Lampson Vows to Navigate New Texas Map

Redistricting in Texas has left some Democrats with the odds stacked against them as they search for a political home.

In Democrat Rep. Nick Lampson’s (search) case, his hometown of Beaumont is still in his district, but so are over 300,000 new voters, leaving him with the task of selling himself for the first time since he was elected in 1996.

"It’s not that I have no connection at all — I’ve been a Houston-area member of Congress for these four terms," Lampson told Though the 2nd Congressional District, where he is now running, is more Republican than the 9th District from whence he came, Lampson said he believes the people have the same values and are not looking for a radical shift in representation.

"I think I have proved my independence and have shown that I am effective," he said, conceding there was much to do. "I need to make an effort to get around and make sure people know me as a member of Congress and not just as a candidate."

Under the 2002 redistricting, Lampson keeps his home of Jefferson County, south of Houston on the Texas Gulf Coast, which accounts for about half of the 650,000 voters in the new 2nd District. The other half hails from the more Republican Harris and Liberty counties.

Since a tough election campaign in 1996, Lampson, a former teacher and businessman, had relatively easy re-elections. While he has gotten pretty low scores from conservative groups, some would agree he is far from liberal. He is pro-life and has voted with conservatives on key abortion (search) and social issues. But he also has strong backing from labor, and has stuck with the party in voting against some of President Bush's initiatives, like tax cuts and drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (search).

Lampson said he is proud of starting the Congressional Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children (search), which he founded after a 12-year-old girl from his district was brutally murdered. He has been a staunch advocate of the space program at the Johnson Space Center there and has worked to fight pollution, a growing problem in this apex of the oil and chemical industries.

Above all, he said, he has tried to reach out to both Republicans and Democrats, both at home and on Capitol Hill, and that attitude will serve him well in his upcoming battle for re-election.

"As a member who has paid more attention to my constituents, reached out, trying to be bipartisan and moderate and effective as I have in the last three terms, I will continue to win support from people who typically vote Republican," he said.

"He has always enjoyed Republican support in his district and is known for always working in a bipartisan way with members of Congress," said Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, who is running in an even tougher battle against Republican incumbent Rep. Pete Sessions this fall.

But not everyone thinks that will be enough, certainly not the Republicans who see this seat, as well as a handful of others across the state, as theirs for the taking.

"This is one of our best challenger opportunities in the country," said Bo Harmon, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Campaign (search).

This race has been called a "toss up" by election analysts, as the Republican-dominated district has attracted a formidable GOP candidate in Ted Poe (search), who recently resigned his 20-year post as an elected Harris County felony court judge in order to run for congressional office.

A tough advocate of "creative sentencing," Poe has reached national audiences after some of his cases became legend — like the wife batterer who was sentenced to apologize publicly on the steps of Houston City Hall for his crime, or the convicted thieves who were forced to carry signs declaring their crimes in front of the stores from which they stole.

Poe told that he wants to take that "different approach" to Congress. "I think I’ve tried to do things differently, to think outside of the box, and I was able to do some different things that effected change and worked," he said.

"I think that part of the general citizenry is frustrated with government and Congress," Poe added. "Too often, they are not accountable for what they do, and do not seem to do what the people want. That’s why I am running."

He noted that he has been elected six times in Harris County, which accounts for much of the other half of the district that Lampson has not represented before. He says he expects to get both Democrat and Republican votes because of his reputation as a judge, and before that, a prosecutor.

"[He’s] had an exemplary 20-plus-year career on the bench as a district judge, where he applied conservative principles to everyday problems," said Chad Wilbanks, executive director of the Texas Republican Party. "He will undoubtedly continue his conservative, no-nonsense approach in Washington."

But Democrats say Poe is too conservative.

"That district is not looking for a right-winger," said Mike Levigne, chief of staff at the Texas Democratic Party. "It’s looking for someone moderate like Nick Lampson."

The race is also expected to be expensive.

"As an incumbent, [Lampson] is able to leverage some of the [political action committees] that are depending on him for certain votes," said Nathan Gonzales, analyst for the Rothenberg Political Report. "So it’s not all bad news, but the odds are not stacked in his favor."

Frost warned not to underestimate his colleague, who he fully expects to return to Washington next year, he said.

"It’s important to note that Congressman Lampson is a strong and rough campaigner ... He’s always been in a tight district, he’s never backed down from a challenge and always comes out on top."