texas — Mark Truskey, a self-described conservative, likes Rep. Nick Lampson (D). Truskey thinks the Congressman is a moderate who is focused on the right agenda — and he likes what the Democrat has to say on several issues.

But Truskey is still not going to vote for Lampson in November. Despite exhibiting some personal affection for the Congressman, Truskey plans to vote for ex- Senate aide Pete Olson, the Republican nominee in the solidly conservative, suburban Houston 22nd district — even though he admits to knowing very little about Olson at this point.

“I appreciate what Congressman Lampson has done, because he is a moderate,” Truskey said Thursday, after listening to Lampson speak and answer questions during a “Congress on Your Corner” constituent-services event.

Last Thursday evening, while many residents of hot and humid southeast Texas were heading to the Gulf Coast for the long July Fourth weekend, Lampson was heading to work. The Congressman journeyed to the Shadow Creek Ranch Visitors Center in a new mixed-use development here for some give-and-take with his constituents.

Lampson encountered many supporters. But there were also plenty of skeptics.

Truskey, a 54-year-old Pearland resident who recently retired after 31 years with Kraft Foods, is most concerned about illegal immigration.

“Right now, if I look at Lampson, and I look at what little I know about Olson, I think they have a lot of similarities to them,” he said. “And all things being equal on the key issues, I would stick to the Republican Party.”

Therein lies Lampson’s challenge in his first run for re-election in the 22nd district (he previously served four terms in the old, heavily Democratic 9th district). The Congressman must find enough Truskeys in the district once represented by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R) who will support a Democrat, even though in Olson they have a viable alternative whose name will be on the ballot. In 2006, Lampson ran against a GOP write-in candidate who did not enter the race until late summer, winning that contest 52 percent to 42 percent.

Lampson appears to recognize the challenge that comes with being the most targeted House Democrat of this cycle. He noted that he’s held 400 Congress on Your Corner events since being elected in 2006, and he conceded in an interview following Thursday’s meeting that his ticket to re-election is to emphasize constituent services over politics.

“It’s about keeping my promises. I promised that I would be an independent voice,” Lampson said. “I’ve done those things. I have to rely that it has not fallen on deaf ears, that it’s actually been seen and respected by the people that said that’s what they wanted me to be doing.”

In fact, some of Lampson’s supporters feel he has veered too far to the right in his effort to appeal to voters in his Republican-leaning district, among them grocery store employee Penny Ashton, 59, a Democratic voter who turned out to see Lampson in Pearland last week.

“He is making an effort to be a center-aisle — working with both sides. In fact, sometimes I think he votes too Republican,” Ashton said.

But Republicans vehemently disagree with Lampson’s claim of political independence. They charge that the Congressman has cleverly disguised his positions on key issues to give the appearance of moderation, while proving a reliable vote for the House Democratic leadership whenever they’ve called.

“It is irrelevant what Nick Lampson says today about bipartisanship,” Olson campaign spokeswoman Amy Goldstein said. “He can’t rewrite history. He abandoned the needs and values of Texans for years, and he will be held accountable.”

Knowing His Audience

Amid a sprawling development of brand new tract homes and gleaming though as-yet-unoccupied strip malls, Lampson touched on many topics. But none of them involved his affiliation with the Democratic Party or excitement over the White House prospects of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) or included typical House Democratic talking points.

At this event, which packed in a standing-room-only crowd of about 60 people that — judging by the questions asked — included its fair share of Democrats and like-minded independents, there was no talk of Republicans who continue to rubber-stamp President Bush’s agenda, no talk of Republicans’ refusal to end the Iraq War, and no talk of Republican intransigence on anything.

Instead, Lampson artfully weaved together a discussion of bipartisan policy goals with philosophical commentary on the need to engage in political compromise to get things done for the good of the district, the state and the country.

The Congressman focused on funding NASA, the pride and joy of the greater Houston economy; securing federal funds for local transportation projects to alleviate traffic; and his membership in the Center Aisle Caucus, a group of House Democrats and Republicans who have joined together with the purpose of elevating the civility of the political discourse on Capitol Hill.

When faced with politically challenging questions, Lampson often steered his answers into a related topic on which partisans on both sides of the aisle might agree, erring on the side of making the conservatives in the crowd feel at home.

Thus, a question about whether Lampson would support the effort of some House Democrats to resurrect the “Fairness Doctrine,” the elimination of which has been credited with the explosion of conservative talk radio, was transformed into a commentary on the need to enforce truth in advertising.

Without stating exactly whether he was for or against reauthorizing the Fairness Doctrine, Lampson used the question to discuss how the failure to enforce truth in advertising resulted in him being falsely accused during his 2006 campaign of favoring gay marriage.

“I had voted on an issue in Congress that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. I voted for that legislation,” Lampson said, to a smattering of applause. “But my opponent came home and put up a billboard that said I supported homosexual marriage, and I could not get that billboard taken down even though it was a 100 percent lie. That’s not right, and it fits in exactly with the same pieces of [the Fairness Doctrine] legislation.”

Despite the political wave that swept the Democrats to power on Capitol Hill in 2006, Republicans still consider Lampson’s victory that year to be a fluke.

He ran against a write-in candidate in that election — then-Houston Councilwoman Shelley Sekula Gibbs (R) — after the Texas Democratic Party successfully sued in court to block the Republicans from appointing a ballot replacement for DeLay. DeLay had resigned his seat in June 2006 after being indicted for violating state election law.

DeLay, who had already won the 22nd district GOP primary, and Republicans had planned to use a state law to appoint a replacement for him on the ballot. But a federal court sided with the state Democratic Party and ruled that law unconstitutional.

No DeLay

With the hangover from the DeLay controversy now subsided and Olson, a personally appealing Navy veteran and former staffer of both Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and ex-Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) on the ballot, Republicans are confident they can return the 22nd district seat to the GOP column — and not just because of the perceived strengths of their nominee.

Republicans will argue that Lampson’s record on tax cuts and energy, as well as his support for legislation pushed by labor unions, will hurt him, along with what they will contend is a failed record on addressing illegal immigration. The GOP also expects Lampson to suffer because it is a presidential year, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is expected to beat Obama in the 22nd district.

“During his years as a Congressman from Beaumont, he was a staunch liberal who was completely beholden to labor unions, plaintiff attorneys, environmental radicals, and a very liberal agenda,” Goldstein said.

Lampson apparently recognizes the potential political danger posed to him by Obama.

Although Lampson made clear that he would not “run away” from the Democratic presidential nominee, he sidestepped the question of whether he would like Obama to campaign for him or whether he would choose to appear with the White House hopeful.

“I’ll do the things that will best help me get my message across to the people of this district, to help them to build their confidence in me, and for me to know what their interests are,” Lampson said.