PEARLAND, Texas – Texas GOP leaders were confident they could keep former House Majority leader Tom DeLay's vacant seat in Republican hands after selecting Dr. Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, a Houston city councilwoman, as the write-in candidate to back on the November ballot.
After meeting for about 2 1/2 hours Thursday evening, GOP precinct chairmen from the four southeast Texas counties that make up the 22nd Congressional District selected Sekula-Gibbs, a dermatologist who is serving her third term on the city council.
Texas GOP officials were forced to scramble for a write-in candidate when the courts prevented Republicans from replacing DeLay's name on the Nov. 7 ballot with a candidate of their choosing after he resigned from Congress and moved to Virginia. He had been dogged by allegations of wrongdoing and faced a tough re-election race.
After the court rulings, DeLay, R-Sugar Land, withdrew from the race.
Now the Republican side of the ballot can have only write-in candidates. They face a tough campaign against Democrat Nick Lampson, who has been running steadily while Republicans fought the ballot issue in court. Libertarian Bob Smither also is running.
"Tonight we start the grassroots Republican campaign that this district is well known for," Sekula-Gibbs said. "It is a district that has over 60 percent Republicans and we will turn them out."
Tina Benkiser, the state GOP chairwoman, said Sekula-Gibbs was selected by a clear majority of the precinct chairmen who attended the gathering in Pearland. She said she did not have a breakdown on the vote. About 85 of the 150 precinct chairmen invited attended the closed-door meeting at a church to hear from potential write-in candidates.
"We will start making the calls, working the precincts, licking the envelopes and running a hard grassroots campaign so the voters really do have an opportunity to have someone who shares their values in Washington, D.C.," Benkiser said.
DeLay attended the meeting and spoke to the group about his future and the direction of the district, those who attended said. DeLay did not speak to reporters after the meeting.
While the Texas Republican Party decided it should rally behind one write-in candidate, some officials objected to the closed-door process.
In addition to Sekula-Gibbs, candidates vying for the GOP's support included David Wallace, mayor of Sugar Land, and Houston businessman Tim Turner.
Turner said he was disappointed by Thursday's vote but would support Sekula-Gibbs.
Wallace has already filed as a write-in candidate. He had previously indicated he would probably stay in the race even if he didn't get the party's support.
Wallace did not return a telephone call from The Associated Press late Thursday.
Sekula-Gibbs said she hoped Wallace would reconsider.
"It is my fervent hope that Mr. Wallace will look into his soul and decide that it's in the best interest of the Republican Party to have one candidate and that is still his choice," she said. "He has opportunities in the future to make that choice and I'm hoping he will."
Paul Bettencourt, Harris County's tax assessor-collector, had expressed interest in running but decided against it, said spokesman Joe Stinebaker.
Smither, the Libertarian candidate, passed out literature outside the church.
"The only way to save this seat for conservative values is to vote for Bob Smither," he said, predicting that a write-in candidate for the Republican Party would not be successful.
Only four men have been elected to Congress as write-in candidates.
Democratic Party Chairman Boyd Richie criticized the Pearland gathering.
"Despite protests from a number of Republicans in Congressional District 22, Republican Party leaders are once again running roughshod over voters' fundamental right to select the candidate of their choice," he said in a statement.